Bat and Cat: A Love(ly) Affair


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I don’t know the whole story, and even if I did it wouldn’t make any sense, any more than any of the character biographies you read for any comic book character in Wikipedia, but especially the ones who have been around for decades. Too many writers, too many editors, too many takes: it doesn’t take long for a history to become irretrievably screwed up.
If I’m remembering correctly, my first exposure of substance to Catwoman came in 1968, in Batman 197, an issue in which, after years and years of the long split skirt and the boots, Selina Kyle re-dressed herself in a skin-tight glittery costume that echoed Julie Newmar’s outfit in the Batman TV series, except for being bright green – and what more cat-like colour could you think of?
I imagine that I’d seen Catwoman before, in reprints of her from the dispiriting Fifties, when Batman had a literally square jaw and Catwoman’s wasn’t all that soft and delicate. And I didn’t even buy this comic for the Feline Felon but because it featured Batgirl. It was a typical late-Sixties Gardner Fox/Julius Schwartz script, in which Catwoman’s crimes were all based on obscure words that began with the letters C-A-T, and in which she was out to humiliate Batgirl in front of Batman in order to demonstrate to the Caped Crusader how much better a bride our Miss Kyle would make.
The Sixties. You had to be there. It helped to be twelve and uncritical.
Times change, and comics characters with them. In the mid Nineties, I read a couple of years’ worth of the first Catwoman title, the one drawn by Jim Balent, which probably tells you all you need to know about my motivations. I read some of the second series in the run up to Infinite Crisis and on for a few issues into the ‘One Year Later’ era. I’ve read odd bits and pieces but nothing consistently. From out-and-out supervillain, to anti-heroine, to someone straddling the line between both sides.

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But I’ve most consistently enjoyed the portrayal of Selina Kyle, and of her twin relationships with Batman and Bruce Wayne, as they appeared in Tom King’s Batman series that spun out of the DC Rebirth event. Indeed, it was a review of Annual 2 to that story, and its associated regular issue, that tempted me into buying both books and loving them for the way they were such fun, and for how utterly convincing I thought King depicted the pair as being in love: deeply, passionately, and filled with a bedrock understanding of each other. Or should I say, with her bedrock understanding of him?
Because, let’s face it, Batman may be one of the only two minds in the DC Universe smarter than Mr Terrific, but he hasn’t got half the idea of who he is that Selina Kyle has of Bruce Wayne, and whilst he may be smarter on the subject of Catwoman, in terms of levels of emotional intelligence, she’s still got the boy beaten.
A portrayal of Batman in which Catwoman is not merely his equal but, in many aspects, better than him? Let me read more of this!
But one further, though relevant, digression, to ask myself who is this Catwoman who plays such cat-and-mouse games with Batman? For the lady has, like so many others, gone through multiple pasts. She was created by Bob Kane as a jewel thief, in 1940. Ten years later she gets a knock on the head, restoring her memory of her past as an Air Hostess who discovered a criminal side to herself after a knock on the head. Selina reformed and even helped Batman out a couple of times before being driven back to crime by taunts from crooks about Batman taming her. This revival was brief as only a few months later she was dropped from the series, in the light of the Comics Code Authority’s stupid restrictions on how women could be portrayed!
Catwoman wasn’t seen again until 1966, and even then first in Lois Lane. In 1983, but meanwhile, on Earth-2, their Selina Kyle, still reformed, unconsciously lets slip that the amnesia story was a lie, that it had been a convenient excuse to escape a life she hated, felt trapped in, and which left her unable to find love, and children. It was a neat, poignant story that took the unusual step of treating the two characters as human beings, both desperately lonely because of the lives that had been forced upon them, and the outcome was marriage, of course.
I mention this sidebar idea because of Earth-2’s ability to show different aspects to characters, and for its relevance to the modern era. But the real changes followed Crisis on Infinite Earths. Firstly, Frank Miller (who else?) rewrote Selina as a professional dominatrix – Catwoman in a Cathouse, geddit, geddit? – introducing a piece of griminess, rather than grim’n’grittiness that thankfully didn’t last too many years; you don’t have to degrade every-bloody-thing, Miller, you sicko.
This stark piece of bullshit was soon ameliorated, by a female writer I’m pleased to say, though Catwoman’s history was then made boringly complicated to try to keep things nasty, but not necessarily sexually nasty (Americans…). Then the Nineties saw Catwoman drifting towards antiheroine status as a jewel thief who sort did all sort of right things along the way. And the post-Balent series had her acting simultaneously as a thief and a protector of Gotham’s grubby and down-market East End, until it was revealed that she’s been magically brainwashed by Zatanna to turn good…
There were all manner of stories, including one in which Batman reveals his true identity to her, as well as declaring his love for her. The New 52 just made things worse, as it did for everything, and the next reboot was DC Rebirth in which Selina’s parents died early, she spent years in an orphanage and demands to be executed for causing 237 deaths when her old orphanage burns down, if I’ve understood Wikipedia properly. Now is the time to turn to Tom King’s series, and Read On…
(But is it any wonder I want to reject a history like that?)
Though it’s nearer the middle than the beginning, let me start with that Annual, and its associated two-parter. The Annual is an immediate delight, which hasn’t lost any of its power to amuse and satisfy since. It contains two stories, one from the beginning of Batman and Catwoman’s relationship and one from the end. The first is a comedy, a sweet comedy. It’s all about flirtation by burglary, as Catwoman endlessly demonstrates her ability to defeat every kind of security Bruce Wayne instals in Wayne Manor. She bypasses alarms, then triggers them when she chooses, leading to chases in which she outwits the Bat, disappearing without trace and leaving a souvenir, in the form of a small mouse. King drops in a brilliant line from Alfred, irritated enough to request, in pained tones, that she at least leaves cages and some money to feed them.
It’s a first demonstration, or at least it was for me, that King was going to be writing Catwoman as, in her own way, superior to Batman. He can’t keep her out, of his Mansion, his Batcave and his life. Subconsciously, he doesn’t want to. Selina, in her way, is slightly more detached, more capable of conducting her life without the Bat: she has been independent all her life and has no intention of surrendering that self-possession. But she loves him as much as he loves her. They are, in that sense, made for each other, despite their very different natures and pursuits, and the game she plays with him is far deeper than its superficial playfulness.
The other story was of the end. Of Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle, an old married couple, about to be parted forever. Bruce Wayne has contracted cancer. His family gathers around him. He dies, in bed, the opposite of unloved and unmourned. And she remains, the holder of the Wayne fortune, composed to the last, having come to terms with what is going to happen. Left with her daughter Helena, she shares her feelings about how she had never wanted to be tied down, how her independence had been the only key thing to her, had not wanted children, but it turned out that Helena had stolen from her: had stolen her heart.
This combination of sweet and sour, of joyousness and the ultimate, inescapable sadness, was a perfect combination. When taken in conjunction with the contemporary issue 38, I was hooked.
That issue guest-starred Superman, and Lois Lane. It had the minimum of action, deliberately token. It was about Bruce Wayne introducing his fiancée to his best friend and his wife. It was about the uncertainty on Clark Kent’s part and the instant confidence on that of Lois Lane, about Selena’s concerns about how she would be taken, as Batman’s bride and supervillain simultaneously, against Lois’s immediate acceptance of Catwoman as a new girlfriend.

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This was enough to trigger me into buying the bi-weekly from that point forward, one visit to the comics shop a month, two instalments to read on the bus home, and to the embrace of the Deluxe Editions to catch up the earlier part of the story.
I suspect that if I had bought in at any other point, at any of the bits that are Batman the Crime Fighter, the broken boy out to hold the world together, I would not have been seduced into the story. That’s what mattered to me, that King captured a very ordinary, very deep and involving love, such as that I had enjoyed myself, between two very far from ordinary people, and the best stages in the story are those that are about Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle just being a couple, together.
Going back to the beginning, seeing the psychological profile of Batman build up, from the introduction of two short-lived superheroes into Gotham, naming themselves for the city, to the convolutions that led Batman into confronting Bane, yet again, requiring to lead a ‘Suicide Squad’ mission that included a Catwoman on Death Row for 237 murders that she claims to have committed but which Batman is determined to clear her of: these are the building blocks of the overall story, and the foundation of two of the three separate strands that constitute King’s story.
It’s all about breaking the Batman, and it’s about how he comes back from being temporarily broken, because Batman always wins. There’s Bane, out to break him by taking his City away from him, there’s Dr Thomas Wayne, the Batman of a different reality, in which the little boy Bruce was the one shot in an alley, out to break Batman by being a bigger, stronger Batman than him, forcing little Bruce to turn into a human who can be just that: human and untortured.
And there is Selina Kyle, who fears to break him by that ultimate corruption, happiness, who understands Bruce Wayne better than he understands himself, and who builds the Batman back up, and without whom…
Catwoman’s essential to this story. Without her role, without her refusal to accept Batman’s reality as the ultra-grim, deadly-dull thing it is, her playfulness born directly from her love for the Bat, this would be no more worth reading than any of the interminable quagmire of Batman stories generated every minute. She refuses to take it seriously, and she makes it what it is, an exploration of just how deep into people love can go.
There’s more than mere banter between people who have a near-absolute confidence in each other in the constant to-and-fro over where Bat and Cat first met. He insists it was on a boat, she on the street. There’s a meta-textual competition here: Bob Kane’s Bruce and Selina first met on a boat, Frank Miller’s in the street. Two competing versions of reality are facing each other down: I’m prejudiced but despite the lady possessing the greater clarity and sanity, I see Batman’s version as championing a cleaner, healthier lineage: love is not possible in the Miller version of the world.
The part of the series I entered into was the lead-up to the ‘Wedding Issue’, in Batman 50. Yet, unlike Superman and Lois, twenty years before, it was all set-up and no bouquet. Selina was being worked on, to play her part in the breaking of Batman. By the Joker, on the one hand, and her friend Holly Robinson on the other, Catwoman was being led to a particular view of Batman, of Bruce Wayne, one slanted to her fears about how they – crimefighter and thief – can have a life, subject to her need for independence, without control. And one slanted to how much she knows him, knows that he is at heart that scared boy whose world was killed in an alley, the scared boy who made himself into Batman, and who cannot be Batman, the effective Batman, if you take pain away from him.
Bruce Wayne cannot be both happy, and Batman.

