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.

The Joker: The Clown Prince of Crime


By Dennis O’Neil, Elliot S! Maggin, Martin Pasko, Irv Novick, Dick Giordano, José Luis García-López, Ernie Chan, Vince Colletta, Tex Blaisdell, Frank McLaughlin & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4258-9

An old adage says that you can judge a person by the calibre of their enemies, and that’s never been more ably demonstrated than in the case of the Batman. Moreover, for most of his decades-long existence, but most especially since the 1970s, the position of paramount antagonist has been indisputably filled by the Clown Prince of Crime known only as The Joker.

During the late 1960s superheroes experienced a rapid decline in popularity – possibly in reaction to the mass-media’s crass and crushing over-exposure – and the Batman titles sought to escape their zany, “camp” image by methodically re-branding the character and returning to the original 1930s concept of a grim, driven Dark Avenger.

Such a hero demanded far deadlier villains and with one breakthrough tale Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams & Dick Giordano reinstated the psychotic, diabolically unpredictable Killer Clown who scared the short pants off readers of the Golden Age Dark Knight.

‘The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge’ from Batman #251 (September 1973) was a genuine classic which totally redefined The Joker for my generation (and every one since) as the Mirthful Madcap became an unpredictable utterly ruthless psychotic exponent of visceral Grand Guignol. Terrifying and beautiful, for many fans this was the definitive Joker story…

Within a year and a half of that breakthrough revision the Harlequin of Hate was awarded his own series. Titles starring villains were exceedingly rare and provided quite a few problems for writers and editors still labouring under the edicts of the Comics Code Authority.

The outré experiment ended after 9 issues (spanning May 1975 to October 1976) having utilised some of the most talented creators in DC’s employ and remained a peculiar historical oddity for decades. Now, in these less doctrinaire times those strange tales of the Smirking Slaughterman have a fairer shot at finding an appreciative audience through this full-colour trade paperback collection.

The murderous merriment commences with ‘The Joker’s Double Jeopardy!’; wherein fellow Arkham inmate Two-Face arrogantly escapes, pinking the Felonious Funnyman’s pride and compelling the giggling ghoul to similarly break out and prove he’s the greater criminal maniac. Their extended, excessive duel of wits and body-counts only lands them both back inside…

The “revolving door” security at Arkham eventually leads to the firing of much-harassed guards Marvin Fargo and Benny Khiss in ‘The Sad Saga of Willie the Weeper!’ However, as the again-at-liberty Lethal Loon attempts to bolster the confidence of a lachrymose minor-league larcenist (for his own felonious purposes, naturally), the defrocked jailers determine to restore their honour and fortunes and – astoundingly – succeed…

‘The Last Ha Ha’ came from The Joker # 3 (written by O’Neil with art from Ernie Chan/Chua & José Luis García-López) wherein a burglary and kidnapping of superstar cartoonist Sandy Saturn by a green-haired, cackling crazy leads the cops to the ludicrous conclusion that The Creeper is the culprit. Cue lots of eerie chortling, mistaken identity shenanigans and explosive action…

The ethical dilemma of having a star who is arguably the world’s worst villain is further explored in ‘A Gold Star for the Joker!’ (Elliot S! Maggin, García-López & Vince Colletta) wherein the Perfidious Pagliacci inexplicably develops a crush on Black Canary’s alter-ego Dinah Lance and resolves to possess her or kill her.

Typically, even though she’s perfectly capable of saving herself, Dinah’s current beau Green Arrow is also the possessive – and aggressive – sort…

‘The Joker Goes Wilde!’ (Martin Pasko, Irv Novick & Tex Blaisdell) finds the Clown Prince in a bombastic contest with similarly playing-card themed super-thugs the Royal Flush Gang to secure a lost masterpiece, but even as he’s winning that weird war the Harlequin of Hate is already after a hidden prize…

More force of nature than mortal miscreant, the Pallid Punchinello meets his match after assaulting actor Clive Sigerson in #6. Famed for stage portrayals of a certain literary detective, Sigerson sustains a nasty blow to the head which befuddles his wits and soon ‘Sherlock Stalks the Joker!’ (O’Neil, Novick & Blaisdell); foiling a flood of crazy schemes and apprehending the maniac before his concussion is cured…

