By the light of a Green Flame: All-American Comics


All-American Comics was the flagship publication of the newly-formed All-American Publications, the company founded by M.C (Charley) Gaines in partnership with Detective Comics’ Harry Donenfeld, who put up the capital in return for a 50% silent partnership and a role as Business Manager for Detective’s Business Manager, Jack Leibowitz.
Though Detective was making its waves on the back of its two masked men characters, Superman and Batman, and though Gaines had sought the money to set up his own company because of the success of Donenfeld’s titles, the new series did not at first feature any superheroes. That would not come until issue 16, and when it did the new hero would be All-American‘s mainstay for the rest of its run.
The first issue, from April 1939, is very much a thing from a bygone age. All-American led with Red, White and Blue, three American boys who’d grown up as friends, entered different branches of the services in the war and, thanks to their chivalrous impulses towards a beautiful woman in a tight situation, found themselves transferred as a special unit to G2, America’s secret service. There were Mutt and Jeff reprints, Sunday pages from Bud Fisher’s classic newspaper strip, and the same from Percy Crosby’s highly acclaimed but largely forgotten Skippy. Gene Byrnes’ Reg’lar Fellers was another newspaper strip, one I’d never heard of before, and not hard to understand why.

Hop Harrigan, by Jon L. Blummer (credited as Jon Elby), a future phenomenon as America’s air pilot hero of the airwaves also debuted. Editor Sheldon Mayer contributed his quasi-autobiographical Scribbly, Adventures of a Boy Cartoonist, of which more would come. Adventures in the Unknown, the Mystery Men of Mars, by Carl Claudy, started off like the crassest and stupidest of SF. Edwin Alger’s Ben Webster started like a continuation of an ongoing series, which it was, a pretty bog standard juvenile adventure newspaper strip.
Harry Lampert, of The Flash fame, produced Spot Savage, about a news reporter and there were more from Gene Byrnes and Bud Fisher, half-pagers featuring Daisybelle and Cicero’s Cat, respectively, which appeared as ‘header’ series on the newspaper Sunday pages. Tippie, by Edwina, was a silent strip about a dog. Fontaine Fox’s Toonerville Folks was yet another reprinted Sunday strip, as was George Storm’s Bobby Thatcher, though that strip had been defunct two years when All-American 1 came out. Lastly, there was Wiley of West Point, by Lieut. Richard Rick.
It’s hardly an impressive line-up. Superman had been in existence since April 1938, and Batman was brand new. All-American offered very little new material and was overloaded with newspaper strip reprints of varying quality, making it almost a premature throwback to the very first comic books of the early part of the decade. Mutt and Jeff is legendary, but it’s humour is tilted to the age, Skippy is more of a cult than anything else, and Scribbly has potential it certainly doesn’t use in issue 1.

This is an eighty year old comic book with an amateurish logo. And it looks it.
Weirdly enough, Red Dugan developed ‘mental telepathy’ in issue 2, which was an altogether cheaper issue, with limited colouring of the kind you used to get in the Victor and the Hornet in Britain in the Sixties. And in issue 3, Scribbly Jibbet met Huey Hunkel and, what’s more important, his Ma, Ma Hunkel. And there was a very familiar opening line to Huey’s Great American Novel (5 pages with every other word crossed out because Huey kept thinking of a better one). It was a dark and stormy night. You just know someone’s going to use that!
The first addition to the line-up was an adaptation of the renowned play starring Fredric March, The American Way, a patriotic play about German immigrants learning to be American. The title also added Popsicle Pete, the Typical American Boy (have you noticed something of a theme developing around here?), though that was based on a real contest winner from the Popsicle Company.
So far, with the exception of Scribbly, so not much, but the first quasi-superhero hit the front cover on issue 8, introducing Gary Concord, the Ultra-Man. Concord, who took over the lead slot from Red, White and Blue, is the High Moderator of America in 2239 but to begin with he had to play second fiddle to the life story of his father, a 20th century worker for peace carried into the future in suspended animation. Spot Savage dropped out, unnoticed. And to keep pace with what was going on around, issue 9 carried a full page advert for All American Publications’ new title, Flash Comics. The true superhero was arriving at the company.
It only took until issue 10 before Red, White and Blue were back in pole position, and Gary Concord moved further within. The perpetually stiff Wiley of West Point disappeared without warning after issue 12, in mid-cliffhanger, which also saw the last Toonerville Folks, but the unspeakably worthless Adventures into the Unknown was kept.
All of this, however, was but a generally unmemorable prelude to issue 16. All-American gained a new, and much more professional logo, a new cover character and a new leading feature, the one the comic is known for: enter the Green Lantern.
It’s a well-known story: young railroad engineer Alan Scott (who was originally going to be called Alan Ladd – as is in Al Ladd-in’s lamp – before the famous actor appeared) should have died when a bomb sabotaged the new line he’d built. Instead the mysterious green railroad lantern saved him and granted him power over metals, from the Green Flame of Life. Green Lantern was the creation of artist Martin Nodell (going by Mart Dellon), fleshed out by writer Bill Finger, to whom Nodell was far more generous than Bob Kane had been. GL’s far from green costume only appeared in one panel, but it was the start, of something very much bigger.

