Plastic Man Archives volume 1

By Jack Cole (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-468-8

Jack Cole was one of the most uniquely gifted talents of American Comics’ Golden Age, crafting landmark tales in horror, true crime, war, adventure and especially superhero genres. His incredible humour-hero Plastic Man remains an unsurpassed benchmark of screwball costumed hi-jinks: frequently copied but never equalled. As the Golden Age faded, Cole could see the writing on the wall and famously jumped into gag and glamour cartooning, becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour gags and stunningly saucy pictures began running in Playboy with the fifth issue. Ever-restless, Cole eventually moved into the lofty realms of newspaper strips and, in May 1958, achieved his life-long ambition by launching a syndicated newspaper strip, the domestic comedy Betsy and Me.

On August 13th 1958 at the moment of his biggest break he took his own life.

The unexplained reasons for his death are not as important as the triumphs of Cole’s artistic life and this captivating paperback (reprinting a rare hardback compilation from 2004) provides a fascinating insight into a transitional moment in his artistic development.

Without doubt – and despite great successes with other heroic characters as well as in the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest creation was the zany, malleable Plastic Man who quickly grew from a minor B-character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the Golden Age and seemed to be the perfect fantastic embodiment of the sheer energy, verve and creativity of that era when anything went and comics-makers were prepared to try out every outlandish idea…

This premier deluxe hardback collection reprints the first twenty episodes of the Stretchable Sleuth’s astounding exploits from anthology title Police Comics covering the period August 1941- June 1943, culled from a time when nobody really knew the rules, creators, publishers and readers were prepared to try literally anything and by sheer Darwinian processes the cream of the crop always rose to the top…

After a fulsome Foreword by legendary comics genius Will Eisner and the appreciative Introduction ‘Plastic Man and Jack Cole’, the magic begins with the first of twenty stories, most of which originally appeared without individual titles.

The debut and origin of Plastic Man happened in the middle of Police Comics #1, a brief but beguiling six-pager which introduced mobster Eel O’Brian, shot during a factory robbery, soaked by a vat of acid and instantly, callously, abandoned by his partners in crime. Crawling away, Eel was found by a monk who nursed him back to health and proved to the hardened thug that the world was not just filled with brutes and vicious chisellers all after a fast buck.

His entire outlook altered and somehow gifted with incredible malleability (he surmises it was the chemical bath mingling with his bullet wounds), Eel decides to put his new powers to use cleaning up the scum he used to run with. Creating the identity of Plastic Man he thrashes his own gang and begins his stormy association with the New York City cops…

Police #2 saw Plas apply for a job with the cops and only to be told he could join up if he accomplished the impossible task of capturing the notorious and slippery Eel O’Brian, currently the Most Wanted crook in eight states… Ever wily, the Rubber-Band Man bided his time and won the position anyway by cracking an international dope racket (that’s illegal narcotics, kids) reaching from Canada to Chinatown, whilst in #3 he fully capitalised on his underworld reputation and connections to bust up a Pinball Racket led by a cunning crook with ears inside the Police Department itself.

‘Madame Brawn’s Crime School for Delinquent Girls’ pitted the Silly Putty Paladin against a brutal babe intent on taking over the City’s mobs, and despite getting a thorough trouncing she and her gang of gal gorillas returned in the next issue, having turned her burly hand to a spot of piracy.

Police Comics #5 (December 1942) also marked a major turning point for Plastic Man as with that issue he took the cover-spot away from fellow adventurer and failed superstar Firebrand, a position he would hold until costumed heroes faded from popularity at the end of the 1940s.

In issue #6 Plas’ burgeoning popularity was graphically reflected in a spooky mystery involving murderous disembodied hands, in #7 – as Eel – he infiltrated and dismantled the massed forces of the ‘United Crooks of America!’ whilst #8 found the hero seriously outmatched but still triumphant when he battled a colossal, city-crushing giant ‘Eight Ball!’ and its decidedly deranged inventor, and #9 reached an early peak of macabre malevolence as Plastic Man foiled a traitorous little mutant dubbed Hairy Arms in ‘Satan’s Son Sells Out to the Japs!’, a darkly bizarre thriller which saw the regular story-length jump from six to nine pages.

The carnival of cartoon grotesques continued in #10 as hayseed wannabe-cop Omar McGootch accidentally involved the Malleable Mystery-man in a Nazi plot to steal a new secret weapon, whilst #11 found Plastic Man in mortal combat with the spirit of a 17th century London alchemist whose brain was unearthed and accidentally transplanted into a wounded spitfire pilot, suddenly gaining incredible mystic powers in the process…

In Police #11 a desperate blackmailer joined forces with a criminal astrologer who predicted perpetual failure unless Plastic Man was killed, before Cole introduced his second most memorable character in #13’s ‘The Man Who Can’t be Harmed’

Woozy Winks was an indolent slob who accidentally saved a wizard’s life and was gifted in return with a gift of invulnerability: all the forces of nature would henceforth protect him from injury or death. Flipping a coin the oaf decided to get rich quick with his power. Unable to stop him Plas was forced to appeal to his sentimentality and better nature and, once Woozy repented, was compelled to keep him around in case he strayed again…

Unlike Omar, Woozy Winks – equal parts Artful Dodger and Mr. Micawber, with the verbal skills and intellect of Lou Costello’s screen persona – would prove to be a perfect foil for Plastic Man: the lazy, venal, ethically fluid reprobate with sticky fingers who got all the best lines, possessed an inexplicable charm and had a habit of finding trouble. It was the perfect marriage of inconvenience…

As the page count jumped to 13, they were soon on the trail of Eel O’Brian himself in issue #14, but during the chase Woozy stumbled onto a slavery racket which soon foundered against his insane luck and Plastic Man’s ingenuity. In a hilarious twist Plas then let Woozy arrest him, but then escaped from under the smug cops’ very noses…

When war scientists investigated Plastic Man and Woozy’s uncanny abilities in #15 it led to murder, a hot pursuit to Mexico City and almost a new Ice Age, whilst in #16 disgruntled Native Americans organised a ‘Revolt against the USA’ and a movie cast succumbed one by one to a murderous madman in #17 before the hilarious #18 revealed what happened after ‘Plastic Man is Drafted’

The blockbusting dilemma of all branches of the Armed Services fighting to recruit him was only solved when the President seconded Plas to the FBI, and his first case – with Woozy in tow – found the Stretchable Sleuth investigating ‘The Forest of Fear!’ in a 15 page terror-tale involving a cabal of killers and an army of animated oaks.

This initial deluxe outing ends with #20 and the ‘Woozy Winks Detective Agency’ as, with Plastic Man temporarily laid up wounded, the rotund rascal took centre stage to solve a robbery in a frantic, madcap and surreal extravaganza reminiscent of the screwball antics of the movie Hellzapoppin’ and the anarchic shtick of the Marx Brothers…

Exciting, innovative, thrilling, funny, scary and still visually intoxicating over seven decades later, Jack Cole’s Plastic Man is a truly unique creation that has only grown in stature and appeal. This is a pure comics experience that no fans should deny themselves.
© 1941, 1942, 1943, 1998 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Archive volume 5

By Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Fred Ray John Sikela & Leo Nowak, Ed Dobrotka & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-602-8

By the time of the tales re-presented in this fifth classic hardcover compendium (collecting Superman #17-20, July/August 1942 to January/February 1943), the Man of Tomorrow had evolved into a thrilling and vibrant media icon and spawned a host of imitators, a genre and an industry. His antics and take-charge can-do attitude had won the hearts of the public at home and he was embraced as a patriotic tonic for the troops across the war-torn world.

