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E.T.’s been hitting the gym – Jemm, Son of Saturn

May 5, 2010

As was the case with many others my age, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial had a big impact on me.  It came out in 1982, when I was a whopping 4 years old, and Spielberg’s amped up sci-fi schmaltz was too much for me to resist.  I had all the tie-ins.  Of course there was the all-time worst video game ever produced, the E.T. game for the Atari – I can still remember its title screen on the TV one Christmas morning long ago.  And most embarrassingly, I had an E.T. stuffed toy – like a teddy bear – that I dragged around so much my grandmother knitted a sweater and a hat for him.  You know, so I wouldn’t have to worry about him getting cold in the winter.

I feel like I’m in confession.  I was only 4, folks.  Cut me some slack.

Flash forward a couple of years later, and this ad started popping up in my Flash, Batman and Superman comics:

Jemm had a cool look about him, but I’m thinking it was “The human story of a boy and his alien” that reeled me in.  At the end of the first issue there was short piece about the creation of the character, and the writer, Greg Potter, made no bones about his appropriation of that hyper-successful dynamic (and more about that end-of-issue piece in a moment).

You have a young kid, Luther here instead of Elliot, and a somewhat frightened, very much out of place and telepathic alien in Jemm.  Their relationship is, no surprise, at the heart of the series.  Gene Colan and Klaus Janson did some really nice work together on the book – here’s a bit from the first meeting of our two main protagonists:

Later on in the first issue they finally get around to the obligatory name exchange, as Luther and his (conveniently) blind grandfather try to figure out what the deal is with this stranger:

Colan was never the biggest name in the Marvel bullpen back in the Kirby/Ditko years, but he’s had a much stronger twilight to his career.  In the 80’s he was doing some wonderful work here and on A-list title like Batman, and he’s still going.  I liked (and still like) his design for Jemm – the Saturnian’s long spindly fingers are such a simple but effective feature to convey the oddness of this guy.  Not that the glowing jewel in the center of his head and the red skin, no shirt and blue cape didn’t get that across.  But the fingers are a nice extra.

Jemm was a cool series and a cool character, but I do have a bone to pick with its author, the aforementioned Greg Potter.  Here’s the end of issue piece on Jemm’s creation, with an extended quote from him:

My problem comes from what he says towards the bottom of the second column over into the third.  To differentiate this storyline from others, he talks about having “some real, honest-to-God black people in the strip.”

Okay, let me list the “honest-to-God black people” that we meet in the first issue.  There’s Luther, a sweet, smart young boy who’s apparently allowed to play in dark alleys at night – that’s where he first runs into Jemm.  There’s Gramps, a blind old man who sits around the house all day.  There’s Lincoln, Luther’s older brother who, while studying and working hard, is nonetheless a drug dealer.  There’s Vin, an old friend of Lincoln’s who’s a thug and a bad infulence on Lincoln.  And there’s Reginald, a knife-wielding enforcer who wears a purple hat.  Here’s Reginald on the cover of issue #1 with his Joker-esque haberdashery:

There you have it, readers.  “Honest-to-God black people.”  I remember hearing some criticism of The Cosby Show years ago, criticism that said it presented a too-rosy picture of an African-American family.  They were too affluent and not “black” enough.  I guess this is the opposite end of the spectrum.

I don’t want to get all bogged down in some polemic on race in America.  It’s admirable that a comic writer would think of including a few less lily-white characters in the already white-as-a-sheet world of comics.  It’s also commendable to set a story in the grit and grime of a realistic inner city.  But maybe using drug dealers and thugs as exemplars is a little much.  End of rant. 

A few final words on Jemm…  The series ran for 12 issues and the character has been seldom seen since, but thanks to Colan’s wonderful style and the association with E.T., he’s always been stuck in the back of my head.  And a little side-note – he was originally intended to be a Martian cousin of J’onn J’onzz, but editorial intervention blocked that.  That was probably for the best.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2010 3:43 pm

    I did not follow any of the “New Kandor”, “New Krypton”, “Whatever they called it” but being a fan of Superman, I occasionally flipped thru an issue to see if they were moving on and beyond the story line any time soon. One image caught my eye was some sort of diplomatic mission by Jemm (or someone of the same race) visiting New Krypton.

    Sorry, I don’t know which issue or even the exact title. But it was within the last six months, I’m sure.

    • May 6, 2010 10:16 pm

      Thanks for the heads up on that – I see that it was World of New Krypton #9 where Jemm showed up. He was on the cover, drawn by Gary Frank. It’s a tribute to the power of Colan’s artwork that Frank’s interpretation of Jemm doesn’t hold a candle to the original.

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