Countdown to Adventure

By Adam Beechen, Eddy Barrows & Allan Goldman (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-866-9

Spinning out of the weekly miniseries 52, (see Volumes 1-4: ISBN: 1-84576-552-4, ISBN: 978-1-84576-553-8, ISBN: 978-1-84576-604-7 and ISBN: 978-1-84576-624-5) wherein Adam Strange, Starfire and Animal Man were lost in space for a year, this tale of two worlds originally ran as the lead feature in the comicbook miniseries Countdown to Adventure #1-8 (the back-up spot revealing the history and fate of the Forerunner – a living weapon created by the Monitors of the Mulitiverse as a kind of intelligent attack dog): a sidebar saga to the then-ongoing Countdown to Final Crisis.

All caught up? Splendid.

Earthman Adam Strange is reunited with his family on the distant world of Rann when he is forcibly retired as Planetary Champion and replaced by the obnoxious film and Ultimate Fighting celebrity Steven “Champ” Hazard. Whereas Strange solved threats with his wits and good heart, The Champ is psychotically brutal and aggressive, preferring to shoot first and keep on shooting till he’s the only person still breathing.

In San Diego Buddy Baker has returned to his job as a stuntman, since his Animal Man powers are malfunctioning, but at least that’s better than Princess Koriand’r of Tamaran, who has lost her energy-casting abilities completely. For weeks she’s been unconscious in Buddy’s spare room, resting, recharging and not contacting her old super-hero friends in the Teen Titans.

But when Buddy’s son and other people start exhibiting signs of a “Rage-Plague” extraterrestrial contagion experts isolate the city and prepare to sterilise everything in it if they can’t find patient zero, who must have brought the rapidly spreading infection to Earth…

On Rann the same symptoms are ripping through the citizenry, fomenting violence, intolerance and even physical transformations. And then on both worlds the infected begin to chant a phrase Strange, Koriand’r and Buddy last heard from the religious zealots of Lady Styx, a death-worshipping monstrosity they killed a year ago and a zillion light years away…

This interplanetary bio-plague thriller has lots of pace and action, and keeps the tension high, but falls just short of being exceptional or compelling since even newest recruit can plainly see that everything’s going to be all right in the end. Fine for a lazy afternoon but hardly a keeper and adds nothing to the lustre of its stellar, fan favourite cast.

© 2007, 2008 DC Comics.  All Rights Reserved.

Superman in the Fifties

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-56389-826-6

Part of a series of trade paperbacks intended to define DC’s top heroes through the decades (the other being Batman, of course) these books always deliver an unbeatable dollop of comicbook magic and a tantalising whiff of other, arguably better, times. They’re divided into sections partitioned by cover galleries, and this second volume of comic cuts begins (after an introduction by the ever informative Mark Waid) with “Classic Tales” culled from the period when the Superman TV show propelled the Man of Tomorrow to even greater levels of popularity.

Leading off is ‘Three Supermen from Krypton!’ written by William Woolfolk and illustrated by Al Plastino (one of a talented triumvirate who absolutely defined the hero during this decade). From Superman #65, (July-August 1950) this classy clash revealed more about Superman’s vanished homeworld whilst providing the increasingly untouchable champion with a much needed physical challenge.

Outer Space provided another daunting threat in ‘The Menace from the Stars!’ (World’s Finest Comics #68, January-February 1954). However all is not as it seems in this quirky mystery by a now unknown writer and the exceptional art team of Wayne Boring (another of the triumvirate) and inker Stan Kaye.

‘The Girl Who Didn’t Believe in Superman!’ by Bill Finger, Boring and Kaye, is a fanciful, evocative human interest tale typical of the times and sorely missed in these modern, adrenaline-drenched days. It originally appeared in Superman #96, cover-dated March 1955. From the very next issue came the canonical landmark ‘Superboy’s Last Day in Smallville!’ (by Jerry Coleman, Boring and Kaye) which revealed that particular rite of passage by way of exposing a crook’s long-delayed master-plan.

The first section ends with a tale from one of the many spin-off titles of the period – and one that gives many 21st century readers a few uncontrollable qualms of conscience. Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane was one of precious few titles with a female lead, but her character ranged crazily from man-hungry, unscrupulous bitch through ditzy simpleton to indomitable and brilliant heroine – often all in the same issue.

Most stories were played for laughs in a patriarchal, parochial manner; a “gosh, aren’t women funny?” tone that appals me today – but not as much as the fact that I still love them to bits. It helps that they’re all so very well illustrated by the wonderfully whimsical Kurt Schaffenberger. This one, ‘The Ugly Superman!’ (#8, April 1959), deals with a costumed wrestler who falls for Lois, giving the Caped Kryptonian another chance for some pretty unpleasant Super-teasing. It was written by the veteran Robert Bernstein, who unlike me can use the tenor of the times as his excuse.

As the franchise expanded, so did the cast and internal history. The second section is dedicated to our hero’s extended family and leads with ‘Superman’s Big Brother’ by famed pulp writer Edmond Hamilton and Plastino, (Superman #80, January-February 1953) wherein a wandering alien is mistaken for the aforementioned sibling, followed here by the introduction of a genuine family member in ‘The Super-Dog from Krypton!’ which originally saw print in Adventure Comics #210, March 1955.

Here Otto Binder and Curt Swan (the third of three and eventually the most prolific Super-artist of all time), aided by inker John Fischetti, reveal how baby Kal-El’s pet pooch escaped his home-world’s destruction and made his way to Earth.

