Superman Smashes the Secret of the Mad Director

By George S. Elrick and anonymous (Whitman)

It’s Superman’s Birthday! Sadly, more people know the Man of Steel as a screen star than a paragon of print.

I bang on a lot about comics as an art form and (justifiably, I think) decry the fact – despite the current vogue for superhero movies – that printed comics have never been given the mainstream recognition other forms of popular creative expression enjoy. I also encourage all and sundry to read more graphic narrative (I’m blurring my own terms here by including any product where text and image work co-operatively to tell a story, rather than simply a sequence of pictures with words attached), and I’m judicious and even selective (really and truly – there’s stuff I’m never going to share and recommend because, by most critical criteria, it’s better off ignored and forgotten).

However sometimes I’m caught in a bind: I tend to minimise the impact of nostalgia on my beloved world of “funnybooks”, but so often that irresistible siren call from the Golden Years will utterly trump any hi-falutin’ aesthetic ideal and proselytising zeal for acceptance and recognition.

Good luck finding this one; it’s well worth the search.

Superman Smashes the Secret of the Mad Director is such a product from a simpler time when it could be truly said that everybody had seen some sort of comic in their lives (not so easy to claim these days, I fear): a standard paperback most probably released to capitalise on the groundbreaking Saturday morning cartoon series The New Adventures of Superman (first hit for the fledgling Filmation Studios) than on the periodical delights of the “World’s Best Selling Comics Magazine!”

The half-hour cartoon show was a huge success, running three seasons; initially piggybacked with Superboy in its first year (beginning September 10th 1966), expanding into The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure in 1967 and finally The Superman/Batman Hour in 1968. It was cancelled in September 1969 due to pressure from the censorious Action For Children’s Television who agitated against it for its unacceptably violent content!

As was the often the case in those times Big Little Books were produced under license by Whitman Publishing (the print giant that owned Dell and Gold Key Comics) in a mutually advantageous system that got books for younger readers featuring popular characters and cartoon brands (Man From U.N.C.L.E., the Monkees, Shazzan!, Flintstones, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Batman, even the Fantastic Four amongst literally hundreds of others) into huge general store chains such as Woolworth’s, thus expanding recognition, product longevity – and hopefully sales.

Don Markstein’s superb Toonopedia site defines Big Little Books as: a small, square book, usually measuring about 3″x3″, with text on the left-hand pages and a single full-page illustration on the right. Big Little Books were originally created in the 1930s, to make use of small pieces of paper that had formerly gone to waste when magazines were trimmed after printing. By running a separate publication on paper that would otherwise go in the trash, the printer was able to create a salable product almost for free.

Big Little Books were an ideal way to merchandise comic strip characters, as the drawings could simply be taken directly from the strips themselves. Big Little Books flourished during the days of pulp magazine publishing, which mostly came to an end after World War II. The form was revived in the 1960s, partly as a nostalgia item, and has been used sporadically ever since. These latter-day Big Little Books are generally printed on better paper, and some, at least, have color illustrations.

This novel for children, written by BLB mainstay George S. Elrick, is slightly different, having no colour illustrations on its 166 interior pages and reformatted like a bookstore paperback of the sort that proliferated during the 1960s “Camp Superhero Craze” (check out our archived review for High Camp Super-Heroes for a handy example), and tells a rather good action/mystery yarn about a demented movie maker whose search for ultimate realism draws investigative reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane into a pretty pickle…

To be frank the illustrations are pretty poor, originals not clipped pictures, but ineptly traced from reference material provided by comics drawn by the great Kurt Schaffenberger. Still, the wholesome naivety, rapid pace and gentle enthusiasm of the package surprised and engrossed me – even after the more than forty years since I last read it.

It’s a crying shame that the world still won’t take comics seriously nor appreciate the medium’s place and role in global society and the pantheon of Arts. Still, as long as graphic narrative has the power to transport such as me to faraway, better places I’m not going to lose too much sleep over it…

© 1966 National Periodical Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Amazing Transformations of Jimmy Olsen

By Otto Binder, Alvin Schwartz, Robert Bernstein, Jerry Siegel, Leo Dorfman, E. Nelson Bridwell, Cary Bates, Curt Swan, John Forte, Pete Costanza, Kurt Schaffenberger, Ray Burnley, Creig Flessel, Stan Kaye, George Klein & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1369-5

Over eight decades, Superman has provided excitement, imagination and fun in more or less equal amounts. This compilation relies heavily on the last two categories and offers the kind of reading experience we just don’t get enough of these days…

Although unnamed, a red-headed, be-freckled plucky kid worked alongside Clark Kent and Lois Lane from Action Comics #6 (November 1938). He was called by his first name from Superman #13 (November-December 1941) onwards. That lad was Jimmy Olsen and he was a major player in The Adventures of Superman radio show from its debut on April 15th 1940; somebody for the hero to explain stuff to for the listener’s benefit and the closest thing to a sidekick the Man of Tomorrow ever needed…

When the similarly titled television show launched in the autumn of 1952 it became a monolithic hit and National Periodicals began cautiously expanding their valuable and precious franchise with new characters and titles. First up were the gloriously charming, light-hearted escapades of a rash, capable but naïve photographer and “cub reporter” from the Daily Planet: titular star of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, which launched in 1954 with a September-October cover date.

The comic was popular for more than two decades, blending action, adventure, broad, wacky comedy, fantasy and science fiction in the gentle manner scripter Otto Binder had perfected a decade previously at Fawcett Comics on the magnificent Captain Marvel. As the feature progressed, one of the most popular plot-themes (and most fondly remembered and referenced today by most Baby-Boomer fans) was the unlucky lad’s appalling talent for being warped, mutated and physically manipulated by fate, aliens and even his friends…

The Amazing Transformations of Jimmy Olsen delightfully collects some of the very best and most iconic tales from the series; all of which originally appeared in issues #22, 28, 31-33, 41-42, 44, 49, 53, 59, 65, 72, 77, 80, 85 and 105 of the comicbook, plus the lead story from giant-size anthology Superman Family #173, into which SPJO evolved.

The spellbinding wonderment begins with a selection of beautifully reconfigured covers (from issues 22, 44, 59 and 105) which act as contents and credit pages after which the story segments open with ‘The Super-Brain of Jimmy Olsen’ by Binder, Curt Swan & Ray Burnley, wherein resident crackpot genius Professor Phineas Potter evolves the boy into a man from 1,000,000AD. The apparently benevolent being seems to have a hidden agenda, however, and is able to bend Superman to his towering will…

The same creative team produced ‘The Human Skyscraper’ with another Potter production enlarging Jimmy to monumental size, whilst in ‘The E-L-A-S-T-I-C Lad’ Superman is ultimately responsible for the reporter gaining stretching powers after leaving a chest of alien artefacts with the nosy, accident-prone kid.

‘The Jimmy Olsen from Jupiter’ by Alvin Schwartz, Swan & Burnley sees aliens mutate him into one of their scaly selves, complete with mind reading powers, whilst Binder’s ‘The Human Flame-Thrower!’ reveals how Potter’s latest experiment causes the worst case of high-octane halitosis in history, after which Robert Bernstein, Swan & John Forte display the lad’s negligent idiocy when Jimmy eats alien fruit and becomes ‘The Human Octopus!’

Creig Flessel inked the hilariously ingenious ‘Jimmy the Genie!’ in which boy and magical sprite exchange roles after which ‘The Wolf-Man of Metropolis!’, by Binder, Swan, Stan Kaye, blended horror, mystery and heart-warming charm in a mini-classic of the genre.

Professor Potter is blamed for, but entirely innocent of, turning Jimmy into ‘The Fat Boy of Metropolis!’ – a daft but clever crime caper from Swan & Forte – whilst sheer mischance results in the now-legendary saga of ‘The Giant Turtle Man!’ and his oddly casualty-free rampage (courtesy of scripter Jerry Siegel) before Leo Dorfman, Swan & George Klein collaborated to produce the sparkling tale of alien love gone amiss, which resulted in our boy temporarily becoming ‘Jimmy Olsen, Freak!’