We learn a few surprising facts about the Clown Prince of Carnage after he steals the calm, logical intellect of Earth’s most brilliant evil scientist. Naturally the psychic transference in ‘Luthor… You’re Driving Me Sane!’ (Maggin, Novick & Frank McLaughlin) is two-way and, whilst the newly cognizant Clown becomes ineffably intelligent, Lex Luthor is now a risk-taking maniac determined to have fun no matter who dies…

The Joker # 8 featured a clash with Gotham’s Master of Terror as ‘The Scarecrow’s Fearsome Face-Off!’ (Maggin, Novick & Blaisdell) found the two scariest men in town stealing each other’s thunder whilst vying for the top-spot, before the villainous vignettes in this captivating chronicle conclude with a claws-out clash as ‘The Cat and the Clown!’ (Maggin, Novick & Blaisdell) sees an aged comedian and his million-dollar kitty targeted by rival rogues Catwoman and the Joker.

Unhappily for the crooks they had both underestimated the grizzled guile of their octogenarian victim…

With covers by Dick Giordano, Chan and García-López this quirky oddment offers slick plotting, madcap larks and a lesser degree of murderous mayhem than modern fans might be used to, but also strong storytelling and stunning art to delight fans of traditional Fights ‘n’ Tights sagas.
© 1975, 1976, 2013 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: the Dark Knight Archives volume 7


By Bob Kane, Don Cameron, Bill Finger, Joe Samachson, Jack Schiff, Alvin Schwartz, Joe Greene, Dick Sprang, Jerry Robinson, Jack Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2894-1

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

Launching in 1939, 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 seventh lavish hardback Archive Edition volume covers another bombastic bevy of Batman adventures (from #26-31 of his solo title, spanning December 1944/January 1945 to October/November 1945), abandoning wartime themes and exploits as the American Homefront anticipated a return to peacetime dangers, dooms and criminality….

These Golden Age tales are amongst the very finest in Batman’s decades-long canon as lead writers Bill Finger and Don Cameron, supplemented by Joe Samachson, Jack Schiff, Alvin Schwartz, Joseph Greene and other sadly unrecorded scripters, pushed the boundaries of the medium whilst graphic genius Dick Sprang veteran gradually superseded and surpassed originator Bob Kane (busy drawing the Batman daily newspaper strip); making the feature utterly his own whilst keeping the Dauntless Double-Act at the forefront of the legion of superhero stars.

The sheer creativity exhibited in these adventures saw an ever-expanding band of creators responsible for producing the stories of the Dark Knight were hitting an artistic peak which only stellar stable-mate Superman and Fawcett’s Captain Marvel could match.

Following a fascinatingly fact-filled and incisive Foreword from comics historian – and leading light of the magnificent Grand Comics Database – Gene Reed, the mesmerising flash and dazzle commences with Batman #26 and ‘The Twenty Ton Robbery!’

Delivered by Cameron & Sprang it described the return of Dashing Desperado The Cavalier, whose criminal cries for attention drove him to compete against the Caped Crusaders with ever-more spectacular and pointless plunderings after which Schiff & Robinson proffered another delightfully silly comedy-caper in ‘The Adventures of Alfred: Recipe for Revenge!’

This solo exploit of the wannabe detective found the fumbling footman shopping for fancy cuisine and inadvertently saving the life of a gourmet chef…

Crafted at the end of 1944, Greene & Sprang’s ‘The Year 3000!’ was a timely allegory of recent terrors and warning to tomorrow as the usual scenario boldly switched to an idyllic future despoiled when the Saturnian hordes of Fura invade Earth and nearly crush humanity. Happily, one brave man and his young friend find records of ancient heroes named Batman and Robin and, patterning themselves on the long-gone champions, lead a rebellion which overturns and eradicates those future fascists…

Although a touch heavy-handed in places, this first conception of the undying legacy of Batman is a stunning example of what comics do best: inspire whilst entertaining…

Cameron & Sprang close up the issue, back on solid ground and with an eye to contemporary trends as ‘Crime Comes to Lost Mesa!’ finds the Gotham Gangbusters way out west in pursuit of escaped convicts and stumbling into a lost land where pueblo Indians still live in blissful ignorance of the modern world.

