The Men on Borrowed Time: Challengers of the Unknown


The Challengers by Kirby

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

Original costumes

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

New Costumes


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

Challengers 59

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

The origin

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

Enter Corinna Stark – has Tony seen her yet?

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

POSTSCRIPT

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

The Fabulous Freaks: The Doom Patrol


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

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

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

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

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

POSTSCRIPT

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

To be Brave and Bold: the Batman Phase


Batman Begins

And so, with issue 74, still under the editorship of George Kashdan, The Brave and The Bold came to its fourth, final and longest phase, the Bat-book era. Not content with Detective and Batman and Justice League of America and World’s Finest, DC turned over their team-up book to the Caped Crusader as the permanent one-half of the team.
The first victims, a term I use advisedly after reading the story, were the Metal Man. Bob Haney wrote a story that plumbed the depths beneath amateurism as Batman has to learn to expunge his prejudice against robots as Gotham City suffers a plague of robbing ones whilst spouting dialogue that makes you wonder whether it’s Haney or Bruce Wayne who’s the ten year old. It’s a very bad start.
The Spectre team-up in the next issue was considerably better but was an early manifestation of a problem that would dog B&B for ages and that was continuity. Technically, DC didn’t have it in 1967, but it had consistency. Haney held continuity in contempt, the traditional hobgoblin of small minds, insisting on writing his stories in whatever context suited them best. The Flash had gone to Earth-2 to team-up with The Spectre but this story was about the Earth-1 Batman (the yellow chest emblem) and Jim Corrigan was visiting Gotham to study its Police methods, as a fellow cop of the same Earth.
More things like this will follow. Don’t give yourself headaches trying to make them fit because they don’t.
Plastic Man was passable, the Atom acceptable, but Wonder Woman with Batgirl was a wasteful banality. It’s stone-cold bleedin’ obvious that the superheroine pair are only pretending to be madly in love with Batman to con villain Copperhead into thinking he’s distracted, but the story suddenly turns nuts and nonsense when they decide, mid-story, that they really are. It’s pathetic, and that’s without alliteration.
But issue 79 saw the appearance of Deadman, and with it a change of art as the Andru/Esposito team gave way to the only man that DC would allow to draw Deadman at the time, Neal Adams. And Deadman inspired Haney to write his best story thus far, with only one dumb moment that, out of respect, I won’t detail.
Disappointingly, the next issue, featuring the Creeper, is missing from the DVD. But Adams wasn’t here just for Deadman but for a regular gig, and very popular he was. What the reader didn’t know was that the new, dynamic, hyperrealistic Batman was being produced in conflict between writer and artist. Adams had clear, definitive ideas about how Batman should be produced, including the belief that his natural metier was night, not day, and he was changing the times and settings of Haney’s scripts, much to the veteran writer’s annoyance.
Flash, Aquaman, the Teen Titans – the latter a back issue I remember getting – were all decent enough stories but a war-time team-up with Sgt. Rock and Easy Company was stretching things again with Batman and Bruce Wayne looking identical in both the 1944 of the tale and the 1969 of its appearance. Also inside, editor Murray Boltinoff put paid to a reader’s suggestion of reviving some of the discontinued heroes with a short sharp statement that they were commercial failures and there was no chance.