Another popular animal guest-star was ‘Titano the Super-Ape!’ a giant ape with kryptonite vision, and this tale (from Superman #127, February 1959) is still one of the best Binder, Boring or Kaye ever worked on, combining action, pathos and drama to superb effect. This section ends with the inevitable landmark which more than any other moved Superman from his timeless Golden Age holdover status to become a part of the DC Silver Age revival. ‘The Supergirl from Krypton!’ introduced the Man of Steel’s cousin Kara Zor-El (Action Comics #252, (May, 1959) in a captivating tale by Binder and Plastino.

There had been numerous prototypes (one was included in the previous volume of this series, Superman in the Forties, ISBN: 978-1-4012-0457-0) but this time the concept struck home and the teenaged refugee began her long career as a solo-star from the very next issue.

Section three highlights “the villains” and leads with a rarely seen team-up of The Prankster, Lex Luthor and that extra-dimensional sprite Mr. Mxyztplk in ‘Superman’s Super-Magic Show!’ by Hamilton, Boring and Kaye (Action Comics #151, December, 1950) – tale more of mirthful mystery than menace and mayhem. It’s followed by the still-impressive introduction of alien marauder Brainiac in ‘The Super-Duel in Space’ by Binder and Plastino, from Action Comics #242, (July, 1958) and ‘The Battle with Bizarro!’ from Action Comics #254, (July, 1959) by the same creative team. This story actually re-introduced the imperfect duplicate, who had initially appeared in a well-received Superboy story (#68, from the previous year). Even way back then sales trumped death…

So popular was the character that the tale was continued over two issues, concluding with ‘The Bride of Bizarro!’ (Action Comics #255, August 1959), an almost unheard of luxury back then.

The fourth and final section is dedicated to “Superman’s Pals” and stems once more from that epochal television show, which made most of the supporting cast into household names. ‘The End of the Planet!’ by Hamilton and Plastino, Superman #79 (November-December 1959) is actually about the famous newspaper’s imminent closure rather than a global threat, whilst ‘Superman and Robin!’ is a classic bait-and-switch teaser from World’s Finest Comics #75 (March-April 1955), and Finger, Swan and Kaye knew that no-one believed that they had really broken-up the Batman/Boy Wonder team….

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen also had his own comicbook, and ‘The Stolen Superman Signal’ (#13, June 1956, by Binder, Swan and Ray Burnley) perfectly displays the pluck and whimsy that distinguished the early stories. The last tale in this section – and the volume – is from Showcase #9 (June-July 1957) the first of two Lois Lane try-out issues. ‘The girl in Superman’s Past!’ by Coleman, Ruben Moreira and Plastino introduced an adult Lana Lang as a rival for superman’s affections and began the sparring that led to many a comic-book cat-fight…

Including an extensive cover gallery, text features and a comprehensive creator-profiles section, this is a wonderful slice of comics history, refreshing, comforting and compelling. Any fan or newcomer will delight in this primer into the ultimate icon of Truth Justice and The American Way.
© 1950-1959, 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Shadow: Blood and Judgment

By Howard Chaykin (DC Comics)
ISBN-13: 978-0-93028-916-4

I’ve been a fan of The Shadow ever since I picked up a couple of paperbacks as a kid in my local Woolworths in the 1960s. I’ve followed the various comic interpretations with mixed feelings and general acceptance. But when Howard Chaykin had a crack at the venerable crime-crusher I nearly blew a gasket. I was appalled.

And that was the point.

Chaykin has lovingly cultivated his reputation as an iconoclast and bombast over many years and the four issue miniseries collected here certainly ruffled a few feathers – old fashioned me included.

As originally disseminated in the days before comic-books, The Shadow gave thrill-hungry readers their measured doses of extraordinary excitement via the cheaply produced periodical novels dubbed “pulps” (because of the low-grade paper they were printed on) and over the mood-drenched airwaves with his own radio show.

Pulps were published in their hundreds every month, ranging from the truly excellent to the pitifully dire, in every style and genre, but for exotic adventure lovers there were two star characters that outshone all others. The Superman of his day was Doc Savage, Man of Bronze, and the dark, relentless creature of the night dispensing his own terrifying justice was our mysterious slouch-hatted hero.

Originally the radio series Detective Story Hour, based on unconnected yarns from the Street & Smith publication Detective Story Magazine, used a spooky voiced narrator (most famously Orson Welles, although he was preceded by James LaCurto and Frank Readick Jr.) to introduce the tales. Code-named “the Shadow”, and beginning on July 31st 1930, he became more popular than the stories he introduced.

The Shadow became a proactive hero solving mysteries and on April 1st 1931 debuted in his own pulp series, written by the incredibly prolific Walter Gibson under the house pseudonym Maxwell Grant. On September 26th 1937 the radio show officially became The Shadow with the eerie line “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of Men? The Shadow knows!”

The Golden age comic book ran for 101 issues before cancellation in 1949 and Archie/Radio/Mighty Comics published a controversial modern-day version in 1964-5, written by Robert Bernstein with art from John Rosenberger and latterly Paul Reinman.

In 1973 DC acquired the comic rights and produced a captivating if brief series of classic tales that were unlike any other superhero title then on the stands.

Grant wrote 282 of 325 novels over the next two decades, which were published twice a month. The series spawned comic books, seven movies, a newspaper strip (by Vernon Greene) and all the merchandising paraphernalia you’d expect of a superstar brand. The pulp series ended in 1949 although many novels have been written (both by Gibson and others) since 1963 when a pulp and fantasy revival gripped America.

And 1949 is the embarkation point for this flashy, savage, witty and utterly captivating updating. The Shadow vanished in 1949, abandoning his crusade to destroy criminals and now (for which read 1986) some mastermind is eliminating every surviving member of his organization. Suddenly he is back dealing bloody justice to petty thugs as he tracks down his oldest enemy and thwarts a deadly plan to bring about nuclear annihilation. Chaykin even has the chutzpah to provide the eternal Man of Mystery with a Real Origin, something he never really had before!