Keeping it that way takes the aid of plucky native tyke Nachee, helping Batman and Robin by surreptitiously rounding up the fugitives…

Issue #27 sported a stunning Christmas cover by Jack Burnley (equally captivating other covers in this collection are provided by Robinson or Sprang) before the Masked Manhunters were introduced to ‘The Penguin’s Apprentice’ (Cameron, Burnley & Robinson). The lad was far from keen to continue the family’s illegal traditions or indulge in nefarious business and his dreams of being an author soon ensured Batman put the Bird Bandit back in a cage…

Jerry Robinson always had a deft touch with light comedy and excelled in illustrating the sadly uncredited butler yarns remaining in this tome. ‘The Adventures of Alfred: The Pearl of Peril!’ saw the hapless manservant suckered into an ancient con-game but still coming up trumps thanks to sheer dumb luck, after which Samachson, Burnley & Robinson took Batman and Robin on a ‘Voyage into Villainy’ when a murder at The Explorers Club leads to a deadly treasure hunt through scaled-down replicas of Earth’s most inhospitable environments with a hidden killer waiting to pounce at any moment…

Another of the annual “Christmas Batman” tales wraps up the issue (why on Earth DC has never released a paperback collection of this phenomenally rich seam of Festive gold I’ll never understand) as ‘A Christmas Peril!’ by Cameron & Robinson follows the downward progress and overnight redemption of appallingly callous boy-millionaire Scranton Loring, who learns – almost too late – the joy of giving and inadvisability of trusting bankers and financial advisers, thanks to the timely intervention of a couple of self-appointed (masked) Santa’s Helpers…

Batman #28 leads with ‘Shadow City!’ (Cameron & Robinson) wherein The Joker concocts a wild scheme involving a floating urban street where gamblers and other wealthy risk-takers can indulge their dark passions safe from legal oversight – until the Dynamite Detectives deduce the truth of his vanishing village…

Another anonymous Robinson-rendered romp follows as ‘The Adventures of Alfred: The Great Handcuff King!’ reveals how the bumbling butler’s attempts to familiarise himself with manacles accidentally ensnares an unwary thuggish miscreant, after which the mild-mannered manservant almost ends the career of ‘Shirley Holmes: Policewoman!’ by inadvertently exposing the undercover cop to criminals in a tense Batman thriller by Finger & Robinson.

This issue ends on a redemptive high note as ‘Batman Goes to Washington!’ (Alvin Schwartz & Robinson) finds the Dark Knight supporting a group of former criminals heading to the nation’s capital to argue the case for jobs for ex-offenders. Typically, some gang bosses react to the threat to their potential labour pool with murderous overkill…

Finger & Sprang opened #29 with the chilling ‘Enemy No. 1’ as a man obsessed by being first at everything turned his monomaniacal frustration to the commission of crime, after which the Unknown Writer joined Robinson returned in ‘The Adventures of Alfred: The Butler’s Apprentice!’ wherein our dapper Man Friday answers an ad to train a retainer and stumbles into another half-baked burglary plot…

Although credited here to Robinson, Don Cameron’s outrageous romp ‘Heroes by Proxy!’ is actually an all-Sprang affair, delightfully describing how down-on-their-luck private detectives Hawke and Wrenn try to save their failing business by masquerading as Batman and Robin.

Luckily their first case involves strangely embarrassed Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson who are mortified – then amused – to be burgled by bandits unknown and then coached and cosseted by these helpful but blatantly shoddy impostors of their alter egos…

The delicious hilarity successfully concluded, grim normality returns courtesy of Finger, Sprang & Charles Paris as the diabolical Scuttler devises an infallible means of purloining secret plans and foiling the law’s attempts to catch him in ‘The Mails Go Through!’

The pompous Penguin pops up again in Batman #30, undertaking a bird and umbrella themed banditry-blitz to ensure his status as emperor of crime until the determined duo send him ‘Back to the Big House!’ (Cameron & Sprang).

‘While the City Sleeps!’ (Finger & Sprang) is a revered classic of informative, socially-aware entertainment which finds the senior crime-smasher taking his ward on a nocturnal tour of the city, celebrating the people who keep a modern metropolis going. Along the way they encounter a repentant thief trying to return stolen cash and have to deal with the guilty man’s murderous compatriots who want to keep the loot…

‘The Adventures of Alfred: Alias the Baron!’ (? & Robinson) then brightens the tone as the butler is mistaken by gangsters for a British crook marked for assassination, after which Finger & Sprang introduce the most annoying character in Gotham in ‘Ally Babble and the Fourteen Peeves!’

