The Phantom – The Complete Series: The Gold Key Years volume 1

By Bill Harris & Bill Lignante with George Wilson (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-61345-005-5

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates, and, washing ashore in Africa, swore on the skull of his murdered father to dedicate his life and that of all his descendants to destroying all pirates and criminals. The Phantom fights crime and injustice from a base deep in the jungles of Bengali, and throughout Africa is known as the “Ghost Who Walks”.

His unchanging appearance ad unswerving quest for justice have led to him being considered an immortal avenger by the credulous and the wicked. Down the decades one hero after another has fought and died in an unbroken line, and the latest wearer of the mask, indistinguishable from the first, continues the never-ending battle…

Lee Falk created the Jungle Avenger at the request of his syndicate employers who were already making history, public headway and loads of money with his first strip sensation Mandrake the Magician

Although technically not the first ever costumed hero in comics, The Phantom was the prototype paladin to wear a skin-tight body-stocking, and the first to have a mask with opaque eye-slits.

He debuted on February 17th 1936 in an extended sequence that pitted him against a global confederation of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood. Falk wrote and drew the daily strip for the first two weeks before handing artist Ray Moore the illustration side. The Sunday feature began in May 1939.

For such a successful, long-lived and influential series, in terms of compendia or graphic novel collections The Phantom has been very poorly served by the English language market. Various small companies have tried to collect the strips – one of the longest continually running adventure serials in publishing history – but in no systematic or chronological order and never with any sustained success.

But, even if it were only of historical value (or just printed for Australians, who have long been manic devotees of the implacable champion) surely “Kit Walker” is worthy of a definitive chronological compendium series?

Happily, his comic book adventures have fared slightly better – at least in recent times…

In the 1960’s King Features Syndicate dabbled with a comicbook line of their biggest stars – Flash Gordon, Mandrake and The Phantom – but immediately prior to that the Ghost Who Walks held a solo starring vehicle under the broad and effective aegis of veteran licensed properties publisher Gold Key Comics.

This superb full-cover hardcover (with equivalent eBook editions for the modern minded) gathers the first eight issues – encompassing November 1962 through August 1964 – and, as explained in fan and scholar Ed Rhoades’ Introduction ‘The Phantom and the Silver Age’, offers newspaper strip tales originally illustrated by Wilson McCoy that had been adapted by original scripter Bill Harris and drawn in comicbook format by Bill Lignante.

The Phantom was no stranger to funnybooks, having been featured since the Golden Age in titles such as Feature Book and Harvey Hits, but only as straight strip reprints. These Gold Key exploits were tailored to a big page and a young readership.

The fascinating history lesson is also augmented by pages of original artwork and ends much too soon for my elevated tastes, but if you’re a fan of pictorial adventure there’s plenty more to enjoy.

Each issue was fronted by a stunning painted cover by George Wilson and the excitement kicks off here with ‘The Game’ (Phantom #1, November 1962) as the international man of mystery encounters Prince Ragon Gil, whose idea of fun is to pit abducted or bribed strangers against ferocious beasts. When an interfering masked man closes down his warped games the eastern potentate swears vengeance and kidnaps the hero’s fiancé Diana Palmer. His plan is to force the interloper to play his savage game, but it’s his last mistake…

That premiere issue concludes with a single-page recap of the legend of The Phantom before #2 (February 1963) resumes the wonderment with ‘The Rattle’ as an exploit from The Phantom’s ancestral past flares up again after tiny bird-riding barbarians start stealing from the local tribes.

The current ghost must crack the casebooks of his forefathers and penetrate a most inhospitable region to get to the bottom of the mystery and bring peace back to the jungle…

A second story taps into contemporary Flying Saucer interest as our hero encounters aliens intent on conquest. Thankfully the purple-clad subject of ‘The Test’ proves sufficient to change their minds…

History’s greatest treasures are stored in The Phantom’s fabulous Skull Cave and the first tale in #3 (May 1963) relates how a rescued white man glimpses ‘The Diamond Cup’ of Alexander the Great and accidentally triggers a greed-fuelled crusade by eager criminals and ambitious chances before the Ghost Who Walks finally restores peace and order…

Rounding out the issue, ‘The Crybaby’ finds frail village boy Cecil given a crash course in confidence and exercise by the enigmatic masked man. The experience is literally life-changing…

