Infantino’s Follies: Six Seventies Series


One thing that I certainly did not notice, feeling my way back into reading comics again in 1974/5, reliant upon the still erratic distribution around South and East Manchester newsagents, ignorant of even the idea that there might be shops dedicated to comics, was that there were an awful lot of new titles being spilled out onto the market in those years. I’d never looked at comics in that way: there were a lot of different ones then, there were a lot of different ones now and I never bothered to count them either time.
But in the mid-Seventies, DC’s Publisher Carmine Infantino was throwing a lot of stuff at the wall, in the hope that it might stick, only for it to slide down and make a mess on the carpet instead. I’ve already reviewed First Issue Special, which burned through thirteen different ideas without the least intention of developing them, except for the one that was actually meant to be a series anyway.
It was such a mad and erratic period that even proven successes were failing. Supergirl had been the leading figure in Adventure Comics for four years: when she got spun off into her own title, she lasted 13 issues. We’ve already looked at the short revival of The Spectre in Adventure. Now it’s time to review a handful of other, short-lived ideas that didn’t last, to see if they had the chance to do better.

IF1 The Shadow

The Shadow

On the face of it, The Shadow should have been a smash success, the greatest pulp magazine crimefighter there had ever been, a figure from whom many elements of Batman had been drawn, a character acknowledged by the Caped Crusader himself as an inspirational figure in a crossover episode of sorts that pre-dated the series.
And The Shadow’s exploits were being written by Denny O’Neill, who also edited the series, in a taut, tough guy prose echoing the pulps, and drawn by newcomer and stylist Mike Kaluta, who centred the series in its original Thirties era seemingly without effort. So what went wrong?
Well, for one thing hardly anyone bought issue 1. This was not due to any lack of merit in the story but rather was down to a premature anticipation. Just as they had done with Shazam! 1, the revival of the original Captain Marvel, the dealers spirited the cartons of comics into back rooms and away from the newstands, anticipating that collectors would pay plenty for no. 1 issues. Instead, by coming close to strangling both series at birth, giving readers nothing to read and collectors nothing to collect, they undercut their own potential audiences. Both no. 1s would become staples of quarter bins all over America.
As well as O’Neill’s clipped prose and dialogue there was Kaluta, the latest bravura artist to hit comics. But Kaluta had the same problem every other bravura artist had in the Bronze Age: bravura takes time. You can’t crank it out on an industrial basis, and you certainly didn’t get enough per page to live taking the time you needed. Even on a bi-monthly schedule, Kaluta only got to issue 4 (one issue inked by Berni Wrightson) before needing a fill-in. Officially he was ‘taking his own sweet time’ turning his next story into a masterpiece.
That fill-in came from Frank Robbins, newspaper strip veteran of his own Johnny Hazard, a devotee of Milton Caniff’s chiaroscuro approach but with a heavier black line and a more cartoonish style. He looked brilliant on The Shadow and his pages sped by like rockets but the contrast to Kaluta was shocking, especially to the readers. And yes, the job on issue 6 was excellent but that was it for Kaluta, a new star gone after five issues.
Robbins was the permanent replacement and it was his art I first saw when I tried The Shadow, and I like it but the regular readers could not accept it for how different it was from Kaluta. He was retained until issue 9, which was inked by Frank McLaughlin, and written by comic books professor Michael Uslan. There were rumours of impending cancellation but another switch of artist, this time to Filipino stalwart E.R. Cruz preserved the series for three further issues.
Cruz’s line was more delicate, like that of Kaluta, but like all his fellow artists was essentially static. Issue 11, drawn by him and written again by Michael Uslan was and still is my favourite of the run as The Shadow’s organisation runs up against that of Richard Benson, The Avenger’s Justice Incorporated, which was being added to DC’s roster. The clash was being engineered by The Shadow’s only enemy, and former colleague (?) Shiwani Khan, and there were glimpses of the Shadow’s secrets hinted at. But these were never to be gone into as the next issue was indeed the last, after two years. In comparison, it was a weak ending, being just another Shadow story.
So why, with a well-known character, did the series not succeed? My own opinion is a combination of things: that the Shadow’s old audience was too old to follow him into comics, that the character was a creation of the Thirties that did not suit the Seventies, that musical artists did not help at all but, most of all, that The Shadow was too much of an enigma. The Marvel Age of the Sixties and DC’s attempts to emulate it had trained the general comics audience to expect characters, personal conflicts, a striving to exceed fallibility. The Shadow had none of this. Any fallibility he displayed as a crime-fighter was negligible and wiped out within a page, two at most, he was cold and dictatorial, unsympathetic and invulnerable.
The Shadow was not what comic book fans wanted in 1974-5, no matter how good he was. So he didn’t sell.

