Superman: The Trial of Superman


By Louise Simonson, Dan Jurgens, Karl Kesel, David Michelinie, Roger Stern, Stuart Immonen, Jon Bogdanove, Ron Frenz, Tom & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-331-5 (DC)                    978-1-85286-856-2 (Titan)

The Man of Steel has proven to be all things to most fans since his dynamic debut in 1938. Although largely out of favour these days with all the myriad decades of accrued mythology being re-synthesised into an overarching all-inclusive multi-media film-favoured continuity, the stripped-down, gritty post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Action Ace, as re-imagined by John Byrne and built upon by a succession of immensely talented comics craftsmen, resulted in some stunning highs…

Almost as soon as the Byrne restart had stripped away much of the mythology and iconography which had grown up around the Strange Visitor from Another World over fifty glorious years, successive creative teams spent a great deal of time and ingenuity putting much of it back, albeit in terms more accessible to a cynical and well-informed audience far more sophisticated than their grandparents ever were.

Collecting Action Comics #716-717, Adventures of Superman #529-531, Superman volume 2, #106-108, Superman: Man of Steel #50-52 and Superman: Man of Tomorrow #3 (spanning November 1995 to January 1996), this hyper-charged space opera thriller reads best if taken in conjunction with a working knowledge of the characters, but outright newcomers can soon get up to speed by paying attention to the carefully administered snatches of expository dialogue, and if all you’re after is a heaping helping of far-flung Fights ‘n’ Tights fantasy you’re in for a real treat…

The star-spanning saga begins with ‘Split Personality’ (by Louise Simonson, Jon Bogdanove & Dennis Janke from Superman: Man of Steel #50) as an alien armada approaches Earth. The Metropolis Marvel doesn’t notice. He’s busy losing a fight with murderous energy-eater the Parasite

The situation gives super-powered Alpha Centurion and his Team Luthor mercenaries an opportunity to move in. The Roman hero had spent two thousand years away from Earth winning intergalactic renown with his alien arsenal, and on his return home became a flirtatious rival for Lois Lane’s attention. Although generally a decent sort, he’s still always happy to prove his innate superiority to Superman…

He doesn’t get the chance, however, as a cadre of extraterrestrials beam in and arrest the power-drained Man of Steel. He’s so debilitated the hulking Brute brought along to subdue him is unnecessary. As they all fade away, Centurion returns to the battle with Parasite and can’t help but wonder what agents of the famed and just Tribunal want with Superman…

Aboard ship, the enervated hero is baffled to find himself accused of cosmic crimes but cannot find what exactly he’s supposed to have done. The confusion only increases when Brute tries to murder him by throwing the emaciated Kryptonian into the sun…

As Alpha Centurion finally defeats Parasite on Earth, 93,000,000 million miles away, Brute rectifies his mistake: battling with recapturing a now fully re-powered Superman, all the while thankfully babbling that now he’s proved his worth, his hostage “milk-brother won’t be executed”…

When they get back on the Tribunal ship, however, a panel of alien judges sentences Brute to death by solar incineration before getting around to charging Superman with a billion counts of murder and of causing the destruction of Krypton……

The confrontation continues in Superman #106 (Dan Jurgens, Ron Frenz & Joe Rubenstein) as the astounded Man of Tomorrow pleads ‘Not Guilty!’ The case is laid out by Tribunal Prime who relates that a distant ancestor of the Last Son of Krypton instilled a genetic flaw in his entire race by means of a miraculous device dubbed the Eradicator. It prevented them from ever leaving the planet and now Kem-L’s descendent Kal-El bears the responsibility for their extinction…

Aghast but unbowed, Superman struggles free but is easily pacified by a mysterious power of the Prime and dumped in a vast cell. That only exacerbates the crisis as one of the other inmates is brutal alien Massacre who instantly tries to slaughter his despised enemy…

When the catastrophic clash is broken up by the guards, Superman is horrified to witness the sadistic response the Tribunal considers to be justice served…

Back on Earth, Lois has been working on the Centurion. She wants the arrogant champion to use his super-spaceship Pax Romana to trace the avenging Eradicator Brute mentioned when Superman was initially abducted. After learning the eerie antihero (an uncanny merging of a dying human scientist with Kem-L’s recovered wonder-weapon) is no longer on-planet, Lois starts on the next stage of a rescue plan…

Karl Kesel, Stuart Immonen & José Marzán Jr. contribute the next chapter (Adventures of Superman #529) as, aboard the Tribunal flagship, Superman meets other inmates awaiting judgement/execution and makes unlikely new friends.

On Earth the now fully-engaged Centurion contacts some of the Action Ace’s old ones – Steel, Supergirl and Superboy – and sets off in pursuit of the Tribunal, even as, back in the cosmic adjudicators’ gigantic jail, Superman and his new chums stage a ‘Jail Break’

Having picked up Eradicator en route, Alpha Centurion’s rescue party surges on, unaware that the man they’ve come to liberate has crashed onto a distant planet where, thanks to one of his fellow escapees, they all find refuge in an inter-dimensional bolt-hole called Haven

When said fellow escapee then tries to take over the place, the runners experience surprisingly fair ‘Fugitive Justice!’ (Action Comics #716 David Michelinie, Kieron Dwyer & Denis Rodier)…

The Tribunal have not been idle. With their special Police Agents scouring the local systems, Prime engages the service of flamboyant bounty hunter Freelance who promptly locates and captures the harassed runners only to fall for one of them.

Earth’s finest are doing less well. The “S” symbol most of them wear is all over the interspacial networks and cash-hungry hunters from every star-faring species just assume they must also be ‘Wanted’ (Simonson, Bogdanove & Dick Giordano, Superman: Man of Steel #51)…

‘Bottled Up!’ (Superman #107, Jurgens, Frenz & Rubenstein) finds Superman’s Rescue Squad abandoned by the Centurion. Piling into a salvaged ship they head onwards to the Tribunal’s homeworld, unaware that the object of their concerns – and his fellow escapees – have all returned to Haven to save a wounded comrade.

The consultation with infamous wizard Tolos is deeply disturbing. The creepy mage has a thriving city in a jar and amiably offers to cure ailing Mope in return for a promise of future favours. That price comes due whilst far away the super friends are ambushed by avowed enemy Hank Henshaw, the undying Cyborg-Superman, who is apparently working for the intergalactic arbitrators…

Tolos plans to live forever. His bottles are filled with beings whose bodies he will inhabit and burn out, but with a Kryptonian in his sights, the wizard thinks he might have all he’ll ever need. He attacks but completely misjudges the resolve of the mighty Man of Steel…

In ‘Different Demons’ (Adventures of Superman #530 Kesel, Immonen & Marzán Jr.) the fugitive Superman is diverted by a mercy mission to a magical world to clear Mope’s name, whilst on the Tribunal world Alpha Centurion has been arrested and thrown in cell with Superboy… who believes the Roman is actually Henshaw in disguise…

As the far-flung Action Ace and Mope war with invisible aliens and more mages in ‘Fighting Back’ (Superman: Man of Tomorrow #3, Roger Stern, Tom Grummett & Brett Breeding), elsewhere, evidence of collusion between a high official and Henshaw starts to emerge…

Superman and Mope however have now moved on to fully-automated murder-metropolis ‘H’Tros City’ (Action Comics #717 Michelinie, Dwyer & Rodier), but as the cosmic conurbation continually attempts to eradicate them, the seemingly ubiquitous Henshaw take control of its programs to finish his enemy off in person.

The blockbuster battle instead goes Superman’s way, but the hero typically sacrifices his victory to save the cyborg and is rewarded with betrayal…

‘Crime and Punishment’ (Simonson, Bogdanove & Giordano, Superman: Man of Steel #52) once more finds the valiant champion in front of the triumphant Tribunal. Sentenced to immediate execution he battles on, but seems doomed until the impatient Henshaw – who always planned to double cross the judges – seizes control of the planet’s computers, inadvertently allowing the rescue squad to break out of jail and mount a last minute save…

In the aftermath of a shattering final battle the cyborg appears beaten at last but despite his clear guilt there’s ‘No Escape!’ (Superman #108 by Jurgens, Frenz & Rubenstein) for the Last Son of Krypton either…

The court of catastrophe explosively descends into all-out civil war and by the time the dust settles and our heroes head home there’s precious little ‘Justice!’ (Adventures of Superman #530 Kesel, Immonen & Marzán Jr.) to be seen anywhere…

Clever drama, spectacular action and rollercoaster pace, coupled with the usual high standard of character interplay, smart writing and fabulous art, all underscore this hugely enjoyable yet largely forgotten extraterrestrially epic diversion in the amazing life of Superman, but this starry saga is truly deserving of a second look and honest reappraisal.

A British Titan Books edition is also readily available from on-line sellers.
© 1995, 1996, 1997 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Booster Gold volume 4: Day of Death


By Dan Jurgens, Norm Rapmund & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2643-5

After the cosmos-crunching Crisis on Infinite Earths re-sculpted the DC Universe in 1986, a host of characters got floor-up rebuilds for the tougher, no-nonsense, straight-shooting New American readership of the Reagan-era.

A number of corporate buy-outs such as Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and The Question were assimilated into DC’s roster with their own hotly hyped solo titles. There were even a couple of all-new big launches for the altered sensibilities of the Decade of Excess such as Suicide Squad and a shiny, happy, headline-hungry hero named Booster Gold.

The blue and yellow paladin debuted amidst plenty of hoopla in his own title (cover-dated February 1986 – the first post-Crisis premiere of the freshly integrated superhero line) and presented a wholly different approach to the traditional DC costumed boy-scout.

Created, written and drawn by Dan Jurgens, the saga featured a brash, cockily mysterious metahuman golden-boy jock who had set up his stall as a superhero in Metropolis, actively seeking corporate sponsorships, selling endorsements and with a management team in place to maximise the profit potential of his crusading celebrity.

Accompanied everywhere by sentient flying-football-shaped robot Skeets, the glitzy showboat soon encountered high-tech criminal gang The 1000 and a host of super-villains, earning the ire of many sinister masterminds and the shallow approbation of models, actresses, headline-hungry journalists, politicians and the ever fickle public…

His time came and went and Booster’s title folded, but he lived on as a Justice Leaguer International where he became part of comics’ funniest double-act riffing off the aforementioned Blue Beetle.

Booster and Ted Kord (technically the second Blue Beetle) were the class clowns of Maxwell Lord’s Justice League International: a couple of obnoxiously charming frat-boys who could save the day but never get the girl or any respect. When Lord murdered Beetle, precipitating an Infinite Crisis, Booster was shattered but redefined himself as a true hero in the multiversal conflagrations of 52 and Countdown.

In landmark weekly maxi-series 52 and ultimately Infinite Crisis, the intriguing take on Heroism diverged down strange avenues when Booster – a hero traditionally only in it for fame and fortune – became a secret saviour, repairing the cracks in Reality caused by all the universe-warping shenanigans of myriad universal, multiversal Crises and uncontrolled time-travel.

Working at the instruction of enigmatic and irascible mentor Rip Hunter: Time Master, Booster surrendered all his dreams of acclaim to save us all over and over and over again.

