Batman: Three Jokers 1 – addendum


A good idea, or what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman: Three Jokers 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am dissatisfied.

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

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

Denny O’Neill R.I.P.


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

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

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

The Killing Ghost – The Spectre in Adventure Comics


Having now read practically the whole of The Spectre’s pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths history, thanks to my More Fun Comics DVD, I want to go back to what was undoubtedly the most controversial part of his career, the infamous ten-issue run by Michael Fleisher and Jim Aparo in Adventure Comics 431-440, 1974-5, before the feature was cancelled on the instructions of DC Publisher Carmine Infantino. That the cancellation was abrupt was evidenced by the fact that it left three bought-and-paid-for scripts that had not been drawn. But times change and the run was reprinted as a four issue mini-series, The Wrath of the Spectre, in 1988, with the outstanding scripts drawn by Aparo and published as the final issue.
Re-reading the original ten issues, which hold a certain significance for me, having been one of the first series I followed so avidly when I was drawn back into comics in 1974, I wanted to take a closer look at the series and how it developed, and that’s going to be issue by issue.

The Wrath of…The Spectre (Adventure 431)

Fleisher’s first story sets the tone for the run, but also the template. Four crooks, led by the vicious Fritz, ambush a security van carrying banknotes. The guards are forced out by tear gas and surrender, but Fritz executes them anyway. The Police intervene, wounding one of the gang, Pete. Rather than try to rescue him, Fritz shoots him dead. The three villains separate. The case is pulled by Lieutenant Jim Corrigan, who gets a lead to one man, Charlie. Charlie tries to shoot Corrigan but the bullets go right through him and he fades away. Spooked, Charlie goes on the run, stopping to warn the third, Hank, observed by The Spectre. The Spectre appears, giant-sized,, to Charlie, who swerves off a mountain road to his death. He appears to Hank, who pulls a machine gun on him, only for the Spectre to melt first the machine gun then Hank, like wax. Finally he joins Fritz’s plane to South America. Fritz, the only one who can see him, holds a gun to a stewardess’ head. There is a black out, and when the lights reappear, Fritz is a skeleton. The story ends with Corrigan’s Captain complaining the crooks haven’t been caught and Corrigan assuring him that they can’t get out of New York City.
The first thing you should notice about that synopsis is that it took twice as long to relate the villains’ fate than their villainy. That alone demonstrates where the importance of the story lies. The robbery and the killings are the McGuffin to give The Spectre a reason to execute, and how he goes about it is the whole point. Here, it’s pretty mild. One man drives off a cliff, one is melted, the third turned into a skeleton. When he’s later challenged over the brutality of these deaths, Fleisher will blandly claim that these methods all come from the old stories. The skeleton is correct, and so is the melting, whilst the car crash is a nothing.
And Fleisher riffs off an old Jerry Siegel trope at the end. Corrigan would bring in the crooks but his Captain would always chew him out for not capturing The Spectre.
Incidentally, Russell Carley is credited with ‘Art Continuity’. Fleisher had no previous experience in writing comic books and, whilst he learned, Carley would convert his stories into comic strip format.


The Anguish of… The Spectre (Adventure 432)

Three masked assassins – in real life two hairdressers and a fashion model – break into the estate of millionaire Adrian Sterling to plant a bomb in his swimming pool that’s timed to kill him during his morning swim. His distraught daughter Gwen, who hasn’t changed out of her bikini, is interviewed by Corrigan and suggests issues with her father’s business partner, Maxwell Flood, before, little more than an hour after witnessing her father blown to pieces, she comes on to Corrigan, who politely rebuffs her. Corrigan visits Flood as Sterling’s ghost, causing Flood to contact the killers. The Spectre follows him to the hairdressers, where Eric strangles Flood with a hair-dryer cord. The Spectre animates one of his teasing scissors to giant-size and cuts him in half with it. Peter flees to contact Vera, who’s in the middle of a show. Corrigan approaches him on the street, but so too does Gwen, who’s driving around looking for him. Peter seizes Gwen but Corrigan turns into the Spectre, who turns Peter into sand before telling Gwen to forget him. He then ages the young, beautiful Vera until she dies of old age. Gwen, having forgotten she has a car, walks the streets alone, at night, in New York, wearing a mini-skirt.
Now, I was going to try to keep the synopses straight, factual recounting. So far as the story goes, it is exactly the same as the first ones. Vicious killers kill victims, Spectre kills them, this time in slightly more bizarre and brutal manner, two of these methods being blackly ironic.
The big difference between the two is the introduction of Gwen Sterling. Gwen’s the modern day version of Clarice Winston, the heiress with the hots, except that Gwen knows that Corrigan is a ghost and knows he is The Spectre.
The other big difference is that Clarice was genuinely in love with Corrigan and he with her. Theirs was a tender relationship. But any reading of Gwen’s interest in Corrigan has, if it’s being honest, got to reflect that the girl is acting like a total slut. Her Dad’s been killed in front of her eyes, which you might normally expect to cause serious trauma, but when the Police arrive she hasn’t changed out of her bikini. Sure, she’s put a robe on but she hasn’t even wrapped it around her, so that Corrigan can see she’s got big tits, broad hips and long legs. Seriously, she can’t wait to get past giving a lead to Dad’s potential murderer so as to get the important stuff: is Corrigan married? Does he have a girlfriend? She’s practically yanking her bikini pants down already.
Corrigan goes off to locate and dispatch the killers. It’s noticeable that he doesn’t take action against Eric until he’s killed again but the point of the story is for bad guys to die, and it is only Flood who is being murdered. It’s an axiom of the series that black is black and white is white, and that once a criminal is always a criminal, with execution the only outcome.
But we still aren’t done with Gwen. Her father’s not been dead a day and she’s cruising the streets looking for Corrigan, presumably in the hope of a quick one on the back seat. Seriously, what was Gwen’s relationship with her father that, before 24 hours have passed, she’s trying to get a total stranger to fuck her brains out?
That final page, of a disconsolate, orgasm-deprived Gwen wandering the streets, is terribly sloppy writing. Has she forgotten she was in her (expensive sports) car? Fleisher has or else he’s hoping readers won’t notice. Or is he trying to suggest that Gwen is making herself into a target for muggers and rapists to attract Jim/Spec’s attention. After all, he did tell her that if he weren’t a ghost he’d like to have… well, what do we think?
Attention to Fleisher’s run has rightly been drawn to the violence, but there’s a completely twisted psycho-sexuality to this set-up that’s repulsive. But we will see more of Miss Sterling.