IF2 Justice inc

Justice, Inc.

Richard Benson, The Avenger, head of Justice, Incorporated, created by Doc Savage’s creator, Kenneth Robeson, was brought to comics in 1975, as The Shadow’s series was on its way to an end. It looks like an attempt to double-up on the pulp package, but this one only lasted four issues, not enough time for proper sales returns to be calculated. After an opening issue, adapted from Robeson’s original novel by Denny O’Neill and Al McWilliams, it was farmed out to Jack Kirby as a means of using up his quota of pages as he worked towards the end of a contractual relationship with DC that can only be described as a betrayal of everything he had been led to expect.
The second issue continued the adaptation of The Avenger’s debut, introducing two more of his team, Josh and Rosabel, a very intelligent husband and wife team who, being black, kept people off-guard by acting like dumb negroes. The stories in issues 3 and 4 were original, the first introducing Scottish chemist Fergus McMurdie but the series never got round to Nellie before it was abruptly cancelled, even though she’d appeared in the Shadow cross-over.
Given how quickly Justice, Inc. disappeared, I have to call the cancellation capricious, but hardly unexpected based on the evidence available. The Avenger was a much less well-regarded pulp magazine figure, though he did have a personality and a story, one ripped off by Gerry Conway for The Punisher. The series had a degree of potential to it, but it didn’t have anything like Jack Kirby’s best work.
And if we’re being generous it had twice the chance of making it as the series Infantino ordered for Batman’s villain/hero, Man-Bat, who got two issues before being cancelled, each with a different art team!

IF3 Ragman

Ragman

Ragman came along a little after the above two series, created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, drawn initially by The Redondo Studio (i.e., Nestor Redondo) and launched in his own series in 1976. There were five issues, written by Kanigher, the last one drawn by Kubert and then nothing. This is beginning to sound like a pattern, isn’t it?
Ragman was a weird idea on nearly every level, but by the same token an unusually interesting one, mostly likely too strange for DC’s audience in the way that Infantino’s experiments of 1968/9 had been. Rory Regan, Vietnam vet, was the son of an un-named junkman who ran a shop called ‘Rags’n’Tatters’ in an unidentified poor part of the City. His Dad wanted him to get out, make something of himself, but Rory refused. His Dad’s shop, the money he lent on the things people no longer could use, supported the district, was life support to its barely-scraping-by folk. Despite the pleas of his girl-friend, freelance photographer Bette Berg, Rory’s sense of duty, to his father, to his people, prevented him from moving on.
Rory’s Dad was a has-been, a bit of a drunk. So were his three best friends, a former circus strong man, a former boxer, a former acrobat. Mr Regan Sr. kept promising he’d make Rory rich one day. Somehow or other, a mattress stuffed with over $2,000,000 in stolen money came into the junkyard, followed by gangsters after it. Rory’s Dad and his mates refused to tell where it was. Even though it wasn’t theirs, and was obviously stolen and they had no entitlement to it, they refused to hand it over, determined to keep it for Rory. This was clearly not a conventional story.
The gangsters shot down high-voltage wires so that these would burn the men. Somehow they weren’t burnt to a crisp at once. Rory tried to get them free but ended up electrocuted himself, by contact. They died, he lived, with the three men’s abilities transferred into him. His Dad had found him a weird ragged costume for a costume party: instead Rory wore it as Ragman, the Tatterdemalion of Justice. Phew, that was a long explanation, almost longer than the series itself.
Ragman operates mostly in silence, fading in and out like a supernatural character. Rory’s got Bette, who he tries to persuade to forget him for her own sake, Ragman’s got Opal, a hot black singer. He befriends a blind-mute kid called Teddy, and his cat. Bette befriends Teddy too, wants to marry Rory so they can adopt him. Opal gets kidnapped to draw out Ragman but is shot and very likely killed. Teddy saves the life of a near-frozen derelict in the junkyard by inadvertently burning up at least a million dollars…
It really is as herky-jerky as that, all awkward corners, but Ragman felt like something that could have been interesting, and for once Kanigher looked as if he was taking a superhero seriously, to within a certain value for serious. But it was just one more short series that disappeared without warning, plugging its non-existent next issue, without commitment.

