Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age Human Torch #2-5A

New Expanded Review

By Carl Burgos, Bill Everett & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-7851-1624-9

Marvel Comics took quite some time before producing expensive hardbound volumes reprinting their earliest comic adventures and this collection of the first four solo outings for one of Timely/Marvel’s Holy Trinity, despite re-resenting some of the most well-regarded and revered adventures of the Golden Age, provides a few solid and somewhat expensive possible reasons why.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh and hyper-critical: I must admit that there was a lot of material here that I have been waiting most of my life to read. I am however a complete comic nut with broad taste 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’s Win and I’m an old comics collector …

During the early Golden Age, novel ideas and sheer exuberance could take you far, and as the alternative means of entertainment escapism for most kids were severely limited, it just wasn’t that hard to make a go of it as a comic book publisher. Combine that with a creative work-force which kept being drafted, and it’s clear to see why declining standards of story and art didn’t greatly affect month-to-month sales during World War II, but promptly started a cascade-decline in super-hero strips almost as soon as GI boots hit US soil again.

In 1940 the comicbook industry was in a frantic expansion mode and every publisher was trying to make and own the Next Big Thing. The Goodman pulp fiction outfit leapt into the new industry and scored big with anthology Marvel Comics in late 1939 (which became Marvel Mystery with the second issue), with both the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner finding huge favour with the burgeoning, fickle readership. Two out of seven was pretty good: Action and Detective Comics only had the one super-star apiece…

An editorial policy of rapid expansion was in play: 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.

In quick succession Daring Mystery Comics #1 (January. 1940) and Mystic Comics #1 (March 1940), followed with limited success and a rapid turnover of concepts and features. Timely Comics – or occasionally Red Circle – as the company then called itself, had 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 heroes like the Black Widow, Thin Man, original Angel, Citizen V or Red Raven.

That last one is especially relevant. Although fresh characters were plentiful, physical resources were not and when the company’s fourth title Red Raven #1 was released with an August 1940 cover-date it failed to ignite any substantial attention with either title character or B-features Comet Pierce, Mercury, Human Top, Eternal Brain and Magar the Mystic, despite being crammed with the stunning early work of young Jack Kirby.

The entire magazine was killed and its publishing slot and numbering handed over to a proven seller. Thus, Human Torch debuted with #2 (Fall 1940) – the first issue to solo star the flammable android hero, and introduced his own fiery side-kick.

Just so’s you know; the next two releases fared a little better: Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941) and at long last, a solo book for Sub-Mariner (Fall 1941)…

Although the material in this collection is of variable quality and 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…

After a knowledgeable and informative introduction by Roy Thomas, the hot-dogging begins with ‘Introducing Toro – the Flaming Torch Kid’ by Carl Burgos as the blazing star discovered a circus boy who possessed all his own incendiary abilities before fighting a criminal strongman with a ray-gun. The misnamed elder Torch was actually a miraculous android and not at all human but here he found a plucky, excitable teen assistant who would become his faithful comrade for the remainder of his career…

This was followed by Bill Everett’s ‘Sub-Mariner Crashes New York Again!!!’ as the sub-sea Prince once more attacked America, after which ‘Carl Burgos’ Hot Idea’ and ‘Bill Everett’s Hurricane’ were text features supposedly detailing how the respective creators came up with their tempestuous brain-children

The remaining stories are pretty pedestrian. ‘The Falcon’ by Paul Reinman features a young District Attorney who corrected legal shortcomings and miscarriages of justice as a masked vigilante, ‘Microman’ (Harold Delay & Paul Quinn) stars a young boy exploring his own garden at insect size and Mandrake knock-off ‘Mantor the Magician’ by Al Gabriele saw a fez-topped modern wizard battle crooks posing as ghosts.

Joe Simon’s Fiery Mask debuted in Daring Mystery #1 and ended his career here with ‘The Strange Case of the Bloodless Corpses’ as the multi-powered physician hunted a remorseless mad doctor terrorising the city…

Issue #3 is actually pretty impressive, with an ambitious and spectacular untitled 40-page Torch epic which saw Toro seduced by Nazism, before seeing the patriotic light and burning off Hitler’s moustache, whilst the text piece ‘Hot and Wet’ had the two elemental stars debate whose creator was best before a 20-page Sub-Mariner crossover (anticipating Marvel’s successful policy of the 1960s onward) found Namor and the Torch teaming up to trash Nazi vessels destroying Allied convoys, before scuttling a full invasion together.

By Human Torch #4 much of the work is obviously being ghosted to a greater or lesser degree. The Torch takes way too long solving the ever-so-simple ‘Mystery of the Disappearing Criminals’, after which Ray Gill introduced star-spangled hero The Patriot in a 2-page text piece.

At least Everett was still very much in evidence and on top form when the Sub-Mariner took ten beautiful pages to save an Alaskan village from plague, blizzards, an onrushing glacier and incendiary bombs in a genuine forgotten classic before lacklustre Captain America knock-off The Patriot shambled through a proper comic-strip tale of Bundist (that’s German/American Nazi sympathizers to you, kid) saboteurs to close the issue.

That line-up continued in the last issue reprinted here (Human Torch #5A, Summer 1941 and the “A” is because the series did a little lock-step and caught up with itself: the next issue would also be a #5). The fiery star and his Flaming Kid clashed with a mad scientist named Doc Smart in ‘The March of Death’, then joined forces again with Namor in a Stan Lee scripted prose vignette entitled ‘The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner Battle the Nazi Super Shell of Death!’

Sub-Mariner and guest-star the Angel followed, fighting Nazi zombies in ‘Blitzkrieg of the Living Dead’ (attributed to Bill Everett, but clearly overwhelmed by lesser hands in the inking and perhaps even pencilling stages) and The Patriot wraps thing up in a bold and experimental job by future art great Sid Greene wherein the Red, White and Blue Home-front Hero tracked down a Nazi who killed by playing the violin…

I’m happy to have this book, warts and all, but I can understand why anyone other than a life-long Marvel fan would baulk at the steep price-tag in these days of austerity, with a wealth of better-quality and more highly regarded Golden Age material available. Still, value is one thing and worth another, so in the end it’s up to you…
© 1940, 1941, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Archives volume 2

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster and the Superman Studio (DC Comics)
ISBN: 0930289-76-5

By 1940 the intoxicating blend of sensational superlative action and social crusading which hallmarked the early exploits of the Man of Tomorrow had gradually expanded to encompass traditional cops-and-robbers crime-busting and outright fantasy and science fictional elements.

With a thrice-weekly radio serial, games, toys, a newspaper strip and a growing international media presence, Superman was swiftly becoming everybody’s hero, as this classic compendium re-presenting issues #5-8 of his landmark solo title ideally illustrates.

