A Spot of Adventure: The Bronze Age – Part 1

Enter Supergirl

She’d been around for ten years, initially as Superman’s secret cousin, hidden away in Midvale Orphanage until he was certain she knew what she was doing which, given how he was used to treating Lois and Lana, was not a recipe for total disaster, oh no gollum. After four years, and an adoption by Fred and Edna Danvers, her cousin revealed her to the world, instantly becoming the world’s favourite blonde teenager. She’d gone on to Stanhope College, still wearing her brunette wig, still loyally backing up Cousin Kal in Action Comics. And in June 1969, Supergirl transferred from Action to Adventure Comics, bouncing out the Legion of Super-Heroes to claim her first real solo slot. The Legion – all 26 of them – had to exist in the back-up slot in Action. She would lead Adventure for the next forty-four issues, into the Bronze Age.
Whereas there is a pretty firm consensus as to the beginning and end of the Golden Age and the beginning of the Silver Age, there’s no such unanimity about the transition from Silver to Bronze. I’ve chosen for the purposes of this series of posts to make the transition from the Legion to Supergirl as the marker: you are welcome to suggest any alternate time.
But by 1969, people who had started out as fans had started to have scripts and art accepted at DC. Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich had preceded them at Marvel. But some of the medium’s respected writers of the next couple of decades were starting out, taking over from those veterans whose attempt to secure a future for themselves led to their gradual ejection from DC.
I didn’t think much of the first story, which saw Supergirl going undercover at a ‘Sleuth School’ that was training shapely females (don’t look at me, that was the scripter’s word) to carry out robberies under hypnosis. It was just a bit too herky-jerky, with a poorly timed conclusion that revealed that Batgirl was also undercover with the same goal, not to mention a trip to the Batcave when Batman and Robin were ‘out’, without tripping a single alarm. But it was Supergirl’s first book-length story ever.
When placed against the next couple of issues, it quickly started looking like a classic. But there was an intriguing story as the lead in issue 384. Her room-mates’ use of the Campus Matchmaker computer inspires Supergirl to use her cousin’s supercomputer at the Fortress to pick out an off-world hero for her. Minus thirty points for such a condescending introduction, but plus fifty or so for having Volar’s planet be a Chauvinist heaven, in which all the women are brainwashed from birth to see themselves as fit only to be servants to men. Supergirl is determined to show how stupid that is, and Volar is on her side until one day he turns on her and drives her off the planet because the serum that gives him his powers can no longer be reproduced. Supergirl is happy to accept Volar for whatever he is after he stops being strong, handsome and dreamy, until she learns the truth of what Volar is and leaves humiliated and heart-broken. Because Volar is like her – a girl. Yes, there’s a weird mixture of sexual politics in here, and a lesbian undertone buried much deeper than it used to be in old Wonder Woman comics.
On the other hand, emboldened by Supergirl, Volar decides to carry on superheroing, as a girl, and start to change ‘his’ planet the long, slow way.

Coose costume

Yet I should be aware that this is the tail-end of the era when Supergirl’s series was a way for girls to enjoy superhero comics, with romances, dates and heartbreaks. Yes, it is patronising, to our eyes fifty years on, and the stories are tedious when they’re not being silly. But this is because they were intended for an audience of which I never formed part, and I should bear that in mind.
But that was until issue 396, for with that issue, Mort Weisinger stood down as editor of Adventure Comics. The role was given to Mike Sekowsky, former Justice League of America artist and one of the new editors that Editorial Director Carmine Infantino was bringing in from the pool of artists. Sekowsky had already taken over Wonder Woman and promptly removed her powers, turning her into a Diana Rigg-like human agent: what might he have planned for the Maid of Steel?
In one word: Change. To begin with, Sekowsky took over pencilling Supergirl and, from the look of it, writing the feature itself. His first story began with a bored Linda Danvers going shopping (?) for new fashions, with one of the groovy dress-shops she hit being the one where the non-super Diana Prince now worked. Next up, a new magical threat on campus shreds Supergirl’s staid old costume. With Ms Prince’s assistance she came up with a change of style that was hip, groovy and utterly horrible: a tabard-like miicro and thigh length red boots ought to look seriously hot but far from it (the new costume was chosen from reader’s suggestions over the past few months, and judging by the alternatives depicted on the cover, this one actually was the best, my life!).
The back-up story fared better by introducing a new regular creep in Nasty. This nick-name was short for Nastalthia, a name I’ve only ever heard elsewhere in Milton Caniff’s Terry and The Pirates (if you’re going to steal, steal from the gods). Nasty was out to discover Supergirl’s secret identity for her Uncle: Uncle Lex Luthor, that is.

The bathing-suit one

The next issue introduced a new logo for the ‘New Supergirl’ but only one Sekowsky story, the lead being a particularly naff reprint from Supergirl’s High School days. And there was another reprint the next month, but as this was an unpublished Golden Age Black Canary tale with prime Infantino art, it was the highlight of the issue.
And so to Adventure 400. Only two other DC Comics had reached the number by 1970, only four titles had run longer. Sekowsky celebrated by delving into the past for the return of Supergirl’s old foe, the Black Flame, a comeback that fell flat for one latterday reader who has to ask Black Who?
It might be a new era for Supergirl, with Sekowsky confounding the old expectations to the point where expectations left town, but that didn’t avert the double nadir of issue 401, in which the Supergirl lead turned out to be a dream, and a new back-up, Tracey Thompson, debuted. Who or what was Tracey Thompson? She was an inquisitive girl with a less-inquisitive friend. Have series been built on lesser information than that? Probably, but I wouldn’t want to read them.
Anyway, Tracey and Betsy lasted exactly two episodes before being abandoned whilst Sekowsky started to churn things up even faster. In issue 404, Supergirl was fed a pill that turned her powers on and off and two issues later she graduated from Stanhope College, inadvertently revealed her secret identity to Nasty, moved to San Francisco to join a TV news team and found Nasty joining her there, intent on exposing her. Also, her new costume got burned up: guess it wasn’t as popular as the letter columns suggested.

With guest star reprints

Issue 407 introduced a newer, and even uglier costume, whose military style top and red pants made it look even bulkier and more awkward than the first. It also reminded me that I’d once owned this comic.
I’d definitely stopped buying all comics, American or British, after September 1970 and wouldn’t resume until January 1974. This issue would have reached Britain sometime around June/July 1971. But once I started again, and accelerated by discovering my first comics shop in Manchester, with back-issues, I kept stabbing at filling in the gap. I had a few Supergirl Adventures, a product of collecting the later and short-lived Supergirl title. This was the oldest I recognise.
By the time of the back-up story in issue 408, Supergirl’s red pants had turned to blue, and I was already sick of Nastalthia’s constant needling of Linda Danvers about being Supergirl.
The next month saw the adoption of a new 48 page size format, and a then-massive leap from 15 to 25 cents. This was an adventurous policy by DC, trying to avert an increase to 20c for the same old package by leaping past it to give more for the money, the more in this instance being selected Legion reprints. It was supposed to be a joint venture, agreed with Marvel but, after just one month at this size, Martin Goodman pulled his last great shark-move and pulled back to 32 pages at 20c, undercutting DC and further cutting into their market.
As for the original material, I was surprised to find a back-up story that not only cut Sekowsky out with script by E. Nelson Bridwell and art by Art Saaf but provided Supergirl with yet another new costume, and this time an attractive one, being basically a backless blue bathing suit with a fair amount of the sides cut away, plus cape and red boots. Decidedly sexist and decidedly hot.
The swimsuit outfit only lasted one half-length back-up because it was replaced in the following issue by the costume Supergirl would wear for the next decade plus, the loose long-sleeved blouse with the miniature Super-logo on the left breast, the red frilly tennis-knickers and the lace-up moccasins. And there was a change in editorial leadership as Sekowsky was replaced by former EC Artist Joe Orlando, who would take Adventure into some strange places, as we shall see in the next instalment.
But, oy! The stories that Orlando started with. Plain, dull, even stupid stories by John Albano and Bob Oksner, with clean, neat art but not heart and silly premises. Sekowsky had at least tried to do something new. Only the new costume worked.
I’m sorry to go on about the costume thing but issue 412 featured a rogue Supergirl impersonator wearing the tabard-and-thigh-boots outfit whilst the real Supergirl wore an all-blue all body sleek costume that looks like the one Melissa Benoit wore into Crisis on Infinite Earths but the story was an horrendous mish-mash, dragging Supergirl into space for a careering fight with no logical development to it. Adventure had literally lost the plot.
The Legion reprints went out the window in favour of an eclectic mix of characters – Animal Man, Zatanna, Hawkman, Robotman – whilst the sleek, form-fitting blue costume stayed for an issue before the blouse and tennis knickers one was back in issue 414, another of my former back-issue acquisitions, which I remembered well, especially for its cover.
Ridiculously, yet another costume, an off, impractical, sleeveless square-necked blue top with red mini-skirt was used in the front of issue 415 before the long-term look came back in the back. That however was the end of the Constantly-Changing-Costumes, but not of the uninspiring stories. Frankly, only the changing back-ups, mixing new work and unexpected reprints, was worth attention, as these certainly went in for oddities.

