Teen Titans: The Silver Age Volume One

By Bob Haney, Bruno Premiani, Nick Cardy, Irv Novick, Bill Molno & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7508-2

The concept of kid hero teams was not a new one when the 1960s Batman TV show finally prompted DC to trust their big heroes’ assorted sidekicks with their own regular comic in a fab, hip and groovy ensemble as dedicated to helping kids as they were to stamping out insidious evil.

The biggest difference between wartime groups such as The Young Allies, Newsboy Legion and Boy Commandos or 1950s holdovers like The Little Wise Guys or Boys Ranch and the creation of the Teen Titans was quite simply the burgeoning phenomena of “The Teenager” as a discrete social and commercial force. These were kids who could – and should – be allowed to do things themselves without constant adult help or supervision.

This quirkily eclectic trade paperback and eBook compilation re-presents the landmark try-out appearances from The Brave and the Bold #54 and 60 and Showcase #59 – collectively debuting in 1964 and1965 – as well as the first eleven issues of Teen Titans solo title, spanning January/February 1966 to September/October 1967.

As early as the June-July 1964 issue of The Brave and the Bold (#54), DC’s Powers-That-Be tested the waters in a gripping tale by writer Bob Haney superbly illustrated by unsung genius Bruno Premiani.

The Thousand-and-One Dooms of Mr. Twister’ united Kid Flash, Aqualad and Robin the Boy Wonder in dire and desperate battle against a modern wizard-cum-Pied Piper who tried to abduct all the teen-agers of scenic Hatton Corners. The young heroes accidentally meet in the town by chance after students invite them to mediate in a long-running dispute with the town adults…

This element of a teen “court of appeal” was the motivating principle in many of the group’s cases. One year later the team reformed for a second adventure (B&B #60, by the same creative team) and introduced two new elements.

‘The Astounding Separated Man’ features more misunderstood kids (weren’t we all?); this time in the coastal hamlet of Midville and threatened by an outlandish monster whose giant body parts can detach and move independently. Wonder Girl was added to the roster (not actually a sidekick, or even a person at that juncture, but rather an incarnation of Wonder Woman as a child – a fact the writer and editor of the series seemed blissfully unaware of) but most importantly they kids finally had a team name: ‘Teen Titans’.

Their final try-out appearance was in Showcase (#59, November-December 1965); birthplace of so many hit comic concepts. It was also the first to be drawn by the brilliant Nick Cardy (who became synonymous with the 1960s series).

‘The Return of the Teen Titans’ pits the neophyte team against teen pop trio ‘The Flips’ who are apparently also a gang of super-crooks. As was so often the case, the grown-ups had got it all wrong again…

The next month Teen Titans #1 debuted (cover-dated January/February 1966 and released mere weeks before the Batman TV show aired on January 12th) with Robin very much the point of focus on the cover and most succeeding ones.

Haney & Cardy crafted an exotic thriller entitled ‘The Beast-God of Xochatan!’ which sees the team act as Peace Corps representatives in a South American drama of sabotage, giant robots and magical monsters. The next issue held a fantastic mystery of revenge and young love involving ‘The Million-Year-Old Teen-Ager’ who was entombed and revived in the 20th century. He might have survived modern intolerance, bullying and culture shock on his own but when his ancient blood enemy turned up the Titans were ready to lend a hand…

‘The Revolt at Harrison High’ in #3 cashed in on the contemporary craze for drag-racing in a tale of bizarre criminality. Produced during a historically iconic era, many readers now can’t help but cringe when reminded of such daft foes as Ding-Dong Daddy and his evil biker gang, and of course the hip, trendy dialogue (it wasn’t that accurate then, let alone now) is pitifully dated, but the plot is strong and the art magnificent.

‘The Secret Olympic Heroes’ guest-starred Green Arrow’s teen partner Speedy in a very human tale of parental pressure at the Olympics, although there’s also skulduggery aplenty from a terrorist organisation intent on disrupting the games.

TT #5’s ‘The Perilous Capers of the Terrible Teen’ finds Titans facing the dual task of aiding a troubled young man and capturing an elusive super-villain dubbed the Ant, despite all evidence indicating that they’re the same person, after which another DC sidekick made his Titans debut.

Illustrated by Bill Molno & Sal Trapani ‘The Fifth Titan’ then introduces Beast Boy (the obnoxious juvenile know-it-all from the iconic Doom Patrol). Feeling unappreciated by his adult mentors, the young hero wrongly assumes he’ll be welcomed by his peers. Rejected again he then falls under the spell of an unscrupulous circus owner and the kids need to set things right.

Slow and overly convoluted, it’s possibly the low-point of a stylish run, but many fans disagree, citing #7’s ‘The Mad Mod, Merchant of Menace’ as the biggest stinker. However, beneath the painfully dated dialogue there’s a witty, tongue-in-cheek tale of swinging London, cool capers and novel criminality, plus the return of the magnificent Nick Cardy to the art chores.

It was back to America for ‘A Killer called Honey Bun’ (illustrated by Irv Novick & Jack Abel): another tale of intolerance and misunderstood kids, played against a backdrop of espionage in Middle America, and featuring a deadly prototype robotic super-weapon in the menacing title role…

Teen Titans #9’s ‘Big Beach Rumble’ finds the Titans refereeing a swiftly-escalating vendetta between rival colleges on holiday when modern day pirates led by the barbarous Captain Tiger crash the scene. Novick pencilled it and Cardy’s inking made it all very palatable in a light and uncomplicated way

The editor obviously agreed as the art teem continued for the next few issues, beginning with ‘Scramble at Wildcat’: a rowdy crime caper featuring dirt-bikes and desert ghost-towns, with skeevy biker The Scorcher profiting from a pernicious robbery spree…

Wrapping up this initial outing, Speedy returned in #11’s spy-thriller ‘Monster Bait’, with the young heroes going undercover to save a boy being blackmailed into betraying his father and his country…

Although perhaps dated in delivery now, these tales were an incomprehensibly liberating experience for kids when first released. They truly betokened a new empathy with increasingly independent youth and sought to address problems that were more relevant to and generated by that specific audience. That they are so captivating in execution is a wonderful bonus. This is absolute escapism and absolutely delightful and you absolutely should get this book
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Action Heroes Archive Vol 1: Captain Atom & Vol. 2 Captain Atom, Blue Beetle & The Question

By Steve Ditko and various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0302-3  ISBN: 978-1-4012-1346-6 (vol 2)

It’s been a grim few weeks for lovers of the graphic arts. Peter Firmin passed away at the beginning of the month, and I’ve just heard that Steve Ditko has been found dead in his apartment. Both these men shaped my life and so many millions of others, especially the solitary work-obsessed genius who gave us Spider-Man, The Creeper, Mr. A and so many more. A more considered response and review will come in the weeks to come, but for now let’s consider these books: classic outsider wonderment from a creator who reshaped every aspect of comics by sniping from the edge and never once buying into the hype…

Steve Ditko is possibly comics’ most unique stylist. Love him or hate him, you can’t mistake his work for anyone else’s. His career began in the early 1950’s and, depending on whether you’re a superhero fan or prefer the deeper and more visually free and experimental work, peaked in either the mid-1960’s or 1970’s.

Leaving the Avenging World, Mr. A and his other philosophically derived creations for another time, the super-hero crowd should heartily celebrate this deluxe collection of the first costumed do-gooder that Ditko worked on. Although I’m a huge fan of his linework – which is best served by black and white printing – the crisp, sharp colour of this Archive edition is still much better than the appalling reproduction on bog-paper that first displayed Charlton Comics’ Atomic Ace to the kids of Commie-obsessed America, circa 1960.

Captain Adam is an astronaut accidentally atomised in a rocketry accident. Eerily – and the way it’s drawn spooked the short pants off me when I first read it more than fifty years ago – he reassembles himself on the launch pad, gifted with astounding powers. Reporting to the President, he swiftly becomes the USA’s secret weapon.

In those simpler times the short, terse adventures of Captain Atom seemed somehow more telling than the anodyne DC fare, and Marvel was still pushing monsters in underpants; their particular heroic revolution was still months away. Ditko’s hero was different and we few who read him all knew it.

Mostly written or co-written with Joe Gill, the first wonderful, addictive run of 18 stories from Space Adventures #33-42 (and three of those were drawn by the uninspired and out-of-his-depth Rocke Mastroserio) are a magnificent example of Ditko’s emerging mastery of mood, pacing, atmosphere and human dynamics.

In 1961, as Ditko did more and more work for the blossoming – and better paying – Marvel, Charlton killed the series. But when Dick Giordano created a superhero line for Charlton in late 1965, Captain Atom was revived. Space Adventures was retitled, and the Captain’s first full length issue was numbered #78.

As he was still drawing Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, Ditko could only manage pencils for the Captain and Mastroserio was recruited to ink the series, resulting in an oddly jarring finish. With #79 Ditko became lead writer too, and the stories took on an eccentric, compelling edge and tone that lifted them above much of the competition’s fare. Eventually the inker adapted to Ditko’s style and much of the ungainliness had disappeared from the figurework, although so had the fine detail that had elevated the early art.

