Superman Chronicles volume 10


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, John Sikela, Leo Nowak, Ed Dobrotka, George Roussos, Jack Burnley, Fred Ray & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3488-1

Without doubt the creation of Superman and his unprecedented adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form.

Within three years of his Summer 1938 debut, the intoxicating mix of eye-popping action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early exploits of the Man of Tomorrow had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy and even whimsical comedy, but once the war in Europe and the East snared America’s consciousness, combat themes and patriotic imagery dominated most comicbook covers if not interiors.

In comic book terms at least Superman was master of the world, and had already utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry. There was the popular newspaper strip, a thrice-weekly radio serial, games, toys, foreign and overseas syndication and the Fleischer studio’s astounding animated cartoons.

Thankfully the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release and the energy and enthusiasm of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster had informed and infected the burgeoning studio that grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

Superman was definitely every kid’s hero, as confirmed in this classic compendium, and the raw, untutored yet captivating episodes reprinted here had also been completely embraced by the wider public, as comicbooks became a vital tonic for the troops and all the ones they had left behind…

I sometimes think – like many others I know – that superhero comics were never more apt or effective than when they were whole-heartedly combating global fascism with explosive, improbable excitement courtesy of a myriad of mysterious, masked marvel men.

All the most evocatively visceral moments of the genre seem to come when gaudy gladiators soundly thrashed – and I hope you’ll please forgive the offensive contemporary colloquialism – “Nips and Nazis”.

However, even in those long-ago dark days, comics creators were wise enough to offset their tales of espionage and imminent invasion with a barrage of home-grown threats and gentler or even more whimsical four-colour fare…

This tenth astounding Superman chronological chronicle – collecting #18-19 of his solo title, episodes from flagship anthology Action Comics #53-55 and the Man of Steel segment of World’s Finest Comics #7 (covering September to December 1942) – sees the World’s Premier Superhero pre-eminent at the height of those war years: a vibrant, vital role-model and indomitable champion whose sensational exploits spawned a host of imitators, a genre and an industry.

Behind the stunning covers by Jack Burnley and Fred Ray – depicting our hero smashing scurrilous Axis War-mongers and reminding readers what we were all fighting for – scripter Siegel – who authored everything in this volume – was crafting some of the best stories of his career, showing the Action Ace in all his morale-boosting glory; thrashing thugs, spies and masters of Weird science whilst America kicked the fascist aggressors in the pants…

Co-creator Joe Shuster, although plagued by punishing deadlines for the Superman newspaper strip and rapidly failing eyesight, was still fully involved in the process, overseeing the stories and drawing character faces whenever possible, but as the months passed the talent pool of the “Superman Studio” increasingly took the lead in the comicbooks as the demands of the media superstar grew and grew.

Thus most of the stories in this volume were illustrated by studio stalwarts John Sikela, Leo Nowak and Ed Dobrotka with occasional support from others…

The debut of Superman had propelled National Comics to the forefront of the fledgling industry. In 1939 the company collaborated with the organisers of the New York World’s Fair: producing a commemorative comicbook celebrating the opening. The Man of Tomorrow prominently featured on the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics beside such four-colour stars as Zatara, Gingersnap and The Sandman.

He starred again a year later in the sequel issue with newly-launched Batman and Robin in another epochal mass-market premium – World’s Fair 1940.

The monolithic 96-page card-cover anthologies were a huge hit and convinced National’s Powers-That-Be to release a regularly scheduled over-sized package of their pantheon of characters, with Superman and Batman prominently featured.

The bountiful format was retained for a wholly company-owned quarterly which retailed for the then-hefty price of 15¢. Launching as World’s Best Comics #1 (Spring 1941), the book transformed into World’s Finest Comics from #2, beginning a stellar 45 year run which only ended as part of the massive decluttering exercise that was Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Here – illustrated by Nowak & Sikela – the thrills begin with ‘The Eight Doomed Men’ (World’s Finest Comics #7); a tale involving a coterie of ruthless millionaires targeted for murder because of the wicked past deeds of their privileged college fraternity. This enthralling crime mystery is suitably spiced up with flamboyant high-tech weaponry that pushes the Action Ace to his limits…

Superman #18 (September/October 1942) then offers a quartet of stunning sagas, leading with the all-Sikela’s ‘The Conquest of a City’ wherein Nazi infiltrators used a civil defence drill to infiltrate the National Guard and conquer Metropolis in the Fuehrer’s name until Superman spearheads the counter-attack, whilst in Nowak’s ‘The Heat Horror’ an artificial asteroid threatens to burn the city to ashes until the Metropolis Marvel defeats Lex Luthor, the manic mastermind who aimed it at Earth.

‘The Man with the Cane’ offers a grand, old-fashioned and highly entertaining espionage murder mystery for Ed Dobrotka & Sikela to illustrate after which Superman takes on his first fully costumed super-villain after ‘The Snake’ perpetrates a string of murders during construction of a river tunnel in a moody masterpiece drawn by Nowak.

Sikela is inked by George Roussos on fantastic thriller ‘The Man Who put Out the Sun!’ from Action Comics #53, wherein bird-themed menace Night-Owl uses “black light” technology and ruthless gangsters to plunder at will until the Man of Steel takes charge, whilst in #54 ‘The Pirate of Pleasure Island!’ (Sikela) follows the foredoomed career of upstanding citizen Stanley Finchcomb, a seemingly civilised descendent of ruthless buccaneers, who succumbs to madness and becomes a modern day merciless marine marauder. Or perhaps he truly was possessed by the merciless spirit of his ancestor Captain Ironfist in this enchanting supernatural thriller…?

A classic (and much reprinted) fantasy shocker opened Superman #19. ‘The Case of the Funny Paper Crimes’ (by Sikela & Dobrotka) saw bizarre desperado Funnyface bring the larger-than-life villains of the Daily Planet’s comics page to terrifying life in a grab for loot and power, after which ‘Superman’s Amazing Adventure’ (Nowak) finds the Man of Tomorrow battling incredible creatures in an incredible extra-dimensional realm – but all is not as it seems…

Some of the city’s most vicious criminals are commanded to kill a stray dog by the infamous Mr. Z in ‘The Canine and the Crooks’ (Nowak) and it takes all of Clark and Lois Lane’s deductive skills to ascertain why before ‘Superman, Matinee Idol’ breaks the fourth wall for readers as the reporters visit a movie house to see a Superman cartoon in a shameless but exceedingly inventive and thrilling “infomercial” plug for the Fleischer Brothers cartoons then currently astounding movie-goers; all lovingly rendered by Shuster and inked by Sikela.

This latest leaf through times gone by concludes with a witty and whimsical Li’l Abner spoof illustrated by Sikela & Dobrotka. ‘A Goof named Tiny Rufe’ focuses on desperate cartoonist Slapstick Sam who plagiarises – and ruins – the simple lives of a couple of naïve hillbillies to fill his idea-empty panels and pages until Superman intercedes to give the hicks their lives back and the devious dauber the drubbing he so richly deserves……

Although the gaudy burlesque of evil aliens, marauding monsters and slick super-villains still lay years ahead of Superman, these captivating tales of villainy, criminality, corruption and disaster are just as engrossing and speak powerfully of the tenor of the times.

Most importantly all problems are dealt with in a direct and captivating manner by our relentlessly entertaining champion in summarily swift and decisive fashion. No “To Be Continueds…” here!

As fresh, thrilling and compelling now as they ever were, the endlessly re-readable epics re-presented here are perfectly presented in these glorious paperback collections where the graphic magic defined what being a Super Hero means and with every tale defined the basic iconography of the genre for all others to follow.

These Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment at absurdly affordable prices and in a durable, comfortingly approachable format. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
© 1942, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade


By Landry Q. Walker, Eric Jones & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2506-3

As a rule, superhero comics don’t generally do whimsically thrilling anymore. They especially don’t do short or self-contained. The modern narrative drive concentrates on extended spectacle, major devastation and relentless terror and trauma. It also helps if you’ve come back from the dead once or twice and wear combat thongs and thigh boots…

Although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that – other than the inappropriateness of striving to fix wedgies during life-or-death struggles – sometimes the palate just craves a different flavour.

Once such continued cosmic cataclysm was the exception, not the rule, and this enchanting collection first seen in 2009 harks back to simpler days of complex plots, solid characterisation and suspenseful fun by way of an alternative take on Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El, late of Argo City and Earth’s newest alien invader…

After a few intriguing test-runs Supergirl began as a future star of the expanding Superman pocket universe in Action Comics #252 (May 1959). Superman’s cousin Kara had been born on a city-sized fragment of Krypton, hurled intact into space when the planet exploded. Eventually Argo City turned to Kryptonite like the rest of the detonated world’s debris, and her dying parents, observing Earth through their scopes, sent their daughter to safety even as they perished.

Landing on Earth, she met Superman, who created the cover-identity of Linda Lee and hid her in an orphanage in bucolic small town Midvale whilst she learned of her new world and powers in secrecy and safety.

In 2009 much of that treasured back-history was euphorically reinstated for a superb miniseries for younger readers with Saturday morning animation sensibilities. Kara Zor-El was recast as a plucky 12-year-old whose world was suddenly turned upside down, forcing a decidedly ordinary kid to adapt to and cope with impossible changes at the craziest time of her life…

It all begins as Superman and Lex Luthor again indulge in another life-and-death duel. The battle ends suddenly as the evil genius’ war machine is wrecked by a gleaming rocket, from which emerges a dazed girl in a knock-off Man of Steel outfit. Panicked by the press pack that converges on her, the waif jumps back and suddenly catapults into the air…

Soon however Superman has caught and calmed the careering child and explanations ensue. She’s his cousin Kara from Argo City, which escaped the destruction of Krypton by a fantastic fluke: being hurled by the blast unharmed and entire into another dimension…

The Argoans thrived in their pocket reality and watched baby Kal-El become a mighty hero. In fact, it was a message-probe aimed at him that Kara sneaked onto before being accidentally sent to Earth. It is a horrific shock to learn Superman has no idea how to get her back to them…

Marooned on a weird, primitive planet with powers she doesn’t understand and cannot control is bad enough, but discovering her cousin has no time or space to look after her is the worst. Soon, wearing a pair of awful glasses, orphan “Linda Lee” begins a new life at Stanhope Boarding School

The lessons are dull or baffling; nobody likes her; Principal Pycklemyer is a snide, snarky ass and worst of all, Kara’s superpowers keep turning off and on without any rhyme or reason. The first week is sheer hell, but ends on an up note as, after another fruitless attempt to get home, Linda heads back to the girls’ dormitory and finds a present waiting: a super-phone which can reach her mum and dad…

The Pre-Teen Powerhouse is still screwing up in class and her troubles multiply in detention when an odd green mineral interacts with a light projector in the science lab and creates an evil doppelganger.

