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.

Lest a Black Cat cross your path 2: Speed Comics


The Black Cat in the beginning

It doesn’t really make sense to cover the first five years of Black Cat’s career after the second half, but in this feature the DVD-Rom’s line-up as they come and I go through them in order of purchase.
After making her debut in Pocket Comics, the experimental digest title produced by Harvey Comics, Black Cat was added to Speed Comics as a regular throughout the title’s run, between 1941 and 1947, when it was cancelled from much-delayed issue 44. By then, Linda Turner, Hollywood’s glamorous detective, had been granted her own title, and not merely that of ‘Darling of Comics’.
Speed Comics first appeared in 1939 when it was an anthology of various adventuresome characters in various genres, behind a twenty page plus lead story featuring Shock Gibson, The Human Dynamo. Shock, or to give him the name his mother used, Charles, was a scientist who gained super-strength from a lightning bolt smashing into his laboratory and splashing his undefined experiment over him. Shock became a superhero in red longjohns, with a gold helmet.
The story was crude and simple, with art to match, and was the best thing about the issue, which wasn’t difficult because the one common factor about all the other strips was that they were uniformly abysmal. It was two years before Black Cat would join the line-up: they couldn’t pass soon enough on the evidence of that one issue.

Shock Gibson

Nevertheless, as a believer in Fairness in Blogging, I did read through the first five issues to grant the title chance to improve. It didn’t. It would have needed to improve by leaps and bounds to reach mediocre. Shock Gibson, Crash, Cork and the Baron, The Man with 1,000 Faces, Smoke Carter, Spike Marlin, Texas Tyler, Biff Bannion, Landor, Maker of Monsters. Grisly, every one of them. On a totally different level of Fairness, I shall refrain from printing any of the ‘creators names.
From there I jumped to issue 13, which showed no overall improvement despite a near wholesale cast change. By issue 16, it was running as a 100 page size title, including an ad for the Black Cat series in Pocket Comics indicating that that title had lasted at least four issues. But by the next issue The Black Cat, using the definitive article at this point, was signed up for Speed Comics and reprinting her previous appearances for her new audience.
So what, if anything, was different about Black Cat when she started? For one thing, the first story was awful, easily on a par with the rest of the title. Red-headed Linda Turner suspects her Director Garboil of being a Nazi propagandist, using special scenes in her latest film to pass messages to Fifth Columnists all over America.
Meanwhile, newspaper columnist Rick Horne is sent out for the same story. Linda creates a secret identity to enable her to investigate and bumps into Rick early on. They save the day and she gets away without revealing her identity. Which is practically all she doesn’t reveal in a costume that exposes a damned sight more flesh than the classic costume of the title. Instead of a bathing suit, the Black Cat wears a backless blouse that’s really only two trips of cloth covering her modesty, which hangs out either side, plus red shorts and red boots.

A Black Cat centrespread

And frankly it, and the whole feature, are drawn in a messy, murky style that carries none of the charm or elegance of Lee Elias. The opera mask covers the whole of the top half of Linda’s head, looking not merely clumsy but ill-fitting, whilst the stag film top is not only cheap and titillating but looks incredibly impractical. Unless she’s using a lot of tape, Linda is going to be popping out all over the moment she tries a single one of her stunt-girl tricks.
This is not a propitious beginning.
Nor do the immediately succeeding strips show an immediate improvement. At this stage, the Black Cat’s dealing solely with the Nazi threat as represented by Garboil, who has to escape every issue. The art is rough and the artist’s limitations don’t help portray the heroine as either an action figure or a lively woman. We’re still at the stage where Rick Horne is an ordinary reporter who keeps bumping into the Cat everywhere he goes, with no concern about Linda Turner. And she moons a lot about him and what a man he is. She’s being portrayed as a competent, independent woman, but it isn’t making much of an impact.

Captain Freedom

At least Speed Comics was an equal opportunity disappointment. Black Cat wasn’t just one of three stars, with the colourless Captain Freedom and the tedious Shock Gibson (now going by the name of Robert Gibson when out of costume), but the fourth costumed character was Pat Parker, War Nurse: no superpowers as such but forever switching to as nearly a skimpy costume as Linda. But what self-respecting hero goes by the name War Nurse?
The Black Cat got an upgrade in issue 21 when art duties were taken over by Arturo (Arthur) Casaneuve, who offered a clearer line and a greater facility with movement, although there were a few too many contrived cheesecake poses, with the Black Cat depicting from angles and in positions that thrust out her bosom to the adolescent reader. Casaneuve also tightened up her top, making it a bit more substantial in front and tucking some fabric in at the back. But our heroine and Rick Horne still ended up arms round each other’s shoulders at the end.
Whilst I’m reading the Black Cat stories, I am sparing a cursory glance at the other features in case of a surprising increase in quality, but cursory is all they qualify for. I do pay more attention to Pat Parker War Nurse than the rest, possibly because it’s astonishing that so poor a series was ever drawn (it’s not the usual shallow motive, in case you were wondering). It is still a solo series for a heroine who’s strong and effective and self-respecting, even if everyone who thinks War Nurse shouldn’t be doing men’s business calls her a chorus girl.
For issue 23, War Nurse started leading the Girl Commandos, not just in her own strip but in Black Cat’s, a one-off tale in which the Japanese invade Hollywood and instead of calling in the Army, the Cat calls in Captain Freedom, Shock Gibson, Tim Parrish and the Girl Commandos. This wasn’t up to the standard of an average Justice Society of America story, so it was no surprise that despite signalled intentions, it was never repeated.
At least it got us away from Ghastly Garboil for an issue.

