To be Brave and Bold: Part 1 – The Historical Phase


Some comics series, especially those without a character to lend their name to a title, lead volatile existences. In recent posts, we’ve seen just how often the likes of Adventure Comics and More Fun Comics chopped and changed their approaches, with multiple serial leads. The same goes for Mystery in Space. I’m now moving on to DC’s long-running title, The Brave and the Bold, which ran for 200 issues from 1955 to 1983, eventually being cancelled not because of its sales but because DC wanted to replace it with a more modernised version of its fourth, final and longest phase.
Brave & Bold (as the title was most commonly called) was introduced in an issue cover-dated August-September 1955, just over a year before the debut of the Silver Age Flash in Showcase. B&B debuted as a bi-monthly status, a frequency it would retain for almost twenty years, under the editorship of Whitney Ellsworth.
It was very much a comic of the In-Between Age, the desperate expenditure of resources on anything that might attract the kids’ attention again, this effort being about historical adventure. The first issue featured The Golden Gladiator (sheepherder Marcus framed for a plot of which he was innocent, turned galley-slave, turned gladiator, freed due to his prowess) created by France Herron and Russ Heath, The Viking Prince (an amnesiac found floating in cold seas with an obvious warrior background) created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert and The Silent Knight (medieval-era Brian Kent, robbed of his right to rule, fighting in silence) created by Kanigher and Irv Novick.
Of the three, Viking Prince was clearly the best, thanks to Kubert’s art, though the story itself also rung with a deeper resonance. Jon the Viking did not know who he really was, only that Baron Thorvald wanted him dead. We knew that Jon was a rightful heir. So too was Brian Kent, albeit out in the open, and a bit blander. Both these I had read in reprints but the Golden Gladiator was new to me except in reputation and I reserved judgement at first.
The mix was varied in issue 5 when England’s Robin Hood appeared in place of the Golden Gladiator. This wasn’t DC’s first use of the character, and it isn’t even mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Brave (or Bold) Sir Robin, but this version was by Bill Finger and Russ Heath. Next issue, it was the Viking Prince’s turn to sit things out so Joe Kubert was free to draw Robin Hood. Whereas he was a clean-shaven blond in Lincoln Green in one issue, now Kubert drew him like Errol Flynn, dark-hair and pencil moustache.
The new rule appeared to be that Robin Hood and the Silent Knight were permanents and the Viking Prince and Golden Gladiator alternated for the third slot. But Jon the Prince only missed issue 6 and retained his place for the remainder of the comic’s run as an historical hero anthology, with the Golden Gladiator the full-time loser.
Cover duties alternated between the Silent Knight and Robin Hood, with the Viking Prince not getting a look-in. Maid Marion made only rare appearances in the series but Jon’s love, Gunnda, daughter of Captain Olaf was an ever present, never afraid to go into battle to aid him, a true shieldmaiden, whilst both Brian Kent and the Silent Knight hobnobbed with Sir Edwin’s daughter, the fair Lady Celia. Officially, Celia did not know her two attendants were one and the same, but her knowing remarks to Brian leave me convinced that she wasn’t fooled at all.
Then issue 16 threw everything open, Viking Prince-wise. Not only did he claim the cover on an issue from which Robin Hood was missing, but suddenly he’s losing his memory multiple times in between which he knows he’s the rightful heir to the throne, but it’s not the one seized by Baron Thorvald, this one’s occupied by Turgunn and Jon has to complete the Twelve Tasks of Thor before he can challenge for it, meanwhile Gunnda’s disappeared and Jon’s knocking about with a mute minstrel: what?

Brave & Bold had now turned into a two character title, the pity being that the Viking Prince’s series had gone haywire, with his next adventure being under the sea, aiding a displaced naiad recover her castle but turning down her fair blue body when she offers it.
The rot spread to the Silent Knight, with Brian Kent suddenly becoming Brian Greystone, and I’ll eat my hat if Lady Celia didn’t know absolutely it was Brian all along.
The Viking Prince’s stories got sillier every issue in proportion to how more impressive Kubert’s art got. Over and over, beauties of all hair-colourings would throw themselves at Jon’s feet, closing in for kisses, offering their all. At least his would-be love of a Gulliver’s Travel knock-off adventure in issue 22 reminded him of fair Gunda for the first time (single-n spelling per the story).
Then the next issue it was all up for grabs again, with two Viking Prince stories, one his origin, introducing his father, King Rikk, and his beauteous Princess and lifelong love Asa, daughter of Eric, King of Skane, and that was another set of parameters chucked out heedlessly. Robert Kanigher replaced Whitney Ellsworth as editor and jettisoned The Silent Knight. Brave & Bold was now The Viking Prince’s solo title. For one more issue.

And then the comic’s era as a vehicle for historical adventure was abandoned for good, in the first great change of phase. About which we’ll read in the next instalment.

*Retroactive Fandom* The Riddle of The Spectre


A few words of context

In 1986, when things were otherwise then they are now, and I was active in UK Comics Fandom, I wrote an article about The Spectre that was published in Arkensword, a high quality fanzine published by Paul Duncan of Coventry that was one of only two then-fanzines to enjoy a circulation of over 1,000 copies.
The piece was written in the immediate wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, as a prelude to a new version of the Spectre, written by Steve Gerber, that promised to modernise the character, and to introduce an alter ego relationship relevant to the 1980s.
No such version ever appeared, nor any hints as to Gerber’s plan. According to Wikipedia, Gerber missed the deadline for issue 1, to be drawn by Gene Colan, in order to watch the last day of filming on the Howard the Duck film, and DC cancelled the project: not worth that last day, eh? The prospect of Gerber’s series led me to publish an article on The Spectre to date, on the various, contrasting incarnations of the character that had been thrown together without the least regard for continuity between the various versions. It was fun, and I made fun of the twists and turns that were, frankly, irreconcilable.
Ironically, a few years later, I came up with one small idea that made the whole pre-Crisis history come together. Though I’d been out of fandom for some time by then, I wrote my idea up as a sequel. Arkensword was dead, as were most of the fanzines I’d read or written for. I can’t remember if it was ever published and, if so, in what magazine. I don’t even have a copy myself.
Recently, I thought of these paired articles and decided I would reprint one and rewrite the other here, to give them a decent home. That was until I re-read ‘The Riddle of The Spectre; or, Continuity? What Continuity?’. If you really want to know what I wrote in 1986, you can go hunt out a copy of Arkensword 16 for yourself, because I’m not willingly going to let anything that awful be published on my blog. I need to rewrite both. Besides, I’ve thirty years of new information I didn’t have back then to include.

The Riddle of The Spectre

The Spectre is dead: Long live The Spectre.
In the tradition of Julius Schwartz, at the beginning of the Silver Age, Steve Gerber has been commissioned to create a Spectre for the Eighties. Back then, things like that happened without any thought for previous versions, which is why so much time and effort went into Crisis on Infinite Earths. No longer will that happen, Marv Wolfman assures us: Gerber’s Spectre will be the only Spectre there has ever been.
Thus passes Jim Corrigan, died 1940, deceased 1985. He leaves behind a history so convoluted, so inconsistent, so thoughtlessly plotted as to defy the very notion of continuity itself. It has been rumoured that Roy Thomas planned to straighten all this out in a Graphic Novel, but if The Spectre of old is now dead – which was the point all along – is there any point?
But it’s a shame to leave it like that. There are happy memories for some of us invested in one part or another of The Spectre’s career, and a lot of fun to be had picking over the bones of Jim Corrigan’s afterlife.
The Spectre debuted in More Fun Comics 52, February 1940, published by Detective Comics. He was created by Jerry Siegel, with artist Bernard Bailey, Siegel’s most substantial creation outside of Superman. The Kryptonian was about the vast enhancement of the body’s attributes: strength, speed, invulnerability etc. The Spectre was possibly the only idea that could extend beyond that: incomparable, illimitable power, bounded only by the imagination. Though at that time, the imagination was pretty bounded by writer’s crude notions.
Jim Corrigan seemed to have it all made: a successful Police Detective, engaged to marry heiress Clarice Winston, bringing in half of Gats Benson’s mob. In retaliation, Benson kidnapped Corrigan and Clarice, sending Jim off to swim in a barrel of concrete. Jim died. His spirit ascended but, at the borders of Heaven, was sent back by a Voice (presumably that of God), to combat evil.
Corrigan returned as a ghost, to resurrect Clarice, who had been shot, round up the rest of the mob and frighten Benson to death with a glance. He then jilted Clarice without explanation. How could he tell her he was no longer alive, did not breathe, could not… hold her.
As The Spectre, Corrigan appeared to be dressed in white and dark green, but don’t be fooled: hood, cape, trunks, gloves and moccasin sandals were costume, the white areas were The Spectre’s body.
As a character, The Spectre’s series was full of potential rarely realised. There was a freewheeling aspect to it typical of a time when anything went because no-one knew what might work. There were even flashes of genuine imagination, every now and then, but there were too many lame monster and magic stories, the thudding dullness of Corrigan’s Captain being convinced the Spectre was behind every crime and berating Corrigan for not bringing him in, and too much stiff and stilted art from Bailey. At first, the avenging ghost used to leave almost as many bodies in his wake as did the villains, but this didn’t last as long as a later writer suggested, as Detective Comics realised they had a money-making industry on their hands and started smoothing off rough edges.

The Spectre – Golden Aga

When Charley Gaines, at All-American Publications, Detective’s sister company, ordered up All-Star Comics to promote both company’s characters, The Spectre was chosen to represent More Fun, alongside Doctor Fate. Perhaps, as a Detective Comics character in an All-American comic, there was a subconscious bias against Corrigan, but despite his popularity, he never got considered for the JSA chairmanship, the route to a solo title.
Nor did he shine overmuch, despite being potentially more powerful than all the rest of the team put together. Gardner Fox wrote him competently, but lacked the intensity that Siegel could bring to the solo series, and even had him gassed into unconsciousness in issue 13 (drawing a retcon from Roy Thomas courtesy of The Monitor in 1985). And unlike other members, changes in The Spectre’s series were not taken up in All-Star.
To my surprise, instead of being parcelled off in Corrigan’s origin story (which required two issues to complete), Clarice Winston hung around a very long time, still in love with Jim (and he still in love with her) in a very touching manner that provided an oft-needed touch of stability.
But in More Fun 74, the series was changed permanently in a bad way by the introduction of Percival Popp, the Super-Cop, a short, klutzy and over-eager Private ‘Tec who wanted to team up with Jim Corrigan. At a stroke, The Spectre became second fiddle to his comic relief, a fate that other heroes didn’t suffer until much later in the decade.
An issue later, Popp’s investigations threatened to expose the barrel of cement in which Corrigan’s earthly remains lay in the river, so The Spectre got permission from the Voice to restore Corrigan to life. Which wiped out his excuse for not marrying Clarice, except that Popp took up so much of his and Spec’s time, she was pushed out.
And in issue 90, Corrigan went off to War, leaving The Spectre behind and suddenly invisible for the rest of the run until issue 101, after which More Fun was abruptly repurposed as a comic comic. And at more or less the same time, The Spectre was forced out of All-Star by the split between All-American and Detective Comics. Thus ended the Golden Age of Jim Corrigan.
Twenty years passed. Superheroes went out of and came back into fashion. In 1966, Julius Schwartz had stopped introducing new versions of old characters and was testing the revival of JSA characters in Showcase and Brave and Bold: Dr Fate and Hourman, Starman and Black Canary, all written by Fox and drawn by Murphy Anderson. For Showcase 60, Schwartz planned to pair Dr Mid-Nite and The Spectre, but in the end went for the Ghostly Guardian alone.
I bought ‘The War that shook the Universe’ one Saturday afternoon, walking from my Gran’s in Droylsden to the newsagents at Fiveways, poring over the spinner rack, and selecting this after a good half hour’s consideration. It was a good choice. Fox wrote what was the first retcon at DC, explaining why The Spectre – an all-powerful, immortal being – should have ‘retired’ for twenty years. Ingeniously, Fox conjured up Asmodus, an evil, demonic equivalent whose arrival on Earth had cancelled out both his and The Spectre’s energies, trapping them in their respective hosts.
The Spectre was released by the death of Asmodus’s host and had to fight the demon’s plot to trap him permanently within Corrigan. But Asmodus was only the herald of the greater menace, Shaithan, who arrived the next issue and who very clearly stood for the Devil himself. To defeat both adversaries, The Spectre required illimitless power, power of and from good (which, in 1966, included American soldiers fighting in Vietnam). He was, in short an incarnate form of Good.
Response was mixed: I loved both issues but many readers didn’t, rejecting the very idea of supernatural characters and menaces in the Silver Age of scientifically minded heroes. Schwartz, who was expecting to start a solo series, was surprised at the unfavourable commercial response. Fox’s approach wasn’t entirely successful, adopting a dry, mytho-religious tone that tried to reduce The Spectre’s supernatural abilities to semi-scientific energies.
Still, Schwartz didn’t give up. A third Showcase appearance in issue 64, half a year later, winding back on all-powerful entities to a ‘mere’ ghost was added to The Spectre’s appearance in the 1966 Justice League/Justice Society team-up. This was undertaken without any supernatural elements whatsoever, The Spectre being treated as ‘merely’ a character with immense power and a pycho-matter body.
The story called for Earths-1 and -2 being pulled into hyperspace on a collision course, and The Spectre physically holding the two planets apart until, in order to save everything, he agrees to the Earth-1 Atom shrinking him to one inch and then expanding him again, a process that causes any subject so treated (except Ray Palmer) to blow up.
It all sounds a bit callous (not to mention risky for the two planets) but worry not. Being all-powerful, The Spectre merely willed the atoms of his body to regroup themselves from all over the Universe.
These two stories lifted The Spectre over the hurdle and he gained his own comic in 1967, starting with one last, and unsatisfactory, Fox/Anderson story, then falling to lesser hands, amongst whom Neal Adams had to be classed. Weird and wonderful were The Spectre’s adventures, but most of all they were not very good. It was a different failure of imagination: in making The Spectre seriously all-powerful and Good with a capital G, it begged the question of who or what could pose him a threat.
In an attempt to combat the sales drop-off, DC tried to side-slip towards the still-successful Mystery market. Steve Skeates was brought in to do this, in keeping with the prevalent trend towards Relevance. As a punishment for casually killing crooks when he had much too much power to need to do so, The Spectre was sentenced to read from the Book of Judgement, short, pallid, sub-EC stories. Once again a supporting character in his own series, The Spectre only lasted one more issue before suffering his second cancellation.
Thus far, for all its changes of emphasis and direction, The Spectre’s story has been reasonably straightforward. But that was before Denny O’Neill. This is where it starts to get tricky.
In the late Sixties, O’Neill was DC’s hottest writer and Julius Schwartz’s go-to guy for updating series that had run out of steam. On the evidence of Justice League of America 82 – 83, it’s hard to see why. This was the out-and-out worst JLA/JSA team-up ever written, a nonsense farrago whose climax set Earths-1 and -2 onto a collision course again, requiring The Spectre to once more interpose his body between them, except that this time the resultant gravities tear him apart and he dies.
Come again? He’d already done that once and survived. Furthermore, O’Neill gave the impression of never having read a Spectre story before when, in order for him to enter the fray, Dr Fate has to summon him from imprisonment in a crypt (what crypt?), although the effectiveness of this crypt has to be questioned when set against Dick Dillin having drawn Spec as attending the Justice Society meeting in the first part. That one we’ll have to put down to pure sloppiness (did Julius Schwartz really edit this?)

The Spectre – Silver Age

So The Spectre was once again dead, for four years that is. Former EC artist Joe Orlando had joined DC as an editor, but was struggling with Adventure Comics, ever since it’s long-term feature, Supergirl, had been pinched for her own title. Six issues of floundering, including the debut of the mysterious Black Orchid, then a mistress of disguise with neither identity nor origin, led to a revival of The Spectre.
This was the infamous run written by Michael Fleisher, then a fixture at DC’s offices, researching his six-part ‘History of Superheroes’ (of which only two parts ever appeared). Orlando, who had recently been mugged in the street in front of his wife, was bubbling under with rage and susceptible to Fleisher’s proposal to go back to the character’s origin as an avenging ghost. With spectacular art from the then-little known Jim Aparo, a new series was launched in issue 431.
This version of The Spectre was controversial from the start for its gruesomeness. It went back to the idea of Jim Corrigan being a ghost that transformed into The Spectre and The Spectre not as an embodiment of Good fighting spiritual adversaries but as the pursuer, and executioner, of evil men, who would be despatched in various colourful, bloodless but graphic means: a hairdresser cut in two by scissors grown to massive size, a fake fortune teller turned into crystal, tipped over and shattered, and a man turned to wood and sliced up in a band-saw, etc.
I confess that I loved it in 1974, mainly for Aparo’s art, but even then I was aware that the stories were repetitious. Evil, heartless bastard villains prey upon and/or kill innocent citizens, The Spectre kills them brutally. The only real imagination lay in the latest graphic disposal.
The series rejected all versions before it. In the letters page, Orlando dismissed the crypt as Denny O’Neill’s problem, claiming his was the Earth-1 Spectre (whilst permitting an exchange with the reporter introduced to query The Spectre’s actions in which he’s sarcastically referred to as Clark Kent, leading a rookie cop to ask if he’s really Superman). Fleisher defended himself with the faux-naif claim that all these devices came from the original series. No, they didn’t, it was a lie. Jerry Siegel never wrote a scene in which his hero animated a hand-axe to cut his girlfriend into seven separate body parts in one panel (the scene got past the Comics Code Authority since it wasn’t actually Gwen Stirling being chopped up but rather a mannequin of her: then again, The Spectre didn’t know that until after he’d eviscerated her…) and that was before you thought of comparing the art of Bernard Bailey to that of Jim Aparo.
There was even a revoltingly predictable story in which Corrigan pleaded for relief from his task and was rewarded by the Voice by being restored to a human being. Except that the Voice didn’t tell him this had happened, so Corrigan only found out when he was shot. In this series, even God was a sick bastard. Jim took to the opportunity to visit the despairing Gwen (and impliedly shag her senseless, but then it was the first time he’d gotten any in thirty-four years). Then he got murdered by a mobster and returned to being a ghost. Sigh.
That story appeared in Adventure 440 and became the perfect, if unintended, finale of the run. DC had been taking heat from fans from the start, and, as soon as sales showed a slight downturn, publisher Carmine Infantino ordered the series cancelled, leaving three stories written and paid for but not drawn (these would be drawn by Aparo in 1988 for the mini-series Wrath of The Spectre, reprinting Fleisher’s run in issues 1-3 and presenting these ‘new’ stories in the fourth).
Immediately after this charming run, The Spectre re-surfaced on Earth-2 for the 1975 JLA/JSA team-up. There was no trace of the raving ghost: instead Spec stayed invisible and intangible throughout, merely intervening with the Voice to have six JSAers restored to life after they’d been killed by the JLA (don’t ask).
Were there now two Spectres after all? Jim Corrigan turned up in a single panel of the revived All-Star 70, without a sign of his ghostly companion, but the next two, almost simultaneous appearances to The Spectre himself were both clearly on Earth-1. The avenging ghost of Fleisher turned up in a three-part Dr Thirteen story in Ghosts, to enable the great sceptic to refuse to believe in him, whilst a version evidently much closer to Fox’s messianic agent appeared in DC Presents… to prevent Superman from entering Heaven, and to teach him a lesson about hubris.
In 1984, whilst writing Swamp Thing, Alan Moore introduced yet another, and utterly magnificent conception for The Spectre, as the Guardian of the Road to Hell, only for Roy Thomas to negate this idea by having The Spectre turn up back on Earth-2, in America vs the Justice Society, a courtroom drama featuring the framing of the JSA for treason as an excuse to summarise their every adventure.
Thomas posited that there was and only ever had been one Spectre, and that he’d moved to Earth-1 for unspecified reasons. Yeah, right. This Spectre was a mess of previous versions. He was no longer invisible, intangible and benevolent on Earth-2, and instead he threatened to destroy the planet for the crime of trying the JSA (they turned down his offer to move them to Earth-1, so he quit Earth-2, forever, sobeit.)
Marv Wolfman used The Spectre in Crisis, to directly challenge the Anti-Monitor at the Dawn of Time, causing the shattering of existence, and putting Spec in a handy coma for the rest of the series. Roy Thomas used him at the start of The Last Days of the Justice Society, having him destroyed and wiped out of existence, all the way back to his start. But it was Alan Moore who gave The Spectre the closest thing to a fitting finale, even in defeat: his arrogance at his powers and his desire to use them to the glory of God leads to him allowing the bird carrying the pearl of distilled horror to pass, to summon the Ultimate Darkness, the Shadow cast out by Light. The Spectre believes he will defeat the Darkness, but he is beaten, unhooded, broken, even his powers inadequate.
The Last Days of the Justice Society came out a week later, with a passing reference to the struggle against the Darkness as ‘a mighty affair’, excusable if Thomas didn’t know Moore’s story in advance but nevertheless demeaning. Given Thomas’s attitudes to anyone else writing the JSA, the slight may well have been deliberate.
Such was the story of The Spectre, a confusion of different portrayals and states, impossible to reconcile into any cohesive history. It doesn’t matter now, because The Spectre is Dead. Long Live The Spectre.

