Kids and Sidekicks: Star-Spangled Comics


It’s a bit late in the day for a Mission Statement but I’m going to give one anyway.
It’s over two years now since the Random Access Butterfly of Memory flapped its wings and opened a window onto an old feature in an old comic, a cartoon style adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. And I owe a debt of gratitude to David Simpson for identifying the feature, its creator and the comic in which it appeared. But I owe him an even bigger one for pointing me towards the availability of a complete run of Hurricane, on DVD, via eBay.
Once I had the DVD, I had to write about it. I also had to look for other such comics of my childhood, curiosity and the urge to recover every possible memory of those years driving me on.
At first, I was concerned only with the British weekly series, things I read, like Lion and TV21 and Hornet, and even things like Valiant that I knew of but never got. I would comb eBay regularly, constantly searching for things I recognised. Which is how I first saw a DVD-Rom of the original Flash Comics series. That led me to the Golden Age American titles of which I’d heard so much and seen so little.
As such things tend to do with me, it became an obsession, and it’s stayed that way for the last couple of years, long sessions reading these DVDs, writing about what I’ve read, bending past and present into one thing, writing the kind of account I would have loved to find elsewhere, but if no-one else had written them, I’ve got to do it myself.
All of which is by way of an extended preamble to the fact that the well is not infinitely deep. There aren’t any more British titles to investigate without turning to my pre-adolescence, and there are not many American ones I can summon up the enthusiasm for. And yes, that includes Action and Detective.

As well as Star-Spangled Comics I have one more Golden Age title, which I’m saving for a reason I’ll give when I get to it. Then a couple of Silver Age series I’ve never read in full and, as I write this, that’s it. I chose Star-Spangled Comics first because, paradoxically, I have little pre-enthusiasm for it. It was available, it was a long-running Golden Age title, why not? Perhaps it will surprise me.
The first issue was published with a cover date of October 1941, and going by the in-house advert inside, it was a contemporary of All-Star 7. Of course it was a vehicle for the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, though the feature was headlined only by the former, and they got two stories, topping and tailing the comic. The first set the pair up as Defenders of Liberty, fighting Nazis and Bundsmen, America’s Fifth Column, whilst the second featured the evil Dr Weerd, a Mr Hyde-esque alter ego for Professor James Stanton, and his evil robot, one of the most ridiculous looking creations comics has ever portrayed, a description that goes for Dr Weerd, who made Edward Hyde look positively handsome.
Of the three other features, two reflected the gathering War, Captain X, unofficial Ace of the R.A.F., aka American news reporter Buck Dare, and Armstrong of the Navy, neither of which were special in any way.

The one that interested me the most was Tarantula. Long term Earth-2 readers like me will recall Roy Thomas re-introducing him in the Eighties in All-Star Squadron for no better reason than that his yellow and purple costume was almost identical to that of The Sandman once he abandoned the gas mask and green business suit, and that he was described, in a radio news report, as a ‘Spider-Man’. Though he left out the information that Tarantula took his name from his pet Tarantula. Thank heaven he wasn’t into a duck-billed platypus…
If you think that’s a pretty weak reason to reintroduce a character who only made a couple of appearances and who was forgotten by everyone, you clearly have never read any Roy Thomas. But it was highly amusing to find myself reading those long-lost adventures. The DVD-Rom was already worth it for that.
There were three stories featuring the Kid and Stripesy in issue 2, the first of these bringing Dr Weerd back immediately, only to capture and imprison him. It’s interesting to watch Siegel find a new angle on the Clark Kent/Superman duality: Sylvester Pemberton is a high-IQ teenager who’s the despair of his Dad, John Pemberton, for being cold, self-centred and supercilious, even when faced with want and poverty, which Stripesy is the comic relief of the partnership, interested only in getting stuck in with his fists.
By issue 3 it was evident that Armstrong and Captain X were both nothing series, not worth the time, and that it look like Dr Weerd was going to be with us every month. More disturbingly, Tarantula’s third story had fiction writer Johnny Law taking a cruise to foil an attack on the secret materials it was counting. Writer Hal Sharp included a young woman, Joan Wentworth, the only female on the ship, first for Law to save from some guy getting fresh with her then, as Tarantula, tying her to the top of the mast to keep her safe as soon as trouble started. A little unnecessary, a lot dickish, and a touch of bondage. There was a lot of that going round in the Golden Age.
I was right about Dr Weerd, but issue 4 also introduced Mr Ghool and The Needle, the latter being described as the ‘Tall Tower of Treachery’, and if you thought some of the Silver Age epithets were naff, I think you have to agree that that had them all beat.
At a rate of three stories an issue, and new grotesques every time, something had to give and it was going to be quality. Issue 6’s Dr Weerd story introduced Breezy, a street-urchin with overlong red hair and a suit two sizes for him who turns out to be a rich heir and who gets adopted by John Pemberton as a brother to Sylvester, whom Breezy suspects…
Meanwhile, a new semi-cartoon private eye series, Penniless Palmer, also debuted, lasted one issue but returned from issue 8. Because something did give for issue 7. Out went Armstrong, and two of the Kid and Stripesy’s stories (but not Dr Weerd, who teamed up with the Needle to double-cross each other) and in came three new features.

In ascending order of quality and fame, these were the atomic powered duo of T.N.T. and Dan the Dyna-Mite, murdered scientist Bob Crane whose brain was transplanted into the metal body of Robotman and, joining the DC stable, the legendary Joe Simon and Jack Kirby with The Newsboy Legion and the Guardian, who were also the first feature in the short history of Star-Spangled Comics to get an origin. They stole not only the cover but the leading slot.
Best of all, there was no second appearance from Breezy, the ‘comic find of 1942.’
T.N.T. and Dan got a brief origin next time out, as a teacher and pupil who invented dual atomic energy rings that, when touched together, transformed them, as well as blowing their external clothing to shreds, turning crime-fighting into an expensive pastime.
Robotman was another Jerry Siegel creation, as could easily be told by his second appearance. Not only had the late Bob Crane’ tearful fiancee, Joan Carter, started making at eyes at ‘Paul Dennis’ – Robotman in plastic human skin – as early as issue 7 but next time round Siegel started a Lois Lane-like triangle between her, ‘Paul’ – and Robotman. The same one-size doesn’t fit all, by any means.
Meanwhile, Tarantula was still going strong and, in contradiction of Thomas’s story in All-Star Squadron 18, explaining how John Law copied a design from Sandman, the truth was that Sandman ripped Tarantula off, his new gold and purple costume being the focal point of the in-house ad in Star-Spangled Comic 8. Just can’t trust anyone, can you?