In #4 (August) disgraced, fraud-perpetrating witchmen strike back against The Phantom through their manufactured deity ‘Oogooru’, only to be shown what real sleight of hand and prestidigitation can achieve, after which ocean voyager Kit Walker solves the enigma of vanishing villains the ‘Goggle-Eye Pirates’

Two centuries previously The Phantom established a police force dubbed The Jungle Patrol with himself as its anonymous titular head. In #5 (October) those worthy stalwarts are almost outfoxed by a devious gang of bandits known as ‘The Swamp Rats’ until the unseen “Commander” takes personal charge of the mission. The big innovation of the issue is the premiere of a new episodic feature detailing ‘The Phantom’s Boyhood’ as a baby is born in the Skull Cave. Tracing the formative experiences of the current Phantom, the initial yarn follows little Kit from toddler to the dawn of adolescence when his parents regretfully decide it’s time to pack him off to private school in America…

The Phantom #6 (February 1964) leads with ‘The Lady from Nowhere’ as heiress Lydia Land is thrown from a plane and rescued by the masked manhunter. Soon he’s dogging her steps to track down which trusted associate is trying to silence her and steal her fortune…

A life-changing meeting shapes the destiny of the hero-to-be in ‘The Phantom’s Boyhood Part II – Diana’ as Kit falls for the girl next door and makes his mark amongst the cads and bullies of the civilised world…

The peaceful villages of the jungle are thrown into turmoil by the thieving depredations of ‘The Super Apes’ (#7, May) until the Jungle Patrol and The Phantom expose their shocking secret whilst ‘The Phantom’s Boyhood Part III – School’ finds the African émigré making his mark in the classroom, on the playing fields and in the newspapers…

Phantom #8 (August) closes this initial outing with an epic extra-length tale of vengeance as the current Ghost Who Walks finally tracks down ‘The Belt’ and the villain who killed his father and stole it…

Straightforward, captivating rollicking action-adventure has always been the staple of The Phantom. If that sounds like a good time to you, this is a traditional nostalgia-fest you won’t want to miss…
The Phantom® © 1962-1964 and 2011 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ® Hearst Holdings, Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Captain America Masterworks volume 2

By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Jack Kirby, John Romita Sr., Gil Kane, Jack Sparling & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1785-8 (HB)        978-0-7851-5931-5(TPB)

After his resurrection in Avengers #4 (March 1964), Captain America grew in popularity and quickly won his own solo feature, sharing Tales of Suspense with former teammate Iron Man (beginning with #59, cover-dated November 1964).

Scripted by Stan Lee and with the astoundingly prolific Jack Kirby either pencilling or laying out each action-packed episode, the series grew in standing and stature until it became must-read entertainment for most comics fans.

This second Masterworks compilation re-presents ToS #82-99 (October 1966 to March 1969) and concludes with Captain America #100 as the Star-Spangled Stalwart took the next big step and returned to solo stardom in the April cover-dated first issue.

The dynamic dramas contained herein signalled closer links with parallel tales in other titles. Thus, with subversive science scoundrels Advanced Idea Mechanics defeated by S.H.I.E.L.D. in Strange Tales ‘The Maddening Mystery of the Inconceivable Adaptoid!’ pitted Cap against one last unsupervised experiment as A.I.M.’s artificial life-form – capable of becoming an exact duplicate of its victim – stalked Cap in a tale of vicious psychological warfare. Sadly, even masterfully manufactured mechanoids are apt to err and ‘Enter… The Tumbler!’ (inked by Dick Ayers) saw a presumptuous wannabe attack the robot after it assumed the identity of our hero before ‘The Super-Adaptoid!’ completed an epic of breathtaking suspense and drama as the real McCoy fought back and overcame everybody…

Such eccentric cross-continuity capers would carry the company to market dominance in a few short years and become not the exception but the norm…

‘The Blitzkrieg of Batroc!’ and ‘The Secret!’ returned to the early minimum-plot, all-action, overwhelming-odds yarns whilst ‘Wanted: Captain America’ (by Roy Thomas, Jack Sparling & Joe Sinnott) offered a lacklustre interval involving a frame-up before Gil Kane took his first run on the character with ‘If Bucky Lives…!’, ‘Back from the Dead!’, ‘…And Men Shall Call Him Traitor!’ and ‘The Last Defeat!’ (TOS #88-91, with the last two inked by Sinnott): a superb thriller of blackmail and betrayal starring the Red Skull. The fascist felon had baited a trap with a robotic facsimile of Cap’s dead partner, triggered it with super-hirelings Power Man and the Swordsman and then blackmailed the Star-Spangled Sentinel into betraying his country and stealing an atomic submarine…

