What If Julius Schwartz hadn’t changed career?


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

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


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

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

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

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.

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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 2


HoM142

Back to see if the middle hundred of DC’s long-running House of Mystery show any signs of improvement or if I’m just in for more hours of inveterately dull reading.
At first sight, no. It’s practically all aliens, aliens, aliens and aliens, intermingled with the occasional monsters who look like aliens but who aren’t aliens. Aliens. Have you got it yet? Not once in these issues was there anything to write home about. Not until issue 143 (June, 1964) would the formula change and not until then would there be anything to write about but, repeat after me, aliens, aliens, aliens and aliens.
Alien invaders. Alien monsters. Aliens from different planets, aliens from different dimensions. Alien criminals. Alien policemen chasing alien criminals. Issue after issue after issue.
Things in suspended animation in caves, preserved for centuries by mysterious gases that vanish the moment the cave is breached, without causing any ill-effects.
From issue 126, Messrs Schiff and Boltinoff dropped out of the picture and George Kashdan was promoted to Editor. Again there was no discernible difference, but then was it wanted on a monthly title enjoying an average circulation of 224,000? But if that circulation dropped to an average of 175,000, as it had according to issue 131, might that indicate a need for a shake-up?
Whilst we wait for it, I was afforded a moment of amusement by issue 134, when the name of the villain in the opening story turned out to be that of one of my oldest mates.
The first sign of a shake-up came very quickly, with effect from issue 136, with the series reduced to eight-times-a-year frequency, on a two months on, one month off basis.

HoM143

Finally, and it only took until issue 143, House of Mystery achieved a serial character, in the form of J’Onn J’Onzz, the Martian Manhunter, arriving alongside new series editor Jack Schiff, taking a much more hands-on interest than before.
The story is complex, both on and off the page. The Manhunter had been the back-up feature in Detective since his debut in 1955 in issue 225. The series had changed in minor details down the years, the most significant being J’Onzz’s abandonment of his secret existence as a result of his involvement as the Superman-substitute in the early Justice League adventures.
Jack Schiff was the editor on Batman at this time. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, the Batman titles were encouraged to follow the example of the Superman stable, as managed by Mort Weisinger. The deeply unpleasant Weisinger was responsible for bringing Schiff to DC and had a hold over him. Weisinger was well in with Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, a power in the company. Schiff was a liberal, politically, which made him, in Weisinger-speak, a Pinko, the House Red. Weisinger liked having people under his thumb.
So we had the alien era of Batman, the silly, stupid, SF stories that were so unsuited to the characteristics of Batman. Schiff was doing as he was told, giving management what it wanted. Was he cynically showing them he could toe the line,or had he given up, blindly following orders? Either way, it might be what the management wanted, what the Superman fans wanted, but it wasn’t what the Batman fans wanted. Sales were falling away. Impossible as it is to imagine today, when every second comic DC publishes seems to be about him, in 1964, Batman was facing cancellation.
Julius Schwartz was good with superheroes, as his revivals had already demonstrated. Batman was given over into his care, with the results we are aware of today. Jack Schiff was given House of Mystery. Schwartz’s ideas for Batman did not include the Martian Manhunter so Schiff took the character with him.
There had very recently been a dramatic change in the series. Detective John Jones, the Manhunter’s assumed Earth-identity, had been ‘killed’ by the Idol-Head of Diabolu, a supernatural entity that generates monsters every full moon. Since tackling the Idol-Head is going to take up all of his time, J’Onzz decides not to establish a secret identity but set himself, and his alien pal Zook in a secret cave headquarters and try to locate the Idol-Head but in the meantime save everyone from the monthly monsters.
There are times when, just from the names alone, you can tell that something is a crappy idea. The best you can say for this set-up is that at least it’s thematically consistent with the rest of House of Mystery (the Martian Manhunter gets the cover and the prestigious back of the book story but the rest of the title is business-as-boringly-usual).
Apart from those early Justice League appearances, I am almost completely ignorant of J’Onn J’Onzz’s history or adventures. Zook was an unwelcome concept that I had known of but forgotten for a very long time. He’s that perennially bad idea, the cute-seeming alien sidekick and comic relief, unable to master anything but the most basic English. His cartoon face, for some reason, reminded me of nothing so much as Marlon, as drawn by Dennis Collins, in The Perishers. He’s small, orange furred, bare-bum naked, has powers that didn’t get used in this first story and I’m sure I’m going to be sick to the back teeth of him by the end of the next story.
As for the Idol-Head, it’s an obvious cheap idea – someone was following a subconscious prompting when they set it up in a junkyard – to start a procedural: when you create a Monster of the month you really don’t have to start thinking about your stories.
But look at that: I’ve written more about this one eight page story than the entire 42 preceding issues put together. At least I have something to write about now, even if I suspect it’s all going to be negative. Let’s move on.
Within two issues, the Manhunter’s role had doubled in length, a two-part story, upfront, with just one one-shot to back it up, or be ignored completely according to the reader’s preference. This, however, was an experiment Schiff was not immediately eager to repeat with the Manhunter back in the back, only to be found after digging through the two schtumers. The double-length story was repeated in issue 148. The Idol-Head was already boring me.
But the transplant was clearly in difficulties because the next issue chose to give its cover to one of the traditional stories, only flagging J’Onn above the title. He still stayed upfront, with the cover story going to the back – I can only conclude that this positioning was to et the kids to read all the way through to the end to find the story that has got them to buy the comic in the first place – and sandwiched between was a story with art by Alex Toth, a fine bonus.
On the other hand, the only thing significant about issue 150 was a story in which, for the first time in years, not just one but two women had speaking roles. Banal speaking roles, to be sure, but it was one hell of a shock nevertheless.
A two-parter in 151, a one-parter in 152: the latter didn’t feature Zook, which was some relief but also omitted the blasted Idol-Head, leaving it to be assumed to be the source of the monster that turned up. Add a new and slightly more simplistic artist and the only conclusion to be drawn is that this is one of the worst Silver Age superhero series ever.
Perhaps this was registering? Neither Zook nor Diabolu turned up next issue, just one of the Manhunter’s old enemies, evil scientist Professor Hugo. And in issue 154 Diabolu wasn’t even mentioned. Oh come now, they’re not just going to leave this one dangling, are they? Stop featuring Zook, let the Idol-Head just vanish, presumably spewing out its monster-of-the-month and nobody gives a toss?
Maybe so for Zook but not Diabolu, back next issue. It’s still the most tedious evil object in existence. It just drifts around, meaningless and motionless until, at full moon, the top of its head opens like a toilet seat and debouches a new evil monster, just as motiveless as all the others. Why? What does it get out of it? Is it just bored?

