Bat and Cat: A Love(ly) Affair


BC 1

I don’t know the whole story, and even if I did it wouldn’t make any sense, any more than any of the character biographies you read for any comic book character in Wikipedia, but especially the ones who have been around for decades. Too many writers, too many editors, too many takes: it doesn’t take long for a history to become irretrievably screwed up.
If I’m remembering correctly, my first exposure of substance to Catwoman came in 1968, in Batman 197, an issue in which, after years and years of the long split skirt and the boots, Selina Kyle re-dressed herself in a skin-tight glittery costume that echoed Julie Newmar’s outfit in the Batman TV series, except for being bright green – and what more cat-like colour could you think of?
I imagine that I’d seen Catwoman before, in reprints of her from the dispiriting Fifties, when Batman had a literally square jaw and Catwoman’s wasn’t all that soft and delicate. And I didn’t even buy this comic for the Feline Felon but because it featured Batgirl. It was a typical late-Sixties Gardner Fox/Julius Schwartz script, in which Catwoman’s crimes were all based on obscure words that began with the letters C-A-T, and in which she was out to humiliate Batgirl in front of Batman in order to demonstrate to the Caped Crusader how much better a bride our Miss Kyle would make.
The Sixties. You had to be there. It helped to be twelve and uncritical.
Times change, and comics characters with them. In the mid Nineties, I read a couple of years’ worth of the first Catwoman title, the one drawn by Jim Balent, which probably tells you all you need to know about my motivations. I read some of the second series in the run up to Infinite Crisis and on for a few issues into the ‘One Year Later’ era. I’ve read odd bits and pieces but nothing consistently. From out-and-out supervillain, to anti-heroine, to someone straddling the line between both sides.

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But I’ve most consistently enjoyed the portrayal of Selina Kyle, and of her twin relationships with Batman and Bruce Wayne, as they appeared in Tom King’s Batman series that spun out of the DC Rebirth event. Indeed, it was a review of Annual 2 to that story, and its associated regular issue, that tempted me into buying both books and loving them for the way they were such fun, and for how utterly convincing I thought King depicted the pair as being in love: deeply, passionately, and filled with a bedrock understanding of each other. Or should I say, with her bedrock understanding of him?
Because, let’s face it, Batman may be one of the only two minds in the DC Universe smarter than Mr Terrific, but he hasn’t got half the idea of who he is that Selina Kyle has of Bruce Wayne, and whilst he may be smarter on the subject of Catwoman, in terms of levels of emotional intelligence, she’s still got the boy beaten.
A portrayal of Batman in which Catwoman is not merely his equal but, in many aspects, better than him? Let me read more of this!
But one further, though relevant, digression, to ask myself who is this Catwoman who plays such cat-and-mouse games with Batman? For the lady has, like so many others, gone through multiple pasts. She was created by Bob Kane as a jewel thief, in 1940. Ten years later she gets a knock on the head, restoring her memory of her past as an Air Hostess who discovered a criminal side to herself after a knock on the head. Selina reformed and even helped Batman out a couple of times before being driven back to crime by taunts from crooks about Batman taming her. This revival was brief as only a few months later she was dropped from the series, in the light of the Comics Code Authority’s stupid restrictions on how women could be portrayed!
Catwoman wasn’t seen again until 1966, and even then first in Lois Lane. In 1983, but meanwhile, on Earth-2, their Selina Kyle, still reformed, unconsciously lets slip that the amnesia story was a lie, that it had been a convenient excuse to escape a life she hated, felt trapped in, and which left her unable to find love, and children. It was a neat, poignant story that took the unusual step of treating the two characters as human beings, both desperately lonely because of the lives that had been forced upon them, and the outcome was marriage, of course.
I mention this sidebar idea because of Earth-2’s ability to show different aspects to characters, and for its relevance to the modern era. But the real changes followed Crisis on Infinite Earths. Firstly, Frank Miller (who else?) rewrote Selina as a professional dominatrix – Catwoman in a Cathouse, geddit, geddit? – introducing a piece of griminess, rather than grim’n’grittiness that thankfully didn’t last too many years; you don’t have to degrade every-bloody-thing, Miller, you sicko.
This stark piece of bullshit was soon ameliorated, by a female writer I’m pleased to say, though Catwoman’s history was then made boringly complicated to try to keep things nasty, but not necessarily sexually nasty (Americans…). Then the Nineties saw Catwoman drifting towards antiheroine status as a jewel thief who sort did all sort of right things along the way. And the post-Balent series had her acting simultaneously as a thief and a protector of Gotham’s grubby and down-market East End, until it was revealed that she’s been magically brainwashed by Zatanna to turn good…
There were all manner of stories, including one in which Batman reveals his true identity to her, as well as declaring his love for her. The New 52 just made things worse, as it did for everything, and the next reboot was DC Rebirth in which Selina’s parents died early, she spent years in an orphanage and demands to be executed for causing 237 deaths when her old orphanage burns down, if I’ve understood Wikipedia properly. Now is the time to turn to Tom King’s series, and Read On…
(But is it any wonder I want to reject a history like that?)
Though it’s nearer the middle than the beginning, let me start with that Annual, and its associated two-parter. The Annual is an immediate delight, which hasn’t lost any of its power to amuse and satisfy since. It contains two stories, one from the beginning of Batman and Catwoman’s relationship and one from the end. The first is a comedy, a sweet comedy. It’s all about flirtation by burglary, as Catwoman endlessly demonstrates her ability to defeat every kind of security Bruce Wayne instals in Wayne Manor. She bypasses alarms, then triggers them when she chooses, leading to chases in which she outwits the Bat, disappearing without trace and leaving a souvenir, in the form of a small mouse. King drops in a brilliant line from Alfred, irritated enough to request, in pained tones, that she at least leaves cages and some money to feed them.
It’s a first demonstration, or at least it was for me, that King was going to be writing Catwoman as, in her own way, superior to Batman. He can’t keep her out, of his Mansion, his Batcave and his life. Subconsciously, he doesn’t want to. Selina, in her way, is slightly more detached, more capable of conducting her life without the Bat: she has been independent all her life and has no intention of surrendering that self-possession. But she loves him as much as he loves her. They are, in that sense, made for each other, despite their very different natures and pursuits, and the game she plays with him is far deeper than its superficial playfulness.
The other story was of the end. Of Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle, an old married couple, about to be parted forever. Bruce Wayne has contracted cancer. His family gathers around him. He dies, in bed, the opposite of unloved and unmourned. And she remains, the holder of the Wayne fortune, composed to the last, having come to terms with what is going to happen. Left with her daughter Helena, she shares her feelings about how she had never wanted to be tied down, how her independence had been the only key thing to her, had not wanted children, but it turned out that Helena had stolen from her: had stolen her heart.
This combination of sweet and sour, of joyousness and the ultimate, inescapable sadness, was a perfect combination. When taken in conjunction with the contemporary issue 38, I was hooked.
That issue guest-starred Superman, and Lois Lane. It had the minimum of action, deliberately token. It was about Bruce Wayne introducing his fiancée to his best friend and his wife. It was about the uncertainty on Clark Kent’s part and the instant confidence on that of Lois Lane, about Selena’s concerns about how she would be taken, as Batman’s bride and supervillain simultaneously, against Lois’s immediate acceptance of Catwoman as a new girlfriend.

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This was enough to trigger me into buying the bi-weekly from that point forward, one visit to the comics shop a month, two instalments to read on the bus home, and to the embrace of the Deluxe Editions to catch up the earlier part of the story.
I suspect that if I had bought in at any other point, at any of the bits that are Batman the Crime Fighter, the broken boy out to hold the world together, I would not have been seduced into the story. That’s what mattered to me, that King captured a very ordinary, very deep and involving love, such as that I had enjoyed myself, between two very far from ordinary people, and the best stages in the story are those that are about Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle just being a couple, together.
Going back to the beginning, seeing the psychological profile of Batman build up, from the introduction of two short-lived superheroes into Gotham, naming themselves for the city, to the convolutions that led Batman into confronting Bane, yet again, requiring to lead a ‘Suicide Squad’ mission that included a Catwoman on Death Row for 237 murders that she claims to have committed but which Batman is determined to clear her of: these are the building blocks of the overall story, and the foundation of two of the three separate strands that constitute King’s story.
It’s all about breaking the Batman, and it’s about how he comes back from being temporarily broken, because Batman always wins. There’s Bane, out to break him by taking his City away from him, there’s Dr Thomas Wayne, the Batman of a different reality, in which the little boy Bruce was the one shot in an alley, out to break Batman by being a bigger, stronger Batman than him, forcing little Bruce to turn into a human who can be just that: human and untortured.
And there is Selina Kyle, who fears to break him by that ultimate corruption, happiness, who understands Bruce Wayne better than he understands himself, and who builds the Batman back up, and without whom…
Catwoman’s essential to this story. Without her role, without her refusal to accept Batman’s reality as the ultra-grim, deadly-dull thing it is, her playfulness born directly from her love for the Bat, this would be no more worth reading than any of the interminable quagmire of Batman stories generated every minute. She refuses to take it seriously, and she makes it what it is, an exploration of just how deep into people love can go.
There’s more than mere banter between people who have a near-absolute confidence in each other in the constant to-and-fro over where Bat and Cat first met. He insists it was on a boat, she on the street. There’s a meta-textual competition here: Bob Kane’s Bruce and Selina first met on a boat, Frank Miller’s in the street. Two competing versions of reality are facing each other down: I’m prejudiced but despite the lady possessing the greater clarity and sanity, I see Batman’s version as championing a cleaner, healthier lineage: love is not possible in the Miller version of the world.
The part of the series I entered into was the lead-up to the ‘Wedding Issue’, in Batman 50. Yet, unlike Superman and Lois, twenty years before, it was all set-up and no bouquet. Selina was being worked on, to play her part in the breaking of Batman. By the Joker, on the one hand, and her friend Holly Robinson on the other, Catwoman was being led to a particular view of Batman, of Bruce Wayne, one slanted to her fears about how they – crimefighter and thief – can have a life, subject to her need for independence, without control. And one slanted to how much she knows him, knows that he is at heart that scared boy whose world was killed in an alley, the scared boy who made himself into Batman, and who cannot be Batman, the effective Batman, if you take pain away from him.
Bruce Wayne cannot be both happy, and Batman.