The well-meaning, impulse-challenged blabbermouth never shuts up and when he agrees to sort out a list of petty grievances for a well-to-do, bedridden old gent, the resulting chaos allows crooks to make a killing. As events alarmingly escalate however, the Caped Crimebusters are hard pushed to decide who’s the greater menace…

The final issue in this titanic tome is an all Robinson art-affair, beginning with the debut of quarrelsome couple ‘Punch and Judy!’ (scripted by Finger and inked by George Roussos). The wily elderly performers’ violent relationship makes them prime suspects when Bruce and Dick investigate a crooked carnival but can they possibly be involved in murder too?

‘The Adventures of Alfred: Alfred, Armchair Detective!’ was possibly written by Cameron or Samachson and hilariously depicts how an idle night spent eavesdropping on crooks results in a big arrest of burglars, whilst ‘The Vanishing Village!’ (Samachson) finds Batman and Robin in Florida, infiltrating a seemingly mobile resort hideaway for crooks on the run before Joe Greene authors the final act.

Here Robinson & Roussos depict the heroes investigating ‘Trade Marks of Crime!’ when a succession of crimes seem to indicate that some new culprit is utilising the tricks and M.O.’s of other bandits. The truth is a far more cunning and dangerous solution…

Accompanied by a full creator ‘Biographies’ section, this sublime selection of classic comicbook action is a magnificent rollercoaster ride to a era of high drama, low cunning and breathtaking excitement and this timeless and evergreen treat is one no lover of graphic entertainments should ignore.
© 1944, 1945, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Shazam! Family Archives volume 1


By unknown authors, Mac Raboy, Al Carreno, Mark Swayze & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0779-3

One of the most venerated and beloved characters of America’s Golden Age of comicbooks, Captain Marvel was created in 1940 as part of a wave of opportunistic creativity which followed the stunning success of Superman in 1938 and Batman one year later.

Although there were many similarities in the early years, the Fawcett champion quickly moved squarely into the area of light entertainment and even straight comedy, whilst as the years passed the Man of Steel increasingly left whimsy behind in favour of action, drama and suspense.

Homeless orphan and all-around decent kid Billy Batson was selected by an ancient wizard named Shazam to periodically employ the powers of six ancient gods and heroes to battle injustice. Thereafter he could transform from scrawny, precocious kid to brawny (adult) hero Captain Marvel by speaking aloud the wizard’s acronymic name – invoking the powers of legendary patrons Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.

Publishing house Fawcett had first gained prominence through an immensely well-received magazine for WWI veterans entitled Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang, before branching out into books and general interest magazines. Their most successful publication – at least until the Good Captain hit his stride – was the ubiquitous boy’s building bible Mechanix Illustrated and, as the comicbook decade unfolded, the scientific and engineering discipline and “can-do” demeanour underpinning MI suffused and informed both the art and plots of the Marvel Family titles.

Captain Marvel was the brainchild of writer/editor Bill Parker and brilliant illustrator Charles Clarence Beck who, with his assistant Pete Costanza, handled most of the art on the series throughout its stellar run. Before eventually evolving his own affable personality the Captain was a serious, bluff and rather characterless powerhouse whilst junior alter ego Billy was the true star: a Horatio Alger archetype of impoverished, boldly self-reliant and resourceful youth overcoming impossible odds through gumption, grit and sheer determination…

After homeless orphan newsboy Billy was granted access to the power of legendary gods and heroes, he won a job as a roaming radio reporter for Amalgamated Broadcasting and first defeated demonic Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, setting a pattern that would captivate readers for the next 14 years…

At the height of his popularity Captain Marvel – and many of his fellow Shazam!-powered pals – were published twice monthly and frequently outsold Superman, but as the Furious Forties closed, tastes changed, sales slowed and Fawcett saw the way the wind was blowing.