I don’t know why I used to hate this book: Although I still feel the proper milieu for the character is the iconic era of mobsters, militarists and madmen (by which I mean the 1930s and 1940s) I can see what Chaykin’s getting at. Those threats were common enough in the Eighties and still are even nowadays.

Perhaps the author’s trademark trick of confronting misogyny, racism and sexuality by seemingly advocating them just wore a bit thin with such a treasured old friend as the vehicle. There’s certainly a disquieting amount of adult themes, kinky sex and graphic violence on offer, so kids, be prepared to show those fake ID’s…

With sufficient distance however I find this tale a terrific thrill-ride, stylish and compelling – if a little “in your face”. It spawned an intriguing follow-up series (by Andy Helfer and Bill Sienkiewicz if memory serves) before DC tried one final time with a series safely returned to the pre war period.

If you’ve never seen the original this would be a marvelous read, and you could always compliment the experience by tracking down DC’s first experiment with the character (mostly collected as The Private Files of the Shadow ISBN: 0-930289-37-7). After all a hero this durable has to have something to him…
© 1987 Conde Nast Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Miss Don’t Touch Me

By Hubert & Kerascoet, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN:  978-1-56163-544-3

This slim tone contains a superb period murder mystery from creators probably best known in the English speaking world for working on Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim’s Dungeon series of fantasy books. Here fin de siècle Paris is being plagued by its very own Jack the Ripper – a knife wielding maniac dubbed “the Butcher of the Dances” because he picks his victims from the lower class girls who frequent suburban Tea-dances where young people gather.

Blanche is a maid in a fine house; pious, repressed and solitary, but her sister Agatha, also a maid in service in the same residence is fun-loving and vivacious. Together they share the attic room at the top of the house. When Blanche sees “the Butcher” at his bloody work through a crack in the wall, he also sees her. A few nights later she to finds Agatha dead, as if by her own hand, but Blanche knows what must really have happened…

Anxious to avoid scandal the mistress of the house dismisses her. Forced to fend for herself on the inhospitable streets, by a combination of detective enquiry and sheer luck Blanche finds a lead to the killer and secures a position in The Pompadour, one of the most exclusive brothels in the city. Catering to the rich and powerful elite, here she will find the Butcher and exact her revenge…

Originally published in France as La Vierge du Bordel and Du Sang sur le Mains this witty, knowing and hugely engaging adult murder-mystery cleverly reveals its layered secrets as our heroine finds a way to turn her virginal state and overwhelming frustration to her advantage amidst the decadent rich and sexually bored of Paris. She maintains her virtue against all odds, discovers the other side to a world she previously despised and valiantly achieves her goal even though it threatens to topple two empires…

Feeling much like an adult version of Frances Hodgson Burnett‘s 1905 novel A Little Princess, this is a saucy confection from writer/colorist Hubert and delightfully realized with great panache by Kerascoet which will delight a wide variety of grown-up readers.
© 2007 Dargaud by Kerascoet & Hubert. All Rights Reserved. Translation © 2007 NBM

Sword of the Atom

By Jan Strnad & Gil Kane, with various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1553-8

Wonderfully reminiscent of his superlative Blackmark paperback venture (collected in Blackmark: the 30th Anniversary Edition ISBN: 1-56097-456-7), artist Gil Kane was inspired in this retooling of Silver-Age B-List hero The Atom, removed from his comfort zone of scientific crime-busting to become the sword-wielding champion of a barbaric fantasy kingdom.

Starting off with a four issue miniseries and followed by three giant-sized Specials, the sword and lost science saga revitalized a once great character who had fallen on very lean times and set him up for his eventual return to the big leagues (I apologise for the puns – lowest form of wit, I know!).

Following the break-up of his marriage to ambitious lawyer Jean Loring, size-changing physicist Ray Palmer departs on a research trip to Brazil to think things through. Unfortunately he falls foul of drug-runners who down his plane. To the world he appears dead, but in reality he has stumbled upon an alien civilisation, populated by golden humanoids no more than six inches tall.

Lost for uncounted decades in the verdant vastness of the Amazon on a planet of giants, the aliens have built a city around the ruins of their crashed ship, a vessel powered by White Dwarf star matter. Regrettably, since the incredible star-stuff powers and constitutes the Atom’s size changing outfit, the mighty mite finds himself trapped at the same diminutive height and must rely on his physical prowess and a sharp sword to survive…

In the epic manner of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, Palmer rescues and woos the exotic Princess Laethwen and saves the hidden city of Morlaidh from a usurping dictator in a classic romp of action-packed derring-do. It’s a fabulous dose of ultimate escapism perfectly executed by Kane and writer Jan Strnad, and subsequent sequels continued the magic.

Without wishing to give too much away, the first of these sees a disgruntled and displaced Palmer back in our world, longing for the simplicity of Morlaidh and the love of Laethwen; the second finds Jean doing her own size-shifting (this is probably when she learned the skills she used in Identity Crisis, ISBN: 1-34576-126-X, fans!) as the Tiny Titan is forced to choose between his old life and his current one. The book concludes with Kane replaced by Pat Broderick and Dennis Janke for a rather wordy tale of despots, plague and monstrous afflictions devastating the diminutive jungle kingdom which only the Atom can combat.

Despite the rather tame final tale Sword of the Atom is a flashing, vital burst of graphic excitement that clearly shows what can be done with moribund characters if creators are bold enough and given sufficient editorial support. It’s also a hugely enjoyable read that will make your heart race and your pulse pound – just like comics are supposed to.

