The Flash: The Silver Age volume 3

By John Broome, Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7826-7

The second Flash triggered the Silver Age of American comicbooks and, for the first ten years or so, in terms of creative quality and sheer originality, it was always the book to watch.

Following his meteoric launch in Showcase #4 (October 1956), police scientist Barry Allen – transformed by a lightning strike and accidental chemical bath into a human thunderbolt of unparalleled velocity and ingenuity – was uncharacteristically slow in winning his own title, but finally (after three more trial issues) finally stood on his own wing-tipped feet in The Flash#105 (February-March 1959).

He never looked back, and by the time of this second commemorative compilation was very much the innovation mainstay of DC/National Comics’ burgeoning superhero universe. This second Trade Paperback (and digital) collection re-presents Flash #133-147 – spanning December 1962 through September 1964 – and tracks the Vizier of Velocity as he becomes the key figure in a stunning renaissance of comicbook super-heroics.

Shepherding the Scarlet Speedster’s meteoric rise to prominence, the majority of stories are written by the brilliant John Broome and all are pencilled by the infinitely impressive Carmine Infantino: slickly polished, coolly sophisticated rapid-fire short stories set in a comfortingly suburbanite milieu constantly threatened by super-thieves, sinister spies and marauding aliens, with our affable superhero always triumphant whilst ever-expanding and establishing the broad parameters of an increasingly cohesive narrative universe.

The comicbook had gelled into a comfortable pattern of two short tales per issue leavened with semi-regular book-length thrillers. The magic begins here with an example of the double-header format as applause-addicted future conjuror Abra Kadabra takes a rather silly encore in #133 by causing ‘The Plight of the Puppet Flash!’ (Broome, Infantino & Joe Giella).

That brief and bizarre Pinocchio peril is more than compensated for by the witty and sensitive Kid Flash back-up tale ‘The Secret of the Handicapped Boys!’ as deaf, blind and mute classmates (one disability per boy, ok?) each discover the young hero’s secret identity and resolve to help the junior hero in their own manner.

In #134, Captain Cold was ‘The Man who Mastered Absolute Zero!’: in a flamboyant thriller co-starring Elongated Man, after which Iris West’s father (and Flash’s prospective father-in-law) pays an unwelcome call in the cleverly comedic ‘The Threat of the Absent-Minded Professor!’, Kid Flash then receives a beautiful new costume in the most astounding manner imaginable during the invasion thriller ‘Secret of the Three Super-Weapons!’ in #135.

‘The Mirror Master’s Invincible Bodyguards!’ – being just slow-moving light images packing ray-guns – actually weren’t, but the Scarlet Speedster had a lot more trouble when a seedy blackmailer claimed ‘Barry Allen – You’re the Flash – and I Can Prove It!’

This type of clever human-scaled story was slowly disappearing in favour of the more colourful costume epics – none more so than the wonderful Gardner Fox scripted ‘Vengeance of the Immortal Villain!’

Another incredible Earth-2 crossover, this saw the two Flashes unite to defeat 50,000-year-old Vandal Savage and save the Justice Society of America: a tale which directly led into the veteran team’s first meeting with the Justice League of America and the start of decades of trans-dimensional “Crisis” epics.

Fox also wrote ‘The Pied Piper’s Double Doom!’, a mesmeric team-up with Elongated Man, but once more the Kid Flash back-up stole the show, introducing the singular thespian Dexter Myles to the steadily growing cast in charming crime-caper comedy of errors ‘Mystery of the Matinee Idol!’

Broome was back for Flash #139, introducing the hero’s ultimate nemesis in Professor Zoom, a 25th century criminal who duplicated his super-speed to become the ‘Menace of the Reverse-Flash!’ Add in the sidebar menace of a lost-and-counting-down atomic bomb and the tension was almost suffocating…

Flash #140 (November 1963) debuts super arsonist Heat Wave in Broome’s stylish and sardonic thriller ‘The Heat is on for Captain Cold!’ before Fox pits the Monarch of Motion against ‘The Metal-Eater from Beyond the Stars!’: a bizarre energy-being able to nullify the speedster’s powers.

The majority of adventures were still produced by globetrotting scripter John Broome and the increasingly stylised and innovative art-team of Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella, and ‘The Mystery of the Flash’s Third Identity’ has them at their creative acme in a wittily absorbing super-villain yarn featuring the Top.

In another devious piece of internal comicbook logic, Broome posited that Flash’s foes looked so good because they had their own underworld bespoke tailor and armourer. This tale introduced Paul Gambi (an editorial in-joke acknowledging the dedicated contributions of über-fan and letter-writer Paul Gambaccini), setting the Vizier of Velocity on the tailor’s tail in an enticing piece of fluff that was neatly balanced by ‘Slowdown in Time’: a canny, enthralling science fiction lesson in relativity.

The real star was that most literal absent-minded professor Ira West, Barry’s prospective father-in- law and a genius who had casually deduced the civilian identity of the Flash due to discrepancies in the forensic scientist’s time-keeping…

Gardner Fox scripted the mile-a-minute romp ‘Perilous Pursuit of the Trickster!’ wherein the villain used toys stolen from children to bedevil his fast foe, whilst Broome blended legal loopholes and alien invasions to perplex the Scarlet Speedster with the ‘Puzzle of the Phantom Plunderers!’

Issue #143 featured another full-length team-up with Emerald Gladiator Hal Jordan in ‘Trail of the False Green Lanterns!’ – scripted by the ever-entrancing Fox who herein introduced future-gazing arch-foe Thomas Oscar Morrow.

The next two issues were all-Fox affairs: the eerie ‘Menace of the Man-Missile!’ pitting the Sultan of Speed against a shape-shifting atomically-mutated escaped convict whilst plucky protégé Kid Flash solo-starred in the human-interest parable ‘Lesson for a Star Athlete!’ Super-villainy resumed in Flash #145 as ‘The Weather Wizard Blows Up a Storm!’ and the normally stoic, stolid hero briefly has his head turned by captivating and inadvertently deadly visitor ‘The Girl from the Super-Fast Dimension!’

Broome scripted the wacky romp ‘The Mirror Master’s Master Stroke!’ and Frank Giacoia briefly bolstered the regular art team for Fox’s terrific terror tale ‘Fatal Fingers of the Flash!’ the kind of “high concept, big science” yarn that especially captivated kids in the age of space races and burgeoning technology – and it still enthrals today.

Issue #147 brings this third archival collection to a close with a feature length clash against two (or is it three?) of the Scarlet Speedster’s greatest foes. John Broome’s fascinating ‘Our Enemy, the Flash!’ sees schizophrenic Al Desmond attempting to reform and relinquish both his Dr. Alchemy and Mr. Element personas; only to be forcibly compelled to commit further crimes by ruthless 25th century sociopath Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash!

These tales were crucial to the development of our art-form, but, more importantly they are brilliant, awe-inspiring, beautifully realised stories that amuse, amaze and enthral both new readers and old lags. As always, the emphasis is on brains and learning, not gimmicks or abilities, which is why these tales still work nearly half-a-century later. Coupled with the astounding art of Infantino these tales are a captivating snap-shot of when science was our friend and the universe(s) a place of infinite possibility. This wonderful compilation is another must-read item for anybody in love with the world of words-in-pictures.
© 1962, 1963, 1964, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The War Years 1938-1945

By Roy Thomas, Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster with Don Cameron, Mort Weisinger, Fred Ray, Jack Burnley, Wayne Boring, Leo Nowak, Ed Dobrotka, John Sikela, Sam Citron, Ira Yarbrough, George Roussos, Stan Kaye & various (Chartwell Books)
ISBN: 978-0-7858-3282-9

The creation of Superman and his unprecedented adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form. Within three years of his debut in the summer of 1938, the intoxicating mix of eye-popping action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early exploits of the Man of Tomorrow had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy and even whimsical comedy: all deep and abiding issues for the American public at that time.

However, once the war in Europe and the East snared America’s consciousness, combat themes and patriotic imagery dominated most comicbook covers if not interiors and the Man of Steel was again in the vanguard.

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

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

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

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

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

This superb hardcover archive has been curated by comicbook pioneer Roy Thomas, exclusively honing in on the euphoric output of the war years, even though in those long-ago dark days, comics creators were wise enough to offset their tales of espionage and imminent invasion with a barrage of home-grown threats and gentler or even more whimsical four-colour fare…

A past master of WWII era material, Thomas opens this tome with a scene-setting Introduction and prefaces each chapter division with an essay offering tone and context before the four-colour glories commence with Part 1: The Road to War

Following the cover to Action Comics #1, the first Superman story begins.

Most of the early tales were untitled, but for everyone’s convenience have in later years been given descriptive appellations by the editors. Thus, after describing the foundling’s escape from exploding Planet Krypton and explaining his astonishing powers in nine panels, with absolutely no preamble the wonderment begins in ‘Superman, Champion of the Oppressed’ and ‘War in San Monte’ from Action Comics #1 and 2 (June and July 1938 by Jerry Seigel & Joe Shuster) as the costumed crusader – masquerading by day as reporter Clark Kent – began averting numerous tragedies.

As well as saving an innocent woman from the electric chair and delivering rough justice to a wife-beater, the tireless crusader works over racketeer Butch Matson – consequently saving suave and feisty colleague Lois Lane from abduction and worse, since she was attempting to vamp the thug at the time!

