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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
In one form or another, I have accumulated good, comprehensive runs of most the the major DC Comics characters of the Sixties, the Silver Age, the years when I was discovering comics as a boy, and expecting to lose interest in them as I grew older. And I did. It just didn’t take, that’s all.
There is, however, one major DC character of that era whose stories I never read then, and of which I am only vaguely acquainted now. That’s why I took the chance to pick up a DVD-Rom with a complete run of Mystery in Space comics, 117 issues starting in April-May 1951, only a month or so after All-Star Comics was transmuted into All-Star Western. Mystery in Space, a joyfully science fiction series, was home to several space-set series, none more important than that of Adam Strange.
That’s who I’m here to read, but Adam and Alana, and the planet Rann are a long way off from the start, so let’s begin with that issue 1 and the stories it featured. Mystery in Space followed hard on the heels of DC’s other SF title, Strange Adventures. The impression most often given of the In-Between Age from 1951 to 1956 is of DC floundering, creating titles and cancelling them six issues later as flops. Wasn’t this why Showcase was devised? But the two SF titles were glorious examples of the opposite. They were in tune with the times, with the boom in SF in magazines and novels. Maybe they took some pointers from EC’s SF titles, I don’t know; I know too little about EC to do more than guess. Were they weak cousins of it?
Issue 1 impressed me. It led off with the first story featuring the first ongoing series, The Galaxy Knights, law enforcement officers of the Thirtieth Century, and the first case entrusted to new Knight Lyle, to stop a pair of space villains and save the life of Knight Commander Arthro’s beautiful daughter, Ora. Ah yes, all very Golden Age, big-jawed heroes playing Cowboys and Indians on the space prairie, but with a typically Schwartzian emphasis on intelligence, ingenuity and science.
Comics were still in their 52 page format, allowing room for four decent-length stories, including scripts by Gardener Fox and John Broome, plus art from the likes of Carmine Infantino and, I think, Joe Kubert. There’s nothing particularly original about any of them, but there’s a happy enthusiasm to the work that makes it clear and likeable, plus Broome’s story has an ironic twist as to Man’s ignoble instincts that could do with a bit more development.
If you’re thinking I may have been a mite too harsh on the Galaxy Knights, the title of their second appearance might convince you otherwise: “Jesse James – Highwayman of Space”. As for the brave, resourceful, short-skirted Ora, she had a Knight of her own in Lyle, and it looked like she was going to need him.
As the only recurring feature, Knights of the Galaxy stands out in these early issues, especially with its vigorous and clean art, which has a look of Carmine Infantino about it. Weirdly, writers are credited, so I know the series was by Dion Antony, but not artists. Wikipedia confirms my eye is good on this score, and also that Dion Antony was a pen-name for Robert Kanigher, which comes as little surprise given the formal language used throughout.
But the title was created less than a year before the final size cut, as the 48 page comic went the way of its predecessors, transformed into a 32 page package with only three stories per issue instead of four, as of issue 6.
But the Knights only ran until issue 8, in which they were pushed to the back of a two-story issue. This was something of a shame as Infantino’s clear, crisp art was excellent, not being softened by Joe Giella or Sid Greene as it later would be on The Flash. I also confess a partiality for the skirt-abbreviated Ora. On a more serious level, the SF art of the era tended to put women in far shorter skirts than would have been remotely acceptable on an American, or a British street. But whilst Infantino had been free with leg-shots in issues 1 – 5, it was very noticeable that he confined himself to mostly head and shoulders or upper torso shot in issue 6 – 8. Given that we’re now into 1952, I think I’m not far wrong if I suspect the influence of Wertham, Kefauver and the soon-to-be-imposed Comics Code.
Before leaving issue 8, I do have to comment on its other story, a bizarre and twisted affair that envisaged a future in which, after the election of the first woman President (in 2980!) society had been completely reversed by 3100, with women the dominant force and men the despised weaklings.
For seven of the story’s eight pages, it’s a straight role reversal satire, with men downgraded, discarded, treated as unfit, helpless, inadequate when set against brave, daring, strong, intelligent women. The one young male who forces his way into Rocket Training, to fight an evil enemy, is cold-shouldered, shunned, disrespected just as a female cadet in an academy of men would be. Then, just as the plucky, brave, competent woman would do, he saves the day, rescues the captain, defeats the enemy. Proves his sex is not as helpless as people think.
So far as simplistic as you have to be in an eight-pager, straightforward and exact. Until the last page. In which the cadet newbie Greg marries the experienced veteran commander Stella, tells her that in their house she’ll be doing the vacuuming (she loves this macho stuff) and by the last panel, with males flooding back into leadership positions she’s happily cooing about women having run things for long enough (120 years out of 3100) and it being time ‘you men’ take over again.
What can I say? Somehow just repeating 1952 and What Can You Expect, not to mention the fact this was before I was even born just doesn’t cut it.
Incidentally, there were no short skirts for these dominant women of the future. No, they wore two part bathing suit bottoms and fishnet tights into battle. For no doubt logical combat reasons.
All issues so far have credited Whitney Ellsworth as editor, though given the nature of MiS, it’s clear that Julius Schwartz is the assistant editor doing the groundwork. Further evidence of this is the spectacular cover to issue 9, clearly drawn by Murphy Anderson, in the grand Schwartzian tradition of having action covers drawn to inspire scripters to pen stories in which, far too often, just like this one, the actual cover scene – a young couple, she in short skirt, trapped in a gigantic diamond – ends up squeezed in in a very minor manner. As cover cheats go, this one’s a doozie!
Without a regular feature, the comic is patchy but I couldn’t ignore a story in issue 12 that involved the Earth’s first landing on the moon. Like Tolkien’s Notion Club Papers, which foresaw the Great Storm of 1987 to within a few months, forty years earlier, this Moon landing, nearly a decade before President Kennedy’s commitment to reaching the Moon before the end of the decade, gave its date as 23 May, 1969, less than two months before the real thing.
It’s fair to comment that, despite an ongoing educational feature from issue 1 onwards, dealing with science fact about planets, moons and the Solar System, the stories themselves are pure, unbelievable science nonsense, with impossible science, planetary invasions and humanoid aliens from as far out as Pluto in story after story. MiS‘s next recurring series debuted in issue 16. This was Interplanetary Insurance Inc., and their ace investigator, Bert Brandon, and if you want to know how to turn an insurance salesman into a hero, don’t look here. This is insurance company as machine for sucking in money and spewing none of it out, and whilst that makes it extremely accurate to life, putting it in an SF milieu doesn’t make it any more interesting. This is mid-Fifties, middle-America, business-is-God era with a vengeance.
A second recurring feature was added in issue 21, this being Space-Cabbie, about an unnamed taxi-driver in space, which, like the insurance one, was intended to have an underlying humorous aspect. At first it was a one-off, but the Cabbie was popular enough to be brought back in issue 24, though he didn’t get a regular gig until two issues later, when he replaced Bert Brandon. Unlike the Galaxy Knights, Brandon wasn’t missed.
Also on board now, from issue 25 in fact, was the Comics Code seal. There had already been very little in the way of micro-skirts by then.
To be frank, MiS wasn’t doing much throughout these issues. It had started with the advantage of space as a 48 page title but had been reduced to 32 pages early on. Instead of reducing the number of stories per issue it ended up reducing the number of pages per story. Six were insufficient for more than rather perfunctory tales on a limited number of Cold War themes, infected by paranoia, treachery and constant invasion, and undercut by far too many mundane stories given an SF veneer.
I did find issue 33’s scientific feature fascinating, dealing as it did with the status of Pluto. Anticipating the decision of a half-century later, it analysed anomalies in Pluto’s composition and orbit to query if it was a planet at all, though the alternative proposed was that it was a satellite, a lost and unrecaptured moon of Neptune. Many decades were yet to pass before Pluto’s oversized moon, Charon, was even detected, a discovery that I missed even hearing about until many years later.
The Space Cabbie series bowled along with Gil Kane’s art, Infantino appeared every issue, artwise MiS was solid at its very worst, albeit softened from its early days, but the stories remained crude and gimmicky, using tropes that SF had left behind. One story had the Empire State Building converted into a spaceship to attack would-be invaders, whilst another had the entire continent of North America, including Canada, spacelifted to another galaxy in one piece to save that galaxy from destruction. And brought back intact with everyone alive on it. Boy, did it need an uplift.
Yet even in this form it was popular enough to go from bi-monthly to eight-times-a-year with issue 45. Usually, this frequency was for titles dependant on a single artist (those with multiple artists could go monthly without deadline threats) but MiS had multiple artists available.
Space Cabbie went missing after issue 47, leaving the series without a regular feature as it approached its 50th issue. But the time I had been waiting for was nearly upon us.
Adam Strange arrived in Mystery in Space in issue 53, cover-dated August 1959. The creation of Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky, he had originally appeared in Showcase 17-19, the previous year but, unlike The Flash or Green Lantern, his sales had not added up to quite enough to justify his own title, and Julius Schwartz had opted for berthing him here.
The formula was simple: each issue, Adam, an archaeologist, would rendezvous with a Zeta Beam from Rann, teleporting him 25 trillion miles to the Planet Rann, in the system of Alpha Centauri, to the beautiful Alanna, who he could never hold for long enough, and her scientist-father, Sardath. But instead of spending these visits lovemaking, Adam continually found Rann being menaced by monsters and disasters that could only be defeated by the application of his scientific mind and the effects of Chemistry Class, as was only right and proper in 1959.
Adam Strange’s early stories mostly feature Mike Sekowsky on art. This is not as scratchy or littered with weird anatomy as his Justice League stories, which start up shortly after, and he’s getting better inkers than the wholly unsuitable Bernard Sachs, but there is a world of difference between his jobs and the occasional one drawn by Infantino. But Fox’s stories are very formulaic, from the business with Adam’s difficulties intercepting the next Zeta-Beam to his inevitable return to Earth. What lies between is inventive, but the brackets bore very quickly.
Of course, the moment I said that, issue 61’s story decided to be different, with Adam being snatched by a different beam in the northern hemisphere, Rann and Alpha Centauri only being visible from the southern hemisphere, intercepted to prevent him saving Rann from a tyrant out to conquer it. That would-be dictator was the Tornado Tyrant, a sentient tornado with an unexpected future as a component element of The Red Tornado, Gardner Fox’s last creation for DC, eight years hence.
Oh, and for once Adam wasn’t snatched directly out of the loving Alanna’s arms the moment the menace was defeated, and the loving couple had several days sea, sun, sand and… oh come now, not under the Comics Code Authority.
The non-Adam Strange stories remained as predictable and dull as ever but Murphy Anderson – used primarily as an inker in the Silver Age – produced a short series of beautifully-drawn tales that at least looked the part for me.
A one-off story in issue 66, drawn by Sid Greene, another DC artist used primarily on inks, became a short series in Mystery in Space. The Star Rovers were three rivals, Homer Gint, novelist and sportsman, Karel Sorensen, former Miss Solar System turned space-adventurer, and playboy Rick Purvis. Their stories involved them bringing three different viewpoints to the same incident, the total vision, Rashomon-style, adding up to the real truth. They would appear every three issues until MiS 86, with two further stories appearing afterwards in Strange Adventures.
It’s interesting to note that throughout most of this run of the series there were full page house-ads, promoting National’s titles as ‘still 10c’. A change in price, DC’s first ever, was due very soon (in Britain, they would go from 10d to 1/-), but I wasn’t previously aware that DC had held out against the increase so blatantly.
Adam Strange had been the lead feature and main attraction of the series for over two years now, at nine pages an issue, but with issue 71, DC finally did what should have been done long before and expanded Adam’s feature to 17 pages, eliminating one redundant one-off story but still leaving one.
And for issue 75, Adam was given the whole comic for a book-length, and excellent, story guest-starring the Justice League of America (plus Snapper Carr but without Superman), a story written in response to a fan identification of a flub in the League’s own title. This had come in Justice League of America 4, the issue that admitted Green Arrow. Among the possible nominees, The Flash put forward Adam Strange. All very well for me, reading that in retrospect, but nobody but Alanna (and the rest of the planet Rann) knew of Adam’s exploits.
So Schwartz and Fox put their heads together and came up with a story, set between Justice League 3 and 4, that gets the League to Rann, in pursuit of Kanjar Ro, the villain of issue 3, as he tries to takeover Adam’s adopted planet. I’ve known of this story for over fifty years and this is the first time I’ve read it. And it’s excellent (except for the bit where a clearly-impressed Flash thinks, ‘wow, I’ll nominate Adam for membership when we next have a meeting’, which is too knowing).
Issue 81 gave Adam Strange another book-length adventure, this time starting with Alanna seemingly coming to Earth. Obviously it’s a cunning plot, this time by yet another of Rann’s past would-be dictators intending to take over the planet again: between all these former dictators and the alien races all trying to take over Rann for no better reason than that it’s there, the backgrounds to the stories do drag at Adam’s constant ingenuity in combatting these scientific menaces.
Incidentally, the letter column contained interesting letters from two young and eager comics fans, the increasingly regular Paul Gambaccini, and one Marvin Wolfman.
The next issue had most of its cover obliterated on the DVD but as soon as I started to read the story I remembered it. I saw many Mystery in Space covers in this era, in house ads in comics I bought, in spinner racks that I combed through but didn’t buy. But Carmine Infantino’s work has never left me.
A similar obliteration concealed the cover to issue 82 but this time my memory banks couldn’t supply the image. There was another Star Rovers story, exposing the limitations of the three-sided formula. And a complete no-cover on issue 84 made three, though this was one of those instances where the cover was duplicated as a panel in the story, instantly reminding me. The same thing applied to issue 84’s cover, by which time it was getting particularly annoying.
Covers returned with issue 86, in which Adam’s adventure on Rann turned out to be only a dream: the lad just can’t escape having to save this most vulnerable of planets even when he’s asleep! It also featured the last Star Rovers story to appear in MiS. And it also made much, both in the lettercol and in the final panel of Adam Strange’s story, of the arrival of Hawkman to share this space next issue.
This is the part of Hawkman’s Sixties stories that I know of but had never read. Revived as Katar Hol by Julius Schwartz and Gardener Fox in Brave & Bold, the editor had been shocked when this third revision of an old Justice Society hero had failed to take off. Not then, and not after a second three-issue run. These issues had been drawn by Hawkman’s old star, Joe Kubert, but Kubert’s style had evolved, brilliantly, past the point where he was suited to superheroes. Refusing to give up, Schwartz put Hawkman into MiS and replaced Kubert with the somewhat blander Murphy Anderson (and I speak here as a fan of Anderson), whose style was much more in keeping with DC’s ‘house’ look.