© 1983, 1984, 1985, 1988, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Lindbergh Child

By Rick Geary (NBM/Comics Lit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-530-6

Combining his unique talents for laconic prose, incisive observation and detailed cartooning with his obvious passion for the darker side of modern history, Rick Geary turns his forensic eye to the last hundred years or so as his ‘Treasury of Victorian Murder’ series of graphic novels examines the landmark global sensation that was the Lindbergh Kidnapping.

Charles Lindbergh became the most famous man in the world when he crossed the Atlantic in the monoplane Spirit of St. Louis in May 1927. Six years later his son Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. was kidnapped from the family home at Hopewell, New Jersey. The boy disappeared on the night of February 29th 1932.

An intense and hysterical search went on for months as a number of bogus kidnappers, chancers, grifters and intermediaries tried to cash in before the toddler’s decomposed body was discovered in desolate woodlands on Thursday 12th May. The three-year old had been dead for months, possibly even dying on the night he was taken…

What followed was one of the most appalling catalogues of police misconduct, legal malfeasance and sordid exploitation (from conmen trying to profit from tragedy) in modern annals as over the next few years a suspect was caught, convicted and executed in such slapdash fashion that as late as 1981 and 1986 the conviction was appealed and a large number of individuals have claimed over the decades to actually be the real junior Lindbergh.

Geary presents the facts and the theories with chilling precision and captivating clarity, presenting one of crime’s greatest unsolved mysteries with a force and power that Oliver Stone would envy. This first volume in ‘A Treasury of XXth Century Murder’ is every bit as compelling as his Victorian forays and a brilliant example of how graphic narrative can be so much more than simple fantasy and entertainment.
© 2008 Rick Geary. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Fantastic Four volume 2

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-0731-2

This second big value, low priced compendium starring the World’s most popular adventure quartet collects Fantastic Four #21-40, the second (1964) Annual and includes a seldom seen team-up of the Human Torch and Spider-Man from Strange Tales Annual #2.

By this juncture the FF were firmly established and creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were well on the way to toppling DC/National Comics from their decades-held top spot with their brash, folksy and consciously contemporaneous sagas, blending high concept, low comedy, trenchant melodrama and breathtaking action.

The first tale here is from Fantastic Four #21 (cover-dated December 1963) guest-starring Nick Fury, then the lead character in Marvel’s only war comic Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos but eventually to metamorphose into the company’s answer to James Bond. Here he’s a CIA agent seeking the team’s aid against a sinister demagogue called ‘The Hate-Monger’ in a cracking yarn with a strong message, inked by comics veteran George Roussos, under the protective nom-de-plume George Bell.

Unseen since the premiere issue, #22 finally saw ‘The Return of the Mole Man!’ by the same creative team; another full-on fight-fest, chiefly notable for the debut of the Invisible Girl’s new powers of projecting force fields and “invisible energy” – which would eventually make her one of the mightiest characters in the company’s pantheon.

Number #23 heralded ‘The Master Plan of Doctor Doom!’, which introduced his frankly mediocre minions the Terrible Trio of Bull Brogin, Handsome Harry and Yogi Dakor, although the eerie menace of “the Solar Wave” was enough to raise the hackles on my five year old neck. Issue #24’s ‘The Infant Terrible!’ was a sterling yarn of extra-galactic menace and innocence, followed by a two-part epic that truly defined the inherent difference between Lee and Kirby’s work and everybody else at that time.

Fantastic Four #25 and #26 featured a cataclysmic clash that had young heads spinning in 1964 and lead directly to the Emerald Behemoth finally regaining a strip of his own. In ‘The Hulk Vs The Thing’ and ‘The Avengers Take Over!’ – a fast-paced, all-out Battle Royale resulted when the disgruntled man-monster came to New York in search of side-kick Rick Jones, and only an injury-wracked FF stood in the way of his destructive rampage.

A definitive moment in the character development of the Thing, the action was ramped up when a rather stiff-necked and officious Avengers team horned in claiming jurisdictional rights on “Bob” Banner (this tale is plagued with pesky continuity errors which would haunt Stan Lee for decades) and his Jaded Alter Ego. Notwithstanding the bloopers, this is one of Marvel’s key moments and still a visceral, vital read.

The creators had hit on a winning formula by including their other stars in guest-shots – especially as readers could never anticipate if they would fight with or beside the home team. ‘The Search for Sub-Mariner!’ again found the sub-sea anti-hero in amorous mood, and when he abducted Sue Storm the boys called in Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, to aid them. Issue #28 is a superb team-up tale too, most notable (for me at least) for the man who replaced George Roussos.

‘We Have to Fight the X-Men!’ found the teams battling due to the machinations of the Puppet Master and the Mad Thinker, but the inclusion of Chic Stone, Kirby’s most simpatico and expressive inker, elevates the art to indescribable levels of quality.

‘It Started on Yancy Street!’ (FF#29) may start low-key in the slum where Ben Grimm grew up but with the reappearance of the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes the action quickly goes Cosmic, and the next issue introduced evil alchemist ‘The Dreaded Diablo!’ who nearly broke up the team while conquering the world from his spooky Transylvanian castle.

Next up is Fantastic Four Annual #2 from 1964, which boldly led off with ‘The Fantastic Origin of Doctor Doom!’, before storming into the climactic adventure epic ‘The Final Victory of Dr. Doom!’ The monthly wonderment resumes with #31’s ‘The Mad Menace of the Macabre Mole Man!’ which balanced a loopy plan to steal entire streets of New York City with a portentous sub-plot featuring a mysterious man from Sue’s past, as well as renewing the quartet’s somewhat fractious relationship with the Mighty Avengers.