The mysterious Man of Steel made a big impression on her by then outing a lobbyist for the armaments industry who was bribing Senators on behalf of greedy munitions interests fomenting war in Europe…

The next breathtaking instalment ‘Revolution in San Monte’ sees the mercurial mystery-man travelling to the actual war-zone and spectacularly shutting down the hostilities already in progress…

Maintaining the combat theme, the cover of Action Comics #10 (March 1939) follows and the cover and first two pages of Superman #1 (Summer 1939): and expanded 2-page origin describing the alien foundling’s escape from Krypton, his childhood with unnamed Earthling foster parents and eventual journey to the big city.

A back-cover ad for the Superman of American club and the October 1939 Action Comics #17 cover precedes Fall 1939’s Superman #2 cover and rousing yarn ‘Superman Champions Universal Peace!’, depicting the dynamic wonder man once more thwarting unscrupulous munitions manufacturers by crushing a gang who had stolen the world’s deadliest poison gas weapon…

After another concise history lesson Part 2: War Comes to Europe re-presents a stunning outreach article. Look Magazine commissioned a legendary special feature by the original creators for their 27th February 1943 issue. ‘How Superman Would End the War’ is a glorious piece of wish-fulfilment which still delights, as the Man of Tomorrow arrested and dragged budding belligerents Hitler and Stalin to a League of Nations court in Geneva.

Accompanied by the March 1940 cover, Action Comics #22 and #23 then declared ‘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. Here Lois and Clark’s fact-finding mission (by Siegel, Shuster and inker Paul Cassidy) spectacularly escalated, and after astounding carnage revealed a scientist named Luthor to be behind the international conflict…

The anti-aircraft cover for Superman #7 (November/December 1940) and an ad for the Superman Radio Program precede Siegal, & Wayne Boring & Don Komisarow’s ‘The Sinister Sagdorf’ (Superman #8 January/February 1941). This topical thriller spotlights enemy agents infiltrating American infrastructure whilst ‘The Dukalia Spy Ring’ (Superman #10 May/June 1941) references the 1936 Olympics and sees the Action Ace trounce thinly-veiled Nazis at an international sports festival and expose vicious foreign propaganda: themes regarded as fanciful suspense and paranoia as America was still at this time still officially neutral in the “European War.”

Behind Fred Ray’s Armed services cover for Superman #12 (September/October 1941, ‘Peril on Pogo Island’ (Siegel, Shuster & Leo Nowak) finds Lois and Clark at the mercy of rampaging tribesmen, although spies from a certain foreign power are at the back of it all after which a Fred Ray gallery of covers – Action Comics #43 (December 1941), Superman #13 (November/December 1941), Action Comics #44 (January 1942) and Superman #14 (January/February 1942) – closes the chapter.

All of these were prepared long before December 7th changed the face and nature of the conflict…

After Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor everything changed and Part 3: America Goes to War reflects the move to a war footing, beginning with the infamous Siegel & Boring ‘Superman Daily Strips’ from January/February 1942, wherein an overeager Clark Kent tries too hard to enlist and only succeeds in getting himself declared 4F (unfit to fight)…

Timeless Ray patriotic masterpieces from Superman #17 (July/August 1942) and Superman #18 (September/October 1942) precede a stirring yarn from the latter. ‘The Conquest of a City’ (Siegel & John Sikela) sees Nazi agents use a civil defence drill to infiltrate the National Guard and conquer Metropolis in the Fuehrer’s name… until Superman spearheads the counter-attack…

The other great patriotic cover master was Hardin “Jack” Burnley and a quartet of his very best follow – Action Comics #54 (November 1942), Action Comics #55 (December 1942), World’s Finest Comics #8 (Winter 1942 and with Batman and Robin thrown in for good measure) and Superman #20 (January/February 1943).

That last also provides ‘Destroyers from the Depths’ wherein Hitler himself orders dastardly Herr Fange to unleash an armada of marine monstrosities on Allied shipping and coastal towns. Of course, they prove no match for the mighty Man of Steel,

After Burnley’s Action Comics #58 cover (March 1943), Siegel, Ed Dobrotka & Sikela detail the saga of ‘X-Alloy’ from Superman #21 (March/April 1943) as a secret army of Nazi infiltrators and fifth columnists steal American industrial secrets and would have conquered the nation from within if not for the ever-vigilant Man of Steel…

Sikela’s cover Action Comics #59 (April 1943) concludes this section as Part 4: In for the Duration discusses the long, hard struggle to crush the Axis. By the time of the tales here the intense apprehension of the early war years had been replaced with eager anticipation as tyranny’s forces were being rolled back on every Front….

Following Burnley’s May 1943 Action Comics #60 cover, Superman #22 May/June 1943 provides Siegel & Sam Citron’s ‘Meet the Squiffles’: a light-hearted yet barbed flight of whimsy wherein Adolf Hitler is approached by the king of a scurrilous band of pixies who offer to sabotage all of America’s mighty weapons. Neither nefarious rogue had factored Superman – or patriotic US gremlins – into their schemes though…

Action Comics #62 (July 1943) and Superman #22 (July/August 1943) are two of Burnley’s very best covers, with the latter fronting an astounding masterpiece of graphic polemic. Don Cameron scripts and Citron illustrates ‘America’s Secret Weapon!’: a rousing paean to American military might as Clark and Lois report on cadet manoeuvres and the Man of Steel becomes an inspiration to the demoralised troops in training…

Covers by Burnley for Action Comics #63 (August 1943) and Superman #24 (September/October 1943) – which latter provides ‘Suicide Voyage’ – follow. This exuberant yarn by Cameron, Dobrotka & George Roussos finds Clark (and pesky stowaway Lois) visiting the Arctic as part of a mission to rescue downed American aviators. Of course, nobody is expecting a secret invasion by combined Nazi and Japanese forces, but Superman and a patriotic polar bear are grateful for the resultant bracing exercise…

‘The Man Superman Refused to Help’ comes from Superman #25 (November/December 1943) and follows Burnley and Stan Kaye’s cover for Action Comics #66 (November 1943). It is a far more considered and thoughtful tale from Siegel, Ira Yarbrough & Roussos exposing the American Nazi Party – dubbed the “101% Americanism Society” – whilst offering a rousing tale of social injustice as an American war hero is wrongly implicated in the fascists’ scheme… until the Man of Steel investigates.

Next up and from the same issue is much reprinted and deservedly lauded patriotic classic.

‘I Sustain the Wings!’ by Mort Weisinger & Fred Ray was created in conjunction with the Army Air Forces Technical Training Command under Major General Walter R. Weaver and designed to boost enlistment in the maintenance services of the military.

In this stirring tale Clark Kent attends a Technical Training Command school as part of the Daily Planet’s attempt to address a shortfall in vital services recruitment – a genuine problem at this time in our real world – but the creators still find and space for our hero to delightfully play cupid to a love-struck kid who really wants to be a hot shot pilot and not a mere “grease monkey”…

Wayne Boring & Roussos’ cover for Superman #26 (January/February 1944) precedes Boring’s ‘Superman Sunday Strips #220-227’ for January – March 1944 with the Metropolis Marvel heading to multiple theatres of War to deliver letters from loved ones on the Home Front after which Roussos’ ‘Public Service Announcement’ (from Superman #28, May 1944) urges everybody to donate waste paper.

July/August 1944’s Wayne Boring cover for Superman #29 find’s Lois greeting the USA’s real Supermen – servicemen all – before Action Comics #76 (September 1944 and Kaye over Boring leads to anonymously-scripted ‘The Rubber Band’ from World’s Finest Comics #15 (Fall 1944).

Illustrated by Sikela & Nowak and concentrating on domestic problems, it details the exploits of a gang of black market tyre thieves who are given a patriotic “heads-up” after Superman dumps their boss on the Pacific front line where US soldiers are fighting and dying for all Americans…

Drawn by Boring, ‘Superman Sunday Strips #280-282’ from March 1945 then rubbish and belittle the last vestiges of the Third Reich as Hitler and his inner circle desperately try to convince the Action Ace to defect to the side that is comprised of Supermen like them…

In Superman #34 (May/June 1945) Cameron, Citron & Roussos attempt to repeat the magic formula of ‘I Sustain the Wings’ with ‘The United States Navy!’ as Clark is despatched to follow three college football heroes whilst they progress – in different maritime specialisations – through the hellish war in the Pacific…

This enthralling sally through Superman’s martial endeavours conclude with one final Thomas-authored article as Part 5: Atoms for Peace? Reveals who the fruits of the top-secret Manhattan Project changed everything…

As fresh and thrilling now as they ever were, these endlessly re-readable epics are perfectly situated in these gloriously luxurious Archive Editions; a worthy, long-lasting vehicle for the greatest and most influential comics stories the art form has ever produced. These Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment at absurdly affordable prices and in a durable, comfortingly approachable format. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
™ & © 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Atomic Age Sundays volume 1: 1949-1953

By Alvin Schwartz, Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye (IDW/DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-262-3

It’s indisputable that the American comicbook industry – if it existed at all – would have been an utterly unrecognisable thing without Superman. Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster’s bold and unprecedented invention was fervidly adopted by a desperate and joy-starved generation and quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form.

He was also shamelessly copied and adapted by many inspired writers and artists for numerous publishers, spawning an incomprehensible army of imitators and variations within three years of his summer 1938 debut.

The intoxicating blend of breakneck, breathtaking action and triumphal wish-fulfilment which epitomised the early Man of Steel soon grew to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, socially reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy, whimsical comedy and, once the war in Europe and the East also engulfed 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.

In comicbook terms Superman was master of the world. Moreover, whilst transforming and dictating the shape of the fledgling funnybook industry, the Man of Tomorrow relentlessly expanded into all areas of the entertainment media.