The first shared issue was very cleverly constructed. Hawkman took over the cover – the first since issue 52 not to feature Adam Strange – but Adam still had the lead, double-length story, in which he accidentally gets mutated into a highly-evolved, mentally magnificent version of himself, who is also offensively superior and dismissive, especially of Alanna who, in a very understandable if selfish gesture, smashes the machine that has evolved, bringing back the version she (and we) love. At story’s end, Adam beams back to Earth, carrying with him a stone his brain-heavy self has created, which he places in a museum.
And in the Hawkman back-up, introducing regular foe Ira ‘I.Q.’ Quimby, the latter becomes a super-crook when the combination of sunlight and his presence by the stone sets his brain off on incredible ideas. That’s what you can do when the same writer is writing both features. You can also get Carter and Shiera Hall meeting an archaeologist named Adam Strange, in both their guises, and getting a bit suspicious about him…
The issue even contained a letter from Joe Kubert, regretting the commitments forcing him to stop drawing Hawkman, and praising his mate Murph.
At this point, I’d like to bring up a point about the Adam Strange series that’s mildly surprised me. DC’s not supposed to have had a continuity in the Sixties, only Marvel. That was never entirely true: both Fox and John Broome employed regular footnotes in their stories, harking back to previous tales. But from early on, Adam Strange did this to an unusual degree. Each story was an individual tale, but Fox would constantly refer back to the previous story, and earlier ones, and would very often base a new story in the events or aftermath of its predecessor. If you could have thrown an entire years worth of The Flash, or Justice League of America in the air and read them in whatever order they came down without noticing any difference, that could not be said of Adam Strange. Adam’s stories were a sequence, and Fox would emphasise this with Adam’s constant musings bout how, every time he arrived on Rann, there was yet another menace to overcome, and was there a jinx, was it him? Given that we are still only up to 1963, I’m pretty impressed.
The cover of issue 88 was a throwback to the Golden Age Flash Comics, showing that Adam and Hawkman would alternate, with headshots plugging the other. Inside were two separate stories, one in which Alanna got a new figure hugging costume which swapped her blue-and-yellow colour code for yellow-and-blue (made for her by an Earth couturier she never met: wonder how Adam got him the precise measurements when, under the Comics Code, good girls definitely didn’t), whilst Mavis Trent, the long-forgotten girl archaeologist fixated on Carter Hall, having died her hair Shiera-red, accidentally discovered and donned Hawkgirl’s costume: much frivolity ensued.
One issue later, Hawkman was not only back on the cover but taking the lead story, whilst in the back Adam Strange had to fend off an interstellar ‘Lorelei’ who wanted him to marry her (even the bad girls didn’t…) but saved himself with a profession of love so profound that Fox would rip it off himself for a similar situation in the future Hawkman 13. here though it was accompanied by an engagement: Awww!
This little spell of Mystery in Space is probably the best of the entire series, but little it was, only four issues, Issue 90 posed a classic cover, another I recall from scrabbling through racks, probably on a Saturday afternoon in Droylsden, allowed to walk on my own from Grandad’s to the newsagents at Fiveways: Adam Strange hurtles through space to try to prevent Earth and Rann from colliding.
The book-length story was a team-up between Adam and Alanna on one side and Hawkman and Hawkgirl on the other (though it’s noticeable that neither of the lovely heroines has a word to say to each other). Artistically, it’s a fun compromise: Infantino pencils Chapters 1 (Adam-oriented) and 3, Anderson the Hawkman oriented Chapter 2, as well as inking the lot. And at the end, the Hawks give Adam a lift back to Earth, ending his Zeta-Beam tyranny, and Alanna asks if she can come too, and there’s going to be a wedding: double Awww!
As for Hawkman, less than four issues of MiS had done what six of Brave & Bold had failed at: the Flying Fury had finally got his own title.
More than that was to change. Julius Schwartz was also leaving, and taking with him Fox and Infantino, to rescue the Batman titles which, unbelievable as it sounds, were in serious danger of cancellation. His replacement would be a straight swap, with Jack Schiff – who’d cynically and unhappily commissioned awful, ludicrous, ridiculous stories that were completely wrong for the Caped Crusader, because that sort of shit seemed to be what the public wanted and who was he to stand in their way – taking over Mystery in Space with issue 92.
No-one knew it then, but the title had only 19 more issues to live.
The first thing Schiff did was to bring Space Ranger with him from Tales of the Unexpected, putting him on his first cover, although Adam Strange retained the lead spot, now by Dave Wood and Lee Elias. This was an apt line-up: both Adam and Space Ranger were created as a result of a 1957 request by Editorial Director Irwin Donenfield that Schiff and Schwartz create two new SF heroes, one from the present, the other from the future. Schiff, given first choice, chose the future hero, who became Space Ranger, Schwartz’s present hero was our man Adam.
Two issues were enough to demonstrate that Wood and Elias didn’t have the wit and sophistication of Fox and Infantino, and that Space Ranger didn’t have the wit and sophistication of the new Adam Strange, plus ugly art in which everyone stood with bent legs. Nasty. Also, Elias dropped Adam’s finned helmet like a shot.
The two stars teamed up in issue 94 despite the time-gap, with Space Ranger finding a menace that had lain dormant since Adam’s time, Adam himself referring to the mystery in his diary and his descendent, also named Adam, taking up the mantle, uniform and ray-gun in the future, only with red-hair not blonde.
Adam regained the cover for issue 95 but lost the lead spot inside. Next issue, the set-up was reversed. In fact, it was turnabout time again. It stayed that way until the landmark issue 100, cover-date June 1965, which gave the cover to new character Interplanetary Agent Jan Vern, appearing in one of two one-off stories behind a particularly poor Adam Strange purporting to feature the Death of Alanna. Space Ranger wasn’t even there.
Then it was Adam’s turn to drop out of issue 101, allowing Space Ranger back, though the cover once more went to a nothing story, a one-off. With three stories an issue once more, MiS was going backwards, rapidly. Turnabout for issue 102, with Adam also on the cover and accompanied by Jan Vern inside. But that was it. It had taken Schiff only twelve issues to kill off the very popular Adam Strange, and Space Ranger only lasted one issue longer.
That issue, 103, introduced Mystery in Space‘s new star for the remnants of its run, Ultra – the Multi-Alien. I’d seen Ultra in house ads but never read him before, and he’s drivel. Another Wood and Elias creation, he’s Captain Ace Arn, shot simultaneously by four blasters, each intended to turn him into a duplicate of a native of a different planet, but instead turning him into one-quarter different alien each all with different powers. The idea is stupidity squared, a perfect example of DC’s increasing descent into moronic crap as they tried to work out, vainly, why Marvel was so popular. It’s a painful demise. Mystery in Space was cancelled with issue 110, cover date September 110. There was no reference to its cancellation in that issue. Years later, in 1980, it was revived for a further seven issues, but that run lies outside my remit, as does a second series many years after that.
I came to MiS for Adam Strange and I got my money’s worth from the Schwartz/Fox/Infantino stint, and whilst the comic could be dull in the long months leading up to the arrival of the Champion of Rann, there were still series that were enjoyable and there was classic art from Infantino, Anderson, Kane and others to enjoy.
But Jack Schiff’s editorship killed the series as surely as it was killing Batman in 1964, when Julius Schwartz was transferred over. He remained editor on Strange Adventures and Tales of the Unexpected for another eleven months before retiring. There’s a story there, but not for here. Time to look at another series.
This fortnightly Friday afternoon slot is traditionally where I indulge my nostalgic fascination for the British weekly boys comics of my youth, but as a change of pace, my most recent exploration of comics on DVD has taken a different route, all the way into the Golden Age of (American) Comics. To be specific, I have been working my way through a DVD containing the entire 104 issue run of Flash Comics, the anthology title published at first by All-American Publications, and then by National Comics, forerunner of National Periodical Publications, the company that became the present-day DC, between 1940 and 1949.
Flash Comics was one of the very first titles published by All-American, a company run by M.C. (Charley) Gaines, and owned in equal measure by himself and Harry Donenfeld, owner of Detective Comics, publishers of Superman and Batman. Gaines, who had most recently been Donenfeld’s chief salesman, wanted to set up his own company, whilst Donenfeld wanted to publish more comics to take advantage of the boom, but was restricted by his Accountant and Business Manager, Jack Liebowitz. Gaines was Donenfeld’s solution, but he insisted on Gaines accepting Liebowitz as his Business Manager as well.
This ultimately proved divisive, as Gaines and Liebowitz absolutely loathed each other, but it lasted until 1944, when Donenfeld gifted Liebowitz a share in his ownership of All-American. This was too much for Gaines, who withdrew co-operation with his partners, until agreeing to be bought out for $500,000.00, which he used to set up a new comics company. With effect from issue 68, Flash Comics became a National comic, created by the merger of Detective and All-American, for the remainder of its run. Flash Comics was the company’s fourth title but its first superhero title (flagship title All American Comics didn’t feature any masked men until nine months after Flash Comics 1). It starred, unsurprisingly, the Golden Age Flash, along with the Golden Age Hawkman. These two characters appeared in every issue and alternated nearly every cover (Black Canary in issue 92 was the only other character to appear on the cover, bursting through a hoop held by the two mainstays), with the other one appearing above the masthead.
The initial line-up also included, in no particular order, Johnny Thunderbolt (later re-named Johnny Thunder), The Whip, Cliff Cornwell and Ed Whelan’s Minute Movies. King Standish (later re-named The King) was added in issue 3. Of these, Johnny Thunder lasted the longest, until issue 91, before being displaced by the Black Canary, who’d debuted in his strip, the ungrateful minx, whilst Cliff Cornwall, an American intelligence agent, only lasted until issue 19, followed out of the title by The King (last seen in issue 41), The Whip (issue 55) and the Minute Movies (issue 58).
Another early, but thankfully short-lived feature was Rod Rian of the Space Police, a junior league Flash Gordon with superficially Raymond-esque art but nothing to distinguish it.
This gave way to ‘Les Watts, Radio Amateur’ in issue 12 (renamed ‘Les Sparks’ in issue 16). It was all about crimes being solved or stopped by radio hams. Like Cliff Cornwell, it was neither bad nor good, though Don Cameron’s art was pleasantly attractive but it was repetitive, and it wasn’t missed.
The Minute Movies were replaced by a brief run of much shorter Picture Stories from American History, until issue 68, which, whilst still static in approach, at least looked like a comic book story, not a newspaper strip.
There was another brief regular feature in the form of Rockhead McWizzard, a rather formulaic comic series about a caveman inventor who, every month, would get a bang on the head that inspired him to invent some device a thousand years ahead of its time, using current ‘technology’ that didn’t work and saw him getting punished by the local bigwig, Mr Gotrocks, who was always trying to exploit Rockhead’s newest invention. This ran from issue 71 to 79, before being bounced to facilitate The Atom’s transfer from All American Comics.
The DVD contains every issue from 1 to 104, but that’s not to say that I’ve now had the unanticipated chance to read every issue. Wherever possible, the compiler has used actual issues, which are complete, subject to minor wear and tear, clear and bright and easy to read. But over half the issues are available only as fiche (i.e., microfiche) copies, and these are a different prospect. Universally, the fiche pages are washed out, the colour blurring sometimes into mere shades. These are hard on the eye where they are decently readable, but the effect on the lettering is stressful, and a number of these have been so badly photographed that it is impossible or next-to-impossible to make out captions or dialogue, essentially rendering the stories unreadable.
And what of these stories? What of the Golden Age classics, of Jay Garrick’s career as the Flash before he became a mere adjunct to Barry Allen. That’s very interesting.
Jay Garrick was created by Gardner Fox, who wrote the first eighty stories. Harry Lampert drew the first five issues before handing over to E.E. Hibbard (Lampert went on to draw The King), who is credited with drawing the series until he was in turn replaced by a young Carmine Infantino in issue 87. I say credited, because there are quite a few issues in 1945 and 1946 that have Hibbard’s name but which are clearly being drawn by Martin Naydel, who was drawing The Flash in the Justice Society of America in All Star Comics.
Garrick’s origin is the justly infamous fumes of hard water, breathed in overnight after a lab accident, but it’s interesting to see how this comes with a seemingly scientific explanation that’s repeated several times during the series’ first year. Hard water, it is claimed, contains certain natural gases that act upon the human body’s reflexes, speeding these up to the point where Garrick is capable of thinking and moving far faster than ordinary humans.
And whilst his secret identity is supposed to be known only to his girlfriend, Joan Williams, it’s very noticeable that Garrick makes to attempt to keep his superspeed secret, especially when it comes to the Midwestern university football team, and he’s none too precious about it when he’s adopted his uniform and is beating crime as The Flash. Even when he starts to pay attention to keeping his mouth shut, it’s known to all and sundry that you can get in touch with The Flash by giving a message to Joan Williams, who is also known as Jay Garrick’s girlfriend, not to mention the number of times Jay goes missing just before The Flash turns up…
Actually, I must say a word about Joan’s incredible patience, given the number of times she has to go home from broken dates because Jay’s run off. And whereas Barry Allen has his compressed uniform in a ring on his finger, and Jay just tosses aside his street clothes, that wasn’t the case at first: as soon as he spotted something suspicious, Jay would have to run home first to grab his uniform. Thank God his power was super-speed, eh?
Yet there’s a decent brightness about the stories in the early days. Most of the time, The Flash is up against gangsters and mobs, with the odd mad scientist thrown in, but the Forties was a scant period for supervillains, unless you were reading Batman or Superman. The Flash tends to run too fast to be seen, run carrying crooks who find themselves unable to breathe, and usually ends up procuring confessions and promises to reform that would surely be illegal as coerced, but there’s an energy to the tales, a freewheeling looseness, a freedom from rules or tropes because nobody knew what didn’t work.
It’s not all good fun, however. Joan goes through a run of trying to compete with The Flash, paralleling the same attempts of Sheira Sanders in the Hawkman series (also written by Gardner Fox…), which constantly gets her into trouble. Thankfully, that doesn’t last too long, but what does is Winky, Blinky and Noddy, aka the Three Dimwits (any resemblance to the Three Stooges is sufficiently distant to stay out of litigation).
I have long been aware that The Flash, like so many other superheroes in the later Forties, was afflicted by Comic Relief, but I never realised that it started so soon. The Dimwits made their debut as early as All-Flash Quarterly issue 5 (The Flash’s solo title) in 1942, and were introduced into Flash Comics in issue 46, October 1943, popping up far too frequently until being dropped after issue 79. And a few times in Three Dimwit stories, Fox goes prematurely metafictional, having The Flash complain about what he has to do in the story.
Freewheeling isn’t all beneficial, you know.
Once the Dimwits (and Fox) moved on, The Flash’s stories restored something of a more serious tone, to the strip’s benefit.
Flash Comics‘ other star was Hawkman, whose early career paralleled the Flash in an unexpected manner. Like Jay Garrick, archaeologist Carter Hall, a reincarnated Egyptian Prince Khufu whose memories were restored by sight of the glass dagger by which he was originally sacrificed, was created by Gardner Fox, this time with artist Dennis Neville, and once again the original artist only lasted a handful of issues before being replaced by a longer-running penciller, Sheldon Moldoff in issue 4.