The permanent version

But DC’s run at 48 pages was always going to be limited and this came to an end with issue 420, and announcements as to a cutback to 32 pages and 20 cents. The last Supergirl story was an oddball tale set in space, a whirlwind effort of love, War and death that nowhere anchored itself to reality. It used Dylan Thomas for its evocative title, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, a line the story bent itself to accommodate. I searched it out as a back-issue on reading a letter-of-comment giving it extravagant praise and was once mightily impressed. Now, I’m just wondering how such a ragged thing ever got published.
I was familiar too with the next story, a farrago involving black magic that tied itself to a spurious significance by turning the evil witch into Supergirl’s easily-eliminated death-wish, but I remember it mainly for the truly astonishing art, by the impossible but somehow gloriously effective team of Mike Sekowsky and Bob Oksner, a combination no more compatible than than Pablo Picasso inked by Norman Rockwell. But it worked.
Then it all finally ran out of time and place. Adventure 424 was a mainly down to Earth adventure about a Syndicate stool-pigeon that took an incongruous turn into outer space but this was the last time these flying by the seat of the pants stories would appear in Adventure. Some memorable art from Tony de Zuniga ended with Linda Danvers throwing a fit of pique, walking out of her job, her life in San Francisco, her rivalry with Nastalthia and her unrequited love for her boss Geoff, the guy who, three months earlier, had gotten her past her death wish and become closer to her than any man before: not that close, obviously.
Supergirl cleared the decks to go into her own title (which would only last thirteen issues) and Adventure was given a two-month hiatus, presumably because nobody had any idea what to do next.
What they did do next will be the subject of the last part of this series.

Don’t boither remembering her this way

A Spot of Adventure: The Silver Age – Part 2

In issue 296 of Adventure Comics, editor Mort Weisinger tore a strip of a reader who’d demanded the Tales of the Bizarro World back-up be dropped. According to Weisinger, the Bizarro’s had lifted Adventure‘s circulation higher than it had been before, and spawned 5,000 postcards per month of Bizarro ideas.
Four months later, he dropped Tales of the Bizarro World and replaced it with the Legion of Super-heroes. It was the Silver Age: what else can I say?
So the Legion era of Adventure had begun, with new Legionnaires appearing every month, characters, costumes, powers but not necessarily personalities we would become immensely familiar with as the Sixties began to take form. And, to my tremendous surprise, there was a death as early as issue 304.
This was the famous death of Lightning Lad that I learned about in the Sixties when I first tried the Legion. It was the culmination of an odd tale that had Saturn Girl use her power to secure her election as Legion leader and immediately turn into a tyrant who grounded every Legionnaire in the process of stealing their powers. Yet this turned out to be an act of sacrifice: made aware that a Legionnaire would die battling a villain, Saturn Girl sought to protect her team-mates by becoming the only active Legionnaire. But Lightning Lad discovered her plot and beat her to the punch, sacrificing himself for her.
It was the beginning of a long romance, for when I learned of his death, he had already been resurrected. But that it had come so early in the series stuns me – unless Weisinger was thinking that with over a dozen of them already, who’d miss the odd one here or there?

The Girl Legionnaires Revolt!

The Legion of Substitute-Heroes, second only to the Legion of Super-Pets when it comes to dumb Legions, made its debut in issue 306. Back when Robert Loren Fleming and Keith Giffen were perpetrating Ambush Bug on us all, they combined for a gloriously funny Substitute-Heroes Special I used to own: to my glee, I now learned just how closely they based their goof-up on the original! I wish I still had it.
There was no forgetting Lightning Lad’s brave sacrifice at any turn, not least in issue 308, where ‘he’ returned to life, only to be exposed – not that literally – as his own very much alive twin-sister and replacement, Lightning Lass, whose hairdo was an atrocity: Thirtieth Century? You gotta be kidding me.
By issue 309, the Legion were so popular, they had taken the lead-spot in the comic, though Superboy continued to get the cover, which was a bit ludicrous in issue 310 when Superboy’s story was about him exchanging minds with Krypto and the Legion’s about they’re all being killed…
I shall pass over the Superbaby story in issue 311, which hit depths of silliness to make the Marianas Trench look like a puddle to get onto the following story, which was the supposedly always-planned story of how Lightning Lad was restored to life (at least that’s how Weisinger promoted it in the lettercol, just like he described Bizarro as a fixture four months before dropping it).
I’d heard about this story almost as soon as I discovered the Legion but this was the first chance I had to read it. The Legion are searching the Universe for ways to bring Lightning Lad back to life but all methods fail. Except that Mon-El knows a surefire method whose only drawback is that it will kill whoever does it. Saturn Girl, the telepath, can tell he’s holding something back, though Mon-El’s only keeping schtum because he intends to sneak off and sacrifice himself. Once the truth comes out, the legionnaires vie to be the noble one. Except that Saturn Girl intends to cheat by ensuring she gets struck by the lightning that will do it. And she does, and she dies… except that it’s Chameleon Boy’s protoplasmic, telepathic pet, Proty, who has decoyed her away and substituted himself in her place.
I knew all of this long ago, but reading the story at last, even with John Forte’s stiff, unemotional art, was actually surprisingly moving, which it had to be to overcome the Lana Lang spoiled brat humiliated by Superboy for-her-own-good story that backed it up. Pairing these two stories in one issue was plain bad editting.
Though Adventure was still a Superboy title, the Legion’s series was now taking first place every month. This didn’t matter to the Boy of Steel, who had had his own solo comic since 1949, and it was quickly becoming apparent that his future-colleagues would be taking over Adventure for themselves. Indeed, their story in issue 313 disposed with Superboy early on in order to feature Supergirl, who actually appeared twice in that she was revealed as being Satan Girl, who unleashed a lethal plague upon the girl Legionnaires.

Star Boy kills!

With so many Legionnaires, there was barely time to show everyone off, so a three page guide as to who, what power and what origin was included in issue 316, which extended the roster to 23, by including Jimmy Olsen’s occasional Elastic Boy persona and, lumped together as one, the Legion of Super-Pets (look, I won’t talk about the Super-Pets unless I’m actually forced to, ok?)
Finally, in issue 317, exactly seventy issues after their one-off debut, it became official: ‘Adventure Comics featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes’ became the logo. The story introduced Dream Girl, temporarily, as a beautiful new member causing all the boys to fancy her, the girls to get green-eyed, and seven Legionnaires deactivated, all to needlessly divert one of her premonitions of their forthcoming death which was actually of android versions of them. Confused? Dreamy also fixed it that Lightning Lass lost her now-unneeded powers only to be re-gifted with the power to make things light (Star Boy, who makes them heavy, apparently hasn’t got a reverse gear).
The issue also reduced a ‘Hall of Fame Classic’ feature, otherwise known as reprints, which did no more than demonstrate that Superboy stories hadn’t change in over a decade, and to cap it off, the lettercol featured a letter from a Dora Knight, asking why Saturn Girl can be Legion leader when the boys are so much stronger than her? I’d give a lot to know if Miss Knight became a feminist and worked out the answer.
Right from his first appearance, Bouncing Boy had been a bit of a joke Legionnaire, rarely used, and that was clearly the general opinion at DC because in issue 321, he was abruptly, and undramatically, de-powered and demoted to permanent reservist. Of course, I know that won’t last forever.
I knew that at some point I’d catch up with my own first Legion story, though I didn’t expect it to be as early as issue 323, when Proty II sets a clever puzzle to determine the Legion’s new leaders – who turns out to be their old one, that smart blonde cookie, Saturn Girl. I even recognised the Hall of Fame Classic back up featuring Krypto. Every panel locked into place out of my memory.

Jim Shooter’s first script

But for every decent, and sometimes clever, story there were still a couple of dumb ones, usually based on some or all of the Legionnaires being dickheads, though that’s not possibly the ideal word for the story in issue 326 when the six girl Legionnaires get a mad on against the boy Legionnaires and set out to trap and kill them. There could have been a worse explanation for this too but I’m in no hurry to find one.
Interestingly, each girl Legionnaire got in a smooch with their chosen target first (and Triplicate Girl managed three, the little hussy), except for Saturn Girl, who couldn’t get Superboy to sample (wot an idiot!).
One of the problems with trying to read American comics in the Sixties was the erratic distribution. No two consecutive issues could be guaranteed. Then again, my budget for comics was strictly limited. Which one of these was responsible for my only reading the second half of the Legion’s first two-parter, in issues 330-331, I don’t know, though I remember the story as clear as a bell, as well as the Hall of Fame back-up which featured Lana being genuinely concerned for Clark without trying to penetrate his secret identity. Yes, they could write them.
Although I remembered a couple of stories earlier in the run, it was not until issue 340 that I fully caught up with my early enthusiasm for the Legion. This was the first half of the two-parter that introduced Computo, Brainiac 5’s evil super-computer, which changed Triplicate Girl into Duo Damsel by killing one of her three bodies (without any apparent trauma either) and which warped the Legion into the Batman ’66 Camp Era by introducing wise-cracking. Ah, the memories!
Indeed, there’s something special about this era of the run for me. The stories are (probably) no better nor worse than those before and those to come, but these are the stories from my time, full of back bedrooms at Brigham Street and Burnage Lane, re-reading runs on quiet summer holiday afternoons and evenings, each panel engraved on the eyeballs of memory. Star Boy’s expulsion. The Super-Stalag of Space. Jim Shooter’s unadvertised debut as a 13 year old writer by introducing four new members simultaneously, which was also the point that full-scale Legion stories supplanted the Superboy reprints.