This fourth time-bending full-colour trade paperback collects Booster Gold volume 2 #20-25 and Brave and the Bold volume 3 #23 from July to December 2009, and continues reviewing catastrophic conflicts from the time-line guardian’s never-ending battle to keep history on track and mankind in existence.

The action opens with ‘Shadows of Tomorrow’ from Brave and the Bold volume 3 #23 July 2009, by Jurgens and inker Norm Rapmund as, in his citadel beyond chronology, Booster is shocked to see his mentor Rip rematerialise in a badly beaten state, muttering the name “Magog”. A little checking reveals the name belongs to a hulking horned metahuman: a hero – of sorts – and despite the recuperating Hunter’s pleas to leave well enough alone, Booster slips into the time-stream to confront the military-trained hardliner…

The trail leads to war-torn Kahndaq during the US occupation and a tenuous team-up with a colleague who is everything Booster despises: a self-righteous hero who thinks the ends justify the means, even with the lives of hostage children precariously in the balance…

Booster Gold #20 featured ‘1952 Pick Up’ (by Keith Giffen, Pat Oliffe & Rapmund) – a light-hearted homage to B-movie sci fi and the Fantastic Four as the time traveller fetches up in early 1950s Nevada on the site of a clandestine and forgotten American space shot…

Before long he’s captured by covert operatives Frank Rock and Karin Hughes from an invisible agency dubbed Task Force X and embroiled in a secret mission involving traitorous Russian rocket scientists… and if he’s not extremely careful Booster could erase the timeline of a close future-friend and colleague…

The major portion of this collection then moves on to cover some unexpected fallout of the murder of the Dark Knight.

The only non-Time Master to know Booster’s secret was Batman. His deductive skills were beyond par and after noticing recurring anomalies around the shooting of Barbara Gordon the Dark Detective intuited Booster had tried hundreds of times to prevent it. Batman held his tongue as well as many photographs which proved Booster was not just a flashy, sensation-seeking bumbler…

Now as ‘Day of Death’ begins Booster raids the Batcave to retrieve that evidence only to be jumped by the Gotham Guardian’s successor…

Before he can even attempt to explain, they are both ambushed by the mysterious chronal raider called Black Beetle continuing to carry out his campaign to unmake history. Pausing only to gloat for a second the Beetle vanishes, followed an instant later by the substitute Batman…

And in the background a second glass tube appears. They both contain the uniforms of Robins who died in battle…

As I’m sure you all recall: following an all-out invasion by the New Gods of Apokolips, the original Batman was apparently killed at the conclusion of Infinite Crisis. The world at large was unaware of the loss, leaving the superhero community to mourn in secret whilst a small, dedicated army of assistants, protégés and allies – trained over years by the contingency-obsessed Dark Knight – formed the Network to police Gotham City in the days which followed: marking time until a successor could be found or the original restored…

Most of the Bat-schooled battalion refused to believe their inspirational mentor dead. On the understanding that he was merely lost, they eventually accepted Dick Grayson (the first Robin and latterly Nightwing) as a stand-in until Bruce Wayne could find his way back to them…

Now however Grayson has clearly been excised by Black Beetle and Booster has to rectify the situation before time unravels even further…

A new chapter opens with the Beetle conferring with a cloaked superior even as Booster consults his infinitely upgraded cybernetic companion who is keyed into to the ever-changing intricacies of the time-stream. Skeets informs Booster that the landmark first battle between the Teen Titans and the Ravager now ended with the young heroes’ deaths and like an intricate line of dominoes led to the eradication of most of Earth’s adult defenders… and worse…

Inserting himself into the appropriate moment to rectify the glitch, Booster is shocked to see Ravager’s terrifying father Deathstroke the Terminator aligned with Black Beetle to ensure the Titans’ doom…

Overwhelmed and beaten, Booster awakes to discover he’s failed again. The Teen Titans are dead and Rip Hunter is screaming at him. Also on the scene is mystic mystery Raven. She originally caused the Titans to unite, hoping to use them to stop her demonic sire Trigon conquering Earth, but now…

Hunter quickly ferries Booster and the witch to 2020AD to see what becomes of humanity. His actual plan is to find Black Beetle and try to glean the reason for his insane acts…

In that particular future Trigon idly presides over the last remnants of mankind with the Beetle at his side, but as Booster finds himself battling the demon lord, Hunter and Raven have united with a few strangely familiar characters in one glorious, last-ditch attempt to banish Trigon and unmake this fractured reality.

Although they are triumphant, the real battle is lost elsewhere as the Beetle raids Trigon’s treasure vault and steals the artefact he’s been after all along. Despite his best efforts Hunter is too slow to stop the Machiavellian monster stealing a scarlet scarab which promises unlimited power to the one who knows its secret…

With the greater game lost and the Beetle off the field, Booster finally has the leeway needed to fix the most urgent section of time and correct history, but is it all too little too late?

Everything is wrapped up and the scene set for the next catastrophic crisis when ‘Day of Death Aftermath’ sees Booster return to the Batcave for those photos and get the shock of his utterly unconventional life…

Fantastically absorbing and entertaining, this riotous romp is tragically a true fans’ story for die-hard comics mavens, with in-jokes and shared historical moments adding to the unbridled enthusiasm and exuberance of a classy time-busting tale. That’s a great pity since this is also a fabulously well-crafted story that a wider audience would certainly appreciate if only they had sufficient back-grounding.

I’m in touch with the continuity and still struggled occasionally but I’d love to be proved wrong and see if a total innocent could follow this nuanced little gem and get the buzz it gave me…

Who’s game to give it a go?
© 2009, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Spectre volume 1: Crimes and Judgements


By John Ostrander & Tom Mandrake (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4718-8

The Spectre is one of the oldest characters in DC’s vast stable, created by Jerry Siegel & Bernard Baily in 1940 for More Fun Comics #52 and 53, but just like Siegel’s other iconic co-creation, he soon began to suffer from a basic design flaw: he was just too darn powerful. In fact, unlike Superman, he’s already dead, so he can’t really be dramatically imperilled by anything.

Starting out as a virtually omnipotent ghost and single-minded fighter of evil, the Sinister Spirit ultimately resolved – over various returns and refits spanning more than five decades – into a succession of tormented souls bound to the merciless personification of the biblical Wrath of God. That last revelation came about thanks to a piece of inspired rethinking in a revival from the early 1990s.

The character had been rebooted and resurrected many times, but none better than this superbly incisive iteration, wherein scripter John Ostrander shifted the narrative spotlight onto the relative Tabula Rasa that was Jim Corrigan, a depression era cop whose brutal murder unleashed The Spectre into the burgeoning world of costumed heroes.

His story was a genuinely gruesome one: on the eve of his wedding police detective Corrigan was captured by the Gat Benson mob, shoved in a barrel of cement and pitched off a pier. Called back to the land of the living, he was commanded by a glowing light and disembodied voice to “confront Evil”.

Over the following decade in his subsequent dark crusade fighting crime and crushing demonic monsters, the Avenging Astral Angel was indisputably the most formidable hero of the Golden Age.

For most of the Spectre’s time on Earth, Corrigan had been its human face: a way for readers to glimpse the softer side of a relentless punisher of misdeeds. Ostrander’s take on the character delved deeper. For nearly five years he and artistic collaborator Tom Mandrake lent a tragic, barbaric humanity to a champion who was simply too big and too strong for periodical comics.

After far too long a wait DC recently began releasing compilations of Mandrake’s stellar run. Initial offering Crime and Judgements gathers issues #1-12 of The Spectre (volume 3 from December 1992 to November 1993) in a deliriously dark trade paperback of macabre mood and shocking suspense in which Corrigan and the Spectre finally learned the truth about their relationship…

It begins as Corrigan visits the bedside of dying thug Louis Snipe in ‘Crimes of Violence’. Fifty years previously this gunsel was one of the gang who murdered Corrigan, but before their potentially final exchange can progress they are interrupted by social worker Amy Beitermann, who gets a strange vibe off the ex-policeman…

Moments later she inadvertently witnesses his uncanny secret in action as the Spectre emerges to deliver gory justice to gangbangers perpetrating a drive-by shooting on the steps of the hospital…

She keeps the unbelievable details of the resultant bloodbath from Police Inspector Nate Kane. She knows the older man has a crush on her, and isn’t above using his doting interest to ply him with questions about a former cop named Corrigan…

Later, as the Spectre is concluding his business with Snipe, somewhere in the city, a blood-spilling serial killer takes his latest victim and Corrigan once more questions the point of his existence.

Half a century of punishing the guilty and nothing has changed…

‘Crimes of Passion’ opens with the Ghostly Guardian drawn to a house where a repeating phantom constantly relives her own murder. When she refuses to disclose any details of the crime or perpetrator Spectre reacts with typical furious overkill…

Elsewhere Amy is entering the storefront of fortune teller Madame Xanadu. Her enquiries have traced private eye Corrigan to an office in the building, but an abrupt meeting with the sultry seer proves more than she can handle after the sorceress summarily demands she find Corrigan for her…

The driven spirit they’re pursuing has been just as inquisitive. Unfortunately his questioning of the unquiet ghost’s husband, lover and sister leads to nothing but death and damnation for all the wrong people…

And at the docks Nate Kane inspects the site of the latest atrocity attributed to “the Reaver” but finds himself unexpectedly encumbered with two bodies: one of them encased in cement and in a fifty year old barrel…

‘Crimes and Punishments’ finds Amy visiting Kane at the Precinct house. Poking around, she is aghast to find a concrete corpse and beyond words when she sees it has Jim Corrigan’s agonised face…

Across town commercial artist Danny Geller is thinking about passion and the kind of woman he likes, but the Spectre is busy, or at least Corrigan is.

Having caused the suicide of an innocent, the human half of the Astral Amalgamation is in need of confession and seeks out Amy. He can’t understand why, but Jim is inexplicably drawn to her…

It’s exactly the wrong moment for a street gang to jump them and the Spectre’s revolting response-in-kind utterly disgusts the stunned social worker. When she questions why such violence is necessary, Spectre mystically shows her Corrigan’s savage childhood with an abusive, travelling-preacher father and later how the cop he became met his eventual end.

Although that panorama is too awful to bear, Amy takes some solace in seeing how happy Jim once was with his fiancée Clarice Winston

The revelatory visions conclude with ‘Crime and Judgment’ as Corrigan re-experiences his meeting with God’s Will in Limbo. Amy intangibly observes his mission laid out again and realises the newly dead man missed something the first time: the Voice actually saying “Confront Evil. Confront and Comprehend”…

Flashing back in time to the moment the Spectre began, Amy watches as Clarice is killed and how Corrigan dragged her back from Heaven. His beloved lived again… but she shouldn’t have…

Challenging the Spectre only causes him to turn his excoriating gaze upon Amy. He probes and exposes her greatest guilt. Once she was married to an unfaithful man. When she caught her spouse in his lustful betrayals she spitefully reacted just like him and unknowingly passed on the killer contagion he had afflicted her with to many of her one-night partners.