By issue 15, I think I’ve gotten a handle on the relative qualities of the various strips. The Newsboy Legion is head-and-shoulders the best thing about Star-Spangled Comics and the DVD is worth it for a complete run of this alone. We all know how good Simon and Kirby were and it’s a joy to see this proved, month after month, by inventive, buoyant, passionate and exciting stories, even if it does show the rest of the line-up as pretty crap.
Hal Sherman’s art on the Star-Spangled Kid, for which Stripesy still doesn’t get billing, degenerates every month. It’s horribly cartoony and his figure work is appallingly, enough so to be mistaken for my work, which is an insult if you ever heard one. Hal Sharp on Tarantula is little better, and the series, which has already lasted far longer than anything I would have imagined from Roy Thomas’s introduction of him, is empty and hollow: Tarantula is continually presented as an awesome enemy of crime, so much so you’d think he was Superman.
TNT and Dan the Dyna-Mite is D list at best. There’s no energy or spark to it and although the art is functional the choice of blue and green for the character’s costumes is dismal and drab to the eye. Paradoxically, though it is sadly cold and uninvolving, Robotman scores highly simply through having decent if conservative art, and some Joe Schuster-esque faces. If Jerry Siegel is still writing both series, it’s no longer mentioned: I certainly wouldn’t want to admit to the Star-Spangled Kid by now.
The Robotman story in issue 15 does deserve mention, being the one that Rpy Thomas adapted in All-Star Squadron, where a sleazy lawyer attempts to have Robotman declared a public menace and scrapped, and where Chuck Grayson has to explain that his body contains the brain of Bob Crane, a secret that they’d both tried to keep for fear of hurting Joan Carter. I don’t much remember Thomas’s version but I think I prefer the original.
Of course, having delivered myself of that opinion, I find a dramatic switch of artists in issue 16 for Tarantula, TNT and Robotman, the first two an improvement, the last not so.
The Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy were finally given an origin in issue 18, and it was interesting to read, if one could see past the abysmal art. Both Sylvester Pemberton Jr, rich kid, and Pat Dugan, mechanic, separately attend a moviehouse showing an impressive anti-Nazi documentary that is disrupted by Nazi sympathisers. The pair pile in separately but both are infuriated that the agitators escape. Both then overhear a man wishing that the American flag could come to life to avenge the insult against it and both are inspired. At first, each resents the other as a cheap imitator, but once the Nazi agents complain of how effective they were together, the pair bury their resentments and team up.
It’s actually a decent origin, and not so far-fetched. It’s grounded in the times and the reaction of Pemberton and Dugan is surprisingly realistic (for comics at any rate). It was however overshadowed both in passion and talent by the Newsboy Legion story in the same issue, which features a Nazi victory over America, and their rule of New York. It’s far too obviously a dream but no-one’s trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, and the anger that goes into this nightmare scenario, and especially the kind of crumbs that would collaborate in their desire for power, makes this another superb piece.
Tarantula’s short and undistinguished life ended with issue 19. There was no exhortation to read him again in next month’s Star-Spangled Comics, and he descended into forty years of obscurity. This was to make room next month for the instantly more attractive Liberty Belle, spun off Simon and Kirby’s Boy Commandos series (the same formula as the Newsboy Legion but which had already gained its own quarterly title). The tall blonde lady was former American champion swimmer turned journalist and radio commentator Libby Belle Lawrence, who had escaped Nazi-Europe by swimming the English Channel and who now fought the enemy.


Her debut story was an intriguing one, leading America’s WAAC’s (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) to the rescue of a prominent loudmouth who wanted women kept out of War. Simon and Kirby made the inarguable case that this was everybody’s war, not just the men.
It was interesting to note that, exactly the same as Black Cat, Liberty Belle had a would-be boyfriend, Captain Rickey Cannon, attracted to her as Liberty Belle and overlooking her as Libby Lawrence who, to put it crudely, she’d have happily shagged at the drop of a jodhpur in either guise. It’s like a tradition, or an old charter. No, wait, it’s a formula, yawn.
Still I found it amusing yet again that the heroine wore no mask and relied upon distinguishing herself from the ‘prim and proper’ Miss Lawrence by her bold and striking costume and a Veronica Lake peek-a-boo hairstyle that must have played merry hob with her depth perception. Still, Chuck Winter’s art was lovely, strong and graceful, albeit stylised. Tarantula who?
Issue 23 saw the end of TNT and Dan the Dyna-Mite in unspectacular fashion, vanishing without fanfare or trace, just like Tarantula and, just like him, alone, unmourned and unloved.
Of course, the overwhelming problem with Golden Age series is their overwhelming urge to chuck in a comic relief sidekick. Robotman went down that overtrodden road in issue 29, introducing Robbie the Robodog, though thankfully the steel mutt only lasted two issues before stopping to sniff a fire hydrant and being washed away.
This line-up for Star-Spangled Comics was settled in and would run for over half the title’s life. Such changes as there were were negligible: occasionally, the Star-Spangled Kid would regain the lead story but not the cover. Robotman’s art would get even worse (see issue 36), the only point to Penniless Palmer’s strip was in seeing how he got cheated out of payment this month. Only the Newsboy Legion and Liberty Belle provided consistent, well-made and vivid to look at stories, every month.
Of course, I spoke to soon about Robodog and issue 37, but that doesn’t alter the general score.
I was perturbed to see no Simon and Kirby signature on 39’s Newsboy Legion and the art looking like a weak-lined pastiche, but the signatures were back next issue, albeit with no change to the art. Despite that, it was clear that the creators were no longer working on their creation, as confired by Wikipedia. Kirby had been drafted in 1943 but, at DC’s behest and by working with every possible collaborator, had created a year’s worth of material that had now run out.
One drawback about a long-running anthology title with a settled line-up is that unless one or more of the characters is providing interesting and vivid change, there isn’t much to talk about except generalities. The absence of Jack Kirby left the Newsboy Legion with some truly ugly and ill-proportioned art, pencilled and inked by someone trying to emulate the ‘King’s look without understanding a single thing of how Kirby drew. Robotman’s art was much smoother but sterile, and the character himself was given cute human features that were completely out of place, and he kept getting knocked out: this is a robot, hello, you can’t stun it with a sap to the back of the ‘skull’.
I still looked forward to the Liberty Belle stories, both for an independent female character acting and being treated like an equal and to Winter’s vivid art. Yes, it’s stylised, it’s two-dimensional, and it consists of too many stock poses and expressions, but it’s a shining beacon amongst the work surrounding it.
For all her career to date, Libby Lawrence had been testing herself against America’s opponents, the Japanese. But in issue 50, cover-dated November 1945, after the end of the War, Liberty Belle’s mission was to save electronics secrets being stolen for commercial use. The time was coming. But not instantly: in issue 51 she was blocking Nazi General’s escape routes into neutral Switzerland.
It didn’t work though. By issue 55, April 1946, Liberty Belle was still fighting the Japanese, unable to give up her attraction to the cause.
Simon and Kirby returned to the Newsboy Legion as of issue 53, but it was not to last long. Issue 56 was their swansong on their feature as the pair, seeing the Golden Age superhero boom starting to tail off, moved away from DC into setting up their own shop and exploring – and in the case of Romance creating – other genres.
The new regime began by sidelining the Guardian – Jim Harper fights as a copper to avoid his name being further linked with the hero, and in issue 58 is absent on holiday – though he was back in full force the next moth. Issue 58 also saw Liberty Belle, or rather Libby Lawrence relaxing on a post-War holiday in Florida but getting involved with capturing a former Gestapo murderer trying to get away. The story was also notable for a passionate and very pointed denunciation of the Nazis and the need to eradicate them and their ideas totally, delivered by Belle but clearly representing writer Don Cameron’s own beliefs.
Remember the days when we thought we actually had relegated Fascism to history?
This story looked like being a transitional effort for the following story saw Liberty Belle tackling her first out-and-out pure crooks. And for the next few issues, the lady put paid to crooks all over America. It looked like Captain Rickey Cannon was out of the picture too, but it didn’t last. Rickey was back in Libby’s life in issue 64, using her as a date to flush out smugglers who were aiding foreign fascist societies infiltrate the country, and of course needing Libby’s other half to rescue him.
You may have noticed that I’ve been commenting only on the Newsboy Legion and Liberty Belle only for some time now. That is because there is nothing to say about the other series. Robotman is simply dumb and the Penniless Palmer series formulaic: I have been reading neither. And though I have been reading the Star-Spangled Kid, it too offers nothing to talk about. It’s just a commonplace mid-Forties superhero strip repeating its tropes every month, with drab criminals, the days of Dr Weeird and The Needle long gone, and the art only marginally better. No, Star-Spangled Comics had only two series worth reading.
Which made the shock even more horrible when, as of issue 65, the Newsboy Legion were displaced from cover and contents, the new lead role going to… Robin, the Boy Wonder, in solo-stories ‘by’ Bob Kane.
Like the Batman of the era, even if it wasn’t anything like the depths of the late Fifties, the Robin series was second rate in its good moments, though there were not much of those. But once change began, it rolled on. Next to depart was Liberty Belle, making her last appearance in issue 68. Before that, and for the first time in 49 appearances, Captain Rickey Cannon of American Military Intelligence entertained suspicions about Belle turning up every time Libby disappeared…
But exactly fifty stories it was, and no more, until Roy Thomas revived her for All-Star Squadron and muck the character up, except for putting a mask on her.

