Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Before Iron Man: Rocketman!

Before Iron Man, before Captain Proton, before The Rocketeer, there was Rocketman!

OK, this is lighter than my usual fare, but with all the Iron Man 2 frenzy in the news just now, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look back in time, to see some of the other heroes that lent their image and talents to the creation of Tony Stark's armored alter ego.

Iron Man made his comic book debut in March 1963 in Tales of Suspense issue 39. Marvel was still coming out of its monster/mystery/horror phase and old shellhead had to share the spotlight with a second story, completely unrelated to the super hero genre, and would continue to do so for a number of issues, until Tales of Suspense shifted to featuring Captain America as the other feature.

I want to take a look further back in time though, and then work forward. Most people reading this probably have no idea who or what Rocketman is, or rather, who he was. Unless you're over 50 or are a student of film history, you won't remember or know about the old movie serials. These were mini-films, usually shown before the main movie in theatres during the 1940s and 50s. They were shown episodically each week, encouraging audiences, especially young audiences, to visit the theatre weekly to see the next episode.

Typically, they were cheaply made, with poor special effects, writing, and acting, but were filled with adventure, excitement, and mystery. They almost always ended on a "cliffhanger" (sometimes literally), with the hero or heroine in desperate peril at the final frame. To see if they made it out of their jam, you had to come back next week, shell out 25 to 50 cents (movies were cheap back then) and see what happened. They always had happy endings of course, and were the fabric of many future adventure films. In fact, if you pay close attention the next time you watch Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, you'll be able to see the scenes that were homage pieces to the serial cliffhangers.

Rocketman started out in the serial King of the Rocketman in 1949, followed by the serial features Radar Men from the Moon (1952), Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), and Commando Cody, Sky Marshall of the Universe (1953).

If Rocketman's appearance seems familiar, you are probably associating him with the 1991 film The Rocketter, which was based on the 1982 limited comic series by the same name, masterfully written and illustrated by the late Dave Stevens.

You may also notice the resemblance to the Captain Proton character of Tom Paris's holodeck fantasies if you are a fan of the Star Trek: Voyager TV show. Paris (and actor Robert Duncan McNeill) played the role to its finest level of camp, but unfortunately, some "real" danger almost always interrupted Tom's "holo pursuits".

While today's Iron Man bears only a slight resemblance to Rocketman, usually because of the helmet/full-face covering, Stark, in his armor, are among the latest (in film , anyway) inheritors to the scientist-dons-invention-costume-to-become-hero legacy of the Rocketman-like characters. The Iron Man films, and really any film made with modern technology and production values, are infinitely superior to all of the old Rocketman serial adventures, but it never hurts to take a look at where today's heroes came from.

Our generation didn't create adventure, we just get to enjoy the campy, pulp fiction foundation on which it’s built. At the risk of surrendering to some of that camp, "Go Rocketman go!"

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