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None of that changes in the back half of the story. King doesn’t turn things around and come up with some magical reversal that allows Wayne to be both in love and the Batman he has to be if DC’s roster of publications doesn’t instantly shrink by a third. To that extent, his ending in issue 85 is flim-flam, hustling us via action out of asking the awkward question. Selina comes back into Bruce’s life when he is broken, comprehensively broken, by Bane and by Thomas Wayne, and she repairs him, by love, by commitment to him, by partnering him. Batman’s future is to never be alone again. Selina Kyle, wife in all but marriage licence, sees to that.
King’s series was originally to run for 100 issues. Then it was adjusted to 105 issues to take account of Doomsday Clock and Heroes in Crisis crossovers. Then it was abruptly shortened to 85 issues and the final phase, the this-will-change-Batman-for-a-generation bit was separated into the current, ever-so-slow motion Batman/Catwoman Black Label maxi-series, of which nine issues have at this time of writing been published, at ever-increasing intervals, just like everything.
Like King’s other projects, Heroes in Crisis, Strange Adventures and the one I refused on principle to read, Rorscharch, Batman/Catwoman is doing much to undermine my respect for those parts of his Batman that left Catwoman out. Once again it’s tediously nonlinear in its chronology, set in past, present and future. I’m trying not to be too judgemental until it’s all available, but I’m getting increasingly uninterested in reading the remaining three issues. What’s more, it’s held me up so long on my intended stepping away from current comics that Astro City is on the 2022 horizon to drag me back in.
The thing is, once again, logistics. Had this story appeared as Batman 86-105 I would have warmed to it far more. There would have been an instant continuity, and I confidently believe that what we would have read would have been fresher, more absorbing. Severed from its parent story, by more than just time, it has become dessicated, stale by overthought. At least, that’s what I’m getting from it.
Again, as I write, Tom King is setting out to psycho-analyse and destroy another DC character, this time Christopher Chance, the Human Target. The story will be told in non-linear chronology. How dull.
But let’s go back to the lovers of Batman 1-85, who are the basis for all these thoughts. By now, after too much exposure to Batman, I am more interested in Catwoman, but more than him over the last thirty-odd years, she’s been reinvented, usually ineptly, too many times, and there’s only a minority of her solo adventures that were well-handled or entertaining. The problem is that, when handled right, she works beautifully with Batman, but that can never be allowed to develop into a permanent situation, because she restricts Batman’s freedom in too many respects. Firstly, romantically, then professionally, because she is too much of an equal with him in a way that none of the rest of the Bat-Family can be, not even Batwoman, the only other non-protege, and lastly in terms of her greater emotional intelligence. That’s before taking into account the character’s individual commercial viability, which would be taken off the board by making her Batman’s permanent partner.
I don’t really have an ending for this essay, which is appropriate, because DC don’t have an ending for Batman. An ending is the last thing that’s allowed, or should I say it’s the first thing that’s not allowed. World without End. Batman wins again. In this world, this Batman could not win without the woman who is the other and better half of him. Eventually, Superman not only admitted his identity to ‘snoopy’ Lois Lane, but changed his entire existence, entirely for the best. Superman need never be alone again.
DC had the opportunity to do that for Batman, but cannot, because to do so would not not be seen as reinvention and revivication, but an ending. And an ending, no matter how right, is the one anathema in comics.

Death of the Justice League


https://bleedingcool.com/comics/dc-comics-cancels-and-kills-off-the-justice-league/

Dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark…

Tomorrow’s Teenagers Today: Sugar & Spike


I’m not sure where I’m going to get a full-blown comics slot blogpost out of Sugar & Spike but if all I do is to say that it’s every bit as hilarious as its reputation makes it out to be, and that it’s a DC comic comic that actually makes me laugh, out loud, several times an issue, then I’m going to say that. Sugar & Spike is funny, but of course it was going to be, it’s by Sheldon Mayer, and Mayer was a genius.
It’s also a wonderfully sweet series too. It stars two babies, somewhere in that age bracket between ten months and two years, where they can walk, but they can’t talk, except to each other and with perfect understanding – of each other, that is. As for the rest of it, these are two little kids trying to make sense of the world as they see it, interpreting grown-up reactions as best they can, to their own standards of logic.
Which gives Mayer so many levels on which to play that no two stories are alike, no matter how familiar the ingredients, because he can bend sense into a pretzel without ever once taking the little pair’s actions and understandings anywhere near to the improbable.
Our heroes are both only children. Spike is a red-headed boy baby, real name Cecil Wilson but somehow that doesn’t seem to fit him, so everyone goes with his Dad’s nickname for him, Spike. And Sugar, whose surname is naturally Plumm, is a blonde whose hair sticks up in one top-knot, who lives next door.

They’re each the first, and only, other person either can communicate with. Sugar seems to be the brighter and more experienced of the two, and she’s certainly the more adventurous of the pair, but that’s because Spike is the more careful, who thinks a lot more about what he does before trying it. She constantly, from the first, refers to him as Doll-Boy, which is not so much sweet as almost proprietorial.
Even the letter column is a delight to read, which it ought to be because it’s one of the very first DC ever ran. It’s full of letters from little kids, all of whom give their age (usually between 8 and 12), just writing to say how much they love Sugar & Spike and can’t it come out more often and have more pages? They ask for stories they’d like to see, and Mayer does that, taking inspiration from the settings they ask about.
And it’s all just joyful. They’ve got something for themselves, something that their parents occasionally write in to praise, something that’s about their lives, that they can all recognise, and Mayer sends them little postcards with drawings on, and they write to say thank you for them, and this is lightness in and of itself, without meanness or misery, and each issue is washing everything you’ve experienced out of your eyes and being amazed at what you see.
Mayer’s having a great time of it too, being fed all these requests. No matter how nebulous they are, like wanting to see what Sugar and Spike would do on a train, he has a topic for his imagination and the little kids do all the rest.
So many people seemed to have missed issue 1, featuring Sugar and Spike’s first meeting that Mayer ended up redrawing it in issue 16, the requests having been constant for months. The same issue included a one-pager for an old friend, Scribbly Jibbet: now Mayer can do that for as long as he likes.

The value of the comic to its young readers was never more forcefully demonstrated than in issue 18, featuring a short note from a 12 year old girl with covering note from her mother to confirm that the girl was cerebral palsied and partially deaf, but loves the comic so much that she will go to the drugstore on her own to buy it. As well as being printed, that letter resulted in a personal reply. Imagine what that little girl must have felt.
The thing about a series like Sugar & Spike is that it doesn’t really develop. It’s not a serial but a venue for endless short stories about two characters whose essence is that they can’t change, so neither can the stories. Mayer hit his stride immediately and, though some issues aren’t as funny as others, no 22 being one such example, he’s cruising at altitude.
Nor is the cast too expansive. Outside the families, the only real regular we’ve had is Sugar’s traffic cop uncle, Charley, who is always bringing his niece presents his sister disapproves of. But Mayer started bringing back an older boy named Arthur, a bully aged 4, who was popular but not with me, whilst another and better character was Sugar’s Great Great Great Granpa, who’s been lost in the desert for eighty years and who’s in his second childhood and so can both speak and understand baby-talk. He was fun.
There was a sweet moment in issue 30’s leading story, as the babies had a day at the beach and discovered another little kid drawing great pictures in the sand, Sugar and Spike’s faces. He was a compulsive cartoonist, but the great thing was that his name was Scribbly, that is, Scribbly Junior, there on the beach with his grown up Dad.

Mayer went for broke in issue 44 with a single story in four chapters, occupying practically the whole book, as the babies get hold of a Robot Santa Claus and prove remarkably adept at pressing the control buttons. This issue also featured a letter from a girl who’d written to the first issue when she was seven, and who was still a faithful reader at the age of fifteen.
For some reason he went and duplicated a past cover for issue 45, though the stories inside were all new. I was delighted to see the cover of 47 as that was the earliest issue I ever saw advertised for this series so it was fun to finally be able to read the story behind it, though there wasn’t one, it just a perfect sight gag.
It was disappointing to see the DVD go to a smaller size of reproduction from issue 50 onwards, making the dialogue harder to see, especially as Mayer started doing many more two-part stories. Equally, the stories started to move more towards the fantastic, with the baby twosome achieving things that grew increasingly improbable, even with wild luck.
Despite many readers’ ardent wishes, the tiny baby alien Space-Sprout did not return after her second appearance, whilst Sugar’s motor-cycle cop Uncle Charlie was not seen after the babies delivered the Valentine’s card he bottled out of giving his girlfriend to a lonely sobbing girl in the Park who turned out to be his girlfriend.
On the other hand, there are far too many Little Arthur stories, who keeps pulling Sugar’s pony-tail and shouting ‘Ding Dong!’. I know Mayer’s a comic genius but this was one area where I felt his genius was running dry.
The ‘Go-Go Check’ era hit with issue 66, which means we’re in 1966. The whole landscape of DC Comics had changed since Mayer started this title and yet it was still in the Fifties, and still as funny as ever. But this accompanied a jump to book-length stories delving deeper into the fantastic, like aliens, invisibilisers and witches. Within a couple of issues, the Batman movie was being advertised and Sugar and Spike were becoming superheroes. It was inevitable for that year, but it was also trash for the two babies.
Suddenly, the ordinariness of life and a baby’s perceptions of it, out of which delightful and hilarious comedy, built on insight, was gone. Sugar and Spike were a variation upon superheroes, living in the middle of fantasy and impossibility. It was disheartening.
Issue 72 introduced a figure who would briefly become a regular in the series, in Bernie the Brain, an incredibly clever baby under one year old, who knew everything, could invent fantastically clever devices, mostly robots, but got upset when he learned he wasn’t like normal, ordinary babies. In search of babies to learn from, he meets Sugar and Spike…
And Mayer, who had stoutly created stories from the baby’s eye-level for over a decade, refusing to show either sets of parents in full, letting each reader imagine their parents in their places, abandoned that policy in issue 75, bringing all four in as individuals, instead of universal parents.

Bernie was back in issue 77, and not just as a regular but as a third member of the team. We were now doomed to nothing but fantastic stories with no basis in reality anymore. In a way, it made sense, like the introduction of Foggy Dewhurst for Cyril Blamire in series 3 of Last of the Summer Wine, an active character causing stories rather than a third passive character letting things happen to them. But it served a direction that was all but ruining the series for me.
With issue 81, Mayer started including a preview page for the next issue, showing a scene he then redrew, so I had advance notice that no 82 was going to feature the two babies as teenagers – and Sugar’s going to grow up to be a big girl. The actual story was too convoluted to be readable but considering it was committing series heresy, it was better than I feared. And the preview page only lasted two issues anyway.
The series had been bi-monthly for years but now, as of issue 85, it went to seven times a year. This was to accommodate an extra-sized special composed of reprints, five stories, including one as recent as Bernie’s debut. New stories resumed with issue 86. Then Bernie was given the day off as of issue 87. This turned into a two issue vacation but he was back in the back-up story in issue 89. Yes, suddenly the book-length stories were out and the comic was inclining back to more realistic stories, but lacking the sheer spark of the early years.
Mayer’s cartooning style was gradually simplifying, using more outlines and less detail. This was because he was developing eye-trouble, and before much longer it would become overwhelming.

In the meantime, issue 91 recycled an old story of the babies causing havoc at the beach, completely redrawn but not replotted. Maybe it was some sort of catalyst because suddenly, in issue 94, the old magic came back, with grounded little tales, happy confusion and one and half pagers. What a pity it was so late.
It was a happy regression. Issue 95 started the 25c era. It mixed new and old stories and but for my having read the old ones already, you wouldn’t have known the difference. Mayer had introduced a new character in issue 91 in Raymond, a little black kid and a sunny, uncomplicated, optimistic child. He got a wonderfully touching solo story in issue 97, with elements of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ involved.
All things must end, however, and comic book series are no exception. Sugar & Spike was pulled at issue 98, two short of its century, with an all-reprint issue. It was not, however, sales that were to blame but rather Sheldon Mayer’s eye-problems, leaving him unable to draw, without which the series would have gone on. At least it was back to its best when it left us.
There is a semi-happy coda to this. A couple of years later Mayer underwent a successful operation, restoring him to cartooning health, and returning him to Sugar and Spike. In those few years, however, the market had changed. Comic comics no longer had an audience in America. In Europe, it was a different matter, and the series resumed there with great success. With the exception of two stories selected for a Silver Age Classic one-off, the equivalent of issue 99, none of these stories ever appeared in America or, for that matter, English. Now, fifty years on from the series’ American demise, the chances of our seeing those tales is almost certainly non-existant.
Nevertheless, what we did get was wonderful. And the only thing I can say in conclusion is, Glx. Spitzl. Glahh.