The Riddle of The Spectre Revisited

(After some thought, I decided it was impossible to reconstruct the thoughts and associations of thirty years ago, so this part of the post will effectively be a new article, attempting to rediscover the tenor of my thoughts. Since I’m trying to reflect the ideas I had circa 1990, I’m going to ignore all later versions of The Spectre and his story.)
It started with a single moment of inspiration, from which I realised that all the contradictions and wildly fluctuating treatments of the Spectre’s pre-Crisis history could be resolved into a harmonious whole. The crucial point came in 1970, when Denny O’Neill decided to end the eighth JLA/JSA team-up by killing off The Spectre. I can see his reasoning behind that: O’Neill was much more comfortable with street-level heroes and the Sixties approach to The Spectre as cosmic incarnation of Good made it even harder to fit him into a story that he could resolve in an eye-blink than Superman.
So O’Neill imprisons Spec in a crypt from which only a séance can free him, just in time for him to intervene between Earths-1 and 2 on collision course, bouncing the two planets back where they belong but unable to prevent the gravitational forces from tearing him apart, thus killing – or rather destroying – The Spectre. But…
What if? What if, in that final moment, feeling himself torn apart, unable to recreate himself as he had in 1966, because he’d had notice of The Atom’s plans to blow him apart and time to imbue his molecules with a kind of spectral magnetism whereas now he only just has time to intervene at all, what if in that last moment as he thinks he’s falling into endless rest, Spectre’s survival instinct kicks in and he makes one final attempt to cohere, grabbing at an Earth to form upon? But he gets Earth-1…
How does that affect everything? Firstly, let’s work backwards.
Jim Corrigan became The Spectre in 1940, under order by the Voice to eradicate crime. At first, his methods are often brutal and he kills criminals with grim purpose. This was not the Voice’s intention so if we shift history slightly, The Spectre is instructed to raise Corrigan’s body from the dead and bond to it. Corrigan’s humanity tempers The Spectre’s darkness, and ameliorates his ruthlessness.
But now that Corrigan is alive again, he’s anxious to play his part in the War his country is fighting. He joins the Army, but the separation has an unintended effect: without Corrigan as a host, The Spectre cannot materialise. He can effect criminals but is invisible: he joins forces with private Detective Popp because he has no alternative: the police still don’t trust him.
This lasts until 1945 when The Spectre disappears completely for twenty years, forced into imprisonment inside Jim Corrigan by the arrival on Earth-2 of Asmodus, a demon of similar status to Spec, intent on spreading evil. The two beings cancel each other out until 1965, when the death of Asmodus’ host alters the balance. He can escape Earth, The Spectre is freed. The twenty years he has spent imprisoned, unable to use his magical energies, has built them up to an incredible level: it has also kept Jim Corrigan younger and fitter than he should be.
But this energy is not infinite. Gradually, and more so, as he faces menaces of incredible force, such as Shaithan, and the first threat of the two Earths colliding, these diminish, enough that, after a prolonged period of being absent from Corrigan, he reverts to his earliest form, that of the killing ghost.

The Spectre – Bronze Age

Corrigan’s outrage causes a permanent separation between the pair, and in order to discipline the Spectre, and ensure he doesn’t revert fully to his earlier savagery, the Voice confines him to a crypt (a-hah!) where he must read from the Book of Judgement until he understands humanity better. Only to be released by séance performed by a magical practitioner of great ability, such as Doctor Fate.
Whilst in the crypt, Spectre’s energies have again increased through lack of expenditure, giving him the power to separate the Earths from collision. But at a terrible cost…
Let’s move forward. The stress of surviving, and the enforced separation from Corrigan, leaves The Spectre weaker than ever before. He cannot return to Earth-2. It’s all he can do to ‘be’ Jim Corrigan, NYPD Detective. Slowly, his energies start to build up again, but without an anchor in the form of a human host, he reverts to his original form as the killing ghost. This time, out of step with Earth-1, he is even more inhumane the deaths he deals out more bizarre and horrific.
Back on Earth-2, Jim Corrigan is seen again only once, in a single panel of the revived All-Star Comics. Without his spirit to sustain him, the energies bequeathed him by The Spectre’s presence dissipate: I believe he doesn’t live much longer.
Finally, having borne his duty for too long, The Spectre appeals to the Voice for rest, and restoration of his human status. Besides, Gwen Stacey’s hurling of herself at him is getting too persistent to ignore. The Voice which is common to both Earths and to others, responds by granting his wish, knowing that without supernatural protection, Jim Corrigan will soon be killed again. But this is necessary to bind The Spectre fully to the Earth-1 universe. Now he is whole again.
Having died and been reborn again, The Spectre has the energies to try to return to Earth-2. He succeeds, partially, but he cannot materialise. He cannot approach the ageing Corrigan on this Earth, he is invisible but more than that, he is intangible. Understanding his estrangement from his former home, all The Spectre can do is plead with the Voice to restore the lives of six former JSA team-mates, inadvertently killed by the JLA.
The Spectre returns to Earth-1. Frustrated that he can no longer contact his old friends, The Spectre’s anger overwhelms him briefly, in opposition to the ultimate sceptic, Dr Thirteen, the Ghost-Breaker but after that he accepts his role and begins to grow in wisdom and authority. It is The Spectre who is sent to halt Superman when he threatens to break the bounds of heaven, and it is his decision to stop the Man of Steel without violence that earns him a vast increase of power.
But he hasn’t, yet, totally abandoned his life on Earth-2. With his increased energies, he fights through the barrier, only to discover his old comrades threatened with charges of Treason. Using all his energies to make himself visible, and placing himself under massive stress, enough to warp his judgement, he threatens to destroy Earth-2, and rescue the JSA. He could never have done it: not even at the height of his powers, back in the Sixties, could he have achieved that, but the bluff might serve to rescue the situation.
The JSA’s response is negative, however. They will not join with him. Spurned, The Spectre accepts the final breach and returns to Earth-1 permanently. As punishment for his recklessness, he is set to guard the access to Hell and prevent illicit incursion there.
From there, as the Multiverse is under attack by the Anti-Monitor, The Spectre travels back in time, with the heroes, to the Dawn of Time, where he is the only one with the power to stand up to the this adversary. Even he cannot defeat him, but the battle destroys everything from the Dawn of Time on, putting The Spectre in a state of shock until the Universe has reformed itself and the Anti-Monitor finally defeated.
Determined to redeem himself, The Spectre makes the mistake of assuming no greater foe can exist. He permits the passage of the Pearl of Ultimate Blackness beyond the Universe of light, sure he can overcome the Darkness, to the glory of the Voice, but to his horror, he finds himself but a child in its hands, beaten utterly, and broken. His energies have travelled back in time to the Spear of Destiny, opening the door for Hitler to undo the new history, but in his attempt to intervene he is wounded, fatally, by the Spear, and only has time to alert his old JSA comrades before he dissipates entirely…
The Spectre is Dead, Long Live The Spectre

Epilogue

Whatever Steve Gerber intended for The Spectre is lost to history: no hints, notes or rumours ever emerged from the cancellation of the project due to his deadline issues. The Spectres of Doug Moench and John Ostrander, not to mention Hal Jordan and Crispus Allen are irrelevant to this piece.
The second part of this retrospective was a self-indulgence in 1990 and is even more of one in 2020. Given that the history I’d reviewed so bemusedly for Arkensword had been swept into non-existence so far as the DC Universe was concerned, the entire piece was nothing more than an exercise in cleverness: see, look at me, I solved the riddle. That it was nothing but an exercise in advanced Roy Thomasness – but far less convoluted and congested I hoped was self-evident then as now.
I’m presenting the two pieces together in this package just for the hell of it, to see my thoughts in print. It’s not the only piece I have planned on The Spectre now I have access to the whole of his pre-Crisis history. Keep an eye open for an in-depth survey of Michael Fleisher’s little run…

Strange but Wonderful: the history of Mystery in Space


Knights of the Galaxy

In one form or another, I have accumulated good, comprehensive runs of most the the major DC Comics characters of the Sixties, the Silver Age, the years when I was discovering comics as a boy, and expecting to lose interest in them as I grew older. And I did. It just didn’t take, that’s all.
There is, however, one major DC character of that era whose stories I never read then, and of which I am only vaguely acquainted now. That’s why I took the chance to pick up a DVD-Rom with a complete run of Mystery in Space comics, 117 issues starting in April-May 1951, only a month or so after All-Star Comics was transmuted into All-Star Western. Mystery in Space, a joyfully science fiction series, was home to several space-set series, none more important than that of Adam Strange.
That’s who I’m here to read, but Adam and Alana, and the planet Rann are a long way off from the start, so let’s begin with that issue 1 and the stories it featured.
Mystery in Space followed hard on the heels of DC’s other SF title, Strange Adventures. The impression most often given of the In-Between Age from 1951 to 1956 is of DC floundering, creating titles and cancelling them six issues later as flops. Wasn’t this why Showcase was devised? But the two SF titles were glorious examples of the opposite. They were in tune with the times, with the boom in SF in magazines and novels. Maybe they took some pointers from EC’s SF titles, I don’t know; I know too little about EC to do more than guess. Were they weak cousins of it?
Issue 1 impressed me. It led off with the first story featuring the first ongoing series, The Galaxy Knights, law enforcement officers of the Thirtieth Century, and the first case entrusted to new Knight Lyle, to stop a pair of space villains and save the life of Knight Commander Arthro’s beautiful daughter, Ora. Ah yes, all very Golden Age, big-jawed heroes playing Cowboys and Indians on the space prairie, but with a typically Schwartzian emphasis on intelligence, ingenuity and science.
Comics were still in their 52 page format, allowing room for four decent-length stories, including scripts by Gardener Fox and John Broome, plus art from the likes of Carmine Infantino and, I think, Joe Kubert. There’s nothing particularly original about any of them, but there’s a happy enthusiasm to the work that makes it clear and likeable, plus Broome’s story has an ironic twist as to Man’s ignoble instincts that could do with a bit more development.
If you’re thinking I may have been a mite too harsh on the Galaxy Knights, the title of their second appearance might convince you otherwise: “Jesse James – Highwayman of Space”. As for the brave, resourceful, short-skirted Ora, she had a Knight of her own in Lyle, and it looked like she was going to need him.
As the only recurring feature, Knights of the Galaxy stands out in these early issues, especially with its vigorous and clean art, which has a look of Carmine Infantino about it. Weirdly, writers are credited, so I know the series was by Dion Antony, but not artists. Wikipedia confirms my eye is good on this score, and also that Dion Antony was a pen-name for Robert Kanigher, which comes as little surprise given the formal language used throughout.
But the title was created less than a year before the final size cut, as the 48 page comic went the way of its predecessors, transformed into a 32 page package with only three stories per issue instead of four, as of issue 6.
But the Knights only ran until issue 8, in which they were pushed to the back of a two-story issue. This was something of a shame as Infantino’s clear, crisp art was excellent, not being softened by Joe Giella or Sid Greene as it later would be on The Flash. I also confess a partiality for the skirt-abbreviated Ora. On a more serious level, the SF art of the era tended to put women in far shorter skirts than would have been remotely acceptable on an American, or a British street. But whilst Infantino had been free with leg-shots in issues 1 – 5, it was very noticeable that he confined himself to mostly head and shoulders or upper torso shot in issue 6 – 8. Given that we’re now into 1952, I think I’m not far wrong if I suspect the influence of Wertham, Kefauver and the soon-to-be-imposed Comics Code.
Before leaving issue 8, I do have to comment on its other story, a bizarre and twisted affair that envisaged a future in which, after the election of the first woman President (in 2980!) society had been completely reversed by 3100, with women the dominant force and men the despised weaklings.
For seven of the story’s eight pages, it’s a straight role reversal satire, with men downgraded, discarded, treated as unfit, helpless, inadequate when set against brave, daring, strong, intelligent women. The one young male who forces his way into Rocket Training, to fight an evil enemy, is cold-shouldered, shunned, disrespected just as a female cadet in an academy of men would be. Then, just as the plucky, brave, competent woman would do, he saves the day, rescues the captain, defeats the enemy. Proves his sex is not as helpless as people think.
So far as simplistic as you have to be in an eight-pager, straightforward and exact. Until the last page. In which the cadet newbie Greg marries the experienced veteran commander Stella, tells her that in their house she’ll be doing the vacuuming (she loves this macho stuff) and by the last panel, with males flooding back into leadership positions she’s happily cooing about women having run things for long enough (120 years out of 3100) and it being time ‘you men’ take over again.
What can I say? Somehow just repeating 1952 and What Can You Expect, not to mention the fact this was before I was even born just doesn’t cut it.
Incidentally, there were no short skirts for these dominant women of the future. No, they wore two part bathing suit bottoms and fishnet tights into battle. For no doubt logical combat reasons.

Interplanetary Insurance

All issues so far have credited Whitney Ellsworth as editor, though given the nature of MiS, it’s clear that Julius Schwartz is the assistant editor doing the groundwork. Further evidence of this is the spectacular cover to issue 9, clearly drawn by Murphy Anderson, in the grand Schwartzian tradition of having action covers drawn to inspire scripters to pen stories in which, far too often, just like this one, the actual cover scene – a young couple, she in short skirt, trapped in a gigantic diamond – ends up squeezed in in a very minor manner. As cover cheats go, this one’s a doozie!
Without a regular feature, the comic is patchy but I couldn’t ignore a story in issue 12 that involved the Earth’s first landing on the moon. Like Tolkien’s Notion Club Papers, which foresaw the Great Storm of 1987 to within a few months, forty years earlier, this Moon landing, nearly a decade before President Kennedy’s commitment to reaching the Moon before the end of the decade, gave its date as 23 May, 1969, less than two months before the real thing.
It’s fair to comment that, despite an ongoing educational feature from issue 1 onwards, dealing with science fact about planets, moons and the Solar System, the stories themselves are pure, unbelievable science nonsense, with impossible science, planetary invasions and humanoid aliens from as far out as Pluto in story after story.
MiS‘s next recurring series debuted in issue 16. This was Interplanetary Insurance Inc., and their ace investigator, Bert Brandon, and if you want to know how to turn an insurance salesman into a hero, don’t look here. This is insurance company as machine for sucking in money and spewing none of it out, and whilst that makes it extremely accurate to life, putting it in an SF milieu doesn’t make it any more interesting. This is mid-Fifties, middle-America, business-is-God era with a vengeance.
A second recurring feature was added in issue 21, this being Space-Cabbie, about an unnamed taxi-driver in space, which, like the insurance one, was intended to have an underlying humorous aspect. At first it was a one-off, but the Cabbie was popular enough to be brought back in issue 24, though he didn’t get a regular gig until two issues later, when he replaced Bert Brandon. Unlike the Galaxy Knights, Brandon wasn’t missed.

Space Cabbie

Also on board now, from issue 25 in fact, was the Comics Code seal. There had already been very little in the way of micro-skirts by then.
To be frank, MiS wasn’t doing much throughout these issues. It had started with the advantage of space as a 48 page title but had been reduced to 32 pages early on. Instead of reducing the number of stories per issue it ended up reducing the number of pages per story. Six were insufficient for more than rather perfunctory tales on a limited number of Cold War themes, infected by paranoia, treachery and constant invasion, and undercut by far too many mundane stories given an SF veneer.
I did find issue 33’s scientific feature fascinating, dealing as it did with the status of Pluto. Anticipating the decision of a half-century later, it analysed anomalies in Pluto’s composition and orbit to query if it was a planet at all, though the alternative proposed was that it was a satellite, a lost and unrecaptured moon of Neptune. Many decades were yet to pass before Pluto’s oversized moon, Charon, was even detected, a discovery that I missed even hearing about until many years later.
The Space Cabbie series bowled along with Gil Kane’s art, Infantino appeared every issue, artwise MiS was solid at its very worst, albeit softened from its early days, but the stories remained crude and gimmicky, using tropes that SF had left behind. One story had the Empire State Building converted into a spaceship to attack would-be invaders, whilst another had the entire continent of North America, including Canada, spacelifted to another galaxy in one piece to save that galaxy from destruction. And brought back intact with everyone alive on it. Boy, did it need an uplift.
Yet even in this form it was popular enough to go from bi-monthly to eight-times-a-year with issue 45. Usually, this frequency was for titles dependant on a single artist (those with multiple artists could go monthly without deadline threats) but MiS had multiple artists available.
Space Cabbie went missing after issue 47, leaving the series without a regular feature as it approached its 50th issue. But the time I had been waiting for was nearly upon us.

A classic Adam Strange cover

Adam Strange arrived in Mystery in Space in issue 53, cover-dated August 1959. The creation of Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky, he had originally appeared in Showcase 17-19, the previous year but, unlike The Flash or Green Lantern, his sales had not added up to quite enough to justify his own title, and Julius Schwartz had opted for berthing him here.
The formula was simple: each issue, Adam, an archaeologist, would rendezvous with a Zeta Beam from Rann, teleporting him 25 trillion miles to the Planet Rann, in the system of Alpha Centauri, to the beautiful Alanna, who he could never hold for long enough, and her scientist-father, Sardath. But instead of spending these visits lovemaking, Adam continually found Rann being menaced by monsters and disasters that could only be defeated by the application of his scientific mind and the effects of Chemistry Class, as was only right and proper in 1959.
Adam Strange’s early stories mostly feature Mike Sekowsky on art. This is not as scratchy or littered with weird anatomy as his Justice League stories, which start up shortly after, and he’s getting better inkers than the wholly unsuitable Bernard Sachs, but there is a world of difference between his jobs and the occasional one drawn by Infantino. But Fox’s stories are very formulaic, from the business with Adam’s difficulties intercepting the next Zeta-Beam to his inevitable return to Earth. What lies between is inventive, but the brackets bore very quickly.
Of course, the moment I said that, issue 61’s story decided to be different, with Adam being snatched by a different beam in the northern hemisphere, Rann and Alpha Centauri only being visible from the southern hemisphere, intercepted to prevent him saving Rann from a tyrant out to conquer it. That would-be dictator was the Tornado Tyrant, a sentient tornado with an unexpected future as a component element of The Red Tornado, Gardner Fox’s last creation for DC, eight years hence.
Oh, and for once Adam wasn’t snatched directly out of the loving Alanna’s arms the moment the menace was defeated, and the loving couple had several days sea, sun, sand and… oh come now, not under the Comics Code Authority.
The non-Adam Strange stories remained as predictable and dull as ever but Murphy Anderson – used primarily as an inker in the Silver Age – produced a short series of beautifully-drawn tales that at least looked the part for me.

