*Retroactive Fandom* The Riddle of The Spectre


A few words of context

In 1986, when things were otherwise then they are now, and I was active in UK Comics Fandom, I wrote an article about The Spectre that was published in Arkensword, a high quality fanzine published by Paul Duncan of Coventry that was one of only two then-fanzines to enjoy a circulation of over 1,000 copies.
The piece was written in the immediate wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, as a prelude to a new version of the Spectre, written by Steve Gerber, that promised to modernise the character, and to introduce an alter ego relationship relevant to the 1980s.
No such version ever appeared, nor any hints as to Gerber’s plan. According to Wikipedia, Gerber missed the deadline for issue 1, to be drawn by Gene Colan, in order to watch the last day of filming on the Howard the Duck film, and DC cancelled the project: not worth that last day, eh? The prospect of Gerber’s series led me to publish an article on The Spectre to date, on the various, contrasting incarnations of the character that had been thrown together without the least regard for continuity between the various versions. It was fun, and I made fun of the twists and turns that were, frankly, irreconcilable.
Ironically, a few years later, I came up with one small idea that made the whole pre-Crisis history come together. Though I’d been out of fandom for some time by then, I wrote my idea up as a sequel. Arkensword was dead, as were most of the fanzines I’d read or written for. I can’t remember if it was ever published and, if so, in what magazine. I don’t even have a copy myself.
Recently, I thought of these paired articles and decided I would reprint one and rewrite the other here, to give them a decent home. That was until I re-read ‘The Riddle of The Spectre; or, Continuity? What Continuity?’. If you really want to know what I wrote in 1986, you can go hunt out a copy of Arkensword 16 for yourself, because I’m not willingly going to let anything that awful be published on my blog. I need to rewrite both. Besides, I’ve thirty years of new information I didn’t have back then to include.

The Riddle of The Spectre

The Spectre is dead: Long live The Spectre.
In the tradition of Julius Schwartz, at the beginning of the Silver Age, Steve Gerber has been commissioned to create a Spectre for the Eighties. Back then, things like that happened without any thought for previous versions, which is why so much time and effort went into Crisis on Infinite Earths. No longer will that happen, Marv Wolfman assures us: Gerber’s Spectre will be the only Spectre there has ever been.
Thus passes Jim Corrigan, died 1940, deceased 1985. He leaves behind a history so convoluted, so inconsistent, so thoughtlessly plotted as to defy the very notion of continuity itself. It has been rumoured that Roy Thomas planned to straighten all this out in a Graphic Novel, but if The Spectre of old is now dead – which was the point all along – is there any point?
But it’s a shame to leave it like that. There are happy memories for some of us invested in one part or another of The Spectre’s career, and a lot of fun to be had picking over the bones of Jim Corrigan’s afterlife.
The Spectre debuted in More Fun Comics 52, February 1940, published by Detective Comics. He was created by Jerry Siegel, with artist Bernard Bailey, Siegel’s most substantial creation outside of Superman. The Kryptonian was about the vast enhancement of the body’s attributes: strength, speed, invulnerability etc. The Spectre was possibly the only idea that could extend beyond that: incomparable, illimitable power, bounded only by the imagination. Though at that time, the imagination was pretty bounded by writer’s crude notions.
Jim Corrigan seemed to have it all made: a successful Police Detective, engaged to marry heiress Clarice Winston, bringing in half of Gats Benson’s mob. In retaliation, Benson kidnapped Corrigan and Clarice, sending Jim off to swim in a barrel of concrete. Jim died. His spirit ascended but, at the borders of Heaven, was sent back by a Voice (presumably that of God), to combat evil.
Corrigan returned as a ghost, to resurrect Clarice, who had been shot, round up the rest of the mob and frighten Benson to death with a glance. He then jilted Clarice without explanation. How could he tell her he was no longer alive, did not breathe, could not… hold her.
As The Spectre, Corrigan appeared to be dressed in white and dark green, but don’t be fooled: hood, cape, trunks, gloves and moccasin sandals were costume, the white areas were The Spectre’s body.
As a character, The Spectre’s series was full of potential rarely realised. There was a freewheeling aspect to it typical of a time when anything went because no-one knew what might work. There were even flashes of genuine imagination, every now and then, but there were too many lame monster and magic stories, the thudding dullness of Corrigan’s Captain being convinced the Spectre was behind every crime and berating Corrigan for not bringing him in, and too much stiff and stilted art from Bailey. At first, the avenging ghost used to leave almost as many bodies in his wake as did the villains, but this didn’t last as long as a later writer suggested, as Detective Comics realised they had a money-making industry on their hands and started smoothing off rough edges.

The Spectre – Golden Aga

When Charley Gaines, at All-American Publications, Detective’s sister company, ordered up All-Star Comics to promote both company’s characters, The Spectre was chosen to represent More Fun, alongside Doctor Fate. Perhaps, as a Detective Comics character in an All-American comic, there was a subconscious bias against Corrigan, but despite his popularity, he never got considered for the JSA chairmanship, the route to a solo title.
Nor did he shine overmuch, despite being potentially more powerful than all the rest of the team put together. Gardner Fox wrote him competently, but lacked the intensity that Siegel could bring to the solo series, and even had him gassed into unconsciousness in issue 13 (drawing a retcon from Roy Thomas courtesy of The Monitor in 1985). And unlike other members, changes in The Spectre’s series were not taken up in All-Star.
To my surprise, instead of being parcelled off in Corrigan’s origin story (which required two issues to complete), Clarice Winston hung around a very long time, still in love with Jim (and he still in love with her) in a very touching manner that provided an oft-needed touch of stability.
But in More Fun 74, the series was changed permanently in a bad way by the introduction of Percival Popp, the Super-Cop, a short, klutzy and over-eager Private ‘Tec who wanted to team up with Jim Corrigan. At a stroke, The Spectre became second fiddle to his comic relief, a fate that other heroes didn’t suffer until much later in the decade.
An issue later, Popp’s investigations threatened to expose the barrel of cement in which Corrigan’s earthly remains lay in the river, so The Spectre got permission from the Voice to restore Corrigan to life. Which wiped out his excuse for not marrying Clarice, except that Popp took up so much of his and Spec’s time, she was pushed out.
And in issue 90, Corrigan went off to War, leaving The Spectre behind and suddenly invisible for the rest of the run until issue 101, after which More Fun was abruptly repurposed as a comic comic. And at more or less the same time, The Spectre was forced out of All-Star by the split between All-American and Detective Comics. Thus ended the Golden Age of Jim Corrigan.
Twenty years passed. Superheroes went out of and came back into fashion. In 1966, Julius Schwartz had stopped introducing new versions of old characters and was testing the revival of JSA characters in Showcase and Brave and Bold: Dr Fate and Hourman, Starman and Black Canary, all written by Fox and drawn by Murphy Anderson. For Showcase 60, Schwartz planned to pair Dr Mid-Nite and The Spectre, but in the end went for the Ghostly Guardian alone.
I bought ‘The War that shook the Universe’ one Saturday afternoon, walking from my Gran’s in Droylsden to the newsagents at Fiveways, poring over the spinner rack, and selecting this after a good half hour’s consideration. It was a good choice. Fox wrote what was the first retcon at DC, explaining why The Spectre – an all-powerful, immortal being – should have ‘retired’ for twenty years. Ingeniously, Fox conjured up Asmodus, an evil, demonic equivalent whose arrival on Earth had cancelled out both his and The Spectre’s energies, trapping them in their respective hosts.
The Spectre was released by the death of Asmodus’s host and had to fight the demon’s plot to trap him permanently within Corrigan. But Asmodus was only the herald of the greater menace, Shaithan, who arrived the next issue and who very clearly stood for the Devil himself. To defeat both adversaries, The Spectre required illimitless power, power of and from good (which, in 1966, included American soldiers fighting in Vietnam). He was, in short an incarnate form of Good.
Response was mixed: I loved both issues but many readers didn’t, rejecting the very idea of supernatural characters and menaces in the Silver Age of scientifically minded heroes. Schwartz, who was expecting to start a solo series, was surprised at the unfavourable commercial response. Fox’s approach wasn’t entirely successful, adopting a dry, mytho-religious tone that tried to reduce The Spectre’s supernatural abilities to semi-scientific energies.
Still, Schwartz didn’t give up. A third Showcase appearance in issue 64, half a year later, winding back on all-powerful entities to a ‘mere’ ghost was added to The Spectre’s appearance in the 1966 Justice League/Justice Society team-up. This was undertaken without any supernatural elements whatsoever, The Spectre being treated as ‘merely’ a character with immense power and a pycho-matter body.
The story called for Earths-1 and -2 being pulled into hyperspace on a collision course, and The Spectre physically holding the two planets apart until, in order to save everything, he agrees to the Earth-1 Atom shrinking him to one inch and then expanding him again, a process that causes any subject so treated (except Ray Palmer) to blow up.
It all sounds a bit callous (not to mention risky for the two planets) but worry not. Being all-powerful, The Spectre merely willed the atoms of his body to regroup themselves from all over the Universe.
These two stories lifted The Spectre over the hurdle and he gained his own comic in 1967, starting with one last, and unsatisfactory, Fox/Anderson story, then falling to lesser hands, amongst whom Neal Adams had to be classed. Weird and wonderful were The Spectre’s adventures, but most of all they were not very good. It was a different failure of imagination: in making The Spectre seriously all-powerful and Good with a capital G, it begged the question of who or what could pose him a threat.
In an attempt to combat the sales drop-off, DC tried to side-slip towards the still-successful Mystery market. Steve Skeates was brought in to do this, in keeping with the prevalent trend towards Relevance. As a punishment for casually killing crooks when he had much too much power to need to do so, The Spectre was sentenced to read from the Book of Judgement, short, pallid, sub-EC stories. Once again a supporting character in his own series, The Spectre only lasted one more issue before suffering his second cancellation.
Thus far, for all its changes of emphasis and direction, The Spectre’s story has been reasonably straightforward. But that was before Denny O’Neill. This is where it starts to get tricky.
In the late Sixties, O’Neill was DC’s hottest writer and Julius Schwartz’s go-to guy for updating series that had run out of steam. On the evidence of Justice League of America 82 – 83, it’s hard to see why. This was the out-and-out worst JLA/JSA team-up ever written, a nonsense farrago whose climax set Earths-1 and -2 onto a collision course again, requiring The Spectre to once more interpose his body between them, except that this time the resultant gravities tear him apart and he dies.
Come again? He’d already done that once and survived. Furthermore, O’Neill gave the impression of never having read a Spectre story before when, in order for him to enter the fray, Dr Fate has to summon him from imprisonment in a crypt (what crypt?), although the effectiveness of this crypt has to be questioned when set against Dick Dillin having drawn Spec as attending the Justice Society meeting in the first part. That one we’ll have to put down to pure sloppiness (did Julius Schwartz really edit this?)

