An Element of Fun: Metamorpho


Metamorpho 1

I’m back in the Silver Age again, with another of those mid-Sixties comics series that I would see in those newsagents I would frequent, on Ashton Old Road, or at Fiveways, one of those I would look at but never buy, because it didn’t conform to my already well-established personal definition of what constituted an American comic: good, plain, serious superheroics. That’s exactly what you did not get in Metamorpho.
Even on the strength of the first few issues I found myself bracketing the Element Man’s series with things like Challengers of the Unknown and The Doom Patrol. It’s the same sense of irreverence, the underlying sense that these series are being written by people who, underneath it all, can’t bring themselves to take superheroes seriously. These are not comics being edited by Julius Schwartz. Not that I ever took notice of the editor’s name nor, then or ever, allowed that to influence my choice of series, but it’s significant that the overwhelming majority of the series I did collect back then came from Schwartz’s stable.
Not so Metamorpho.The Challs were edited by Jack Schiff, the Doom Patrol by Murray Boltinoff and the Element Man was George Kashdan’s pigeon. It was written by Bob Haney and drawn by Ramona Fradon, the character’s co-creators, picking up from Metamorpho’s two issue debut in Showcase.
Basically: adventurer Rex Mason, in love with the beautiful Sapphire Stagg (the feeling’s mutual), much to the displeasure of her billionaire father Simon Stagg, a genius of incalculable self-interest, not to mention the despair of Sapphire’s absolutely love-sick would-be suitor, Java, an apeman ‘thawed out’ from a fossil, who is Stagg’s devoted servant. See, already you’re getting an inkling of what makes Metamorpho, alongside the DP and the Challs, so very different from the rest of DC in those more innocent days. Even though the fact that Rex has been converted into a human-shaped freaks who can turn his body or any part of it into any element or combination of elements at will requires Haney to be as scientifically inventive as any Gardner Fox or John Broome, these people have personalities. They have a mix of relationships. They aren’t all working together in harmony, like The Flash and Green Lantern, or Hawkman and The Atom. To paraphrase one memorable line about the company’s characteristics, these are DC characters that you would stop and talk to at a cocktail party.

Metamorpho 3

Let us not ignore Ramona Fradon. One of the few lady artists in the business, she brought the perfect style to the early Metamorpho’s, marrying up a fast-paced, kinetic style with just the right degree of cartoonish plasticity, bouncing around the page in a manner that showed just how much fun the artist was having drawing this stuff.
There was even an early borrowing from Marvel, as each issue began with a vertical list of headshots down the left hand side of the splash page, featuring our four stars and the villain(s) each accompanied by stylish and witty captions that aped Stan Lee without being as frantic. Add to that Metamorpho’s flip, snappy dialogue that sounded hip in exactly the opposite way to Haney’s Teen Titans and Java’s constant, overwrought, lovesick mooning over Sapphire and whilst my pre-teen self would probably have rejected the comic as much out of bafflement as distaste, I love it now.
Issue 4 was a perfect example. It began with an argument: Sapphire wants to get married as soon as possible but Rex doesn’t want her to be married to a freak. Stagg is supposed to be working on a cure, to restore Rex’s humanity, except that he finds having Metamorpho’s elemental powers to hand is too useful. So Sapphire breaks things off, only to put into Operation Jealous Lover, i.e., dating handsome, successful, rich playboys in order to make Rex jealous (that it makes Java jealous too is an irrelevancy, though it’s always fun to see these two enemies sympathising with each other about ‘our girl’).
Sapphire’s big choice is South American playboy and Matador, Cha-Cha Chavez, who’s almost sad rich as Stagg (the main reason he sanctions the engagement) and is seriously OTT in demonstrating his feelings, adding Sapphire’s head to Mount Rushmore, until Metamorpho chisels it off with his element transformation.
But Cha-Cha’s a baddy, a supporter of dictator El Lupo, and smuggler in of arms to suppress the revolution that everyone gets dragged into… You can see where this is going, can’t you? And half the fun is that Haney and Fradon cover so much ground in 23 pages that would need a three-parter with ultra-serious cliffhangers to manage nowadays. It was ever thus.
One of the best things, for me, is that Haney has understood the secret off maintaining such a goofball series as this, the secret that eluded Andy Helfer and his writers during the Justice League International days. It’s very simple: Haney doesn’t try to top himself. That is, having started out as way-out, he doesn’t try to get more way-out with every passing issue. That won’t necessarily completely avoid the operation of the almighty Law of Diminishing Returns, but by setting himself to maintain, not exceed the humour, Haney was plotting a longer life for the Element Man.
What he was doing was to furnish each issue with a relatively straight comic book plot, burnished with exaggeration ad implausibility. Within the story, Metamorpho and Co. acted with perfect logic and a bewildering number of chemical changes, to restore the status quo ante, whilst bringing in their personal characteristics. It had the potential to quickly become repetitive, but Haney maintained an air of freshness to each story.

Metamorpho 4

Having said all that, the first flaw appeared in issue 8, when Rex finds himself up against, of all things, a costumed supervillain. And to trap this new and rather trite menace, who had none of the gloriously OTT style of previous foes, the Element Man has to disguise himself as another costumed supervillain.
Knowing that the series ran for only 17 issues, it doesn’t take much experience at reading the comic books of the Sixties to work out that this is that first moment of desperation. The comic that’s so wonderfully different from the DC mainstream is facing circulation problems, so the first move to try and boost sales figures towards increased profitability, or at least survival, is protective colouring. Make it look more like the bog standard stuff the kids love. Be a bit more serious. It’s like watching gangrene spread.
Issue 9 went back to Metamorpho doing what he does best, battling alien invaders converted into machines, under the thumb of a deposed South American dictator, but the next issue saw the introduction of Urania Blackwell, aka Element Girl, interrupting Rex and Sapphire’s wedding to attack the criminal organisation known as Cyclops, and headed by another costumed super-bandido, Stingaree, also known as Rainie’s ex-boyfriend.
The only story featuring Element Girl that I had read prior to this was her meeting with Death in Sandman, at the hands of Neil Gaiman, so this was an eye-opener. I only hope her melodramatic and hammy way of speaking doesn’t hold over. Anyway, in somewhat conventional form for the time, Element Girl ‘died’ at the end so that she could a) remain inert until reader response determined if she would be brought back and b) bugger up Rex’s relationship with Sapphire, who was, also in conventional form inordinately jealous of Urainia, who had only come here to get her claws into Rexie, the scheming hussy.
And that was exactly what she came out as being as soon as she was revived (the readers liked her) in issue 13, the back half of a two-parter that featured a team of Metal Men knock-offs based on obscure elements from the lower corners of the Periodic Table. This really was throwing a cobalt spanner into the works of Rex and Sapphy, with the former, despite his enthusiastic love for the blonde rich girl, was now torn between who fascinated him the most, a la Lois Lane/Lana Lang.
Did I mention the idea of conventionalising a series to prop up its sales?

Metamorpho 13

This was also the issue in which credits first appeared, revealing that it was now Sal Trapani pencilling the series, and having done so for some time, doing his manful best to ape Ramona Fradon’s lines but without her knack for stylistic exaggeration.
Another two-parter, featuring protracted battles against a midget alien would-be world tyrant, ended with a twist straight out of a million House of Mystery short stories when other aliens from his home planet land and cart off the criminal: sigh. The fun’s rapidly draining away here.
The next and final step is the belated total change of direction. Throw out Sapphire, suddenly marrying a previously unmentioned playboy called Wally (much beloved cry at rock gigs throughout the Seventies, oh yes, I have ‘Wallied’ in my time), leave out Stagg, Java and Urainia because Metamorpho no longer has to hope for resurrection as Rex, introduce a mysterious stranger with another Orb of Ra who wants our Element Man as Rex Mason but is conning him…
But the end was abrupt. There was another change of artist for issue 17, a more serious, albeit scratchy style. Metamorpho is accused, tried and convicted of killing Wally the Wally and sentenced to death by freezing at absolute zero. Element Girl rescues him. They fight Algon the original Element Man, a Rex-equivalent from 2,000 years previously, Wally’s real killer, but he boils away in a lava pit. Metamorpho’s still wanted but he has Urania by his side, the pair dedicated to crime-fighting. Meanwhile we learn that a client contracted to have Metamorpho put out of the way, only not who…
Never the End said the last caption, but it was, a swift and sudden killing. The threads being established here were left dangling and, like the execrable last two issues of the original Swamp Thing series, when Rex was brought back in The Brave and the Bold, these events were forgotten utterly, and rightly so.
So farewell Metamorpho first time. The series began as goofy and buoyant fun, but it wasn’t serious enough for DC’s audience and it met the fate of all such attempts to provide something new and different; creping but insufficient homogenisation and cancellation. Worse things lasted longer. They always do.

Infantino’s Follies 1: First Issue Special


1st collage

Back when I was writing about Showcase, I made the mistake of calling the mid-Seventies short series First Issue Special, which appeared round about the same time I was paying attention to comics again, a modern-day equivalent to DC’s longstanding try-out magazine.
I have now discovered that I was exactly wrong about that. First Issue Special was the brainchild of DC Editorial Director turned Publisher, former star artist Carmine Infantino, who conceived of it as exactly what it said in the title: an ongoing series of first issues, without the intent to run these as potential series.
At first sight, Infantino’s concept seems to have a spurious logic to it. This is the Age of the Collector, and there is nothing more Collectors like than a brand spanking no. 1 issue, to sell at a vastly inflated mark-up to readers excited by the series and eager to fill the most important gap in their longboxes.
But more than ten seconds thought is enough to identify the fatal flaws in the concept. Firstly, that a character created to appear only once and never again is highly unlikely – especially at the rates paid to writers and artists in the mid-Seventies – to have any of the depth or potential to attract readers with the required degree of passion. Secondly, that collectors only want to buy rare and precious no. 1s if there are actually nos. 2,3,4 etc. for them to get hooked upon. And thirdly, if a character proved to be improbably attractive to the readers, by the time you counted the returns and found you’d got an actual hit on your hands, six months or so had gone past, taking with it any momentum the character might possibly have carried with them.
Among the many bizarre and inexplicable decisions made by Infantino in that awful early to mid-Seventies period, First Issue Special must stand out as one of the most kack-handed of them all. The series consisted of thirteen issues, some of which being of quite high-quality, and one of which introducing a character who, a couple of decades later, came to play a substantial role in the DC Universe.
Now I, in my insatiable curiosity, have obtained a run of the series, and you are going to have to listen to what I’ve found out.
Almost inevitably, the first feature was Atlas, by Jack Kirby: who else but comics’ premier creation-machine? Atlas was set in the past, and based on the Atlas of myth, who would one day bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. Kirby’s version, very much in keeping with the supermythical, larger-than-larger-than-life approach he’d adopted for the New Gods and would follow with the Eternals, was a young man of prodigious strength, seeking, and in this incomplete story finding, the man who had killed his father and taken his mother into slavery.
Like others in the series, what we got was half a story and the pretence of a willingness to continue it if the readers desired. Atlas was revived as a foe for Superman by James Robinson in 2008.
It was five years since the great ballyhoo about Kirby leaving Marvel for DC, a contract negotiated by Infantino which, in the great old tradition of Siegel and Schuster, DC reneged upon in every possible aspect just as soon as they’d got him in the door. His five years were nearly up: despite his Fourth World titles, centring upon Darkseid, he’d never fitted into DC, primarily because DC had no intention of bending one iota to accommodate him and all the things he could have done. His contract would not be renewed, and he would return to Marvel in 1976 because he had nowhere to go. The Fourth World series had all been cancelled, The Demon hadn’t taken off, Kamandi, which he’d never intended to continue after two or three establishing issues, was cranking along. Things like Atlas helped fulfil his page quotas. There are times when you really, really wish people weren’t so fucking short-sighted.
Appropriately, the subjects of issue 2 were created by Kirby’s old partner, Joe Simon. This was The Green Team, sub-titled Boy Millionaires. It was a good thing it was only designed for one issue because it didn’t even merit that much exposure, though Simon clearly saw it as a viable series, God knows why. It was actually scheduled as a series and two issues prepared but the world was spared when it became one of the many unpublished comics sunk by the DC Implosion (which wasn’t all that bad after all, it seems).
The Green Team was yet another Simon/Kirby four piece kid gang, but one that showed that the well of inspiration was dry and stinking. The Green Team were four boy magnates whose membership qualification was having $1,000,000. They consisted of Commodore Murphy, shipping magnate, JP Huston, oil baron and Cecil Sunbeam, aka ‘Starmaker’, Hollywood film director. Oh, and Abdul Smith, black shoeshine boy, who got in when his bank made a computer error and added $5 of savings millions of times.
The boys were eager to fund exciting and innovative things. If this was such a good concept, why did Simon have to use up space by having five splash pages?
On the basis that no idea is so bad DC won’t try to revive it, especially during the New 52, the Green Team were retconned after Flashpoint. I doubt the effort was worth it.
Next up, for issue 3, was an idea that had nothing new about it at all, a one-off revival of Metamorpho: but it was a 1st Issue. It came about because Metamorpho’s creators, writer Bob Haney and artist Ramona Fradon, met for the first time at the 1974 San Diego Comics Convention. Reminiscing about the Element Man, both agreed they’d never had so much fun as when working on that title and wanted to repeat it: it filled an issue as far as Infantino was concerned.
I never read Metamorpho in the Sixties, and haven’t got round to catching up on it yet. So don’t ask me how it compares, but this one was a hoot. Haney and Fradon are having a whale of a time and if this was their general standard back then, I’m looking forward to reading that series. This was bouncy, fast, action-oriented but still with time for more characterisation than a year of Haney’s Brave and Bold’s.
Issue 4 was a Robert Kanigher creation, Lady Cop. Kanigher can be very professional or completely maniacal but as he wasn’t on a superhero, there was a reasonable chance of the former. Yes, and no. There was nothing egregiously stupid about the issue, and he was professional enough to set up an ongoing theme if the idea had ever been taken up.
Liza Warner is a blond secretary who cowers under her bed in fear whilst a serial killer, identifiable only by his cowboy boots, strangles her flatmates. After being praised for her precise recollection, Liza joins the Police force, though why she has to undergo training is the usual mystery because naturally she’s the perfect cop on her first day. Her boy friend doesn’t want her to be a working girl and will she ever forget the man who killed her flatmates, or find him and punish him? The art by John Rosenberger was unspeakably stiff and dull.
Liza was brought back post-Final Crisis to appear in two issues of the Ryan Choi run as The Atom, as the Ivy Town Chief of Police.

1st Dingbats

Jack Kirby supplied two more ideas, to wildly contrasting effect, for issues 5 and 6. The first of these was Manhunter. In the Forties, he and Joe Simon had created a character called Manhunter, big game hunter Paul Kirk, hunting the world’s most dangerous game, man, in a red costume with a blue full-face mask. This Paul Kirk had been transformed superbly only the previous year by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson.
Now Kirby adapted the same Manhunter costume to his present day style to create a warrior for justice, a Lion of the Shan, an organisation that always got its man. But the last Manhunter is growing old and needs a replacement, who is found in Public Defender Mark Shaw, whose name ought to be familiar. Shaw went into training to be worthy of the Manhunter’s electro-baton, not just his costume.
Kirby’s effort was again only half a story, however, with Manhunter setting out to bring down the big boss, The Hog. It hung in the air, never to be completed, because by the time Mark Shaw and Manhunter returned, the Hog was forgotten and Shaw was Manhunter. He was revived by Steve Engelhart for his first, year-long run on Justice League of America, initially as Manhunter and then as The Privateer. And Engelhart tied the Manhunters to the Guardians of the Universe, as the first Police Force, android pursuers pre-dating the Green Lantern Corps, corrupted by their own self-righteous sense of mission.
Kirby’s incomplete Manhunter tale is perhaps one of the smallest acorns planted by him to give rise to an oak of a concept, which DC has exploited many times since, but in comparison to issue 6’s Dingbats of Danger Street, it’s the Fourth World.
Simon and Kirby used to own the boy’s gang comics. The Dingbats were evidence not so much that the well had run dry as that it had been filled-in and concreted over with something the height of the World Trade Towers. Just the names – Good Looks, Non-Fat, Krunch and Bananas – and the villain The Gasser. At least this was a complete story, for a given value of complete.
Another existing character was revived for a one-shot next, Steve Ditko’s classic, The Creeper, with pencils by Ditko again, although the story came from Michael Fleisher.
As Ditko no longer inked himself, he was paired with Mike Royer, Jack Kirby’s latter-day inker, though Royer’s slavish devotion to the pencils did Ditko no favours. Ditko’s story-telling was as concentrated as ever but Fleisher couldn’t come up with anything more inspiring than one of Batman’s old Fifties villains, The Firefly, who was surely poor for that era to begin with. A first solo appearance in six years did spark a few guest shots but The Creeper has never been able to rise above cult interest.
Issue 8 provided something different, a feature that actually became a series. This was Mike Grell’s Warlord, Travis Morgan, who had been intended for a series all along and whose debut in First Issue Special was just to save anyone from coming up with a character for another month. This was one of only two First Issue Specials I bought in that 1975-6 period, and a lot of it is vaguely familiar, though I still find Mike Grell’s art to be awfully plastic and his poses unnaturalistic.
Warlord was plugged to start its own series two months later and it and Travis Morgan would be longstanding successes, as well as the basis of a long career for Grell. It’s based on the Hollow Earth theory as utilised by Edgar Rice Burroughs for Pellucidar. Here, Air Force pilot Travis Morgan, fleeing from Russian pursuit, unknowingly flies through the hole at the North Pole into barbarian adventures in the land of Skartaris.
A lot of people liked it, tremendously. After about seven issues of the series, I decided it was not for me, due to a lack of direction and muddledness about the stories.