A landmark…

But the landmark was issue 85, guest-starring Green Arrow. This was the famous story, “The Senator’s been Shot!”, that buried the boring, characterless archer of so many years and introduced the new look GA, with the goatee and moustache and the green leather costume that suddenly looked so sharp, Neal Adams’ design, with emphasis now firmly upon sharpshooting instead of trick arrows. It was a tremendous moment.
Deeadman was back next time, followed by the new, depowered Wonder Woman, complete with I Ching, in a story written and pencilled by Diana’s current scribe, Mike Sekowsky. It was considerably better than her last outing, but then an illustrated telephone directory would also have been an improvement.
Haney was back next issue, but not Adams, whose already noted deadline issues combined with how he’d antagonised the writer (especially given that Boltinoff only cared about getting a comic out on time and its quality a long way after) saw him officially relegated to a ‘pool’ of artists but in fact only to return once. Novick and Esposito drew an issue I bought back then, in the fading days of my interest in comics, shortly before I grew out of them forever. I suspect I can recall exactly where and when I bought this, on 13 August 1970.
The co-star was Wildcat, which brought back the issue of which Earth this was happening upon, the one Haney ignored, although it was actually Ted Grant who co-starred, with Wildcat appearing in a total of five panels only, across two pages. The recently-revived Phantom Stranger dragged Dr Thirteen along to issue 89 in a modest story but the Adam Strange story that followed was another exercise in looseness and implausibility making very little use of the peripatetic archaeologist.
Nick Cardy dropped in along with Black Canary – still new girl on Earth-1 – for issue 91, with Dinah Lance, under an assumed name, falling for its Larry Lance, just because he looked like her dead husband. It was another of those demeaning women-in-love-and-brain-drops-out-through-her… -ears stories since Larry was set up to be the villain from early on. And Cardy remained for the following issue which was even more demeaning, if you were British, being set in foggy London town with a ‘Bat-Squad’ of three Brits who talked like nobody under the sun has ever talked. London 1970 looked like a compendium of Jack the Ripper rip-offs. Ghastly, old chap.
Adams was back for a final flourish, bringing with him a long-promised Denny O’Neil script nominally joining Batman to the now mild-horror oriented House of Mystery, in reality an Ireland set supernatural affair, but Cardy was back next with the Teen Titans and a hip, relevance story that wore its heart on its sleeve with its ignorance tied over it. And the mystery of Batman’s surprise co-star the following issue was undermined by a) the clues dropped and b) my remembering it was Plastic Man from before. But another modern day team-up with Sergeant Rock, third personing himself and with bright orange hair was a plain old mess.
Issue 97 was the first of the run of 25c comics, as DC tried to get out ahead of inflation. Wildcat was back, and the back-up was a reprint of Deadman’s origin story. The Phantom Stranger returned the following issue, drawn by his current artist, the late, great Jim Aparo, one of the few DC artists allowed to do both pencil and inks. It was Aparo’s first B&B job, but before long he would be the regular artist for a very long run.
And after a Bob Brown/Nick Cardy job on The Flash in issue 99, Aparo took over with a special for issue 100, featuring those hard-travellin’ heroes, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Black Canary, not to mention Robin. Unfortunately, Haney had to mess things up in his usual manner by having Green Arrow kill a thug with an arrow to the heart and without the slightest qualm. Then he had Robin constantly talking Black Canary down for being female, and then by proving the Teen Wonder’s point by having the Canary go to a hairdresser’s mid-case, to get her hair dried after being caught in the rain: it’s a bloody wig, Haney, you arsehole.
Many of these issues now are familiar to me. Though it’s still only 1972, and it was not until January 1974 that I started reading comics again, I did get into B&B through Aparo’s art after seeing him on The Spectre, and back-issues were plentiful and cheap. Metamorpho’s return, three years after his title’s cancellation I had but not the Teen Titans in a part-Neal Adams drawn story, taking over from Aparo after the latter fell ill.