A one-off story in issue 66, drawn by Sid Greene, another DC artist used primarily on inks, became a short series in Mystery in Space. The Star Rovers were three rivals, Homer Gint, novelist and sportsman, Karel Sorensen, former Miss Solar System turned space-adventurer, and playboy Rick Purvis. Their stories involved them bringing three different viewpoints to the same incident, the total vision, Rashomon-style, adding up to the real truth. They would appear every three issues until MiS 86, with two further stories appearing afterwards in Strange Adventures.
It’s interesting to note that throughout most of this run of the series there were full page house-ads, promoting National’s titles as ‘still 10c’. A change in price, DC’s first ever, was due very soon (in Britain, they would go from 10d to 1/-), but I wasn’t previously aware that DC had held out against the increase so blatantly.
Adam Strange had been the lead feature and main attraction of the series for over two years now, at nine pages an issue, but with issue 71, DC finally did what should have been done long before and expanded Adam’s feature to 17 pages, eliminating one redundant one-off story but still leaving one.
And for issue 75, Adam was given the whole comic for a book-length, and excellent, story guest-starring the Justice League of America (plus Snapper Carr but without Superman), a story written in response to a fan identification of a flub in the League’s own title. This had come in Justice League of America 4, the issue that admitted Green Arrow. Among the possible nominees, The Flash put forward Adam Strange. All very well for me, reading that in retrospect, but nobody but Alanna (and the rest of the planet Rann) knew of Adam’s exploits.
So Schwartz and Fox put their heads together and came up with a story, set between Justice League 3 and 4, that gets the League to Rann, in pursuit of Kanjar Ro, the villain of issue 3, as he tries to takeover Adam’s adopted planet. I’ve known of this story for over fifty years and this is the first time I’ve read it. And it’s excellent (except for the bit where a clearly-impressed Flash thinks, ‘wow, I’ll nominate Adam for membership when we next have a meeting’, which is too knowing).
Issue 81 gave Adam Strange another book-length adventure, this time starting with Alanna seemingly coming to Earth. Obviously it’s a cunning plot, this time by yet another of Rann’s past would-be dictators intending to take over the planet again: between all these former dictators and the alien races all trying to take over Rann for no better reason than that it’s there, the backgrounds to the stories do drag at Adam’s constant ingenuity in combatting these scientific menaces.
Incidentally, the letter column contained interesting letters from two young and eager comics fans, the increasingly regular Paul Gambaccini, and one Marvin Wolfman.
The next issue had most of its cover obliterated on the DVD but as soon as I started to read the story I remembered it. I saw many Mystery in Space covers in this era, in house ads in comics I bought, in spinner racks that I combed through but didn’t buy. But Carmine Infantino’s work has never left me.
A similar obliteration concealed the cover to issue 82 but this time my memory banks couldn’t supply the image. There was another Star Rovers story, exposing the limitations of the three-sided formula. And a complete no-cover on issue 84 made three, though this was one of those instances where the cover was duplicated as a panel in the story, instantly reminding me. The same thing applied to issue 84’s cover, by which time it was getting particularly annoying.
Covers returned with issue 86, in which Adam’s adventure on Rann turned out to be only a dream: the lad just can’t escape having to save this most vulnerable of planets even when he’s asleep! It also featured the last Star Rovers story to appear in MiS. And it also made much, both in the lettercol and in the final panel of Adam Strange’s story, of the arrival of Hawkman to share this space next issue.
This is the part of Hawkman’s Sixties stories that I know of but had never read. Revived as Katar Hol by Julius Schwartz and Gardener Fox in Brave & Bold, the editor had been shocked when this third revision of an old Justice Society hero had failed to take off. Not then, and not after a second three-issue run. These issues had been drawn by Hawkman’s old star, Joe Kubert, but Kubert’s style had evolved, brilliantly, past the point where he was suited to superheroes. Refusing to give up, Schwartz put Hawkman into MiS and replaced Kubert with the somewhat blander Murphy Anderson (and I speak here as a fan of Anderson), whose style was much more in keeping with DC’s ‘house’ look.
The first shared issue was very cleverly constructed. Hawkman took over the cover – the first since issue 52 not to feature Adam Strange – but Adam still had the lead, double-length story, in which he accidentally gets mutated into a highly-evolved, mentally magnificent version of himself, who is also offensively superior and dismissive, especially of Alanna who, in a very understandable if selfish gesture, smashes the machine that has evolved, bringing back the version she (and we) love. At story’s end, Adam beams back to Earth, carrying with him a stone his brain-heavy self has created, which he places in a museum.
And in the Hawkman back-up, introducing regular foe Ira ‘I.Q.’ Quimby, the latter becomes a super-crook when the combination of sunlight and his presence by the stone sets his brain off on incredible ideas. That’s what you can do when the same writer is writing both features. You can also get Carter and Shiera Hall meeting an archaeologist named Adam Strange, in both their guises, and getting a bit suspicious about him…

The issue even contained a letter from Joe Kubert, regretting the commitments forcing him to stop drawing Hawkman, and praising his mate Murph.
At this point, I’d like to bring up a point about the Adam Strange series that’s mildly surprised me. DC’s not supposed to have had a continuity in the Sixties, only Marvel. That was never entirely true: both Fox and John Broome employed regular footnotes in their stories, harking back to previous tales. But from early on, Adam Strange did this to an unusual degree. Each story was an individual tale, but Fox would constantly refer back to the previous story, and earlier ones, and would very often base a new story in the events or aftermath of its predecessor. If you could have thrown an entire years worth of The Flash, or Justice League of America in the air and read them in whatever order they came down without noticing any difference, that could not be said of Adam Strange. Adam’s stories were a sequence, and Fox would emphasise this with Adam’s constant musings bout how, every time he arrived on Rann, there was yet another menace to overcome, and was there a jinx, was it him? Given that we are still only up to 1963, I’m pretty impressed.
The cover of issue 88 was a throwback to the Golden Age Flash Comics, showing that Adam and Hawkman would alternate, with headshots plugging the other. Inside were two separate stories, one in which Alanna got a new figure hugging costume which swapped her blue-and-yellow colour code for yellow-and-blue (made for her by an Earth couturier she never met: wonder how Adam got him the precise measurements when, under the Comics Code, good girls definitely didn’t), whilst Mavis Trent, the long-forgotten girl archaeologist fixated on Carter Hall, having died her hair Shiera-red, accidentally discovered and donned Hawkgirl’s costume: much frivolity ensued.
One issue later, Hawkman was not only back on the cover but taking the lead story, whilst in the back Adam Strange had to fend off an interstellar ‘Lorelei’ who wanted him to marry her (even the bad girls didn’t…) but saved himself with a profession of love so profound that Fox would rip it off himself for a similar situation in the future Hawkman 13. here though it was accompanied by an engagement: Awww!
This little spell of Mystery in Space is probably the best of the entire series, but little it was, only four issues, Issue 90 posed a classic cover, another I recall from scrabbling through racks, probably on a Saturday afternoon in Droylsden, allowed to walk on my own from Grandad’s to the newsagents at Fiveways: Adam Strange hurtles through space to try to prevent Earth and Rann from colliding.
The book-length story was a team-up between Adam and Alanna on one side and Hawkman and Hawkgirl on the other (though it’s noticeable that neither of the lovely heroines has a word to say to each other). Artistically, it’s a fun compromise: Infantino pencils Chapters 1 (Adam-oriented) and 3, Anderson the Hawkman oriented Chapter 2, as well as inking the lot. And at the end, the Hawks give Adam a lift back to Earth, ending his Zeta-Beam tyranny, and Alanna asks if she can come too, and there’s going to be a wedding: double Awww!
As for Hawkman, less than four issues of MiS had done what six of Brave & Bold had failed at: the Flying Fury had finally got his own title.
More than that was to change. Julius Schwartz was also leaving, and taking with him Fox and Infantino, to rescue the Batman titles which, unbelievable as it sounds, were in serious danger of cancellation. His replacement would be a straight swap, with Jack Schiff – who’d cynically and unhappily commissioned awful, ludicrous, ridiculous stories that were completely wrong for the Caped Crusader, because that sort of shit seemed to be what the public wanted and who was he to stand in their way – taking over Mystery in Space with issue 92.
No-one knew it then, but the title had only 19 more issues to live.
The first thing Schiff did was to bring Space Ranger with him from Tales of the Unexpected, putting him on his first cover, although Adam Strange retained the lead spot, now by Dave Wood and Lee Elias. This was an apt line-up: both Adam and Space Ranger were created as a result of a 1957 request by Editorial Director Irwin Donenfield that Schiff and Schwartz create two new SF heroes, one from the present, the other from the future. Schiff, given first choice, chose the future hero, who became Space Ranger, Schwartz’s present hero was our man Adam.
Two issues were enough to demonstrate that Wood and Elias didn’t have the wit and sophistication of Fox and Infantino, and that Space Ranger didn’t have the wit and sophistication of the new Adam Strange, plus ugly art in which everyone stood with bent legs. Nasty. Also, Elias dropped Adam’s finned helmet like a shot.
The two stars teamed up in issue 94 despite the time-gap, with Space Ranger finding a menace that had lain dormant since Adam’s time, Adam himself referring to the mystery in his diary and his descendent, also named Adam, taking up the mantle, uniform and ray-gun in the future, only with red-hair not blonde.
Adam regained the cover for issue 95 but lost the lead spot inside. Next issue, the set-up was reversed. In fact, it was turnabout time again. It stayed that way until the landmark issue 100, cover-date June 1965, which gave the cover to new character Interplanetary Agent Jan Vern, appearing in one of two one-off stories behind a particularly poor Adam Strange purporting to feature the Death of Alanna. Space Ranger wasn’t even there.
Then it was Adam’s turn to drop out of issue 101, allowing Space Ranger back, though the cover once more went to a nothing story, a one-off. With three stories an issue once more, MiS was going backwards, rapidly. Turnabout for issue 102, with Adam also on the cover and accompanied by Jan Vern inside. But that was it. It had taken Schiff only twelve issues to kill off the very popular Adam Strange, and Space Ranger only lasted one issue longer.

That issue, 103, introduced Mystery in Space‘s new star for the remnants of its run, Ultra – the Multi-Alien. I’d seen Ultra in house ads but never read him before, and he’s drivel. Another Wood and Elias creation, he’s Captain Ace Arn, shot simultaneously by four blasters, each intended to turn him into a duplicate of a native of a different planet, but instead turning him into one-quarter different alien each all with different powers. The idea is stupidity squared, a perfect example of DC’s increasing descent into moronic crap as they tried to work out, vainly, why Marvel was so popular. It’s a painful demise.
Mystery in Space was cancelled with issue 110, cover date September 110. There was no reference to its cancellation in that issue. Years later, in 1980, it was revived for a further seven issues, but that run lies outside my remit, as does a second series many years after that.
I came to MiS for Adam Strange and I got my money’s worth from the Schwartz/Fox/Infantino stint, and whilst the comic could be dull in the long months leading up to the arrival of the Champion of Rann, there were still series that were enjoyable and there was classic art from Infantino, Anderson, Kane and others to enjoy.
But Jack Schiff’s editorship killed the series as surely as it was killing Batman in 1964, when Julius Schwartz was transferred over. He remained editor on Strange Adventures and Tales of the Unexpected for another eleven months before retiring. There’s a story there, but not for here. Time to look at another series.

An Incredible Temptation


As a long term Dan Dare fan, an unbelievable opportunity has come up. In 2017, B7 Media recorded and released six audio adventures, freely adapted and modernised from Dan Dare’s adventures in ‘Eagle’. They’re now trying to crowdfund a third set of three via Indigogo, the first of which is my favourite Dare story, All Treens Must Die.

There is an opportunity for one person – just one person – to actually play a role in ‘All Treens Must Die’.

Though the synopsis makes it plain that this story bears very little resemblance to the 20 episode story by David Motton and Keith Watson, this is All Treens Must Die. All Treens Must Die. The desire to be a part of this, in however small a role, be actually enter the world and Universe of Dan Dare: i literally cannot say how much that would mean to me.

No-one’s taken it up. No-one’s beaten me to the punch. I could grab that now. If I could afford to spend £500 for the privilege.

There have been times in my life when I could have done that. If anyone ut there wants a complete collection of Dave Sim’s Cerebus 1-300 plus extras, several (including no. 1) signed by Sim and, where relevant, Gerhard, you can have the lot for £500 (and postage).

But I don’t have the money now. Just an incredible temptation.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge On the Artists who drew Modesty Blaise


Of the five artists who drew Modesty Blaise 1963-2001, Jim Holdaway (1963-70) was by far the best, while my least favourite was Pat Wright’s brief stunt, one and a half stories (1980). Wright was a good enough artist (rather in the Brian Lewis mode), just not the right (no pun intended) artist for Modesty Blaise – being too light, not enough dark, and strangely flat. Sadly John M. Burns (born 1938) never got to finish “Eve and Adam”, for whatever crazy reason the London Evening Standard editor had for sacking him on the spot. Potentially he was a much better artist than longest-running (and, in consequence, the best-known Modesty artist) Enique (Enric) Badia Romero, as Burns’ two and a half stories, “Yellowstone Booty”, “The Green Cobra”, and even the first half of “Eve and Adam”, shows. Like Holdaway, he was particularly brilliant with faces (I would argue much better than Romero), although his Modesty’s hair-do seemed a bit top-heavy and exaggerated at times! In addition to other projects, Burns illustrated Danielle, a sort of blonde female version of Garth; a more contemporary version of Norman Pett’s original Jane (in the Daily Mirror); and later the early, black and white version of George and Lynne in the Sun. The pity is just how good and underrated he was, and what he might have contributed to the Modesty Blaise stories that followed. The two and half stories he did illustrated showed great potential.

At first my next least favourite after Wright was Neville Colvin (1918-1991), but gradually I’ve come to appreciate him more. His style is often scratchy, messy, and sometimes his stuff could be quite ‘scrappy’. On the plus side, however, as others have remarked, he would occasionally hint at the heyday of Holdaway; for instance, in his rather cinematic ‘pull-back’ images, but, in particular, at the originality of the appearance of characters. However, unlike Holdaway or Romero or John Burns, he wasn’t always particularly confident at drawing sexy females, although his women didn’t all fit into same mode (as with Romero) and his artwork certainly improved over the time-period, 1980-86, while his swansong, “The Double Agent”, is justly a classic, in every way. However, by contrast, if we look at his first story, “Dossier on Pluto”, although he depicted Willie’s latest girlfriend as cuddly and sexy, suddenly Modesty had a really narrow wasp waist – almost like a Victorian lady in a corset! In fairness, Colvin saw himself more as a cartoonist, and he was much more constrained than his predecessors in depicting Modesty minus her clothes, even for the apparent ‘tastes’ of a ‘family newspaper’. However, Holdaway’s Modesty always looked real, flesh and blood, natural, and her facial expressions in particular. Holdaway’s ‘style’ was realism. Burns, like Romero, excelled at the female nude, but (as we will argue below) the Spaniard often made all his non-Modesty women characters, especially the blondes, look rather alike. Ultimately his style was always much more ‘comic strip’.

Unfortunately (facial features aside) Colvin’s Modesty, especially in those early strips, looks, at times, rather like a Barbie doll. While he was good (if not always consistent) at depicting Modesty’s and (for the most part) Willie’s faces (something, in retrospect, I started to appreciate more also with his other characters), there were times when he could sink into something more like a crude caricature. Examples of this are Tarrant in “Dossier on Pluto” strip 5012A; or Willie, same story, in strip 4937, where they are rendered almost unrecognisable, or at other times distorted. Other examples are: Zahki in “The Lady Killers” strip 5087; Steve Taylor, again in “Pluto” strip 4987; or (perhaps to a lesser extent) occasionally Colonel Greb in “Return of the Mammoth”. Incidentally, another oddity during the Colvin period was Tarrant occasional took to smoking a pipe. Before that (under Holdaway) he always smoke cigars!

Both Holdaway and Burns had a very dramatic style, almost cinematic at times, different angles, sudden close-ups, unusual angles. Wright’s brief tenure, by contrast, was quite static at times. Colvin, in fairness, improved, but never measured up to the master, Holdaway…But then Holdaway was always going to be a hard act to follow.

One of the great things about Holdaway’s Modesty was that she was sexy without ever being tarty or pornographic. At that time (1960s into the 70s), of course he was still quite restrained by what was acceptable in a so-called ‘family’ newspaper. She never intentionally got her kit off like Jane, or Romero’s own later science fiction Axa character in the 1980s – a sort of Logan’s Run type of story, but a naked blonde. Right from the start, however, Modesty dressed and undressed, slept nude, sometimes swam nude, like to have baths and showers, but at most the reader saw only a bare back.

Despite having worked with O’Donnell before (on the Romeo Brown stories) Holdaway was not apparently the editorial first choice. However, we now know that choice to have been offered to Frank Hampson, late of Eagle comic, creator and on/off illustrator (from 1950 until the early 1960s) of “Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future”. Hampson was a wonderful artist in his own right, able to create in magnificent detail exotic worlds, whether it be an alternative Venus, the moons of Saturn, distant planets, or the Biblical story of Jesus. However, science fiction was his forte, and he mostly worked in colour, and on a less restrictive pictorial scale than a newspaper comic strip of three panels per day maximum. Also, although while he was perhaps ahead of his time in introducing the female character of Professor Jocelyn Peabody into a boy’s comic as early as issue No. 5 (May 1950; initially based on fellow team artist Greta Tomlinson), in reality women – and especially sexy women – were simply not his forte. Away from “Dan Dare” or his graphic (if rather over idealised) depiction of the life of Jesus, his style was too prim, too 1940s/50s, more appropriate for Women’s Own magazine. Looking at Hampson’s sketches for the first half a dozen or so episodes, O’Donnell hated it (although, even years later, he remained too much the gentlemen to actually name names), and fortunately he was able to insist on Holdaway instead. It was a splendid choice. Modesty was as much the creation of Holdaway’s penmanship as of O’Donnell’s own imagination.

In fact, Hampson’s Modesty was rather bland and devoid of any eroticism, and the action scenes with the unwanted American would-be boyfriend also rather static, lacking drama. Almost needless to say, Sir Gerald looked remarkably like Sir Herbert Guest, Space Fleet Controller from “Dan Dare”, who had been based on Hampson’s on father. With all due respects to Hampson as an artist (and alas, sadly he never found his niche after being forced out of illustrating “Dan Dare”), we can only be thankful he didn’t get the job of illustrating Modesty! Indeed, in all likelihood, maybe he knew this wasn’t his kind of thing, and probably deliberately didn’t put much ‘heart’ into it!

Holdaway stamped his interpretation of Modesty, Willie Garvin, Sir Gerald Tarrant and Jack Fraser on the characters that no subsequent artist dared to change – but then perhaps Peter O’Donnell would never have sanctioned any such drastic change…especially after the awful 1966 Modesty Blaise movie, whose Italian actress (Monica Vitti) insisted on being blonde – which was foolish and unfortunate, because with a black wig she actually looked like Modesty. Pity about the butchered script and that Willie Garvin was played by Terence Stamp, who has dark hair. After that debacle, Peter O’Donnell was perhaps right to be protective of his creation.

