By various (Tower Books)
ISBN: 42-672

I’ve often harped on about the mini-revolution in the “Camp-superhero” crazed 1960s that saw four-colour comicbook classics migrate briefly from flimsy pamphlet to the stiffened covers and relative respectability of the paperback bookshelves, and the nostalgic wonderments these mostly forgotten fancies still afford (to me at least), but here’s one that I picked up years later as a marginally mature grown man.

Although the double-sized colour comics T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, its spin-offs Undersea Agent, Dynamo, NoMan and the magnificent war-comic Fight the Enemy were all distributed in Britain (but not, I think their youth-comedy title Tippy Teen) these monochrome, re-sized book editions, to the best of my knowledge, were not.

It doesn’t matter: to my delight, it seems that even today the format and not the glow of childhood days recalled is enough to spark that frisson of proprietary glee that apparently only comic fans (and Dinky Toy collectors) are preciously prone to.

Of course it doesn’t hurt when the material is as magnificent as this…

The history of Wally Wood’s immortal spies-in-tights masterpiece is convoluted, and once the mayfly-like lifetime of the Tower Comics line ended, not especially pretty: bogged down in legal wrangling and petty back-biting, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that the far-too brief careers of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves was a benchmark of quality and sheer bravura fun for fans of both the reawakening superhero genre and the 1960s spy-chic obsession.

In the early 1960s the Bond movie franchise went from strength to strength, with action and glamour utterly transforming the formerly understated espionage vehicle. The buzz was infectious: soon Men like Flint and Matt Helm were carving out their own piece of the action as television shanghaied the entire bandwagon with the irresistible Man From U.N.C.L.E. (beginning in September 1964), bringing the whole genre inescapably into living rooms across the world.

Creative maverick Wally Wood was approached by veteran MLJ/Archie Comics editor Harry Shorten to create a line of characters for a new distribution-chain funded publishing outfit – Tower Comics. Woody called on many of the industry’s biggest names to produce material for the broad range of genres the company envisioned: Samm Schwartz and Dan DeCarlo handled Tippy Teen – which outlasted all the others – whilst Wood, Larry Ivie, Len Brown, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Russ Jones Gil Kane and Ralph Reese all contributed to the adventure series.

With a ravenous public appetite for super-spies and costumed heroes exponentially growing the idea of blending the two concepts seems a no-brainer now, but those were far more conservative times, so when T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 appeared with no fanfare or pre-publicity on newsstands in August 1965 (with a cover off-sale date of November) thrill-hungry readers like little me were blown away. It didn’t hurt either that all Tower titles were in the beloved-but-rarely-seen 80 Page Giant format: there was a huge amount to read in every issue!

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

This slim, seductive digest stars the UN Agency’s number two troubleshooter (after the iconic Dynamo) in four stirring spy thrillers featuring a winning combination of cloak-and-dagger danger, science fiction shocks and stirring super-heroics. Although UN commandos failed to save brilliant Professor Jennings from the mysterious Warlord, they rescued some of the scientist’s greatest inventions, including a belt that could increase the density of the wearer’s body, a brain-amplifier helmet and a cloak of invisibility.

These prototypes were divided between several agents, creating a unit of superior fighting men to counter the increasingly bold attacks of global terror threats such as the aforementioned Warlord.

Inexplicably, the origin tale ‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent NoMan’ which told how aged Dr. Anthony Dunn had his mind transferred into an artificial android body equipped with the invisibility cape is not included here, but the book’s back cover features a Wood pin-up “file page” which distils the powers and background into a handy recap. In those long-ago days kids didn’t much care for long-winded and endless reworkings of past detail: origins just weren’t as important as beating bad-guys….

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

The action starts with ‘In the Warlord’s Power’ (by Bill Pearson, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando and Wood) as the artificial agent has to defend an entire Missile Base from an assault by an army of Zombie-men, swiftly followed by ‘NoMan Faces the Threat of the Amazing Vibraman’ (Pearson, John Giunta, Wood & Tony Coleman) wherein the threat was far les esoteric but no less deadly: a freelance villain who used devastating sound weapons.

Next the Invisible Agent tackled a fiendish Mastermind equipped with his own android army in ‘The Synthetic Stand-Ins’ by Steve Skeates, Mike Sekowsky & Frank Giacoia, and the explosive adventures rush to a classy climax in ‘The Caverns of Demo’ (astoundingly illustrated by Gil Kane, Wood and Dan Adkins) wherein NoMan faced an entire island of Neanderthal Beast-Men controlled by an arch criminal who had stolen his cloak of invisibility! Sheer magic!