Girl Commandos

Though the team-up would never be repeated as such, it became a common sight to see the Captain, the Shock and the Black Cat together on the cover, throwing everything at some Axis plot or other, which would then be explained in a two-page prose feature, The Story Behind the Cover.
With effect from the following issue, Cazeneuve took over Captain Freedom as well producing the feature’s clearest art to date, if not improving the story. Pat Parker’s feature was formally renamed the Girl Commandos, though I found it irritating that the two male supporting characters, one British, one American pilot, were still using the chorus girl line after so many demonstrations of the War Nurse abilities, and the fact she was so much more effective than them.
The Black Cat’s adventures continued to improve and the latest episode placed itself squarely in the aftermath of the Japanese Invasion of Hollywood story. The art continued to improve, starting to flow in a much more attractive fashion, though I’m still not satisfied with the romantic aspect of it. Linda does too much mooning over Rick Horne in both her aspects, though as Linda she’s cold-shouldered as a snob, and as Black Cat she still can’t leave him without an increasingly more passionate snog (this one definitely had tongues…).
Change, however small, was in the air. Pat Parker went through an entire Girl Commandos episode without changing into her War Nurse costume, college hero Speed Taylor joined the Marines and, with issue 27, The Black Cat finally made the cover in a significant role instead of just a headshot. And inside, there were changes galore. These consisted of a new artist with a much more cartoony style but one that lent itself to crisp, clean, fast-moving panels and some all-action but natural shots of our heroine.

Speed Comics 17

What’s more, Garboil – who had become very boring, always being allowed to go free on the grounds that, one-day, he’d lead the forces of good to his Gestapo high-ups – was out. And Rick Horne was after a lunch-date with Linda Turner, even if her new artist had visited on her an ugly but contemporary, hair-up hairstyle. Then again, Black Cat’s red shorts, which had only ever made her costume look amateur, were replaced by black ones that worked far better, and her opera mask was reduced in size, introducing the two peaks of the most famous version..
We do have to set against that the introduction of a new, un-named white cat pet of Linda’s, who went into action with her in costume, zipped into the fur of a black cat. As Dave Barry always says, I am not making this up.
The Girl Commandos continued to develop into a fully-fledged team, with Pat Parker submerged in the quintet, and the team kitting itself out in a common light blue uniform of military caps, wraparound jackets of an agreeably short length, paired with knee-length boots. What’s more, by issue 29, Pat had transformed from dark-haired to full-on blonde! Their strip had progressed to the delightfully goofy level.
The same issue saw The Black Cat’s costume transformed into the one-piece bathing suit edition in all dark-blue with which I was already familiar, though the buccaneer boots remained defiantly red. Though the addition of a cape in issue 30 was not a good idea.
Another new artist in issue 31 added some elegant angles to the series, albeit for a dumb story where Linda Turner is first exposed as the Black Cat by an American Intelligence Officer, then framed for his murder, convicted at a Court Martial to which she, as a civilian, was not subject and sentenced to execution by firing squad, all in about five hours. Given the high points on her mask, we were now at the classic Black Cat costume, save for the red boots.
The Black Cat’s adventures all involved either war enemies or ordinary crooks, until issue 34, that is, when a costumed villain going by the name of Him, appeared in a three-parter. I had an inkling from the first story of just who Him would turn out to be, and how inappropriate that cognomen would turn out to be and, do you know what? I was right, even if ‘Him’s real name changed from Hedy to Dolores to Hedy.
By this point, despite the ongoing war-oriented stories, the Black Cat’s series had more or less settled into the version I’d enjoyed so much in her own title. The look, the costume, the buoyancy, the pace, even the Linda Turner – Rick Horne – Black Cat triangle was in position and only waiting for Tim Turner to be added the following year, in Black Cat.