The secret of that mystery man was revealed in the next issue’s ‘Death of a Hero’, a powerful tale of tragedy and regret that spanned two galaxies, and which starred the uniquely villainous Invincible Man who was not at all what he seemed…

‘Side-by-Side with Sub-Mariner!’ brought the aquatic anti-hero one step closer to his own series when the team lent surreptitious aid to the embattled undersea monarch as the deadly barbarian Attuma made his debut in FF #33, whilst in ‘A House Divided!’ the team were nearly destroyed by Mr. Gideon, the Richest Man in the World.

‘Calamity on the Campus!’ saw the team visit Reed Richard’s old Alma Mater in a tale designed to pander to the burgeoning college fan-base Marvel was cultivating (there’s even a cameo role for Peter Parker), but the rousing yarn that brought back Diablo and introduced the monstrous homunculus Dragon Man easily stands up as a classic on its own merits. Fantastic Four #36 introduced the team’s theoretical nemeses with ‘The Frightful Four’ a team of villains comprising The Wizard, Sandman, Trapster (he was still Paste Pot-Pete here, but not for long) and an enigmatic new character called Madame Medusa, whose origin would have a huge impact on the heroes in months to come. Also notable in this auspicious but inconclusive duel was the announcement after many months of Reed and Sue’s engagement – in itself a rare event in the realm of comic books.

Issue #37 found the team spectacularly travelling to the homeworld of the shape-shifting Skrulls in search of justice in ‘Behold! A Distant Star!’ and they returned only to be ‘Defeated by the Frightful Four!’ in FF# 38, a momentous tale with a startling cliff-hanger that marked Chic Stone’s departure in landmark manner.

Frank Giacoia, under the pseudonym Frank Ray, stepped in to ink #39’s ‘A Blind Man Shall Lead Them!’ wherein a powerless Fantastic Four were attacked by an enraged Doctor Doom and only the sightless vigilante Daredevil had a chance to keep them alive. The tale concluded in #40 with ‘The Battle of the Baxter Building as Vince Colletta assumed the ink chores for a bombastic conclusion that perfectly displays the indomitable power and inescapable tragedy of the brutish Thing.

There’s pin-ups galore scattered throughout this volume and as an added bonus a Spider-Man/Human Torch clash from Strange Tales Annual #2 in 1963, a period when the Flaming Kid had his own solo series (see Essential Human Torch, ISBN 0-7851-1309-6).

‘On the Trail of the Amazing Spider-Man’ is a mediocre story at best, blessed with superb art from Kirby inked by Steve Ditko, but sadly even that saving grace is marred here by some pretty amateurish application of grey-tones, which reduce too many pages to monochromatic mud (hopefully just a glitch that can corrected in later editions).

Despite this last cavil this is still a magnificent book to read and these are the tales that built a comics empire. The verve, imagination and sheer enthusiasm shines through and the wonder is there for you to share. If you’ve never thrilled to these spectacular sagas then this black and white book of marvels is your best and most economical key to another world and time.

© 1963, 1964, 1965, 2003, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Superman in the Forties

By Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster & the Superman studio (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0457-0

Part of a series of trade paperbacks intended to define DC’s top heroes through the decades (the other being Batman, of course) these books always deliver a superb wallop of comicbook magic and a tantalising whiff of other, perhaps better, times.

Divided into sections partitioned by cover galleries this box of delights opens with the untitled initial episodes from Action Comics #1 and 2 (even though they’re technically ineligible, coming from June and July 1938) written and drawn by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. With boundless enthusiasm the Man of Tomorrow exploded into action, saving an innocent condemned to the electric chair, teaching a wife-beater a salutary lesson, terrorising mobsters and teaching war profiteers to think again. It’s raw, unpolished and absolutely captivating stuff.

Swiftly following from Superman #58, (May-June 1949) is a beguiling teaser written by William Woolfolk and illustrated by Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye. ‘Lois Lane Loves Clark Kent!’ found the intrepid reporter seeing a psychiatrist because of her romantic obsession with the Man of Steel. His solution?

The quack tells her to switch her affections to her bewildered, harassed workmate! A rare treat follows as the seldom seen Superman prose story from Superman #1 (Summer 1939 and of course written by Siegel with accompanying art by Shuster) reappears for the first time in decades.

In 1948 the editors finally declassified the full and original ‘Origin of Superman’ written by Bill Finger with art from Boring and Kaye (Superman #53, cover-dated July-August) It was followed a year later and directly after in this volume by ‘Superman Returns to Krypton’ by Finger and Al Plastino wherein the Man of Steel breaks the time barrier to observe his lost homeworld at first hand. This little gem (from Superman #61, November-December, 1949) provided the comic-book explanation for Kryptonite – it was originally introduced on the radio show in 1943 then promptly forgotten – opening the door for a magical expansion of the character’s universe that still resonates with us today.

During the late 1940s Siegel & Shuster retrofitted their creation by creating Superboy (“the adventures of Superman when he was a boy”) for More Fun Comics #101 (January/February 1945). An instant hit, the youthful incarnation soon had the lead spot in Adventure Comics and won his own title in 1949.

From Superboy #5 (November-December, 1949) comes the charming tale of a runaway princess ironically entitled ‘Superboy Meets Supergirl’ by Woolfolk and the hugely talented John Sikela.