Smug, arrogant Superiorgirl calls herself Belinda Zee and is instantly more popular. She also sets out to make Linda’s life an unending succession of petty aggravations and annoyances…

However, Belinda’s greatest scheme to humiliate Linda is foiled by a new transfer student. High-maintenance misfit Lena Thorul is a scary genius who takes an instant liking to fellow outcast Linda and saves the day with a mind-control helmet she whipped up…

Soon the weird pair are dorm-mates, even though Lena is a bit clingy and rather aggressive. She might even be preventing other students befriending Linda…

Life is never quiet and when Supergirl intercepts a glowing red meteor in space the fallout scatters scarlet debris all over Stanhope. The effect is amazing, as almost everybody develops superpowers…

Naturally Linda can’t reveal her own hidden abilities so she and a few pitiful others are quickly relegated to a remedial class for the “super-heroically challenged”. When the powers all suddenly fade, Supergirl is kept busy saving the students from their own youthful follies and is astonished to later discover the power drain was caused by Lena…

And that’s when things get truly complicated, as her solution to the on-going problem gives Supergirl the ability to time-travel and the notion that she can warn her earlier self to respond differently to the crisis…

Another day, and another disaster dawns as Linda’s experiments with Green Kryptonite – in hopes of finding a cure – instead give an alley cat incredible super-powers. As Streaky stalks the halls of Stanhope, Lena reveals her true nature and Superiorgirl is forced to choose sides…

The adventure concludes on ‘Graduation Day’ as chaos reigns and the real reason for all the incredible events Linda has endured are finally exposed. Luthor escapes jail, Streaky returns, Belinda becomes queen of Bizarro Zombies, Fifth Dimensional Sprites attack and Supergirl meets Supragirl before ending with a new trusty companion – Comet the Superhorse. Sadly he won’t be enough to aid the Maid of Might as she strives to prevent the destruction all there is…

With Reality unravelling Supergirl needs a little help and it comes from the last person she expected…

Joyous, thrilling, warm-hearted and supremely entertaining, this festival of Fights ‘n’ Tights fun is a delightful romp for youngsters and a fabulous tribute to DC’s Silver Age, and fans can also enjoy bonus features including sketch sections on ‘Redesigning Supergirl’, lovely pencil roughs and a full cover gallery.

Some characters are clearly capable of surviving seemingly infinite reinvention and the Girl of Steel is certainly one of those. Here in this charming, engaging, inspiring yarn for older kids and young adults you can enjoy a pure and primal romp: simultaneously action-packed and funny as it perfectly demonstrates how determination, smarts and courage trump superpowers and cosmic omnipotence every time
© 2009, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Time Masters: Vanishing Point


By Dan Jurgens, Norm Rapmund, Rodney Ramos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3047-0

After the cosmos-crunching Crisis on Infinite Earths re-sculpted the DC Universe in 1986, a host of characters got floor-up rebuilds for the tougher, no-nonsense, straight-shooting New American readership of the Reagan era. The decluttering exercise also made room for a few superheroes of types previously unknown at the company “Where Legends Live”.

Disgraced sports star Michael Carter came back from the 25th century to our era, tooled up with stolen technology, determined to recreate himself as a superhero. As Booster Gold he made a name for himself as a mid-level hero and supreme self-promoter and corporate shill.

Created, written and drawn by Dan Jurgens, the saga featured a brash, cockily mysterious apparently metahuman golden-boy jock setting up his stall as a superhero in Metropolis. Here he actively sought corporate sponsorships, sold endorsements and hired a management team to maximise the profit potential of his crusading celebrity.

He was accompanied everywhere by sentient, flying, football-shaped robot Skeets.

Their time came and went and Booster’s title folded, but he lived on as part of Justice League International where he became roughly half of comics’ funniest double-act, riffing with the equally light-hearted lightweight Blue Beetle.

Booster and Ted Kord (technically the second Blue Beetle) were the class clowns of billionaire Maxwell Lord’s League: a couple of obnoxiously charming frat-boys who could save the day but never get the girl or any respect.

When Lord murdered Beetle, precipitating an Infinite Crisis, Booster was shattered. Eventually, though, he recovered and redefined himself as a true hero through a succession of multiversal conflagrations. In landmark weekly maxi-series 52 and later Infinite Crisis, his intriguing take on Heroism diverged down strange avenues when Booster – traditionally only in it for fame and fortune – became a secret saviour, repairing the cracks in Reality caused by all the universe-warping shenanigans of myriad multiversal Crises and uncontrolled time-travel.

Working at the instruction of enigmatic and irascible mentor Rip Hunter: Time Master, Booster relinquished his dreams of glory to secretly save us all over and over and over again as the protector of the time-line, battling incredible odds to keep history on track and continuity in order.

This time-bending full-colour collection gathers 6-issue miniseries Time Masters: Vanishing Point (from September 2010-February 2011), detailing how Rip, Booster and Skeets steer a small posse of superheroes through the uncanny and lethally mutable corridors of time in search of a missing comrade vital to the existence of everything…

At the climax of a harrowing campaign of terror by The Black Hand and following Earth’s invasion by the New Gods of Apokolips, Batman was apparently killed at the conclusion of Infinite Crisis

The world at large was unaware of the loss, leaving the superhero community to mourn in secret whilst a dedicated army of assistants, protégés and allies – trained over years by the contingency-obsessed Dark Knight – formed the Network to police Gotham City in the days which followed: marking time until a successor could be found or the original restored…

Most of the Bat-schooled battalion refused to believe their inspirational mentor dead. On the understanding that he was merely lost, they eventually accepted Dick Grayson (the first Robin and latterly Nightwing) as a stand-in until Bruce Wayne could find his way back to them. The more cosmically endowed super-friends weren’t prepared to wait, however…

Batman, of course, is the most brilliant escape artist of all time and even whilst being struck down by the New God of Evil had devised an impossibly complex and grandly far-reaching scheme to beat the devil and save the world…

The chronally-fluctuating epic opens with elderly time guardian Booster sharing a few moments of educational bonding time with his son before Rip Hunter shakes off the happy memories and gets back to the immediate task at hand: reminding Superman, Green Lantern Hal Jordan and a blithely oblivious prime-of-life Booster of the dangers involved in interfering in historical events, no matter how tragic or cruel they might be…

Meanwhile, at the End of Time mystery hero Supernova is finding inviolate citadel Vanishing Point has been destroyed by incalculable forces and, after consulting with his unseen boss, grimly sets off in search of Rip…

The rescue mission for Bruce Wayne is Hunter’s idea. He tracked the hero to various time periods, where the Dark Knight briefly materialised before plunging back into the time stream again. Rip now hopes to extract him with the assistance of some of the Gotham Guardian’s oldest allies, before his random trajectory causes irreparable damage. He also fears enemy interference from enemies as yet unknown…

In Rip’s 21st century Arizona lab, Booster’s sister Michelle is confronted by two likely suspects as “Time Stealers” Per Degaton and Despero break in. The battle looks lost until Supernova arrives to turn the tables, but after driving off the villains the mystery man vanishes; still intent on finding the reason for Vanishing Point’s destruction and the time-stream’s increasing instability…

In the 15th century the rescue squad’s search ends in frustration, but as Rip prepares to bring them home a chronal disruption seizes them, propelling them all on an uncontrolled trip through time and also across dimensions…

On arrival Rip is confronted by a barbarian warrior with a demonic right hand (DC’s short-lived 1970s sword-&-sorcery star Claw the Unconquered), and Hunter’s thoughts go back to another salutary lesson delivered by his father on the crucial nature of his self-appointed mission. After a short battle he finally convinces the enraged swordsman that he is neither wizard nor foe.

As they join forces against a common threat, in another time and place Booster, Superman and Green Lantern have arrived in the middle of a war between humans and aliens. Unable to obey Hunter’s admonition not to get involved, the heroes engage the invading Mygorgs, unaware that in a distant time-pocket Degaton and Despero have met with their allies Ultra-Humanite and Black Beetle.

The consensus is that some outside force is destabilising time and it must be stopped if their own plans for domination are to succeed…

The superheroes’ resistance ends when Booster encounters a sword-wielding woman warrior named Starfire (another star of DC’s short 1970’s dalliance with sword-&-sorcery) and a tenuous alliance is formed just as a dragon-riding witch captures Superman and Green Lantern…

Although separated by dimensional walls, both Rip and Claw and Booster’s team are facing similar perils: held by unearthly wizard Serhattu and his accomplice sorceress Skyle whilst the mage attempts to control of time and escape his extra-dimensional realm using the out-worlders’ science…

And in the ruins of Vanishing Point, the Time Stealers find a cell and free Hunter’s greatest foes: former comrades and fellow Linear Men Matthew Rider and Liri Lee

As Serhattu and Skyle prepare their campaign of conquest and their captives struggle against mind-bending mystic shackles, at Vanishing Point Supernova attacks but is unable to stop the Linear Men and Time Stealers getting away.

In the other-dimensional realm, Hunter takes a huge chance and the heroes escape imprisonment but are sucked into a time vortex. The gamble succeeds and the liberated champions recover in time to chase Serhattu and Skyle to the site of the first Atomic Bomb test and stop their attempt to steal the awesome unknown power for themselves.

After returning Starfire, Claw and the mages to their rightful places, the heroes press on, unaware that the Black Beetle has betrayed the Time Stealers and Linear Men to steal the time-warping powers locked in remains of chronal-energy being Waverider

Hunter’s team are again diverted however by time-travelling psychopath Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash who wants the Omega energy causing Batman’s time-ricochets for his own…

As they battle the super-fast maniac, elsewhen Supernova attacks Black Beetle, and another player co-opts the Waverider power. With time in flux the battles bleed into one another and Hunter’s heroes meet the Time Stealers, Linear Man and Supernova for one final catastrophic clash…

Fast-paced, deviously compelling and extraordinarily convoluted, this is the kind of Fights ‘n’ Tights clash die-hard comic fans live for: a complex saga full of fights, inside jokes or references and impossible situations all surmounted by bold heroes in full saviour mode. It’s just a pure shame that such excellent work excludes so many readers who would certainly enjoy it if only they had the neceassry background history to hand.

Furious fun and thrills for those in the know, or anyone willing to trade comprehension for non-stop action…
© 2010, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Suicide Squad volume 2: The Nightshade Odyssey


By John Ostrander, Keith Giffen, J. M. DeMatteis, Paul Kupperberg, Robert Greenberger, Luke McDonnell, Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5833-7

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

One of the most unconventional – despite crossing genres and having roots leading back to the very dawn of the Silver Age – was Suicide Squad by John Ostrander and artist Luke McDonnell.

