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.

Batman Archives volume 1


By Bob Kane, Bill Finger & Jerry Robinson (DC Comics)
ISBN: 0-930289-60-9

The history of the American comicbook industry in almost every major aspect stems from the raw, vital and still powerfully compelling tales of twin icons published by DC/National Comics: Superman and Batman. It’s only fair and fitting that both those characters are still going strong and that their earliest adventures can be relived in chronological order in a variety of formats from relatively economical newsprint paperbacks to stunning, deluxe hardcover commemorative Archive editions.

This first bumper Batman edition, reprinting Detective Comics #27-50 (May 1939-April 1941) sees the grim solitary Darknight Detective begin his lifelong mission, picking up a youthful ally and far too many dedicated nemeses in a blistering collection of evocative and game-changing rollercoaster romps which utterly reshaped the burgeoning funnybook business and enthralled a generation of thrill-seeking kids of all ages.

After a stirring introduction from popular culture historian Rick Marschall the magic begins with “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” by Bob Kane and collaborator Bill Finger from #27, wherein a cabal of sinister industrialists are progressively murdered until an eerie human bat intrudes on Police Commissioner Gordon’s stalled investigation and ruthlessly deals with the killer.

Issue #28 saw the fugitive vigilante crush the mob of jewel thief Frenchy Blake before encountering his very first psychopathic killer when ‘Batman Meets Doctor Death’ in #29. Confident of the innovation’s potential, Kane & Finger revived the mad medic for the very next instalment, before Gardner Fox scripted a two-part shocker which introduced the first bat-plane, Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Julie Madison and vampiric horror ‘The Monk’: a saga which concluded in an epic chase across Eastern Europe and a spectacular climax in #32.

Detective Comics #33 featured ‘The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom’: a blockbusting disaster thriller which just casually slipped in the secret origin of the Gotham Guardian, as prelude to the air-pirate action, after which Euro-trash dastard Duc D’Orterre found his uncanny science and unsavoury appetites no match for the mighty Batman.

Issue #35 pitted the Cowled Crusader against crazed cultists murdering everyone who had seen their ruby idol, although the deaths were caused by a far more prosaic villainy, after which grotesque criminal genius Professor Hugo Strange debuted with his lethal man-made fog and lightning machine in #36, and an all-pervasive band of spies ultimately proved no match for the vengeful masked Manhunter in #37.

Detective Comics #38 (April 1940) changed the landscape of comicbooks forever with the introduction of ‘Robin, The Boy Wonder’: child trapeze artist Dick Grayson whose parents were murdered before his eyes and who joined Batman in a lifelong quest for justice, beginning, after the Flying Grayson’s killers were captured, with The Horde of the Green Dragon” – oriental Tong killers in Chinatown – from Detective #39 before the Dynamic Duo solved a string of murders on a movie set which almost saw Julie just another victim of the monstrous maniac ‘Clayface!’

Batman and Robin solved the baffling mystery of a kidnapped boy in #41 and ended another murder maniac’s rampage in ‘The Case of the Prophetic Pictures!’ before clashing with a corrupt mayor in #43’s ‘The Case of the City of Terror!’

An unparallelled hit, the stories perforce expanded their parameters in #44 with the dreamy fantasy of giants and goblins ‘The Land Behind the Light!’, and the Joker made his horrific Detective Comics debut in #45 with ‘The Case of the Laughing Death” whilst #46 features the return (and last appearance until 1977) of our hero’s most formidable scientific adversary in ‘Professor Strange’s Fear Dust’.

The drama was of a far more human scale in #47’s action-packed homily of parental expectation and the folly of greed ‘Money Can’t Buy Happiness’ whilst #48 found Batman and Robin defending America’s bullion reserves in ‘The Secret Cavern’ and they faced fresh horror in #49 from another old foe when ‘Clayface Walks Again’ as deranged actor Basil Karlo rekindled his passion for murder and resumed his attempts to kill Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Julie

The Batman yarn from Detective Comics #50 (April 1941) epically concludes this scintillating collection with a breathtaking rooftop and subterranean battle against acrobatic burglars in ‘The Case of the Three Devils’.

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

Moreover, these early stories set the standard for comic superheroes. Whatever you like now, you owe it to these stories. Superman gave us the idea, but writers like Bill Finger and Gardner Fox refined and defined the meta-structure of the costumed crime-fighter. Where the Man of Steel was as much Social Force and wish fulfilment as hero, Batman and Robin did what we ordinary mortals wanted to do. They taught bad people the lesson they deserved.

These are tales of elemental power and joyful exuberance, brimming with deep mood and addictive action. Comic book heroics simply don’t come any better.
© 1939, 1940, 1941, 1990 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Archives volume 1


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster (DC Comics)
ISBN: 0-30289-47-1
Without doubt the creation of Superman and his unprecedented acceptance and adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form.