Speed Comics 35

As for the rest, Captain Freedom and the Young Defenders and Shock Gibson were still crude and stupid, the Girl Commandos slimmed down to a quartet but strangely effective (maybe it’s the knee-length boots…) and I’m still not mentioning the ‘comic’ features which should be left in peace.
By now, though, the end was definitely in sight for Speed Comics. It was abruptly cut back in size from issue 38, leaving room for only three features. Captain Freedom was secure as the lead but each of the other three took turns to drop out, with the Black Cat missing issue 40.
Indeed, she had appeared for the last time already. Only the Captain and the Commandos appeared next issue, and whilst Shock Gibson returned for issue 42, the same included the announcement of Black Cat’s first solo title – and the definitive article disappeared, definitively. The Girl Commandos series came to an end with the rescue of Mei-Ling’s elder brother. Indeed, the War was over.
The penultimate issue, no 43, was dated May-June 1946 and introduced a new feature, Blonde Bomber, about two American newsreel photographers, one a dope, the other a doll, who went travelling in time, but it was six months before the next and final issue appeared, January-February 1947. Everyone turned out, Captain Freedom twice. Shock Gibson took his girlfriend Beautee to the Moon, Honey, the Blonde Bomber, and Slapso, made their second and final appearance and even Black Cat dusted off the old red boots for one last nostalgic story. There were references to the next issue, but there was no next issue, then or ever.
Which brings me back to where I began so far as Black Cat is concerned. Her feature in Speed wasn’t brilliant, though it was Dickens compared to Captain Freedom and Shock Gibson, but the longer it went on, the better it got. The real highlights were, of course, Lee Elias’ stories in her own title.
Overall, even if this wasn’t the purpose of this post, Speed Comics just wasn’t a particularly good title. Apart from Black Cat, the only feature I found enjoyable was the Girl Commandos, and that only after it had served its long apprenticeship as Pat Parker, War Nurse. Two features with independent, strong women characters: you don’t think there could be a connection, do you?
Next time round, we’re back to more of DC’s Golden Age titles, but there’s now a shelf-life for this feature and not too many more of these fascinating forays left for me. And no more Lady Lucks and Black Cats, I’m saddened to say.

Lest a Black Cat cross your path: Part 1 – Her Solo Title


The first one

After indulging myself with one of the Golden Age’s brighter heroines, what better than to have a look at another popular character from the same era, who, like Lady Luck, lived and breathed outside the ambit of DC Comics. I’ve long been intrigued by images of Harvey Comics’ Black Cat (nothing to do with Marvel’s Felicia Hardy) for the simplicity, sexiness and brio of her appearance. So, a DVD-Rom of her solo series, all 29 issues of it, and let’s see if the stories match up to the art.
I’m actually starting in the middle. Black Cat got her own comic in 1946, which ran bi-monthly until 1951 in a 48-page anthology format of which she was the indubitable lead role. Hollywood’s Glamorous Detective Hero it said on all her stories, whilst the cover went one further in proclaiming her the ‘Darling of Comics’. Black Cat was movie-star Linda Turner, America’s sweetheart (and a redhead, what more can I ask?). Linda, daughter of silent movie western star Tim Turner and a now-deceased stuntwoman, got her start as a stuntwoman herself, working her way up through bit-parts to stardom. Along the way, in circumstances we won’t go into at the moment, she became Black Cat, Hollywood’s heroine.
Only Tim knows Linda’s secret. Her boyfriend, Rick Horne, radio news reporter, has no idea whatsoever, despite being practically Black Cat’s partner in her adventures. Nor does Linda’s secretary, Jonesy. The only other one aware of her double-life is Toby, Linda’s (black) cat who, despite the name, is actually female.
According to the family, Black Cat was supposedly conceived by Alfred Harvey, though there’s no evidence to support this, and was initially drawn by Al Gabriele. She debuted in the experimental, digest-sized Pocket Comics 1, in 1941 but transferred to Harvey’s Speed Comics, where she co-starred with Captain Freedom. Speed Comics was still running when Black Cat got her own title but was cancelled the following year.
The cover of Black Cat 1 amply demonstrates the character’s appeal. It’s not just the backless bathing-suit costume, the boots and gloves (not to forget the red hair), but the sheer exuberance of the drawing. This is someone who looks full of life and vigour, promising good fun stories. And inside the first issue were two Black Cat stories, topping and tailing the comic, and separated by three rather surprising stories about competing airmen, American kids and Yugoslav resistance fighters, none of whom who looked like regular series material, still fighting the War that had been over a year before the comic’s June/July cover date.
The two Black Cat stories were quite a contrast. In the opener, two ex-circus members, part of a German spy-ring, try to kill Rick Horne to stop him exposing them, with the female impersonating Black Cat, and at the end Linda and Rick are in India entertaining American troops and foiling a Japanese plot to invade India via the Khyber Pass. The one page prose story was abysmal, though.
The art is relatively simplistic but Black Cat is lithe and active, and quick-moving, and in neither story does this pre-Code comic show any concerns about killing enemies. Nor does it show any concerns about depicting the Japs as racist caricatures with yellow skin. This, I think, may have to be taken as a given, to be mentioned only if particularly egregious.

