Frankenstein: The Mad Science of Dick Briefer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dick Briefer died in December 1980.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonah Hex: Welcome to Paradise


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Midnight Archives volume 2: Captain Midnight Saves the World!


By William Woolfolk, Leonard Frank, Dan Barry & various (Dark Horse Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-243-5                  eISBN: 978-1-62115-921-6

Created by broadcast scripters Wilfred G. Moore and Robert M. Burtt, Captain Midnight began as a star of radio serials in the days when troubleshooting All-American aviators were the acme of adventure genre heroes. The Captain Midnight Program soldiered on from 1938 to 1940 until the Wander Company acquired the sponsorship rights to promote their top product: Ovaltine. From there on, national radio syndication led to a newspaper comic strip (by Erwin L. Hess, running from June 29th 1942 until the end of the decade); a movie serial (1942) and – later – two TV serials (1953 and 1954-1956) before being overdubbed, retitled and syndicated as “Jet Jackson, Flying Commando” well into the 1960s). There was also a mountain of now-legendary merchandise such as the infamous Captain Midnight Secret Decoder Ring

And there was a comicbook franchise… one recently reinvigorated for 21st century audiences.

The hero’s basic origin related how after the Great War ended, pilot and inventor Captain Jim Albright returned home having earned the sobriquet “Captain Midnight” following a particularly harrowing mission that concluded successfully at the witching hour.

He then formed a paramilitary “Secret Squadron” of like-minded pilots to continue making the world a better place – often at the covert behest of the President – using guts and gadgets to foil spies, catch crooks and defend the helpless.

Captain Midnight truly hit his stride after Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, becoming an early Home Front media sensation throughout the war years. However, his already fluid backstory and appearance underwent a radical makeover when he switched comicbook horses in midstream.

This stunningly engaging full-colour paperback collection (also available as an eBook) gathers a slew of science fiction-themed tales taken from the latter end of the Fawcett Comics run. Captain Midnight #48, 50, 52-56, 58, 60, 62, 64 and 66 spanned February 1947 – August 1948 and with times and tastes changing the venerable title folded with the next issue…

Following a fervent Introduction from Batton Lash discussing the career of the much-travelled, constantly evolving “Monarch of the Airways” and the telling differences between the radio, screen and comicbook iterations, the contents explosively unfold with a tragic dearth of credit and attributions. Much comic material from this era is criminally unattributed but regular writers known to be active on Midnight at this juncture included Bill Woolfolk and Otto Binder whilst artists included the unflagging Leonard Frank and young legends-to-be Leonard Starr and Dan Barry.

From issue #48 ‘Captain Midnight Visits the Golden Asteroid’ sees Albright and his mechanic Ichabod Mudd piloting their newly invented rocket-ship to investigate a new stellar body only to find that the astronomer who discovered it has an ulterior and nefarious motive for getting to the stellar wanderer.

Illustrated by Frank and from #50, ‘Captain Midnight Spikes the Sun Gun’ pitted the modern Edison against devilish Dr. Pyrrho who had found a way to inflict destructive heat on the already sweltering citizens of the American Southwest after which a return prospecting trip to our nearest neighbour uncovered ‘The Moon Creatures’ (Woolfolk) who aggressively resisted all attempts to colonise Luna…

With the solar system now a regular destination for exploration, Albright began an occasional series of sorties to the planets and picked up some new recurring foes. The first was a plundering barbarian from Pluto who raided Earth for its Uranium reserves in #52’s ‘Captain Midnight versus the Space Raider!’ (Binder & Frank).

The resultant chase and recovery took our hero to Mars and first contact with an unsuspected race also under threat of merciless assault by the murderous Jagga

After driving the fiend off and recovering his ill-gotten gains, Midnight next encountered the ruthless Plutonian inflicting ‘Peril on Venus’ in #53. By sending him packing once again, the inventor consequently aided the long-lost last survivors of Atlantis in getting their failing colony onto an even keel in a world overrun by dinosaurs…

In #54 Midnight and Icky encountered yet another embattled civilisation on Ceres: a literally golden kingdom fending off Jagga’s bacterial onslaught and meteoroid bombardments. With the Air Aces’ assistance, the monster was finally driven off in ‘The Asteroid Battle’

There’s a double dose of super-scientific spectacle in #55, beginning with Albright’s perhaps unwise invention of a monumental dirigible intended as ‘The Sky Airport’. When common thugs steal the mobile monolith and use it as a base for air raids on banks, the heartbroken genius is forced into desperate action to clear his conscience…

This is followed by another interplanetary incident when ‘Captain Midnight Finds the Lunar Lair’ and finally brings Jagga to justice in the form of a trial in Earth’s courts. Unequivocally guilty, the beast is sentenced to death by electrocution in #56’s ‘The Last Rites of Jagga’ (Frank art) but said execution proves to be a major mistake and Midnight is called upon to deliver the sentence in his own infallible scientific manner…

A new alien threat emerges in #58 ‘On the Planet of Peril’ when an unknown race reanimates Earth’s greatest villains and monsters…

A month later ‘Captain Midnight Battles the Ice Age’ found our interplanetary explorers on Neptune: changing that world’ climate to give its humanoid inhabitants a big step up the ladder to civilisation, whilst issue #60 saw the return of earthly arch-enemy Dr. Osmosis who terrified and tormented humanity with his explosive ‘Flying Saucers of Death’

Captain Midnight #62 detailed the inventor’s efforts to save America’s ‘Farmers on the Moon’ from sabotage as Earth agricultural entrepreneur Jim Klaw sought to maintain his produce monopoly at all costs…

A new extraterrestrial enemy debuted in #64 as ‘Beyond the Sun’ (Frank) introduced shapeshifting tyrant Xog: a gaseous monster from Saturn who boarded America’s newest spaceships as step one in his plans for interplanetary domination. When Captain Midnight thwarted the scheme and rescued the hostage Terrans, the vile king swore vengeance…

It came in the final tale in this superbly retro rollercoaster of rocket-powered fun – from #66 with art by Frank – as Xog transforms Captain Midnight into sentient gas before invading Earth. Happily, even ‘Without a Body’ Albright was too much for the malign marauder and once more saved the day and the world…

With a stunning gallery of covers by Frank, Charles Tomsey, Dan Barry and Mac Raboy plus cool mini-features such as ‘Captain Midnight’s Air Lingo’, ‘US Army Aviation Badge Insignia’ and ‘Famous Planes’, this fabulous feast of fantasy is guaranteed to satisfy the nostalgic yearnings of every starry-eyed space cadet, whatever their age.
Captain Midnight Archives volume 2: Captain Midnight Saves the World! ® and ©Dark Horse Comics 2014. All rights reserved.