This volume ends with issue #82, leaving six more published issues and a complete unpublished seventh for another time…

This second volume completes Ditko’s costumed hero contributions with the remainder of the Captain Atom tales, and the introduction of a new Blue Beetle and the uniquely iconic Question.

Captain Atom #83 (November 1966) starts the ball rolling here with a huge blast of reconstructive character surgery. Although ‘Finally Falls the Mighty!’ was inked by Rocke Mastroserio and scripted by David Kaler, thematically it’s pure Ditko. Plotted and drawn by him, it sees an ungrateful public turn on the Atomic Ace, due to the manipulations of a cunning criminal.

Intended to remove some of the omnipotence from the character, the added humanity of malfunctioning powers made his struggles against treacherous Professor Koste all the more poignant, and the sheer visual spectacle of his battle against a runaway reactor is some of Ditko’s most imaginative design and layout work. The tale ends on a cliffhanger – a real big deal when the comic only came out every two months – and the last seven pages featured the debut of a new superhero with one of the oldest names in the business.

The Blue Beetle first appeared in Mystery Men Comics #1, released by Fox Comics and dated August 1939. Created by Charles Nicholas (née Wojtkowski) the character was inexplicably popular and survived the death of a number of publishers to end up as a Charlton property in the mid 1950s. After releasing a few issues sporadically the character disappeared until the superhero revival of the early 1960s when young Roy Thomas revised and revived the character for a ten issue run (June 1964 – February 1966).

Here Ditko completely recreated the character. Ted Kord was an earnest young scientist with a secret tragedy in his past but Ditko and scripter Gary Friedrich wisely eschewed origin for action in a taut and captivating crime-thriller where the new hero displayed his modus operandi by stopping a vicious crime-spree by the Killer Koke Gang.

This untitled short has all the classic elements of a Ditko masterpiece: outlandish fight scenes, compact, claustrophobic yet dynamic layouts, innovative gimmickry and a clear-cut battle between Right and Wrong. It’s one of the very best introductory stories of a new hero anywhere in comics – and it’s seven pages long.

The remodeling of the Atomic Ace concluded in the next issue with ‘After the Fall a New Beginning.’ Once again Ditko rattled his authorial sabre about the fickleness of the public as the villainous Koste exposed the hero’s face on live TV. Escaping, Atom got a new costume with his curtailed powers and consequently a lot more drama entered the series.

Now there was a definite feeling of no safety or status quo. The untitled Beetle back-up (scripted by Gary Friedrich with pencils and inks by Ditko) pitted the hero against the masked Marauder but the real kicker was the bombshell that Homicide detective Fisher, investigating the disappearance of Dan Garrett, suspected a possible connection to scientist Ted Kord…

‘Strings of Punch and Jewelee’ introduced a couple of shady carnival hucksters who found a chest of esoteric alien weapons and used them for robbery whilst extending a running plot-line about the mysterious Ghost and his connection to a lost civilization of warrior women. Although Cap and partner Nightshade are somewhat outclassed here, the vigour and vitality of the Blue Beetle was undeniable when a mid-air hijack is foiled and a spy sub and giant killer octopus are given short thrift by the indomitable rookie crusader.

Captain Atom #86 finally brought the long-simmering plot-thread of tech thief The Ghost to a boil as the malevolent science-wizard went on a rampage, utterly trouncing Nightshade and our hero before being kidnapped by the aforementioned Warrior girls. ‘The Fury of the Faceless Foe!’ is by Ditko, Kaler & Mastroserio whilst in the (still) untitled Blue Beetle strip by Friedrich and Ditko the azure avenger battled a ruthless scientist and industrial spy.

This led directly into the first issue of his own comic-book. Blue Beetle #1 (June 1967) is an all-Ditko masterpiece (he even scripted it under the pen-name D.C. Glanzman) and saw the hero in all-out action against a deadly gang of bandits. ‘Blue Beetle… Bugs the Squids’ is crammed with the eccentric vitality that made the Amazing Spider-Man such a monster hit, and the crime-busting joie de vivre is balanced by the moody, claustrophobic introduction of Steve Ditko’s most challenging superhero creation.

‘The Question’ is Vic Sage, a TV journalist with an uncompromising attitude to crime and corruption and an alter-ego of faceless, relentless retribution. In his premiere outing he exposes the link between his own employers’ self-righteous sponsors and gambling racketeer Lou Dicer. This theme of unflinching virtue in the teeth of both violent crime and pernicious social and peer pressure marked Ditko’s departure from straight entertainment towards philosophical – some would say polemical – examination of greater societal issues and the true nature of both Good and Evil that would culminate in his controversial Mr. A, Avenging World and other independent ventures.

Captain Atom #87, ‘The Menace of the Fiery-Icer’ (August 1967) presaged the beginning of the end for the Atomic Ace as Kaler, Ditko & Mastroserio dialed back on the plot threads to deliver a visually excellent but run-of-the-mill yarn about a spy ring with a hot line in cold-blooded leaders.

Blue Beetle #2 however, an all-Ditko affair from the same month, showed the master at his heroic peak, both in the lead story ‘The End is a Beginning!’ which finally revealed the origin of the character as well as the fate of Dan Garrett, (the original Beetle) and even advanced his relationship with his girl Friday Tracey. The enigmatic Question, meanwhile, tackled the flying burglar known as the Banshee in a vertiginous, moody thriller reminiscent of early Doctor Strange strips.

Frank McLaughlin took over the inking for ‘Ravage of Ronthor’ in Captain Atom #88 (October 1967) as the hero answered a distress call from outer space to preserve a paradise planet from marauding giant bugs, in a satisfying no-nonsense escapist romp. Blue Beetle #3 was another superbly satisfying read as the eponymous hero routed the malevolent, picturesque thugs ‘The Madmen’ in a sharp parable about paranoia and misperception. Equally captivating was the intense and bizarre Question vignette as a murderous ghostly deep-sea diver stalks some shady captains of industry.

Issue #89 was the last Captain Atom published by Charlton (December 1967): an early casualty of the burn-out afflicting the superhero genre that led to a resurrected horror/mystery craze. This genre would then form a new backbone for the company’s 1970’s output; one where Ditko would shine again in his role as master of short story horror.

Scripter Dave Kaler managed to satisfactorily tie up most of the hanging plot threads with the warrior women of Sunuria in the sci-fi-meets-witchcraft thriller ‘Thirteen’ although the Ditko/McLaughlin art team was nowhere near their best form.

The next episode promised a final ‘Showdown in Sunuria’, but this never materialized.

Blue Beetle #4 (released the same month) is visually the best of the bunch as Ted Kord followed a somehow returned Dan Garrett to an Asian backwater in pursuit of lost treasure and a death cult. ‘The Men of the Mask’ is pure strip poetry and bombastic action, perfectly counterbalanced by a seedy underworld thriller as the Question sought to discover who gave the order to ‘Kill Vic Sage!’ This was scripted by Steve Skeates (as Warren Savin) and was the last action any Charlton hero saw for the better part of a year.

Cover-dated October 1968, The Question returned as the star of Mysterious Suspense #1. Ditko produced a captivating cover and a three-chapter thriller (whilst Rocke Mastroserio provided a rather jarring full-page frontispiece).

‘What Makes a Hero?’ (probably rescued from partially completed inventory material) saw crusading Vic Sage pilloried by the public, abandoned by friends and employers yet resolutely sticking to his higher principles in pursuit of hypocritical villains masquerading as pillars of the community. Ditko’s interest in Ayn Rand’s philosophical Objectivism had become increasingly important to him and this story is probably the dividing line between his “old” and “new” work. It’s also the most powerful and compelling piece in the entire book.

A month later one final issue of Blue Beetle (#5) was published. ‘The Destroyer of Heroes’ is a decidedly quirky tale that features a nominal team-up of the azure avenger and the Question as a frustrated artist defaced heroic and uplifting paintings and statues. Ditko’s committed if reactionary views of youth culture, which so worried Stan Lee, are fully on view in this controversial, absorbing work.

Other material had been created and languished incomplete in editorial limbo. In the early 1970s a burgeoning and committed fan-base created a fanzine called Charlton Portfolio. With the willing assistance of the company, a host of kids who would soon become household names in their own right found a way to bring the lost work to the public gaze.

Their efforts are also included here, in black and white as they originally appeared. For Charlton Portfolio #9 and 10 (1974), Blue Beetle #6 was serialized. ‘A Specter is Haunting Hub City!’ is another all-Ditko extravaganza, pitting the hero against an (almost) invisible thief whilst the follow-up magazine Charlton Bullseye (1975) finally published ‘Showdown in Sunuria’ in its first two issues.

Behind an Al Milgrom Captain Atom cover, Kaler’s plot was scripted by Roger Stern (working as Jon G. Michels) and Ditko’s pencils were inked by rising star John Byrne – a cataclysmic climax almost worth the eight year wait. But even there the magic doesn’t end in this magnificent Archive volume.

From Charlton Bullseye #5 (1975) comes one final pre-DC tale of The Question: eight, gripping, intense, beautiful pages plotted by Stern, scripted by Michael Uslan and illustrated by the legendary Alex Toth, This alone is well worth the rather high price of admission.

