In the days of the Space Gods: Jack Kirby’s The Eternals


Eternals

Though I was there when it was coming out, and have had plenty of time since, it’s taken me until now to look at Jack Kirby’s The Eternals. Back in the late Seventies, I was still reading almost exclusively DC titles, and not even the tail-ends of Kirby’s brutally-undermined period with the company. I had managed to collect some of Kirby’s Fourth World titles, and looked upon The Eternals as potentially following that up thematically, but somehow was repelled from what I saw.
What’s more, the Chariots of the Gods riff that was built into the series put me off terminally: I am no follower of Erich von Daniken and, when the opportunity came to read Chariots of the Gods? for free, concluded very rapidly that if von Daniken were to tell me that the sun was shining, I would go out in raincoat and umbrella.
Almost fifty years have passed since then. I did read the Roy Thomas/Mark Gruenwald sequence in Thor that wrapped up the dangling plots left when The Eternals was cancelled after nineteen issues, though since this was Roy Thomas it was dry as dust and deeply uninspiring. I have Neil Gaiman’s reboot from the 2000s because it’s Neil Gaiman, but it’s nothing more than an incomplete set-up for all that.
And now I’ve gone for the original series, to satisfy my own curiosity, and for everything that’s been said about it, and how flawed it’s been suggested it was, I thought it was great! There was a power and a sweep to the story that was awesome, with Kirby operating on a more than human scale lit with its own lunatic fire. And for the first thirteen issues, it barrelled along in its own oxygen-saturated atmosphere, telling its tale of the Space Gods.
Then, in issue 14, it hit not so much the buffers as a cliff-face.

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Let me explain in a bit more detail.
The series opens with two archaeologists, Dr Daniel Damien and his beautiful blonde daughter and assistant, Margo, uncovering a lost Incan Temple with the invaluable aid of their infallible guide, Ike Harris. Dr Damien doesn’t know what it is he’s found but Ike – or rather Ikaris – knows only too well what it is because he is looking for it. It is a Temple of the Space Gods, and its re-discovery triggers their recall (shades of Arthur C. Clarke’s Monolith in 2001 which Kirby also adapted). And the Space Gods are the Celestials.
Because the first Host of the Celestials seeded Earth with life, three separate strands. Not merely humans, but also Deviants, whose DNA is unstable, turning out different, mostly monstrous beings in every generation, and Eternals, immortal, near perfect beings, each with great but different powers, who throughput human history have often been mistaken for Gods.
The Celestials, who arrive within a single issue, are the fourth Host. And the Fourth Host analyse, investigate and ultimately judge if the fruits of their seedings are worthy. If they are not…
So there it is. The Celestials are effectively the enemy. Their judging will take fifty years – so by Kirby’s original reckoning we’ve got just four left – and if it is negative, there is a code imprinted on the thumb of their chief, Arishem the Judge that will destroy the planet completely.
Yet though the Celestials are a threat to all our existence, they are also unknowable and unjudgeable. They are helmeted, and silent humanoid figures about 2,000 feet tall, and despite their being a mid-Seventies creation, Kirby invests them with a sense of awesomeness, of massive strength and inhuman motivation that left me unable to see them properly as the threat to existence that they were. It was a combination of unimaginable power that completely obliterated any notion of effective resistance, and a majestic dominance that created the impression of infallibility: that if in 2026 The Celestials found Earth unworthy, then we would deserve that verdict.

Marvel Comics
So Earth’s other two people had to come out of hiding to face the forthcoming music. The Deviants, who had once built a plant-wide Empire based upon Lemuria and Mu before it was brought down by the second Host, sinking both lands and, of course, Atlantis, sought the opportunity to benefit themselves: their war leader Kro sought to turn humanity against the Celestials by impersonating Space-devils, including The Devil, horns and all, returned from space intent on destruction, but the Eternals preferred to work with, and for humanity, and, so far as they were allowed to, also the Deviants.
Though the series never got anywhere near an even arguable point, I read the Eternals’ aim as being to unite the planet so that it would then be found worthy.
In the meantime, Kirby tore along at 100mph, the storyline not pausing, nor breaking down into arcs or adventures. It was one thing after another. New Eternals appeared at the run. As well as Ikaris, with his strength and near-invulnerability, and ability to fly (which he, and the rest of the Eternals described as levitating), there was Ajak, the everlasting, Makkari, the speedster, Great Zuras, prime among the Eternals, his daughter Thena, the warrior, Sersi, irreverent and party-loving, and Sprite, the permanently eleven year old maker of mischief.
And what made it all so brilliant, in my eyes so long after, is that it was entirely of itself. It was published by Marvel Comics, but it was not of it. Save for the appearance of three Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., none of whom were of any significance within the organisation, there was no point of contact with the Marvel Universe. No cross-overs, no influence of any kind over the rest of the comics.
How could it be otherwise? How could a race of 2,000 feet tall Space Gods be part of the Marvel Universe without every single title then and for fifty years later being about nothing else? The series could be, and was, pure Kirby.

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But everybody hated it, and that everybody included a lot of Marvel’s staff. For one thing, there was the principle that Marvel should not publish a single comic book that did not take place within the Marvel Universe, for another there was the sense that this was just a pale knock-off of the Fourth World titles at DC (which it is certainly not except in the most superficial sense), and what’s more the comics industry has always attracted a great number of small-minded, petty jealous people, full of childish resentment, only able to look at someone like Jack Kirby with hatred and resentment, desiring only the chance to tear him down to their level and seeing it now.
Overall, though, I think it was the sheer strangeness of Kirby’s creation that repelled. It was not part of the Marvel Universe because what it was was alien and did not connect to it. And I think that for 1976, when there were essentially only two types of comics, Marvel and DC, there was no place for something like this to be accepted or understood, not at least to the extent that it could be understood.
So I assume that sales were bad, and Kirby was pressed to connect to the Marvel Universe for in issue 14, suddenly the Celestials disappear, and the Eternals find themselves spending the next three issues fighting a ‘Cosmic Hulk’. Not the ‘real’ Incredible Hulk but rather a robot Hulk infused with cosmic power. At a stroke, everything was trashed, to no long term benefit.
I am not quite sure how this storyline was resolved: on my DVD, issue 17 is incomplete and unreadable. When things resume, Ikaris finds kimself facing the treacherous Eternal, Druig, who is trying to kill the Celestials by poisoning. The end of that two-parter was the end.
So the series did not go far and, like the Fourth World, it’s plot-lines were left unresolved. But as it would have taken fifty years to resolve the story, and as there was really only one plot, it was only to be expected.

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Unlike the Fourth World, Kirby never returned, indeed never could have returned to the Eternals. He left Marvel over his refusal to sign their new ‘Work-for-Hire’ contracts which, unlike the deals that DC were able to do, were never rescinded in any way, not under Jim Shooter, or anyone. And after 1994 he and that infinitely creative mind were lost to us for good.
A brief look at The Eternals (and The Celestials) Wikipedia pages shows that Marvel has not been slow to feed Kirby’s creations to the dogs to come up with a complex back history that is far too convoluted – naturally – to be remotely readable or believable, not a single syllable of which is applicable to Kirby’s vision of his creations. No writers are mentioned, presumably to avoid embarrassing the talentless bastards (and I am not entirely certain I would exempt Neil Gaiman from that category, in respect of the Celestials at any rate.)
No, Kirby’s Eternals took me by the scruff of the neck and shook me until my brains rattled, Mine may, once again, be a minority opinion, but by God I found it brilliant! Until the arrival of ‘Cosmic Hulk’. Yeesh.

Kid Gang Comics: The Boy Commandos


Boy C

After quitting Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics over his cheating them out of royalties, the team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby moved to Detective Comics Inc. (from Martin Goodman to Jack Leibowitz, frying pan to fire). After taking over the in-progress revamp of Sandman, and creating Manhunter using the existing name of Paul Kirk, Simon and Kirby settled upon their niche, becoming the Kings of the Kid Gang Comic.
The first were the Newsboy Legion, modelled on the Dead End Kids of cinema fame, with a Captain America-figure in the shield-bearing Guardian. Then, in March 1942, they introduced the Boy Commandos into Detective Comics. The Commandos were an instant success, getting a second string in World’s Finest Comics almost immediately and then, in December 1942, their own title, which ran for 36 issues and which was Detective’s third most popular series, behind only Superman and Batman. Imagine that.
The Commandos, orphans all, were a pretty international bunch to begin with, as befitted the nations already involved in battling the Nazi menace. Their adult leader was Captain Rip Carter and the boys – four in number, the perfect kid gang, echoing their civilian equivalents – consisted of tubby Brit Alfie Twidgett, French kid Andre Chavard, the quiet Dutch boy Jan Haasen and their leader, the tough American kid with the barely suppressed aggression and the wise-cracks, who had no other name than ‘Brooklyn’.
(Many years later, DC would decide to link Brooklyn to Kirby’s Fourth World titles featuring Darkseid, et al., by equating him to Dan Turpin, the tough, heavy-built, New York, cigar-chewing detective ‘Terrible’ Turpin, who would not let his town be taken over by ‘Super Muk-Muks’.)
The first issue is a fascinating experience, featuring no less than four quite contrasting Boy Commandos stories, plus the debut and origin of that All-American girl, Liberty Belle, about whom I was so enthusiastic when reviewing Star-Spangled Comics. There’s a ghost story, a metafictional story with cameos from Simon and Kirby’s other DC characters, and a story set in China that freely adapts the real-life exploits of Fred Townsend Ward and the Ever-Victorious Army, casting one of Rip Carter’s ancestors in the Ward role, with equivalents of the four boys alongside him.

