JLA: Zatanna’s Search

By Gardner Fox & various (DC Comics/Titan Books)
ISBN: 1-4012-0188-1

With Julius Schwartz and John Broome writer extraordinaire Gardner Fox built the Silver Age of comics and laid the foundations of the modern DC universe. He was also a canny innovator and one of the earliest proponents of extended storylines which have since become so familiar to us as “braided crossovers.”

A qualified lawyer, Fox began his comics career in the Golden Age on major and minor features, working in every genre and for most companies. One of the B-list strips he scripted was Zatara; a magician-hero in the Mandrake mould who had fought evil and astounded audiences in the pages of Action and World’s Finest Comics for over a decade, beginning with the very first issues (to be completely accurate the latter’s premiere performance was entitled World’s Best Comics #1, but whatever the book’s name, the top-hatted and tailed trickster was there…)

Zatara fell from favour at the end of the 1940s and faded from memory like so many outlandish crime-crushers. In 1956 Editor Schwartz reinvented the superhero genre and reintroduced costumed characters based on the company’s past pantheon. Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and the Atom were refitted for the sleek, scientific atomic age, and later their legendary predecessors were reincarnated and returned as denizens of an alternate Earth.

As the experiment became a trend and then inexorable policy, surviving heroes such as Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Aquaman and Wonder Woman were retrofitted to match the new world order. The Superhero was back and the public appetite seemed inexhaustible.

For their next trick Fox and Schwartz turned to the magician and presumably found him wanting. Rather than condemn him to Earth-2 they created the first “legacy hero” by having Zatara vanish from sight and introduced his daughter, set on a far-reaching quest to find him. Zatanna debuted in Hawkman #4 (October-November 1964) illustrated by the great Murphy Anderson in a tale entitled ‘The Girl who Split in Two’.

Following a mystical trail and wearing a variation of Zatara’s garb the plucky but impatient lass had divided her body and travelled simultaneously to Ireland and China, but lapsed into paralysis until Hawkman and Hawkgirl answered her distress call.

Although nobody knew it at the time she appeared next as a villain in Detective Comics #336 (February 1965). ‘Batman’s Bewitched Nightmare’ found a broom-riding old crone attacking the Dynamic Duo at the command of mutant super-threat The Outsider in a stirring yarn drawn by Bob Kane and Joe Giella.

Current opinion is that this wasn’t originally intended as part of the epic, but when the quest was resolved in Justice League of America #51 at the height of TV inspired “Batmania” a very slick piece of back writing was necessary to bring the high-profile Caped Crusader into the storyline.

Gil Kane and Sid Greene illustrated the next two chapters in the saga; firstly in ‘World of the Magic Atom’ (Atom #19, June-July 1965), wherein the Mystic Maid and Tiny Titan battled Zatara’s old nemesis the Druid in the microversal world of Catamoore, and then with Green Lantern in an extra-dimensional realm on ‘The Other Side of the World!’ (Green Lantern #42, January 1966), as the malevolent Warlock of Ys was eventually compelled to reveal further clues in the trail.

The Elongated Man was a long-running back-up feature in Detective Comics, and from #355 (September 1966, pencilled and inked by Carmine Infantino) ‘The Tantalizing Trouble of the Tripod Thieves!’ revealed how the search for a stolen eldritch artefact brought the young sorceress closer to her goal, and the search concluded in spectacular fashion with the aforementioned JLA tale ‘Z – As in Zatanna – and Zero Hour!’ (#51, February 1967).

With art from the unmatchable team of Mike Sekowsky and Sid Greene, all the heroes who aided her are transported to another plane to fight in a classic battle of good versus evil, with plenty of cunning surprises for all and a happy ending at the end. Collected here is a triumphant long-running experiment in continuity that is one of the very best adventures of the Silver Age, featuring some of the period’s greatest creators at the peak of their powers.

This slim volume also has an encore in store: after the cover gallery is a never before reprinted 10 page tale ‘The Secret Spell!’ by Gerry Conway, Romeo Tanghal and Vince Colletta, originally seen in DC Blue Ribbon Digest #5 (November-December 1980) which revealed ‘Secret Origins of Super-Heroes’ and explores the hidden history of both father and daughter in a snappy, informative and inclusive manner.

Although a little hard to find now this is a superlative book for fans of costumed heroes and would also make a wonderful tome to introduce newcomers to the genre.

© 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1980, 2004 DC Comics.  All Rights Reserved.

Showcase presents Green Lantern volume 3

By John Broome, Gardner Fox, Gil Kane, Sid Greene & Carmine Infantino (DC Comics)

ISBN13: 978-1-84576-853-9

Firmly established as a major star of the company firmament, Green Lantern increasingly became a series which provided conceptual highpoints and “big picture” foundations that successive creators would use to build the tight-knit history and continuity of the DC universe. At this time there was also a turning away from the simple imaginative wonder of a ring that could do anything in favour of a hero who preferred to use his fists first and ignore easy solutions.