Lee Elias debuts

Given that she was an already well-established character by this point, there’s no feeling around for the best approach. Linda doesn’t go out patrolling or anything like that, she stumbles onto crimes as she goes about her Hollywood star business, slips away to change into her costume, and heads into the action. Said costume at this point and throughout her own comic, consists of a backless dark blue bathing costume, an opera mask with two high points, flared gloves and buccaneer boots: as I said, simple, practical, flexible and pretty damned sexy, much of which is a tribute to the energy with which she’s being drawn, tempered by realistic, non-exaggerated physical motions.
And Black Cat is fearless, lithe, a master of ju jitsu, a skilled acrobat and a top-notch motorbike rider. She isn’t fazed by thugs of any description or size, and unlike DC’s soon-to-be-introduced Black Canary, whose series will display some uncomfortable similarities to the Black Cat set-up, she doesn’t go around getting clonked on the head every tale, or ending up tied up all the time.
In short, her adventures are fun, short, cheerful in outlook, fast moving but also grounded in crimes by ordinary criminals. It’s not ground-breaking, it’s not ambitious, but it’s infectious fun. And in its attitude to death, which on both the lawful and lawless sides takes place with realistic frequency, but never exploitively, it strikes a different tone to DC’s contemporary titles. Once Lee Elias took over the art from issue 4, giving Linda a much less wussy hairstyle in the process, I could see I was going to enjoy this.

An Elias splash page

Black Cat was nevertheless an anthology title. There was a Black Cat lead plus a prose tale of either one or two pages near the back: the two pagers were far better and they were awful. But the rest of the pages were a confusing muddle. Harvey really hadn’t taken the idea of a settled line-up to heart as characters would run for two to three issues before vanishing to be replaced with some other idea
Nor was there any pattern to what might appear next. Detective Johnny Nabisco looked like a stayer but lasted two stories (maybe three: issue 2 is missing from the DVD), Danny Dixon, Cadet, a series about a poor military cadet rooming with the rich and self-centred denizen of Cafe Society, Jonathan Spencer Alden III, looked about five years out of date but stuck.
And there were ‘superheroes’, like The Red Demon, alias harsh-sentencing Judge Straight, a man with a law textbook for a heart, who actually got an origin story with the ironic twist that he took his identity and costume from a murdered gangster, and master archer The Scarlet Arrow, a very close contemporary of the one in green at DC, but with an ornate and archaic costume that must have been a bugger to draw.
The legendary Joe Simon/Jack Kirby team had a run in the title with a bunch of oddball characters they’d worked up a year before, planned as a new line for Harvey Comics that didn’t last due to a post-War glut of new comics swamping an already-shrinking market. These included the Duke of Broadway, with a Runyonesque background in theatreland, the Vagabond Prince, a greetings card writer turned crimefighter with an absurd multicoloured costume and a teen sidekick called Chief Justice, plus a one-off for Stuntman, a stuntman-turned-crimefighter.
This is not the highlights of Simon and Kirby’s career – experts pin the first to to Joe Simon only – but in an off-the-wall way I liked the Duke of Broadway and the Vagabond Prince was at least different, in a stare-open-mouthedly-in-shock manner

But all these stories were leftovers from a year earlier, being used up. And there weren’t many of them, which led into another abrupt change in issue 8. Harvey ran a lot of titles reprinting famous newspaper strips, the most notable being Terry and the Pirates, but also including Joe Palooka and Alfred Andriola’s private detective, Kerry Drake. Suddenly, his strips started appearing in Black Cat, though not consistently: his continuity was being swapped with his own title so stories continued elsewhere.

Let’s take a look in detail at an issue of Black Cat, and to demonstrate our susceptibility to superstition, we’ll choose issue 13, dated September 1948. The cover is a typical action shot, using a distinctive monotone yellow background as Black Cat, her dark blue costume standing forward, dives right to left across the cover, her bike (right) tumbling away from her as she reaches for the handle on the rear of a small van (left) driving away from her, already half off-panel: a simple dynamic pose.
Inside the front cover, there’s a feature on artist Lee Elias with the cover story starting on page three with another action splash, Black Cat, her parachute billowing across panel rear immediately on landing, being menaced by two guard dogs, one of which is already chewing on one of her boots. There’s a mini-paragraph setting up a threat to Linda’s employers, Century Studios and the tale’s title, ‘Crime at 2,000 Feet’.
The eight-page story starts at the end, with Linda winning the Oscar for her new picture Revolution before winding into a flashback told by her father Tim in which a rival studio, facing bankruptcy, tries to ruin Century’s chances by seeding dry ice and causing constant rainfalls that keep the final scene, the burning of the village, from being filmed. Black Cat follows the autogyro and parachutes in to stop the interference. Though she beats up one boss, the other gets the drop on her and she’s tied up. They threaten to unmask her and torture her but are distracted by the bomb she’s put in the autogyro. Black Cat burns through her bonds, suffering scorched wrists, and uses her fighting, judo and jiu jitsu skills to beat up and bag the pair, saving the day and the film. And Linda even has enough time for catty remarks about Black Cat to her boyfriend Rick Horne, who for once hasn’t been at her side during the action.
There’s a second story of the same length immediately after, with Rick entering a motor-bike race watched by Linda. Unbeknowst to either the race is fixed by an unknown baddie in a monocle, out to secure the prize. Everyone’s on watered-down petrol except Rick, who’s been drugged. Black Cat joins the race on a borrowed bike to save his life, goes on to collar the baddie and win the race before disappearing: Linda pleads to keep the Cup until they can present it to Black Cat…
Next up came the latest set of two jiu jitsu lessons, with Black Cat demonstrating moves to use in different tight circumstances, also drawn, very elegantly by Elias.
After a one page cartoon featuring a new character, Winnie the Waitress, at the Gym, there was the next lot of Kerry Drake, starting a new story. Drake, at this stage, was still a civilian investigator for the DA’s office, facing fantastic and grotesque crooks Dick Tracy-style, but concentrating on detecting using modern methods rather than fights and shoot-outs. Drake spent ten pages getting involved with post-Prohibition-repeal bootleggers, dealing with untaxed booze.

