Infantino’s Experiments 2: Two Series


The five series I looked over in the first part of this mini-series were not the only short-lived series initiated in the wake of Carmine Infantino’s promotion to Editorial Director. This time I’m looking at just two series, which like their contemporaries failed to last more than seven issues.

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The Secret Six

Like Beware the Creeper I’ve long since known and enjoyed the first issue of this series, but it’s only relatively recently I’ve finally made the time to read the series in full. Unlike The Creeper, The Secret Six debuted not in Showcase but their own title – on the cover of it to be exact – and went on to a very strong initial story that made me want to read the rest of it. And I was not disappointed.
The point of The Secret Six, which was what made it the success it was creatively if not commercially, was that it was not a superhero series, not in any way. It’s closest cultural parallel, to which it was continually compared, was TV’s Mission Impossible, in that it was a thriller series, at times criminal, at others espionage, employing a team of specialists, whose abilities were fully human, and far less exaggeratedly so than Batman.
The gimmick was that the Six were gathered together by blackmail by an unknown person going under the name of Mockingbird, who set missions in which the sextet combined their skills either by bringing down organised crime or by striking back at communist plots (this was a very Cold War series with a visceral aggression against Commies). Each member was under Mockingbird’s thumb for one reason or another. The twist was that Mockingbird was one of the Six himself. Or herself. Or so we were led to believe.
The series was written by the combination of Nelson Bridwell, who plotted the episodes and ex-Charlton writer Joe Gill, who dialogued them, with art by Frank Sparling, employing a scruffier, looser, quasi-cartoonist line that was both very effective for a series grounded in gritty reality and far more appealing than any of his superhero work.
The first issue was all about introductions. Six individuals with nothing in common with each other abruptly abandon the jobs they are undertaking and set off to a meeting, where they are taken about a VTOL jet and instructed to wear identical white uniforms – long-sleeved t-shirts and trousers – each decorated by a Roman Numeral, from I to VI. They are, in order, King Savage, stuntman, Dr August Durant, scientist, Carlo di Rienzi, magician and escapologist, Lili De Neuve, former actress and make-up artist, Mike Tempest, ex-boxer and bum and Crimson Dawn, model. All owe Mockingbird a debt. All can be exposed or abandoned for defiance.
Savage was a Korean War pilot who cracked under interrogation: Mockingbird sprang him in time for Savage to save his side but could expose his treachery. Durant has been poisoned: Mockingbird supplies him with daily pills that hold off his fatal disease. Di Rienzi’s wife is dead and his son crippled: Mockingbird pays for treatment that will enable him to walk again. De Neuve was falsely accused of murder: Mockingbird supplied a false alibi that could be withdrawn. Tempest was Tiger Force, boxer, who ratted out the mob: Mockingbird conceals him from their revenge. And Crimson Dawn was a foolish heiress, seduced, her money spent, her family ridiculing her: Mockingbird can reveal her connection to fat, foolish Kit Dawn to that family.
Bridwell provided a taut, convincing plot, putting the Six through their paces for their first assignment, whilst Gill skillfully contributed snappy patter that betrayed bitter humour and cautious misgivings between these strangers without ever descending to anything remotely campy or even flippant. You could believe in these people: they were solid.

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The six succeeding issues followed a template. The Six, either by direct assignment from Mockingbird or else by appeal from one of their members who needs assistance, conduct further missions. Each issues centres specifically upon one of the Six, explaining their situation, and the circumstances in which Mockingbird gained his/her influence over them in greater depth, and allowing each member of the team, as well as the reader, to see how plausible it might be to accept each one as Mockingbird, and not merely the seemingly obvious figure of Dr August Durant.
That’s always to assume Mockingbird was one of the Six and not an external figure. That must have been the case as Bridwell, in one of the later lettercols, admits that they have been dropping subtle clues as to the true identity of Mockingbird through the whole series, but that no-one has yet picked up on any of them. I certainly hadn’t. If that was true. And assuming that, the Six were the only characters to appear in each issue.
Like I said, the obvious assumption was Durant, and I favour him personally. It’s he who, in issue 1, advances the theory that Mockingbird is one of them. And in the two cases where the team acts to protect one of their own, it is Durant on both occasions who makes the point that, although their actions are unsanctioned, their mysterious leader would quickly pull them off it if he/she disapproved.
But seven issues was all The Secret Six got, seven issues and oblivion for nearly two decades. It’s a damned shame because it was a gripping series, but it wasn’t superheroes and even as early as 1968/69 the readers couldn’t accept adventure in any other form. We’re paying for that narrow-mindedness in spades by now.
On the other hand, it would have made a bloody good TV thriller series…
According to Wikipedia, The Secret Six were finally resurrected in 1988 in Action Comics Weekly. By then, Bridwell had passed on, so it was Martin Pasko who reintroduced the team, with art from Dan Spiegle, who put the new Secret Six into spandex uniforms. Durant was specified as Mockingbird, putting together a wholly-new team in the first episode then being killed off, with all the originals, in the second. Despite that flat statement Di Rienzi apparently becomes Mockingbird until he’s killed off in the last episode. Sounds like complete nonsense to me: I shall treat that as never happening.