What a happy coincidence that at this time artist Gil Kane was just reaching his artistic peak, his dynamic full-body anatomical triumphs bursting with energy and crashing out of every page…

Green Lantern #39 (September 1965) featured two tales by John Broome, Kane and master inker Sid Green; a return engagement for Black Hand, the Cliché Criminal entitled ‘Practice Makes the Perfect Crime!’ and a bombastic slugfest with an alien prize fighter named Bru Tusfors, ‘The Fight for the Championship of the Universe!’ They were mere warm-ups for the next issue.

‘The Secret Origin of the Guardians!’ was a landmark second only to ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ (see Showcase Presents the Flash volume 2 or Crisis on Multiple Earths: the Team-ups volume 1) as Broome teamed the Emerald Gladiator with his Earth-2 counterpart Alan Scott to stop Krona, an obsessed Oan scientist whose misguided attempts to discover the origins of the universe had introduced evil into our reality billions of years ago and forced his immortal brethren to become protectors of life and civilisation in an unending act of group contrition.

Simultaneously high concept and action packed, this tale became the accepted keystone of DC cosmology and the springboard for all those mega-apocalyptic publishing events such as Crisis on Infinite Earths. It has seldom been equalled and never bettered…

Issue #41 featured twisted romance in ‘The Double Life of Star Sapphire!’ as an alien power-gem once more compelled Carol Ferris to subjugate and marry her sometime paramour Green Lantern, and Gardner Fox wrote another cracking magical mystery as the extraterrestrial wizard Myrwhydden posed ‘The Challenge of the Coin Creatures!’

In ‘The Other Side of the World!’ Fox continued a long-running experiment in continuity with a superb tale of time-lost civilisations and an extra-dimensional invasion by the Warlock of Ys that co-starred the peripatetic Zatanna the Magician.

The top-hatted, fish-netted, comely young sorceress had appeared in a number of Julie Schwartz-edited titles hunting her long-missing father Zatarra: a magician-hero in the Mandrake mould who had fought evil in the pages of Action Comics for over a decade beginning with the very first issue. In true Silver Age “refit” style Fox created his young and equally gifted daughter, and popularised her by guest-teaming her with a selection of superheroes he was currently scripting (if you’re counting, these tales appeared in Hawkman #4, Atom #19, Green Lantern #42, and the Elongated Man back-up strip in Detective Comics #355 as well as a very slick piece of back writing to include the high-profile Caped Crusader via Detective #336 – ‘Batman’s Bewitched Nightmare’, before concluding after the GL segment in Justice League of America #51).

The Flash guest-starred in a high-powered tussle with a new nemesis in the ‘Catastrophic Crimes of Major Disaster!’ in #43 and the next issue provide two tales – a rarity as book-length epics increasing became the action-packed norm. Oddly, second-class postage discounts had for years dictated the format of comic-books: to qualify for cheaper rates periodicals had to contain more than one feature, but when the rules were revised single, complete tales not divided into “chapters” soon proliferated. Here though are two reasons to bemoan the switch; Fox’s ‘Evil Star’s Death-Duel Summons’ and Broome’s Jordan Brothers adventure ‘Saga of the Millionaire Schemer!’, offering high-intensity super-villain action and heady, witty mystery.

The Earth-2 Green Lantern returned for another team-up in #45’s fantasy romp ‘Prince Peril’s Power Play’ by Broome, who raised the dramatic stakes with the hero’s first continued adventure in the following issue. Before that, though Green Lantern #56 opened with a delightfully grounded crime-thriller ‘The Jailing of Hal Jordan’ from Fox, before ‘The End of a Gladiator!’ detailed the murder of GL by old foe Dr. Polaris and concluded with his funeral on Oa, home of the Guardians!

Broome was on fire at this time: the following issue found the hero’s corpse snatched to the 58th century and revived in time to save his occasional future home from a biological infection of pure evil in the spectacular conclusion ‘Green Lantern Lives Again!’

Bizarrely garbed goodies and baddies were common currency at this time of “Batmania” so when gold-plated mad scientist Keith Kenyon returned it was as a dyed-in-the-wool costumed crazy in Fox’s ‘Goldface’s Grudge Fight Against Green Lantern!’, although Broome’s showbiz scoundrel Dazzler didn’t quite set the world afire in #49’s ‘The Spectacular Robberies of TV’s Master Villain!’ The story was still a shocker however as Hal Jordan quit his job as a Coast City test Pilot and went on the first of his vagabond quests across America…

With Green Lantern #50 Gil Kane began inking his own art, lending the proceedings a raw, savage appeal. The fight content in the stories was also ramped up, as seen in Broome’s murder-mystery treasure hunt ‘The Quest for the Wicked Queen of Hearts!’ which was complimented by an extragalactic smack-fest in Fox’s ‘Thraxton the Powerful vs Green Lantern the Powerless’ before Broome took the Emerald Crusader back to the 58th century to battle ‘Green Lantern’s Evil Alter Ego!’ in #52.