Superman Sunday Classics Strips 1-183 – 1939-1943


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster & others (DC/Kitchen Sink Press: Sterling Publishing Co. Inc.)
ISBN: 9781402737862(Sterling)                    978-1563894725(DC/KS)

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 unprecedented invention was rapturously adopted by a desperate and joy-starved generation, quite literally giving birth to a genre if not an actual art form.

Spawning an impossible army of imitators and variations within three years of his 1938 debut, the intoxicating blend of breakneck, breathtaking action and wish-fulfilment which epitomised the early Man of Tomorrow 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 affected 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 the shape of the fledgling funnybook industry, the Metropolis Marvel 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.

We parochial and possessive comics fans too often regard our purest and most powerful icons in purely graphic narrative terms, but the likes of Batman, Spider-Man, The Avengers and 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 seen or heard an actor as Superman than have ever read his comicbooks. The 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, Superman had become a thrice-weekly radio serial regular and starred in a series of astounding animated cartoons, two films, a TV series and a landmark novel by George Lowther.

He was a perennial sure-fire success for toy, game, puzzle and apparel manufacturers and had just ended that first smash live-action television presence. In his future were three more shows (Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville), a stage musical, a string of blockbuster movie franchises 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…

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 often 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 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.

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

Most of them still do…

However it was considered 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 the strips in cheap accessible form?) to became a genuinely mass-entertainment syndicated serial strip.

Superman was the first comicbook star to make that leap – about six months after as he exploded out of Action Comics – with only a few ever successfully following. Wonder Woman, Batman (eventually) and groundbreaking teen icon Archie Andrews made the jump in the 1940s and only a handful like Spider-Man, Howard the Duck and Conan the Barbarian have 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 Siegel & Shuster – whose primary focus switched immediately from comicbooks to the more prestigious tabloid iteration –  and their hand-picked studio (Paul Cassidy, Leo Nowak, Dennis Neville, John Sikela, Ed Dobrotka, Paul J. Lauretta & Wayne Boring), the mammoth daily grind soon required the additional talents of Jack Burnley and writers like Whitney Ellsworth, Jack Schiff & Alvin Schwartz.

This superb collection – doubly out-of-print despite its superb quality and sublime content – opens with an Introduction by occasional contemporary Super-Scribe Roger Stern, recapping the sensation and his creators, before stupendously re-presenting the first 19 complete tales of the primal powerhouse in stunning full colour.

Whether in pamphlet or local periodical, these tales of a modern Hercules exploded into the consciousness of the world. No one had ever seen a fictionalised hero throw all the rules of physics away and burst into unstoppable, improbable action on every page. In fact, editors and publishers’ greatest concern was that the implausible antics would turn off audiences. Clearly, they could not have been more wrong…

Thus most of the early episodes are about establishing the set-up of an Alien Wonder masquerading as an extremely puny human at a “great Metropolitan newspaper” whilst crushing evil as his flamboyant alter-ego. These stories are all about constant action and escalating spectacle, displaying the incredible power of the bombastic hero and man of the people…

On the first Sunday in November 1939 the parade of marvels commenced with a single introductory page describing Superman’s origins in ‘The Man of Tomorrow’ followed seven day later by initial adventure ‘Twenty-Four Hours to Ruin’ which found the Action Ace in a non-stop rush of blood and thunder whilst saving a logging concern from sabotage and hostile takeover by gangsters.

Crime segued into scientific fantasy as Superman encountered and saved ‘The Mindless Slaves of Dr. Grout’ from forced labour as the villain fomented a coup against America…

The inklings of true comicbook themes and more complex storylines arrived as Clark Kent and Lois Lane were despatched to investigate the ‘Giants of Doom Valley’: discovering a race of hostile subterranean invaders for Superman to discourage…

‘Assassins and Spies’ then took them into the most pressing concern of the era when agents of a foreign power began spreading sedition and terror on America’s shores to bolster a European war.

A mysterious mastermind used super-science, coercion, abduction and giant insects to ensure ‘The Chosen’ carried out his plans of global financial dominance before a more bucolic tale saw Superman helping Lois escape fatal consequences as ‘The Dangerous Inheritance’ left her with 5,000 acres of seemingly worthless scrubland…

Woe in the wilderness gives way to big city bombast as ‘The Bandit Robots of Metropolis’ cause carnage in search of cash, pushing the Man of Steel to his physical and intellectual limits and priming him for a landmark clash against ‘Luthor, Master of Evil’ who turns the weather into a weapon in his ongoing war against mankind.

A cunning murderer attempts to frame a professional automobile driver in ‘Death Race’ whilst a high-tech propaganda campaign seeks to destabilise the city when ‘The Committee for a New Order’ begins pirating the airwaves. As Superman crushes their campaign of terror he is embroiled in a blistering battle against vile enemy agents who know Lois is his Achilles Heel…

Another corporate assault on trade is exposed when freight drivers are poisoned by crooks whose orders are to ‘Destroy All Trucks’ of a businessman’s rivals, before a mirage-making super-villain pillages Metropolis until her galvanic guardian see through ‘The Image’

When Clark’s ‘Arson Evidence’ convicts an innocent man, his other self moves heaven and earth to exonerate the jailbird and ferret out the true fire-fiend after which – it being almost three years since his debut – Superman spent two weeks reminding old readers and informing new ones why and how he was ‘The Champion of Democracy’.

To a large extent mention of World War II was kept to a minimum on the Action Ace’s funny pages, but now ‘The Superman Truck’ – detailing how a formidable prototype military transport was relentlessly targeted by saboteurs – jumped right in with a subplot about a reluctant taxi driver enlisting in Army Transport Corps.

Tracing his induction and training, this yarn was a cunningly-conceived weekly ad and plea for appropriately patriotic readers to enlist…

Military motifs continued as a ship full of diplomats and war correspondents is set afire by an incendiary madman allied to in-over-their-heads Fifth Columnists. It’s not long before ‘The Blaze’ is in critical timberland, acting on his own deranged impulses and leaving Superman a huge job to save America’s war effort…

Showbiz raised its glamorous head when Clark and Lois were sent to cover the morale-boosting ‘Hollywood Victory Caravan’ tour, only to stumble into backbiting, sabotage, intrigue and murder at the hands of Nazi infiltrators.

