We’re at Showcase 52, almost exactly halfway through the series’ run (counting its revived version of the late Seventies). The comic has had its glory days of invention after invention, a long streak of successful try-outs leading to series, but that has come to an abrupt halt. Over the second half, very little will progress to series of their own, and of these, only a couple of titles will run more than forty issues.
What we’re going to see is amply evidenced by issue 52, yet another, and thankfully final attempt to launch Cave Carson, given just a single issue. That made seven all told, and not enough takers.
Next up was two issues of G.I. Joe, the soldier toy figure, written and edited by Bob Kanigher as short war stories using heroic soldiers from different branches of the service. Not only was this feature licensed, thus reducing any profit to be made, but it wasn’t even the first attempt at bringing the toy soldier to comics. Two issues was all the connection lasted, with only some excellent Joe Kubert art to show for it.
Julius Schwartz had been absent from Showcase since issue 36, three years previously. After The Atom, he’d stated that he would not be updating any further characters from the Golden Age. Instead, the Justice Society of America came back in their own right, first the Jay Garrick Flash, then the full team. Now, Schwartz was looking at a full-scale revival, with the next two issues of Showcase devoted to the team-up of Doctor Fate and Hourman, with the smooth, polished art of Murphy Anderson.
The Super-Team Supreme, as they were billed on the cover, were an odd mixture, magic and science (though the text page on the good Doctor sought to minimise that aspect, pegging it to the great discovery of how to convert energy into matter). They had little in common except their founding membership of the JSA, and for a villain they had to borrow the original Green Lantern’s Swampland foe, Solomon Grundy, thus dragging in Alan Scott as a downgraded third wheel. It’s full of holes, and Gardner Fox really was no longer suited to any kind of story portraying magic, but I can’t be too critical, because I loved it nonetheless. I’d discovered the Justice Society a year before and everything about them fascinated me.
The second story, introducing the new Psycho-Pirate, and giving him a super power to control emotions via a very dry pseudo-scientific means, was more to the point. But for once, Schwartz’s ability to sense what the readers wanted was off. The wave of enthusiasm for the Golden Age heroes was receding. Or maybe it was that the kids enjoyed reading new versions and having them team-up with the oldies, as demonstrated by the success of the annual JLA/JSA team-ups, but didn’t want the Golden Agers by themselves, because they were old.
The Super-Team Supreme’s two issues were gems in the eyes of some of us, but not enough, any more than were the two part comeback teaming Starman with Black Canary in Brave & Bold.
Showcase‘s strike-out run continued with two issues of Enemy Ace, by Kanigher and Kubert. This is a legendary series that I have never read before and now I have I found its intensity astonishing. Rittmeister Hans von Hammer had been introduced in Star-Spangled War Comics in February 1965. He was a fighter pilot in World War 1, for the Germans, a killing machine, cold of intent, but an honourable foe. The response to him was tremendous and he became a regular in that series, a virtual co-star to Sgt. Rock. His appearance in Showcase for, again, two issues, was, I presume, a trial to see if he could carry a title on its own and as he continued to appear in Star-Spangled War Comics after this, one that was failed. But von Hammer was one of those special characters, one that you might almost say was too good for the audience, not enough of whom, at DC, were ready to support an anti-hero.
Then the winless streak was broken, with one issue, issue 59, devoted to the Teen Titans. They’d had two one-offs in Brave & Bold, the second only four months previously, so how much credit their appearance in Showcase could take for the decision to give them their own title is dubious. But they were the first to get a go since the Metal Men. But the only thing worse than Bob Haney’s ‘super-hip’ dialogue and narration was the ludicrous and idiotic plot. Yeesh.
It was back to Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, Murphy Anderson and the Golden Age for the next two-issue run. Originally, it was intended to be another JSA team-up, this time between Doctor Mid-Nite and The Spectre, though if the treatment eventually decided upon for The Spectre flying solo was already set, it’s impossible to see how the Doc fit in.
Once again, these are two issues that I love tremendously. They were the first issues of Showcase that I ever bought, bought on Saturday afternoons in Droylsden, walking on my own to and from the newsagents at Fiveways, the memory so clear. The first of these stories, in issue 60, holds a place in comic book history as being the first superhero retcon. The Spectre, an all-powerful ghost, had disappeared twenty years previously: Fox and Schwartz set about explaining how and why a being of his powers could have been removed for so long a period.
