Listen whilst I set the scene. This bit will be dry as dust but without it you won’t understand what comics were in the early Fifties, before even I was born.
The Golden Age, or to be more accurate, the first Superhero Era, was over. The themes of the era were Wars and Westerns, Funny Animals and Funny Teenagers, adaptations of popular Radio Series, SF and Mysteries. But with very few exceptions, none of DC’s new titles were taking off. Which was awkward.
Producing a comic book in the early Fifties was very awkward in the technology of the era. There was already a long lead-time between the editor commissioning or approving a story and it being ready to go to the printer. Before that could happen, someone – and I’m assuming this was DC’s Business Manager, Jack Leibowitz – had to decide on a print run. Print high, reduce the unit price of each issue, improve the potential profit, print low, vice versa. Complicated by the fact that you were estimating how many copies you could sell up to three months in advance.
Once the book goes out of house, it has to be printed, it has to be distributed all across America (by truck), it has to be put out by newsstands, drugstores, mom-and-pop stores. Then, after its period on sale, when the next issue comes in, the unsold copies are taken off, the retailer strips the top off the cover, the bit showing the logo and issue number, bundles all these up and returns them to the distributor for credit against the next delivery. Eventually, for this is not among the retailers’ priorities, the returns get back to DC. It can take up to six months after the title goes off sale to have all these back, and only then does the company now if they have made a profit or a loss.
Because it’s all about returns, not sales. About print runs and decisions made half a year ago. Because a comic that sells 200,000 out of a print run of 250,000 is a smashing success whereas one that sells 300,000 out of a print run of 800,000 is a flop, and a lossmaker.
This process is bad enough for ongoing titles but what if you want to launch a new title? There’s no market research, and no marketing, except for in-house ads. You guess what the market might bear and send it out there to sink or swim. Unlike the situation for the past four decades, there’s no collectors market, speculating on a no. 1, hoping for triple values or better on resale. No. 1’s sell low, then the circulation goes up as the kids tell each other about this great new title. You hope.
So you’ve sent out a new title and when the returns come in, finally, it’s been a disaster. You’ve lost your shirt. You immediately cancel the title. Which issue will that strike with? Issue 7. Yes, the clunky technology means that you cannot get the information on which to pull the plug before issue 6 is in the system.
But that’s not all. What if the sales on issue 1 are a loss, but not a disaster. Do you panic, cancel on the spot, and watch the ongoing figures rise until it goes into profit by issue 4 or 5, knowing you’ve killed the golden goose. Or do you hold off, hoping for this kind of escalation, knowing that if it never comes, whenever you cancel you’ve still got five more shirts to lose?
And that’s without factoring in the issue of the bond you have to pay to the distributor, to buy space on the newsstands for your new and untried title. A bond you forfeit if you cancel before a certain number of issues are published. Not to mention your deteriorating reputation with your distributor, who takes note of the number of failures you put out there and, at some point, will decide that your precious newsstand space would be better off going to a different company, one that seems to have a better idea what it’s doing.
Who’d be a Business Manager with that responsibility?
And then some bright spark, whose name has never been recorded to my knowledge, came up with one of those ingenious ideas that are completely obvious, but only afterwards. That answer was Showcase, a purpose-built try-outs magazine, appearing six times a year. Every editor would have a go, in turn. New ideas would be tested in Showcase for viability, with those that sold well enough getting a series with a near enough guarantee of profitability, and those that flopped causing minimal damage and easily forgotten.
What’s more, there would be no cancellations. If all six issues of Showcase‘s first year flopped, first of all that was six lossmakers, instead of thirty six, and second you didn’t cancel the title, you started work on issues 7-12. DC could carry one loss-making title if it had to.
Thus it began. And that’s where I begin, with a DVD of the complete run of Showcase, ready to tot up fortune and failure, and watch how DC’s Sixties shaped up, from the very bottom.
Now what I’ve already told you is the truth but DC’s version of it, on page 1 of issue 1, was rather different. According to that, a kid named Larry Blake wrote in asking for a comic about fire-fighters, that he and all his pals would support. But when editor Whitney Ellsworth asked round, all his fellow editors were getting letters from kids with great ideas. They couldn’t put all these great new comics out all at once, but they could put all these ideas into a new comic, and call it Showcase…
That first issue was headed ‘The Fire-Fighters’ on the cover but inside there were three adventures featuring Fireman Farrell, Fred Farrell, that is, Jr: son of deceased fire-fighting hero Fred Sr. The first story saw Fred Jr. get through his exam though they really didn’t need to bother, ‘cos Fred knew it all already.
