Lest a Black Cat cross your path: Part 1 – Her Solo Title


The first one

After indulging myself with one of the Golden Age’s brighter heroines, what better than to have a look at another popular character from the same era, who, like Lady Luck, lived and breathed outside the ambit of DC Comics. I’ve long been intrigued by images of Harvey Comics’ Black Cat (nothing to do with Marvel’s Felicia Hardy) for the simplicity, sexiness and brio of her appearance. So, a DVD-Rom of her solo series, all 29 issues of it, and let’s see if the stories match up to the art.
I’m actually starting in the middle. Black Cat got her own comic in 1946, which ran bi-monthly until 1951 in a 48-page anthology format of which she was the indubitable lead role. Hollywood’s Glamorous Detective Hero it said on all her stories, whilst the cover went one further in proclaiming her the ‘Darling of Comics’. Black Cat was movie-star Linda Turner, America’s sweetheart (and a redhead, what more can I ask?). Linda, daughter of silent movie western star Tim Turner and a now-deceased stuntwoman, got her start as a stuntwoman herself, working her way up through bit-parts to stardom. Along the way, in circumstances we won’t go into at the moment, she became Black Cat, Hollywood’s heroine.
Only Tim knows Linda’s secret. Her boyfriend, Rick Horne, radio news reporter, has no idea whatsoever, despite being practically Black Cat’s partner in her adventures. Nor does Linda’s secretary, Jonesy. The only other one aware of her double-life is Toby, Linda’s (black) cat who, despite the name, is actually female.
According to the family, Black Cat was supposedly conceived by Alfred Harvey, though there’s no evidence to support this, and was initially drawn by Al Gabriele. She debuted in the experimental, digest-sized Pocket Comics 1, in 1941 but transferred to Harvey’s Speed Comics, where she co-starred with Captain Freedom. Speed Comics was still running when Black Cat got her own title but was cancelled the following year.
The cover of Black Cat 1 amply demonstrates the character’s appeal. It’s not just the backless bathing-suit costume, the boots and gloves (not to forget the red hair), but the sheer exuberance of the drawing. This is someone who looks full of life and vigour, promising good fun stories. And inside the first issue were two Black Cat stories, topping and tailing the comic, and separated by three rather surprising stories about competing airmen, American kids and Yugoslav resistance fighters, none of whom who looked like regular series material, still fighting the War that had been over a year before the comic’s June/July cover date.
The two Black Cat stories were quite a contrast. In the opener, two ex-circus members, part of a German spy-ring, try to kill Rick Horne to stop him exposing them, with the female impersonating Black Cat, and at the end Linda and Rick are in India entertaining American troops and foiling a Japanese plot to invade India via the Khyber Pass. The one page prose story was abysmal, though.
The art is relatively simplistic but Black Cat is lithe and active, and quick-moving, and in neither story does this pre-Code comic show any concerns about killing enemies. Nor does it show any concerns about depicting the Japs as racist caricatures with yellow skin. This, I think, may have to be taken as a given, to be mentioned only if particularly egregious.

Lee Elias debuts

Given that she was an already well-established character by this point, there’s no feeling around for the best approach. Linda doesn’t go out patrolling or anything like that, she stumbles onto crimes as she goes about her Hollywood star business, slips away to change into her costume, and heads into the action. Said costume at this point and throughout her own comic, consists of a backless dark blue bathing costume, an opera mask with two high points, flared gloves and buccaneer boots: as I said, simple, practical, flexible and pretty damned sexy, much of which is a tribute to the energy with which she’s being drawn, tempered by realistic, non-exaggerated physical motions.
And Black Cat is fearless, lithe, a master of ju jitsu, a skilled acrobat and a top-notch motorbike rider. She isn’t fazed by thugs of any description or size, and unlike DC’s soon-to-be-introduced Black Canary, whose series will display some uncomfortable similarities to the Black Cat set-up, she doesn’t go around getting clonked on the head every tale, or ending up tied up all the time.
In short, her adventures are fun, short, cheerful in outlook, fast moving but also grounded in crimes by ordinary criminals. It’s not ground-breaking, it’s not ambitious, but it’s infectious fun. And in its attitude to death, which on both the lawful and lawless sides takes place with realistic frequency, but never exploitively, it strikes a different tone to DC’s contemporary titles. Once Lee Elias took over the art from issue 4, giving Linda a much less wussy hairstyle in the process, I could see I was going to enjoy this.

An Elias splash page

Black Cat was nevertheless an anthology title. There was a Black Cat lead plus a prose tale of either one or two pages near the back: the two pagers were far better and they were awful. But the rest of the pages were a confusing muddle. Harvey really hadn’t taken the idea of a settled line-up to heart as characters would run for two to three issues before vanishing to be replaced with some other idea
Nor was there any pattern to what might appear next. Detective Johnny Nabisco looked like a stayer but lasted two stories (maybe three: issue 2 is missing from the DVD), Danny Dixon, Cadet, a series about a poor military cadet rooming with the rich and self-centred denizen of Cafe Society, Jonathan Spencer Alden III, looked about five years out of date but stuck.
And there were ‘superheroes’, like The Red Demon, alias harsh-sentencing Judge Straight, a man with a law textbook for a heart, who actually got an origin story with the ironic twist that he took his identity and costume from a murdered gangster, and master archer The Scarlet Arrow, a very close contemporary of the one in green at DC, but with an ornate and archaic costume that must have been a bugger to draw.
The legendary Joe Simon/Jack Kirby team had a run in the title with a bunch of oddball characters they’d worked up a year before, planned as a new line for Harvey Comics that didn’t last due to a post-War glut of new comics swamping an already-shrinking market. These included the Duke of Broadway, with a Runyonesque background in theatreland, the Vagabond Prince, a greetings card writer turned crimefighter with an absurd multicoloured costume and a teen sidekick called Chief Justice, plus a one-off for Stuntman, a stuntman-turned-crimefighter.
This is not the highlights of Simon and Kirby’s career – experts pin the first to to Joe Simon only – but in an off-the-wall way I liked the Duke of Broadway and the Vagabond Prince was at least different, in a stare-open-mouthedly-in-shock manner

But all these stories were leftovers from a year earlier, being used up. And there weren’t many of them, which led into another abrupt change in issue 8. Harvey ran a lot of titles reprinting famous newspaper strips, the most notable being Terry and the Pirates, but also including Joe Palooka and Alfred Andriola’s private detective, Kerry Drake. Suddenly, his strips started appearing in Black Cat, though not consistently: his continuity was being swapped with his own title so stories continued elsewhere.