There was a letters column in the second of these, headed with Schwartz’s announcement that they were going to take a breather on reintroducing the Golden Age characters, but it was clear that he had hopes of succeeding with the Spectre. For one thing, despite his usual tendencies, Fox played it straight on magic and a ghost’s powers, and for another this was a new take on the Spectre, a force of unlimited good without the aspect of the judge of crime who frightened people to death.
But the sales didn’t live up to Schwartz’s expectations. Not yet.
Instead, the unlikely subject to break the streak was the heroes of issues 62-63, E. Nelson Bridwell and Joe Orlando’s The Inferior Five. Now spoof superheroes were nothing new, they’d started with Sheldon Mayer’s The Red Tornado nearly thirty years earlier, and the text page in issue 62 laid it on a bit heavy, but the comic was fun. It preceded Marvel’s similar spoof, Not-Brand Echh by over a year.
The second issue took the gentle piss out of the Incredible Hulk, and included a couple of genuine, laugh-out-loud lines. However, the third issue was pushed back to issue 65 to allow Julius Schwartz and co. one last try at selling The Spectre. Before that, Schwartz had given the Ghostly Guardian a prime role in the 1966 team-up, and now oversaw a story that scaled The Spectre down from Universe-threatening levels to a rather less rarefied level.
This one did the trick, despite what we would now see as an extremely dodgy notion. It comes when the Spectre, cut off from Jim Corrigan’s body by an evil squatter spirit, wraps himself in the energies of Good to enable him to force his way in. Church services, hospitals, even a Peace Corps worker spreading education, yes, but an American soldier on patrol in Vietnam?
The third Inferior Five appearance, in issue 65, swapped in Mike Sekowsky for Joe Orlando, which was a perfect pairing given Sekowsky’s awkward anatomy. If I say that in this issue the Inferiors met the Eggs-Men, would you guess who I was talking about?
So that was two for two, though both series only lasted ten issues each. The next notion was reputedly scheduled for a three issue try-out but ended up only lasting two. Why? If I tell you it was B’Wana Beast, would you understand?
Even at DC in 1967, B’Wana Beast was regarded as racist. The use of the Swahili word for master, applied to a white ‘saviour’ in Africa poisoned the whole concept from the outset, the provision of a recurring villain as an African who was drawn like a monkey and the ‘White God’ saving the ignorant blacks was so horrendous that artist Mike Sekowsky refused to draw a third part. Who then was responsible for this abortion of a concept? Editor George Kashdan and writer Bob Haney. I don’t want to call either of them a racist but when you read shit like this it’s very hard to imagine a line between. Though I can imagine the bluff Haney, with his contempt for the ideas and wishes of fans, simply being defiant in the face of condemnation. Good for Sekowsky.
Unfortunately, what followed was, in a totally contrasting way, almost as awful. The Maniaks were a four piece rock group, three boys, one girl. That’s it, you don’t need any more. Sekowsky could be forgiven yet again, but there were no excuses for editor Jack Miller or writer Nelson Bridwell. Bridwell may well have been a walking encyclopaedia when it came to anything superheroic but when it came to music, his imagination was about as wide as a sewing needle and nowhere near as in depth. This was the year of the Monkees, but they were Led Zeppelin in comparison to this crappy bunch. That made four awful, awful issues in a row.
Issue 70 was filled with a revival of Leave it to Binky, a teen comedy series that had originally run for 60 issues between 1948 and 1958, since when Binky Briggs and his pals had only been seen in DC’s Public Information Shorts, one page stories promoting understanding, tolerance and liberal values. Henry Scarpelli provided the art for four shorts based around the single theme of Binky and his rich rival Sherwood van Loon competing for dates with the beautiful blonde Peggy. It doesn’t sound much, especially not in 1967, but it bought the series a revival from the old numbering until issue 81.
The Maniaks returned for a third and final appearance in issue 71, paired up with a Woody Allen who barely looked like and certainly didn’t talk like the real one. This story was awful. It was sneeringly nasty about Twiggy, threw in a brief Groucho Marx impersonation and then spent what felt like 50 pages on a supposed Civil War musical that allowed Nelson Bridwell to re-write show-tune lyrics, half of which I didn’t recognise despite growing up with parents who loved musicals: the kids of 1967 would sure have identified with these, who needed Jefferson Airplane? Ghastly stuff.
Next up was an issue under the title, Top Gun. This was a Western comic, once again bringing back old ideas. Up front was a new story featuring the Trigger Twins, in back was a reprint of an Alex Toth story featuring the other Johnny Thunder, the one with a stallion instead of a Thunderbolt. Anything would look good compared to the Maniaks but this was good, solid comics, though it was worrying that the reprint was better than the new story. Was Showcase really still in the business of finding new characters?