These weighty snapshots of another era are packed with classic material by brilliant craftsmen. They are books no Ditko addict, serious fan of the genre or lover of graphic adventure can afford to be without. It’s impossible to describe the grace, finesse, and unique eclectic shape of Steve Ditko’s art. It should be experienced. And this is as good a place to start as any, and probably a lot easier to obtain than much of this lost genius’ back catalogue.

© 1966, 1967, 1968, 1974, 1975, 1976, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Black Lightning volume two

By Dennis O’Neil, Gerry Conway, J.M. DeMatteis, Martin Pasko, Paul Kupperberg, Dick Dillin, George Tuska, Rick Buckler, Marshall Rogers, Mike Netzer/Nasser, Romeo Tanghal, Joe Staton, Pat Broderick, Dick Giordano, Gerald Forton & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7546-4

Black Lightning was DC’s first African American superhero to star in his own solo title, which launched in 1977…

When former Olympic decathlete Jefferson Pierce returned to the streets of Suicide Slum, Metropolis to teach at inner city Garfield High School, he was determined to make a real difference to the disadvantaged and often troubled kids he used to be numbered amongst. However, when he interrupted a drug buy on school grounds and sent the dealer packing, he opened everyone around him to mob vengeance and personal tragedy…

When the ruling racketeers – an organised syndicate dubbed The 100 – came seeking retaliation, one of Pierce’s students paid the ultimate price. The traumatised teacher realised he needed the shield of anonymity if he was to win justice and safety for his beleaguered home and charges…

Happily, tailor Peter Gambi – who had raised Jefferson and taken care of his mother after the elder Pierce was murdered – had a few useful ideas and inexplicable access to some pretty far-out technology…

Soon, equipped with a strength-&-speed-enhancing forcefield belt and costume, plus a mask and wig that completely changed his appearance, a fierce new vigilante stalked the streets of Metropolis…

Now with the urban avenger the star of his own television series, those early groundbreaking adventures have been gathered into a series of astoundingly accessible, no-nonsense trade paperback and eBook collections.

This second outing gathers a flurry of back-up and guest appearances from May 1979 to October 1980, gathered from various titles where the urban avenger prowled after his solo title folded. They cumulatively comprise World’s Finest Comics #256-259 and #261, DC Comics Presents #16, Justice League of America #173-174, Detective Comics #490-491 and #495-495 and The Brave and the Bold #163 plus pertinent material from Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe #3 (1985) and Who’s Who in the DC Universe #16 (1992).

Following an informative Introduction by character originator Tony Isabella reprising Black Lightning: The In-Between Years, the (relatively) down-to-earth superhero antics commence with ‘Encounter with a Dark Avenger!’ (by Denny O’Neil, Dick Dillin & Frank Chiaramonte, taken from World’s Finest Comics #256).

Here the electric warrior is manipulated into a potentially fatal confrontation with equally fervent urban vigilante Green Arrow. As the heroes clash neither is aware that the 100’s ousted boss Tobias Whale is behind their mutual woes…

That short yarn saw Black Lightning as GA’s guest star and served as a prelude to ‘Death Ransom!’ in WF #257, the beginning of Pierce’s second (strictly backup) series. Crafted by O’Neil, George Tuska & Bob Smith, it sees a fateful, brutal clash with The Whale and results in a wary ceasefire for the archenemies as they unite to destroy the swiftly rebuilding 100 cartel…

Of course, a scorpion’s gotta sting and the alliance only lasts one issue before Whale betrays Lightning’s trust and another innocent dies in ‘The Blood of the Lamb!’ (O’Neil, Rich Buckler & Romeo Tanghal, World’s Finest #258)…

World’s Finest #259 provides a labyrinthine conundrum as the hero and a horde of gunman act on a deathbed tip-off and converge on a seedy welfare hotel that might be ‘The Last Hideout’ (O’Neil, Marshall Rogers, Michael Nasser/Netzer & Vince Colletta) of a legendary criminal and his ill-gotten gains. Sadly, only the masked hero cared about collateral casualties…

‘Return of the River Rat!’ (O’Neil, Tanghal & Colletta, World’s Finest #261) ended this back-up run on a mediocre note as school chaperone Jefferson Pierce is fortuitously on hand during a river cruise party just when an exiled mobster tries to sneak back into the USA by submarine…

A co-starring role in DC Comics Presents #16 (December 1979) then finds the street-smart urban avenger and Superman confronting a heartsick and violently despondent alien trapped on Earth for millennia in ‘The De-volver!’ (courtesy of O’Neil, Joe Staton & Frank Chiaramonte) after which the lone avenger gets a nod of approval from the Big Guns of Superheroing…

Justice League of America #173-174 (December 1979 and January 1980) offered a smart two-parter with a twist ending as the League try to induct the mysterious, unvetted vigilante.

After much fervent debate, they decide to set their still-unsuspecting candidate a little problem to prove his worth.

However, as a vermin-controlling maniac unleashes terror upon Metropolis, the ‘Testing of a Hero’ and ‘A Plague of Monsters’ (Gerry Conway, Dillin & Frank McLaughlin) takes the old recruitment drive into a very fresh direction and leads to disappointment all around…

Still Not Quite Popular Enough, the hero was found tenure in the more moody and grounded Detective Comics beginning with #490 (May 1980). Here Martin Pasko, Pat Broderick & McLaughlin reveal how ‘Lightning Strikes Twice Out!’ as a protracted clash with a ruthless Haitian gang led by Mama Mambu leads to his kidnap and the loss of his powers and gimmicks in concluding chapter ‘Short-Circuit’ (Detective #491).

A corrupt Senator stealing oil shipments to finance a private army and attempted takeover of America is brought down by separate-but-convergent investigations conducted by Black Lightning and Batman in ‘Oil, Oil… Nowhere’ (Paul Kupperberg & Dick Giordano; The Brave and The Bold #163, June 1980) after which J.M. DeMatteis & Gerald Forton assume creative control of the Lightning’s path in Detective Comics #494 Detective Comics #494.

‘Explosion of the Soul’ (September 1980) sees the streets haunted by a murderous junkie-killing vigilante, and all Pierce’s investigations seem to lead inexorably back to one of his students…

Ending on a dark note of tragedy, ‘Animals’ (DeMatteis & Forton, Detective #494) then sees the Suicide Slum School Olympics turned into a charnel house when a juvenile street gang seizes the girls’ hockey team and demands safe passage and new lives in Switzerland. When Black Lightning intercedes, not everybody gets out alive…

Supplemented with a cover gallery by Ross Andru, Giordano, Jim Aparo, Neal Adams & Dillin, and including fact-packed background and data pages about ‘Black Lightning’ from Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe #3 (1985) and an updated entry from Who’s Who in the DC Universe #16 (1992) this potent package of fast-paced Fights ‘n’ Tights thrillers are so skilfully constructed that even the freshest neophyte will be able to settle in for the ride without any confusion and enjoy a self-contained rollicking rollercoaster of terrifically traditional superhero shenanigans.

So, what are you waiting for?
© 1979, 1980, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman in The Brave and the Bold: The Bronze Age volume one

By Bob Haney, Mike Sekowsky, Marv Wolfman, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Nick Cardy, Irv Novick & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7517-4 (TPB)

The Brave and the Bold began in 1955 as an anthology adventure comic featuring short complete tales about a variety of period heroes: a format that mirrored the contemporary movie fascination with historical dramas.

Written by Bob Kanigher, issue #1 led with Golden Gladiator, the Silent Knight and Joe Kubert’s now legendary Viking Prince. From #5 the Gladiator was increasingly alternated with Robin Hood, but such manly, mainly mainstream romps carried the title until the end of the decade when the burgeoning costumed character revival saw B&B transform into a try-out vehicle like sister publication Showcase.

Issue #25 (August-September 1959) featured the debut of Task Force X: Suicide Squad, followed by Justice League of America (#28), Cave Carson (#31) and Hawkman (#34). Since only the JLA hit the first time out, there were return engagements for the Squad, Carson and Hawkman. Something truly different appeared in #45-49 with the science fictional Strange Sports Stories before Brave and the Bold #50 provided a new concept that once again truly caught the reader’s imagination.

That issue paired two superheroes – Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter – in a one-off team-up, as did succeeding issues: Aquaman and Hawkman in #51, WWII combatants Sgt Rock, Captain Cloud, Mme. Marie and the Haunted Tank in #52 and Atom and Flash in #53. The next team-up – Robin, Aqualad and Kid Flash – evolved rapidly into the Teen Titans. After Metal Men/the Atom and Flash/Martian Manhunter new hero Metamorpho, the Element Man debuted in #57-58.

Then it was back to superhero pairings with #59, and although no one realised it at the time this particular conjunction (Batman with Green Lantern) would be particularly significant.

After a return engagement for the Teen Titans in #60, the next two issues highlighted Earth-2 champions Starman and Black Canary, whilst Wonder Woman met Supergirl in #63.