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The pair set the story in semi-mythical turns, using an old man dying of brutal mistreatment by the Japanese, who recognises Carter and the boys, and who dies with contentment, knowing that Rip had come again, as promised on his deathbed, with China in his heart.
But the most significant story in the issue was the first. It was a bitter, angry, intense story of, to put it plainly, revenge. The Commandos’ celebration of another successful mission is muted as young Jan, the quiet Dutch boy, sits distracted. Jan has received a message from the Underground in Vannders, the once idyllic small fishing village in Holland where he was born, and he is possessed by memories of what the Nazis destroyed, and the people who were killed, including his parents and the little girl next door who might have been.
Needless to say, the Commandos have a mission to go to Vannders where they lead the Underground to drive the Nazis into the ground, but what strikes home is the anger and hatred in the story. This is personal for Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, two of the overwhelming number of Jewish writers, artists, editors, managers, who made up the comics industry. Hatred for Hitler and all he personified runs through this story, which was as personal to its creators as if they, like Jan, had experienced the atrocities they depict.
There’s a disturbing element to this, just as, with Twenty-First Century eyes, there’s a concern about the whole concept. Boys aged… what? Twelve, thirteen, fourteen? Going to War exactly the same as adults, guns in their hands. Where’s the morality in that? How can we justify this, especially as entertainment?
But how can we understand the reality of those days? Especially as, being born ten years after, I have no direct line of experience. No amount of reading, of intellectual appreciation, especially when it’s absorbed from balanced sources who can see a greater picture, can tell you what it was like to live that War. I can have the luxury of concern, about the idea and about the emotions that underpin it, but without being there, I do not have the right to question. Nor did I ever have that conversation with the older members of my family, including my Uncle who fought in the Navy, all but one of whom had gone by my twenties.

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Enough of the heavy philosophising. This is a comic I’m reading. But it’s not a superhero effort, and what motivates it can’t be ignored. Issue 2 was shot from an original signed by Kirby himself, a surprising thrill for what is only pixels, but there you go. This was Libby Lawrence’s last appearance in this series as by issue 3 she had been transferred to her long-term berth, to be replaced by an eccentrically drawn supposedly funny feature titled Jitter’s Jeep, all motion and angularity and incomprehension.
The last story in the issue brought back the mysterious and fearful Agent Axis, the black shadow, the club-footed monster of issue 1, and revealed ‘him’ to be a beautiful woman named Sigrid, who jumped from a castle window rather than be captured. But before that, Simon/Kirby delivered a speech, through Rip Carter, of white-hot contempt and condemnation of Nazism, to her face. It was cathartic, passionate and heartfelt. Politics can’t be absented from these stories but this was dynamite stuff that, for a panel or two, took the comic out of the story and put this part of the story on an elevated plane.
Issue 4 broke the mould by containing only one story, broken up into seven chapters, one of them the usual two-page prose story. It was cover-marked Special Invasion Issue and, most of a year before the real thing, it was the Invasion of Europe, from the Dutch coast to the road to Berlin. Though there’s practically no Simon/Kirby art in it, it was a long, stirring story that wisely chose to end on the edge of mythology, with a statement of intent for the world that incorporated President Rooseveldt’s famous Four Freedoms, as the driving purpose behind the whole War.
It’s hopelessly naïve now, especially in light of what the Right is doing, both here and in America, to drive Democracy from the face of the Earth, but it’s no less stirring for all that. It’s what we should all be committing ourselves to, without question.
Though it was credited to Simon/Kirby, the art was not by their hands, though the set of stories in issue 5 certainly was. According to Wikipedia, at this point in his career Kirby was drawing five pages a day, but Detective’s Jack Leibowitz wanted more. The Boy Commandos were amazingly big. Leibowitz correctly foresaw his two hot creators being drafted and pushed them to stockpile. This was done by rushing jobs through the hands of numerous assistants, such as the young Eli Katz, better known by his professional name, Gil Kane.
By issue 8, it was very noticeable that plain, flat-out War stories, attacks on the Nazis and paeans to freedom and liberty were going a bit on the back-burner as stories about dreams, Norse Gods and gold rushes in the Arctic were starting to take over. It was not a good sign.
Simon and Kirby’s names were on each story, now only three per issue, but their ghosts were firmly in charge of the art, and the art they were producing was ugly rather than the creators’ own brand of energetic grotesquerie. It can’t be helped. Jack Kirby had been called up and he couldn’t hold a gun and a pencil at the same time.
Issue 12, the end of the title’s third year, was cover-dated Fall 1945. In practice, that put it in the closing months, with a reference to VE Day establishing how narrow was the gap between preparation and publication. What would the Boy Commandos do when peace came?
But for the moment, Simon/Kirby put on all the burners for a story during the invasion of Europe, reuniting three old friends – a nurse, a soldier and a medical corpsman, a woman and two friendly rivals for her affections – in the middle of the advance, fighting their utmost in their own ways whilst the Boy Commandos tackled a tough, life-saving mission in which all of them, including Rip Carter, were wounded. It was the best thing the series had produced for ages, with the exact right level of care and respect among the three friends to make the story touching without being sentimental.
What would the Boy Commandos do post-War? They’d turn to the War Diary and fight on in previously unreported actions, of course. Detective Comics’ third most popular series was not being let off the hook that easily.

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And just at that moment, with issue 14, Detective could cash in on that success by upping frequency to bi-monthly, now that paper rationing was being lifted. It was at that point that I noticed that the title was being published by World’s Best Comics, not Detective as I had assumed, nor National as it would become when Jack Liebowitz had finished merging everything. Where did this interloper come from? It’s a name I’ve never heard before, and whilst their editorial offices were in New York, their corporate address was in St Louis. It was an address used by a number of different publishers, so almost certainly an accommodation address, to allow the publishers to take advantage of Missouri State tax laws.
To complicate matters further, issue 13, alone, was credited as being published by J R Publishing.
The next issue saw a change in direction for the series as the Boy Commandos turned crime-crackers. The first story saw the introduction of super-villain Crazy-Quilt, an artist and thief who would in due course become a regular foe for Batman and Robin. Quilt’s gimmick was that he lost his sight when blinded by a bullet from a rival gang boss. Coercing a surgeon to operate, he discovered he could only see in bright clashing colours. His mind snapping, he made bright colour a theme of his crimes and had to be stopped by the Boy Commandos and Rip Carter, now in civvies, except for Brooklyn who had never been out of them.
Rip goes on to be Skipper of the Flying Patrol of the New International Police, the boys go home to Brooklyn and street snowball fights, he re-recruits them and there you go. Or rather he recruits three of them: of Jan there is no sign. According to Wikipedia he was given a home in Holland with relatives, but that must have been revealed in a story in either Detective or World’s Finest.
The publishers of record become National Comics as of issue 20, cover-dated March/April 1947.
There was an even bigger change in issue 21, with Simon and Kirby’s name not appearing anywhere, and despite the efforts of the artist, it would have been a breach of the Trades Description Act if they had. The next thing was Alfy’s departure, at the start of issue 22, to go to college, where the rest of the gang were heading west to Texas to pick up his replacement, unsurprisingly called Tex.
At first glance, Tex was a colourless bust. The issue was filled out by a reappearance from Crazy-Quilt and a guest role for radio comedienne Judy Canova, making up to a reluctant Brooklyn whilst being in real life over twice his age. Do you get the impression of a series that has not just lost its way as deliberately chucked it away?

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But Simon and Kirby were back in issue 23, bringing with them boy genius Percy Clearwater, to take the place of Andre, who is badly hurt in a sabotaged plane before the lead story even gets going. There’s the usual appeal to the readers about whether they want to see Percy again, and Andre’s alright by the second, Foreign Legion set story.
And the creators were gone again next issue and couldn’t we tell? In one story, Brooklyn played Superman. You need know nothing more than that.
Every now and then, and increasingly in the Fifties, various DC titles print stories in which the heroes act like dicks towards women, or girls, pulling the old ‘too-dangerous-for-a-girl’ routine. Having agreed to take on a temporary Commando X, the winner of a competition, Carter is horrified to discover ‘Jimmy’ is really Jennie, and plots to cheat her with a fake pirate raid. Instead, old enemy Mr Peg takes the raid over, kidnapping Jennie who is an heiress.
But this one turned out the unexpected way, as Jennie’s sharp-shooting skills enable her to take out Peg’s gang single-handedly, and even twit him about having grown-ups in his outfit, as these kids are pestering her to death… The other two stories simply demonstrated the increasingly silly depths the series was sinking to, with Brooklyn now irreversibly cast as the comic lead wherever the plot took the boys.
The plain truth was that, without the War, the Boy Commandos had no point, and without Simon and Kirby they had no inspiration and the result was any old mish-mash that would fill twelve pages at a time, irrespective of how stupid it was: dreams of the past, trips into the future, two boys as nonentities. Once again, here is a series dying in leaps and bounds, without any idea why.
Amazingly, after far too many issues by inferior hands, Simon and Kirby dropped by to produce the middle story in issue 29, as well as gave a good influence on the art of the first, though their story was another of the undersea city fantasies that were so out of place.
Another real-life guest star in baseball pitcher Bob Feller turned up next issue whilst a temporary group of substitute Commandos was brought in for another story that month.
Westerns were becoming ever more popular at National Comics and so issue 32 saw the Commandos team up with the Queen of the Westerns, aka Dale Evans, or Mrs Roy Rogers, whose own title at the company had already reached issue 5
We were offered a new Commando in issue 34, this time a canine one, or rather half dog, half wolf, accepted as a member of the team and then not appearing again. An issue later, Brooklyn was completely revised. Badly injured saving a little girl from being knocked down by a taxi, Brooklyn underwent plastic surgery to turn his face cute instead of ugly, and subconscious hypno-speech therapy to get him to pronounce his ‘th’s at last.
And in the second story, Andre is summoned back to France as the only person able to take over the family farm and, a mere dozen issues and two years later, enter Percy Clearwater, boy inventor and detective, to become the new Commando.
This kind of radical re-ordering of the leading character spelt only one thing: desperation at falling sales and, like all such things, too damned late: the series was cancelled with issue 36, November/December 1949 and, considering what it had become since the years of the War and Simon/Kirby, not a page too soon.
It was a sad ending, indeed one I’d go so far as to say ignominious, but it was inevitable from the moment the replacements for Simon and Kirby decided to turn Andre and Tex into cyphers besides Rip and Brooklyn, then turn Brooklyn into a smug-talking figure of fun. Joe and Jack were the kings of the Kid-Gang comic alright, the proof being that the schmucks who followed them had no idea how to produce a fraction of the effect.
But when they were hot, only Superman and Batman were hotter.