1st Dr Fate

Issue 9 was the only other comic of the series that I bought, and it is still one of my favourite issues of the Seventies. It featured Doctor Fate, long a favourite from the JSA, drawn in bravura fashion by Walt Simonson and featuring a reconceptualisation of the character that formed the basis of his portrayal for decades to come, by Martin Pasko. It was also the Doc’s first full-length adventure.
It’s still a real dynamite story, with fun-filled and fast-paced art from Simonson, but it’s significance is as the foundation of the modern-day Fate. Pasko entwined the Doctor’s abilities with the Egyptian gods and magic, fitting for Kent Nelson’s origins, and also introduced the notion that Kent Nelson and Doctor Fate were separate entities, with the later possessing the former’s body when he donned the helmet. Pasko also followed through on the logic of Inza Nelson, loving Kent, having difficulties with the unconnected Doc and what he did to her husband.
So much achieved in just one seventeen page story. A much treasured comic.
Next up, in issue 10, were the Outsiders. No, not Batman’s renegade team nor any forerunner of them, but an horrendous and inept bodge that purported to send a message of tolerance and respect for anyone who looked different, but which was buried under deliberately rancid and exaggerated art. This was another Joe Simon idea and it’s hard to know how to describe it without defamatory words. The Outsiders were a team of literal, and deliberate freaks, designed to be as repulsive as possible, and the story wasn’t a story but a circular confusion whose last page led you back to its first page so that it disappeared up its own… tail. Pass on, rapidly.
In contrast, Codename: the Assassin failed for a much more ordinary reason, terminal dullness. A Gerry Conway creation, with co-scripting by Steve Skeates, The Assassin was intended as an ongoing series, and had been billed as such in a house ad concerning titles coming from Conway’s little editorial stable. It’s a rip-off of Conway’s Punisher, with added telekinetic powers, and like Kirby’s Manhunter it’s half a story, ending on a cliffhanger with The Assassin about to fight two equally cliched supervillains.
Artwise, the style is horribly confused. Infantino designed the Assassin’s costume but it’s far from his better work. For economies’ sake, the art was given to Nestor Redondo in the Philippines, because he had never done superhero work before but, because he had never done superhero work before, it was handed to Al Milgrom to ink, and his heavy-handed style obliterates any trace of Redondo and makes the whole thing just look downright ugly.
In many ways, the penultimate issue, featuring a new Starman, again by Gerry Conway, sums up First Issue Special. Yet again it’s a cliffhanger, and yet again there was never any intention of resolving it. It’s Conway’s comments that I’ve relied upon in characterising this series as I did: he has been quoted as quoting Infantino soliciting ideas for next month’s First Issue Special, and complaining about how any even borderline-decent character could be created in such circumstances: barely any notice and as cannon-fodder.
Conway clearly didn’t put much effort into Starman. Allegedly, he was impressed by some mid-Sixties appearances of the Ted Knight version without, at the time, connecting him to the Golden Age version for which he had little but disdain. But then sloppiness and lazy plotting has been a hallmark of Conway’s superhero work since way back. This Starman is, naturally, the Mikaal Tomas version picked up and made into a much more viable character by James Robinson, to Conway’s latterday amusement, and general inability to understand why anyone should want to bother with a throwaway idea like that. That rather epitomises Conway for me.
And he was there again for the last of the series, Return of the New Gods. It was the first time anyone had tackled Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters since their various series had been cancelled and neither Conway nor artists Mike Vosburg were up to it. Conway introduced a new, conventional superhero costume for Orion and converted the series into a standard slam-bang attack by Orion, out to kill Darkseid. He over-egged the pudding by chucking in practically everyone, whether they did anything or not, and ended it with a stalemate. At least the story was complete.
Conway hoped for a series, which he got a year later, once Jeanette Kahn had taken over as Publisher. Afterwards, he regretted that the finale he produced – killing off Darkseid – was inadequate (didn’t stop him doing it again and again) without recognising that his determination to press the New Gods into a superhero mould was inadequate to start with.
But there it was. Issue 14 was to have featured the first full-length Green Arrow/Black Canary story but that, and any others ready to appear – of which I doubt there were any – would be distributed around their own series and back-ups: I cannot recall seeing the GA/BC story then or after, so who knows?
So that was First Issue Special. It had some bright spots and, on the age old principle that there is no such thing as a bad character (except for the Outsiders. And the Dingbats), some of the characters created as Infantino’s folly went on to better things in other people’s hands. Me, I forgive it all for Marty Pasko and Walt Simonson’s Doctor Fate which, in my opinion, justified the whole blinking lot of it!

1st starman

Old Houses Aren’t Safe: House of Secrets – Part 2


It had been gone for almost exactly three years. But its sibling title, House of Mystery, was being transformed into a genuine horror title under the editorship of Joe Orlando, who was filling it with fresh, crazy, enthusiastic stories by young writers and artists with a gleam in their eye. Why not bring back House of Secrets and do the same there? With Orlando at the helm, of course.
And so it was, under a cover-date of September 1969, behind a creepy Neal Adams cover and under a logo that told you ‘There’s no escape from the House of Secrets’, accompanied by a satanic looking host named Abel – made complete sense when the other House was being looked after by Cain – it started again.
It started with a weird, almost metafictional story, introducing the House itself, a Kentucky-made and constructed building with a dark past, that refused to be transported out of the state and rolled itself into one end of a cemetery before summoning Abel – appearance based on the late Mark Hanerfield just as Cain had been based on Len Wein – to be its caretaker. Abel’s first visitor was his older brother Cain, to whom he told a slightly nasty little comeuppance story about a photographer hooked on exposing ‘dirt’ with his photos and who finds his own photo being taken inside the House of Secrets. The House of Mystery was at the other end of the cemetery.
Once we got down to some real story-telling, the difference in approach from House of Mystery was immediate. There was an over-emphasis on how the House of Secrets contained secrets, and the individual tales were directly narrated by the podgy, seemingly weak Abel to his imaginary friend, Goldie, and Goldie’s guest, the reader. Nastiness getting an appropriate end was the order of the day, as opposed to innocents getting screwed over.
And we already had a new editor, Orlando having only set things up before leaving the book in the competent hands of the artist who’d just come over from Charlton Comics, Dick Giordano.
But that was just issue 82. Things took a bit more of a turn towards the standard next time, with Abel spending the issue locked out by the house, that gets a prose page to explain its contempt for the bumbler, whilst our fearful fool compulsively tells stories, including one that I’ve only recently seen, reprinted in HoM. On the other hand, the lead story was brilliantly drawn by Alex Toth, the first time HoS had got one of the good artists.
There was a change in pace in issue 86 as Giordano experimented with a six page prose story from Gerard Conway – he was grand in those days – with symbolic illustrations by Gray Morrow, but it wasn’t interesting enough.
Issue 88 boasted a spooky, Wrightson-esque wash cover, and a visit from Cynthia, the youngest, hippest and sexiest of the Three Witches, heading up one of the other mags in the horror stable, The Witching Hour (the run of which I also have and may, one quiet day, read through). It lent the issue a cozy feel as she and Abel sat by the fire and threw stories at one another, though why anyone calls him ‘Chuckles’ I have no idea.
There was another superb cover next issue, but the interior art, though functional, doesn’t match up to it. That was getting to be the case. Anyway, Giordano, unable to work with Carmine Infantino, stepped down after issue 90, relinquishing the editorship back to Joe Orlando. Just in time. In time for what?
We aren’t forgetting our comics history, are we? Because issue 92 is upon us, with its hazy but superb cover based on a young and lovely Louise Jones. Yes, the issue of House of Secrets that justifies every single page the series ever published. A short story written by Len Wein, drawn by Berni Wrightson, co-plotted between the two and Orlando. It feels like that moment in To Kill a Mockingbird when Gregory Peck prepares to leave the courtroom, and the blacks have all stayed in their seats whilst he fiddles with his briefcase, and then they all rise, and the preacher tells Scout to “Stand up, Miss Jean-Louise. Your father’s passing.” The Swamp Thing was being created. You don’t need me to tell you how powerful, how stunning that story was, and in only eight pages. Even fifty years later, it bursts off the page at you.
There was nothing to compare to it. Not even the introduction of Jim Aparo next issue, when HoS entered its 25c phase and started clogging up with reprints. Superb covers, but bog-standard stories within. A couple of Toth reprints. Rather more that I’d seen before. And Abel’s role as storyteller seemed to have dried up and blown away. This was the same undistinguished stuff I’d been reading in HoM, sometimes literally the same stuff. What had I expected?
But of course, whilst I’m finding these stories unimpressive, the audience of 1972 held a different opinion, and HoS went back to monthly status with effect from its 99th issue. Next issue it reached 100. Apart from a Wrightson cover there was nothing special about it.
On the other hand, issue 101 surprised me by leading off with an art job by Alex Nino that was almost wholly comprehensible and a twist ending that was not only immediately foreseeable but doubled up on itself with neat exactness. A completely contrasting, but poignantly sad story started the following issue, drawn by ER Cruz. Indeed, that was an all-Filipino art issue. Issue 103 made it three in a row for strong openers, with a very effective story from Sheldon Mayer, yes, he of Scribbly and the All-Star Comics editorship thirty plus years before. Even if the back up stories were comparatively dull, there was no seeming explanation for this vein of form, but I was glad to see it.
And it kept going, with a blackly comic ghost story, but the streak stopped there, leaving us with just a couple of Wrightson covers and splash pages to luxuriate in. But the prevalence of the Filipino artists, ornate but static, and often too detailed for clarity, started to give House of Secrets a look that was less distinctive than samey.

Issue 111 – always an unlucky number to a cricketer – saw the first appearance of the notorious Michael Fleisher. I regarded his stories cautiously but at first there was nothing particularly significant either way about them. I was more offended by Gerry Conway’s contribution to the next issue, which was an atrocious Sherlock Holmes pastiche turning the Great Detective into a vampire: pathetic.
It didn’t take long, however, for the patented Fleisher obsession with twisted comeuppances to start, though at first they weren’t as gorily bizarre as the ones he was to mete out in Adventure Comics. Time would no doubt have told, but Fleisher went on to sell Joe Orlando on his bizarre version of The Spectre and would no longer have time for regular appearances in HoS.
We’re coming to the point now where I picked up that issue of Justice League of America that started this long fascination with comic books. House of Secrets is all-Filipino art, issue after issue. The cover designs are familiar, the art is familiar though I have never read any of it, and it’s a familiarity that breeds not contempt but rather dullness. It’s a vivid reminder of an era that I ought to respect, or at least feel nostalgia for, but I don’t. The truth was that, like so many other things, the Seventies was a time of second class entertainment. With few, honourable exceptions, like Swamp Thing, and the Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter, DC’s comics were poor and uninspired, and this run of House of Secrets exemplifies it. Of all the comics I’ve ever owned, there’s a reason why the Seventies is the least represented amongst those I’ve still got.
Ramona Fradon, she of Metamorpho fame, came on board to do a number of stories, her quasi-cartoonist style a refreshing change amongst the ornate but static standard. Sam Glanzman contributed a three-pager co-written with Martin Pasko (who I always have to check myself from writing as Marty Pasko) in issue 122.
Every now and then, HoS publishes a story out of the run of things, in which blood, death and horror aren’t the aims but a genuine sense of wonder, built around the fulfilment of fantasy. One such ended up issue 124, a tale about a crippled boy, who found centaurs and fauns on a Greek island, with whom he could run and play like any normal kid, and his practical, loving but mundane father, who didn’t believe, except for half a moment that, if he was not so immune to superstition, might have been comforted by the knowledge that his son was not dead, not in the way he, being rational, believed.
A similar but less satisfying story, with overtones of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, was featured in the very next issue, which also included a first HoS job from Frank Robbins, providing superb art to a five pager that was incomprehensible shit
I’ve not mentioned this before, but when I work through long series on DVD like this, I read in ten issue tranches. This allows me the opportunity for some more abstract thoughts at the end of each set. I’ve now read fifty issues of the post-1969 House of Secrets without being overly impressed, but by the same taken I haven’t found it as dull and formulaic as I did House of Mystery during the same period, and that for a title also edited by Joe Orlando.
Nor, except for the presence of Abel as opposed to Cain, and who is much less present than his ‘brother’, have I yet been able to decode the factors that make a story one for HoS rather than HoM. I think this inability to draw a distinction must be in large part down to me: I am not a horror buff of any kind, as I made plain some time ago, so to me the basic attraction to the material is missing, and thus the depth of understanding of what differentiates various approaches slips by me.
It’s rather like the comparison Charles Shaar Murray used in the New Musical Express many many years ago, in relation to Heavy Metal fans’ general disinclination to listen to any other kind of music whatsoever, when he compared it to a man who eats nothing but apples, and becomes an expert on the different brands and their individual nuances whereas, to the man who eats an all-round, dare I call it, balanced diet, an apple is, well, an apple. To me, a horror story is a horror story.
For no apparent reason, one of the characters in issue 131 was named Arthur Curry, despite looking nothing like Aquaman. And Wrightson contributed a typical cover to issue 135. But suddenly the series was utterly hollow, its stories neither good enough to enjoy nor bad enough to criticise. The tenor of the lettercol, which was supposedly being answered by the House itself, consistently contemptuous towards Abel, started taking on an ominous tone, with claims that Orlando would let both go, and that he was looking for a new direction. Sales figures must have been collapsing.
And then it was announced, in issue 138, that The Patchwork Man was coming, as of issue 140. This was Gregori Arcane, brother of Anton, Uncle of Abby, the Frankenstein-manque from Swamp Thing 3, becoming House of Secret‘s first series character since Eclipso and the mess that was Prince Rah-Man. Based on the stories that issue, no-one should have been surprised.
So, what of issue 140, by Gerry Conway and Nestor Redondo, a comic I bought back then because I liked Redondo’s art on Swamp Thing? It was a full-length story, large parts of which were devoted to recapping Gregori Arcane’s life and fate from Swamp Thing 2 and 3, whilst setting up a new reality for him: New York, not America, a Medical Institute devoted to studying the Patchwork Man, in ungentle fashion, two young and idealistic doctors, one of them pregnant by the other, not her husband and a helpful taxi-driver taking ol’ Patchy in. The story, a stirring, deep, human story, would proceed in ten page instalments, backed up by a tale from Abel.
And House of Secrets was cancelled with effect from issue 140. This far on, I can’t help but find that funny.

It was back, six months later. The series had been demoted to bi-monthly as at issue 140, and bi-monthly it stayed, but it was back as the House of Secrets again. No Patchwork Man, not ever again. Just one, final, short-lived additional life, with Filipino art, led by a story from none other than Batman’s unacknowledged co-creator, writer Bill Finger, but an inventory story from a man whose talent had never achieved fulfilment, who’d been denied credit for his biggest success that he would only receive forty years after this story, Bill Finger, who had died two and a half years before this story finally saw print.
But there was nothing to talk about. It was all the same. Sure, in issue 148 the pages of the back-up story were printed all out of order but I doubt that was deliberate and the story wasn’t worth re-shuffling.
An effort was made for the anniversary issue, no. 150, in the form of a book-length story by the two Gerrys, Conway and Taloac. It starred that old warring pair, The Phantom Stranger and Dr Thirteen but it was very noticeable that whilst the Ghost-Breaker was brought in because only he could save the world, he sat at Abel’s kitchen table whilst the Stranger did all the world-saving bit: just another sloppy job by a writer whose stories reek of laziness.
Not much more to go now. The stories stopped making any sense now, with mis-timed and precipitate endings, confusion and uncontrollable twists, sheer nonsense it was painful to see presented in a mainstream comic. But when it died, for good, with issue 154, it wasn’t the mess the title had become that did for it but rather the DC Implosion that chopped it off.
And, just as with House of Mystery, which survived into the Eighties, I’m far from sorry to see it go.

Old Houses Aren’t Safe: House of Secrets – Part 1


HoS1

Long before the late Sixties transformation of House of Mystery and House of Secrets into horror anthologies hosted by that first and foremost pair of siblings, Cain and Abel, House of Secrets was a brother title to the long-established House of Mystery or, to inject a note of surely unwarranted cynicism, a blatant attempt to cash in by doing more of the same, only different.
House of Secrets debuted exactly five years after its companion title. It never matched it in success or longevity, being cancelled twice before its final issue, no 154, a run almost exactly half the length of its exemplar. What distinguished it from House of Mystery? Did anything distinguish it? These questions and any more I come across I am here to answer.
Not at first sight. House of Secrets started under the Comics Code Authority seal offering four short stories, two of which had supernatural incidents and one a more common or garden SF explanation. The content was fairly even over the first few issues, six page shorts with twist endings that fell flat because they lacked pacing, removing any element of drama from the twist, or offering something so out of left field that it felt disconnected from what had come before.
In addition, the art is terrible. It’s flat, banal and lifeless and, in many cases, amateurish. Once again, the only signature is that of Ruben Moreira, and his prior commitment is obviously to House of Mystery.
I may be finding HoS to be a weak and pallid imitation of its forebear but somebody was liking it because it shifted to monthly frequency with effect from issue 12.
Proof popped up in issue 17 of one of my theories as the issue included a story later reprinted in HoM. Like the vast majority of the stories to date the art looks archaic. It has no qualities that I can recognise or ascribe to any period. It doesn’t even look characteristic of DC, and it’s disturbing to see that when the Public Service pages do look fresh and crisp, even though they definitely are work of the Fifties.
It took HoM 143 issues and thirteen years to introduce a continuing character but HoS beat it by a country mile, needing only 23 issues to introduce Mark Merlin, detective of the supernatural, and his secretary, Elsa. The first story was one I’d already read, in reprint. Mort Meskin provided the art, and I don’t know how significant this was, but all the art seemed to have leapt forward into the Fifties, with sharp, definite, black lines and an angularity of style. Jack Schiff had been the editor of credit since issue 18, with Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan as his accredited Associates as always.
House of Secrets still promoted itself as an anthology, the Mark Merlin stories getting plugged on the covers as Extras, but only until issue 25. And given the touched-up reprint that appeared in HoM, I can report that Elsa’s skirts are continually a modest length below the knee. Of course, that didn’t stop the shameless hussy slipping into a jungle onesy for the cover of issue 29, but I suppose every girl wants to show, every once in a while, that she’s got a great pair of legs, especially when she’s brainwashed.
Anyway, the Mark Merlin stories quickly captured the cover and moved to the front of the magazine, leaving the two anthology stories to do their thing behind. Until issue 32, that was, when the policy of putting the cover story at the back returned.
By having a continuing character, House of Secrets automatically put on more interest for me, but how good is the Mark Merlin series? For a start, he’s billed as the Far Famed Sleuth of the Supernatural but, just as in House of Mystery, there’s no room for the supernatural. Each story sees Merlin deal with monsters from alternate dimensions, freaks created by advanced science or aliens from other planets. It quickly gets repetitive. Then there’s Elsa. Elsa is Mark’s secretary. She tags along with him everywhere. Frequently, she insists on going into the danger with him, though why is a mystery, as she has no skills (she can probably type real fast but we never see a typewriter) and often she just hangs around saying nothing.
Ok, I’m being cynical, and it’s all a product of the times, when women were weak, helpless creatures – this is 1960 – who cooked, sewed and cleaned and were good for nothing else, except for the one thing no-one mentions in a comic book, and if Mark isn’t doing what I assume he’s doing whilst dragging the fair Elsa around the world, ‘travelling’, then he’s a bigger idiot that I think, or else she’s got a copy of the Comics Code sewn into her knickers.
But Elsa may just have been too much of a lady to lower herself to such animal levels. Why else should she keep turning up to all these encounter with strange beasts in isolated forests and jungles wearing those immaculate white gloves on her delicate hands?

