The Chimes of Midnight: Smash Comics Part 2


Q - Midnight

Here we are again, for the second part of a review of Quality Comics’ Smash Comics, issues 41-85, as starring Jack Cole’s The Spirit knock-off, Midnight, plus The Ray and The Jester, along with a handful of lesser lights and two cartoon one-pagers, one of which is a racist atrocity. Where I had to name it in part 1, I shalln’t do here, unless and until it is kicked out.
Midnight appears on the cover and is the lead feature, together with his assistants, Doc Wackey and Gabby the Talking Monkey, from which you will immediately deduce that this is less serious than The Spirit. Next up was Espionage, a series originated by Will Erwin (Eisner), starring masterspy Black X, then Bozo the Robot which, despite the name, was meant to be taken at least semi-seriously.
This was followed by The Jester, a bright and bouncy superhero series already past its best by the removal of artist Paul Gustavson, presumably by the draft, then Yankee Eagle, a piece of crap. Then the piece of racist shit, befouling the name of Jack Cole, and the Marksman, another piece of crap.
New in issue 41 was Daffy, a supposedly comic series. Daffy was a lady wrestler. If you want to know more, you can buy your own DVD. This was followed by Rookie Rankin, a half-decent Police series. Rankin is a rookie cop (you don’t say?) whose own mother calls him Rookie, suggesting an awfully prophetic birth-name.
To make room for Daffy, two features ended. One was the other comic page, Archie O’Toole, that had been there since issue 1 but to my surprise the big loser was the Ray, gone until the 1970s. Better news was on the way, as next issue introduced Lady Luck under Klaus Nordling, a strip I already know and love. Even better, good old Brenda Banks gave Bozo the Robot the heave-ho (though Archie O’Toole was back).
Paul Gustavson was back next issue, but not on the Jester, rather on Midnight, though the formula didn’t change. As such, Midnight remained as vigorous as ever, whilst the art grew more solid, but on the other hand, The Jester’s strip was getting more ridiculous by the issue, as even nobody could be bothered to write a straight story any more. Thank heaven for Lady Luck, say I.
The thing is, I bought the Smash Comics DVD to read the adventures of Midnight and now I’m in the ironic position of skipping over so many pages per month, and getting nothing out of the once enjoyable Jester series that I am reading practically only Midnight, and the whole comic is as dull as ditchwater. Unless some changes are due, the second half of this post may become a bit perfunctory.

Q - Espionage

Espionage, in issue 49, was credited to Bernard Sachs, the first time I believe I’ve seen his pencils. Otherwise, I know him as Mike Sekowsky’s inker on the Justice League until issue 43, when he retired, and he was a complete mis-match, reducing and weakening everything. He was no better here. Fred Guardineer, of Zatara fame, took over the Marksman in the same issue.
The Jester seemed to pick up a bit too. He’s developed the habit of talking to his jester-face ball-on-a-stick, who he calls Quinopolis, but the stories are starting to make sense again.
I’m still breezing past Espionage, the Marksman and Daffy without reading, the first having dragged itself under and the other two non-breathers from the outset, and my perusal of Rookie Rankin is fairly perfunctory, but I had to applaud the latter in issue 56, which told a confused story of dope peddlers and murder in the musical theatre but which came to a note-perfect ending: a dope addict trumpet player, desperate for his fix, is shot, his dealer is strangled by the anonymous shoeshine guy who was the father of the addict. He is open as to his action, explaining that in Italy ‘we have-a da Black Hand to deal wit’ men like-a dees’, and he extends his hands, all-covered by shoepolish, and states, with a dignity that made me pause and which moved me, says, ‘Me – I have my own black hands’.
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet, partly in the hope that they might go away, a hope now evidently forlorn, is that Midnight’s strip has expanded its supporting cast, once more in the direction of humour. For some time now, Dave Clark’s household has been harbouring two more residents, would-be detective Sniffer Snoop and his pet baby polar bear, Hot-foot. The bear is (snicker) bearable because, unlike Gabby the Talking Monkey, he doesn’t talk, but Sniffer is a pain in the arse. He claims to be the best Detective in the world, a true crime-solving genius, setting himself up in opposition to Midnight, with no self-awareness whatsoever. On the other hand, he worked out Dave is Midnight, so he can’t just be jettisoned onto the street, Hot-foot and all, as Gabby and Doc Wackey would clear love to see. I know how they feel.

Q - Rookie

We’re actually up to the end of 1944 by this point and, with paper restrictions in force, Smash Comics is bi-monthly. The War dominates Espionage and The Marksman. It’s noticeable in both strips the difference in approaches to the Axis powers. The Nazis are stereotyped, but remain human beings, but the Japanese are drawn as sub-human and made to speak in a style that is frankly racist. It’s to be expected given that the country is at war, but whilst allowances can be made in respect of the Germans, the difference in treatment of whites and yellow-skins is too marked to be excusable.
I also haven’t mentioned the prose series. All comics of the era had one, two pages of type, short, and often melodramatic tales with all the complexity of a matchbox. Smash Comics‘ version features one of those all-American boys, the US ideal, combining honesty, intelligence and a pair of useful fists: good old American know-how in (a usually blond) human form. This one was called Jimmy Christian.
I virtually never read this stories, which were a necessity to claim second-class postal rates. A quick glance in passing indicates that the Jimmy Christian stories seemed to be different in that their hero wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of things but, like the post-War Spirit, would often come in very late, sometimes as late as page two. What made me actually read this story in issue 57, I don’t know, but I’m glad I did. The story had three levels: the first person narration by someone unnamed but who we later learn is a War journalist, describing both the circumstances in which he’s holed up with Mr Christian, Jimmy’s story that he faithfully records and cables back, and the story’s true character, a guy by the name of Fred Zinn.

Q - Jester

And the story held a ring of truth to it, as if there was a real Fred Zinn by another name, a boy who came out of College a joker, who went into the First World War as a mission director for the fledgling air force, who was overwhelmed with a feeling of responsibility for those who didn’t return, and who, after that War and continuing into the present one, dedicated himself to finding the lost, the combatants who never returned, the names on the Missing list. Without official status, without support or resources, Fred Zinn had dedicated himself to finding out what had happened. To filling in the record, to uncovering the hidden heroism and, most important of all, letting the families know, once and for all, what happened to their husband, son, brother, father, to ending the mysteries of fear.
All this in two pages of straight, controlled prose. I found it incredibly affecting. It also convinced me I should read all the Jimmy Christian stories. No writer is named, but surely someone who could put together such a story must have written more worth reading.
On the other hand, the following issue’s tale was nothing more than an undisguised history of blood transfusions, as ‘assembled’ by Jimmy Christian, culminating in a plea for blood donors: very worthy, very informative, but not exactly a story. The next one was flat-out crap. Sigh.
Issue 59 saw the first new feature in some time, not since the debut of Daffy. This was Spunky. It’s a comedy, or so it thinks, a sub-Archie before Archie existed, teenagers rather awkwardly drawn like children, lending an odd and not all that welcome frisson to the triangle formed by Spunky, his girl-friend Margie and his rival, Curly. The unfortunate loser was The Marksman, but even with Spunky’s manifest flaws, the reader won out.

Q - Daffy

It’s now 1946 but Espionage was still rorting around finding dirty tricks in fictional foreign lands. However, in issue 65 the feature was re-titled Black X, and turned crook-catcher, though it didn’t mean more than a marginal improvement in the series.
Smash Comics is advertising itself as still offering 60 pages in an era when National/DC’s titles had long been down to 48 pages but nevertheless it was following one post-War trend, that of removing drama series for comic. Issue 71 introduced Batch Bachelor, about which the funniest thing was the name, and I’m being serious about that, to replace Rookie Rankin, which at least had been readable.
The Jimmy Christian series disappeared without fanfare, to be replaced in issue 73 with an extra Midnight story, this one in prose. Jack Cole was back on the comics version, each month extending his cartooning until things began to look more like Plastic Man. The next comedy strip, about a little girl called Citronella, sneaked in in issue 75, seemingly without displacing anyone. This made the line-up look seriously sorry, and if I didn’t already know that Smash Comics’ time ran out with issue 85, I’d be suspecting the end was nigh.
But deadly as Citronella was, I realised it had served a real social purpose by excluding the long-running Archie O’Toole and, more importantly, the execrable and racist stain on Jack Cole’s career that I’m still not going to name.
Archie came back in issue 78, right at the rear. Too late to do anybody any good, both Batch Bachelor and Citronella did the nose-dive as at issue 82. Midnight had lost all balance, with Jack Cole going all out to make it nearly as silly as Plastic Man. The Jester’s stories were getting ever more formulaic. Daffy was still Daffy. Only Lady Luck was upholding its strength. So much so that after Smash Comics‘ last issue, no 85, the series was re-titled after the Lady, though that only extended its shelf-life by a further five issues. Just one last issue.

Q - Spunky

The Chimes of Midnight: Smash Comics Part 1


ASS

Long ago, in the Eighties, I had an on-and-off relationship with DC’s Golden Age-set series, All-Star Squadron. On the one hand, I was a card-carrying Justice Society of America fan of a decade and a half’s standing, but on the other hand it was being written by Roy Thomas.
Not having been a Marvel fan in the decade when it really counted, I’d only really been exposed to Thomas’s writing on things like Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja, and had seen barely, if any, of his superhero work. With the JSA’s most recent stint, under Paul Levitz and Joe Staton, having petered out, I was glad to see another vehicle for them, and one that set them in their prime, in World War 2, looked ideal.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken into account the degree by which Thomas had become obsessed with continuity, and ‘retroactive continuity’ or retcons. From the very start, All-Star Squadron was bogged down by Thomas’s urge to draw connections between old and obscure stories, old and even more obscure characters, and not just simple and well-thought-out connections but multiple connections, many of which had to be tortured into place to even stand, leading to the story collapsing under a weight that coherence was never meant to bear. Indeed, it was painfully obvious that Thomas simply could not tell a story for a story’s sake any longer.
Sometimes I could stand it. Sometimes it got just too fussy for my liking, the elevation of things that, even in a comic book universe, didn’t mean anything like enough to be worth it.
But when we got to issue 31, my blood boiled. It began with a full-page splash page of very recognisable design, a man running full tilt towards the ‘camera’. The man was equally recognisable. Blue suit. Blue fedora. White shirt and loose red tie. Blue gloves. Blue domino mask. It was The Spirit, Will Eisner’s classic creation, whose reprinted stories I was then collecting in the Kitchen Sink magazine series.
But DC didn’t own The Spirit. And this wasn’t The Spirit, it was Midnight, aka radio announcer, Dave Clark. It was a blatant, out-and-out ripoff, as if we wouldn’t notice, and it infuriated me.