And that was the problem. The issue was a nice, well put together and realistic creation but it was too much a procedural, with only a limited range at its disposal. It was also, according to Mark Evanier, for many many years the worst selling comic book issue ever put out by DC.
The accusation of a limited range couldn’t be levelled at ‘Kings of the Wild’ in issue 2, with three distinct stories, of an Indian boy recovering his honour, a cast-aside kid and dog gaining the respect of the town and a trained circus bear coping in the wild.
Issue 3’s ‘The Frogmen’ was a single, three-part story, drawn superbly by Russ Heath, making three different approaches in three issues, but none of them suggested a long-lasting series, and the name of the game was teasing concepts into series. So, and we should all know this story by now, an editorial conference was held to try to find a more promising subject for issue 4. This one would be edited by Julius Schwartz, and comic book history was about to change.
Someone, some bright spark whose name has gone undeservedly ignored, suggesting seeing if the kids were ready to start reading superheroes again: why not bring back The Flash, DC’s most popular Forties character not still in print. Schwartz was willing but he had a condition: no Jay Garrick. Garrick was boring, he had been done. Schwartz would take it on if he was allowed to start from scratch with a new character: new name, new origin, new costume. It was agreed.
Schwartz retreated to the office that presumably he still shared with Bob Kanigher, and tapped him for an origin. Carmine Infantino would draw, and who better was there to draw speed and motion and slick scenes? For the back-up, John Broome, one of only two writers Schwartz was prepared to work with, would write a back-up for Infantino and inker Sid Greene.
Oh, how familiar are those pages? I must have read them, or versions of them that use the basic images, a hundred times. In a heartbeat, Showcase found it’s feet.
Not that it happened all at once. Next issue was back to the form of the first three, a generic idea, this time Manhunters: three detective stories. An idea with wider scope but hardly new, hardly original and hardly more successful than the Fire-Fighters. Not like a notion cooked up by Jack Kirby for the first two issue try-out, the Challengers of the Unknown. With scripting by Joe Simon on the first issue, and Dave Wood thereafter, the first issue took great leaps and bounds through the Challs’ origin and first adventure. The second issue introduced June Robbins, at that point a decidedly reddish-haired brunette and robotics expert, and quickly adopted as an honorary Challenger for her role in trying to save the brilliantly-designed Kirby robot, Ultivac. Even the name was genius.
On the other hand, the instant renaming of Prof Haley to Harrison on the splash page was less stellar.
The Flash’s debut had been a big hit. Management wanted to see if that was a one-off, so back everybody came for issue 8: same format, though this time it was Broome’s back-up that was the more memorable, introducing the first of the Flash’s future Rogue’s Gallery, Captain Cold. And he was a mould-setter, emphasising the SF orientation that came naturally to Schwartz and Broome.
The next subject was far from new, but just as Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen had been given his own title not long before, now DC were considering the possibilities of doing the same for Lois Lane, and Showcase was the official testing ground. Like every other Weisinger Superman title, we got three stories, the first introducing an adult Lana Lang as a newcomer to Metropolis, and rooming initially with Lois. So began the rivalry out of which Weisinger would ring so much juice, so much thin, unappetising juice and so much dickishness by Supes towards both women.
And Lois’s unending eagerness to catch out Clark Kent extended through all three stories and into a second issue, Showcase 10, mingled in with a bit of that psychologically twisted anti-woman bullshit I loathed every time it reared its ugly head across the Fifties. I really didn’t want to see any more of it.
The Challengers returned for another two-issue run in issues 11/12, strengthening their case for promotion into a series, but so too did The Flash, this time on a two-issue run by the same teams as before. And it was John Broome coming up with the super-villains, although he was conserving his energy since Mr Element (13) and Dr Alchemy (14) were the same criminal, with different names, costumes and M.O.s.
By now, Showcase had been around nearly two and a half years and no new series had yet been spun-off from it. It was time to take a decision. Three features were under consideration and, contrary to legend, The Flash was the least successful. The Challengers and Lois Lane were given titles almost simultaneously – the one a series brought to Jack Schiff from outside, the other yet one more expansion on the Superman mythos by Mort Weisinger, who thereafter would never edit a title that didn’t feature the big blue boy scout.