Behind the stunning covers by Fred Ray and Jack Burnley – depicting Superman thrashing scurrilous Axis War-mongers and reminding readers what we were all fighting for – scripter Jerry Siegel was producing some of the best stories of his career, showing the Man of Steel in all his morale-boosting glory, thrashing thugs, spies and masters of bad science whilst America kicked the fascists in the pants…

Co-creator Joe Shuster, although plagued by crushing deadlines and rapidly failing eyesight, was still fully involved in the process, overseeing the stories and drawing character faces whenever possible, but as the months passed the talent pool of the “Superman Studio” increasingly took the lead as the demands of the media superstar grew and grew…

Following a fulsome Foreword by scribe/editor Mike Carlin describing the lengthy list of “Firsts” ascribed to the ever-growing heroic legend, the action begins with the splendid contents of Superman #17 and ‘Man or Superman?’ illustrated by John Sikela, wherein Lois Lane began to put snippets of evidence together, at last sensing that Clark Kent might be hiding a Super-secret whilst the subject of her researches tangled with sinister saboteur The Talon, after which in ‘The Human Bomb’, with art from Leo Nowak, a criminal hypnotist turned innocent citizens into walking landmines until the Action Ace scotched his wicked racket.

In ‘Muscles for Sale!’ the Fortress of Solitude and Trophy Room debuted as the Man of Steel battled another mad mesmerist who turned ordinary men into dangerously overconfident louts, bullies and thieves whilst ‘When Titans Clash!’ saw a frantic and spectacular duel of wits and incredible super-strength when Luthor regained the mystic Power Stone and became Superman’s physical master (both illustrated by Sikela)…

Issue #18 led with Sikela’s ‘The Conquest of a City’ wherein Nazi infiltrators used a civil defence drill to infiltrate the National Guard and conquer Metropolis in the Fuehrer’s name until Superman single-handedly led the counter-attack, whilst in Nowak’s ‘The Heat Horror’ an artificial asteroid threatened to burn the city to ashes until the Metropolis Marvel defeated its ingenious master.

‘The Man with the Kane’ provided a grand old-fashioned and highly entertaining espionage murder mystery for Ed Dobrotka & Sikela to illustrate before Superman battled his first fully costumed super-villain as ‘The Snake’ perpetrated a string of murders during construction of a river tunnel in a moody masterpiece drawn by Nowak.

A classic (and much reprinted) fantasy shocker opened Superman #19 as the ‘Case of the Funny Paper Crimes’ (by Dobrotka & Sikela) saw the bizarre Funnyface bring the larger-than-life villains of the Daily Planet’s comics page to terrifying life in a grab for loot and power, after which ‘Superman’s Amazing Adventure’ (Nowak) found him battling incredible creatures in an incredible extra-dimensional realm – but all was not as it seemed…

Some of the city’s most vicious criminals were commanded to kill a stray dog by the infamous Mr. Z in ‘The Canine and the Crooks’ (Nowak again) and it took all of Clark and Lois’ detective skills to ascertain why before ‘Superman, Matinee Idol’ broke the fourth wall for readers when the reporters went to the cinema to see a Superman cartoon in a shameless but exceedingly inventive and thrilling “infomercial” plug for the Fleischer Bros cartoons then currently astounding movie-goers, perfectly limned by the marvellous Dobrotka & Sikela.

That sterling art team drew all but one story in issue #20, starting with ‘Superman’s Secret Revealed!’ as Lois plays a joke on Clark and her fake headline accidentally exposes the Man of Steel’s alter ego to the World. Forced to extraordinary measures to fix the problem, Superman even manages to capture a gang of robbers, and this sharp and witty face-saving yarn also includes the first cameo appearance of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson…

Hitler himself ordered the dastardly Herr Fange to unleash an armada of marine monstrosities on Allied shipping and coastal towns in the blistering ‘Destroyers from the Depths’, but they proved no match for the mighty Man of Steel, whilst the Sikela illustrated ‘Lair of the Leopard!’ pitted our hero against a feline themed criminal genius, whilst his attention was distracted by a buffoonish but well-intentioned copycat dubbed Herman the Heroic

This volume concludes with a genuinely chilling murder spree as old foe The Puzzler returns in ‘Not in the Cards’, by Dobrotka & Sikela, to fiendishly slaughter gamesmen and champions who had the temerity to beat him in competition, with the Action Ace forced into playing a deadly game of catch-up…

Ageless and evergreen, endlessly re-readable, these epic hardback Archive Editions fabulously frame some of the greatest and most influential comics stories ever created, and taken in unison form a perfect permanent record of breathtaking wonder and groundbreaking excitement. How can any dedicated fan resist them?
© 1942, 1943, 2000 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman Archives volume 4

By Bill Finger, Don Cameron, Joseph Greene, Dick Sprang & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-414-9

Debuting a year after Superman, “The Bat-Man” (and later Robin, the Boy Wonder) cemented National Comics as the market and genre leader of the nascent comicbook industry, becoming the epitome of swashbuckling derring-do and keen human-scaled adventure.

This fourth scintillating deluxe hardback chronicles Batman yarns from Detective Comics #87-102 (cover-dated May 1944-August 1945) and is particularly special since it almost exclusively features the artwork of unsung genius Dick Sprang, revealing how he slowly developed into the character’s primary and most well-regarded illustrator during a period when most superhero features experienced a gradual downturn and eventual – albeit temporary – extinction.

Sprang even drew the lion’s share of the stunning covers reproduced here – the remainder being divided between Jerry Robinson, Bob Kane, Jack Burnley and inker George Roussos…

No less crucial to the Dynamic Duo’s ever-burgeoning popularity were the sensitive, witty, imaginative and just plain thrilling stories from an exceedingly talented stable of scripters such as Joe Greene, Don Cameron, Edmund Hamilton, Mort Weisinger, Alvin Schwartz and original co-creator Bill Finger: all diligently contributing as Batman and Robin grew into a hugely successful media franchise.

One final point of possible interest: Sprang actually began drawing Batman tales in 1941 and editor Whitney Ellsworth, cognizant of his new find’s talent and the exigencies of the war effort, had the 26-year old former Pulp illustrator frantically drawing as many stories as he could handle, which were then stockpiled against the possibility of one, some or all of his artists being called up.

Thus many yarns were published “out of order”, and when read now it might seem as if Sprang’s style occasionally advanced and regressed. It’s no big deal – I just thought you’d like to know…

Sprang pencilled, inked, lettered and coloured most of his assignments during this period, aided and abetted by his wife Lora, who used the professional pseudonym Pat Gordon for her many lettering and colouring jobs on Superboy, Superman and Batman stories.

After a fond reminiscence from Sprang himself in the Foreword, the dramas begin to unfold in Detective #87’s ‘The Man of a Thousand Umbrellas’ written by Joseph Greene.

The Penguin had a bizarre appeal and the Wicked Old Bird had his own cover banner whenever he resurfaced, as in this beguiling crime-spree highlighting his uncanny arsenal of weaponised parasols, brollies and bumbershoots.

As World War II staggered to a close and home-front fears subsided, spies gradually gave way to more home-grown threats and menaces. Issue #88 offered a nasty glimpse at true villainy when ‘The Merchants of Misery’ – also by Greene – pitted the Dynamic Duo against merciless and murderous loan sharks preying on poverty-stricken families, whilst ‘Laboratory Loot!’ by Don Cameron in #89, saw the return of flamboyant crime enthusiast The Cavalier, forced to join temporarily forces with Batman to thwart petty gangsters stealing loot he’d earmarked as his own…

Detective Comics #90 featured ‘Crime Between the Acts!’ (Greene) as the Caped Crusaders followed a Mississippi Riverboat full of crooked carnival performers from one plundered town to another, before Edmond Hamilton scripted a terrifically twisty tale in ‘The Case of the Practical Joker’, wherein some crazy and wisely anonymous prankster began pulling stunts and have fun at the Harlequin of Hate’s expense.

