Captain America Epic Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, George Tuska, John Romita Sr. & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1176-X (HB)                   978-0-7851-4298-0 (TBP)

During the natal years of Marvel Comics in the early 1960’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby opted to mimic the game-plan which had paid off so successfully for National/DC Comics, albeit with mixed results.

From 1956 to 1960, Julie Schwartz had scored incredible, industry-altering hits by re-inventing the company’s Golden Age greats, so it seemed sensible to try and revive the characters that had dominated Timely/Atlas in those halcyon days two decades previously.

A new Human Torch had premiered as part of the revolutionary Fantastic Four, and in the fourth issue of that title the Sub-Mariner resurfaced after a twenty-year amnesiac hiatus (everyone concerned had apparently forgotten the first abortive attempt to revive an “Atlas” superhero line in the mid-1950s).

The Torch was promptly given his own solo lead-feature in Strange Tales (from issue #101 on) and in #114 the flaming teen fought a larcenous acrobat pretending to be Captain America.

With reader-reaction strong, the real McCoy was promptly decanted in Avengers #4 and, after a captivating and centre-stage hogging run in that title, won his own series as half of a “split-book” with fellow Avenger and patriotic barnstormer Iron Man.

Gathered in this star-spangled celebration – available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions – are the stunning all-action adventures from Tales of Suspense #59-81 (cover-dates November 1964 to September 1966), which following the customary retrospective Introduction by author/Editor Stan Lee beginning with the eponymously initial outing ‘Captain America’.

Illustrated by the staggeringly perfect team of Jack Kirby & Chic Stone, the plot is non-existent, but what you do get is a phenomenal fight tale as an army of thugs invades Avengers Mansion because “only the one without superpowers” is at home. They soon learn the folly of that misapprehension…

The next issue held more of the same, as ‘The Army of Assassins Strikes!’ on behalf of evil arch enemy Zemo before ‘The Strength of the Sumo!’ proves insufficient after Cap invades Viet Nam to rescue a lost US airman. The Star-Spangled Swashbuckler then took on an entire prison to thwart a ‘Break-out in Cell Block 10!’

After these gloriously simplistic romps the series took an abrupt turn and began telling tales set in World War II. ‘The Origin of Captain America’, by Lee, Kirby & Frank Ray (AKA Giacoia) recounts how frail physical wreck Steve Rogers is selected to be the guinea pig for an experimental super-soldier serum, only to have the scientist responsible die in his arms, cut down by a Nazi bullet.

Now forever unique, he is given the task of becoming the fighting symbol and guardian of America, based as a regular soldier in a boot camp. It was there he is accidentally unmasked by Camp Mascot Bucky Barnes, who then blackmails the hero into making the kid his sidekick.

The next issue (Tales of Suspense #64) kicked off a string of spectacular episodic thrillers adapted from Golden Age classics as the heroes defeat Nazi spies Sando and Omar in ‘Among Us, Wreckers Dwell!’ and Chic Stone returned – as did Cap’s greatest foe – for the next tale ‘The Red Skull Strikes!’

‘The Fantastic Origin of the Red Skull!’ found the series swinging into high gear – and original material – as sub-plots and characterisation were added to the all-out action and spectacle.

‘Lest Tyranny Triumph!’ and ‘The Sentinel and the Spy!’ (both inked by Giacoia) combined espionage and mad science with a plot to murder the head of Allied Command, and the heroic American duo stayed in England for moody gothic suspense shocker ‘Midnight in Greymoor Castle!’ (with art by Dick Ayers over Kirby’s layouts – which in case you ever wondered are very simple pencils that break down the story elements on a page).

The second chapter ‘If This be Treason!’ had Golden Age and Buck Rogers newspaper strip artist George Tuska perform the same function before the final part (and last wartime adventure) revealed ‘When You Lie Down with Dogs…!’ – the result is fantastic entertainment. Joe Sinnott inked that rousing conclusion to this frantic tale of traitors, madmen and terror-weapons.

It was back to the present for ToS #72 where Lee, Kirby & Tuska revealed that Cap had been telling war stories to his fellow Avengers for the last nine months. The reverie then triggered a long dormant memory as ‘The Sleeper Shall Awake!’ began a classic catastrophe romp with a Nazi super-robot activating twenty years after Germany’s defeat to exact a world-shattering vengeance.

Continuing in ‘Where Walks the Sleeper!’ and concluding in ‘The Final Sleep!’, this masterpiece of tense suspense perfectly demonstrates the indomitable nature of the perfect American hero.

Dick Ayers returned with John Tartaglione inking ‘30 Minutes to Live!’ which introduced both Gallic mercenary Batroc the Leaper and a mysterious girl who would eventually become Cap’s long-term girl-friend: S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter.

The taut 2-part countdown to disaster ends with ‘The Gladiator, The Girl and the Glory’, illustrated by John Romita: the first tale which had no artistic input from Kirby, although he did lay out the next issue (TOS #77) for Romita & Giacoia. ‘If a Hostage Should Die!’ again returned to WWII and hinted at both a lost romance and tragedy to come.

‘Them!’ saw Kirby return to full pencils and Giacoia to a regular inking spot as the Sentinel of liberty teamed with Nick Fury in the first of many missions as a (more-or-less) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. It was followed by ‘The Red Skull Lives!’ as his arch nemesis escapes from the grave to menace the Free World again. He is initially aided by the subversive technology group AIM, but promptly steals their ultimate weapon in ‘He Who Holds the Cosmic Cube!’ (inked by Don Heck) and sets himself up as Emperor of Earth before his grip on omnipotence finally falters in ‘The Red Skull Supreme!’ (Giacoia inks).

This volume then concludes with mouth-watering extras in the form of original Kirby cover art and creator biographies.

These are tales of dauntless courage and unmatchable adventure, fast paced and superbly illustrated, which rightly returned Captain America to the heights his Golden Age compatriots the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner never regained. They are pure escapist magic. Unmissable reading for the eternally young at heart.
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Suicide Squad: The Silver Age

By Robert Kanigher, Howard Liss, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Gene Colan, Joe Kubert & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6343-0

The War that Time Forgot was a strange series which saw paratroopers and tanks of the “Question Mark Patrol” dropped on Mystery Island from whence no American soldiers ever returned. Assorted crack GIs discovered why when the operation was suddenly overrun by pterosaurs, tyrannosaurs and worse…

However, the combat-&-carnosaur creation was actually a spin-off of an earlier concept which hadn’t quite caught on with the comics-buying public. That wasn’t a problem for Writer/Editor Kanigher: a man well-versed in judicious recycling and reinvention…

Back in 1955 he had devised and written anthology adventure comic The Brave and the Bold which featured short complete tales starring a variety of period heroes: a format mirroring that era’s filmic fascination with historical dramas.

Issue #1 led with Roman swords-&-sandals epic Golden Gladiator, medieval mystery-man The Silent Knight and Joe Kubert’s Viking Prince. Soon the Gladiator was side-lined by the company’s iteration of Robin Hood, but the high adventure theme carried the title until the end of the decade when the burgeoning superhero revival saw B&B transform into a try-out vehicle in the manner of the astounding successful Showcase.

Used to launch enterprising concepts and characters such as Cave Carson, Strange Sports Stories, Hawkman and the epochal Justice League of America, the title began its run of beta-tests in issue #25 (August/September 1959) with the fate-tempting Suicide Squad – code-named Task Force X by the US government to investigate uncanny mysteries and tackle unnatural threats.

The scary tales were all illustrated by Kanigher’s go-to team for fantastic fantasy Ross Andru & Mike Esposito and they clearly revelled at the chance to cut loose and show what they could do outside the staid whimsy of Wonder Woman and gritty realism of the war titles they usually handled…

The Brave and the Bold #25 introduced a quartet of merely human specialists – air ace war hero Colonel Rick Flag, combat medic Karin Grace and big-brained boffins Hugh Evans and Jess Price – all officially convened into a unit whose purpose was to tackle threats beyond conventional comprehension such as the interstellar phenomenon dubbed ‘The Three Waves of Doom!’