A tie that bound for decades

One more thing to add about the Legion at this time is that it had something DC wasn’t supposed to have: continuity. Not necessarily in the form of subplots that became stories, but in situations that actually changed the status quo, like Lightning Lad losing an arm, Bouncing Boy his powers or Star Boy his membership. All these themes were brought together and restored in one go in issue 351.
And suddenly it all stopped. The Sun-Eater, the Fatal Five, Ferro-Lad’s sacrifice. The Adult Legion. I remember the cover to the first part of that but I read none of them. And none that followed, nor even saw the covers. This puzzles me now. This was only 1967 and I did not start losing interest in comics for another year. The only significant change was our move from East to South Manchester: was distribution really that random that by moving half a dozen miles away you could lose sight of an actual title? Or did I suddenly lose interest in the Legion?
Or did my childhood interest in comics, the Justice Society aside, start to fade earlier than I recall? I always thought it was 1968 because that was when I started on the football magazines, and besides, my parents had barred me from buying American comics at the full price of 1/-, a bar I got around, which a trickiness that well-befitted my future career as a Solicitor, by buying a preferred title in the newsagents coming out of school, selling it for 3d to a willing accomplice and then buying it back from him for 3d, so that I could truthfully say I’d bought it cheap off someone at school.
That was Burnage Grammar School, or High School from my Second Year on. I only went up into the Second Year in 1967: could I, who was naïve and immature for my age, have been that sneaky that early?
But the Legion stories that follow, two-parters all of them, are complete mysteries to me. Shooter, still only a teenager, was writing them, skilfully enough despite Weisinger, with some variable art, not all of it coming from the reliable Curt Swan. But the Legion’s days were numbered.
I have little to say about these late adventures. This was a strange, transitional period for DC, whose older writers, backbones of the company, were losing the plot, sometimes literally. Marvel was a threat kept in check only by DC owning their distributors and limiting them to no more than eight titles. The writers were demanding benefits as employees whilst being treated as freelancers for DC’s benefit. Things were slipping.
Some of the Legion’s stories were mildly memorable. The introduction of Shadow Lass, who’d already been seen dead in the Adult Legion’s hall of fallen heroes, as Shadow Queen, joining the Legion because she fancies Brainiac 5 (she’s not seen Mon-El yet), and that being the crucial point in issue 368, when a female governor of a world amplifies the girl Legionnaires’ powers and has them throw the boys out preparatory to installing a matriarchal government on earth, only for Supergirl to break her conditioning out of jealousy over ‘her’ Brainiac 5. Sheesh.

Introducing the Fatal Five

And the story in issues 369-370 not only introduced the Dark Lord Mordru but smashed Superboy’s Smallville continuity, with Jonathan and Martha Kent losing twenty years each and drawn unrecognisably whilst Lana Lang and the two girl Legionnaires who come to Smallville in Superboy’s ‘time’ all wear 1968 mini-skirts. Though apparently the Kents had taken a youth serum in Superboy and nobody noticed…
Issue 373 introduced Don and Dawn Allen, the Tornado Twins, ‘direct descendants’ of The Flash, though not as direct as they’d end up being years later.
And then, after issue 380, and a story whose only memorable moment was that it saw Chuck (Bouncing Boy) Taine showing his first feelings for Luornu (Duo Damsel) Durgo, the Legion were gone, without warning or explanation. They’d had an 81 issue run and whilst their replacement would have a stable run, for a while, emiwould have have so stable a lead feature again.
So the Silver Age was over, at least so far as this series was concerned, cover date May 1969, actual publication probably March. Join me for the Bronze Age, next.

Doomsday Clock 12

So the Undistinguished Thing is now here in its entirety. The set is going on eBay at any moment, One-Day Auction, Buy and Pay Thursday, Guaranteed First Class Posting Friday morning, maximum chance of delivery for Xmas, £9.99 plus postage starting bid or Best Offer. Get bidding!

Why you should want to is entirely another matter. I have made my opinion of Doomsday Clock amply clear over this past more than two years and I recant nothing now I have read the final, extended size issue.

But, in the manner of Lucifer on an Australian beach reluctantly give God his due over the matter of sunsets, I have to give credit to Geoff Johns for some of the things in issue 12. Despite the many flaws that I’ve held up to ridicule and  scorn, some of which carry over into this wrap-up, there are elements to the outcome that, if attached to a story with a less mean-minded purpose, could have completed an event worth reading and re-reading.

The first thing to recognise is that I was completely wrong in the assumption I made on reading issue 1 back in 2017 that the ending would be a big fight between Superman and Dr Manhattan, to be won by the former despite the overwhelming discrepancy in power levels. Johns even set that up at the end of issue 11, all those months ago, but he had something more subtle on his mind.

The big fight is between Superman and everybody else. The Russians, the Markovians, Black Adam’s Khandaq brigade, the Brits, the Aussies, the Israelis, in short every other country in the world that has a superhero team we never hear about because americans really can’t be arsed about anything that isn’t American, all piling in at once to take Superman down and in for his part in the Moscow massacre, whenever that was. Dr Manhattan looks on. After all, he sees everything simultaneously so he is the man on no action and no hope: it all goes black in eleven minutes and fifty seven seconds, after which, ho hum.

There’s something of the rat pack mentality about this atomic pile-on. i don’t know whether Johns intended this or not but there’s an element of mean-spiritedness, a seizing of the chance to get back at, and drag down the paragon, to adopt the current Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series terminology. Superman’s been the perfect ideal for too long, now he can be clawed down, not so perfect anyomre. Tied in with the nationalistic implications of the battle being every other country versus the American boy, it leaves a sour taste on the mouth. But then, so much of what inspiresJohns to this work does exactly the same.

Dr Manhattan, like I said, looks on. He sees destruction in the forthcoming darkness: Superman destroys me or I destroy everything. But the DC Universe is one of hope and optimism, not like that nasty ol’ Watchmen Universe. Superman asks for a third choice.

And at exactly the same moment, Batman and the is-he-dead-or-is-he-not-dead Alfred catch up with Reggie, the New (I can’t write well enough to write Rorscharch so I’ll make up a second-rate version of him to speak what little superficially similar dialogue I can achieve) Rorscharch, who can lead them to where Ozymandias is, even though Veidt has moved elsewhere before since Reggie last saw him. They need Reggie to put on Rorscharch’s mask again (what the hell for? It hasn’t got a direction-finder or anything like that?).  But Reggie won’t touch it, won’t even say the name. because everybody’s lied to him about Rorscharch and Reggie’s father and he hates the monster.

Until Batman tells him to change what people see when they see the mask so Reggie changes his mind. just like that. As you do when you’re in a superhero Universe that’s done the same thing for eighty years non-stop.

By now you must be wondering when we’ll come to something of which I approve but fear not. Just as Reggie undergoes a 180 degree change in character because Batman talks to him, so too does Dr Manhattan because Superman speaks. Everything goes black. Because Dr Manhattan makes it go black, for nearly three pages, until the Lux is Fiated once more, this time by the naked blue guy.

And also the shitty changes Dr Manhattan has made are unmade. Superman lifts a car over his head in 1938 again. The lantern is six inches nearer Alan Scott again. A girl a thousand years hence saves R.J. Brande’s life again. And a Superboy inspired by heroes of the past saves Jonathan and Martha Kent.

Suddenly, the sky is full of allies of Superman, aiding him against the treacherous, loathsome Old Worlders. Allies from the past, allies from the future. The Legion of superheroes to the doublespread panel left, the Justice Society of America with that old, calm authority to the right.

I’ve no idea whether this is yet another Universal reboot or just Rebirth Reborn, but either way it’s all turned round again. and this was apparently Ozymandias’s plan all along: he couldn’t persuade Jon to save the world again but Superman could so it was all about engineerng a confrontation.

Because not only is whatever Earth-1 equivalent we may be in at any given time, not only is the DC universe the Metaverse that steers the stars of every multiversal existence, but Superman is the fons et origo of everything. Every Universe our reading eye passes through is still there, growing the multiverse with it, and every future Crisis to come (Johns listing enough to get us to the Legion’s time though the ones for 2025 and 2030 are obviously the more immediate concerns, with the former’s 5G having already been hinted at) creating new versions.

So, Dr Manhattan regroups everyone from the Watchmen Universe so that they can go home (and write about what they did on their holidays?) Actually, the Mime and the Marionette will stay behind because despite being deeply evil, half mad and psychotic criminals, they do love each other and besides, they’ll be nice to their little daughter. The Comedian, whose resurrection from the dead to appear in this dog has always been completly pointless, shoots Ozy through the chest and this time he doesn’t catch the bullet, except in his chest, so he gets sent back to where he’s falling out of his penthouse, except that this one’s done by Lex Luthor cancelling out his altered vibrations, just like Barry Allen all those half-centuries ago. Veidt’s going to die a hero just as he wants to but Reggie stuffs the Rorscharch mask in to plug up the wound and, bare-faced, proclaims himself Rorscharch. Just as in the TV series, Veidt’s going back to be arrested. He is a mass-murderer, remember.

As just as in the TV seruies, Dr Manhattan dies. Everyone returns to Watchmen world in 1992, with no explanation of how the two Universes are running on such a time discrepancy, and Dr Manhattan invests his power in regrowing the world after its nuclear holocaust, only this is Watchmen rebirth: Janey Slater tells Jon Osterman her watch can wait: six months later, they marry and have three kids. The events of Watchmen the comic still happen even despite there being no Dr Manhattan (go on Johns, for your next trick tell us How?) because Laurie and Dan are still in hiding in their assumed identities with their daughter who’s really Mime and Marionette’s first child, and there are no nuclear weapons any more.

Oh, but there’s a visitor who comes to stay with Dan and Laurie. A little dark-haired boy. With a blue hydrogen atom symbol on his forehead. He says to call him Clark.

I’ve ended up being still as scathing about issue 12 as I’ve been about all the others, and not merely by force of habit. The ending is built on too rotten an edifice for anything more, and the edifice is still what I’ve called it all along: Geoff Johns’ inability to understand an approach to superheroics that didn’t exactly mirror everything it’s been since 1838, and his fear of that failure to understand. What might have been noble, entertaining and even worthy if it did not grow from that shit-heap of resentment falls apart upon analysis. As I’ve just said.

But the JSA are back, which we can all welcome. And so too are Jonathan and Martha who, though their death was for fifty years an integral element of Superman’s tale, come as most welcome. Though were we’re gpoing to go with Schroedinger’s Alfred I don’t know.

The one thing I can say about Johns’ Watchmen is that at least he put the toys back where they came from where, out of sight and out of mind, we can forget everything that happened before and after Watchmen the comic and pray that nobody ever fucks with them again.

I’d hate to have to do this again.