Moldoff’s an interesting case. He left Hawkman after being drafted into the Army in 1944, his last work appearing in issue 61, after which Hawkman was handed over the teenage prodigy Joe Kubert. Moldoff boasted of seeing that Hawkman required an Alex (Flash Gordon) Raymond approach, which endeared him to Charlie Gaines. Most people describe it as an Alex Raymond swipe, and can run down the original panels they accuse Moldoff of tracing. Certainly, Moldoff doesn’t go big on panel to panel continuity, not even the primitive kind. And there are plenty on instances where he is clearly tracing photographs.
Nevertheless, Moldoff was the first to put Hall’s girlfriend and fellow reincarnatee Shiera Saunders into costume as Hawkgirl, in issue 24, though that aspect of the series was an awkward one. Shiera was brought in as Hawkgirl for a one-off, or so Hawkman intended, but once she’d dressed up once, she kept wanting to fly again every issue. Like Joan Williams, she was initially portrayed as trying to beat Hawkman at his own game, and being pretty much inadequate, and even when he accepted her as a regular partner, she was constantly getting beaten, captured, unmasked because, well, she was a woman.
Then suddenly this silly stuff evaporated, and Hawkgirl got good overnight, though she always got less exposure than Hawkman. Still, this was now a real partnership.
The arrival of Kubert brought a sparkling originality and angularity to the series, not to mention a vivid ugliness to the crooks, with their narrowed, mean eyes, cramped postures and pencil-moustaches above prominent chins. Kubert picked up Hawkman in issue 62, left the character for issues 77-84, when Hawkman was drawn by Chet Kozlack, and returned to draw all but a couple of the remaining stories, by which time his art had shed its early angularity.
Hawkman’s stories mostly pitted him against ordinary crooks and mad scientists and, like the Flash, he was unfeasibly prone to getting clonked from behind on the helmet. A couple of adventures foreshadowed his Silver Age counterpart’s career by getting him involved with aliens, and there were a couple of stories involving the water-breathing scientist, Neptune Perkins, whom Roy Thomas would revive in the Eighties, but Hawkman didn’t get a recurring villain until late on, in the form of the Gentleman Ghost (was he or was he not a real ghost?)
Flash and Hawkman were Flash Comics’ representatives in the Justice Society of America in All Star Comics 3, with the former being replaced by Johnny Thunder, who was the title’s number 3 character. Johnny was the creation of writer John W Wentworth and artist Stan Aschmeier, who signed his art as Stan Josephs. Wentworth (whose W distinguished him from John B Wentworth, writer of The Whip) wrote the series until 1947, when it was taken over by Robert Kanigher.
What can you say about Johnny Thunder? The series debuted as Johnny Thunderbolt, though the boy was Thunder, son of Bank Clerk Simon Thunder, from the beginning. Being born at the seventh hour on the seventh day of the seventh month of a year ending in seven (1917) made seven year old Johnny a target for kidnapping by the Bahdnesians, who gave him control of a magic thunderbolt that, if summoned by the words Cei-u, would make people do what Johnny told them to for an hour at a time.
Johnny escaped back to America and his family by accident. At first, he had no idea he had a thunderbolt. Then, when he cottoned onto it, he didn’t know how to summon him (fortunately, the words Cei-u sound exactly like Say You, and you’ve no idea just how many different ways that can be accidentally contrived into a sentence. Even when Johnny sussed out the right words, it didn’t improve things any because, basically, Johnny was a dope. An idiot. A clown, who never worked out a) how to give sensible and coherent instructions to his thunderbolt and b) that the Bolt carried out his instructions literally.
Comic relief characters are one thing, but when they’re the star of the feature, that’s another thing entirely. Johnny and the Bolt were one thing, but at a dismally early stage, Johnny adopts the bratty eight-year old menace Peachy Pet, comic relief to a comic relief character. Later in the series, Wentworth introduced the Bolt’s family, his wife and brattish son, Shocko, who kept popping up on Earth (the Bolt was initially given the name of Archibald, though this was rapidly forgotten and he was Oswald on the family’s second appearance and ever after).
If this were not such an horrendous and unfunny mess of a series by this point, I might be tempted to applaud some aspects of Wentworth (W)’s approach. In a forerunner of both The Goon Show and, long after, metafiction, Wentworth started to write his comic book story as a comic book story with the characters conscious that they are being written. Unfortunately, Wentworth also uses this trick to play some lazy games with stories by having them run out of pages before an ending can be contrived.
Robert Kanigher took over Johnny Thunder with issue 86, introducing a beautiful female jewel thief, the Black Canary, in Carmine Infantino’s first work for National. But I’ll come back to her a little further on.
These were the big three of Flash Comics. Compared to them, compared to themselves, the other series were minor league. When The Flash won the right to his own title, Johnny Thunder replaced him in All Star Comics. But for the Second World War and the introduction of paper-rationing, there’s a good chance Hawkman would have followed him. Who then would have been the new JSAer? The King? The Whip? No sir, not either one of these.
The King started out as King Standish, his real name. Standish was a rich young man who fought crime armed with a phenomenal skill at disguise. Within seconds, he could transform himself into anyone at all, substitute for them, several times an episode. Supposedly, the reader never ever saw the King’s real face, but if that’s so, he had a remarkably regular ‘stock’ false face. The same went for his one and only recurring – and boy, did she recur! – enemy, The Witch, a female crook and mistress of disguises. The same theory went for Witchie, as the King affectionately called her, the only way she ever knew she was facing him, but she too had this ‘stock’ false face that the King was forever recognising.
Despite the fact that he got her bang to rights in nearly every adventure, the King always allowed the Witch to escape and plot again. He always claimed that this was because life was more interesting with her around, though personally I think he was just trying to get into her knickers, if you’ll forgive the crudity.
The King was a pretty poor series, to be truthful, but it exerted a strange fascination on me, although not quite as much when the King took to wandering around in a costume consisting of a top hat, a domino mask, an opera cape and immaculate gloves. I was sorry to see it disappear, without trace.
It was outlived, though not by much, by the rather more vigorous The Whip, the creation of John B Wentworth, with artist George Storm, although Homer Fleming drew the strip on a longer term basis, and Dr Mid-Nite’s creator Charles Reizenstein subsequently took over the scripting. The Whip, whose series ran until issue 55, was a junior league Zorro, the Mexican hero El Castigo, who defended the peons and peasants against the grasping landowners in the 19th century. His modern day equivalent was effete playboy Rodney Gaynor, a distant descendent of El Castigo, who inherited a Hacienda in a Mexican town owned by grasping landowners. After meeting crusading reporter, Marisa Dillon, Gaynor revived The Whip to firstly take up where his ancestor left off, then generally to fight crime.
The Whip was decently active but was marred by the cliché of having Marisa despise Rod as a bored, spineless playboy and revere the Whip for his determined fight, just like Lois Lane with Clark Kent. Worse though, as the Whip, Rod spoke in a shamelessly racist Mexican accent, full of the worst kind of cheap and nasty dialogue that no-one thought anything of then, but which now assaults the eye and mind. Him in the Justice Society? Ye Gods.
Of the other two series, Cliff Cornwell (drawn by Sheldon Moldoff) was a modestly decent adventure thriller about an American Agent, foiling saboteurs and the like, neither especially bad nor especially good in any respect. Ed Whelan’s Minute Movies (initially credited as Flash “Picture” Novelettes) was something else entirely. It had originally run in Movie Comics, a six-issue All-American series, and before that as a newspaper strip, and it retained the latter format, of narrow, rectangular panels with no attempt to exploit even the least of comics’ possibilities.
The series told movie-type stories, using a repertory company of recognisable ‘actors’, such as Dickie Dare and Hazel Dearie, who were romantic leads, or Fuller Phun, who was comic relief. I read the first few offerings in amusement, but the repetitive nature of the series and the lack of any visual variety, not to mention the archaic art style – very Twenties – meant that it rapidly became tedious. Still, it lasted until issue 58.
The longest and most popular of the later series was The Ghost Patrol, which started in issue 29, replacing Les Sparks, and, with a couple of gaps, ran until the final issue, no 104. The Ghost Patrol were three American aviators, Fred, Slim (who wasn’t) and Pedro (who spoke like thees) who died but had to hang around on Earth because they weren’t yet due in Heaven. Though they were ghosts, they could switch back and forth between completely solid and human and being ghosts. Frankly, I found it unreadable – this is a comic featuring Johnny Thunder and Peachy Pet!
The Atom’s advent in issue 80 was something of a surprise. He’d been a regular in All American Comics since issue 19, but his series in that title was cancelled with issue 61 and he was about to be dropped from the Justice Society in favour of Wildcat. But some unexpected scheduling issues saw Wildcat’s debut appear with three stories featuring The Atom awaiting print. No-one wanted to chop and change, and it’s been theorised that there were a handful of Atom five pagers left unused, so he was dropped into Flash Comics until the end of the run so as to justify keeping him in the JSA.
By this time, creators Ben Flinton and Bill O’Connor were long gone, but Atom stories were rarely better than perfunctory and the art was better only because Flinton’s work was atrocious. Even so, that meant that no less than four JSAers had their base in Flash Comics.
Following the DVD through to the end has thrown up some interesting wrinkles. The standard impression I’ve always had of the Golden Age is that superheroes began falling out of fashion after the War, and that many series were effectively abandoned to their comic relief characters, with the hero only a straight man.
But Winkly, Blinky and Noddy disappear without fanfare after issue 79, from which point onwards, The Flash becomes an almost entirely serious strip, and enjoys the best art of the decade from Carmine Infantino. Joe Kubert returned to Hawkman in issue 85, stripped of his early angularity and grotesquerie, with a sleek, almost balletic style. Hawkgirl (and Shiera Saunders) never looked better. Indeed, after a long-term set-up that had The Flash as the first story and Hawkman as the last, several issues see the heroes swap places.
Johnny Thunder remains ridiculous until issue 85, but in the next issue, Robert Kanigher takes over the writing, Carmine Infantino the art (his DC debut) and the Black Canary begins the quick process of taking over the series. She’s introduced as a glamorous jewel thief who steals from crooks, but was so immediately popular she was brought back as a crimefighter, with whom Johnny was, understandably, besotted.
The Canary appeared in all but one of Johnny’s stories from 86 – 91, is credited as co-star and then bounces him out in issue 92, which introduces Dinah Drake, her flower shop, and her boyfriend, private eye Larry Lance.
There’s a certain repetitive element to the Canary’s series, since somewhere about halfway through the story both she and Larry get a crack on the back of the head with a pistol butt, until you start to fear for her skull, but they always do escape, and the story ends with Larry boasting to Dinah Drake about he was invaluable in solving the Black Canary’s case.
With Infantino drawing both Black Canary and The Flash, and Kubert drawing Hawkman, Flash Comics’ final phase saw it at its most splendid and gorgeous. Even The Atom got some decent art, from Paul Reinman, to see him to the end of his career.
Just as Hawkman and The Atom’s costumes changed with effect from All Star Comics 42, the same change was performed for both characters from Flash Comics 98, and I noted that Hawkgirl also gave up her hawk-helm for a cloth mask, covering only her forehead and eyes, and allowing her lustrous brown locks to flow free (and with Kubert they were definitely lustrous, to the point where you wondered how nobody ever recognised Shiera Sanders).
One thing I found interesting was that the opening pages of the Flash, Hawkman and Black Canary episodes carried a marking in the corner of a panel, FL and a series of three numbers. This numbering suggested that they were the issue numbers of Flash Comics that the stories were intended to be published in, but each of these numbers were in advance of the issue in which the story appeared, and as the issues advanced, these were issue numbers that would never appear.
In contrast, the equivalent marking on Atom stories used OH as its key, which doesn’t appear to correlate to any contemporaneous National Comics title.
Given that some Flash stories carry similar tags using AF (for the recent cancelled Flash solo title, All-Flash), there’s no other reasonable explanation. Which suggests a number of stories that hadn’t yet been used, or that were not intended to be used. In 1968, DC did write off an enormous amount of unused art, for tax purposes, making it plausible for there to have been several stories skipped over for whatever reason. Flash Comics was cancelled from issue 104. Unlike All American Comics or All Star Comics, it did not continue as a Western. The end obviously came quickly: all the features except The Flash ended with the usual tag that the star’s adventures could be followed every month in Flash Comics. Issue 105 would not be published until ten years later, and would star a different Flash entirely.
This isn’t the only Golden Age comic of which I’ve read a full run: I have the complete All Star Comics in DC’s hardback Archive editions. But that was a complete run of a flagship series and this has been an anthology title with decidedly varying series. It’s fun to see what the comics of that era really were like, and I’m more likely than not to do the same thing with All American Comics, which was Green Lantern’s home title. And in a silly way, I’m grateful to see the original and only Forties appearance of Jay Garrick’s foe, The Shade, who was nothing remotely like the one that appeared in Jay’s return in the classic The Flash 123, and upon which all subsequent versions have been based. I shudder…
But despite the limitations of the material, I wouldn’t want to have this stuff in any other format than the DVD. Had I the space, I still wouldn’t want to give it that space..
I’ve read all manner of stuff in comics over the fifty years that I’ve been involved with the things, weird, incomprehensible, brilliant, dull, inspired and just plain awful, but I don’t think I have ever read anything so head-scratchingly, bewilderingly bizarre as Robert Kanigher’s Wonder Woman.
For the last decade or so, DC’s Showcase series has been a cheap and easy way to read long runs of old series, mostly but not exclusively from the Sixties. The volumes provide you with a good long read: Wonder Woman Volume 4 reprints 21 issues from 1965 to 1968, nos. 157 – 177, mostly written by Kanigher and drawn by regulars Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. To make them cheap enough to be attractive, the stories are reprinted in black and white, which is a drawback, but in this instance, nothing that has any bearing on the contents.
I first read this volume several months ago, in utter disbelief, but having just run two Wonder Woman blogposts very shortly before, I decided against doing a post on it at that time. The time has come to read it again – it is equally incredible-in-not-a-good-way – and bite the critical bullet.
Kanigher had been writing Wonder Woman since the late Forties, succeeding creator William Moulton Marston after the latter’s death. His work on the series was already legendary, in the sense of notorious, for its slapdash, wing-it approach, in which incident would follow incident with a complete lack of logic, as if Kanigher did not know, when he typed one page, what the next would contain. And there was the accidental creation of such characters as Wonder Tot and Wonder Girl, who were supposed to be Wonder Woman at different stages of her earlier life but who, instead, started appearing alongside her.
It’s not hard to imagine the comic being the perennially low seller it has always been rumoured to be. Indeed, though I’ve never seen this officially confirmed, it’s long been common knowledge that Marston’s original deal with All-American comics included a clause by which ownership of Wonder Woman would revert to the Marston family if a Wonder Woman comic was not published for a certain length of time, and it was widely believed that the series continued because DC had too much income in licensing deals tied up in the character to afford to lose her, no matter how badly the series sold.