HoS62

Looking away from Mark and Elsa for a moment, the lead story in issue 41 says a lot about the inadequacy of these supposed mystery stories. Three men are kidnapped by three alien crooks who plan to rob Earth of gold to make them the richest ‘men’ on their home planet. The story rests upon the notion that gold is as valuable on their world as on ours, but why should that be so? Alien life in the DC Universe is never alien except in appearance. They all want the same things, from power to money, as humans do, and it’s so trivial.
The first sign that House of Secrets might be struggling came in issue 52 when the title was abruptly cut to bi-monthly. But was it such a surprise? The lead story was another one-off about discovering an alien spaceship on Earth where there was an alien criminal being pursued by two alien policemen and helping the criminal until the twist – by now as much of a ‘twist’ as a straight line – is discovered. I haven’t counted but that story comes up every three to four issues, if not more often.
Another recurring theme was that every alien who wanted to thank an Earthman for helping him did so with a chest of pure radium. Obviously this was in demand in the early Sixties but I know too little about the era, or the radium, to understand why this became the gift of choice for the discerning offworlder.
After a straight run of over fifty prose pages telling a mixture of real-life strange incidents and very short stories, issue 55 announced the introduction of a lettercol by first profiling Mark Merlin’s creators, artist Mort Meskin and writer Jack Miller. It also sneaked in a reprint. I thought the same thing occurred next issue, only with a reprint from the Forties from the art style, but it turned out to be art by Lee Elias, the Mancunian artist.
For perhaps the first time, one of the anthology stories impressed me in issue 57. Four people – a failed sculptor, a miser who has lost all his money share a rollercoaster ride that rises into the clouds and strands them in a strange cardboard time where a lion is running free. The strangers have to help each other escape, and to do so each has to rise above their own obsessions. There was a genuine air of uplift to the little tale that I found warming.
Next up, Merlin’s origin was told in an extended, two-part tale. It introduced him as a college graduate whose Uncle was a successful stage musician – for whom Elsa was his lovely, leotard-clad assistant – and a genuine magician, exposing frauds and fakes in order to let the real stuff operate. When his uncle is killed, Mark solves his death before taking over his sleuth job. And I was right about him and Elsa, warmly recalling this adventure for ‘bringing them together’. Spiritually, of course.
There was another familiar story in issue 59, one reprinted in the Seventies when I was eagerly buying The Phantom Stranger. It was all part of a re-direction of the series. Instead of his office, Merlin now resided in a gloomy old mansion on Mystery Hill, inherited from his Uncle, and the monsters and aliens were gone as he actually started handling magic. But this was also the first time the lovely Elsa missed a story: they couldn’t, could they?
Not immediately anyway. With an unusual gesture to real continuity, Elsa returned from her ‘month’s vacation’ next issue, throwing her arms round Merlin in her enthusiasm for being back with him.
Decent as Mark Merlin had been all these years, he was still an ordinary human being in the Silver Age, the renewed age of superheroes, so with issue 61 the anthology aspect of the title was dropped and Merlin gained a co-feature in the highly-regarded Eclipso. Eclipso was a departure for DC, a morally complex figure who was both hero and villain in one form. Created by Bob Haney with Lee Elias, Dr Bruce Gordon gets scratched by a black diamond and finds himself transforming into the evil figure of Eclipso – signalled by the shadow of darkness partly eclipsing his face – whenever there’s an eclipse somewhere.
Tough minded, vigorous and with lots of potential, the new feature was an immediate plus, though the one aspect of it I didn’t like was how Gordon treated his fiancee, Mona, not only keeping her in the dark but also calling off their wedding. Not just dumb but cliched.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that HoS, which spent its entire existence in the shadow of HoM, showed the latter the way to proceed as the title entered the superhero era, and in rather more style than the combination of the Martian Manhunter and Robbie Reed’s Hero Dial.
Back at the front of the title, Mark Merlin was now using his own ‘super-power’, this consisting of an Egyptian ‘cat-charm’ which, when he gazed into its gleaming eyes, allowed him to transfer his ‘life-force’ into his pert black cat, Memakata.

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Elias only drew the first two Eclipso stories before being replaced by Alex Toth, who re-designed Eclipso’s face so that it was no longer identical to Bruce Gordon’s, but for the shadow, and Mona Bennett’s haircut to something a lot less ordinary. Haney still had Gordon treating her like shit, though.
Issue 64 led with another Mark Merlin story that I read in reprint in The Phantom Stranger. My familiarity with it made the art look archaic, whilst there was a sloppy moment when Elsa and the story’s ‘victim’ Henrietta follow Merlin against his orders and then not only does nothing happen that involves then but they vanish from the story. Very poor writing. Then again, in Eclipso, Mona suddenly knows Bruce’s dual identity, and they’re going to tell the story of how next issue… Crazy, man, crazy.
Inevitably, Eclipso hit the cover as early as issue 66, though Mark Merlin retained lead position. Perhaps this is the time to mention that, for the 42nd time in 43 stories (remember, she missed one), Miss No-Surname Elsa was wearing a red dress. The designs, if not the hemlines, would change but the girl had decided that red was her colour with a vengeance! There was an interesting comparison with Mona in the Eclipso story, one that I knew from reprints, in that Toth drew her with skirts just above the knee, a reflection of the slowly-changing times of 1964.
Of course, no sooner do I mention it but Elsa changes into a white top with purple skirt in the next story: women, so fickle.
Issue 68 switched things around, with Mark Merlin on the cover but Eclipso as the first story, but without Toth on art. I didn’t like the new artist. Mostly, his art was ok, adopting some of Toth’s style and his heavy black lines, though he made Mona Bennett’s hair look like a freak, but the worst aspect was his drawing of Eclipso’s split-face, with the mouth of the eclipsed side open and loose and hanging, as if Eclipso was a stroke victim.
Though she’s still being described as his secretary, Elsa is now getting more openly affectionate with her boss, twice calling Merlin ‘darling’ in the next issue, whilst he responded with an affectionate ‘my love’: but when are this blasted pair ever going to kiss (onscreen)? Not in a nadir-story where the villain is a mongoose, calling itself the Mongoose, much smaller than a human being until the final panel when he turns out to be a human being in a costume: what a lot of crap.
But wait! What’s this on page 1 of the story in issue 70: Elsa, his ‘secretary-fiancee?’ When did this happen? And why’s the girl got her white gloves on again? And, more to the point, why is she going out with columnist Henry Mason and leaving Mark behind? It’s an awkward contrivance to enable Mark to turn up in disguise and, still in disguise, kiss her for that proverbial first time. Yes, I know I’m ragging on this subject, and for good reason, given how inconsistent the background elements of the story have been presented for so long, but yet again this is an example of the genuinely twisted sexual psychology that underpins so many Silver Age stories.
But House of Secrets‘s sales weren’t regaining any ground. Eclipso brought acclaim but not an increase in readership. A decision was made to replace Mark Merlin with a new character, in the hoping of reversing the trend. For a final appearance, Merlin had to face his recurring enemy, Doctor-7, and his recurring servant, the Morloo, for which Elsa changed into purple.
Ans then in issue 73, Mark Merlin did not just drop out but instead appeared in a story titled ‘The Death of Mark Merlin’. In front of Elsa’s eyes, Mark is blasted by his old enemy, the Gargoyle, and shrinks out of existence, or rather into the other dimensional world of Ra, under a hexagonal green sun, from which he can never return. That’s all right, there’s already a black-haired bird, Rimah, a sorceror’s daughter, pointing out how fit and tasty she is and offering Mark some Egyptian delights (how long has he been engaged? Three issues and he’s eyeing her up like strawberry ice cream).
But if he’s trapped for eternity, Mark first laments the loss of the woman he loves, then within two panels is sticking his tongue down the throat of Rimah. That’s until she gets kidnapped. So Mark uses his cat charm to get the cat-god to let go of the hexagonal green jewel, as a result of which he explodes with new mystical powers, which essentially amount to Mind-over-Matter.
And lo and behold, Mark can go back to Earth, only not as Mark Merlin. Instead, he has to take over the body of the died-when-young Prince Ra-Man, in whose form he wipes the floor with the Gargoyle before telling Elsa that Mark’s dead and he’s here to take over for him, at which point, with the tears still wet on her face, she starts leaning on Ra-Man.
Where do I begin? What a shitty story this is, and so unnecessary. I assume the intent was to hype up the magic content of the feature in order to make it more superheroic whilst trying to hang on to the Mark Merlin fans in the process, but what a hooting, hollering mess they made of it, and how cruel did it have to be towards Mark Merlin’s girl?
And it would do no good, because just over a year later, HoS would be cancelled. Meanwhile, Elsa and her red dresses stayed on with Prince Ra-Man, who’d moved lock, stock and barrel into Merlin’s mansion on Mystery Hill as Merlin’s chosen successor, a claim that Elsa accepted without a scintilla of proof, accompanying heavy mournful sighs with a rapidly developing crush on the newcomer, even as he was having wet dreams about Rimah – oh, but this really is god awful stuff, besides which the Prince has a personality of kapok.
Eclipso is still gadding about, producing new twists on his every transformation out of Bruce Gordon, with his slack, hanging lip prominent in any right-sided view of his face. Ra-Man got the cover on issue 75 but Eclipso was still at the front of the book. This time Elsa appeared in a bright blue dress which transformed into red on the last page of the story. Meanwhile, the Prince got back to Ra briefly, for just long enough to have Rimah trying to get her hands into his tunic.
I’m going on about this deliberately, because the comic is almost at the end of its first run, and Schiff is flailing about desperately with no sense of direction in both features, and especially his new one, wrecking what had been a decent series instead of simply starting afresh. He’s lost the plot on Batman in the late Fifties, to the extent that the character had flirted with cancellation. Now it seemed clear that he had just gone, lost all ideas of editorial standards whatsoever. Prince Ra-Man is a slow-motion car crash.
Issue 76 teamed the two features up in a book-length story that combined the weaknesses of both characters. It’s noticeable that the lettercol had been excised in favour of more one page features on superstitions: were there just not any letters of praise?
Of course, Schiff then printed a page of letters demanding another team-up in issue 78, as a preliminary to printing just such a story. But it was very much a swan song. There were separate stories in issue 80 and then House of Secrets was abruptly cancelled, and both series came to an abrupt conclusion.
Eclipso would return in the future, his background transformed, Although this initial twenty issue run was not all that good once Alex Toth departed, the character, the idea was too inherently attractive to be forever abandoned. Prince Ra-Man, however, died alone, unmourned and unloved and few ever cared about a resolution of any of the story issues that died with him. Fifteen years later, a ‘Whatever happened to…’ back-up story tried to deal with the fates of him and Mark Merlin, but Ra-Man’s last appearance was a one-panel death scene in Crisis on Infinite Earths, just one of many DC nobodies, has-beens and neverwases to be thrown out with the bathwater, and good riddance.
House of Secrets would be gone for one bi-monthly issue short of three years. That’s where we’ll pick up the story, in 1969 and Part 2.

Get in the Swing: Swing with Scooter


Scooter 1

Some jokes just aren’t worth it.
I’m discussing future options with the guy from whom I get my comics DVDs. He’s got a fantastic range. Practically anything I could ever want is available. So I’m joking about finding out if Swing with Scooter really is as bad as it must have been. It is, he assures me. And the next time there’s unused space on a DVD I’ve requested, he adds the whole 35 issue run, as a freebie.
So now I can find out for myself. And, being constitutionally incapable of reading such a thing without also writing about it…
As I say, some jokes just aren’t worth it.
I’d seen all the ads then (1966) and now, in the various Silver Age series I’ve been getting, especially the full-page one for issue 1: Scooter up front and centre on his scooter, guitar slung across his back, all dressed up like a self-respecting Carnaby Street mod, with half a dozen talking heads surrounding him: Cookie, Penny and Cynthia to his left, Sylvester, Malibu and Kenny to his right.
Already it’s dodgy. Scooter is dressed in pure 1964 gear and is a member of the British Invasion, which is as 1964 as you can get. 1966? This is to laugh.
What Scooter is is the latest heir to DC’s line of comic and silly teenagers, a supposedly more hip version of Binky or Buzzy. And like them he’s the work of middle-aged writers and artists – Joe Orlando started with EC Comics, remember? – who are getting down with and appealing to the kids. As recipes for disaster, this is as ready-to-go as Big Mac and Fries, and even less attractive.
And the first issue bears this out. Scooter is an English pop star who’s quit his band and the scene over there because he’s sick of British girls piling on, trying to get souvenirs of him: his clothes, his hair, his skin. So naturally, the moment his plane lands, his American fans pile on, trying to get souvenirs of him: his clothes, his hair, his skin. Chief among the chasers are beautiful blonde ordinary girl Cookie and beautiful brunette rich girl Penny: no channelling Archie comics then.
But there’s Cynthia, with her long drooping hair, her big round glasses, her over-sized sweater and black leggings. Cynthia doesn’t go for Scooter at all, but she’s travelled with him on his own plane. Instantly, every American girl has a makeover to look like her, Miss Beatnik of 1961, except that Cynthia is Scooter’s sister, which is a relief, of a sort.,
But does it get any better? Or should we ask, can it get any worse? Well, issue 2 had two stories so by definition it was twice as bad.
By issue 4, I had the horrible feeling that I actually liked, and when she was drawn in a bikini, fancied Cynthia, which, since she’s supposed to be the weird-looking chick in the ‘groupy’ (sic), confirms to me that my head is screwed on the right way. On the other hand, whoever wrote Scooter’s pop-news column for that issue was definitely looking back over the wrong shoulder. He, she or it claimed that the wildest sound going these days was the Motown sound – an intelligent call – and that famous for it were Supremes (unless you were The Beatles, the definitive article did not exist in this world, rather like Tony Blackburn doing the Top 40 Show in the late Seventies).
Mind you, other people famous for the Motown sound were apparently Gene Pitney (?!?!) and Ray Orbison. God alone knows what music his brother Roy made.
Once I’d reached the end of issue 5 I was confident I’d seen everything Swing with Scooter had got to dish out, including the fact that good old English boy Scooter was now American. I may not read the rest of the series with my customary degree of attention in case they try to slip in something original. What was it I said? Some jokes are just not worth it.

Scooter cynthia

Another five issues went by in a daze, my daze. This is unbelievable stuff. Unbelievable that real human beings as opposed to aliens from a middle-period House of Mystery plot about trying to conquer the Earth by numbing it into stupefaction thought this was worth printing. Either this is the ultimate in cynical entertainment, or an exercise in seeing just how freakishly dumb something can be and still have people buy it, or they really really couldn’t tell the difference.
How about I describe our little groupy of seven? Scooter is the hero, the leader, the object of desire for Penny and Cookie, if, that is, you believed either of them really knew what to do with him if they ever got him. They started of being almost friendly but are now bitter rivals. Cookie’s an airhead and Penny, who dahlings her way through life, is a rich airhead. I still like Cynthia, who’s refreshingly not interested in any boys but insists on calling everybody by the British ‘luvs’, despite the fact that if her brother’s American, how come she’s British?
Sylvester is fat and is supposed to only be interested in making money, that is, when the writers remember it. He has the utterly annoying mannerism of coming out with two-line rhymes several times a story, starting ‘Color me __‘. Kenny is a nobody and Malibu lives in a James Bond trenchcoat, except that James Bond never wore a trenchcoat (Roger Moore would wear safari suits but we’ve agreed never to mention that) and he’s really channelling James Coburn as Flint.
Joe Orlando escaped at the end of issue 13 to go edit House of Mystery, leaving Henry Scarpelli holding the bag artwise. Instantly, everything looked like Archie, and ‘Sugar Sugar’ hadn’t even been released yet. On the one hand, the hip craziness went, but on the other hand the hip craziness went, leaving the series as a dull absence. Anyway, the only pleasure of any kind that I was getting out of this series was Cynthia, who actually seemed like an almost-real person and Scarpelli dropped her like the proverbial ton of bricks.
And issue by issue, Swing with Scooter becomes Archie. Malibu is the next to disappear, and Kenny gets a pair of glasses. Isn’t it sad when you’re reduced to details like that? The point is that DC abruptly abandoned their atrocious hip teenager comic for the altogether blander and stereotypical sock hop and malt shop juvenalia of a different company’s main characters, and it was a ridiculous notion, even if the original notion should never have been conceived in the first place.
By issue 20, even Veronica… sorry, I mean Penny, is drifting towards the door marked Not Wanted on Series.
I hate to pick out an individual story but there was one world class piece of crap in issue 22 as Scooter and Sylvester take karate lessons from a racist stereotype Japanese instructor in one of the worst examples of total ignorance I’ve read since the war-era comics, which at least had the excuse of being deliberately malicious to the enemy.

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Malibu came back into the picture, still in the trenchcoat, but now, instead of being a scary fink, he’s the normal appearing member of a family of monsters, witches, ghosts and ghouls. Cynthia, apart from a short run of one-pagers that completely removed all her personality and had her turn up blonde in the last one, was decidedly no more.
And the series is heading out of the Sixties with the blind eagerness of everyone who had no idea what the Seventies would be like, and everybody is still talking endlessly about ‘mod’ clothing. By all means, correct me by telling me that in America meant something different to the British scene of 1964, but isn’t that totally out-of-date? Something about middle-aged men springs to mind…
The series ran until issue 36, its last few issues in the 25c format. Trouble was seen to be brewing in issue 35 when half the comic was reprint and, the real death-knell sign, the guest star in the lead story was Superman.
You could tell it was over the next issue – Cynthia was brought back, albeit only for a one page story.
So: the brief and unhappy life of Swing with Scooter, one-third hip, crazy, wacky nonsense, two-thirds Archie-knock-off nonsense. It’s like I said, I was curious and now I know, but some jokes really are not worth it.

The Legacy of Julius Schwartz: Silver Age Stars


Julius-Schwartz

Childhood impressions often leave the deepest marks. I have always been a DC Comics fan because these were the only comics available to me to see in East Manchester, and the impressions these made have coloured my subconscious response to the DC Universe ever since.
For instance: Superman and Batman were clearly the Big Two at DC but, aside from the adventures with the Justice League of America, I paid them very little mind (except after Batgirl was introduced). Instead, I was drawn to a quartet of heroes who individually and collectively I felt were front-runners. These were The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and The Atom.
It was surely not a coincidence that these four, together with the JLA, were all being edited by Julius Schwartz, or that they were being written by one or other of John Broome and Gardner Fox. Another thing that linked them, and I was aware of this from 1966 onwards, when I learned of the Justice Society of America, was that they were all legacy heroes, re-imaginings of heroes from the Golden Age and, as such, pillars of the Silver Age.
Years have passed, comics have changed, each of this quartet have had their own legacies, and yet DC keeps coming back to Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, Carter Hall and Ray Palmer, no matter what.
In the 2000s, DC sought to cash in on their past by producing a line of DC Showcase Presents, big, bright, cheap black and white reprints of these and other heroes, stuffing twenty issues at a time into 500 page plus volumes. It was a cheap exercise in nostalgia, and I bought several of these.
But 500 page books take up space, and I have very limited space. Not all that long ago, it struck me that the availability of long series on DVD, in full colour, would not only be superior to the Showcase Presents books, but would be far far less hard on space. Two DVDs to cover all the volumes I had of these four, including what was on the ones I hadn’t yet bought, covered the entire contents and more of ten such books (allof which I have subsequently sold on eBay).
I hadn’t intended to treat any of the four series to the kind of in-depth review I’ve been carrying out here. Indeed, it was refreshing to simply read for no other purpose than the joy of reading. But I couldn’t help but think about what I was reading as I went along, about the joint sensibilities of the four series, and the contrasting characters and relationships each portrays. Particularly the very different relationships between the four heroes and their respective girlfriends/wives.