Greene revealed ‘Crime’s Manhunt’ in #92, with a particularly nasty band of bandits turning to bounty hunting and turning in all their friends and associates for hefty rewards. Once they’d run out of pals to betray they simply organised jailbreaks to provide more crooks to catch: a measure the Dark Knight took extreme umbrage with…

Bill Finger scripted the next two issues beginning with ‘One Night of Crime!’ in #93. Ed Kressy laid out the art – which leads me to suspect that this was one of the earlier Sprang inventory tales – and the story itself is a cracker: a portmanteau human interest yarn in actuality starring the ordinary folk who got on a Gotham Tour Bus just before it was hijacked by brutally casual killers. Cue Batman and Robin…

‘No One Must Know!’ in #94 was another poignant and moving melodrama with the Gotham Gangbusters tracking a pack of thugs to the little hamlet of Meadowvale, where they recognised the village’s most decent, beloved and respected patriarch as an escaped convict…

Next comes an originally untitled yarn here dubbed ‘The Blaze’, written by Mort Weisinger and outlining the short and fantastically impressive career of a brilliant criminal mastermind who organised all Gotham’s gangsters and almost outsmarted Batman. Almost…

In #96 Cameron and Sprang showed their flair for light comedy with ‘Alfred, Private Detective!’ as Bruce Wayne’s dedicated manservant finally realised his ambition to set up as a crime-busting Private Eye – with bombastically mixed success – whilst in #97 ‘The Secret of the Switch!’, by Greene, offered a baffling mystery when a dead criminal confessed from beyond the grave and led the Caped Crusaders into a deadly trap.

A bored banker tried to become an idle philanthropist in #98’s ‘The King of the Hoboes!’ (Cameron) but found that his money was too big a lure for a couple of crafty conmen – until Batman stepped – in whilst the perfidious Penguin’s cool, cruel and preposterous scheme to commit ‘The Temporary Murders!’ (#99 and Cameron again) proved once more that the Darknight Detective was far too slick for him…

Issue #100 featured ‘The Crow’s Nest Mystery!’ by Cameron, Jack Burnley & Charles Paris (although the art seems more reminiscent of young Winslow Mortimer to me) with Batman and Robin exposing a cunning smuggling scam in a spooky old house, after which a desperate mother left her appallingly badly-behaved babies with Bruce and Dick in ‘The Tyrannical Twins!’

The hilarious result was the exposure and capture of a gang of ruthless jewel thieves and a near nervous breakdown for long-suffering babysitter Alfred in a wry cracker from Cameron and Sprang before the Joker returned to close this volume on a spectacular high note in #102’s ‘The House that was Held for Ransom!’ (written by Alvin Schwartz) wherein the Clown Prince of Crime astoundingly abducted a recluse’s mansion, lock stock and barrel, and led Batman a merry chase to near disaster before his eventual, inevitable defeat…

These spectacular yarns provide a perfect snapshot of the Batman’s amazing range from bleak moody avenger to suave swashbuckler, from remorseless Agent of Justice to best pal to sophisticated Devil-may-care Detective in timeless tales which have never lost their edge or their power to enthral and beguile. Moreover, this supremely sturdy Archive Edition is indubitably the most luxurious and satisfying way to enjoy them over and over again.
© 1944, 1945, 1998 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Wonder Woman Archive Editions volume 2

By Charles Moulton (William Moulton Marston & Harry G. Peter) & Frank Godwin (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-594-3

Wonder Woman was conceived by polygraph pioneer William Moulton Marston and illustrated by Harry G. Peter in an attempt to offer girls a positive and forceful role model. She debuted as a special feature All Star Comics #8 (December 1941), before springing into her own series and the cover-spot of new anthology title Sensation Comics a month later. An instant hit the Amazing Amazon quickly won her own eponymous supplemental title in late Spring of that year (cover-dated Summer 1942).

Once upon a time on a hidden island of immortal super-women, an American aviator crashed to Earth. Near death, Steve Trevor of US Army Intelligence was nursed back to health by young Princess Diana. Fearing her growing obsession with the man, her mother Queen Hippolyte revealed the hidden history of the Amazons: how they were seduced and betrayed by men but rescued by the goddess Aphrodite on condition that they isolated themselves from the rest of the world and devoted their eternal lives to becoming ideal, perfect creatures.

When goddesses Athena and Aphrodite instructed Hippolyte to send an Amazon warrior back with the American to fight for freedom and liberty, Diana overcame all other candidates and became the emissary Wonder Woman. On arriving in America she bought the identity and credentials of love-lorn Army nurse Diana Prince, elegantly allowing the Amazon to be close to Steve whilst enabling the heartsick medic to join her own fiancé in South America. Soon Diana also gained a position with Army Intelligence General Darnell as his secretary to ensure that she would always be close to her beloved. She little suspected that, although the painfully shallow Steve only had eyes for the dazzling Amazon superwoman, the General had fallen for the mousy but superbly competent Diana Prince…

Using the nom de plume Charles Moulton, Marston scripted all the Amazing Amazon’s many and fabulous adventures until his death in 1947, whereupon Robert Kanigher took over the writer’s role whilst venerable veteran co-creator H.G. Peter illustrated almost every WW tale until his own death in 1958.

This second superb full-colour deluxe hardback edition collects her every groundbreaking adventure from Wonder Woman #2-4 and Sensation Comics #13-17 from Fall 1942 to April 1943, and commences, after an appreciative Foreword from star comics editor Diane Schutz, with the epochal Wonder Woman #2.

After a photo-feature about ‘The Men Behind Wonder Woman’ and an illustrated prose piece about ‘The God of War’, a four-part epic introduces the Amazing Amazon’s greatest enemy in ‘Mars, God of War’ who instigated the World War from his HQ on the distant red planet and was chafing at the lack of progress since Wonder Woman entered the fray on the side of the peace-loving allies. Now he decides to take direct action rather than trust his earthly pawns Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito

When Steve went missing Diana allowed herself to be captured and transported to Mars where she began to disrupt the efficient working of the war-god’s regime and fomented unrest amongst the slave population, before rescuing Steve and heading home to Earth.  ‘The Earl of Greed’, one of Mars’ trio of trusted subordinates, took centre stage in the second chapter with orders to recapture Steve and Diana at all costs.

As the bold duo attempt to infiltrate Berlin, Greed used his influence on Hitler to surreptitiously direct the German war effort, using Gestapo forces to steal all the USA’s gold reserves.

When Steve was gravely injured, the Amazon returned to America and whilst her paramour recuperated she uncovered and foiled the Ethereal Earl’s machinations to prevent much-needed operating funds from reaching Holliday College where young girls learned to be independent free-thinkers…

With Greed thwarted, Mars next dispatched ‘The Duke of Deception’ to Earth where the spindly phantom impersonated Wonder Woman and framed her for murder. Easily escaping from prison the Princess of Power not only cleared her name but also found time to foil a Deception-inspired invasion of Hawaii, leaving only ‘The Count of Conquest’ free to carry out Mars’ orders.

His scheme was simple: through his personal puppet Mussolini, the Count attempted to physically overpower the Hellenic Heroine with a brutal giant boxing champion whilst Italian Lothario Count Crafti tried to woo and seduce her. The latter’s wiles actually worked too, but capturing and keeping the Amazing Amazon were two different things entirely and after breaking free on the Red Planet, Diana delivered a devastating blow to the war-machine of Mars…

This issue then ends with a sparkling double page patriotic plea when ‘Wonder Woman Campaigns for War Bonds’…

Sensation Comics #13 (January 1943) follows with ‘Wonder Woman is Dead’ as a corpse wearing the Amazon’s uniform was discovered and the astounded Diana Prince discovered her alter ego’s clothes and the irreplaceable magic lasso were missing…

The trail led to a cunning spy-ring working out of General Darnell’s office and an explosive confrontation in a bowling alley, whilst ‘The Story of Fir Balsam’ in Sensation #14 offered a seasonal tale concerning lost children, an abused mother and escaped German aviators which was all happily resolved around a lonely pine tree…

Wonder Woman #3 dedicated its entirety to the return of an old foe and began with ‘A Spy on Paradise Island’ as the plucky fun-loving gals of the Holliday College for Women and their chubby, chocolate-gorging Beeta Lamda sorority chief Etta Candy were initiated into some pretty wild Amazon rites on Paradise Island, inadvertently allowing an infiltrator to gain access and pave the way for an invasion by Japanese troops.