In fact, it would be almost another year before Julius Schwartz was told to clear space on his schedule for The Flash’s own series, three years after the character’s debut. But his was to be the most influential feature ever to appear in Showcase.
Meanwhile, the parade of new characters went on. Next, in issue 15, was (The) Space Ranger, young Rick Starr with his shape-shifting alien buddy, Cryll, and his secretary, the lovely short-skirted blonde Myra. Space Ranger, who would go on to star in Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space was the first half of a little challenge set by Irwin Donenfeld to Jack Schiff and Julius Schwartz, to create two new SF characters, one from the future and one from the present. Schiff chose the future hero, Space Ranger, who got two issues, neither of them spell-binding.
Space Ranger was just space opera without any real flair to it, but Schwartz’s character came up next, for the first three-issue run, from issue 17-19, and this was Adam Strange.
Or rather ‘Adventures on Other Worlds’, as the feature was first titled. Nevertheless, it is Adam Strange, the Earth architect transported back and forth to Rann, and his love Alanna. Not quite yet the Adam we most love, for to begin with art is by Mike Sekowsky. Mind you, Sekowsky has him don the classic, super-cool fin-helmeted costume as early as the second story. Though Alanna at this stage clads herself in tight black slacks. Carmine Infantino will put that right.
For the third issue, the titles were inverted, with Adam’s name up top and a much smaller Adventures on Other Worlds tucked away at the bottom of the cover where only the kid who pulled it from the spinner rack to buy would see it.
The next contender was another winner, in the form of Rip Hunter, Time Master, enjoying issues 20-21. Another Jack Schiff production, Hunter’s team consisted of the Time Master himself plus his best pal, Jeff and his girl, Bonnie, and her young brother, Corky, though the latter two were left behind on the Time-Sphere’s maiden voyage to the Mesozoic Age. Not that they need have felt they were missing out as they were taken back there by a pair of crooks imagining they could pick up loot lying round.
The second half of Rip’s run was a picaresque little number giving the gang the chance to meet first Alexander the Great, then a decidedly non-magical Circe the Sorceress and finally, stop me if you’ve heard this before, see Atlantis sink.
What came next was back in Schwartz’s hands. He told it both ways. First it was, after the success of The Flash, now in his own title, management thanked him for a good job and asked him to do the same for Green Lantern, then later it was, after the success of The Flash, management thanked him for a good job and asked him what he wanted to do next and Schwartz picked Green Lantern.
Either way, Schwartz cut Bob Kanigher out of the loop and went straight to John Broome, pairing him with Gil Kane. Once again, it was an inspired pairing, as Kane was as perfect for Hal Jordan and his world as Carmine Infantino was for Barry Allen’s life.
Of course, before the last issue of this short run Green Lantern had appeared elsewhere, in The Brave and The Bold 28, as a founder member of the fledgling Justice League of America, which was a display of faith in GL’s future. And why not? The Golden Age Green Lantern had been the only other DC title to enjoy his own comic in the Forties and there wasn’t the slightest reason to suspect the new version would do any less.
There always had to be a new idea and another editor, but any character who hadn’t yet been awarded their own series was fair game, so Rip Hunter and Jack Schiff were back next for two more issues. Some superb art from Joe Kubert disguised a pretty bog standard story featuring two power-mad figures and a horde of pre-historic monsters in issue 25, and the following issue was a similarly uninspired tale of aliens invading Earth 2,000 years BC.
Incidentally, Bonnie, who looked prettier in Kubert’s work, had a very limited wardrobe, consisting of one long-sleeved dark red pole neck wool top and a single below-the-knee white pleated skirt.
Four Challengers, Four time-travellers, and now four frogmen, if you count one frogwoman in that number. Bob Kanigher was on the case with the formula of four for the next three issues, plying the quasi-superhero beat with The Sea Devils, and artist Russ Heath. Yet though it’s easy to mock the formula, which was Rip Hunter and his crew exactly, the story was both exciting, pacey and convincing in how it built four individuals into a team out of necessity, in which both the girl and her kid brother are both part of the action and equally trusted with it.