Hom156

But the Martian Manhunter was once again due to become a back-up character, with Diabolu and the return of Zook. Issue 156 introduced a brand new idea, out of the blue, unforeshadowed, unwarned. In the final part of my series on Adventure Comics I dealt with the Marv Wolfman/Carmine Infantino revival of ‘Dial ‘H’ for Hero’, and now it was time for the original.
Robby Reed is an ordinary, brainy, All-American kid in one of those sleepy, out of the way, slowpoke Mid-Western communities, this one called Littleville (because Smallville was already taken, we presume) that nevertheless hosts scientific plants just ripe for raiding by a super-scientific independent spy group called the Thunderbolt Syndicate, led by the red-hooded Mr Thunder.
But Robby, who has a habit of saying or thinking ‘Sockamagee!’ every second or third panel, falls through a cave roof and discovers an alien artefact that just happens to be shaped like a telephone dial without a telephone around it. All Robby has to do is dial the alien equivalent letters to H-E-R-O (aww! You guessed) and he is transformed into a super-powered hero. The catch, or the hook, is that it’s a different one every time. How long will imagination last?
It’s another of those mid-Sixties series I never actually picked up when I had the chance in the Sixties, like The Doom Patrol and the Challengers of the Unknown, or The Sea Devils for that matter. They were about. I saw such things in the spinner rack at the newsagents at Fiveways, or the flat racks near school, but my chances for purchases were limited, and I was not supposed to buy them full price (so I found a sneaky way round that prohibition), but if choice were limited, choice went with more favoured series, or any Justice Society character I saw.
The DC ‘Go-Go’ checks era started with issue 157. Robby Reed transformed into another trio of heroes, making his strip seem full and busy with the Martian Manhunter demonstrated the limited nature of his series by going back to Professor Hugo when Diabolu wasn’t around.
It only took three issues to get to the obvious story of a crook dialling V for VILLAIN, with an added touch of a suggestion that Robby’s gramps knew very well why he was continually late for meals. And in the back up, J’Onn J’Onzz finally caught up with the Idol-Head and smashed it for good… unless the readers wanted it back. Yes, they openly said that they’d bring it back if enough readers wrote in asking for it. Yeesh!
A letter column appeared for the first time in issue 159, full of praise from Robby Reed as the most original character ever in comics, whilst the Manhunter had another nondescript adventure, with aliens, before embarking upon a new direction. This involved pursuing the mysterious criminal organisation, Vulture, headed by a faceless man who J’Onn immediately dubbed Faceless. To do so, the Manhunter adopted the identity of the recently deceased playboy Marco Xavier (so recently his body hadn’t stopped burning).
Meanwhile Robby Reed paved the way for the short-lived return of a comic book legend by turning into Plastic Man in his story. He also turned into King Kandy, a hero whose powers were based in candy and sweets. It’s 1966. If I wanted to be charitable, I would describe this as goofy. On the other hand, if I really wanted to be charitable, I would not even have mentioned King Kandy.
But this ridiculous excuse for a superhero is just the beginning, and I should have known. 1966, the go-go checks, the Batman TV era, Marvel’s increasing and misunderstood popularity. It’s the Camp era and ‘The most original character in comics history’ is another exponent. The heroes Robby Reed inexplicably turns into are silly, the inventions of a writer who has lost all confidence in what he is doing, encouraged by an editor who gave up caring years ago, and who can sanction villains like Baron Bug and weapons like extra-strength flypaper. Goofy is not in it. It’s silly at best.
With this is mind, the Martian Manhunter’s back-up series, being played a little more straight, should be much better than it it but somehow it’s dull and predictable, in the same way that the Idol-Head business was. Vulture and Faceless are just an excuse for thinking, producing the same story every issue. Though just as I said that, issue 165 varied the formula in the only way they seem to know how, by bringing back Professor Hugo.
And this issue’s heroes were Whoozis, Whatzis and Howzis, which is beyond comment, save that the kids like this stuff: the current Statement of Circulation read 325,000 average, and this for a title still only pushing eight issues a year.
A stupid letter in issue 166 praised Dial H before saying that what it needed to be more ‘realistic’ was for Robby to get a girlfriend and have secret identity problems. In short, the series would be more fresh and different if it was identical to every other one. Comics audiences are like that: I remember sighing disgustedly at similar letters in Blue Devil and Wonder Woman in the late Eighties. What is wrong with them? They even want Zook back in Martian Manhunter, and sure enough he appeared the same issue.
That Suzy was going to Dial H for H-E-R-O-I-N-E in issue 169, becoming another Gem Girl after one had turned up in the 1967 JLA/JSA team-up, should have placed me on dickishness alert, because we sure got it. First, our likeable young lady sees Robby use his dial to become the Hoopster then, when he demonstrates to her how to use it, she becomes a superheroine. But instead of just enjoying it for thirty seconds like Robby plans she gets involved in battling the Toymaster. He doesn’t want her doing that so what happens? Two blows to the head, amnesia for the last hour or so and swearing to make sure it damned well never happens again. What is it with these creeps? Can’t blame Schiff for this one as the editorial reins were returned to George Kashdan as of this issue.
All this complaining, however, belies a new reality coming to transform the series into the one we fans who remember the business in the Seventies will always think of as House of Mystery. It was 1968. Joe Orlando, one of EC’s excellent stable of horror artists was free. New DC Editorial Director Carmine Infantino was interested in promoting more artists into editorships. And both DC and Marvel, after over a decade of strict restrictions, were chafing at the Comics Code Authority, pushing for relaxations, relaxations that would allow the companies to be both more realistic and more fantastic than before.
There was no sign of the forthcoming changes in issue 171, though the Robby Reed story should have been seen as a siren cry for cancellation. Sure, Robby and the H-Dial are popular, so much so that he and his logo dominate the masthead, with House of Mystery decidedly diminished, but the story involved one serious superhero and two disasters who weren’t even given a name. And the first one was near enough a rip-off of The Phantom Viking (maybe Jerry Siegel, writing the Spider and Gadgetman for Lion wasn’t so cut off from his former colleagues as he seems to have been, and clued Dave Wood in about Valiant).
But when one of Robby’s identities turned out to have the superpowers of a Go Go dancer, it’s time for a change.
And the circumstances were ripe. With issue 173, the series dropped to bi-monthly publication and, despite Robby’s presence above the title, it was the Martian Manhunter who led up the issue, whilst in the back a ton of ugly, ill-proportioned art was wasted on a dull story that demonstrated that, once the idea of three new superheroes per issue started scraping the bottom of the barrel, there really weren’t any ideas behind Dial H for Hero. And Suzy had become a non-speaking cypher.
The train hit the buffers in issue 173, the only issue of Robby’s run to have a cover I remembered, Robby half-angel, half-devil as his characters are temporarily influenced towards their own robberies. That’s how it ended, in mid-air. At least the Martian Manhunter got an ending as Faceless was revealed to be the most obvious and least logical person, the not-dead-after-all real Marco Xavier, who promptly destroys himself with a not-fully-tested Ultimate weapon. At least it was a conclusion, of sorts.