Wrapping up the vintage spills and thrills is another fervent comics call to arms as Superman and Clark take a well-intentioned but lazy and perpetually backsliding wastrel in hand, shepherding him through aviator ‘Cadet Training’ to a useful existence as a warrior of Democracy…

Supplementing the gloriously rip-roaring, pell-mell adventure are spellbinding extra features including ‘How Superman Would End World War II’ (first seen in the February 27th 1940 issue of mainstream icon Look magazine), ads and a 1942 ‘Superman Pinup’.

This specific Sterling Publishing volume is a reissue of the 1999 DC/ Kitchen Sink co-production, but either edition offers timeless wonders and mesmerising excitement for lovers of action and fantasy. If you love the era or just crave simpler stories from less angst-wracked times these yarns are perfect comics reading, so this a book you simply must have…
Superman and all related names, characters and elements are ™ DC Comics © 2006. All rights reserved.

Blue


By Pat Grant (Pat Grant/Top Shelf)
ISBN: 978-1-60309-153-4

As far as the global mass-market is concerned, Australia doesn’t do comics. There’s no home-grown Oz equivalent to Beano or Spirou or 2000 AD, no Akira or Batman to enthral the entire nation.

You don’t hear about their industry bashes such as OzComic-Con and nobody applauds if you say you’ve been nominated for a Stanley Award…

Yet Australia harbours an incredibly potent and dedicated cartooning community, quietly turning out a broad and utterly beguiling range of strips and features from kiddie-comics to strictly adult fare that we seldom get to enjoy in the Northern climes (just check out UK ex-pat Eddie Campbell’s work or Neomad: Space Junk or the precious few titles from Gestalt Publishing that have made it to Britain to see what I mean…).

One of the most enticing and rewarding releases in decades recently came courtesy of cartoonist and passionate surfer Pat Grant. In 2012 his debut graphic novel Blue set tongues wagging not just down under but all over: a superbly realised amalgam of graphic autobiography, socially-relevant historical treatise and fantasy-tinged cautionary tale…

Like so much Australian graphic narrative, Blue owes more to the underground and alternative comics movements than to mainstream. The art is rendered in a muted, limited-colours palette in a style vaguely reminiscent of Peter Bagge, but the storytelling is all original; mixing memories of growing up in small remote company-town with themes of alienation as filtered through a lens of constant, unwelcome change, incipient onrushing maturity and impending humdrum crushing responsibility.

Blue is seductive, familiar, scary and also punishingly funny where it’s most inappropriate…

Bolton is a town by the sea, built a generation ago by the company to house its work force. Years passed and the town stopped being shiny and new. The workers had kids and the kids grew bored. They had school and surfing and no prospects. And then the aliens started turning up. Unwelcome, unwanted, probably illegal and so clearly unwilling to mix. Soon they were everywhere, spoiling everything…

Christian never made it out. He’s a burn-out these days, sucking down bevies when not coasting a dead-end painting gig – and boozing on the job too if no one’s watching – so he’s got time to tell you about those days when he was a kid and lived for surfing…

The day he remembers most vividly is when him and Verne and Muck skipped school to chase a truly massive wave and decided to go see the body of a bloke who died on the railway tracks the night before…

Graphically imaginative, boldly experimental and gratefully expressing his debt of inspiration to the film Stand By Me, Grant has woven here an intoxicating web of intrigue and memory which resonates with the mythic image we all have of life in Oz and the knowledge of what kids ought to be like.

However, the most powerful sense is one of constant motion, bolstered by stunning, nigh-abstract seascapes and wave fronts, as his actors move raucously, rowdily and rapidly through their scenes propelled by bad instincts and inexpressible desire for something different…

Although you may not share Grant’s personal background, readers cannot help but be swept away by the author’s utterly convincing immersion in the minutiae of nostalgia and poignant bewilderment in how we all got to here and now…

With an introduction by Dylan Horrocks and text feature ‘Genealogy of the Boofhead: Images Memory and Australia’s Surf Comics’ – an erudite and fascinating extended essay by Grant detailing the history of the nation’s board bound phenomenon – this enchanting hardback tome is a total treat for comics connoisseurs indoors or outside.
© 2012 Pat Grant. All rights reserved.

The Shadow volume 3: The Light of the World


By Chris Roberson, Giovanni Timpano & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-60690-461-9

In the early 1930s, The Shadow gave thrill-starved Americans their measured doses of extraordinary excitement via cheaply produced pulp periodical novels, and over the mood-drenched airwaves through his own radio show.

“Pulps” were published in every style and genre in their hundreds every month, ranging from the truly excellent to the pitifully dire, but for exotic or esoteric adventure-lovers there were two stars who outshone all others. The Superman of his day was Doc Savage, whilst the premier dark, relentless creature of the night dispensing terrifying grim justice was the putative hero under discussion here.

Radio series Detective Story Hour – based on stand-alone yarns from the Street & Smith publication Detective Story Magazine – used a spooky-toned narrator (variously Orson Welles, James LaCurto or Frank Readick Jr.) to introduce each tale. He was dubbed “the Shadow” and from the very start on July 31st 1930, he was more popular than the stories he highlighted.

The Shadow evolved into a proactive hero solving instead of narrating mysteries and, on April 1st 1931, began starring in his own printed adventures, written by the incredibly prolific Walter Gibson under the house pseudonym Maxwell Grant. On September 26th 1937 the radio show officially became The Shadow with the eerie motto “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of Men? The Shadow knows!” ringing out unforgettably over the nation’s airwaves.

Over the next eighteen years 325 novels were published, usually at the rate of two a month. The uncanny crusader spawned comicbooks, seven movies, a newspaper strip and all the merchandising paraphernalia you’d expect of a superstar brand.

The pulp series officially ended in 1949 although Gibson and others added to the canon during the 1960s when a pulp/fantasy revival gripped the world, generating reprinted classic yarns and a run of new stories as paperback novels.

In graphic terms The Shadow was a major player. His national newspaper strip – by Vernon Greene – launched on June 17th 1940 and when comicbooks really took off the Man of Mystery had his own four-colour title; running from March 1940 to September 1949.