The Not-So-Great Escape: post-Kirby Mr Miracle


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Jack Kirby’s Fourth World titles were an ambitious attempt to create a new form of comics, by presenting a combination of titles, united by a central concept and a central villain, challenged from different directions and in different aspects over four different series, including the entirely improbable Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.
It didn’t work. That is to say, it didn’t work commercially. New Gods and Forever People were both cancelled after eleven bi-monthly issues, on the usual grounds that they weren’t selling. I’ve heard otherwise, especially from Kirby’s then-assistant, writer and historian Mark Evanier. He’s not the only one to suggest that Kirby was presented with less-than-accurate figures by DC Editorial Director/Publisher, Carmine Infantino. Evanier has stated that whilst the books were not high-sellers, they were bringing in better-than-cancellation figures.
Given that it was Infantino who worked so hard to detach Kirby from Marvel, his treatment of him once signed up to DC – which was to basically deny him everything he’d been promised and to hinder him from being Kirby in favour of promoting the DC style – was bizarre and perverse, but not necessarily so mysterious.
As well as the Fourth World, Kirby was still the creation machine he’d always been. The idea was always that he would create and start off titles before handing them off to assistants, like Evanier and his colleague Steve Sherman to write, and other artists to draw, under his supervision. But Kirby came up with Kamandi, the Last Boy, Infantino liked it, insisted Kirby continue it himself and, in order to give him time to do so, cancelled New Gods and Forever People. Given Infantino’s track record in the Seventies, it’s horribly believable.

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Mr Miracle lived on. It was almost the most easily detachable from the overall mythos, the super-Escape Artist quickly convertible into a lone wolf. It ran for another seven issues, getting increasingly simplistic, until it too hit the Cancellation Wall, this time probably for sales, culminating in a final issue that brought back practically all the New Genesis and Apokalips characters (save for The Forever People, who’d been stranded in a far distant limbo) to act as witnesses to the marriage of Scott Free and Big Barda. This was, incidentally, the only one of the Fourth World issues I bought when it was published.
Just over three years later, DC revived the series for a further seven issues. I might almost have characterised it as another Infantino’s Follies save for two things. Firstly, that Mr Miracle was revived under Jenette Kahn as Publisher, and secondly that it was actually quite good. Nevertheless, the same thing that dogged Infantino’s mid-Seventies series, was still present, namely multiple creators. In seven issues, we covered two writers, two pencillers, two editors and multiple inkers, not to mention two complete changes of direction, one at the start, the other at the swap of writers. I call this quite good? Oh, but I do.
The New Gods had already been revived, under the title Return of…, as a one-off in First Issue Special under Infantino, and then as a series under Kahn, but as this was being written by Gerry Conway, all right-minded Fourth World fans regard it as never having happened. The Mister Miracle revival followed, under a writer with a better pedigree, Steve Engelhart, working with hotshot new penciller Marshall Rogers.
Engelhart had made his name at Marvel but had walked out on them in a fit of pique at what he saw, rightly or wrongly, as interference with his work, by Conway, ironically. Actually, Engelhart intended walking out on comics, period, but before doing so, in a wonderfully small-minded act of petty revenge, for which I applaud him, whole-heartedly, he decide to go to DC for a year and knock their socks off with his writing in a two-finger gesture to Marvel.
Engelhart wrote a superb year of Justice League of America. He wrote an eight-issue run on Batman, the first two issues a kind of try-out with an unrecognisable Walt Simonson inked by Al Milgrom, and the rest stunning from Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin, done DC style, from full script and unseen by Engelhart until the finished series was sent to him in Europe.

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And Rogers was wonderfully paired with Engelhart for Mr Miracle, albeit without Austin. Instead there was one issue credited to Ilya Hinch, a name representing nine different inkers working on different characters, one of them Rogers himself, and three by the notorious Vince Colletta, who couldn’t quite obliterate Rogers’ art but who made his usual uninterested in wasting time effort to do so.
Engelhart picked things up where Kirby had left off, with Scott and Barda on New Genesis, on honeymoon, effectively in retirement. Scott’s starting to feel a bit out of it, especially as everyone else is in action, and the point becomes extremely pointed when he is attacked via Boom Tube by Darkseid’s hierarchy, namely the same four that tried to kill the pair before their wedding: Granny Goodness, Virmin Vunderbar, Kanto and Dr Bedlam. Scott fights back, but Barda is kidnapped, for reindoctrination as a good little Darkseid trooper, with Scott following her to Apokalyps to get her back. He’s allowed to get to where they are keeping her, but only by separating himself from Mother Box.
That meant Scott having to rely on his human skills. And next issue, having spirited Barda away, despite her having been brainwashed to attack him, he got her away to New Genesis and their version of a hospital there. Unfortunately, when he tried to repair and re-bond with Mother Box, she pushed him off: up till now, he has relied on her, seeming to have no god-like powers of his own, but now he has to draw upon his own strengths.
And Scott decided to fight back against Darkseid by becoming a messiah: on Apokalyps certainly, and maybe on Earth too. Scott started his campaign whilst Barda was recovering.
At which point, after three issues, Engelhart was gone, without warning or explanation. Rogers stayed on for issue 22, which was written by an unknown, John Harkness, and which featured Scott Free, out of the blue and with no foreshadowing, deciding that the only thing to do was to kill Darkseid, Messiah-dom obviously not being cut out for the impatient.
At the time, it caught me by surprise. What I didn’t know, and didn’t learn for several years, was that John Harkness was Steve Engelhart, taking his name off the script because he was essentially doing what was required of him by incoming editor Larry Hama, who had replaced Denny O’Neill: not his idea, not his name.
The fill-in issue isn’t that bad. The first two-thirds is divided more or less equally between Mr Miracle fighting his way across Apokalyps to Darkseid’s personal bunker of darkness, and his friend Oberon desperately trying and succeeding in making contact with New Genesis, Highfather and Himon to tell them what Scott is doing and seek aid for him. Oberon does not have high hopes of Scott succeeding, and the New Genesis high command has even less, since all they do is burst out laughing, treat it about as seriously as you’d treat a ram trying to headbutt a hole in a dam, and suggest he stops broadcasting before someone local homes in on his radio position.
And then Mr Miracle gets there, into Darkseid’s bunker, and suddenly it’s scary shit with full page art, all dark and craggy, and the lack of balance of powers between him and the Master of Apokalyps becomes vividly, visually apparent, and Darkseid just disappears him with a wave of his hand…

MM Golden

Enter a new creative team. This consists of writer Steve Gerber and penciller Michael Golden, paired on inks first time with Joe Giella, and then Russ Heath for the last two issues, by which we can actually see that it’s Golden doing the art, and not just his name being taken in vain.
The first of Gerber’s issues takes up Mr Miracle’s dismissal. He winds up in some sort of limbo land, confronted by an either female or at least androgynous figure calling herself Ethos, and who may or may not be a manifestation of Mother Box. We are drifting even further from Kirby’s conceptions here, especially as Ethos’s teachings are bent to re-orienting Scott’s perceptions, divorcing him from both his godly heritages, Apokaplyps and New Genesis.
Thankfully, it doesn’t start intimating that he is actually human instead, but it does send Scott back to New Genesis, to a) collect Barda and b) blow off Highfather with unfilial rudeness, before heading back to Earth with Barda.
Scott plans to start up a new Escape artist tour as a preliminary to building himself up as messianic figure, helping people escape from their perceptions (a rather trite ambition). He sells up Oberon’s home, moves everyone to California (I know exactly how Oberon feels), re-hires his old publicist Ted Brown and sets about building himself up in the public eye.
Gerber also introduced an interesting young character, by name Aleetha. Aleetha is fifteen years old. Ten years ago, she suffered injuries, impliedly due to a mistake by her weakling father, that leave her in constant pain. Despite this, and under tutelage by her domineering, not to mention sneering mother, she has trained herself to perfect control of her body, fuelled by her pain, and is now to be used as a weapon against Mr Miracle by Granny Goodness.
Aleetha strikes in issue 25. She’s more than a match for Scott Free. Unfortunately, for her parents at least, she is not interested in inflicting pain, in combat of any kind, except against the limitations of her body. This makes her useless to Granny and ensures her parents’ deaths: no loss, as far as I can tell.
Mr Miracle saves her from Granny and was clearly going to take her on as part of his team, but at this point the infamous Implosion occurred. This iteration of Mr Miracle was cancelled, and Aleetha and any plans Gerber had for her went with him. Pity: she was a genuinely intriguing character.
Not, of course, that this was the end of Mr Miracle: far from it. In it’s way, it was a transition series, setting Scott Free both in the context of, and divorcing himself from what Kirby had established for him. He’s still around, forty plus years later – Kirby characters tend to do that – even though, the last time I noticed, Shilo Norman, not Scott, was the one getting out of impossible traps.
But even though this brief run ought properly to be regarded as a travesty, it was a travesty by two superior writers and two great (when not pissed all over by crap inkers) artists. I bought it all then and I’m glad to have it back now. So two cheers from me.