Then, in an indication of things to come, and in anticipation of the TV-induced mania mere months away, Batman duelled hero/villain Eclipso in #64. Within two issues, following Flash/Doom Patrol (#65) and Metamorpho/Metal Men (#66), Brave and the Bold #67 saw the Caped Crusader take de facto control of the title and the lion’s share of the team-ups. With the exception of #72-73 (Spectre/Flash and Aquaman/Atom) the comic was henceforth to be a place where Batman invited the rest of company’s heroic pantheon to come and play…

For the sake of brevity and clarity and according to the wise ones who dictate such arbitrary demarcations, it’s also the point at which Comics’ Silver Age transitioned into the Bronze Age…

This first collection of unalloyed Batman pairings with other luminaries of the DC universe reprints B&B #74-91 (spanning October/November 1967 to August/September 1970) featuring the last vestiges of a continuity-reduced DC where individual story needs were seldom submerged into a cohesive overarching scenario, and where lead writer Bob Haney crafted stories that were meant to be read in isolation, drawn by a profusion of artists with only one goal: entertainment.

The Caped Crime-crusher took full possession of Brave and the Bold with #74’s fast-paced and dryly funny ‘Rampant Run the Robots’ as the Metal Men confront human prejudice and perfidious inventors whilst in #75 The Spectre joins the Dark Knight to free Gotham City’s Chinatown from an ancient wizard and ‘The Grasp of Shahn-Zi!’; both tales drawn by the new semi-regular art team of Ross Andru & Mike Esposito.

Illustrated by Mike Sekowsky & Jack Abel, Plastic Man helped solve the mystery of plastic-obsessed maniac The Molder in #76’s ‘Doom, What Is Thy Shape?’ after which Andru & Esposito return to limn the Atom’s participation in foiling a criminal circus performer in ‘So Thunders the Cannoneer!’

The vastly underrated Bob Brown stepped in to draw ‘In the Coils of the Copperhead’ wherein Wonder Woman found herself vying with the newly-minted Batgirl for Batman’s affections. Of course, it was all a cunning plan… or was it?

Neal Adams was a young illustrator who had worked in advertising and ghosted some newspaper strips whilst trying to break into comics. With #75 he had become a cover artist for B&B and with #79 (August-September 1968) he took over the interior art for a game-changing groundbreaking run that rewrote the rulebook for strip illustration.

‘The Track of the Hook’ paired the Dark Knight Detective with a justice-obsessed ghost. Deadman was murdered trapeze artist Boston Brand who perpetually hunted his own killer, and whose earthy, human tragedy elevated the series’ campy costumed theatrics into deeper, more mature realms of drama and action. The stories matured ten years overnight and instantly became every discerning fan’s favourite read.

‘And Hellgrammite is his Name’ then finds Batman and the Creeper defying a bug-themed super-hitman, and the Flash aids the Caped Crusader in defeating an unbeatable thug in ‘But Bork Can Hurt You!’ (both inked by Dick Giordano) before Aquaman becomes ‘The Sleepwalker from the Sea’ in an eerie tale of mind-control and sibling rivalry.

Issue # 83 took a radical turn as the Teen Titans try to save Bruce Wayne’s latest foster-son from his own inner demons in ‘Punish Not my Evil Son!’ but the next team-up was one that got many fans in a real tizzy in 1969.

‘The Angel, the Rock and the Cowl’ recounted a World War II exploit where Batman and Sgt. Rock of Easy Company hunt Nazi gold and a war criminal together, only closing the case twenty-five years later. Ignoring the kvetching about relative ages and which Earth we’re on, which raised a storm in an eggcup back then, you should focus on the fact that this is a startlingly gripping tale of great intensity and beautifully realised: one which was criminally discounted for decades as “non-canonical”.

Brave and the Bold #85 is arguably the best of an incredible run. ‘The Senator’s Been Shot!’ reunited Batman and Green Arrow in a superb multi-layered thriller of politics, corruption and cast-iron integrity, wherein Bruce Wayne stands in for a law-maker and the Emerald Archer receives a radical make-over that turned him into the fiery liberal gadfly champion of the relevancy generation…

Boston Brand returned in #86, as Batman found ‘You Can’t Hide from a ‘Deadman!’: a captivating epic of death, redemption and resurrection that became a cornerstone of Bat-mythology forever after.

What follows is a decidedly different adventure written and drawn by Mike Sekowsky and starring the venerable comics icon he had made fresh and exciting all over again.

Inked by Giordano and entitled ‘The Widow-Maker’, it tells of the son of one of Batman’s old foes who attempts to add to his tally of motoring murders by luring the Caped Crusader into a rigged high-performance car race. That’s when recently de-powered Diana Prince, once and future Wonder Woman, steps in…

Following Adams’ iconoclastic and influential run was always going to be a tough act, but veteran Irv Novick – who would also unfairly tread in Adams’ mighty shadow on Batman for years to come – did sterling work here on a gritty tale of boxing and Cold War mind-games as the Caped Crusader meets golden age troubleshooter Wildcat in ‘Count Ten… and Die!’ (B&B #88, February-March 1970).

Esposito inked that tale before reuniting with long-time collaborator Ross Andru for a brief return engagement that began with a spooky suspense-thriller pitting Batman against the mystery sensation Phantom Stranger (and his rationalist rival Dr. Terry Thirteen) in #89’s ‘Arise Ye Ghosts of Gotham!’

The team then switch pace and genre for a time-bending science fiction thriller ‘You Only Die Twice!’ guest-starring interstellar champion Adam Strange and threatening to record the fall from grace and death of the Gotham Guardian.

The comics content concludes here with issue #91, as ‘A Cold Corpse for the Collector’ provides a true gem of love and death. Haney was always at his best with terse, human scale dramas, especially “straight” crime thrillers, and his pairing of the Batman with Black Canary (transplanted from Earth-2 to replace Wonder Woman in the Justice League) saw the recently-widowed heroine searching for the Earth-1 counterpart of her dead husband…

What she got was self-delusion, heartbreak and imminent death in a masterpiece of ironic melodrama. It also signalled the advent of the superb Nick Cardy as illustrator: a short run of beautifully drawn and boldly experimental assignments that are still startling to see nearly five decades later.

These are some of the best and most entertainingly varied yarns from a period of magnificent creativity in the American comics industry. Aimed at a general readership, gloriously free of heavy, cloying continuity baggage and brought to stirring, action-packed life by some of the greatest artists in the business, this is a Batman for all seasons and reasons with the added bonus of some of the most fabulous and engaging co-stars a fan could imagine. How could anybody resist? Seriously: can you…?
© 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Super Powers by Jack Kirby

By Jack Kirby with Joey Cavalieri, Paul Kupperberg, Adrian Gonzalez, Pablo Marcos, Alan Kupperberg, Greg Theakston & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7140-4

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, Jack Kirby (1917-1994) was an astute, imaginative, spiritual man who lived through poverty and gangsterism, the Great Depression, Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject. He also always believed that sequential narrative was worthy of being published as real books right beside mankind’s other literary art forms.

Looks like he was right, and – as usual – just ahead of the times, doesn’t it?

Thanks to his recent centenary there’s a magnificent abundance of Kirby commemorative collections around these days (though still not all of it, so I remain a partially disgruntled dedicated fan). This particular trade paperback and eBook compendium re-presents The King’s last complete conceptual outing for DC and one that has been neglected by fans for far too long.

During the 1980s costumed heroes stopped being an exclusively print cash cow as big toy companies licensed Fights ‘n’ Tights titans and reaped the benefits of ready-made comicbook spin-offs. DC’s most recognizable characters became a best-selling line of action figures and were inevitably hived off into a brisk and breezy, fight-frenzied miniseries.

Super Powers launched in July 1984 as a 5-issue miniseries with Kirby covers and his signature Fourth World characters prominently represented. Jack also plotted the stellar saga with scripter Joey Cavalieri providing dialogue, as Adrian Gonzales & Pablo Marcos illustrated a heady cosmic quest comprising numerous inconclusive battles between agents of Good and Evil.

Eschewing any preamble, we hurtle straight into action with ‘Power Beyond Price!’, as ultimate cosmic nemesis Darkseid despatches four Emissaries of Doom to destroy Earth’s superheroes. Sponsoring and empowering Lex Luthor, The Penguin, Brainiac and The Joker, the Dark God’s emissaries and their stooges jointly target Superman, Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and Hawkman

The combat escalates in #2’s ‘Clash Against Chaos’ with the Man of Steel and Scarlet Speedster tackling Luthor, whilst Aquaman and Green Lantern scupper the Penguin. Meanwhile Dark Knight and Winged Wonder confront an astoundingly-enhanced Harlequin of Hate…

With Alan Kupperberg inking #3, an inconclusive outcome leads to a regrouping of evil and an attack by Brainiac on Paradise Island, as in ‘Amazons at War’ the Justice League rally until Superman is devolved into a brutal beast who attacks his former allies.

All-out battle ensues in ‘Earth’s Last Stand’ before King Kirby steps up to write and illustrate the fateful finale: a cosmos-shaking conclusion designated ‘Spaceship Earth – We’re All on It!’ (November 1984, with Greg Theakston suppling inks)…

A bombastic Super Powers Promotional Poster then leads into the second Super Powers miniseries, spanning September 1985 to February 1986.

Scripted by Paul Kupperberg, the Kirby/Theakston saga ‘Seeds of Doom!’ recounts how deadly Darkseid despatches techno-organic bombs to destroy Earth, a diabolical deed requiring practically every DC hero to unite to counter the threat.