BC5

None of that changes in the back half of the story. King doesn’t turn things around and come up with some magical reversal that allows Wayne to be both in love and the Batman he has to be if DC’s roster of publications doesn’t instantly shrink by a third. To that extent, his ending in issue 85 is flim-flam, hustling us via action out of asking the awkward question. Selina comes back into Bruce’s life when he is broken, comprehensively broken, by Bane and by Thomas Wayne, and she repairs him, by love, by commitment to him, by partnering him. Batman’s future is to never be alone again. Selina Kyle, wife in all but marriage licence, sees to that.
King’s series was originally to run for 100 issues. Then it was adjusted to 105 issues to take account of Doomsday Clock and Heroes in Crisis crossovers. Then it was abruptly shortened to 85 issues and the final phase, the this-will-change-Batman-for-a-generation bit was separated into the current, ever-so-slow motion Batman/Catwoman Black Label maxi-series, of which nine issues have at this time of writing been published, at ever-increasing intervals, just like everything.
Like King’s other projects, Heroes in Crisis, Strange Adventures and the one I refused on principle to read, Rorscharch, Batman/Catwoman is doing much to undermine my respect for those parts of his Batman that left Catwoman out. Once again it’s tediously nonlinear in its chronology, set in past, present and future. I’m trying not to be too judgemental until it’s all available, but I’m getting increasingly uninterested in reading the remaining three issues. What’s more, it’s held me up so long on my intended stepping away from current comics that Astro City is on the 2022 horizon to drag me back in.
The thing is, once again, logistics. Had this story appeared as Batman 86-105 I would have warmed to it far more. There would have been an instant continuity, and I confidently believe that what we would have read would have been fresher, more absorbing. Severed from its parent story, by more than just time, it has become dessicated, stale by overthought. At least, that’s what I’m getting from it.
Again, as I write, Tom King is setting out to psycho-analyse and destroy another DC character, this time Christopher Chance, the Human Target. The story will be told in non-linear chronology. How dull.
But let’s go back to the lovers of Batman 1-85, who are the basis for all these thoughts. By now, after too much exposure to Batman, I am more interested in Catwoman, but more than him over the last thirty-odd years, she’s been reinvented, usually ineptly, too many times, and there’s only a minority of her solo adventures that were well-handled or entertaining. The problem is that, when handled right, she works beautifully with Batman, but that can never be allowed to develop into a permanent situation, because she restricts Batman’s freedom in too many respects. Firstly, romantically, then professionally, because she is too much of an equal with him in a way that none of the rest of the Bat-Family can be, not even Batwoman, the only other non-protege, and lastly in terms of her greater emotional intelligence. That’s before taking into account the character’s individual commercial viability, which would be taken off the board by making her Batman’s permanent partner.
I don’t really have an ending for this essay, which is appropriate, because DC don’t have an ending for Batman. An ending is the last thing that’s allowed, or should I say it’s the first thing that’s not allowed. World without End. Batman wins again. In this world, this Batman could not win without the woman who is the other and better half of him. Eventually, Superman not only admitted his identity to ‘snoopy’ Lois Lane, but changed his entire existence, entirely for the best. Superman need never be alone again.
DC had the opportunity to do that for Batman, but cannot, because to do so would not not be seen as reinvention and revivication, but an ending. And an ending, no matter how right, is the one anathema in comics.

Death of the Justice League


https://bleedingcool.com/comics/dc-comics-cancels-and-kills-off-the-justice-league/

Dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark…

Tomorrow’s Teenagers Today: Sugar & Spike


I’m not sure where I’m going to get a full-blown comics slot blogpost out of Sugar & Spike but if all I do is to say that it’s every bit as hilarious as its reputation makes it out to be, and that it’s a DC comic comic that actually makes me laugh, out loud, several times an issue, then I’m going to say that. Sugar & Spike is funny, but of course it was going to be, it’s by Sheldon Mayer, and Mayer was a genius.
It’s also a wonderfully sweet series too. It stars two babies, somewhere in that age bracket between ten months and two years, where they can walk, but they can’t talk, except to each other and with perfect understanding – of each other, that is. As for the rest of it, these are two little kids trying to make sense of the world as they see it, interpreting grown-up reactions as best they can, to their own standards of logic.
Which gives Mayer so many levels on which to play that no two stories are alike, no matter how familiar the ingredients, because he can bend sense into a pretzel without ever once taking the little pair’s actions and understandings anywhere near to the improbable.
Our heroes are both only children. Spike is a red-headed boy baby, real name Cecil Wilson but somehow that doesn’t seem to fit him, so everyone goes with his Dad’s nickname for him, Spike. And Sugar, whose surname is naturally Plumm, is a blonde whose hair sticks up in one top-knot, who lives next door.

They’re each the first, and only, other person either can communicate with. Sugar seems to be the brighter and more experienced of the two, and she’s certainly the more adventurous of the pair, but that’s because Spike is the more careful, who thinks a lot more about what he does before trying it. She constantly, from the first, refers to him as Doll-Boy, which is not so much sweet as almost proprietorial.
Even the letter column is a delight to read, which it ought to be because it’s one of the very first DC ever ran. It’s full of letters from little kids, all of whom give their age (usually between 8 and 12), just writing to say how much they love Sugar & Spike and can’t it come out more often and have more pages? They ask for stories they’d like to see, and Mayer does that, taking inspiration from the settings they ask about.
And it’s all just joyful. They’ve got something for themselves, something that their parents occasionally write in to praise, something that’s about their lives, that they can all recognise, and Mayer sends them little postcards with drawings on, and they write to say thank you for them, and this is lightness in and of itself, without meanness or misery, and each issue is washing everything you’ve experienced out of your eyes and being amazed at what you see.
Mayer’s having a great time of it too, being fed all these requests. No matter how nebulous they are, like wanting to see what Sugar and Spike would do on a train, he has a topic for his imagination and the little kids do all the rest.
So many people seemed to have missed issue 1, featuring Sugar and Spike’s first meeting that Mayer ended up redrawing it in issue 16, the requests having been constant for months. The same issue included a one-pager for an old friend, Scribbly Jibbet: now Mayer can do that for as long as he likes.

The value of the comic to its young readers was never more forcefully demonstrated than in issue 18, featuring a short note from a 12 year old girl with covering note from her mother to confirm that the girl was cerebral palsied and partially deaf, but loves the comic so much that she will go to the drugstore on her own to buy it. As well as being printed, that letter resulted in a personal reply. Imagine what that little girl must have felt.
The thing about a series like Sugar & Spike is that it doesn’t really develop. It’s not a serial but a venue for endless short stories about two characters whose essence is that they can’t change, so neither can the stories. Mayer hit his stride immediately and, though some issues aren’t as funny as others, no 22 being one such example, he’s cruising at altitude.
Nor is the cast too expansive. Outside the families, the only real regular we’ve had is Sugar’s traffic cop uncle, Charley, who is always bringing his niece presents his sister disapproves of. But Mayer started bringing back an older boy named Arthur, a bully aged 4, who was popular but not with me, whilst another and better character was Sugar’s Great Great Great Granpa, who’s been lost in the desert for eighty years and who’s in his second childhood and so can both speak and understand baby-talk. He was fun.
There was a sweet moment in issue 30’s leading story, as the babies had a day at the beach and discovered another little kid drawing great pictures in the sand, Sugar and Spike’s faces. He was a compulsive cartoonist, but the great thing was that his name was Scribbly, that is, Scribbly Junior, there on the beach with his grown up Dad.

Mayer went for broke in issue 44 with a single story in four chapters, occupying practically the whole book, as the babies get hold of a Robot Santa Claus and prove remarkably adept at pressing the control buttons. This issue also featured a letter from a girl who’d written to the first issue when she was seven, and who was still a faithful reader at the age of fifteen.
For some reason he went and duplicated a past cover for issue 45, though the stories inside were all new. I was delighted to see the cover of 47 as that was the earliest issue I ever saw advertised for this series so it was fun to finally be able to read the story behind it, though there wasn’t one, it just a perfect sight gag.
It was disappointing to see the DVD go to a smaller size of reproduction from issue 50 onwards, making the dialogue harder to see, especially as Mayer started doing many more two-part stories. Equally, the stories started to move more towards the fantastic, with the baby twosome achieving things that grew increasingly improbable, even with wild luck.
Despite many readers’ ardent wishes, the tiny baby alien Space-Sprout did not return after her second appearance, whilst Sugar’s motor-cycle cop Uncle Charlie was not seen after the babies delivered the Valentine’s card he bottled out of giving his girlfriend to a lonely sobbing girl in the Park who turned out to be his girlfriend.
On the other hand, there are far too many Little Arthur stories, who keeps pulling Sugar’s pony-tail and shouting ‘Ding Dong!’. I know Mayer’s a comic genius but this was one area where I felt his genius was running dry.
The ‘Go-Go Check’ era hit with issue 66, which means we’re in 1966. The whole landscape of DC Comics had changed since Mayer started this title and yet it was still in the Fifties, and still as funny as ever. But this accompanied a jump to book-length stories delving deeper into the fantastic, like aliens, invisibilisers and witches. Within a couple of issues, the Batman movie was being advertised and Sugar and Spike were becoming superheroes. It was inevitable for that year, but it was also trash for the two babies.
Suddenly, the ordinariness of life and a baby’s perceptions of it, out of which delightful and hilarious comedy, built on insight, was gone. Sugar and Spike were a variation upon superheroes, living in the middle of fantasy and impossibility. It was disheartening.
Issue 72 introduced a figure who would briefly become a regular in the series, in Bernie the Brain, an incredibly clever baby under one year old, who knew everything, could invent fantastically clever devices, mostly robots, but got upset when he learned he wasn’t like normal, ordinary babies. In search of babies to learn from, he meets Sugar and Spike…
And Mayer, who had stoutly created stories from the baby’s eye-level for over a decade, refusing to show either sets of parents in full, letting each reader imagine their parents in their places, abandoned that policy in issue 75, bringing all four in as individuals, instead of universal parents.

Bernie was back in issue 77, and not just as a regular but as a third member of the team. We were now doomed to nothing but fantastic stories with no basis in reality anymore. In a way, it made sense, like the introduction of Foggy Dewhurst for Cyril Blamire in series 3 of Last of the Summer Wine, an active character causing stories rather than a third passive character letting things happen to them. But it served a direction that was all but ruining the series for me.
With issue 81, Mayer started including a preview page for the next issue, showing a scene he then redrew, so I had advance notice that no 82 was going to feature the two babies as teenagers – and Sugar’s going to grow up to be a big girl. The actual story was too convoluted to be readable but considering it was committing series heresy, it was better than I feared. And the preview page only lasted two issues anyway.
The series had been bi-monthly for years but now, as of issue 85, it went to seven times a year. This was to accommodate an extra-sized special composed of reprints, five stories, including one as recent as Bernie’s debut. New stories resumed with issue 86. Then Bernie was given the day off as of issue 87. This turned into a two issue vacation but he was back in the back-up story in issue 89. Yes, suddenly the book-length stories were out and the comic was inclining back to more realistic stories, but lacking the sheer spark of the early years.
Mayer’s cartooning style was gradually simplifying, using more outlines and less detail. This was because he was developing eye-trouble, and before much longer it would become overwhelming.

