Good Girl Comics: Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld


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It was a good time to be a DC fan in the early Eighties, as the company bounced back with unexpected speed and agility from the nadir of the infamous Implosion and the threat that DC, and maybe even comics, might vanish. Instead, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein and George Perez, Marvel-exiles all, assigned to a series that at least one of them didn’t think could last, let alone would, turned The New Teen Titans into DC’s first genuine Direct Market success and, for much of the decade at least, things were on the up.
That half-decade, leading up to Crisis on Infinite Earths, was a fun time for experiments. Marvel did Marvel, and did it harder than ever but DC, under a management that accepted being Number Two and concentrated on providing more diverse experiences for older readers, came out with a number of fresh ideas, offering their readers things that differed.
It wasn’t always successful. Robert Loren Fleming’s Thriller was deliberately impressionistic, to the point of wilful obscurity: it flattered to deceive though I retain fond memories of it and all twelve issues, even the ones written by Bill DuBay that turned it into a hideous mess. On the other hand, Len Wein’s leftfield throw to hire a British writer from Northampton to totally invert his baby, Swamp Thing, changed the entire industry for a couple of decades.
In this atmosphere, a writing team consisting of Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn started getting regular assignments at DC, consciously intent on bringing a kind of updated Silver Age fun into an industry that, under the influence of The Uncanny X-Men, was trending towards anger, pain and other dark elements. They would make their most substantial contribution towards that goal in 1984, with the creation of Blue Devil (which efforts would lead to one of the most stupid letters ever printed in a comic book anywhere in the world). But the previous year, they and artist Ernie Colon came together on a bright, lovely and fantastic in the best sense twelve-issue maxi-series, Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld.

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The story pitched for a strong, fairy-tale like atmosphere, deliberately geared towards a female readership. It structured itself as an adventure, with a nod towards superheroics of a kind that, without which the book would not have sold, but by making its lead character a young, almost pre-pubescent girl who, magically, transforms into a beautiful Princess aged twenty – adult but still close to her girlishness – Mishkin and Cohn used archetypal tropes to hold the attention of an audience not geared to comics.
And in Ernie Colon they had the perfect artist: clear, clean, with bold black lines, influenced by Gil Kane in his action sequences but, best of all, able to draw Amy Winston as the thirteen year old girl she was, and Amethyst as a tall, blonde, long-legged and beautiful woman who drew the eye as a clean-cut and non-sexually threatening figure and, best of all, relate the two versions of the character to one another.
Colon’s art was both dynamic and comforting. He had a knack for the implausible landscapes of a fantasy land, the Gemworld, rendering them in a sharp-edged style that made them look realistic, even as his art was comforting and cheerful.
Mishkin and Cohn played their story cleverly, aware of what elements were standard tropes and dealing with these with confidence instead of the knowingness that would have undermined and destroyed the series. Amy Winston was an ordinary, blonde, freckle-faced thirteen year old, an only child of ordinary parents – a businessman and a child psychologist – and basically happy with life and school, until she is pulled inside a portal, a hole in the wall, and finds herself aged twenty in the mysterious place known as Gemworld where people she doesn’t know are trying to kill her.

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Over the first half of the story, the writers let Amethyst experience things, doling out information as needed to advance matters. Amethyst and Amy alternate. The opening page of the story riffs on the child-like trope of believing your parents are not your real parents and that you are secretly a Princess, and plays with that. Amy is not the daughter of Herb and Marion Winston, but of Lord and Lady Amethyst, the beloved and benevolent rulers of Gemworld, a fantastic dimension founded by the witch Citrine, who led the folk of magic out of medieval Earth to live and prosper here.
Gemworld is divided between Twelve Houses, each named after Gemstones – Ruby, Emerald, Topaz, Garnet, etc. – ruled over by the House of Amethyst, until, that is, the evil Lord Dark Opal built forces to usurp their rightful leadership. Lord and Lady Amethyst sacrificed themselves to enable their baby daughter to be saved by Citrine, placing her with the Winstons, whose own baby had just died in childbirth. Time flows differently between the two realms, thus enabling our heroine to be simultaneously 13 year old Amy and 20 year old Amethyst., depending on where she is at any given time.
The second half of the series forsakes Earth and the Winstons. Dark Opal is planning to achieve ultimate power, by securing a chip from every House’s gemstone and welding these into a breast plate that will make him invincible. Amethyst intervenes to prevent the marriage of Lady Sapphire – allied to Dark Opal – to young Topaz, the Prince Charming of the bunch, and thereafter builds a coalition of, eventually, the eleven remaining Houses that finally destroys Dark Opal and all his realm.
Then Amethyst is able to return home and become Amy again, though she knows that if ever trouble recurs in the future, she can transform into her secret identity by returning.

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The whole series was a charming blend of the superheroics, which lay under the surface, and the fairy tale. I didn’t buy it at the time but found a complete set very cheap in a Sheffield shop that provided me with tons of my pre-eBay Eagles. I enjoyed it, especially Colon’s art, which combined clarity with a Perez-ian ability to add detail without obscuring the eye. In the end, it failed to survive one of my periodic culls of the comics I didn’t regularly read but I’m very happy to have it back on DVD-Rom, taking up no space whatsoever.
The Maxi-series was a success, enough to spawn first an Annual, in 1984, then an open-ended series, starting from no. 1 again. This I’m reading for the first time. It doesn’t augur well.
It’s an all-too-common failing. Mishkin, Cohn and Colon conceived Amethyst as a complete story, developed over a number of years, and intended to run contrary to the standard DC output. It was a success against the odds of a comic book structure not set up for such things. DC wanted to replicate that success. Mishkin and Cohn wanted to further explore the world they had created. The Annual was conceived as a lead-in to the new series. But maxi-series are complete because they have an ending. That sounds incredibly trite but it makes a massive structural difference.

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For one thing, Ernie Colon dropped out. The Annual was drawn by Ric Estrada and Pablo Marcos. Instantly, Colon’s bright, sharp images and their distinct lines were lost, as was the whole fairy-tale aspect. Estrada and Marcos were plainer and more conventional of line. They eschewed panel borders, marking no separation between images. Their art was overall more drab, their layouts less distinct.
Nor was the story up to scratch. It started on Earth with Amy and her best friend Rita (a red herring in the maxi-series, possessing an Opal stone) playing basketball when a dwarf breaks through and tries to steal Amy’s amethyst pendant. To fight it, she transfers to Gemworld, with Rita in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, the new Lady Emerald is about to be invested, whilst the impulsive, red-headed Lady Turquoise is mooning over golden-haired Lord Topaz (who is mooning over Amethyst) whilst young Lady Emerald confronts some mysterious menace. Amethyst rescues the munchkins from their land, the former Dark Opal territory but has to rescue Rita from a cat-like menace that turns out to be a former witch’s familiar, transformed by strange magic into an evil intent on conquering Gemworld. To neutralise it, leaving Rita behind temporarily, Amethyst and young Lady Emerald take it back to Earth where it turns back into a cat, but find their portal back to Gemworld blocked. Throw in lots of superheroing in the form of magical battles and you can see the problem: not only is the freshness drastically dimmed, but the story is all about setting up the new series, leaving the Annual incomplete. Something tells me not to read the new series…
Because one thing that always enters in with an open-ended series is Soap Opera, those unending sub-plots that drag down and trivialise events, like Princesses immediately starting to whine like adolescent girls. I got just two issues into the new series, pencilled by Ric Estrada and, for one bright moment in issue 1, inked by Ernie Colon before Romeo Tanghal took over, before deciding not to read any more.
The thing is, as it has taken me a lifetime to learn, you don’t have to accept everything in the DC Universe as real. Just because they publish it, just because diverse hands and minds – the latter term to be read metaphorically – have contributed doesn’t mean that you have to treat it as all being ‘real’. I choose to ignore the latter Amethyst because I can see already that it’s going to be absolute twaddle, even when written by Mishkin and Cohn, and edited by Karen Berger. The Maxi-series is a polished gem, and I’m content with that.

Strange (but hateful) Adventures


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How swiftly things can change.
I think it was as recently as 2018 that I discovered Tom King’s writings on Batman. I knew the name from various praise-filled comments about his Vision series for Marvel, but I tend to ignore anything written for Marvel. But I responded to a couple of reviews of Batman and was instantly hooked.
It meant I kept a close eye out for any other writing King did. I liked his perspective, I liked the angles he found, I looked forward avidly to Heroes in Crisis. That, however, turned out to be a bust, and a big one too. It wasn’t just the creative abdication of coming up with the story and meekly allowing himself to be dictated to as to the characters he had to use, it was the structure of the story itself, the failure to create a clearly developing story from episode to episode, and the stultifying revelation that everything in issues 1 to 8 were meaningless since they were a construction meant to conceal what actually happened.
Still, disappointment though that was, I could at least point, honestly, to the unknown quantity of just by how much Dan DiDio had interfered with the story. Maybe the crap was what DiDio rained down on the project.
So I approached the idea of an Adam Strange story with an open mind and optimism. DiDio was gone, the interference would, at the very least, be more sympathetic and less jarring. King was still an interesting writer, with a distinctive point of view.
Well, the final issue is finally out and I have read the story in full, the way all stories need to be read in order to make a serious appraisal of them. My final verdict remains unchanged from the opinion I formed round about issue 3 or 4, issue 5 at the very latest. It’s shit. Full set available on eBay from Sunday.
Some of that change is me. Over more or less the same period since I discovered King for myself, I have been expansively reading old comic book series, comics that represent the time I first discovered them in East Manchester. Among them was a run of Mystery in Space, featuring the complete Julius Schwartz/Gardner Fox/Carmine Infantino Adam Strange run. The science hero, defeating the monsters with good old American know-how and purity, the saviour of Rann, over and over and over again.
I loved it. I loved it for how it was about a hero, a parfit, gentil knight, who came, saw, conquered, not for himself but for the woman he loved and beyond her the people she belonged to.
Tom King wasn’t the first to start to dig beneath that idyllic surface. For that, we have to go back to Alan Moore. Moore, however, played with the situation, not with the hero. Strange was the dupe, but he was still the pure-hearted hero, still the man Schwartz, Fox and Infantino made him.
But such things are not to be allowed now. Goodness no longer has any premium. Darkness must be inserted everywhere. Not just the creators of modern day comics require this, but also the audience. I expected Strange Adventures to pervert Adam Strange in some fashion. But with King as the writer, I expected that perversion to be well thought-out and at the very least interesting.
King chose to quite simply pollute Adam Strange beyond all recognition and recovery. He chose to do so in a manner calculated to create shock and revulsion, and it is indeed revolting, because it is so crude and disgusting. And so utterly dull.
The story is quite straightforward but King tells it inside out, achronologically and in a circular format that ends where it begins in order to spin it out and make it as confusing as possible. To this end he mixes and matches two different artists, one who does the classic Infantino-clear fantasy and the other who does the ‘realistic’ dirty, grubby, ‘honest’ version.
Unwinding things reveals the plainness. In classic Adam Strange fashion, Rann is under attack from the Pykkts, a race of alien conquerors, undefeated. Rann, under the leadership of Strange and his wife Alanna, defeats them, but their daughter Aleea is killed. Adam and Alanna come to Earth with Adam’s memoirs, intent on warning Earth that it is next. One lone fanatic accuses Adam of war crimes and lies: he is found murdered by laser pistol. Adam asks the Justice League to investigate him, to exonerate him. Mr Terrific is assigned. No-one co-operates, not Adam, not Alanna, not Sardath, not Rann. Terrific works out the lie: that during the War, Adam was captured, tortured, broke, did a deal to save Rann by turning Earth over to the Pykkts and left his daughter among them as a hostage, telling Alanna, her mother, that she was dead. Once Terrific exposes the truth to Alanna, she angrily confronts Adam. Rather than let her expose him, and endanger Aleea, Adam pulls his laser pistol on her. They fight over it, it goes off and, you never saw this coming, did you, it shoots him.
What I didn’t see coming before the final issue arrived yesterday is that that shot killed Adam Strange. And I’m bound to say that the final issue was somewhat impressive. Not enough to redeem the series, nor the destruction of Adam Strange, but enough not to leave a totally bad taste in my mouth.
The final issue centres upon Alanna and Mr Terrific – Michael – flying to a negotiated rendezvous with the defeated Pykkts, to take Aleea back. Alanna is in no mood for shilly-shallying. On the other hand, Aleea has been dreadfully affected by her experience: she is shy, withdrawn, awfully formal, unable to release the emotion you might expect of a girl restored to her mother: credit King for a very effective Show not Tell.
Because Adam is dead, killed by Alanna (we are not given how deliberate that may or may not have been). And Alanna is going back to Rann, to help her home, without its Earth-Hero, to prepare for the Pykkts’ revenge, but Aleea will be kept safe on Earth, living with Michael ‘Mr Terrific’ Holt. Since King can’t resist introducing a little shit into everybody’s character, making him responsible, against his will, the guy who lost his wife and child but pushed on beyond that, it’s meant as both punishment for destroying their family by discovering the truth but also as being good for him.
Despite some good moves in this final issue, King still manages to lose control of his overall story, which frankly wasn’t worth the old newsprint paper Mystery in Space used to appear on, let alone the white glossy stuff we have now. Continuity is blurred and it’s revealed that Alanna wrote Adam’s memoirs for him so the lies Terrific detected were hers not his. Sheesh.
Nevertheless, the collection is going on eBay come Sunday, in exactly the way Doomsday Clock and Heroes in Crisis did, and here’s to getting something back for it. The winddown advances: one last Moonshine graphic novel and five more Batman/Catwomans, but Astro City will be back next year so it still isn’t all over… And I wouldn’t even read the reviews for King’s Rorscharch. Just like I will not read any other story he writes. How swiftly things change.

The Doctor is In(consistent): The Modern Magic of Doctor Fate


Martin Pasko and Walt Simonson did more than just produce a superb story in First Issue Special 9, they turned Dr Fate into a viable modern-day character. Though it took DC until the Eighties before they began to take Fate’s possibilities seriously, there were multiple attempts during that decade to turn the master magician, the Lord of Order, into a viable feature.
Pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths there was a back-up feature in The Flash for eight issues, later collected in a prestige format mini-series together with the Pasko/Simonson story, then post-Crisis a four issue mini-series that killed off Kent and Inza Nelson and introduced a new Dr Fate, an ongoing series of forty-one issues, the longest run Fate had after More Fun Comics, which was effectively two series stapled together, the first (of twenty-four issues) featuring Eric and Linda Strauss, the second (seventeen issues), bringing back Kent and Inza Nelson.
All of this was separate from Dr Fate’s regular gig in the Justice League/Justice Society team-ups, where he was the most frequent participant from the JSA, and his involvement in the team’s second life in All-Star Comics and Adventure Comics.
If you’re thinking that all of this could easily turn out a mish-mash, you’re not far wrong. I have all these solo issues on DVD now, together with a much later solo mini-series which has very little relationship to these efforts to establish the character, which I’ll precis at the end.
For now, let’s look at how Fate fared in the back of The Flash in 1983.

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There were two stories in this run, each of four instalments, the first written by Pasko, building on the factors he’d set up in First Issue Special – Fate’s connection to the Egyptian Gods, Kent Nelson’s position as host for Fate and Inza’s continuing inability to reconcile herself to the need to share her husband with something she couldn’t understand and her loneliness when Fate is away on missions – and the second was written by Steve Gerber, with Pasko, which expanded the story in the direction that was later to be taken with the character.
The episodes were all drawn by Keith Giffen, with inks from Larry Mahlstedt, in the clean, open, neo-futurist style he’d used on the Legion of Superheroes, which had brought him great acclaim. Giffen drew fantastic scenes and made superb use of colour overlays to add a psychedelic aspect to his art.
The second story picked up on a thread introduced by way of foreshadowing by Pasko. This was museum director Vernon Copeland, a handsome man in his (probably) fifties, with distinguished white hair at his temples. Copeland is new at his job, with an affinity for women his own age that leads him to brush off the flirting directed at him by his sexy secretary.
Vern wants to get Kent Nelson, noted archaeologist, to contribute to the museum, but in the only photo he has, Kent is almost completely obscured by Inza, who Vern thinks is absolutely hot.
Which is unfortunate because, when Vern calls in the Gerber/Pasko story, Kent is off being Dr Fate and Inza answers the phone. When Vern hears she was on the relevant dig with Kent, he enthusiastically invites her to lunch. He thinks she’s even hotter in person, whilst Inza not only enjoys flexing her own archaeological muscles, she finds Vern rather dishy. Some of that is a response to the obvious way that he’s into her, but an equal part of it is that he looks like Kent would, if Fate had allowed him to age to his real age. Suddenly, they’re kissing. At the very moment that Fate, reaching out to Inza, connects with her and sees. At least it’s Fate, not Kent. So far.
Of course, the whole thing is a plot to destroy Dr Fate by driving a wedge between Kent and Inza, until the former refuses to transform again. Fate is faced with two renegade Lords, one of Order, the other of Chaos, allied for their own ends. His only recourse is to draw Inza herself into the merge, giving him the power to defeat his foes, her her first insight to what it’s really like to be the Lord of Order, and both a true understanding of the gulf between their separate situations.
Where Pasko or Gerber would have gone with that, and with Vern Copeland, who’d already tried to separate Inza from Kent deliberately, claiming he didn’t deserve her if he neglected her, still set on pursuing our red-headed lady was not to be known. The back-ups ceased, Vern Copeland was forgotten, and the next time DC tried to activate Dr Fate, Crisis on Infinite Earths was over, and more than one superhero was undergoing change.