When Jimmy spurns the amorous attentions of supernatural Fifth Dimensional hottie Miss Gzptlsnz, she quite understandably turns him into ‘The Human Porcupine’ by Siegel, Swan & Klein, who also crafted the intriguing enigma of ‘The World of Doomed Olsens!’ wherein Jimmy is aggressively confronted by materialisations of his most memorable metamorphoses…

‘The Colossus of Metropolis!’ sees Jimmy deliberately and daringly grow into a giant to tackle rampaging Super-Ape Titano, whilst Siegel, Forte & Klein’s ‘Jimmy Olsen, the Bizarro Boy!’ is a merry comedy of errors with Potter’s cure for the backwards-living artificial beings going painfully awry, resulting in the poor lad being ‘Exiled on the Bizarro World!’

The immensely popular Legion of Super-Heroes guest-star in many of these tales and play a pivotal part in ‘The Adventures of Chameleon-Head Olsen!’, a madcap mirth spree as only Siegel, Forte & Klein could make ‘em, whilst the far more menacing tale of ‘The World of 1,000 Olsens!’ (by Binder, E. Nelson Bridwell & Pete Costanza) was a product of changing times and darker tastes; with an actual arch-enemy trapping Jimmy on a murderous planet where everybody looks like but hates the cub reporter…

This fabulously strange brew concludes with a smart thriller set in the Bottled City of Kandor where Jimmy resumes his occasional costumed-hero identity of Flamebird beside Superman (AKA Nightwing) to save the last Kryptonians from the ‘Menace of the Micro-Monster!’ …a sharp terrorism-tinged shocker by Cary Bates & Kurt Schaffenberger which satisfyingly closes this magically engaging tome.

As well as relating some of the most delightful episodes of the pre-angst-drenched, cosmically catastrophic DC, these stories also perfectly depict the changing mores and tastes which reshaped comics from the safe 1950s to the seditious, rebellious 1970s, all the while keeping to the prime directive of the industry – “keep them entertained and keep them wanting more”.

I know I certainly do…
© 1957-1965, 1967, 1975, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Legion of Super-Heroes: Archive Edition volume 1

By Otto Binder, Jerry Siegel, Edmond Hamilton, Al Plastino, Curt Swan, John Forte, Jim Mooney & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-020-8

Once upon a time, in the far future, a band of super-powered kids from dozens of alien civilisations took inspiration from the legend of the greatest champion of all time and formed a club of heroes. One day those Children of Tomorrow came back in time and invited that legend to join them…

And thus began the vast and epic saga of the Legion of Super-Heroes, as first envisioned by writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino in early 1958, just as the revived comicbook genre of superheroes was gathering an inexorable head of steam. Since that time the popularity of the Legion has perpetually waxed and waned, with their complex continuity continually tweaked and rebooted, retconned and overwritten again and again to comply with editorial diktat and popular whim.

We Silver Age Legion fans are indubitably the most persistent, passionate, finicky and snitty of all – and editors crossed us at their peril – so when DC announced that it would be gathering all the titanic team’s appearances in a chronological series of deluxe hardcover Archive Editions we were overjoyed (actually most of us thought it was about time and long overdue…) and eager.

Sadly, even in this anniversary year those stories are no longer all in print, but at least old editions like this one from 1997 can still be found if you look hard enough. You’d think in the advanced world of the 21st century a popular series about the future would be available digitally, but you’d be wrong…

Spanning 1958-1963, this glorious full-colour compendium assembles the numerous and far-ranging preliminary appearances of these valiant Tomorrow People and their inevitable progress towards and attainment of their own feature; specifically, all pertinent material from Adventure Comics #247, 267, 282, 290, 293, and 300-305; Action Comics #267, 276, 287 and 289; Superboy #86, 89, 98 and Superman #147.

Also included are an introduction by editor, publisher and devotee Mike Gold, creator biographies and a Curt Swan cover gallery (all inked by either Stan Kaye or George Klein) featuring all the burgeoning band of brothers’ pole positions from those comics.

The multi-hued mob of universe-savers first manifested in Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958) in a Superboy tale wherein three mysterious kids – Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy – invited the bemused Boy of Steel to visit the 30th century and join their team of metahuman champions: all originally inspired by his historic career.

Created by Otto Binder & Al Plastino, the throwaway concept inflamed public imagination and after a slew of further appearances throughout Superman Family titles, the LSH eventually took over Superboy’s lead spot in Adventure for their own far-flung, quirky escapades, with the Caped Kid Kryptonian reduced to simply a face in the in-crowd…

Here, however, the excitement was still gradually building when the kids returned more than 18 months later in Adventure #267 (December 1959) for Jerry Siegel & George Papp to play with.

In ‘Prisoner of the Super-Heroes!’ the teen wonders reappear to attack and incarcerate the Boy of Steel because of a misunderstood ancient historical record…

The following summer Supergirl met the Legion in Action Comics #267 (August 1960, by Siegel & Jim Mooney) as Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy secretly voyage to modern day America to similarly invite the Maid of Might to join, in a repetition of their offer to Superboy 15 years previously (in nit-picking fact, they claimed to be the children of the original team – a fact glossed over and forgotten these days: don’t time-travel stories make your head hurt…?).

Due to a dubious technicality, young and eager Kara Zor-El fails her initiation at the hands of ‘The Three Super-Heroes’ and was regretfully required to reapply later – but at least we got to meet a few more Legionnaires, including Chameleon Boy, Invisible Kid and Colossal Boy

With the editors still cautiously testing the waters, it was January 1961 and Superboy #86 before the ‘The Army of Living Kryptonite Men!’ (by Siegel & Papp) turn the LSH into a last-minute Deus ex Machina to save the Smallville Sentinel from juvenile delinquent Lex Luthor’s most insidious assault.

Two months later in Adventure #282, Binder & Papp introduce Star Boy as a romantic rival for the Last Son of Krypton in ‘Lana Lang and the Legion of Super-Heroes!’

Action #276 (May 1961) then debuted ‘Supergirl’s Three Super Girl-Friends’ (Siegel & Mooney, which finally sees her crack the plasti-glass ceiling and successfully enlist, sponsored by Saturn Girl, Phantom Girl and Triplicate Girl.

We also meet for the first time Bouncing Boy, Shrinking Violet, Sun Boy and potential bad-boy love-interest Brainiac 5 (well at least his distant ancestor Brainiac was a very bad boy…)

Next comes pivotal two-part tale ‘Superboy’s Big Brother’ (by Robert Bernstein & Papp from Superboy #89; June 1961) in which an amnesiac, super-powered space traveller crashes in Smallville, speaking Kryptonese and carrying star-maps written by the Boy of Steel’s long-dead father…

Jubilant, baffled and suspicious in equal amounts Superboy eventually, tragically discovers ‘The Secret of Mon-El’ by accidentally exposing the stranger to a lingering, inexorable death, before desperately providing critical life-support by depositing the dying alien in the Phantom Zone until a cure can be found…

With an August 1961 cover-date, Superman #147 unleashed ‘The Legion of Super-Villains’ (by Siegel, Curt Swan & Sheldon Moldoff): a stand-out thriller featuring Lex Luthor and the adult adversary Legion coming far too close to destroying the Action Ace until the temporal cavalry arrive…

Adventure #290 (November 1961, Bernstein & Papp) seemingly gave Sun Boy a starring role in ‘The Secret of the Seventh Super-Hero!’ – a clever tale of redemption and second chances, followed in #293 (February 1962) by a gripping thriller from Siegel, Swan & George Klein: ‘The Legion of Super-Traitors!’

