The Question: Pipeline


By Greg Rucka, Cully Hamner, Laura Martin, Dave McCaig & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3041-8

The Question, as created by Steve Ditko, was Vic Sage, a driven, obsessed journalist who sought out crime and corruption irrespective of the consequences. The Charlton Comics “Action-Hero” was purchased by DC – along with a host of other cool and quirky outsiders – when the B-List company folded in 1983, and became the template for the compulsive loner Rorschach when Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons first drafted the miniseries which would become the groundbreaking Watchmen.

An ordinary man pushed to the edge by his upbringing and obsessions, Sage used his fists and a mask that made him look faceless to get answers (and, consequently, justice) whenever normal journalistic methods failed.

After a few minor successes around the DC universe Sage got a job in the town where he grew up. Hub City (purportedly based on East St. Louis) was a hell-hole, the most corrupt and morally bankrupt municipality in America. When Sage started cleaning house as The Question he was promptly killed, rescued and resurrected by the inscrutable Shiva – “World’s Deadliest Assassin”.

Crippled, he journeyed into the wilderness to be healed and trained by O’Neil’s other legendary martial arts creation, Richard Dragon.

Eventually a new type of hero returned to Hub City, philosophically inquisitive rather than merely angry and frustrated, but still cursed with a drive to understand how and why things universally go bad. Aligning himself with his old intellectual mentor and sounding board Professor Aristotle Rodor, Sage set about cleaning up “The Hub” and finally getting a few answers…

Spinning out of DC’s 52 (2006-2007) and Countdown to Final Crisis (2007-2008) mega-series, disgraced Gotham City cop Renee Montoya was groomed to take up the faceless mask and obsessions of the shadowy hero as Sage slowly succumbed to cancer.

First as his disciple and then as his heir (and after being masterfully schooled in martial arts by Richard Dragon) she took up Sage’s quest and was soon drawn into a secret war with the passionate adherents of a malign gospel of All Things Evil alternatively known as the Books of Blood or the Crime Bible.

This legendary tome was said to counter all that is good in the world and justify and codify all that is wrong. Driven by a need to understand the evils she fights and stop the spread of this monstrous belief, the new Question hunted down the remaining copies of the book and the distinct factions which protected them and promoted the terrible teachings.

Her path eventually pitted her against the secret master of the “Dark Faith”: the immortal Vandal Savage, believed by many to be the human species’ first murderer…

Collecting the stunning back-up series from Detective Comics #854-865 (August 2009 to July 2010) this globe-girdling saga of corruption and depravity by writer Greg Rucka, illustrator Cully Hamner and colourists Laura Martin and Dave McCaig begins in the aftermath of that apocalyptic confrontation, with Montoya and “Tot” Rodor ensconced in their desolate lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

They are looking for a new case; sorting through emails from a “help-offered” website they’d set up when a particular message catches Renee’s eye.

Hector Soliz is an illegal immigrant who has been searching for his sister ever since she went missing. He foolishly trusted the “coyote” who originally smuggled him into America to do the same for Louisa, but never took into account that, for men like Varga, pretty young girls have a value far beyond simple cargo to be smuggled across a closed border…

Taking the case, Renee is soon breaking into the flesh peddler’s home and dealing harshly with Varga’s brutal thugs where she finds a bed with chains and a camera set-up…

After undergoing some especially intense enquiries the coyote gives up the name of the man he eventually sold Louisa to: millionaire shipping exporter Gordon Chandless.

Breaking into the businessman’s palatial HQ isn’t much harder, but overconfidence soon costs The Question dearly as she is surprised and overpowered by hulking bodyguard Mr. Bolt and his handy tasers…

Unable to get any answers from his faceless captive, Chandless opts for her quiet removal, but by the time The Question escapes a watery death-trap and returns in a very bad mood, the wily human trafficker is already gone…

Painfully aware that she’s tracking an evil enterprise of vast proportions, Renee uses Tot’s data-mining skills to track the mogul of misery to his luxury Hollywood lair and goes in blazing, disdainful of his army of heavies. They might be utterly unable to stop the implacable Question, but two of them are capable enough to kill their own boss at the clandestine command of his master…

Despite being back at square one in regard to the criminal hierarchy, Renee does now have a location on a certain container vessel ready to ship out with a new cargo of slaves. Righteous indignation, cold fury and a lucky intervention by the FBI soon finds all of the victims safe and free – including little Louisa Soliz…

‘Pipeline: Chapter Two’ moves the story on as The Question continues her crusade to destroy the trafficking empire, slowly and violently working her way up the chain of scumbags and crushing individual enterprises whilst inexorably zeroing in on the major player behind the network of sin and misery…

Of course such costly interventions prompt the mystery leader to fight back, and during her raid on a top-of-the-range hot car franchise the bad guys retaliate with a devious and deadly ambush of their own. That’s when Montoya’s secret weapon makes her presence known and the crooks all end up maimed or worse at the hand of the relentless unforgiving Huntress

Helena Bertinelli was mob royalty but, following a massacre considered an occupational hazard in “The Family” line of work, she disappeared. The only survivor of a major hit, she trained to become a masked avenger ruthlessly punishing all gangsters whilst sticking up for innocent ordinary folk. She especially despises those who prey on children…

Huntress and the Question continue busting rackets all across the world, methodically dismantling the network as they climb the ladder to the big boss, and finally provoke an overwhelming response in the form of super-assassin Zeiss.

It was all part of a far deeper plan conceived by the vengeful vigilantes who promptly co-opt the mercenary killer to give up his unassailable paymaster. Their tactics however revolt Tot and the elderly scholar resigns.

Undeterred but now deprived of crucial technical support, the determined duo head for Gotham City where Helena introduces The Question to the top-secret leader of the all-female super-team known as the Birds of Prey. Former GCPD detective Montoya cannot believe that Commissioner Gordon’s mousey dweeb daughter Barbara was once Batgirl and is now covert anti-crime mastermind “Oracle”

Her irresistible cyber-probing soon has the dynamic duo invading an underworld server-farm in Odessa which – after the studied application of maximum force – provides a money trail to the Pipeline overlord. However when they sneak onto Oolong Island they walk straight into a trap…

The rogue state is the ultimate expression of Capitalism: peopled by criminals and the mad scientists of many nations, it maintains its precarious independence by selling proscribed technologies to anyone with money, proudly free from the annoying oversight of law or hindrance of morality…

President-for-Life Veronica Cale starts by torturing her captive heroes but after debating with The Question soon sees that the most profit doesn’t necessarily stem from staying bought…

Before long, Montoya and Bertinelli are on the final stretch: sneaking into Syria and invading the stronghold of the man who has turned humans into commodities and exported sin and horror on a global scale.

Unfortunately the wickedest man alive is ready and waiting for them…

The cataclysmic final confrontation is as much theosophical debate as brutal beat-down and in the final reckoning the allies must become enemies for the best possible reasons before finding anything approaching an acceptable answer to their dilemmas…

Moody, fast-paced, challenging and astoundingly action-packed, this stylish trade paperback edition also offers a hugely engaging ‘Sketchbook’ section from Cully Hamner offering developmental peeks into his evolution of the characters, a fascinating eight pages of layouts and roughs and some of his amazing set designs for story-locations which will delight and amaze all lovers of comic art.

Compelling and breathtaking, Pipeline exposes the dark underbelly of mainstream Fights ‘n’ Tights comics and proves that you don’t need graphic excess to tell hard-hitting tales or captivate lovers of adventure blockbusters.
© 2009, 2010, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents the Legion of Super-Heroes volume 5


By Cary Bates, Jim Shooter, Paul Levitz, Dave Cockrum, Mike Grell & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4297-8

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

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

Since that time the fortunes and popularity of the Legion have perpetually waxed and waned, with their future history tweaked and overwritten, retconned and rebooted over and over again to comply with editorial diktat and popular fashion.

This sturdy, cosmically-captivating fifth massive monochrome compendium gathers a chronological parade of futuristic delights from Superboy #193, 195, and Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #197-220, covering February 1973 to October 1976, as well as the debut issue of opportunistic spin-off Karate Kid #1 (March 1976) at a time when the superhero genre had again waned but which was slowly recovering to gain its current, seemingly unassailable ascendancy.

That plunge in costumed character popularity had seen the team lose their long-held lead spot in Adventure Comics, be relegated to a back-up in Action Comics and even vanish completely for a time. Legion fans however are the most passionate of an already fanatical breed…

No sooner had the LSH faded than agitation to revive them began. After a few tentative forays as an alternating back-up feature in Superboy, the game-changing artwork of Dave Cockrum inspired a fresh influx of fans and the back-up soon took over the book – exactly as they had done in the 1960s when the Tomorrow Teens took Adventure from Superboy and made it uniquely their  own…

The resurgent dramas begin here with the back-up by Cary Bates & Cockrum from Superboy #193 wherein a select team consisting of Chameleon Boy, Duo Damsel, Chemical King and Karate Kid went undercover on a distant world to prevent atomic Armageddon in ‘War Between the Nights and the Days!’

That’s followed by #195’s ‘The One-Shot Hero!’ which told the story of ERG-1 – a human converted to sentient energy in an antimatter accident. The character had been mentioned in a 1960’s tale of the Adult Legion but here Bates & Cockrum at last fleshed out his only mission and heroic sacrifice with passion and overwhelming style…

The really big change came with the July issue as the long-lived title (it had premiered in 1949 just as the Golden Age was coming to an end) became Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes with #197.

The relaunch offered a full-length extravaganza, ‘Timber Wolf: Dead Hero, Live Executioner!’ which saw the Boy of Steel summoned to the future to be greeted by a hero he believed long dead in the line of duty.

Somehow Timber Wolf has escaped the grave and triumphantly greets his old comrade, but astute Legion leader Mon-El fears some kind of trick and is proved right when the miraculous survivor goes berserk at an awards ceremony, attempting to assassinate the President of Earth.

Wolf is restrained before any harm can be done and a thorough deprogramming soon gives him a clean bill of mental health. Unfortunately that’s exactly what the team’s hidden enemy had planned and when a deeper layer of brainwashing kicks in the helpless mind-slave turns off the security systems allowing militaristic alien warlord Tyr to invade Legion HQ.

Thankfully telepathic Saturn Girl is on hand to free the mental vassal and scupper the assault, but in the scuffle Tyr’s computerised gun hand escapes, swearing vengeance…

The organisation’s greatest foes resurface with a seemingly infallible plan in #198’s ‘The Fatal Five Who Twisted Time!’ – travelling back to 1950s Smallville to plant a device which will edit the next thousand years to prevent the LSH from forming.

As second chapter ‘Prisoners of the Time Lock’ reveals, however, a squad comprising Brainiac 5, Element Lad, Karate Kid, Princess Projectra, Chameleon Boy and Mon-El has already escaped to the relative safety of the time stream, determined to restore history or die with the resultant clash concluding in a ‘Countdown to Catastrophe’

With an entire issue to play with and short stories clearly popular, the format settled on alternating epics with a double-dose of vignettes. Thus issue #199 opened with ‘The Gun That Mastered Men!’ as Tyr’s computerised wonder weapon returned to liberate its creator, only to rebel at the last moment and try to take over Superboy’s body instead. With that threat comprehensively crushed, Bouncing Boy then took centre stage to relate his solo battle against Orion the Hunter in ‘The Impossible Target’

It was mere prelude to the anniversary issue #200 wherein he lost his power to hyper-inflate and had to resign. However it did allow the Bounding Bravo to propose to girlfriend Duo Damsel, unaware that she had been targeted to become ‘The Legionnaire Bride of Starfinger’

The marriage was an event tinged with grandeur and tragedy as the super-villain kidnapped her in ‘This Wife is Condemned’, attempting to emulate her powers and make an army of doppelgangers but ‘The Secret of the Starfinger Split!’ was never revealed after Superboy enacted a cunning counter-ploy…

Issue #201 featured the resurrection of ERG-1 as the energy-being reconstituted himself to save the Legion from treachery in ‘The Betrayer From Beyond’ whilst ‘The Silent Death’ saw precognitive Dream Girl infallibly predict a comrade’s imminent demise even though no hero anywhere appeared to be endangered…

Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #202 was a 100-Page Giant but only two tales were new. They were also Cockrum’s final forays in the 30th century and saw the debut of his equally impressive successor Mike Grell as inker on ‘Lost a Million Miles from Home!’

Here Colossal Boy and Shrinking Violet face a perplexing mystery in deep space: an inexplicable loss of ship’s power which compels them to abandon ship in the worst possible place imaginable…

‘Wrath of the Devil-Fish’ by Bates & Cockrum was the artist’s swan song, featuring the debut of the re-designated ERG-1 as Wildfire and an eerie amphibian creature who attacked a pollution-cleansing automated Sea-Station. Of course the monster was not what he seemed and the Legion thought they might have found a unique new recruit…

Having utterly transformed the look, feel and fortunes of the Legion, Cockrum moved to Marvel where he would perform the same service for another defunct and almost forgotten series entitled X-Men

With Grell now handling the full art, our youthful Club of Champions were still on the meteoric rise, depicted as a dedicated, driven, grittily realistic combat force in constant, galaxy-threatening peril. However the super-science stalwarts still struggled against a global resurgence in spiritual soul-searching and supernatural dramas, with most of the comics industry churning out a myriad of monster and magic tales.