Alan Scott and comedy sidekick Doiby Dickles popped over from Earth-2 to aid against the return of arch nemesis Sinestro in the frankly peculiar ‘Our Mastermind, the Car!’ by Broome and Kane, but found a much less outré plot or memorable foe in #53’s ‘Captive of the Evil Eye!’ whilst artists Carmine Infantino and Sid Greene stepped in to illustrate Broome’s thrillingly comedic Jordan Brothers back-up ‘Two Green Lanterns in the Family!’ as Hal took a job as a county-spanning investigator for the Evergreen Insurance company.

Broome and Kane were reunited for the positively surreal, super-scientific ‘Menace in the Iron Lung!’ (#54), and all-out attack on the Guardians in ‘Cosmic Enemy Number One’, which concluded in ‘The Green Lanterns’ Fight for Survival!’ and the appointment of a second Earthling to the Corps.

Fox scripted a sparkling Fights ‘n’ Tights duel in ‘The Catastrophic Weapons of Major Disaster!’ (#57) and a gripping psycho-thriller in #58’s ‘Peril of the Powerless Green Lantern’ wherein the hero seemingly suffered from debilitating combat fatigue. Sid Greene returned with this latter and stayed to ink the last tale in this volume, another continuity landmark.

In issue #59 (March 1968) Broome introduced Guy Gardner ‘Earth’s Other Green Lantern!’ in a rip-roaring cosmic epic of what-might-have-been. When dying GL Abin Sur had ordered his ring to select a worthy successor Hal Jordan hadn’t been the only candidate, but the closest of two. What if the ring had chosen his alternative instead…?

With a superb double page pin-up from GL #46 to end on this book gathers the imaginative and creative peak of Broome, Fox and Kane, a plot driven plethora of adventure sagas and masterful thrillers that literally reshaped the DC Universe. Action lovers and fans of fantasy fiction couldn’t find a better example of everything that defines superhero comics.
© 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Annuals volume 1 – DC Comics Classics Library

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-215-8

¡Perfect Christmas Present Alert! – all ages

Thanks to the recent re-inclusion of the pre-“Batmania” tales into the Caped Crusader’s extensive canon, there’s a lot of 1940s and 1950s Batman material resurfacing these days in a lot of impressive formats. DC’s Classics Comics Library hardbacks are a remarkably accessible, collectible range of products and the best of them so far is this wonderful aggregation of three of the most influential and beloved comic-books of the Silver Age.

Batman Annual #1 was originally released in June 1961, a year after the startlingly successful Superman Annual #1. This big, bold anthology format was hugely popular with readers.  The Man of Steel’s second Annual was rushed out before Christmas 1960 and the third came out a mere year after the first! That same month (June 1961) the first ever Secret Origins collection and the aforementioned Batman Blockbuster all arrived in shops and on newsstands.

It’s probably hard to appreciate now but these huge books – 80 pages instead of 32 – were a magical resource with a colossal impact for kids who loved comics. I don’t mean the ubiquitous scruffs, oiks and scallywags of school days who read them and chucked them away (most kids were comics consumers in the days before computer games) but rather those quiet, secretive few of us who treasured and kept them, constantly re-reading, discussing, pondering. Only posh kids with wicked parents read no comics at all: those prissy, starchy types who were beaten up by the scruffs, oiks and scallywags even more than us bookworms. But I digress…

For budding collectors the Annuals were a gateway to a fabulous lost past. Just Imagine!: adventures your heroes had from before you were even born

Those compilations of the early 1960s changed comic publishing. Soon Marvel, Charlton and Archie were also releasing giant books of old stories, then new ones, crossovers, continued stories… Annuals proved two things to publishers: that there was a dedicated, long-term appetite for more material – and that punters were willing to pay a little bit more for it…

This vast compendium gathers the first three Batman Annuals in their mythic entirety: 21 terrific complete stories, posters, features, pin-ups, calendars and those iconic compartmentalized covers. There’re also creator biographies and articles from Michael Uslan and Richard Bruning to put the entire experience into perspective and original publication information and credits (the only bad thing about those big books of magic was never knowing “Who” and “Where”…)

The editors wisely packaged the Annuals as themed collections, the first being ‘1001 Secrets of Batman and Robin’ and started the ball rolling with ‘How to be the Batman’ by Bill Finger, Lew Sayre Schwartz and Stan Kaye, wherein an amnesiac Caped Crusader has to be re-trained by Robin, but as always there’s a twist in this tale, whilst ‘The Strange Costumes of Batman’ (Edmond Hamilton, Dick Sprang and Charles Paris) highlighted the specialized uniforms the heroes used in their outrageous careers.