Bat Lash

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One thing in common with this flush of unsuccessful series is that Carmine Infantino claims to have come up with the concept and assigned others to develop it. If it’s true then it’s an admirable thing, this willingness to go against a grain that many had clung to in the face of Marvel’s first dominance, sticking to the ‘classic’, the comfortable, the familiar approaches, rather than plunge into something new where they feared being out of their depths.
On the other hand, the lack of success for any of these series suggests Infantino was not another Kirby, though any such conclusion must be tempered by factoring in that a large proportion of DC’s audience were just as conservative as the management.
Bat Lash had already had the in-house build-up for his debut in Showcase : I remember seeing the advert for this shambling silhouette and the tag-line ‘Will he save the West – or Ruin it?’ over and over. The raggedy figure must have represented an early iteration of the character because, as soon as Mr Lash appeared, he was anything but ragged. He was a smiling, elegant dandy, a courteous man, a con man and a ladies man, who tried to avoid violence but who, when it was pressed upon him, was pretty darned good at it. You just had to watch out when he carefully removed the flower from his hat and put it to one side for safety.
He may have been a Wild West character, but Lash was also a very contemporary one, a child of 1968, of a growing counter-culture, of the hippy dream of peace and love and the growing opposition to the Vietnam War. No doubt this ‘peacenik’ stance, even in a moderated state, contributed to the series’ commercial failure.
That and the fact that the Western was practically dead by then.
For the Showcase try-out, Infantino commissioned Sergio Aragones – yes, he of MAD magazine and Groo the Wanderer – to plot the story for Nick Cardy to draw, pencils and inks, with veteran Sheldon Mayer brought in to dialogue the issue. For the series, Denny O’Neill came in to dialogue (and Cardy was credited with the plot for issue 2) but otherwise it was the same team.
Cardy’s art is lovely, loose and flexible, and with that cartoonish element that ideally suits the tenor of the stories, though when the letters page suggests he has equalled his former boss, Will Eisner, I have to dissent, no disrespect.
As for the stories, they’re generally good fun. Bat Lash is played as a charming rogue, a drifter coming and going through the usual cliches of western towns. He’s constantly professing his hatred of violence, and his love of peace and flowers, even as he’s lying and cheating his way wherever he goes.

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The fact is, Bat Lash is an unprincipled chancer, and completely selfish with it, willing to con anyone over anything and with only a very few, and very occasional flashes of human remorse. In short, the man’s a stinker, and don’t you forget it. O’Neill and Aragones are never shy of showing this, only they wrap it up in clever moves, demonstrating Lash’s superior intelligence, and his ability to improvise (and plan ahead when the situation requires) with a high degree of intelligence. And it’s all about charm. Lash gets his way, especially with the ladies, who he invariably kisses and runs, by surfing on his easy-going, romantic and charming manner.
There’s a personal touch in issue 4 when the pair introduce a villain by the name of Sergio Aragones, and Cardy draws him like the senor too (it is to be presumed that this bandido has no connection with the former Governor Sergio Aragones, mentioned in passing in issue 1). The fictional Aragones is every bit the twister that Bat Lash is and the issue long challenge between them is full of betrayals and promises.
It’s tremendous fun, but it’s also full of Mexican accents and cliches. Now I’ve never heard Aragones speak, but even now I’m led to believe his spoken English is, shall we say, imperfect, so this may well have been phonetically accurate at the time, and there’s nothing in the collaboration that suggests O’Neill had anything less than full enjoyment with his partner, but a half-century on, it automatically looks a bit cheap.
Plot-wise, if I wanted to be critical, I would point out that the stories tend to be a bit episodic, short vignettes leading up to regular bouts of gunplay and the like as Bat Lash ducks and dives.
And then it all crashes, abruptly, in issue 6. Denny O’Neill summarised things neatly on Wikipedia, explaining that he and Aragones had set out to depict a charming rogue, and suddenly DC re-wrote him as a churlish rogue. Issue 6 presents the origin of Bat Lash, farmer’s son who became a killer after his parents were killed by crooks stealing their land. It was deadly serious, cheap and nasty from beginning to end, and it shovelled a shitload of shit over the character, removing his ability to be regarded as a charming conman.
Instead, Bat Lash’s charm was merely superficial, but he was brutal and greedy underneath. His sister disowned him, preferring to become a nun in support of her best friend, the girl Bat was going to marry, who had found her true vocation, and he was sent away, an empty vessel. In its way, it was a story that would fit perfectly into the modern-day preference for presenting innocent characters as broken and corrupt, but this was done over fifty years ago.
Issue 7 was the last issue. It continued the onslaught on Bat Lash by introducing the kid brother he feared had been killed, grown up as a heartless bounty hunter on the trail of Bat Lash. The two confront each other and the only person who knows the truth is killed by them when he jumps in the way to stop them shooting each other down. It’s another piece of nastiness, and good riddance to the title if this was what now passed for a Western.
Officially, Bat Lash was cancelled for low sales. Comics were never cancelled for any other reason. It’s been stated that sales were good in Europe, but low at home, and O’Neill, in Wikipedia has cast doubt on the official reason, stating mysteriously that he had reason to believe there were other factors, but not detailing what they were.
I don’t care. Bat Lash 1-5 were fun and entertaining, issues 6-7 were unmitigated crap, and I wouldn’t have wanted any more of them to escape.