HoM175

The train hit the buffers in issue 173, the only issue of Robby’s run to have a cover I remembered, Robby half-angel, half-devil as his characters are temporarily influenced towards their own robberies. That’s how it ended, in mid-air. At least the Martian Manhunter got an ending as Faceless was revealed to be the most obvious and least logical person, the not-dead-after-all real Marco Xavier, who promptly destroys himself with a not-fully-tested Ultimate weapon. At least it was a conclusion, of sorts.
The change must have come as a shock, right from the cover and the new masthead: Do You Dare Enter The House of Mystery, with Mystery drawn in that jagged style reserved for horror. Inside were four short stories, all reprints though not from House of Mystery itself, and one was a Mark Merlin story, drawn in an Alex Toth style. Merlin was a regular in House of Secrets so I’ll be able to tell when I get to that title but this story may have been touched up because Merlin’s girl companion Elsa was wearing a skirt significantly shorter than any ever seen in this title to date: my god, the girl’s showing her knees!
Though the next issue started with a genuine HoM reprint, after a one page introduction to our new Host and story-teller, Cain, the Caretaker, it was dominated by a new story, drawn in a contemporary, quasi-comic style, about a little town, a little kid, two stone gargoyles and a sculptor under a curse. House of Mystery may well have reverted to its original format but with one crucial difference: this story was fresh. It was alive, it was undercut by a splendidly dark humour, in short it was fun. It didn’t slide out of the mind like water the moment you scrolled down to the next page. In short, this was something different.
And having Sergio Aragones draw Page 13 for you (it had been page 17 last issue) was a veritable giggle.
The comic looked better than it had ever done, with Neal Adams hauled in to do appropriately spooky covers. The formula of one reprint and one longer, new story was repeated in issue 176 and looked to be here to stay, though next issue’s was retouched to insert Cain at top and bottom. That also contained the first new letters page and judging by some of the comments, crayons all over America were being worn down.
Adams wasn’t just employed in drawing covers, he was drawing stories inside, at least one with Orlando inks. And whilst vampires, werewolves and ghouls were still not part of the fare, except on Aragones’ gag pages, the tales were now fully in the swing of ghost stories and curses, and even I, so not a horror fan, was being impressed by some of these.
Issue 180 was notorious for printing the infamous Mike Friedrich story, “His Name is Kane”, seven pages of nonstop mocking, sneering and ridicule of artist Gil Kane. The whole thing is vicious from start to finish, but it’s also pencilled by Kane himself. How much of a spoof it is has been debated down the years, but it is accurate to Kane’s known ambitions interests and opinions. Even if he was in on the gag, there’s something about the story that makes me look at it decidedly askance. Kane later confirmed that he was on the outs with Infantino at the time and realised, when he got the assignment, what it was intended to do. What can you say? Was the comic book industry ever free from pettiness, childishness and spite?
Even the first appearance in HoM of a story drawn by the great Berni Wrightson isn’t enough to dispel that.
On the other hand, a gorgeous piece of work from Wrightson illuminated issue 181, justifying all by itself the increase in cover price to 15c. I am not, and never have been, a horror buff, but Wrightson, even in this early phase, was an artist of genius and atmosphere and everything I’ve undergone getting to this point has ben worth it to feast my eyes on his work. It was Alex Toth’s turn next issue with a plug for House of Secrets being revived to set up opposite HoM, but without any Sergio Aragones, not even Page 13.
That was only one issue however. Wrightson again decorated issue 183 but the best story was a goofy little spook story with a twist I should have foreseen, which has been used since. This was drawn in splendidly OTT fashion by Jerry Grandenetti, whose work contains strong elements of cartoonish exaggeration. I thought it was great.
So why is House of Mystery so great now at the kind of story I was practically sleep-reading through in Part 1? The answer is obvious and simple, the difference between the staid and tied-down Fifties and the late Sixties. There’s no rigidity to HoM now. It’s not being held back by fear of fear. It’s being drawn by artists with differing styles, and written with imagination and flair, only lightly-inhibited (there’s still a CCA certificate on every cover, for a reason). But it’s being produced by people who like that they are doing, not merely doing a job.
There’s also the question of space. Two stories per issue allow room to breathe, do not rely on formulas. Toth and Gil Kane. Al Williamson. More Wrightson. A superb Neal Adams job to go with the covers he’s supplying every issue.
There was a mis-step, Orlando’s first, in issue 189, featuring a reprint I recognised immediately. Given the 48 page period is not too far ahead, I suspect I’m just going to have to live with these things.
There was only a fun-twist three pager from Wrightson in issue 191, but what was significant was the writer he was working with for the first time: Len Wein. Another name that would be associated with Wein made his HoM debut next issue, Jim Aparo, already drawing for Orlando on The Phantom Stranger.
The 25c 48 page era began with issue 194 and an elevation to monthly status for the first time. Two new stories, one drawn by Toth, the other a debut for Filipino artist Nestor Redondo, and two old, though I have my doubts about the provenance of one, which looked nothing like an Orlando-era art job but nevertheless featured an attractive black-haired woman in very abbreviated shorts.
More and more figures kept emerging. Mike Kaluta drew a two-page twist-ending tale for issue 195, which also featured Berni Wrightson drawing Moss Men: you know, sort of swamp things. Toth was one of the reprints next time out whilst Gerry Conway was the latest new contributor grossly overwriting and overwraughting a story to make Len Wein’s purplest vein look like a Janet and John Reader.
Suddenly though, the well seemed to run dry. Adams, Wrightson, Toth, this trio were replaced by blander artists, and the stories lost that manic sparkle. House of Mystery reached issue 200 cover-dated March 1972, with nothing special about its stories. Hopefully, this was just a phase. But it’s also the point where we end part 2. The answer will be available next time.