The self-explanatory ‘Untold Tales of the Bat-Signal’ (writer unknown, Schwartz and Paris) again used past exploits to solve a contemporary case, whilst ‘The Origin of the Bat-Cave’ (Finger, Sheldon Moldoff and Paris) was only revealed by a quick time-trip back to revolutionary war era Gotham and ‘Batman’s Electronic Crime-File’ (anonymous, Sprang and Paris) is a cracking thriller that highlighted the Dynamic Duo’s love of cutting-edge technology.

‘The Thrilling Escapes of Batman and Robin’ (Finger, Moldoff and Kaye) concentrated on their facility at escaping traps and the excitement peaked in a dazzling display of ‘The Amazing Inventions of Batman’ (Hamilton, Sprang and Paris).

‘Batman and Robin’s Most Thrilling Action Roles’ began with a tension-packed mystery: ‘The Underseas Batman’ (Hamilton, Sprang and Paris), then explored the Wayne’s Scottish connections in ‘The Lord of Batmanor’ (Hamilton, with the assistance of his wife Leigh Brackett, Sprang and Paris) and again tapped into the Westerns zeitgeist with ‘Batman – Indian Chief’ (France Herron, Moldoff and Kaye).

‘The Jungle Batman’ (David Vern Reed, Schwartz and Paris) is pure escapist joy and we get a then-rare glimpse of Bruce Wayne’s training in ‘When Batman Was Robin’ (Hamilton, Sprang and Paris) before returning to foiling deathtraps with ‘Batman the Magician’ (Finger, Moldoff and Paris) and this section concludes with a pivotal tale ‘Batman – The Superman of Planet X’ (Herron, Sprang and Paris): one that forms a key thematic plank of Grant Morrison’s epic Batman R.I.P. storyline.

The third Annual (these too came far more frequently than once a year) featured ‘Batman and Robin’s Most Fantastic Foes’ beginning with ‘The Mad Hatter of Gotham City’ (Finger, Moldoff and Paris), special-effects bandit ‘The Human Firefly’ (Herron, Sprang and Paris) and hyper cerebral mutant ‘The Mental Giant of Gotham City’ (Hamilton, Sprang and Paris) before the Clown Prince of Crime stole the show with a team of skullduggery specialists in ‘The Joker’s Aces’ (Reed, Schwartz and Kaye).

Eerie and hard-hitting ‘The Gorilla Boss of Gotham City (Reed, Schwartz and Kaye) was one of DC’s earliest Ape epics, and although the gripping ‘The New Crimes of Two-Face’ (Finger, Schwartz and Paris) starred a stand-in for the double-dealing psychopath the ‘The Mysterious Mirror Man’ (Finger, Moldoff and Paris) was the genuine article and well worth a modern do-over.

For me Christmas is inextricably linked to Batman. From my earliest formative years every Yule was capped by that year’s British hardcover annual, often reprints of the US comics (somewhat imaginatively coloured) but occasionally all-new prose stories liberally illustrated and based slavishly on the Adam West/Burt Ward TV series.

As I grew older and became a more serious reader and collector (the technical term is, I believe, addict) I became an avid appreciator of the regular seasonal tales that appeared in Batman or Detective Comics and the “golden Age Classics” that too infrequently graced them.  Over the decades some of Batman’s very best adventures have occurred in the “Season of Good will” and why DC has never produced a Batman Christmas Album is a mystery even the World’s Greatest Detective could not solve…

This book might not actually contain any X-Mas Exploits but it is the kind of present I would have killed or died for all those hundreds of years ago, so how can you possibly deny your kids the delights of this incredibly enjoyable book? And just like Train Sets, Scalextric and Quad Bikes when I say kids of course I mean “Dads”…

© 1961, 1962, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Wonder Woman: Love and Murder

By Jodi Picoult, Terry Dodson & various (DC Comics)
No ISBN: 978-1-84576-640-5

When Wonder Woman was (re)relaunched after Infinite Crisis and 52 with Terry and Rachel Dodson illustrating the scripts of TV big gun Allan Heinberg (Grey’s Anatomy, The O.C. and Sex and the City among others) there was much well-deserved attention, but the comic was plagued by missed deadlines and most of the series’ momentum was lost. Eventually the tale was abandoned unfinished and a new writer was parachuted in. (The creators regrouped and the initial story-arc was concluded in Wonder Woman Annual volume 2, #1, and collected as Who is Wonder Woman?)

That writer was Jodi Picoult, a best-selling author with a reputation for strong characterisation and a tendency to explore “hot-button” issues. This collection (reprinting issues #6-10 of the Amazing Amazon’s latest periodical incarnation) sees Picoult pick up the threads of WW’s latest secret identity and hit the ground running.

Field agent Diana Prince is an operative of the Federal Department of Metahuman Affairs, tasked with keeping an eye on all those pesky superhumans that abound in the DC universe. Her partner is the dashing but annoying Tom Tresser, an extraordinary agent and master of disguise known as Nemesis.