Naturally Wonder Woman and the Amazon prevailed on the day but the sinister mastermind behind it all was revealed and quickly struck back in ‘The Devilish Devices of Baroness Paula von Gunther.’

Whilst the on-guard Amazons built a women’s prison that would be known as “Reform Island”, acting on information received by the new inmates, Wonder Woman trailed Paula and was in time to crush her latest scientific terror – an invisibility ray…

‘The Secret of Baroness von Gunther’ offered a rare peek at a villain’s motivation as the captured super-spy reveals how her little daughter Gerta had been a hostage of the Nazis for years and a goad to ensure total dedication to the German cause. Naturally, the Amazing Amazon instantly determined to reunite mother and child at all costs after which ‘Ordeal by Fire’ found the Baroness aiding Diana and Steve in dismantling the spy network and slave-ring the Nazis had spent so long building in America, but only at great personal and physical cost to the repentant Paula…

Over in Sensation #15 (March 1943) ‘Victory at Sea’ pitted Diana and Steve against murderous saboteurs determined to halt military production and working with shady lawyers whilst in #16 ‘The Masked Menace’ was one of very few stories not illustrated by H.G. Peter but the work of illustrator and strip cartoonist Frank Godwin, stepping in as the crushing workload of an extra 64-page comicbook every couple of months piled the pressure on WW’s artistic director.

The tale saw steadfast Texan Etta about to elope with slick and sleazy Euro-trash Prince Goulash, until Diana and Steve crashed the wedding party to uncover spies infiltrating across the Mexican border and a plot to blow up the invaluable Candy family oil-wells…

The inescapable war-fervour was tinged with incredible fantasy in Wonder Woman #4 which opened with ‘Man-Hating Madness!’ wherein a Chinese refugee from a Japanese torture camp reached America and drew the Amazon into a terrifying plan to use biological weapons on the American Home-Front after which cruel and misogynistic ‘Mole Men of the Underworld’ kidnapped the Holliday girls and Diana and the reformed and recuperated Paula rescued them, freed a race of female slaves and secured America’s deepest border from attack.

Then ‘The Rubber Barons’ provided a rousing, romp which saw greedy corporate profiteers attempt to hold the Government and war effort to ransom with a new rubber manufacturing process in a high-tech tale involving mind-control, gender role-reversal and behaviour modification as only a trained and passionate psychologist could promote them…

The issue but not this book then concluded with an untitled saga as Paula, now fully accepted into Amazon society, was attacked by Mavis, one of her erstwhile spy-slaves. The traumatised victim then abducted her ex-mistress’ little Gerta and Wonder Woman, burdened with responsibility, was compelled to hunt her down…

This sterling deluxe book of nostalgic delights ends with a famed classic in Sensation #17’s ‘Riddle of the Talking Lion’ (also probably drawn by Godwin) wherein Diana Prince visited an ailing friend and discovered that Sally’s kids had overheard a Zoo lion speaking – and revealing strange secrets…

Although Steve and Diana dismissed the tall tale, things take a peculiar turn when the beast is stolen and the trail leads to Egypt and a plot by ambitious Nazi collaborator Princess Yasmini

Too few people seem able to move beyond the posited subtexts and definite imagery of bondage and subjugation in Marston’s tales – and frankly there really are a lot of scenes with girls tied up, chained or about to be whipped – but I just don’t care what his intentions might have been: I’m more impressed with the skilful drama and incredible imaginative story-elements that are always wonderfully, intriguingly present: I mean, just where do such concepts as giant battle kangaroo steeds or sentient Christmas trees stem from…?

Exotic, baroque, beguiling and uniquely exciting these Golden Age adventures of the World’s Most Famous female superhero are timeless and pivotal classics in the development of comics books and still provide lashings of fun and thrills for anyone looking for a great nostalgic read.
© 1942, 1943, 2000 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age USA Comics Nos.1- 4

By Al Avison, Al Gabriel, Basil Wolverton, Syd Shores, George Klein & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2478-8

Whereas much of DC’s Golden Age archive is still readily readable today, a great deal of  Marvel Comics’ Timely and Atlas output is both dated and quite often painfully strident, and even offensive to modern eyes and sensibilities.

Even so, I’d rather have the raw historical form rather than any bowdlerised or censored reworking and even in their most jingoistic and populist excesses there are usually individual nuggets of gold amidst the shocking or – horror of horrors! – badly crafted yarns from the House of Ideas’ antediluvian antecedents.

Moreover, there’s quite a lot to be said for putting the material in lavish and expensive hardbound volumes for those early comic adventures and I must admit that when they were good the individual efforts could be very good indeed.

The quarterly USA Comics launched with an August 1941 cover-date and the four complete issues reprinted in this sturdy deluxe hardback reveal a period of intense experimentation and constant change as the eager publishers weaned themselves away from the “comics shop” freelancers-for-hire production system and began to build a stable – or bullpen – of in-house creators.

Since these stories come from a time of poor record-keeping, frantic scrabbling to fill pages and under the constant threat of losing staff and creators to the war-effort, the informative introduction discussing the lack of accurate creator detail and best-guess attributions from comics historian Dr. Michael J. Vassallo is a godsend for interested fans, and with covers and House ads reproduced throughout, the World War Wonderment and Patriotic Perils begin with The Defender illustrated by Al Avison, Al Gabriele, Joe Simon and diverse unknown hands (who might or might not have been Sam Cooper, Al Fagaly, George Klein & Charles Wojtkoski AKA “Charles Nicholas”); another flag-clad patriotic mystery-man, who, with designated boy sidekick Rusty, smashed a band of Nazi-backed river pirates plaguing Manhattan’s waterways.

Next comes the utterly outrageous origin of The Whizzer (by Avison & Gabriele) which saw young Bob Frank gain super-speed after his dying father injected him with mongoose blood to counteract jungle fever and snakebite.

Orphaned and vengeful, the young man thereafter dedicated his life to stopping criminals such as the thugs who had forced his ailing parent to hide and die in such a hellhole…

‘Mr. Liberty debuted in ‘The Spirits of Freedom’ by Phil Sturm, Syd Shores, & Klein, as with war erupting everywhere, history Professor John Liberty was visited by the ghosts of American patriots who offered him supernatural assistance to stamp out all threats to democracy.

After Arthur Cazeneuve’s prose crime-thriller ‘Haunted Fireplace’ the astonishing Rockman: Underground Secret Agent blazed into action in ‘The Tunnel That Led to Death’ by the incomparable Basil Wolverton – but with a splash page drawn by Nicholas – which introduced a patriot from super-scientific kingdom Abysmia; miles below American soil, determined to safeguard his upstairs neighbours from tyranny…

Howard Purcell working as Michael Robard then stylishly introduced ‘Young Avenger’ a junior superman summoned by mystic voices to battle spies and saboteurs, before arctic elemental ‘Jack Frost’ sprang to life to avenge a murder on ice in a classy origin yarn by Stan Lee & Nicholas. The polar opposite to the Human Torch (I’m such a wag, me) travelled to New York and soon occupied the same well-intentioned/hunted menace/anti-hero niche pioneered by both the blazing android and the Sub-Mariner: a much-used formula still effective to this day…

USA #2 (November 1941) led with a new nautical costumed crusader in ‘Captain Terror Battles the Fiends of the Seas’ (by Mike Suchorsky) as retired gentleman adventurer Dan Kane returned to the masked identity he had adopted during the Spanish War to hunt down a Nazi destroyer haunting American waters in an action-packed, extra-long exploit. With the Allied effort increasing on all fronts civilian “Mr.” became ‘Major Liberty’ to crush a monster-making Nazi who turned a peaceful Caribbean resort into ‘The Island Menace!’ (Shores & Klein).