At least Belle’s replacement was a character I wanted to see. This was the debut of DC’s famous Revolutionary War fighter Tomahawk, a figure still appearing into the mid-Sixties and my first heyday of collecting. And I was still prepared to be impressed even if Tomahawk and his sidekick, young Dan Hunter, were being presented as a frontiers Batman and Robin.
And I wasn’t disappointed at first. True, there was nothing exceptional about art or script except that it was a change of direction, and a chance to see something of how Americans self-mythologised their earliest days. Though it lacked the depth of something like Bill Messner-Loebs’ Journey and its Frontier poetry, it was a series with great potential.
Next for the exit chute was Penniless Palmer, here in issue 79, gone in issue 80, another one unmourned and unloved, and never to be revived. Thankfully.

And time was marching for the Star-Spangled Kid. Issue 81 introduced Sylvester Pemberton’s adoptive sister, Merry, introduced by his father on a psychologist’s recommendation that he needs company, constant company. Merry, who by story’s end is revealed to be the daughter of a ex-con, sticks to Syl like glue but her birthday present both saves the Kid and Stripesy in a tight corner and exposes their secret identities to her.
Mark the little redhead well, unlike Breezy so long ago, she’s not a one-story wonder. The writing was on the wall immediately, as Merry made herself a costume and secretly aided the patriotic pair the next issue, which, incidentally, sprung a surprise on us by having decent art on the Kid’s feature. And in issue 83, Stripesy is laid up with a broken leg, the kid refuses to let Merry join him, because she’s ‘just a girl’ but, in the first instance of her penchant for gadgets, Merry ignores him and saves the day.
The same issue saw Robotman replaced by Captain Compass, Mark Compass that is, of the SS Nautilus, a competent adventure strip.
It’s fascinating to watch the speed with which Merry is taking over the Star-Spangled Kid’s series. For issue 84, Sylvester goes on a fishing trip with his father that’s too tough for a girl, leaving Merry to solo very successfully. It was less fascinating to see Penniless Palmer return, even as a one-off.
And that was it. Though the series kept the kid’s name, it was ‘featuring Merry – the girl with 1,000 gimmicks’ in issue 85, ‘starring’ in issue 86, and the title changed to Merry one issue later. The Gimmick Girl had taken over completely in a mere five issues. But not for long herself. Issue 90 had the story of Merry’s clash with the Gimmick Guy, the only one of her stories I’d previously seen before, in reprint. Her words in the final panel were, “Well, that’s that.” And they were. Ten issues to come out of nowhere, take over a long-running series and hit cancellation: must be some kind of record.
For this was 1949. Here, as elsewhere, the Golden Age was running towards its end. Costumed characters were losing their appeal. All-American Comics was already All-American Western. Like Black Canary, Merry just came along too late. Instead we got Federal Agent, another ordinary man crimefighter, drawn in a bland, simplified style. And there were no original series remaining. Though the Agent himself, Steve Carter, only lasted three issues before being replaced by Manhunters Around The World, showcasing Police styles in different countries, starting with Australia.
Upfront, though Robin’s name was still above the door, his series had turned into just another Batman and Robin affair, with nothing to recommend it. But not even the Dynamic Duo were immune to the winds of change and from issue 96, it was Tomahawk who decorated Star-Spangled Comics‘ cover. The ‘Robin’ series still held the lead spot and, in an ominous sign, there was room for a Dover and Clover feature, as if I hadn’t already seen enough of them in More Fun Comics.
That, thankfully, was a one-off. But four issues later, Star-Spangled Comics became the latest DC title to hit 100 issues, cover-dated January 1950. The ‘new century’ saw Robin, now operating solo again, go to the back of the book and an extra, one-off, real-life story slot in.
Practically none of the Robin stories are worth mentioning but I’d like to single out the one in issue 103 for its typical Fifties dickishness. It’s another of those ‘too tough for a girl’ stories, with Dick Grayson’s classmate Mary Wills turning parallel crimefighter as Roberta the Girl Wonder. True, she starts off because Robin is her dreamboat but she proves to be intelligent, resourceful and effective, so Robin decides to undermine her to prove that only he (and Batman) are clever, up to and including making her mask fall off in public. There is a very twisted sexuality at work in lots of these comics and you sometimes feel that Wertham was right in all the wrong places.
I’m growing increasingly impressed with the Tomahawk series. There’s an intelligence to them, a sense of the times, and a calm steadfastness in Tom Hawk himself that’s wholly enjoyable. The series is written by Otto Binder, who either knows this period well or else is doing a brilliantly convincing job of faking it, whilst Fred Ray’s art, though unspectacular, is solid and realistic, and very good on the woods and the plains.
Indeed others thought so, as issue 108 opened with a full page house ad for the first issue of Tomahawk’s own title, which would run until 1972. It’s a pity I never tried it when I was there, in the Sixties.
In a later era, that would have meant Star-Spangled Comics looking for a new feature but this is still 1950, so the frontiersman stayed on. And there was an opportunity to contrast the sensibilities of his series with those of Robin when issue 110 introduced Sally Raines, Frontierswoman. Yes, another girl-wants-to-get-in-on-the-act story, initially pooh-poohed by Tomahawk and displaying some feminine sillinesses. But Sally proved herself smart, practical and invaluable and saved the mission. Of course she gave up, but that was her decision, and she had earned Tom’s approval and encouragement. It’s like two different words, isn’t it?
With three stories appearing in every issue of his own magazine, it was unsurprising to see Tomahawk get a new artist in issue 113, as well as a new recurring enemy in the Black Cougar. The new guy had a lighter line, but was well up to the task of the frontier. And don’t think that because I’m concentrating on on Tomahawk that the other series are being overlooked. The Manhunters around the World is still casting its net far and wide and remains interesting, but Captain Compass is just a politely drawn modest non-powered character, exactly of its time. It will never rip up any trees, nor turn out an unprofessional story. Robin is, of course, Robin, and therefore unrealistic and flat.
Time now was running out on Star-Spangled Comics. With issue 121, the latest reduction in page count forced out Manhunters of the World. Captain Compass got the boot an issue later, replaced by Dr Thirteen, The Ghost Breaker, who also forced Tomahawk off the cover. Thanks to my interest in The Phantom Stranger, I was familiar with Terry Thirteen’s origin story and several of his stories which repeated in the early issues of that series, though I’d forgotten that the series’ official title was just The Ghost-Breaker..
By the miracle of reducing other series’ page-counts, the maritime detective made it back into issue 123. Four features, each of six pages in length, not much room for subtlety, though Tomahawk still managed to be the pick of them.
The Ghost-Breaker’s career back then was only marginally longer than his future rival, The Phantom Stranger. In the last couple of stories he became Mr Thirteen, and in the last of them, his fiancee Marie became his assistant Marie. And the last of them was issue 130. Terry Thirteen and wife Maria would return in 1968, in Showcase 80. Captain Compass would not be back at all. Tomahawk had his own title and Robin had Batman’s array of titles. Star-Spangled Comics did have an issue 131 and more but it’s theme changed and so did it’s title. Henceforth and into the Seventies it would be Star-Spangled War Stories, with a new numbering. Among it’s features would be Mademoiselle Marie, The War that Time Forgot, Enemy Ace and The Unknown Soldier.
But that’s another comic entirely. What then my overall impressions of Star-Spangled Comics, that I read merely out of mild curiosity and no great interest? Well, I have been amply rewarded by the runs of the Newsboy Legion and the Guardian, of Liberty Belle, the All-American Girl, and the chance fifty-plus years later to get to know Tomahawk: should the opportunity come up, I will not be slow to purchase a DVD-Rom of his solo title.
And I had tremendous fun with the meteoric rise and stunning collapse of Merry, the Girl of 1,000 Gimmicks.
I’m still saving my last Golden Age title up, so we’ll be in the Silver Age again, next time. And a couple more series gave been bought in, so I’ll be going on longer than I thought. As long as it’s still fun.