Men call him… The Phantom Stranger


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy Cartoonist Comics: Scribbly


Scribbly 1

Not all the series I’m interested in reading go one for a hundred issues or more. There are quite a few limited runs I’m interested in seeing which will make for short posts. The first of these dates from the end of the Golden Age and is Sheldon Mayer’s Scribbly.
If you read my post on All-American Comics, home to Green Lantern, The Atom and Dr Mid-Nite, you may remember that I enthused over Mayer’s Scribbly, the Adventures of a Boy Cartoonist, both before and after the series was taken over by Ma Hunkel, the Red Tornado and the Cyclone Kids. In 1948, Mayer brought his character back in his own title, with a new format. It only lasted fifteen issues and doesn’t have quite the same high reputation. So let’s have a look and see what reputation it deserves.
The first cover got me guffawing. It features Scribble jiving with a pretty redhead, except he’s on stilts to get up to her level, only his kid brother is sneakily sawing through one of these…
The girl is Red Rigley, artist on the Terrificman cartoon strip and Scribbly’s hero even before he sees she’s a gorgeous redhead (is there actually such a thing as a not-gorgeous redhead? Not in comics, nor in my world). Scribbly’s ambition to be an internationally famous cartoonist and hire a butler and a maid to relieve his mother’s household duties is set fair to be dashed because of his age until Red blackmails her editor, O’Hara, into taking the boy on, if he wants any more dates with her. From there it’s but a short step to Scribbly’s unbounded enthusiasm, and lack of practical skills, driving his editor nuts whilst gaining his proprietor Mr Birdsnest’s confidence.
Mayer had lost none of his talent for cartoon art or gag-making and he even included Scribbly’s kid brother, now named Snoony Jibbet where he was Dinky in All-American Comics, and the other Cyclone Kid, Sisty Hunkel.
And in issue 2, Scribbly gets a cartoon into the paper in place of Terrificman, by accident, which promptly becomes a smash hit, so much in demand that a gangster, whose rackets are going downhill because he can’t stop thinking about what’s going to happen next so he kidnaps Scribbly, except that Scribbly has no idea how to get The Light-Fingered Kid and his red-headed companion out of his latest bind…
As well as three Scribbly shorts an issues, Mayer was also doing a strip about Snoony and Sisty, and hosting a rather sweet series called Liz, about a teenager and her boyfriend, as well as a prose Pudge.

