The Space Ranger | Origin | Non-Series Science Fiction Stories
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Tales of the Unexpected
These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.
This first tale of the Space Ranger does not tell how Rick Starr became the Ranger; rather it shows him already fully operating in this role. It does set up the continuing characters and their backgrounds.
SCIENCE FICTION: THE FUTURE. The villain and his plot in the second half of this tale are strictly routine. We have seen all of these sf clichés done much better by Gardner Fox. The villain wants to conquer the solar system. Fox and Hamilton get some credit for supporting democracy, and fearing dictatorships.
What is good about this story is concentrated in its first half (pages 1-6). Its picture of the future advanced civilization in the Solar System is appealing. Especially breathtaking is its picture of space travel. We see a whole series of space transportation ships, from small space taxis to mighty starships. The whole vision is genuinely awe inspiring.
The story has roots in prose science fiction of the 1940's and 1950's:
The position of women in this future is ambiguous. Starr is a junior executive of the company, and as such is duly provided with a secretary, female of course. Myra Mason is not a shrinking violet, however. She is a brave adventurous person who keeps trying to come along on Starr's adventures. Her position is that of many 1950's women: stuck in a second rate job, but with plenty of guts and brio. It does seem unfortunate that the writers could not have imagined a more egalitarian position for women in his future society. Mason's role is precisely that available to women in the sexist 1950's, nothing more. The portrait does suggest that women had much more to offer than this, however.
THE ALIEN SIDEKICK. Particularly appealing is Cryll, an alien who can change color and shape at will. He often changes color to express his moods. Only a medium as color oriented as comics could have invented such a character. Cryll resembles in his shape changing ability and sweet personality such child-like shape changing aliens as the heroes of Bill Finger's "The Contest of Heroes" (World's Finest #74, January-February 1955), and Edmond Hamilton's "The Creature of 1,000 Disguises" (Action Comics #234, November 1957). Unlike these one-shot characters, Cryll is a series regular. He is the hero's sidekick. This is typical of Hamilton's tendency to give his heroes alien friends. Before any of these characters is Loopy, the hero's pet in Edmond Hamilton's Chris KL-99 stories, beginning with "The Menace of the Green Nebula" (Strange Adventures #1, August-September 1950). Loopy does not change shape, but he does change colors to express his mood, just like Cryll. Unlike Cryll and most of the later shape changers, he is not a highly intelligent being, just a pet. He is as good-natured as Cryll.
One can also notice a general resemblance between the Space Ranger and Chris KL-99:
DESIGN. Myra Mason's desk in the glamorous corporate headquarters is curving, in the Miro-like biomorphic style that was the last word in chic design in the 1950's. Infantino often depicted such furniture in The Flash. However, The Flash took place in contemporary America, whereas Space Ranger is set in the future. It is another example of how 1950's everything looks in this "future" civilization. The desk is pretty, however, and so is everything else in this corporation. This whole future does have a powerful visual appeal. Paradoxically, the "everyday life" depicted in the first half of the story is far more interesting than the adventure and thriller elements of its second half. the writers and Brown are at their best when they are depicting the future, with its space travel and glamorous existence.
Space Ranger's costume is cool. It is bright yellow, and emphasizes his musculature. It is full of a vibrantly contrasting purple-magenta trim, which shows up on his gloves, belt, shoulder rings and boots. He also wears green devices on his belt. Such use of "opposite" colors on the color wheel, such as yellow and purple, is a strikingly effective design principle. Please see my list of purple-and-yellow costumes in comic books.
His boots have wide, rounded tops. These recall a bit sea adventurers and dashing historical figures in movie swashbucklers. Their rounded shape echoes the other circular or curved forms in the costume, such as the shoulder rings, belt and helmet.
The use of a space helmet to disguise the hero's identity recalls the Moon Man pulp magazine short stories (1933-1937) by Frederick C. Davis.
Rick Starr has peaked hair in front, like Gil Kane's later character, The Atom.
The Robot Planet (Showcase #15, July-August 1958). Story: Gardner Fox. Script: Edmond Hamilton. Art: Bob Brown. Based on a cover by: Bob Brown. An electronic brain and its robots have taken over an alien planet, and try to conquer our solar system as well. Uninspired tale that rehashes standard plots about computers taking over society. The weakest of the four tales in Showcase that form the initial adventures of the Space Ranger.
A FUTURE. Much of this tale takes place on the alien planet outside our Solar System. The same is true of next issue's "The Secret of the Space Monster". In both of these tales, the alien planets are previously unfamiliar to Earthmen.