Supplemented by an exciting ‘NoMan in Action’ fact-feature this is a book that would have completely blown away pre-teen me and still has all the impact of a blockbuster bomb. These are truly timeless comic tales that improve with every reading and there’s precious few things you can say that about…
© 1966 Tower Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Incredible Hulk

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko & various (Lancer US/Four Square UK)
“ISBNs” 72-124 (Lancer) and 1808 (Four Square)

This is one solely for chronic nostalgics, consumed collectors and historical nit-pickers, and is all about memories and the purity of the line – and possibly nasty, mean profiteering publishers…

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

Whilst Kirby and Ditko pursued his imagination waiting for the quality of the work to be noticed, Stan pursued every opportunity to break down the ghetto walls; college lecture tours, animated shows (of frankly dubious quality at the start, but always improving), foreign franchising and of course getting their product onto “real” bookshelves in real book shops.

There had been a revolution in popular fiction during the 1950s with a huge expansion of cheap paperback books: companies developed extensive genre niche-markets, such as war, western, romance, science-fiction and fantasy. Hungry for product for their cheap ubiquitous lines, many old novels and short stories collections were republished, introducing a new generation to such authors as Robert E. Howard, Otis Adelbert Kline, H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth and many others.

The paperback itself was not new: pioneered by German company Albatross Books in 1931 – not too long before the birth of the comic book itself – their abortive efforts were picked up and successfully adapted by publisher Allen Lane in England. In 1935 they launched Penguin Books, which in one go combined conspicuous, memorable design, genre-coding, brand awareness and product collectability in ten distinctive reprinted titles. The revolution had begun…

They were cheap, throwaway books – one could even buy them at Woolworth’s of all places, my dear! – and after some  initial resistance the market grew hugely. The hoi-polloi could now afford to read anything they pleased. In America Robert de Graf linked up with Simon & Shuster in 1939 to create the remarkably similar Pocket Books line.

The war slowed everything down by rationing paper, but also increased the acceptance of these easily portable diversions, and by the end of the affair a number of powerful reprint publishers were dominating the cheap end of the US market: Ace, Avon, Bantam, Dell – and yes, most of those companies dabbled in comic-books too…

That market changed forever in 1950 when comics and magazine publisher Fawcett established Gold Medal Books and began publishing original works in softcover.

They were so successful that they severely wounded the entire magazine market and actually killed “the Pulps”.

The hunger for escapist fiction was insatiable. Bantam Books had specialised in superhero fiction since 1964 when they began reprinting the earliest pulp adventures of Doc Savage, and they seemed the ideal partner when Marvel on the back of the “Batmania” craze, began a short-lived attempt to “novelise” their comic book stable with The Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker and Captain America in the Great Gold Steal.

Far more successful were various publisher’s repackaging of their actual comics stories in cheap and cheerful softcovers: Archie produced the memorable High Camp Superheroes, Tower collected the adventures of their big two Dynamo and No-Man, DC (then National Periodical Publications) released a number of Batman books and an impressive compendium of Superman stories and Marvel, punching far above their weight, unleashed a storm of paperbacks featuring a huge number of their new stars, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Thor and of course the Incredible Hulk.

Now during the heady, turbulent Sixties pulp heroics seemingly returned: imaginative “Thud and Blunder” fantasy tales that were the epitome of “cool”, and Marvel’s canny pursuit of foreign markets instantly paid big dividends.

Their characters, creators and stories were very familiar to British readers, appearing both in Odhams’ weekly comics Wham!, Pow!, Smash!, Fantastic and Terrific, but also – since 1959 – in the black and white monthly anthologies published by Alan Class

So when Lancer began releasing Marvel’s Mightiest early adventures in potent and portable little collections it was simple to negotiate British editions for those editions.

A word about artwork here: modern comics are almost universally full-coloured in Britain and America, but for over a century black and white was the only real choice for most mass market publishers – additional (colour) plates being just too expensive for shoe-string operations to indulge in. Even the colour of 1960s comics was cheap and primitive, and solid black line, expertly applied by master artists, was the very life-force of sequential narrative.