In the meantime, issue 91 recycled an old story of the babies causing havoc at the beach, completely redrawn but not replotted. Maybe it was some sort of catalyst because suddenly, in issue 94, the old magic came back, with grounded little tales, happy confusion and one and half pagers. What a pity it was so late.
It was a happy regression. Issue 95 started the 25c era. It mixed new and old stories and but for my having read the old ones already, you wouldn’t have known the difference. Mayer had introduced a new character in issue 91 in Raymond, a little black kid and a sunny, uncomplicated, optimistic child. He got a wonderfully touching solo story in issue 97, with elements of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ involved.
All things must end, however, and comic book series are no exception. Sugar & Spike was pulled at issue 98, two short of its century, with an all-reprint issue. It was not, however, sales that were to blame but rather Sheldon Mayer’s eye-problems, leaving him unable to draw, without which the series would have gone on. At least it was back to its best when it left us.
There is a semi-happy coda to this. A couple of years later Mayer underwent a successful operation, restoring him to cartooning health, and returning him to Sugar and Spike. In those few years, however, the market had changed. Comic comics no longer had an audience in America. In Europe, it was a different matter, and the series resumed there with great success. With the exception of two stories selected for a Silver Age Classic one-off, the equivalent of issue 99, none of these stories ever appeared in America or, for that matter, English. Now, fifty years on from the series’ American demise, the chances of our seeing those tales is almost certainly non-existant.
Nevertheless, what we did get was wonderful. And the only thing I can say in conclusion is, Glx. Spitzl. Glahh.

ADDENDUM

In selecting images to illustrate this piece, I was exposed to art from the 2016 reboot of Sugar & Spike by Keith Giffen and Bilquis Evley. I knew it existed but was ognoring it completely, but you know what it’s like when you see a car crash… A brief examination elicited the fact that it ran for six issues in the short-lived Legends of Tomorrow anthology comic and was collected as a Graphic Novel. The idea was that Sugar and Spike are all grown up now and are partnered as private eyes specialising in cleaning up messes for superheroes by resolving embarrassments based on Silver Age stories everyone wants to forget. As the site that gave the series the most amount of consideration pointed out that’s actually a pretty nifty idea for a series, but for Sugar and Spike? That’s ten years each in purgatory as far as I’m concerned. Apparently, the adult simulacra reflected the personalities of the babies with ‘Sugar’ as the driving force and ‘Spike’ as the somewhat hapless dummy, but Sugar was entirely aggressive to the point of acting like a bitch, whilst Evley apparently did a very good job of depicting Spike as being in love with his dismissive partner solely on body language, in which case good for her, but that doesn’t get her even a day off her purgatory. Why do people do stupid things like this?

 

The Chimes of Midnight: Smash Comics Part 2


Q - Midnight

Here we are again, for the second part of a review of Quality Comics’ Smash Comics, issues 41-85, as starring Jack Cole’s The Spirit knock-off, Midnight, plus The Ray and The Jester, along with a handful of lesser lights and two cartoon one-pagers, one of which is a racist atrocity. Where I had to name it in part 1, I shalln’t do here, unless and until it is kicked out.
Midnight appears on the cover and is the lead feature, together with his assistants, Doc Wackey and Gabby the Talking Monkey, from which you will immediately deduce that this is less serious than The Spirit. Next up was Espionage, a series originated by Will Erwin (Eisner), starring masterspy Black X, then Bozo the Robot which, despite the name, was meant to be taken at least semi-seriously.
This was followed by The Jester, a bright and bouncy superhero series already past its best by the removal of artist Paul Gustavson, presumably by the draft, then Yankee Eagle, a piece of crap. Then the piece of racist shit, befouling the name of Jack Cole, and the Marksman, another piece of crap.
New in issue 41 was Daffy, a supposedly comic series. Daffy was a lady wrestler. If you want to know more, you can buy your own DVD. This was followed by Rookie Rankin, a half-decent Police series. Rankin is a rookie cop (you don’t say?) whose own mother calls him Rookie, suggesting an awfully prophetic birth-name.
To make room for Daffy, two features ended. One was the other comic page, Archie O’Toole, that had been there since issue 1 but to my surprise the big loser was the Ray, gone until the 1970s. Better news was on the way, as next issue introduced Lady Luck under Klaus Nordling, a strip I already know and love. Even better, good old Brenda Banks gave Bozo the Robot the heave-ho (though Archie O’Toole was back).
Paul Gustavson was back next issue, but not on the Jester, rather on Midnight, though the formula didn’t change. As such, Midnight remained as vigorous as ever, whilst the art grew more solid, but on the other hand, The Jester’s strip was getting more ridiculous by the issue, as even nobody could be bothered to write a straight story any more. Thank heaven for Lady Luck, say I.
The thing is, I bought the Smash Comics DVD to read the adventures of Midnight and now I’m in the ironic position of skipping over so many pages per month, and getting nothing out of the once enjoyable Jester series that I am reading practically only Midnight, and the whole comic is as dull as ditchwater. Unless some changes are due, the second half of this post may become a bit perfunctory.

Q - Espionage

Espionage, in issue 49, was credited to Bernard Sachs, the first time I believe I’ve seen his pencils. Otherwise, I know him as Mike Sekowsky’s inker on the Justice League until issue 43, when he retired, and he was a complete mis-match, reducing and weakening everything. He was no better here. Fred Guardineer, of Zatara fame, took over the Marksman in the same issue.
The Jester seemed to pick up a bit too. He’s developed the habit of talking to his jester-face ball-on-a-stick, who he calls Quinopolis, but the stories are starting to make sense again.
I’m still breezing past Espionage, the Marksman and Daffy without reading, the first having dragged itself under and the other two non-breathers from the outset, and my perusal of Rookie Rankin is fairly perfunctory, but I had to applaud the latter in issue 56, which told a confused story of dope peddlers and murder in the musical theatre but which came to a note-perfect ending: a dope addict trumpet player, desperate for his fix, is shot, his dealer is strangled by the anonymous shoeshine guy who was the father of the addict. He is open as to his action, explaining that in Italy ‘we have-a da Black Hand to deal wit’ men like-a dees’, and he extends his hands, all-covered by shoepolish, and states, with a dignity that made me pause and which moved me, says, ‘Me – I have my own black hands’.
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet, partly in the hope that they might go away, a hope now evidently forlorn, is that Midnight’s strip has expanded its supporting cast, once more in the direction of humour. For some time now, Dave Clark’s household has been harbouring two more residents, would-be detective Sniffer Snoop and his pet baby polar bear, Hot-foot. The bear is (snicker) bearable because, unlike Gabby the Talking Monkey, he doesn’t talk, but Sniffer is a pain in the arse. He claims to be the best Detective in the world, a true crime-solving genius, setting himself up in opposition to Midnight, with no self-awareness whatsoever. On the other hand, he worked out Dave is Midnight, so he can’t just be jettisoned onto the street, Hot-foot and all, as Gabby and Doc Wackey would clear love to see. I know how they feel.

Q - Rookie

We’re actually up to the end of 1944 by this point and, with paper restrictions in force, Smash Comics is bi-monthly. The War dominates Espionage and The Marksman. It’s noticeable in both strips the difference in approaches to the Axis powers. The Nazis are stereotyped, but remain human beings, but the Japanese are drawn as sub-human and made to speak in a style that is frankly racist. It’s to be expected given that the country is at war, but whilst allowances can be made in respect of the Germans, the difference in treatment of whites and yellow-skins is too marked to be excusable.
I also haven’t mentioned the prose series. All comics of the era had one, two pages of type, short, and often melodramatic tales with all the complexity of a matchbox. Smash Comics‘ version features one of those all-American boys, the US ideal, combining honesty, intelligence and a pair of useful fists: good old American know-how in (a usually blond) human form. This one was called Jimmy Christian.
I virtually never read this stories, which were a necessity to claim second-class postal rates. A quick glance in passing indicates that the Jimmy Christian stories seemed to be different in that their hero wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of things but, like the post-War Spirit, would often come in very late, sometimes as late as page two. What made me actually read this story in issue 57, I don’t know, but I’m glad I did. The story had three levels: the first person narration by someone unnamed but who we later learn is a War journalist, describing both the circumstances in which he’s holed up with Mr Christian, Jimmy’s story that he faithfully records and cables back, and the story’s true character, a guy by the name of Fred Zinn.

Q - Jester

And the story held a ring of truth to it, as if there was a real Fred Zinn by another name, a boy who came out of College a joker, who went into the First World War as a mission director for the fledgling air force, who was overwhelmed with a feeling of responsibility for those who didn’t return, and who, after that War and continuing into the present one, dedicated himself to finding the lost, the combatants who never returned, the names on the Missing list. Without official status, without support or resources, Fred Zinn had dedicated himself to finding out what had happened. To filling in the record, to uncovering the hidden heroism and, most important of all, letting the families know, once and for all, what happened to their husband, son, brother, father, to ending the mysteries of fear.
All this in two pages of straight, controlled prose. I found it incredibly affecting. It also convinced me I should read all the Jimmy Christian stories. No writer is named, but surely someone who could put together such a story must have written more worth reading.
On the other hand, the following issue’s tale was nothing more than an undisguised history of blood transfusions, as ‘assembled’ by Jimmy Christian, culminating in a plea for blood donors: very worthy, very informative, but not exactly a story. The next one was flat-out crap. Sigh.
Issue 59 saw the first new feature in some time, not since the debut of Daffy. This was Spunky. It’s a comedy, or so it thinks, a sub-Archie before Archie existed, teenagers rather awkwardly drawn like children, lending an odd and not all that welcome frisson to the triangle formed by Spunky, his girl-friend Margie and his rival, Curly. The unfortunate loser was The Marksman, but even with Spunky’s manifest flaws, the reader won out.

Q - Daffy

It’s now 1946 but Espionage was still rorting around finding dirty tricks in fictional foreign lands. However, in issue 65 the feature was re-titled Black X, and turned crook-catcher, though it didn’t mean more than a marginal improvement in the series.
Smash Comics is advertising itself as still offering 60 pages in an era when National/DC’s titles had long been down to 48 pages but nevertheless it was following one post-War trend, that of removing drama series for comic. Issue 71 introduced Batch Bachelor, about which the funniest thing was the name, and I’m being serious about that, to replace Rookie Rankin, which at least had been readable.
The Jimmy Christian series disappeared without fanfare, to be replaced in issue 73 with an extra Midnight story, this one in prose. Jack Cole was back on the comics version, each month extending his cartooning until things began to look more like Plastic Man. The next comedy strip, about a little girl called Citronella, sneaked in in issue 75, seemingly without displacing anyone. This made the line-up look seriously sorry, and if I didn’t already know that Smash Comics’ time ran out with issue 85, I’d be suspecting the end was nigh.
But deadly as Citronella was, I realised it had served a real social purpose by excluding the long-running Archie O’Toole and, more importantly, the execrable and racist stain on Jack Cole’s career that I’m still not going to name.
Archie came back in issue 78, right at the rear. Too late to do anybody any good, both Batch Bachelor and Citronella did the nose-dive as at issue 82. Midnight had lost all balance, with Jack Cole going all out to make it nearly as silly as Plastic Man. The Jester’s stories were getting ever more formulaic. Daffy was still Daffy. Only Lady Luck was upholding its strength. So much so that after Smash Comics‘ last issue, no 85, the series was re-titled after the Lady, though that only extended its shelf-life by a further five issues. Just one last issue.