Thus the genre even invaded the bastions of graphic futurism in #203’s ‘Massacre by Remote Control’ (Bates & Grell) when increasing indifference and neglect caused veteran legionnaire Invisible Kid to lose his life saving his comrades.

The sadness was tinged with joy, however, as this was a twist on gothic ghost stories and the fallen hero was united with a lover from the other side of the Veil of Tears…

It was back to sensibly rational ground for SsLSH #204 and ‘The Legionnaire Nobody Remembered’, wherein the heroes explored the secrets of time traveller Anti-Lad whose accidental meddling altered history, demanding a most hands-on response to fix everything. Bates & Grell then exposed ‘Brainiac 5’s Secret Weakness!’ by reigniting his millennium-spanning romance with Supergirl

Issue #205 was another mostly-reprint 100-Page Giant but included one novel-length saga which saw 20th century Lana Lang save the assembled heroes from becoming ‘The Legion of Super-Executioners’ after the entire team was overwhelmed by a psionic immortal who patiently planned to abduct them all and breed a super-army of conquest…

‘The Legionnaires who Haunted Superboy’ led in #206 and saw Superboy visited by dead friends Invisible Kid and Ferro Lad. This time however the underlying theme was nascent cloning science not eldritch unrest and the outcome was mostly upbeat, after which ‘Welcome Home Daughter… Now Die!’ highlighted Princess Projectra’s dilemma as both modern hero with a commoner boyfriend and untouchable heir to a primitive feudal kingdom after a dutiful family visit resulted in an attack by a marauding monster…

SsLSH #207 opened with ‘The Rookie who Betrayed the Legion!’ as Science Police liaison Dvron seemingly colluded with mesmeric villain Universo whilst ‘Lightning Lad’s Day of Dread!’ saw the hero unite with his wicked brother Mekt to share a moment of personal grief.

It was but a prelude to the next issue (another 100-Page Giant) with a two pronged plan marooning Mon-El and Superboy in the 1950s whilst their comrades suffered the ‘Vengeance of the Super-Villains’ in the 30th Century. However the cunning murder-plot of Lightning Lord’s Legion of Super-Villains was not clever enough to fool Brainiac 5 of wily LSH espionage chief Chameleon Boy…

During the 1960’s the main architect of the Legion’s transformation from semi-comedic adventure feature to gritty super-battalion was teenaged sensation Jim Shooter, whose scripts and layouts (generally finished and pencilled by the astoundingly talented Curt Swan) made the series irresistible to a generation of fans growing up with their heads in the Future and tension-drenched drama on their minds.

Now, after time away getting a college education and working in advertising, Shooter returned in Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #209 with ‘Who Can Save the Princess?’ tersely detailing how Projectra succumbing to the lethal Pain Plague led her lover Karate Kid to make an ultimate sacrifice.

Bates & Grell then wrapped up the issue with a heart-warming mystery as young fan Flynt Brojj became a ‘Hero for a Day’; saving the Legion from an insidious assassination attempt…

Issue #210 was an all Shooter/Grell affair, opening with far darker fare as ‘Soljer’s Private War’ revealed how a tragic victim of World War VI was transformed by horrific circumstances and resurrected to rampage unstoppably through 30th century Metropolis after which ‘The Lair of the Black Dragon’ revealed the incredible origin of Karate Kid.

When a pack of martial artists attack the hero, their defeat leads to a further attack on the aged Sensei who trained Val Armorr from birth, and painful revelations that the Legionnaire’s birth-father was Japan’s greatest villain…

In issue #211 ‘The Ultimate Revenge’ (Shooter) saw Element Lad risk his career and honour to exact vengeance from space pirate Roxxas who exterminated the hero’s entire race whilst Bates detailed how the Legion of Substitute Heroes took possession of ‘The Legion’s Lost Home’ incidentally solving one of the most infamous cold cases in the history of theft…

Shooter was now main writer on the series and SsLSH #212 began with ‘Last Fight for a Legionnaire’ wherein a sextet of ambitious and disgruntled teens challenged Matter-Eater Lad, Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, Phantom Girl, Shrinking Violet and Chameleon Boy for their positions on the team – resulting in the replacement of one of veteran heroes – whilst ‘A Death Stroke at Dawn’ found ineffectual-seeming Substitute Legionnaire Night Girl rediscovering her confidence by triumphantly saving boyfriend Cosmic Boy and herself from murderous ambushers…

In #213 Ultra Boy only realised he was afflicted with a crippling psychological handicap when the hunt for infallible super-thief Benn Pares took the team into ‘The Jaws of Fear’ after which Timber Wolf overcame a far more physical threat with his rarely exercised wits when attacked by mega-thug Black Mace in ‘Trapped to Live – Free to Die!’ by Shooter, Grell and inker Bill Draut.

In #214 the heroes found ‘No Price Too High’ to save a trillionaire’s obnoxious son from himself and the deranged, disaffected employee who had taken over one of his dad’s automated manufacturing worlds before Bates, Grell & Draut revealed the deep-seated trauma which took away Shrinking Violet’s powers in ‘Stay Small – Or Die!’

Luckily for Brainiac 5, his drastic plan to shock her back to normal worked in time for her to save him from the fallout of his own callous actions…

Bates & Grell also observed ‘The Final Eclipse of Sun Boy’ in SsLSH #215, as an intangible assassin stalked Phantom Girl to Earth and was in turn followed by an unlikely and unsuspected ally, before Shooter, Grell & Draut revealed Cosmic Boy as ‘The Hero Who Wouldn’t Fight’: honouring a sacred day of penance and super-power abstinence even at the cost of his life…

Despite the comics world being in the grip of martial arts madness since 1973, DC were a little slow in making an obvious move and giving one of the oldest comicbook Kung Fu fighters his own solo title.

Karate Kid #1 launched with a March-April 1976 cover-date and plunged valiant Val Armorr back a thousand years to contemporary New York City in ‘My World Begins in Yesterday’ by Paul Levitz, Ric Estrada & Joe Staton.

The self-made warrior had crashed the time barrier to recapture arch enemy Nemesis Kid, and, after rejecting friendly advice and stern orders to return to Tomorrow, tracked and trashed his enemy with the astounded assistance of schoolteacher Iris Jacobs.

Finding the primitive milieu far more amenable than his origin era, Karate Kid unexpectedly then elected to stick around in the 20th century…

That same month SsLSH #216 saw Bates & Grell tackle a thorny issue in ‘The Hero who Hated the Legion’ as the team tried to recruit its first black member. The isolationist Tyroc and his entire long-sequestered race carried a big grudge and it took determined diplomacy and a crisis which threatened the entire island of Marzal to challenge the prejudice of centuries…

The same creative team then took a peek into ‘The Private Lives of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel’ revealing how even retired Legionnaires still had to fight for their lives on occasion.

Shooter & Grell monopolised issue #217 beginning with ‘The Charge of the Doomed Legionnaires’ wherein rapacious Khund warlord Field Marshal Lorca pitted his strategic genius against Brainiac 5 but underestimated the sheer guts of his despised foes, whilst ‘Future Shock for Superboy’ found the Teen of Steel beguiled by 30th century girl Laurel Kent, blithely unaware that he was interested in his own descendant…

Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #218 revealed how Tyroc’s induction into the team was shanghaied by Zoraz, ‘The Secret Villain the World Never Knew’ (Bates & Grell) although the neophyte soon turned the tables on the interloper, after which Shooter (with story inspiration from Ken Klaczac) disclosed ‘The Plunder Ploy of the Fatal Five’ in #219.

Here the terrifying Fatal Five went on an implausible spree of cosmic crimes, gathering items which could only be used for the creation of an all-conquering army, but when the Legion capably counterattacked they realised they’d jumped to woefully wrong conclusions…

This cavalcade of chronal capers concludes with #220 as inker Bob Wiacek joined Shooter & Grell for one final brace of bombastic blockbusters, beginning with ‘The Super Soldiers of the Slave-Maker’ wherein the Legion attempted to liberate conquered planet Murgador.

With most resistance coming from the terrified inhabitants, the astounded heroes learned that a huge bomb at the world’s core made them all helpless hostages to their alien overlord, forcing an application of subterfuge and misdirection to rectify the impossible situation…

Everything wraps up here with ‘Dream Girl’s Living Nightmare’ as Chameleon Boy tried to cheat fate and save a cosmic benefactor from death despite the infallible prediction of his precognitive comrade…

The Legion is unquestionably one of the most beloved and bewildering creations in funnybook history and largely responsible for the growth of the groundswell movement that became American Comics Fandom. Moreover, these scintillating and seductively addictive stories – as much as Julie Schwartz’s Justice League or Marvel’s Fantastic Four– fuelled the interest and imaginations of generations of readers and created the industry we all know today.

If you love comics and haven’t read this stuff, you are the poorer for it and need to feed your future dreams as soon as possible.

© 1973-1976, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Critical Condition


By J.M. DeMatteis, Joe Kelly, Jeph Loeb, Mark Schultz, Carlo Barberi, Pascual Ferry, Kano, Doug Mahnke, Mike McKone, Cary Nord, Pablo Raimondi, Duncan Rouleau & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-949-3

Superman has been altered and adjusted continually over his many decades of fictive life since Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster’s iconic inspiration first appeared in Action Comics #1. Moreover, every refit and reboot has resulted in appalled fans and new devotees in pretty much equal proportion, so perhaps the Metropolis Marvel’s greatest ability is the power to survive change…

Although largely out of favour these days as the myriad strands of accrued mythology are being carefully reintegrated into an overarching, all-inclusive multi-media dominant, film-favoured continuity, the grittily stripped-down, post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Man of Steel (as re-imagined by John Byrne and superbly built upon by a succession of immensely talented comics craftsmen) resulted in some stunning high points.

Actually, no sooner had the Byrne restart demolished much of the accrued iconography which had grown up around the “Strange Visitor from Another World” over fifty glorious years than successive creators began expending a great deal of time and ingenuity putting much of it back, albeit in terms more accessible to a cynical and well-informed audience far more sophisticated than their grandparents ever were.

Even so, by the mid-1990’s Byrne’s baby was beginning to look a little tired and the sales kick generated by the Death of and Return of Superman was fading, so the decision was made to give the big guy a bit of a tweak for the fast-approaching new millennium: bringing in new writers and artists and gradually moving the stories into more bombastic, hyper-powered territory.

The fresh tone was augmented by a new sequence and style of trade paperback editions and this third collection gathers material from The Adventures of Superman #579-580, Superman: Man of Steel #101-102, Action Comics #766-767, Superman: Metropolis Secret Files and Origins #1 and Superman #158, covering June and July 2000.

The “City of Tomorrow” is slowly coming to terms with the fact that it has been transformed into an often-terrifying technological wonderland after a cyber-attack by future fiend Brainiac-13, but the Man of Steel is trying to cope with far weightier issues. Despite exposing The Parasite who had been impersonating Lois Lane-Kent, the Man of Tomorrow was unable to force the location of his missing wife from the leech before he/it died. With his one true love lost and maybe dead, Superman also had to admit that something was killing him from the inside…

‘Pranked!’ (Adventures of Superman #579 by J.M. DeMatteis, Mike McKone & Marlo Alquiza) opens proceedings here as Superman scours the city, convinced Lex Luthor knows something about Lois’ disappearance. He soon distracted however when the maniacal Prankster strikes again.

Having no time for the killer idiot’s japes, he reacts impulsively and is ambushed by a new foe dubbed The Adversary. The mystery strongman and Prankster (even with a B-13 upgrade of his own) are no match for the enraged Man of Steel, but that angry concern and overconfidence only lead Superman into a Kryptonite trap…

The saga continues in ‘All Fall Down’ (Superman: Man of Steel # 101 by Mark Shultz, Pablo Raimondi & José Marzan Jr.) as the rapidly expiring Metropolis Marvel crashes into the technological wonderland built by John Henry Irons AKA Steel.

With the inventor Superman devises a means of boosting his depleted solar energy reserves to fight off the K-radiation exposure, but rather than rest and recuperate, the weary hero then disguises himself in another attempt to broach Luthor’s Lair. The bid fails ignominiously and the ailing hero is caught, beaten and kicked out like a dog…

As he is picked up off the street by another worried ally, back at the “Steelworks”, Irons makes a chilling discovery regarding Superman’s condition…

‘Metropolica’ (Superman: Metropolis Secret Files #1, by Joe Kelly, Pascual Ferry & Alvaro Lopez) then takes us on a strange diversion as Luthor sets his formidable bodyguards Hope and Mercy the task of finding the missing Lois Lane. For once innocent of mischief, the Machiavellian multi-billionaire needs to know who is acting against his interests in his own domain.

Although the mission exposes a lot of secrets about the City of Tomorrow, Lois’ whereabouts is not one of them…

Action Comics #766 then concludes the hunt as Batman steps in – over the increasingly feeble protestations of the clearly-dying Man of Steel – in ‘D.O.A.’ (by Kelly, Cary Nord & Jason Baumgartner). The Dark Knight’s methodology and attitudes might be unwelcome, but as Superman follows him through the most sordid and squalid regions of the city he cannot fault their efficacy; especially when, against all hope, they find Lois alive.