Kirby & Sinnott were back for ‘Before My Eyes Nick Fury Died!’, ‘Into the Jaws of… AIM!’ and ‘If This Be… Modok!’ as the Champion of Liberty fought a giant brain-being manufactured purely for killing…

In rapid succession ‘A Time to Die… A Time to Live’ and ‘To Be Reborn!’ see the hero retire and reveal his secret identity, only to jump straight back into the saddle with S.H.I.E.L.D. for #97’s ‘And So It Begins…’ a four-part epic which concluded in the aforementioned issue #100, with which number Tales of Suspense became simply Captain America. Guest starring the Black Panther, it described the apparent return of long-dead Baron Zemo utilising an orbiting Death Ray to scourge Africa and threaten the world.

‘The Claws of the Panther!’ was inked by both Sinnott and the great Syd Shores – who would continue for the next year as regular inker – beginning with ‘The Man Who Lived Twice!’, whilst the hundredth issue used the extra page-length to retell the origin before concluding a superb thriller with ‘This Monster Unmasked!’

Rounding out this patriotic bonanza is a gallery of original art pages by Kirby and Kane plus uncorrected proofs showing last-minute editorial alterations to the priceless published pearls of wonder.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Shadow 1941: Hitler’s Astrologer

By Dennis O’Neil, Michael William Kaluta, Russ Heath & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-60690-429-9

In the early 1930s, The Shadow gave thrill-starved Americans their measured doses of extraordinary excitement via cheaply produced pulp periodical novels, and over the mood-drenched airwaves through his own radio show.

“Pulps” were published in every style and genre in their hundreds every month, ranging from the truly excellent to the pitifully dire, but for exotic or esoteric adventure-lovers there were two stars who outshone all others. The Superman of his day was Doc Savage, whilst the premier dark, relentless creature of the night dispensing terrifying grim justice was the putative hero featured here.

Radio series Detective Story Hour – based on stand-alone yarns from the Street & Smith publication Detective Story Magazine – used a spooky-toned narrator (variously Orson Welles, James LaCurto or Frank Readick Jr.) to introduce each tale. He was dubbed “the Shadow” and from the very start on July 31st 1930, he was more popular than the stories he related.

The Shadow evolved into a proactive hero solving instead of narrating mysteries and, on April 1st 1931, began starring in his own printed adventures, written by the astonishingly prolific Walter Gibson under house pseudonym Maxwell Grant. On September 26th 1937 the radio show officially became The Shadow with the eerie motto “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of Men? The Shadow knows!” ringing out unforgettably over the nation’s airwaves.

Over the next eighteen years 325 novels were published, usually at the rate of two a month. The uncanny crusader spawned comicbooks, seven movies, a newspaper strip and all the merchandising paraphernalia you’d expect of a smash-hit superstar brand.

The pulp series officially ended in 1949 although Gibson and others added to the canon during the 1960s when a pulp/fantasy revival gripped the world, generating reprinted classic yarns and a run of new stories as paperback novels.

In graphic terms The Shadow was a major player. His national newspaper strip – by Vernon Greene – launched on June 17th 1940 and when comicbooks really took off the Man of Mystery had his own four-colour title; running from March 1940 to September 1949.

Archie Comics published a controversial contemporary reworking in 1964-1965 under their Radio/Mighty Comics imprint, by Robert Bernstein, Jerry Siegel, John Rosenberger and Paul Reinman. In 1973 DC acquired the rights to produce a captivating, brief and definitive series of classic comic sagas unlike any other superhero title then on the stands.

DC periodically revived the venerable vigilante. After the runaway success of Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchman, Howard Chaykin was allowed to utterly overhaul the vintage feature for an audience at last acknowledged as grown-up enough to handle more sophisticated fare.

This led to further, adult-oriented iterations and one cracking outing from Marvel before Dark Horse assumed the license of the quintessential grim avenger for the latter half of the 1990s and beyond.

Dynamite Entertainment secured the option in 2011 and, whilst reissuing much of those other publishers’ earlier efforts, began a series of new monthly Shadow comics.

