Saturday, February 23, 2019

Judgement Day

Yet another blockbuster Hollywood movie is being release based on an old comic book character.  I'm sure that both Marvel (think Spiderman, Hulk, and Ironman) and DC (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) make more from CGI-laden movies than they ever did from selling pulp comic books to kids.

Sadly, there is one company missing—one that if it were still publishing comics, would definitely challenge the remaining companies for supremacy.  This was a company that had fresh ideas, that dared to challenge the status quo—and it was a company that was royally screwed by the McCarthy era hysteria that followed World War II.

Max Gaines was an editor for a small comic book company that was swallowed up the DC Comics.  Beginning with his own company, Educational Comics, Gaines started publishing wholesome and rather absolutely boring comics for young children.  When Max died in 1947, in a boating accident, his son, William Gaines, freshly out of the Army, gave up his own goal of being a high school chemistry teacher and led the company in a radical new direction. 

Under the new company name, Entertaining Comics, Gaines published comic books with themes of horror, fantasy, science fiction, and the bizarre.  With magazine titles such as Tales of the Crypt, Horror Vault, Weird Science, and Incredible Science Fiction, Gaines combined superior artwork and intelligent plots that frequently dealt with current social issues.  A decade before the civil rights struggles of the sixties, Gaines’ comic books dealt with topics like race, sex, civil rights, and drug use.  Meanwhile, EC published magazines featuring war stories, Frontline Combat, presented war-weary G.I.s engaged in desperate struggles.

While Superman fought for “truth, justice, and the America Way”, happily tossing red meat to a postwar jingoistic society, Gaines took a much harder look at the postwar culture of America.   Simply put, the comics were brilliant, but frequently unsettling.   The beauty of satire is that it allows the author to insult the unintelligent without their knowing it.  (The downside is when they have a friend who explains it to them).

Part of the reason the comics were so good was because Gaines encouraged both good art and good story-telling.  Unique for the industry at the time, artists like Jack Davis, Frank Frazetta, and Wally Wood were allowed to sign their artwork, as did the writers of the stories.  When EC published a story that had “heavily borrowed” from two short stories by Ray Bradbury, the famed writer wrote the company praising the publication, and jokingly questioning whether his royalty check had been lost in the mail.  Gaines promptly sent him a check and the magazine worked with the author for years, publishing comic books based on his short stories.

These bizarre comic books, however, soon caught the attention of Congress (most likely at the urging of rival comic book companies).  Congressional hearings were held to investigate the unwholesome nature of comic book companies and their supposed contributions to juvenile delinquency.  Much like the recent hearings about the supposed harmful effects of video games on children, lots of politicians gave lots of speeches and threatened much while accomplishing nothing.  The bad publicity resulting from the hearings put several small publishing companies out of business as sales slumped.  Parents suddenly started worrying whether allowing their children to exercise their imagination was a good idea.

At this point, if you are thinking about the original Grimm Brothers and the twisted true nature of Mother Goose…. well, you really should read the EC version of those stories.  Gaines’ version of Sleeping Beauty would give Steven King nightmares.

Seeking to forestall draconian legislation, ironically, it was Max Gaines who suggested that the surviving comic book companies create a voluntary governing body that would promote guidelines and repair the industry’s sinking reputation.  The result was the Comics Magazine Association of America, a group that almost immediately formed a circular firing squad around Entertainment Comics and any publisher who dared challenge convention.  The group established a Comics Code Authority (CCA) that established stringent guidelines, demanding that all future publications be submitted for “scrutiny” (read that as "censorship") before publication.  The CCA abolished a list of words that could no longer appear in the titles of publications, such as 'weird', 'horror', or 'terror'.  Publications that did not comply would not receive the CCA seal on the cover.  Since these restrictions were obviously designed to target EC, Gaines refused to join the group that he had founded.

Almost immediately, EC had trouble getting some distributors to circulate its publications.  Eventually, EC ceased publication of several magazines and submitted the remainder to the CCA for review.  The censorship imposed by the governing body killed off quite a few popular magazines—many of which are now collectors' items, fetching high prices.

Which brings us to the February 1956 issue of Incredible Science Fiction #33. was actually the third issue of Incredible Science Fiction, but the since the magazine was actually Weird Science Fiction, renamed to conform with the narrow minds at the CCA, it was publication #33.  Unfortunately, this would prove to be the last comic book from EC, whose demise was largely due to the publication of a story titled Judgement Day.

Judgement Day was the last of four stories in that issue, and was rather short, consisting of only seven beautifully illustrated pages.  The story was written by Al Fieldstein and inked by Joe Orlando. 

The story opens thousands of years in the future, when an Earthman, named Tarlton arrives on the distant planet, Cybrinia.  Humans had left sentient orange robots on the planet unsuitable for human habitation millennia earlier, in an experiment to see if the machines could develop a civilized society advanced enough to join the vast Earth Colonization that governed the galaxy.  Tarlton has come to Cybrinia on an inspection tour, and if the society of mechanized people pass the inspection, their planet will be admitted to the confederation.

At first, the inspection tour proceeds well, as Tarlton, still wearing his space suit for protection, is driven around the capitol in a Phord touring car.  Tarlton is impressed with how well the robots have developed a free democracy, where all of the orange robots receive a free education and are free to pick their own careers.  Slowly, however, the Earthman becomes aware that some of the labor—the most menial labor—is being performed by blue robots who have limited choices of career, education, or living quarters. 

When Tarlton inspects the factories where the orange and blue robots are assembled, he discovers that both types of robots are assembled from the same components, and that the only difference is the color of the outer sheathing.  When Tarlton points out the obvious discrimination to his orange guide, he is told that the split in society is historic, and that the orange robots are powerless to change the conditions.