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The path had been laid for the character’s most extraordinary transformation. Inza Nelson had been allowed, for a couple of pages, to share the transformation into Dr Fate and it was this aspect that J M de Matteis picked up on with a four-issue mini-series out to create a new Dr Fate. Art was by Giffen again, but this was the other Giffen, the one who’d rejected his clean, well-structured art for something fractured, angular and distorted, as influenced by the Argentinian artist, Jose Munoz.
I bought the mini-series at the time but didn’t enjoy it. Some of it was that it took away Kent Nelson, who’d been Dr Fate all the time I’d known him, a lot was down to Giffen’s art but as much of it was de Matteis’ construction of a new structural underpinning.
de Matteis was always into stories with a spiritual underpinning, drawn from Eastern philosophies rather than Western mythology, to which I always respond more instinctively. Building on the fact that Dr Fate, or rather Nabu, was now established as a Lord of Order, part of the eternal struggle between Order and Chaos that everyone ripped off from Michael Moorcock, de Matteis now introduced the idea that Earth cycles through four cosmic cycles, starting with an era of pure Order, passing through two ages of increasing Chaos influence and ultimately putting us now firmly in the fourth of these cycles, the Kali Yuga, the age of pure Chaos.
So, despite the battle between Order and Chaos having gone on for over half a million years Order has decided not to bother for the Kali Yuga. Why should they raise a mystical finger when all they need to is go for an extended tea-break and come back when it’s their turn again?
This defeatist attitude riles Nabu/Fate, who is the descended one because he was sent down to Earth to fight against Chaos and won’t give up now. As a result, he’s kicked out of Order and, effectively, defrocked. The fight is his own. And he’s handicapped.
Because Inza is dead. Later, it will be ascribed to suicide, to knowledge of the discovery that will not be made until the last issue of this mini-series but for now it’s fudged, it could just as easily be natural causes, despite Nabu’s spells that keep both Nelsons young. Either way, Kent has aged considerably (no, he doesn’t look like Vern Copeland, Vern is completely forgotten) and is only hanging around to assist Nabu in selecting a new Dr Fate. Nabu at this point is a wide-open mouth in Nelson’s stomach, with lots of predatory teeth, which is a sight you don’t want to see.
The choice falls upon Eric Strauss. The pattern is going to be the same. Eric is only ten years old but he’s going to be accelerated to manhood, exactly like Nelson. Only he’s not like Nelson in almost every way you could probably imagine. His Dad, who’s dead, was a big-time gangster. He’s being brought up by his stepmother, Linda Strauss, a somewhat skinny short-haired blonde, though you can tell very little from how Giffen draws her.
The relationship between Eric and Linda can only be classed as dodgy. Linda has feelings and, dare we say it, stirrings about her ten year old stepson. He’s so wise, so mature, an old soul, and besides she only married his Dad for his money, which doesn’t say much for her to begin with.
And then suddenly Eric’s a grown man, age undetermined but impliedly on a par with her, and whilst she’s outraged at what has been done to him, there’s a part of her that, to put it bluntly, can’t wait to get at him.
But the big reveal comes when Eric insists on having Linda with him when he transforms into the Doctor, whilst Nabu tries to insist she stay out of it. This is no mere misogynist gesture, because Eric realises the real and awful truth, which is that Dr Fate was always intended to be the merger of male and female (into a very male looking form but we’ll deal with consistency when anyone gives a damn). Fate should always have been Kent and Inza, but Nabu shunted the redhead aside so he could control Dr Fate himself, naughty naughty.
Cue therefore a complete meltdown from Eric, calling Nabu as evil as Chaos, the effective merger of him and her and Fate saving the temporary day. After that Kent dies peacefully but the now no-longer-Lord-of-Order Nabu takes over his aged body to act as trainer and advisor to Eric and Linda who, henceforth and forever, will be Dr Fate.
Actually, they won’t, but you know how these things go.

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This was where Doctor Fate’s first ever ongoing series under his own name began. It’s written by de Matteis, but art duties have transferred to Shawn McManus, the artist of all the bucolic-looking, cartoon-like fill-ins on Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, most notably the homage to Pogo. McManus was perfect on those, his style involving rounded characters and perpetual broad grins suggesting we’re mere inches away from the top of the head falling off, but dare I suggest he’s not the best fit for a superhero supernatural series which is going to involve demons, as well as a very awkward psychosexual setup involving a twenty-nine year old woman hot to trot and a ten year old boy in the body of a twenty-nine year old man who is nowhere near the emotional maturity to handle jumping her skinny bones. The situation is not helped by McManus’s style on Linda’s short hair doing very little to make her look tempting (bring back Inza!).
The note being struck at first is predictable: it’s all about arguments. Nabu argues with Eric about his abandoning the connection that lets him advise them, Linda argues with Eric about the bombastic way he talks, he argues with her about being a weak part of the combination, oh it’s a happy little household indeed.
Meanwhile, an overlooked demon invader of hideous mien stalks towards Fate’s sanctum to be attacked thoughtlessly when actually he’s a non-bad demon who only wants to live in Earth in peace once Nabu talks to him, and is adopted as the household pet, Petey, shape-shifted into a dog. Since de Matteis is, and the humour definitely was Jewish, it’s highly appropriate for me to say, Oi vey!
This formulation would last exactly two years. I did have the run but I sold it, unhappy at too many aspects of it, from the jokey art to the mystical writing and some extremely glutinous combinations of the two. One major departure was that Fate’s golden helm was no longer a helm but Fate’s head, which may not have looked much different but was hard to reconcile to.
The panel to panel writing is even more irritating now. de Matteis was dialoguing Justice League International as a superhero sitcom and carries that over to this series. Not having re-read the JLI in a couple of decades, I wonder how I might feel about it now, but it’s tedious here thanks to the self-consciousness with which it’s laid on.
The constant bickering between Eric and Linda, both in propria persona and in the shared consciousness of the Doctor was repetitive in the extreme over the early issues, with Eric playing the bombastic card, the gothic language, the uncontrolled temper underlined by the fear of inexperience, and Linda trying to play an equal role. It was enough to drive anyone mad and Eric was a long way down the road already when, as early as issue 4, he lets Linda take over, producing a female Doctor Fate, and one with much bigger tits than she had, a fact rather blatantly highlighted on the cover of the next issue, along with her ass. Karen Berger is still editing this, isn’t she?
The first serialised story took five issues to get through, ending with a ton of metaphysical nonsense bound up in over-ripe smiles and the non-death and non-rebirth of the universe. I don’t remember it being so utterly awful back then, I may have been thirty years and more younger but I wasn’t that undiscriminating.
McManus started inking his own pencils in issue 7, in which Petey went back to Hell to fetch his demon girlfriend, a story that was literally unreadable, and that before the constant cutesy dialogue. We were only just half a year into the series and Eric was laid up with dysentery (who cares?) so Linda had to become tits-and-ass Fate again, painfully, only half as strong and with practically no knowledge of the magic side of things, that being Eric’s job. I am already being tempted to go and re-read Swing with Scooter.
Anyway, if you believe the story, Eric died in issue 9, and Darkseid turned up to loom ominously. Even though it was continued on the next cover, he wasn’t actually dead, although don’t start planning any parties because de Matteis is off on another of his spiritual ascensions. A new fetus is about to arrive on Earth that will be the first in a new order of Humanity, outgrowing gods, especially Order, Chaos and New. In fact, that’s why Order wants to speed through the Kali Yuga, to get rid of it before it gets rid of them. Darkseid offers to kill it in return for a half share in the Universe, whichever side wins.
So Darkseid goes to kill Dr Fate in the form of Eric, because Linda’s out of town. Eric becomes Dr Fate on his own but is Boom Tubed to Apokalips. Linda becomes Dr Fate on her own as well and goes to Apokalips to rescue Eric. Vel Semeiks and Mark Buckingham fill-in at the crucial moment. Eric-Fate and Linda-Fate hold hands and defeat Parademons. On Earth, Nabu admits that the energies he used to age Eric from 10 to 29 are killing him. On Apokalips, the Strauss’s defeat Darkseid by opening their love for each other in his heart (oh, now he’s raping Kirby’s creations as well).
Having won the day, Linda’s just about to take the exhausted Eric home when a soldier throws a spear at her. Eric jumps in the way. He dies. I told you not to start planning any parties. We are halfway through de Matteis’s run but don’t worry, it gets worse.
So, in the space of one year, a Doctor Fate intended to be the merger of male and female, animus and anima, is reduced to anima only, to play the weak female stereotype with a survivor incapable of handling the power and the responsibility. What is this, still the Fifties? Was Karen Berger editing this? No, she’d moved on, to better things (i.e., absolutely anything else) and left it to Art Young now).
Before that there was an odd story in issue 13, concluding the death of Eric story. McManus suddenly sharpened up his art whilst de Matteis provided a surprisingly excellent portrayal of Linda in denial-grief over the loss of Eric. She insisted on forcing herself to become Dr Fate, despite the absolute torture that represented, and going off to Limbo to bring him back, at which point the story nose-dived into what de Matteis had Linda call ‘cosmic platitudes’, though immediately afterwards she Understood. Having a Christ-substitute Guide drawn to look like de Matteis himself was the nadir.
Bringing back Fate’s oldest nemesis, Wotan, and guest-starring Justice League Europe resulted in a mish-mash with another glutinous ending, transforming the villain into a proto-saint by confronting him with the ultimate power, God as Love. You can go off redemption when it’s flung at you so relentlessly, like a custard pie to the face.
The basic problem is that I am completely out of sympathy with de Matteis’ spiritual beliefs, which are the core of the series. In real life I have ended up an atheist, a pragmatist, insistent upon actuality and fact, and the nebulous and, indeed, platitudinousness of de Matteis’ portrayal of a Universe where God is Love and everything is Love, and the pain and suffering of being human can be borne by recognising this Universe of Love is just wishful thinking to me of a kind to which I can’t respond. Or, to put it more crudely, it’s bullshit.
Anyway, the endgame starts in issue 17. Eric and his Guide pause at the edge of Nirvana because he needs to go back, via a convoluted past of people’s previous lives. This is because de Matteis is introducing Eugene de Bella, a slightly overweight, manically happy guy with a wife, a ridiculously beaming daughter called Faith, a de Matteis moustache and another baby on the way. This is the guy de Matteis kills off in a car accident in order that Eric can merge with his body and reanimate it, leading the depressed Linda to beam a truly mad smile that just hurts to look at, it’s such a harbinger of obsessive danger: “He’s alive!”
The story grinds slowly. Linda can’t become Dr Fate any more. An Anti-Fate is constructed by Chaos and takes two full issues of brooding before deciding to act. The Phantom Stranger drops in on Eugene de Bella to talk to Eric (and his sickeningly cute six year old) to unveil the plot that Eric and Wendy’s forthcoming child is the progenitor of the new humanity Order and Chaos were trying to prevent, and Nabu-as-Kent Nelson takes everybody to the reconstructed Fate’s tower in Salem, where the real helm and amulet have also been re-constituted, and Petey the demon and Jack Small the lawyer, who I’ve been trying to avoid mentioning, are sent into the amulet to bring out it’s occupants, the souls of Kent and Inza Nelson… Has this entire run, and its preceding mini-series, just been an elaborate bluff?
Four more issues to the end, four issues none of which were worth describing except the last one, which was in the form of a bedtime story told by The Phantom Stranger to Eugene and Wendy’s six year old heap of sugar daughter Rainie, who could give you diabetes just from looking at her and who, this you hadn’t guessed already? was the new seed of humanity. Along the way, Kent and Inza agreed to come back from their private heaven of normality in the amulet, despite Inza fighting every step of the way until she’s convinced to do so by her imaginary son, whilst Linda became Dr Fate one last time in conjunction with Nabu, got their asses soundly kicked and she died. Which was all right because Wendy de Bella was about to suffer a fatal cerebral haemorrhage and have Linda take over her body, just as Eric had Eugene (so the two could finally shag to their hearts’ content without it being seriously icky).
And everything ended with the cosmic smile that signalled nothing more than the urgent need to turn the page as fast as possible. This has to be the most appallingly sickening series I’ve read and I cannot believe I once actually bought all twenty four issues. Should a time machine come into my possession, I shall be going back to give my younger self a good shillelaghing for doing so.

DF - Inza

I am at least pleased that this issue saw a complete sweep-out, de Matteis, McManus and Young getting the kick in the seat of the pants and being replaced by a completely new creative team, starting with editor Stuart Moore and going on to penciller Vince Garriano and, most welcome of all, writer William Messner-Loebs. This was going to be much better.
I was already a fan of Bill Loebs for his independent series Journey, which he wrote and drew, and it is one of the minor tragedies of my life that not enough people bought Journey to sustain it indefinitely. But Loebs was a refreshing mind, and a very left/socialist oriented one, to bring to bear on any subject, even when he was clearly writing beneath himself on superheroes, like the Wally West Flash and the new Dr Fate.
Because Loebs wasn’t just going to bring back Kent and Inza, oh no. There were a few twists immediately. Instead of being trapped in Fate’s tower in Salem, Kent initiated a merge, first of himself and Inza, then of the tower with a tall, thin apartment block in New York that Sven Nelson owned and Kent inherited. Which is now the last intact building in a neighbourhood that’s not so much run down as being actively decimated, a place for poor people, most of them not white, driven down by the underside of the Yuppie dream.
Meanwhile, the Lords of Order are abandoning Earth to its own fate except for one crusty old bugger determined to wreak revenge on the traitor Nabu and Dr Fate. Only this time, when Kent and Inza try to merge to defend themselves, only Inza makes it through the mix. We have a new, inexperienced female Fate again, one who will approach superpowers with non-male thinking who, in the meantime, defuses Shat-Ru by binding him into the (mummified) body of old Kent, from which he can’t escape without burning it up before he can escape. If you get my drift.
Loebs was taking the series in a unique direction. Inza as Fate thought as a woman, with the instinct to deal with her neighbourhood and the people in it. Doing things that were in themselves trivial, like repairing broken traffic lights and giving people new dresses, things that directly benefited people in ways they could see and feel, without their having to be hurt or threatened first. Kent worried, argued, feared. She wasn’t doing it right, which meant she wasn’t doing it the way he had, even as he was incredibly grateful not to have to be Fate any more.
But was Inza doing too much? Was she retarding people by making them too dependent upon her?
Garriano left after five issues, leaving Peter Gross to take over the full art job for an issue before Chas Truog spelled him. And Loebs dealt with the question of the use of power by having Inza Fate refuse to allow a young Policewoman die, shot in a bloody stupid accident. The energy this took was taken from the living, causing Inza’s elderly friend Mary to have a heart attack. Unintended consequences: even good things have them. And the saved woman understood who Fate really was.
And from there it was one step to taking a Master of the Universe, a man who openly didn’t give a shit for those who had no power, and stripping him of everything: power, money, empire and identity, and using those resources for public benefit.
It was glorious, on one level. All the rich shits should have that done to them, for simply stealing all the air for themselves, but at the same time it was the ultimate in Might makes Right, a level of power that no-one should have. Power Corrupts: What the Hell else is it for? as Howard Chaykin put it.
The path crossed for two issues with DC’s other 1991 Summer crossover, War of the Gods, something for which Dr Fate was well-fitted, En route, four Egyptian gods claimed to have blocked Kent Nelson out of the transformation on the basis that they’d find the inexperienced Inza easier to overcome but it didn’t work out like that.
Loebs then turned the screw by presenting Inza with a tragic outcome based on her not helping someone, causing a backlash where she tries to do everything. This brings Government and Big Business down on her tail because, you know, it’s wonderful that people are happier and safer and more content but they’re not smoking or drinking or doing drugs in the same quantities any more, and we can’t have that, fortunes are not being made out of weakness.
It’s a savage point, an extreme satire yet one that, in the world in which we reside, one of an unwanted truth. Kent has to go in to bring her down, and which point Inza’s swallowed by the Helm… Whilst we’re set up for the big reveal, Kent resumes being Dr Fate in his own way, with the half-helm of yesteryear before coming to the rescue of Inza, prisoner of a Lord of Chaos, because it is Chaos-Magic, not Order, that has infused her tenure, hence Kent’s exclusion.
And in the end, Dr Fate’s investment in people was repaid. When Inza, without chaos-magic or order-magic still defied the Chaos Lord, the neighbourhood stood with her to back her as she had backed them. All over the world, the currents of love and magic in every human being fuelled her. It was another retcon of Dr Fate, in its way as mystical as de Matteis’s gloop, but far more moving and impressive because it needed no gods, just humans to be human in their best way, to be ourselves as we can be. And no damned stupid smiles.
In a way, that was the end. Even though there were four issues left. After a weak fill-in, Loebs contributed a mini-arc of three issues dealing, with a fair degree of reality with the aftermath of what had just happened. There’s an instinctive groundedness to this coda that would permeate the best of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City only a few years later. Of course, being politically sympathetic never hurts.
The whole thing is a gentle easing down, a steering into the skid. There’s a calmness to it that you know can’t last because, after all, it’s only possible to be a different kind of superhero for so long until the novelty wears out and they want the same thing back again. Inza wrapped things up in swaddling clothes, and it was done.
Dr Fate was cancelled after forty-one issues, a decent enough run. For once, it was not cancelled because its sales had fallen too low, but because without a powerful new direction, and a creative team eager to explore it, it would have run itself into the ground, into cancellation, probably within half a year. Why do that? Let it rest in goodwill, and return when someone was fascinated enough to kickstart it again.
That was the theory. In practice, Mike Carlin exerted his influence to get the Justice Society finally killed off in Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, and the next Doctor Fate was no Doctor. The Doc returned as Hector Hall, and later Kent V Nelson, about whom I’ll write another time in a kind of coda to this piece, but this was the last time Kent and Inza Nelson played their signature role.
I’m very glad Bill Loebs put in that year and a half and Fate didn’t end on de Matteis and McManus. But in dozens of old comics the Doctor Fate who matters to me will always exist, in one form or another.