A year after Howard Chaykin and DC catapulted The Shadow into the grim ‘n’ grungy contemporary arena the dream-team that had first returned him to comic-book prominence reunited for a larger-than-life grand romp, ably abetted by the inking skills of master artist Russ Heath.

Denny O’Neil and Michael Kaluta had produced a stand-out series of adventures in the early 1970s (collected as The Private Files of the Shadow), set in the mad scientist/spy/gangster-ridden ‘thirties, and when they reunited to produce a Marvel Graphic novel expectations were high. As it turned out, in many ways that complex and devious yarn was the final chapter in that astounding graphic procession. In 2013 Dynamite re-released Hitler’s Astrologer with the entire affair re-mastered by Mike Kelleher, finally doing justice to the colouring of Mark Chiarello, Nick Jainschigg and John Wellington – as well as letterer Phil Felix – which had nor fared well under the production processes of the time…

On Easter Sunday 1941 a beautiful woman is pursued through the teeming crowds of Times Square theatre-goers by sinister thugs until rescued in the nick of time by agents of The Shadow.

She is Gretchen Baur, personally despatched to America by Josef Goebbels to gather astrological data for the Reich’s Ministry of Propaganda. However, now the confused fräulein cannot understand why agents of her own government have tried to abduct her…

The Shadow reveals that she is an unwitting pawn in a deadly battle for supremacy within the Nazi Party that revolves around her father, Der Führer’s personal astrologer…

And thus begins a tense and intricate conspiracy thriller that ranges from the bloody streets of New York through the killer skies of Europe to the very steps of Hitler’s palace in Berlin as a desperate plan to subvert the course of the war comes up hard against a twisted, thwarted love and a decades-long hunt for vengeance.

Deliciously and suitably Wagnerian in style, this action-packed mystery drama exudes period charm; nobody has ever realised The Shadow and his cohorts as well as Kaluta, whilst Russ Heath’s sleek inks add weight and volume to the cataclysmic proceedings.

This sinister saga of the man in the black slouch hat with the girasol ring is another superb addition to the annals of the original Dark Knight, and one no one addicted to action and mystery should miss.
The Shadow ® & © 2013 Advance Magazine Publishers Inc. d/b/a Conde Nast. All Rights Reserved.

Captain America Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, George Tuska, John Romita Sr. & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1176-X (HB)                   978-0-7851-4298-0 (TBP)

During the natal years of Marvel Comics in the early 1960’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby opted to mimic the game-plan which had paid off so successfully for National/DC Comics, albeit with mixed results.

From 1956 to 1960, Julie Schwartz had scored incredible, industry-altering hits by re-inventing the company’s Golden Age greats, so it seemed sensible to try and revive the characters that had dominated Timely/Atlas in those halcyon days two decades previously.

A new Human Torch had premiered as part of the revolutionary Fantastic Four, and in the fourth issue of that title the Sub-Mariner resurfaced after a twenty-year amnesiac hiatus (everyone concerned had apparently forgotten the first abortive attempt to revive an “Atlas” superhero line in the mid-1950s).

The Torch was promptly given his own solo lead-feature in Strange Tales (from issue #101 on) and in #114 the flaming teen fought a larcenous acrobat pretending to be Captain America.

With reader-reaction strong, the real McCoy was promptly decanted in Avengers #4 and, after a captivating and centre-stage hogging run in that title, won his own series as half of a “split-book” with fellow Avenger and patriotic barnstormer Iron Man.

Gathered in this star-spangled celebration – available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions – are the stunning all-action adventures from Tales of Suspense #59-81 (cover-dates November 1964 to September 1966), which following the customary retrospective Introduction by author/Editor Stan Lee beginning with the eponymously initial outing ‘Captain America’.

Illustrated by the staggeringly perfect team of Jack Kirby & Chic Stone, the plot is non-existent, but what you do get is a phenomenal fight tale as an army of thugs invades Avengers Mansion because “only the one without superpowers” is at home. They soon learn the folly of that misapprehension…

The next issue held more of the same, as ‘The Army of Assassins Strikes!’ on behalf of evil arch enemy Zemo before ‘The Strength of the Sumo!’ proves insufficient after Cap invades Viet Nam to rescue a lost US airman. The Star-Spangled Swashbuckler then took on an entire prison to thwart a ‘Break-out in Cell Block 10!’