Q - Spunky

The Chimes of Midnight: Smash Comics Part 1


ASS

Long ago, in the Eighties, I had an on-and-off relationship with DC’s Golden Age-set series, All-Star Squadron. On the one hand, I was a card-carrying Justice Society of America fan of a decade and a half’s standing, but on the other hand it was being written by Roy Thomas.
Not having been a Marvel fan in the decade when it really counted, I’d only really been exposed to Thomas’s writing on things like Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja, and had seen barely, if any, of his superhero work. With the JSA’s most recent stint, under Paul Levitz and Joe Staton, having petered out, I was glad to see another vehicle for them, and one that set them in their prime, in World War 2, looked ideal.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken into account the degree by which Thomas had become obsessed with continuity, and ‘retroactive continuity’ or retcons. From the very start, All-Star Squadron was bogged down by Thomas’s urge to draw connections between old and obscure stories, old and even more obscure characters, and not just simple and well-thought-out connections but multiple connections, many of which had to be tortured into place to even stand, leading to the story collapsing under a weight that coherence was never meant to bear. Indeed, it was painfully obvious that Thomas simply could not tell a story for a story’s sake any longer.
Sometimes I could stand it. Sometimes it got just too fussy for my liking, the elevation of things that, even in a comic book universe, didn’t mean anything like enough to be worth it.
But when we got to issue 31, my blood boiled. It began with a full-page splash page of very recognisable design, a man running full tilt towards the ‘camera’. The man was equally recognisable. Blue suit. Blue fedora. White shirt and loose red tie. Blue gloves. Blue domino mask. It was The Spirit, Will Eisner’s classic creation, whose reprinted stories I was then collecting in the Kitchen Sink magazine series.
But DC didn’t own The Spirit. And this wasn’t The Spirit, it was Midnight, aka radio announcer, Dave Clark. It was a blatant, out-and-out ripoff, as if we wouldn’t notice, and it infuriated me.

Q - Invisible Hood

However, I didn’t know as much then as I knew later and in this instance I was maligning Roy Thomas unfairly. It’s true that Midnight was a blatant rip-off – his alter ego even has the same initials as Denny Colt – but it was not Thomas who perpetrated it: the real culprit was Jack Cole, the creator of Plastic Man.
Cole was operating under the instructions of Everett ‘Busy’ Arnold, publisher of Quality Comics, where Eisner’s Spirit appeared in comic books. Apparently, concerned that Eisner might be killed or incapacitated whilst in the Army (or was he just plain ripping him off?), Arnold had Cole create Midnight to ensure he had things covered. Midnight debuted in Quality’s Smash Comics 18, hit the cover in issue 28 and kept it until it was cancelled with issue 85.
And you know how curious I can get…
Nevertheless, Midnight’s delayed debut means we have ground to cover before we begin. The first issue, cover-dated August 1939, was credited as published by Everett M. Arnold. It’s a weird business, multiple strips, mostly drawn decently well for the period, mixing all sorts of adventure and comedy, but most of the writing is poor. The closest we come to a costumed hero is in ‘Hooded Justice’, which features the Invisible Hood, aka Kent Thurston, who dresses in a voluminous and decidedly non-invisible cloak and initially wields a gas gun a good year or so ahead of The Sandman.

Q - Bozo

This is not to say that the Invisible Hood is the top feature, anything but. It’s hard to distinguish any of the features from the rest, several of which were starting in midstream, having previously run in Feature Funnies. Some, like Abdul the Arab, were intrinsically racist. Hugh Hazzard, just one of a number of identikit adventurers would have his strip overtaken by Bozo the Iron Man: seriously, Bozo.
Hooded Justice became Invisible Justice in issue 2, in which the Invisible Hood gains the power of invisibility. A new feature arriving in issue 3 was John Law, the ‘Scientective’, no relation, in theme or quality, to Will Eisner’s unsuccessful later creation. He was joined by Flash Fulton, newspaper photographer, next issue, rather unnecessarily since we’ve had Chic Carter, newspaper reporter, since the start. And my mild curiosity about the Invisible Hood was already sated before then: it’s rubbish. Quality Comics? Far from it.
It’s noticeable that the vast majority of the art in Smash Comics is drawn on a rigid 12 panel grid of three panels in four tiers, with variation mainly to combine two panels on a tier. This and the Eisner connection suggests to me that these features were being supplied by the Iger-Eisner Agency, who built their conveyer-belt process on pre-designed panels that would be passed up one side of a room and down the other, speeding up the procedure of producing the comic immensely at a cost of creative suppression.
There was a weird story in issue 5, in the ‘Espionage’ series, starring a monocled US Agent known only as Black Ace. The story was about an impending Europe-wide War, a continent of Kings not Dictators, a massive American re-armament Defence programme and a campaign of sabotage foiled by Ace, after which Europe enters into a Peace Pact, because America could wipe it out – innocents included, but there are no innocents in this scenario – inside a year. What a bizarre mix of elements and national chauvinism! But in an issue cover-dated December 1939, it’s very much an up-to-the-minute production that must have been barely finished when the actual War was declared.
Black Ace had been Black X in Feature Funnies and reverted next issue, once War had started overseas, his monocle being disclosed as concealing an eye put out during unsuccessful torture. The same issue also introduced the contemptible racial stereotype of Wun Cloo, a Chinese amateur detective: disgusting. And from Jack Cole, too.
A dozen issues represents a full year and a moment to reflect on the series to date and the omens are not favourable. Smash Comics thus far is a pretty flat experience. Surprisingly, the art is of a pretty high standard for the era, and the DVD is scanning from actual issues, not microfiches, so reproduction is very good, but the stories are flat and samey. ‘Espionage’ is the best by some margin, despite the pompous, portentous tone it had taken on since the start of the War. The artists can’t draw maps of Europe with the least accuracy and the overriding tone of American super-superiority rings hollow in the face of what we now know of the real events. But it’s a window onto a certain attitude towards the War in 1940, and the tone is consistently anti-War on the simple grounds of the death and destruction it causes to ordinary people. It may be simple but it’s heartfelt and genuine.

Q - Magno

In contrast, Wings Wendall of Military Intelligence is penny plain. The same basically goes for the two journalists, Chic Carter and Flash Fulton. The stories are trapped within the rigid four-by-three panel grid and there are frequent rushed moments when you’re wondering just how A got to G. The same goes art-wise for the two detectives. Captain Cook of Scotland Yard is dull and bears an even greater distance from the real London than usual. John Law, the private criminologist, was advantaged by running as a quasi-serial but had poorer art. Clip Carson is a super college athlete who wins things for his college at the last minute like a Roy Race without the semi-decent soap opera.
I refuse to consider the comedy stuff, especially the repugnant Wun Cloo, and although it’s played straight and the character is shown as a hero, I refuse to read Ahab the Arab just on account of the name. The Archie O’Toole stuff is pleasantly drawn but usually negligible, until issue 12, when as vile a stereotypical blackface character was introduced. As a bootblack, naturally.
But the bottom of the pile are the two vaguely ‘superheroic’ series. I was curious to see the Invisible Hood stories for myself but they’re dull as dishwater and the hero’s ‘costume’ is not just a dotted outline but a bulky and preposterous one at that. Elsewhere, issue 12 sees the series header switched round, as Bozo the Robot gets top billing above Hugh Hazzard. I am neither old enough nor American enough to know what meanings Bozo might have had in 1940 but it makes the series, which is nothing to write home about anyway, impossible to take at all seriously.
I do so hope Midnight is worth it after all of this.
Espionage and Black X are credited to William Erwin. Erwin was the middle name of Will Eisner who, by that time, was working with ‘Busy’ Arnold on The Spirit Section. I think we know who was really producing the feature, though that doesn’t explain the maps…
A new feature came in with issue 13, The Purple Trio, impecunious vaudeville performers who can’t get a paying job so turn their particular talents to fighting crime. Also on debut was Magno the Miracle Man, another of those superheroes whose most impressive power is getting people to not recognise them when they don’t wear any kind of mask. To make room, Flash Felton and John Law were dropped and there was a double dose of Philbert Veep, the Holmes-esque cartoon detective instead of the disgusting Won Cloo, which I hope is a permanent uplift.

Q - Ray

Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Philbert and Captain Cook were out with issue 14, to make room for another and this time more interesting superhero, The Ray. Though the costume was instantly familiar, apart from the bare legs, the character was not the one that turned up in Justice League of America 107: the origin’s the same but ‘Happy’ Terrill, reporter is supposedly dead and The Ray is The Ray. He turns up from nothing in beams of light and his powers are more electromagnetic than light-based, and we’ve already got the feeble Magno for that.
The second instalment was more like it, with spectacular art credited to E. Lectron, who was the great Lou Fine. There’s still no sign of Happy Terrill, and The Ray’s powers, though more oriented to light and rays, are still uncontrolled but Fine can sure draw an excellent short-skirted lady, and I’m talking more-than-Carnaby-Street short here.
By the next issue, The Ray had replaced ‘Espionage’ as the lead feature. And the rapid turnover continued with a new series, The Scarlet Seal, though that was as dodgy as month-old bread. Barry Moore, film star, quits the industry to take a job with his hometown Police, under his Police Captain Father. But the new Commissioner has declared war on brutality and stoolies: henceforth policing will be calm and polite. So Barry goes undercover. Alright so far, except that Barry yellows up as a Chinese stereotype, or to use the strip’s parlance just this once, a Chink. Ok, that does it. Add in the cliché of the Commissioner being more determined to bring in The Scarlet Seal – named for the symbol he stamps on bad guys’ foreheads – than he is actual criminals, and this is one ripe piece of pus demanding squeezing out, but if Wun Cloo is still running…
Interestingly, The Ray’s story in issue 17, which brings back Happy Terrill as if he’d never been missing, let alone dead, is the only one I’ve previously read, in a 1972 100 page Reprint Giant that also featured the Black Condor, already flying in sister title Crack Comics (now there’s a title we won’t be hearing much about reviving).
But at last the man we’ve all been waiting for arrives. Midnight made his debut near the end of issue 18, and my prayers are answered because it’s the ‘funny’ strips that take a dive for him, Archie O’Toole and the despised Won Cloo. It’s credited to Jack Cole from the first page. It’s a pretty perfunctory five pager in which Clark, a spot announcer for Station UXAM doesn’t wear a mask and seems to be known as Midnight when he’s dressed for his day job. This is not Eisner-standard work.
With mask in place, Midnight made it onto the cover parade next time, with a better story, though we’re really not seeing the real Jack Cole art yet. We are seeing those god-awful ‘funnies’ again, including guess who.
Though overall it’s a more entertaining prospect than it was a year ago, Smash, like its four stable-mates, is suffering from the fatal flaw of carrying eleven features each, which means far too little space for far too many things. And far too little attention to what you’re doing, as when Espionage brought back the beautiful villainess Madame Doom, despite having shown her blown to pieces from within.
Issue 21 started with the Ray as usual. Lou Fine was one of the most gracious and accomplished artists of the Golden Age with a wonderfully flowing and delicate line, instantly recognisable for his clear images and lithe figures. Frankly, he’s a hundred times better than the story, though this episode showed a certain premonitary cleverness in positing a would-be Emperor of the Pacific intending to provoke America into war by attacking Hawaii.
It’s hard to assess Midnight at this early stage. Cole’s drawing mostly straight and the stories are bouncy and energetic, but they’re rather more fantastic than the Spirit. I’m not really familiar with the first half of The Spirit’s career, so I don’t know the like to which Midnight may be like. The later Eisner, post-War, was something very different. The Spirit never acquired a sidekick in the form of a talking monkey named Gabby.