A Spot of Adventure: The Silver Age – Part 1

It’s February 1958, though the cover date says April, standard comic book practice then and for decades to come to try to fool newstands, drugstores and Mom-and-Pop stores to leave the comic out on display for longer and longer, before tearing the strip with the title off the cover and returning it for credit. The new Flash had appeared in two issues of Showcase, both big sellers, but the management at National Periodical Publications (you didn’t shout the word ‘Comics’ too loudly in the Fifties) would require two more, this year, before trusting him to a series of his own. The Silver Age was struggling to be born but Adventure Comics and its editor, Whitney Ellsworth, was about to make their greatest contribution to the new era. He, writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino were about to introduce the Legion of Super-Heroes.
Appropriately for the time, it’s a bit of a jerky story. Three kids from the future, Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl, the latter two of which looking nothing like the incarnations we would become familiar with in the future, and all of which boast artificial super-powers that, at this stage, are not the inherent abilities stemming from their respective home planets, ‘tease’ (i.e., horrify) Superboy by knowing his dual identity, invite him 1,000 years into the future to join their superhero club, put his through competency tests in which they deliberately sabotage him, and all for fun. Remind me again, why did he join this bunch of creeps?
We only get to meet these three Legionnaires, although the group includes at least four other identified members, one of which is green-skinned and could possibly have been Brainiac 5. We also learn that, ten centuries on, feminism hasn’t arrived, since Saturn Girl is ‘only a girl’ (curl lip in contempt). Of such acorns do oak trees grow, however implausible, but if superheroes are on the way back, the idea’s a doozy.
There are still our hapless D-listers, The Green Arrow and Aquaman, to go through, and it was back to Superboy solo next month, But the Silver Age had visited and left its calling card on the table. The In-Between Age was doomed..
As this is a new run, I actually started reading the back-up stories, or enough of them to finally pick up on the patterns. Green Arrow’s stories are always about the arrows, and how the crime-fighting archers have to keep using different ones, whilst Aquaman is about him acting out of character for some secret purpose that gets revealed on page 5. And it was interesting to see that, when Adventure hit issue 250, one of a very small number of titles to do so, absolutely nothing was done to mark it.
Or did it? For that and the next six issues, Green Arrow gained a new artist, the King, Jack Kirby. No, it’s not particularly memorable art, or that distinctly Kirby, and apparently it was being inked by his wife, Roz, but it’s Kirby. And in issue 252, not only did Superboy encounter Red Kryptonite for the first time (but not its more antic aspects), but Green Arrow’s story was continued into a second part!
A major change arrived in that second issue. It was not Superboy teaming up with a time-travelling Robin the Boy Wonder but rather the introduction of the Silver Age staple, the letters page.
I was also pleased to see the occasional resumption of house ads, particularly the full-pagers devoted to new characters in Showcase, such as Space Ranger and Adam Strange, under the rubric ‘Adventures on Other Worlds’. But on the debit side, Aquaman’s series was now adorned with his own sidekick, his pet octopus, Topo. Don’t anyone tell Jason Mamoa about this.

Don’t believe it…

But we are really getting into some deep and, frankly, scary psychological terrirtory, especially with the Superboy story in issue 255, which sees some Martian Red Kryptonite split Superboy in two, one of them the Boy of Steel and the other a merely human Clark Kent. Clark goes criminally batty and Superboy ends up killing him in an explosion. That’s right, killing him, or rather himself, without qualm or regret. That’s seriously disturbing shit.
Kirby’s last Green Arrow, featuring the most identifiably Kirby art of his run, was a re-telling of his origin in it’s pre-Speedy form. In fact, the letters page, and several requests for who, what and why, seems to have inspired a sweep of origin recaps across the Superman titles generally, not to mention another ludicrous team-up in issue 258, this time with Superboy trying to inspire new-kid-in-town Oliver Queen to take an interest in archery… In time, practically half of DC’s characters would pass through Smallville during Superboy’s youth.
When I mentioned that Whitney Ellsworth was editing Adventure, I was surprised to see his name in the indicia, as I’d always assumed Mort Weisinger’s legendary possessiveness about Superman would not allow anyone else to be in charge. Weisinger replaces Ellsworth as of issue 259, reminding me that when Ellsworth was editor of All-Star, it was Julius Schwartz doing the work. I think Ellsworth was editor in the same way Stan Lee et al were editor-in-chief at Marvel: the overall boss but not the hands-on man. I think Weisinger’s hand was on the real controls all along. Now, it just became official.
One of those origin stories appeared in issue 260, as Aquaman’s origin was retold for the first time in eighteen years, or rather retconned, for now Arthur Curry was named for the first time, and he was revealed as being Atlantean, though not yet as the rightful king of that undersea world. Next issue, the Boy of Steel met a teenage Lois Lane at camp, sharing a cabin with Lana Lang and deploring the latter’s constant efforts to discover Superboy’s identity: Lois would never do that. All-in-all, it was a chance for the Boy of Steel to anticipate his adult self’s trait of acting like a dick to two women who love him.
By now, it was clear that the Legion hadn’t caught the imagination of Superboy’s readers first off. In fact, it took twenty issues for the teenagers of tomorrow to reappear, in issue 267, and they were still dicks, humiliating the Boy of Steel, driving him off Earth, imprisoning him. It was the same trio but this time all in the uniforms with which we would be familiar in the Sixties, except that Saturn Girl was brunette, not blonde.
Two issues later, Aquaman met Aqualad, an Atlantean expelled from Atlantis for being afraid of fish, cured his fear and ending up with the kid imprinting himself on the King of the Sea and adopting him as a surrogate father with no legal proceedings whatsoever.

For issue 270, the first of 1960, there was a sudden change as Green Arrow’s series was replaced by Congorilla, big game hunter Congo Bill who, by rubbing a magic ring, could transfer his mind into the body of a golden gorilla for an hour. Remember too that 1960 was the year the Justice League of America debuted, consisting of seven of DC’s eight adult superheroes. The only one to miss out was… Green Arrow. Is there a connection?
Next issue, Superboy met the young Lex Luthor, farm boy in Smallville, Superboy hero-worshipper and would-be scientific genius, and we see that Luthor becomes a Superman-hater after Superboy causes all his hair to fall out. Don’t laugh so much, there are sound psychological underpinnings to this rationale, I merely looks goofy. And increasingly the letters page is becoming a source of inspiration, with the kids raising questions that prompt stories being written to explain the answers. Weisinger certainly knew his audience.
After Robin, Lois and Luthor, it was inevitable that Superboy would meet a young Bruce Wayne when his parents, the great philanthropists and benefactors of Gotham City, decided to move to Smallville; well, wouldn’t you? Who wants to live in a plush mansion when you could live in a hick town? Bruce gets the hots for Lana who agrees to let him take her to the Prom if he finds out Superboy’s identity, which he does, being smart, only Superboy shows him film of the future where he’s Batman and they’re best friends, so he doesn’t. Funny how the Boy of Steel omits the bit about why young Bruce becomes Batman…
Both back-up series had a change of title is issue 277, to introduce their kid partners: Aquaman and Aqualad, Congorilla and Janu, with National announcing that, in response to many such requests, they were giving the first pair a two-issue run in Showcase to see if they could carry their own title.
Issue 280 saw the Mermaid Lori Lemaris become the latest Superman character to pre-empt her first meeting with Supes by turning up in Smallville years early. As usual, the story was 90% silly, the exceptions being the provision of an entirely sensible explanation for Lori’s Atlanteans having fishtails whilst Aquaman’s have two legs, and the instinctive effort of the jealous Lana to save the life of the ‘girl’ she fears as a rival. It was also announced that, from the next issue, the first of 1961, Congorilla and Aquaman would alternate as back-up, their combined pages giving the opportunity for thirteen page adventures.
This time, it took only fifteen issues for the Legion of Superheroes to return, in issue 282, with a new member, Star Boy (albeit one with super-strength, electrical vision and supercool breath, instead of mass controlling powers), as well as a cameo from the previously unseen Chameleon Boy. Unfortunately, the story was an excuse for Lana to cook up one of her least reputable plots to discover Superboy’s identity. Not even the sight of Lana in a most un-1961 short skirt and her frank admission that she loved the Boy of Steel kept him from acting like just as much as a dick to her. Just fly her off and snog her, you fool!
Congorilla’s brief run came to an end in issue 283, with the announcement that he was being replaced by the more Superman-oriented Tales of the Bizarro World. It was supposed to be just him but, come the day, Aquaman was sent swimming too. But three issues later I was hoping for one or both of them to return, as the Bizarro stories were stupid beyond belief. And they’re getting all the covers, too! The time between Legion stories was rapidly diminishing, with Sun Boy, the “Seventh Legionnaire” being introduced in issue 290.
And the big three of Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl were back after only three issues, this time introducing, wait for it, the Legion of Super-Pets. Yes, that’s right: Super-Pets. These were Krypto, plus Beppo the Super-Monkey, Streaky the Super-Cat and even the as-yet unnamed Comet the Super-Horse, pet and occasional lover of Supergirl (don’t go there, just don’t) who hadn’t even been introduced in Supergirl’s series yet (hey, every young girl is into horses, right?)

There was a letter of protest about the Bizarros in issue 296 which brought forth a stinging rebuke from Weisinger, about how Adventure‘s sales figures had rocketed to their highest ever since the feature began, and that every month they got 5,000 postcards with suggestions from ‘Bizarro business’. Yeah, but that still doesn’t mean the series isn’t crap.
Finally, the suggestion came up of a regular Legion series, alternating with the Bizarros. So, with issue 300, the day finally came when the Legion, 53 issues after their debut, took a permanent role in Adventure.
And I’ll be back in two weeks for the next instalment.

