Back when I was writing about Showcase, I made the mistake of calling the mid-Seventies short series First Issue Special, which appeared round about the same time I was paying attention to comics again, a modern-day equivalent to DC’s longstanding try-out magazine.
I have now discovered that I was exactly wrong about that. First Issue Special was the brainchild of DC Editorial Director turned Publisher, former star artist Carmine Infantino, who conceived of it as exactly what it said in the title: an ongoing series of first issues, without the intent to run these as potential series.
At first sight, Infantino’s concept seems to have a spurious logic to it. This is the Age of the Collector, and there is nothing more Collectors like than a brand spanking no. 1 issue, to sell at a vastly inflated mark-up to readers excited by the series and eager to fill the most important gap in their longboxes.
But more than ten seconds thought is enough to identify the fatal flaws in the concept. Firstly, that a character created to appear only once and never again is highly unlikely – especially at the rates paid to writers and artists in the mid-Seventies – to have any of the depth or potential to attract readers with the required degree of passion. Secondly, that collectors only want to buy rare and precious no. 1s if there are actually nos. 2,3,4 etc. for them to get hooked upon. And thirdly, if a character proved to be improbably attractive to the readers, by the time you counted the returns and found you’d got an actual hit on your hands, six months or so had gone past, taking with it any momentum the character might possibly have carried with them.
Among the many bizarre and inexplicable decisions made by Infantino in that awful early to mid-Seventies period, First Issue Special must stand out as one of the most kack-handed of them all. The series consisted of thirteen issues, some of which being of quite high-quality, and one of which introducing a character who, a couple of decades later, came to play a substantial role in the DC Universe.
Now I, in my insatiable curiosity, have obtained a run of the series, and you are going to have to listen to what I’ve found out.
Almost inevitably, the first feature was Atlas, by Jack Kirby: who else but comics’ premier creation-machine? Atlas was set in the past, and based on the Atlas of myth, who would one day bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. Kirby’s version, very much in keeping with the supermythical, larger-than-larger-than-life approach he’d adopted for the New Gods and would follow with the Eternals, was a young man of prodigious strength, seeking, and in this incomplete story finding, the man who had killed his father and taken his mother into slavery.
Like others in the series, what we got was half a story and the pretence of a willingness to continue it if the readers desired. Atlas was revived as a foe for Superman by James Robinson in 2008.
It was five years since the great ballyhoo about Kirby leaving Marvel for DC, a contract negotiated by Infantino which, in the great old tradition of Siegel and Schuster, DC reneged upon in every possible aspect just as soon as they’d got him in the door. His five years were nearly up: despite his Fourth World titles, centring upon Darkseid, he’d never fitted into DC, primarily because DC had no intention of bending one iota to accommodate him and all the things he could have done. His contract would not be renewed, and he would return to Marvel in 1976 because he had nowhere to go. The Fourth World series had all been cancelled, The Demon hadn’t taken off, Kamandi, which he’d never intended to continue after two or three establishing issues, was cranking along. Things like Atlas helped fulfil his page quotas. There are times when you really, really wish people weren’t so fucking short-sighted.
Appropriately, the subjects of issue 2 were created by Kirby’s old partner, Joe Simon. This was The Green Team, sub-titled Boy Millionaires. It was a good thing it was only designed for one issue because it didn’t even merit that much exposure, though Simon clearly saw it as a viable series, God knows why. It was actually scheduled as a series and two issues prepared but the world was spared when it became one of the many unpublished comics sunk by the DC Implosion (which wasn’t all that bad after all, it seems).
The Green Team was yet another Simon/Kirby four piece kid gang, but one that showed that the well of inspiration was dry and stinking. The Green Team were four boy magnates whose membership qualification was having $1,000,000. They consisted of Commodore Murphy, shipping magnate, JP Huston, oil baron and Cecil Sunbeam, aka ‘Starmaker’, Hollywood film director. Oh, and Abdul Smith, black shoeshine boy, who got in when his bank made a computer error and added $5 of savings millions of times.
The boys were eager to fund exciting and innovative things. If this was such a good concept, why did Simon have to use up space by having five splash pages?
On the basis that no idea is so bad DC won’t try to revive it, especially during the New 52, the Green Team were retconned after Flashpoint. I doubt the effort was worth it.
Next up, for issue 3, was an idea that had nothing new about it at all, a one-off revival of Metamorpho: but it was a 1st Issue. It came about because Metamorpho’s creators, writer Bob Haney and artist Ramona Fradon, met for the first time at the 1974 San Diego Comics Convention. Reminiscing about the Element Man, both agreed they’d never had so much fun as when working on that title and wanted to repeat it: it filled an issue as far as Infantino was concerned.