ADDENDUM

In selecting images to illustrate this piece, I was exposed to art from the 2016 reboot of Sugar & Spike by Keith Giffen and Bilquis Evley. I knew it existed but was ognoring it completely, but you know what it’s like when you see a car crash… A brief examination elicited the fact that it ran for six issues in the short-lived Legends of Tomorrow anthology comic and was collected as a Graphic Novel. The idea was that Sugar and Spike are all grown up now and are partnered as private eyes specialising in cleaning up messes for superheroes by resolving embarrassments based on Silver Age stories everyone wants to forget. As the site that gave the series the most amount of consideration pointed out that’s actually a pretty nifty idea for a series, but for Sugar and Spike? That’s ten years each in purgatory as far as I’m concerned. Apparently, the adult simulacra reflected the personalities of the babies with ‘Sugar’ as the driving force and ‘Spike’ as the somewhat hapless dummy, but Sugar was entirely aggressive to the point of acting like a bitch, whilst Evley apparently did a very good job of depicting Spike as being in love with his dismissive partner solely on body language, in which case good for her, but that doesn’t get her even a day off her purgatory. Why do people do stupid things like this?

 

Change! Change, o form of Man: The Demon


Demon 1

Jack Kirby’s run at DC Comics was already sliding towards its ignominious end when I started showing interest in comics again. New Gods and Forever People had already been cancelled and were nothing but subscription blanks: I only became aware of them, and very intrigued by the names, when I started picking up some back issues. Mr Miracle was still running but was in decline artistically as well as commercially, dragged out of its Fourth World frame: I would end up only buying its last issue.
The same went for another of Kirby’s creations, The Demon. It ran sixteen issues, I bought the last. Gradually, I collected the Fourth World series’, even down to Jimmy Olsen but my only substantial exposure to Etrigan, the Demon, would be in later appearances, under diverse hands: never Kirby. Until now.
Except that his contributions to First Issue Special were very much below Kirby’s exalted standards, the first issue of The Demon follows the same pattern, of an extensive set-up leading to a cliffhanger ending that is our first introduction to the central character. There are substantial differences, not least in the considerably greater confidence and power of the art, but mainly in that this was a genuine first issue, with a no.2 all set to roll two months later, taking up the story from its moment of poised menace.
Instead, the story concentrates on initially establishing Morgaine le Fay’s last and successful attack on Camelot, and her inability to prevent the escape of Merlin, who takes with him a demon in red and yellow, together with a slip of parchment torn from a larger spell, that he charges the demon to preserve. As Camelot is spirited away by Merlin, the squat figure of the Demon, Etrigan, straightens, grows tall and wanders away, human. He is now Jason Blood, he of the long life, demonologist. He is not Etrigan. But he is the fleshy form out of which Etrigan, if summoned, will rise to battle with fire and rage.
The origin is a two-parter, showing not just Blood and Etrigan but establishing Morgaine le Fay as a recurring enemy, intent on using Etrigan to get to Merlin, who she needs to restore her eternal life, and with it her eternal youth and beauty. It also establishers Blood’s existing friends and one about to become even closer.

Demon panel

The first of these is the most puzzling, advertising executive Harry Mathews, eager and energetic, with his perpetual cigar. Harry’s a Ben Grimm figure, a rough diamond, the common man (though not from Brooklyn). You ask yourself how he’s so close a friend of a demonologist that he gets to learn Jason is a literal demon, because he has nothing that recommends him as being right for this kind of world. Maybe they just like each other?
Of more direct relevance is United Nations delegate Randu Singh. Like Harry, he’s a long-standing close friend, part of the trio. But unlike Harry, Randu is much more subtle. He has psychic powers, amongst them the ability to summon Etrigan from the form of Jason.
And then there’s Glenda Mark, beautiful blonde, first introduced to Jason in issue 1, the two hitting it off on very short acquaintance, though not to the extent of confidences like that.
The Demon was an instant hit, leaping to monthly status by issue 5. The response warmed Editorial Director Carmine Infantino, who’d seduced Kirby to DC in the first place with promises reneged upon without any unnecessary delay. Kirby had started on his Fourth World books, which he’d intended as interlocking finite series, only to be told that they couldn’t end. He’d intended to be the equivalent of what he was at Marvel, a creation machine who would start books off, draw two or three issues then pass these into the hands of acolytes to progress under his direction, but the moment The Demon sold, Infantino insisted Kirby write and draw it himself. In order to ensure he had time to do so, Infantino cancelled New Gods and Forever People.
It’s to Kirby’s credit that, despite the absolute devastation he felt at this decision, he did not allow it to spoil his commitment to Etrigan and Jason Blood. According to his friend and assistant Mark Evanier, Kirby had no interest in horror comics and only created The Demon because DC wanted a horror series. But, being Kirby, he produced a vivid job and a character who, like so many Kirby others, has lasted.

Demon spread

Issue 7 conjured up Klarion, the Witch Boy, and his cat, Teekl (I like cats), though he was quickly dismissed.
Kirby’s next move could be read as a rip-off of The Phantom of the Opera, down to the gothic organ playing. The masked Phantom of the Sewer steals fabulous objects, hoping to bring to life his statue of the beautiful Galatea. When he sees Glenda, he recognises her as the spitting image of his love and kidnaps her. Ordinarily you’d say No Problem and send in Etrigan, but Jason Blood is growing fearful of the Demon within him, fearful of the Demon taking him over and has killed Etrigan, severing their connection by using Absolute Zero cold. Not a timely step.
Kirby was relaxing into the series now. Blood managed to summon back Etrigan using the same Philosopher’s Stone by which he had banished him, but the Phantom’s story ended with his revelation as a tormented victim of an evil witch, whose spirit returned, albeit briefly, to restore the Phantom’s face before he died. This led directly into a Frankenstein take-off that ran over four issues. Kirby was freewheeling in the best manner possible and the results were pure kinetic fun.
There was a two-parter showcasing the return – and re-banishment – of Klarion, and then we come to issue 16, the only issue I bought all that long time ago, in which Morgaine le Fay returned. I remember practically nothing about it. Morgaine subjugates Etrigan to her will, but Glenda rescues him with the Philosopher’s Stone, learning in the process about Jason’s dual identity.
And that, suddenly, was it. No word, no explanation, just a look-for-Kirby’s-next idea. In the absence of other explanations, always assume low sales, though as Kirby’s contract was either in or rapidly nearing its last year, his own attitude to the work may have played a part.
Until now, The Demon 16 is the only comic done by Kirby outside the Fourth World titles that I’d ever read (I have never had the least interest in Kamandi). Though I suspect I would have struggled with Kirby’s art in 1974 or thereabouts, I’m glad now to have had the chance to read the full series. I’ve no great insights to take from it, but I liked it and wouldn’t have minded seeing more.

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A dozen years later, in the wake of Alan Moore using Etrigan in Saga of the Swamp Thing, Matt Wagner wrote and drew a four-issue mini-series, yet one more among those thousands of comics I have had and sold. It’s on the DVD, I’ve re-read it. It’s very nicely drawn but in contrast to Kirby, large sections of it are purely static and it’s so bloody verbose, between the overcap narration and Etrigan’s exceedingly long rhymes, I’m very quickly reminded of why I didn’t keep it.
Storywise, the knowing, cynical narration, with its continual contempt is the authentic note of Post-Crisis DC, a tone that’s only multiplied in extent and volume ever since, until nothing is free from it any more. The miniseries is a befuddling and befouling of the original series. One can say that The Demon, above almost everything else, invited it, but at this late stage I’d rather not have it at all.

The War in the Skies: Enemy Ace


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I never got into war comics. Obviously I read them: take war stories out of a British boys weekly comic and some of them would be limp rags with about ten pages left, and that’s before the advent of Battle in the Seventies. But I would never have even thought of buying one of the DC War Comics in the Sixties. The handful I did read were from friends’ collections, sitting in the lobby of our old house in Brigham Street, in that private space between the inner door to the parlour and the front door, open to the elements. It was a tiny play-place on wet days, where we could read each others’ comics or play card games, get some fresh air but not soaked.
I was aware of Enemy Ace back then, and intrigued to a minor degree by a series about a German, who I knew very well from Eagle and Lion and Victor and Hornet were the baddies. But as with any of the others, like Sgt. Rock, or Gunner, Sarge and Pooch, the thought of reading any of the stories just didn’t even exist.
But the stories do, and for all my adult life I’ve known that they are amongst the most highly rated stories DC have ever published. The only ones I have read before are those that appeared in Showcase. Now it’s time to find out for myself.
Rittmeister Hans von Hammer, the ‘Hammer of the Skies’, the Enemy Ace, was introduced in Our Army At War 151, cover-dated February 1965, which would have been about right for when copies arrived in Britain. He was created by Bob Kanigher, Our Army At War‘s editor and writer of its lead feature, the famous Sgt. Rock, and drawn by Rock’s artist-in-residence, Joe Kubert. Von Hammer was teased on the cover as the blazing star they didn’t dare show and the whole concept was a controversial one, less than twenty years since the War in Europe ended.
Von Hammer was a pilot. Cleverly, Kanigher and Kubert went further back than the recent War, to World War 1, to 1918, and the ‘string-and-baling-wire’ planes of before. Von Hammer piloted a blood-red Fokke-Wulf triplane, the same as one of the Airfix models I had assembled and which hung from my bedroom ceiling.
Kanigher and Kubert, teamed on their natural subject. How could ‘Enemy Ace’ be less than superb? The first story was plain, but commanding, introducing the aloof von Hammer, a master of the skies, almost effortlessly establishing his superiority over the French and British planes, yet taking little or no pleasure from his prowess. Von Hammer is a man apart, in every sense, moving through the world behind a three foot thick sheet of glass. He is a killer, a cold, professional killer, putting his unique talent to the service of his country, aware of, and sometimes almost fearful of his degree of separation from everyone else. His only ‘friend’ is his lupine shadow, a Wolf that goes hunting with him.
All of this in one back-up story. For depth in economy I can only think of the original Swamp Thing story as comparable. And through it all, the remarkable thing is that von Hammer is simply von Hammer. He is not an indictment of the Germans as enemies. His nature is himself, and not the function of his country. Extraordinary stuff for late 1964.

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The series was a gamble, with Rock soliciting comments from the readers. Von Hammer returned in issue 153, in a story about the superstition of not having one’s photograph taken before flying into combat, and again in 155. This last one was astonishingly good: von Hammer shoots down a British plane only to realise, too late, that its pilot had empty guns, was defenceless. Horrified by what he has done, von Hammer follows the doomed plane down, hoping the pilot can pull out of the dive and land, but to no avail. The next day, his airfield is attacked by the pilot’s Squadron Leader, challenging von Hammer contemptuously to a single combat. Von Hammer takes off with empty guns himself, deliberately, and fights unarmed until the British attacker runs out of ammunition. Then the later realises von Hammer was defenceless, understands the nature, the honour of the man, salutes him and breaks off. The enemy understands, but von Hammer’s own pilots see only the Killing Machine.
This was the context of von Hammer’s two Showcase appearances. The first was about the honour that existed between pilots in this new form of combat, in a sky where their presence could not be taken for granted, where enemies had more in common than with their ground troops, who had no conception of what it meant to be in the air.
There had now been five Enemy Ace stories, two of them book-length. They were each excellent, especially in Kubert’s depiction of aerial combat as it was being formed. However, I couldn’t help but recognise the ploys Kanigher used invariably. Von Hammer flies and kills. He lands, ‘hearing’ his plane repeat ‘Killer, killer’ and his men call him a Killing Machine. His babbling orderly praises his ever-accumulating Victory Cups. He meets the wolf in the Black Forest, talks to it as his only friend, the only ones who understand each other. Over and over.
Showcase didn’t win von Hammer a title of his own. Enemy Ace disappeared then, in 1965. But he was not forgotten. Two and a half years later, von Hammer was revived as the lead feature in Star-Spangled War Stories, his logo emblazoned on the cove. Enemy Ace returned in issue 138 and, with the exception of one issue, featured until no. 150 before once again returning to that undeserved limbo reserved for characters who are too bloody good for the audience.