Although we all think of the Cleveland boys’ iconic invention as the epitome and acme of comicbook creation, the truth is that very soon after his debut in Action Comics #1 the Man of Steel became a fictional multimedia monolith in the same league as Popeye, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Mickey Mouse.

Diehard comics fans regard our purest and most powerful icons in primarily graphic narrative terms, but the likes of Batman, Spider-Man, Black Panther, The Avengers and all their hyperkinetic kind long ago outgrew their four-colour origins and are now fully mythologized modern media creatures, instantly familiar in mass markets across all platforms and age ranges…

Far more people have viewed or heard the Man of Steel than have ever read his comicbooks. His globally syndicated newspaper strips alone reached untold millions, and by the time his 20th anniversary rolled around at the very start of what we know as the Silver Age of Comics, he had been a thrice-weekly radio serial regular and starred in a series of astounding animated cartoons, as well as two films and a novel by George Lowther.

Superman was a perennial sure-fire success for toy, game, puzzle and apparel manufacturers and had just ended his first smash live-action television serial. In his future were three more shows (Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville), a stage musical, a franchise of blockbuster movies and an almost seamless succession of games, bubblegum cards and TV cartoons beginning with The New Adventures of Superman in 1966 and continuing ever since. Even his superdog Krypto got in on the small-screen act…

However, during his formative years the small screen was simply an expensive novelty so the Action Ace achieved true mass market fame through a different medium: one not that far removed from his print origins.

Although pretty much a spent force these days, for the majority of the last century the newspaper comic strip was the Holy Grail that all American cartoonists and graphic narrative storytellers hungered for. Syndicated across the country – and frequently the planet – it was seen by millions, if not billions, of readers and generally accepted as a more mature and sophisticated form of literature than comic-books. It also paid far better.

And rightly so: some of the most enduring and entertaining characters and concepts of all time were created to lure readers from one particular paper to another and many of them grew to be part of a global culture.

Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, Charlie Brown and so many more escaped humble and tawdry newsprint origins to become meta-real: existing in the minds of earthlings from Albuquerque to Zanzibar.

Some still do…

Even so, it was always something of a risky double-edged sword when a comicbook character became so popular that it swam against the tide (after all weren’t the funny-books invented just to reprint strips in cheap accessible form?) to became actual mass-entertainment – and often global – syndicated serial strips.

Superman was the first original comicbook character to make that leap – about six months after as he exploded out of Action Comics – but only a few have ever successfully followed. Wonder Woman, Batman (eventually) and groundbreaking teen icon Archie Andrews made the jump in the 1940s with only a handful such as Spider-Man, Howard the Duck and Conan the Barbarian having done so since.

The daily Superman newspaper comic strip launched on 16th January 1939, supplemented by a full-colour Sunday page from November 5th of that year. Originally crafted by such luminaries as Siegel & Shuster and their studio (Paul Cassidy, Leo Nowak, Dennis Neville, John Sikela, Ed Dobrotka, Paul J. Lauretta & Wayne Boring), the mammoth task soon required the additional talents of Jack Burnley and writers Whitney Ellsworth, Jack Schiff & Alvin Schwartz.

The McClure Syndicate feature ran continuously from 1939 until May 1966, appearing at its peak in more than 300 daily and 90 Sunday newspapers; boasting a combined readership of more than 20 million. For most of the post war years Boring & Stan Kaye illustrated the spectacular Sundays (eventually supplemented by artists Win Mortimer and Curt Swan). The majority of the strips – from 1944 to 1958 – were written by still largely unsung scribe Alvin Schwartz.

Born in 1916, Schwartz was an early maestro of comicbooks, writing for Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel and many other titles and companies. Whilst handling the Superman strip he also freelanced on Wonder Woman and other superheroes as well as genre titles such as Tomahawk, Buzzy, A Date with Judy and House of Mystery.

After numerous clashes with new superman Editor Mort Weisinger, Schwartz quit comics for commercial writing, selling novels and essays, and latterly, documentaries and docudramas for the National Film Board of Canada. He also worked miracles in advertising and market research, developing selling techniques such as psychographics and typological identification and was a member of the advisory committee to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. He died in 2011.

After too many years wallowing in obscurity most of Superman’s newspaper strip exploits are at last available to aficionados and the curious newcomer in tomes such as this compiled under the auspices of the Library of American Comics.

Showcasing Schwartz and artist Wayne Boring in their purest prime, these Sundays (numbered as pages #521 to #698 and collectively spanning October 23rd 1949 to March 15th 1953) feature a nigh-omnipotent Man of Steel in domestically-framed and curated tales of emotional dilemmas and pedestrian criminality rather than a parade of muscle-flexing bombast, with humour, wit and satire comfortably replacing non-stop angst and bludgeoning action.

Following an affable appreciation of the creators and the times in ‘An Introduction’ by Mark Waid, ‘A Wayne Boring Gallery’ provides a tantalising selection of Superman and Action Comics covers from the period before the weekly wonderment commences in all its vibrant glory.

Sadly, the serials are untitled, so you’ll just have to manage with my meagre synopses of the individual yarns…

Kicking things off is a charming fantasy as the Metropolis Marvel is temporarily stranded in Arthurian Britain after a US government time travel experiment goes awry. Whilst living in the past he befriends and helps out court magician Merlin: an old duffer whose conjuring tricks aren’t fooling anyone anymore…

The first new story of 1950 begins on February 12th and details how swindler Joseph Porter cons the Man of Steel into taking his place and clearing up his problems with the cops and the numerous gulled victims. This includes a hilarious spoofing sequence as Superman plays un-matchmaker to a scandalously-affianced hillbilly ingenue that will delight fans of Li’l Abner

The extended tale opening on May 28th offers another timeless human-interest drama given a super-powered spin as two aging robber barons recall their regulation-free heydays before embarking on a ruthless wager to see who will get “anything they wish for” first.

The only limitations imposed are their imaginations and financial resources and before long Superman is hard-pressed to keep collateral casualties to a minimum…

One of the few antagonists to transfer from the funnybooks to the Funnies pages was fifth dimensional prankster Mr. Mxyztplk who popped back to our third dimension and took instant umbrage to an arrogant Earth educator. Dr. Flipendale had the temerity to declare the imp a mass delusion and refused to believe or even acknowledge the escalating chaos his pronouncements triggered…

Strip #573 (October 22nd) offers a different take on the classic secret identity crisis when Clark is exposed as an invulnerable man to all of Metropolis. Although gangsters are convinced, Lois Lane is not, claiming the underworld is perpetrating a frame-up…

That yarn takes us to the end of the year and 1951 opens on January 7th with a tale of suspicion and injustice as Clark heads back to childhood hometown Smallville to celebrate Superboy Week and encounters a young man nursing an ancient grudge.

When a poison pen and rumour campaign looks set to spoil the festivities, the hero’s investigations uncover a betrayed child, a framed, murdered father and nefarious clandestine misdeeds carried out by corporate rogues in the Boy of Steel’s name…

Another identity crisis bedevils Clark beginning on April 1st 1951. Here a killer’s case of mistaken identity seemingly exposes the reporter as super-strong and bulletproof. Surely, he must be the indomitable Man of Steel in disguise?

Not according to Professor Pinberry who believes the hapless scribe has been accidentally exposed to his new superpower ray machine, Clark is happy to grasp at the fortuitous alibi but trouble mounts after the public demands to see the machine in action again and the city’s biggest mobster goes after the gadget to make himself Superman’s equal…

Strip #609 starts the next quirky exploit on July 1st as old duffer Salem Cooley comes to Metropolis and enjoys the most miraculous winning streak in history. Even Superman’s astounding powers can’t keep up with the string of happy circumstances, fortuitously profitable accidents and close shaves. Everybody wants to be the old coot’s pal, so who then is behind the constant assassination attempts on superstitious Salem and what reward could possibly tempt anyone to challenge the luckiest man alive?

A new serial opens on September 9th as Superman agrees to write Daily Planet articles about some of his previous exploits to benefit crime prevention charities. However, when the capers he cites are restaged by mysterious malefactors the city soon turns against the Man of Tomorrow and it takes all his super-wits to uncover the mastermind behind it all and stop one of the boldest crimes in the city’s history…

To lure a crime boss out, Superman agrees to be absent from Metropolis for a few weeks in the next adventure (running from November 18th 1951 to January 13th 1952). However, when a poverty-struck boy succumbs to disease and depression, the Man of Might decides to return and act undercover, inspiring the kid’s recovery by granting wishes made on a “magic wand”.

That task becomes increasingly difficult after crooks get hold of the stick and the invisible hero has to play along to sustain little Teddy’s recuperation…

From January 20th Superman plays guardian angel to former wastrel and drunken playboy Reggie de Peyster who swears he’s a reformed character. Nobody but Superman realises the trust fund brat is sincere and all the appalling and shameful scandals he’s currently implicated in are being manufactured to cut the heir out of a vast inheritance…

Lois Lane takes centre stage in the tale opening on April 6th as, after months of being sidelined, the daring reporter quits her job to find a career offering some real excitement. She’s soon the assistant to private detective Mike Crain, catching crooks and bodyguarding glamourous stars, but the work seems dull and pedestrian. Of course, Lois is utterly oblivious to the fact that Superman is secretly intervening in his patriarchal efforts to get her back where she belongs. Ah, different times, eh?