HoM199

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.

To be Brave and Bold: Part 2 – The Try-Outs Phase


According to their house ads, DC’s Showcase, which debuted in 1956, was a response to their reader’s demands for new characters and new stories. In one sense, that was true, except that Showcase existed because the readers weren’t buying whatever new characters the company put out and, by feeding these through a try-out title, DC could massively cut their extensive losses.
And Showcase worked: the Barry Allen Flash, the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, Challengers of the unknown, Lois Lane; the list is magnificent.
But Showcase appeared on a bi-monthly basis, six time a year. With most of its features getting two and three-issue runs, there was something of a clog in the system. So, in issue 25, in 1959, The Brave and the Bold was given a new remit, to become ‘Showcase junior’. New characters, new stories would be tested here as well.
And, given that B&B‘s bi-monthly schedule was the opposite of Showcase‘s, that gave us new experiments every month of the year.

No

Robert Kanigher had replaced Whitney Ellsworth in issue 23. He’d started by making the Viking Prince the sole character, though whether this was to run through the existing stories without wasting any, or a silent preview of the new direction, I do not know. What I do know is that B&B‘s first subjects were a Kanigher creation. These were the original Suicide Squad.
One thing to note quickly is that, as soon as he became editor, Kanigher changed the logo on the cover. Previously, the design, housed in a banner, dominated in the usual manner, but from issue 23, Kanigher had it drastically reduced in size, to emphasize the subject logo: the Viking Prince, not the Suicide Squad, etc.
The original Suicide Squad bears very little resemblance to their present day successors, only the overall idea that Task Force X carries out suicide missions. All I knew of them before came from Darwyn Cooke’s brilliant The New Frontier (really one of the best things DC’s published this century). The group consist of ex-Air Force pilot and war veteran Rick Flag, the team leader, Flight-medic Karin Grace, physicist Jesse Bright and Astronomer Dr (Hugh) Evans. All four were survivors of terrible incidents in which the dying told them to ‘carry on for us’, placing them under an immense burden that prevented Flag from giving way and making love to Karin, who loved him: they had a duty to both the dead and the living that came first, besides Jesse and Dr Evans were also crazy in love with her and it might affect team morale. Were we in any doubt about this being written by Bob Kanigher?
Actually, the mental diversions everybody has to relate these repetitious incidents clogs down the opening story, where the Squad fight and eventually defeat a mutating monster by turning it into a frozen satellite circling Earth, whilst leaving themselves trapped in a space rocket almost 90,000,000 miles away from the planet, and all without any of the men so much as even loosening their ties (an odd pre-echo of their fate in The New Frontier).
There were two stories in issue 26, the first bringing Task Force X back to Earth whilst shrinking them so that they accidentally discover and destroy an enemy atomic sub-base about to fire missiles run by the only country (unnamed but they use a wolf insignia) that dare attack America, and of course destroy it. If the synopsis sounds off, don’t worry, the full story is one of Kanigher’s freewheeling, make it up as I go along disasters that clunks from the moment the team discovers their rocket comes equipped with a box of matches in case the power goes out (I am not making this up), not to mention engineering collisions with meteorites to increase their speed (nor that): sheesh!
After that, the back-up story is merely silly about a giant serpent emerging out of the metro in Paris that can only be destroyed by putting a plastic bag over its head, whilst both stories are filled with Karin’s obsession with getting Flag to pull her knickers down and his stone-faced refusal to even think about it, which puts me in mind of Kanigher’s treatment of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. Suicide Squad did not get its own title.
They got a third shot, a book-length story again, similarly wasted on another monster, this time emerging from a lake As you would, the monster goes for Karin first, and she spends most of the story in a strapless black swimsuit that manages to look unflattering.
The Suicide Squad would get a second try-out later. In fact, in total only four would-be series would appear in this phase of Brave and Bold, of whom two only would get series, the second through no thanks to B&B. Coming up next was the one unqualified success the title produced.

YES!!!

Of course I mean the Justice League of America, issues 28-30, written by Gardner Fox, drawn by Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs, with Julius Schwartz taking over the editorial chair for the next duration. I really don’t need to say anything about these three issues because we all know what happened. That this was intended to be a revival of the Justice Society of America except that Schwartz always thought that Society was a bad name for a team fighting heroes, so changed it to League. That in the Roll Call for the first story, J’onn J’onzz was named as John Jones. And that in his usual manner Schwartz opened up a lettercol and in issue 30 dealt with: the Justice Society, why Green Arrow or any of the teen sidekicks weren’t members (not enough space), why Superman and Batman didn’t feature as much (they’re absolutely everywhere else so we’ll play up the others – no mention of Mort Weisinger prowling with an axe) and why not team the teen sidekicks up as the Junior Justice League (we’re thinking about it, but they thought about it for a long time).

No!

‘Normal’ B&B service resumed with issue 31, this time featuring Cave Carson – Adventures INSIDE EARTH. For this Jack Schiff took up editing, assisted by Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan, but the result was just another monster romp, in fact two of them. Cave Carson (clean-shaven unlike more recent depictions of him) goes investigating underground in the Mighty Mole (a souped-up hot limo with a laser to cut through stone instead of a super-borer) alongside Christie Madison and Bulldozer Smith.
Essentially, this was another attempt to rip off the dynamics of Jack Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown, another twist on Sea Devils and Rip Hunter, Time Master. On the strength of the first story, by France Herron and Bruno Premiani, it was one too many trips to the well. Neither of the other two issues offered anything better, though Premiani was immediately replaced by an unfamiliar artist with a much more jagged style (and issue 32 contained a plug for the JLA’s own magazine, so the wait wasn’t at all long). Underground civilizations planning to invade the surface, aliens using giant metal robots to invade the surface (with Christie reduced to a cameo appearance): imagination was not a feature.
So to the first highlight of this phase. I speak of Hawkman, edited by Julius Schwartz, written by Gardner Fox, drawn by Joe Kubert, three gorgeous issues that, unfortunately not unaccountably, flopped.