Obviously, Cybrinia fails the test.  Tarlton explains how their society is discriminatory and unfair, telling them that only after Earth has dropped such prejudices had its united world been capable of exploring the stars.  In the last panel of the story, Tarlton is safely back on his atomic-powered rocket ship leaving the planet Cybrinia.  As he removes his helmet, the reader sees for the first time that Tarlton is black.

The last words of the story are: “…the man removed his space helmet and shook his head, and the instrument lights made the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkle like distant stars.”

The CCA people, on reviewing the comic book were livid.  The story could NOT be published until Gaines made the spaceman white.  Despite Gaines explanation that the spaceman’s race was the entire point of the story, the argument became increasingly angry.  The CCA demanded that the man be changed to a white man, while Gaines threatened to sue the board.

Finally, Judge Murphy of the CCA offered what he must have believed was a compromise—the spaceman could stay black, but the references to beads of perspiration had to be removed.  William Gaines uttered a phrase that I can’t repeat here without incurring the wrath of Google (they publish this blog).  Gaines hung up the phone and published the comic without the CCA seal.

The comic—the last that EC would publish—was printed without censorship.

Today, of course, Judgement Day is a cult classic and has been reprinted many times.  Though the original is quite rare, luckily you can read it by clicking here.  Try not to get outraged.

And what happened to William Gaines and EC?  Gaines decided to take the company in a new direction, one that would allow him to use as much satire as he wanted while not being subject to the arbitrary whims of the censorship Nazis in the CCA.  His new publication is called Mad Magazine.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Nefertiti Hack

Here’s the plan:  On your next trip to Total Wine, make your way over to the scotch section and locate the various varieties of Laphroaig.  These are easy to find, since they all come in tall cardboard tubes.  All you have to do is open one of tubes containing the ten-year scotch and replace the contents with a bottle of Laphroaig Lore.  Then take the tube up to the checkout counter and purchase your scotch.

If by some miracle you are not arrested—Laphroaig Lore sells for about two-and-a-half times the price of the ten-year variety—feel free to bring it by my house and we ‘ll test it for imperfections. 

Note:  Please DON’T do anything to Total Wine—I like that store, regardless of its malappropriate name.  I am mindful of the time I jokingly suggested that people visiting the grave of Victoriano Huerta in El Paso should take him a bottle of beer, but run it through their digestive systems before putting it on his grave.  Some students actually took my advice and were arrested.  Telling a judge that you are acting on the instructions of your favorite history professor has not yet been proven to be a viable legal defense.  (Neither has "Acting on instructions of your favorite blogger", so do not try this!)

The German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt pulled off a theft exactly like what I have described above, but did it with one of the most famous works of art in history:  the bust of Nefertiti.  When the bust was discovered in 1912, Borchardt presented a deliberately lousy photo of the find, along with an inaccurate description, to Egyptian officials, then shipped it to Germany in a "mislabeled" crate.  Egypt has been trying—unsuccessfully—to retrieve its property for a century. 

There is little doubt that Borchardt knew he was committing grand theft since he recorded in his diary, “Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it.”

Even after the bust arrived in Germany, at Borchardt’s insistence, Nefertiti was kept secret, and was hidden from the public for over a decade.  When she was finally publicly displayed, Egyptian officials immediately demanded her return. 

Nefertiti eventually went on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, where she stayed until the start of WWII.  For safekeeping, the bust was then moved first to the cellar of a bank, then to a heavily fortified flak tower, and, finally, to a salt mine, where she remained until recovered by the US Army's “Monument Men” team.  (The photo below shows Sergeant Kenneth Lindsay with the famous bust.)  Recently, Nefertiti was returned to the rebuilt Neues Museum—the building had suffered major bombing damage during the war—where she remains despite the determined efforts of the Egyptian government.

The 3300 year-old bust is fascinating.  One of the amazing things about the bust is that it was never intended to be a great work of art. It was found in the ruins of the workshop of the artist, Thutmose, who probably created it to use as a model for other, larger pieces.  Thutmose never finished the piece (Nefertiti is usually seen from the right profile because her left eye socket is missing its quartz inlay). In addition, she was created from limestone, gypsum, and wax—hardly the materials the artist would have used for an important, permanent work.

It is interesting that one of the arguments used by the German government for retaining the bust is that, for the protection of the piece, it should not be returned to a country where political unrest might lead to possible damage to the artifact.  As far as I know, no museum in Egypt was bombed during WWII, while most of the locations where the bust was temporarily stored were completely destroyed by Allied bombing.  Even the salt mine near Merkers was ordered to be destroyed by Hitler late in the war—thankfully, an order that Albert Speer ignored.

And that would be the end of the story if not for a couple of German artists who were determined to return the Queen to Egypt.  In 2016, Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikola Nelles hid a high resolution scanner under a heavy coat before entering the Neues Museum.  In a scene highly reminiscent of Ocean’s Eight, in which Helena Bonham-Carter secretly scans the Cartier diamond necklace, the two artists were able to obtain a high definition 3-D scan of the Nefertiti bust.  (They did this without the museum’s permission, of course.  The museum officially prohibits all photography.)

Under a Creative Commons license, the data from the unlicensed scan, now labeled Nefertiti Hack, was published to the web for free download, making the image available for anyone interested in creating a holographic or physical copy.  If you have the interest and the necessary funds, Amazon will sell you a 3-D printer and you can make your own bust of Nefertiti.  (You can download the data here.) 

The two artists created an "exact" replica of the bust (in modern material) and exhibited the “new artifact” in a Cairo museum.  When the show was over, they buried Queen Nefertiti in the Saharan desert at an undisclosed location.  A couple of thousand years from now, future archaeologists will rediscover the queen, no doubt setting off a new cycle of debates.