Q - Invisible Hood

However, I didn’t know as much then as I knew later and in this instance I was maligning Roy Thomas unfairly. It’s true that Midnight was a blatant rip-off – his alter ego even has the same initials as Denny Colt – but it was not Thomas who perpetrated it: the real culprit was Jack Cole, the creator of Plastic Man.
Cole was operating under the instructions of Everett ‘Busy’ Arnold, publisher of Quality Comics, where Eisner’s Spirit appeared in comic books. Apparently, concerned that Eisner might be killed or incapacitated whilst in the Army (or was he just plain ripping him off?), Arnold had Cole create Midnight to ensure he had things covered. Midnight debuted in Quality’s Smash Comics 18, hit the cover in issue 28 and kept it until it was cancelled with issue 85.
And you know how curious I can get…
Nevertheless, Midnight’s delayed debut means we have ground to cover before we begin. The first issue, cover-dated August 1939, was credited as published by Everett M. Arnold. It’s a weird business, multiple strips, mostly drawn decently well for the period, mixing all sorts of adventure and comedy, but most of the writing is poor. The closest we come to a costumed hero is in ‘Hooded Justice’, which features the Invisible Hood, aka Kent Thurston, who dresses in a voluminous and decidedly non-invisible cloak and initially wields a gas gun a good year or so ahead of The Sandman.

Q - Bozo

This is not to say that the Invisible Hood is the top feature, anything but. It’s hard to distinguish any of the features from the rest, several of which were starting in midstream, having previously run in Feature Funnies. Some, like Abdul the Arab, were intrinsically racist. Hugh Hazzard, just one of a number of identikit adventurers would have his strip overtaken by Bozo the Iron Man: seriously, Bozo.
Hooded Justice became Invisible Justice in issue 2, in which the Invisible Hood gains the power of invisibility. A new feature arriving in issue 3 was John Law, the ‘Scientective’, no relation, in theme or quality, to Will Eisner’s unsuccessful later creation. He was joined by Flash Fulton, newspaper photographer, next issue, rather unnecessarily since we’ve had Chic Carter, newspaper reporter, since the start. And my mild curiosity about the Invisible Hood was already sated before then: it’s rubbish. Quality Comics? Far from it.
It’s noticeable that the vast majority of the art in Smash Comics is drawn on a rigid 12 panel grid of three panels in four tiers, with variation mainly to combine two panels on a tier. This and the Eisner connection suggests to me that these features were being supplied by the Iger-Eisner Agency, who built their conveyer-belt process on pre-designed panels that would be passed up one side of a room and down the other, speeding up the procedure of producing the comic immensely at a cost of creative suppression.
There was a weird story in issue 5, in the ‘Espionage’ series, starring a monocled US Agent known only as Black Ace. The story was about an impending Europe-wide War, a continent of Kings not Dictators, a massive American re-armament Defence programme and a campaign of sabotage foiled by Ace, after which Europe enters into a Peace Pact, because America could wipe it out – innocents included, but there are no innocents in this scenario – inside a year. What a bizarre mix of elements and national chauvinism! But in an issue cover-dated December 1939, it’s very much an up-to-the-minute production that must have been barely finished when the actual War was declared.
Black Ace had been Black X in Feature Funnies and reverted next issue, once War had started overseas, his monocle being disclosed as concealing an eye put out during unsuccessful torture. The same issue also introduced the contemptible racial stereotype of Wun Cloo, a Chinese amateur detective: disgusting. And from Jack Cole, too.
A dozen issues represents a full year and a moment to reflect on the series to date and the omens are not favourable. Smash Comics thus far is a pretty flat experience. Surprisingly, the art is of a pretty high standard for the era, and the DVD is scanning from actual issues, not microfiches, so reproduction is very good, but the stories are flat and samey. ‘Espionage’ is the best by some margin, despite the pompous, portentous tone it had taken on since the start of the War. The artists can’t draw maps of Europe with the least accuracy and the overriding tone of American super-superiority rings hollow in the face of what we now know of the real events. But it’s a window onto a certain attitude towards the War in 1940, and the tone is consistently anti-War on the simple grounds of the death and destruction it causes to ordinary people. It may be simple but it’s heartfelt and genuine.

Q - Magno

In contrast, Wings Wendall of Military Intelligence is penny plain. The same basically goes for the two journalists, Chic Carter and Flash Fulton. The stories are trapped within the rigid four-by-three panel grid and there are frequent rushed moments when you’re wondering just how A got to G. The same goes art-wise for the two detectives. Captain Cook of Scotland Yard is dull and bears an even greater distance from the real London than usual. John Law, the private criminologist, was advantaged by running as a quasi-serial but had poorer art. Clip Carson is a super college athlete who wins things for his college at the last minute like a Roy Race without the semi-decent soap opera.
I refuse to consider the comedy stuff, especially the repugnant Wun Cloo, and although it’s played straight and the character is shown as a hero, I refuse to read Ahab the Arab just on account of the name. The Archie O’Toole stuff is pleasantly drawn but usually negligible, until issue 12, when as vile a stereotypical blackface character was introduced. As a bootblack, naturally.
But the bottom of the pile are the two vaguely ‘superheroic’ series. I was curious to see the Invisible Hood stories for myself but they’re dull as dishwater and the hero’s ‘costume’ is not just a dotted outline but a bulky and preposterous one at that. Elsewhere, issue 12 sees the series header switched round, as Bozo the Robot gets top billing above Hugh Hazzard. I am neither old enough nor American enough to know what meanings Bozo might have had in 1940 but it makes the series, which is nothing to write home about anyway, impossible to take at all seriously.
I do so hope Midnight is worth it after all of this.
Espionage and Black X are credited to William Erwin. Erwin was the middle name of Will Eisner who, by that time, was working with ‘Busy’ Arnold on The Spirit Section. I think we know who was really producing the feature, though that doesn’t explain the maps…
A new feature came in with issue 13, The Purple Trio, impecunious vaudeville performers who can’t get a paying job so turn their particular talents to fighting crime. Also on debut was Magno the Miracle Man, another of those superheroes whose most impressive power is getting people to not recognise them when they don’t wear any kind of mask. To make room, Flash Felton and John Law were dropped and there was a double dose of Philbert Veep, the Holmes-esque cartoon detective instead of the disgusting Won Cloo, which I hope is a permanent uplift.

Q - Ray

Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Philbert and Captain Cook were out with issue 14, to make room for another and this time more interesting superhero, The Ray. Though the costume was instantly familiar, apart from the bare legs, the character was not the one that turned up in Justice League of America 107: the origin’s the same but ‘Happy’ Terrill, reporter is supposedly dead and The Ray is The Ray. He turns up from nothing in beams of light and his powers are more electromagnetic than light-based, and we’ve already got the feeble Magno for that.
The second instalment was more like it, with spectacular art credited to E. Lectron, who was the great Lou Fine. There’s still no sign of Happy Terrill, and The Ray’s powers, though more oriented to light and rays, are still uncontrolled but Fine can sure draw an excellent short-skirted lady, and I’m talking more-than-Carnaby-Street short here.
By the next issue, The Ray had replaced ‘Espionage’ as the lead feature. And the rapid turnover continued with a new series, The Scarlet Seal, though that was as dodgy as month-old bread. Barry Moore, film star, quits the industry to take a job with his hometown Police, under his Police Captain Father. But the new Commissioner has declared war on brutality and stoolies: henceforth policing will be calm and polite. So Barry goes undercover. Alright so far, except that Barry yellows up as a Chinese stereotype, or to use the strip’s parlance just this once, a Chink. Ok, that does it. Add in the cliché of the Commissioner being more determined to bring in The Scarlet Seal – named for the symbol he stamps on bad guys’ foreheads – than he is actual criminals, and this is one ripe piece of pus demanding squeezing out, but if Wun Cloo is still running…
Interestingly, The Ray’s story in issue 17, which brings back Happy Terrill as if he’d never been missing, let alone dead, is the only one I’ve previously read, in a 1972 100 page Reprint Giant that also featured the Black Condor, already flying in sister title Crack Comics (now there’s a title we won’t be hearing much about reviving).
But at last the man we’ve all been waiting for arrives. Midnight made his debut near the end of issue 18, and my prayers are answered because it’s the ‘funny’ strips that take a dive for him, Archie O’Toole and the despised Won Cloo. It’s credited to Jack Cole from the first page. It’s a pretty perfunctory five pager in which Clark, a spot announcer for Station UXAM doesn’t wear a mask and seems to be known as Midnight when he’s dressed for his day job. This is not Eisner-standard work.
With mask in place, Midnight made it onto the cover parade next time, with a better story, though we’re really not seeing the real Jack Cole art yet. We are seeing those god-awful ‘funnies’ again, including guess who.
Though overall it’s a more entertaining prospect than it was a year ago, Smash, like its four stable-mates, is suffering from the fatal flaw of carrying eleven features each, which means far too little space for far too many things. And far too little attention to what you’re doing, as when Espionage brought back the beautiful villainess Madame Doom, despite having shown her blown to pieces from within.
Issue 21 started with the Ray as usual. Lou Fine was one of the most gracious and accomplished artists of the Golden Age with a wonderfully flowing and delicate line, instantly recognisable for his clear images and lithe figures. Frankly, he’s a hundred times better than the story, though this episode showed a certain premonitary cleverness in positing a would-be Emperor of the Pacific intending to provoke America into war by attacking Hawaii.
It’s hard to assess Midnight at this early stage. Cole’s drawing mostly straight and the stories are bouncy and energetic, but they’re rather more fantastic than the Spirit. I’m not really familiar with the first half of The Spirit’s career, so I don’t know the like to which Midnight may be like. The later Eisner, post-War, was something very different. The Spirit never acquired a sidekick in the form of a talking monkey named Gabby.