A Spot of Adventure: The Golden Age Revisited – Part 2


In early 1946, Harry Donenfeld’s Detective Comics Inc, and Charley Gaines’ All-American Publications Inc had been in dispute for several months, though negotiations on a $500,000 payout for Gaines were well-advanced, and soon business manager Jack Liebowitz would be negotiating the merger of both companies, plus the little-regarded American Comics Group Inc, another possession of Donenfeld, into National Comics Inc.
These were not the only changes in mind. The War was over, the GIs were coming home, that audience for cheap, gaudy and above all brief entertainment was disappearing, forever. Forget the paper rationing, forget the diminution of the package from 64 pages to 48, times were a-changing, and comics might have to change with them.
Detective’s oldest title was More Fun Comics. A decision was taken, to revamp the title completely, have it live up to its title, convert it to a comic comic. Funny animals, to a large but not exclusive extent.
But More Fun had a successful line-up of superheroes. It had just become home to Superboy, the adventures of Superman as a boy. And there was Aquaman, and The Green Arrow, who was incredibly popular and the lead feature for most of the time since he’d been introduced, nor to mention that flying speedster, Johnny Quick. What was to be done about them?

Adv103

The chosen option was to decant them, lock, stock and barrel, into Detective’s second oldest title, Adventure Comics. Room was made by cancelling both Sandman and Starman, whose series had been running at an artistic loss for ages and could hardly be regretted. The War hero, Mike Gibbs, Guerilla, could be bounced too whilst the odd little oddball series, Genius Jones, could go the other way. He’d be more at home in an all-funny comic anyway. The Shining Knight? He was a superhero so he could be kept on.
And thus, with issue 103, Adventure transformed. What’s more, it was bumped back to monthly publication. If the run from New Comics to New Adventure Comics and beyond had been Phase 1, and the introduction of the original version of Sandman had ushered in Phase 2, now we were in for Phase 3. After the depths to which all the old series had sunk, how could it not be an improvement?
Well, for a start there was the line-up. The Shining Knight was far from being at the forefront, and Johnny Quick, though energetic and saddled with a comic sidekick in Tubby Watts, was enjoyable enough, but the Big Three now were Superboy and Mort Weisinger’s two uninspired knock-offs.
The first Superboy tale demonstrates where Siegel and Shuster were at, or perhaps where they were allowed to be at. This Superboy may be the Boy of Steel but he’s far from the teenager we’re familiar with. The story is set on Clark Kent’s 10th birthday, but it’s also Betty Marrs’ birthday and her need is greater than his. But Superboy has to come to the rescue when the unfortunate misidentification of Betty’s father with a bank robbery suspect has all the good, upstanding, God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth midwestern parents keeping their kids away from her party until Superboy streaks to the rescue and refreezes the melted ice cream.
This Superboy is a boy, a good-hearted little boy with very limited horizons. Siegel wanted his series to be all about showing off and playing pranks with powers but was not allowed to indulge himself that way. Instead, little Clark will use his powers to help his schoolmates. It’s a sweet idea, but somewhat short on thrills. It won’t last, naturally, but whilst it does…

Adv Aqua

Aquaman, with yellow gauntlets and no royal Atlantean blood was a pallid rip-off of Timely’s Sub-Mariner. It’s going to be a long time before he says or does anything remotely interesting, and by long I mean, not even in the decade after this one.
At this remove it’s difficult to appreciate, and even harder to understand, just how popular The Green Arrow was in his early years. I’m disadvantaged in that when I first encountered him he was a penny-plain, making up the numbers JLAer (remember, he was the only existing DC superhero excluded from the JLA’s founding line-up), a genuine C-list character on his best day, so I remember him that way, and all the way up to Neal Adams’ first costume re-design. But at the beginning, The Green Arrow was big. He was More Fun’s cover feature, disturbed only by the recent need to alternate with Dover and Clover (either read about them in my More Fun piece or, preferably, read it but ignore them), and he also had a second slot in World’s Finest, running concurrently.
Yet all he was was a Batman clone, substituting Arrows for Bats as his motif. He’s not even a trick arrow merchant at this point. But he was popular enough to hold down the back of book slot that so many series reserved for their strongest character, making sure the little kids read all the way through.
The Superboy series is very much pitched at the child’s level of its character’s age, with little do-good stories. Ma and Pa Kent hardly appear at all, the town isn’t even named as Smallville and Clark is far from the shrinking klutz he plays later on. Indeed, he’s a confident little boy, at home with his peers and treated as a valued friend by all of them. Yet it can bring us stories like issue 113’s touching little tale, involving neither crime nor villain, just the response of a community to the terrible misfortunes of a man who, for 32 years, has played a secret Santa to the town’s kids, and who needs the good offices of a Santa himself. It managed to be sweet without being sentimental: just a small-town America story that rang true.

Adv GA

The Green Arrow is just bland. Any lingering doubts about him being a Batman knock-off are surely dispelled by him having a clown enemy called Bulls-Eye. As far as Oliver Queen is concerned, there’s a near total absence. Neither Oliver nor Roy Harper have any personality, and we practically only see them out of costume when they’re just about to change into it. And the era of the trick arrow hasn’t started yet: there’s the occasional use of the boomerang arrow and little else. You really couldn’t imagine this guy becoming the Ollie Queen we’ve know since 1969.
Aquaman is similarly drab, but what do you expect from two characters created by Mort Weisinger to be knock-offs. Again, though the blond stiff is described as the Monarch of the Sea, we’ve over a decade to wait for the introduction of Atlantis, and this Aquaman just fights sea-style menaces, most often the pirate Black Jack, who first appears in issue 108. There’s a nasty little story in issue 111 featuring seals and swordfish and electric eels with names and a bunch of stereotype Japanese committing hari-kiri that would have been distinctly unpleasant even if the War was still going.
Between them, Aquaman and The Green Arrow don’t have enough personality to fill a thimble. For some reason he missed out in issue 118.
A new recurring character in Superboy, actually the first regular antagonist, debuted in issue 121. No, it’s not Lana Lang, though I might wish she’d appear soon, but rather the now-forgotten Orville Orville, indulged son of the richest man in town, who uses his father’s wealth to buy instant collections to win every category in a Hobby contest, at the expense of the ordinary, ‘working’ children who’ve built up their collections by hard work, diligence and effort. As he will on each occasion, Superboy intervenes to support his classmates.
It’s a surprisingly blue collar, almost Socialist theme, with echoes of the Protestant work ethic that harks back to some of Superman’s original themes, before the fantastic took over.
In comparison, Johnny Quick is head and shoulders above the rest. The very idea of speed automatically makes the series more vigorous, even if some of the science is more than dodgy. There is, however, a formula to the series in that increasingly they’re all about Johnny having to save the day by doing something relatively ordinary that would normally taken a large workforce days to complete, except that Johnny does it alone and at worst overnight. Add to that some Kubert-influenced art from Mort Meskin and Johnny Quick makes continued reading worthwhile.

Adv JohnnyAs for the Shining Knight, his adventures are, like those of Aquaman and The Green Arrow, are also basically bland but in a different, almost wholesome way. Weisinger’s knock-offs come over as almost aggressively bland, the characters striving to demonstrate their importance, even as their stories are flat and banal. The Shining Knight is just ordinary, but the continuing emphasis on chivalry adds a certain atmosphere that lifts it by just enough of a degree.
But I was bemused by issue 124 when, out of the blue, Sir Justin is partnered with Sir Butch, aka Butch from Beeler’s Alley in Flatbush. The kid is a modern, slang-talking young teen, a tough kid, who’s been back to Camelot with the Knight and been knighted by King Arthur. I’ll swear I’ve read that story somewhere, but this is the kid’s debut. I hope future issues will explain.
But whereas the Knight had appeared continuously since his debut, that run ended after issue 125. He would not finally depart for comic book limbo until issue 166, but from hereon he would be in and out of the title according to no particular rhythm or schedule. For instance, he’s in issue 127 but doesn’t appear again until issue 131, beginning a two-issue run.
Very slowly, the Superboy stories have been evolving out of their ten-year-old helps his pals style. Very slowly, Clark has been ageing, and the proof of this was in issue 131, when he first shows appreciation of a girl. No, it’s not Lana Lang but a brunette cutie named Betty, though in the world of DC Comics she might as well have been named Shallow, first turning him down for their school’s star athlete, then turning to Clark when she needs help with her homework.
The Shining Knight adventure in the next issue re-introduced Sir Butch by telling the out-of-order story of how he meets Sir Justin, goes back to Camelot with him and ends up being knighted by King Arthur: pretty poor editing – credited at this time, as all National’s titles were, to Whitney Ellsworth – to have the stories come out so widely spaced and in this order.
By the time of his next run, three issues from no.137, it seemed as if the feature had undergone a permanent change, that it was now set in Camelot and the out-of-time traveller was Sir Butch. Instead of fighting modern crooks with the weapons of the past (and a flying horse), Sir Justin brought the science of the future (and a flying horse) to the time of magic.

Adv Knight

The Superboy story in issue 140 was well in keeping with the general silliness creeping into the feature as Superboy accompanies an absent-minded Professor on the first rocket trip to the Moon, but it’s notable that, en route, the Boy of Steel has to fend off a destructive shower of meteorites that an excited caption identifies as remnants of Krypton. They have no effect on him. Mort Weisinger would have turned puce with anger at the missed opportunity. Superboy’s solo series – only the sixth ever from National or its predecessors – was in its infancy, so I’m guessing we can thank that series for this story to carry the first mention in Adventure of Smallville.
The overall truth, however, is still what I said in the first version of this post, that Adventure is simply too dull to be worthwhile. We have not yet reached the Fifties, the big three features offer nothing but blandness. Their stories are frequently not even stories bur rather catalogues of super-stunts featuring implausible exercises of their particular powers in combinations lacking in logic or even comprehensible sequence, and stopping without a climax when the page limit is reached.
Perhaps not surprisingly it’s the lesser features that offer some glimpse of enjoyment, though Johnny Quick very often succumbs to the same catalogue failing, but at least his art still has some spark of enthusiasm to it.
The chivalrous hero was back in 142, after two missing issues, and enjoying the best art of his career, though not yet from the young Frank Frazetta, but rather Ruben Moreira. To be honest, the is-he-or-isn’t-he? of whether there’ll be a Shining Knight story is the most interesting thing in this phase of the title, no disrespect to the still-entertaining Johnny Q.
Finally, Clark Kent’s parents appeared, in issue 145, taking him on a trip to Metropolis. It’s not much of an appearance: neither are named and Jonathan looks nothing like the standard portrait that became so familiar in the rapidly-nearing Fifties.
The Shining Knight had now appeared in four consecutive issues but not a fifth. Aquaman had a story in issue 147 where he found himself rescuing a man named Dan Dunbar over and over that wasn’t even a story but I note because Dan(ny) Dunbar was the identity of TNT’s sidekick, Dan the Dyna-mite, probably coincidence rather than conscious recycling.
There was an oddity in issue 149 with a six-page tale of the life of author Jack London interrupting the cycle that had by then run just under four years. Then Adventure hit issue 150 with a cover date of March 1950 and no fanfare or special features despite this being the company’s first title to reach that landmark. I couldn’t help but be amused to discover Johnny Quick’s villain – a man who hypnotised people into believing that he could walk through walls – being named The Spectre. Nah, buddy. And Frank Frazetta made his debut on The Shining Knight: nice art, and the first to make a flying horse’s wings look realistic.
Occasionally I wonder about certain things. The Trades Description Act, the one that sought to set up penalties for manufacturers and advertisers who told blatant porkies to get customers to buy their crappy stuff (and not only the crappy stuff: there was a memorable series of TV commercials featuring Bernard Miles admiring a pint of Guiness and burring that ‘it looks good, it tastes good, and by golly, it does you good’ which couldn’t be continued), wasn’t passed until 1968. I’ve no idea when the first of America’s Truth-in-Advertising Laws were passed, but I assume it wasn’t any time during the Forties. Or they would have been used against the words that appeared on every cover of Adventure: Another Exciting Story of Superman when he was Superboy. Another? I’m still waiting for the first.
Of course, the moment I noticed that, on issue 151’s cover, they dropped it!
I’ve never been a fan of Frazetta’s art, his posters and paperback covers, but on the Shining Knight he is absolutely fabulous, the best art ever to appear in the comic, and dragon’s head and shoulders above all the Knight’s other artists standing on each other’s shoulders on tiptoe.
To my surprise, the usual boring Aquaman story was missing from issue 159.
We’re still no nearer getting any thrilling Superboy stories but there was a nice, gentle tale in issue 160, showing both Clark Kent and Superboy turning a girl who thought of herself as dull and plain into a real-life Cinderella in the face of her cruel cousins. Sometimes, such stories err on the side of sentimentality but this balanced things out nicely, even down Clark losing the girl to more polished suitors without regret. And she had red hair. Hey, when do we finally get Lana Lang?
Next issue, in fact, no 161, large as life and twice as natural and already fully-formed in her snoopy-girl precursor to Lois Lane aspect. It’s genuinely nice to see her.
The consensus has always been that the Golden Age of Comics ended with the Justice Society of America’s final appearance in All-Star Comics 57. That came out the same month as Adventure 161, but in the original post I chose to go on to issue 166, despite not having it on the disc I was using. I chose that as my cut-off point because it featured The Shining Knight’s final appearance, and I shall do so again now.
The penultimate story was a curiosity, not a reprint but a re-presentation, a none-too old story completely redrawn by Frazetta, much more attractively. And he was there to the end, still utterly rock-solid and real.
So that’s the truer story of Adventure Comics in the Golden Age, as read issue by issue. What followed we already know and I’m not going over that again. So now I have the full story on all those Justice Society members whose solo series’ I wanted to read. And is that the eventual end of my Golden Age reads, after so many false endings? Actually, there is one more I plan to explore…

A Pugwash Expedition


Let’s get the paranoia bit over first. It’ll never disappear but these days it’s dimming, thanks to mt increasing confidence in back-planning, otherwise known as I-am-catching-a-train-to-Southport-at 11.18am, when do I have to start to be there in time? Result? From shower at 9.47am to the Platform 14 waiting lounge at Piccadilly Station at 11.02am. The ticket has been bought (a whole 90p extra than if I’d bought it in advance, Crookall, you profligate fool!) and I’m already relaxing with the Southport train in red on the board.