In her own eyes she is every inch a killer too…

However when the aroused Spectre seeks to administer judgement, Corrigan rises to resist his other half and, after a tremendous struggle, a deal is struck…

A new story arc begins with a road accident that leaves a kidnapper dead before the missing child can be found. With no hope remaining, Amy asks Jim for specialised help and the detective follows the abductor’s soul to its reward in The Pit. Ignoring his own justly-suffering father, Corrigan probes deeper into the Abode of the Damned and meets again Shathan the Eternal. Their epic battle triggers ‘A Rage in Hell’ before the Ghostly Guardian gets what he needs and the child is saved…

The Devil landed a last telling blow, however, citing the legend of how a demonic Prince of the Damned escaped Hell. This Spirit of Wrath volubly and piously repented and was bound to a human. Together they roam Earth, doing Heaven’s work. The story deeply unsettles the Spectre…

With uncomfortable suspicions of infernal taint destabilising his usually implacable composure, the Ghostly Guardian seeks out Amy. Although her condition has forced her to avoid intimacy with guys like poor Nate, she feels comfortable in the arms of a dead man, and takes the opportunity to talk Jim into trying to ameliorate his alter ego’s excesses. The inconclusive initial results are seen as Spectre goes on a rampage against a succession of callous casual murderers and greedy gangbangers in ‘The Bleeding Gun’.

Greater forces are in play, however. Xanadu, urgently seeking her ghost lodger, unleashes magic forces against uncooperative Amy even as Danny Geller makes another killing. Every day he’s getting closer to the one woman he really wants…

With Jim and Amy trapped in a fantastic realm, ‘Vision and Power’ reveals that whilst Xanadu was sheltering Corrigan after his latest resurrection, she began tapping tiny slivers of the Spectre’s mystic energies and has become addicted. Taunting her victims by claiming this magic could even cure Amy – something the Spectre would never allow – the seer then steals all that arcane might but is promptly overwhelmed by the force of the mission underpinning the power…

With Xanadu on a brutally bloody rampage of distorted judgment and punishment, Corrigan – free and free-thinking for the first time in decades – has no choice but to convince her to surrender the infinite force before picking up his burden once again…

The second act of Shathan’s vengeance begins when his diabolical lieutenant Azmodus – carried back to Earth in the wrathful Spectre’s wake – begins possessing mortals and sowing destruction. Nate, meanwhile, discovers all the Reaver’s victims were HIV-positive like Amy and gets an uncanny inkling of what’s really going on when he finally realises the ex-cop she was asking about and the concrete corpse both have the same face as the creepy new guy she’s been seeing…

When he confronts them his ‘Righteous Anger’ leads to a shattering series of further revelations…

Kane learns ‘No Good Deed Goes Unpunished’ as news of the HIV angle goes public and he’s made the police’s scapegoat for their failure to catch the Reaver. As the Spectre is dragged from Amy’s side when body-hopping Azmodus begins a campaign of spectacular slaughter, the Astral Avenger is trapped by his own zealousness within the demon whilst it continues its appalling kill-spree…

Geller too has been busy and although his body-count is far less impressive it has a single purpose. All this time he’s been hunting the harlot who infected him with a vile death-sentence and now he’s found her. The ‘Unforgivable Acts’ by all the players then continue with the restored Xanadu pondering Amy’s destiny, well aware that not even the Spectre is mighty enough to foil Fate.

The Supernal Spirit has other ideas however and follows the killer’s latest victim to the Gates of Heaven, determined to glean the Reaver’s identity. Unfortunately Archangel Michael won’t permit that and the Spectre finally finds a foe he cannot defeat…

‘The Deepest Cut’ begins the end as cashiered Nate Kane – who has pluckily stationed himself outside Amy’s home – also falls to the Reaver, but the inevitable attack is delayed once Azmodus arrives.

The devil has been gathering power with each possession and bloodbath but now he has found the perfect host in Danny Geller. Drawing the Spectre into the Greater Realms for a catastrophic final confrontation, Azmodus leaves Danny enough autonomy to fulfil his dark dream and deal Amy her ‘Final Fate’

The physical and ethereal demons have both made the same mistake, however: underestimating the victim’s will to live, Madame Xanadu’s desire to atone and Nate’s dying wish to save the woman he loves…

And as always the Spectre will be there at the end to scourge the truly guilty…

With a stunning cover gallery by Mandrake, Glen Fabry, Sandy Plunkett, Charles Vess, Garry Leach, Dan Brereton, Matt Wagner, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Greg Hildebrandt & Bryn Barnard, this tome offers a powerful and deviously convoluted tale that goes beyond the genre’s usual cause-&-effect, calamity-&-rescue mode to examine the nature of Love and Hate and Good and Evil.

Powerful, scary and often shocking, the intricate developing relationships and interactions all compel The Spectre’s mortal aspect to confront the traumas of his long-suppressed childhood as he relives his own death and the ghastly repercussions of his return.

With intense, brooding art from Mandrake, this incarnation of the character was by far the most accessible and successful and if it had launched a year or so later might well have been a star of the budding Vertigo imprint, but even as a spooky of the mainstream DC Universe it stood alone in its maturity and complexity.

This is a book no lover of grown-up super-sagas can afford to miss.
© 1992, 1993, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Plastic Man Archives volume 4


By Jack Cole (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-835-8

As adroitly recounted by European comics historian and film critic Andreas C. Knigge in his Foreword to this fourth beguiling Deluxe Archive collection, Jack Cole was one of the most uniquely gifted talents of America’s Golden Age of Comics.

Before moving into the magazine and gag markets he originated landmark tales in horror, true crime, war, adventure and especially superhero comicbooks, and his incredible humour-hero Plastic Man remains an unsurpassed benchmark of screwball costumed hi-jinks: frequently copied but never equalled. It was a glittering career of distinction which Cole was clearly embarrassed by and unhappy with.

In 1954 he quit comics for magazine cartooning, becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour gags and stunningly saucy pictures began running in Playboy from the fifth edition. Cole eventually moved into the lofty realms of newspaper strips and, in May 1958, achieved his life-long ambition by launching a syndicated newspaper strip, the domestic comedy Betsy and Me.

On August 13th 1958, at the moment of his greatest success he took his own life. The reasons remain unknown.

Without doubt – and despite his other triumphal comicbook innovations such as Silver Streak, Daredevil, The Claw, Death Patrol, Midnight, Quicksilver, The Barker, The Comet and a uniquely twisted and phenomenally popular take on the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest creation and contribution was the zany Malleable Marvel who quickly grew from a minor back-up character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the era. “Plas” was the wondrously perfect fantastic embodiment of the sheer energy, verve and creativity of an era when anything went and comics-makers were prepared to try out every outlandish idea…

Eel O’Brian was a brilliant career criminal wounded during a factory robbery, soaked by a vat of spilled acid and callously abandoned by his thieving buddies. Left for dead, he was saved by a monk who nursed him back to health and proved to the hardened thug that the world was not just filled with brutes and vicious chisellers after a fast buck.

His entire outlook altered and now blessed with incredible elasticity, Eel resolved to put his new powers to good use: cleaning up the scum he used to run with.

Creating a costumed alter ego he began a stormy association with the New York City cops before being recruited as a most special agent of the FBI…

He soon picked up the most unforgettable comedy sidekick in comics history. Woozy Winks was a dopey indolent slob and utterly amoral pickpocket who accidentally saved a wizard’s life and was gifted in return with a gift of invulnerability: all the forces of nature would henceforth protect him from injury or death – if said forces felt like it.

After failing to halt the unlikely superman’s impossible crime spree, Plas appealed to his sentimentality and, once Woozy tearfully repented, was compelled to keep him around in case he strayed again. The oaf was slavishly loyal but perpetually sliding back into his old habits…

Equal parts Artful Dodger and Mr Micawber, with the verbal skills and intellect of Lou Costello’s screen persona or the over-filled potato sack he resembled, Winks was the perfect foil for Plastic Man: a lazy, greedy, morally bankrupt reprobate with perennially sticky fingers who got all the best lines, possessed an inexplicable charm and had a habit of finding trouble. It was the ideal marriage of inconvenience…

This lavish, full-colour hardback barely contains the exuberantly elongated exploits of the premier polymorph from Police Comics #40-49 and Plastic Man #3 (stretching from March 1945 to Spring 1945), and opens with an outrageous murder mystery in Woozy’s loon-filled boarding house as ‘The Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder’ inexorably lead to a fatal stabbing and the ever-imaginative Plas aping the victim until the culprit tries to kill him again…

Police #41 details how an epidemic of shoplifting threatens to close a department store, but when Plas and Woozy hunt down prime suspect ‘Louie the Lift’ they soon discover the thief is only the stooge of a far more dangerous crook, whilst ‘The Diabolical Dr. Dratt’ is clearly his own maniacal man; conning innocent strangers into distilling a deadly new weapon which could level the city…

In ‘Arctic Circle Adventure’ the misshaped manhunters head to the far north to save a little professor’s radium mine from claim-jumpers but none of the polar perils compare to the ardour of marriage-mad Hut Sut who thinks Woozy is the man of her dreams, after which the big goof helps a down-&-out drifter get into a old folks home and precipitates a ‘Murder at the home for the Aged’. Thankfully Plastic Man is on hand to ascertain the identity of the assassin-wolf in the well-wrinkled fold…

Sheer absurdity – and Woozy – trigger a city-wide disaster when a founding father determines to sell the smelly, garbage-strewn land the city is built on back to the Indians and Plas’ poltroon pal makes it happen. Soon ‘Chief Rain-in-the-Trap’ and his braves are running roughshod over everyone and the chameleonic cop is intent on discovering if there’s a pale face behind all that war-paint…

Issue #46 reveals the genesis – and demise – of ‘The Owl’s Witch Union’ as a crook realises magic has as much power as the A-bomb and organises all the city’s sham shamans and con conjurers to take control of the state by eradicating its legislature and government…

‘Slicer and Doser’s Medical School’ finds Woozy trying to save his partner’s life when a pair of deranged surgeons decide to dissect Plastic Man for the sake of science and the betterment of humanity, and it’s just such noble sentiments which prompt inventor Jasper Tipple to design ‘The City of the Future’. Sadly since honest entrepreneurs won’t provide the venture capital to build it the poor fool accepts dirty money and sees his masterpiece become a safe-haven for crooks… until Plastic Man takes an elasticated hand…

The monthly exploits end here with Police Comics #49 (cover-dated December 1945) and the sad tale of a young lady whose physical blandishments were merely average but who nevertheless had the power to make men into helpless puppets.

After years of men acting like slaves around her naturally she fell for the one man immune to her gifts. Such a shame he was a murderous conman and she was so naïve and love-struck…

It was more luck than wit which saved Plas, Woozy and ‘Thelma Twittle, Super-Charmer’

Rounding out this stylish slapstick selection is grand quintet of tales from Plastic Man #3 (Spring 1946) which opens with ‘The Killing of Snoopy Hawks’ wherein Woozy is threatened by a gossip columnist who ends up dead. Although the cops feel certain it’s the confirmed felon at fault, Plastic Man is equally suspicious of the former banker, upcoming actress and brutal prize-fighter also on the victim’s scandal-list…

The Pliable Paladin almost meets his match when a criminal sociologist hoodwinks a trio of genuine magic makers into destroying the only barrier to his nefarious plots in ‘B. T. Tokus and the Witch Doctors’ after which the stooge becomes the star as ‘Woozy Winks: The Escape of Smelly Pitts’ finds the Dolorous Dope attempting a (semi-legal) get-rich-quick bounty-hunting scheme only to be captured by his target, and fooled into getting married…

Plastic Man’s uncanny abilities are then explored in prose short ‘The Hand Behind’ before this superb slice of superhero silliness concludes with a daring tale of High Seas drama as at-long-last body-conscious Mr. Winks goes in search of deodorant and becomes embroiled in an ambergris-smuggling racket, which is only the tip of an illegal iceberg.