The Spectre – Silver Age

So The Spectre was once again dead, for four years that is. Former EC artist Joe Orlando had joined DC as an editor, but was struggling with Adventure Comics, ever since it’s long-term feature, Supergirl, had been pinched for her own title. Six issues of floundering, including the debut of the mysterious Black Orchid, then a mistress of disguise with neither identity nor origin, led to a revival of The Spectre.
This was the infamous run written by Michael Fleisher, then a fixture at DC’s offices, researching his six-part ‘History of Superheroes’ (of which only two parts ever appeared). Orlando, who had recently been mugged in the street in front of his wife, was bubbling under with rage and susceptible to Fleisher’s proposal to go back to the character’s origin as an avenging ghost. With spectacular art from the then-little known Jim Aparo, a new series was launched in issue 431.
This version of The Spectre was controversial from the start for its gruesomeness. It went back to the idea of Jim Corrigan being a ghost that transformed into The Spectre and The Spectre not as an embodiment of Good fighting spiritual adversaries but as the pursuer, and executioner, of evil men, who would be despatched in various colourful, bloodless but graphic means: a hairdresser cut in two by scissors grown to massive size, a fake fortune teller turned into crystal, tipped over and shattered, and a man turned to wood and sliced up in a band-saw, etc.
I confess that I loved it in 1974, mainly for Aparo’s art, but even then I was aware that the stories were repetitious. Evil, heartless bastard villains prey upon and/or kill innocent citizens, The Spectre kills them brutally. The only real imagination lay in the latest graphic disposal.
The series rejected all versions before it. In the letters page, Orlando dismissed the crypt as Denny O’Neill’s problem, claiming his was the Earth-1 Spectre (whilst permitting an exchange with the reporter introduced to query The Spectre’s actions in which he’s sarcastically referred to as Clark Kent, leading a rookie cop to ask if he’s really Superman). Fleisher defended himself with the faux-naif claim that all these devices came from the original series. No, they didn’t, it was a lie. Jerry Siegel never wrote a scene in which his hero animated a hand-axe to cut his girlfriend into seven separate body parts in one panel (the scene got past the Comics Code Authority since it wasn’t actually Gwen Stirling being chopped up but rather a mannequin of her: then again, The Spectre didn’t know that until after he’d eviscerated her…) and that was before you thought of comparing the art of Bernard Bailey to that of Jim Aparo.
There was even a revoltingly predictable story in which Corrigan pleaded for relief from his task and was rewarded by the Voice by being restored to a human being. Except that the Voice didn’t tell him this had happened, so Corrigan only found out when he was shot. In this series, even God was a sick bastard. Jim took to the opportunity to visit the despairing Gwen (and impliedly shag her senseless, but then it was the first time he’d gotten any in thirty-four years). Then he got murdered by a mobster and returned to being a ghost. Sigh.
That story appeared in Adventure 440 and became the perfect, if unintended, finale of the run. DC had been taking heat from fans from the start, and, as soon as sales showed a slight downturn, publisher Carmine Infantino ordered the series cancelled, leaving three stories written and paid for but not drawn (these would be drawn by Aparo in 1988 for the mini-series Wrath of The Spectre, reprinting Fleisher’s run in issues 1-3 and presenting these ‘new’ stories in the fourth).
Immediately after this charming run, The Spectre re-surfaced on Earth-2 for the 1975 JLA/JSA team-up. There was no trace of the raving ghost: instead Spec stayed invisible and intangible throughout, merely intervening with the Voice to have six JSAers restored to life after they’d been killed by the JLA (don’t ask).
Were there now two Spectres after all? Jim Corrigan turned up in a single panel of the revived All-Star 70, without a sign of his ghostly companion, but the next two, almost simultaneous appearances to The Spectre himself were both clearly on Earth-1. The avenging ghost of Fleisher turned up in a three-part Dr Thirteen story in Ghosts, to enable the great sceptic to refuse to believe in him, whilst a version evidently much closer to Fox’s messianic agent appeared in DC Presents… to prevent Superman from entering Heaven, and to teach him a lesson about hubris.
In 1984, whilst writing Swamp Thing, Alan Moore introduced yet another, and utterly magnificent conception for The Spectre, as the Guardian of the Road to Hell, only for Roy Thomas to negate this idea by having The Spectre turn up back on Earth-2, in America vs the Justice Society, a courtroom drama featuring the framing of the JSA for treason as an excuse to summarise their every adventure.
Thomas posited that there was and only ever had been one Spectre, and that he’d moved to Earth-1 for unspecified reasons. Yeah, right. This Spectre was a mess of previous versions. He was no longer invisible, intangible and benevolent on Earth-2, and instead he threatened to destroy the planet for the crime of trying the JSA (they turned down his offer to move them to Earth-1, so he quit Earth-2, forever, sobeit.)
Marv Wolfman used The Spectre in Crisis, to directly challenge the Anti-Monitor at the Dawn of Time, causing the shattering of existence, and putting Spec in a handy coma for the rest of the series. Roy Thomas used him at the start of The Last Days of the Justice Society, having him destroyed and wiped out of existence, all the way back to his start. But it was Alan Moore who gave The Spectre the closest thing to a fitting finale, even in defeat: his arrogance at his powers and his desire to use them to the glory of God leads to him allowing the bird carrying the pearl of distilled horror to pass, to summon the Ultimate Darkness, the Shadow cast out by Light. The Spectre believes he will defeat the Darkness, but he is beaten, unhooded, broken, even his powers inadequate.
The Last Days of the Justice Society came out a week later, with a passing reference to the struggle against the Darkness as ‘a mighty affair’, excusable if Thomas didn’t know Moore’s story in advance but nevertheless demeaning. Given Thomas’s attitudes to anyone else writing the JSA, the slight may well have been deliberate.
Such was the story of The Spectre, a confusion of different portrayals and states, impossible to reconcile into any cohesive history. It doesn’t matter now, because The Spectre is Dead. Long Live The Spectre.

The Riddle of The Spectre Revisited

(After some thought, I decided it was impossible to reconstruct the thoughts and associations of thirty years ago, so this part of the post will effectively be a new article, attempting to rediscover the tenor of my thoughts. Since I’m trying to reflect the ideas I had circa 1990, I’m going to ignore all later versions of The Spectre and his story.)
It started with a single moment of inspiration, from which I realised that all the contradictions and wildly fluctuating treatments of the Spectre’s pre-Crisis history could be resolved into a harmonious whole. The crucial point came in 1970, when Denny O’Neill decided to end the eighth JLA/JSA team-up by killing off The Spectre. I can see his reasoning behind that: O’Neill was much more comfortable with street-level heroes and the Sixties approach to The Spectre as cosmic incarnation of Good made it even harder to fit him into a story that he could resolve in an eye-blink than Superman.
So O’Neill imprisons Spec in a crypt from which only a séance can free him, just in time for him to intervene between Earths-1 and 2 on collision course, bouncing the two planets back where they belong but unable to prevent the gravitational forces from tearing him apart, thus killing – or rather destroying – The Spectre. But…
What if? What if, in that final moment, feeling himself torn apart, unable to recreate himself as he had in 1966, because he’d had notice of The Atom’s plans to blow him apart and time to imbue his molecules with a kind of spectral magnetism whereas now he only just has time to intervene at all, what if in that last moment as he thinks he’s falling into endless rest, Spectre’s survival instinct kicks in and he makes one final attempt to cohere, grabbing at an Earth to form upon? But he gets Earth-1…
How does that affect everything? Firstly, let’s work backwards.
Jim Corrigan became The Spectre in 1940, under order by the Voice to eradicate crime. At first, his methods are often brutal and he kills criminals with grim purpose. This was not the Voice’s intention so if we shift history slightly, The Spectre is instructed to raise Corrigan’s body from the dead and bond to it. Corrigan’s humanity tempers The Spectre’s darkness, and ameliorates his ruthlessness.
But now that Corrigan is alive again, he’s anxious to play his part in the War his country is fighting. He joins the Army, but the separation has an unintended effect: without Corrigan as a host, The Spectre cannot materialise. He can effect criminals but is invisible: he joins forces with private Detective Popp because he has no alternative: the police still don’t trust him.
This lasts until 1945 when The Spectre disappears completely for twenty years, forced into imprisonment inside Jim Corrigan by the arrival on Earth-2 of Asmodus, a demon of similar status to Spec, intent on spreading evil. The two beings cancel each other out until 1965, when the death of Asmodus’ host alters the balance. He can escape Earth, The Spectre is freed. The twenty years he has spent imprisoned, unable to use his magical energies, has built them up to an incredible level: it has also kept Jim Corrigan younger and fitter than he should be.
But this energy is not infinite. Gradually, and more so, as he faces menaces of incredible force, such as Shaithan, and the first threat of the two Earths colliding, these diminish, enough that, after a prolonged period of being absent from Corrigan, he reverts to his earliest form, that of the killing ghost.