Q - Wildfire

As for Magno, I confess I rarely read it, which is down to Paul Gustavson’s art. Like Fine, it’s clear and graceful, and not confined to rigid lay-outs but his figure work on Magno puts me off with its effeminacy. Magno is always skipping around of tiptoes; like a Fotherington-Thomas I expect him to be lisping ‘Hello clouds, hello trees’ all the time. It clashes horribly with the superhero action and I can’t shift my automatic antipathy.
The next issue introduced The Jester, also drawn by Gustavson but in a much more solidified way, with Magno moving elsewhere. This is another one who arrives already in costume and notorious but it’s a bright start and looks potentially good. Wun Cloo was once again missing: dare I hope? Nah…
The ongoing costumed adventurer takeover of the comic was extended in issue 24 as Chic Carter, the reporter, donned a costume to clear himself of murder. He also picked up a sword, being a fencing champion at college (of course he was) and called himself The Sword. Not only that, Wings Wendall caught a costume, whilst Midnight’s popularity was evident in the announcement that his series was to be expanded from five pages to six.
In contrast, a new Police series started in issue 25, Rookie Rankin, along with Wildfire, the series’ first costumed heroine who, when in costume, has red hair down to below her ankles. And Chic Carter, alias or not alias the Sword, made way for them, transferring to first Police Comics (home of Plastic Man) then Military Comics (Blackhawk). The Scarlet Seal was also out, for which heartfelt thanks.
And then, exactly as promised, Midnight hit the cover for the first time, in issue 28, though the Ray continued to hold the premier slot, and next issue he showed why, with a phenomenal art job from Fine that would have been astonishingly good in any era: linework, body language, panel breakdowns, compositions, this was fantastic and, quite frankly, worth the whole damned DVD alone. If this is what Fine’s art was evolving into, roll on further episodes. And I’m getting seriously impressed with Paul Gustavson’s work on The Jester.
The Ray story in issue 31 was much less impressive, suggesting Fine had had less time to work, or possibly couldn’t maintain the intensity for so long, which was supported by the far better, but still not quite top quality episode that came next. And I’d like to make it plain that this extravagant praise is for the art alone.
The attack on Pearl Harbour was reflected in issue 33, with everyone suddenly hot against the caricatural Japanese. It’s no less racial for the time, but very understandable, for which I am forced to give it the pass that Won Cloo will never have. At the same time the European Front was reinforced by the Marksman, a hooded archer and Polish Count undercover as a Nazi Agent. This was achieved by shelving the Invisible Hood.

Q - Midnight

Issue 35 saw Midnight promoted to the first feature, and to nine pages, a reflection of his growing popularity and, after a succession of cartoony Jack Cole covers, the next issue saw a beautifully drawn, dark and moody head shot that belied his every appearance to date. It covered for a moody but ridiculous story about Midnight dying and going to Hell to battle the Devil, but being hooked back by some mysterious old codger who wanted Gabby and Doc’s lives in exchange… There was a new name in the credits for Espionage and Black X, Alex Kotsky replacing ‘Will Erwin’, whilst Wildfire’s costume was abruptly rendered much more modest by joining her bikini top to her high-waist pants (boo).
Modesty only lasted an issue, thankfully, bringing a pleasant little wrinkle when Carol ‘Wildfire’ Martin decided she was fed up of being thought of as just a playgirl and punched out two crooks! Sadly, that was her last appearance. Smash Comics was paring down its features. Old stalwarts were falling by the wayside. Wings Wendall and the Purple Trio both cashed in their chips to leave space for the Yankee Eagle, who was as nondescript as they came, but patriotic in a time of War. And in his second appearance, sheer poison beyond the justification of that War.
Lou Fine had left The Ray, leaving the series moribund. Paul Gustavson left The Jester, dealing a similar blow. Issue 40, a good enough point at which to end this first part, sees the comic in a bad state, with its two catastrophic ‘comedy’ series intact, The Marksman and Yankee Eagle crude rubbish and its two strongest features artistically with their legs cut out from underneath them.
Thankfully, Midnight was going from strength to strength, and slowly taking on a distinctly Spirit-esque spirit. Apart from the obvious visual similarity, which is not that pronounced when viewed through Jack Cole’s cartoonist style, there’s not really been any equivalence between the two features, though I say again that I am comparing different eras, Midnight 1941-3 against The Spirit 1946-50. And Cole’s style is much more kinetic and unrealistic than Eisner’s, and much closer to a pulp-hero/costumed hero crossover. And whereas The Spirit had Ebony White, over whom there is still so much controversy, Midnight has Gabby the Talking Monkey and Doc Wackey, inventor of preposterous machines. Though it’s considerably more lightweight, I do enjoy Midnight, and I look forward to every instalment in the same way that I avoid reading the asinine Wun Cloo.
Next time, we’ll see how things progress in the second half of the series’ life.

Change! Change, o form of Man: The Demon


Demon 1

Jack Kirby’s run at DC Comics was already sliding towards its ignominious end when I started showing interest in comics again. New Gods and Forever People had already been cancelled and were nothing but subscription blanks: I only became aware of them, and very intrigued by the names, when I started picking up some back issues. Mr Miracle was still running but was in decline artistically as well as commercially, dragged out of its Fourth World frame: I would end up only buying its last issue.
The same went for another of Kirby’s creations, The Demon. It ran sixteen issues, I bought the last. Gradually, I collected the Fourth World series’, even down to Jimmy Olsen but my only substantial exposure to Etrigan, the Demon, would be in later appearances, under diverse hands: never Kirby. Until now.
Except that his contributions to First Issue Special were very much below Kirby’s exalted standards, the first issue of The Demon follows the same pattern, of an extensive set-up leading to a cliffhanger ending that is our first introduction to the central character. There are substantial differences, not least in the considerably greater confidence and power of the art, but mainly in that this was a genuine first issue, with a no.2 all set to roll two months later, taking up the story from its moment of poised menace.
Instead, the story concentrates on initially establishing Morgaine le Fay’s last and successful attack on Camelot, and her inability to prevent the escape of Merlin, who takes with him a demon in red and yellow, together with a slip of parchment torn from a larger spell, that he charges the demon to preserve. As Camelot is spirited away by Merlin, the squat figure of the Demon, Etrigan, straightens, grows tall and wanders away, human. He is now Jason Blood, he of the long life, demonologist. He is not Etrigan. But he is the fleshy form out of which Etrigan, if summoned, will rise to battle with fire and rage.
The origin is a two-parter, showing not just Blood and Etrigan but establishing Morgaine le Fay as a recurring enemy, intent on using Etrigan to get to Merlin, who she needs to restore her eternal life, and with it her eternal youth and beauty. It also establishers Blood’s existing friends and one about to become even closer.

Demon panel

The first of these is the most puzzling, advertising executive Harry Mathews, eager and energetic, with his perpetual cigar. Harry’s a Ben Grimm figure, a rough diamond, the common man (though not from Brooklyn). You ask yourself how he’s so close a friend of a demonologist that he gets to learn Jason is a literal demon, because he has nothing that recommends him as being right for this kind of world. Maybe they just like each other?
Of more direct relevance is United Nations delegate Randu Singh. Like Harry, he’s a long-standing close friend, part of the trio. But unlike Harry, Randu is much more subtle. He has psychic powers, amongst them the ability to summon Etrigan from the form of Jason.
And then there’s Glenda Mark, beautiful blonde, first introduced to Jason in issue 1, the two hitting it off on very short acquaintance, though not to the extent of confidences like that.
The Demon was an instant hit, leaping to monthly status by issue 5. The response warmed Editorial Director Carmine Infantino, who’d seduced Kirby to DC in the first place with promises reneged upon without any unnecessary delay. Kirby had started on his Fourth World books, which he’d intended as interlocking finite series, only to be told that they couldn’t end. He’d intended to be the equivalent of what he was at Marvel, a creation machine who would start books off, draw two or three issues then pass these into the hands of acolytes to progress under his direction, but the moment The Demon sold, Infantino insisted Kirby write and draw it himself. In order to ensure he had time to do so, Infantino cancelled New Gods and Forever People.
It’s to Kirby’s credit that, despite the absolute devastation he felt at this decision, he did not allow it to spoil his commitment to Etrigan and Jason Blood. According to his friend and assistant Mark Evanier, Kirby had no interest in horror comics and only created The Demon because DC wanted a horror series. But, being Kirby, he produced a vivid job and a character who, like so many Kirby others, has lasted.

