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


The first one

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

Lee Elias debuts

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

An Elias splash page

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

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

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

The Darling of Comics

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

Go Western, Young Woman

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

The last one

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

Comics in the Seventies: A Game of Pages


We still remember, we who were there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bigger comics. With more pages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre Nights: Return of the Scarlet Ghost


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

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

JSA Legacies: No. 7 – The Sandman


The Sandman 1 – pulp version

The Sandman was yet another Gardner Fox creation, this time with artist Bert Christman, though the art was rapidly taken over by Craig Flessel, who is much more associated with the character’s early days. He debuted in Adventure 40 as financier and socialite Wesley Dodd (after four issues, Dodds) who, for no contemporaneously related reason, went out at night to fight crime.
To do so, Dodds adopted a heavily-pulp magazine aspect: dark green business suit, orange fedora, purple cape, blue and yellow gas mask: the man was clearly colourblind, but he was firmly in the pulp magazine tradition, down to his gas gun that put crooks to sleep.
The Sandman was chosen to represent Detective Comics in All-Star, as a founder member of the Justice Society, and appeared in issues 3-21, before being dropped to accommodate the shrinking page size. Like his fellow evictee, Doctor Fate, Sandman appeared only in the opening and closing chapters of All-Star 20, but was returned to action in issue 21, where his figure is clearly pasted in over the original star of his solo slot, presumably the Atom.
Dodds was initially assisted by his girlfriend, Dian Belmont, daughter of the DA and the only person who shared his secret identity. Despite his be-suited persona, the Sandman was all running, leaping, line-swinging and punch-throwing in proper superhero style, and within eighteen months his suit was replaced by a set of standard superhero skintights, in yellow with purple hood and eye-mask, trunks, gauntlets and boots. This redesign, which initially included a purple cape, is usually credited to the team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, but was actually done by Mort Weisinger and artist Paul Norris
Simon and Kirby took the series over three months later, on leaving Timely Comics in a dispute over royalties, and applied their brand of vivid action to The Sandman. Out went Dian Belmont, the purple cape and the gas gun, in came teenage sidekick Sandy, the Golden Boy (aka Dodds’ ward, Sandy Hawkins) and a sub-theme that the Sandman and Sandy gave crooks bad dreams. Needless to say, no contemporary explanation was given for these changes. The new costume and approach made its way into All-Star with issue 10.

Sandman’s solo series in Adventure which granted him cover status until the advet of Starman, continued until issue 102, when he was cancelled.
The Sandman did not reappear in the Silver Age until the fourth JLA/JSA team-up, in 1966. Like Doctor Fate, he returned in his original costume, with no contemporary explanation, although instead of carrying the gas-gun, he wielded a new Sand-Gun, and carried heaps of sand in his pockets. When necessary, he would scatter a handful of sand at the foe and use the strange energies of the Sand-Gun to convert them into unbreakable glass, or concrete, or… unbreakable glass, or concrete…
To a young reader who knew nothing of any prior versions of the Sandman this was exceedingly worrying  It was, however, the year of the Batman TV show…
The Sandman would make occasional appearances in team-ups – he was a favourite of Len Wein, who used him in all three of his team-ups – and played a part in All-Star Squadron, but the only stories of any real significance were those that centred upon filling the gaps already mentioned. These were carried out haphazardly, with no attention to their chronology
Dodds’ origin was told last, by Roy Thomas in Secret Origins 7: Dodds got wind of an attack to be made upon the King and Queen of England by the Crimson Avenger, a gas-gun wielding figure, on their visit to the New York World’s Fair. Dodds dressed up in his gas mask to pursue the Avenger, only to discover that the man was a) a hero not a villain b) his cousin, newspaper owner Lee Travis and c) pursuing the real villain, the Phantom of the Fair. Between them, Dodds and Travis brought the Phantom in, and the Avenger handed Dodds his gas gun as he was about to go into superhero tights himself without it.
Dodds’ original change of costume was related by Thomas, in All-Star Squadron 18, in which Thomas also accounted for the uncanny similarity between Sandman’s second costume and that of the Tarantula, an obscure superhero known only to a handful of fans, whose one claim to fame was that someone had called him Spider-Man twenty years before the Marvel character was created.
So: writer Jonathan Law, doing a book on costumed mystery men, interviews Dian Belmost, companion of the Sandman. She shows him a yellow and purple costume she’s trying to get Sandman to wear, and makes a present of it to Law, who uses it to become the Tarantula. Tarantula follows up a report of Nazi sabotage at the docks only to witness Sandman being shot down. However, this is Dian who, with Dodds out of town, had put on his costume in the hope that the mere sight of Sandman might scare the Nazis off. Dodds then arrives in Dian’s costume, wallops the tar out of the Nazis and decides to adopt the yellow-and-purple outfit in tribute to his dead girlfriend. Sandy Hawkins, we later learn, is Dian’s orphaned nephew.
Thomas was also responsible for attributing Sandman’s retirement from the JSA to an early heart attack which, in the Eighties, has him near incapacitated after a stroke.
But the earliest retcon was the last chronological missing link, and that was related by Len Wein as early as 1974, in the only one issue JLA/JSA team up. The two teams find themselves defending York City against a raging silicon-based monster, causing havoc, but, it appears, absorbing the vibrations preceding a massive earthquake: the monster is Sandy.
Dodds relates a guilty secret that he’s nursed for decades: he had developed a new crime-fighting weapon, the Silicoid Gun, which back-fired. The explosion changed Sandy into a silicon based monster with world-dominating intentions, but Dodds put Sandy to sleep and has kept him sedated ever since, trying secretly to restore him, too ashamed to seek help. The irony is that Sandy’s megalomania was only a temporary side-effect and he has been no danger – but has been too sedated to communicate this.
There was a follow-up story that had Sandy restored to human form, years later but that was it.
All of this has related to the Sandman 1, but a second, different Sandman was created, briefly, in the Seventies.

