The War in the Skies: Enemy Ace


EA Showcase

I never got into war comics. Obviously I read them: take war stories out of a British boys weekly comic and some of them would be limp rags with about ten pages left, and that’s before the advent of Battle in the Seventies. But I would never have even thought of buying one of the DC War Comics in the Sixties. The handful I did read were from friends’ collections, sitting in the lobby of our old house in Brigham Street, in that private space between the inner door to the parlour and the front door, open to the elements. It was a tiny play-place on wet days, where we could read each others’ comics or play card games, get some fresh air but not soaked.
I was aware of Enemy Ace back then, and intrigued to a minor degree by a series about a German, who I knew very well from Eagle and Lion and Victor and Hornet were the baddies. But as with any of the others, like Sgt. Rock, or Gunner, Sarge and Pooch, the thought of reading any of the stories just didn’t even exist.
But the stories do, and for all my adult life I’ve known that they are amongst the most highly rated stories DC have ever published. The only ones I have read before are those that appeared in Showcase. Now it’s time to find out for myself.
Rittmeister Hans von Hammer, the ‘Hammer of the Skies’, the Enemy Ace, was introduced in Our Army At War 151, cover-dated February 1965, which would have been about right for when copies arrived in Britain. He was created by Bob Kanigher, Our Army At War‘s editor and writer of its lead feature, the famous Sgt. Rock, and drawn by Rock’s artist-in-residence, Joe Kubert. Von Hammer was teased on the cover as the blazing star they didn’t dare show and the whole concept was a controversial one, less than twenty years since the War in Europe ended.
Von Hammer was a pilot. Cleverly, Kanigher and Kubert went further back than the recent War, to World War 1, to 1918, and the ‘string-and-baling-wire’ planes of before. Von Hammer piloted a blood-red Fokke-Wulf triplane, the same as one of the Airfix models I had assembled and which hung from my bedroom ceiling.
Kanigher and Kubert, teamed on their natural subject. How could ‘Enemy Ace’ be less than superb? The first story was plain, but commanding, introducing the aloof von Hammer, a master of the skies, almost effortlessly establishing his superiority over the French and British planes, yet taking little or no pleasure from his prowess. Von Hammer is a man apart, in every sense, moving through the world behind a three foot thick sheet of glass. He is a killer, a cold, professional killer, putting his unique talent to the service of his country, aware of, and sometimes almost fearful of his degree of separation from everyone else. His only ‘friend’ is his lupine shadow, a Wolf that goes hunting with him.
All of this in one back-up story. For depth in economy I can only think of the original Swamp Thing story as comparable. And through it all, the remarkable thing is that von Hammer is simply von Hammer. He is not an indictment of the Germans as enemies. His nature is himself, and not the function of his country. Extraordinary stuff for late 1964.

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The series was a gamble, with Rock soliciting comments from the readers. Von Hammer returned in issue 153, in a story about the superstition of not having one’s photograph taken before flying into combat, and again in 155. This last one was astonishingly good: von Hammer shoots down a British plane only to realise, too late, that its pilot had empty guns, was defenceless. Horrified by what he has done, von Hammer follows the doomed plane down, hoping the pilot can pull out of the dive and land, but to no avail. The next day, his airfield is attacked by the pilot’s Squadron Leader, challenging von Hammer contemptuously to a single combat. Von Hammer takes off with empty guns himself, deliberately, and fights unarmed until the British attacker runs out of ammunition. Then the later realises von Hammer was defenceless, understands the nature, the honour of the man, salutes him and breaks off. The enemy understands, but von Hammer’s own pilots see only the Killing Machine.
This was the context of von Hammer’s two Showcase appearances. The first was about the honour that existed between pilots in this new form of combat, in a sky where their presence could not be taken for granted, where enemies had more in common than with their ground troops, who had no conception of what it meant to be in the air.
There had now been five Enemy Ace stories, two of them book-length. They were each excellent, especially in Kubert’s depiction of aerial combat as it was being formed. However, I couldn’t help but recognise the ploys Kanigher used invariably. Von Hammer flies and kills. He lands, ‘hearing’ his plane repeat ‘Killer, killer’ and his men call him a Killing Machine. His babbling orderly praises his ever-accumulating Victory Cups. He meets the wolf in the Black Forest, talks to it as his only friend, the only ones who understand each other. Over and over.
Showcase didn’t win von Hammer a title of his own. Enemy Ace disappeared then, in 1965. But he was not forgotten. Two and a half years later, von Hammer was revived as the lead feature in Star-Spangled War Stories, his logo emblazoned on the cove. Enemy Ace returned in issue 138 and, with the exception of one issue, featured until no. 150 before once again returning to that undeserved limbo reserved for characters who are too bloody good for the audience.

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Nothing had changed, not least the intensity that surrounded the character, the expert at flying and killing who is feared by everyone and kept a distance that he himself knows no way of bridging, the man trapped in what he is, addicted to the sky, knowing that one day it will kill him as thoughtlessly as it does everyone else, determined to give it every chance at his destruction that he can.
I could never have read and appreciated anything like this in 1968, but I should have done a long time ago.
The new series introduced a recurring foe for von Hammer, a French pilot of equal skill who goes by the name of the Hangman. In issue 140, a collision between planes downs both pilots and makes von Hammer the prisoner of the Hangman, himself an aristocrat. The two treat each other with the utmost courtesy, puzzling the Hangman’s sister, Denise, but once von Hammer escapes and regains the skies, the only place he will allow himself to die, they return to being implacable enemies, bending their skill to each other’s destruction.
And I may say Kubert’s art leads one into the skies and draws us on wings of paper-mache and string.
The artist had now taken over as editor of the war books but the writer continued to expand the range of the stories. In issue 142, von Hammer succeeds in shooting down the Hangman, only to gain a new and more bitter enemy in his sister Denise, an implacable foe, an equal flier, and a Harpy of hate, determined to wreak revenge upon an enemy whose honour forbids him from firing back at her.
The Hangman was brought back in issue 145 to lock horns with von Hammer again, tearing at him by killing his three ablest pilots first. Once again he appeared to die, though I’m not taking bets on it, whilst von Hammer crashed and would have been a victim of the wolves were it not for his black wolf friend.
Next issue, von Hammer appeared only as narrator for two unremarkable and indeed pretty flat WW1 air-fighting stories, presumably as a result of deadline difficulties. His return was with the series’ first complete schtumer, a gimmick-story featuring an OTT opponent who dressed up as St George and flew in a suit of armour, taking the run outside the bounds of believability for the first time. This was followed by von Hammer adopting a wounded puppy as a good luck mascot, only for him to fall from the cockpit in battle, to his death. Again, the insertion of the fantastic detracted from not merely the believability but the intensity.

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Once again, something different was coming to an end, failing to match up to the sales of the superheroes. 1970 was looming. A story in issue 179 explained von Hammer’s duelling scars, but it was also cut to only two-thirds length to make room for Kanigher and Kubert on a revival of the Viking Prince, welcome in itself but in a war book?
But the writing was on the wall, or rather the cover. The Star-Spangled War Stories logo was spread across issue 150’s cover, and Enemy Ace reduced to a circle, and inside was the last story. Von Hammer is shot down over France but returns to his airfield thanks to the ironic aid of three people awaiting sons, brothers and fiances return from the skies, not knowing each are dead at von Hammer’s hands. But somehow the story failed to connect, largely because of a curious decision to switch from first person narration to second person, distancing von Hammer at the very moment we needed to be brought in close.
The lettercol spoke as if nothing would change but Enemy Ace was dropped, and the Unknown Soldier replaced him as the new lead feature.
That isn’t totally the end of the story. Rittmeister Hans von Hammer reappeared years later, in 1974’s issue 181-3, a three part back-up story by Kanigher, drawn by Frank Thorne in a close imitation of Kubert, sending him up against another of DC’s war characters, Steve Savage, the Balloon Buster. It wasn’t the same.
Von Hammer’s final appearance in Star-Spangled War Stories was a five pager, written and drawn by Kubert, this time going the full distance into the third person. It was dry and shallow and a poor end.
There have been other runs. Shortly after, von Hammer was restored to appear in eleven of twenty issues of Men at War between 1977 and 1979. Even though it was still being written by Kanigher, the art was that of lesser hands, lacking a fraction of Kubert’s expressiveness. I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I know disappointment when it’s spitting in my face. The same thing went for another series of back-ups between 1981 and 1982 in The Unknown Soldier (as Star-Spangled War Stories was re-named from issue 205), even with some John Severian art.
No, Enemy Ace was indeed as good as they said it was all those years, good enough for me to decide to ignore lesser versions. I don’t have to accept that they are canon in my head, just like so many contemporary series don’t exist for me. Seventeen issues represent the whole as far as I’m concerned, seventeen and no more. Seventeen was more than enough.

Men call him… The Phantom Stranger


I got into The Phantom Stranger just when it had stopped being good. The long-standing partnership of Len Wein and Jim Aparo had just been broken up by success: both were wanted for more prestigious titles and characters, and both ended up on Batman, leaving editor Joe Orlando two months to find an entirely new creative team: two, in fact, because at exactly the same time Marv Wolfman and Tony de Zuniga ceased producing the title’s back-up strip, ‘The Spawn of Frankenstein’.
Enter Arnold Drake and Gerry Taloac on the Stranger. Enter Steve Skeates and Bernard Bailey on The Spawn of Frankenstein. Exit all pretensions to quality. From that point onwards, to its cancellation with issue 41, The Phantom Stranger was doomed to a morass of shifting writers and artists, ironically paralleling the title’s early days.
Yet something about The Phantom Stranger triggered my imagination. I bought it regularly. I hunted out back-issues – it would actually become the first series of any substance that I collected as a full run: I still remember the thrill (and disappointment) of picking up the last five random issues I needed at one stall one Manchester Mart – but the real heart of the series was that Wein/Aparo run between issues 14 and 26.
It’s a long time since I let the series go. Now I have it back, in a set that not only includes those 41 issues but also The Stranger’s first run, as a six-issue series appearing between 1952 and 1953.

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The first volume of The Phantom Stranger, written by John Broome and drawn by Carmine Infantino, was just one of those many series splurged out by a desperate DC, post-Golden Age, when it had no idea what might sell and was winding itself in financial knots trying to find something, anything that would.
Ironically, in light of his later existence, The Phantom Stranger debuted as a ghost-debunker, taking his inspiration from, of all people, Dr Thirteen, the Ghost-Breaker, who’d been introduced into Star-Spangled Comics the previous year. It’s fairly easy to summarise: each issue The Phantom Stranger appears in three six-page stories in which ordinary people find themselves in supposedly supernatural situations until The Phantom Stranger – and he is always and only addressed such, no matter how awkward it makes the dialogue – appears out of nowhere. He’s an ordinary dark-haired man who only ever wears a black suit with white shirt and black tie, over which he wears a bulky black topcoat and a black fedora. You’d think he was forever attending funerals.
Sometimes the Stranger knows what’s going on, sometimes he works it out as we go along. But it’s always a con, trickery or ingenuity or, in a couple of desperate moments, accidental connections with another dimension or time-travellers. Frankly, those stories stink.
It’s decent enough stuff – Broome and Infantino see to that – but it’s uninspired and undramatic, and muddled, in that the cover copy tries it on with ‘Is He Man – Or Ghost?’ above a slipshod wavy-lettered logo and the story always has the Stranger appearing and disappearing mysteriously, in a manner that makes Batman look like a stumble-foot.
One last criticism: as the series develops it seems that The Phantom Stranger becomes a world-reknowned personage, a recognised authority, but known to everyone as just… The Phantom Stranger, a touch that defies incredulity. Needless to say, it’s all a great contrast to the late Sixties version we all know.

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I’ve already written about the Stranger’s revival in Showcase 80, which spawned a second series long before any sales figures could have been produced. That makes the series another of those I characterised as Infantino’s Experiments, the big difference being that this experiment worked, to the extent of a run of over five years at a bi-monthly schedule.
The speed with which The Phantom Stranger was taken up as a series had a lot to do with how cheap the title was to produce at first, with 80% of it reprints, for which neither artist nor writer were getting paid.
The format was that each issue there would be some mysterious situation, reeking (lightly) of the supernatural. Both The Phantom Stranger and Dr Thirteen, Terry Thirteen and his wife Marie, would be drawn to the scene, one to investigate the supernatural roots of what was going on, the other to debunk it thoroughly. One would mildly suggest that there may be more to the situation than the restricted beliefs of the other was prepared to countenance, and Dr Thirteen would hurl multiple defamatory accusations at The Stranger, in which calling him a charlatan was probably the nicest.
The outcome would be justification for The Stranger and vilification from the Ghost-Breaker, who refused to accept the evidence of his own eyes.
In between, each would reminisce, in strict rotation, about past cases of which this situation would remind them – sometimes quite imaginatively – by way of reprints of old stories from the early Fifties. It was not an approach that could last, partly because the old stories were very much of their time, a decade and a half before, but in any event because there weren’t enough of them to sustain the concept very long.
At first, the Stranger is drawn pretty much as he was in the Fifties. Fittingly, he’s drawn as an older man, a little gaunt of face and grey-haired but the only real change is that he wears a long, wrap-around cape, and the suit and hat now are all dark blue. Intriguingly, when Dr Thirteen arrives on the scene, he says he’s ‘heard of’ The Phantom Stranger but the Stranger’s first words to him are, “Good morning, Terrence. I haven’t seen you in a long time.” Coming immediately after Dr Thirteen’s tale of his dead father, there was some speculation that the Stranger was Thirteen Senior, not dead but adopting this identity for some purpose of his own.
To the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever explained why the Stranger said what he did.
The framing story in Showcase, all eight pages of it, was written by former letterhack Mike Friedrich and drawn by Jerry Grandenetti. Once the Stranger was launched in his own title again, after the equivalent of a one bi-monthly issue gap, they were re-united for a standalone tale, pitting the two stars against one another, after a reprint each. It was already trite, especially Dr Thirteen’s increasingly hysterical denunciations of anything he didn’t understand.
The next two issues reverted into the reprints-within-a-frame format, but there was a surprise awaiting with issue 4, the first, but far from the last, change of direction. Behind a Neal Adams cover, Adams drew the whole story, changing everything. He introduced Tala, Queen of Evil. He put the Phantom Stranger into a white turtleneck sweater and a long cape held together by gold talismans. He put Dr Thirteen into horn-rimmed spectacles. He didn’t alter the squabbling, least of all the Ghost-Breaker’s monotonous accusations that everything was the Stranger’s fault. And worst of all, he introduced four teenagers – Spartacus, Attilla, Wild Rose and Mr Square – and wished their ludicrous and baleful presence upon the series for far too long to come (here defined as anything more than one panel).
The result was a confused and illogical mess.

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The same went for issue 5, which was written and drawn by Mike Selowsky, who kept ‘the Teenagers’, which was how the four pests were described, as if they were the only ones in the world. Apparently, these hip, modern and up-to-date teenagers of 1969 went to Jazz concerts, not Rock. Sekowsky’s second and final issue resurrected the story-within-a-story method, only these were new short stories. It also equipped Spartacus with a jive talk that made the Teen Titans look antique.
Adams 1, Sekowsky 2. The excellent Jim Aparo began his long association with the title in issue 7, initially with Robert Kanigher. Tala’s still causing trouble, trying to kill the Teenagers (I sympathise, but what has she got against them?), Dr Thirteen still accuses the Stranger of being a third rate magician preying on innocent people and laughing at them and the Stranger acts like the Stranger, and now Aparo has added the this-is-so-1970 medallion. This is not very good, not at all.
Nor was Denny O’Neill, writing the next issue, in which he has The Stranger prepared to sacrifice Dr Thirteen’s wife Marie to save the world from Ice-Giants in the Arctic, which is not a good look by any means, and could, in certain lights, be taken as a petty transference of frustrations at the offensive Ghost-Breaker (even mysterious figures with undefined magical powers can only take so much). Having Tala save the day was just a cheap convenience.
Why did I collect this series? We’re not up to the good stuff yet.
Sekowsky was back to write issue 9. The young Gerry Conway stopped by to write issues 10 and 11, the first of which introduced another recurring enemy, Tannarak, a man saturnine of features obsessed with immortality. No Tala, no Teenagers, not even Dr Thirteen for two blessed issues. But that made five different writers in just eleven issues. Consistency is obviously overrated.
As witness by Kanigher coming back for the next two issues. This was the issue that separated the Phantom Stranger from Dr Thirteen, who became a back-up strip. It was the perfect solution. The Ghost-Breaker immediately became perfectly palatable (well, perhaps not perfectly…) as soon as he could occupy his own Universe where rationality could be the dominant factor and remain unchallenged by the inexplicable presence of the Stranger.
The first Dr Thirteen solo, written by Jack Oleck and drawn by the Doc’s long-term artist, Tony de Zuniga, was an horrendous mess, set in a fog-ridden, superstition laden English village that has never existed anywhere, and where hanging still existed. Lazy writing wasn’t confined to Gerry Conway. But all that was about to end, at last.
Issue 14 saw Len Wein take over writing both halves of the series. There’s an immediate change of atmosphere on The Phantom Stranger: Wein still has the turtle-necked one address the reader directly and name himself but now it’s on a ‘men call me…’ at the end of a philosophical spiel that even then bordered on being overwritten, but the story is clear and concise.
A man named Broderick Rune, obviously of the evil party, has lured the Stranger to his mansion where he imprisons him by means of a spell and a pentacle, though it’s clear that Aparo has never in his life seen or even read about a pentacle and has just drawn a magic circle that looks more like crenellated iron: they’re supposed to have five points, not eight circles… Rune’s heart is failing: to restore his strength he has the Stranger’s heart transplanted into his own body! But the Stranger haunts him, demanding his heart back, even though Rune claims it’s his now, he spilt blood for it (what is this, The Merchant of Venice?). In the end, the Stranger drives him into another heart attack, but the transplant surgeon announces, aghast, that he hasn’t got a heart at all…
With Dr Thirteen able to operate at his own pace, Wein could cook up a super-scientific operation masquerading as some sort of swamp thing (heh heh) for the back-up, in perfect and effective peace.
Running parallel to The Phantom Stranger, Wein was also writing Swamp Thing for Joe Orlando, using his scripts to parade the classic monster symbols in a modern settings. He was doing the same here: an African tribal God who was also a robot (falling in love with an African woman called Ororo…), a Wax Museum of horrors, the return of Tannarak in a book-length story that also introduced a blind blonde esper with a penchant for purple jump suits, named Cassandra Craft, who loved the Stranger and was loved in return by him, though his role demanded that he wander the Earth.