The classic history has Scott moving to the city (not named as Gotham until issue 91) and becoming a radio announcer so as to be ahead of breaking news of crimes, but he doesn’t even join Apex Broadcasting until issue 20, and then as a radio engineer, a status he retains for ages. In later issues, Scott would work for Station WCMG (once) before settling at WXYZ, and he would bounce around various roles like Special Events Director, Radio Announcer (see!), Program Director and Presenter.
As an employee of Apex Broadcasting, Scott would work for, alongside and in charge of Irene Miller, his Producer, Broadcaster and eventually secretary until, one day, the young lady with a crush on Green Lantern just drifted away, completely forgotten.
Green Lantern’s immediate success quickly emboldened Mayer to commission another costumed hero, The Atom, in issue 19. Written and drawn interchangeably, I believe, by Ben Flinton and Bill O’Connor, this was 5’1” tall college student Al Pratt, looked down upon for his height, who was trained by boxing trainer Joe Morgan to become a fighter, but instead used his scrapping abilities to become a hero, to rescue his fellow student and would be date, Mary James. Whichever man drew at any time, they were both lousy, as in barely better than I can draw.
Gary Concord’s run came to an end in issue 19, only for Adventures into the Unknown to return after an all-too-short breather. Sadly, Percy Crosby’s Skippy and its header also left the scene, though Bud Fisher and Gene Byrnes hung around. For a short time: Reg’Lar Fellers was the next to depart, leaving its header strip, Daisybelle, behind.
Suddenly, they were everywhere. In issue 20, the Green Lantern’s fame spread as far as Scribbly’s series, prompting Ma Hunkel to put on red longjohns and a saucepan with eyeholes cut out to rescue Dinky Jibbet and Sisty Hunkel as The Red Tornado, the first parody superhero and, beating Wonder Woman by a clear year, the first superheroine. A couple of issues later, the feature was re-titled Scribbly and The Red Tornado. By issue 24, Sisty and Dinky had joined in the fun as the Cyclone Kids. And the Red Tornado’s name kept getting bigger, and Scribbly’s kept getting smaller…

All-American was now accelerating towards its remembered shape. Ben Webster’s stout-hearted adventures came to an end in issue 24, to accommodate the debut of blinded surgeon-turned-superhero, Charles ‘Dr Mid-Nite’ McNider, created by Charles Reizenstein and Stan Aschmeier. He was followed two issues later by Sargon the Sorceror, the work of John B Wentworth and Howard Purcell. This latter made All-American a fully-fledged superhero comic, like Flash Comics. Of the newspaper strips, only Bud Fisher’s work remained, and weirdly some of these were reprints from earlier in the run.
I’ve refrained so far from substantive comment, but I do have a two pennorth to put in about Red, White and Blue. Though it’s supposedly about the three friends, Marine Sergeant Red Dugan, Army Sergeant Whitey Smith and Sailor Blooey Blue, most stories see them operating as a quartet, at first under the orders of, then usually with established G2 agent Doris West. Doris is a beautiful woman, of course, and winds up, in the background, becoming Red’s girlfriend.
There’s a visual dichotomy from the start in that she and Red are drawn realistically, but that Whitey and Blooey are cartoon figures, one big and blonde, the other small and dark. Whitey’s the brawn, Blooey the comic relief: well, both of them are, but he’s the overt one, the put-upon one, the Johnny Thunder.
It’s very noticeable that, as time goes on, Red forgets that Doris is the experienced one who arranged for him to join G2. Increasingly, he starts getting macho on her, leave it to the men, stay at home with your knitting, sneering at her ideas. Thankfully, the series doesn’t: Doris is always right but Red never learns. This really is a boy’s comic, because the some thing goes on in Hop Harrigan, whenever Gerry, aka Geraldine, crops up, no matter how competent she shows herself to be, and Gary Concord was equally snotty about women.
It’s annoying because it shows itself widely across several series. It’s not like Flash Comics, where The Flash and Hawkman have girlfriends who insisting on getting involved in their game, where the misogynist elements are only a reflection of the times, and the attitude of the men is mainly one of humouring. There was a genuine anger, almost a foot-stamping aggression, in Red, White and Blue and the other series at this point.

Doiby

Green Lantern was the title’s flagship character, its cover star and first feature, almost throughout the entire run, though his hold on that role would be shaken as All-American neared the end of its life. By rights, this should have been a top-notch Forties series, but with issue 27, Nodell and Finger permanently crippled the series by introducing a full-time comic relief character in scrappy little taxi-driver Doiby Dickles.
Doiby, who took his name from his trademark derby (or bowler) hat as pronounced in his Brooklyn accent, was a constant drag on the idea of taking Green Lantern seriously. There was some decent amusement to be had from his outlandish speech patterns at the first, but that was forgotten before too long. In issue 35, Doiby was allowed to see Green Lantern without his mask and, being Apex Broadcasting’s official cabbie by then, recognise him as Alan Scott.
On a lighter note, Bill Finger demonstrated a penchant for knocking off crooks in the course of climactic fights, by knocking them off gantries into vats of acid. Everywhere criminals went, they kept vats of acid under gantries. No wonder the Health and Safety Laws had to be toughened up. Even The Atom got in on the act in issue 29, but to be fair he only dropped Nazi saboteurs into molten steel, whilst Red, White and Blue burned their spies to death.
There was a nadir to come, that thankfully passed. Bill Finger left the series at issue 41, with the stories now credited to Mart Nodell (under his real name) and Irwin Hasen. Sadly, the new regime got the idea of putting Doiby Dickles into a Green Lantern costume (greugh! Bad sight!) and calling him Devastatin’ Doiby (come back Bill Finger!)