MM 25

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.

Demon 16

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.

A Spot of Adventure: The Golden Age Revisited – Part 1


When I turned my attention to Adventure Comics a while back, I was disappointed that the DVD I acquired was so scanty as to that part of the series’ run that I most wanted to read, the Golden Age run of superheroes, The Sandman, The Hour-Man and Starman, whose adventures dominated the series between issues 40 and 102, when Adventure became a vehicle for Superboy.
I assumed the shortage of issues, or even complete ones throughout this period, was down to the DVD-maker not having access to the originals. After all, these are comics dating back eighty years or thereabouts, and several issues of the other early titles that I reviewed are represented only by blurry microfiches. Well, as in so many other things, I was wrong. And I now have a double-DVD collection of all Adventure‘s issues, all 500 of them.

Adv 1

That means going all the way back, to the very beginning, in full, the pre-superhero age, to New Comics and New Adventure Comics, as well as the Golden Age run I couldn’t previously enjoy in full.
Needless to say, this calls for a revised and, you should excuse the expression, updated version of that first essay. Completeness is all, people, completeness is all.
I intend to focus on the true Golden Age period, but first a word about New Comics 1, which is of significance because of how far it reaches back, and what it shows of the very earliest comics, eighty pages, no reprints, of comics both comic and adventurous, interspersed with prose stories and articles, plus a puzzle page. You could call it a gallimaufrey of ideas or you could be less flattering and call it a collection of any old notion, flung willy-nilly at the wall with a view to seeing what stuck. Single pagers. Two pagers. Nothing more extensive than four pagers, some of which were two two-pagers back to back. No characters that you would ever have heard of unless you had actually read New Comics and were possessed of an extremely retentive memory. No characters that ever would be memorable, least of all for their art, which is scruffy, blobby, imprecise, thin, scanty and lacking even the least sense of panel-to-panel progression. Only three names that you knew: publisher and editor Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, assistant editor Vincent Sullivan, the man who would buy Superman, and a vigorous but as yet undistinguished boy cartoonist by the name of Sheldon Mayer.

Adv 12

A second issue of New Comics proved to be the same all over again, so I jumped to no. 11, the last under that title, Over seventy-five percent of the features had changed, there were many more pages in full colour and an overall more confident and distinctive cartooning, very much of the era. There were also two more familiar names, on a series titled ‘Federal Men’, those of Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster.
A name change to New Adventure Comics saw the title through the next twenty issues. The new title was the only difference between issues 11 and 12 but Siegel and Shuster did take their series into the far future, to introduce a scientist-detective of the name Jor-L…
By issue 21, the title logo was in a very familiar shape, with only the stripped ‘New’ to distinguish it. Several series were still running, though there were no further upgrades in art. Wheeler-Nicholson used young writers and artists because they were cheap, but that meant they were inexperienced, too inexperienced and frequently untalented to make it in the more reputable and sophisticated world of the newspaper strip.

Adv 32

The last issue before the series finally became Adventure Comics was no. 32. Wheeler-Nicholson had been ousted. The comics was now published by Detective Comics Inc. There was an in-house ad for Action Comics no. 5 on the inside front cover, one of the last ever not to feature Siegel and Shuster’s most famous creation. Some series’ rolled on, new ones had started, Dale Daring came to an end, notable only for being the most blatant Milton Caniff rip-off, with Dale as Burma and her handsome male companion Pat Ryan. Most features now ran more pages. The comic stuff was strictly limited.
So at last to the famous title. A couple of series, one comic, one another Terry and the Pirates rip (has there ever, incidentally been a better title for a breezy action strip?), produced by a guy called Bob Kane, still working with Bill Finger on his big idea.
But let’s round off this preliminary sweep up by jumping to issue 39, the last before the real jumping-on point. And let’s list those series: Barry Neill; Tiny; Cotton Carver; Federal Men; Jack Woods; Steve Malone; Captain Desmo: Tom Brent; Skip Schuyler; Rusty and his Pals; Anchors Aweigh. Compare that list with the one I made for issue 40, which eliminates a couple of these but replaces them with other series that had already been regulars and it’s next to impossible to determine what forgotten relic of the pre-Golden Age era had the honour of being the one that gave way to The Sandman.
That first story is still the same. From the cover onwards, the pulp detective figure in business suit, cape and gasmask, exactly as we know him… except that the suit is orange, not green, and the fedora green, not orange. The story, which I knew from reprints, is credited to Larry Dean but it’s actually by Gardner Fox and Bert Christman. Apart from a surprisingly slow and atmospheric sequence where Wesley Dodd (not Dodds) mooches round his house and leaves a doll in his bed before cracking open the secret tunnel to The Sandman’s lab, it’s not that a good story, naïve, simple, uninterestingly drawn. It wastes a lot of space but in return offers atmosphere.
There was no immediate change to the colour scheme and the second story fell far short of the first. The Sandman didn’t even retain the cover at first. But there was some fascinating, weird stuff now long forgotten, like Wes calling on two old Navy buddies to help him save old comrades from a vendetta, with all three as Sandmen, with the gasmask, as if resurrecting an old identity. The Sandman rarely wears his business suit, or uses his sweet-smelling gas. Instead, he’s more of a freelance Pat Ryan. The series is having a hard time pulling itself out of the morass of the bog-standard stuff at first.
But issue 44 established the familiar business suit and colour scheme, as well as introducing that master of disguise, The Face, who Matt Wagner would so memorably recreate many years later. And issue 47 introduced a woman named Dian Ware, aka the ‘Lady in Evening Clothes’, an expert safecracker who discovered Wesley Dodds’ other identity, and who turned out to actually be the kidnapped-as-a-baby daughter of, who else, DA Larry Belmont. Yes, enter The Sandman’s faithful girlfriend, and nice to see her.

Adv 40

So far, The Sandman had ploughed a lonely furrow but he’d clearly established himself as Adventure‘s future for swinging in the next issue, including both cover and lead position, was Tick-Tock Tyler, aka The Hour-Man, created by Bernard Bailey. And just two episodes in, Dian Belmont was already providing a source of both adventure and romance to her Sandman, as well as persuading him to unmask before her father. The pulp business about The Sandman being wanted as a criminal was receding, but not in one smooth curve.
The silly thing about The Hour-Man was that he was actually known, initially, as Tick-Tock Tyler the Hour-Man. They really hadn’t got the bit about secret identities fully worked out, had they? And still the likes of Barry Neill, Cotton Carver, Federal Men, Anchors Aweigh and Rusty and his Pals clung on, though in the case of the last two, only until issue 52.
Truth to tell, and the fact that nearly all these issues are being shot from blurred fiches, neither series is much good. The Sandman is all running, jumping and leaping, substituting action for coherence whilst Hour-Man is just crude, even after issue 53 introduces Minute-Man Martin and the Minute-Men of America, namely a nation of ham-radio operating junior sidekicks. But it’s the latter who’s getting the covers now, month in month out.
There was a neat switch in issue 56’s Sandman story in which gangsters suspect Wes Dodds of being The Sandman and kidnap him, but he proves he can’t be when the Sandman turns up complete with gasmask and green suit, but that’s Dian Belmont instead! For the era, presenting the hero’s girlfriend as resourceful enough to do that, and succeed, was pretty forward-thinking, though it did arouse dire memories of Roy Thomas using the same device to kill Dian off, pre-Crisis, in All-Star Squadron.
A new series made it’s debut in issue 58, Paul Kirk, Manhunter, though this is not the famous Paul Kirk, in the red and blue costume, the creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, but a specialist in tracking people and a complete coincidence. Though the art was crude, as everybody’s was, the story was surprisingly clever.