I’ve been on an Expedition like this before, last summer, when travelling across West Lancashire to the Fylde Coast was a bit more of a daredevil process. The occasion then was a Dan Dare Exhibition at the Atkinson Gallery on Lord Street and I wanted to steal the framed original art for Frank Bellamy’s first episode of ‘Fraser of Africa’. Now, we’re free to travel wherever we want, with or without facemasks, and this year it’s John Ryan, cartoonist and cartoon-maker, an original Eagle stalwart, creator of the immortal Captain Pugwash, a most incompetent pirate. Joy it was in that dawn tp be alive.

So far, it’s been a mostly sunny day. It has rained, earlier, and there are enough grey-white clouds permeating the blue to suggest that’s not all for the day. I’ve read the Weather Forecast for Southport last night, but who believes weather reports? They’re about as reliable as Government explanations.

We’re summoned to Platform 14 just as a long, slow, container train is going through, its wheels squealling so loud that it’s going to take a ton of WD40 to cure. I never like this platform, too many memories of a near decade travelling to Bolton when I worked for the Council. We go through Bolton today: I will have my ears full of mp3s and my nose in a book.

My section of the carriage is near empty, and indeed empties at Bolton, not to pick up another traveller until Apsley Bridge (you may say ‘where?’, if you choose). It’s not until then, from the signboard omn the station, that I discover we’re running ten minutes late. Despite the fact that we crawl into Southport Station so slowly that we could arrive sooner by moving the station towards us, we arrive only five minutes late.

I paid little attention. Beyond Bolton, my native county is both less familiar and less intyeresting. It’s flat, in both senses, and I am a creature of hills, fells and mountains. West Lancashire has little to offer the eye, even on the traditional road approach from the East Lancs Road via Ormskirk, though there’s a nice bit where we go over a canal bridge…

At Southport, the blue is bluer but the grey is greyer and it strikes me that both more sunshine and more rain is possible. One was right but the other raised its dreary head for five minutes when I was sat out on a bench. By now, I needed the loo but there were none in the station nor nearby. I found my memories easier to comprehend than the street plan opposite, which took me past The Monument Sports Bar. This pronounced itself NOT A PUBLIC TOILET and IF YOU ASK NO, but as long as you can hold it in long enough to consume a pint of lager and lime, they have no objections.

Liquid having been suitably transferred through my body, I headed for the Gallery. The exhibition was on the same small side-room on the second floor, called ‘The Discovery Box’, but I went in the proper way, to pass the permanent Dan Dare display, very much reduced, its original art being panels and half-paghes from ‘The Earth Stealers’, Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell’s last story, not that they knew they’d been sacked until scripts stopped coming. Don’t you just love the comics business?

Harris

The Ryan Exhibition is very limited for something with so many elements, and there was next to no original art. It’s built around Captain Pugwash, naturally, but proper regard is made to so many other elements of Ryan’s career, from Pugwash’s debut in Eagle no. 1 in 1950, to Ryan’s death in 2009, aged 88 and still a working cartoonist. Some, like Lettice Leefe and Sir Prancealot, were familiar to me, but there were more of which I was completely unfamiliar.

When Marcus Morris accepted Pugwash for Eagle, Ryan was art master at Harrow Public School and had had the character turned down a dozen times. It ran for nineteen weeks before being cancelled by Molrris for being ‘too juvenile’, but went on to a happy berth in the Radio Times. Meanwhile, Ryan had conjured up Harris Tweed, Extra Apecial Agent for Eagle, the features overlapping as Tweed, and his Boy, debuted in issue 16.

At that stage, Ryan’s art was harsh and angular, which made Pugwash look dark and hangdog to me, and not in the least funny. Tweed started off with full-page adventures, heavy on black ink and sinister happenings, for which Ryan’s original style was well-suited. By the time his work was softening to its more familiar, rounded, indeed almost cuddly style, Tweed was dropping into a half-page status to which the new approach was far more appropriate.

Ryan was a stalwart of Marcus Morris’s little stable of Red-top comics, contributing Lettice Leefe, the Greenest (i.e., most impressionable) Girl in School for Eagle‘s literal sister-paper, Girl, with his wife Priscilla designing the dresses for the Headmistress, Miss Froth, and then Sir Boldasbrass (who was left out of the Exhibition) for their younger brothers in Swift.

Lettice

Pugwash made his TV debut in 1957, as well as appearing in the first of seven childrens’ picture books. I was barely two then, but the cartoons were shown over and over until I was old enough to watch them. Ryan masterminded everything, in a limited animation style that made Hanna Barbera look like Studio Ghibli. Characters were made as jointed carboard cut-outs, poked up through slots in the backgrounds, their ‘movements’ being the manipulation up and down, and sometimes side to side, of limbs and mouths. The other genius of the programme was voice-artist Peter Hawkins, doing all the voices. This is the same Peter Hawkins who voiced, among many others, Bill and Ben, the original Daleks, Captain Haddock in the Tele-Hachette Tintin cartoons and Gromit in The Wrong Trousers, so we are talking god-like genius here.

It was all so primitive but we loved it then, and again in the mid- Seventies when Ryan re-made Pugwash in colour. They had a tape playing, including B&W and colour Pugwashes, with Ryan’s wit and imagination, Hawkins’ voices, that jaunty theme music and simple but wonderful stories that still had the power to make me laugh. We were so lucky to live then.

I’d forgotten that Ryan’s first colour commission for the BBC was Mary, Mungo and Midge in 1968, but that was my younger sister’s turn to enjoy his abilities. I got back with Sir Prancealot, in 1971, with its wonderful, sharp theme music and all the old Ryan tricks on a medieval theme. Not until today did I know it was also a comic series.

And there was The Ark Series, bible stories in which Ryan himself appeared as storyteller, St George and The Dragon, Frisco a nd Gred, about a reluctant astronaut and his dog, and what about his position as cartoonist for the weekly Catholic Herald, creating Cardinal Grosci, another Pugwash-substitute, this time in the Vatican. Ryan held that post for forty-two years. Imagine that.

Sir B

Despite all this, there was nothing to keep me more than half an hour, nor much in Southport I haven’t seen before to detain me long. I was feeling peckish by now, but I was not prepared to walk all the way out to Pizza Hut, which is way past the Marine Lake. Even with the surprising smell of sea in the air as far inland as Lord Street, I wasn’t going to trudge that far. I had seen a tight little arcade I’d not noticed before so I took a stroll down there.

There was a vintage collectable shop halfway down with an SF section. They had the complete set of all five Jane Gaskell ‘Atlan’ books in the matching Eighties paperback edition. I used to have the first four in the rather more impressive Seventies edition, all yellow covers and sexy bronze-skinned, dark-haired, long-legged and little clothed woman. The fifth I’d only ever read from the Library but that was seriously peculiar. I’d got rid at least thirty years ago but, at a fiver for the lort, I overcame my expectation that they’d still be a bit crap and bought them. The guy behind the counter told me I was lucky: he’d beemn going to change the prices. Upwards. If I believed him…

There being little now in Southport but a change of scenery, I decided to return to the Station. By this time, my pint had worked its way through and was calling for asttention so I returned to The Monument. No, they didn’t do bar food so I ordered and drank a half before leaving returns in the Gents.

I really do enjoy train rides home, for their peace and quiet and freedom from distraction. I can really get down for an extended session of mp3s and reading as we progress back across the flat bits to Manchester. And its Pizza Hut is a lot closer than Southport’s though they’re still not doing either tuna or sweetcorn. I had the pleasure of walking through Piccadilly Gardens at four-thirty, against the flow, but a flow of young women of all skirt-lengths coming out of work, intent on making an early start on Friday night. Another good day: where next?

A Spot of Adventure: The Golden Age Revisited – Part 1


When I turned my attention to Adventure Comics a while back, I was disappointed that the DVD I acquired was so scanty as to that part of the series’ run that I most wanted to read, the Golden Age run of superheroes, The Sandman, The Hour-Man and Starman, whose adventures dominated the series between issues 40 and 102, when Adventure became a vehicle for Superboy.
I assumed the shortage of issues, or even complete ones throughout this period, was down to the DVD-maker not having access to the originals. After all, these are comics dating back eighty years or thereabouts, and several issues of the other early titles that I reviewed are represented only by blurry microfiches. Well, as in so many other things, I was wrong. And I now have a double-DVD collection of all Adventure‘s issues, all 500 of them.

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That means going all the way back, to the very beginning, in full, the pre-superhero age, to New Comics and New Adventure Comics, as well as the Golden Age run I couldn’t previously enjoy in full.
Needless to say, this calls for a revised and, you should excuse the expression, updated version of that first essay. Completeness is all, people, completeness is all.
I intend to focus on the true Golden Age period, but first a word about New Comics 1, which is of significance because of how far it reaches back, and what it shows of the very earliest comics, eighty pages, no reprints, of comics both comic and adventurous, interspersed with prose stories and articles, plus a puzzle page. You could call it a gallimaufrey of ideas or you could be less flattering and call it a collection of any old notion, flung willy-nilly at the wall with a view to seeing what stuck. Single pagers. Two pagers. Nothing more extensive than four pagers, some of which were two two-pagers back to back. No characters that you would ever have heard of unless you had actually read New Comics and were possessed of an extremely retentive memory. No characters that ever would be memorable, least of all for their art, which is scruffy, blobby, imprecise, thin, scanty and lacking even the least sense of panel-to-panel progression. Only three names that you knew: publisher and editor Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, assistant editor Vincent Sullivan, the man who would buy Superman, and a vigorous but as yet undistinguished boy cartoonist by the name of Sheldon Mayer.

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A second issue of New Comics proved to be the same all over again, so I jumped to no. 11, the last under that title, Over seventy-five percent of the features had changed, there were many more pages in full colour and an overall more confident and distinctive cartooning, very much of the era. There were also two more familiar names, on a series titled ‘Federal Men’, those of Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster.
A name change to New Adventure Comics saw the title through the next twenty issues. The new title was the only difference between issues 11 and 12 but Siegel and Shuster did take their series into the far future, to introduce a scientist-detective of the name Jor-L…
By issue 21, the title logo was in a very familiar shape, with only the stripped ‘New’ to distinguish it. Several series were still running, though there were no further upgrades in art. Wheeler-Nicholson used young writers and artists because they were cheap, but that meant they were inexperienced, too inexperienced and frequently untalented to make it in the more reputable and sophisticated world of the newspaper strip.

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The last issue before the series finally became Adventure Comics was no. 32. Wheeler-Nicholson had been ousted. The comics was now published by Detective Comics Inc. There was an in-house ad for Action Comics no. 5 on the inside front cover, one of the last ever not to feature Siegel and Shuster’s most famous creation. Some series’ rolled on, new ones had started, Dale Daring came to an end, notable only for being the most blatant Milton Caniff rip-off, with Dale as Burma and her handsome male companion Pat Ryan. Most features now ran more pages. The comic stuff was strictly limited.
So at last to the famous title. A couple of series, one comic, one another Terry and the Pirates rip (has there ever, incidentally been a better title for a breezy action strip?), produced by a guy called Bob Kane, still working with Bill Finger on his big idea.
But let’s round off this preliminary sweep up by jumping to issue 39, the last before the real jumping-on point. And let’s list those series: Barry Neill; Tiny; Cotton Carver; Federal Men; Jack Woods; Steve Malone; Captain Desmo: Tom Brent; Skip Schuyler; Rusty and his Pals; Anchors Aweigh. Compare that list with the one I made for issue 40, which eliminates a couple of these but replaces them with other series that had already been regulars and it’s next to impossible to determine what forgotten relic of the pre-Golden Age era had the honour of being the one that gave way to The Sandman.
That first story is still the same. From the cover onwards, the pulp detective figure in business suit, cape and gasmask, exactly as we know him… except that the suit is orange, not green, and the fedora green, not orange. The story, which I knew from reprints, is credited to Larry Dean but it’s actually by Gardner Fox and Bert Christman. Apart from a surprisingly slow and atmospheric sequence where Wesley Dodd (not Dodds) mooches round his house and leaves a doll in his bed before cracking open the secret tunnel to The Sandman’s lab, it’s not that a good story, naïve, simple, uninterestingly drawn. It wastes a lot of space but in return offers atmosphere.
There was no immediate change to the colour scheme and the second story fell far short of the first. The Sandman didn’t even retain the cover at first. But there was some fascinating, weird stuff now long forgotten, like Wes calling on two old Navy buddies to help him save old comrades from a vendetta, with all three as Sandmen, with the gasmask, as if resurrecting an old identity. The Sandman rarely wears his business suit, or uses his sweet-smelling gas. Instead, he’s more of a freelance Pat Ryan. The series is having a hard time pulling itself out of the morass of the bog-standard stuff at first.
But issue 44 established the familiar business suit and colour scheme, as well as introducing that master of disguise, The Face, who Matt Wagner would so memorably recreate many years later. And issue 47 introduced a woman named Dian Ware, aka the ‘Lady in Evening Clothes’, an expert safecracker who discovered Wesley Dodds’ other identity, and who turned out to actually be the kidnapped-as-a-baby daughter of, who else, DA Larry Belmont. Yes, enter The Sandman’s faithful girlfriend, and nice to see her.

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So far, The Sandman had ploughed a lonely furrow but he’d clearly established himself as Adventure‘s future for swinging in the next issue, including both cover and lead position, was Tick-Tock Tyler, aka The Hour-Man, created by Bernard Bailey. And just two episodes in, Dian Belmont was already providing a source of both adventure and romance to her Sandman, as well as persuading him to unmask before her father. The pulp business about The Sandman being wanted as a criminal was receding, but not in one smooth curve.
The silly thing about The Hour-Man was that he was actually known, initially, as Tick-Tock Tyler the Hour-Man. They really hadn’t got the bit about secret identities fully worked out, had they? And still the likes of Barry Neill, Cotton Carver, Federal Men, Anchors Aweigh and Rusty and his Pals clung on, though in the case of the last two, only until issue 52.
Truth to tell, and the fact that nearly all these issues are being shot from blurred fiches, neither series is much good. The Sandman is all running, jumping and leaping, substituting action for coherence whilst Hour-Man is just crude, even after issue 53 introduces Minute-Man Martin and the Minute-Men of America, namely a nation of ham-radio operating junior sidekicks. But it’s the latter who’s getting the covers now, month in month out.
There was a neat switch in issue 56’s Sandman story in which gangsters suspect Wes Dodds of being The Sandman and kidnap him, but he proves he can’t be when the Sandman turns up complete with gasmask and green suit, but that’s Dian Belmont instead! For the era, presenting the hero’s girlfriend as resourceful enough to do that, and succeed, was pretty forward-thinking, though it did arouse dire memories of Roy Thomas using the same device to kill Dian off, pre-Crisis, in All-Star Squadron.
A new series made it’s debut in issue 58, Paul Kirk, Manhunter, though this is not the famous Paul Kirk, in the red and blue costume, the creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, but a specialist in tracking people and a complete coincidence. Though the art was crude, as everybody’s was, the story was surprisingly clever.