I said I can draw better than this

Hop Harrigan had early on developed a supporting cast of veteran flier Prop Wash (not a nickname), and big, red-headed mechanic Ikky Tinker, which confused me as I knew the latter as Tank Tinker from the prose stories appearing in All-Star Comics. Now, issue 32 revealed his full name to be His Grace Tutankhamen Anastasius Angustora Ichabod Tinker: you know why he immediately became Tank, but just what was so wrong with Ikky (apart from the obvious)?
Flinton and O’Connor stayed with The Atom until they were drafted, and never returned to comics. Replacements, in the form of Joe Gallagher (art) and Ted Udall (scripts) had to be found. Matters improved, marginally at any rate: at least the Atom’s cape looked like a cape, and not a hand towel. And Al Pratt finally managed to get a date with Mary James! Who started switching, inconsistently, from brunette to blonde and back again.
The War arrived with a vengeance in issue 42. Hop Harrigan had already gone into Air training and we got a piece of utter nonsense masquerading as a Dr Mid-Nite story involving the Germans and a rather more serious, and better story for Sargon the Sorceror, foiling the Japanese.
Continuity was not due to be a thing in comics for nearly twenty years but there were changes galore in Green Lantern over issues 41 to 45. On the other hand, The Red Tornado was consistent: consistently funny, silly and, in issue 45, gloriously metafictional, with Ma Hunkel and the kids getting fed up of the same old malarkey every month and getting Mayer himself to come down and argue with them! Mayer would play about with the strip again, re-imagining its characters in historical times and as funny animals, but always wonderfully.
Enthusiasm for the War led to Hop Harrigan replacing GL on the cover of issue 47, with The Atom sitting out to make room for the Story of Joshua, the Bible tale. Charley Gaines had a thing for educational comics and had started a half-yearly title, Picture Stories from the Bible. The Joshua story probably came from that, but if it was at all representative of Gaines’ new project, then it was a bust in comics terms: undramatic, weak, perfunctory cartooning that was probably much too respectful of its source to be of the least value as entertainment or education.
Just as wartime paper-rationing affected All-Star and the Justice Society, All-American came in for its share of pain from issue 51, reducing from 68 to 60 pages. The drop was quite easily accommodated by taking the comic’s junior feature with it: farewell Sargon the Sorceror.

Two issues later, Alan Scott’s Oath, the one he’s used in every post-Golden Age appearance, was replaced with a new one used in every remaining story in the series, a familiar but incongruous verse beginning “In Brightest Day, in Blackest Night…” It looked so strange coming from the ‘wrong’ GL. It’s recognised that this Oath was composed by future SF legend Alfred Bester, though his name wasn’t credited, not on this or any other Green Lantern story.
Hop Harrigan’s series, now supported by a five days a week radio programme, had always been a more or less realistic air ace adventure, especially when Hop was going through Air Force training. Suddenly, it added a silent pageboy-bobbed young lad called Hippity, who carried a machete and acted daft, and the strip spiralled into idiocy. The annoying thing was that I was sure I recognised Hippity from something else, but I have no idea what. Hippety would eventually disappear in favour of more serious, if still at times fanciful stories, but the little bugger would keep coming back and crashing future episodes every time.
Interestingly enough, Dr Mid-Nite’s adversary in issue 57 went by the name of The Shade. He was no relation to the Flash’s villain of that name in Flash Comics (who was no relation to any version of the character who appeared in that legendary issue, The Flash 121, in 1961).
The further All-American went into 1944, the more noticeable it was that the stories were getting sillier, as if the writers had run out of conviction in what they were doing and could only maintain series by starting to make fun of them. Admittedly, more and more of the better creators had been drafted into the Army now. Paul Reinman was drawing Green Lantern, Sheldon Mayer was getting increasingly metafictional within The Red Tornado, nobody knew from issue to issue what colour Mary James’ hair would be, and that was before she started hiring would-be crooks to unmask the Atom. Red White and Blue got dafter and worse drawn, until everybody, Red Dugan included, looked like cartoons. Suddenly, the three fighting men, and Doris West, were split up into solo stories, told as letters amongst them, which rendered the whole series pointless. It was as if the entire comic was undergoing a nervous breakdown.