Something is far from right at DoMA. Whilst Prince and Nemesis are babysitting a new government sponsored superhero nefarious doings are occurring at the office of their boss Sarge Steel, all engineered by one of Wonder Woman’s most relentless enemies. These culminate in the resurrection of Diana’s dead mother…

When Wonder Woman is subjected to a dubious “rendition” by DoMA and made an illegal captive, the hidden mastermind initiates a plan to use the Amazons of Themyscira to rescue her and coincidentally destroy America. But there are plots within schemes and another hand is actually manipulating the manipulators…

This is a strikingly effective tale that peters out towards the end not because of the excellent scripts or the stunning art of Terry and Rachel Dodson, Drew Johnson, Ray Snyder and Rodney Ramos but because the story dovetails with the publishing event Amazons Attack! and intervening episodes and story advancements occur in a completely separate book.

If you can revel in delightfully arch “get-a-room” dialogue and quirky “Moonlighting” sexual tension rendered in spectacular, clever, glamorous ‘big visuals’ this is a very fetching read, and a canny interpretation of the genre’s greatest female character, but if you want it all to actually make sense then you’ll definitely need to supplement your purchase with the aforementioned Amazons Attack!, but not after as the last page of Love and Murder advises, but from somewhere between parts 3 and 5.

Just don’t ask me what order to read succeeding chapters in…

© 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Black Casebook

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-312-4

Despite having his name writ large on the cover the only thing Grant Morrison produced for this weird and wonderful collection is the introduction, so if he’s the reason you buy Batman you’re in for a little disappointment. However if you feel like seeing the incredible stories that inspired him, then you’re in for a bizarre and baroque treat as this collection features a coterie of tales considered far too outlandish and fanciful to be canonical for the last few decades but now reintroduced to the mythology of the Dark Knight as a casebook of the “strangest cases ever told!”.

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

Starting things off is a ‘A Partner for Batman’ (Batman #65 June/July 1951) by Bill Finger, Lew Sayre Schwartz and Charles Paris, wherein Batman’s training of a foreign hero is misconstrued as a way of retiring Robin, whilst a trip out west introduces the Dynamic Duo to their Native American analogues in ‘Batman… Indian Chief!’ (issue #86, September 1954, by France Herron, Sheldon Moldoff and Stan Kaye), and ‘The Batmen of All Nations!’ (Detective Comics #215, January 1955 by Edmond Hamilton, Moldoff and Paris) took the sincere flattery a step further by introducing nationally-themed imitations from Italy, England, France, South America and Australia, all attending a convention that’s doomed to disaster…

A key story of this period introduced a strong psychological component to Batman’s origins in ‘The First Batman’ (Detective Comics #235, September 1955) courtesy of Finger, Moldoff and Kaye, and the international knock-offs returned to meet Superman and a new shocking mystery hero in ‘The Club of Heroes’ (Worlds Finest Comics #89, July/August 1957 by Hamilton and the magnificent Dick Sprang and Stan Kaye).

‘The Man who Ended Batman’s Career’ introduced the malevolent Professor Milo (Detective Comics #247, September 1957, Finger, Moldoff & Paris) who used psychological warfare and scientific mind-control to attack our heroes. The same creative team brought him back for an encore in Batman #112, in ‘Am I Really Batman?’

France Herron scripted one of Sprang and Paris’ best ever art collaborations in the incredible, spectacular ‘Batman… Superman of Planet X!’ (Batman #113, February 1958) and Finger, Moldoff & Paris introduced the Gotham Guardian’s most controversial “partner” in ‘Batman Meets Bat-Mite’(Detective Comics #267, May 1959), but ‘The Rainbow Creature’ (Batman #134, September 1960) is a rather tame monster-mash from Finger and Moldoff which only serves to make the next tale more impressive.

‘Robin Dies at Dawn’ is an eerie epic which first appeared in Batman #156, June 1963 by Finger, Moldoff & Paris (supplemented by, but not dependent upon, a Robin solo adventure sadly omitted from this collection). In it Batman experiences truly hideous travails on an alien world culminating in the death of his young partner. I’m stopping there as it’s a great story and plays a crucial part in the latter day sagas Batman: R.I.P., and The Black Glove. Buy this book and read it yourself…

But wait: There’s more! From the very end times of the old-style tales comes the inexplicably daft but brilliant ‘The Batman Creature!’ (Batman #162, March 1964) by an unknown writer, Moldoff and Paris, wherein Robin and Batwoman must cope with a Caped Crusader transformed into a rampaging giant monster. Shades of King Kong, Bat-fans!

Even though clearly collected to cash in on the success of the modern Morrison vehicle these stories have an intrinsic worth and power of their own, and these angst-free exploits from a different age still have a magic to captivate and enthrall. Do not dismiss them and don’t miss this book!