An array of issues

From hereon, I’m not going to comprehensively list every guest star, just those who, for one reason or another are notable, such as Oliver Queen in issue 106, for being listed on the cover as still The Green Arrow and, some three or more years after losing his fortune which caused a fundamental change in his character, suddenly still/once again a billionaire. It’s not just Haney but also Boltinoff who didn’t give a shit for consistency.
Although the title now has a good, reliable artist, and Haney is starting to outgrow that get-down-with-the-kids hip talk of the late Sixties, I’m actually finding these stories a lot weaker, and often dull to read. Part of it is that Haney is making the stories fit ill with the guests. Nobody is quite ‘there’, because Haney is deliberately averse to an accurate depiction of the guest’s reality: it restricts his story to do so
And it’s astonishing how ‘wrong’ Batman feels to the modern eye. Because the Batman of nearly fifty years ago is almost as alien a creation as the infamous Fifties Batman of Jack Schiff. He’s clumsy, he’s amateurish, he’s constantly getting shot or knocked out, he pals around with Commissioner Gordon most of the time, he works hand in hand with the Police and orders them around, as if he’s one of them of senior rank, and he actually is a duly deputized officer. Worst of all, he has no intensity. Batman is not driven. He is nothing at all like the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths/Dark Knight Batman. And it makes the stories very weak indeed.
With issue 112, Brave & Bold joined the ranks of DC’s growing 100-page titles: twenty new pages, here featuring Mr Miracle and eighty reprint, all stories from earlier phases of the title that I’ve gone through in earlier instalments. But the following issue, reprints of The Green Arrow and the Challengers of the Unknown made it clear the title wouldn’t just confine itself to its back pages.
Even with the extra pages and some well-chosen reprints, I’m finding the comic a trial to read. These are the stories I returned to, that impressed me so much as a University student, albeit one only aged 18, that I found them such an improvement over those I still kept from the Sixties. It’s a back-handed testament to the impact Frank Miller and The Dark Knight Returns had upon Batman that this erratic, constantly injured and fallible character is now an alien being, linked only by the costume.
And I’ve also got to admit a distaste for editor Murray Boltinoff. It’s not just his determined rejection of consistency but his attitude to the readers. Boltinoff’s letter pages don’t print letters. They might contain two very short letters and then a host of part sentences and a very stiff attitude to readers who challenge this unique approach. According to Boltinoff, readers only write letters for their own ego-boost, and he’s not going to feed that, damn straight he isn’t. The impertinence of them! For a comic whose direction is set by the popularity of Batman’s guest stars, Boltinoff would really rather not have the readers get above themselves by doing any more than plop down their 60c. Miserable bugger.
The highlight of issue 117 for me was a reprint of the original first Secret Six story, by E. Nelson Bridwell and Frank Springer. I found it fresh, lively, individual, especially coming from Bridwell, whose other writing was usually, with respect, bland. This felt different, full of potential. It was, however, still the only original Secret Six story I’d ever read. Another reprint was planned for issue 119, but by then, B&B was no longer 100 pages long.
Indeed, it was back at 32 pages the next issue (Wildcat and the Joker), after exactly a year of supersizing, and boosted for the first time in its existence to eight times a year. Nothing else changed, though. Except that issue 120 was double-sized for 50c and carried that promised Secret Six issue 2 reprint, also very intriguing. What made the Secret Six unique at DC was being the only team whose members didn’t like or trust each other – more so even than the Doom Patrol – which was very Marvelesque.
Meanwhile, issue 121 reverted to standard 25c size.
Of course, the true peril of reading mid-Seventies comics that you used to read in your late teens is remembering stories you wish you’d never had cause to forget in the first place. A passable Swamp Thing led to another story mishandling Plastic Man, but these were nothing when set against yet another Sgt. Rock team-up into which Haney wrote himself, Aparo and Boltinoff as a team working frantically to complete the story according to script before the terrorist villains forced Aparo to draw Batman and Rock being killed, because if he drew it it happened. I can see that look of disbelief from here, you know. It’s like The Flash and Mopee: it did happen but it was first for the bonfire when the continuity got rebooted.
Despite Boltinoff’s contemptuous words about Golden Age characters being off-limits because they were failures, Wildcat was a regular guest, returning in issue 127. The team-ups are really with Ted Grant, Wildcat only getting a look-in, and every time, Ted’s life has been rearranged to be whatever’s convenient for Haney’s plot. This time round, he’s running a health spa in the Caribbean Sea and has killed a boxer in the ring on his second comeback. How? When? Forget it. Next time round he’ll be something and somewhere completely different.
In late 1976, with effect from issue 132, co-starring the no-longer current Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter, Boltinoff was out. DC were restructuring under new Publisher, Jeanette Kahn, with Joe Orlando in as Managing Editor, with responsibility for the line, and Denny O’Neil as Story Editor, taking direct responsibility for B&B.
But nothing really changed. John Calnan and Bob McLeod stepped in to draw issue 137’s team-up with The Demon, in a sequel to the Spectre team-up in issue 75, and with issue 139, Paul Levitz stepped into the editor’s chair. At the same time, the series went back to bi-monthly.