Archie Comics published a controversial contemporary reworking in 1964-1965 under their Radio/Mighty Comics imprint, by Robert Bernstein, Jerry Siegel, John Rosenberger and Paul Reinman. In 1973 DC acquired the rights to produce a captivating, brief and definitive series of classic comic sagas unlike any other superhero title then on the stands.

DC periodically revived the venerable vigilante. After the runaway success of Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchman, Howard Chaykin was allowed to utterly overhaul the vintage feature for an audience at last acknowledged as grown-up enough to handle more sophisticated fare.

This led to further, adult-oriented iterations (and even one cracking outing – Hitler’s Astrologer – from Marvel) before Dark Horse assumed the license of the quintessential grim avenger for the latter half of the 1990s and beyond.

Dynamite Entertainment secured the option in 2011 and, whilst reissuing much of those other publishers’ earlier efforts, began a series of new monthly Shadow comics.

Set in the turbulent 1930s and war years that followed, these were crafted by some of the top writers in the industry, each taking their shot at the immortal legend, and all winningly depicted by a succession of extremely gifted illustrators.

This third volume – collecting #13-18 of the monthly comicbook from 2013 – comes courtesy of author Chris Roberson (House of Mystery, iZombie, Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love, Superman/Batman) and illustrator Giovanni Timpano, ably abetted by colourist Fabrício Guerra and letterer Rob Steen. This time the Master of the Dark prowls the bloody streets of New York in search of a fantastic vigilante as deadly and remorseless as himself…

The drama begins as yet another rich, powerful man is butchered whilst secretly indulging in sordid pleasures of the flesh. The perpetrator is rumoured to be a ghostly, sword-wielding “lady phantom”…

Very few know that the black-cloaked fist of final retribution known as The Shadow masquerades by day as abrasive, indolent playboy Lamont Cranston. Most are agents in his employ: all aware of his semi-mystical abilities to detect thoughts and cloud the minds of men. They are about to learn that there are other beings blessed with uncanny abilities, relentless determination and unshakeable agendas…

Cranston and his paramour/top operative Margo Lane begin their investigations at the prestigious Cobalt Club: pumping the wealthy patrons and Police Commissioner Weston in the guise of idle gossip-mongering and scandal-seeking…

The authorities, it seems, give little credence to the testimony of prostitutes – the only survivors of the attacks – and have dismissed reports of a vengeful woman as sole perpetrator. The Shadow’s operatives are far more astute and less prejudiced: information is gathered and soon after the Dispenser of Vengeance is on hand when the woman in white confronts her next victim…

As the first of a series of poignant flashbacks begins to reveal the secret of the bizarrely radiant swordswoman, in the modern moment of her confrontation with The Shadow, the Master of Men quickly realises this seeming angel of death is every inch his equal in the arts of combat. In fact, her ability to cast a blinding glow might well give her the edge…

After a brutal duel he manages to drive her off before she can finish off her latest victim, but, before he or the police can get any useful information from the survivor, the maimed man is silently butchered in his locked and guarded hospital room…

And thus the war between light and darkness progresses with The Shadow losing battles but gradually winning the war: inexorably closing in on The Light by pitting all his resources and risking his greatest assets to trap his glowing antithesis who works for the most pure, if misguided, of causes…

Dynamite publishes periodicals with a vast array of cover variants and here that gallery features a wealth of iconic alternate visions by Alex Ross, Francesco Francavilla, Tim Bradstreet, Paolo Rivera and Jason Shawn Alexander to delight any art lover’s eyes and heart.

Moody and brooding, The Light of the World is a solid pulp thriller with an intriguing history and premise for its “player on the other side” scenario, plenty of action and a spectacular cinematic climax at the top of New York’s steel-&-concrete canyons…

This is another superb addition to the annals of the original Dark Knight, and one no one addicted to action and mystery should miss.
The Shadow ® & © 2013 Advance Magazine Publishers Inc. d/b/a Conde Nast. All Rights Reserved.

Zorro: Matanzas


By Don McGregor, Mike Mayhew, Sam Parsons & John Costanza (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-60690-147-2

One the earliest masked heroes and still phenomenally popular throughout the world, “El Zorro, The Fox” was originally devised by jobbing writer Johnston McCulley in 1919 for a 5-part prose serial entitled ‘The Curse of Capistrano’. He debuted in All-Story Weekly for August 6th, running until 6th September. The part-work was subsequently published by Grossett & Dunlap in 1924 as The Mark of Zorro and further reissued in 1959 and 1998 by MacDonald & Co. and Tor respectively.

Famously, Hollywood royalty Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford read the serial in All-Story on their honeymoon and immediately optioned the adventure as the first film release from their new production company/studio United Artists.

The Mark of Zorro was a global movie sensation in 1920 and for years after, and New York-based McCulley subsequently re-tailored his creation to match the so-different filmic incarnation. This Caped Crusader aptly fitted the burgeoning genre that would soon be peopled by the likes of The Shadow, Doc Savage and The Spider.

Rouben Mamoulian’s 1940 filmic remake of The Mark of Zorro further ingrained the Fox into the world’s psyche and, as the prose exploits continued in a variety of publications, Dell began a comicbook version in 1949.

When Walt Disney Studios began a hugely popular Zorro TV show in 1957 (78 half-hour episodes and four 60 minute specials before cancellation in 1961), the ongoing comicbook series was swiftly redesigned to capitalise on it. The media corporation began a decades-long strip incarnation of “their” version of the character in various quarters of the world.

This series and later iterations also resulted in comics and strips all over Europe from Disney and Marvel in the USA. During the 1990s, Topps Comics spearheaded Zorro’s return courtesy of Don McGregor & Mike Mayhew which led to a short-lived newspaper strip (illustrated by Thomas Yeates) and also incidentally and memorably introducing a salacious “bad-girl” sidekick in the unwisely-clad form of Lady Rawhide

And there were more movies, this time with an actual Spaniard playing the lead role (Antonio Banderas, in case you were wondering…)

In 2008 Dynamite Entertainment reintroduced the Fox in new yarns by Matt Wagner and as part of the package excavated this lost tale from the Topps iteration: an unpublished adventure by McGregor & Mayhew, with colours by Sam Parsons and letters by industry veteran John Costanza.