These days computer enhanced art can hide a multitude of weaknesses – if not actual pictorial sins – but back then companies lived or died on the draughting skills of their artists: so even in basic black and white – and the printing of paperbacks was as basic as the accountants and bean-counters could get it – the Kirby’s and Ditko’s and Wally Wood’s of the industry exploded out of those little pages and electrified the readership. I can’t see that happening with many modern artists deprived of their slick paper and 16 million colour palettes…

One word of warning to potential readers and collectors of these books: the US and UK editions can vary significantly – which is why I’ve selected the Incredible Hulk for this review. The American Lancer edition with the Kirby cover, published in 1966, represents in truncated, resized form two stories from The Incredible Hulk #3 (September 1962)‘Banished to Outer Space’ which radically altered the relationship the monster and his teen sidekick Rick Jones, and the first appearance of the Circus of Crime in ‘The Ringmaster’, by Lee Kirby and Dick Ayers, and then jumps via a brief bridging sequence from The Incredible Hulk #6 (March 1963) to the Steve Ditko run from Tales to Astonish.

These are ‘The Incredible Hulk’ (Tales to Astonish #60, October 1964) by Lee, Steve Ditko and comics veteran George Roussos – under the pseudonym George Bell – which found Bruce Banner still working for General “Thunderbolt” Ross, and still afflicted with uncontrollable transformations into a rampaging, if well-intentioned, engine of destruction. The episodes were set in the Arizona/New Mexico deserts, with Cold War espionage and military themes as the narrative backdrop…

This is followed by ‘Captured at Last’ the concluding part of a battle with a spy in an indestructible battle suit, and then the Hulk’s greatest foe is introduced in ‘Enter… the Chameleon’ (not him but his boss and taken from TtA #62): stuffed with action and suspense but the real stinger is the final panel that hints at the mastermind behind all the spying and skulduggery – the enigmatic Leader – who would become the Hulk’s ultimate and antithetical nemesis.

Thus far this book and the UK Four Square paperback released in 1967 are all but identical – covers excluded of course – and apart from a Kirby pin-up page and ads for the Thor, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four companion volumes, that’s where Britain’s Hulk stops dead, whereas the Lancer volume has another full episode to go.

‘A Titan Rides the Train!’ provides an origin for the super-intellectual Leader as well as setting up a plotline where new cast member Major Glen Talbot begins to suspect Banner of being a traitor. Both editions end on frustrating cliffhangers but at least you get one more astonishing tale in the Lancer book.

Nowadays all these adventures are readily available (in colour in the Marvel Masterworks: Incredible Hulk 1962-1964 or as dynamic monochrome treasures in Essential Hulk) but for we surviving baby-boomers the sheer thrill of experiencing these books again is a buzz you can’t beat. Moreover there’s still something vaguely subversive about seeing comics in proper book form, as opposed to the widely available, larger and more socially acceptable graphic novels. Strip art might finally be winning the war for mainstream public recognition, but we’ve all lost some indefinable unifying camaraderie of outsider-hood along the way…

These paperbacks and all the others are still there to be found by those who want to own the artifact as well as the material: I suspect that whether you revere the message or the medium that carries it pretty much defines who you are and how you view comics and the world.

Wanna try and guess where I stand, True Believer…?
© 1966 and 1967 the Marvel Comics Group. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol Two

Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol Two 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-391-2

Here’s another collection of tales tracing the Man of Steel’s history and development, this time seemingly concentrating on character rather than physical achievement. First off is the much-reprinted, but always glorious, The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk (which was later Anglicised to Mxyzptlk, presumably to make it easier to spell) from Superman #30 (1944). Jerry Siegel and artist Ira Yarbrough created a cornerstone of the Superman myth with this screwball other-dimensional pixie, against whom all Superman’s strength and power are useless. From then on brains were going to be as important as brawn as they introduced frustration as the Big Guy’s first real weakness.

By the mid-1950s Superman had settled into an ordered existence. Nothing could really hurt him, nothing would ever change, and thrills seemed in short supply. With the TV show cementing the action, writers increasingly concentrated on supplying wonder instead. Superman’s Other Life by Otto Binder, Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye (Superman #132, 1959) shows what might have happened if Superman had grown up on an unexploded Krypton, courtesy of Batman and the projections of a super-computer.

Superman’s Return to Krypton (Superman #141, 1960) by Siegel, Boring and Kaye shoots successfully for Grand Tragedy as Kal-El is trapped in the past on his doomed home-world. Reconciled to dying there, he finds love with his ideal soul-mate, only to be torn from her side and returned to Earth against his will. This tale was a fan favourite for decades thereafter, and it’s truly deserving of a place in this volume, as is The Team of Luthor and Brainiac (Superman #167, 1964), a kid’s dream of an adventure by Edmond Hamilton (from a Cary Bates plot), Curt Swan and George Klein – possibly the most effective art team ever to work on the Man of Steel.