When the oaf turns up missing again, Plastic Man gets on the case and soon discovers and closes ‘A Whale of a Tale’

Augmented by all the stupendously hilarious covers and a ‘Biographies’ feature detailing the author’s amazing achievements and unhappy life, this is another true gem of funnybook virtuosity: exciting, breathtakingly original and still thrilling, witty, scary, visually outrageous and pictorially intoxicating more than seventy years after Jack Cole first put pen to paper.

Plastic Man is a truly unique creation who has only grown in stature and appeal and this is a magical comics experience fans would be crazy to deny themselves.
© 1945, 1946, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Blackhawk Album #1


By Dick Dillin, Chuck Cuidera, Jack Kirby, Sheldon Moldoff, George Roussos, Mort Meskin, Nick Cardy, Frank Frazetta, Bill Ely, Bob Brown & various (Strato Publications)
No ISBN:

Here’s another long-lost oddity of the eccentric and exotic British comics market that might be of passing interest to curio collectors and unrepentant comics nerds like me.

The early days of the American comicbook industry were awash with both opportunity and talent and those factors happily coincided with a vast population hungry for cheap entertainment.

The new medium of comicbooks had no acknowledged fans or collectors; only a large, transient market open to all varied aspects of yarn-spinning and tale-telling – a situation which publishers believed maintained right up to the middle of the 1960s. Thus, in 1940 even though America was loudly, proudly isolationist and more than a year away from any active inclusion in World War II, creators like Will Eisner and publishers like Everett M. (“Busy”) Arnold felt Americans were ready for a themed anthology title Military Comics.

Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.

Military #1 launched at the end of May 1941 (with an August cover-date) and included in its gritty, two-fisted line-up Death Patrol by Jack Cole, Miss America, Fred Guardineer’s Blue Tracer, X of the Underground, The Yankee Eagle, Q-Boat, Shot and Shell, Archie Atkins and Loops and Banks by “Bud Ernest” (actually aviation-nut and unsung comics genius Bob Powell), but none of these strips, not even Cole’s surreal and suicidal team of hell-bent fliers, had the instant cachet and sheer glamour appeal of Eisner and Powell’s “Foreign Legion of the Air” led by the charismatic Dark Knight of the airways known only as Blackhawk.

Chuck Cuidera, already famed for creating the original Blue Beetle for Fox, drew ‘the Origin of Blackhawk’ for the first issue, wherein a lone pilot fighting the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 was shot down by Nazi Ace Von Tepp; only to rise bloody and unbowed from his plane’s wreckage to form the World’s greatest team of airborne fighting men…

This mysterious paramilitary squadron of unbeatable fliers, dedicated to crushing injustice and smashing the Axis war-machine, battled on all fronts during the war and – once the embattled nations had notionally laid down their arms – stayed together to crush international crime, Communism and every threat to democracy from alien invaders to supernatural monsters, consequently becoming one of the true milestones of the US industry.

Eisner wrote the first four Blackhawk episodes before moving on and Cuidera stayed until issue #11 – although he triumphantly returned in later years. There were many melodramatic touches that made the Blackhawks so memorable in the eyes of a wide-eyed populace of thrill-hungry kids. There was the cool, black leather uniforms and peaked caps. The unique, outrageous – but authentic – Grumman F5F-1 Skyrocket planes they flew from their secret island base and of course their eerie battle-cry “Hawkaaaaa!”

But perhaps the oddest idiosyncrasy to modern readers was that they had their own song (would you be more comfortable if we started calling it an international anthem?) which Blackhawk, André, Stanislaus, Olaf, Chuck, Hendrickson and Chop-Chop would sing as they plummeted into battle. (To see the music and lyrics check out the Blackhawk Archives edition but just remember this catchy number was written for seven really tough leather-clad guys to sing while dodging bullets…

Quality adapted well to peacetime demands: superheroes Plastic Man and Doll Man lasted far longer than most of their Golden Age mystery man compatriots and rivals, whilst the rest of the company line turned to tough-guy crime, war, western, horror and racy comedy titles.

The Blackhawks soared to even greater heights, starring in their own movie serial in 1952. However the hostility of the marketplace to mature-targeted titles after the adoption of the self-censorious Comics Code was a clear sign of the times and as 1956 ended Arnold sold most of his comics properties to National Publishing Periodicals (now DC) and turned his attentions to becoming a general magazine publisher.

Most of the purchases were a huge boost to National’s portfolio, with titles such as GI Combat, Heart Throbs and Blackhawk lasting uninterrupted well into the 1970s (GI Combat survived until in 1987), whilst the unceasing draw and potential of characters such as Uncle Sam, the assorted Freedom Fighters costumed pantheon, Kid Eternity and Plastic Man have paid dividends ever since.

The “Black Knights” had also been a fixture of the British comics reprint industry since the early 1950s, with distributor-turned publisher Thorpe & Porter releasing 37 huge (68-page, whilst the US originals only boasted 36 pages) monochrome anthologies to entrance thrill-starved audiences under their Strato imprint.

This commodious British collection combines a flurry of tales featuring the Air Aces, balanced out by an assortment of mystery and science fiction tales from DC’s wide selection of weird adventure anthologies (primarily culled in this instance from September and October 1957) and kicks off with the contents of (US) Blackhawk #117 and ‘The Fantastic Mr. Freeze’ wherein the paramilitary aviators battle a chilling criminal maniac with a penchant for cold crimes before tackling smugglers masquerading as Vikings in ‘The Menace of the Dragon Boat’.

‘How Not to Enjoy a Vacation’ was seen in many places; a Public Service feature probably written by Jack Schiff and definitely illustrated by Rueben Moreira, followed by prose poser ‘I Was a Human Missile’, relating a technician’s account of when he was trapped during the test firing of a missile – and how he escaped – after which ‘The Seven Little Blackhawks’ become the targets of a ruthless mastermind exploiting their fame and reputations to plug his new movie…

Regrettably most records are lost so scripter-credits are not available (likely candidates include Ed “France” Herron, Arnold Drake, George Kashdan, Jack Miller, Bill Woolfolk, Jack Schiff and/or Dave Wood) but the art remained in the capable hands of veteran illustrators Dick Dillin & Chuck Cuidera: a team who meshed so seamlessly that they often traded roles with few any the wiser…

Moreover although broadly formulaic, the gritty cachet, exotic crime locales, Sci Fi underpinnings and international jurisdiction of the team always allowed great internal variety within the tales…

Here however the uniformed escapades pause as House of Mystery #67 (October 1957) offers the sorry saga of ‘The Wizard of Water’ – a scurvy conman who accidentally gets hold of King Neptune’s trident as drawn by Bill Ely – and, after an always-engaging ‘Science Says You’re Wrong’ page and text terror tale ‘The Mummy’s Revenge’, counts down ‘Five Days to Doom’ (illustrated by Sheldon Moldoff from House of Mystery #66, September 1957) wherein a printer discovers a seemingly-prophetic calendar and uses it to track down aliens planning to destroy Earth.

‘The Legend of the Golden Lion’ (HoM #67 again and illustrated by George Roussos) then described a Big Game Hunter’s confrontation with a leonine legend of biblical pedigree whilst from the same issue the ever-excellent Bob Brown depicted a weird science-tinged crime caper about ‘The Man Who Made Giants’ before the Blackhawks soared back into action battling ‘The Bandit with a Thousand Nets’ – yet another audacious costumed thief with a novel gimmick (from Blackhawk #118, October 1957).

That issue also provided ‘The Blackhawk Robinson Crusoes’ wherein the Pacific Ocean proved to be the real enemy when an accident marooned the Aviators as they hunted the nefarious pirate Sting Ray, followed by much-reprinted western classic ‘The Town Jesse James Couldn’t Rob’ limned by Frank Frazetta and itself a reprint from Jimmy Wakely #4.

Text feature ‘From Caveman to Classroom’ charted the history of map-making after which Blackhawk #118 continues to completion as ‘The Human Clay Pigeons’ found the entire squadron helpless targets of international assassin/spymaster the Sniper, leaving the rest of this collection to astound and amuse with more genre-specific tales such as the Roussos illustrated psychological crime thriller ‘Sinister Shadow’ from House of Mystery #66 Sept 1957.

Also in that issue is Jack Kirby’s eerie mystery of best friends turned rivals ‘The Thief of Thoughts’, Moldoff’s jungle trek chiller ‘The Bell that Tolled Danger’ and Mort Meskin & Roussos’ tragic supernatural romance ‘The Girl in the Iron Mask’.

Rounding out the collection are selections from House of Mystery #64 (July 1957) beginning with Nick Cardy’s irony-drenched riff on the curse of Midas wherein a criminal subjects himself to ‘The Golden Doom’ – pausing briefly for Jack Miller’s prose expose of mind-readers ‘A Clever Code’ (from HoM #66) and another Public Service ad with teen star Binky explaining ‘How to Make New Friends’ (Schiff & Bob Oksner) – before Bill Ely delivers a murderous revelation regarding ‘The Artist Who Painted Dreams’.

A brace of Henry Boltinoff gag pages starring ‘Professor Eureka’ and ‘Moolah the Mystic’ then segues into Bernard Baily’s macabre depiction of criminal obsession in ‘My Terrible Twin’ (HoM #64) to bring the fun to a close on a spooky high note.

These stories were produced – and reprinted here – at a pivotal moment in comics history: the last showing of broadly human-scaled action-heroes and two-fisted mystery-solvers in a marketplace increasingly filling up with gaudily clad wondermen and superwomen. The iconic blend of weary sophistication and glorious, juvenile bravado where a few good men with wits, firearms and an occasional trusty animal companion could overcome all odds was fading in the light of spectacular scenarios and ubiquitous alien encounters.

These are splendidly engaging tales that could beguile and amaze a whole new audience if only publishers would give them a chance. But whilst they won’t your best bet is to seek out books like this in specialist comic shops or online.

Go on; let your fingers do the hard work…

Despite there being no copyrights included in this tome, I think it’s safe to assume:
All material © 1957, 1958, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Super Summer Holiday Annual (No. 1)


By various (Atlas Publishing & Distributing Co. Ltd.)
No ISBN:

It took the British a very long time to get the hang of American-style superheroes – just ask any old UK-based fan about Tri-Man, Gadget Man and Gimmick Kid or the Phantom Viking if you doubt me – but we never had any trouble with more traditional genre standards, which is why this delightful oddment of UK reprint publishing boasts such a decidedly eclectic all-star line up.

Probably released in 1961, it’s a monochrome affair with soft card-covers, gathering select licensed snippets from National Comics/DC, presumably thought to be appealing or of interest to us junior limeys. The decidedly quirky special offers choice late-1950s escapades of Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, The Viking Prince, Superman & Lois Lane and Davy Crockett, bundled up as a marvellously mixed bag of tales which must have frankly baffled and bedazzled the kids of Britain in equal amounts.