Assuming this to be true, it seems equally clear that as a consequence, nobody gave a damn what Kanigher did with the character. Certainly Kanigher didn’t.
Volume 4 covers the end of one differing phase of the series and all of the rest, although the difference is purely superficial. This is not immediately apparent from the meat of issues 157-8, but a back-up story in the latter, a mind-boggling piece of metafiction that takes what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would do by inserting themselves into stories and beats it, whimpering in fear, to the ground.
But we cannot ignore that two-part story, for many reasons. This is the (in) famous tale that introduces that most incredible of Sixties villains, the Chinese Communist Oriental mastermind, called Egg Fu.
No, let’s just stop right there. Egg Fu. Before we go even the slightest bit further, let us reflect that here is a character whose very name, even in 1965 amidst the Cold War, embodies a hideously embarrassingly, mind-numbing racism.
Egg Fu. Oh God. And who, or more properly what is Egg Fu? Dear reader, I am afraid there is no way of softening the blow in advance, he is an Egg. A gigantic egg, with yellow skin. He has a painted on face consisting of giant bushy eyebrows, eyes slanting inwards at a 45% angle, a gigantic mouth filled with absolutely non-stereotypical buck teeth, and curling moustachios. Oh, and he has the usual oriental incapability to pronounce the letter R, unress it is funny. A word is already stirring in my head.
The actual story-line begins with Wonder Woman’s boyfriend, Col. Steve Trevor of US Army Intelligence, being asked to volunteer for a mission that has already claimed the lives of eleven pilots, a mission he embraces with an impressive gung-ho loyalty. However, it being probable to the point of certainty that he too will be killed, Steve is given an hour to make peace with his fate, settle his affairs and say farewell to his loved ones, without of course giving away the slightest clue that he’s not coming back.
Steve being Steve, his only thought is to snog Wonder Woman one more time.
Now Wonder Woman, in this era, is close at hand, playing Lieutenant Diana Prince, also of US Army Intelligence, though Diana is only a glorified typist. Naturally, her Amazonian hearing has already alerted her to her beloved Steve’s suicide mission, and only her Amazonian Code is keeping her from the profuse weeping that she automatically breaks out in any time she is threatened with being separated from her handsome boyfriend by more than ten feet.
It should be acknowledged that in Wonder Woman we have an inverted Lois Lane situation: Wonder Woman loves Steve Trevor as both Wonder Woman and Diana Prince but Steve has only eyes for her as Wonder Woman, to such an extent that his only topic of conversation with Lieutenant Prince is his endless extolling of the virtues and beauty of Wonder Woman.
We are about to see a hideously perverse demonstration of this, a gesture of emotional contempt and self-absorption worthy of a monograph in itself. Steve, having arrived in Diana’s office too quickly for her to turn into Wonder Woman, accepts with comparative ease the fact he’s not going to see his Angel for a last time. So, in flagrant disregard for the secret aspect of his orders, he asks Diana if she’ll spend that hour with him, walking on the beach, talking, even snogging at one point – but solely on the basis that at every moment (even during the kissing), Steve will be pretending Diana is Wonder Woman because he can’t get hold of Wonder Woman, and what woman in her heart would deny him that last pleasure?
We’re only up to page 3 and I am reeling in shock that this very notion is not being greeted by, at minimum, a jolt to the testicles from an elephants knee.
But Diana being Diana, as well as Wonder Woman (and the absolute worst of love-struck simps in both guises), it’s the least she can do. And what if their beach idyll is interrupted by the arrival of Chinese Communist Saboteurs coming ashore and trying to shoot them both? Colonel Steve will save the day!
Pity that he can’t see that Lt. Prince has tears pouring out of her eyes in every frame
Once it comes to the mission, Steve is naturally a winner. The fiendish Egg Fu has created automatic defences that detect the vibrations of aerial photography and blow up anything that tries to use it, but Steve’s already bailed out and is taking pictures on the way down with a camera. Just in case he’s tried something sneaky like that, Egg Fu has him bombarded with X-rays, but these are special X-rays. Instead of wiping out photographs, they lift people fifty feet in the air and fill them with explosive energy that turns them into weapons to be flung against US Navy battle fleets of the kind Wonder Woman is fighting to save, in accordance with her Amazon code, whilst all the time leaking tears left, right and centre over poor Steve. Who, incidentally, as a consequence of said Amazon code, she’s compelled not to even smooch, let alone give him a (sanctified-by-marriage) Amazonian shag.
As it happens, Wonder Woman’s compulsion to touch Steve gets her – and him – destroyed, absolutely blown to atoms, by book end, but here comes Hyppolyta (aka Wonder Queen) with the marvellous ASR machine, which the Amazons have invented to restore mountains destroyed by earthquakes and volcanoes. Wouldn’t you just know it, it does work on humans, but whoops, now Wonder Woman has the same explosive content as poor Stevie, and every time the two hapless lovers so much as touch fingers, they are blown about in painful explosions.
However, the love between this pair is so strong and demanding that, despite the risk of concussion if they so much as brush against each other, they keep attempting to do so every two to three pages, because they are so much a pair of lovestruck idiots that they apparently forget, from what explosive contact to the next, just what happens if they try to cop a quick feel.
The solution to this conundrum is exactly as you’d expect from the story so far. Though Egg Fu is an egg, whose features are painted on, suddenly his moustachios move independently, and capture Wonder Woman and Steve in a trap. In order to get rid of them, he hurls them into space, only for them to make contact with one of a number of anti-matter particles falling on the Earth. But these are special anti-matter particles that do not destroy everything instantly upon coming into contact with positive matter, but instead wipe out atomic explosive particles forced into the body of people, freeing them up to touch without blowing each other seventeen ways to sideways.
Thus freed, Wonder Woman drops her lasso of truth, which forces people bound by it to do her bidding, around Egg Fu and orders him to stop his villainy. But Egg Fu lesists so fuliously that, well, he cracks. I mean, he’s an egg, remember!
You’d think that’d be enough for two issues, but Kanigher follows this up with an eight page back-up story announcing the new phase of the series starting next issue, which is either a brilliantly self-mocking piece of premature metafiction, or a piece of shite. You pays your money…
Murder is about to be committed, and Wonder Woman can’t stay. She flies off in her robot plane, like a true coward (I mean, heroine) whilst teenage protesters gather with placards outside a “certain comics company”, protesting against a “certain editor”, who is “killing” Wonder Woman. Much play is made of how said “Editor” is an untrustworthy psychopath, because he reportedly wears a yellow bow-tie (wait, it’s not… Barry Allen, is it?).
Meanwhile, the entire supporting cast cowers in the editor’s office, awaiting their fate. This means: Steve Trevor, Wonder Queen, Wonder Girl, Wonder Tot, Manno and Mer-Boy, Birdman and Bird-Boy and the Glop. Beads of desperate sweat pearl their collective foreheads.
The fleeing Wonder Woman defeats her very old foe the Duke of Deception, out to destroy Paradise Island as a parting gesture before Mr Bowtie murders him, the Amazons cower in subdued, panicky groups, and even Angle Man (who is equally quickly defeated) is in mortal fear.
Because next issue, Kanigher is taking the series Golden Age. Wonder Woman will henceforth retell all the original Golden Ages stories, starting from that secret origin, with artist regulars Andru and Esposito now having to draw with old Harry G Peters’ stiffness, and the entire supporting cast is killed – by having their photos flung into a desk drawer. Only Wonder Woman herself, Queen Hyppolyta (undergoing an abrupt makeover back from blonde to brunette) and super-cutie Steve are spared.
All this in two issues.
What follows does not, in all honesty, plumb the depths of execrability of these two issues. It is badly drawn, deliberately, all over the place, repetitive – Wonder Woman for the next thirteen straight issues cannot be introduced without the words “Beautiful as Aphrodite, Wise as Athena, Stronger than Hercules and Swifter than Mercury!” which as descriptive epithets go lacks the concision of “Boy Wonder” or even “Scarlet Speedster” – and starts to display an underlying psycho-sexuality that is disturbing to contemplate.
In truth, the Golden Age stuff doesn’t last long, not that it is easy to tell just where Kanigher’s focus is at any time. It’s partly a re-telling of Wonder Woman’s origins, her coming to America and her taking over the real Lieutenant Diana Prince’s life, mingled in with reintroductions of some of the Golden Age villains in, well, frankly, not really updated forms.
The characteristics of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor do not change. In every respect except actual lust, Wonder Woman is slavering for Steve, repressed only by her sacred Amazonian code and her promise to Aphrodite not to reveal her identity or give up her mission, both of which are utter bars to any kind of relationship with Steve that anyone normal would recognise as emotionally healthy.
She loves him. She yearns to be near him. She will act in any old kind of stupid way to protect him, despite the evidence that he hasn’t got the sense of a rabid gopher.
Because Steve is obsessed with Wonder Woman, or his ‘Angel’ as he insists on calling her to everyone under the sun, most often of all his long-suffering colleague, Lieutenant Diana Prince. Once again, the issue of lust in any recognisable form is absent from this relationship, which, given that Steve is a US Army Colonel before he meets Diana, makes his subsequent less than adolescent passion seem even more improbable. At least Diana has the excuse of complete ignorance about sex (and men) prior to that fateful and ineptly retold moment.
Indeed, Steve’s obsession is not merely total it is monomaniacal. It doesn’t matter what the situation, where they are, how appropriate it may be, what conditions of peril and danger this pair of prize twits may be in, Steve wants a kiss from his ‘Angel’. And in the face of even the most rational degree of resistance from Wonder Woman, Steve will force that kiss on her, no matter what danger she is preoccupied with saving him/them from, no matter what greater peril or risk he is creating, just as long as she is doing anything that keeps her from fending off his advances.
Yet Wonder Woman does not seem to see anything remotely wrong about this behaviour. She does not even resent it as a momentary intrusion, no matter what effect his inappropriately expressed passion has upon her and the job she is doing. Any normal female would have worn her throat out shrieking variations on “Are you out of your stark, staring, fucking mind?!?!?!” long ago, but this is not in Diana’s vocabulary. Indeed, the slightest thing that removes her as much as an inch from her masochistic goal of being in the divine presence of her suitor brings tears to her eyes faster than snatching a favourite dolly from a two-year old girl. Wonder Woman, outside of the Justice League, appears to be the only superhero who spends over 50% of her time crying.
This emotionally disastrous state of affairs is further heightened by the willingness of both its partners to interpret the slightest signs of any friendly gesture towards a member of the opposite gender as incontrovertible evidence of undying love, and a cue for heartbroken withdrawal from the scene, no matter how implausible the circumstances, though misapprehensions of this nature usually get cleared up (without a backwards mention) in the next panel.
Yet the sight of Diana being nice to someone who, no matter how implausibly old or ugly they may be, happens to be male is not the only thing that can disturb Steve’s unhealthy state of mind towards his ‘Angel’. One of Wonder Woman’s many assets is her lasso of truth, which, if bound about a person, compels them to obey the wielder. Given the sheer power represented by this weapon, it’s already frightening that Wonder Woman manages to lose it and get bound by it in almost every story, usually because she forgets to protect it (forgets? forgets?! FORGETS!!??). Steve is well aware of this, having witnessed Wonder Woman end so many adventures by catching crooks in her lasso, yet when she is in her turn bound and force to obey an enemy who has her act against the United States, Steve instantly bellows his hatred of Diane for turning traitor, no matter how many times she points out that she is helpless to do anything else.
This bull-headed stupidity only serves to torture Wonder Woman more than the mere fact of treason could already do, yet once she frees herself and saves the day, there is not a word of explanation, nor any request for forgiveness over the whole, horrendous affair.
And it is to be contrasted with Steve’s complete hypocrisy in getting his own hands upon the magic lasso, binding his ‘Angel’ with it, and using his control over her to order her to marry him.
Hypocrisy? Hang on, that’s the least of things. Let’s just repeat that. The leading superheroine’s beloved boyfriend – a Colonel in the US Army, in Intelligence, a person of high responsibility – is actually prepared to cheat his loved one into a state of personal slavery, compelling her into a marital and sexual relationship not merely against her express wishes but in complete override of her personal autonomy. No matter how often she pleads with him to let her go, to let her marry him at the right time, freely and of her own love and volition, he takes overt pleasure in refusing her appeals, in insisting on his forcing her, in exercising his blatant control over her.
This isn’t love. It isn’t even obsession, this is an openly expressed intent to rape, enslave and subjugate another human being. In a comic aimed at 8 – 12 year olds.
And when Steve’s grasp of the lasso is jolted from his hands, and Wonder Woman regains control of herself and her destiny again, there is not the slightest suggestion that she holds any resentment towards him, that she regards his behaviour and his attitude towards her as anything more than natural and unexceptionable, nor that he harbours the remotest doubt as to his conduct, nor that he would think for even a fraction of a second before taking exactly the same steps the moment opportunity re-presents itself, thus presenting Wonder Woman with the prospect of sapending her every waking moment in a state of heightened watchfulness against the guy who professes to love her and who has openly stated his intention to obliterate her will. And then she’s also got to watch out for the bad guys.
This isn’t the only aspect of the bizarre and unhealthy psycho-sexual background to the series, which also appears in the revival of the Golden Age character, Dr Psycho. Psycho was a midget, drawn with an overlarge head decorated by a penile nose and a jutting chin that, being also cleft, resembled a scrotum. In mainstream comics: the Comics Code Authority was certainly not as fascisticly vigilant as it might have been.
From his Golden Age origins under Marston, Dr Psycho was an out-and-out misogynist, originally charged with eliminating the influence of women on creating an atmosphere of peace. As written by Kanigher, he’s just a woman-hater whose hatred is based in rejection due to his deformed looks. It doesn’t take much to transfer this generalised loathing into a specific mad-on for Wonder Woman, with Psycho’s determination to force her into a symbolic role as the ultimate in female ability and potential, so that defeating her will be a slap in the face for womankind.
That’s certainly a viable story role, though it’s undermined by Kanigher’s presentation of Wonder Woman as an extremely dodgy role model to begin with. There’s even a sequence where Dr Psycho pretends to want to reform, to become Diana’s friend. It’s all an obvious fake and it does the Amazon no credit that she’s prepared to be so thoroughly taken in by it – as well as it forming the basis for the most absurd of Steve’s outbursts about her abandoning him.
What strikes me throughout this whole sequence of stories, and which I suspect has been going on for many years prior to this particular set of reprints, is Kanigher’s attitude. His control over the series is completely unchecked, and has been since he took over editorial control of the character in the late Forties, following Marston’s death. To have a writer edit himself was unique at DC, and to have allowed the position to continue for twenty years reinforces my belief that the continually weak sales were irrelevant against the licensing income.