The Sandman 2

The Sandman 2 was the last, belated collaboration between Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who had gone their separate ways in the Fifties, but who were both at National in 1974. Their idea was originally intended as a one-off, but was extended by other hands into a six issue series, cancelled with one issue unpublished. This Sandman was a colourful character, wearing a caped costume similar in design to that of Sandman 1, with red substituting for purple. He occupied the Dream Dome from where he issued to protect humanity from nightmares and unpleasant dreams. In this, he was assisted by the monstrous, and somewhat silly, Brute and Glob, and usually involved the young boy Jed Walker. He could venture into real life, but only for one hour every week. It was an amiable curiosity that, like so many series in that period of National’s history, went nowhere. In this instance, the main complaint was that the series was too juvenile.
Roy Thomas, needless to say, picked him up as an Earth-2 related character, including him in Wonder Woman 300 and defining him as Dr Garrett Sandford who, after saving an important but unnamed man’s life, had been projected into the Dream Dome. In direct contrast to the juvenile nature of Sandman 2’s series, this appearance had uncomfortably sexual undertones,with it being strongly implied that Sandford was trying to slip into Diana’s more intimate dreams.
This Sandman’s next appearance was in Thomas’s Infinity Inc 49, haunting Lyta (The Fury) Trevor. Lyta was then six months pregnant by Hector Hall, Hawkman’s son and a former hero under the name of The Silver Scarab. Hector had been revealed to be under a curse, to be used as a weapon against his parents, but had died resisting. Now, he had returned, as the Sandman 3.

Apparently, Sandford had cracked, due to loneliness and isolation, and killed himself. So Brute and Glob had seized Hall’s soul and melded it to Sandford’s body, to replace him. The outcome was that Lyta, overjoyed that Hector still lived, returned with him to live in the Dream Dome, reunited.
Such was the status at Crisis on Infinite Earths. Afterwards, Sandman 1, mystically rejuvenated, went to limbo with the Justice Society. He would return in the open-ended Justice Society of America series, although he was struck down by a stroke in the opening pages. Nevertheless, he was there for the JSA’s last battle, the defeat by Extant, where all that remained of his rejuvenations were stripped away.
I’ve leaped ahead somewhat, just to tie up this thread for the moment. But, post-Crisis, DC came up with its most famous Sandman of all, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, technically Sandman 4 although, as we will now see, the thread of continuity between the various Sandman characters, stretched by Sandman 2/3, was cast entirely aside by the introduction of, not a new character, nor a new costume, but an entire mythology.
Gaiman’s Sandman series featured a character that never once called himself Sandman, nor was addressed as such. He was instead Dream, Morpheus, Oneiros, the Shaper: Dream of the Endless, of an order of seven siblings who were set to rule seven realms of experience that jointly comprised all that humanity existed within: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium, who was once Delight and who may yet change again.

Dream, of the Endless – ‘Sandman 4’

