The Three Lives of the Phantom Lady


Sometimes, I just act on impulse. There’s a decreasing number of titles or characters in which I’m interested in learning, and hundreds of DVD-Roms of obscure titles from the Golden Age or after, rotating endlessly on eBay but not suggesting I’d get out of the the same amount of fun I’ve been enjoying so far.
I particularly enjoyed the Lady Luck and Black Cat series, at least the solo title version of the latter, and would love to find something equally entertaining and independent minded. So let’s try again with the Phantom Lady.
I’m going into a slightly dubious area of this particular heroine’s history. The Phantom Lady was originally created in the Eisner/Iger Studio for Police Comics 1 (August 1941), published by Quality Comics, making her an exact contemporary of Plastic Man and The Human Bomb. Drawn initially by Arthur Peddy, and then by various artists including Joe Kubert, the Lady was Senator’s daughter Sandra Knight, who fought crime with a wrist-mounted black light projector that effectively made her invisible, and a skimpy yellow bathing suit that made her very noticeable indeed!
Sandra fought the superhero fight until Police Comics 23, whereupon she was taken back by the now Iger-only Studio, believing it held the copyright. In 1947, they licensed Phantom Lady to Fox Feature Syndicate (of no relation to the Murdoch family, this was the company created by Victor Fox that published Wonder Man, the first direct rip-off of Superman). The character later appeared from Ajax, and Charlton (in reprints of Fox stories) before being bought, it was believed, by DC when they acquired Quality’s assets. This was my introduction to the Phantom Lady, in Justice League of America 107, yes, the very issue that reintroduced me to comics after initially growing out of them. I’ve only ever known PL as a DC character in one setting or another, and an ex-Quality asset. And DC have controlled the character ever since, though reprints of Fox material have been published without legal challenge.
The DVD I bought was supposedly of the character’s tenure at Fox. Instead, it consisted of three Archives, covering the Quality and Ajax years, as well as a volume of Extras. So, more comprehensive than I anticipated. That can only be for the good.

PL at Quaity Comics

First up was a long file that reprinted the first twelve Phantom lady stories by Peddy, interspersed with three chapters of a prose story, obviously of much later vintage, outlining Sandra Knight’s background with a loving mother who was also a proficient American Intelligence Agent who committed her daughter to a Parisian Finishing School for the daughters of spies who expected their girls to take after them. Mrs Knight then spent several years out of touch before being confirmed as dying in the Service Of Her Country.
All of this was meant to retrospectively justify Sandra’s capabilities as a super-heroine.
And did they need it. I’ve long been familiar with Sandra’s origin, her striking from the shadows, unseen, to prevent German assassins murdering her father, Senator Knight, but I’m only now learning that this origin was wholly a DC concoction. In Police Comics 1, like so many heroes of the early Forties, The Phantom Lady arrives fully-formed, without explanation.
After some fairly sketchy art on her debut, Peddy quickly firmed up his linework. To modern eyes, PL offends no taste: Sandra Knight is a tall, poised and slim figure, with swept-back raven hair. Her swimsuit is just a swimsuit, and she supplements it with a long green cloak. Bare legs and arms, and shoulders, are the only things to challenge modesty, and when it comes to the form-fitting stuff, it’s not like Sandra, at this stage, is over-endowed in front: very much the Flapper build.
Peddy’s art is clean and stream-lined, but it’s also stiff and immobile. Phantom Lady tends to stand around a lot, looking stately and even in action sequences, Peddy brings little sense of movement. There is no comparison to the wit and style of Lady Luck and certainly not the agility of Black Cat.
Come to that, PL is not the most effective of crime-fighters. Physically, she’s no match for any male crook, unless she can get into a position where she can hit them over the head with her black light flashlight. And in the first dozen issues, she’s knocked out by punches more often than Lady Luck and Black Cat put together over twice the space.
In keeping with the formula, Sandra Knight has a boyfriend, or rather a fiancé in Don Borden, of the Secret Service, though the fact of their engagement is only mentioned every now and then. On the other hand, Don isn’t going around panting after Phantom Lady all the time, the way that radio reporter was Black Cat, or the Captain was with Liberty Belle.
It’s all pleasant stuff, but it’s also undistinguished. There is no formula to the stories but in the other hand there’s little variation either. Be it crooks or saboteurs or assassins, PL gets involved and down they go, with no great effort or tension. However, despite its limitations, Peddy’s art gets better and crisper as he goes on and it’s a real disappointment when he departs after issue 13.

An Arthur Peddy panel


His replacement, believe it or not, is Joe Kubert for the first three issues. I say believe it or not because nothing in the art looks like Kubert. If anything, it appears to be heavily influenced by Jack Cole (who was drawing the Spirit rip-off character, Midnight, as well as Plastic Man). It’s cartoony stuff, as are the stories, though its one plus point is that, after a year of Sandra Knight running around bare-faced in front of her father and her fiance, with her hair brushed back from her forehead, not even Liberty Belle’s Veronica Lake peekaoo cut, he puts her in a full-face yellow mask-cum-veil for the second and third stories.
Frank Borth, more of a veteran, took over art. This was a decidedly mixed blessing, with Borth drawing excellent splash pages, each with its large scale drawing of Sandra or PL, only to offer some distinctly rough art for the remaining five pages of the story.
These are still not particularly individual and when they are it’s not in a good way, as in the one where a crook put away by Senator Knight ten years earlier tries to get revenge by dressing up as the Easter Bunny and leaving time bomb eggs as part of an egg hunt.
More interesting, though still not in the best of ways, was the five part crossover between Police Comics and Feature Comics, or rather between the Phantom Lady and the Spider Widow. It all starts with the Widow’s sidekick, The Raven, turning up in PL’s feature, to help her with the recent spate of attacks on the Senator or Sandra, leading to a criss-crossing between series marked mainly by the two heroines showing catty jealousy of each other over their interest in the Raven. To call it silly is to glorify it.
As for the Spider Widow, whose real identity is society gal and athlete Dianne Grayton, she was unusual for being a heroine with a lovestruck male assistant, the superpower of being able to control black widow spiders, and being a hot, fit woman who dressed up as a hag complete with green full face mask.
This was the only time any Quality Comics characters ever crossed over.
As for PL, she did, for a time, sport a black domino mask that was so small that it looked more like inexpertly applied mascara.
With one last story drawn by Peddy, and one by Rudy Palais, Quality Comics’ Phantom Lady series ended.
The character was not seen for four years, when the Iger Studio licensed her to Fox. This is the truly controversial run of her Golden Age career. For this run, the art was by Matt Baker and was notorious for being very much of the ‘good girl’ type, i.e., scantily clad and busty females in suggestive and erotic poses, the sort of stuff that accelerated the creation of the Comics Code Authority. Well, sobeit. Let’s see what was so ‘good’ about Sandra Knight in the hands of Mr Baker, and just how risque this stuff is in the Twenty-First Century.
There’s more fascinating information in the Archive’s introduction, this time about Fox Features chief, ex-stockbroker Victor Fox. Though the story that Fox was an accountant at Detective Comics Inc. who saw sales figures on Superman and went out to hire offices in his lunch hour is apochryphal, Fox started up his company shortly after Superman debuted, and his first character was the infamous Wonder Man, who was every bit the Superman knock-off the legend has him being, though apparently not quite as against the wish of Will Eisner as the latter made out in later life.
Anyway, Fox had a habit of stiffing his creators that left him facing bankruptcy, only for him to somehow regain solvency and reopen Fox Features in 1945. Two years later, Jerry Iger decided that he owned Phantom Girl after his break with Eisner, and licensed her to Fox.
The Lady, still as Senator’s daughter Sandra Knight with her black light weapon, but now choosing to dress in dark blue instead of yellow – not to mention having discovered some means of at least doubling her bust line whilst in limbo – re-emerged in Phantom Lady 13, the title picking up the numbering of Wotalife Comics. She appeared in two stories in that first issue, credited to Gregory Page, though the second of these was pencilled by Matt Baker.
The immediate impression was of a jauntier, more buoyant art style, a fast paced syory and some egregious lapses in logic in the story-telling, as if vital panels that explained what was going on had somehow been squeezed out of the layout. PL developed an unfortunate habit of getting smashed over the back of her pretty head by the crooks, and given how brightly lit even the night scenes were, it was stranger than ever that nobody recognised her as Sandra Knight, given they both had the same hairstyle.
Three more stories in the next issues, only one of them drawn by Baker who, experts have determined, contributed less to the series than reputation claims. Oddly, his story is the mildest of the three, but already there’s a pattern: freewheeling stories with reduced regard for logic, PL getting knocked out and tied up regularly, the Police alternately arresting her for crimes and misdemeanours then standing back and letting her fade unquestioned when she produces the real villain – and lotsa lotsa leg on display from Sandra and any other female who happens to get into the story.
As well as her own title, Phantom Lady also appeared in All-Top Comics, an anthology title offering Rulah, Jungle Goddess, Blue Beetle, the Dan Garrett version and Jo-Jo, Congo king. Of course, all we get is the Phantom Lady story.
To be honest, this is cheap stuff, formulaic and silly, but the art saves it. It’s quick and vigorous, and both Sandra and her alter ego are drawn attractively. This is decent ‘good girl art’, giving the character an athletic appearance without exaggeration of either the legs or that aforementioned bustline out of realistic proportion. Nor do Baker and the other artists go in for unrealistic contortions to emphasise certain body parts, and shapes, for crude effect.
No, legs are very much on display, both Sandra’s and Phantom Lady’s, the one’s costume involving shorts and the other happy to slip into them often, but there’s a joyful buoyancy to everything, natural poses, and a cheerful innocence to the whole thing.

The infamous cover to PL 17

Matt Baker’s art reaches its apotheosis with the cover of Phantom Lady 17. This is the infamous bondage cover that was seized upon for much condemnation by Frederic Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent. These are different times and we are none of us so innocent about sex and it’s less mainstream variations, but I don’t find it half so offensive as I’m supposed to, even from a feminist-oriented perspective – I mean, she’s hardly encumbered, the ropes are more decoration than anything and nothing’s stopping her whipping her… black light out.
But her bust, neither enhanced nor fettered as the cleavage demonstrates, is at its largest to date.
One black mark and one oddity about the series in this period. The black mark is the pre-Code predilection for casual death. It’s one thing when this happens to a villain, but there are several instances of women being killed, two by strangulation, one of them Sandra Knight’s widowed friend who she was supposed to be helping, who had an on-panel scarf twisted round her neck, and a third by a poison injection.
As for the oddity, this was the splash page of every first story in Phantom Lady itself, which would be printed in black-and-white, overlaid by a monocolour, but the rest of the story was in full colour. Explain that.
In addition to the reprints, the Archive includes three instalments of a fan-fic by the late Nigel Cantwell, plus notes as to where he saw his efforts leading. Cantwell was trying to create a binding mythos that drew all the disparate Phantom Ladies, including DC’s much later Dee Tyler into a single continuity that established the Quality Comics and Fox Features versions as two different women, and Dee Tyler as a member of the Knight family. It’s interesting stuff, but only for a moment. Like all such things it combines the need to create a considerable number of connections and situations with no founding in the comics and the overpowering urge to tie too many thing together in the grand ol’ tradition of a Roy Thomas retcon. I hate Roy Thomas retcons.

A Fox page

But the Phantom Lady’s second life was running short and there was a sign in issue 22, when Sandra Knight, in order to flush out the crooks, got Don Borden to impersonate PL. Yes, the Lady’s costume, complete with lustrous black wig but, quite obviously, no other… qualification. Add to that the conclusion of the story in which PL’s Black Light Ray is completely useless against a Robot Man, except that in some unshown, unexplained and obviously unthought-out way, it… does. Don’t ask me what it does because we’re already on the last page of the story so you’re just going to have to take everybody’s word for it.
It’s that same old thing: the series is heading for cancellation – this is 1949 by now – and the stupid stuff arrives on cue. Though, to be fair, the same issue’s story, in which PL substitutes for half the American squad at the 1948 Olympics, saw her winning everything (including the boxing!) by record margins, was commendably short of unimaginative images of dear old London Town in the Nineteenth Century.
There was a much more egregious bondage cover on issue 23, and I’m going to have to say this once and it goes here, but Phantom Lady has her big tits thrust out in virtual profile. Wertham would have been on much stronger grounds with this one, and it’s not even the much-maligned Matt Baker.
The last story in the last issue was oddly appropriate, in that it featured Phantom Lady apparently dying and returning from the dead. In reality, all that happened was that her car went off a bridge into the river, there was a surprisingly realistic turn when her cape caught in the car’s mechanism, only for the momentum to be lost when her entire costume got ripped off by a riverboat’s propellers. Fortunately, and in defiance of every panel in which she’d been drawn to date, Sandra happened to have on a frilly bra and panties underneath which, being naturally more adhesive to human skin, were not ripped off, or disturbed and showing the slightest sliver of additional skin at all. Boo, hiss.
But that wasn’t entirely the end, for one final story appeared in All-Top Comics 17, cover dated May 1949, and Sandra accompanies Senator Knight on a mission to South Korea and Phantom Lady overcomes the Monkey Cult.
And then there was the Ajax run. This didn’t last long, coming in before the superhero properly caught hold again. The introduction pins it all on the initially fantastically successful ‘Superman’ TV show, which debuted in 1952 and spurred a number of companies, most notably Atlas (another from Martin Goodman’s stable of companies), to see if a revival would work.
Ajax came relatively late to the party, when the writing was on the wall. Apparently, the company published a total of 16 superhero comics, turning to Jerry Iger’s shop for material, and Iger turning to his old characters, including Phantom Lady, who he still claimed to own. Nobody challenged him, but then again both Quality and Fox were dead and gone.

PL at Ajax: spot the difference?

Phantom Lady turned out to be Ajax’s biggest success, in terms of longevity at least, her third series running for four issues. It began with issue 5, taking over the numbering of a short-lived titla called Linda, before being followed up with issues 2-4. So, in three series at three different companies, there never once was a Phantom Lady no. 1. You expect sense? This is a blog about comics.
The guy behind Ajax was Robert Farrell (born Isadore Katz), who’d been around since the Forties and who had worked with Victor Fox, and he was the last publisher to use the Iger Shop for his comics.
The difference is obvious from the first splash page, the Phantom Lady swinging into action in her usual manner, Black Light Ray at the ready. It’s still the blue and red costume, but the top is subtly different: no cleavage. In fact, it’s up to the neck, down to the waist and all the way round the back. If you’re into bare arms, you can still get your rocks off, though.
And only a page or so in, the panel where Sandra Knight is stripping down to her PL costume is also missing: the Senator’s daughter will henceforth only change costume offscreen. This was Dr Wertham’s time. The Comics Code Authority was on its way and Ajax would not be caught napping.
Though Phantom Lady was still wearing something proudly underwired under that drab and all-covering top.