IF4 Kobra

Kobra

Kobra is nothing but a mess, from start to finish. According to the first issue introduction, it was an idea by Carmine Infantino that he fed to Jack Kirby, who worked out a plot with his assistant Steve Sherman and drew the initial issue as ‘King Kobra’. Kirby then left DC to return to Marvel and the story hung around for a year before being fed to Martin Pasko. Pasko got so excited about it and saw opportunities to develop it as a long-running series that he had some of the dialogue changed, Pablo Marcos re-drew some panels to make two of the regular characters look younger and Bob’s your Uncle.
Now you can’t believe everything you read in lettercols: to misquote Disraeli, ‘There are lies, damned lies and editorial statements in lettercols’.
Because, according to Pasko, on Wikipedia, when he was ordered to turn the idea into a series, he thought the original to be a throwaway idea, churned out by someone who knew he was leaving the company and who put very little into it. Apparently, Pasko whited out all the dialogue and narration and started afresh.
The basic idea, according to that introduction, is of the Corsican Brothers, but with one good and one evil. It’s taken from Dumas, the notion of Siamese or conjoined brothers, separated at birth but able to feel each other’s pain and distress. In Kobra, the weaker of the babies supposedly died after separation but was really kidnapped by the Kobra cult, for whom he was their prophesied new leader. The other, Jason (‘Jay’) Burr, is a student of an unknown subject, also an aggressive, flailing loudmouth.
Suddenly, for no apparent motive, Kobra decided his twin brother must die, but only then do the brothers learn that what happens to one will happen to the other, presumably including death.
The series is all about Kobra’s attempt to break the link so he can have Jay killed. In the meantime, his evil doings get short shrift.
It’s an horrendous mess. Stupid, sloppy, messy, cliched, confused writing, dangling plot developments promised to be explained in future issues but then ignored, the art-team changing practically every issue, hysterical dialogue that must have taken entire seconds to write. Pasko claimed to have written the whole thing tongue-in-cheek, and that it helped pay the rent on a nice apartment. It shows.
An interesting aside in issue 4’s lettercol indicates just how crazy the times of this series were. It mentions that Kobra was cancelled – but that it was then reprieved at least until sales figures could be had. If that means anything it’s an open declaration that the series was going to be cancelled before anyone knew if it was a hit or not.
The end was another abrupt one, in the middle of things, billing a visit from Batman in the non-existent issue 8. These guillotinings were getting very irritating, even if Kobra should have been guillotined long before the first pencil was set to paper. The story did appear in an issue of DC Special but so what? I can hardly imagine a massive uplift into quality, or even readability. If Infantino wanted to claim ultimate responsibility for this, let him. Serves him right.

IF5 Joker

The Joker


Yes, that’s right. In 1975/6, The Joker, Batman’s arch enemy, already reintroduced as the insane homicidal maniac he hadn’t been since before the Fifties, was granted his own title. Fully in accord with the Comics Code Authority. It had to be a joke. Hadn’t it?
Well, of course it was a joke, only not the way DC intended it to be.
The series was assigned to Denny O’Neill and veteran artist Irv Novick, which latter guaranteed clear but unspectacular art with an absence of atmospherics. O’Neill remembered having doubts from the start, as he might. The Joker as the ‘hero’ meant that his insanity had to be drastically dialled down, he wasn’t allowed to murder anyone, Batman couldn’t appear and he had to be captured and returned to prison at the end of every issue, or some similar comic book fate, e.g., falling to his death.
These were conditions that by their very nature made a series impossible, but they didn’t seem to have crossed the mind of either Infantino or Julius Schwartz.
To give O’Neill and Novick their due they are nothing short of professional, though I query the sometime cartooning in Novick’s portrayal of the Joker, but the very idea is rubbish. Joker tries to prove he’s a bigger criminal genius than Two-Face. Joker helps Willy the Weeper overcome his habit of crying every time he commits a crime. Joker temporarily takes advantage of an amnesiac Creeper, who’s talking out of character even when he’s in character. Are these stories for which any self-respecting comic book company should be asking kids to plunk down 25c for?
Maybe O’Neill and Novick agreed with me because issue 4 was by Elliot Maggin and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. Maggin brought in Green Arrow, like he always did. They did no better. Martin Pasko wrote the next issue for Irv Novick, with apparently some input from a legendary figure, a friend and former client of Julie Schwartz, none other than Alfred Bester! That was a name worth dropping. No, you guessed right.
O’Neill returned with the fresh, modern and unique idea of having the Joker come up against Sherlock Holmes. There’s a lot of authentic Holmesian dialogue rendered worthless by the decision to give him a sidekick called Watson but making him an ex-sailor whose nickname is ‘Dock’, a contrivance of such awfulness the whole print-run should have been pulped.
Maggin authored a guest appearance from Lex Luthor in which the two masterminds swapped personalities, then guested the Scarecrow and Catwoman in the final two issues. For some reason, Novick went back to Catwoman’s Fifties costume with the long skirt split to the upper thigh and the knee-length boots, which gave me something to look at whilst counting off the pages to the end.
But the beauty of short series is their shortness. As with others, cancellation was so sudden another issue was never published, until the late 2000s. The Joker was just a bad idea for the mid-Seventies, one that could not be executed to any decent effect in that era, and it showed.