The Swami and… The Spectre (Adventure 433)

Even the story titles are formulaic.
Swami Seelal is running a crooked séance racket to bilk the gullible out of large sums of money. When Mrs Vanderbilt explains she will have to drop out because her husband will no longer fund the Swami, Seelal’s assistant, Smiley, arranges a fatal accident for him. Lt Corrigan is suspicious the moment he hears the deceased had stopped paying a crooked Swami and approaches Seelal, who dismisses him. Speaking of gullible, Gwen Sterling turns up, telling the Swami all about the man she loves who is a ghost and can he help restore him to being human, so they can have an active and vigorous sex-life? She even tells him Corrigan’s name. Seelal uses Gwen to set up a trap for Corrigan, to be bombed to death by Smiley, who goes on to plan to knife Gwen to death. The Spectre has Smiley dragged into a grave by ghosts and visits Swami’s next séance, emerging from his crystal ball to turn him into crystal and tip him over to shatter. He then doesn’t tell Gwen what a stupid idea it was, though he should, the woman is as stupid as she could be.
It’s the same again: nasty crime, nastier punishment. Once again, we need to look at Gwen, and boy is she stupid! Her brains are certainly in her knickers. What part of ‘I’m dead’ is she not getting? And what part of I have a secret identity does she not understand?
The problem lies not in Miss Sterling but in Michael Fleisher, and to a lesser extent in Joe Orlando. Fleisher is showing misogynist tendencies in making Gwen such an airhead, but that might be passable if it weren’t joined to this twisted sexuality.
I shall have more to say about that in regard to the next issue.


The Nightmare Dummies and… The Spectre (Adventure 434)

Art credited to Frank Thorne and Jim Aparo, the former providing layouts.
Fleisher manages to produce a twist on his formula by making the menace this time into store mannequins, coming to life and brutally slaughtering first truck drivers delivering them (and destroying themselves at the same time), and secondly customers in a department store. This attracts the attention of The Spectre, who melts them. Corrigan then traces the mannequins back to their suppliers, who mainly mass-produce them but who keep on staff an old guy called Zeke Borosovitch, who makes them by hand, very slowly, whilst treating them as real people and defending their right to run amuck and kill people as justified by how they’re treated (as mannequins). Enter Gwen, still chasing Corrigan, who sends her away angrily, sick of explaining to her. Zeke offers her comforts and a way of getting Corrigan for her and she’s exactly stupid enough to believe him. Instead, he makes a perfect Gwen mannequin to go to Corrigan’s apartment and plunge an axe between his shoulderblades. Of course it goes all the way through into his dressing table mirror, whereupon he animates it to chop her into seven pieces. Only then does he discover it’s not Gwen but a mannequin. He then goes to Zeke’s nest and when the old bugger threatens to cut her throat, the Spectre turns him into a mannequin himself, to be burned.
Oh God, where do you start? The series takes a rush into the fantastic by introducing the mannequins, without any suggestion of how ol’ Zeke – who couldn’t act any more suspiciously without employing cheerleaders to dance round him chanting ‘Guilty! Guity! Guilty!’ – actually invests them with life. And for what purpose? To kill people randomly in a manner that draws attention to their maker. Fleisher was already claiming to be copying the Spectre’s sadistic executions from Golden Age comics which in respect of this issue, and the next, is a flat-out lie, but he’s certainly stolen their complete lack of concern for making sense.
And oh Gwen, Gwen, Gwen. I get that you’re desperate, especially after your beloved Jim has hit you round the head with the sharp stick of reality, but thinking a crazy old coot could help you? Gwen’s fate is to get stripped to her very tiny bra and panties and tied to a chair, leading inevitably to her looking like an idiot in front of the ghost she loves.
But that’s not the disturbing part of this story. Firstly, there’s the bit where the Spectre cuts Gwen – his would-be girlfriend, someone he knows to be honest (if a pain in the arse) – into seven pieces in a single panel and only realises it’s not actually Gwen until after she’s ‘dead’. And if that bit of misogynistic sadism isn’t enough, on the very same page we not only have Gwen tied to a chair in her skimpies with Zeke gloating over her with lines like how fetching she looks struggling against her bonds, how her mannequin is ‘luscious’ and later calling her a ‘luscious little chickie’ even as he’s holding a knife to her throat.
Ok, someone’s got a thing for bondage, which is fine between consenting adults but this was a 1974 comic approved by the Comics Code Authority, whose decision to let this through is just as perverse as the Radio 1 controllers putting Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ on the playlist despite its overt references to transvesticism and homosexual fellatio, because they didn’t understand it.
According to the trial transcripts published by The Comics Journal when his libel suit against them and Harlan Ellison failed, Fleisher constantly tried to work female bondage into his comics: I don’t know, I never read them. But you’ve got to implicate Joe Orlando in this little sickness: the editor is the ultimate arbiter of what saw print.


The Man who Stalked The Spectre (Adventure 435)

At least we got rid of the ellipses.
By now, reader reaction was filtering through to Orlando, and a section of the audience were complaining at how one-note the series was. This was the audience that, if they were familiar with The Spectre at all, remembered Julius Schwartz’s incarnation of good. Unlike the audience that took all the wrong lessons from Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (though I’m far from certain about Miller’s intentions with that), they didn’t like a hero who was even more violent than the villains. To represent their opinions, completely ineffectually, Fleisher and Orlando introduced a responsible alternate viewpoint.
This is freelance magazine writer Earl Crawford, who’s been researching all the bizarre deaths that have been happening around New York this past eight months. The latest one is a member of the Grandenetti gang, merciless armed robber, who hid from the cops in a refrigeration plant and was found frozen to death in a block of ice. Crawford takes his suspicions of an occult force to his editor, who thinks him crazy but gets him embedded in the Grandenetti task force under Lt. Corrigan. A second member is trapped in a toy store. The Spectre animates a lead Viking figure to full size to smash an axe into the guy’s head: Crawford finds a lead figurine of a guy with an axe in his head. He follows the last member, holed up in a sawmill, to warn him to surrender rather than die, but the guy’s about to use him for target practice when The Spectre arrives, turns the killer into a wooden statue and feeds him through the bandsaw.
To be fair to Fleisher, he does have Crawford articulate the liberal case pretty fairly. Crawford never loses sight of the fact that the Grandenetti’s are killers, nor does he seek to make any excuses for them: no caricatural ‘bleeding-heart’ stances here. But he makes the case for a fair trial to determine guilt, for due process rather than vigilantism. And when he witnesses the fate meted out by the Spectre, his emotional response is to challenge the necessity for such sadism: ‘couldn’t you at least leave something for his family to bury?’ he screams, before heading off to get a much-needed scotch.
No, Crawford makes his point quickly and in the strongest possible manner. He’s going to keep on making that point, though without significant variation. Fleisher has had him say everything at once, and The Spectre ignored him completely. Crawford can talk but the Spectre acts.
There’s an irritating scene in this issue that bugged me back in 1974. Orlando had also responded to fan’s criticism of the lack of continuity between this and the previous Spectre series by asserting that these were the adventures of the previously unheard-of Earth-1 Spectre. Then he lets Corrigan sarcastically call Crawford Clark Kent, twice, the second time prompting a clearly mentally challenged Police to ask if he’s really Superman?
Oh yes, the perennial clever in-joke, so smart and so instantly destructive to the reality of the story.