Adv 48

There was a new figure, and surprisingly good art, on the cover of issue 61, with the debut of Starman, created (officially) by Gardner Fox and drawn by Jack Burnley, one of the few Golden Age artists who were not scruffy, ill-proportioned, unimaginative and anatomically weak, and who indeed could compare with later and more sophisticated generations of artists on their own level.
And here’s a story: Starman was intended to be the next big thing, the new Superman or Batman. I’ve read that he was actually put together by a conference of editors at Detective Comics Inc. which suggests he was then fed to Fox, already a respected writer, to flesh out, and Fox did an excellent job on the first tale, which exuded a sense of gothic menace that nothing to date had done.
Starman was going to be big. Out went the long-running Barry O’Neill, to make room for his strip. Hourman was bumped off the cover to make way for him. Sandman was excised as the feature character in the ‘Big 6’ magazines in-house ad. And to ensure the new star got all the publicity in the world on the way to ascending to his own magazine, in the footsteps of Superman and Batman, he was to go straight into the Justice Society of America, in All-Star Comics. Which is where the timetable gets a little bit complicated.
Starman made his All-Star debut in issue 8, replacing Hourman. For decades, literally, we fans all thought Hourman got the push after only five appearances because his solo series had been cancelled, and All-Star was all about hurrying characters towards solo comics, but though the Man of the Hour would be the first JSA member to undergo cancellation, that would not take place for another eighteen months.
Then it came out about Starman being advanced in the manner he was. But Adventure was allowed only two representatives in All-Star and, even though he’d had by far the more covers since he was introduced, Hourman was identified as the less popular of the existing pair, which is why he was out.
But the timing’s off. Based on the inhouse ads, Adventure 61 was prior to All-Star 5. So why did it take three issue – six months, given that All-Star was only bi-monthly – to swap the characters out?
The answer, I am guessing, lay in the requirement of All-Star editor Sheldon Mayer that there always be three complete issues to hand, to insure against deadline issues. Which would explain the delay if Starman had to wait to have an original story written and drawn featuring him.
So now that was Starman, Paul Kirk, Hourman and The Sandman, plus the ongoing Mark Lancing of Mikishawm, Federal Men, Steve Conrad Adventurer and Cotton Carver holding the torch for the pre-Golden Age stuff. Federal Men was still being written by Jerry Siegel.
It’s silly, and even trite, but Ted (Starman) Knight’s cover for his secret activities is to pretend to be a bored hypochondriac, which arouses the despair and disgust of his girlfriend Doris Lee (niece of Starman’s FBI contact, Chief Woodley Allen). Doris, who is ‘Miss Lee’ to Ted in the first story because, well, they’re not formally engaged, a fact which overtakes the series between episodes, has a brilliant line in caustic comments about her malingering fiance, who has been checked out by every doctor in town but still complains that he’s ‘not a well man’. Between her and Dian Belmont, this is a fun comic.
There was an old Sandman story I’d once read in reprint, featuring the gasmask and gasgun, and I was watching out for it, knowing that the redesign had to be due soon and it finally appeared in issue 65.
Next of the old guard to surrender was Mark Lansing. He was replaced in issue 66 by The Shining Knight, Sir Justin of Camelot, a young knight invested with golden armour, a magic sword and a flying horse after he rescued Merlin from Nimue’s tree-trap only to pre-empt Captain America by being frozen in the ice until 1941. Nice to read the original at last, but gosh, the art was not just terrible but tiny.
Next issue, the Starman story was another I knew of old, a reprint in the Seventies, introducing arch-enemy The Mist. And the issue after that was the last of the pulp Sandman and, sadly, feisty Dian Belmont, refusing to be left behind, insisting on butting in on his cases and doing good stuff. The yellow and purple skintight costume, paired at first with a long purple cape, came in in issue 69, but Simon and Kirby weren’t yet ready to take over. Also gone was the gas gun, which was hardly being used anyway and in came Sandy the Golden Boy, a kid without a background who’d sewed himself a costume, in yellow and red, like the one the Sandman had never worn before, pretending to be the Sandman, acting like a thoughtless kid, making puns that wouldn’t come into vogue for twenty years and ready to go off with someone whose face he hasn’t even seen at the drop of a cape: he’s just made for measure, isn’t he?

Adv 61

Issue 70 was one of the few complete issues on the original DVD, so it was familiar to me, and it’s a very rare instance on this DVD of something shot from a comic, not a microfiche. Once again, I must mention the startling leap in Bernard Bailey’s artwork on Hourman, now formally bounced from the JSA and the drawing of his mask as a tight-fitting cowl and eye-mask, though the dwarf on a flying carpet who looks like a visitor from outer space, though he’s not, is still a joke.
Ten issues on, Ted Knight’s self-portrayal as a hypochondriac weakling is still being laid on with a fourteen foot trowel. That’s not so bad in itself, but it begs the question why his fiancee, Doris Lee, an attractive, forthright, intelligent young woman, puts up with him for more than one story, given that most people faced with such a weak wuss, convinced he’s got every malady under the sun whilst actually being physically hale, would have concluded that the only thing wrong with him was the absence of a spine and given him the very elegant pointed-toe sandal in the unmentionables.
Either that or concluded that he’s a hopeless addict forever racing off for his fix.
Continuing on the Starman theme, I heralded The Mist’s debut by describing him as Starman’s arch-enemy because that’s how he has been billed since he was revived for the first Starman/Black Canary team-up in Brave & Bold in 1965, but issue 71 saw the third appearance of the would-be world conquering scientist, The Light, already, and he’s been completely forgotten since the Golden Age.
Meanwhile, now Hourman was on leave of absence from the JSA, Bailey could go further in revising him, changing the Miraclo pills for what looked like a Miraclo lightbulb, without spotting the fatal flaw of not being able to stop to take a new lightbath as easily as a pill when his sixty minutes were up (there was none of this stuff about having to wait to take a second pill back then). Even more stupidly, Rex Tyler had had a mini-Hourman costume made up for Jimmy Martin, Captain of his boy assistants, the Minutemen of America, to go adventuring with him without any Miraclo-based powers. Hoo boy.
And in the Sandman series, Sandy the Golden Boy is finally given a second name. Yes, we know, he’s Sandy Hawkins, isn’t he? Always was, always will be, right? Wrong. Sandy McGann. It’s these little things, these details, that I love so much to discover, not necessarily the stories themselves. Incidentally, Federal Men had finally gone from Adventure‘s pages.
The brief interregnum ended after only three issues as the famed team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby arrived at Detective Comics after being cheated by Martin Goodman of Timely Comics out of the royalties due them for their creation, Captain America, and took over Sandman in issue 72, throwing out the unwieldy capes on the spot and introducing the dream-theme that, one day, would go towards stimulating the imagination of an as-yet unborn British boy called Neil. And the name McGann only lasted one issue…
And with Simon and Kirby came the Paul Kirk Manhunter we knew, snatching issue 73’s cover away from Starman, and in doing so ending the illusion that here was the next star in the firmament (she was already three or four issues into Sensation Comics). But this Manhunter wasn’t yet Paul Kirk, but at first his name was Rick Nelson. It’s the same story, the big-game hunter turning his talents to hunting men, just not yet by the famous name.

Adv 73

Hourman’s series is collapsing into idiocy before our eyes. The Miraclo ray fades out in every story now, the latest episode ditches Jimmy Martin for fellow Minute-Man Thorndyke, the one with the pullover up to his nose like one of the Bash Street Kids, but takes off his ever-present check cap to reveal a cartoon haircut, and who Hourman starts calling Jimmy… Just what is editing supposed to be about? How soon does this crap get cancelled?
By now, Steve Conrad is the only hold-out from the old guard. Eve Bannerman, Rex Tyler’s love interest has been missing in action for months. Eve Barclay, the Shining Knight’s love interest has already forgotten and it’s only taken two issues for Rick Nelson to become Paul Kirk: thanks be that Roy Thomas never got this far.
Sandman returned to the cover with issue 75, this time as the ‘permanent’ feature. Starman would not take it back again. Suddenly, Thorndyke knows Rex Tyler is Hourman.
The Mist finally reappeared in issue 77, the issue in which Steve Conrad finally lost his spot. His replacement was Genius Jones, the boy with every answer (if you’ve got a dime), a strip that I still cannot decide if it’s genius or utter crap. It was better than Steve Conrad, certainly. At last I could read every feature in Adventure. Genius Jones was drawn by Stan Kaye but his writer, initially, was the great Alfred Bester, who got a rare credit on issue 78, though I wouldn’t want my name attached to a story about a ‘Slap Happy Jappy’.
Ever since he’d been introduced, Starman had been the lead feature in the comic, and Sandman the last. Now in issue 80, for the first time since Hourman had been introduced, Sandman regained his old slot up front, the Man of Night went back one and the Man of the Hour brought up the rear.
With issue 81, art duties on Starman passed to Mort Morton Jr and Jerry Roussos. Given that it features a blind boy getting shot in the head and discovering he can now see, the new firm are clearly not an improvement. Meanwhile, Bernard Bailey’s art on Hourman seemed to be changing (for the worst) every issue, though not for much longer. Simon and Kirby were being billed on the cover for Sandman but had already passed Manhunter off to someone else. Genius Jones was Genius Jones, and I still haven’t made my mind up.
Art standards were falling all round, except for Stan Kaye on Genius Jones. Were all the decent artists being taken off to the War?
The art on Hourman in issue 83 was the worst yet, so bad that Bernard Bailey didn’t sign it until the last panel. To give him credit, I don’t think he did draw it. But either way, this nadir was the nadir, the Man of the Hour’s last appearance until Justice League of America 21 in 1963, and Thorndyke’s last appearance ever. He was not missed.
His place was taken by a throwback to the early days, Mike Gibbs, reporter and practical joker, working with the Resistance in France as ‘Guerilla’, an underground operative allied to independent female French resistance Agent, Captain (Marie) Hwart (what kind of French name is that?)
There seemed to be a general malaise about all the title’s series. True, the War was in full spate, paper-rationing had cut frequency back to bi-monthly, stories were being stripped down to basic details, adventure and nothing else, but I’ve read other series of the duration and it’s not seemed so blatant. Why Adventure and not, say, All-American? Or Star-Spangled?
I very much miss Jack Burnley. Starman doesn’t just suffer from weak art but dumb writing. We were a long way from the days of Woodley Allen, Doris Lee and Ted Knight’s hypochondria, leaving the stories perfunctory in the extreme and full of incidents like Starman escaping notice by standing against a poster and ‘blending into’ a background composed of completely different colours from his costume.
And for some reason, Manhunter’s logo was designed out of logs. That’s right, short logs, arranged as letters.
Issue 91 was a bit better than the contemporary standard, and went without our war-chum Guerilla, although that must have been just a short file, because he was back the next issue, which saw Simon and Kirby come off Sandman, and some horrendous imitation try to keep up with them. They were credited with the story in issue 94, but it was only possible if they drew it with their feet. And Manhunter’s run came to an end at the same point, not to be seen again until 1973, when Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson remembered him so vividly.
As issue 100 rolled around, the art on all four series got exponentially worse, even on Genius Jones, which had always been drawn in a loose, rubbery cartoon style. Now it was just crude and ugly, so much so that if it still had any credits, which had all been dropped since the last Simon/Kirby Sandman, I would have been looking for my own name.
I’d seen issue 100 before, and I’m still impressed by the Guerilla story, for its powerful anti-racism message, which was all the stronger for being set in a War context. It was bold and simple: any man who tries to turn races against one another is a traitor. I wish we could eradicate those who hate.
First time round I was able to cover the entire Golden Age in a single post, but that was because the number of issues I had were so few. Now, with a full set, I will need to break it into two parts, and the first part ends with issue 102.
Adventure Comics‘s first phase ended with issue 40, when The Sandman was introduced, starting the gradual takeover of the series by an all-superhero line-up. Now, editorial fiat elsewhere at Detective Comics Inc. brought the second phase to an end, and with it the Golden Age careers of Sandman and Starman, and also Mike Gibbs, Guerilla, who would never be revived by Julius Schwartz. There were big changes coming, and what those changes were will be the subject of Part 2.