Paper rationing had reduced All-American to 52 pages, and bi-monthly publication alternating with Flash Comics. More changes had to be made. The first of these was the cancellation of Scribbly and The Red Tornado after issue 59. Such a shame. It had been All-American’s most consistently entertaining series from day one.
Better was on its way for Green Lantern, at least for the debut, in issue 61, of Solomon Grundy, though it was a shame that this should be one of the relatively few issues on the DVD available only in fiche form. Unfortunately, this was a one-off, with the decline into asininity resuming immediately. The same issue was the last of The Atom’s continuous adventures to be published in All-American. His place was taken by Picture Stories from American History, which was being shared in Sensation Comics and Comics Cavalcade, but he would be back after a nine issue hiatus, for three further stories, the first being as childishly drawn as anything Flinton and O’Connor had ever perpetrated, before going for good.
The intention was cancellation, and replacement in the Justice Society, but this fell foul of a fluke circumstance, and the Mighty Mite would re-emerge in Flash Comics.
The Green Lantern story in issue 64 featured a horse that liked to sit on eggs. The only other place I’ve heard that referred was Alan Plater’s TV serial and novel, Oliver’s Travels. Was this some sort of contemporary gag, an in-joke for 1945? I found a Google link, but the page refused to open, so I remain ignorant.
Wars, however, do not last forever. In issue 66, Red White and Blue were reuniting separated German families whilst Hop Harrigan was still fighting in the Far East. On the other hand, a month later Whitey was still writing fighting letters from Berlin and Hop and Tank were heading home to Hippity (I’d rather have stayed bombing the Japanese).
We’re now at the era of the All-American/Detective Comics split, ended after six months by the merger of the two companies and the dissolution of All-American Publications. Issue 70 saw the old DC logo return to the cover. The increasingly dismal Red White and Blue strip was put out of its misery in issue 72, in favour of The Black Pirate (and his son Justin), transferring over from his old berth in Sensation Comics.
The Atom’s second departure was in favour of The Flash’s Three Dimwits, Winky, Blinky and Noddy in a solo story. The Black Pirate lasted two stories but was soon back on a permanent basis, The Flash turned up in the second Three Dimwits story. And Alan Scott was broadcasting for Station WXYZ in issue 76.
The quality of All-American had now become so poor that a fiche that was next to unreadable was a relief, since it was the best excuse not to read an issue. Was there ever going to be a decent issue again? Only Dr Mid-Nite attempted to offer straight stories any more. Green Lantern’s stock had fallen so far that he was displaced from the cover for two consecutive issues, first by Hop Harrigan, then by Mutt & Jeff, with the latter also displacing his position as lead feature. They were a reprinted newspaper strip, remember? They were the lead.

Sargon the Sorceror

Mutt and Jeff took the cover again, and the lead, in issue 83. Green Lantern dropped Paul Reinman from the art and Doiby from the meat of the story for once and came up with a perfectly decent, neatly drawn tale, and The Black Pirate dropped back in, albeit to meet blue-skinned aliens: sigh, why can’t they get things right? But the same issue had a surprisingly good Hop Harrigan story, the first in months worth reading, as Hop received letters from the past from his mother, and went searching for her in Colombia. There he found that she was long dead, but that he had a sister, who returned with him to America.
The Forties were not a great time for supervillains, unless you were Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. With the exception of that solitary Solomon Grundy tale, Green Lantern had gone without in All-American (his regular villain, The Fool, only ever appeared in GL’s solo title).
Suddenly, the series had a rash of supervillains. ‘Crusher’ Crock, aka The Sportsmaster, the World’s dirtiest sports player, debuted in issue 85, only to die at the end of it: did the editors have no idea? Similarly, The Icicle was killed off in his first story, in issue 90. Don’t worry, both returned from their apparent deaths, The Icicle in issue 92 and The Sportsmaster as The Sportsmaster in issue 98.
More notable, and sensible, was the debut in issue 89 of Green Lantern’s ‘friendly’ enemy, the red-headed Harlequin. Alan Scott was back at the radio station for the first time in ages, as Program Director, with a new secretary, a Miss Maynne (Molly), who rather likes the crimefighter and, after years of being starved of beaus because of her athletic prowess, decided to become a villainess in order to attract Green Lantern’s attention. It was a silly notion, especially as a redhead who looked like that would be fighting them off in droves in real life.
The Harlequin, who made no secret of being in love with Green Lantern and wanting to marry him (this was still years before the Comics Code but even villains couldn’t have sex without a Marriage Licence). She and Molly Maynne made five appearances, including three consecutive ones, in seven issues of All-American only to disappear completely but for two back of the head cameos by Molly thereafter.
One of those stories did not show Green Lantern up in a particularly good light, when he decided to ask Molly out on a date to play on The Harlequin’s jealousy. What effect this might have on the ‘innocent’ Miss Maynne was not in his thinking, the asshole.
The Harlequin’s debut was accompanied by the first appearance by Cotton-Top Katie, a cartoon feature about a young girl with fluffy white hair, and her idiotic classmate the Perfesser. Cotton-Top ran for ten issues and was All-American’s penultimate new feature.
The Harlequin’s streak was brought to an end in issue 96 which introduced Streak the Wonder Dog. Actually, the story was more Streak, assisted by Green Lantern than the other way round, though having Alex Toth on the art made up for a lot. But it was a sign that the Golden Age was entering into its dog days. Where Flash Comics displayed a late burst of strength, its senior was collapsing in upon itself with a whimper.
After 99 issues, and a return bout with girl pirate ‘Jolly’ Roger, Hop Harrigan’s strip came to an abrupt end. It’s replacement was a western series, Johnny Thunder, no relation to the former JSA member with a magic lightning bolt. It was a foreshadowing, a foreshadowing of a future rushing towards All-American’s readership faster than they would have expected.
The comic reached issue 100 under a cover date of August 1948, suggesting it went on sale two months beforehand. Johnny Thunder, a strange mix of sharpshooter and costumed hero rubbed coal dust in his hair to disguise his ‘real’ identity of blond schoolteacher Johnny Tane, the Sheriff’s son. He also took over the cover, denying Green Lantern the landmark that he deserved. The series looked good, because it too was drawn by Alex Toth.
But Johnny was the future. All-American Comics 102 was a fiche copy: Johnny Thunder, Dr Mid-Nite, The Black Pirate, Green Lantern and, for the first and only time, no Mutt & Jeff, and it was over. When issue 103 appeared, a month later, it was as All-American Western Comics. Time was up for Green Lantern and Dr Mid-Nite, except for two more years in the Justice Society and All-Star Comics. The Golden Age was all but done. Westerns, Crime comics, Comic comics, but not superheroes in the way they’d been.

