Monday, August 12, 2013

Calling Captain Future: A Pulp Hero Who Skewed Young

Edmond Hamilton's Captain Future, starting in 1940, was a product of his era: his stories skewed very, very young.

A decade earlier in the 30s, hero pulps had a target audience of two groups: working class men, and young kids. For that reason, the adventure stories, while "clean," had an element of lurid horror like the crime thrillers. Their composite audience resulted in a composite genre. The hero pulp magazines were undone in the 1940s when this audience fractured: the kids turned to comic books, and adults switched to "men's adventure" paperbacks and thrillers.

You can see the beginning of this fracture in Captain Future, who by 1940, was a latecomer to the pulp hero game.

Just like the history of movies of the 50s was competing and responding to the challenge of television, the history of pulp magazines in the 1940s was about responding to the comics.

There seemed to be three major responses:

Turn pulp heroes into comic books and vice-versa. A good example would be Sheena and Ka-Zar, who were originally magazine characters.

Sarcastically dismiss comics and their "superheroes." This reminds me of movies in 50s that called TV "the idiot's lantern." A big one was the Doc Savage mystery, the "Whisker of Hercules." It was a mean satire of superheroes, with a potion that gave bad guys Superman powers, only to have Doc Savage get the better of them. The potion turns out to make the superguys age and die superfast (Lester Dent felt comics were a fad, so this was a metaphor, too).

Captain Future is in the 3rd Category: a pulp magazine hero designed to grab the "kid" audience moving to comics. 

Captain Future is the hero pulps meeting comics halfway. It has the showy Flash Gordon science fiction, but next to pulp style mystery "reveal the bad guy's true identity" detective plots. Captain Future has superficially similar elements of Doc Savage updated to space: raised to be a scientific superman by a brain in a jar and two robots, who bicker among themselves like Doc's aides, Monk and Ham. Unlike Doc, though, but like Superman, he has a regular girlfriend (Joan Randall, planetary police agent) with a job that leads her to be kidnapped often and get right in the thick of the action, and like Batman, Captain Future has a chief of police who contacts him with a flare signal.

The fact a kid aimed pulp would be science fiction isn't surprising. The love of kids for science fiction, starting around ages 7-12, is almost inevitable according to developmental psychology. Just as teenagers' new moral reasoning abilities lead them to question authority and their parents in that stage of life, as soon as kids start to think hypothetically and reason systematically around 7-12, they start to imagine alternate scenarios and other worlds. Just like teenagers test their new moral reasoning, testing their new ability to think imaginatively leads to a psychological development stage where science fiction is important.

(It's also not hard to understand why the Human Torch is such a popular character among kids. Every kid goes through a stage where they're a pyro.)

It's also unsurprising Ed Hamilton would later on be one of the few pulp writers to transition to becoming a comic book plotter, writing Superman for a number of his most memorable years. Going from the same magazine that gave the world Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard to a hero pulp writer amusing the kiddies to comics writer might be one of the oddest trajectories ever.

Though it nowhere near got as lurid as some of the pulp mags aimed at working class adults, Ed Hamilton was a writer in Weird Tales, and occasionally some horror details slipped in.  One of my favorites was an event right out of the movie Lifeforce, where Captain Future is driven to explore the wreck of a totally unknown spaceship, and discovers an octopoid-like alien race who were awakened to seek nutrients from blood. More like this, please!

Captain Future also has the usual hero pulp "figure out the identity of the mystery bad guy" plots. You'd think mystery wouldn't work in science fiction, but they do here, because all facts, including odd futuristic technological details, are presented to the reader fairly. The science in the stories is so good, it's shocking. In "Calling Captain Future," he figures out the black star headed toward the earth was an illusion, because its gravity didn't distort light around it, a "gravitational lensing" effect Einstein predicted, which is today something every physics student learns, but which was by then ultra-cutting edge.

As weird as Captain Future's origins are, Captain Future underwent a weird trajectory since. He was reprinted in the 60s thanks to the hunger of the paperback market. Doc Savage caught on thanks to punchy, dynamic Bama covers, but Cap's had the most ludicrously generic ones ever.

And it gets even weirder from there. Captain Future was one of two 40s American adventure SF series (the other being the Lensmen) who became, of all things, a Japanese anime. And here's the amazing part: the Captain Future anime? It was so faithful to the 40s pulp novels, it was shocking. The mystery plots were preserved more or less intact, the bickering between the robots, with the only changes were utterly predictable layups like changing locations in the Solar System to different worlds and giving his girlfriend more to do. I'd be inclined to rank it as the most faithful, accurate adaptation of any hero pulp, not that there's much competition there.

Finally, Captain Future is now best known as a hokey piece of pop art instead of an actual character, like the posters adorning the room of the characters in the Big Bang Theory, a sitcom that represents all that is mainstream and evil in the world of entertainment. Captain Future's giant poster hasn't led to a revival of the character, but has led to sales of Captain Future posters.