They settled an infamous, long-running copyright infringement suit begun by National Comics in 1940 and the “Big Red Cheese” vanished – like so many other superheroes – becoming no more than a fond memory for older fans…

Fawcett in full bloom, however, was a true publishing innovator and marketing dynamo – now regarded as the inventor of many established comicbook sales tactics we all take for granted today. This stunning and lavishly sturdy full-colour hardback compendium features magnificent examples of the most effective strategy: spin-off characters linked to the primary star…

Fawcett was the company responsible for creating crossover-events and in 1942 they devised a truly unforgettable villain and set him simultaneously loose on their stable of costumed champions whilst using his (temporary) defeat to introduce a new hero to their colourful pantheon.

The epic creation of Captain Marvel Jr. and his originating antithesis Captain Nazi was covered in Shazam! Archives volume 4 so this subsidiary collection gathers his subsequent appearances as brand new headliner in Master Comics #23-32 (February to November 4th 1942) plus the first issue of his own solo title ( 18th November 1942) and also includes the first appearance of mighty Miss Mary Marvel who debuted in Captain Marvel Adventures #18 (December 11th 1942)

Featuring a stunning array of breathtaking and evocative patriotic covers by Mac Raboy and Beck, this splendid compendium kicks off with an erudite and incisive Foreword by P.C. Hammerlinck (artist, editor, historian and former student of C.C. Beck) who reveals many secrets of the original comics’ production before the cartoon classics commence.

Sadly, although the artists involved are easily recognisable, the identities of these tales’ writers are lost to us but strong possibilities include primarily Rod Reed and Ed “France” Herron (both early editors of Fawcett’s comics line) as well as Bill Parker, Joe Millard, Manly Wade Wellman, Otto Binder and William Woolfolk.

Before the advent of the World’s Mightiest Boy, Bulletman – ably assisted by his companion Bulletgirl – was undoubtedly Fawcett’s runner-up star turn; hogging the cover spot in monthly Master Comics and carrying his own solo comicbook. However, that all changed with the twenty-first issue and the murderous arrival of Captain Nazi. Hitler’s Übermensch made manifest, the monstrous villain was despatched to America to spread terror and destruction and kill all its superheroes.

The Horrendous Hun stormed in, taking on Bulletman and Captain Marvel who united to stop the Fascist Fiend wrecking New York City. The battle ended inconclusively but restarted when the Nazi nemesis tried to wreck a hydroelectric dam. Foiled again, the monster sought to smash a new fighter plane prototype before Captain Marvel countered him, but was not quick enough to prevent the killer murdering an old man and brutally crushing a young boy.

Freddy Freeman seemed destined to follow his grandfather into eternity, but guilt-plagued Billy brought the dying lad to Shazam’s mystic citadel where the old wizard saved his life by granting him access to the power of the ancient gods and heroes. Physically cured – except for a permanently maimed leg – there was a secondary effect: whenever he uttered the phrase “Captain Marvel” Freeman transformed into a super-powered, invulnerable version of his mortal self…

The prototype crossover epic concluded in Master Comics #22 when the teen titan joined Bulletman and Bulletgirl in stopping a string of Captain Nazi-sponsored murders, victoriously concluding with a bold announcement that from the very next issue he would be starring in his own solo adventures…

The triumphant parade of epic adventures starts in this tome with ‘Captain Nazi’s Assassination Plot’ (Master Comics #22), immaculately rendered by the Alex Raymond-inspired Raboy who would produce some of the most iconic art of his illustrious career, albeit struggling all the time with punishing deadlines and his own impossibly harsh standards…

Earning a living selling newspapers on street corners, young Freddie spots Captain Nazi again and dogs his corpse-strewn trail as the fascist kills a British agent and attempts to murder President Roosevelt. Then ‘Death by Radio’ introduces sinister serial killer Mr. Macabre who brazenly broadcasts his intention to assassinate former business partners until the young Marvel confronts him…

Master Comics #22 sees Freddie investigate a little lad’s broken balloon in ‘The Case of the Face in the Dark!’ only to stumble upon a cunning plot by the Japanese to invade Alaska. Whereas his senior partner’s tales were always laced with whimsy, Junior’s beautifully depicted exploits were always drenched in angst, tension and explosive action. The climax, which involved the bombastic boy-warrior shredding wave after wave of bombers, is possibly one of the most staggering spectacles of the Golden Age…