Batman vs Nemesis

Issue 143 was the one that came out in the DC Explosion, a big boom to 25 pages and 50c. Cary Burkett shared writing credits on Batman’s team-up with The Creeper, a second part to the previous issue’s Aquaman adventure, with Len Wein’s Human Target the back-up. And it was one of the very few to enjoy a second issue in that format. But good intentions were far from enough and the next issue was back to 17 pages for 40c, though with the compensation of elevation to monthly status for the first time ever.
With the landmark issue 150 coming up, assignments were jumbled up. Aparo was rested for 146’s first team-up with a new character in years, the war hero The Unknown Soldier, Haney in favour of Burkett for 147 and Aparo only inking Joe Staton in issue 148. The big issue itself was billed as ‘Batman and ?’ and the guest – who had never appeared with Batman in B&B before – was kept a secret until the end. Unfortunately, if you know who it was, it was easy to work out who it was: Superman
The Batman team-up era had now lasted for 77 issues. Bob Haney had written 117 issues overall, and Jim Aparo drawn 49. Few of that last fifty or so were worth reading twice. Haney’s stories were permanently unanchored in time and space, and it was a long time since he had gone beyond the formulaic.
The new monthly schedule meant fill-ins were necessary. Burkett and Don Newton contributed issue 153’s unprecedented appearance by the Red Tornado but it was Haney and Aparo who were responsible for the nadir of issue 155, with Batman and Green Lantern pursuing an interplanetary villain and Batman determined to have him tried on Earth out of sheer pigheadedness. It was a story that should have been a sacking offence, and that goes for editor Levitz too.
Burkett and Newton filled in again in issue 156, a rather intelligent little story using Dr Fate which didn’t lose too much space to the problem of getting him off Earth-2 and into the action, but when Gerry Conway wrote the Wonder Woman team-up in issue 158, it was the end of Haney’s long tenure as B&B’s regular scripter. Denny O’Neill with R’as al Ghul and Cary Burkett with Supergirl followed on.
Though a horde of Brave & Bold regulars would have disagreed with me, I was glad to see an end to Haney’s hokey stories. New viewpoints, indeed a range of them, were very welcome, and a few different artists didn’t go amiss. Paul Levitz was certainly more willing to try new guests, unlike the fervently conservative Boltinoff, and was a lot more responsive to reader’s ideas. There was also a run of guest artists as Aparo completed another assignment.
The ‘DC Implosion’ was now nearly two years back and the company had recovered its balance sufficiently to try again for the better package. With issue 166, B&B went to 25 story-pages and a 10c increase, cutting out eight pages of ads and substituting a new back-up, Nemesis, by Cary Burkett and Dan Spiegle. A moody, atmospheric series featuring Thomas Tresser balancing the scales of Justice after his brother assassinated a prominent Security officer.
Aparo was back from issue 168, and drew a full-length story teaming Batman with Nemesis in issue 170, which closed off the first arc of the latter’s story but left him just an everyday not-specially-motivated crimefighter in future. However, Burkett reacted by making Nemesis into a serial to keep things complex.
Paul Levitz’s editorial term came to an end with issue 176, handing over to Dick Giordano. As editor of the three Batman titles (imagine that, an era with only three Batman comics every month!) Levitz had aimed to inject a different feel into each one but Giordano swore to make them all the same.
There was no immediate difference to Brave & Bold, but Alan Brennert wrote a nice team-up with Hawk and Dove for issue 181 that put in place an ending for the original Sixties series that probably wouldn’t have suited Steve Ditko or Steve Skeates but worked for its time. And he came up with a superb one the following issue, sending Batman to Earth-2, where his older counterpart had died, to team up with not just the adult Robin but the original Batwoman. That was a tangled spread of emotions.
No such similar effect was achieved by Mike W. Barr’s Xmas story in issue 184, inviting The Huntress over to Earth-1 for the festivities. Charlie Boatner did find the right buttons to press in 187’s Metal Man team-up, reminding everyone of Nameless, Tin’s girlfriend from their Sixties series, and bringing her story to a conclusion with a fine and worthy flourish. On the other hand, did Doc Magnus really invent Metal Women?
As B&B went into its final year, Mike Barr did an excellent job on an Adam Strange team-up for issue 190, bringing in Carmine Infantino for one last, sentimental union with Adam and Alanna. Cohn and Mishkin produced a complex story teaming Batman with The Joker – genuinely – and with Len Wein taking over the editorial reins after Giardino’s promotion to Managing Editor, his first job sent Superman out with Superboy, both these stories displaying Jim Aparo art. Aparo was no longer the artist-in-residence, but he was once again the principal artist for the series.
Cary Burkett wrote the Superboy story, dealing quite intelligently with the time paradox aspect, and he was on hand again for issue 193, which teamed up Batman with his creation, Nemesis. I have a lot of time for the Nemesis series, a well-handled, street level story. Sadly, in a manner reminiscent of the long-ago team-up with Manhunter, this was to end Burkett’s series in the same fashion as Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson, by Nemesis sacrificing himself to defeat the overwhelming opposition he’d fought all along. It was a shame that the art was given to Aparo rather than Nemesis’s artist, Dan Spiegle, and also that there was no room for Valerie Foxworth as there had been for Christine St Clair at the finish, but the final page saw Batman entering Marjorie Marshall’s home and adding the weight that finally balanced out the Scales of Justice for the death of Ben Marshall.
It made the swap-villains team-up with the Flash look the weak thing it was, despite Infantino art. No back-up meant extra pages for the main story, though only 23 now, which benefited the I… Vampire team-up in issue 195, which for a moment looked liked writing that series off without completion.
Suddenly, excellent stories were exploding. Robert Kanigher brought his short-lived Ragman, for whom I always had time in his original form, into an excellent story for issue 196, but Alan Brennert was on hand next issue, combining with Joe Staton, for one of my all-time favourites, teaming the Earth-2 Batman with his Catwoman in the story of how they came to admit their love for another and to marry. A gem in every page: Brennert wrote few comic book stories but those he wrote were superb, because he never needed to burn out his ideas on routine issues.
Brennert’s story overshadowed a poor and misguided Karate Kid team-up, and was too much for an otherwise decent Spectre team-up in issue 199, flirting with the old Fleisher touch but ending up by taking a new, cleaner route.
But time was up. The era in which a series devoted to nothing but team-ups between a static character and a random other was ending. Brave & Bold, by its very nature, could have only very limited continuity within its own pages. It had outrun its time. Mike W Barr had become the nearest to a regular writer in the title, and he proposed a change. Barr wanted to separate Batman from the Justice League, where he was still an anomaly, and make him leader of another team, of outsiders.