Q - Wildfire

As for Magno, I confess I rarely read it, which is down to Paul Gustavson’s art. Like Fine, it’s clear and graceful, and not confined to rigid lay-outs but his figure work on Magno puts me off with its effeminacy. Magno is always skipping around of tiptoes; like a Fotherington-Thomas I expect him to be lisping ‘Hello clouds, hello trees’ all the time. It clashes horribly with the superhero action and I can’t shift my automatic antipathy.
The next issue introduced The Jester, also drawn by Gustavson but in a much more solidified way, with Magno moving elsewhere. This is another one who arrives already in costume and notorious but it’s a bright start and looks potentially good. Wun Cloo was once again missing: dare I hope? Nah…
The ongoing costumed adventurer takeover of the comic was extended in issue 24 as Chic Carter, the reporter, donned a costume to clear himself of murder. He also picked up a sword, being a fencing champion at college (of course he was) and called himself The Sword. Not only that, Wings Wendall caught a costume, whilst Midnight’s popularity was evident in the announcement that his series was to be expanded from five pages to six.
In contrast, a new Police series started in issue 25, Rookie Rankin, along with Wildfire, the series’ first costumed heroine who, when in costume, has red hair down to below her ankles. And Chic Carter, alias or not alias the Sword, made way for them, transferring to first Police Comics (home of Plastic Man) then Military Comics (Blackhawk). The Scarlet Seal was also out, for which heartfelt thanks.
And then, exactly as promised, Midnight hit the cover for the first time, in issue 28, though the Ray continued to hold the premier slot, and next issue he showed why, with a phenomenal art job from Fine that would have been astonishingly good in any era: linework, body language, panel breakdowns, compositions, this was fantastic and, quite frankly, worth the whole damned DVD alone. If this is what Fine’s art was evolving into, roll on further episodes. And I’m getting seriously impressed with Paul Gustavson’s work on The Jester.
The Ray story in issue 31 was much less impressive, suggesting Fine had had less time to work, or possibly couldn’t maintain the intensity for so long, which was supported by the far better, but still not quite top quality episode that came next. And I’d like to make it plain that this extravagant praise is for the art alone.
The attack on Pearl Harbour was reflected in issue 33, with everyone suddenly hot against the caricatural Japanese. It’s no less racial for the time, but very understandable, for which I am forced to give it the pass that Won Cloo will never have. At the same time the European Front was reinforced by the Marksman, a hooded archer and Polish Count undercover as a Nazi Agent. This was achieved by shelving the Invisible Hood.

Q - Midnight

Issue 35 saw Midnight promoted to the first feature, and to nine pages, a reflection of his growing popularity and, after a succession of cartoony Jack Cole covers, the next issue saw a beautifully drawn, dark and moody head shot that belied his every appearance to date. It covered for a moody but ridiculous story about Midnight dying and going to Hell to battle the Devil, but being hooked back by some mysterious old codger who wanted Gabby and Doc’s lives in exchange… There was a new name in the credits for Espionage and Black X, Alex Kotsky replacing ‘Will Erwin’, whilst Wildfire’s costume was abruptly rendered much more modest by joining her bikini top to her high-waist pants (boo).
Modesty only lasted an issue, thankfully, bringing a pleasant little wrinkle when Carol ‘Wildfire’ Martin decided she was fed up of being thought of as just a playgirl and punched out two crooks! Sadly, that was her last appearance. Smash Comics was paring down its features. Old stalwarts were falling by the wayside. Wings Wendall and the Purple Trio both cashed in their chips to leave space for the Yankee Eagle, who was as nondescript as they came, but patriotic in a time of War. And in his second appearance, sheer poison beyond the justification of that War.
Lou Fine had left The Ray, leaving the series moribund. Paul Gustavson left The Jester, dealing a similar blow. Issue 40, a good enough point at which to end this first part, sees the comic in a bad state, with its two catastrophic ‘comedy’ series intact, The Marksman and Yankee Eagle crude rubbish and its two strongest features artistically with their legs cut out from underneath them.
Thankfully, Midnight was going from strength to strength, and slowly taking on a distinctly Spirit-esque spirit. Apart from the obvious visual similarity, which is not that pronounced when viewed through Jack Cole’s cartoonist style, there’s not really been any equivalence between the two features, though I say again that I am comparing different eras, Midnight 1941-3 against The Spirit 1946-50. And Cole’s style is much more kinetic and unrealistic than Eisner’s, and much closer to a pulp-hero/costumed hero crossover. And whereas The Spirit had Ebony White, over whom there is still so much controversy, Midnight has Gabby the Talking Monkey and Doc Wackey, inventor of preposterous machines. Though it’s considerably more lightweight, I do enjoy Midnight, and I look forward to every instalment in the same way that I avoid reading the asinine Wun Cloo.
Next time, we’ll see how things progress in the second half of the series’ life.

The Three Lives of the Phantom Lady


Sometimes, I just act on impulse. There’s a decreasing number of titles or characters in which I’m interested in learning, and hundreds of DVD-Roms of obscure titles from the Golden Age or after, rotating endlessly on eBay but not suggesting I’d get out of the the same amount of fun I’ve been enjoying so far.
I particularly enjoyed the Lady Luck and Black Cat series, at least the solo title version of the latter, and would love to find something equally entertaining and independent minded. So let’s try again with the Phantom Lady.
I’m going into a slightly dubious area of this particular heroine’s history. The Phantom Lady was originally created in the Eisner/Iger Studio for Police Comics 1 (August 1941), published by Quality Comics, making her an exact contemporary of Plastic Man and The Human Bomb. Drawn initially by Arthur Peddy, and then by various artists including Joe Kubert, the Lady was Senator’s daughter Sandra Knight, who fought crime with a wrist-mounted black light projector that effectively made her invisible, and a skimpy yellow bathing suit that made her very noticeable indeed!
Sandra fought the superhero fight until Police Comics 23, whereupon she was taken back by the now Iger-only Studio, believing it held the copyright. In 1947, they licensed Phantom Lady to Fox Feature Syndicate (of no relation to the Murdoch family, this was the company created by Victor Fox that published Wonder Man, the first direct rip-off of Superman). The character later appeared from Ajax, and Charlton (in reprints of Fox stories) before being bought, it was believed, by DC when they acquired Quality’s assets. This was my introduction to the Phantom Lady, in Justice League of America 107, yes, the very issue that reintroduced me to comics after initially growing out of them. I’ve only ever known PL as a DC character in one setting or another, and an ex-Quality asset. And DC have controlled the character ever since, though reprints of Fox material have been published without legal challenge.
The DVD I bought was supposedly of the character’s tenure at Fox. Instead, it consisted of three Archives, covering the Quality and Ajax years, as well as a volume of Extras. So, more comprehensive than I anticipated. That can only be for the good.

PL at Quaity Comics

First up was a long file that reprinted the first twelve Phantom lady stories by Peddy, interspersed with three chapters of a prose story, obviously of much later vintage, outlining Sandra Knight’s background with a loving mother who was also a proficient American Intelligence Agent who committed her daughter to a Parisian Finishing School for the daughters of spies who expected their girls to take after them. Mrs Knight then spent several years out of touch before being confirmed as dying in the Service Of Her Country.
All of this was meant to retrospectively justify Sandra’s capabilities as a super-heroine.
And did they need it. I’ve long been familiar with Sandra’s origin, her striking from the shadows, unseen, to prevent German assassins murdering her father, Senator Knight, but I’m only now learning that this origin was wholly a DC concoction. In Police Comics 1, like so many heroes of the early Forties, The Phantom Lady arrives fully-formed, without explanation.
After some fairly sketchy art on her debut, Peddy quickly firmed up his linework. To modern eyes, PL offends no taste: Sandra Knight is a tall, poised and slim figure, with swept-back raven hair. Her swimsuit is just a swimsuit, and she supplements it with a long green cloak. Bare legs and arms, and shoulders, are the only things to challenge modesty, and when it comes to the form-fitting stuff, it’s not like Sandra, at this stage, is over-endowed in front: very much the Flapper build.
Peddy’s art is clean and stream-lined, but it’s also stiff and immobile. Phantom Lady tends to stand around a lot, looking stately and even in action sequences, Peddy brings little sense of movement. There is no comparison to the wit and style of Lady Luck and certainly not the agility of Black Cat.
Come to that, PL is not the most effective of crime-fighters. Physically, she’s no match for any male crook, unless she can get into a position where she can hit them over the head with her black light flashlight. And in the first dozen issues, she’s knocked out by punches more often than Lady Luck and Black Cat put together over twice the space.
In keeping with the formula, Sandra Knight has a boyfriend, or rather a fiancé in Don Borden, of the Secret Service, though the fact of their engagement is only mentioned every now and then. On the other hand, Don isn’t going around panting after Phantom Lady all the time, the way that radio reporter was Black Cat, or the Captain was with Liberty Belle.
It’s all pleasant stuff, but it’s also undistinguished. There is no formula to the stories but in the other hand there’s little variation either. Be it crooks or saboteurs or assassins, PL gets involved and down they go, with no great effort or tension. However, despite its limitations, Peddy’s art gets better and crisper as he goes on and it’s a real disappointment when he departs after issue 13.