The Flash

The Flash

Barry Allen was the first Silver Age hero, making a very slow start with four appearances in Showcase itself spread out over three years, and finally being granted his own title in 1959, despite being the third most successful character Showcase had thus far produced. But he was the most original.
Robert Kanigher had set the new Flash up, with four lead stories matched by four back-up stories by John Broome, who became the full-time writer once the new series began. Kanigher wrote Allen’s spectacular and convincing origin, so much more plausible than Jay Garrick’s, and set up his relationship with his girlfriend Iris West.
And Carmine Infantino drew everything with a sleek, futuristic look that brought believability to The Flash’s superspeed stunts, though it’s amazing at this distance how often that takes the form of a static single image, frozen in a running posture.
It’s Broome who builds up The Flash’s world, introducing over and again the Rogue’s gallery of career criminals, each with a single scientific gimmick that they use to plague the hero. Captain Cold, The Trickster, Gorilla Grodd, Mirror Master, Captain Boomerang, Abra Kadabra. Heatwave and The Top were later additions, who also felt a little bit like add-ons, whilst the Pied Piper had the advantage of seniority but was never used all that much.
Barry Allen’s – and The Flash’s – relationship with Iris West, intrigues me. Iris was a career woman, a ‘newshen’ as the demeaning term insisted. She was dedicated to her role as a reporter, which was a frequent godsend to Barry when he needed to shoot off and fight crime, disappearing in the opposite direction to Iris and her ever-ready reporter’s notebook.
The personal level however is something different. I don’t mean Broome’s notoriously dubious memory which had Barry and Iris go from ‘engaged to be married’ to ‘in love’ to, finally ‘just good friends’ I mean that although the pair see each other in practically every story, and Barry frequently tells us that he loves Iris, his affections are practically never reciprocated. There’s very little kissing, there are virtually no expressions of love of anything similar from Iris, indeed her dominant response to him is frustration at his being perpetually late. Sometimes, it boils over into anger, though that’s usually swept aside quickly with a hesitant excuse about his duties to the Police lab.
Iris’s frustrations are entirely understandable: Barry is a rotten boyfriend and we very rarely, and then only in glimpses, see the good dates. She must see something in him that makes the constant let-downs bearable but we’re never given a hint as to what.
There is one clue: in a team-up with Green Lantern in his series, in which Iris knows and gets on well with Carol Ferris, Iris contrasts her own attitude to her home-town hero with that of Carol’s to GL: The Flash is fine, and she likes him, but it’s Barry she loves and, in the end, The Flash only impresses her as a hero.
Nevertheless, Barry and Iris became the first DC hero and girlfriend to marry, in 1966. Naturally, it’s a superhero wedding: Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash, impersonates Barry at the altar, trying to get Iris into bed for himself. What’s so disappointing is that not only has Barry married Iris without telling her of his other life, he breaks his promise to her: in an earlier adventure involving alien invasion, Barry had had to reveal his secret identity to Iris, who allows him to wipe the knowledge from her mind on his promise to tell her for real after they marry. He doesn’t.
In fact he goes a year of dithering before telling her, having been urged on by Jay and Joan Garrick. It’s hardly conducive to a good marriage to keep such a thing secret for so long and the poor impression isn’t dispelled by Iris admitting she’s known since their honeymoon night, because Barry talks in his sleep (it’s 1967 and the Comics Code is still in unrefined force: of course Iris hasn’t gone to bed with Barry before their wedding night: another world).
Rogues and relationships were not the only components of John Broome’s world. As early as The new Flash’s sixth issue he introduced a teenage sidekick, Wally West, Kid Flash, who would team-up with his mentor, every now and then, and star in his own series of irregular back-ups stories, set in and around his hometown of Blue Valley. There was the friendship with Green Lantern, and the team-ups that took place in both magazines, which brought Barry and Hal together as friends, and Iris and Carol in a frequent beach sextet with Thomas and Nerga Kalmaku.
In a major mistake, never repeated, Broome used one back-up story to re-introduced Winky, Blinky and Noddy.
But the biggest moment was issue 123, the great and fundamental story that still affects every single superhero comic published by DC from then until now and beyond. There’d been a clamour from old and young fans to see something of Jay Garrick, so Julius Schwartz brought in Jay Garrick’s creator, Gardner Fox, to write a team-up story that defined the two Flashes as heroes of different parallel worlds, separated by differing vibrational rates (A Flash pseudo-scientific notion that had me thinking for decades that this was real science).
DC’s Multiverse and everything that has ever happened in it or about it, all comes back to this one issue.

The Flash 2

As the Sixties started to extend, things started to change, for the worse. John Broome left America, travelling in Europe. He settled in Paris at one point, on an Israeli kibbutz at another. He continued to write for The Flash, but not every issue. Fox started contributing more scripts. He was responsible for issue 167, in which a silly, goofy quasi-angel named Mopee claimed to be responsible for the accident that transformed Barry Allen into The Flash. Astonishingly, some people hailed the story, and these were not self-defensive made-up letters, some came from regular fans who haunted the letter-column. Everybody else just shut their eyes and pretended it had never happened.
Infantino, however, was growing restless. He was interested in the company structure, attended Editorial meetings and, the moment the chance came up to become Editorial Director, dropped The Flash and all his other assignments immediately.
Art duties on The Flash went to veteran Ross Andru, who followed Infantino’s lead faithfully but lacked the latter’s grace and imagination. Fox’s plots got sillier and Schwartz had to spend more time working them into something intelligible.
Eventually, Kanigher returned, taking over as a regular gig, and Irv Novick started a long career as Flash penciller. Kanigher was still the freewheeler, unable to take superheroes as seriously as the audience increasingly wanted. For issue 200, he loaded the number 200 into the story 200 times. Two issues later, he transformed Iris from an ordinary American woman into a refugee from a thousand years in the future, send back as a baby to avoid a nuclear war. Unlike Mopee, this one stuck but the worst aspect of this development was the story title – ‘The Flash’s Wife is a Two-Timer’, ‘two-timer’ being slang for someone cheating on their spouse or girl/boyfriend, but more importantly at least a dozen years out of date.
Barry Allen’s series ran 350 issues, until 1985, but I called it quits for the DVD at issue 204, a nice, round, one hundred issues. Enough for me.

Green Lantern

Green L

In contrast, Green Lantern was all John Broome’s own work. Management were happy with the new Flash and wanted to see what Schwartz could make of a Green Lantern revival. Magic was exchanged for science, invisible Tibetan monks were replaced by a race of little blue men all drawn to resemble then Israel Premier, David Ben Gurion, and Gil Kane was selected to draw the new series, inked, like Infantino on The Flash by Joe Giella. Kane liked to base faces on people he knew so Hal Jordan, test pilot, bore a strong resemblance to his old neighbour, struggling actor Paul Newman.
Broome set up two contrasting and complementary backgrounds for Hal Jordan and Green Lantern. We, the readers, knew before GL that he was powered by the Guardians of the Universe, immortal, blue-skinned beings from the planet Oa, who had set-up a Corps of 3600 agents, space policemen, each with a sector of space to protect. Hal’s slow discovery of the reality of his role was spread out over the first year of his series.
Meanwhile, there was a supporting cast to establish. Hal worked for Ferris Aircraft, based at Coast City in California, a great contrast to the midwestern Flash and Central City. His boss was the woman he was in love with, Carol Ferris, placed in charge of the company by her father, who was taking two years off to cruise the world. Carol had had to swear off dates and romance, though she was to get a specific exemption from her absent father before too long, but not for Hal.
You see, Hal loved Carol, but Carol loved Green Lantern. Hal knew he could easily win the woman he loved by admitting his secret identity but, with an understandable pride, not to mention a greater need, he wanted to win Carol as himself. In the meantime, he had to fend off all Miss Ferris’s sneaky attempts to get his mask off.
The only friend to know his secret identity, until Barry Allen, was Thomas Kalmaku. Tom was a Ferris Aircraft Engineer or, as the series had it all the way until the early Seventies, he was an Eskimo grease-monkey known to all, including Hal, as Pieface. I don’t suppose the series sold all that well in the Eskimo community.
Tom was a faithful friend who was keeping a secret casebook of GL’s adventures which was a frequently-used device to get a story told in the first person. The general run of Green Lantern’s stories featured fluid art from Kane, bodies contorted elegantly, albeit stripped of power by Giella’s inking. When the latter was replaced by Sid Greene, the art improved immediately. Greene’s inks were lusher and more decorative, lending the art an extra sense of power.
Green Lantern’s stories had the advantage of breadth, with the Guardians and alien planets available, but the fans were unusually ambivalent about such things, with some wanting nothing but and others none at all. The balance was tilted to ordinary crooks and some super-villains, but not as many or as frequent as The Flash. Dr Polaris, master of magnetism, Sonar, master of sound, Black Hand, the cliche criminal…
Like The Flash, Green Lantern teamed up with his Earth-2 counterpart, Alan Scott, four or five times. The first of these was a massively important event, ‘The Secret Origin of the Guardians’, introducing the renegade Guardian Krona, threatening the whole Universe, and showing the cosmic hand releasing stars into the void that many interpreted as being that of God. Later team-ups were not so much fun, giving prominent roles to Doiby Dickles, but they were yet another angle for GL’s stories.
And there were the Jordan Brothers’ back-ups, with Hal heading home to visit his two brothers, Jack the DA and Jim the funloving youngster. Attractive journalist Sue Williams is convinced that Jim is Green Lantern and persists in this delusion despite the number of adventures GL has in Coast City whilst Jim is here at home. Even after she marries him, she doesn’t lose her belief and is constantly frustrated that he won’t even admit his secret to his own wife…
Most intriguing was Star Sapphire. She was the putative Queen of an alien matriarchal race, the Glamorans, who thought men completely unfamiliar. When one Star Sapphire died, they would search the Universe for her replacement, who had to be identical, that’s how they were known. Their recently deceased Queen was the dead spit of… Carol Ferris.
So Hal and GL’s beloved became his enemy Star Sapphire, but with the same consistent urge to marry Green Lantern. To become the Glamoran Queen, Star Sapphire had to defeat Green Lantern, but Carol Ferris wanted to be defeated by him (and melt into his arms and have the winner takes the spoils due to him, no doubt). It set up a perverse psychological situation that added a new dimension to an already twisted triangle.

Green L 2

Hal Jordan kept pursuing Carol Ferris for dates. Carol kept telling him she didn’t love him, she loved Green Lantern. But she kept going out on dates with him, willingly, so presumably she was having a good time. Not that we saw any but kissing, even if it was only goodnight kisses, must have been involved. Inevitably, we have to ask if Carol was using Hal to get some kicks? It’s not like she was going on any private dates with Green Lantern, so was he effectively some himbo substitute?
Whatever the real situation, it was overturned spectacularly in quite unexpected manner in issue 49. Out of the blue, Carol tells Hal that she has gotten engaged to some guy called Jason Belmont of whom we’ve heard nothing. Jason is the one. She writes her infatuation with Green Lantern off as exactly that: nothing but an infatuation. This is a slap in the face for Hal who, having missed Barry and Iris’s wedding, decides he’s going to ask Carol to marry him…
Green Lantern struggles through the action story, distracted by this bombshell, then drops one of his own. He can’t bear living in Coast City any more. He’s quit Ferris Aircraft, he’s leaving Tom and Nerga behind, he’s hitting the road.
It was a shock and no matter. DC heroes didn’t do things like that. At one stroke, all the background to the series was rejected. And, his confidence so thoroughly shattered, Hal made a conscious decision not to rely on his ring so much, to settle more things with his fists.
This suited Gil Kane, who was moving towards inking his own pencils, adding dynamism but sacrificing detail and elegance. What value it was was dubious, however. Hal started off as a drifter, falling in love with the first girl he meets, until she confesses to worshipping Green Lantern, at which he abruptly leaves. He settles into being an Insurance Assessor in Evergreen City and takes up with an attractive but personality-free redhead called Eve Doremus who has no interest in GL, until he finds it entirely too safe a life and leaves without even saying goodbye to her. Then he becomes a Toy Salesman with an arch-rival, Olivia Reynolds, who uses sex to sell toys to middle-aged overweight buyers.
Without a solid base, the series flags and drifts. Broome’s scripts were diminishing. As well as Fox, Schwartz started using fan-turning-pro Mike Friedrich on a couple of stories. But Green Lantern needed a shake-up, and with issue 76, Schwartz decided to shake it until the maracas cracked.
The new team, Denny O’Neill as writer and Neal Adams as penciller, arrived like a thunderclap. They took away practically everything about the series before, and they airlifted in Green Arrow as a co-star, for no apparent reason other than the shared colour, though the duo had already thoroughly revised Oliver Queen, and made him interesting for the first time in nearly thirty years.
The O’Neill Adams run is regarded as a landmark. It came when DC was trying to catch up to Marvel by filling their comics with ‘Relevance’. Adams’ hyper-realistic approach was visually influential, a vital component of comic art to this day. O’Neill turned the series into a philosophical debate, the conservative, order-oriented Green Lantern versus the excitable, anarchic, ultra-liberal Green Arrow. In that sense it was a complete flop. This was not a time for conservative arguments, no matter how small the ‘c’, and besides, O’Neill admitted that he just couldn’t get into GL’s head, seeing him as a cop and nothing else. The arguments were one-sided and the decision to take things down to a ground level suited GA, but made a mockery of GL’s powers, even with a deliberately de-powered ring.
The run was hailed, then and still, though it’s decades since I looked at it and decided that it is actually an incoherent piece of shit that could never have been produced at any other time. Modern slavery, racial prejudice, pollution, over-population, these were among the subjects O’Neill dealt with, without a trace of subtlety or any natural integration of the story to the heroes or vice versa.
Fans raved. O’Neill Adams took the series from eight times a year to bi-monthly and then, after only fourteen issues (one a reprint) to cancellation. Everybody loved it, but nobody bought it.

The Atom

The Atom

Hawkman was the third Golden Age hero to be picked up and refurbished under Julius Schwartz but his was not the success of The Flash and Green Lantern. It was along and slow journey to a series of his own, during which time The Atom leap-frogged him into both a series of his own and Justice League membership. So he comes next.
The Atom was the work of Gardner Fox and Gil Kane, the latter paired again with Joe Giella on inks, a consistent partnership until issue 37, when abruptly Mike Sekowsky took over as artist, one issue before The Atom merged with the failed Hawkman series to present both heroes in a mixture of team-ups and solos.
Save for the name, there was no connection between this new Atom, Ray Palmer, and the original Atom, the creation of Ben Flinton and Bill O’Conner. The original notion came from Gil Kane, suggesting reviving The Atom but giving him the powers of Doll Man, a Quality Comics character who could shrink to six inches in height whilst retaining his full-size strength. The name of Ray Palmer came from Schwartz’s SF magazine editor friend, himself a dwarf.
Al Atom was nothing but a pint-sized bruiser, 5’1″ in height, with no superpowers until late in his career. Palmer was a research scientist investigating compression of matter, who solved his problem by finding a fragment of white dwarf star mater from which he ground a reducing lens that shrunk things, only for them to explode through decompression when they returned to full size.
Palmer had to use the lens on himself when he and his girlfriend, Jean Loring, were trapped by a rockfall when leading a nature troop exploring caverns. Ray expected to be sacrificing himself but ‘some mysterious, mutant force’ in his body kept him, and only him, intact.
Palmer’s decision to become a superhero was intrinsically tied up in his personal life. Ray loved Jean and proposed to her every week. But Jean, a ‘lady-lawyer’, wasn’t prepared to marry him and retire to being a mere housewife until she had established herself in her legal career.
Given, as we saw with Iris West, that under the Comics Code not even bad girls did until they had a ring on their finger, Ray decided to use The Atom’s abilities to help Jean solved all her cases, no matter how fantastic, in double-quick time, so that she would marry him and, well, catch up on lost time.
It’s an unusual motivation for a superhero, and it was never expressed as such in even the most oblique of fashions, but it’s as plain as the nose on your face.

The Atom 2

Jean and Ray were happy with each other in every respect except their differing attitudes to wedding proposals. There was none of Iris West’s continued exasperation, nor of Carol Ferris’s preference for a glamour figure. Jean and Ray had something both wanted. Marriage was only a matter of time. In the end, it took to issue 26 before the momentous moment came. The couple meet counsellors who talk of relationships changing. It’s Ray’s proposal day, but his latest case has him distracted and he drops Jean off without a word, sending the poor girl into a panic. Because she does love him, and if he’s starting to cool off, because of her constant rejection of him, she’s thrown into a sudden panic at the thought that she might lose him.
In the end, when she catches up to him, she tearfully apologises for all her refusals and suggests that if he were to ask her again… Ray goes for it immediately. Jean says yes, and the two kiss enthusiastically. In fact, they go on kissing at every possible opportunity, and on a couple of occasions, when Jean fears Ray to be dead, or seriously injured, her anxious panic and the sheer relief of him being ok make this by far the most immediate and sweet of loves.
Though Kane and Giella were common to both series, the art on The Atom was very different. The Atom’s small stature, his ability to shift it at an instant’s notice, his judo-throws and punches on crooks twelve times his height shared the same balletic nature at times, but avoided the force and violence Kane tried to impart to his other series.
Nor did The Atom develop even as much of a rogue’s gallery as Green Lantern, his principal recurring foe being Chronos, the Time-Thief, who brought a scientific ingenuity to their battles. On the other hand, where Hal Jordan had his Jordan Brothers back-ups, The Atom had Ray Palmer’s former mentor, Professor Alpheus Hyatt and the Time Pool, enabling The Atom to drop into the past and meet with all manner of historical figures that you just wouldn’t expect a superhero to have anything to do with.
There were even a couple of entertaining if not spectacular team-ups with Al Pratt, one involving Jay Garrick’s old foe, The Thinker, looking completely different, and the other some bizarre ageing and juvenating scrapes back and forth across Earths 1 and 2.
The abrupt switch to Sekowsky, who was used to The Atom from Justice League of America but not one-tenth as suitable for him in his solo book, came as a considerable and unpleasant shock. But as this was the last solo solo issue of the series, let’s divert from here to Hawkman’s series.

Hawkman

Hawkman

The Winged Warrior may have only been a tad less popular in the Forties than his stable-mate The Flash, and indeed may have only been denied a series of his own by the Second World war and paper-restrictions forbidding launching any new series, but when Julius Schwartz chose him to revive, Hawkman ended up with the longest, slowest and meandering path to his own series of them all, and the shortest run, only 27 issues.
Unlike the other three Silver Age legacies, Hawkman was started in The Brave and the Bold instead of Showcase, and he was handed to his original creator, Gardner Fox, to write, instead of John Broome. For art, Schwartz chose Joe Kubert, the artist who finished off the original Hawkman’s run in the Forties, and a superstar. This was a mistake.
Kubert’s art was magnificent. It was beautiful. But it was wholly different from the light and clean DC house-style, and it was no longer suited to superheroes. Two three-issue try-outs failed to break Hawkman, though the issues were gorgeous. So Schwartz slotted Hawkman into the back of Mystery in Space, alongside Adam Strange, and turned the pencils over to Murphy Anderson, who was far more often used on inks. The outcome? A massive upsurge in response and, only four issues later, that solo series, Fox and Anderson. Made it ma, top of the world.
The Golden Age Hawkman was a human archaeologist and socialite who discovered himself to be the reincarnation of the sacrificed Egyptian Prince, Khufu, and rediscovering Khufu’s Ninth Metal (later Nth Metal) with its anti-gravity properties. With his bare chest, his striking Hawk helm, his wide spreading wings, Hawkman’s look was perfect and, with minor design changes, to the helm, Schwartz kept it all, down to the name Carter Hall, an anglicisation of Katar Hol, the girlfriend and partner as Hawkgirl, Shayera (or Sheira) and the propensity for using ancient weapons.
Everything else was different, though. This Hawkman was an SF figure, a human-appearing alien from the planet Thanagar, a Police Officer in uniform, chasing a Thanagarian criminal to Earth and staying to study our Police methods, taking up a post as a Museum Director. But the biggest shock was his Hawkgirl, a gorgeous redhead, a fellow Policewoman… and Katar’s wife! A Mr. and Mrs. Superhero, living, loving and fighting side by side.
As a contemporary superhero figure in the Sixties, Hawkman’s greatest weakness was his power. He could fly. So you can fly? What can you do that’s impressive? He didn’t even make use of his wings for anything but, well, flapping them to stay aloft. Ok, it was his Thanagarian Anti-Gravity controls that got him off the ground, the wings just guided him about. But Superman, Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter could all fly, and they could do other things as well. Even Wonder Woman and The Atom could take to the air and get about, just by gliding on air-currents. Not impressive.
Schwartz and Fox tried to build in supervillains, such as the IQ Gang or the Matter Master. They went all James Bondish with CAW, the Criminal Alliance of the World, but mostly Hawkman and Hawkgirl spent their days fighting monstrous races and weird civilisations, other planets, other dimensions, sub-atomic worlds, you name it, with a large dollop of set-ups paralleling Earth history, especially the religious kind.
At first, Carter had to try to avoid the attentions of Mavis Trent, girl naturalist, pretty and prone to flinging herself all over the tall, lean Museum Director at a moment’s provocation. Now Carter was married, though you got the feeling it wouldn’t bother Mavis all thaaaat much, but like Carol Ferris, she divided her enthusiasm between him and Hawkman, and Hawkman couldn’t go around saying, oh, by the way, have you met my wife? This didn’t last that long as Earth supporting characters got forgotten.