With teams of Super Powers travelling to England, Rome, New York, Easter Island and Arizona the danger is magnified ‘When Past and Present Meet!’ as the seeds warp time and send Aquaman and Martian Manhunter J’onn J’onzz back to days of King Arthur

Super Powers #3 (November 1985) finds Red Tornado, Hawkman and Green Arrow plunged back 75 million years in ‘Time Upon Time Upon Time!’ even as Doctor Fate, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman are trapped in 1087 AD, battling stony-faced giant aliens on Easter Island.

Superman and Firestorm discover ‘There’s No Place Like Rome!’ as they battle Darkseid’s agent Steppenwolf in the first century whilst Batman, Robin and Flash visit a far-flung future where Earth is the new Apokolips in #5’s ‘Once Upon Tomorrow’.

Eventually Earth’s scattered but indomitable champions converge on Luna to spectacularly squash the schemes-within-schemes of ‘Darkseid of the Moon!’

Jack Kirby was and remains unique and uncompromising: his words and pictures comprise an unparalleled, hearts-and-minds grabbing delight no comics lover can possibly resist. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind.

That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s life’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American comics scene – and indeed the entire comics planet – affecting the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour for generations. Most tellingly, he is still winning new fans and apostles every day, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. His work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep and simultaneously mythic and human.

He is the King and there will never be another.
© 1984, 1985, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Doom Patrol volume 1: Crawling from the Wreckage

By Grant Morrison, Richard Case, Doug Braithwaite, Scott Hanna & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-034-5

In 1986, mega-monster continuity reboot Crisis on Infinite Earths led to DC overwriting fifty years of continuity and revamping or reinventing their major properties. The massive spring cleaning exercise led to a swathe of bold, innovative titles and a fresh look at how comicbooks could be done.

A revival that began quite conventionally almost overnight became the one of company’s most radical enterprises. Despite having solid roots back in the Silver Age, Doom Patrol was a series that really dared to be different…

In 1963 DC/National Comics – without no prior warning – converted venerable anthology-mystery title My Greatest Adventure into a (remarkably fringe) superhero team-book with the 80th issue.

The debut tale introduced a startling squad of arguably disabled champions with their thematic roots still firmly planted in the B-movie monster films of the era which had for so long informed the tone and timbre of the parent title.

That aesthetic subtly shaped the progression of the strip – which took total control of the comic within months, prompting a title change to The Doom Patrol with issue #86 – and throughout its 6-year run, made the series one of the most eerily innovative and happily hip reads of that generation.

No traditional team of masked adventurers, the cast comprised a robot, a mummy and a pliable 50-foot woman in a mini-skirt, who joined forces with and were guided by a brusque, domineering, paraplegic mad scientist; each and all equally determined to validate themselves by fighting injustice their way…

Those damaged champions comprised competitive car racer Cliff Steele, but only after he had “died” in a horrific pile up, with his undamaged brain transplanted into a fantastic mechanical body… without his knowledge or permission…

Test pilot Larry Trainor had been trapped in an experimental stratospheric plane and become permanently and lethally radioactive, with the dubious benefit of gaining a semi-sentient energy avatar which could escape his body to perform incredible stunts for up to a minute at a time. To pass safely amongst men Trainor had to constantly wrap himself in specially-devised radiation-proof bandages.

Former movie star Rita Farr had been exposed to mysterious swamp gases which gave her the unpredictable and, at first, uncontrolled ability to shrink or grow to incredible sizes.

These outcasts were brought together by brilliant but enigmatic Renaissance Man Niles Caulder who, as The Chief, sought to mould marginalised misfits into a force for good. The wheelchair-bound savant directed the trio of solitary strangers in many terrifying missions as they slowly grew into a uniquely bonded family…

Even the way the series ended was radical for its time. Final issue Doom Patrol #121 (September/October 1968) saw three quarters of the team sacrifice their lives to save a village of inconsequential nobodies.

Over succeeding years clever backwriting revived them all, but to us readers at the time, that issue was shocking and incomprehensible.

In 1987, supplemented by new team-mates, the Doom Patrol – now based in Kansas City – returned to muddle along for 18 issues (and a few one-shots and specials), before again being devastated by death and living up to their perhaps ill-considered name. Following an invasion by an alliance of alien races, a “gene bomb” was detonated in Earth’s atmosphere which warped, erased or triggered the powers of many metahumans.

In the resulting fallout, the team suffered appalling losses…

Thus here, as neophyte Scottish import and unknown quantity Grant Morrison began his American writing career, Negative Man has been separated from his human host, Cliff Steele has suffered a psychological collapse, energy-caster Tempest has ceased using his abilities and teenaged trainee Lodestone lies in a coma…

This collection gathers Doom Patrol volume 2 #19-25 (the monthly issues from February-August 1989, as first collected in one of DC’s earliest trade paperbacks in 1992), wherein traditional team super-heroics were abruptly and ignominiously jettisoned in favour of Big Concept science, “sophisticated suspense” and macabre creeping terror.

A less celebrated but equally crucial component of the revolutionary change was penciller Richard Case, whose stylish, low-key interpretation of some of the (at that time) strangest scripts, situations and characters ever seen in mainstream comics imbued the wildest conceptions with plausible veracity. The illustrator was usually aided and abetted by the steady assured assistance of unflappable inker Scott Hanna.

Here, however, the opening chapter is inked by Carlos Garzón as an eerie, eponymous adventure begins with ‘Crawling from the Wreckage’ with a nightmare-wracked Cliff Steele receiving a visitor in the sanatorium where he voluntarily languishes.

Robotics wunderkind Dr Will Magnus – who created the Metal Men and had rebuilt and reconstructed Cliff from the scraps which survived the explosion which ended the first Doom Patrol – has come calling, eager to fix his former patient and repair this latest glitch…

As intense, obsessive Niles Caulder browbeats burned out Josh Clay (AKA Tempest) into staying with the team in a “non-combat” capacity, over at the Alamance Memorial Hospital Larry Trainor is recovering from major injuries and revelling in the fact that he is no longer a radioactive freak hosting a bizarre energy parasite.

The only down side is the cost: the death of his partners and protégés and the persistent comatose state of youthful new team-mate Rhea Jones, the magnetically-empowered Lodestone.

Larry’s complacency is shattered when he starts seeing the Negative force again, howling to be let back in…

As Magnus struggles to counsel Cliff, the energy apparition moves again on Larry, possessing both him and his attending doctor Eleanor Poole coldly remoulding them all into an eerie three-part, multiple-gendered amalgamated being calling itself Rebis

Magnus meanwhile plays his last card: with Robotman locked in self-pity and self-loathing, the master engineer switches tactics by appealing to Cliff’s heroic humanity and abiding compassion. He introduces the man of metal to fellow-patient Kay Challis: a young woman known to all as Crazy Jane.

Afflicted with multiple personality disorder, she manifests as (at least) 64 very different people, and since the gene bomb detonation, each one has manifested a different super power…

And elsewhere, a hideously burned crash victim who takes far too long to die drops a very strange black book and stops muttering the phrase “the Scissormen”. Federal agents on the scene resignedly realise this case needs the unique attention of Niles Caulder and his band of freaks…

Strange phenomena begin to proliferate globally in ‘Cautionary Tales’ (inked by Hanna) culminating in reports of many disappearances. Each vanished victim is marked by the silhouetted hole he or she leaves in reality…

As Caulder is cautiously recruiting hyper-intelligent, emotionally distant Rebis, across town Magnus cannot believe the change in Cliff. With Jane now his inseparable companion, Steele has regained much of his previous poise and lucidity: so much so, that Magnus offers to rebuild him a new body with sensors and feedback systems which will restore or approximate all the physical senses lost since becoming a brain trapped inside an ambulatory metal jail cell…

Apparently also back is Robotman’s gift for attracting trouble, as his evening walk with Jane is interrupted by a plummeting body screaming about “Scissormen”. With arcane abductions and cross-dimensional incursions mounting, the sanatorium becomes ground zero for packs of terrifying, gibberish-spouting, blade-handed invaders who attack staff and inmates, with only Jane’s arsenal of new abilities keeping her and Cliff out of the scything clutches and apparent extra-dimensional excisions…

All over the world bizarre phenomena and uncanny events mount…

More information – if not understanding – accrues with ‘Worlds in Collision’ as Kansas City begins to merge with a ghastly otherplace metropolis. Cliff and Alice battle macabre and unnatural foes all the way to the Doom Patrol’s new HQ in the Rhode Island mountain that was the original sanctuary of the Justice League of America.

Here, Caulder deduces their enemy is actualised metafiction stemming from a philosophical thought experiment that escaped its own boundaries to invade consensual reality but before he can formulate a response an army of Scissormen converge on their location and cut Josh out of existence. With no other choice and fed up with running, Cliff leads Rebis and Alice on a counterstrike into the heart of ‘The Ossuary’ to demolish the predatory city of Orqwith from within using brute force and pedantic logic…

With a semblance of normality restored just in time, the Doom Patrol settle in and welcome hirsute simian pre-teen Dorothy Spinner into the fold. Her uncontrolled ability to manifest monsters from her memory and imagination is only the most minor of annoyances, however, compared to the incursion of an ancient extradimensional hunter who abducts Lodestone’s comatose body from the hospital.