An Arthur Peddy panel


His replacement, believe it or not, is Joe Kubert for the first three issues. I say believe it or not because nothing in the art looks like Kubert. If anything, it appears to be heavily influenced by Jack Cole (who was drawing the Spirit rip-off character, Midnight, as well as Plastic Man). It’s cartoony stuff, as are the stories, though its one plus point is that, after a year of Sandra Knight running around bare-faced in front of her father and her fiance, with her hair brushed back from her forehead, not even Liberty Belle’s Veronica Lake peekaoo cut, he puts her in a full-face yellow mask-cum-veil for the second and third stories.
Frank Borth, more of a veteran, took over art. This was a decidedly mixed blessing, with Borth drawing excellent splash pages, each with its large scale drawing of Sandra or PL, only to offer some distinctly rough art for the remaining five pages of the story.
These are still not particularly individual and when they are it’s not in a good way, as in the one where a crook put away by Senator Knight ten years earlier tries to get revenge by dressing up as the Easter Bunny and leaving time bomb eggs as part of an egg hunt.
More interesting, though still not in the best of ways, was the five part crossover between Police Comics and Feature Comics, or rather between the Phantom Lady and the Spider Widow. It all starts with the Widow’s sidekick, The Raven, turning up in PL’s feature, to help her with the recent spate of attacks on the Senator or Sandra, leading to a criss-crossing between series marked mainly by the two heroines showing catty jealousy of each other over their interest in the Raven. To call it silly is to glorify it.
As for the Spider Widow, whose real identity is society gal and athlete Dianne Grayton, she was unusual for being a heroine with a lovestruck male assistant, the superpower of being able to control black widow spiders, and being a hot, fit woman who dressed up as a hag complete with green full face mask.
This was the only time any Quality Comics characters ever crossed over.
As for PL, she did, for a time, sport a black domino mask that was so small that it looked more like inexpertly applied mascara.
With one last story drawn by Peddy, and one by Rudy Palais, Quality Comics’ Phantom Lady series ended.
The character was not seen for four years, when the Iger Studio licensed her to Fox. This is the truly controversial run of her Golden Age career. For this run, the art was by Matt Baker and was notorious for being very much of the ‘good girl’ type, i.e., scantily clad and busty females in suggestive and erotic poses, the sort of stuff that accelerated the creation of the Comics Code Authority. Well, sobeit. Let’s see what was so ‘good’ about Sandra Knight in the hands of Mr Baker, and just how risque this stuff is in the Twenty-First Century.
There’s more fascinating information in the Archive’s introduction, this time about Fox Features chief, ex-stockbroker Victor Fox. Though the story that Fox was an accountant at Detective Comics Inc. who saw sales figures on Superman and went out to hire offices in his lunch hour is apochryphal, Fox started up his company shortly after Superman debuted, and his first character was the infamous Wonder Man, who was every bit the Superman knock-off the legend has him being, though apparently not quite as against the wish of Will Eisner as the latter made out in later life.
Anyway, Fox had a habit of stiffing his creators that left him facing bankruptcy, only for him to somehow regain solvency and reopen Fox Features in 1945. Two years later, Jerry Iger decided that he owned Phantom Girl after his break with Eisner, and licensed her to Fox.
The Lady, still as Senator’s daughter Sandra Knight with her black light weapon, but now choosing to dress in dark blue instead of yellow – not to mention having discovered some means of at least doubling her bust line whilst in limbo – re-emerged in Phantom Lady 13, the title picking up the numbering of Wotalife Comics. She appeared in two stories in that first issue, credited to Gregory Page, though the second of these was pencilled by Matt Baker.
The immediate impression was of a jauntier, more buoyant art style, a fast paced syory and some egregious lapses in logic in the story-telling, as if vital panels that explained what was going on had somehow been squeezed out of the layout. PL developed an unfortunate habit of getting smashed over the back of her pretty head by the crooks, and given how brightly lit even the night scenes were, it was stranger than ever that nobody recognised her as Sandra Knight, given they both had the same hairstyle.
Three more stories in the next issues, only one of them drawn by Baker who, experts have determined, contributed less to the series than reputation claims. Oddly, his story is the mildest of the three, but already there’s a pattern: freewheeling stories with reduced regard for logic, PL getting knocked out and tied up regularly, the Police alternately arresting her for crimes and misdemeanours then standing back and letting her fade unquestioned when she produces the real villain – and lotsa lotsa leg on display from Sandra and any other female who happens to get into the story.
As well as her own title, Phantom Lady also appeared in All-Top Comics, an anthology title offering Rulah, Jungle Goddess, Blue Beetle, the Dan Garrett version and Jo-Jo, Congo king. Of course, all we get is the Phantom Lady story.
To be honest, this is cheap stuff, formulaic and silly, but the art saves it. It’s quick and vigorous, and both Sandra and her alter ego are drawn attractively. This is decent ‘good girl art’, giving the character an athletic appearance without exaggeration of either the legs or that aforementioned bustline out of realistic proportion. Nor do Baker and the other artists go in for unrealistic contortions to emphasise certain body parts, and shapes, for crude effect.
No, legs are very much on display, both Sandra’s and Phantom Lady’s, the one’s costume involving shorts and the other happy to slip into them often, but there’s a joyful buoyancy to everything, natural poses, and a cheerful innocence to the whole thing.

The infamous cover to PL 17

Matt Baker’s art reaches its apotheosis with the cover of Phantom Lady 17. This is the infamous bondage cover that was seized upon for much condemnation by Frederic Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent. These are different times and we are none of us so innocent about sex and it’s less mainstream variations, but I don’t find it half so offensive as I’m supposed to, even from a feminist-oriented perspective – I mean, she’s hardly encumbered, the ropes are more decoration than anything and nothing’s stopping her whipping her… black light out.
But her bust, neither enhanced nor fettered as the cleavage demonstrates, is at its largest to date.
One black mark and one oddity about the series in this period. The black mark is the pre-Code predilection for casual death. It’s one thing when this happens to a villain, but there are several instances of women being killed, two by strangulation, one of them Sandra Knight’s widowed friend who she was supposed to be helping, who had an on-panel scarf twisted round her neck, and a third by a poison injection.
As for the oddity, this was the splash page of every first story in Phantom Lady itself, which would be printed in black-and-white, overlaid by a monocolour, but the rest of the story was in full colour. Explain that.
In addition to the reprints, the Archive includes three instalments of a fan-fic by the late Nigel Cantwell, plus notes as to where he saw his efforts leading. Cantwell was trying to create a binding mythos that drew all the disparate Phantom Ladies, including DC’s much later Dee Tyler into a single continuity that established the Quality Comics and Fox Features versions as two different women, and Dee Tyler as a member of the Knight family. It’s interesting stuff, but only for a moment. Like all such things it combines the need to create a considerable number of connections and situations with no founding in the comics and the overpowering urge to tie too many thing together in the grand ol’ tradition of a Roy Thomas retcon. I hate Roy Thomas retcons.

A Fox page

But the Phantom Lady’s second life was running short and there was a sign in issue 22, when Sandra Knight, in order to flush out the crooks, got Don Borden to impersonate PL. Yes, the Lady’s costume, complete with lustrous black wig but, quite obviously, no other… qualification. Add to that the conclusion of the story in which PL’s Black Light Ray is completely useless against a Robot Man, except that in some unshown, unexplained and obviously unthought-out way, it… does. Don’t ask me what it does because we’re already on the last page of the story so you’re just going to have to take everybody’s word for it.
It’s that same old thing: the series is heading for cancellation – this is 1949 by now – and the stupid stuff arrives on cue. Though, to be fair, the same issue’s story, in which PL substitutes for half the American squad at the 1948 Olympics, saw her winning everything (including the boxing!) by record margins, was commendably short of unimaginative images of dear old London Town in the Nineteenth Century.
There was a much more egregious bondage cover on issue 23, and I’m going to have to say this once and it goes here, but Phantom Lady has her big tits thrust out in virtual profile. Wertham would have been on much stronger grounds with this one, and it’s not even the much-maligned Matt Baker.
The last story in the last issue was oddly appropriate, in that it featured Phantom Lady apparently dying and returning from the dead. In reality, all that happened was that her car went off a bridge into the river, there was a surprisingly realistic turn when her cape caught in the car’s mechanism, only for the momentum to be lost when her entire costume got ripped off by a riverboat’s propellers. Fortunately, and in defiance of every panel in which she’d been drawn to date, Sandra happened to have on a frilly bra and panties underneath which, being naturally more adhesive to human skin, were not ripped off, or disturbed and showing the slightest sliver of additional skin at all. Boo, hiss.
But that wasn’t entirely the end, for one final story appeared in All-Top Comics 17, cover dated May 1949, and Sandra accompanies Senator Knight on a mission to South Korea and Phantom Lady overcomes the Monkey Cult.
And then there was the Ajax run. This didn’t last long, coming in before the superhero properly caught hold again. The introduction pins it all on the initially fantastically successful ‘Superman’ TV show, which debuted in 1952 and spurred a number of companies, most notably Atlas (another from Martin Goodman’s stable of companies), to see if a revival would work.
Ajax came relatively late to the party, when the writing was on the wall. Apparently, the company published a total of 16 superhero comics, turning to Jerry Iger’s shop for material, and Iger turning to his old characters, including Phantom Lady, who he still claimed to own. Nobody challenged him, but then again both Quality and Fox were dead and gone.

PL at Ajax: spot the difference?

Phantom Lady turned out to be Ajax’s biggest success, in terms of longevity at least, her third series running for four issues. It began with issue 5, taking over the numbering of a short-lived titla called Linda, before being followed up with issues 2-4. So, in three series at three different companies, there never once was a Phantom Lady no. 1. You expect sense? This is a blog about comics.
The guy behind Ajax was Robert Farrell (born Isadore Katz), who’d been around since the Forties and who had worked with Victor Fox, and he was the last publisher to use the Iger Shop for his comics.
The difference is obvious from the first splash page, the Phantom Lady swinging into action in her usual manner, Black Light Ray at the ready. It’s still the blue and red costume, but the top is subtly different: no cleavage. In fact, it’s up to the neck, down to the waist and all the way round the back. If you’re into bare arms, you can still get your rocks off, though.
And only a page or so in, the panel where Sandra Knight is stripping down to her PL costume is also missing: the Senator’s daughter will henceforth only change costume offscreen. This was Dr Wertham’s time. The Comics Code Authority was on its way and Ajax would not be caught napping.
Though Phantom Lady was still wearing something proudly underwired under that drab and all-covering top.