Continuing on from Holdaway, both the Romero and Burns versions of Modesty were quite erotic, sizzling with sexuality, while keeping her exotic. As the comic strip moved into the less repressed 1970s (at least in the UK, if not the USA), both delighted in depicting her (and occasionally other female characters) in the nude. However, what may have been Burns’ downfall, his wonderful depiction of Lucy Grant in “Yellowstone Booty” had full-on boobs, very daring. But that really justify his instant dismissal in mid-story?

Romero especially, in his second and final period as artist, grew ever more daring throughout the 1980s and 90s, thereby showing a side to her that Peter O’Donnell had previously really only explored in the Modesty Blaise novels. The greatest tragedy was Jim Holdaway’s untimely early death in 1970, midway through the Japanese-based “The War-Lords of Phoenix” story – itself one of the few in the comic strip to be most like a James Bond story, and actually not one of the best of the early Modesty stories. The decision was made to recruit (very quickly) the Spanish (actually Catalonian) artist Enrique (or Enric, as he later styled himself) Badia Romero, despite him being based in Barcelona and speaking little, or no, English.

Unlike the visually jarring Burns/Wright changeover in “Eve and Adam”, he did at first continue the Holdaway style in the second half of the story, perhaps to conceal Holdaway’s demise from the reader. The artists were uncredited until Colvin took over, although Holdaway and Romero both had their ‘signature’ logo. However, in the next story (the less than successful “Willie the Djinn”), he quickly evolving into his own bold, soon to be familiar, style. He was competent and often visually interesting, and – as remarked – the major characters (Modesty, Willie, Sir Gerald Tarrant, Jack Fraser) continued to be recognisable, but, in retrospect, he never quite equalled Holdaway, or had that visual flare for characters Burns showed, even in his all-too-brief tenure.

Later, in the last phase of the Modesty strips from the 1990s to 2001, his style subtly changed again. Personally I think it greatly deteriorated; becoming rather mechanical, less vivid, not so strong perhaps, even crude at times, and more ‘typical’ comic strip. However, even before this period, there were occasionally visual mistakes and a few outright howlers, either through lack of personal knowledge of locations, or either haste or indifference. Eventually his style became lighter, details more scrappy, repetition crept in, and realism seeped away. Perhaps, in truth, Romero had, by then, tired of the strip, and it was more of a chore that brought a regular pay-packet, rather than enjoyable anymore. However, the sheer length of his tenure, and the sexy quality of his depiction of Modesty (including ‘off-story’ nudes – although Holdaway did a few also) has made him the Modesty artist for many.

During that time, the quality and style of O’Donnell’s stories changed also, but strangely (for me) I enjoyed them less when Romeo was the artist after Holdaway. The stories seemed to improve under Burns and Colvin, only to decline again, become darker in both tone and plot, the previous humour less apparent. One thing Peter O’Donnell was good at, in both comic strip and the novels, were villains. They were almost always delightfully evil, but not as merely demented and two-dimensional as Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” villains. At the same time they were often complicated, clever or ruthless geniuses, who often (at least at first) managed to get one step ahead of Modesty and Willie. Time and again, this meant it took that extra measure of intelligence, cunning, skill and literal thinking for our two heroes to finally win out.

Their enemies might be evil, even sometimes a bit crazy, but they were never stupid like comic strip “Garth’s” villains, who often left me wondering how had they ever got to what and where they were supposed to be? The Garth character, too, was brawn rather than brain, and only won in the end because his enemies were so intellectually challenged. There was never that imaginative cleverness to his success, no more than to Fleming’s James Bond. Even in the shorter – and, hence less complex – comic strip stories (or the short stories), that rarely was the case with Modesty. Garth, in his earth-bound or non-science fiction stories, often displayed little forethought or planning, and sometimes idiotic negligence, in a way that was unthinkable with Modesty, who (together with Willie Garvin) was always the intellectual superior.

For much of his career writing Modesty, Peter O’Donnell was a master story-writer, although I personally still think it was the majority of his early comic strip stories that were amongst his very best. Into that category I put “The Long Lever”, “The Gabriel Set-Up”, “Uncle Happy”, “The Red Gryphon”, “The Hell-Makers”, “The Mind of Mrs Drake”, “The Magnified Man”, even “Mister Sun”. All brilliant stories, clever, complex, challenging, with exceptionally evil (but at that time, still believable) villains who often finished up justly dead.

As we have remarked, both Holdaway and Burns were brilliant at faces. Observe Holdaway’s gallery of emotions on Modesty’s face (strips 184-5, 189-95) in the magnificent “The Long Lever” story; and again (strips 1817-26) in “The Hell-Makers”. And together they created some wonderful heroes and villains: Holdaway’s Gabriel (who, together with Sir Angus McBeal, was the only villain to ‘cross over’ into the novels), Uncle Happy, Gus Fletcher (again a delightful character from “The Hell-Makers”), Korzin in “The Mind of Mrs Drake”, almost all of the characters (both important and peripheral) in “The Red Gryphon”, another excellent, emotive story. Sadly, we have only Burns’ Pandora and the dwarfish but sinister Doctor Vigo, his excellent portrayal of Sir Angus McBeal (“Green Cobra”), Jed Bowley and Mr Hogan (the superb “Yellowstone Booty”) and millionaire Dan Galt in the first half of “Eve and Adam”.

They, together with the clever panel compositions, give a hint at just what was so foolishly lost by Burns’ abrupt, needless dismissal. It’s worth just pausing to look at the handful of ‘cross-over’ strips the Evening Standard secretly commissioned from Pat Wright, his version of the ongoing “Eve and Adam” story, with those of Burns. It’s quite obvious which is the better, which has the drama and most evokes the two lead characters, yet still they dumped Burns and enlisted Wright. One can only speculate just how Burns would have depicted the rest of the story, with its abrupt (and, I think, rather disappointing) plot twist, but, again in retrospect, Wright’s effort is valiant perhaps, but horribly flawed.

Incidentally (given this was 1980) that story at first seemed to very much shake us out of Modesty’s original 1960s time-period and into the contemporary world of space satellites, but it was an idea, however, O’Donnell had previous already used in his 1971 Modesty Blaise novel The Impossible Virgin. Later, especially in the novels, but also in the 1980s/90s technology like mini-computers and mobile phones, that discord between the character’s origins and World War II time-period and apparently still being in her late twenties/early thirties at best, would only get more glaring and obvious. It was – along with the apparent fundamental lack of continuity between strip and novels – the most annoying and disappointing flaw to O’Donnell’s wonderful creation. This is the problem perhaps when an author creates a character (one thinks of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or, more especially Georges Simenon’s Chief-Inspector Maigret), but which is still being writing about two, three or four decades later. Simenon’s Maigret, for example, first appeared in 1930, aged (Simenon immediately informed the reader) 45. Despite ‘retiring’ him at one point in the 1940s (as a Parisian police office he would have retired at 55), Simenon continued to write more Maigret novels throughout the 1950s and 60s (the period, in retrospect, most associated with him) and on into the late-1970s, by which time the still serving Chief Inspector would have been pushing 90! In truth, Simenon’s best writing pre-dated 1965. Most books after that period – the Maigret novels in particular – were inferior, lacking his originality or descriptive magic.

The same was true of Modesty, who we are told in the first comic strip story, “La Machine” (1963), to be “about 26” – hence born c.1937. On that basis, by 2001 (and the last Modesty strip, “The Zombie”) she would be 64, while in the last of the novels, Dead Man’s Handle (1985), she would still have been aged 48. The one exception to this, of course, was the short story “Cobra Trap” (1996), in which Modesty is in her early fifties, and (apparently with an incurable brain tumour) sets out on her final death mission. For most Modesty fans (myself included) it is hardest to read. Indeed, some hardened fans claim they still haven’t read it, deliberately. Given that Modesty could still have been physically active at least into her mid-forties (therefore the late-1970s), O’Donnell could have aged her, while keeping her within the time-frame, and that would have been more credible. Of course the counter-argument is she was just a fictitious character anyway, but O’Donnell often remarked he thought of her otherwise. He remarked on occasion that he was merely her ‘biographer’, or that, on his own travels about the world (presumably places like the USA, France, or Malta, where he also had a villa, like Modesty) he half-expected to see her and Willie sitting in a nearby cafe or restaurant!

Looking back at the first run of Romero (1970-78) one cannot help but wonder how different they might have looked under another artist, like Holdaway, had he lived, or even Burns, for instance. But actually there was another artist working away at about the same time, who might have been equally interesting, both in his interpretation of Modesty and Willie, but also in his visual and physical depiction of other characters – villains especially. To my knowledge no one has suggested this, but what a pity Martin Asbury never got the opportunity to illustrate Modesty. Alas, in our parallel universe, Asbury inherited The Daily Mirror’s “Garth” strip following the tragic death of Frank Bellamy. Asbury was equally competent drawing stories set in the Wild West, Greek mythology, Medieval, Tudor, or eighteenth century England (“Hell-Fire”, about the Hell Fire Club, is especially good), or conventional science fiction (futuristic architecture, spaceships, aliens and alien planets), but it is his ‘contemporary’, mostly crime, “Garth” stories that (for me) peaked my interest (despite, as we have said above, being greatly inferior to Modesty Blaise, or even the earlier, 1940s to 50s-period Buck Ryan stories, drawn by Jack Monk), and got me thinking “If only….”

Three in particular, “The Don’s Daughter”, “Sapphire” and “The Fishermen”, all show Asbury’s ability for the vivid angle or prospective we see with both Holdaway and Burns, but (perhaps more important) was his talent at depicting faces. Compare the early strips of “The Fisherman” in conference, or the wacky (but totally stupid and incompetent) villains in “Sapphire”. They are original, believable, vivid. Sadly (and “Sapphire” is a good example) he was let down by an inferior story and the totally unbelievable beefcake of a hero, who all too often uses muscle rather than much brain, and mostly against the most stupid villains or evil, so-called, geniuses. Even the weakest of O’Donnell’s Modesty stories (and there were a few) was still much better written, cleverer and more intellectually challenging than anything from the “Garth” stable. But I still contend that Asbury might have excelled at illustrating Modesty, had he been given the chance.

Instead let us consider the Neville Colvin period of 1980 to 1986. I’ve already remarked his – at first – shaky ability to depict Modesty’s body (although, even in his first story, he drew two well-proportioned bit-part bikini-clad and nude females); also his tendency to slip into caricature (he thought of himself as a cartoonist first, comic strip artist afterwards), but, while we might wish in vain for the (sometimes over the top) detail of Holdaway, or the strong clarity of Burns, many of his faces or characters are first rate. Consider Gasper in “Dossier on Pluto”; or ‘Comrade Doctors’ Vole and Yago in the rather crazy, but enjoyable, “Garvin’s Travels”; or the Russian diplomats in “The Moon Man”; (and again in his swansong, “The Double Agent”, another excellent story); almost all of the characters in “The Wild Boar” (the French policeman, in particular); or Colonel Spooner in “A Few Flowers for the Colonel”. Colvin’s version of Maude Tiller (who first appeared in “The Puppet Master”, drawn by Romero) is blonde, beautiful, but somehow quite distinct, whereas Romero’s blondes all came to rather look alike, variations of his sexy sci-fi heroine “Axa”.

Probably Colvin’s best creation was the Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli and his blonde girlfriend Aniela. Guido, who has a touch of Salvador Dali about him, is a wonderful and memorable visual creation, who Romero was to later depict, competently enough, but without much flare, in several more later stories. Less successful, however, was Romero’s later depiction of Aniela. As I’ve already remarked, all his blondes (Maude and Aniela especially) somehow looked much like Axa. Go back and look at Colvin’s version, and somehow she actually looks Italian. Again, she is quite distinctive, with an interesting profile.

And this was Romero’s main artistic weakness. Modesty and Willie are OK, although Modesty was still lacking that magic which Holdaway, Burns and even Colvin gave her sometimes, but Romero’s other faces are a bit like well-drawn masks. Just occasionally (like with his blondes, or elderly women characters) they actually start to look alike, as if he had a limited repertoire of faces he merely ‘tweaked’ with different stories. Maybe I’m being unfair, but the best Modesty stories (even in the later period, when the really original clever stories were less frequent) needed a subtly and believability that Romero lacked, Colvin had perhaps 60% of the time, and Holdaway almost every time. In my opinion “Bad Suki” and “The Vikings” were perhaps the least successful of that early fertile Holdaway period, but that was through no fault of Holdaway as an artist.

If one were to divide up the strip into that of the three main artists, I would say Holdaway’s period (1963-1970) has the greatest concentration of the best stories – Peter O’Donnell at full-flight. Even the (mostly introductory) “La Machine” is excellent, and the characters and setting already almost fully formed, while “Mister Sun” saw the introduction of ‘houseboy’ Weng. What followed was newspaper strip comic at its most adult and complex. No wonder the American newspaper editors at the time didn’t ‘get it’, and wanted to cut the length, the clever (and funny) sub-plots, even the ‘naughty’ bits – a naked female back! Horror! Blood and gore, yes. Nudity (especially female nudity) a no-no. As is often the case with British comic strip artists (one thinks of both Hampson and Sydney Jordan, who draw the science fiction “Jeff Hawke” and later “Lance McLean” strips), they are more appreciated in Europe than in Britain. Virtually all of Sydney Jordan’s work has been reproduced in Italian, whereas less than a dozen “Jeff Hawke” stories (mostly from the Willie Patterson scripted period) were reprinted in their original English by Titan Books. Likewise, Modesty was especially popular (both comic and books) in Scandinavia, the comic strips often coloured, and both they and the books with very competent colour covers – we believe at least some by Burns, others by Romero, others but unidentified artists.

Holdaway’s “The Head Girls” (1966) saw the second (and in the strip stories, last) appearance of evil arch-criminal Gabriel, the only villain who also appeared in the novels Modesty Blaise (1966) and in A Taste for Death (1969), when O’Donnell rather briskly killed him off! “The Black Pearl” (1966), set in Chinese-occupied Tibet, followed, and first introducing the more mystic/occultist aspect to some of the Modesty stories. As we will see this had a ‘sequel’, but one of the final Modesty stories, “Death Symbol”, written in 1999, which bizarrely reintroduces both the Tibetan setting and some of the Tibetan freedom-fighting partisans from 32 years previous, but we are told the earlier adventure had happened only two years earlier! Eight or ten years maybe, even that would be stretching it! Again the time scale makes no sense.

“The Magnified Man”, another clever story, featuring an exo-skeleton, something that was being researched in that time, but never really took off. “The Jericho Caper”, and “The Galley Slaves” followed, both competent and miles better than anything from the “Garth” stable, then two wonderful stories “The Red Gryphon” and “The Hell-Makers”, the former showing just how dangerous it could be as Modesty’s boyfriend, the latter a classic, illustrated the bond between Modesty and Willie. “Take-Over” was next, on a theme I think was used again by O’Donnell, and (I believe) in a Garth story, but never as cleverly plotted, and then “The War-Lords of Phoenix”, which sadly brought the Holdaway period to its conclusion.

Romero’s first period (1970-78) saw a slightly dropping-off in the really edgy, clever stories, although “The Puppet Master”, “The Bluebeard Affair”, “The Gallows Bird”, “The Iron God”, “Highland Witch” (with some clever trickery from Modesty), “Cry Wolf”, and “Idaho George” were good, if not quite reaching brilliance. There followed (1979-80) the brief Burns/Wright interlude, then the Colvin period, 1980-86. This latter period saw the competent “Dossier on Pluto”, the very clever plot twists (and more Modesty ingenuity) of “The Lady Killers”, the crazy cleverness of “Garvin’s Travels”, the again competent “The Scarlet Maiden” (an old story O’Donnell had started back in the 1960s), followed by “The Moon Man”, a goodish espionage story. “A Few Flowers for the Colonel”, had a story-line not dissimilar to “The Jericho Caper” (or the 1972 short story “A Better Day to Die” from his Pieces of Modesty collection).

That was followed by “The Balloonatic”, which first introduced the reader to one of O’Donnell’s re-occurring characters: the roguish Italian journalist Guido and his beautiful, but long-suffering girlfriend, Aniela, who ‘Weelie’ gets to bed on more than one occasion! Not for the last time we get a hint of a back-story of previous encounters between the two, never elaborated further. This, however, was a routine Italian-based espionage/terrorist gangs story made memorable by the Modesty/Guido, Willie/Aniela on-going banter. It sees Modesty in a hot-air balloon and Willie and Aniela following by car, except Aniela can only read a map if facing north – hence her leaning over the passenger seat with her bottom in the air!

This is followed by the revenge thriller “Death in Slow-Motion” (in which Willie waylays a truck using ingenious disguises), then “The Alternative Man”, both good, if not quite ‘excellent’. “Sweet Caroline” is so-so, but like “The Vanishing Dollybirds” is now very dated, relying on the Neil Diamond pop-song context. Colvin does good work on illustrating some of the minor characters – compare his middle-aged, working-class lady hostage with any similar aged females Romero draw! However, the better stories are timeless. “The Return of the Mammoth” is competent, set in Finland and the Soviet Union, introducing Russian army Colonel Greb; while “Plato’s Republic” and “The Sword of the Bruce” are both workable capers. In the former – like the earlier Romero-illustrated story “Death of a Jester” – Modesty literally ‘sleeps with the enemy’, not for the only time either.

“The Wild Boar” (1985) raises the stakes, as well as introducing a character from the novels, Dr Giles Pennyfeather, who featured in The Impossible Virgin (1971) and The Xanadu Talisman (1981). While Colvin’s depiction sometimes looks gross, nevertheless it is how we envisage him, and Romero again followed the earlier portrayal of him in later stories. This was back to Modesty at her best, as was the final Colvin story (“Kali’s Disciples” being so-so), the excellent “The Double Agent”, with Modesty coming face to face with her evil communist agent dopplegänger! One almost regrets Colvin bowing out by then, especially as the next and last phase of stories seem to move more towards the dark, gritty style of the novels, away from the early clever, tricky, playfulness of the Holdaway period.

With the (this time) permanent return of Romero (1986-2001), both story and style seems to be darker. “The Vampire of Malvescu” is competent (set in much the same location as “Top Traitor”, 1965, Holdaway, actually Transylvania), while “Samantha and the Cherub” (1987) introduces the young, feisty Samantha character who appears in “Ivory Dancer” (1992) and “The Special Orders” (1998) – this last being another dark story about the white slave trade. Between Sam’s first appearance and her last there is actually a several years’ time gap. Samantha was probably only about age ten in the first story, before becoming a 15-year-old teenager in the last story. The problem is more in Romero’s art. He isn’t good at depicting children (as exampled in his first illustrated story, the dated and rather silly “Willie the Djinn”), and Samantha finished up looking too much like a young Modesty.

Another failing perhaps – which Holdaway or Colvin would never have done – is Romero’s obvious lack of direct knowledge of Britain, and London in particular. Sam, we are told is a working class girl living in the East End, but her house, when we see it, is much too posh. Tarrant’s office, originally in the Whitehall/Foreign Office area, is now depicted as some anonymous modernist block, surrounded by equally unidentified modern buildings, having almost a hint of some futuristic science fiction city-scape. Likewise, Romero’s depiction of the architecture of the capital of the communist East European country in “Death Trap” (1977/78) just looks quite wrong, again more like something out of science-fiction – nothing like Soviet-style architecture, although the villain looked a bit like the long-time president/dictator of post-Soviet Belarus! In other illustrations – of Paris, for instance, or views of Big Ben from across the Thames, both landmarks and scale are all wrong. We will give examples below, including his totally wrong depiction of both an English village and castle.