Ed Winiarski then introduced Assistant District Attorney Murphy who chose to crush Home Front racketeers disguised as gaudy tramp Chauncey Throttlebottom III AKA ‘The Vagabond’ after which ‘The Defender’ (by Klein) took Rusty South of the Border to stop a plan to destabilise the nation’s South American allies. The text piece describing ‘When USA Heroes Meet!’ by Stan Lee was swiftly followed by another Wolverton Rockman stunner wherein the Subterranean Supremo tackled Zombo the Hypnotist whose mesmeric powers made men into slavish ‘Killers of the Sea’.

After which an uncredited ‘Jack Frost’ exploit found the freezing fugitive avoiding cops but still destroying a marauding robot octopus ship, ‘The Whizzer’ – also unattributed – ended a string of murders by jockey-fixers ruining the horse-racing industry.

USA Comics #3 (January 1942) opened with ‘Captain Terror and the Magic Crystal of Death’ (Suchorsky) as the bold buccaneer spectacularly smashed a sabotage ring organised by wicked ersatz gypsies, after which Major Liberty faced – or rather didn’t, if you get my point – a cunning killer masquerading as ‘The Headless Horseman’ (by Shores & and an unnamed assistant) whilst Winiarski’s Vagabond demolished yet another would-be kingpin of crime.

Once The Defender had finished a hyperthyroid maniac dubbed ‘The Monster Who Couldn’t be Stopped!’ (Klein), Lee’s prestidigitation prose piece ‘Quicker than the Eye!’ gave way to the latest Rockman instalment which he’d scripted for Nicholas to illumine; a broad fantasy set in Jugoslavia where evil pixies had abducted the beauteous Princess Alecia. Object: Matrimony!

Young wannabes Frank Giacoia & Carmine Infantino got a big boost to their careers when they illustrated the anonymously scripted Jack Frost yarn involving strong-arm thugs forcing hospitals to buy their adulterated black market drugs and, after an engaging ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ feature page (which included who had produced it), Winiarski then contributed Tom ‘Powers of the Press’ – a reporter and refreshingly plainclothes hero who, with the aid of diminutive photographer Candid Kenny Roberts, tracked down murderous payroll bandits to explosively end the third issue.

Major Liberty made the cover and lead spot in USA #4 (May 1942), using his ghostly gifts to smash a gang of spies and infiltrators terrorising German-born Americans in a breathtaking romp from Shores & his unknown collaborator, whilst Jack Frost battled mad cryogenics researchers in ‘The Adventure of the Frozen Corpses’ – attributed to Pierce Rice & Louis Cazeneuve – and The Defender stopped the maker of a deadly artificial fog assisted as ever by Rusty and the skilled artistic endeavours of George & Klein and others.

The Vagabond (by Winiarski and an unknown assistant) found the Faux Hobo exorcising a haunted castle in pursuit of a Mad Monk and loot from a decades-old cold case, after which the anonymously-penned text thriller ‘Diamond of Juba’ was followed by another Suchorsky Captain Terror tale, which saw the seaborne stalwart smashing a Nazi plot to starve Britain into submission.

The uncredited Rockman story then saw the Underworld Agent stop murder and banditry in Alaska, after which the equally unattributed Corporal Dix debuted in the stirring tale of a soldier on leave who still found the time to clear up a gang of cheap hoods and set his own wastrel brother on the right and patriotic path…

This premier collection then ends on a riotous high note as The Whizzer (by Howard James) finally came up to full speed in a rocket-paced action romp with the Golden Rocket crushing a gang of thieves targeting a brilliant boy-inventor.

I’m delighted with this substantial chronicle, warts and all, but I can fully understand why anyone other than a life-long comics or Marvel fan would baulk at the steep price-tag in these days of austerity, with a wealth of better-quality and more highly regarded Golden Age material available. Still, value is one thing and worth another, so in the end the choice, as always, is yours…
© 1941, 1942, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Batman: the World’s Finest Comics Archives volume 2

By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Don Cameron, Joe Samachson, Norman Fallon, Dick Sprang, Win Mortimer, Ray Burnley, & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-4012-0163-6

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 second glorious deluxe hardback dedicated to the Gotham Gangbusters’ early appearances reprints the Batman tales from World’s Finest Comics #17-32 (Spring 1945 – January/February 1948), in gleaming, glossy full-colour and also includes a fascinating Foreword by author and fan Bill Schelly and concludes with brief biographies of all the creators involved in these early masterpieces.

In between those text titbits there is unbridled graphic enchantment beginning with ‘Crime Goes to College’ by Bill Finger, Norman Fallon & Dick Sprang, wherein the Dynamic Duo tracked down a cracked academic determined to prove that he could make crime pay whilst ‘Specialists in Crime’ scripted by Don Cameron, pitted the heroes against a wily team who seemed to have the right man for every job they pulled…

In #19 the Joker organised ‘The League for Larceny’ (Joe Samachson, Bob Kane & Ray Burnley) to promote the finer points of criminality until Batman and Robin stepped in whilst in #20 (Winter 1946, and the last quarterly edition: from the next issue the comicbook would appear every two months) benign numismatist Mark Medalion turned out to have a very sinister other face as ‘The King of Coins’, a clever and exotic thriller from Cameron & Win Mortimer.

WF #21 (March/April 1946, illustrated by Mortimer and the uncredited writer is probably Cameron) introduced ‘Crime’s Cameraman’ Sam Garth, a keen shutterbug whose unwitting enthusiasm masked a deadly secret, whilst ‘A Tree Grows in Gotham City’ (written by Alvin Schwartz?) spoofed the infamous novel by pitting the Dynamic Duo against a gang of thugs determined to dig up an elderly oak belonging to an equally elderly gent… but why?

‘Champions Don’t Brag’ (William Woolfolk & Mortimer) focussed on Dick Grayson’s understandable desire to excel at sports: a wish constantly thwarted by the need to keep his Robin alter ego secret. When his school’s best athlete was kidnapped the fear proved justified since the abductors then tried to ransom the “Boy Wonder” they sincerely believed they had captured…!

The unknown writer of ‘The Case of the Valuable Orphans’ told a powerful tale of cruel criminality as thugs exploited carefully placed adopted children to case potential burglary jobs, whilst ‘The Famous First Crimes’ by Cameron, Mortimer & Howard Sherman in #25, found Batman and Robin helping an enterprising inventor whilst battling bandits determined to steal historical scientific breakthroughs and ‘His Highness, Prince Robin’ (by anonymous & Mortimer) saw the Boy Wonder pinch-hitting for a wayward royal absconder in a clever twist on the classic Prince and the Pauper plot.

In WF #27 ‘Me, Outlaw’ revealed the big mistake of car thief and murderer Wheels Mitchum in a tense and salutary courtroom drama by Finger & Jim Mooney, whilst ‘Crime Under Glass’ depicted the horrific and grisly murder spree of the chilling Glass Man in a taut mystery illustrated by Sprang by Fallon and #29 offered ‘The Second Chance’ to freshly released convict Joel Benson who increasingly found life out of prison temptation beyond endurance in a classy human drama by Cameron & Mortimer.