This stunning, lavish collection was also a significant first: the lovingly restored pages on glossy paper between gleaming hardback covers began DC’s superb Archive Editions series which, since 1989, has brought long forgotten and expensive classic tales to an appreciative wider audience.

Moreover the format has inestimably advanced the prestige and social standing of the medium itself as well as preserving a vital part of American popular culture.

Within this initial collection, following an effusive appreciation from legendary creator and comics historian Jim Steranko, are the complete contents of the first four issues of Superman, from Summer 1939 to Spring 1940. Here is the crude, rough, uncontrollable wish-fulfilling exuberance of a righteous and superior man dealing out summary justice to wife-beaters, reckless drivers and exploitative capitalists, as well as thugs and ne’er-do-wells, who captured the imagination of a nation and the world.

The character had debuted a year previously in Action Comics #1 in truncated, reformatted episodes by young, exuberant creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, cobbled together from a rejected newspaper strip proposal. An instant stand-out hit in the otherwise average comics anthology, the Man of Steel was given his own solo title – another first – and also starred in the tourist tie-in New York’s World Fair Comics #1 (June 1939).

Superman #1 began with an expanded partial reprint of the premier Action Comics tale, describing the alien foundling’s escape from exploding Planet Krypton before a costumed crusader masquerading by day as reporter Clark Kent averted a tragedy by saving an innocent woman from the Electric Chair, pounded a wife beater and busted racketeer Butch Matson, consequently saving feisty colleague Lois Lane from abduction and worse.

He also averted a European war fomented by greedy munitions dealers.

Superman’s first issue also re-presented the material from Action #2-4, with the mystery-man travelling to San Monte to spectacularly quiet down the hostilities already in progress and after a ‘Scientific Explanation of Superman’s Amazing Strength!’ the Man of Steel responded to a coal mine cave-in and exposed corrupt corporate practises before cleaning up gamblers who fixed football games. The first issue concluded with a two-page prose adventure of the Caped Crime-crusher and a biographical feature on Siegel & Shuster.

Superman #2 opened with a human drama as the Action Ace cleared the name of broken heavyweight boxer Larry Trent, coincidentally cleaning the scum out of the fight game and, after ‘Superman’s Tips for Super-Health’ and a captivating add for New York’s World Fair Comics, proceeded with ‘Superman Champions Universal Peace!’ wherein the hero crushed a gang who had stolen the world’s deadliest poison gas weapon, once more going up against unscrupulous munitions manufacturers.

‘Superman and the Skyscrapers’ found Kent investigating suspicious deaths in the construction industry, leading his alter ego into confrontation with ruthless thugs and their fat-cat corporate boss, after which another Superman text tale ended the issue.

The Winter Superman edition opened with a rip-roaring and shockingly uncompromising expose of corrupt orphanages, after which Lois stole Clark Kent’s assignment and became hopelessly embroiled in a deadly construction scam: imperilled by a colossal collapsing dam in a stirring yarn first published in Action #5.

Future Superboy star artist George Papp contributed science filler ‘Fantastic Facts’ and “Bert Lexington” penned prose crime thriller ‘Death by the Stars’ after which ‘Superman’s Manager’ turned up to scam Metropolis until he finally met his supposed client and ended up behind bars (reprinted from Action #6).

The exigencies of providing so much material was clearly beginning to tell: this issue is filled with fillers such as ‘Acquiring Super-Strength’, ‘Attaining Super-Health!’, prose prison yarn ‘Good Luck Charm’ by Hugh Langley and funny animal antics with dashing Dachshund ‘Shorty’ before the Man of Steel made his last appearance in another sterling gang-busting exploit, rescuing Lois from murderous smugglers.

Superman #4, cover-dated Spring 1940, concludes this inaugural compendium, with another four adventures; beginning with the landmark saga ‘The Challenge of Luthor’, wherein the red-headed rogue scientist used earthquakes to threaten civilisation. Following more ‘Attaining Super-Strength’, animal antics with ‘This Doggone World’ and facts ‘From the 4 Corners’ by Sheldon Moldoff, the mad scientist returned in ‘Luthor’s Undersea City’, a terrific tale of dinosaurs and super-science. Langley’s text vignette ‘Changer of Destiny’ preceded Superman’s battle against ‘The Economic Enemy,’ a spy-story about commercial sabotage instigated by an unspecified foreign power. Another Papp ‘Fantastic Facts’, some immensely enticing house ads and Lexington’s science fiction prose poser ‘Pioneer into the Unknown’ all act as palate-cleansers for the final fantastic thriller wherein the Man of Tomorrow clashed with gangsters and Teamsters in ‘Terror in the Trucker’s Union’.

Steranko then closed the show with an ‘Afterword’ detailing the contents of the adventures from Action Comics #1-14 (which were eventually collected in 1987 as Superman in Action Comics Archive volume 1).