Captain Future is iconography now. For years, whenever I'd see a later parody of 50s space heroes, I'd see some muscular guy with an exaggerated chin, ray gun, finned costume, and with a personality based on Adam West's performance of Batman. I'm talking "The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space," Spaceman Spiff, and Buzz Lightyear. I'd see these guys and think, "what exactly IS it they're making fun of?" Real 50s science fiction didn't have heroes like that. It's making fun of something that never existed.

TV Tropes calls this a "Dead Unicorn Trope," something everyone thinks is a cliché and is frequently parodied, but never existed in a straight form. Examples include "the Butler did it" in mysteries, the idea of the mustached and black top hat stock silent film villain (who never actually existed in the silent era), and black and white color coded cowboy hats in Westerns. Superman movies have jokes about changing in a phone booth, when Superman never actually did that.

Real science fiction of the 1940s and 50s had heroes that were cigar-chomping, badass, wisecracking engineers who solved the problem with dubious engineering concepts. They usually talked more like Nick Fury than like Adam West as Batman. There were also a lot of young men who grow up over the course of the story (with science fiction of the 50s, it's always men). The young man on a journey to grow up and learn something is the central journey of all genre fiction, so why should SF be immune?

Captain Future might actually be the closest spoofs like Buzz Lightyear and Spaceman Spiff ever got to resembling a real science fiction hero of the past, and even he's nowhere near close.

A scientific wizard like Doc Savage, Captain Future is a surprisingly warm person, in contrast to the stoic, Vulcan-like Doc. He has a humanizing touch of real scientific curiosity, and at one point, boarded an unknown, scary and abandoned alien ship just to satisfy it. He also seems like a gifted diplomat, and it's rare to find an alien race that is genetically evil; most encounters with aliens are a misunderstanding solved via diplomacy. How very Star Trek: the Next Generation!

The aides (Futuremen) are two robots, Otho (a plastic robot able to shapechange) and Grag (a metal superstrong robot), who bicker back and forth about who is more human. Since they act like assholes, I'd say they're both pretty human. Grag is huge and strong but childlike and has a cute pet Lunar mouse; Otho, the plastic one, is disagreeable and they hint he's a little on the bloodthirsty side. Both of them aren't as redundant as Doc Savage's aides because, after all, even if you're Doc Savage like Captain Future is, a superstrong invulnerable robot is still handy to have around.

My favorite of the Futuremen is definitely the Brain. A brain inside a jar who helped raise Captain Future, his sole remaining emotions are loyal and protective love for the baby he brought up. How endearing is it that the Brain still calls Captain Future "boy?" You get the feeling the Brain has Captain Future as his last remaining link to other people, and if that link was severed he would be a cold, disturbing, possibly villainous figure.

Captain Future's local Lois Lane equivalent is Joan Randall, and her defining characteristic is, she's a big Captain Future fangirl. Captain Future, after all, is his era's biggest celebrity. Every word out of her mouth is Captain Future will save me, Captain Future will stop you, etc. She does dangerous things just to be near him. The love she has for him comes off as the obsessive infatuation of a groupie.

For once, I can understand why the hero wouldn't pursue a relationship, and unlike Doc Savage, it's not because he only has sex once every seven years. As ego stroking (and something else stroking) as groupies can be, would you marry a groupie? Relationships have to be based on respecting the other person (impossible if they admire and debase yourself before you), and obsession isn't the same thing as love.

All the same, Joan Randall is loyal and doesn't lose faith in Captain Future. She seems even tempered, without the whiplash-like changes in mood that make Dejah Thoris and Jane beautiful but psychotic bitches.

Things to Ponder: 

  • The Comet, (Captain Future's rocket) has the ability to disguise itself as a real comet, which sounds like the worst camouflage ever. I mean it, it's maybe the worst disguise in history. Once the "comet" slows down, speeds up, or CHANGES DIRECTION, the jig would be up. 
  • Captain Future's ring, with nine small gems around a single big one to represent the Solar System, has an atomic motor that keeps the 9 gems turning. Captain Future uses this tiny hidden atomic motor the same way Luke Skywalker uses the tiny battery hidden inside his robot hand: to get himself out of jams when he was captured and all his visible equipment taken away.
  • Truly creepy moment: in the Sargasso of Space, Captain Future runs into the "an early earth exploration ship." Its' name? Pioneer. It'd be interesting if someone attempted to assemble a history of Captain Future's Solar System from hints dropped here and there. I'd do it, if I had access to more of these.
  • Another creepy moment? At one point in the prison on Pluto's moon, Captain Future mentions the prison armory contains an "atomic bomb" that if blasted, would destroy everything. This was in 1940. 


David Morefield said...