Here the future heroes are turned evil, prompting Saturn Girl to recruit a Legion of Super-Pets including Krypto, Streaky the Super Cat, Beppo, the monkey from Krypton and Comet the magical Super-horse to save the world – and yes, I typed all that with a (reasonably) straight face…

Siegel & Mooney’s ‘Supergirl’s Greatest Challenge!’ (Action #287, April 1962) has her visit the Legion (quibblers be warned: it is mistakenly described as the 21st century in this story) to save future Earth from invasion. She also meets a telepathic descendent of her cat Streaky. His perhaps ill-considered name was Whizzy

Action #289 featured ‘Superman’s Super-Courtship!’ wherein the Girl of Steel scours the universe for an ideal mate for her cousin. One highly likely candidate is the adult Saturn Woman, but her husband Lightning Man objects…

Perhaps charming at the time, but modern sensibilities might quail at the conclusion that Superman’s perfect match is a total doppelganger of Supergirl herself, albeit thankfully a few years older…

By the release of Superboy #98 (July 1962), the decision had been made. The buying public wanted more Legion stories and once ‘The Boy with Ultra-Powers’ by Siegel, Swan & Klein introduced a mysterious lad with greater powers than the Boy of Steel, the focus shifted to Adventure Comics #300 (cover dated September 1962) wherein the futuristic super-squad finally begin their own series; even occasionally stealing the odd cover-spot from the still top-featured Superboy.

Tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes opened its stellar run with Siegel, John Forte & Plastino’s ‘The Face Behind the Lead Mask!’; a fast-paced premier pitting Superboy and the 30th century champions against an impossibly unbeatable foe. All looks bleak until Mon-El – long-trapped in the Phantom Zone – briefly escapes a millennium of confinement to save the day…

In those halcyon days humour was as important as action, imagination and drama, so many early escapades were light-hearted and overtly moralistic. Issue #301 offered hope to fat kids everywhere with ‘The Secret Origin of Bouncing Boy!’ – by regular creative team Siegel & Forte – wherein the process of open auditions is instigated (providing devoted fans with loads of truly bizarre and memorable applicants over the years) whilst allowing the rebounding human rotunda to give a salutary pep talk and inspirational recount of heroism persevering over adversity.

Adventure #302 highlighted ‘Sun Boy’s Lost Power!’ as the golden boy is forced to resign until fortune and boldness restore his abilities after which ‘The Fantastic Spy!’ in #303 provides a tense tale of espionage and possible betrayal by new member Matter-Eater Lad.

The happy readership was stunned by the events of #304 when Saturn Girl engineered ‘The Stolen Super-Powers!’ to make herself a one-woman Legion. Of course, it was for the best possible reasons, but still didn’t prevent the shocking murder of Lightning Lad…

With comfortable complacency utterly destroyed, #305 further shook everything up with ‘The Secret of the Mystery Legionnaire!’ – who turned out to be the long-suffering Mon-El, finally cured of terminal lead poisoning and freed from his Phantom Zone prison.

The Legion is undoubtedly one of the most beloved and bewildering creations in American comicbook history and largely responsible for the growth of the groundswell movement that became Comics Fandom. Moreover, these sparkling, simplistic and astoundingly addictive stories, as much as the innovations of Julie Schwartz’s Justice League, fired up the interest and imaginations of a generation of young readers and built the industry we all know today.

Naive, silly, joyous, stirring and utterly compelling yarns are precious and fun beyond any ability to explain, and if you love comics and haven’t read this stuff, you are the poorer for it and need to enrich your future life as soon as possible…
© 1958-1964, 1991, 1997 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Man of Steel

By John Byrne & Dick Giordano (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-93028-928-7

In 1985 when DC Comics decided to rationalise, reconstruct and reinvigorate their continuity with Crisis on Infinite Earths they used the event to simultaneously regenerate their key properties at the same time.

The biggest gun they had was Superman and it’s hard to argue that the change was not before time.

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

He didn’t.

The public furore began with all DC’s Superman titles being “cancelled” (actually suspended) for three months, and yes, that did make the real-world media sit-up and take notice of the character everybody thought they knew for the first time in decades. However, there was method in this seeming corporate madness.

The missing mainstays were replaced by a 6-part miniseries running from October to December 1986. Entitled Man of Steel it was written and drawn by Marvel’s mainstream superstar John Byrne and inked by venerated veteran Dick Giordano.

The bold manoeuvre was a huge and instant success. So much so that when it was first collected as a stand-alone compilation album in the 1980s (currently redesigned and available in trade paperback and digital editions as volume 1 of an ongoing series of far too occasional reprint editions), it became one of comics’ premiere ‘break-out’ hits in a new format that would eventually become the industry standard for reaching mass readerships. Nowadays very few people buy the periodical pamphlets but almost everybody has read a graphic novel…

From that overwhelming start the Action Ace seamlessly returned to his suspended comicbook homes with the addition of a third monthly title premiering that same month.

Superman, Adventures of Superman, and Action Comics (which acted as a fan-pleasing team-up book guest-starring other favourites of the DC Universe, in the manner of the cancelled DC Comics Presents) were instant best-sellers.

So successful was the relaunch that by the early 1990’s Superman would be carrying four monthly titles as well as Specials, Annuals, guest shots and his regular appearances in titles such as Justice League.

Quite a turnaround from the earlier heydays of the Man of Steel when editors were frantic about never overexposing their meal-ticket.

In Superman’s 80th year of more-or-less consecutive and continuous publication, this collection offers six self-contained stories from key points in Superman’s career, newly readjusted for contemporary consumption in the wake of that aforementioned worlds-shattering Crisis.

Starting with a startling new and bleakly dystopian view of Krypton, ‘From Out of the Green Dawn’ follows the child’s voyage in a self-propelled birthing matrix to a primitive world.

Discovered by childless couple Jonathan and Martha Kent, the alien foundling spends his years growing secretly in Smallville, indistinguishable from other earthlings until strange abilities begin to gradually manifest.

Eighteen years after his arrival the boy learns of his extraterrestrial origins and leaves home to wander the world. Clark Kent eventually settles in Metropolis and we get a rapid re-education of what is and isn’t canonical as he performs his first public super-exploit, meets with Lois Lane, joins the Daily Planet and gets an identity-obscuring costume…

Lois takes centre-stage for the second issue, scheming and manipulating to secure the first in-depth interview with the new hero before losing out to neophyte colleague Kent whose first big scoop becomes ‘The Story of the Century!’

The third chapter recounts the Metropolis Marvel’s first meeting with Batman as ‘One Night in Gotham City’ reveals a fractious and reluctant team-up to capture murdering thief Magpie. The unsatisfactory encounter sees the heroes part warily, not knowing if they will become friends or foes…

‘Enemy Mine…’ in MoS #4 expands and redefines the new Lex Luthor: a genius, multi-billionaire industrialist who was the most powerful man in Metropolis until the Caped Crime-buster appears. When the tycoon overreaches himself in trying to suborn the hero, he is publicly humiliated and swears vengeance and eternal enmity…

By ‘The Mirror, Crack’d’ in issue #5 Luthor is Superman’s greatest foe – albeit one who scrupulously maintains a veneer of respectability and plausible deniability. Here, Luthor’s clandestine attempt to clone his own Man of Tomorrow results in a monstrous flawed duplicate dubbed Bizarro and introduces Lois’ sister Lucy to play hapless victim in a moving tale of triumph and tragedy.

The reimagination concludes with ‘The Haunting’ as a troubled Clark/Superman returns to Smallville. Reuniting with childhood sweetheart Lana Lang (who shares his secrets and knows as much as he of his alien origins), the strange visitor finally learns of his Kryptonian origins when the birthing matrix projects a recorded message from his long-dead parents and their hopes and plans for him…

The shock and reaction of his foster family only affirms his dedication and connection to humanity…

John Byrne was a controversial choice at the time, but he magnificently recaptured the exuberant excitement and visually compelling, socially aware innovation which informed and galvanised Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster’s inspired creation. Man of Steel granted a new generation the same kind of intoxicating four-colour fantasy that was the original Superman, and made it possible to be a fan again, no matter your age or prejudice. Superman had always been great, but Byrne had once again made him thrilling. Rivetingly so.

A saga well worth your time and your money and a genuine Must-Have for any serious collector and reader.
© 1987, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Secret Origin

By Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, Jon Sibal & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2697-8(HC)                     978-1-4012-3299-3(TPB)

One of the perennial dangers of comicbook longevity is the incessant – and, as you get older, apparently hyper-accelerated – revisionism afflicting origin stories. Characters with any measure of success or staying power are continually reinvented to appeal to new readers and generally appal or gradually disaffect veteran aficionados.

Moreover, nowadays it seems to happen sooner and sooner into a rebooted hero’s run.