As well as economical price and no-nonsense design and presentation, and notwithstanding the historical significance of the material presented within, there is a magnificent bonus for any one who hasn’t read these tales before. They are astonishingly well-told and engrossing mini-epics that can still grip and excite the reader.

In a world where Angels With Dirty Faces, Bringing Up Baby and The Front Page are as familiar to our shared cultural consciousness as the latest episode of Dr Who or the next Bond movie, the dress, manner and idiom in these seventy-plus-year-old stories can’t jar or confuse. They are simply timeless, enthralling, and great.

Read these yarns and you’ll understand why today’s creators keep returning to this material every time they need to revamp the big guy. They are simply timeless, enthralling, and great.
© 1939-1940, 1989 Dc Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: All-Winners 1-4

New Expanded Review

By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Carl Burgos, Bill Everett & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-7851-1884-5

Unlike their Distinguished Competition, Marvel Comics took quite a while to get into producing expensive hardbound volumes of their earliest comic adventures. In the cold hard light of day it’s fairly clear to see why. The sad truth is that a lot of Golden Age Marvel material is not only pretty offensive by modern standards but is also of rather poor quality. One welcome exception, however, is this collection of the quarterly super-hero anthology All Winners Comics.

Over the course of the first year’s publication (from Summer 1941 to Spring 1942) the stories and art varied wildly but in terms of sheer variety the tales and characters excelled in exploring every avenue of patriotic thrill that might enthral ten year old boys of all ages. As well as Simon and Kirby, Lee, Bill Everett and Carl Burgos, the early work of Mike Sekowsky, Jack Binder, George Klein, Paul Gustavson, Al Avison, Al Gabriele and many others can be found as the budding superstars dashed out the supplemental adventures of Captain America, Sub-Mariner, The Human Torch, Black Marvel, The Angel, Mighty Destroyer, and The Whizzer.

This spectacular deluxe full-colour hardback compendium opens with a fulsome and informative introduction from Roy Thomas – architect of Marvel’s Golden Age revival – ably abetted by Greg Theakston, after which  All Winners Comics #1 commences with Carl Burgos’ Human Torch adventure ‘Carnival of Fiends’ as Japanese agent Matsu terrorises the peaceful pro-American Orientals of Chinatown whilst the physically perfect specimen dubbed the Black Marvel crushes a sinister secret society known as ‘The Order of the Hood’ in a riotous action romp by Stan Lee, Al Avison & Al Gabriele after which Joe Simon & Jack Kirby contributed a magnificent Captain America thriller-chiller in ‘The Case of the Hollow Men’ as ghastly artificial zombies rampaged through the streets of New York…

Stripling Stan Lee scripted the prose teaser ‘All Winners’ – an affable chat between the four-colour stars – after which an untitled Bill Everett Sub-Mariner yarn saw the errant Prince of Atlantis uncover and promptly scupper a nest of saboteurs on the Virginia coastline whilst the inexplicably ubiquitous Angel travelled to the deep dark jungle to solve ‘The Case of the Mad Gargoyle’ with typical ruthless efficiency in an engaging end-piece by Paul Gustavson.

Issue #2 (Fall 1941) began with the Torch and incendiary sidekick Toro tackling the ‘Carnival of Death!’ – a winter jamboree this time rather than a circus of itinerant killers – in a passable murder-mystery with less than stellar art, after which Simon & Kirby delivered another stunning suspense shocker in the exotic action masterpiece ‘The Strange Case of the Malay Idol’.

Lee graduated to full comic strips in ‘Bombs of Doom!’ as Jack Binder illustrated the All Winners debut of charismatic behind-enemy-lines hero The Destroyer; the text feature ‘Winners All’ saw a Lee puff-piece embellished with a Kirby group shot of the anthology’s cast and second new guy The Whizzer kicked off a long run in an untitled, uncredited tale about spies and society murderers on the home-front. After a page of believe-it-or-not ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ a ghost artist produced ‘The Ghost Fleet’ to end the issue with another Sub-Mariner versus Nazi submariners action romp.

All Winners #3 pitted the Torch against Japanese terrorists in ‘The Case of the Black Dragon Society’, a rather over-the-top slice of cartoon jingoism credited to Burgos but perhaps produced by another anonymous ghost squad. Simon and Kirby had moved to National Comics by this issue and Avison was drawing Captain America now, with scripts by the mysterious S.T. Anley (geddit?) but ‘The Canvas of Doom!’ still rockets along with plenty of dynamite punch in a manic yarn about a painter who predicts murders in his paintings, whilst The Whizzer busted up corruption and slaughter in ‘Terror Prison’ in a rip-roarer from Lee, Mike Sekowsky & George Klein.