The origin was built on a treasure hunt for a sunken ship, an obvious McGuffin. There was ex-military frogman’s son, Dane Dorrance, trying to prove himself worthy of his father’s flippers, would-be starlet Judy Walton, out to attract the attention of the producer of the movie ‘Sea Devils’, her younger brother Nicky and big, clumsy Biff Bailey, trying to show his girlfriend that his clumsiness on land disappears under the water. These four help each other out against sharks, crumbling treasure ships and outlandish monsters, demonstrating their ability as an instant team. It was great fun.
The second issue was divided into stories of unequal length, one focussing on the new team-members as individuals, the other a somewhat trite adventure featuring an under-the-ocean-bed civilisation planning to conquer the surface and Judy showing the first flashes of the green-eyed monster when it comes to Dane (mind you, she’d been wetting her scuba pants on sight of him in the first issue). Issue 28 also featured the first ever Showcase letters page, though it was all about Sea Devils’ advice on scuba-diving, not the actual story.
All three issues came with startlingly wonderful wash covers by Heath. Issue 29 ended with a direct plea from the team to the readers, appealing to them to right in and ask for more Sea Devils. Which they must have done because shortly after, the team were elevated into their own series, one copy of which I used to own nearly a lifetime ago.
So far, all of Showcase‘s subjects had been new. Even Lois Lane was fresh in the sense that she had never had her own stories before. But what followed, given a generous four issue allotment, was a repudiation of the series’ whole idea. Aquaman had been around for twenty years, his series running in Adventure Comics. He was a Mort Weisinger creation, a knock-off of Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner at Timely Comics. Now, after all that nondescript time, he was to be given a shot at earning his own, solo series.
The first issue, no. 30, was edited by Jack Schiff and drawn by one of only two women artists around in 1960, Ramona Fradon. Aqualad co-starred, Aquaman’s origins as the lost King of Atlantis were incorporated and, at full-length for the first time, instead of being hopelessly naff and tedious, the King of the Sea was merely ordinarily naff, tedious and cliched. The whole run was drab, not to mention the bizarre way in which Aquaman continually addressed Aqualad by name in practically every speech bubble, even when both of them were alone, as if the boy would forget who he was if someone didn’t continually remind him. But he got his series, so somebody must have liked it.
Next we were back to Julius Schwartz and another superhero revival, this time of The Atom, though unlike his predecessors, this Atom bore no resemblance to the Golden Age hero. Ray Palmer was the original inspiration of artist Gil Kane, who suggested reviving The Atom but with the powers of Quality Comics’ old character, Doll Man, namely the ability to shrink.
Kane got the art job, inked by Murphy Anderson and Schwartz brought in Gardner Fox to write. Broome got Flash and Green Lantern, who were big successes, Fox got Hawkman and The Atom, who weren’t, though the Justice League made up for that.
Again there were two stories, in the second of which, after The Atom helped Ray Palmer’s girl-friend Jean Loring win her first major case, introduced the series’ underlying theme, one that neither Fox nor Schwartz wholly recognised. Ray Palmer wanted to marry Jean Loring. Jean refused to even get engaged until she’d established herself in her career. So The Atom set out to help her win all the cases: the sooner she was a success, the sooner she would marry him. And, since marriage were the only terms under which the Comics Code would sanction having sex, not that you could even mention it, let alone show it… The things a guy will do to get laid.
Three issues, all of them good, and another character was on his way to a new series.
Issue 37 introduced the Metal Men, written and edited by Bob Kanigher and drawn by the art team of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. There’s a famous tale about the gestation of this new concept, related by Kanigher. According to him, some sort of mix-up suddenly left Showcase without a story, with only a week to go before the printing deadline. Just before leaving the office on Friday, Editorial Coordinator Irwin Donenfeld tasked Kanigher with coming up with something – anything – in time.
On his commute home, Kanigher came up with the basic concept of robots made of different metals, each displaying personalities consistent with each metal’s properties. He worked up the idea over the weekend and got to the office with a full story written. Calling Andru and Esposito into the office, he set them up in an empty room and got them started whilst he got on with his multifarious duties, pausing in these to survey each pages it was finished, set out corrections etc., arrange colouring and lettering along the way until, by the following Friday, and the deadline, the issue was complete and ready.
The story’s vigorous enough, but a bit too didactic on the scientific properties side, leavened only by Platinum’s insistence on being treated as a metal and a full member of the team rather than a woman (a bit of confused sexuality there from ‘Doc’ Magnus right from the outset). And of course, having no reason to see this story as anything but a one-off stopgap, Kanigher kills off all the robots.