Batman and Superman in particular seem accursed by this situation, as much because of their broad mass-media appeal as their perfectly simple bedrock concepts. In recent years DC has been sedulously and assiduously editing, in-filling and cross-fertilising its icons until – whether through movies, animated cartoons, TV shows, video games or the comics themselves – followers of the World’s Finest Heroes can be assured that the ephemera and backstory always remain consistent and reliably reconcilable.

The upside of this is that as long as we fanboys can sufficiently stifle our chagrin and curb our umbrage, every so often we can enjoy a fresh but not condescending, vivacious but not fatuous, re-imagining of our best-beloved childhood touchstones…

Through 2009 and 2010 Geoff Johns & Gary Frank remastered the Man of Tomorrow with 6-issue miniseries Superman: Secret Origin which, whilst reinstating many formerly-erased elements of the classic Silver Age mythology and incorporating much of John Byrne’s groundbreaking 1986 reboot (as collected in the Man of Steel), created a new version in tune with Mark Waid, Lenil Francis Yu & Gerry Alanguilan’s 2003 (Smallville TV-show inspired) Superman: Birthright.

Moreover, the resultant story similarly legitimised and fully absorbed the Christopher Reeve Superman movies into the canon, with Frank’s supremely authentic renditions making the actor’s appearance and demeanour – as both Action Ace and klutzy Clark Kent – the definitive comicbook look for the Action Ace.

This particularly well-known folk-tale-retold (available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions) opens with an Introduction by screenwriter, producer and occasional comics scribe David S. Goyer before the drama commences with ‘The Boy of Steel’, honing in on Clark Kent’s formative years with the Kansas farmboy beginning to realise just how truly different he is from his friends and classmates…

Traumatised when he accidentally breaks the arm of best pal Pete Ross while playing football, Clark’s only confidante is Lana Lang – who has long known about his incredible strength and durability – but even she can offer no solace. The strange boy’s abilities are growing every day and his father is increasingly advising him to distance himself from ordinary kids.

When Lana kisses Clark, his eyes blast forth heat rays which nearly set the school on fire, prompting Jonathan and Martha Kent to reveal an incredible truth to their troubled son. Buried under the barn is a small spaceship, and when Clark touches it, a recorded hologram message from his birth-parents Jor-El and Lara shockingly discloses the orphan’s incredible origins as Kal-El; Last Son of the dead planet Krypton…

As the stunned and traumatised youth flees into the night, in another part of Smallville an equally unique youngster discovers a glowing green meteor fragment…

In the confused days that follow, Clark, weighed down by a new sense of responsibility and isolation, begins the life-long masquerade that will forever deflect attention from the being he really is. In the meantime, Martha uses materials from the fallen star-ship to make her son an outfit based on the garments she saw in the alien’s message. They bear the proud family crest of the House of El

On the day of the County Fair, Clark meets Lex Luthor and feels sick for the first time in his life when the arrogantly abrasive boy-genius shows him a green rock he had found in the fields. At that moment a tornado strikes the little town and Lana is swept to her doom in the skies until, incredibly, Clark chases after her and flies her to safety…

Issue #2 features ‘Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes’: disclosing how Smallville is seemingly protected by an invisible guardian angel who mysteriously saves people and property. Clark is lonelier than ever and, with only Lana and his folks to talk to, tries to strike up a friendship with Lex, but the aggressively disdainful and disparaging prodigy can only dream of escaping the revoltingly provincial backwater and moving to the big city of Metropolis

Everything changes when the scion of Krypton encounters a trio of super-powered strangers from the future. Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad and Cosmic Boy have travelled back to meet the youth who inspired a thousand years of heroism and show it by taking the Boy of Steel on a breathtaking vacation into the fabulous future.

…And when he eventually returns home, there’s one more glorious surprise after Superboy intercepts an extraterrestrial projectile and is reunited with his long-lost Kryptonian pet…

Things are looking up for Luthor too. His despised but fully-insured father having just conveniently died, the brilliant boy and his little sister are now on their way to bigger and better things…

‘Mild-Mannered Reporter’ begins as, after years of travelling, bumbling, mild-mannered and meek Clark Kent begins work at the Metropolis Daily Planet; a once-great newspaper on the verge of bankruptcy in a once-great city. The venerable rag is slowly dying; suffering and expiring by degrees for the crucial mistake of trying to expose the billionaire plutocrat who currently owns most of the vast conurbation: swaggering self-styled philanthropist Lex Luthor.

Even so, Editor Perry White, intern and aspiring photo-journalist Jimmy Olsen and especially lead reporter Lois Lane are determined to go down fighting…

Every day Luthor appears on the balcony of his corporate HQ: deigning to grant the tawdry request of one of the fawning, desperate rabble gathered beneath him, but his gloating is spoiled when Lane and her new stooge Kent break through security and disrupt the demonstration of a new high-tech fighting-suit. In the melee, Lois and a helicopter are knocked off the skyscraper roof and somehow saved by a flying blue and red Adonis…

Fully revealed to the world, the mysterious Superman captures humanity’s imagination. Soon exclusive reports and Olsen’s photos in the Planet turn the paper’s fortunes around. Luthor instinctively knows he has a rival for Metropolis’ attention and approbation and savagely dedicates all his vast resources to destroying his foe…

An early opportunity comes when destitute, grasping janitor Rudy Jones accepts Luthor’s daily benison and is accidentally mutated by exposure to Green Rock waste into a life-absorbing energy-leeching monster.

‘Parasites’ sees the Man of Tomorrow’s spectacular victory thrown in his face by Luthor who publicly brands the hero an alien spy and vanguard of invasion…

Tension escalates in ‘Strange Visitor’ when Lois’s estranged father General Sam Lane collaborates with Luthor to capture Superman; using the military man’s pet psycho Sgt. John Corben. The elder Lane personally selected and groomed him to marry Lois and “set her straight” and his frustration at her furious response drives the creepy stalker into calamitously piloting an armoured war-suit powered by the mysterious Green Rock.

When the naïve Kryptonian hero agrees to be interviewed by the army he is ambushed by crack attack units and Corben. Valiantly fighting his way free, the Caped Crimebuster critically injures the war-suit wearer in the process and, sensing a unique opportunity, Luthor then rebuilds the broken soldier, inserting Green Rock into his heart to create a relentless, anti-Superman cyborg weapon: Metallo

The voyage of rediscovery concludes in ‘Man of Steel’ wherein the desperate hero, hunted by Lane’s troops through the city, faces the berserk Cyborg in the streets and wins over the fickle public with his overarching nobility, instilling in the venal masses who were once Luthor’s cowering creatures a renewed spirit of hope, optimism and individuality…

The Adventure Begins… Again…

Inspiring and grandly mythic, this epic retelling (containing also a baker’s dozen of covers, variants and an unused extra) combines modern insights and innovations with unchanging Lore: paying lip service to TV’s Smallville and venerating the movies whilst still managing to hew closely to many of the fan-favourite idiosyncrasies that keep old duffers like me coming back for more.

This sterling reinvigoration and visually intoxicating reworking is one that shouldn’t offend the faithful whilst providing an efficient jump-on guide for any newcomers and potential converts.
© 2009, 2010, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Blackhawk Archives Volume 1

By Will Eisner, Dick French, William Woolfolk, Bob Powell, Chuck Cuidera, Reed Crandall & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-700-9

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

Comics had practically no fans or collectors; only a large marketplace open to all varied aspects of yarn-spinning and tale-telling. Thus, even though America loudly proclaimed its isolationism and remained more than six months away from active inclusion in World War II, creators like Will Eisner and publishers like Everett M. (known to all as “Busy”) Arnold felt that Americans were ready for a themed anthology title such as Military Comics.

Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.

Military Comics #1 launched on May 30th 1941 (with an August off-sale or cover-date) and included in its gritty, two-fisted line-up Death Patrol by Jack Cole, Miss America, Fred Guardineer’s Blue Tracer, X of the Underground, The Yankee Eagle, Q-Boat, Shot and Shell, Archie Atkins and Loops and Banks by “Bud Ernest” (in actuality, aviation-nut and unsung comics genius Bob Powell), but none of the strips, not even Cole’s surreal and suicidal team of hell-bent fliers, had the instant cachet and sheer appeal of Eisner & Powell’s “Foreign Legion of the Air” led by a charismatic Dark Knight known only as Blackhawk.