Previously during a psychological attack on the very concept of heroism (as seen in the miniseries Legends and its many tie-ins and crossovers) President Ronald Reagan outlawed costumed crimebusters and sanctioned an ultra-covert governmental black-bag operation to press super-powered criminals into (secret) service…

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 superbly compelling reinterpretation of the long-neglected Suicide Squad: a boldly controversial revaluation of meta-humanity and the role of government in a world far more dangerous than the placid public believed…

As originally conceived by Robert Kanigher, the Suicide Squad first saw action in The War that Time Forgot (Star Spangled War Stories #90, April-May 1960). Paratroops and tanks of “Question Mark Patrol” dropped onto Mystery Island from whence no American soldiers ever returned. The crack warriors discovered why when the operation was overrun by dinosaurs and worse…

Re-imagined for The Brave and the Bold #25 (September 1959) as a quartet of combat specialists, Colonel Rick Flag, medic Karin Grace plus boffins Hugh Evans and Jess Price were officially convened as Suicide Squad/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 the exploits of homicide detective Ben Hunter; 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 December 1969, in increasingly nasty and occasionally fatal sorties, before being replaced without fanfare or preamble by The Losers and similarly lost to posterity.

Ostrander tied together all these disparate strands and linked obscure comics 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.

Now substituting super-villains for simple criminals, history was made…

This second collection was designed to tie-in to both the TV and movie incarnations of the Suicide Squad. Reprinting Suicide Squad #9-16, plus a crossover from Justice League International #13, material from Secret Origins #28 and team-up one-shot Doom Patrol/Suicide Squad #1(spanning January-August 1988) – it resumes the story of strident political insider Amanda Waller who convinced President Reagan to sponsor her scheme to make bad guys do good deeds.

He agreed, but only as long as he had complete deniability…

Waller didn’t want society to depend on capricious super do-gooders and recruited Flag’s damaged, driven son to run a new penal battalion working “off the books”, using state-sanctioned metahuman force for the greater good. Knowing criminals can’t be trusted, her devious set-up involves not just bribery – reduced sentences, financial favours and pardons – but coercion.

Field missions are led by traumatised, obsessively patriotic Flag Jr., assisted by amnesiac martial artist Bronze Tiger who ensures everybody stays honest and on-mission. Convict-operatives are picked as necessity demands, but some operatives are in regular use, such as Deadshot, Captain Boomerang and schizophrenic sorceress Enchantress. They are, however, wired with remote-detonation explosive devices just in case…

Backed by a support team which includes Flag’s former lover Karin Grace and Briscoe, a bizarre mystery pilot who has a rather unusual relationship with his seemingly sentient helicopter gunship, the ever-fluctuating team seem ready for anything…

The stories here come from a period when publishers were first developing the marketing strategies of the “Braided Mega-Crossover Event.” This hard-on-the-pockets innovation dictated really big stories involving every publication in a company’s output, for a limited time period – so a compilation like this perforce includes adventures that seem confusing because they are essentially “middles” with no beginnings or endings.

In this instance the unfolding epic is Millennium which saw writer Steve Englehart expand on an iconic tale from Justice League of America #140-141 as well as his run on the Green Lantern Corps

Billions of years ago the robotic peacekeepers called Manhunters rebelled against their creators. The immortal Guardians of the Universe desired a rational, emotionless cosmos – a view challenged by their own women. The Zamarons eventually abandoned the Guardians at the inception of the grand scheme, but after eons apart the two factions finally reconciled and left our reality together.

Here and now they have returned with a plan to midwife a new race of immortals on Earth, but the mechanoid Manhunters – who had in the meantime infiltrated all aspects of every society throughout the cosmos – resolved to thwart the plan, whether by seduction, connivance or just plain brute force.

The heroes of Earth gathered to protect the project and confront the Manhunters in their own private lives… and their own comics…

Thus Suicide Squad #9 (by Ostrander, Luke McDonnell & Bob Lewis) sees a team assembled to destroy a Manhunter Temple deep in the Louisiana swamps surrounding the team’s secret Belle Reve base. However, as they battle their way in with a monolithic bomb – despite interference from Captain Atom, Firestorm and too-good-to-be-true reformed Manhunter Mark Shaw – Flag discovers the person he most trusted is a Manhunter mole…

An unlikely hero then pays ‘The Final Price’ to complete the mission before, unconventionally, the squad pick up a new recruit in the bellicose form of mystery warrior Duchess just as they flee the cataclysmic results of their latest covert triumph…

As counsellor/chaplain Reverend Cramer sets up shop in Belle Reve, a grievous security breach occupies Waller’s attention. Somehow Batman has penetrated the top-secret project and indignantly announces that he will expose the whole sordid show.

When neither Flag nor the squad are able to stop the Dark Knight, Amanda finds a unique way to make the intransigent hero back down in ‘Up Against the Wall’

More politically astute action unfolds in ‘Red Pawn’ (plotted by Ostrander, scripted by Paul Kupperberg with art by Erik Larsen & Lewis from Doom Patrol/Suicide Squad #1) as reactionary right-wing hero Hawk is captured whilst running guns to anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua.

His plight quickly becomes the focus of a humiliating media circus, and, still smarting from his last press roasting for such illicit activities, Reagan orders Waller to rescue or kill the wayward freedom fighter.

Typically, this move angers the NSA advisors of the Leader of the Free World, who take matters into their own hands to fatally embarrass “the Wall” by inveigling recent Soviet defector Valentina Vostok to deploy her comrades in the Doom Patrol to save the tragic, well-meaning patriotic Hawk from the evil Sandanistas…

Already shaping up as a SNAFU of biblical proportions, neither American faction is aware that rival cabals in reformist Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s vast espionage apparatus are also implementing their own undercutting agendas…

Soon the entire country is at war as the Squad battle the undercover Doom Patrol (Celsius, Robotman, Negative Woman and Tempest) until a brigade of armoured Rocket Reds invades the nation. With uncontrolled destruction at maximum, the pointless clash escalates even further as a fourth force comprising Soviet super-soldier Stalnoivolk and KGB master schemer Major Zastrow work their own malignant way towards an acceptable solution to restore the status quo …

Barely surviving the political fallout, Waller’s Wonders are next deployed to destroy a drug-cartel in Suicide Squad #11 as ex-Justice Leaguer Vixen seeks vengeance after her friends are gunned down during a smuggling operation. ‘Blood and Snow Part One’ sees her volunteer for the penal team which is starting to feel the pressure of its own success.

Flag is on the edge of a breakdown and nobody has noticed that incorrigible felon Boomerang is impersonating another super-villain to rob banks in his spare time…

With no time to assess and her best assets still in Nicaragua, Waller assembles a team heavy with government-affiliated heroes such as Black Orchid, Nightshade and Speedy to augment remaining regular players Captain Boomerang, Enchantress and Briscoe. With great misgivings she tasks them with infiltrating the inner circle of Medellin Cartel boss Xavier Cujo to destroy his jungle fortress and vast stores of cocaine.

None of them are particularly bothered by the fact that this is an official assassination mission…

Naturally, the plan is perfect up until the moment it begins and soon the undercover stalwarts are battling for their lives in the blistering conclusion ‘Blood and Snow Part Two’. In the ghastly aftermath, however, Vixen no longer counts herself as a hero of any description…

A crucial crossover began in Justice League International #13. ‘Collision Course’ (inked by Al Gordon, drawn by Keith Giffen and co-written with partner in comedic crime J. M. DeMatteis) revealed how US agent and Suicide Squad point-man Nemesis was being tortured in a Soviet jail: a fact proudly leaked by the State’s media…

He had languished there ever since Waller abandoned him at the end of a disastrous attempt to rescue Russian dissenter Zoya Trigorin, but when Batman learns his old ally is a political prisoner he determines to break him out with or without the help of his JLI associates…

At Belle Reve, Flag – unable to convince The Wall (who is being stonewalled by Reagan) that something must be done – has begun his own illegal attempt to free the American hostage. However, once again unseen Soviet machinations are in play and an ambitious plotter has gulled Russian hero Starfire to inject himself into the growing crisis to bait a devious trap…

Flag’s team then stumbles into and brutally clashes with Batman’s Leaguers who are eventually forced into the uncomfortable position of having to – at least ostensibly – fight to keep Nemesis in Russian custody as ‘Battle Lines’ (Suicide Squad #13 by Ostrander, McDonnell & Lewis) are drawn. With violence peaking everybody gets a grim lesson in superpower Realpolitik before a solution is found…

Dimension-hopping super-agent Nightshade has been working for the Suicide Squad in return for the promise of assistance in a personal task. Secret Origins #28 revealed her hidden history in ‘A Princess’ Story’ (Robert Greenberger, Rob Liefeld & Lewis), detailing how little Eve Eden escaped from her own arcane realm after it was conquered by a marauding mystic entity dubbed the Incubus, leaving her brother behind…

All her life she has trained; as a spy, a superhero and a warrior, readying herself for the moment when she would return to save her sibling and liberate her homeland…

These revelations lead into the eponymous story arc ‘Nightshade Odyssey’ which opens with the moment Waller always dreaded. A criminally corrupt senator has discovered the facts of the Suicide Squad and threatens to destroy Reagan’s legacy unless the team is used to end investigations into his malfeasance and get him re-elected.

A man of resolute convictions, the President immediately caves and orders Waller to get it done…

With The Wall seemingly broken and contemplating resignation, the beleaguered director tells Nightshade to complete her personal mission immediately. With barely a pause for thought Nightshade, Boomerang, Bronze Tiger, Deadshot, Duchess, Enchantress and Vixen are ‘Slipping into Darkness’ to materialise in a place of malign horror concealing a trap decades in the making…

From the mouth of her eternally corrupted brother, Eve learns the truth of the situation, the mystic history of the universes and the Incubus’ diabolical connection to the Succubus force which possesses Enchantress. Then she hears their repellent plans for her…

However the satanic corruptor has never met a fighter like the enigmatic Duchess, who provides a ferocious and world-shaking distraction, allowing Eve to free her comrades and effect an uncontrolled escape from the hellish dimension leaving the ‘Devil to Pay’

Sadly, the pell-mell exit dumps the fleeing fugitives into an otherworldly ‘Deathzone’ (Suicide Squad #13, inked by Malcolm Jones III) between universes where they are doomed to madness and worse, until rescued by a mysterious alien nomad calling himself Rac Shade.

Holding information of a long-extant alien incursion on Earth, “the Changing Man” makes the jump back to Belle Reve where Amanda Waller has come to a momentous decision…

To Be Continued

With covers by Jerry Bingham, Larsen & Lewis, Steve Leialoha & Gordon and Jim Valentino, Keith Wilson & William Messner-Loebs, this is a timeless collection of gritty gripping, hard-edged Fights ‘n’ Tights forays to delight action fans: a still magnificent mission statement for the DC Universe, offering witty cohesive and contemporary stories that appealed not just to superhero lovers but also devotees of spy and crime capers. As such they remain fine fodder for today’s so-sophisticated, informed and thrill-hungry readers.
© 1988, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Harley Quinn’s Greatest Hits


By Scott Beatty, Kelly Puckett, Jeph Loeb, Paul Dini, Adam Glass, Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti, Rob Williams, Bruce Timm, Mike Parobeck, Jim Lee, David Lopez, Federico Dallocchio, Jock, John Timms, Sean “Cheeks” Galloway, Scott Williams, Sandra Hope, Richard Friend & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7008-7

Harley Quinn wasn’t supposed to be a star… or even an actual comicbook character. As would soon become apparent however, the manic minx had her own off-kilter ideas on the matter…

Created by Paul Dini & Bruce Timm, Batman: The Animated Series aired in the US from September 5th 1992 to September 15th 1995. Ostensibly for kids, the breakthrough TV cartoon revolutionised everybody’s image of the Dark Knight and immediately began feeding back into the print iteration, leading to some of the absolute best comicbook tales in the hero’s many decades of existence.