Most later Batman tales feature a giant coin in the Batcave and World’s Finest #30 is where that spectacular prop first appeared; spoils of a successful battle between the Caped Crusaders and the vicious gang of Joe Coyne and ‘The Penny Plunderers!’ (Finger, Kane & Burnley), after which ‘The Man with the X-Ray Eyes!’ (scripted by Cameron) saw the heroes struggling to save from unscrupulous thugs a tragic artist cursed with the ability to see through anything – including their masks…

This superb collection of Dark Knight Dramas ends with ‘The Man Who Could Not Die’ (Finger, Kane & Burnley from #32) a deliciously fearsome fable wherein petty gunman Joe “Lucky” Starr got a twisted horoscope reading and believed that he knew the day he would be killed. Of course, until then, he could commit any crime without possibility of harm – even if Batman and Robin interfered…

These spectacular yarns provide a perfect snapshot of the Batman’s amazing development from bleak moody avenger and vigilante agent of revenge to dedicated, sophisticated Devil-may-care Detective in timeless tales which have never lost their edge or their power to enthral and beguile, and this superbly sturdy Archive Edition is indubitably the most luxurious and satisfying of ways to enjoy them over and over again.

So why don’t you…
© 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Golden Age Western Comics

By various, compiled and edited by Steven Brower (PowerHouse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-57687-594-0

There was a time, not that very long ago, when all of popular fiction was engorged with tales of Cowboys and Indians.

As always happens with such periodic phenomena – such as the Swinging Sixties Super-Spy Boom and perhaps the more recent Vampire/Werewolf Boyfriend trend (too soon to tell, but I’m sharpening stakes, stocking silverware and having some cola and Perrier blessed, just in case…) – there’s a tremendous amount of dross and a few spectacular gems.

On such occasions there’s also generally a small amount of wonderful but not-quite-life-changing material that gets lost in the shuffle: carried along with the overwhelming surge of material pumped out by TV, film, comics and book producers and even the toy, game and record industries.

After World War II the American family entertainment market – for which read comics, radio and the burgeoning television industry – became comprehensively enamoured of the clear-cut, simplistic sensibilities and easy, escapist solutions offered by Tales of the Old West; already a firmly established favourite of paperback fiction, movie serials and feature films.

I’ve often pondered on how almost simultaneously a dark, bleak, nigh-nihilistic and oddly left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome revolution, seemingly for the cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that’s a thought for another time and different graphic novel review.

Even though comic books had encompassed western heroes from the very start – there were cowboy strips in the premier issues of both Action Comics and Marvel Comics – the post-war years saw a vast outpouring of anthology titles with new gun-toting heroes to replace the rapidly dwindling supply of costumed Mystery Men, and true to formula, most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling.

With every comic-book publisher turning hopeful eyes westward, it was natural that most of the historical figures would quickly find a home and of course facts counted little, as indeed they never had with cowboy literature…

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist and produced some pretty impressive work, with France and Italy eventually making the genre their own by the end of the 1960s. Still and all there was the rare gleam of gold and also a fair share of highly acceptable silver in the American tales, and as always, the crucial difference was due to the artists and writers involved…

With all the top-line characters and properties such as Tomahawk, Rawhide Kid, or the Lone Ranger still fully owned by big concerns, this delightful and impressive hardback compilation gathers a broad selection of the second-string (call ‘em Sunday matinee or B-movie comics if you want) material and, although there’s no Kinstler or Kubert or Kirby classics, what editor Steven Brower has re-presented here in lavish, scanned full-colour is a magnificent meat-and-potatoes snapshot of what kids of the time would have been avidly absorbing.

Sadly records are awfully spotty for this period and genre but I’m cocky enough to offer a few guesses whenever the creator credits aren’t available and I’m relatively sure of my footing…

After an informative introduction from Christopher Irving and an introductory essay by Brower, the rip-roaring yet wholesome fun and thrills begin with Texas Tim, Ranger (from an undesignated issue of Blazing West in 1948), part of writer/Editor Richard Hughes’ superb American Comics Group line, and a veritable one-man band of creative trend following. In this sadly uncredited yarn (perhaps drawn by Edmond Good).

Hughes is an unsung hero of the industry, competing with the Big Boys in spy, humour, western, horror and superhero titles well into the 1960s and writing the bulk of the stories himself.

Here the Texan lawman tracks down rustlers and foils a plot to frame an innocent man in a rollicking 8-page romp after which movie star Lash LaRue solves the case of ‘The King’s Ransom’ in an adventure stuffed with chases, kidnapping, fights, framed Indians and prodigal sons, originally from #56 (July 1955 and perhaps drawn by John Belfi or Tony Sgroi) of his own licensed title. Fawcett had a huge stable (I said it and I ain’t sorry, neither) of Western screen stars, and when they quit comics in 1953 the gems that didn’t go to DC – such as Hopalong Cassidy – went to Capitol/Charlton Comics who purchased the bulk of retired comics publishers inventory during the 1950’s…

Charlton was always a minor player in the comics leagues, paying less, selling less, and generally caring less about cultivating a fan base than the major players. But they managed to discover and train more big names in the 1960s than either Marvel or DC, and created a vast and solid canon of memorable characters, concepts and genre material. Almost all their stuff was written by Joe Gill or Pat Masulli, although in the 1960s young tyros like Roy Thomas, Steve Skeates, Dave Kaler and Denny O’Neil all got a healthy first bite of the cherry there, and I’m fairly certain “King of Comics” Paul S. Newman was the regular Larue scripter…

‘Magic Arrow Rides the Pony Express’ hails from Youthful Publications’ Indian Fighter (1950) illustrated by S. B. Rosen and detailing how the young Seneca chief and all-around “Good Injun” saves the famed postal service from unscrupulous badmen armed only with his quiver of enchanted shafts.

Fawcett also published screen star Tom Mix Western and from #15, 1949 comes ‘Tom Mix and the Desert Maelstrom’ probably drawn by Carl Pfeufer and John Jordan – as most of the strips were – wherein the legendary lawman braved a stupendous sandstorm to capture bank-robbers and save a wounded rodeo rider from destitution.

Lots of publishers had Jesse James series and the one sampled here comes from Charlton’s Cowboy Western Comics #39, (June 1955, probably written by Gill & illustrated by William M. Allison). In it the always misunderstood gunslinger was framed for a stage hold-up…

Magazine Enterprises produced some the very best comics of the 1950s and from Dan’l Boone #4, December 1955 comes the stirring saga of pioneer America ‘Peril Shadows the Forest Trail’, wherein the mythical scout and woodsman ferrets out a murderous white turncoat in a timeless thriller illustrated by the hugely undervalued Joe Certa.

‘Buffalo Belle’ also comes from the 1948 Blazing West and again displays Hughes’ mastery of the short story strip as a miniskirt-wearing agent of  justice deals with a dragged-up bandit in a terrific yarn possibly limned by Max Elkan or even Charles Sultan…

Also from that ACG title are the lovely ‘Little Lobo the Bantam Buckeroo’ – illustrated by Leonard Starr in his transitional Milton Caniff drawing style – depicting the tempestuous boy’s battle against fur thieves, and the charming ‘Tenderfoot’ (by a frustratingly familiar artist I can’t identify, but who might be Paul Cooper) with the sissy-looking Eastern Dude dispensing western vengeance to bullies and bandits alike…

‘Little Eagle: Soldier in the Making’ also comes from Indian Fighter – illustrated with near-abstract verve by Manny Stallman – and heads firmly into fantasy as a youthful brave equipped with magic wings tackles renegade brave Black Dog before he sets the entire frontier ablaze with war…

Avon Books started in 1941, created when the American News Corporation bought out pulp magazine publishers J.S. Ogilvie, and their output was famously described by Time Magazine as “westerns, whodunits and the kind of boy-meets-girl story that can be illustrated by a ripe cheesecake jacket.”

By 1945 the company had launched a comic-book division as fiercely populist as the parent company with over 100 short-lived genre titles such as Atomic Spy Cases, Bachelor’s Diary, Behind Prison Bars, Campus Romance, Gangsters and Gun Molls, Slave Girl Comics, War Dogs of the U.S. Army, White Princess of the Jungle and many others, all aimed – even the funny animal titles like Space Mouse and Spotty the Pup! – at a slightly older and more discerning audience and all drawn by some of the best artists working at the time.

Many if not most sported lush painted covers that were both eye-catching and beautiful.