Theatre Nights: The Crone


Sandman Mystery Theatre 53-56. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Matt Wagner (story idea) and Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Two things before we commence: the change in the dramatic credits signals a further distancing of originator Matt Wagner from the series that he originated. Henceforth, and for a short time, Wagner’s role will be to suggest themes – such as the world of nightly radio drama, and the fierce criticism it inspired – and to provide basic, rough plots. Steven Seagle, who has dialogued each play since The Vamp, ten plays back, now takes over plotting each story.
In the foyer of the letter column in the Final Act, Wagner’s further withdrawal is ascribed to his other commitments, especially the second part of his creator-owned Mage trilogy (as an aside, nearly twenty years on, there is still no sign of Wagner producing Mage 3, which leaves me fearing that the story will never be completed).
The other point is that reading The Crone in its individual issues is a very different experience to reading the graphic novels. What I’ve reviewed so far have been complete performances, page after page, without interruption or distraction, and I’ll always prefer that, but to have to fall back on the original comic, even without the monthly wait between cliffhanger and resolution, gives the story an entirely different feel.
It is more broken down, a thing of interruptions and distractions. Each Act exists as an artefact in itself, a new cover, a new entrance to be made at each stage. Adverts interrupt the flow, breaking down each Act into smaller chunks: four pages, then ads, four pages, then ads, six pages,ads, three pages.
And cliffhangers become real cliffhangers, the story poised in the arc of a leap, even if it takes literally seconds to close and put down an issue, pick up and open another. Even in those few seconds, the story is suspended, and an echo of those post-issue thoughts, the inevitable urge to outguess the creators, is triggered.
The play itself is set against the background of a nightly Radio soap opera, appropriately titled ‘The Coming of Night’ and, yes indeed, sponsored by a Soap Flakes company. The cast are, as may be expected, vastly different from their characters, and there are rivalries, hatreds and all sorts of other undercurrents at work.
And that’s before the programme finds itself subjected to a wave of murders, firstly of several successive leading men, but growing to include executives and the Producer. These murders are all committed by a dumpy, elderly woman using a sharpened hairpin, drawn from the bun and the back of her head, plunged through the victim’s neck to sever the carotid artery and then wiped fastidiously clean in the pages of a classic book which is then left by the victim.
As usual, Burke and the Sandman are rivals in seeking a solution to the latest series of Manhattan murders. But there’s an extraordinary scene in the Third Act where Burke arrives in his office to find the Sandman searching it. Astonishingly, Burke doesn’t make trouble, and it’s not just that he doesn’t want another gassing. He makes his dislike of the Sandman and his methods very plain, but for the first time he seems prepared to accept the Vigilante as an ally, as Larry Belmont has already done.
So Burke shares information, critical information as it turns out, that will lead the Sandman to the villain. And the Sandman promptly gasses him back to loathing: not the smartest of moves and one that the creators, when challenged, suggested was evidence of just how Wesley Dodds was disturbed by events in this play of greater import.
However, Burke’s willingness, however temporary, to deal with his personal demon is the first sign that our resident monster may be capable of change, may have been deeply affected by Gina’s murder in The Blackhawk. His encounter with the Sandman is immediately preceded by an encounter with an old friend/colleague, Detective Weaver, transferred back to Manhattan after a spell in the suburbs.
Weaver represents an older time, when Burke had had a personal life – a social life, even – and he wants to pick it up. After all, there’s Doris, his wife’s sister, who’s free again…
Burke runs away from both these suggestions, straight to his meeting with Sandman. But when Weaver repeats his offer in the Final Act, the case still unsolved, some of the fire seems to leave Burke. Let the case solve itself: he leaves with his colleague.
It’s not long after that the Sandman, with the aid of Wesley Dodds, solves the case. Throughout The Crone, he is his usually single-minded self, caught up in his obsession, expecting Dian to be his eager sidekick, with the same preoccupation, and to an unforgivable extent, turning his head away from what really fills her mind.
It’s a painful progression. An elderly academic, Dr Estelle Beauvedere, is set up as the potential killer. She’s the same size and age and her fervent, indeed ironclad belief that culture exists only in books and is incapable of being transmitted in any other form makes her into an inflexible opponent of other media, especially radio.
Indeed, the good Doctor inveighs against Radio’s jack-booted invasion of the home and its destructive effect on true culture in terms that, very shortly thereafter, would be universally applied to Hitler’s armies (the Declaration of War by Great Britain is announced in the background of the first scene of the play).
Wesley isn’t impressed in the slightest by Dr Beauvedere, but at least in the beginning Dian is, very much so. As is Dian’s old college friend, Nancy Fullbright, a bookshop owner and a junior Beauvedere in her opinions. Wesley’s dissection of the Doctor’s opinion, and his slightly patronising attitude to Nancy, also demonstrate how far he is from what is the central issue of this story.