This first-edition deluxe hardback opens with a beguiling Foreword from author, strip-writer, historian and fervent fan Ron Goulart but no contents page or creator credits, so for the sake of expediency I’ve used information and story-titles from later collections to facilitate the review. Besides, if you just buy this brilliant, lavish, full-colour hardback treasure-trove, you’ll be too busy reading the glorious stories to worry over such petty details…

Superman #5 (Summer 1940) was the last quarterly issue: from the next the comicbook would be published every two months – a heartbreakingly tough schedule for Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and their burgeoning Superman Studio, then comprising Paul Cassidy, Leo Nowak, Dennis Neville and Jack Burnley. They would continue to expand rapidly in the months to come.

This issue is a superb combination of human drama, crime and wicked science beginning with ‘The Slot Machine Racket’, a particularly hard-hitting yarn exposing the rise in gambling machines and one-armed bandits targeting young kids and their meagre allowances, which, after a delightful ‘Super Strength: Rules for Summer Living’ health and exercise feature and a Supermen of America ad, continued in similar vein with ‘Campaign Against the Planet’, wherein corrupt politicians attempted to bribe, intimidate and ultimately end the crusading paper’s search for truth and justice.

After two-fisted genre prose vignette ‘Power of the Press’ by George Chute, arch-villainy manifested with the insidious, toxic threat of ‘Luthor’s Incense Machine’ and, after another text thriller ‘Murder in the Wind’ by Jack Willis, cartoon capers with dizzy Dachshund ‘Shorty’ and a joke page, Superman crushed Big Business chicanery by exposing the scandal of ‘The Wonder Drug’.

Issue #6, produced by Siegel and the Studio, with Shuster only overseeing and drawing key figures and faces, contained four more lengthy adventures and led with ‘Lois Lane, Murderer’ as the Man of Action saved his plucky journalistic rival from a dastardly frame up, then took a break while Chute’s text thriller ‘Too Big for Marbles’ and hobo humorist Driftin’Dave (by Alger) offered a change of pace, after which Superman rescued a small town from a gangster invasion in ‘Racketeer Terror in Gateston.’

Jack Burnley produced the Super Strength exercise tips which preceded ‘Terror Stalks San Caluma’ with our hero’s efforts to avert a disaster hampered by a blackmailer who’d discovered his secret identity. Legend in waiting Gardner Fox authored exotic prose murder-mystery ‘The Strangest Case’ and fact-page ‘Sporting Close-Ups!’ happily set up the stunning final act as the Man of Steel uncovered ‘The Construction Scam’ foiling and spectacularly fixing a corrupt company’s shoddy, death-trap buildings.

Superman #7(November/December1940) firstly found the Action Ace embroiled in local politics when he confronted ‘Metropolis’ Most Savage Racketeers’ and, after a George Papp Fantastic Facts feature and gypsy tall-tale text-piece ‘Rinaldo’s Revenge’ by G.B. Armbruster, proceeding to crush horrific man-made disasters orchestrated by property speculators in ‘The Exploding Citizens’

Shorty played the canine fool again before the Man of Tomorrow stamped out City Hall corruption in ‘Superman’s Clean-Up Campaign’ – illustrated by Wayne Boring, who inked Shuster on the last tale of this issue where the Caped Crimebuster put villainous high society bandits ‘The Black Gang’ exactly where they belonged… behind iron bars.

Released in time for the Holiday Season, Superman #8 (cover-dated January-February 1941) was another spectacular and varied compendium containing four big adventures and a flurry of filler features.

The fantastic fantasy romp ‘The Giants of Professor Zee’ (illustrated by Paul Cassidy), found the hero battling man-made monsters and merciless greed and, following a page each of ‘Laffs’ and ‘Nature News…’, plumped for topical tension and suspense in ‘The Fifth Column’ (depicted by Boring & Don Komisarow) with Superman rounding up spies and saboteurs, before comprehensively cleaning up uncommon criminals in ‘The Carnival Crooks’ (Cassidy again).

Text tale ‘Knotty Problem’ by Ed Carlisle and Ray McGill’s ‘Snapshots with our Candid Cartoon Camera’ led to a breathtaking disaster tale which this splendid volume. The cover-featured ‘Perrone and the Drug Gang’ featured an increasingly rare comic-book outing for Shuster – inked by Boring – wherein the Metropolis Marvel battled doped-up thugs and the corrupt drug-dealing lawyers who controlled them for – illegal – profit.

One off the most enticing aspects of these volumes is the faithful and entrancing inclusion of all the covers, period ads, pin-ups and special offers… with the Superman merchandise page alone worth the price of admission…

My admiration for the stripped-down purity and power of these Golden Age tales is boundless. Nothing has ever come near them for joyous, child-like perfection and every genuine fan really should make them a permanent part of his or her life.
© 1940, 1990 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Out of this World Volume 1

By Raymond Everett Kinstler & various (Malibu)

A little while ago I reviewed the mind-boggling, intellectually challenging science fiction yarns of DC’s Strange Adventures and made a rather offhand remark about the other end of the genre-spectrum then extant.

Whilst Julie Schwartz and his band of writers (many full-time SF authors recruited during the Editor’s early days as a literary agent) pushed conceptual envelopes and opened doors of wonder, another strand focusing on sheer adventure offered the trappings of the form in racy, hard-bitten tales with rocket-ships replacing speeding Sedans or charging steeds, blasters substituting for gats or six-guns, aliens taking the place of Commies, Injuns or mobster-mooks and yes, lots of scantily clad babes in torn clothes or fetching ensembles comprising filmy underwear and large glass domes on their immaculately coiffed, pretty little heads…

These terrifically tacky tales of space sensationalism from another age are a delicious forbidden and oh, so guilty pleasure, thus there’s no real literary justification for today’s featured item, just old fashioned fun and some extremely enticing artwork.

These pre-code tales from minor publishers of the early 1950s are sheer, rockets-roaring, Thud and Blunder classics and might be missing a few technical truths and sensible science facts, but in terms of pulse-pounding excitement and masterful illustration they’re the real deal…

Collected from Avon’s Strange Worlds #9, Strange Planets #16 (an I.W. reprint of Strange Worlds #6), Harvey Comics’ Tomb of Terror #6 and S.P.M’s Weird Tales of the Future #1, the material within is pretty much the best the sub-genre has to offer and opens with the Everett Raymond Kinstler illustrated ‘Ransom – One Million Decimars!’ (Strange Worlds #9, November 1952) as hard-boiled space-cop Mike Grant hunted down the interplanetary mobster who had kidnapped the daughter of Earth’s President…

The same issue also provided the utterly anonymous ‘World of the Monster Brain!’ with its tale of the overthrow of a transdimensional tyrant as well as the thoroughly cathartic save-the-world thriller ‘Radium Monsters’ which looks like early Frank Springer to me…

Extraordinary special Agent Kenton of the Star Patrol spectacularly tackled ‘The Monster-Men of Space!’ in another Kinstler classic from Strange Planets #16 whilst  ‘The Survivors!’ (Tomb of Terror #6 1952, with art tantalisingly reminiscent of Joe Certa) pitted hunk and hot babe against hairy horrors in a post-Armageddon yarn, after which the manic tragedy of ‘The Man Who Owned the Earth’ (Strange Planets #16) was followed by the concluding classic of unwanted immorality in ‘Ten Thousand Years Old!’