The book was (probably) released in 1961 by UK based Atlas Publishing and Distribution, re-reprinting material licensed to Australian outfit KG Murray Publishing Company – one of many small outfits repackaging American strips for the anything-goes UK marketplace…

In America during the 1950s, when superheroes were in a seemingly inescapable trough, comicbook companies looked to different types of leading men in their action heroes. In 1955 writer/editor Robert Kanigher created a traditional adventure comic entitled The Brave and the Bold which featured historical strips and stalwarts.

The Golden Gladiator, illustrated by Russ Heath, was set in the declining days of the Roman Empire, The Silent Knight fought injustice in Norman Britain, courtesy of Irv Novick, and the already-legendary Joe Kubert was drawing the exploits of a valiant young Norseman dubbed the Viking Prince.

This last feature appeared in almost every issue and eventually took over Brave and the Bold entirely, until the resurgent superhero boom saw B&B retooled as a try-out title with its 25th issue. Before that, however, those fanciful, practically “Hollywoodish” Viking sagas were among some of the finest adventure comics of all time (and they’re long overdue for a definitive collection of their own).

The valiant Jon has long been a fan favourite, intermittently returning in DC’s war titles and often guest-starring in such varied venues as Sgt. Rock and even Justice League of America.

Here at the height of his popularity, the lonely wanderer and his companion the Mute Bard kick off proceeding in fine fettle, accepting ‘The Challenge of the Flying Horse’ (B&B #19 Aug/Sep 1958 by Bob Haney & Kubert) and invading Valhalla to aid the comely Valkyries against an invasion of menacing Moon Vikings…

Tales from the censorious 1950s (with just a little overlapping touch of the 1960s) always favoured plot over drama – indeed, a strong argument could be made that all DC’s post-war costumed crusaders actually shared one personality (and yes I’m including Wonder Woman) – so narrative drive focused on comfortably familiar situations or outlandish themes and paraphernalia, but as a kid they simply blew me away.

They still do.

The Gotham Gangbusters especially had to perpetually think and act outside the box as they fought crime and worse with kid gloves on. ‘Batman… Superman of Planet X!’ (from Batman #113, February 1958 by France Herron, Dick Sprang & Charles Paris) offers fantastic science fiction fantasy and perhaps the best ever art job ever seen in an incredible, spectacular stupendous romp with the Cowled Crimebuster shanghaied to a distant galaxy to save an advanced civilisation from invasion…

At a time when the rise of television had made the colonial west crucial viewing, almost every publisher who had survived the birth of the Comics Code had their own iteration of Davy Crockett. National/DC joined the party rather late with Frontier Fighters, which ran for 8 issues between summer 1955 and the end of 1956.

The anthological title supplemented the man of the moment with the equally public-domain likes of Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, Buck Skinner and similar mythic types whilst incorporating all the tropes and ingrained stereotypes you’d expect of the times, but cover-featured Crockett was always the main attraction.

‘The Renegade Fur-Traders’ was first seen in #6 (July-August 1956), by an unnamed author and illustrated with captivating authenticity by the excellent John Prentice, not long before he would begin ghosting the Rip Kirby newspaper strip. It told of how Davy and his mountainous pal Sam Willoughby saved a tribe of Piegan Indians from being swindled by wicked white men…

When Lois Lane – arguably the oldest supporting character/star in the Superman mythology if not DC universe – finally received her own shot at a solo title, it was very much on the terms of the times. I must shamefacedly admit to a deep, nostalgic affection for her bright and breezy, fantastically fun adventures, but as a free-thinking, (nominally) adult liberal of the 21st century I’m often simultaneously shocked nowadays at the jolly, patronising, patriarchally misogynistic attitudes underpinning too many of the stories.

Of course I’m (painfully) aware that the series was intended for young readers at a time when “dizzy dames” like Lucille Ball or Doris Day played to the popular American gestalt stereotype of Woman as jealous minx, silly goose, diffident wife and brood-hungry nester, but to ask kids to seriously accept that intelligent, courageous, ambitious, ethical and highly capable females would drop everything they’d worked hard for to lie, cheat, inveigle, manipulate and entrap a man just so that they could cook pot-roast and change super-diapers is just plain crazy and tantamount to child abuse. They’re great, great comics but still…

I’m just saying…

Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #1 launched at the start of 1958) and became the regular venue for stunning yarns illustrated by sleek, slick Kurt Schaffenberger whose distinctive art-style would quickly become synonymous with the reporter. In this yarn from the second issue (April/May) Lois was apparently appalled to uncover ‘Superman’s Secret Sweetheart’ (possibly written by Bill Finger), but was in fact on her very best mettle, helping a bullied college girl fight back against her mean sorority sisters…

Prince Jon then became ‘The Viking Genie’ (Bill Finger & Joe Kubert from B&B #14 Dec 1958/Jan 1958) as he is sealed in a barrel by his enemies and washes up some time later on the shores of distant Araby.

Freed from his prison by an old man and his beautiful daughter, the golden-haired Northman uses ingenuity and superb physicality to grant the dotard’s three wishes, consequently unseating a tyrant and restoring the old man to the throne of Baghdad…

Detective Comics #249 (November 1957) was the original setting for Finger & Sheldon Moldoff’s ‘The Crime of Bruce Wayne’ wherein civic-minded Bruce Wayne agrees to Commissioner Gordon’s scheme to impersonate masked criminal The Collector. Sadly things go badly awry: Gordon is hospitalised and Wayne is sentenced to death, with Robin and Batwoman frantically trying to find the real Collector before time runs out for the incarcerated, incognito Caped Crusader…

Davy Crockett was then captured by ‘Two Little Paleface Indians’ (Frontier Fighters #3 Jan Feb 1956, art by Prentice) stolen and raised by the warlike Creek. Not only does he have to escape imminent execution but also return the bellicose little waifs to their true parents, after which ‘The Bombshell of the Boulevards’ (Leo Dorfman & Schaffenberger) sees Lois Lane donning a peroxide wig to deceitfully secure a Hollywood interview.

Apparently blondes not only have more fun but also make more trouble and soon she has provoked a death-duel between rival enflamed suitors. Of course, it was only another scheme by Superman and Jimmy Olsen to teach her a lesson in journalistic ethics. Good thing reporters are so much less unscrupulous these days…

The Viking Prince returns to frozen climes to confront the ‘Threat of the Ice-King’ (Haney & Kubert from B&B #18, June/July 1958) and spectacularly rescues a Rose Princess from the icy ogre’s legion of arctic monsters before Davy Crockett tackles ‘The Indian Buccaneers’ (Frontier Fighters #5, May/June 1956 Prentice) dragooned into raiding Louisiana with infamous pirate Swampfox Cy

The weirdly enticing array of adventures ends with charming Public Service ad ‘Don’t Give Fire a Place to Start’ by Jack Schiff & Win Mortimer, wrapping up the all-ages fun on a cautionary note every hoarder of highly inflammable collectibles should heed…

Although I’ve been nostalgically self-indulgent and a touch jocund throughout, there’s no denying the merit of these ancient tales, especially since they’re presented in staggeringly powerful and beautifully composed black and white: all marvellous examples of a level of artistic individuality and virtuosity we’re losing today as computer-colour advances and digital shortcuts are increasingly homogenising the craft and design of graphic narrative.

While we’re all revelling in the variety and creative freedom of today’s technology, let’s never forget the sheer force and potent efficiency of the lone line and an artist’s innate sense of flair and individuality. These are things of magical beauty and infinite potential…

Although there are no copyrights included I think it’s safe to assume:
All material © 1956, 1957, 1958, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: the Dark Knight Archives volume 7


By Bob Kane, Don Cameron, Bill Finger, Joe Samachson, Alvin Schwartz, Dick Sprang, Jerry Robinson, Ray Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3744-8

Win’s Christmas Recommendation: Classically Traditional, Timelessly Wonderful… 9/10

Launching a year after Superman, “The Bat-Man” (and latterly Robin, the Boy Wonder) cemented DC/National Comics as the market frontrunner and conceptual leader of the burgeoning comicbook industry.

Having established the fantastic parameters of the metahuman with their Man of Tomorrow, the strictly mortal physical perfection and dashing derring-do of DC’s Dynamic Duo rapidly became the swashbuckling benchmark by which all other four-colour crimebusters were judged.

This eighth luxuriously lavish hardback Archive Edition volume covers another bevy of Batman adventures (#32-37 of his solo title, spanning December 1945/January 1946 through October/November 1946), with the Gotham Gangbusters resolutely returned to battling post-war perils and peacetime perfidies of danger, doom and criminality….

These Golden Age greats comprise many of the greatest tales in Batman’s decades-long canon, as lead writers Bill Finger and Don Cameron, supplemented by Joe Samachson, Alvin Schwartz and other – sadly unrecorded – scripters, pushed the boundaries of the medium.

On the visual side, graphic genius Dick Sprang superseded and surpassed freshly-returned originator Bob Kane (who had been drawing the Batman daily newspaper strip until its cancellation), making the feature utterly his own in all but name whilst keeping the Dauntless Double-act at the forefront of the legion of superhero stars, even as veteran contributor Jerry Robinson was reaching the peak of his illustrative powers and preparing to move on to other artistic endeavours…

The sheer creativity exhibited in these adventures proved the creators responsible for producing the bi-monthly adventures of the Dark Knight were hitting an artistic peak that few other superhero titles could match. Within scant years they would be one of the only games in town for Fights ‘n’ Tights fans…

Following a fascinatingly fact-filled and incisive Foreword from the inestimable Roy Thomas, the all-out action begins with Batman #32 and another malevolently marvellous exploit of The Joker whose ‘Racket-Rax Racket!’ (crafted by Cameron & Sprang) finds its felonious inspiration in college-student hazing and initiation stunts, after which Finger scripted ‘Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder!’ for that man Sprang, which reprises the jaunty junior partner’s origins and reveals how the lad earned the right to risk his life every night beside the mighty Batman in a blisteringly tense first case…

Light-hearted supplemental feature ‘The Adventures of Alfred’ provides thrills and laughs in equal measure as the dutiful butler reluctantly baby-sits a posh pooch and ends up ‘In the Soup’ after stumbling upon a gang of high society food smugglers (courtesy of Samachson & Robinson), before Cameron & Sprang spectacularly combine a smidgen of science fiction flair and a dash of historical conceit to the regular adventure mix when Professor Carter Nichols uses his hypnosis-powered time-travel trick to send Bruce and Dick to the court of Louis XIII to work with D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers in ‘All for One, One for All!’

Issue #33 was the Christmas issue for 1945 – complete with seasonal cover by Sprang – but was otherwise an all-Win Mortimer art-fest; beginning with Finger’s ‘Crime on the Wing’ wherein the Penguin popped up and began a renewed campaign of crime with his trick umbrellas, just to prove to modern mobsters that he was still a force to be reckoned with after which anonymously-scripted thriller ‘The Looters!’ found the Dynamic Duo hunting a heartless pack of human hyenas led by the Jackal, raiding cities struck by disasters natural and not…

As if that wasn’t vile enough, the shameless exploiter was also trying to steal or sabotage the invention of a dedicated seismologist who thought he’d found a way to predict earthquakes until Batman and Robin rocked the Jackal’s world…

The issue ended with a similarly uncredited Holiday treat as ‘The Search for Santa Claus’ saw three broken old men redeemed by the season of goodwill.