The Spectre – Bronze Age

Corrigan’s outrage causes a permanent separation between the pair, and in order to discipline the Spectre, and ensure he doesn’t revert fully to his earlier savagery, the Voice confines him to a crypt (a-hah!) where he must read from the Book of Judgement until he understands humanity better. Only to be released by séance performed by a magical practitioner of great ability, such as Doctor Fate.
Whilst in the crypt, Spectre’s energies have again increased through lack of expenditure, giving him the power to separate the Earths from collision. But at a terrible cost…
Let’s move forward. The stress of surviving, and the enforced separation from Corrigan, leaves The Spectre weaker than ever before. He cannot return to Earth-2. It’s all he can do to ‘be’ Jim Corrigan, NYPD Detective. Slowly, his energies start to build up again, but without an anchor in the form of a human host, he reverts to his original form as the killing ghost. This time, out of step with Earth-1, he is even more inhumane the deaths he deals out more bizarre and horrific.
Back on Earth-2, Jim Corrigan is seen again only once, in a single panel of the revived All-Star Comics. Without his spirit to sustain him, the energies bequeathed him by The Spectre’s presence dissipate: I believe he doesn’t live much longer.
Finally, having borne his duty for too long, The Spectre appeals to the Voice for rest, and restoration of his human status. Besides, Gwen Stacey’s hurling of herself at him is getting too persistent to ignore. The Voice which is common to both Earths and to others, responds by granting his wish, knowing that without supernatural protection, Jim Corrigan will soon be killed again. But this is necessary to bind The Spectre fully to the Earth-1 universe. Now he is whole again.
Having died and been reborn again, The Spectre has the energies to try to return to Earth-2. He succeeds, partially, but he cannot materialise. He cannot approach the ageing Corrigan on this Earth, he is invisible but more than that, he is intangible. Understanding his estrangement from his former home, all The Spectre can do is plead with the Voice to restore the lives of six former JSA team-mates, inadvertently killed by the JLA.
The Spectre returns to Earth-1. Frustrated that he can no longer contact his old friends, The Spectre’s anger overwhelms him briefly, in opposition to the ultimate sceptic, Dr Thirteen, the Ghost-Breaker but after that he accepts his role and begins to grow in wisdom and authority. It is The Spectre who is sent to halt Superman when he threatens to break the bounds of heaven, and it is his decision to stop the Man of Steel without violence that earns him a vast increase of power.
But he hasn’t, yet, totally abandoned his life on Earth-2. With his increased energies, he fights through the barrier, only to discover his old comrades threatened with charges of Treason. Using all his energies to make himself visible, and placing himself under massive stress, enough to warp his judgement, he threatens to destroy Earth-2, and rescue the JSA. He could never have done it: not even at the height of his powers, back in the Sixties, could he have achieved that, but the bluff might serve to rescue the situation.
The JSA’s response is negative, however. They will not join with him. Spurned, The Spectre accepts the final breach and returns to Earth-1 permanently. As punishment for his recklessness, he is set to guard the access to Hell and prevent illicit incursion there.
From there, as the Multiverse is under attack by the Anti-Monitor, The Spectre travels back in time, with the heroes, to the Dawn of Time, where he is the only one with the power to stand up to the this adversary. Even he cannot defeat him, but the battle destroys everything from the Dawn of Time on, putting The Spectre in a state of shock until the Universe has reformed itself and the Anti-Monitor finally defeated.
Determined to redeem himself, The Spectre makes the mistake of assuming no greater foe can exist. He permits the passage of the Pearl of Ultimate Blackness beyond the Universe of light, sure he can overcome the Darkness, to the glory of the Voice, but to his horror, he finds himself but a child in its hands, beaten utterly, and broken. His energies have travelled back in time to the Spear of Destiny, opening the door for Hitler to undo the new history, but in his attempt to intervene he is wounded, fatally, by the Spear, and only has time to alert his old JSA comrades before he dissipates entirely…
The Spectre is Dead, Long Live The Spectre

Epilogue

Whatever Steve Gerber intended for The Spectre is lost to history: no hints, notes or rumours ever emerged from the cancellation of the project due to his deadline issues. The Spectres of Doug Moench and John Ostrander, not to mention Hal Jordan and Crispus Allen are irrelevant to this piece.
The second part of this retrospective was a self-indulgence in 1990 and is even more of one in 2020. Given that the history I’d reviewed so bemusedly for Arkensword had been swept into non-existence so far as the DC Universe was concerned, the entire piece was nothing more than an exercise in cleverness: see, look at me, I solved the riddle. That it was nothing but an exercise in advanced Roy Thomasness – but far less convoluted and congested I hoped was self-evident then as now.
I’m presenting the two pieces together in this package just for the hell of it, to see my thoughts in print. It’s not the only piece I have planned on The Spectre now I have access to the whole of his pre-Crisis history. Keep an eye open for an in-depth survey of Michael Fleisher’s little run…

A Spot of Adventure: The Bronze Age – Part 2


For 324 issues, Adventure Comics had been part of the Superman stable of titles. 200 issues of Superboy. 80 issues of the Legion of Super-Heroes. 44 issues of Supergirl. Now, editor Joe Orlando had two months to find a new star for DC’s fifth oldest title with any recourse to the Man of Steel’s offshoots. What would he do?
There would be ample time to think for, from issue 425, Adventure went bi-monthly, requiring only six issues per year, a sign that circulation was in decline, as it was elsewhere at DC, and in places you wouldn’t expect, like the Justice League of America. Orlando’s response was defiant: the new Adventure would become a mini-Showcase, home to all sorts of stories and ideas, ever changing, always springing surprises.
There were four stories in the first issue, no 425, only one of them continued, the others – one only two pages long – complete in themselves. They were miniature shockers, with twist endings and no comebacks. The exception, Captain Fear, was written by veteran Robert Kanigher and drawn by newcomer Akex Nino, first and most abstract of the wave of Filipino artists about to flood DC’s pages because they were insanely cheap, as well as stylish, quick and talented. Captain Fear was a native indian pirate Captain, where you could make images out.
The Vigilante was added in issue 426, along with The Adventurers Club, an anthology series drawn by the already brilliant Jim Aparo, who was already working for Orlando on The Phantom Stranger.

And then everyone was ditched for a three-issue run by the mysterious Black Orchid, created by Sheldon Mayer and Tony De Zuniga, backed up by Dr Thirteen, the Ghost Breaker, also drawn by De Zuniga. The Doc only stayed one issue, however, before being re-replaced by Captain Fear, now being written by Steve Skeates, who was in turn replaced by The Adventurer’s Club in issue 430.
As for the Black Orchid, the character was attractively drawn but the stories were functionally identical. A bad man is given the opportunity to repay his thefts by the Black Orchid, who turns out to be disguised as someone close to him. She can fly, is bulletproof and no-one believes it when they see her. Meanwhile, she has no name, no identity and no personality, just an enigma. Three issues were enough, and she was replaced by Adventure‘s most notorious ten issue run of all time.