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Nothing had changed, not least the intensity that surrounded the character, the expert at flying and killing who is feared by everyone and kept a distance that he himself knows no way of bridging, the man trapped in what he is, addicted to the sky, knowing that one day it will kill him as thoughtlessly as it does everyone else, determined to give it every chance at his destruction that he can.
I could never have read and appreciated anything like this in 1968, but I should have done a long time ago.
The new series introduced a recurring foe for von Hammer, a French pilot of equal skill who goes by the name of the Hangman. In issue 140, a collision between planes downs both pilots and makes von Hammer the prisoner of the Hangman, himself an aristocrat. The two treat each other with the utmost courtesy, puzzling the Hangman’s sister, Denise, but once von Hammer escapes and regains the skies, the only place he will allow himself to die, they return to being implacable enemies, bending their skill to each other’s destruction.
And I may say Kubert’s art leads one into the skies and draws us on wings of paper-mache and string.
The artist had now taken over as editor of the war books but the writer continued to expand the range of the stories. In issue 142, von Hammer succeeds in shooting down the Hangman, only to gain a new and more bitter enemy in his sister Denise, an implacable foe, an equal flier, and a Harpy of hate, determined to wreak revenge upon an enemy whose honour forbids him from firing back at her.
The Hangman was brought back in issue 145 to lock horns with von Hammer again, tearing at him by killing his three ablest pilots first. Once again he appeared to die, though I’m not taking bets on it, whilst von Hammer crashed and would have been a victim of the wolves were it not for his black wolf friend.
Next issue, von Hammer appeared only as narrator for two unremarkable and indeed pretty flat WW1 air-fighting stories, presumably as a result of deadline difficulties. His return was with the series’ first complete schtumer, a gimmick-story featuring an OTT opponent who dressed up as St George and flew in a suit of armour, taking the run outside the bounds of believability for the first time. This was followed by von Hammer adopting a wounded puppy as a good luck mascot, only for him to fall from the cockpit in battle, to his death. Again, the insertion of the fantastic detracted from not merely the believability but the intensity.

EA 142

Once again, something different was coming to an end, failing to match up to the sales of the superheroes. 1970 was looming. A story in issue 179 explained von Hammer’s duelling scars, but it was also cut to only two-thirds length to make room for Kanigher and Kubert on a revival of the Viking Prince, welcome in itself but in a war book?
But the writing was on the wall, or rather the cover. The Star-Spangled War Stories logo was spread across issue 150’s cover, and Enemy Ace reduced to a circle, and inside was the last story. Von Hammer is shot down over France but returns to his airfield thanks to the ironic aid of three people awaiting sons, brothers and fiances return from the skies, not knowing each are dead at von Hammer’s hands. But somehow the story failed to connect, largely because of a curious decision to switch from first person narration to second person, distancing von Hammer at the very moment we needed to be brought in close.
The lettercol spoke as if nothing would change but Enemy Ace was dropped, and the Unknown Soldier replaced him as the new lead feature.
That isn’t totally the end of the story. Rittmeister Hans von Hammer reappeared years later, in 1974’s issue 181-3, a three part back-up story by Kanigher, drawn by Frank Thorne in a close imitation of Kubert, sending him up against another of DC’s war characters, Steve Savage, the Balloon Buster. It wasn’t the same.
Von Hammer’s final appearance in Star-Spangled War Stories was a five pager, written and drawn by Kubert, this time going the full distance into the third person. It was dry and shallow and a poor end.
There have been other runs. Shortly after, von Hammer was restored to appear in eleven of twenty issues of Men at War between 1977 and 1979. Even though it was still being written by Kanigher, the art was that of lesser hands, lacking a fraction of Kubert’s expressiveness. I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I know disappointment when it’s spitting in my face. The same thing went for another series of back-ups between 1981 and 1982 in The Unknown Soldier (as Star-Spangled War Stories was re-named from issue 205), even with some John Severian art.
No, Enemy Ace was indeed as good as they said it was all those years, good enough for me to decide to ignore lesser versions. I don’t have to accept that they are canon in my head, just like so many contemporary series don’t exist for me. Seventeen issues represent the whole as far as I’m concerned, seventeen and no more. Seventeen was more than enough.

Down These Mean Streets: Gotham Central


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Many years ago, when Public Libraries still had Graphic Novel sections, I took the opportunity to read stories I would never otherwise have touched if it had involved a penny of my own, strictly limited, pocket. Sometimes that was all it was. And sometimes it was curiosity that didn’t kill the cat but instead fed it a large bowl of cream. The most extreme example of that was Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets. But I tried a couple of volumes of Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central, which were enough to make me explore eBay prices for the books, only to discover they were never cheap enough for me to get involved, especially when factored against my limited storage space.
A DVD collection of the series, which ran for forty issues between 2003 and 2006, takes up no space, and even less when there are a half dozen different series on it. Given that it’s a Twenty-First Century series, I had no intention of writing about it, just of having some enjoyable reading, but when I turned to it, I found Gotham Central to be even better than I recalled, and to be too good not to want to praise it for the qualities that make it so memorable.
Plainly and simply, Gotham Central is a procedural. It’s a crime series, ordinary, mostly-human crime, featuring an ensemble cast of Police detectives, a Major Crimes Unit. The hook is that this MCU is operating in Gotham City, the famous and infamous Gotham, and they are Police trying to do a job, their job, in a City dominated by the Batman.
Just like Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, even in a more limited fashion, it’s about imagining into being a realistic, non-sensational, above all natural look at what it’s like to live in a superhero Universe. What does the constant, in-the-shadows presence of the Batman, and all the murderous, psychopathic freaks he attracts, do to the job of being a Murder Police?

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The series was the concept of two writers, Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, both of whom were writers with an interest in crime fiction (Rucka is also a well-regarded crime novelist). The writers co-wrote the opening two-parter, which begins with the killing of a Detective by Mr Freeze and the subsequent efforts of his partner to have the case worked by the Department and not the Batman, and teamed up again for a five part story, but otherwise each wrote arcs separately. The original series artist was Michael Lark, whose work I knew from one of the later Sandman Mystery Theatre playlets, a calm, deliberately unsensational artist with a neo-photographic style that eschewed detail, creating a grounded atmosphere for the series.
And it’s clear that a lot of the stylistic approach to the series derived from Homicide: Life on the Street, down to the presence in the squadroom of the visual of that series’ (and the real-life Baltimore Homicide Department’s) Board, which is another reason why I liked the series so much.
Lark left after issue 25 but his successors followed his visual method, always ensuring that the series remained grounded in human authenticity, and an avoidance of the spectacular.
The series featured the whole MCU squadroom and showed it for what it was, a workplace composed of very different personalities, thrown together by a shared skill, but not by a shared temperament. Though they were all cops, and all on the same side, especially when one of their own were threatened or harmed, they were not on the same side as people, with their own twists and thoughts and dreams, and the series benefited immensely in the variety of characters.
Inevitably, just as Pembleton and Bayliss came to be stars in Homicide: Life on the Street, the ‘show without stars’, certain pairings began to dominate. Renee Montoya, Harvey Bullock’s former partner and Crispus Allen, both with unwanted, undeserved futures as superheroes, Marcus Driver and Josie MacDonald, Romy Chandler. Stories involving them began to proliferate: Montoya’s outing as gay, her estrangement from her family, her growing, unresolvable anger were all stories battling, this time in more Hill Street Blues style, with the crimes.

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As you might imagine, Gotham Central didn’t sell. It should have done. It should have been massive, but it wasn’t superheroes, was it, and the audience is long since conditioned to only accept or understand superheroes. DC kept it going because its Graphic Novel collections were selling well, because it was good work that they considered deserved to be seen, and could be carried.
But it’s noticeable that from about the halfway point first supervillains, then superheroes increasingly play a part. The Penguin and The Mad Hatter share a story. There’s a procedural crossover with The Flash, involving a trip to Keystone City to bring back Albert Desmond, the original Dr Alchemy, for questioning, involving Detectives Fred Chyre and Reuben Morillo. A CSI by the name of James Corrigan starts to feature, which would have got us oldsters excited, waiting for him to be killed and returned as The Spectre, but this Corrigan is a scumbag who will end up killing Crispus Allen, and then he comes back as The Spectre.
There’s even a story featuring fifteen year old boys dressed in highly professional Robin costumes showing up dead all over the city, throwing suspicion on The Batman, and causing The Teen Titans to drop in and attest that it’s not the real one.
It made no difference to the sales, which continued to be low, but what sealed the series’ fate was Brubaker’s decision to leave. Rucka always thought of the series as belonging to both of them and agreed to write a final story to close the major storylines. Brubaker’s last issue was no 37, the Infinite Crisis crossover, after which the entire DC Universe leaped One Year Later, not that the final three-parter would have you notice.

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It was a grim ending. Allen is going after Corrigan on his own but is made: a trap is set-up and Corrigan kills Allen. He’s a step ahead of the Department, and beats the investigation. Montoya, strung out as far as she can be, beats him and prepares to kill him but he pleads pathetically for his life over several pages. The issue left it open as to whether Montoya pulled the trigger or not, but alone and last, it having gone out of her (like Pembleton at the end of Homicide: Life on the Street season 6), she hands in her badge and gun and leaves. In 52 she becomes the new Question.
It was an ending that was strong in itself but weak in the distance its melodrama is from what made Gotham Central in the first place. Nevertheless, it was still a clear, distinct series, full of good writing and good thinking that should be running still. Just one more reason why I find nothing to attract me to comics’ future.

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What If Julius Schwartz hadn’t changed career?