Zorro: Mantanzas has a chequered history. Part of a longer storyline begun during McGregor & Mayhew’s run on the Topps Comic in the 1990s, the tale was only completed in 2010 for the Dynamite run and released as 4-issue miniseries before being collected as a trade paperback and later an eBook. For all that, however, the lost episode offers a passionate and sophisticated portrayal of the quintessential champion risking his own security and happiness to thwart a macabre and complex villain: a struggle rendered even more appealing by the magnificent illustration of Mayhew and Parsons.

For the uninitiated: Don Diego de la Vega is the foppish son of a grand house in old California when it was a Spanish Possession, who used the masked persona of Señor Zorro (the Fox) to right wrongs, defend the weak and oppressed – particularly the pitifully maltreated natives and Indians – and thwart the schemes of a succession of military leaders and the colonial Governor determined to milk the populace of the growing township of Los Angeles for all they had.

Whenever Zorro struck he left his mark – a letter “Z” carved into walls, doors, faces…

Diego has a whole support structure in place. Although in this iteration his stiff-necked Hildalgo father is unaware of his double life the secret hero has a number of assistants who do. The most important is Bernardo (a deaf-mute manservant) and Jose of the Cocopahs – a native chief who often acts as stableman, decoy and body-double for the Masked Avenger. Diego also occasionally employs a retired, reformed one-eyed pirate named Bardoso to act as his spy amongst townsfolk and outlaws…

The settlement is basking in unaccustomed liberty after Zorro’s overthrow of the military governor, unaware that their new Regency Administrator Lucien Machete is a sadistic fiend with a nasty line in prosthetic weapons nursing a rabid grudge against Zorro – the man who made his replacement limb necessary…

The villain has struck up a friendship with Diego’s father Don Alejandro; an increasingly frustrated grandee who finds his son’s unseemly and unmanly behaviour more and more inexplicable and intolerable.

Infuriatingly, Machete is not talking advantage of the familial rift as ploy; he just likes the old man whilst despising his foppish son, blithely oblivious that the soft poltroon is the black-clad avenger who has thwarted his previous malevolent depredations…

Zorro knows – but cannot prove – that Machete’s credentials are forged and his claims to act as the Spanish King’s official representative are false. The Fox urgently seeks to expose the impostor before whatever vile plot he fosters can be completed. Thus he cannot let anything distract him…

The drama unfolds after Don Alejandro and Lucien attend the Matanza: an annual festival where the young men show off their strength and manhood by ceremonially butchering cattle and other livestock in a gory display of horsemanship and bloodletting. Diego has naturally declined to attend or participate, preferring to surreptitiously watch Machete.

He is wise to do so, for the maniac has malicious plans to sabotage the event with a new addition to his arm’s arsenal…

Taking up position above the killing grounds, Zorro and Bernardo have a perfect position to observe proceedings but their keen surveillance is disrupted by a huge bear attracted to the site by the smell of blood.

Its attack is devastating and leaves the secret champions battling for their lives. By the time they can again turn their attention to the Matanza, Lucien has done his dirty work: good men are dead or maimed and an horrific stampede is underway. Moreover, in the chaos personal tragedy has struck at the De La Vega household and Machete seems to be getting away with murder again, whilst El Zorro is painted as the blackest of monsters…

A simple tell well-told and lavishly illustrated, Zorro: Matanzas is packed with spectacular action and diabolical intrigue in the grand manner and incidentally offers a potted origin and discreet peek at the fabulous subterranean citadel covertly crafted by Diego and Bernardo to facilitate the Fox’s war on injustice.

Although more incident than main feature, this is a blistering romp every lover of human-scaled adventure will adore…
Zorro®: Matanzas, Volume One © 2014 Zorro Productions, Inc. All rights Reserved.

Justice League of America: The Silver Age volume 2


By Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky, Bernard Sachs & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6515-1

The advent of the Justice League of America marks the moment when superheroes truly made comicbooks their own particular preserve. Even though the popularity of masked champions has waxed and waned since 1960 and other genres have re-won their places on published pages, in the minds of America – and the world – Comics means Superheroes.

The JLA signalled that men – and even a few women – in capes and masks were back for good…

When Julius Schwartz began reviving and revitalising the nigh-defunct superhero genre in 1956, his key moment came a few years later with the uniting of these reconfigured mystery men into a team…

The League was launched in issue #28 of The Brave and the Bold (March 1960) and cemented the growth and validity of the revived sub-genre, triggering an explosion of new characters at every company producing comicbooks; even spreading to the rest of the world as the 1960s progressed.

Spanning February 1962 to May 1963, this latest full-colour paperback collection of timeless classics (also available digitally) re-presents issues #9-19 of the epochal first series of Justice League of America with scripter Gardner Fox and illustrators Mike Sekowsky & Bernard Sachs seemingly able to do no wrong…

Although Superman and Batman were included in the membership their participation had been strictly limited as editorial policy at the start was to avoid possible reader ennui and saturation from over-exposure. That ended with the stories gathered here as they joined the regulars Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, J’onn J’onzz – Manhunter from Mars and late inductee Green Arrow. There were also contributions from “typical teenager” Snapper Carr: a hip and plucky mascot who proved a focus of ferocious fan debate for decades thereafter…

Justice League of America #9 opens proceedings here: a legendary and oft-recounted tale and the start of a spectacular run of nigh-perfect super-hero adventures. ‘The Origin of the Justice League’ recounts the circumstances of the team’s birth: an alien invasion saga of mighty space warriors seeking to use Earth as a gladiatorial arena in which to decide the future ruler of their distant world Appellax.

It’s followed by the series’ first continued story. ‘The Fantastic Fingers of Felix Faust’ finds the World’s Greatest Superheroes already battling a marauder from the future when they’re spellbound by a vile sorcerer. Faust has awoken three antediluvian demons and sold them the world in exchange for 100 years of unlimited power. Although the heroes eventually outwit and defeat Faust they have no idea that the demons are loose…

In ‘One Hour to Doomsday’ the JLA pursue and capture their initial target The Lord of Time, but are then trapped a century from their home-era by the awakened, re-empowered demons. This level of plot complexity hadn’t been seen in comics since the closure of EC Comics, and never before in a superhero tale. It was a profound acknowledgement by the creators that the readership was no longer simply little kids – if indeed it ever had been…

Arch-villain Doctor Light debuted in #12, attempting a pre-emptive strike on the team by transporting them to carefully selected sidereal worlds where their abilities would be useless, but ‘The Last Case of the Justice League’ proved to be anything but, and in the next issue the heroes saved our entire reality by solving ‘The Riddle of the Robot Justice League’ created to stop the champions from halting the theft of our life-energy by agents of another cosmic realm.

