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.

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.