This run, in issues 331-340, came about by the coincidence of three things: young writer Michael Fleisher, researching a projected six-volume History of Comic Books of which only two appeared, proposing a revival of the Golden Age character, The Spectre, just after Joe Orlando had been robbed in a street-mugging in front of his wife. Orlando, angry and resentful of his humiliation, was ready to approve a version of the character that went back to his roots as a vengeful ghost, bringing retribution to evil, and to take advantage of the recent relaxation of the Comics Code to permit a greater licence in what could be depicted..
I loved it at the time. The run was bloodthirsty, it’s most obvious single flaw masked in my eyes by superb, dramatic, atmospheric art from Jim Aparo. The most obvious flaw was that the stories were basically identical: unrelievedly evil characters with no personality or even a second note, commit brutal crimes: the Spectre kills them in even more brutal and inventive ways. That’s all.
I was just feeling my way back into comics again after a three year hiatus, still overawed by the changes there had been during my absence, stunned by artwork from the likes of Aparo. But for him, I wouldn’t have lasted anything like as long: the lack of variation would have turned me off. A few years later, a higher sense of morality would have had me more repelled than thrilled by Aparo’s depiction of death-by-supernatural-circumstance. Yes, you could argue that the Spectre’s vengeance bore no resemblance to ‘ordinary’ killing, and Fleisher reacted to criticism by arguing that his Spectre wasn’t doing anything the original hadn’t, and he’d been written by Jerry Seigel.
Leaving aside the comprehensive difference between Bernard Bailey’s art and Jim Aparo’s, I somehow doubt this: as early as the fourth episode, The Spectre animates an axe to chop Jim Corrigan’s would-be girl-friend Gwen Sterling into eight separate pieces in a single panel, just because she, under mind-control, has tried to kill him. We the audience know this ‘Gwen’ is an animated mannequin but the Spectre doesn’t. Not until after ‘Gwen’ is being labelled Parts 1 to 8.
The run was popular but also highly vilified for its violence. There’s no definitive explanation for its cancellation with issue 440, but piecing things together from various sources, the probable explanation is that Infantino, coming under intense criticism at conventions and fan-events, took the opportunity of the first small downfall in sales to kill the feature, so abruptly that three bought and paid for scripts were never drawn, just written off, not to appear for thirteen years.
The Spectre period featured several different back-ups, including the final Captain Feat two-parter, but the most significant was a loose serial starring Aquaman, back in Adventure after a gap of 150-odd issues, with art from the up-and-coming Mike Grell, an artist who gathered raves everywhere he went but always looks stiff and unnatural to me. More thrilling was an unused Seven Soldiers of Justice story from the Forties, newly-drawn and serialised in issue 438-443.
The Seven Soldiers serial may have outlived the Spectre but it was Aquaman who replaced him, for a dozen issues, a rather better, or at least more varied use of Aparo’s art, allied to scripting by another former fan easing his way into the industry, one Paul Levitz.

It goes without saying that Aquaman in this run was better by far than the repetitious, meaningless stories of the Fifties. The opening eight issues built up as a serial that saw Aquaman deposed as King of Atlantis, at first by the mysterious Karshon, supporting the King of the Sea’s regular enemies of his Sixties series, but ultimately by his trusted Counsellor Vulko. It was well-made but I couldn’t really get into it, not then or now.
In the wider context, the arrival of Jeanette Kahn to replace Carmine Infantino as Publisher saw Joe Orlando promoted to Managing Editor and Paul Levitz become ‘Story Editor’ on Adventure, at the age of 20. Meanwhile, the three-issue back-ups moved on from The Creeper to the Martian Manhunter, his first appearance in years and a dumb one as he just assumes his murdered fellow Martian has been killed by a Justice League member, on the grounds that it was obvious. And Denny O’Neill wrote this.
Worse still, this ‘three-parter’ turned out to have four parts, the last being published in a completely different title, World’s Finest.
And Aquaman’s run ended abruptly in issue 452 with news that his own title was being revived and that he would transfer back there. Unfortunately, this came one issue too late for Adventure to escape the stigma of hosting one of DC’s most hateful and sickening stories. Aquaman’s ongoing battle with Black Manta reaches an end that few have ever condoned, as his son, Arthur Jr., Aquababy, held hostage by the villain, was killed, drowning in air.
Yes, that’s right, a little kid, not more than two years old, murdered. Where’s the Spectre when you want him? That Black Manta was allowed to live and remain a viable character to this day is an obscenity. David Michelinie wrote this, Jim Aparo drew it and Paul Levitz took editorial responsibility.
So, guess who got wheeled out to lead Adventure for the next phase? Why, it was Superboy!
It was the same story as Aquaman:better than the Fifties but still not good. Superboy got a solo because the Legion were pushing him out of his title, a familiar pattern, but he was saddled with Bob Rozakis and John Calnan as his creators, a combination that spelt commonplace. Aqualad got his first solo series as the back-up but that was no better, going around threatening to beat up pacifists to discover the secret of his past.
The cycle was supposed to be three 11-pagers plus back-up, and one novel-length story, but this was comic book’s nadir, when novel-length meant only 17 pages in a comic, and nobody settled into writing or drawing the series. But Superboy’s tenure only lasted five issues this time before he was moved over to Superman Family. Adventure was going down the pan. It had no regular lead feature, and the name, Adventure had simply outlived its recognition factor after forty-plus years, lacking definition for its audience, who looked for characters first.
This latest wholesale change reflected the decision to add Adventure to DC’s line of Dollar Comics, 68 page comics costing $1, but featuring all-original material. The initial line-up, in issue 459, featured The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Deadman, the Elongated Man and The New Gods, not to mention a very long editorial from Levitz about the values and virtues of the new comic, restoring the glories of anthology comics.
From this distance, the editorial reeks of desperation, as well it might since the infamous DC Explosion/Implosion was right in the headlights. The New Gods feature was already a foretaste of what was coming: this was nothing to do with Jack Kirby but instead was the completion of Return of the New Gods, an extension series written by Gerry Conway that, despite a few good lines here or there, is justly forgotten now.
Most interesting was the information that when this feature concluded, after two final chapters, it would be replaced by The Man from Neverwhere. But Adventure was about to be buffeted once more by the winds of change.
The intention was to have Flash, GL, Wonder Woman and Deadman as regulars, with shifting back-ups, but by the second issue, Green Lantern was on his way out, displaced by none other than Aquaman (again) because his solo title had been cancelled (again). The New Gods ended with Conway killing off Darkseid, but only for the first time: it would become something of a habit with him.
So to The Man from Neverwhere. But we all know that never appeared. Because the DC Implosion saw half the DC line cancelled in an afternoon, among them the revived All-Star Comics. It had been due to feature the Death of (the Earth-2) Batman in its next issue so, just like Return of the New Gods, Adventure became a home to finish things off.
Levitz moved on as editor, to the Batman titles, as he probably had to do, being the Justice Society writer, and was replaced by Ross Andru, who would soon be shaking up The Flash’s life in his title. This coincided with the final loss of Jim Aparo, after so many issues and features, the last of these being Deadman, which continued under Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.
One thing that immediately becomes obvious in reading this phase is a story-telling technique prevalent in 1979 but thankfully long abandoned. This is an attempt to generate immediacy and action by starting in the middle, in a desperate situation, sometimes only on the splash page, sometimes covering a page or two, before rewinding to the beginning to see how the whole thing was set up. This achronology is clumsy and incredibly irritating to read forty years on.
But the Dollar Comic idea didn’t last. None of DC’s attempts to sell bigger comics for more money ever lasted and with issue 466 it was done again. The Justice Society left on a high, the explanation for their retirement during the Fifties tied into McCarthyism, and they were going to be leaving anyway. But there was not a word of warning anywhere in the title of what would happen in issue 467.

Yes, everybody was out. Adventure was restored to its bog-standard 32 page size, and to monthly status at the same time, with Len Wein installed as editor and a brand new line-up of a revived Plastic Man, complete with Woozy Winks, demonstrating yet again just how hard it was to capture Jack Cole’s lightning in a bottle, and a brand-new Starman series, featuring a brand—new Starman, by Levitz and the legendary Steve Ditko.
The latter intrigued me. I never read it at the time, though I’m familiar with this version, Prince Gavyn, from the superb James Robinson Starman series around the turn of the century, so it was nice to see the building blocks being built.
Starman was actually quite decent space opera that I would probably have enjoyed a lot in 1979/80, whilst the Plastic Man revival did its best but, lacking the light touch of Plas’s creator, got bogged down in excess silliness rather quickly.
Still, DC had not given up on Jeanette Kahn’s dream of bigger, better comics, and with issue 475, Adventurer extended its borders (and price) again, jumping to 50 cents and junking eight advertising pages to bring the creative content up to 25 again. That required a third character and who do you think it was? Tall, blond, favours orange scales? Yes, it was bloody Aquaman again.
But only for three issues. Without warning, issue 478 had every series scattering to the horizon for their continuations, Aquaman back to World’s Finest, Plastic Man to Super-Friends, Starman to ‘a conclusion – sometime’. And not a word of explanation in the lettercol or elsewhere.
By now, it must be long obvious that Adventure was a dying title, struggling and gasping and desperate. There wasn’t even a lettercol in issue 479, which was taken over by Dial ‘H’ for Hero for the remainder of the series’ life, nor credits. The series was being written by Marv Wolfman and very clearly being drawn by Carmine Infantino.