The Darling of Comics

Danny Dixon and Jonathan Alden Spencer III faced up to radium thieves trying to discredit one of Hilltop Military Academy’s Professors in a typically semi-comic seven pager, following which the issue finished up with two one page Black Cat shorts, neither worth the minimal ink used to print them, separated by another Winnie the Waitress page, this time featuring picnics. It’s not that the prose stories are necessarily bad, but they are far too short for any kind of worthwhile story, and the font is exceptionally large, preventing even a millimetre’s development: in comics form, they’d be lucky to fill three pages.
Once this issue passed, the back-ups changed again. Kerry Drake went back to his own mag to be replaced by another reprinted newspaper strip, Mary Worth, of which I’ve heard some things but never previously seen, followed by one of Harvey’s original characters, Invisible Scarlet O’Neill, a redhead (yay!) who can turn invisible.

Go Western, Young Woman

There was a change of direction, title and costume with issue 16, as Linda Turner relocated from Hollywood to the Wild West for her adventures and the comic was re-titled Black Cat Western. The costume change was the least of it, the Darling of Comics merely exchanging her halter-neck swimsuit for a strapless one. Funnily enough, the varied costume was less attractive. The next issue, Linda Turner changed her role as mistress of drawing-room comedies for that of Western star. It was 1949, and as we’ve seen at DC Comics, superheroes were dying on the vine and Westerns were the new big thing. Black Cat was merely obeying the law of commerciality.
Interestingly, to go with the Black Cat lead in issues 18 and19, there were two ‘A Day with Linda Turner’ shorts, featuring our glamorous movie star out of costume, and crime, so to speak.
Though the stories were still fun, and Elias’ art making Black Cat a lithe, all-action but entirely grounded figure, the character was in trouble. The Golden Age was fading, and there were signs on the horizon that foreshadowed Wertham and the Comics Code Authority. Quietly, the series’ cheerful attitude to crooks dying had been supplanted by arrest, but there were complaints about Linda Turner’s costume, and how sexy the Black Cat appeared with bare arms and legs (Shock! Horror!), not to mention her bare back and the revelation that Black Cat had a cleavage. Later reprints would be touched up to show less skin, especially up front and top.
But the Western phase only lasted four issues until, despite a western cover, the comic reverted to Black Cat and Linda’s latest movie turned out to be about pirates, not cowboys.
Mary Worth, a low key romantic soap opera, seemed completely out of place in Black Cat, and in accordance with the general stability of back-up features, was ditched for issue 21, which featured another change of approach, re-emphasising the Hollywood aspect, with an Agony Aunt column from Linda, an interview with Montgomery Clift in comics form across the centre-spread, whilst Winnie the Waitress, which had a spark of life to it and some bright cartooning, was shunted for Holly of Hollywood, a piece of fluff.
The Hollywood angle was played up for all it was worth, and Black Cat/Linda Turner was thrust even further to the front, with the number of stories multiplying until, by issue 26 the comic featured nothing but Black Cat, Holly and a couple of half-page strips about Hector the Director.
Suddenly, the series went desperate. Black Cat started fighting costumed villains like the Firebug (the delightfully named Orson Arson), and then she rescued a thirteen year old circus aerialist, Kit Weston, from a fire that killed his parents, adopted him, revealed her identity to him and co-opted him as her sidekick, the Black Kitten. Nothing familiar about that then.

The last one

It was a truly awful idea, one born of desperation – I mean, Black Kitten: who in their right mind would agree to that as a superhero cognomen? – and it was the series’ last. This all occurred in issue 28 and issue 29 is missing from the DVD but that was the last issue to feature Black Cat. Her face appeared on the cover of issue 30, and above the first story, but Black Cat was gone and never to return. The comic was re-named Black Cat Mystery and were-positioned to tell short horror stories, with Black Cat as the seeming hostess and narrator but in practice that just didn’t happen.
It was a sadly downbeat end to the character’s history but I was always conscious of the fact that I was reading the second half of Black Cat’s career, so I equipped myself with a DVD of Smash Comics, to see what the first half was like. So we’ll look at that next time round.

