For 324 issues, Adventure Comics had been part of the Superman stable of titles. 200 issues of Superboy. 80 issues of the Legion of Super-Heroes. 44 issues of Supergirl. Now, editor Joe Orlando had two months to find a new star for DC’s fifth oldest title with any recourse to the Man of Steel’s offshoots. What would he do?
There would be ample time to think for, from issue 425, Adventure went bi-monthly, requiring only six issues per year, a sign that circulation was in decline, as it was elsewhere at DC, and in places you wouldn’t expect, like the Justice League of America. Orlando’s response was defiant: the new Adventure would become a mini-Showcase, home to all sorts of stories and ideas, ever changing, always springing surprises.
There were four stories in the first issue, no 425, only one of them continued, the others – one only two pages long – complete in themselves. They were miniature shockers, with twist endings and no comebacks. The exception, Captain Fear, was written by veteran Robert Kanigher and drawn by newcomer Akex Nino, first and most abstract of the wave of Filipino artists about to flood DC’s pages because they were insanely cheap, as well as stylish, quick and talented. Captain Fear was a native indian pirate Captain, where you could make images out.
The Vigilante was added in issue 426, along with The Adventurers Club, an anthology series drawn by the already brilliant Jim Aparo, who was already working for Orlando on The Phantom Stranger.
And then everyone was ditched for a three-issue run by the mysterious Black Orchid, created by Sheldon Mayer and Tony De Zuniga, backed up by Dr Thirteen, the Ghost Breaker, also drawn by De Zuniga. The Doc only stayed one issue, however, before being re-replaced by Captain Fear, now being written by Steve Skeates, who was in turn replaced by The Adventurer’s Club in issue 430.
As for the Black Orchid, the character was attractively drawn but the stories were functionally identical. A bad man is given the opportunity to repay his thefts by the Black Orchid, who turns out to be disguised as someone close to him. She can fly, is bulletproof and no-one believes it when they see her. Meanwhile, she has no name, no identity and no personality, just an enigma. Three issues were enough, and she was replaced by Adventure‘s most notorious ten issue run of all time.
This run, in issues 331-340, came about by the coincidence of three things: young writer Michael Fleisher, researching a projected six-volume History of Comic Books of which only two appeared, proposing a revival of the Golden Age character, The Spectre, just after Joe Orlando had been robbed in a street-mugging in front of his wife. Orlando, angry and resentful of his humiliation, was ready to approve a version of the character that went back to his roots as a vengeful ghost, bringing retribution to evil, and to take advantage of the recent relaxation of the Comics Code to permit a greater licence in what could be depicted..
I loved it at the time. The run was bloodthirsty, it’s most obvious single flaw masked in my eyes by superb, dramatic, atmospheric art from Jim Aparo. The most obvious flaw was that the stories were basically identical: unrelievedly evil characters with no personality or even a second note, commit brutal crimes: the Spectre kills them in even more brutal and inventive ways. That’s all.
I was just feeling my way back into comics again after a three year hiatus, still overawed by the changes there had been during my absence, stunned by artwork from the likes of Aparo. But for him, I wouldn’t have lasted anything like as long: the lack of variation would have turned me off. A few years later, a higher sense of morality would have had me more repelled than thrilled by Aparo’s depiction of death-by-supernatural-circumstance. Yes, you could argue that the Spectre’s vengeance bore no resemblance to ‘ordinary’ killing, and Fleisher reacted to criticism by arguing that his Spectre wasn’t doing anything the original hadn’t, and he’d been written by Jerry Seigel.
Leaving aside the comprehensive difference between Bernard Bailey’s art and Jim Aparo’s, I somehow doubt this: as early as the fourth episode, The Spectre animates an axe to chop Jim Corrigan’s would-be girl-friend Gwen Sterling into eight separate pieces in a single panel, just because she, under mind-control, has tried to kill him. We the audience know this ‘Gwen’ is an animated mannequin but the Spectre doesn’t. Not until after ‘Gwen’ is being labelled Parts 1 to 8.
The run was popular but also highly vilified for its violence. There’s no definitive explanation for its cancellation with issue 440, but piecing things together from various sources, the probable explanation is that Infantino, coming under intense criticism at conventions and fan-events, took the opportunity of the first small downfall in sales to kill the feature, so abruptly that three bought and paid for scripts were never drawn, just written off, not to appear for thirteen years.