Back in the Sixties, I vaguely remember reading one of the original Dial ‘H’ for Hero stories starring Robbie Reed, in which the idea was that if Robbie dialled letters that were equivalent to H-E-R-O on a mysterious telephone dial (no telephone attached) he would turn into new superheroes for an hour at a time.
The revival had two High School teenagers, Chris King and Vicki Grant, who discover two dials, one as a wristwatch, the other a necklace, and also turn into superheroes. Lots of superheroes. Streams of one-note superheroes with all the developmental space of a puddle. This is because practically ever character has been suggested by a reader in their teens (except the Silver Fog, created by Harlan Ellison, aged 46). In short, it’s a wildly jarring, screaming mish-mash of stock Infantino shots, and my how stylistically angular he’d got, and it’s horrendous to read. Oh, and just in case anyone comes up with a good character, DC owns them all. Just in case.
The sheer vapidity of the comic – three seven page stories per issue, is this Mort Weisinger making a comeback? No, it’s Jack C Harris as editor, which explains a lot – was DC’s attempt to grab a younger audience at the very time it’s older audience was taking hold of the industry, via the Direct Market. It was a killer. Adventure lost its last, tenuous grip on its audience, throwing away one that had shown some loyalty in pursuit of another that it hoped to create out of nowhere.
With issue 490, cover-dated February 1982, Adventure Comics died quietly, in its forty-eighth year, just ten issues short of its 500th publication. Apart from a mention of where Dial ‘H’ for Hero could next be found, there was no announcement of the cancellation. By turning it into a digest-sized publication, mostly reprint, the title was got to 500 eventually. There have been revivals since, but one of the oldest titles in the business had run out of reinventions, doomed by its failure to produce a character it could be associated with who could save its life.
Action could live off Superman and Detective off Batman. But Adventure could only ever eat its own tail: if it produced a charismatic, exciting, popular lead character, it would lose its star to a solo title in its own name. Ultimately, it was doomed. And it went.

Doomsday Clock 12


So the Undistinguished Thing is now here in its entirety. The set is going on eBay at any moment, One-Day Auction, Buy and Pay Thursday, Guaranteed First Class Posting Friday morning, maximum chance of delivery for Xmas, £9.99 plus postage starting bid or Best Offer. Get bidding!

Why you should want to is entirely another matter. I have made my opinion of Doomsday Clock amply clear over this past more than two years and I recant nothing now I have read the final, extended size issue.

But, in the manner of Lucifer on an Australian beach reluctantly give God his due over the matter of sunsets, I have to give credit to Geoff Johns for some of the things in issue 12. Despite the many flaws that I’ve held up to ridicule and  scorn, some of which carry over into this wrap-up, there are elements to the outcome that, if attached to a story with a less mean-minded purpose, could have completed an event worth reading and re-reading.

The first thing to recognise is that I was completely wrong in the assumption I made on reading issue 1 back in 2017 that the ending would be a big fight between Superman and Dr Manhattan, to be won by the former despite the overwhelming discrepancy in power levels. Johns even set that up at the end of issue 11, all those months ago, but he had something more subtle on his mind.

The big fight is between Superman and everybody else. The Russians, the Markovians, Black Adam’s Khandaq brigade, the Brits, the Aussies, the Israelis, in short every other country in the world that has a superhero team we never hear about because americans really can’t be arsed about anything that isn’t American, all piling in at once to take Superman down and in for his part in the Moscow massacre, whenever that was. Dr Manhattan looks on. After all, he sees everything simultaneously so he is the man on no action and no hope: it all goes black in eleven minutes and fifty seven seconds, after which, ho hum.

There’s something of the rat pack mentality about this atomic pile-on. i don’t know whether Johns intended this or not but there’s an element of mean-spiritedness, a seizing of the chance to get back at, and drag down the paragon, to adopt the current Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series terminology. Superman’s been the perfect ideal for too long, now he can be clawed down, not so perfect anyomre. Tied in with the nationalistic implications of the battle being every other country versus the American boy, it leaves a sour taste on the mouth. But then, so much of what inspiresJohns to this work does exactly the same.

Dr Manhattan, like I said, looks on. He sees destruction in the forthcoming darkness: Superman destroys me or I destroy everything. But the DC Universe is one of hope and optimism, not like that nasty ol’ Watchmen Universe. Superman asks for a third choice.

And at exactly the same moment, Batman and the is-he-dead-or-is-he-not-dead Alfred catch up with Reggie, the New (I can’t write well enough to write Rorscharch so I’ll make up a second-rate version of him to speak what little superficially similar dialogue I can achieve) Rorscharch, who can lead them to where Ozymandias is, even though Veidt has moved elsewhere before since Reggie last saw him. They need Reggie to put on Rorscharch’s mask again (what the hell for? It hasn’t got a direction-finder or anything like that?).  But Reggie won’t touch it, won’t even say the name. because everybody’s lied to him about Rorscharch and Reggie’s father and he hates the monster.

Until Batman tells him to change what people see when they see the mask so Reggie changes his mind. just like that. As you do when you’re in a superhero Universe that’s done the same thing for eighty years non-stop.

By now you must be wondering when we’ll come to something of which I approve but fear not. Just as Reggie undergoes a 180 degree change in character because Batman talks to him, so too does Dr Manhattan because Superman speaks. Everything goes black. Because Dr Manhattan makes it go black, for nearly three pages, until the Lux is Fiated once more, this time by the naked blue guy.

And also the shitty changes Dr Manhattan has made are unmade. Superman lifts a car over his head in 1938 again. The lantern is six inches nearer Alan Scott again. A girl a thousand years hence saves R.J. Brande’s life again. And a Superboy inspired by heroes of the past saves Jonathan and Martha Kent.

Suddenly, the sky is full of allies of Superman, aiding him against the treacherous, loathsome Old Worlders. Allies from the past, allies from the future. The Legion of superheroes to the doublespread panel left, the Justice Society of America with that old, calm authority to the right.

I’ve no idea whether this is yet another Universal reboot or just Rebirth Reborn, but either way it’s all turned round again. and this was apparently Ozymandias’s plan all along: he couldn’t persuade Jon to save the world again but Superman could so it was all about engineerng a confrontation.

Because not only is whatever Earth-1 equivalent we may be in at any given time, not only is the DC universe the Metaverse that steers the stars of every multiversal existence, but Superman is the fons et origo of everything. Every Universe our reading eye passes through is still there, growing the multiverse with it, and every future Crisis to come (Johns listing enough to get us to the Legion’s time though the ones for 2025 and 2030 are obviously the more immediate concerns, with the former’s 5G having already been hinted at) creating new versions.

So, Dr Manhattan regroups everyone from the Watchmen Universe so that they can go home (and write about what they did on their holidays?) Actually, the Mime and the Marionette will stay behind because despite being deeply evil, half mad and psychotic criminals, they do love each other and besides, they’ll be nice to their little daughter. The Comedian, whose resurrection from the dead to appear in this dog has always been completly pointless, shoots Ozy through the chest and this time he doesn’t catch the bullet, except in his chest, so he gets sent back to where he’s falling out of his penthouse, except that this one’s done by Lex Luthor cancelling out his altered vibrations, just like Barry Allen all those half-centuries ago. Veidt’s going to die a hero just as he wants to but Reggie stuffs the Rorscharch mask in to plug up the wound and, bare-faced, proclaims himself Rorscharch. Just as in the TV series, Veidt’s going back to be arrested. He is a mass-murderer, remember.

As just as in the TV seruies, Dr Manhattan dies. Everyone returns to Watchmen world in 1992, with no explanation of how the two Universes are running on such a time discrepancy, and Dr Manhattan invests his power in regrowing the world after its nuclear holocaust, only this is Watchmen rebirth: Janey Slater tells Jon Osterman her watch can wait: six months later, they marry and have three kids. The events of Watchmen the comic still happen even despite there being no Dr Manhattan (go on Johns, for your next trick tell us How?) because Laurie and Dan are still in hiding in their assumed identities with their daughter who’s really Mime and Marionette’s first child, and there are no nuclear weapons any more.

Oh, but there’s a visitor who comes to stay with Dan and Laurie. A little dark-haired boy. With a blue hydrogen atom symbol on his forehead. He says to call him Clark.

I’ve ended up being still as scathing about issue 12 as I’ve been about all the others, and not merely by force of habit. The ending is built on too rotten an edifice for anything more, and the edifice is still what I’ve called it all along: Geoff Johns’ inability to understand an approach to superheroics that didn’t exactly mirror everything it’s been since 1838, and his fear of that failure to understand. What might have been noble, entertaining and even worthy if it did not grow from that shit-heap of resentment falls apart upon analysis. As I’ve just said.

But the JSA are back, which we can all welcome. And so too are Jonathan and Martha who, though their death was for fifty years an integral element of Superman’s tale, come as most welcome. Though were we’re gpoing to go with Schroedinger’s Alfred I don’t know.

The one thing I can say about Johns’ Watchmen is that at least he put the toys back where they came from where, out of sight and out of mind, we can forget everything that happened before and after Watchmen the comic and pray that nobody ever fucks with them again.

I’d hate to have to do this again.

Double Dead Comics Weekend: Heroes in Crisis 9 and Doomsday Clock 10


So I was right when I predicted, maybe six months ago, that I’d see Heroes in Crisis 9 before Doomsday Clock 12, for here is the former appearing the same week as issue 10 of the latter, with the penultimate issue due in another three months time and the final issue in sight of no published schedule at all. Let’s put the two together and talk about which is the biggest bust.

For me, it’s got to be Heroes in Crisis. I was expecting something interesting, thought-provoking, original and ground-breaking. I was expecting it to enslave me. I was expecting it to be good. Doomsday Clock has done nothing but live down to my expectations.