Mmmmaybe…

Hawkman was the fourth of Schwartz’s moves to revive Golden Age heroes and if goodwill counted, he was going to be a shoo-in. Gardner Fox wrote a long letter about the creation of both original character. Leading fan Roy Thomas virtually pleaded for the old upper-and-lower beak helmet, and Joe Kubert wrote to express his delight at returning to the Feathered Fury. The middle issue followed the pattern of having two stories but that was repeated for the final issue, no 36, instead of another book-lengther.
Then, nothing.
Why didn’t Hawkman take off the way Flash and Green Lantern had? His stories were more wide-ranging and imaginative than the Suicide Squad and Cave Carson (no monsters in sight), and Kubert’ art was stunning: lyrical, elegant, varying his angles. But that was the problem. Kubert was good and very good, but his style, which had been mostly used in the war stories, no longer suited superheroes. There was a house-style at DC, rounded, clear, touched with blandness, and Kubert looked nothing like that.
For issues 37-39, it was back to Kanigher and the Suicide Squad, ‘By Popular Demand’ (if there had been popular demand they’d have been in their own mag, not Brave & Bold). It was exactly the same nonsense. In the first story, the Squad’s been disbanded for no reason except to have it recalled to battle the menace of intelligent dinosaurs – who have the power to turn green sweaters black by breathing on them – invading from a parallel Earth via Karin’s paintings. That Karin has a talent for painting isn’t discovered until the second story, which is mission 4 to the first run’s missions 1 to 3, notable for being the one in which I recognised the stupidity of sending an athletic woman out to run, jump and hurl herself about flexibility in a 1960 tight-fitting below-the-knee skirt. Madness.
This last three part run was more of the same with no real difference, linked by an unusual obsession with dinosaurs in each comic not to mention the lovely Karin’s desire (which eventually came true in The New Frontier) to get into deadly situations so she can die with him (I suppose that when the man you love refuses to even kiss you, let alone help you out of your too-tight-to-fight skirt it’s some consolation.)
It was time for Cave Carson to have another try, though this was limited to only two issues. The stories were the same cheap garbage – monster, monster, monster, bloody monster – but with the appeal of Joe Kubert giving us something to look at it. And not even Joe on issue 41 but someone trying to ape his style in a more deliberately cartoonish manner.
Meanwhile, Julius Schwartz wasn’t giving up on Hawkman so easily, bring him back for issues 42-44, but without making any significant changes to the approach. The first story took the hawks back to Thanagar, related how Katar and Shayera first met, and saw Hawkman be awarded the wings on his helmet he’s worn ever since.
The Hawks got back to Midway City next issue, much to the delight of Mavis Trent, to face down some old Thanagarian enemies, but this second run was no better at persuading the readers to buy Hawkman in enough copies. Meanwhile, via Showcase, Schwartz had had far more success in getting the new Atom into his own book. It would take only four issues of Murphy Anderson art in Mystery in Space to work that trick.
But this phase was nearly at an end. To close out the try-out spell, Brave & Bold devoted five issues to ‘Strange Sports Stories’, something you can’t imagine being intended as a possible comic in it’s own right.Only four of the issues were accessible off my DVD but I don’t mind that much. The theme is mixing sports and science fiction together and I think that if I’d known it had ben done before, I probably wouldn’t have dared write my Tempus Fugitive. There really is no such thing as an original idea, and this one is so oddball, it’s almost impossible to describe.
But that was the end of it. With issue 50, The Brave and the Bold was once again re-purposed. We’ll look at that era next time.

Strange but Wonderful: the history of Mystery in Space


Knights of the Galaxy

In one form or another, I have accumulated good, comprehensive runs of most the the major DC Comics characters of the Sixties, the Silver Age, the years when I was discovering comics as a boy, and expecting to lose interest in them as I grew older. And I did. It just didn’t take, that’s all.
There is, however, one major DC character of that era whose stories I never read then, and of which I am only vaguely acquainted now. That’s why I took the chance to pick up a DVD-Rom with a complete run of Mystery in Space comics, 117 issues starting in April-May 1951, only a month or so after All-Star Comics was transmuted into All-Star Western. Mystery in Space, a joyfully science fiction series, was home to several space-set series, none more important than that of Adam Strange.
That’s who I’m here to read, but Adam and Alana, and the planet Rann are a long way off from the start, so let’s begin with that issue 1 and the stories it featured.
Mystery in Space followed hard on the heels of DC’s other SF title, Strange Adventures. The impression most often given of the In-Between Age from 1951 to 1956 is of DC floundering, creating titles and cancelling them six issues later as flops. Wasn’t this why Showcase was devised? But the two SF titles were glorious examples of the opposite. They were in tune with the times, with the boom in SF in magazines and novels. Maybe they took some pointers from EC’s SF titles, I don’t know; I know too little about EC to do more than guess. Were they weak cousins of it?
Issue 1 impressed me. It led off with the first story featuring the first ongoing series, The Galaxy Knights, law enforcement officers of the Thirtieth Century, and the first case entrusted to new Knight Lyle, to stop a pair of space villains and save the life of Knight Commander Arthro’s beautiful daughter, Ora. Ah yes, all very Golden Age, big-jawed heroes playing Cowboys and Indians on the space prairie, but with a typically Schwartzian emphasis on intelligence, ingenuity and science.
Comics were still in their 52 page format, allowing room for four decent-length stories, including scripts by Gardener Fox and John Broome, plus art from the likes of Carmine Infantino and, I think, Joe Kubert. There’s nothing particularly original about any of them, but there’s a happy enthusiasm to the work that makes it clear and likeable, plus Broome’s story has an ironic twist as to Man’s ignoble instincts that could do with a bit more development.
If you’re thinking I may have been a mite too harsh on the Galaxy Knights, the title of their second appearance might convince you otherwise: “Jesse James – Highwayman of Space”. As for the brave, resourceful, short-skirted Ora, she had a Knight of her own in Lyle, and it looked like she was going to need him.
As the only recurring feature, Knights of the Galaxy stands out in these early issues, especially with its vigorous and clean art, which has a look of Carmine Infantino about it. Weirdly, writers are credited, so I know the series was by Dion Antony, but not artists. Wikipedia confirms my eye is good on this score, and also that Dion Antony was a pen-name for Robert Kanigher, which comes as little surprise given the formal language used throughout.
But the title was created less than a year before the final size cut, as the 48 page comic went the way of its predecessors, transformed into a 32 page package with only three stories per issue instead of four, as of issue 6.
But the Knights only ran until issue 8, in which they were pushed to the back of a two-story issue. This was something of a shame as Infantino’s clear, crisp art was excellent, not being softened by Joe Giella or Sid Greene as it later would be on The Flash. I also confess a partiality for the skirt-abbreviated Ora. On a more serious level, the SF art of the era tended to put women in far shorter skirts than would have been remotely acceptable on an American, or a British street. But whilst Infantino had been free with leg-shots in issues 1 – 5, it was very noticeable that he confined himself to mostly head and shoulders or upper torso shot in issue 6 – 8. Given that we’re now into 1952, I think I’m not far wrong if I suspect the influence of Wertham, Kefauver and the soon-to-be-imposed Comics Code.
Before leaving issue 8, I do have to comment on its other story, a bizarre and twisted affair that envisaged a future in which, after the election of the first woman President (in 2980!) society had been completely reversed by 3100, with women the dominant force and men the despised weaklings.
For seven of the story’s eight pages, it’s a straight role reversal satire, with men downgraded, discarded, treated as unfit, helpless, inadequate when set against brave, daring, strong, intelligent women. The one young male who forces his way into Rocket Training, to fight an evil enemy, is cold-shouldered, shunned, disrespected just as a female cadet in an academy of men would be. Then, just as the plucky, brave, competent woman would do, he saves the day, rescues the captain, defeats the enemy. Proves his sex is not as helpless as people think.
So far as simplistic as you have to be in an eight-pager, straightforward and exact. Until the last page. In which the cadet newbie Greg marries the experienced veteran commander Stella, tells her that in their house she’ll be doing the vacuuming (she loves this macho stuff) and by the last panel, with males flooding back into leadership positions she’s happily cooing about women having run things for long enough (120 years out of 3100) and it being time ‘you men’ take over again.
What can I say? Somehow just repeating 1952 and What Can You Expect, not to mention the fact this was before I was even born just doesn’t cut it.
Incidentally, there were no short skirts for these dominant women of the future. No, they wore two part bathing suit bottoms and fishnet tights into battle. For no doubt logical combat reasons.