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Aparo did all the work on that story so Tony de Zuniga pinch-hitted for him in issue 18, featuring the Flying Dutchman, as well as resuming on the Ghost-Breaker back-up, now written by Steve Skeates.
At Jim Aparo’s special request, Wein brought back the Ice Giants next issue but he shouldn’t have. Nevertheless, the consistency of the same writer for six consecutive issues now sustained a weak tale like this and Wein was back to the supernatural stakes immediately, making mention of a Dark Circle of sorcerors and wizards, gathering their forces across the Earth.
Note a curiosity: the villainous wizard of issue 21, again of the Dark Circle, was named Cerebus. Yes, Cerebus. In issue 23, among those commenting on this issue in the lettercol on this very issue is a young Canadian by the name of Dave Sim: to quote Dalgoda, ‘you can “doo doo doo doo” if it makes you feel any better’.
Len Wein was building up to a big story involving the Dark Circle, running over the next three issues. First, Cassandra Craft reappeared, kidnapped to draw the Stranger and then used to seemingly kill him, though of course he wasn’t dead. But though he meant to move on alone, Cassandra got him to take her with him, thanks to an effective impassioned appeal that was almost a demand to let her help him that, for a time at any rate, persuaded the Stranger to give in to his own wishes.
Only for a time, for two issues, one in Paris with a bell-swinging hunchback and a phantom at the opera who turns out to be Tannarak again, this time persuaded to throw in his lot with the Stranger and Ms Craft, and then a finale in Rio de Janeiro, where the Dark Circle’s dark, and no longer quite laughing and capricious mistress was revealed as the long-absent Tala, as the Four Horsemen were raised from beneath the statue of Christos Redentor, Tala and Tannarak condemned to the Abyss, and Cassandra rescued but left believing her friend was dead – and this time truly dead.
I only discovered The Phantom Stranger in its next phase, when things were very different, and worked my way back to this tryptich. It excited me, and the element of the frustrated love between the Stranger and Cassandra, especially the latter, stirred me. It’s still the best part of the series for me and it’s not just nostalgia that makes me enjoy it all over again. There’s an air of finality about issue 24, as if Wein has completed his story. Two decades later it might have been cancelled then. Yet Wein still had two more issues to write.
One was trite beyond belief, a write-up of someone else’s idea, of the ugly American who knew better than the ignorant savages and who was going to get his way because he was a tough guy. The Stranger tries to save him from himself but once his irredeemable ignorance costs a native girl her life, he washes his hands of the man, as so did I a lot sooner. It was the first of a type of story that would become ever more prevalent after Wein, where the Stranger is no more than a Cain or Abel type host, or no more than a moral voice trying to deflect the protagonist from their inevitable appointment with self-destruction.
Wein’s last issue was co-written with his great buddy, Marv Wolfman, and represented a merger of lead and back-up story.
There’d been a change in the back-up as of issue 23, or at least in it’s title, the now-serialised story becoming ‘The Spawn of Frankenstein’, the original Mary Shelley version of the creature being discovered frozen in the Arctic, brought back to America and revived, only for the laser to malfunction and kill the new generation Victor Adams. Unfortunately, on every level, Victor and Rachel’s best friends are called Terry and Marie – yes, the Thirteens – and the laser cuts down Mrs T, leaving her in a coma.
With his usual passion for scientific rigour, calm thought and evidence, the Doctor instantly concludes the monster done it, and deliberately. The level of consistency is so high that when the monster lifts a grid above him and uses it to stop the ceiling collapsing on everyone, Terry included, and killing them, our rationalist insists he’s only trying to kill them faster than the ceiling.
In short, it’s more shit, only shouted at a different poor sod.
But things were about to change. Wein and Aparo, Wolfman and a horribly crude Mike Kaluta, between issues Orlando was losing his entire creative staff to more popular series. At least he got a swansong out of them, a wrap-up tale that ended the brief and poor Spawn of Frankenstein series with a bang that only made things even more of a mess. Marie Thirteen and, by implication,Victor Adams are brought back to life and two demons appear out of nowhere to steal the show with all the best lines but it’s a piece of garbage and all we had to look forward to was a change in direction and story warned in the lettercol.

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Orlando would explain the true facts in a future lettercol, but for now everyone who picked up issue 27 was in for a rude awakening. The two series were still there, but the Phantom Stranger had been turned over to Arnold Drake and Gerry Talaoc. Frankly, the art was horrible to look at, fussy, misproportioned, frenetic and ugly, but Drake’s script, and the new direction was a mess. The Stranger found himself investigating pill-pushing Doctor Matthew Zorn, a new recurring villain, treating rock stars and fading film actresses by day and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by night, leading the latter into an implausible conspiracy to kill the President on the grounds he was a traitor. The Stranger solves the mystery by using his power to turn invisible (yer wot?). There’s a minor nod to the notion that this is in any way supposed to be a horror/mystery title by having Zorn’s drugs be made with supernatural ingredients, but that’s not where Drake’s at and that’s just the start.
The Spawn of Frankenstein continued too. Look, I know it wasn’t very good to begin with but was that any reason to sic Steve Skeates and veteran artist Bernard (The Spectre) Bailey onto it? I thought the US Constitution was supposed to ban cruel and unusual punishment. Sure, people weren’t buying the mag in great numbers but was that any cause to do that to those of us who were?
Then it got worse. And worse.
The Phantom Stranger 30 was the first issue I bought. I was slowly examining the DC market for 1974, contrasting it with what I remembered from the Sixties and usually finding the newer stuff better and more intriguing, an opinion that I’d reverse in a heartbeat if you gave me the chance now. I can only assume it was the idea of The Phantom Stranger that caught me because it couldn’t have been the story. Drake was writing something incomprehensible, a pseudo-Satanic Pied Piper tale with a car crash ending that made no sense and a hero he clearly had no sympathy with. And The Spawn of Frankenstein was even worse, with soulless the kindest word I can summon up. At least it was the last effort, and has never been returned to, for which sing Hallelujah! Surely the new back-up series could not be so plain awful, especially as it was The Black Orchid.
The incoherent lead story about a heroin-addicted soldier turned out to be Gerry Talaoc’s swansong for now, initiating a spell of musical artists. The Black Orchid started with a decent if not spectacular one-off story by her creators in Adventure Comics, Sheldon Mayer and Tony de Zuniga. But Orlando’s explanation of losing Wein (over-committed with deadline issues) and Aparo (snatched for Batman) included the lament that Mayer was ill and de Zuniga no longer available, meaning the back-up would next appear from Michael Fleisher and Nestor Redondo.
First though it was Bill Draut back, only too clean and clear, in a House of Mystery story with the Stranger appearing in five panels only, including the splash page. Then Mike Grell on a book-length team-up with Deadman involving Dr Zorn. For issue 34, Talaoc was back and so was Dr Thirteen, in an unused back-up from before the sad intrusion of the Spawn of Frankenstein. This was Drake’s last script and the word was that, after a perfectly decent and inoffensive single Black Orchid strip from Fleisher, Sheldon Mayer had written a two-parter. No comic can survive long in this chaos.

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The new writer was David Michelinie, then a newcomer and definitely intent on being a major Len Wein sequel. He started strongly, immediately putting all Wein’s stylistic flourishes back, and chucking out Dr Zorn to introduce Dr N Seine (groan), Nathan Seine that is. Seine was a brilliant scientist, emotionally dependent upon his shy wife Margaret, who had nearly killed her in a lab accident, was keeping her artificially alive but in great pain, not that he minded, and who turned to deals with the Nether Gods to grant her full life, which meant sacrificing the Stranger. But Margaret wanted to die and saved the Stranger at the cost of her own release, causing Dr Serine to accuse our man of murder and swear vengeance.
A neat little set-up, with potential, and far better than Arnold Drake’s total lack of understanding. So Michelinie’s second strip was one of these Stranger-warns-puny-human-who-ignores-him-and-comes-to-bad-end tales, which was pathetic. And he’s gone to make room for Paul Levitz. Sheesh. Whose first story was another one short on coherence. It was another book-lengther but whilst the Grell-drawn one was twenty pages, only four issues later book-length was now eighteen.
After insisting that Talaoc was here for the foreseeable future, Orlando had to make another change, with Fred Carillo taking on art duties for a Levitz four-parter, matched by a four-part Black Orchid also drawn by Carillo. How nice to have lead and back-up so perfectly in step, because the ghost was on the point of giving up and there was just enough time to get both in before The Phantom Stranger was cancelled with issue 41.
The Black Orchid back-up had scripts by Fleisher even though Orlando had said he was too busy to work on the series. It was a decent adventure, her longest to date, and clever in its conception, though not any better than… decent.
The cancellation was still abrupt. Levitz included Deadman again in his last three issues as a prelude to Boston Brand taking over the back-up slot in issue 42, which was never to be. At least those of us with fond memories of a certain blind, blonde esper who still favoured purple were given a taste of sweet nostalgia before the end. And that end, which I can make believe lasted forever, was with Cassandra Craft in the arms of the Phantom Stranger. At least we know she was truly happy.
Thus ends, again, the first series I was so enthused about that I collected it all. It clearly wasn’t all that good, but who looks back on the tastes of their youth and finds them all still strawberries and cream? Then and now are different things and always will be.
The DVD also contains the Phantom Stranger issue of Secret Origins which gave four different accounts of how the Stranger might have come to be, one of which is superb – as it should be, it’s by Alan Moore and as I give no fig for DC’s overly convoluted continuity any more, I believe in what I choose to believe among all the options – and the 1987 miniseries, which I have read but choose not to comment upon.

Infantino’s Follies: Six Seventies Series


One thing that I certainly did not notice, feeling my way back into reading comics again in 1974/5, reliant upon the still erratic distribution around South and East Manchester newsagents, ignorant of even the idea that there might be shops dedicated to comics, was that there were an awful lot of new titles being spilled out onto the market in those years. I’d never looked at comics in that way: there were a lot of different ones then, there were a lot of different ones now and I never bothered to count them either time.
But in the mid-Seventies, DC’s Publisher Carmine Infantino was throwing a lot of stuff at the wall, in the hope that it might stick, only for it to slide down and make a mess on the carpet instead. I’ve already reviewed First Issue Special, which burned through thirteen different ideas without the least intention of developing them, except for the one that was actually meant to be a series anyway.
It was such a mad and erratic period that even proven successes were failing. Supergirl had been the leading figure in Adventure Comics for four years: when she got spun off into her own title, she lasted 13 issues. We’ve already looked at the short revival of The Spectre in Adventure. Now it’s time to review a handful of other, short-lived ideas that didn’t last, to see if they had the chance to do better.

IF1 The Shadow

The Shadow

On the face of it, The Shadow should have been a smash success, the greatest pulp magazine crimefighter there had ever been, a figure from whom many elements of Batman had been drawn, a character acknowledged by the Caped Crusader himself as an inspirational figure in a crossover episode of sorts that pre-dated the series.
And The Shadow’s exploits were being written by Denny O’Neill, who also edited the series, in a taut, tough guy prose echoing the pulps, and drawn by newcomer and stylist Mike Kaluta, who centred the series in its original Thirties era seemingly without effort. So what went wrong?
Well, for one thing hardly anyone bought issue 1. This was not due to any lack of merit in the story but rather was down to a premature anticipation. Just as they had done with Shazam! 1, the revival of the original Captain Marvel, the dealers spirited the cartons of comics into back rooms and away from the newstands, anticipating that collectors would pay plenty for no. 1 issues. Instead, by coming close to strangling both series at birth, giving readers nothing to read and collectors nothing to collect, they undercut their own potential audiences. Both no. 1s would become staples of quarter bins all over America.
As well as O’Neill’s clipped prose and dialogue there was Kaluta, the latest bravura artist to hit comics. But Kaluta had the same problem every other bravura artist had in the Bronze Age: bravura takes time. You can’t crank it out on an industrial basis, and you certainly didn’t get enough per page to live taking the time you needed. Even on a bi-monthly schedule, Kaluta only got to issue 4 (one issue inked by Berni Wrightson) before needing a fill-in. Officially he was ‘taking his own sweet time’ turning his next story into a masterpiece.
That fill-in came from Frank Robbins, newspaper strip veteran of his own Johnny Hazard, a devotee of Milton Caniff’s chiaroscuro approach but with a heavier black line and a more cartoonish style. He looked brilliant on The Shadow and his pages sped by like rockets but the contrast to Kaluta was shocking, especially to the readers. And yes, the job on issue 6 was excellent but that was it for Kaluta, a new star gone after five issues.
Robbins was the permanent replacement and it was his art I first saw when I tried The Shadow, and I like it but the regular readers could not accept it for how different it was from Kaluta. He was retained until issue 9, which was inked by Frank McLaughlin, and written by comic books professor Michael Uslan. There were rumours of impending cancellation but another switch of artist, this time to Filipino stalwart E.R. Cruz preserved the series for three further issues.
Cruz’s line was more delicate, like that of Kaluta, but like all his fellow artists was essentially static. Issue 11, drawn by him and written again by Michael Uslan was and still is my favourite of the run as The Shadow’s organisation runs up against that of Richard Benson, The Avenger’s Justice Incorporated, which was being added to DC’s roster. The clash was being engineered by The Shadow’s only enemy, and former colleague (?) Shiwani Khan, and there were glimpses of the Shadow’s secrets hinted at. But these were never to be gone into as the next issue was indeed the last, after two years. In comparison, it was a weak ending, being just another Shadow story.
So why, with a well-known character, did the series not succeed? My own opinion is a combination of things: that the Shadow’s old audience was too old to follow him into comics, that the character was a creation of the Thirties that did not suit the Seventies, that musical artists did not help at all but, most of all, that The Shadow was too much of an enigma. The Marvel Age of the Sixties and DC’s attempts to emulate it had trained the general comics audience to expect characters, personal conflicts, a striving to exceed fallibility. The Shadow had none of this. Any fallibility he displayed as a crime-fighter was negligible and wiped out within a page, two at most, he was cold and dictatorial, unsympathetic and invulnerable.
The Shadow was not what comic book fans wanted in 1974-5, no matter how good he was. So he didn’t sell.

IF2 Justice inc

Justice, Inc.