Scribbly 2

I’m really enjoying this series, especially Scribbly’s infatuation with Red, who’s showing signs, as of issue 3, of being a bit responsive. Despite the difference in their heights, she’s only supposed to be about three years older than him, or 18/19 to his 15, though her confidence and maturity is way over his head. Though Clover Cooley from across the street has her eyes on Scribbly and she’s not only his age but she scrubs up alright as well.
The beauty of all this to me is that this is kids comics cartooning that’s over seventy years old, predating my lifetime, but I’m giggling and laughing like crazy. The simple explanation for this is that, as better and more well-informed people than me have pointed out, Sheldon Mayer was a genius.
Needless to say, by issue 6, Clover had taken over as Scribbly’s girlfriend with Red, whose hairstyle had been changed to be both shorter and unflattering, palmed off with an engagement to O’Hara. Mayer was extending his range into three part stories that tuned the frenetic comic edge down a bit. Less fortunately, he was concentrating more on Scribbly’s rivalry with Bentley over Clover’s much-less tomboy hand, and limiting his range.
And the longer that went on, the less funny the series got. It wasn’t about madcap adventures and implausible but hilarious gags but about teenage romance, and unfortunately, the bonus features, even the ones that were only a half page, were doing that better by being more realistic. By issue 11 I was paying more attention to Jill Blake’s two page prose stories and her far more adult little sister Pudge.
Jill’s adventures were missing from issue 13, replaced by a two pager featuring Buzzy, another of DC’s teen humour characters with his own story. And, for that matter, Scribbly went missing for a year, with issue 14 not being published for 13 months. Jill Blake was back but few of the other features as, in the meantime, comic books had been cut back from 48 pages to the 32 page format we still have today. And there was only one more of those, after which the series was cancelled for good because of its sales. Not really surprising when I compare the last five issues with the first five, but a real shame. Wikipedia describes sales merely as ‘unimpressive’ and that the series was cancelled to enable Mayer to concentrate on Leave it to Binky and Buzzy.
It wasn’t the end for Scribbly Jibbet and Clover Cooley, as the feature continued as a back-up in both the other two comics, apparently on an occasional basis.
So a short life, but worth it for those early issues before it devolved into a romantic triangle, for which I’ll certainly keep it.

Scribbly

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


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

Winky,Blinky and Noddy

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

Enter the Thinker

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

Cover by Martin Naydel

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

Joan the Jitterbug (nice legs)

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

By the light of a Green Flame: All-American Comics


All-American Comics was the flagship publication of the newly-formed All-American Publications, the company founded by M.C (Charley) Gaines in partnership with Detective Comics’ Harry Donenfeld, who put up the capital in return for a 50% silent partnership and a role as Business Manager for Detective’s Business Manager, Jack Leibowitz.
Though Detective was making its waves on the back of its two masked men characters, Superman and Batman, and though Gaines had sought the money to set up his own company because of the success of Donenfeld’s titles, the new series did not at first feature any superheroes. That would not come until issue 16, and when it did the new hero would be All-American‘s mainstay for the rest of its run.
The first issue, from April 1939, is very much a thing from a bygone age. All-American led with Red, White and Blue, three American boys who’d grown up as friends, entered different branches of the services in the war and, thanks to their chivalrous impulses towards a beautiful woman in a tight situation, found themselves transferred as a special unit to G2, America’s secret service. There were Mutt and Jeff reprints, Sunday pages from Bud Fisher’s classic newspaper strip, and the same from Percy Crosby’s highly acclaimed but largely forgotten Skippy. Gene Byrnes’ Reg’lar Fellers was another newspaper strip, one I’d never heard of before, and not hard to understand why.

Hop Harrigan, by Jon L. Blummer (credited as Jon Elby), a future phenomenon as America’s air pilot hero of the airwaves also debuted. Editor Sheldon Mayer contributed his quasi-autobiographical Scribbly, Adventures of a Boy Cartoonist, of which more would come. Adventures in the Unknown, the Mystery Men of Mars, by Carl Claudy, started off like the crassest and stupidest of SF. Edwin Alger’s Ben Webster started like a continuation of an ongoing series, which it was, a pretty bog standard juvenile adventure newspaper strip.
Harry Lampert, of The Flash fame, produced Spot Savage, about a news reporter and there were more from Gene Byrnes and Bud Fisher, half-pagers featuring Daisybelle and Cicero’s Cat, respectively, which appeared as ‘header’ series on the newspaper Sunday pages. Tippie, by Edwina, was a silent strip about a dog. Fontaine Fox’s Toonerville Folks was yet another reprinted Sunday strip, as was George Storm’s Bobby Thatcher, though that strip had been defunct two years when All-American 1 came out. Lastly, there was Wiley of West Point, by Lieut. Richard Rick.
It’s hardly an impressive line-up. Superman had been in existence since April 1938, and Batman was brand new. All-American offered very little new material and was overloaded with newspaper strip reprints of varying quality, making it almost a premature throwback to the very first comic books of the early part of the decade. Mutt and Jeff is legendary, but it’s humour is tilted to the age, Skippy is more of a cult than anything else, and Scribbly has potential it certainly doesn’t use in issue 1.