The quartet were built on a very shaky premise. All three men loved Karin. She only loved Rick but agreed to conceal her inclinations and sublimate her passions so Hugh and Jess would stay on the team of scientific death-cheaters…

In their first published exploit a cloud from outer space impacted Earth and created a super-heated tsunami which threated to broil America. With dashing derring-do, the trouble-shooters quenched the ambulatory heat wave only to have it spawn a colossal alien dragon emanating super-cold rays that could trigger a new ice age…

The only solution was to banish the beast back into space on a handy rocket headed for the sun, but sadly the ship need to be piloted…

Having heroically ended the invader, the team were back two months later as B&B #26 opened with an immediate continuation. ‘The Sun Curse’ saw our stranded astronauts struggling (in scenes eerily prescient and reminiscent of the Apollo 13 crisis a decade later) to return their ship to Earth. Uncannily, however, the trip bathes them in radiations which causes them to shrink to insect size…

Back on terra firma but now imperilled by everything around them, the team nonetheless manages to scuttle a proposed attack by a hostile totalitarian nation before regaining their regular stature…

A second, shorter tale then finds the quartet enjoying some downtime in Paris before the Metro is wrecked by an awakened dinosaur. Of course, the tourists are ready and able to stop the ‘Serpent in the Subway!’

In an entertainment era still dominated by monsters and aliens, with superheroes still only tentatively resurfacing, Task Force X were at the forefront of beastie-battles and their third and final try-out issue found them facing an evolutionary nightmare as a scientist vanished and the region around his lab was suddenly besieged by gigantic insects as well as a colossal reptilian humanoid the team dubbed ‘The Creature of Ghost Lake!’ (December 1959/January 1960). They destroyed the monster but never found the professor…

A rare failure for those excitingly experimental days, the Suicide Squad vanished after that triple try-out run, only to resurface months later for a second bite of the cherry…

The Brave and the Bold #37 (August/September 1961) opened with Karin displaying heretofore unsuspected psychic gifts and predicting an alien ‘Raid of the Dinosaurs!’ which pitted the team against hyper-intelligent saurian whilst ‘Threat of the Giant Eye!’ focussed on the retrieval of a downed military plane and lost super-weapon. The hunt took the Squad to an island of mythological mien where a living monocular monolith hunted people…

In #38 (October/November 1961) the team tackled the ‘Master of the Dinosaurs’ – an alien using Pteranodons to hunt like an Earthling would use falcons – after which the fabulous four fell afoul of extra-dimensional would-be conquerors but still had enough presence of mind and determination to defeat the ‘Menace of the Mirage People!’

B&B #39 (December 1961/January 1962) called “time” on Task Force X after ‘Prisoners of the Dinosaur Zoo!’ saw the team uncover an ancient extraterrestrial ark caching antediluvian flora and fauna and ‘Rain of Fire!’ found them crushing a macabre criminal entombing crime-busters in liquid metal. That was it for the Squad until 1986 when a new iteration of the concept was launched in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Or was it? Superhero fans are notoriously clannish and insular so they might not have noticed how one creative powerhouse refused to take “no thanks” for an answer…

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy in his signature war comics, horror stories, superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman and other genres too numerous to cover here. He also scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the very first story of the Silver Age – which introduced Barry Allen AKA the Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the World in 1956.

Kanigher sold his first stories and poetry in 1932 and wrote for the theatre, film and radio before joining the Fox Features shop where he created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for Blue Beetle and the original Captain Marvel.

In 1945, he settled at All-American Comics as both writer and editor, staying on when the company amalgamated with National Comics to become the forerunner of today’s DC. He wrote Flash and Hawkman, created Black Canary and Lady Cop, plus memorable villainous femme fatales Harlequin and Rose and Thorn. This last he reconstructed, during the relevancy era of the early 1970s, into a schizophrenic crime-busting female super-hero.

When mystery-men faded out at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved into espionage, adventure, westerns and war stories, becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles: All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Amy at War.

He created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 and added G.I. Combat to his burgeoning portfolio when Quality Comics sold their line of titles to DC in 1956, all the while working on Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Sea Devils, Viking Prince and a host of others.

Among his many epochal war series were Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, the Haunted Tank and The Losers as well as the visually addictive, irresistibly astonishing “Dogfaces and Dinosaurs” dramas sampled in the back of this stunning hardback collection…

Kanigher was a restlessly creative writer and even used the uncanny but formulaic adventure arena of The War that Time Forgot as a personal try-out venue for his many series concepts. The Flying Boots, G.I. Robot and many other teams and characters first appeared in the lush Pacific hellhole with wall-to-wall danger. Indisputably the big beasts were the stars, but occasionally (extra)ordinary G.I .Joes made enough of an impression to secure return engagements, too…

The War that Time Forgot debuted in Star Spangled War Stories #90 (April-May 1960) and ran until #137 (May 1968) skipping only three issues: #91, 93 and #126 (the last of which starred the United States Marine Corps simian Sergeant Gorilla – look it up: I’m neither kidding nor being metaphorical…).

Simply too good a concept to leave alone, this seamless, shameless blend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Caprona stories (known alternatively as the Caspak Trilogy or “the Land That Time Forgot”) provided everything baby-boomer boys could dream of: giant lizards, humongous insects, fantastic adventures and two-fisted heroes with lots of guns…

In the summer of 1963, a fresh Suicide Squad debuted in Star Spangled War Stories #110 to investigate a ‘Tunnel of Terror’ into the lost land of giant monsters: this time though, a giant albino gorilla decided that mammals should stick together…

The huge hairy beast was also the star of ‘Return of the Dinosaur Killer!’ in #111 as the unnamed Squad leader and a wily boffin (visually based on Kanigher’s office associate Julie Schwartz) struggled to survive on the tropically reptilian atoll…

In SSWS #116 (August/September 1964) a duo of dedicated soldiers faced ice-bound beasts in ‘The Suicide Squad!’ – the big difference being that Morgan and Mace were more determined to kill each other than accomplish their mission…

‘Medal for a Dinosaur!’ in #117 bowed to the inevitable and introduced a (relatively) friendly and extremely cute baby pterodactyl to balance out Mace and Morgan’s barely suppressed animosity, after which ‘The Plane-Eater!’ in #118 found the army odd couple adrift in the Pacific and in deep danger until the little leather-winged guy turned up once more…

The Suicide Squad were getting equal billing by the time of #119’s ‘Gun Duel on Dinosaur Hill!’ (February/March 1965) as yet another group of men-without-hope battled reptilian horrors and each other to the death, after which the un-killable Morgan and Mace returned with Dino, the flying baby dinosaur, who found a new companion in handy hominid Caveboy before the whole unlikely ensemble struggled to survive against increasingly outlandish creatures in ‘The Tank Eater!’

Issue #121 presented a diving drama when a UDT frogman won his Suicide Squad rep as a formidable fighter and ‘The Killer of Dinosaur Alley!’ Increasingly now, G.I. hardware and ordnance began to gain the upper hand over bulk, fang and claw…

Undisputed master of gritty fantasy art Joe Kubert added his pencil-and-brush magic to a tense and manic thriller featuring the return of the G.I. Robot in stunning battle bonanza ‘Titbit for a Tyrannosaurus!’ in #125 (February/March 1965), after which Andru & Esposito covered another Suicide Squad sea-saga in #127: ‘The Monster Who Sank a Navy!’

This eclectic collection then tumultuously terminates as scripter Howard Liss and visual veteran Gene Colan craft a masterfully moving human drama from issue #128 which was astoundingly improved by the inclusion of ravening reptiles in ‘The Million Dollar Medal!’ and the last tale in this volume).

Throughout this calamitous compilation of dark dilemmas, light-hearted romps and spectacular battle blockbusters the emphasis is always on foibles and fallibility; with human heroes unable to put aside long-held grudges, swallow pride or forgive trespasses even amidst the strangest and most terrifying moments of their lives, and this edgy humanity informs and elevates even the daftest of these wonderfully imaginative adventure yarns.

Classy, intense, insanely addictive and Just Plain Fun, the original Suicide Squad offers a kind of easy, no-commitment entertainment seldom seen these days and is a deliciously guilty pleasure for one and all…
© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Golden Age volume 2

By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6808-4

Batman: The Golden Age volume is another paperback-format feast (there’s also a weightier, pricier but more capacious hardback Omnibus available) re-presenting the Dark Knight’s earliest exploits.

Set out in original publishing release order, it forgoes glossy, high-definition paper and reproduction techniques in favour of a newsprint-adjacent feel and the same flat, bright-yet-muted colour palette which graced the originals. Those necessary details dealt with, what you really need to know is that this is a collection of Batman tales that see the character grow into the major player who would inspire so many and develop the resilience to survive the stifling cultural vicissitudes the coming decades would inflict upon him and his partner, Robin.