‘The Menace of the “Atom” Bomb’ in issue #14 was a neat way of introducing latest member The Atom whilst showing a fresh side to an old villain masquerading as new nemesis Mister Memory whilst issue #15’s ‘Challenge of the Untouchable Aliens’ added some fresh texture to the formulaic plot of extra-dimensional invaders out for our destruction.

‘The Cavern of Deadly Spheres’ was a deceptive change-of-pace tale with a narrative technique that just couldn’t be used on today’s oh-so-sophisticated audience, but still has the power to grip a reader, after which ‘Triumph of the Tornado Tyrant’ saw a sentient cyclone that had once battled the indomitable Adam Strange (in Mystery in Space #61- or Adam Strange Archives volume 1) set up housekeeping on an desolate world and ponder the very nature of Good and Evil.

It soon realised that it needed the help of the Justice League to reach a survivable conclusion.

Teaser Alert: As well being a cracking yarn, this story is pivotal in the development of the android hero Red Tornado

In #18 the heroes were forcibly summoned to a subatomic world by three planetary champions whose continued existence threatened to destroy the very world they were designed to protect. ‘Journey to the Micro-World’ found the JLA compelled to defeat opponents who were literally unbeatable and discovering yet again that Batman’s brains were a super power no force could thwart…

A final perplexing puzzle was posed in ‘The Super-Exiles of Earth’ after unstoppable duplicates of the heroes went on a crime-spree, forcing the world’s governments to banish the League into space. Battling undercover, the team proved too much for the mystery mastermind behind the plot and returned to public acclaim in a stellar wrap-up to another fabulous feast of four-colour fun.

With iconic covers by Sekowsky and Murphy Anderson, these tales are a perfect example of all that was best about the Silver Age of comics, combining optimism and ingenuity with bonhomie and adventure. This slice of better times also has the benefit of cherishing wonderment whilst actually being historically valid for any fan of our medium. And best of all the stories here are still captivating and enthralling transports of delight.

These classical compendia are a dedicated fan’s delight: an absolute gift for modern fans who desperately need to catch up without going bankrupt. They are also perfect to give to youngsters as an introduction into a fabulous world of adventure and magic…
© 1962, 1963, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Classics volume 1


By Wally Wood, Len Brown, Larry Ivie, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, George Tuska, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-61377-689-6                  eISBN: 978-1-62302-362-1

The history of Wally Wood’s immortal comics masterpiece is painfully convoluted, and when the meteoric lifespan of the Tower Comics line ended, not especially pretty: wrapped up in legal wrangling, financial jiggery-pokery and plenty of petty back-biting.

None of that, however, can diminish the fact that the far-too brief original career of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves was a benchmark of quality and sheer bravura fun for fans of both the then-still-reawakening superhero genre and the era’s spy-chic obsession.

In the early 1960s the Bond movie franchise was going from strength to strength, with blazing action and heady glamour utterly transforming the formerly understated espionage genre.

The buzz was infectious: soon Men like Flint and Matt Helm were carving out their own piece of the action as television shanghaied the entire bandwagon with the irresistible Man From U.N.C.L.E. (premiering in September 1964); bringing the whole shtick inescapably into living rooms across the planet.

Wildly creative maverick Wally Wood was approached at this time by veteran MLJ/Archie Comics editor Harry Shorten to create a line of characters for a new distribution-chain funded publishing outfit – Tower Comics.

Woody called on some of the biggest names in the industry to produce material in the broad range of genres the company demanded (as well as T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and its spin-offs Undersea Agent, Dynamo and NoMan there was a magnificent anthology war-comic Fight the Enemy and wholesome youth-comedy Tippy Teen).

Samm Schwartz and Dan DeCarlo handled the funnybook – which outlasted all the others – whilst Wood, Larry Ivie, Len Brown, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Russ Jones Gil Kane and Ralph Reese all contributed scripts for themselves and the industry’s top talents to illustrate on the adventure series.

With a ravenous appetite for super-spies and costumed heroes steadily rising in comic-book popularity and amongst the general public, the idea of blending the two concepts seems a no-brainer now, but those were far more conservative times.

When T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 appeared with no fanfare or pre-publicity on newsstands in August 1965 (with a cover off-sale date of November) thrill-hungry readers like little me were blown away. It didn’t hurt either that all Tower titles were in the beloved-but-rarely-seen 80-Page Giant format: there was a huge amount to read in every issue!

All that being said the tales would not be so beloved if they hadn’t been so superbly crafted. As well as Wood, the art accompanying the compelling, far more mature stories was by some of the greatest talents in comics: Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta, Steve Ditko and others.

This initial compilation of classics collects T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1-4: spanning November 1965 to April 1966 and covering the first golden year of the series. The action starts with no preamble in ‘First Encounter’: a simple four page tale by Ivie & Wood and lettered by Archie comics mainstay Victor Gorelick.

A team of UN commandos fails to save brilliant scientist Professor Emil Jennings from the attack of the mysterious Warlord, but at least rescues some of his greatest inventions, including a belt that can increase the density of the wearer’s body until it becomes as hard as steel, an invisibility cloak and an enigmatic brain-amplifier helmet.

These prototypes are subsequently divided between several agents to create a unit of superior fighting men and counter the increasingly bold attacks of many global terror threats such as the aforementioned Warlord.

First chosen was affable file clerk Len Brown who was, to everyone’s surprise, assigned the Thunderbelt and codename Dynamo in delightfully light-hearted adventure ‘Menace of the Iron Fog’. Scripted by veteran writer Len Brown – who until publication had no idea illustrator/editor Wood had prankishly changed the hero’s civilian name as a last-minute gag – this explosively bombastic romp gloriously pandered to every kid’s dream as the nice guy got the power to smash stuff…

This cathartic fun-fest also introduced the Iron Maiden; a sultry villainess clad in figure-hugging steel who was the probable puberty-trigger for an entire generation of boys…

‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent NoMan’ came next, the eerie saga of aged Dr. Anthony Dunn who had his mind transferred into a specialised android body, before being equipped with the invisibility cape. The author’s name is unknown but the incredible Reed Crandall (with supplemental Wood inks) drew the first episode, which also found time and space to include a captivating clash with sinister mastermind Demo and his sultry associate Satana who had unleashed a wave of bestial sub-men on a modern metropolis.

