Friday, October 21, 2005
  Meanwhile, back at the ranch...
Before Len Brown became an Austin country music DJ, his country roots involved him in the creation of a well-remembered comic book series of the 1960s:

No matter how I struggle and strive,
I'll never get out of this world alive.

--Hank Williams

Country and Western music provides a strange springboard into the world of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. Yet today, the sounds of C&W still reverberate and echo in the distance when one traces the origin of Wallace Wood's science fictional characters back to producer Nat Levine's The Phantom Empire (1935). Elements of this 12-chapter Mascot serial were an influence during the mid-1960s creation of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. The serial featured the galloping Thunder Riders, mysterious helmeted horsemen from the "Scientific City of Murania."

Concocted during a nitrous oxide dental dream by sedated screenwriter Wallace MacDonald (1891-1978), The Phantom Empire starred Gene Autry (1907-1998), touted in the opening credits as "Radio's Singing Cowboy." Menaced by the Thunder Riders, Gene discovers the futuristic Muranian civilization beneath his Radio Ranch. MacDonald's story is a bizarre salmagundi of science fiction, musical and Western, a high-tech horse opera spiced with adventure, comedy, cowboy songs and flame-throwing robots wearing tin hats. Riding in the desert, teenagers Frankie (Frankie Darro) and Betsy Baxter (Betsy Ross King) also encounter the Thunder Riders. Reenacting the event while wearing old buckets as headgear, Frankie and Betsy organize their own group, the Junior Thunder Riders, as a kids club. The success of The Phantom Empire spurred Autry's career, and the serial chapters were later re-edited into a 70-minute feature, Men with Steel Faces (1940).

Detouring down another rural route with this country connection, the focus shifts to Brooklyn-born Len Brown, a C&W disc jockey who today spins classic country tunes Tuesday mornings over KOOP 91.7 FM in Dripping Springs, Texas. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s, he listened to mountain music, the Western swing of Bob Wills, the fatalistic songs of Hank Williams and a variety of honkytonk hellraisers. In the early 1950s, when The Phantom Empire was re-released theatrically and also seen on television, it made an indelible impression on the young Len Brown, who especially liked the Thunder Riders, sent forth by Murania's evil Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy).

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Wally Wood's life and career had splintered into a dozen different directions after the glory days of EC. Like Len Brown, Wood also had a fondness for folk and country music, as recalled by his first wife, Tatjana. "When the Weavers first made it," said Tatjana, "we used to go to folk concerts — Kingston Trio, Odetta. But he was especially crazy about the Weavers. We went to several of their concerts. We saw Pete Seeger in the street once, and Wallace accosted him and talked to him about how much he enjoyed his singing. One of his favorites was Hank Williams. Shitkicker music was never my favorite. He would listen to this stuff for endless hours. Once in a while I’d say, 'Couldn’t we put on some classical music?' I’d put something on, but he didn’t grow up with it, and basically he never cared too much for it. So I always relented and let him put on what he wanted. I liked the folk music, but I didn’t like the hillbilly. I even made an effort to drag the poor guy to some operas in our early years, but he never cared for that too much.”

When the workaholic Wood took a break from the drawing table, he sometimes would grab his guitar to strum a few of his country favorites. Hootenannys were a feature of the Woods' annual New Year’s Eve dance parties, as Tatjana remembered: "We would clear out his studio for dancing and have people spread all over the apartments; some people would be sitting around in some corner just talking. Wallace loved to sing; he was terrific at remembering words. This psychiatrist friend and his wife were terrific at singing. He would get together with them other times all evening just singing." In 1978 Wood began taping songs for a planned record album of country and Western tunes; two years later he announced the sale of a cassette titled Wally Wood Sings.