Last issue, Heroes in Crisis revealed that its villain was neither Booster Gold nor Harley Quinn, as had been trailed from the start, but instead Wally West, the series’ most controversial and unwelcome victim. What was so bad, as well as just dumbfuck stupid, about it was that whilst the multiple deaths were a tragic accident, Wally’s actions in covering up, concealing and fabricating evidence and framing innocents, placed him at or below the level of the most evil of supervillains.

Worse still than that, was the choice of Wally as the villain: Wally West, the victim of the New52, the wellspring of Rebirth in 2016, the character whose reappearance was a deliberate beacon, a symbol of hope, and who less than three years later has been trashed beyond recovery. And in choosing to make Wally such a manipulator of evidence, Tom King destroyed his own story: literally everything in issues 1-7 has been a fake, a red herring, a lie. None of it meant anything, except seven months’ waste of paper, ink and colour. Did nobody at DC realise this in advance?

The series has made Wally West irredeemable. The character is poisoned beyond any hope, except as a villin or a madman, for at least two decades: that was how long in took to bring Hal Jordan back after Emerald Twilight, and that only tenuously possible by having him be possessed by Parallax, the Fear-Demon. In the late 2030’s, assuming the comic book industry hasn’t disappeared up its own backside at last, someone can try to rehabilitate Wally. It would be nice if someone could come up with something that isn’t as cheap and casuall, or as blatant a rip-off, as having him be possessed, and not in his right mind.

Was this what Tom King planned all along? There’s been rumour, and circumstantial evidence, of editorial interference by Interferer in Chief Dan Didio. Who is known to dislike Wally West almost as much as he does Dick Grayson. Who was the force behind the conceptual approaches of the New52, which was rejected by Geoff Johns in Rebirth. Who has come out on top in a power-strugle with Johns, who made wlly the Hope of Rebirth.

Would DiDio be so petty? Are you kidding? He works in comics, doesn’t he? The industry is littered with the petty, the obsessive, the maladjusted.

You may by now be wondering why I am going on at such length on what is essentially a reprise of my comments on issue 8, but this is the bar that the last issue has to overcome when it tries to present the Redemption of Wally West, by doing more or less the same thing issue 8 did, that is, to wipe out what has gone before, and render the worst parts of issue 8 non-existent. It doesn’t work, not even for a second.

What happens is that, amongst another slew of single panel trauma investigations at Sanctuary, which we later learn is the new, repaired, publicly-known Sanctuary, the Booster-Beetle-Harley-Batgirl team catches up with Wally five days in the future where/when he’s about to strangle Wally West for his crime and take him back to Day Zero for his body to be found. Wally has decided against using time travel to, you know, like, stop himself from killing all those people in the first place, because of Flashpoint.

So, in the least convincing of manners and most cheap of reverses, Wally and Wally talk Wally out of it, Booster scoots into the future to grab a clone of Wally + 5 so that can be dumped at Day Zero, everybody hightails it out of Day + 5 before the Justice League get there,  and Wally can go back to Day Zero and confess his crime and get therapy, and go on to his bright and bountiful future in the DC Universe. The fact that in doing so he has now changed time in contravention of his principles in not changing time is not allowed to cross the mind of anyone except awkward readers.

It’s bullshit, pure bullshit from start to finish. Worse than bullshit, it’s pathetic. The series has been dull, static and uninvolving, and it has undercut itself over and over to the point where it holds no reality whatsoever. And to prove this yet further, Poison Ivy is returned to life is issue 9.

That leaves Roy Harper as the only prominent dead character, along with a bunch of neverwases, and that isn’t going to last.

I really had hopes for Heroes in Crisis but it disappointed from the outset. According to one of the spoilers that I’ve avoided until now, King, as the writer, submitted his outline story and had the characters to use dictated to him, but I’m still not going to let him off. That’s stupid nonsense. Look for a complete set on eBay from Sunday afternoon onwards.

As for Doomsday Clock 10, this armpit of a story has dragged on for so long that I no longer have the energy for any truly visceral commentary. At this late stage, on this attenuated schedule, you’d think that Johns and Frank would be making at least some effort to move the story towards its glacial conclusion, especially given that Doomsday Clock is meant to be the future of the DC Universe and nobody as yet has any idea what they have to do to get there, and that it supposed to be the springboard for the long overdue returns of The Justice Society of America and The Legion of Super-Heroes.

Issue 10 has been trailed for longer than prehistoric beasts have existed as heralding the return of the Justice Society, and it is true that we have some new dialogue from their first meeting, but in which version of reality that takes place is beyond determining. Essentially, Johns has decided to spend this issue in the head of Dr Manhattan, who does not perceive time in linear fashion, and using this to summarise what the Doc has been doing since departing the Watchmen Universe and arriving in DC’s.

It basically wanders about haphazardly whilst the Doc adjusts to the idea of being in a Multiverse in which time shifts at periodic intervals, until he realises that the DC Earth is actually not a Multiversal construct but a metaverse, whose history is constantly shifting.

I mean, ho-hum or what, so very rose by any other name. In the end, we get back to the same old conundrum we’ve had waved under our noses for about a year of real time, that Manhattan’s perception of the future ends with Superman throwing a punch at him, meaning that either Superman destroys him., or Manhattan destroys the metaverse. And aside from all other considerations, the odds of Manhattan destroying something Johns has only just named/defined this week are non-existent.

This latest instalment essentially writes the series off as a crossover series, as well as its already pronounced failure as a Watchmen fuck-with. We haven’t had any of that for an issue or two, so in one sense it’s cheering to see Johns flash back to Manhattan’s last conversation with Ozymandias in Watchmen 12, but really it’s not since Johns has to lie through his teeth about what Alan Moore had these two talk about, and invent something that never happened and which demeans the good Doctor yet more.

With Tom King’s run on Batman suddenly announced as ending twenty issues prior than we’d been led to believe, and the only other DC title I’m getting being The Terrifics, I foresee discarding the contents of each of these series asbeing beyond easy. I doubt I’ll even have to read anything in which they have consequences.

Will someone put this thing out of its misery? Before August and issue 11.

Normal Service Has Been Resumed…


Remember me telling you, just before Xmas, about my pre-ordered Justice Society of America Graphic Novel, that had had its publication date postponed three times since April 2016?

Today is the publication date last advertised. And I have duly received notification, literally minutes ago, that it has once again been postponed. to an unknown date.

Given that DC are now advertising a hardback Justice Society of America Graphic Novel that also included the earlier mini-series (which I have also pre-ordered), I am now convinced this book is never to be. So I’m cancelling my order and will content myself with the frustration of watching the more comprehensive edition miss multiple publication dates.

I can’t say this is unexpected…

Can I afford to wait?


Back in April 2016, I ordered a forthcoming DC Graphic Novel via Amazon. This was the collection of the 1992 ten-issue Justice Society of America series, written by Len Strazewski and pencilled by the late Mike Parobeck. I have the original issues still, but I am always in the market for an upgrade to Graphic Novel.

That was, as I have already said, April 2016. Twice, to date, publication has been set back about six months. Currently, it’s scheduled to appear on 2 January 2018. It hasn’t been postponed yet, and this is the closest we’ve got to an actual date without anything collapsing. Yet.

Of course, there’s still a week to go in which another postponement could be put in place, and you may therefore wonder why I am tempting fate by even opening my mouth about this.

I am doing so because, this week, I have read about another Graphic Novel collection of this ten issue series, except that this one is not only going to be in hardback, but it will also include the earlier eight-issue limited series Justice Society of America title, also written by Len Strazewski and pencilled by a variety of artists, which originally came into being as make-work project for the artists contracted to work on the delayed !mpact (sic) Comics project. For which I have those original issues still, and it would be even more attractive to collect both in one volume.

There’s just one thing. The publication date for this hardback is 1 January 2035.

To purchase this book (which I have placed on pre-order anyway), I would have to live to the age of eighty.

I’m not expecting to get the paperback much before then at this rate.

*UPDATE*

(29/12/17)

The publication date for the hardback has been brought forward to 15 May 2018. I have put it on pre-order.

I think I can last that long…

The Fall Season: Legends of Tomorrow season 2


And thus we complete the returning schedule.

Legends of Tomorrow didn’t really work last season. It was clumsy and clunky, ill-thought-out, the audience hated the Hawks, who are no longer with us (typically, I thought Fulk Hentschel worked really well as Hawkman). So an awful lot has been changed, to the extent that the producers are looking at this as a second go as a season 1.

In my spoiler-free world, I’ve managed to avoid anything but superficial hints about season 2’s changes. For instance, I knew that Nick Zano was joining the cast as Nate Heywood, aka Citizen Steel, but I did not know, until the end of this episode, that Arthur Darvill, as Rip Hunter, was leaving.

And I do know that the recurring villain this season is the Legion of Doom, which consists of a quartet of left-over baddies, Damien Dhark, the Reverse-Flash, Malcolm Merlin and – this one’s going to be tricky – Captain Cold.

And here we were, back to business. None of this Vandal Savage/Time Masters thing, in fact the Legends are the new, ad hoc Time Masters, playing time cops here and there, and spreading the joy of woman to woman love across the entirety of history (much as I love Caity Lotz, if the series is going to have her shagging every famous woman she meets, it will grow old very rapidly).