Thankfully, Crazy Jane has just the personality and powerset to follow ‘The Butterfly Collector’

Divining his many names and history of slaughtering women throughout history, she leads the team’s break in to ‘The House that Jack Built’ where the red-handed butcher’s many outrageous claims and sadistic acts prove ultimately no proof against the Patrol and a suddenly awake if not aware Lodestone…

This initial trade paperback (and digital) compilation concludes with a smaller-scaled but still potentially lethal tale of ‘Imaginary Friends’. Illustrated by Doug Braithwaite & Hanna it focuses on shy, meek little Dorothy Spinner and her growing relationship with Josh Clay. A key point in her life is almost derailed and turned to bloodbath when her burgeoning biology catastrophically interacts with her thought-materialisation power and a leftover (but-still-active) trophy from the JLA’s past…

Including a context-building Introduction from Tom Peyer and ‘A Word from the Author’ first seen in DP #20, this collection of strange brews were – and remain- a magnificent mission statement for the revitalised DC Universe, offering gritty, witty fancifully cohesive and contemporary stories that appealed not just to Fights ‘n’ Tights fanatics but also lovers of wild concepts, beguiling metafiction and thrilling supercrime capers. As such they are still perfect fodder for today’s so-sophisticated, informed and ultimately sensation-hungry readers.
© 1987, 2005, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Son of Superman

By Howard Chaykin, David Tischman, J.H. Williams III & Mick Gray (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-595-1 (HB)                    :978-1-56389-596-8 (TPB)

Dads are difficult: it’s their main role in life. They’re designed to protect and sustain but with so few lions and tigers and bears to fend off, they just hang around and become less understandable and more embarrassing – or if you’re a daughter, increasingly suspicious of and hostile to your friends with every month you age.

They are absolute hell to find gifts for on made-up occasions intended to fill corporate coffers.

Too late now, but why not try a nice book next year…

Originally released as a spiffy hardback in February 2000 (and rushed out in paperback four months later), Son of Superman saw Howard Chaykin and his writing partner David Tischman exploring modern themes of self-image and abandonment through a timeless lens of teenage rebellion writ large…

Set in the then far-future of 2017 AD. and an overwhelmingly conservative and corporate America, it posits that Superman has been missing since 2000. The Justice League has become an oppressive arm of Federal Government, and the biggest threat to homeland security is the terrorist organisation The Supermen.

This revolutionary cell is led by the vanished hero’s oldest friends Pete Ross and Lana Lang and the menace of humanity is ruthless, unscrupulous Lex Luthor who now claims ownership of most of the planet.

Jon Kent is a brash, smart-mouthed high school kid and his mother Lois is a Hollywood screenwriter. Their lives are pretty normal (for rich Americans) …until the worst solar storm in history abruptly triggers her boy’s unsuspected and dormant superpowers. Now mom has to reveal that his long-dead dad was in fact the world’s greatest hero.

From having to deal with girls, grades and puberty the turbulent teen suddenly finds himself the focus of all manner of unpleasant and unwelcome attention; heroes and villains, the Feds and his own budding conscience…

How this new and exceedingly reluctant hero saves the world, busts the bad guys, and solves the mystery of his missing father makes for a good old-fashioned “never trust anyone over the age of 30” romp: full of thrills and spills thanks to the snarkily superior scripting skills of arch-nonconformists Chaykin and Tischman, sublimely enhanced by spectacular artwork from J.H. Williams III (Starman, Promethea, Rex Mundi, Batwoman) and Mick Gray.

This surprisingly enjoyable, if unchallenging, alternative tale of the Man of Steel comes courtesy of the much missed Elseworlds imprint, which was designed by DC as a classy vehicle for what used to be called “Imaginary Stories” – for which read using branded characters in stories that refute, contradict or ignore established monthly continuities. Although often a guaranteed recipe for disaster, every so often the magic of unbridled creativity brought forth gems. This is one of the latter and should be re-released ASAP.

Then you could nick it from your dad…
© 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Flash: The Silver Age volume 3

By John Broome, Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7826-7

The second Flash triggered the Silver Age of American comicbooks and, for the first ten years or so, in terms of creative quality and sheer originality, it was always the book to watch.

Following his meteoric launch in Showcase #4 (October 1956), police scientist Barry Allen – transformed by a lightning strike and accidental chemical bath into a human thunderbolt of unparalleled velocity and ingenuity – was uncharacteristically slow in winning his own title, but finally (after three more trial issues) finally stood on his own wing-tipped feet in The Flash#105 (February-March 1959).

He never looked back, and by the time of this second commemorative compilation was very much the innovation mainstay of DC/National Comics’ burgeoning superhero universe. This second Trade Paperback (and digital) collection re-presents Flash #133-147 – spanning December 1962 through September 1964 – and tracks the Vizier of Velocity as he becomes the key figure in a stunning renaissance of comicbook super-heroics.

Shepherding the Scarlet Speedster’s meteoric rise to prominence, the majority of stories are written by the brilliant John Broome and all are pencilled by the infinitely impressive Carmine Infantino: slickly polished, coolly sophisticated rapid-fire short stories set in a comfortingly suburbanite milieu constantly threatened by super-thieves, sinister spies and marauding aliens, with our affable superhero always triumphant whilst ever-expanding and establishing the broad parameters of an increasingly cohesive narrative universe.

The comicbook had gelled into a comfortable pattern of two short tales per issue leavened with semi-regular book-length thrillers. The magic begins here with an example of the double-header format as applause-addicted future conjuror Abra Kadabra takes a rather silly encore in #133 by causing ‘The Plight of the Puppet Flash!’ (Broome, Infantino & Joe Giella).

That brief and bizarre Pinocchio peril is more than compensated for by the witty and sensitive Kid Flash back-up tale ‘The Secret of the Handicapped Boys!’ as deaf, blind and mute classmates (one disability per boy, ok?) each discover the young hero’s secret identity and resolve to help the junior hero in their own manner.

In #134, Captain Cold was ‘The Man who Mastered Absolute Zero!’: in a flamboyant thriller co-starring Elongated Man, after which Iris West’s father (and Flash’s prospective father-in-law) pays an unwelcome call in the cleverly comedic ‘The Threat of the Absent-Minded Professor!’, Kid Flash then receives a beautiful new costume in the most astounding manner imaginable during the invasion thriller ‘Secret of the Three Super-Weapons!’ in #135.

‘The Mirror Master’s Invincible Bodyguards!’ – being just slow-moving light images packing ray-guns – actually weren’t, but the Scarlet Speedster had a lot more trouble when a seedy blackmailer claimed ‘Barry Allen – You’re the Flash – and I Can Prove It!’

This type of clever human-scaled story was slowly disappearing in favour of the more colourful costume epics – none more so than the wonderful Gardner Fox scripted ‘Vengeance of the Immortal Villain!’

Another incredible Earth-2 crossover, this saw the two Flashes unite to defeat 50,000-year-old Vandal Savage and save the Justice Society of America: a tale which directly led into the veteran team’s first meeting with the Justice League of America and the start of decades of trans-dimensional “Crisis” epics.

Fox also wrote ‘The Pied Piper’s Double Doom!’, a mesmeric team-up with Elongated Man, but once more the Kid Flash back-up stole the show, introducing the singular thespian Dexter Myles to the steadily growing cast in charming crime-caper comedy of errors ‘Mystery of the Matinee Idol!’

Broome was back for Flash #139, introducing the hero’s ultimate nemesis in Professor Zoom, a 25th century criminal who duplicated his super-speed to become the ‘Menace of the Reverse-Flash!’ Add in the sidebar menace of a lost-and-counting-down atomic bomb and the tension was almost suffocating…

Flash #140 (November 1963) debuts super arsonist Heat Wave in Broome’s stylish and sardonic thriller ‘The Heat is on for Captain Cold!’ before Fox pits the Monarch of Motion against ‘The Metal-Eater from Beyond the Stars!’: a bizarre energy-being able to nullify the speedster’s powers.

The majority of adventures were still produced by globetrotting scripter John Broome and the increasingly stylised and innovative art-team of Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella, and ‘The Mystery of the Flash’s Third Identity’ has them at their creative acme in a wittily absorbing super-villain yarn featuring the Top.

In another devious piece of internal comicbook logic, Broome posited that Flash’s foes looked so good because they had their own underworld bespoke tailor and armourer. This tale introduced Paul Gambi (an editorial in-joke acknowledging the dedicated contributions of über-fan and letter-writer Paul Gambaccini), setting the Vizier of Velocity on the tailor’s tail in an enticing piece of fluff that was neatly balanced by ‘Slowdown in Time’: a canny, enthralling science fiction lesson in relativity.

The real star was that most literal absent-minded professor Ira West, Barry’s prospective father-in- law and a genius who had casually deduced the civilian identity of the Flash due to discrepancies in the forensic scientist’s time-keeping…

Gardner Fox scripted the mile-a-minute romp ‘Perilous Pursuit of the Trickster!’ wherein the villain used toys stolen from children to bedevil his fast foe, whilst Broome blended legal loopholes and alien invasions to perplex the Scarlet Speedster with the ‘Puzzle of the Phantom Plunderers!’