‘Jungle Drums’ was standard genre filler-fare after which Everett triumphed with a spectacular maritime mystery as ‘Sub-Mariner visits the Ship of Horrors’ and The Destroyer turned the Fatherland upside down by wrecking ‘The Secret Tunnel of Death!’

The final issue in this compendium was cover-dated Spring 1942 and with enough lead time following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the patriotic frenzy mill was clearly in full swing.

A word of warning: though modern readers might well blanche at the racial and sexual stereotyping of the (presumably) well-intentioned propaganda machines which generated tales such as ‘Death to Nazi Scourge’ and ‘The Terror of the Slimy Japs’, please try to remember the tone of those times and recall that these contents obviously need to be read in an historical rather than purely entertainment context.

The aforementioned ‘Terror of the Slimy Japs’ found the Human Torch and Toro routing Moppino, High Priest of the Rising Sun Temple and saboteur extraordinaire from his lair beneath New York, whilst Cap and Bucky contented themselves with solving ‘The Sorcerer’s Sinister Secret!’ and foiling another Japanese sneak attack before The Whizzer stamped out ‘Crime on the Rampage’ in a breakneck campaign by Howard “Johns” nee James.

‘Miser’s Gold’ was just one more genre text tale followed by Everett’s take on the other war as ‘Sub-Mariner Combats the Sinister Horde!’ …of Nazis, this time, after which the Destroyer brought down the final curtain by hunting down a sadistic Gestapo chief in ‘Death to Nazi Scourge’.

Augmented by covers, house ads and other original ephemera, this is a collection of patriotic populist publishing from the dawn of a new and cut-throat industry, working under war-time conditions in a much less enlightened time. That these nascent efforts grew into the legendary characters and brands of today attests to their intrinsic attraction and fundamental appeal, but this is a book of much more than simple historical interest. Make no mistake, there’s still much here that any modern fan can and will enjoy.
© 1941, 1942, 2003 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks Golden Age Captain America vol. 1


New expanded review
By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby and various (Marvel Comics)

ISBN: 0-7851-1619-2

Over the last twenty years a minor phenomenon developed in the world of comic collecting. The success of DC’s Archive imprint – which produced luxury hardback reprints of rare, expensive and just plain old items out of their mammoth back-catalogue – gradually resulted in a shelf-buckling array of Golden and Silver Age volumes which paid worthy tribute to the company’s grand past and still serves a genuine need amongst fans of old comics who don’t own their own software company or Money Bin.

It should also be noted that many volumes, at least latterly, seemed to coincide with the release of a film or TV show.

From tentative beginnings in the 1990’s DC, Marvel and Dark Horse have pursued this (hopefully) lucrative avenue, perhaps as much a sop to their most faithful fans as an exercise in expansion marketing. DC’s electing to spotlight not simply their World Branded “Big Guns” but also those idiosyncratic yet well-beloved collector nuggets – such as Doom Patrol, Sugar and Spike or Kamandi – was originally at odds with Marvel’s policy of only releasing equally expensive editions of major characters from “the Marvel Age of Comics”, but in recent times their Dawn Age material has been progressively released.

A part of me understands the reluctance: sacrilegious as it may sound to my fellow fan-boys, the simple truth is that no matter how venerable and beloved those early stories are, no matter how their very existence may have lead to classics in a later age, in and of themselves, most early Marvel tales just aren’t that good.

This Marvel Masterworks Captain America volume reprints more or less the complete contents of the first four issues of his original title (from March to June 1941) and I stress this because all the leading man’s adventures have often been reprinted before, most notably in a shoddy, infamous yet expensive 2-volume anniversary boxed set issued in 1991.

However, the groundbreaking and exceptionally high quality material from Joe Simon & Jack Kirby is not really the lure here… the real gold nuggets for us old sods are the rare back-up features from the star duo and their small team of talented youngsters. Reed Crandall, Syd Shores, Alex Schomburg and all the rest worked on main course and filler features such as Hurricane, the God of Speed and Tuk, Caveboy; strips barely remembered yet still brimming with the first enthusiastic efforts of creative legends in waiting.

Captain America was created at the end of 1940 and boldly launched in his own monthly Timely title (the company’s original name) with none of the customary cautious shilly-shallying. Captain America Comics, #1 was cover-dated March 1941 and was an instant monster smash-hit. Cap was the absolute and undisputed star of Timely’s “Big Three” – the other two being the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner – and one of the very first to fall from popularity at the end of the Golden Age.

Today, the huge 1940s popularity of the other two just doesn’t translate into a good read for modern consumers – excluding, perhaps, those far-too-few Bill Everett crafted Sub-Mariner yarns. In comparison to their contemporaries at Quality, Fawcett, National/All American and Dell, or Will Eisner’s Spirit newspaper strip, the standard of most Timely periodicals was woefully lacklustre in both story and most tellingly, art. That they survived and prospered is a Marvel mystery, but a clue might lie in the sheer exuberant venom of their racial stereotypes and heady fervour of jingoism at a time when America was involved in the greatest war in world history…

However, the first ten Captain America Comics are the most high-quality comics in the fledgling company’s history and I can’t help but wonder what might have been had National (née DC) been wise enough to hire Simon & Kirby before they were famous, instead of after that pivotal first year?