The Gasman and… The Spectre (Adventure 436)

A motor show is disrupted by gas-masked men who kill the crowd with phosgene gas. They are working for a former Nazi General seeking to re-establish Hitler’s goals. The General demands $1B which the city agree to pay. Lt Corrigan takes the money to the directed place trailed by Earl Crawford, whose editor has refused to publish the story Crawford has filed about last issue’s events. The Spectre turns the terrorist who tries to kill him into a stone pillar, spikes two of the terrorists with a pair of compass pointers expanded in size and turns the General’s boat into a giant squid that eats him. Crawford sees nothing of this.
A perfunctory synopsis for a perfunctory story. Apart from Crawford’s story about issue 435 being spiked, there is literally nothing to write home about, and that’s about all you can say about it.


The Human Bombs and… The Spectre (Adventure 437)

This story is pencilled by Ernie Chua and inked by Jim Aparo.
When Gwen Sterling becomes the seventh and last in a series of people kidnapped without any demands being issued, Lt Corrigan is detached from Homicide to pursue the case. The victims have been gathered by a nameless mad scientist researching Hypno-sciences. He hypnotises his thugs to walk into his fish-tank of barracudas to be eaten. He hypnotises the victims into acting as suicide bombers to go out and rob. After the first blows himself up when tackled, everybody else is allowed to proceed unchallenged. When it’s Gwen’s turn, Corrigan allows her to take his car and follows her as The Spectre to the scientist’s lair. He melts the bombs and wipes everyone’s memories, easily survives a 2,000,000 volts electric shock, doesn’t fall into an alligator pit and, inexplicably, a hypnotised mad scientist falls into it himself.
Where do I begin with this one? As a story, it’s got far more going for it than the previous one but the number of holes and cliches in a mere thirteen pages…
Let’s start with Gwen. Since she’s either gagged or hypnotised for all the story we’re spared any of the gushing whining towards her beloved Jim. On the other hand, she’s supposedly one of seven specific victims chosen by our unnamed mad cliché, but we are given no clue as to why she or anyone else are selected. Only one other, a Mr Vanderbilt, is named: he’s the suicide. He’s obviously known and, as the name suggests, rich, but no-one seems to recognise Gwen when it’s her turn and the only other victim who so much as gets a thought-bubble is an employee afraid his boss will fire him for being late. For that matter, these kidnappings are headline news but no-one is surprised about the unfortunate Vanderbilt wandering around free.
So Jim Corrigan, Homicide Lieutenant, gets himself transferred to deal with this kidnapping but he keeps reporting back to his ordinary boss in Homicide, who’s riding him hard over the fact that Corrigan’s discovered nothing.
In fact, Corrigan gets nothing until it’s Gwen’s turn. Apparently it’s taken this long for a special Police hot-line to be set up to report robberies in motion which enables Jim to get there before it’s over. Gwen’s just proposing to leave on foot, is she? After all, she has to steal Corrigan’s car to get away? How was Mad Cliche going to keep her from being followed, at walking pace, back to his lair? I mean, we know she’s fit (not in that sense), she swims but if she were an Olympic runner, capable of outdistancing Police cars whilst carrying the contents of an entire jewellery store, Fleisher should have told us.
So, once The Spectre finds the lair, it’s all over bar the sadism. Firstly, he dismisses this suicide bomber threat by simply dissolving the bombs, which is a minor thing for his powers but it makes the resolution too perfunctory. Then he wipes the six remaining victims’ memories, no doubt to spare them the pain of knowing what they’ve done, but none of them killed or even injured anyone. More to the point, he’s sending them out to resume their normal lives in a world that knows everything they actually did and which includes journalists and Police who may want to question them about their involvement: someone didn’t think this bit through by more than a millimetre.
Lastly, there’s the disposal of the Mad Cliche. A scientist, and a clever one if a wee bit on the immoral side. Who keeps an alligator pit in his lair. An alligator pit. Worse than that, after watching The Spectre treat 2M volts like skipping ropes, he expects The Spectre to a) fall into the pit and b) be eaten by the alligators.
Maybe in 1940. But not in 1974 nor for a long time before that.
Last point: Fleisher tries to flim-flam the readers at the end by teasing them over whether it’s a spark of conscience in the breast of the Mad Cliche or something else that sends a man as clearly hypnotised as anyone else in this excuse for a story into the alligator pit (an alligator pit, yeGods!). It’s pitiful.
It’s also an object lesson in demonstrating that the only thing that mattered in this series was violent death and sadistic retribution.


The Spectre haunts the House of Fear (Adventure 438)

Another Chua/Aparo art job.
Herman Miller, postman, is going about his business when he is chloroformed and kidnapped to the Museum of Natural History where another Mad Cliche, this one an unnamed taxidermist, is secretly creating an exhibition of American life. Unfortunately, Miller comes round too soon, grabs a taxidermist’s knife, and has to be shot dead, ruining him. When his body is found, Lt. Corrigan pulls the case. Miller is still clutching the knife. Corrigan doesn’t recognise it until he hears a radio report of a theft in progress from a taxidermist suppliers. He calls off the Police, frightens one guy to death and changes his look to impersonate him, which gets him back to the Museum where he animates two stuffed gorillas to kill the Mad Cliche and the other one.
Another perfunctory story that barely fills its ten pages. There’s another plot hole in how the dead postman’s body is dumped in a garbage tip but no-one has bothered to remove the specialist knife he’s grabbed: lazy, lazy writing. It’s a second Mad Cliche without a name in two stories, but what I picked up on was The Spectre’s closing speech: ‘No death could be as hideous as the crimes they committed… not even a death wrought by… The Spectre!”
I mean, that is terrible writing in and of itself, but what I read in it, then and now, was weariness, a confession by Fleisher that he was stumped, couldn’t come up with anything spectacularly disgusting for once. As for the sequence itself, the narrative in the third last panel refers to two stuffed gorillas, but in the second last panel Chua draws three, and there are four in the last panel whilst the villains have clearly only been beaten to death, which is very much not much cop for The Spectre.
It’s a pretty clear demonstration of what we’ve already seen thus far, that Fleisher and Orlando’s approach is inherently limited. The Spectre’s series took advantage of a relaxation of the Comics Code Authority’s regulations on the depiction of violence, but there was still a ceiling and since outrage has to grow to remain outrage, it doesn’t take long to hit that ceiling again.


The Voice that doomed… The Spectre (Adventure 439).