The answer to that came in the next five issues, all single try-outs, each of which getting their own series, but not for long. Firstly, in issue 73, was a real classic, Steve Ditko with dialogue by Don Segall introducing Beware the Creeper. The story shot along like a rocket, Ditko’s art was dynamic and fluid, this one was an instant winner. The issue also contained a plug for another Ditko creation coming soon, The Hawk and the Dove.
First, though, was Anthro, the cro magnon cave boy, created by Howie Post, and giving Carmine Infantino an editorial role. Post’s art, maintaining a clever balance between realism and caricature, using multiple soft lines to define instead of the customary hard edges, created a superb atmosphere. The story intended to show that the humans of the caveman era were as human as us, and it was also very funny at the same time.
And with this issue, Showcase went from bi-monthly to eight times a year, a frequency supposedly reserved for popular titles dependent upon a single artist. In this instance it could only signal that, however unlikely, Showcase had transcended its point and was being bought by enough readers for it’s own sake.
We weren’t asked to wait long for The Hawk and the Dove as they arrived in issue 75. Compared to The Creeper, this was tame stuff artistically, though as the issue was the gulf between the separate and naïve political stances of the protagonists, that’s not really surprising. The issues in America that inspired Hawk and Dave’s creation, the pro- and anti-stances towards the Vietnam War in an Election year, are no longer the same imperatives they were, which slightly diminishes the story. But DC awarded the boys a series.
As they did from the next character’s debut, Bat Lash. With gorgeous, loose art from Nick Cardy, using a more impressionistic line than on the Teen Titans, this was another gem of a story, about a smooth-talking, peace-loving, flowery-waist-coated western drifter turned reluctant trouble-shooter, and it was also funny as all get out. This really was a strong run, and it was rapidly restoring Showcase‘s reputation for bringing through new characters.
And that continued with the introduction of Angel and the Ape in issue 77, a gloriously goofy private eye comedy about Investigators Angel O’Day and her partner, Sam Simeon. Angel’s a doll of a platinum blonde who looks dumb but who’s clever and highly skilled whilst Sam’s a gorilla. What’s more, he’s a cartoonist working for an editor called Stan Bragg. Do you detect the writing of Nelson Bridwell? You do, with art by Bob Oksner. Bridwell was as laugh-out-loud good on this as he was stupefyingly rotten on the Maniaks.
So that was five new ideas in five issues, each one jumping into their own series without further issues. Was this recognition of a a string of strong ideas? Was it a recognition that, with Marvel growing ever more dominant, DC had to change. Or was it panic at Marvel’s rise and the grand old tradition of throwing things at the wall to see what stuck?
I don’t know. Like I said, all five got series of their own. Those five series lasted, respectively, 6 issues, 6 issues, 6 issues, 7 issues and 7 issues. It’s not a great track record, is it?
The run came to an abrupt halt with issue 78, devoted to another, more serious private eye, Jonny Double. Despite a fine, impressionistic cover, the reason for the streak ending was obvious inside. Double was an ex-cop turned loser PI, permanently broke, can’t catch a break, gets beat up a lot. The plot, by a fan turned intern, name of Marv Wolfman, attempted to be downbeat and realistic but was confusing instead, Joe Gill’s dialogue was tired and unimaginative and Jack Sparling drew the story with angular lay-outs like crazy paving and equally as legible. No thanks.
An intriguing but decidedly minor character, Dolphin, made a single appearance in issue 79. The creation of Jay Scott Pike, Dolphin was an undersea woman, a beautiful platinum blonde (any relation to Angel O’Day?) dressed in a light blue blouse with the sleeves torn off, and slightly darker blue and decidedly brief shorts.
The story centred on Naval frogmen, specifically CPO Chris Landau, trying to recover intelligence documents from an American ship sunk during the War. Pike borrowed the trick Milton Caniff used to introduce Steve Canyon in his strip, focussing on everybody’s reactions to someone/something seen underwater and not putting the girl onstage until page 6. Dolphin’s a complete enigma: she can live on land for up to five or six hours but lives underseas, breathing water and immune to the Bends, it seems. She has gills and prehensile webbing, but is also highly intelligent, quickly learns to speak English but, after helping get the documents back, overhears someone stupidly comparing her to a fish and returns to the seas, breaking Landau’s heart but not necessarily her own.