Hawkman

But I still love the series. A large part of that is Murphy Anderson’s art, even now. Sure, it’s smooth and you could call it bland without fearing a call from the libel lawyers but then aged 10 and now aged 65, I love its easiness, its gracefulness, its wholeness. But what made Hawkman for me was the relationship. Katar and Shayera Hol loved each other. They were each the most important thing in the world to each other. There were none of the issues, the side-steps, the complications or frustrations that Barry Allen, Hal Jordan or Ray Palmer faced. It made you wonder exactly why Schwartz was so reluctant to have his bachelor boys settled.
Best of all, the Hawks were a team, and they were equals. True, Hawkman still got the primary role, and it was he who came up with all the ideas, but he never once considered Hawkgirl to be a weak link. He trusted her to fight as hard and as effectively as he did. That sort of thing was rare, and effective.
Hawkman struggled along, never getting out of the bi-monthly groove any more than The Atom did. Membership of the JLA brought no boost, except to Hall’s career with the team: Hawkman immediately became part of a ‘Big Five’, with Superman, Batman, The Flash and Green Lantern, dominating line-ups.
Just as Superman and Batman were friends who knew each other’s identities, and the same went for Flash and Green Lantern, Fox set up a similar arrangement for Atom and Hawkman. First, the pair teamed up in The Atom, and at the end the Halls met this Ivy Town couple, Ray Palmer and Jean Loring. Then this was repeated in miniature in Hawkman 9, as the Hawks have to go to The Atom to help unshrink them, and he does so in Ray Palmer’s laboratory before an entirely sensible and genuinely nice revealing of identities.
Schwartz, Fox and Anderson produced twenty-one issues. Some I hold in higher regard than others, but these do tend to be the ones I bought at the time, my favourite being issue 13, despite its somewhat didactic and quasi-scientific approach to the legends of the Valkyries. And then there was a sudden change in issue 22: all three out, replaced by George Kashdan, editor, Bob Haney, writer and Dick Dillin penciller, in a story that has Hawkman confirm his alien origins.
It was stupid, destructive and crude, and almost immediately forgotten. That goes for all six issues of Kashdan’s term, accompanied by the side-lining of Hawkgirl into a very much background role, even after Haney was replaced by Raymond Marais from issue 24 until the end, in issue 27. Hawkman, it was announced, was merging with The Atom, adopting the latter’s numbering and reverting to Julius Schwartz. So…

The Atom and Hawkman

In a different post I could have a lot to say about this seven-issue run that didn’t save either series. There were several aspects and differences to both characters and details to discuss. But ultimately the run was crap and this post has gone on long enough already.
Julius Schwartz may been the editor again but you would hardly have known it against his titles of the decade. Writers and artists bounced around: Fox, Kanigher, O’Neill: Dillin, Anderson, Kubert (even Kubert Anderson twice). Nothing the same issue to issue. A mixture of team-ups and solos, one team-up to two solos. Practically no Jean Loring, except for a final issue descent into madness that foreshadows all the rest of her career. Hawkman and Hawkgirl squabbling – squabbling!
No, this isn’t fit to sit alongside the other series herein, and it makes for a bitter ending. But I have the Silver Age Giants in my collection now, in full colour, and taking up not that much space than a dime.

I call it Terrific: Sensation Comics (Part 2)


Sensation 73

We return to Sensation Comics with issue 49, cover-date January 1946. All-American Publications has ceased to exist independently. Charlie Gaines has gone. Jack Liebowitz is merging All-American and Detective Comics Inc. into National Comics. Will this change Sensation? Why don’t we read and see?
Sensation is now a 52 page comic, counting its covers. It’s line-up consists of Wonder Woman, credited to Charles Moulton (William Moulton Marston) and drawn by H G Peter. Next up, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, uncredited and deservedly so. Then Mr Terrific, my old favourite, drawn by Stan Josephs, the reason I’m here. After some intermittent months, The Black Pirate pops up, and lastly there is Wildcat, reduced to a buffoonery by artist Martin Nadel, a funny animal cartoonist making far too poor a fist of drawing a superhero series.
Nothing special was done for issue 50, not even dropping the Blue Boys, but then there were years to go before the comic book industry starting to celebrate its centuries and half-centuries.
I’m going to link again to a post from years ago castigating the early Sixties Wonder Woman comics written by Robert Kanigher, Marston’s successor after the creator’s death in 1948. I roasted Kanigher in pretty strong terms, not one of which I’d take back, but after the stories in issues 50 and 51 – the first in which Steve Trevor gets engaged to a millionairess widow and the second in which Wonder Woman is rescued by a handsome intelligence agent – I’m bound to allow that Kanigher didn’t come up with his terribly twisted takes off his own back. Marston laid the groundwork pretty clearly: Kanigher just lazily extended it far beyond any recognisably human standard.
Issue 52 saw the Black Pirate and Son disappear again, making room for a Sargon the Sorceror series. Only by now, Sargon had been joined at the hip by his rotund comic relief Maximillian O’Leary, who dominated the story with his unending pursuit of flashy clothes. They say clothes make the man but they weren’t making Max anything, especially not funny.
Wildcat got a boost in issue 55 when Paul Reinman returned to the art, and Stretch Skinner was left out, though not for good: as for Reinman, he was just a one-off, the full-time gig going to Jon Chester Kozslak.
Sensation 60 marked a year since Charlie Gaines had faded out. As we’ve already seen, the only change so far was Sargon for the Black Pirate. But sadly, like so many other titles after the Second World War, stability was not going to be the watchword. Mr Terrific had only three more appearances left. Wanda Wilson bowed out in issue 61, worrying about her absent-mindedness and cluing Terry into another crook, but Terrific’s final adventure was a clever – for 6 pages – affair in which the Man with a Thousand Talents had to thwart a jury fixing from inside the Jury Room.
Next issue, we were promised adventures of Mr Nilly’s little boy, ‘Willy’. It didn’t exactly sound promising. And of course Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys continued to stink out the place…

sensation willy nilly

It was 1947. The War, and a massive of audience of GIs wanting quick, throwaway entertainment had gone back to work. The original superhero boom was expiring. Terrific was one of the early casualties of the change in mood and taste, though at least he never had to suffer in-story supplanting by a comic relief. Instead the comic relief replaced him. Willy Nilly was a high school student getting into teenage scrapes, none of them, if his first story was anything to judge by, going to be the least bit original. Times, as they usually do, were changing.
Two episodes of Willy were enough to have me switch to skimming through his pages like the Blue Boys but that still left me three features to read, even if with Wonder Woman it was only to see what incredulity Marston had dreamed up this month. And what had he done with the Holliday Girls, who were no longer appearing in every story, just now and again?
Issue 68 saw both Sargon and Wildcat up against new female enemies, but whilst the Blue Lama got trapped in a tree and burned to death, The Huntress was set for better things: she even escaped from prison before her debut story ended! Both were back though, providing more amusement than we normally got, next issue. But where the Blue Lama got a third strike, and a third death, The Huntress didn’t push her luck in the same way.
But the Huntress was back in issue 71, in one of the few Wildcat stories I’d read before, as a reprint and the Blue Lama extended her blue streak again. It was beginning to look as if she had a permanent position. Meanwhile, the next issue, after endless months of silly and tedious stories, the Blue Boys underwent an upgrade when they started working with, or rather alongside, Little Miss Redhead, a skinny pig-tailed girl who, when the boys tripped over her skipping rope, donned a very short costume and a red-headed wig, not to mention somehow extending her leg length by about six inches, to supplement their efforts. It was actually interesting.

Sensation Miss Redhead


Issue 73 bore the cover date January 1948 and whilst its silly Wonder Woman Halloween story clued us in to when it was actually published, this marks a change to come. William Moulton Marston had passed away from cancer in May 1947, and when his stories ran out, the Amazon Princess fell into the dead clutches of Robert Kanigher. Would we be able to tell the difference? That’s anybody’s guess: multiple stories had already been written by Marston’s ghostwriter, Joye Hummel, faithfully following his patented loopiness.
In the meantime, the Blue Lama was out and the Huntress in, though this time she was captured. In the Lama’s case that was only for one issue. Ordinarily, I’d start to gripe about the same villain turning up in practically every issue, in practically the same story each time, but one little-considered aspect of her persistence was that Sargon had back-tracked towards being a serious strip again, with Max the comic relief given a very restricted role, which could only be for the good.
The same goes for Wildcat for a different reason: after so many awful stories, the Huntress at least provided good action tales.
We’re at that stage now where, just as with Flash Comics, there are indicators in certain of the strips as to which issue they are prepared for. Noticeably, Wildcat’s stories are bearing indicators like SEN76 for issue 73, and SEN80 for issue 76, making me wonder what happened to the three unused stories this suggests.
There’s nothing that’s real about superheroes, especially the cartoon ones like the Blue Boys, but there’s something faintly disturbing about Little Miss Redhead. As Janie, she’s scrawny, with black hair in pigtails and skinny legs. As her alter ego, even drawn in cartoon fashion she’s a bombshell, fuller of face, fuller elsewhere too, wearing very tight leather knickers and knee-length boots and there’s a long way to go to reach those knees from either direction. Basically, she’s hot and she’s deliberately hot, and she’s got to be a good four to six years older in her costume, and like that she’s prime jailbait. Twisted sexuality isn’t only going on up the front of the comic.
By issue 79, I was convinced that Kanigher had now taken over Wonder Woman for the theme of the story was fencing and Kanigher was a fencer. and putting his experience and philosophy into this episode. At the same time, we seemed to have passed the eras of the Blue Lama and The Huntress, as well as Sargon and Wildcat’s comic relief buddies: all four had vanished.
Willy Nilly had also developed a formula, involving the lad getting into misunderstandings that have his steady girl, Betty, refusing to ever talk to him at least three times an episode, and never getting better than a kiss on the cheek when she changes her mind. Is it all really worth it?

sensation lady danger

By now, the Golden Age of superheroes had gone into reverse. Little Boy Blue, with a final appearance from Little Miss Redhead, failed to come back after issue 82, and Sargon was cancelled the following issue to make way for Lady Danger, debuting in issue 84. Valerie Vaughn was a bored heiress who was unexpectedly tough and who got a job as, first, secretary to Gary Grath, Private Detective and Male Chauvinist, then as a newspaper reporter, reporting on her own crime busting escapades. It looked to be a decent second string series with sharp art from Carmine Infantino.
There was room for an additional story in issue 86, with The Atom dropping by for a story made complete nonsense by his unexplained acquisition of super-strength. And as for the following issue, the Wonder Woman story was a piece of farcical nonsense but I couldn’t help being amused that it was set in the town of Twin Peaks…
Lady Danger had rapidly become a favourite, plugged on the cover and taking over the back of book slot from Wildcat, who had held it for so long. Unfortunately, in issue 90 she lost Infantino and was drawn by a very inadequate replacement. Even more unfortunately, despite the blurb that his adventures appeared every month in Sensation, Wildcat had come to his end, leaving only Wonder Woman from the original features.
In his place, Streak the Wonder Dog, Alan (Green Lantern) Scott’s Alsation, missing since All-American Comics had gone Western, got his own series. The consolation was that even if it was badly written, this was to be drawn by Alex Toth. Which was a cheat because he only did the first one.
Time was running out for Sensation Comics. By issue 93 its circulation had slipped so much that it had been demoted to bi-monthly status. Wonder Woman’s series was still billed as by Charles Moulton but Kanigher’s scripts were now making everything a pointless, ridiculous exercise. Streak’s series was a bust and Lady Danger’s new artist had a weird style, postage-stamp sized characters posed in static stances at long distance, leaving acres of wasted space in so many panels. The ghastly aspect of it is that Willy Nilly’s series, long focussing on Willy’s relationship with the mercurial Betty, whose mind changes every few minutes, is the most readable and enjoyable aspect of the line-up, the one I should resent wrathfully for replacing Mr Terrific.
But that was the end of the line for everyone except the lady on the front cover. Issue 94 transformed Sensation Comics into a Romance title with new features Headline Heroines, Romance Inc. and Dr Pat, which was all about a beautiful blonde woman Doctor rejecting all men because she was wed to her all-action work. Even the boss lady caught the bug with a whole story devoted to Steve Trevor’s demand, not a proposal, for Wonder Woman to marry him (she wants to but then she can’t until she’s cleaned up all evil in the world, so that wedding night/losing her Amazon virginity is going to be a long way off yet).
All was changed. Wonder Woman abandoned her trusty red boots with that white bit that stuck out awkwardly at the top for the Grecian lace-up sandals that would persist into the late Sixties, and there was even a new logo for the title.
I dunno. My immediate response is that the new series have better, more complex and more intelligent stories, not to mention better art. But this is not what I want to read in a comic, which no doubt says a lot about me.
Headline Heroines didn’t last long, hardly surprising after two consecutive stories in which the heroine died saving others. It was replaced in issue 99 by Astra, Girl of the Future. Astra was, you’ll never guess it, a reporter. So far as I could tell, the only point to her series was, in an era where ladies dresses reached to below the calf, to draw a redhead with increasingly short skirts.
So next issue was the 100th issue, celebrated as such on the cover but otherwise, as always, with a nothing-out-of-the-ordinary issue. Wonder Woman’s series had balanced itself a bit more back towards action, but still had Steve pressing his suit every last panel and more whilst the Holliday girls and Etta Candy had finally been relegated to Golden Age memory. Of course, that only applied until issue 105.

sensation dr pat

But Romance didn’t work out either and Sensation underwent a root and branch conversion in issue 107 to Horror. Everyone was out, Dr Pat, Astra, Romance Inc….and Wonder Woman. The Amazing Amazon had her own comic to retreat to, but it was the equivalent of Action Comics booting out Superman or Detective Batman.
There would be one repeating character in Johnny Peril, and the rest of the pages went to one-off ghost stories of no great shakes. Time was now running down inexorably. The title shifted to Sensation Mystery with 110. Even the Johnny Peril stories are awful rubbish and the one-offs are nightmares of sterility and ridiculousness, with no credibility or quality. I wouldn’t continue with the series if there wasn’t so little left.
Not that I had much to suffer. Sensation Comics was cancelled after issue 116, abysmal to the end.

Showcasing Showcase – Part 2


We’re at Showcase 52, almost exactly halfway through the series’ run (counting its revived version of the late Seventies). The comic has had its glory days of invention after invention, a long streak of successful try-outs leading to series, but that has come to an abrupt halt. Over the second half, very little will progress to series of their own, and of these, only a couple of titles will run more than forty issues.
What we’re going to see is amply evidenced by issue 52, yet another, and thankfully final attempt to launch Cave Carson, given just a single issue. That made seven all told, and not enough takers.
Next up was two issues of G.I. Joe, the soldier toy figure, written and edited by Bob Kanigher as short war stories using heroic soldiers from different branches of the service. Not only was this feature licensed, thus reducing any profit to be made, but it wasn’t even the first attempt at bringing the toy soldier to comics. Two issues was all the connection lasted, with only some excellent Joe Kubert art to show for it.
Julius Schwartz had been absent from Showcase since issue 36, three years previously. After The Atom, he’d stated that he would not be updating any further characters from the Golden Age. Instead, the Justice Society of America came back in their own right, first the Jay Garrick Flash, then the full team. Now, Schwartz was looking at a full-scale revival, with the next two issues of Showcase devoted to the team-up of Doctor Fate and Hourman, with the smooth, polished art of Murphy Anderson.

Showcase 57

The Super-Team Supreme, as they were billed on the cover, were an odd mixture, magic and science (though the text page on the good Doctor sought to minimise that aspect, pegging it to the great discovery of how to convert energy into matter). They had little in common except their founding membership of the JSA, and for a villain they had to borrow the original Green Lantern’s Swampland foe, Solomon Grundy, thus dragging in Alan Scott as a downgraded third wheel. It’s full of holes, and Gardner Fox really was no longer suited to any kind of story portraying magic, but I can’t be too critical, because I loved it nonetheless. I’d discovered the Justice Society a year before and everything about them fascinated me.
The second story, introducing the new Psycho-Pirate, and giving him a super power to control emotions via a very dry pseudo-scientific means, was more to the point. But for once, Schwartz’s ability to sense what the readers wanted was off. The wave of enthusiasm for the Golden Age heroes was receding. Or maybe it was that the kids enjoyed reading new versions and having them team-up with the oldies, as demonstrated by the success of the annual JLA/JSA team-ups, but didn’t want the Golden Agers by themselves, because they were old.
The Super-Team Supreme’s two issues were gems in the eyes of some of us, but not enough, any more than were the two part comeback teaming Starman with Black Canary in Brave & Bold.
Showcase‘s strike-out run continued with two issues of Enemy Ace, by Kanigher and Kubert. This is a legendary series that I have never read before and now I have I found its intensity astonishing. Rittmeister Hans von Hammer had been introduced in Star-Spangled War Comics in February 1965. He was a fighter pilot in World War 1, for the Germans, a killing machine, cold of intent, but an honourable foe. The response to him was tremendous and he became a regular in that series, a virtual co-star to Sgt. Rock. His appearance in Showcase for, again, two issues, was, I presume, a trial to see if he could carry a title on its own and as he continued to appear in Star-Spangled War Comics after this, one that was failed. But von Hammer was one of those special characters, one that you might almost say was too good for the audience, not enough of whom, at DC, were ready to support an anti-hero.
Then the winless streak was broken, with one issue, issue 59, devoted to the Teen Titans. They’d had two one-offs in Brave & Bold, the second only four months previously, so how much credit their appearance in Showcase could take for the decision to give them their own title is dubious. But they were the first to get a go since the Metal Men. But the only thing worse than Bob Haney’s ‘super-hip’ dialogue and narration was the ludicrous and idiotic plot. Yeesh.
It was back to Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, Murphy Anderson and the Golden Age for the next two-issue run. Originally, it was intended to be another JSA team-up, this time between Doctor Mid-Nite and The Spectre, though if the treatment eventually decided upon for The Spectre flying solo was already set, it’s impossible to see how the Doc fit in.
Once again, these are two issues that I love tremendously. They were the first issues of Showcase that I ever bought, bought on Saturday afternoons in Droylsden, walking on my own to and from the newsagents at Fiveways, the memory so clear. The first of these stories, in issue 60, holds a place in comic book history as being the first superhero retcon. The Spectre, an all-powerful ghost, had disappeared twenty years previously: Fox and Schwartz set about explaining how and why a being of his powers could have been removed for so long a period.
There was a letters column in the second of these, headed with Schwartz’s announcement that they were going to take a breather on reintroducing the Golden Age characters, but it was clear that he had hopes of succeeding with the Spectre. For one thing, despite his usual tendencies, Fox played it straight on magic and a ghost’s powers, and for another this was a new take on the Spectre, a force of unlimited good without the aspect of the judge of crime who frightened people to death.
But the sales didn’t live up to Schwartz’s expectations. Not yet.