This was the first of a two part story that, by an apt coincidence, ended the original publication run, and for which Aparo returned. It was also the first not to credit Carley for ‘Script Continuity’.
Gwen Sterling is making a deposit in a Bank when it is raided by the Symbiosis Liberation Army, to take Gwen hostage as well. Corrigan follows as The Spectre and kills them by having their three-headed hydra symbol come to life and squash them. Once again, Gwen pleads with Jim that she loves him and wants to marry him, to which Corrigan reacts with black humour: to him it is a sick joke and it’s reached the point where seeing each other at all is hurting both of them. He demands a clean break, to which Gwen reluctantly agrees. That night, racked with frustration, hurting over the ‘life’ that he’s denied, Corrigan asks to be released from his burden. Unheard by him, the Voice confirms he will be human in the morning. All Corrigan is aware of is feeling different. He doesn’t learn he’s human again until he goes in in his usual style to catch a mobster’s pet killer and gets shot by three bullets. He spends a week in hospital before his survival is assured. First thing he does on release is go round to Gwen’s when she’s about to have her morning swim (bikini-time again), ‘asking’ her to marry him next Tuesday and snogging her massively (and I bet that’s not all he did, either). But mobster ‘Ducky’ McLaren consults his toy duck, who says Corrigan won’t get to his wedding…
It’s the first half of a story and, as such, is all set-up. We know what’s going to happen, because it’s the same thing that happened thirty-five years earlier, when Jim Corrigan was engaged to marry Clarice Winston, and Fleisher isn’t going for subtle in his foreshadowng. But did we ever expect anything different?
The only point I’d make about this story is the one I made when I first read this in 1975 and from which I’ve never varied: in this series, even God was an evil bastard.
Though it’s nowhere made explicit, and the reality of it has, I believe, been denied at least once, there’s no doubt that the Voice was meant to be God. John Ostrander’s Spectre series made it explicit that The Spectre is God’s instrument of Vengeance. Even without this there’s simply no plausible other identity for the Voice. Here, he’s listening to Corrigan’s plea and deciding to grant it. A merciful moment indeed. Now Corrigan can have the life we wanted, marriage, a wife, kids, sex.
But you’ll notice that the Voice doesn’t tell him his wish is abut to be granted. No, Corrigan has to find out about it the hard way, the extremely hard way, through pain and shock, and a brush with a more real death than his last one. Why the hell didn’t God tell his faithful servant he was planning to bless him in this almost very short-lived manner? Because the sadistic approach made for a better visual, but a nastier story, and The Spectre in Adventure is about nasty.
Besides, it’s not like Jim Corrigan is going to be Jim Corrigan for long…


The Second Death of the… Spectre (Adventure 440)

Hang about, aren’t those ellipses in the wrong place?
Lt. Corrigan gets a tip from a street vendor that ‘Ducky’ McLaren’s gang want to surrender but only to him. He goes to a very lonely meeting place expecting a trap and it is one: Corrigan is shot to death and his body left at Gwen Sterling’s door for her to find. After the funeral, Corrigan’s body is summoned from his grave to the Voice. Corrigan’s pleas for the peace of his grave are rejected and he is told in no uncertain terms that it is his destiny to be The Spectre. He returns to Earth and his grave where a late-passing gravedigger hears him knocking inside his coffin and releases him. Presumably he was in a coma and his vital signs so low the doctors thought he was dead, theorises the gravedigger, as they do, to which Corrigan agrees. He turns into The Spectre to find ‘Ducky’s mob. He turns ‘Ducky’s duck into a real, giant sized duck so it can eat him and, when the rest of the gang flee in a car, he hurls it into outer space. Finally, he visits the weeping Gwen to report he’s back to being a ghost again and, needless to say, the wedding – and the relationship – is off.
Well. As a result of Infantino’s eagerness to cancel the series as soon as he had the least excuse, this story proved to be the perfect finale for the Fleisher/Aparo run, but there were still three stories written and paid for, so that was never the intention.
Frankly, see my comments on the last issue. But let’s lay it out again. The Voice has shown sympathy towards Jim Corrigan’s anguish and allowed him to revert to being human again. And done this in full knowledge that within a month at most Corrigan’s going to get killed again, that Gwen Sterling’s heart is going to be shattered, and there’ll not even be peace because Jim Corrigan is destined to be The Spectre forever after, whether he likes it or not.
So what, may I enquire, was the point of turning him human again to go through that? I repeat, in this series, even God is a sadistic bastard.
I mean, we all knew it was inevitable, so could the story have been told in a more appropriate manner? Easily: by presenting it as a vision, shown by the Voice to Corrigan, of what will happen if he takes up his gift? Or if the Voice, instead of acting like a bastard to the newly-dead-again Jim, had told him that this has been a lesson, to show you the futility of escaping your destiny, and rewinding time to the night Jim issued his plea. I may not be a Christian, but I resent this kind of cheap representation of God as being no better than the alternative almost as much as the believers do.
And it would have avoided making Gwen Sterling collateral damage too.
Three scripts that followed on from this reset, eh? I wonder what was in them…


The Arson Fiend and… The Spectre (Wrath of The Spectre 4)

Inked by Mike DeCarlo.
A rundown tenement building is on fire. Lt Corigan and the Fire Chief suspect it to be the work of arsonist Freddy ‘The Torch’ Fisher. Corrigan turns into The Spectre to save a woman and child inside by providing a magic staircase for them to descend. Earl Crawfords account of the fire is disbelieved by his editor, determining the reporter on proving the existence of The Spectre. By asking one of the dead, The Spectre confirms Fisher’s guilt, whilst Crawford’s research identifies the building owner behind the spate of fires. Both arrive at the next building expected to be torched, where The Spectre reverses bullets from Fisher’s gun back into him, then burns him to death. Crawford produces a full story complete with pictures, but his editor suspects these to be fakes, produced to evidence Crawford’s growing obsession: maybe he’s killed Fisher himself and set this up? Crawford is arrested and tried. He tells the complete truth, about The Spectre. As a consequence, he is found not guilty, but by reason of insanity, and is confined to an asylum, indefinitely.
Well, had the series continued in Adventure, this would have constituted a change of direction. Firstly, The Spectre saves lives in an open demonstration of magic, in public. Then he only kills one person, in a very ordinary manner based on his track record. And finally he disappears from the story just over halfway through it, leaving the emphasis on Earl Crawford, who’s considered mad because of his statements in court about The Spectre. This really is an oddball of a tale and a departure from the formula.
What was it? Were Fleisher and Orlando feeling the heat from above and trying to change direction to counter it only to be beaten to the punch? Both men, and Aparo, have their say about the cancellation in the editorial material in Wrath of The Spectre 4 and that notion isn’t discussed. Aparo had been expecting it because of the violence, Fleisher is adamant it was solely down to sales (cue Mandy Rice-Davies) and Orlando more or less supported the controversy aspect: the series wasn’t doing better than other horror books so ‘why annoy anybody?’. Interesting.

The Maniac and… The Spectre (Wrath of The Spectre 4).