PL in action at Ajax

The Code actually kicked in for issue 3, which was indistinguishable from its predecessors in style and tone, but was distinguishable for it’s new form: both stories were re-runs of stories from the Fox era, the second being a near word-for-word repeat of the Korea story from All-Top 17 but completely re-drawn. If it were meant as a time and effort-saving exercise, as the use of repeated stories in this short run indicates, the complete re-draw could have saved absolutely nothing.
Before her final issue, Phantom Lady popped up in an issue of Ajax’s Wonder Boy that was distinguished only by her captor ordering her to be gagged and her turning up next panel completely gagless.
The final issue was made-up of two more re-treads and an inconsistency. In the first, the unrevealing top was accompanied by shorts extending practically all the way to the knee, though in the back-up, which was a re-do of the one in which Sandra’s friend Betty is strangled whilst Miss Knight is off changing into her costume, we get the usual delightful expanse of thigh. You can’t show women being strangled with scarves any more but don’t worry, Betty still dies, only this time it’s of a weak heart. Which somehow makes it all the more callous.
Yet another re-tread, in the next issue of Wonder Boy, was Phantom Lady’s last public appearance, but appropriately enough, her last story was a phantom, an unpublished black-and-white seven pager that did not appear until 1999. And it was yet another retread.
One final curiosity to mention: Phantom Lady’s back-up story in her Ajax debut issue 5 might have been a new story for Sandra Knight but it was actually an edited and re-written version of a wartime story starring plucky girl secret agent, Spitfire Sanders, originally appearing in Spitfire Comics 132, much of which art was re-used with Sandra replacing the other blue-black-haired female. As a bonus, the Archive finishes with the original story.
And that really was that. The brief Ajax run can’t hold a candle to either of its predecessors and is mostly a waste of time, but it completes the picture. After this, Sandra ‘Phantom Lady’ Knight would not be seen again, this time from DC Comics, who believed her, rightly or wrongly, to be among the assets they had acquired from Quality Comics. Phantom Lady, reverting to her original yellow and green costume, reappeared as I said in Justice League of America 107.
In comparison to the trilogy of lady-heroes I referred to at the start of this essay, Lady Luck, Black Cat and Liberty Belle, Phantom Lady is clearly inferior by quite a degree. But whilst the vigour and unashamed good-girl art of the Fox Features version is clearly not respectable, the sense of underlying fun in the stories is well-matched with the art, and though Phantom Lady may have been shocking in 1947-9, there’s nothing to disturb even a maiden aunt in 2020, and by our standards, Sandra is positively innocent.
So I’ll count this as a welcome impulse in the end. What shall we look to next?

Back in yellow: at DC by Dave Stevens

Dan Dare: Keith Watson’s OTHER New Eagle Story


A long time back, as part of my series on Dan Dare stories, I reviewed the first ever real revival of the Pilot of the Future, a six-part, eighteen page story appearing in New Eagle in 1989, drawn by the legendary Keith Watson.
At that time, I was aware of, but chose to ignore, a second Watson story, a pathetically short effort consisting only of two episodes, the second completed by Andrew Skilleter. I don’t know the history of that but, judging by all I know of Watson and his loyalty to Frank Hampson and his work, I could easily see him walking away in disgust at such poor and cheap material.
Not that long after my piece on Watson’s six-parter appeared, I was advised by a commenter that I had it wrong, that Watson had drawn a second ‘full-length’ story in New Eagle. For various reasons – the overall lack of quality of the first story, the complete of my Eagle collection, the discovery of comics collections on DVD – I didn’t bother trying to find and read it until now, and so it can take its belated place in the list of tales I recognise as semi-canon.
The second story started on 3rd February 1990 with a cover by Watson and the excitable blurb about ‘A craft of Alien origin crashlands in England…’ Indeed it does, but the fact that it crashlands in Wigan, practically next door to Digny’s Aunt Anastasia’s house, disrupting her famous annual outdoor party (what famous annual outdoor parties?) doesn’t get things off on the right foot. Nor does Aunt Anastasia immediately vid-phoning Digby at Spacefleet HQ to tell him to come nad drag it away necessarily improve matters. Then Farmer Benson, on whose land it’s crashed, has in dragged into a barn in case it might be worth something for salvage, and starts fiddling with its controls. Which erupt with probably disastrous effects when someone hits it with a hammer…
I confess to having had this first part for a couple of years without feeling the urge to go further, as you may well understand, but now I’ve got the rest of the run off eBay, so how did things develop?
Near two pages of rapidly burgeoning disaster seques into Dan and Digby debating the likelihood of this craft being an alien probe out to make contact, like the Voyager probes launched in the Seventies. This is the Voyager mission of our world, not Dan Dare’s Universe, making the reference an anomaly (the prediction that Earth lost contact with Voyager in the late 1990s was, thankfully, inaccurate). But that’s just a prelude to an energy field forcing the pair down into a School playground where the kids are running from a horrible, dragon-like monster (oh dear…)
Noticeably, whilst Sir Hubert Guest wore the proper Spacefleet cap, Dan and Dig have to wear the unimpressive forager-style peaked caps that characterised the ongoing stories. Not even Watson can make them look palatable. Anyway, Dan and Digby get rid of the fire-breathing thing by decoying it into the local colliery museum and dropping it down a liftshaft. Then a machine appears, collecting soil and plant samples, until it reaches a garden Centre and blows up for no adequately defined reason. Are you detecting a streak of the banal a Saturnian mile wide yet?
Still, the machine is generating an ever-widening energy field that’s consuming everything in its path. Enter Professor Peabody to detect that the field is penetrating everything above ground but not a dicky bird underground. Clearly Earth’s earth is inimical in some way, so Dan whistles up a Thunderbirds style machine known as the Earthworm, which he and Digby will use to literally undermine the machine, causing it to drop into the local subsidence.
This just sets up the cliffhanger. Apparently radio waves in Dan Dare’s future can’t penetrate underground so the moment the Earthworm digs through the surface its incommunicado, and the maps of the old mine-workings don’t show shafts… So the Earthworm gets trapped under collapsed rock, earth and substandard twentieth century coal… unable to move!
But you know Dan Dare will save the day, thanks to an offhand remark from Dig that sets his brain working. By turning up the heat, Dan burns off the coal in time to get the Earthworm where it needs to be. Cue one massive cave-in, enabling the machine to be sealed in and cut-off from sunlight. Day saved, end with Aunt Anastasia complaining about cracks in her garden and a portentous comment from Dan Dare about maybe we don’t want to meet this alien civilisation after all.
Sigh.
This other adventure is very much the traditional curate’s egg. The adventure itself is flat and banal, less involved that some of the old eight-pagers from the Eagle Annuals of the Fifties, and in its determinedly mundane settings I get the impression that the writer can’t really take it seriously. It comes over to me as being penned by someone who can only see Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, as old hat, fit only to be sent up: I mean, come on, Dan Dare? In 1990?
But if the story is, frankly, a load of bollocks, it is nevertheless another eighteen pages of Keith Watson, devoting himself to maintaining the quality of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future. And despite the enforced faux-pas of the forager caps, for which he cannot be blamed, Watson is again on wonderful form, this time supported by a colourist who makes full use of his palate, Even in those panels that are mostly monocoloured, the tones chosen are attractive and sympathetic, and do not overwhelm Watson’s linework.
Good art, shame about the story: how many times have we said that? Sometimes it seems the price of an affinity for this scruffy and disreputable medium. I’m glad to have these pages to look at and drink in. Let this exceedingly minor effort tuck itself into some unimportant and half-concealed corner of the continuity. Keith Watson rides again in our memories.

The Men on Borrowed Time: Challengers of the Unknown


The Challengers by Kirby

And so to begin again, with another series that flitted past my consciousness throughout the Sixties but which I now have the chance to read and, hopefully, enjoy. This is the Challengers of the Unknown, created by Dave Wood and the great Jack Kirby, then a jobbing artist at DC Comics, but producing a four person adventure team that had something of an influence on a four person team he co-created in 1961.
The Challs – a regularly used nickname that I dislike but will be using because it’s so much shorter – first appeared in Showcase 7 in 1957. There’s no clear explanation as to their creation, with some saying it was Kirby alone, others claiming Dave Wood as co-creator and some putting forward Kirby’s old partner Joe Simon. Either way, the team were granted four issues of Showcase, nos 7-8 and 11-12 before stepping up into their own title in May 1958. I’m disappointed that the DVD doesn’t include the Showcase issues and instead goes straight to their own series.
As you ought to know, the Challs consisted of four adventurers, test pilot Ace Morgan, skindiver Prof. Haley, circus daredevil Red Ryan and wrestler Rocky Davis. The quartet met for the first time when being flown to a television interview. But the plane crashed en route. All four men should have been killed, but they survived. Deciding that, henceforth, they were living on borrowed time, the quartet banded together as the Challengers of the Unknown, to seek out daring and unusual adventure, to put themselves at risk freely.
What did it matter the danger? They should already be dead. If they died now… It’s an exciting and elemental idea, especially as the Challs were only ordinary men, reliant on their human skills, their strength, their wits.
Issue 1 demonstrated what the Challs were about. It had the standard two stories, the slightly longer at the front of the book pitting the all-action Challs against a renegade scientist whose Infinity Machine dragged alien monsters to Earth that started eating things like Electricity and Bedrock, whilst the back-up – which got the cover – featured the men being snatched from Earth to become the pets of a towering alien who was only a little kid. The second issue faced the guys off against a mutant monster and a criminal with fantastic mental powers.
The first three issues each included an appearance in one story from ‘honorary Challenger’ June Walker, a lovely young blonde scientist. I don’t know whether June was living on borrowed time or not but she was a girl, which was enough to reduce her to honorary all by itself.

Original costumes

The team got together for a book-length story in issue 4, in which Dr Darius Tiko stole a Time Machine and the Challs had to pursue him to both past and future to stop him making himself the usual dictator of Earth. The beautiful June was back for another book-length story in issue 5, though by then she’d changed her name to the rather more familiar one of Robbins, by which she’d go on being known. Nobody commented on it though. Since she was too old to be adopted, the only explanation had to be marriage. And if she hadn’t gotten married, maybe she’d just got out of an unhappy one, reverting to her maiden name, and everyone was just too tactful or too bound by the Comics Code to mention it. Such mysteries…
Kirby’s run as artist only lasted to issue 8, when he left DC, finding himself persona non grata after a dispute with an editor over external work. He returned to Martin Goodman’s array of companies, drawing endless monsters in stories written by Stanley Leiber. He’d do alright.
His work on the Challengers is far from his best. The energy and grotesquerie of The Newsboy Legion is gone, and though distinctive, his figurework is bland and unspectacular. Yet little flashes of the imagination that would shortly transform comics can be seen here and there, in strange creatures and be-robed villains, and June Robbins’ headdress when he temporarily becomes a sorceress. But it was for the best, his best at least for some time, that the ways parted now.
His successor, Bob Brown, who got the job on a permanent basis, was an altogether blander artist, the basic meat-and-potatoes cartoonist. Though he worked extensively for both DC and Marvel, his run on the Challs until issue 63 is regarded as his signature work.
Ten issues is enough to start forming some impressions. At the start the four Challengers are distinguishable only by what each does. The language is earnest, professional and characterless, as interchangeable as the yet-to-be devised Justice League. The Challs tackle fantastic things and defeat them with no special powers.
June, the honorary Challenger, turns up for all the book-lengthers. Where there are two stories, there is one with her and one without. She’s blonde until issue 10 when she simultaneously grows her hair out and turns brunette. And in one of the two stories Red Ryan, who alternates between daredevil adventurer and champion mountain-climber, suddenly starts taunting Rocky Davis, who starts replying angrily. Was this the start of something?
Indeed it was. The bantering continued in issue 11, which featured a rather trite invasion-from-another-dimension story of the kind that was so familiar around the turn of the Sixties. June reverted to blonde and Rocky started to develop a more rough-hewn pattern of speech, suitable to a tough guy. It was a good eighteen months and more before the departed Jack Kirby would co-create (at minimum) the Fantastic Four, which men have compared to the Challs, and what we’re seeing here is a direct forerunner of the Human Torch and the Thing.

