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.