After these gloriously simplistic romps the series took an abrupt turn and began telling tales set in World War II. ‘The Origin of Captain America’, by Lee, Kirby & Frank Ray (AKA Giacoia) recounts how frail physical wreck Steve Rogers is selected to be the guinea pig for an experimental super-soldier serum, only to have the scientist responsible die in his arms, cut down by a Nazi bullet.

Now forever unique, he is given the task of becoming the fighting symbol and guardian of America, based as a regular soldier in a boot camp. It was there he is accidentally unmasked by Camp Mascot Bucky Barnes, who then blackmails the hero into making the kid his sidekick.

The next issue (Tales of Suspense #64) kicked off a string of spectacular episodic thrillers adapted from Golden Age classics as the heroes defeat Nazi spies Sando and Omar in ‘Among Us, Wreckers Dwell!’ and Chic Stone returned – as did Cap’s greatest foe – for the next tale ‘The Red Skull Strikes!’

‘The Fantastic Origin of the Red Skull!’ found the series swinging into high gear – and original material – as sub-plots and characterisation were added to the all-out action and spectacle.

‘Lest Tyranny Triumph!’ and ‘The Sentinel and the Spy!’ (both inked by Giacoia) combined espionage and mad science with a plot to murder the head of Allied Command, and the heroic American duo stayed in England for moody gothic suspense shocker ‘Midnight in Greymoor Castle!’ (with art by Dick Ayers over Kirby’s layouts – which in case you ever wondered are very simple pencils that break down the story elements on a page).

The second chapter ‘If This be Treason!’ had Golden Age and Buck Rogers newspaper strip artist George Tuska perform the same function before the final part (and last wartime adventure) revealed ‘When You Lie Down with Dogs…!’ – the result is fantastic entertainment. Joe Sinnott inked that rousing conclusion to this frantic tale of traitors, madmen and terror-weapons.

It was back to the present for ToS #72 where Lee, Kirby & Tuska revealed that Cap had been telling war stories to his fellow Avengers for the last nine months. The reverie then triggered a long dormant memory as ‘The Sleeper Shall Awake!’ began a classic catastrophe romp with a Nazi super-robot activating twenty years after Germany’s defeat to exact a world-shattering vengeance.

Continuing in ‘Where Walks the Sleeper!’ and concluding in ‘The Final Sleep!’, this masterpiece of tense suspense perfectly demonstrates the indomitable nature of the perfect American hero.

Dick Ayers returned with John Tartaglione inking ‘30 Minutes to Live!’ which introduced both Gallic mercenary Batroc the Leaper and a mysterious girl who would eventually become Cap’s long-term girl-friend: S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter.

The taut 2-part countdown to disaster ends with ‘The Gladiator, The Girl and the Glory’, illustrated by John Romita: the first tale which had no artistic input from Kirby, although he did lay out the next issue (TOS #77) for Romita & Giacoia. ‘If a Hostage Should Die!’ again returned to WWII and hinted at both a lost romance and tragedy to come.

‘Them!’ saw Kirby return to full pencils and Giacoia to a regular inking spot as the Sentinel of liberty teamed with Nick Fury in the first of many missions as a (more-or-less) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. It was followed by ‘The Red Skull Lives!’ as his arch nemesis escapes from the grave to menace the Free World again. He is initially aided by the subversive technology group AIM, but promptly steals their ultimate weapon in ‘He Who Holds the Cosmic Cube!’ (inked by Don Heck) and sets himself up as Emperor of Earth before his grip on omnipotence finally falters in ‘The Red Skull Supreme!’ (Giacoia inks).

This volume then concludes with mouth-watering extras in the form of original Kirby cover art and creator biographies.

These are tales of dauntless courage and unmatchable adventure, fast paced and superbly illustrated, which rightly returned Captain America to the heights his Golden Age compatriots the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner never regained. They are pure escapist magic. Unmissable reading for the eternally young at heart.
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Suicide Squad: The Silver Age

By Robert Kanigher, Howard Liss, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Gene Colan, Joe Kubert & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6343-0

The War that Time Forgot was a strange series which saw paratroopers and tanks of the “Question Mark Patrol” dropped on Mystery Island from whence no American soldiers ever returned. Assorted crack GIs discovered why when the operation was suddenly overrun by pterosaurs, tyrannosaurs and worse…

However, the combat-&-carnosaur creation was actually a spin-off of an earlier concept which hadn’t quite caught on with the comics-buying public. That wasn’t a problem for Writer/Editor Kanigher: a man well-versed in judicious recycling and reinvention…

Back in 1955 he had devised and written anthology adventure comic The Brave and the Bold which featured short complete tales starring a variety of period heroes: a format mirroring that era’s filmic fascination with historical dramas.