Chuck Cuidera – already famed for creating The Blue Beetle for Fox Publications – drew ‘The Origin of Blackhawk’ for the premiere issue, wherein a lone, magnificently skilled pilot fighting the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 is finally shot down by Nazi Ace Von Tepp.

The sadistic killer then goes on to bomb a farmhouse sheltering the defeated pilot’s family. Rising from his plane’s wreckage, the distraught pilot vows vengeance…

Two years later, with the Nazis in control of most of Europe, Von Tepp’s unassailable position is threatened by a mysterious paramilitary squadron of unbeatable fliers, dedicated to crushing injustice and smashing the Axis war-machine…

Eisner wrote the first four Blackhawk episodes and Cuidera stayed aboard until issue #11 – although the artist would return in later years. Many of the stories were originally untitled but have been conveniently characterized with such stirring designations as issue #2’s ‘The Coward Dies Twice’ wherein the team – “the last free men of the conquered countries” – offer a deserter from a Spitfire Squadron a chance to redeem himself…

The easy mix of patriotism, adventure and slapstick was magnified by the inclusion of Chop-Chop in ‘The Doomed Squadron’: a comedy Chinaman painful to see through modern eyes, but a stock type considered almost as mandatory as a heroic leading man in those dark days, and not just in comics.

At least this Asian man is a brave and formidable fighter both on the ground and in a plane…

‘Desert Death’ takes the team to Suez – for the first of many memorable Arabian adventures – as Nazi agitators attempt to foment revolution among the tribesmen in hopes that they will rise up and destroy the British. This tale is also notable for the introduction of a species of sexy siren beloved of Eisner and Quality Comics. Her or similar seductresses of her ilk would populate the strip until DC bought the property in 1957. Also included here is also a secret map of Blackhawk Island, mysterious base of the ebon-clad freedom fighters.

With issue #5 Dick French assumed the writing role and ‘Scavengers of Doom’ tells a biting tale of battlefield looters allied to a Nazi mastermind, united to set an inescapable trap for the heroic fliers. More importantly, French began providing distinct and discrete characters for the previously anonymous minor players.

In MC #6 the rapidly gelling team joins the frantic hunt for a germ weapon the Gestapo are desperate to possess, resulting in spectacular alpine adventure ‘The Vial of Death’, after which #7 (the first issue released after America entered World War II although the stories had not yet caught up to reality) finds the lads prowling the Mongolian Steppe on horseback to thwart ‘The Return of Genghis Khan’.

‘The Sunken Island of Death’ from #8 is a striking maritime romp wherein the warring powers battle to occupy and possess an island freshly risen from the Atlantic depths. The new-born landmass is strategically equidistant between the USA, Britain and Festung Europa (that’s what the Nazis called the enslaved stronghold they had made of mainland Europe).

Although complete in itself, the yarn is also the first of an experimental, thematic 3-part saga that stretched the way comics stories were told.

There were many marvellously melodramatic touches to make the Blackhawks so memorable in the eyes of a wide-eyed populace of thrill-hungry kids. There was the cool, black leather uniforms and peaked caps. The unique – yet real – Grumman F5F-1 Skyrocket planes they flew from their secret island base and their eerie battle-cry “Hawkaaaaa!” But perhaps the oddest idiosyncrasy to modern readers was that they had their own song which André, Stanislaus, Olaf, Chuck, Hendrickson and Chop-Chop would sing as they plunged into battle. And just to be informative and inclusive, the sheet-music and lyrics were published in this issue and are re-presented here – just remember this is written for seven really tough guys to sing while dodging bullets and weaving between bursts of flak…

Military #9 led with ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ as the unflappable team discover that a fallen comrade did not actually die in combat, but was hideously disfigured saving them, whilst the next issue’s tale – ‘Trapped in the Devil’s Oven’ – is another desert adventure focusing on the still primitive science of plastic surgery to restore said hero to full fighting trim.

Issue #11 – Cuidera’s last – saw the squadron turn their attention to Japan, as reality at last caught up with publishing schedules. Intriguingly, ‘Fury in the Philippines’ starts quietly with the entire team calmly discussing carrying on against the Nazis or switching their attentions to the Pacific Theatre of Operations, until comedy relief Chop-Chop sways the debaters with an impassioned stand.

Though inarguably an offensive stereotype visually, the Chinese warrior was often given the best lines and most memorable actions. A sneakily subversive attempt on the part of the creators (frequently from immigrant backgrounds and ethnic origins) to shake up those hide-bound societal prejudices, perhaps?

Notwithstanding, the resultant mission against the Japanese fleet is a cataclysmic Battle Royale, full of the kind of vicarious pay-back that demoralized Americans needed to see following Pearl Harbor…

‘The Curse of Xanukhara’ added fantasy elements to the gritty mix of blood and iron as the team’s hunt for a stolen codebook leads them to occupied Borneo and eventually the heart of Tokyo; a classy espionage thriller marking the start of a superlative run of thrillers illustrated by the incredible Reed Crandall.

The artist’s realistic line and the graceful poise of his work – especially on exotic femmes fatale and trustworthy girls-next-door – made his strips an absolute joy to behold.

‘Blackhawk vs. The Butcher’ (Military #13, November 1942) was written by new regular scripter Bill Woolfolk and returned the team to Nazi territory as a fleeing Countess turned the team’s attention to the most sadistic Gauleiter (Nazi regional leader in charge of a conquered territory) in the German Army.

What follows is a spectacular saga of justice and righteous vengeance, whilst ‘Tondeleyo’ reveals a different kind of thriller as an exotic siren uses her almost unholy allure to turn the entire team against each other.

Such quasi-supernatural overtones held firm in the stirring ‘Men Who Never Came Back’ – when the team travel to India to foil a Japanese plot – in a portmanteau tale narrated by the three witches Trouble, Terror and Mystery; eerily presaging the EC horror classics that would cement Crandall’s artistic reputation more than a decade later.

‘Blackhawk vs. the Fox’ pits the flight of heroes against a Nazi strategic wizard (a clear reference to the epic victories of Erwin Rommel) in the burning sands of Libya and remains one of the most authentic battle tales in the canon, before this sublime hardback volume concludes with a racy tale of vengeance and tragedy wherein Japanese traitor Yoshi uses her wiles to punish the military government of Nippon, with Blackhawk as her unwitting tool in ‘The Golden Bell of Soong-Toy!’

These stories were produced at a pivotal moment in both comics and world history, a blend of weary sophistication and glorious, juvenile bravado. Like the best movies of the time – Casablanca, Foreign Correspondent, Freedom Radio, Captain of the Clouds, The Day Will Dawn, The First of the Few, In Which We Serve and all the rest – with their understated, overblown way of accepting duty and loss, these rousing tales of the miracles that good men can do are some of the Golden Age’s finest moments.

In fact, these are some of the best comics stories of their time and I sincerely wish DC had proceeded with further collections.

So will you…
© 1941-1942, 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Man of Steel volume 9

By John Byrne, Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern, Paul Kupperberg, Erik Larsen, John Statema, Ron Frenz & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6637-0

Although largely out of favour these days as the myriad decades of Superman mythology are relentlessly assimilated into one overarching, all-inclusive multi-media DC franchise, the gritty, stripped-down post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Action Ace, as re-imagined by John Byrne and marvellously built upon by a stunning succession of gifted comics craftsmen, produced some genuine comics classics.

Controversial at the start, Byrne’s reboot of the world’s first superhero was quickly acknowledged as a solid hit and the collaborative teams who complemented and followed him maintained the high quality, ensuring continued success.

That vast, interlocking saga has been collected – far too slowly – over recent years in a more-or-less chronologically combined format as the fabulously economical trade paperback (and latterly digital) series Superman: The Man of Steel, with this splendid ninth volume revisiting Superman #19-22, Superman Annual #2, Adventures of Superman #441-444 and crossover continuation Doom Patrol #10. These collectively span June to October 1988 and re-present one of the most talked-about storylines of the entire run.