Unthinkable as it may seem, in 1964, DC Comics were giving serious thoughts to cancelling Batman. That’s right, the Caped Crusader. DC’s second oldest and second most well-known character was in line for the chop. Think for a moment of the difference that would have made to not merely comic history but television and films. If Batman had disappeared, what would DC be doing now, when comics about him make up what seems to be about two-third of their output every month?
The reason Batman was under consideration for cancellation was the usual one: falling sales. All comics sales had been falling since the end of the Second World War and the disappearance of the GI Market, exacerbated by the increase in other distractions competing for the kids’ time, such as television. The moral scares of the Fifties, whipped up by Dr Frederic Wertham and the Kefauver Committee didn’t help and the decision to adopt a Comics Code that practically stripped everything interesting out of comics’ access were all contributory factors.
But the real reason Batman was ahead of Dead Man’s Curve was his editor, Jack Schiff.
I don’t want to be overly critical of Schiff. By all accounts he was a good, decent editor, thoughtful and intelligent. But, like so many people at DC in those decades, his big problem was Mort Weisinger. Schiff edited Batman, Weisinger edited Superman. Say what you like about Weisinger, and many have, one of the kindest (and most printable) things being that he looked like a malevolent toad, he was a very good editor in commercial terms. But he was a man who sought to dominate everyone who was around him, establishing and playing on their weaknesses for no apparent better reason than that he could, and it fed into his urge for power.
Theoretically, Schiff was his more-or-less equal. If DC had ever appointed an Editor-in-Chief the choice would have been between those two only, and one of the best reasons for their not doing so was that the other would have resigned on the spot. But Weisinger, in addition to being a tyrant and a bully, was also a schmoozer when it suited his purposes, which it did with DC’s owners, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz. Weisinger made himself amenable and indispensable to Harry and Jack. As was his wont, he continually denigrated anyone he saw as his opponent.
In Schiff’s case, this was in respect of his politics. Schiff was a political liberal which, in the McCarthyite Fifties, was suspicious in itself. Weisinger lost no opportunity to beat Schiff with this. He was a dangerous figure, a pinko, the House Red which, given that Donenfeld and Leibowitz were natural Republicans, was a serious slander. Only Weisinger could stay on top of him, make sure he wasn’t in a position to do any damage.
It had been like that for years. In 1948, under the influence of Bob Kanigher, Superman and Batman made their only active appearance in All-Star Comics with the Justice Society. Weisinger descended, screaming over-exposure, and it never happened again. Schiff wasn’t concerned about Batman, but he was bullied by Weisinger into making the same complaint.
So, when Weisinger was bucking the trend of decreasing sales by establishing an ever-wider Superman family, Schiff was pushed into doing the same for Batman. Instead of just Robin, there was Batwoman, Bat-Girl, Bat-Hound, Bat-Mite, in ridiculous profusion. Schiff hated it but he could do nothing about it. So he decided that if that was what they wanted, that was what they could have.
This led to one of Batman’s worst periods ever, from about 1957 to 1963, the era of the Science Fiction Batman, with endless stories about aliens, alien monsters, monsters, alien planets. Apart from the sheer cynicism involved, which took little account of quality issues, there was the plain fact that this was completely antithetical to the core appeal of Batman, the human crimefighter, tackling urban theft and murder. It was terrible, but Schiff’s answer was that he was only giving them what they wanted.
And so Batman’s sales figures were being driven down. Until DC started looking at them very nervously and contemplating the unthinkable. If it hadn’t been Batman, maybe the comic would have been cancelled without any further thought. But they were thinking seriously about it.
Before cancellation, a rescue operation would clearly be mounted and, given his record of success in reviving superheroes since The Flash in 1956, the obvious choice was Julius Schwartz. Schwartz was agreeable to switching round some of his editorial commitments with Schiff to take over both Batman and Detective.
There were conditions. Schwartz would bring over his top artist, Carmine Infantino, and would rely on his two favoured writers, John Broome and Gardner Fox, for scripts. The array of ghosts who worked under the name of creator Bob Kane would be reassigned, and Kane would no longer automatically have his signature appended to work he had had no part in creating.
Changes were made to the series. Catwoman, frozen out under the restrictive terms of the Comics Code, would return as an antagonist. The Riddler, a past one-off, would be brought in as a new regular villain. In answer to the charges raised by Wertham, that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson’s home set-up was a ‘homosexual wish-dream’, Alfred was killed off saving the Dynamic Duo from being crushed by a humungous boulder and his place at Wayne Manor was taken by Aunt Harriet to add a feminine touch. And Batman’s costume was updated by the dubious step of adding a fluorescent yellow oval target, sorry, oval, around the bat-symbol.
But just go back and imagine. Julius Schwartz started working as an Assistant Editor at All-American Publications in the mid-Forties. Prior to that he worked as an Agent for SF writers including Alfred Bester and Ray Bradbury. The decline in markets for SF stories led to Schwartz seeking another line of work and it was Bester who told him of the vacancy at All-American.
If there hadn’t been that need, what happens if Julie Schwartz decides to stay an SF Agent. Without him, the Silver Age doesn’t start. There’s no new Flash, no new Green Lantern. No call to revive the Justice Society so there’s no Justice League of America. And nobody with a proven track record to take over and revamp Batman in 1964. If there’s no superhero revival, is there anyone to take on reviving Batman? Would another approach have been so effective?
After all, the Batman TV show started when Producer William Dozier saw a Schwartz-edited cover of either Batman or Detective featuring the Riddler that was so kooky he figured there had to be something in this. No Schwartz, no TV show. How many attempts would DC have made to set Batman back on his feet before they opted just to cancel him?
For that matter, without Schwartz to come up with the Barry Allen Flash, would there still have been comics at all? No Silver Age revival, no superhero renaissance. Was there anyone else to produce that effect without him? Schiff scored a success in Showcase with the Challengers of the Unknown, but they were brought to him by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, already developed, and anyway they were fully human. Weisinger scored with Lois Lane, but she’d been around twenty years and was just another wrinkle on Superman’s stable.
And of course, no Justice League of America and does Martin Goodman demand a group book from his cousin Stanley Leiber? Might the removal of Schwartz’s influence extend to eliminating Marvel Comics as well?
The ‘Great Person’ theory of history is usually a load of codswallop, but when it comes to comics, Julius Schwartz stands to have made enough a difference in so many directions that it is possible to look back and say, if he hadn’t taken that job at All-American Publications, would comics even exist nowadays?
At least we can take the positive that if that had been the way it happened, we wouldn’t have to put up with Film Critics moaning about Marvel Universe films.

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In name only: Plastic Man in the Sixties/Seventies


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If only Julius Schwartz had known, it might never have happened. He admitted it himself: when John Broome created the Elongated Man in the early days of the new Flash series, if he’d known that National Periodical Publications owned the rights to Jack Cole’s legendary character, Plastic Man, he’d have never accepted the name Elongated Man. After all, it is a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? If only he’d known, Ralph Dibney would have been Plastic Man and then, when somebody suggested bringing back the original Plas in 1966 they wouldn’t have been able to call the series Plastic Man, and maybe they wouldn’t have done it.
But there it was, written by Arnold Drake, drawn by, would you credit it, Gil Kane (doing Gil Kane with just a cartoony edge) and coming out of the editorial stable of Murray Boltinoff. And I, in my insatiable curiosity for what I didn’t read then, have acquired a run of all twenty issues. Didn’t I learn my lesson on Swing with Scooter?
The first issue was… distinctive. Cole’s Plastic Man was an FBI Agent who existed in a surreal world of exaggeration and implausibility. Cole was an inspired genius who knew exactly how, where, when and by how much to bend body language without losing sight of what a straight telling required. His stories were compact but buoyant, the more so for only having a cast of two, namely Plas and his side-kick, Woozy Winks.
Arnold Drake opened up with a twenty-four pager involving three different and recurring villains – one of whom was named Professor X – two side-kicks including a girlfriend, both drawn as straight people and a Marvel-esque Police Chief out to trap him as a crook with an obsession that made J. Jonah Jameson look like a model of neutrality. Gil Kane drew orthodox superhero cartoons with a relatively small degree of hamming it up, in the process establishing this style as a very plausible influence on Dennis (Dalgoda) Fujitani. Though Kane only drew the first issue before being replaced by Win Mortimer.
It’s one thing not to be as good as Jack Cole on Plastic Man, as the number of people who have been is precisely zero, but to be so little perceptive as to what made Plastic Man Plastic Man is worrying. You can see the calamity that was Shazam! in the Seventies already.
The second issue came up with three alternate origins for Plas, one of which actually bore a tangential relevance to the real one, but of humour, as in funny stuff, was there none. We have our recurring villain, Dr Dome, obsessed with killing Plas. We have his beautiful but sinister whip-wielding daughter, Lynx, aka Magnificent when she’s in uniform. We have Plas’s buddy, Gordon G Trueblood, crew-cutted, sports jacket wearing pet shop owner, Gordy in one panel in issue 1, trying to get Plas to grow up as a responsible superhero. We have his rich, blonde girlfriend Micheline de Lute the 3rd, who was equally Mike in one panel, but we also have her Moms, Micheline de Lute the 2nd, determined that no-one like Plas, i.e., poor, is getting anywhere near her hotcha daughter. And we have Police Chief McSniffe but I’d rather not talk about him.
Sometimes, the penalty of curiosity is painful.
I had a fright on the cover of issue 6, which adverted to the menace of the Mad Mod, but it wasn’t the one from the Teen Titans, just some dumb guy in a ski-mask and a scooter helmet, who was called Goldzinger which, come to think of it, was just as bad.
On one level, the story in issue 7 was just as bad as all the rest, but somehow it wasn’t. Apparently inspired by a Marvin von Wolfman, it was perhaps the most classically orthodox superhero story yet, but despite that it was a game-changing inspiration. It involved Plastic Man’s true origin, which was that he wasn’t the real Plastic Man after all, not the Jack Cole Plas, who was still teamed up with Woozy Winks.
It didn’t make the story any better in itself, but it suddenly became more palatable, that this wasn’t the original. If the one we were now reading was a different person already, it gave him licence to be different, licence for Gordon Trueblood and Micheline and all the rest.
Jack Sparling took over as penciller with issue 8 but didn’t stop the rot and the series was cancelled abruptly after ten issues. It was then revived, continuing its original numbering, almost a decade later in 1976, with Steve Skeates as writer and Ramona Fradon as artist, a potentially very good selection. Though as the first story was about Hamsters of Doom…

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This version returned to the original continuity, including Woozy Winks and the NBI, to which a couple of new characters were appended, one of whom was a very dumb blonde. As a first attempt, it got a lot closer to the essence of the real Plas, though it erred grievously in changing that nickname to Plaz.
But saying that, the second issue already contains the seeds of failure, and it’s the same as the then-recent attempt to bring back Captain Marvel in Shazam!: the writers just don’t have the imagination capable of producing good stories. They see Plastic Man’s wackiness but their only thought in how to continue in that vein is to write the same kind of superhero action story but make it silly by trivialising things. The villain who wanted to take over the world by transferring hamsters’ brains into prominent human beings was succeeded by the one who was going to do it by giving everyone a tummy-ache.
It’s a basic inability to go beyond the limitations of superheroes, and without the genius of a Jack Cole to interject his inspired surreality, it comes over as merely feeble. I’d almost rather have Arnold Drake’s version, which was at least the product of an active imagination.
Though I’ve no memory of doing so, I obviously bought an issue or two at the time – hey, it was 1976, that summer was so bloody hot my mind was seriously frazzled – because there are panels and bits of writing I already know. Especially the one guesting Robby ‘Dial H for HERO’ Reed, featured for no better reason than that he turned into Plastic Man once in his series.
Anyway, Elliott Maggin wrote issue 14 as a fill-in without any discernible difference, and when Skeates got back, the artistic touch of calling Plas Plaz was abandoned and he was once again Plas. Of such things…
But it wasn’t selling. Issue 16 skipped a slot in its bi-monthly schedule and was the last to appear under Gerry Conway’s editorship. We were warned about a new Plas, under Joe Orlando and John Albano, although Fradon stayed on. The difference was a more serious, straight story with Plas and Woozy doing their thing. It was no hardship to see the silliness gone, but it wasn’t any better and it was less distinguished.
Slightly more levity was spilled in issue 18 but the whole thing is in that death spiral I’m getting increasingly familiar with and, at least with a fitting symmetry, the series was cancelled with issue 20, and not really missed.
So accept this as a cautionary tale about curiosity, and where it can lead to. After Scooter and this, I’m going to be a bit more selective in future. Until I get overwhelmed again…

The Doctor is In(consistent): The Modern Magic of Doctor Fate


Martin Pasko and Walt Simonson did more than just produce a superb story in First Issue Special 9, they turned Dr Fate into a viable modern-day character. Though it took DC until the Eighties before they began to take Fate’s possibilities seriously, there were multiple attempts during that decade to turn the master magician, the Lord of Order, into a viable feature.
Pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths there was a back-up feature in The Flash for eight issues, later collected in a prestige format mini-series together with the Pasko/Simonson story, then post-Crisis a four issue mini-series that killed off Kent and Inza Nelson and introduced a new Dr Fate, an ongoing series of forty-one issues, the longest run Fate had after More Fun Comics, which was effectively two series stapled together, the first (of twenty-four issues) featuring Eric and Linda Strauss, the second (seventeen issues), bringing back Kent and Inza Nelson.
All of this was separate from Dr Fate’s regular gig in the Justice League/Justice Society team-ups, where he was the most frequent participant from the JSA, and his involvement in the team’s second life in All-Star Comics and Adventure Comics.
If you’re thinking that all of this could easily turn out a mish-mash, you’re not far wrong. I have all these solo issues on DVD now, together with a much later solo mini-series which has very little relationship to these efforts to establish the character, which I’ll precis at the end.
For now, let’s look at how Fate fared in the back of The Flash in 1983.