Of course we’ll never know and though they did jump to the majors after a year, their visual dynamic became the aspirational style for super-hero comics at the company they left and their patriotic creation became a flagship icon for them and the industry.

This lavish and exceptional hardback volume opens with ‘Case No. 1: Meet Captain America’ by Simon & Kirby (with additional inks by Al Liederman) wherein we first see how scrawny, enfeebled young patriot Steven Rogers, continually rejected by the US Army, is recruited by the Secret Service. Desperate to counter a wave of Nazi-sympathizing espionage and sabotage, the passionate young man was invited to become part of a clandestine experiment intended to create physically perfect super-soldiers.

When a Nazi agent infiltrated the project and murdered its key scientist, Rogers became the only successful graduate and America’s not-so-secret weapon.

Sent undercover as a simple private he soon encountered James Buchanan Barnes: a headstrong, orphaned Army Brat who became his sidekick and costumed confidante “Bucky”. All of that was perfectly packaged into mere seven-and-a-half pages, and the untitled ‘Case No. 2’ took just as long to spectacularly defeat Nazi showbiz psychics Sando and Omar.

‘Captain America and the Soldier’s Soup’ was a rather mediocre and unattributed prose tale promptly followed by a sinister 16-page epic ‘Captain America and the Chess-board of Death’ and the groundbreaking introduction of the nation’s greatest foe whilst solving ‘The Riddle of the Red Skull’ – a thrill-packed, horror-drenched master-class in comics excitement.

The first of the B-features follows next as Hurricane, son of Thor and the last survivor of the Greek Gods (don’t blame me – that’s what it says) set his super-fast sights on ‘Murder Inc.’ – a rip-roaring but clearly rushed battle against fellow-immortal Pluto (so not quite the last god either; nor exclusively Norse or Greek…) who was once more using mortals to foment pain, terror and death.

Hurricane was a rapid reworking and sequel to Kirby’s ‘Mercury in the 20th Century’ from Red Raven Comics #1 (August 1940) but ‘Tuk, Caveboy: Stories from the Dark Ages’ is all-original excitement as a teenaged boy in 50,000 BC raised by a beast-man determines to regain the throne of his antediluvian kingdom Attilan from the usurpers who stole it: a barbarian spectacular that owes as much to Tarzan as The Land that Time Forgot

Historians believe that Kirby pencilled this entire issue and although no records remain, inkers as diverse as Liederman, Crandall, Bernie Klein, Al Avison, Al Gabrielle, Syd Shores and others may have been involved in this and subsequent issues…

Captain America Comics #2 screamed onto the newsstands a month later and spectacularly opened with ‘The Ageless Orientals Who Wouldn’t Die’, blending elements of horror and jingoism into a terrifying thriller, with a ruthless American capitalist the true source of a rampage against the nation’s banks…

‘Trapped in the Nazi Stronghold’ saw Cap and youthful sidekick Bucky in drag and in Europe to rescue a pro-British financier kidnapped by the Nazis whilst ‘Captain America and the Wax Statue that Struck Death’ returned to movie-thriller themes in the tale of a macabre murderer with delusions of world domination, after which the Patriotic Pair dealt with saboteurs in the prose piece ‘Short Circuit’. Tuk then tackled monsters and mad priests in ‘The Valley of the Mist’ (by either the King and a very heavy inker or an unnamed artist doing a passable Kirby impression) and Hurricane speedily and spectacularly dealt with ‘The Devil and the Green Plague’ in the depths of the Amazon jungles.

17-page epic ‘The Return of the Red Skull’ led in #3 – knocking Adolf Hitler off the cover-spot he’d hogged in #1 and #2 – as Kirby opened up his layouts to utterly enhance the graphic action and a veritable production line of creators joined the art team (including Ed Herron, Martin A, Burnstein, Howard Ferguson, William Clayton King, and possibly George Roussos, Bob Oksner, Max Elkan and Jerry Robinson) whilst eye-shattering scale and spectacle joined non-stop action and eerie mood as key components of the Sentinel of Liberty’s exploits.

The horror element dominated in ‘The Hunchback of Hollywood and the Movie Murder’ as a patriotic film was plagued by sinister “accidents” after which Stan Lee debuted with the text tale ‘Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge’ before Simon & Kirby – and friends – recounted ‘The Queer Case of the Murdering Butterfly and the Ancient Mummies’; blending eerie Egyptian antiquities with a thoroughly modern costumed psychopath.