The second section is dedicated to the Man of Steel’s opponents beginning with ‘Superman Meets the Ultra-Humanite’ from Action Comics #14 (July, 1939) by Siegel, Shuster and Paul Cassidy. They also produced a much more memorable criminal scientist in Lex Luthor who debuted in an untitled tale from Action #23 (April, 1940). This landmark is followed by ‘The Terrible Toyman’ (Action #64, September, 1943) by Don Cameron, Ed Dobrotka and George Roussos.

In such socially conscious times once of Superman’s most persistent foes was a heartless swindler called Wilbur Wolfingham. ‘Journey into Ruin’ by Cameron, Ira Yarbrough and Stan Kaye (from Action #107, November #107) is a fine example of this type of tale and the hero’s unique response to it.

A different kind of whimsy was apparent when Lois Lane’s niece – a liar who could shame Baron Munchausen – returned with a new pal who could make her fantasies reality in ‘The Mxyztplk-Susie Alliance’ from Superman #40, May-June 1946, charmingly crafted by Cameron, Yarbrough and Kaye.

The American Way section begins with a genuine war-time classic. ‘America’s Secret Weapon’ from Superman #23, July-August 1943, by Cameron, Sam Citron and Sikela is a masterpiece of patriotic triumphalism, as is the excerpt from the Superman newspaper strip which reveals how the over-eager Man of Tomorrow accidentally fluffed his own army physical. These strips by Siegel, Shuster and Jack Burnley, originally ran from 16th – 19th February 1942,

Look Magazine commissioned a legendary special feature by the original creators for their 27th February 1943 issue. ‘How Superman Would End the War’ is a glorious piece of wish-fulfillment which still delights, and it’s followed by a less famous but equally affecting human interest yarn ‘The Superman Story’. Taken from World’s Finest Comics #37 (1947, by Finger, Boring and Kaye) it sees a pack of reporters trail Superman to see how the world views him.

The book ends with ‘Christmas Around the World’ as Superman becomes the modern Spirit of the Season in a magical Yule yarn by Cameron, Yarbrough and Kaye from Action #93 (February 1946).

With a selection of cover galleries, special features and extensive creator profiles this is a magnificent Primer to the greatest hero of a bygone Golden Age, but one who can still deliver laughter and tears, thrills and spills and sheer raw excitement. No real fan can ignore these tales…

© 1940-1939, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

NEW, EXTENDED REVIEW Essential Monster of Frankenstein

By various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1634-9

There’s a tremendous amount of value in these phone-book sized cheap’n’cheerful monochrome Essential editions. This particular collection reprints Marvel’s 1970’s interpretation of the Mary Shelly classic from a time when the censorious Comics Code Authority first loosened some of its strictures banning horror material from the pages of comics.

Much American comic art should only be seen in colour – that is after all how it was intended to be – but in this instance that moody black and white only serves to enhance the groundbreaking artwork of Mike Ploog. A young find who had worked with Will Eisner, Ploog illustrated Gary Friedrich’s pithy adaptation of the original novel before moving on to new ventures as the strip graduated to in-house originated material.

‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein!’ debuted with a January 1973 cover-date and introduced Robert Walton IV, great grandson of the sea-captain who had rescued scientist Victor Frankenstein from the polar Ice and was regaled with the incredible tale of “the Modern Prometheus”. Leading a band of rogues, cutthroats and sullen Inuit, Walton finds the fabled monster in 1898, interred in a block of ice, and brings it aboard his ice-breaker. He recounts the story to the fascinated cabin-boy unaware of the fear and discontent simmering below decks…

A bloody mutiny in a terrible storm opens the second issue as the burning ship founders. Meanwhile the flashbacked tale of the tragic Victor reaches the terrible moment when the monster demands a mate. The guilt-plagued scientist complies only to balk at the last and destroy his second creation. ‘Bride of the Monster!’ concludes with the creature’s fearsome vengeance on his creator paralleling the grim fate of the storm-tossed ship…

The Monster of Frankenstein #3, ‘The Monster’s Revenge!’ has the reawakened creature freed from its ice-tomb and hearing the continuation of his life-story from Walton’s lips as the last survivors struggle to find safety in the Arctic wastes. ‘Death of the Monster!’ (with inker John Verpoorten taking some of the deadline pressure off the hard-pressed Ploog) turns the tables as the monster reveals what happened after the polar showdown with its creator, which leads to a new beginning when Walton reveals that the Frankensteins were not all eradicated by the Monster’s campaign of vengeance. The blood-line continued…

A new direction began with issue #5 as ‘The Monster Walks Among Us!’. Making his way south the tragic creature arrived in a Scandinavian village in time to save a young woman from being burned at the stake on a blazing longboat, only to rediscover that when villagers pick up pitchforks and torches to go a-screamin’ and a-hollerin’ for blood, they usually have a good reason…

With issue #6 the comic-book renamed itself The Frankenstein Monster. The undying creature reached the village of Ingolstadt a century after it wreaked bloody vengeance on his creator’s loved ones. ‘…In Search of the Last Frankenstein!’ is a mini-classic of vintage horrors scripted as usual by Friedrich but plotted, pencilled and inked by Ploog who was reaching an early peak in his artistic career. It was also his last issue.

Ploog was followed by John Buscema and Bob Brown before Val Mayerik settled as regular artist and Friedrich gave way to Doug Moench, a writer once synonymous with Marvel’s horror line.

Issues #7, 8 and 9 bowed to the inevitable and pitted the Monster against Marvel’s top horror star (albeit 75-ish years prior to his contemporary adventures). Beginning with ‘The Fury of a Fiend!’, continuing in ‘My Name is… Dracula!’ and concluding with ‘The Vampire Killers!’, this is a classy tribute to the old Universal movies and then current Hammer Films in equal measure wherein the misunderstood misanthrope battled an undying evil for ungrateful humanity, consequently losing the power of speech; and becoming more monstrous in the process.