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There was a new figure, and surprisingly good art, on the cover of issue 61, with the debut of Starman, created (officially) by Gardner Fox and drawn by Jack Burnley, one of the few Golden Age artists who were not scruffy, ill-proportioned, unimaginative and anatomically weak, and who indeed could compare with later and more sophisticated generations of artists on their own level.
And here’s a story: Starman was intended to be the next big thing, the new Superman or Batman. I’ve read that he was actually put together by a conference of editors at Detective Comics Inc. which suggests he was then fed to Fox, already a respected writer, to flesh out, and Fox did an excellent job on the first tale, which exuded a sense of gothic menace that nothing to date had done.
Starman was going to be big. Out went the long-running Barry O’Neill, to make room for his strip. Hourman was bumped off the cover to make way for him. Sandman was excised as the feature character in the ‘Big 6’ magazines in-house ad. And to ensure the new star got all the publicity in the world on the way to ascending to his own magazine, in the footsteps of Superman and Batman, he was to go straight into the Justice Society of America, in All-Star Comics. Which is where the timetable gets a little bit complicated.
Starman made his All-Star debut in issue 8, replacing Hourman. For decades, literally, we fans all thought Hourman got the push after only five appearances because his solo series had been cancelled, and All-Star was all about hurrying characters towards solo comics, but though the Man of the Hour would be the first JSA member to undergo cancellation, that would not take place for another eighteen months.
Then it came out about Starman being advanced in the manner he was. But Adventure was allowed only two representatives in All-Star and, even though he’d had by far the more covers since he was introduced, Hourman was identified as the less popular of the existing pair, which is why he was out.
But the timing’s off. Based on the inhouse ads, Adventure 61 was prior to All-Star 5. So why did it take three issue – six months, given that All-Star was only bi-monthly – to swap the characters out?
The answer, I am guessing, lay in the requirement of All-Star editor Sheldon Mayer that there always be three complete issues to hand, to insure against deadline issues. Which would explain the delay if Starman had to wait to have an original story written and drawn featuring him.
So now that was Starman, Paul Kirk, Hourman and The Sandman, plus the ongoing Mark Lancing of Mikishawm, Federal Men, Steve Conrad Adventurer and Cotton Carver holding the torch for the pre-Golden Age stuff. Federal Men was still being written by Jerry Siegel.
It’s silly, and even trite, but Ted (Starman) Knight’s cover for his secret activities is to pretend to be a bored hypochondriac, which arouses the despair and disgust of his girlfriend Doris Lee (niece of Starman’s FBI contact, Chief Woodley Allen). Doris, who is ‘Miss Lee’ to Ted in the first story because, well, they’re not formally engaged, a fact which overtakes the series between episodes, has a brilliant line in caustic comments about her malingering fiance, who has been checked out by every doctor in town but still complains that he’s ‘not a well man’. Between her and Dian Belmont, this is a fun comic.
There was an old Sandman story I’d once read in reprint, featuring the gasmask and gasgun, and I was watching out for it, knowing that the redesign had to be due soon and it finally appeared in issue 65.
Next of the old guard to surrender was Mark Lansing. He was replaced in issue 66 by The Shining Knight, Sir Justin of Camelot, a young knight invested with golden armour, a magic sword and a flying horse after he rescued Merlin from Nimue’s tree-trap only to pre-empt Captain America by being frozen in the ice until 1941. Nice to read the original at last, but gosh, the art was not just terrible but tiny.
Next issue, the Starman story was another I knew of old, a reprint in the Seventies, introducing arch-enemy The Mist. And the issue after that was the last of the pulp Sandman and, sadly, feisty Dian Belmont, refusing to be left behind, insisting on butting in on his cases and doing good stuff. The yellow and purple skintight costume, paired at first with a long purple cape, came in in issue 69, but Simon and Kirby weren’t yet ready to take over. Also gone was the gas gun, which was hardly being used anyway and in came Sandy the Golden Boy, a kid without a background who’d sewed himself a costume, in yellow and red, like the one the Sandman had never worn before, pretending to be the Sandman, acting like a thoughtless kid, making puns that wouldn’t come into vogue for twenty years and ready to go off with someone whose face he hasn’t even seen at the drop of a cape: he’s just made for measure, isn’t he?

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Issue 70 was one of the few complete issues on the original DVD, so it was familiar to me, and it’s a very rare instance on this DVD of something shot from a comic, not a microfiche. Once again, I must mention the startling leap in Bernard Bailey’s artwork on Hourman, now formally bounced from the JSA and the drawing of his mask as a tight-fitting cowl and eye-mask, though the dwarf on a flying carpet who looks like a visitor from outer space, though he’s not, is still a joke.
Ten issues on, Ted Knight’s self-portrayal as a hypochondriac weakling is still being laid on with a fourteen foot trowel. That’s not so bad in itself, but it begs the question why his fiancee, Doris Lee, an attractive, forthright, intelligent young woman, puts up with him for more than one story, given that most people faced with such a weak wuss, convinced he’s got every malady under the sun whilst actually being physically hale, would have concluded that the only thing wrong with him was the absence of a spine and given him the very elegant pointed-toe sandal in the unmentionables.
Either that or concluded that he’s a hopeless addict forever racing off for his fix.
Continuing on the Starman theme, I heralded The Mist’s debut by describing him as Starman’s arch-enemy because that’s how he has been billed since he was revived for the first Starman/Black Canary team-up in Brave & Bold in 1965, but issue 71 saw the third appearance of the would-be world conquering scientist, The Light, already, and he’s been completely forgotten since the Golden Age.
Meanwhile, now Hourman was on leave of absence from the JSA, Bailey could go further in revising him, changing the Miraclo pills for what looked like a Miraclo lightbulb, without spotting the fatal flaw of not being able to stop to take a new lightbath as easily as a pill when his sixty minutes were up (there was none of this stuff about having to wait to take a second pill back then). Even more stupidly, Rex Tyler had had a mini-Hourman costume made up for Jimmy Martin, Captain of his boy assistants, the Minutemen of America, to go adventuring with him without any Miraclo-based powers. Hoo boy.
And in the Sandman series, Sandy the Golden Boy is finally given a second name. Yes, we know, he’s Sandy Hawkins, isn’t he? Always was, always will be, right? Wrong. Sandy McGann. It’s these little things, these details, that I love so much to discover, not necessarily the stories themselves. Incidentally, Federal Men had finally gone from Adventure‘s pages.
The brief interregnum ended after only three issues as the famed team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby arrived at Detective Comics after being cheated by Martin Goodman of Timely Comics out of the royalties due them for their creation, Captain America, and took over Sandman in issue 72, throwing out the unwieldy capes on the spot and introducing the dream-theme that, one day, would go towards stimulating the imagination of an as-yet unborn British boy called Neil. And the name McGann only lasted one issue…
And with Simon and Kirby came the Paul Kirk Manhunter we knew, snatching issue 73’s cover away from Starman, and in doing so ending the illusion that here was the next star in the firmament (she was already three or four issues into Sensation Comics). But this Manhunter wasn’t yet Paul Kirk, but at first his name was Rick Nelson. It’s the same story, the big-game hunter turning his talents to hunting men, just not yet by the famous name.

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Hourman’s series is collapsing into idiocy before our eyes. The Miraclo ray fades out in every story now, the latest episode ditches Jimmy Martin for fellow Minute-Man Thorndyke, the one with the pullover up to his nose like one of the Bash Street Kids, but takes off his ever-present check cap to reveal a cartoon haircut, and who Hourman starts calling Jimmy… Just what is editing supposed to be about? How soon does this crap get cancelled?
By now, Steve Conrad is the only hold-out from the old guard. Eve Bannerman, Rex Tyler’s love interest has been missing in action for months. Eve Barclay, the Shining Knight’s love interest has already forgotten and it’s only taken two issues for Rick Nelson to become Paul Kirk: thanks be that Roy Thomas never got this far.
Sandman returned to the cover with issue 75, this time as the ‘permanent’ feature. Starman would not take it back again. Suddenly, Thorndyke knows Rex Tyler is Hourman.
The Mist finally reappeared in issue 77, the issue in which Steve Conrad finally lost his spot. His replacement was Genius Jones, the boy with every answer (if you’ve got a dime), a strip that I still cannot decide if it’s genius or utter crap. It was better than Steve Conrad, certainly. At last I could read every feature in Adventure. Genius Jones was drawn by Stan Kaye but his writer, initially, was the great Alfred Bester, who got a rare credit on issue 78, though I wouldn’t want my name attached to a story about a ‘Slap Happy Jappy’.
Ever since he’d been introduced, Starman had been the lead feature in the comic, and Sandman the last. Now in issue 80, for the first time since Hourman had been introduced, Sandman regained his old slot up front, the Man of Night went back one and the Man of the Hour brought up the rear.
With issue 81, art duties on Starman passed to Mort Morton Jr and Jerry Roussos. Given that it features a blind boy getting shot in the head and discovering he can now see, the new firm are clearly not an improvement. Meanwhile, Bernard Bailey’s art on Hourman seemed to be changing (for the worst) every issue, though not for much longer. Simon and Kirby were being billed on the cover for Sandman but had already passed Manhunter off to someone else. Genius Jones was Genius Jones, and I still haven’t made my mind up.
Art standards were falling all round, except for Stan Kaye on Genius Jones. Were all the decent artists being taken off to the War?
The art on Hourman in issue 83 was the worst yet, so bad that Bernard Bailey didn’t sign it until the last panel. To give him credit, I don’t think he did draw it. But either way, this nadir was the nadir, the Man of the Hour’s last appearance until Justice League of America 21 in 1963, and Thorndyke’s last appearance ever. He was not missed.
His place was taken by a throwback to the early days, Mike Gibbs, reporter and practical joker, working with the Resistance in France as ‘Guerilla’, an underground operative allied to independent female French resistance Agent, Captain (Marie) Hwart (what kind of French name is that?)
There seemed to be a general malaise about all the title’s series. True, the War was in full spate, paper-rationing had cut frequency back to bi-monthly, stories were being stripped down to basic details, adventure and nothing else, but I’ve read other series of the duration and it’s not seemed so blatant. Why Adventure and not, say, All-American? Or Star-Spangled?
I very much miss Jack Burnley. Starman doesn’t just suffer from weak art but dumb writing. We were a long way from the days of Woodley Allen, Doris Lee and Ted Knight’s hypochondria, leaving the stories perfunctory in the extreme and full of incidents like Starman escaping notice by standing against a poster and ‘blending into’ a background composed of completely different colours from his costume.
And for some reason, Manhunter’s logo was designed out of logs. That’s right, short logs, arranged as letters.
Issue 91 was a bit better than the contemporary standard, and went without our war-chum Guerilla, although that must have been just a short file, because he was back the next issue, which saw Simon and Kirby come off Sandman, and some horrendous imitation try to keep up with them. They were credited with the story in issue 94, but it was only possible if they drew it with their feet. And Manhunter’s run came to an end at the same point, not to be seen again until 1973, when Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson remembered him so vividly.
As issue 100 rolled around, the art on all four series got exponentially worse, even on Genius Jones, which had always been drawn in a loose, rubbery cartoon style. Now it was just crude and ugly, so much so that if it still had any credits, which had all been dropped since the last Simon/Kirby Sandman, I would have been looking for my own name.
I’d seen issue 100 before, and I’m still impressed by the Guerilla story, for its powerful anti-racism message, which was all the stronger for being set in a War context. It was bold and simple: any man who tries to turn races against one another is a traitor. I wish we could eradicate those who hate.
First time round I was able to cover the entire Golden Age in a single post, but that was because the number of issues I had were so few. Now, with a full set, I will need to break it into two parts, and the first part ends with issue 102.
Adventure Comics‘s first phase ended with issue 40, when The Sandman was introduced, starting the gradual takeover of the series by an all-superhero line-up. Now, editorial fiat elsewhere at Detective Comics Inc. brought the second phase to an end, and with it the Golden Age careers of Sandman and Starman, and also Mike Gibbs, Guerilla, who would never be revived by Julius Schwartz. There were big changes coming, and what those changes were will be the subject of Part 2.

Infantino’s Experiments 2: Two Series


The five series I looked over in the first part of this mini-series were not the only short-lived series initiated in the wake of Carmine Infantino’s promotion to Editorial Director. This time I’m looking at just two series, which like their contemporaries failed to last more than seven issues.

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The Secret Six

Like Beware the Creeper I’ve long since known and enjoyed the first issue of this series, but it’s only relatively recently I’ve finally made the time to read the series in full. Unlike The Creeper, The Secret Six debuted not in Showcase but their own title – on the cover of it to be exact – and went on to a very strong initial story that made me want to read the rest of it. And I was not disappointed.
The point of The Secret Six, which was what made it the success it was creatively if not commercially, was that it was not a superhero series, not in any way. It’s closest cultural parallel, to which it was continually compared, was TV’s Mission Impossible, in that it was a thriller series, at times criminal, at others espionage, employing a team of specialists, whose abilities were fully human, and far less exaggeratedly so than Batman.
The gimmick was that the Six were gathered together by blackmail by an unknown person going under the name of Mockingbird, who set missions in which the sextet combined their skills either by bringing down organised crime or by striking back at communist plots (this was a very Cold War series with a visceral aggression against Commies). Each member was under Mockingbird’s thumb for one reason or another. The twist was that Mockingbird was one of the Six himself. Or herself. Or so we were led to believe.
The series was written by the combination of Nelson Bridwell, who plotted the episodes and ex-Charlton writer Joe Gill, who dialogued them, with art by Frank Sparling, employing a scruffier, looser, quasi-cartoonist line that was both very effective for a series grounded in gritty reality and far more appealing than any of his superhero work.
The first issue was all about introductions. Six individuals with nothing in common with each other abruptly abandon the jobs they are undertaking and set off to a meeting, where they are taken about a VTOL jet and instructed to wear identical white uniforms – long-sleeved t-shirts and trousers – each decorated by a Roman Numeral, from I to VI. They are, in order, King Savage, stuntman, Dr August Durant, scientist, Carlo di Rienzi, magician and escapologist, Lili De Neuve, former actress and make-up artist, Mike Tempest, ex-boxer and bum and Crimson Dawn, model. All owe Mockingbird a debt. All can be exposed or abandoned for defiance.
Savage was a Korean War pilot who cracked under interrogation: Mockingbird sprang him in time for Savage to save his side but could expose his treachery. Durant has been poisoned: Mockingbird supplies him with daily pills that hold off his fatal disease. Di Rienzi’s wife is dead and his son crippled: Mockingbird pays for treatment that will enable him to walk again. De Neuve was falsely accused of murder: Mockingbird supplied a false alibi that could be withdrawn. Tempest was Tiger Force, boxer, who ratted out the mob: Mockingbird conceals him from their revenge. And Crimson Dawn was a foolish heiress, seduced, her money spent, her family ridiculing her: Mockingbird can reveal her connection to fat, foolish Kit Dawn to that family.
Bridwell provided a taut, convincing plot, putting the Six through their paces for their first assignment, whilst Gill skillfully contributed snappy patter that betrayed bitter humour and cautious misgivings between these strangers without ever descending to anything remotely campy or even flippant. You could believe in these people: they were solid.

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The six succeeding issues followed a template. The Six, either by direct assignment from Mockingbird or else by appeal from one of their members who needs assistance, conduct further missions. Each issues centres specifically upon one of the Six, explaining their situation, and the circumstances in which Mockingbird gained his/her influence over them in greater depth, and allowing each member of the team, as well as the reader, to see how plausible it might be to accept each one as Mockingbird, and not merely the seemingly obvious figure of Dr August Durant.
That’s always to assume Mockingbird was one of the Six and not an external figure. That must have been the case as Bridwell, in one of the later lettercols, admits that they have been dropping subtle clues as to the true identity of Mockingbird through the whole series, but that no-one has yet picked up on any of them. I certainly hadn’t. If that was true. And assuming that, the Six were the only characters to appear in each issue.
Like I said, the obvious assumption was Durant, and I favour him personally. It’s he who, in issue 1, advances the theory that Mockingbird is one of them. And in the two cases where the team acts to protect one of their own, it is Durant on both occasions who makes the point that, although their actions are unsanctioned, their mysterious leader would quickly pull them off it if he/she disapproved.
But seven issues was all The Secret Six got, seven issues and oblivion for nearly two decades. It’s a damned shame because it was a gripping series, but it wasn’t superheroes and even as early as 1968/69 the readers couldn’t accept adventure in any other form. We’re paying for that narrow-mindedness in spades by now.
On the other hand, it would have made a bloody good TV thriller series…
According to Wikipedia, The Secret Six were finally resurrected in 1988 in Action Comics Weekly. By then, Bridwell had passed on, so it was Martin Pasko who reintroduced the team, with art from Dan Spiegle, who put the new Secret Six into spandex uniforms. Durant was specified as Mockingbird, putting together a wholly-new team in the first episode then being killed off, with all the originals, in the second. Despite that flat statement Di Rienzi apparently becomes Mockingbird until he’s killed off in the last episode. Sounds like complete nonsense to me: I shall treat that as never happening.