This is an eighty year old comic book with an amateurish logo. And it looks it.
Weirdly enough, Red Dugan developed ‘mental telepathy’ in issue 2, which was an altogether cheaper issue, with limited colouring of the kind you used to get in the Victor and the Hornet in Britain in the Sixties. And in issue 3, Scribbly Jibbet met Huey Hunkel and, what’s more important, his Ma, Ma Hunkel. And there was a very familiar opening line to Huey’s Great American Novel (5 pages with every other word crossed out because Huey kept thinking of a better one). It was a dark and stormy night. You just know someone’s going to use that!
The first addition to the line-up was an adaptation of the renowned play starring Fredric March, The American Way, a patriotic play about German immigrants learning to be American. The title also added Popsicle Pete, the Typical American Boy (have you noticed something of a theme developing around here?), though that was based on a real contest winner from the Popsicle Company.
So far, with the exception of Scribbly, so not much, but the first quasi-superhero hit the front cover on issue 8, introducing Gary Concord, the Ultra-Man. Concord, who took over the lead slot from Red, White and Blue, is the High Moderator of America in 2239 but to begin with he had to play second fiddle to the life story of his father, a 20th century worker for peace carried into the future in suspended animation. Spot Savage dropped out, unnoticed. And to keep pace with what was going on around, issue 9 carried a full page advert for All American Publications’ new title, Flash Comics. The true superhero was arriving at the company.
It only took until issue 10 before Red, White and Blue were back in pole position, and Gary Concord moved further within. The perpetually stiff Wiley of West Point disappeared without warning after issue 12, in mid-cliffhanger, which also saw the last Toonerville Folks, but the unspeakably worthless Adventures into the Unknown was kept.
All of this, however, was but a generally unmemorable prelude to issue 16. All-American gained a new, and much more professional logo, a new cover character and a new leading feature, the one the comic is known for: enter the Green Lantern.
It’s a well-known story: young railroad engineer Alan Scott (who was originally going to be called Alan Ladd – as is in Al Ladd-in’s lamp – before the famous actor appeared) should have died when a bomb sabotaged the new line he’d built. Instead the mysterious green railroad lantern saved him and granted him power over metals, from the Green Flame of Life. Green Lantern was the creation of artist Martin Nodell (going by Mart Dellon), fleshed out by writer Bill Finger, to whom Nodell was far more generous than Bob Kane had been. GL’s far from green costume only appeared in one panel, but it was the start, of something very much bigger.

The classic history has Scott moving to the city (not named as Gotham until issue 91) and becoming a radio announcer so as to be ahead of breaking news of crimes, but he doesn’t even join Apex Broadcasting until issue 20, and then as a radio engineer, a status he retains for ages. In later issues, Scott would work for Station WCMG (once) before settling at WXYZ, and he would bounce around various roles like Special Events Director, Radio Announcer (see!), Program Director and Presenter.
As an employee of Apex Broadcasting, Scott would work for, alongside and in charge of Irene Miller, his Producer, Broadcaster and eventually secretary until, one day, the young lady with a crush on Green Lantern just drifted away, completely forgotten.
Green Lantern’s immediate success quickly emboldened Mayer to commission another costumed hero, The Atom, in issue 19. Written and drawn interchangeably, I believe, by Ben Flinton and Bill O’Connor, this was 5’1” tall college student Al Pratt, looked down upon for his height, who was trained by boxing trainer Joe Morgan to become a fighter, but instead used his scrapping abilities to become a hero, to rescue his fellow student and would be date, Mary James. Whichever man drew at any time, they were both lousy, as in barely better than I can draw.
Gary Concord’s run came to an end in issue 19, only for Adventures into the Unknown to return after an all-too-short breather. Sadly, Percy Crosby’s Skippy and its header also left the scene, though Bud Fisher and Gene Byrnes hung around. For a short time: Reg’Lar Fellers was the next to depart, leaving its header strip, Daisybelle, behind.
Suddenly, they were everywhere. In issue 20, the Green Lantern’s fame spread as far as Scribbly’s series, prompting Ma Hunkel to put on red longjohns and a saucepan with eyeholes cut out to rescue Dinky Jibbet and Sisty Hunkel as The Red Tornado, the first parody superhero and, beating Wonder Woman by a clear year, the first superheroine. A couple of issues later, the feature was re-titled Scribbly and The Red Tornado. By issue 24, Sisty and Dinky had joined in the fun as the Cyclone Kids. And the Red Tornado’s name kept getting bigger, and Scribbly’s kept getting smaller…