The fabulous Fights ‘n’ Tights fun begins with Adventures of Superman #441 and an exploration of multidimensional madness in ‘The Tiny Terror of Tinseltown’, courtesy of Byrne, Jerry Ordway & Dennis Janke, wherein 5th Dimensional sprite Mr. Mxyzptlk heads for Hollywood to wreak more prankish madcap mayhem. His animation of cartoon favourites is however, overshadowed by a remarkable event in Antarctica as a young girl staggers into a research station, immune to the cold and claiming amnesia. She is clad in a brief but fetching variation of Superman’s uniform…

Having tricked the mischievous mite into leaving our plane, the Man of Tomorrow faces an insidious assault by alien energy-leech Psi-phon, who gradually and systematically removes the hero’s abilities in ‘The Power that Failed!’ (Superman #19, by Byrne and inker John Beatty). The story continues in Adventures of Superman #442 (Byrne, Ordway & Andy Kubert) as ‘Power Play’ introduces the alien’s brutal partner Dreadnaught, resulting in a cataclysmic clash in Metropolis that eventually involves the Justice League of America…

Elsewhere, that mystery girl has recovered a few memories and headed for Smallville, Kansas, zeroing in on the Kent family farm…

Doom Patrol #10 (July 1988) begins a crossover clash as Robotman Cliff Steele painfully discovers his spare bodies and replacement parts have been stolen by mecha-monster Metallo. The ensuing battle for ‘The Soul of the Machine’ (Paul Kupperberg, Erik Larsen & Gary Martin) devastates Kansas City, drawing the Metropolis Marvel into the conflict ‘In the Heartland!’ (Superman #20, by Byrne & inker Karl Kesel).

As the united champions seemingly end the techno-tainted threat, back in Kansas a very confused Girl of Steel meets Ma and Pa Kent and Lana Lang: people she has known all her life but has never met before. After some trenchant conversations the baffled stranger flies off to Metropolis…

Meanwhile in Adventures of Superman #443, Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen investigate a hostage-taking in war-torn Qurac. Incredibly – and typically – their hunt for an American ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ (scripted by Ordway and illustrated by John Statema & Doug Hazelwood) leads them to a race of fantastic, paranoid and combative aliens hidden beneath the deserts sands since the time of the pharaohs…

Finally, the ongoing enigmas are addressed as the “Supergirl Saga” commences in Superman #21 with Byrne & Beatty’s ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’. After the Action Ace encounters the flying girl her memories return and she reveals her astounding secret. Of course, it’s not that simple and the revelations only come after a traditional hero-on-hero fight…

When Crisis on Infinite Earths overwrote and restarted DC Universal Continuity, a number of remaining paradoxes required some fairly deft and imaginative back-writing. Most pressing was how could the 30th century Legion of Super-Heroes exist if the Superboy who inspired them never existed? The solution was an epic story arc in Legion of Super-Heroes #37-38 and Action Comics #591 (collected in Superman: Man of Steel volume 4) that posited a “pocket universe duplicate Earth” created for nefarious purposes by the almighty Time Trapper, where all the events of Pre-Crisis Earth actually occurred.

Now that world is revisited with humanity on the edge of extinction…

As seen in ‘Parallel Lines Meet at Infinity…’ (Adventures of Superman #444, Byrne, Ordway, & Janke), when “Superboy” vanished during the Crisis, his world was left to the mercies of three of his Kryptonian arch-enemies.

Before long General Zod, Zaora and Quex-Ul reduced mankind to a desperate handful of survivors with super-genius Lex Luthor acting as technological saviour. Learning of the outer universe, he created a Supergirl to fetch the true Superman and enact his final plans for the artificial world…

The shocking tale culminates in Superman #21 as the conflicted champion eventually defeats his ruthless, sadistic and far more powerful fellow Kryptonians, – but not before Earth is wiped clean of all life. With Byrne writing drawing and inking, ‘The Price’ sets the tone for the next phase of the Man of Tomorrow’s life as he is compelled to take drastic action that alters his moral stance forever-after and affects him for the rest of his life…

The adventure concludes with the contents of Superman Annual #2 as ‘The Cadmus Project’ (Roger Stern, Ron Frenz & Brett Breeding) reprises and adapts major elements of Jack Kirby’s breathtaking material from Jimmy Olsen #133-148, which introduced and supplemented his landmark Fourth World Trilogy.

Here clones of the 1940s Newsboy Legion escape the top-secret genetics project and hide in Metropolis. Magnets for trouble, the kids stumble into gang crime and are rescued by the revenant of their original Guardian – part-time costumed hero Jim Harper.

When the furore attracts Superman’s attention, the inevitable battle leads him into a fantastic hidden world, albeit one now under the malicious psychic sway of vile old enemy Sleez

Supplementing the main event is all-Byrne Private Lives sidebar story ‘Loves Labor’s…’, starring Captain Maggie Sawyer and Terrible Turpin of Metropolis’s Special Crimes Unit. When a close call under fire leads to the aging veteran’s latest hospitalisation, Maggie’s solicitousness leads the old detective to jump to some extremely erroneous romantic conclusions…

Topped off with Byrne-limned pages from DC’s Who’s Who, giving the lowdown on the then new iterations of Bizarro, Lex Luthor, Magpie and Mr. Mxyzptlk, plus original covers by Byrne, Ordway, Frenz, Larsen and Brett Breeding, this titanic tome celebrates the back-to-basics approach which lured many readers to – and crucially back to – the Superman franchise at a time when interest in the character had slumped to perilous levels.

Publicity might have brought big sales but it was the sheer quality of the stories and art which convinced them to stay…

Such cracking superhero tales are a high point in Superman’s eight decades of multi-media existence and these astoundingly readable collections are certainly the easiest way to enjoy a stand-out reinvention of the ultimate comic-book icon.
© 1988, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Legends – The 30th Anniversary Edition

By John Ostrander, Len Wein, John Byrne, Karl Kesel & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6316-4

With the success of Crisis on Infinite Earths and Marvel’s Secret Wars in the middle of the 1980s, comicbook publishers had grand dreams of regular and spectacular sales boosts, but a section of the cantankerous buying public muttered about gimmicks to make them spend more and voiced concerns about keeping the quality high.

At DC fan-interest was still fresh and keen as so many of their major properties – and indeed the entire continuity – was open for radical change, innovation and renewal. So, how best to follow the previous year’s cosmic catastrophe? Why not a much smaller and more personal Great Disaster, spotlighting those strangers wearing familiar costumes and a bunch of beginnings rather than the deaths and endings of Crisis?

Possibly the best and certainly the most cohesive of the numerous company-wide braided mega-series, Legends was a 6-issue miniseries cover-dated November 1986 through April 1987. Like its predecessor the major narrative thread spread out into other DC series, but unlike Crisis on Infinite Earths each tie-in was consecutively numbered and every pertinent cover was suitably badged. If you got ’em all you couldn’t help but read them in the right order!

The event crossed into 22 other comics and miniseries and premiered three new series, Justice League, Flash and the superb Suicide Squad. It even led to another new treatment for Billy Batson in a follow-up Shazam! miniseries whilst offering a tantalising sneak peek at the newly re-minted Wonder Woman

The drama opens in ‘Once Upon a Time…!’ as Evil New God Darkseid of Apokolips decides to attack humanity’s spirit by destroying the very concept of heroism and individuality. To this end he sends hyper-charismatic thrall Glorious Godfrey to America to lead a common man’s crusade against extraordinary heroes, whilst initiating individual plans intended to demoralize and destroy key champions of Earth. His first scalp is naïve, youthful Captain Marvel, who is deceived into believing his powers have accidentally killed an enemy after explosively confronting monstrous menace Macro-Man

As Darkseid’s flaming minion Brimstone ravages the nation – despite the best efforts of Firestorm, time-displaced Legionnaire Cosmic Boy and Justice League Detroit – the US government activates its own covert and illegal solution to the crisis.