DF - backup

There were two stories in this run, each of four instalments, the first written by Pasko, building on the factors he’d set up in First Issue Special – Fate’s connection to the Egyptian Gods, Kent Nelson’s position as host for Fate and Inza’s continuing inability to reconcile herself to the need to share her husband with something she couldn’t understand and her loneliness when Fate is away on missions – and the second was written by Steve Gerber, with Pasko, which expanded the story in the direction that was later to be taken with the character.
The episodes were all drawn by Keith Giffen, with inks from Larry Mahlstedt, in the clean, open, neo-futurist style he’d used on the Legion of Superheroes, which had brought him great acclaim. Giffen drew fantastic scenes and made superb use of colour overlays to add a psychedelic aspect to his art.
The second story picked up on a thread introduced by way of foreshadowing by Pasko. This was museum director Vernon Copeland, a handsome man in his (probably) fifties, with distinguished white hair at his temples. Copeland is new at his job, with an affinity for women his own age that leads him to brush off the flirting directed at him by his sexy secretary.
Vern wants to get Kent Nelson, noted archaeologist, to contribute to the museum, but in the only photo he has, Kent is almost completely obscured by Inza, who Vern thinks is absolutely hot.
Which is unfortunate because, when Vern calls in the Gerber/Pasko story, Kent is off being Dr Fate and Inza answers the phone. When Vern hears she was on the relevant dig with Kent, he enthusiastically invites her to lunch. He thinks she’s even hotter in person, whilst Inza not only enjoys flexing her own archaeological muscles, she finds Vern rather dishy. Some of that is a response to the obvious way that he’s into her, but an equal part of it is that he looks like Kent would, if Fate had allowed him to age to his real age. Suddenly, they’re kissing. At the very moment that Fate, reaching out to Inza, connects with her and sees. At least it’s Fate, not Kent. So far.
Of course, the whole thing is a plot to destroy Dr Fate by driving a wedge between Kent and Inza, until the former refuses to transform again. Fate is faced with two renegade Lords, one of Order, the other of Chaos, allied for their own ends. His only recourse is to draw Inza herself into the merge, giving him the power to defeat his foes, her her first insight to what it’s really like to be the Lord of Order, and both a true understanding of the gulf between their separate situations.
Where Pasko or Gerber would have gone with that, and with Vern Copeland, who’d already tried to separate Inza from Kent deliberately, claiming he didn’t deserve her if he neglected her, still set on pursuing our red-headed lady was not to be known. The back-ups ceased, Vern Copeland was forgotten, and the next time DC tried to activate Dr Fate, Crisis on Infinite Earths was over, and more than one superhero was undergoing change.

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The path had been laid for the character’s most extraordinary transformation. Inza Nelson had been allowed, for a couple of pages, to share the transformation into Dr Fate and it was this aspect that J M de Matteis picked up on with a four-issue mini-series out to create a new Dr Fate. Art was by Giffen again, but this was the other Giffen, the one who’d rejected his clean, well-structured art for something fractured, angular and distorted, as influenced by the Argentinian artist, Jose Munoz.
I bought the mini-series at the time but didn’t enjoy it. Some of it was that it took away Kent Nelson, who’d been Dr Fate all the time I’d known him, a lot was down to Giffen’s art but as much of it was de Matteis’ construction of a new structural underpinning.
de Matteis was always into stories with a spiritual underpinning, drawn from Eastern philosophies rather than Western mythology, to which I always respond more instinctively. Building on the fact that Dr Fate, or rather Nabu, was now established as a Lord of Order, part of the eternal struggle between Order and Chaos that everyone ripped off from Michael Moorcock, de Matteis now introduced the idea that Earth cycles through four cosmic cycles, starting with an era of pure Order, passing through two ages of increasing Chaos influence and ultimately putting us now firmly in the fourth of these cycles, the Kali Yuga, the age of pure Chaos.
So, despite the battle between Order and Chaos having gone on for over half a million years Order has decided not to bother for the Kali Yuga. Why should they raise a mystical finger when all they need to is go for an extended tea-break and come back when it’s their turn again?
This defeatist attitude riles Nabu/Fate, who is the descended one because he was sent down to Earth to fight against Chaos and won’t give up now. As a result, he’s kicked out of Order and, effectively, defrocked. The fight is his own. And he’s handicapped.
Because Inza is dead. Later, it will be ascribed to suicide, to knowledge of the discovery that will not be made until the last issue of this mini-series but for now it’s fudged, it could just as easily be natural causes, despite Nabu’s spells that keep both Nelsons young. Either way, Kent has aged considerably (no, he doesn’t look like Vern Copeland, Vern is completely forgotten) and is only hanging around to assist Nabu in selecting a new Dr Fate. Nabu at this point is a wide-open mouth in Nelson’s stomach, with lots of predatory teeth, which is a sight you don’t want to see.
The choice falls upon Eric Strauss. The pattern is going to be the same. Eric is only ten years old but he’s going to be accelerated to manhood, exactly like Nelson. Only he’s not like Nelson in almost every way you could probably imagine. His Dad, who’s dead, was a big-time gangster. He’s being brought up by his stepmother, Linda Strauss, a somewhat skinny short-haired blonde, though you can tell very little from how Giffen draws her.
The relationship between Eric and Linda can only be classed as dodgy. Linda has feelings and, dare we say it, stirrings about her ten year old stepson. He’s so wise, so mature, an old soul, and besides she only married his Dad for his money, which doesn’t say much for her to begin with.
And then suddenly Eric’s a grown man, age undetermined but impliedly on a par with her, and whilst she’s outraged at what has been done to him, there’s a part of her that, to put it bluntly, can’t wait to get at him.
But the big reveal comes when Eric insists on having Linda with him when he transforms into the Doctor, whilst Nabu tries to insist she stay out of it. This is no mere misogynist gesture, because Eric realises the real and awful truth, which is that Dr Fate was always intended to be the merger of male and female (into a very male looking form but we’ll deal with consistency when anyone gives a damn). Fate should always have been Kent and Inza, but Nabu shunted the redhead aside so he could control Dr Fate himself, naughty naughty.
Cue therefore a complete meltdown from Eric, calling Nabu as evil as Chaos, the effective merger of him and her and Fate saving the temporary day. After that Kent dies peacefully but the now no-longer-Lord-of-Order Nabu takes over his aged body to act as trainer and advisor to Eric and Linda who, henceforth and forever, will be Dr Fate.
Actually, they won’t, but you know how these things go.

DF - McM

This was where Doctor Fate’s first ever ongoing series under his own name began. It’s written by de Matteis, but art duties have transferred to Shawn McManus, the artist of all the bucolic-looking, cartoon-like fill-ins on Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, most notably the homage to Pogo. McManus was perfect on those, his style involving rounded characters and perpetual broad grins suggesting we’re mere inches away from the top of the head falling off, but dare I suggest he’s not the best fit for a superhero supernatural series which is going to involve demons, as well as a very awkward psychosexual setup involving a twenty-nine year old woman hot to trot and a ten year old boy in the body of a twenty-nine year old man who is nowhere near the emotional maturity to handle jumping her skinny bones. The situation is not helped by McManus’s style on Linda’s short hair doing very little to make her look tempting (bring back Inza!).
The note being struck at first is predictable: it’s all about arguments. Nabu argues with Eric about his abandoning the connection that lets him advise them, Linda argues with Eric about the bombastic way he talks, he argues with her about being a weak part of the combination, oh it’s a happy little household indeed.
Meanwhile, an overlooked demon invader of hideous mien stalks towards Fate’s sanctum to be attacked thoughtlessly when actually he’s a non-bad demon who only wants to live in Earth in peace once Nabu talks to him, and is adopted as the household pet, Petey, shape-shifted into a dog. Since de Matteis is, and the humour definitely was Jewish, it’s highly appropriate for me to say, Oi vey!
This formulation would last exactly two years. I did have the run but I sold it, unhappy at too many aspects of it, from the jokey art to the mystical writing and some extremely glutinous combinations of the two. One major departure was that Fate’s golden helm was no longer a helm but Fate’s head, which may not have looked much different but was hard to reconcile to.
The panel to panel writing is even more irritating now. de Matteis was dialoguing Justice League International as a superhero sitcom and carries that over to this series. Not having re-read the JLI in a couple of decades, I wonder how I might feel about it now, but it’s tedious here thanks to the self-consciousness with which it’s laid on.
The constant bickering between Eric and Linda, both in propria persona and in the shared consciousness of the Doctor was repetitive in the extreme over the early issues, with Eric playing the bombastic card, the gothic language, the uncontrolled temper underlined by the fear of inexperience, and Linda trying to play an equal role. It was enough to drive anyone mad and Eric was a long way down the road already when, as early as issue 4, he lets Linda take over, producing a female Doctor Fate, and one with much bigger tits than she had, a fact rather blatantly highlighted on the cover of the next issue, along with her ass. Karen Berger is still editing this, isn’t she?
The first serialised story took five issues to get through, ending with a ton of metaphysical nonsense bound up in over-ripe smiles and the non-death and non-rebirth of the universe. I don’t remember it being so utterly awful back then, I may have been thirty years and more younger but I wasn’t that undiscriminating.
McManus started inking his own pencils in issue 7, in which Petey went back to Hell to fetch his demon girlfriend, a story that was literally unreadable, and that before the constant cutesy dialogue. We were only just half a year into the series and Eric was laid up with dysentery (who cares?) so Linda had to become tits-and-ass Fate again, painfully, only half as strong and with practically no knowledge of the magic side of things, that being Eric’s job. I am already being tempted to go and re-read Swing with Scooter.
Anyway, if you believe the story, Eric died in issue 9, and Darkseid turned up to loom ominously. Even though it was continued on the next cover, he wasn’t actually dead, although don’t start planning any parties because de Matteis is off on another of his spiritual ascensions. A new fetus is about to arrive on Earth that will be the first in a new order of Humanity, outgrowing gods, especially Order, Chaos and New. In fact, that’s why Order wants to speed through the Kali Yuga, to get rid of it before it gets rid of them. Darkseid offers to kill it in return for a half share in the Universe, whichever side wins.
So Darkseid goes to kill Dr Fate in the form of Eric, because Linda’s out of town. Eric becomes Dr Fate on his own but is Boom Tubed to Apokalips. Linda becomes Dr Fate on her own as well and goes to Apokalips to rescue Eric. Vel Semeiks and Mark Buckingham fill-in at the crucial moment. Eric-Fate and Linda-Fate hold hands and defeat Parademons. On Earth, Nabu admits that the energies he used to age Eric from 10 to 29 are killing him. On Apokalips, the Strauss’s defeat Darkseid by opening their love for each other in his heart (oh, now he’s raping Kirby’s creations as well).
Having won the day, Linda’s just about to take the exhausted Eric home when a soldier throws a spear at her. Eric jumps in the way. He dies. I told you not to start planning any parties. We are halfway through de Matteis’s run but don’t worry, it gets worse.
So, in the space of one year, a Doctor Fate intended to be the merger of male and female, animus and anima, is reduced to anima only, to play the weak female stereotype with a survivor incapable of handling the power and the responsibility. What is this, still the Fifties? Was Karen Berger editing this? No, she’d moved on, to better things (i.e., absolutely anything else) and left it to Art Young now).
Before that there was an odd story in issue 13, concluding the death of Eric story. McManus suddenly sharpened up his art whilst de Matteis provided a surprisingly excellent portrayal of Linda in denial-grief over the loss of Eric. She insisted on forcing herself to become Dr Fate, despite the absolute torture that represented, and going off to Limbo to bring him back, at which point the story nose-dived into what de Matteis had Linda call ‘cosmic platitudes’, though immediately afterwards she Understood. Having a Christ-substitute Guide drawn to look like de Matteis himself was the nadir.
Bringing back Fate’s oldest nemesis, Wotan, and guest-starring Justice League Europe resulted in a mish-mash with another glutinous ending, transforming the villain into a proto-saint by confronting him with the ultimate power, God as Love. You can go off redemption when it’s flung at you so relentlessly, like a custard pie to the face.
The basic problem is that I am completely out of sympathy with de Matteis’ spiritual beliefs, which are the core of the series. In real life I have ended up an atheist, a pragmatist, insistent upon actuality and fact, and the nebulous and, indeed, platitudinousness of de Matteis’ portrayal of a Universe where God is Love and everything is Love, and the pain and suffering of being human can be borne by recognising this Universe of Love is just wishful thinking to me of a kind to which I can’t respond. Or, to put it more crudely, it’s bullshit.
Anyway, the endgame starts in issue 17. Eric and his Guide pause at the edge of Nirvana because he needs to go back, via a convoluted past of people’s previous lives. This is because de Matteis is introducing Eugene de Bella, a slightly overweight, manically happy guy with a wife, a ridiculously beaming daughter called Faith, a de Matteis moustache and another baby on the way. This is the guy de Matteis kills off in a car accident in order that Eric can merge with his body and reanimate it, leading the depressed Linda to beam a truly mad smile that just hurts to look at, it’s such a harbinger of obsessive danger: “He’s alive!”
The story grinds slowly. Linda can’t become Dr Fate any more. An Anti-Fate is constructed by Chaos and takes two full issues of brooding before deciding to act. The Phantom Stranger drops in on Eugene de Bella to talk to Eric (and his sickeningly cute six year old) to unveil the plot that Eric and Wendy’s forthcoming child is the progenitor of the new humanity Order and Chaos were trying to prevent, and Nabu-as-Kent Nelson takes everybody to the reconstructed Fate’s tower in Salem, where the real helm and amulet have also been re-constituted, and Petey the demon and Jack Small the lawyer, who I’ve been trying to avoid mentioning, are sent into the amulet to bring out it’s occupants, the souls of Kent and Inza Nelson… Has this entire run, and its preceding mini-series, just been an elaborate bluff?
Four more issues to the end, four issues none of which were worth describing except the last one, which was in the form of a bedtime story told by The Phantom Stranger to Eugene and Wendy’s six year old heap of sugar daughter Rainie, who could give you diabetes just from looking at her and who, this you hadn’t guessed already? was the new seed of humanity. Along the way, Kent and Inza agreed to come back from their private heaven of normality in the amulet, despite Inza fighting every step of the way until she’s convinced to do so by her imaginary son, whilst Linda became Dr Fate one last time in conjunction with Nabu, got their asses soundly kicked and she died. Which was all right because Wendy de Bella was about to suffer a fatal cerebral haemorrhage and have Linda take over her body, just as Eric had Eugene (so the two could finally shag to their hearts’ content without it being seriously icky).
And everything ended with the cosmic smile that signalled nothing more than the urgent need to turn the page as fast as possible. This has to be the most appallingly sickening series I’ve read and I cannot believe I once actually bought all twenty four issues. Should a time machine come into my possession, I shall be going back to give my younger self a good shillelaghing for doing so.