Inked by Mike DeCarlo.
In the asylum, Earl Crawford is starting to get stir-crazy. He’s visited by a mysterious, nameless, grey-haired woman he’s never seen before (so they let just anybody visit inmates in an asylum for the criminally insane, do they?) She tries to lift his spirits by telling him she knows he told the truth and that The Spectre does exist, and that others outside believe him and are working for his release. When he begs her for something to help him escape, she gives him a penknife. The woman is a disguised Gwen Sterling, sent by Corrigan. Crawford uses the penknife to remove the bars across his window (oh really?) and escapes by knotting his blankets into a rope (seriously?). Meanwhile, The Spectre impersonates Freddie ‘The Torch’, turning up at a Police Station to deny being dead and suggesting Crawford be released, before fingering his boss Harrison DeMarko. The Spectre visits DeMarko and turns him into a cactus. The Police tackle the escaped Crawford but only to tell him he’s free. They let him just walk home whilst he awaits his insanity papers being overturned but Crawford knows Fisher is dead and wants answers to what’s going on, and who that woman was.
Oh my God. Did a professional comic book writer turn this in? And did a professional comic book editor really pay for this instead of, as Mort Weisinger infamously once said, taking the script to the can and wiping his ass with it?
Earl Crawford has been sent to an Asylum for the Criminally Insane because he told the truth about The Spectre, placing an obligation on Spec to resolve the situation. It’s noticeable that he doesn’t intervene during the trial but instead lets Crawford’s reputation be fully besmirched, first as a potential murderer but mainly as a nutcase, and leaves him to get committed before dong anything.
Sending a disguised Gwen in to do no more than tell him not to despair is a pointless complication that raises far too many questions. I can’t repeat too often, this is an Asylum for the Criminally Insane, not Dr Smooth’s Sanatorium for Rich People Who Aren’t Taking Enough Water With It: they’re not going to let total strangers who haven’t given their name in just like that, and what the hell is she doing anyway apart from getting involved in a storyline that Spec resolves without need of anything from her?
So she gives him a penknife. I mean, things that might conceivably assist an inmate from escaping haven’t been confiscated in advance? And a penknife as an instrument of escape from a high security unit? By all means: grilles fixed outside a window can be unscrewed by a penknife blade everybody knows that. Sheesh.
Then there’s The Spectre’s cunning plan to free Crawford, consisting of one appearance as Fisher to a single cop, with some dodgy dialogue and an offhand reference to a) his own guilt and b) shopping his boss for no discernible reason. ‘Fisher’ then disappears in implausible circumstances, never to be seen again. And this is the ‘evidence’ that overturns Crawford’s insanity conviction? Let me remind the late Mr Fleisher that Mr Crawford was not convicted of murder so the reappearance of the body is wholly irrelevant, he was committed as insane because of his allegations about this avenging ghost and nothing The Spectre has done has changed those ‘insane’ comments one iota.
And they let a guy who’s escaped from an Asylum for the Criminally Insane just walk home without a Court Order?
This was a seriously bad story. And it didn’t even have mega-sadistic violence to justify it: turning a guy into a cactus, in a business office that the Police are shortly to visit in pursuit of DeMarko, which won’t arouse anybody’s suspicions? Do you think that will impress us, buddy?

The Voodoo Hag of Doom! (Wrath of The Spectre 4)

Inked by Pablo Marcos.
Earl Crawford has gone back to work at his magazine as if nothing ever happened. His assignments have kept him too busy to pursue either The Spectre or the mysterious grey-haired woman so he abruptly resigns (he’s supposed to be a freelancer, how can he resign?) to cover The Spectre in his own way (food? rent?), though he immediately comes back to cover one last ‘weird’ assignment. This involves Sterling Textiles Inc., where one arrogant chauvinist Board Member has tried to get Gwen Sterling to sell her inheritance from her late father because she obviously knows nothing about anything, being a girl (very Seventies argument, though as Gwen has spent all her time being an airhead motivated by her lust, it may actually hold some truth for once). This argument is overtaken by the arrival of a mysterious, wrinkled, giggling Voodoo Queen apparently trying to get Sterling Textiles to stop making immoral and revealing dresses and threatening to kill the Board Members one by one by Voodoo if they don’t stop. To prove her power, she dunks a voodoo doll of one Board Member into a fish tank, causing him to die on the spot. This takes place in front of four reputable witnesses yet everyone, including Corrigan, is surprised to find the man has drowned. The Hag kills a second Member before it’s revealed she’s acting for a third out to gain sole control. He pays her off, intent on doing the other two himself. The Spectre visits the Hag and turns her into a spider. Crawford, meanwhile, has broken into Sterling Mansion to try to beat the killer to it. Accidentally, he finds a grey wig hidden in plain sight, plus the mystery woman’s clothing. He then witnesses Board Member Mr Slater prepare to murder Gwen only for The Spectre to snap his mind and send him back to his childhood. Crawford now has further food for thought…
And that was where it really did end, with Gwen implicated alongside The Spectre and Crawford on the trail, but by the standard of these last three stories, one that wasn’t worth pursuing.
It’s immediately noticeable that these lost stories abandon the published run’s standalone stance, not to mention the quite obvious dialling-back on The Spectre’s sadism. The change is welcome for the kind of change it is, but it’s accompanied by the abandonment of editorial standards in ensuring that the story is reasonably believable behind the supernatural aspects. It’s because The Spectre is such a fantastic figure that the world against which he is seen has to be humanly plausible.
Instead, it’s a stupid convenience for Fleisher to ride roughshod over. Take Crawford: the man is and always has been a freelance writer, albeit one who might as well be on staff for the one magazine he writes for. I’m well aware that in itself isn’t out of the question, but to then have him resign from a post he doesn’t have? And to do so without thought of an income?
Then there’s the Voodoo killings. This was the first time The Spectre had come up against another supernatural figure since his own late-Sixties title. It’s a change of direction, though we don’t know if it were a one-off or the start of a new trend. Either way, it’s magic being openly performed and advertised as such, and whilst you can forgive ordinary people not believing it as such, Corrigan’s complete surprise at learning Henderson was drowned is unbelievable.
As for the rest, it’s all clearly foreshadowing for stories that would never be written. Crawford breaks into Gwen Sterling’s home – the first time we’ve seen her there when she’s not been in the pool – and links her to the mystery woman. She disguised herself once and several weeks later she still has the wig left out, a wig that makes a young, beautiful woman with a voluptuous figure look old and unattractive. And she’s kept the dowdy clothes in her wardrobe? Next to the miniskirts and tight dresses? It’s not like she has to be thrifty and save them for when she is old enough to need them. I mean, she’s not just a millionairess, she co-owns a company that makes clothing. This kind of lazy writing bugs me intensely. Think harder, you clowns!
Finally, it was noticeable to me that, by the end of this story Sterling Textiles had only two board Members left, the young, beautiful, inexperienced girl and the chauvinist pig who wanted her to sell up. He’d been the obvious red herring for the murderer, and now he would have been… well, what we don’t know.
They asked Fleisher in 1988 about whether he was up for writing more Spectre stories, and he modestly disclaimed being able to do it. By then, Fleisher’s ill-advised libel suit against The Comics Journal and Harlan Ellison, which involved his Spectre series, had seen him crash and burn and driven him out of the American comic book industry. After a short spell writing for 2000AD, Fleisher left comic books for good, his own as much as anyone else’s. There would be no more.
This was how Michael Fleisher wrote The Spectre, at an alien time in our history. Like the cosmic Good version of the Sixties, this Spectre reflected his times. A closer look at the actual stories, instead of the legends, reveals that, indeed, they had nothing to them but the ‘imaginative’ deaths: repetitious and one-note and, when Fleisher turned his hand to writing a more serialised form, putting the characters personal lives more to the fore, his inadequacies as a writer became far too obvious.
I’ve never read any of Fleisher’s Jonah Hex, on which the highpoint of his reputation rests. I’m unlikely ever to do so now, but I hope that series did enable him to be a better, more wide-ranging writer than he proved here, and that it is a worthy legacy for a man who allowed far too much of a darkness inside him to show in his writing.