With his wife at last returned Superman’s energy finally fades and he collapses…

The eponymous ‘Critical Condition’ then begins with ‘Little Big Man’ (from Superman #158 by Jeph Loeb, Duncan Rouleau & Jaime Mendoza) as a desperate band of scientists assemble at S.T.A.R. Labs to try and save Superman from a poison or infection which is destroying him by making his powers go wild.

With Irons are Doctors Sarah Charles, Kitty (Rampage) Faulkner and Professors Bridgette Crosby and Ray Palmer, but their combined efforts seem doomed to failure until Jimmy Olsen tells Lois of a call to the Daily Planet tip-line.

Soon she is frantically chasing sorceress and petty criminal La Encantadora who has horrifying details about what is wrong with the Man of Steel…

Palmer meanwhile has opted to undertake a “Fantastic Voyage” inside Superman, accompanied by Steel, Supergirl and Superboy but as the Atom shrinks his emergency team into the patient’s boiling hot bloodstream he has no idea that more than one of his party is concealing a deadly secret…

In ‘Green Universe’ (Adventures of Superman #580, by J.M. DeMatteis, Carlo Barberi & Juan Vlasco) the Girl of Steel – currently the earthly abode of a fallen angel – is attacked by antibodies shaped like memories even as Superboy and Steel locate a Kryptonite tumour that suddenly attacks them…

In the outer universe Lois’ search for Encantadora has brought her into conflict with infallible assassin Deathstroke the Terminator, who has instructions to stop the witch sharing her knowledge at all costs. As the women flee the masked killer, back at the lab a late arrival proves to Palmer that one of the heroes he has micro-injected into Superman is both an impostor and an assassin…

With the patient alternately flatlining and nearly exploding, the latecomer is rapidly “atomised” and sent ‘Inside Superman’ (Shultz, Doug Mahnke & Tom Nguyen, Superman: Man of Steel #102) to warn the unwary Super-Squad.

Simultaneously Lois and Encantadora explosively arrive in time to inform the scientists what has been gradually poisoning Superman for months, but before Atom and his colleagues can act Deathstroke also bursts in, ready to kill everyone if it means the Action Ace’s end…

Everything comes to a compulsive and catastrophic climax in ‘Death’s Door’ (Action Comics #767, by Kelly, Kano & Alquiza) as the mystery poisoner is revealed, Terminator thwarted and the Super-Squad triumphantly restores Superman to full health, ready for the next confrontation in the Never-Ending Battle…

With a cover gallery by McKone, Alquiza, Manke, Nguyen, Schultz, Cam Smith, Danny Miki, Ian Churchill & Norm Rapmund, this epic life-and-death struggle offers drama, doom, shock, spectacle and surprises which no lover of the Fights ‘n’ Tights genre can help but adore: a compelling soap opera super-melodrama which remains a high point of the canon and a sheer delight for all fans of pure untrammelled Action fiction.
© 2000, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Seven Soldiers of Victory Archives volume 3


By Joe Samachson & Arturo Cazeneuve (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1694-8

After the actual invention of the comicbook superhero the most significant event in the industry’s history was the combination of individual stars into a group. Thus what seems blindingly obvious to us with the benefit of four-colour hindsight was resoundingly confirmed: readers just couldn’t get enough of garishly-hued mystery men, and a multitude of popular characters would inevitably increase readership.

Plus, of course, a mob of superheroes is just so much cooler than one (or one-&-a-half if there’s sidekicks involved…).

The creation of the Justice Society of America in 1941 utterly changed the shape of the budding industry. Soon after the team debuted, even All American Comics’ publishing partner National wanted to get in on the act and thus created their own squad of solo stars, loaded with a bunch of their proprietary characters who hadn’t made it onto the roster of the cooperative coalition of AA and DC stars.

Oddly those eager editors never settled on a name and National’s squad of non-powered mystery men Crimson Avenger and Wing, Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, Sir Justin, the Shining Knight, Vigilante, Green Arrow and Speedy – who debuted as a unit in Leading Comics #1 in 1941 – were retroactively and alternatively dubbed The Law’s Legionnaires and/or The Seven Soldiers of Victory.

They never even had their own title-logo but only appeared as solo stars grouped together on the spectacular covers, the last half-dozen of which (by Luis Cazeneuve and Jon Small,) preface each of the epic sagas cunningly crafted by writer Joe Samachson and illustrator Arturo Cazeneuve in this final spectacular collection of Golden Age delights.

The tales in this third deluxe hardback compendium were originally presented in the quarterly Leading Comics #9-14 (spanning Winter 1943/1944 to Spring 1945), after which the title overnight converted to a vehicle for funny animal stars, making the team one of the earliest casualties of the changing fashions which eventually saw the virtual demise of superhero comics.

Following an incisive discourse, fascinating background and compelling history lesson from comics legend Roy Thomas in his Foreword, that war-time wonderment resumes with a startling romp entitled ‘The Chameleon of Crime!’

The sagas generally followed a basic but extremely effective formula (established by Mort Weisinger in the Soldiers’ first outing) wherein the heroes would meet to assess a many-headed threat before heading off individually to handle a portion of the problem solo, only reuniting to tackle the final foe together.

Here that plan deviates slightly as a conglomeration of five gangsters hiding out in a swanky underworld resort get to talking about the heroes they have fled from, and are overheard by a sixth. Disguise artist Mr. X boasts that he can outwit any and all of Seven Soldiers champions and a substantial amount of money is wagered…

The villain’s first targets are “The Crimson” and Wing as ‘Mr. X Marks the Spot!’, smugly warning his oblivious foes of his plan to steal a giant gem before promptly getting thrashed and nearly caught…

The malevolent mastermind plays it smarter in ‘The X-ploits of Mr. X!’, but still can’t resist giving The Vigilante a heads-up before robbing a rodeo show. This time he has to threaten innocent bystanders to escape without the swag but with his skin intact…

Two bets down and feeling rattled, Mr. X’s duel with the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy involves an assault on ‘The House That Couldn’t be Robbed!’ Here the Crime Chameleon takes an undercover, backseat role, keeping his identity hidden from his own men, but still can’t outmanoeuvre the quick-thinking patriotic partners…

A text chapter entitled ‘Interlude at Hoodlums’ Hideout’ finds the frustrated mastermind back at the crime hotel being gibed by Red Heister, Dodo the Dip and Lazy Dyers – all recent winners in the larcenous communal wager – but still boasting that his final schemes will succeed.

Anxious gambler Blackie Kraul feels his portion of the bet might still be saved and secretly writes a warning to the Shining Knight… exactly as Mr. X intended…

Returning to comics format, the daring double-cross occurs in ‘The Gorilla and the Gangster!’ as the valiant Paladin tackles a gang using a huge ape to smash steel bars and rip open safes. Thanks to the interference of Blackie however the Shining Knight falls into Mr. X’s trap and only good fortune and overwhelming determination allow the hero to triumph…

Again frustrated and sent scurrying for safety, the infuriated X tries one final ploy to save face by defeating Green Arrow and Speedy. Trusting only himself and acting as High Society magician ‘Inco the Unknown!’ the scofflaw plunders at will but comes a cropper after mistakenly deducing that effete partygoer and prospective victim Mr. Ponsonby is actually the Emerald Archer’s alter ego…

Again defeated, Mr. X flees. Sadly for him after each clash he has left a tiny clue, so when the heroes put their heads together for the ‘Conclusion’ they soon deduce the location of the hoodlum hotel and corner both the criminal charlatan and the foolish thugs who first pitted him against the Law’s Legionnaires…

Leading Comics #10 featured an exotic adventure in the Pacific as ‘The King of the Hundred Isles!’ finds the Seven Soldiers searching the vast ocean for a missing museum expedition. When a sudden storm sinks their ship too, the rescue team are separated and scattered throughout a myriad of strange little fiefdoms…

The calm aftermath sees a number of odd new alliances as ‘Crusoe and Crusoe Inc.!’ focuses on the novel team of Crimson Avenger and Speedy, marooned on a desolate rock until a band of mysteriously-displaced American gangsters arrive on a mission of murder for their mysterious boss.

Despite a few tense moments the makeshift hero-team eventually overcomes and leaves in the thugs’ motor-launch…

Elsewhere, Green Arrow and Vigilante have washed up on an isle decorated with buildings much like their hometowns and encounter ‘His Majesty… King Baby-Face!’: a notorious mobster who had vanished from the USA years before.

Hiding out, Baby-Face Johnson had taken over the simple island populations with his legion of crooks and become obsessed with collecting fish. All that is lost now though as heroes and villain spectacularly clash and a major earthquake shatters everything the transplanted tyrant’s unhappy slaves had built…

Sidekicks Stripesy and Wing scrambled ashore on a small paradise populated by the gentle descendants of English mariners in the midst of a crisis. After two centuries of self-sufficiency the population put up no fuss when representatives of “The King” finally arrived to make them pay taxes in ‘Taskmasters and Toilers!’

However when the costumed newcomers point out that their ruler is a knave and impostor it leads to another War of Independence for the beleaguered colonists, only this time the heroic rebels are defeated…

On yet another of the Hundred Isles the long-missing scientists of the museum mission are passing their days cataloguing new piscine discoveries. Their enforced idyll ends when a pack of American wiseguys show up demanding their latest find for the King’s collection.

Luckily for ‘The Fortunate Fish!’, that was the moment Star-Spangled Kid and Shining Knight arrived on the Paladin’s flying horse…

As Wing and Stripesy face death and torture the colonists begin a counter attack in ‘Revelation of Roguery!’ and are greatly aided by the fortuitous arrival of The Kid and Sir Justin. With freedom in the air the costumed quartet quickly link up with their missing comrades in time to tackle Baby-Face and his army of felons, ensuring ‘Kingdom’s End!’

Issue #11 traces the fall of hardened racketeer Handsome Harry as he misplaces his talismanic chapeau in ‘The Hard-Luck Hat!’

Almost immediately the Seven Soldiers are on his trail and crush his gang in a furious fight. Only Harry escapes…

The story continues as the mobster’s hat falls into the hands of a shifty haberdasher who sells it to haughty J. Billington Bilker in ‘The Banker and the Bandit!’ The secret scoundrel is being squeezed by a bookie and agrees to let his cash-fat institution be robbed, but fortune is not on his side as Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy get involved in the case…

With Bilker jailed, his house and possessions – including that hat – are scooped up at auction by gang-boss Gas-pipe Grogan who has an inspired notion in ‘Muggs at Mealtime!’ Putting the squeeze on the restaurant industry by “taxing” table salt Grogan thought he had tasted ultimate success until The Vigilante weighed in…

The freewheeling, infelicitous fedora then ended up with Grogan’s flunky Bozo who had far less ambitious plans to get rich. He targeted a swank store owner with memory problems, intending to slowly fleece ‘The Absent-Minded Victim!’ but had the misfortune of meeting superhero-in-mufti Lee Travis

The eagle-eyed Crimson Avenger soon involved himself and partner Wing in the cruel scam, ending Bozo’s greedy dreams forever…

The discarded, peripatetic titfer blew away on a breeze and landed on ‘The High-Hatted House!’ of inventor John Harrison just as band of escaped convicts broke in, drawing the Shining Knight into a deadly dilemma before justice and mercy finally prevailed…

That dilapidated topper then fell into the hands of a thrift-store owner who stuck it on his shop mannequin just in time for a maverick financier to buy the whole ensemble.

Mr. Jordan intended ‘The Dummy Director!’ to be his protest proxy on a Board ruled by a financial bandit but had grievously underestimated the murderous ruthlessness of his offended Chairman.

Luckily millionaire Oliver Queen was already on the case, acting as Green Arrow to ensure the guilty parties were all properly punished…

The tale turns full-circle in ‘Hat’s Haven’ as the lucky lid lands at the feet of a hobo. Recognising it instantly, hungry fugitive Handsome Harry immediately feels its power and soon is benefiting from a cunning con involving the “Haven for Homeless Hoboes”.

His shelter is in fact a college of criminality but before too long the Law’s Legionnaires have infiltrated the institution, determined to end Harry’s crooked ways for good…

Leading Comics #12 saw crotchety Croesus Weldon Darrel issue ‘The Million Dollar Challenge!’ to the Seven Soldiers, offering that princely sum to charity in return for their participation in an eccentric five-way treasure hunt. Naturally the heroes agree and ‘The Cache in the Canyon!’ soon finds Vigilante in the Wyoming badlands hunting for a box of valuables. Sadly the wild country is also the stamping grounds of a murderous bunch of bandits who immediately jump to some wrong conclusions…

Crimson Avenger and Wing head to a small town to test ‘The Power of the Press!’ discovering an old hollow newspaper printer is the location of a fortune in jewels. Of course the cheap thugs currently in possession of the press have their own ideas about “finders keepers” and accuse the heroes of theft…

Green Arrow and Speedy trace a meteorite to a museum in search of ‘The Safe from the Sky!’ only to find themselves hunted by the police whilst Shining Knight’s pursuit of ‘The Puzzle of the Pyramid!’ leads to a monumental boobytrapped modern edifice with crooks ready to murder and frame him…

Stripesy and the Star-Spangled Kid gain some inkling of what’s really going as ‘Murder in Miniature!’ sees the Red, White and Blue Duo investigating a toy town built to stash crooks’ cash and falling foul of the local law before the team reunites for the shocking ‘Conclusion’ to expose the astounding secret of the enigmatic, eccentric and unscrupulous moneyman…

Issue #13 featured ‘Trophies of Crime!’ and opens in an art museum where an odd assortment of mementoes donated by the Seven Soldiers hints at incredible feats of skulduggery.