DF - Inza

I am at least pleased that this issue saw a complete sweep-out, de Matteis, McManus and Young getting the kick in the seat of the pants and being replaced by a completely new creative team, starting with editor Stuart Moore and going on to penciller Vince Garriano and, most welcome of all, writer William Messner-Loebs. This was going to be much better.
I was already a fan of Bill Loebs for his independent series Journey, which he wrote and drew, and it is one of the minor tragedies of my life that not enough people bought Journey to sustain it indefinitely. But Loebs was a refreshing mind, and a very left/socialist oriented one, to bring to bear on any subject, even when he was clearly writing beneath himself on superheroes, like the Wally West Flash and the new Dr Fate.
Because Loebs wasn’t just going to bring back Kent and Inza, oh no. There were a few twists immediately. Instead of being trapped in Fate’s tower in Salem, Kent initiated a merge, first of himself and Inza, then of the tower with a tall, thin apartment block in New York that Sven Nelson owned and Kent inherited. Which is now the last intact building in a neighbourhood that’s not so much run down as being actively decimated, a place for poor people, most of them not white, driven down by the underside of the Yuppie dream.
Meanwhile, the Lords of Order are abandoning Earth to its own fate except for one crusty old bugger determined to wreak revenge on the traitor Nabu and Dr Fate. Only this time, when Kent and Inza try to merge to defend themselves, only Inza makes it through the mix. We have a new, inexperienced female Fate again, one who will approach superpowers with non-male thinking who, in the meantime, defuses Shat-Ru by binding him into the (mummified) body of old Kent, from which he can’t escape without burning it up before he can escape. If you get my drift.
Loebs was taking the series in a unique direction. Inza as Fate thought as a woman, with the instinct to deal with her neighbourhood and the people in it. Doing things that were in themselves trivial, like repairing broken traffic lights and giving people new dresses, things that directly benefited people in ways they could see and feel, without their having to be hurt or threatened first. Kent worried, argued, feared. She wasn’t doing it right, which meant she wasn’t doing it the way he had, even as he was incredibly grateful not to have to be Fate any more.
But was Inza doing too much? Was she retarding people by making them too dependent upon her?
Garriano left after five issues, leaving Peter Gross to take over the full art job for an issue before Chas Truog spelled him. And Loebs dealt with the question of the use of power by having Inza Fate refuse to allow a young Policewoman die, shot in a bloody stupid accident. The energy this took was taken from the living, causing Inza’s elderly friend Mary to have a heart attack. Unintended consequences: even good things have them. And the saved woman understood who Fate really was.
And from there it was one step to taking a Master of the Universe, a man who openly didn’t give a shit for those who had no power, and stripping him of everything: power, money, empire and identity, and using those resources for public benefit.
It was glorious, on one level. All the rich shits should have that done to them, for simply stealing all the air for themselves, but at the same time it was the ultimate in Might makes Right, a level of power that no-one should have. Power Corrupts: What the Hell else is it for? as Howard Chaykin put it.
The path crossed for two issues with DC’s other 1991 Summer crossover, War of the Gods, something for which Dr Fate was well-fitted, En route, four Egyptian gods claimed to have blocked Kent Nelson out of the transformation on the basis that they’d find the inexperienced Inza easier to overcome but it didn’t work out like that.
Loebs then turned the screw by presenting Inza with a tragic outcome based on her not helping someone, causing a backlash where she tries to do everything. This brings Government and Big Business down on her tail because, you know, it’s wonderful that people are happier and safer and more content but they’re not smoking or drinking or doing drugs in the same quantities any more, and we can’t have that, fortunes are not being made out of weakness.
It’s a savage point, an extreme satire yet one that, in the world in which we reside, one of an unwanted truth. Kent has to go in to bring her down, and which point Inza’s swallowed by the Helm… Whilst we’re set up for the big reveal, Kent resumes being Dr Fate in his own way, with the half-helm of yesteryear before coming to the rescue of Inza, prisoner of a Lord of Chaos, because it is Chaos-Magic, not Order, that has infused her tenure, hence Kent’s exclusion.
And in the end, Dr Fate’s investment in people was repaid. When Inza, without chaos-magic or order-magic still defied the Chaos Lord, the neighbourhood stood with her to back her as she had backed them. All over the world, the currents of love and magic in every human being fuelled her. It was another retcon of Dr Fate, in its way as mystical as de Matteis’s gloop, but far more moving and impressive because it needed no gods, just humans to be human in their best way, to be ourselves as we can be. And no damned stupid smiles.
In a way, that was the end. Even though there were four issues left. After a weak fill-in, Loebs contributed a mini-arc of three issues dealing, with a fair degree of reality with the aftermath of what had just happened. There’s an instinctive groundedness to this coda that would permeate the best of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City only a few years later. Of course, being politically sympathetic never hurts.
The whole thing is a gentle easing down, a steering into the skid. There’s a calmness to it that you know can’t last because, after all, it’s only possible to be a different kind of superhero for so long until the novelty wears out and they want the same thing back again. Inza wrapped things up in swaddling clothes, and it was done.
Dr Fate was cancelled after forty-one issues, a decent enough run. For once, it was not cancelled because its sales had fallen too low, but because without a powerful new direction, and a creative team eager to explore it, it would have run itself into the ground, into cancellation, probably within half a year. Why do that? Let it rest in goodwill, and return when someone was fascinated enough to kickstart it again.
That was the theory. In practice, Mike Carlin exerted his influence to get the Justice Society finally killed off in Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, and the next Doctor Fate was no Doctor. The Doc returned as Hector Hall, and later Kent V Nelson, about whom I’ll write another time in a kind of coda to this piece, but this was the last time Kent and Inza Nelson played their signature role.
I’m very glad Bill Loebs put in that year and a half and Fate didn’t end on de Matteis and McManus. But in dozens of old comics the Doctor Fate who matters to me will always exist, in one form or another.

A Spot of Adventure: The Golden Age Revisited – Part 2


In early 1946, Harry Donenfeld’s Detective Comics Inc, and Charley Gaines’ All-American Publications Inc had been in dispute for several months, though negotiations on a $500,000 payout for Gaines were well-advanced, and soon business manager Jack Liebowitz would be negotiating the merger of both companies, plus the little-regarded American Comics Group Inc, another possession of Donenfeld, into National Comics Inc.
These were not the only changes in mind. The War was over, the GIs were coming home, that audience for cheap, gaudy and above all brief entertainment was disappearing, forever. Forget the paper rationing, forget the diminution of the package from 64 pages to 48, times were a-changing, and comics might have to change with them.
Detective’s oldest title was More Fun Comics. A decision was taken, to revamp the title completely, have it live up to its title, convert it to a comic comic. Funny animals, to a large but not exclusive extent.
But More Fun had a successful line-up of superheroes. It had just become home to Superboy, the adventures of Superman as a boy. And there was Aquaman, and The Green Arrow, who was incredibly popular and the lead feature for most of the time since he’d been introduced, nor to mention that flying speedster, Johnny Quick. What was to be done about them?