“Milord” (1988) is equally dark, with a grim theme (it has Guido and Aniela again, but not much humour left, with girls being kidnapped for extreme porno and stuff movies). So too is “The Astro” (1994, again featuring women being sold into the criminal sex trade). On a happier note is “The Girl from the Future” (1989), with a rather crazy plot to swindle a gullible mega-rich science fiction publisher (not a writer, but, given he thinks to change the future of humankind, why did I think of L. Ron Hubbard, the Scientology man?) “Lady in the Dark” (1989/90) was another ‘cross-over’ from the novels, featuring Steve and Diana Collier, but, while they are sympathetically portrayed by Romero, neither are perhaps particularly visually outstanding to anyone first having read the novels.

“Walkabout” (1990) is another of O’Donnell’s favourite locations, the Australian outback, and again features Mafia hoods. There followed a gritty, but very good, “The Girl in the Iron Mask” – my only complaint being that the back-story of the Bone brothers having their reason to hate Modesty is only alluded to, but doesn’t appear in either the strips or novels, although the master planner of the rather inapt criminal gang in “Idaho George” (1978) was named Bone. O’Donnell often repeated names (as well as a few plot ideas or accessories) over his near-40-year period. George was a likeable con-man, and another one whose pretty and sexy girlfriend (like Aniela) flirted outrageously with Willie – except Aniela we know did enjoy having nooky with Willie – Maisie apparently was less lucky!

“My Friend Maude” (1992) is again passable espionage, although again the plot itself is rather silly, while “The Maori Contract” (1995, which rather repeated “The Sword of the Bruce” story idea), “Durango” (again with overtones of previous stories, like “The Iron God”), and “The Murder Frame” (1997, a revenge caper) are so-so. The previous playful humour has completely evaporated now, as exampled by “Fraser’s Story” (1997), which reintroduces the character Doctor Yago (from “Garvin’s Travels”), but he too is no longer a comic villain, instead gone completely to the dark side, now quite unlikeable. Towards the end Jack Fraser (Tarrant’s assistant and ex-field agent) breaks his neck. There is no more ‘Mr Nice-Guy’. Villains are über-villainous and meet nasty deaths accordingly. However, at least Maude and Willie are now, at long last, getting to enjoy sex together! In the novels Willie’s regular bed-partner was Lady Janet Gillam, but she only appeared a couple of times in the comic strip world, and only as a major plot character in one, “Murder Frame”.

We have already mentioned “Death Symbol” (1998, the series is near to its end) which was again set in Tibet, and with some of the same characters as “The Black Pearl” (1966), but it has the utterly bizarre plot line that the two stories (actually 32 years apart!) are only two years apart! Sorry, Peter, but that’s nonsense! Why did you say that? But that too is a much darker story, with Modesty being beaten and raped at the hands of a sadistic Chinese renegade – something that happened several times in the novels, but rarely in the comic strips. If she went to bed with the villain (Saint-Maur in “Death of a Jester”, Plato in “Plate’s Republic”, Dom Tregallion in “Those About to Die”), it was by her choice, not force.

“The Last Aristocrat” features Guido and Aniela again (they also featured in “Guido the Jinx”, 1994, along with Russian GPU Colonel Greb from “The Return of the Mammoth”), and does have some humour still, with Aniela again promising the faithless Guido “I will keel him! Slowly!”, although Romero does treat us to five strips of a very naked Aniela in bed with Willie and getting dressed afterwards! But the ‘macguffin’ is a plague bomb, again rather grim, and more in the James Bond spirit, which the greater majority of the comic strip stories were not. At the end Aniela and Guido finally get married, although one must question just why would she want to do so, knowing he was an unrepentant liar and womaniser! The penultimate story, “The Killing Game”, again returns to a theme used before, in the 1968 story “The Killing Ground” (reworked as a short story “Bellman”, 1996, in the Cobra Trap collection), and also “Eve and Adam”, with Modesty and Willie in ‘me Tarzan, you Jane’ skimpy jungle outfits being hunted by a team of professional killers. However, the best that can be said it is competent.

The strip ending (unlike the more downbeat “Cobra Trap” short story) is the ultimate crossover between the two genres, with Modesty suggesting they go dig up the priceless Roman treasure that was re-buried in the North African desert at the end of the novel A Taste for Death, and afterwards donate the lot to the Salvation Army! Maybe, we know Modesty had a phenomenal sense of direction and place, but, as David Attenborough would tell you, the Sahara is a never-ending, wind-driven shifting place with no land-marks. Would they really find the treasure again? Given the near-forty years, it ends there, in a rather timeless limbo and anti-climax, as they apparently walk off into the sunset whilst planning their final caper. One is rather reminded of the unimaginative ending to the “Jane” comic strip, as she finally marries her idiotic boyfriend Georgie Porgy. Compare perhaps to the ending of the French science fiction comic saga “Valerian and Laureline” by Pierre Christin, in which the two heroes are projected back from the 28th century to early 21st century Paris, but as young children, remembering nothing of their past adventures as space-time agents. Like it or hate it (fandom was mixed), but it was an ending, with finality of sorts, rather than disappointing let-down.

Again it might have been better if O’Donnell had allowed Modesty to have aged just a bit (even 15 years perhaps), or to ended on a story that wrapped things up in a more satisfactory way – perhaps with the retirement (not before time!) of Sir Gerald, Willie selling his half of the circus (perhaps to Lady Jane), and it might have been better if Maude Tiller and Danny Chavasse (ex-Network operative, who had featured in a lot of novels) had partnered up, instead of the female, Leda, daughter of the latest villain in “The Zombie” (2001). It was too much a ‘routine’ story, rather than the ending it should have been.

ILLUSTRATIONS:

Fig. 1: Jim Holdaway, 1927-1970, the original Modesty Blaise artist, and the best. He had previously illustrated Romeo Brown, also written by Peter O’Donnell. He died, aged 43, mid-way through “The War-Lords of Phoenix”.

Fig. 2: Holdaway, 1963 – Jack Fraser and Sir Gerald Tarrant visit Modesty at her penthouse apartment (I suggest Bayswater Road), overlooking Hyde Park.

Fig. 3: Holdaway, 1963 – His first image of Modesty Blaise. Note the intricate background detail in both this, and the previous, illustration. The Rolls-Royce parked at the kerb in panel 2 is probably Modesty’s.

Fig. 4: Holdaway, 1963 – His first image of Willie Garvin. Modesty visits him at his Thames riverside pub, the ‘Treadmill’. Note the interesting angles in panels 1 and 2. All three illustrations are from the first story La Machine.

Fig. 5: Holdaway, 1965/66 – Willie Garvin, Tarrant’s assistant Jack Fraser, and Modesty. Illustration from the story Top Traitor. Fraser is a former field agent whose outward persona is now that of a rather dull desk-bound bureaucrat. He, along with Sir Gerald, featured in many of the Modesty stories, both comic strip and the novels.

Fig. 6: Holdaway, 1963/64 – The first appearance of arch-criminal Gabriel.

Illustration from the third Modesty story The Gabriel Set-Up. Gabriel made one more appearance in the comic strip, in The Head Girls (1966), and featured in two of the Modesty Blaise novels, Modesty Blaise (1965), and A Taste for Death (1969), in which he is rather unceremoniously killed off.

Fig. 7: Holdaway, 1964 – The introduction of another regular character, that of Modesty’s ‘houseboy’ Weng, seen here in the fourth story Mister Sun. Again, take note of the detail of Mister Sun’s underground inner sanctum, the expressions and body language of the characters. Mr Sun was something of an Ian Fleming-type villain, in a story set in Hong Kong (then still a British colony) and during the Vietnam War, whilst emphasising Modesty’s hatred of the drug trade.

Fig. 8 : Holdaway, 1964 – Another episode from Mister Sun. A masterstroke to have the Chinese criminal villain practising his cartography while hoping to corrupt Modesty into the drugs trade. Probably only Neville Colvin equalled Holdaway in his ability to capture facial expressions and body language so effectively.

Fig. 9a : Holdaway – Modesty taken captive by another Cold War espionage villain, osteopath V. N. Korzon, from the fifth story The Mind of Mrs Drake. As with the second story, The Long Lever, often the good guys get killed; in this instance one of Tarrant’s agents, blonde Jeannie Challon. Holdaway’s artwork and characterisation is at the top of its game, except for the old Hollywood mistake that silencers aren’t actually effective on revolvers, only automatics!

Fig. 9b : Unknown artist (perhaps John Burns?), cover to a later Swedish language edition of Modesty, the title apparently changed to Psyko-spionen – psycho-espionage.

Fig. 10 : Holdaway, 1964/65 – Again from The Mind of Mrs Drake, and just one of numerous examples of the incredible detail Holdaway put into what was just a daily newspaper comic strip. Look at the third panel in particular as Modesty and Willie drive through London in her sports car convertible. Cars feature a lot in the Modesty comic strips.

Fig. 11 : Holdaway, 1969 – And another Cold War espionage villain from The Hell-Makers. Like the earlier Uncle Happy, this too was set in the USA, with the final action taking place in Montana. In addition to the larger than life Alex Kazin, Peter O’Donnell introduced another fascinating character, Gus Fletcher.

Fig. 12 : Holdaway, 1968/69 – Another example of Holdaway’s incredible attention to detail, as Modesty and her latest lover, Italian architect Max Aquino, attend Count Alborini’s Venetian ball in the palazzo on the Grand Canal. Another ruthless villain, driven by arrogance and greed. How long would it have taken for Holdaway to ink in all this intricate detail, only for it to be reduced down to probably a quarter of the size of the original, and with all the smudgy imperfections of 1960s/70s newspaper print?

Fig. 13a : Holdaway, 1968/69 – Another example of Holdaway’s almost cinematic compositions and mastery of light and shadow, especially in the top first panel. The (by now) slightly insane Count Alborini and his henchman hunting Modesty in the spooky derelict palazzo on its own island in the Venetian Lagoon, Modesty still with her wrists in handcuffs.

Fig. 13b : Unknown artist, the cover to the Swedish publication Agent X9, featuring translated Modesty Blaise stories, again from The Red Gryphon.

Fig. 14 : Holdaway, 1969-70 – Yet another example of Holdaway’s maticulous artwork, this from the story Take-Over. Modesty is being wined and dined by another comic strip regular, Inspector Brook of Scotland Yard. Although the story text does not say so, my guess this is the ‘Trafalgar Tavern’ at Greenwich.

Fig. 15 : Holdaway, 1970 – From The War-Lords of Phoenix, set in Japan, with the crazy mega-rich industrialist brothers Kato and Fumiya having forcefully ‘recruited’ Modesty and Willie to train their warrior fanatics. This was the penultimate Holdaway-drawn episode before he died so suddenly.

Fig. 16 : John M. Burns, 1978/79 – In November 1978 John Burns took over illustration with the departure of Enric Badia Romero to concentrate on his “Axa” science fiction comic strip in the Sun newspaper. The first Burns story was Yellowstone Booty, another American story, and featuring the mega-rich American businessman and Modesty’s lover, John Dall, another ‘cross-over’ from the novels. Burns used strong black and white, and, while less meticulous in detail than Holdaway, he was excellent on faces, expressions and composition.

Fig. 17 : John M. Burns, 1978/79 – Two more illustrations from Yellowstone Booty, featuring the feisty Lucy Grace, half-Native American Indian treasure-hunter, and her husband Brad, about to rescue an unconscious Willie Garvin in a canoe. Was the nudity really too up-front for the Evening Standard readers in 1978? Why else was Burns given instant dismissal half-way through only his third Modesty Blaise story?

Fig. 18 : John M. Burns, 1978/79 – Another episode of Yellowstone Booty. Note that Burns is credited as artist, as later was Neville Colvin. Was it just a coincidence that a strong story also had a strong artist in the same vein as Holdaway? Burns’ portfolio is huge and impressive, and includes “The Seekers”, a Modesty Blaise-like comic strip (written by Les Lilley, 1966-71); “Danielle” (1973-74, 1978); George and Lynne (1977-84); “Bionic Woman” (1976-77) and “Eartha” (written by Donne Aveness, 1981-82).

Fig 19 : John M. Burns, 1979 – Peter O’Donnell’s equivalent of Ian Fleming’s SPECTRA was Salamander Four, which appeared in both novels/short stories and here, in one of several examples, in the comic strip. Sir Angus McBeal also featured in the novels, and the short story “Old Alex” (1996). This is from the story Green Cobra, another strong espionage story in which Tarrant’s assistant Jack Fraser is kidnapped – a twist on the much earlier story Top Traitor, or the novel The Silver Mistress, when Tarrant was the kidnap victim.

Fig. 20 : John M. Burns, 1979 – Another episode from Green Cobra, and an example of Burns’ strength at creating memorable (if eccentric) characters – the ruthless Pandora, egocentric martial arts fighter with a chip on her shoulder concerning Modesty, and the Toulouse-Lautrec-like midget Dr. Vigo.Fig. 21 : John M. Burns, 1979 – Although Burns’ Modesty occasionally looks wrong – her hair piled too high, lips too full, by his third story, Eve and Adam, he had already stamped his strong, distinctive style on the strip, and drawn some memorable characters, here the slightly bonkers Dan Galt, convinced the world was about to end, and planning to transplant Modesty and Willie to an isolated, fertile valley in Africa to be the new Adam and Eve. The perfect excuse for some discreet nudity and the odd flash of Modesty’s bare boobs, but then suddenly, mid-story, Burns is gone and replaced by another artist, Pat Wright, whose style is completely different. As editorial decisions go as far as a popular comic strip was concerned, it was completely crazy.

Fig, 22a and 22b : John M. Burns and Pat Wright – John Burns was dismissed by orders of the then Evening Standard editor Charles Wintour in September 1979, and hurriedly replaced by Pat Wright. The last two Burns strips were not printed and replaced by the Pat Wright version instead, thus giving us an interesting opportunity to compare the two artists and their individual interpretation of Peter O’Donnell’s script. The contrast is apparent. Burns’s style was strong and realistic, and, like his two predecessors, Holdaway and Romero, he used shadows a lot. Wright’s style was much lighter, often almost devoid of shadow, and, while he was quite good with his depiction of Modesty’s face, he was weak on figures in general, and even more so on background. He was the son of comic artist David Wright (1912-1967), who draw the comic strip “Carol Day” (written by Peter Morris, 1956-67) for the Daily Mirror. Perhaps had Wright been drawing a completely new comic strip, he might have survived and thrived, but there is no denying that he was the weakest and least able of the five artists, and his tenure lasted only one and half stories, before he, too, was replaced in May 1980 by Neville Colvin, and the artistic style dramatically changed yet again. Pat Wright had previously drawn for The Eagle, 2000AD, and the Commando comics, and later for Private Eye. His forte were single panel cartoons. Continuity error! Willie is weeks in the wilderness but is still clean-shaven!

Figs. 23 and 24 : Pat Wright, 1979-80 – Wright completed the story Eve and Adam, ironically taking over almost at the point where the story took on a totally unexpected twist, and a more brutal edge. Alas, one can only imagine how John Burns might have illustrated this change of direction. Wright’s version is disappointing. Between January to May 1980 he completed the next story, Brethren of Blaise, a routine crime caper set in a small village in winter. Artistically, this too was, at best, serviceable, at worst, mediocre. As the two examples above show, his Modesty and Willie were perhaps better even than Romero’s, and certainly nearer to the original Holdaway images. But little else worked – the backgrounds were scrappy and vague; there was little detail, the style was sketchy rather than realistic, and the composition was workaday, nothing else. Sadly, Pat Wright’s Modesty was the least successful.

Fig. 25 : Neville Colvin, 1980 – This from the opening episodes of the first story Colvin illustrated, Dossier on Pluto, and from the man, who – so the story goes – when offered the job of being the replacement Modesty Blaise artist, claimed he couldn’t draw women! Straightway he was drawing Willie’s latest squeeze, American former cheer-leader and prize bimbo, Cheryl, and in the skimpiest of micro-bikinis! Later, in the same story, he draw a very nude Rosita, another of Willie’s horizontal playmates (although this time in the noble cause of duping the villains, of course!) Given how American newspaper editors had so heavily censored Romero’s artwork in The Gallows Bird (1973) from even the hint of bare feminine flesh or Willie sleeping with his girlfriends, one can only suppose the later Modesty stories never saw the light of day in the USA. Like Pat Wright who he replaced, New Zealand-born Colvin regarded himself as more of a cartoonist, and his artwork was not without flaws and failings, but, in retrospect, he did restore something of the Holdaway spirit – most notably in his depiction of characters and often real emotion in their faces – something that both Pat Wright and Enrique Badia Romero often failed at.Figs, 26 and 27 : Neville Colvin, 1980 – The two villains from Dossier on Pluto, Squire Maitland and Gaspar (an overweight Captain Hook type). This story has the third appearance of another of Modesty’s lovers, American Steve Taylor, the F.B.I. agent who first appeared in Uncle Happy (drawn by Holdaway) and then The Gallows Bird (by Romero) – so three different artists. Now retired, he is conducting dolphin research – Pluto being the name given to one of the dolphins. During the Cold War (and perhaps since) such research was actually being carried out by both the USA and the Soviet Union. One feature which distinguished Modesty from her fictional rivals, especially government-employed thugs like James Bond, was her empathy for dumb animals, donkeys and dolphins in particular. Maitland is the first of several posh, rather autocratic, long yellow- or silver-haired villains portrayed by Colvin; we see his type again in Sweet Caroline (perhaps the least successful of the O’Donnell/Colvin stories), Plato’s Republic, and the foreign office sleeper agent in the last Colvin illustrated story, The Double Agent.

Figs. 28a and 28b : Neville Colvin (above) and Enric Badia Romero (below).