Employing a timeless visual style dubbed “Dark Deco”, the show mixed elements from all iterations of the character and, without diluting the power, tone or mood of the premise, reshaped the grim avenger and his extended team into a wholly accessible, thematically memorable form that the youngest of readers could enjoy, whilst adding shades of exuberance and panache that only most devout and obsessive Batmaniac could possibly object to…

Harley was first seen as the Clown Prince of Crime’s slavisly adoring, abuse-enduring assistant in Joker’s Favor (airing on September 11th 1992) where she instantly captured the hearts and minds of millions of viewers. From there on she began popping up in the licensed comicbook and – always stealing the show – soon graduated into mainstream DC continuity.

After a period bopping around the DCU she was re-imagined as part of the company’s vast post-Flashpoint major makeover and appeared as part of a new iteration of the Suicide Squad. Now, with a massive motion picture and TV show in play, it’s probably time to take a look at her eccentric career path…

Collecting material from Countdown to Final Crisis #10, Batman Adventures #12, Batman #613, Gotham City Sirens #7, Suicide Squad #1, Batman volume 2#13, Harley Quinn volume 2 #21, 2015 and Harley Quinn and the Suicide Squad April Fools Special #1, the madcap mayhem commences with a 2-page potted biography of the mad miss in comics form.

Crafted by Scott Beatty & Bruce Timm, ‘The Origin of Harley Quinn’ (Countdown #10, February 2008) economically reveals how troubled psychologist Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel arrives at Arkham Asylum to analyse the Joker only to fall under his malign spell and become his adoring, despised slave…

A classic and classy semi-solo yarn comes from Batman Adventures #12, (September 1993) where Kelly Puckett, Mike Parobeck & Rick Burchett revealed how Barbara Gordon became a masked adventurer…

Student Babs makes a superhero costume for a party in ‘Batgirl: Day One!’ and stumbles into a larcenous ‘Ladies Night’ when the High Society bash is crashed by rapacious gal pals Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. With no professional help on hand, Miss Gordon has to act as ‘If the Suit Fits!’ and tackle the bad girls herself… but then Catwoman shows up for the frantic finale ‘Out of the Frying Pan!’

A far darker if less comprehensible interpretation graced Batman #613, (May 2003 by Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee & Scott Williams) as an incessant parade of villains du jour in mega-event Hush reached the Joker and Harley and they invaded ‘The Opera’ attended by Bruce Wayne and hidden master villain Tommy Elliot.

It’s visually resplendent and shockingly violent, but story content is virtually zero since the entire farrago is just an extracted episode from a far larger and more complex epic…

Far more satisfactory is ‘Holiday Story’ by Paul Dini, David Lopez & Alvaro Lopez (from Gotham City Sirens #7, February 2010) as new housemates Harley, Ivy and Catwoman split up to celebrate Christmas in their own uniquely different ways. This tale offers a candid peek into the home-life and history which turned dead-end kid Harleen into an overachieving doctor and latterly lunatic super-villain by introducing the inveterate slime-ball who fathered her…

Hitting modern times hard, ‘Kicked in the Teeth’ comes from Suicide Squad volume 4 #1 (November 2011), wherein Adam Glass, Federico Dallocchio, Ransom Getty & Scott Hanna put Harley, Deadshot, Black Spider, King Shark, El Diablo, Voltaic and Savant through hell and torture as mere preparation for their first mission for top spook Amanda Waller whilst ‘Tease’ (Batman #13, December 2012 by Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV & Jock) sees Harley reunited with her main man, only to once again suffer from the pernicious, vindictive whimsy and twisted love of the Joker…

‘Tug A’ War’ (Harley Quinn #21, volume 2, December 2015 by Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti, John Timms) finds Harley Quinn a bounty hunter battling former squad-mate Deadshot and setting Hollywood ablaze as she seeks top cash-cow Sparrow Adaro

Things quickly go south when she discovers her target is no crook but only the wayward spouse of a Showbiz bigwig who only wants his little lady back. Their twisted relationship touches Harley’s heart and she resolves to help, but the former psychologist never expected so many collateral corpses to accrue as she fixed the not-so-happy family…

This rough and ready compilation concludes with collaborative effort ‘Evil Anonymous’ by Rob Williams, Jim Lee, Sean “Cheeks” Galloway, Scott Williams, Sandra Hope, Richard Friend (Harley Quinn and the Suicide Squad April Fools Special #1, 2016): a light-hearted, self-referential journey of discovery wherein Harley – prompted by another brush with the Joker – decides to “cure” a number of her fellow criminal killer loons, beginning with bestial winged predator Man-Bat

Soon she’s reverted to a childlike state to tackle Killer Moth, Enchantress, RatCatcher, Toyman and Poison Ivy although things get a little out of hand when she gets Scarecrow on her couch and goes crazy serious when the Justice League step in. Nobody involved is aware of the insidious mastermind actually pulling the strings to get Harley Quinn back to where she really belongs and is most needed…

Fast, furious funny and making precious little narrative sense, Harley Quinn’s Greatest Hits is nonetheless a potent primer of Fights ‘n’ Tights furore that will give newcomers a taste of what motley minx can do and should whet appetites for a deeper exploration of her exploits.
© 1993, 2003, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Plastic Man Archives volume 5


By Jack Cole & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0154-8

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

In 1954 he quit comics for the lucrative and prestigious field of magazine cartooning, swiftly becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour gags and stunningly saucy pictures began regularly running in Playboy from the fifth issue.

Cole eventually moved into the lofty realms of newspaper strips and, in May 1958, achieved his life-long ambition by launching a syndicated newspaper strip, the domestic comedy Betsy and Me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This fifth full-colour hardback exposes more eccentrically exaggerated exploits of the elastic eidolon from Police Comics #50-58 and Plastic Man #4 (stretching from January to September 1946), and opens here with an appreciation of Cole and his craft by Bill Schelly in the Foreword before a bizarre mystery confounds the populace as ‘Plastic Man Protects Crookdom’.

When a celebrated astrologer is murdered, his dying prediction seems to confirm that the chameleonic crimebuster is cursed to save his killers from the law… but they haven’t heard the victim’s entire utterance…

Police #51 then details how twisted, frustrated love turns a gorgeous but frog-throated operatic chanteuse into a deadly, rock-fisted killer dubbed ‘The Granite Lady’. Even after her mad scientist paramour returns her to flesh-&-blood, her heart remains stony cold…

‘Crime without Criminals’ sees the city devoid of all underworld activity thanks to the efforts of Plas and Woozy. However, nature abhors a vacuum and this time it’s filled by an unlikely new crew of bandits, just in time to take the edge off our heroes’ mounting boredom…

Cole always had a grand line on mad scientists and in ‘The Evil Genius of Dr. Erudite’, came up with a classic loon like no other. This passionate maniac had so many great crime ideas he had no time to implement them. Realising the only solution was to replicate himself, he began an anarchic spree but was surprised by two unforeseen factors: Plastic Man’s determination to stop him and his own duplicate’s rebellious nature…

Cerebral conundra continued to vex our heroes in Police #54 as a moronic sneak thief became a lethal menace to America after swiping ‘The Thinking Machine’. Thankfully Plastic Man was on hand to fight and Woozy to balance the scales of natural imbecility…

Issue #55 revealed the genesis and just deserts of ‘Sleepy Eyes’ as a cheap crook realises he has the power to plunge folk into unshakeable comas…

Cole’s constant and still-growing pressure to fill pages led to the hiring of numerous artists to draw his madcap scripts. This is clearly seen in Plastic Man #4 (Summer 1946) which opens with ‘The Purple Viking’ (illustrated by Bart Tumey), wherein a longboat full of ancient Norse reivers invades a quiet seaside hamlet, just as Plas and Woozy check in for a quiet weekend. How odd that the beach town is trashed by invaders just as a developer is checking out prospective new resort sites…

A crooked political-boss trying to set up his own country inside America is no match for the Pliable Paladin in ‘King Lughead the First’ (art by John Spranger). Not only are all his larcenous efforts to fill the Treasury foiled, but new Prime Minister Mr. Winks is so dumb he might as well be working for the other side…

The stooge once more becomes the star as Woozy stumbles into ‘The Lollypop Caper’ (Tumey again), chasing gem-filled candy sought by rival mobs and a rather dangerous toddler…

Plastic Man’s uncanny deductive abilities are then propounded in prose short ‘Plas’ to Meet You’ before the capture of arch-thug ‘The Lobster’ leads to Woozy being adopted and Plas stumbling into a cunning conspiracy…

Plastic Man #56 then dabbled with childish whimsy as ‘Overworked Genie’ (art by Andre Leblanc) sees the stretchable sleuth take a day off to spend his time granting wishes to a little kid. However, crime never sleeps and all too soon greedy thugs are trying to steal Mickey’s lamp. Big mistake…

A growing public fascination with and appetite for flying saucer stories informs ‘Mars – Keep Away’ (Spranger art) as the mysterious Mr. Misfit inserts his diminutive self into Plas and Woozy’s hunt for stolen atomic fuel and a flamboyantly crackpot rocketry loon dubbed Professor MacGhoul, after which this slice of vintage class concludes with a deadly duel against murderously marauding vegetable villain ‘The Green Terror’ (illustrated by Alex Kotsky)…

Augmented by all the astoundingly ingenious covers, this is a true gem of funnybook virtuosity: still exciting, breathtakingly original, thrilling, witty, scary, visually outrageous and pictorially intoxicating more than seventy years after Jack Cole first put pen to paper.

Plastic Man is a unique creation and this is a magical experience comics fans would be nuts to miss.
© 1946, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman Adventures volume 3


By Kelley Puckett, Paul Dini, Mike Parobeck & Rick Burchett with Michael Reaves, Bruce Timm, Matt Wagner, Klaus Janson, Dan DeCarlo, John Byrne & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5872-6

The brainchild of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Batman: The Animated Series aired in the US from September 5th 1992 to September 15th 1995. The TV cartoon – ostensibly for kids – revolutionised everybody’s image of the Dark Knight and inevitably fed back into the printed iterations, leading to some of the absolute best comicbook tales in the hero’s many decades of existence.

Employing a timeless visual style dubbed “Dark Deco”, the show mixed elements from all eras of the character and, without diluting the power, tone or mood of the premise, re-honed the grim avenger and his team into a wholly accessible, thematically memorable form.

It entranced young fans whilst adding shades of exuberance and panache that only the most devout and obsessive Batmaniac could possibly object to.

A faithful comicbook translation was prime material for collection in the newly-emergent trade paperback market but only the first year was ever released, plus miniseries such as Batman: Gotham Adventures and Batman Adventures: the Lost Years.