This cheap and cheerful black and white compilation, coyly contained behind a cracking Bruce Timm cover, cuts straight to the magnificently cheesy pulp pulchritude pull of this kind of fantasy and although hard to find, difficult to justify, and perhaps a stretch to accept from our advanced perspective here in the future, these stories and their hugely successful ilk were inarguably a vital stepping stone to our modern industry. There is a serious lesson here about acknowledging the ability of comics to appeal to older readers from a time when all the experts would have the public believe that comics were made by conmen and shysters for kiddies, morons and slackers.

Certainly there are also a lot of cheap laughs and guilty gratification to be found in these undeniably effective little tales. This book and the era it came from are worthy of far greater coverage than has been previously experienced but no true devotee should readily ignore this stuff.

© 1989 Malibu Graphics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: the World’s Finest Comics Archives volume 1

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Leo Nowak, John Sikela (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0151-7

The debut of Superman propelled National Comics to the forefront of their fledgling industry and in 1939 the company was licensed to produce a commemorative comicbook celebrating the opening of the New York World’s Fair, with the Man of Tomorrow prominently featured on the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics among such four-colour stars as Zatara, Butch the Pup, Gingersnap and The Sandman.

This glorious deluxe hardback edition collects that epochal early mass-market premium appearance plus his return in Worlds Fair 1940, as well as the Superman stories from World’s Best #1 and World’s Finest Comics #2-15 in gleaming, seductive full-colour and also includes a beguiling Foreword by fan, historian, author and film producer Michael Uslan as well as the now-traditional creator biographies.

The spectacular card-cover 96 page anthologies were a huge hit and convinced the editors that an over-sized anthology of their pantheon of characters, with Superman and Batman prominently featured, would be a worthwhile proposition. The format was retained for a wholly company-owned, quarterly high-end package, retailing for the then hefty price of 15¢. Launching as World’s Best Comics #1 (Spring 1941), the book transformed into World’s Finest Comics from #2, beginning a stellar 45 year run which only ended as part of the massive clear-out and decluttering exercise that was Crisis on Infinite Earths.

With stunning, eye-catching covers from Sheldon Mayer, Jack Burnley, Fred Ray and others, this fabulously exuberant compendium opens with ‘Superman at the World’s Fair’ by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, wherein Clark Kent and Lois Lane were dispatched to cover the gala event giving the mystery man an opportunity to contribute his own exhibit and bag a bunch of rotten robbers to boot…

A year later he was ‘At the 1940’s World’s Fair’ (lavishly illustrated by Burnley) foiling an attempt by another gang of ne’er-do-wells to steal a huge emerald.

With success assured World’s Best Comics launched early in 1941 and from that landmark edition comes gripping disaster-thriller ‘Superman vs. the Rainmaker’ illustrated by Paul Cassidy, after which World’s Finest Comics #2 provided thrills and spills in Siegel, Leo Nowak, Cassidy & Shuster’s ‘The Unknown X’, a fast-paced mystery of sinister murder-masterminds and maritime menace, whilst ‘The Case of the Death Express’ was a tense thriller about train-wreckers (by Nowak) from the Fall issue.

World’s Finest Comics #4 featured ‘The Case of the Crime Crusade’ by Siegel, Nowak & John Sikela, another socially relevant racketeering yarn highlighting the bravery of fiery editor Perry White and combining a crusading campaign to modernise the city’s transport system with a battle against bomb-wielding gangsters, whilst ‘The Case of the Flying Castle’ had Superman breach the Tower of Terror to confront an Indian curse and an unscrupulous businessman and WF #6 (Summer 1942, Siegel, Nowak & Sikela) saw ‘The Man of Steel vs. the Man of Metal’ pitting our hero and newsboy Jimmy Olsen against Metalo, a mad scientist whose discoveries made him every inch Superman’s physical match…

‘The Eight Doomed Men’ in issue #7 were a coterie of ruthless millionaires targeted for murder because of the wicked past deeds of their privileged college fraternity; a crime mystery spiced up with flamboyant high-tech weaponry that pushed the Action Ace to his limits whilst ‘Talent Unlimited’ (Siegel, Sam Criton & Sikela) saw Superman track down a missing heiress who had abandoned wealth for a stage career and poor but honest theatrical friends. Unfortunately, even though she didn’t want her money, other people did…

From World’s Finest Comics #9 on, no record of the scripter(s) identities are available but there’s no appreciable drop in quality to be seen as ‘One Second to Live’ (drawn by Sikela) found the Man of Tomorrow clearing an innocent man of murder and saving him from the electric chair, whilst ‘The Insect Terror’ (Nowak & Sikela) saw an incredible battle with a super-villain whose giant bugs almost consumed Metropolis before ‘The City of Hate’ (Sikela) found Lois and Clark’s search for the “Four Most Worthy Citizens” leading them to demagogues, hate-mongers and the worst of humanity before finally succeeding…

Another case of social injustice was exposed and rectified in WF #12’s ‘The Man who Stole a Reputation’ (illustrated by Ira Yarbrough) wherein a downtrodden clerk chucked in his job and sought out the glamorous rewards of crime until Superman demonstrated the error of his thinking and ‘The Freedom of the Press’ found Clark and Lois looking for the Daily Planet’s centennial scoop; oblivious to the gangsters determined to wreck the paper forever, whilst Sikela’s ‘Desert Town’ took the Man of Steel to the wild west and a hidden citadel of crooks determined to sabotage the building of a new city over their secret hideout…

The last tale in this volume is ‘The Rubber Band’ illustrated by Sikela & Nowak from World’s Finest Comics #15 (Fall 1944) which details the exploits of a gang of black market tyre thieves who were given a patriotic “heads-up” after Superman dumped their boss on the Pacific front line where US soldiers were fighting and dying…

These blockbusting yarns, released at three month intervals, provide a perfect snapshot of the Caped Kryptonian’s amazing development from unstoppable, outlaw social activist to trusted paragon of American virtues in timeless tales which have never lost their edge or their power to enthral and beguile and, as always, this formidable Archive Edition is the most luxurious and satisfying of ways to enjoy them over and over again.

So why aren’t you…?
© 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: World’s Finest Archives volume 1

By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-819-5

The creation of Superman propelled National Comics to the forefront of their fledgling industry and in 1939 the company was licensed to produce a commemorative comicbook celebrating the start of the New York World’s Fair, with the Man of Tomorrow prominently featured among the four-colour stars of the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics.

A year later, following the birth of Batman and Robin, National combined Dark Knight, Boy Wonder and Man of Steel on the cover of the follow-up New York World’s Fair 1940.

The spectacular 96 page anthology was a huge hit and the format was retained as the Spring 1941 World’s Best Comics #1, before finally settling on the now legendary title World’s Finest Comics from #2, beginning a stellar 45-year run which only ended as part of the massive clear-out and de-cluttering exercise that was Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Until 1954 and the swingeing axe-blows of rising print costs, the only place Superman and Batman ever met was on the stunning covers by the likes of Jack Burnley, Fred Ray and others. Between those sturdy card covers, the heroes maintained a strict non-collaboration policy…

This glorious deluxe hardback edition gathers the pivotal early appearances from Worlds Fair 1940, World’s Best #1 and World’s Finest Comics #2-16 in gleaming, glossy full-colour and also includes a beguiling Foreword by cartoonist and industry historian R.C. Harvey plus brief biographies of all the creators involved in these early masterpieces.