Final issue

DC approved of the idea and, to make room for it within the Batman universe, cancelled B&B with its 200th issue. The swan-song was almost obvious in its unpredictability, teaming Batman with Batman. That is, a story crossing two time-periods and two Earths, drawn, rather wonderfully, by Dave Gibbons. Barr’s story featured a gloriously Golden Age style Batman and Robin tussle with their villain Brimstone, who’s defeated but ends up in a coma. When he awakens in 1983, it’s to learn that Batman is dead so, somehow, he psychically imposes his mind on his Earth-1 counterpart to resume a battle that Batman is bemused with, but still wins.
There was also a sixteen page preview of the new Batman and the Outsiders series which was, respectfully, crap.
But The Brave and the Bold, one of the few DC titles to reach 200 issues, was gone, it’s fourth and final phase terminated, with few landmarks of any note, but those which were of note being of very high quality indeed. I can’t say I enjoyed every minute of my time spent on this series, but I wouldn’t have missed the good stuff for the world.

To be Brave and Bold: the Team-ups Phase


The cover date was October/November 1963, the editors were Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan and the theme of The Brave and the Bold was now team-ups: the features you asked for. I take that with a pinch of salt, for I cannot see the comic book readers of late 1963, the remaining days of President John Kennedy’s life, wanting above all to see a team-up between The Green Arrow and The Martian Manhunter.
But these are honourable men, and who are we to doubt them?
From here and for a very long time, the series will be written by Bob Haney, a good, solid, professional writer but not one who, how shall we put it, paid undue attention to continuity. DC may not have had continuity as we know it in 1963, but Haney still cared less about what they had. For instance, the Martian Manhunter was accidentally trapped on Earth after being teleported by Dr Erdel’s Robot Brain, which then shorted out, stranding him here. However, Haney has him using the Robot Brain to teleport to Mars for advice and assistance about the Martian villains he and Green Arrow are facing.
It would be like this all along. Mind you, this was almost a highlight of a stupid, cliched and just plain rotten story that was no sort of introduction to the new(er) Brave & Bold.

Your obvious first choice

Aquaman and Hawkman was another non-natural pairing in issue 51, with the story clunking to try to make the air-sea combination work, but issue 52 was a glorious piece of work. Instead of the advertised Flash/Atom team-up, Robert Kanigher dropped in to edit and write a 3 Battle Stars story, with magnificent Joe Kubert art bringing together four of DC’s War comic stars, Johnny Cloud, the Haunted Tank, Sergeant Rock and, a surprise guest, Mlle. Marie. It put the two previous issues to shame, and easily. Kanigher was always on his best form with the War stories.
The Atom/Flash team-up duly arrived next issue and, apart from splendid Alex Toth art, was the usual sloppy mess. Part of Haney’s problem is his refusal to provide adequate explanations: things happen to complicate the heroes’ battle and then are dispensed with in a throwaway line. For instance, Flash loses his speed at one point and is captured, but regains it when he’s freed by the Atom, ‘because the planet has given it him back’.
The title had only spawned one successful series in its formal ‘try-out’ phase, so issue 54’s team-up of ‘junior’ heroes was ironic. This brought together Kid Flash, Aqualad and Robin in a story that started the Teen Titans, though as yet nameless. It would take the addition of Wonder Girl and a couple more appearances to seal the deal.
Not that the story was much good, especially from the point of view of the dialogue, especially the teens’ hip slang, the beginning of a long road of embarrassingly awful writing.