Demon spread

Issue 7 conjured up Klarion, the Witch Boy, and his cat, Teekl (I like cats), though he was quickly dismissed.
Kirby’s next move could be read as a rip-off of The Phantom of the Opera, down to the gothic organ playing. The masked Phantom of the Sewer steals fabulous objects, hoping to bring to life his statue of the beautiful Galatea. When he sees Glenda, he recognises her as the spitting image of his love and kidnaps her. Ordinarily you’d say No Problem and send in Etrigan, but Jason Blood is growing fearful of the Demon within him, fearful of the Demon taking him over and has killed Etrigan, severing their connection by using Absolute Zero cold. Not a timely step.
Kirby was relaxing into the series now. Blood managed to summon back Etrigan using the same Philosopher’s Stone by which he had banished him, but the Phantom’s story ended with his revelation as a tormented victim of an evil witch, whose spirit returned, albeit briefly, to restore the Phantom’s face before he died. This led directly into a Frankenstein take-off that ran over four issues. Kirby was freewheeling in the best manner possible and the results were pure kinetic fun.
There was a two-parter showcasing the return – and re-banishment – of Klarion, and then we come to issue 16, the only issue I bought all that long time ago, in which Morgaine le Fay returned. I remember practically nothing about it. Morgaine subjugates Etrigan to her will, but Glenda rescues him with the Philosopher’s Stone, learning in the process about Jason’s dual identity.
And that, suddenly, was it. No word, no explanation, just a look-for-Kirby’s-next idea. In the absence of other explanations, always assume low sales, though as Kirby’s contract was either in or rapidly nearing its last year, his own attitude to the work may have played a part.
Until now, The Demon 16 is the only comic done by Kirby outside the Fourth World titles that I’d ever read (I have never had the least interest in Kamandi). Though I suspect I would have struggled with Kirby’s art in 1974 or thereabouts, I’m glad now to have had the chance to read the full series. I’ve no great insights to take from it, but I liked it and wouldn’t have minded seeing more.

Demon 16

A dozen years later, in the wake of Alan Moore using Etrigan in Saga of the Swamp Thing, Matt Wagner wrote and drew a four-issue mini-series, yet one more among those thousands of comics I have had and sold. It’s on the DVD, I’ve re-read it. It’s very nicely drawn but in contrast to Kirby, large sections of it are purely static and it’s so bloody verbose, between the overcap narration and Etrigan’s exceedingly long rhymes, I’m very quickly reminded of why I didn’t keep it.
Storywise, the knowing, cynical narration, with its continual contempt is the authentic note of Post-Crisis DC, a tone that’s only multiplied in extent and volume ever since, until nothing is free from it any more. The miniseries is a befuddling and befouling of the original series. One can say that The Demon, above almost everything else, invited it, but at this late stage I’d rather not have it at all.

Eagle Volume 20 (1969)


Eagle 20 - 3

Eagle‘s last, and shortest volume consisted of only 17 issues before its cancellation by merger with Lion, this latter much to my chagrin as I was getting both papers, and was not granted dispensation to replace Eagle with anything else. The cancellation was known a long way in advance, as demonstrated by the sudden shortening of Rogue Planet, starting only a couple of issues into the new Volume.
Blackbow’s stories were also radically truncated. A new feature, drawn by Tom Kerr, started in no. 5, The Day The World Forgot. If it seemed unfamiliar, that was because it was the first of a half dozen features created in preparation for the merger, so that none of Eagle‘s own characters save Dan Dare would survive to appear in the merged title.
It was followed in no. 6 by Speed Mann, a troubleshooter, which also saw the last instalment of Quarrel. Wild of the West, boxer, debuted in no. 8. Yet all of this was being done without removing any of the regular strips, just yet: a case of quantity but not quality. But the exodus couldn’t be postponed any longer. Mickey Merlin ended in no. 10, to be replaced a week later by Lightning Strikes Back. The Mark Mystery reprints were curtailed by a caption jump to the original end of the series in the same issue.
It looked like Speed Mann wasn’t even good enough for Lion as his story lasted a measly six issues before making way for The Gladiators. The Hornblower reprints sailed away in no. 13 and The Waxer, most ghastly of all the new creations, started in no. 14. The last Blackbow story began in the same issue, but Frank Humphris had left early, to beat the rush. The next issue featured the last Cut-Out, Ashwell-Wood coming through as he had done for nearly twenty years.
The Guinea Pig got out in the penultimate issue, and that meant that Eagle‘s final issue, Volume 20 no. 17, cover-date 26 April 1969, the 993rd issue of all, saw the end of the truncated Rogue Planet, but also the ends of Blackbow the Cheyenne and The Iron Man. The Circus Wanderers bit the dust, taking Wild in the West and The Day Time Forgot with them.
And that was the end of it all. You may think that I’ve given unfairly short shrift to this last volume but that’s not the case. Even Blackbow’s last few stories were inadequate and as for all the rest, there was literally nothing to write home about. The story of Eagle‘s last four months is one of a once-superb comic being strangled to death by mediocrity, the final exercise of power by a Manager who resented the comic’s very existence as the refutation of everything his own career in comics had been, and finally diminishing it to the point where it could no longer survive.
The last months were just dragging the humiliation out until no-one could deny that Eagle was unsavable. I was right not to collect further copies after my pre-set endpoint, and I should perhaps have stuck to my guns and stayed away, because satisfying this particular curiosity has indeed been painful. I’m sorry for the 13½ year old boy who had to endure that. It hastened the moment when he gave up comics altogether, though we now know that that didn’t last all that long. It was only a decade to the Dragon’s Dream republication of The Man from Nowhere…

Eagle Volume 19 (1968)


Eagle 19 - 4

The writing had been on the wall for Eagle ever since its major cheapening in Volume 18 no. 37, so it came as some surprise that the title survived through a final full volume of 52 issues. Even more surprisingly, for a comic that was clearly being done cheaper every week, it retained a solid core of series that had been stalwarts for several years: Dan Dare, Hero of the Spacefleet, The Guinea Pig, The Iron Man, Blackbow the Cheyenne were all standing in no. 52.
Dan Dare started the volume with the second episode of his last original adventure, Underwater Attack. It ran only four episodes all told, including one black and white internal page, revealing at the last second that its invading ‘aliens’ were actually naval men testing a new underwater exploration suit. Not worthy of comment.

The rest of the year was given over to classic reprints, of The Man from Nowhere, seguing into Rogue Planet. Reprint it was, and not always treated with the respect it was due – squashed up pages, one or two in black and white, bounced all over the title – but this was prime Frank Hampson, and at the time it was my first ever exposure to the work of the great man, and with all that Eagle did to it, it was still glorious, and head and shoulders above anything else the title offered us. Indeed, for most of The Man from Nowhere, the original gap for the old Eagle title-box was ingeniously filled by newspaper headlines, recapping the story to date.
Of the other regulars, only Blackbow was worthy of serious consideration, and although the pseudo-horror/magic stories were mostly now a thing of the past and the stories more grounded, it was still only Frank Humphris’ art that deserved attention. The last full serial of the Volume, from no. 44 to 51, was drawn by Eric Kincaid instead.

Eagle 19 - 19

As for The Guinea Pig and The Iron Man, neither were worth reading. Though the former was now popular enough to spend most of the Volume in colour, albeit a flashy, splashing colour that looked to be the work of a hyperactive fourteen year old, the stories had nothing new to offer, whilst the Iron Man was formulaic and as grey as its monochrome art. The same beats – Robert is temporarily taken over, is set upon killing Tim, the villain is ultimately defeated by discovering The Iron Man is a robot and falling off a mountain in shock – repeat ever more frequently in shorter stories that suited the attention span of at least one reader whose letter was printed.
Sadly, I cannot avoid mentioning Mickey Merlin, which lasted the whole volume, though after the first two or three weeks I wasn’t even skimming it. It was nothing but a Cornelius Dimworthy-manque and you know how I felt about that series. Stupid beyond belief.
Of the other series tagging on from the previous year, Grant CID went backwards when the Zetans turned up to temporarily restore Smokeman’s powers, but the long and inglorious career of Grant and Bailey, in all its myriad forms, came to a greatly-overdue end in no 16, whilst Jennings’ serial, the last to feature in Eagle, wound up in no. 5.
Jennings was succeeded by Eagle‘s last individual sequel, The Spook Commando, in which Major Guy Haslam takes a team of commandos to his ancestral home, where has has never lived, for exercises to narrow them down to a special, stream-lined unit, psychologically as well as physically solid. The former castle is haunted. Though the serial wasn’t credited, it had the feel of more work by Donne Avenell, and the spooky stuff harked back to things like Runway 13 and High Quest – respectable antecedents indeed. It was overall a decent, if not first class adventure, mainly marred by crossing it over with a grounded spy b-story.
Grant CID was replaced by a new cover feature, Sky Buccaneers. Like Mickey Merlin, I had absolutely no memory of this, nor any great expectations. And evidence supported that theory: two pilots, Red Morgan and Ben Kidd (of course) were acting as the aerial arm of a submarine-based pirate crew.
Or were they? They and their boss, Blackbeard, talked and acted pirate-like but the story had them invading the secret island base of someone called Veldez, a South American dictator or a revolutionary if I ever heard of one (revolutionary). The problem was that the series was neither fish, fowl nor good red meat. Were Blackbeard and the Buccaneers 100% genuine pirates or were they antiheroes foiling a dangerous villain? The only question the series engendered that I could confidently answer was, did I care? And that answer was No.
Three weeks of Sky Buccaneers then gave way to round-robin cover stories. On any given week, any of Eagle‘s features – including Dan Dare – might be on the cover in full colour. To me, this smacked of desperation, of throwing things at the wall to see if anything stuck.

Eagle - Sky Buccaneers

There was another new feature started in no. 7, running through to no. 48, an American import that for all its qualities did not sit easily alongside the rest of the inherently English features. This was Tales of Asgard, and it was Jack Kirby’s back-up series in Marvel’s Thor reprinted in black and white without any acknowledgement or credit beyond a small copyright notice.
For the past eighteen months or so, Odhams had been pushing a line of comics – Wham!, Smash, Pow, Fantastic and Terrific – based largely on Marvel reprints, advertising each one in Eagle for several weeks as it debuted. My parents had refused to let me have any of the first three, regarding them as too childish, but I was allowed the (very) occasional copy of the last two, no doubt with reservations. The bottom was obviously falling out of the market because already in 1968, adverts had plugged Wham! and Pow‘s merger, rapidly followed by that of Fantastic and Terrific, so perhaps it made sense to try putting less directly connected material into Eagle, as a well-established title being slowly ridden into the ground.
Though it was another example of the ongoing decay of the comic, there was nevertheless something primal about Tales of Asgard. Though its outlines were simplistic and its stories confined to two pages at a time, this was pure Kirby, and little or no trace of Stan Lee, and it was superb stuff, dealing with genuine Norse myth.
Unfortunately, even that degenerated after a while, abandoning myth for adventures of Thor with the Warriors Three. Some episodes of this were astonishing powerful, but it was not quite the same.
The Spook Commando ended in no. 21, to be succeeded by Eagle‘s last prose serial, Cue in… Quarrel. Quarrel, or Cue Quarrel to give him his full, unrealistic name, was a roving TV reporter, heading a three man technical team, with a mission to find trouble spots all round the world and send back exciting TV programmes. He was as unconventional and capable as Nick Hazard, without the criminal aspect, and the format was the same linked short-serials of Horizon Unlimited.
But the problem with Quarrel was that it was predictable. It lacked the flair of Nick Hazard and the range of Horizon Unlimited. It was a we-have-been-here-before kind of thing, and that made it dull.
No. 30 offered me a moment of personal significance of which I was not aware when I read it so long ago, not knowing that the reprinted episode of Dan Dare was that which appeared on the Eagle of the day of my birth, not thirteen years previously. Then the very next week, the art got squashed down into crudity again, so it didn’t have to fill two whole pages. Sigh.