The vintage wonderment begins with ‘Batman and Robin Visit the 1940 New York World’s Fair’ by Bill Finger, Bob Kane & George Roussos, wherein the Dynamic Duo tracked down a maniac mastermind with a metal-dissolving ray, after which the same creative team deliver the classic and still enthrallingly eerie murder-mystery ‘The Witch and the Manuscript of Doom!’ from World’s Best #1 (Spring 1941).

Jerry Robinson joined the artists for World’s Finest Comics #2 and ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Remember!’ – a powerful character play and baffling mystery that still packs a punch – whilst #3 featured the first appearance of one of Batman’s greatest foes in ‘The Riddle of the Human Scarecrow’ a moody masterwork which saw the debut of Professor Jonathan Crane, a psychologist obsessed with both fear and money…

This is followed by a rip-roaring contemporary cowboy yarn ‘The Ghost Gang Goes West’ as a holiday for Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson turned into a riot of action, mystery and adventure after which ‘Crime Takes a Holiday’, (WFC #5, Spring, 1942 by Finger, Robinson & Roussos) offered a canny mystery yarn as the criminal element of Gotham “downed tools”. Naturally it was all part of a devious master-plan and just as naturally our heroes soon got to the bottom of it…

Behind a particularly effective War cover the brilliant Bat-yarn from World’s Finest #6 was ‘The Secret of Bruce Wayne!’ wherein Joe Greene, Robinson & Roussos provided a secret identity exposé tale that would become a standard plot of later years. From #7 (Fall 1942) came an imaginative thriller-chiller of theft and survival ‘The North Pole Crimes!’ (Finger, Kane & Robinson) whilst in ‘Brothers in Law’ from #8, by Jack Schiff and Jack & Ray Burnley, pitted Batman and Robin simultaneously against a Napoleon of Crime and feuding siblings who had radically differing definitions of justice, before the Cowled Crusader portion of #9 (Spring 1943) had Finger, Robinson & Roussos recount the salutary saga of a criminal mastermind who invented the wickedly ingenious ‘Crime of the Month!’ scheme.

World’s Finest Comics #10 offered ‘The Man With the Camera Eyes’ by Finger, Robinson & Roussos, a gripping battle of wits between our heroes and a crafty crook with an eidetic memory, whilst ‘A Thief in Time!’ (Finger & Robinson inked by Fred Ray) pitted the Gotham Gangbusters against future-felon Rob Callender who fell through a time-warp and thought he’d found the perfect way to get rich.

‘Alfred Gets His Man!’ by Finger & Dick Sprang found Batman’s faithful new retainer reviving his own boyhood dreams of being a successful detective with hilarious and action-packed results…

Issue #13 featured ‘The Curse of Isis!’ (Finger & Jack Burnley, inked by brother Ray and George Roussos) was a maritime mystery of superstition, smugglers and sabotage and similar themes were explored in Finger, Robinson & Roussos’ ‘Salvage Scavengers!’ three months later.

The last two tales are sadly anonymously scripted but both feature artist Jerry Robinson at the peak of his powers, beginning with ‘The Men Who Died Twice!’ from #15 wherein a trio of murderers seemingly escape their legal sentences but not their fates, and World’s Finest #16 (Winter 1944) temporarily brings things to a halt with the superb thriller ‘The Mountaineers of Crime!’ as Batman and Robin cleaned up the Rockies and put a bunch of bold bandits and brigands in the brig.

These spectacular yarns, produced every three months for the quarterly anthology, provide a perfect snapshot of the Batman’s amazing development from raw, vigilante agent of revenge to dedicated, sophisticated Darknight Detective in timeless tales which have never lost their edge or their power to enthral and beguile. Moreover this sturdy Archive Edition is the most luxurious and satisfying of ways to enjoy them.

So why don’t you…
© 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Stan Lee Presents the Fantastic Four

By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby with Joe Sinnott (Kangaroo/Pocket Books)
ISBN: 0-671-81445-1

Here’s another look at how our industry’s gradual inclusion into mainstream literature began and one more pulse-pounding paperback package for action fans and nostalgia lovers, offering yet another chance to enjoy some of the best and most influential comics stories of all time.

One thing you could never accuse entrepreneurial maestro Stan Lee of was reticence, especially when promoting his burgeoning line of superstars. In the 1960s most adults – including the people who worked there – considered comic-books a ghetto. Some disguised their identities whilst others were “just there until they caught a break”.

Visionaries all; Stan, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko had another idea – change the perception.

Whilst the artists pursued their imaginations waiting for the quality of the work to be noticed, Lee proactively pursued every opportunity to break down the slum walls: college lecture tours, animated TV shows, ubiquitous foreign franchising and of course getting their product onto the bookshelves of “real” book shops.

After a few abortive attempts in the 1960s to storm the shelves of bookstores and libraries, Marvel made a concerted and comprehensive effort to get their wares into more socially acceptable formats. As the 1970s closed, purpose-built graphic collections and a string of new prose adventures tailored to feed into their all-encompassing continuity began oh, so slowly to appear.

Whereas the merits of the latter are a matter for a different review, the company’s careful reformatting of classic comics adventures were generally excellent; a superb and recurring effort to generate continuity primers and a perfect – if fickle – alternative venue to introduce fresh readers to their unique worlds.

The dream was superbly represented than in this classy little back-pocket Kirby cornucopia of wonders with sharp reproduction, the classic four-colour palette, sensitive editing, efficient picture-formatting and of course, six unforgettable epics from the very dawn of Lee & Kirby’s magnificent partnership…

After a troubled period at DC Comics (National Periodicals as it then was), a terrifying downturn in all comics sales across the board and a creatively productive but disheartening time on the poisoned chalice of the Sky Masters newspaper strip, Kirby settled into his new job at the small and shaky outfit which had once been publishing powerhouse Timely/Atlas; now reduced to releasing only 16 titles per month, churning out mystery, monster, romance and western material for a marketplace that seemed doomed to die.

But such fertile imagination couldn’t be suppressed for long and when the Justice League of America caught the public’s massed imagination it gave him and writer/editor Stan Lee an opportunity which changed the industry forever, and might well have saved it from extinction.

Depending upon who you believe, a golfing afternoon led publisher Martin Goodman to order his nephew Stan to create a series about super-characters like the JLA.

Combining the tone and tenets of the cautiously reviving mystery-man genre with their own tried-and-true sci-fi monster magazine fare, Lee & Kirby’s resulting team quickly took the industry and the fans by storm. It wasn’t the powers: they’d all been seen since the beginning of the medium. It wasn’t the costumes – they didn’t even have any until the third issue – it was Kirby’s compelling art and the fact that these characters weren’t anodyne cardboard cut-outs.