All-American was now accelerating towards its remembered shape. Ben Webster’s stout-hearted adventures came to an end in issue 24, to accommodate the debut of blinded surgeon-turned-superhero, Charles ‘Dr Mid-Nite’ McNider, created by Charles Reizenstein and Stan Aschmeier. He was followed two issues later by Sargon the Sorceror, the work of John B Wentworth and Howard Purcell. This latter made All-American a fully-fledged superhero comic, like Flash Comics. Of the newspaper strips, only Bud Fisher’s work remained, and weirdly some of these were reprints from earlier in the run.
I’ve refrained so far from substantive comment, but I do have a two pennorth to put in about Red, White and Blue. Though it’s supposedly about the three friends, Marine Sergeant Red Dugan, Army Sergeant Whitey Smith and Sailor Blooey Blue, most stories see them operating as a quartet, at first under the orders of, then usually with established G2 agent Doris West. Doris is a beautiful woman, of course, and winds up, in the background, becoming Red’s girlfriend.
There’s a visual dichotomy from the start in that she and Red are drawn realistically, but that Whitey and Blooey are cartoon figures, one big and blonde, the other small and dark. Whitey’s the brawn, Blooey the comic relief: well, both of them are, but he’s the overt one, the put-upon one, the Johnny Thunder.
It’s very noticeable that, as time goes on, Red forgets that Doris is the experienced one who arranged for him to join G2. Increasingly, he starts getting macho on her, leave it to the men, stay at home with your knitting, sneering at her ideas. Thankfully, the series doesn’t: Doris is always right but Red never learns. This really is a boy’s comic, because the some thing goes on in Hop Harrigan, whenever Gerry, aka Geraldine, crops up, no matter how competent she shows herself to be, and Gary Concord was equally snotty about women.
It’s annoying because it shows itself widely across several series. It’s not like Flash Comics, where The Flash and Hawkman have girlfriends who insisting on getting involved in their game, where the misogynist elements are only a reflection of the times, and the attitude of the men is mainly one of humouring. There was a genuine anger, almost a foot-stamping aggression, in Red, White and Blue and the other series at this point.

Doiby

Green Lantern was the title’s flagship character, its cover star and first feature, almost throughout the entire run, though his hold on that role would be shaken as All-American neared the end of its life. By rights, this should have been a top-notch Forties series, but with issue 27, Nodell and Finger permanently crippled the series by introducing a full-time comic relief character in scrappy little taxi-driver Doiby Dickles.
Doiby, who took his name from his trademark derby (or bowler) hat as pronounced in his Brooklyn accent, was a constant drag on the idea of taking Green Lantern seriously. There was some decent amusement to be had from his outlandish speech patterns at the first, but that was forgotten before too long. In issue 35, Doiby was allowed to see Green Lantern without his mask and, being Apex Broadcasting’s official cabbie by then, recognise him as Alan Scott.
On a lighter note, Bill Finger demonstrated a penchant for knocking off crooks in the course of climactic fights, by knocking them off gantries into vats of acid. Everywhere criminals went, they kept vats of acid under gantries. No wonder the Health and Safety Laws had to be toughened up. Even The Atom got in on the act in issue 29, but to be fair he only dropped Nazi saboteurs into molten steel, whilst Red, White and Blue burned their spies to death.
There was a nadir to come, that thankfully passed. Bill Finger left the series at issue 41, with the stories now credited to Mart Nodell (under his real name) and Irwin Hasen. Sadly, the new regime got the idea of putting Doiby Dickles into a Green Lantern costume (greugh! Bad sight!) and calling him Devastatin’ Doiby (come back Bill Finger!)

I said I can draw better than this

Hop Harrigan had early on developed a supporting cast of veteran flier Prop Wash (not a nickname), and big, red-headed mechanic Ikky Tinker, which confused me as I knew the latter as Tank Tinker from the prose stories appearing in All-Star Comics. Now, issue 32 revealed his full name to be His Grace Tutankhamen Anastasius Angustora Ichabod Tinker: you know why he immediately became Tank, but just what was so wrong with Ikky (apart from the obvious)?
Flinton and O’Connor stayed with The Atom until they were drafted, and never returned to comics. Replacements, in the form of Joe Gallagher (art) and Ted Udall (scripts) had to be found. Matters improved, marginally at any rate: at least the Atom’s cape looked like a cape, and not a hand towel. And Al Pratt finally managed to get a date with Mary James! Who started switching, inconsistently, from brunette to blonde and back again.
The War arrived with a vengeance in issue 42. Hop Harrigan had already gone into Air training and we got a piece of utter nonsense masquerading as a Dr Mid-Nite story involving the Germans and a rather more serious, and better story for Sargon the Sorceror, foiling the Japanese.
Continuity was not due to be a thing in comics for nearly twenty years but there were changes galore in Green Lantern over issues 41 to 45. On the other hand, The Red Tornado was consistent: consistently funny, silly and, in issue 45, gloriously metafictional, with Ma Hunkel and the kids getting fed up of the same old malarkey every month and getting Mayer himself to come down and argue with them! Mayer would play about with the strip again, re-imagining its characters in historical times and as funny animals, but always wonderfully.
Enthusiasm for the War led to Hop Harrigan replacing GL on the cover of issue 47, with The Atom sitting out to make room for the Story of Joshua, the Bible tale. Charley Gaines had a thing for educational comics and had started a half-yearly title, Picture Stories from the Bible. The Joshua story probably came from that, but if it was at all representative of Gaines’ new project, then it was a bust in comics terms: undramatic, weak, perfunctory cartooning that was probably much too respectful of its source to be of the least value as entertainment or education.
Just as wartime paper-rationing affected All-Star and the Justice Society, All-American came in for its share of pain from issue 51, reducing from 68 to 60 pages. The drop was quite easily accommodated by taking the comic’s junior feature with it: farewell Sargon the Sorceror.