With the majority of material crafted by Bill Finger and illustrated by Bob Kane, there’s no fuss, fiddle or Foreword, and the book steams straight into the meat of the matter, representing the astounding cape-&-cowl classics and iconic covers from Detective Comics #46-56, Batman#4-7 and the Dynamic Duo’s stories from World’s Best Comics #1 and World’s Finest Comics #2-3; cumulatively covering all the groundbreaking escapades from December 1940 to November 1941

Plunging right in to the perilous procedures, Detective Comics #46 (inked by Kane and regular embellishers Jerry Robinson & George Roussos) features the return of Batman’s most formidable scientific adversary as the heroes must counteract the awesome effects of ‘Professor Strange’s Fear Dust’ after which issue #47 delivers drama on a more human scale in ‘Money Can’t Buy Happiness’.

This action-packed homily of parental expectation and the folly of greed leads into Batman #4 (Winter 1941) which features ‘The Joker’s Crime Circus’ and the piratical plunderings of ‘Blackbeard’s Crew and the Yacht Society’. Then ‘Public Enemy No.1’ tells a gangster fable in the manner of Jimmy Cagney’s movie Angels With Dirty Faces, and ‘Victory For the Dynamic Duo’ involves the pair in the treacherous world of sports gambling.

Detective Comics #48 finds them defending America’s bullion reserves in ‘The Secret Cavern’, and they face an old foe when ‘Clayface Walks Again’ (Detective Comics #49, March 1941), as the deranged horror actor resumes his passion for murder and re-attempts to kill Bruce Wayne’s old girlfriend Julie.

Detective Comics #50 pits Batman and Robin against acrobatic burglars in ‘The Case of the Three Devils’, leading neatly into Batman #5 (Spring 1941). Once again, the Joker plays lead villain in ‘The Riddle of the Missing Card’ before the heroes prove their versatility by solving a quixotic crime in Fairy Land via ‘The Book of Enchantment’.

‘The Case of the Honest Crook’ follows: one of the key stories of Batman’s early canon. When a mugger steals only $6 from a victim, leaving much more behind, his trail leads to a vicious gang who almost beat Robin to death. The vengeance-crazed Dark Knight goes on a rampage of terrible violence that still resonates in the character to this day.

The last story from Batman #5 ‘Crime does Not Pay’ once again deals with kids going bad and the potential for redemption, after which World’s Best Comics#1 (Spring 1941 – destined to become World’s Finest Comics with its second issue) offers an eerie murder mystery concerning ‘The Witch and the Manuscript of Doom’

With most stories still coming from unsung genius Finger and the art chores shared out between Kane, Robinson & Roussos, the team got a new top contributor as Fred Ray signed on to produce the fantastic World’s Finest covers.

‘The Case of the Mystery Carnival’, ‘The Secret of the Jade Box’ and ‘Viola Vane’ (Detective#51, 52 and 53 respectively) are mood-soaked crimebusting set-pieces featuring fairly run-of-the mill thugs, which serve as perfect palate-cleansers for ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Remember!’ from WF#2: a powerful character play and a baffling mystery that still packs a punch today.

‘Hook Morgan and his Harbor Pirates’ finds the Dynamic Duo cleaning up the docks whilst the four tales from Batman #6 (‘Murder on Parole’, ‘The Clock Maker’, ‘The Secret of the Iron Jungle’ and ‘Suicide Beat’) offer a broad range of yarns encompassing a prison-set human interest fables to the hunt for a crazed maniac to racket busting and back to the human side of being a cop.

Detective #54 went back to basics with spectacular mad scientist thriller ‘The Brain Burglar’ after which a visit to a ghost town results in an eerie romp ‘The Stone Idol’ (Detective#55) before World’s Finest#3 launches a classic villain with the first appearance of one of Batman’s greatest foes in ‘The Riddle of the Human Scarecrow’.

The volume ends with four grand tales from Batman#7. ‘Wanted: Practical Jokers’ again stars the psychotic Clown Prince of Crime, whilst ‘The Trouble Trap’ finds our heroes crushing a Spiritualist racket before heading for Lumberjack country to clear up ‘The North Woods Mystery’.

The last story is something of a landmark case, as well as being a powerful and emotional melodrama. ‘The People Vs. The Batman’ finds Bruce Wayne framed for murder and the Dynamic Duo finally sworn in as official police operatives. They would not be vigilantes again until the grim and gritty 1980’s…

Kane, Robinson and their compatriots created an iconography which carried the Batman feature well beyond its allotted life-span until later creators could re-invigorate it. They added a new dimension to children’s reading… and their work is still captivatingly accessible.

Moreover, these early stories set the standard for comic superheroes. Whatever you like now, you owe it to these stories. Superman gave us the idea, but inspired and inspirational writers like Bill Finger refined and defined the meta-structure of the costumed crime-fighter.

Where the Man of Steel was as much Social Force and juvenile wish-fulfilment as hero, Batman and Robin did what we ordinary mortals wanted to do most: teach bad people the lessons they richly deserved…

These are tales of elemental power and joyful exuberance, brimming with deep mood and addictive action. Comicbook heroics simply don’t come any better.
© 1940, 1941, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman & Superman in World’s Finest Comics: The Silver Age volume 1

By Edmond Hamilton, Bill Finger, Alvin Schwartz, Curt Swan, Dick Sprang, Stan Kaye, John Fischetti, Charles Paris, Ray Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6833-6   Some things were just meant to be: Bacon & Eggs, Rhubarb & Custard, Chalk & Cheese…

For many years Superman and Batman worked together as the “World’s Finest” team. They were friends as well as colleagues and the pairing made sound financial sense since DC’s top heroes (in effect the company’s only costumed stars) could cross-pollinate and, more importantly, cross-sell their combined readerships.

This most inevitable of Paladin Pairings first occurred on the Superman radio show in the early 1940s, whereas in comics the pair had only briefly met whilst on a Justice Society of America adventure in All-Star Comics #36 (August-September 1947) – and perhaps even there they missed each other in the gaudy hubbub…

Of course, they had shared the covers of World’s Finest Comics from the outset, but never crossed paths inside; sticking firmly to their specified solo adventures within. For us pictorial continuity buffs, the climactic real first time was in the pages of Superman’s own bi-monthly comic (issue #76, May/June 1952).

That yarn kicks off this stunning paperback compendium of Silver Age solid gold, accompanied here by the leads story from World’s Finest Comics #71-94, spanning July/August 1954 to May/June 1958.

Science fiction author Edmond Hamilton was tasked with revealing how Man of Steel and Caped Crusader first met – and accidentally uncovered each other’s identities – whilst sharing a cabin on an over-booked cruise liner. Although an average crime-stopper yarn, it was the start of a phenomenon. The art for ‘The Mightiest Team in the World’ was by the superb Curt Swan and inkers John Fischetti & Stan Kaye.

With dwindling page counts, rising costs but a proven readership and years of co-starring but never mingling, World’s Finest Comics #71 presented the Man of Tomorrow and the Gotham Gangbuster in the first of their official shared cases as the Caped Crusader became ‘Batman – Double for Superman!’ (by Alvin Schwartz with Swan & Kaye providing the pictures) as the merely mortal hero traded identities to preserve his comrade’s alter ego and latterly his life…

‘Fort Crime!’ (Schwartz, Swan & Kaye) saw them unite to crush a highly-organised mob with a seemingly impregnable hideout, after which Hamilton returned for ‘Superman and Batman, Swamis Inc’, a clever sting-operation that almost went tragically awry. Next, an alien invader prompted an insane rivalry which resulted in ‘The Contest of Heroes’ (Bill Finger, Swan & Kaye, from WFC #74.

The same creative team produced ‘Superman and Robin!’ wherein a disabled Batman could only fret and fume as his erstwhile assistant seemingly dumped him for a better man, whilst ‘When Gotham City Challenged Metropolis’ (Hamilton, Swan & Charles Paris) saw the champions at odds as their hometowns over-aggressively vied for a multi-million dollar electronics convention.

A landmark tale by Hamilton, Swan & Kaye invented a new sub-genre when a mad scientist’s accident temporarily removed the Caped Kryptonian’s powers and created ‘The Super Bat-Man!’ in #77. The theme would be revisited for decades to come…

Arguably Batman’s greatest artist joined the creative crew ‘When Superman’s Identity is Exposed!’ (Hamilton, Dick Sprang & Kaye) as a mysterious source kept revealing the Man of Steel’s greatest secret, only to be revealed as a well-intentioned disinformation stunt, before the accent switched to high adventure when the trio became ‘The Three Musicians of Bagdad’ – a stunning time-travel romp from Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye.