Bat Lash

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One thing in common with this flush of unsuccessful series is that Carmine Infantino claims to have come up with the concept and assigned others to develop it. If it’s true then it’s an admirable thing, this willingness to go against a grain that many had clung to in the face of Marvel’s first dominance, sticking to the ‘classic’, the comfortable, the familiar approaches, rather than plunge into something new where they feared being out of their depths.
On the other hand, the lack of success for any of these series suggests Infantino was not another Kirby, though any such conclusion must be tempered by factoring in that a large proportion of DC’s audience were just as conservative as the management.
Bat Lash had already had the in-house build-up for his debut in Showcase : I remember seeing the advert for this shambling silhouette and the tag-line ‘Will he save the West – or Ruin it?’ over and over. The raggedy figure must have represented an early iteration of the character because, as soon as Mr Lash appeared, he was anything but ragged. He was a smiling, elegant dandy, a courteous man, a con man and a ladies man, who tried to avoid violence but who, when it was pressed upon him, was pretty darned good at it. You just had to watch out when he carefully removed the flower from his hat and put it to one side for safety.
He may have been a Wild West character, but Lash was also a very contemporary one, a child of 1968, of a growing counter-culture, of the hippy dream of peace and love and the growing opposition to the Vietnam War. No doubt this ‘peacenik’ stance, even in a moderated state, contributed to the series’ commercial failure.
That and the fact that the Western was practically dead by then.
For the Showcase try-out, Infantino commissioned Sergio Aragones – yes, he of MAD magazine and Groo the Wanderer – to plot the story for Nick Cardy to draw, pencils and inks, with veteran Sheldon Mayer brought in to dialogue the issue. For the series, Denny O’Neill came in to dialogue (and Cardy was credited with the plot for issue 2) but otherwise it was the same team.
Cardy’s art is lovely, loose and flexible, and with that cartoonish element that ideally suits the tenor of the stories, though when the letters page suggests he has equalled his former boss, Will Eisner, I have to dissent, no disrespect.
As for the stories, they’re generally good fun. Bat Lash is played as a charming rogue, a drifter coming and going through the usual cliches of western towns. He’s constantly professing his hatred of violence, and his love of peace and flowers, even as he’s lying and cheating his way wherever he goes.

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The fact is, Bat Lash is an unprincipled chancer, and completely selfish with it, willing to con anyone over anything and with only a very few, and very occasional flashes of human remorse. In short, the man’s a stinker, and don’t you forget it. O’Neill and Aragones are never shy of showing this, only they wrap it up in clever moves, demonstrating Lash’s superior intelligence, and his ability to improvise (and plan ahead when the situation requires) with a high degree of intelligence. And it’s all about charm. Lash gets his way, especially with the ladies, who he invariably kisses and runs, by surfing on his easy-going, romantic and charming manner.
There’s a personal touch in issue 4 when the pair introduce a villain by the name of Sergio Aragones, and Cardy draws him like the senor too (it is to be presumed that this bandido has no connection with the former Governor Sergio Aragones, mentioned in passing in issue 1). The fictional Aragones is every bit the twister that Bat Lash is and the issue long challenge between them is full of betrayals and promises.
It’s tremendous fun, but it’s also full of Mexican accents and cliches. Now I’ve never heard Aragones speak, but even now I’m led to believe his spoken English is, shall we say, imperfect, so this may well have been phonetically accurate at the time, and there’s nothing in the collaboration that suggests O’Neill had anything less than full enjoyment with his partner, but a half-century on, it automatically looks a bit cheap.
Plot-wise, if I wanted to be critical, I would point out that the stories tend to be a bit episodic, short vignettes leading up to regular bouts of gunplay and the like as Bat Lash ducks and dives.
And then it all crashes, abruptly, in issue 6. Denny O’Neill summarised things neatly on Wikipedia, explaining that he and Aragones had set out to depict a charming rogue, and suddenly DC re-wrote him as a churlish rogue. Issue 6 presents the origin of Bat Lash, farmer’s son who became a killer after his parents were killed by crooks stealing their land. It was deadly serious, cheap and nasty from beginning to end, and it shovelled a shitload of shit over the character, removing his ability to be regarded as a charming conman.
Instead, Bat Lash’s charm was merely superficial, but he was brutal and greedy underneath. His sister disowned him, preferring to become a nun in support of her best friend, the girl Bat was going to marry, who had found her true vocation, and he was sent away, an empty vessel. In its way, it was a story that would fit perfectly into the modern-day preference for presenting innocent characters as broken and corrupt, but this was done over fifty years ago.
Issue 7 was the last issue. It continued the onslaught on Bat Lash by introducing the kid brother he feared had been killed, grown up as a heartless bounty hunter on the trail of Bat Lash. The two confront each other and the only person who knows the truth is killed by them when he jumps in the way to stop them shooting each other down. It’s another piece of nastiness, and good riddance to the title if this was what now passed for a Western.
Officially, Bat Lash was cancelled for low sales. Comics were never cancelled for any other reason. It’s been stated that sales were good in Europe, but low at home, and O’Neill, in Wikipedia has cast doubt on the official reason, stating mysteriously that he had reason to believe there were other factors, but not detailing what they were.
I don’t care. Bat Lash 1-5 were fun and entertaining, issues 6-7 were unmitigated crap, and I wouldn’t have wanted any more of them to escape.

An End to Things: Greta Tomlinson R.I.P.


It’s a terrible thing to wake and the first thing you learn is of the passing of someone whose work enthralled you. Today, I’m barely awake and I’m having to commemorate the life of Greta Tomlinson, Greta Edwards in married life, who has died at the afe of 94. With her has gone, to the best of my knowledge, the last link to those madcap days when Frank Hampson and a team of perspiring assistants, produced Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future in a more than overcrowded lean-to in alongside a Southport house.

Greta Tomlinson was one of the original team of assistants that joined Hampson in the Bakehouse, a few weeks into the life of Dan Dare. She was the youngest of his assistants, fresh from Art College, who responded to an ad that led her to Southport. There, she looked at Frank Hampson’s work and thought it fantastic, and that when Hampson she had to get involved in this.

Like all the rest of Hampson’s assistants she was overworked mercilessly, to the point where her exhaustion led her to hallucinate, but like the rest she bore up under the strain, because of her belief in Hampson’s genius, and becase he never asked her, or any of them, to do anything that he would not do, and indeed did even harder than them.

Greta formed a close bond with Hampson’s former College friend and senior assistant, Harold Johns. Together, they worked on several short stories for Eagle Annuals but, most notably, it was this pair who took over the third Dan Dare story, ‘Marooned on Mercury’ when Hampson worked himself to illness and was prescribed bed rest for months.

Sadly, that artistc relationship resulted in their unjust dismissal from Hampson’s studio. Johns and Tomlinson could not be accomodated at Bayford Lodge in Epsom, the studio’s new and permanent location, and were based in town. Finding themselves under-used, the pair sought permission to take on outside work, permission reluctantly granted on the accepted condition that Hampson’s work came first, and then they were both sacked abruptly, for the crime of doing what they had permission for. It was a disgraceful and wholly undeserved ending, yet Tomlinson bore Hampson no malice.

I never met her, indeed I never met any of the Dan Dare team, though I would have loved to thank each and every one of them personally for what they did. My most vivid memory of Greta Tomlinson was in the lovely documentary, Future Perfect, that took her back to the Bakehouse and filmed her as she looked around, descrivbing cheerfully how it had been laid out as a studio, and who sat where, plainlyt seeing everyone around her, and suddenbly asking the Director to cut as those memories plainly overwhelmed her.

But Greta Tomlinson was more that just an artist, and more than just, I believe, the last one left of those men and women. As any Dan Dare fan knows, part of the strip’s success lay in Hampson’s use of his assistants to model panels in order to get exactly every nuance of expression, every shadow and every wrinkle of clothing. Some of his assistants and models were the exact model for characters in the series. Geta Tomlinson was Professor Peabody, the botanist, the scientist, the forthright, independent and highly intelligent feminist long before there were feminists. Greta Tomlinson’s passing takes Peabody with her: I mourn them both.

Men call him… The Phantom Stranger


I got into The Phantom Stranger just when it had stopped being good. The long-standing partnership of Len Wein and Jim Aparo had just been broken up by success: both were wanted for more prestigious titles and characters, and both ended up on Batman, leaving editor Joe Orlando two months to find an entirely new creative team: two, in fact, because at exactly the same time Marv Wolfman and Tony de Zuniga ceased producing the title’s back-up strip, ‘The Spawn of Frankenstein’.
Enter Arnold Drake and Gerry Taloac on the Stranger. Enter Steve Skeates and Bernard Bailey on The Spawn of Frankenstein. Exit all pretensions to quality. From that point onwards, to its cancellation with issue 41, The Phantom Stranger was doomed to a morass of shifting writers and artists, ironically paralleling the title’s early days.
Yet something about The Phantom Stranger triggered my imagination. I bought it regularly. I hunted out back-issues – it would actually become the first series of any substance that I collected as a full run: I still remember the thrill (and disappointment) of picking up the last five random issues I needed at one stall one Manchester Mart – but the real heart of the series was that Wein/Aparo run between issues 14 and 26.
It’s a long time since I let the series go. Now I have it back, in a set that not only includes those 41 issues but also The Stranger’s first run, as a six-issue series appearing between 1952 and 1953.

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The first volume of The Phantom Stranger, written by John Broome and drawn by Carmine Infantino, was just one of those many series splurged out by a desperate DC, post-Golden Age, when it had no idea what might sell and was winding itself in financial knots trying to find something, anything that would.
Ironically, in light of his later existence, The Phantom Stranger debuted as a ghost-debunker, taking his inspiration from, of all people, Dr Thirteen, the Ghost-Breaker, who’d been introduced into Star-Spangled Comics the previous year. It’s fairly easy to summarise: each issue The Phantom Stranger appears in three six-page stories in which ordinary people find themselves in supposedly supernatural situations until The Phantom Stranger – and he is always and only addressed such, no matter how awkward it makes the dialogue – appears out of nowhere. He’s an ordinary dark-haired man who only ever wears a black suit with white shirt and black tie, over which he wears a bulky black topcoat and a black fedora. You’d think he was forever attending funerals.
Sometimes the Stranger knows what’s going on, sometimes he works it out as we go along. But it’s always a con, trickery or ingenuity or, in a couple of desperate moments, accidental connections with another dimension or time-travellers. Frankly, those stories stink.
It’s decent enough stuff – Broome and Infantino see to that – but it’s uninspired and undramatic, and muddled, in that the cover copy tries it on with ‘Is He Man – Or Ghost?’ above a slipshod wavy-lettered logo and the story always has the Stranger appearing and disappearing mysteriously, in a manner that makes Batman look like a stumble-foot.
One last criticism: as the series develops it seems that The Phantom Stranger becomes a world-reknowned personage, a recognised authority, but known to everyone as just… The Phantom Stranger, a touch that defies incredulity. Needless to say, it’s all a great contrast to the late Sixties version we all know.

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I’ve already written about the Stranger’s revival in Showcase 80, which spawned a second series long before any sales figures could have been produced. That makes the series another of those I characterised as Infantino’s Experiments, the big difference being that this experiment worked, to the extent of a run of over five years at a bi-monthly schedule.
The speed with which The Phantom Stranger was taken up as a series had a lot to do with how cheap the title was to produce at first, with 80% of it reprints, for which neither artist nor writer were getting paid.
The format was that each issue there would be some mysterious situation, reeking (lightly) of the supernatural. Both The Phantom Stranger and Dr Thirteen, Terry Thirteen and his wife Marie, would be drawn to the scene, one to investigate the supernatural roots of what was going on, the other to debunk it thoroughly. One would mildly suggest that there may be more to the situation than the restricted beliefs of the other was prepared to countenance, and Dr Thirteen would hurl multiple defamatory accusations at The Stranger, in which calling him a charlatan was probably the nicest.
The outcome would be justification for The Stranger and vilification from the Ghost-Breaker, who refused to accept the evidence of his own eyes.
In between, each would reminisce, in strict rotation, about past cases of which this situation would remind them – sometimes quite imaginatively – by way of reprints of old stories from the early Fifties. It was not an approach that could last, partly because the old stories were very much of their time, a decade and a half before, but in any event because there weren’t enough of them to sustain the concept very long.
At first, the Stranger is drawn pretty much as he was in the Fifties. Fittingly, he’s drawn as an older man, a little gaunt of face and grey-haired but the only real change is that he wears a long, wrap-around cape, and the suit and hat now are all dark blue. Intriguingly, when Dr Thirteen arrives on the scene, he says he’s ‘heard of’ The Phantom Stranger but the Stranger’s first words to him are, “Good morning, Terrence. I haven’t seen you in a long time.” Coming immediately after Dr Thirteen’s tale of his dead father, there was some speculation that the Stranger was Thirteen Senior, not dead but adopting this identity for some purpose of his own.
To the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever explained why the Stranger said what he did.
The framing story in Showcase, all eight pages of it, was written by former letterhack Mike Friedrich and drawn by Jerry Grandenetti. Once the Stranger was launched in his own title again, after the equivalent of a one bi-monthly issue gap, they were re-united for a standalone tale, pitting the two stars against one another, after a reprint each. It was already trite, especially Dr Thirteen’s increasingly hysterical denunciations of anything he didn’t understand.
The next two issues reverted into the reprints-within-a-frame format, but there was a surprise awaiting with issue 4, the first, but far from the last, change of direction. Behind a Neal Adams cover, Adams drew the whole story, changing everything. He introduced Tala, Queen of Evil. He put the Phantom Stranger into a white turtleneck sweater and a long cape held together by gold talismans. He put Dr Thirteen into horn-rimmed spectacles. He didn’t alter the squabbling, least of all the Ghost-Breaker’s monotonous accusations that everything was the Stranger’s fault. And worst of all, he introduced four teenagers – Spartacus, Attilla, Wild Rose and Mr Square – and wished their ludicrous and baleful presence upon the series for far too long to come (here defined as anything more than one panel).
The result was a confused and illogical mess.

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The same went for issue 5, which was written and drawn by Mike Selowsky, who kept ‘the Teenagers’, which was how the four pests were described, as if they were the only ones in the world. Apparently, these hip, modern and up-to-date teenagers of 1969 went to Jazz concerts, not Rock. Sekowsky’s second and final issue resurrected the story-within-a-story method, only these were new short stories. It also equipped Spartacus with a jive talk that made the Teen Titans look antique.
Adams 1, Sekowsky 2. The excellent Jim Aparo began his long association with the title in issue 7, initially with Robert Kanigher. Tala’s still causing trouble, trying to kill the Teenagers (I sympathise, but what has she got against them?), Dr Thirteen still accuses the Stranger of being a third rate magician preying on innocent people and laughing at them and the Stranger acts like the Stranger, and now Aparo has added the this-is-so-1970 medallion. This is not very good, not at all.
Nor was Denny O’Neill, writing the next issue, in which he has The Stranger prepared to sacrifice Dr Thirteen’s wife Marie to save the world from Ice-Giants in the Arctic, which is not a good look by any means, and could, in certain lights, be taken as a petty transference of frustrations at the offensive Ghost-Breaker (even mysterious figures with undefined magical powers can only take so much). Having Tala save the day was just a cheap convenience.
Why did I collect this series? We’re not up to the good stuff yet.
Sekowsky was back to write issue 9. The young Gerry Conway stopped by to write issues 10 and 11, the first of which introduced another recurring enemy, Tannarak, a man saturnine of features obsessed with immortality. No Tala, no Teenagers, not even Dr Thirteen for two blessed issues. But that made five different writers in just eleven issues. Consistency is obviously overrated.
As witness by Kanigher coming back for the next two issues. This was the issue that separated the Phantom Stranger from Dr Thirteen, who became a back-up strip. It was the perfect solution. The Ghost-Breaker immediately became perfectly palatable (well, perhaps not perfectly…) as soon as he could occupy his own Universe where rationality could be the dominant factor and remain unchallenged by the inexplicable presence of the Stranger.
The first Dr Thirteen solo, written by Jack Oleck and drawn by the Doc’s long-term artist, Tony de Zuniga, was an horrendous mess, set in a fog-ridden, superstition laden English village that has never existed anywhere, and where hanging still existed. Lazy writing wasn’t confined to Gerry Conway. But all that was about to end, at last.
Issue 14 saw Len Wein take over writing both halves of the series. There’s an immediate change of atmosphere on The Phantom Stranger: Wein still has the turtle-necked one address the reader directly and name himself but now it’s on a ‘men call me…’ at the end of a philosophical spiel that even then bordered on being overwritten, but the story is clear and concise.
A man named Broderick Rune, obviously of the evil party, has lured the Stranger to his mansion where he imprisons him by means of a spell and a pentacle, though it’s clear that Aparo has never in his life seen or even read about a pentacle and has just drawn a magic circle that looks more like crenellated iron: they’re supposed to have five points, not eight circles… Rune’s heart is failing: to restore his strength he has the Stranger’s heart transplanted into his own body! But the Stranger haunts him, demanding his heart back, even though Rune claims it’s his now, he spilt blood for it (what is this, The Merchant of Venice?). In the end, the Stranger drives him into another heart attack, but the transplant surgeon announces, aghast, that he hasn’t got a heart at all…
With Dr Thirteen able to operate at his own pace, Wein could cook up a super-scientific operation masquerading as some sort of swamp thing (heh heh) for the back-up, in perfect and effective peace.
Running parallel to The Phantom Stranger, Wein was also writing Swamp Thing for Joe Orlando, using his scripts to parade the classic monster symbols in a modern settings. He was doing the same here: an African tribal God who was also a robot (falling in love with an African woman called Ororo…), a Wax Museum of horrors, the return of Tannarak in a book-length story that also introduced a blind blonde esper with a penchant for purple jump suits, named Cassandra Craft, who loved the Stranger and was loved in return by him, though his role demanded that he wander the Earth.

