The Men on Borrowed Time: Challengers of the Unknown


The Challengers by Kirby

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

Original costumes

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

New Costumes


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

Challengers 59

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

The origin

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

Enter Corinna Stark – has Tony seen her yet?

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

POSTSCRIPT

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

The Fabulous Freaks: The Doom Patrol


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

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

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

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

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

POSTSCRIPT

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

Batman: Three Jokers 2


Well, if Geoff Johns really knows what he’s doing with this story, he’s only got one more issue in which to prove it.There is a story in issue 2 that can be summarised by an account of what happens but which so far fails absolutely on the question of why? Or, rather, what’s the point of this story.

The point is that there are, and for a very long time has been, three separate people composing the entity known by the Joker. This time round, Johns does a clearer job of defining them as the Criminal, the Clown and the Comedian. The Criminal is the original: it hurts, literally, when he laughs, through permanent nerve damage, inferred to be from his chemical bath. The Clown fantasises he has a family in suburbia, wife and son, terrified of him: he’s the one who beat Jason Todd to death when the latter was Robin. The Comedian is the one Jason has shot through the head at point-blank range, cold-bloodedly, in front of Batgirl.

Ok, that’s the what. The Jokers are trying to create more of them. They want Jason as the new Number 3: after all, he’s already calling himself the Red Hood, he suffered brain damage, has permanent nerve pain, emotional and physical trauma only relieved by inflicting pain himself. This is a hero? But Jason, for all that he hates Batman for not coming after him, for just replacing him, is not Joker material.

But this story is a story of two threes. The Three Jokers are set up against Batman, Red Hood and Batgirl. She’s the other major Joker victim, shot and paraplegic for several decades in The Killing Joke (Johns really does like to rag on anything Alan Moore wrote). But she’s just watched Jason Todd murder someone in cold blood before her eyes. He’s not just crossed the line, he’s obliterated it, he’s become the very antithesis of what the Batman Family represents. He has to be stopped, he has to be stopped just as much as the Joker or any of their other more conventional enemies.

But Batman won’t do it. That’s a mystery in itself: why does Batman basically not give a shit? Can’t arrest and charge Jason for murder, he’d have to unmask. Batgirl can’t be a witness: have to unmask. He’ll talk to Jason. Well, why the hell didn’t he talk to him a long time ago, when it might have done some bloody good, because make no mistake, this is way past the point from which Jason might have been diverted.

And when the two of them rescue him, further beaten and bloodied, it’s Batgirl not Batman who stays behind to tend to Jason, whilst Batman pisses off back to the Batcave to start re-reading files about Missing Criminls and Missing Clowns. Yes, Batman has files by those name all ready and waiting to be combed for identities he’s never been arsed enough to consider before. Is Johns aware of the image he’s creating for Batman here and that this is a tactic worthy of being used on the old TV Show, yes, that one? Holy Pathetic.

I’ve tried to steer clear of spoilers for things like this but couldn’t avoid being alterted to a leaked panel of Barbara (in costume but for her cowl) and Jason (in nothing but a towel and some elastoplasts) having a kiss. The context makes the whole thing less sensational: Jason is being more reasonable and self-aware than ever before, she’s being empathetic, it was a moment, nothing more, though it may prove to be the opening and closing of a door through which Jason Todd will not now pass, leaving his trajectory undisturbed.

Anyway, Johns hasn’t forgotten to administer a deep-seated pain to the main man. Joe Chill, yes, remember him, has cancer and weeks to live. His fingerprints are on a blunt instrument used to kill a man. Now The Joker – Joker One – has kidnapped him to Alaska to film him explaining why he really killed Thomas and Martha Wayne. Continued Next Month.

I cannot help but think that this is an inordinate amount of fuss over something of no interest or point. Another wrinkle to Bruce Wayne’s origin. Three Jokers: Why? What does any of it do to enhance the mythos? What part of it is a story with depth, intelligence and flair? What part of it connects with our emotions? Is this anything but a prime, twenty-one carat example of why comics are now in their decadent era, their dying flow? Concerned only with minutiae, drenched in death, pain, poision and torture. Completely unmoored from any sense of enjoyment, any idea that there was once a sense of fun, of awe and wonder about the possibility of these extraordinary, astounding and sometimes goofy powers. There is no fun.

Of course I’m dissing Geoff Johns in the main, but good, indeed excellent as Jason Fabok’s art may be, it’s taken so long to draw this, building everything about the Watchmen grid again, that all flavour has gone out of his work. It’s been over-processed until it’s sterile, until anything born of simple inspiration has been ground into the earth.

And once again, what is the point of Three Jokers? What does it gain us? How does it enrich the character? Is it even interesting? It smacks of Johns throwing in an offhand reference that sounded enigmatic and intriguing, but failing to actually come up with a reason that worked.

Come back in a month when I’ll report if Johns has anything up his sleeve to refute my opinion, or get me to applaud him. I’m not holding out any anticipation.

Batman: Three Jokers 1 – addendum


A good idea, or what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman: Three Jokers 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am dissatisfied.

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

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

Denny O’Neill R.I.P.


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

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

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

The Killing Ghost – The Spectre in Adventure Comics


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

The Wrath of…The Spectre (Adventure 431)

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


The Anguish of… The Spectre (Adventure 432)

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


The Swami and… The Spectre (Adventure 433)

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


The Nightmare Dummies and… The Spectre (Adventure 434)

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


The Man who Stalked The Spectre (Adventure 435)

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


The Gasman and… The Spectre (Adventure 436)

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


The Human Bombs and… The Spectre (Adventure 437)

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


The Spectre haunts the House of Fear (Adventure 438)

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


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

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


The Second Death of the… Spectre (Adventure 440)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…

The end of a era


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pesky Pasko, R.I.P.


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

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

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

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

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

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