Conceived and devised by civil servant Amanda Waller, a new Task Force X is brought into being: comprising volunteers such as Colonel Rick Flag and martial artist Bronze Tiger riding roughshod over convicted super-criminals all offered a pardon in return for secret services rendered…

As Godfrey’s influence spreads across America, inciting riots that hospitalise Boy Wonder Robin and drive Batman, Blue Beetle and Green Lantern Guy Gardner into hiding, ‘Breach of Faith!’ sees President Ronald Reagan respond to the rampant civil unrest by outlawing costumed crime-busters…

With heroes searching their consciences, unsure whether to comply or rebel, world-wide chaos ensues and Darkseid amps up the pressure. Sentient mountain of super-heated plasma Brimstone attempts to reduce national monument Mount Rushmore into molten slag only to be destroyed by America’s latest dirty secret in ‘Send for… the Suicide Squad!’

Meanwhile heartbroken Billy Batson – the juvenile alter ego of Captain Marvel – meets hero-worshipping Lisa. When her family take him in, he gains valuable insight and perspective on the ongoing calamity…

Things go from bad to worse in ‘Cry Havoc…!’ as the embargo emboldens numerous super-villains to go wild. This prompts many costumed heroes to ignore the Presidential Edict and go after them. As the Phantom Stranger faces Darkseid on Apokolips, immortal mystic Doctor Fate begins gathering select champions for the approaching final confrontation he foresees even as on Earth Godfrey makes a power grab using human-fuelled Apokoliptian Warhounds in ‘Let Slip the Dogs of War!’

All the disparate strands weave together in ‘Finale!’ as Fate’s new Justice League – aided by an enigmatic new hero calling herself Wonder Woman – stand fast against the destructive forces of anarchy: coming together to prevent the conquest of Mankind and erasure of its most vital beliefs…

The enthralling tale re-presented here can comfortably be read without the assorted spin-offs, crossovers and tie-ins, and it still feels like a magnificent mission statement for that new DC Universe: gritty, witty, cohesive and contemporary.

John Ostrander was new to DC, lured from Chicago’s First Comics with editor Mike Gold where their work on Starslayer, Munden’s Bar and especially Grimjack had made those independent minnows some of the most readable series of the decade.

Paired with veteran scripter Len Wein, whose familiarity with the DC stable ensured the scripts would have the right company flavour, they concocted a bold and controversial tale for super-star Superman re-creator John Byrne to draw and the immensely talented Karl Kesel to ink.

This 30th Anniversary edition (available in Trade paperback and eBook editions) comes with an informative Afterword from Mike Gold and full cover-gallery – including the original trade paperback collection cover – but regrettably neglects to retain the cover reproductions of each out-rider instalment of the greater story, as seen in the first edition. Should you feel like tracking down those missing components you’ll need to play comics detective on fan sites…

Who knows, maybe for the 40th Anniversary, DC will release a humongous, all-inclusive Absolute Omnibus Edition? Until then, why not simply kick back and enjoy an awesome slice of fabulous Fights ‘n’ Tights fun and fury?
© 1986, 1987, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Adventures of Superman

By George Lowther, illustrated by Joe Shuster (Applewood Books)
ISBN: 978-1-55709-228-1

Without doubt the creation of Superman and his unprecedented reception by a desperate and joy-starved generation quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form. Within months of his June 1938 launch in Action Comics #1, the Man of Tomorrow had his won his own supplementary solo comicbook and a newspaper strip; secured overseas licensing deals, became a star of radio show and animated movie series, and generated loads and loads of merchandising deals.

In 1942 he even made the dynamic leap into “proper” prose fiction, resulting in still more historic “firsts”…

George F. Lowther (1913-1975) was a Renaissance man of radio in the days when sound not vision dominated home entertainment. He scripted episodes of such airwave strip adaptations as Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates as well as the Mutual Radio Network’s legendary Adventures of Superman show.

Lowther also wrote episodes for Roy Rogers, Tom Mix and a host of other series and serials. In 1945 he moved into television with equal success as writer, producer, director and even performer, adding a string of novels for kids to his CV along the way.

With the stunning success of the Superman radio broadcasts, a spin-off book was a sure-fire seller and in 1942 Random House released a glorious, rocket-paced rollercoaster ride: a tome outlining the Man of Steel’s still undisclosed history, fleshing out the character’s background (almost a decade before such detail became part of the comics canon).

The novel described the hero’s rise to fame and even found room for a thrilling pulp-fuelled contemporary adventure in a handsome hardback lavishly illustrated by co-creator Joe Shuster. The novel was the first Superman tale not scripted by Jerry Siegel and the world’s first novelisation of a comicbook character.

That first edition book will set you back silly sums today but in 1995, Applewood Press (a firm specialising in high-quality reproductions of important and historic American books) recreated all the early magic in its stunning entirety with a terrific hardback facsimile tome which included a copious and informative introduction from contemporary Superman writer Roger Stern as well as the original 1940s Foreword by National/DC’s then-Staff Advisor for Children’s literacy, Josette Frank.

The art inserts and panels are Joe Shuster at the peak of his creative powers: including the dust-jacket and 4 full-colour painted plates (all reproduced from the original artwork); a half-dozen full-page black-&-white illustrations and 34 vibrant and vital pen-and-ink spot sketches of the Caped Kryptonian in spectacular non-stop action, gracing a fast and furious yarn that opens with the destruction of Krypton and decision of scientist Jor-El in ‘Warning of Doom’ and ‘The Space Ship’.

The saga continues with the discovery of an incredible baby in a rocket-ship by farmer Eben Kent and his wife Sarah in ‘Young Clark Kent’ and encompasses the unique foundling’s early days and first meeting with Perry White in ‘The Contest’.

Following ‘The Death of Eben’ the young alien refugee moves to the big city and assumes the role of ‘Clark Kent, Reporter’ after which we switch to then present-day for the main event.

Now investigative reporter and blockbusting champion of justice combine to crush a sinister plot involving spies, saboteurs, submarines and supernatural shenanigans in the classy conundrum of ‘The Skeleton Ship’ and ‘The Vanishing Captain’ before being resolved in the epic ‘Fire at Sea’, ‘Mystery of the Old Man’, ‘Attempted Murder’, ‘Enter Lois Lane’ and ‘Return of the Skeleton Ship’

This culminates in ‘The Unmasking’, the revelation of a ‘Special Investigator’ and an enthralling ‘Underwater Battle’ before at last the wonderment ends with ‘The Mystery Solved’.

This magical book perfectly recaptures all the frantic fervour and breathless mind-boggling excitement of the early days of action adventure storytelling and is a pulp fiction treasure as well capturing a pivotal moment in the creation of the world’s premier superhero.

No serious fan of the medium or art-form should miss it and hopefully with another landmark Superman anniversary on the horizon another facsimile edition is on the cards. If not, at least this volume is still readily available…
© 1942 DC Comics. Introduction © 1995 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

By Harvey Kurtzman with Alex Toth, John Severin, Joe Kubert, Russ Heath, Dave Berg, Ric Estrada, Gene Colan, Johnny Craig others (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-545-7

The legendary EC Comics began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company to half-sister National/DC, retaining only Pictures Stories from the Bible.

His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups as the major target market and he augmented his core title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History. Sadly, the worthy project was already struggling badly when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

As detailed in the final comprehensive essay in this superb graphic collection – available as a sturdily spiffy hardcover or in various eBook formats – his son William was dragged into the family business and, with much support and encouragement from unsung hero Sol Cohen (who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of a career in chemistry) transformed the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics

After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments, Gaines and his multi-talented associate Al Feldstein settled into a bold and impressive publishing strategy, utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at an older and more discerning readership.

From 1950-1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction and, under the auspices of writer, artist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, the inventor of an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…

Kurtzman was hired to supplement the workforce on the horror titles but wasn’t keen on the genre and instead suggested a new action-adventure title. The result was Two-Fisted Tales which began with issue #18 at the end of 1959 as an anthology of rip-snorting, he-man suspense dramas. However, with America embroiled in a military “police action” in Korea, the title soon became primarily a war comic and was rapidly augmented by another.