Perhaps I am overgeneralizing, but it seems that the universe in which the Space Ranger tales take place can be summarized: "The nine planets of the Solar System are in constant touch with each other. The many races on these planets, including humans from Earth, all intermingle and routinely travel back and forth. The Solar System is under a common government (mentioned admiringly at the end of "The Riddle of the Lost Race"). It shares a common capitalist economy, typified by the big company owned by the Space Ranger's father. The economy also has non-profits, like the museum in "The Riddle of the Lost Race", and likely government enterprises too. By contrast, other star systems are little known to Earth people, and their alien residents don't have much contact with our Solar System."
The Secret of the Space Monster (1958). Story: Gardner Fox. Script: Edmond Hamilton. Art: Bob Brown. A space captain sees the apparently impossible: a huge monster floating in outer space. Light-hearted adventure story. The tale has fun elements recalling both spy fiction and swashbucklers.
Eventually, the tale develops a plot frequently used in Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space. This is: "A villainous subgroup on an alien planet wants both to destroy democracy on its home planet and also conquer Earth. The human heroes help defeat the subgroup, and ensure that the alien planet is under democratic rule by its good alien majority." This plot supports peace and democracy. It also depicts aliens, like all intelligent beings, having freedom of choice between democracy and dictatorship, and between right and wrong - and avoids depicting aliens as inherently evil.
Cryll's ability to turn himself into many alien beings is showcased in this tale.
COSTUMES. The initial meeting has both the space Captain Jones and the hero in futuristic clothes. But elements of the Captain's costume suggests a uniform: he is the uniformed Captain of a space ship. While the hero's costume suggests a futuristic equivalent of a business suit, in that it is civilian garb worn by a prosperous executive.
The alien planet has a festival in which citizens dress up in costumes and celebrate publicly. It is a bit like Mardi Gras or Carnival celebrations here on Earth. It is not exactly an Earth style "costume party" - but it does seem similar. Costume parties are a comic book tradition. See this list of costume parties in comic books.
The "Holiday of Honor Masquerade" festival differs from Mardi Gras in that it seems to be a Government-sponsored celebration. It is held in the capital city, and celebrates "honor": a political or social idea. It resembles the Fourth of July celebration in the USA, or Bastille Day in France, in that it seems to be a public advocacy and honoring of social and political traditions.
The Riddle of the Lost Race (1958). Story: Gardner Fox. Script: Edmond Hamilton. Art: Bob Brown. Based on a cover by: Bob Brown. The Space Ranger tracks criminals through the Solar System.
TITLE. The title perhaps needs explaining. There is a science fiction sub-genre known as the "Lost World" or "Lost Race". Such books were popular in the 19th and early 20th Century. See the Science Fiction Encyclopedia. These tales dealt with remnants of ancient civilizations or races that survived in obscure and hidden parts of the world. "The Riddle of the Lost Race" deals with a search for artifacts of an alien race who lived and went extinct long before the rise of humans.
In many Lost Race tales, there are actual survivors of the ancient race, living in some obscure region. However in "The Riddle of the Lost Race", this alien race vanished long ago, and only some of their artifacts survive. "The Riddle of the Lost Race" is thus a little different from the standard paradigm of Lost Race or Lost World tales.
ANTIQUITY. "The Riddle of the Lost Race" centers on relics left behind by an ancient alien race. It is full of images of antiquity:
The Space Sphinx recalls "Secret of the Moon Sphinx" (Mystery in Space #36, February-March 1957) by Otto Binder and Carmine Infantino. The alien writing on the front of the Space Sphinx recalls ancient cuneiform. The jewel in its forehead recalls the prose novel The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins.
The numerous references to antiquity are part of what gives "The Riddle of the Lost Race" its appeal. Antiquity has a romantic quality.
In the wake of The Da Vinci Code (2003), tales of searches for ancient treaters based on clues from the distant past have become popular. "The Riddle of the Lost Race" was doing this decades ago. And unlike The Da Vinci Code, "The Riddle of the Lost Race" doesn't have dubious religious agendas (or any religious agenda or references). It is just an exciting tale.
HEROINE AND FEMINISM. Myra Mason's role in the story is upgraded, with her playing key roles in helping the good guys. SPOILERS:
ADVENTURE AND ACTION. "The Riddle of the Lost Race" is an adventure story. It incorporates elements of adventure fiction into its plot:
TRAPS. The villain repeatedly puts the good guys into traps, from which the heroes have to escape: he sets off a lightbomb, and later, blows up a tunnel. Traps are common in science fiction, especially comic book tales. Heroes like Adam Strange and The Flash frequently have to escape from traps.
The Space Ranger has technological gimmicks that fight traps. These devices are interesting, and deserve mild applause. But they are not quite as ingenious as some of the ways in which Adam Strange, for example, escapes traps. SPOILERS. These include the Space Ranger's device that absorbs light, and an oil that repels dangerous marine creatures.