After selflessly standing in for Saint Nick, an innocent man who’d spent 25 years in jail, an over-the-hill actor and a millionaire framed and certified insane by his unscrupulous heirs all found peace, contentment and justice after encountering those industriously bombastic elves Batman and Robin…

Three quarters of issue #34 was crafted by Finger & Sprang, beginning with ‘The Marathon of Menace!’ as an old man who’d dedicated his life to speed records organised a cross-country race across America with enough prize cash to interest crooks – and the ever-vigilant Gotham Gangbusters – after which an insufferable chatterbox deafeningly returned in ‘Ally Babble and the Four Tea Leaves!’; in which the chaos-causing manic maunderer consults a fortune teller and accidentally confounds a string of dastardly desperadoes…

Robinson then limned an anonymous but timely tale as ‘The Adventures of Alfred: Tired Tracks’ found the veteran valet stumbling upon a gang of opportunistic thieves before the issue ends with Finger & Sprang detailing ‘The Master Vs. the Pupil!’

Here the Batman tests his partner’s progress by becoming the quarry in a devious manhunt, but Robin’s early confidence and success take a nasty nosedive after an embarrassing gaffe which proves the danger of too much success…

Finger, Bob Kane & Ray Burnley crafted the lion’s share of Batman #35, beginning with the landmark ‘Nine Lives has the Catwoman!’ wherein the slinky thief finally emerged as the Dark Knight’s premier female foil.

Escaping prison and going on a wild crime spree, the feline felon convinces the world – and possibly the Caped Crusaders – that she cannot die, after which the equally auspicious and influential ‘Dinosaur Island!’ finds our heroes performing a sociology experiment in a robotic theme park, only to find the cavemen and giant beasts co-opted by a murderous enemy looking to become king of the criminal underworld by orchestrating their deaths…

An author unknown then scripted the whimsical exploits of ‘Dick Grayson, Author!’ (art by Kane & Burnley) as the young daredevil deems comicbook stories too unrealistic and is offered the opportunity to write some funnybook dramas which would benefit from actual crime-fighting experience. Of course, all that typing and plotting are harder than they look…

Kane & Burnley also illustrated all the Batman tales in #36, beginning with Alvin Schwartz’s ‘The Penguin’s Nest!’ wherein the podgy Bird of Ill-Omen started imperilling his new, successful – and legitimate – restaurant venture by committing minor misdemeanours just to get arrested. Unsure of what he’s up to, the Masked Manhunters spend an inordinate amount of time and energy keeping him out of jug until they finally glean his devious, million-dollar scheme…

When Hollywood’s top stuntman suffers a head injury on set and begins acting out his assorted past roles in the real world, the panicked studios call in Batman to be a ‘Stand-In for Danger!’ (Cameron, Kane & Burnley), whilst ‘The Adventures of Alfred: Elusive London Eddie!’ (with Robinson art) sees the mild-mannered manservant ferreting out a British scallywag gone to ground in Gotham after which the issue ends on a spectacular high with another terrific time-travel trip.

‘Sir Batman at King Arthur’s Court!’ – courtesy of Finger, Kane & Burnley – sees our compulsive chrononauts crisscrossing fabled Camelot and battling rogue wizards to verify the existence of the enigmatic Round Table legend dubbed Sir Hardi Le Noir

This stunning and sturdy compilation closes with the all-Robinson, all anonymously scripted #37, beginning with ‘Calling Dr. Batman!’ wherein the wounded crimebuster is admitted to hospital and uncovers dark doings and radium robbery.

As if that wasn’t enough a very sharp nurse seems to have suspicions regarding the similarity of the masked celebrity’s wounds to those of a certain millionaire playboy…

Batman and Robin are back in Tinseltown to solve a dire dilemma as ‘Hollywood Hoax!’ has them hunting thieves and blackmailers who have swiped the master print of the latest certified celluloid smash, after which the dauntless derring-do ends with a magnificent clash of eternal adversaries when ‘The Joker Follows Suit!’

Fed up with failing in all his felonious forays, the Clown Prince of Crime decides that imitation is the sincerest form of theft and begins swiping the Dark Knights gimmicks, methods and gadgets; using them to profitably come to the aid of bandits in distress…

Accompanied as always by a full creator ‘Biographies’ section, this superb collection of comicbook classics is another magnificent rollercoaster ride back to an era of high drama and breathtaking excitement: a timeless, evergreen delight no addict of graphic action can ignore.
© 1945, 1946, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Suicide Squad volume 1: Trial by Fire


By John Ostrander, Luke McDonnell, Bob Lewis, Karl Kesel, Dave Hunt & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5831-3

Following the huge success of Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986, fickle fan-interest was concentrated on DC and many of their major properties – and indeed the entire continuity – were opened up for radical change, innovation and renewal.

So, how best to follow the previous year’s cosmic catastrophe? Why not a much smaller and more personal Great Disaster, spotlighting those strangers in familiar costumes and a bunch of beginnings rather than the deaths and endings of the Crisis?

Thus, Darkseid of Apokolips decided to attack humanity’s spirit by destroying the very concept of heroism and individuality in Legends and sent hyper-charismatic Glorious Godfrey to America to lead a common man’s crusade against extraordinary heroes, while the he initiated individual assaults to demoralize and destroy key champions of Earth.

The rampant civil unrest prompted President Ronald Reagan to outlaw costumed crime-busters and opened the door for a governmental black-bag operation to use super-powered operatives who had no option but to obey the orders of their betters…

That was the beguiling concept behind the creation – or more accurately – consolidation and reactivation of separate but associated concepts dating back to the 1960s and the first revival of superhero comics.

John Ostrander was new to DC; lured with editor Mike Gold from Chicago’s First Comics where their work on Starslayer, Munden’s Bar and especially Grimjack had made those independent minnows some of the most popular series of the decade. Spinning out of Legends Ostrander hit the ground running with a superb and compelling reinterpretation of the long neglected Suicide Squad: a boldly controversial revaluation of meta-humanity and the hidden role of government in a world far more dangerous than the placid public believed…

Devised by Robert Kanigher, The War that Time Forgot debuted in Star Spangled War Stories #90 (April-May 1960) and ran until #137 (May 1968). The wonderment began as paratroops and tanks of “Question Mark Patrol” were dropped on Mystery Island from whence no American soldiers ever returned. The crack warriors discovered why when the operation was overrun by Pterosaurs, Tyrannosaurs and worse: all superbly rendered by veteran art team Ross Andru & Mike Esposito.

What followed was years of astonishing action as various military disciplines – of assorted nationalities – pitted modern weapons and human guts against the most terrifying monsters ever to stalk the Earth…

The Brave and the Bold #25 (September 1959) was the first issue of the title in its new format as a try-out vehicle testing new characters and concepts before launching them into their own series. Inauspiciously, the premier starred a quartet of human specialists – Colonel Rick Flag, medic Karin Grace and big-brained boffins Hugh Evans and Jess Price – officially convened into a Suicide Squad codenamed Task Force X by the US government to investigate uncanny mysteries and tackle unnatural threats.

The gung ho gang – another Kanigher, Andru & Esposito invention – appeared in six issues but never really caught the public’s attention – perhaps because they weren’t costumed heroes – and quickly faded from memory.

Then, in April 1967 Our Fighting Forces #106 began running the exploits of homicide detective Ben Hunter who was recruited by the army during WWII to run roughshod over a penal battalion of prisoners who had grievously broken regulations.

Facing imprisonment or execution, the individually lethal military malcontents were given a chance to earn a pardon by undertaking missions deemed too tough or hopeless for proper soldiers. Hunter’s Hellcats – inarguably “inspired” by the movie The Dirty Dozen – ran until OFF #122 (December 1969) on increasingly nasty and occasionally fatal little sorties, before being replaced without fanfare or preamble by The Losers and similarly lost to posterity.

This long-awaited trade paperback collection – designed to tie-in to both the recent TV and upcoming movie iterations of the Suicide Squad – gathers the in-filling, background-providing introduction from Secret Origins #14 and the first 8 issues of the decidedly devious thriller serial set in the dark corners of the-then DCU (spanning May to December 1987) and opens sans fanfare in the Oval Office as strident political insider Amanda Waller briefs the President on ‘The Secret Origin of the Suicide Squad’ (by Ostrander, Luke McDonnell & Dave Hunt).

Cleverly amalgamating the aforementioned Hellcats and Colonel Flag through early missions against those dinosaurs, Ostrander tied together strands and linked obscure periods of recent events to provide a shocking secret history of America: a time when superheroes were forced into retirement after World War II with the military and Task Force X used to unobtrusively take out the monsters, spies, aliens and super-criminals who didn’t conveniently pack up with them…

Waller has a plan: she doesn’t want society to depend on the current crop of capricious super do-gooders and has recruited Flag’s damaged and driven son to run a new penal battalion comprising captured super-villains who will work off the books for the highest echelons of government, using metahuman force for the greater – i.e. political – good…

The true reasons and motivations for her actions are then disclosed in a tragic story of personal loss and criminal atrocity before she is grudgingly given the go-ahead, but told that if the new initiative fails or becomes public knowledge, she alone will bear the blame…

The series proper – by Ostrander and McDonnell – begins with ‘Trial by Blood’ (inked by Karl Kesel) as metahuman terrorist team The Jihad, working out of rogue state Qurac, bloodily prepares to bring slaughter to America. Tipped off by an asset inside the killer sect, the US wants to stop the killers before they start. This means sending Waller’s convict team to kill off the Jihad before they even leave their impregnable mountain fortress.

Knowing criminals cannot be trusted, the set-up involves not just bribery – reduced sentence deals, favours and pardons – but also minor coercion. Combat operations are led by traumatised, obsessively patriotic Rick Flag Jr. – assisted by amnesiac martial arts master Bronze Tiger – and to keep everybody honest and on-mission, convict-operatives Deadshot, Plastique, Mindboggler, Captain Boomerang and schizophrenic sorceress Enchantress are wired with remote-detonation explosive devices…

Backed by a support team which includes Flag’s ex-girlfriend Karin Grace and Briscoe, a bizarre mystery pilot who has a rather unusual relationship with his seemingly sentient helicopter gunship , the team seem ready for anything but even before the Squad set off for Qurac things go badly wrong after Boomerang and Mindboggler clash and the Australian promises bloody vengeance…

Linking up with undercover asset Nightshade, even more misfortune manifests as the teleporting covert op violently complains to Flag about the horrific things she has had to do since infiltrating Jihad. Challenged but committed now, the unwilling agents all begin their assignments in assassination but the ‘Trial by Fire’ at last unravels when one of the Squad switches sides…

Thankfully the US has another agent in play and undercover, so the damage is limited. Nevertheless, not every American makes it home…

Issue #3 finds defeated and deflated New God Glorious Godfrey incarcerated in superhuman detention centre – and top secret base of the Suicide Squad – Belle Reve whilst a universe away his master Darkseid despatches Female Furies Lashina, Stompa, Bernadeth and Mad Harriet to fetch him home.

Tensions pop Earth-side when Flag strenuously objects to mind-wiping procedures being used on one of his “recruits” and Waller takes flak from Nightshade and super-disguise expert Nemesis over her handling of the Qurac mission and even gets grief from mouthy felon Digger Harkness.