Richard Benson, The Avenger, head of Justice, Incorporated, created by Doc Savage’s creator, Kenneth Robeson, was brought to comics in 1975, as The Shadow’s series was on its way to an end. It looks like an attempt to double-up on the pulp package, but this one only lasted four issues, not enough time for proper sales returns to be calculated. After an opening issue, adapted from Robeson’s original novel by Denny O’Neill and Al McWilliams, it was farmed out to Jack Kirby as a means of using up his quota of pages as he worked towards the end of a contractual relationship with DC that can only be described as a betrayal of everything he had been led to expect.
The second issue continued the adaptation of The Avenger’s debut, introducing two more of his team, Josh and Rosabel, a very intelligent husband and wife team who, being black, kept people off-guard by acting like dumb negroes. The stories in issues 3 and 4 were original, the first introducing Scottish chemist Fergus McMurdie but the series never got round to Nellie before it was abruptly cancelled, even though she’d appeared in the Shadow cross-over.
Given how quickly Justice, Inc. disappeared, I have to call the cancellation capricious, but hardly unexpected based on the evidence available. The Avenger was a much less well-regarded pulp magazine figure, though he did have a personality and a story, one ripped off by Gerry Conway for The Punisher. The series had a degree of potential to it, but it didn’t have anything like Jack Kirby’s best work.
And if we’re being generous it had twice the chance of making it as the series Infantino ordered for Batman’s villain/hero, Man-Bat, who got two issues before being cancelled, each with a different art team!

IF3 Ragman

Ragman

Ragman came along a little after the above two series, created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, drawn initially by The Redondo Studio (i.e., Nestor Redondo) and launched in his own series in 1976. There were five issues, written by Kanigher, the last one drawn by Kubert and then nothing. This is beginning to sound like a pattern, isn’t it?
Ragman was a weird idea on nearly every level, but by the same token an unusually interesting one, mostly likely too strange for DC’s audience in the way that Infantino’s experiments of 1968/9 had been. Rory Regan, Vietnam vet, was the son of an un-named junkman who ran a shop called ‘Rags’n’Tatters’ in an unidentified poor part of the City. His Dad wanted him to get out, make something of himself, but Rory refused. His Dad’s shop, the money he lent on the things people no longer could use, supported the district, was life support to its barely-scraping-by folk. Despite the pleas of his girl-friend, freelance photographer Bette Berg, Rory’s sense of duty, to his father, to his people, prevented him from moving on.
Rory’s Dad was a has-been, a bit of a drunk. So were his three best friends, a former circus strong man, a former boxer, a former acrobat. Mr Regan Sr. kept promising he’d make Rory rich one day. Somehow or other, a mattress stuffed with over $2,000,000 in stolen money came into the junkyard, followed by gangsters after it. Rory’s Dad and his mates refused to tell where it was. Even though it wasn’t theirs, and was obviously stolen and they had no entitlement to it, they refused to hand it over, determined to keep it for Rory. This was clearly not a conventional story.
The gangsters shot down high-voltage wires so that these would burn the men. Somehow they weren’t burnt to a crisp at once. Rory tried to get them free but ended up electrocuted himself, by contact. They died, he lived, with the three men’s abilities transferred into him. His Dad had found him a weird ragged costume for a costume party: instead Rory wore it as Ragman, the Tatterdemalion of Justice. Phew, that was a long explanation, almost longer than the series itself.
Ragman operates mostly in silence, fading in and out like a supernatural character. Rory’s got Bette, who he tries to persuade to forget him for her own sake, Ragman’s got Opal, a hot black singer. He befriends a blind-mute kid called Teddy, and his cat. Bette befriends Teddy too, wants to marry Rory so they can adopt him. Opal gets kidnapped to draw out Ragman but is shot and very likely killed. Teddy saves the life of a near-frozen derelict in the junkyard by inadvertently burning up at least a million dollars…
It really is as herky-jerky as that, all awkward corners, but Ragman felt like something that could have been interesting, and for once Kanigher looked as if he was taking a superhero seriously, to within a certain value for serious. But it was just one more short series that disappeared without warning, plugging its non-existent next issue, without commitment.

IF4 Kobra

Kobra

Kobra is nothing but a mess, from start to finish. According to the first issue introduction, it was an idea by Carmine Infantino that he fed to Jack Kirby, who worked out a plot with his assistant Steve Sherman and drew the initial issue as ‘King Kobra’. Kirby then left DC to return to Marvel and the story hung around for a year before being fed to Martin Pasko. Pasko got so excited about it and saw opportunities to develop it as a long-running series that he had some of the dialogue changed, Pablo Marcos re-drew some panels to make two of the regular characters look younger and Bob’s your Uncle.
Now you can’t believe everything you read in lettercols: to misquote Disraeli, ‘There are lies, damned lies and editorial statements in lettercols’.
Because, according to Pasko, on Wikipedia, when he was ordered to turn the idea into a series, he thought the original to be a throwaway idea, churned out by someone who knew he was leaving the company and who put very little into it. Apparently, Pasko whited out all the dialogue and narration and started afresh.
The basic idea, according to that introduction, is of the Corsican Brothers, but with one good and one evil. It’s taken from Dumas, the notion of Siamese or conjoined brothers, separated at birth but able to feel each other’s pain and distress. In Kobra, the weaker of the babies supposedly died after separation but was really kidnapped by the Kobra cult, for whom he was their prophesied new leader. The other, Jason (‘Jay’) Burr, is a student of an unknown subject, also an aggressive, flailing loudmouth.
Suddenly, for no apparent motive, Kobra decided his twin brother must die, but only then do the brothers learn that what happens to one will happen to the other, presumably including death.
The series is all about Kobra’s attempt to break the link so he can have Jay killed. In the meantime, his evil doings get short shrift.
It’s an horrendous mess. Stupid, sloppy, messy, cliched, confused writing, dangling plot developments promised to be explained in future issues but then ignored, the art-team changing practically every issue, hysterical dialogue that must have taken entire seconds to write. Pasko claimed to have written the whole thing tongue-in-cheek, and that it helped pay the rent on a nice apartment. It shows.
An interesting aside in issue 4’s lettercol indicates just how crazy the times of this series were. It mentions that Kobra was cancelled – but that it was then reprieved at least until sales figures could be had. If that means anything it’s an open declaration that the series was going to be cancelled before anyone knew if it was a hit or not.
The end was another abrupt one, in the middle of things, billing a visit from Batman in the non-existent issue 8. These guillotinings were getting very irritating, even if Kobra should have been guillotined long before the first pencil was set to paper. The story did appear in an issue of DC Special but so what? I can hardly imagine a massive uplift into quality, or even readability. If Infantino wanted to claim ultimate responsibility for this, let him. Serves him right.

IF5 Joker

The Joker


Yes, that’s right. In 1975/6, The Joker, Batman’s arch enemy, already reintroduced as the insane homicidal maniac he hadn’t been since before the Fifties, was granted his own title. Fully in accord with the Comics Code Authority. It had to be a joke. Hadn’t it?
Well, of course it was a joke, only not the way DC intended it to be.
The series was assigned to Denny O’Neill and veteran artist Irv Novick, which latter guaranteed clear but unspectacular art with an absence of atmospherics. O’Neill remembered having doubts from the start, as he might. The Joker as the ‘hero’ meant that his insanity had to be drastically dialled down, he wasn’t allowed to murder anyone, Batman couldn’t appear and he had to be captured and returned to prison at the end of every issue, or some similar comic book fate, e.g., falling to his death.
These were conditions that by their very nature made a series impossible, but they didn’t seem to have crossed the mind of either Infantino or Julius Schwartz.
To give O’Neill and Novick their due they are nothing short of professional, though I query the sometime cartooning in Novick’s portrayal of the Joker, but the very idea is rubbish. Joker tries to prove he’s a bigger criminal genius than Two-Face. Joker helps Willy the Weeper overcome his habit of crying every time he commits a crime. Joker temporarily takes advantage of an amnesiac Creeper, who’s talking out of character even when he’s in character. Are these stories for which any self-respecting comic book company should be asking kids to plunk down 25c for?
Maybe O’Neill and Novick agreed with me because issue 4 was by Elliot Maggin and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. Maggin brought in Green Arrow, like he always did. They did no better. Martin Pasko wrote the next issue for Irv Novick, with apparently some input from a legendary figure, a friend and former client of Julie Schwartz, none other than Alfred Bester! That was a name worth dropping. No, you guessed right.
O’Neill returned with the fresh, modern and unique idea of having the Joker come up against Sherlock Holmes. There’s a lot of authentic Holmesian dialogue rendered worthless by the decision to give him a sidekick called Watson but making him an ex-sailor whose nickname is ‘Dock’, a contrivance of such awfulness the whole print-run should have been pulped.
Maggin authored a guest appearance from Lex Luthor in which the two masterminds swapped personalities, then guested the Scarecrow and Catwoman in the final two issues. For some reason, Novick went back to Catwoman’s Fifties costume with the long skirt split to the upper thigh and the knee-length boots, which gave me something to look at whilst counting off the pages to the end.
But the beauty of short series is their shortness. As with others, cancellation was so sudden another issue was never published, until the late 2000s. The Joker was just a bad idea for the mid-Seventies, one that could not be executed to any decent effect in that era, and it showed.

IF6 Rima

Rima, the Jungle Girl

Rima was the only other one of this sextet I read at the time, feeling my way back into comics, appreciating Nestor Redondo’s art for its beautiful line-work after discovering it in Swamp Thing. The series was written by Robert Kanigher and based itself on the 1904 novel Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson. Rima was a Tarzan-manque, set in the tropical jungles of South America, a young woman who appears to political refugee Abel, feared by the natives for her seeming magic powers – really just her jungle craft and ability to ‘talk’ to animals – and who ends up burned to death by the natives.
Kanigher and Redondo’s version updated the story to the Seventies, had her survive the fire and made some minor changes like, instead of her being small, swarthy and dark-haired, she’s a tall white woman with long platinum-blonde hair, a single black woven bathing-suit style costume that fits where it touches and touches everywhere, and with great legs (I told you I liked Redondo). Rima slotted into DC’s burgeoning but unsuccessful fantasy line, alongside series like Warlord, Stalker and Beowulf.
The first four issues told Rima’s origin, though her appearances were strictly rationed in issue 1, which is more about Abel and his experiences, as told to the old man Nuflo who, on the final page, introduces Rima as his granddaughter. The rest of the origin was a trek to the place Rio Lama, where the younger Nuflo – as much a rebel as Abel – found Rima’s pregnant mother and subsequently took care of her child.
But the fearful natives killed old Nuflo, tried to killed Abel and burned Rima’s Great Tree, except that she escaped with only singeing.
Having never read the book, which was ‘freely’ adapted in 1951 as a film starring Audrey Hepburn, freely here being a word meaning Nothing Like It, I’m assuming the four parter was itself an adaptation, which then left the perennial, and usually unanswerable question of what do we do with them now? It seemed to be a given that once the comic book creators were free to come up with their own stories, their imagination failed them (if it hadn’t, they’d have come up with an original character in the first place) and cancellation followed in regular course.
Such it was with Rima, who only lasted three more issues, each one a living dead cliche. The last of them was so bad that, even though I know the series was cancelled for the only reason, namely it wasn’t selling, I am inclined to believe it was cancelled out of embarassment, especially as its back up was the first instalment of a new Kanigher-written series than never reappeared.
The original back up to Rima had been the wholly forgotten Space Voyagers, an incongruous SF strip drawn with his usual quasi-abstractness by Alex Nino, which was pointless nonsense. It was gone after issue 5, replaced by an abysmal, cliched short horror story not worth the paper it was printed on.
Ultimately Rima looked beautiful – and so did the comic, heh heh – but it was completely empty. They might just as well have put out all the Rima-panels as pin-ups and saved the effort, as it would have had the same effect. I was clearly not particularly discriminating in the days of Infantino’s Follies.

Of course, these six series were not the only desperate notions Carmine Infantino exposed to the public but they’re enough for this essay. Time for me to read something of greater substance for a while.

I call it Terrific: Sensation Comics (Part 2)


Sensation 73

We return to Sensation Comics with issue 49, cover-date January 1946. All-American Publications has ceased to exist independently. Charlie Gaines has gone. Jack Liebowitz is merging All-American and Detective Comics Inc. into National Comics. Will this change Sensation? Why don’t we read and see?
Sensation is now a 52 page comic, counting its covers. It’s line-up consists of Wonder Woman, credited to Charles Moulton (William Moulton Marston) and drawn by H G Peter. Next up, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, uncredited and deservedly so. Then Mr Terrific, my old favourite, drawn by Stan Josephs, the reason I’m here. After some intermittent months, The Black Pirate pops up, and lastly there is Wildcat, reduced to a buffoonery by artist Martin Nadel, a funny animal cartoonist making far too poor a fist of drawing a superhero series.
Nothing special was done for issue 50, not even dropping the Blue Boys, but then there were years to go before the comic book industry starting to celebrate its centuries and half-centuries.
I’m going to link again to a post from years ago castigating the early Sixties Wonder Woman comics written by Robert Kanigher, Marston’s successor after the creator’s death in 1948. I roasted Kanigher in pretty strong terms, not one of which I’d take back, but after the stories in issues 50 and 51 – the first in which Steve Trevor gets engaged to a millionairess widow and the second in which Wonder Woman is rescued by a handsome intelligence agent – I’m bound to allow that Kanigher didn’t come up with his terribly twisted takes off his own back. Marston laid the groundwork pretty clearly: Kanigher just lazily extended it far beyond any recognisably human standard.
Issue 52 saw the Black Pirate and Son disappear again, making room for a Sargon the Sorceror series. Only by now, Sargon had been joined at the hip by his rotund comic relief Maximillian O’Leary, who dominated the story with his unending pursuit of flashy clothes. They say clothes make the man but they weren’t making Max anything, especially not funny.
Wildcat got a boost in issue 55 when Paul Reinman returned to the art, and Stretch Skinner was left out, though not for good: as for Reinman, he was just a one-off, the full-time gig going to Jon Chester Kozslak.
Sensation 60 marked a year since Charlie Gaines had faded out. As we’ve already seen, the only change so far was Sargon for the Black Pirate. But sadly, like so many other titles after the Second World War, stability was not going to be the watchword. Mr Terrific had only three more appearances left. Wanda Wilson bowed out in issue 61, worrying about her absent-mindedness and cluing Terry into another crook, but Terrific’s final adventure was a clever – for 6 pages – affair in which the Man with a Thousand Talents had to thwart a jury fixing from inside the Jury Room.
Next issue, we were promised adventures of Mr Nilly’s little boy, ‘Willy’. It didn’t exactly sound promising. And of course Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys continued to stink out the place…

sensation willy nilly

It was 1947. The War, and a massive of audience of GIs wanting quick, throwaway entertainment had gone back to work. The original superhero boom was expiring. Terrific was one of the early casualties of the change in mood and taste, though at least he never had to suffer in-story supplanting by a comic relief. Instead the comic relief replaced him. Willy Nilly was a high school student getting into teenage scrapes, none of them, if his first story was anything to judge by, going to be the least bit original. Times, as they usually do, were changing.
Two episodes of Willy were enough to have me switch to skimming through his pages like the Blue Boys but that still left me three features to read, even if with Wonder Woman it was only to see what incredulity Marston had dreamed up this month. And what had he done with the Holliday Girls, who were no longer appearing in every story, just now and again?
Issue 68 saw both Sargon and Wildcat up against new female enemies, but whilst the Blue Lama got trapped in a tree and burned to death, The Huntress was set for better things: she even escaped from prison before her debut story ended! Both were back though, providing more amusement than we normally got, next issue. But where the Blue Lama got a third strike, and a third death, The Huntress didn’t push her luck in the same way.
But the Huntress was back in issue 71, in one of the few Wildcat stories I’d read before, as a reprint and the Blue Lama extended her blue streak again. It was beginning to look as if she had a permanent position. Meanwhile, the next issue, after endless months of silly and tedious stories, the Blue Boys underwent an upgrade when they started working with, or rather alongside, Little Miss Redhead, a skinny pig-tailed girl who, when the boys tripped over her skipping rope, donned a very short costume and a red-headed wig, not to mention somehow extending her leg length by about six inches, to supplement their efforts. It was actually interesting.