Infantino’s Follies: Six Seventies Series


One thing that I certainly did not notice, feeling my way back into reading comics again in 1974/5, reliant upon the still erratic distribution around South and East Manchester newsagents, ignorant of even the idea that there might be shops dedicated to comics, was that there were an awful lot of new titles being spilled out onto the market in those years. I’d never looked at comics in that way: there were a lot of different ones then, there were a lot of different ones now and I never bothered to count them either time.
But in the mid-Seventies, DC’s Publisher Carmine Infantino was throwing a lot of stuff at the wall, in the hope that it might stick, only for it to slide down and make a mess on the carpet instead. I’ve already reviewed First Issue Special, which burned through thirteen different ideas without the least intention of developing them, except for the one that was actually meant to be a series anyway.
It was such a mad and erratic period that even proven successes were failing. Supergirl had been the leading figure in Adventure Comics for four years: when she got spun off into her own title, she lasted 13 issues. We’ve already looked at the short revival of The Spectre in Adventure. Now it’s time to review a handful of other, short-lived ideas that didn’t last, to see if they had the chance to do better.

IF1 The Shadow

The Shadow

On the face of it, The Shadow should have been a smash success, the greatest pulp magazine crimefighter there had ever been, a figure from whom many elements of Batman had been drawn, a character acknowledged by the Caped Crusader himself as an inspirational figure in a crossover episode of sorts that pre-dated the series.
And The Shadow’s exploits were being written by Denny O’Neill, who also edited the series, in a taut, tough guy prose echoing the pulps, and drawn by newcomer and stylist Mike Kaluta, who centred the series in its original Thirties era seemingly without effort. So what went wrong?
Well, for one thing hardly anyone bought issue 1. This was not due to any lack of merit in the story but rather was down to a premature anticipation. Just as they had done with Shazam! 1, the revival of the original Captain Marvel, the dealers spirited the cartons of comics into back rooms and away from the newstands, anticipating that collectors would pay plenty for no. 1 issues. Instead, by coming close to strangling both series at birth, giving readers nothing to read and collectors nothing to collect, they undercut their own potential audiences. Both no. 1s would become staples of quarter bins all over America.
As well as O’Neill’s clipped prose and dialogue there was Kaluta, the latest bravura artist to hit comics. But Kaluta had the same problem every other bravura artist had in the Bronze Age: bravura takes time. You can’t crank it out on an industrial basis, and you certainly didn’t get enough per page to live taking the time you needed. Even on a bi-monthly schedule, Kaluta only got to issue 4 (one issue inked by Berni Wrightson) before needing a fill-in. Officially he was ‘taking his own sweet time’ turning his next story into a masterpiece.
That fill-in came from Frank Robbins, newspaper strip veteran of his own Johnny Hazard, a devotee of Milton Caniff’s chiaroscuro approach but with a heavier black line and a more cartoonish style. He looked brilliant on The Shadow and his pages sped by like rockets but the contrast to Kaluta was shocking, especially to the readers. And yes, the job on issue 6 was excellent but that was it for Kaluta, a new star gone after five issues.
Robbins was the permanent replacement and it was his art I first saw when I tried The Shadow, and I like it but the regular readers could not accept it for how different it was from Kaluta. He was retained until issue 9, which was inked by Frank McLaughlin, and written by comic books professor Michael Uslan. There were rumours of impending cancellation but another switch of artist, this time to Filipino stalwart E.R. Cruz preserved the series for three further issues.
Cruz’s line was more delicate, like that of Kaluta, but like all his fellow artists was essentially static. Issue 11, drawn by him and written again by Michael Uslan was and still is my favourite of the run as The Shadow’s organisation runs up against that of Richard Benson, The Avenger’s Justice Incorporated, which was being added to DC’s roster. The clash was being engineered by The Shadow’s only enemy, and former colleague (?) Shiwani Khan, and there were glimpses of the Shadow’s secrets hinted at. But these were never to be gone into as the next issue was indeed the last, after two years. In comparison, it was a weak ending, being just another Shadow story.
So why, with a well-known character, did the series not succeed? My own opinion is a combination of things: that the Shadow’s old audience was too old to follow him into comics, that the character was a creation of the Thirties that did not suit the Seventies, that musical artists did not help at all but, most of all, that The Shadow was too much of an enigma. The Marvel Age of the Sixties and DC’s attempts to emulate it had trained the general comics audience to expect characters, personal conflicts, a striving to exceed fallibility. The Shadow had none of this. Any fallibility he displayed as a crime-fighter was negligible and wiped out within a page, two at most, he was cold and dictatorial, unsympathetic and invulnerable.
The Shadow was not what comic book fans wanted in 1974-5, no matter how good he was. So he didn’t sell.

IF2 Justice inc

Justice, Inc.

Richard Benson, The Avenger, head of Justice, Incorporated, created by Doc Savage’s creator, Kenneth Robeson, was brought to comics in 1975, as The Shadow’s series was on its way to an end. It looks like an attempt to double-up on the pulp package, but this one only lasted four issues, not enough time for proper sales returns to be calculated. After an opening issue, adapted from Robeson’s original novel by Denny O’Neill and Al McWilliams, it was farmed out to Jack Kirby as a means of using up his quota of pages as he worked towards the end of a contractual relationship with DC that can only be described as a betrayal of everything he had been led to expect.
The second issue continued the adaptation of The Avenger’s debut, introducing two more of his team, Josh and Rosabel, a very intelligent husband and wife team who, being black, kept people off-guard by acting like dumb negroes. The stories in issues 3 and 4 were original, the first introducing Scottish chemist Fergus McMurdie but the series never got round to Nellie before it was abruptly cancelled, even though she’d appeared in the Shadow cross-over.
Given how quickly Justice, Inc. disappeared, I have to call the cancellation capricious, but hardly unexpected based on the evidence available. The Avenger was a much less well-regarded pulp magazine figure, though he did have a personality and a story, one ripped off by Gerry Conway for The Punisher. The series had a degree of potential to it, but it didn’t have anything like Jack Kirby’s best work.
And if we’re being generous it had twice the chance of making it as the series Infantino ordered for Batman’s villain/hero, Man-Bat, who got two issues before being cancelled, each with a different art team!

IF3 Ragman

Ragman

Ragman came along a little after the above two series, created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, drawn initially by The Redondo Studio (i.e., Nestor Redondo) and launched in his own series in 1976. There were five issues, written by Kanigher, the last one drawn by Kubert and then nothing. This is beginning to sound like a pattern, isn’t it?
Ragman was a weird idea on nearly every level, but by the same token an unusually interesting one, mostly likely too strange for DC’s audience in the way that Infantino’s experiments of 1968/9 had been. Rory Regan, Vietnam vet, was the son of an un-named junkman who ran a shop called ‘Rags’n’Tatters’ in an unidentified poor part of the City. His Dad wanted him to get out, make something of himself, but Rory refused. His Dad’s shop, the money he lent on the things people no longer could use, supported the district, was life support to its barely-scraping-by folk. Despite the pleas of his girl-friend, freelance photographer Bette Berg, Rory’s sense of duty, to his father, to his people, prevented him from moving on.
Rory’s Dad was a has-been, a bit of a drunk. So were his three best friends, a former circus strong man, a former boxer, a former acrobat. Mr Regan Sr. kept promising he’d make Rory rich one day. Somehow or other, a mattress stuffed with over $2,000,000 in stolen money came into the junkyard, followed by gangsters after it. Rory’s Dad and his mates refused to tell where it was. Even though it wasn’t theirs, and was obviously stolen and they had no entitlement to it, they refused to hand it over, determined to keep it for Rory. This was clearly not a conventional story.
The gangsters shot down high-voltage wires so that these would burn the men. Somehow they weren’t burnt to a crisp at once. Rory tried to get them free but ended up electrocuted himself, by contact. They died, he lived, with the three men’s abilities transferred into him. His Dad had found him a weird ragged costume for a costume party: instead Rory wore it as Ragman, the Tatterdemalion of Justice. Phew, that was a long explanation, almost longer than the series itself.
Ragman operates mostly in silence, fading in and out like a supernatural character. Rory’s got Bette, who he tries to persuade to forget him for her own sake, Ragman’s got Opal, a hot black singer. He befriends a blind-mute kid called Teddy, and his cat. Bette befriends Teddy too, wants to marry Rory so they can adopt him. Opal gets kidnapped to draw out Ragman but is shot and very likely killed. Teddy saves the life of a near-frozen derelict in the junkyard by inadvertently burning up at least a million dollars…
It really is as herky-jerky as that, all awkward corners, but Ragman felt like something that could have been interesting, and for once Kanigher looked as if he was taking a superhero seriously, to within a certain value for serious. But it was just one more short series that disappeared without warning, plugging its non-existent next issue, without commitment.