Preventative Comics: Will Eisner’s ‘PS – Preventative Maintenance Monthly’


PS 1

Almost since I first heard of Will Eisner, I’ve been aware that he spent most of the period between the end of The Spirit and his Section and the first appearance of the legendary A Contract with God using his cartooning skills in service to the US Army in its technical magazine, PS – The Preventative Maintenance Monthly.
Aside from occasional features on the series, and the illustrations reprinted to accompany these, I’ve remained ignorant of this part of Eisner’s career. Not any more though: the by now thousands of comics I have on DVD-Rom, in a pile still less than three inches high, now includes 103 copies of that magazine, including a run of the first 100, from 1951 to 1961. And it’s that unusual magazine’s turn to fall under my inquisitive eye.
This is not going to be anything like the kind of review I’ve been writing for those other comics. PS is simply not that kind of magazine. It is what its sub-title says, a technical magazine devoted to a very practical subject, namely the correct and best ways to maintain Army equipment of all kind in a state of readiness for instant use, in the kind of condition best suited to preserve the life and limb of those who work the trucks, bulldozers, vehicles, vessels, bull-dozers and armaments, waiting to be used.
We’re not talking stories here, plotting is of no relevance and the quality of the scripting serves only one fundamental purpose: functionality. This magazine is written for the American soldier who is responsible for maintenance of equipment. It’s tangy, laconic, written from soldier to soldier but this is the veneer that renders the dry facts less dry but no less factual.

Joe’s Dope Sheet

The DVD appeared to start from issue 17, in 1954, when the format changed, and when more of the magazine was given over to Eisner. The first sixteen issues are staid and formal, very much the technical magazines, with pages of type in two columns, decorated mostly with photos or straight, practical cartoons.
Eisner’s role is minimised. He contributes header cartons for various sections,. These feature his experts, who provide answers or host suggestions told in a tangy, slangy fashion, speaking the Army’s own language. These are (Master-) Sergeant Half-Mast McAnick, gorgeous specialist Connie Rodd and, not that he lasted long, Captain ‘Windy’ Windsock to answer your air-mail.
But his major contribution is Joe Dope, an eight-page Spirit Section-style story including a pull-out and pin-up poster summarising the month’s point to be made in a five-line poem. As comics go, it’s almost purely technical, with a schizophrenic heart: for the body of the section, Joe, a goofy-looking, round-faced young man with a prominent central tooth, is the guy who instructs and corrects, especially after issue 3 to Private Fogsnoff (and is that not a familiar name from The Spirit?), only to be held up to ridicule as the example of all kinds of bad practice once we reach the poster.

This initial run feels constrained. It reminds me of the early pages of Frank Bellamy’s life-story of Winston Churchill in the Eagle, inhibited by drawing a living person, and so big a national hero. Eisner isn’t sure how far he can go, how playful he’s allowed to become. The magazine is serious, and so is he. Joe gets the best of it, his feature is intended to be character-oriented, but the Dolan-esque Half-Mast and the statuesque cheesecake, Connie, are just figureheads.
Things start to change from issue 9 onwards, as Eisner’s given a freer hand to establish himself in the body of the magazine. Suddenly, pages without illustration are greatly diminished. Photographs are replaced by compact technical drawings. Connie doesn’t, and never will, escape from being cheesecake, a GI’s pin-up of a woman, but she starts to develop a personality, an ultra-competent, stern-face model (in both senses) of expertise, knowledge and professionalism.
‘Windy’ Windsock disappears, unnoticed. He will be replaced, before too long, by Sgt. ‘Bull’ Dozer, a solid, forage-capped hulk of a man, whose speciality is everything. Issue 17 sees a change in format. Joe’s feature is renamed Joe’s Dope, and centralized to make it easier to remove the pull-out. Eisner starts to freewheel in his stories, and he’s contributing more and more art, taking over pages to insert large sketches to dramatise, with tongue firmly in cheek, the importance of whatever aspect of Preventative Maintenance is being covered here.
And Connie, despite spending most of her time in a uniform that includes a firmly below the knee skirt, and incongruous high heels, grows ever more delightful to look at.
Connie’s role is the expert, showing the hapless Joe and Fos how to do things right, and in what, I take on trust, is the right degree of detail for the guys out in front at whom this is aimed. Dope and Fosgnoff are as deliberately dumb, if eager, as Connie Rodd is on top of things, but this just excuses the detail into which the explanations go, laid out for the actual serving man who lies along the spectrum between her and the dummies to follow without assumptions.
Obviously, there’s no narrative and no character development and, as such, the magazine doesn’t have the kind of narrative progression that usually informs one of these posts. But the work is by Will Eisner, which means that it is inherently fascinating to me, and should be to you.