Sensation Miss Redhead


Issue 73 bore the cover date January 1948 and whilst its silly Wonder Woman Halloween story clued us in to when it was actually published, this marks a change to come. William Moulton Marston had passed away from cancer in May 1947, and when his stories ran out, the Amazon Princess fell into the dead clutches of Robert Kanigher. Would we be able to tell the difference? That’s anybody’s guess: multiple stories had already been written by Marston’s ghostwriter, Joye Hummel, faithfully following his patented loopiness.
In the meantime, the Blue Lama was out and the Huntress in, though this time she was captured. In the Lama’s case that was only for one issue. Ordinarily, I’d start to gripe about the same villain turning up in practically every issue, in practically the same story each time, but one little-considered aspect of her persistence was that Sargon had back-tracked towards being a serious strip again, with Max the comic relief given a very restricted role, which could only be for the good.
The same goes for Wildcat for a different reason: after so many awful stories, the Huntress at least provided good action tales.
We’re at that stage now where, just as with Flash Comics, there are indicators in certain of the strips as to which issue they are prepared for. Noticeably, Wildcat’s stories are bearing indicators like SEN76 for issue 73, and SEN80 for issue 76, making me wonder what happened to the three unused stories this suggests.
There’s nothing that’s real about superheroes, especially the cartoon ones like the Blue Boys, but there’s something faintly disturbing about Little Miss Redhead. As Janie, she’s scrawny, with black hair in pigtails and skinny legs. As her alter ego, even drawn in cartoon fashion she’s a bombshell, fuller of face, fuller elsewhere too, wearing very tight leather knickers and knee-length boots and there’s a long way to go to reach those knees from either direction. Basically, she’s hot and she’s deliberately hot, and she’s got to be a good four to six years older in her costume, and like that she’s prime jailbait. Twisted sexuality isn’t only going on up the front of the comic.
By issue 79, I was convinced that Kanigher had now taken over Wonder Woman for the theme of the story was fencing and Kanigher was a fencer. and putting his experience and philosophy into this episode. At the same time, we seemed to have passed the eras of the Blue Lama and The Huntress, as well as Sargon and Wildcat’s comic relief buddies: all four had vanished.
Willy Nilly had also developed a formula, involving the lad getting into misunderstandings that have his steady girl, Betty, refusing to ever talk to him at least three times an episode, and never getting better than a kiss on the cheek when she changes her mind. Is it all really worth it?

sensation lady danger

By now, the Golden Age of superheroes had gone into reverse. Little Boy Blue, with a final appearance from Little Miss Redhead, failed to come back after issue 82, and Sargon was cancelled the following issue to make way for Lady Danger, debuting in issue 84. Valerie Vaughn was a bored heiress who was unexpectedly tough and who got a job as, first, secretary to Gary Grath, Private Detective and Male Chauvinist, then as a newspaper reporter, reporting on her own crime busting escapades. It looked to be a decent second string series with sharp art from Carmine Infantino.
There was room for an additional story in issue 86, with The Atom dropping by for a story made complete nonsense by his unexplained acquisition of super-strength. And as for the following issue, the Wonder Woman story was a piece of farcical nonsense but I couldn’t help being amused that it was set in the town of Twin Peaks…
Lady Danger had rapidly become a favourite, plugged on the cover and taking over the back of book slot from Wildcat, who had held it for so long. Unfortunately, in issue 90 she lost Infantino and was drawn by a very inadequate replacement. Even more unfortunately, despite the blurb that his adventures appeared every month in Sensation, Wildcat had come to his end, leaving only Wonder Woman from the original features.
In his place, Streak the Wonder Dog, Alan (Green Lantern) Scott’s Alsation, missing since All-American Comics had gone Western, got his own series. The consolation was that even if it was badly written, this was to be drawn by Alex Toth. Which was a cheat because he only did the first one.
Time was running out for Sensation Comics. By issue 93 its circulation had slipped so much that it had been demoted to bi-monthly status. Wonder Woman’s series was still billed as by Charles Moulton but Kanigher’s scripts were now making everything a pointless, ridiculous exercise. Streak’s series was a bust and Lady Danger’s new artist had a weird style, postage-stamp sized characters posed in static stances at long distance, leaving acres of wasted space in so many panels. The ghastly aspect of it is that Willy Nilly’s series, long focussing on Willy’s relationship with the mercurial Betty, whose mind changes every few minutes, is the most readable and enjoyable aspect of the line-up, the one I should resent wrathfully for replacing Mr Terrific.
But that was the end of the line for everyone except the lady on the front cover. Issue 94 transformed Sensation Comics into a Romance title with new features Headline Heroines, Romance Inc. and Dr Pat, which was all about a beautiful blonde woman Doctor rejecting all men because she was wed to her all-action work. Even the boss lady caught the bug with a whole story devoted to Steve Trevor’s demand, not a proposal, for Wonder Woman to marry him (she wants to but then she can’t until she’s cleaned up all evil in the world, so that wedding night/losing her Amazon virginity is going to be a long way off yet).
All was changed. Wonder Woman abandoned her trusty red boots with that white bit that stuck out awkwardly at the top for the Grecian lace-up sandals that would persist into the late Sixties, and there was even a new logo for the title.
I dunno. My immediate response is that the new series have better, more complex and more intelligent stories, not to mention better art. But this is not what I want to read in a comic, which no doubt says a lot about me.
Headline Heroines didn’t last long, hardly surprising after two consecutive stories in which the heroine died saving others. It was replaced in issue 99 by Astra, Girl of the Future. Astra was, you’ll never guess it, a reporter. So far as I could tell, the only point to her series was, in an era where ladies dresses reached to below the calf, to draw a redhead with increasingly short skirts.
So next issue was the 100th issue, celebrated as such on the cover but otherwise, as always, with a nothing-out-of-the-ordinary issue. Wonder Woman’s series had balanced itself a bit more back towards action, but still had Steve pressing his suit every last panel and more whilst the Holliday girls and Etta Candy had finally been relegated to Golden Age memory. Of course, that only applied until issue 105.

sensation dr pat

But Romance didn’t work out either and Sensation underwent a root and branch conversion in issue 107 to Horror. Everyone was out, Dr Pat, Astra, Romance Inc….and Wonder Woman. The Amazing Amazon had her own comic to retreat to, but it was the equivalent of Action Comics booting out Superman or Detective Batman.
There would be one repeating character in Johnny Peril, and the rest of the pages went to one-off ghost stories of no great shakes. Time was now running down inexorably. The title shifted to Sensation Mystery with 110. Even the Johnny Peril stories are awful rubbish and the one-offs are nightmares of sterility and ridiculousness, with no credibility or quality. I wouldn’t continue with the series if there wasn’t so little left.
Not that I had much to suffer. Sensation Comics was cancelled after issue 116, abysmal to the end.

Showcasing Showcase – Part 2


We’re at Showcase 52, almost exactly halfway through the series’ run (counting its revived version of the late Seventies). The comic has had its glory days of invention after invention, a long streak of successful try-outs leading to series, but that has come to an abrupt halt. Over the second half, very little will progress to series of their own, and of these, only a couple of titles will run more than forty issues.
What we’re going to see is amply evidenced by issue 52, yet another, and thankfully final attempt to launch Cave Carson, given just a single issue. That made seven all told, and not enough takers.
Next up was two issues of G.I. Joe, the soldier toy figure, written and edited by Bob Kanigher as short war stories using heroic soldiers from different branches of the service. Not only was this feature licensed, thus reducing any profit to be made, but it wasn’t even the first attempt at bringing the toy soldier to comics. Two issues was all the connection lasted, with only some excellent Joe Kubert art to show for it.
Julius Schwartz had been absent from Showcase since issue 36, three years previously. After The Atom, he’d stated that he would not be updating any further characters from the Golden Age. Instead, the Justice Society of America came back in their own right, first the Jay Garrick Flash, then the full team. Now, Schwartz was looking at a full-scale revival, with the next two issues of Showcase devoted to the team-up of Doctor Fate and Hourman, with the smooth, polished art of Murphy Anderson.

Showcase 57

The Super-Team Supreme, as they were billed on the cover, were an odd mixture, magic and science (though the text page on the good Doctor sought to minimise that aspect, pegging it to the great discovery of how to convert energy into matter). They had little in common except their founding membership of the JSA, and for a villain they had to borrow the original Green Lantern’s Swampland foe, Solomon Grundy, thus dragging in Alan Scott as a downgraded third wheel. It’s full of holes, and Gardner Fox really was no longer suited to any kind of story portraying magic, but I can’t be too critical, because I loved it nonetheless. I’d discovered the Justice Society a year before and everything about them fascinated me.
The second story, introducing the new Psycho-Pirate, and giving him a super power to control emotions via a very dry pseudo-scientific means, was more to the point. But for once, Schwartz’s ability to sense what the readers wanted was off. The wave of enthusiasm for the Golden Age heroes was receding. Or maybe it was that the kids enjoyed reading new versions and having them team-up with the oldies, as demonstrated by the success of the annual JLA/JSA team-ups, but didn’t want the Golden Agers by themselves, because they were old.
The Super-Team Supreme’s two issues were gems in the eyes of some of us, but not enough, any more than were the two part comeback teaming Starman with Black Canary in Brave & Bold.
Showcase‘s strike-out run continued with two issues of Enemy Ace, by Kanigher and Kubert. This is a legendary series that I have never read before and now I have I found its intensity astonishing. Rittmeister Hans von Hammer had been introduced in Star-Spangled War Comics in February 1965. He was a fighter pilot in World War 1, for the Germans, a killing machine, cold of intent, but an honourable foe. The response to him was tremendous and he became a regular in that series, a virtual co-star to Sgt. Rock. His appearance in Showcase for, again, two issues, was, I presume, a trial to see if he could carry a title on its own and as he continued to appear in Star-Spangled War Comics after this, one that was failed. But von Hammer was one of those special characters, one that you might almost say was too good for the audience, not enough of whom, at DC, were ready to support an anti-hero.
Then the winless streak was broken, with one issue, issue 59, devoted to the Teen Titans. They’d had two one-offs in Brave & Bold, the second only four months previously, so how much credit their appearance in Showcase could take for the decision to give them their own title is dubious. But they were the first to get a go since the Metal Men. But the only thing worse than Bob Haney’s ‘super-hip’ dialogue and narration was the ludicrous and idiotic plot. Yeesh.
It was back to Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, Murphy Anderson and the Golden Age for the next two-issue run. Originally, it was intended to be another JSA team-up, this time between Doctor Mid-Nite and The Spectre, though if the treatment eventually decided upon for The Spectre flying solo was already set, it’s impossible to see how the Doc fit in.
Once again, these are two issues that I love tremendously. They were the first issues of Showcase that I ever bought, bought on Saturday afternoons in Droylsden, walking on my own to and from the newsagents at Fiveways, the memory so clear. The first of these stories, in issue 60, holds a place in comic book history as being the first superhero retcon. The Spectre, an all-powerful ghost, had disappeared twenty years previously: Fox and Schwartz set about explaining how and why a being of his powers could have been removed for so long a period.
There was a letters column in the second of these, headed with Schwartz’s announcement that they were going to take a breather on reintroducing the Golden Age characters, but it was clear that he had hopes of succeeding with the Spectre. For one thing, despite his usual tendencies, Fox played it straight on magic and a ghost’s powers, and for another this was a new take on the Spectre, a force of unlimited good without the aspect of the judge of crime who frightened people to death.
But the sales didn’t live up to Schwartz’s expectations. Not yet.

Showcase 60

Instead, the unlikely subject to break the streak was the heroes of issues 62-63, E. Nelson Bridwell and Joe Orlando’s The Inferior Five. Now spoof superheroes were nothing new, they’d started with Sheldon Mayer’s The Red Tornado nearly thirty years earlier, and the text page in issue 62 laid it on a bit heavy, but the comic was fun. It preceded Marvel’s similar spoof, Not-Brand Echh by over a year.
The second issue took the gentle piss out of the Incredible Hulk, and included a couple of genuine, laugh-out-loud lines. However, the third issue was pushed back to issue 65 to allow Julius Schwartz and co. one last try at selling The Spectre. Before that, Schwartz had given the Ghostly Guardian a prime role in the 1966 team-up, and now oversaw a story that scaled The Spectre down from Universe-threatening levels to a rather less rarefied level.
This one did the trick, despite what we would now see as an extremely dodgy notion. It comes when the Spectre, cut off from Jim Corrigan’s body by an evil squatter spirit, wraps himself in the energies of Good to enable him to force his way in. Church services, hospitals, even a Peace Corps worker spreading education, yes, but an American soldier on patrol in Vietnam?
The third Inferior Five appearance, in issue 65, swapped in Mike Sekowsky for Joe Orlando, which was a perfect pairing given Sekowsky’s awkward anatomy. If I say that in this issue the Inferiors met the Eggs-Men, would you guess who I was talking about?
So that was two for two, though both series only lasted ten issues each. The next notion was reputedly scheduled for a three issue try-out but ended up only lasting two. Why? If I tell you it was B’Wana Beast, would you understand?
Even at DC in 1967, B’Wana Beast was regarded as racist. The use of the Swahili word for master, applied to a white ‘saviour’ in Africa poisoned the whole concept from the outset, the provision of a recurring villain as an African who was drawn like a monkey and the ‘White God’ saving the ignorant blacks was so horrendous that artist Mike Sekowsky refused to draw a third part. Who then was responsible for this abortion of a concept? Editor George Kashdan and writer Bob Haney. I don’t want to call either of them a racist but when you read shit like this it’s very hard to imagine a line between. Though I can imagine the bluff Haney, with his contempt for the ideas and wishes of fans, simply being defiant in the face of condemnation. Good for Sekowsky.
Unfortunately, what followed was, in a totally contrasting way, almost as awful. The Maniaks were a four piece rock group, three boys, one girl. That’s it, you don’t need any more. Sekowsky could be forgiven yet again, but there were no excuses for editor Jack Miller or writer Nelson Bridwell. Bridwell may well have been a walking encyclopaedia when it came to anything superheroic but when it came to music, his imagination was about as wide as a sewing needle and nowhere near as in depth. This was the year of the Monkees, but they were Led Zeppelin in comparison to this crappy bunch. That made four awful, awful issues in a row.
Issue 70 was filled with a revival of Leave it to Binky, a teen comedy series that had originally run for 60 issues between 1948 and 1958, since when Binky Briggs and his pals had only been seen in DC’s Public Information Shorts, one page stories promoting understanding, tolerance and liberal values. Henry Scarpelli provided the art for four shorts based around the single theme of Binky and his rich rival Sherwood van Loon competing for dates with the beautiful blonde Peggy. It doesn’t sound much, especially not in 1967, but it bought the series a revival from the old numbering until issue 81.
The Maniaks returned for a third and final appearance in issue 71, paired up with a Woody Allen who barely looked like and certainly didn’t talk like the real one. This story was awful. It was sneeringly nasty about Twiggy, threw in a brief Groucho Marx impersonation and then spent what felt like 50 pages on a supposed Civil War musical that allowed Nelson Bridwell to re-write show-tune lyrics, half of which I didn’t recognise despite growing up with parents who loved musicals: the kids of 1967 would sure have identified with these, who needed Jefferson Airplane? Ghastly stuff.
Next up was an issue under the title, Top Gun. This was a Western comic, once again bringing back old ideas. Up front was a new story featuring the Trigger Twins, in back was a reprint of an Alex Toth story featuring the other Johnny Thunder, the one with a stallion instead of a Thunderbolt. Anything would look good compared to the Maniaks but this was good, solid comics, though it was worrying that the reprint was better than the new story. Was Showcase really still in the business of finding new characters?