Once upon a time the infamous Barracuda was intent on retiring from a life of extremely successful felony. To while away his idle hours he organised a collection of artefacts for his personal Black Museum and began acquiring them by callously sacrificing his top lieutenants to distract the Magnificent Seven whilst others went after his targets…

Learning early of the scheme the Legionnaires split up to stop them and ‘Crime’s Cornerstone!’ finds Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy battling killer robots to secure what appears to be a simple stone building block even as in a fantastic construction of steel and glass the Shining Knight battles a band of burglars over ‘The Cup of the Borgias!’

A bold robbery and seemingly impossible murder draws Vigilante to an experimental plantation where a ruthless gang try every dirty trick to steal ‘The Rubber Dagger!’ only to fail at the last moment whilst the Crimson and Wing take to the seas in search of a shard of canvas from ‘The Sails of the Sally C.!’ as Green Arrow and Speedy happen upon a strange and deadly bidding war with mobsters trying everything to get ‘The Iron Band!’ a simple metal worker purchases from a jewellers.

In every case Barracuda’s hoods came off worst but the mastermind escaped, at least until the Seven left their ‘Mementos of Victory’ on public display and laid a perfect trap…

The short reign of the Seven Soldier of Victory ended in Leading Comics #14 (Spring 1945) with a fabulous flight of fantasy that ranged them against ‘The Bandits from the Books!’ after a chance encounter with scientific paragon Dr. Wimsett who has discovered a process which brings fictional characters to life.

Whilst the likes of Humpty Dumpty and Old King Cole are happy mooching around the laboratory, a select group of very bad eggs the scientist had locked in a room take the first opportunity to abscond to the outside world to make mischief…

Their plans were overheard by helpful Humpty who happily shares the secrets with the Seven, so before long Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy are shadowing Long John Silver, his crew and a band of renegade natives from Last of the Mohicans to ‘Treasureless Island!’, whilst Green Arrow and Speedy follow Shakespeare’s roistering rogue on a gluttonous binge in ‘Food for Falstaff!’

Crimson Avenger and Wing hunt malignant Uriah Heep and the Old Man of the Sea as they brutally acquire modern wealth in ‘Hypocrites, Incorporated!’ even as Shining Knight battles ‘The Giant Who Got a Job!’ and a few of his big friends from the fairytales whilst Vigilante has his work cut out trying to wrangle ‘Little Men with Big Ideas!’ as the marauding armies of Lilliput go on a rampage in farms and a toystore… Soon however the troublemakers are all back in the lab but have one last card to play before they can be banished ‘Back to the Books!’

Frantic fantasy would also have been the theme of the next adventure had there been one, but Leading abruptly transformed into a cartoon animal comedy anthology for the Summer issue. The changeover was so sudden that story was already competed. ‘The World of Magic: Joe Samachson’s Script for Leading Comics#15’ offers a wondrous glimpse of what might have been…

Moreover, when Paul Levitz rediscovered the script in 1974, editor Joe Orlando had it adapted as a chapter-play serial in Adventure Comics #438-443, illustrated by artists Dick Dillin, Tex Blaisdell, Howard Chaykin, Lee Elias, Mike Grell, Ernie Chua/Chan, José Luis García López & Mike Royer.

It’s a true shame room couldn’t be found to include that saga here too…

With an informative ‘Biographies’ section to round off the nostalgic wonderment, it only remains to say that these raw, wild and excessively engaging costumed romps are amongst some of the best but most neglected thrillers of the halcyon Golden Age. Happily, modern tastes too have moved on and these yarns are probably far more in tune with contemporary mores, making this a truly guilty pleasure for all fans of mystery, mayhem and stylishly retro superteam tussles…

© 1943, 1944, 1945, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again


By Frank Miller& Lynn Varley (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-929-4

Despite and because of all the controversy and uproar over The Dark Knight Returns, the clamour for a sequel began almost immediately. Auteur Frank Millar kept everybody hungry for almost fifteen years and when he finally did capitulate it was – as usual – not what anyone was expecting.

Originally released as a 3-issue prestige format miniseries between November 2001 and July 2002 under DC’s Elseworlds imprint (a line featuring key characters in non-canonical or out-of-continuity tales). Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again once more confounded reader expectations with its concentration on contemporary social commentary, other (lesser?) superheroes and political corruption as well as the dumbing-down and sexualisation of the media …

Three years after the climax of the original epic, America and the world are worse off than ever and following a mood-setting Introduction from veteran journalist “Vicki Vale”, Book One opens with a well-hidden Bruce Wayne assessing just how far his country has fallen: a tidal wave of Bread-&-Circuses on the airwaves saturation-lobotomising the populace with tawdry titillation and celebrity news soporifics whilst impossibly popular, implausibly avuncular President Rickard assures the complacent proles they’ve never had it so good…

The Batman knows a secret however: PoTUS doesn’t exist…

There’s still some dissent, but who listens nowadays to old dinosaurs like Jimmy Olsen constantly bemoaning the repeal of The Bill of Rights or carping on about how all the costumed heroes have somehow vanished.

Elswehere, an incredibly tiny man continues his daily battle against voracious monsters until suddenly he is plucked from his hostile micro-prison by a young girl dressed like an animal.

After years in Hell Ray Palmer is ready to help an old comrade take back the world, but first he and Catgirl Carrie Kelley have to battle their way through an army of federal heavies and rent-a-cops…

Young, independent bedroom-&-basement News-hackers run with the story of “Masks and Capes” making a comeback, prompting Rickard to extend Martial Law into its 19th month. Somewhere far away a former Bastion of Liberty is terrified of the repercussions. Superman is still permitted to save lives in the world… as long as nobody sees him doing it…

In a cave far below ground, Catgirl helps The Atom retool for the forthcoming fight whilst introducing the bemused physicist to the Dark Knight’s latest addition to his arsenal: a legion of former gangstas and protégés dubbed The Batboys.

Buried in the nightly teaser-fest entitled News in the Nude, the Prez is delivering another placating homily when his image suddenly fritzes. The word is now out with more and more people realising their beloved paternalistic patriarch might be nothing than a hologram mask for any anonymous monster or maniac…

In the White House Lex Luthor fears his grip on power is slipping, whilst far-too-close-for-comfort, quintessential investigator The Question listens and learns…

The long days of quiet resistance at last end when an explosion deprives the entire Eastern Seaboard of power, allowing Catgirl and the Batboys to move into Phase Two of the plan: liberating missing speedster Barry Allen from captivity and energy-generating slavery on a collosal power-grid-feeding treadmill.

The Flash is resistant – horrified and furious until Carrie reassures him that his beloved wife Iris is no longer a hostage of the American Government…

Deep in his lair Wayne contemplates his successes and calculates when exactly the Administration will send his old friend Clark after him again…

As the free and unsanctioned parts of the media speculate on the return of caped crusaders and the freaks quickly become a hot trend, out in space Superman contacts the long-hidden Wonder Woman and she joins him in a conference with Captain Marvel.

The World’s most powerful heroes are still castrated by the secret alliance of Luthor and Brainiac which has held their loved ones safety against them for years. After being horrifically reminded once more of the cost of disobedience, Superman heads after Batman but flies straight into a perfectly planned ambush and falls to a resurgent and growing rebel Justice League and a particularly vengeance-hungry Green Arrow

Book Two finds the nation gripped by “Superhero Chic” as a torrent of fashion-crazed wannabes spring up everywhere. Increasingly furious Federal spin-doctors and government apparatchiks are helpless to stem, denigrate or even belittle the tide.

Ignoring the media storm Batman takes a more active role, attacking Luthor’s strongholds, liberating the likes of Plastic Man, Elongated Man and the rest whilst striking fear into the hearts of the too-long-complacent oppressors…

In a momentous change of heart, eternal lovers Wonder Woman and Superman abandon their previous position and even allow their long hidden daughter Lara to join the struggle.

As Earth celebrates the “return” of Superman, Luthor unleashes a ghastly facsimile of The Joker to kill the returned champions one by one, whilst Brainiac utilises an alien monster to draw the Man of Steel into battle. Heroes begin to fall. Manhunter, Guardian, The Creeper and Captain Marvel die before Lara arrives to decide the outcome…

With Luthor and Brainiac on the defensive Bruce Wayne unmasks at a massive freedom concert in Gotham and beseeches the public to reclaim their country. This revolution is being televised…

The apocalyptic conclusion in Book Three finds the battle in full flow with the massed forces and resources of totalitarian government ranged against two generations of masked champions and more – such as the exiled Green Lantern – arriving every moment.

Batman still has unfinished business: freeing the captive bottle-city Kandorians whose possession by Brainiac has neutered The Man of Tomorrow for years, but despite a concerted and successful campaign the Dark Knight is captured and tortured by Luthor even as the faux Joker targets Catgirl.

The killer has a history with the Bat-dynasty and a personal score to settle with the aging hero’s newest junior assistant…

With chaos, anarchy and even freedom in the air, the beaten dictators opt for a Scorched Earth policy and before long the entire planet looks unlikely to survive…

This controversial sequel volume is packed with production drawings and a Designs Sketchbook to augment a unique and decidedly different Bat-saga at once bombastic, brutal, challenging and immensely entertaining.

Whilst certainly not the equal of its mythic predecessor, The Dark Knight Strikes Again is certainly a tremendously important tale no fan of comics should miss.
© 2001, 2002, 2005 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Sea Devils volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Bob Haney, France E. Herron, Hank P. Chapman, Russ Heath, Irv Novick, Joe Kubert, Gene Colan, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Jack Abel, Bruno Premiani, Sheldon Moldoff & Howard Purcell (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3522-2

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy and outrageous imagination in his signature war comics, as well as for the wealth of horror stories, romance yarns, “straight” adventure, westerns and superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman (plus other genres far too numerous to cover here) at which he also excelled.

He sold his first stories and poetry in 1932, wrote for the theatre, film and radio, and joined the Fox Features “shop” at the beginning of the comicbook phenomenon where he created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for established features like Blue Beetle and the original Captain Marvel.

In 1945 he settled at All-American Comics as both writer and editor, staying on when the company amalgamated with National Comics to become the forerunner of today’s DC. He wrote the Golden Age Flash and Hawkman, created Black Canary and many sexily memorable villainesses such as Harlequin and Rose and the Thorn. This last temptress he redesigned during the relevancy era of the early 1970s into a schizophrenic crime-busting super-heroine who haunted the back of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane – which Kanigher also scripted at the time.

When mystery-men faded at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved easily into other genres such as spy-thrillers, westerns and war stories. In 1952 he became chief writer and editor of the company’s small combat line: All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Army at War.

He created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 and added G.I. Combat to his packed portfolio when Quality Comics sold their dwindling line of titles to National/DC in 1956.

In 1955 Kanigher devised historical adventure anthology The Brave and the Bold and its stalwart early stars Silent Knight, Golden Gladiator and Viking Prince whilst still scripting Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog and a host of others.

In 1956, for Julius Schwartz he scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the first story of the Silver Age which introduced Barry Allen as the new Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the world.

Kanigher was a restlessly creative writer and frequently used his uncanny if formulaic action arenas as a testing ground for future series concepts. Among the many epochal war features he created were Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, The War that Time Forgot, The Haunted Tank and The Losers, but he always kept an eye on contemporary trends too.

When supernatural comics took over the industry in the late 1960s he was a mainstay at House of Mystery, House of Secrets and Phantom Stranger and in 1975 created gritty human interest feature Lady Cop. Fifteen years earlier he had caught a similar wave (Oh Ha Ha…) by cashing in on the popularity of TV show Sea Hunt.

His entry into the sudden sub-genre deluge of scuba-diver comics featured the magic contemporary formula of a heroic foursome (Smart Guy, Tough Guy, Young Guy and A Girl) who would have all manner of (undersea) adventures from logical to implausible, topical to fantastical. He dubbed his team The Sea Devils

Re-presenting the turbulent, terrific try-out stories from Showcase #27-29 (July/August to November/December 1960) and Sea Devils #1-16, cover-dated September/October 1961-March/April 1964, this mammoth monochrome tome blends bizarre fantasy, sinister spy stories, shocking science fiction and two-fisted aquatic action with larger-than-life yet strictly human heroes who carved their own unique niche in comics history…

In almost every conceivable way the “try-out title” Showcase created the Silver Age of American comicbooks and is responsible for the multi-million dollar industry and nascent art form we all enjoy today.

Showcase was a try-out comic: a printed periodical Petri dish designed to launch new series and concepts with minimal commitment of publishing resources. If a new character sold well initially a regular series would follow. The process had been proved with Frogmen, Lois Lane, Challengers of the Unknown, Flash and many more

The principle was a sound one which paid huge dividends. The Editors at National were apparently bombarded with readers’ suggestions for new titles and concepts and the only possible way to feasibly prove which would be popular was to offer test runs and assess fan – and most crucially sales – reactions.