Two issues later, Alan Scott’s Oath, the one he’s used in every post-Golden Age appearance, was replaced with a new one used in every remaining story in the series, a familiar but incongruous verse beginning “In Brightest Day, in Blackest Night…” It looked so strange coming from the ‘wrong’ GL. It’s recognised that this Oath was composed by future SF legend Alfred Bester, though his name wasn’t credited, not on this or any other Green Lantern story.
Hop Harrigan’s series, now supported by a five days a week radio programme, had always been a more or less realistic air ace adventure, especially when Hop was going through Air Force training. Suddenly, it added a silent pageboy-bobbed young lad called Hippity, who carried a machete and acted daft, and the strip spiralled into idiocy. The annoying thing was that I was sure I recognised Hippity from something else, but I have no idea what. Hippety would eventually disappear in favour of more serious, if still at times fanciful stories, but the little bugger would keep coming back and crashing future episodes every time.
Interestingly enough, Dr Mid-Nite’s adversary in issue 57 went by the name of The Shade. He was no relation to the Flash’s villain of that name in Flash Comics (who was no relation to any version of the character who appeared in that legendary issue, The Flash 121, in 1961).
The further All-American went into 1944, the more noticeable it was that the stories were getting sillier, as if the writers had run out of conviction in what they were doing and could only maintain series by starting to make fun of them. Admittedly, more and more of the better creators had been drafted into the Army now. Paul Reinman was drawing Green Lantern, Sheldon Mayer was getting increasingly metafictional within The Red Tornado, nobody knew from issue to issue what colour Mary James’ hair would be, and that was before she started hiring would-be crooks to unmask the Atom. Red White and Blue got dafter and worse drawn, until everybody, Red Dugan included, looked like cartoons. Suddenly, the three fighting men, and Doris West, were split up into solo stories, told as letters amongst them, which rendered the whole series pointless. It was as if the entire comic was undergoing a nervous breakdown.

Paper rationing had reduced All-American to 52 pages, and bi-monthly publication alternating with Flash Comics. More changes had to be made. The first of these was the cancellation of Scribbly and The Red Tornado after issue 59. Such a shame. It had been All-American’s most consistently entertaining series from day one.
Better was on its way for Green Lantern, at least for the debut, in issue 61, of Solomon Grundy, though it was a shame that this should be one of the relatively few issues on the DVD available only in fiche form. Unfortunately, this was a one-off, with the decline into asininity resuming immediately. The same issue was the last of The Atom’s continuous adventures to be published in All-American. His place was taken by Picture Stories from American History, which was being shared in Sensation Comics and Comics Cavalcade, but he would be back after a nine issue hiatus, for three further stories, the first being as childishly drawn as anything Flinton and O’Connor had ever perpetrated, before going for good.
The intention was cancellation, and replacement in the Justice Society, but this fell foul of a fluke circumstance, and the Mighty Mite would re-emerge in Flash Comics.
The Green Lantern story in issue 64 featured a horse that liked to sit on eggs. The only other place I’ve heard that referred was Alan Plater’s TV serial and novel, Oliver’s Travels. Was this some sort of contemporary gag, an in-joke for 1945? I found a Google link, but the page refused to open, so I remain ignorant.
Wars, however, do not last forever. In issue 66, Red White and Blue were reuniting separated German families whilst Hop Harrigan was still fighting in the Far East. On the other hand, a month later Whitey was still writing fighting letters from Berlin and Hop and Tank were heading home to Hippity (I’d rather have stayed bombing the Japanese).
We’re now at the era of the All-American/Detective Comics split, ended after six months by the merger of the two companies and the dissolution of All-American Publications. Issue 70 saw the old DC logo return to the cover. The increasingly dismal Red White and Blue strip was put out of its misery in issue 72, in favour of The Black Pirate (and his son Justin), transferring over from his old berth in Sensation Comics.
The Atom’s second departure was in favour of The Flash’s Three Dimwits, Winky, Blinky and Noddy in a solo story. The Black Pirate lasted two stories but was soon back on a permanent basis, The Flash turned up in the second Three Dimwits story. And Alan Scott was broadcasting for Station WXYZ in issue 76.
The quality of All-American had now become so poor that a fiche that was next to unreadable was a relief, since it was the best excuse not to read an issue. Was there ever going to be a decent issue again? Only Dr Mid-Nite attempted to offer straight stories any more. Green Lantern’s stock had fallen so far that he was displaced from the cover for two consecutive issues, first by Hop Harrigan, then by Mutt & Jeff, with the latter also displacing his position as lead feature. They were a reprinted newspaper strip, remember? They were the lead.