On a smaller scale, the next issue featured ‘The Return of Mr. Macabre!’ as the killer, turned sickly green after a failed suicide attempt, kidnaps a US inventor ferrying vital plans to England. The plot goes well until Macabre’s rendezvous with Captain Nazi in mid-Atlantic is interrupted by Junior who saves the day by ripping their battleship apart with his bare hands…

In a rare display of close continuity, Freddie then carries on to London in MC #27 to counter ‘Captain Nazi and the Blackout Terror’, with the malign master of disguise setting out to neutralise the city’s anti-Blitz protocols. For his service Freddie is made a special agent for Winston Churchill…

Never captive for long, in the next issue the Hunnish Hauptman spearheads an Atlantic reign of terror and kidnaps America’s chief of War Production until Junior single-handedly invades ‘Hitler’s Headquarters of Horror’, linking up with the German Resistance movement to free the crucial captive.

After such smashing successes it was no surprise that in #29 British Intelligence tapped innocuous Freddie Freeman to infiltrate Hitler’s Fortress Europa and prepare the enslaved populations under ‘The Iron Heel of the Huns’ to rise when the inevitable Allied counterattack came…

Master #30 saw the wonder boy back in the USA to stop Captain Nazi’s plan to poison an entire military base in ‘Captain Marvel Jr. Saves the Doomed Army’ before malignant Mr. Macabre joins the Japanese to abduct a crucially-placed diplomat in ‘The Case of the Missing Ambassador’ inevitably tasting frustrating defeat and receiving the sound thrashing he so richly deserves…

With Master Comics #32, the title became a fortnightly publication but Freddie barely noticed since he was embroiled in a decidedly domestic atrocity where corrupt orphanage officials collected and abused disabled kids to turn a profit from ‘The Cripple Crimes’

A blockbuster hit, “The Most Sensational Boy in the World” won his own title as 1942 drew to a close, but with Raboy already hard-pressed to draw 14 pages a month to his own exacting standards, Captain Marvel Jr. #1 was illustrated by reliable Al Carreno – a Fawcett regular who had covered almost every character in the company’s stable.

The bumper book began by briefly reprising ‘The Origin of Captain Marvel Jr.’ before depicting ‘Wings of Dazaggar!’ wherein Junior follows Captain Nazi to an occupied West African colony and uncovers a flight of secret super-planes intended to bomb America to dust…

After scotching that scheme Freddie is drawn into an eerie murder-mystery as a succession of gangsters and investigative reporters fall victim to ‘The Shadow that Walked!’, after which thugs snatching beggars off the street to fuel a fantastically callous insurance scam make their biggest mistake by grabbing lame Freddie Freeman as their next patsy in ‘The Case of the Cripple Kidnappers’

The soaring sagas conclude on a redemptive note as Captain Marvel Jr. “encourages” ‘The Cracked Safecracker’ to renounce his criminal ways and look after his elderly, ailing and extremely gullible parents…

This superb graphic treat concludes with ‘Captain Marvel Introduces Mary Marvel’ capably rendered by Fawcett mainstay Mark Swayze from Captain Marvel Adventures #18. Preceded by a glorious painted cover from Beck of what would become known as “The Marvel Family”, the story saw boy broadcaster Billy Batson hosting a radio quiz show and finding himself drawn to sweet rich kid Mary Bromfield.

During the course of the show – which also includes Freddie Freeman amongst the contestants – Billy is made shockingly aware that Mary is in fact a long-lost twin sister he never knew he had (take that, Luke Skywalker!) but before he can share the knowledge with her, gangsters kidnap her for a hefty ransom.

Although Captain Marvel and Junior rescue her they foolishly fall under the sway of the crooks and are astounded when Mary idly mutters the word “Shazam!”, transforms into the World’s Mightiest Girl and rescues them all…

Crisis over, the trio then quiz the old wizard and learn the secret of Mary’s powers – gifts of a group of goddesses who have endowed the plucky lass with the grace of Selene, the strength of Hippolyta, the skill of Ariadne, the fleetness of Zephyrus, the beauty of Aurora and the wisdom of Minerva – before welcoming their new companion to a life of unending adventure…

Notwithstanding the acute implied sexism of Mary’s talents coming from goddesses rather the same source as the boys’, her creation was a landmark of progress which added a formidable and unbeatable female to the ranks of the almost universally male mystery-man population of comicbooks.