Connie Rodd

The amount of additional cartooning required varies from issue to issue according to the subjects being covered each months. Sometimes, the equivalent of a full comic is required, if a detailed sequence is called for, whilst more often it’s no more than small spot-cartoons, humourously exaggerating responses to the work in hand, or the effects of not doing it right.
The highlight is always the Joe’s Dope section, with very rare exceptions in full colour and given the full Eisner treatment. This is where the work is at its most comic and serious at the same time. How effective is it? I am perhaps the last person to ask: my skills have always been academic and not practical. Someone with an underlying interest in engineering and electrics would, I imagine, fall upon this as inherently fascinating, and I’m sure that if I had the practical bent of my father, I would get a lot more out of this than cartooning,
As it is, this is not the kind of thing to make me concentrate too heavily, and that’s before taking into account that the issues on this DVD-Rom are from the Fifties, and I would guess myself to be on solid ground in assuming that most of this work is obsolete in detail, and to a lesser extent in principle.
Or if it isn’t, then what has sixty-five years been spent doing with Army equipment?

Interior layout

There was a change made in issue 37, when the Joe’s Dope section ended with Pvt Fosgnoff being discharged to civilian life as a motor mechanic, a long way from his dream girl Connie… and promptly showing just much much – if you can really say ‘much’ – he had learned… And Joe himself was transformed. You couldn’t remove him, his name was over the door, but suddenly he was nearly as competent as the superhuman Connie, and the silly cartoon face came and went between issues and had to be alibied to plastic surgery following one final goof, after which Joe was an ordinary, pleasant-faced young man in uniform, showing the less conscientious how to do it.
It appeared that the Army were not happy with being represented by two standard issue Will Eisner schlubs. Joe’s role would be minimised to the point of his disappearing – not completely, though Eisner teased killing him off in issue 73, December 1958, having him appear to succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning from leaving an engine idling on a winter night, before revealing it as the dreaded dream of cliché (not that I hold Joe in any malice).
Ultimately, Eisner would end up buying back the rights to the characters, though I don’t know that he ever made use of them. Sometimes, as a creator, you have to own your children so as not to see them mistreated.

Several times, the magazine would style its supplemental cartoons round a theme depicted on the cover. There’d be a Civil War theme, a Valentines (in a February issue), a Science Fiction theme, a Medieval one, the Rebellion. This didn’t make the technical information any less up-to-date, but the various demonstrations, advice or corrections would be linked by Eisner cartoons casting the idea of Preventative Maintenance as running throughout history as opposed to some new-fangled 1950s notion. And it gave Eisner the chance of some effective fun.
After the first 100, there were only three other issues on the DVD. That for issue 115, from 1963, was little different from those before, though it did have Windy Windsock back after a hundred or so issues, but the leap to issue 182, in 1968, was instructive. PS had grown much more cartoon-oriented, with Eisner and his team working overtime to produce not merely illustrations but short sequences on practically every page. Windy Windsock was (still?) around but Half-Mast had been reduced to very much a minor character and Connie Rodd was the out-and-out star.
And with it now being the late-Sixties, Connie was not spending all her time in Army Uniform and below knee-length tight skirts. Issue 189 had a western theme to the art so she was mainly depicted in tight bucksins and a cowboy hat, with the usual hairstyle given a softer, sleeker look, to go with the softer expressions she wore. This Connie isn’t looking down quite so much at the inadequacies of the privates and men (dreaming of) being under her.
She even displaced Joe’s Dope in this issue, with her maintenance calendar for the forthcoming year.
The final issue was no. 229, from 1971, in which the process of full-scale cartooning had gone even further, and Connie looked even better: hang the preventative maintenance, I’m happy just to look at a full-on, relaxed, self-contained and gorgeous Eisner babe. Pity there weren’t more for this era. But 229 was Eisner’s last issue as Art Director, though Connie and the gang stayed on. According to Wikipedia, she and her African-American equivalent, Bonnie, were redesigned to be more ‘modest and professional’, and not cheesecake at all. I bet that worked…
So PS – Preventative Maintenance Monthly is a curiosity for being what Will Eisner did for years after leaving the comics business. It’s brilliant work, superb cartooning, and a very effective presentation of a serious subject with the ability to save a lot of lives.
But my response to a hundred issues of it is that it’s comics, Jim, but not as we know it. Despite the presence of recurring characters, and once again, I do admit to a fondness for Connie Rodd, there is no narrative, there are no stories. The object is a technical instruction that, no matter how humanised it is made, is only technical instructions, and what’s more instructions in something for which I have neither aptitude nor empathy.
As to the question of whether or not Eisner was utilising his skills in a purpose worthy of them, I have no definitive opinion. What he was doing was assisting an Army to be more efficient in the deployment of the machinery it operated. The purpose of an Army, if reduced to its utter basics, is to kill the enemies of its country. Many have condemned Eisner for facilitating militarism, and the case can’t be avoided. PS was founded at the start of the Korean War, when there was a crying need for it.
On the other hand, an Army is an objective fact. It may be immoral, it may be unwanted, I may not like it, but it is necessary. PS is pitched at saving the lives of Army members, not merely in combat but in depots at home and overseas where careless, ignorant or neglectful handling of equipment can result in damage, mutilation and even death.
It doesn’t make for enthusing reading, however. I’m glad to have satisfied my curiosity, but it’s not all that likely that I’d want my memories refreshing. Though I’d take another hundred issues of Connie Rodd in the Sixties any day…