Set in a real and thoroughly recognizable location, (New York City from #3 onwards) a quartet of imperfect, brash and rather stroppy individuals banded together out of tragedy and disaster to face the incredible.

In most ways The Challengers of the Unknown (Kirby’s prototype quartet whose immortal exploits are available in two wonderful DC Archives and a single economical, black and white Showcase Presents volume) laid all the groundwork for the wonders to come, but the staid, almost hide-bound editorial strictures of National would never have allowed the raw, undiluted energy of the concept to run roughshod over taste and occasionally good publishing sense.

This tantalising all-colour pint-sized paperback reprints the first six trend-setting, empire-building issues beginning with Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, by Lee, Kirby and an uncredited inker whose identity remains a topic of much debate to this day): a raw, rough, passionate and uncontrolled blend of fantasy adventure and sci-fi saga. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.

After Stan’s now compulsory rollicking, folksy introductory prologue ‘The Fantastic Four’ saw maverick scientist Reed Richards summon his fiancé Sue Storm, their friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother Johnny before heading off on their first mission. In a flashback we discover they are driven survivors of a private space-shot which went horribly wrong when Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding. They smashed back to Earth and found that they had all been hideously mutated into outlandish freaks.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame and tragic Ben turned into a shambling, rocky freak. Shaken but unbowed they vow to dedicate their new abilities to benefiting mankind.

In ‘The Fantastic Four meet the Mole Man’ they foil a plan by another outcast who controls monsters and slave humanoids from far beneath the Earth before uncovering ‘The Moleman’s Secret!’

This summation of the admittedly mediocre plot cannot do justice to the engrossing wonder of that breakthrough issue – we really have no grasp today of just how different in tone, how shocking it all was.

“Different” doesn’t mean “better” even here, but the FF was like no other comic on the market at the time and buyers responded to it hungrily. The brash experiment continued with another old plot in #2. ‘The Skrulls from Outer Space’ were shape-changing aliens who framed the FF and made them hunted outlaws (a fruitful theme often returned to in those early days) before the genius of Mister Fantastic bluffed their entire invasion fleet into abandoning their plans for conquering Earth.

Issue #3 (inked by Sol Brodsky) featured ’The Menace of the Miracle Man’ whose omnipotent powers had a simple secret, but is more notable for the first appearance of their uniforms and a shocking line-up change, which led directly into the next issue. Continued stories were an innovation in themselves, but the revival of a Golden Age Great instantly added depth and weight to the six month old and still un-named Marvel Universe.

‘The Coming of the Sub-Mariner’ reintroduced the all-powerful amphibian Prince of Atlantis, who had been lost for decades, a victim of amnesia. Recovering his memory thanks to the Human Torch, Namor returned to his sub-sea home only to find it destroyed by atomic testing. A monarch without subjects, he swore vengeance on humanity and attacked New York City with a gigantic monster. This saga is when the series truly kicked into high-gear…

Until now the creative team, who had been in the business since it began, had been hedging their bets. Despite the innovations of a contemporary superhero experiment their antagonists had relied heavily on the trappings of popular trends in the media – and as reflected in their other titles. Aliens and monsters played a major role in the earlier tales but Fantastic Four #5 took a full-bite out of the recovering Fight n’ Tights apple and introduced the first full-blown super-villain to the budding Marvel Universe.

I’m not discounting Mole Man, but that tragic little gargoyle, for all his bitter schemes and plans of world conquest, wouldn’t truly acquire the persona of a costumed foe until his more refined second appearance in #22.

‘Prisoners of Doctor Doom’ (July 1962, inked by the subtly slick Joe Sinnott) has it all: an attack by a mysterious enemy from Reed’s past, magic and super-science, lost treasure, time-travel – even the ever popular buccaneering pirates stir this heady brew of all-out adventure.

Sheer magic and the on-form creators knew they were on to an instant winner since the deadly Doctor returned the very next issue, teamed with a reluctant but gullible Sub-Mariner to attack our heroes in #6’s ‘Captives of the Deadly Duo!’ inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers: perfectly closing this delightful little collectors item.

In this first super-villain team up Prince Namor’s growing affection for Sue Storm forced the sub-sea stalwart to save his foes from dire death in outer space – but only after Doom tried to kill him too…

These immortal epics are available in numerous formats and editions (including monochrome softcover compendiums and enticing lavish premium hardbacks), but there’s an oddly delicious and seditious cachet to these easily concealable collections which always take me back decades to ‘O’ level Civics and Economics classes on warm Wednesday afternoons that’s simply impossible to ignore and always leaves a warm fuzzy feeling…

Ah, the merry buzz of insects, the steady drone of an oblivious teacher who didn’t want to be there either and the slow cautious turning of pages perfectly obscured by a large, dog-eared tome of Keynesian dogma…

But that’s just me…

It’s easy to assume that such resized, repackaged paperback book collections of early comics extravaganzas were just another Marvel cash-cow in their tried-and-tested “flood the marketplace” sales strategy – and maybe they were – but as someone who has bought these stories in most of the available formats over the years, I have to admit that these handy back-pocket versions are among my very favourites and ones I’ve re-read most – they’re handier, more accessible and just plain cool – so why aren’t they are available as ebooks yet?

© 1977 Marvel Comics Group. All rights reserved.

Superman in Action Comics Archives volume 2

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Jack Burnley, Wayne Boring, Fred Ray, Paul Cassidy & the Superman Studio (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-426-2

In the second stellar hardback collection the Man of Tomorrow’s earliest groundbreaking adventures, reprinted from issues #21-36 of the epochal anthology Action Comics, the never-ending battle for Truth, Justice and the American Way reaches the middle of 1941, with war ripping apart the outer world but still no more than a looming literary menace for most Americans.

As described in modern-day super-scribe Paul Kupperberg’s introduction, although creators Siegel & Shuster had very much settled into the character by now, the buzz of success still fired them and innovation still sparkled amidst the exuberance.

These stories were largely untitled, but for convenience I’ve added the designations contrived by editors in other recent compilations such as the Superman Chronicles, so the full-on, four-colour magic opens here with ‘The Atomic Disintegrator’ – originally published in Action #21, February 1940 – wherein our restlessly exuberant hero tackled an early secret identity crisis and foiled a deadly plot by old enemy Ultra-Humanite (now creepily residing within the curvaceous body of movie starlet Delores Winters) which was followed by ‘Europe at War’, not only a tense and thinly disguised call to arms for the still neutral USA, but a continued story: an almost unheard-of luxury in those early days of funny-book publishing, which resulted in a spectacular and chilling one-man peace-keeping mission to halt hostilities between the nations of Galonia and Toran – and all explosively revealed to be the Machiavellian fault of a criminal scientist named Alexander Luthor…

Action #24 featured ‘Carnahan’s Heir’, a wealthy wastrel whom Superman promised to turn into a useful citizen, whilst the next told the tale of the ‘The Amnesiac Robbers’; good-guys compelled to commit crimes by an evil hypnotist in a crime wave with political repercussions, sporting a cover by new artistic sensation Wayne Boring, who went on to illustrate the next four too.

