In the last couple of years, with immense thanks to David Simpson, I have collected thousands of old comics as part of a pile of DVD-Roms about three inches high. At first these were the British weeklies I remembered from my youth in the Sixties that is now gone, but along the way I discovered that I could get complete or near-complete runs of Golden Age series. Not just the run of All-Star Comics that I had in hardcover Archive format but the four titles featuring the adventures of the characters who made up the Justice Society of America.
Yes, the Golden Age comics are rough and ready, naïve, clumsy, amateurish, but energetic and enthusiastic. Most of all, they have been an opportunity to read and learn, to know what the stories were, to not have to rely on sketchy references and re-tellings that never give the details I automatically thirst for.
I have always wanted to know. Summaries, however accurate, are never enough. Only the original will do.
I haven’t yet reached the end of these revelatory DVDs, the latest of which is Detective Comics Inc.’s Leading Comics, an initially quarterly title introduced in Winter 1941. The title was conceived by Mort Weisinger and artist Mort Meskin in emulation of sister company All-American Publications’ All-Star and the JSA.
The idea was for Detective to have its own team of characters, coming exclusively from Detective’s titles. These were The Green Arrow, with Speedy, from More Fun, The Shining Knight from Detective, The Vigilante from Action, The Star-Spangled Kid, with Stripesy, from Star-Spangled and The Crimson Avenger from Adventure. Apart from the Shining Knight, who had magic armour and a flying horse, none of the team had actual superpowers.
Nobody seemed to know exactly what to call this team. The last panel of their debut adventure, in Leading 1, names them for the first time as the Seven Soldiers of Victory, though it has the feel of a description rather than a title. On the other hand, the team – which had no headquarters – were also referred to as The Law’s Legionnaires.
My first exposure to the Seven Soldiers came in Justice League of America 100-102, the first three-part JSA team-up and the first to introduce a third team. Len Wein brought them back from almost thirty years obscurity as a second Earth-2 team, time-tossed and forgotten, with a recap of the team’s origin in the form of a skeletal summary of the story from Leading no 1. It was a delight, another forty-six years on, to read that story myself.
The Seven Soldiers become a team by accident. Master criminal The Hand, believing himself to be dying of cancer, recruits five villains – Professor Merlin, The Needle, Big Caesar, The Red Dragon and The Dummy – to carry out his five best unworked plans, and challenges our five borrowed features to stop them. Needless to say, the heroes stop them, the Vigilante aided by sidekick, veteran Billy Gun and the Crimson Avenger by his aide, Wing, in every respect an eighth Soldier except for not being on the team. The team then follow the Hand, who has just learned his cancer is curable after all, to his lair, where their attempts to escape his death-trap lead to – not a very subtle irony – The Hand dying.
Until he comes back in Justice League of America in 1972, which was where I came in.
Though Leading Comics was an anthology title, it adopted the same approach as All-Star. There was one story running through the sixty-four page comic, a couple of comic strips excepted, but the heroes, with and without sidekicks, all went off on their own to fight the villain’s schemes separately. In the Forties, no-one seemed to properly grasp the idea of a team.
I was already familiar with the story in issue 2 from when it was reprinted over two issues of the 100-page Giant Justice League of America in 1974. Indeed, that’s the version that’s on the DVD, complete with colouring errors. It’s interesting that the Star-Spangled Kid, who calls the team together, refers to them as the Legionnaires, but more interesting to note that the story is structurally identical to the first one: a master plotter sets up five criminals to execute his plans, concealing his plan to collect the real object, and dying of his success.
And stone me, but issue 3 was identical! This time it was The Green Arrow who saw the problem. An evil scientist, Dr Doome (note the ‘e’) brings back five of history’s greatest dictators to rob precious metals for a time machine to go forward and take over the future. Same as before, five defeats later.
We are definitely talking formula here, and much more rigid than the JSA, but if Mort Weisinger is writing this, are we necessarily surprised?
Thankfully, there was a change made for issue 6, as the Seven Soldiers team-up to recover a billion dollars of Inca Gold for Uncle Sam’s War Effort, only to find various of its members turned against each other as a bad guy joins the race. This more sophisticated approach was used again for the next issue, but it was back to solo adventures again in no. 8, as The Dummy sent them back in time in a failed attempt to strand them.
And another twist was introduced in issue 10, as the Soldiers head to the Pacific to rescue a missing scientific expedition, get shipwrecked and split up and have to get themselves out of it in unexpected teams. This story emphasised one aspect of this team that was missing from the JSA, the sense of comradeship. The Seven Soldiers mixed a bit more and looked out for each other a bit more openly. In contrast, comradeship in the Justice Society was more of a case of pulling Johnny Thunder out of whatever hole he’d gotten himself into this time.
The story in issue 11 was barely a team-up at all. The Soldiers meet up, JSA-style, in the first and last chapters, to settle the hash of underworld boss Handsome Harry, in both, but in between they’re not on missions, just going about their ordinary business, solving crimes linked by the Hard-Luck Hat. This is Harry’s hat, which he loses in chapter 1, and which goes on from head to head, bringing disaster in its wake, before returning to Harry in the final chapter, by which time he’s become a hobo. If we’re to take this story at all seriously, which I wouldn’t recommend, years must pass during it. How silly is that?
In passing, I’ll mention that issue 13 was the first to appear in the interregnum when Detective and All-American were separated. Naturally, the Superman DC logo was unchanged by the list of comics promoted in the inside front cover was suddenly diminished by the exclusion of the latter company’s titles.
But the Seven Soldiers of Victory were only the number two team, and they never acquired the traction of the Justice Society. Issue 14’s goofy story of battling figures from literature, accidentally given life, was fun, and some splendidly vigorous writing went into the dialogue of Long John Silver and Sir John Falstaff especially, but it was the swansong for the Law’s Legionnaires. Though one last script existed, to be drawn as a curiosity, and serialised in Adventure Comics in 1975, the Spring 1945 issue was the end for them.
Why they were less successful will always be a matter of conjecture but most people agree, and I share that opinion, the overwhelming reason was that the JSA had the big guns, whilst the Seven Soldiers consisted of second stringers. The absence of actual super-powers, save for the Shining Knight, was another reason in limiting the appeal of the team, and the final factor was the times. The War was in its final year, Starman and The Spectre were about to lose their series, other costumed characters were falling by the wayside.
As well as its superhero series, Detective Comics had begun to introduce funny comics, like All-Funny and the teenster series, Buzzy. If the Seven Soldiers were to be removed, there was a lot of comic to fill. And the answer was funny animals. With issue 15, Leading Comics was transformed, the first DC title to drop its superheroes completely.
That’s not what I wanted to read. Nevertheless, in fairness I scanned issue 15. Six new funny animal features, including a funny animal version of Sherlock Holmes (is there anything less funny than a funny animal version of Sherlock Holmes?), all of them dross.
Nero Fox was the cover feature until issue 23 until he was replaced by Peter Porkchops. From issue 34, the series was retitled Leading Screen Comics, in which form it lasted until 1951 and issue 77.
I wanted to read the short career of the Seven Soldiers of Victory, and now I have.