Soldiers or Legionnaires?: Leading Comics


No, there’s definitely eight of them…

In the last couple of years, with immense thanks to David Simpson, I have collected thousands of old comics as part of a pile of DVD-Roms about three inches high. At first these were the British weeklies I remembered from my youth in the Sixties that is now gone, but along the way I discovered that I could get complete or near-complete runs of Golden Age series. Not just the run of All-Star Comics that I had in hardcover Archive format but the four titles featuring the adventures of the characters who made up the Justice Society of America.
Yes, the Golden Age comics are rough and ready, naïve, clumsy, amateurish, but energetic and enthusiastic. Most of all, they have been an opportunity to read and learn, to know what the stories were, to not have to rely on sketchy references and re-tellings that never give the details I automatically thirst for.
I have always wanted to know. Summaries, however accurate, are never enough. Only the original will do.
I haven’t yet reached the end of these revelatory DVDs, the latest of which is Detective Comics Inc.’s Leading Comics, an initially quarterly title introduced in Winter 1941. The title was conceived by Mort Weisinger and artist Mort Meskin in emulation of sister company All-American Publications’ All-Star and the JSA.
The idea was for Detective to have its own team of characters, coming exclusively from Detective’s titles. These were The Green Arrow, with Speedy, from More Fun, The Shining Knight from Detective, The Vigilante from Action, The Star-Spangled Kid, with Stripesy, from Star-Spangled and The Crimson Avenger from Adventure. Apart from the Shining Knight, who had magic armour and a flying horse, none of the team had actual superpowers.
Nobody seemed to know exactly what to call this team. The last panel of their debut adventure, in Leading 1, names them for the first time as the Seven Soldiers of Victory, though it has the feel of a description rather than a title. On the other hand, the team – which had no headquarters – were also referred to as The Law’s Legionnaires.
My first exposure to the Seven Soldiers came in Justice League of America 100-102, the first three-part JSA team-up and the first to introduce a third team. Len Wein brought them back from almost thirty years obscurity as a second Earth-2 team, time-tossed and forgotten, with a recap of the team’s origin in the form of a skeletal summary of the story from Leading no 1. It was a delight, another forty-six years on, to read that story myself.
The Seven Soldiers become a team by accident. Master criminal The Hand, believing himself to be dying of cancer, recruits five villains – Professor Merlin, The Needle, Big Caesar, The Red Dragon and The Dummy – to carry out his five best unworked plans, and challenges our five borrowed features to stop them. Needless to say, the heroes stop them, the Vigilante aided by sidekick, veteran Billy Gun and the Crimson Avenger by his aide, Wing, in every respect an eighth Soldier except for not being on the team. The team then follow the Hand, who has just learned his cancer is curable after all, to his lair, where their attempts to escape his death-trap lead to – not a very subtle irony – The Hand dying.
Until he comes back in Justice League of America in 1972, which was where I came in.
Though Leading Comics was an anthology title, it adopted the same approach as All-Star. There was one story running through the sixty-four page comic, a couple of comic strips excepted, but the heroes, with and without sidekicks, all went off on their own to fight the villain’s schemes separately. In the Forties, no-one seemed to properly grasp the idea of a team.
I was already familiar with the story in issue 2 from when it was reprinted over two issues of the 100-page Giant Justice League of America in 1974. Indeed, that’s the version that’s on the DVD, complete with colouring errors. It’s interesting that the Star-Spangled Kid, who calls the team together, refers to them as the Legionnaires, but more interesting to note that the story is structurally identical to the first one: a master plotter sets up five criminals to execute his plans, concealing his plan to collect the real object, and dying of his success.
And stone me, but issue 3 was identical! This time it was The Green Arrow who saw the problem. An evil scientist, Dr Doome (note the ‘e’) brings back five of history’s greatest dictators to rob precious metals for a time machine to go forward and take over the future. Same as before, five defeats later.

We are definitely talking formula here, and much more rigid than the JSA, but if Mort Weisinger is writing this, are we necessarily surprised?
Thankfully, there was a change made for issue 6, as the Seven Soldiers team-up to recover a billion dollars of Inca Gold for Uncle Sam’s War Effort, only to find various of its members turned against each other as a bad guy joins the race. This more sophisticated approach was used again for the next issue, but it was back to solo adventures again in no. 8, as The Dummy sent them back in time in a failed attempt to strand them.
And another twist was introduced in issue 10, as the Soldiers head to the Pacific to rescue a missing scientific expedition, get shipwrecked and split up and have to get themselves out of it in unexpected teams. This story emphasised one aspect of this team that was missing from the JSA, the sense of comradeship. The Seven Soldiers mixed a bit more and looked out for each other a bit more openly. In contrast, comradeship in the Justice Society was more of a case of pulling Johnny Thunder out of whatever hole he’d gotten himself into this time.
The story in issue 11 was barely a team-up at all. The Soldiers meet up, JSA-style, in the first and last chapters, to settle the hash of underworld boss Handsome Harry, in both, but in between they’re not on missions, just going about their ordinary business, solving crimes linked by the Hard-Luck Hat. This is Harry’s hat, which he loses in chapter 1, and which goes on from head to head, bringing disaster in its wake, before returning to Harry in the final chapter, by which time he’s become a hobo. If we’re to take this story at all seriously, which I wouldn’t recommend, years must pass during it. How silly is that?
In passing, I’ll mention that issue 13 was the first to appear in the interregnum when Detective and All-American were separated. Naturally, the Superman DC logo was unchanged by the list of comics promoted in the inside front cover was suddenly diminished by the exclusion of the latter company’s titles.
But the Seven Soldiers of Victory were only the number two team, and they never acquired the traction of the Justice Society. Issue 14’s goofy story of battling figures from literature, accidentally given life, was fun, and some splendidly vigorous writing went into the dialogue of Long John Silver and Sir John Falstaff especially, but it was the swansong for the Law’s Legionnaires. Though one last script existed, to be drawn as a curiosity, and serialised in Adventure Comics in 1975, the Spring 1945 issue was the end for them.
Why they were less successful will always be a matter of conjecture but most people agree, and I share that opinion, the overwhelming reason was that the JSA had the big guns, whilst the Seven Soldiers consisted of second stringers. The absence of actual super-powers, save for the Shining Knight, was another reason in limiting the appeal of the team, and the final factor was the times. The War was in its final year, Starman and The Spectre were about to lose their series, other costumed characters were falling by the wayside.
As well as its superhero series, Detective Comics had begun to introduce funny comics, like All-Funny and the teenster series, Buzzy. If the Seven Soldiers were to be removed, there was a lot of comic to fill. And the answer was funny animals. With issue 15, Leading Comics was transformed, the first DC title to drop its superheroes completely.
That’s not what I wanted to read. Nevertheless, in fairness I scanned issue 15. Six new funny animal features, including a funny animal version of Sherlock Holmes (is there anything less funny than a funny animal version of Sherlock Holmes?), all of them dross.
Nero Fox was the cover feature until issue 23 until he was replaced by Peter Porkchops. From issue 34, the series was retitled Leading Screen Comics, in which form it lasted until 1951 and issue 77.
I wanted to read the short career of the Seven Soldiers of Victory, and now I have.