New Costumes


This was laid off for issue 12, which saw the Challs establish their headquarters in Challenger Mountain as a background element to the second story. And the business with June’s hair colour got ridiculous next issue when she turns up brunette again only to don a blonde wig to save the day (and get her only line of dialogue along the way).
The team’s first regular villain, Duncan Pramble, aka Multi-Man, made a two-part debut across issue 14 and 15. In the first, he drank an alchemical potion that gave him superpowers and a disturbing kind of immortality in that every time he died he’d be reborn with another set of powers. Prof came up with an antidote that worked four times but Multi-Man died five times, coming back for the fifth and final time as an evolved super-brain. Now, the easy way to end his menace was to kill him… but you know that’s not going to happen.
Meanwhile, brunette June set off an explosion that temporarily caused her to become a hundred foot tall. It also blew away the sleeves of her blouse and the legs of her jodhpurs but disturbed not another thread of her clothing, just as the Comics Code liked it. Brown drew some pretty nice legs, I discovered.
Sadly, the carping between Red and Rocky didn’t continue beyond those couple of issues but the formulaic adventures did. If it wasn’t creatures from one adjoining dimension or another, it was alien creatures of one sort or another, including Cosmo, the Challs’ space pet, a small furry walking deus ex machina debuting in issue 18.
It’s easy to mock the changing colour of June Robbins’ hair, especially when it goes blonde again in issue 19 – or is it just that she fancies wearing a wig in her natural hair-style every now and then? – but it does demonstrate poor editing by Murray Boltinoff to not instruct colourists to be consistent. June appears in every issue, just like Ace, Prof, Rocky and Red, and you don’t see Red appearing as a blond, or Rocky with red hair.
Big-Brain Multi-Man was back in issue 20, attempting to recover all his previous powers artificially but being hauled in.
There was a surprise next issue when June turned up in both stories, flashing her legs in one but only playing cameo in the other as there wasn’t really room for her and Cosmo in the same script.
It had been a long time coming but come it did in issue 23. June Robbins, honorary Challenger and scientist, obsessed with a yellow blouse, blue jodhpur and yellow boots combo, had appeared in every issue to date. She’d gotten herself into the middle of things as often as she’d merely signalled the Challs about the latest incredible events. But she didn’t fight. Only Ace, Prof, Red and Rocky swung their fists. But no-one made anything of it. Until now. June wears a pretty, sleeveless dress. And Ace tells her to stay back: “This is Man’s work”. I should know better than to expect better: this is still only 1961.
And yet, the very next issue, she drops out of a tree side by side with Red to knock out a couple of guards. They say that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of lesser minds but this?
Issue 28 saw the introduction of a letters page into the magazine, several years after such things had been pioneered by Julius Schwarz and Mort Weisinger for other titles. It was a bust, with only one letter about the Challs, suggesting a future story that editor Jack Schiff insisted was already in the works (they always are), whilst in another intriguing twist, June’s hair, already bright red on the covers, starting tinting that way inside, even as another story contrived to get her into a form-fitting, leg-revealing gown again.
Multi-man made his annual appearance, and took his annual defeat by the same method, in issue 30, which saw June dig out the blonde wig again for a story about F. Gaylord Claymore III, a playboy living on borrowed time, who wanted to become the non-honorary Fifth Challenger and who, after saving the day and being voted in, turned it down because he’d had to be rescued by June: the wuss.

Challengers 59

The following issue added some wrinkles to the Challengers’ origin by showing each of the four men as selfish, self-centred and greedy, until some transformative event that changed their perspective and which was the reason they were invited to appear on TV. This tagged onto a claim that it was not fate that saved from death but a man, who wanted them to feel obligated to him and unsuspectingly reconstruct a giant robot. But Ace was significant for one subtle reason: the absence of a piece of chewing gum.
This was actually a good story for once, and it was also the first time since the series began that June Robbins didn’t feature. The honorary Chall made a one-panel, one-line return in issue 33 but disappeared again for a book-lengther about how Multi-Man built a robotic Multi-Woman to share his exploits, only for her to behave like, yes, you’ve guessed it, a woman.
June didn’t get a real role again until issue 35, in a back-up story introduced a fortune teller’s vision of the Chall’s sons – and daughter – which portrayed her as Ace’s wife. In this future, her hair was grey, but it was back to blonde in the present. But the answer to her sudden relegation was exactly what it was expected to be: now the readers were being invited to write, they were writing, and they didn’t want a ‘gurl’ hanging around.
Suddenly Challengers of the Unknown had lost momentum. It wasn’t just removing June, but rather the assumption of editorial control by Murray Boltinoff from Jack Schiff seemed to lock the Challs into routine stories that lacked any sign of the, admittedly limited, flair that had been brought to them before. Nothing was distinctive enough to merit comment, and a return visit from the Challenger kids merely reinforced a) how dumb the idea was and b) how doubly dumb the means of a fortune teller’s crystal ball was.
Too many stories were now being written in response to reader requests. Always give the audience what they want was DC’s maxim, but what an audience wants is not usually the best approach. Audience’s are reactive, not creative. A story in which a Challenger quits, except he doesn’t, in issue 42, old foes teaming up to create the Legion of Challenger-Haters (issue 42) and, despite Boltinoff’s dismissal of it as a minority opinion, new costumes in issue 43: out went the all-purple jumpsuits, to be replaced by sleeveless gold skin-tight outfits, trimmed with red and with an hourglass emblem on the chest, symbolising time running out.
Both stories in issue 42, incidentally seemed vaguely familiar in certain panels: perhaps I bought this one back then. I did try a number of one-off titles in addition to the familiar series.
Short-sleeves were added to the new muscle-men outfits in issue 44 making the red trim look like straps for invisible rucksacks, whilst the purple kit made an incredibly quick comeback for a series of casebook back-ups: have your cake and eat it, eh?
I’m afraid I’m going to have to go on about the uniforms a bit longer. Issue 46 linked it’s two stories together by having both feature new villain the Gargoyle (no origin given, thankfully). The villain in the first becomes obsessed by a beautiful young blind woman, Laura, paying for an operation to restore her sight only for her to react badly to sight of him – not because he’s an ugly bugger with a rhino’s horn growing out of his forehead like you and I would, but because he’s evil.
And the back-up, written by Bill Finger, establishes who is the Challs’ leader, namely Ace as it has been since the beginning. The contest is suggested by June Robbins, turning up for the first time in ages, wearing her bright blonde hair in a very unflattering page boy bob, with a sleeveless above-the-knee red dress that was far less flattering than it ought to be.
Both stories displayed a lack of logic that was beginning to be the norm at DC, with Marvel gathering momentum and writers and artists who had been creating comics for twenty-five years and more starting to lose touch with what the kids genuinely wanted. Batman was on TV and the camp approach was filtering back into the comics. Badly.
But trivial though it was, the uniforms did more to demonstrate the sloppiness of preparation. Remember, this is the same artist on both scripts, Bob Brown, who draws the Challs with red epaulettes in the front and no epaulettes and no red trim in the back.

The origin

Some kind of nadir – at least I hope it’s a nadir – was reached in next issue when the respective menaces were The Spongeman – he’s turned into a sponge, he absorbs things – and, in the casebook slot with Finger and the jumpsuits, Mr Tic-Tac-Toe (that’s noughts and crosses to the UK audience), a world class tactical expert at, uh, tic-tac-toe.
After that, the Challs’ half of the Doom Patrol crossover didn’t seem quite as bad as when I was looking at it in isolation.
Ten issues, that’s all it was, ten issues that took the Challs from a decent if formularised adventure comic that was starting to run down to absurdly awful tripe. Those ten issues led up to no. 50, an uncelebrated landmark that introduced the latest new villain, proof that Spongeman was no nadir after all, as the team ran up against the World’s Vilest Villain – Villo. Yes, Villo. And he is every bit the bust his name suggests, proving yet again that he who boasts, isn’t.
This is becoming very difficult to persist with.
Yet issue 51, despite bringing back the Spongeman, co-starring the Sea Devils and featuring another of those particularly pointless inter-team battles that DC liked to feature since they were unable to take any other cues from Marvel’s increasing popularity, nevertheless contrived to be thoughtful and moving as Miklos, in the midst of reverting to human, forced himself to use his waning powers to soak up poison gas, even though it killed him on the verge of regaining his life.
Any goodwill that that story might have generated was locked in a steel chest and sunk into the Marianas Trench by Villo’s return next issue. If anything, the character was even more moronic that before, but the Challs weren’t far behind him, flying in a superplane called – I hesitate to type this – the Gallopin’ Gizmo. Moreover, Ace and Red are killed during the issue but restored to life by being sent back in time. I nearly quit right there.
But we bloggers of old comics runs are made of sterner stuff (I hope). And I have been here before, with Bob Kanigher and Wonder Woman. I recognise the state of a mind of an editor with such contempt for his readers that he will chuck any old swill at them, the more stupid the better, because he doesn’t deem them worth better, or even average. Boltinoff never really had any respect for his readers: here it’s particularly naked.
Issue 55 packed in the execrable Villo again, a fourth appearance in six issues, otherwise known as flogging a dead horse, added the League of Challenger-Haters with the latest version of Multi-Woman, whose control panel was behind her breasts, making every effort to reprogramme her into an obscene gesture, and ended by killing Red Ryan.
Yes, killing a lonely sacrifice to save the world that, for once, was meant to be taken as real, not that anyone was taken in, not even by the immediate coda introducing pop star Tino Maranny, dreamboat, redhead and determined to see all the Challs dead. I’ll leave you to work the anagram out for yourself: no peaking in Wikipedia, now!
Did you solve it before I got to the end of issue 56? Did you realise it stood for Martin Ryan, Red’s younger brother, who believes the Challs killed him? Are you wondering where the O is in ‘Martin Ryan’? On top of everything else, the Batman effect was in full slow, with no-one able to speak a line that was not flippant, freaky and horribly contrived.
Tino got two issues before learning the truth but bailed on joining the Challs because of their Schoolhouse routines (and this kid is supposed to be a genius?). The sooner they bring Red back, after all the boasting about being the first comic ever to kill a hero, the better. And, with protestations that they’d really, truly, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die meant to properly kill him because he wasn’t pulling his weight, Boltinoff and Co. brought Red back in issue 60 – as a world conquering monster until he was miraculously cured – only because fans protested far more than they expected. As Big Daddy, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof once said, there’s a powerful stench of mendacity here. The whole sequence was sickening.

Enter Corinna Stark – has Tony seen her yet?

The story of what Red had been doing all this time was split into two as back-ups to the next two issues, though typically the explanation for how he survived the massive explosion was ludicrous: he was at the eye of it, that’s how and why. More interesting was the contrast between the rest of the issues. The first was typical Challenger fare, fighting ludicrous robots, with a Boltinoff letter column of one letter and dozens of snippets, but the second had the Challs up against the Legion of the Weird, black magic of different natures and a standard lettercol with nothing but letters. What did this portend?
It portended a bit of a serial, with the evil magic-wielders out to kill the Challs and, along the way, blinding young Tino. So Red volunteers an eye for a transplant, but finds he can still see through Martin’s eye, which comes in handy as he’s the one who got kidnapped.
Not that anyone was hot on chasing Tino, not with half of issue 64 taken up by a reprint of the Challs’ origin story from Showcase 6: Kirby was so much better. It looked like the magic stuff was just a two-day wonder.
Whilst all this is going on, Bob Brown’s art is growing startlingly ugly. He can’t be wholly blamed for this for he was obeying instructions. DC were losing ground on all levels to Marvel and, completely unable to understand why, decided the secret was bad art. So suddenly, DC’s traditional neatness of art was abandoned for bigness: fewer panels per page, and now in tilted tiers, and bigger pictures, making everyone ugly and musclebound.
Though it was Jack Sparling taking over the artwork from issue 65, a fill-in written by Bob Kanigher, complete with new ‘spooky’ logo. Next up was the next instalment of the Legion story, this one written by Mike Friedrich, representing the fans starting to enter the industry. And Sparling’s odd angles and deliberately misproportioned figures only added to the deterioration in the art, even before Vinnie Colletta was assigned to provide inks. There’s a charmingly naïve introduction to Vinnie in the lettercol that leaves a nasty taste in the mouths of those who know what his game really was.
And writing assignments are all over the show now. After Kanigher and Friedrich, Denny O’Neill was lent out by Julius Schwartz to write issue 68, infecting Prof with evil in a so-sorry steal from Marvel. And such things were so sophisticated for DC in 1969.
If there’s one thing these long DVD runs of comics has taught me, especially the Silver Age ones, it’s how to detect the smell of death about a series. It’s not just the issue numbers and knowing when it stops. It’s the desperate flailing, the nosedive quality of the stories, the desperate new ideas that try to hang on to every little patch of ground as the series slips to the edge.
Prof’s evil streak was the PONR, or rather it was O’Neill being brought in to shake things up. Issue 69 saw Prof’s mean streak widen until he all but committed suicide, shot multiple times at point blank range but clinging on by a thread. So Rock ripped up his uniform and quit only to be tempted back by the offer of Corinna Stark, a total stranger with red hair, a green one-piece trousersuit and no apparent abilities whatsoever to take Prof’s place as the New Challenger. Just like that.
It got worse. Rocky falls for Corinna despite her stilted speech pattern, but Corinna loves Red who despises her, until his remaining eye is blinded but he gets a new pair thanks to a dying donor about three times his age, and Corinna practically launches herself down his throat, changing his opinion of her and breaking Rocky’s heart. Oh, dear God, just bring back June, blonde or brunette, I don’t care, anything’s better than this slop.
Not only did Corinna introduce dissension, heartbreak and femme appeal, she also brought in new costumes, a deeper shade of purple with yellow trim and white fur collars.
There was a charming editorial note in issue 72 admitting, if you read between the lines, that Sparling had gone down like a cup of cold sick with the readers (not that Boltinoff would ever have let any of them say it in print) and that George Tuska would be penciller from henceforward. He didn’t help. A forced-to-take-it-easy Prof returned in horribly clashing suit and tie with walking stick, Corinna climbed into costume, the white fur collar gone (it must have been summer), and everyone sat around with their mouths open and a complete set of upper teeth showing. Red, despite having his tonsils sucked off, still loathed Corinna.
Stay put, there’s not long left. Deadman guested in issue 74, a confused occult story drawn half and half by Tuska and Neal Adams who, at that point, was the only artist who got to draw Boston Brand. His cover restored the fur collars to the Challs’ uniforms but it was obviously warmer inside because they did without. Does no-one proof-read these things?
And guess what? After a one-page set-up, issue 75 was a reprint, of Showcase 7, introducing June Robbins, with blue-black hair (damn, so the brunette look was also a wig), volunteering to replace Rocky when he died (everyone but Ace…) but settling for honorary Challenger instead. It was dressed up in the lettercol as by irresistible demand from the readers but who believed that? Especially as the following issue reprinted one story each from Challengers 2 and 3. Issue 77 was also Kirby reprints but then, Dec 1970 – Jan 1971, without fanfare or forewarning, the series was cancelled, its sub-plots dangling, to be forgotten forever.
Strictly speaking, that’s the end of my account, though the Challs were revived in 1973 for three monthly issues, taking the series up to no 80, but these too were early era reprints that did nothing to spark a revival.
So what of the Challengers of the Unknown, created 1957, deceased 1970? Overall, as you will have long since gathered, I was less than impressed. Unlike other series of the Sixties that I didn’t read then and am only discovering in detail now, I found little in the series to truly interest and entertain me, and what there was was almost wholly in the first half of the run. Kirby’s eight-issue stint did not impress me that much in isolation, though by the time I was coming round to these again as reprints, I appreciated them a whole lot more.
Those first forty issues, or thereabouts, were the pick of the pack. Bob Brown was a good, solid artist before his art began to destroy itself on the curse of bigness, and the scripts by Drake, Herron and Finger were decent, though the former wasn’t able to conjure half of the wit and ingenuity of his Doom Patrol stories. The moment DC lost their nerve and started to question its own values in the face of Marvel was the moment the series began to decay: stupid villains, campy dialogue and plots, losing June Robbins, and lastly the simultaneous turn to the supernatural and a Denny O’Neil rescue job that fell flat on its face. No, for quite sometime up to the end there, reading the series was a chore. It answered questions and filled in the other part of half-facts for me, and has enabled me to write the kind of account I wanted to exist when I was coming to these characters first, that told me all the important things. So it’s not a waste.
Nevertheless, when I run out of series to find on DVD, thousands upon thousands of comics in a pile a few inches high, and I have time to go back and re-read, there are favourites I’ll immerse myself in happily. Challengers of the Unknown will not be among them.