I never read Metamorpho in the Sixties, and haven’t got round to catching up on it yet. So don’t ask me how it compares, but this one was a hoot. Haney and Fradon are having a whale of a time and if this was their general standard back then, I’m looking forward to reading that series. This was bouncy, fast, action-oriented but still with time for more characterisation than a year of Haney’s Brave and Bold’s.
Issue 4 was a Robert Kanigher creation, Lady Cop. Kanigher can be very professional or completely maniacal but as he wasn’t on a superhero, there was a reasonable chance of the former. Yes, and no. There was nothing egregiously stupid about the issue, and he was professional enough to set up an ongoing theme if the idea had ever been taken up.
Liza Warner is a blond secretary who cowers under her bed in fear whilst a serial killer, identifiable only by his cowboy boots, strangles her flatmates. After being praised for her precise recollection, Liza joins the Police force, though why she has to undergo training is the usual mystery because naturally she’s the perfect cop on her first day. Her boy friend doesn’t want her to be a working girl and will she ever forget the man who killed her flatmates, or find him and punish him? The art by John Rosenberger was unspeakably stiff and dull.
Liza was brought back post-Final Crisis to appear in two issues of the Ryan Choi run as The Atom, as the Ivy Town Chief of Police.
Jack Kirby supplied two more ideas, to wildly contrasting effect, for issues 5 and 6. The first of these was Manhunter. In the Forties, he and Joe Simon had created a character called Manhunter, big game hunter Paul Kirk, hunting the world’s most dangerous game, man, in a red costume with a blue full-face mask. This Paul Kirk had been transformed superbly only the previous year by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson.
Now Kirby adapted the same Manhunter costume to his present day style to create a warrior for justice, a Lion of the Shan, an organisation that always got its man. But the last Manhunter is growing old and needs a replacement, who is found in Public Defender Mark Shaw, whose name ought to be familiar. Shaw went into training to be worthy of the Manhunter’s electro-baton, not just his costume.
Kirby’s effort was again only half a story, however, with Manhunter setting out to bring down the big boss, The Hog. It hung in the air, never to be completed, because by the time Mark Shaw and Manhunter returned, the Hog was forgotten and Shaw was Manhunter. He was revived by Steve Engelhart for his first, year-long run on Justice League of America, initially as Manhunter and then as The Privateer. And Engelhart tied the Manhunters to the Guardians of the Universe, as the first Police Force, android pursuers pre-dating the Green Lantern Corps, corrupted by their own self-righteous sense of mission.
Kirby’s incomplete Manhunter tale is perhaps one of the smallest acorns planted by him to give rise to an oak of a concept, which DC has exploited many times since, but in comparison to issue 6’s Dingbats of Danger Street, it’s the Fourth World.
Simon and Kirby used to own the boy’s gang comics. The Dingbats were evidence not so much that the well had run dry as that it had been filled-in and concreted over with something the height of the World Trade Towers. Just the names – Good Looks, Non-Fat, Krunch and Bananas – and the villain The Gasser. At least this was a complete story, for a given value of complete.
Another existing character was revived for a one-shot next, Steve Ditko’s classic, The Creeper, with pencils by Ditko again, although the story came from Michael Fleisher.
As Ditko no longer inked himself, he was paired with Mike Royer, Jack Kirby’s latter-day inker, though Royer’s slavish devotion to the pencils did Ditko no favours. Ditko’s story-telling was as concentrated as ever but Fleisher couldn’t come up with anything more inspiring than one of Batman’s old Fifties villains, The Firefly, who was surely poor for that era to begin with. A first solo appearance in six years did spark a few guest shots but The Creeper has never been able to rise above cult interest.
Issue 8 provided something different, a feature that actually became a series. This was Mike Grell’s Warlord, Travis Morgan, who had been intended for a series all along and whose debut in First Issue Special was just to save anyone from coming up with a character for another month. This was one of only two First Issue Specials I bought in that 1975-6 period, and a lot of it is vaguely familiar, though I still find Mike Grell’s art to be awfully plastic and his poses unnaturalistic.
Warlord was plugged to start its own series two months later and it and Travis Morgan would be longstanding successes, as well as the basis of a long career for Grell. It’s based on the Hollow Earth theory as utilised by Edgar Rice Burroughs for Pellucidar. Here, Air Force pilot Travis Morgan, fleeing from Russian pursuit, unknowingly flies through the hole at the North Pole into barbarian adventures in the land of Skartaris.
A lot of people liked it, tremendously. After about seven issues of the series, I decided it was not for me, due to a lack of direction and muddledness about the stories.