The Spectre period featured several different back-ups, including the final Captain Feat two-parter, but the most significant was a loose serial starring Aquaman, back in Adventure after a gap of 150-odd issues, with art from the up-and-coming Mike Grell, an artist who gathered raves everywhere he went but always looks stiff and unnatural to me. More thrilling was an unused Seven Soldiers of Justice story from the Forties, newly-drawn and serialised in issue 438-443.
The Seven Soldiers serial may have outlived the Spectre but it was Aquaman who replaced him, for a dozen issues, a rather better, or at least more varied use of Aparo’s art, allied to scripting by another former fan easing his way into the industry, one Paul Levitz.
It goes without saying that Aquaman in this run was better by far than the repetitious, meaningless stories of the Fifties. The opening eight issues built up as a serial that saw Aquaman deposed as King of Atlantis, at first by the mysterious Karshon, supporting the King of the Sea’s regular enemies of his Sixties series, but ultimately by his trusted Counsellor Vulko. It was well-made but I couldn’t really get into it, not then or now.
In the wider context, the arrival of Jeanette Kahn to replace Carmine Infantino as Publisher saw Joe Orlando promoted to Managing Editor and Paul Levitz become ‘Story Editor’ on Adventure, at the age of 20. Meanwhile, the three-issue back-ups moved on from The Creeper to the Martian Manhunter, his first appearance in years and a dumb one as he just assumes his murdered fellow Martian has been killed by a Justice League member, on the grounds that it was obvious. And Denny O’Neill wrote this.
Worse still, this ‘three-parter’ turned out to have four parts, the last being published in a completely different title, World’s Finest.
And Aquaman’s run ended abruptly in issue 452 with news that his own title was being revived and that he would transfer back there. Unfortunately, this came one issue too late for Adventure to escape the stigma of hosting one of DC’s most hateful and sickening stories. Aquaman’s ongoing battle with Black Manta reaches an end that few have ever condoned, as his son, Arthur Jr., Aquababy, held hostage by the villain, was killed, drowning in air.
Yes, that’s right, a little kid, not more than two years old, murdered. Where’s the Spectre when you want him? That Black Manta was allowed to live and remain a viable character to this day is an obscenity. David Michelinie wrote this, Jim Aparo drew it and Paul Levitz took editorial responsibility.
So, guess who got wheeled out to lead Adventure for the next phase? Why, it was Superboy!
It was the same story as Aquaman:better than the Fifties but still not good. Superboy got a solo because the Legion were pushing him out of his title, a familiar pattern, but he was saddled with Bob Rozakis and John Calnan as his creators, a combination that spelt commonplace. Aqualad got his first solo series as the back-up but that was no better, going around threatening to beat up pacifists to discover the secret of his past.
The cycle was supposed to be three 11-pagers plus back-up, and one novel-length story, but this was comic book’s nadir, when novel-length meant only 17 pages in a comic, and nobody settled into writing or drawing the series. But Superboy’s tenure only lasted five issues this time before he was moved over to Superman Family. Adventure was going down the pan. It had no regular lead feature, and the name, Adventure had simply outlived its recognition factor after forty-plus years, lacking definition for its audience, who looked for characters first.
This latest wholesale change reflected the decision to add Adventure to DC’s line of Dollar Comics, 68 page comics costing $1, but featuring all-original material. The initial line-up, in issue 459, featured The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Deadman, the Elongated Man and The New Gods, not to mention a very long editorial from Levitz about the values and virtues of the new comic, restoring the glories of anthology comics.
From this distance, the editorial reeks of desperation, as well it might since the infamous DC Explosion/Implosion was right in the headlights. The New Gods feature was already a foretaste of what was coming: this was nothing to do with Jack Kirby but instead was the completion of Return of the New Gods, an extension series written by Gerry Conway that, despite a few good lines here or there, is justly forgotten now.
Most interesting was the information that when this feature concluded, after two final chapters, it would be replaced by The Man from Neverwhere. But Adventure was about to be buffeted once more by the winds of change.
The intention was to have Flash, GL, Wonder Woman and Deadman as regulars, with shifting back-ups, but by the second issue, Green Lantern was on his way out, displaced by none other than Aquaman (again) because his solo title had been cancelled (again). The New Gods ended with Conway killing off Darkseid, but only for the first time: it would become something of a habit with him.
So to The Man from Neverwhere. But we all know that never appeared. Because the DC Implosion saw half the DC line cancelled in an afternoon, among them the revived All-Star Comics. It had been due to feature the Death of (the Earth-2) Batman in its next issue so, just like Return of the New Gods, Adventure became a home to finish things off.