NoMan had one final advantage: if his artificial body was destroyed his consciousness could transfer to another android body. As long as he had a spare ready, he could never die…

Larry Ivie filled in some useful background on the war against the Warlord in the prose adventure ‘Face to Face’ before the third agent was chosen in ‘The Enemy Within’ (also with no script credit but illustrated by Gil Kane, Mike Esposito and George Tuska). Here, however, is where the creators stepped well outside comic-book conventions. John Janus was the perfect UN employee and super-agent candidate: a mental and physical marvel who easily passed all the tests necessary to wear the Jennings helmet.

Sadly he was also a deep-cover mole for the Warlord, poised to betray T.H.U.N.D.E.R. at the earliest opportunity…

All those nefarious plans went awry once he donned the helmet and became Menthor. The device awakened the potential of his mind, granting him telepathy, telekinesis and mid-reading powers – and also drove all evil from his mind whilst he wore it. When the warlord attacked with a small army and a giant monster, Menthor was compelled by his own costume to defeat the assault. What a dilemma for a traitor to be in…

‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad’, by Ivie, Mike Sekowsky & Frank Giacoia, is a rip-roaring yarn featuring an infallible elite team of non-powered specialist operatives (predating TV’s Mission: Impossible outfit by almost two years) who tackled cases the super-agents were too busy or unsuited for.

In this initial outing the Squad rush to defend their Weapons Development Center from a full paramilitary assault only to discover that it’s a feint and Dynamo has been captured by the Warlord…

The first issue then ends with a massive old-fashioned team-up as all the forces of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. converge to rescue their prime agent who is ‘At the Mercy of the Iron Maiden’ (Brown, Wood & Dan Adkins): a spectacular battle blockbuster that still takes the breath away…

As always, issue #2 led with the strongman star as ‘Dynamo Battles Dynavac’ (Brown, Wood & Richard Bassford): another colossal combat classic with the hapless hero getting a severe kicking from a deadly automaton. Once again a narrative thread stretched through the disparate solo tales as the hero’s girlfriend and fellow agent Alice was kidnapped…

NoMan was ‘In the Warlord’s Power’ (Bill Pearson, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando & Wood) when an army of Zombie-men attacked a missile base and the evil overlord found a way to take control of Dunn’s android frame after which Menthor again defied his master to defeat a Warlord scheme to destroy T.H.U.N.D.E.R. HQ (illustrated by Sekowsky & Giacoia) before ‘D-Day for Dynamo’ (with art from Wood, Adkins & Tony Coleman) pits the assembled heroes – reunited to rescue Alice – against Demo, the Dynavac unit and the Warlord forces in an all-out war with atomic consequences.

Here the series took a fantastic turn as the Warlord is revealed to be an agent of a subterranean race of conquerors…

Prose piece ‘Junior T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents’, neatly segues into another T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad thriller as the team respond ‘On the Double’ to a South American crisis involving mutant monsters, Communist insurgents and bloody revolution in a classy caper illustrated by the Sekowsky/Giacoia team.

Drawn by Adkins, Wood & Coleman ‘Dynamo Battles the Subterraneans’ opened the third issue as the Warlord’s macabre mole-men masters attacked Washington DC, after which ‘NoMan Faces the Threat of the Amazing Vibraman’ (Pearson, John Giunta, Wood & Coleman) sees a far more plebeian but no less deadly masked menace ended by the undying agent.

Dynamo almost becomes a propaganda victim of Communist agitator ‘The Red Dragon’ (Adkins, Wood & Coleman) whilst the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad battle a madman who manufactures his own ‘Invaders from the Deep’ (another uncredited script limned by Sekowsky & Giacoia) before main event ‘Dynamo vs. Menthor’ (Wood, Adkins & Coleman) poses a terrifying mystery as a trusted agent almost destroys the entire organisation…

With a scattering of captivating Fact File pin-ups by Wood & Adkins featuring Dynamo, NoMan, the Thunderbelt, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad and Menthor, the visual excitement in this issue is beyond price.

Dynamo tale ‘Master of Evolution’ (Brown, Wood, Adkins & Coleman) opens the fourth issue with a dinosaur bashing extravaganza, whilst the fiendish Mastermind arrayed his own android armies against the Artificial Agent in ‘The Synthetic Stand-Ins’ by Steve Skeates, Sekowsky & Giacoia, after which the same team debut the latest super-agent in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad saga ‘The Deadly Dust’ after a Nazi scientist uses a time-retarding dust for evil and the heroes respond with a reflex-enhancing super-speed suit.

This first case for hyper-fast Lightning was followed by a Dynamo milestone. ‘The Return of the Iron Maiden’ was drawn by Crandall, Wood & Adkins and saw the Armoured Inamorata betray her latest employer Dr. Death for the good-hearted hunk of man sent to arrest her.

Finally, the mystery of Menthor is partially resolved in fast-paced thriller ‘The Great Hypno’ (illustrated by Giunta, Wood & Coleman), and of course the storytelling extravaganza is supported by more fantastic art extras in the form of NoMan in Action! and The Origin of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Fact Pages.

These are truly timeless comic tales that improve with every reading, so why not add these landmark superhero spy sagas to your collection of all-time favourites?
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Classics volume 1 © 2013 Radiant Assets LLC.. All rights reserved.

Captain Midnight Archives volume 1: Captain Midnight Battles the Nazis


By Dave Gormley, Leonard Frank, Carl Pfeufer, Dan Barry & various (Dark Horse Comics)
ISBN: 78-1-61655-242-8                    eISBN: 978-1-62115-884-4

Captain Midnight began his bombastic life as a radio serial star in the days when two-fisted, troubleshooting aviators were the acme of adventure genre heroes. Created by broadcast writers Wilfred G. Moore and Robert M. Burtt, the show was conceived by Chicago ad-men to promote Skelly Oil in the American Midwest.

The Captain Midnight Program soldiered on from 1938 to 1940 until the Wander Company acquired the sponsorship rights to promote their top product; Ovaltine. From there on, the sky was the limit: national radio syndication led to a newspaper comic strip (by Erwin L. Hess, running from June 29th 1942 until the end of the decade); a movie serial (1942) and – later – two TV serials (1953 and 1954-1956 but syndicated as “Jet Jackson, Flying Commando” well into the 1960s) plus a mountain of merchandise such as the legendary Captain Midnight Secret Decoder Ring

There was also a comicbook franchise or – more accurately – two…

The basic premise was that after World War One ended, pilot and aviation inventor Captain Jim Albright returned home having earned the sobriquet “Captain Midnight” after a particularly harrowing mission that concluded successfully at the witching hour. He formed a paramilitary “Secret Squadron” of like-minded pilots and did good deeds -often at the covert behest of the President – using guts and gadgets to foil spies, catch crooks and defend the nation.