Issue 9 was the only other comic of the series that I bought, and it is still one of my favourite issues of the Seventies. It featured Doctor Fate, long a favourite from the JSA, drawn in bravura fashion by Walt Simonson and featuring a reconceptualisation of the character that formed the basis of his portrayal for decades to come, by Martin Pasko. It was also the Doc’s first full-length adventure.
It’s still a real dynamite story, with fun-filled and fast-paced art from Simonson, but it’s significance is as the foundation of the modern-day Fate. Pasko entwined the Doctor’s abilities with the Egyptian gods and magic, fitting for Kent Nelson’s origins, and also introduced the notion that Kent Nelson and Doctor Fate were separate entities, with the later possessing the former’s body when he donned the helmet. Pasko also followed through on the logic of Inza Nelson, loving Kent, having difficulties with the unconnected Doc and what he did to her husband.
So much achieved in just one seventeen page story. A much treasured comic.
Next up, in issue 10, were the Outsiders. No, not Batman’s renegade team nor any forerunner of them, but an horrendous and inept bodge that purported to send a message of tolerance and respect for anyone who looked different, but which was buried under deliberately rancid and exaggerated art. This was another Joe Simon idea and it’s hard to know how to describe it without defamatory words. The Outsiders were a team of literal, and deliberate freaks, designed to be as repulsive as possible, and the story wasn’t a story but a circular confusion whose last page led you back to its first page so that it disappeared up its own… tail. Pass on, rapidly.
In contrast, Codename: the Assassin failed for a much more ordinary reason, terminal dullness. A Gerry Conway creation, with co-scripting by Steve Skeates, The Assassin was intended as an ongoing series, and had been billed as such in a house ad concerning titles coming from Conway’s little editorial stable. It’s a rip-off of Conway’s Punisher, with added telekinetic powers, and like Kirby’s Manhunter it’s half a story, ending on a cliffhanger with The Assassin about to fight two equally cliched supervillains.
Artwise, the style is horribly confused. Infantino designed the Assassin’s costume but it’s far from his better work. For economies’ sake, the art was given to Nestor Redondo in the Philippines, because he had never done superhero work before but, because he had never done superhero work before, it was handed to Al Milgrom to ink, and his heavy-handed style obliterates any trace of Redondo and makes the whole thing just look downright ugly.
In many ways, the penultimate issue, featuring a new Starman, again by Gerry Conway, sums up First Issue Special. Yet again it’s a cliffhanger, and yet again there was never any intention of resolving it. It’s Conway’s comments that I’ve relied upon in characterising this series as I did: he has been quoted as quoting Infantino soliciting ideas for next month’s First Issue Special, and complaining about how any even borderline-decent character could be created in such circumstances: barely any notice and as cannon-fodder.
Conway clearly didn’t put much effort into Starman. Allegedly, he was impressed by some mid-Sixties appearances of the Ted Knight version without, at the time, connecting him to the Golden Age version for which he had little but disdain. But then sloppiness and lazy plotting has been a hallmark of Conway’s superhero work since way back. This Starman is, naturally, the Mikaal Tomas version picked up and made into a much more viable character by James Robinson, to Conway’s latterday amusement, and general inability to understand why anyone should want to bother with a throwaway idea like that. That rather epitomises Conway for me.
And he was there again for the last of the series, Return of the New Gods. It was the first time anyone had tackled Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters since their various series had been cancelled and neither Conway nor artists Mike Vosburg were up to it. Conway introduced a new, conventional superhero costume for Orion and converted the series into a standard slam-bang attack by Orion, out to kill Darkseid. He over-egged the pudding by chucking in practically everyone, whether they did anything or not, and ended it with a stalemate. At least the story was complete.
Conway hoped for a series, which he got a year later, once Jeanette Kahn had taken over as Publisher. Afterwards, he regretted that the finale he produced – killing off Darkseid – was inadequate (didn’t stop him doing it again and again) without recognising that his determination to press the New Gods into a superhero mould was inadequate to start with.
But there it was. Issue 14 was to have featured the first full-length Green Arrow/Black Canary story but that, and any others ready to appear – of which I doubt there were any – would be distributed around their own series and back-ups: I cannot recall seeing the GA/BC story then or after, so who knows?
So that was First Issue Special. It had some bright spots and, on the age old principle that there is no such thing as a bad character (except for the Outsiders. And the Dingbats), some of the characters created as Infantino’s folly went on to better things in other people’s hands. Me, I forgive it all for Marty Pasko and Walt Simonson’s Doctor Fate which, in my opinion, justified the whole blinking lot of it!