Produced by Friedrich, John Buscema and John Verpoorten these tales lacked the atmosphere of Ploog’s tenure, but the action was very much in the company’s house-style. With #10 (inked by Frank Giacoia and Mike Esposito) the creature finally found ‘The Last Frankenstein!’ much to his regret.

With number #11 (‘…And in the End…!?’ illustrated by Bob Brown & Vince Colletta) and #12’s ‘A Cold and Lasting Tomb’ by Doug Moench, Val Mayerik and Colletta) the Monster finished his historical adventures by falling into a glacial sea and froze into another block of ice only to be revived, Captain America-like, in modern times.

My only real quibble in a book that re-presents the entire 18-issue run of the comic, plus the crossover from Giant-Sized Werewolf #2 and all the strips from the adult-oriented horror magazines Legion of Monsters and Monsters Unleashed, is that a little more attention to publishing in chronological order might have made for a smoother read.

If you’re the type who prefers to experience his or her yarns in the proper sequence this is the stage where flipping to the back is necessary as the stories from those aforementioned Marvel magazines – which originally ran concurrently with the four-colour comic-book – can be found. Most of those adventures take place between pages 13 and 14 of The Frankenstein Monster #12!

Just reading the book however, the next thing you’ll find is a rather tame team-up/clash from Giant-Sized Werewolf #2 wherein ‘The Frankenstein Monster Meets Werewolf by Night’ (by Moench, Don Perlin and Colletta) collaterally quashing a band of run-of-the-mill West Coast Satanists in the process.

Issue #13 ‘All Pieces of Fear!’ (Moench, Mayerik and Jack Abel) shoe-horned the Monster into mid-1970s America in a tale heavy with irony as men acted like beasts and an obsessive father ignored his family whilst building his own abominations with the new science of cloning. With a hip young kid as a sidekick/spokesperson ‘Fury of the Night-Creature’ (with Dan Green inking) extended the saga by introducing I.C.O.N. (International Crime Organizations Nexus) yet another secret organisation intent on corporate conquest.

Issue #15 ‘Tactics of Death’ (with a young Klaus Janson on inks) briefly concluded the acronym agenda as the Monster and his companion Ralph mopped up the men in suits only to be shanghaied to Switzerland to meet the latest Last of the Frankensteins in ‘Code-name: Berserker!’ (with inks by Bob McLeod – who managed to handle the next issue too).

Veronica Frankenstein was still absorbed in the family business, but claims to be fixing her ancestors’ mistakes when those incorrigible I.C.O.N. bounders show up demanding her biological techniques in ‘A Phoenix Beserk!’. Beautifully inked by Mayerik and Dan Adkins, the last colour issue ended on a never-to-be completed cliffhanger (although scripter Bill Mantlo covered elements of the story in Iron Man a few years later) when the Monster and his new friend met ‘The Lady of the House’ – the utterly bonkers creature-crafter Victoria Von Frankenstein…

Perhaps the abrupt cancellation was a mercy-killing after all.

As I’ve laboriously stated above, the man-made monster also featured in a few mature reader magazines, beginning with Monsters Unleashed #2. ‘Frankenstein 1973’ (by Friedrich, Buscema and Syd Shores) relates how an obsessive young man found the Monster preserved as a carnival exhibit, but his jealous girlfriend revived it by trying to burn down the sideshow. The story continued in Monsters Unleashed #4 (by the same team and Golden-Age Great Win Mortimer). ‘The Classic Monster’ had a mad scientist actually put his brain in the monster’s skull but all was put right in #5’s ‘Once a Monster…’

Monsters Unleashed #6, by Moench and Mayerik, ‘…Always a Monster!’ wrapped up the introduction to today storyline with a good, old-fashioned Monster hunt, and lead directly to #7’s ‘A Tale of Two Monsters!’ a dark, socially relevant tale of the modern underclass, carried on in ‘Fever in the Freak House’ and concluded in #9’s ‘The Conscience of the Creature’.

The horror boom was fading by this time and Monsters Unleashed #10 was his last outing there, a superbly dark and sardonic Christmas offering complete with Elves, snow, terrorists and a Presidential assassination attempt. One final tale ‘The Monster and the Masque’ appeared in one-shot The Legion of Monsters, by Moench and Mayerik (whose painted wash-and-ink artwork for the magazine line was some of the best of his career) assisted here by Dan Adkins and Pablo Marcos. This bittersweet morality play saw the creature accidentally accepted at a fancy dress party which was ruined when a different sort of monster got carried away…

With additional pin-ups, cover illustrations and pertinent text pages from the Marvel Universe Handbook, this collection is great treat for fantasy and horror fans and should be a first choice for introducing civilians to the world of comics.
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Brave and the Bold Batman Team-ups Volume 3

By Bob Haney & Jim Aparo, with John Calnan (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-84856-117-5

With this third collection of Batman’s pairing with other luminaries of the DC universe (collecting in splendid black and white The Brave and the Bold issues #109-134) we find a creative team that had gelled into a perfect machine producing top-notch yarns aimed at the general readership – which would often annoy and appal the dedicated fans and continuity-obsessed reader.

Leading off is the superb supernatural thriller ‘Gotham Bay be my Grave!’ wherein the Caped Crusader and Jack Kirby’s then newest sensation the Demon battled an unquiet spirit determined to avenge his own execution after nearly a century, followed by a canny cold War adventure starring semi-regular Wildcat in his civilian guise as retired heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Although the veteran Justice Society hero was usually stationed on the alternate Earth 2 at this time no explanation was ever given for his presence on “our” planet. It used to drive the continuity-conscious fans utterly nuts!