And straight away it’s pretty clearly more of the same, only different. It’s still clunky, and stiff, and kinda jerky in its transitions, and having Stephen Amell/Oliver Queen as guest isn’t designed to play to my prejudices at the moment. But it did the job, and I’ll happily keep watching it.

I’m sorry to see Arthur Darvill go, even though I can see how Nick Zano will make a better fit and can be more one-of-the-gang that the set-up ever allowed Rip Hunter to be. It’s unfortunate in that Zano’s character (who was created at the same time as Firestorm and by the same writer), Citizen Steel, has never been a character I’ve liked in any incarnation.

But at the end of the day, where Legends of Tomorrow scores for me is where it always did, misfire or not. It’s for the ten year old boy who’s always been a part of me, who grew up reading DC Comics, and who never imagined that he would ever see these obscure characters appearing regularly on his TV screens, in ‘real-life’ versions.

It’s like Doctor Johnson and that line about the dog walking on its hind legs: It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all. The part of me that goes back to Brigham Street, Openshaw, just sits and marvels that it is there.

And you know that season 2 will kick it for me by what happened in the final minute of this premiere. The Legends are about to shake the dust of 1942 off their backs when they’re ordered to stand where they are.

By the Justice Society of America.

Hooo-wah!

Fifty Years of Imagination


I don’t know the exact date, only that it was a Saturday, in March 1966. So only now can I say, without fear of inaccuracy, that the Fiftieth Anniversary has passed. The Fiftieth Anniversary of the most mind-blowing experience a ten year old boy ever had in reading.

I’ve written about it before, so forgive me for repeating myself, but a lifetime of experience flows on from this one tiny thing. Many are the consequences, including – not entirely fancifully – a marriage.

Fifty years ago, in March 1966, I was living in Brigham Street, Openshaw, in East Manchester, a working class area of terraced streets, between a local park and the Steel Wall, the wall enclosing the vast grounds of the English Steel Corporation. Though my eleventh birthday wouldn’t come until November, some ten weeks past the cut-off point of September 1, my Primary School Headmaster organised for me to sit the last Eleven-Plus exams, allowing me to go on to a Grammar School education that, a year later, would have been swept away by the Comprehensive System.

The Eleven-Plus consisted of half a dozen exams in basic subjects such as Maths and English, held at Varna Street School, a thirty minute walk away from home, and on the far side of Ashton Old Road, the major traffic route nearest to our backwater terrace. At first, my cautious mother escorted me there and back, but by the time of the last exam, on a sunny March Friday afternoon, she had enough confidence in me to trust me to get there and back without being knocked down and killed crossing the Old Road. Her confidence was not misplaced, given that I’ve lasted long enough to type this.

It was Friday afternoon. I was only allowed to cross the Old Road at Zebra crossings, and circumstances dictated that I should cross at the one just below the bridge over the canal branch, and turn right into Victoria Street to get through to the little warren of streets Back o’th’Park.

Our newsagents was on that side of the Old Road, further down, and they had American comics (exclusively DC) in their windows. So, being a dutiful child, I couldn’t go past Victoria Street to look, but I would get round it by carying on down the Old Road to the Zebra just above the Vicarage, and walking back up, past the newsagents window.

I had been reading American comics for, at best, a couple of years before this time. My parents didn’t approve of them, didn’t think they were worth the shilling they’d recently gone up to, but every now and then I was able to talk them into letting me have one, and with a naive cynicism way beyond my years, I figured that completing my first set of Exams was a good opportunity to argue for a reward.

It was no more than a general thought, but when I arrived at the window, it became an urgent and specific desire for Justice League of America 37.

There wasn’t a single Justice League member on the cover. It even boasted, incredulously, that there wasn’t. Instead, it featured five members of the Justice Society of America. I gaped in amazement. I’d never heard of the Justice Society and I seriously wanted to know. And what fuelled that desire was the incredible fact that the JSA had a Flash, Green Lantern and Atom, but they were completely different in costume and, in Green Lantern’s case, hair-colour!

I had to have it. I mentioned it to my mother as soon as I got home, to my father as soon as he got home, and again during the evening, and yet again on Saturday morning, in case they’d forgotten overnight, and one more time for good luck before we set out at 12.30pm to go to Granny and Grandad’s in Droylsden for dinner (this was the proper Northern Dinner: the evening meal was Tea).

And Dad parked round the corner and let me lead him to the newsagents where I pointed out the (thankfully unsold) comic, and we went in and the newsagent got it out of the window for me and I held it in my hands all the way to Droylsden.

I wasn’t allowed to look at it in the car – reading in the car ruined your eyes – and I couldn’t start then because we always arrived at 12.55pm for a one o’clock mealtime, and what with all in all, it was gone two o’clock before I was allowed to leave the table, scoop up my comic and race into the parlour to read it in peace and quiet.

Forgive me again, but I need to relish the memories. First I was introduced to the idea of Earth-2, a separate but parallel Earth, where things were not as they were in our reality, despite its familiarity. The strangeness of the idea, the concept of a place where things were different from how they were around me, took hold of me immediately, and it has been a lifelong fascination. Even before I met them, I fell for the sheer concept of the Justice Society. They were something magical, set against the ‘mundane’ reality of the Justice League that appeared every day, everywhere.

I was immediately hungry to know more, ever more, about these alternate figures, even though at first I could only see Johnny Thunder, the JSA’s equivalent to Snapper Carr as comic relief (as I’ve said before, when mentioning Snapper, don’t ask. DON’T ask.)

But before I even got to see the Justice Society, to see more of those strange Flash, GL, and Atom characters (plus a Hawkman in a cloth hood), we and the story got diverted to Earth-1, and its Johnny Thunder. And the bad Thunder knocked out the good Johnny and took over his Magic Thunderbolt and sent him out to rob a payroll. But The Flash stopped him, our Flash, the one I knew, I mean. So Thunder came up with the most mind-blowing idea of all time.

No matter how often I describe it, I’ve still not to my mind established how awesome what came next was. Nothing I’ve ever read in my life has had a comparable effect upon me. It expanded my mind more than any other thing has ever done, it opened up my imagination to a vastness of possibility.

Because Bad Thunder instructed his Magic Bolt to zip back in time and interfere with the origins of the Justice League, to change history, to undo what had been done and turn the world, the very earth on which we set out feet every day, into something incredibly strange. The very idea that such things could happen, a possibility that had never ever occurred to me beforehand, could have scared me to death. Instead, it encouraged, taught me to dream that things need not be as we see them, that to everything there was always an alternative, that for every path taken there was always a path, multitudes of paths untaken, and worlds that did not exist but which might have, in which we can see ourselves from angles undreamt of.

It was two pages of open-mouthed awe. A stormy night over Central City, a lightning bolt intercepted, Barry Allen goes home, still a slowpoke. Krypton’s unstable uranium core converted to lead, no planetary destruction, no rocket to Earth for baby Kal-El. A blast of yellow radiation intercepted, Abin Sur’s spacecraft undamaged, no power ring for Hal Jordan. A fragment of white dwarf star matter smashed, no discovery of size and weight controls for Ray Palmer. Dr Erdel’s Robot Brain shorts out, the Martian Manhunter is never teleported from Mars.

And, in the re-drawing of a panel drawn by Bob Kane twenty-six years earlier, the first appearance of Batman, the Bolt helps two anonymous thugs beat the crap – and the idea of being a crimefighter  – out of Bruce Wayne.

It was a lesson that, despite its instant impact, took me decades to understand fully. At the time, I just marveled at the way in which an established fictional world had just been turned over. Later, I would see what I had not understood at the time, that had almost certainly never been intended by Messrs Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs: that life itself, the inevitability of everything around us, depends on infinitessimal influences, that everything we are and do could be undone by the most minute of changes, and that it need not be the life-changing moments that need to be changed to change our lives, but the most common, most insignificant that can have the longest shadows.

I used to be married. I don’t talk about it here, because marriage involves two people and I respect her privacy. But it is at least fifty percent true that, if this comic had not been in the newsagents’ window on that day fifty years ago, I would almost certainly never have met her. It’s only fifty percent, because there is a later point which is absolutely crucial to that seemingly trivial chain of events, that depends on my having discovered the Justice Society, and there were other opportunities after Justice League of America 37 where I could have done that, where I would probably – but only probably – been just as fascinated by them.

But maybe not. Those later comics, fantastic though they were on both senses, lacked the scope of this particular issue. Maybe, if my introduction had come a year later, the same sense of mind-expansion may not have followed it, may not have resulted in the same degree of interest, might have meant that that later point was no point at all.

It’s an extreme example, but all of our lives are based in an unending sequence of such things. What we see and do at every moment – which in itself is influenced by what others, endlessly removed from you, have done – shifts your life this way and that. A man living fifty miles away from you oversleeps by five minutes. As a result, leaving for work three minutes later than he might otherwise means that he misses his train. Instead, he drives. The extra car on the road subtly changes traffic patterns. Someone misses a green light, is held up thirty seconds, loses more time on their journey. As a result, they take a short cut to work. By not stopping for a coffee at their usual shop, they don’t end up next to you at the counter. You don’t exchange sarky comments about the service. The meeting that would have led to your marriage, to the birth of your three children, never happens, because you never bump into each other again.