© 1951, 1954-1960, 1963, 1964, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Past and Future

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-074-1

In the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DCU, time travel became a really big deal. So when the Metropolis Marvel did break the fourth dimension, as in the superb Superman: Time and Time Again the gimmick became as big a deal as the plot. But there was a period when all history and the implausible future was just a short spin away…

Superman is the comicbook crusader who started the whole genre and in the decades since his debut in 1938 has probably undertaken every kind of adventure imaginable. With this in mind it’s tempting and very rewarding to gather up whole swathes of his inventory and periodically re-present them in specific themed collections, such as this delightful confection of time-busting escapades from the many superb writers and artists who have contributed to his canon over the years.

The fun begins with a tale from Superboy #85 (1960) which reiterated an iron-clad cosmic law of the Silver Age: “History Cannot Be Changed”: as the Smallville Sensation tragically discovered in ‘The Impossible Mission!’ (by Jerry Siegel and George Papp) when he traveled to 1865 to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, fate will always conspire to make events unfold along a predestined course…

A different theory was in play in 1947 when the Man of Steel broke the time barrier for the first time to collect famous signatures for an ailing boy in ‘Autograph, Please!’ (Superman #48, by Siegel and John Sikela), whilst in ‘Rip Van Superman’ (Superman #107, 1956 by Bill Finger Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye Siegel) an accident placed the hero in a coma, trapping him in a future where he was redundant…

The 1960s were the heyday of time travel tales with the Man of Tomorrow and his friends nipping forward and back the way you or I (well me, anyway) would pop to the pub. In the brilliantly ingenious ‘Superman Under the Red Sun!’ (Action Comics #300, 1963 by Edmond Hamilton and Al Plastino) our hero is dispatched to the far, far future where the sun has cooled, and undergoes incredible hardship before figuring out a way home.

In ‘Jimmy’s D-Day Adventure!’ the boy reporter travelled to World War II to solve a bizarre mystery only to end up a trusted member of Hitler’s inner circle, (Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #86, (1964, Leo Dorfman, Curt Swan and George Klein) whilst his Daily Planet colleague almost ripped apart the fabric of reality by nearly becoming Superman’s mum in ‘Lois Lane’s Romance with Jor-El!’ (Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #59, 1965, by Hamilton and Kurt Schaffenberger)

One of the boldest experiments of the decade occurred when Hamilton, Swan and Klein introduced us to ‘The Superman of 2965!’ (Superman #181, November 1965) for a series of adventures starring the Man of Steel’s distant descendent. A two-part sequel appeared the following summer in Action Comics #338-339, ‘Muto… Monarch of Menace!’ and ‘Muto Versus the Man of Tomorrow!’ and a postscript tale appeared in World’s Finest Comics #166 entitled ‘The Danger of the Deadly Duo!’ teaming that era’s Batman and Superman against Muto and the last in a long line of Jokers.

For Superman #295, Elliot Maggin, Curt Swan and Bob Oksner produced ‘Costume, Costume – Who’s got the Costume?’ (1976) a neat piece of cross-continuity clean-up that featured DC parallel worlds including those of Kamandi and the Legion of Super-Heroes. From that same year ‘Superman, 2001!’, by Maggin, Cary Bates Swan and Oksner is an imaginary Story (a tale removed from regular continuity) featured in the anniversary issue Superman #300, and posited what would have happened if baby Kal-El’s rocket had landed in the Cold War era of 1976 – an intriguing premise then which looks uncomfortably like the TV series Smallville to my jaded 21st century eyes.

This fascinating collection concludes with ‘The Last Secret Identity’ (from 1983’s DC Comics Presents Annual #2, by Maggin, Keith Pollard, Mike DeCarlo and Tod Smith, which introduced the first incarnation of Superwoman, when a time-travelling historian landed in Metropolis only to become the subject of her own research.

These tales are clever, plot driven romps far removed from today’s angst-heavy psycho-dramas and unrelentingly oppressive epics. If you’re after some clean-cut, wittily gentle adventure there’s no better place to go – or time…

© 1947, 1956, 1960, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1976, 1983, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The All-New Atom: My Life in Miniature

By Gail Simone, John Byrne, Eddy Barrows & Trevor Scott (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1325-1

Gail Simone is probably the best writer of straight superhero stories currently working in the business. Big concepts might garner out-industry publicity but I’ll take solid plotting, believable characterization, bravura whimsy and the sharpest, funniest dialogue money can buy any day.

Here she takes a crack at the freshest incarnation of one of my very favourite super-doers and makes me love it. In the post Identity Crisis/Infinite Crisis DC universe, the size-changing physics Professor Ray Palmer had deliberately disappeared, leaving his world behind him. But life goes on, and his teaching chair at Ivy University is offered to young Ryan Choi, a prodigy from Hong Kong who just happens to be a pen-friend and confidante of Palmer’s: privy to his predecessor’s secrets ever since he was a little boy.