Again, the crime, though entertaining of itself, is merely a backcloth for what is truly important. The good Doctor – too elderly, too frail – is not the killer, but once Wesley takes over sponsoring ‘The Coming of Night’ and threatens to sack the entire cast unless someone ‘fesses up, it draws out the true culprit, young Frank Bowman. Frank’s the perpetually hopeful but overlooked understudy to the leading man. Frank Bowman is also a stage name. For Francis Beauvedere.
I can’t resist a comparison between Bowman and his opposite number, Linda Rivers, understudy to the leading lady. The eager, unassuming Frank spends the entire play trying to get ahead but philosophically accepting his being passed over time after time. Linda, on the other hand, is a real, slimy shitbag, a poisonous toad willing to lie, slander and malign anyone in her way to get ahead. Nasty piece of work that she is, it’s her compliant counterpart who’s really killing people to get ahead.
I’ve spent more time on the plot than I’d intended, because the true heart of this play is the next stage of the ever-evolving relationship between Dian Belmont and Wesley Dodds. And that little bombshell dropped at the end of Return of the Scarlet Ghost.
Because, though Dian has clearly recovered physically from her injuries, her thoughts now revolve around the life growing inside her. Aside from the medical staff, only Wesley knows of her condition. Her father remains unaware, and Dian intends that to be the case until she decides otherwise.
But what of the future? Dian is by no means thrilled by her pregnancy. She had expected to be so, when the time came, looked forward to it, but that was going to be a planned pregnancy,at a time of her choosing, and that’s not what she’s got.
Everything around her fills her with fear. She doesn’t feel ready. She’s only now beginning to wake up to herself, and her abilities, a process doomed to end if she takes on responsibility for another life, utterly dependent upon her. War is coming, War is here in Europe, her thoughts turn to Annabel and Roddy in England, who have just had a baby son. (There is a continuity issue here: Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten was not even pregnant in Sandman Midnight Theatre, a few months ago, and besides, Roddy was out east with his plantations). But most of all there is Wesley.
It’s not just his dedication to, or rather obsession with his second self, and the risks and danger attendant on that profession. It’s not his love, which is constant, vital and open. It’s certainly not fear that he won’t accept his responsibilities, because he’s as reassuring on that score as anyone could wish.
But he can’t be as reassuring as Dian wants, needs. For Miss Belmont knows, from conversations offstage with Mr. Dodds, that his youth in the Orient, his long years of exposure to Eastern thoughts and philosophies, have given him a set of iron convictions by which he lives.
Because Wesley Dodds has rejected marriage, rejected it as a concept, as a necessity for himself. Though he’s prepared, in every way, to make Dian his wife in every other possible respect, that final step is one that he cannot and will not take: he will not offer her the name and the certificate of marriage.
And Dian is equally the product of her own life, thoughts and convictions. To her, in all the ways that matter, she must have marriage. It’s an impossible impasse.
Stepping outside the story for a moment, I have sympathy with both positions. When the time came, I wanted to be married, but it made no difference: I was as committed without the ring as with. And I didn’t live in an age where marriage was expected. A good friend of mine was with his partner for over twenty years without marrying (though they’ve since gone and done it!). I see both viewpoints, even as I am closer to Dian’s views. And, frankly,Wesley’s behaviour pushes me into her camp.
Because, whilst Wesley does take the pregnancy seriously, and does want to do all the right things, he can only do that when he stops to listen to Dian. And that is only at intervals from what is clearly more important: the Crone.
Too many times, when Dian needs to be at the forefront of his thoughts, Wesley is not only absorbed in the murders, but assumes that this is his lover’s primary concern as well.
Though it is never specifically stated, Seagle and Davis impart the sense that it is this, more than anything, that persuades Dian to seek a termination. And, to be honest, I’m not at all happy with Wesley’s response: he doesn’t want it to take place, but then it’s Dian’s body and Dian’s decision, and it has to be all her choice. Pilate-like, he washes his hands of all responsibility. He’s got more important things to do.
(Needless to say, Dian comes around, rededicates herself to him and his cause, wholeheartedly, which I can’t help but think is very loaded-dice).
No, as at other times in this season, Wesley Dodds does not come out of this with his image enhanced.
The Final Act (and note how much more often I’ve referred to individual Acts in this review than when I have been dealing with a collected play) ends with Dian on her way to her termination, a comfortable and above all discreet journey to a respectable and confidential place where such things are done. It’s a contrast, violently so, to the parallel experience of ‘The Coming of Night’ actress Patricia Honeywell, pregnant by her married Producer and delivered by dodgy, uncaring associates to a back street abortionist from where she emerges in a very different state to how we know Dian Belmont will fare. All courtesy of Wesley’s very discreet doctor, Charles McNider. You know, his future Justice Society comrade, Dr Mid-Nite.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Cannon.
Break a leg.

