By many & various (DC Comics)
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.