But he’d done better than he’d planned. The idea intrigued, enough for the run to be extended. The second story didn’t quite live up to expectations with Magnus starting off building new Metal Men who were pure robots and incompetent with it, before having to retrieve the bodies, and original, faulty activators, of the first lot and reconstruct them.
And the by now almost statutory third issue not only introduced the Metal Men’s first recurring foe, Chemo, but also a letters page full of enthusiastic responses demanding a series. Which duly came to pass, but not until the stopgap team enjoyed an Aquaman-esque fourth outing.
So far, with the exception of those four uninspired ideas at the start, everything Showcase touched became a winner. From The Flash to the Metal Men, everything got its own series. Abruptly, it was as if the sun had been turned off. It would never be like that again. Five of the next seven issues – 41-42, 44 and 46-47 – would feature Tommy Tomorrow of the Planeteers.
Tommy was an existing character, an SF hero who’d been around since 1947 as a back-up in first Action Comics, then World’s Finest. He’d been a Colonel in the Planeteers, defenders of a Solar Earth Empire. Now he was being re-imagined under Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan, using Arnold Drake and Lee Elias, by being taken back to his days as a cadet, then a Lieutenant, with a new, Venusian sidekick.
But the new Tommy’s adventures showed none of the quirkiness Drake brought to things like the Doom Patrol, whilst Elias still used small, tight panels, creating the impression these were reprints from the Fifties. It did not work out.
The first interruption, in issue 43, was an adaptation of the James Bond film, Dr No. It was bought in from Britain and was Bond’s first comics appearance in the USA. It was also complete crap, badly drawn, static, dull and with mechanical, typed lettering, which looked awful. But it was only just worse than Tommy Tomorrow’s third outing, one big cliché from start to finish.
The next interlude was completely different, but also in its way pointless. Under a Russ Heath cover, Kanigher and Kubert combined to present a Sgt. Rock story, telling how the Rock earned his Sergeant’s stripes, first in battle and then in his own head. It was superb, even if Kanigher ladled on the psychological ‘Wooden Soldier’ a bit thick, but what was this doing in Showcase? Rock was already a star, in his own series in Our Army at War.
Though I don’t know a thing about this, my theory is that Tommy Tomorrow was meant to run five issues straight but suffered deadline issues, forcing two emergency stopgaps. Five will get you ten that the Sgt. Rock story was intended for Our Army at War.
That left two more from Tommy. The next subject was another familiar one. Cave Carson and Adventures Inside Earth had already failed over two stints in Brave & Bold – which was, at that moment, getting out of the try-out business and changing over to team-ups – and now he got two issues of Showcase to see if he could do any better. The short answer was, he couldn’t.
New uniforms and a pet lemur instead of the girl’s kid brother made no difference. Not even Lee Elias drawing like it was 1964 and not 1954 could make the spelunkers interesting. At least there were only two issues.
Nor was the record improved by two issues of ‘I-Spy’. This was King Faraday – king-for-a-day, get it? – and Showcase 50 didn’t even pretend to be original. There was a four page introduction that was new, and the rest were two obvious reprints that a three month old baby would pick out as from the early Fifties. Old they were, but they were good, smart examples of the time, with a strong Caniff influence on the art, but they were an example of the very thing Showcase had been established to abolish, the short run, new series.
But all Showcase was doing was reprinting these stories. There wasn’t even the pretence of a frame story in issue 51 and the editing was so sloppy that the clearly superimposed box saying that was the last story and inviting letters to demand the contrary was pasted onto the first story in the issue.
It was only 1964, but already Showcase‘s Golden Age was over. The flood of new ideas turning into new series had gone into reverse. Old characters, reprint stories from a different era. Suddenly, editors and writers weren’t even coming up with bad ideas. The word ‘new’ was being expunged. And Brave & Bold‘s era as a parallel magazine had also ended. Just what had happened?
The probable explanation was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Marvel had gone from being on the rise to in full flow. They couldn’t yet compete in sales but they were obviously something new in the industry and DC simply couldn’t understand them. Their writers were growing older, the times were getting away from them. They were being paralysed by their own lack of understanding.
And I’ll look closer at how that developed in the second part, next.