A Buzz around the Hornet: Part 3

Third time round for The Hornet, the D.C.Thomson stable comic, issues 201-300, covering the paper’s life from 15 July 1967 to 7 June 1969.
Though it’s 1967, the summer of psychedelia, Procol Harum at number 1 for six weeks, free games for May and Strawberry Fields Forever, Hornet shows no signs of stepping out of the time-bubble in which it is enclosed. It is not keeping up with the Sixties because it has never yet arrived in the Sixties. Of its line-up this time, there is little to enthuse me, just two of the comic’s round of regulars, a Rob Higson Runs that Count, introducing big, burly, ball-bashing, bird-watching batsman, Bert Bunting (another tone-lowering, independently minded scruffpot) and the start of a new Bernard Briggs serial, The No-Goal Goalie.
Bernard’s moved to the two-club Midland town of Stockley, bought a house that comes complete with a gasworks attached, and signed for the posh boys, Rangers on condition that they pay their down-at-heels neighbours Rovers £1,000 for every shut-out Bernard produces. You know where the money’s going.
The only other series of any distinction at this point is Laramie, an adaptation of an old TV Western, cancelled four years before – but only of its sole season in the Fifties!
Nor was the mix improved by the first new series of this batch, a run-of-the-mill World War 2 story replacing one about hunting King Solomon’s Treasure with a cheat ending. It’s Runs that Count completed its run in issue 207 (26 August), leaving cricket to be replaced by football in the familiar-sounding Ball of Fire, about centre forward Wally Brand. I didn’t recognise it as such, but it ploughed an enjoyably familiar trough with the forceful Wally another of the independent kind.
And a third new series in four issues was another enjoyable returnee, Jim Ransom, the Big Palooka, this time tackling American crooks muscling into Britain as from issue 210 (16 September), though only for a ten week run.
Two more new starters were lined up for issue 212 (30 September), both returnees. One was a repeat performance for one of the more abysmal SF series but the other, about due a revisit, was Wilson, though not my long anticipated Ashes Test story. How much longer before Nick Smith again?
Wilson’s new serial, It’s Wilson Again, saw him back in Africa searching for a lost city that turned out to be a Greek colony that had erected a replica of Athens that wasn’t all ruins. As ideas go, it was horribly trite. As for Nick, he wasn’t showing up just yet but the flood of new series swept in the Deathless Men again, in a V for Vengeance series titled ‘M’ Marks the Spot.
I haven’t had a jump of nostalgia for quite some time now and in issue 215 (21 October) it came in the unexpected place of the prose serial, which I’ve been guilty of ignoring since the first Nick Smith and Rob Higson because, well, they’re not worth reading. But Kid Laine the Dixieland Drummer, about a fourteen year old dockloader called Leo ‘Kid’ Laine who would go on to be a groundbreaking jazz drummer, and lead the massively successful and influential jazz band, The Big Five, was a tonic for the troops. Like some of Eagle’s serials, this was obviously being read by someone who knew what they were talking about, in this instance both jazz and drumkits.

Still the new series kept on appearing. After a long run, Laramie went back to the bunkhouse to free up space for a second go from ex-Special Air Service Greg Stewart, whose bag was finding antiquities for the Military Museum.
Briggs’ latest improbable season ended in issue 222 (9 December) whilst the Deathless Men finally got the British Agent to the crashed plane to destroy the secret papers. That left room for two new stories, one of which was the return of the unimpressive Limping Man, but the second ws another right from the memory bank, The Goals That Nobody Cheered. Stan Rankin, centre forward for Hampton Town was forced out of the game when he accidentally killed two goalkeepers in successive weeks, each by a kick to the head (this was a series for kids?). But Stan came into a large sum of money, enough to buy a majority shareholding in Hampton and reinstate himself as Player-Manager. Except that the fans boycotted him and the first team, leaving Stan with the hard task of winning them back around.
Two more new series arrived in issue 224 (23 December), with Wilson and the crap SF series ending to accommodate them. They were neither of them worth mentioning, but they were followed in Xmas week by several things I surprised myself by recognising.
The first was the cover story, about the amazing Xmas match between Charlton Athletic and Huddersfield Town. Reduced to ten men, Charlton were 2-0 down at half-time and 5-1 with half an hour to go, and their left-winger Johnny Summers was wearing brand-new boots, when he went on a spree that saw Charlton win 7-6 with the last kick of the game, including five goals from Summers, all scored with his ‘wrong’ foot. No, this wasn’t fiction, though I remembered the one-off Ball of Fire story, which was.
Last of all was a new series, Crazy School, starring young Jimmy Bell, sent to a snooty private school where everyone down to the porter boy was a snob out to make him feeling unwanted. Unpropitious stuff, and nothing to write home about… until I recognised every single stunt, because Jimmy has fantastic hypnotic powers!
The Dixie Drummer ended its first series in issue 227 (13 January 1968) with Kid Laine joining the British Army to fight in the Great War, but there has to be at least one more series to come because I remember the Big Five’s reunion in No Man’s Land. That left just two decent strips, and a couple of real SF schtumers: Hornet could not do SF to save its life.
After giving me a nostalgia jolt in its first episode, Crazy School ended in issue 230 (3 February) without ringing another bell. The same week, Stan Rankin was joined by another football series, Haddie, another amateur footballer who would end up dragging his club towards another FA triumph. Haddie, whose nickname came from his profession as a North Sea Fisherman, was a junior league Bernard Briggs, playing for fun and reserving his seriousness for his fishing.
And speaking of old Briggsy, the real thing returned in issue 234 (2 March), still scrapping but now scrapping, in the square ring that is. It was another of those times when new series seemed to start nearly every week. Stan Rankin was finally vindicated when television footage was discovered that exculpated him over the two keepers’ deaths, bringing the crowds back in to cheer his goals once more.
His replacement was Bring ’em Back Barney, another one that trips the memory. Barney Hines, the Mayor of Walla-Wogga, has opened a town museum that is empty, so he’s enlisted in the Aussie Army in the Great War to collect ‘souvenirs’ for exhibits. Why do I remember something like this when I have no recollection of The Devil Dogs of the Dravids in the same issue?
Also back the same week was Kid Laine in The Return of the Dixie Drummer, in France, in the War and about to be reunited with the rest of the Big Five. And one issue later it was time again for Wally Brand, the Ball of Fire, back in a new series in which, shock, horror, he’s still at the same club.
The Dixie Drummer’s second story ran until issue 244 (11 May) after which he gave way to Detective Paul Terhune, whilst Richard Sharp, The Blazing Ace of Space, also returned after a very long absence for more World War 2 RAF missions.
The next new series was The Fifth Wicket Fosters, a cricket strip. Unlike Bring ‘Em Back Barney, this was one of the series I had always remembered, and one I was looking forward to reading again. Peter Foster is the third generation of his family to bat at no 6 for Northshire, an attacking batsman. But he’s also a Special Ops Agent who, in order to stem an aggressive Dictator, agrees to appear a traitor delivering secret plans. The plot succeeds, but the Dictator susses that the plans are fakes and sends men in search of Peter, who, having undergone plastic surgery and been re-named Dave Palmer, applies to become a professional cricketer – at Northshire. An intriguing set-up.
It didn’t take long for ‘Palmer’ to give himself away, safely, to his younger brother John. John Foster suffered from a frozen right arm after a car accident but is secretly training himself to bowl left arm spin.
Another, if gentler, jolt of memory came with the debut of the Floating Man in issue 251 (29 June), about a salesman trying to promote a buoyancy suit that turned a man into his own boat, so to speak. A familiar panel, but nothing else was recognisable in the first episode, but it was recognisable to me.