Happy Birthday…


Not many people know this but today, 4th June, is an anniversary.

DC Comics have been going around lately celebrating certain character’s 80th Anniversaries but I bet they haven’t even thought of this one. Then again, it’s not exactly a memorable number of years, since it’s only the 59th.

People, I refer you to the legendary, seminal, invaluable The Flash 123, the classic story “Flash of Two Worlds”.

Many of you will already be ahead of me, but for the others: Barry Allen, aka The Flash, puts on a show of superspeed stunts to entertain the children of the Central City Orphanage. He ends the show with his version of the Indian Rope-trick which causes him to vanish and reappear outside of town. and town is different when he gets back.

That’s because Barry Allen has become the first person to penetrate the vibrational barrier and find himself in another, parallel world. One in which he is in Keystone City, one in which the Flash is the retired hero Jay Garrick, whose adventures filled Flash Comics and All-Flash throughout the 1940s.

He has landed upon what will become known as Earth-2. The Multiverse is born, and the number of stories that derive from this one moment is incalculable.

What leads me to say that today is the Multiverse’s 59th birthday? Go to your copy of “Flash of Two Worlds” and turn to the panel where Barry-Flash, fearing he’s dropped through a timewarp, stops off at a newstand to check the date of the paper. Its the Keystone City Herald, not the Central City Picture-News, the moment at which Barry realises he’s in a parallel world.

And look at the date of the newspaper: 4th June 1961.

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…

The end of a era


One of the minor inconveniences caused by the current lockdown has been the disruption to my comics collecting. The companies aren’t publishing, the distributors aren’t delivering them, the shops aren’t open and I can’t go into the centre of Manchester to buy them, since I’m not Dominic Cummings.

That this is only a minor inconvenience is largely down to the fact that, after Tom King’s Batman series ended twenty issues prematurely, I’ve been reduced to only two series, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s Moonshine from Image comics, and DC’s unashamedly fun Fantastic Four rip-off, The Terrifics.

But now the industry is tentatively poking its nose out from under the blankets, and it appears that Moonshine 18 and The Terrifics 27 should be appearing very shortly, maybe as early as this week. Which is good in one way, but not in another.

Although Moonshine is telling an ongoing story, it only comes out in mini-series of six issues. No 18 will therefore be the last in this ‘series’ with nothing else due until much later this year, at best.

And to my dismay, I have learned that DC has cancelled The Terrifics from no 30, but that only issue 27 will appear as a paper comic. The last three issues will only be published digitally, and will not appear in print until collected as part of Graphic Novel no 5. GN Vol 3. is not due to appear until September this year, so you can imagine how long that’s going to take.

So the return to publishing is, for me, only a false renaissance. The larger point is that after these two issues have come out, I will have no new comics to buy. The last time that happened to me was a very long time ago. In fact, it was before the landmark purchase of Justice League of America 107, in January 1974, that kick-started the whole thing for me. I haven’t given up on comics after all this time. They are giving up on me.

Not forever. There will be Moonshine ‘season 4’, and Tom King is sequelling his Batman run with a 12 issue Batman and Catwoman series, if that ever appears, given that his successor on Batman appears to be doing the usual overturning of everything King had set up, leaving Batman/Catwoman as a likely  contravener of the new continuity.

It’s been 46 years, and the sudden expectation of an absence is a bit of a shock. Of course I still have those DVD-Roms I’ve been exploring for the last couple of years, but that’s not the same. The wavefront is stopping: I am far from sure where that will leave me.

Pesky Pasko, R.I.P.


A very long time ago, when I was nudging my parents into buying more American comics than they wanted to and far fewer than I wanted, there were familiar names I would see in the letter columns of DC titles, especially those edited by Julius Schwartz, who would herald their every missive. These got their comments into so many comics because they were not just prolific but wrote intelligent letters, mixing praise and criticism honestly and cleverly.

I remember the names amd the nicknames: ‘Our Favourite Guy’, Guy H. Lillian III, ‘Castro’ Mike Friedrich, Martin ‘Pesky’ Pasko.

Friedrich and Pasko went on to write for DC, and Lillian to intern there one summer but decide the busiinesswas not for him.

To be truthful, I never particularly found either Friedrich or Pasko’s work too  exciting, though there were some moments from Pasko’s career that amused me, especially the one where he managed to work Monty Python’s ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ into a Metal Man script, causing me to explode with laughter. And his transformative Dr Fate story, drawn by Walt Simonson, for First Issue Special 8 is still probably my favourite comic book of the Seventies.

And now he’s gone, of natural causes, aged 65. All those years ago, all those letters, and he was only a year older than me, and it feels a very personal loss, even though I never knew him. He was the one with the same name as me, which shouldn’t matter but does.

And plainly all the writers who canme out of fandom with him are devastated by the loss. No doubt he’s already giving Julius Schwartz grief over some loose plotting in a Justice League comic written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Mike Sekowsky. Thanks, Martin.

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.

To be Brave and Bold: Part 2 – The Try-Outs Phase


According to their house ads, DC’s Showcase, which debuted in 1956, was a response to their reader’s demands for new characters and new stories. In one sense, that was true, except that Showcase existed because the readers weren’t buying whatever new characters the company put out and, by feeding these through a try-out title, DC could massively cut their extensive losses.
And Showcase worked: the Barry Allen Flash, the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, Challengers of the unknown, Lois Lane; the list is magnificent.
But Showcase appeared on a bi-monthly basis, six time a year. With most of its features getting two and three-issue runs, there was something of a clog in the system. So, in issue 25, in 1959, The Brave and the Bold was given a new remit, to become ‘Showcase junior’. New characters, new stories would be tested here as well.
And, given that B&B‘s bi-monthly schedule was the opposite of Showcase‘s, that gave us new experiments every month of the year.