The Neville Colvin period was from 1980 until 1986, and included some excellent stories, but also Peter O’Donnell reintroduced some previous characters, like circus-owner Georgi Gogol, French intelligence chief René Vaubois, and Maude Tiller, who had first appeared in The Puppet Master (1971-71), drawn by Romero. Here she is again in Gavin’s Travels, and – while still a blonde – looking completely different, actually with more character!Fig. 29 : Neville Colvin, 1981. Here is Maude Tiller again in Gavin’s Travels, with comrade Doctors Yago (with the bald head) and Vole, rare comic book incompetent villains in Peter O’Donnell’s world, although Dr. Yago made a later reappearance in Fraser’s Story (1997, drawn by Romero), in which he was no longer comic and inapt, but a true nasty who merits getting his neck snapped! Holdaway would have handled the background with more subtlety and perhaps detail, while Romero would had perhaps emphasised contrasting shadow more, but the two villains are distinctive (if perhaps comic), and Colvin’s version remains the best ever depiction of Maude, here and in The Double Agent.Fig. 30 : Neville Colvin, 1984 – Circus owner Georgi Gogol is another character who made a few ‘guest appearances’ over the span of stories, first in The Bluebeard Affair (1974, Romero), then Death Trap (1978, also Romero), but seen here by Colvin in The Return of the Mammoth, ten years later, in 1984. Once again, it is Colvin who really captures Gogol’s appearance and character to match O’Donnell’s dialogue. The second illustration by Romero (2001).Fig. 31 : Neville Colvin, 1985 – When it came to depicting another of Modesty’s regular lovers, the medically talented, if mildly eccentric Doctor Giles Pennyfeather, Colvin did occasionally stray into caricature. This is one of his less comic portrayals, from the excellent crime caper The Wild Boar (which also features another regular from both comic strip and novels, Rene Vaubois). Giles first appeared in the novel The Impossible Virgin (1971) and again in The Xanadu Talisman (1981), and in the comic strip stories The Young Mistress (1992), Honeygun (1996) and Children of Lucifer (1999, all drawn by Romero).Fig. 32 : Neville Colvin, 1985 – Just in this one story, The Wild Boar, where the action moves from Tangiers to Cannes to Corsica, there are a number of fleeting characters, yet all vividly depicted by Colvin. Whether it be Cannes police inspector Durand, seen here on his day off at the marina, and looking characteristically French, or the elderly Corsican gentleman with his white flowing moustache, or Vaubois’s scheming deputy in French intelligence, who looked a bit like Mitterrand!Figs. 33 and 34 : Neville Colvin, 1984 – Two episodes from The Return of the Mammoth, in which Willie loses his favourite circus elephant Chloe in Russia. G.R.U. Captain Novikov doesn’t believe Willie’s story, until an old Soviet army officer acquaintance, Colonel Greb, rescues him. Greb appeared again, in Guido the Jinx (1994, drawn by Romero). But even if we allow for the time lapse, Romero’s Greb looked nothing like Colvin’s, who, as we see here, depicts a much more typical, stocky, ruddy-faced Russian. Romero’s Greb is just a fat man of no discernible nationality with short fair or cropped hair. I always felt that O’Donnell’s Greb was a nod to Len Deighton’s Colonel Stok as featured in his early novels Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain.Fig. 35 : Neville Colvin, 1982 – From the story A Few Flowers for the Colonel, this is Colonel Rodney Spooner, retired, Royal Engineers, a story set in another fictitious O’Donnell South American country, and a variation on The Jericho Caper (1967/68) and the short stories A Better Day to Die and Cobra Trap.Figs. 36 and 37 : Neville Colvin, 1982 – Two illustrations from The Moon Man, seen here in the second frame, Herbert Duck, aka The Moon Man, the UK agent of an unnamed East European (e.g. communist) foreign power, who uses his apparent claim to be in contact with extra-terrestrials aliens in UFOs as ‘cover’. Perhaps even aside from his time writing the “Garth” stories for the Daily Mirror (1953-65), Peter O’Donnell obviously had an interest in science fiction and so-called flying saucers, or UFOs. They feature in at least two other Modesty comic strip stories, “Take Me To Your Leader” (1974, Romero), and The Girl from the Future (1989, also Romero). The story sub-plot has Modesty posing nude for a painting by her latest lover, again a plot idea used (but sculpture) in The Jericho Caper, and the short story Salamander Four. Aside from the dastardly East European villains, Colvin depicts a cast of characters, including the painter’s young daughter and a motley collection of ufologists!Figs. 38 and 39 : Neville Colvin, 1982-83 – Perhaps Colvin’s most enduring visual creation was the lying, scheming, fantasizing and womanizing Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli and his long-suffering blonde girlfriend Aniela, both seen here in different episodes of Guido’s introductory story The Balloonatic. Despite her misgivings, Modesty agrees to take part in a hot-air balloon race in Italy, while Willie (“Weelie”) and Aniela follow by car, except Aniela can only read maps if facing north! As usual in Peter O’Donnell’s world, murder and terrorist gangs very soon come to dominate the plot. Colvin’s Guido has a touch of Salvador Dali about him. They appear again in Guido the Jinx (1996), Milord (1988), and finally The Last Aristocrat (1999-2000). All three were illustrated by Romero, but now Aniela looked just like Romero’s version of Maude Tiller, and Guido is recognisable, but rather ‘stiff’, and the last two stories in particular are rather nasty and brutish – snuff porno movies and biological warfare terrorism.Figs. 40 and 41 : Neville Colvin, 1986 – In retrospect we must regret that Colvin decided to retire from drawing Modesty, and, perhaps even more, the editorial decision to again engage Romero to take over illustrating the comic strip again. Colvin had got better and better which each story, but bowed out in style, with the excellent – and at times, quite comic – espionage story The Double Agent, which, as almost immediately becomes apparent, has itself a double meaning: Modesty is up against her own double! With the communist operative Havil, not for the first time in Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty universe, we have a villain who has apparently crossed swords with her before, but in some previous, untold story. His intended revenge is to use a ruthless and highly trained Modesty-lookalike to assassinate Tarrant, with Modesty taking the blame. The problem being, of course, that, no matter how good the double, Willie would know. This story – Colvin’s swansong, culminating in a hand-to-hand battle between Modesty and Gemini, her double – is O’Donnell at his creative best, evoking both tension and humour. The story again features Maude Tiller, at her most seductive, but also a cast of villains (seen above, two underlings and Havil himself), a circus bear, a man in a clown suit, holograms, an ingenious murder attempt on Willie, and the final confrontation on a golf-course – I like to think somewhere in Surrey. Colvin bows out, and Romero returns, and once again it almost seems as if the tune of the stories start to change also.

Fig. 42 : Romero, 1970 – The first Enric Badia Romero period was from 1970 to 1978, and Willie the Djinn (above) was the first complete story illustrated following Holdaway’s untimely death. It was not one of Peter O’Donnell’s best or most memorable stories, set in a fictitious Middle Eastern Arab country (perhaps not unlike Kuwait) now rich from oil wealth, whose eccentric ruler knew Modesty in her teenage wandering days. O’Donnell returned to a similar plot in 1977/78 with the equally mediocre The Vanishing Dollybirds, also one of his less successful titles. Romero’s style is bold and strong, but, while he was excellent at drawing young women, he seemed strangely unable to draw very young children. For instance, compare the middle panel of the top episode with the much smaller, almost babyish girl in the last panel of the bottom episode. In The Stone Age Caper (1971) the Aboriginal children look quite grotesque, while the later character of Sam Brown (Samantha and the Cherub, 1987) often looked like a miniature Modesty.

Fig. 43 : Romero, 1971 – The third fully-illustrated Romero was Death of a Jester, a competent, if not particularly outstanding, quasi-espionage/crime caper, whose lordly, ex-British Army commando villain is the bearded and ruthless John Vandeleur Saint-Maur. Both monasteries and castles feature a lot in the Modesty stories, but Romero’s castles are always rather ridiculous, like out of fairy stories. His artwork is detailed, and his Modesty already quite exotic (not for the only time, in either novels or comic strip, she sleeps with the bad guy). Also not for the only time, Peter O’Donnell has a reoccuring name – in his 1982 novel The Night of the Morningstar, one of the villains is Major Ronald St. Maur, a.k.a. the Earl St. Maur. Had O’Donnell forgotten he had used the same name back in 1971?Fig. 44 : Romero, 1971 – The Puppet Master was more of a revenge caper, featuring the evil-looking Mahmoud, former vice-ring boss, seen here with the title character, mind-molding psychiatrist Dr. Hans Baum. Set mostly in Italy, with excursions to the South of France and Athens, this story also introduces Maude Tiller, another one of Tarrant’s blonde female agents, who became a Peter O’Donnell favourite, featuring in over half a dozen comic strip stories, as well the novel Last Day in Limbo. Strangely enough, an early Romero sketch for Maude, reproduced in the Titan reprints, shows more character than his later depiction, when she became rather a ‘typical’ Romero blonde. The final action takes place on the Monte Solaro chairlift in Carpi, O’Donnell supplying Romero with photographs as to the location.Fig. 45 : Romero, 1971 – Another favourite O’Donnell location was Australia, and especially the Outback, which featured in a number of the Modesty comic strip stories, The Stone Age Caper (opening episodes above), and Walkabout (1990-91), as well as one of his ‘Madeleine Brent’ pen-name novels, The Golden Urchin (1986, something of a literary tour de force, being written in the first person, whose heroine is a young white girl brought up as an Aborigine). This introduces both another recurring villain, Chinese Mr Wu Smith, who perhaps inherited Mr Sun’s criminal empire, and Australian Aborigine Jacko, former of the Network, whose tracking skills are occasionally called upon. Here too we meet one of Modesty’s one-off, one-time lovers, Australian zoologist David Collins, whose persona is remarkably similar to that of near-namesake Steve Collier, another former Modesty lover, who first appeared on the 1967 novel I, Lucifer, but only appeared in the comic strip in 1989. Fig. 46 : Romero, 1971 – Horror, shock! Modesty shows her nipples! Tame by the standards of the 1980s – “George and Lynne” or “Axa”, but still got reader complaints apparently, and a mild rebulk to Peter O’Donnell. Laughable now.Fig. 47 : Romero, 1972-73 – The Bluebeard Affair was a more conventional crime caper, the wicked Baron Rath and his two hideous daughters, Hortense and Celeste, planning to murder his fourth wife for her money. The setting is the South of France, near Cannes, although Romero’s depiction of the town at night, viewed from the bay, is strangely unconvincing. However, the would-be victim is the niece of French intelligence chief, Rene Vaubois, who first appeared in The Magnified Man (Holdaway, 1967). This also sees the first appearance of Georgi Gogol’s circus, who Willie half-owns (much to the surprise of both us, the reader, and Modesty herself!) The circus will feature again in Death Trap (Romero, 1977-78), and Return of the Mammoth (Colvin, 1984), and The Zombie (2000-2001). Fig. 48 : Romero, 1973 – Next to guns (Modesty’s speciality), cars feature a lot in both comic strip and books, and – apart from Willie’s London black cab – mostly left-hand drive. I suspect both Holdaway and Romero enjoyed drawing them. This final episode of The Bluebeard Affair is especially good.fig. 49 : Romero, 1978 – American con-man Idaho George and his girlfriend Maisie has him pretending to be misogynist Indian mystic Ram Dal Singh, supposedly able to materialise gold or silver. I believe O’Donnell had a personal interest in stage magic, and several of his stories use this theme – The Girl From the Future and “Take Me to Your Leader”, for instance. A routine crime caper, with a thuggish gang of incompetents lead by Anastasia Bone, following the death of husband Alfred Potts. Maisie is another, like Guido’s girlfriend Aniela, who flirts with Willie, but less successfully. This story is notable for bringing together (if only briefly) Maude, Weng, Steve Collier, Lady Janet (who featured more in the books) and Inspector Brook’s nephew Rufus, who had appeared in the story From Rufus With Love (Romero, 1972). It also has Modesty badly beaten up, and performing a self-inducing near-death coma. Other stories of interest in this first Romero period are The Gallow Bird (1973), a USA caper in which the villains (an elderly pseudo-Confederate ‘General’ and his crazy wife, obsessed with hanging) plan to flood New Orleans – 32 years later Hurricane Katrina was unfortunately more successful; The Iron God (1973-74), set in New Guinea, with roguish bearded Irishman O’Mara as villain – although Romero had him looking not unlike John Saint Maur (above). Romero can at least draw believable black adults, as exampled in this story, unlike the dreadful effort of Pat Wright in Eve and Adam. Finally one of the better stories, even if a routine crime caper, Highland Witch (1974), featuring another sarcastic Steve Collier-type named Dr. Gordon Ritchie, and another samey Romero blonde-lookalike girl-in-peril, Peggy Western, looking like Maude Tiller much of the time. The villain is Sister Binks, middle-aged and fat, another Romero stereotype. Aborigine Jacko makes a brief appearance, but the best part of the story is Modesty’s ingenious frightener on the bad guys who think Peggy is dead, only to keep seeing and hearing her ‘ghost’… Fig. 50 : Romero, 1986-87 – Enric Badia Romero returned in 1986, with the cowboy/western-themed Butch Cassidy Rides Again, featuring a English-born, gun-slinging villain named The Preacher – a throwback perhaps to the Revd. Uriah Crisp in the 1978 novel Dragon’s Claw. There seems to be a subtle change in Romero’s art, but also increasingly in the nature of the stories in this final fifteen year phase. Workaday art for a workaday story, but it does see a brief intervention by Modesty’s favourite multi-millionaire boyfriend, John Dall.Fig. 51 : – Romero, 1987 – The story The Million Dollar Game is one of several Modesty comic strip stories over the entire period with a hunting theme – more often Modesty and Willie being the hunted. These are the short, fill-in story The Killing Ground (1968, Holdaway – O’Donnell later wrote a short story version, Bellman, 1996), and The Killing Game (Romero, 2000). This story, eventually about large-scale poaching in Africa – sadly, still on-going in real life – actually begins with a flashback to Modesty’s Network days in Tangier, and her love of dumb animals, donkeys in particular. Grey Lawton is the animal doctor, eventually, after a bumpy start, another of Modesty’s lovers. When he later appears, shaven-headed with a beard, in one image he looks a bit like the American actor Tom Selleck.Fig. 52 : Romero, 1987 – Samantha and the Cherub (in retrospect, not one of Peter O’Donnell’s best titles) introduces young Sam Brown, working class London East Ender, into martial arts, who was to feature in a number of subsequent stories, below.Fig. 53 : Romero, 1992 – Sam’s second appearance, seen here with Modesty’s millionaire American boyfriend, John Dall, another cross-over character who appears in both comic strip and the books. Sam shows herself to be both intelligent and brave, with another Modesty characteristic, empathy with animals, in this instance Dall’s champion race-horse, the title’s ‘Ivory Dancer’. Fig. 54 : Romero, 1998 – Sam Brown again, no longer a child, now about 15, seen here in The Special Orders, and looking quite different! This story is set in the Far East, this is about girls being kidnapped for a vice ring.

Fig. 55 : Romero, 1989 – The Girl from the Future is another caper set in the USA, so almost inevitably also featuring John Dall, the Texan tycoon. It features Alex Gant, a rather arrogant, self-centred multi-millionaire science fiction publisher and flying saucer enthusiast, who believes he has been visited by a girl from the 25th century AD, so he might prepare humankind for cosmic enlightenment. However, to return her to her own time requires two solid gold spheres worth a mere $4million each. It’s a scam, but by whom, and how was it done? Peter O’Donnell could still think up an ingenious plot. Romero depicts Modesty in skimpy swimwear, his usual gruesome ruffians, and some non-Modesty female nudity in one of the better stories from this last phase.Fig. 56 : Romero, 1989-90 – Another enjoyable workaday story is Lady in the Dark, which finally (belatedly) introduces Steve and Diane Collier, regular characters from the novels and short stories. Romero’s depiction of them is seen here, from another, later, comic strip story, Durango (1996-97). Collier is another of Modesty’s ex-lovers, while Diane, who is blind, but has compensated with enhanced psychic senses, first appeared in A Taste for Death, when her sister was murdered by Gabriel, and she was rescued by Willie Garvin. Lady in the Dark features another, rather ridiculous-looking, castle in Carinthia, together with Salamander Four villains. Thereafter the Colliers appear as both key- or bit-players in a number of subsequent stories.Figs. 57 and 58 : Romero, 1991 – The Girl in the Iron Mask is another revenge caper – so like The Killing Ground (Holdaway), The Puppet Master (Romero), Death in Slow Motion, and The Double Agent (Colvin), Live Bait, or The Murder Frame (Romero), but this time by the retired millionaire Bone brothers, Reggie and Humphry, seen here with their servant, Celeste, at their home in the Swiss Alps. Modesty is kidnapped, fitted with the iron mask, and put down a deep pit, Kippel Hole, in an operation carried out by the ‘Magpie’ gang. Again, Peter O’Donnell hints at a backstory not chronicled in either book or comic – that Modesty foiled an attempt by the vindictive brothers to ruin John Dall. The ‘Bone’ name, however, was also used before, in the 1978 story Idaho George. Figs. 59, 60 and 61 : Romero, 1999-2000 – Romero’s version of the lying, womanizing Italian journalist Guido and girlfriend Aniela (also seen here, commiserating with ‘Weelie’ having been jilted at the altar by Guido); this from their final appearance in The Last Aristocrat. Even at this late stage, as we see here, Romero continued to draw what was perhaps his true speciality, faces and naked, or near-naked, women, to perfection – even if his villains started to look more and more like grotesque masks and his blondes all looked like Axa, his other ‘creation’ after his version of Modesty. However, by the 1990s his previous attention to detail – whether it be cars, planes, room interiors, or background locations – had greatly declined, become more slapdash and indifferent. Always rather eccentric in how he depicted places, as we shall illustrate below, I get the impression drawing the Modesty comic strip had – for the most part – became a chore, made only enjoyable perhaps by the opportunities to draw her – or other female characters, friend or foe. It was a slow, steady deterioration into what was often – at best – crude simplicity; or worst, the kind of scrappiness only previously seen with Pat Wright. Fig. 62 : Romero, 2001 – the last Modesty Blaise comic strip – ever. 38 years, 95 adventures (excluding the novels and short stories) and they’ve barely aged. Peter O’Donnell, however, was then 81 when he finally retired from writing. He died in 2010, aged 90. He expressed the wish that no one write any further Modesty Blaise stories. The short story Cobra Trap (published 1996) was to have been Modesty’s true swansong, with her (then in her fifties and with an incurable brain tumour) and Willie dying in a sort of A Few Flowers for the Colonel situation. The “Evening Standard” comic strip ending, by comparison, is an anti-climax, rather tame. With Peter O’Donnell’s permission, Romero illustrated one more story, The Dark Angels, another short story from the 1996 collection. Romero also illustrated the covers to the Scandinavian translated reprints. Romero is, therefore, now the artist most associated with Modesty. Like Colvin, his art was 60% very good, but none of the other four artists matched Jim Holdaway for talent, detail or skill. John Burns had also illustrated some of the short stories, and – we believe – some of Swedish translation magazine covers. If so, we can only lament yet again what might have been had he continued the “Evening Standard” comic strip.Figs. 63 and 64 – Possibly John Burns – covers to the Swedish edition of The Dossier on Pluto and The Alternative Man, both originally by Neville Colvin.Figs. 65 and 66 : Two more covers to the Swedish translation, this time of The Head Girls, and Top Traitor, both originally by Jim Holdaway.

Fig. 67 : The now classic image of Modesty Blaise, as illustrated by Romero, black, zip-up bodysuit, gun and holster, hair up.Fig. 68 : Contrast to the John M. Burns version, much less sexy!Fig. 69 : Another John M. Burns illustration, this time to Uncle Happy, recognisably in the style of the original Jim Holdaway illustration.Fig, 70 : Italian actress Monica Vitti (born 1931 as Maria Luisa Cecilarelli) as Modesty Blaise in the 1966 movie of that name, directed by Joseph Losey and produced by Joseph Janni. Vitti was a natural blonde, but did actually look like Modesty in a wig. Sadly the movie was awful, about which less said the better!

Figs. 71 and 72 : Over a period of time Romero also draw illustrations loosely based on the comic strip stories. These actually bore little relation to the stories themselves, and were essentially excuses to depict Modesty in various states of undress, exposing legs or upper body, as seen in these two examples. The first is supposedly the scene from Colvin’s A Few Flowers for the Colonel, where Modesty is holding off the advance of the bandits in the narrow gorge, but Romero has inflicted serious damage to her trademark bodysuit that never happened in the actual story. The second illustration is from Walkabout, when Modesty goes ‘native Abo’ with her ex-Network operative, Australian Aboriginal Jacko – a good excuse to depict her near-naked, if still strategically concealing her breasts! Actually, in the story, Modesty let the Aborigines kill the kangaroo!Figs. 73 and 74 : Romero and Holdaway – Modesty in the nude.Fig. 75 – Romero – Axa (with Donne Avenell, 1978-86) and Modesty.Figs. 76 and 77 : Enrique (Enric) Badia Romero (born 1930, Barcelona, Spain); Peter O’Donnell, British journalist, writer and novelist (1920-2010), who also wrote under the pen-name of Madeleine Brent.

Fig. 79 : Superb illustration by Romero depicting a nude Modesty about to fight the villainous killer ‘Mr Sexton’, from the novel The Silver Mistress.

However, below we review some of Romero’s less successful work, repetition, and (we suggest) artistic decline:

Castles: Along with monasteries, castles often featured in the Modesty Blaise comic strip stories, most of which were illustrated by Romero. The most obvious exception is in the Holdaway illustrated story “Top Traitor”, featuring Storgen Castle, in the “Savinsken Alps”, which at least some readers insist are now known as the Savinja or Savinjska Alps, located on the Austrian/Slovenia border. If so, we must assume, from the date of the story (1965) it was in Austria, rather than Yugoslavia! Holdaway’s rather low-key depiction certainly has a Central European appearance, whilst also elements typical of Hapsburg architecture. The castle in the later (1987) story “The Vampire of Malvescu” is set in “Transylvania”, actually in Romania – which again at that period was still part of the Eastern communist-controlled Bloc. It is perhaps questionable if Modesty and Willie would have been allowed to travel there so freely.