Ivy Town is not the sedate place Palmer made it sound however, as this collection (reprinting the first six issues of The All-New Atom and the teaser prequel from the one-shot Brave New World) clearly displays. The city is plagued by temporal anomalies, the new Dean is an unctuous toad, and his fellow professors are a bizarre band of brilliant loons. There’s also a weird cab-driver turning up, leaving the new kid crazy palindromic clues… but to what?

‘Indivisible’ and ‘Atomic Shell’ barrel right along setting up the new premise, which of course leads to young Ryan discovering hidden size and weight equipment and learning the rules of sub-atomic transmigration as well as discovering the strangest race of alien invaders I’ve ever seen, lurking in the very last place you’d ever look for them (Really. The absolute and utter last place) whilst ‘Binding Energies’ introduces some impressive sub-plots including a secret war between science and magic in Ivy town, an immortal cancer god, a personal arch enemy and a fifty foot tall naked chick rampaging through campus and city.

These gems were all illustrated by venerable veteran John Byrne, but Eddy Barrows takes over for ‘Aggressive Ideologies’ as all those plotlines coalesce and the new Atom is forced to escape from the grossest death-trap ever, in the funniest manner permitted by (borderline) good taste…

‘Redline Shift’ sees the young hero’s career almost ended by a parental curfew, whilst the time-bent ‘Handle of the Teacup’ (from Brave New World, with art by Byrne) neatly slots in here with the belated and action-packed introduction of those invading aliens I mentioned before. This first book ends with ‘Charged Particles’ as Ivy town becomes ground zero for the science/magic war, and the psychotic serial killer Dwarfstar goes on killing spree.

Suddenly the hero-game isn’t all fun anymore and, more importantly, the brilliant young man realises something isn’t right with Palmer’s size-changing gear and indeed the entire set-up of his new career…

And thus begins the superb run of a new “legacy hero” (comicbook-ese for a new guy using an established name) that’s funny, charming stirring and incredibly addictive: moreover this is a completely planned book, there are clues and hints here that will only make sense when the final book is completed – and the creative team even have the nerve and confidence to treat the entire venture as a fair-play mystery.

Stick with the All-New Atom, match wits with the writers and have a huge amount of fun along the way…
© 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Countdown: Arena

By Keith Champagne, Scott McDaniel & Andy Owens (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84567-867-6

Already bloated and overblown with too many plot-threads and too little discipline, the Countdown publishing event spawned a number of miniseries, crossovers and specials that did little to contribute to the drama but worked wonders with the overall level of muddle, confusion and bewilderment – not to mention producing a distressing kind of four colour snow-blindness.

The premise is as old as the hills: the villainous Monarch, who is trying to conquer the multiverse even as the 52 realities are unraveling around him, has decided to build an army from the most powerful superheroes of all those myriad worlds. To that end he has shanghaied alternate versions of Superman, Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman and all their costumed confederates from their home-worlds and made them compete against “themselves”.

Of each hero, by the end “there can be only one…” which give writer Champagne the opportunity to revisit such successful past ElseWorlds experiments as Gotham by Gaslight, Batman: Red Rain, Superman: Red Son, JSA: Liberty Files and many others as well as recent alternate venues such the Tangent Universe, the world of The Authority and the glorious DC: the New Frontier.

This tale, which was originally released as a four issue miniseries, is action-packed, vicarious and falls into the secret pit at the heart of every comics fan by attempting to answer those unholy questions “who’s strongest…?” and “who would win if…?” but if it’s that bad why am I wasting your time blathering on about it?

Two reasons really: the first is that sometimes all you really want from a comic experience is a great big fight, and this yarn has lots of those, and secondly the breathtaking carnage is drawn in spectacularly loose and engrossing fashion by one of the most stylish artists currently working in American comics. Sometimes comics are completely saved by the art and Scott McDaniel’s kinetic mastery just does that for me.

Unless you’re a story completist and you’re buying all the multifarious offshoots of Countdown I’d think long and hard about getting this book – the narrative does not even conclude here: only dovetails back into the overarching parent-tale, but if you can let niggling details like sense and logic go there’s a splendid visual treat in store for anyone who gets off on costumed character catharsis. Pick a side: I dare you…
© 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Underworld Unleashed

By Mark Waid, Howard Porter, Dennis Janke & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-447-5

In deference to the season here’s a brief chat about one of DC’s lesser company crossover classics. Underworld Unleashed was a DC universe-wide tale in which an ancient lord of Hell returns to offer heroes and villains whatever they desire – generally manifested as a boost in powers and a new costume – in return for their souls.

The story is more about baddies than goodies and there’s a juicy role for Flash’s Rogues Gallery – especially the Trickster, but the tale wanders too far and wide and though there are a lot of nice character moments there’s some fairly dire bits too.