Eagle 19 - 39

Eagle introduced a eight page soccer special feature in no. 32, complete with an additional colour strip in the centre spread, Circus Wanderers. Bankrupt Shelford Wanderers fall out of the Fourth Division and its players all quit. Player manager Tim Masters inherits a bankrupt circus whose performers all love football. Put the two together and maybe you’ve got something fit for Lion in a weaker year, but Eagle? Throw in a Director who wants to close the club and use the ground for his factory and it’s pretty much Carson’s Cubs all over again, though with far less actual football. The club has to battle for survival, at which it succeeds.
The second serial, starting in no. 52, was another out of the Carson’s Cubs playbook, this time the eccentric trainer with their nutty methods that disrupt everything. So what if this was the new scientific doctor with curious notions and potions, the template was the same.
Sky Buccaneers passed on, unmourned and unloved, with no. 36, with no-one the wiser as to what it was all supposed to be about.
Right at the end, that writing on the wall suddenly became all but luminous. Tales of Asgard, after a week’s gap, was replaced by Mark Mystery, or rather, as older readers knew him, Mark Question, a second reprint feature to join Dan Dare. And the issue after that, Hornblower was back, across the centre spread, multiplying the reprints even further. Two more pages of cheap copy, and two fewer pages of advertising: it is as clear as can be that Eagle is being run down to cancellation.
The only consolation was to be that this embarrassment would soon be over, as Eagle was prepared for the slaughter in its shortest and final Volume.

Eagle Volume 18 (1967)


On the other hand, an insatiable curiosity can only be disposed of by satiating it.

In three and a half storage crates in a corner of my pokey little flat there is a massive pile of paper and print that represents the fulfilling of an ambition I never expected to complete. It is the Eagle, the home of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, my first and favourite comic book hero. It is Eagle Vol. 1 No. 1 to Vol. 18. No. 1: in print, intact, entire. All the great stories, all the great characters from my childhood and before, complete.

It only goes as far as Vol. 18 No. 1 because that was Dan Dare’s swansong, the last original page – well, not quite but good enough for me. Beyond that was nothing but reprints. Beyond Dan himself was nothing of interest save more Frank Humphris art on Blackbow the Cheyenne: good enough, but not enough to justify more hours combing eBay for yet more copies. I had what I wanted, and I was content.

But the curiosity persisted. That’s why it’s called insatiable. Which is why I ended up with a set of three DVD-ROMs containing Eagle Volumes 18-20. I read these a very long time ago, between 1967 and 1969. They may not be much cop, in fact I expect them to be not much cop at all, especially the further we go along, but I am a completist at heart, so let’s sit down with the last throes of a once brilliant comic that gripped my imagination, and relive those days, without which the tapestry is not complete.

Eagle 18 - 1

For most of the year, Eagle managed to maintain – and in one case improve upon – the reduced standards it was setting by the end of 1966. The big exception to this was the obvious one – Dan Dare.

Ironically, the comic’s signature series offered original work in the first and last issues of the Volume: Keith Watson’s final page of art in no. 1, and two pages of Eric Kincaid art in no. 52, about which I shall have more to say in relation to Volume 19, where the majority of the story, ‘Underwater Attack’, appeared.

In between times, Odhams went back into Dan Dare’s past, reprinting the 1954/5 story, ‘Prisoners of Space’, as drawn by Don Harley and Desmond Walduck, which introduced ‘Flamer’Spry. It ran under the rubric of Dan Dare, Hero of the Spacefleet, which was one thing, but it was treated with disrespect throughout its reprint run. The series may have ben given the same 50 week run as its original, but it suffered under a multiplicity of formats.

Firstly, from no. 2 to 7, the serial was split between page 16 and the back cover, page 20. Then, from no. 8 to 27, it was crushed into a corner of the centre spread, aligned to the top left corner but reprinted at a reduced size that took up no more than two-thirds of the actual space available. Then, when Eagle underwent its last and most regrettable revamps, the serial was further degraded by being restored to the split scenario, but with the top tier of page 2 surgically attached to the internal page and the remaining two tiers taking up no more than half the back cover, one week in black and white.

Do you wonder that I refused to give house-space to the comic that perpetrated this?

Next, let’s remind ourselves of what Eagle contained. In terms of strips, the best of the rest of the bunch was still Blackbow the Cheyenne, for Frank Humphris’s art and little else, though one short story of twelve weeks duration was started by Humphris but had the majority of its episodes drawn by Harry Bishop. Story-wise, there was still nothing to touch Riders of the Range, but the silliness and the fantastic elements were turned down to a degree by writer Ted Cowan, of Robot Archie fame. One story did rather telegraph its villain, as early as its fifth episode of fourteen.

But if I were to rack the other four strips in descending order of quality then I would struggle whether to cast The Guinea Pig or The Iron Man in third place. Mike Lane’s adventures as chief tester for Professor Dee’s stupid inventions were complete nonsense (an undersea craft that promptly ended up being used on land was the Sea-Landing Under The Tide, otherwise known as the SLUTT: someone was taking the piss), but at least had the merit that several of them were over in a mere two or three episodes, whereas Robert the Robot was not merely dull but long-winded.

After disposing of Zadak the Evil (no comment) in no. 1, the next serial ran for 29 issues. It felt like a throwback to the Lion of the Fifties and those endless stories that dragged from cliffhanger to cliffhanger with no story development, just dragging the story out week after week. It involved a villain called Maskface (seriously) who was trying to prevent the car Robert and Tim Branton were driving in an international rally from winning and depriving him of a fortune. At a plot a week, the villain must surely have spent more failing than he could ever hope to have made, and he died without our ever finding out who he was, why he was doing this and how he was supposed to get rich out of it, which says all you ever need to know about the Iron Man and his stories.

Eagle - Iron Man

Beware, we are now getting to the real crap. The only reason I place Smokeman, UFO Agent next to bottom is because Cornelius Dimworthy was still going (I must have found that stupid at age 11, please tell me I loathed it at age 11).

Smokeman still had the benefit of brightly coloured art by Jose Ortiz, who signed his work prominently throughout the run, and it was popular enough to take over the cover from no. 8 onwards, until no. 29. It was still a stupid series, an ineffectual attempt to do superheroes by a writer who couldn’t lend the concept any conviction: if he had, would he have been writing about a hero whose superpower was to turn to smoke?

It didn’t even last that long as Smokeman, since in no. 25 the Zetans returned, removed Grant’s powers (except for a few transitional goes) and installed Grant and Bailey as Detective-Constables with Belminster CID, the feature being variously renamed Smokeman CID, or Grant CID from No. 38, by which time it had developed the distinct feel of a Rory MacDuff story from the ghoulies’n’ghosties period.

That left the prose serial. We left Volume 17 with the latest Anthony Buckeridge Jennings serial, which ran through to no. 8 before being replaced by what was, frankly, the year’s highlight for me, being back-to-back Nick Hazard serials, running from no. 9 to no. 37 before disappearing for good.

Thanks to an editorial response, I now know the Nick Hazard stories to have been written by Donne Avenell, he of ‘High Quest’. First up was The Cat Has Nine Lives, just titled Nine Lives in its first two episodes. This I remembered, though only certain bits in any detail. It took up Hazard’s story nine months after The Croesus Conspiracy, with bribery and corruption keeping druglord Paul Bendix from conviction on evidence collected secretly by Hazard. Infuriated at seeing a naïve scientist sentenced to three years inside, Hazard breaks him out of Court, helps him rob the British Museum of a cat-shaped amulet and is rewarded by being shot in the chest at point-blank range.

And living.

Because the scientist, Nevil Wade, has turned the amulet into an invulnerability device. Whilst Hazard wears it, he cannot be killed or injured. So he chooses to fly out to Bangcock and use his invulnerability to follow Bendix’s pipeline back to England, destroying it step by step and finally ending Bendix. The bit I remembered clearest was an underwater cliffhanger. The Cat has just saved Hazard’s life for the ninth time and he’s musing to himself about whether it will only work nine times when his aqualung is destroyed. And a protective field against injury can’t full a drowning man’s lungs with air…

Of course Hazard won. And Avenell went straight on into a story of which I had no memories whatsoever. It featured reporter Gil Bennett trying to locate Hazard to get his life story, getting involved in another druglord-busting campaign during which Hazard related, Horizon Unlimited style, some short adventures from his past, setting up his career as a freebooter, before flying off into the night sky, never to return, more’s the pity.

Someone should have collected these Nick Hazard stories into books. I’d have bought them, and maybe I’d even have kept them.

Eagle guinea pig

Of course, Eagle was always more than just stories. Did It Ever Happen? stayed on the cover until no. 7, with the Yes or No answer on page 3. After Smokeman’s intervention, it would briefly feature Legends in their Lifetime, with a page inside about such folk as motor racer Tazio Nuvolari, Sergeant York, of legendary film status, boxer Joe Louis and fighter pilot Douglas Bader. |The series would run to the end of the year, even after losing its cover lead.

Bids for Freedom, with stiff colour art, limped on intermittently until no. 9, after which it was replaced by What’s in a Name?, looking into the derivation and famous examples of various surnames: they never featured Crookall, the buggers.

Ex-Pro’s sports page and the famous Cut-Out page, mostly but not exclusively by Leslie Ashwell-Wood also continued throughout the year, all at 7d per week, or 3p.

Curiously, the comic was still officially titled ‘Eagle and Boy’s World magazine, incorporating the Merry-Go-Round’: seventeen years on, the comic’s indicia still bore witness to the never-published device that provided a double paper ration to allow Eagle to print weekly.

Interestingly, despite the weekly signs of editorial incoherence, Eagle was a surprisingly stable comic throughout most of the year, that is, until no. 37. The following week, the comic underwent the biggest revamp of its history. This time it was less the contents that were shuffled than the physical comic. After over seventeen years, it was taken off the paper standard Frank Hampson and Marcus Morris had demanded for it. Eagle was reduced to newsprint, and its page depth was cut. After alternating intermittently between 20 and 24 pages, it jumped to 32 It was now the Modern Paper for the Modern Boy, though I doubt that very much.

It would remain in this cheap format for the rest of its life.

There was surprisingly little change to the features, mostly a shuffling. Somkeman CID was renamed Grant CID and pushed inside into black and white, whereas The Guinea Pig went into the centre-spread, in full colour, with a bit more space allotted to it than Dan Dare had had, but not full-size until no.46. Mike Lane’s first story involved him being affected by radiation that changed him into a yellow skeleton every time he saw a particular shade of yellow, including women’s blouse, and cured only by cold, such as ice cream lollies. So, no upgrade there.

