The middle chapter of C.C. Beck’s and Otto Binder’s last (goofy) comic book gasp – Fatman the Human Flying Saucer #2
C. C. Beck had a great thing going back in the Golden Age of comics. He was a part of the Captain Marvel character from the very beginning, and established the iconic look of Billy Batson’s beady-eyed, toothy, Shazam-fueled adult alter-ego. Marvel’s stratospheric success, with sustained time at the top of best-seller lists, led to the expansion of his line, and Beck’s instantly recognizable style carried over into the other members of the good Captain’s extended family. Captain Marvel, Jr. Mary Marvel. Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. The Fawcett universe just kept getting bigger and bigger, and Beck had his own little artistic empire, overseeing the members of his studio that supplied art for the books. He could while away his leisure hours illustrating Captain Tootsie ads — why not?
And then the DC Comics lawsuit brought it all crashing down. Marvel was just too similar to Superman, and instead of fighting to the bitter end, Fawcett simply closed up shop. Beck was bereft of the property he had poured his talents into, which had to sting. He left comics, and lent his talents to other non-storytelling fields.
Then, in the latter half of the 1960s, he made his staple-bound newsprint return, at an upstart company with the appropriately defiant sobriquet of “Lightning Comics.” (With Beck’s involvement, it might as well have been called “Up Yours Detective/DC/National Whatever You Call Yourselves Comics.”) And what character did he and Otto Binder, a frequent scripter on the old Marvel books, create to spearhead the line, to be the bottle of champagne christening it as it left port?
Fatman. Fatman the Human Flying Saucer. Well.
Fatman is the stuff of legend, and not really in the good way. He’s right at the apex of any all-time comic book WTF? top ten, though in defense of other denizens of that bizarre litany (oddities like Time Beavers), they usually weren’t intended for ongoing series. Fatman was. Beck and Binder thought the world thirsted for Fatman. That readers would come back again and again, proudly plunking down their pocket change on the newsstand counter, silently declaring “Yes I read Fatman, and I am damn proud of it, good sir.” BAD IDEA.
Fatman was, as advertised on the cover above, three characters in one, though I’d quibble that the two superhero portions were part of the same dopey package. Van Crawford was the chunky, dilettante son of a wealthy businessman, and he devoted his free time to his numerous hobbies — if he didn’t live an a mansion, he surely would have made a good candidate for the next millennium’s Hoarders. Here he is going through some of his vast holdings, including, yes, comic books (I admit, I do admire his order):
Note the “Stoutfellow” comic book. He’s Crawford’s idol, and the model for his own green costume — which, with its gold-fringed cape, is itself an homage to Captain Marvel, just as Crawford’s blond hair and wide circumference are like Marvel’s negative image viewed in a funhouse mirror.
As for Fatman himself (Crawford got his powers from an alien who himself would shapeshift into a UFO), here he is in his double transformation:
Yes, that’s it. That’s his big power. He turns into a flying saucer with big cartoony eyes on top. Is this strange? YES IT IS. Is this a great power to have? I guess it’s better than nothing. And he could shout out laser beams whilst saucering about, so that’s nice.
It’s not much help against the many foes that he comes up against, though. In this issue he battles a ragtag assemblage, including an egg-headed alien called Brainman, who has potent mental powers and prefigures the Talosians in the first Star Trek pilot, “The Cage” — and maybe a little Leader too:
Those are either telepathic lines emanating from him or they’re stink lines. Maybe Brainman needs to launder his cape.
Fatman isn’t alone in his quest for justice. There are allies at hand, though they too are subject to Brainman’s mind-powers. Take Lucius Spindle, who utters a Sanskrit charm to become Tinman (Sanskrit? Tinman? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?):
I question whether that’s actual Sanskrit up there, as I’m not sure that there’s a heart symbol in that alphabet. And was Beck tempting fate, gambling that the Oz people wouldn’t sick their lawyers on him?
Just as Fatman doesn’t fight alone, Brainman isn’t the only villain in this issue, as earlier stated. There’s also the blonde, leggy Lunita, the Moon Witch, who can make obese men dance with the hypnotic strumming of her guitar:
Up to now, the story in this comic book has just been awful. Not offensive. Just silly and bad. THINGS ARE ABOUT TO CHANGE:
So Fatman is a sexist! Get in line ladies — what a catch!
I’m done. Tapping out.
There are 49 pages of story in this comic (68 in total), and let me tell you, you feel every single one of them. The humor is leaden, the plot is repetitive and childish, and it’s in general a total chore to read. Beck’s art is still at the level that made him a standard name in the industry, with clean figures and a keen sense for structure, but like everything else here it’s an anachronism. The whole endeavor is out of its element. “Flying Saucers” belong more to the 1950s than the next decade. The art is distilled Golden Age. The narrative is aimed at children as was the tomfoolery of the ’40s and ’50s, but I find it hard to believe that kids would ever go nuts for any of Van Crawford’s identities. It’s as if Beck and Binder were hibernating since the Fawcett line was discontinued and crawled out of their cave and started up right where they left off, paying no heed to the way the landscape had shifted in the interim. When you think of the things that Marvel Comics was churning out at this time, and had been for a number of years, it boggles the mind that they thought this was just the sort of superhero to capture the public’s imagination, whether he was satire or straight-faced or whatever.
And he didn’t catch fire. Fatman only had one more issue to fight evil in his own unique way, and then he was done. And so was the company, as Lightning Comics, which published one other title (Super Green Beret), met its doom. Beck would return to comics once more, providing art for the first ten issues of DC’s Shazam! Captain Marvel relaunch (which must have been a bittersweet reunion), but this was his last creative hurrah. Binder, whose last years were marked by family tragedy (the death of his daughter), was largely done with the mainstream comic book field after Lightning folded. SO BASICALLY FATMAN RUINED EVERYTHING FOR EVERYONE IS WHAT I’M TRYING TO SAY.
If Fatman still has any relevance, it’s in the collectibility of the comics. Low print runs, no one caring and Beck’s art have all combined to make them relatively rare curiosities with modest value, even in rough shape (as is the case with the copy used to forge this post). Huzzah.
Fatman still sucks.