When maverick Hollywood producer/director Hans Bower arrives in Metropolis, (June 29th he promptly declares Clark Kent to be his latest mega-sensational super-star. A force of nature unable to take “no” for an answer, he soon has the bewildered reporter helming his next box office blockbuster but as shooting progresses Superman uncovers a covert agenda and shocking secret behind the mogul’s extraordinary actions.

Uncanny crime is the order of the day from September 21st when bizarre illusions plague Metropolis and scientist Dr. Wagonrod accuses Superman of perpetrating hoaxes and staging crises due to an undiagnosed split personality. The truth is far more devious than that, though…

Concluding this first Atomic Age collection, from November 30th 1952 to March 15th 1953, readers were avidly watching the skies as an alien capsule fell to Earth and disgorged a succession of alien bio-weapons to test humanity. The Man of Steel was hard-pressed to defeat the army of bizarre beasts but did have one immeasurable advantage: the sage advice and input of life-long science fiction fan Sedgwick Ripple

The Atomic Age Superman: – Sunday Pages 1949-1953! is the first of three huge (312 x 245 mm), lavish, high-end hardback collections starring the Man of Steel and a welcome addition to the superb commemorative series of Library of American Comics which has preserved and re-presented in luxurious splendour such landmark strips as Li’l Abner, Tarzan, Rip Kirby, Polly and her Pals and many of the abovementioned cartoon icons.

It’s an unimaginable joy to see these “lost” Superman stories again, offering a far more measured, domesticated and comforting side of one of America’s most unique contributions to world culture. It’s also a pure delight to see some of the most engaging yesterdays of the Man of Tomorrow. Join me and see for yourself…
© 2015 DC Comics. All rights reserved. SUPERMAN and all related characters and elements are trademarks of DC Comics.

Batman & Superman in World’s Finest Comics: The Silver Age volume 2

By Edmond Hamilton, Bill Finger, Jerry Coleman, Curt Swan, Dick Sprang, Stan Kaye, Sheldon Moldoff, Charles Paris, Ray Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7780-2

For decades 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 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 brightly-hued hubbub…

Of course, they had shared the covers of World’s Finest Comics from the outset, although never crossing 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, as seen in the previous volume of this splendid compilation series). However once that Rubicon was crossed, thanks to spiralling costs and dwindling page-counts the industry never looked back…

This second stunning trade paperback (and eBook) compendium of Silver Age solid gold re-presents the lead stories from World’s Finest Comics #95-116, spanning July/August 1958 to March 1961: another astounding archive of adventure that opens with an Edmond Hamilton, Dick Sprang & Ray Burnley yarn pitting the temporarily equally multi-powered and alien-entranced champions against each other in ‘The Battle of the Super-Heroes’.

A magical succession of magnificent and light-heartedly whacky classics began in #96 with Hamilton’s ‘The Super-Foes from Planet X’ wherein indolent and effete aliens dispatch fantastic monsters to battle the titanic trio for the best possible reasons…

Bill Finger took over scripting with #97, incomprehensibly turning the Man of Steel on his greatest friends in ‘The Day Superman Betrayed Batman’, after which ‘The Menace of the Moonman!’ pits the heroes against a deranged hyper-powered astronaut, ‘Batman’s Super-Spending Spree!’ baffles all his close friends and Lex Luthor devilishly traps Superman in the newly-recovered Bottle City of Kandor to become ‘The Dictator of Krypton City’ – all breathtaking epics beautifully limned by Sprang & Kaye.

Sprang inked himself in the rocket-paced super-crime thriller ‘The Menace of the Atom-Master’ whereas it took Curt Swan, Burnley, Sprang & Sheldon Moldoff to properly unveil the titanic tragedy of ‘The Caveman from Krypton’ in #102.

‘The Secret of the Sorcerer’s Treasure’ (Sprang & Moldoff) then reveals a couple of treasure hunters driven mad by the tempting power of freshly unearthed magical artefacts whilst Luthor quickly regrets using a hostage Batwoman to facilitate ‘The Plot to Destroy Superman’.

After the metamorphosis which turned Clark Kent into ‘The Alien Superman’ proves not at all what it seems to be, ‘The Duplicate Man’ in WF #106 sees the ultimate downfall of a villain who develops an almost unbeatable crime tool.

Next up ‘The Secret of the Time-Creature’ encompassed centuries and resulted in one of Finger’s very best detective thrillers to baffle but never stump the Cape & Cowl Crusaders, after which Jerry Coleman assumes the writer’s role with ‘The Star Creatures’ (art by Sprang & Stan Kaye), the tale of an extraterrestrial moviemaker whose deadly props were stolen by Earth crooks.

Stellar cover artist Curt Swan (with Stan Kaye inking) finally makes the move to interior illustrator for ‘The Bewitched Batman’, detailing a tense race against time to save the Gotham Guardian from an ancient curse, before ‘The Alien who Doomed Robin’ (Sprang & Moldoff) sees a symbiotic link between monster marauder and Boy Wonder leave the senior heroes apparently helpless… at least for a little while…

‘Superman’s Secret Kingdom’ (Finger, Sprang & Moldoff from #111, August 1960) is a compelling lost world yarn wherein a cataclysmic holocaust deprives the Man of Steel of his memory and Batman and Robin must find and cure him at all costs…

The next issue – by Coleman, Sprang & Moldoff – delivered a unique and tragic warning in ‘The Menace of Superman’s Pet’ as a phenomenally cute teddy bear from space proves to be an unbelievably dangerous menace and unforgettable true friend. Bring tissues, you big baby…

In an era when disturbing or terrifying menaces were frowned upon, many tales featured intellectual dilemmas and unavoidably irritating pests to torment our heroes. Both Gotham Guardian and Man of Steel had their own magical 5th dimensional gadflies and it was therefore only a matter of time until ‘Bat-Mite Meets Mr. Mxyzptlk’: a madcap duel to determine whose hero was best… with America caught in the metamorphic middle.

WF #114 reveals Superman, Batman and Robin shanghaied to the distant world of Zoron as ‘Captives of the Space Globes’ where their abilities are reversed. Nevertheless, justice is still served in the end, after which ‘The Curse that Doomed Superman’ sees the Metropolis Marvel consistently outfoxed by a scurrilous Swami with the Darknight Detective helpless to assist him…

Swan & Kaye at last return for #116’s thrilling monster mash ‘The Creature from Beyond’ to wrap up this volume with a criminal alien out-powering Superman whilst concealing an incredible secret…

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 offer a veritable feast of witty, charming thrillers packing as much punch and wonder now as they always have.
© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman in the Forties

By Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster & the Superman studio (DC Comics/Little, Brown & Co)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0457-0

Part of a series of trade paperbacks intended to define DC’s top heroes through the decades (the other being Batman, of course), these much-missed books always delivered a superb wallop of comicbook magic and a tantalising whiff of other, perhaps better, times.

Divided into sections partitioned by cover galleries, this box of delights opens with the untitled initial episodes from Action Comics #1 and 2 (even though they’re technically ineligible, coming from June and July 1938) as written and drawn by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

With boundless enthusiasm the Man of Tomorrow explodes into action, saving an innocent condemned to the electric chair, teaching a wife-beater a salutary lesson, terrorising mobsters and teaching war profiteers to think again. It’s raw, unpolished and absolutely captivating stuff.

Swiftly following from Superman #58 (May/June 1949) is a beguiling teaser written by William Woolfolk and illustrated by Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye. ‘Lois Lane Loves Clark Kent!’ finds the intrepid pioneering lady reporter seeing a psychiatrist because of her romantic obsession with the Man of Steel. His solution?

The quack tells her to switch her affections to her bewildered, harassed workmate with resultant hilarity and chaos ensuing! A rare treat follows as the seldom seen Superman prose story from Superman #1 (Summer 1939 and of course written by Siegel with accompanying art by Shuster) reappears for the first time in decades.

In 1948 the editors finally declassified the full and original ‘Origin of Superman’ written by Bill Finger with art from Boring and Kaye (Superman #53, cover-dated July/August). It was sequelled a year later and is directly followed in this volume by ‘Superman Returns to Krypton’ (Finger and Al Plastino) wherein the Man of Tomorrow breaks the time barrier to observe his lost homeworld at first hand.

This little gem (from Superman #61, November/December, 1949) provided the comic-book explanation for Kryptonite – which was originally introduced on the radio show in 1943 then promptly forgotten – and opened the door for a magical expansion of the character’s universe that still resonates with us today.

During the late 1940s Siegel & Shuster retrofitted their creation by creating Superboy (“the adventures of Superman when he was a boy”) for More Fun Comics #101 (January/February 1945). An instant hit, the youthful incarnation soon took the lead spot in Adventure Comics and won his own solo title in 1949.

From Superboy #5 (November/December, 1949) comes the charming tale of a runaway princess ironically entitled ‘Superboy Meets Supergirl’ by Woolfolk and the hugely talented John Sikela.

The second section is dedicated to the Man of Steel’s opponents, starting with ‘Superman Meets the Ultra-Humanite’ (Action Comics #14; (July 1939) by Siegel, Shuster and Paul Cassidy. They also devised a much more memorable criminal scientist in Lex Luthor who debuted in an untitled tale from Action #23 (April 1940). This larcenous landmark is followed by ‘The Terrible Toyman’ (Action #64, September 1943) by Don Cameron, Ed Dobrotka & George Roussos.

In such socially conscious times one of Superman’s most persistent foes was a heartless swindler called Wilbur Wolfingham. ‘Journey into Ruin’ by Cameron, Ira Yarbrough & Stan Kaye (Action #107; November #107) is a fine example of this type of tale and the hero’s unique response to it.