Interplanetary Insurance

All issues so far have credited Whitney Ellsworth as editor, though given the nature of MiS, it’s clear that Julius Schwartz is the assistant editor doing the groundwork. Further evidence of this is the spectacular cover to issue 9, clearly drawn by Murphy Anderson, in the grand Schwartzian tradition of having action covers drawn to inspire scripters to pen stories in which, far too often, just like this one, the actual cover scene – a young couple, she in short skirt, trapped in a gigantic diamond – ends up squeezed in in a very minor manner. As cover cheats go, this one’s a doozie!
Without a regular feature, the comic is patchy but I couldn’t ignore a story in issue 12 that involved the Earth’s first landing on the moon. Like Tolkien’s Notion Club Papers, which foresaw the Great Storm of 1987 to within a few months, forty years earlier, this Moon landing, nearly a decade before President Kennedy’s commitment to reaching the Moon before the end of the decade, gave its date as 23 May, 1969, less than two months before the real thing.
It’s fair to comment that, despite an ongoing educational feature from issue 1 onwards, dealing with science fact about planets, moons and the Solar System, the stories themselves are pure, unbelievable science nonsense, with impossible science, planetary invasions and humanoid aliens from as far out as Pluto in story after story.
MiS‘s next recurring series debuted in issue 16. This was Interplanetary Insurance Inc., and their ace investigator, Bert Brandon, and if you want to know how to turn an insurance salesman into a hero, don’t look here. This is insurance company as machine for sucking in money and spewing none of it out, and whilst that makes it extremely accurate to life, putting it in an SF milieu doesn’t make it any more interesting. This is mid-Fifties, middle-America, business-is-God era with a vengeance.
A second recurring feature was added in issue 21, this being Space-Cabbie, about an unnamed taxi-driver in space, which, like the insurance one, was intended to have an underlying humorous aspect. At first it was a one-off, but the Cabbie was popular enough to be brought back in issue 24, though he didn’t get a regular gig until two issues later, when he replaced Bert Brandon. Unlike the Galaxy Knights, Brandon wasn’t missed.

Space Cabbie

Also on board now, from issue 25 in fact, was the Comics Code seal. There had already been very little in the way of micro-skirts by then.
To be frank, MiS wasn’t doing much throughout these issues. It had started with the advantage of space as a 48 page title but had been reduced to 32 pages early on. Instead of reducing the number of stories per issue it ended up reducing the number of pages per story. Six were insufficient for more than rather perfunctory tales on a limited number of Cold War themes, infected by paranoia, treachery and constant invasion, and undercut by far too many mundane stories given an SF veneer.
I did find issue 33’s scientific feature fascinating, dealing as it did with the status of Pluto. Anticipating the decision of a half-century later, it analysed anomalies in Pluto’s composition and orbit to query if it was a planet at all, though the alternative proposed was that it was a satellite, a lost and unrecaptured moon of Neptune. Many decades were yet to pass before Pluto’s oversized moon, Charon, was even detected, a discovery that I missed even hearing about until many years later.
The Space Cabbie series bowled along with Gil Kane’s art, Infantino appeared every issue, artwise MiS was solid at its very worst, albeit softened from its early days, but the stories remained crude and gimmicky, using tropes that SF had left behind. One story had the Empire State Building converted into a spaceship to attack would-be invaders, whilst another had the entire continent of North America, including Canada, spacelifted to another galaxy in one piece to save that galaxy from destruction. And brought back intact with everyone alive on it. Boy, did it need an uplift.
Yet even in this form it was popular enough to go from bi-monthly to eight-times-a-year with issue 45. Usually, this frequency was for titles dependant on a single artist (those with multiple artists could go monthly without deadline threats) but MiS had multiple artists available.
Space Cabbie went missing after issue 47, leaving the series without a regular feature as it approached its 50th issue. But the time I had been waiting for was nearly upon us.