JSA Legacies: No. 11 – Doctor Mid-Nite


Doctor Mid-Nite 1

Dr Mid-Nite was created by writer Charles Reizenstein and artist Stan Aschmeier (Stan Asch or Stan Josephs) and made his début in All-American Comics 25. The Doctor was a Doctor in real-life, prominent surgeon Charles McNider, who was called in to operate on a witness against mobsters, who had been shot. However, a gang member threw a grenade into the operating theatre, which killed the witness and blinded McNider.
Unable to continue his profession, McNider decided to become a crusading anti-crime columnist, with the assistance of his secretary, Myra Mason. However, whilst sat alone one night, brooding, McNider was disturbed by something entering his rooms and causing havoc. Instinctively ripping off his bandages, McNider discovered that he was actually able to see in conditions of blackness, much like the owl that had accidentally flown in his window. He decided to keep his newfound ability to himself and, after producing a pair of dark lenses that enabled him to see in the light, McNider chose to go out and fight crime, under the pseudonym of Doctor Mid-Nite. He named the owl Hooty and adopted it as his mascot.
The spelling of the good Doctor’s name has been queried but there is no settled explanation of it. The best suggestion is that Mid-Nite’s creation came in the wake of the widely-known radio serial featuring Captain Midnight, hence the different spelling to avoid accusations of copying.
Doc’s costume consisted of a black headcowl, incorporating the black lens goggles, green cape, black long-sleeved top under a red jerkin fastened by half-moon crescents, and brown gauntlets and boots. Although Marvel’s Daredevil became famous, twenty years later, as a prominent superhero who was blind, Doctor Mid-Nite was the first superhero to feature a physical disability.
When Green Lantern left the Justice Society on being granted his own title, Doctor Mid-Nite replaced him, in All-Star 8. Doc appeared in the issue as a guest star, seeking the JSA’s assistance to track down the missing Professor Able. Meanwhile, the JSA are all faced with suspects who have suddenly gone mad under interrogation: each turn out to be victims of a new drug, developed by criminal genius Elba (do not pre-empt the drama by reading Elba’s name backwards). Johnny Thunder gets into trouble and summons the rest of the JSA, but Elba locks himself into a lightless room, causing the JSA to have to call upon Doctor Mid-Nite, who goes in alone and defeats the villain, exposing him as being, shock, horror, Professor Able. The Doctor is offered membership for his efforts.
Mid-Nite remained with the JSA until their final adventure in All-Star 57, putting him third in the overall list of appearances, and his solo series lasted until 1948, when All-American was converted to a Western title after issue 102. Apart from his ability to see in the dark, the Doc carried with him a number of ‘blackout bombs’, little devices that, when thrown down, generated clouds of impenetrable black smoke, in which the criminals couldn’t see, but the Doctor could.
He returned to action in the second JLA/JSA team-up, in 1964, and two years later produced an upgraded weapon, in the form of the Cyrotuber, a multi-barrel gun which used adaptations of modern operation techniques – sonics, cryogenics, lasers – for offensive purposes.
Though Mid-Nite was, improbably, considered for a team-up with the all-powerful Spectre, outside of his JSA appearances, his only other exposure was in occasional guest slots in The Flash, where he became Flash 2’s other-dimensional doctor for things that Barry Allen couldn’t take to anyone in Central City.
Indeed, increasingly McNider’s career focussed on his medical abilities rather than his superpower (which, as he aged, began to slowly fail him). He was included in the first half of the Seventies All-Star revival, but gently eased out during the run, and did not reappear until the early Eighties when he moved to Los Angeles to become, in effect, the private physician to Infinity, Inc.
In that respect McNider took on an intern, in African-American Beth Chapel. With the Crisis looming, and his proposal to retain Earth-2 finally rejected, Doctor Mid-Nite was one of the JSA heroes that Roy Thomas rapidly chose to re-create. Simultaneously with Rick Tyler’s first use of Hourman’s Miraclo, Beth Chapel was caught in an oxygen blast that blinded her, only to find she too was perfectly sighted in the dark. Chapel chose to become the second Doctor Midnight (note spelling).