When the Gotham Gazette faced closure days before a spectacular crime-expose, Clark Kent and Lois Lane joined dilettante Bruce Wayne as pinch-hitting reporters on ‘The Super-Newspaper of Gotham City’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Charles Paris) after which ‘The True History of Superman and Batman’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye, #81) saw a future historian blackmail the heroes into restaging their greatest exploits so his erroneous treatise on them would be accurate…

Hamilton also produced a magnificent and classy costumed drama when ‘The Three Super-Musketeers!’ visited 17th century France to solve the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask whilst Bill Finger wrote a brilliant and delightful caper-without-a-crime in ‘The Case of the Mother Goose Mystery!’ after which Hamilton provided insight on a much earlier meeting of the World’s Finest Team with ‘The Super-Mystery of Metropolis!’ in #84, all for Sprang & Kaye to enticingly illustrate.

Hamilton, Swan, Sprang & Kaye demonstrated how a comely Ruritanian Princess inadvertently turned the level-headed heroes into ‘The Super-Rivals’ (or did she?), before monolithic charity-event ‘The Super-Show of Gotham City’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) was almost turned into a mammoth pay-day for unscrupulous con-men.

‘The Reversed Heroes’(Finger, Sprang & Ray Burnley) once again saw the costumed champions swap roles when Batman and Robin gained powers thanks to Kryptonian pep-pills found by criminal Elton Craig, just as Superman’s powers faded…

World’s Finest #87 presented ‘Superman and Batman’s Greatest Foes!’ (Hamilton, Sprang, Kaye) which found “reformed” villains Lex Luthor and the Joker ostensibly setting up in the commercial robot business – which nobody really believed – after which seminal sequel ‘The Club of Heroes’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) reprised a meeting of Batmen from many nations (as debuted in Detective Comics #215, January 1955 and a key plank of Grant Morrison’s epic Batman: the Black Glove serial) but added the intriguing sub-plot of an amnesiac Superman and a brand-new costumed champion…

That evergreen power-swap plot was revived in #90’s ‘The Super-Batwoman’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) when the headstrong heroine defied Batman by restarting her costumed career and was quickly compelled to swallow Elton Craig’s last Krypton pill to prevent criminals getting it…

A stirring time-busting saga of ‘The Three Super-Sleepers’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) saw our heroes fall into a trap which caused them to slumber for 1000 years and awaken in a fantastic world they could never escape, but of course they could and, once back where they belonged, ‘The Boy from Outer Space!’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) detailed how a super-powered amnesiac lad crashed to Earth and briefly became Superman’s junior partner Skyboy, whilst ‘The Boss of Superman and Batman’(author unknown, but impeccably illustrated as always by Sprang & Kaye) revealed how a brain-amplifying machine turned Robin into a super-genius more than qualified to lead the trio in their battle against insidious rogue scientist Victor Danning

Wrapping up this initial compendium with comfortable circularity, the Man of Tomorrow replaced the Caped Crusader with a new partner and provoked a review of ‘The Origin of the Superman-Batman Team’ by Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye, ending these supremely enticing Fights ‘n’ Tights on an epic high.

These are gloriously clever yet uncomplicated tales whose dazzling style has returned to inform if not dictate the form for much of DC’s modern television animation – especially the fabulous Batman: The Brave and the Bold series – and the contents of this titanic tome are a veritable feast of witty, charming thrillers packing as much punch and wonder now as they always have.
© 1952, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Golden Age volume 2

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Wayne Boring, Jack Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6530-4

It’s incontrovertible: The American comicbook industry – if it existed at all – would have been an utterly unrecognisable thing without Superman. His unprecedented invention and adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation gave birth to an entire genre if not an actual art form.

Superman spawned an inconceivable army of imitators and variations, and within three years of his 1938 debut, the intoxicating blend of eye-popping action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early Man of Steel had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, socially reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy, whimsical comedy and, once the war in Europe and the East finally involved America, patriotic relevance for a host of gods, heroes and monsters, all dedicated to profit through exuberant, eye-popping excess and vigorous dashing derring-do.

Now with moviegoers again anticipating a new cinematic interpretation of the ultimate immigrant tale, here’s my chance to once more highlight perhaps the most authentic of the many delightful versions of his oft-reprinted early tales.

Re-presenting the epochal run of raw, unpolished but viscerally vibrant stories by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster which set the funnybook world on fire, here – in as near-as-dammit the texture, smell and colour of the original newsprint – are the crude, rough, uncontrollable wish-fulfilling, cathartically exuberant exploits of a righteous and superior man dealing out summary justice equally to social malcontents, exploitative capitalists, thugs and ne’er-do-wells that initially captured the imagination of a generation.

This second revamped and remastered collection of the Man of Steel’s earliest exploits, reprinted in the order they first appeared, spans the still largely innocent and carefree year of 1940 in a spiffy package that covers all his appearances from Action Comics #20-31, Superman #4-7 and his last starring role in New York World’s Fair #2 (and that only because the title would convert to initially World’s Best before and eventually settling as the much more reserved World’s Finest Comics).

Although Siegel & Shuster had very much settled into the character by now the buzz of success still fired them and innovation still sparkled amidst the exuberance. This incredible panorama of torrid tales opens with ‘Superman and the Screen Siren’ from Action#20 (January 1940) as beautiful actress Delores Winters is revealed not as another sinister super-scientific megalomaniac but the latest tragic victim and organic ambulatory hideout of aged mad scientist Ultra-Humanite who had perfected his greatest horror… brain transplant surgery!

This is followed with an immediate sequel as “Delores” attempts to steal another scientist’s breakthrough and utilise ‘The Atomic Disintegrator’ to demolish the Man of Steel whilst Action #22 loudly declares ‘Europe at War’ a tense and thinly disguised call to arms for the still neutral USA, and a continued story – almost unheard of in those early days of funny-book publishing which spectacularly concluded in #23.

Superman #4, cover-dated Spring, featured four big adventures that began with a succession of futuristic assassination attempts in ‘The Challenge of Luthor’. After an educational cartoon vignette on ‘Attaining Super-Strength’, the original Man of Might battles dinosaurs and bandits in ‘Luthor’s Undersea City’, before saving the world from financial and literal carnage by ferreting out ‘The Economic Enemy’ – a prophetic spy story about commercial sabotage by an unspecified foreign power…

The issue then ends with a tale of gangsters intimidating Teamsters called ‘Terror in the Trucker’s Union’.

In Action Comics #24 ‘Carnahan’s Heir’ becomes Superman’s latest social reclamation project as the Metropolis Marvel promises to turn a wastrel into a useful citizen, whilst the next told the tale of the ‘Amnesiac Robbers’ compelled to crime by an evil hypnotist.

Superman #5 is a superb combination of human drama, crime and wickedly warped science with our hero crushing ‘The Slot Machine Racket’ and foiling a rival paper’s ‘Campaign Against the Planet’. The insidious threat of ‘Luthor’s Incense Machine’ is similarly scuttled before finally Big Business chicanery is exposed and punished in ‘The Wonder Drug’. These are augmented by a flurry of gag cartoons by Siegel & Schuster promoting health and exercise…

Next comes a tale of gangsters attempting to plunder jewels from exhibits at the New York World’s Fair as seen in New York World’s Fair #2 credited to Siegel and Schuster but looking to my tired old eyes to be the wonderful Jack Burnley (Anyone got any comments or information they care to share here?)…

Siegel & Shuster had created a true phenomenon and were struggling to cope with it. As well as the monthly and bimonthly comics a new quarterly publication, World’s Finest Comics – springing from the success of the publisher’s New York World’s Fair comic-book tie-ins – would soon debut and their indefatigable hero was to feature prominently in it. Also, the Superman daily newspaper strip, which began on 16th January 1939, with its separate Sunday strip following from November 5th of that year, was garnering millions of new fans. The need for new material and creators was constant and oppressive.

From Action Comics#26 (July 1940) came ‘Professor Cobalt’s Clinic’ wherein Clark Kent and Lois Lane expose a murderous sham Health Facility with a little Kryptonian help, whilst the next month dealt a similar blow to the corrupt orphanage ‘Brentwood Home for Wayward Youth’. The September issue found Superman at the circus, solving the mystery of ‘The Strongarm Assaults’, a fast-paced thriller beautifully illustrated by the astonishingly talented Jack Burnley.

Whilst thrilling to that, kids of the time could also have picked up the sixth issue of Superman (September/October 1940). Produced by Siegel and the Superman Studio, with Shuster increasingly only overseeing and drawing key figures and faces, this contained four more lengthy adventures.

‘Lois Lane, Murderer’, ‘Racketeer Terror in Gateston’, ‘Terror Stalks San Caluma’ and ‘The Construction Scam’ had the Man of Action saving his plucky co-worker from a dastardly frame up, rescuing a small town from a mob invasion, foiling a blackmailer who’s discovered his secret identity and spectacularly fixing a corrupt company’s shoddy, death-trap buildings.