Six of their titles had respectable runs: Peter Rabbit, Eerie, Wild Bill Hickock, outrageous “Commie-busting” war comic Captain Steve Savage, Fighting Indians of the Wild West and their own magnificently illustrated fictionalised adventures of Jesse James.

‘Terror at Taos’ comes from Avon’s Kit Carson #6 (March 1955, but reprinted here from Fighting Indians of the Wild West) and pits the famed scout against corrupt officials and traitorous wagon masters in the Commancheria territory, all lavishly rendered by the superb Jerry McCann.

Next is ‘Young Falcon and the Swindlers’ from Fawcett’s Gabby Hayes Western #17 (April 1950) by an artist doing a very creditable impression of Norman Maurer, wherein the lost prince of the Truefeather Tribe tracked down crooked assayers who bilked him of his rightful pay, after which ‘Annie Oakley’ (Cowboy Western Stories # 38, April/May 1952) finds the famed sharpshooter hunting bandits in a canny 4-page quickie illustrated by Jerry Iger under the pen-name Jerry Maxwell.

Charlton’s back catalogue also provided ‘Flying Eagle in Golden Treachery’ from Death Valley #9 October 1955, as the noble brave foils white claim-jumpers togged up like Indians, and ‘Cry for Revenge’ (Cowboy Western #49 May/June 1954) saw old Fawcett star Golden Arrow hunt down more murderous whites posing as Red Men to drive settlers off their land in a gripping (Gill?) yarn illustrated by Dick Giordano & Vince Alascia.

‘Chief Black Hawk and his Dogs of War’ was a historical puff-piece also from the aforementioned Kit Carson #6 with artist Harry Larsen delineating the rise and fall of the legendary Sauk war chief after which Giordano & Alascia’s ‘Triple Test’ (Cowboy Western #49 May/June 1954) laconically describes the dangers of marrying in a rare, wry light-hearted tale from an age of shoot-and-swipe sagas…

Gabby Hayes Western #17 also provided an adventure of the World’s Most Successful Sidekick himself (seriously: Hayes was the comedy stooge to almost every cowboy in Tinsel Town, from Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy to Randolph Scott and John Wayne).

‘The Big Game Hunt’ is a fun-filled riot as the garrulous old coot takes the wind out of snobby globe-trotting safari addict and saves the life of a cantankerous moose in a charming rib-tickler probably written by Rod Reed or Irwin Schoffman and illustrated by Leonard Frank.

The last tales in this tome are from Charlton; starting with the Giordano & Alascia ‘Breakout in Rondo Prison’ (Range Busters #10 September 1955) wherein hard-riding trio Scott, Chip and Doodle were framed for robbery in a pokey cow-town and forced to fight their way to freedom after which the action ends with a superb costumed cowboy thriller ‘For Talon’s Nest’ from Masked Raider #2 (August 1955) wherein the mystery gunslinger is forced to defend his pet Eagle’s honour in a classy classic drawn by Mike Sekowsky (and possibly inked by Standard Comics comrade Mike Peppe?)

Sadly there’s no inclusion of Charlton’s superb and long-running Billy the Kid, Gunmaster or Cheyenne Kid features but hopefully there’s the possibility of a follow-up volume dedicated to them…?

Within these pages cow-punching aficionados (no, it’s neither a sexual proclivity nor an Olympic sport) and all fans of charming and nostalgia-stuffed comics can (re)discover a selection of range-riding rollercoaster rides about misunderstood fast-guns or noble savages compelled to take up arms against an assorted passel of low-down no-goods and scurvy owlhoots, and all the other myriad tropes and touchstones of Western mythology. Black hats, white hats, great pictures and traditional action values – what more could you possibly ask for?

Text, compilation and editing © 2012 Steven Brower. Foreword © 2012 Christopher Irving. All rights reserved.

The Amazing Spider-Man Collectors Album (US and UK editions)

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko & various (Lancer/Four Square)
“ISBNs” 72-122 (Lancer) and 1792 (Four Square)

This is another one purely for driven nostalgics, consumed collectors and historical nit-pickers, highlighting the Swinging Sixties’ transatlantic paperback debut of the hero who would become Marvel’s greatest creative triumph…

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 Kirby and Steve Ditko had another idea… change the perception.

Whilst the artists pursued their personal creative visions, the editorial mastermind pursued every opportunity to break down the ghetto walls: college lecture tours, animated TV shows (of frankly dubious quality at the start, but constantly 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. With fans hungry for product from their cheap ubiquitous lines, many old novels and short story collections were republished, introducing a new generation to such authors as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Otis Adelbert Kline, H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth and others.

In 1955, spurred on by the huge parallel success of cartoon and gag book collections, Bill Gaines began releasing paperback compendiums culling the best strips and features from his landmark humour magazine Mad and comics’ Silver Age was mirrored in popular publishing by an insatiable hunger for escapist fantasy fiction. In 1964 Bantam Books began reprinting the earliest pulp adventures of Doc Savage, triggering a revival of pulp prose superheroes, and 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 repackaged books by various publishers: reformatting their comics stories in cheap and cheerful softcovers:

Archie Comics released their Marvel knock-off restyled superheroes in the gloriously silly 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 sextet of paperbacks featuring five of their stars: Fantastic Four (two volumes), the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, Thor and of course the Amazing Spider-Man.

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 already familiar to British readers, appearing both in Odhams’ weekly comics Wham!, Pow!, Smash!, Fantastic and Terrific and also in the black and white monthly anthologies published by Alan Class since 1959…

So when Lancer began releasing Marvel’s Mightiest in potent and portable little collections it was simple to negotiate British iterations of those editions although they were not as cheap and had shorter page counts.

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 Kirbys and Ditkos and Wally Woods 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…

As I’ve already mentioned US and UK editions vary significantly. Although both re-present – in truncated, resized monochrome – startling early Marvel tales the British Four Square editions are a measly 128 pages, as opposed to the 176 page Lancer editions: necessitating missing stories and odd filler pages. Moreover the UK books are fronted by deliberately garish and poorly drawn “cartoony covers” instead of art by Ditko or Kirby, as if the publishers were embarrassed by the content…

The Amazing Spider-Man Lancer edition by Lee & Steve Ditko was published in 1966 and opens with ‘Duel With Daredevil’ (from #16, September 1964) which depicted the Wall-crawler’s first bombastic meeting with the sightless Man Without Fear as they teamed up to battle the sinister Ringmaster and his Circus of Evil.

This was followed by ‘The Origin of Spider-Man’ from the first issue (March 1963): recapping the story of how nerdy high-schooler Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, became a TV star and failed to prevent the murder of his Uncle Ben. After a pin-up of The Burglar the tale continues, introducing gadfly J. Jonah Jameson and relating how the Amazing Arachnid saved a malfunctioning space capsule before revealing ‘The Secrets of Spider-Man!’ which combined portions of the info-features seen in Amazing Spider-Man Annual’s #1 & 2 from 1964 and 1965.

Thus far the US book and the Four Square paperback released in 1967 are all but identical – covers excluded of course – and apart from Kirby pin-up pages of the Hulk, Thor and Fantastic Four, that’s where Britain’s thrills stop dead, whereas the Lancer volume has another complete story and more in store.

From Amazing Spider-Man #13 ‘The Menace of Mysterio!’ introduced an eldritch, seemingly unbeatable bounty-hunter hired by Daily Bugle publisher Jameson to capture the misunderstood hero. Of course the stalker was a complete sham eventually revealed to be pursuing his own dark agenda, but the battle to stop him was – and still is – one of Spidey’s most spectacular exploits…

This edition ends with another brace of Ditko pin-ups – a roster of guest-stars in one, and the magnificent web-spinner at his moody best in the other…

Nowadays all these adventures are readily available in assorted colour collections or dynamic monochrome Essential Editions 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 artefact 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.