Frontline Combat was also written and edited by Kurtzman, who assiduously laid-out and meticulously designed every story. It made for great entertainment and a unifying authorial voice but was frequently a cause of friction with many artists…

In keeping with the New Trend spirit, these war stories were not bombastic, jingoistic fantasies for glory-hungry little boys, but rather subtly subversive examinations of the cost of conflict which highlighted the madness, futility and senseless, pointless waste of it all…

Kurtzman was a cartoon genius and probably the most important cartoonist of the last half of the 20th century. His early triumphs in the fledgling field of comicbooks (especially the groundbreaking Mad magazine) would be enough for most creators to lean back on but Kurtzman was a force in newspaper strips (See Flash Gordon Complete Daily Strips 1951-1953) and restless innovator. As a commentator and social explorer, he just kept on looking at folk and their doings: a man with exacting standards who just couldn’t stop creating.

Kurtzman invented a whole new format and gave America Popular Satire by converting his highly successful full-colour baby Mad into a monochrome magazine, safely distancing the outrageously brilliant comedic publication from the fall-out caused by the 1950s socio-political witch-hunt which eventually killed all EC’s other titles.

He pursued his unique brand of thoughtfully outré comedy and social satire further with the magazines Trump, Humbug and Help!, all the while still conceiving challenging and powerfully effective funny strips such as Little Annie Fannie (for Playboy), The Jungle Book, Nutz, Goodman Beaver, Betsy and her Buddies and many more. He died far too young in 1993.

This first volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library gathers a stunning selection of Kurtzman stories in a lavish monochrome hardcover edition, packed with supplementary interviews, features and dissertations, and opens with ‘The Truth’ by cartoonist and historian R.C. Harvey, describing in stark detail the history of Kurtzman’s EC days.

Then follows a raft of stirring sagas solely from the master’s hand, beginning with ‘Conquest’ from Two-Fisted Tales #18, which with acerbic aplomb relates the rise and fall of Spanish conquistador Juan Alvorado whose rapacious hunger for Aztec gold led inexorably to the downfall and doom of his entire expedition.

‘Jivaro Death’ (#19) deals with modern-day greed as two duplicitous Yankees search for diamonds in the heart of the Amazon jungle whilst T-FT #20 detailed the fate of an amnesiac buccaneer who returned from certain death to obsessively reclaim his ‘Pirate Gold’ from the men who betrayed him…

From issue #21 comes ‘Search!’ which ironically combines an Italian-American’s search for family with the devastating US assault on Anzio in 1943, after which the first selection from Frontline Combat provides an uncharacteristically patriotic clash with the North Korean aggressors in ‘Contact!’ (#2, September 1951).

‘Kill’ from T-FT #23 also takes place in Korea, relating a squalid encounter between a blood-thirsty knife-wielding G.I. psycho and his soulless Commie antithesis, whilst ‘Prisoner of War!’ (FC #3) highlights the numbing, inhuman brutality of combat when American POWs attempt an escape…

‘Rubble!’ (T-FT #24) boldly steps into “enemy” shoes by highlighting the war’s casual cost to simple Korean civilians whilst ‘Air Burst!’ in FC #4 goes even further by voicing the Communist soldiers’ side of the conflict.

The eponymous ‘Corpse on the Imjin!’ (T-FT #25) is one of the most memorable, moving and respected tales of the genre: a genuine anti-war story which elegiacally traces a floating body’s motion down the river to expose the ruminations of the doomed observers who see it.

The sentiment is further explored in ‘Big ‘If’!’ (FC #5) as G.I. Paul Maynard sits in a shell hole and ponders what might have been…

Kurtzman’s unique display of cartooning and craftsmanship is followed by the essay ‘Combat Duty’ wherein Jared Gardner discusses the background and usage of the other artists who worked on the author’s Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat scripts, before ‘Marines Retreat!’ – drawn by John Severin and inked by Kurtzman from FC #1 (July/August 1951) – describes in microcosm the shocking American forced withdrawal from the Changjin Reservoir in December 1950. The event stunned and terrified the folks at home and shook forever the cherished belief in the US Marines’ invincibility, and this is all told through the eyes of a soldier who understands too late the values he was supposed to be fighting for…

Kurtzman’s relationship with his artists could be fraught. Alex Toth, a tempestuous individualist who only drew three tales from his editor’s incredibly detailed lay-outs, famously produced some of his very best work at EC under such creative duress. The first and least was ‘Dying City!’ (T-FT #22) which found an aged Korean grandfather berating his dying descendent for the death and destruction he had brought upon his family and nation,

‘O.P.!’ was drawn by hyper-realist Russ Heath (FC #1) and once more ladled on the bleak, black irony during an annihilating trench encounter during WWI, after which Toth’s astounding aerial imagination produced in ‘Thunderjet!’ (FC #8) one of the most thrilling and evocative dogfight dramas in comics history.

This tale alone is worth the price of admission and was an alarm-call to complacent America as a US pilot is forced to concede that his winged weapon is technologically inferior to the ever-present Communist MIGs…

‘Fire Mission!’ (T-FT #29) was drawn by Dave Berg – an artist far better regarded for his comedy work – who lent his facility with expressions to a rather standard tale of courage discovered under fire in Korea, after which Gene Colan delineated the rift between military and civilians in the hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor in ‘Wake!’ from T-FT #30.

From the same issue ‘Bunker!’ was the first strip illustrated by Ric Estrada, describing rivalry and tension between American units during a Korean offensive. Oddly enough for the times, the fact that one faction was comprised of Negro soldiers was not mentioned at all…

The Cuban artist then drew a chillingly macabre tale of Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American war of 1898 in ‘Rough Riders!’ (FC #11) before master of comics noir Johnny Craig detailed the fate of a ‘Lost Battalion!’ in WWI (T-FT #32, March/April 1953).

From the same issue, ‘Tide!’ was an EC debut tale for the already-legendary Joe Kubert depicting a D-Day debacle and its insignificance in the grand scheme of things, whilst Toth’s magnificent Kurtzman-scripted swansong ‘F-86 Sabre Jet!’ (FC #12) revisited and even surpassed his Thunderjet job with a potent and beguiling reductionist minimalism that perfectly captured the disorienting hell of war in the air.

Due to illness and the increasing workload caused by Mad, Kurtzman’s involvement with war titles gradually dwindled. Frontline Combat #14, (October 1953) provided his last collaboration with Kubert in ‘Bonhomme Richard!’: a shocking, personalised account of American nautical legend John Paul Jones’ devastating duel with the British warship Serapis – as told by one of the hundreds of ordinary sailors who didn’t survive…

This masterclass in sequential excellence concludes with a salutary tale from the Civil War Special, Two-Fisted Tales #35 (October 1953). Illustrated by Reed Crandall, ‘Memphis!’ blends the destructive horror of the Union’s River Fleet of Ironclads as they inexorably take control of the Mississippi with the irrepressible excitement of Southern kids who simply could not understand what was happening to their parents and families…

Even with the comics extravaganza ended, there’s still more to enjoy as underground cartooning legend Frank Stack discusses the techniques and impact of Kurtzman’s astonishing covers for Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat in ‘Respect for Simplicity – the War Covers of Harvey Kurtzman’; superbly supplemented by a full-colour section representing all of them, even the seldom-seen Two-Fisted Annual 1952.

Also adding to the value is ‘A Conversation with Harvey Kurtzman’ by John Benson, E.B. Boatner & Jay Kinney, which transcribes two interviews from 1979 and 1982, as well as a full appreciation of the great man’s career in ‘Harvey Kurtzman’ by S.C. Ringgenberg.

Rounding everything off is ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ a comprehensive run-down of all involved by Bill Mason and others, plus a general heads-up on the entire EC phenomenon in ‘The Ups and Downs of EC Comics: A Short History’ by author, editor, critic and comics fan Ted White.

The short, sweet but severely limited output of EC has been reprinted ad infinitum in the decades since the company died. These astounding stories and art have changed not just comics but also infected the larger world through film and television and via the millions of dedicated devotees still addicted to New Trend tales.

However, as far as I can recall nobody has produced collections faithfully focussing on the contributions of individual creators, and even though fuddy-duddies like me know these timeless classics intimately, this simple innovation has somehow added a new dimension to the readers’ enjoyment.

I strongly suggest that whether you are an aged EC Fan-Addict or nervous newbie, this is a book no comics aficionado can afford to miss…
This edition © 2012 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All comics stories © 2012 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., reprinted with permission. All other material © 2012 the respective creators and owners.