Action Comics #29 (October 1940) again features Burnley art in a gripping tale of murder for profit. Human drama in ‘The Life Insurance Con’ was replaced by deadly super-science as the mastermind Zolar created ‘A Midsummer Snowstorm’, allowing Burnley a rare opportunity to display his fantastic imagination as well as his representational acumen and dexterity.

Superman# 7 (November/December1940) marked a creative sea-change as Wayne Boring became Schuster’s regular inker and saw the Man of Steel embroiled in local politics when he confronted ‘Metropolis’ Most Savage Racketeers’, quelled man-made disasters in ‘The Exploding Citizens’, stamped out City Hall corruption in ‘Superman’s Clean-Up Campaign’ (illustrated fully by Wayne Boring) and put villainous high society bandits ‘The Black Gang’ where they belonged – behind iron bars.

This volume ends with another all-star inclusion from Action Comics – # 31 in fact – with Burnley drawing another high-tech crime caper as crooks put an entire city to sleep and only Clark Kent isn’t ‘In the Grip of Morpheus’

My admiration for the stripped-down purity and power of these Golden Age tales is boundless. Nothing has ever come near them for joyous, child-like perfection. You really should make them part of your life.
© 1940, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Plastic Man Archives volume 6

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

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

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

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

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

Without doubt – and despite his other triumphal comicbook innovations such as Silver Streak, Daredevil, The Claw, Death Patrol, Midnight, Quicksilver, The Barker, The Comet and a uniquely twisted and phenomenally popular take on the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest creation and contribution was the zany Malleable Marvel who quickly grew from a minor back-up character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the era.

“Plas” was the wondrously perfect fantastic embodiment of the sheer energy, verve and creativity of an era when anything went and comics-makers were prepared to try out every outlandish idea…

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

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

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

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

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

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

This sublimely sturdy sixth full-colour hardback exposes more eccentrically exaggerated exploits of the elastic eidolon from Plastic Man #5 and 6 and his regular monthly beat in Police Comics #59-65, covering October 1946 to April 1947. Before the hilarious action kicks off, Michael T. Gilbert offers an appreciation of Cole and his gift for concocting uniquely memorable characters in the Foreword after which the power-packed contents of his fifth solo-starring vehicle commences with ‘They Call Him Weapons’ as a seemingly innocuous gunsmith graduates from selling his ordnance innovations to criminals to becoming a bandit himself. His bloody trail leads Plas and Woozy to a house the tinkerer has tricked up into an inescapable death trap…

Cole’s constant and ever-growing pressure to fill pages led to his hiring artists to assist in the illustration of his madcap scripts. Alex Kotzky pitched in for ‘The Mysterious Being Called Hate’ as our chameleonic crime-crusher faces sorcerous neophyte Mr. Giglamp after the infernally inquisitive fool finds himself a satanic sponsor and becomes a demonic danger to society.

Woozy had his own back-up solo feature in Plastic Man and here the Stalwart Simpleton inspires a down-at-heel gangster to modify a heroic legend to his own unscrupulous ends in ‘Robin Hood Returns’ (drawn by Bart Toomey), after which prose puzzler ‘Snig River’ sees a simple fishing trip prank land a basket full of fugitive crooks. A baffling mystery then confounds the populace in ‘The Evil of Moneybags’. When millionaire Aloysius P. Japers starts giving away all his money only the stretchable sleuth notices that all the beneficiaries start turning up dead and penniless…

In Police Comics #59 Woozy and Plas are helpless before ‘The Menace of Mr. Happiness’ (Cole & Andre LeBlanc) as a drug store clerk accidentally invents a serum which paralyses victims with joy whilst #60 invoked the author’s fascination with mad scientists in ‘The Man Who Built Himself a Body’ (Cole & LeBlanc) as weedy Professor Spindrift constructs a series of robot suits so that he can muscle his way to the top of the underworld…

A million-dollar bounty on Plastic Man leads to ‘A Bundle of Trouble’ (Cole & LeBlanc) in Police #61, culminating in a baby-sized assassin infiltrating the hero’s home as a heavily armed foundling, before Plastic Man #6 opens with criminal genius Scientific Sherman stealing the astronomical discoveries of ‘The Moon Wizard’ and seemingly stranding Plas and Woozy on the distant lunar orb.

‘The Crimes of Mother Goose’ features a crook committing fairy tale-inspired thefts to bewilder the Ductile Detective and his partner after which Woozy hunts alone for ‘The Zwili Cat’ (Cole & Kotzky) obsessing crooks and bad-men all over town, before text tale ‘Scarlett Goes Straight’ finds our hero helping an ex-con capture his former unrepentant associates.

To close the issue, a common jewel thief gains incredible leaping powers and becomes costumed crook ‘The Grasshopper’ (Cole & Kotzky) but is ultimately unable to escape the relentless and remarkable reach of his pliable pursuer.

Police Comics #62 finds flashy socialite Leda Van Doom interviewing prospective husbands only to lose one in suspicious circumstances in ‘The Cupid’s Bow Murder’.

After solving that thorny mystery Plas and Woozy combat a macabre gambling boss moonlighting as a marine marauder dubbed ‘The Crab’ in #63 and paint a ‘Bulls-Eye on Crime’ a month later as they expose a candy factory operating as a clearing house for stolen gems before wrapping up this compendium of comedic crime-busting by helping homeless newlyweds find a place to live.

Sadly, that task entails evicting and arresting a house full of deadly spies and clearing all the death traps out of ‘The Apartment of Dr. Phobia’

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

Plastic Man is a unique creation and this is a magical experience comics fans would be crazy to avoid.
© 1946, 1947, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Golden Age volume 1

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-9109-2

Nearly 79 years ago Superman started the whole modern era of fantasy heroes: outlandish, flamboyant indomitable, infallible, unconquerable.

He also saved a foundering industry and created an entirely new genre of storytelling – the Super Hero.

Since June 1938 he has grown into a mighty presence in all aspects of art, culture and commerce even as his natal comicbook universe organically grew and expanded.

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

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

Moreover, the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release and the energy and enthusiasm of originators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster went on to inform and infect the burgeoning studio which grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

This new compilation of the original stories – re-presented in chronological publishing order – covers June 1938 to December 1939 and features the groundbreaking yarns from Action Comics #1-19, Superman #1-3 and his pivotal appearance from New York’s World Fair No. 1 and although most of the early tales were untitled, here, for everyone’s convenience, they have been given descriptive appellations by the editors.

Thus, after describing the foundling’s escape from exploding Planet Krypton and offering a scientific rationale for his incredible abilities explaining his astonishing powers in nine panels, with absolutely no preamble the wonderment begins with Action #1’s primal thriller ‘Superman: Champion of the Oppressed!’ as the costumed crusader – masquerading by day as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent – began averting numerous tragedies.

As well as saving an innocent woman from the Electric Chair and roughing up a wife beater, the tireless crusader worked over racketeer Butch Matson – consequently saving feisty colleague Lois Lane from abduction and worse – and outed a lobbyist for the armaments industry who was bribing Senators on behalf of greedy munitions interests fomenting war in Europe…

The next breathtaking instalment in Action #2 (July 1938) saw the mercurial mystery-man travelling to the war-zone to spectacularly dampen down the hostilities already in progress in ‘Revolution in San Monte Part 2’ before ‘The Blakely Mine Disaster’ found the Man of Steel responding to a coal-mine cave-in to expose corrupt corporate practises and afterwards cleaning up gamblers who ruthlessly fixed games and players in #4’s ‘Superman Plays Football’.

The Action Ace’s untapped physical potential was highlighted in the next issue as ‘Superman and the Dam’ pitted the human dynamo against the power of a devastating natural disaster, after which in #6 canny chiseller Nick Williams attempted to monetise the hero – without asking first. ‘Superman’s Phony Manager’ even attempted to replace the real thing with a cheap knock-off but quickly learned a very painful and memorable lesson in ethics…

Although Superman starred on the first cover, the staid and cautious editors were initially dubious about the alien strongman’s popular appeal and fell back upon more traditional genre scenes for the following issues (all by Leo E. O’Mealia and all included here).

Superman – and Joe Shuster’s – second cover appeared on Action Comics #7 (December 1938) and prompted a big jump in sales even as a riotous romp inside revealed why ‘Superman Joins the Circus’ with the caped crusader crushing racketeers taking over the Big Top.

Fred Guardineer then produced genre covers for #8 and 9 whilst the interiors saw ‘Superman in the Slums’ working to save young delinquents from a future life of crime and depravity and latterly featured the city cops’ disastrous decision to stop the costumed vigilante’s unsanctioned interference in ‘Wanted: Superman’.