No

Robert Kanigher had replaced Whitney Ellsworth in issue 23. He’d started by making the Viking Prince the sole character, though whether this was to run through the existing stories without wasting any, or a silent preview of the new direction, I do not know. What I do know is that B&B‘s first subjects were a Kanigher creation. These were the original Suicide Squad.
One thing to note quickly is that, as soon as he became editor, Kanigher changed the logo on the cover. Previously, the design, housed in a banner, dominated in the usual manner, but from issue 23, Kanigher had it drastically reduced in size, to emphasize the subject logo: the Viking Prince, not the Suicide Squad, etc.
The original Suicide Squad bears very little resemblance to their present day successors, only the overall idea that Task Force X carries out suicide missions. All I knew of them before came from Darwyn Cooke’s brilliant The New Frontier (really one of the best things DC’s published this century). The group consist of ex-Air Force pilot and war veteran Rick Flag, the team leader, Flight-medic Karin Grace, physicist Jesse Bright and Astronomer Dr (Hugh) Evans. All four were survivors of terrible incidents in which the dying told them to ‘carry on for us’, placing them under an immense burden that prevented Flag from giving way and making love to Karin, who loved him: they had a duty to both the dead and the living that came first, besides Jesse and Dr Evans were also crazy in love with her and it might affect team morale. Were we in any doubt about this being written by Bob Kanigher?
Actually, the mental diversions everybody has to relate these repetitious incidents clogs down the opening story, where the Squad fight and eventually defeat a mutating monster by turning it into a frozen satellite circling Earth, whilst leaving themselves trapped in a space rocket almost 90,000,000 miles away from the planet, and all without any of the men so much as even loosening their ties (an odd pre-echo of their fate in The New Frontier).
There were two stories in issue 26, the first bringing Task Force X back to Earth whilst shrinking them so that they accidentally discover and destroy an enemy atomic sub-base about to fire missiles run by the only country (unnamed but they use a wolf insignia) that dare attack America, and of course destroy it. If the synopsis sounds off, don’t worry, the full story is one of Kanigher’s freewheeling, make it up as I go along disasters that clunks from the moment the team discovers their rocket comes equipped with a box of matches in case the power goes out (I am not making this up), not to mention engineering collisions with meteorites to increase their speed (nor that): sheesh!
After that, the back-up story is merely silly about a giant serpent emerging out of the metro in Paris that can only be destroyed by putting a plastic bag over its head, whilst both stories are filled with Karin’s obsession with getting Flag to pull her knickers down and his stone-faced refusal to even think about it, which puts me in mind of Kanigher’s treatment of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. Suicide Squad did not get its own title.
They got a third shot, a book-length story again, similarly wasted on another monster, this time emerging from a lake As you would, the monster goes for Karin first, and she spends most of the story in a strapless black swimsuit that manages to look unflattering.
The Suicide Squad would get a second try-out later. In fact, in total only four would-be series would appear in this phase of Brave and Bold, of whom two only would get series, the second through no thanks to B&B. Coming up next was the one unqualified success the title produced.

YES!!!

Of course I mean the Justice League of America, issues 28-30, written by Gardner Fox, drawn by Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs, with Julius Schwartz taking over the editorial chair for the next duration. I really don’t need to say anything about these three issues because we all know what happened. That this was intended to be a revival of the Justice Society of America except that Schwartz always thought that Society was a bad name for a team fighting heroes, so changed it to League. That in the Roll Call for the first story, J’onn J’onzz was named as John Jones. And that in his usual manner Schwartz opened up a lettercol and in issue 30 dealt with: the Justice Society, why Green Arrow or any of the teen sidekicks weren’t members (not enough space), why Superman and Batman didn’t feature as much (they’re absolutely everywhere else so we’ll play up the others – no mention of Mort Weisinger prowling with an axe) and why not team the teen sidekicks up as the Junior Justice League (we’re thinking about it, but they thought about it for a long time).

No!

‘Normal’ B&B service resumed with issue 31, this time featuring Cave Carson – Adventures INSIDE EARTH. For this Jack Schiff took up editing, assisted by Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan, but the result was just another monster romp, in fact two of them. Cave Carson (clean-shaven unlike more recent depictions of him) goes investigating underground in the Mighty Mole (a souped-up hot limo with a laser to cut through stone instead of a super-borer) alongside Christie Madison and Bulldozer Smith.
Essentially, this was another attempt to rip off the dynamics of Jack Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown, another twist on Sea Devils and Rip Hunter, Time Master. On the strength of the first story, by France Herron and Bruno Premiani, it was one too many trips to the well. Neither of the other two issues offered anything better, though Premiani was immediately replaced by an unfamiliar artist with a much more jagged style (and issue 32 contained a plug for the JLA’s own magazine, so the wait wasn’t at all long). Underground civilizations planning to invade the surface, aliens using giant metal robots to invade the surface (with Christie reduced to a cameo appearance): imagination was not a feature.
So to the first highlight of this phase. I speak of Hawkman, edited by Julius Schwartz, written by Gardner Fox, drawn by Joe Kubert, three gorgeous issues that, unfortunately not unaccountably, flopped.