Showcase 62

The answer to that came in the next five issues, all single try-outs, each of which getting their own series, but not for long. Firstly, in issue 73, was a real classic, Steve Ditko with dialogue by Don Segall introducing Beware the Creeper. The story shot along like a rocket, Ditko’s art was dynamic and fluid, this one was an instant winner. The issue also contained a plug for another Ditko creation coming soon, The Hawk and the Dove.
First, though, was Anthro, the cro magnon cave boy, created by Howie Post, and giving Carmine Infantino an editorial role. Post’s art, maintaining a clever balance between realism and caricature, using multiple soft lines to define instead of the customary hard edges, created a superb atmosphere. The story intended to show that the humans of the caveman era were as human as us, and it was also very funny at the same time.
And with this issue, Showcase went from bi-monthly to eight times a year, a frequency supposedly reserved for popular titles dependent upon a single artist. In this instance it could only signal that, however unlikely, Showcase had transcended its point and was being bought by enough readers for it’s own sake.
We weren’t asked to wait long for The Hawk and the Dove as they arrived in issue 75. Compared to The Creeper, this was tame stuff artistically, though as the issue was the gulf between the separate and naïve political stances of the protagonists, that’s not really surprising. The issues in America that inspired Hawk and Dave’s creation, the pro- and anti-stances towards the Vietnam War in an Election year, are no longer the same imperatives they were, which slightly diminishes the story. But DC awarded the boys a series.
As they did from the next character’s debut, Bat Lash. With gorgeous, loose art from Nick Cardy, using a more impressionistic line than on the Teen Titans, this was another gem of a story, about a smooth-talking, peace-loving, flowery-waist-coated western drifter turned reluctant trouble-shooter, and it was also funny as all get out. This really was a strong run, and it was rapidly restoring Showcase‘s reputation for bringing through new characters.
And that continued with the introduction of Angel and the Ape in issue 77, a gloriously goofy private eye comedy about Investigators Angel O’Day and her partner, Sam Simeon. Angel’s a doll of a platinum blonde who looks dumb but who’s clever and highly skilled whilst Sam’s a gorilla. What’s more, he’s a cartoonist working for an editor called Stan Bragg. Do you detect the writing of Nelson Bridwell? You do, with art by Bob Oksner. Bridwell was as laugh-out-loud good on this as he was stupefyingly rotten on the Maniaks.
So that was five new ideas in five issues, each one jumping into their own series without further issues. Was this recognition of a a string of strong ideas? Was it a recognition that, with Marvel growing ever more dominant, DC had to change. Or was it panic at Marvel’s rise and the grand old tradition of throwing things at the wall to see what stuck?
I don’t know. Like I said, all five got series of their own. Those five series lasted, respectively, 6 issues, 6 issues, 6 issues, 7 issues and 7 issues. It’s not a great track record, is it?
The run came to an abrupt halt with issue 78, devoted to another, more serious private eye, Jonny Double. Despite a fine, impressionistic cover, the reason for the streak ending was obvious inside. Double was an ex-cop turned loser PI, permanently broke, can’t catch a break, gets beat up a lot. The plot, by a fan turned intern, name of Marv Wolfman, attempted to be downbeat and realistic but was confusing instead, Joe Gill’s dialogue was tired and unimaginative and Jack Sparling drew the story with angular lay-outs like crazy paving and equally as legible. No thanks.
An intriguing but decidedly minor character, Dolphin, made a single appearance in issue 79. The creation of Jay Scott Pike, Dolphin was an undersea woman, a beautiful platinum blonde (any relation to Angel O’Day?) dressed in a light blue blouse with the sleeves torn off, and slightly darker blue and decidedly brief shorts.
The story centred on Naval frogmen, specifically CPO Chris Landau, trying to recover intelligence documents from an American ship sunk during the War. Pike borrowed the trick Milton Caniff used to introduce Steve Canyon in his strip, focussing on everybody’s reactions to someone/something seen underwater and not putting the girl onstage until page 6. Dolphin’s a complete enigma: she can live on land for up to five or six hours but lives underseas, breathing water and immune to the Bends, it seems. She has gills and prehensile webbing, but is also highly intelligent, quickly learns to speak English but, after helping get the documents back, overhears someone stupidly comparing her to a fish and returns to the seas, breaking Landau’s heart but not necessarily her own.
Weird stuff. Dolphin was eventually equipped with an origin over twenty years later and became a supporting character in Aquaman. What Pike intended for her was never revealed as far as I know.

Showcase 69

Issue 80 brings us to the Phantom Stranger. Once again, DC were reviving an old, and failed character rather than come up with a new idea. The Stranger had been created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino in 1952 for a six issue run where he was a bit of a debunker of supernatural phenomena, which made sense in that for his reappearance, he was being paired with Dr Thirteen, the sceptics’ sceptic, except that for the purposes of this issue the Stranger was pro magic.
But the real reason for the revival was that it was a cheap comic to produce. Only eight new pages were drawn, as a framing story with a ludicrous ending, surrounding one reprint for each character. Not the Phantom Stranger we’re familiar with now, but cheap enough to foster another new series, this time lasting 41 issues.
The Way Out World of Windy and Willy in issue 81 was a bust of major proportions. Not only was it out-of-date and stupid, the very obvious different lettering showed it for what it was, a reprint of something that had appeared under a different name. I suspected, and Google confirmed, that it was a retouching of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a decade old series based on the TV show of the same name. Unbelievably, it got a series though thankfully only for four issues.
Windy and Willy were the twentieth and last feature to be spun off out of Showcase into their own series. Enemy Ace does not count, not just being pre-existing but current.
Next up was Nightmaster, given an old-style three issue run. The creation of Denny O’Neill and Jerry Grandenetti, the series was an attempt to introduce Sword and Sorcery fiction to comics. Nightmaster has enjoyed a degree of respectable life over the last quarter century but made no progress in 1969, for the plain fact that the comics were crap, not least from the insistence on clogging the fantasy stuff down with good old American feet of clay in the form of a rock musician – playing to teeny-boppers (!) – with a sarcastic tone of speech dragging everything down.
Astonishingly, a new artist then drew the final two issues, and astonishingly it was Berni Wrightson and unastonishingly he was good. Indeed, he was very good, which only served to emphasise just how lousy O’Neill’s Jim Rook was as a character, not to mention O’Neill’s overall failure to capture anything of the substance of S&S. At least the third part offered some kind of a conclusion, leaving everything set up for an ongoing series that, deservedly, didn’t materialise.
Firehair, a Joe Kubert creation, took over issues 85-87. Though set in Western times, Kubert announced that the theme of the book was to be modern issues. Firehair was a white boy, red-headed, the sole survivor of a defensive massacre by Indians against the Cavalry. Brought up a Chief’s son, Firehair faced prejudice from both worlds, Indian and White, neither of them accepting him as one of them.
Once again though, the story was far outweighed by the art, the earnestness and undisguised intent to make it about social issues making the whole thing leaden. It was the times, the era of Relevance. But the series got stronger as it went on, as Kubert rowed away from its declared premise, and the final issue was all-round excellent. Firehair would get a sporadic back-up in the final ten issues of Tomahawk, but that would be all.
Issues 88-90 were dedicated to Jason’s Quest, a short-lived concept from Mike Sekowsky, currently riding high on his revamp of Wonder Woman. The titular character was a young man who, on his seeming father’s deathbed, learned that he was actually adopted, that his real father was murdered for some mysterious secret being sought by a villain named Tuborg (a once popular Danish lager) and that he had an unsuspected twin sister. Jason set off in pursuit of, first, his sister Geraldine, and then revenge.
I was immediately prejudiced against the first issue, which took the questing young man into Britain, or rather one of the worst and most ignorant representations of my home country. I’ve only one, very short experience of Paris but I think the French got it just as bad. Anyway, Jason found his sister and dragged her round Paris from flashpoint to flashpoint, never finding the time to explain to her exactly why he was dragging her around like a postbag so that, when he was forced to leave her to draw Tuborg’s men away, she was determined not to rendezvous with him or see him ever again. A neat idea executed poorly, and never followed up on.
Showcase’s final feature was previewed in issue 90 before getting the regular three issues. Manhunter 2070 was another Sekowsky creation, and a dumb one. Sekowsky went straight for the early, inglorious days of SF by setting up a ‘space western’, Starker, a bounty hunter. To show what level this was on, Sekowsky provided Starker with two hot, short-skirted girlfriends, with no rivalry so clearly some people were into threesomes. He just didn’t give either of them a name.
Starker’s brief existence came to an end in issue 93, marked by the innumerate stupidity of claiming that a 30% of 2,000,000 credits came to 25,000. Says it all, really. Peculiarly, the story ended on a cliffhanger, a primitive tribesman about to cave in Starker’s head with a club. But there was no outcome. And no more Showcase.

Showcase 73

Not, at any rate, for seven years. In 1977 the title was revived, at the DC of Janette Kahn’s re-modelling, albeit only for another eleven issues (plus two unpublished). Though I wouldn’t normally include these, I did buy at least seven of this late run so let’s see how the revival compared with the rest of the run.
Before that, I have to mention that the concept, if not the title, had been partially restored earlier in the decade in a thirteen issue run as First Issue Special. This was a slightly farcical series, built on Publisher Carmine Infantino’s theory that no. 1 issues always sold well so why not have a series consisting of nothing but no. 1s?
Issues 94-96 were devoted to the New Doom Patrol, by Paul Kupperberg and Joe Staton. It was a typical Seventies superhero comic, everyone snapping in each other’s faces all the time and despite having Robotman (in a re-designed metal body courtesy of a little-concealed Dr Will Magnus) and General Immortus, it lacked any of the original DP’s quirkiness.
Staton stayed on, this time with Paul Levitz, for the first solo stories of Power Girl, Gerry Conway’s creation from the revived All-Star Comics, the Earth-2 Supergirl. What we got was Power Girl’s origin and the establishment of a secret identity for her, bound up in a battle with the Brain Wave in which Levitz has the ugly little runt decide on Power Girl as his number one enemy because she’s been responsible for more defeats than anyone else, which is true only if you count at least two encounters that don’t exist.
At least PG wasn’t continually spouting her crude feminism, though it was noticeable that she left the Earth-2 Flash and Green Lantern imprisoned to tackle the villain herself. Why was Seventies superherodom at DC so all-fired dumb?
And Staton made it seven issues in a row with the celebratory issue 100. Written by Kupperberg and Levitz, it was in its way the antithesis of everything Showcase ever stood for, an extended story, and a convoluted one at that, featuring as many people from the series history as could be crammed in and never mind coherence. The cover boasted sixty stars, but if you think I’m going to count… Actually, Levitz did that in the editorial pages and the numbering was correct, even to the only other appearance of Fireman Farrell. Off the top of my head I can’t remember anyone who got left out.
It was back to normal business from issue 101-103 with a three part Hawkman story, co-starring Hawkgirl and Adam Strange and introducing the idea of war between Rann and Thanagar. This came from Jack C Harris and Al Milgrom. Harris’s intent was space opera mixing the old Hawkman with the modern style, so he and Adam argue all the way through three issues. Meanwhile, the Equalizer plague (Justice League of America 117) that was keeping the Hawks on Earth as opposed to Thanagar was vanished in the background and replaced by a Thanagarian Queen who banished Katar and Shayera for not supporting her war against Rann. Plus ça change…
But once again Showcase hit the cancellation buffers, with issue 104 as the last. This time it was not necessarily the series’ own sales, though these obviously weren’t great, but rather the infamous DC Implosion that wiped out half the line in a day and almost did for DC completely. The honours went to O.S.S, Spies at War, like Enemy Ace an existing feature in one of the war books, put up as a possible spin-off at exactly the wrong time.
The cancellation, like all the rest, was abrupt. Issue 104 had Deadman billed for its follow up issue, and The Creeper would have starred in issue 106. Neither was published, at least not then. The Deadman story appeared in one of the Cancelled Comics Cavalcade mimeographed collections put out privately for the writers and artists whilst The Creeper saw print 32 years later, as part of a Graphic Novel reprinting Steve Ditko’s work on the character. They’re both on the DVD I have.
The Deadman story was quite promising, despite having to undergo two writers, Len Wein having only managed to produce half the story before being felled by a medical issue, requiring Gerry Conway to complete it without any idea of what Wein had planned. Jim Aparo held the whole thing together wonderfully.
And the Creeper was once again good fun.
The Deadman issue was copied from an actual comic book, including a letters page. It talks about future features. Somewhere on Earth-2, where there was no such Implosion, DC Comics published Gerry Conway’s new Western character, The Deserter, in issues 107-9, The World of Krypton and a three issue solo for The Huntress. There was also reference to an unnamed hero team from Len Wein. But we all know these stories never happened.
And that was the story of Showcase, in all its glory and ignominy. It’s almost an encapsulation of the Silver Age in itself but without it, would we still have DC Comics today? The answer to that may well be on Earth-3, but we don’t go there, not even in fun.

Showcase 80

Showcasing Showcase – Part 1


Listen whilst I set the scene. This bit will be dry as dust but without it you won’t understand what comics were in the early Fifties, before even I was born.
The Golden Age, or to be more accurate, the first Superhero Era, was over. The themes of the era were Wars and Westerns, Funny Animals and Funny Teenagers, adaptations of popular Radio Series, SF and Mysteries. But with very few exceptions, none of DC’s new titles were taking off. Which was awkward.
Producing a comic book in the early Fifties was very awkward in the technology of the era. There was already a long lead-time between the editor commissioning or approving a story and it being ready to go to the printer. Before that could happen, someone – and I’m assuming this was DC’s Business Manager, Jack Leibowitz – had to decide on a print run. Print high, reduce the unit price of each issue, improve the potential profit, print low, vice versa. Complicated by the fact that you were estimating how many copies you could sell up to three months in advance.
Once the book goes out of house, it has to be printed, it has to be distributed all across America (by truck), it has to be put out by newsstands, drugstores, mom-and-pop stores. Then, after its period on sale, when the next issue comes in, the unsold copies are taken off, the retailer strips the top off the cover, the bit showing the logo and issue number, bundles all these up and returns them to the distributor for credit against the next delivery. Eventually, for this is not among the retailers’ priorities, the returns get back to DC. It can take up to six months after the title goes off sale to have all these back, and only then does the company now if they have made a profit or a loss.
Because it’s all about returns, not sales. About print runs and decisions made half a year ago. Because a comic that sells 200,000 out of a print run of 250,000 is a smashing success whereas one that sells 300,000 out of a print run of 800,000 is a flop, and a lossmaker.
This process is bad enough for ongoing titles but what if you want to launch a new title? There’s no market research, and no marketing, except for in-house ads. You guess what the market might bear and send it out there to sink or swim. Unlike the situation for the past four decades, there’s no collectors market, speculating on a no. 1, hoping for triple values or better on resale. No. 1’s sell low, then the circulation goes up as the kids tell each other about this great new title. You hope.
So you’ve sent out a new title and when the returns come in, finally, it’s been a disaster. You’ve lost your shirt. You immediately cancel the title. Which issue will that strike with? Issue 7. Yes, the clunky technology means that you cannot get the information on which to pull the plug before issue 6 is in the system.
But that’s not all. What if the sales on issue 1 are a loss, but not a disaster. Do you panic, cancel on the spot, and watch the ongoing figures rise until it goes into profit by issue 4 or 5, knowing you’ve killed the golden goose. Or do you hold off, hoping for this kind of escalation, knowing that if it never comes, whenever you cancel you’ve still got five more shirts to lose?
And that’s without factoring in the issue of the bond you have to pay to the distributor, to buy space on the newsstands for your new and untried title. A bond you forfeit if you cancel before a certain number of issues are published. Not to mention your deteriorating reputation with your distributor, who takes note of the number of failures you put out there and, at some point, will decide that your precious newsstand space would be better off going to a different company, one that seems to have a better idea what it’s doing.
Who’d be a Business Manager with that responsibility?
And then some bright spark, whose name has never been recorded to my knowledge, came up with one of those ingenious ideas that are completely obvious, but only afterwards. That answer was Showcase, a purpose-built try-outs magazine, appearing six times a year. Every editor would have a go, in turn. New ideas would be tested in Showcase for viability, with those that sold well enough getting a series with a near enough guarantee of profitability, and those that flopped causing minimal damage and easily forgotten.
What’s more, there would be no cancellations. If all six issues of Showcase‘s first year flopped, first of all that was six lossmakers, instead of thirty six, and second you didn’t cancel the title, you started work on issues 7-12. DC could carry one loss-making title if it had to.
Thus it began. And that’s where I begin, with a DVD of the complete run of Showcase, ready to tot up fortune and failure, and watch how DC’s Sixties shaped up, from the very bottom.