That manhunt ended in an uncomfortable stalemate…

Action Comics #7 had been one of the highest-selling issues ever, so #10 again sported a stunning Shuster shot whilst Siegel’s smart story of ‘Superman Goes to Prison’ struck another telling blow against institutionalised injustice with the Man of Tomorrow infiltrating a prison to expose the brutal horrors of the State Chain Gangs.

Action #11 featured a maritime cover by Guardineer whilst inside heartless conmen were driving investors to penury and suicide before the Metropolis Marvel interceded in ‘Superman and the “Black Gold” Swindle’.

Guardineer’s cover of magician hero Zatara for issue #12 incorporated another landmark as the Man of Steel was given a cameo badge declaring he was inside each and every issue. Between those covers, ‘Superman Declares War on Reckless Drivers’ provided a hard-hitting tale of casual joy-riders, cost-cutting automobile manufacturers, corrupt lawmakers and dodgy car salesmen who all felt the wrath of the hero after a friend of Clark Kent was killed in a hit-&-run incident.

By now the editors had realised that the debut of Superman had propelled National Comics to the forefront of the fledgling industry, and in 1939 the company was licensed to produce a commemorative comicbook celebrating the opening of the New York World’s Fair, with the Man of Tomorrow topping the bill on the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics among such early DC four-colour stars as Zatara, Butch the Pup, Gingersnap and gas-masked mystery avenger The Sandman.

Following an inspirational cover by Sheldon Mayer, Siegel & Shuster’s ‘Superman at the World’s Fair’ described how Lois and Clark are dispatched to cover the gala event, giving the hero an opportunity to contribute his own exhibit and bag a bunch of brutal bandits to boot…

Back in Action Comics #13 (June 1939 and another Shuster cover) the road-rage theme of the previous issue continued as ‘Superman vs. the Cab Protective League’ pitted the tireless foe of felons against a murderous gang trying to take over the city’s taxi companies. The tale also introduced – in almost invisibly low key – The Man of Steel’s first great nemesis – The Ultra-Humanite

Next follows a truncated version of Superman #1. This was because the industry’s first solo-starring comicbook reprinted the earliest tales from Action, supplemented with new and recovered material – and that alone is featured here.

Behind the iconic Shuster cover the first episode was at last printed in full, describing the alien foundling’s escape from exploding Planet Krypton, his childhood with unnamed Earthling foster parents and journey to the big city as ‘Origin of Superman’.

Also included in those six pages (cut from Action #1, restored for solo vehicle and designated ‘Prelude to “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed”’) was the Man of Steel’s routing of a lynch mob and capture of the real killer which preceded his spectacular saving of the accused murderess that started the legend…

Rounding off the unseen treasures is the solo page ‘A Scientific Explanation of Superman’s Amazing Strength!’, a 2-page prose adventure of the Caped Crime-crusher, a biographical feature on Siegel & Shuster and a glorious Shuster pin-up from the premier issue’s back cover.

Sporting a Guardineer Zatara cover, Action#14 saw the return of the manic money-mad scientist in ‘Superman Meets the Ultra-Humanite’ wherein the mercenary malcontent switches his incredible intellect from incessant graft, corruption and murder to an obsessive campaign to destroy the Man of Tomorrow.

Whilst Shuster concentrated on the interior epic ‘Superman on the High Seas’ – wherein the heroic hurricane tackled sub-sea pirates and dry land gangsters – Guardineer illustrated an aquatic Superman cover for #15, as well as the Foreign Legion cover on #16 wherein ‘Superman and the Numbers Racket’ has the hero save an embezzler from suicide and subsequently wreck another wicked gambling cabal.

Superman’s rise was meteoric and inexorable. He was the indisputable star of Action, plus his own dedicated title; a daily newspaper strip had begun on 16th January 1939, with a separate Sunday strip following from November 5th of that year, which was swiftly garnering millions of new fans.

A thrice-weekly radio serial was in the offing and would launch on February 12th 1940. With games, toys, and a growing international media presence, Superman was swiftly becoming everybody’s favourite hero…

The second issue of the Man of Tomorrow’s own title opened with ‘The Comeback of Larry Trent’ – a stirring human drama wherein the Action Ace cleared the name of the broken heavyweight boxer, coincidentally cleaning the scum out of the fight game, and is followed by ‘Superman’s Tips for Super-Health’ before ‘Superman Champions Universal Peace!’ depicts the hero once more going up against unscrupulous munitions manufacturers by crushing a gang who had stolen the world’s deadliest poison gas weapon.

‘Superman and the Skyscrapers’ finds newshound Kent investigating suspicious deaths in the construction industry, leading his alter ego into confrontation with mindless thugs and their fat-cat corporate boss, after which a contemporary ad and a Superman text tale bring the issue to a close.

Action Comics #17 featured ‘The Return of the Ultra-Humanite’ in a viciously homicidal caper involving extortion and the wanton sinking of US ships and featured a classic Shuster Super-cover as the Man of Steel was awarded all the odd-numbered issues for his attention-grabbing playground.

That didn’t last long: after Guardineer’s last adventure cover – an aerial dog fight – on #18 and which led into ‘Superman’s Super-Campaign’ with both Kent and the Caped Kryptonian determinedly crushing a merciless blackmailer, Superman just monopolised all the covers from #19 onwards. That issue disclosed the peril of ‘Superman and the Purple Plague’ as the city reeled in the grip of a deadly epidemic created by the Ultra-Humanite.

Closing this frenetic fun and thrill-filled compendium is the truncated contents of Superman #3, reprinting only the first and last strips contained therein, since the other two were reprints of Action Comics #5 and 6.

‘Superman and the Runaway’, however, is a gripping, shockingly uncompromising expose of corrupt orphanages, after which – following a brief lesson on ‘Attaining Super-Health: a Few Hints from Superman!’ – Lois finally goes out on a date with hapless Clark simply because she needs to get closer to a gang of murderous smugglers. Happily, his hidden alter ego is on hand to rescue her in the bombastic gang-busting ‘Superman and the Jewel Smugglers’

Although the gaudy burlesque of monsters and super-villains still lay years ahead of our hero, these primitive and raw, completely captivating tales of corruption, disaster and social injustice are just as engrossing and speak as powerfully of the tenor of the times. The perilous parade of rip-roaring action, hoods, masterminds, plagues, disasters, lost kids and distressed damsels are all dealt with in direct and enthralling manner by our relentlessly entertaining champion in summarily swift and decisive fashion.

No continued stories here!

As fresh and compelling now as they ever were, these endlessly re-readable epics perfectly display the savage intensity and sly wit of Siegel’s stories – which literally defined what being a Super Hero means – whilst Shuster created the basic iconography for all others to follow.

Such Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
© 1938, 1939, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Your Favorite… Crab Cakes – A Crankshaft Collection

By Tom Batuik & Chuck Ayers (Andrews McMeel Publishing)
ISBN: 978-0-7407-2666-8

Although in a sharp decline, extended-narrative comics strips still have a place in modern cartooning. Indeed in the case of creators like Tom Batuik the slide into continuity is almost inescapable.

Thomas Martin Batuik was born in Akron, Ohio in March 1947 and attended the famous (for all the wrong reasons) Kent State University. He graduated in 1969 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Painting) and became a Junior High School art teacher. This endeavour soon inspired the creation of his legendary newspaper strip Funky Winkerbean.

The long-lived (originally gag-a-day) school-based strip launched on March 27th 1972 and over the years developed strong soap opera tendencies and a potent attention to contemporary social issues to compliment the humour.

It also spawned two separate spin-off strips: John Darling (1979-1990) and today’s star turn Crankshaft which began in 1987 and is still going strong seven days a week, with syndication in more than 300 newspapers across the world.

Batuik scripts and fellow scion of Akron Chuck Ayers illustrates the ongoing saga of a curmudgeonly senior citizen barely getting by in a rapidly-changing modern world. Ayers has also contributed cartoons to the Akron Beacon Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Forbes and others and illustrated a number of school textbooks.

Deeply invested in nostalgia, family and day-to-day existence, the strip details how crusty old fart Ed Crankshaft grows ever older disgracefully and with great discontent. Ed has a job driving a school bus and derives much delight from annoying parents by driving off without their kids, reversing over mailboxes and holding up traffic whenever he can. In fact, these are all popular sports every school board bus driver indulges in…

Ed’s supporting cast include his wilful cat Pickles, two adult daughters Chris and Pam, son-in-law Jeff and grandchildren Max and Mindy, and, whereas the kids get to see him at his gruff sentimental best, the grown-ups usually get the raw edge of his confusion and ire with the increasingly chaotic state of contemporary life…

Ed was once a pro baseball player and in many episodes his skill in throwing missiles generates lots of laughs, but that eccentric career also provided one of the series’ most rewarding themes of social interest. Ed never learned to read and very late on began adult literacy classes, highlighting an issue that impacts a vast number of older readers.