Showcase #27 followed a particularly historic and fruitful run of successful debuts which included Space Ranger, Adam Strange, Rip Hunter…Time Master and Green Lantern. It seemed that the premier publication could do no wrong. Moreover, it wasn’t Kanigher and artist Russ Heath’s first dip in this particular pool.

Showcase #3 had launched The Frogmen in an extended single tale following candidates for a US Underwater Demolitions Team in WWII as they perilously graduated from students to fully-fledged underwater warriors. The feature, if not the characters, became a semi-regular strip in All-American Men of War #44 (April #1957) and other Kanigher-edited war comics: making Frogmen the first but certainly not the last graduate of the try-out system. Now the time was right for a civilian iteration to make some waves…

The drama here begins in ‘The Golden Monster’ (by Kanigher & Heath) as lonely skin-diver Dane Dorrance reminisces about his WWII frogman father – and his trusty buddies – before being saved from a sneaky shark by a mysterious golden haired scuba-girl.

Judy Walton is an aspiring actress who, seeking to raise her Hollywood profile, has entered the same underwater treasure hunt Dane is engaged in, but as they join forces they have no idea of the dangers awaiting them…

Locating the sunken galleon they’ve been hunting both are trapped when seismic shifts and a gigantic octopus bury them inside the derelict. Happily third contestant Biff Bailey is on hand and his tremendous strength tips the scales and allows the trio to escape.

Now things take a typical Kanigher twist as the action switches from tense realistic drama to riotous fantasy with the explosive awakening of a colossal reptilian sea-monster who chases the divers until Judy’s little brother Nicky races in to distract the beast…

Temporarily safe, the relative strangers unite to destroy the thing – with the help of a handy floating mine left over from the war – before deciding to form a professional freelance diving team. They take their name from the proposed movie Judy wanted to audition for and become forever “The Sea Devils”…

In Showcase #28 Dane’s dad again offers his boy ‘The Prize Flippers’ he won for his exploits in the war, but Dane feels his entire team should be allowed to compete for them. Of course each diver successively outdoes the rest but in the end a spectacular stunt with a rampaging whale leaves the trophy in the hands of a most unlikely competitor…

A second story then sees the new team set up shop as “underwater trouble-shooters” only to stumble into a mystery as pretty Mona Moray begs them to find her missing father. Professor Moray was lost when his rocket crashed into the ocean, but as the divers diligently search the crash site they are ambushed by underwater aborigines and join the scientist in an uncanny ‘Undersea Prison’

Only when their captors reveal themselves as invading aliens do the team finally pull together, escape the trap and bring the house down on the insidious aquatic horrors…

Showcase #29 also offered two briny tales beginning with ‘The Last Dive of the Sea Devils’ wherein a recently-imprisoned dictator from Venus escapes to Earth and battles the astounded team to a standstill from his giant war-seahorse.

The blockbusting battle costs them their beloved vessel The Sea Witch but the crew make use of a handy leftover torpedo to end the interplanetary tyrant. Sea-born giants also abound in ‘Undersea Scavenger Hunt’ wherein the cash-strapped trouble-shooters compete in a flashy contest to win a new boat.

Incredible creatures and fantastic treasure traps are no real problem but the actions of rival divers The Black Mantas almost cost our heroes their lives…

Everything worked out though and nine months later Sea Devils #1 hit the stands with Kanigher & Heath leading the way. In ‘The Sea Devils vs. the Octopus Man’ our watery quartet are now the stars of a monster movie but when the lead beastie comes to lethal life and attacks them, all thoughts of fame and wealth sink without trace…

The second tale was scripted by the superbly inventive Bob Haney who riffed on Moby Dick’s plot in the tale of how Vikings hunted a mythical orca with a magic harpoon before latter-day fanatical whaler Captain Shark mercilessly sought the ‘Secret of the Emerald Whale’ with the desperate Sea Devils dragged along for the ride…

Haney wrote both yarns in the next issue, beginning with ‘A Bottleful of Sea Devils’ as mad scientist Mr. Neptune uses a shrinking device to steal a US Navy weapon prototype. With the aquatic investigators hard on his flippered heels, the felon is soon caught whilst ‘Star of the Sea’ introduced brilliant performing seal Pappy who repeatedly saved the team before finding freedom and true love in the wilds waters of the Atlantic…

Kanigher returned for #3’s ‘Underwater Crime Wave’ as the Devils clashed with a cunning modern Roman Emperor who derives his incredible wealth from smuggling and traps the team in his undersea arena after which Judy finds herself the only one immune to the allure of ‘The Ghost of the Deep’. Subsea siren Circe was utterly intent on making the boys her latest playthings and her human rival is compelled to pull out all the stops to save her friends…

Sea Devils # 4 led with ‘The Sea of Sorcery’ as the team investigate but fail to debunk any of the incredible myths of a supposedly haunted region of ocean, after which Haney detailed how the squad travelled into the heart of South America to liberate a tribe of lost pre-Columbian Condor Indians from a tyrannical witch doctor whilst solving ‘The Secret of Volcano Lake!’

‘The Creature Who Stole the 7 Seas’ (Kanigher) opened issue #5 as a particularly dry period for the trouble-shooters ends after a crashing UFO disgorges a sea giant intent on transferring Earth’s oceans to his own arid world. Oddly for the times, here mutual cooperation and a smart counter-plan save the day for two panicked planets.

Veteran writer Hank P. Chapman joined the ever-expanding team with a smart yarn of submerged Mayan treasure and deadly traps to imperil the team as they solve the ‘Secret of the Plumed Serpent’ before Kanigher returned with a book-length thriller in #6 which found the Devils seemingly ensorcelled by ancient parchments which depicted them battling incredible menaces in centuries past.

Biff battles undersea knights for Queen Cleopatra, Judy saves Ulysses from the Sirens, Nicky rescues a teenaged mermaid from a monstrous fish-man and Dane clashes with ‘The Flame-Headed Watchman!’, but is wise enough to realise that the true threat comes from the mysterious stranger who has brought them such dire documents…

The switch to longer epics was a wise and productive move, followed up in #7 with ‘The Human Tidal Wave!’ as the heroes spectacularly battle an alien made of roaring water to stop a proposed invasion, whilst in #8 they strive to help a fish transformed into a grieving merman from the ‘Curse of Neptune’s Giant!’ The malignant horror’s mutative touch temporarily makes monsters of them all too, but in the end Sea Devil daring trumps eldritch cruelty…

More monster madness followed in #9’s‘The Secret of the Coral Creature!’ as the team became paragliding US Naval medics to rescue an astronaut. That was mere prelude to an oceanic atomic bomb test which blasted them to a sea beneath the sea which had imprisoned an ancient alien for eons of crushing solitude, and who had no intention of ever letting the air-breathers go…

A concatenation of crazy circumstances creates the madness of #10’s ‘4 Mysteries of the Sea!’ as godly King Neptune decrees that on this day every wild story of the sea will come true just as the Sea Devils are competing in a “Deep Six Tall Tales” contest.

Soon the incredulous squad are battling pirates in an underwater ghost town, rescued from captivity by a giant octopus thanks to a friendly seal (Good old Pappy!), facing off against aliens of the Martian Canals Liars Club and saving Neptune himself from a depth charge attack…

The hugely underrated Irv Novick took over as primary illustrator with #11 as the Sea Devils agreed to test human underwater endurance limits in an ocean-floor habitat. Soon however Dane was near breaking point seeing a succession of monsters from the ‘Sea of Nightmares!’

Kanigher relinquished the writing to fellow golden age alumni France E. Herron who kicked off in rip-roaring form with a classy sci fi romp wherein Nicky’s growing feelings of inadequacy are quashed after he saves his comrades – and the world – from the ‘Threat of the Magnetic Menace!’

Always experimental and rightfully disrespectful of the fourth wall, editors Kanigher and George Kashdan turned issue #13 over to the fans for ‘The Secrets of 3 Sunken Ships’ as successive chapters of Herron’s script were illustrated by Joe Kubert, Gene Colan and Ross Andru & Mike Esposito for the audience to decide who was the best.

The artists all appear in the tale conducting interviews and “researching” the Deep Sea Daredevils as they tackle a reincarnated sea captain, travel to an ancient sea battle between Greece and Persia and meet the alien who kidnapped the crew of the Marie Celeste

The gag continued in Sea Devils #14 as illustrator Irv Novick came along for the ride when the amazing aquanauts try to end the catastrophic ‘War of the Underwater Giants’ which saw aging deities Neptune and Hercules battle for supremacy in Earth’s oceans.

Jack Abel was the artistic guest star in second story ‘Challenge of the Fish Champions!’ wherein the heroes enter a cash prize competition to buy scuba equipment for a junior diving club.

Unfortunately, crazy devious scientist Karpas also wants the loot and fields a team of his own technologically augmented minions. Before long the human skin-divers are facing off against a sea lion, a manta ray, a squid and a merman. After all, nobody said contestants had to be human…

Novick got into the act again illustrating #15 as author Herron revealed Judy and Nicky’s relationship to the ‘Secret of the Sunken Sub!’ When inventor Professor Walton vanishes whilst testing his latest submersible, it’s only a matter of time before his children drag the rest of the Sea Devils to the bottom of every ocean to find him and his lost crew.

The uncanny trail takes them through shoals of monsters, astounding flora and into the lair of an incredible sea spider before the mission is successfully accomplished…

Things regained some semblance of narrative normality with the final issue in this compilation as Hank Chapman contributed a brace of high adventure yarns beginning with ‘The Strange Reign of Queen Judy and King Biff’ superbly rendered by the wonderful Bruno Premiani & Sheldon Moldoff. When a massive wave capsizes the Sea Witch only Dane and Nicky seemingly survive, but the determined explorers persevere and eventually find their friends held as bewitched captives on the island of an immortal wizard. All they have to do is kidnap their ferociously resisting friends, escape an army of angry guards and penetrate the island’s mystic defences a second time to restore everything to normal. No problem…

This eccentric and exciting voyage of discovery concludes with ‘Sentinel of the Golden Head’ – illustrated by the always impressive Howard Purcell & Moldoff – as the restored aquatic quartet stumble onto the lost island of Blisspotamia in time to witness a beautiful maiden trying to sacrifice herself to the sea gods.

By interfering they incur the wrath of a legion of mythological horrors and have no choice but to defy the gods to free the terrified islanders from ignorance and tyranny…

These massive black-&-white compendiums are superb value and provide a vital service by bringing older, less flashy (but still astonishingly expensive in their original issues) tales to a readership which might otherwise be denied them. However this is probably the only series which I can honestly say suffers in the slightest from the lack of colour.

Whilst the line-art story illustrations are actually improved by the loss of hue, the original covers – by Heath and Irv Novick as supervised and inked by production ace Jack Adler – used all the clever technical print effects and smart ingenuity of the period to add a superb extra layer of depth to the underwater scenes which tragically cannot be appreciated in simple line and tone reproduction. Just go to any online cover browser site and you’ll see what I mean…

Nevertheless the amazing art and astounding stories are as good as they ever were and Showcase Presents Sea Devils is simply stuffed with incredible ideas, strange situations and non-stop action. These underwater wonders are a superb slice of the engaging fantasy thrillers which were once the backbone of American comicbooks. Perhaps a little whacky in places, they are remarkably similar to many tongue-in-cheek, anarchic Saturday morning kids animation shows and will certainly provide jaded fiction fans with hours of unmatchable entertainment.…
© 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Brightest Day volume 1


By Geoff Johns, Peter J. Tomasi, Ivan Reis, Patrick Gleason, Fernando Pasarin, Ardian Syaf, Scott Clark, Joe Prado & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3276-4

Following the intergalactic Zombie Apocalypse of The Blackest Night, Earth’s profound importance to the nature and make-up of Reality was finally revealed and a select number of deceased heroes and villains were resurrected by a strange white energy force.

As the world slowly recovered from a horrific undead invasion, these newly resurrected and unaccountably different beings began seeking their own places and purpose in the bright new tomorrow, unaware that incredible and subtle forces were still manipulating them like meat puppets.

Scripted by Geoff Johns and Peter J. Tomasi, this first compilation of the extended mega braided-crossover series Brightest Day collects issue #0-7 of the sequel event (spanning June to October 2010) and begins here with ‘Carpe Diem’ illustrated by Fernando Pasarin, John Dell, Cam Smith, Prentis Rollins, Dexter Vines & Art Thibert.

In the shining light of day, former disembodied spirit Boston Brand – nee Deadman – finds himself disconcertingly corporeal again, yet still utterly invisible to the teeming masses of humanity. He now wears a white-glowing power ring which advises him “live” and demonstrates the ex-ghost’s new gifts by resurrecting a dead bird. The voice then screams “help me” and Brand is teleported away…

Aquatic warrior-queen Mera is luxuriating in the return of her husband Arthur Curry but Aquaman broods, disturbed by the changes he perceives in himself, even as Boston reappears in the depths of super-penitentiary Iron Heights, where both the Reverse Flash and Captain Boomerang have been held since their unfathomable and unwelcome reanimations.