A Strange Death for a Strange Death


The Strange Death of Alex Raymond

I can’t remember how long ago it was that I wrote my last Cerebus post. It was intended as my last word on Dave Sim, and the complicated situation he had manoeuvred himself into in the years after his landmark series.

At that time, I mentioned an ongoing, slowly-developing story he was putting together as part of his other ongoing series, Glamourpuss, which represented very high quality work. This was The Strange Death of Alex Raymond and it was about the circumstances leading up to the death of the newspaper strip artist, Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon in a car crash driving a car belonging to fellow strip writer/artist Stan Drake.

This was something that was proving to be very intriguing, with artwork at Sim’s highest level. It was interrupted by two things: the cancellation of Glamourpuss due to inadequate sales, and Sim developing what appears to be some form of Carpal-Tunnel syndrome, leaving him effectively unable to draw.

It’s always been intended that SDOAR should be completed and published. This was to be done through IDM publishing. Though Sim was unable to draw any more pages, he had arranged with artist Carson Grubaugh, a photo-realistic artist, to take over the series.

Years have passed. Grubaugh has accumulated many pages of artwork, none of which has yet been published. Though I was unaware of this, apparently a Kickstarter-style crowdfunding appeal was made to raise funds. Despite the delay, and despite selling my Glamourpuss collection last year, with the only published pages, I was still eager to see the finished work. Throughout its run in Glamourpuss, it seemed that Sim was keeping his more controversial views to a minimum.

Today, Sim has announced that he’s pulling the plug, that he’s washing his hands of SDOAR. This appears to be due to the lack of any commercial appeal of the work, which is a damned shame. Apparently, only 137 would-be purchasers signed up to it, and Sim’s financial position is now so perilous he has asked them not to request a refund because the money’s already been spent.

It’s something of a typical self-serving announcement, with Sim heroically yet self-pityingly accepting that the only part of his creative career with any commercial appeal are the first five issues of Cerebus, and the issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Spawn to which he contributed. Like Cerebus, it appears that Sim will die not merely alone, unmourned and unloved, but also flat broke.

But what never comes anywhere close to Sim’s maudlin thinking is the consideration that maybe, just maybe, his once loyal and solid audience has been repelled by his trumpeted anti-female opinions. The downturn started in Cerebus after the infamous issue 186, and by the last year of the series at least, Sim was making a loss on every issue. And he’s only got worse since.

The announcement hasn’t been greeted with much sympathy. Grubaugh is understandably angry at two and a half years work, at Sim’s invitation, without payment, being written off like that. He intends to publish his work – between 250 and 300 pages – himself and has Sim’s written permission to do so, though this should not have been necessary given Sim’s widely-expressed principle that everybody involved in the creation of a work has the right to publish it. Understandably, Grubaugh is in search of a publisher, not crowd-funding.

One fan commenting on a comics news website was rather more blunt: Karma’s a harsh mistress.

I’ve tried to find a shred of sympathy in myself. After all, Cerebus was a part of my life for nearly twenty five years and most of its first two hundred issues are still absolutely brilliant. But he holds views that I personally find abhorrent, and so do the majority of people, but which he thinks are self-evidently correct and everyone else is out of step, brainwashed by the prospect of women dropping their knickers for us. He has wrecked his life on so many levels by espousing these beliefs, for which he deserves marks for sticking to his principles but for nothing else.

But I’m still going to miss the outcome of The Strange Death of Alex Raymond.

Denny O’Neill R.I.P.


I’ve just heard the news about the loss of Denny O’Neill from the downthetubes comics web-site. Though there were things in his philosophy that I disagreed with, particularly with his approach to critically review other’s works, and though some of his most famous stories – notably the Green Lantern/Green Arrow run with Neal Adams – haven’t stood up to time nobody can deny that he was a massive presence in comics, as writer, as editor and, most important of all, mentor and inspiration.

Never was a Denny O’Neil story less than professionally written, to a high technical standard, and whether or not Green Lantern/Green Arrow looks that good now, or Frank Miller’s Dark Knight (which O’Neill edited), is still the landmark it was, what matters is what they were for and what they did for their times. They changed how things were done and how people thought, they made a difference.

Denny O’Neill made a difference, far too often to be thought of as anything but a legend. Another light has gone out of the sky: how many more befote it is too dark to see?