Not yet the Teen Titans

Kashdan did a solo job in issue 56, bringing together another bizarre pairing in the Metal Men and The Atom, before devoting the next two issues to try-outs again, in the form of Metamorpho, created by Haney and artist Ramona Fraden, whose bright, cartoony style is perfect for the oddball Element Man. This would extend the series’ success rate when Metamorpho got his own, albeit short-lived series. Everything’s there from the very beginning: the Metamorpho of the current The Terrifics is the Metamorpho of B&B 57-58.
Issue 59 provided a foretaste of the future in teaming up two of DC’s biggest heroes for the first time, Batman and Green Lantern. I was delighted to read this effort, having remembered it’s excellent title – ‘The Tick-Tock Traps of the Time-Commander’ – from the Sixties: I love the chance to find what lies behind some of these covers that impressed me in the house ads of the time.

A great title

The Teen Titans – named and a foursome – returned in issue 60 for a teen-supporting adventure in which the colourist got Kid Flash’s uniform badly wrong (hint, it’s not all yellow), but issue 61 is the one that’s most special to me, the first Brave & Bold I bought on one of those Saturday afternoons in Droylsden, working industriously through the newsagent’s spinner rack, anxious to make the best choice with the shilling I’d been given.
After The Atom, Julius Schwartz had announced that he would not be doing any more new versions of Justice Society members. Instead, he turned to actual revivals, starting with a two-issue run in Showcase for Doctor Fate and Hourman. Now he took over B&B for two issues teaming up Starman and Black Canary, all with scripts by Gardner Fox and art from Murphy Anderson. I loved this first one, and still have it (autographed by Schwartz) over fifty years later.
It was billed as the first team-up between the two characters (who had never been contemporaries in the JSA), which it is only if you discount their joint appearance in the 1964 JLA/JSA team-up. Starman’s Gravity Rod has now been upgraded to a Cosmic Rod, Dinah Drake has married Larry Lance, Starman’s arch-enemy The Mist, who didn’t feature in any of the stories on the Adventure Comics DVD, is back with an ingenious plan: it was pure heaven for me back in 1966, and I still love it now.