IF4 Kobra

Kobra

Kobra is nothing but a mess, from start to finish. According to the first issue introduction, it was an idea by Carmine Infantino that he fed to Jack Kirby, who worked out a plot with his assistant Steve Sherman and drew the initial issue as ‘King Kobra’. Kirby then left DC to return to Marvel and the story hung around for a year before being fed to Martin Pasko. Pasko got so excited about it and saw opportunities to develop it as a long-running series that he had some of the dialogue changed, Pablo Marcos re-drew some panels to make two of the regular characters look younger and Bob’s your Uncle.
Now you can’t believe everything you read in lettercols: to misquote Disraeli, ‘There are lies, damned lies and editorial statements in lettercols’.
Because, according to Pasko, on Wikipedia, when he was ordered to turn the idea into a series, he thought the original to be a throwaway idea, churned out by someone who knew he was leaving the company and who put very little into it. Apparently, Pasko whited out all the dialogue and narration and started afresh.
The basic idea, according to that introduction, is of the Corsican Brothers, but with one good and one evil. It’s taken from Dumas, the notion of Siamese or conjoined brothers, separated at birth but able to feel each other’s pain and distress. In Kobra, the weaker of the babies supposedly died after separation but was really kidnapped by the Kobra cult, for whom he was their prophesied new leader. The other, Jason (‘Jay’) Burr, is a student of an unknown subject, also an aggressive, flailing loudmouth.
Suddenly, for no apparent motive, Kobra decided his twin brother must die, but only then do the brothers learn that what happens to one will happen to the other, presumably including death.
The series is all about Kobra’s attempt to break the link so he can have Jay killed. In the meantime, his evil doings get short shrift.
It’s an horrendous mess. Stupid, sloppy, messy, cliched, confused writing, dangling plot developments promised to be explained in future issues but then ignored, the art-team changing practically every issue, hysterical dialogue that must have taken entire seconds to write. Pasko claimed to have written the whole thing tongue-in-cheek, and that it helped pay the rent on a nice apartment. It shows.
An interesting aside in issue 4’s lettercol indicates just how crazy the times of this series were. It mentions that Kobra was cancelled – but that it was then reprieved at least until sales figures could be had. If that means anything it’s an open declaration that the series was going to be cancelled before anyone knew if it was a hit or not.
The end was another abrupt one, in the middle of things, billing a visit from Batman in the non-existent issue 8. These guillotinings were getting very irritating, even if Kobra should have been guillotined long before the first pencil was set to paper. The story did appear in an issue of DC Special but so what? I can hardly imagine a massive uplift into quality, or even readability. If Infantino wanted to claim ultimate responsibility for this, let him. Serves him right.

IF5 Joker

The Joker


Yes, that’s right. In 1975/6, The Joker, Batman’s arch enemy, already reintroduced as the insane homicidal maniac he hadn’t been since before the Fifties, was granted his own title. Fully in accord with the Comics Code Authority. It had to be a joke. Hadn’t it?
Well, of course it was a joke, only not the way DC intended it to be.
The series was assigned to Denny O’Neill and veteran artist Irv Novick, which latter guaranteed clear but unspectacular art with an absence of atmospherics. O’Neill remembered having doubts from the start, as he might. The Joker as the ‘hero’ meant that his insanity had to be drastically dialled down, he wasn’t allowed to murder anyone, Batman couldn’t appear and he had to be captured and returned to prison at the end of every issue, or some similar comic book fate, e.g., falling to his death.
These were conditions that by their very nature made a series impossible, but they didn’t seem to have crossed the mind of either Infantino or Julius Schwartz.
To give O’Neill and Novick their due they are nothing short of professional, though I query the sometime cartooning in Novick’s portrayal of the Joker, but the very idea is rubbish. Joker tries to prove he’s a bigger criminal genius than Two-Face. Joker helps Willy the Weeper overcome his habit of crying every time he commits a crime. Joker temporarily takes advantage of an amnesiac Creeper, who’s talking out of character even when he’s in character. Are these stories for which any self-respecting comic book company should be asking kids to plunk down 25c for?
Maybe O’Neill and Novick agreed with me because issue 4 was by Elliot Maggin and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. Maggin brought in Green Arrow, like he always did. They did no better. Martin Pasko wrote the next issue for Irv Novick, with apparently some input from a legendary figure, a friend and former client of Julie Schwartz, none other than Alfred Bester! That was a name worth dropping. No, you guessed right.
O’Neill returned with the fresh, modern and unique idea of having the Joker come up against Sherlock Holmes. There’s a lot of authentic Holmesian dialogue rendered worthless by the decision to give him a sidekick called Watson but making him an ex-sailor whose nickname is ‘Dock’, a contrivance of such awfulness the whole print-run should have been pulped.
Maggin authored a guest appearance from Lex Luthor in which the two masterminds swapped personalities, then guested the Scarecrow and Catwoman in the final two issues. For some reason, Novick went back to Catwoman’s Fifties costume with the long skirt split to the upper thigh and the knee-length boots, which gave me something to look at whilst counting off the pages to the end.
But the beauty of short series is their shortness. As with others, cancellation was so sudden another issue was never published, until the late 2000s. The Joker was just a bad idea for the mid-Seventies, one that could not be executed to any decent effect in that era, and it showed.

IF6 Rima

Rima, the Jungle Girl

Rima was the only other one of this sextet I read at the time, feeling my way back into comics, appreciating Nestor Redondo’s art for its beautiful line-work after discovering it in Swamp Thing. The series was written by Robert Kanigher and based itself on the 1904 novel Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson. Rima was a Tarzan-manque, set in the tropical jungles of South America, a young woman who appears to political refugee Abel, feared by the natives for her seeming magic powers – really just her jungle craft and ability to ‘talk’ to animals – and who ends up burned to death by the natives.
Kanigher and Redondo’s version updated the story to the Seventies, had her survive the fire and made some minor changes like, instead of her being small, swarthy and dark-haired, she’s a tall white woman with long platinum-blonde hair, a single black woven bathing-suit style costume that fits where it touches and touches everywhere, and with great legs (I told you I liked Redondo). Rima slotted into DC’s burgeoning but unsuccessful fantasy line, alongside series like Warlord, Stalker and Beowulf.
The first four issues told Rima’s origin, though her appearances were strictly rationed in issue 1, which is more about Abel and his experiences, as told to the old man Nuflo who, on the final page, introduces Rima as his granddaughter. The rest of the origin was a trek to the place Rio Lama, where the younger Nuflo – as much a rebel as Abel – found Rima’s pregnant mother and subsequently took care of her child.
But the fearful natives killed old Nuflo, tried to killed Abel and burned Rima’s Great Tree, except that she escaped with only singeing.
Having never read the book, which was ‘freely’ adapted in 1951 as a film starring Audrey Hepburn, freely here being a word meaning Nothing Like It, I’m assuming the four parter was itself an adaptation, which then left the perennial, and usually unanswerable question of what do we do with them now? It seemed to be a given that once the comic book creators were free to come up with their own stories, their imagination failed them (if it hadn’t, they’d have come up with an original character in the first place) and cancellation followed in regular course.
Such it was with Rima, who only lasted three more issues, each one a living dead cliche. The last of them was so bad that, even though I know the series was cancelled for the only reason, namely it wasn’t selling, I am inclined to believe it was cancelled out of embarassment, especially as its back up was the first instalment of a new Kanigher-written series than never reappeared.
The original back up to Rima had been the wholly forgotten Space Voyagers, an incongruous SF strip drawn with his usual quasi-abstractness by Alex Nino, which was pointless nonsense. It was gone after issue 5, replaced by an abysmal, cliched short horror story not worth the paper it was printed on.
Ultimately Rima looked beautiful – and so did the comic, heh heh – but it was completely empty. They might just as well have put out all the Rima-panels as pin-ups and saved the effort, as it would have had the same effect. I was clearly not particularly discriminating in the days of Infantino’s Follies.

Of course, these six series were not the only desperate notions Carmine Infantino exposed to the public but they’re enough for this essay. Time for me to read something of greater substance for a while.