PL in action at Ajax

The Code actually kicked in for issue 3, which was indistinguishable from its predecessors in style and tone, but was distinguishable for it’s new form: both stories were re-runs of stories from the Fox era, the second being a near word-for-word repeat of the Korea story from All-Top 17 but completely re-drawn. If it were meant as a time and effort-saving exercise, as the use of repeated stories in this short run indicates, the complete re-draw could have saved absolutely nothing.
Before her final issue, Phantom Lady popped up in an issue of Ajax’s Wonder Boy that was distinguished only by her captor ordering her to be gagged and her turning up next panel completely gagless.
The final issue was made-up of two more re-treads and an inconsistency. In the first, the unrevealing top was accompanied by shorts extending practically all the way to the knee, though in the back-up, which was a re-do of the one in which Sandra’s friend Betty is strangled whilst Miss Knight is off changing into her costume, we get the usual delightful expanse of thigh. You can’t show women being strangled with scarves any more but don’t worry, Betty still dies, only this time it’s of a weak heart. Which somehow makes it all the more callous.
Yet another re-tread, in the next issue of Wonder Boy, was Phantom Lady’s last public appearance, but appropriately enough, her last story was a phantom, an unpublished black-and-white seven pager that did not appear until 1999. And it was yet another retread.
One final curiosity to mention: Phantom Lady’s back-up story in her Ajax debut issue 5 might have been a new story for Sandra Knight but it was actually an edited and re-written version of a wartime story starring plucky girl secret agent, Spitfire Sanders, originally appearing in Spitfire Comics 132, much of which art was re-used with Sandra replacing the other blue-black-haired female. As a bonus, the Archive finishes with the original story.
And that really was that. The brief Ajax run can’t hold a candle to either of its predecessors and is mostly a waste of time, but it completes the picture. After this, Sandra ‘Phantom Lady’ Knight would not be seen again, this time from DC Comics, who believed her, rightly or wrongly, to be among the assets they had acquired from Quality Comics. Phantom Lady, reverting to her original yellow and green costume, reappeared as I said in Justice League of America 107.
In comparison to the trilogy of lady-heroes I referred to at the start of this essay, Lady Luck, Black Cat and Liberty Belle, Phantom Lady is clearly inferior by quite a degree. But whilst the vigour and unashamed good-girl art of the Fox Features version is clearly not respectable, the sense of underlying fun in the stories is well-matched with the art, and though Phantom Lady may have been shocking in 1947-9, there’s nothing to disturb even a maiden aunt in 2020, and by our standards, Sandra is positively innocent.
So I’ll count this as a welcome impulse in the end. What shall we look to next?

Back in yellow: at DC by Dave Stevens

When Luck was a Lady


Brenda Banks and Lady Luck

Never say ‘complete’. I have further wanderings in the Golden Age to come, with several others of DC’s old titles, but before that, I am going off-reservation a little with a look at the life of Klaus Nordling’s Lady Luck, aka society girl Brenda Banks.
This series is distinct from others I have gone through in two ways. Firstly, although most of the stories are taken from Smash Comics, published by Quality Comics, the series originally appeared in, and was reprinted from The Spirit Section, the informal title for a 16-page weekly comic book tabloid insert distributed as part of twenty American Sunday newspapers.
The Spirit Section was dominated by The Spirit, of course, with two four page features to round it off, Bob Powell’s ‘Mr Mystic’ and, from 1940, Lady Luck. Eisner created and designed the veiled crimefighter and wrote the first two stories before turning the feature over to Dick French to write for artist Chuck Mazoujian. The feature was later taken over by Nicholas Viscardi (better known later as Nick Cardy), all working under the house name Ford Davis. Script and art was taken over in 1942 by Klaus Nordling, who signed his own name to the series. The series was cancelled in 1946 but was only absent for two months until brought back for seven months by Fred Schwab.
So immediately we’re looking at a character created to entertain a more adult audience, a newspaper audience that would likely not let their children read comic books but which would allow them to access the ‘Sunday Funnies’.
The other difference is that, with the exception of some very late seven and eleven page stories created by Nordling for Quality Comics at the very end of her career, Lady Luck only ever appeared in four page stories. And four pagers impose a certain limited style on a character.
So far as I am aware, no origin story was ever written. Irish-American Society girl Brenda Banks, a beautiful young blonde whose father owned a very successful mine, just appeared fully-formed as non-powered crime-fighter Lady Luck, an intelligent, wide-awake, athletic young woman with a well-developed talent for judo and the odd telling punch. As Lady Luck, Brenda wore a short-sleeved, knee-length green dress with a wide hem, a short, waist-length cape, a flat-crowned, wide-brimmed hat, and gloves of the same shade (the gloves had four-leaf clover designs on their back and in the beginning, the Lady’s hat was hung round the brim with luck symbols).

A close-up

And if you thought Denny Colt’s blue domino mask was an insufficient disguise, Brenda Banks relied on a gauzy pale-green veil ‘concealing’ her nose, mouth and jaw: hey, if Clark Kent gets away with it with glasses and a kiss-curl, who are we to question Miss Banks’ methods?
Unlike previous DVD-Roms I’ve enjoyed, my Lady Luck concentrates upon the one feature. There are no whole issues of Smash Comics with characters like Eisner’s self-rip-off, Midnight, to read, just Lady Luck. The DVD-Rom contains just five files, the first of which holds one Nordling story from the First American Series Lady Luck book published in the Eighties and the rest Nordling stories from Smash. There’s no real continuity between stories – at four pages there’s no room for it – though some tales are clearly set out in sequence.
The Lady has a surprisingly large supporting cast. These include her oversized chauffeur, Peecolo, who talks in an ethnic Italian, another occasional assistant, the jockey-sized Pinky, and her father’s Swedish maid Helga, all of whom know her double-identity, and the weedy impoverished European aristocrat Count DiChange, forever seeking to propose to either Brenda (for her money) or Lady Luck (for her veiled beauty – hey, there’s no veil across those legs) but somehow never getting the chance.
Later on, the Count gets identified as Raoul and is trusted with Brenda’s alter-ego.
There are of course others, especially among the Police and the women’s auxilliary Lady Luck Brigade, who frequently see both Brenda’s identities, but somehow no-one ever twigs, not even in one adventure where she operates without hat or veil.
The first of the files contains exclusively Nordling stories. As I said, they’re all four pages long, which doesn’t really allow for discussion of any single story or stories. But the stories are fun and indeed frequently amusing. Nordling’s art is clear and simple, realistic in so far as Lady Luck is concerned, but bordering on cartoon caricature with almost everybody else. He’s less detailed than Eisner but he adopts a similar approach to naturalistic body positioning within the determined comic.
As these stories were being created during the Second World War, the hostilities, and the threats of both German and Japanese take up a considerable portion of Lady Luck’s time, alongside the criminals she so regularly foils. A couple of times, her dual-identity is threatened with exposure, necessitating complex plans to throw the would be exposer off the trail, especially the persistent ‘Colonel’ Smath.

A splash page

In general, the page limitation keeps everything brief and brisk, and certainly Nordling can get a far more entertaining story out of four pages that Green Arrow and Aquaman ever got out of six, but it’s true to say that he miscalculates several times and has to chop stories a bit confusingly short. There were one or two stories where I was left wondering what was supposed to have happened, and the first ‘Colonel’ Smath story ended without an ending, as if there were supposed to be extra pages to complete it.
I’ve said previously that most Golden Age comedy strips don’t amuse me, ‘Scribbly’ honourably excepted. I should also have excepted The Spirit from that generalisation and the same goes for Lady Luck, which had me giggly at its effervescent presentation many times. And I’d like to mention that that in 154 pages, there wasn’t the slightest suggestion from anyone, least of all the Police, that the Lady shouldn’t be doing this because she was a broad. In the 1940s, no less.
The second file contained a further few four pagers from Smash Comics but was mainly comprised of the five issues of Lady Luck. This was a continuation of Smash, picking up its numbering after its cancellation with issue 85, for five more issues entirely devoted to the Lady in Green. These were brand new adventures created by Nordling, consisting of seven to eleven pages, but the surprise was that, though Nordling kept to the same formula, the extra space took the pace way down, encouraged some stories to get too complicated and was fatal to the laughter.
The art was still of the same quality and you’d happily look at both Brenda and the Lady, but nothing could match the antic idiosyncrasy of the classic four page short.
The third file goes back to the beginning of the series, reprinted from actual ‘Spirit Sections’. It’s credited to ‘Ford Davis’, and it’s a horse of a different colour to the classic Nordling period. Lady Luck’s costume is subtly different, including a tight, wrap-around jacket and a longer cape, extending down to her pert bottom, but the biggest difference is that the Lady wears no veil to blur her features, and several people do comment upon her strong resemblance to heiress Brenda Banks.
More importantly, the element of humour is missing. This Lady Luck may well be bright and effervescent but she and her stories are quite serious, even after Viscardi introduces Peecolo, courtesy of Brenda’s parents return from a long holiday that’s enabled her to operate freely, without concern for her comings and goings from home.
The first couple of available stories show her coming up against the Police in the form of Chief ‘Handsome’ Hardy Moore and Sergeant Feeny. To them, she’s an outlaw, presumably because she’s a vigilante, whereas she never does anything crooked, just breaks the rules to bring in crooks and save people.
Almost immediately, Lady Luck goes globe-trotting, endless exotic adventures abroad, usually involving her having to swim for it once a week, albeit with no detrimental affect on her hair. Scripter French manages to fit his stories into four brief pages without strain: indeed, he could have wrapped several of them up in three without being too simplistic.
Art-wise, there’s none of Nordling’s tendencies towards Eisnerian cartooning: characters stay within ordinary human form and Brenda/the Lady are drawn in a slightly attenuated fashion that emphasises their slimness and height.
As America enters the War, Brenda’s father Bruce is sent to south America for his Government. His daughter accompanies him, as does Lady Luck (‘gosh, you do look like Brenda Banks!’) who gets appointed head of security!