A classic Adam Strange cover

Adam Strange arrived in Mystery in Space in issue 53, cover-dated August 1959. The creation of Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky, he had originally appeared in Showcase 17-19, the previous year but, unlike The Flash or Green Lantern, his sales had not added up to quite enough to justify his own title, and Julius Schwartz had opted for berthing him here.
The formula was simple: each issue, Adam, an archaeologist, would rendezvous with a Zeta Beam from Rann, teleporting him 25 trillion miles to the Planet Rann, in the system of Alpha Centauri, to the beautiful Alanna, who he could never hold for long enough, and her scientist-father, Sardath. But instead of spending these visits lovemaking, Adam continually found Rann being menaced by monsters and disasters that could only be defeated by the application of his scientific mind and the effects of Chemistry Class, as was only right and proper in 1959.
Adam Strange’s early stories mostly feature Mike Sekowsky on art. This is not as scratchy or littered with weird anatomy as his Justice League stories, which start up shortly after, and he’s getting better inkers than the wholly unsuitable Bernard Sachs, but there is a world of difference between his jobs and the occasional one drawn by Infantino. But Fox’s stories are very formulaic, from the business with Adam’s difficulties intercepting the next Zeta-Beam to his inevitable return to Earth. What lies between is inventive, but the brackets bore very quickly.
Of course, the moment I said that, issue 61’s story decided to be different, with Adam being snatched by a different beam in the northern hemisphere, Rann and Alpha Centauri only being visible from the southern hemisphere, intercepted to prevent him saving Rann from a tyrant out to conquer it. That would-be dictator was the Tornado Tyrant, a sentient tornado with an unexpected future as a component element of The Red Tornado, Gardner Fox’s last creation for DC, eight years hence.
Oh, and for once Adam wasn’t snatched directly out of the loving Alanna’s arms the moment the menace was defeated, and the loving couple had several days sea, sun, sand and… oh come now, not under the Comics Code Authority.
The non-Adam Strange stories remained as predictable and dull as ever but Murphy Anderson – used primarily as an inker in the Silver Age – produced a short series of beautifully-drawn tales that at least looked the part for me.

A one-off story in issue 66, drawn by Sid Greene, another DC artist used primarily on inks, became a short series in Mystery in Space. The Star Rovers were three rivals, Homer Gint, novelist and sportsman, Karel Sorensen, former Miss Solar System turned space-adventurer, and playboy Rick Purvis. Their stories involved them bringing three different viewpoints to the same incident, the total vision, Rashomon-style, adding up to the real truth. They would appear every three issues until MiS 86, with two further stories appearing afterwards in Strange Adventures.
It’s interesting to note that throughout most of this run of the series there were full page house-ads, promoting National’s titles as ‘still 10c’. A change in price, DC’s first ever, was due very soon (in Britain, they would go from 10d to 1/-), but I wasn’t previously aware that DC had held out against the increase so blatantly.
Adam Strange had been the lead feature and main attraction of the series for over two years now, at nine pages an issue, but with issue 71, DC finally did what should have been done long before and expanded Adam’s feature to 17 pages, eliminating one redundant one-off story but still leaving one.
And for issue 75, Adam was given the whole comic for a book-length, and excellent, story guest-starring the Justice League of America (plus Snapper Carr but without Superman), a story written in response to a fan identification of a flub in the League’s own title. This had come in Justice League of America 4, the issue that admitted Green Arrow. Among the possible nominees, The Flash put forward Adam Strange. All very well for me, reading that in retrospect, but nobody but Alanna (and the rest of the planet Rann) knew of Adam’s exploits.
So Schwartz and Fox put their heads together and came up with a story, set between Justice League 3 and 4, that gets the League to Rann, in pursuit of Kanjar Ro, the villain of issue 3, as he tries to takeover Adam’s adopted planet. I’ve known of this story for over fifty years and this is the first time I’ve read it. And it’s excellent (except for the bit where a clearly-impressed Flash thinks, ‘wow, I’ll nominate Adam for membership when we next have a meeting’, which is too knowing).
Issue 81 gave Adam Strange another book-length adventure, this time starting with Alanna seemingly coming to Earth. Obviously it’s a cunning plot, this time by yet another of Rann’s past would-be dictators intending to take over the planet again: between all these former dictators and the alien races all trying to take over Rann for no better reason than that it’s there, the backgrounds to the stories do drag at Adam’s constant ingenuity in combatting these scientific menaces.
Incidentally, the letter column contained interesting letters from two young and eager comics fans, the increasingly regular Paul Gambaccini, and one Marvin Wolfman.
The next issue had most of its cover obliterated on the DVD but as soon as I started to read the story I remembered it. I saw many Mystery in Space covers in this era, in house ads in comics I bought, in spinner racks that I combed through but didn’t buy. But Carmine Infantino’s work has never left me.
A similar obliteration concealed the cover to issue 82 but this time my memory banks couldn’t supply the image. There was another Star Rovers story, exposing the limitations of the three-sided formula. And a complete no-cover on issue 84 made three, though this was one of those instances where the cover was duplicated as a panel in the story, instantly reminding me. The same thing applied to issue 84’s cover, by which time it was getting particularly annoying.
Covers returned with issue 86, in which Adam’s adventure on Rann turned out to be only a dream: the lad just can’t escape having to save this most vulnerable of planets even when he’s asleep! It also featured the last Star Rovers story to appear in MiS. And it also made much, both in the lettercol and in the final panel of Adam Strange’s story, of the arrival of Hawkman to share this space next issue.
This is the part of Hawkman’s Sixties stories that I know of but had never read. Revived as Katar Hol by Julius Schwartz and Gardener Fox in Brave & Bold, the editor had been shocked when this third revision of an old Justice Society hero had failed to take off. Not then, and not after a second three-issue run. These issues had been drawn by Hawkman’s old star, Joe Kubert, but Kubert’s style had evolved, brilliantly, past the point where he was suited to superheroes. Refusing to give up, Schwartz put Hawkman into MiS and replaced Kubert with the somewhat blander Murphy Anderson (and I speak here as a fan of Anderson), whose style was much more in keeping with DC’s ‘house’ look.
The first shared issue was very cleverly constructed. Hawkman took over the cover – the first since issue 52 not to feature Adam Strange – but Adam still had the lead, double-length story, in which he accidentally gets mutated into a highly-evolved, mentally magnificent version of himself, who is also offensively superior and dismissive, especially of Alanna who, in a very understandable if selfish gesture, smashes the machine that has evolved, bringing back the version she (and we) love. At story’s end, Adam beams back to Earth, carrying with him a stone his brain-heavy self has created, which he places in a museum.
And in the Hawkman back-up, introducing regular foe Ira ‘I.Q.’ Quimby, the latter becomes a super-crook when the combination of sunlight and his presence by the stone sets his brain off on incredible ideas. That’s what you can do when the same writer is writing both features. You can also get Carter and Shiera Hall meeting an archaeologist named Adam Strange, in both their guises, and getting a bit suspicious about him…