POSTSCRIPT

Just like Doom Patrol, the Challs did have a real revival, several in fact, all flops. Some ideas don’t work past their own era. The first revival, picking up the original numbering in 1977, is on the DVD. I also collected it then. So let us have a brief read. In its own way, it was an interesting run, even if it only lasted seven issues.
The Challs revival was spear-headed by a three-part series in the long-forgotten Super-Team Family, a kind of throwback to the pre-Batman team-up phase of The Brave and the Bold, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Jim Sherman before he was nabbed for the Legion of Superheroes. The final part of that run, featuring that old villain Multi-Man, was concluded in issue 81, but was plagued by sub-plots. Prof was dying again, Gaylord Clayburne was trying to join the Challs again, June Robbins was back as a blonde hottie, and and the new penciller was Mike Nasser (later Mike Netzer), a Lebanese American artist with a strong Neal Adams influence but nothing of his fluidity or compositional credibility.
The lettercol featured the worrying statement that the revival was going to range widely across genres, including the supernatural, an almost immediate confession that nobody, least of all editor Jack C Harris (who ruined a lot of titles in that era), had a clue what might work.
As was the immediate crop into Lovecraftian horror next issue, leeching off the story in Swamp Thing 8, with Berni Wrightson dropping by to ink one admittedly glorious panel. That was it for Nasser, who was replaced in issue 83 by a young Keith Giffen. You can feel things spinning out of control already, as Clayburne begs the help of Alec Holland (who reverted to human in the justly-forgotten Swamp Thing 23/24), who sacrifices his chance to prevent his permanent reversion to Swamp Thing in order to save Prof.
Prof still wasn’t out of the fungus and it took the appearance of Deadman to save him. After everyone caught up on the stories, Prof told them about Holland being Swamp Thing and his reversion. Clayburne, abruptly renamed Dustin (guess someone got embarrassed by a fahn ol’ Suthern name, y’hear), got told to piss off like someone who won’t want to take revenge, and everyone shoots off after Swampy and, after getting Multi-Man out of his head and burning Pramble’s brain out in the process, adopting him.
Throw in the idea of conflict between the Challs based on Rocky being friendly/affectionate towards June and Red being possessive over her (Red? She was always Ace’s bird, supposedly) and we are a long long way down Conway’s Cliche Well: he was always such a bloody lazy writer.
If anyone’s starting to suspect that this is becoming a home for Cancelled Characters, let me reintroduce you, in issue 85, to Rip Hunter and his Time-Masters. Nasser didn’t return as promised, Giffen stayed on but started to get all weird with his art (not Jose Munoz weird, that was years away) Red Ryan quit, and the Challs and their guests would up in the year 12,000,000.
That saw out the run. Challengers of the Unknown was cancelled again, and I think you can tell why. Those of you too young to have read the comics of the Seventies have it made. And that’s done at last.

Batman: Three Jokers 3


So.

In the end, I was unable to come to the final part of Three Jokers in the state of pure innocence, or ignorance, I would have preferred. But then again, if I had known the complete nothing I wanted, I doubt that I would have been overwhelmed with shock at an ending in which Geoff Johns once again pissed all over Alan Moore’s work. What is wrong with him?

On a purely technical level, the final part, the series as a whole, was a confusing mess, overlong for the story it was aiming to tell, stodgy and stupid. In this I have to exonerate Jason Fabok, who drew everything with a measure of tight control and impressive detail, albeit to an overworked state in which any element of freshness and imagination had been flattened out. The bigger problem with the art is Johns, by asking Fabok to draw so many pages and sequences of pages that slowed the story to a crawl by breaking actions down minutely and silently. In what detail do we need to see three different people using three different methods of travel, over and again, going to a certain place where they they break in from individual directions, by individual methods examined in detail at every step? I’ve eard of compressed story-telling but this was flat as a pancake.

Ok, what’s the story? Joker’s kidnapped Joe Chill. Batman finds unfinished and unsent letters from Chill to Bruce Wayne hidden in his cell, in which Chill shows genuine remorse and tries to apologise for what he did. The Criminal Joker plans to drop Chill into the acids, to build a better Joker but Batman saves the man who killed his parents and goes on to forgive him.

Criminal Joker gets shot through the head by Comedian Joker, leaving us back with one of them, though whether this is original or copycat, we don’t know. meanwhile, everybody fills every non-compressed panel with words that are supposed to indicate deep characterisation – after all, everyone, Bruce, Barbara and Jason, are hurt beyond healing, so what’s the fucking point of shuffling the cards in so limited a fashion – and the whole thing turns out to be immaculately Shakespearean: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The whole explanation comes from the surviving Joker, who, after demonstrating he knows who everyone is behind their masks en route to Arkham, explains that he conned his two partners into thinking of Joe Chill as the perfect better Joker, for the purpose of getting Batman to forgive him, heal his deepest hurt so that Joker can be the most important thing to him.

Are you listening to this bullshit? Because I’m not. It’s pseudo-psychological bullshit of no value or importance whatsoever, an unbearably convoluted excuse for a story that lied to and cheated its readers by conning them into reading story in which Johns not only provided no answer but rubbed the readers’ faces in the conspicuous way he was never going to give an answer.

Why three Jokers? Because you poor fuckers would pay to read it, just like I did, but I’m throwing this shite onto eBay in the knowledge that there are people out there dumb enough to buy it, and I’m never reaing anything by Geoff Johns again, not even to find out exactly how much he’s fucked over Alan Moore again.

How this time? By rewriting The Killing Joke. In that, the poor unknown schnuck who wanted to be a stand up comedian had a pregnant wife that he loved, that he fretted anxiously over supporting, except that she was accidentally electrocuted together with their baby, abad day that led to him becoming The Joker and be driven mad.

Not any more. Now he’s a violent abusive husband whose wife is scared of him, so the Police put her in the equivalent of Witness Protection and shipped her off to Alaska and a log cabin, her and her seven year old son, and the electrocution story was nothing more than a story. So The Joker wasn’t some poor guy who just had a shit day, like Bruce Wayne, he was already a psychopath. Just fuck off, Johns, you shit-filled leech.

Oh yeah, and smug, smartarse Batman has known the Joker’s real name from seven days after he first appeared but keeps it quiet to protect his family. How boring.*

Ah, I’m nearly done. Half a series of Strange Adventures, Tom King’s Batman/Catwoman limited series, by this time next year I’ll be out of it. I really cannot stand what comics have become now. They’ve stolen childhood away from the children and all they can write about now is death, despair, devastation and the breaking down of everything. I’ve had enough.

  • I’ve just remembered. The whole premise of Three Jokers was based on Batman discovering from the Mobius Chair that there were three, not one. But the question Batman asked to provoke this revelation was ‘what is the Joker’s real name?’ If he’d known that name from one week after he appeared, why did he ask the question in the first place? And if he’s that bloody smart, how come it took a Chair to reveal to him that there were three?

The Fabulous Freaks: The Doom Patrol


Once more unto the Silver Age as I take the opportunity to properly discover one of those stalwart series of the Sixties that, with the exception of perhaps a single issue, I always passed by in pursuit of the bolder, brasher, more overt superheroes. These are the times to check out whether my time ought to have been more worthily spent with the things more off-the-wall. Such as the Doom Patrol.
The original Doom Patrol was only around for a limited period, 42 issues between 1963. The team was created by writers Arnold Drake and Bob Haney at the request of editor Murray Boltinoff in an attempt to rescue the adventure-series, My Greatest Adventure, which was to be given a superhero theme to try and save it from cancellation.
In contrast to the rest of the Silver Age at DC, of clean-cut, highly-efficient, cardboard cut-out heroes with well-brushed teeth, Drake’s quirkier approach resulted in a team consisting of three misfits, individuals whose lives had been ruined by getting powers, who became objects of fear, bitter and excluded. You might almost think they had been created by Stan Lee at Marvel, and indeed Drake was convinced for the rest of his life that his ideas for the Doom Patrol had been stolen by Lee and used to underpin the original Uncanny X-Men.
That can never be proven, though there’s enough circumstantial evidence to elevate the accusation above mere paranoia. However, it is true to say that the Doom Patrol did the job it was tasked to do, in an appropriately left-handed manner. My Greatest Adventure survived, but not as that comic: after six issues of the Doom Patrol, the fabulous freaks took over the masthead, and it was as The Doom Patrol that the comic survived into 1968, written throughout by Drake, drawn throughout by Bruno Premiani and edited to the end by Boltinoff.
The series began in period fashion with a full-length story broken down into three chapters, the first of which was dedicated to bringing the team together. We, or at least I, always think of the Doom Patrol as a trio but they are in fact a quartet, under the command of their wheelchair bound leader Professor X… I’m sorry, the as-yet-unnamed The Chief.
Three misfits, outsiders, excluding themselves from the human race: the athletic gold medal swimmer and film star Rita Farr, affecting by strange gases released from underground, able to make herself shrink and grow at will (and, smarter than the Hulk, able to make her blouses and jodhpurs grow with her without tearing to shreds, even before she gets a costume), Larry Trainor, Air Force pilot bound symbiotically to the radioactive Negative Man, wrapped in bandages, able to release N-Man from his body for only 60 seconds without dying (amazing how they tested that…) and Cliff Steele, ex-racing driver and daredevil, his body destroyed in a car accident, his living brain transplanted into a robot body built for him by the Chief.
None of these self-described freaks wants to go out into the world at all, to be laughed at, hated, feared and despised (does this remind you of the X-Men? Nah, me neither) but a quick averting of danger through their powers and teamwork later is enough to change their minds. Chapter 3 sees them face up to their first running enemy, General Immortus, a wizened old man, reputedly immortal, who seems to have some history with the Chief. Immortus wants a crashed alien spaceship for its Atomic Converter, the Chief wants no-one, let alone Immortus, getting it. We start to get a feel for what the Doom Patrol are going to be like, with Larry being flippant about Cliff and Cliff being sarcastic about Larry and Rita playing peacekeeper between.
At the end, the alien ship blows up with the General inside it. So much for his being immortal (don’t you believe it) and the new team gets its name from the Press. We are on our way.

But book-lengthers were the exception and not the rule at DC in 1963. The following issue featured a two-chapter Doom Patrol story with Elasti-Girl (Rita) taking an unusually stronger leading role and Automaton, as Cliff Steele was originally called, saving the day thanks to his human brain being resistant, in its steel shell, to a hallucination-inducer invented by an unrepentant Nazi, though Negative-Man started off attributing Cliff’s inability to see monsters wherever he went to cowardice. The Justice League this was not. Back-up fare was what I assume to have been standard My Greatest Adventure fare, a story about men being turned into primitives by a strange African fruit: at least it had Alex Toth art.
The third story featured three different origins for the Chief, all lies designed to smoke out just which of the Doom Patrol were being used by aliens to try to undermine him. It also featured Rita musing on how she worships the Chief and hugging him when, having been identified as the one being used, he assures her she’s not a suspect. I mention this because in three episodes we’ve already had twenty times more characterisation than in a year of the JLA. This issue’s back-up was just crap.
General Immortus returned in MGA 84, but not at book-length this time. By now letters were flooding in acclaiming the Doom Patrol and Boltinoff was doing his usual refusal to print more than short extracts from some and list names at a length that jibes ill with the comments of others suggesting that comics rarely actually received as much as twenty letters, including the ones in crayon saying I liked this.
The last issue of My Greatest Adventure featured a lettercol dominated by Boltinoff’s response to calls for the Doom Patrol to get its own title. Pointing out that the series was not a Showcase or a Brave and Bold and the DP had already debuted as a series, he nevertheless promised that in the near future the back-ups – of which there was another excellent Toth art job this time – would shortly be dropped to allow nothing but full-length stories. No warning that as of next issue they would be reading The Doom Patrol 86.
And that introduced the Brotherhood of Evil, although of the four villains, we only got to properly see Monsieur Mallah and Mr Morden, and a lot more of him than anything else, which made up for the fact that this was Morden’s only Brotherhood of Evil appearance until Grant Morrison got his claws into the Doom Patrol. It was intriguing though to see them in their original form, and not filtered through Marv Wolfman and New Teen Titans or Mark Waid’s JLA Year One. Still had the crappy back-up, though, and crappy was the word.
There had already been signs of a romance developing between the two non-robotic members of the team and this was inflamed by the appearance next issue of Madame Rouge – a non-stretchy version of the character- to tempt Larry and facilitate the Brotherhood’s next scheme. We got to see Larry’s radiation-etched face under the bandages, but it didn’t put Rita off him, though it obviously set back plans for late-night candlelit seductions.
A third appearance by General Immortus, including the origin of the Chief and the revelation that his names was Niles Caulder, brought the team to its first book-length adventure since its debut and me to a serious question: Elasti-Girl has demonstrated herself to be both a powerful and invaluable member over this early run, as well as being the team’s transport, expanding to giant size and carrying her team-mates to the scene. This meant a lot of stepping over occupied buildings, leading to the thought: didn’t she ever get embarrassed at all those people looking up her delightfully short skirt and seeing her giant-size knickers?