Of equal import and power is a long running storyline with Crankshaft regularly accompanying old pal Ralph to the Sunny Days Nursing Home where Ralph’s wife Helen is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease. Even here there’s a regular fount of golden-aged humour since Ed is a constant target for the amorous attentions of the institution’s army of love-starved widows…

This particular collection of strips – they’re all equally enjoyable and praiseworthy – spends a great deal of time depicting the road-raging joys of the School Run, explores Ed’s ongoing war with the newspaper delivery girl, his literal penny-pinching, a spate of funerals and weddings, the always-inclement Mid-Western weather and the coffee made by bus depot secretary Lena. Rumours are that it might well be considered a weapon of mass destruction…

Justice and Due Process take a holiday when Crankshaft serves on a jury, but those outbursts are balanced by wry reminiscences when Ed takes Max and Mindy on an extended tour of his scrapbooks…

Ed declares a vendetta on the mailbox of neighbour Mr. Keesterman, gleefully operates a bug-zapper that can be seen from space and proudly, loudly makes a spectacle of himself at doctor, dentist, barber, opticians and supermarket, but shows his softer side in visits with Ralph to Sunny Days a well as a school trip to the National War Memorial in Washington DC. Another milestone is reached when he wins a certificate for his reading proficiency but that only leads to more grief as he’s then expected to start using the Library computer…

…And then there are the kids who manage – despite all his efforts – to board Ed’s bus every morning. They may have the numbers, but he has experience, ruthlessness and a working knowledge of terror-tactics to keep the little monsters in line if they do get into his big yellow fortress…

He must love the little perishers really: after all, in vacation time he drives an ice cream truck to take the edge off the searing heat… if they can catch him…

Gently funny, powerfully engaging and offering some of the best zingers and put-downs in the comedy business, the assorted chronicles of Crankshaft are a family treat to shared and compared by all fans of cartooning excellence.
© 2002 Media Graphics, Inc. All rights reserved.

Frankenstein: The Mad Science of Dick Briefer

By Dick Briefer & various (Dark Horse Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-688-4                  eISBN: 978-1-63008-186-7

The Golden Age of American comicbooks is usually associated with the blockbusting birth and proliferation of the Superhero, but even at the headiest heights of costumed crusader craziness other fantastic fantasy fashions held their own. Some of the very best – like Jack Cole’s Plastic Man and the unlikely weird warrior under discussion here – also managed to merge genres and surmount their origins through astounding graphic craft, a healthy helping of comedic legerdemain and a deft dose of satire…

Richard Briefer was born in Washington Heights, Manhattan on January 9th 1915. He was a pre-Med student who also studied at the Art Student League in New York City and got into the fledgling comicbook business in 1936, working for the Will Eisner/ Jerry Iger shop after selling work to Wow, What a Magazine!, and others.

He adapted literary classics such as the Hunchback of Notre Dame and, as Dick Hamilton, created early super-team Target and the Targeteers for Novelty Press. Briefer wrote and drew Rex Dexter of Mars, Dynamo, Biff Bannon, Storm Curtis, Crash Parker and more for a range of publishers. For Timely he co-created The Human Top and, as Dick Flood, produced anti-Nazi strip Pinky Rankin for The Daily Worker; the newspaper of the American Communist Party.

Another criminally near-forgotten master craftsman, Dick Briefer is best remembered amongst comics cognoscenti these days for Frankenstein; a suspense strip which debuted in Prize Comics #7 in December 1940 before gradually evolving into a satirical comedy-horror masterpiece which offered thrills and chills whilst ferociously sending up post war America.

A truly unique vision, Briefer’s Frankenstein ran intermittently until 1954 when the toxic paranoiac atmosphere of the anti-communist, anti-comics witch hunt killed it.

The author moved into advertising and latterly portraiture and, despite numerous attempts to revive the strip, never published any more of his absurd and acerbic antics…

Dick Briefer died in December 1980.

Here, however, as part of the wonderful Dark Horse Archives series, you can enjoy the superbly surreal strip in all its manic glory from its horrible heyday; either as this sterling and sturdy full-colour hardback or as an eBook.

Re-presented for your delectation are the contents of Frankenstein #1-7 (spanning January 1945-May 1947) with Briefer at the peak of his powers, writing and drawing the deliciously demented delights that have made him a legend amongst comics creators if not the general public.

After gleaning a few salient facts from appreciative devotee John Arcudi in his Foreword, and relishing some ultra-rare original art from Briefer and Alex Toth, the merry madness begins with issue #1 as we reveal ‘Frankenstein’s Creation’

When a bored mad scientist reads an old book he decides to create his own version of the infamous creature. Sadly, despite scrupulously following the recipe, the malevolent modern Prometheus’ secret formula only manifests a loving, protective nature in his super-strong homunculus and the hulking Frankenstein monster soon becomes a boon to his community and embarrassment to his malignant maker.

Left to his own devices, the artificial Adam is then drawn to the quiet little everytown of Mippyville where the populace are fighting off a supernatural invasion of atrocious arcane predators. ‘Frankenstein and the Ghouls and Vampires’ sees the creature – originally mistaken for a “Bobbysox” pop singer by the town’s screaming teenagers – hilariously clean up the infernal infestation before setting up home in a ramshackle abandoned mansion.

Only one thing is missing to complete his dreams of domestic bliss but, after a brief dalliance with the local spider saleswoman results in her becoming ‘Frankenstein’s Wife’, the man-monster soon learns why a hasty marriage often leads to repentance at leisure…

Mippyville is a place that just attracts weirdness, and the first issue concludes with another mad doctor as deranged surgeon Professor Hugo von Hoogenblotzen kidnaps Frankie and attempts to graft him to an elephant in ‘Frankenstein and the Manimals’

The second issue begins with ‘Frankenstein!’ – a quick recap of past events – before our unlikely hero tracks down a mad mass-murderer who wants others to suffer for his art in ‘Frankenstein and the Statue Maker’ after which the animal-loving oaf is accidentally mistaken for a mere beast and purchased by a moody millionairess. She puts him on a leash to one-up her pals in the Exotic Pets Club but ‘Frankenstein’s Job’ soon teaches them all the true value of animal companionship…

Eventually restored to his own home, ‘Frankenstein’s Ark’ then sees the towering titan re-enact the building of the fabled lifeboat to save his animal chums but end up clashing with a hoarding hermit and his mutant allies…

Issue #3 (July/August 1946 and with scripting assistance from Bruce Elliott) introduced ‘Frankenstein’s Family’ as the big guy won gainful employment as a junk man whilst his new boss tinkered with salvaged machines from a devil doctor’s lab. This resulted in an army of molecularly-unstable juvenile duplicates of Frankie and a great deal of gross chaos…

A legion of escaped horrors attacked Mippyville in ‘Frankenstein and the Monsters’ only to find the town’s ghastly defender too much to handle whilst in ‘Frankenstein and the Mummies’ a quick jaunt to Egypt finds the monster befriending a quartet of ancient, entombed pharaohs before ‘Frankenstein and the Time Machine’ apparently sends the credulous colossus into the furious future and perilous past. This time, however, all is not as it seems…

The regular cast expanded in the fourth issue (September/October 1946) as ‘Frankenstein and Awful Annie’ finds the mellow monster aiding the local purveyor of potions and charms to the city’s supernatural community when her long-lost son wants to come home for a visit. He then makes another odd acquaintance when ‘Frankenstein Meets the (Terrible) Werewolf’ which debuts the gentlest magical man-eater on earth…

Another whirlwind romance goes awry after ‘Frankenstein Sees the Effect of the Youth Restorer’ and makes an amorously ill-advised move on a once-elderly neighbour, before his mystic mates throw the monster a birthday party in ‘Frankenstein and the Sorcerer’ and almost start a magic war that only subsides after the gentle giant accidentally lands a job as a photographic model…

Briefer was an inveterate tinkerer, always looking for innovative new ways to present his mirthful material, and Frankenstein #5 (November/December 1946) trialled a new format of interlinked yarns beginning with ‘Act 1: How I Rehabilitated Maladjusted Ghosts’ as the monster became a troubleshooter for the restless dead and unmasked a murderer.