The original Captain Marvel is a true milestone of American comics history and a brilliantly conceived superhero for all ages. These enchanting, compelling tales show why “The Big Red Cheese” and his oddly extended family was such an icon of the industry and prove that such timeless, sublime graphic masterpieces are an ideal introduction to the world of superhero fiction: tales that cannot help but appeal to readers of every age and temperament…
© 1942, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Crisis on Multiple Earths volume 2


By Gardner Fox, Dennis O’Neil, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Dillin & Sid Greene (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0003-9

As I’ve frequently mentioned before, I was one of the Baby Boomers who grew up with Julie Schwartz, Gardner Fox and John Broome’s tantalisingly slow reintroduction of DC’s Golden Age superheroes during the halcyon, eternally summery days of the 1960s. To me those fascinating counterpart crusaders from Earth-Two weren’t vague and distant memories rubber-stamped by parents or older brothers – they were cool, fascinating and enigmatically new.

…And for some reason the “proper” heroes of Earth-One held them in high regard and treated them with marked deference…

It all began, naturally enough, in The Flash; pioneering trendsetter of the Silver Age Revolution. After successfully ushering in the triumphant return of the superhero concept, the Scarlet Speedster, with Fox & Broome at the writing reins, set an incomparably high standard for costumed adventurers in sharp, witty tales of science and imagination, always illustrated with captivating style and clean simplicity by Carmine Infantino.

The epochal epic that literally changed the scope of American comics forever was Fox’s ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ (Flash #123 September 1961, as seen in Showcase Presents the Flash volume 2) which introduced the theory of alternate Earths to the continuity and by extension resulted in the multiversal structure of the DCU – and all the succeeding cosmos-shaking yearly “Crisis” sagas that grew from it.

And of course, where DC led, others followed…

With the concept of Infinite Earths and multiple versions of costumed crusaders solidly established, public pressure began almost instantly to agitate for the return of the “Golden Age Greats” but Editorial powers-that-be were hesitant, fearing too many heroes would be silly and unmanageable, or worse yet, put readers off. If they could see us now…

A torturous trickle of innovative crossover yarns generated an avalanche of popular and critical approval (big sales figures, too) so inevitably the trans-dimensional tests led to the ultimate team-up in the summer of 1963. ‘Crisis on Earth-One’ and ‘Crisis on Earth-Two’ (Justice League of America #21-22, August and September) comprised one of the most important stories in DC history and arguably one of the most crucial tales in American comics.

Its success led to a sequel the following summer and by year three it had become an eagerly-awaited tradition that would last as long as the JLA comicbook did.

This second collected volume gathers the fifth through eighth summer collaborations (JLA #55-56, 64-65, 73-74 and 82-83), encompassing a period of editorial flux and change. The background is covered in Martin Pasko’s erudite Introduction ‘Crisis Behind the Scenes’ which details how the loss of stalwart originators Gardner Fox & Mike Sekowsky led to a new way of telling stories, offsetting in some respects the genuine dilemma of readers’ changing tastes…

These classics span a period in DC’s history which still makes many fans shudder with dread but I’m going to ask them to reconsider their aversion to the “Camp Craze” that saw America go superhero silly in the wake of the Batman TV show (and, to a lesser extent, the Green Hornet series that introduced Bruce Lee to the world). I should also mention that comics didn’t create the craze. Many popular media outlets felt the zeitgeist of a zanier, tongue-in-cheek, mock-heroic fashion: Just check out old episodes of Lost in Space or The Man from U.N.C.L.E if you doubt me…

A wise-cracking campy tone was fully in play for the first two-parter – ‘The Super-Crisis that Struck Earth-Two’ and ‘The Negative-Crisis on Earths One-Two!’ from JLA #55-56 (August and September 1967).

Opening on Earth-2, it boasted a radical change as the JSA now included an adult Robin instead of Batman, although Hourman, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, Wildcat, Johnny Thunder and Mr. Terrific still needed the help of Earth-1’s Superman, Flash, Green Lantern and Green Arrow to cope with an invasion of superpower-creating black spheres which gave mere mortals uncanny abilities enabling them to satisfy their darkest desires.