A different kind of whimsy is in play when Lois’s niece – a liar who could shame Baron Munchausen – returns with a new pal who can make her fantasies reality in ‘The Mxyztplk-Susie Alliance’ (from Superman #40; May/June 1946), charmingly crafted by Cameron, Yarbrough & Kaye.

The American Way section begins with a genuine war-time classic. ‘America’s Secret Weapon’ is from Superman #23 (July/August 1943, by Cameron, Sam Citron and Sikela): a masterpiece of patriotic triumphalism, as is the excerpt from the Superman newspaper strip which reveals how the over-eager Man of Tomorrow accidentally fluffs his own army physical. These strips by Siegel, Shuster & Jack Burnley originally ran from 16th – 19th February 1942,

Look Magazine commissioned a legendary special feature by the original creators for their 27th February 1943 issue. ‘How Superman Would End the War’ is a glorious piece of wish-fulfilment which still delights, and it’s followed by a less famous but equally affecting human interest yarn ‘The Superman Story’.

Taken from World’s Finest Comics #37 (1947, by Finger, Boring & Kaye), it pictures a pack of reporters trailing Superman to see how the world views him…

The book ends with ‘Christmas Around the World’ as Superman becomes the modern Spirit of the Season in a magical Yule yarn by Cameron, Yarbrough & Kaye from Action #93 (February 1946).

With a selection of cover galleries, special features and extensive creator profiles this is a magnificent Primer to the greatest hero of a bygone Golden Age, but one that can still deliver laughter and tears, thrills and spills and sheer raw excitement. No real fan can ignore these tales…
© 1940-1939, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Phantom – The Complete Series: The Gold Key Years volume 2

By Bill Harris & Bill Lignante with George Wilson (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-61345-023-9

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates, and, washing ashore in Africa, swore on the skull of his murdered father to dedicate his life and that of all his descendants to destroying all pirates and criminals. The Phantom fights crime and injustice from a base deep in the jungles of Bengali, and throughout Africa is known as the “Ghost Who Walks”.

His unchanging appearance and unswerving quest for justice have led to him being considered an immortal avenger by the credulous and the wicked. Down the decades one hero after another has fought and died in an unbroken line, and the latest wearer of the mask, indistinguishable from the first, continues the never-ending battle…

Lee Falk created the Jungle Avenger at the request of his syndicate employers who were already making history, public headway and loads of money with his first strip sensation Mandrake the Magician

Although technically not the first ever costumed hero in comics, The Phantom was the prototype paladin to wear a skin-tight body-stocking, and the first to have a mask with opaque eye-slits.

He debuted on February 17th 1936 in an extended sequence that pitted him against a global confederation of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood. Falk wrote and drew the daily strip for the first two weeks before handing artist Ray Moore the illustration side. The Sunday feature began in May 1939.

For such a successful, long-lived and influential series, in terms of compendia or graphic novel collections, The Phantom has been very poorly served by the English language market. Various small companies have tried to collect the strips – one of the longest continually running adventure serials in publishing history – but in no systematic or chronological order and never with any sustained success.

But, even if it were only of historical value (or just printed for Australians, who have long been manic devotees of the implacable champion) surely “Kit Walker” is worthy of a definitive chronological compendium series?

Happily, his comic book adventures have fared slightly better – at least in recent times…

In the 1960’s King Features Syndicate dabbled with a comicbook line of their biggest stars – Flash Gordon, Mandrake and The Phantom – but immediately prior to that, the Ghost Who Walks helmed a solo-starring vehicle under the broad and effective aegis of veteran licensed properties publisher Gold Key Comics. Each issue was fronted by a stunning painted cover by George Wilson.

The Phantom was no stranger to funnybooks, having been featured since the Golden Age in titles such as Feature Book and Harvey Hits, but only as straight strip reprints. These Gold Key exploits were tailored to a big page and a young readership.

This second superb full-cover hardcover – with equivalent eBook editions for the modern minded – gathers The Phantom #9-17 (originally released between November 1964 and July 1966) and opens with fan and scholar Pete Klaus’ Introduction ‘The Gold Key Phantom’: offering original art panels (many by Sy Barry) and a welcoming overview of the immortal strip star.

Scripted by Bill Harris and drawn in comicbook format by Bill Lignante, the illustrated adventures resume with full-length epic ‘The Sixth Man’ from #9 as the Ghost Who Walks takes a rare trip into modern civilisation only to be shanghaied by crooks. The miscreants realise too late that they have made the biggest mistake of their shady lives…

Determined to discover what’s behind the nefarious scheme, Kit Walker allows himself to be taken to a remote island ruled by bored, cruel queen Sansamor who thrives on making powerful men duel to the death.

Once the hero sees the kind of creature she is, her downfall is assured…

The issue is concluded by a single-page historical recap of the legend of ‘The Phantom’ and equally brief monochrome run-down of the mystery man’s intended bride ‘Diana’ (Palmer).

Cover-dated February 1965, The Phantom #10 opens with devious action thriller ‘The Sleeping Giant’ wherein the long-peaceful tribe of Itongo headhunters take up the old ways after their ancestral idol Tuamotu comes to life.

Thankfully, the Phantom is on hand to stem the potential carnage and expose crooked diamond prospector Joe Gagnon and his oversized circus performer inciting the tribesmen to war and conquest. All he has to do is defeat the giant warrior in unarmed combat…

Assisting the masked peacekeeper in policing the tribes and criminals of the region is ‘The Patrol’. These worthy soldiers have no idea who their mysterious “Commander” actually is and when the latest recruit tries to find out he receives a startling shock in this wry vignette.

Issue #11 (April 1965) features ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ with two brutal convicts breaking out of the Bengal Penal Colony to terrorise native communities by masquerading as demonic spirits. When the Ghost Who Walks apprehends them as they link up with pirates, he is struck sightless by a flare gun. Not even blindness can stop the resourceful champion from dispensing justice, however…

Closing the issue is a one-page tour of ‘The Skull Cave’ by Joe Certa, after which #12 (June) introduces ‘The Beast of Bengali’, with art by Sparky Moore & Lignante. Here a golden giant capable of seeming miracles subjugates the locality until the masked marvel exposes his magical feats for the tricks they really are…

Following a mouth-watering period ad for the Phantom Revell model kit, issue #13 (August) opens ‘The Phantom Chronicles’ as the Jungle Sentinel consults his ancestor’s meticulous records for tips on defeating seemingly immortal bandit Rachamond

The Phantom #14 (October) begins with ‘The Historian’ as scholar Dr. Heg consults with the Jungle Patrol on a book chronicling their achievements. His ulterior motive is to destroy the only law for hundreds of miles, but he has not reckoned on the true identity of their enigmatic leader…

‘Grandpa’ then switches locales to America where Diana Palmer’s doting ancestor is playing unwelcome matchmaker. Eventually, after violent incidents involving bears and robbers, the old man warms to African mystery man Kit Walker…

Closing 1966, issue #15 (December) details the downfall of ‘The River Pirates’ who ravage along the mighty waterways of the region. Their modern weapons prove little use against the cunning and bravery of the Deep Woods Guardian…

‘The Tournament’ then focuses on an unlucky prison escapee who finds the Phantom’s clothes and is stuck fighting a native gladiator in a centuries-old grudge match. Sadly, if he loses, the prestige lost means chaos will return to the tribes enjoying The Phantom’s Peace…

‘The Chain’ opens #16 (April 1966) as a world-weary Phantom considers quitting after an interminable period negotiating peace between warring tribes. Even Diana cannot change his mind, but when ancient wise man Wuru appears he relates a story of the hero’s father, who endured hardship, mockery and even slavery in a quest to rescue a woman from vile bondage. Her name was Maude, and she was to be the Phantom’s mother…

A brace of single-pagers follow, revealing Kit Walker’s unrecorded boxing bout against ‘The Champ’ and a battle in a bar won by ‘The Milk Drinker’ before ‘The Crescent Cult’ sees the Jungle Ghost crushing an assassination gang determined to murder their country’s new Maharani. The comic concludes with another 1-page yarn as ‘The Diggers’ examine old ruins and discover proof that the Phantom has lived and fought evil for centuries!

This second volume ends on a truly supernatural note as The Phantom #17 (July 1966) discloses how undying witch ‘Samaris’ has preyed on male suitors for centuries, and believes she has last found another cursed to live forever…

Following one-pager ‘The Waterfall’, detailing the secrets of the entrance to the fabled Skull Cave, ‘Samaris Part II’ finds the Ghost Who Walks captive of the Queen but resisting her every wile until justice, fate and an avalanche of deferred years catch up to her at last…

Wrapping up is a monochrome vignette detailing the secrets of The Phantoms’ devout helpers ‘The Bandar’ Poison Pygmy People and a sumptuous cover gallery by George Wilson.

Straightforward, captivating rollicking action-adventure has always been the staple of The Phantom. If that sounds like a good time to you, this is a traditional nostalgia-fest you won’t want to miss…
The Phantom® © 1964-1966 and 2012 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ® Hearst Holdings, Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

W.E. Johns’ Biggles and the Golden Bird

By Björn Karlström, translated by Peter James (Hodder and Stoughton)
ISBN: 978-0-34023-081-7(HB)                      0-340-23081-9(PB)

In acknowledgement of today’s Centenary of the Royal Air Force, I’m reviewing a captivating combat classic starring one of the Service’s most glittering – albeit fictional – stars.