Sargon the Sorceror

Mutt and Jeff took the cover again, and the lead, in issue 83. Green Lantern dropped Paul Reinman from the art and Doiby from the meat of the story for once and came up with a perfectly decent, neatly drawn tale, and The Black Pirate dropped back in, albeit to meet blue-skinned aliens: sigh, why can’t they get things right? But the same issue had a surprisingly good Hop Harrigan story, the first in months worth reading, as Hop received letters from the past from his mother, and went searching for her in Colombia. There he found that she was long dead, but that he had a sister, who returned with him to America.
The Forties were not a great time for supervillains, unless you were Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. With the exception of that solitary Solomon Grundy tale, Green Lantern had gone without in All-American (his regular villain, The Fool, only ever appeared in GL’s solo title).
Suddenly, the series had a rash of supervillains. ‘Crusher’ Crock, aka The Sportsmaster, the World’s dirtiest sports player, debuted in issue 85, only to die at the end of it: did the editors have no idea? Similarly, The Icicle was killed off in his first story, in issue 90. Don’t worry, both returned from their apparent deaths, The Icicle in issue 92 and The Sportsmaster as The Sportsmaster in issue 98.
More notable, and sensible, was the debut in issue 89 of Green Lantern’s ‘friendly’ enemy, the red-headed Harlequin. Alan Scott was back at the radio station for the first time in ages, as Program Director, with a new secretary, a Miss Maynne (Molly), who rather likes the crimefighter and, after years of being starved of beaus because of her athletic prowess, decided to become a villainess in order to attract Green Lantern’s attention. It was a silly notion, especially as a redhead who looked like that would be fighting them off in droves in real life.
The Harlequin, who made no secret of being in love with Green Lantern and wanting to marry him (this was still years before the Comics Code but even villains couldn’t have sex without a Marriage Licence). She and Molly Maynne made five appearances, including three consecutive ones, in seven issues of All-American only to disappear completely but for two back of the head cameos by Molly thereafter.
One of those stories did not show Green Lantern up in a particularly good light, when he decided to ask Molly out on a date to play on The Harlequin’s jealousy. What effect this might have on the ‘innocent’ Miss Maynne was not in his thinking, the asshole.
The Harlequin’s debut was accompanied by the first appearance by Cotton-Top Katie, a cartoon feature about a young girl with fluffy white hair, and her idiotic classmate the Perfesser. Cotton-Top ran for ten issues and was All-American’s penultimate new feature.
The Harlequin’s streak was brought to an end in issue 96 which introduced Streak the Wonder Dog. Actually, the story was more Streak, assisted by Green Lantern than the other way round, though having Alex Toth on the art made up for a lot. But it was a sign that the Golden Age was entering into its dog days. Where Flash Comics displayed a late burst of strength, its senior was collapsing in upon itself with a whimper.
After 99 issues, and a return bout with girl pirate ‘Jolly’ Roger, Hop Harrigan’s strip came to an abrupt end. It’s replacement was a western series, Johnny Thunder, no relation to the former JSA member with a magic lightning bolt. It was a foreshadowing, a foreshadowing of a future rushing towards All-American’s readership faster than they would have expected.
The comic reached issue 100 under a cover date of August 1948, suggesting it went on sale two months beforehand. Johnny Thunder, a strange mix of sharpshooter and costumed hero rubbed coal dust in his hair to disguise his ‘real’ identity of blond schoolteacher Johnny Tane, the Sheriff’s son. He also took over the cover, denying Green Lantern the landmark that he deserved. The series looked good, because it too was drawn by Alex Toth.
But Johnny was the future. All-American Comics 102 was a fiche copy: Johnny Thunder, Dr Mid-Nite, The Black Pirate, Green Lantern and, for the first and only time, no Mutt & Jeff, and it was over. When issue 103 appeared, a month later, it was as All-American Western Comics. Time was up for Green Lantern and Dr Mid-Nite, except for two more years in the Justice Society and All-Star Comics. The Golden Age was all but done. Westerns, Crime comics, Comic comics, but not superheroes in the way they’d been.