In comic book terms at least Superman was master of the world, and had already utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry by the time of these tales. There was a popular newspaper strip, foreign and overseas syndication, and the Fleischer studio was producing some of the most expensive – and best – animated cartoons ever conceived. Thankfully the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release, and the energy and enthusiasm of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had infected the burgeoning studio that grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

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

Action Comics #29 (October 1940) again featured Burnley art in a gripping tale of murder for profit. Human drama in ‘The Life insurance Con’ was replaced by deadly super-science as the mastermind Zolar created ‘A Midsummer Snowstorm’, in #30 allowing Burnley a rare opportunity to display his fantastic imagination as well as his representational excellence and featured the first of Fred Ray’s scintillating run of covers.

Action Comics #31 featured another high-tech crime-caper as gangsters put an entire city to sleep and only Clark Kent wasn’t ‘In the Grip of Morpheus’ in #31 whilst #32’s ‘The Gambling Racket of Metropolis’ (January 1941) saw the Metropolis Marvel crush an illicit High Society gambling operation that had wormed its nefarious way into the loftiest echelons of Government, a typical Jerry Siegel social drama magnificently illustrated by the increasingly impressive Burnley.

Action Comics #33 and 34 were also Burnley blockbusters wherein Superman first went north to discover ‘Something Amiss at the Lumber Camp’, before heading to coal country to save ‘The Beautiful Young Heiress’; both superbly enticing character-plays with plenty of scope for eye-popping super-stunts to thrill the gasping fans.

Behind a Wayne Boring cover Action Comics #35 saw the artistic return of Joe Shuster – aided by an increasing number of assistants dubbed “the Superman Studio” – for a human interest tale with startling repercussions in ‘The Guybart Gold Mine’, and this volume concludes with Superman mightily stretched to cope with the awesome threat of ‘The Enemy Invasion’; a canny taste of things to come if America entered World War II.

Stories of corruption, disaster and social injustice were typical of the times, but with war in the news and clearly on the horizon, the content of Superman’s adventures was changing and so, necessarily, did the scale and scope of the action.

The raw intensity and sly wit still shone through in Siegel’s scripts which literally defined what being a superhero meant, but as the world became more dangerous the Man of Tomorrow simply became stronger and more flamboyant to deal with it all, and Shuster and his team stretched and expanded the iconography that all others would follow.

Still some of the very best Fights ‘n’ Tights any fan could ever find, these tales deserve pride of place on any bookshelf.
© 1940, 1941, 1998 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told

By many & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 0-932289-57-9

When the very concept of high priced graphic novels was just being tested in the 1990s DC Comics produced a line of glorious hardback compilations spotlighting star characters and celebrating standout stories from the company’s illustrious and varied history decade by decade. They even branched out into themed collections which shaped the output of the industry to this day, such as this fabulous congregation of yarns – and even ads – that epitomised the verve and sheer exuberance of the most important period in American comics history.

Edited by Mike Gold, with associates Brian Augustyn, Robert Greenberger and Mark Waid, this splendid tome opens with a ‘One Man’s Gold is Another Man’s Pyrite’ – a foreword by Golden Age champion Roy Thomas – and also includes the essay ‘Roots of Magic’ by Gold, but fascinating and informative as those features are, the real literary largesse is to be found in the 22 stories and five stunningly enticing house ads and single page editorial features which no true fan can see without experiencing ineffable yearning…

The vintage thrills and spills commence with a spectacular Joe Simon & Jack Kirby Boy Commandos romp from Detective Comics #69 (November 1942). ‘The Siege of Krovka’ found the underage warriors battling Nazis beside desperate Russian villagers determined to make the invaders pay for every frozen inch of Soviet soil in a blockbusting 12 page masterpiece of patriotic fervour as only the Golden Age’s greatest creative team could craft.

A classic and much-beloved Caped Crusaders caper follows: ‘While the City Sleeps’ from Batman #30 (September 1945) by Bill Finger & Dick Sprang, wherein the Dynamic Duo prowl Gotham long after dark, seeking to keep a first-time burglar from a life of ruinous crime – a genuine masterpiece of the socially aware, even-handed redemptive era where theft was split into greed and – all too often – necessity…

From Flash Comics #4 (April 1940) comes the splendidly barbarous Hawkman thriller ‘The Thought Terror’ by Gardner Fox & Sheldon Moldoff wherein the Winged Warrior and reincarnated Egyptian Prince clashed with a sinister mesmerist enslaving the city’s wealthy citizens whilst Plastic Man #21 (January 1950) provided the absurdist and hilarious horror-adventure ‘Where is Amorpho?’ as the stretchable Sleuth faced an alien shape-shifter with a voracious and potentially lethal appetite…

Superboy: Give Your Town a Present (1949) is a public service announcement page of the sort continually running through comicbooks of the period, courtesy of Jack Schiff & Win Mortimer and is followed by the debut appearance of one the era’s most impressive “lost treasures”. ‘The Story of Wildcat’ comes from Sensation Comics #1 (January 1942) which is best remembered for the series debut of Wonder Woman. In this classy tale of a framed boxer who clears his name by donning a feline mask and costume, Finger & Irwin Hasen captured everything which made for perfect rollercoaster action adventure.

Black Canary started as a sexy criminal foil in the Johnny Thunder strip before taking over his spot in Flash Comics. ‘The Riddle of the Topaz Brooch’ by Robert Kanigher & Carmine Infantino from #96 (June 1948) is a perfect example of the heady blend of private eye mystery and all-action hi-jinks which increasingly typified post-war comics.

After a beguiling House Ad for ‘The Big Seven!’ (Action, Flash, More Fun, Star Spangled, Detective, All-American and Adventure Comics for October 1941), an uncredited Kid Eternity yarn illustrated by Mac Raboy introduces deadly art thief ‘The Count’ (Kid Eternity #3, Fall 1946) before Sheldon Mayer provides a superbly whacky selection of comedy strips featuring the tribulations of Scribbly: Midget Cartoonist (in actuality a little kid with a big future and lots of pencils) from All-American Comics #6 September 1939.

The original Green Lantern battled his most nefarious foe in ‘The Icicle Goes South’ (All-American Comics #92, December 1947) a spectacular duel choreographed by Kanigher and Alex Toth after which The Sandman tackled ‘The Pawn Broker’ in a fascinating detective mystery by Fox & Crieg Flessel from Adventure Comics #51 (June 1940) and Jay Garret, the first super-speeding Flash, helped professional gambler Deuces Wild survive ‘The Rise and Fall of Norman Empire’ a captivating history of crime and punishment by Fox & E.E. Hibbard, first seen in All Flash Comics #14 Spring 1944.

Jack Burnley’s Starman was always a magnificently illustrated strip and with Alfred Bester scripting ‘The Menace of the Invisible Raiders’ (Adventure Comics #67, October 1941) this example is easily one of the most thrilling tales of the run – if not the entire decade – introducing eerily impressive villain The Mist to an awe-struck world.