Richard Starr’s second series and Bring ‘Em Back Barney both reached an end in issue 253 (12 July), with one being replaced by a nondescript treasure hunt series and the other a one-off war story. Meanwhile, The Fifth Wicket Fosters came to an end all-too-soon, with truth, exoneration and the County Championship all round, to be replaced, at last, by Wilson Did It. This is the Wilson Cricket story I’ve been waiting for all along, that I left unfinished when I gave up Hornet in 1968, the year of graduation from (most) comics to Football magazines like Goal, Shoot and Striker. An end is in sight.
The set-up is that the plane carrying the England Test Team, travelling too Australia for the Ashes, crashes in Arnhem Land, killing no-one but injuring every player. A second party crashes in the exact spot, where the Amazing Wilson is studying the Aborigines and their approach to cricket. Wilson discovers a dead Aborigine tracker, shot through the head, from a half-track vehicle that has vanished. A mystery.
Of the second party, the only player uninjured is our old friend Bert Bunting, the Highshire wicket-keeper (since when?). And there’s a double crossover when Rob Higson, not selected for either party, asks Wilson to lead a scratch English side in a charity match. When Wilson turns out to bowl at bat-smashing speed, Higson gets a fantastic notion…
The thought of completing the story after fifty years – a longer time by far than the Eagle serial I wrote about here (insert link) – makes every panel of this story a fascination, but I mustn’t forget the rest of the paper, not that the majority of the stories make forgetting them difficult. Two new series debuted in issues 257 and 258 (10 and 17 August), the first, Shawnee Fall Was Here!, a western about a small mining town that vanishes completely whilst Deputy Marshall Jubal Smith was away ten days, trailing a robber, and the second featuring the popular character, the Swamp Rat, this time revealing his real name of Peter Bold and how he got all his tattoos in The Badges of courage on Darkness Island: very boyhood of Arnold Tabbs with a soupcon of Lord of the Flies.
The same issue saw the rather lacklustre Bernard the Boxer end abruptly when he discovered his manager had been ripping him off, with the mildly interesting The Man in Black also concluding.
The long term replacement for Briggs was another returnee, The Diggers in New Guinea, two Australian cobbers at war. And no less than three old favourites returned in issue 261 (7 September), with Briggsy back in goals for an American tour, the Deathless Men in a new V for Vengeance series and a long overdue second series for Muscles Malone.
Briggs was just Briggs in an American context, and funnily enough Muscles Malone was also Stateside, but I should have realised which V for Vengeance story this had to be, coming so close to the end of my experience with Hornet. This was the origin of the Deathless Men, beginning with the escape by captured and tortured British Agent Aylmer Gregson from a concentration camp, and his decision to start the Army of Vengeance, an Army of Jacks: like the little metal things that turned over a fallen tank, human jacks that would overturn the Nazis. It also introduced plastic surgeon Anton Gerhard, the never before seen Jack Two. After two substandard series, only one episode was needed to show that V for Vengeance was once more at a cold peak, by concentrating on its original format: of vengeance.
The Diggers’ series came to an abrupt end after only six episodes in issue 264 (28 September), but I was more concerned with the Wilson series, which began with something I well remembered, and ended with something of which I had no memory: was this the point?
Yes, it was. The next Hornet saw the introduction of a new cover feature, one I had never seen, The Hornet Gallery of Sport, kicking off with a very unlife-like George Best, and Wilson’s story moving onto territory I had never seen. That dates, very precisely, when I gave up Hornet. But not this account: I have at least one series to finish, don’t I?
By stopping when I did, I missed a fourth Big Palooka series, this one at the Mexico Olympics: oh no! That must mean the story was taking place in 1968! Oh, calamity!
The mystery of the two crashed airplanes in Wilson turned out to be accidental engine interference from machinery used by uranium prospects though that did not quite explain why they were planning to do it deliberately to a third MCC team. Which didn’t explain the shock I got from very clearly recognising incidents in the episode in issue 269 (2 November). On the other hand, I had no recollection whatsoever of the latest execrable SF series.
Briggs’ American tour ended in issue 272 (23 November) with the discovery that the statue of Sam Houston he’d been toting around was made of solid gold, solving all manner of financial issues sprung in the last chapter. And V for Vengeance also came to an end, a final end, with Hitler’s suicide in his bunker bringing to an end the need for the Deathless Men. Their replacements were one each of football and war, with the former having the more promising set-up. For a start, it was a second series actually set in 1968. Danny Hawke, manager of struggling Ashfield Rovers, had managed a massively successful England Schoolboy team five years earlier. Now he set off to scour the world to reunite his Eleven Little Soccer Boys to rescue Ashfield.
Meanwhile, Wilson’s Australian adventure was still going on. Hie team had been awarded the Test series and won the First Test in a most improbable manner, but an espionage element had come into play, a spy for an East European power seeking to extract secrets from the scientist Dr Moffin, who was behind the two MCC plane crashes back at the beginning of the series. Issue 275 (14 December) represented 22 episodes with no end in sight.
Of course, Bernard Briggs wasn’t off the scene long. The Goalie was replaced by the Boot as our favourite rough diamond joined the Great Britain Ruby League team for a tour of Australia in issue 278 (4 January 1969). And Wilson Did It finally ended in issue 280 (18 January). The Test series was won with two games to spare, Wilson was off to remotest Canada to further test his endurance, and the spy was dead of a heart attack without any explanation of why he wanted to crash two MCC touring parties: I expected no more. But at least I got to the end of the story, 51 years after I started it.
After 282 issues (1 February), Hornet surprised us by introducing a one page comic series, Phil the First, about a lad obsessed with being first at everything, in the style of those many dumb one-pagers in Lion and Valiant. In in the style of those comics, it was dumb and unfunny.

Post-Wilson, there wasn’t much to enthuse me, and there was one less when The Big Palooka went back to England in issue 284 (15 February). However, just two issues later, I discovered that I was wrong about V for Vengeance and the Deathless Men. So many Hornet series’ were comic strip adaptations of prose serials from the Forties and Fifties. I have often wondered if V for Vengeance was amongst them, and now I was answered with The Voice from Berlin, a prose serial about a plan to discredit and kill a fictional version of the infamous Lord Haw-Haw, Basil Royce, not William Joyce.
This also teased a connection I’d long since pondered from the beginning of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta. To the semi-coincidence of the title, this now added a reflection of the three-parter dealing with the fascist Government’s propaganda broadcaster, Lewis Protheroe: Voice of Fate, Voice of Truth. Intriguing.
A second one pager, Harry the Hitch, started in issue 288 (15 March) with no better quality. Meanwhile, despite the accent on melodrama, the prose V for Vengeance was much stronger, thanks to its ability to go into details that could not be portrayed in panels.
The modestly entertaining Eleven Little Soccer Boys finished in issue 292 (12 April), giving way to another football series, The Team from Trisidium, featuring a team of aliens to whom football was archaic war: just your average notion, then. And with Barnard Briggs ending his Australian tour two issues later (and no doubt starting a short countdown to his next series), for the first time there were no ‘picture stories’ to really interest me.
And when the V for Vengeance serial ended in issue 297 (17 May), there were none.
There were also only three issues left to this instalment. Nothing changed in that time and thus another instalment is over.
I’ve outlasted the days of my original enthusiasm for Hornet, I’ve ended my interrupted story, and now it’s 1969, not that you’d ever known from within this comic. Time to look elsewhere. There are enough issues left on the DVD-Rom set for three more postings, but these will be reserved now to when I’ve run out of alternatives: I’ve had enough of the Fifties-style comics for a good time. We’ll be back to Adventure Comics next time.

A Spot of Adventure: The In-Between Age

Most people agree upon the periods of the Golden Age and the Silver Age of Comics, though there’s room for argument as to the Ages that have followed. The Golden Age, from Action 1 to All-Star 57, covers the years 1938 to 1950, whilst the Silver Age starts with Showcase 4 in 1956. That leaves a gap that has never been tagged onto any Age, metallic or otherwise.
For the second instalment of my review of Adventure Comics, I’m calling the period in question the In-Between Age, and I plan to go up to 1958, for two reasons. One is that, although the Barry Allen Flash debuted in 1956, he only made four appearances in three years before finally being unleashed on his own series, in 1959. I’d call that the true beginning of the Silver Age, but before that, in 1958, National would introduce a new idea in the pages of Adventure that was as Silver Age as you could wish. This essay covers the years leading up to then.
We begin with issue 167. The Shining Knight was fallen casualty to the times, leaving Adventure with a line-up, front to back, of Superboy, Aquaman, Johnny Quick and The Green Arrow (still with the definite article). Superboy has the perky, red-headed teenage beauty Lana Lang trying to uncover his secret identity, just as his adult contemporary has Lois Lane, and Lana gets the idea into her pretty head that an ancient helmet brought home by her archaeologist parents gives her Superboy-esque powers. Instead of just taking her for a long, slow ride at the next hayride and enjoying some enthusiastic smooching, Superboy has to pretend the helmet works to keep her from getting the right idea about why a robber’s bullet just bounced off him. Silly boy.
Lana was a seeming fixture for a few issues but then dropped out, which was a shame because she brought an element of personality to Superboy’s strip. It was still a mostly domestic strip, calling for no great effort on the kid’s powers but without the pretty redhead it was empty.
Indeed, going into 1952, the comic as a whole was dull. Aquaman, who was clearly the favourite of the DVD maker who manages to come up with the Sea King’s story even when nothing else of an issue is available, tends to fight pirates, Green Arrow and Speedy can’t even come up with new trick arrows anymore, and only Johnny Quick comes up with an interesting read, mainly because it still hearkens to its Golden Age look instead of the bloodless DC art of the era.
I’ll mention the story in issue 181, which featured Joannie Swift, Queen of Speed. Joannie is a typist who accidentally gains the same powers as Johnnie when a list of equations she reads out duplicates his Magic Formula. Joannie turns out to be brave, resourceful, athletic, intelligent, in short bloody good at being a super-speedster. Johnnie only wants her to go away, at first to save her from injury because, being a girl, she’s bound to be a weakling, but, as soon as he realises she knows her stuff, a rather too revelatory reason comes out: Johnnie doesn’t want to turn out second best to her.
Of course, that fate will never happen because, inevitably, Joannie’s afraid of mice, which causes her to forget the Formula. So, instead of a skilful, brave, worthy foe of crime, using her potential to the fill, Ms Swift is condemned to go back to the steno pool, because she’s a girl. Sometimes this stuff can make you want to barf.

Johnny Quick

Meanwhile, a whole year of the DVD goes by with only two complete issues but with every Aquaman story. These are formulaic, uninspired affairs, six pages of nothing: no wonder DC struggled in the early Fifties. Piracy still turned up, but also silly ideas like Aquaman running an undersea hospital or an undersea fire service.
When full service resumes, for a while, in issue 201, there’s another delightful Lana Lang story, with Superboy thinking he’s blown his secret identity to her Dad, and so relieved to find he’s wrong, he welcomes Lana’s determined pursuit of his secret: just kiss her, you chump, she’d be a great girlfriend.
The American comic book package started off at 64 pages. Thanks to paper restrictions during the Second World war, it was reduced to 56 pages, and then to 48, all at 10c, irrespective of size. But with issue 205, Adventure Comics was reduced to the 32 page size that’s been standard ever since. Johnny Quick missed out, though he returned the following issue at the expense of Green Arrow. But his final appearance was in issue 207, sadly not on the DVD. Henceforth, Adventure had only three features, and if I say that Superboy is the pick of them, you’ll appreciate how dull it is.
There was a landmark story in issue 210, with the initially temporary appearance of Krypto, the Superdog, nearly giving Clark Kent’s other identity away again to guess who? This was the only story for that issue, whereas next time we only had the Aquaman so I can’t say whether it was that or its absent predecessor where Aquaman switched from yellow gauntlets to the green ones we know so well. Either way, he was back to yellow for issue 212, that is, when he was coloured at all in a bizarre approach that saw him monocoloured pale blue in the majority of panels. Nobody seemed to be able to make up their mind as green and yellow alternated. Meanwhile, Krypto returned in issue 214 to prove that stories of the Superdog were likely to be pretty stupid.