Although one of the most popular and enduring of all True Brit heroes, air detective Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth – immortally known as “Biggles” – has never been the star of British comics you’d reasonably expect.

Whilst the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Dick Turpin, Sexton Blake, Dick Barton and others have regularly made the jump to sequential pictorials, as far as I can determine the only time Biggles hit the funny pages was as a beautiful strip illustrated firstly by Ron Embleton and later Mike Western for the lush, tabloid-sized photogravure weekly TV Express (issues 306-376, 1960-1962). Even then the strip was based on the 1960 television series rather than the armada of books and short stories generated over Johns’ 56-year career.

Much of this superb stuff has been reprinted in French and other European editions but remains criminally uncollected in the UK. Indeed Biggles is huge all over the Continent, particularly Holland, Belgium and France, which makes it doubly galling that only a short-lived Swedish interpretation of Biggles has ever made the transition back to Blighty…

Created by World War 1 flying veteran and aviation enthusiast William Earl Johns (February 5th 1893-June 21st 1968), the airborne adventures of Biggles, his cousin the Hon. Algernon Montgomery Lacey AKA “Algy”, Ginger Hebblethwaite and their trusty mechanic and dogsbody Flight Sergeant Smyth ran as prose thrillers in the magazines Modern Boy, Popular Flying and Flying – periodicals which Johns designed, edited and even illustrated.

Initially aimed at an older audience, the Biggles stories quickly became a staple of boys’ entertainment in anthology and full novels (nearly 100 between 1932-1968) as well as a true cultural icon. Utilising the unique timeless quality of proper heroes, Biggles and Co. have waged their dauntless war against evil as combatants in World Wars I and II, as Special Air Detectives for Scotland Yard in the interregnum of 1918-1939 and as freelance agents and adventurers in the Cold War years…

“Captain” W.E. Johns was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century and wrote over 160 books in total as well as innumerable features and articles ranging from gardening to treasure-hunting, aviation, crime fiction, pirates and historical fact and fiction.

He created many heroic novel series which shared the same continuity as Biggles: 6 “Steeley” novels starring Deeley Montfort Delaroy, a WWI fighter ace-turned-crimebuster between 1936-1939, 10 volumes of commando Captain Lorrington King AKA Gimlet (1943-1954) and a 10 volume science fiction saga starring retired RAF Group Captain Timothy ‘Tiger’ Clinton, his son Rex and boffin Professor Lucius Brane who voyaged among the stars in a cosmic ray powered spaceship between 1954 and 1963.

Although much of his work is afflicted with the parochial British jingoism and racial superiority that blights so much of the fiction of the early 20th century, Johns was certainly ahead of his time in areas of class and gender equality. Although Algy is a purely traditional plucky Toff, working class Ginger is an equal partner and participant in all things, whilst Flight Officer Joan Worralson was a WAAF pilot who starred in 11 “Worrals” novels between 1941 and 1950, commissioned by the Air Ministry to encourage women to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

In 1977, veteran Swedish author and cartoonist Björn Karlström returned to comics when publisher Semics commissioned him to produce four new Biggles adventures; ‘Het Sargasso mysterie’, ‘Operatie goudvis’, ‘De tijger bende’ and ‘Ruimtestation Aries’ (The Sargasso Mystery; Operation Goldfish; The Tiger Gang and Space Station Aries, respectively). These were picked up by Hodder and Stoughton in 1978, deftly translated by Peter James and released as Biggles and the Sargasso Triangle, Biggles and the Golden Bird, Biggles and the Tiger and Biggles and the Menace from Space

In 1983, two further albums were released, created by Stig Stjernvik.

Although deeply mired in the stylisation and tone of Hergé’s Tintin, to my mind the most authentic-seeming to Johns’ core concept was the second, highlighted here for today’s celebrations…

Swedish designer, author and aviation enthusiast Björn Karlström began working in comics for the vast Scandinavian market in 1938, producing scale-model plans and drawings for the magazine Flygning. In 1941 he created the adventure strip Jan Winther for them before devising international speculative fiction hit Johnny Wiking: followed up with another SF classic which closely foreshadowed the microscopic missionaries of (Otto Klement, Jerome Bixby and Isaac Asimov’s) Fantastic Voyage in ‘En Resa i Människokroppen’ (1943-1946), before taking over Lennart Ek’s successful super-heroine strip Dotty Virvelvind in 1944.

Karlström left comics at the end of the war and returned to illustration and commercial design, working on jet fighters for Saab and trucks for Scania.

Whereas most of his earlier comics were rendered in a passable imitation of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, when he was convinced to produce the Biggles quartet Karlström adopted a raw, lean version of Hergé’s Ligne Claire style which adds a welcome sense of period veracity to the tales but often offends and upsets Tintin purists…

Biggles and the Golden Bird is set in the early 1930s and begins when the aerial adventurers are asked to pilot a new super-plane in an attempt to break the world long-distance flying record. Fact freaks might be intrigued to discover that the “Fairview” of this story is closely based on the record-smashing Fairey Long Range Monoplane, which stars in a splendid plans-&-diagrams section at the back that also includes the De Havilland C-24 Autogiro also featuring prominently in this ripping yarn…

When mysterious intruders brazenly steal the Fairview, intelligence supremo General Raymond dispatches Biggles, Algy and Ginger to track them down and retrieve the prototype air-machine. A crashed light plane and a rustic witness point the trio in the direction of Scotland and, dashing North in a ministry-provided autogiro (that’s a cross between a plane and an early kind of helicopter), they rendezvous with a fishing boat whose captain also witnessed strange sky shenanigans only to be attacked and overcome…

Their enigmatic adversaries had anticipated the pursuit and laid a trap, but with a typical display of pluck and fortune, Ginger turns the tables and drives off the thugs. The real Captain Gilbert then imparts his information and the autogiro brings them to a desolate ruined castle on a rocky headland, where Ginger and Algy are captured by an armed gang even as poor Biggles plunges over a cliff to certain doom…

Naturally the Ace Aviator saves himself at the last moment and subsequently discovers a sub-sea cavern – complete with deep-sea diving operation – just as his pals cunningly escape captivity. Fortuitously meeting up, the trio follow their foes and find a sunken U-Boat full of gold…

The uncanny reason for the theft of the Fairview and the mastermind behind it all is revealed when arch-enemy and all-around Hunnish blackguard Erich von Stalhein arrives to take possession of the recovered bullion before fleeing to a new life in distant lands. Having none of it the plucky lads strike, leading to a blistering battle and spectacular showdown…

Fast and furious, full of fights and hairsbreadth chases – although perhaps a touch formulaic and too steeped in the old-fashioned traditions for modern comics purists – this light and snappy tale would delight newer readers and general action fans and is readily available in both hardback and softcover editions, since the books were re-released in 1983 in advance of the star-studded but controversial British film-flop Biggles: Adventures in Time.

Perhaps it’s time for another revival and even some fresh exploits?
Characters © W.E. Johns (Publications). Text and pictures © 1978 Björn Karlström. English text © 1978 Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.

Blackhawk Archives Volume 1

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

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

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

Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betty Boop volumes 1-3

By Bud Counihan (Blackthorne Publishing/Comic Strip Preserves)
ISBNs: 0-932629-33-4, 0-932629-47-4 and 0-932629-69-5

Betty Boop is one of the most famous and long-lived fictional media icons on the planet. She’s also probably the one who has generated the least amount of narrative creative material – as opposed to simply merchandise – per year since debuting.

The ultimate passion paragon was created at the Fleischer Cartoon Studios either by Max Fleischer himself or cartoonist/animator Grim Natwick – depending on whoever you’ve just read – premiering in the monochrome animated short movie feature Dizzy Dishes. This was the sixth “Talkartoon” release from the studio, screening for the first time on August 9th 1930.

A deliberately racy sex-symbol from the start, Betty was based on silent movie star Clara Bow. The “the It-Girl” (as in “she’s got…”) was originally anthropomorphised into a sexy French Poodle; voiced in those pioneering days of “the talkies” by a succession of actresses including Margie Hines, Kate Wright, Ann Rothschild and Mae Questel who all mimicked Bow’s soft and seductive (no, really!) Brooklyn accent.

Betty evolved into a fully – if wickedly distorted – human girl by 1932’s Any Rags and, having co-opted and monopolised the remaining Talkartoons, graduated to the Screen Songs featurettes before winning her own animated cartoon series, to reign as “The Queen of the Animated Screen” until the end of the decade.

A Jazz Age flapper in the Depression Era, the delectable Miss Boop was probably the first sex-charged teen-rebel of the 20th Century, yet remained winningly innocent and knowledgably chaste throughout her career. Thus, she became astoundingly, incredibly popular – although her ingenue appeal diminished appreciably when the censorious Hayes Production Code cleaned up all the smut and fun coming out of Hollywood in 1934 – even though the Fleisher Studio was New York born and bred…

Saucy singer Helen Kane, who had performed in a sexy “Bow-esque” Brooklyn accent throughout the 1920s and was billed as “The Boop-Oop-A-Doop Girl” famously sued for “deliberate caricature” in 1932. Although she ultimately failed in her suit, even Betty couldn’t withstand a prolonged assault by the National Legion of Decency and the Hayes Code myrmidons.

With all innuendo removed, salacious movements restricted and drawn in much longer skirts, Betty gained a boyfriend and family whilst the scripting consciously targeted a younger audience. Her last animated cartoon stories were released in 1939.