This is Romero’s illustration:

The interior is even more grand:

Romero’s depictions of French chateaux are also rather over the top. Here, in “Our Friend Maude” (1992), the chateau looks almost Central European again:By contrast below is the French crime boss Reppo’s chateau “on the Aisne”, apparently once owned by Modesty during her Network days:

However, Romero’s English castles are both more exaggerated and unbelievable. Below we see Saint-Maur Castle, Cornish home of crazy ex-commando Earl Saint-Maur, in “Death of a Jester”:

Oddly enough, it has both drawbridge and moat, and a grand entrance for Modesty’s Rolls-Royce!

If this seems a bit over the top, consider Stutley Castle, supposedly in Nottinghamshire, near Sherwood, in the story “The Greenwood Maid” (1975), what might be described as a ‘Robin Hood Caper’. Peter O’Donnell has mixed Locksley, the supposed birth-place of the legendary Robin Hood, with the equally folklore character Will Stutely, sometimes associated with Will Scarlett. There is a Studley Castle, but it looks nothing as fanciful or exotic as this! This image is grand to the point of being quite ridiculous. Just look at the scale!

I’m afraid Romero really lost it in this story, supposedly set in a rural England that he obviously had no personal knowledge of. His depiction of ‘Stutely village’ isn’t just wrong, it is crazily and recognisably wrong! The architecture of the façades and roofs are German, not English, and, indeed, it has been directly lifted from photographs of that of the German town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Bavaria! hat presumably both O’Donnell and the London Evening Standard editors let this one go, surely was an insult to their readers’ intelligence. Or did no one not notice?

CITIES: Let us move on to Romero’s depiction of cities and places. In the story “Death Trap” (1977) we see several images of the “capital of an (unnamed) minor East European” communist country. Given that there are mountains “on the northern border”, and Willie talks about walking “for two or three hundred miles”, one must assume this mysterious country to be in the Balkans rather than Eastern Europe. The geography, in fact, makes little sense. The capital, as envisaged by Romero, is even less believable. It looks like something out a Flash Gordon comic, almost science fiction. Again, really, even at the time one would expect something a bit more realistic. I cannot imagine Holdaway drawing something quite so absurd. Later Romero depicted similar tower-blocks into an unrecognisable London.

Two views of Paris, both featuring the Eiffel Tower, the first from the story “The Killing Distance” (1994), the second from the earlier “Those About to Die” (1976), perhaps illustrating the deterioration in Romero’s artwork – the later illustration being crude, scrappy and slapdash. My issue with the earlier illustration is scale. Is the Eiffel Tower in the background really so much taller than the modern skyscraper tower-block we see in the foreground? Although Peter O’Donnell said he often sent photographs of real locations to help Romero (Monte Solaro on Carpi, for instance; and possibly Mdina, on Malta), my feeling is that Romero was much less meticulous in his illustrations of foreign locations – be it London, the South of France, the USA, New Zealand or Australia – than either Holdaway, or even Colvin. And, sadly, as time went on, Romero played less attention to detail or background, concentrating only on figures and faces. Fine artist as he could be – the above illustration to The Silver Mistress shows that – he had limitations, and gradually these became more apparent.

Two views of London – both very scrappy, the first from “The Big Mole” (1989), a view supposedly from the direction of St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Albert Embankment towards the Houses of Parliament, with a misshapen Big Ben, and the bad guys seemingly located in the buildings facing onto the Victoria Embankment; while the second – from “The Vanishing Dollybirds” (1976), supposedly of Willie, driving a London black cab down The Mall, which what looks like Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Memorial in the distance. Again, the art is very crude, especially for this earlier period. However, another small point of criticism: in the story Willie and Modesty pick up Sir Gerald from his Whitehall office, and we then see them drive around Trafalgar Square. However, if they then turned from Admiralty Arch into The Mall, they would be going towards Buckingham Palace, not away from it.

Repetitious places: Of course when the comic strip was originally drawn, to be published Monday to Saturday in a British newspaper, perhaps no one really thought it would be reprinted or become collector’s items. No one was going to go back and look at illustrations from years earlier. Titan Books only began to reprint the entire comic strip series in English in 2004, finally completed in 2017. Much earlier, Modesty was reprinted in various European countries – most notably in Sweden and in Swedish – and even (surprisingly, given some of the images) in India – we presume from samples seen, edited and, in part, redrawn. Romero was at least consistent in depicting the interior and roof-terrace of Modesty’s London penthouse apartment, as it was originally envisaged by Holdaway. For the most part Romero also maintained the general exterior views – mostly of the upper floors and roof of the building, with glimpses of street level. In the comic strip it is always described as “overlooking Hyde Park”, which could put it in three possible locations – on the south side (Knightsbridge), to the east (Park Lane), or north (Bayswater Road). Both the first and last are most likely options, but I personally prefer the Bayswater Road. However, there are a number of quite different variations for Modesty’s “cottage in Wiltshire”, including the original depiction from Holdaway in “The Gabriel Set-Up”; one, quite different version, from Romero, in “The Grim Joker”, which he used again in “The Young Mistress”; but a different house completely in “Lady in the Dark”. There is yet another quite different version again from Pat Wright in “The Brethren of Blaise”; and, finally, one – perhaps the best and most believable – from John Burns in “The Green Cobra”, which is at least still loosely based on the Holdaway version. Likewise, Jim Holdaway, right from the first comic strip “La Machine”, gives a wonderful image of Willie’s Thames riverside pub in Berkshire, “The Treadmill”. Colvin gives a tantalizing glimpse in “the Moon Man”, and again the rear, facing onto the river, in “Death in Slow Motion”. Romero gives two half-views in “Murder Frame”, which do at least match Holdaway’s original vision, although at the same time contrasting their styles. Otherwise, there are only interior views, too tiresome to compare!

Jim Holdaway – Modesty’s cottage in Wiltshire.

The John M. Burns’ version – my preference!

The Pat Wright version – more a shack! One Romero version, in “Lady in the Dark”, more a English country house than a cottage! Completely different!

Romero’s second version – completely yet different again, back to being a cottage, but now with a thatched roof!

The Treadmill”, Holdaway’s version.

Romero’s version of “The Treadmill”, pretty much the same, but cruder!

Colvin, by contrast, gives us this rather scratchy rear view. It doesn’t look to be the same building – too wide!

Modesty’s London penthouse apartment, by Jim Holdaway, 1963/64.

And as depicted by Romero, with some detail in “Death of a Jester”, more crudely in “The Killing Distance”, but consistent with the Holdaway original.

The Murder Frame” was the one comic strip story that featured (other than a fleeting bit-part) Willie’s regular lady lover, Lady Janet Gillam, who had more prominence in the novels and short stories. Somehow, Romero’s depiction of her never seemed quite right, to say nothing that the comic strip version makes no mention of her artificial leg. Here, however, is her farm house, surprisingly credible in its appearance, if not unlike the earlier Romero version of Modesty’s cottage in “Lady in the Dark”!

More oddly is Romero’s apparent repetition in his depiction of other houses. This only becomes apparent when trawling through the entire Romero period. The house on the top is from “The Puppet Master” (1971) and is supposed to be on the Italian island of Carpi. However, the house on the bottom is from “The Wicked Gnomes” (1973), and is supposed to be on the Cornish coast, England.

These two houses look virtually the same, even to the foreground trees, yet the one on the top is meant to be in Australia (from “Walkabout”, 1990), while the one on the bottom is supposed to be in Italy (Willie with Aniela) in “The Last Aristocrat” (1999)! Both have a passing similarity to the Cornish house above.

Another example of repetition from Romero – again hauntingly similar, yet depicting entirely different locations, even countries! On the top, is supposed to be an English village in “The Killing Distance” – it looks more urban, nothing characteristically rural English. On the bottom, again from “The Last Aristocrat”, this is supposed to be an Italian village. The parked vehicles look much the same, as do the planted trees and the building, with its low wall, on the right frame. Again it does not look at all Italian. It could be anywhere. Both illustrations are rather crude compared to Romero’s style in the 1970s. Sadly, this shows Romero’s later, more slapdash, indifference to places or things.

In “Butch Cassidy Rides Again” (1986), or even “Ivory Dancer” (1992), Romero’s depiction of towns or buildings in the USA is credible. Here, however, in “The Children of Lucifer” (1999), his art is flat, crude, composition and scale wrong.

Faces. On Wikipedia Romero is described as a “good-girl artist”, and his depictions of women, especially semi-clad or nude, never faltered. However, we have already remarked his blondes all rather look alike – Maude Tiller, Aniela, Carmen in “The Vanishing Dollybirds”, Peggy Western in “Highland Witch”, Debbie Grant in “Walkabout”, Sophie in “The Big Mole”, or even Marian Hall in “The Young Mistress” – and all rather like his science fiction comic strip character Axa. His depiction of young Modesty (in “Tribute of the Pharaoh”) looks like the younger Samantha Brown, while the female character in the New Zealand-based story “The Maori Contract”, Carol Nash, also looks rather like Modesty.

That said, even some of male characters started to look vaguely alike.

Here is Gilbert Bone, husband to crime gang boss Anastasia, from “Idaho George” (1978), compare to Reppo, French crime boss in “Those About to Die” (1976). Compare again, the evil looking Mahmoud, ex-vice gang boss and Modesty enemy in “The Puppet Master”, with the equally evil Sangro in “The Greenwood Maid”.

Two more villains, ‘Friar’ Tuck, in “The Greenwood Maid”, and Stanley Boote, in “The Wicked Gnomes”.

Perhaps the more obvious – Brosni, Director of Security of a “minor East European country”, from “Death Trap” (1977), and Felix, a minor underling to “Ripper Jax” (1995).

What Might Have Been: We have remarked the sudden – and still, really, unexplained – dismissal of John M. Burns, an British artist of considerable talent, who, even in his brief tenure, showed empathy toward the key characters – Modesty, Willie, Tarrant and Jack Fraser, and even in depict their environment – Modesty’s “cottage in Wiltshire” looks just right, not too dissimilar to what Holdaway illustrated. Burns illustrated the Pieces of Modesty short stories, and – we believe – some of the magazine covers for European editions, as well as other stand-alone illustrations. This implies – whatever the opinion of the London Evening Standard editor – that Burns felt a continued affiliation with Modesty, and one, we have to presume, that Peter O’Donnell also approved. Both Burns and Colvin had another advantage also over Romero. They knew Britain. They knew London and British rural architecture, countryside, and British faces. It was not a foreign country. Although his style was not as bold or ‘realistic’ as Burns, Colvin showed himself more than capable to vividly illustrate foreign localities also – the West Indies, North Africa, South America, Italy, the South of France and Corsica, and India. Both the characters and their environment look right. However, Colvin was the eldest of the five artists, and eventually chose to retire – if, nothing else – on a high note, another of O’Donnell’s more classic stories.

Reluctantly, and with no disrespect to Romero, we would argue that the editors should have looked to other talent to have continued what was to be the remaining 15 years of the comic strip. At least one talented British artist was already working in the newspaper comic strip field, and that was Martin Asbury (born 1939), from 1976 to 1997 on the “Garth” strip for the Daily Mirror.

This is Martin’s “Garth” in the original black and white, giving a taste of his style, at times not unlike Frank Bellamy. More important, if we look at the reprints of the “Garth” stories on-going on the Garth Comic Facebook website, now reproduced in colour, we can see Asbury’s ability to illustrate places and faces – especially the latter. Below are some random samples. Look, and reflect, imagine if it had been Asbury drawing Modesty in her final one-and-a-half decades.

Modesty Blaise Story List:

  1. La Machine – 1963 – Artist: Jim Holdaway

  2. The Long Lever – 1963-64

  3. The Gabriel Set-Up – 1964

  4. Mr Sun – 1964

  5. The Mind of Mrs Drake – 1964

  6. Uncle Happy – 1964-65

  7. Top Traitor – 1965-66

  8. The Vikings – 1966

8A. In The Beginning – 1966

  1. The Head Girls – 1966

  2. The Black Pearl – 1966-67

  3. The Magnified Man – 1967

  4. The Jericho Caper – 1967-68

  5. Bad Suki – 1968

  6. The Galley Slaves – 1968

14A. The Killing Ground – 1968

  1. The Red Gryphon – 1968-69

  2. The Hell-Makers – 1969

  3. Take-Over – 1969-70

  4. The War-Lords of Phoenix – 1970 – Jim Holdaway & Romero

  5. Willie the Djinn – 1970 – Artist: Enric Badia Romero

  6. The Green-Eyed Monster – 1970-71

  7. Death of a Jester – 1971

  8. The Stone-Age Caper – 1971

  9. The Puppet Master – 1971-72

  10. With Love From Rufus – 1972

  11. The Bluebeard Affair – 1972-73

  12. The Gallows Bird – 1973

  13. The Wicked Gnomes – 1973

  14. The Iron God – 1973-74

  15. Take Me To Your Leader” – 1974

  16. Highland Witch – 1974

  17. Cry Wolf – 1974-75

  18. The Reluctant Chaperon – 1975

  19. The Greenwood Maid – 1975-76

  20. Those About To Die – 1976

  21. The Inca Trail – 1976

  22. The Vanishing Dollybirds – 1976-77

  23. The Junk Men – 1977

  24. Death Trap – 1977-78

  25. Idaho George – 1978

  26. The Golden Frog – 1978

  27. Yellowstone Booty – 1978-79 – Artist: John M. Burns

  28. Green Cobra – 1979

  29. Eve and Adam – 1979-80 – John M. Burns & Pat Wright

  30. Brethren of Blaise – 1980 – Artist: Pat Wright

  31. Dossier on Pluto – 1980 – Artist: Neville Colvin

  32. The Lady Killers – 1980-81

  33. Gavin’s Travels – 1981

  34. The Scarlet Maiden – 1981

  35. The Moon Man – 1981-82

  36. A Few Flowers for the Colonel – 1982

  37. The Balloonatic – 1982-83

  38. Death in Slow Motion – 1983

  39. The Alternative Man – 1983

  40. Sweet Caroline – 1983-84

  41. The Return of the Mammoth – 1984

  42. Plato’s Republic – 1984-85

  43. The Sword of the Bruce – 1985

  44. The Wild Boar – 1985

  45. Kali’s Disciples – 1985-86

  46. The Double Agent – 1986

  47. Butch Cassidy Rides Again – 1986-87 – Artist: Enric Badia Romero

  48. Million Dollar Game – 1987

  49. The Vampire of Malvescu – 1987

  50. Samantha and the Cherub – 1987-88

  51. Milord – 1988

  52. Live Bait – 1988-89

  53. The Girl From the Future – 1989

  54. The Big Mole – 1989

  55. Lady in the Dark – 1989-90

  56. Fiona – 1990

  57. Walkabout – 1990-91

  58. The Girl in the Iron Mask – 1991

  59. The Young Mistress – 1991-92

  60. Ivory Dance – 1992

  61. Our Friend Maude – 1992

  62. A Present for the Princess – 1992-93

  63. Black Queen’s Pawn – 1993

  64. The Grim Joker – 1993-94

  65. Guido the Jinx – 1994

  66. The Killing Distance – 1994

  67. The Aristo – 1994-95

  68. Ripper Jax – 1995

  69. The Maori Contract – 1995-96

  70. Honeygun – 1996

  71. Durango – 1996-97

  72. The Murder Frame – 1997

  73. Fraser’s Story – 1997

  74. Tribute of the Pharaoh – 1997-98

  75. The Special Orders – 1998

  76. The Hanging Judge – 1998-99

  77. Children of Lucifer – 1999

  78. Death Symbol – 1999

  79. The Last Aristocrat – 1999-2000

  80. The Killing Game – 2000

  81. The Zombie – 2000-2001

Novels & Short Stories:

  1. Modesty Blaise, 1965

  2. Sabre-Tooth. 1966

  3. I, Lucifer, 1967

  4. A Taste for Death, 1969

  5. The Impossible Virgin, 1971

  6. Last Day in Limbo, 1972

  7. Pieces of Modesty, 1972 – A Better Day to Die

The Goggle-Wrecker

I Had a Date with Lady Janet

A Perfect Night to Break Your Neck

Salamander Four

The Soo Girl Charity

  1. The Silver Mistress, 1973

  2. Dragon’s Claw, 1978

  3. The Xanadu Talisman, 1981

  4. The Night of Morningstar, 1982

  5. Dead Man’s Handle, 1985

  6. Cobra Trap, 1996 – Bellman

The Dark Angels

Old Alex

The Girl with the Black Balloon

Cobra Trap

Jim Holdaway.

Crap Journalism: it’s the idiot Heritage again


Crap journalism is an irregular series where I take various Guardian features to task. A high poportion of these are by Stuart Heritage. So’s this one.

Apparently, the former Meghan Markle wants to go back to acting with a big role in a superhero movie, leading Heritage to suggest various superheroines she might portray. The third option is Big Barda, of the New Gods. Heritage lifts the Wikipedia introdction to the character, before suggesting that Barda was created by ‘someone who wasn’t very good at thinking up characters’.

Big Barda was created by Jack Kirby, who created or co-created practically the whole Marvel Universe, who created Captain America, who created whole genres of comics, not just characters, who was, in short, the most prolific creation-machine there has ever been in comics.

Stuart Heritage is a stupid tw*t who can’t even do a second’s research when he thinks he’s being funny.