Let’s take a look in detail at an issue of Black Cat, and to demonstrate our susceptibility to superstition, we’ll choose issue 13, dated September 1948. The cover is a typical action shot, using a distinctive monotone yellow background as Black Cat, her dark blue costume standing forward, dives right to left across the cover, her bike (right) tumbling away from her as she reaches for the handle on the rear of a small van (left) driving away from her, already half off-panel: a simple dynamic pose.
Inside the front cover, there’s a feature on artist Lee Elias with the cover story starting on page three with another action splash, Black Cat, her parachute billowing across panel rear immediately on landing, being menaced by two guard dogs, one of which is already chewing on one of her boots. There’s a mini-paragraph setting up a threat to Linda’s employers, Century Studios and the tale’s title, ‘Crime at 2,000 Feet’.
The eight-page story starts at the end, with Linda winning the Oscar for her new picture Revolution before winding into a flashback told by her father Tim in which a rival studio, facing bankruptcy, tries to ruin Century’s chances by seeding dry ice and causing constant rainfalls that keep the final scene, the burning of the village, from being filmed. Black Cat follows the autogyro and parachutes in to stop the interference. Though she beats up one boss, the other gets the drop on her and she’s tied up. They threaten to unmask her and torture her but are distracted by the bomb she’s put in the autogyro. Black Cat burns through her bonds, suffering scorched wrists, and uses her fighting, judo and jiu jitsu skills to beat up and bag the pair, saving the day and the film. And Linda even has enough time for catty remarks about Black Cat to her boyfriend Rick Horne, who for once hasn’t been at her side during the action.
There’s a second story of the same length immediately after, with Rick entering a motor-bike race watched by Linda. Unbeknowst to either the race is fixed by an unknown baddie in a monocle, out to secure the prize. Everyone’s on watered-down petrol except Rick, who’s been drugged. Black Cat joins the race on a borrowed bike to save his life, goes on to collar the baddie and win the race before disappearing: Linda pleads to keep the Cup until they can present it to Black Cat…
Next up came the latest set of two jiu jitsu lessons, with Black Cat demonstrating moves to use in different tight circumstances, also drawn, very elegantly by Elias.
After a one page cartoon featuring a new character, Winnie the Waitress, at the Gym, there was the next lot of Kerry Drake, starting a new story. Drake, at this stage, was still a civilian investigator for the DA’s office, facing fantastic and grotesque crooks Dick Tracy-style, but concentrating on detecting using modern methods rather than fights and shoot-outs. Drake spent ten pages getting involved with post-Prohibition-repeal bootleggers, dealing with untaxed booze.

The Darling of Comics

Danny Dixon and Jonathan Alden Spencer III faced up to radium thieves trying to discredit one of Hilltop Military Academy’s Professors in a typically semi-comic seven pager, following which the issue finished up with two one page Black Cat shorts, neither worth the minimal ink used to print them, separated by another Winnie the Waitress page, this time featuring picnics. It’s not that the prose stories are necessarily bad, but they are far too short for any kind of worthwhile story, and the font is exceptionally large, preventing even a millimetre’s development: in comics form, they’d be lucky to fill three pages.
Once this issue passed, the back-ups changed again. Kerry Drake went back to his own mag to be replaced by another reprinted newspaper strip, Mary Worth, of which I’ve heard some things but never previously seen, followed by one of Harvey’s original characters, Invisible Scarlet O’Neill, a redhead (yay!) who can turn invisible.

Go Western, Young Woman

There was a change of direction, title and costume with issue 16, as Linda Turner relocated from Hollywood to the Wild West for her adventures and the comic was re-titled Black Cat Western. The costume change was the least of it, the Darling of Comics merely exchanging her halter-neck swimsuit for a strapless one. Funnily enough, the varied costume was less attractive. The next issue, Linda Turner changed her role as mistress of drawing-room comedies for that of Western star. It was 1949, and as we’ve seen at DC Comics, superheroes were dying on the vine and Westerns were the new big thing. Black Cat was merely obeying the law of commerciality.
Interestingly, to go with the Black Cat lead in issues 18 and19, there were two ‘A Day with Linda Turner’ shorts, featuring our glamorous movie star out of costume, and crime, so to speak.
Though the stories were still fun, and Elias’ art making Black Cat a lithe, all-action but entirely grounded figure, the character was in trouble. The Golden Age was fading, and there were signs on the horizon that foreshadowed Wertham and the Comics Code Authority. Quietly, the series’ cheerful attitude to crooks dying had been supplanted by arrest, but there were complaints about Linda Turner’s costume, and how sexy the Black Cat appeared with bare arms and legs (Shock! Horror!), not to mention her bare back and the revelation that Black Cat had a cleavage. Later reprints would be touched up to show less skin, especially up front and top.
But the Western phase only lasted four issues until, despite a western cover, the comic reverted to Black Cat and Linda’s latest movie turned out to be about pirates, not cowboys.
Mary Worth, a low key romantic soap opera, seemed completely out of place in Black Cat, and in accordance with the general stability of back-up features, was ditched for issue 21, which featured another change of approach, re-emphasising the Hollywood aspect, with an Agony Aunt column from Linda, an interview with Montgomery Clift in comics form across the centre-spread, whilst Winnie the Waitress, which had a spark of life to it and some bright cartooning, was shunted for Holly of Hollywood, a piece of fluff.
The Hollywood angle was played up for all it was worth, and Black Cat/Linda Turner was thrust even further to the front, with the number of stories multiplying until, by issue 26 the comic featured nothing but Black Cat, Holly and a couple of half-page strips about Hector the Director.
Suddenly, the series went desperate. Black Cat started fighting costumed villains like the Firebug (the delightfully named Orson Arson), and then she rescued a thirteen year old circus aerialist, Kit Weston, from a fire that killed his parents, adopted him, revealed her identity to him and co-opted him as her sidekick, the Black Kitten. Nothing familiar about that then.

The last one

It was a truly awful idea, one born of desperation – I mean, Black Kitten: who in their right mind would agree to that as a superhero cognomen? – and it was the series’ last. This all occurred in issue 28 and issue 29 is missing from the DVD but that was the last issue to feature Black Cat. Her face appeared on the cover of issue 30, and above the first story, but Black Cat was gone and never to return. The comic was re-named Black Cat Mystery and were-positioned to tell short horror stories, with Black Cat as the seeming hostess and narrator but in practice that just didn’t happen.
It was a sadly downbeat end to the character’s history but I was always conscious of the fact that I was reading the second half of Black Cat’s career, so I equipped myself with a DVD of Smash Comics, to see what the first half was like. So we’ll look at that next time round.