Schiff & George Papp produced institutional ad ‘Green Arrow and the Red Feather Kid’ in 1949 to promote Community Chest contributions, followed here by a fabulously fearsome Spectre adventure ‘Boys From Nowhere’ (More Fun Comics #57, July 1940) wherein Jerry Siegel & Bernard Baily recount the vengeful return of murderous supernatural terrorist Zor. A note of admitted bafflement here: I’m pretty sure the title is a misprint as there are no kids in the tale but there is a voice which emanates from empty air…

Cowboy crimebuster Vigilante and his sidekick the Chinatown Kid visited a ranch in Australia to bust rustlers and catch ‘The Lonesome Kangaroo’ in a rocket-paced romp beautifully illustrated by Jerry Robinson & Mort Meskin from Action #128 (September 1948), whilst the burly gumshoe Slam Bradley – arguably DC’s longest running character and prototype for Superman – cleaned up ‘The Streets of Chinatown’ in Detective Comics #1, March 1937 courtesy of talented kids Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, after which another gloriously evocative House Ad (for June 1942 and with the addition of Sensation Comics now ‘The Big Eight!’) all precede a stunning blockbuster exploit of The Black Condor in ‘The President’s Been Kidnapped’ from Crack Comics #19, December 1941, illustrated by the incredible Lou Fine.

Another fascinating House Ad from July 1944 combines a listing of the worthies of the company’s Editorial Advisory Board with a cracking come-on for the proverbial ‘Big Eight’ after which Dan Barry provides sublime art for the uncredited Johnny Quick drama ‘The Day That Was Five Years Long’ (Adventure Comics #144, September 1949) wherein the Man in Motion gives back a half-decade of lost time to a convict wrongly convicted of a crime he did not commit and ‘Superman Returns to Krypton’ (Superman #61 December 1949) by Finger & Al Plastino thematically, if not chronologically, closed the Golden Age by expanding, rewriting and retconning the Siegel & Shuster debut tale.

Unsung genius Jimmy Thompson wrote and drew the maniacally merry thriller ‘Robotman vs. Rubberman’ (Star-Spangled Comics #77 February 1948) wherein a good hearted brain in a mechanical form battled a larcenous circus freak without a bone or a scruple in his body, after which aviation ace Blackhawk braved antediluvian horrors on ‘The Plateau of Oblivion’ (Modern Comics #67 November 1947), illustrated by the incredible Reed Crandall.

Wonder Woman #13 (Summer 1945) provided the chilling fantasy saga of ‘The Icebound Maidens’, by William Moulton Marston & H.G. Peter, whilst the House Ad ‘Action! Thrills! Adventure!’ tempts us all with the covers of Superman, Batman, World’s Finest Comics and Mutt and Jeff for October 1941, before the Justice Society of America wrap things up with the stellar tale of ‘The Injustice Society of the World’ and their campaign to conquer America, narrowly averted by the era’s boldest heroes in 37 rip-roaring pages crafted by Gardner Fox, Irwin Hasen, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino & Alex Toth, which first captivated readers in All-Star Comics #37 (November 1947).

In a treasure-trove like this the biographies section ‘Creating the Greatest’ is a compulsive and enticing delight courtesy of Mark Waid and the whole show is capped off with Robert Greenberger’s explanatory ‘End Notes’ which describes the impossible task of compiling such a wonderful collection as this

The Greatest Stories collections were revived this century as smaller paperback editions but although the titles often duplicate the original volumes the contents usually don’t.

These sturdy early collections stand as an impressive and joyous introduction to the fantastic worlds and exploits of the World’s Greatest Superheroes and for sheer physical satisfaction the older, larger books are by far the better product. Some of them made it to softcover trade paperback editions, but if you can afford it, the big hard ones are the jobs to go for – and cherish forever…
© 1939-1950, 1990 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: the Dark Knight Archives volume 1

By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-050-X

By the time Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder won their own title (cover-dated Spring 1940) the company that would become DC had learned many lessons from their previous publishing phenomenon.

For one thing they no longer presumed that costumed characters were an incomprehensible glitch or soon to fade flash-in-the pan; nor were they going to be caught short by a lack of new material…

As the characters’ popularity grew, new talent joined the stable of creators. Jerry Robinson had already signed up with writer Bill Finger and penciller Bob Kane and during this period more scripters and artists were actively sought for the team.

This magnificent full-colour hardback compilation re-presents the first four quarterly issues in a gloriously resplendent sturdy collectors’ format, following the constantly rising fortunes of the Dynamic Duo as they fully developed and stormed ahead of all competition in progressively improving stories originally published between 1940 and 1941.

After a heartfelt paean of praise from US Senator Patrick Leahy, Batman #1 opens proceedings with a recycled origin culled from portions of Detective Comics #33 and 34. ‘The Legend of the Batman – Who He Is and How He Came to Be!’ by Gardner Fox, Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff offered in two perfect pages what is still the best ever origin of the character, after which ‘The Joker’ (Bill Finger, Kane & Jerry Robinson – who produced all the remaining tales in this astonishing premiere tome) introduced the greatest villain in the Dark Knight’s rogues’ gallery via a stunning tale of extortion and wilful wanton murder.

‘Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters’ follows as the old enemy (see Batman Archives volume 1) returned with laboratory-grown hyperthyroid horrors to rampage through the terrified city after which ‘The Cat’ – who later added the suffix ‘Woman’ to her name to avoid any possible doubt or confusion – plied her felonious trade of jewel theft aboard the wrong cruise liner and fell foul for the first time of the dashing Dynamic Duo.

The initial issued ended with the ‘The Joker Returns’ as the sinister clown broke jail and resumed his terrifying campaign of murder for fun and profit before “dying” in mortal combat with the Gotham Guardian…

He returned in the opening tale of Batman #2 as ‘Joker Meets Cat-Woman’ (by Finger, Kane, Robinson & the extremely impressive George Roussos) wherein svelte thief, homicidal jester and a crime syndicate all tussle for the same treasure with the Dynamic Duo caught in the middle.

‘Wolf, the Crime Master’ was a fascinating take on the classic Jekyll and Hyde tragedy after which an insidious – and classic – murder-mystery ensued in ‘The Case of the Clubfoot Murders’ before Batman and Robin faced uncanny savages and ruthless showbiz promoters in a poignant monster story ‘The Case of the Missing Link’.

Issue #3 (Fall 1940) saw Finger, Kane, Robinson & Roussos rise to even greater heights, beginning with ‘The Strange Case of the Diabolical Puppet Master’ an eerie episode of mesmerism and espionage, followed by a grisly scheme wherein innocent citizens are mysteriously transformed into specimens of horror and artworks destroyed by the spiteful commands of ‘The Ugliest Man in the World’ before ‘The Crime School For Boys!!’ saw Robin infiltrate a gang who had a cruel and cunning recruitment plan for dead-end kids…

‘The Batman vs. The Cat-Woman’ found the larcenous burglar in over her head when she stole for and from the wrong people and the issue ends with a magical Special Feature as ‘The Batman Says’ presented an illustrated prose Law & Order pep-talk crafted by Whitney Ellsworth and Robinson.