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Aparo did all the work on that story so Tony de Zuniga pinch-hitted for him in issue 18, featuring the Flying Dutchman, as well as resuming on the Ghost-Breaker back-up, now written by Steve Skeates.
At Jim Aparo’s special request, Wein brought back the Ice Giants next issue but he shouldn’t have. Nevertheless, the consistency of the same writer for six consecutive issues now sustained a weak tale like this and Wein was back to the supernatural stakes immediately, making mention of a Dark Circle of sorcerors and wizards, gathering their forces across the Earth.
Note a curiosity: the villainous wizard of issue 21, again of the Dark Circle, was named Cerebus. Yes, Cerebus. In issue 23, among those commenting on this issue in the lettercol on this very issue is a young Canadian by the name of Dave Sim: to quote Dalgoda, ‘you can “doo doo doo doo” if it makes you feel any better’.
Len Wein was building up to a big story involving the Dark Circle, running over the next three issues. First, Cassandra Craft reappeared, kidnapped to draw the Stranger and then used to seemingly kill him, though of course he wasn’t dead. But though he meant to move on alone, Cassandra got him to take her with him, thanks to an effective impassioned appeal that was almost a demand to let her help him that, for a time at any rate, persuaded the Stranger to give in to his own wishes.
Only for a time, for two issues, one in Paris with a bell-swinging hunchback and a phantom at the opera who turns out to be Tannarak again, this time persuaded to throw in his lot with the Stranger and Ms Craft, and then a finale in Rio de Janeiro, where the Dark Circle’s dark, and no longer quite laughing and capricious mistress was revealed as the long-absent Tala, as the Four Horsemen were raised from beneath the statue of Christos Redentor, Tala and Tannarak condemned to the Abyss, and Cassandra rescued but left believing her friend was dead – and this time truly dead.
I only discovered The Phantom Stranger in its next phase, when things were very different, and worked my way back to this tryptich. It excited me, and the element of the frustrated love between the Stranger and Cassandra, especially the latter, stirred me. It’s still the best part of the series for me and it’s not just nostalgia that makes me enjoy it all over again. There’s an air of finality about issue 24, as if Wein has completed his story. Two decades later it might have been cancelled then. Yet Wein still had two more issues to write.
One was trite beyond belief, a write-up of someone else’s idea, of the ugly American who knew better than the ignorant savages and who was going to get his way because he was a tough guy. The Stranger tries to save him from himself but once his irredeemable ignorance costs a native girl her life, he washes his hands of the man, as so did I a lot sooner. It was the first of a type of story that would become ever more prevalent after Wein, where the Stranger is no more than a Cain or Abel type host, or no more than a moral voice trying to deflect the protagonist from their inevitable appointment with self-destruction.
Wein’s last issue was co-written with his great buddy, Marv Wolfman, and represented a merger of lead and back-up story.
There’d been a change in the back-up as of issue 23, or at least in it’s title, the now-serialised story becoming ‘The Spawn of Frankenstein’, the original Mary Shelley version of the creature being discovered frozen in the Arctic, brought back to America and revived, only for the laser to malfunction and kill the new generation Victor Adams. Unfortunately, on every level, Victor and Rachel’s best friends are called Terry and Marie – yes, the Thirteens – and the laser cuts down Mrs T, leaving her in a coma.
With his usual passion for scientific rigour, calm thought and evidence, the Doctor instantly concludes the monster done it, and deliberately. The level of consistency is so high that when the monster lifts a grid above him and uses it to stop the ceiling collapsing on everyone, Terry included, and killing them, our rationalist insists he’s only trying to kill them faster than the ceiling.
In short, it’s more shit, only shouted at a different poor sod.
But things were about to change. Wein and Aparo, Wolfman and a horribly crude Mike Kaluta, between issues Orlando was losing his entire creative staff to more popular series. At least he got a swansong out of them, a wrap-up tale that ended the brief and poor Spawn of Frankenstein series with a bang that only made things even more of a mess. Marie Thirteen and, by implication,Victor Adams are brought back to life and two demons appear out of nowhere to steal the show with all the best lines but it’s a piece of garbage and all we had to look forward to was a change in direction and story warned in the lettercol.

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Orlando would explain the true facts in a future lettercol, but for now everyone who picked up issue 27 was in for a rude awakening. The two series were still there, but the Phantom Stranger had been turned over to Arnold Drake and Gerry Talaoc. Frankly, the art was horrible to look at, fussy, misproportioned, frenetic and ugly, but Drake’s script, and the new direction was a mess. The Stranger found himself investigating pill-pushing Doctor Matthew Zorn, a new recurring villain, treating rock stars and fading film actresses by day and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by night, leading the latter into an implausible conspiracy to kill the President on the grounds he was a traitor. The Stranger solves the mystery by using his power to turn invisible (yer wot?). There’s a minor nod to the notion that this is in any way supposed to be a horror/mystery title by having Zorn’s drugs be made with supernatural ingredients, but that’s not where Drake’s at and that’s just the start.
The Spawn of Frankenstein continued too. Look, I know it wasn’t very good to begin with but was that any reason to sic Steve Skeates and veteran artist Bernard (The Spectre) Bailey onto it? I thought the US Constitution was supposed to ban cruel and unusual punishment. Sure, people weren’t buying the mag in great numbers but was that any cause to do that to those of us who were?
Then it got worse. And worse.
The Phantom Stranger 30 was the first issue I bought. I was slowly examining the DC market for 1974, contrasting it with what I remembered from the Sixties and usually finding the newer stuff better and more intriguing, an opinion that I’d reverse in a heartbeat if you gave me the chance now. I can only assume it was the idea of The Phantom Stranger that caught me because it couldn’t have been the story. Drake was writing something incomprehensible, a pseudo-Satanic Pied Piper tale with a car crash ending that made no sense and a hero he clearly had no sympathy with. And The Spawn of Frankenstein was even worse, with soulless the kindest word I can summon up. At least it was the last effort, and has never been returned to, for which sing Hallelujah! Surely the new back-up series could not be so plain awful, especially as it was The Black Orchid.
The incoherent lead story about a heroin-addicted soldier turned out to be Gerry Talaoc’s swansong for now, initiating a spell of musical artists. The Black Orchid started with a decent if not spectacular one-off story by her creators in Adventure Comics, Sheldon Mayer and Tony de Zuniga. But Orlando’s explanation of losing Wein (over-committed with deadline issues) and Aparo (snatched for Batman) included the lament that Mayer was ill and de Zuniga no longer available, meaning the back-up would next appear from Michael Fleisher and Nestor Redondo.
First though it was Bill Draut back, only too clean and clear, in a House of Mystery story with the Stranger appearing in five panels only, including the splash page. Then Mike Grell on a book-length team-up with Deadman involving Dr Zorn. For issue 34, Talaoc was back and so was Dr Thirteen, in an unused back-up from before the sad intrusion of the Spawn of Frankenstein. This was Drake’s last script and the word was that, after a perfectly decent and inoffensive single Black Orchid strip from Fleisher, Sheldon Mayer had written a two-parter. No comic can survive long in this chaos.

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The new writer was David Michelinie, then a newcomer and definitely intent on being a major Len Wein sequel. He started strongly, immediately putting all Wein’s stylistic flourishes back, and chucking out Dr Zorn to introduce Dr N Seine (groan), Nathan Seine that is. Seine was a brilliant scientist, emotionally dependent upon his shy wife Margaret, who had nearly killed her in a lab accident, was keeping her artificially alive but in great pain, not that he minded, and who turned to deals with the Nether Gods to grant her full life, which meant sacrificing the Stranger. But Margaret wanted to die and saved the Stranger at the cost of her own release, causing Dr Serine to accuse our man of murder and swear vengeance.
A neat little set-up, with potential, and far better than Arnold Drake’s total lack of understanding. So Michelinie’s second strip was one of these Stranger-warns-puny-human-who-ignores-him-and-comes-to-bad-end tales, which was pathetic. And he’s gone to make room for Paul Levitz. Sheesh. Whose first story was another one short on coherence. It was another book-lengther but whilst the Grell-drawn one was twenty pages, only four issues later book-length was now eighteen.
After insisting that Talaoc was here for the foreseeable future, Orlando had to make another change, with Fred Carillo taking on art duties for a Levitz four-parter, matched by a four-part Black Orchid also drawn by Carillo. How nice to have lead and back-up so perfectly in step, because the ghost was on the point of giving up and there was just enough time to get both in before The Phantom Stranger was cancelled with issue 41.
The Black Orchid back-up had scripts by Fleisher even though Orlando had said he was too busy to work on the series. It was a decent adventure, her longest to date, and clever in its conception, though not any better than… decent.
The cancellation was still abrupt. Levitz included Deadman again in his last three issues as a prelude to Boston Brand taking over the back-up slot in issue 42, which was never to be. At least those of us with fond memories of a certain blind, blonde esper who still favoured purple were given a taste of sweet nostalgia before the end. And that end, which I can make believe lasted forever, was with Cassandra Craft in the arms of the Phantom Stranger. At least we know she was truly happy.
Thus ends, again, the first series I was so enthused about that I collected it all. It clearly wasn’t all that good, but who looks back on the tastes of their youth and finds them all still strawberries and cream? Then and now are different things and always will be.
The DVD also contains the Phantom Stranger issue of Secret Origins which gave four different accounts of how the Stranger might have come to be, one of which is superb – as it should be, it’s by Alan Moore and as I give no fig for DC’s overly convoluted continuity any more, I believe in what I choose to believe among all the options – and the 1987 miniseries, which I have read but choose not to comment upon.

How Not to Write for Teens: The (not-new) Teen Titans


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Long years ago, when I was active – some would have said hyperactive – in comics fandom, I proposed and was accepted to write an article on DC’s teenage superheroes, The Teen Titans, for Fantasy Advertiser, one of the two leading fanzines of the decade, one of the only two with a circulation in four figures.
The New Teen Titans under Marv Wolfman, George Perez and Romeo Tanghal, was at its peak then, four to five years into the run that, almost single-handedly, dragged DC Comics back from the abyss of the infamous Implosion. I’d been collecting the series from the outset and had plenty of theories about the reasons for its success, and Marv Wolfman’s ongoing manipulation of the central weakness that he had transformed into a strength. Ambitiously, or rather over-ambitiously, I set out to compare The New Teen Titans with the ‘Old’ Teen Titans.
I’ll let you into a secret: I had read maybe as much as fifty percent of the old Teen Titans but not for a few years, and I no longer owned any of the issues I used to have, which made the first half of the article into a gigantic case of bluff. But no-one seemed to notice, or if they did no-one called me out on it.
It’s time to put the record straight, and time to read a complete run of The Teen Titans in all its glory, providing you allow for a sufficiently elastic definition of the word ‘glory’. Just don’t go off checking your dictionary, please.
When the Teen Titans, consisting of Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash and Wonder Girl, first appeared in their own bi-monthly title, cover-dated January 1966, written by Bob Haney and drawn by Nick Cardy, they had had three spaced-out trials over the previous eighteen months, two in The Brave and The Bold and one in Showcase. They made their debut with a modest adventure story, showcasing their various powers, supporting the Peace Corps in an un-named South American town, where a projected dam would drown a pyramid that was being defended by a thirty foot robotic Conquistador and a Beast-God that appeared as Half Man, Half (no, not Biscuit) Animal.
It was pretty much your standard mid-Sixties adventure, a mild starter. Haney (aged 40) threw in only a few hip, teen comments. Cardy (aged 45) drew in an undistinguished, flat style that nevertheless contained hints at the linework of which he was capable. Both had been working for DC since the late Forties. Yet the proto-lettercol page, in answer to the unasked question, Why the Teen Titans, made it plain that the idea was to feature stories that had, or needed that ‘teen touch’. The teen audience was invited to make itself heard. There was the making of a potential disaster in there, and as we shall see, that was, in many ways, just what was going to follow.
Indeed, Haney didn’t need to even get in his stride. Issue 2 had the TT responding to the plight of a teenage girl whose boyfriend turned out to be a million year old caveman whilst issue 3 had the gang solving the nation’s number 1 teenage problem – High School drop-outs – by taking down dragster crook Ding Dong Daddy Dowd. Yes, you really don’t need more than the guy’s name, do you? And Haney’s hip teenspeak is gathering speed…

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Right from the start, the readers had been clamouring for Speedy to get a berth with the Teen Titans, so much so that he was featured in issue 4, back-dated to 1964 and the Tokyo Olympics, you know, before the Titans even formed.
Beast Boy guested in issue 6, but couldn’t join the Teen Titans without permission from his evil Guardian, Galtry. The story was pretty silly, and the letters page was full of teenagers smarter than the writer and artist, pointing out goofs and booboos in earlier issues. But the biggest booboo of them all was about to happen the next issue as quality took a nose dive off a cliff and didn’t stop at the ground: enter the Mad Mod.
In Fantasy Advertiser I pretended, but this is the first time I have actually read the Mad Mod. He was a hip talking, cool-slang spouting English clothes designer and smuggler, using US teenage rock sensation and dreamboat Holley Hip to inadvertently carry things over borders for him. It was, predictably awful, and as authentic as a nine bob note. This meant that the next issue couldn’t be anything like as bad, though Haney’s dialogue certainly tried to be. We just got a couple of dull stories in fact.
The dialogue was getting breezier, and not in a good way, but so too was the story. Speedy’s second guest-staring role was in a fast paced story about criminals out to get a new chemical weapon, paired up with aquatic monsters. It was fast, inventive and altogether good, bright comics. But the next effort, about aliens trying to steal Earth monuments whilst threatening a space DJ called Dee Jay, was a real, serious clunker. Haney’s dialogue broke down completely, failing to make sense, the implausibility of superheroics went OTT and he couldn’t even get ordinary phrases right as Wonder Girl escaped being coerced into being the fourth wife of a racist stereotype Arab dealer, using the phrase, “Always the bride, never the bridesmaid”, which made no sense even if it was meant to be a deliberate reversal.
And they bounced back with the best issue to date. This was Haney’s hip take on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, translating the characters into the world of Xmas 1967, the Titans answering a plea from wheelchair-bound Tiny Tom Ratchet, whose father is beholden to Mr Scrounge. You get the idea. But not only did Haney make a good, action-oriented story out of it, Nick Cardy suddenly cut loose.
It was the advent of the ‘big art’ era, but unlike Bob Brown on Challengers of the Unknown, Cardy had the chops to exploit it. Odd-angled panels, a looser style, a gift for caricature in the case of Scrounge, this was fun stuff, fluid and the style I remembered from those issues I used to read.
And the next one was another 14 carat clunker, almost as if it was deliberate.
Arriving from Charlton Comics, Dick Giordano took over as editor with issue 15 though there was no evidence of any change in the story. Things picked up considerably for ‘The Dimensional Caper’ next issue, a story I remember with considerable affection. It still has Haney’s ridiculous hip-speak, but it also had fast, flawless plotting, another Cardy special and when the story starts flipping the Titans and an entire High School back and forth between dimensions with hyperactive speed, the reader never gets confused as to where they are at any one moment.
Then there is no surprise to see that issue 17 was another one for the pits. Not only does it bring back the Mad Mod, but it’s set in Britain, recipes for disaster both. The only aspect of note is that the story features a Titans trio, with Robin locked in the Tower of London overnight, because of course nobody ever checks that all visitors are out of the place where they keep the Crown Jewels, leaving the other three to lead themselves on a historical tour.
Giordano’s first real editorial move was a complete change of creative staff. Fans turned writers Len Wein and Marv Wolfman (whatever happened to them?) wrote a decent, serious script free from any hip-speak, about the Titans in Stockholm keeping a very skilful and well-ordered international jewel thief from stealing the Swedish Crown. The issue introduced the first Russian superhero, Starfire, complete with ideological differences to be shaken up by co-operation, and a very serious rant from Robin at the end that was full of teenage idealism of a kind Haney could never have conceived, let alone written. Art was from Bill Draut, normally a stalwart of the ‘mystery’ books but here doing a good, clean job.
On the other hand, issue 19 was by Mike Friedrich, Gil Kane and Wally Wood and featured Speedy once more. The art was good but the story a bit too lightweight, which could not be said for the next story, ‘Titans Fit the Battle of Jericho’.
This is a well-known, or perhaps rather notorious story. Originally the story was written by Wein and Wolfman again, and was intended to feature DC’s first black superhero. This was nixed by Infantino to avoid offending Southern distributors. Neal Adams intervened, redrawing a substantial part of the story over a weekend. The new hero, Joshua, became a white electrical engineer, fighting to save good kids from being exploited by a criminal gang, but to the best of my knowledge Adams kept as much of the original as he could, so it might be unfair to charge him with responsibility for the incongruous monster that erupts in the final pages, though he did get the Story and Art credits.