In Louisiana Carter and Shiera Hall discuss their present situation. The eternal lovers have been reincarnated hundreds of times since they were murdered in Ancient Egypt, but his time is somehow different. Meanwhile, at the top of the world a team of ruthless men are recovering the bones the Hawks inhabited in one of those previous existences… After a glowing Zamaron power-gem smashes through the ceiling to embed itself in Nth metal super-weapon the Claw of Horus, the mystically alerted Winged Wonders furiously set off after them…

In a hidden hideaway, with only Boston Brand imperceptibly watching, fully restored mental manipulator Maxwell Lord takes the biggest risk of his fresh new life, overloading his psychic power to make (almost) everybody on Earth forget he ever existed, whilst on the Red Planet revived Martian Manhunter J’onn J’onzz exerts all his mighty powers in an attempt to make the dead world bloom again. He is glad to see again Green Lanterns Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner and promises to visit Earth soon…

On far distant Oa, home of the Guardians of the Universe, Jennifer-Lynn Hayden discusses her former boyfriend with GL doctor Natu as the medic subjects her to numerous tests. Emerald revenant Jade knows that since she came back Green Lantern Kyle Rayner just doesn’t look at her the same way anymore…

In New York Ronnie Raymond feels unwelcome at the funeral of Jason Rusch’s girlfriend Gehenna. When he was dead and dominating the energy-matrix composite dubbed Firestorm, Ron commanded their shared body to turn her to salt but the grieving Jason won’t listen and refuses to believe it was the Black Lantern Ring then animating him which gave the orders. When he again tries to apologise Jason hits him, triggering an unwanted fusion which traps them both in the form of the Nuclear Man…

Meanwhile in Kahndaq, reborn mystic superman Amon Tomaz is greeted as a god by the astounded peasantry. Their shining Osiris swears to them that he will usher in a golden age of prosperity and power whilst at the Arlington National Cemetery returned Avatar of War HankHawkHall picks up just where he left off, brutally smashing bad guys whilst partner and Peace Avatar Dove – AKA Dawn Granger – tries to ameliorate the carnage he inflicts. Being dead has done nothing to improve his temperament…

All such things Deadman secretly observes as the power of the voice bounces him unseen around creation, but when it unceremoniously dumps him in the ravaged heart of what was once Star City the power urgently demands that Brand now help it and all of the “returned”. In a flare of white energy it then turns the devastated city centre into a miles wide star-shaped primeval forest…

And in Silver City, New Mexico, ordinary people – exploring a huge crater with an immovable white lantern at its bottom – look up to see intergalactic conqueror Sinestro flying towards them…

Scenes set, the drama truly begins with ‘Second Chances’ (art by Ivan Reis, Patrick Gleason, Ardian Syaf, Scott Clark, Joe Prado Vicente Cifuentes, Mark Irwin, Oclair Albert & David Beaty) as the renegade former Green Lantern is joined by Hal Jordan and Star Sapphire, but none of them can lift the tantalising white power lamp…

Assuming some kind of Sword in the Stone riff is in play, Jordan voices the question everybody is thinking… “Where’s King Arthur?”

Sea King Arthur Curry is half a word away, routing a band of pirates/human traffickers. However his righteous fury gives way to shock and horror when he telepathically summons the aquatic creatures he controls. The only thing which answers is a colossal, half devoured squid. Somehow his power now only affects and compels dead sea life…

At the same time on the Massachusetts coast, a restaurateur stops gutting fish and begins knifing people after seeing a broadcast on Aquaman’s return. Black Manta retired when his greatest foe died but now he has to go and kill him again…

At Pittsburgh University, inside the head of Firestorm, Ronnie and Jason are psychically tearing each other apart, whilst on Mars an agonising suppressed memory resurfaces, driving J’onn J’onzz to Earth to confirm the shocking recollection. In the Peruvian Andes Hawkman and Hawkwoman smash into the mercenaries stealing the bones of their former incarnations and get a chilling inkling of the ancient enemy who has been acting against them…

‘Nuclear Options’ (with additional inks by Tom Nguyen & Rebecca Buchman) opens to find the two component parts of Firestorm still railing against each other but unable to escape the body they spitefully share. Relief only comes after size-changing physicist RayThe AtomPalmer invades their conjoined nuclear form and forcibly disrupts the atomic matrix. But before the two separate into their human forms Ronnie detects another presence in the mental mix…

In New York a happy housewife, after years in hiding, learns of Martian Manhunter’s resurrection and slaughters hubby and the kids before resuming her ghastly true shape, whilst in the Andes Carter and Shiera learn that sorcerer Hath-Set – the third side of an ever-reincarnating Eternal Triangle – has been collecting the bones of each and every doom-drenched conjunction, and vow that this time they will end their curse by killing him before he can kill them…

In Colorado J’onn J’onzz visits the dementia-ridden daughter of the scientist who first transported him to Earth and learns the truth of his origins and of the beast Saul Erdel tragically teleported to earth before the Manhunter arrived from Mars…

Still being unwillingly shuttled around the globe, Boston Brand now finds himself transported to the antimatter universe to confront an appalling horror…

Discovering the white ring’s unsuspected offensive capabilities, Brand narrowly escapes an attack by the terrifying Anti-Monitor in ‘Revelations’ (inks by Vicente Cifuentes, Beaty & Irwin) before falling back into our cosmos, whilst in a hospital bed Ronnie Raymond realises the vile mentality of the Black Lantern Firestorm is still with him and hundreds of miles away J’onn J’onzz examines a New York atrocity and realises the beast Erdel summoned him to Earth to destroy now knows he’s coming…

As the White Lantern begins to pulse in Silver City, in Peru the Hawks find the extra-dimensional portal Hath-Set has built from millennia of their bleached bones and follow their nemesis into a bizarre new universe…

‘Thresholds’ then sees them stumble into a fantastic war between incredible beast species on a ferocious and fantastic Hawkworld where Hath-Set is making his final play for ultimate power, whilst back home Boston Brand’s life changes forever after he materialises in Dawn Granger’s bedroom. Both Dove and her maniacally over-protective “big brother” Hawk can see and – quite painfully – touch him…

In Silver City the situation is escalating as an entire lake mysteriously vanishes, whilst in the Bermuda Triangle, a phalanx of eerily familiar aquatic warriors begin to slaughter humans and in Pittsburgh Ron Raymond experiences a ghostly visitation…

‘Under Pressure’ opens with Aquaman and Mera investigating the bloodbath in Bermuda whilst in Georgetown Hawk has dragged Deadman to the grave of Don Hall, determined that his brother will also be revived by Brand’s touch.

As the Sea monarchs work they are attacked by the band of sea soldiers led by Mera’s twin Siren, even as on Hawkworld a furious attack by beastmen separates Carter and Shiera. In a Georgetown cemetery a White Voice admonishes Deadman and refuses to return the at-peace Don Hall. His subsequent attempt to bring back Dawn’s murdered sister is even more of a terrifying travesty…

In Bermuda, having narrowly escaped utter destruction, Mera is compelled to explain to her husband her true origins and the lie they have been living all their married lives…

The Martian Manhunter’s investigations bring him to a shocking conclusion in ‘Dead Zone’ (art from Reis, Clark, Prado, Cifuentes, Beaty, Irwin & extra inks by Christian Alamy) as he realises his mere presence is toxic to terrestrial flora, but whilst Hawk and Dove take the shellshocked Brand for his first meal in decades, in Pittsburgh a construction disaster compels Jason Rusch to summon the Firestorm Matrix, only to find his despised partner has been drowning his sorrows and the resultant merger has left the Nuclear Man dangerously intoxicated. As they struggle to save lives Jason too discovers a third – malevolent – personality in their mind-mix…

After consulting with the Justice League J’onn J’onzz determines to seek out fellow Martian survivor M’gann M’orzz but on arrival at her place of hermitage finds his brutally merciless foe has already found her…

This initial offering concludes with ‘The Secret of Life as Boston, Hawk and Dove are peremptorily teleported to Silver City where the former Deadman lifts the White Lantern and a wave of blinding energy blazes out, transforming all the other returnees and imparting unto all of them – in highly ambiguous terms – the specific reasons for each revivification…

To Be Continued…

Also included is a monumental gallery of 28 covers-&-variants from the series and numerous tie-in titles by David Finch, Scott Williams, Peter Steigerwald, Reis, Chuck Pires, Nei Ruffino, Dave McCaig, Ryan Sook, Pasarin, Joel Gomez, Randy Mayor and Carrie Strachan, with input by Jim Lee.

Complex, convoluted and compelling, this is epic and impressive fare for fans but probably impenetrable to casual readers, but I suspect even the most devout DC disciple will be best served by rereading the assorted volumes of Blackest Night before attempting this wonderful example of tight continuity, cosmic Costumed Drama.
© 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Gotham Central book 2: Jokers and Madmen


By Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, Stephen Gaudiano, Greg Scott, Brian Hurtt & various(DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2521-6

There are two names synonymous with Gotham City, USA.

If you’re a cop you keep your own opinions about the Batman, and it’s pretty much unanimous that The Joker is not someone you ever want to deal with. A madman with a homicidal flair for the theatrical, the clown loves a special occasion. It’s Christmas and it’s started to snow…

One of the greatest rewards of long-lasting, legendary comicbook characters is their infinite potential for innovation and reinterpretation. There always seems to be another facet or aspect to develop. Such is the case in regard to the much-missed sidebar series Gotham Central, wherein cop show sensibilities cannily combine with the deadly drudgery of the long-suffering boys in blue patrolling the world’s most famous four-colour city.

Owing as much to shows like Hill Street Blues, Law & Order or Blue Bloods as it did to the baroque continuity of The Dark Knight, the mesmerising tales of the series combined gritty, authentic police action with furtive, soft-underbelly glimpses at what merely mortal peacekeepers have to put up with in a world of psychotic vaudevillians, flying aliens and scumbag hairballs who just won’t stay dead.

This second huge hardback volume, collecting more procedural exploits of the hard-pressed guardians of the most dangerous city in America – specifically Gotham Central #11-22 spanning November 2003 to October 2004 – begins with moodily effulgent introduction ‘Noir Town’ by crime author Duane Swiercznski and a handy double-page feature re-introducing the hardworking stiffs of First Shift, Second Shift and the Police Support team of the ‘Gotham City Police Department, Major Crimes Unit’ before the dramas start to unfold.

First up is uncharacteristic tearjerker ‘Daydreams and Believers’ by Ed Brubaker, Brian Hurtt and colourist Lee Loughridge which explores the GCPD’s strange relationship with the masked manhunter.

They all know he’s out there, but the official line is that he’s an urban myth and the Administration refuses to acknowledge his existence. Thus, civilian receptionist Stacy is the only person allowed to operate the rooftop bat-signal whenever crises occur, whilst the public are told that the eerie light is simply used to keep the cowardly, stupid, superstitious underworld cowed…

Here however we get a glimpse into the shy lamplighter’s inner thoughts as she observes the fractious byplay of the MCU regulars: all getting by thinking they’re fooling everyone else with their jealous bitching, petty sniping and tawdry clandestine affairs.

It’s all okay, though. Stacy has her own world to retreat into: one where the mighty Batman is her enigmatic but passionate lover…

The main event opens with a Yuletide shopping panic that looks to be the most memorable ever as ‘Soft Targets’ by Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark & Stephen Gaudiano finds the entire Major Crimes Unit frantically hunting a sniper randomly assassinating citizens. Things get even nastier and more fraught when Mayor Dickerson is killed as he consults with new Police Commissioner Michael Akins.

The ruthless shooter guns down a school teacher and the medical examiner collecting her body and soon the pre-Christmas streets are deserted. The assassin then identifies himself by launching a website promoting “Batman for Mayor” and the appalled police realise just who they’re dealing with…

As Stacy turns on the roof signal her greatest wish comes true at last as the Gotham Guardian sweeps her off her feet… microseconds before a fusillade of shots would have made her the latest statistic…

As the Dark Knight vanishes into the snowy darkness after the maniac, the cops get back to their meticulous police work, tracking ballistics and hunting for the website’s point of origin. Mounting media frenzy and their own frustration lead to crippling tension and soon they are all at each other’s throats, but a potentially nasty situation is immediately curtailed by a new posting…

A live web-cam feed starts, counting down to a fresh victim somewhere in the huge terrified powder-keg metroplis…

As the cops pull out all stops to identify the building on-screen and resort to old reliables, such as violently rousting the Harlequin of Hate’s old flunkies, the scene suddenly changes. Now it shows prime media pain-in-the-neck Angie Molina as a captive of the killer clown: stashed somewhere anonymous and slowly ticking down to a bloody and show-stopping demise…

And just when things can’t get any crazier, The Joker turns himself in…

Even the insufferably cocky kook’s capture doesn’t halt the slaughter, since the proudly Machiavellian perpetrator can carry on killing by pre-programmed remote control even as he languishes in a cell…

When Lt. Ron Probson elects to go all “old school” in his interview with the loon, it only results in his own death and the clown’s escape. Stacy only avoids death a second time because Captain Maggie Sawyer shoots first – and often – and saves her questions for later…

Working a lead, Detectives Nate Patton and Romy Chandler have meanwhile found the captive reporter and realised the Joker’s convoluted, mass-murderous endgame, but even with Batman on scene they don’t all make it out…

‘Life is Full of Disappointments’ (by Brubaker and Rucka with art from Greg Scott) then focuses on disgruntled Second Shift veteran JacksonSargeDavies who is still chafing at once again being passed over for promotion – especially as prissy new Day Shift commander David Cornwell has been parachuted in from outside the unit to run things…

As the squad come back from burying their dead, Sarge and partner Nelson Crowe catch a nasty case: a dead girl in a dumpster. However Stephanie Becker was no lost indigent or fun-loving party girl killed for the contents of her purse.