A Spot of Adventure: The Bronze Age – Part 1


Enter Supergirl

She’d been around for ten years, initially as Superman’s secret cousin, hidden away in Midvale Orphanage until he was certain she knew what she was doing which, given how he was used to treating Lois and Lana, was not a recipe for total disaster, oh no gollum. After four years, and an adoption by Fred and Edna Danvers, her cousin revealed her to the world, instantly becoming the world’s favourite blonde teenager. She’d gone on to Stanhope College, still wearing her brunette wig, still loyally backing up Cousin Kal in Action Comics. And in June 1969, Supergirl transferred from Action to Adventure Comics, bouncing out the Legion of Super-Heroes to claim her first real solo slot. The Legion – all 26 of them – had to exist in the back-up slot in Action. She would lead Adventure for the next forty-four issues, into the Bronze Age.
Whereas there is a pretty firm consensus as to the beginning and end of the Golden Age and the beginning of the Silver Age, there’s no such unanimity about the transition from Silver to Bronze. I’ve chosen for the purposes of this series of posts to make the transition from the Legion to Supergirl as the marker: you are welcome to suggest any alternate time.
But by 1969, people who had started out as fans had started to have scripts and art accepted at DC. Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich had preceded them at Marvel. But some of the medium’s respected writers of the next couple of decades were starting out, taking over from those veterans whose attempt to secure a future for themselves led to their gradual ejection from DC.
I didn’t think much of the first story, which saw Supergirl going undercover at a ‘Sleuth School’ that was training shapely females (don’t look at me, that was the scripter’s word) to carry out robberies under hypnosis. It was just a bit too herky-jerky, with a poorly timed conclusion that revealed that Batgirl was also undercover with the same goal, not to mention a trip to the Batcave when Batman and Robin were ‘out’, without tripping a single alarm. But it was Supergirl’s first book-length story ever.
When placed against the next couple of issues, it quickly started looking like a classic. But there was an intriguing story as the lead in issue 384. Her room-mates’ use of the Campus Matchmaker computer inspires Supergirl to use her cousin’s supercomputer at the Fortress to pick out an off-world hero for her. Minus thirty points for such a condescending introduction, but plus fifty or so for having Volar’s planet be a Chauvinist heaven, in which all the women are brainwashed from birth to see themselves as fit only to be servants to men. Supergirl is determined to show how stupid that is, and Volar is on her side until one day he turns on her and drives her off the planet because the serum that gives him his powers can no longer be reproduced. Supergirl is happy to accept Volar for whatever he is after he stops being strong, handsome and dreamy, until she learns the truth of what Volar is and leaves humiliated and heart-broken. Because Volar is like her – a girl. Yes, there’s a weird mixture of sexual politics in here, and a lesbian undertone buried much deeper than it used to be in old Wonder Woman comics.
On the other hand, emboldened by Supergirl, Volar decides to carry on superheroing, as a girl, and start to change ‘his’ planet the long, slow way.

Coose costume

Yet I should be aware that this is the tail-end of the era when Supergirl’s series was a way for girls to enjoy superhero comics, with romances, dates and heartbreaks. Yes, it is patronising, to our eyes fifty years on, and the stories are tedious when they’re not being silly. But this is because they were intended for an audience of which I never formed part, and I should bear that in mind.
But that was until issue 396, for with that issue, Mort Weisinger stood down as editor of Adventure Comics. The role was given to Mike Sekowsky, former Justice League of America artist and one of the new editors that Editorial Director Carmine Infantino was bringing in from the pool of artists. Sekowsky had already taken over Wonder Woman and promptly removed her powers, turning her into a Diana Rigg-like human agent: what might he have planned for the Maid of Steel?
In one word: Change. To begin with, Sekowsky took over pencilling Supergirl and, from the look of it, writing the feature itself. His first story began with a bored Linda Danvers going shopping (?) for new fashions, with one of the groovy dress-shops she hit being the one where the non-super Diana Prince now worked. Next up, a new magical threat on campus shreds Supergirl’s staid old costume. With Ms Prince’s assistance she came up with a change of style that was hip, groovy and utterly horrible: a tabard-like miicro and thigh length red boots ought to look seriously hot but far from it (the new costume was chosen from reader’s suggestions over the past few months, and judging by the alternatives depicted on the cover, this one actually was the best, my life!).
The back-up story fared better by introducing a new regular creep in Nasty. This nick-name was short for Nastalthia, a name I’ve only ever heard elsewhere in Milton Caniff’s Terry and The Pirates (if you’re going to steal, steal from the gods). Nasty was out to discover Supergirl’s secret identity for her Uncle: Uncle Lex Luthor, that is.

The bathing-suit one

The next issue introduced a new logo for the ‘New Supergirl’ but only one Sekowsky story, the lead being a particularly naff reprint from Supergirl’s High School days. And there was another reprint the next month, but as this was an unpublished Golden Age Black Canary tale with prime Infantino art, it was the highlight of the issue.
And so to Adventure 400. Only two other DC Comics had reached the number by 1970, only four titles had run longer. Sekowsky celebrated by delving into the past for the return of Supergirl’s old foe, the Black Flame, a comeback that fell flat for one latterday reader who has to ask Black Who?
It might be a new era for Supergirl, with Sekowsky confounding the old expectations to the point where expectations left town, but that didn’t avert the double nadir of issue 401, in which the Supergirl lead turned out to be a dream, and a new back-up, Tracey Thompson, debuted. Who or what was Tracey Thompson? She was an inquisitive girl with a less-inquisitive friend. Have series been built on lesser information than that? Probably, but I wouldn’t want to read them.
Anyway, Tracey and Betsy lasted exactly two episodes before being abandoned whilst Sekowsky started to churn things up even faster. In issue 404, Supergirl was fed a pill that turned her powers on and off and two issues later she graduated from Stanhope College, inadvertently revealed her secret identity to Nasty, moved to San Francisco to join a TV news team and found Nasty joining her there, intent on exposing her. Also, her new costume got burned up: guess it wasn’t as popular as the letter columns suggested.

With guest star reprints

Issue 407 introduced a newer, and even uglier costume, whose military style top and red pants made it look even bulkier and more awkward than the first. It also reminded me that I’d once owned this comic.
I’d definitely stopped buying all comics, American or British, after September 1970 and wouldn’t resume until January 1974. This issue would have reached Britain sometime around June/July 1971. But once I started again, and accelerated by discovering my first comics shop in Manchester, with back-issues, I kept stabbing at filling in the gap. I had a few Supergirl Adventures, a product of collecting the later and short-lived Supergirl title. This was the oldest I recognise.
By the time of the back-up story in issue 408, Supergirl’s red pants had turned to blue, and I was already sick of Nastalthia’s constant needling of Linda Danvers about being Supergirl.
The next month saw the adoption of a new 48 page size format, and a then-massive leap from 15 to 25 cents. This was an adventurous policy by DC, trying to avert an increase to 20c for the same old package by leaping past it to give more for the money, the more in this instance being selected Legion reprints. It was supposed to be a joint venture, agreed with Marvel but, after just one month at this size, Martin Goodman pulled his last great shark-move and pulled back to 32 pages at 20c, undercutting DC and further cutting into their market.
As for the original material, I was surprised to find a back-up story that not only cut Sekowsky out with script by E. Nelson Bridwell and art by Art Saaf but provided Supergirl with yet another new costume, and this time an attractive one, being basically a backless blue bathing suit with a fair amount of the sides cut away, plus cape and red boots. Decidedly sexist and decidedly hot.
The swimsuit outfit only lasted one half-length back-up because it was replaced in the following issue by the costume Supergirl would wear for the next decade plus, the loose long-sleeved blouse with the miniature Super-logo on the left breast, the red frilly tennis-knickers and the lace-up moccasins. And there was a change in editorial leadership as Sekowsky was replaced by former EC Artist Joe Orlando, who would take Adventure into some strange places, as we shall see in the next instalment.
But, oy! The stories that Orlando started with. Plain, dull, even stupid stories by John Albano and Bob Oksner, with clean, neat art but not heart and silly premises. Sekowsky had at least tried to do something new. Only the new costume worked.
I’m sorry to go on about the costume thing but issue 412 featured a rogue Supergirl impersonator wearing the tabard-and-thigh-boots outfit whilst the real Supergirl wore an all-blue all body sleek costume that looks like the one Melissa Benoit wore into Crisis on Infinite Earths but the story was an horrendous mish-mash, dragging Supergirl into space for a careering fight with no logical development to it. Adventure had literally lost the plot.
The Legion reprints went out the window in favour of an eclectic mix of characters – Animal Man, Zatanna, Hawkman, Robotman – whilst the sleek, form-fitting blue costume stayed for an issue before the blouse and tennis knickers one was back in issue 414, another of my former back-issue acquisitions, which I remembered well, especially for its cover.
Ridiculously, yet another costume, an off, impractical, sleeveless square-necked blue top with red mini-skirt was used in the front of issue 415 before the long-term look came back in the back. That however was the end of the Constantly-Changing-Costumes, but not of the uninspiring stories. Frankly, only the changing back-ups, mixing new work and unexpected reprints, was worth attention, as these certainly went in for oddities.