Showcase 60

Instead, the unlikely subject to break the streak was the heroes of issues 62-63, E. Nelson Bridwell and Joe Orlando’s The Inferior Five. Now spoof superheroes were nothing new, they’d started with Sheldon Mayer’s The Red Tornado nearly thirty years earlier, and the text page in issue 62 laid it on a bit heavy, but the comic was fun. It preceded Marvel’s similar spoof, Not-Brand Echh by over a year.
The second issue took the gentle piss out of the Incredible Hulk, and included a couple of genuine, laugh-out-loud lines. However, the third issue was pushed back to issue 65 to allow Julius Schwartz and co. one last try at selling The Spectre. Before that, Schwartz had given the Ghostly Guardian a prime role in the 1966 team-up, and now oversaw a story that scaled The Spectre down from Universe-threatening levels to a rather less rarefied level.
This one did the trick, despite what we would now see as an extremely dodgy notion. It comes when the Spectre, cut off from Jim Corrigan’s body by an evil squatter spirit, wraps himself in the energies of Good to enable him to force his way in. Church services, hospitals, even a Peace Corps worker spreading education, yes, but an American soldier on patrol in Vietnam?
The third Inferior Five appearance, in issue 65, swapped in Mike Sekowsky for Joe Orlando, which was a perfect pairing given Sekowsky’s awkward anatomy. If I say that in this issue the Inferiors met the Eggs-Men, would you guess who I was talking about?
So that was two for two, though both series only lasted ten issues each. The next notion was reputedly scheduled for a three issue try-out but ended up only lasting two. Why? If I tell you it was B’Wana Beast, would you understand?
Even at DC in 1967, B’Wana Beast was regarded as racist. The use of the Swahili word for master, applied to a white ‘saviour’ in Africa poisoned the whole concept from the outset, the provision of a recurring villain as an African who was drawn like a monkey and the ‘White God’ saving the ignorant blacks was so horrendous that artist Mike Sekowsky refused to draw a third part. Who then was responsible for this abortion of a concept? Editor George Kashdan and writer Bob Haney. I don’t want to call either of them a racist but when you read shit like this it’s very hard to imagine a line between. Though I can imagine the bluff Haney, with his contempt for the ideas and wishes of fans, simply being defiant in the face of condemnation. Good for Sekowsky.
Unfortunately, what followed was, in a totally contrasting way, almost as awful. The Maniaks were a four piece rock group, three boys, one girl. That’s it, you don’t need any more. Sekowsky could be forgiven yet again, but there were no excuses for editor Jack Miller or writer Nelson Bridwell. Bridwell may well have been a walking encyclopaedia when it came to anything superheroic but when it came to music, his imagination was about as wide as a sewing needle and nowhere near as in depth. This was the year of the Monkees, but they were Led Zeppelin in comparison to this crappy bunch. That made four awful, awful issues in a row.
Issue 70 was filled with a revival of Leave it to Binky, a teen comedy series that had originally run for 60 issues between 1948 and 1958, since when Binky Briggs and his pals had only been seen in DC’s Public Information Shorts, one page stories promoting understanding, tolerance and liberal values. Henry Scarpelli provided the art for four shorts based around the single theme of Binky and his rich rival Sherwood van Loon competing for dates with the beautiful blonde Peggy. It doesn’t sound much, especially not in 1967, but it bought the series a revival from the old numbering until issue 81.
The Maniaks returned for a third and final appearance in issue 71, paired up with a Woody Allen who barely looked like and certainly didn’t talk like the real one. This story was awful. It was sneeringly nasty about Twiggy, threw in a brief Groucho Marx impersonation and then spent what felt like 50 pages on a supposed Civil War musical that allowed Nelson Bridwell to re-write show-tune lyrics, half of which I didn’t recognise despite growing up with parents who loved musicals: the kids of 1967 would sure have identified with these, who needed Jefferson Airplane? Ghastly stuff.
Next up was an issue under the title, Top Gun. This was a Western comic, once again bringing back old ideas. Up front was a new story featuring the Trigger Twins, in back was a reprint of an Alex Toth story featuring the other Johnny Thunder, the one with a stallion instead of a Thunderbolt. Anything would look good compared to the Maniaks but this was good, solid comics, though it was worrying that the reprint was better than the new story. Was Showcase really still in the business of finding new characters?

Showcase 62

The answer to that came in the next five issues, all single try-outs, each of which getting their own series, but not for long. Firstly, in issue 73, was a real classic, Steve Ditko with dialogue by Don Segall introducing Beware the Creeper. The story shot along like a rocket, Ditko’s art was dynamic and fluid, this one was an instant winner. The issue also contained a plug for another Ditko creation coming soon, The Hawk and the Dove.
First, though, was Anthro, the cro magnon cave boy, created by Howie Post, and giving Carmine Infantino an editorial role. Post’s art, maintaining a clever balance between realism and caricature, using multiple soft lines to define instead of the customary hard edges, created a superb atmosphere. The story intended to show that the humans of the caveman era were as human as us, and it was also very funny at the same time.
And with this issue, Showcase went from bi-monthly to eight times a year, a frequency supposedly reserved for popular titles dependent upon a single artist. In this instance it could only signal that, however unlikely, Showcase had transcended its point and was being bought by enough readers for it’s own sake.
We weren’t asked to wait long for The Hawk and the Dove as they arrived in issue 75. Compared to The Creeper, this was tame stuff artistically, though as the issue was the gulf between the separate and naïve political stances of the protagonists, that’s not really surprising. The issues in America that inspired Hawk and Dave’s creation, the pro- and anti-stances towards the Vietnam War in an Election year, are no longer the same imperatives they were, which slightly diminishes the story. But DC awarded the boys a series.
As they did from the next character’s debut, Bat Lash. With gorgeous, loose art from Nick Cardy, using a more impressionistic line than on the Teen Titans, this was another gem of a story, about a smooth-talking, peace-loving, flowery-waist-coated western drifter turned reluctant trouble-shooter, and it was also funny as all get out. This really was a strong run, and it was rapidly restoring Showcase‘s reputation for bringing through new characters.
And that continued with the introduction of Angel and the Ape in issue 77, a gloriously goofy private eye comedy about Investigators Angel O’Day and her partner, Sam Simeon. Angel’s a doll of a platinum blonde who looks dumb but who’s clever and highly skilled whilst Sam’s a gorilla. What’s more, he’s a cartoonist working for an editor called Stan Bragg. Do you detect the writing of Nelson Bridwell? You do, with art by Bob Oksner. Bridwell was as laugh-out-loud good on this as he was stupefyingly rotten on the Maniaks.
So that was five new ideas in five issues, each one jumping into their own series without further issues. Was this recognition of a a string of strong ideas? Was it a recognition that, with Marvel growing ever more dominant, DC had to change. Or was it panic at Marvel’s rise and the grand old tradition of throwing things at the wall to see what stuck?
I don’t know. Like I said, all five got series of their own. Those five series lasted, respectively, 6 issues, 6 issues, 6 issues, 7 issues and 7 issues. It’s not a great track record, is it?
The run came to an abrupt halt with issue 78, devoted to another, more serious private eye, Jonny Double. Despite a fine, impressionistic cover, the reason for the streak ending was obvious inside. Double was an ex-cop turned loser PI, permanently broke, can’t catch a break, gets beat up a lot. The plot, by a fan turned intern, name of Marv Wolfman, attempted to be downbeat and realistic but was confusing instead, Joe Gill’s dialogue was tired and unimaginative and Jack Sparling drew the story with angular lay-outs like crazy paving and equally as legible. No thanks.
An intriguing but decidedly minor character, Dolphin, made a single appearance in issue 79. The creation of Jay Scott Pike, Dolphin was an undersea woman, a beautiful platinum blonde (any relation to Angel O’Day?) dressed in a light blue blouse with the sleeves torn off, and slightly darker blue and decidedly brief shorts.
The story centred on Naval frogmen, specifically CPO Chris Landau, trying to recover intelligence documents from an American ship sunk during the War. Pike borrowed the trick Milton Caniff used to introduce Steve Canyon in his strip, focussing on everybody’s reactions to someone/something seen underwater and not putting the girl onstage until page 6. Dolphin’s a complete enigma: she can live on land for up to five or six hours but lives underseas, breathing water and immune to the Bends, it seems. She has gills and prehensile webbing, but is also highly intelligent, quickly learns to speak English but, after helping get the documents back, overhears someone stupidly comparing her to a fish and returns to the seas, breaking Landau’s heart but not necessarily her own.
Weird stuff. Dolphin was eventually equipped with an origin over twenty years later and became a supporting character in Aquaman. What Pike intended for her was never revealed as far as I know.

Showcase 69

Issue 80 brings us to the Phantom Stranger. Once again, DC were reviving an old, and failed character rather than come up with a new idea. The Stranger had been created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino in 1952 for a six issue run where he was a bit of a debunker of supernatural phenomena, which made sense in that for his reappearance, he was being paired with Dr Thirteen, the sceptics’ sceptic, except that for the purposes of this issue the Stranger was pro magic.
But the real reason for the revival was that it was a cheap comic to produce. Only eight new pages were drawn, as a framing story with a ludicrous ending, surrounding one reprint for each character. Not the Phantom Stranger we’re familiar with now, but cheap enough to foster another new series, this time lasting 41 issues.
The Way Out World of Windy and Willy in issue 81 was a bust of major proportions. Not only was it out-of-date and stupid, the very obvious different lettering showed it for what it was, a reprint of something that had appeared under a different name. I suspected, and Google confirmed, that it was a retouching of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a decade old series based on the TV show of the same name. Unbelievably, it got a series though thankfully only for four issues.
Windy and Willy were the twentieth and last feature to be spun off out of Showcase into their own series. Enemy Ace does not count, not just being pre-existing but current.
Next up was Nightmaster, given an old-style three issue run. The creation of Denny O’Neill and Jerry Grandenetti, the series was an attempt to introduce Sword and Sorcery fiction to comics. Nightmaster has enjoyed a degree of respectable life over the last quarter century but made no progress in 1969, for the plain fact that the comics were crap, not least from the insistence on clogging the fantasy stuff down with good old American feet of clay in the form of a rock musician – playing to teeny-boppers (!) – with a sarcastic tone of speech dragging everything down.
Astonishingly, a new artist then drew the final two issues, and astonishingly it was Berni Wrightson and unastonishingly he was good. Indeed, he was very good, which only served to emphasise just how lousy O’Neill’s Jim Rook was as a character, not to mention O’Neill’s overall failure to capture anything of the substance of S&S. At least the third part offered some kind of a conclusion, leaving everything set up for an ongoing series that, deservedly, didn’t materialise.
Firehair, a Joe Kubert creation, took over issues 85-87. Though set in Western times, Kubert announced that the theme of the book was to be modern issues. Firehair was a white boy, red-headed, the sole survivor of a defensive massacre by Indians against the Cavalry. Brought up a Chief’s son, Firehair faced prejudice from both worlds, Indian and White, neither of them accepting him as one of them.
Once again though, the story was far outweighed by the art, the earnestness and undisguised intent to make it about social issues making the whole thing leaden. It was the times, the era of Relevance. But the series got stronger as it went on, as Kubert rowed away from its declared premise, and the final issue was all-round excellent. Firehair would get a sporadic back-up in the final ten issues of Tomahawk, but that would be all.
Issues 88-90 were dedicated to Jason’s Quest, a short-lived concept from Mike Sekowsky, currently riding high on his revamp of Wonder Woman. The titular character was a young man who, on his seeming father’s deathbed, learned that he was actually adopted, that his real father was murdered for some mysterious secret being sought by a villain named Tuborg (a once popular Danish lager) and that he had an unsuspected twin sister. Jason set off in pursuit of, first, his sister Geraldine, and then revenge.
I was immediately prejudiced against the first issue, which took the questing young man into Britain, or rather one of the worst and most ignorant representations of my home country. I’ve only one, very short experience of Paris but I think the French got it just as bad. Anyway, Jason found his sister and dragged her round Paris from flashpoint to flashpoint, never finding the time to explain to her exactly why he was dragging her around like a postbag so that, when he was forced to leave her to draw Tuborg’s men away, she was determined not to rendezvous with him or see him ever again. A neat idea executed poorly, and never followed up on.
Showcase’s final feature was previewed in issue 90 before getting the regular three issues. Manhunter 2070 was another Sekowsky creation, and a dumb one. Sekowsky went straight for the early, inglorious days of SF by setting up a ‘space western’, Starker, a bounty hunter. To show what level this was on, Sekowsky provided Starker with two hot, short-skirted girlfriends, with no rivalry so clearly some people were into threesomes. He just didn’t give either of them a name.
Starker’s brief existence came to an end in issue 93, marked by the innumerate stupidity of claiming that a 30% of 2,000,000 credits came to 25,000. Says it all, really. Peculiarly, the story ended on a cliffhanger, a primitive tribesman about to cave in Starker’s head with a club. But there was no outcome. And no more Showcase.

Showcase 73

Not, at any rate, for seven years. In 1977 the title was revived, at the DC of Janette Kahn’s re-modelling, albeit only for another eleven issues (plus two unpublished). Though I wouldn’t normally include these, I did buy at least seven of this late run so let’s see how the revival compared with the rest of the run.
Before that, I have to mention that the concept, if not the title, had been partially restored earlier in the decade in a thirteen issue run as First Issue Special. This was a slightly farcical series, built on Publisher Carmine Infantino’s theory that no. 1 issues always sold well so why not have a series consisting of nothing but no. 1s?
Issues 94-96 were devoted to the New Doom Patrol, by Paul Kupperberg and Joe Staton. It was a typical Seventies superhero comic, everyone snapping in each other’s faces all the time and despite having Robotman (in a re-designed metal body courtesy of a little-concealed Dr Will Magnus) and General Immortus, it lacked any of the original DP’s quirkiness.
Staton stayed on, this time with Paul Levitz, for the first solo stories of Power Girl, Gerry Conway’s creation from the revived All-Star Comics, the Earth-2 Supergirl. What we got was Power Girl’s origin and the establishment of a secret identity for her, bound up in a battle with the Brain Wave in which Levitz has the ugly little runt decide on Power Girl as his number one enemy because she’s been responsible for more defeats than anyone else, which is true only if you count at least two encounters that don’t exist.
At least PG wasn’t continually spouting her crude feminism, though it was noticeable that she left the Earth-2 Flash and Green Lantern imprisoned to tackle the villain herself. Why was Seventies superherodom at DC so all-fired dumb?
And Staton made it seven issues in a row with the celebratory issue 100. Written by Kupperberg and Levitz, it was in its way the antithesis of everything Showcase ever stood for, an extended story, and a convoluted one at that, featuring as many people from the series history as could be crammed in and never mind coherence. The cover boasted sixty stars, but if you think I’m going to count… Actually, Levitz did that in the editorial pages and the numbering was correct, even to the only other appearance of Fireman Farrell. Off the top of my head I can’t remember anyone who got left out.
It was back to normal business from issue 101-103 with a three part Hawkman story, co-starring Hawkgirl and Adam Strange and introducing the idea of war between Rann and Thanagar. This came from Jack C Harris and Al Milgrom. Harris’s intent was space opera mixing the old Hawkman with the modern style, so he and Adam argue all the way through three issues. Meanwhile, the Equalizer plague (Justice League of America 117) that was keeping the Hawks on Earth as opposed to Thanagar was vanished in the background and replaced by a Thanagarian Queen who banished Katar and Shayera for not supporting her war against Rann. Plus ça change…
But once again Showcase hit the cancellation buffers, with issue 104 as the last. This time it was not necessarily the series’ own sales, though these obviously weren’t great, but rather the infamous DC Implosion that wiped out half the line in a day and almost did for DC completely. The honours went to O.S.S, Spies at War, like Enemy Ace an existing feature in one of the war books, put up as a possible spin-off at exactly the wrong time.
The cancellation, like all the rest, was abrupt. Issue 104 had Deadman billed for its follow up issue, and The Creeper would have starred in issue 106. Neither was published, at least not then. The Deadman story appeared in one of the Cancelled Comics Cavalcade mimeographed collections put out privately for the writers and artists whilst The Creeper saw print 32 years later, as part of a Graphic Novel reprinting Steve Ditko’s work on the character. They’re both on the DVD I have.
The Deadman story was quite promising, despite having to undergo two writers, Len Wein having only managed to produce half the story before being felled by a medical issue, requiring Gerry Conway to complete it without any idea of what Wein had planned. Jim Aparo held the whole thing together wonderfully.
And the Creeper was once again good fun.
The Deadman issue was copied from an actual comic book, including a letters page. It talks about future features. Somewhere on Earth-2, where there was no such Implosion, DC Comics published Gerry Conway’s new Western character, The Deserter, in issues 107-9, The World of Krypton and a three issue solo for The Huntress. There was also reference to an unnamed hero team from Len Wein. But we all know these stories never happened.
And that was the story of Showcase, in all its glory and ignominy. It’s almost an encapsulation of the Silver Age in itself but without it, would we still have DC Comics today? The answer to that may well be on Earth-3, but we don’t go there, not even in fun.

Showcase 80

Showcasing Showcase – Part 1


Listen whilst I set the scene. This bit will be dry as dust but without it you won’t understand what comics were in the early Fifties, before even I was born.
The Golden Age, or to be more accurate, the first Superhero Era, was over. The themes of the era were Wars and Westerns, Funny Animals and Funny Teenagers, adaptations of popular Radio Series, SF and Mysteries. But with very few exceptions, none of DC’s new titles were taking off. Which was awkward.
Producing a comic book in the early Fifties was very awkward in the technology of the era. There was already a long lead-time between the editor commissioning or approving a story and it being ready to go to the printer. Before that could happen, someone – and I’m assuming this was DC’s Business Manager, Jack Leibowitz – had to decide on a print run. Print high, reduce the unit price of each issue, improve the potential profit, print low, vice versa. Complicated by the fact that you were estimating how many copies you could sell up to three months in advance.
Once the book goes out of house, it has to be printed, it has to be distributed all across America (by truck), it has to be put out by newsstands, drugstores, mom-and-pop stores. Then, after its period on sale, when the next issue comes in, the unsold copies are taken off, the retailer strips the top off the cover, the bit showing the logo and issue number, bundles all these up and returns them to the distributor for credit against the next delivery. Eventually, for this is not among the retailers’ priorities, the returns get back to DC. It can take up to six months after the title goes off sale to have all these back, and only then does the company now if they have made a profit or a loss.
Because it’s all about returns, not sales. About print runs and decisions made half a year ago. Because a comic that sells 200,000 out of a print run of 250,000 is a smashing success whereas one that sells 300,000 out of a print run of 800,000 is a flop, and a lossmaker.
This process is bad enough for ongoing titles but what if you want to launch a new title? There’s no market research, and no marketing, except for in-house ads. You guess what the market might bear and send it out there to sink or swim. Unlike the situation for the past four decades, there’s no collectors market, speculating on a no. 1, hoping for triple values or better on resale. No. 1’s sell low, then the circulation goes up as the kids tell each other about this great new title. You hope.
So you’ve sent out a new title and when the returns come in, finally, it’s been a disaster. You’ve lost your shirt. You immediately cancel the title. Which issue will that strike with? Issue 7. Yes, the clunky technology means that you cannot get the information on which to pull the plug before issue 6 is in the system.
But that’s not all. What if the sales on issue 1 are a loss, but not a disaster. Do you panic, cancel on the spot, and watch the ongoing figures rise until it goes into profit by issue 4 or 5, knowing you’ve killed the golden goose. Or do you hold off, hoping for this kind of escalation, knowing that if it never comes, whenever you cancel you’ve still got five more shirts to lose?
And that’s without factoring in the issue of the bond you have to pay to the distributor, to buy space on the newsstands for your new and untried title. A bond you forfeit if you cancel before a certain number of issues are published. Not to mention your deteriorating reputation with your distributor, who takes note of the number of failures you put out there and, at some point, will decide that your precious newsstand space would be better off going to a different company, one that seems to have a better idea what it’s doing.
Who’d be a Business Manager with that responsibility?
And then some bright spark, whose name has never been recorded to my knowledge, came up with one of those ingenious ideas that are completely obvious, but only afterwards. That answer was Showcase, a purpose-built try-outs magazine, appearing six times a year. Every editor would have a go, in turn. New ideas would be tested in Showcase for viability, with those that sold well enough getting a series with a near enough guarantee of profitability, and those that flopped causing minimal damage and easily forgotten.
What’s more, there would be no cancellations. If all six issues of Showcase‘s first year flopped, first of all that was six lossmakers, instead of thirty six, and second you didn’t cancel the title, you started work on issues 7-12. DC could carry one loss-making title if it had to.
Thus it began. And that’s where I begin, with a DVD of the complete run of Showcase, ready to tot up fortune and failure, and watch how DC’s Sixties shaped up, from the very bottom.