Kanigher was in complete control, with only the vaguest of responsibilities to anyone. His heart was, always and forever, in his war books, and it’s notable that the preponderance of the characters he created were in that field. As far as superheroics go, he created Barry (The Flash) Allen in 1956, and Black Canary in 1948, demonstrating an ability to take the form seriously at some point, but Wonder Woman under his hand is the product of contempt: unrestricted, unbridled contempt, for the characters he wrote, and for the readers that bought them.
It’s too sustained, too repetitive, to be anything else, and the only question is as to how much was conscious and how much unconscious. We have his reputation, but the extended Comics Journal interview in 1982 was enough of itself to demonstrate Kanigher’s innate self-superiority, his pretension and ego. Personally, I believe Kanigher knew what he was doing and that he wrote shit for characters he regarded as inherently imbecilic and readers who would buy any old crap he chose to dish up.
Back in the Sixties, I only once read Wonder Woman outside Justice League of America, in which, like all the other members, she was a cipher with powers. Partly, it was disinterest, partly that I had favourites for those rare occurrences when my parents would indulge me, and a lot of it was down to the small boy’s urge not to have his parents think he wanted to read about girls.
From the few memories I can disentangle, I suspect I bought a virtual reprint issue: it began and ended with Wonder Woman at the comic book shop (!) and in between there was this story that seemed to start in the middle and which looked funny: it was all very peculiar and off-putting.
So to finally read Wonder Woman of that era in extended form, and to have made all the allowances possible for time, space, maturity and everything else that distinguishes then from now, I am still in shock that this was considered, well, publishable. That DC thought it fit to publish not just a comic but so many comics, on and on, eight times a year, that demonstrated such naked loathing towards its subject and, I say again, contempt, for its readers.
It’s a constant, cheerless parade of notions clearly devised on the basis of what-can-we-do-next-that-the-little-fuckers-will-still-swallow? An exercise in trying to find out how inane, bizarre and stupid the story could go before the kids would actually revolt and recognise they were having the unmerciful piss ripped out of them every time they plunked down their 12c.
If you’re a long term reader of this blog, you will probably have already picked up on the fact that I am a fan of the Justice Society of America, the first ever superhero team, whose DC Comics roots go back to the early 1940’s.
You’d have thought that, after two long series, I’d have exhausted the number of interesting things that can be said about the JSA, but that is to seriously underestimate the fanatic.
I’ve recently purchased the Graphic Novel Crisis on Multiple Earths Volume 6, the penultimate in a series that represents a generous slice of comic book history, by reprinting a near quarter-century of team-ups between the revived Justice Society and their modern counterparts, the Justice League of America.
Starting in 1963, the two teams met each year, in the summer issues of Justice League of America, to tackle all manner of menaces affecting not just one Earth, or even two, but on several occasions even more Earths, until the annual tradition was swept away by Crisis on Infinite Earths, in 1985.
These were the years of the Multiverse, that sprawling, inchoate, accidental creation that underpinned DC’s history for a quarter century, when the Justice League were the heroes of ‘our’ world, Earth-1, and the Justice Society were the heroes of another world, Earth2, that forever similar-but-different alternative to the established way of things, an annual window into a world of other.
Whilst I liked the post-Crisis idea that the two teams could be the heroes of different generations, could meet and mingle without the whole construction of a reason that involved a translation between realities, this is the JSA of my heart, of my youth, in much the same way that the original Justice Society were to the generation of fans that included Roy Thomas and Jerry Bails
So I’m going to take the opportunity to look at each of these team-ups, year by year: the writers and artists involved, the changing style of superheroics, the change in emphasis from plot to character, the changing JSA line-ups, the context of each year’s team-up..
The series will necessarily be incomplete, barring a sudden acceleration in DC’s publishing schedule to bring out Volume 7 considerably sooner than expected. I don’t have the original issues for the final three team-ups, but we’ll get to that when we get to that.
* * * * *
For now, let’s remind ourselves of what preceded the historic meeting of the heroes of two worlds in 1963 Showcase 4 (1956): Editor Julius Schwarz and writer Robert Kanigher create the new, soon to be deemed Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, for whom his predecessor is a comic book hero. A new, unsuspected era begins, leading inexorably (at least in retrospect) to the Multiverse. The Flash 123 (1961): Schwarz and Jay Garrick’s creator, Gardner Fox respond to intense reader interest by reviving the Golden Age Flash. To do so, they adopt the SF cliché of parallel worlds. The story, which also revives three Golden Age villains, is a massive success. Though there as, as yet, only two un-named Earths, the Multiverse and all it implies is born here. The Flash 129 (1962): Fox and Schwarz produce the inevitable sequel to ‘Flash of Two Worlds’, bringing Jay Garrick to Barry Allen’s Earth and pitting the Flashes against two of Barry’s Rogues Gallery. As a teaser, to test the audience’s reaction, they lead off the story with a flashback to the last JSA story, from All-Star 57, showing six more Golden Age heroes in cameo. The Flash 136 (1963): Having had a positive reaction, Fox and Schwarz give the JSA another cameo in the third Flash team-up, back on Jay’s Earth, this time in-story. An old JSA foe, Vandal Savage, captures all the JSA line-up that imprisoned him after All-Star 37, but the team are freed by Barry-Flash. At the end, they muse about getting back together, to prevent things like this happening again.
This might have been thought of as another teaser to the audience, but Fox and Schwarz were already ahead of the enthusiastic response: a meeting between teams past and present had already been written and drawn before The Flash 136 hit the newsstands. It would appear just two months later, in Justice League of America 21: “Crisis on Earth-1!”
The Black Canary was more than just the last Forties member of the Justice Society, more even than their first and only official female member: the Black Canary was the last hero, the last new costumed character to appear before the Golden Age would come to an end. And she started out as a villainess.
Black Canary was created by Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino, for the Johnny Thunder series in Flash Comics 87, although given his contempt for the character, what Kanigher was doing writing Johnny Thunder in the first place is in itself a mystery. (Less of a mystery if you read his Wonder Woman, which is riddled with contempt for everybody, the reader not least).
The Canary was introduced as a beautiful blonde jewel thief, in a haltered evening dress and black domino mask, whose USP was that she stole from other crooks.
Naturally, Johnny was as much infatuated as eager to defeat the Canary who, equally naturally, got away to fight another day. That other day was the following issue, the character having gone down so well at National that Kanigher brought her back immediately, with an explanation that she had been misunderstood: she was a hero who was stealing crook’s ill-gotten gains in order to return them to their rightful owners. On that basis, she was installed as Johnny’s co-star in the name of the series.
The Canary’s real identity was dark-haired florist Dinah Drake. She was the only daughter of Gotham City Police Sergeant Richard Drake, who’d wanted a son to succeed him in the Police. When he had a daughter, he trained her for the Police, only to see her rejected for one of the few female posts available, after which he died of a broken heart.
This story has subsequently been retconned to make Sergeant Drake one of the few honest policemen on the pre-Commissioner Gordon Gotham Police, and Dinah’s rejection a matter of the force not wanting a second honest Drake around.
Dinah seemed to take her rejection calmly, giving up her Police ambitions and opening a florist’s shop. However, secretly she used her skills as the Black Canary. Her costume consisted of a dark-blue bathing suit, a lighter blue short jacket, fishnet tights and dark-blue boots, ith her dark hair concealed under a long blonde wig. The domino mask was dropped after only a couple of appearances.
It was the beginning of the end for Johnny: with Flash Comics 92, the Canary’s only cover appearance, she took over the series in her own name, until Flash was cancelled a year later, with issue 104.
Black Canary first appeared with the JSA as a guest in All-Star 38, discovering the dying Johnny Thunder in time to get life-saving aid for him from Wonder Woman, then turning up at the end to belt the improbable villain round the back of the head and save the JSA. The Canary would leave, hesitantly expressing the faint hope of maybe one day being invited into the Justice Society, but there wasn’t a vacancy until after the next issue (in which she turned up again), when Johnny Thunder stepped down.
Even then, though Black Canary spent the whole of issue 40 alongside the JSA, as an equal, it wasn’t until the next issue, in which she’s very clearly a guest and an outsider, that she’s eventually rewarded by officially gaining membership.
This lasted only until All-Star 57 and the Justice Society’s retirement.
She returned in the cameo JSA flashbacks in The Flash 129 but, as the JSA’s only female representative, Black Canary was featured in the 1963, 1964, 1966 and 1968 team-ups. She also took part in two issues of Brave & Bold, teamed with Starman, with whom she’d never worked before the 1964 team-up. Then things changed dramatically in the 1969 team-up.
Denny O’Neill’s tenure on the Justice League came with a mandate for change. This included having both the Martian Manhunter and Wonder Woman resign (the latter because she had lost her powers), but it left the JLA without a female member. There weren’t any credible Earth-1 heroines lined up to replace her, so it was decided to poach Black Canary from the Justice Society.
This was also the year that O’Neill tried to combat the ever-growing age-gap between the War-tied Society and the perpetual Cinderellas of the League by the notion that Earth-2’s different vibration rate caused it to run slightly slower than Earth-1: twenty years to be precise, putting the JSA back into their prime. So Black Canary ended up trapped in the face of a lethal ball of energy from the villainous star, Aquarius, her brain-washed husband Larry Lance was on the point of killing Green Arrow, but love won over his conditioning and he sacrificed himself to save Dinah.
And Black Canary asked to be taken back to Earth-1, to avoid a world filled with memories of her dead husband.
The next issue, whilst some of the JLAers (I’m looking at you, Hawkman) argued that the Canary shouldn’t be allowed in because all she brings to a team that regularly faces cosmic menaces is a jolly good judo throw, Dinah demonstrated for the first time an ability to generate an ultra-sonic and highly debilitating ‘Canary Cry’. It’s an instant mutation, caused by Aquarius’s radiation, but it’s a superpower nonetheless.
For the next dozen years, that was the new status quo. Black Canary quickly mastered her new power. She started a romantic relationship with Green Arrow that has lasted forty years, give or take the odd time or two off. And, with the exception of a couple of solo series and mini-series, the Canary has always been seen in the context of various teams – mostly the Justice League but, in later years, the Birds of Prey and the revived Justice Society.
Black Canary has undergone two major reboots in that time, both coming within a few years of each other in the early to mid-Eighties. The first of these was carried out by Roy Thomas (who else?), though via the medium of the 1982 JLA/JSA team-up, rather than Infinity, Inc, and was a response to the ongoing Black Canary/Green Arrow relationship.
It had begun as a relationship of roughly age-equals, though the Canary was obviously much older than the Archer. But Gerry Conway (implicitly) and Paul Levitz (explicitly) had rejected O’Neill’s differently-flowing timestreams theory in the All-Star revival, and pinned the Justice Society like butterflies to a real calendar. By 1982, Dinah Drake Lance was in her mid-fifties and getting increasingly implausible as either a superhero or a lover to a hero twenty years or so her junior.
For the 1982 team-up, Thomas brought back the Earth-1 Johnny Thunder for an adventure that was a complete travesty, except that, for its cliffhanger, the Thunderbolt took Black Canary to an interdimensional pocket, where she discovered her own body lying in a glass case.
What followed was the revelation that, since 1969 and Justice League of America 75, we had been following the adventures of Black Canary 2, of Dinah Laurel Lance, daughter of Dinah Senior.
It appeared that, when Dinah Junior was still a baby in her pram, she had been hit by a revenge spell from the former Injustice Society leader, the Wizard, who cursed her with the ‘Canary Cry’, a power that the months-old baby was incapable of controlling. The effect was devastating, and the distraught parents were forced into the hateful necessity of putting baby Dinah into the aforesaid interdimensional pocket, courtesy of Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt, where she could grow with her powers causing disasters. Seeing the distress it caused, the Thunderbolt removed Dinah Junior from the memories of her parents and the JSA.
Now, as Superman prepared to take her into Earth-2, Dinah Senior suffered crippling pains. The radiation from Aquarius was killing her. The Thunderbolt led them to Dinah Junior’s hiding place, where she had grown to adulthood, the spitting image of her mother. Dinah Senior’s final wish was that her daughter should be able to have a real life, so the ‘Bolt transferred all of Dinah Senior’s knowledge, memories and emotions to her daughter who, believing herself still to be the original Black Canary, had arrived on Earth-1 with a new body and a new life.
The reboot held for a bit more than three years until it required rebooting itself as a consequence of Crisis on Infinite Earths. The basis of the story remained the same: the current Black Canary was still Dinah Laurel Lance, and she was still the daughter of Dinah Drake Lance, the heroine whose career had begun in 1948, but there was no crossover between Earths, no Aquarius, no dead mother. Instead, Dinah Junior was a child who grew up with two loving parents, and a set of magical Uncles in the rest of the Justice Society. Dinah Junior assumed she would grow up to inherit her mother’s role, only to find Dinah Senior forbidding it. The elder Canary, especially after Larry’s death, believed the world had become too dangerous and dark for a Black Canary.
But Dinah’s ‘Uncles’ – especially Wildcat – agreed to train her behind Dinah Senior’s back, and eventually Dinah Junior stole her mother’s costume in a moment of frustration, and became the new Black Canary (as well as taking over the Florists’ business). She would even replace Wonder Woman as a founder member of the Justice League.
In this story, Dinah Junior’s powers developed later in her life, with no apparent cause to them, but her insistence on taking over as Black Canary drove a wedge between the two women, a rift that was only healed on Dinah Senior’s deathbed, from a cancer brought on by Aquarius’s radiation.
In the early days post-Crisis, Black Canary, in a much-revised, far less sexist costume, was a founder member of the Justice League International, a frequently-irreverent series, from which she disappeared, abruptly, after about eighteen months.
This was to facilitate the next phase of her career, in Mike Grell’s The Longbow Hunters, a three-issue Prestige series rebooting Green Arrow and taking him, and Black Canary, out of the mainstream DC superhero universe. The couple established themselves in Seattle, Washington, for a series of down-to-earth, non-heroic adventures until, with Oliver (Green Arrow) Queen beginning to show a roving eye, he and Dinah broke up, leaving the Canary in a very unhappy situation.
But the most controversial aspect of this period came upfront. In a reversal of their original age-relationship, Ollie was now by far the elder, having turned forty whilst Dinah was still only in her mid-twenties. Dinah was adamant that, whilst she loved Ollie, she would not make babies with him because she would not risk making orphans. Grell then removed that very option: Black Canary was caught (offstage) during an underground operation, was tortured and (impliedly) raped and had to be rescued by Green Arrow, who shot to kill. The outcome for Dinah was that she lost her ‘Canary Cry’ and became incapable of conceiving. Many people loathed the casual way this had been forced upon one of DC’s few strong female characters.