Captain Midnight really hit his stride after the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, becoming an early Home Front media sensation of the war years. However, his already fluid backstory and appearance underwent a radical makeover when he switched comicbook horses in midstream.

This stunningly engaging full-colour hardback collection (also available as an eBook) gathers tantalising snippets from the vast comicbook canon of the “Sovereign of the Skies”, rather arbitrarily collected from Dell Comics anthologies The Funnies #59 (September 1941) and Popular Comics 76 & 78 (June and August 1942) as well as Fawcett Comics’ Captain Midnight #4-6, 9, 12, 31, 44, 47, 58 and 61, released between January 1943 and March 1948. The solo title was initially released fortnightly with #1 bearing a September 30th 1942 cover-date.

Much of this material is unattributed but amongst the regular writers were Joseph J. “Joe” Millard, Wilford Hamilton Fawcett, Bill Woolfolk and Otto Binder whilst artists included Jack Binder and his art stable, as well as the engagingly workmanlike Leonard Frank, Carl Pfeufer, Ken Bald, Jack Keller, Sheldon Moldoff and – latterly – young but constantly improving legends-to-be Leonard Starr and Dan Barry.

Following a fond appreciation and passionate reminiscences from David Scroggy in his effusive Introduction, the cartoon classics begin with an action-packed but confusing chapter from The Funnies #59. Here Dave Gormley depicts the Captain – still clad in regulation leather jacket, aviator flight cap and goggles – and his Secret Squadron in pursuit of nefarious archenemy Ivan Shark before Popular Comics #76 sees them battling to prevent the insidious Ivan’s airborne conquest of America.

Popular Comics #78 (with art by Bob Jenney) renews and continues that titanic struggle as Shark’s henchman Gardo rushes to his master with information that could destroy democracy forever…

When Fawcett took over the comicbook license in 1942 they gave Albright a stripped-down operation, flashier gimmicks and a rather striking superhero costume. They also abandoned continued serials in favour of short complete adventures as the Sky Sovereign added Nazi and Japanese villains to his macabre rogue’s gallery.

The initial Fawcett offering comes from Captain Midnight #4 (January 8th 1943) as the sabotaging ‘Gremlins of Graham Field’ – possibly illustrated by Frank? – are exposed as malevolent Nazi dwarves whilst #5 sees Albright and his ward Chuck Ramsay overseas in Alexandria proving that ‘The Beasts That Flew Like Birds’ (Carl Pfeufer) were not ancient vampires but far more insidious and dangerous modern monsters…

Plucky mechanic and comedy stooge Icky was one of three regular holdovers from the radio iteration of the Secret Squadron and he eventually won his own back-up strip and codename: Sergeant Twilight.

A brace of tales from #6, begins with ‘Presenting Ichabod Mudd, Cowboy!’ as the homely oaf accidentally outs a band of Nazis masquerading as cattle rustlers in Nevada, aiming to prevent the government feeding its troops, after which ‘Broadcast of Death’ sees more Nazis jamming crucial shortwave radio communications and morale-lifting programs until the Captain and his crew step in.

A trio of tales from Captain Midnight #9 (June 1943) opens with ‘Silent Wings of Destruction’ as the Monarch of the Skies tracks down undetectable planes bombing US war production plants and discovers an astounding Nazi aviation advancement.

In ‘Black Tornadoes’ a German inventor then unleashes all the fury of nature against the Midwest until the Captain tracks him down whilst Albright’s robotic ‘Samson the Mechanical Man’ proves a major breakthrough after uncovering enemy agents in the lab…

Three more classics come from #12 (September 1943) as ‘The Puzzle of the Flying Houses’ finds spies using cloud-cover and dwelling-shaped zeppelins to photograph military secrets whilst ‘Buy War Bonds!’ offers a breathtaking ad from the period before ‘The Sinister Angels’ suborning South American peasants and fomenting rebellion are ultimately exposed by our heroes as craftily disguised enemy agents.

A big jump to Captain Midnight #31 (April 1945) opens post-war proceedings with ‘Sgt. Twilight’s Flying School’ as lovably bumbling goof Icky is gulled into teaching a gang of wily thugs how to commit seemingly impossible crimes with aircraft… before finally wising up and lowering the boom…

Issue #44 (September 1946) heralds the resurrection of a deadly foe as ‘Return of the Shark’ sees the villain copying Albright’s latest invention to facilitate robbing planes in mid-air before a literally mad scientist forces Captain Midnight to participate in a deadly ‘Invention Duel to the Death’

December 1946’s CM #47 tangentially addresses the growing interest in horror material with ‘Fangs of the Werewolf’ (Frank art) as Midnight hunts an amnesiac GI in the US Sector of newly-partitioned Germany and encounters maniacal Nazi holdout Storm von Cloud who plans a wave of terror with his sinister Werewolf Corps of commandos.

As the 1940s drew to a close technological advancement, science fiction and crime became the most popular topics for action tales, and from #58 (December 1947) ‘Test Tunnel’ uses all those elements to great effect as Shark discovers Midnight’s true identity and lays a lethal trap in Albright’s latest plane-proving system…

Wrapping up this glorious grab-bag of Golden Age goodies is a tale of dogged endurance as ‘Captain Midnight Masters Glacier Peak’ (#61, March 1948; credited to Leonard Starr, but it looks like Dan Barry to me) sees Albright embroiled in a brutal struggle between rival Arctic expeditions to claim acclaim and vast riches at the top of the world…

With an eye-popping gallery of covers by Gormley, Binder, Mac Raboy and Frank, plus mesmerising period ads and mini-features such as ‘Captain Marvel Secret Messages’, ‘Captain Midnight’s Air Quiz’, ‘Captain Midnight’s Air Insignia’ and ‘Fawcett Comix Cards’ this is a superbly engaging feast of comics history and timeless thrills.
Captain Midnight Archives volume 1: Captain Midnight Battles the Nazis ® and ©Dark Horse Comics 2013. All rights reserved.