The one advantage to Betty’s screen neutering and new wholesome image was that she suddenly became eligible for inclusion on the Funnies pages of family newspapers, romping amidst the likes of Popeye and Mickey Mouse. In 1934 King Features Syndicate launched a daily and Sunday newspaper strip drawn by Bud Counihan, a veteran ink-slinger who had created the Little Napoleon strip in the 1920s before becoming Chic Young’s assistant on Blondie.

The Betty Boop comic strip never really caught on and was cancelled early in 1937, but that relatively short run still leaves us with these three rather charming and wistfully engaging volumes, collected and edited by comics aficionado and historian Shel Dorf as part of Blackthorne’s low-budget 1980s reprint program, alongside other hard-to-find classics such as Tales of the Green Berets and Star Hawks, and one possibly never to be collected again elsewhere, more’s the pity…

There was a brief flurry of renewed Betty activity during the 1980s, leading to a couple of TV specials, a comic-book from First Comics Betty Boop’s Big Break (1990) and another newspaper strip Betty Boop and Felix by Brian Walker (son of Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois creator Mort Walker).

That one she shared with fellow King Features nostalgia alumnus Felix the Cat and it ran from 1984-1988, but that’s still a pretty meagre complete canon for a lady of Betty’s fame, longevity and pedigree.

As stated, the collected strips in these Blackthorne editions feature the freshly-sanitised, family-oriented heroine of the later 1930s, but for devotees of the era and comics fans in general the strip still retains a unique and abiding screwball charm. Counihan’s Betty is still oddly, innocently coquettish: a saucy thing with too-short skirts and skimpy apparel (some of the outfits – especially bathing costumes – would raise eyebrows even now), and although the bald innuendo that made her a star is absent, these snappy exploits of a street-wise young thing trying to “make it” as a Hollywood starlet are plenty racy enough when viewed through the knowing and sexually adroit eyes of 21st century readers…

Book 1 of this cheap ‘n’ cheerful black-and-white series opens with an extended sequence of gag-a-day instalments that combine to form an epic comedy-of-errors as Betty’s lawyers do litigious battle with movie directors and producers. Their aim is to arrive at the perfect contract for all parties – clearly a war that rages to this day in Tinseltown – whilst labouring under the cost restrictions of what was still, after all, The Great Depression.

The full-page Sunday strips are presented in a separate section, but even with twice the panel-count the material was still broadly slapstick, cunning wordplay, single joke stories. However, one of these does introduce the first of an extended cast, Betty’s streetwise baby brother Bubby: a certified cinematic rapscallion to act as a chaotic foil to the star’s affably sweet, knowingly dim complacency.

There’s a succession of romantic leading men (usually called “Van” something-or-other) but none stick around for long as Betty builds her career, and eventually the scenario changes to a western setting as cast and crew begin making Cowboy Pictures, leading to many weeks’ worth of “Injun Jokes”, but ones working delightfully counter to old and unpleasant stereotypes, before the first volume concludes with the introduction of fearsome lower-class virago Aunt Tillie; chaperone, bouncer and sometime comedy movie extra…

Book 2 (Adventures of a Hollywood Star) continues in the same vein with lawyers, entourage and extras providing the bulk of the humour with Betty increasingly becoming the Straight Man in her own strip except in a recurring gag about losing weight to honour her contract (which stipulates she cannot be filmed weighing more than 100 pounds!)

Geez! Her head alone has got to weigh at least… sorry, I know… just a comic, …

Like many modern stars, Betty had a dual career and there’s a lot of recording industry and song jokes before the Native Americans return to steal the show some more.

Book 3 carries on in what is now a clear and unflinching formula, but with Bubby, Aunt Tillie and her diminutive new beau Hunky Dory increasingly edging Betty out of the spotlight and even occasionally off the page entirely…

By no means a major effort of “the Golden Age of Comics Strips”, Counihan’s Betty Boop (like most licensed syndicated features the strip was “signed” by the copyright holder, in this case Max Fleischer) is still a hugely effective, engaging and entertaining work, splendidly executed and well worthy of a comprehensive and complete compilation, especially in an era where female role models of any vintage remain a scarce resource.

With the huge merchandising empire built around the effervescent little cartoon gamin, waif and houri (everything from apparel to wallpaper, clocks and blankets), surely it isn’t too much to expect a proper home for all the wicked little japes, jests and junkets of her sojourn in sequential art?

Additionally, the second and third books also offer a selection of Paper Doll Bettys with outfits to cut out and colour, designed by Barb Rausch (Neil the Horse, Katy Keene, Barbie, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast among many others) a traditional “added-value” feature of the earliest comic strips that still finds irresistible resonance with much of today’s audience. Just remember, now we can make copies without cutting up those precious originals…
© 1986, 1987 King Features Syndicate. All rights reserved.

Golden Age Marvel Comics Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Carl Burgos, Bill Everett, Paul Gustavson, Ben Thompson & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1609-7 (HB)                    978-0-7851-5052-7 (TPB)

Die-hard fans craving a look at previously inaccessible vintage comics material have never had it so good. When I was young (not quite twenty minutes after the Golden Age actually ended), superhero and other genre stories from the dawn of the industry were all but impossible to find and a comprehensive scheme of reprinting old stuff a very low priority for even big publishers like DC and Marvel

These days a vast percentage of 1930, 1940s and 1950s comics output from many still-existing and bygone outfits is readily readable: either in expensive print compilations or more accessible digital editions.

DC led the way in the early 1990s, but soon after a great deal of Marvel Comics’ Timely and Atlas material joined the collective pool, and the notion that old stuff is not to modern tastes was finally disproved. For years accepted wisdom had decreed that most Golden Age stories were too dated and quite often painfully strident – maybe even offensive to 21st century eyes and sensibilities.

Nevertheless, many like me would rather have the raw historical form rather than any bowdlerised or censored reworking and even in their most jingoistic and populist excesses there are usually individual nuggets of gold amidst the shocking or – horror of horrors – badly crafted yarns from the art form’s sensationalistic antediluvian antecedents.

Marvel took quite some time before producing expensive deluxe volumes featuring their earliest comic adventures and this collection of the first four issues of the anthology title which started it all for Timely/Marvel/Red Circle/Atlas (before eventually and inevitably settling on Marvel Comics), despite re-presenting some of the most revered adventures of the Golden Age, clearly shows why.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh and hyper-critical: I have to admit that there’s a lot of stuff here that I spent much of my early life lusting after. I am however a total comics nut with broad tastes and mutable standards. There are shameful horrors and truly pitiful examples of the medium lurking in my dusty comics boxes. I am not a new, casual or particularly discriminating punter.

Hi – my name is Win and I’m addicted to old comics…

After a rather shaky start and inauspicious in 1936, the fledgling comicbook industry was saved by the invention of Superman. His iconic innovation created a new popular genre and paved the way for explosive expansion.

By 1939 the new kids on the block were in a frantic flurry of creative frenzy with every publisher trying to make and own the Next Big Thing. Martin Goodman’s pulp fiction outfit leapt into the turbulent marketplace and scored big with their initial offering Marvel Comics: released late in the year before inexplicably switching to the marginally less euphonious Marvel Mystery Comics with the second issue.

During those early days, novel ideas, raw ambition and sheer exuberance could take you far and, as most alternative means of entertainment escapism for kids were severely limited, it just wasn’t that hard to make a go of it as a comicbook publisher. Combine that with a creative work-force which kept being drafted, and it’s clear to see why low and declining standards of story and art didn’t greatly affect month-to-month sales during the years of World War II.

However, once hostilities ceased a cascade-decline in super-hero strips began almost as soon as GI boots hit US soil again. Those innocent kids had seen a lot and wanted something more than brashness, naivety and breakneck pace from their funnybooks now…

Both the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner quickly won favour with the burgeoning, fickle readership, but the remaining characters were soon acknowledged to be B-listers and thus subject to immediate replacement once a better idea presented itself. Still, two out of seven was pretty good: Action and Detective Comics only had the one super-star apiece at the outset…

Another holdover from the pre-comics, pulp fiction phase of the company was a predilection to treat instalments as serial chapters; always promising more and better if you’d just come back next month…

Before the year was out Timely’s “Big Two” would clash; frequently and repeatedly battling like elemental gods in the skies above Manhattan…

Goodman apparently favoured Ka-Zar and The Angel: both characters that devolved from his own stable of pulp genre stars. Sadly, neither the generic jungle adventures of the company’s premiere Tarzan knockoff or the thud-and-blunder crimebusting rogue’s potboilers – which owed so much to Leslie Charteris’ iconic dark knight the Saint – just didn’t appeal to kids as much as the spectacular graphic histrionics of the anarchic Fire and Water anti-heroes…

An editorial policy of rapid expansion was quickly adopted: release a new book filled with whatever the art and script monkeys of the comics “shop” (freelance creative types who packaged material on spec for publishing houses: Martin Goodman bought all his product from Lloyd Jacquet’s Funnies Inc.) dreamed up, keep the popular hits and disregard everything else.

Timely Comics, or Red Circle as the company occasionally called itself, enjoyed a huge turnover of characters who only made one or two appearances before vanishing, never to be seen again until variously modern revivals or recreations produced new improved versions of characters such as Angel, Ka-Zar or Electro.

This volume – available in hardback, softcover and eBook editions – kicks into high gear following a knowledgeable and informative scene-setting introduction by Golden Age Guru Roy Thomas.