The world is made up of such things. We are all connected because we all affect each other in ways we can barely imagine, in ways most of us would never recognise. Understanding this affects your philosophies of life, your beliefs, your politics.

A comic. In a window, fifty years ago this month just passed. If someone had bought that comic, five minutes before I passed, on the way home from Varna Street, the deliberate long way round, what might those fifty years have been instead?

Nothing is insignificant. Thanks for that comic, Messrs Schwartz, Fox, Sekowsky and Sachs. Fifty years is too little a time to have enjoyed that moment.

Theatre Nights: possibility of repeats


During the nearly five year experiment with the New 52, which looks to be coming to an end with the forthcoming not-another-reboot Rebirth, DC Comics have pretty much cancelled Graphic Novel collections of stories from their old Universe(s). However, that might be about to exchange.

I’ve recently found out that the short-lived 1992 Justice Society of America series, cancelled in controversial circumstances after ten issues, is being collected, but the best news of all is that on 30 June, Sandman Mystery Theatre is being re-collected. And this time Volume 1 collects the first three performances: 12 issues under the same covers.

I have already pre-ordered it.

It’s very early days yet, but if fingers are crossed long enough, we may yet see the remaining uncollected stories made available in GN form. If this is the format of choice, it needs only five more volumes to bring everything together, including Sandman Midnight Theatre.

And maybe we might finally see the seventh and last Crisis on Multiple Earths GN appear. I have an incomplete series just waiting for the chance to get my hands on the last three team-ups.

Incidentally, having just bought the first two Madame Xanadu GNs, I’d like to draw to your attention the appearance our our favourite pair of New York socialites, Dian Belmont and Wesley Dodds in the second of these, ‘Dark Exodus’. It’s a good book in its own right, but spiced with a flavouring of the Golden Age Sandman…

Theatre Nights: Night of the Butcher


Sandman Mystery Theatre  25-28. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plotter), Steven T. Seagle (scripter), Guy Davis (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
We begin upon a dream, as we did two years previously, when the Mystery Theatre first opened its doors for the enlightenment and entertainment of its audience. Indeed, our newest play, Night of the Butcher, is more prone to the depiction of dream than any since that debut affair.
But though these dreams wrack Wesley Dodds no less than any have to date, it is interesting that they torment him with no monsters, that they do not lead him to another menace that he must pursue and overcome to gain relief. No, Wesley’s dreams are about Wesley, and the Sandman – both his own, local version, and that unknown and unseen be-helmeted being whose imprisonment is the source of all that drives our hero.
Because Wesley – and this has been designed deliberately,so that we are privy to his inner voice, just as in the last play we listened to Dian Belmont – isn’t functioning at all well. Dian holds his secret and has walked away from him. Wes is a man in love, faced with the worse possible scenario: the simultaneous need and inability to do nothing.
I’m speaking from experience here, experience I tried, in vain, to pass on to a friend who ended up lodging with me for several months after his marriage broke down. When things go wrong, sometimes you have to sit on your hands, bite your tongue, stifle every instinctive urge you have: you hurt the one who matters and you want to put it right, to do what’s needed to demonstrate that you’ve changed and it will be different, but what they want is time, and space, and solitude, to come to terms with things as they are now.
But you’re a man: you don’t do doing nothing, you’re in the wrong and you want to get out of it, you can’t change the past so it is imperative to change the future, now. And there’s also a strong element of fear that inaction will cost you your ability to change the future in your direction, because she’ll take a decision based on your not being part of the picture.
That’s Wesley Dodds in this play, and like most men in this situation, he’s not doing a very good job of it (my poor mate blew it completely).
It’s a good thing then that the Sandman is not dealing with the usual kind of calculating, twisted, repellent evil we are used to in the Theatre. Not that the deaths, of ordinary people, hacked to death and half their body removed, is not repellent, especially when Hubert Klein introduces the idea that the killer may well be eating what he takes – a notion that falls true in the end.
No, the villain requires little detection. He’s a weird, grossly obese, barely human man, barely able to speak intelligibly, living in the sewers, and indeed is eating his victims, and enough hints are dropped to suggest that he is the product of several-generation inbreeding. All that’s needed by way of investigation is to firstly imegine him, and secondly track which sewer he hides in. As much of the latter is done by Burke – Tony Burke, as we learn, partway – as by the Sandman.
Indeed, we see more of Burke, of what lies behind the stereotype of the hard-boiled detective, in this story than we have before, as Wagner and Seigle begin to open out everyone’s favourite, foul-mouthed anti-hero. That christian name is spoken by Gina, a woman Burke visits at the height of the case, when he’s having to come to terms with the cannibalism aspect, which has gone deeper than Burke usually allows things to get.
We know nothing more of Gina than that she’s very comfortable with him, that their relationship is  sexual – not at first, Burke’s too tense – and that he’s not in the least aggressive in his conversation with her.
Which is more than we can say for his accelerating anger towards the Sandman. It’s bad enough that he’s been gassed nearly half-a-dozen times already, but with Wesley in this strange, blundering state without Dian, there are more direct encounters in Night of the Butcher than in every play so far.
First, Burke is driven into a towering rage when he accidentally discovers the microphone the Sandman has had taped to the underside of his desk for several months. Then he catches sight of the gas-masked crimefighter at an outdoor crime scene and starts peppering him with bullets. Then, he catches the Sandman at the Hall of Records and proceeds to administer a serious beat-down, or, to be more English about it, a bloody good kicking, before he’s interrupted by the equivalent of the librarian, who won’t let him kicks Dodds to death.
But even that pales into insignificance in the climactic scenes in the sewers, when Burke, facing down the ‘ozark’ who has decapitated one of his two men, and has a meathook stuck into the chest of the other, knowing that the only chance any of them have is for he and the Sandman to work together, starts firing at Wes, not the killer!
Even when the Sandman has brought the killer down, literally seconds before parting Burke’s hair at the neck, the Lieutenant is so enraged at the vigilante who he considers to be every bit as much a villain as the rest that he still tries to shoot him dead – until the inevitable gas claims him again.
Yet despite an ingratitude that’s way sharper than a serpent’s tooth, that’s not Wesley’s worst moment in the story. Despite nearly being knocked to his death – twice – courtesy of Burke in the sewers, despite a monster hangover brought on by a night of actual drinking at Robert Li’s insistence (leading to the story’s best laugh, a ‘dream-page’ of nine identical blank white panels showing only a centre panel caption of ‘For the first time in nearly two years, I sleep without incident’), Wes’s lowest point comes in the nightclub to which Robert has led him when, already out of sorts, having had to bribe the doormen to overcome their racist attitude to Robert, he bumps into Dian.
And her date.
It’s in no way serious: I mean, the guy may be taller, more athletic and more handsome than Wesley, but Dian needs only that to remind herself that it’s far from what she wants. But Wes starts to getting more begging in his desperate need to have Dian back, to be able to function properly.
Of course, the moment she decides to follow up her concern about him is when Humphries is treating the Sandman’s heavily-bruised, post-Burke ribs, which leads to a flare-up of her feelings at the time of her discovery. But it provokes Wes into an unexpected flare-up in return, based on how she has not, for one second, attempted to understand his side of things.
The two part, rapidly, but Wes’s words have struck a chord that Dian can’t ignore. She not only says as much, when she phones Wes to put him on Burke’s tail. She’s not changed her mind about anything she’s said, but equally she admits that she can’t stop thinking about Wes, as much as what he does.
The end, when it comes, is rapid: too rapid to be an end to this interplay of feelings. Wes’s confusion, his uncertainty, his musings about the senility that runs in his family, and which he clearly fears, resolve themselves abruptly after the Butcher is brought down, demonstrating that although everything has been confused and impossible to interpret, it is still the dream that drives him.
And the restless Dian, confined with a parent who’s clearly more interested in the radio than her, goes for a drive, ‘somehow’ ending up where she directed the Sandman, and in time to offer him a lift home. Wes’s interior monologue has been quoting Proust: We do not succeed in changing things according to our desire, but gradually our desire changes. Dian pulls up alongside Wes and, with her old lightness, offers him a lift. They are once again in accord.
It is a beginning.
Before we prepare for the end of the play, which is in truth but an episode in a longer drama that has many more turnings to follow, we should add to our list of observations that Wesley is actually hurt so badly by Burke that it is beyond Humphries’ skill to deal with his injuries. That necessitates a Doctor, though none appears in the story. Wesley’s doctor, it appears, is McNider: Charles McNider, one assumes, who one day in the future will be blinded by a bomb, only to learn that he can then see, perfectly, in the dark.
From its first opening, the Mystery Theatre offered us a different Sandman. In this Theatre, the Justice Society could not exist: it was impossible to have this Wesley Dodds/Sandman exist in the same kind of Universe as speedsters, magicians, ghosts and wielders of magic weapons. And if we’re being strict, Ted Grant never owned a gym before becoming Wildcat, whilst Charles McNider was a surgeon, not a ‘GP’.
The Mystery Theatre doesn’t do, nor could it do, Superheroes. Or could it?
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play entitled The Hourman.
Break a leg.