IF6 Rima

Rima, the Jungle Girl

Rima was the only other one of this sextet I read at the time, feeling my way back into comics, appreciating Nestor Redondo’s art for its beautiful line-work after discovering it in Swamp Thing. The series was written by Robert Kanigher and based itself on the 1904 novel Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson. Rima was a Tarzan-manque, set in the tropical jungles of South America, a young woman who appears to political refugee Abel, feared by the natives for her seeming magic powers – really just her jungle craft and ability to ‘talk’ to animals – and who ends up burned to death by the natives.
Kanigher and Redondo’s version updated the story to the Seventies, had her survive the fire and made some minor changes like, instead of her being small, swarthy and dark-haired, she’s a tall white woman with long platinum-blonde hair, a single black woven bathing-suit style costume that fits where it touches and touches everywhere, and with great legs (I told you I liked Redondo). Rima slotted into DC’s burgeoning but unsuccessful fantasy line, alongside series like Warlord, Stalker and Beowulf.
The first four issues told Rima’s origin, though her appearances were strictly rationed in issue 1, which is more about Abel and his experiences, as told to the old man Nuflo who, on the final page, introduces Rima as his granddaughter. The rest of the origin was a trek to the place Rio Lama, where the younger Nuflo – as much a rebel as Abel – found Rima’s pregnant mother and subsequently took care of her child.
But the fearful natives killed old Nuflo, tried to killed Abel and burned Rima’s Great Tree, except that she escaped with only singeing.
Having never read the book, which was ‘freely’ adapted in 1951 as a film starring Audrey Hepburn, freely here being a word meaning Nothing Like It, I’m assuming the four parter was itself an adaptation, which then left the perennial, and usually unanswerable question of what do we do with them now? It seemed to be a given that once the comic book creators were free to come up with their own stories, their imagination failed them (if it hadn’t, they’d have come up with an original character in the first place) and cancellation followed in regular course.
Such it was with Rima, who only lasted three more issues, each one a living dead cliche. The last of them was so bad that, even though I know the series was cancelled for the only reason, namely it wasn’t selling, I am inclined to believe it was cancelled out of embarassment, especially as its back up was the first instalment of a new Kanigher-written series than never reappeared.
The original back up to Rima had been the wholly forgotten Space Voyagers, an incongruous SF strip drawn with his usual quasi-abstractness by Alex Nino, which was pointless nonsense. It was gone after issue 5, replaced by an abysmal, cliched short horror story not worth the paper it was printed on.
Ultimately Rima looked beautiful – and so did the comic, heh heh – but it was completely empty. They might just as well have put out all the Rima-panels as pin-ups and saved the effort, as it would have had the same effect. I was clearly not particularly discriminating in the days of Infantino’s Follies.

Of course, these six series were not the only desperate notions Carmine Infantino exposed to the public but they’re enough for this essay. Time for me to read something of greater substance for a while.

2 thoughts on “Infantino’s Follies: Six Seventies Series

  1. I adored The Shadow, but only when Kaluta drew him. We’d been fans before the comic. I think it was NPR (publicly funded radio network) that ran the Shadow radio plays. And when 2 channels in the NYC Metro area suddenly went 24/7 before any network affiliates, they were hungry for material, and aired several serials including The Shadow with Victor Jory. I’d read several Shadow novels when Belmont published them, but those didn’t hold up as well as in different media. Kaluta remains one of my favorite artists. I also like Nestor Redondo, so I bought Rima, while it lived. Didn’t see or ignored the others.

    1. I only read some at the time. They are all interesting as being representative of a time when DC were flailing around, confused and flustered, under a Publisher whose reign as such was far far less succesful than his work as an artist, which he abruptly abandined as soon as he could. Another instance of someone not recognisuing where their true abilities lay.

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