Mmmmaybe…

Hawkman was the fourth of Schwartz’s moves to revive Golden Age heroes and if goodwill counted, he was going to be a shoo-in. Gardner Fox wrote a long letter about the creation of both original character. Leading fan Roy Thomas virtually pleaded for the old upper-and-lower beak helmet, and Joe Kubert wrote to express his delight at returning to the Feathered Fury. The middle issue followed the pattern of having two stories but that was repeated for the final issue, no 36, instead of another book-lengther.
Then, nothing.
Why didn’t Hawkman take off the way Flash and Green Lantern had? His stories were more wide-ranging and imaginative than the Suicide Squad and Cave Carson (no monsters in sight), and Kubert’ art was stunning: lyrical, elegant, varying his angles. But that was the problem. Kubert was good and very good, but his style, which had been mostly used in the war stories, no longer suited superheroes. There was a house-style at DC, rounded, clear, touched with blandness, and Kubert looked nothing like that.
For issues 37-39, it was back to Kanigher and the Suicide Squad, ‘By Popular Demand’ (if there had been popular demand they’d have been in their own mag, not Brave & Bold). It was exactly the same nonsense. In the first story, the Squad’s been disbanded for no reason except to have it recalled to battle the menace of intelligent dinosaurs – who have the power to turn green sweaters black by breathing on them – invading from a parallel Earth via Karin’s paintings. That Karin has a talent for painting isn’t discovered until the second story, which is mission 4 to the first run’s missions 1 to 3, notable for being the one in which I recognised the stupidity of sending an athletic woman out to run, jump and hurl herself about flexibility in a 1960 tight-fitting below-the-knee skirt. Madness.
This last three part run was more of the same with no real difference, linked by an unusual obsession with dinosaurs in each comic not to mention the lovely Karin’s desire (which eventually came true in The New Frontier) to get into deadly situations so she can die with him (I suppose that when the man you love refuses to even kiss you, let alone help you out of your too-tight-to-fight skirt it’s some consolation.)
It was time for Cave Carson to have another try, though this was limited to only two issues. The stories were the same cheap garbage – monster, monster, monster, bloody monster – but with the appeal of Joe Kubert giving us something to look at it. And not even Joe on issue 41 but someone trying to ape his style in a more deliberately cartoonish manner.
Meanwhile, Julius Schwartz wasn’t giving up on Hawkman so easily, bring him back for issues 42-44, but without making any significant changes to the approach. The first story took the hawks back to Thanagar, related how Katar and Shayera first met, and saw Hawkman be awarded the wings on his helmet he’s worn ever since.
The Hawks got back to Midway City next issue, much to the delight of Mavis Trent, to face down some old Thanagarian enemies, but this second run was no better at persuading the readers to buy Hawkman in enough copies. Meanwhile, via Showcase, Schwartz had had far more success in getting the new Atom into his own book. It would take only four issues of Murphy Anderson art in Mystery in Space to work that trick.
But this phase was nearly at an end. To close out the try-out spell, Brave & Bold devoted five issues to ‘Strange Sports Stories’, something you can’t imagine being intended as a possible comic in it’s own right.Only four of the issues were accessible off my DVD but I don’t mind that much. The theme is mixing sports and science fiction together and I think that if I’d known it had ben done before, I probably wouldn’t have dared write my Tempus Fugitive. There really is no such thing as an original idea, and this one is so oddball, it’s almost impossible to describe.
But that was the end of it. With issue 50, The Brave and the Bold was once again re-purposed. We’ll look at that era next time.

To be Brave and Bold: Part 1 – The Historical Phase


Some comics series, especially those without a character to lend their name to a title, lead volatile existences. In recent posts, we’ve seen just how often the likes of Adventure Comics and More Fun Comics chopped and changed their approaches, with multiple serial leads. The same goes for Mystery in Space. I’m now moving on to DC’s long-running title, The Brave and the Bold, which ran for 200 issues from 1955 to 1983, eventually being cancelled not because of its sales but because DC wanted to replace it with a more modernised version of its fourth, final and longest phase.
Brave & Bold (as the title was most commonly called) was introduced in an issue cover-dated August-September 1955, just over a year before the debut of the Silver Age Flash in Showcase. B&B debuted as a bi-monthly status, a frequency it would retain for almost twenty years, under the editorship of Whitney Ellsworth.
It was very much a comic of the In-Between Age, the desperate expenditure of resources on anything that might attract the kids’ attention again, this effort being about historical adventure. The first issue featured The Golden Gladiator (sheepherder Marcus framed for a plot of which he was innocent, turned galley-slave, turned gladiator, freed due to his prowess) created by France Herron and Russ Heath, The Viking Prince (an amnesiac found floating in cold seas with an obvious warrior background) created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert and The Silent Knight (medieval-era Brian Kent, robbed of his right to rule, fighting in silence) created by Kanigher and Irv Novick.
Of the three, Viking Prince was clearly the best, thanks to Kubert’s art, though the story itself also rung with a deeper resonance. Jon the Viking did not know who he really was, only that Baron Thorvald wanted him dead. We knew that Jon was a rightful heir. So too was Brian Kent, albeit out in the open, and a bit blander. Both these I had read in reprints but the Golden Gladiator was new to me except in reputation and I reserved judgement at first.
The mix was varied in issue 5 when England’s Robin Hood appeared in place of the Golden Gladiator. This wasn’t DC’s first use of the character, and it isn’t even mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Brave (or Bold) Sir Robin, but this version was by Bill Finger and Russ Heath. Next issue, it was the Viking Prince’s turn to sit things out so Joe Kubert was free to draw Robin Hood. Whereas he was a clean-shaven blond in Lincoln Green in one issue, now Kubert drew him like Errol Flynn, dark-hair and pencil moustache.
The new rule appeared to be that Robin Hood and the Silent Knight were permanents and the Viking Prince and Golden Gladiator alternated for the third slot. But Jon the Prince only missed issue 6 and retained his place for the remainder of the comic’s run as an historical hero anthology, with the Golden Gladiator the full-time loser.
Cover duties alternated between the Silent Knight and Robin Hood, with the Viking Prince not getting a look-in. Maid Marion made only rare appearances in the series but Jon’s love, Gunnda, daughter of Captain Olaf was an ever present, never afraid to go into battle to aid him, a true shieldmaiden, whilst both Brian Kent and the Silent Knight hobnobbed with Sir Edwin’s daughter, the fair Lady Celia. Officially, Celia did not know her two attendants were one and the same, but her knowing remarks to Brian leave me convinced that she wasn’t fooled at all.
Then issue 16 threw everything open, Viking Prince-wise. Not only did he claim the cover on an issue from which Robin Hood was missing, but suddenly he’s losing his memory multiple times in between which he knows he’s the rightful heir to the throne, but it’s not the one seized by Baron Thorvald, this one’s occupied by Turgunn and Jon has to complete the Twelve Tasks of Thor before he can challenge for it, meanwhile Gunnda’s disappeared and Jon’s knocking about with a mute minstrel: what?

Brave & Bold had now turned into a two character title, the pity being that the Viking Prince’s series had gone haywire, with his next adventure being under the sea, aiding a displaced naiad recover her castle but turning down her fair blue body when she offers it.
The rot spread to the Silent Knight, with Brian Kent suddenly becoming Brian Greystone, and I’ll eat my hat if Lady Celia didn’t know absolutely it was Brian all along.
The Viking Prince’s stories got sillier every issue in proportion to how more impressive Kubert’s art got. Over and over, beauties of all hair-colourings would throw themselves at Jon’s feet, closing in for kisses, offering their all. At least his would-be love of a Gulliver’s Travel knock-off adventure in issue 22 reminded him of fair Gunda for the first time (single-n spelling per the story).
Then the next issue it was all up for grabs again, with two Viking Prince stories, one his origin, introducing his father, King Rikk, and his beauteous Princess and lifelong love Asa, daughter of Eric, King of Skane, and that was another set of parameters chucked out heedlessly. Robert Kanigher replaced Whitney Ellsworth as editor and jettisoned The Silent Knight. Brave & Bold was now The Viking Prince’s solo title. For one more issue.

And then the comic’s era as a vehicle for historical adventure was abandoned for good, in the first great change of phase. About which we’ll read in the next instalment.