Issue #143 featured another full-length team-up with Emerald Gladiator Hal Jordan in ‘Trail of the False Green Lanterns!’ – scripted by the ever-entrancing Fox who herein introduced future-gazing arch-foe Thomas Oscar Morrow.

The next two issues were all-Fox affairs: the eerie ‘Menace of the Man-Missile!’ pitting the Sultan of Speed against a shape-shifting atomically-mutated escaped convict whilst plucky protégé Kid Flash solo-starred in the human-interest parable ‘Lesson for a Star Athlete!’ Super-villainy resumed in Flash #145 as ‘The Weather Wizard Blows Up a Storm!’ and the normally stoic, stolid hero briefly has his head turned by captivating and inadvertently deadly visitor ‘The Girl from the Super-Fast Dimension!’

Broome scripted the wacky romp ‘The Mirror Master’s Master Stroke!’ and Frank Giacoia briefly bolstered the regular art team for Fox’s terrific terror tale ‘Fatal Fingers of the Flash!’ the kind of “high concept, big science” yarn that especially captivated kids in the age of space races and burgeoning technology – and it still enthrals today.

Issue #147 brings this third archival collection to a close with a feature length clash against two (or is it three?) of the Scarlet Speedster’s greatest foes. John Broome’s fascinating ‘Our Enemy, the Flash!’ sees schizophrenic Al Desmond attempting to reform and relinquish both his Dr. Alchemy and Mr. Element personas; only to be forcibly compelled to commit further crimes by ruthless 25th century sociopath Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash!

These tales were crucial to the development of our art-form, but, more importantly they are brilliant, awe-inspiring, beautifully realised stories that amuse, amaze and enthral both new readers and old lags. As always, the emphasis is on brains and learning, not gimmicks or abilities, which is why these tales still work nearly half-a-century later. Coupled with the astounding art of Infantino these tales are a captivating snap-shot of when science was our friend and the universe(s) a place of infinite possibility. This wonderful compilation is another must-read item for anybody in love with the world of words-in-pictures.
© 1962, 1963, 1964, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

All Star Superman

By Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely with Jamie Grant (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3205-4

Happy Anniversary, Man of Tomorrow… and here’s to many more.

When dwindling sales and economic realities forced comics down certain editorial paths, the US mainstream went for darker tales and grittier heroes. Meeting a certain degree of success, a policy of following trends became mandatory.

Ninjas, cyborgs, younger incarnations – all the old heroes put on new clothes as fashion dictated, abandoning their own mythologies whenever it seemed most expedient. The saddest thing is that sales in the long run kept falling anyway, and by recanting all the appurtenances of a long-lived character, they removed points of reference for any older readers who might contemplate a return.

So bravo to those companies that have repackaged their notionally “unfashionable” classics for the nostalgia market, and especially for those editors that have resisted slavish continuity as the only option and opened up key characters to broader interpretation.

When I was a nipper, Superman had outlandish adventures and was still a decent bloke.

His head might occasionally be replaced by a lion’s or an ant’s and he loved playing jokes on his friends a bit too much, but he was still one of us. His exploits were routinely mind-boggling, but he kept a quiet, down-to-Earth dignity about him. He only shouted to shatter concrete, and not to bully villains. He was okay and he was quintessentially cool.

…And in All-Star Superman he was again. Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (aided and abetted by the digital wizardry of inker/colourist Jamie Grant) crafted a delightful evocation of those simpler, gentler times with a carefully stage-managed guided tour of the past, redolent with classic mile-markers.

Superman was the world’s boy scout, Lois Lane spent her days trying to prove Clark Kent is the Man of Steel, Jimmy Olsen was a competent young reporter dating Lois’ sister Lucy and all of time and space knew they could always rely on the Metropolis Marvel.

A 12-part miniseries running from January 2006 to October 2008, All-Star Superman celebrated those good old days in a most subversive manner beginning with ‘…Faster…’ as the Man of Steel saves a solar astronaut but only at an incredible, fatal cost to himself.

As a result, the Action Ace has to make some major changes in his life, beginning by satisfying Lois’ greatest desire…

In #2 and 3 (February and May 2006), ‘Superman’s Forbidden Room’ and ‘Sweet Dreams, Superwoman’, Lois takes centre stage as a devilish plot to kill Superman forces the hero to acknowledge his feelings for her. The result is an astonishing trip to his Fortress of Solitude and a hyper-empowering birthday gift she will never forget…

The hero’s best pal hits the headlines next as ‘The Superman/Olsen War’ finds the plucky cub-reporter undergoing the most shocking – and potentially lethal – transformation of his strange career, after which ‘The Gospel According to Lex Luthor’ (A-SS #5, September 2006) finds unrepentant Lex Luthor on Death Row and granting Clark Kent the interview of his career and scoop of a lifetime…

Superman is dying. Clandestinely poisoned by Lex and the Tyrant Sun Solaris, the Man of Tomorrow must make bold preparations and rush desperately to finish a shopping list of impossible tasks before his inevitable end. The gallant defender is aware that the precious Earth and his greatest friends must be kept safe and happy, even after his demise…

The quest kicks into high gear after a time-bending and portentously eventful ‘Funeral in Smallville’ (#6, March 2007); leading to a brutal clash with his imperfect duplicate in ‘Being Bizarro’ (#7, June) and one last visit to the square planet htraE in ‘Us Do Opposite’ (#8, August)…

The end is fast-approaching in All-Star Superman #9 (December 2007) as ‘Curse of the Replacement Supermen’ finds the Man of Steel facing two Kryptonian emigres attempting to turn Earth into a facsimile of their lost world. ‘Neverending’ (#10, May 2008) rapidly follows our rapidly declining hero on a nonstop junket to save lives before his own concludes…

The tension ramps up for penultimate episode ‘Red Sun Day’ (July) as Luthor, having turned his execution to his own advantage, attacks with all his carefully-gathered allies, before the conclusion ‘Superman in Excelsis’ reveals the perished Man of Steel’s greatest moment and most poignant triumph…

Completing the experience are commentary, character analysis, sketches and designs by Morrison & Quitely plus a full cover gallery from Quitely and a variant cover by Neal Adams.

Don’t believe this is just a pastiche of past glories. Kids of all ages are better informed than we were, and there’s a strong narrative thread and sharp, witty dialogue, backed up by the best 21st century technobabble to keep our attention and ensure that even the worldliest young cynic feels a rush of mind-expanding, goose-bump awe…

Although a plot to kill Superman carries this tale along there is human drama and tension aplenty to season the wonderment. Revisiting such unforgettable Silver Age motifs as the Planet of the Bizarros, being replaced by (even) more competent Kryptonians, liberating the citizens of the Bottle City of Kandor and all those cataclysmic battles with Luthor, not to mention curing cancer and the last Will and Testament of Superman, these gently thrilling glimpses of finer, gentler worlds shine with charm and Sense-of-Wonder, leavened with dark, knowing humour and subtle wistfulness.

…And action. Lots and lots of spectacular, mind-boggling action…

Older readers of the Man of Steel look back on an age of weirdness, mystery, hope and – above all – unparalleled imagination. Morrison and the uniquely stylish Quitely obviously remember them too and must miss them as much as we do.

All-Star Superman: One of the very few superhero collections that literally anybody can – and should – enjoy…
© 2006-2008, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Many Worlds of Krypton

By E. Nelson Bridwell, Denny O’Neil, Cary Bates, Marv Wolfman, Elliot S. Maggin, Paul Kupperberg, John Byrne, Murphy Anderson, Dick Giordano, Gray Morrow, Michael Kaluta, Dave Cockrum, Dick Dillin, Marshall Rogers, Howard Chaykin, Paul Kupperberg, Mike Mignola, Rick Bryant, Carlos Garzon & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7889-2

For fans and comics creators alike, continuity can be a harsh mistress. These days, when maintaining a faux-historical cloak of rational integrity for the made-up worlds we inhabit is paramount, the worst casualty of the semi-regular sweeping changes, rationalisations and reboots is great stories that suddenly “never happened”.

The most painful example of this – for me at least – was the wholesale loss of the entire charm-drenched mythology that had evolved around Superman’s birthworld in the wonder years between 1948 and 1985.

Silver Age readers avidly consuming Superman, Action Comics, Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, World’s Finest Comics and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (not forgetting Superboy and Adventure Comics) would delight every time some fascinating snippet of information leaked out.

We spent our rainy days filling in the incredible blanks about the lost world through the tantalising and thrilling tales from those halcyon publications. The Fabulous World of Krypton was a long-running back-up feature in Superman during the 1970s, revealing intriguing glimpses from the history of that lost world.

Throughout the decade and into the 1980s – and an issue of giant-sized anthology Superman Family – the feature delivered 27 “Untold Tales of Superman’s Native Planet” (and long overdue for a complete archival collection) by a host of the industry’s greatest talents which further explored that defunct wonderland.

A far-too-small selection of those are re-presented in this beguiling trade paperback and eBook commemoration, taken from Superman #233, 236, 238, 240, 248, 257, 266 and Superman Family #182, to augment a brace of miniseries World of Krypton #1-3 and World of Krypton volume 2 #1-4 (December 1987-March 1988).