Crap Journalism: it’s the idiot Heritage again


Crap journalism is an irregular series where I take various Guardian features to task. A high poportion of these are by Stuart Heritage. So’s this one.

Apparently, the former Meghan Markle wants to go back to acting with a big role in a superhero movie, leading Heritage to suggest various superheroines she might portray. The third option is Big Barda, of the New Gods. Heritage lifts the Wikipedia introdction to the character, before suggesting that Barda was created by ‘someone who wasn’t very good at thinking up characters’.

Big Barda was created by Jack Kirby, who created or co-created practically the whole Marvel Universe, who created Captain America, who created whole genres of comics, not just characters, who was, in short, the most prolific creation-machine there has ever been in comics.

Stuart Heritage is a stupid tw*t who can’t even do a second’s research when he thinks he’s being funny.

As it must to us all


It’s been announced today that Stanley Martin Lieber, known to anyone interested in comics as Stan Lee has died, aged 95. Lee’s career has been one of tremendous popularity, and no little controversy over where the credit for seminal stories created with the likes of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko truly lies, but this is not the time or place for arguments. The very least that can be said for Lee is that he created a writing style that was individual and influential, and perfect for the Marvel Revolution of the Sixties, and for that alone he deserves his place in history.

Comics writers and artists tend to live a long time, so 95 comes as no surprise. And Lee was the last of them, the giants. The world is much less colourful for his passing.

Happy Birthday to the King


This won’t be enough. It can’t possibly be adequate because I don’t know enough, I wasn’t there at any of the right times, and because I don’t have enough of the right temperament. But today is an anniversary, and because of who it is it demands recognition, even from those of us who can’t do the job justice.

Today is a birthday, the birthday of someone no longer with us, a man born Jacob Kurtzberg who achieved fame under an anglicised pen name which he later took officially as his own. He was Jack Kirby, and they called him the King, and rarely if ever has a nickname been more fully justified.

Jack Kirby was a comic books artist. Many would call him THE comic books artist, and if you restrict that definition to the superhero field that has dominated the form, for good or ill, for so long, you’d hardly find anyone to argue. In terms of dynamism, energy, imagination, inspiration, the King was unequalled. Whilst nt discounting Stan Lee, there are viable arguments that Jack Kirby was responsible for creating Marvel as it is. His characters dominate Marvel, and the number of creations that sprang from them will probably never be countable.

But whatever you can say about Kirby’s approach to art, and many far better qualified than I to analyse it have worshipped at its feet and drawn untold inspiration, there is one aspect in which Jack Kirby can never be equalled. The man was a Creation Machine. He created more and more varied characters than anyone else, without stopping, almost without thinking. They just poured out of him, until the end of his life.

Kirby just was a marvel. He would have been 101 today. He deserved to be 101, to be physically immortal and not ‘merely’ creatively immortal.  And everyonee who met him to this day misses him like crazy.

Everyone in this picture. Everyone.

Steve Ditko R.I.P.


And then there was one.

Without wishing to slight the contributions of those others who were there in thee beginning, it’s inarguable that the success of Marvel Comics, and everything that has followed on from the extraordinary period of creativity, rests on the work of three men. You may dispute the order of importance on another day when such things can once again be debated, but these men were Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. ‘King’ Kirby died long ago, in 1994, and now Steve Ditko has been found dead, in his apartment, aged 90. Only Stan Lee remains of that essential trio.

Ditko, who was famously private, indeed reclusive, was far less productive than Kirby, but was every bit his equal. It was Ditko who, when Lee was dissatisfied with Kirby’s first designs, took over the project, bringing to it his unique perspective, his odd, almost angular art and the sense of brooding and misery that Kirby, the boundlessly positive and elemental force could not provide. Stan Lee supplied the words, but it was Ditko who showed us Peter Parker, and turned him into the Amazing Spider-Man.

If that was not enough, and for the average creative person it would be a crowning glory, Ditko also created Marvel’s master of magic, Dr Strange, and the whole otherwordly realm of the fantastic that the Doctor occupied.

For all that the decades and countless contributors have added to the story, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange remain what Steve Ditko created them to be.

Many looked at Doctor Strange in the Sixties and concluded that Steve Ditko was one cool cat, and obviously familiar with the effects of such things as Lysergic Acid. But Ditko was the epitome of a conservative gentleman, short-haired, short-sleeved, personally abstemious. Some imaginations don’t need chemical stimulation and Ditko’s was as weird as they came, naturally.

In that, however, lay the seeds of the breach with Marvel. Ditko was a man of firm thought and principles, deeply committed to Objectivism, the philosophy spawned by Ayn Rand. The relationship with Stan Lee rapidly became untenable. Ditko started to plot and draw Spider-Man on his own. When he was due to deliver the completed pages to Marvel, Lee would take care not to be seen. It would be the first he knew of this month’s issue, and now he would add the words.

Then, one day, Ditko left Marvel. Delivered his latest Spider-Man, announced he wouldn’t be doing any more, left. He would return, much later, do other series for Marvel, create the cult favourite, Squirrel Girl, but never again enjoy the prominence and influence he had in those half-dozen years. There were stints at other companies, other creations. For Charlton comics (who may have paid the lowest rates but who didn’t interfere with his work to any appreciable extent) he created Captain Atom, the new Blue Beetle and another cult favourite, The Question, all of whom now belong to DC, for whom he created The Creeper and Hawk and Dove.

All of these would distinguish the record of a lesser man, though they were none of them Spidey or Doc Strange.

Much of Ditko’s work, and he remained prolific throughout his life, ended up self-published. He remained a master cartoonist, but devoted his time to things that expressed his opinions and his Objectivism, a philosophy that remains attractive only to a minority. It limited him, but it was Ditko is his most pure and refine, and at the end of the day it was the artist being true to himself at all costs.

Steve Ditko stayed away from fame and public exposure. He would not allow himself to be interviewed or even photographed. He was ‘featured’ in a Jonathan Ross documentary on comics for the BBC, but that meant that he agreed to meet Ross, alone, without cameras or recording equipment, and that Ross agree not to repeat anything Ditko said! True to his word, Ross disappeared into a Manhattan building, reappeared visibly thrilled, and gave nothing away.