Showcase 1

Now what I’ve already told you is the truth but DC’s version of it, on page 1 of issue 1, was rather different. According to that, a kid named Larry Blake wrote in asking for a comic about fire-fighters, that he and all his pals would support. But when editor Whitney Ellsworth asked round, all his fellow editors were getting letters from kids with great ideas. They couldn’t put all these great new comics out all at once, but they could put all these ideas into a new comic, and call it Showcase
That first issue was headed ‘The Fire-Fighters’ on the cover but inside there were three adventures featuring Fireman Farrell, Fred Farrell, that is, Jr: son of deceased fire-fighting hero Fred Sr. The first story saw Fred Jr. get through his exam though they really didn’t need to bother, ‘cos Fred knew it all already.
And that was the problem. The issue was a nice, well put together and realistic creation but it was too much a procedural, with only a limited range at its disposal. It was also, according to Mark Evanier, for many many years the worst selling comic book issue ever put out by DC.
The accusation of a limited range couldn’t be levelled at ‘Kings of the Wild’ in issue 2, with three distinct stories, of an Indian boy recovering his honour, a cast-aside kid and dog gaining the respect of the town and a trained circus bear coping in the wild.
Issue 3’s ‘The Frogmen’ was a single, three-part story, drawn superbly by Russ Heath, making three different approaches in three issues, but none of them suggested a long-lasting series, and the name of the game was teasing concepts into series. So, and we should all know this story by now, an editorial conference was held to try to find a more promising subject for issue 4. This one would be edited by Julius Schwartz, and comic book history was about to change.
Someone, some bright spark whose name has gone undeservedly ignored, suggesting seeing if the kids were ready to start reading superheroes again: why not bring back The Flash, DC’s most popular Forties character not still in print. Schwartz was willing but he had a condition: no Jay Garrick. Garrick was boring, he had been done. Schwartz would take it on if he was allowed to start from scratch with a new character: new name, new origin, new costume. It was agreed.
Schwartz retreated to the office that presumably he still shared with Bob Kanigher, and tapped him for an origin. Carmine Infantino would draw, and who better was there to draw speed and motion and slick scenes? For the back-up, John Broome, one of only two writers Schwartz was prepared to work with, would write a back-up for Infantino and inker Sid Greene.
Oh, how familiar are those pages? I must have read them, or versions of them that use the basic images, a hundred times. In a heartbeat, Showcase found it’s feet.
Not that it happened all at once. Next issue was back to the form of the first three, a generic idea, this time Manhunters: three detective stories. An idea with wider scope but hardly new, hardly original and hardly more successful than the Fire-Fighters. Not like a notion cooked up by Jack Kirby for the first two issue try-out, the Challengers of the Unknown. With scripting by Joe Simon on the first issue, and Dave Wood thereafter, the first issue took great leaps and bounds through the Challs’ origin and first adventure. The second issue introduced June Robbins, at that point a decidedly reddish-haired brunette and robotics expert, and quickly adopted as an honorary Challenger for her role in trying to save the brilliantly-designed Kirby robot, Ultivac. Even the name was genius.
On the other hand, the instant renaming of Prof Haley to Harrison on the splash page was less stellar.
The Flash’s debut had been a big hit. Management wanted to see if that was a one-off, so back everybody came for issue 8: same format, though this time it was Broome’s back-up that was the more memorable, introducing the first of the Flash’s future Rogue’s Gallery, Captain Cold. And he was a mould-setter, emphasising the SF orientation that came naturally to Schwartz and Broome.
The next subject was far from new, but just as Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen had been given his own title not long before, now DC were considering the possibilities of doing the same for Lois Lane, and Showcase was the official testing ground. Like every other Weisinger Superman title, we got three stories, the first introducing an adult Lana Lang as a newcomer to Metropolis, and rooming initially with Lois. So began the rivalry out of which Weisinger would ring so much juice, so much thin, unappetising juice and so much dickishness by Supes towards both women.
And Lois’s unending eagerness to catch out Clark Kent extended through all three stories and into a second issue, Showcase 10, mingled in with a bit of that psychologically twisted anti-woman bullshit I loathed every time it reared its ugly head across the Fifties. I really didn’t want to see any more of it.
The Challengers returned for another two-issue run in issues 11/12, strengthening their case for promotion into a series, but so too did The Flash, this time on a two-issue run by the same teams as before. And it was John Broome coming up with the super-villains, although he was conserving his energy since Mr Element (13) and Dr Alchemy (14) were the same criminal, with different names, costumes and M.O.s.
By now, Showcase had been around nearly two and a half years and no new series had yet been spun-off from it. It was time to take a decision. Three features were under consideration and, contrary to legend, The Flash was the least successful. The Challengers and Lois Lane were given titles almost simultaneously – the one a series brought to Jack Schiff from outside, the other yet one more expansion on the Superman mythos by Mort Weisinger, who thereafter would never edit a title that didn’t feature the big blue boy scout.

Showcase 4

In fact, it would be almost another year before Julius Schwartz was told to clear space on his schedule for The Flash’s own series, three years after the character’s debut. But his was to be the most influential feature ever to appear in Showcase.
Meanwhile, the parade of new characters went on. Next, in issue 15, was (The) Space Ranger, young Rick Starr with his shape-shifting alien buddy, Cryll, and his secretary, the lovely short-skirted blonde Myra. Space Ranger, who would go on to star in Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space was the first half of a little challenge set by Irwin Donenfeld to Jack Schiff and Julius Schwartz, to create two new SF characters, one from the future and one from the present. Schiff chose the future hero, Space Ranger, who got two issues, neither of them spell-binding.
Space Ranger was just space opera without any real flair to it, but Schwartz’s character came up next, for the first three-issue run, from issue 17-19, and this was Adam Strange.
Or rather ‘Adventures on Other Worlds’, as the feature was first titled. Nevertheless, it is Adam Strange, the Earth architect transported back and forth to Rann, and his love Alanna. Not quite yet the Adam we most love, for to begin with art is by Mike Sekowsky. Mind you, Sekowsky has him don the classic, super-cool fin-helmeted costume as early as the second story. Though Alanna at this stage clads herself in tight black slacks. Carmine Infantino will put that right.
For the third issue, the titles were inverted, with Adam’s name up top and a much smaller Adventures on Other Worlds tucked away at the bottom of the cover where only the kid who pulled it from the spinner rack to buy would see it.
The next contender was another winner, in the form of Rip Hunter, Time Master, enjoying issues 20-21. Another Jack Schiff production, Hunter’s team consisted of the Time Master himself plus his best pal, Jeff and his girl, Bonnie, and her young brother, Corky, though the latter two were left behind on the Time-Sphere’s maiden voyage to the Mesozoic Age. Not that they need have felt they were missing out as they were taken back there by a pair of crooks imagining they could pick up loot lying round.
The second half of Rip’s run was a picaresque little number giving the gang the chance to meet first Alexander the Great, then a decidedly non-magical Circe the Sorceress and finally, stop me if you’ve heard this before, see Atlantis sink.

Showcase 17

What came next was back in Schwartz’s hands. He told it both ways. First it was, after the success of The Flash, now in his own title, management thanked him for a good job and asked him to do the same for Green Lantern, then later it was, after the success of The Flash, management thanked him for a good job and asked him what he wanted to do next and Schwartz picked Green Lantern.
Either way, Schwartz cut Bob Kanigher out of the loop and went straight to John Broome, pairing him with Gil Kane. Once again, it was an inspired pairing, as Kane was as perfect for Hal Jordan and his world as Carmine Infantino was for Barry Allen’s life.
Of course, before the last issue of this short run Green Lantern had appeared elsewhere, in The Brave and The Bold 28, as a founder member of the fledgling Justice League of America, which was a display of faith in GL’s future. And why not? The Golden Age Green Lantern had been the only other DC title to enjoy his own comic in the Forties and there wasn’t the slightest reason to suspect the new version would do any less.
There always had to be a new idea and another editor, but any character who hadn’t yet been awarded their own series was fair game, so Rip Hunter and Jack Schiff were back next for two more issues. Some superb art from Joe Kubert disguised a pretty bog standard story featuring two power-mad figures and a horde of pre-historic monsters in issue 25, and the following issue was a similarly uninspired tale of aliens invading Earth 2,000 years BC.
Incidentally, Bonnie, who looked prettier in Kubert’s work, had a very limited wardrobe, consisting of one long-sleeved dark red pole neck wool top and a single below-the-knee white pleated skirt.
Four Challengers, Four time-travellers, and now four frogmen, if you count one frogwoman in that number. Bob Kanigher was on the case with the formula of four for the next three issues, plying the quasi-superhero beat with The Sea Devils, and artist Russ Heath. Yet though it’s easy to mock the formula, which was Rip Hunter and his crew exactly, the story was both exciting, pacey and convincing in how it built four individuals into a team out of necessity, in which both the girl and her kid brother are both part of the action and equally trusted with it.
The origin was built on a treasure hunt for a sunken ship, an obvious McGuffin. There was ex-military frogman’s son, Dane Dorrance, trying to prove himself worthy of his father’s flippers, would-be starlet Judy Walton, out to attract the attention of the producer of the movie ‘Sea Devils’, her younger brother Nicky and big, clumsy Biff Bailey, trying to show his girlfriend that his clumsiness on land disappears under the water. These four help each other out against sharks, crumbling treasure ships and outlandish monsters, demonstrating their ability as an instant team. It was great fun.
The second issue was divided into stories of unequal length, one focussing on the new team-members as individuals, the other a somewhat trite adventure featuring an under-the-ocean-bed civilisation planning to conquer the surface and Judy showing the first flashes of the green-eyed monster when it comes to Dane (mind you, she’d been wetting her scuba pants on sight of him in the first issue). Issue 28 also featured the first ever Showcase letters page, though it was all about Sea Devils’ advice on scuba-diving, not the actual story.
All three issues came with startlingly wonderful wash covers by Heath. Issue 29 ended with a direct plea from the team to the readers, appealing to them to right in and ask for more Sea Devils. Which they must have done because shortly after, the team were elevated into their own series, one copy of which I used to own nearly a lifetime ago.

Showcase 22

So far, all of Showcase‘s subjects had been new. Even Lois Lane was fresh in the sense that she had never had her own stories before. But what followed, given a generous four issue allotment, was a repudiation of the series’ whole idea. Aquaman had been around for twenty years, his series running in Adventure Comics. He was a Mort Weisinger creation, a knock-off of Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner at Timely Comics. Now, after all that nondescript time, he was to be given a shot at earning his own, solo series.
The first issue, no. 30, was edited by Jack Schiff and drawn by one of only two women artists around in 1960, Ramona Fradon. Aqualad co-starred, Aquaman’s origins as the lost King of Atlantis were incorporated and, at full-length for the first time, instead of being hopelessly naff and tedious, the King of the Sea was merely ordinarily naff, tedious and cliched. The whole run was drab, not to mention the bizarre way in which Aquaman continually addressed Aqualad by name in practically every speech bubble, even when both of them were alone, as if the boy would forget who he was if someone didn’t continually remind him. But he got his series, so somebody must have liked it.
Next we were back to Julius Schwartz and another superhero revival, this time of The Atom, though unlike his predecessors, this Atom bore no resemblance to the Golden Age hero. Ray Palmer was the original inspiration of artist Gil Kane, who suggested reviving The Atom but with the powers of Quality Comics’ old character, Doll Man, namely the ability to shrink.
Kane got the art job, inked by Murphy Anderson and Schwartz brought in Gardner Fox to write. Broome got Flash and Green Lantern, who were big successes, Fox got Hawkman and The Atom, who weren’t, though the Justice League made up for that.
Again there were two stories, in the second of which, after The Atom helped Ray Palmer’s girl-friend Jean Loring win her first major case, introduced the series’ underlying theme, one that neither Fox nor Schwartz wholly recognised. Ray Palmer wanted to marry Jean Loring. Jean refused to even get engaged until she’d established herself in her career. So The Atom set out to help her win all the cases: the sooner she was a success, the sooner she would marry him. And, since marriage were the only terms under which the Comics Code would sanction having sex, not that you could even mention it, let alone show it… The things a guy will do to get laid.
Three issues, all of them good, and another character was on his way to a new series.
Issue 37 introduced the Metal Men, written and edited by Bob Kanigher and drawn by the art team of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. There’s a famous tale about the gestation of this new concept, related by Kanigher. According to him, some sort of mix-up suddenly left Showcase without a story, with only a week to go before the printing deadline. Just before leaving the office on Friday, Editorial Coordinator Irwin Donenfeld tasked Kanigher with coming up with something – anything – in time.
On his commute home, Kanigher came up with the basic concept of robots made of different metals, each displaying personalities consistent with each metal’s properties. He worked up the idea over the weekend and got to the office with a full story written. Calling Andru and Esposito into the office, he set them up in an empty room and got them started whilst he got on with his multifarious duties, pausing in these to survey each pages it was finished, set out corrections etc., arrange colouring and lettering along the way until, by the following Friday, and the deadline, the issue was complete and ready.
The story’s vigorous enough, but a bit too didactic on the scientific properties side, leavened only by Platinum’s insistence on being treated as a metal and a full member of the team rather than a woman (a bit of confused sexuality there from ‘Doc’ Magnus right from the outset). And of course, having no reason to see this story as anything but a one-off stopgap, Kanigher kills off all the robots.
But he’d done better than he’d planned. The idea intrigued, enough for the run to be extended. The second story didn’t quite live up to expectations with Magnus starting off building new Metal Men who were pure robots and incompetent with it, before having to retrieve the bodies, and original, faulty activators, of the first lot and reconstruct them.
And the by now almost statutory third issue not only introduced the Metal Men’s first recurring foe, Chemo, but also a letters page full of enthusiastic responses demanding a series. Which duly came to pass, but not until the stopgap team enjoyed an Aquaman-esque fourth outing.

Showcase 25

So far, with the exception of those four uninspired ideas at the start, everything Showcase touched became a winner. From The Flash to the Metal Men, everything got its own series. Abruptly, it was as if the sun had been turned off. It would never be like that again. Five of the next seven issues – 41-42, 44 and 46-47 – would feature Tommy Tomorrow of the Planeteers.
Tommy was an existing character, an SF hero who’d been around since 1947 as a back-up in first Action Comics, then World’s Finest. He’d been a Colonel in the Planeteers, defenders of a Solar Earth Empire. Now he was being re-imagined under Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan, using Arnold Drake and Lee Elias, by being taken back to his days as a cadet, then a Lieutenant, with a new, Venusian sidekick.
But the new Tommy’s adventures showed none of the quirkiness Drake brought to things like the Doom Patrol, whilst Elias still used small, tight panels, creating the impression these were reprints from the Fifties. It did not work out.
The first interruption, in issue 43, was an adaptation of the James Bond film, Dr No. It was bought in from Britain and was Bond’s first comics appearance in the USA. It was also complete crap, badly drawn, static, dull and with mechanical, typed lettering, which looked awful. But it was only just worse than Tommy Tomorrow’s third outing, one big cliché from start to finish.
The next interlude was completely different, but also in its way pointless. Under a Russ Heath cover, Kanigher and Kubert combined to present a Sgt. Rock story, telling how the Rock earned his Sergeant’s stripes, first in battle and then in his own head. It was superb, even if Kanigher ladled on the psychological ‘Wooden Soldier’ a bit thick, but what was this doing in Showcase? Rock was already a star, in his own series in Our Army at War.
Though I don’t know a thing about this, my theory is that Tommy Tomorrow was meant to run five issues straight but suffered deadline issues, forcing two emergency stopgaps. Five will get you ten that the Sgt. Rock story was intended for Our Army at War.
That left two more from Tommy. The next subject was another familiar one. Cave Carson and Adventures Inside Earth had already failed over two stints in Brave & Bold – which was, at that moment, getting out of the try-out business and changing over to team-ups – and now he got two issues of Showcase to see if he could do any better. The short answer was, he couldn’t.
New uniforms and a pet lemur instead of the girl’s kid brother made no difference. Not even Lee Elias drawing like it was 1964 and not 1954 could make the spelunkers interesting. At least there were only two issues.
Nor was the record improved by two issues of ‘I-Spy’. This was King Faraday – king-for-a-day, get it? – and Showcase 50 didn’t even pretend to be original. There was a four page introduction that was new, and the rest were two obvious reprints that a three month old baby would pick out as from the early Fifties. Old they were, but they were good, smart examples of the time, with a strong Caniff influence on the art, but they were an example of the very thing Showcase had been established to abolish, the short run, new series.
But all Showcase was doing was reprinting these stories. There wasn’t even the pretence of a frame story in issue 51 and the editing was so sloppy that the clearly superimposed box saying that was the last story and inviting letters to demand the contrary was pasted onto the first story in the issue.
It was only 1964, but already Showcase‘s Golden Age was over. The flood of new ideas turning into new series had gone into reverse. Old characters, reprint stories from a different era. Suddenly, editors and writers weren’t even coming up with bad ideas. The word ‘new’ was being expunged. And Brave & Bold‘s era as a parallel magazine had also ended. Just what had happened?
The probable explanation was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Marvel had gone from being on the rise to in full flow. They couldn’t yet compete in sales but they were obviously something new in the industry and DC simply couldn’t understand them. Their writers were growing older, the times were getting away from them. They were being paralysed by their own lack of understanding.
And I’ll look closer at how that developed in the second part, next.