Infantino’s Follies 1: First Issue Special


1st collage

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

1st Dingbats

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

1st Dr Fate

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

1st starman

Showcasing Showcase – Part 1


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

Showcase 1

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

Showcase 4

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

Showcase 17

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

Showcase 22

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

Showcase 25

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

Showcase 34

Old Houses aren’t safe: House of Mystery – Part 1


HoM1

Once more unto a DC anthology series, a long-running series that stretches over three decades of existence, 321 issues in unbroken order, but a series that went through many and varying themes in its lifetime. It’s a series that straddled the entire Silver Age, indeed first appearing in that early Fifties period I’ve chosen to call the In-between Age. It’s a title that belies DC’s history of failure in that period, by being a title created between the end of the Golden Age and the first appearance of Showcase, and being a success. I speak, of course, of House of Mystery. Let’s go back to the very beginning.
The first issue, cover-dated November-December 1951, edited by Whitney Ellsworth, positioned itself as a horror anthology, with stories about marrying a witch, a female werewolf, and a frankensteinian murderous monster. Horror was big, especially from market leaders EC Comics, and House of Mystery was clearly an attempt to cash in on the market. But whereas EC were whole-hearted blood and gore producers, whose deep understanding of horror and their refusal to compromise would lead, in the near future, to their destruction, DC were mainstream. They were clean and wholesome. The witch wasn’t a witch, it was all coincidence that every boyfriend she kissed died. The female werewolf was also human, being drugged as part of an attempt to steal her fortune.
As for the monster, that was down to a chemical formula unleashing inhibitions, whilst the guy in the fourth story was scared of something he saw in the haunted house but died from carbon monoxide poisoning after forgetting to switch his car engine off.
Was this going to be the pattern? Spookiness undercut by rational explanations without any genuine supernatural elements? Very much so. A rational explanation was to be provided, though usually accompanied by enough maybe-maybe to suggest that something more was indeed going on.
It makes for weak stories that have no conviction in them, but horror was big and House of Mystery was an instant success, going from bi-monthly to monthly in just six issues. None of the one-off tales displayed any distinction, until the final story of issue 8, which was not out of the ordinary in any way except one: it was narrated by Mr Thirteen. Yes, Terry Thirteen, accompanied by his secretary Marie Leroux. Dr 13 had run in the last nine issues of Star-Spangled Comics and transferred here after that series was cancelled.
Though apparently it was only to use up one outstanding story, as his next appearance was in 1968, alongside The Phantom Stranger in Showcase.

HoM2

Already, by issue 10, the trappings of horror were falling by the wayside. EC were provoking controversy, DC wanted nothing to do with it. Mysteries were mysteries, and nothing but elaborate hoaxes. History would prove them right, aesthetics would turn its back on them.
Having said all that, issue 11 partially refuted me in the story ‘The Bewitched Clock’, which I’d read before as a reprint back-up in, I think, The Phantom Stranger, with a genuinely supernatural theme, a clock that allowed its owner to manipulate time only to trap him in a Groundhog Day 24 hour loop, only in total, unchangeable isolation.
It was the same in issue 12, three stories with over-complicated explanations for the supposedly supernatural circumstances, one without any rational explanation. That appeared to be just a one-off, or rather a two-off.
As an aside, in common with the other series of this era, this Inbetween Age, that I’ve read, there are half-pages devoted to DC’s Editorial Approval Board, that little panel of experts in children and their psychology that, in those pre-Comics Code Authority days, were the guarantee to the parents that their cute little monsters wouldn’t develop any psychoses as a result of reading a DC comic.It all sounds so quaint now. But each little reassurance was coupled with a complete list of all DC’s comics. I find these fascinating, as a picture of an era that’s scorned because it isn’t dominated by superheroes. Western, War, Funny Animals. Funny Teenagers. Mystery titles. Radio/TV show adaptations. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Even Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Just once I would love to read this panoply, all the issues for one month, to get an impression of the range. What DC were in, say, November 1953, two years before I was born. Just to gain an insight into what was thought entertainment for Americas children. How much might that explain?

HoM17

Back on point. Issue 20 included a story, ‘Mr Mortem’ that rips off Somerset Maugham’s famous epigraph, ‘Appointment in Samarra’ but was otherwise undistinguished.
Twenty issues is enough to pass a judgement on this early phase, and it’s not a positive one. There are four stories per issue, each setting up supernatural situations, some of which are led genuinely unexplained, but must of which end up being elaborate hoaxes, usually by the Police, to get murderers to confess, or with concrete explanations that try to leave open that sliver of doubt, that what-if-it-wasn’t-coincidence nod. Several of these hoaxes are impossibly complicated but the endless repetition of such outcomes makes the series dull: no sooner does a story start than you’re looking for the trick ending.
The one superstition theme the series hasn’t dealt with yet is vampires, but that’s hardly surprising: no vorvulka would have been seen dead around stories so bloodless.
Nor is the art anything special yet. It’s dull and drab and even the ghosts and demons are lacking in inspiration. Of the artists, I recognised one story drawn by a young Gil Kane, but the only artist signing their work was Ruben Moreira. What surprised me most was that, in a comic aimed at children, the overwhelming majority of the male characters were middle-aged or older, and looking like it. The women, of course, were young and fair.
Issue 26 made me think. It was cover-dated May 1954, the year of publication of Dr Frederic Wertham’s infamous Seduction of the Innocent and the convening of Senator Kefauver’s Committee examining juvenile Delinquency, which combined to put the blame on comics and shift it off everyone else’s shoulders. I don’t know when in the year the book actually appeared, or what was known about it in advance, but the first iteration of the Comics Code Authority would censor anything out of the horror tradition out of existence, crashing EC (whose owner, William Gaines, had proposed the self-regulation of the CCA in the first place) almost completely.
And House of Mystery, which padded its pages with short features on ‘real-life’ ghosts and mysterious goings on, suddenly ran a one-page cartoon featuring Professor Eureka. A scientist, with no irrationality involved (except among those who thought it was funny). Hmm.
Though if Eureka’s arrival was foreshadowing anything, it wasn’t soon in coming as the series continued unchanged. It wasn’t until the end of 1955, early 1956, issues 46-48, that a couple of SF stories started to get slipped in, amongst the fake mystical and the was it reallys to draw away from the horror style. And issue 49 had no mystical stories whatsoever, just pure science from start to finish.

HoM86

But after fifty issues, at four stories an issue, House of Mystery had failed to produce even one story that was memorable. So far, this is not turning out to be worth my time. And as I read on, it seemed like the stories without even a suggestion of the supernatural were even blander than before. There isn’t even any kind of quantifiable categories to which stories can be assigned, which could at least be said of the non-series stories in Mystery in Space.
However, issue 61 bucked the trend by reverting to the mystical, with not a single rational explanation in sight, though the most (only) interesting thing about it was that the last story was drawn by Jack Kirby.
Kirby was back in issue 63 and again in 65, lending an air of distinction to the magazine. It’s not prime Kirby, and the stories are too restrained and plain to be his writing, but it’s Kirby and that’s enough. He was next seen in issue 70.
It took until issue 82 to get a change of pace, when the series switched from four six-page stories per issue to three eight-pagers. There was no immediate difference to the content from a thirty-three percent increase in length. We’re definitely a Science Fiction anthology now, with very little pretence otherwise and though Whitney Ellsworth is still credited as editor, I suspect the hand of an assistant with the initials JS. Incidentally, I was amused to see that the star of the first story was Detective Martin Crane, though there was no suggestion that he spoke with a Droylsden accent.
However, my assumption looks to have been terribly wrong for, with effect from issue 83, editorship passed to Jack Schiff, with Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan listed as Associate Editors.
Kirby was back with the cover story for issue 84, about a ‘Negative Man’, an energy being, emerging from a scientist’s body in a manner that suggested a possible source of inspiration for the Doom Patrol. And he had the same spot next issue with a story about ancient stone sentinels that foreshadowed his forthcoming departure to Martin Goodman’s unnamed company to work on Stanley Leiberman’s monster tales.
And the change in editorial control made no discernible difference to the content or quality of the stories.

HoM91

House of Mystery‘s 100th had a cover date of July 1960. Nearly one-third of the full run is an appropriate point to end Part 1 and consider what we’ve had to date. Which, in my eyes, is not much at all. The stories featured a giant Aztec warrior who was really an American using ‘old’ science to steal Aztec gold, the rationalist Mayor of a superstitious Mexico town exposing its legends of a curse by hiring an illusionist to create and explode them and a monstrous beast from an alien planet temporarily running ravage on Earth.
Is this really only me? There’s not a worthwhile idea in any of those three tales, and the hundredth issue is no better or worse than the ninety-nine that came before it. After one hundred issues, the only thing I’ve found of significance is less than half a dozen stories drawn by Jack Kirby. Yet this is a very successful title, appearing monthly. Nor am I unfamiliar with the Fifties and with its entertainment. So why has nothing been remotely satisfying?
Is it really as simple as there being no serial characters? No returning figures about whom further stories can be told? Every single story has no consequence beyond its final page, it’s sixth, eighth, ninth. In such limited spaces, with a gimmick or twist ending to be set up, executed and rationally explained, there is no room for the least personality trait. What cannot think or feel cannot inspire the empathy that lies behind every successful story.
What I’ve seen so far is an anthology title that tried to piggy-back off the horror boom initiated by EC Comics, but crippled both by DC’s self-sought image as the most mainstream of mainstream comics, the company whose titles guaranteed you could leave Little Johnny alone with them without reading them first, and by the company’s inbuilt instinct for science-oriented rationalism that refused to allow anything stronger than a well-maybe ending.
Then, in mid-decade, with EC destroyed for wanting to be serious, with the Comics Code Authority hamstringing the business, the title slid into being a cheap, unimaginative SF series paying the lippest of lip service to any supernatural explanations, with pot-boiler shorts that live or more usually die by their ‘twist’ endings. The series was merely primus inter pares with stable-mates such as Strange Adventures, My Greatest Adventure, Tales of the Unexpected, and its own shadow, House of Secrets.
There are two more parts of this to follow, and House of Secrets after that. Aren’t you glad I’m doing this, not you?

The Men on Borrowed Time: Challengers of the Unknown


The Challengers by Kirby

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

Original costumes

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

New Costumes


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

Challengers 59

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

The origin

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

Enter Corinna Stark – has Tony seen her yet?

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

POSTSCRIPT

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