And now there is only one, only the writer/editor/figure of some controversy, Stan Lee. But Marvel, and everything else, all across the field of comics, is a legacy with three pillars, and Steve Ditko will live in memory forever for being one of those pillars.

Uncollected Thoughts: Neil Gaiman’s ‘Norse Mythology’


For the first time, I’m rather disappointed by a new Neil Gaiman book, especially when the subject seems to be so close to his heart and his skills.

We ought to be in sync on this one: it may not have been the same book, but I too encountered the Norse Myths in the mid-Sixties, though without the prior mediation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby via The Mighty Thor, and I’ve always felt a greater affinity with them than the rather more famous, and studied, Greek Myths.

And, as far as my memory of the book I was bought (probably from Shudehill Bookstalls, like so many others of my childhood) is concerned, Gaiman has retold all the tales I remember.

So I ought to like this book, but the truth is that I found it disappointing for the most fundamental reason that if I hadn’t known Neil Gaiman had written this, I would never have guessed it.

All good writers have a ‘voice’. This has been true of all of Neil Gaiman’s work to date, however diverse the subject or medium. It’s a slightly formal tone, a slightly archaic tone, a way of expressing things, but it isn’t anywhere present in this book. It could be any author, except that it’s an author reading to children, and reading aloud. It lacks personality, it lacks individuality. The tales are left to fend for themselves, with no authorial input to characterise them.

Without Gaiman’s voice, this could be anyone writing this version of the myths, and that’s precisely why this book doesn’t work for me.

Comics in the Seventies: A Game of Pages


We still remember, we who were there

If you were to ask me the page content of the average, 2016, 32 page comic book (or ‘floppy’ as they are commonly called now), I would have no idea. Off the top of my head, I would guess twenty. That is, twenty pages of art and story, i.e., content, out of a thirty-two page package.

That’s not a good percentage but, believe me, it’s not the worst it’s ever been.

When it was first invented, in the Thirties, the American comic book consisted of 64 pages for a dime. Due to War-time paper restrictions, that package was successively reduced to (briefly) 56 pages, then 48 pages, before being reduced even further, in the Fifties, to its present format of 32 pages. All still for that original 10c.

When I first discovered American comics, in the early Sixties, comic books were taking that first, tentative steps into increasing their prices, gouging their customers for an extra 2 cents. At that point, the average DC comic consisted of approximately 24 pages of story and art, a full 75% of the package.

It took nearly the whole decade before the next increase was put through, this time to 15c, but the Oil-Inflation Seventies saw increase after increase, at intervals of eighteen months to two years. In the meantime, the companies desperately attempted to head off, or at least delay such increases, but cutting costs. Artists no longer drew originals on boards two-up, but were restricted to 1.5 up (i.e., twice, or one and a half times the size of the actual printed art).

Paper quality was cut, to cheaper, more porous stock on which lines and colours soaked in and ran. Steel printing plates gave way to cheaper and easier to engrave plastic printing plates, which blurred and distorted lines long before the print run was completed. And page counts were cut. Fewer pages, lower payments to writers and artists paid by the number of pages completed and bought.

DC had tried to get out in front of the curve in 1971, jumping their comics directly from 15c to 25c whilst increasing the size of the package, to 40 pages, the extra pages entirely devoted to content, in the form of reprints: those in Jack Kirby’s ‘Fourth World’ books were prime Golden Age Kirby and Simon material.

This plan was undercut by one of Martin Goodman’s last, shark-like tricks at Marvel. The plan was for everybody to increase the package at the same time, which Goodman did, but only for one month, cutting back immediately to 32 pages at 20c, far faster than DC, with its more sclerotic management structure, to react. DC struggled back to 32 pages at 20c, no reprints, but the content went down to 20 pages, then eighteen and finally, by mid-decade, seventeen.

There was another attempt on DC’s part to change the deteriorating status quo. In 1974, they went off on another bigger package run.

This was the year of the 50c comic, which was just coming in as I rediscovered American comics and started buying them again. Basically, it was a rerun of the 25c experiment writ large: for 50c, the reader got a squarebound, 100 page package, containing the standard 20 pages of new art, plus a massive wodge of reprints, varying as to the title in question. The enhanced Justice League of America was the first place in which I was able to read Golden Age Justice Society reprints.

It lasted a year, during which the price increased to 60c, before the experiment was carried off, and it was all back to the bog-standard floppy at eighteen pages. As an experiment, I enjoyed it, though it was very dependant on the choice of reprints.

The best of that era was, undoubtedly, Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s Manhunter, the new back-up in Detective. It lasted seven issues, six of them as a back-up strip to the Caped Crusader, and if it hadn’t been for the Fifty Cent Comic, I’d have never noticed it.

Detective Comics was in another sales trough in 1973. Julius Schwarz, the ‘Now Look’ Batman and the TV series had saved Bruce Wayne from cancellation in 1964, but the bubble had burst and, in an effort to drum up sales with a new approach, Archie Goodwin was brought in as editor (and writer) of Detective, which was down to a bi-monthly schedule.

Upfront, Goodwin went for unusual offbeat stories, by artists not normally associated with Batman, but for a back-up, he wanted a complete contrast: a brightly costumed, globe-trotting hero with a strong martial flavour. With the then-newcomer Simonson, Goodwin devised Manhunter as a seven page, very taut back-up, tacking the character onto the back of the Forties hero of the same name.

It was a massive creative success, as witness the number of times it has been reprinted since. In addition to buying the original run, I have had no less than three different collections. It won industry plaudits by the ton, and it stands up beautifully four decades on, in a way that the vast majority of Seventies comics just don’t.

It didn’t do anything for Detective‘s sales, however. A year on, and unhappy with management at DC, Goodwin relinquished the editorship and writing, and moved on to Marvel. Julius Schwartz, resuming as editor, had no interest in continuing Manhunter, and Goodwin was able to get agreement for his final issue to be a 20 page crossover with Batman, providing a definitive end to Paul ‘Manhunter’ Kirk’s story. It was that ending, so rare and precious, that made Manhunter the creative success it was.

Had I not seen, and been intrigued by the first Detective fifty center, I would probably never have seen the series. Goodwin’s first issue, with the debut Manhunter back-up, was the final 32 page floppy, and I was lucky to scrabble round and fnd a still-available copy, which was nearly as difficult to ensure as it had been in the Sixties.

No doubt I would have heard about it later, maybe bought one of the reprints at some point, but I have always found a deeper attachment to those series I have had to accumulate, in monthly instalments, the story-front creeping along, offering endless speculation about what might follow. Reading the whole thing at once, cover to cover, no delay at any of the cliffhangers, is never quite as enthralling.

