HIGH CAMP SUPERHEROES


By Jerry Siegel, Paul Reinman & various (Belmont)
B50 695

Sometimes it’s cold and wet outside, the deadline’s thundering upon you, the cat’s been sick on your shoe and there’s only Rich Tea biscuits in the biccy-barrel. What can possible lighten the mood in such circumstances? For me it’s the sheer guilty indulgence of comics from early childhood that have the special ability to transport one back to a specific moment in time and space, redolent with joy and powerful, inexpressible emotion: a complete sensorium submersion that still leaves me breathless now.

It was a Wednesday; the last week of the summer holidays. I’d gone down to the (now sadly departed) Woolworth’s store with me Mum. She wanted tea-towels and I needed exercise, and I always got a treat when we hit the main High Street of our little town.

Woolworth’s at the time used to sell ballast and bargains books from America in deep wire bins. For sixpence. Sometimes two for sixpence, and three for a Shilling. Every visit would begin with a dazzling glance at a hodge-podge of primary colours and corners sticking out between the wires.

I was trying to get one last atom of flavour from the unique, dry pink plastic “chewing gum” (there was never that much to begin with) that had accompanied the four Tarzan gum cards in the pack we’d purchased on our walk (a good one: three I hadn’t got and a full-figure swap I could paste into my sketch-book). Despite having no discernible taste, the sugar pink smell of the gum intensified the more you chewed and it was almost overpowering when my chubby little paw alighted on the garish item at the top of the jumble.

Precocious and annoying, I’d been collecting US science fiction paperbacks, Ace, Belmont, McFadden-Bartell and the like for about a year, and comics of all nations for a darn sight longer. But what I grasped then was a revelation. It was the first time I had seen comics in book format. In black and white, and read on its side, this book seared into my brain. It was my first introduction to the unrestricted insanity of Jerry Siegel’s pastiche of Marvel Comics style on Archie Comics’ aged pantheon of superheroes. Of course I knew none of that then: I just knew these were weird, wild and utterly over the top!

I soon found other paperback collections – most of the American comics publishers used the “Batman Bounce” to get out of their ghetto and onto “proper” bookshelves – but this first book always held an extra charge they didn’t. I read it to death and then found my current copy on a market stall for 1/6 (that’s one shilling and six pennies for all you callow juveniles out there – incredible inflation but worth every penny to me).

Looking at it with as much cold dispassion as I can muster, there’s not a lot to recommend it to others. Archie revived their Golden Age stable when superheroes became a mid-sixties craze; fueled as much by Marvel’s burgeoning success as the Batman TV show, but they couldn’t imbue them with drama and integrity to match the superficial zany-ness – nor I suspect did they want too.

But as harmless adventures for the younger audience they have a tawdry charisma of their own and the hyperbolic scripting of Siegel touched the right note at just the right moment for a lot of kids.

Collected and resized from Mighty Comics Presents, an anthological clearing-house title fully written by Siegel, comes ‘Steel Sterling Vs The Monster Master’ illustrated by Paul Reinman (with what looks like some subtle assistance from Mike Sekowsky and Chic Stone), whilst The Shield tackles the astounding ‘Gladiator from Tomorrow’ and overcomes low esteem and the mysterious Hangman in ‘Suffer Shield, Suffer!’ which are all pure Reinman.

Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, The Fly had been renamed to milk the camp craze. ‘Fly Man’s Strangest Dilemma’ features the biggest cop-out ending of the decade (truly!) and the collection concludes with excerpt and origin from an adventure of The Web, a Batman clone who had the singular distinction of having to sneak out to fight crime because his wife Rosie disapproved.

As awful as this may sound I love this book and if anyone out there feels like giving it a chance, or even coming clean about their own unspeakable tomes, I’m going to support you all the way…
© 1966 Radio Comics Inc. All Rights Reserved.

4 Replies to “HIGH CAMP SUPERHEROES”

  1. Ah, the wonder days of the legendary “Dick, Vic, Bob and Paul”… Sadly the Mighty Crusaders fall between the cracks: not really good, but nowhere near bad enough to be truly entertaining. It’s a crying shame Jerry Siegel was reduced to this — but at least he was doing sterling work on the British “Spider” strip at the same time.

  2. I mostly agree, but I think it’s hard to ignore the zeitgeist of that peculiar, particular moment of the Sixties.

    Siegel certainly had a “unique” turn of phrase, but his plotting, pacing and sense of comedy and drama were always utterly sound – just look at the intriguing Starling strip he produced for Eclipse/Pacific in the late 1980s.

    With the MLJ characters I’ve always wondered how much of the naff hyperbolicism was him, how much the editors who told him to clone Stan Lee and how much just the tone of the times.

    Have you tried to watch The Monkees, Man From U.N.C.L.E., Addams Family, et al since then? Far-out. Man! And remember, these were the very best show their Pop Culture had to offer!

    For all his faults Jack Kirby probably came the closest to synthesising the language, idiom and context of the youth generation (albeit four years later). I think Siegel did pretty well trying to write to an audience so radically different from his own – or any that had ever preceded it.

    Keep the Faith, Groovy Dude!

  3. I’m currently watching my way through the complete Man From UNCLE box set, I’ll have you know! And thoroughly enjoying it. I didn’t rate the Monkees much, even as a kid.

    Siegel’s “Starling” was brilliant. The man still had ‘it’, even then. Don’t get me wrong; I love the Radio Comics stuff — but it’s a million miles away from what Siegel had been doing just a year previously on Superman and the Legion for DC.

    And, speaking of the times, didn’t Tower later release a THUNDER Agents paperback under the title “Dynamo: Man of High Camp”? “Camp” was clearly the buzz-word of the moment in ’66…

  4. I’m opening Channel D.

    I applaud your choice of viewing, and I stand by what I said. Siegel had an innate unerring ability to catch the extreme end of any idiom that was contemporary.

    I suppose there’s a complete cultural immersion once a decade or so, such as the all-encompassing sixties teen revolution, the seventies. hip, fly Groove, Eighties Loads-a-money or nineties A-Ceeeed! trance culture that’s inevitably high-lighted by comics, but Jerry could instantly light upon it’s most florid exposition.

    I suppose that made him a social satirist as well as a writer?

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