Tuk (drawn by either Mark Schneider – or perhaps Marcia Snyder) reached ‘Atlantis and the False King’ after which Kirby contributed a true tale in ‘Amazing Spy Adventures’ and Hurricane confronted ‘Satan and the Subway Disasters’ with devastating and final effect.

The last issue in this fabulous chronicle opens with ‘Captain America and the Unholy Legion’ as the heroes crushed a conspiracy of beggars terrorising the city, before taking on ‘Ivan the Terrible’ in a time-busting vignette and solving ‘The Case of the Fake Money Fiends’, culminating on a magnificent high by exposing the horrendous secret of ‘Horror Hospital’.

After the Lee-scripted prose-piece ‘Captain America and the Bomb Sight Thieves’ young Tuk defeated ‘The Ogre of the Cave-Dwellers’ and Hurricane brought down the final curtain on ‘The Pirate and the Missing Ships’.

An added and very welcome bonus for fans is the inclusion of all the absolutely beguiling house-ads for other titles, contents pages, Sentinels of Liberty club bulletins and assorted pin-ups…

Although lagging far behind DC and despite, in many ways having a much shallower Golden Age well to draw from, it’s great that Marvel has overcome an understandable reluctance about its earliest product continues to re-present these masterworks – even if they’re only potentially of interest to the likes of sad old folk like me – but with this particular tome at least the House of Ideas has a book that will always stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best that the Golden Age of Comics could offer.
© 1941 and 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Three Musketeers – a Golden Picture Classic


By Alexandre Dumas, edited and abridged by Marjorie Mattern and illustrated by Hamilton Greene (Purnell & Sons)
No ISBN

Never one to avoid cashing in, I’m using all the foofaraw about the new movie as an excuse to dig out this beloved old interpretation of the evergreen adventure classic and give it a fresh once-over.

As always, the prime directive here is “Read The Original Prose Novel Too” – if not first – but since Les Trois Mousquetaires first appeared in 1844, serialised from March to July in the French newspaper Le Siècle, I suppose a decent English translation will suffice. For kids I suggest the William Barrow version, one of the three translations available by 1846 but cleaned up for modest British tastes – still in print and available in the Oxford World’s Classics 1999 edition – or if you’re not shy, the rather more racy and fully restored 2006 edition by Richard Pevear.

The story has been adapted so very many times, with varying degrees of fidelity, and since the tome under review here is both a bit old and abridged for American children, I’ll keep the précis brief.

Impoverished Gascon youth d’Artagnan leaves the farm to join the personal guard of the French King, just as his father once had. A bit of a country bumpkin, the lad is nonetheless a devastatingly deft swordsman. Soon after reaching Paris he manages to annoy and impress the veteran musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis before becoming embroiled in a Machiavellian intrigue between State and Church, as despicably represented by the nefarious and ambitious Cardinal Richelieu

And thus begins an unshakable comradeship between four great and noble fighters in a rollercoaster ride of swashbuckling adventure stretching from the backstreets of Paris to the deadly wilds of England and Queen’s bedchambers to the bloody battlefields of Rochelle… If you get the novel and want more, the team returned in two sequels in Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later. Collectively they known as known as the d’Artagnan Romances.

This fabulous primer edition was released in the USA as part of a sublime series of hardback, illustrated literary classics edited for children (and not to be confused with the legendary comicbook series Classics Illustrated), with a skilful rewrite by Marjorie Mattern, although the real lure for young and old alike must be the beautiful and copious colour illustrations by celebrated artist and war correspondent Hamilton Greene (who also applied his prodigious talents to companion volume The Count of Monte Cristo).

This particular nostalgic nugget was published in a UK edition by Purnell and Sons although the US Simon and Shuster edition is more readily available should I have sufficiently piqued your interest…

An absolute template for today’s comicbook teams (just check out that aforementioned new movie…) this spectacular romp – or any sufficiently diligent adaptation – is an absolute must for all action aficionados and drama divas…
© 1957 Golden Press, Inc, and Artists and Writers Guild Inc. Published by arrangement with Western Printing and Lithographing Company, Racine, Wisconsin.

Drawing Power: A Compendium of Cartoon Advertising volume 1


By many and various, edited by Rick Marschall & Warren Bernhard (Fantagraphics Books & Marschall Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-399-6

From its earliest inception cartooning has been used to sell: initially ideas or values but eventually products themselves. In newspapers, magazines and especially comicbooks the sheer power of narrative with its ability to create emotional affinities has been linked to the creation of unforgettable images and characters. When those stories affect the daily lives of generations of readers the force that they can apply in a commercial arena is almost irresistible…

Popular culture historian Rick Marschall and biographer/researcher Warren Bernhard have compiled here a captivating potted history of the rise of the art of commercial cartooning in an increasingly advertising-aware America (…and make a strong argument that one could not have thrived without the other) whilst providing a glorious panoply of staggeringly evocative, nostalgic and enduring picture-poems which shaped the habits of a nation. This volume covers the birth of the medium until the outbreak of World War II – which will be tackled in a subsequent book.