The erstwhile Boomerang was promised a measure of leniency and even a place outside the walls if he behaved, and now he thinks it’s time he got his reward. All arguments end however when the unstoppable Furies bust in to administer Darkseid’s judgement in ‘Jailbreak’

Despite their best efforts the mere mortals are swept aside and only the renewal of an internecine struggle for command of the Furies prevents greater harm to the criminal crew…

As Bob Smith takes over inking these tense yarns, domestic issues take precedence when a new masked hero begins cleaning up the streets of Central City. Waller is painfully aware that the increasingly popular vigilante is turning ethnic criminals over to the cops but letting white perps slide if they promise to join burgeoning political party the Aryan Empire

With undercover specialists Black Orchid and Nemesis taking the lead and obnoxious racist Harkness acting as thoroughly credible decoy, the team – supplemented by Time Thief Chronos – lay a trap for a white supremacist billionaire and deftly end ‘William Hell’s Overture’

A disastrous dip into Cold War realpolitik begins when Waller is ordered to send a team into a Soviet gulag and rescue a dissident novelist in ‘The Flight of the Firebird’.

Tapping criminal strategist the Penguin to plan the complex mission, neither she, her superiors or indeed anyone seems aware that the Russians actually want to banish gadfly Zoya Trigorin to the West but she wants to stay a martyr in Novogorod “psychiatric centre”…

More importantly the foredoomed scheme depends on Enchantress, who is exhibiting all the more bloodthirsty symptoms of being crazier than a bag-full of rabid badgers…

Before they head off, Flag checks in on Harkness (who has earned his own place in New Orleans) blithely unaware that the unrepentant rogue is already planning to supplement his civil service stipend by resorting to his old felonious tricks…

Eventually the mission begins and the Squad slowly infiltrates the frozen town of Gorki and break into Novogorod, but when Trigorin refuses to leave they are forced to kidnap her and make a desperate escape across Russia in ‘Hitting the Fan’.

The botched mission leads American authorities to disavow all knowledge of the effort but the real problem is still the killing cold, vast distance and murderously determined efforts of Soviet super-team the People’s Heroes, relentlessly hunting the survivors who have been ‘Thrown to the Wolves’ by their own bosses…

This glimpse at the grubby side of super-heroics concludes with a smart and incisive perusal of project psychologist Simon La Grieve’s ‘Personal Files’, offering insights and setting up future subplots for Waller, Flag, Deadshot Floyd Lawton, Boomerang and temporarily curtailed, mystically-bound Enchantress and her helpless human host June Moon

These were and still are a magnificent mission statement for the DC Universe, offering gritty, witty cohesive and contemporary stories that appealed not just to Fights ‘n’ Tights fanatics but also lovers of espionage and crime capers. As such they are perfect fodder for today’s so-sophisticated, informed and ultimately thrill-hungry readers.
© 1987, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Boy Commandos volume 1


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Ideal for fanboys, superhero purists and lovers of sheer comic exuberance… 9/10

Just as the Golden Age of comics was kicking off two young men with big hopes met up and began a decades-long association that was always intensely creative, immensely productive and spectacularly in tune with popular tastes.

Joe Simon was a sharp-minded, talented gentleman with five years experience in “real” publishing, working from the bottom up to art director on a succession of small newspapers such as the Rochester Journal American, Syracuse Herald and Syracuse Journal American before moving to New York City and a life of freelancing as an art/photo retoucher and illustrator. Recommended by his boss, Simon joined Lloyd Jacquet’s pioneering Funnies Inc., a comics production “shop” generating strips and characters for a number of publishing houses eager to cash in on the success of Action Comics and its stellar attraction Superman.

Within days Simon created The Fiery Mask for Martin Goodman of Timely (now Marvel) Comics and met young Jacob Kurtzberg, a cartoonist and animator just hitting his imaginative stride with the Blue Beetle for the Fox Feature Syndicate.

Together Simon and Kurtzberg (who went through a battalion of pen-names before settling on Jack Kirby) enjoyed stunning creative empathy and synergy which galvanized an already electric neo-industry with a vast catalogue of features and even genres.

At rocket-pace they produced the influential Blue Bolt, Captain Marvel Adventures #1 and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely, a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, Marvel Boy, Hurricane, The Vision, The Young Allies and a guy named Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby jumped ship to National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and an open chequebook. Initially an uncomfortable fit, bursting with ideas the company were not comfortable with, the pair were soon handed two failing strips to play with until they found their creative feet.

Soon after establishing themselves with The Sandman and Manhunter they were left to their own devices and promptly created comicbooks’ “Kid Gang” genre with a unique juvenile Foreign Legion entitled The Boy Commandos – who soon shared the spotlight with Batman in flagship publication Detective Comics and whose solo title was frequently amongst the company’s top three sellers.

Boy Commandos was such a success – often cited as the biggest-selling American comicbook in the world at that time – that the editors, knowing The Draft was lurking, green-lighted the completion of a wealth of extra material to lay away for when their star creators were called up. S&K and their team produced so much four-colour magic in a phenomenally short time that Publisher Jack Liebowitz eventually suggested they retool some of it into adventures of a second kid gang… and thus was born The Newsboy Legion (and their super-heroic mentor The Guardian)…

Those guys we’ll get to some other time but today let’s applaud this splendidly sturdy full-colour hardback compilation re-presenting the first ten months of the courageous child soldiers (June 1942-March 1943) as seen in Detective Comics #64-72, World’s Finest Comics #8-9, Boy Commandos #1-2 (spanning June 1942 to March 1943): a barrage of bombastic blockbusters that were at once fervently patriotic morale-boosters, rousing action-adventures and potent satirical swipes and jibes by creators who were never afraid to show that good and evil was never simply just “us & them”…

Following a scholarly Introduction from respected academic Paul Buhle, the vintage thrills and spills commence with a spectacular introduction to the team as only S & K could craft it: a masterpiece of patriotic fervour which eschewed lengthy explanations or origins in favour of immediate action as ‘The Commandos are Coming!’ cleverly followed the path of a French Nazi collaborator who found the courage to fight against his country’s conquerors after meeting the bombastic military unit.

We never knew how American Captain Rip Carter got to command a British Commando unit nor why he was allowed to bring a quartet of war-orphans with him on a succession of deadly sorties into “Festung Europa”, North Africa, the Pacific or Indo-Chinese theatres of war. All we had to do was realise that cockney urchin Alfy Twidgett, French lad Pierre – later unobtrusively renamed Andre – Chavard, little Dutch boy Jan Haasen and rough, tough little lout Brooklyn were fighting the battles we would if we only had the chance…

From the start the yarns were strangely exotic and bizarrely multi-layered, adding a stratum of myth making and fantasy to the grim and grisly backdrop of a war fought from the underdog’s position. Detective Comics #66 (which featured a stunning art-jam cover by Jerry Robinson, Simon & Kirby with Batman and Robin welcoming the team to their new home) saw the exploits of the juvenile warriors related by a seer to feudal Queen Catherine of France in ‘Nostrodamus Predicts’.

She saw and drew comfort from Carter’s attempt to place the kids in a posh boarding school only uncovered a traitor in educator’s clothing and led to a shattering raid right in the heart of the occupier’s defences…

The locale shifted to Africa and time itself got bent when ‘The Sphinx Speaks’, revealing how a reporter in the year 3045 AD interviewed a mummy with a Brooklyn accent. The seeming madness had materialised after the Commando “mascots” arrived in Egypt in 1942 to liberate a strategically crucial village and discovered a Nazi radio post inside an ancient edifice. Whilst they were causing their usual corrective carnage one of the lads had a strange meeting with the rocky pile’s oldest inhabitant…

Another esoteric human interest tale began back in Manhattan where hoods Horseshoes Corona and his best pal Buttsy Baynes barely avoided a police dragnet and ‘Escape to Disaster!’ by heading out into the open ocean and straight into the sights of a U-boat. The sight of the gloating Nazis laughing as his friend perished had a marked effect on one heartless gangster.

When badly wounded Horseshoes was later picked up by Carter’s crew he immediately had a negative influence on impressionable, homesick Brooklyn but turned around his life in its final moments when the Allied ship attacked an apparently impregnable German sea base…

Detective #68 exposed ‘The Treachery of Osuki!’ as a dogfight dumped the boys and a Japanese pilot in the same life-raft. Once they hit land the obsequious flier soon began grooming the simple island natives who saved them, but ultimately couldn’t mask his fanatical urge to conquer and kill after which an epic of East-West cooperation saw the underage warriors battling Nazis beside desperate Russian villagers at ‘The Siege of Krovka!’ determined to make the invaders pay for every frozen inch of Soviet soil in a blockbusting tale of heroism and sacrifice.

Another odd episode found contentious, argument-addicted New York cabbie Hack Hogan drafted and – protesting all the way – slowly transformed into a lethal force of nature sticking it to the Nazis in the heart of their homeland with the kids reduced to awestruck observers in ‘Fury Rides a Taxicab!’

An astounding hit, the kids also became a fixture in premier all-star anthology World’s Finest Comics with #8’s (Winter 1942-1943) ‘The Luck of the Lepparts’ wherein a cad and bounder battled to beat a curse which had destroyed three previous generations of his family of traitors. Was it fate, ill fortune or the arrival of the Boy Commandos in the Burmese stronghold he planned to sell out that sealed his fate?

That same month saw the inevitable launch of Boy Commandos #1 which explosively opened with ‘The Town that Couldn’t be Conquered!’, wherein Rip leads the lads back to Jan’s home village to terrify the rapacious occupiers and start a resistance movement, after which ‘Heroes Never Die’ fancifully finds the team in China where they meet a dying monk.

This aged sage remembers his childhood when a white pirate and four foreign boys led a bandit army against imperial oppression and has waited for their prophesised return ever since the Japanese invaded…

This period of furious productivity resulted in some of Simon & Kirby’s most passionate yet largely unappreciated material. As previously stated, Boy Commandos regularly outsold Superman and Batman during WWII, and the moody ‘Satan Wears a Swastika’ clearly shows why, blending patriotic fervour with astonishing characterisation and a plot of incredible sophistication.

When news comes of the team’s death, official scribes Joe and Jack convene with the Sandman and Newsboy Legion on how to handle the morale-crushing crisis. As the Homefront heroes debate, across the ocean the answers unravel. The confusing contretemps had begun when a quartet of wealthy little people decided that despite their medical deficiencies they would not be cheated of their chance to fight fascism. Accompanied by their tall, rangy butler, they set up as a private combat unit and plunged into the bowels of Berlin even as the real commandos were currently being run ragged by the Germans’ most deadly operative Agent Axis

That epochal initial issue ended with a weird war story as the boys kept meeting French soldier Francois Girard who shared snippets of useful intel as they prepared for their most audacious mission: kidnapping Hitler…

Even though the sortie eventually came up short the blow to the enemy’s morale and prestige was enormous but on returning home the codenamed ‘Ghost Raiders’ shockingly learned that for one of their number, the title was not metaphorical…

Back in Detective #71 (January 1943) ‘A Break for Santa’ offered a stellar change of pace as the boys organised a treat for orphans and opted – even if they were cashiered for it – to rescue one lad’s dad from a concentration camp for Christmas…

The next issue saw them uncover a devilish espionage/sabotage ring operating out of a florists shop in ‘Petals of Peril’ whilst #73 revealed ‘The Saga of the Little Tin Box’ as Rip dragged the kids through hellish African jungles ahead of a cunning and supremely competent Nazi huntsman; watching them slowly psychologically unravel as they became increasing obsessed with a pointless trinket…

That mystery successfully solved, the action switched to Europe for World’s Finest Comics #9 as the kids went undercover as circus performers cautiously recruiting a cadre of operatives to strike against the oppressors from within, culminating in ‘The Battle of the Big Top!’