The issue even contained a letter from Joe Kubert, regretting the commitments forcing him to stop drawing Hawkman, and praising his mate Murph.
At this point, I’d like to bring up a point about the Adam Strange series that’s mildly surprised me. DC’s not supposed to have had a continuity in the Sixties, only Marvel. That was never entirely true: both Fox and John Broome employed regular footnotes in their stories, harking back to previous tales. But from early on, Adam Strange did this to an unusual degree. Each story was an individual tale, but Fox would constantly refer back to the previous story, and earlier ones, and would very often base a new story in the events or aftermath of its predecessor. If you could have thrown an entire years worth of The Flash, or Justice League of America in the air and read them in whatever order they came down without noticing any difference, that could not be said of Adam Strange. Adam’s stories were a sequence, and Fox would emphasise this with Adam’s constant musings bout how, every time he arrived on Rann, there was yet another menace to overcome, and was there a jinx, was it him? Given that we are still only up to 1963, I’m pretty impressed.
The cover of issue 88 was a throwback to the Golden Age Flash Comics, showing that Adam and Hawkman would alternate, with headshots plugging the other. Inside were two separate stories, one in which Alanna got a new figure hugging costume which swapped her blue-and-yellow colour code for yellow-and-blue (made for her by an Earth couturier she never met: wonder how Adam got him the precise measurements when, under the Comics Code, good girls definitely didn’t), whilst Mavis Trent, the long-forgotten girl archaeologist fixated on Carter Hall, having died her hair Shiera-red, accidentally discovered and donned Hawkgirl’s costume: much frivolity ensued.
One issue later, Hawkman was not only back on the cover but taking the lead story, whilst in the back Adam Strange had to fend off an interstellar ‘Lorelei’ who wanted him to marry her (even the bad girls didn’t…) but saved himself with a profession of love so profound that Fox would rip it off himself for a similar situation in the future Hawkman 13. here though it was accompanied by an engagement: Awww!
This little spell of Mystery in Space is probably the best of the entire series, but little it was, only four issues, Issue 90 posed a classic cover, another I recall from scrabbling through racks, probably on a Saturday afternoon in Droylsden, allowed to walk on my own from Grandad’s to the newsagents at Fiveways: Adam Strange hurtles through space to try to prevent Earth and Rann from colliding.
The book-length story was a team-up between Adam and Alanna on one side and Hawkman and Hawkgirl on the other (though it’s noticeable that neither of the lovely heroines has a word to say to each other). Artistically, it’s a fun compromise: Infantino pencils Chapters 1 (Adam-oriented) and 3, Anderson the Hawkman oriented Chapter 2, as well as inking the lot. And at the end, the Hawks give Adam a lift back to Earth, ending his Zeta-Beam tyranny, and Alanna asks if she can come too, and there’s going to be a wedding: double Awww!
As for Hawkman, less than four issues of MiS had done what six of Brave & Bold had failed at: the Flying Fury had finally got his own title.
More than that was to change. Julius Schwartz was also leaving, and taking with him Fox and Infantino, to rescue the Batman titles which, unbelievable as it sounds, were in serious danger of cancellation. His replacement would be a straight swap, with Jack Schiff – who’d cynically and unhappily commissioned awful, ludicrous, ridiculous stories that were completely wrong for the Caped Crusader, because that sort of shit seemed to be what the public wanted and who was he to stand in their way – taking over Mystery in Space with issue 92.
No-one knew it then, but the title had only 19 more issues to live.
The first thing Schiff did was to bring Space Ranger with him from Tales of the Unexpected, putting him on his first cover, although Adam Strange retained the lead spot, now by Dave Wood and Lee Elias. This was an apt line-up: both Adam and Space Ranger were created as a result of a 1957 request by Editorial Director Irwin Donenfield that Schiff and Schwartz create two new SF heroes, one from the present, the other from the future. Schiff, given first choice, chose the future hero, who became Space Ranger, Schwartz’s present hero was our man Adam.
Two issues were enough to demonstrate that Wood and Elias didn’t have the wit and sophistication of Fox and Infantino, and that Space Ranger didn’t have the wit and sophistication of the new Adam Strange, plus ugly art in which everyone stood with bent legs. Nasty. Also, Elias dropped Adam’s finned helmet like a shot.
The two stars teamed up in issue 94 despite the time-gap, with Space Ranger finding a menace that had lain dormant since Adam’s time, Adam himself referring to the mystery in his diary and his descendent, also named Adam, taking up the mantle, uniform and ray-gun in the future, only with red-hair not blonde.
Adam regained the cover for issue 95 but lost the lead spot inside. Next issue, the set-up was reversed. In fact, it was turnabout time again. It stayed that way until the landmark issue 100, cover-date June 1965, which gave the cover to new character Interplanetary Agent Jan Vern, appearing in one of two one-off stories behind a particularly poor Adam Strange purporting to feature the Death of Alanna. Space Ranger wasn’t even there.
Then it was Adam’s turn to drop out of issue 101, allowing Space Ranger back, though the cover once more went to a nothing story, a one-off. With three stories an issue once more, MiS was going backwards, rapidly. Turnabout for issue 102, with Adam also on the cover and accompanied by Jan Vern inside. But that was it. It had taken Schiff only twelve issues to kill off the very popular Adam Strange, and Space Ranger only lasted one issue longer.

That issue, 103, introduced Mystery in Space‘s new star for the remnants of its run, Ultra – the Multi-Alien. I’d seen Ultra in house ads but never read him before, and he’s drivel. Another Wood and Elias creation, he’s Captain Ace Arn, shot simultaneously by four blasters, each intended to turn him into a duplicate of a native of a different planet, but instead turning him into one-quarter different alien each all with different powers. The idea is stupidity squared, a perfect example of DC’s increasing descent into moronic crap as they tried to work out, vainly, why Marvel was so popular. It’s a painful demise.
Mystery in Space was cancelled with issue 110, cover date September 110. There was no reference to its cancellation in that issue. Years later, in 1980, it was revived for a further seven issues, but that run lies outside my remit, as does a second series many years after that.
I came to MiS for Adam Strange and I got my money’s worth from the Schwartz/Fox/Infantino stint, and whilst the comic could be dull in the long months leading up to the arrival of the Champion of Rann, there were still series that were enjoyable and there was classic art from Infantino, Anderson, Kane and others to enjoy.
But Jack Schiff’s editorship killed the series as surely as it was killing Batman in 1964, when Julius Schwartz was transferred over. He remained editor on Strange Adventures and Tales of the Unexpected for another eleven months before retiring. There’s a story there, but not for here. Time to look at another series.