When Julie Schwartz took over the editorial duties, he decided to shake things up — with spectacular results. Superman Breaks Loose (Superman #233, 1971) by Denny O’Neil, Swan and Murphy Anderson, revitalised the Man of Tomorrow and began a period of superb stories that made him a ‘must-buy’ character all over again.

The Legend from Earth-Prime (Superman #400, 1984) is a clever little pastiche by Elliot S. Maggin and Frank Miller, and The Secret Revealed by John Byrne and Terry Austin comes from the second issue of the remodelled, Post-Crisis, Superman (1987), and reveals just how differently the new Luthor thinks and works. Following that is Life after Death (Adventures of Superman #500, 1993), by Jerry Ordway, Tom Grummett and Doug Hazlewood, the concluding episode of the infamous Death of Superman story-arc.

After a pin-up by Scott McDaniel and Andy Owens the volume concludes, symmetrically, with a recent, and absolutely hilarious, Mxyzptlk tale from Greg Rucka, Matthew Clark and Andy Lanning (Adventures of Superman #638, 2005).

Every generation has its own favourite Superman. This selection has the potential to make a fan reconsider just which one that might be. It’s probably wiser to just love them all.

© 1944, 1959, 1960, 1964, 1971, 1984, 1987, 1993, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol Two

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told Vol Two 

By Bob Kane & various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-427-7

If you buy into the myth, then there are actually many great Batman stories. Over the decades lots of very talented creators have excelled themselves within Gotham City. Often the real problem is one of context, as many adventures worry reprint editors in terms of Sell-By Date, as if nearly seven decades of creativity can avoid looking dated to some modern consumers. Guys, who cares? They’re the ones who want to remake The Ladykillers and never read any book written before 1989. If they can’t understand history unless it’s got an American accent then they’re not worth the effort.

This selection has opted for a more open-minded interpretation and there is probably something that will appeal to every disparate sub-section of Bat-fan, from Dark Knight to Alien-Busting Boy Scout, since one of the big secrets of the Caped Crusader’s success has been his adaptability. There really is a Batman-for-all-seasons, and I’m sure someone, somewhere has written a thesis on his social mirroring of each popular societal trend.

For us though, there’s a charming and rewarding blend of Dark and Light as we walk the streets of Gotham from the late 1930’s to today.

One smart move is opening with a modern(ish) retelling of the origin and first case by reprinting Roy Thomas and Marshall Rogers’ excellent tale of the Golden Age Batman from Secret Origins #6 (1986) and following with Hugo Strange and the Monsters (Batman #1, 1940), Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson’s pulp masterpiece that was recently reworked by Matt Wagner as Batman and the Monstermen.

From the idyllic 1950s period comes The Career of Batman Jones (Batman #108, 1957), a tale of a boy who wants to be a crime-fighter, by Finger, Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris. And the same team produced Prisoners of Three Worlds, a trans-dimensional sci-fi drama featuring Batwoman and the very first of many Batgirls (Batman #153, 1963). How Many Ways can a Robin Die? (Batman #246, 1972) comes from that edgier period when Batman first regained his grim mystique, and has the hero hunting for his missing partner and an axe-wielding psycho-killer, courtesy of Frank Robbins, Irv Novick, Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano.

The Batman’s Last Christmas comes from Brave and the Bold #184 (1982), a potentially confusing tale for some, as the daughter of the deceased Earth II Batman crosses the dimensional divide to spend the holidays with our hero. Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo keep the scorecards there. Detective #526 (1983) gave us All My Enemies Against Me! an anniversary tale featuring a huge punch-up against nearly two dozen bat-foes and the origin of a new Robin, written by Gerry Conway, drawn by the shamefully neglected and much missed Don Newton, and inked by Alfredo Alcala.

The more-or-less modern Batman is represented by Of Mice and Men (The Batman Chronicles #5, 1996) by Alan Grant, Scott McDaniel and Ray McCarthy and Cave Dwellers by Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon, Marcos Martin and Alvaro Lopez (Batgirl: Year One #4, 2003), both reinterpreting the early days of the characters for a modern and ostensibly more sophisticated audience, and both doing a good job of it. The volume closes with a stylish pastiche of black and white movie classics with the decidedly odd but engaging Citizen Wayne by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos from The Batman Chronicles #21, 2000.