This stunning collection concludes with the contents of Boy Commandos #2 (Spring 1943), leading with ‘The Silent People Speak’ as two Danish brothers – one on each side of the conflict – resolve years of jealousy and hatred when the Commandos stage an incursion into their strategically crucial village, after which black comedy resurfaces as wastrel nobleman Lord Tweedbrook is drafted and his butler becomes his drill-sergeant. Happily the young lions are on hand to stop the suffering scion absconding and see the turbulent toff’s transition to fighting tiger in ‘On the Double, M’Lord!’

Another tantalising twice-told tale has Rip and the boys invade fairytale European kingdom Camelon to rescue a sleeping Queen (from magic spells or Nazi drugs?) in ‘The Knights Wore Khaki’, before this first wave of yarns culminates with a gloriously sentimental romp as the kids adopt a battered and bloody bomb crater kitten and smuggle him onto a vital mission. Things looked bad until even little “Dodger” proves he would give ‘Nine Lives for Victory’

Although I’ve concentrated on the named stars it’s important to remember – especially in these more enlightened times still plagued with the genuine horror of children forcibly swept up in war they have no stake in – that the Boy Commandos, even in their ferociously fabulous exploits, were symbols as much as combatants, usually augmented by huge teams of proper soldiers doing most of the actual killing.

It’s not much of a comfort but at least it showed Simon & Kirby were not simply caught up in a Big Idea without considering all the implications…

Bombastic, blockbusting and astoundingly appetising these superb fantasies from the last “Good War” are a spectacular example of comics giants at their most creative. No true believer or dedicated funnybook aficionado should be denied this book.
© 1942, 1943, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Crisis on Multiple Earths volume 4


By Cary Bates, Elliot S! Maggin, E. Nelson Bridwell, Marty Pasko, Paul Levitz, Dick Dillin, Frank McLaughlin & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0957-2

In regard to comic material from this period I cannot declare myself an impartial critic. That counts doubly so for the Julie Schwartz edited Justice League of America and its annual summer tradition of teaming up with its progenitor organisation, the Justice Society of America. If that sounds a tad confusing there are many places to look for clarifying details. If you’re interested in superheroes and their histories you’ll even enjoy the search. But this is not the place for that.

Ultra-Editor Schwartz ushered in the Silver Age of American Comics with his landmark Showcase successes Flash, Adam Strange and Green Lantern, directly leading to the JLA which in turn inspired Fantastic Four and the whole Marvel Empire; changing forever the way comics were made and read…

Whereas the 1940s were about magic and macho, the Silver Age polished everything with a thick veneer of SCIENCE and a wave of implausible rationalistic concepts quickly filtered into the dawning mass-consciousness of a generation of baby-boomer kids.

The most intriguing and rewarding was, of course, the notion of parallel worlds…

Once DC’s Silver Age heroes began meeting their Golden Age predecessors from “Earth-2”, that aforementioned annual tradition commenced: every summer the JLA would team-up with the JSA to combat a trans-dimensional Crisis…

This volume reprints get-togethers from 1975 through 1977, encompassing Justice League of America #123 & 124 (October and November 1975), #135-137 (October to December 1976) and #147-148 (October and November 1977), offering also a wash of memory-intensive reminiscences in an Introduction from veteran colourist Carl Gafford.

All these tightly-plotted tales are competently and comfortably rendered by the criminally underappreciated Dick Dillin with his long-term inker Frank McLaughlin and, in terms of narrative, the writing consists of nothing more – or if you’re still a kid like me, nothing less – than two bunches of beguiling mystery men getting together to deal with extra-extraordinary problems.

From the early 1970s it also became about reintroducing other lost characters from other companies and pantheons DC had bought out over the years, so in hindsight, it was all also about sales and the attempted revival of more super characters during a period of intense sales rivalry between DC Comics and Marvel.

But for those who love costumed heroes, who crave these carefully constructed modern mythologies and care, it is simply a grand parade of straightforward action, great causes and momentous victories.

I love ‘em, not because they’re the best of their kind, but because I did then and they haven’t changed even if I have. Surely everyone fancies finding their Inner Kid again?

This batch of blockbusters begins with a yarn from Cary Bates and Elliot Maggin, stepping far off the reservation with ‘Where on Earth Am I?’ and its conclusion ‘Avenging Ghosts of the Justice Society!’ from #123- 124.

In Flash #179 (‘The Flash – Fact of Fiction?, May 1968) Bates and Gardner Fox first took the multiple Earths concept to its illogical conclusion by trapping the Monarch of Motion in “our” Reality of Earth-Prime, where he was known only to a dwindling readership as a mere comic-book character. It took the financial assistance of his editor Julie Schwartz in building a “cosmic treadmill” to return the Scarlet Speedster to his proper dimension…

In this quirky follow-up, Bates and co-scripter Maggin revisit the notion as a story conference in Schwartz’s office leads to the oafish goons playing with the Flash’s abandoned construct until one of them is sent hurtling between Realities…

Transformed and cosmically empowered by the journey, Bates became the most dangerous villain alive, leading Earth-2 criminals The Wizard, Shade, Sportsmaster, Huntress, Icicle and The Gambler in a lethal assault on JSA heroes Robin, Hourman, Wildcat, Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder and Dr. Mid-Nite.

Frantic and terrified, Maggin follows his friend but ends up on Earth-1 where he recruits Batman, Black Canary, Aquaman, Hawkman, Green Arrow and Flash to save three imperilled universes. In the end however it requires the Divine Might of the supernal Spectre to truly set every thing back on track and in its assigned place and time…

A year later the get-together took on epic proportions with the inclusion of stars from the Shazam! Universe (imaginatively dubbed Earth-S) which began with a ‘Crisis in Eternity!’ plotted by E. Nelson Bridwell and scripted by Marty Pasko.

One of the most venerated and loved characters in American comics, the original Captain Marvel was created by Bill Parker & C. C. Beck: the best of a wave of costumed titans devised in the wake of Superman’s blockbuster 1938 debut.

Although there were many similarities in the early years, the Fawcett character moved early into the realm of fanciful light entertainment and even comedy, whilst as the 1940s progressed the Man of Steel increasingly left whimsy behind in favour of action and drama.

Homeless orphan Billy Batson was chosen to battle injustice by an ancient wizard who bestowed the powers of six gods and heroes. Billy transforms from scrawny boy to brawny (adult) hero by speaking aloud the wizard’s name – an acronym for the legendary six patrons Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.

At the height of his popularity Captain Marvel was published twice a month and outsold Superman, but as tastes and the decade changed sales slowed and a court case begun by National Comics citing copyright infringement was settled. The Big Red Cheese disappeared – as did many superheroes – becoming a fond memory for older fans.

In Britain, where an English reprint line had run for many years, creator/publisher Mick Anglo had an avid audience and no product, and swiftly transformed Captain Marvel into the atomic age hero Marvelman, continuing to thrill readers into the 1960s.

As America lived through another superhero boom-&-bust, the 1970s dawned with a shrinking industry and wide variety of comics genres servicing a base that was increasingly founded on collector/aficionados, not casual or impulse buys.

DC needed sales and were prepared to look for them in unusual places.

After the settlement with Fawcett in 1953 they had secured the rights to Captain Marvel and Family and, even though the name itself had been taken up by Marvel Comics (via a circuitous and quirky robotic character published by Carl Burgos and M.F. Publications in 1967), they decided to tap into that discriminating fanbase.

In 1973, riding a wave of nostalgia, DC brought back the entire beloved Fawcett cast and crew in their own kinder, weirder universe. To circumvent the intellectual property clash, they entitled the new comic book Shazam! (‘With One Magic Word…’) the trigger phrase used by most of the many Marvels to transform to and from mortal form and a word that had already entered the American language due to the success of the franchise the first time around…

Now in Justice League #135 the stand-alone Shazam heroes met other costumed champions when antediluvian dictator King Kull (a bestial king from a pre-human civilisation who held mankind responsible for the extinction of his race) invaded the Wizard’s home on the Rock of Eternity.

From this central point in the Multiverse Kull intended to wipe out humanity on three different Earths and began by capturing the gods and goddesses who empowered Billy and his magical allies Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel.

Thankfully fleet Mercury was able to escape and warn Earths 1 and 2 even as lesser heroes Bulletman & Bulletgirl, Ibis the Invincible, Spysmasher and Mister Scarlet & Pinky took up the fight without the missing Marvels…

Recruiting an army of indigenous super-villains from three worlds, Kull unleashes a plague of unnatural disasters in ‘Crisis on Earth-S!’ unaware that Mercury, Shazam and imbecilic magic-wielder Johnny Thunder are undertaking a devious counterattack which brings the vanished Marvel Family back into action just in time to avert a cataclysmic ‘Crisis in Tomorrow!’

This monumental melange of metahuman mayhem concludes with a brace of double-length sagas guest-starring Silver Age DC’s second-most popular superteam.

Once upon a time, a thousand years from now, a band of super-powered kids from many worlds took inspiration from the greatest heroic legend of all time and formed a club of champions. One day those Children of Tomorrow came back in time and invited their inspiration to join them…

Thus began the vast, epic saga of the Legion of Super-Heroes, as first envisioned by writer Otto Binder & artist Al Plastino when the many-handed mob of juvenile universe-savers debuted in Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958), just as the revived superhero genre was gathering an inexorable head of steam in America.

The coalition grew and prospered, becoming a phenomenon generally attributed with birthing organised comics fandom. After years of slavishly remaining a closely-guarded offshoot of Superman’s corner of continuity the Legion finally crossed over into the broader DC Universe with this saga as writers Paul Levitz & Pasko combined to detail a ‘Crisis in the 30th Century!’

It begins when ultimate sorcerer Mordru drags a handful of JLA and JSA-ers (Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Black Canary from Earth-1 plus the other Green Lantern, Doctor Fate, Power Girl, Flash and Hawkman from E-2) into the future to replace a band of ensorcelled Legionnaires he has lost contact with…

Mordru’s previous captives had been tasked with retrieving three arcane artefacts that were in the JLA’s keeping a millennium past, but with them gone the wizard now expects his new pets to finish the task. Of course the ancient heroes have other ideas…

Even after linking up with the lost Legionnaires, the 20th Centurians are unable to prevent the return of demonic triumvirate Abnegazar, Rath and Ghast, but happily their eons in stasis has affected the eldritch horrors’ psychological make-up and their disunity gives the puny humans one shot at saving the universe from a ‘Crisis in Triplicate!’

This staggering panoply of multi-hued calamities and alternate Armageddons is rounded off with an instructive contextual lecture in John Wells’ Afterword ‘Those Were the Days’, rounding out a glorious gathering of captivating Costumed Dramas no lover of Fights ‘n’ Tights fun and frolics could possibly resist.
© 1975, 1976, 1977, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.