By the time Green Arrow died (temporarily, at least, replaced by his son in an ironic echo of Black Canary’s past), the two were completely estranged. Black Canary found herself going into partnership with Barbara Gordon in the new series Birds of Prey. Barbara, Commissioner Gordon’s niece, had been operative as Batgirl 2 from 1967 to 1988, before being crippled when the Joker put a bullet through her spine. Confined to a wheelchair, she had created a new role for herself as Oracle, the DC Universe’s premier information broker and computer genius. Birds of Prey started as a team-up with Black Canary, with the latter as field agent, but it has gone on to develop into a team of female operatives.
The new series featured another change of costume for the Canary, this time going to a more streamlined variation on her original costume, and with died blonde hair instead of a wig. This was carried over into the revived JSA series, with Black Canary a stalwart in the early days, and even starting a relationship with Doctor Mid-Nite 3, until Green Arrow returned from the dead, and Dinah was editorially reclaimed for various combinations of his new series, the JLA and the Birds of Prey. Dinah and Ollie resumed their relationship and, after Infinite Crisis, even got engaged and, whisper it after so many years, married.
The marriage didn’t last. It didn’t get off to the best of starts, with Ollie attacking Dinah on their wedding night and Dinah killing him, but of course that wasn’t the real Ollie. The first case of the new Green Arrow/Black Canary series was therefore Dinah tracking down her kidnapped husband.
These days, with mainstream superhero comics being dominated by editorially driven events, it’s impossible to say whether the marriage was actually intended as a long-term status, but in real life it wasn’t. A Justice League story featured Star City being devastated (again) by the villain Prometheus, but this time the victims included Ollie’s adoptive granddaughter. Green Arrow went after Prometheus without talking to Dinah, and killed him in cold blood. She in turn helped to persuade him to turn himself in but, given his refusal to talk, she divorced herself from him by taking off her wedding ring.
Since then, the Canary has operated away from Green Arrow, serving as Justice League chairman at one point and reforming the Birds of Prey at another. She’s now regarded as a master tactician, and one of the greatest martial artists in the world.
Most of this has been swept away by the New 52, but Black Canary continues in the newest Universe, in much the same form as she was, although she’s now the only Black Canary and there is not nor ever has been any Dinah Drake Lance. How that leaves Dinah Laurel Lance’s background, I do not know, nor do I intend to inquire.
Wonder Woman marks another problem. For one, there is her anomalous status within the Forties Justice Society of America: a guest in All-Star 11, taken on as secretary in issue 12 and, two early adventures aside, a permanent onlooker, frequently appearing in only a single panel, for years. Even when the Amazing Amazon finally started getting into the act properly, in All-Star 40, there was never any time when she was granted membership.
The bigger issue is that Wonder Woman was one of the Big Three, the Trinity, the three archetypal heroes for whom there was no break, no discontinuity, but continuous publication that spanned the Golden and Silver Ages, that spanned Earths 1 and 2, before and after they were created. Wonder Woman is one of the unchanging ones, the primal three who, no matter what twists and turns and occasional changes will be made, will always be the one version.
A decade ago I wrote an unpublished essay, poking fun at the convoluted state of affairs that had come into being, whereby there had been a total of five Wonder Womans at that point, but of which three of them had been Princess Diana (errr…) of the Amazons.
I’m tempted to copy and paste it here, although any updating of it would now have to recognise seven Wonder Womans, five of them Diana. But it’s not of a piece with this series, so I will deal with the character in a straightforward manner, though in rather less depth than usual.
Whatever her standing as a Forties member, Wonder Woman is indelibly linked with the JSA, having made her first appearance in All-Star 8, in an unrelated bonus story. She was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, under his pen-name Charles Moulton, and drawn by artist Harry G. Peter, Marston’s personal choice (over the objections of Charlie Gaines at All-American), although Peter’s contract did not allow him to claim any creative aspect.
Marston, who had already played a large role in creating the Lie Detector Test, was a free-thinker who espoused the principles of free love and of bondage/submission as a cure for human violence (a course he advocated freely through his creation: those old Wonder Woman stories are seriously weird-in-a-not-good way). Wonder Woman came about in part due to the early backlash about comics, their violence and their overall suitability for kids.
Marston advised All-American that they needed a female superhero, to introduce loving authority into their comics. Gaines invited him to create such a character, and agreed a deal whereby Marston retained a proprietary interest in the Amazon: should All-American/National/DC fail to publish her for one month, the rights would revert to Marston or his heirs. Marston originally named his creation Suprema, but Sheldon Mayer replaced it with Wonder Woman.
Marston created his character out of myth. The Amazons, under their Queen, Hyppolita, had retreated from the world to hidden Amazon Island, where they lived in peace and were perfect specimens of womanhood. Hyppolita, a beautiful blonde, longed for a child: the Gods instructed her to form a baby from the clay of the riverbank, into which they breathed life, creating Diana, the best Amazon ever.
In 1941, an American plane, containing Colonel Steve Trevor, crashed through the barriers surrounding Amazon Island. Diana saw, and fell irreversibly in love with, the first man she saw. After learning of the War in Man’s World, Hyppolita decided to send an Amazon representative there, to spread peace. She organised a competition to find a worthy winner, but forbade Diana to take part. Diana entered wearing a mask (that would have fooled no-one) and won. Reluctantly, Hyppolita gave way and allowed her daughter to don the special costume that had been made for the winner – coincidentally consisting of a bustier red top decorated by the American Eagle and blue culottes, decorated with silver stars, just like the American flag.
Diana then ventured into Man’s World with Col. Trevor. Almost immediately, she met Army Nurse Diana Prince, who was identical to her and who was crying because she couldn’t get to the West Coast to be with her fiancé. So Diana gave her the money and took Miss Prince’s ID, to be near her beloved Steve.
The following week, Wonder Woman’s regular series started in the first issue of All-American’s new anthology title, Sensation Comics. Sheldon Mayer had her added to the next JSA story in preparation, in which the JSA disbanded to go to War and Wonder Woman subbed for the Spectre, and invited the kids to vote on her as the Justice Society’s first girl member.
Before the votes came in, narrowly in favour, Gaines had decided that Wonder Woman was big enough to get her own title – faster than anyone before her – which debarred her from membership. So, rather than have her elected directly to Honorary Membership, which would have been silly, Mayer added her as Secretary, which was merely demeaning.
As I’ve already said, it took until All-Star 40 to get Wonder Woman into the action regularly, and by the JSA’s final appearance in issue 57, she was the only member appearing anywhere else, in her solo title, Sensation having bitten the dust as well by then.
Wonder Woman stayed in publication throughout the Fifties. After Marston’s death in 1947, the series was taken over by Robert Kanigher, who softened the bondage elements and, indeed, trivialised the series out of all recognition. I’ve recently had the experience of reading Kanigher’s last two years of work on the title which, according to all I’ve heard, is of a kind with what he’d been doing for years, and it’s underpinned by what I can only describe as utter contempt, for the character and the reader alike. Hardly surprising that, for decades, the series sold terribly, being kept alive by the reversion deal that would have cost National all its lucrative licensing rights.
At some, unidentifiable, point, the series stopped being about Wonder Woman 1, of Earth-2 and became that of Wonder Woman 2, of Earth-1 (see, it’s starting to get crazy already). Wonder Woman 2 was a founder member of the Justice League of America in Brave & Bold 27, and a regular in the series until 1969.
The two versions of Wonder Woman were identical up to that time. The Earth-2 Wonder Woman didn’t appear in any team-ups with the Justice League until 1967, and tended not to appear very often, because no-one could tell the difference, except during the period from 1969 to 1972 when, under Mike Sekowsky’s editorship, the Earth-1 Wonder Woman lost her powers, pulled her hair back into a pony-tail, dressed in white jacket and trousers and took on crime as a Diana Rigg/Emma Peel figure.
When this version failed, Wonder Woman regained her powers but had to undergo a twelve-issue Labours of Diana trial, each supervised by a different JLA member before the League would take her back. Then the series switched to World War 2 and the Golden Age Wonder Woman for a few years, until the success of the TV series and Lynda Carter jumped it back to the present day. In any guise, it continued to flounder.
In the Eighties, her costume, which had undergone periodic minor changes – culottes to tight shorts, boots to laced Grecian sandals, shorts to cycle shorts, back to boots, cycle shorts to swimsuit bottoms – underwent a major and permanent change at the request of a major women’s foundation, with the American Eagle replaced by a stylised WW logo across the most famous breasts in comicdom.
Also, Roy Thomas brought the Golden Age Wonder Woman up to date in Infinity, Inc, showing her as older, married to Steve Trevor, and with a teenage daughter, Lyta, who became the superheroine The Fury.
However, both these Wonder Womans were swept aside in Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Earth-2 version being elevated to Godhood, together with her Steve Trevor, as part of the Greek Pantheon, and the Earth-1 version having her chronal pathway reversed, all the way back to the clay of the riverbed.
So, from two all-but identical Wonder Womans, we were down to none. Like the rest of the Trinity, DC were set on a total reboot for Wonder Woman, this time by plotter/artist George Perez. Perez retained the shape of Wonder Woman’s origin but produced a stronger mythic bedrock: Amazon Island became Themiscyra, Hyppolita black-haired not blonde, the Amazons were now the reincarnation of women murdered in hate by men, and Diana was the soul of the child of the only one (Hyppolita) who died pregnant.
Steve Trevor was reimagined as a man in his early Fifties, removing at a stroke the romantic entanglement that had been so hideously and embarrassingly used for so many decades (especially by Kanigher). Diana entered Men’s World as an innocent, with no need of a secret identity, as an Ambassador of Peace.
Wonder Woman 3 (still Diana, although in context, the first Diana of one) was of a different order to her predecessors. The series became a top-seller for the first time since the Forties, and deservedly so.
The removal of a Forties Wonder Woman from continuity left the JSA without a secretary. By a retcon, strongwoman Miss America was eased into that role and all those adventures, though very few stories were told, or retold, with her in that role. It would be superseded in the late Nineties by another, more pertinent retcon.
The new Wonder Woman briefly joined Justice League Europe but tended to go her own way, not returning to a Justice League role until the 1997 reboot. Before this, there were a couple of changes.
After Perez, Bill Messner-Loebs took over as Wonder Woman writer. For issue 0, he had Diana back on Themiscyra whilst Hyppolita re-enacted the contest to be Wonder Woman, only for Diana to be beaten this time by Artemis, a fierce fighter from a more warrior-like strain of Amazons. Artemis went out in Men’s World in the Wonder Woman costume (Wonder Woman 4). She was a full-figured woman with a spectacularly long red ponytail and impossibly long legs (a product of the prevalent artistic ‘styles’).
However, Diana did not take her demotion lying down, and returned herself to Man’s World, without powers, this time dressed in dark blue: jacket, bra and cycle-shorts.
As Wonder Woman 0 followed issue 93, the imminent arrival of the anniversarial 100 suggested Artemis would not be a long-term character, and she duly died in battle in that issue, allowing Diana to resume her rightful role.
Surprisingly, not for long. Incoming writer/artist John Byrne was quick to kill Diana – who was translated to the Greek Pantheon. This time she was replaced by Queen Hyppolita, acting out of guilt over her role in Diana’s death. In honour of her senior status, the Queen’s dignity was preserved by her wearing a star-spangled, but still abbreviated skirt instead of the bathing suit bottom.
Wonder Woman 5 did not last long either (Diana proved to be very unsuited to be a Goddess and wanted back), but did last long enough to go back in time to the Forties with Jay (Flash) Garrick to help him resolve a newly-recollected matter. Jay returned almost immediately, but Hyppolita stayed on an extra half-hour, during which she lived Wonder Woman’s entire Forties career as it had originally happened – bye bye Miss America(n pie) – and set the temporal record on its head.
Though Wonder Woman 5, Hyppolita thus became Wonder Woman 1 (in post-Crisis continuity) as well as Wonder Woman 3 in DC history, whilst Diana now turned out to have been named Wonder Woman due to memories of the Forties career her mother had whilst continuing Diana’s career. Don’t worry, it all makes sense to comics’ fans.
I’m going to draw a veil over the following decade of Wonder Woman’s career, in which changes have occurred (including a radical change of costume that everybody knew was never going to last). But post New 52, we have yet another Wonder Woman, who is yet again a variation on Diana, who we may as well call Wonder Woman 6, and a quickly-killed alternate Diana/Wonder Woman (7) in Earth-2.
There is obviously far more to write about the legacy of Wonder Woman but, excepting those two brief interpolations of Artemis and Hyppolita, neither of whom were ever more than just interpolations, it is one woman and one character’s story. There is no real legacy to be discussed here, any more than there is for Superman or Batman.
The original Flash was created by writer Gardner Fox and artist Harry Lampert for Flash Comics no 1, published by All-American Publications in 1940. He was Jay Garrick, a Research Chemist in Keystone City, and his was the most simple and appealing of powers: super-speed: who had not dreamed of being able to run fast, with the wind whipping through their hair?
Garrick gained his powers through a lab accident whilst a student at Midwestern University: clearing the lab one night, he broke a retort of hard water: overcome by its fumes, he breathed them in all night, until discovered and rushed to hospital in the morning. He made a complete recovery, but concealed from everyone but his girlfriend, feisty Army Colonel’s daughter Joan Williams, that his body chemistry had been changed and that he could now run with superspeed.
That origin has been tweaked half a dozen times since, in an attempt to introduce even a fraction of plausibility into it, but all the reboots do is to further emphasise that, as superhero origins go, this is one of the least credible ever, and there is, trust me, a great deal of competition. It’s typical of comic book irony that such a silly origin should characterise such an excellent and successful character.
As The Flash, Garrick wore a simple costume consisting of a long-sleeved red top decorated by a yellow lightning bolt, blue pants, red boots, and a symbolic winged helmet of Mercury, the Roman God of Speed. Like his fellow heroes, Garrick wore that costume under his street-clothes, ready at any time to throw them off and race into action.
Garrick was a founder member of the JSA, and its first Chairman, recognising his status as the character most likely to be voted into his own solo title, making him the first after Superman and Batman to achieve this success. All-Flash ran from 1941 – 1948, during which period not only was the Flash invited back into the JSA, but he also became one of the regulars in Comics Cavalcade, one of the last successful anthology titles to be introduced in the 1940s. This meant that The Flash was appearing regularly in four titles, one more than each of Superman and Batman.
But the swing away from superheroes after the end of the war affected everyone, except a handful. One by one, All-Flash, Comics Cavalcade and Flash Comics were cancelled, and at the end of 1950, when All-Star became a Western title, The Flash disappeared, presumed forever.
However, as we already know, in 1956 National Periodical Publications decided to test the waters of whether kids were ready to read superheroes again by reviving The Flash. But editor Julius Schwartz, unwilling to revive a character who had already been “done”, insisting on creating a brand new character, more in tune with the 1950s.
The Flash 2, created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino, was Barry Allen, blonde crew-cut, bow-tie and sports jacket, the perfect image of Organisation Man. He was a Police (i.e. Forensic) Scientist with the Central City P.D., again out in the flat mid-West. Allen was working late one night in the lab, with a storm approaching. After a coffee-break during which he reads an old issue of Flash Comics, starring his childhood favourite, the lab is struck by lightning. It overturns a cabinet of chemicals on Allen, drenching him with an unpredictable mixture of electrified chemicals (now THAT’S an origin!).