Nowadays, however, we’re much more evolved and reprint collections have established a solid niche amongst the cognoscenti and younger readers…

This third inclusive compendium gathers issues #21-27 of The Batman Adventures comicbook (originally published from June to December 1994) plus that year’s Batman Adventures Annual: a scintillating, no-nonsense frenzy of family-friendly Fights ‘n’ Tights fantasy from Kelly Puckett, Mike Parobeck & Rick Burchett and a few fellow-pros-turned-fans…

Puckett is a writer who truly grasps the visual nature of the medium and his stories are always fast-paced, action packed and stripped down to the barest of essential dialogue. This skill has never been better exploited than by Parobeck who was at that time a rising star, especially when graced by Burchett’s slick, clean inking.

Although his professional career was tragically short (1989 to 1996 when he died, aged 31, from complications of Type 1 Diabetes) Parobeck’s gracefully fluid, exuberantly kinetic, frenetically fun-fuelled, animation-inspired style revolutionised superhero action drawing and sparked a renaissance in kid-friendly material and merchandise at DC… and everywhere else in the comics publishing business.

The wall to wall wonderment begins with the contents of Batman Adventures Annual #1: a giant-sized gathering of industry stars illustrating Paul Dini’s episodic, interlinked saga ‘Going Straight’.

Illustrators Timm & Burchett set the ball rolling as jet-propelled bandit Roxy Rocket is released from prison, prompting Batman and faithful retainer Alfred to discuss whether any villains ever reform…

Apparently one who almost made it was Arnold Wesker, who played mute Ventriloquist to his malign dummy Scarface. Tragically in ‘Puppet Show’ (art by Parobeck & Matt Wagner) we see how even a good job and the best of intentions are no defence when Arnold’s new boss wants to exploit his criminal past…

Harley Quinn is insanely devoted to killer clown The Joker and Dan DeCarlo & Timm wordlessly expose her profound weakness for that bad boy as she’s released from Arkham Asylum but is seduced back into committing crazy crimes in just ‘24 Hours’

The Scarecrow’s return to terrorising the helpless resulted from his genuine desire to help a girl assaulted by her would-be boyfriend in the chilling, poignant ‘Study Hall’ (with art by Klaus Janson), after which ‘Going Straight’ concludes with Timm detailing how Roxy Rocket is framed by Catwoman and Batman has to separate the warring female furies…

The melange of mayhem even came with its own enthralling encore with The Joker solo-starring in ‘Laughter After Midnight’ as the Mountebank of Mirth goes on a spree in Gotham, courtesy of artists John Byrne & Burchett…

The Batman Adventures #21 then saw Michael Reaves join Kelley Puckett to script tense thriller ‘House of Dorian’ for Parobeck & Burchett as deranged geneticist Emile Dorian escapes from Arkham and immediately turns Kirk Langstrom back into the marauding Man-Bat.

Moreover, although the Mad Doctor’s freedom is bad news for Gotham, Langstrom and Dorian’s previous beast-man Tygrus; for a desperate fugitive afflicted with lycanthropy, the insane physician is his last chance at a cure for his curse…

Dorian couldn’t care less. All he wants is revenge on Batman and Selina Kyle…

Like the show, most stories were crafted as a three-act plays and the conceit resumes with #22 as Puckett, Parobeck & Burchett settle in for the long haul.

‘Good Face Bad Face’ sees the return of Two-Face; also busting out of Arkham in ‘Harvey Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ to settle scores with Gotham’s top mobster Rupert Thorne. His first move is to set free his gang in ‘Nor Iron Bars a Cage’, but this time Batman is waiting…

Poison Ivy is back in #23, spreading ‘Toxic Shock’ as she teams up with the Dark Knight in ‘Strange Bedfellows’ to save a famed botanist and ecologist dying from a mystery toxin. ‘Fighting Poison with Poison’, she and Batman search for a cure, forcing the mystery assassin into more prosaic methods in ‘How Deadly Was my Valley’

‘Grave Obligations’ sees the Gotham Guardian’s past come back to haunt him when a ninja clan invades the city. They seem more concerned with fighting each other in ‘Brother’s Keeper’, but a little digging reveals how one has come ‘From Tokyo, With Death’ in mind for Batman, and it takes the force of a much higher authority to halt the chaos in ‘Cancelled Debts’

An inevitable team-up graces Batman Adventures #25 as Puckett, Parobeck & Burchett reintroduce legendary ‘Super Friends’.

With Lex Luthor in town and bidding against Waynetech for a military contract, a mystery bombing campaign begins in ‘Tik, Tik, Tik…’

Even as unwelcome guest Superman horns in, Batman realises his old foe Maxie Zeus might be taking the credit but is certainly not to blame for the ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Zeus!’

A little deduction and a grudging alliance with the Caped Kryptonian results in the true scheme being unravelled in ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’ and Batman rejoices in having made a powerful friend and a remorseless and resourceful new enemy…

‘Tree of Knowledge’ focuses on college students Dick Grayson and Babs Gordon as they score top marks in a criminology course. ‘Pop Gun Quiz’ sees them singled out for special study by their impressed Professor Morton and on hand in ‘Careful What You Wish For’ to experience an impossible crime in the University Library. Despite all their investigations, it’s only as Robin and Batgirl that a devilish plot is unravelled and crucial ‘Lessons Learned’

The last tale in this terrific tome revisits the tragedy of Batman’s origins as ‘Survivor Syndrome’ sees an impostor risking his life on Gotham’s streets in search of justice or possibly his own death.

‘Brother, Brother’ reveals how athlete Tom Dalton’s wife was murdered and how he surrendered to a ‘Call to Vengeance’. Everything changes once the real Dark Knight takes charge of Tom and trains him to regain ‘The Upper Hand’

With a full compliment of covers by Timm and Parobeck & Burchett – plus a ‘Pin-Up Gallery’ with stunning images by Alex Toth, Dave Gibbons, Kelley Jones, Kevin Nowlan, Mark Chiarello, Mike Mignola, Matt Wagner and Chuck Dixon & Rick Burchett – all coloured by the astounding Rick Taylor – this is another stunning treat for superhero lovers of every age and vintage.
© 1994, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman in the Forties


By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Jack Schiff, Dick Sprang, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos, Jack Burnley, Winslow Mortimer, Charles Paris, Jim Mooney & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0206-3

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

Divided into discrete sections (and breaking its own rules by including some material from 1939), partitioned by spectacular cover galleries, this timeless treasure trove of cape-&-cowl action commences with an informative Introduction from comics historian Bill Schelly who adds context and commentary before the exotic nostalgia begins with a selection dedicated to ‘Cover Gallery: Milestones’, re-presenting the compelling Batman #1, Spring 1941, World’s Fair Comics #1, Spring 1941, Detective Comics #27, May 1939 and Detective Comics #38, February 1940.

Detective #27 spotlighted the Dark Knight’s debut in the ‘Case of the Chemical Syndicate!’ from by Bob Kane and his close collaborator Bill Finger.

The spartan, understated yarn introduced dilettante playboy criminologist Bruce Wayne, drawn into a straightforward crime wherein a cabal of industrialists were successively murdered. The killings stopped when an eerie figure dubbed “The Bat-Man” intruded on Police Commissioner Gordon’s stalled investigation and ruthlessly dealt with the hidden killer.

‘Origin’ originated two years later (Detective Comics #33, November 1939). Here Gardner Fox, Kane & Sheldon Moldoff produced the first ever explanation of the hero’s tragic history in the first two pages of a longer tale (‘The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom’ – and not included here), after which Detective #33 (April 1940) spawned ‘Robin the Boy Wonder’ by Finger, Kane & Jerry Robinson.

This story changed the landscape of comicbooks forever; introducing child trapeze artist Dick Grayson whose parents were murdered before his eyes and who consequently joined Batman in a lifelong quest for justice. They began by taking down mobster Boss Zucco, the Graysons’ murderer…

‘The People vs. Batman’ is from Batman #7, October/November 1941, by Finger, Kane & Robinson. Something of a landmark, it’s also a potent and emotional crime melodrama. When Bruce Wayne is framed for murder and jailed, Robin takes over to clear up the case, ultimately resulting in the Dynamic Duo finally becoming official operatives of the Gotham police force. They would not be vigilantes again until the grim and gritty 1980’s…

Concluding this first section is ‘The Origin of Batman’ (Batman #47 June/July 1948, by Finger, Kane & Charles Paris) which added tone and depth to the traumatic event, as the Gotham Gangbuster at last tracks down and confronts the triggerman who murdered his parents…

‘Cover Gallery: Props’ features iconic paraphernalia as seen on Detective Comics #61 March 1942, Detective Comics #127 September 1947, Batman #48 August/September 1948, Batman #10 April/May 1942 before Batman #37 (October/November 1946) offers 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 in a masterpiece of mirthful mayhem by an unnamed author, Robinson & George Roussos.

Most later Batman tales feature a giant coin in the Batcave and World’s Finest #30 is where that spectacular prop first appeared; spoils of a successful battle between the Caped Crusaders and Joe Coyne’s vicious bandit gang ‘The Penny Plunderers!’ (by Finger, Kane & Ray Burnley).

Crafted by Finger and Jim Mooney, the next tale comes from Batman #48 (August/September 1948) and reveals how an escaped convict finds the secret sanctum, leaving us privy to ‘The 1,000 Secrets of the Batcave’. Batman and Robin hunt out the gloating crook, expecting to be publicly exposed when they turn him in, but Fate has a cruel trick left to play…

World’s Finest Comics #3 Autumn 1941, Batman #22 April/May 1940, Detective Comics #42 August 1940, Batman #26 December 1944-December 1945 unite to form ‘Cover Gallery: The Batman Family’ and leads into key tales featuring the supporting cast such as the anonymously scripted ‘Alfred, Armchair Detective’ (Batman #31, October/November 1945).

Part of an occasional series, these were light-hearted supplemental vignettes (possibly written by Don Cameron or Joe Samachson and illustrated by Robinson. This one hilariously depicts how an idle night spent eavesdropping on crooks results in a big arrest of burglars by the dutiful butler…

A suspenseful, shocking high comes with ‘Bruce Wayne Loses Guardianship of Dick Grayson!’ wherein a couple of fraudsters claiming to be the lad’s last remaining relatives petition to adopt him. A melodramatic triumph by Finger, Kane & Robinson, there’s still plenty of action, especially after the grifters try to sell Dick back to Bruce in a real lost gem from Batman #20 (December 1943-December 1944).

From 1947 to 1952, (issues #65-130) Robin, the Boy Wonder had his own solo series and regular cover spot in Star Spangled Comics at a time when the first superhero boom was fading, to be replaced by more traditional genres such as crime, westerns and boys’ adventure stories. The stories blended in-continuity action capers with more youth-oriented fare and adults Batman and Alfred reduced to minor roles – or entirely absent – allowing the kid crusader to display not just his physical skills but also his brains, ingenuity and guts.