The permanent version

But DC’s run at 48 pages was always going to be limited and this came to an end with issue 420, and announcements as to a cutback to 32 pages and 20 cents. The last Supergirl story was an oddball tale set in space, a whirlwind effort of love, War and death that nowhere anchored itself to reality. It used Dylan Thomas for its evocative title, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, a line the story bent itself to accommodate. I searched it out as a back-issue on reading a letter-of-comment giving it extravagant praise and was once mightily impressed. Now, I’m just wondering how such a ragged thing ever got published.
I was familiar too with the next story, a farrago involving black magic that tied itself to a spurious significance by turning the evil witch into Supergirl’s easily-eliminated death-wish, but I remember it mainly for the truly astonishing art, by the impossible but somehow gloriously effective team of Mike Sekowsky and Bob Oksner, a combination no more compatible than than Pablo Picasso inked by Norman Rockwell. But it worked.
Then it all finally ran out of time and place. Adventure 424 was a mainly down to Earth adventure about a Syndicate stool-pigeon that took an incongruous turn into outer space but this was the last time these flying by the seat of the pants stories would appear in Adventure. Some memorable art from Tony de Zuniga ended with Linda Danvers throwing a fit of pique, walking out of her job, her life in San Francisco, her rivalry with Nastalthia and her unrequited love for her boss Geoff, the guy who, three months earlier, had gotten her past her death wish and become closer to her than any man before: not that close, obviously.
Supergirl cleared the decks to go into her own title (which would only last thirteen issues) and Adventure was given a two-month hiatus, presumably because nobody had any idea what to do next.
What they did do next will be the subject of the last part of this series.

Don’t boither remembering her this way

A Spot of Adventure: The Silver Age – Part 1


It’s February 1958, though the cover date says April, standard comic book practice then and for decades to come to try to fool newstands, drugstores and Mom-and-Pop stores to leave the comic out on display for longer and longer, before tearing the strip with the title off the cover and returning it for credit. The new Flash had appeared in two issues of Showcase, both big sellers, but the management at National Periodical Publications (you didn’t shout the word ‘Comics’ too loudly in the Fifties) would require two more, this year, before trusting him to a series of his own. The Silver Age was struggling to be born but Adventure Comics and its editor, Whitney Ellsworth, was about to make their greatest contribution to the new era. He, writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino were about to introduce the Legion of Super-Heroes.
Appropriately for the time, it’s a bit of a jerky story. Three kids from the future, Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl, the latter two of which looking nothing like the incarnations we would become familiar with in the future, and all of which boast artificial super-powers that, at this stage, are not the inherent abilities stemming from their respective home planets, ‘tease’ (i.e., horrify) Superboy by knowing his dual identity, invite him 1,000 years into the future to join their superhero club, put his through competency tests in which they deliberately sabotage him, and all for fun. Remind me again, why did he join this bunch of creeps?
We only get to meet these three Legionnaires, although the group includes at least four other identified members, one of which is green-skinned and could possibly have been Brainiac 5. We also learn that, ten centuries on, feminism hasn’t arrived, since Saturn Girl is ‘only a girl’ (curl lip in contempt). Of such acorns do oak trees grow, however implausible, but if superheroes are on the way back, the idea’s a doozy.
There are still our hapless D-listers, The Green Arrow and Aquaman, to go through, and it was back to Superboy solo next month, But the Silver Age had visited and left its calling card on the table. The In-Between Age was doomed..
As this is a new run, I actually started reading the back-up stories, or enough of them to finally pick up on the patterns. Green Arrow’s stories are always about the arrows, and how the crime-fighting archers have to keep using different ones, whilst Aquaman is about him acting out of character for some secret purpose that gets revealed on page 5. And it was interesting to see that, when Adventure hit issue 250, one of a very small number of titles to do so, absolutely nothing was done to mark it.
Or did it? For that and the next six issues, Green Arrow gained a new artist, the King, Jack Kirby. No, it’s not particularly memorable art, or that distinctly Kirby, and apparently it was being inked by his wife, Roz, but it’s Kirby. And in issue 252, not only did Superboy encounter Red Kryptonite for the first time (but not its more antic aspects), but Green Arrow’s story was continued into a second part!
A major change arrived in that second issue. It was not Superboy teaming up with a time-travelling Robin the Boy Wonder but rather the introduction of the Silver Age staple, the letters page.
I was also pleased to see the occasional resumption of house ads, particularly the full-pagers devoted to new characters in Showcase, such as Space Ranger and Adam Strange, under the rubric ‘Adventures on Other Worlds’. But on the debit side, Aquaman’s series was now adorned with his own sidekick, his pet octopus, Topo. Don’t anyone tell Jason Mamoa about this.

Don’t believe it…

But we are really getting into some deep and, frankly, scary psychological terrirtory, especially with the Superboy story in issue 255, which sees some Martian Red Kryptonite split Superboy in two, one of them the Boy of Steel and the other a merely human Clark Kent. Clark goes criminally batty and Superboy ends up killing him in an explosion. That’s right, killing him, or rather himself, without qualm or regret. That’s seriously disturbing shit.
Kirby’s last Green Arrow, featuring the most identifiably Kirby art of his run, was a re-telling of his origin in it’s pre-Speedy form. In fact, the letters page, and several requests for who, what and why, seems to have inspired a sweep of origin recaps across the Superman titles generally, not to mention another ludicrous team-up in issue 258, this time with Superboy trying to inspire new-kid-in-town Oliver Queen to take an interest in archery… In time, practically half of DC’s characters would pass through Smallville during Superboy’s youth.
When I mentioned that Whitney Ellsworth was editing Adventure, I was surprised to see his name in the indicia, as I’d always assumed Mort Weisinger’s legendary possessiveness about Superman would not allow anyone else to be in charge. Weisinger replaces Ellsworth as of issue 259, reminding me that when Ellsworth was editor of All-Star, it was Julius Schwartz doing the work. I think Ellsworth was editor in the same way Stan Lee et al were editor-in-chief at Marvel: the overall boss but not the hands-on man. I think Weisinger’s hand was on the real controls all along. Now, it just became official.
One of those origin stories appeared in issue 260, as Aquaman’s origin was retold for the first time in eighteen years, or rather retconned, for now Arthur Curry was named for the first time, and he was revealed as being Atlantean, though not yet as the rightful king of that undersea world. Next issue, the Boy of Steel met a teenage Lois Lane at camp, sharing a cabin with Lana Lang and deploring the latter’s constant efforts to discover Superboy’s identity: Lois would never do that. All-in-all, it was a chance for the Boy of Steel to anticipate his adult self’s trait of acting like a dick to two women who love him.
By now, it was clear that the Legion hadn’t caught the imagination of Superboy’s readers first off. In fact, it took twenty issues for the teenagers of tomorrow to reappear, in issue 267, and they were still dicks, humiliating the Boy of Steel, driving him off Earth, imprisoning him. It was the same trio but this time all in the uniforms with which we would be familiar in the Sixties, except that Saturn Girl was brunette, not blonde.
Two issues later, Aquaman met Aqualad, an Atlantean expelled from Atlantis for being afraid of fish, cured his fear and ending up with the kid imprinting himself on the King of the Sea and adopting him as a surrogate father with no legal proceedings whatsoever.