Doctor Midnight 2

As Doctor Midnight, Chapel wore a radically different (and completely crappy) costume made for her by her mother. Chapel applied to join Infinity, Inc, but was not accepted until very close to the end of that series. She and Rick Tyler also started a relationship, much against Rex Tyler’s approval.
But Chapel did not last long in the part. After Crisis, she and the new, female, Wildcat were part of a team sent to the Caribbean to bring down Eclipso. It was a total disaster and everyone was killed, which demonstrated the only point of the exercise: cheap outrage and the disposal of another bunch of unwanted characters. The Creeper was subsequently resurrected, mesdames Midnight and Wildcat were never seen again.
The onus came back onto Charles McNider who, at the time, was in limbo with the Justice Society and, although an active member of the 1950 JSA, he was excluded from their mini-series. Mid-Nite did play an active role in the open-ended series: at first concentrating on his role as a physician at a free clinic in New Orleans, with another African-American female intern (who thankfully did not follow Beth Chapel into a horrible costume). But the death of an old favourite Jazz musician had McNider bringing the revived JSA into what became a battle against their old foe the Ultra-Humanite, and Mid-Nite stayed with the team for the rest of the short run.
The highlight of his performance was getting Jesse Chambers to try an old (and acknowledgedly sexist) trick to distract a guard by pulling down the zip of her running top!
McNider’s final appearance, like many others, came in Zero Hour. Like Hourman, he attacked the Extant and, in the same manner, had his ageing accelerated. Sandman, another victim, was saved in hospital, but Doctor Mid-Nite died on the operating table.
Though McNider was dead, his presence was the subject of much fan debate on-line, on the subject of whether Charles McNider may have been gay.
The debate was furious at times, not only from those who wished to defend their favourite old character but, frankly, from the bigoted who would not countenance the idea that a superhero might be gay, or why anyone would ever want a superhero to be gay? Their most ‘objective’ argument was that Doctor Mid-Nite couldn’t have been gay because being homosexual was against the law.
Those proposing this radical departure pointed to a number of elements in the original stories. Unlike every other JSA member, McNider had never demonstrated any actual interest in the opposite sex, not even the fair Myra Mason, who was his constant and devoted companion for the best part of a decade. Indeed, McNider had often been snide and dismissive towards Myra, a kind of anti-female contempt that the proponents suggested were coded messages that those who were meant to understand could read – a necessity for the repressed homosexual community.
Interestingly, James Robinson’s Starman series would reinterpret the JSA adventure where the boys’ places are taken by their girl-friends. Robinson’s version excluded female Atoms and Doctor Mid-Nite’s, and as an amusing nod, has Mid-Nite reacting in horror to Wonder Woman’s mere suggestion.
However, since the turn of the century, retrospective stories have been assiduous to establish that, actually, McNider worshipped Myra Mason but kept his feelings for her secret so as not to endanger her, not that that prevented her from being murdered in the end by one of Doctor Mid-Nite’s (retrospectively created) enemies. (Such stories also tend to portray McNider as something of an effete snob, by the way).
My take on this is that, whilst I don’t believe that Mid-Nite’s stories contained any coded messages, had DC wished to make a stance by bringing one of the longer-lasting characters out as gay – which would have been a tremendous gesture – McNider was ideally positioned for this to be done without the least violation of anything already established about him. I also think that someone felt very uncomfortable about the idea, which is why they moved to stifle that possibility. Which eventually came true with the reorientation of Alan Scott in Earth-2.
Independent writer/artist Matt Wagner – noted for his creations Mage and Grendel, and of course Sandman Mystery Theatre – had long been interested in Doctor Mid-Nite and, in 1999, he created a three-issue Prestige mini-series, reviving the character in his new form, as a much darker figure.

Doctor Mid-Nite 3

Doctor Mid-Nite 3 was Norwegian-born Doctor Pieter Cross, a radical physician who had established a free clinic in Portsmouth, in Washington State, where there was a severe drug-smuggling problem. Cross used street characters he’d saved in an anti-drugs organisation but, having fallen foul of the drugs bosses, he was kidnapped, injected with an experimental drug they were peddling, made drunk and sent away in a high-powered sports car. Before he could regain control, Cross crashed, killing another driver. Cross had his physician’s licence removed. He also lost his sight.
Whilst brooding on his situation, Cross discovered that the drugs in his system had left him able to see in the dark. Aware of the past existence of Doctor Mid-Nite, Cross decided to exploit his ‘gift’ by taking up the vacant identity. There was no connection to McNider in Wagner’s original story, but subsequent writers have obsessively added details such as Cross having interned under McNider, and then having been delivered by him in emergency conditions. It often appears that the world of superheroes has to be rendered incestuous in its connections: anything less is simply insufficiently ‘real’.
The new Doctor Mid-Nite has not appeared in any other solo stories since Wagner’s series, but was added to the revived Justice Society in (nice touch) JSA 8. He wears a near identical costume to McNider, the principal difference being that the red jerkin has a groin-guard extension. He’s been a regular ever since, in both JSA and Justice Society of America, where he has formed a partnership with the new Mr. Terrific as the two smartest guys in the team. However, like McNider before him, Cross is more physician than superhero, and his participation in the action is strictly limited. It is he who performs the autopsy on Sue Dibny’s body in Identity Crisis and whose identification of the cause of death leads to the unmasking of the unexpected killer.
Doctor Mid-Nite 3 was a character of potential, almost none of which was realised. According to Batman, the drugs affected his sight in far-reaching ways that Cross had not yet begun to suspect, though this was never expanded upon. Indeed, at one point Cross had his sight magically restored, only to discover that the loss of his other vision was crippling, and he was actually glad to have his blindness restored.
Since then, the New 52 has intervened and all the above is meaningless. No Doctor Mid-Nite has appeared as yet. Given the general lack of any real idea of what to do with one over the last fifty years, it may be wise to hold back on creating another.