Thanks for this; I've been meaning to get into the Captain Future pulps forever, but I never seem to get around to it. Ed Hamilton, as you probably know, is my favorite Superman writer of all time, and I've been greatly enjoying his (non-Cap F) science fiction works in free e-book form since I got a Kindle. Looks like I'll have to break down and spend actual money to get these, as well.

I haven't read "Whisker of Hercules" either (!) but if it's true Dent mocked superheroes, comics got the last laugh when Doc was adapted into one himself, and one of the lamest, most pathetic ones of the Golden Age, at that. If Dent knew what Street and Smith were planning for the comics, I don't begrudge him taking revenge in "Whisker."

Nitpick: the Fleischer cartoons did indeed show Superman changing in a phone booth. Not often, and maybe just once, but it does qualify as a precedent and I'd imagine that audiences then, as now, were larger for the films than the comics.

Surprised Tom Paris' "Captain Proton" didn't get a name-check in this piece.

Julian Perez said...

One thing I forgot to mention you might find relevant: Captain Future was created by Mort Weisenger, and the idea was developed by Ed Hamilton!

Captain Future is worth getting into, though like Doc Savage, I wouldn't read one story after the other because they tend to be similar. The most interesting moments are the surprisingly adult moments of horror, coming from Hamilton's Weird Tales background. These stories are a lot of fun (I love the metal eating telepathic lunar rat) but be aware that they do seem to have more of a kid audience in mind. That makes it all the more surprising when it goes hard science and the crime is solved by Einstein's "gravitational lensing."

Kids might be the only people who aren't inclined to laugh at a "Uranian Star-Tiger." I wonder...when did people mispronouncing Uranus become a joke? Because these stories repeatedly mention Uranus and it's hard not to keep your cool!

Planet-Smasher Hamilton's stories are especially worth reading if you're a comics fan of Silver Age DC. For one thing, the references aren't one way (comics quoting the pulps). When Ed Hamilton wrote "Battle for the Stars," he slipped a reference in to a specific kind of Martian creature: a "Nightwing and Flamebird!"

Getting into pulp science fiction and horror has been especially rewarding if you like DC. For instance, "Volthoom" is a reference to a diabolical Martian god in a Clark Ashton Smith story. Remember the evil Supergirl created by red Kryptonite, Black Flame? A reference to a novel, Black Flame, about an immortal female heroine.

That's just off the top of my head.

Nitpick: the Fleischer cartoons did indeed show Superman changing in a phone booth. Not often, and maybe just once, but it does qualify as a precedent and I'd imagine that audiences then, as now, were larger for the films than the comics.

True. If memory serves, he only did this once, and it was one of those old time wood phone booths with yellow fog glass you see at the New York Transit Museum. Changing in a regular phone booth where everyone can see you wouldn't make sense.

What's interesting is, I can remember a reprinted comics story from the early 1940s, where Superman makes a note to himself that it actually isn't possible to change in a phone booth. So, the sole mention of this I can find in the comics, people were making fun of this even though it wasn't a thing!

Surprised Tom Paris' "Captain Proton" didn't get a name-check in this piece.

For good reason: unlike Colbert's Tek Jensen or Captain Zoom...Captain Proton was really accurate to how the serial heroes really were! No kid sidekick, girlfriend got kidnapped, that weird cave location they used in 500 serials, ponderous giant robots, down to the flute sound effect when screens were turned on and off.

People don't like Voyager, and mostly for good reason: it never committed to the core concept. The characters never really "roughed-it." They seldom had to make dangerous choices in isolation. And shoot, they never even ran out of shuttlecraft!

But that 5th season had some high points. The introduction of Seven of Nine gave that show its groove. "Bride of Chaotica!" was just plain fun, for instance.

David Morefield said...

Even if you had the elbow room to change in a phone booth, it would be a pretty stupid move. Clark Kent goes in, Superman comes's not like there could be a crowd of other "secret identity" suspects in there.

I remember a late 70s comic where Superman leaps from a ledge and ponders the origins of "Up, Up and Away." ("I wonder who started that? It certainly wasn't me!") That one at least made sense, originating on the radio where he had to explain where he was going, but it was an interesting "meta-textual reference" before that was a common practice.

Didn't realize Uncle Mort had created Captain Future. Combined with Aquaman and Green Arrow, that has to make him like the "King of the Also-Rans."

Julian Perez said...

I don't know what's up with Green Arrow, but it's my understanding that Mort's relationship on Aquaman was the exact 180-degree opposite of what he did on Captain Future. With CF, Uncle Morty came up with the idea and Hamilton developed it and wrote the novels. With Aquaman, Paul Norris came up with the idea, and Mort Weisenger wrote the first script.

My favorite case of that kind of "exposition in the dialogue" they used to do on radio ("Oh, I see you just came in through the door, Annette!") was in the NPR Star Wars radio production, where Brock Peters used his sorcery to choke an insolent officer and described what he was doing in visceral, grisly detail what it was like to choke.