A typical Aquaman plot

The Superboy story in issue 216 had the Lad of Steel meeting Superman without time travel, but its twist was that the adult version was really archaeologist Professor Olsen. Rescuing him endeared Superboy to Olsen’s young son, Jimmy… And speaking of costume changes, Green Arrow started wearing a red cap as opposed to his usual green one in the occasional story.
Frustratingly, Superboy’s real parents, Jor-El and Lara turned up in issue 217, having escaped Krypton after all, preparing to take their son to their new off-world home. It’s a trick alright, from Superboy’s callous ignoring of the Kents to the con on death row who pieces together his identity as Clark Kent, even down to how the Els are only seen flying when Superboy is holding their arms, but this was a very rare two-part story and we only have Aquaman for issue 218.
One of the interesting aspects of reading Adventure during this period (it’s more fun than the two back-ups) are the in-house ads for DC titles of the In-Between Age. Lists and covers of all manner of titles unwanted and forgotten, a publishing era lost permanently. But the cusp of change is approaching. Issue 22 carries an ad for yet another new title, starring Fireman Farrell. He never set the world alight, and we know that the ad is full of lies when it describes the new comic as a response to all those reader letters requesting different subjects, requiring a new kind of comic to fit them all in. We know that the real reason was to try to control the losses, both in money and reputation, from the way nothing new was catching on. Fireman Farrell was the first subject, the star of Showcase 1. In six months time…
In fact, the Showcase ads are fascinating. No-one ever cares about the first three, overshadowed utterly by no 4. The second issue featured Kings of the Wild, three outdoor adventures. These adverts are a history lesson in themselves.
So they stop printing inhouse ads at all, and I don’t get to see 3, or 4, come to that. Has nobody any sense of responsibility to future generations?
Meanwhile, the Aquaman and Green Arrow strips are growing dumber. Aquaman no longer has to pursue pirates, not when his time can be taken up with nonsensical ‘stories’ about how he schools his finny friends to obey his instructions or how he apparently turns into an egomaniac except it’s all a secret scheme, whilst the Battling Bowmen go trading places with other archers or else emulate their own trading cards. Truly this was an age of inanity.
Superboy’s own series continued to be both silly and sententious, but the occasional nice moment came along. Taking advantage of the fact that a leaking special gas would give everybody amnesia for an hour, the Boy of Steel decided to reveal he was really Clark Kent to test if a secret identity was more of a burden than a benefit which, this being DC Comics in 1957 it self-evidently was a benefit. But there was a touching moment when Lana, the teenage pest so set on proving Clark and Superboy were one and the same, began to cry at the proof – because Clark was a dear friend and she would never see him again.
I had a surprise in issue 239, which saw Krypto’s return, for I had read this story before, a very long time ago. Not in Adventure but in a British Superboy hardback annual, reprinting this in black and white. The first in well over a hundred Superboy stories that I had previously seen.
And harking back to Lana’s genuine distress at the thought of losing her dear friend Clark, how does the Boy of Steel repay her in issue 240? By becoming as big a Superdick as his adult self and humiliating her in front of all of Smallville to conceal his secret identity. What did I say about this stuff making you want to barf?
Obviously Lana got over it by the next issue, in which Green Arrow and Speedy were joined by Queen Arrow, aka Diana Dare (any relation to Dan?), who temporarily hypnotised herself into acting out her deepest desire, namely to be told by her heroes that what they do is too dangerous for a girl. Once he joined the Justice League, did Ollie ever try that line on Wonder Woman?

Some superheroes, huh?

Issue 243 is the last complete comic for this section, the next three issues represented by one story only, two of them the simultaneously tedious and ridiculous Aquaman. The last of these is cover-dated March 1958, making its actual publication most likely January of that year. Two issues of Showcase thus far have featured The new Flash. Two more would appear this year. The Silver Age was cranking up for the off. The next issue of Adventure would see a change that I’ll explore in the third essay in this series.

A Buzz Around The Hornet: Part 2

Here’s the next 100 issues of The Hornet, the youngster of the D.C.Thomson stable, taking us from 14 August 1965 to 8 July 1967. It starts with series such as Muscles Malone MA, hiding his secret as an all-in wrestler to keep his job as a Form Master at a sports-hating Private School, the final episode of the current Nick Smith story, as he leads Kingsbury to the double of the Third Division and the FA Cup, The Bent Copper continuing his vendetta against the gang that framed him and the Second World War Private Army, the Deathless Men, in V for Vengeance. Will there be any nostalgic remembrance when we arrive in July 1967? Will I find I had given the paper up before then? Stick around.
Losing Nick Smith so quickly was a bit of a blow, and when The Bent Copper cleared his name in issue 103 (28 August), I was starting to think my reading material was getting thin, but I should have known better. Nick and Arnold Tabbs were back again next issue, under the It’s Goals That Count heading and, after an unprecedented fifteen week absence, so too was Briggs, Bernard the Boot, turning his multi-talents and mono-minded personality to Rugby Union. Something tells me I’m going to get the Tennis series in this tranche of issues.
For Nick and Arnold, it was the same old story, even though they were back in the First Division with Redburn Rovers, tasked with bringing the club the title and up against the usual self-important Director who thought Nick should have to defer his ideas to him, whilst Briggs’s new series set off on a slightly different tack. For once, Briggs was ignorant of Rugby League (I was surprised that we weren’t in the snootier territory of Union) and even had to practice a bit before he could kick the ball reliably each time. But after that, we all knew what would be coming…
Sadly, Muscles Malone was done the week after, when an understanding Governor secured his position as the new Headmaser. I could have stood a few more weeks of that.
Briggs’ story was a cut above his previous outings. For one thing, he had acquired an artist who could draw a normal sized mouth and jaw, and for another he was being a bit more humble than before. Though his kicking was every bit as pretenaturally good, he had a lot to learn about the game and for once wasn’t lording it over everyone else’s ignorance.
V for Vengeance ended on a panel I recalled in issue 109 (9 October), with a panicked Hitler trying to kill Himmler because news of the Deathless Men’s successes had been withheld from him. I’m hoping, indeed I’m pretty sure, it will be back: after all, this series didn’t explain why the Deathless Men take the name Jack.
This left Messrs Briggs and Smith to entertain me, plus a mixture of mildly interesting to dull series that left no great impression, and Smith’s latest series ended in issue 115 (20 November) on the dramatic point of working out goal difference to discover Redburn had won the League by one-hundredth of a goal. Oh what fun we had.
The popular The Swamp Rat was back again. I haven’t mentioned this before as I find it dull. It’s a Second World War series about an Australian jungle expert with multiple tattoos on his body, which obviously delighted the readers, just not me. And a new prose serial (yes, they’re still running) began, starring the mysterious Mr X. And no, this was not Lion‘s Mr X.
And as usual Nick Smith wasn’t gone long, returning in issue 117 (4 December) for the first in a series of complete stories drastically multiplying the number of clubs he played for.
Suddenly, it was old home week. A scar-faced RAF Corporal calling himself Greene undertook the task of first training POW Tom Vale to overcome a ‘dead’ leg and, post-War, to train him as a runner, all under the series title Has Wilson Come Back? (answer: yes, you fool) in issue 119 (18 December), whilst the following issue saw Bernard Briggs’ successful venture into Rugby League replaced by The Big Palooka in Chicago. And the unfunny Ugg, a neanderthal wrestler, also came back the same issue.
Once again, one of our comics reviews comes to 1966, to the year of the World Cup, and England’s Glory. Hornet began its celebrations with a World Cup wallet in issue 123 (15 January) and three new series, one and a half of them new. The wholly new was The Wonder from the Western Isles, another football strip from out of the recesses of memory, not for its star, 17 year old Rory Grant, but for Grant’s mentor, the Blind Laird, a man obsessed with reverting tactically to the days of the attacking centre half, and equally obsessed with down-at-fortune Longport Wanderers, for reasons that must already be obvious to anyone who knows boys comics.

The returnee was, to my delight, V for Vengeance, once more sacrificing to halt the Nazis, this time concentrating on the German Navy in Hamburg dockyard, whilst the halfway series was The Blitz Kid, starring Nick Smith’s best pal, Arnold Tabbs, as a 13 year old during the War. To escape the blitz on Rudley, Arnold is evacuated and placed with a mean, cruel, miserly couple (did any other kind take in an evacuee in the comic book version of the War?) Arnold runs home to Rudley only to discover his house has been bombed and everyone, including his dog, have been killed. This did not look like being a cheerful series.
Another new feature came on board in issue 126 (5 February), another War series about Captain Spencer, Britain’s top intelligence agent in the Middle East, aka The Limping Man. This is supposedly one of the classic Hornet features but I have no recollection of it and on the strength of the first couple of episodes, I can’t see why it’s so highly regarded.
Wilson finally admitted to being Wilson in issue 129 (26 February) in order to prevent a fraudster cashing in on his name, which made room for a new series the following week, The Blind Boxer, about a boxer slowly losing his sight but needing to keep boxing to pay for treatment for his sick son. And The Big Palooka brought down the Mr Big of Chicago before turning to England in the same issue.
It was another of those spells where most of the series were of little interest to me, just The Blitz Kid, the Wonder of the Western Isles and the perennially interesting V for Vengeance. Though there’s one aspect about the football story that has me reserving judgement: it’s one thing for the rogue to keep Rory’s real identity hidden from his bereaved father and another for Rory’s mentor, the Blind Laird, to do the same. Where is this going?
Having said that, V for Vengeance wrapped up in issue 134 (2 April) with the Deathless Men playing a vital part in the real-life sinking of the Bismarck, to be replaced, ‘like-for-like’, by The One-Pip Wonder. This was about a sharp Second Lieutenant taking over a Reconnaissance Patrol that had gotten sloppy, which was decently interesting.
And Rory Grant’s story ended in issue 136 with the Laird making a clean breast of everything, AND admitting he’d been a total bastard over the missing boy, which I didn’t expect. Oh yes, and winning the FA Cup too.
Just when it looked like I was in danger of running out of series to enjoy, an old favourite came to the rescue in issue 138 (30 April). The Forbidden Quest of William Wilson, set at a guess in the late Forties, concerned itself with Wilson’s desire to climb Mount Everest, via the then-primary route from Tibet. And the relief became a rush for, though Arnold Tabbs’ teenage years came to an end in issue 139, there was the simultaneous return of both Nick Smith and Bernard Briggs the following week and, yes, just as I predicted this was Briggsy’s stint as a tennis player.
The series went under the sub-title of The Roughneck of the Courts, and set Bernard up with two soon-to-be-competing interests: tennis and winning Lorry Driver of the Year. I remember a fair amount of this one. I don’t remember anything at all about the new It’s Goals that Count, but it’s got me hooked already. Nick and Arnold’s latest club are the English representatives in the new World League, a team of internationals except for J.P. Sedley, an unknown amateur brought in as right half, captain and tactician. Sedley, whose touch is cool, whose expression never changes, and who has all the unique skills of the former international Steve Woolmer, who vanished in the Blitz, but who would be over 60 by now…
And to cap it all, Rob Higson followed the list of stalwarts back into action in issue 141, in The Nameless One, another set-up I remember. The title character was Len Hamlet, a foundling seventeen year old super-cricketer from the Highshire groundstaff. But where was he born? Did he qualify to play from Highshire or did he belong to Broadshire? (This is the relic of the days when only men born within the County could play for the County Cricket Club).
The One-Pip Wonder ended in issue 146 (25 June), having proved to be a pretty decent, realistic War story, set in the Battle of the Bulge, though this was never referred to as such. A one-off story covered that slot, then in issue 148, three new stories started up. None of these looked immediately inspiring, and the SF one, The Purple Planet, paid all the attention to scientific and astronomic reality of Captain Condor at his stupidest.