With mutual interests in comics and country music, Wally Wood and Len Brown became friends. Brown was a creative director in the Product Development Department of Topps Chewing Gum when the two met in the early 1960s. At Brown's suggestion, Wood was hired in 1962 to do conceptual art on Topps' Mars Attacks trading cards, and he continued to illustrate a variety of Topps products in the years that followed. When Wood visited Topps' offices at 254 36th Street in Brooklyn, the conversation often turned to comics, and one day Brown described to Wood his own concept for a comic book hero: "Since it was during the Marvel Silver Age, we spoke of super-heroes. I mentioned an idea for a character I had dreamed up named Captain Thunderbolt, a hero who received his super-powers from a special belt. Wally said he liked the idea, but I was sure he was just being polite. Almost a year later, he called with the news that he was packaging a series of books for a new comics publisher, Tower Comics. Wally had remembered my concept and asked me to write a 12-page origin story. I submitted a Captain Thunderbolt story in which he fought a villain named Dynamo. This was my first attempt at scripting a super-hero comic book, and it was heavily edited by Wally. It was his little joke to give the name Len Brown to the hero's alter ego. At the time, I was embarrassed. I felt that fandom would think of me as an egomaniac who had a character named after myself. But today, looking back, I've got to admit I'm glad that Wally did it."

Interviewed by Jon B. Cooke in 2001, Len Brown detailed the origin of the character names: "Wally said he wanted to do a Justice League group kind of thing, so we batted around a few names. I recall coming up with the name of the Thunder Agents because, basically, I had always loved the old Phantom Empire serial with Gene Autry in the 1930s. I remembered that the Thunder Riders were the agents of the evil queen in the serial. I always loved the name, the Thunder Riders, so I recommended Thunder Agents to Wally."

Wood's acronymic upgrade to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents (The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves) was a nod toward TV's spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement), which began September 22, 1964 on NBC. "Dynamo was a mutual creation," Brown told Chris Irving. "I named the character because of the belt. I was going to call him Thunderbolt and have him wear a Thunderbelt. My hero's name was Thunderbolt, and Wally changed it to Dynamo, originally the name of the villain." Yet the name Thunderbolt did not vanish completely. In the first volume of DC Comics' T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives series, turn to page 29 of the Brown-scripted "Menace of the Iron Fog" to see a caption error where the name Thunderbolt was not deleted: "Even Thunderbolt's iron frame is shaken by the concussion..."

Robbins came bob-bob-bobbing into Brown's scripts because of someone he knew: "I was dating this girl that I was enamored with named Alice Sparrow, an odd name. I named Dynamo's girlfriend, Alice Robbins, after her... I just tried to impress this girl."

Elvis Presley was strongly influenced by the imaginative images of Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel, Jr., as evidenced in Presley's performance poses, hairstyle, caped Vegas outfit and his TCB logo and motto: "Takin' Care of Business in a Flash." With a lightning bolt piercing the letters TCB, this Elvis mark is seen at Graceland and appeared on the tail of his jet, rings, necklaces and his tombstone. Like Elvis, Brown also found ideas flowing from the turned-on Fawcett: "Thunderbolt to me was from my love of Captain Marvel, and I wanted to have a thunderbolt on his uniform like Captain Marvel. So Wally designed it the way he thought it should look. The Thunderbelt was my concept, but Wally added all of the spy stuff. It made sense, I guess, with all the James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which was probably on the air at that point, and it probably made it more unique."

Readers reacted to this explosive, action-packed package. Tarzan and Zorro artist Thomas Yeates, who views Wood as "an amazing storyteller," reflected, "The thing I like about Wallace Wood's work at Tower Comics is the same thing that glues all his work together, his heart and his good-natured approach to the drawing. I'm not too big on super-heroes, but Wood's comedic, in it for laughs, let's have fun with some spills-and-thrills attitude makes the stuff infectiously amusing. I like being amused. I love how he'd mix petty office politics with megalomaniacs trying to take over the world, with femme fatales, and huge scale military battles climaxing with an H-bomb. Wow! I also like the cleaner look and the nicer than usual coloring and printing. Of course, his crystal clear storytelling was always a source of wonder to me."

Thanks to the efforts of editor Dale Crain and the razor-sharp restorations of Rick Keene, Wally Wood's action adventures have been rescued and resuscitated in DC's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives. Recalling Gene Autry's signature song, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is back in the saddle again.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005
  Country Roots
This is worth a listen: COUNTRY ROOTS, Friday mornings (9am-12pm CST) on KOOP 91.7 FM in Austin.

Len Brown and DJ Hucklebuck host on alternate Fridays, playing classic country music tracks from their personal collections, both familiar and forgotten.

The music generates a real down home feeling, memories of radios playing softly on the back porch.

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Masquerade of the albino axolotls

My Photo

is the editor of Against the Grain: Mad Artist Wallace Wood (2003), reviewed by Paul Gravett.

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