Weird stuff. Dolphin was eventually equipped with an origin over twenty years later and became a supporting character in Aquaman. What Pike intended for her was never revealed as far as I know.
Issue 80 brings us to the Phantom Stranger. Once again, DC were reviving an old, and failed character rather than come up with a new idea. The Stranger had been created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino in 1952 for a six issue run where he was a bit of a debunker of supernatural phenomena, which made sense in that for his reappearance, he was being paired with Dr Thirteen, the sceptics’ sceptic, except that for the purposes of this issue the Stranger was pro magic.
But the real reason for the revival was that it was a cheap comic to produce. Only eight new pages were drawn, as a framing story with a ludicrous ending, surrounding one reprint for each character. Not the Phantom Stranger we’re familiar with now, but cheap enough to foster another new series, this time lasting 41 issues.
The Way Out World of Windy and Willy in issue 81 was a bust of major proportions. Not only was it out-of-date and stupid, the very obvious different lettering showed it for what it was, a reprint of something that had appeared under a different name. I suspected, and Google confirmed, that it was a retouching of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a decade old series based on the TV show of the same name. Unbelievably, it got a series though thankfully only for four issues.
Windy and Willy were the twentieth and last feature to be spun off out of Showcase into their own series. Enemy Ace does not count, not just being pre-existing but current.
Next up was Nightmaster, given an old-style three issue run. The creation of Denny O’Neill and Jerry Grandenetti, the series was an attempt to introduce Sword and Sorcery fiction to comics. Nightmaster has enjoyed a degree of respectable life over the last quarter century but made no progress in 1969, for the plain fact that the comics were crap, not least from the insistence on clogging the fantasy stuff down with good old American feet of clay in the form of a rock musician – playing to teeny-boppers (!) – with a sarcastic tone of speech dragging everything down.
Astonishingly, a new artist then drew the final two issues, and astonishingly it was Berni Wrightson and unastonishingly he was good. Indeed, he was very good, which only served to emphasise just how lousy O’Neill’s Jim Rook was as a character, not to mention O’Neill’s overall failure to capture anything of the substance of S&S. At least the third part offered some kind of a conclusion, leaving everything set up for an ongoing series that, deservedly, didn’t materialise.
Firehair, a Joe Kubert creation, took over issues 85-87. Though set in Western times, Kubert announced that the theme of the book was to be modern issues. Firehair was a white boy, red-headed, the sole survivor of a defensive massacre by Indians against the Cavalry. Brought up a Chief’s son, Firehair faced prejudice from both worlds, Indian and White, neither of them accepting him as one of them.
Once again though, the story was far outweighed by the art, the earnestness and undisguised intent to make it about social issues making the whole thing leaden. It was the times, the era of Relevance. But the series got stronger as it went on, as Kubert rowed away from its declared premise, and the final issue was all-round excellent. Firehair would get a sporadic back-up in the final ten issues of Tomahawk, but that would be all.
Issues 88-90 were dedicated to Jason’s Quest, a short-lived concept from Mike Sekowsky, currently riding high on his revamp of Wonder Woman. The titular character was a young man who, on his seeming father’s deathbed, learned that he was actually adopted, that his real father was murdered for some mysterious secret being sought by a villain named Tuborg (a once popular Danish lager) and that he had an unsuspected twin sister. Jason set off in pursuit of, first, his sister Geraldine, and then revenge.
I was immediately prejudiced against the first issue, which took the questing young man into Britain, or rather one of the worst and most ignorant representations of my home country. I’ve only one, very short experience of Paris but I think the French got it just as bad. Anyway, Jason found his sister and dragged her round Paris from flashpoint to flashpoint, never finding the time to explain to her exactly why he was dragging her around like a postbag so that, when he was forced to leave her to draw Tuborg’s men away, she was determined not to rendezvous with him or see him ever again. A neat idea executed poorly, and never followed up on.
Showcase’s final feature was previewed in issue 90 before getting the regular three issues. Manhunter 2070 was another Sekowsky creation, and a dumb one. Sekowsky went straight for the early, inglorious days of SF by setting up a ‘space western’, Starker, a bounty hunter. To show what level this was on, Sekowsky provided Starker with two hot, short-skirted girlfriends, with no rivalry so clearly some people were into threesomes. He just didn’t give either of them a name.