SSC #70 (July 1947) introduced an arch-villain he could call his own as ‘Clocks of Doom’ saw the debut of an anonymous criminal time-&-motion expert forced into the limelight once his face was caught on film. The Clock’s desperate attempts to sabotage the movie Robin was consulting on inevitably led to hard time in this delightful romp by Finger, Win Mortimer & Paris.

‘Cover Gallery: The Villains’ culls classics images from Detective Comics #89 July 1944, Detective Comics #73 March 1943, Detective Comics #140 October 1948 and Detective Comics #29 July 1940, before moving on to declare ‘Your Face is your Fortune’ (Batman #15, February/March 1943, by Jack Schiff, Kane, Robinson & Roussos). Here Catwoman returned, taking on a job at a swanky Beauty Parlour to gain info for her crimes and inadvertently falling for Society Bachelor Bruce Wayne…

‘The Scoop of the Century’ by Finger, Kane & Lew Sayre Schwartz, from Batman #49, October/November 1948, finds Batman battling the Mad Hatter for the first time but painfully distracted by a reporter.

Vicki Vale is convinced the Masked Manhunter is actually Bruce Wayne and, although he dissuades her here, she would spend the next fifteen years trying to prove it…

‘Clayface Walks Again’ (Detective Comics #49 March 1941, Finger, Kane Robinson & Roussos) wherein a deranged horror actor recommenced his passion for murder by trying to kill Bruce’s old girlfriend Julie Madison; literally “the one who got away” during the maniac’s previous campaign of terror…

‘The End of Two-Face’ (Detective Comics #80, October 1943 by Finger, Kane, Robinson & Roussos) saw former District Attorney-turned-maniac Harvey Kent seemingly cured of his split personality after a typically terrific tussle.

A different iteration then follows in ‘Half-Man Half Monster’ taken from the Batman Sunday newspaper strips for June 23-August 18, 1946. Here Finger, Jack Burnley & Mortimer re-imagine the turbulent tragedy as actor Harvey Apollo is disfigured on the witness stand while testifying and becomes a deranged, double-edged menace to society until the Caped Crusaders catch him…

After a copious ‘Contributors’ section detailing the lives of the men who made Batman there’s one  last treat in store. ‘The True Story of Batman and Robin’ is an entertaining but highly dubious company puff-piece from Real Fact Comics #5 January 1947 by author unknown and Mortimer “detailing” how Bob Kane invented the strip and how it’s produced. Believe it or don’t…

The history of the American comicbook industry in almost every major aspect stems from the raw, vital and still powerfully compelling tales of twin icons published by DC/National Comics: Superman and Batman. It’s only fair and fitting that both those characters are still going strong and that their earliest adventures can be relived in a variety of formats from relatively economical newsprint paperbacks like this to stunning, deluxe hardcover commemorative Archive editions.

These are the stories that forged the character and success of Batman. The works of Bill Finger, Bob Kane and their multi-talented assistants are evergreen examples of pure and perfect superhero fiction. Put them in a thrifty, nifty package like this, include the pop art masterpieces that were the covers of those classics, and you have pretty much the perfect comic book. And you really, really should have it.
© 1939-1949, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Jack Kirby Omnibus volume 1: Green Arrow and others


By Jack Kirby & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3107-1

Jack Kirby was – and still is – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are millions of words written (such as former Kirby assistant Mark Evanier’s revelatory and myth-busting Introduction in this gloriously enthralling full-colour hardback compilation) about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium.

Off course I’m going to add my own tuppence-worth, pointing out what you probably already know: Kirby was a man of vast imagination who translated big concepts into astoundingly potent and accessible symbols for two generations of fantasy fans. If you were exposed to Kirby as an impressionable kid you were his for life. To be honest, the same probably applies whatever age you jump aboard the “Kirby Express”…

For those of us who grew up with his work, his are the images which furnish and clutter our interior mindsets. Close your eyes and think “robot” and the first thing that pops up is a Kirby creation and every fantastic, futuristic city in our heads is crammed with his chunky, towering spires. Because of Jack we all know what the bodies beneath those stony-head statues on Easter Island look like, and we are all viscerally aware that you can never trust great big aliens parading around in their underpants…

In a remarkably short time Kirby and his creative partner Joe Simon became the wonder-kid dream-team of the new-born comicbook industry. Together they produced a year’s worth of the influential monthly Blue Bolt, rushed out Captain Marvel Adventures (#1) for Fawcett and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely, created a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, the first Marvel Boy, Hurricane, The Vision, The Young Allies and of course million-selling mega-hit Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby were snapped up by National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a fat chequebook. Bursting with ideas the staid company were never really comfortable with, the pair were initially an uneasy fit, and were given two moribund strips to play with until they found their creative feet: Sandman and Manhunter.

They turned both around virtually overnight and, once established and left to their own devices, switched to the “Kid Gang” genre they had pioneered at Timely. Joe and Jack created wartime sales sensation The Boy Commandos and a Homefront iteration dubbed the Newsboy Legion before being called up to serve in the war they had been fighting on comicbook pages since 1940.

They demobbed and returned to a very different funnybook business and soon left National to create their own little empire.

Simon & Kirby heralded and ushered in the first American age of mature comics – not just by inventing the Romance genre, but with all manner of challenging modern material about real people in extraordinary situations – before seeing it all disappear again in less than eight years. Their small stable of magazines – generated for an association of companies known as Prize/Crestwood/Pines/Essenkay/Mainline Comics – blossomed and as quickly wilted when the industry abruptly contracted throughout the 1950s. After years of working for others, Simon & Kirby had finally established their own publishing house, producing comics for a far more sophisticated audience, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by an anti-comicbook pogrom.

Hysterical censorship-fever spearheaded by US Senator Estes Kefauver and opportunistic pop psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham led to witch-hunting Senate hearings. Caving in, publishers adopted a castrating straitjacket of draconian self-regulatory rules. Horror titles produced under the aegis and emblem of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised and anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, even though the market’s appetite for suspense and the uncanny was still high. Crime comics vanished and mature themes challenging society were suppressed…

Simon quit the business for advertising, but Kirby soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, if less experimental, companies. As the panic abated, Kirby returned briefly to DC Comics where he worked on mystery tales and Green Arrow (then a mere back-up strip in Adventure Comics and World’s Finest Comics) whilst concentrating on his long-dreamed-of newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.

During that period he also re-packaged an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and Joe Simon had closed their innovative, ill-timed ventures. At the end of 1956 Showcase #6 (a try-out title that launched the careers of many DC mainstays) premiered the Challengers of the Unknown. After three more test issues they won their own title with Kirby in command for the first eight. Then a legal dispute with Editor Jack Schiff exploded and the King was gone…

During that brief 3-year period (cover-dated 1957-1959), Kirby also crafted a remarkably large number of short comics yarns and this fabulous tome re-presents – in originally-published order – his super-hero, mystery and science fiction shorts; culled from Tales of the Unexpected #12, 13, 15-18, 21- 24; House of Mystery #61, 63, 65, 66, 70, 72, 76, 84, 85; House of Secrets #3, 4, 8, 12; My Greatest Adventure #15- 18, 20, 21, 28; Adventure Comics #250-256; World’s Finest Comics # 96-99.

Also included is a lost gem from All-Star Western #99 plus three impressive tales produced by Simon & Kirby from 1946-1947 for Real Fact Comics #1, 2 and 6.

Records are sparse and scanty from those days when no creator was allowed a by-line, so many of these stories carry no writer’s credit (and besides, Kirby was notorious for rewriting scripts he was unhappy with drawing) but Group Editor Schiff’s regular stable of authors included Dave Wood, Bill Finger, Ed Herron, Joe Samachson, George Kashdan, Jack Miller and Otto Binder, so feel free to play the “whodunit” game…

National/DC Comics was relatively slow in joining the post-war mystery comics boom. At the end of 1951 they at last launched a gore-free, comparatively straight-laced anthology which nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles: The House of Mystery (cover-dated December 1951/January 1952). Its roaring success inevitably led to a raft of similar creature-filled fantasy anthologies such as Sensation Mystery, My Greatest Adventure, House of Secrets and Tales of the Unexpected.

With the Comics Code in full effect, plot options for mystery and suspense stories were savagely curtailed; limited to ambiguous, anodyne magical artefacts, wholesomely education mythological themes, science-based miracles and straight chicanery. Stories were marvellously illustrated, rationalistic, fantasy-adventure vehicles which would dominate until the early 1960s when super-heroes (recently reinvigorated after Julius Schwartz reintroduced the Flash in Showcase #4, 1956) finally overtook them…

In this volume, following that aforementioned Introduction – describing Kirby’s three tours of duty with DC in very different decades – the vintage wonderment commences with another example of the ingenious versatility of Jack & Joe.

Originating in the wholesome and self-explanatory Real Fact Comics, ‘The Rocket-Lanes of Tomorrow’ (#1, March/April 1946) and ‘A World of Thinking Robots’ from #2 (May/June 1946) are forward-looking, retro-fabulous graphic prognostications of the “World that’s Coming”. A longer piece from #6 (July/August 1947) then details the history and achievements of ‘Backseat Driver’ and road-safety campaigner Mildred McKay.

These were amongst the very last strips the duo produced for National before the move to Crestwood/Pines, so we skip ahead a decade and more for Jack’s return in House of Secrets #3 (March/April 1957) and ‘The Three Prophecies’: an eerie tale of a spiritualist conman being fleeced by an even more skilful grifter until Fate takes a hand…

Mythological mysticism informs the strange tale of ‘The Thing in the Box’ (House of Mystery #61, April 1957) as a salvage diver becomes obsessed with a deadly casket his captain is all too eager to dump into the ocean, after which – from the same month – Tales of the Unexpected #12 focuses on ‘The All-Seeing Eye’ wherein a journalist responsible for many impossible scoops realises that the potential dangers of the ancient artefact he employs far outweigh the benefits …

In House of Secrets #4 (May/June 1957) the ‘Master of the Unknown’ seemed destined to take the big cash prize on a TV quiz show until the producer deduced his uncanny secret, after which ‘I Found the City under the City’ (My Greatest Adventure #15, from the same month) detailed how fishermen recovered the last testament of a lost oceanographer, and read of how he intended to foil an impending invasion by aquatic aliens…

From May 1957 France E. Herron & Kirby investigated ‘The Face Behind the Mask’ (Tales of the Unexpected #13): a gripping crime-caper in involving gullible men, a vibrant vital femme fatale and the quest for eternal youth. There was no fakery to ‘Riddle of the Red Roc’ (House of Mystery #63, June) as a venal explorer hatched and trained the invulnerable bird of legend creating an unstoppable thief, before succumbing to his own greed, after which My Greatest Adventure #16 (July/August) featured a truly eerie threat as an explorer was sucked into a deadly association creating death and destruction and discovered ‘I Died a Thousand Times’

That same month Unexpected #15 offered ‘Three Wishes to Doom’: a crafty thriller proving that even with a genie’s lamp, crime does not pay, after which weird science allowed a hasty scientist to transform into ‘The Human Dragon’ (HoM #65 August, with George Roussos inking his old pal Jack), although his time to repent was brief as a criminal mastermind swooped in to capitalise on his misfortune…

There’s an understandable frisson of foreshadowing to ‘The Magic Hammer’ (Tales of the Unexpected #16 August) as it relates how a prospector finds a magical mallet capable of creating storms and goes into the rainmaking business… until the original owner turns up…

A smart gimmick underscores this tantalising tale of plagiarism and possible telepathy in ‘The Thief of Thoughts’ (HoM #66 September) whilst straight Sci Fi informs the tale of a hotel detective and a most unusual guest in ‘Who is Mr. Ashtar?’ (Tales of the Unexpected #17 September) before My Greatest Adventure #17 September/October 1957) reveals how aliens intent on invasion brainwashed a millionaire scientist to eradicate humanity in ‘I Doomed the World’. Happily one glaring error was made…

In Tales of the Unexpected #18 (October) Kirby showed how an astute astronomer saved us all by outwitting an energy being with big appetites in ‘The Man Who Collected Planets’ after which in MGA #18 (November/December 1957) the comicbook Atomic Age began with ‘I Tracked the Nuclear Creature’ as a hunter sets out to destroy a macabre mineral monster created by uncontrolled fission…

A new year dawned with Roussos inking ‘The Creatures from Nowhere!’ (House of Mystery #70, January 1958) as escaped alien beasts rampaged through a quiet town whilst in House of Secrets #8 (January/February), greed, betrayal, murder and supernatural suspense were the watchword when a killer tried to silence ‘The Cats who Knew Too Much!’