In ‘Act 2: How I Had (and Lost) a Pet Dinosaur’ he accidentally hatches an antediluvian egg and manages to switch it with a parade-balloon doppelganger whilst ‘Act 3: How I Became a Genii in a Magic Bottle’, saw the monster mysteriously abducted by a street-corner hustler before escaping to save the town from a malicious malady in concluding ‘Act 4: How I Conquered a Terrible Plague’. The experiment was dropped for a more traditional anthological format in the sixth (March/April 1947) issue…

Here the madcap merriment opens with ‘The Last Smile’ as Frankie is mistaken for an escaped murderer and placed on death row after which he hunts down ‘The Ghostnapper’ abducting spirits and stealing their big white sheets…

The rising cost of funerals informed the riotous case of ‘One Small Bier’ as the monster tries a new career as a mortician before heading into the country to investigate accursed, self-propagating automobiles going on an uncanny ‘Joyride’

The final issue reprinted here comes from May/June 1947 #7 and opens with ‘Silas Grunch Gets His’ – co-written with Ed Goggin – as a conniving miser tortures kids by building a funfair children can’t get into… until the Big Guy steps in…

The monster plays cupid and brings two bizarre, lonely people together in ‘The Strange Love of Shirley Shmool’ and romance also informs Frankenstein’s laying of ‘The Curse of the Flying Dutchman’ when the giant goof opens a Lonely Hearts Agency and matches the immortal wanderer with the girl of his nightmares…

This leads to a clash with atom-age seductress ‘The Lorelei’ and a hideous trade of jobs and gender roles before politics rears its ugly (multiple) heads as Frankenstein is convinced to run for President of the Magician’s Guild only to endure the voodoo ‘Pins and Needles’ of a frustrated rival…

A truly unmissable treat from a singular and utterly eccentric creative force, Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein is remarkable work by a one-of-a-kind creator. If you love to be scared, love to laugh and love comics, this is a book you must see.
Frankenstein: The Mad Science of Dick Briefer. Dark Horse Books® and logos are registered trademarks of Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.

Jonah Hex: Welcome to Paradise

By John Albano, Michael Fleischer, Tony DeZuñiga, Doug Wildey, Noly Panaligan, George Moliterni, José Luis García-López & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2757-9

Western stories are shaped by an odd duality. The genre can almost be sub-divided into two discrete halves: the sparkly, shiny version that dominated kids’ books, comics and television for decades, as typified by Zane Grey stories and heroes such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry – and the other stuff.

That kind of cowboy tale- grimy, gritty, excessively dark – was done best for years by Europeans in such strips as Jean-Michel Charlier’s Lieutenant Blueberry or Bonelli and Galleppini’s Tex Willer which gradually made their way into US culture through the films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. Jonah Hex is the USA’s greatest example of the latter sort…

DC (or National Periodicals as it then as) had generated a stable of clean-cut gun-slingers since the collapse of the super-hero genre in 1949, with such dashing – and highly readable – luminaries as Johnny Thunder, The Trigger Twins, Nighthawk, Matt Savage and dozens of others in a marketplace that seemed insatiable in its voracious hunger for chaps in chaps. However, all things end, and by the early sixties the sagebrush stalwarts had dwindled to a few venerable properties.

As the 1960s closed, thematic changes in the cinematic Cowboy filtered through to a comics industry suffering its second super-hero sundown in twenty years. Although a critical success, the light-hearted Western series Bat Lash couldn’t garner a solid following, but DC, desperate for a genre readers would warm to, retrenched and revived an old title, gambling once again on heroes who were no longer simply boy scouts with six-guns.

All-Star Western #1 was released with an August/September 1970 cover date, filled with Pow-Wow Smith reprints and became an all-new anthology with its second bi-monthly issue. The magazine was allocated a large number of creative all-stars, including Robert Kanigher, Neal Adams, Gray Morrow, Al Williamson, Gil Kane, Angelo Torres and Dick Giordano, working on such strips as Outlaw!, Billy the Kid and the cult sleeper hit El Diablo, which combined shoot-’em-up shenanigans with supernatural chills, in deference to the real hit genre-type that saved comics in those dark days: horror comics…

It wasn’t until the tenth issue and introduction of a grotesquely disfigured, irascible bounty hunter created by writer John Albano and Tony DeZuñiga that the company found its greatest and most enduring Western warrior.

This superb collection of the garish gunman’s early appearances has been around for a few years, with no apparent sign of a sequel yet, so consider this a heartfelt attempt to generate a few sales and more interest…

Our star is the very model of the modern anti-hero. Jonah Hex first appeared in All-Star Comics #10, a coarse and callous bounty hunter clad in shabbily battered Confederate Grey tunic and hat, half his face lost to some hideous past injury; a brutal thug little better than the scum he hunted – and certainly a man to avoid…

Collecting key stories from All-Star Western #10, Weird Western Tales #14, 17, 22, 26, 29, 30 and Jonah Hex #2 and 4 (ranging from March 1972 to September 1977), the grisly gunplay begins with Albano & DeZuñiga’s ‘Welcome to Paradise’ which introduced the character and his world in a powerful action thriller, with a subtle sting of sentimentality that anyone who has seen the classic western “Shane” cannot fail to appreciate.

From the first bullets blazing, blistering set-up Albano was constantly hinting at the tortured depths hidden behind Hex’s hellishly scarred visage and deadly proficiency. With the next issue the comic had been re-titled Weird Western Tales (aligning it with the company’s highly successful horror/mystery books) and the adventures continually plumbed the depths oh human malice and depravity…

From the very start the series sought to redress some of the most unpalatable motifs of old style cowboy literature and any fan of films like Soldier Blue or Little Big Man or familiar with Dee Brown’s iconoclastic book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee will feel a grim sense of vicarious satisfaction and redress at most of the stories here.

There’s also a huge degree of world-weary cynicism that wasn’t to be found in other comics until well past the Watergate Scandal, when America as whole lost its social and political innocence…

From Weird Western #14, ‘Killers Die Alone!’ – by Albano & DeZuñiga – is a vicious tear jerker of a tale where Hex’s only friend valiantly dies to save him the vengeance of killers who blame the bounty hunter for their brother’s death. There is then a reckoning that is the stuff of nightmares…

‘The Hangin’ Woman’ (WWT #17) is a classy thriller wherein Hex runs afoul of a sadistic harridan who rules her hometown with hemp and hot lead before meeting an ending both ironic and much-deserved…

It was left to new writer Michael Fleisher (assisted at first by Russell Carley) to reveal Hex’s secrets, beginning with Weird Western Tales #22’s ‘Showdown at Hard Times’. A chance meeting in a stagecoach put a cabal of ex-Confederate soldiers on the trail of their ex-comrade for some unspecified earlier betrayal and it inevitably ended in a six-gun bloodbath, whilst creating an ominous returning nemesis for the grizzled gunslinger.

Train-robbers were the bad guys in the superb traditionally-informed caper ‘Face-Off with the Gallagher Boys!’ scripted by Fleischer and illustrated by the inimitable Doug Wildey, after which more details of Jonah’s chequered past are revealed in #29’s ‘Breakout at Fort Charlotte’ limned by Noly Panaligan. It was the first chapter of a two-part extravaganza that gorily concluded in #30 in ‘The Trial’ (illustrated by George Moliterni) as a battalion of Confederate veterans and former comrades-in-arms passed judgement on the man they believed to be the worst traitor in the history of the South…

Eventually Hex graduated from Weird Western Tales into his own solo title and the final brace of tales in this primal primer are both drawn by the magnificent José Luis García-López. In ‘The Lair of the Parrot!’, Fleischer has the doom-drenched wanderer sucked into a scheme designed by US Secret Service agent Ned Landon to infiltrate the gang of flamboyant Mexican bandit and border raider El Papagayo. Hex is none to happy when he finally realises Landon has been playing both sides for personal gain and left the bounty hunter to the brigand’s tender mercies after framing him for murder in Texas…

The tale continues in ‘The Day of the Chameleon!’ as a disguise artist steals Hex’s identity to perpetrate even more brazen crimes at the behest of a rich and powerful man determined to destroy bounty hunter at all costs…

Happily Jonah has unsuspected allies determined to save him from the villain and his own prideful stubborn nature…

With a cover gallery by DeZuñiga, Luis Dominguez and García-López, this splendid selection of uncanny exploits proves Jonah Hex is the most unique and original character in cowboy comics: darkly comedic, riotously rowdy, chilling and cathartically satisfying. His saga is a Western for those who despise the form whilst being the perfect modern interpretation of a great storytelling tradition. No matter what your reading preference, this is a collection you don’t want to miss.
© 1972-1975, 1977, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.