Batman #4 (Winter 1941) featured ‘The Case of the Joker’s Crime Circus’, as the mountebank of Mirth plunged into madness and recruited a gang from the worst that the entertainment industry could offer, whilst modern-day piratical plunderings were the order of the day in ‘Blackbeard’s Crew and the Yacht Society.

‘Public Enemy No.1’ told a salutary gangland fable in the manner of contemporary, socially aware Jimmy Cagney crime movies and ‘Victory For the Dynamic Duo’ submerged the Partners in Peril in the turbulent and very violent world of sports gambling to end the issue and this first fantastic collection on a rousing high note.

Notwithstanding the historical significance of the material presented here, there is a magnificent bonus for anyone who hasn’t read some or all of these tales before. They are astonishingly well-told and engrossing mini-epics that will still grip the reader with the white heat of sheer exuberant class and quality.

Read these yarns and you’ll understand why today’s creators keep returning to this material every time they need to revamp the mythology.

Timeless, enthralling and truly, truly great.
© 1940, 1940, 1992 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman in Action Comics Archives volume 1

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-335-3

The creation of the Man of Steel quite literally spawned a genre if not an actual art form and, nearly eight years after the first DC Archive Edition gathered the first four issues of the comicbook Superman into a spectacular lavish hardbound collection, the company finally got around to re-presenting the epochal run of raw, vibrant, unpolished stories which preceded them – and which first set the funnybook world on fire.

Here is the crude, rough, uncontrollable wish-fulfilling, cathartic exuberance of a righteous and superior man dealing out summary justice equally to social malcontents, exploitative capitalists, thugs and ne’er-do-wells that initially captured the imagination of a generation.

In this volume you’ll meet the first ever returning foe (us old lags call ‘em “arch-enemies”) the Ultra Humanite plus a rip-roaring mix of hoods, masterminds, plagues, disasters, lost kids and distressed damsels – all dealt with in a direct and captivating manner by our relentlessly entertaining champion in swift and decisive fashion. Here they are presented in totality and chronological order from Action Comics #1 (June 1938) through #20 (January 1940).

Well, not exactly…

Because the first and third issues of the Man of Tomorrow’s own title featured an expanded version of the inaugural exploit and reprinted the Superman tales from Action Comics #2-5 – already seen in Superman Archives volume 1 – this tome is, perforce, not exactly a complete chronicle. However the cut-down, savagely truncated premier tale which appeared in June of 1938 to launch the long-lived anthology is here, in all its impressively terse, groundbreaking glory, as are all the Kryptonian contents of issues #7-20.

Most of these early tales were untitled, but for everyone’s convenience, have been given descriptive appellations by the editors; so after a fascinating introduction from Mark Waid, the wonderment begins with ‘Superman: Champion of the Oppressed!’ as, after describing the alien foundling’s escape from exploding Planet Krypton and astonishing powers in nine panels; the costumed crusader masquerading by day as reporter Clark Kent averted numerous tragedies by saving an innocent woman from the Electric Chair, roughing up a wife beater, busting racketeer Butch Matson – consequently saving feisty colleague Lois Lane from abduction and worse – and exposed a lobbyist for the armaments industry who was bribing Senators and fomenting war in Europe.

Although the stories themselves don’t appear, Action Comics #2-6 are represented here by a brief prose précis of each Superman yarn and the covers of the comics – all by Leo E. O’Mealia – and not one featuring the Caped Crimebuster…

The editors were initially dubious about the alien strongman’s popular appeal and preferred more traditional genre covers. By #16 sales figures confirmed that whenever the big guy did appear up-front sales jumped and, inevitably, Superman assumed pole position for decades to come with #19.

Action #7 was one of those high-selling issues, with a stunning Shuster cover of the still-leaping-not-flying hero which presaged ‘Superman Joins the Circus’ as the crusading mystery-man stopped racketeers taking over the Big Top, whilst the next episode saw ‘Superman in the Slums’ working to save young delinquents from a future life of crime and depravity and #9 featured the cops’ disastrous decision to stop the caped vigilante’s interference in ‘Wanted: Superman’. That manhunt ended in an uncomfortable stalemate…

‘Superman Goes to Prison’ in #10 again featured a Shuster cover (the non-super front images were by Fred Guardineer and are all included as an appetising bonus in this book) with the Man of Tomorrow infiltrating and exposing the brutal horrors of the State Chain Gangs, whilst #11 featured ruthless conmen driving investors to penury and suicide in ‘Superman and the “Black Gold Swindle”’.

Guardineer’s cover of Zatara on Action #12 incorporated another landmark as the Man of Steel was given a cameo badge declaring he was inside every issue, and his own adventure ‘Superman Declares War on Reckless Drivers’ was a hard-hitting tale of casual joy-riders, cost-cutting automobile manufacturers, corrupt lawmakers and dodgy car salesmen who all felt the wrath of the hero after a friend of Clark Kent was killed in a hit-&-run incident. The road-rage theme continued into the next instalment when ‘Superman vs. the Cab Protective League’ pitted the tireless force of nature against a murderous gang trying to take over the city’s taxi companies and quietly introduced the hero’s first great nemesis.

This issue also sported a classic Shuster Super-cover as the Man of Steel was awarded all the odd-numbered issues for his attention-grabbing playground.

Action #14 (which coincided with the launch of Superman #1) saw the return of the villain in ‘Superman Meets the Ultra-Humanite’ which had the mercenary scientist switch from incessant graft, corruption and murder to an obsessive campaign to destroy the Metropolis Marvel after which the cover-featured ‘Superman on the High Seas’ in #15 tackled sub-sea pirates and dry land gangsters. ‘Superman and the Numbers Racket’ saw the hero save an embezzler from suicide and disrupt another wicked gambling cabal, after which #17 featured ‘The Return of the Ultra-Humanite’ in another viciously homicidal caper.

Guardineer’s last human adventure cover – an aerial dog fight – on #18 led into ‘Superman’s Super-Campaign’ as both Kent and Superman determined to crush a merciless blackmailer, whilst ‘Superman and the Purple Plague’ found the city in the grip of a deadly epidemic created by the Ultra-Humanite.

This incredible run of tales ends with ‘Superman and the Screen Siren’ from Action Comics #20 (January 1940) as beautiful actress Delores Winters was revealed not as a sinister super-scientific monster but the latest tragic victim of the Ultra-Humanite’s greatest horror… brain transplant surgery!

Superman’s rise was meteoric and inexorable by now. He was the indisputable star of Action, plus his own dedicated title; a Superman daily newspaper strip began on 16th January 1939, with its separate Sunday strip following from November 5th of that year, which was garnering millions of new fans, and a radio show was in the offing and would launch on February 12th 1940.

Although the gaudy burlesque of monsters and super-villains still lay years ahead of our hero, these primitive captivating tales of corruption, disaster and social injustice are just as engrossing and speak powerfully of the tenor of the times. The raw intensity and sly wit still shine through in Siegel’s stories which literally defined what being a Super Hero means whilst Shuster created the basic iconography for all others to follow. These Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment at an absurdly affordable price and in a durable, comfortingly lavish format. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
© 1938, 1939, 1940, 1997 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.