In Tales of the Unexpected #21 (also January) a smart investor proved too much for apparent extraterrestrial ‘The Mysterious Mr. Vince’ whilst a month later in Unexpected #22 the ‘Invasion of the Volcano Men’ started in fiery fury and panicked confrontation before resolving into an alliance against the uncontrolled forces of nature.

Kirby never officially worked for National’s large Westerns division, but apparently his old friend and neighbour Frank Giacoia did, and occasionally needed Jack’s legendary pencilling speed to meet deadlines. ‘The Ambush at Smoke Canyon!’ features long-running cavalry hero Foley of the Fighting 5th single-handedly stalking a band of Pawnee renegades in a rather standard sagebrush saga scripted by Herron and inked by Giacoia from All-Star Western #99 (February/March 1958).

Meanwhile in House of Mystery #72 (March) a shameless B-Movie Producer seemingly becomes ‘The Man who Betrayed Earth’ whilst in My Greatest Adventure #20 (March/April) interplanetary bonds of friendship are forged when space pirates kidnap assorted sentients and the canny Earthling saves the day in ‘I was Big-Game on Neptune’

Inadvertent cosmic catastrophe is narrowly averted in Tales of the Unexpected #23 (March) when one man realises how to make contact with ‘The Giants from Outer Space’ after which issue #24 (April) slips into wild whimsy as ‘The Two-Dimensional Man!’ strives desperately to correct his incredible condition before he is literally blown away…

When an early space-shot brings back an all-consuming horror in My Greatest Adventure #21 (May/June 1958) two harrowed boffins realise ‘We Were Doomed by the Metal-Eating Monster’ whilst ‘The Artificial Twin’ (House of Mystery #76, July) combines mad doctor super-science with fraud and deception before House of Secrets #12 (September) sees one frantic man struggling to close ‘The Hole in the Sky’ before invading aliens use it to conquer mankind…

Also scattered throughout this extraordinary compendium of the bizarre is a stunning and bombastic Baker’s Dozen of Kirby’s fantastic covers from the period, but for most modern fans the real meat is the short, sharp sequence of super-hero shockers that follow…

Green Arrow is one of DC’s golden wonders: a more or less continually running fixture of the company’s landscape – in many instances for no discernable reason – since his debut in the early days of costumed crusaders. Created by Mort Weisinger & George Papp, he premiered in More Fun Comics # 73 (November 1941) in an attempt to expand the company’s superhero portfolio.

At first he proved quite successful. With boy partner Speedy he was of the precious few masked stalwarts to survive the end of the Golden Age. His blatant blend of Batman and Robin Hood seemed to have very little going for itself, but the Emerald Archer has somehow always managed to keep himself in vogue. He carried on adventuring in the back of other heroes’ comicbooks, joined the Justice League of America at the peak of their popularity and became – courtesy of Denny O’Neil & Neal Adams – the spokes-hero of the anti-establishment generation during the 1960’s “Relevancy Comics” trend.

Later, under Mike Grell’s stewardship and thanks to the epic miniseries Green Arrow: the Longbow Hunters, he at last became a headliner: re-imagined as an urban predator dealing with corporate thugs and serial killers rather than costumed goof-balls. This version, more than any other, informs and underpins the TV incarnation seen in Arrow.

After his long career and a few venue changes, by the time Julie Schwartz’s revivification of the Superhero genre the Emerald Archer was a solid second feature in both Adventure and World’s Finest Comics where, as part of the wave of retcons, reworkings and spruce-ups the company administered to all their remaining costumed old soldiers, a fresh start began in the summer of 1958.

Part of that revival happily coincided with the return to National Comics of Jack Kirby.

As previously revealed in Evanier’s Introduction, after working on a number of anthological stories for Jack Schiff, the King was asked to revise the idling archer and responded by beefing up the science fictional aspects. When supervising editor – and creator – Weisinger objected, the changes were toned down and Kirby saw the writing was on the wall. He lost interest and began quietly looking elsewhere for work…

What resulted was a tantalisingly short run of eleven astounding action-packed, fantasy filled swashbucklers, the first of which was scripted by Bill Finger as ‘The Green Arrows of the World’ (Adventure Comics #251, July 1958) sees heroic archers from many nations attending a conference in Star City.

They are blithely unaware that a fugitive criminal with murder in his heart is hiding within their masked midst…

August’s #251 takes a welcome turn to astounding science fiction as Kirby scripted and resolved ‘The Case of the Super-Arrows’ wherein the Amazing Archers took possession of high-tech trick shafts sent from 3000 AD. World’s Finest Comics #96 (writer unknown) then revealed ‘Five Clues to Danger’ – a classic kidnap mystery made even more impressive by Kirby’s lean, raw illustration.

A practically unheard-of continued case spanned Adventure #252 and 253 as Dave Wood, Jack & Roz posed ‘The Mystery of the Giant Arrows’ before GA and Speedy briefly became ‘Prisoners of Dimension Zero’ – a spectacular riot of giant aliens and incredible exotic otherworlds, followed in WFC #97 (October 1958) with a grand old-school crime-caper in Herron’s ‘The Mystery of the Mechanical Octopus’.

Kirby was having fun and going from strength to strength. Adventure #254 featured ‘The Green Arrow’s Last Stand’ (by Wood): a particularly fine example with the Amazing Archers crashing into a hidden valley where Sioux braves had thrived unchanged since the time of Custer. The next issue saw the Bold Bowmen battle a battalion of Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender their island bunker in ‘The War That Never Ended!’ (also by Wood).

December’s World’s Finest #98 almost ended the heroes’ careers in Herron’s ‘The Unmasked Archers’ wherein a private practical joke caused the pair to inadvertently expose themselves to public scrutiny and deadly danger…

During those heady early days origins weren’t as important as imaginative situations, visual storytelling and just plain getting on with it, so co-creators Weisinger & Papp never bothered to provide one for their emerald innovation. That was left to later workmen Herron, Jack & Roz (in Kirby’s penultimate tale before devoting all his energies to the fabulous newspaper strip Sky Masters), filling in the blanks with ‘The Green Arrow’s First Case’ as the Silver Age superhero revival hit its stride in Adventure Comics #256 (January 1959).

Here we learned how wealthy wastrel Oliver Queen was cast away on a deserted island and learned to use a hand-made bow to survive. When a band of scurvy mutineers fetched up on his desolate shores, Queen used his newfound skills to defeat them and returned to civilisation with a new career and purpose…

Kirby’s spectacular swan-song came in WFC #99 (January 1959) with ‘Crimes under Glass’. Written by Robert Bernstein the tale saw GA and Speedy battling crafty criminals with a canny clutch of optical armaments, as the Archer steadfastly slipped back into the sedate and gimmick-heavy rut of pre-Kirby times…

By this time the King had moved on to other enterprises – Archie Comics with old pal Joe Simon and a little outfit which would soon be calling itself Marvel Comics – but his rapid rate of creation had left a number of completed tales in National’s inventory pile which slowly emerged for months thereafter and neatly wrap up this comprehensive compendium of the uncanny.

From My Greatest Adventure #28 (February 1959) ‘We Battled the Microscopic Menace!’ pitted two brave boffins against a ravening devourer their meddling with unknown forces had unleashed, whilst a month later HoM #84 revealed the terrifying struggle against ‘The Negative Man’ which saw an embattled researcher struggling against his own unleashed energy duplicate.

It all ends with an unforgettable spectacular as House of Mystery #85 (April 1959) awakens ‘The Stone Sentinels of Giant Island’ to rampage across a lost Pacific island and threaten the brave crew of a scientific survey vessel until one wise man deduces their incredible secret…

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

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

This collection from his transformative middle period exults in sheer escapist wonderment, and no one should miss the graphic exploits of these perfect adventures in that ideal setting of not-so-long-ago in a simpler, better time and place than ours.
© 1946, 1947, 1957, 1958, 1959, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Newsboy Legion volume 1


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby with Arturo Cazeneuve, Gil Kane & others (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2593-3

Just as the Golden Age of comics was beginning, two young men with big dreams met up and began a decades-long association that was always intensely creative, immensely productive and spectacularly in tune with popular tastes. As kids they had both sold newspapers on street-corners to help their families survive the Great Depression …

Joe Simon was a sharp-minded, talented young man with five years experience in “real” publishing; working from the bottom up to become art director on a succession of small paper such as the Rochester Journal American, Syracuse Herald and Syracuse Journal American.

He then moved 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 production “shop” generating strips and characters for a number of publishing houses all 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 Comics (now Marvel) and became acquainted with young Jacob Kurtzberg, a cartoonist and animator just hitting his stride with the Blue Beetle for the Fox Feature Syndicate.

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

They produced the influential monthly Blue Bolt, rushed out Captain Marvel Adventures (#1) for Fawcett and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely, created a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, the first Marvel Boy, Hurricane, The Vision, The Young Allies and of course the million-selling mega-hit Captain America.

Famed for his larger than life characters and colossal cosmic imaginings, “King” Kirby was an astute, spiritual hard-working family man who lived though poverty, gangsterism and the Depression. He loved his work, hated chicanery of every sort and saw a big future for the comics industry…

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby jumped ship to National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a fat chequebook. Bursting with ideas the staid company were not comfortable with, the pair were initially an uneasy fit, and were given two strips that were in the doldrums until they found their creative feet: Sandman and Manhunter.