Now that I’ve raised that, I’m amused to see that just next issue Rita re-designed hers and Larry’s uniforms from plain dull green to the red and white we are more familiar with (Cliff: yeah, yeah, all I get is a couple of new scouring pads and a can of metal polish) but if anything her skirt was even shorter. And she got a solo adventure in the back-up. Issue 89 introduced another regular menace in the form of the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, not a case of Drake’s imagination being at its brightest.
And the Brotherhood made it three appearances in the first eleven issues, sans Mr Morden, but transforming Madame Rouge into the shape-shifting witch we knew so well.
The elements of the Doom Patrol’s own corner of the Universe were still arriving thick and fast. Issue 91 saw the debuts of both their alien foe Garguax, out to conquer Earth as a try-out for his home planet, and Mento, aka Steve Dayton, millionaire, scientist and inventor whose Mento helmet amplified his mind to produce telekinesis, not to mention an advanced ego and an unrelenting lust for the lovely Rita.
Mento was back immediately in no 92, which displayed a cover that looked very familiar, not sadly because I remembered it from 1965 but because it ran in a comic from that era that I still have. And two issues later, Rita developed the power to expand only part of her body, Madame Rouge style, rather than all or nothing.
The A-V-M Man paid a return visit in silence but an alliance of everyone else – the General, the Brotherhood and the green alien fatty – got a two part story that ended with Mento formally applying to join the Doom Patrol only to be black-balled by one member – Rita, who didn’t want to see her ‘family’ disrupted. And Beast Boy, that green-skinned teen who could turn into any kind of animal, popped up as a mystery in the back-up story in issue 99. Count the number of fundamental characters in the series, in only twenty issues, and reflect that Doom Patrol 100 was already the halfway point of the series.
At this point, Gar Logan was about as obnoxious as an obnoxious teen at DC in the Sixties could be, wanting to join the Doom Patrol but unable to say anything that wasn’t snotty and offensive. Which was fair since Cliff Steele was equally snotty and offensive to him, believing Gar to be a thorough-going liar, especially when it came to the kid’s evil Guardian, Galtry, who was stealing his fortune left, right and centre and plotting to have the green kid killed to cover it up.
Before that was played out there was something amazing, in the form of a team-up with the Challengers of the Unknown (that I’m going to be revisiting from the other end in due course). The amazing aspect was that it was in the form of a crossover, one issue in each book. I was unaware that DC had ever done that before, what, the Eighties?
Of course, with Boltinoff editing both magazines, it was a snip. Drake wrote both parts, with Bob Brown handling the Challs magazine. As a preview of that series, the omens were not good: their dialogue was hokey and camp beyond belief, whereas the Doom Patrol was only just starting to get excessive. The Doom Patrol half was marginally better, and threw in Mento and Beast Boy to boot (not to mention Rita in a bikini) but was frankly too full of snappy remarks between everybody. Cliff and Larry is one thing, but Cliff and Rocky, Ace and Mento, hell’s bells just about everybody with a penis around Rita was a bit too much.
The whole thing was finally wrapped up in issue 104 with Rita and Steve tying the knot after more twists and turns than the road over Birker Moor. Drake crammed in enough plot for a full year of a contemporary series, but unfortunately he also crammed in an equal amount of asinine behaviour on the part of the eager groom and Cliff and Larry, not to mention another attack from Garguax and the Brotherhood of Evil.
It’s one thing to have fun with this series, and to respect how Rita has been an independent and strong force throughout, with very little of the too-tough-for-a-girl guff thrown at her, but in the face of the self-entitled behaviour of the men around her, self-respect would involve tossing each and every one of them into the sun. And it’s not going to stop because the moment Steve gets the girl, all legal and within the tenets of the Comics Code, he’s wanting her to settle down and play wifey and she’s off to work with the Doom Patrol.

As she did in issue 105, the first of a two-parter featuring the return on Mr 103, the walking atomic-pile. But there was more to it than that as Rita, keeping an eye on Beast Boy, discovered he was telling the truth about Galtry all along. The marital fun kept going as Rita prepared a slap-up dinner for Steve to be followed by a slap-and-tickle evening on the couch, only for him to dump her on the cold marble floor when she started talking about helping Gar Logan and he thought he was being set up. So Rita went back to her Mummy(-faced friend) and the Tin-Head. It all got straightened out and Galtry exposed but that wasn’t the end of the saga.
Because the pursuit of Galtry enabled Drake to flout another of DC’s conventions and turn Doom Patrol into a very Marvel-esque serialised adventure, ever-growing. The whole section ran as far as issue 110, taking in a trip to a sub-sub-sub-sub atomic world, the ‘death’ of the Doom Patrol and battles with the Brotherhood before Galtry was finally exposed and, in a surprise move, Steve and Rita adopted Gar.
It was fun, but there was something lacking over this sequence and I think I’ve already identified it in Drake’s continued use of ‘hip’, snarky language and the unending degree of animosity between everyone, even Rita on occasion. The problem, as always, is excess. Like Justice League International and the concept of superhero absurdism, what is fresh and distinct is immediately effective. But once the flow is started, it must continually intensify to avoid becoming stale and repetitive. Inevitably it reaches a point where it has to run to keep up with itself, and once that point is passed, it has to go further, and ceases to become believable. How can it be believable that two grown men, who have saved each other’s lives dozens of time, are still so aggressive towards one another? This isn’t banter built upon mutual respect and an equal tolerance, it’s still mutual loathing. And it starts getting dull pretty darned quickly.
But credit to Drake for working this out for himself. There’s a tonal shift from issue112 onwards, the cutting remarks transmuting into exactly the kind of banter between colleagues that I was suggesting was plausible. Add to that the Chief trying to rescue the soul of Madame Rouge – or ex-actress Laure de Mille – from the Brotherhood and there was a new and more engaging softness to the series. Pity there wasn’t longer to go.

It was noticeable that this was being done without Mento butting in every issue, and Beast Boy confined to his own solo series at the back, telling an expanded version of his origin.
An unwanted trade-off was the villains the Patrol now had to face, who came from a very limited range, all great hulking things and would-be world conquerors, as if Drake or Boltinoff’s imagination had become locked in to a certain type of foe. Premiani’s certainly had.
Meanwhile, the Chief’s efforts to reactivate Madame Rouge’s good side had the effect of splitting her into two identical beings, one of each. For once, the good side won, the evil side melted and the malleable dame helped save the world before being wined and dined by the Chief. It couldn’t last.
First, the team broke up in issue 117, over the Chief’s obsession with spending time with Madame Rouge instead of helping Cliff and Larry when they were out in the field. Then the Brain threatened to destroy the Doom Patrol if the French lady didn’t return, which she was prepared to do to save Caulder but he refused to allow it. And finally, in issue 119, a brilliant bluff was pulled. A Guru twisted the emotions of all the Doom Patrol, rendering them useless through imparting various cultural conditioning. They broke it, of course, when they found themselves fighting each other, but the true target was Madame Rouge, stripped of her good side, and determined to destroy the Doom Patrol in her own right.
We’d seen it coming, but not the ending to the story, with the Chief alone in a dark room, with an empty bottle of French perfume, a scent that lingered in more than his nostrils, a scene unexpectedly moving.
Time was almost up. Sales were once again declining as DC started to slide out of control in the face of Marvel’s overwhelming growth. Doom Patrol had been cut back to bi-monthly frequency since issue 118. Issue 120 was a one-off, related to what had gone before only by Gar Logan getting to go on a rumbustuous date with Jill from school. But issue 121 was abruptly the unforeshadowed end.
It’s a famous story, or maybe an infamous one. Madame Rouge begins her attack on the Doom Patrol, causing so much destruction and havoc that Washington tries, with complete illegality, to deport the team. Cliff’s all for fighting back, if only out of disgust, but the Chief has prepared for this moment, setting up an impenetrable island fortress. Except that it’s already been penetrated by Rouge and her new partner in crime (she starts the story by killing The Brain and Monsieur Mallah, not that that took in the long run), ex-Nazi Captain Zahl. They’re all ready, with specific weapons to stop each of Cliff, Larry and Rita. And then come the moment.
Zahl doesn’t just want to destroy Caulder and his team, he wants to humiliate them. He has two bombs prepared, either of which he can detonate in two minutes. One will destroy the island and the Doom Patrol. The other will destroy a tiny fishing village of 14 inhabitants that the Patrol have never heard of. They can save their lives by sacrificing 14 strangers, showing the world that they are cowards, no better than the villains.
Unanimously they refuse to do so. Despite Zahl having promised Madame Rouge that her foes, and the man she loves, will not be harmed, he destroys the island. The Doom Patrol are dead.
I’ve known of that ending a long time for decades. Like I said, it’s famous. I’ve never read it before, and it is moving. There’s no hesitation, just the willingness to put others before them. It’s a fine end, even if it’s death and defeat, because it’s noble.
Drake framed the story as a metafiction: it starts with an anxious Premiani, at his drawing board, asking Drake if the Doom Patrol really have to die. Only it doesn’t. Drake had left DC for Marvel, finishing the story as a favour (he had also been vocal in freelancers’ first efforts to get employee benefits at DC) and in a spiteful and childish response, Boltinoff had his name and likeness substituted.
This framework involved direct addresses to the readers, challenging them to become heroes themselves and save the Doom Patrol by buying the series in great quantities. It didn’t happen.
The series was revived in 1973, continuing the old numbering, for three more issues, reprints all. The Doom Patrol would have to wait until 1977 for the first real attempt to revive them to revive them, with a new line-up.
So there you have it. The brief and often glorious life of the original Doom Patrol, that I could have explored in the Sixties but have waited until now to read in full, and despite my occasional criticisms, have enjoyed. It’s not the only Silver Age series I’ve equipped myself with, and you probably know what’s coming up next time: Ace, Prof, Red and Rocky. See you then.

POSTSCRIPT

I bought this Doom Patrol DVD-Rom for the original Sixties run, but it also has the complete Volume 2 (Kupperberg/Morrison/Pollack) and Volume 3 (Arcudi) runs, and whilst I’m not going to review these in full, a quick postscript seems to be in order.
That’s effectively four Doom Patrol runs, each with its own team, the only common factor being Cliff Steele, as it has been for the other three series that have followed on later.
Kupperberg’s Doom Patrol were a revival of a revival. He’d persuaded DC to give the DP a chance in 1977, a three-issue try-out in the revived Showcase that led only to some random guest appearances before disappearing quietly. None of these issues are on the DVD. But Kupperberg never gave up and his New Doom Patrol were given a second chance in 1987.
This line-up included Robotman, in a snazzy new body redesigned by Dr Will (Metal Men) Magnus, Negative Woman, that is, Larry Trainor’s radioactive energy possessing Russian defector Valentina Vostok, Tempest, aka Vietnam deserter Joshua Clay, with the completely unimaginative power of firing energy blasts from his hands, and Celsius, who can project fire and ice and who claimed to be the Chief’s widow, Arani Caulder.
Kupperberg’s run, issues 1-18, was cheap, sub-sub-X-Men bickering team crap, unworthy of the Doom Patrol, made manifest in Erik Larson’s run on art from issues 6-15, eye-hurtingly ugly. Nor did the three junior heroes introduced appeal in any way: Lodestone had magnetic powers, Blaze (whose title was never used) burned things with his hands and Karma made people fall over when they attacked him. Grisly stuff. Sales fell away. Karma disappeared, the Chief and a powerless Larry reappeared, Celsius effectively committed suicide and Blaze was the only metagene bomb casualty in the Invasion crossover, these last two at the request of Morrison, charged with transforming the book.
Which he did and how. Morrison’s run is the pick of the bunch, a run I was buying and which I still own in the one-volume hardback Omnibus. With a main team of Cliff Steele, Rebis (a hermaphrodite merger of the negative force, Larry and black doctor Eleanor Poole) and Crazy Jane, a multiple-personality schizophrenic, each of whose personalities has a different superpower, Morrison charted a course into the strange and the absurd, world-shattering menaces that were way outside the normal superhero parameters. It was weird and wonderful, and the only version of the series that creator Arnold Drake approved as capturing the real Doom Patrol essence.
When Morrison left, to be succeeded by novelist Rachel Pollack, a certain tone had been set and Pollack followed this faithfully whilst putting her own spin on it. To me, it doesn’t hang together, it’s too much weirdness for weirdness’s sake, and art I can only describe as ugly. Pollack’s run lasted 23 issues, its cancellation being referred to as a hiatus.
Which brings us to Arcudi’s run, Volume 3, 22 issues released between 2001-3. Whilst Kupperberg’s run was crap, Arcudi’s is different in another manner, namely that it’s nonsense. It’s saddled with cartoonish art from Tan Eng Huat, who can’t draw anything remotely realistic, and whose version of Robotman is like a child’s Meccano figure, he can’t depict expressions and the new team – Flash Forward, Freak, Kid Slick and Fever – are nobodies and look unrealistic. Indeed, half the time I couldn’t make out what was actually happening and, after fifty years plus of reading comics, if I can’t follow the story, that’s bad storytelling.

Batman: Three Jokers 1 – addendum


A good idea, or what?

A little bit of early morning abstract thought when waiting to come round left me with a few more considerations about the current Geoff Johns/Jason Fabok miniseries.

I said in the main review of issue one that what interested me about the story were the questions, such as: Why are there three Jokers? That’s what came into my head from a slightly different perspective, as What’s the point of having three Jokers?

When the idea was first mooted, as a throwaway line from DC Universe: Rebirth, it was instantly fascinating. It seemed full of possibilities. That it has taken four years to realise has weighted the notion down with more clear-headed consideration. The delay has made it feel unimportant and peripheral. It’s deflection into a Black Label project has undermined the idea since Black Label comics – as I understand them to be, having never bought one before – are only in continuity to the extent that reader reaction supports cherry-picking the most favoured ideas into the DC Universe.

What’s the point of three Jokers? The Joker is and always has been an iconic figure. He’s Batman’s main enemy and his polar opposite. The Batman is a detective, a creature of rationality, and the Joker is Irrationality personified. He is protean, unpredictable, sinister and comic. He is comedian and killer and madman, and the point of this mixture is that he is all of these things and at once.

Breaking the Joker down into three characters inevitably diminshes this and him. The only hint Johns gives in issue 1 is that each Joker represents a factor, which to my mind not only undermines the Joker but destroys him instantly. Yes, the Joker has been portrayed in many different ways down the eighty years he has existed, bt then again so have Batman and Superman so why don’t we have three (or more) of them?

If Johns intends to break the characteristics of the Joker down into three people, each one a separate aspect, he is doing the Clown Prince a massive disservice. He is making him ordinary.

There’s no evidence yet of what Johns is actually doing. Another option is that all three are but slight variations of one another, but that also undermines the concept. It more than just terebles the implausibility if all three are created the same, or if they have different origins it removes the Joker’s uniqueness, not to mention the question of how likely it is that one Joker will collaborate with another, let alone two more.