Showcase 1

Now what I’ve already told you is the truth but DC’s version of it, on page 1 of issue 1, was rather different. According to that, a kid named Larry Blake wrote in asking for a comic about fire-fighters, that he and all his pals would support. But when editor Whitney Ellsworth asked round, all his fellow editors were getting letters from kids with great ideas. They couldn’t put all these great new comics out all at once, but they could put all these ideas into a new comic, and call it Showcase
That first issue was headed ‘The Fire-Fighters’ on the cover but inside there were three adventures featuring Fireman Farrell, Fred Farrell, that is, Jr: son of deceased fire-fighting hero Fred Sr. The first story saw Fred Jr. get through his exam though they really didn’t need to bother, ‘cos Fred knew it all already.
And that was the problem. The issue was a nice, well put together and realistic creation but it was too much a procedural, with only a limited range at its disposal. It was also, according to Mark Evanier, for many many years the worst selling comic book issue ever put out by DC.
The accusation of a limited range couldn’t be levelled at ‘Kings of the Wild’ in issue 2, with three distinct stories, of an Indian boy recovering his honour, a cast-aside kid and dog gaining the respect of the town and a trained circus bear coping in the wild.
Issue 3’s ‘The Frogmen’ was a single, three-part story, drawn superbly by Russ Heath, making three different approaches in three issues, but none of them suggested a long-lasting series, and the name of the game was teasing concepts into series. So, and we should all know this story by now, an editorial conference was held to try to find a more promising subject for issue 4. This one would be edited by Julius Schwartz, and comic book history was about to change.
Someone, some bright spark whose name has gone undeservedly ignored, suggesting seeing if the kids were ready to start reading superheroes again: why not bring back The Flash, DC’s most popular Forties character not still in print. Schwartz was willing but he had a condition: no Jay Garrick. Garrick was boring, he had been done. Schwartz would take it on if he was allowed to start from scratch with a new character: new name, new origin, new costume. It was agreed.
Schwartz retreated to the office that presumably he still shared with Bob Kanigher, and tapped him for an origin. Carmine Infantino would draw, and who better was there to draw speed and motion and slick scenes? For the back-up, John Broome, one of only two writers Schwartz was prepared to work with, would write a back-up for Infantino and inker Sid Greene.
Oh, how familiar are those pages? I must have read them, or versions of them that use the basic images, a hundred times. In a heartbeat, Showcase found it’s feet.
Not that it happened all at once. Next issue was back to the form of the first three, a generic idea, this time Manhunters: three detective stories. An idea with wider scope but hardly new, hardly original and hardly more successful than the Fire-Fighters. Not like a notion cooked up by Jack Kirby for the first two issue try-out, the Challengers of the Unknown. With scripting by Joe Simon on the first issue, and Dave Wood thereafter, the first issue took great leaps and bounds through the Challs’ origin and first adventure. The second issue introduced June Robbins, at that point a decidedly reddish-haired brunette and robotics expert, and quickly adopted as an honorary Challenger for her role in trying to save the brilliantly-designed Kirby robot, Ultivac. Even the name was genius.
On the other hand, the instant renaming of Prof Haley to Harrison on the splash page was less stellar.
The Flash’s debut had been a big hit. Management wanted to see if that was a one-off, so back everybody came for issue 8: same format, though this time it was Broome’s back-up that was the more memorable, introducing the first of the Flash’s future Rogue’s Gallery, Captain Cold. And he was a mould-setter, emphasising the SF orientation that came naturally to Schwartz and Broome.
The next subject was far from new, but just as Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen had been given his own title not long before, now DC were considering the possibilities of doing the same for Lois Lane, and Showcase was the official testing ground. Like every other Weisinger Superman title, we got three stories, the first introducing an adult Lana Lang as a newcomer to Metropolis, and rooming initially with Lois. So began the rivalry out of which Weisinger would ring so much juice, so much thin, unappetising juice and so much dickishness by Supes towards both women.
And Lois’s unending eagerness to catch out Clark Kent extended through all three stories and into a second issue, Showcase 10, mingled in with a bit of that psychologically twisted anti-woman bullshit I loathed every time it reared its ugly head across the Fifties. I really didn’t want to see any more of it.
The Challengers returned for another two-issue run in issues 11/12, strengthening their case for promotion into a series, but so too did The Flash, this time on a two-issue run by the same teams as before. And it was John Broome coming up with the super-villains, although he was conserving his energy since Mr Element (13) and Dr Alchemy (14) were the same criminal, with different names, costumes and M.O.s.
By now, Showcase had been around nearly two and a half years and no new series had yet been spun-off from it. It was time to take a decision. Three features were under consideration and, contrary to legend, The Flash was the least successful. The Challengers and Lois Lane were given titles almost simultaneously – the one a series brought to Jack Schiff from outside, the other yet one more expansion on the Superman mythos by Mort Weisinger, who thereafter would never edit a title that didn’t feature the big blue boy scout.

Showcase 4

In fact, it would be almost another year before Julius Schwartz was told to clear space on his schedule for The Flash’s own series, three years after the character’s debut. But his was to be the most influential feature ever to appear in Showcase.
Meanwhile, the parade of new characters went on. Next, in issue 15, was (The) Space Ranger, young Rick Starr with his shape-shifting alien buddy, Cryll, and his secretary, the lovely short-skirted blonde Myra. Space Ranger, who would go on to star in Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space was the first half of a little challenge set by Irwin Donenfeld to Jack Schiff and Julius Schwartz, to create two new SF characters, one from the future and one from the present. Schiff chose the future hero, Space Ranger, who got two issues, neither of them spell-binding.
Space Ranger was just space opera without any real flair to it, but Schwartz’s character came up next, for the first three-issue run, from issue 17-19, and this was Adam Strange.
Or rather ‘Adventures on Other Worlds’, as the feature was first titled. Nevertheless, it is Adam Strange, the Earth architect transported back and forth to Rann, and his love Alanna. Not quite yet the Adam we most love, for to begin with art is by Mike Sekowsky. Mind you, Sekowsky has him don the classic, super-cool fin-helmeted costume as early as the second story. Though Alanna at this stage clads herself in tight black slacks. Carmine Infantino will put that right.
For the third issue, the titles were inverted, with Adam’s name up top and a much smaller Adventures on Other Worlds tucked away at the bottom of the cover where only the kid who pulled it from the spinner rack to buy would see it.
The next contender was another winner, in the form of Rip Hunter, Time Master, enjoying issues 20-21. Another Jack Schiff production, Hunter’s team consisted of the Time Master himself plus his best pal, Jeff and his girl, Bonnie, and her young brother, Corky, though the latter two were left behind on the Time-Sphere’s maiden voyage to the Mesozoic Age. Not that they need have felt they were missing out as they were taken back there by a pair of crooks imagining they could pick up loot lying round.
The second half of Rip’s run was a picaresque little number giving the gang the chance to meet first Alexander the Great, then a decidedly non-magical Circe the Sorceress and finally, stop me if you’ve heard this before, see Atlantis sink.

Showcase 17

What came next was back in Schwartz’s hands. He told it both ways. First it was, after the success of The Flash, now in his own title, management thanked him for a good job and asked him to do the same for Green Lantern, then later it was, after the success of The Flash, management thanked him for a good job and asked him what he wanted to do next and Schwartz picked Green Lantern.
Either way, Schwartz cut Bob Kanigher out of the loop and went straight to John Broome, pairing him with Gil Kane. Once again, it was an inspired pairing, as Kane was as perfect for Hal Jordan and his world as Carmine Infantino was for Barry Allen’s life.
Of course, before the last issue of this short run Green Lantern had appeared elsewhere, in The Brave and The Bold 28, as a founder member of the fledgling Justice League of America, which was a display of faith in GL’s future. And why not? The Golden Age Green Lantern had been the only other DC title to enjoy his own comic in the Forties and there wasn’t the slightest reason to suspect the new version would do any less.
There always had to be a new idea and another editor, but any character who hadn’t yet been awarded their own series was fair game, so Rip Hunter and Jack Schiff were back next for two more issues. Some superb art from Joe Kubert disguised a pretty bog standard story featuring two power-mad figures and a horde of pre-historic monsters in issue 25, and the following issue was a similarly uninspired tale of aliens invading Earth 2,000 years BC.
Incidentally, Bonnie, who looked prettier in Kubert’s work, had a very limited wardrobe, consisting of one long-sleeved dark red pole neck wool top and a single below-the-knee white pleated skirt.
Four Challengers, Four time-travellers, and now four frogmen, if you count one frogwoman in that number. Bob Kanigher was on the case with the formula of four for the next three issues, plying the quasi-superhero beat with The Sea Devils, and artist Russ Heath. Yet though it’s easy to mock the formula, which was Rip Hunter and his crew exactly, the story was both exciting, pacey and convincing in how it built four individuals into a team out of necessity, in which both the girl and her kid brother are both part of the action and equally trusted with it.
The origin was built on a treasure hunt for a sunken ship, an obvious McGuffin. There was ex-military frogman’s son, Dane Dorrance, trying to prove himself worthy of his father’s flippers, would-be starlet Judy Walton, out to attract the attention of the producer of the movie ‘Sea Devils’, her younger brother Nicky and big, clumsy Biff Bailey, trying to show his girlfriend that his clumsiness on land disappears under the water. These four help each other out against sharks, crumbling treasure ships and outlandish monsters, demonstrating their ability as an instant team. It was great fun.
The second issue was divided into stories of unequal length, one focussing on the new team-members as individuals, the other a somewhat trite adventure featuring an under-the-ocean-bed civilisation planning to conquer the surface and Judy showing the first flashes of the green-eyed monster when it comes to Dane (mind you, she’d been wetting her scuba pants on sight of him in the first issue). Issue 28 also featured the first ever Showcase letters page, though it was all about Sea Devils’ advice on scuba-diving, not the actual story.
All three issues came with startlingly wonderful wash covers by Heath. Issue 29 ended with a direct plea from the team to the readers, appealing to them to right in and ask for more Sea Devils. Which they must have done because shortly after, the team were elevated into their own series, one copy of which I used to own nearly a lifetime ago.

Showcase 22

So far, all of Showcase‘s subjects had been new. Even Lois Lane was fresh in the sense that she had never had her own stories before. But what followed, given a generous four issue allotment, was a repudiation of the series’ whole idea. Aquaman had been around for twenty years, his series running in Adventure Comics. He was a Mort Weisinger creation, a knock-off of Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner at Timely Comics. Now, after all that nondescript time, he was to be given a shot at earning his own, solo series.
The first issue, no. 30, was edited by Jack Schiff and drawn by one of only two women artists around in 1960, Ramona Fradon. Aqualad co-starred, Aquaman’s origins as the lost King of Atlantis were incorporated and, at full-length for the first time, instead of being hopelessly naff and tedious, the King of the Sea was merely ordinarily naff, tedious and cliched. The whole run was drab, not to mention the bizarre way in which Aquaman continually addressed Aqualad by name in practically every speech bubble, even when both of them were alone, as if the boy would forget who he was if someone didn’t continually remind him. But he got his series, so somebody must have liked it.
Next we were back to Julius Schwartz and another superhero revival, this time of The Atom, though unlike his predecessors, this Atom bore no resemblance to the Golden Age hero. Ray Palmer was the original inspiration of artist Gil Kane, who suggested reviving The Atom but with the powers of Quality Comics’ old character, Doll Man, namely the ability to shrink.
Kane got the art job, inked by Murphy Anderson and Schwartz brought in Gardner Fox to write. Broome got Flash and Green Lantern, who were big successes, Fox got Hawkman and The Atom, who weren’t, though the Justice League made up for that.
Again there were two stories, in the second of which, after The Atom helped Ray Palmer’s girl-friend Jean Loring win her first major case, introduced the series’ underlying theme, one that neither Fox nor Schwartz wholly recognised. Ray Palmer wanted to marry Jean Loring. Jean refused to even get engaged until she’d established herself in her career. So The Atom set out to help her win all the cases: the sooner she was a success, the sooner she would marry him. And, since marriage were the only terms under which the Comics Code would sanction having sex, not that you could even mention it, let alone show it… The things a guy will do to get laid.
Three issues, all of them good, and another character was on his way to a new series.
Issue 37 introduced the Metal Men, written and edited by Bob Kanigher and drawn by the art team of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. There’s a famous tale about the gestation of this new concept, related by Kanigher. According to him, some sort of mix-up suddenly left Showcase without a story, with only a week to go before the printing deadline. Just before leaving the office on Friday, Editorial Coordinator Irwin Donenfeld tasked Kanigher with coming up with something – anything – in time.
On his commute home, Kanigher came up with the basic concept of robots made of different metals, each displaying personalities consistent with each metal’s properties. He worked up the idea over the weekend and got to the office with a full story written. Calling Andru and Esposito into the office, he set them up in an empty room and got them started whilst he got on with his multifarious duties, pausing in these to survey each pages it was finished, set out corrections etc., arrange colouring and lettering along the way until, by the following Friday, and the deadline, the issue was complete and ready.
The story’s vigorous enough, but a bit too didactic on the scientific properties side, leavened only by Platinum’s insistence on being treated as a metal and a full member of the team rather than a woman (a bit of confused sexuality there from ‘Doc’ Magnus right from the outset). And of course, having no reason to see this story as anything but a one-off stopgap, Kanigher kills off all the robots.
But he’d done better than he’d planned. The idea intrigued, enough for the run to be extended. The second story didn’t quite live up to expectations with Magnus starting off building new Metal Men who were pure robots and incompetent with it, before having to retrieve the bodies, and original, faulty activators, of the first lot and reconstruct them.
And the by now almost statutory third issue not only introduced the Metal Men’s first recurring foe, Chemo, but also a letters page full of enthusiastic responses demanding a series. Which duly came to pass, but not until the stopgap team enjoyed an Aquaman-esque fourth outing.

Showcase 25

So far, with the exception of those four uninspired ideas at the start, everything Showcase touched became a winner. From The Flash to the Metal Men, everything got its own series. Abruptly, it was as if the sun had been turned off. It would never be like that again. Five of the next seven issues – 41-42, 44 and 46-47 – would feature Tommy Tomorrow of the Planeteers.
Tommy was an existing character, an SF hero who’d been around since 1947 as a back-up in first Action Comics, then World’s Finest. He’d been a Colonel in the Planeteers, defenders of a Solar Earth Empire. Now he was being re-imagined under Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan, using Arnold Drake and Lee Elias, by being taken back to his days as a cadet, then a Lieutenant, with a new, Venusian sidekick.
But the new Tommy’s adventures showed none of the quirkiness Drake brought to things like the Doom Patrol, whilst Elias still used small, tight panels, creating the impression these were reprints from the Fifties. It did not work out.
The first interruption, in issue 43, was an adaptation of the James Bond film, Dr No. It was bought in from Britain and was Bond’s first comics appearance in the USA. It was also complete crap, badly drawn, static, dull and with mechanical, typed lettering, which looked awful. But it was only just worse than Tommy Tomorrow’s third outing, one big cliché from start to finish.
The next interlude was completely different, but also in its way pointless. Under a Russ Heath cover, Kanigher and Kubert combined to present a Sgt. Rock story, telling how the Rock earned his Sergeant’s stripes, first in battle and then in his own head. It was superb, even if Kanigher ladled on the psychological ‘Wooden Soldier’ a bit thick, but what was this doing in Showcase? Rock was already a star, in his own series in Our Army at War.
Though I don’t know a thing about this, my theory is that Tommy Tomorrow was meant to run five issues straight but suffered deadline issues, forcing two emergency stopgaps. Five will get you ten that the Sgt. Rock story was intended for Our Army at War.
That left two more from Tommy. The next subject was another familiar one. Cave Carson and Adventures Inside Earth had already failed over two stints in Brave & Bold – which was, at that moment, getting out of the try-out business and changing over to team-ups – and now he got two issues of Showcase to see if he could do any better. The short answer was, he couldn’t.
New uniforms and a pet lemur instead of the girl’s kid brother made no difference. Not even Lee Elias drawing like it was 1964 and not 1954 could make the spelunkers interesting. At least there were only two issues.
Nor was the record improved by two issues of ‘I-Spy’. This was King Faraday – king-for-a-day, get it? – and Showcase 50 didn’t even pretend to be original. There was a four page introduction that was new, and the rest were two obvious reprints that a three month old baby would pick out as from the early Fifties. Old they were, but they were good, smart examples of the time, with a strong Caniff influence on the art, but they were an example of the very thing Showcase had been established to abolish, the short run, new series.
But all Showcase was doing was reprinting these stories. There wasn’t even the pretence of a frame story in issue 51 and the editing was so sloppy that the clearly superimposed box saying that was the last story and inviting letters to demand the contrary was pasted onto the first story in the issue.
It was only 1964, but already Showcase‘s Golden Age was over. The flood of new ideas turning into new series had gone into reverse. Old characters, reprint stories from a different era. Suddenly, editors and writers weren’t even coming up with bad ideas. The word ‘new’ was being expunged. And Brave & Bold‘s era as a parallel magazine had also ended. Just what had happened?
The probable explanation was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Marvel had gone from being on the rise to in full flow. They couldn’t yet compete in sales but they were obviously something new in the industry and DC simply couldn’t understand them. Their writers were growing older, the times were getting away from them. They were being paralysed by their own lack of understanding.
And I’ll look closer at how that developed in the second part, next.