More Fun Comics – The First Original


New Fun Comics

Getting my hands on a DVD-Rom of More Fun Comics, a National Allied Publications/Detective Comics inc./National Periodical Publications Golden Age title published from 1934 to 1947, completes my collection of what I think of as the Big Four, that is, the four comics who contributed characters to All-Star Comics and the Justice Society of America.
That’s my angle of interest, but it must be acknowledged that More Fun has a historical significance of its own. As New Fun it was the first ever comic book to feature all-new material, and in issue 6 it offered the first published work by Cleveland teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, two instalments of Henri Duval, Swordsman of France, before creating Doctor Occult in issue 8. By then, the title had become More Fun, as of issue 7 and, finally, More Fun Comics with issue 9.
My DVD-Rom is more in the mould of Flash and All-American than Adventure, but like the two All-American publications books, the title did not survive the Fories, being cancelled with issue 127, by when the reason for my interest had long since gone by the board. It starts with issue 8, so let’s look at that to begin with.
Cover-dated February 1936 and published by More Fun Inc., headquartered in Missouri, issue 8 is a revelation. It’s the last of the original, larger-scale format, 44 pages with card covers. Comic books began as reprints of newspaper strips and despite the all-original boast, the comic is still trying to stick with that formula. With the exception of a prose serial, everything appears for one page only, laid out like a Sunday strip: four tiers, mostly square panels containing illustrations more suited to books that comics, no animation or attempt at movement, a mixture of B&W, limited colour and full-colour, funny strips and adventure ones, multiple genres. When I said this was all-original, that only meant that none of this stuff had been printed before: there isn’t an original idea in the entire issue, and nothing is remotely readable.
The next issue shrank to comic book size and expanded to 64 pages, with some series jumping to two pages, and some new features appearing. If you’re expecting to hear about these, you’ll have to find another blogger: I’m an analyst not an annalist.
It’s more-or-less a given that Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson used original art because he couldn’t afford the Syndicate fees for strips, and the young writers and artists he used were much cheaper. I’ve heard them described as rough, naïve, inexperienced and, reading between the lines, too untalented to make it on newspaper strips. Now I know they weren’t exaggerating.
None of this is of more than historical interest to me, except for an almost unbelievable letter of praise from a girl reader living in Newton Heath, Manchester, and there’s a lot of it to get through before we reach the meat of the run for me.
The change I had my eyes open for finally showed up in issue 31, May 1938. Gone was Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. Vincent Sullivan was now Editor, not assistant Editor. More Fun was now owned by Detective Comics Inc. And inside the front cover there was a full-page ad for a new title: Action Comics no. 1.
There was no immediate change. New features replaced old but More Fun stayed the same. Dr Occult was dropped but Seigel and Schuster’s Radio Car, a Police series, continued its irregular course. Old features drifted on, unchanging. But with every month that passed, DC, as I suppose we should now call them, were becoming more aware of what a hit they’d bought from Siegel and Schuster, and Bob Kane, enlivened by ideas from Bill Finger, was shaping his own costumed character. Unseen and unheard, there was a tide rising and it was going to overflow soon.
For now, e.g., issue 41, the mix was still the same, various miscellaneous adventure series, a couple of gag strips. More pages were in full colour, through these continued to be distributed haphazardly throughout the comic, favouring the front of the book. The biggest difference was that every strip got at least two pages and several as any as four, making for only a dozen different series.
Issue 43, cover-dated May 1939, was released alongside Detective 27, with plugs for the new action-adventure strip starting that month, the Batman. And Charlie Gaines had established All-American Publications and All-American Comics. And by issue 49, there wasn’t a single gag strip in the book.
But patience eventually pays off. The long life of the original More Fun Comics, little changed from the title put together by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, ended in issue 51, cover-dated January 1940. in honour of that, let me list its contents. These were; Wing Brady, a Foreign Legion adventurer; Biff Bronson, an adventurer; King Carter, a globe-trotting cowboy adventurer: The Buccaneer, a sea-going adventurer; Kit Strong, a private detective adventurer, Lieut. Bob Neal of the Sub. 662, a Naval adventurer; The Flying Fox, an aviator adventurer; Detective Sergeant Carey, a Police detective adventurer; Sergeant O’Malley of the Red Coat Patrol, a Canadian Mountie adventurer; Bulldog Martin, an adventurer, and a single comic page starring Butch the Pup.
But the Buccaneer was ending. Its creator, Bernard Bailey would be drawing a new strip the following month, written by Jerry Siegel.

The white bits are not a costume

He’s there on the cover, with his green cape and hood, gloves and trunks, arms folded as he looks sternly down over a gang of crooks, The Spectre coming to turn More Fun around. Inside, he’s the lead feature, the first of a two-part telling of his origin as Jim Corrigan, hard-boiled Police Detective. The story’s familiar, as it should be given how often it’s been reprinted, but by the end of the episode, the ghost of Jim Corrigan is still wearing a tuxedo.
There’s one thing about the story that doesn’t sit all that well with me. Corrigan has blown out a party in honour of his heiress fiancee Clarice Winston to knock off some of ‘Gat’ Benson’s mob. Clarice is understandably angry with him for that. Corrigan’s hardly apologetic: indeed, he roundly tells her there’s only going to be one boss in this marriage, and that’s him. Clarice calls him a tyrant and a bully, but she still loves him.
Ok, it’s 1939, when marital relationships were looked on in a totally different light, and it’s hardly out of step, but it still jars modern sensibilities, or at least my modern sensibilities. But knowing more now of Jerry Siegel’s marriage and his personal history than I once did, I can’t help but sense a personal issue being worked on here. Jerry the mother’s boy, the nerd-before-there-were-nerds, who married against his Mother’s wishes, wouldn’t be the first writer to make his personal problems ‘work’ in his fiction.
The rest of the issue is unchanged, though I couldn’t help noticing that Bulldog Martin suddenly got a bottle of invisibility pills at the same time.
The other half of the story completes the tale with Corrigan’s revenge on Benson and his mob: dealing death with a glance, withering one into a skeleton, driving the rest out of their senses, you can already see where Michael Fleisher got his ideas from. Corrigan also revives Clarice from near death, breaks off their engagement rather woodenly, moves out of the apartment he shares with his best friend, all the time acting so strangely, and then sews himself a costume to wear as The Spectre. All these limitless super-powers and he gets out a sewing machine. It’s not the most favourable of signs.
Somewhat surprisingly, Corrigan gets the chance to relinquish his powers and receive eternal rest in his third episode, summoned to the edge of Heaven and getting an either-or offer from the Voice. Since he’s summoned in the split instant that a crooked Swami has fired a bullet at Clarice, who is proving impressively hard to shake off, Corrigan has no choice but to go for Option B: to be earth-bound, fighting crime until all traces of it are exterminated.
Only four episodes in and I have to say there’s a strange intensity about these early Spectre stories that just doesn’t come over in the solo chapters in All-Star Comics, which is self-evidently because those are written by Gardner Fox. Siegel brings a twisted perspective to Corrigan/The Spectre’s determined rejection of all human connection and an angry nihilism to the superficially charming Zor’s role as The Spectre’s evil equivalent.
I’m also intrigued that, whilst Corrigan and The Spectre are one being, the latter is already and constantly ’emerging’ from the former’s body, foreshadowing a significant development later in the series.

Half-helm only

The Spectre had obviously made a hit because in issue 55 he was joined by his partner in the supernatural, Doctor Fate. It’s a most odd first story as there is no origin, and whilst I knew this is held back some time, reprints had always centred upon Fate’s first meeting with debutante Inza Cramer. Here though, we start with Fate’s evil enemy, Wotan, targetting Inza to draw Fate’s attention, with the good Doctor – not described as possessing magic but rather the great secret of transforming Matter into Energy and Energy into Matter (what a gloriously meaningless attribute that is!) – not appearing until halfway.
So that was now two costumed heroes, both magical. Dr Fate took the cover for the first time in issue 56, continuing his battle with Wotan but overcoming him permanently (?), whilst the Spectre merely fought a gang of crooks. Elsewhere, More Fun was settling into a consistent run of adventure series, most of them veterans of the comic, though there was a new character, aviator Captain Desmo, who kept his face permanently concealed by flying helmet and goggles just as much as if he were a superhero.
And a new series, about Africa-based adventurer Congo Bill, facing up to a Phantom-esque villain called the Skull, started in issue 56. It’s a pretty basic adventure strip but it would last a surprisingly long time, hopping from title to until 1959, when, as we’ve already seen, it arrived in Adventure Comics, where Congo Bill was transformed into Congorilla.
The Doctor Fate strip also runs with a frenetic intensity. Gardner Fox just freewheels through each adventure, hurtling from one action to another, with very little evidence of a composed plot and a high-risk magical apocalypse threatened on every page. It’s gloriously goofy and gloriously weird. Both these strips burn in a way none of the other Justice Society members ever do. Though the basis of Fate’s power is still unsettled, now being an atomic force within him.
But the Gothic/Lovecraftian atmosphere of Fate’s series was fairly quickly decided to be a bit too intense for the readers, and this had to be dialled down. The first step, in issue 66, was to have the Doctor remove his helm and reveal a blond-haired handsome face: a human being, in fact, in response to Inza’s wish for someone she might love instead of a mysterious sorceror. Kent Nelson’s somewhat grisly origin, involving involuntary patricide, followed in the next issue.
At the same time, Congo Bill bowed out his short run in the comic.
Since their respective debuts, The Spectre had been the lead feature in More Fun and Doctor Fate closing things out. Now, in issue 68, the roles were reversed.
Despite Fate and the Spectre, More Fun had never wholly accepted superheroing.

The first time he was popular

Now the time was coming when this would change rapidly. Johnny Quick, a rip-off of The Flash in issue 71, Aquaman, a rip-off of the Sub-Mariner and The Green Arrow, a rip-off of Batman both in issue 73, all created by Mort Weisinger. In between times, Dr Fate got the toning down I knew was coming, getting rid of the supernatural and the eerie in favour of a half-faced helm that exposed his nose and mouth, and aiding his sudden vulnerability to attacks on his lungs. Only Radio Squad and Clip Carson survived the transition.
And Fate was not the only supernatural character to get toned down as issue 74 introduced The Spectre to Percival Popp, the Super-Cop. I have long read about, but never read, this comic relief character who was to dog Corrigan and his ghost for the rest of the series. Popp turned out to not be a cop but rather a private detective, determined to work side-by-side with Jim Corrigan. He was a short, skinny guy with a big nose, glasses and a shock of dark red hair. He could have been worse but he was bad enough: a comic relief character in January 1942?
The rest of the title was not at all impressive. Johnny Quick was crude. Aquaman and Green Arrow were as bland as their spells in the Fifties in Adventure, just cruder in style to begin with. And Doctor Fate had exchanged gothic/sinister tones for obsessive, pun-based wisecracking of a kind that makes Spider-Man look sophisticated.
The first history of The Spectre I ever read, as long ago as 1966, made mention of the time when the Avenging Ghost was permitted to resurrect Jim Corrigan’s body to life. I’d always been under the impression that this had preceded the arrival of Percival Popp, but in fact it followed it, by one issue.
Issue 75 saw Clarice Winston trying to re-enter Corrigan’s life. His cruel rejection of her in his origin is always held up as a key factor in that story but it leaves the impression that that was that for the lovelorn heiress. But Clarice remained as much in love with him as ever, and hopeful of getting married, and Jim still found her hard to resist. Now Popp, in his second apearance, took a hand in trying to put the two back together.

No comment

But Clarice was becoming the victim of an artist who was draining her life, and who was having a sculpture thrown into the river, exactly where Benson’s men had thrown Corrigan’s cement barrel. To prevent his body being found, and blowing his identity, The Spectre sought and received permission to restore Corrigan to life.
And the first thing Corrigan did was seek out Clarice.
It was a touching reward for her faith and patience. Now his excuse for not marrying her was, you’ll pardon the phrase, dead in the water. Did he get engaged to her? No, you’d think he was engaged to Percival Popp, in both his existences, since the little man became co-star of the series two issues later.
The success of the Green Arrow took me completely by surprise. By issue 76, he’d claimed the lead story and, an issue later, took over the cover. Clip Carson was dropped as from the same issue.
It might be germane to ask, if Green Arrow had become the most popular character in More Fun, as he self-evidently had, why was he not drafted into the Justice Society of America? There are two answers to that: America had entered the War, paper was rationed, no new titles were to be launched for the duration, and had they topped any reader’s polls, neither The Spectre nor Doctor Fate had anywhere to go to make room.
More pertinently, Green Arrow – and Speedy – already had a team to call home, Detective Comics’ Seven Soldiers of Justice, aka the Law’s Legionnaires, denizens of the recently created Leading Comics.
More Fun was now firmly a superhero comic. Clip Carson had gone, leaving only the long-running Radio Squad to disrupt the line-up. The Green Arrow’s stories were no better or worse than the ones in Adventure in the Fifties, the main distinction being that the Emerald Archer only fires real arrows, with points not gimmicks. Aquaman deals with mainly realistic sea adventures, without the constant ‘finny friends’ business, but he’s the entirely human son of a famous submarine scientist who’s taught him scientific ways of living under the water. Johnny Quick, now enjoying some solid art from ‘Mort Morton’, is the best of the bunch.
As for the old stagers, the de-powered Doctor Fate is not a patch on the full-helmed version. There are no magical or super-scientific foes, just ordinary crooks. The series is energetic enough and Inza is doing a sterling job of showing that you really don’t need to hide your identity from your girlfriend, but it’s still pallid stuff compared to the beginning. And The Spectre has now resigned himself to a full-time role alongside the ridiculous Popp. At least we no longer have to suffer the incessant and tiresome demands of the Cliffland Chief of Police that Jim Corrigan capture The Spectre because The Spectre is behind everything. Obviously. Not that much of a relief, sadly.
The War came to More Fun in issue 84, on the cover at least and, in passing, in Green Arrow’s strip. The next issue was billed as a big change in Doctor Fate’s life as the Doctor became a Doctor, retraining as a physician. This made me think: once again, the histories I’ve read of characters have not been as accurate as they might. Kent Nelson has always been portrayed as an archaeologist, like his father Sven, who changed profession to Doctor to be more useful during the War years. When he was revived in 1965, he was back in the digging business. Incidentally, having jettisoned the lower half of his helm, Fate dispensed with his golden cape as well.
In fact, throughout Fate’s series to date, once Kent Nelson was revealed, there was not one word about his profession. And how could he go on digs when he spent all his time in that walled tower in Salem?
Incidentally, the story revealing Nelson’s new profession saw Fate meet a plastic surgeon blackmailed into creating new faces for crooks over a brother in a prison camp in Germany, exactly the same set up as the Green Arrow story in the same issue.
Though he didn’t displace the Green Arrow from the leading position, Johnny Quick did get onto the cover for issues 86 and 87. As for issue 88, The Spectre story had him, and Jim Corrigan, as just a ghost again. There had only been one additional story after issue 75 to specifically reference Corrigan as human again (and dating Clarice), but this was a definitive continuity-reversal.
There was one final story to reference Corrigan and The Spectre as separate, and this was the one in which they separated. Corrigan the human could finally pass the physical, and went into officer-training, to fight the Japanese, leaving the Spectre behind to keep helping out Percival Popp. But separation from his host had the unexpected effect of leaving the ghost invisible. In possession of all his other powers alright, just not visible. So the once-mighty Spectre, who could kill at a glance, was now the stooge. Thankfully, not for much longer.
The same issue did include a development I was glad to see, the re-entry of Inza Kramer, fiancee to that dashing young Interne, Doctor Nelson. Aww, so sweet. Clarice Winston must have been green. But that would prove to be Inza’s final appearance in the series.
A minor detail that intrigued me by this point was a succession of adverts for Prize Comics, and then Prize and Headline Comics. No such titles were ever published by Detective or All-American, and these turned out to be titles published by Crestwood Publications, who had the bright and possibly unique idea of advertising in their bigger rivals line!
With paper rationing starting to bite, in the form of an order to reduce usage by 10%, More Fun, which had been monthly since it established itself, was demoted to bi-monthly status for the duration. All this was to was was to delay the changes lying directly ahead.
In the meantime, a slip on the cover of issue 93 plugged The Green Arrow and Speedy, whilst the Aquaman story was, for once, worth reading. The Monarch of the Sea guards a delayed freighter bringing supplies to Murmansk. The twist is that it has an all-female crew and, whilst Aquaman and the Germans patronisingly underestimate the ladies, they perform with calm confidence and aptitude, needing no condescension. Oh, and the Captain turns into a red-headed babe in a backless evening dress when they arrive!

Even less comment

Little things: Johnny Quick’s stories had adopted a comfortable formula by which the Mile-a-Moment hero has to help someone by doing a job that would take a dozen men a month to complete, but do it in less than twenty-four hours. At the back end of his run and using only the most minimal talents, Doctor Fate was only now being referred to regularly as ‘the Man of Magic’. And issue 94 saw the debut of Dover and Clover, twin private detectives who made Percy Popp look competent.
Nevertheless, they quickly proved to be so popular that they shared the cover of issue 98 with Green Arrow and Speedy, who were quoted as claiming this was “Our Mag”. Not for much longer it wouldn’t be but this issue saw the final appearance of Doctor Fate, in a sadly stupid and unbelievable little escapade that was below even the standards his series had sunk to. Cover date July-August 1944: in All-Star Comics 21, cover-dated Summer 1944, the Doc and Sandman were active in their last Justice Society adventure.
Fate was not replaced, unless you count a one-page comic historical feature a replacement. Two issues later, More Fun reached its historical 100th issue, without fanfare, celebration or effort of note, though Johnny Quick got the cover and the lead slot and Green Arrow was bounced back to fourth slot.
More Fun used to be The Spectre’s comic. It was so for the last time in issue 101 (January-February 1945). And the Ghostly Guardian, or else the Dark Knight as he was so frequently called over four decades before Frank Miller’s first Batman story, made his last appearance in All-Star in issue 23, Winter 1944. Like Doctor Fate, the disappearances were virtually simultaneous, and the last story undistinguished. Both had been undistinguished for a long time.
The Spectre’s replacement was introduced in a five-page prelude in issue 101. Superman had long been human until he reached manhood. Now he had a career to be revealed as Superboy, though not the Superboy Jerry Siegel had envisaged, nor a Superboy Siegel had any part in, More Fun‘s line-up would now consist of Superboy, Aquaman, Green Arrow and Johnny Quick, plus the stupid Dover and Clover. Sound familiar? It ought to, for reasons we’ll shortly learn.
Anyway, Superboy’s full-scale debut didn’t merit him the cover, which went to the twin detectives, nor even the lead slot, which was Green Arrow again. It was a younger Superboy than we would get used to, somewhere around age eight, and a Clark Kent who didn’t wear glasses and acted like a normal kid. There was some way to go yet.
And there was no rush to exploit the new character, though he was mentioned on issue 103’s cover, as Green Arrow and Speedy once again call out Dover and Clover for trying to take over ‘their book’, only for the clueless crime-crackers to turn up again to point out Superboy’s in it. And they showed him on the cover of the next issue, with the crime-fighting archers.
Superboy might have started without Jerry Siegel, but his name was on it, alongside Joe Schuster, next time around. There were none of the familiar characters, no Ma and Pa Kent, no pretty redhead next door. They wouldn’t come until later, and in a different title.
Because, after issue 107, cover-date January-February 1946, More Fun underwent a wholesale change of direction, to emulate its name by becoming a comic comic. The regulars, Superboy, Johnny Quick, Green Arrow and Aquaman, were shipped out en masse, to, as we have already seen, Adventure Comics, where they would stay for over a decade.

Alfred Bester created this?

With issue 108, Dover and Clover took over the cover, and the lead slot, greeting Genius Jones, who had travelled in the opposite direction and dropped into place behind them. The rest of the comic was new, or rather old – old hat, that is. A parade of silly characters and silly situations, without any of the ingenuity or humour of the newspaper strips of the era, or any of the rich cartooning abilities of their artists. But the next month, for the comic had been returned to monthly status now the war was over, just in time for its great change, Genius Jones – a creation of Alfred Bester, my life –  had both cover and lead slot and the detectives were back at the back.
In fact, they were settling in to alternate cover billing.
Now it’s fair to say that, with the exception of Sheldon Mayer’s Scribbly and the Red Tornado, I get nothing from the Golden Age humour strips. Even Johnny Thunder was nigh on intolerable at times, when Peachy Pet took the lead. So from More Fun‘s change of direction to the end of the run, there is little to interest me. Nevertheless, I read each issue (semi-) diligently to check for anything requiring comment.
For the record, the line-up after the alternating leads consisted of Curly’s Cafe, Windy, The Gas House Gang, Rusty, Cabby Casey and Cunnel Custard, but if you want any more details than that, buy your own DVD!
That was until issue 121, which introduced Jimminy and his Magic Book, a fairytale adventure that got not merely cover status but two well-drawn stories inside. Genius Jones and Dover & Clover continued, as did Rusty, Windy and the Gas House Gang but everybody else was dropped.
There wasn’t much left. Howard Post’s art on Jimminy (whose other name was Crockett) may well have been the best ever to appear in More Fun, with a foreshadowing of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, but More Fun was heading for cancellation. Superman crossed the cover of issue 125, Cabbie Casey replaced Rusty in issue 126, and with issue 127, cover dated November-December 1947, with no less than five Jimminy stories and one final Dover & Clover, it was gone.
So ended DC’s oldest title and Genius Jones andDJimminy went with it. Depending on dates, Dover and Clover may have had as much as ten more appearances in them across other titles, but they ended up in deserved limbo too. And, in the absence of a DVD of either or both of Leading Comics and Star-Spangled Comics, that completes my adventures in the Golden Age.