I stress I’m not yet ragging on Johns. He has two issues to demonstrate his ingenuity and come up with an explanation for his idea that has weight, promise and freshness. My mind is open until then. Though shaded by my lack of enthusiasm for his other work, which has never wholly convinced me.

But short of some genius move, I think the idea of three Jokers is a bad step per se, that cannot help but damage the integrity of the character irretrievably. And there have been enough stupid moves by DC that have done stuff like that in recent years.

Batman: Three Jokers 1


Those of you who read my issue-by-issue reviews of Doomsday Clock over the two years plus it took to spin out will already be aware that I do not count myself in the front rank of fans of Geoff Johns’ writing, and may already be asking yourselves what I’m doing reading and blogging his latest big project. The short answer is, again, curiosity, as to what Three Jokers will be about, as to whether it will be an actual story instead of Johns’ usual technique of setting up a changed status for actual stories to be written in and, of course, the opportunity to put the set on eBay the moment the last one is published if I don’t like it.

Three Jokers has been hovering in the wind since Rebirth started in 2016, back before we realised what a trial of strength Rebirth was between Johns and Dan DiDio (which the latter won). DC Universe – Rebirth , which I bought at the time since it promised to spin the atrocious New52 back to where I could recognise DC again, threw in a moment’s spin-off from what had preceded it (Convergence?) in which Batman temporarily occupied Metron’s Mobius Chair. The Dark Knight asked the Chair to tell him the Joker’s real name: the Chair told him there were three of them…

Now that was a bombshell if there ever was one, especially to those of us whose first exposure to the Clown Prince of Crime was Cesar Romero hamming it up with his chuckles and gassing and his painted over moustache, and who has seen multiple iterations of the mad Clown ever since. Three Jokers. What could be the story behind that?

We’re now one-third of the way to finding out, over four years later. We have the assurance of artist Jason Fabok that the entire series is drawn so we won’t have any delays.

And yet… With one minor exception, seized on by all the comics press, there is nothing in issue 1. There’s an overlong introduction making the unnecessary point that the Joker has inflicted more scars on Bruce Wayne’s body than anyone else. There are three Jokers, acting simultaneously, practically giving away this long hidden secret to the police, though they assume it’s one Joker and two hired imposters.

And then they meet. Three Jokers, one acting like a rational, calculating leader with careful plans. It was almost banal, but to me it seriously undermined the Joker.

What then follows is that Batman, The Red Hood and Batgirl capture one Joker. One of them, playing the Joker role to the hilt. Batman goes after another one, cornered by the Police, which is a foolish mistake. Because Jason Todd and Barbara Gordon are the two Bat-Family members most directly hurt physically by the Joker. One was crowbarred to death, the other rendered paraplegic, and despite the fact that both have returned to full life and health, they have not forgotten what was done to them.

And this Joker taunts Jason over his death, to the point where he reveals that Jason’s last words were a plea not to be killed, and that if he were saved, he would be the Joker’s Robin.

That’s a heavy revelation. Being as how, if the Joker told me the sun was shining outside I would go out in raincoat with umbrella, I don’t actually take this revelation as gospel, though Jason doesn’t deny it, suggesting it’s true. He pulls his gun. Batgirl tries to persuade him not to fire. When it becomes obvious that he’s going to, she tries to stop him but her batarang just misses. One Joker has his brains blown out and now there are two. And Jason makes the point that when did Barbara last miss…

Which is more or less it for part 1, except for Jason’s fervent hope that it was this one. Because we all know Bruce isn’t going to like this.

I am dissatisfied.

You see, my interest in Three Jokers is in the answers. Why are there three Jokers? How are there three Jokers? What does it mean that there are there three Jokers? What impact is this revelation going to have upon Batman and DC? Part 1, and again I stress that this is a third of the whole story, goes not an inch to explaining any of this.

I’m not going to slag Johns off at this stage, not until I see more of what he’s doing and where he’s going with this story. Though I do note that he has Dr Roger Huntoon killed offscreen, Dr Huntoon, an Alan Moore creation. But I expected more and got far less for so large a chunk of the series as a whole.

Kids and Sidekicks: Star-Spangled Comics


It’s a bit late in the day for a Mission Statement but I’m going to give one anyway.
It’s over two years now since the Random Access Butterfly of Memory flapped its wings and opened a window onto an old feature in an old comic, a cartoon style adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. And I owe a debt of gratitude to David Simpson for identifying the feature, its creator and the comic in which it appeared. But I owe him an even bigger one for pointing me towards the availability of a complete run of Hurricane, on DVD, via eBay.
Once I had the DVD, I had to write about it. I also had to look for other such comics of my childhood, curiosity and the urge to recover every possible memory of those years driving me on.
At first, I was concerned only with the British weekly series, things I read, like Lion and TV21 and Hornet, and even things like Valiant that I knew of but never got. I would comb eBay regularly, constantly searching for things I recognised. Which is how I first saw a DVD-Rom of the original Flash Comics series. That led me to the Golden Age American titles of which I’d heard so much and seen so little.
As such things tend to do with me, it became an obsession, and it’s stayed that way for the last couple of years, long sessions reading these DVDs, writing about what I’ve read, bending past and present into one thing, writing the kind of account I would have loved to find elsewhere, but if no-one else had written them, I’ve got to do it myself.
All of which is by way of an extended preamble to the fact that the well is not infinitely deep. There aren’t any more British titles to investigate without turning to my pre-adolescence, and there are not many American ones I can summon up the enthusiasm for. And yes, that includes Action and Detective.

As well as Star-Spangled Comics I have one more Golden Age title, which I’m saving for a reason I’ll give when I get to it. Then a couple of Silver Age series I’ve never read in full and, as I write this, that’s it. I chose Star-Spangled Comics first because, paradoxically, I have little pre-enthusiasm for it. It was available, it was a long-running Golden Age title, why not? Perhaps it will surprise me.
The first issue was published with a cover date of October 1941, and going by the in-house advert inside, it was a contemporary of All-Star 7. Of course it was a vehicle for the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, though the feature was headlined only by the former, and they got two stories, topping and tailing the comic. The first set the pair up as Defenders of Liberty, fighting Nazis and Bundsmen, America’s Fifth Column, whilst the second featured the evil Dr Weerd, a Mr Hyde-esque alter ego for Professor James Stanton, and his evil robot, one of the most ridiculous looking creations comics has ever portrayed, a description that goes for Dr Weerd, who made Edward Hyde look positively handsome.
Of the three other features, two reflected the gathering War, Captain X, unofficial Ace of the R.A.F., aka American news reporter Buck Dare, and Armstrong of the Navy, neither of which were special in any way.

The one that interested me the most was Tarantula. Long term Earth-2 readers like me will recall Roy Thomas re-introducing him in the Eighties in All-Star Squadron for no better reason than that his yellow and purple costume was almost identical to that of The Sandman once he abandoned the gas mask and green business suit, and that he was described, in a radio news report, as a ‘Spider-Man’. Though he left out the information that Tarantula took his name from his pet Tarantula. Thank heaven he wasn’t into a duck-billed platypus…
If you think that’s a pretty weak reason to reintroduce a character who only made a couple of appearances and who was forgotten by everyone, you clearly have never read any Roy Thomas. But it was highly amusing to find myself reading those long-lost adventures. The DVD-Rom was already worth it for that.
There were three stories featuring the Kid and Stripesy in issue 2, the first of these bringing Dr Weerd back immediately, only to capture and imprison him. It’s interesting to watch Siegel find a new angle on the Clark Kent/Superman duality: Sylvester Pemberton is a high-IQ teenager who’s the despair of his Dad, John Pemberton, for being cold, self-centred and supercilious, even when faced with want and poverty, which Stripesy is the comic relief of the partnership, interested only in getting stuck in with his fists.
By issue 3 it was evident that Armstrong and Captain X were both nothing series, not worth the time, and that it look like Dr Weerd was going to be with us every month. More disturbingly, Tarantula’s third story had fiction writer Johnny Law taking a cruise to foil an attack on the secret materials it was counting. Writer Hal Sharp included a young woman, Joan Wentworth, the only female on the ship, first for Law to save from some guy getting fresh with her then, as Tarantula, tying her to the top of the mast to keep her safe as soon as trouble started. A little unnecessary, a lot dickish, and a touch of bondage. There was a lot of that going round in the Golden Age.
I was right about Dr Weerd, but issue 4 also introduced Mr Ghool and The Needle, the latter being described as the ‘Tall Tower of Treachery’, and if you thought some of the Silver Age epithets were naff, I think you have to agree that that had them all beat.
At a rate of three stories an issue, and new grotesques every time, something had to give and it was going to be quality. Issue 6’s Dr Weerd story introduced Breezy, a street-urchin with overlong red hair and a suit two sizes for him who turns out to be a rich heir and who gets adopted by John Pemberton as a brother to Sylvester, whom Breezy suspects…
Meanwhile, a new semi-cartoon private eye series, Penniless Palmer, also debuted, lasted one issue but returned from issue 8. Because something did give for issue 7. Out went Armstrong, and two of the Kid and Stripesy’s stories (but not Dr Weerd, who teamed up with the Needle to double-cross each other) and in came three new features.

In ascending order of quality and fame, these were the atomic powered duo of T.N.T. and Dan the Dyna-Mite, murdered scientist Bob Crane whose brain was transplanted into the metal body of Robotman and, joining the DC stable, the legendary Joe Simon and Jack Kirby with The Newsboy Legion and the Guardian, who were also the first feature in the short history of Star-Spangled Comics to get an origin. They stole not only the cover but the leading slot.
Best of all, there was no second appearance from Breezy, the ‘comic find of 1942.’
T.N.T. and Dan got a brief origin next time out, as a teacher and pupil who invented dual atomic energy rings that, when touched together, transformed them, as well as blowing their external clothing to shreds, turning crime-fighting into an expensive pastime.
Robotman was another Jerry Siegel creation, as could easily be told by his second appearance. Not only had the late Bob Crane’ tearful fiancee, Joan Carter, started making at eyes at ‘Paul Dennis’ – Robotman in plastic human skin – as early as issue 7 but next time round Siegel started a Lois Lane-like triangle between her, ‘Paul’ – and Robotman. The same one-size doesn’t fit all, by any means.
Meanwhile, Tarantula was still going strong and, in contradiction of Thomas’s story in All-Star Squadron 18, explaining how John Law copied a design from Sandman, the truth was that Sandman ripped Tarantula off, his new gold and purple costume being the focal point of the in-house ad in Star-Spangled Comic 8. Just can’t trust anyone, can you?

By issue 15, I think I’ve gotten a handle on the relative qualities of the various strips. The Newsboy Legion is head-and-shoulders the best thing about Star-Spangled Comics and the DVD is worth it for a complete run of this alone. We all know how good Simon and Kirby were and it’s a joy to see this proved, month after month, by inventive, buoyant, passionate and exciting stories, even if it does show the rest of the line-up as pretty crap.
Hal Sherman’s art on the Star-Spangled Kid, for which Stripesy still doesn’t get billing, degenerates every month. It’s horribly cartoony and his figure work is appallingly, enough so to be mistaken for my work, which is an insult if you ever heard one. Hal Sharp on Tarantula is little better, and the series, which has already lasted far longer than anything I would have imagined from Roy Thomas’s introduction of him, is empty and hollow: Tarantula is continually presented as an awesome enemy of crime, so much so you’d think he was Superman.
TNT and Dan the Dyna-Mite is D list at best. There’s no energy or spark to it and although the art is functional the choice of blue and green for the character’s costumes is dismal and drab to the eye. Paradoxically, though it is sadly cold and uninvolving, Robotman scores highly simply through having decent if conservative art, and some Joe Schuster-esque faces. If Jerry Siegel is still writing both series, it’s no longer mentioned: I certainly wouldn’t want to admit to the Star-Spangled Kid by now.
The Robotman story in issue 15 does deserve mention, being the one that Rpy Thomas adapted in All-Star Squadron, where a sleazy lawyer attempts to have Robotman declared a public menace and scrapped, and where Chuck Grayson has to explain that his body contains the brain of Bob Crane, a secret that they’d both tried to keep for fear of hurting Joan Carter. I don’t much remember Thomas’s version but I think I prefer the original.
Of course, having delivered myself of that opinion, I find a dramatic switch of artists in issue 16 for Tarantula, TNT and Robotman, the first two an improvement, the last not so.
The Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy were finally given an origin in issue 18, and it was interesting to read, if one could see past the abysmal art. Both Sylvester Pemberton Jr, rich kid, and Pat Dugan, mechanic, separately attend a moviehouse showing an impressive anti-Nazi documentary that is disrupted by Nazi sympathisers. The pair pile in separately but both are infuriated that the agitators escape. Both then overhear a man wishing that the American flag could come to life to avenge the insult against it and both are inspired. At first, each resents the other as a cheap imitator, but once the Nazi agents complain of how effective they were together, the pair bury their resentments and team up.
It’s actually a decent origin, and not so far-fetched. It’s grounded in the times and the reaction of Pemberton and Dugan is surprisingly realistic (for comics at any rate). It was however overshadowed both in passion and talent by the Newsboy Legion story in the same issue, which features a Nazi victory over America, and their rule of New York. It’s far too obviously a dream but no-one’s trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, and the anger that goes into this nightmare scenario, and especially the kind of crumbs that would collaborate in their desire for power, makes this another superb piece.
Tarantula’s short and undistinguished life ended with issue 19. There was no exhortation to read him again in next month’s Star-Spangled Comics, and he descended into forty years of obscurity. This was to make room next month for the instantly more attractive Liberty Belle, spun off Simon and Kirby’s Boy Commandos series (the same formula as the Newsboy Legion but which had already gained its own quarterly title). The tall blonde lady was former American champion swimmer turned journalist and radio commentator Libby Belle Lawrence, who had escaped Nazi-Europe by swimming the English Channel and who now fought the enemy.