For issue 270, the first of 1960, there was a sudden change as Green Arrow’s series was replaced by Congorilla, big game hunter Congo Bill who, by rubbing a magic ring, could transfer his mind into the body of a golden gorilla for an hour. Remember too that 1960 was the year the Justice League of America debuted, consisting of seven of DC’s eight adult superheroes. The only one to miss out was… Green Arrow. Is there a connection?
Next issue, Superboy met the young Lex Luthor, farm boy in Smallville, Superboy hero-worshipper and would-be scientific genius, and we see that Luthor becomes a Superman-hater after Superboy causes all his hair to fall out. Don’t laugh so much, there are sound psychological underpinnings to this rationale, I merely looks goofy. And increasingly the letters page is becoming a source of inspiration, with the kids raising questions that prompt stories being written to explain the answers. Weisinger certainly knew his audience.
After Robin, Lois and Luthor, it was inevitable that Superboy would meet a young Bruce Wayne when his parents, the great philanthropists and benefactors of Gotham City, decided to move to Smallville; well, wouldn’t you? Who wants to live in a plush mansion when you could live in a hick town? Bruce gets the hots for Lana who agrees to let him take her to the Prom if he finds out Superboy’s identity, which he does, being smart, only Superboy shows him film of the future where he’s Batman and they’re best friends, so he doesn’t. Funny how the Boy of Steel omits the bit about why young Bruce becomes Batman…
Both back-up series had a change of title is issue 277, to introduce their kid partners: Aquaman and Aqualad, Congorilla and Janu, with National announcing that, in response to many such requests, they were giving the first pair a two-issue run in Showcase to see if they could carry their own title.
Issue 280 saw the Mermaid Lori Lemaris become the latest Superman character to pre-empt her first meeting with Supes by turning up in Smallville years early. As usual, the story was 90% silly, the exceptions being the provision of an entirely sensible explanation for Lori’s Atlanteans having fishtails whilst Aquaman’s have two legs, and the instinctive effort of the jealous Lana to save the life of the ‘girl’ she fears as a rival. It was also announced that, from the next issue, the first of 1961, Congorilla and Aquaman would alternate as back-up, their combined pages giving the opportunity for thirteen page adventures.
This time, it took only fifteen issues for the Legion of Superheroes to return, in issue 282, with a new member, Star Boy (albeit one with super-strength, electrical vision and supercool breath, instead of mass controlling powers), as well as a cameo from the previously unseen Chameleon Boy. Unfortunately, the story was an excuse for Lana to cook up one of her least reputable plots to discover Superboy’s identity. Not even the sight of Lana in a most un-1961 short skirt and her frank admission that she loved the Boy of Steel kept him from acting like just as much as a dick to her. Just fly her off and snog her, you fool!
Congorilla’s brief run came to an end in issue 283, with the announcement that he was being replaced by the more Superman-oriented Tales of the Bizarro World. It was supposed to be just him but, come the day, Aquaman was sent swimming too. But three issues later I was hoping for one or both of them to return, as the Bizarro stories were stupid beyond belief. And they’re getting all the covers, too! The time between Legion stories was rapidly diminishing, with Sun Boy, the “Seventh Legionnaire” being introduced in issue 290.
And the big three of Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl were back after only three issues, this time introducing, wait for it, the Legion of Super-Pets. Yes, that’s right: Super-Pets. These were Krypto, plus Beppo the Super-Monkey, Streaky the Super-Cat and even the as-yet unnamed Comet the Super-Horse, pet and occasional lover of Supergirl (don’t go there, just don’t) who hadn’t even been introduced in Supergirl’s series yet (hey, every young girl is into horses, right?)

There was a letter of protest about the Bizarros in issue 296 which brought forth a stinging rebuke from Weisinger, about how Adventure‘s sales figures had rocketed to their highest ever since the feature began, and that every month they got 5,000 postcards with suggestions from ‘Bizarro business’. Yeah, but that still doesn’t mean the series isn’t crap.
Finally, the suggestion came up of a regular Legion series, alternating with the Bizarros. So, with issue 300, the day finally came when the Legion, 53 issues after their debut, took a permanent role in Adventure.
And I’ll be back in two weeks for the next instalment.

Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero


Though it was published in 2012, I’ve just discovered Larry Tye’s biography of Superman, though I’m a bit disgruntled to have paid £19.99 for a copy of the import edition when I could have picked it up through Amazon for less than £3.00.
Tye is an experienced journalist and writer of non-fiction who’s best known for his previous book, Satchell, the biography of Satchell Paige, the first black pitcher in American baseball. In his Introduction he explains why he wanted to write about the Superman story, and how this book would be different from those that came before it, and would follow.
The outcome is an interesting and decently comprehensive of Superman’s career, from his birth in comics to his expansion into other media: cartoons, radio, movie serials, television, big budget films. Tye has researched thoroughly and presents a clear picture of each stage of Superman’s career.
That’s the thing about this book, though. Tye is interested in the phenomenon of Superman, in his colonisation of so many different spheres, and his study is about them. The first three chapters deal with Superman’s background: his creators Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, their background and personalities, the artistic influences that they synthesized to create the Man of Steel, and the route by which he took into first publication.
There is even a chapter upon how Superman, despite his assumption of Christian characteristics, is at heart, and not even secretly, Jewish, like his creators, his publishers and virtually the entire Comics industry.
So far, so simple. But once Tye has gotten this background out of the way, his concerns are solely with Superman’s colonisation of succeeding differing media: radio, cartoons, Saturday morning serials, television, the Broadway stage and blockbuster films. What happens to Superman in his only truly natural home, in the comics, becomes a matter of indifference to Tye, a subject to which he returns only intermittently and, except in one instance, with faint distaste.
Because from start to finish, it is clear that Tye has little or no time for creative individuals. Tye only respects success, which is measured in dollars and cents, and to him the true heroes are not those who create stories, who exercise their imagination to thrill, enliven, astonish or move, but with those who exploit a property to its fullest commercial sense.
The standard narrative, which hones to the truth, portrays Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster as naive, inexperienced, lacking in social skills, full of dreams and desires that they have no means of fulfilling. Out of their shared needs and inadequacies, they create Superman, the great adolescent wish-fantasy, the more than man, perfect, brave and strong, the idealisation of everything they would want to be, who hides his light under the bushel of a mild, meek, Caspar Milquetoast coward, especially from the woman he loves, who loves the superman and despises the alter ego. It’s a very deep well of psychological urges and fears and is a fundamental reason why Superman spoke to so many people from the very beginning, and why he is still relevant and popular seventy five years later.
So Seigel and Shuster, these nebbishes and proto-geeks, invent a near-Universal symbol that has expanded through nearly every medium there has been created, and made uncountable billions of dollars in every conceivable format and licencing product.
But at the very outset, Seigel and Shuster – young innocents without legal advice – are given no option but to sell their character to two practiced sharks in Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz, who take ownership and control for a mere $130. That Donenfeld and Liebowitz were sharks is beyond disagreement: they own the comic book company that will publish Superman because, though it was a profitable enterprise for Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, they manipulate him into a cash-flow crisis at the wrong moment, that forces him into bankruptcy, out of which they buy his company for a song.
At the hands of Donenfeld, Seigel and Shuster, who have created this money fountain, who have created not just Superman but the superhero per se and the entirety of the comics industry that has existed for seventy years, get a fixed pittance of that income. They cannot control their own creation but have to follow the orders of people who do not have even the creative capacity the boys possess. Though they have an exclusive contract to supply Superman pages, from almost the beginning DC try to get round that, undermine and undercut them. Eventually, they are dismissed from consideration at DC, without even the page rate they were earning. Much of their lives are spent in poverty and misery.
As comics writer and historian Mark Evanier perceptively noted, Seigel and Shuster’s story is the contravention of the American Dream.
Tye acknowledges all this as a matter of historical fact. But throughout this book, it is plain that his sympathies lie not with the exploited but the exploiters. His enthusiasm lies in what Donenfeld and Liebowitz – actually, the more chummy sounding Harry and Jack – did to promote Superman (at the least possible cost and most profitable terms for themselves). And in due course, he is equally awed by legendary Superman editor and all round offensive human being Mort Weisinger, who completed the job of levering Superman out of Seigel and Shuster’s hands and into his own.
Indeed, it’s clear that Tye holds Seigel and Shuster in contempt. He cannot bring himself to mention Shuster – who was next to legally blind throughout his entire career, who found drawing physically difficult and who increasingly directed the work of assistants who he paid from his own income – without sneering about his ‘work ethic’.
And though he recognises that advantage was taken of the pair, Tye is dismissive of Jerry Seigel’s insecurity and fear of being exploited by those with more power than him, which the historical record demonstrates was very real. Seigel was paid a comparative pittance compared to the money Superman brought in, and Tye’s attitude is clearly that he should have been grateful for it and stopped bothering Leibowitz.
And he shouldn’t have kept bringing lawsuits.
This displacement of sympathy towards the excessive winners instead of the exploited losers runs through all the book. Even Weisinger ranks higher in Tye’s lexicon than Seigel and Shuster, because despite being a truly monstrous person, he made Superman sell. Tye tells stories of Weisinger abruptly sacking Wayne Boring after nearly thirty years and callously dismissing him with “Do you want a kick in the stomach to know when you’re not wanted?”, and condescendingly crediting Seigel as being the best Superman writer (after originally forcing him out by claiming Seigel had so little idea about his creation he would destroy it).
And these stories are told with approval fo Weisinger.
When he has to, Tye acknowledges the comics career of Superman. He covers the Wertham-inspired attacks of the early Fifties, the rebooting of Superman under John Byrne, and the early Nineties Death of Superman sequence, but even then he can’t but sneer at the fact that Superman’s audience in comics is very tiny in comparison to his reach in any other media. He describes the comic book world as insular and dependant upon detailed knowledge of characters and history that drives away new readers (which is true, but which Tye sweeps away as unworthy of consideration).
Overall, Tye acts as if he would really rather that the comics Superman might disappear and let me concentrate upon more important things.
Good as it is, well-researched and comprehensive, especially with regard to the non-comics Superman, I really can’t get on with this book because of this essential dichotomy. Tye’s respect lies in too many wrong places for me and his fawning over Jack Leibowitz in particular is too much for me.
There’s a genuine argument to be made for a dispassionate study of Leibowitz’s business success, which would be interesting, but this isn’t it. Tye’s contempt for creative individuals cannot be ignored (there is a passing reference to writer Harlan Ellison, author and social activist, writer of short stories, screen and teleplays, columns and commentary: Tye refers to him as a ‘pop culture maven’). It’s an attitude that wholeheartedly describes the attitude that comic book professionals have had to their freelance minions throughout the entirety of the industry: businessmen who couldn’t write or draw a line are far more important than those who provide the comics people read.
Not to me.