These collectively span 1971-1988 and, following scene-setting introduction ‘The World (of Krypton) According to Paul (Kupperberg)’, kick off Chapter 1: Fabulous World of Krypton with E. Nelson Bridwell (who was always the go-to guy for any detail of fact or trivia concerning the company’s vast comics output) & Murphy Anderson’s trendsetting and groundbreaking yarn ‘Jor-El’s Golden Folly’.

Follow-up tales would alternate between glimpses of historical or mythological moments in the development of the Kryptonians and tales of the House of El, such as this astoundingly concise and drama-packed yarn which in seven pages introduces Superman’s father, traces his scholastic graduation and early triumphs in anti-gravity physics and rocketry and reveals how he met his bride-to-be, trainee astronaut Lara Lor-Van.

The story goes on to reveal how she stows away on a test rocket, crashes on the (luckily) habitable moon Wegthor and survives until her infatuated suitor finds a way to rescue her.

This a superb adventure yarn in its own right and, set against what we fans already knew about the doomed planet, augured well what was to follow…

The remaining tales in this section concentrate on non-Jor-El episodes – presumably in lieu of what follows – so the next fable comes from Superman #236 with Green Arrow and Black Canary hearing their Justice League recount the story of ‘The Doomsayer’ (by Denny O’Neil & Dick Giordano). This eco-terror tale reveals how scientist Mo-De detected the mounting tectonic pressures at the planet’s core but was silenced by modern day lotus eaters who didn’t want to hear any unpleasant truths…

In the guise of a Kryptonian kindergarten class story-time, Cary Bates & Gray Morrow devised a hard science creation myth for Superman #238 as ‘A Name is Born’ details how two marooned – and initially mutually antagonistic – aliens crashed on the primeval planet and joined to birth a new race together…

Bates & Michael Kaluta teamed in #240 for a cunning, irony-drenched murder mystery as ‘The Man Who Cheated Time’ details the unexpected consequences of an ambitious scientist who stole from and slaughtered his rivals only to pay for his crimes in a most unexpected manner.

Kryptonian archaeologists unearth a lost moment in planetary history as ‘All in the Mind’ (by Marv Wolfman & Dave Cockrum from #248) discloses how the ancient war between the city states of Erkol and Xan resulted in a generation of mutants. Apparently, if the parents had been more understanding and less intolerant, those super-kids might have saved their forebears from extinction…

Superman #257 (October 1972) offered a timeless instant classic wherein Elliot S. Maggin and illustrators Dick Dillin & Giordano celebrated ‘The Greatest Green Lantern of All’. Here avian GL Tomar-Re reports his tragic failure in preventing Krypton’s detonation, unaware that the Guardians of the Universe had a plan to preserve and use that world’s greatest bloodline – or at least its last son…

Maggin, Dick Dillin & Joe Giella then emphasised a long-hidden connection between Earth and Krypton in #266 as ‘The Face on the Falling Star’ reveals how in eons past two Kryptonian children are saved from doom by a strange device fallen from the sky: a machine sent from a lost civilisation on pre-historic Terra…

Wrapping up this section is ‘The Stranger’ by Paul Kupperberg, Marshall Rogers & Frank Springer and first seen in Superman Family #182: an analogue Christmas fable explaining how four millennia past a holy man named Jo-Mon sacrificed his life to liberate the people and end the depredations of the tyrannical Al-Nei

The second section here is Chapter 2: The Life of Jor-El and reprints a pioneering miniseries that referenced many of those 27 vignettes as well as the key Krypton-focussed yarns of the Superman franchise.

In 1979 – when the Superman movie had made the hero a global sensation once more – scripter Paul Kupperberg and artist Howard Chaykin (assisted and ghost-pencilled by Alan Kupperberg) and inkers Murphy Anderson & Frank Chiaramonte synthesised the scattered back-story details into DC’s first limited series World of Krypton.

Although never collected into a graphic novel, this glorious indulgence was resized into a monochrome pocket paperback book in 1982, supervised by and with an introduction from the much-missed, multi-talented official DC memory E. Nelson Bridwell. That magical celebration of life on the best of all fictional worlds is a grand old slice of comics fun and forms the spine of this new composite compilation.

The story opens on ‘The Jor-El Story’ with Superman reviewing a tape-diary found on Earth’s moon: a record from his long-deceased father which details the scientist’s life, career and struggle with the nay-saying political authorities whose inaction doomed the Kryptonian race to near-extinction.

As the Man of Steel listens, he hears how Jor-El wooed and won his mother Lara Lor-Van despite all the sinister and aberrant efforts of the planetary marriage computer to frustrate them, how his sire discovered anti-gravity and invented the Phantom Zone ray, uncovered the lost technology of a dead race which provided the clues to Kal-El’s escape rocket, and learns his father’s take on Superman’s many time-twisting trips to Krypton…

In ‘This Planet is Doomed’ the troubled orphan feels his father’s pain when android marauder Brainiac steals the city of Kandor, reels as rogue scientist Jax-Ur blows up the inhabited moon of Wegthor, and is revolted as civil war almost crushes civilisation thanks to the deranged militarist General Zod and when his own cousin Kru-El forever disgraces the noble House of El…

The countdown to disaster continues until ‘The Last Days of Krypton’ as political intrigue and exhaustion overwhelm the distraught scientist and, all avenues closed to him, Jor-El takes drastic action…

Heavily referencing immortal classics such as ‘Superman’s Return to Krypton’ (Superman volume 1 #141, November 1960), Fabulous World of Krypton mini-epics ‘Jor-El’s Golden Folly’, ‘Moon-Crossed Love’, ‘Marriage, Kryptonian Style’ and a host of others, this epochal saga from simpler and more wondrous times is a sheer delight for any fan tired of unremitting angst and non-stop crises…

The final section – Chapter 3: The World of Krypton – is a dark reworking by John Byrne, Mike Mignola, Rick Bryant & Carlos Garzon depicting a radically different planet.

In 1985 when DC Comics decided to rationalise, reconstruct and reinvigorate their continuity with Crisis on Infinite Earths, they used the event to simultaneously regenerate their key properties at the same time. The biggest gun they had was Superman and it’s hard to argue that the change was not before time.

The big guy was in a bit of a slump, but he’d weathered those before. So how could a root and branch retooling be anything but a pathetic marketing ploy that would alienate the real fans for a few fly-by-night Johnny-come-latelies who would jump ship as soon as the next fad surfaced?

This new Superman repurposed the hero into a harsher, more uncompromising hero who might be alien in physicality but completely human in terms of feelings and attitudes. As seen in Man of Steel #1 (not included here), ‘From Out of the Green Dawn’ traced the child’s voyage in a self-propelled birthing matrix to a primitive but vital and vibrant world.

He had escaped from a cold, sterile, soulless and emotionally barren planet barely glimpsed before it was gone in a cosmic flash…

As the hero’s new adventures became a sensational success, his creators felt compelled to revisit the hero’s bleakly dystopian birthworld. It was however, now conceived of as a far darker and more forbidding place and 1987’s 4-issue miniseries opted to reveal how that transformation came about.

Scripted by Byrne, it all begins in ‘Pieces’ (art by Mignola & Rick Bryant) as an indolent hedonistic scientific paradise comes crashing into ruin after the age’s greatest moral dilemma boils over into global civil war.

For 10 thousand generations Kryptonians have enjoyed virtual immortality thanks to the constant cultivation of clones to use for medical spare parts. The rights of the clones had been debated for centuries but has recently resulted in sporadic violence. The situation changes after ultra-privileged Nyra is exposed as having stolen one of her supposedly brain-dead clones for an act of social abomination. Exposure leads to murder, suicide and a rapidly escalating collapse of social cohesion…

Centuries ‘After the Fall’, Van-L wanders a planet shattered by devastating war technologies, surviving only because of the nurturing war suit. The grand planetary society is gone, replaced by constantly warring pockets of humanity, but Van is in need of allies, even if they were once lovers or despised foes. He has learned that the original instigator of the collapse still lives and plans to assuage his shame and guilt by blowing up the planet…

For the third issue the scene shifts to millennia later as young scholar Jor-El immerses himself in a traumatic ‘History Lesson’.

The distant descendant of Van-L obsessively probes the last days of the conflict and the nuclear annihilation scheme of terrorist cell Black Zero, but his compulsion causes him to almost miss a crucial social obligation: meeting his father and the grandparent of Lara, selected by The Masters of the Gestation Chamber as his ideal DNA co-contributor to the first Kryptonian allowed to be born in centuries…

Carlos Garzon steps in to finish Mignola’s pencils for concluding chapter ‘Family History’ as, in contemporary times, Superman agrees to an interview with Daily Plant reporter Lois Lane. The subject is how Krypton died, and why…

Precising the intervening millennia of history and stagnation, the Last Son of Krypton reveals how his own birth-father uncovered a shocking secret, rebelled against his moribund, repressed culture and found brief comfort with perhaps the last kindred spirit on his world. Kal-El then tells of how they ensured his survival at the cost of their own…

Celebrating the many and varied Worlds of Krypton, this is a magnificent tribute to the imagination of man creators and the power of a modern mythology: the ever-changing evolution of a world we all wanted to live on back in the heady days of yore…
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1987, 2008, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.