Her debut story was an intriguing one, leading America’s WAAC’s (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) to the rescue of a prominent loudmouth who wanted women kept out of War. Simon and Kirby made the inarguable case that this was everybody’s war, not just the men.
It was interesting to note that, exactly the same as Black Cat, Liberty Belle had a would-be boyfriend, Captain Rickey Cannon, attracted to her as Liberty Belle and overlooking her as Libby Lawrence who, to put it crudely, she’d have happily shagged at the drop of a jodhpur in either guise. It’s like a tradition, or an old charter. No, wait, it’s a formula, yawn.
Still I found it amusing yet again that the heroine wore no mask and relied upon distinguishing herself from the ‘prim and proper’ Miss Lawrence by her bold and striking costume and a Veronica Lake peek-a-boo hairstyle that must have played merry hob with her depth perception. Still, Chuck Winter’s art was lovely, strong and graceful, albeit stylised. Tarantula who?
Issue 23 saw the end of TNT and Dan the Dyna-Mite in unspectacular fashion, vanishing without fanfare or trace, just like Tarantula and, just like him, alone, unmourned and unloved.
Of course, the overwhelming problem with Golden Age series is their overwhelming urge to chuck in a comic relief sidekick. Robotman went down that overtrodden road in issue 29, introducing Robbie the Robodog, though thankfully the steel mutt only lasted two issues before stopping to sniff a fire hydrant and being washed away.
This line-up for Star-Spangled Comics was settled in and would run for over half the title’s life. Such changes as there were were negligible: occasionally, the Star-Spangled Kid would regain the lead story but not the cover. Robotman’s art would get even worse (see issue 36), the only point to Penniless Palmer’s strip was in seeing how he got cheated out of payment this month. Only the Newsboy Legion and Liberty Belle provided consistent, well-made and vivid to look at stories, every month.
Of course, I spoke to soon about Robodog and issue 37, but that doesn’t alter the general score.
I was perturbed to see no Simon and Kirby signature on 39’s Newsboy Legion and the art looking like a weak-lined pastiche, but the signatures were back next issue, albeit with no change to the art. Despite that, it was clear that the creators were no longer working on their creation, as confired by Wikipedia. Kirby had been drafted in 1943 but, at DC’s behest and by working with every possible collaborator, had created a year’s worth of material that had now run out.
One drawback about a long-running anthology title with a settled line-up is that unless one or more of the characters is providing interesting and vivid change, there isn’t much to talk about except generalities. The absence of Jack Kirby left the Newsboy Legion with some truly ugly and ill-proportioned art, pencilled and inked by someone trying to emulate the ‘King’s look without understanding a single thing of how Kirby drew. Robotman’s art was much smoother but sterile, and the character himself was given cute human features that were completely out of place, and he kept getting knocked out: this is a robot, hello, you can’t stun it with a sap to the back of the ‘skull’.
I still looked forward to the Liberty Belle stories, both for an independent female character acting and being treated like an equal and to Winter’s vivid art. Yes, it’s stylised, it’s two-dimensional, and it consists of too many stock poses and expressions, but it’s a shining beacon amongst the work surrounding it.
For all her career to date, Libby Lawrence had been testing herself against America’s opponents, the Japanese. But in issue 50, cover-dated November 1945, after the end of the War, Liberty Belle’s mission was to save electronics secrets being stolen for commercial use. The time was coming. But not instantly: in issue 51 she was blocking Nazi General’s escape routes into neutral Switzerland.
It didn’t work though. By issue 55, April 1946, Liberty Belle was still fighting the Japanese, unable to give up her attraction to the cause.
Simon and Kirby returned to the Newsboy Legion as of issue 53, but it was not to last long. Issue 56 was their swansong on their feature as the pair, seeing the Golden Age superhero boom starting to tail off, moved away from DC into setting up their own shop and exploring – and in the case of Romance creating – other genres.
The new regime began by sidelining the Guardian – Jim Harper fights as a copper to avoid his name being further linked with the hero, and in issue 58 is absent on holiday – though he was back in full force the next moth. Issue 58 also saw Liberty Belle, or rather Libby Lawrence relaxing on a post-War holiday in Florida but getting involved with capturing a former Gestapo murderer trying to get away. The story was also notable for a passionate and very pointed denunciation of the Nazis and the need to eradicate them and their ideas totally, delivered by Belle but clearly representing writer Don Cameron’s own beliefs.
Remember the days when we thought we actually had relegated Fascism to history?
This story looked like being a transitional effort for the following story saw Liberty Belle tackling her first out-and-out pure crooks. And for the next few issues, the lady put paid to crooks all over America. It looked like Captain Rickey Cannon was out of the picture too, but it didn’t last. Rickey was back in Libby’s life in issue 64, using her as a date to flush out smugglers who were aiding foreign fascist societies infiltrate the country, and of course needing Libby’s other half to rescue him.
You may have noticed that I’ve been commenting only on the Newsboy Legion and Liberty Belle only for some time now. That is because there is nothing to say about the other series. Robotman is simply dumb and the Penniless Palmer series formulaic: I have been reading neither. And though I have been reading the Star-Spangled Kid, it too offers nothing to talk about. It’s just a commonplace mid-Forties superhero strip repeating its tropes every month, with drab criminals, the days of Dr Weeird and The Needle long gone, and the art only marginally better. No, Star-Spangled Comics had only two series worth reading.
Which made the shock even more horrible when, as of issue 65, the Newsboy Legion were displaced from cover and contents, the new lead role going to… Robin, the Boy Wonder, in solo-stories ‘by’ Bob Kane.
Like the Batman of the era, even if it wasn’t anything like the depths of the late Fifties, the Robin series was second rate in its good moments, though there were not much of those. But once change began, it rolled on. Next to depart was Liberty Belle, making her last appearance in issue 68. Before that, and for the first time in 49 appearances, Captain Rickey Cannon of American Military Intelligence entertained suspicions about Belle turning up every time Libby disappeared…
But exactly fifty stories it was, and no more, until Roy Thomas revived her for All-Star Squadron and muck the character up, except for putting a mask on her.

At least Belle’s replacement was a character I wanted to see. This was the debut of DC’s famous Revolutionary War fighter Tomahawk, a figure still appearing into the mid-Sixties and my first heyday of collecting. And I was still prepared to be impressed even if Tomahawk and his sidekick, young Dan Hunter, were being presented as a frontiers Batman and Robin.
And I wasn’t disappointed at first. True, there was nothing exceptional about art or script except that it was a change of direction, and a chance to see something of how Americans self-mythologised their earliest days. Though it lacked the depth of something like Bill Messner-Loebs’ Journey and its Frontier poetry, it was a series with great potential.
Next for the exit chute was Penniless Palmer, here in issue 79, gone in issue 80, another one unmourned and unloved, and never to be revived. Thankfully.

And time was marching for the Star-Spangled Kid. Issue 81 introduced Sylvester Pemberton’s adoptive sister, Merry, introduced by his father on a psychologist’s recommendation that he needs company, constant company. Merry, who by story’s end is revealed to be the daughter of a ex-con, sticks to Syl like glue but her birthday present both saves the Kid and Stripesy in a tight corner and exposes their secret identities to her.
Mark the little redhead well, unlike Breezy so long ago, she’s not a one-story wonder. The writing was on the wall immediately, as Merry made herself a costume and secretly aided the patriotic pair the next issue, which, incidentally, sprung a surprise on us by having decent art on the Kid’s feature. And in issue 83, Stripesy is laid up with a broken leg, the kid refuses to let Merry join him, because she’s ‘just a girl’ but, in the first instance of her penchant for gadgets, Merry ignores him and saves the day.
The same issue saw Robotman replaced by Captain Compass, Mark Compass that is, of the SS Nautilus, a competent adventure strip.
It’s fascinating to watch the speed with which Merry is taking over the Star-Spangled Kid’s series. For issue 84, Sylvester goes on a fishing trip with his father that’s too tough for a girl, leaving Merry to solo very successfully. It was less fascinating to see Penniless Palmer return, even as a one-off.
And that was it. Though the series kept the kid’s name, it was ‘featuring Merry – the girl with 1,000 gimmicks’ in issue 85, ‘starring’ in issue 86, and the title changed to Merry one issue later. The Gimmick Girl had taken over completely in a mere five issues. But not for long herself. Issue 90 had the story of Merry’s clash with the Gimmick Guy, the only one of her stories I’d previously seen before, in reprint. Her words in the final panel were, “Well, that’s that.” And they were. Ten issues to come out of nowhere, take over a long-running series and hit cancellation: must be some kind of record.
For this was 1949. Here, as elsewhere, the Golden Age was running towards its end. Costumed characters were losing their appeal. All-American Comics was already All-American Western. Like Black Canary, Merry just came along too late. Instead we got Federal Agent, another ordinary man crimefighter, drawn in a bland, simplified style. And there were no original series remaining. Though the Agent himself, Steve Carter, only lasted three issues before being replaced by Manhunters Around The World, showcasing Police styles in different countries, starting with Australia.
Upfront, though Robin’s name was still above the door, his series had turned into just another Batman and Robin affair, with nothing to recommend it. But not even the Dynamic Duo were immune to the winds of change and from issue 96, it was Tomahawk who decorated Star-Spangled Comics‘ cover. The ‘Robin’ series still held the lead spot and, in an ominous sign, there was room for a Dover and Clover feature, as if I hadn’t already seen enough of them in More Fun Comics.
That, thankfully, was a one-off. But four issues later, Star-Spangled Comics became the latest DC title to hit 100 issues, cover-dated January 1950. The ‘new century’ saw Robin, now operating solo again, go to the back of the book and an extra, one-off, real-life story slot in.
Practically none of the Robin stories are worth mentioning but I’d like to single out the one in issue 103 for its typical Fifties dickishness. It’s another of those ‘too tough for a girl’ stories, with Dick Grayson’s classmate Mary Wills turning parallel crimefighter as Roberta the Girl Wonder. True, she starts off because Robin is her dreamboat but she proves to be intelligent, resourceful and effective, so Robin decides to undermine her to prove that only he (and Batman) are clever, up to and including making her mask fall off in public. There is a very twisted sexuality at work in lots of these comics and you sometimes feel that Wertham was right in all the wrong places.
I’m growing increasingly impressed with the Tomahawk series. There’s an intelligence to them, a sense of the times, and a calm steadfastness in Tom Hawk himself that’s wholly enjoyable. The series is written by Otto Binder, who either knows this period well or else is doing a brilliantly convincing job of faking it, whilst Fred Ray’s art, though unspectacular, is solid and realistic, and very good on the woods and the plains.
Indeed others thought so, as issue 108 opened with a full page house ad for the first issue of Tomahawk’s own title, which would run until 1972. It’s a pity I never tried it when I was there, in the Sixties.
In a later era, that would have meant Star-Spangled Comics looking for a new feature but this is still 1950, so the frontiersman stayed on. And there was an opportunity to contrast the sensibilities of his series with those of Robin when issue 110 introduced Sally Raines, Frontierswoman. Yes, another girl-wants-to-get-in-on-the-act story, initially pooh-poohed by Tomahawk and displaying some feminine sillinesses. But Sally proved herself smart, practical and invaluable and saved the mission. Of course she gave up, but that was her decision, and she had earned Tom’s approval and encouragement. It’s like two different words, isn’t it?
With three stories appearing in every issue of his own magazine, it was unsurprising to see Tomahawk get a new artist in issue 113, as well as a new recurring enemy in the Black Cougar. The new guy had a lighter line, but was well up to the task of the frontier. And don’t think that because I’m concentrating on on Tomahawk that the other series are being overlooked. The Manhunters around the World is still casting its net far and wide and remains interesting, but Captain Compass is just a politely drawn modest non-powered character, exactly of its time. It will never rip up any trees, nor turn out an unprofessional story. Robin is, of course, Robin, and therefore unrealistic and flat.
Time now was running out on Star-Spangled Comics. With issue 121, the latest reduction in page count forced out Manhunters of the World. Captain Compass got the boot an issue later, replaced by Dr Thirteen, The Ghost Breaker, who also forced Tomahawk off the cover. Thanks to my interest in The Phantom Stranger, I was familiar with Terry Thirteen’s origin story and several of his stories which repeated in the early issues of that series, though I’d forgotten that the series’ official title was just The Ghost-Breaker..
By the miracle of reducing other series’ page-counts, the maritime detective made it back into issue 123. Four features, each of six pages in length, not much room for subtlety, though Tomahawk still managed to be the pick of them.
The Ghost-Breaker’s career back then was only marginally longer than his future rival, The Phantom Stranger. In the last couple of stories he became Mr Thirteen, and in the last of them, his fiancee Marie became his assistant Marie. And the last of them was issue 130. Terry Thirteen and wife Maria would return in 1968, in Showcase 80. Captain Compass would not be back at all. Tomahawk had his own title and Robin had Batman’s array of titles. Star-Spangled Comics did have an issue 131 and more but it’s theme changed and so did it’s title. Henceforth and into the Seventies it would be Star-Spangled War Stories, with a new numbering. Among it’s features would be Mademoiselle Marie, The War that Time Forgot, Enemy Ace and The Unknown Soldier.
But that’s another comic entirely. What then my overall impressions of Star-Spangled Comics, that I read merely out of mild curiosity and no great interest? Well, I have been amply rewarded by the runs of the Newsboy Legion and the Guardian, of Liberty Belle, the All-American Girl, and the chance fifty-plus years later to get to know Tomahawk: should the opportunity come up, I will not be slow to purchase a DVD-Rom of his solo title.
And I had tremendous fun with the meteoric rise and stunning collapse of Merry, the Girl of 1,000 Gimmicks.
I’m still saving my last Golden Age title up, so we’ll be in the Silver Age again, next time. And a couple more series gave been bought in, so I’ll be going on longer than I thought. As long as it’s still fun.

A Southport Expedition


It’s been a while, since Derby in january in fact, since I went ahywhere further than Manchester City Centre, so the time seemed ripe for a day out on Friday. Even so, having survived six months of the pandemic, I’m a little twitchy about venturing further afield, especially given how much time that’s goimg to mean breathing through a facemask.

Nor did the lead up on Thursday make me feel calmer. I’d been encouraged by my manager to give myself a treat, take a day off to do something I wanted, and I wanted to do this anyway: a Friday off work, especially one that balanced out a Woorking Sunday I hadn’t been able to get out of, was tailor-made. I was up for it, psyched, ready, except that the leave hadn’t been put through. My manager works from home: I e-mailed him. No reply. Time passing. Oscillating between rising frustration and the fury I’m going to feel if it falls through.