Starker’s brief existence came to an end in issue 93, marked by the innumerate stupidity of claiming that a 30% of 2,000,000 credits came to 25,000. Says it all, really. Peculiarly, the story ended on a cliffhanger, a primitive tribesman about to cave in Starker’s head with a club. But there was no outcome. And no more Showcase.
Not, at any rate, for seven years. In 1977 the title was revived, at the DC of Janette Kahn’s re-modelling, albeit only for another eleven issues (plus two unpublished). Though I wouldn’t normally include these, I did buy at least seven of this late run so let’s see how the revival compared with the rest of the run.
Before that, I have to mention that the concept, if not the title, had been partially restored earlier in the decade in a thirteen issue run as First Issue Special. This was a slightly farcical series, built on Publisher Carmine Infantino’s theory that no. 1 issues always sold well so why not have a series consisting of nothing but no. 1s?
Issues 94-96 were devoted to the New Doom Patrol, by Paul Kupperberg and Joe Staton. It was a typical Seventies superhero comic, everyone snapping in each other’s faces all the time and despite having Robotman (in a re-designed metal body courtesy of a little-concealed Dr Will Magnus) and General Immortus, it lacked any of the original DP’s quirkiness.
Staton stayed on, this time with Paul Levitz, for the first solo stories of Power Girl, Gerry Conway’s creation from the revived All-Star Comics, the Earth-2 Supergirl. What we got was Power Girl’s origin and the establishment of a secret identity for her, bound up in a battle with the Brain Wave in which Levitz has the ugly little runt decide on Power Girl as his number one enemy because she’s been responsible for more defeats than anyone else, which is true only if you count at least two encounters that don’t exist.
At least PG wasn’t continually spouting her crude feminism, though it was noticeable that she left the Earth-2 Flash and Green Lantern imprisoned to tackle the villain herself. Why was Seventies superherodom at DC so all-fired dumb?
And Staton made it seven issues in a row with the celebratory issue 100. Written by Kupperberg and Levitz, it was in its way the antithesis of everything Showcase ever stood for, an extended story, and a convoluted one at that, featuring as many people from the series history as could be crammed in and never mind coherence. The cover boasted sixty stars, but if you think I’m going to count… Actually, Levitz did that in the editorial pages and the numbering was correct, even to the only other appearance of Fireman Farrell. Off the top of my head I can’t remember anyone who got left out.
It was back to normal business from issue 101-103 with a three part Hawkman story, co-starring Hawkgirl and Adam Strange and introducing the idea of war between Rann and Thanagar. This came from Jack C Harris and Al Milgrom. Harris’s intent was space opera mixing the old Hawkman with the modern style, so he and Adam argue all the way through three issues. Meanwhile, the Equalizer plague (Justice League of America 117) that was keeping the Hawks on Earth as opposed to Thanagar was vanished in the background and replaced by a Thanagarian Queen who banished Katar and Shayera for not supporting her war against Rann. Plus ça change…
But once again Showcase hit the cancellation buffers, with issue 104 as the last. This time it was not necessarily the series’ own sales, though these obviously weren’t great, but rather the infamous DC Implosion that wiped out half the line in a day and almost did for DC completely. The honours went to O.S.S, Spies at War, like Enemy Ace an existing feature in one of the war books, put up as a possible spin-off at exactly the wrong time.
The cancellation, like all the rest, was abrupt. Issue 104 had Deadman billed for its follow up issue, and The Creeper would have starred in issue 106. Neither was published, at least not then. The Deadman story appeared in one of the Cancelled Comics Cavalcade mimeographed collections put out privately for the writers and artists whilst The Creeper saw print 32 years later, as part of a Graphic Novel reprinting Steve Ditko’s work on the character. They’re both on the DVD I have.
The Deadman story was quite promising, despite having to undergo two writers, Len Wein having only managed to produce half the story before being felled by a medical issue, requiring Gerry Conway to complete it without any idea of what Wein had planned. Jim Aparo held the whole thing together wonderfully.
And the Creeper was once again good fun.
The Deadman issue was copied from an actual comic book, including a letters page. It talks about future features. Somewhere on Earth-2, where there was no such Implosion, DC Comics published Gerry Conway’s new Western character, The Deserter, in issues 107-9, The World of Krypton and a three issue solo for The Huntress. There was also reference to an unnamed hero team from Len Wein. But we all know these stories never happened.
And that was the story of Showcase, in all its glory and ignominy. It’s almost an encapsulation of the Silver Age in itself but without it, would we still have DC Comics today? The answer to that may well be on Earth-3, but we don’t go there, not even in fun.