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The final page set up some kind of ongoing storyline, with the revelation that the other-dimensional creeps of issue 16 were still out to invade Earth, and co-opting a couple of past one-off issues as early steps thwarted by our gang, which included Speedy at the expense of Aqualad this time, without any official notice or statement.
Adams saved the day, but Wein and Wolfman very quickly found themselves unwanted, and going over to Marvel. Neither would return until after Infantino was sacked as Publisher.
Some superb art decorated the next issue, which guest-starred Hawk and Dove, making a mini-crossover with their own series, developing the aliens theme further. Speedy was acknowledged as a Titans member, replacing Aqualad at least temporarily. The art was uncredited but my best guest is Cardy, inked by Adams. It continued into the next issue, but only took up just over half the pages. The rest were devoted to providing an origin for Wonder Girl, a very nice piece of work drawn elegantly by Gil Kane, with Cardy inks, written by Marv Wolfman on his way out.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Wonder Girl was a non-existent character who accidentally became real. Among Robert Kanigher’s less loopy ideas in Wonder Woman was the occasional story featuring WW herself plus Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot. These were the Amazon Princess herself at younger points in her life. Then, forgetting she wasn’t actually a separate character, Kanigher used WG alongside WW plus Wonder Queen (i.e., Hyppolita). So the younger Amazon never had an origin.
The story Wolfman came up with was neatly simple. A young, completely undocumented baby was rescued by WW from a burning building in which everyone else was dead. The baby was taken to Paradise Island and raised by the Amazons, eventually having powers equal to Wonder Woman diverted to her by Paula von Gunther’s Purple Ray. But Donna Troy was an American woman, albeit one without a home, a background, an identity, especially as Paradise Island had left Earth at this point (Wonder Woman plot-point, associated with the loss of her powers under Mike Sekowsky, let’s hustle along here, people).
So Donna finally admits all this to the boys, in return for which she is set up with a civilian identity, a new wardrobe and a roomie who immediately has Speedy hitting on her. Which spurs Donna into making herself a brand new costume, the one we all know now, which is much more a woman’s costume than her tight shorts and flat girl’s top which was looking more than silly as Cardy kept increasing the size of this teenager’s breasts. And she brushed out her pony-tail.
A decade and a half later, in the New Teen Titans, Wolfman himself would fill out this story and add that missing background, to tremendous emotional effect, in what I personally regard as the best story he ever wrote. How much of it was in his head when he introduced the subject and how much was simply being an older, more experienced and subtle writer I would love to know.
Unfortunately, what followed wasn’t up to it. Kane and Cardy stayed another issue, with Haney back in the scripter’s chair but though he’d been mercifully restrained from (most of) the hip dialogue, his plots were once again nonsense: nicely rendered nonsense but still silly.
But Giordano had had enough and with issue 25 he radically changed the series, dropping the silly stories, and more than that. Cardy returned to full art duties and Kanigher wrote an inside out script that, in the cold hard light of 2021, is full of overblown portentousness and pretentious notions. It starts with the Titans watching an unsuccessful operation in a hospital and gloomily going on with guilt and their responsibility.
It then unreels to the fab foursome out for a groovy night out, meeting Lilith, who has paranormal powers that haven’t kept her from being a long-legged, micro-skirted, red-headed go-go dancer in a cage (mind you, Donna is never going to get prosecuted for overuse of skirt material so that’s alright). Lilith warns them in appropriately non-specific terms that the Titans are going to ‘open the doors of death’ that night.
With a sense of inevitability, the gang drop in on a Peace Rally featuring ‘modern Saint’ Dr Arthur Swenson. Also in attendance, but on opposite sides, are Hank and Don Hall. A riot starts. Robin nips off whilst everyone else piles in. The whole bang shoot of them grab the hand of a guy waving a gun, but it goes off and shoots Swenson in the head.
Once he dies in hospital, the Titans are understandably distraught at their responsibility for this, especially as first Swenson with his dying breath, then half the Justice League accuse them of irresponsibility and indiscipline. Off they wander through the foggy city, self-pitying like mad, until they reach the waterfront where Lilith rows up, trailing Mr Jupiter. He’s one more of those freestanding philanthropic millionaires, who’s into training teenagers to face the problems of the world to come.
And, with the exception of Robin, who’s going off to college in Batman, the Titans submit themselves to Mr J’s authority, go to live and train at his secret skyscraper facility, and give up their uniforms in favour of… unisex grey jumpsuits. Who said comics is a visual medium?

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Quite apart from the way in which time has not treated this notion at all kindly, the whole set-up stinks of, well, set-up. The way in which the Titans blindly put themselves in the hands of this mystery character, giving up their identities (except Robin) and their powers, and locking themselves away in his citadel… You can only expect one outcome, can’t you?
But this was 1970, and all of this was genuine, an attempt by Dick Giordano to take a radical new approach, emphasising Donna, Roy, Wally, Hank and Don’s status as teenagers, trying to make sense out of America as it came out of the Sixties. You can and have to respect the impulse, though it’s something that was exactly of its time and if you weren’t there… As I wasn’t at this exact crucial time.
And at the same time you have to ask, if you are editing a superhero comic, and you take away the costumes and the superpowers, what exactly have you got left? For a start you’ve got well-meaning, and the Titans taking on a street gang. Six issues after Infantino nixed an entire Teen Titans story because it featured a black superhero, Kanigher could introduce Mal Duncan (guess writing seniority doesn’t hurt). Mal was black and, this being 1970, he was angry. He also sneaked off in the night to man a robotic space flight to Venus, practically committing suicide, but not until he’d been embraced by Lilith (white girl in arms of black man: this was really going to play with the distributors down South).
The flaw in the new direction was baldly exposed in issue 27 with a cover that had to bolster sales by placing four Teen Titans, including the now-absent Robin, in costume and prominent. Naturally it was about chasing Mal in the spare rocket which only happened to be big enough to seat six and split into enough parts for three separate missions: gee, I wonder why they didn’t use this clearly superior rocket for the first mission?
Sales figures must have been taking a hammering since the next couple of issues brought back not only Aqualad but also Robin. And Aqualad had plenty to say, and not kindly, about the Titans’ decision to quit, every word of which I had to endorse. He managed to get the other three to suit up, but not actually take any action, that is until the second part when Garth (if he had been named by then) was in serious trouble and vows had to be broken.
Actually, the story bottled out of its own logic by having Robin head off back to university to complete a term paper, and making most of it a Hawk and Dove story, fighting off would-be invading aliens from the Aquaman series. But it made no long-term difference as the other three stuck to their temporarily-forgotten-in-extreme-circumstances vow.
It’s actually fascinating, on a perhaps unworthy level, to watch Giordano trying to keep both the new theme and sales going. After a couple of uncredited scripts, Steve Skeates was unveiled as the writer of the first story in issue 30, featuring the Titans in their jumpsuits, except that now both Lilith and Donna were decked out in ultra-short minis and knee length boots: got to give the kids something to look at. The tightly zipped up one-size-too-small tops didn’t hinder this.
And to keep a couple of costumes out there, the back-up story featured Aqualad and brought in his main squeeze, Tula, aka Aquagirl, with her weird ocean-resistant hairdo.
There’s no doubt about it, the Mr Jupiter thing is falling to pieces. The man himself hasn’t been seen in several issue. The Titans turned up on campus, half in and half out of costume, where a truly insane administrator was brainwashing the kids into being docile rather than let them think for themselves and cause unrest: sheesh, was it really that bad or were some people paranoid? The issue had a dubious exchange between Mal and Speedy, with the black kid asking Whitey if he can’t punch order and the white kid suggesting that in questioning him, Mal didn’t know his place. I’m sure it was intended as a joke, I mean Skeates was a young writer, down with the kids, but it sure didn’t come over as funny.
And that was it for Giordano, unable to see eye to eye with Infantino, chucking it all in and going back to drawing. Everybody’s favourite friend-of-the-reader Murray Boltinoff took over, starting with a time travel two-parter which saw the Titans emulate Metamorpho and bring back a caveboy to join the team and hook up with the bosomy Lilith (she’s got red hair: wouldn’t you?) Skeates was off the book, of course, and who else but Bob Haney was back. As was Robin, yanked back into the middle of the story to educate Gnaark into being a 20th century boy.
The old superhero ideas were back, but I’m missing something here. I have very definite memories of a story beginning with Lilith grooving to a Doors song before Mr Jupiter turns up to chuck the LP into a wastebin and conduct a very angry exchange with her, all of which turned into some muddled affair in which she had suddenly mindread psychological weaknesses in at least two of her team-mates, including at least one death-wish, setting up tests to blunt these. But it had to have been a Giordano-era tale, and now Boltinoff had taken over, the Titans were going to go off in a new direction and deal with ghoulies and ghosties. Not to mention incomprehensible and turgid plots. But I can still see that splash page so vividly.

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The spooky stuff was not one of Boltinoff’s better ideas (actually, given how many comics I’ve read by now, I don’t recall any better ones and would be obliged to anyone who can correct me on that point).
This phase overlapped the 48 page era which saw some Superboy repeats filling up the pages. I wouldn’t have bothered mentioning these but for the absolutely shitty editing job done on issue 37, where Superboy meets a young Oliver Queen, aka Green Arrow, and somehow or other Boltinoff let the colourist give the boy bowman a red and yellow costume, Speedy’s colours, even where the text describes him as green-clad.
That story that started over the Doors record was not an hallucination though I started to wonder when it turned up in issue 38. Written by Haney? Commissioned by Boltinoff? There could be only one outcome: it was dumb shit. By the way, I was wrong about the death-wish, though it would have been a damn-sight more interesting a theme.
I was also wrong about expecting Mr Jupiter to be ditched when Giordano left. Instead, he’s still there, his money at the back of everything, his interests setting up stories. But these stories were getting worse all the time, reaching a nadir with the one in issue 41 that set out to stir up an anti-slavery tale by going back to pre-Civil War times with ghosts.
There had to be an end, and there was. After 43 bi-monthly issues, few of which were good enough, Teen Titans was cancelled for the first time, still tangling with witchcraft and its ilk. And not too soon either, as Haney’s story were spiralling further and further away from any sense, as if he couldn’t be bothered doing a tolerable job any more.
Interestingly, though there was no indication in the issue that it was going to be the last, it was a handy coincidence that the asinine, meandering back-up in which mystery-ESPer Lilith rides into town on a motorcycle on which she looks as natural as a performing dog, spots someone vaguely resembling her with some mental powers and immediately fixates on them as her ‘real’ mother was billed as the last episode. Needless to say, it was a big fucking cheat because yet again her fantasy relative turned out to not share a single strand of DNA but just like that the obsession blows up because, hey, she’s got a family and it’s the Titans (where’s that sick-bucket?) The adoptive parents who raised her from a baby don’t even get a mention.
Christ, this stuff can be real crap, sometimes.

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The series was gone for nearly four years, being brought back to continue its original numbering in late 1976, for a further run of ten issues, on a not-quite bi-monthly basis (monthly except for five months, sheesh), now written by Bob Rozakis and drawn, initially, by Irv Novick. The ground had been prepared by a couple of reprints, testing the market and the response was favourable enough to bring the series back. An uncredited editor job by Paul Levitz, Bob Rozakis and Pablo Marcos brought back the core four, called back into a trap by Dr Light and transformed Mal into an updated version of The Guardian. It was overwrought, full of quarrels and simplistically moralistic about teamwork: in short, it was a typical mid-to-late Seventies shitty comic book put out by DC. I got back into comics after my brief hiatus at the start of the decade, but the more of these that I re-read, the harder it is to understand how I was still into them at the end of that time.
Though Julius Schwartz took over as editor next issue, with Bob Rozakis and Irv Novick as the creative team, things only got worse. The squabbling team bit is so tiresome and artificial now, whilst the plotting was unnecessarily complex. Story trails were being laid all over. Aqualad was back, Mal was already gearing up to change his powers and monicker and his newly-appearing girlfriend Karen got one panel to foreshadow her plans. Crap stuff.
Would you believe it got worse? Convoluted plots, the introduction of the awkwardly named Joker’s Daughter, the ongoing search for a new Titans headquarters. Novick had enough and was replaced by Bob Brown on issue 47, though that made no practical difference.
As with Freedom Fighters, the obvious sign of a struggling series is artistic musical chairs. Jose Delbo, a particularly bland artist, drew issue 48. Joker’s daughter gets called The Harlequin on the cover and Jokesy throughout, until the last page, Speedy assumes he’s the only one bright enough to tell she’s really a villain putting them on, whilst Mal’s loving and supportive girlfriend Karen shows up as The Bumblebee (oh really, yes, how bloody stupid) to help him deal with his issues about being a Teen Titan by attacking and defeating him and them. It’s hard to believe, after all those Silver Age series with their tight plots and smart stories that Julius Schwartz is editing this.
Some vestige of invention occurred in the three-parter starting in the landfill.. sorry, landmark issue 50, drawn by Don Heck, the fifth penciller in seven issues. This pre-dated Marvel’s West Coast Avengers by several years by introducing Teen Titans West, who could also have been termed The Rejects List, consisting as it did of Hawk and Dove, Lilith, Beast Boy and, for good measure, Bat-Girl (the original one) and Golden Eagle ( the who? One).
But the distance between conception and execution was more than any Olympic long-jumper could bridge, especially with a midway switch round of editors, with Jack C Harris, a notorious blandatron, replacing Julie Schwartz.
Which left only issue 53, with the never-before revealed secret origin of the Teen Titans, and one final penciller, Juan Ortiz, making six artists in the whole run. How anyone expected this turkey to gobble is a real mystery, but the run should stand as some sort of testament to how awful a Seventies comics series could be and still get published. Was this part of the run worse than Freedom Fighters? The two are too close to judge.
Overall, in either of its two existences, or any of the phases of that first run, there’s little to commend Teen Titans for. Marv Wolfman was certainly not overreacting in his dread at being asked to revive the series again, in 1980. He regarded the concept as inherently weak because the characters were sidekicks, automatically inferior. Sometimes that can work well: a hero who’s learning on the job, who’s liable to make mistakes, widens the range of stories available and heightens the tension. But the time when the Old Teen Titans were most likely to exploit such possibilities were dispersed by the calamitous efforts of Bob Haney to be hip, and swinging, and no doubt gear as well, but mostly as limp as a stick of rhubarb in the hands of Geoff Boycott’s Granny.
It’s just as well that I didn’t have this depth of knowledge in the Eighties: my Fantasy Advertiser article would have been far too long to publish if I’d actually known what I was talking about.