By various (Tower Books)
I’ve often harped on about the mini-revolution in the “Camp-superhero” crazed 1960s that saw four-colour comicbook classics migrate briefly from flimsy pamphlet to the stiffened covers and relative respectability of the paperback bookshelves, and the nostalgic wonderments these mostly forgotten fancies still afford (to me at least), but here’s one that I picked up years later as a marginally mature grown man.
Although the double-sized colour comics T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, its spin-offs Undersea Agent, Dynamo, NoMan and the magnificent war-comic Fight the Enemy were all distributed in Britain (but not, I think their youth-comedy title Tippy Teen) these monochrome, re-sized book editions, to the best of my knowledge, were not.
It doesn’t matter: to my delight, it seems that even today the format and not the glow of childhood days recalled is enough to spark that frisson of proprietary glee that apparently only comic fans (and Dinky Toy collectors) are preciously prone to.
Of course it doesn’t hurt when the material is as magnificent as this…
The history of Wally Wood’s immortal spies-in-tights masterpiece is convoluted, and once the mayfly-like lifetime of the Tower Comics line ended, not especially pretty: bogged down in legal wrangling and petty back-biting, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that the far-too brief careers of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves was a benchmark of quality and sheer bravura fun for fans of both the reawakening superhero genre and the 1960s spy-chic obsession.
In the early 1960s the Bond movie franchise went from strength to strength, with action and glamour utterly transforming the formerly understated espionage vehicle. The buzz was infectious: soon Men like Flint and Matt Helm were carving out their own piece of the action as television shanghaied the entire bandwagon with the irresistible Man From U.N.C.L.E. (beginning in September 1964), bringing the whole genre inescapably into living rooms across the world.
Creative maverick Wally Wood was approached by veteran MLJ/Archie Comics editor Harry Shorten to create a line of characters for a new distribution-chain funded publishing outfit – Tower Comics. Woody called on many of the industry’s biggest names to produce material for the broad range of genres the company envisioned: Samm Schwartz and Dan DeCarlo handled Tippy Teen – which outlasted all the others – whilst Wood, Larry Ivie, Len Brown, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Russ Jones Gil Kane and Ralph Reese all contributed to the adventure series.
With a ravenous public appetite for super-spies and costumed heroes exponentially growing the idea of blending the two concepts seems a no-brainer now, but those were far more conservative times, so when T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 appeared with no fanfare or pre-publicity on newsstands in August 1965 (with a cover off-sale date of November) thrill-hungry readers like little me were blown away. It didn’t hurt either that all Tower titles were in the beloved-but-rarely-seen 80 Page Giant format: there was a huge amount to read in every issue!
All that being said the tales would not be so revered if they hadn’t been so superbly crafted. As well as Wood, the art accompanying the compelling, rather more mature stories was by some of the greatest talents in the business: Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta, Steve Ditko and others.
This slim, seductive digest stars the UN Agency’s number two troubleshooter (after the iconic Dynamo) in four stirring spy thrillers featuring a winning combination of cloak-and-dagger danger, science fiction shocks and stirring super-heroics. Although UN commandos failed to save brilliant Professor Jennings from the mysterious Warlord, they rescued some of the scientist’s greatest inventions, including a belt that could increase the density of the wearer’s body, a brain-amplifier helmet and a cloak of invisibility.
These prototypes were divided between several agents, creating a unit of superior fighting men to counter the increasingly bold attacks of global terror threats such as the aforementioned Warlord.
Inexplicably, the origin tale ‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent NoMan’ which told how aged Dr. Anthony Dunn had his mind transferred into an artificial android body equipped with the invisibility cape is not included here, but the book’s back cover features a Wood pin-up “file page” which distils the powers and background into a handy recap. In those long-ago days kids didn’t much care for long-winded and endless reworkings of past detail: origins just weren’t as important as beating bad-guys….
Incredibly strong, swift and durable, NoMan had one final advantage: if his artificial body was destroyed his consciousness could transfer to another android body. As long as he had a spare ready, he could never die.
The action starts with ‘In the Warlord’s Power’ (by Bill Pearson, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando and Wood) as the artificial agent has to defend an entire Missile Base from an assault by an army of Zombie-men, swiftly followed by ‘NoMan Faces the Threat of the Amazing Vibraman’ (Pearson, John Giunta, Wood & Tony Coleman) wherein the threat was far les esoteric but no less deadly: a freelance villain who used devastating sound weapons.
Next the Invisible Agent tackled a fiendish Mastermind equipped with his own android army in ‘The Synthetic Stand-Ins’ by Steve Skeates, Mike Sekowsky & Frank Giacoia, and the explosive adventures rush to a classy climax in ‘The Caverns of Demo’ (astoundingly illustrated by Gil Kane, Wood and Dan Adkins) wherein NoMan faced an entire island of Neanderthal Beast-Men controlled by an arch criminal who had stolen his cloak of invisibility! Sheer magic!
Supplemented by an exciting ‘NoMan in Action’ fact-feature this is a book that would have completely blown away pre-teen me and still has all the impact of a blockbuster bomb. These are truly timeless comic tales that improve with every reading and there’s precious few things you can say that about…
© 1966 Tower Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.