So the year was up, the Fifty/Sixty Centers vanished and DC went back to floppies.

Seventeen pages was the nadir though. once upon a time, it might have almost been a luxury: throughout the Fifties, and well into the Sixties, most DC comics offered two stories per issue, both of around twelve pages in length. Its writers were veterans, long used to the professional demands of telling a clear, concise story, with a beginning, middle and end, in twelve pages or thereabouts, so seventeen pages ought to have been easily manageable.

But this was not the Sixties any more, and that generation of writers were no longer writing comics. Their replacements had been brought up, drawn in to the industry, by Marvel Comics, who concentrated on book-length stories to a greater extent, and on ongoing stories, in which the three unities were rarely within the same covers. The writers of the Seventies wanted to write comics like that. They had never had the training to produce short stories. They neither wanted to nor were capable of writing satisfying stories in only seventeen pages.

One writer was comfortable with the form, however, Denny O’Neil, who wrote perhaps my favourite page of comics from the Seventies.

It was a bog-standard Batman adventure of the era, drawn by Ernie Chan, and the villain was the Riddler. Batman frustrated him a couple of times, so the Riddler headed back to his new secret HQ, at Gotham Zoo. The page in question covered a single scene.

The Riddler approaches the Zoo entrance concealed by trenchcoat and hat pulled down. He’s frustrated, planning on fleeing, his body language is hunched, withdrawn, downbeat. In short, he is not a happy bunny. However, he is waylaid, by a boy aged about eight, trying to catch his attention. The Riddler is in no mood for such things and tells the kid to beat it, cram, but he blurts out that all he wants to do is tell him a Riddle.

Mr Nigma transforms in an instant. he’s down on his kness, level with the kid’s face, holding his shoulders and insisting, “Yes, please do! Please do!” “Do you want me to tell you the story of the bed?” The kid asks. “go on, go on,” the Riddler says, barely able to contain himself. “I can’t,” the kid says, with the kind of perfect cheesy grin of a little boy who’s come up with something funny all by himself and just has to share it, “It hasn’t been made up yet!”

The final panel shows the kid approaching his parents. “Dad, look what the nice man gave me,” he says. “A $100 bill?” the dad gasps. In the background, The Riddler is walking through the Zoo gates, but his body language is transformed. He’s striding out, head up and back, almost strutting.

It’s a magical page. In structural terms, it’s completely redundant and irrelevant. The story could be told with the other sixteen pages without the smallest of changes, and this scene would not be missed, nor any gap felt. As such, with only seventeen pages available, it could be described as poor writing.

And yet it’s brilliant, because it’s the only page of the script on which anybody does something human, that is not purely and simply a function of the plot. And this was from a very early point, at which I had not even begun to get bored with superhero dynamics and fights. Which is why I can remember each panel of that page, whilst I have no recollection of anything from any of the other sixteen pages.

It wasn’t tenable, however. Seventeen crappy pages with crappy stories and crappy art and the price going up five or ten cents a year, year-on-year. So DC shifted out Carmine Infantino as Publisher and brought in an outsider, Jeanette Kahn, a novice in comics but a children’s magazine publishing success.

Who, once she had settled herself into the Publisher’s chair, came up with a brilliant idea to move forward and secure comics’ future.

Bigger comics. With more pages.

It was known as the DC Explosion. It was planned as a massive uplift to the DC line, introducing new characters and new titles, but the heart of it was that, in order to avoid the awkward jump from 35c to 40c, DC’s comics would hurdle all the way to 50c, but for a 40 page package, of which the additional eight pages would all be of content: story and art, and all of it new: no reprints.

It wasn’t exactly original, except for the fact that the extra pages would be all new. Some titles would add them to the previous page count: the Justice League of America would escape the straitjacket of seventeen pages for the relative freedom of twenty-five, but other titles would add back-ups. Old characters unable to sustain series would be revived, new concepts and ideas would be tried with the support of the lead feature.

It was bold, it was exciting, it was one of the biggest fucking disasters mainstream comics has ever suffered.

Because the week the first titles of the Explosion were launched, the sales figures came in at Warner Brothers, and they were bad. Far worse than had been expected. The word came down from on high with the speed and force of a Jovian thunderbolt, and the word was No. No more forty page 50c comics, get back to 32 page floppies, and cut the number of titles. Including scheduled comics which never actually were published, almost half the entire DC line was cancelled in an afternoon, reducing the line to its ‘core’ titles. Everything remotely experimental vanished in a day. The bottom half of the line ceased to be tenable and went into the hole. DC, who had been big with publicity about it’s great leap forward, which had been building its stable of creators, suffered a massive blow to its credibility that the majority at the time thought it would never recover from.

Down the street, at Marvel, its recently installed Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter, had been sniffy about the whole thing anyway, dismissive of the idea that the fans would even notice an increase of eight pages, nearly half as much story again. Former editor-in-chief, Marv Wolfman, set about discouraging eager new talent from getting into comics: in five years time, there wouldn’t be any.

We know now that he was wrong, and ironically Wolfman would play a major role in leading DC and, in its wake, comics out of the slough of despond of what inevitably became known as the DC Implosion. Page counts went up, despite Shooter’s arrogance. So did paper quality, and costs, the latter being inevitable given that the only way of further reducing the cost of producing a 1977 floppy would have been to hire a hall and have people pay to sit there whilst the writer read the script and the artist did chalk-talk sketches on a blackboard borrowed from the local high school.

Yet in that era of desperation, when the death of comics was being predicted almost every other week, there were still comics of quality that prevailed over the conditions in which they were created. That was the era of Manhunter, and that was when good writers could come up with pages like the Riddler being made happy by a kid’s riddle he’d never heard before.

They didn’t even need seventeen pages to produce delight that’s lasted with me for forty years, proving yet again that there is something more to life than ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’.

You should know better


What about him?

There’s a charmlessly naive puff-piece in the Guardian today, by someone who should know better. Damien Walter, a writer of SF and other speculative fiction, has used his regular ‘Weird Things’ column to suggest that ex-Marvel editor and writer Stan Lee is the greatest storyteller in history.

This is a response to the newly-published Graphic Novel biography about Lee, written by Peter Davod and drawn by Colleen Doran. Walter waffles on in awe about Lee, giving him sole credit for creation of all Marvel’s major characters who inhabit film and TV today. Here are a couple of quotes:

“For the best part of two decades, through the 1960s and 70s, Lee conceived and scripted the pantheon of superheroes that has made Marvel arguably the most significant shared universe in today’s entertainment landscape.”