She worked in accounting at prestigious Washburn Pharmaceuticals and was killed with an exotic toxin. As the grizzled old-timers methodically work the case they find a succession of odd occurrences which lead them to First Shift colleagues Tommy Burke and Dagmar Procjnow, currently investigating the suspicious death of middle aged widow Maryellen Connolly, a still-warm stiff previously employed in the same office and slain the same way…

All the evidence seems to point to an unsanctioned million dollar deficit and deep Mafia involvement at the Pharma factory, but the diligent detectives keep pushing and discover a far older potential motive for the murders…

The gritty grimoire of Gotham atrocity ends with the bleakly chilling ‘Unresolved’ (by Brubaker, Lark & Gaudiano from issues #19-22) which features the reappearance of conflicted fan-favourite and all-around slob Harvey Bullock after the GCPD reopen a landmark cold case.

Marcus Driver and new partner Josie Mac are called to a hostage situation where a deranged perp continually screams about voices in his head before eating his own shotgun…

The troubled stiff was Kenny Booker – only survivor of an infamous High School bombing which shocked the city eight years previously – and the fresh tragedy compels Driver to take another look at the still unsolved mystery…

The “Gotham Hawks” were a championship school baseball team eradicated in a locker room explosion but every effort of Bullock and his squad could not pin down a single lead. However, when Marcus and Josie re-examine the accumulated evidence they find a potential link to one of Batman’s weirdest and creepiest foes.

It’s not enough and they are forced to call in the disgraced ex-cop for a consult. The move is a huge mistake as they are utterly unprepared for the fallout when Bullock talks to them.

The legendary maverick was fired after arranging the death of a killer the law couldn’t touch, and he has taken to drowning his days in booze. However this case has haunted Harvey for years and now that he sees a possible solution he goes completely off the rails in his hunger to finish things.

The trouble is that even now the facts tumbling in are increasingly pointing to a completely different culprit from the one Bullock always suspected but the fixated former lawman just won’t listen…

Going on a rampage he courts death by brutalising malevolent mobster The Penguin whilst miles away another suspect, galvanised after years of apparent anonymity, breaks out of Arkham Asylum and goes hunting…

Even after all this the true story is far more twisted than the bewildered detectives could have possibly imagined and the eventual conclusion destroys further lives and sanity and honour before the dust finally settles…

From an era when comicbook noir was enjoying a superb renaissance, these classic thrillers are masterpieces of edgy, fast-paced tension packed with layers of human drama, tension, stress and suspense.

Solid gritty police drama seamlessly blended with the grisly fantasy of the modern superhero seems like a strange brew, but it delivers knockout punches time after time in this captivating series which was the notional inspiration for the current TV sensation outlining just how Batman’s city got that way.

© 2003, 2004, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents the Trial of the Flash


By Cary Bates, Carmine Infantino, Frank McLaughlin, Dennis Jensen & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3182-8

Barry Allen was the second comicbook comet to carry the name of Flash, and his debut was the Big Bang which finally triggered the Silver Age of American comicbooks after a series of abortive remnant revivals (Stuntman in 1954 and Marvel’s “Big Three”, Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and Captain America from 1953 to 1955). There were also a few all-original attempts such as Captain Flash, The Avenger and Strongman from 1954-1955.

Although none of those – or other less high-profile efforts – had restored or renewed the popularity of masked mystery-men, they had presumably piqued readers’ consciousness, even at conservative National/DC. Thus the revived human rocket wasn’t quite the innovation he seemed: after all, alien crusader Martian Manhunter had already cracked open the company floodgates with his low-key launch in Detective Comics #225, November 1955.

However in terms of creative quality, originality and sheer style The Flash was an irresistible spark and after his landmark first appearance in Showcase #4 (October 1956) the series – eventually – became a benchmark by which every successive launch or reboot across the industry was measured.

Police Scientist – we’d call him a CSI today – Allen was transformed by a simultaneous lightning strike and chemical bath into a human thunderbolt of unparalleled velocity and ingenuity. Yet with characteristic indolence the new Fastest Man Alive took three more try-out issues and almost as many years to win his own title. However when he finally stood on his own wing-tipped feet in The Flash #105 (February-March 1959), he never looked back…

The comics business back then was a faddy, slavishly trend-beset affair, however, and following a manic boom for superhero tales prompted by the Batman TV show the fickle global consciousness moved on to a fixation with supernatural themes and merely mortal tales, triggering a huge revival of spooky films, shows, books and periodicals. With horror on the rise again, many superhero titles faced cancellation and even the most revered and popular were threatened. It was time to adapt or die: a process repeated every few years until the mid-1980s when DC’s powers-that-be decided to rationalise and downsize the sprawling multi-dimensional multiverse the Flash had innocently sparked into existence decades previously…

Barry had been through the wringer before: in 1979 (Flash #275 to be precise) his beloved wife Iris was brutally murdered and thereafter the Scarlet Speedster became a darker, grittier, truly careworn hero. Gradually over four years the lonely bachelor recovered and even found love again but a harshly evolving comics industry, changing fashions and jaded fan tastes were about to end his long run at the top…

The Vizier of Velocity was still a favoured, undisputed icon of the apparently unstoppable Superhero meme and a mighty pillar of the costumed establishment, but in times of precarious sales and with very little in the way of presence in other media like films, TV or merchandise, that just made him a bright red target for a company desperate to attract a larger readership.

It soon became an open secret that he was to be one of the major casualties of the reality-rending Crisis on Infinite Earths. The epic maxi-series was conceived as an attention-grabbing spectacle on every level and to truly succeed it needed a few sacrifices which would make the public really sit up and take notice…

With such knowledge commonplace, long-time scripter Cary Bates went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the Crimson Comet and the comic title which inspired a super-heroic revolution went out in a totally absorbing blaze of glory…

This momentously massive stand-alone monochrome collection gathers the pertinent chapters of an astonishingly extended and supremely gripping serial which charted the triumphs and tragedies of the Monarch of Motion’s last months and savoured the final moments of the paramount hero and symbol of the Silver Age.

Contained herein are Flash #323-327, 329-336 and 340-350, spanning July 1983 to October 1985, written throughout by Bates and pencilled by originating artist Carmine Infantino, opening on the day Barry is supposed to marry his new sweetheart Fiona Webb.

As the nervous groom dresses for the ceremony, however, an Oan Guardian of the Universe appears with appalling news. Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash has escaped from the timeless hell the vengeful Vizier of Velocity banished him to for murdering Iris…

Inked by Rodin Rodriguez, ‘Run Flash – Run for your Wife!’ sees the distraught hero pursuing and battling his ultimate enemy on the run all over he world as the clock ticks down, culminating in #324’s ‘The Slayer and the Slain’ (Dennis Jensen inks) with the police issuing a missing persons alert for the vanished Barry Allen.

Crushed Fiona finally gives up on her man and is leaving the church just as Zoom dashes in with Flash hard on his winged heels. The maniac has boasted that he will repeat himself by slaughtering his archenemy’s second love, but with femto-seconds to spare Barry goes into overdrive and grabs his foe by the neck…

When the dust settles the wedding guests see Flash trying to comfort the bride-to-be but Police Captain Darryl Frye and Detective Frank Curtis are distracted by something the speedster has not noticed: Zoom’s lifeless corpse…

The media circus begins in #325 as ‘Dead Reckoning’ sees the guilt-racked speedster go into heroic overdrive all around the world but somehow never quite outrunning the Press or his own remorse.

As friends and allies wonder where they stand, the vile miscreants of The Flash Rogues’ Gallery come together to steal Zoom’s cadaver. Captains Cold and Boomerang, Pied Piper, Weather Wizard and The Trickster actually despised the Reverse-Flash and need to desecrate his corpse for the utter embarrassment he has brought upon their association: letting himself get killed by the scarlet Boy Scout…

Their heartbroken foe meanwhile has stopped running, and Barry visits Fiona where she lies in hospital. The shock of Barry’s abandonment has traumatised and perhaps even deranged her, but worse is in store. After leaving her room in his Flash persona, the hero is reluctantly arrested by Captain Frye on a charge of Manslaughter…

‘Shame in Scarlet’ (inked by Gary Martin) opens on the arrest and arraignment but the madhouse of raving pressmen and downhearted cops is just what the recently captured Weather Wizard needs to mask a bold getaway scheme.

Ever dutiful, Flash eludes custody long enough to stop the rogue before surrendering himself again…

Fiona’s doctors refuse to believe the still-missing Barry Allen came to see her and diagnose a delusional breakdown, whilst out on the streets Frank Curtis is further distracted by teenaged Angelo Torres; a kid barely surviving in a tough gang-controlled area of Central City

Released on his own recognizance, Flash sneaks into his own apartment but as the realisation of his destroyed life finally sinks in, he loses control and trashes the place in an explosive outburst. By the time his terrified neighbours break in he has gone and the suspicion that someone has targeted the missing Police Scientist seems confirmed…

Roaming the streets the Crimson Comet sees Angelo fleeing from a mugging but is appalled to realise he has tackled the wrong guy. Torres was chasing the real thief…

Still reeling at how far he has fallen, the shell-shocked speedster is barely aware that he is bleeding badly (from self-inflicted wounds incurred when destroying his home), and allows a cop to take him to hospital. The good deed does not go unpunished. When he arrives, Fiona is there and suddenly flares into a state of total hysteria…

The horrors pile on in ‘Burnout’ (#327, inked by Jensen) as Flash reconciles with Angelo, unaware that the kid has been targeted by the malign Super-Gorilla Grodd as part of a convoluted vengeance scheme.

Flash is too preoccupied by his next personal crisis as the Justice League of America holds a special session to judge his actions and conduct. A nail-bitingly close vote of his crestfallen best friends will determine whether he can remain a member of the august group…

Flash #328 is a partial reprint exploring the Flash/Professor Zoom vendetta and not included here, so the saga resumes with ‘What is the Sinister Secret of Simian and Son?’ (#329, with new regular inker Frank McLaughlin picking up the pens the brushes). Grodd uses Angelo and other kids to perpetrate series of bold raids even as, in front of the maddened media cameras, unscrupulous, publicity-hungry celebrity criminal defense attorney Nicholas D. Redik attempts to insert himself into the “Case of the Century”, claiming to be Flash’s lawyer and only chance of acquittal…

The oblivious, troubled human thunderbolt has other ideas. He has already contacted “Barry’s” old friend Peter Farley to act on his behalf, blithely unaware that back home Grodd has taken over Angelo and Fiona has succumbed to a total mental breakdown…

The final confrontation with the über-ape begins in ‘Beware the Land of Grodd!’ (scripted by Joey Cavalieri over Bates’ plot) as Redik manipulates the media to force Flash to switch lawyers and Captain Frye pushes the ongoing search for the missing Barry to new heights. With all these distractions the Vizier of Velocity is easily ambushed by Grodd before Angelo, at the moment of truth in #331’s ‘Dead Heat!’, has a change of heart and mind. With a supreme effort of will the remorseful lad breaks the super-ape’s conditioning, allowing the speedster to triumph.

Returning the renegade to futuristic Gorilla City, Flash leaves the mental monster in the custody of his old comrade Solovar, returning to America just in time to hear Farley being murdered during a phone conference…

Bates rejoins Infantino & McLaughlin as ‘Defend the Flash… and Die?’ sees the Scarlet Speedster hurtle across the country to save his lawyer from a colossal explosion, but even he is not fast enough to prevent the victim incurring massive injuries.

As speculation runs riot in the media that someone is targeting Flash’s defenders, old enemy Rainbow Raider take advantage of the chaos to instigate a string of robberies, but even at his lowest ebb the hero is too much for the multicoloured malefactor…

Redik is now publicly offering to take the case for free, but Farley’s absentee business partner has already taken up her ailing associate’s celebrity caseload…

In issue #333, as inexplicably hostile attorney Cecile Horton confers with her newly inherited client, ‘Down with the Flash!’ reveals how certain elements of Central City have seemingly turned on their former champion. Fiona too is still drawing trouble, as a petty thug and his crazy brother break into the asylum treating her, looking for a little one-stop emergency therapy. Sadly for them the Monarch of Motion is still keeping an eye on his tragic fiancée…

N.D. Redik then attempts to bribe and/or bully Horton off the case, but despite clearly despising her crimson client, Cecile is determined to honour Peter’s wishes and save the speedster.

The mastermind stirring up anti-Flash sentiment is revealed in ‘Flash-Freak-Out!’ Just as the pre-trial manoeuvrings begin, the formerly supportive Mayor suddenly becomes the disgraced hero’s biggest detractor.