Showcase 34

All-Flash & All Green Lantern: Part 1 – The Golden Age Flash


My first realisation that it was possible to get complete runs of Golden Age comics without starving for several years was with Flash Comics, starring Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash, and many others. The ice having been broken, I went looking for, and found, a similar DVD of All-American Comics, starring Alan Scott, the Golden Age Green Lantern, and many others. My only disappointment was that these collections didn’t contain the solo issues of each hero in their own titles. It was quite clear that certain of the heroes’ renowned villains only appeared in the solo series. That left a considerable gap as far as I was concerned.
Not any more. I now have, and am going to write about, those very solo titles. So come back with me again to the early days of the Golden Age, starting first of all in Keystone City, with a look at All-Flash Quarterly.
The series started as a quarterly, in keeping with the existing two solo books, over at Detective Comics, Inc., Superman and Batman. A 64 page comic, four Flash stories, all by Jay Garrick’s team from Flash Comics, Gardner Fox and E.E Hibbard, who were introduced with their pictures in AFQ 1. Nothing out of the ordinary, just because this was Jay’s solo vehicle: a two-page recap of his origin, the one where the fumes he inhaled sped up his reflexes and everyone seemed to know Garrick had superspeed yet made no connection with The Flash.
And Joan Williams, ‘lifelong friend’, in on the secret from the start, forever trailing in Jay’s wake, determined to be in on the action but never fast enough to catch up. Oh, it’s goofy enough stuff, raw and energetic and stupid in places but with an overpowering eagerness to please and a relish in the fun of superpowers. The only moment of true note in issue 1 was the debut of the Monocle, a crook who got his name not from what he could use his monocle for, lasers or hypnotics, but simply because he wore one!
But there was a genuine upgrade in issue 2, in the form of a full-length novel, a single story – in four chapters, of course – a story starting years before the Flash existed, featuring a convicted crook swearing revenge on the DA who got him sent down, kidnapping his baby son and raising him as his own, to kill the boy’s real father, whilst the crook became an international mastermind as The Threat. At each turn, the Flash foiled the Threat’s plans until, with the truth coming out, the Threat committed suicide by poison, leaving the deluded Roy Revenge to serve his time and then marry Ann, his sister (not in the blood, they weren’t relations physically but they’d been brought up as brother and sister for twenty-five years so, yeah, icky).
There was another book-lengther in issue 3, using the same four chapter formula to give the story regular lifts but I was most interested in an offhand comment, early on, about why nobody can see that Jay Garrick is The Flash. The idea first surfaced in the Sixties, sounding like the archetypal ex post facto rationalisation, namely that Jay was always vibrating his face lightly so that nobody saw anything but a blur. But that explanation did date from 1941, though instead of vibration of molecules, which only came in with Barry Allen, it was Garrick constantly moving faster than anyone could see.
I don’t (yet) know if any of the other Quarterlies took advantage of their vast amounts of space to tell such long stories, but they were certainly a great way to use a solo title. Sheldon Mayer, All-Flash editor certainly thought so.
And Mayer was on to something right, for issue 5 was the last Quarterly, the series going bi-monthly with the following issue and becoming simply All-Flash. However, he gets a black mark from me for introducing the infamous Winky, Blinky and Noddy, stupid hands at a racing stables but en route to such an unlimited range of stupidity. They’re underdeveloped on their debut, but not enough to be dropped.
It seemed that Mayer wasn’t sure of the direction the series should be taking for in issue 6 he set up a Poll: did the readers want more book-lengthers, did they prefer individual stories and did they want more Winky, Blinky and Noddy (short answer, A and C, oi vey).

Winky,Blinky and Noddy

At least issue 7 was prepared before the poll results were in so we escaped the Three Dimwits. In fact the story was a hoot, as Joan gets taken in by a pretentious crime/horror writer who sets up a set-up murder weekend with actor friends to scare Jay Garrick, only for one real-life gang and one revengeful killer to intervene after Jay had sussed things out. It didn’t make a bit of sense but it moved with lunatic energy and even when Joan was being her silliest, there was a tangible affection between the pair.
Of course, that meant we had to put up with the Nitwits, still nominally criminals, in a silly but touching story that dragged everyone into Fairyland for a tale that helped a blind boy survive an operation that gave him his sight. Meanwhile, however, the kids had spoken. It seemed that they wanted book-length stories AND they wanted individual stories. (They also wanted the Dimwits). So the unique, ingenious, never-tried-in-the-annals-of-comic-history solution unveiled in issue 9 was… two 32-page stories. Both with the trio.
The outcome was awful. In some psychological manner, two stories with the comedy relief threesome appeared to stretch out even longer than a single story of the same page total, though the absence of Joan Williams from one of these might have something to do with it. I’m starting to question the wisdom of going this deep into The Flash’s career.
But then again I can forgive much for issue 10, a freewheeling, pinballing, goofy story about a cat that could grant wishes by magic, but which was deliciously told by Gardner Fox in a perfect Damon Runyan pastiche style. And I love Damon Runyan.
That though was a mere interlude before a truly awful story about duplicates of Jay, Joan and the Dimwits arriving from another planet. The story made no sense, throwing in indiscriminate twist after indiscriminate twist at a rate of about two a page and, whilst still credited to Hibbard, was clearly drawn by a much more cartoony artist, setting a seal on the nonsense.
By now, America had been at war for over eighteen months, and paper rationing was starting to bite. With issue 12, All-Flash reverted to a quarterly status, but Hibbard was bad and a much better story introduced the flash’s old-time foe The Thinker, aka former DA Clifford Devoe, who turned his keen intelligence to crime, plotting watertight jobs.

Enter the Thinker

Now the idea of a solo series was that it should be a solo series, so it was some surprise to see All-Flash picking up that much-derided series, The King, in issue 13. The master of disguise and his persistently crooked enemy the beautiful the Witch, who he keeps foiling only to set her free on the last page to scheme again, may be silly beyond belief, but I still enjoy it better than many a more well-respected Golden Age series.
The King interrupted the latest story, slipping in between chapters 3 and 4 of an intriguing tale in which, for once, the Three Dimwits weren’t completely irritated. Jay Garrick retired as the Flash after a crook slipped an article into a magazine accusing him of being a menace. Winky, Blinky and Noddy joined Joan in trying to get Jay to reconsider, including coming up with two more mystery men, Muscleman and The Djinn, to complicate the picture further.
But despite the ‘appears in every issue of…’ blurb, The King’s appearance was a one-off. Issue 14, again presented two novelettes. Deuces Wilde was back to pepper one with his Runyanesque dialogue – did I say I love Damon Runyan? – as The Flash’s efforts to take Joan to a movie keep being put back whilst he breaks up crimes, but it was the front of house story that stood out. Once more we have a prefiguration of meta-fiction (were these metafactionalists reading the same comics I’m catching up on?) as the Three Dimwits break into a deserted All-American Publications office, find the pages for All-Flash 14 and edit them in their own manner. Thank god it didn’t last the whole book because it’s exhausting enough at half-length, with people slipping in and out of panel borders – Doiby Dickles attempts to interfere at one point until hauled back by Green Lantern because he’s in the wrong comic – and self-awareness, placing ads and getting answers inside two pages, you name it, it’s got it. And the Thinker back as the villain.

Cover by Martin Naydel

By now, paper-rationing had gone a coupler of steps further. All-Flash was now down to 48 pages, so when it was decided to present individual stories in issue 15, there were only three. The real story was that, despite E E Hibbard being billed on all three stories, each of them was drawn by Martin Naydel, and if you think he was bad on the Flash in All-Star, he’s an offence to the eyes here.
Hibbard was back immediately, albeit for a book-length story that was curiously flat, or not so curiously since it had the Three Dimwits as lawyers, but issue 17 was once again all-Naydel. In a way I feel sorry for the guy: he was a perfectly good cartoonist, especially on funny animals, but asking him to draw an action tale is pure cruelty. He cannot draw a semi-realistic human bing, let alone convince anyone that a character is in motion. His Jay/Flash and Joan have no necks, their shoulders level with their ears, their mouths are open permanently and his Flash is so bulky in his upper torso, with the shoulders of a steroid-using wrestler that you cannot imagine him being able to run at all. Everybody is continually standing at an angle with one shoulder six inches higher than the other and looking deformed. And that’s before we get on to his panel compositions, which are ugly, confusing and littered with figures and objects at odd angles to one another. Reading thirty-plus pages of this hurts the eyes and it’s impossible to take a moment of the stories at all seriously. It’s just plain awful.
Suddenly, the pleasure, and to be honest the interest, is sucked out of reading All-Flash. All I can say about the next issue was that no. 18 was the first to bear the AA symbol as Charlie Gaines’ eruption against Messrs Donenfeld and Leibowitz struck. But nothing could excuse describing the Three Dimwits as ‘those gay goons of giddiness’. Sheesh!
By issue 21, Charlie Gaines was gone, All-American Publications were gone, Superman-DC 10c was back and Martin Naydel… was still there. At least the issues are quicker to read if your eyeballs insist on not resting on any of the panels. The issue also introduced The Turtle, the world’s slowest man, though he looked like no Turtle ever drawn in the Silver Age or after.
With the War over, All-Flash was allowed to resume bi-monthly publication with issue 22. Gardner Fox slipped in another Deuces Wilde tale the following issue, still with that wonderful Damon Runyan patter, but his time was running out as well. His name disappeared from the masthead after issue 22, though he continued to write The Flash for two more issues but, just as with All-Star, Fox was out, and the remainder of the series would be written by John Broome and Robert Kanigher. I wonder if the two are connected…
If it was for the same reason, the first Fox-less issue didn’t bear it out, the first story being about Joan’s jitterbugging cousin, Ally Gates, coming to town to compete in a jitterbugging contest and pressing her as his new partner. Jay and The Flash want nothing of it – Jay’s only interested in classical music, which is a bit square even for then – but ends up winning the contest through his actions mopping up a gang trying to rob the takings.
Nor were the other two stories anything to shout about, though the formula is very clear now: three stories with Winky, Blinky and Noddy in only the middle one. But all three are still being drawn by Naydel, who does not improve one bit the more you see of him.
Of course, the moment I identify the formula it’s switched in issue 26 to have the Dimwits who, incidentally, have started to act more aggressively towards one another, rather like the Three Stooges, it’s switched so they appear in all stories except the middle one. Cotton-Top Katie makes an appearance biut the most significant aspect is an ad for All-Star 32, Fox’s penultimate JSA story, thus showing that his defenestration from the Flash came first.

Joan the Jitterbug (nice legs)

Things looked up a tad for issue 27, with the first story seeing a return visit for the Thinker, and even though the Dmwits appeared in both the other stories, this was as a two-pater narrated by Deuces Wilde, to whom I am always partial more than somewhat. This time, something called Gangplank Gus rounded things out, but it is not such a thing as I wish to see more of.
Rockhead McWizard, the Stone Age genius stunk out issue 28, but once more the end of the run was drawing close. Suddenly, the Flash was constantly being knocked out by things falling on him or by being shot with bullets that his his helmet, nowhere else. Indeed, both happened in the Dimwits story in issue 29. Of happier moment was the replacement of Naydel for the cover and first story… by Carmine Infantino. It looked so good.
I’d swear it was Infantino, but I may be wrong. All three stories in issue 30 were drawn, and signed by Lee Elias (and no Dimwits in sight!). We’ve also reached the time when stories were being tagged as to the issue they’re intended to occupy. So the putative Infantino story was marked FL85, and two of Elias’s FL92.
But this was the late Forties, and as we’ve seen so many times already, the audience had turned its back on superheroes. All-Flash 32 was to be the last issue. It was cover-dated December-January, leading most retrospectives to date the series’ end to 1948, but it would have come out at least two months more, at any rate still well within 1947.
It introduced the Fiddler for his only Golden Age story. The Shade had one, in Flash Comics, the Thinker three in All-Flash. Never until now did I realise that Jay Garrick’s old enemies, there to plague him and Barry Allen in the legendary ‘Flash of Two Worlds’, that I read so early on as a reprint in The Flash Annual 1, had a grand total of five appearances between them.
I knew the Fiddler story of old, from a Seventies reprint in one of DC’s Dollar titles, and that’s where the version on the DVD comes from, albeit with a page missing. Amazingly, this final issue introduced a second longer-term villain, in the original Star-Sapphire, no relation to the Carol Ferris Green Lantern version in the Sixties. It re-introduced the beautiful lady-scientist Dr Flura, who’d shared an adventure with The Flash in All-Flash 30, visiting a ‘Secret City’ that got a continuity following mention herein.
But that was it. Flash Comics would survive into 1949, and Jay Garrick to the very end of 1950, but Jay Garrick’s solo title ended here. He was the first hero with a solo title after Superman and Batman, who endure to this day, over a thousand issues later, and he was the first hero to have his series cancelled.
Looked at in general, All-Flash was disfigured very early on by the presence of Winky Boylan, Blinky Moylan and Noddy Toylan, once again demonstrating that comicbook histories that suggest the comedy relief sidekick was a post-War phenomenon, propping up declining series have it arse about face. It was truly disfigured from issues 15 to 29 by replacing E.E. Hibbard by Martin Naydel, but showed signs of a real revival when Lee Elias took over and the Three Dimwits took a powder: not necessarily too little but certainly too late.
So that was All-Flash. Let’s take a break and in the second part we’ll look at the comic that was all Green Lantern.

To be Brave and Bold: the Team-ups Phase


The cover date was October/November 1963, the editors were Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan and the theme of The Brave and the Bold was now team-ups: the features you asked for. I take that with a pinch of salt, for I cannot see the comic book readers of late 1963, the remaining days of President John Kennedy’s life, wanting above all to see a team-up between The Green Arrow and The Martian Manhunter.
But these are honourable men, and who are we to doubt them?
From here and for a very long time, the series will be written by Bob Haney, a good, solid, professional writer but not one who, how shall we put it, paid undue attention to continuity. DC may not have had continuity as we know it in 1963, but Haney still cared less about what they had. For instance, the Martian Manhunter was accidentally trapped on Earth after being teleported by Dr Erdel’s Robot Brain, which then shorted out, stranding him here. However, Haney has him using the Robot Brain to teleport to Mars for advice and assistance about the Martian villains he and Green Arrow are facing.
It would be like this all along. Mind you, this was almost a highlight of a stupid, cliched and just plain rotten story that was no sort of introduction to the new(er) Brave & Bold.

Your obvious first choice

Aquaman and Hawkman was another non-natural pairing in issue 51, with the story clunking to try to make the air-sea combination work, but issue 52 was a glorious piece of work. Instead of the advertised Flash/Atom team-up, Robert Kanigher dropped in to edit and write a 3 Battle Stars story, with magnificent Joe Kubert art bringing together four of DC’s War comic stars, Johnny Cloud, the Haunted Tank, Sergeant Rock and, a surprise guest, Mlle. Marie. It put the two previous issues to shame, and easily. Kanigher was always on his best form with the War stories.
The Atom/Flash team-up duly arrived next issue and, apart from splendid Alex Toth art, was the usual sloppy mess. Part of Haney’s problem is his refusal to provide adequate explanations: things happen to complicate the heroes’ battle and then are dispensed with in a throwaway line. For instance, Flash loses his speed at one point and is captured, but regains it when he’s freed by the Atom, ‘because the planet has given it him back’.
The title had only spawned one successful series in its formal ‘try-out’ phase, so issue 54’s team-up of ‘junior’ heroes was ironic. This brought together Kid Flash, Aqualad and Robin in a story that started the Teen Titans, though as yet nameless. It would take the addition of Wonder Girl and a couple more appearances to seal the deal.
Not that the story was much good, especially from the point of view of the dialogue, especially the teens’ hip slang, the beginning of a long road of embarrassingly awful writing.

Not yet the Teen Titans

Kashdan did a solo job in issue 56, bringing together another bizarre pairing in the Metal Men and The Atom, before devoting the next two issues to try-outs again, in the form of Metamorpho, created by Haney and artist Ramona Fraden, whose bright, cartoony style is perfect for the oddball Element Man. This would extend the series’ success rate when Metamorpho got his own, albeit short-lived series. Everything’s there from the very beginning: the Metamorpho of the current The Terrifics is the Metamorpho of B&B 57-58.
Issue 59 provided a foretaste of the future in teaming up two of DC’s biggest heroes for the first time, Batman and Green Lantern. I was delighted to read this effort, having remembered it’s excellent title – ‘The Tick-Tock Traps of the Time-Commander’ – from the Sixties: I love the chance to find what lies behind some of these covers that impressed me in the house ads of the time.

A great title

The Teen Titans – named and a foursome – returned in issue 60 for a teen-supporting adventure in which the colourist got Kid Flash’s uniform badly wrong (hint, it’s not all yellow), but issue 61 is the one that’s most special to me, the first Brave & Bold I bought on one of those Saturday afternoons in Droylsden, working industriously through the newsagent’s spinner rack, anxious to make the best choice with the shilling I’d been given.
After The Atom, Julius Schwartz had announced that he would not be doing any more new versions of Justice Society members. Instead, he turned to actual revivals, starting with a two-issue run in Showcase for Doctor Fate and Hourman. Now he took over B&B for two issues teaming up Starman and Black Canary, all with scripts by Gardner Fox and art from Murphy Anderson. I loved this first one, and still have it (autographed by Schwartz) over fifty years later.
It was billed as the first team-up between the two characters (who had never been contemporaries in the JSA), which it is only if you discount their joint appearance in the 1964 JLA/JSA team-up. Starman’s Gravity Rod has now been upgraded to a Cosmic Rod, Dinah Drake has married Larry Lance, Starman’s arch-enemy The Mist, who didn’t feature in any of the stories on the Adventure Comics DVD, is back with an ingenious plan: it was pure heaven for me back in 1966, and I still love it now.