“Spider-Man, the X-­Men, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, SHIELD, Daredevil: all of them were created by Stan Lee.”

For the best part of two decades, eh? Through the 70s, eh? Are we talking about the Stan Lee who stood down from the Marvel editorship in 1972 and ceased writing any of its titles? Through the 70s? I mean, don’t get me wrong, Stan Lee was writing for more than two decades, it’s just that to get that, you have to include the entire 50s, in which Stan Lee did not write a single story that anyone remembers.

As for that list of creations, well, let me make a petty quibble first. The X-Men of the movie franchise, indeed the X-Me that have been colossally successful since the late Seventies, are primarily composed of characters with whom Stan Lee had no contact. Cyclops, Professor X, and Jean Grey here and there, yes, these were members of the original X-Men, but the rest? Storm? Wolverine? No.

But this is, as I say, a petty quibble. Stan Lee was indeed writer of the original X-Men, and indeed all of the others on Walter’s list, and many more besides. Where Walter goes wrong, badly wrong, and where someone of Walter’s background would certainly know better than to say, is that Lee was co-creator. With artist Steve Ditko in the case of Spider-Man, and with artist Jack Kirby in the case of everyone else (even Daredevil, though that should more properly be co-credited to artist Bill Everett).

There are some – and Stan Lee is among them – who would dispute the artist’s part in creation. But this is comics: if writers could draw, they wouldn’t have artists drawing their stories, and the situation is further blurred by Lee developing the practice of giving artists a basic plot, more or less an outline, that they would draw, and which he would script, in accordance with the artwork produced.

This is not the place to argue which of Lee-Kirby or Lee-Ditko was the true creator. That’s too complex an argument. However, it is clear beyond all measure that Lee was not solely responsible for the creation of so many characters. There are many stories about the physical creation of stories at Marvel in the 60s that make plain just how often Lee would script a story that had been drawn without him ever having been involved in its creation before receiving the art.

The point is that Walter must know this, yet he has gone ahead and blown smoke up Stan Lee’s ass, in the way Marvel has done for decades, wiping out the contributions of creators such as Kirby and Ditko, when he should know better. If this came from a Guardian journalist without any interest in comics, it would still be ignorant, insulting and stupid, but from Walter it’s disgusting. Shame on him.

Stan Lee was the co-creator of all these characters. He deserves honouring for that. He has reaped the fruits of presenting himself as the sole creator for decades, whilst his colleagues have struggled and suffered. The Big Lie is perpetuated to this day.