The landmark Marvel Comics #1 sported a cover by pulp illustrator Frank R. Paul, and after spot gag page ‘Now I’ll Tell One’ (by “Ed Wood” – AKA Fred Schwab) introduces to the gasping populace Carl Burgos’ landmark conception of ‘The Human Torch’

The Fiery Fury led off a parade of wonderment, bursting into life as a malfunctioning humanoid devised by Professor Phineas Horton. Igniting into an uncontrollable blazing fireball whenever exposed to air, the artificial innocent was consigned to entombment in concrete but escaped to accidentally imperil the metropolis until it/he fell into the hands of a gangster named Sardo.

When the crook’s attempts to use the gullible android as a terror weapon dramatically backfire, the hapless newborn is left a misunderstood fugitive, like a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster. Even his creator only sees the humanoid as a means of making filthy money…

Crafted by Paul Gustavson, the opening episode of ‘The Angel’ owed a criminally large debt to the 1938 Louis Hayward film The Saint in New York. Although dressed like a superhero, the globe-trotting do-gooder offered a blending of Charteris’s iconic well-intentioned scoundrel and The Lone Wolf (Louis Vance’s urbane two-fisted hero who was the subject of 8 books and 24 B-movies between 1917 and 1949).

However, the four-colour paladin’s foes soon tended towards only the spooky, the ghoulish and the just plain demented….

He also seemed able to cast giant shadows in the shape of an angel. Not the greatest aid to cleaning up the scum of the Earth, but he seemed to manage in this initial enterprise where he is tasked with cleaning up New York’s gang problems before suffering the deadly depredations of the crime syndicate dubbed ‘the Six Big Men’

Bill Everett’s ‘The Sub-Mariner’ was actually an expanded reprint of a beautiful black-&-white strip from Motion Picture Funnies. Prince Namor was the scion of an aquatic race living under the South Pole. These advanced mer-folk had been decimated by American mineral exploration a generation previously, and the Sub-Mariner’s mother Fen had been dispatched to spy upon the invaders. She had gotten too close, falling pregnant by one of the interlopers, and twenty years later her hybrid son was an amphibious mutant superman determined to exact revenge on the air-breathers – which he promptly began by attacking New York City…

Cowboy Jim Gardley was framed by ruthless cattle-baron Cal Brunder and found the only way to secure a measure of justice was to become ‘The Masked Raider’: dispensing six-gun law. Al Anders’ Lone Ranger riff was competent but uninspired, lasting until the 12th issue of Marvel Mystery.

Offering a complete adventure, ‘Jungle Terror’ by Tomm Dixon (aka Art Panajian) follows gentlemen explorers Ken Masters and Tim Roberts (visually patterned on Caniff’s Pat Ryan and Terry Lee) battling savages in the Amazon to find cursed diamonds, after which a brief prose vignette – a staple of early comics – recounted Ray Gill’s racing car drama of ‘Burning Rubber’ before the aforementioned ‘Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great’ saw Ben Thompson adroitly and serially adapt Bob Byrd’s pulp novel King of Fang and Claw to strip form.

In the first chapter, South African diamond miner John Rand and his wife crash their plane into the Belgian Congo where their son David grows up amidst jungle splendour to become brother to King of Lions Zar.

An idyllic life is only marred years later when murderous explorer Paul De Kraft kills old John, leaving young David to seek vengeance…

Behind a Charles J. Mazoujian Angel cover, the abruptly re-titled Marvel Mystery Comics #2 (December 1939) again offered ‘The Human Torch’ by Burgos, wherein the fiery fugitive has attained a degree of sophistication and control before stumbling onto a murderous racing car racket. Here gangster Blackie Ross ensures his drivers always win by strafing all other contestants from an airplane, until the big-hearted, outraged Torch steps in…

Gustavson then despatched ‘The Angel’ to Hong Kong to prevent museum researcher Jane Framan falling victim to a curse when the perils of the Lost Temple of Alano prove to be caused by greedy men, not magical spirits.

‘The Sub-Mariner’ himself is the threat in Everett’s second chapter, as the Marine Marvel goes berserk in a city powerhouse before showing his true colours by chivalrously saving a pretty girl caught in the ensuing conflagration.

Anders’ ‘Masked Raider’ then breaks up an entire lost town of outlaws, after which the debuting ‘American Ace’ (by Paul Lauretta and clearly based on Roy Crane’s soldier of fortune Wash Tubbs) finds Yankee aviator Perry Wade flying straight into danger when the woman who caused the Great War returns to start WWII by attacking innocent European nations with her hidden armies…

‘The Angel’ stars in an implausible, jingoistic prose yarn (by David C. Cooke illustrated by Mazoujian), single-handedly downing a strafing ‘Death-Bird Squadron’ before Thompson introduced fresh horrors – including a marauding, malicious ape named Chaka to plague young David in more ‘Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great’.

The issue closes with more gag pages: ‘All in Fun’ by Ed Wood and ‘Looney Laffs’ from Thompson.

Cover-dated January 1940 and sporting an Angel cover by Alex Schomburg, Marvel Mystery Comics #3) saw ‘The Human Torch’ slowly evolving into what we’d recognise as a superhero series as he battles a ruthless entrepreneur trying to secure the formula for a super-explosive that he can sell to Martian invaders, whilst ‘The Angel’ confronts a bloodthirsty death-cult sacrificing young women, even as ‘The Sub-Mariner’ takes a huge leap in dramatic quality after policewoman Betty Dean entices, entraps and successfully reasons with the intractably belligerent sub-sea invader.

With global war looming ever closer, opinions and themes were constantly shifting and Everett reacted brilliantly by turning Namor into a protector of all civilians at sea: spectacularly preying on any war-like nation sinking innocent shipping.

Naturally, even before America officially joined the fray, that meant primarily Nazis got their subs and destroyers demolished at the antihero’s sinewy hands…

When gold and oil are discovered under ranch land, ‘The Masked Raider’ steps in to stop greedy killers from driving off the settlers in a timeless tale of western justice, but current events overtook the ‘American Ace’, who faded out after this tale of Blitzkrieg bombings in a picturesque Ruritanian nation.

Even Cooke & Everett’s text thriller ‘Siegfried Suicide’ was naming and shaming the Axis directly in a yarn where a lone Yank saves some French soldiers from German atrocity, before neutrality resumes as, under African skies, the ‘Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great’ sees the boy hero rescue his animal friends from a well-meaning zoo hunter in a tale revealing hints of a Jungle Book style congress of animals…

The final inclusion in this volume – Marvel Mystery Comics #4, February 1940 – opens with a Schomburg cover depicting Sub-Mariner smashing a Nazi U-Boat before another inflammatory Burgos ‘Human Torch’ epic has the android create a secret identity as Jim Hammond and return to New York to clash with a criminal genius terrorising the city using warriors cloaked in deadly, sub-zero ‘Green Flame’

‘The Angel’ too is back in the Big Apple, grappling with a small-time hood who manipulates a monstrous hyper-thyroid case named ‘Butch the Giant’. Impervious to pain and able to punch through brick walls his slavish meal ticket is eventually overcome, after which ‘The Sub-Mariner Goes to War’ when the passionate Prince returns to his Polar people to rally them and their advanced technology into a taskforce to enforce his Pax Namor upon the surface world’s assorted war mongers…

Even by its own low standards ‘The Masked Raider’ tale of claim-jumping is far from exemplary, but prose crime puzzler ‘Warning Enough’ (by Cooke & Harry Ramsey) is a genuinely enthralling change of pace tale.

Rendered by Steve Dahlman, ‘Electro, the Marvel of the Age’ introduces brilliant Professor Philo Zog who constructs an all-purpose wonder robot and forms an international secret society of undercover operatives who seek out uncanny crimes and great injustices for the automaton to fix. The first case involves retrieving a kidnapped child actress…

Another debut is ‘Ferret, Mystery Detective’ by Stockbridge Winslow (Bob Davis) & Irwin Hasen, following the eponymous crime-writer and his faithful assistants as they solve the case of a corpse dropped on the authors doorstep…

Proceedings then culminate with the increasingly impressive ‘Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great’ as the despised De Kraft returns to face the beginning (but not the end: that’s frustratingly left to the next issue and volume) of the jungle lord’s just vengeance…

Despite all the problems I’ve whinged about, I’m constantly delighted with this substantial chronicle, warts and all, but I can fully understand why anyone other than a life-long comics or Marvel fan might baulk at the steep price-tag in these days of grim austerity, with a wealth of better quality and more highly regarded comics collections available.

Nevertheless, value is one thing and worth another, and the sheer vibrantly ingenious rollercoaster rush and vitality of these tales, even more than any historical merit, is just so intoxicating that if you like this sort of thing you’ll love this sort of thing.

If anything could convince the undecided to take a look, later editions of this tome also include numerous tantalising house ads of the period and a full colour cover gallery of Marvel Mystery Comics’ pulp predecessors: Marvel Science Stories, Marvel Tales, Marvel Stories, Ka-Zar, The Anger Detective, Uncanny Tales, Mystery Tales, Dynamic Science Stories and Star Detective Magazine by illustrators Norman Saunders, Frank R. Paul, H. W. Wesso and John W. Scott.

Upping the ante, further bonuses comprise the second print cover of Marvel Comics #1, a sample of Norman Saunders’ original painted art; Everett Sub-Mariner pages and unused cover roughs; a Mazoujian Angel pencilled cover reworked into the never-printed Zephyr Comics Ashcan cover and a Burgos watercolour sketch offering a partial redesign of the Human Torch.

Although probably not to the tastes of modern fans, for devotees of super-heroes, aficionados of historical works and true Marvel Zombies there’s still lots to offer here.

As always, in the end, it’s up to you…
© 1939, 1940, 2004, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.