Dream could not have been furthered removed from the spheres established about Sandman. The series was a mammoth success: by the time of its final issue, when the series ended because Gaiman had completed the story he’d begun in 1988, it was DC’s top seller. It’s a big enough subject that it would swamp everything else in this article.
Naturally, Gaiman was savvy enough to incorporate both the previous Sandman traditions within his narrative. Wesley Dodds’s fussy origin is swept smooth: Dream, imprisoned for most of the 20th Century, has a fragment of himself caught in Dodds, who is tormented by dreams until he starts going out at night with his gas mask. Brute and Glob become rebellious servants of Dream, who have created the Dream Dome out of the dreamscape of young Jed, intent on carving out a dream realm of their own. Dream sends Hall on to his long-overdue death (although his spirit is later reincarnated as Doctor Fate 5, as we’ve seen). Lyta, still six-months pregnant after two years, is told that her baby, gestated for so long in dreams, belongs to Dream.
The baby is named Daniel, and his kidnapping later by Puck and Loki initiates the course of events that lead ultimately to Dream’s ‘death’ and his reincarnation – Sandman 5? – is in a form built upon Daniel Hall.
Before that point, we had had the unique sight of the original spinning off in a spin-off series. Sandman was so popular that a proposal was accepted from writer/artist Matt Wagner to revive Wesley Dodds in a series called Sandman Mystery Theatre, published under DC’s mature readers brand, Vertigo.
As such, Mystery Theatre does not strictly exist in the continuity of the DC Universe,although its power and effect was such that all subsequent canon stories have been produced in its shadow.
Sandman Mystery Theatre performed four act (issue) stories, drawn by artists who specialised in a period feel, with Guy Davis drawing two such stories every year. Wagner, and his writing collaborator Steven T. Seigle, reset the original Sandman in the late Thirties, adopting a very realistic pulp noir stance to new and retold stories from Wesley Dodds’s history, as Dodds pursues crimes spurred on by his racking dreams.
Mystery Theatre, which would run for 70 issues, was a fascinating series, narrated in alternating arcs by Dodds and Dian Belmont. It tackled serious social subjects, like racism, oppression, child abuse and abortion.. Dodds, redrawn as short, slightly plump, wearing glasses, used a trench cot and a World War 1 gasmask rather than the flamboyant pulp costume of his comics past. It was a fascinating series, over half of which has so far been collected into Graphic Novels, but it died, deliberately in mid-story, on the eve of war, through lack of sales. Even Dodds’ change into yellow and purple skintights has been re-explained in the psychological terms of Mystery Theatre.

Sandman Mystery Theatre – Sandman 1 re-defined

The Daniel Hall/Sandman 5 has been little seen since the end of Gaiman’s series, and there was indeed a reluctance initially to use the name, DC having taken the unexpected step of ceding some degree of ownership to Gaiman. But you can’t keep Sandman out of the JSA.
James Robinson included an adventure between his new Starman and the aged but still mentally active Wesley Dodds, which prompted Dodds and his lifelong companion, Dian Belmont (who has no longer been shot in 1942) to retire to the far east of Dodds’ childhood. There, as told in JSA Secret Files 1, Dian died of natural causes and Dodds, who had learned of the impending birth of the new Doctor Fate via a prophetic dream, sent the news back to America but stayed to confront the Dark Lord and to go to his death willingly and peacefully. This sparked the JSA revival, but Dodds’ own mantle was passed to Sanderson (Sandy) Hawkins, who took it up as Sand, but was Sandman 6 by any count.

Sand (aka Sandman 6) – phase 1

Though Dodds’s prophetic dreams were supposed to be passed on to Sand, these were never explored, Instead, the focus was on Sand’s powers, as a silicon based creature despite his human appearance, to pass through glass and concrete, and sense and manipulate geological fault lines. Hawkins funded the new JSA at the outset and was its first Chairman, but after the first two years,  a clash over leadership with the resurrected Hawkman 1, resulted in an election that brought in the new Mister Terrific as Chair. Later, Hawkins disappeared, eventually turning up in Sandman 2/3’s costume in a new Dream Dome, manipulated by Brute and Glob: that phase lasted less than two issues.
Come the post Infinite Crisis Justice Society of America, Sand was once again Sandman, in an up-dated version of Dodds original business suit. This reclamation of the name was a result of former Publisher Paul Levitz stepping down to make way for a management that did not have the personal relationships he’d built up over many years with writers and artists who, at the time, DC had regarded as creative partners. Instead, Managing Editor Dan DiDio seized upon the chance to reinstate the heavily editorial driven approach that now dominates, which has seen many characters whose individual courses had taken them far afield being dragged back into the DC Universe.

Sandman (aka Sandman 6) phase 2

The prime example is the recent, highly controversial Before Watchmen series of comics, but the reinstatement of the Sandman name was one of the first steps, Not that DC ever got to any real grips with Sandy Hawkins as an updated original Sandman.
There is an anomaly to mention. In 2004, DC published a five issue Sandman Mystery Theatre mini-series, set in contemporary times, and featuring cameraman/journalist Kieron Marshall crossing Dodds’ tracks in the Middle East, and temporarily taking up his gas mask and gun, but this Sandman, which ought fairly to be recorded as Sandman 7, exists at a tangent to every other tradition, and may easily be ignored.
The New 52 removed all of this. Instead, we have Commander Wesley Dodds and his Sandmen paramilitary force, about which I wish to know nothing. Neil Gaiman has agreed to write the story that preceded his Sandman 1, which is eagerly awaited, and no-one gives a damn about where it fits in to any continuity except that of Gaiman’s series. We should all be so lucky.