After Marschall’s compelling and intoxicating discourse on the growth of the twin industries in ‘Cartoons and the Selling of America’ the individual chapters of copiously illustrated memorabilia commence with ‘The Origins of Cartoon Advertising’ featuring truly magical art from the likes of Joseph Keppler, Thomas Nast, Frederick Burr Opper, Clare Victor “Dwig” Dwiggins, Winsor McCay and others for Beef Tea, Steinway pianos, insurance, wines, “electric” cigarettes, washing powder, sausages, entertainments and political rallies after which the legendary R.F. Outcault stars in the first Portfolio Section.

The creator of Hogan’s Alley, The Yellow Kid, Buster Brown and so many others was the first cartoonist to cut out the commercial middleman and directly market his skills as a pioneering advertising executive with his own agency in 1907 and this 10-page gallery is stuffed with his incredible inventions and innovations.

‘Cartoon Ads Go to War’ celebrates the patriotic fervour engendered by masters of brush and pen such as Ralph Barton, Rose (“Kewpies”) O’Neill, Charles Dana Gibson, McCay again, John T. McCutcheon and many more with the attendant Portfolio piece dedicated to ‘Sheet Music’ illustrations from Homer Davenport, Outcault, McCay, George McManus, Russell Patterson, Rube Goldberg and more, illustrating a growing trend – the licensing of established strip characters and stars to “endorse” and sell products.

‘The Jazz Era’ spotlights a graphic Golden Age both for advertising and newspaper strip merchandising: everything from promotional postcards to personalised calendars, decoder rings and assorted premium statuettes. Here the portfolio features illustrated blotters (absolutely vital in an era when most transactions where inscribed using fountain pens) starring such cartoon heavyweights as Mutt and Jeff, Bull of the Woods, They’ll Do It Every Time, Krazy Kat, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Bringing Up Father, the Gumps and William Heath Robinson.

Another portfolio covers the left-wing cartoonists who openly thrived in the USA in the days before Communism became a dirty word and Liberal Tendencies a hanging offence. Contributors include Otto ‘the Little King’ Soglow, Art Young, Syd Hoff AKA “A. Redfield”, Herbert Johnson, Charles Sykes, John Held Jr., after which the ‘Tobacco’ industry gets its own section with terrifyingly effective contributions from Outcault’s Yellow Kid, Martin Branner’s Winnie Winkle, Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff plus original strips from Frank Godwin, Ann “Fish” Septon, James Pinkney, Winsor McCay, Nicholas Afonsky and others.

The depression era is dissected in ‘Hard Times and Good Times’ concentrating on food, nutrition and making ends meet in strips drawn by Ludwig Bemelman, Opper and others whilst the Portfolio concentrates on ‘Baseball’ with strips starring celebrities such as Babe Ruth and Dizzy Dean – by a variety of unnamed artists – promoting the benefits of everything from grape nuts to cigarettes.

After which another selection of strip promotions and premiums highlights school supplies from Buck Rogers, comic masks from Wrigley’s gum, star buttons, Popeye transfers and more.

A ‘Celebrities’ Portfolio focuses on the selling power of tennis ace Big Bill Tilden, western stars Tom Mix and Andy Devine, movie comedians Jimmy Durante, Joe E. Brown and many more whose stars have faded with time.

Theodore Geisel gets an entire section to himself under his cartoon alter ego of Dr. Seuss and ‘Cartoonists as Pitchmen’ examines the phenomenon of artists as celebrities with Peter Arno, James Montgomery Flagg, Rube Goldberg, Sidney “The Gumps” Smith, Ham Fisher and others plugging a variety of goods and services after which Tom Heintjes recounts the story of the cartoonists ad agency ‘Johnstone and Cushing’, with illustrations from such employees as William Sakren, Creig Flessel, Albert Dorne, Austin Briggs, Lou Fine, Stan Drake and more.

This magnificent and beautiful collection concludes with an examination of perhaps the most effective cartoon advertising symbol ever created. ‘Mr. Coffee Nerves’ was designed to sell a vile-tasting, caffeine-free ersatz coffee named Poston – which it successfully did for 40 years – probably due to the entertaining scripts and superb art of artists such as Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff…

Stuffed with astounding images, fascinating lost ephemera and mouth-watering photos of toys and trinkets no fan could resist, this colossal collection is a beautiful piece of cartoon Americana that will delight and tantalise all who read it… and the best is yet to come.
This edition ©2011 Fantagraphics Books and Marschall Books. All text ©2011 Rick Marschall except ‘Johnstone and Cushing’ ©Tom Heintjes. All Rights Reserved.

Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes


By various (Tempo Books/Grosset & Dunlap)
ISBN: 0-448-14535-9

Here’s another early attempt to catapult comics off the spinner racks and onto proper bookshelves; this time from 1977, coinciding with and celebrating one of the periodic surges in popularity of the venerable Legion of Super-Heroes.

The many-handed mob of juvenile universe-savers debuted in Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958) in a Superboy tale wherein three mysterious kids invited the Boy of Steel to the future to join a team of metahuman champions inspired by his historic feats. Created by Otto Binder & Al Plastino, the throwaway concept inflamed public imagination and after a slew of further appearances throughout Superman Family titles, the LSH eventually took over Superboy’s lead spot in Adventure for their own far-flung, quirky escapades, with the Caped Kryptonian reduced to “one of the in-crowd”…

This terrific little black and white tome, part of National Periodical Publications’ on-going efforts to reach wider reading audiences – which began during the “Camp” craze of the 1960s with reformatted Superman and Batman pocket paperbacks and intermittently continued for the next twenty years – is particularly appealing as it leads off with a straight Superboy solo story.

The exploits of the Kid Kryptonian were always problematic. Since his inception (More Fun Comics #101 January/February 1945) the character had been perennially set in the past, “the adventures of Superman when he was a boy”. He was always popular and a solid seller, but as the world and the readership grew increasingly more complex in the late 1960s, the vague, timeless “about twenty years ago” settings grew ever-harder to reconcile with the uniform continuity being formed within the cohesively congealing DC universe.

For long term readers, the tales were seen to have occurred anytime between 1929-1957 and eventually DC (as NPP became) simply gave up the ghost and simply told fans to subtract 12-20 years from whatever the date was in Superman. More succinctly: “deal with it, it’s only a comicbook…”

When the Legion were revived after a nearly two years in limbo, they moved briefly into the back of Superboy before taking over the title (Déjà vu, much?). Thereafter all the Boy of Steel’s adventures took place in the future, not the past…

Tragically, however, that relegated a huge amount of superb comics stories to oblivion: not acknowledged and never included in those reprint collections increasingly targeting the mainstream fan-base. Mercifully, one of those lost tales – from a brilliant run by scripter Frank Robbins and artists Bob Brown & Wally Wood – found its way into this collection for a wider and less picky audience…

‘Superboy’s Darkest Secret!’ (from Superboy #158, July 1969) is a powerful and moving epic which fits nowhere in accepted continuity. In this beautifully rendered tragedy the Boy of Steel discovers his birth parents had actually – and unwillingly – escaped Krypton and now lay interred in a life-pod deep inside a debris field of Kryptonite and space mines. Moreover, the only person who could reunite him with them was the kindly Kryptonian savant who had murdered them and was now determined to resurrect them…!

The Heroes of Tomorrow finally show up in ‘The Six-Legged Legionnaire!’ (Adventure Comics #355, April 1967 by Otto Binder, Curt Swan & George Klein) as Superboy brings his High School sweetie Lana Lang to the 30th century, where she joins in a mission against a science-tyrant as the shape changing Insect Queen. Disaster strikes when she loses the alien ring that enables her to resume her human form…

‘Curse of the Blood-Crystals!’ by Cary Bates, Dave Cockrum & Murphy Anderson comes from Superboy #188 (July 1972); the sixth stunning back-up tale of the unstoppable Legion revival that would eventually lead to the team taking over the title. This clever yarn of cross-and-double-cross finds a Legionnaire possessed by a magical booby-trap and forced to murder Superboy – but which hero is actually the prospective killer…?

This nifty nostalgic nugget ends with a rather strange but genuinely intriguing choice.

By 1970 the team’s popularity was on the wane. They had lost their Adventure Comics spot to Supergirl and become a back-up feature in Action Comics. Moreover, the masterful penciller Curt Swan had left to devote himself fully to Superman…

The shorter stories were bolder and more entertaining than ever, but too many casual readers had moved on. ‘The Legionnaires Who Never Were!’ (Action #392, September 1970, by Bates, Winslow Mortimer & Jack Abel) was their last adventure until popping up in Superboy and presents a brilliant psychological thriller/mystery romp as Saturn Girl and Princess Projectra return to Earth and discover that they no longer exist…. Of course, there’s a sound reason why all their old comrades are trying to kill them…

The Legion of Super-Heroes has long been graced with the most faithful and determined hard-core fans in comics history. Once the graphic novel market was established all of their old adventures became readily available in many different formats, so for most readers and collectors the true value of this scarce back-pocket item probably lies in that solo Superboy treat.

I’ve always harboured a secret delight in these paperback pioneers of the comics biz; however, and if you’re in any way of similar mien, I can thoroughly recommend the sheer tactile and olfactory buzz that only comes from holding such an item in your own two hands…

Wipe them first, though, right…?
© 1966, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1977 DC Comics Inc. All Rights Reserved.