But all good series come to an end. The Nameless One ended with the inevitable revelation that Len Hamlet was qualified to play for Highshire, and his crazy father faced up to justice in issue 151 (30 July). A week later, Wilson reached the summit of Everest, not that he admitted it, and took a breather, though to my delight this made way for one of those features I’d never forgotten, Nightingale Nobbs.
Nobbs was one of those natural ideas, funny without being silly, and flexible. Nobbsy was a wrestler, a beaten-up bloke with a broken nose, two cauliflower ears and missing teeth, a real horrorshow. He also had the voice of and angel, you just couldn’t put him on stage. Ken Barry was a reporter. He had the matinee idol looks but couldn’t sing. So music Manger Mike Mason put Ken on stage miming to Nobbs, singing in the wings, a trick they couldn’t afford to have exposed. Except that Nobbs still had contract to wrestle and a list of names as long as his arm – in fact, it was tattooed on it – on whom he wanted revenge.
Nick Smith made it three out of three endings when Granton United won the World League and Sedley finally remembered which past footballer he actually was, though the mystery of the ice-cold skin was conveniently forgotten, naughty naughty (just like with Fergus). Not that it mattered because, after just one week’s absence, Wilson was back, reunited with his usual artist, in Wilson and the Black Olympics.
The title tempered my usual enthusiasm for a Wilson story and the opening episode was not propitious. In the London Olympics year of 1948, prominent white sportsman were being kidnapped, to Africa, where for propaganda purposes the ‘simple’ black natives would see their own beating the white man. This was an inherently dodgy subject.
The clean sweep followed in issue 155 (27 August) in the remembered fashion. Briggs reached the Men’s Singles and Doubles Finals at Wimbledon, dropped out of the former to win the Lorry Driver of the Year Competition instead and then carried his crocked partner to victory in the Doubles. This time, he didn’t even take a week off, following in Arnold Tabbs’ footsteps in The Boyhood of Bernard Briggs, little Briggsy aged 11.
This was the start of another fluid spell, with new stories starting singly practically every week, none of any great substance. The best of these was The Rifleman of the Rocks, about a sniper in Borneo, the sole survivor of an ambushed platoon, single-handedly holding up the Japanese advance, because this had Hornet’s best artist on it, with some beautiful detailed figurework and backgrounds.
Nightingale Nobbs’ fun little story carried me through to issue 167 (19 November) and Wilson’s Black Olympics lasted only a week longer. Though the subject was dubious and the outcome severely colonial, it was better than it could have been, and the Zulu leader Chaka, though a fanatic intending to raise the whole of Africa, was presented with dignity and as a strictly fair man. And the Rifleman completed his self-imposed duty in issue 170 (10 December, and the last I read at Brigham Street in Openshaw; so I did read Hornet past the move to Burnage Lane).
If I was taking the contents of Hornet as any portent, life in my new home didn’t get off to a great start, as Briggs’ boyhood was the only decent series, and that had settled into a repetitive round, plus one half-bearable football story that was neither funny enough nor sporty enough.
Fortunately for my 21st century interest, Nick Smith and It’s Goals that Count returned in issue 173 (31 December). Nick and Arnold were transferred to their umpty-gazillionth club (and it’s only 1958), newly bought by an American Corporation who reckon that a successful football club is the way to British hearts, even in a Rugby League town: Nick’s going to have a lot of explaining to do, isn’t he?
This is an aspect of the entire comic that had long been evident but which has only now been made explicit: there are absolutely no contemporary series. We are one page away from 1967 and the setting for Nick and Arnold is almost a decade before. Wilson hasn’t even reached the Fifties yet. Contrast this with Lion and Valiant, if not the futuristic TV21. The DC Thomson papers all occupy a very narrow range of styles and it cannot be coincidence that they refuse to enter the modern era. I’ve heard some things about hidebound management, and this is in keeping with those stories.
Briggs’ Boyhood came to an end with an implausible twist in issue 175 (14 January 1967), which saw him set up for himself with business premises… at age 11? But I was more intrigued by the Nick Smith episode, and the unexpected appearance of Bert Bunting. Who? do you say? I have vivid memories of Bert, who is Rob Higson’s best pal at Highshire, his equivalent of Arnold Tabbs. It’s an unusual step for two separate series to have a crossover, but what concerns me most is that Bunting hasn’t yet been introduced in It’s Runs that Count. I want an explanation.
And five seconds research reveals the bitter truth that also accounts for the fixation with not setting stories in the Sixties: these are all bloody reprints! Nick and Arnold and Rob and Bert, from The Rover, at different times in the Fifties. What a chiz! (which is a swizz and a swindle, as any fule kno).
Bert turned out to not just be a bird expert who cured all the Blackford pigeons, but an enthusiastic supporter and a more than useful inside right, but I’m now waiting for his ‘debut’ where he really belongs, at Highshire.

For a few weeks, I only had It’s Goals that Count to keep me interested, and it’s not even that good a serial, but relief was on hand in issue 180 (18 February), with three new series, seeing the simultaneous return of Arnold Tabbs as The Blitz Kid, the ever-welcome Wilson and a third V for Vengeance. Arnold was now 15, homeless again and having to rebuild himself after his broken leg and blood-poisoning, Wilson was helping the British Government on an experiment in severe cold conditions and the Deathless Men were helping two British agents follow a trail of rare butterflies to rescue a third (no, seriously).
There was also a return from the Swamp Rat in issue 182 (4 March), even though the War in the Pacific was over, plus another in a recent run of gimmicky-boxing stories, this one with Tibetan overtones. And, to be honest, whether it’s a sign of the times now we’re solidly into 1967, or it’s me reading too many Hornets too fast, not only are the one-off series dull and uninvolving, the favourites are well below par this time. Only The Blitz Kid is maintaining the standard of its earlier run, and that consists of him being made homeless again every two to three weeks.
V for Vengeance came to an end in issue 188 (15 April) without the Deathless Men ever being more than supporting characters in their own series, a big letdown, and Wilson’s lacklustre story followed it two issues later. And I owe The Blitz Kid an apology for having prematurely accused it of being repetitive, for it did break out of the cycle of homelessness for Arnold.
There was a tremendous surprise in issue 192 (13 May), when Hornet entered new territory with an adaptation of the popular American TV Western series, Laramie, though appearances were kept up since the series had been off the air sine 1963 and the adaptation was of the first season, broadcast in 1959: never even unknowingly up-to-date.
Nick Smith ended his season in issue 196 (10 June), with another Double, Second Division Championship and yet another FA Cup (was there a season this man didn’t win the Cup?), making room for It’s Runs that Count, billed as starring Rob Higson and Len Hamlet, and introducing Bert Bunting. You really do wonder at times.
Arnold Tabbs’ back-story ended in issue 199 (1July) with his meeting with Nick Smith as seen so long ago, putting him into the First Division at the age of 26. Which ought to make him 40 at least when you count up the number of clubs he and Nick have been jointly transferred to by now, but who’s counting?
So another 100 issues goes by, with the teaser of a new Bernard Briggs story to lead off the next lot. This lot has been a mixed bag, with some glorious rolling in nostalgia giving way to a feeling of malaise. For the last half of this bunch, reading Hornet has been a mostly flat experience. After Nightingale Nobbs, there have been some series I have followed, but many more that, after a week or two, and several before the end of the first episode I have scrolled past.
Because this is a boy’s comic, and an archaic boy’s comic at that. It has no interest in reflecting its times, or in exercising the imagination of its audience. It is tied to the idea that what worked in the past is still the only way of doing things, and not even the only right way. It’s for kids, and no-one else, and it’s got more reprints than I realised, and the only reason I didn’t realise this sooner is because the new stories that wrap themselves round the reprints are created in the same mould.
I will produce a third instalment, though not necessarily for this slot next time. Two hundred issues in just over four weeks is a bit too much and I need to cleanse my palate a bit. And if the third instalment gives me the end of my Wilson’s Ashes story, it may be a long while before we see a fourth.