With judicious selection, there’s probably a good few more tales that could appear in successive volumes, but I’m still a little hesitant with that ‘Greatest Ever’ tag. Surely they can’t all be … No wait, I actually think they can.

© 1940, 1957, 1963, 1972, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Chronicles Volume 2

Superman Chronicles Volume 2 

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-435-8

Here’s another welcome cheap-and-cheerful soft-cover collection of the earliest stories of the Man of Steel who quite literally spawned a genre, if not an actual art form. The rough, uncontrollable, wish-fulfilling exuberance is still present throughout, although Siegel and Shuster are swiftly polishing their craft with each story. These tales of the righteous, empowered man dealing out summary justice to wife-beaters, reckless drivers and exploitative capitalists as well as thugs and ne’er-do-wells captured the imagination of a generation, and are presented in totality and chronological order from Action Comics #14 (July 1939) through #20 (January 1940), and issues #2 and 3 of his own solo title.

To be strictly accurate, only the first and last strips from issue 3 appear in this volume, but they’re still great and I’m sure the remainder of the issue will appear in the next volume.

In this volume you’ll meet the first ever returning foe (us lags call ‘em “arch-enemies”), The Ultra Humanite – twice!, 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 summarily swift and decisive fashion. No continued stories here!

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, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Jack Cole and Plastic Man

Jack Cole and Plastic Man 

By Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd

(Chronicle Books)  ISBN 0-8118-3179-5

This eccentric tribute to the genius of cartoonist Jack Cole combines all the love and design skills of Spiegelman and Kidd with innovative print and paper techniques, a sharp biography and heart-felt appreciation of this inspired and tragic creator, and a wonderful selection of complete story reprints from Cole’s incredible fund of work.

The comic sections, printed of artificially browned newsprint — for that old comic feel — include The Eyes Have It (Police Comics #22, 1943), Burp the Twerp (Police Comics #29, 1944), Sadly-Sadly (Plastic Man #20, 1949), Plague of the Plastic People and Woozy Winks on Dopi Island (both from Plastic Man #22, 1950) and the legendary, if not infamous, Murder, Morphine and Me from True Crime Comics #1 (1947) cited often and tellingly by Dr. Frederick Wertham in his attacks on comics in the 1950s.

Although he would probably hate it said, Jack Cole is one of the key innovators in the field of comics and strip cartoons and this book is a fine tribute. Let’s get it reprinted right now!

Edition © 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved. Text © 2001 Art Spiegelman

James Bond 007: The Phoenix Project

James Bond: The Phoenix Project 

By Jim Lawrence & Yaroslav Horak

Titan Books ISBN: 1-84576-312-2

Titan’s run of the newspaper strip Bond nears its inevitable conclusion in these tales from the mid-1970s, but the superlative work of scripter Jim Lawrence doesn’t slacken its pace or its grip on our action-hungry imaginations. The Phoenix Project examines some of the super-agent’s darker edges as he deals with the threat of a technological battle-suit that could revolutionise the way war is fought.

The Black Ruby Caper once again features a black lead heroine in a convoluted yet enthralling tale of duelling subversive organisations and a mysterious plot known only as Operation: Black Storm. As well as the usual fights and chases Bond has to use blackmail and coercion to achieve his goals. The exotic locales of Zurich, Paris and Ghana are no challenge to Horak’s gifted pens and brushes, and the increasing abundance of beautiful, naked women (it is the mid-1970s, after all) keeps everybody’s attention focussed.

Till Death Do Us Part is more traditional 007 fodder, as Bond kidnaps/rescues the daughter of a foreign “asset” to prevent a scandal. This is notable more for the inevitable introduction of the eccentric gadgets that had become an increasingly large part of the film version than for the adventure itself, but there are still thrills and flesh aplenty on view.

The volume closes with the brief but enthralling The Torch-Time Affair, wherein the search for a list of Latin American communist secrets leads to bodies on the beach, breathtaking chases over roads and through jungles and an intriguing detective mystery as 007 must save the girl, get the goods and kill the villain. Or must he..?

All the glamour and menace of James Bond is here in abundance and the chance to see two comic strip masters at their peak is very welcome and oh, so satisfying.

© 1974, 1975, 1976 Glidrose Productions Ltd/ Express Newspapers Ltd.
James Bond newspaper strip is © Express Newspapers Ltd 1987. All Rights Reserved