Moreover the tale lacks conviction and tension, the horror and carnage really doesn’t have any lasting impact, and of course the Tempter has a nasty plan-within-a-plan, but as so often before, DC shot themselves in the foot by only selectively collecting the saga into one volume.

Whereas I can grasp the need to keep a collection manageable (the original event ran to the three issue miniseries included here, 42 assorted tie-ins over three months worth of regular titles and four one-shot Specials) I find it incomprehensible that key ancillary stories can be arbitrarily ignored.

A quartet of supplementary Specials ‘Abyss: Hell’s Sentinel’, ‘Apokolips: Dark Uprising’, ‘Batman: Devil’s Asylum’ and ‘Patterns of Fear’ added a great deal to the overarching storyline yet only the first of these (beautifully crafted by Scott Peterson, Phil Jimenez, J.H. Williams, John Stokes and Mick Gray, detailing the Golden Age Green Lantern’s rescue of the DCU’s magical champions from Hell) is included here. It is a great segment but so are the ones inexplicably omitted.

The bargain-basement Faustian bargains all end well and a kind of order is restored, but this very potentially highly enjoyable tale is unfairly truncated and we’re all the poorer for it. Hopefully somebody will get around to restoring this tale to a more comprehensible state for future editions…

Ooh, that’s the doorbell.

I’m off to throw hard candies at some kids; Happy Halloween reading…
© 1995, 1998 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Question Volume 3: Epitaph for a Hero

By Dennis O’Neil, Denys Cowan & Rick Magyar (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-996-3

In the “real” world, some solutions require careful Questions…

An ordinary man pushed to the edge by his obsessions, Vic Sage used his fists and a mask that made him look faceless to get answers (and justice) whenever normal journalistic methods failed – or whenever his own compulsive curiosity gripped him too tightly. After a few minor successes around the DC universe Sage got a TV reporting job in the town where he grew up.

This third collection (reprinting issues #13-18 of the highly regarded 1980s series) brings Sage into a thoroughly modern nightmare as he seeks to discover the foundations of patriotism, honour and glory and the roots of domestic terrorism in ‘Be All that you can Be…’ when a team operating on strict military principles carries out a series of murderous attacks on Army recruiting centres and personnel. The ace reporter tracks down the killers only to be captured and experience a harrowing example of their torturous training and a staggering example of their integrity in the concluding ‘Saving Face’.

The major portion of the Question’s adventures take place within the urban hell of Hub City, a ghastly analogue of blighted, Reagan-era Chicago, run by a merciless political machine and an utterly corrupt police force until Sage and the Question returned. His old girlfriend Myra Connelly had married the drunken puppet who is the Mayor and now as he dissolves into madness she is trying to win a mandate to run the city herself. Another unlikely champion is reformed and conflicted cop Izzy O’Toole, formerly the most corrupt lawman in “the Hub”.

‘Epitaph for a Hero’ further pushes the traditional boundaries and definitions of heroism when racist private detective Loomis McCarthy comes seeking to pool information on a spate of racially motivated murders during a tight fought election struggle between Myra and millionaire “old guard” patrician Royal Dinsmore. This startling mystery is not as cut-and-dried as it appears and presents some very unsettling facets for all concerned…

Izzy O’Toole continues his struggle for redemption in a brutal untitled confrontation with mythic underpinnings as illegal arms-dealers Butch and Sundance attempt to turn Hub into their own Hole-in-the-Wall (that was an impregnable hideout used by bandits in the old West), casting the grizzled old lawdog as a highly unlikely “Sheriff of Dodge City”.

The tale continues in ‘A Dream of Rorschach’ which tacitly acknowledges the debt owed to the groundbreaking Watchmen in the revival of the Question, as Sage reads the book and has a vision of and conversation with the iconic sociopath whilst flying to Seattle and a chilling showdown with Butch and Sundance as well as a highly suspicious and impatient Green Arrow in the concluding ‘Desperate Ground’.

Complex characters, a very mature depiction of the struggle between Good and Evil using Eastern philosophy and very human prowess to challenge crime, corruption, abuse, neglect and complacency would seem to be a recipe for heady but dull reading yet these stories and especially the mythic martial arts action delineated by Denys Cowan are gripping beyond belief and constantly challenge any and all preconceptions.

Combating Western dystopia with Eastern Thought and martial arts action is not a new concept but O’Neil’s focus on cultural and social problems rather than histrionic super-heroics make this series a truly philosophical work, and Cowan’s raw, edgy art imbues this darkly adult, powerfully sophisticated thriller with a maturity that is simply breathtaking.

The Question’s direct sales series was one of DC’s best efforts from a hugely creative period, and with a new hero wearing the faceless mask these days those tales form a perfect snapshot in comics history. Whether it fades to obscurity or becomes a popular, fabled and revered icon depends on you people: to make it the hit it always should have been all you have to do is obtain these superb trade paperback collections, and enjoy the magic…

© 1988, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.