Sunday, June 23, 2013

Science Fiction and Comic Books-Part 4

Comic books and superheroes drew heavily from the pulps. Comic books were replete with science fiction superheroes (Superman), detective superheroes (Batman), weird fiction superheroes (The Spectre), plus magicians, adventurers, aviators, historical heroes, and other kinds of pulp characters. Pulp writers also wrote for the comics, among them, Henry Kuttner (All-American ComicsGreen Lantern), Manly Wade Wellman (Captain MarvelBlackhawk), Fritz Leiber, Jr. (the Buck Rogers newspaper comic strip), Jack Williamson (the Beyond Mars comic strip), and Otto Binder (hundreds of stories for DC Comics, including key Superman stories). (1) Far fewer artists made the crossover, for drawing comic books would have been a step down for most pulp artists. One exception was Virgil Finlay, but then Finlay was reduced to drawing illustrations for astrological magazines in the 1960s. Far more artists went from comic books to illustration. Frank Frazetta was a perfect example of that.

In taking anything from the comics, science fiction would only have been borrowing from itself. After all, the superman (or the super-powered mutant), super-science, aliens, time travel, and so many other staples of  the comic book story originated in science fiction. Science fiction borrowed some writers from the comics however. Harry Harrison, who drew comics for EC, is the first to come to mind. I can think of one instance when comics got the scoop on science fiction, and that's when the first landing of a man on the moon was broadcast on television in the fictional confines of the comic strip Alley Oop (in 1947, twenty-two years before the real event). Up until then, no science fiction author had imagined such a thing. I'm sure there were other developments in science fiction that took place in the comics, but I don't know of any offhand. That's a question worth some study.

I'll make just one more observation. As I said, the integration of words with pictures is essential in formulating and understanding comics. The standard science fiction story is of course devoid of pictures. The words carry the story. I can think of one science fiction story that is richer for its unique visual content. I think it's one of the very finest science fiction novels, a tour de force that I can recommend to people even if they don't like science fiction. The novel is called The Stars My Destination. It was written by Alfred Bester, a former comic book scriptwriter.

I have written all this as a lead-in to one of the last writers on my list of "More Authors of the Golden Age of Science Fiction," the prolific and multitalented Gardner F. Fox. His biography is next.

(1) Incidentally, Buck Rogers also originated in the pulps, in the novelette Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan (Amazing StoriesAugust 1928). Less than six months later, the comic strip Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. made its debut. On the same day--January 7, 1929--Tarzan also appeared in the comics for the first time. Ten days later, another now famous character made his debut in the comic strip Thimble Theatre. Comic strip historian and Weird Tales contributor Bill Blackbeard made a case that "the first genuine, unshootable, unpoisonable, door-smashing, house-lifting comic strip superham of them all [was] Elzie Segar's Popeye."

Text copyright 2013 by Terence E. Hanley


  1. I never knew any of these guys (Leiber, Bester et al) also worked as a comic-book scriptwriters. Re Bester: For some reason 'The Stars My Destination' was marketed as 'Tiger! Tiger!' over on this side of the pond before reverting to its original title, something which confused me for years. I read two more of Bester books: his other classic, 'The Demolished Man' and 'The Deceivers' - which wasn't so good.

  2. Aonghus,

    I'm not sure why The Stars My Destination was retitled in the U.K. If I remember right, the main character has tiger stripes on his face, plus the reference to Blake's poem might have made the book more appealing to British readers. I have read The Demolished Man, and though I don't think it's as good as The Stars My Destination, I still enjoyed it. I haven't read The Deceivers.