They turned both around veritably overnight before, once established and left to their own devices, creating the “Kid Gang” genre (technically “recreating” as the idea was one of the duo’s last innovations for Timely in 1941’s Young Allies) with a unique juvenile Foreign Legion dubbed The Boy Commandos.

The little warriors began by sharing the spotlight with Batman in flagship publication Detective Comics, but before long they had won their own solo title which promptly became one of the company’s top three sellers.

Boy Commandos was such a success – frequently cited as the biggest-selling US 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 assembled a creative team which generated so much material in a phenomenally short time that Publisher Jack Liebowitz 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)…

Pitched halfway between a surly bunch of comedy grotesques and charming naive ragamuffins as seen in the Our Gang/Little Rascals film shorts (1922-1944), the Newsboy Legion comprised four ferociously independent orphans living together on the streets, peddling papers to survive. There was earnest, good-looking Tommy Tompkins, garrulous genius Big Words, diminutive, hyper-active chatterbox Gabby and feisty, pugnacious Scrapper, whose Brooklyn-based patois and gutsy belligerence usually stole the show. They were headed for a bad end until somebody extraordinary entered their lives…

Their exploits generally offered a bombastic blend of crime thriller and comedy caper, leavened with dynamic superhero action and usually seen from a kid’s point of view. The series debuted in Star-Spangled Comics #7, forcing the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy off the covers. The youngsters remained lead feature until the end of 1946, when without fanfare or warning issue #65 found them gone: ousted and replaced by Robin, the Boy Wonder.

His own youth-oriented solo series subsequently ran all the way to SSC #130 in 1952, by which time superhero romps had largely been supplanted throughout the industry by general genre tales.

This first superb hardback collection reprints the first 26 episodes, spanning Star-Spangled Comics #7-32 (April 1942-May 1944), includes all the stunning covers by Kirby, inker Arturo Cazeneuve, Fred Ray and teenager Gil Kane) and opens with a lyrical and revelatory reminiscence from Joe Simon himself. His invaluable Introduction ‘Birth of the Legion’ leads straight into a potent tale of skulduggery pitted against idealism to create optimism in the darkest of urban outposts as ‘The Story of the Newsboy Legion’ introduces rookie cop Jim Harper walking a beat in the inner city hellscape dubbed Suicide Slum.

When he is jumped by a gang of thugs and severely beaten, Harper takes an unlikely step: raiding a costume store and putting together an outfit to obscure his identity (complete with mask, shield and crash-helmet) before hunting down his attackers and giving them the thrashing they so richly deserve…

Happily, his illegal actions accidentally result in the capture of an infamous kidnap ring, and the mysterious figure is dubbed the Guardian of Society by the newspapers selling like hotcakes on street corners. Harper has no intention of repeating his foray into vigilantism but when he catches Tommy, Big Words, Gabby and Scrapper shoplifting, his life changes forever.

The tough little monkeys are headed for reform school until the cop makes an earnest plea for clemency on their behalf and the judge appoints him their guardian. They are far from grateful and send him packing but when their next get-rich-scheme gets them involved with armed bandits the kids realise the mettle of the man they’re saddled with…

Now hopelessly implicated in the crimes of murderous mobster Frankie the Fence – and witnesses to his crimes – the boys are about to die when a human thunderbolt in a mask and helmet comes to their rescue.

In actual fact it’s unclear who saves whom, but the in the end the Newsboy Legion are finally set on a righteous path, but with their suspicions are aroused. Frustratingly, no matter how hard they try, the boys can’t prove that their two Guardians are the same guy…

And so the scene was set: the kids constantly looking for broadly legal ways to make a living whilst Harper hovered over them as a guide and his alter ego worked tirelessly behind the scene to keep them alive and extricate from the trouble that always found them on the streets and alleys of the most-crime-infested slum in America…

The very next month Tommy stumbled onto the hideout of fugitive killer Black Leo Lucas and his abduction to ‘Last Mile Alley’ led the fighting mad Guardian to a confrontation with the latest Big Boss who thought he was untouchable, after which ‘The Rookie Takes the Rap’ saw Harper framed by devious gambler Sure Thing Kelly and only cleared by the actions of his now-devoted foster-kids…

To be frank, the relationship between Jim and the boys was never properly defined. Although he was responsible for keeping them out of trouble, they never lived with him and generally provided for themselves whilst – presumably – still sleeping on the streets…

Having now made a few headlines of their own, the boys were offered the chance to be ‘Kings for a Day’ in Star-Spangled Comics #10: running various municipal departments in a grand civic publicity stunt. Sadly, the event was hijacked by mobster The Mark, whose plans to plunder the entire city would have succeeded had he not underestimated those pesky kids temporarily in charge of the emergency services…

Many stories worked powerfully against a pervasive backdrop of crushing poverty and social injustice. Issue #11 saw the boys arrested by a heartbroken Jim for burglary and sent to the State Reformatory. What he didn’t know was that the boys had learned of corruption at the ‘Paradise Prison’ and were determined to expose unctuous, sanctimonious Warden Goodley for the sadistic grafter he truly was…

With little kids starving in their hovels and resorting to petty theft, the boys next decided to make a documentary with borrowed film equipment. Naturally their hunt for perfect locations dropped them right in the laps of a gang of bank bandits resulting in a ‘Prevue of Peril’ requiring another last-minute save by the blockbusting blue-&-gold mystery man with the pot on his head…

With the clue in their name, the Newsboy Legion still made the majority of their living vending newspapers. Whenever the tabloids weren’t selling, things got tough and in SSC #13 falling sales spurred the lads to create their own local periodical. With Harper’s assistance the premier issue of the Slum Sentinel proved a huge success but ‘The Scoop of Suicide Slums!’ made the area too hot for the crooks in their warrens. However, in trying to crush the little newsmakers, the city’s biggest racketeer only exposed himself to the Legion’s scrutiny and their Guardian’s furious fists…

Philanthropist Wilbur Whilling was a man with a plan. Using the Legion as his unwitting shills, he convinced the slum dwellers to donate everything they had to build a new modern apartment project to house them all. ‘The Meanest Man on Earth!’ never expected the kids to uncover his fraudulent alliance with the lawyers and planners to repossess the spiffy new complex, and certainly wasn’t ready for the personal retribution doled out by Scrapper and the man in the mask.

Arturo Cazeneuve came aboard as prime inker with ‘Playmates of Peril!’ in #15 as Patrolman Harper’s frequent absences led to his being partnered with an ever-present supervising sergeant. That didn’t stop his trouble-magnet wards wandering into another criminal caper and being taken hostage, necessitating a storm of frantic improvisation to save the kids, his job and his secret identity…

After Tommy saved a little boy from being run over he was eagerly adopted by rich banker Willis Thornton. He didn’t want to go but his pals forced him to take his shot at escaping the ghetto. All too soon ‘The Playboy of Suicide Slum!’ was framed for a robbery at the Thornton mansion and needed his true brothers to clear his name, after which ‘The Newsboy Legion versus the Rafferty Mob’ found the boys in a turf-war with a rival gang of street toughs led by the toughest girl they have ever encountered. Hostilities ceased as soon as a gang of gunsels started using the distraction as a way of trapping the Guardian…

‘The Education of Iron-Fist Gookin’ saw the slum’s most brutal thug taking elocution lessons from Big Words, and picking up a few morals – plus a pardon and new start – along the way, after which ‘The Fuehrer of Suicide Slum’ focused on Scrapper and took the odd narrative liberty to depict the boys battling Nazis after a sneak attack and invasion of New York City…

Steve Brodie inked the return to comicbook reality in Star-Spangled Comics #20 ‘The Newsboys and the Champ!’ with the kids helping hillbilly boxer Zeke Potts negotiate the lethally crooked fight biz in the big city before ‘The House Where Time Stood Still’ (Cazeneuve inks) found the kids – selling war bonds – invading a derelict house and discovering a pair of be-whiskered hermits who had shunned the world for decades.

The belligerent old Presby brothers soon changed their isolationist attitudes after Nazi spies moved into their home so it’s a good thing the Legion didn’t take that first “no” for an answer…

Gabby wrecks an automobile and incurs a dubious but huge debt in ‘Brains for Sale!’ (Cazeneuve), and his proposed payment solution only leads the entire team into deadly danger from an underworld surgeon after which ‘Art for Scrapper’s Sake’ (inked by John Daly) sees the bellicose boy discover his extremely profitable creative side. Typically, he’s far from happy to find that he’s just the patsy for a high-end art fraud…

Cazeneuve returns as regular inker with ‘Death Strikes a Bargain’ in SSC #24, as a crackdown on crime in Suicide Slum leads to the kids being parachuted into a luxurious new life in a bold social experiment. Sadly, however, the reformer in charge has a murderous ulterior motive for his seeming benevolence…

A vacation growing vegetables on a farm in ‘Victuals for Victory’ only lands the kids in more trouble as their nearest neighbours turn out to be bucolic bandits hiding out after a big city crime spree whilst ‘Louie the Lug Goes Literary’ sees the masked Guardian bust a major felon and inadvertently spark a massive hunt for the racketeer’s favourite tome and the incredible secrets it holds

Star-Spangled Comics #27 finds the lads volunteering as fire-fighters just in time to encounter an arsonist-insurance inspector eager to ‘Turn on the Heat’ whilst #28’s ‘Poor Man’s Rich Man’ sees kindly night watchman Pop O’Leary inheriting a fortune. Immediately lavishing largesse on all the others unfortunates in Suicide Slum, Pop only starts to worry as his unpaid bills mount and the lines of credit dry up, and the Newsboys discover the generous geezer is the victim of a cruel plot by saboteurs. They furiously take appropriate action, with the two-fisted Guardian coming along for the ride…

Always looking for a sold investment, the kids then hop on the publishing bandwagon in ‘Cabbages and Comics’; hoping to make a million peddling their own strip magazine. Their big mistake is incorporating local hoodlums’ likenesses and overheard snippets of gossip in the final mix, but naturally their masked protector is on hand to prevent them perishing from the rightful indignation – and guns – of the plunderers they inadvertently exposed and plagiarized…

In SSC #30 a reformed crook is framed and ‘The Lady of Linden Lane’ suddenly abandons her miserly ways and starts acting very strangely, leading the lads to uncover a devilish fraud after which neophyte Gil Kane illustrates ‘Questions, Please?’ with brilliant Big Words and even his less cerebral comrades becoming radio quiz sensations on the very night the dread Purple Mask gang raid the studio.

This stunning assemblage of astounding articles then concludes with Star-Spangled Comics #32 as the boys act as ‘The Good Samaritans!’ (Kane & Harry Tschida), unknowingly sheltering a gang of impoverished and starving thieves who have millions in hot cash they can’t spend… yet…

After years of neglect the glorious wealth of Jack Kirby material available these days is a true testament to his influence and legacy, and this magnificent and compelling collection of his collaborations with fellow pioneer Joe Simon is another gigantic box of delights that perfectly illustrates the depth, scope and sheer thundering joy of the early days of comics.
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