The Adventures of Superman

By George Lowther, illustrated by Joe Shuster (Applewood Books)
ISBN: 978-1-55709-228-1

Without doubt the creation of Superman and his unprecedented reception by a desperate and joy-starved generation quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form. Within months of his launch in Action Comics #1 the Man of Tomorrow had his own supplementary solo comicbook, a newspaper strip, overseas licensing deals, a radio show and animated movie series, plus loads ands loads of merchandising deals.

In 1942 he even made the dynamic leap into “proper” prose fiction resulting in still more historic “firsts”…

George F. Lowther (1913-1975) was a Renaissance man of radio when sound not vision dominated home entertainment. He scripted episodes of such airwave strip adaptations as Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates as well as the Mutual Radio Network’s legendary Adventures of Superman show.

He also wrote episodes for Roy Rogers, Tom Mix and a host of other series and serials. In 1945 he moved into television with equal success as writer, producer, director and even performer, adding a string of novels for kids to his CV along the way.

With the success of the Superman radio broadcasts a spin-off book was a sure-fire seller and in 1942 Random House released a stunning, rocket-paced history of the Man of Steel, which fleshed out the character’s background (almost a decade before such detail became part of the comics canon), described the hero’s rise to fame and even found room for a thrilling pulp-fuelled contemporary adventure in a handsome hardback lavishly illustrated by co-creator Joe Shuster. The novel was the first Superman tale not scripted by Jerry Siegel and the world’s first novelisation of a comicbook character.

That book will set you back upwards of a thousand dollars today but in 1995, Applewood Press (a firm specialising in high-quality reproductions of important and historic American books) recreated that early magic in its stunning entirety in a terrific hardback tome which included a copious and informative introduction from contemporary Superman writer Roger Stern as well as the original Foreword by DC’s Staff Advisor for Children’s literacy, Josette Frank.

The art is by Joe Shuster at the peak of his creative powers and includes the dust-jacket and 4 full-colour painted plates (all reproduced from the original artwork), a half-dozen full-page black and white illustrations and 34 vibrant and vital pen-and-ink spot sketches of the Caped Kryptonian in spectacular non-stop action, gracing a fast and furious yarn that begins with the destruction of Krypton and decision of scientist Jor-El in ‘Warning of Doom’ and ‘The Space Shi’.

The saga continues with the discovery of an incredible baby in a rocket-ship by farmer Eben Kent and his wife Sarah in ‘Young Clark Kent’ and the unique boy’s early days and first meeting with Perry White in ‘The Contest’.

Following ‘The Death of Eben’ the young alien refugee moved to the big city and became ‘Clark Kent, Reporter’ after which we switch to then present-day for the main event as investigative reporter and blockbusting champion of justice combine to crush a sinister plot involving spies, saboteurs, submarines and supernatural shenanigans in the classy conundrum of ‘The Skeleton Ship’ and ‘The Vanishing Captain’ which was resolved in the epic ‘Fire at Sea’, ‘Mystery of the Old Man’, ‘Attempted Murder’, ‘Enter Lois Lane’ and ‘Return of the Skelton Ship’, resulting in ‘The Unmasking’, the revelation of a ‘Special Investigator’ and an amazing ‘Underwater Battle’ before at last the wonderment ends with ‘The Mystery Solved’.

This magical book perfectly recaptures all the frantic fervour and mind-boggling excitement of the early days of action adventure storytelling and is a pulp fiction treasure as well as a pivotal moment in the creation of the world’s premier superhero. No serious fan of the medium or art-form should miss it and hopefully with another landmark Superman anniversary on the horizon another facsimile edition is on the cards. If not, at least this volume is still readily available…
© 1942 DC Comics. Introduction © 1995 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: the Dark Knight Archives volume 5

By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, Jack Burnley, Dick Sprang & various (DC)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0778-6

War always seems to stimulate creativity and advancement and these sublime adventures of Batman and Robin more than prove that axiom as the growing band of creators responsible for producing the bi-monthly adventures of the Dark Knight hit an artistic peak which only stellar stable-mate Superman and Fawcett’s Captain Marvel were able to equal or even approach…

Following an introduction by newspaper journalist and fan Michelle Nolan, this fantastic fifth edition (collecting Batman #17-20 and spanning June/July 1943 to December 1943/January 1944) opens with the gloriously human story of B. Boswell Brown, a lonely and self-important old man who claimed to be ‘The Batman’s Biographer!’ Unfortunately ruthless robber The Conjurer gave the claim far more credence than most in a this tense thriller by Don Cameron, Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson & George Roussos…

This was counterbalanced by ‘The Penguin Goes A-Hunting’ (Cameron again with art by Jack & Ray Burnley), a wild romp wherein the Perfidious Popinjay went on a hubris-fuelled crime-spree after being left off a “Batman’s Most Dangerous Foes” list.

The same creative team concocted ‘Rogues Pageant!’ when murderous thieves in Western city Santo Pablo inexplicably disrupt the towns historical Anniversary celebrations after which Joe Greene, Kane & Robinson detail the Dynamic Duo’s brutal battle with a deadly gang of maritime marauders in the unique ‘Adventure of the Vitamin Vandals!’

Batman #18 opened with a spectacular and visually stunning crime-caper as the Gotham Gangbusters clashed again with dastardly bandits Tweedledum and Tweedledee whilst solving ‘The Secret of Hunter’s Inn!’ by Joe Samachson & Robinson, after which ‘Robin Studies his Lessons!’ (Samachson, Kane & Robinson) saw the Boy Wonder grounded from all crime-busting duties until his school work improved – even if it meant Batman dying for want of his astounding assistance!

Bill Finger and Burnley brothers crafted ‘The Good Samaritan Cops’; another brilliant human interest drama focused on the tense but unglamorous work of the Police Emergency Squad and this issue concluded with a shocking and powerful return engagement for manic physician and felonious mastermind ‘The Crime Surgeon!’ (Finger, Kane & Robinson),

The writers of the first and third stories in Batman #19 are sadly unknown to us (perhaps William Woolfolk?) but there’s no doubting the magnificent artwork of rising star Dick Sprang who pencilled every tale in this blockbusting issue, beginning with ‘Batman Makes a Deadline!’ wherein the Dark Knight investigated skulduggery and attempted murder at the City’s biggest newspaper after which Don Cameron authored the breathtaking fantasy masterpiece ‘Atlantis Goes to War!’ with the Dynamic Duo rescuing that fabled submerged city from Nazi assault.

The Joker reared his garish head again in the anonymously penned thriller ‘The Case of the Timid Lion!’ with the Clown Prince enraged and lethal whilst tracking down an impostor committing crime capers in his name before Samachson, Sprang and inker Norman Fallon unmasked the ‘Collector of Millionaires’ with Dick Grayson investigating his wealthy mentor’s bewildering replacement by a cunning doppelganger…

Batman #20 featured the Mountebank of Mirth in ‘The Centuries of Crime!’ (Cameron & the Burnleys) with The Joker claiming to have discovered a nefariously profitable method of time-travelling, whilst ‘The Trial of Titus Keyes!’ (Finger, Kane & Robinson) offered a masterful courtroom drama of injustice amended, focussing on the inefficacy of witness statements…

‘The Lawmen of the Sea!’ by Finger & the Burnleys found the Dynamic Duo again working with a lesser known Police Division as they joined the Harbor Patrol in their daily duties and uncovered a modern day piracy ring before the volume ends on a dramatic high with ‘Bruce Wayne Loses Guardianship of Dick Grayson!’ wherein a couple of fraudsters claiming to be the boy’s last remaining relatives petition to adopt him.

A melodramatic triumph by Finger, Kane & Robinson, there’s still plenty of action, especially after the grifters try to sell Dick back to Bruce Wayne…

With an expansive biographies section and glorious covers from Robinson, Ed Kressy and Sprang this gloriously indulgent deluxe hardback compendium is another irresistible box of classic delights that no fan of the medium can afford to miss.

© 1943, 1944, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.