It’s not as if I’m not worked up already. I got home Wednesday to a letter asking me to phone in to make an appointment for my flu jab this year except that they told me to ring an obsolete number then the transfer option kept telling me  it had failed and cutting me off. I don’t need any more aggravation.

Eventually, I go to another Manager and between him and my very sweet Ops Manager, who’s an absolute darling, it’s agreed – but still not booked into my schedule when I leave at 9.00pm – and I am spared the horrendous Friday I would have inflicted on everybody within socially distanced reach.

Standard Operating Procedure gets me to Stockport Railway Station with only half an hour to spare, which is ample time to steady and serious rain to set in. This is August, isn’t it? The Friday before the Bank Holiday weekend? Of course.

There are two changes in the outbound journey, Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Oxford Road. There used to be direct trains to Southport but no more. The journey will take nearly two hours. I could cut that down to eighty minutes and save 80p on the return fare if I spend ages on the bus and walking to travel from Manchester Victoria, plus have to get home from the City Centre on top. I am lavish, I spend the money.

As far as Bolton it’s a familiar journey, one I made five days a week for most of the 2000s, so I turn immediately to my big heavy book: there are few happy associations with that journey.

It’s a long, slow, stopping journey that stops everywhere but still manages to outpace the rain, if not the overhanging cloud. I get in a good long shift of reading as we cross the plains of lower Central Lancashire, the wet fields to each side, the numerous level-crossings in our favour, but my bum is sore from sitting by the time we reach Southport and I can stand up, shuffle and, once out of the station, full down my facemask: the fresh air is a heady wine.

I have a long history with Southport. My parents hated Blackpool for its noisiness, its brashess and its crowds so this was the first experience of a seaside resort, with its long beaches and invisible seas. Here was where I played with my first camera, getting great shots without pointing. Here was where Dad and I spent one early morning before breakfast waking a mile out across the sands without reaching the sea. Here was where Mam would occasionally take my little sister and I to the seaside for the day: in 1968, the year I discovered Test Cricket and watched the Ashes avidly, we visited on the last day of the series, the one at the Oval, when hundreds of volunteers mopped the field dry to give England a chance of the draw, ten fielders crouched round the bat. At least every third bloke on the Fronty had a transister radio tuned to the Test pressed to his ear and I flitted from one to another, never more than thirty seconds away from the next update, until Deadly Derek Underwood took the last wicket. Was that the one where we got back to Victoria and found Dad there, straight from work, to run us home, the perfect end?

But I’m not in Southport for any of that, not today. I’m here because Southport is where the Eagle was created between Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson, and where Dan Dare was created at the latter’s kitchen table. It’s the 70th Anniversary this year, albeit not this time of year, and there’s an Exhibition. I head straight for the Atkinson Gallery to visit it.

The Dan Dare part is very small, far smaller than previous Exhibitions I’ve visited, basically one little room and an additional glass case as a component of a larger Exhibition dedicated to the Sefton Coast: Dan’s contribution is the ‘Inspirational Coast’.

There’s an array of books and comics, many of which are laid out in a bit of a jumble, all but a handful of which I have in my own collection. My copy of Eagle no. 1 is is far better nick than theirs though I can’t say the same for Annual no. 1.

But as always it’s the original art that makes the journey worthwhile and though the pages are few, they are especially wonderful. To my enormous glee Hampson is represented by a page from ‘The Man from Nowhere’, the cover of the issue of Eagle published the day i was born!There’s original art of Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell’s ‘The Platinum Planet’, misidentified as its sequel, ‘The Earth-Stealers’. And Keith Watson, on whose art I grew up, is represented by the last Dan Dare page he drew, the page that was the foundation for Spaceship Away.

Hampson’s pages intrigued me. Usually,  Hampson took the cover page and divided the several panels of page 2 between his assistants, but this is a paste down of individual panels in ones and twos. I’d love to know why.

But there’s more than just Dan Dare. There’s a Martin Aitchison horizontal ‘Luck of the Legion’ strip next to a Thelwell ‘Chicko’ cartoon, a superb Ashwell Wood Cutaway of the Naval Vessel St Kitts, Frank Humphris at his glorious best on ‘Riders of the Range’ and Frank Bellamy with a back page true story, ‘David – The Shepherd King’.

There’s another Bellamy original that troubles me deeply. Immaculately framed, it is the first page of ‘Frasier of Africa’, all yellows and sepias, and it disturbs me because I cannot work out how to steal it and get away with it.

It’s magnificent but it’s too scanty. The one I came to for the 40th  Anniversary was nearly ten times as big and was so good I visited twice, once on my own then with a bunch of mates to whom I’d raved: four hefty fellers in a Volkswagen Polo that needed me to start braking a loooong way before usual.

After leaving the Gallery, I check if there’s still a Pizza Hut in Southport. There is, but it’s no longer on Lord Street, instead it’s way out to Hell and gone on the Front, which means a long walk, starting off along the pier, which forms a bridge over the Marine Lake – there has to be a Marine Lake or else the only water you’d see in Southport would be out of a tap – and through a shpopping estate dominated by Matalan.

This is my first sit-down and eat-in Pizza Hut meal since before lockdown. They’re still operating on limited ingredients, no tuna for my favourite tuna’n’onions, no sweetcorn for my second favourite chicken’n’sweetcorn so I have a Hawaiian with garlic bread side.Nice and tasty and filling. And amusing to note that i finish five minutes before I would have logged in for Friday’s shift.

I have neither the weather nor the inclination to walk on further to see the beach, and neither would you in this early October greyness, so what is left is how much of awander I feel like having. Today would have been an ideal time to pay a visit to the Bakehouse, the little lean-to where six artists crammed in tho draw Dan Dare and the three other pages the Hampson Studio was committed to, but I didn’t think of that in time, and haven’t got the address on me, nor anything more than  vague idea where it is: another time then, again.

So I stroll back to Lord Street and wander northwards under the old-fashioned continuous glass canopy that accompanies the shore-side shops. A couple of times I wander into Charity Shops to fruitlessly peruse the cheap DVDs and every time i come out it takes ages before I remember I can pull down the facemask.

I went as far as a sign for Stockport Samaritans, which was apt: the Samaritans were created by the Reverend Chad Varah, who wrote adventure stories for Eagle, and Dan Dare himself for all but the first two weeks of ‘Marooned on Mercury’.

But there’s not much to look at, or smell, except cafes, restaurants and feeding places: no shortage of these in Southport. So I turn round and walk back an equal distance south but there’s nothing to attract my attention. Southport has always been an old people’s resortand whilst I might be an old person myself now, i’m not that kind of old person. The one i seem to be is the one with the arthritic right knee and hip and the lower back pain on the same side that’s exacerbating both and putting a severe crimp on how far I can walk.

So I slowly limped back to the Station. I’d tentatively identified the 15.43 for returning, a long way round via Liverpool so, with an absence of suitable attractions, I advance an hour and settle down for another long read. That’s actually been one of the best parts of the day. The isolation of a train is an ideal situation for taking a good big bite out of a long book, and I don’t get to do that kind of sustained reading as often as I used to. The train tracks down the coast, stopping everywhere, until Liverpool South Parkway interchange where I hope on a norwich train and off again in Southport, though by the time I limp heavily up our street I’m absolutely shattered – and it’s still only halfway through my shift…

Soldiers or Legionnaires?: Leading Comics


No, there’s definitely eight of them…

In the last couple of years, with immense thanks to David Simpson, I have collected thousands of old comics as part of a pile of DVD-Roms about three inches high. At first these were the British weeklies I remembered from my youth in the Sixties that is now gone, but along the way I discovered that I could get complete or near-complete runs of Golden Age series. Not just the run of All-Star Comics that I had in hardcover Archive format but the four titles featuring the adventures of the characters who made up the Justice Society of America.
Yes, the Golden Age comics are rough and ready, naïve, clumsy, amateurish, but energetic and enthusiastic. Most of all, they have been an opportunity to read and learn, to know what the stories were, to not have to rely on sketchy references and re-tellings that never give the details I automatically thirst for.
I have always wanted to know. Summaries, however accurate, are never enough. Only the original will do.
I haven’t yet reached the end of these revelatory DVDs, the latest of which is Detective Comics Inc.’s Leading Comics, an initially quarterly title introduced in Winter 1941. The title was conceived by Mort Weisinger and artist Mort Meskin in emulation of sister company All-American Publications’ All-Star and the JSA.
The idea was for Detective to have its own team of characters, coming exclusively from Detective’s titles. These were The Green Arrow, with Speedy, from More Fun, The Shining Knight from Detective, The Vigilante from Action, The Star-Spangled Kid, with Stripesy, from Star-Spangled and The Crimson Avenger from Adventure. Apart from the Shining Knight, who had magic armour and a flying horse, none of the team had actual superpowers.
Nobody seemed to know exactly what to call this team. The last panel of their debut adventure, in Leading 1, names them for the first time as the Seven Soldiers of Victory, though it has the feel of a description rather than a title. On the other hand, the team – which had no headquarters – were also referred to as The Law’s Legionnaires.
My first exposure to the Seven Soldiers came in Justice League of America 100-102, the first three-part JSA team-up and the first to introduce a third team. Len Wein brought them back from almost thirty years obscurity as a second Earth-2 team, time-tossed and forgotten, with a recap of the team’s origin in the form of a skeletal summary of the story from Leading no 1. It was a delight, another forty-six years on, to read that story myself.
The Seven Soldiers become a team by accident. Master criminal The Hand, believing himself to be dying of cancer, recruits five villains – Professor Merlin, The Needle, Big Caesar, The Red Dragon and The Dummy – to carry out his five best unworked plans, and challenges our five borrowed features to stop them. Needless to say, the heroes stop them, the Vigilante aided by sidekick, veteran Billy Gun and the Crimson Avenger by his aide, Wing, in every respect an eighth Soldier except for not being on the team. The team then follow the Hand, who has just learned his cancer is curable after all, to his lair, where their attempts to escape his death-trap lead to – not a very subtle irony – The Hand dying.
Until he comes back in Justice League of America in 1972, which was where I came in.
Though Leading Comics was an anthology title, it adopted the same approach as All-Star. There was one story running through the sixty-four page comic, a couple of comic strips excepted, but the heroes, with and without sidekicks, all went off on their own to fight the villain’s schemes separately. In the Forties, no-one seemed to properly grasp the idea of a team.
I was already familiar with the story in issue 2 from when it was reprinted over two issues of the 100-page Giant Justice League of America in 1974. Indeed, that’s the version that’s on the DVD, complete with colouring errors. It’s interesting that the Star-Spangled Kid, who calls the team together, refers to them as the Legionnaires, but more interesting to note that the story is structurally identical to the first one: a master plotter sets up five criminals to execute his plans, concealing his plan to collect the real object, and dying of his success.
And stone me, but issue 3 was identical! This time it was The Green Arrow who saw the problem. An evil scientist, Dr Doome (note the ‘e’) brings back five of history’s greatest dictators to rob precious metals for a time machine to go forward and take over the future. Same as before, five defeats later.

We are definitely talking formula here, and much more rigid than the JSA, but if Mort Weisinger is writing this, are we necessarily surprised?
Thankfully, there was a change made for issue 6, as the Seven Soldiers team-up to recover a billion dollars of Inca Gold for Uncle Sam’s War Effort, only to find various of its members turned against each other as a bad guy joins the race. This more sophisticated approach was used again for the next issue, but it was back to solo adventures again in no. 8, as The Dummy sent them back in time in a failed attempt to strand them.
And another twist was introduced in issue 10, as the Soldiers head to the Pacific to rescue a missing scientific expedition, get shipwrecked and split up and have to get themselves out of it in unexpected teams. This story emphasised one aspect of this team that was missing from the JSA, the sense of comradeship. The Seven Soldiers mixed a bit more and looked out for each other a bit more openly. In contrast, comradeship in the Justice Society was more of a case of pulling Johnny Thunder out of whatever hole he’d gotten himself into this time.
The story in issue 11 was barely a team-up at all. The Soldiers meet up, JSA-style, in the first and last chapters, to settle the hash of underworld boss Handsome Harry, in both, but in between they’re not on missions, just going about their ordinary business, solving crimes linked by the Hard-Luck Hat. This is Harry’s hat, which he loses in chapter 1, and which goes on from head to head, bringing disaster in its wake, before returning to Harry in the final chapter, by which time he’s become a hobo. If we’re to take this story at all seriously, which I wouldn’t recommend, years must pass during it. How silly is that?
In passing, I’ll mention that issue 13 was the first to appear in the interregnum when Detective and All-American were separated. Naturally, the Superman DC logo was unchanged by the list of comics promoted in the inside front cover was suddenly diminished by the exclusion of the latter company’s titles.
But the Seven Soldiers of Victory were only the number two team, and they never acquired the traction of the Justice Society. Issue 14’s goofy story of battling figures from literature, accidentally given life, was fun, and some splendidly vigorous writing went into the dialogue of Long John Silver and Sir John Falstaff especially, but it was the swansong for the Law’s Legionnaires. Though one last script existed, to be drawn as a curiosity, and serialised in Adventure Comics in 1975, the Spring 1945 issue was the end for them.
Why they were less successful will always be a matter of conjecture but most people agree, and I share that opinion, the overwhelming reason was that the JSA had the big guns, whilst the Seven Soldiers consisted of second stringers. The absence of actual super-powers, save for the Shining Knight, was another reason in limiting the appeal of the team, and the final factor was the times. The War was in its final year, Starman and The Spectre were about to lose their series, other costumed characters were falling by the wayside.
As well as its superhero series, Detective Comics had begun to introduce funny comics, like All-Funny and the teenster series, Buzzy. If the Seven Soldiers were to be removed, there was a lot of comic to fill. And the answer was funny animals. With issue 15, Leading Comics was transformed, the first DC title to drop its superheroes completely.
That’s not what I wanted to read. Nevertheless, in fairness I scanned issue 15. Six new funny animal features, including a funny animal version of Sherlock Holmes (is there anything less funny than a funny animal version of Sherlock Holmes?), all of them dross.
Nero Fox was the cover feature until issue 23 until he was replaced by Peter Porkchops. From issue 34, the series was retitled Leading Screen Comics, in which form it lasted until 1951 and issue 77.
I wanted to read the short career of the Seven Soldiers of Victory, and now I have.