Issue #111 boasted “the strangest team-up in history” as Batman joined forces with his greatest enemy, the Joker, for a brilliantly complex tale of cross and double cross in ‘Death has the Last Laugh!’ which may have lead to the Harlequin of Hate’s own short-run series a year later. With the next bimonthly issue B&B became a 100 Page Super Spectacular title: a much missed high-value experiment which offered an expanded page count of new material supplemented by classic reprints that turned many contemporary purchasers into avid fans of “the good old days”.

First to co-star in this new format was Kirby’s super escape artist Mister Miracle who joined the Gotham Guardian (himself regarded as the world’s greatest escapologist until the introduction of Jolly Jack’s Fourth World) in a tale of aliens and Ancient Egyptians entitled ‘The Impossible Escape!’ Issue #113 saw the return of the robotic Metal Men in a tense siege situation thriller ‘The 50-Story Killer!’ whilst Aquaman helped save the city from atomic annihilation in the gripping terrorist saga ‘Last Jet to Gotham in #114.

‘The Corpse that wouldn’t Die!’ was a different kind of drama as the Batman was declared brain-dead after an assault, and size-shifting superhero the Atom was forced to occupy his skull to complete the Caped Crusader’s “last case”. Needless to say the Gotham Gangbuster recovered in time for another continuity-crunching supernatural team-up with the Spectre in #116’s ‘Grasp of the Killer Cult’ before embarking on a ‘Nightmare Without End’ – a brilliant espionage thriller guest-starring the aging World War II legend Sgt. Rock and the survivors of Easy Company, a fitting end to the 100 page experiment.

The Brave and the Bold #118 returned to standard comic book format, if not content, as both Wildcat and the Joker joined Batman in the rugged fight game drama ‘May the Best Man Die!’. Sometime villain Man-Bat also had his own short-lived series and he impressively guested in #119’s exotic tale of despots and bounty-hunters ‘Bring Back Killer Krag’.

Possibly the most remarkable, if not uncomfortable, pairing in this volume occurred in B&B #120. Jack Kirby’s biggest hit at DC in the 1970s was Kamandi, Last Boy on Earth. Set in a post-disaster world where animals talked and hunted dumb human brutes, it proved the perfect vehicle for the King’s uncanny imagination, and ‘This Earth is Mine!’ saw Batman mystically sucked into that bestial dystopia to save a band of still-sentient human shamans in a tale more akin to the filmic “Planet of the Apes” quintet than anything found in comic-books.

The Metal Men bounced back in #121’s heist-on-rails thriller ‘The Doomsday Express’, an early advocacy of Native American rights with as much mayhem as message to it, and ‘The Hour of the Beast’ saw the Swamp Thing return to Gotham City to save it from a monstrous vegetable infestation. B&B #123 brought back Plastic Man and Metamorpho in ‘How to Make a Super-Hero’ as well as featuring a rare incidence of a returning villain: ruthless billionairess Ruby Ryder, once again playing her seductive mind-games with the pliable, gullible Elastic Ace.

Always looking for a solid narrative hook Haney spectacularly broke the fourth wall in ‘Small War of the Super Rifles’ when Batman and Sgt. Rock needed the help of artist Jim Aparo and editor Murray Boltinoff to stop a gang of ruthless terrorists. This is another one that drove some fans batty…

‘Streets of Poison’ in #125 was a solid drug-smuggler yarn with exotic locales and a lovely hostage for Batman and the Flash to deal with, and John Calnan stepped in to ink #126’s Aquaman team-up to solve the sinister mystery of ‘What Lurks Below Buoy 13?’

It was back to basics next issue as Wildcat returned to help quash a people-smuggling racket in the ‘Dead Man’s Quadrangle’ whilst #128’s ‘Death by the Ounce’ found the Caped Crusader recruiting Mister Miracle and Big Barda to help him rescue a kidnapped Shah and save a global peace treaty.

Ever keen to push the envelope, the next yarn was actually a jam-packed two-parter as #129’s ‘Claws of the Emperor Eagle’ pitting Batman, Green Arrow and the Atom against the Joker, Two-Face and a host of bandits in a race to possess a statue that had doomed every great conqueror in history. The epic, globe-trotting saga concluded with an ironic bang in ‘Death at Rainbow’s End.’

The last time Wonder Woman appeared (#105 if you recall) she was a merely mortal martial artist but in Brave and the Bold #131 she retuned in all her super-powered glory to help Batman fight Catwoman and ‘Take 7 Steps to… Wipe-Out!’

DC cautiously dipped its editorial toe in the Martial Arts craze and #132 found Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter joining ‘Batman… Dragon Slayer??’, as Denny O’Neil succeeded editor Boltinoff in a rather forced and silly tale of dueling stylists and purloined historical treasures.

Normal service resumed when Deadman stepped in to deliver ‘Another Kind of Justice!’ to rum-runner Turk Bannion when his heir and murderer turns to a more modern form of smuggling. This book concludes with ‘Demolishment!’ from #134, wherein Green Lantern defects to the soviets, a la “the Manchurian Candidate” and Batman’s rescue attempt goes bad…

By taking his cues from news headlines, popular films and proven genre-sources Bob Haney continually produced gripping adventures that thrilled and enticed with no need for more than a cursory nod to an ever-more onerous continuity. Anybody could pick up an issue and be sucked into a world of wonder. Consequently these tales are just as fresh and welcoming today, their themes and premises are just as immediate now as then and Jim Aparo’s magnificent art is still as compelling and engrossing as it always was. This is a Bat-book literally everybody can enjoy.

© 1973-1977, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.