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The chosen option was to decant them, lock, stock and barrel, into Detective’s second oldest title, Adventure Comics. Room was made by cancelling both Sandman and Starman, whose series had been running at an artistic loss for ages and could hardly be regretted. The War hero, Mike Gibbs, Guerilla, could be bounced too whilst the odd little oddball series, Genius Jones, could go the other way. He’d be more at home in an all-funny comic anyway. The Shining Knight? He was a superhero so he could be kept on.
And thus, with issue 103, Adventure transformed. What’s more, it was bumped back to monthly publication. If the run from New Comics to New Adventure Comics and beyond had been Phase 1, and the introduction of the original version of Sandman had ushered in Phase 2, now we were in for Phase 3. After the depths to which all the old series had sunk, how could it not be an improvement?
Well, for a start there was the line-up. The Shining Knight was far from being at the forefront, and Johnny Quick, though energetic and saddled with a comic sidekick in Tubby Watts, was enjoyable enough, but the Big Three now were Superboy and Mort Weisinger’s two uninspired knock-offs.
The first Superboy tale demonstrates where Siegel and Shuster were at, or perhaps where they were allowed to be at. This Superboy may be the Boy of Steel but he’s far from the teenager we’re familiar with. The story is set on Clark Kent’s 10th birthday, but it’s also Betty Marrs’ birthday and her need is greater than his. But Superboy has to come to the rescue when the unfortunate misidentification of Betty’s father with a bank robbery suspect has all the good, upstanding, God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth midwestern parents keeping their kids away from her party until Superboy streaks to the rescue and refreezes the melted ice cream.
This Superboy is a boy, a good-hearted little boy with very limited horizons. Siegel wanted his series to be all about showing off and playing pranks with powers but was not allowed to indulge himself that way. Instead, little Clark will use his powers to help his schoolmates. It’s a sweet idea, but somewhat short on thrills. It won’t last, naturally, but whilst it does…

Adv Aqua

Aquaman, with yellow gauntlets and no royal Atlantean blood was a pallid rip-off of Timely’s Sub-Mariner. It’s going to be a long time before he says or does anything remotely interesting, and by long I mean, not even in the decade after this one.
At this remove it’s difficult to appreciate, and even harder to understand, just how popular The Green Arrow was in his early years. I’m disadvantaged in that when I first encountered him he was a penny-plain, making up the numbers JLAer (remember, he was the only existing DC superhero excluded from the JLA’s founding line-up), a genuine C-list character on his best day, so I remember him that way, and all the way up to Neal Adams’ first costume re-design. But at the beginning, The Green Arrow was big. He was More Fun’s cover feature, disturbed only by the recent need to alternate with Dover and Clover (either read about them in my More Fun piece or, preferably, read it but ignore them), and he also had a second slot in World’s Finest, running concurrently.
Yet all he was was a Batman clone, substituting Arrows for Bats as his motif. He’s not even a trick arrow merchant at this point. But he was popular enough to hold down the back of book slot that so many series reserved for their strongest character, making sure the little kids read all the way through.
The Superboy series is very much pitched at the child’s level of its character’s age, with little do-good stories. Ma and Pa Kent hardly appear at all, the town isn’t even named as Smallville and Clark is far from the shrinking klutz he plays later on. Indeed, he’s a confident little boy, at home with his peers and treated as a valued friend by all of them. Yet it can bring us stories like issue 113’s touching little tale, involving neither crime nor villain, just the response of a community to the terrible misfortunes of a man who, for 32 years, has played a secret Santa to the town’s kids, and who needs the good offices of a Santa himself. It managed to be sweet without being sentimental: just a small-town America story that rang true.

Adv GA

The Green Arrow is just bland. Any lingering doubts about him being a Batman knock-off are surely dispelled by him having a clown enemy called Bulls-Eye. As far as Oliver Queen is concerned, there’s a near total absence. Neither Oliver nor Roy Harper have any personality, and we practically only see them out of costume when they’re just about to change into it. And the era of the trick arrow hasn’t started yet: there’s the occasional use of the boomerang arrow and little else. You really couldn’t imagine this guy becoming the Ollie Queen we’ve know since 1969.
Aquaman is similarly drab, but what do you expect from two characters created by Mort Weisinger to be knock-offs. Again, though the blond stiff is described as the Monarch of the Sea, we’ve over a decade to wait for the introduction of Atlantis, and this Aquaman just fights sea-style menaces, most often the pirate Black Jack, who first appears in issue 108. There’s a nasty little story in issue 111 featuring seals and swordfish and electric eels with names and a bunch of stereotype Japanese committing hari-kiri that would have been distinctly unpleasant even if the War was still going.
Between them, Aquaman and The Green Arrow don’t have enough personality to fill a thimble. For some reason he missed out in issue 118.
A new recurring character in Superboy, actually the first regular antagonist, debuted in issue 121. No, it’s not Lana Lang, though I might wish she’d appear soon, but rather the now-forgotten Orville Orville, indulged son of the richest man in town, who uses his father’s wealth to buy instant collections to win every category in a Hobby contest, at the expense of the ordinary, ‘working’ children who’ve built up their collections by hard work, diligence and effort. As he will on each occasion, Superboy intervenes to support his classmates.
It’s a surprisingly blue collar, almost Socialist theme, with echoes of the Protestant work ethic that harks back to some of Superman’s original themes, before the fantastic took over.
In comparison, Johnny Quick is head and shoulders above the rest. The very idea of speed automatically makes the series more vigorous, even if some of the science is more than dodgy. There is, however, a formula to the series in that increasingly they’re all about Johnny having to save the day by doing something relatively ordinary that would normally taken a large workforce days to complete, except that Johnny does it alone and at worst overnight. Add to that some Kubert-influenced art from Mort Meskin and Johnny Quick makes continued reading worthwhile.

Adv JohnnyAs for the Shining Knight, his adventures are, like those of Aquaman and The Green Arrow, are also basically bland but in a different, almost wholesome way. Weisinger’s knock-offs come over as almost aggressively bland, the characters striving to demonstrate their importance, even as their stories are flat and banal. The Shining Knight is just ordinary, but the continuing emphasis on chivalry adds a certain atmosphere that lifts it by just enough of a degree.
But I was bemused by issue 124 when, out of the blue, Sir Justin is partnered with Sir Butch, aka Butch from Beeler’s Alley in Flatbush. The kid is a modern, slang-talking young teen, a tough kid, who’s been back to Camelot with the Knight and been knighted by King Arthur. I’ll swear I’ve read that story somewhere, but this is the kid’s debut. I hope future issues will explain.
But whereas the Knight had appeared continuously since his debut, that run ended after issue 125. He would not finally depart for comic book limbo until issue 166, but from hereon he would be in and out of the title according to no particular rhythm or schedule. For instance, he’s in issue 127 but doesn’t appear again until issue 131, beginning a two-issue run.
Very slowly, the Superboy stories have been evolving out of their ten-year-old helps his pals style. Very slowly, Clark has been ageing, and the proof of this was in issue 131, when he first shows appreciation of a girl. No, it’s not Lana Lang but a brunette cutie named Betty, though in the world of DC Comics she might as well have been named Shallow, first turning him down for their school’s star athlete, then turning to Clark when she needs help with her homework.
The Shining Knight adventure in the next issue re-introduced Sir Butch by telling the out-of-order story of how he meets Sir Justin, goes back to Camelot with him and ends up being knighted by King Arthur: pretty poor editing – credited at this time, as all National’s titles were, to Whitney Ellsworth – to have the stories come out so widely spaced and in this order.
By the time of his next run, three issues from no.137, it seemed as if the feature had undergone a permanent change, that it was now set in Camelot and the out-of-time traveller was Sir Butch. Instead of fighting modern crooks with the weapons of the past (and a flying horse), Sir Justin brought the science of the future (and a flying horse) to the time of magic.

Adv Knight

The Superboy story in issue 140 was well in keeping with the general silliness creeping into the feature as Superboy accompanies an absent-minded Professor on the first rocket trip to the Moon, but it’s notable that, en route, the Boy of Steel has to fend off a destructive shower of meteorites that an excited caption identifies as remnants of Krypton. They have no effect on him. Mort Weisinger would have turned puce with anger at the missed opportunity. Superboy’s solo series – only the sixth ever from National or its predecessors – was in its infancy, so I’m guessing we can thank that series for this story to carry the first mention in Adventure of Smallville.
The overall truth, however, is still what I said in the first version of this post, that Adventure is simply too dull to be worthwhile. We have not yet reached the Fifties, the big three features offer nothing but blandness. Their stories are frequently not even stories bur rather catalogues of super-stunts featuring implausible exercises of their particular powers in combinations lacking in logic or even comprehensible sequence, and stopping without a climax when the page limit is reached.
Perhaps not surprisingly it’s the lesser features that offer some glimpse of enjoyment, though Johnny Quick very often succumbs to the same catalogue failing, but at least his art still has some spark of enthusiasm to it.
The chivalrous hero was back in 142, after two missing issues, and enjoying the best art of his career, though not yet from the young Frank Frazetta, but rather Ruben Moreira. To be honest, the is-he-or-isn’t-he? of whether there’ll be a Shining Knight story is the most interesting thing in this phase of the title, no disrespect to the still-entertaining Johnny Q.
Finally, Clark Kent’s parents appeared, in issue 145, taking him on a trip to Metropolis. It’s not much of an appearance: neither are named and Jonathan looks nothing like the standard portrait that became so familiar in the rapidly-nearing Fifties.
The Shining Knight had now appeared in four consecutive issues but not a fifth. Aquaman had a story in issue 147 where he found himself rescuing a man named Dan Dunbar over and over that wasn’t even a story but I note because Dan(ny) Dunbar was the identity of TNT’s sidekick, Dan the Dyna-mite, probably coincidence rather than conscious recycling.
There was an oddity in issue 149 with a six-page tale of the life of author Jack London interrupting the cycle that had by then run just under four years. Then Adventure hit issue 150 with a cover date of March 1950 and no fanfare or special features despite this being the company’s first title to reach that landmark. I couldn’t help but be amused to discover Johnny Quick’s villain – a man who hypnotised people into believing that he could walk through walls – being named The Spectre. Nah, buddy. And Frank Frazetta made his debut on The Shining Knight: nice art, and the first to make a flying horse’s wings look realistic.
Occasionally I wonder about certain things. The Trades Description Act, the one that sought to set up penalties for manufacturers and advertisers who told blatant porkies to get customers to buy their crappy stuff (and not only the crappy stuff: there was a memorable series of TV commercials featuring Bernard Miles admiring a pint of Guiness and burring that ‘it looks good, it tastes good, and by golly, it does you good’ which couldn’t be continued), wasn’t passed until 1968. I’ve no idea when the first of America’s Truth-in-Advertising Laws were passed, but I assume it wasn’t any time during the Forties. Or they would have been used against the words that appeared on every cover of Adventure: Another Exciting Story of Superman when he was Superboy. Another? I’m still waiting for the first.
Of course, the moment I noticed that, on issue 151’s cover, they dropped it!
I’ve never been a fan of Frazetta’s art, his posters and paperback covers, but on the Shining Knight he is absolutely fabulous, the best art ever to appear in the comic, and dragon’s head and shoulders above all the Knight’s other artists standing on each other’s shoulders on tiptoe.
To my surprise, the usual boring Aquaman story was missing from issue 159.
We’re still no nearer getting any thrilling Superboy stories but there was a nice, gentle tale in issue 160, showing both Clark Kent and Superboy turning a girl who thought of herself as dull and plain into a real-life Cinderella in the face of her cruel cousins. Sometimes, such stories err on the side of sentimentality but this balanced things out nicely, even down Clark losing the girl to more polished suitors without regret. And she had red hair. Hey, when do we finally get Lana Lang?
Next issue, in fact, no 161, large as life and twice as natural and already fully-formed in her snoopy-girl precursor to Lois Lane aspect. It’s genuinely nice to see her.
The consensus has always been that the Golden Age of Comics ended with the Justice Society of America’s final appearance in All-Star Comics 57. That came out the same month as Adventure 161, but in the original post I chose to go on to issue 166, despite not having it on the disc I was using. I chose that as my cut-off point because it featured The Shining Knight’s final appearance, and I shall do so again now.
The penultimate story was a curiosity, not a reprint but a re-presentation, a none-too old story completely redrawn by Frazetta, much more attractively. And he was there to the end, still utterly rock-solid and real.
So that’s the truer story of Adventure Comics in the Golden Age, as read issue by issue. What followed we already know and I’m not going over that again. So now I have the full story on all those Justice Society members whose solo series’ I wanted to read. And is that the eventual end of my Golden Age reads, after so many false endings? Actually, there is one more I plan to explore…