Pied Piper’s mind-altering influence even manages to make the hero apparently go berserk on live TV in ‘How to Trash a Flash!’, leaving even his most devoted fans wondering if their beloved champion has in fact gone crazy…

…And whilst Flash is trying to save the Mayor, at her secluded retreat Cecile Horton is caught in an explosive blast like the one that took out her partner…

‘Murder on the Rocks’ in #336 finds Flash arriving too late for once, but the ecstatic speedster is astounded to discover his lawyer has saved herself through sheer quick thinking – although another woman has been killed. The tabloid reporter had been bugging the supposed “safe house” and accidentally fallen foul of a couple of killers-for-hire…

The trail of death leads the forensically trained Flash inexorably to a man whose arrogant determination to be a star in the tragedy costs him everything…

Rather annoyingly the next three chapters are absent here. They would have shown how Flash finally finished the Piper and incurred the wrath of the Rogues who subsequently turned a hulking simpleton into a programmed super killer dubbed Big Sir before unleashing him on the Scarlet Speedster…

We rejoin the story with Flash #340 to ‘Reach Out and Waste Someone!’ as the hurtling hero turns the tables on Cold, Boomerang, Weather Wizard, Trickster and Mirror Master by befriending Big Sir. The danger averted, the Flash then surrenders himself to the courts.

After many months #341 sees proceedings finally open in ‘Trial and Tribulation!’ only for the weary defendant to discover that go-getting District Attorney Anton Slater has dropped the charges. The wily attention-seeker has abandoned his manslaughter case in favour of a charge of Second Degree Murder…

With the still at-large Rogues rampaging through the city, the opening arguments quickly start to make the stunned Flash appear like a cunning killer and, whilst he reels in court, Captain Cold and Co again brainwash the now docile Big Sir. When the shattered speedster leaves after his first bruising day the Brobdingnagian brute ambushes him, wrecking his face with a massive mace…

Maimed, dazed and reeling Flash flees in unconscious panic leaving Sir to assault the gathered media in ‘Smash-Up!’ Barely thinking, the wounded warrior heads for Gorilla City where the super simians’ miraculous medical technology saves his life. Recovered and ready to return, Flash is certain he has made the right decision by asking Solovar to use their advanced science to enact a certain alteration for him…

Upon his return the Vizier of Velocity again deprograms Big Sir and the odd couple make sure the Rogues can’t hurt anyone any more…

Flash #343 kicks the drama into even higher gear in ‘Revenge and Revelations!’ as the secret of why Cecile hates her crimson-clad client is exposed and merciless mobster monster Goldface attacks, even as in the far future another Flash foe escapes an unbeatable prison and heads for the present, intent on adding to the doomed hero’s historic woes…

‘Betrayal!’ in #344 is a partial reprint (by Bates & John Broome, Infantino, McLaughlin & Joe Giella) which combines the first appearance and an early exploit of Kid Flash with that devoted protégé’s devastating expert testimony under oath on the witness stand.

The reluctant lad’s damaging evidence is then compounded when Cecile makes an explosive mistake which exposes ‘The Secret Face of the Flash!’ to the courtroom and the world…

Confusion reigns in #346 as the shocking revelation is upstaged by reports that the actual victim might not be dead. A merciless yellow-and-red blur has been spotted all over Central City attacking civilians and destroying police records in ‘Dead Man’s Bluff!’

The Reverse-Flash has escaped certain death many times before but as he mercilessly attacks the other Rogues – with even the Jurors narrowly escaping certain doom – there is a sure and certain feeling that something is not right…

The trial concludes in #347’s ‘Back from the Dead!’ but even with the thoroughly thrashed Rogues and Police Captain Fry attesting the victim is still alive, more than one malign presence in the courtroom is affecting the jurors and ‘The Final Verdict!’ comes back “guilty”…

However the story is not over and #349 unleashes a cascade of staggering revelations revealing clandestine agents acting both for and against the harried Human Hurricane in ‘…And the Truth Shall Set him Free!’ before the extended extravaganza of #350 begins by declaring ‘Flash Flees’ and thereafter shows the Scarlet Speedster defeating his ultimate nemesis, clearing his name and even living happily ever after… until that fore-destined final moment in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Staggering in scope, gripping in execution and astoundingly suspenseful, these last days of a legend make for stunning reading: a perfect example of the kind of plot-driven Fights ‘n’ Tights fiction we just don’t see enough of these days.

If you feel a need for a traditionally thrilling kind of speed reading, this is a chronicle you must not miss.

© 1983, 1984, 1985, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Shazam! Archives volume 4


By William Woolfolk, C.C. Beck, Mac Raboy & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0160-1

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

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

Homeless orphan and good kid Billy Batson was selected by an ancient wizard to be given the powers of six gods and heroes to battle injustice. He transforms from scrawny precocious kid to brawny (adult) hero Captain Marvel by speaking aloud the wizard’s acronymic name – invoking the powers of legendary patrons Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.

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

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

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

At the height of his popularity Captain Marvel was published twice-monthly and outsold Superman, but as the Furious Forties closed tastes changed, sales slowed and Fawcett saw the way the wind was blowing. They finally settled an infamous, long-running copyright infringement suit begun by National Comics in 1940 and the Big Red Cheese vanished – as did so many superheroes – becoming little more than a fond memory for older fans…

Fawcett in full bloom, however, was a true publishing innovator and marketing powerhouse – and regarded as the inventor of many established comicbook sales tactics we all take for granted today. In this fourth magnificent deluxe full-colour hardback compendium we can see one of their best manoeuvres at play as the company responsible for creating crossover-events invented a truly unforgettable villain, set him simultaneously loose on a range of costumed champions and used his (temporary) defeat to introduce a new hero to their colourful pantheon.

Spanning the fraught yet productive period October 31st 1941 to May 13th 1942 and collecting in their entirety Captain Marvel Adventures #4-5, exploits from Master Comics #21-22, an adventure from fortnightly Whiz Comics #25 and another from anthology America’s Greatest Comics #2 – plus all the stunning covers by Beck and Raboy – this splendid compendium kicks off with an erudite and incisive Foreword by P.C. Hammerlinck (artist, editor, historian and former student of C.C. Beck) who reveals many secrets of the original comics’ production before the cartoon classic commences.

Although there was increasing talk of inevitable war amongst the American public at the time, most of these tales were created before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, making the role of Adolf Hitler as a recurring villain and the creation of Captain Nazi in those by-no-means certain days acts of prophetic calculation…

However, as the thinly-veiled saboteur and spy sagas which previously permeated the genre until official Hostilities were finally established gave way to certainty, the Axis became the overarching threat of many comicbook heroes and this tome re-presents some of the very best clashes between exactingly defined polar opposites.

Of more interest perhaps is that at this period the stories – many of them still sadly uncredited – largely portray Marvel as a grimly heroic figure not averse to slaughtering the truly irredeemable villain and losing no sleep over it…

In those formative years, as the World’s Mightiest Mortal catapulted to the first rank of superhero superstars, there was actually a scramble to fill pages and, just as CMA #1 had been farmed out to up-and-coming whiz-kids Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, these first two solo issues were rapidly compiled by anonymous scripters under the guiding hand of veteran Jack Binder (whose brother Otto would soon become the assorted Marvels’ definitive scripter), another rising star who drew the issues in a hurry, working from Beck and Parker’s style guides.

The first of those uncredited issues is Captain Marvel Adventures #4 (October 31st 1941) with possible authors including Parker, Rod Reed, Joe Millard, Manly Wade Wellman, Otto Binder and William Woolfolk, whilst the Jack Binder Studio consisted of the man himself plus neophyte artists and recent graduates from Pratt Institute including young Bob Butts and Bill Ward.

‘Sivana’s Revenge’ kicks things off with a return engagement for the Three Lieutenant Marvels (a trio of other kids named Billy Batson who somehow shared the magic of Shazam’s gift). Fat Billy, Tall Billy and Hill Billy were visiting their namesake when the Devil Doctor repeatedly attempted to murder the radio reporter before seemingly losing his life in the detonation of a trap consisting of one million tons of dynamite…

The next tale introduced Hitler as the German-accented “warlord” of an aggressor nation which used slave labour from conquered European countries to dig ‘The Tunnel of Invasion’ right into the heart of Florida. Upon discovering the plot Marvel helped complete the project… but only so that he could trap the entire Nazi army at the bottom of the Atlantic.

‘The Secret Submarine Base’ found Billy investigating a murder and wrecking a scheme by sinister Mr. Fog to hide ambushing U-Boats in South America before calling in his adult alter ego to smash the site. Thereafter he teamed up with crusading DA Shaw to destroy the criminal empire of mobster Giggy Golton and his band of merciless assassins ‘The Lawless Legion’

Captain Marvel Adventures #5 (December 12th) was communally illustrated by Beck’s “Fawcett Captain Marvel Art Staff” – which generally comprised Costanza, Marc Swayze, Pete Riss and Kurt Schaffenberger amongst others – opening with a stunning recap ‘Frontispiece’ before Sivana again rears his gleaming evil-stuffed head to perpetrate ‘Captain Marvel’s Double Trouble’ wherein a refugee princess is kidnapped by a boxer the wily genius has transformed through surgery. He’s still no match for the real deal though…

Nor is the volcano-making ‘King of the Crater’ who attempts to turn America into a bubbling ring of fire until Billy and the Captain spectacularly upset his engineering applecart, after which a reclamation project is saved from sabotage by a cunning mastermind and an aquatic monster when ‘Captain Marvel Solves the Swamp Mystery’

The issue ends with another bout of weird science as ‘Sivana’s Strange Chemical Potion’ transforms people into completely different… people!

When Billy is replaced by a new kid with no memory of the power of Shazam, it takes fate in the form of a bunch of kids playing Captain Marvel to release the hero and unleash justice…

Bulletman – ably assisted by his companion Bulletgirl – was undoubtedly Fawcett’s second – if lesser – leading light, with his own solo comicbook and the star spot in monthly Master Comics. However, that all changed with issue #21 (December 1941) and ‘The Coming of Captain Nazi’ by William Woolfolk & Mac Raboy. In the rousing tale Hitler and his staff despatch their newest weapon – a literal Übermensch – to spread terror and destruction in America and kill all its superheroes.

The murdering braggart gets right to work in New York City and soon Bulletman meets Captain Marvel as they both strive to stop the Fascist Fiend from wrecking the town and slaughtering innocents. The astounding battle – gracefully and immaculately rendered by Alex Raymond-inspired Raboy – only results in driving off the monster…

The saga picks up in Whiz Comics #25 (December 12th) with ‘The Origin of Captain Marvel Jr.’ (Woolfolk, Beck & Raboy) as the Nazi nemesis attempts to destroy a monumental hydroelectric dam before once again being foiled and fleeing…

When the monster tries to smash a new fighter plane prototype Captain Marvel stops him, but whilst pursuing the maniac is not quick enough to prevent him murdering an old man and brutally crushing a young boy.

Freddy Freeman seems destined to follow his grandfather into eternity, but remorseful Billy takes the dying lad to Shazam’s mystic citadel where the old wizard saves the boy’s life by giving him access to the power of the ancient gods and heroes. Now he will live – albeit with a permanently maimed leg – and whenever he pronounces the phrase “Captain Marvel” he will become a super-powered invulnerable version of himself…

With the stage set the lad then rockets over to Master Comics #22 (January 1942) to join Bulletman and Bulletgirl in stopping a string of Captain Nazi-sponsored assassinations in ‘Dr. Eternity’s Wax Death’ (by Woolfolk & Raboy), victoriously ending with a bold announcement that from the very next issue (not included here, curses!) the mighty boy will be starring in his own solo adventures…

The merits of the ongoing court-case notwithstanding, Fawcett undeniably took some of their publishing cues from the examples of Superman and Batman. Following on from a brace of Premium editions celebrating the New York World’s Fair, National Comics had released World’s Finest Comics; a huge, quarterly card-cover anthology featuring a host of their comicbook mainstays in new adventures, and early in 1941, Fawcett produced a 100-page bumper comic dedicated to their own dashing new hero and the other mystery-men in their stable: Spy Smasher, Bulletman, Minute Man and Mr. Scarlet & Pinky and more.

This startling slice of World War II Wonderment concludes with a Captain Marvel yarn from America’s Greatest Comics #2 (February 11th – May 13th 1942).

‘The Park Robberies’, anonymously scripted but illustrated by Beck, Berg and the Fawcett Captain Marvel Art Staff, features Billy’s battle to stop and redeem a gang of underage muggers headed for prison or worse, with Captain Marvel going undercover as an ordinary beat cop, but is most noteworthy today for introducing comedy sidekick – and by today’s standards, appalling minority stereotype – Steamboat Bill, who saved the day when real hardboiled thugs took over the scam…

After a rash of complaints, Steamboat was dropped and didn’t resurface when DC acquired the Fawcett properties and characters in 1973. The revived series brought the Captain and his genial crew to a new generation in a savvy experiment to see if his unique charm would work another sales miracle during one of comics’ periodic downturns.

Re-titled Shazam! – due to the incontestable power of lawyers and copyright convention – the revived heroic ideal enjoyed mixed success and a live action TV series in his own unique world before being subsumed into the company’s vast stable of characters…

Notwithstanding, Captain Marvel is a true milestone of American comic history and a brilliantly conceived superhero for all ages. These magical tales again show why “The Big Red Cheese” was such an icon of the industry and proves that such timeless, sublime comic masterpieces are an ideal introduction to the world of superhero fiction: tales that cannot help but appeal to readers of every age and temperament…

© 1941, 1942, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.