A lifelong favourite

The second story doesn’t hold anything like the meaning for me as I didn’t read it until much later (though I did see it in that same spinner rack, when I obviously found something else more compelling). The heroes turned out against two now-married villains, Green Lantern’s Sportsmaster and Wildcat’s Huntress, with the Big Cat making his first post-Golden Age appearance in a fun cameo.
Sadly, nothing came of either pair’s revival in terms of series: though JSA team-ups would carry on for nearly two more decades, the Golden Age revival was already showing signs of running out of steam.
Kashdan and Haney were back in issue 63, teaming Supergirl and Wonder Woman in a story so chauvinistic, condescending, demeaning and flat-out vile that I’m not even going to admit it exists: permanent karmic burden for both of them and the artist.
After that, anything would have been an improvement. What we got was hero vs villain, Batman and Eclipso in a confusing and in parts ridiculous story based on Batman falling for a red-headed heiress, first romantically then as a con, made much worse by the sudden arrival of corny dialogue that could have come straight out of the forthcoming TV series. It was horrendous.
On the other hand, the Flash’s team-up with the Doom Patrol – really as a fill-in for Negative Man – was well done and contained some intelligent points about the team’s dynamics, though a bit fewer uses of the word ‘freaks’ would have been welcome.
Another bizarre but oddly appealing team-up was Metamorpho and the Metal Men in issue 66, followed by another ‘big-guys’ story, with Batman (for the third time) and The Flash. This was, in many ways, an archetypal Haney B&B story, with a life-shattering menace being raised and disposed of in a lazy manner. Batman requires Flash’s help to combat a gang of speedsters in Gotham, but Flash’s speed is killing him, burning his body out from within. The ‘threat’ is negated by the fact this isn’t taking place in Flash’s series, where we might take it seriously. And it’s resolved by a miraculous and implausible ‘cure’ from the villains’ own power source (irony that’s what it is, irony). No way is anything remotely serious going to happen in Brave & Bold.
And it was a sign of the forthcoming times that Batman was back again one issue later, this time alongside Metamorpho, in another piece of nonsense that sees the Caped Crusader converted into Bat-Hulk (don’t ask). The TV series was big, the movie was just coming out, Batman who, two years earlier, was facing cancellation, was on a roll. People wanted to read him.
All told, there were going to be five consecutive issues of Batman teaming up with someone else, such as Green Lantern again, against another, less memorable Time Commander plot, Hawkman in a ridiculous tale about a Collector trying to collect their secret identities, and The Green Arrow in a story about Indian tribes that just about managed to avoid being patronising.
The waters having been tested, and found to be pleasurably warm, The Brave and The Bold reverted to its role in providing random team-ups for two final issues. The first connected the Earth-1 Flash to The Spectre on Earth-2 (Barry’s just visiting, but not his fellow-Flash but rather his ‘old buddy’ – one JSA team-up – the Spectre: besides, everyone on Earth-2 recognises Barry-Flash). The last brought Aquaman and The Atom together in a non-team-up in which each hero got half the story.
And with issue 73, the third phase of B&B came to an end. It’s fourth phase has already been heavily foreshadowed, and this phase would last until the comic’s end, in the distance in issue 200. I’ll cover that loooong phase in the last part of this series.

To be Brave and Bold: Part 2 – The Try-Outs Phase


According to their house ads, DC’s Showcase, which debuted in 1956, was a response to their reader’s demands for new characters and new stories. In one sense, that was true, except that Showcase existed because the readers weren’t buying whatever new characters the company put out and, by feeding these through a try-out title, DC could massively cut their extensive losses.
And Showcase worked: the Barry Allen Flash, the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, Challengers of the unknown, Lois Lane; the list is magnificent.
But Showcase appeared on a bi-monthly basis, six time a year. With most of its features getting two and three-issue runs, there was something of a clog in the system. So, in issue 25, in 1959, The Brave and the Bold was given a new remit, to become ‘Showcase junior’. New characters, new stories would be tested here as well.
And, given that B&B‘s bi-monthly schedule was the opposite of Showcase‘s, that gave us new experiments every month of the year.

No

Robert Kanigher had replaced Whitney Ellsworth in issue 23. He’d started by making the Viking Prince the sole character, though whether this was to run through the existing stories without wasting any, or a silent preview of the new direction, I do not know. What I do know is that B&B‘s first subjects were a Kanigher creation. These were the original Suicide Squad.
One thing to note quickly is that, as soon as he became editor, Kanigher changed the logo on the cover. Previously, the design, housed in a banner, dominated in the usual manner, but from issue 23, Kanigher had it drastically reduced in size, to emphasize the subject logo: the Viking Prince, not the Suicide Squad, etc.
The original Suicide Squad bears very little resemblance to their present day successors, only the overall idea that Task Force X carries out suicide missions. All I knew of them before came from Darwyn Cooke’s brilliant The New Frontier (really one of the best things DC’s published this century). The group consist of ex-Air Force pilot and war veteran Rick Flag, the team leader, Flight-medic Karin Grace, physicist Jesse Bright and Astronomer Dr (Hugh) Evans. All four were survivors of terrible incidents in which the dying told them to ‘carry on for us’, placing them under an immense burden that prevented Flag from giving way and making love to Karin, who loved him: they had a duty to both the dead and the living that came first, besides Jesse and Dr Evans were also crazy in love with her and it might affect team morale. Were we in any doubt about this being written by Bob Kanigher?
Actually, the mental diversions everybody has to relate these repetitious incidents clogs down the opening story, where the Squad fight and eventually defeat a mutating monster by turning it into a frozen satellite circling Earth, whilst leaving themselves trapped in a space rocket almost 90,000,000 miles away from the planet, and all without any of the men so much as even loosening their ties (an odd pre-echo of their fate in The New Frontier).
There were two stories in issue 26, the first bringing Task Force X back to Earth whilst shrinking them so that they accidentally discover and destroy an enemy atomic sub-base about to fire missiles run by the only country (unnamed but they use a wolf insignia) that dare attack America, and of course destroy it. If the synopsis sounds off, don’t worry, the full story is one of Kanigher’s freewheeling, make it up as I go along disasters that clunks from the moment the team discovers their rocket comes equipped with a box of matches in case the power goes out (I am not making this up), not to mention engineering collisions with meteorites to increase their speed (nor that): sheesh!
After that, the back-up story is merely silly about a giant serpent emerging out of the metro in Paris that can only be destroyed by putting a plastic bag over its head, whilst both stories are filled with Karin’s obsession with getting Flag to pull her knickers down and his stone-faced refusal to even think about it, which puts me in mind of Kanigher’s treatment of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. Suicide Squad did not get its own title.
They got a third shot, a book-length story again, similarly wasted on another monster, this time emerging from a lake As you would, the monster goes for Karin first, and she spends most of the story in a strapless black swimsuit that manages to look unflattering.
The Suicide Squad would get a second try-out later. In fact, in total only four would-be series would appear in this phase of Brave and Bold, of whom two only would get series, the second through no thanks to B&B. Coming up next was the one unqualified success the title produced.

YES!!!

Of course I mean the Justice League of America, issues 28-30, written by Gardner Fox, drawn by Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs, with Julius Schwartz taking over the editorial chair for the next duration. I really don’t need to say anything about these three issues because we all know what happened. That this was intended to be a revival of the Justice Society of America except that Schwartz always thought that Society was a bad name for a team fighting heroes, so changed it to League. That in the Roll Call for the first story, J’onn J’onzz was named as John Jones. And that in his usual manner Schwartz opened up a lettercol and in issue 30 dealt with: the Justice Society, why Green Arrow or any of the teen sidekicks weren’t members (not enough space), why Superman and Batman didn’t feature as much (they’re absolutely everywhere else so we’ll play up the others – no mention of Mort Weisinger prowling with an axe) and why not team the teen sidekicks up as the Junior Justice League (we’re thinking about it, but they thought about it for a long time).

No!

‘Normal’ B&B service resumed with issue 31, this time featuring Cave Carson – Adventures INSIDE EARTH. For this Jack Schiff took up editing, assisted by Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan, but the result was just another monster romp, in fact two of them. Cave Carson (clean-shaven unlike more recent depictions of him) goes investigating underground in the Mighty Mole (a souped-up hot limo with a laser to cut through stone instead of a super-borer) alongside Christie Madison and Bulldozer Smith.
Essentially, this was another attempt to rip off the dynamics of Jack Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown, another twist on Sea Devils and Rip Hunter, Time Master. On the strength of the first story, by France Herron and Bruno Premiani, it was one too many trips to the well. Neither of the other two issues offered anything better, though Premiani was immediately replaced by an unfamiliar artist with a much more jagged style (and issue 32 contained a plug for the JLA’s own magazine, so the wait wasn’t at all long). Underground civilizations planning to invade the surface, aliens using giant metal robots to invade the surface (with Christie reduced to a cameo appearance): imagination was not a feature.
So to the first highlight of this phase. I speak of Hawkman, edited by Julius Schwartz, written by Gardner Fox, drawn by Joe Kubert, three gorgeous issues that, unfortunately not unaccountably, flopped.

Mmmmaybe…

Hawkman was the fourth of Schwartz’s moves to revive Golden Age heroes and if goodwill counted, he was going to be a shoo-in. Gardner Fox wrote a long letter about the creation of both original character. Leading fan Roy Thomas virtually pleaded for the old upper-and-lower beak helmet, and Joe Kubert wrote to express his delight at returning to the Feathered Fury. The middle issue followed the pattern of having two stories but that was repeated for the final issue, no 36, instead of another book-lengther.
Then, nothing.
Why didn’t Hawkman take off the way Flash and Green Lantern had? His stories were more wide-ranging and imaginative than the Suicide Squad and Cave Carson (no monsters in sight), and Kubert’ art was stunning: lyrical, elegant, varying his angles. But that was the problem. Kubert was good and very good, but his style, which had been mostly used in the war stories, no longer suited superheroes. There was a house-style at DC, rounded, clear, touched with blandness, and Kubert looked nothing like that.
For issues 37-39, it was back to Kanigher and the Suicide Squad, ‘By Popular Demand’ (if there had been popular demand they’d have been in their own mag, not Brave & Bold). It was exactly the same nonsense. In the first story, the Squad’s been disbanded for no reason except to have it recalled to battle the menace of intelligent dinosaurs – who have the power to turn green sweaters black by breathing on them – invading from a parallel Earth via Karin’s paintings. That Karin has a talent for painting isn’t discovered until the second story, which is mission 4 to the first run’s missions 1 to 3, notable for being the one in which I recognised the stupidity of sending an athletic woman out to run, jump and hurl herself about flexibility in a 1960 tight-fitting below-the-knee skirt. Madness.
This last three part run was more of the same with no real difference, linked by an unusual obsession with dinosaurs in each comic not to mention the lovely Karin’s desire (which eventually came true in The New Frontier) to get into deadly situations so she can die with him (I suppose that when the man you love refuses to even kiss you, let alone help you out of your too-tight-to-fight skirt it’s some consolation.)
It was time for Cave Carson to have another try, though this was limited to only two issues. The stories were the same cheap garbage – monster, monster, monster, bloody monster – but with the appeal of Joe Kubert giving us something to look at it. And not even Joe on issue 41 but someone trying to ape his style in a more deliberately cartoonish manner.
Meanwhile, Julius Schwartz wasn’t giving up on Hawkman so easily, bring him back for issues 42-44, but without making any significant changes to the approach. The first story took the hawks back to Thanagar, related how Katar and Shayera first met, and saw Hawkman be awarded the wings on his helmet he’s worn ever since.
The Hawks got back to Midway City next issue, much to the delight of Mavis Trent, to face down some old Thanagarian enemies, but this second run was no better at persuading the readers to buy Hawkman in enough copies. Meanwhile, via Showcase, Schwartz had had far more success in getting the new Atom into his own book. It would take only four issues of Murphy Anderson art in Mystery in Space to work that trick.
But this phase was nearly at an end. To close out the try-out spell, Brave & Bold devoted five issues to ‘Strange Sports Stories’, something you can’t imagine being intended as a possible comic in it’s own right.Only four of the issues were accessible off my DVD but I don’t mind that much. The theme is mixing sports and science fiction together and I think that if I’d known it had ben done before, I probably wouldn’t have dared write my Tempus Fugitive. There really is no such thing as an original idea, and this one is so oddball, it’s almost impossible to describe.
But that was the end of it. With issue 50, The Brave and the Bold was once again re-purposed. We’ll look at that era next time.

To be Brave and Bold: Part 1 – The Historical Phase


Some comics series, especially those without a character to lend their name to a title, lead volatile existences. In recent posts, we’ve seen just how often the likes of Adventure Comics and More Fun Comics chopped and changed their approaches, with multiple serial leads. The same goes for Mystery in Space. I’m now moving on to DC’s long-running title, The Brave and the Bold, which ran for 200 issues from 1955 to 1983, eventually being cancelled not because of its sales but because DC wanted to replace it with a more modernised version of its fourth, final and longest phase.
Brave & Bold (as the title was most commonly called) was introduced in an issue cover-dated August-September 1955, just over a year before the debut of the Silver Age Flash in Showcase. B&B debuted as a bi-monthly status, a frequency it would retain for almost twenty years, under the editorship of Whitney Ellsworth.
It was very much a comic of the In-Between Age, the desperate expenditure of resources on anything that might attract the kids’ attention again, this effort being about historical adventure. The first issue featured The Golden Gladiator (sheepherder Marcus framed for a plot of which he was innocent, turned galley-slave, turned gladiator, freed due to his prowess) created by France Herron and Russ Heath, The Viking Prince (an amnesiac found floating in cold seas with an obvious warrior background) created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert and The Silent Knight (medieval-era Brian Kent, robbed of his right to rule, fighting in silence) created by Kanigher and Irv Novick.
Of the three, Viking Prince was clearly the best, thanks to Kubert’s art, though the story itself also rung with a deeper resonance. Jon the Viking did not know who he really was, only that Baron Thorvald wanted him dead. We knew that Jon was a rightful heir. So too was Brian Kent, albeit out in the open, and a bit blander. Both these I had read in reprints but the Golden Gladiator was new to me except in reputation and I reserved judgement at first.
The mix was varied in issue 5 when England’s Robin Hood appeared in place of the Golden Gladiator. This wasn’t DC’s first use of the character, and it isn’t even mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Brave (or Bold) Sir Robin, but this version was by Bill Finger and Russ Heath. Next issue, it was the Viking Prince’s turn to sit things out so Joe Kubert was free to draw Robin Hood. Whereas he was a clean-shaven blond in Lincoln Green in one issue, now Kubert drew him like Errol Flynn, dark-hair and pencil moustache.
The new rule appeared to be that Robin Hood and the Silent Knight were permanents and the Viking Prince and Golden Gladiator alternated for the third slot. But Jon the Prince only missed issue 6 and retained his place for the remainder of the comic’s run as an historical hero anthology, with the Golden Gladiator the full-time loser.
Cover duties alternated between the Silent Knight and Robin Hood, with the Viking Prince not getting a look-in. Maid Marion made only rare appearances in the series but Jon’s love, Gunnda, daughter of Captain Olaf was an ever present, never afraid to go into battle to aid him, a true shieldmaiden, whilst both Brian Kent and the Silent Knight hobnobbed with Sir Edwin’s daughter, the fair Lady Celia. Officially, Celia did not know her two attendants were one and the same, but her knowing remarks to Brian leave me convinced that she wasn’t fooled at all.
Then issue 16 threw everything open, Viking Prince-wise. Not only did he claim the cover on an issue from which Robin Hood was missing, but suddenly he’s losing his memory multiple times in between which he knows he’s the rightful heir to the throne, but it’s not the one seized by Baron Thorvald, this one’s occupied by Turgunn and Jon has to complete the Twelve Tasks of Thor before he can challenge for it, meanwhile Gunnda’s disappeared and Jon’s knocking about with a mute minstrel: what?

Brave & Bold had now turned into a two character title, the pity being that the Viking Prince’s series had gone haywire, with his next adventure being under the sea, aiding a displaced naiad recover her castle but turning down her fair blue body when she offers it.
The rot spread to the Silent Knight, with Brian Kent suddenly becoming Brian Greystone, and I’ll eat my hat if Lady Celia didn’t know absolutely it was Brian all along.
The Viking Prince’s stories got sillier every issue in proportion to how more impressive Kubert’s art got. Over and over, beauties of all hair-colourings would throw themselves at Jon’s feet, closing in for kisses, offering their all. At least his would-be love of a Gulliver’s Travel knock-off adventure in issue 22 reminded him of fair Gunda for the first time (single-n spelling per the story).
Then the next issue it was all up for grabs again, with two Viking Prince stories, one his origin, introducing his father, King Rikk, and his beauteous Princess and lifelong love Asa, daughter of Eric, King of Skane, and that was another set of parameters chucked out heedlessly. Robert Kanigher replaced Whitney Ellsworth as editor and jettisoned The Silent Knight. Brave & Bold was now The Viking Prince’s solo title. For one more issue.

And then the comic’s era as a vehicle for historical adventure was abandoned for good, in the first great change of phase. About which we’ll read in the next instalment.