After leaving the lab, Allen undergoes a series of experiences in which he seems to move at superspeed, but he does not fully realise what has happened until the following morning, when he can not only see a bullet flying towards his fiancée, reporter Iris West, but push her out of its way. In emulation of his comic book hero, Allen becomes the Flash.
The new Flash ran in an all-red body suit, incorporating a pull-over head cowl and eye-mask, with yellow boots, yellow lightning flashes at wrists and waist, and a chest symbol of a yellow lightning bolt across a white circle. The costume was made of an advanced version of the material used in inflatable life-rafts: in compressed form it was stored in a signet ring on Allen’s finger: when exposed to the air, it instantly grew to full size and Allen would don it over his street clothes (yeuch!).
National’s management were strangely reluctant to accept the positive sales figures and it took four try-outs over three years before Allen was awarded his own series, picking up the original numbering of Flash Comics with issue 105, and John Broome took over scripting.
Given the background of both Broome and Schwarz, there was an unsurprisingly strong SF element to the Flash’s adventures. Broome made use of a wide variety of scientific and pseudo-scientific tricks to underpin Allen’s speed (long though I believed it, I have been forced to come to the conclusion that there is no scientific validity to the notion that objects which vibrate at different rates can occupy the same physical space without damaging each other: I invite any reader of this to come up with even a shred of proof that this actually is true). And Broome also came up with a constant stream of costumed villains, a Rogues Gallery built around scientific gimmicks, who would stretch the scientist in the Flash to defeat them.
Schwartz’s success with the Flash led to a new Green Lantern and then to a revived Justice Society, renamed by Schwartz as the Justice League of America. The Flash was a founder member. Unlike the JSA, the League didn’t require all its members to appear in each issue, nor did it have a permanent Chairman: instead, the office was passed round from issue to issue. As one of National/DC’s most popular characters, the Flash appeared in most issues, and took his turn in charge many times.
Also in 1960, Broome gave the Flash a boy side-kick. Kid Flash – who originally wore a cut down version of Barry’s uniform before gaining a snazzy yellow and red version of his own – was Iris’s nephew Wally West, a 10 year old from the farming community of Blue Valley and a big Flash fan. Iris arranged through Barry for Wally to meet the Flash (Reporter though she was, Iris was certainly no Lois Lane). The Flash explains his origin in Barry Allen’s home laboratory when an identical lightning bolt overturns the cabinet on Wally, giving him exactly the same powers! Ok, it’s a good origin, but this was stretching probability, and a much later story went to great lengths to suggest a reason why this event duplicated itself so exactly.
Kid Flash would appear periodically as a guest star, or in back-up stories, until he gained an independent life as a member of the Teen Titans, a foursome of teenage sidekicks hanging out together.
Meanwhile, the steady stream of letters wanting to know about the Golden Age Flash, and how Jay Garrick fitted in with Barry Allen. It was obviously a story that would sell, so Schwartz brought in Garrick’s creator, Gardner Fox, to write the landmark “Flash of Two Worlds” for issue 123. Whilst carrying out superspeed tricks for the Central City orphans, Allen vibrates into invisibility and finds himself several miles outside town. Thinking he’s passed through a space warp, he runs back only to find prominent local landmarks missing. Fearing he’s also passed through a time warp, he checked the date on the newspaper, which is correct (June 4th 1961). However, the paper is not the Central City Picture News but rather the Keystone City Herald – Keystone City as in Jay Garrick.
Allen finds Garrick’s address in the phone book and, in civilian clothes, calls on him and his wife, Joan. He shocks them by relating Garrick’s origin as the Flash, before revealing his own. Allen’s theory, based on the vibrating-at-different-rates idea, is that there are two Earths occupying the same physical place in the Universe, but forever invisible and intangible to each other because they vibrate at different rates: Allen has discovered Garrick’s Earth because he has accidentally tuned into its rate.
The implications of this single issue would underpin the entire DC Multiverse for twenty five years to come, and its waves continue to have effect even now, in The New 52.
For now, though, it was a massive success, concluding with a nostalgia fest as three of Garrick’s old foes obligingly appeared out of retirement to require a fight.
The story was the predicted smash and called for a sequel, in issue 129, when Garrick came to Allen’s Earth and helped him out against a couple of his Rogues. It also included a teaser flashback to All-Star 57, marking the first post-Golden Age appearance for the other six JSA members of the team’s last phase.
Emboldened, Schwartz and Fox took things a stage further in the third team-up, in The Flash 136, which took place on Garrick’s Earth, where six of his old JSA comrades had been kidnapped. Thanks to Barry Allen, they are rescued and agree to come out of retirement, which happened only two months later, in a two part story in Justice League of America 21 and 22, with both Flashes taking part.
This story formally named Allen’s Earth as Earth-1 and Garrick’s as Earth-2, and was the foundation of a series of annual team-ups that ran for 23 years.
With Kid Flash changing his costume so as to no longer be identical to Barry Allen, and joining the Teen Titans, by 1965 there was a status quo that would hold for twenty years. Garrick appeared regularly in JLA/JSA team-ups, and occasionally teamed up with Allen: in 1976, surprisingly belatedly, All-Star was revived for the JSA, with the Flash as a regular attendee.
There was more development in Teen Titans for Kid Flash. In 1970, as a response to the ‘Age of Relevance’, most of the Titans, Wally West included, gave up their powers and costumes after their inexperience led to a campus riot that killed a prominent peace envoy in issue 25. Under the philanthropic gaze of millionaire Mr Jupiter, the grey-jump-suited teens dealt with social and teenage issues. Unfortunately, the experiment sent sales tumbling, and was abandoned (as was scripter Steve Skeates) halfway through a two-part story. The series tried a ghoulies and ghosties approach instead, but was still cancelled with issue 43.
Two years later, Teen Titans returned for another and very pallid ten issues before being cancelled again, but it, and Wally West, took on a new lease of life in 1980 when the team of Marv Wolfman and George Perez started The New Teen Titans, DC’s first genuine fan-favourite series, and its first corrective to the effects of the notorious DC Implosion in 1978.
We’ll return to the New Teen Titans and Wally’s part in it, after looking at Barry Allen’s career since the early-Sixties.
To be frank, entertaining and amusing as Broome’s (and Fox’s) stories could be, and successful as The Flash was, after starting the Golden Age Revival there were very few stories of significance in the rest of the decade. One such, however, featured Allen’s marriage to Iris West in 1965: National’s first superhero wedding, and only the second in comics after Marvel’s same year pairing of Mr Fantastic and The Invisible Girl from Fantastic Four.
The marriage was almost ruined by Allen’s 25th century foe, the Reverse-Flash, who was obsessed with Allen to the point of believing himself in love with Iris. Professor Zoom (his alternate name) tried to substitute for Allen at the ceremony but was beaten off with Iris none the wiser.
The new Mrs Allen was also none the wiser as to her husband’s secret identity, which became a running theme for the next year until, after a visit from the Garricks and some strong words from Joan, Allen agreed to tell Iris on their first Anniversary. At which point he discovered that she’d known since their Wedding Night, because Barry talked in his sleep!
That’s a charming little story that betrays too much of its time, and of the Comics Code Authority’s strictures. In 1965, nice girls didn’t – at all – until they were married, but in the Nineties the notion that Barry and Iris wouldn’t have slept together until then would have been too strange for an audience to believe, and a more complex justification had to be found for his sudden lapse into somniloquy.
Two other stories of significance achieved this by being so insanely dumb that, if back issues did not exist, we would politely assume them to be merely urban legends. The first of these, published in 1967, purported to be the real origin of the Flash: that he had been given his speed by a trainee angel named Mopee who had broken the rules by using materials that Barry Allen didn’t own himself, hence the need for Mopee to return and take them away again. This was so colossally dumb, National were trying to pretend it hadn’t happened practically before the inks dried.
But the other, a 1969 Robert Kanigher effort entitled “The Flash’s Wife is a Two-Timer!”, despite being almost as buzzard-gaggingly stupid, cannot be so ignored, for it would go on to form a crucial component in the Flash-mythos.
For the benefit of our younger readers, a ‘Two-Timer’ was an already archaic, or ‘square’, term for someone who was cheating on their partner, and it is as misleading as it is cheesy. Instead of being about adultery, the story was even worse. Iris Allen discovered that Professor and Mrs West were not in fact her parents but that she had been adopted. Which would not have been so bad if it hadn’t also have been revealed that she had actually been born in the Thirtieth Century, but that her scientist parents, in fear of an imminent and destructive nuclear war, had sent her back in time a thousand years so that she might live.
Now if you sit back a think for just a second about the likelihood of a woman born after a millennium of human evolution being medically indistinguishable from her incredibly distant ancestors or the likelihood of concerned parents sending their child to such an unutterably primitive age, you will have thought for exactly one second longer than Kanigher himself.
Nevertheless, the fact that Iris Allen was no longer the sweet, uncomplicated, loving wife of one of the saner and well-balanced heroes, but a time-travelling visitor was shuffled into the deep background until, in Barry Allen’s final months, it was resurrected as the big twist in his final issue.
Such things apart, most of Allen’s career avoided great highs and lows. By the late Sixties, John Broome was easing himself out of comics and America, and his role as Flash scripter went to Cary Bates, one of the earliest fans-turned-writers, who would go on to write over 150 issues of Allen’s series, in a quiet, pseudo-Silver Age manner, for so long as Julius Schwarz maintained editorship of The Flash.
Let us move ahead to 1980, and resume Kid Flash’s story, in The New Teen Titans. The new team consisted of three old characters, three new ones, and a rebooted Sixties teenager with no previous connection to the Titans. Under Wolfman, Wally West would receive the first sustained attention to character of his career: Wolfman depicted West as a product of his midwestern, small-town background, naturally conservative – or at least rabidly anti-Communist – undemonstratively but firmly Christian.
But the most significant aspect of West’s presence was that it was coerced: initially, he had turned down the Titans, only to join up after falling in love with new girl Raven, unaware that the half-human, half-demon girl had used her empathic powers to induce his ‘love’, because she desperately needed him for the new team.
When this was revealed, almost three years later, West was badly hurt, but he did not leave the Titans for another six months, and then for two totally different reasons. One was to assist his girlfriend Frankie Raye in coming to terms with unwillingly developing superpowers, the other the (secret) discovery that he had himself developed a mysterious degenerative condition whereby his own speed was killing him.
In this period, Garrick was effectively inactive, under the ground conditions of the new All-Star Squadron series. In ‘real life’, he was now in his sixties, but writer Roy Thomas unveiled a hidden JSA adventure in which the entire team, plus significant others like Joan Williams, had been exposed to chronal radiation, which slowed everybody’s ageing process by about fifty per cent: the sixty-something Garrick was, physically, only forty-something.
Our focus now swings back to Barry Allen. Things had changed in the world of Central City. Schwartz had finally retired as editor of The Flash, after over twenty years, in 1978, to be succeeded by artist Ross Andru, veteran of several series at both National/DC and Marvel.
Bates had been writing his calm, polite, Broome-manque stories for many years. True, at any given stage you could gather together a year’s issues of The Flash, throw them in the air and read them in whatever order they fell, without seeing any difference, but this had been good enough to keep Allen’s audience as stable as any other in the declining market of the decade.
But Andru wanted more. He had come from Marvel, where issue-to-issue progression and development and stories based in emotional dramas were the order of things, and where continuity meant more than the meticulous cross-referencing of Allen’s super-speed tricks to which issue they had previously been used in.
Things changed, suddenly. Allen found himself under pressure from a strict Police Captain, giving him grief over all his absences from the lab. An undercover cop started investigating drug-running through the lab, with the same Captain framing Allen as the culprit. Barry and Iris started to bicker and argue. Allen was ordered to supervise a morally dubious experiment on a prison inmate, Clive Reston, undergoing a Clockwork Orange procedure that would backfire, turning Reston into a monster who escaped. At a fancy dress party, with Iris making a very tasty Batgirl, she and Barry resolve their differences and decide it’s time to try for a baby. Reston kills Iris.
And yes, it was almost as schematic as that, not helped by veteran penciller Irv Novick retiring after the first issue, throwing Andru back on, first fill-ins, then a young and inexperienced penciller with no ability at body language or expressions. Though despite that, a disbelieving Allen’s grief at being shown his wife’s body in the morgue came over with sufficient power and helplessness to momentarily pause the story.
After that, the clichés start to run into each other. The Flash pursues Reston but is injured by him, enough that, when Allen shrinks back from exacting the Ultimate Price for His Crime, Reston still falls to his death from A High Place, the injured Flash unable to save him.
Then Bates promptly unveils evidence that Reston did not, after all, kill Iris. The true villain was actually the Reverse-Flash, giving Iris a final ultimatum to leave Allen for him and, when she gave him a final refusal, killing her by vibrating his hand into her head and literally scrambling her brain (ew, yeuch! and no-one spotted this at the autopsy?).
So Allen gets to go through the revenge issue again, up to a fresh point of exacting the Ultimate Price, only this time a vision of Iris comes to him to turn him away from Sinking to the Villain’s Level, but the Reverse-Flash still pays a terrible price, being trapped in a malfunctioning Time Bubble that will never again materialise in an actual time period into which he can escape.
Note that Zoom gets a comic book ‘death’ from which he can be retrieved whenever he’s wanted whilst Reston actually dies, but that’s the difference between a name player in the stock supporting characters and being an inarticulate new creation who doesn’t even get a codename.
Andru moved on, Len Wein took over as editor and Bates went back to his calm, polite, Broome-manque stories, this time with added new background as Allen moves into an apartment building and tries to cope with being a bachelor again.
But before we consider that, we must look at the anniversary story Bates wrote for The Flash 300, a triple-size tale, drawn by the returning Carmine Infantino, back at DC after his sacking as Publisher, a story that would be Bates’s masterpiece.
A bandaged man lies in a hospital bed in a private room, unable to move. Years ago, Barry Allen was caught in an horrific lab accident, when he was showered by electrified chemicals. Allen suffered appalling, paralysing burns, and has been bed-ridden ever since whilst Doctors slowly rebuilt him physically. Soon, their work will be complete, and he will be able to move, walk, live again.
But, unable to bear the reality of his condition, Allen’s mind has constructed for himself a powerful fantasy, that the accident gave him superpowers, comic book superspeed. Instead of paralysis, he lives a wild, free life, capable of running round the world in,literally, seconds.
Now, Allen’s doctors must free him of this delusion, break down his comforting fantasy, if he is to truly recover.
For Allen, it’s a lonely, utterly unsupported battle of wits to escape a subtle, paranoid plot by one of his enemies. But the slowly building case is inarguable; seamless, complete, absolutely convincing. The Doctor can even produce a living, still-loving Iris West, and a Reverse-Flash to confirm he never killed her.