Jennings replaced Nick Hazard just as Hazard had replaced him earlier on, whilst two new scientific features were introduced, Futurescope and Frontiers of Science, article and strip respectively, even if the latter was a Fifties reprint still marked with its original numbering.

The one big change was the replacement of Cornelius Dimworthy, put out of my misery at last, by Mickey Merlin. One panel was enough to tell that the nightmare lingered on: Merlin was ‘awkward’ as opposed to ‘dreamy and lucky’ but only the names had changed. Even though the second week clarified Merlin to be some sort of cross between Dimworthy and the long-gone Billy Binns, without artificial aids, it was just the same, all over again.

Futurescope caught my eye in No. 44, looking at the way we might live in the unimaginably distant future of, say, the Nineties in a world of home computers and the things they could do to order and run your life for you. The feature was over-optimistic, by two decades, but it was amazingly prescient. It even foresaw PINs, though it called them Secret Account Codes instead.

As Xmas approached, Eagle was full of adverts for Xmas presents. I was struck by memories of the Airfix Monte Carlo Rally set, with nearly nineteen feet of track and Alpine supports to create mountainous hairpin bends for the two Mini-Cooper model cars. I wanted it, but as I already had an Airfix set, I never got it. I look at the pictures now, and I want again, for the small boy within me and the adult I’ve become. If only there was time travel…

The Xmas edition Futurescope was another of the few things from 1967 that I remembered, positing a Xmas Day 300 years thence that had been transferred to the Winter Solstice, December 22, and re-named Nicholas Day, to enable Jew and Muslim to participate equally. For a comic founded by a Church of England Clergyman, this is astonishing, but to think that a comic in a nation that still thought of itself as impeccably Christian, such an ecumenical notion – such a notion of peace, love and acceptance between creeds and people – could be thought was astounding. Would that the people who thought this at Xmas 1967 had prevailed. What better a world would we be in now? For all my complaints about Eagle Volume 18, this piece earned the comic a massive tick-mark.

Eagle 18 - 38

The War in the Skies: Enemy Ace


EA Showcase

I never got into war comics. Obviously I read them: take war stories out of a British boys weekly comic and some of them would be limp rags with about ten pages left, and that’s before the advent of Battle in the Seventies. But I would never have even thought of buying one of the DC War Comics in the Sixties. The handful I did read were from friends’ collections, sitting in the lobby of our old house in Brigham Street, in that private space between the inner door to the parlour and the front door, open to the elements. It was a tiny play-place on wet days, where we could read each others’ comics or play card games, get some fresh air but not soaked.
I was aware of Enemy Ace back then, and intrigued to a minor degree by a series about a German, who I knew very well from Eagle and Lion and Victor and Hornet were the baddies. But as with any of the others, like Sgt. Rock, or Gunner, Sarge and Pooch, the thought of reading any of the stories just didn’t even exist.
But the stories do, and for all my adult life I’ve known that they are amongst the most highly rated stories DC have ever published. The only ones I have read before are those that appeared in Showcase. Now it’s time to find out for myself.
Rittmeister Hans von Hammer, the ‘Hammer of the Skies’, the Enemy Ace, was introduced in Our Army At War 151, cover-dated February 1965, which would have been about right for when copies arrived in Britain. He was created by Bob Kanigher, Our Army At War‘s editor and writer of its lead feature, the famous Sgt. Rock, and drawn by Rock’s artist-in-residence, Joe Kubert. Von Hammer was teased on the cover as the blazing star they didn’t dare show and the whole concept was a controversial one, less than twenty years since the War in Europe ended.
Von Hammer was a pilot. Cleverly, Kanigher and Kubert went further back than the recent War, to World War 1, to 1918, and the ‘string-and-baling-wire’ planes of before. Von Hammer piloted a blood-red Fokke-Wulf triplane, the same as one of the Airfix models I had assembled and which hung from my bedroom ceiling.
Kanigher and Kubert, teamed on their natural subject. How could ‘Enemy Ace’ be less than superb? The first story was plain, but commanding, introducing the aloof von Hammer, a master of the skies, almost effortlessly establishing his superiority over the French and British planes, yet taking little or no pleasure from his prowess. Von Hammer is a man apart, in every sense, moving through the world behind a three foot thick sheet of glass. He is a killer, a cold, professional killer, putting his unique talent to the service of his country, aware of, and sometimes almost fearful of his degree of separation from everyone else. His only ‘friend’ is his lupine shadow, a Wolf that goes hunting with him.
All of this in one back-up story. For depth in economy I can only think of the original Swamp Thing story as comparable. And through it all, the remarkable thing is that von Hammer is simply von Hammer. He is not an indictment of the Germans as enemies. His nature is himself, and not the function of his country. Extraordinary stuff for late 1964.

EA 138

The series was a gamble, with Rock soliciting comments from the readers. Von Hammer returned in issue 153, in a story about the superstition of not having one’s photograph taken before flying into combat, and again in 155. This last one was astonishingly good: von Hammer shoots down a British plane only to realise, too late, that its pilot had empty guns, was defenceless. Horrified by what he has done, von Hammer follows the doomed plane down, hoping the pilot can pull out of the dive and land, but to no avail. The next day, his airfield is attacked by the pilot’s Squadron Leader, challenging von Hammer contemptuously to a single combat. Von Hammer takes off with empty guns himself, deliberately, and fights unarmed until the British attacker runs out of ammunition. Then the later realises von Hammer was defenceless, understands the nature, the honour of the man, salutes him and breaks off. The enemy understands, but von Hammer’s own pilots see only the Killing Machine.
This was the context of von Hammer’s two Showcase appearances. The first was about the honour that existed between pilots in this new form of combat, in a sky where their presence could not be taken for granted, where enemies had more in common than with their ground troops, who had no conception of what it meant to be in the air.
There had now been five Enemy Ace stories, two of them book-length. They were each excellent, especially in Kubert’s depiction of aerial combat as it was being formed. However, I couldn’t help but recognise the ploys Kanigher used invariably. Von Hammer flies and kills. He lands, ‘hearing’ his plane repeat ‘Killer, killer’ and his men call him a Killing Machine. His babbling orderly praises his ever-accumulating Victory Cups. He meets the wolf in the Black Forest, talks to it as his only friend, the only ones who understand each other. Over and over.
Showcase didn’t win von Hammer a title of his own. Enemy Ace disappeared then, in 1965. But he was not forgotten. Two and a half years later, von Hammer was revived as the lead feature in Star-Spangled War Stories, his logo emblazoned on the cove. Enemy Ace returned in issue 138 and, with the exception of one issue, featured until no. 150 before once again returning to that undeserved limbo reserved for characters who are too bloody good for the audience.

EA 141

Nothing had changed, not least the intensity that surrounded the character, the expert at flying and killing who is feared by everyone and kept a distance that he himself knows no way of bridging, the man trapped in what he is, addicted to the sky, knowing that one day it will kill him as thoughtlessly as it does everyone else, determined to give it every chance at his destruction that he can.
I could never have read and appreciated anything like this in 1968, but I should have done a long time ago.
The new series introduced a recurring foe for von Hammer, a French pilot of equal skill who goes by the name of the Hangman. In issue 140, a collision between planes downs both pilots and makes von Hammer the prisoner of the Hangman, himself an aristocrat. The two treat each other with the utmost courtesy, puzzling the Hangman’s sister, Denise, but once von Hammer escapes and regains the skies, the only place he will allow himself to die, they return to being implacable enemies, bending their skill to each other’s destruction.
And I may say Kubert’s art leads one into the skies and draws us on wings of paper-mache and string.
The artist had now taken over as editor of the war books but the writer continued to expand the range of the stories. In issue 142, von Hammer succeeds in shooting down the Hangman, only to gain a new and more bitter enemy in his sister Denise, an implacable foe, an equal flier, and a Harpy of hate, determined to wreak revenge upon an enemy whose honour forbids him from firing back at her.
The Hangman was brought back in issue 145 to lock horns with von Hammer again, tearing at him by killing his three ablest pilots first. Once again he appeared to die, though I’m not taking bets on it, whilst von Hammer crashed and would have been a victim of the wolves were it not for his black wolf friend.
Next issue, von Hammer appeared only as narrator for two unremarkable and indeed pretty flat WW1 air-fighting stories, presumably as a result of deadline difficulties. His return was with the series’ first complete schtumer, a gimmick-story featuring an OTT opponent who dressed up as St George and flew in a suit of armour, taking the run outside the bounds of believability for the first time. This was followed by von Hammer adopting a wounded puppy as a good luck mascot, only for him to fall from the cockpit in battle, to his death. Again, the insertion of the fantastic detracted from not merely the believability but the intensity.

EA 142

Once again, something different was coming to an end, failing to match up to the sales of the superheroes. 1970 was looming. A story in issue 179 explained von Hammer’s duelling scars, but it was also cut to only two-thirds length to make room for Kanigher and Kubert on a revival of the Viking Prince, welcome in itself but in a war book?
But the writing was on the wall, or rather the cover. The Star-Spangled War Stories logo was spread across issue 150’s cover, and Enemy Ace reduced to a circle, and inside was the last story. Von Hammer is shot down over France but returns to his airfield thanks to the ironic aid of three people awaiting sons, brothers and fiances return from the skies, not knowing each are dead at von Hammer’s hands. But somehow the story failed to connect, largely because of a curious decision to switch from first person narration to second person, distancing von Hammer at the very moment we needed to be brought in close.
The lettercol spoke as if nothing would change but Enemy Ace was dropped, and the Unknown Soldier replaced him as the new lead feature.
That isn’t totally the end of the story. Rittmeister Hans von Hammer reappeared years later, in 1974’s issue 181-3, a three part back-up story by Kanigher, drawn by Frank Thorne in a close imitation of Kubert, sending him up against another of DC’s war characters, Steve Savage, the Balloon Buster. It wasn’t the same.
Von Hammer’s final appearance in Star-Spangled War Stories was a five pager, written and drawn by Kubert, this time going the full distance into the third person. It was dry and shallow and a poor end.
There have been other runs. Shortly after, von Hammer was restored to appear in eleven of twenty issues of Men at War between 1977 and 1979. Even though it was still being written by Kanigher, the art was that of lesser hands, lacking a fraction of Kubert’s expressiveness. I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I know disappointment when it’s spitting in my face. The same thing went for another series of back-ups between 1981 and 1982 in The Unknown Soldier (as Star-Spangled War Stories was re-named from issue 205), even with some John Severian art.
No, Enemy Ace was indeed as good as they said it was all those years, good enough for me to decide to ignore lesser versions. I don’t have to accept that they are canon in my head, just like so many contemporary series don’t exist for me. Seventeen issues represent the whole as far as I’m concerned, seventeen and no more. Seventeen was more than enough.