Green Arrow – No such thing as a bad character: Part 1 – The Nonentity Years


Green Arrow circa 1958 by Jack Kirby

The success of the new American TV show Arrow provides me with an excuse for another excursion into what what makes the mainstream comic book industry irremediably different from printed fiction, in a way that book readers will find hard to grasp.
Arrow, which is making a good job of combining flashy, CGI-enhanced action, a Lost-like backstory carefully doled out and a surprising psychological depth in its approach to its superhero lead, is based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen. It’s a very modern, and in some ways innovative approach to a character who’s been around for seventy years now.
But the thing about Green Arrow was that for thirty years he was a nobody, a nothing, a C-list costumed character with the undeserved distinction of being one of only six such to have been in continuous publication since the Forties. Thirty years of being an implausible (for comics!), unoriginal, characterless figure.
And in the forty years that followed, Green Arrow has grown to become one of DC’s foremost characters, popular, reliable and commercial (at one time his title’s sales were running second only to Superman). Green Arrow is the living embodiment of the saying, “There’s no such thing as a bad character.”
What readers of books often don’t realise, or fully understand even when they do, is the extent to which mainstream comics characters are open to anyone to write. Take Superman: as should be better known, the Man of Steel was created by writer Jerry Seigel and artist Joe Schuster. How many people, do you think, have written Superman stories?
I don’t know the answer, though I’m sure that more than one comic book fanatic could give you an exact number (or as exact as records will allow), but the answer is: hundreds. Seriously: hundreds. Remember I’ve been reading these things for about fifty years myself, and that it only takes two writers a year to get us into three figures, and I can assure you that fifty years ago there were more than two Superman writers being tyrannised over their scripts by editor Mort Weisenger.
Start to think about that a little. Consider James Bond, if you will. Skyfall is the twenty-third movie in roughly the same period since I started reading comics, and Daniel Craig the Sixth Bond. Writers such as Kingsley Amis, John Gardner and Sebastian Faulks have, between them, exceeded the number of Bond novels published by Ian Fleming, though you don’t ever hear of anyone actually reading them. But even if you count the writers of each film in this category, we are still not near fifty people who have written adventures of 007.
And don’t forget that none of those writers have ever had to steer their work to accommodate any of the others: contrast that to the period when Superman titles were appearing every week of the year, as a continuing story, to which each writer was contributing only every fourth episode.
So let’s return to that mantra of, “There’s no such thing as a bad character,” and start to apply it to Green Arrow.
The Emerald Archer was created in 1941 for More Fun Comics 73 by none other than future legendary editor of Superman, Mort Weisinger, with artist George Papp. Weisinger also created Aquaman in the same issue, a factor that has to be taken into account when considering the little known fact that, after the near Holy Trinity of Superman, Batman (with Robin) and Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and Aquaman are the only other heroes to have been continuously published since the 1940s.
Aquaman was a fairly pale knock-off of Timely’s Sub-Mariner, and Green Arrow showed little more originality. Think of Batman, of boy side-kicks, Batmobiles, Batarangs, Batplanes, Batcaves, not to mention the millions of dollars with which to buy them. Change Bat for Arrow, and Green Arrow had exactly the same things as Batman, except the memorable origin.
You see, Oliver Queen fell off a pleasure yacht and found himself stranded on a desert island. To survive, he taught himself archery. He also discovered a young boy, Roy Harper, and taught him to shoot arrows. Finally, they were rescued after some crooks tried to use the island as a hideout. Once the Less-Dynamic Duo got back to Star City, Oliver dressed them up in bowman’s tunics – he in green with red boots, Harper in red with yellow boots – provided them with an improbably variety of trick arrows and, ta da! Green Arrow and Speedy were born!
For the next twenty-three years, until the ironically titled “Land of No Return” in World’s Finest 140, Green Arrow had a regular back-up series under Weisinger’s editorship, at different times in More Fun, World’s Finest and Adventure. The first was the old fashioned kind of anthology comic with multiple series, the second starred Superman and Batman, and the last began as an anthology before, in 1958, becoming the home of Superman’s newly-discovered teenage cousin, Supergirl.
GA, and Speedy, were also members of the Seven Soldiers of Justice, also known as the Law’s Legionnaires, the only superhero team to follow the Justice Society of America’s example in the whole of the Golden Age. The Seven Soldiers had full-length adventures in Leading Comics 1 – 14.
With the exception of the Seven Soldiers stories, and a brief period when he was being drawn by Jack Kirby, Green Arrow was, as I’ve said, a nonentity, distinguished only by whatever trick-arrow the writers had come up with this month to keep pages 1 and 8 of the story from being opposite each other. Green Arrow also suffered the indignity of being excluded from the original line-up of the Justice League of America, which, since Aquaman made the grade, was a real slap in the face.
Nevertheless, Oliver Queen was honoured by being the first new member to be inducted into the JLA, in their seventh adventure, issue 4 of their own title. And he was in every adventure until issue 22, at which point the League underwent a change of approach. Instead of every member appearing every time, the new policy was to have 5-6 members in each story, with the others absent. This made stories less cluttered, but it also began to show an editorial order of preference that, at least in part, reflected the relative popularity of the various members.
This was soon recognised on the letters page, with a perceptive reader identifying that the JLA was now made up of a ‘Big 5’ of Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman, and a ‘Small 6’ of Aquaman, The Atom, the Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and mascot ‘Snapper’ Carr (trust me, you don’t want to know).
By this time, GA had lost his regular series. Away from the Justice League, appearances by the Emerald Archer were rare, and mostly as a background character. At any time, he could have just simply disappeared, and at that time it would not have been into that comic book limbo where all outmoded ideas go to wait for a writer with an idea (or maybe no better idea!).
Indeed, the JLA fans who were involved enough to write would have happily despatched him. One issue contained a letter suggesting that the League had too many members and suggesting that three should resign, as unnecessary and unwanted: Green Arrow, as a knock-off of Batman, was one.
Another correspondent went further: he suggested that Green Arrow should be killed. Not only was the character not wanted and not needed, but a story in which he died would be both an exciting and dramatic event in its own right, but also the springboard for a series of stories in which the JLA pursued his assassins and brought them to justice. The writer of that particular letter might not have gone on to become a comic book writer, but his idea certainly has taken on a life of its own.
Poor Green Arrow. In an era when DC were industriously bringing back the long-cancelled heroes of their Golden Age, the fans were urging them to get rid of one such who had survived almost thirty years. The response on DC’s part? A particularly ludicrous issue of JLA in which GA does indeed tender his resignation, refusing all explanations, prompting each and every JLA member (even Wonder Woman, unsuccessfully, for particularly obvious reasons) to disguise himself as GA to penetrate the plot.
But that was almost the last moment at which GA could be dismissed as a no-hoper.