The penultimate issue

It’s not until the fourth file, again taken from original Sunday pages, that Klaus Nordling arrives to partner ‘Ford Davis’ on 22 March 1942 and so does Lady Luck’s veil. And Nordling’s semi-comic approach is there fully-formed, in a first panel claiming that this page is secret and is not to be read. The difference is delightful. Admittedly, there’s some overlap with the Smash Comics reprints and the stories are by no means continuous – Nordling’s debut sees Brenda Banks ‘killed’ and Lady Luck wondering how to take advantage of the possibilities, but the next story is three months later, so no, I don’t know.
The final file was more from the Sundays, but only as far as very early 1946, short of Lady Luck’s cancellation, and nothing from Fred Schwab’s coda-like run. A pity, it would have been good to have a representative from every stage of the series.
So not a conventional kind of look, with reference to any stories, because the character doesn’t suit that kind of approach. Nor has Lady Luck been revived at any time after the Forties, except for a one-off appearance, at the hands of Geoff Johns, which I wouldn’t wish on any innocent character, in a one-off Phantom Stranger issue during the New 52, in which she became of supernatural character. No, I say, no, you blackguard!
No, reading these stories as they accumulated, I thought I’d like to see Lady Luck as a TV series, period-set to enable the grotesques to appear without getting too heavy, and some level-headed actress to play Brenda Banks and Lady Luck dead-straight. If they could capture Nordling’s tone, it could be terribly fun, like Tales of the Gold Monkey always was. Lady Luck may well be a forgotten and minor character of the Golden Age, but she’s a lot less deserving of that oblivion than many others of the time.

Of Marvels and Miracles and The Original Writer


Marvelman

They’ve been selling it in a plastic bag for the last year but finally, over thirty years after it first appeared, all of Alan Moore’s early and legendary Marvelman series is once again available to read, for the first time in over two decades. The publication of Miracleman 16 concludes the reprints finally released by Marvel Comics, not a single one of which mentions writer Alan Moore anywhere.
There’s an explanation of that, as well as the fact that Marvelman is being reprinted as Miracleman in the first place, which makes another interesting tale for those book readers who just don’t appreciate how different a publishing industry the comics are.
To understand the background to this story, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning and to Superman, the original superhero, the ultimate inspiration for all that have followed. But there are many whose creativity lies in copying what’s hot as closely as possible and hoping to score sales off the back of that. One of DC’s earliest tasks was taking legal action against Fox Comics over their Wonder Man, a very blatant copy of the Man of Steel.
Unfortunately, DC were not always punctilious in pursuing only those who ripped off Superman. Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel was superficially similar – super-strong, super-tough, able to fly – but in every other respect The Big Red Cheese was a completely different character from the Man of Steel, as the very nicknames neatly illustrate. However, Captain Marvel outsold Superman by nearly two-to-one, so DC’s legal department trained its eyes on Fawcett and started an infamous copyright action.
The case dragged on for the best part of a decade, kept alive by DC’s greater financial muscle. In the end, it was settled in the Fifties by Fawcett’s withdrawal: having taken a cold, hard look at the market, and understood that superheroes and comics were past their peak and sales were diminishing, Fawcett decided it was no longer worth putting in more money to protect a character whose commercial value would only diminish further. Fawcett took Captain Marvel and his supporting cast of Captain Marvel Junior, Mary Marvel et al, out of publication.
What seemed to be a simple, commercial decision had unexpected consequences elsewhere. In Britain, L. Miller & Son were onto a good thing in publishing black & white reprints of Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, and were understandably disturbed to lose the source of their profits. They hired artist/writer Mick Anglo to come up with a solution, which consisted of a somewhat anglicised but basically direct rip-off of the Marvel family.
Instead of boy radio-announcer Billy Batson, transforming into Captain Marvel by speaking the magic word ‘Shazam’, newsboy Micky Moran was given the ‘key harmonic’ of the Universe by scientist Guntag Borghelm and by speaking the word ‘Kimota’ would transform into Marvelman. Similarly, crippled newsboy Freddie Freeman, who could transform into CM Junior by saying Captain Marvel’s name, became Post Office messenger boy Dicky Dauntless and Young Marvelman, by speaking Marvelman’s name. The changeover was, I understand, trailed over several weeks of stories that the Marvel Family were so well-known as Marvelmen that in future they would be known by that title.
I have always wondered how Anglo and his studio handled the third change, from Billy’s sister Mary Batson saying ‘Shazam’ and becoming Mary Marvel, into Johnny Bates saying ‘Marvelman’ and becoming Kid Marvelman…
Marvelman sold well for L. Miller & Son, an early and unusual example of superheroes doing well in Britain, until the series was cancelled in 1963. In a seemingly unrelated incident, a couple of years before that cancellation, a small-time comic book line that had started to have a great deal of success with titles such as Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man, changed its name to Marvel Comics.
We now jump forward almost two decades. Marvel, in 1967, created their own character named Captain Marvel, and trademarked the name. In 1974, DC acquired the rights to the original Marvel Family. They could use Captain Marvel’s name, but not on the cover of any comics due to Marvel’s trademark, so the Captain was reintroduced for the first of many, many attempts under the title Shazam. And in England, a young, up-and-coming comics writer from Northampton, Alan Moore, was interviewed about what he would like to write in the future, and spoke of wanting to revive Marvelman, and reshape him for the Eighties, starting with the idea of the superhero having forgotten his magic word.
Enter Dez Skinn, comics fan, editor, shopowner and entrepreneur
Skinn had recently ended a spell as editor at Marvel Comics UK, where he’d tried to introduce a strong element of locally produced and derived titles, instead of merely heading up a reprint shop re-formatting monthly American stories for the weekly British market. Skinn wanted to parlay that experience, and his contacts with British talent, into a new venture, Warrior. This was intended to be a monthly black & white anthology magazine featuring the best of British talent writing and drawing series for very low page rates, but which they would own, and would profit from resales in America and elsewhere around the world.
In the absence of any of his contacts actually wanting to touch Marvelman, Skinn, who didn’t know Alan Moore, had the interview shown him by Steve Moore, and offered Alan Moore the chance to write Marvelman. Moore accepted, enthusiastically, believing at that time that Skinn had acquired the rights to the character.
Warrior was an immediate critical success with Moore, writer of two major series (the other being V for Vendetta) an instant star.
Initially, Marvelman was drawn by Garry Leach who, along with Moore and Skinn – as Quality Comics – enjoyed a one-third share of the rights to the character. However, Leach’s meticulous art took too long for him to produce AND earn a living wage, so art duties, and a share of the rights, were transferred to Moore’s fellow-Northamptonian Alan Davies, already collaborating with Moore at Marvel UK on Captain Britain.
All was well until Skinn came up with the idea of a Marvelman Special, in which four new pages by Moore and Davis framed the reprinting of a number of Fifties stories, alongside Skinn’s unsuccessful ‘Big Ben, The Man with No Time for Crime’, whom Moore had woven into his first Marvelman Book.
The special drew the attention of Marvel UK’s lawyers, who promptly wrote a cease-and-desist letter demanding an undertaking that Quality would not produce any more stories featuring a character who was so obviously trying to operate under the benefit of Marvel’s good name.