Theatre Nights: Return of the Scarlet Ghost


Sandman Mystery Theatre  49-52 . Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (script), Guy Davis (artist), with ‘Joe Kirby’ (writer) and Daniel Torres (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Return of the Scarlet Ghost incorporated the 50th issue of Sandman Mystery Theatre as its Second Act and, in keeping with comic book tradition, the issue was a special, extended story, which guest artist Daniel Torres brought in to draw some very entertaining pages that formed an integral part of the extended in-joke underlying this play.
On the serious side of things, Return of the Scarlet Ghost chooses the New York Pulp/early comic book Publishing industry at the end of the Thirties as its backdrop. It’s accepted now that most, if not all, of the pulp magazine publishers were mob-backed, money laundering outlets for Prohibition profits. Indeed, one of the reasons comic books were so enthusiastically embraced by publishers was that they used fallow time at the printers, enabling a greater proportion of money to be washed clean.
It’s mildly surprising to see this being set out in this series, given that Vertigo‘s parent company, DC, was also amongst that number: DC‘s owner, Harry Donenfeld, ex-printer, ex-publisher of Spicy (i.e. soft porn) Detective stories, was a close friend of the notorious Frank Costello.
But these are liberated times and DC has moved so far from its Thirties roots that such things can be brought up now without a sense of residual embarrassment.
And it’s in-keeping with the more light-hearted side of the story, to which I’ll come shortly.
We focus on Darrigo & Darrigo Publishing, which is beholden to Italian Mobster, Don Alfonso Gamboni. We’ve seen the Darrigo brothers, Shelley and Franco, before, at the Beaux Art Ball in The Hourman, where Wesley attended in a circus acrobat’s masquerade costume version of his second comic book incarnation.
The Darrigos are hustling to make a living, with busy offices. They publish spooky, gruesome magazines, one of them being ‘Sandman Mystery Theatre’, highly-fictionalised adventures of our favourite gas-masked hero, in lurid pulp terms, with illustrations of the original business suit/gasmask Sandman costume. But they’re arguing about embracing the growing comics market, about people (in the shadow of European War) wanting heroes in bright colours.
But a rival mobsters wants to increase space for his subservient publishers: Finn represents the Irish mobs and he’s employing the Pettys – Colm, Peter and Sean, two brothers and a cousin – to strongarm Darrigos off the market.
The Pettys are an interesting and highly repellent study in thuggishness that I’d love to call mindless but which is perhaps better described as unthinking. All three are wrapped up in almost a mystique of masculinity, which in their case is the idea that a real man is defined by drinking a lot, fighting a lot, fucking whores a lot, and not letting anyone tell them what to do (that latter aspect does not apply to their orders from Finn).
We first meet them beating up a newstand owner in public, as a warning not to sell Darrigo magazines. Then they intercept a delivery lorry, smash the driver’s head in with a crowbar, stuff his clothing with paper and light it and the lorryload after dousing everything with kerosene, leaving him to burn to death.
Their next job is to invade a printing shop where they (impliedly) kill a man by dangling him into the press until it rips his arms off (thankfully off-panel).
Ironically, the Pettys are getting their ideas from ghoulish magazines published by Darrigo, whilst Colm and Peter’s younger brother, Mike, gets himself a job drawing comics for Darrigo.
For once, Wesley Dodds and the Sandman are not drawn in by dreams, but rather by Dian Belmont’s attempts to progress her as yet non-existent writing career.
Dian is attracted to the pulp magazines, for their vigour and the vividness of her writings. Her stomach is still bothering her and she’s generally out of sorts, to the point of preferring Wesley to hold her rather than make love with her, but none of this prevents her coming to a decision to direct her ambitions towards the pulp market: after all, it actually enables her to start, and finish, stories.
But when it comes to selling to Darrigos, Dian’s a non-starter: she’s a broad, and broads can’t write adventure stories. Dian steams in frustration, but gets encouragement from a surprise source, crime reporter Jack McCall (as seen in the Annual), who is writing these stories under a psuedonym.
Unfortunately, that places Dian directly outside the door of Darrigo’s editor’s office when the bomb sent by the Pettys goes off.
Suddenly, everything becomes very serious indeed. Though not a family member, Wesley is accepted as much as Larry Belmont for contact with the unconscious patient. Burke, who is very quiet after the events of The Blackhawk is placed in charge of the investigation, for once to Wesley’s relief. But Dian’s fate, and Wesley’s realisation of just how much she means to him, is at the centre of things.
Fittingly, Dian not only survives, but awakens after a dream, a Dream-inspired dream in which she quotes words that Dream of the Endless spoke in the Sandman Midnight Theatre special. It’s the longest single dream of all those depicted in this run, and it leads her back to consciousness.
Wesley goes into full assault mode as the Sandman, again seeking revenge as much as justice, although he’s not aware at first that Dian remains in active danger. Finn’s unhappy with the Pettys, and is bringing in a specialist to seal the deal: the specialist is The Face and the plan is simple. The Pettys drop an insurance policy in the ruins of the Darrigo office, $25,000 on the death of Dian Belmont, the Face kills her.
The Sandman catches the Pettys in the act of dropping the policy in the ruined offices. The Pettys jump him and start to administer a beating, but the Sandman regains his gas gun and puts them out. They then spill the beans. A panicky Wes jumps into his car and sets off towards the hospital, overriding the Police wavelengths and posing as Burke sending orders for all men to get to the Hospital. The real Burke intervenes to countermand the orders, until Wesley, in a vicious fury, threatens him that if Dian is harmed, Larry Belmont will know exactly who kept his daughter from being protected. Browbeaten for once, Burke acquiesces.
Ironically, it’s neither Wesley nor the Police that saves Dian, but instead her father, who takes a minor stab wound in grappling with the Face. Larry makes an enemy too, but before the Face can follow up on his two-for-one offer, the Sandman captures him, unaware until a chance remark that he’s dealing with an old enemy.
The Pettys’ end is different. They are found, bound, by young Mike, who releases them, though not before the Police reach the scene. It’s here that the stupid mindset of the Pettys reaches its apotheosis: Peter Petty runs, refusing to accept the Police telling him to stop. He does what he wants, not what anyone else tells him, and he’s shot dead for it, because he’s fucking thick and his mindset is bullshit.
But that’s still not all of the story. There are multiple Sandmans in this tale, as there are multiple Scarlet Ghosts. We’ve seen the old gas-masked Sandman, created by gardner Fox and Bert Christman, perpetuated in the pulp magazine horror of Darrigo Brothers version of ‘Sandman Mystery Theatre’. We’ve seen the ‘reality’ of our Mystery Theatre hero. But in issue 50, that extended episode, we see a third Sandman, as Dian brings back from Darrigo Brothers’ offices the first issue of a Sandman comic.
This is Daniel Torres’ contribution to this play, a tribute to the legendary writer/artist pair, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (who, though not the creators of, are most associated with the second Golden Age phase of Sandman, the yellow and purple clad athletic bruiser).
‘Joe Kirby’ writes this new, naive, Kirby-esque comic, featuring a straight take-off of that other Sandman. It includes the Sandman’s teenage partner, Sandy, the Golden Boy, aka Sandy Hawkins, but the Sandman is Jack Simon, not Wesley Dodds.
It#s affectionate, it’s a beautifully weighted in-joke, and maybe it can be seen as a way for the continuity of the Mystery Theatre to edge itself closer to the DC Universe.
But whilst Wagner, Seagle and Davis can indulge themselves in this little fantasy, they cannot resist a final twist: in a somewhat time-bending fashion, the Scarlet Ghost story, displaying a third version of the fictional villain, has already become a Saturday morning film serial: but Jack Simon is now a crusading reporter, not a colourful costumed crimefighter: he is more real, more adult as such. It’s a comment that needs no underlining.
Speaking of final twists, Dian’s enforced hospital stay enables the doctors to carry out tests that reveal the source of her malaise of the last two plays, though some among you will have already anticipated this: in the final panel, she drops a bomb that can hardly be unexpected, but which is: she’s pregnant.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Crone.
Break a leg.

Return of the Scarlet Ghost is the last of the plays to be collected in Graphic Novel form, making it more or less easily available for reading. The series was slow to start, with an collection of The Tarantula quickly appearing, but several years passing before the next collection was released. After that, an annual schedule followed, until 2010, pairing this and The Blackhawk. There have been no further volumes since and, given DC’s concentration since 2011 on its New 52 revision (in which Wesley Dodds is not even a hero), it seems likely that the remainder of the run will stay uncollected. Which is a shame because, from this point, only two more collections would have been needed to present a complete run.
Henceforth, I will be reviewing the original issues themselves, and anyone wishing to actually read the story will find it difficult and expensive to do so, if indeed the individual issues can be found at all almost twenty years later.