Levitz moved on as editor, to the Batman titles, as he probably had to do, being the Justice Society writer, and was replaced by Ross Andru, who would soon be shaking up The Flash’s life in his title. This coincided with the final loss of Jim Aparo, after so many issues and features, the last of these being Deadman, which continued under Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.
One thing that immediately becomes obvious in reading this phase is a story-telling technique prevalent in 1979 but thankfully long abandoned. This is an attempt to generate immediacy and action by starting in the middle, in a desperate situation, sometimes only on the splash page, sometimes covering a page or two, before rewinding to the beginning to see how the whole thing was set up. This achronology is clumsy and incredibly irritating to read forty years on.
But the Dollar Comic idea didn’t last. None of DC’s attempts to sell bigger comics for more money ever lasted and with issue 466 it was done again. The Justice Society left on a high, the explanation for their retirement during the Fifties tied into McCarthyism, and they were going to be leaving anyway. But there was not a word of warning anywhere in the title of what would happen in issue 467.
Yes, everybody was out. Adventure was restored to its bog-standard 32 page size, and to monthly status at the same time, with Len Wein installed as editor and a brand new line-up of a revived Plastic Man, complete with Woozy Winks, demonstrating yet again just how hard it was to capture Jack Cole’s lightning in a bottle, and a brand-new Starman series, featuring a brand—new Starman, by Levitz and the legendary Steve Ditko.
The latter intrigued me. I never read it at the time, though I’m familiar with this version, Prince Gavyn, from the superb James Robinson Starman series around the turn of the century, so it was nice to see the building blocks being built.
Starman was actually quite decent space opera that I would probably have enjoyed a lot in 1979/80, whilst the Plastic Man revival did its best but, lacking the light touch of Plas’s creator, got bogged down in excess silliness rather quickly.
Still, DC had not given up on Jeanette Kahn’s dream of bigger, better comics, and with issue 475, Adventurer extended its borders (and price) again, jumping to 50 cents and junking eight advertising pages to bring the creative content up to 25 again. That required a third character and who do you think it was? Tall, blond, favours orange scales? Yes, it was bloody Aquaman again.
But only for three issues. Without warning, issue 478 had every series scattering to the horizon for their continuations, Aquaman back to World’s Finest, Plastic Man to Super-Friends, Starman to ‘a conclusion – sometime’. And not a word of explanation in the lettercol or elsewhere.
By now, it must be long obvious that Adventure was a dying title, struggling and gasping and desperate. There wasn’t even a lettercol in issue 479, which was taken over by Dial ‘H’ for Hero for the remainder of the series’ life, nor credits. The series was being written by Marv Wolfman and very clearly being drawn by Carmine Infantino.
Back in the Sixties, I vaguely remember reading one of the original Dial ‘H’ for Hero stories starring Robbie Reed, in which the idea was that if Robbie dialled letters that were equivalent to H-E-R-O on a mysterious telephone dial (no telephone attached) he would turn into new superheroes for an hour at a time.
The revival had two High School teenagers, Chris King and Vicki Grant, who discover two dials, one as a wristwatch, the other a necklace, and also turn into superheroes. Lots of superheroes. Streams of one-note superheroes with all the developmental space of a puddle. This is because practically ever character has been suggested by a reader in their teens (except the Silver Fog, created by Harlan Ellison, aged 46). In short, it’s a wildly jarring, screaming mish-mash of stock Infantino shots, and my how stylistically angular he’d got, and it’s horrendous to read. Oh, and just in case anyone comes up with a good character, DC owns them all. Just in case.
The sheer vapidity of the comic – three seven page stories per issue, is this Mort Weisinger making a comeback? No, it’s Jack C Harris as editor, which explains a lot – was DC’s attempt to grab a younger audience at the very time it’s older audience was taking hold of the industry, via the Direct Market. It was a killer. Adventure lost its last, tenuous grip on its audience, throwing away one that had shown some loyalty in pursuit of another that it hoped to create out of nowhere.
With issue 490, cover-dated February 1982, Adventure Comics died quietly, in its forty-eighth year, just ten issues short of its 500th publication. Apart from a mention of where Dial ‘H’ for Hero could next be found, there was no announcement of the cancellation. By turning it into a digest-sized publication, mostly reprint, the title was got to 500 eventually. There have been revivals since, but one of the oldest titles in the business had run out of reinventions, doomed by its failure to produce a character it could be associated with who could save its life.
Action could live off Superman and Detective off Batman. But Adventure could only ever eat its own tail: if it produced a charismatic, exciting, popular lead character, it would lose its star to a solo title in its own name. Ultimately, it was doomed. And it went.