For the reader, it’s obviously a cunning plan and, if you escape the beautifully maintained suspension of disbelief, a fundamentally flawed one – what happens when the ‘cured’ Allen is released from hospital into a world where the Flash manifestly does exist, and meet friends who know Barry Allen to be the Scarlet Speedster? But for the duration of the story, that suspension is willingly, eagerly maintained.
And it is the Reverse-Flash who saves Allen, by giving him the one incongruity, the one flaw that his relentless search for logic can seize on to destroy the whole structure of lies: if there never was a Flash, how can there have been a Reverse-Flash?
From there, the series resumed its general course. Allen met and started to date a young red-headed woman called Fiona Webb, who was initially suspicious of him: Webb had been relocated under the Witness Protection Programme and Allen was identical to the man she feared. Once the Flash had removed the threat to her life, she relaxed with Allen.
Meanwhile, Crisis on Infinite Earths was now being discussed and the decision was taken to kill off Barry Allen as a massive symbolic, we’re-serious-about-this gesture. With more than two years to go until the actual event, Bates started laying the ground.
Out of the blue, Allen asks Fiona to marry him. Their rushed wedding day is marred when the Reverse-Flash reappears, set on killing Allen’s second wife. The pursuit of Professor Zoom kept Allen from appearing at Church, causing Fiona great distress and humiliation. The Flash finally stopped Zoom at the final instant, managing to drag him back in a choke-hold that, stopping Zoom at superspeed, broke his neck. The incident drove Fiona into an asylum, whilst the Flash was charged with manslaughter, later upped to Second Degree Murder. Barry Allen had ‘disappeared’ and was presumed murdered by Zoom. Allen left it that way after learning that his re-appearance might cause Fiona permanent mental damage.
The next two years dealt at length with preparations for and the conducting of the Flash’s trial. He was quickly suspended from the Justice League, several of whose members vote for expulsion. The series was set for cancellation with issue 350, which would appear simultaneously with Crisis 7, in which Supergirl was killed. As early as Crisis 2, the Flash had appeared in pain and terror, arousing fears.
The trial ended with the Flash being found guilty, but this verdict was ‘forced’ on the other Jurors by Flash’s foe Abra Kadabra, masquerading as Jury Chairman. Another juror also came from the future, intent on ensuring that History’s true verdict of Not Guilty was not disturbed. This juror persuaded the Flash to fight back and expose Kadabra, and winning his acquittal.
This other juror was Allen’s beloved Iris.
Using Kanigher’s appalling story, Bates revealed that Iris’s thirtieth century parents, knowing the time of her death, had created a machine that reached through time to pluck her ‘soul’ from her body seconds before Zoom struck, bring it to their time and house it in a clone body, ensuring Iris still lived.
Now, with his twentieth century life in ruins, with Barry Allen ‘dead’ and the Flash’s reputation mired, Allen chose to retire to the Thirtieth Century, reunited with Iris. The couple enjoyed a blissful month, during which, unknown to Allen, Iris became pregnant, before the Flash was swept up into the Crisis. In issue 8 he died, alone, unseen, sacrificing himself to save the entire Universe by destroying the Anti-Monitor’s Tachyon Cannon.
Allen literally ran himself to death, his body disintegrating into its component atoms as he poured it on. Cut loose from the time stream, he bounced from time to time before unravelling. A later Origin re-telling added a touching note as Allen’s final conscious moment saw him slip back in time to Central City, to a night of storm, his atoms forming into a lightning bolt that flashed down towards the Central City Police Department lab…
Despite Wally West’s declaration in Crisis 12 that he would take up Allen’s name and costume, DC initially intended to produce a completely new Flash. Little is known of who/what this Flash might have been (a throwaway reference in Alan Moore’s unproduced Twilight of the Superheroes proposal refers to “Barbara Randall’s new female Flash”. Eventually, DC announced they were abandoning that idea because they couldn’t think of a way to do it without it appearing to be a massive insult to the legacy of Barry Allen.
Thus, after a year’s delay, first in the pages of the crossover series, Legends, then immediately in a new Flash series (no definitive article), Wally West became The Flash 3, the first teen sidekick to actually grow up and take over his father-figure’s role.
At first, the name of the game was to be as unlike Barry Allen as possible. West, who lived in New York and didn’t keep his identity secret, was callow, brash and self-centred. He’d seen his Uncle die a pauper so he wanted payment for his non-emergency work. The Crisis had got rid of the mysterious degenerative speed condition but now he was stuck at just over the speed of sound and had to refuel constantly by wolfing down junk food. West was also moody and promiscuous (he was 20, so what’s new?) and he even started seeing a woman ten years older than him who was separated but not divorced from her husband. Bad boy, bad boy.
West was also filthy rich, having won the Lottery in issue 1.
All this stemmed from new writer Mike Baron, who lasted only until issue 14, in which he obligingly bankrupted West for incoming writer Bill Messner-Loebs. Loebs, who, like Baron, came from outside mainstream superhero comics, took a more left-wing, even socialist approach, with West experiencing poverty and seeing the DC Universe with a darker eye. His associates were friends outside the superhero field, even after he moved back to Keystone City in search of a lower cost of living.
West also found himself joining the new Justice League International, as part of its spin-off Justice League Europe, as much for the salary as anything, though he was treated as money-conscious and weak-willed in that series.
West did not begin to come into his own as the Flash until Loebs left the series and Mark Waid – one of the better, most inventive superhero writers of the last twenty years – took over. Waid immediately positioned the series as a firmly Silver Age oriented title, yet incorporating the emotional dramas, continuity and, to as little an extent as he could get away with, the enforcement of grim’n’gritty agony.
Waid’s aim was to solidify and elevate West to become the Flash, a process he began by bringing back not just Jay Garrick but Barry Allen.
At this point, let us go back briefly to Garrick. Since 1986, he and the JSA had been trapped in limbo but, as described elsewhere, a Justice Society of America mini-series featuring Garrick in his prime had led to the JSA being returned from limbo and receiving their own, albeit short-lived and controversial series, again with Garrick prominent. As a bonus, Garrick received another rejuvenation, this time mystical, owing to his time in limbo.
Of more significance, Garrick immediately became a central part of West’s supporting cast, a wise, experienced grandfather-figure, who would have a significant role to play in “The Return of Barry Allen” and many more of West’s subsequent adventures.
“The Return” begins with the utterly unexpected return of Allen on Christmas Eve, apparently resolving out of electrical energy into his body in a back alley. West is, at first, sceptical, unwilling to let himself believe his beloved uncle and mentor is back, but gladly accepts him when Allen finally mourns at Iris’s grave. Allen too is weirded out to find West has adopted his name and costume.
This starts to come out more as Allen grows increasingly self-centred about the title of the Flash and resentful towards West. Eventually, he accuses West of trying to replace him, to make people forget him, and he abandons West in a death-trap. West only just escapes, to find Allen publicly announcing his death.
Heartbroken, West is left purposeless as Allen starts to direct a revenge spree against Central-Keystone for forgetting him. Garrick enlists fellow speedsters Johnny Quick and Max Mercury, to (unsuccessfully) go up against Allen. West’s malaise ends when, in the alley where Allen returned, he discovers an old, badly damaged book which is not to be published for several years yet. He is stunned by the names of the book’s author, and its writer.
West sets up a fight that destroys Allen’s costume, forcing him to come to the Flash Museum to retrieve the last one existing. But West has substituted another costume, that of the person who thinks he is genuinely Barry Allen but who is really the owner of the strange book – the Reverse-Flash.
Zoom’s story is rewritten to portray him as someone who hero-worshipped Barry Allen and who forced his way back in time to meet his idol, only to arrive several years too late, and to discover that he was destined to be Allen’s worst enemy, and to be killed by Allen. Hysterical trauma forced the knowledge deep, leaving Zoom thinking he was Allen and trying to take his place.
Eventually, West not only beats Zoom but forces him back to his own time, with no memory of anything but a burning hatred for Barry Allen. To do so, he has to burst through his own psychological limits and finally surpass Allen’s speed.
Incidentally, the book’s writer was Iris West Allen, whom West believed to be dead.
This was the springboard for a series of stories, during which West discovered that his, and all speedsters, speed came from a semi-sentient energy dimension known as the Speed Force, into which all speedsters were gathered when they died. West became the first speedster to enter the Speed Force and return, anchored by his love for girlfriend, TV reporter Linda Park. After that, West ‘mainlined’ speed, becoming the Fastest Man Who Ever Lived.
Shortly before this, Waid introduced a new element to the Flash Mythos, in the form of Impulse.
Impulse was Bart Allen, grandson of Barry Allen and heir to all his speed. Iris’s pregnancy had resulted in twins, Don and Dawn, both of whom inherited half their father’s speed. They had gone on to become heroes themselves before being killed at the behest of a descendent of the Reverse-Flash, but Don had married Meloni Thawne, also of the Reverse-Flash’s dynasty, and he had inherited Barry’s full speed.
Unfortunately, he had also inherited a hypermetabolism that saw him grow to the physical age of 12 in only two years. Bart was brought up in Virtual Reality, which could run fast enough to keep up with him. As Bart was in danger of simply dying by living too fast, his grandmother Iris broke him free and brought him back to the 20th Century, to West, the only other speedster to get his powers as a child, who could help cure him.
But Bart, used to living in a video game, found reality confusing. Max Mercury took on the job of training and raising him, as Impulse got his own series.
Waid’s run on The Flash was West’s best period. He succeeded in outlasting the grim’n’gritty period, making West’s adventures underpinned by glory and the sheer love of speed. He established that Barry Allen had originally been born with a twin, who had been still-born, leaving Allen in unconscious search for what was missing, that this need in Allen called down the lightning that transformed Wally West and that finally Allen’s twin turned up alive, as a mysterious villain, Cobalt Blue.
And that Cobalt Blue’s real name was Malcolm Thawne, the ancestor of the Reverse-Flash.
Waid’s final adventure involved getting Wally and Linda married, after a long story introducing the short-lived Hypertime – an intriguing means of reintroducing a much more flexible version of the Multiverse that DC dispensed with all too soon.
Waid’s period saw a large number of other Flash’s added to the legend, though not to the main line of Flash’s that we’re discussing here. He created future Flash John Fox, originally of the 27th century, and, very temporarily placed Jesse Quick, daughter of Johnny, in a Flash uniform when West, afraid he was going to die, was desperately trying to get Bart to take seriously the responsibility of being the Flash, but Waid’s most notable addition was actually a tendentious character, a new Kid Flash in a contingent future timeline, who was Iris West II, West’s own daughter, a warm-hearted, eager-to-please, somewhat anxious teenage girl in a slick Kid Flash costume who would have made a great character if only she’d been ‘real’.
Another interesting creation was Dark Flash, aka Walter West (Wally’s full name was Wallace), a older, harder, hypertime alternate who found himself in West’s timeline for a memorable year of stories.
There were also a millennia’s worth of ‘future’ Flash’s as Waid portrayed Barry Allen’s legacy spanning the centuries, his speed running true in his family line. When Barry Allen fans complained that Wally West’s series demeaned their hero, by making Wally out to be the best and fastest of all time, it should be noted that it was not West’s legacy that lasted 1,000 years.
Impulse was quickly given his own series, a high-tempo, light-hearted, wonderfully comic affair of Max Mercury trying to train both Impulse and Bart Allen in a quiet southern town (Manchester, yay!). First Waid, then Bill Loebs, maintained this theme for 49 issues, before a new team took over with a more serious approach in mind: Impulse would join such teams as Young Justice and the Teen Titans, where he would take on a more grown-up aspect and become the new Kid Flash.
Waid moved on from The Flash after almost 100 issues and was replaced by the increasingly central figure of Geoff Johns, though I dropped the series at that point. Linda would get pregnant, miscarry due to the machinations of Johns’s new Reverse-Flash, leave Wally for a time. West’s identity would become secret again for a time, Linda’s babies would be (improbably) restored and she gave birth to twins. Wally talked of slowing down.
And the revival of a new JSA series gave Garrick a lease of life, as one of the elder trinity, the first generation founding fathers of the team, taking on responsibility for encouraging and training their legacies.
With the twentieth anniversary of Crisis on Infinite Earths coming up, DC decided upon a sequel that would shake things up as the original had. Infinite Crisis, more tightly controlled than its predecessor but still utterly risible in many places, shook up The Flash. In attempting to neutralise a raving villain, West, Garrick and Bart tried to imprison him in the Speed Force: Garrick dropped out but Bart and West disappeared, the latter having chance to bring Linda and his new-born twins along with him.
And Bart returned, in a Flash costume, a decade older, but apparently without powers: the Speed Force had vanished.
Only not so. Bart Allen became The Flash 4, in a new series, The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive. Jay Garrick continued with the JSA in a new Justice Society of America series. Though his various rejuvenations had been reversed, and he was now in his mid-Eighties, it was implied that the exposure to the Speed Force for all those years had kept Jay physically young.
It was not announced at first that Bart’s series was only planned to run for 15 issues, by far the shortest Flash ever. In the event, it was ended after 13. Bart, unsurprisingly, still had his superspeed, the Speed Force having coalesced into him, but through the machinations of Inertia – his Thirtieth Century cloned twin brother – Bart was temporarily cut off from his speed during a pitched battle with the massed Rogue’s Gallery and was killed.
Simultaneously, Wally West and his family were drawn back from the alternate dimension in which they’d lived for 10 years (?) over the last twelve months. West resumed the role of Flash 3, his series picking up its old numbering and, after meeting out appropriate punishment to Inertia, focused on training ten year old Jai and Iris in their respective abilities with the Speed Force.
Even this arrangement did not last long. The ‘creative’ Powers-That-Be at DC had decided upon a Silver Age-oriented theme of Iconicity. Hal Jordan was back as Green Lantern and, after twenty-three years, Barry Allen would return in 2008’s Final Crisis. Wally West was overshadowed. Geoff Johns wrote a six issue reboot of Allen’s history as The Flash: Rebirth, and a new Flash series starring The Flash 2 began.
Meanwhile, in one of Final Crisis‘s offshoot series, Bart Allen was revived, in the Thirty-First Century, back as a teenager, and brought back to the present day to resume being Kid Flash.
It didn’t last long. Barry Allen was used as the centrepiece of Flashpoint, the 2011 crossover series that rearranged the furniture of the DC Universe yet again, this time sweeping away any history older than five years ago.
The picture is different now. Barry Allen is now The Flash 1, and a new Jay Garrick, younger than Allen, of a completely different character and origin, is The Flash 2, in the series Earth-Two, now a contemporary and, to the new readers, a secondary creation. Neither Wally West nor Bart Allen exist, yet, if ever. There is not yet a Justice Society, though there will be. The world has been changed since then, and you can read it for yourselves.