The Prisoner: Other Media


A Graphic Novel

Though the canon of The Prisoner lies solely in its seventeen, much-repeated episodes, there were attempts, both contemporaneous and afterwards, to expand the concept into other media. I am not referring to the 2010 re-make by American TV, which I neither have nor will watch. But there were spin-off novels, in the tradition of the American market for popular shows, and several attempts to translate the series into comics.
The most prominent examples of trying to cash-in on the appeal of the series were the three novelisations written in America between 1968 and 1969: The Prisoner by Thomas M Disch, Who is Number Two? by David McDaniel and A  Day in the Life by Hank Stine (a mini-pseudonym for JeanMarie Stine).
I bought these in the Eighties when they were re-published in the UK through New English Library, though I’d read the first and third as library books in the late Seventies, whilst living in Nottingham. I sold them on again, years ago, and my memories of them are faint and patchy.
The three books are very different in style and approach, although the three authors wrote them to be continuous, with the succeeding novels having some vague reference to their predecessor, as if that adventure had been half-obliterated by brainwashing or drugs.
Disch was a major SF writer of repute, whose work centred upon helpless, passive individuals in situations they are unable to control, so not the obvious writer to continue the story of Number Six. His story was set after the end of the series and Number Six’s ultimate ‘escape’, and involved his recapture and return to the Village, in an oddly prosaic fashion.
However, he has been brainwashed to forget completely his previous incarceration and everything to do with the Village (he only discovers this in the form of videotapes – several years before these became available – consisting of the seventeen episodes of The Prisoner).
I remember little else of the story, save that the book as a whole was downbeat and generally dull. It completely lacked the surreality of the series, save for that in-joke, and the device of effectively restarting the whole thing, treating The Prisoner as something done and dusted, seems to me to be, in retrospect, a device to allow Disch to write as Disch, and not in McGoohan’s model.
McDaniel, in contrast, was a prolific writer of licensed properties – The Man from U.N.C.L.E and Star Trek being two of his regular berths – and a very good exponent of the field according to those who collect such books. His Who is Number Two? was chronologically second, but not released until last, for some unfathomable reason.
It’s the most conventional of the trio, and the one most anchored to the format of the series. McDaniel’s Number Two plots to undermine Number Six’s resistance, to gradually overcome his desire to escape by allowing him to have his /lotus in the Village, and by gradually providing supplies that enable the Prisoner to lavish attention on cleaning, re-tuning and eventually racing his beloved car on a self-built track near the beach.
The more Number Six has a stake in life in the Village, the less determined he will be to resist. But Number Six is very slowly constructing an escape plan, as his new, customised, fibreglass streamlining is actually intended as a boat hull, with the Lotus to motor an escape. Which fails,of course, but which enables Number Two to get away in Number Six’s stead.
Stine’s A Day in the Life, though the furthest removed from the series, was always the most interesting book. It’s a subjective, sollipsistic, impressionistic account of life in the Village as a mixture of good and bad times. The Prisoner ends up getting away to London, absolutely free and clear, only for the whole experience to be revealed as some kind of hallucination which, as he has expected all along, cracks in one go.
Incidentally, both McDaniel and Stine specifically identify Number Six as John Drake.
All three are worth reading as curios, and several different editions are available through Amazon and eBay, but they bear the usual relationship spin-offs have to a series: they are neither canon nor able to evoke more than an impression of the original.
Since then, there have been two other attempts to invoke The Prisoner in print. Roger Langley, founder of Six of One, wrote three Prisoner novellas in the Eighties, all privately printed and collected in a single Volume that can be bought in the Six of One shop in Portmeirion. I have read none of these, but the internet accounts are dismissive.
More recently, the LA-based Powys Media, who specialise in Space: 1999 novelisations, have branched out into Prisoner spin-offs as well, with two to date and a third due in 2013. Again, I have read none of these, but the on-line reviews available for The Prisoner’s Dilemma do praise its capture of the mood of the series and its sheer energy of invention.
The world of comics has not ignored The Prisoner either, with both Marvel and DC taking their turn at trying to adapt the series. Marvel licensed the show for adaptation in the mid-Seventies, at the behest of writer Steve Engelhart, who was in tune with its anti-establishment theme. Working with veteran artist Gil Kane, he produced an eighteen page adaptation of Arrival which, in a later interview, he described as following the episode faithfully, but adding thought bubbles.
The result, to the best of my knowledge, has never been seen, as Stan Lee decided it wasn’t visual enough, and gave the project to Jack Kirby instead. Kirby had already demonstrated his enthusiasm for the series in 1968, plotting and drawing a four part Fantastic Four story, set in a similarly mysterious Village in Latveria, operated by Doctor Doom.
With the standard page-count having been adjusted yet again, Kirby got seventeen pages now, and he duly wrote and pencilled an adaptation of the first half of Arrival. A total of six and a half pages were inker by his regular inker, Mike Royer, before the plug was again pulled, and Marvel concluded that they couldn’t turn The Prisoner into a Marvel Comic, for which I am grateful.
Nevertheless, many of Kirby’s pages have appeared, and can indeed be seen on-line: enough to make you wish he’d been given more latitude. He does a sterling job of interpreting McGoohan and Portmeirion into his style, whilst working within his own futuristic design, and the work intrigues.
It would be left to DC, a decade later, to actually succeed in getting a Prisoner comic into print, as a four part Prestige format series later collected as the Graphic Novel, Shattered Visage (the title being taken from the Shelley poem, Ozymandias).
The comic, co-written by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith and drawn by Motter, was fully approved, with both McGoohan and Leo McKern agreeing the use of their faces. It departed from the series in being set contemporaneously, twenty years on (and dismissing the series’ own finale as a drug-induced hallucination).
The story centre on a divorced couple named Drake, Thomas and Alice (the latter a nod to Lewis Carroll), who both come from a British Intelligence background. Alice, who has resigned, plans to sail the world in a computer-controlled yacht. Thomas, who is still in the system, rigs her boat to run aground and strand her on the island where stands the decaying ruin of the Village.
Twenty years on, the man who was Number Two, after a long prison sentence, has published an autobiography exposing the Village. Thomas has been responsible for vetting it and has blurred many details as to the programmes running at the time (as well as contemporary, real-life security issues). But what Thomas knows is that, when the Village was closed down, the man known as Number Six stayed on, renumbering himself Number One. And the former Number Two is on his way to the Village.
Hence, Alice is sent on ahead, whilst Thomas, working alongside a seemingly rogue American agent, follows later. By now, Alice has been named as Number Six by the ageing, heavily bearded familiar figure, who speaks mainly in shallow platitudes, and whose decision to stay when he could leave makes him look like a mere contrarian, as opposed to a principled man.
When Number Two turns up, intent on ‘freeing’ his erstwhile enemy from the Village, instead of the subtle psychological battle of Once upon a Time, we get a fist-fight. Though it is interesting to have the ex-Number Two claim that the Prisoner was defeated: unable to bend, he broke, shattered, and when he took a Number, any number, even Number One, he accepted the Village’s valuesand lost.
This pertinent point is, however, undercut when Thomas and his American pal arrive, find the underground control rooms that were the scene for Fall-Out and discover several more active nuclear weapons. These get set off, destroying the Village once and for all, and killing Thomas with it.
Alice and Number Six sail back to London, where he shaves off his beard and delivers one final platitude that undermines the precepts of the series: “Does the presence of Number Two require the existence of Number One?”, and assures her that his secrets are still completely safe and that the World would have been destroyed by now if they weren’t.
All this takes place against a background of sub-Le Carre intrigue, culminating in a new set of masters taking over British Intelligence. Thomas’s boss is ordered to resign, is gassed and take away mysteriously, implying that the cycle is beginning again.
What might have been moderately interesting in its own right, turns out to be confused, confusing and over-eager to stuff itself with unexplained hints, nods and winks, and it falls a long way short of living up to McGoohan’s original ideas, even if it was approved by him (“he didn’t hate it,” Motter said).
So, when all is said and done, we only have the seventeen true stories, and nothing else to lend itself to expanding our visions.