A lifelong favourite

The second story doesn’t hold anything like the meaning for me as I didn’t read it until much later (though I did see it in that same spinner rack, when I obviously found something else more compelling). The heroes turned out against two now-married villains, Green Lantern’s Sportsmaster and Wildcat’s Huntress, with the Big Cat making his first post-Golden Age appearance in a fun cameo.
Sadly, nothing came of either pair’s revival in terms of series: though JSA team-ups would carry on for nearly two more decades, the Golden Age revival was already showing signs of running out of steam.
Kashdan and Haney were back in issue 63, teaming Supergirl and Wonder Woman in a story so chauvinistic, condescending, demeaning and flat-out vile that I’m not even going to admit it exists: permanent karmic burden for both of them and the artist.
After that, anything would have been an improvement. What we got was hero vs villain, Batman and Eclipso in a confusing and in parts ridiculous story based on Batman falling for a red-headed heiress, first romantically then as a con, made much worse by the sudden arrival of corny dialogue that could have come straight out of the forthcoming TV series. It was horrendous.
On the other hand, the Flash’s team-up with the Doom Patrol – really as a fill-in for Negative Man – was well done and contained some intelligent points about the team’s dynamics, though a bit fewer uses of the word ‘freaks’ would have been welcome.
Another bizarre but oddly appealing team-up was Metamorpho and the Metal Men in issue 66, followed by another ‘big-guys’ story, with Batman (for the third time) and The Flash. This was, in many ways, an archetypal Haney B&B story, with a life-shattering menace being raised and disposed of in a lazy manner. Batman requires Flash’s help to combat a gang of speedsters in Gotham, but Flash’s speed is killing him, burning his body out from within. The ‘threat’ is negated by the fact this isn’t taking place in Flash’s series, where we might take it seriously. And it’s resolved by a miraculous and implausible ‘cure’ from the villains’ own power source (irony that’s what it is, irony). No way is anything remotely serious going to happen in Brave & Bold.
And it was a sign of the forthcoming times that Batman was back again one issue later, this time alongside Metamorpho, in another piece of nonsense that sees the Caped Crusader converted into Bat-Hulk (don’t ask). The TV series was big, the movie was just coming out, Batman who, two years earlier, was facing cancellation, was on a roll. People wanted to read him.
All told, there were going to be five consecutive issues of Batman teaming up with someone else, such as Green Lantern again, against another, less memorable Time Commander plot, Hawkman in a ridiculous tale about a Collector trying to collect their secret identities, and The Green Arrow in a story about Indian tribes that just about managed to avoid being patronising.
The waters having been tested, and found to be pleasurably warm, The Brave and The Bold reverted to its role in providing random team-ups for two final issues. The first connected the Earth-1 Flash to The Spectre on Earth-2 (Barry’s just visiting, but not his fellow-Flash but rather his ‘old buddy’ – one JSA team-up – the Spectre: besides, everyone on Earth-2 recognises Barry-Flash). The last brought Aquaman and The Atom together in a non-team-up in which each hero got half the story.
And with issue 73, the third phase of B&B came to an end. It’s fourth phase has already been heavily foreshadowed, and this phase would last until the comic’s end, in the distance in issue 200. I’ll cover that loooong phase in the last part of this series.

DC Online: Doom Patrol


The other day, I broke my iron resolve and watched a trailer. I don’t do trailers, because if I’m going to watch something, I prefer to do it the old-fashioned way, with no prior knowledge of what’s coming up, so I can be surprised by surprises: not for nothing are trailers also spoilers.

But out of curiosity, I watched the trailer for DC’s latest Online superhero show, Doom Patrol, a spin-off from the existing Titans, about which I’ve heard nothing but good. And as a consequence, I’ve just watched the first episode (of fifteen). And I haven’t had this much fun from superhero TV in a long time.

Doom Patrol is very different from the watered-down stuff we get on network TV. As were the Doom Patrol of the comics. This is the serious stuff, for the serious fans, unmediated by the need to appeal to an everyday audience, and it can be fully the freakish heroes who were never massive stars but who were out of the ordinary.

The series bills itself as based on characters created by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney (both of whom were writers) and Bruno Premiani (artist), but it includes two characters, and a lot of scenes, drawn from the early Nineties, utterly fascinating Grant Morrison version of the series, though Morrison doesn’t get a credit. The Doom Patrol were freaks, a crippled, wheelchair bound scientist, Niles Caulder, aka the Chief, and three ‘superheroes’ whose powers cut them off from humanity, because they were just too damned scary.

These were: Cliff Steele, racing driver ‘killed’ in an accident, whose brain only could be salvaged and who was housed in a robotic body, aka Robotman, Larry Trainor, airforce pilot who, after flying through an electrical storm, found himself hosting a radioactive negative being that he can release from his body for limited periods without dying, aka Negative Man, and Rita Farr, actress who on a shoot was exposed to gases that made her able to stretch and elongate her body or any part of it, aka Elastigirl, and shucks to The Incredibles.

Add to them Morrison’s creations, Crazy Jane, an abrasive young woman who 64 distinct personalities, each of which has a different power, and Mr Nobody, a villain who only exists conceptually, and you have one interesting bunch of motherf*ckers.

Oh yes, this is not mainstream TV, so you get rude words. Not, as yet, too much action, in an opening episode that took its time establishing these characters, and the widely differing time periods they hail from. The CGI may be limited and in the case of Rita a bit unconvincing, but it’s effectively  used, especially on Mr Nobody, who hurts your eyes just to look at him (and who, incidentally, proves the show’s wonderfully cynical and self-aware voiceover narration).

It’s freaky, it’s authentic and it’s bloody good viewing, especially when I’ve given up all other DC superhero TV out of boredom, except for The Flash (massively insipid this year) and Legend’s of Tomorrow (very clunky and possibly past its best). This is the authentic stuff, by fans, for fans, and I’m here for the next fourteen weeks.