Things went from bad to worse after the harried heroes used the ebony invaders to augment their own abilities and turn half the combined team evil too…

Peppered with wisecracks and “hip” dialogue, it’s sometimes difficult to discern what a cracking yarn this actually is, but if you’re able to forgive or swallow the dated patter, this is one of the best plotted and illustrated stories in the entire JLA/JSA canon. Furthermore, with immensely talented Sid Greene’s inking adding expressive subtlety, mesmerising texture and whimsical humour to Sekowsky’s pencils, Fox’s bright, breezy comedic scripts simply shine.

By 1968 the second superhero boom looked to be dying just as its predecessor had at the end of the 1940s. Sales were down generally in the comics industry and costs were beginning to spiral. More importantly “free” entertainment, in the form of television, was by now ensconced in even the poorest household. If you were a kid in the sixties, think on just how many brilliant cartoon shows were created in that decade, when artists like Alex Toth and Doug Wildey were working in West Coast animation studios.

Moreover, comicbook stars were appearing on the small screen. Superman, Aquaman, Batman, the Marvel heroes and even the JLA were there every Saturday in your own living room…

It was a time of great political and social upheaval. Change was everywhere and unrest even reached the corridors of DC. When a number of creators agitated for increased work-benefits the request was not looked upon kindly. Many left the company for other outfits. Some quit the business altogether.

Fox ended his magnificent run on the Justice League with a stunning annual team-up of the League and Justice Society. Creative and perfectly professional to the very end, his last story was yet another of the Golden-Age revivals which had resurrected the superhero genre.

JLA #64 and 65 (August to September 1968) featured the ‘Stormy Return of the Red Tornado’ and ‘T.O. Morrow Kills the Justice League – Today!’ with a cyclonic super-android taking on the mantle of a 1940s spoof “Mystery Man” who appeared in the very first JSA adventure (if you’re interested, the original Red Tornado was a brawny washerwoman named Ma Hunkle).

The plot involved a cagy time thief creating an artificial hero to help him defeat the JLA and JSA, but realising too late he had built better than he knew…

Fox’s departing thriller was also the series’ artistic debut for former Blackhawk artist Dick Dillin, a prolific draughtsman who would draw every JLA issue for the next twelve years, as well as many other adventures of DC’s top characters like Superman and Batman. He was inked by Greene, a pairing that seemed vibrant and darkly realistic after the eccentrically stylish, nigh-abstract Sekowsky.

Next up from August and September 1969 is Denny O’Neil’s first shot at the yearly cross-dimensional crisis as #73 and 74 offered ‘Star Light, Star Bright… Death Star I See Tonight!’ and ‘Where Death Fears to Tread!’

The tense, brooding tale introduced Aquarius, a sentient but insane star, who magically destroys Earth-Two until our Earth-1 heroes (with their surviving Golden Age counterparts) manage to restore it, but not without some personal tragedy as Black Canary loses her husband and opts to emigrate to our world, handily becoming the JLA’s resident Girl Superhero and picking up a new if somewhat unreliable power in the process.

This splendid exercise in fantastic nostalgia ends with another grand get-together as alien property speculators from space seek to raze both Earths in ‘Peril of the Paired Planets’ (#82 August 1970 by O’Neil, Dillin & Joe Giella) and only the ultimate sacrifice by a true hero can avert trans-dimensional disaster in the concluding ‘Where Valor Fails… Will Magic Triumph?’ (#83 September, O’Neil, Dillin & Giella)

This volume also includes a few beguiling extras: the front and back covers of Limited Collectors Edition #C-46 (by Neal Adams from August/September 1976), a double-page pin-up of the JSA by Murphy Anderson from Justice League of America #76 (October 1969) and a JLA Mail Room comprised of found letters from many of the passionate fans like Gerry Conway, Alan Brennert and Martin Pasko who grew up to be somebody in comics…

These tales won’t suit everybody and I’m as aware as any that in terms of the “super-powered” genre the work here can be boiled down to two bunches of heroes formulaically getting together to deal with extra-extraordinary problems.

In mature hindsight, it’s obviously also about sales and the attempted revival of more sellable characters during a period of intense rivalry between DC Comics and Marvel.

But I don’t have to be mature in my off-hours and for those who love costume heroes, who crave these cunningly constructed modern mythologies and actually care about fun, this is simply a grand parade of straightforward action, great causes and momentous victories.

…And since I wouldn’t have it any other way, why should you?
© 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.