Miracleman. Spot the Difference

This was an issue that had been waiting to happen. Legally, Quality et al were in the right. Marvelman had been created twenty years before Marvel UK and five years before Marvel in the US, and every story printed had carried a legal disclaimer that the character was based on the 1956 L Miller & Son character and had nothing to do with Marvel Comics. This cut no ice with the lawyers, whose main – and telling – argument was based on the fact that Marvel had considerably more money to conduct a lawsuit than did Quality. It was the old Captain Marvel case over again.
Skinn reprinted his correspondence with the lawyers in the pages of Warrior, from which Marvelman had disappeared abruptly, two-thirds of the way through Moore’s second Book. It was not merely legal caution that kept the character out of Warrior’s last five issues, however, for there were other factors.
One was that Moore and Davis had had a terminal falling out, as a result of which they have not spoken to each other to this day. Moore, who has always acted on his principles, no matter how much the commercial cost to himself, was already aggrieved at Marvel over their bullying approach to Marvelman, when Marvel US reprinted a couple of the Dr Who strips Moore had written for Marvel UK, without his consent.
It was an innocent move by Marvel, in the sense that they had assumed that they had bought all rights to the stories, as would have been the case under American law. They had failed to take into account that, under British law, they had actually only bought first reproduction rights and thus needed Moore’s approval for reprints. Moore responded by refusing consent for Captain Britain being reprinted in America. Davis, who had no such political concerns, was infuriated by the loss of income, hence the irreparable rift.
The second, and more serious long-term factor was that Moore had learned that Skinn had lied to him when he had claimed to have acquired the rights to Marvelman. All he had done was to pay Mick Anglo for whatever rights he held, without making any attempt to determine the provenance of L Miller & Son’s rights post-bankruptcy. An infuriated Moore refused to speak to Skinn again at having been dragged into an unethical position.
By the time things had reached this point, an agreement had been reached over reprinting Marvelman in America, and in colour. The issue of the name had already been the topic of much debate. DC passed, not willing to offer their rivals that amount of provocation, Marvel had passed because Jim Shooter couldn’t allow a minor, and English, character to carry a name that made him a virtual personification of the entire company.
Moore was still hopeful of retaining the Marvelman name, having the legal right behind him, even if it meant following DC’s example with Captain Marvel, and publishing under a series title of Kimota. But in Marvel Comics’ homeland, with their overwhelming domination of the market, no-one was willing to take the risk, and eventually a deal was done with California’s Eclipse Comics to publish Miracleman.
(The irony of that was that Marvel already had claims to the name Miracleman, courtesy of Alan Moore. During Moore’s run on Captain Britain he had included a brief scene on an alternate Earth whose heroes were gathered to be slaughtered by the Fury: these were mostly based on classic boys’ comics heroes of the Sixties, but one of the victims was Miracleman…)
The Eclipse series was progressing satisfactorily until Moore and Davis’s flare-up. Editor Cat Yronwode arranged for the art to be taken over by Chuck Beckum (now better known as Chuck Austen), but his stiff, inexpressive art was quickly found inadequate and Rick Veitch, one of Moore’s collaborators on Swamp Thing, took over until the end of Book 2.
The third, and from Moore’s viewpoint, final book was to be drawn by another of Moore’s Swamp Thing artists, John Totleben. His art was superb, a complete contrast to everything that had gone before it for a six part story that was itself a complete contrast to everything that had gone before it, but Totleben had been diagnosed with a degenerative retinal condition that slowed his work down to less than a crawl.
Moore refused to countenance dropping Totleben, and the end of his run was published on an erratic schedule that included a twelve-month gap between the final two issues.
Having completed his story, in a most singular fashion that all but closed off the possibility of any further stories, Moore passed his rights in Marvelman over to his successor, Neil Gaiman, whose plans called for three six issue stories, titled successively ‘The Golden Age’, ‘The Silver Age’ and ‘The Dark Age’, all drawn by his frequent collaborator, the versatile Mark Buckingham.
Eclipse reprinted all but one of Moore’s various Marvelman/Miracleman stories in three Graphic Novels, planning to do the same for Gaiman’s books. And indeed ‘The Golden Age’ appeared.
And then it all went wrong again. Eclipse co-owners Dean Mullaney and Cat Yronwode separated, the company went into bankruptcy. One issue of ‘The Silver Age’ had been published, another pencilled, but just as after L. Miller & Son had crashed, the rights to Miracleman went into a legal limbo.
And Miracleman all but vanished.
A limited number of the Graphic Novels had been published, but there were no new copies, and those that appeared, on e-Bay and the like, went for crazy prices. One of Moore’s fundamental series had vanished, as if it had never been published, an ironic reversal of his situation with Watchman, whose grief was that it was never out of print.
Enter Todd MacFarlane. MacFarlane had made his name as a freewheeling and extremely popular artist on Spider-Man. But the rough-hewn MacFarlane had a deep entrepreneurial streak and subsequently led a half dozen of his equally popular artists into an independent venture, Image Comics, which, in its early days, pushed DC down into third place in the industry.
MacFarlane’s comics, and Image’s, were flashy and splashy, with intensely detailed art that the kids loved, but they were heavily criticised for their lack of story-telling. MacFarlane responded by inviting four writers to contribute guest issues: Moore, Gaiman, Dave Sim and Frank Miller. Gaiman, on the understanding that he would retain rights to any new character he created, contributed the demon-hunting warrior angel, Angela. But MacFarlane subsequently claimed that the contract was a standard Work-Made-For-Hire agreement, and he had all the rights to Angela.
This stand-off became relevant when MacFarlane picked up the remaining Eclipse assets in a bankruptcy sale and made known his intention to bring Miracleman into his ongoing series, Spawn. Indeed, Mike Moran appeared but, when the issue with the planned debut of Miracleman came round, he had mutated into Man of Miracles.

The Original Writer

This was down to Gaiman challenging MacFarlane’s claim to any rights in Miracleman.
Another extended legal issue followed. Gaiman tried to negotiate a deal whereby he would relinquish his claim on Angela in return for MacFarlane withdrawing any claim to Miracleman but despite many efforts, that didn’t. Gaiman even formed the company Miracles & Marvels as a vehicle to fight for and gather in all the rights, and wrote his two extremely popular Marvel series,  1602 and Eternals to finance the battle.
In the end, it was Skinn’s admission that he had never even tried to investigate, yet alone acquire Miller’s rights in the first place that exploded MacFarlane’s claims, based upon the complete illegal usage of Marvelman throughout all those years
At long last, the way was open to bring Miracleman back. In 2009, Gaiman announced a partnership with Marvel Comics to reprint and make available once again all of Moore’s works and, all this time later, allow himself and Buckingham to finish their story. Gathering together all the legal interests took some time, but in January 2014, Marvel began the first of its Miracleman reprints. Digitally restored art, new colouring, background materials, original art, features, even Mick Anglo stories and serials from the Fifties.
Out of nothing but nostalgia, I began to buy it. I already had the complete Warrior series, and all the Eclipse comics that weren’t just reprint, but I wanted the enjoyment again
Each issue is credited to ‘The Original Writer’. This is at Alan Moore’s insistence: he has not attempted to prevent publication in any way, but no longer wishes to be associated with any series that he doesn’t own. His name is nowhere upon the new Miracleman, and any payment due to him as writer goes upon his instructions to Mick Anglo, as the ultimate creator whose rights have been so badly infringed for many years.
It’s not the first time Moore has insisted that his name be taken off old work, published in the mainstream comics industry and in which he does not have ownership, and not the first time he has, as a matter of principle, refused income from his old works. It’s easily understandable that, after everything that has happened, he should look back on his Marvelman work as not only apprentice work, full of imperfections, but also as something that carries a bad taste with it, but it is an honest shame that he should not receive proper credit for what was, in its time, and even now, superior and highly entertaining work.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1973


Justice League of America 107, “Crisis on Earth-X!”/Justice League of America 108, “Thirteen against the Earth!” Written by Len Wein, art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Dick Giordano (inks), edited by Julius Schwartz.


For months, the Justice League and Justice Society have been working on developing Transmatter Cubes, to get around the fact that they can usually only meet up at one specific period each year. Now the machine is ready for its first testing with human subjects: Batman, Green Arrow and the Elongated Man will jump to Earth-2, Superman, Doctor Fate and the Sandman will make the reverse journey.
The Red Tornado is still pleading to be allowed to take part, to find out if he can ever return to Earth-2. (He was not killed in issue 102: in only the previous issue, the JLA discovered that the Tornado had actually been blown through the Vibrational Barrier into Earth-1, where he found himself prevented from crossing back: he had been used by his creator, T.O. Morrow against the Justice League, for which purpose Morrow had carved the Tornado a human face. When the Tornado had helped defeat his creator again, he was rewarded with Justice league membership).However, as the Transmatter Cube has not yet been tested on androids, the Tornado is still to be excluded.
The heroes line up for the simultaneous experiment. Green Arrow wants them to hurry up: he’s standing in a draft. In an airtight satellite ? mocks the Atom. When the Cubes are activated, the two sets of heroes disappear from their native Earths. But they do not arrive at their destinations.
The sextet arrive on a hitherto unknown Earth, which will be known as Earth-X. The cause for their diversion reveals himself: it is the Red Tornado who, desperate to try to get home, has whirled himself into invisibility and stowed away in the Earth-1 Transmatter Cube. Except that his whirlings have upset the delicate workings of the Cube and deposited them somewhere unknown.
The septet’s musing about how to contact their friends and get home are interrupted by the shock appearance – on American streets! – of a platoon of German soldiers, in Nazi uniforms, accompanying a futuristic tank.
The Germans attack, the first tank shell crumpling on Superman2’s chest. Doctor Fate responds with a magic battering ram, but something on this world causes his magic to run awry, and the ram floors Superman instead. Then the Germans fire off gas shells, which knock the heroes out.
But as they slide into unconsciousness, they hear the German’s exclaiming with fear at the arrival of the Freedom Fighters.
These are six heroes formerly published in the Forties at Quality Comics: The Ray, The Black Condor, the Human Bomb, Doll Man, Phantom Lady and Uncle Sam. These newcomers mop up the fearful Nazis and spirit the JLA/JSA to their hidden headquarters, behind a Nazi propaganda poster.
Once the heroes recover, Uncle Sam explains the position on this Earth. When the President (Roosevelt, F.D.) suffered his fatal heart attack in 1944, the balance of Government swung the wrong way. By the time the US had the Bomb, so too did Germany, and neither dared use it. The war entered a stalemate, dragging on into the mid-Sixties. Many more people died, including the Blackhawks, and Plastic Man. Finally, the German’s invented some form of Mind Control machine, ending the war in their favour. For some unknown reason, the Freedom Fighters are immune to the device, and they continue the battle from underground.
Of course, the newcomers volunteer their aid, despite Black Condor’s doubts as to their bona fides. Doctor Fate’s magic, used cautiously, shows the assembled heroes the whereabouts of three concealed Mind Control Stations: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Mount Fujiyama in Japan and Mount Rushmore in America. Leaving the Red Tornado behind, so he doesn’t get in the way, the heroes split into three teams of four to go out and bring down each Station.
In Paris, Batman, Doctor Fate, the Ray and the Human Bomb mount their attack. The Ray flies to the observation platform and downs the guards but is in danger of being overwhelmed by their reinforcements when Doctor Fate, carrying the Human Bomb, swoops down on them, whilst Batman, scaling the outside of the Tower, frightens the life out of them.
Once inside, the quartet are confronted by an intelligent machine that makes monster opponents that neutralise each hero. However, they quickly switch, and defeat each other’s opponents, before turning to the machine. It then proceeds to override their nervous systems, paralysing them. The menace is averted – but only for a moment as the heroes, walking like automatons, march upon it and destroy it.
No-one feels better for it. It seems all three machines must be destroyed to free Earth-X from the Nazi horror.
Back on Earths 1 and 2, the Justice League and Justice Society are unable to locate their missing members. What if they have been transmitted… nowhere?
End of part 1.