The way the heroine rescues the good guys at the finale, can be seen as her helping them escape from the "trap" of the villain's rays.
COSTUME. The spacesuit the hero wears on the cover uses the same design principles as his regular costume: a yellow main body, round magenta trim. But it includes big spheres on his shoulders rather than the circles on his regular costume. And it adds knee rings. The boots are now close-fitting rather than open-topped: necessary to keep oxygen in the spacesuit.
The Army of Interplanetary Beasts (1960). Writer: ? (The GCD speculates that the writer might be Gardner Fox or Edmond Hamilton.) Art: Jim Mooney. Based on a cover by: Dick Dillin. Robberies are committed throughout the Solar System by teams of specialized alien animals. Each of the animals has their own super-power, based in their alien biology. The effect somewhat resembles the Legion of Super-Heroes. It also resembles some of the stories of the Krypton Zoo and its unique Kryptonian animals that appeared in the Superman family.
Starr does some good detective work. Space travel plays a part in this. The story reminds us that the Space Ranger is principally a detective character, someone who solves crimes in the future. However, it is Cryll who actually cracks the case, just as in Showcase.
This tale is full of inventive alien animals. Mooney's art is quite witty. I especially liked the villainous bunnies, who look cute even as they mess up the good guys. There is no horror mood to this tale whatever - instead, it emphasizes plot imagination.
Mooney has set the tale in an Art Deco future version of New York City. The city is full of towers with hemispherical domes on their tops. The towers are connected by ramps, in the style familiar from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), along which people can walk. There are also roof gardens. Being high in the air means one is part of a beautiful and complex pedestrian landscape.
Mooney's version of his hero is closely modeled on Bob Brown's: the costumes are virtually identical. Mooney includes a panel of Rick Starr getting dressed in his Space Ranger costume that is similar to one in the first Showcase story. However, Mooney has also adapted the character to his own style of art. Rick Starr looks much like some of the handsome, tough villains that often menaced Supergirl. He is much more macho looking than most of Mooney's heroes - we are used to the juvenile looking Tommy Tomorrow, or some of the nice youths Supergirl dates. I've never seen this sort of tough guy as a hero in any other of Mooney's tales. Starr's secretary Myra Mason is drawn by Mooney to look much like Supergirl. Both are blondes.
The Day the Earth Stopped (Tales of the Unexpected #31, November 1958). Writer: ? Art: Bob Brown. Based on a cover by: Bob Brown. A giant magnet pulls Earth out of its orbit.
In addition to his work on Space Ranger, Bob Brown also created an interesting costume for this tale's futuristic non-series hero, Earth Security chief Mark Jarvis. It's a red uniform with yellow epaulettes, chest ribbons, and insignia on the high stiff collar. This is more of a conventional, military-style uniform than is worn by most comic book heroes - very few have a chest full of ribbons. Jarvis is more of a conventional government official, as well. Brown is comfortable depicting such traditional, official figures of masculine success: a businessman in Space Ranger, government security officer Jarvis, Smallville High's football quarterback "Bash" Bradford in "The Strange Death of Superboy" (Superboy #161, December 1969). Such uniformed government figures and star athletes show up fairly rarely as comic book heroes, who tend to be more independent, individualistic people.
The Giant that Devoured a Village (1961). Writer: ? Art: Howard Purcell. A primitive planet has a legend about a face that appears on a mountain every hundred years. This story is made up of a series of small sf ideas, all strung together to form a tale.
Howard Purcell's art shows his flair for alien landscapes. These include jungle scenes, and alien beings. This is quite different from his modern day crime tales, such as those in the Mr. District Attorney series.
Cosmic Catastrophes for Sale (1961). Writer: ? Art: George Roussos. Special effects whiz Harry Hammond stages outer space scenes for the movies in 2200. This sort of "Hollywood in space" story has a long comic book history.
Harry Hammond is a big business success. He is quite handsome, and "sophisticated" in the style of glamorous late-1950's heroes. His more ordinary-looking assistant Bud looks like the comic protagonist of Roussos' story in the next issue, "The Man Who Inherited a Planetoid". Both of these tales have heroes who are working towards business success. Both encounter a whole series of business opportunities, in the course of their tales.
George Roussos sometimes worked on the Air Wave and Johnny Quick series.
The Braggart from Planet Brax (1961). Writer: ? Art: Howard Purcell. A boastful spaceman keeps telling his colleagues that everything is better on his home planet Brax. The writer is unknown, but one suspects it is by the same unknown author who wrote "The Giant that Devoured a Village" (1961). Both tales:
The Man Who Inherited a Planetoid (1961). Writer: ? Art: George Roussos. A poor but determined inventor tries to make his fortune on a planetoid beyond Pluto.