Showcase 34

Old Houses aren’t safe: House of Mystery – Part 3


When I last left off, Joe Orlando’s triumphal revival of House of Mystery into a full-blown, albeit still mainstream horror comic was now some four years old and the bloom appeared to be off the rose. The initial enthusiasm, and the art by luminaries such as Alex Toth, Neal Adams and Berni Wrightson were no longer so prevalent. Was this a temporary drop in standards or a permanent falling-off? After all, the Seventies was a time for some pretty crap comics, and the conditions in the industry seemed designed to make it impossible for the more individual artists to give of their best, not if they wanted to eat as well. And the series had been monthly since issue 194, doubling up the demand.
So let’s now take a look at what happened once HoM started its third century.
The first issue was not propitious: five stories, three of them reprints and one fairly recent as it was drawn by Jim Aparo and neither of the originals very interesting. That drawn by Sam Glanzman had the better art but a formulaic story that could have been done at any time in the past twenty years.
Indeed, between formula and two stories with appallingly paced endings, issue 202 fared no better. On the other hand, it did include the famous Steve Skeates/Sergio Aragones story, ‘The Poster Plague’, of rich reputation, an award-winning tale that also led directly to the creation of DC’s comedy title, Plop! I’d heard of it but never read it before. Fifty years after the fact, almost, it doesn’t hold up so good, but the humour is decidedly black, and Aragones is Aragones.
The 48 page, 25c experiment ended next issue, a long time after Martin Goodman had shafted DC by reverting to 20c after just one month. Now, issue 204 was to take the same route, back to all-original material, and superficially an upgrade, with Wrightson’s first story for several issues and another drawn by Alex Nino, the first of his I’ve ever seen that was legible and not over-decorated to death. But both suffered from the same fault, an abrupt final panel that in one case left the visual sting out completely and in the other confined it to a corner of a larger panel. Both were painfully amateur.
At least Wrightson’s story, plotted as well as drawn by him, was good practice for Swamp Thing 8.

HoM202

You’ll forgive me if I sound tetchy at this development. Having suffered, literally the lack of imagination or verve of over 170 issues of this series to finally see it come alive – even ghoulish life – and then so swiftly slump into routine again is dispiriting to say the least.
It doesn’t help that so much of the art is so familiar, and so characteristic of the time. Alex Nino, Nestor Redondo, Ernie Chua, E.R. Cruz: I may be slightly ahead of my return to comics but these were the artists I saw so much of when I did pick things up in 1974: DC’s Filipino phase, art plundered from the islands because the artists were beautiful pencillers but mainly because, in comparison to the homegrown artists, they were dirt cheap, and cheapness counted in that era of inflationary price increases.
I remember it well: don’t do it better, do it as cheap as possible, do it worse and not to stave off the price increases but to keep them as far apart as you could. I might have not seen these specific pages but they look boringly familiar, and though the Filipinos drew superbly they were, to a man, utterly static. Not one could make their art move, and I’m seeing that here all over again.
An increasing number of stories were being written by Jack Oleck, and here and there the notorious name of Michael Fleisher was being seen, Fleisher of The Spectre infamy, with his black imagination and his relish for cruelty. It’s not there in full force yet, not in him, but an element of nastiness was developing in several stories, endings no longer about comeuppance for the evil but the torture of the innocent. I can’t say I enjoy that.
That couldn’t be said of the first story in issue 217, a ghost story whose twist should perhaps have been foreseeable, of a ghost of a lost man saving his own great grand-daughter, unknowing, but it was a sweet story and an admirable corrective, enough so that the comeuppance tale that followed gave me a belly laugh.
And the lead story in issue 222 ended with a twist I didn’t see coming and greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, it was paired with a Michael Fleisher story that was, as usual, filled with sadistic nastiness. And I thought The Spectre was bad.
Incidentally, though this has nothing to do with HoM itself, we’re now up to the time I unexpectedly got back into comics: the house ads are now featuring issues I bought at the time.

HoM224

And this was the year DC tried to escape from the prison of the 32 page comic by jumping to squarebound 100 pagers, though with only the same 20 pages of original work. Several titles had already made the leap before House of Mystery joined then with issue 224, though it seemed to have a better balance of original to reprint, or was I merely looking at relatively recent stories that had appeared in any of the other horror books? There was a Phantom Stranger from the Fifties and a rather more recent Spectre drawn by Wrightson, from his late Sixties series. The leap in pages was accompanied by an abrupt reversion to bi-monthly.
The question of how much was new was comprehensively answered next issue with a superb Wrightson splash page checklisting eight stories, four of them billed as new. They added up to 32 pages: you didn’t get that in Detective Comics or Justice League of America. And it was 43 pages in issue 226, with Orlando open about his intention to get to all-new.
He never got there. Indeed, the reprints were the ones that kept accumulating, and in any event the Super-Spectacular era was only brief, a year at most, six issues for HoM and back to 32 pages with issue 230, but monthly once more.
But still the stories followed predictable paths, and no amount of tweaks could disguise the repetitive templates being used. Things from Michael Fleisher’s singularly unpleasant brain. Some of the editing was mystifying too, like the story in issue 234 about a girl escaped from an asylum, a girl with dark hair, a girl coloured blonde in every panel.
Steve Ditko turned up to draw the lead story in issue 236, which was saddled with a hack ending that I must have read three dozen times in this series already, the one where a hoax appears to have been played except that the hoaxer didn’t get into position in time… ooh, spooky. Not. And Orlando claiming HoM was better than for many years. When he could only get Berni Wrightson for occasional covers, not stories, or Neal Adams to do occasional inks, not pencils?
In fact, sales were quite clearly falling because the title was abruptly dropped to bi-monthly again with issue 238. And there was a serious downturn in the horror market generally, for Cain the Caretaker was soon boasting of being the only host left with a series to call his own. It was 1976, the year of the Bi-Centennial, and people had other things on their minds.
And then HoM was back at monthly status with issue 241, just as House of Secrets, as we’ll see, only missed six months in its ‘cancellation’.
The readers were happy. They always had been but here they were, cheering in the stories of this new phase, seeing them as absolute winners. Now I know I’m not a horror buff, but I couldn’t see any of the ‘spark’ they claimed to detect. Instead, what I saw was shoddily constructed stories, their pacing awry, their endings falling flat, amateurishly so. And with genuine respect to an artist who I enjoyed at that time, Ernie Chua covers do not hold a candle to Berni Wrightson or Neal Adams.
But the course of comics was never straight in the Seventies and once again DC were trying to beat the curve with bigger packages. Starting with issue 251, House of Mystery was just one of a number of titles jumping to an 80 page length, with all new material. I was very much in two minds about this.
More pages, more stories. There were changes in the background: Jeanette Kahn had arrived as DC’s new Publisher, the Dollar Comics were her idea, change was coming. Joe Orlando was suddenly Managing Editor and Paul Levitz Editorial Coordinator. So who was now in charge? Cain was host in the front half of the book and now Abel came on board, pending House of Secrets‘s next and final cancellation, to host the back half. But nothing new, nothing fresh, wormed its way into the stories, though one gently silly one was drawn by Wally Wood.
And, of course, it was back to bi-monthly.
On the other hand, there was a change in issue 252, which featured the supposed demolition of the House of Mystery. Cain related the House’s ‘Origin’, Abel cowered in the House (of Secrets) next door whilst Ms Kahn and Mr Orlando measured up for a post-demolition expansion, with Cain taking over, even Destiny dropped in to use up a tale I have no doubt had been created from his now-cancelled title, Weird Mystery Tales and in the end the House just shifts out of the way of the wrecking ball, causing everyone to run off.
There were near-nostalgic covers by Neal Adams on the next two issues, with a pleasant surprise in issue 254 in the form of a story drawn by Marshall Rogers, whose Batman series with Steve Engelhart was my favourite ever incarnation of the Caped Crusader before Tom King’s recent and controversial run.
By issue 255, Levitz had stepped up to the role of Editor, after an eighty issue run by Orlando. But the profusion of stories in so short a space, even if so many of them were simply unused inventory for the cancelled horror titles, was very wearying. The brief spell of enthusiasm when Orlando took over was long since dissipated and few stories rose above their various formulae to give me much entertainment.
All sorts of names, writers, artists, pass through the pages, so many of them new. Some were familiar, but some I never saw elsewhere. There was little from the old regulars. My guess is that HoM was being used as a try-out for new talent, no doubt at rock-bottom rates. The odd Michael Golden art was neat, but none of the others looked capable of ripping up trees.
But none of DC’s big comics ever last. After nine issues, eighteen months, House of Mystery was cut back and put on monthly status again. But issue 260, for all the good intentions, was 44 pages for 50c, for this was the month of the much-vaunted but doomed DC Explosion. A few titles managed two issues at this size: HoM was granted three. I’d never heard before of any series lasting that long at that size.

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But the stories were getting worse. They were barely making sense, the twists were being pulled out of thin air, the endings abrupt. The new crop of writers had no idea of pacing, though in the thirst for twist endings since 1951, the series had always suffered from this.
And the return to the good old 32 page floppy format in issue 263 brought two seriously ripe examples of these wholly inadequate, and in one case just ugly, pieces of work, for I will not call them art.
Yet in issue 266, Steve Clement and Maurice Whitman produced a wholly unhorrific story that was wonderful in its sweetness and its determination not to dabble in anything but the mildest of evil that I personally found worth all the miserable and pathetic stuff I’ve been ploughing through for I don’t know how long.
Issue 271 dealt with two famous figures, one real – a Professor at Princeton, not named but drawn to be unmistakable – and the other a Sherlock Holmes analogue. The one story was scientific, the other involving a vampire and a cynical ending that the vast majority of Sherlockians would frankly spit on.
At least progress through the scans was swift. This was the depressing era of reduced story pages, only 17, the tiniest possible number to keep the content over 50%. Stories were shorter than ever: three stories in seventeen pages, all with their own fall-flat endings.
Marshall Rogers turned up on art again in issue 274. As I said already, I love his Batman run with Steve Engelhart, and turn fondly to anything else he did., but by now, and saving his presence, I have to admit that outside that brief but brilliant run, his work was terrible. His background lay in architecture, making him perfect for Gotham City, but without Terry Austin’s inks to solidify and lend body to his art, his facial and figure work simply was not adequate. I hate saying that.
Time for a change in issue 276 as Jack C Harris replaced Paul Levitz as editor, a fact he chose to play up on the contents page: very modest. As to whether Harris would change the course of the series, we’d have to see but nothing I read that Harris edited impressed me back then so I’m not holding up my hopes.
I know, I know, why am I continuing to read House of Mystery since I’m clearly not getting anything from it, but let’s get to the end of this run and I’ll explain then.
One thing Harris did do was drop the long-running Twilight Zone knock-off introduction that had run throughout Levitz’s reign and which had long outlasted its welcome.
Over the first five issues of Harris’s tenure, my fears were rapidly proven. In a way I found difficult to explain, the stories themselves became completely pointless. There was no justification for them, no perspective. They were less than cardboard cut-outs whose point was nothing more than set-up for a twist ending that, by having nothing of any substance to twist against, became pallid and ineffectual.
But Harris only lasted six months before being replaced by Len Wein in issue 282, another change in control celebrated on the splash page, although to be fair I ought to acknowledge that the entire comic since Orlando’s advent was built on the principle of Cain the Caretaker as the storyteller. Cain was the fixture, irrespective of the editor, a game played out more often in the Letters’ pages, hence the calling out as here.
Wein’s debut hosted a completely incongruous book-sized insert effectively plugging Radio Shack in the form of a history of computers coupled with an action adventure. It was dull and bland and the best thing in the issue. Well, certainly no worse.
Two issues later it was format-change time, again. The DC Implosion had not deterred Jeanette Kahn from looking at ways to improve the basic 32 page floppy, and the latest move was to increase the cover price from 40c to 50c, but compensate by adding another eight story pages, increasing content from the nadir of 17 to 25 pages. The move was sneered at by Jim Shooter at Marvel, who suggested it was probably due to DC not being able to attract advertising, and that he didn’t think the readers were bothered whether or not they got an almost 50% uplift in continuity or not. And I have a bridge in Brooklyn for Jim, if he’s got the money.
Though it wasn’t the increase in story pages that rescued DC from the disaster of the Implosion in 1980, but rather the debut of The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, something indirectly caused by Shooter, so the joke was on him ultimately.
The odd story is still nicely drawn, most often by Filipino artist E.R. Cruz, whose work I only otherwise knew was on the last three issues of The Shadow, though I’m bound to say that I love the odd little coincidences, like the villain of Cruz’s piece in issue 288 being one Liam Gallagher. Nobody of the name Noel appeared in this story.
There were a lot of Joe Kubert covers in this period, and not a few J.M. De Matteis scripts, increasingly marking his taste for the spiritual. Former editor George Kashdan was another regular scripter and even Sheldon Mayer contributed a story.

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And then a change, a much-needed change in my eyes. House of Mystery gained a recurring character again, in the form of Andrew Bennett, ‘I, Vampire’. It was by Jerry De Matteis, with somewhat distorted art by Tom Sutton, and it did not impress at first sight.
Neither did Wein last long, being replaced in issue 292 by a joint editorship between the returning Paul Levitz and DC’s newest young editor, one who would go on to build an enviable reputation, Karen Berger (a very nice lady, I met her once).
The first thing to happen was that ‘I, Vampire’ was dropped, but that was only for an issue, with Berger taking over as sole editor next issue and running the series as the cover feature and back-up story. The only I, Vampire I’d read before was the Brian Azzarello version in his Dr Thirteen story, published as half of the latterday Countdown to Mystery. I can see now that the original was rotten stuff, horrendously over-written by de Matteis.
The series was certainly not going to run in every issue. For issue 294, Berger got the legendary Carmine Infantino to draw a story that had nothing else going for it, whilst Bruce Jones and Tom Yeates produced a touching and sweet tale of a ghost that proved the constant nastiness inherent in horror as practiced in HoM was not the only approach.
De Matteis left DC but Berger promised I, Vampire would continue, now written by Bruce Jones, whose first step was to write out Andrew Bennett’s two human helpers. Dmitri Mishkin and Deborah Dancer, the latter without ever having her back-story told. The same issue saw an early three pager from Steve Bissette.
And then House of Mystery became one of the rare comics to hit 300 issues. It got the kind of special-but-without-being-any-bigger treatment. There was a mix of stories, one of them a two-pager by Marv Wolfman and Joe Staton that toyed with the horror of the death of a young baby before veering off into an all together sweeter ending that touched the heart.
House of Mystery had now been going for 31 years. I’ve ended previous instalments at the 100 issue mark but to do that here would be to make a fourth part very short. So stay with me for what’s now left. This included an ever-increasing number of stories written by the team of Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn, who would create Blue Devil, and art by Dan Spiegle. I, Vampire became a monthly series from issue 302, but I can’t say that Karen Berger was producing the level or work she would soon be extracting.
For instance, in issue 302, Andrew Bennett got a wooden stake through the heart from his evil ex-mistress and target, Mary, except that the next issue, with art from Ernie Chua, stakes through the heart don’t kill vampires. And only one issue later, we had Bennett musing that it’s impossible to kill a vampire without driving a stake through its heart, an inconsistency that no editor should be permitting. Nor, in any day or age, should an editor allow Jack the Ripper to be used in a vampire series, as occurred in issue 306.
Even with Tom Sutton restored after two issues absence, the series continued to plumb new depths every month, especially when Bennett and Mary started bouncing around in time, all coherent narrative thread lost. Not even the Martian Manhunter’s run was as bad as this.
Would a comprehensive creative clear-out make any difference? Mishkin and Cohn as writers, Gonzalez and Sutton as artists? Not on first evidence. Dmitri Mishkin and Deborah Dancer were brought back, the latter with an ‘origin’ that started as a hippie chick at Woodstock. But no, I, Vampire continued to be just as empty, repetitive and dull as ever. But all things must pass, unless they’re Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. Andrew Bennett’s stories followed on, one from another, but a ‘multi-part’ story was promised to begin in issue 316. And at that point, House of Mystery had only half a year left.
If you look at the Statement of Ownership published in issue 316, and squint up your eyes to decipher the sales figures, you can see that HoM was selling an average of below 75,000 copies a month, and just over 72,000 in the most recent month. In 2021, those would be killer figures. In 1983, they weren’t. They were killing figures.
Bennett’s aged sidekick, Dmitri Mishkin, was killed off in issue 317. Next issue, Bennett took a powder that reverted him to human, human with human needs, such as food and sex – why do you think Deborah Dancer has been dragged round all these months? – but a vampire’s powers. That is, until age started catching up on him.
And then the end of the series in issue 319. Yes, Mary Queen of Blood had won the day. Bennett’s body was crumbling and decaying and the final torment was Mary turning Deborah into a vampire – why do you think she’s been dragged round all these months? – and her personal slave. But, in another example of the Frodo-principle in operation, it turns out that dear Debbie may have been a vampire but, because she took the other dose of the Russian preparation, she was one of these living vampires, fully human, and with dawn rising, was well able to drag Mary out into the sunlight, with inevitable results. So Andrew, who she loved, could die knowing his mission had been fulfilled.
Needless to say, death didn’t take, though it really should have, but that’s a story for other comics, which I don’t intend to read.

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There was no hint of it in issue 320, but House of Mystery was cancelled with issue 321, after thirty-two years. Though there were a couple of last fright stories, these were wrapped into a story about the House of Mystery being scheduled for demolition by order of Karen Berger, who then ushers Cain into a doorway he’s never found before, which leads into DC’s offices. Berger was being a good sport, allowing herself to firstly be portrayed as an airhead planning to replace the mag with ‘Condo of Fun’, or re-purpose Cain as a couple of demeaning storytellers, then allow Cain to get the better of her – or so he thinks – by getting to keep the House, which promptly collapses. It was at least decent fun.
So that was the end of it. Needless to say DC have tried a couple of times to revive HoM, once by yoking it to the temporary fad of Elvira, aka busty Cassandra Peterson, who made a schtick out of introducing horror movies on late-night TV. I have those issues too, on the DVD, but I doubt I’ll ever bother reading them. One 320 issue series is enough.
I promised to explain why I persisted to the end, when I manifestly wasn’t enjoying myself. That I wasn’t. The comic was tedious at its very best, and I couldn’t understand why most of its stories were regarded as even fit to print with their combination of frequently obvious twist endings thrown in so close to the end as to have no impact.
But the reason I persisted was a combination of completism, and a thirst to know. The completism is a key factor with me. I want to read it all. There are 321 issues, therefore I have to read all 321 issues. It frustrates me to miss even one out, the more so when I have that one issue and can so easily read it. Finish, always finish.
And there’s the urge to know, which is prevalent in any form of serial. I started reading American comics in the early Sixties, the early days of the Silver Age, roughly at the same time Julius Schwartz was starting to revive the Golden Age characters. They fascinated me, but I knew so little about them, and what was told about them in their revivals wasn’t always accurate to the degree I wanted to know.
There was near enough twenty-five years of these comics that I knew nothing about, and would never read. I couldn’t buy them because they weren’t there to be bought, and I couldn’t buy what I did see around me, because my parents disliked me buying American comics and they controlled my monetary supply. Not until the Seventies, when I was at University, was I free to buy what I wanted (and could afford).
So now I can read what I couldn’t, and my curiosity overwhelms me. I’ve found that a lot of it isn’t worth my time, but once I start reading something, even if it’s only out of curiosity, I have to finish. I have to know.
At the same time I bought the House of Mystery DVD, I bought one for its companion title, House of Secrets. That one’s only 160 issues long. I was going to go straight on to that but I need a breather from that sort of story. So next up will be something I’m looking forward to reading a lot more. Something about which I expect to be a lot more positive…

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