After a short recap by Uncle Sam, we turn to Superman, Green Arrow, the Phantom Lady and Doll Man in Japan. The locals are filled with shame at having been subjugated by their one-time allies. The Mind Control Station is hidden in the centre of Fujiyama’s crater: the heroes attack from different points, but the machine responds by setting off an underwater earthquake that threatens to destroy all Japan, forcing Superman to break off and combat that. The Machine, which has apparently absorbed the lessons learned from its Paris counterpart, theorises that the greatest threat is gone, but the remaining trio come up with a plan.
Green Arrow bombards the machine with a flurry of arrows. It is contemptuous of their lack of effect, until its voice starts to slur and fail, and it ceases to work. This is down to Doll Man who, under cover of all those arrows, had slipped inside and screwed around with its wiring.
The final quartet, Sandman, Elongated Man, Black Condor and Uncle Sam, have gone to Mount Rushmore, which had had a new head added to the mountain, that of Hitler. They bust through the Nazi guards but somehow find the machine impervious to their every assault. That is, until Elongated Man works out that the bird hovering overhead throughout all the fighting is not natural, but a robot projecting a mirage.
The real machine is hidden inside Hitler’s head, affording Uncle Sam the pleasure of punching Hitler out and destroying the last machine.
Everyone returns to Freedom Fighter headquarters, dispirited and perplexed that nothing seems to have changed, that the force powering the Mind Control of Earth-X hasn’t been destroyed. But the visiting heroes then accuse the Freedom Fighters of having taken control of it, with the intention of ruling the world for themselves.
A fight starts between the two sides, the Freedom Fighters grimly aware that it is the machine’s energies that have now perverted their allies. Only the Red Tornado, standing aside, is logical enough to determine that there must be a fourth, Master Mind Control Station.
He sets off through the atmosphere, trying to find it, and discovers it in space, a satellite base. Inside, Hitler himself welcomes him, attempts to suborn him, but the enraged Tornado unleashes a punch that knocks Hitler’s head off, literally: he is nothing but a robot himself, a creation of the Master Machine, which has replaced all the Nazi hierarchy and taken control of the planet itself.
The Tornado fights back against the assault on himself, and his whirlings are sufficient to disrupt the gyroscopic balance of the satellite. Uncontrollable, it falls out of orbit, crashing in flames in the ocean far below, but not before the Red Tornado retrieves something.
The menace is over and Earth-X is free at last, but the JLA/JSA septet are stuck here. That is, until the Red Tornado unveils the device which allowed the four Mind Control machines to communicate together. This is hastily adapted to send out a signal that the relieved Justice League and Justice Society can home in on, enabling their missing members to go home.
* * * * *
The 1973 team-up is second only to that of 1965 in its importance in my eyes. The 1965 team-up of these introduced me to the Justice Society of America, but this team-up reintroduced me to comics, after a three-year absence of having grown out of them. Considering just how many comics I have bought, read and written about, this is one of the most significant events of my life.
Wein’s approach is still focussed onto the Gardner Fox tradition, which made this story easy for me to appreciate how much comics – or DC at least – had moved on in my absence: I had barely been exposed to anything but Gardner Fox when it came to the annual rite: the sole exception was the second half of O’Neil’s 1969 effort.
It’s fast, it’s brash, it’s a simply story told linearly, with its focus upon the heroes using their powers, yet with the added element of personality: Fox might have had the Golden Age Superman weighing in against Nazi soldiers, but he would never have had him say, “Ratzi, I cut my baby teeth on punks like you!”
The influence of the previous year’s inclusion of a third super-team was quickly felt. Wein had intended that to be a one-off, a salute to the double-anniversary, but Schwarz demanded another third force: the previous year’s anniversary had sold like crazy, and Schwarz’s first principle was to give the readers what they wanted.
So Wein had to cast about for an equivalent team, but ended up having to invent his own. It’s a perfect example of a story creating itself by necessity and logic from an initial element.
The six heroes gathered together as the Freedom Fighters had never previously teamed up, but they were all heroes from the Forties who had been published by Quality Comics, and who had subsequently been acquired by DC, alongside better known and more famous characters such as the Blackhawks, and Plastic Man. They fit Schwarz’s bill. Wein’s next step was to recognise that, for most of their career, these characters had been fighting Nazis, and would be best employed in the role with which they were identified.
That in turn meant having to have an active Nazi foe in 1973, and that in turn led to the establishment of Earth-X as an Earth on which Germany had won a much-prolonged Second World War.
The venue for this story was originally intended to be Earth-Swastika, but Schwarz understandably refused to allow that symbol in his book, and Wein compromised by crossing out all the cross-pieces, to leave an X.
After the initial flurry of Earths a decade previously, the idea of adding parallel worlds had rather dropped into abeyance. True, a particularly goofy issue of The Flash in 1968 had seen Barry Allen wind up on an Earth where he and the Justice League were no more than characters in comics published by National Periodical Publications, i.e, this Earth (named Earth-Prime for the purpose), but this aside there had been no development of the Multiverse in almost a decade. Wein’s creation of Earth-X was the start of the second wave, by which the number of identifiable Earths would multiply, slowly, but steadily.
One thing that irritated me for years about this story, being interested in American history and having a food working knowledge of the Presidents, was Uncle Sam’s reference to Roosevelt’s (depicted in the comic but not named as thus) fatal heart attack in 1944, when I knew full well that he’d actually died of a brain haemorrhage in 1945. Unfortunately, it took me more years than I care to recollect before I twigged to the fact that this was actually quite a subtle counterfactual by Wein. Roosevelt had been succeeded by Truman, a man he hardly knew, who’d been added to the ticket in 1944, at a time when the course of the War in Europe had turned decisively in the Allies’ favour.
In 1944, Roosevelt’s death before an Election would have brought in Henry Wallace as President, a man known as a great, almost mystical liberal, but not for his decisiveness. Uncle Sam references the balance of Government going the wrong way, which in this context it no doubt would have under Wallace, so that Germany also had the Bomb when America was ready to use it. Besides, if this death had occurred before the Summer D-Day landings, the balance of the conventional War may have been more even. Rather than an egregious mistake, which I took it to be for much too long, Wein’s little throwaway line turned out to be an extraordinarily subtle and accurate way to distinguish Earth-X’s past.
The additional slickness, and naturalness of the story impressed me, as did the art. Though I’m well aware of Dillin’s flaws now, both in his reliance on stock figures and his lack of flair, he compared well with Sekowsky, and especially the early Sekowsky, as inked by Bernard Sachs. Of course, much of this was down to Dick Giordano’s inks, clean and strong and very clear, concentrating on thin, sharp lines that define the images without removing their underlying strength. The half-page image of the Nazi soldiers looking down the Eiffel Tower at the rapidly-climbing Batman, cape flowing in a decently Adams-esque manner.
The half dozen resurrected heroes made for an interesting bunch. The Ray, with his light and heat powers and simple all-yellow costume, was obviously the best suited to break out in the modern era, though when DC finally got around to this notion, it was post-Crisis and the role went to a new Ray with a decidedly inferior new costume. Phantom Lady, who also preferred yellow, was a Forties pin-up incarnate, and was actually appropriated as cousin to the JSA’s Starman, both having the surname Knight.
In contrast, the flying Black Condor, chosen as the team paranoid, failed to impress, as did Doll Man, a precursor of the Earth-1 Atom but not half so interesting a character. He still outdid the Human Bomb, a guy who has to live in a protective suit because his mere touch sets off explosions, so every time you want him in on the action, he has to whip off a heavy duty glove and punch one-handedly whilst desperately gripping the glove in his other hand, because if he drops it, and can’t cover his punching hand up, nobody’s going to want to get near him.
And this leaves Uncle Sam, who is the incarnation of America’s national self-image, and as such is really not something you can safely discuss in a comic book about three teams of superheroes battling left-over Nazi hordes in 1973.
Because, for all the enjoyment this story gave, when you say it like that, you’re making the whole concept into one with a very dodgy moral basis. I was not long since turned 18 when I read this story. My Mum had lived through the War, my Uncle had been in the Navy during it: all around the world there were people with vivid personal memories of the conflict against the Nazis, who really did not need cheapjack little affairs like this making free with their experiences.
Perhaps that’s too heavy a thing to lay on this story: remember that its counterfactual basis was genuinely subtle and, considered purely as a superhero story, intent on thrills and entertainment, it was almost an unqualified success.
I say almost for reasons connected with the reappearance of the Red Tornado. When we last saw him in this series, he was sacrificing his life to save Earth-2, but of course Wein had no genuine intent on killing off a character with so much unfulfilled potential. In the previous issue to this team-up, Wein did what should have been done from the start: he brought the Tornado into Earth-1, made sure he couldn’t get out and set him down in the Justice League, where he could at last develop.
There isn’t much sign of development in this story: the Tornado is still mistrusted on all sides as, basically, a whirling disaster, a point very much emphasised by his being responsible for stranding everyone on Earth-X in the first place. After which, everybody roundly tells him to go stand in a corner and not interfere, just like they always did in the Justice Society.
It’s more than a bit demeaning, and an ironic contrast to Len Wein’s contemporaneous Swamp Thing, where the theme was very much that those who tormented the horrible looking creature were themselves the true monsters. Wein does, at least, attempt to rehabilitate the android in the end, by having him save the eventual day, not to mention come up with our deus ex machina (literally) in the form of a device that, for no logical reason except that Wein needs a get-out, enables the League and the Society to get home.
In a post-Crisis Universe, all of this is impossible. In the Multiverse it was a moment of realisation that I could still get fun from American comics, and the start of something whose dimensions I would not have been able to believe had I foreseen what I was doing by splashing out 10p on issue 107.
One sidebar note, that I did not realise either then or until writing this series: traditionally, the annual team-up took place in the August and September issues of Justice League of America, but with effect from this year, would in future appear cover dated October and November. I never noticed. Of course, the cover dates were virtually meaningless, back then. But from my rediscovery of comics until now, I have assumed that these were the ‘summer issues’ still.