Issue #1 led with Roman swords-&-sandals epic Golden Gladiator, medieval mystery-man The Silent Knight and Joe Kubert’s Viking Prince. Soon the Gladiator was side-lined by the company’s iteration of Robin Hood, but the high adventure theme carried the title until the end of the decade when the burgeoning superhero revival saw B&B transform into a try-out vehicle in the manner of the astounding successful Showcase.

Used to launch enterprising concepts and characters such as Cave Carson, Strange Sports Stories, Hawkman and the epochal Justice League of America, the title began its run of beta-tests in issue #25 (August/September 1959) with the fate-tempting Suicide Squad – code-named Task Force X by the US government to investigate uncanny mysteries and tackle unnatural threats.

The scary tales were all illustrated by Kanigher’s go-to team for fantastic fantasy Ross Andru & Mike Esposito and they clearly revelled at the chance to cut loose and show what they could do outside the staid whimsy of Wonder Woman and gritty realism of the war titles they usually handled…

The Brave and the Bold #25 introduced a quartet of merely human specialists – air ace war hero Colonel Rick Flag, combat medic Karin Grace and big-brained boffins Hugh Evans and Jess Price – all officially convened into a unit whose purpose was to tackle threats beyond conventional comprehension such as the interstellar phenomenon dubbed ‘The Three Waves of Doom!’

The quartet were built on a very shaky premise. All three men loved Karin. She only loved Rick but agreed to conceal her inclinations and sublimate her passions so Hugh and Jess would stay on the team of scientific death-cheaters…

In their first published exploit a cloud from outer space impacted Earth and created a super-heated tsunami which threated to broil America. With dashing derring-do, the trouble-shooters quenched the ambulatory heat wave only to have it spawn a colossal alien dragon emanating super-cold rays that could trigger a new ice age…

The only solution was to banish the beast back into space on a handy rocket headed for the sun, but sadly the ship need to be piloted…

Having heroically ended the invader, the team were back two months later as B&B #26 opened with an immediate continuation. ‘The Sun Curse’ saw our stranded astronauts struggling (in scenes eerily prescient and reminiscent of the Apollo 13 crisis a decade later) to return their ship to Earth. Uncannily, however, the trip bathes them in radiations which causes them to shrink to insect size…

Back on terra firma but now imperilled by everything around them, the team nonetheless manages to scuttle a proposed attack by a hostile totalitarian nation before regaining their regular stature…

A second, shorter tale then finds the quartet enjoying some downtime in Paris before the Metro is wrecked by an awakened dinosaur. Of course, the tourists are ready and able to stop the ‘Serpent in the Subway!’

In an entertainment era still dominated by monsters and aliens, with superheroes still only tentatively resurfacing, Task Force X were at the forefront of beastie-battles and their third and final try-out issue found them facing an evolutionary nightmare as a scientist vanished and the region around his lab was suddenly besieged by gigantic insects as well as a colossal reptilian humanoid the team dubbed ‘The Creature of Ghost Lake!’ (December 1959/January 1960). They destroyed the monster but never found the professor…

A rare failure for those excitingly experimental days, the Suicide Squad vanished after that triple try-out run, only to resurface months later for a second bite of the cherry…

The Brave and the Bold #37 (August/September 1961) opened with Karin displaying heretofore unsuspected psychic gifts and predicting an alien ‘Raid of the Dinosaurs!’ which pitted the team against hyper-intelligent saurian whilst ‘Threat of the Giant Eye!’ focussed on the retrieval of a downed military plane and lost super-weapon. The hunt took the Squad to an island of mythological mien where a living monocular monolith hunted people…

In #38 (October/November 1961) the team tackled the ‘Master of the Dinosaurs’ – an alien using Pteranodons to hunt like an Earthling would use falcons – after which the fabulous four fell afoul of extra-dimensional would-be conquerors but still had enough presence of mind and determination to defeat the ‘Menace of the Mirage People!’

B&B #39 (December 1961/January 1962) called “time” on Task Force X after ‘Prisoners of the Dinosaur Zoo!’ saw the team uncover an ancient extraterrestrial ark caching antediluvian flora and fauna and ‘Rain of Fire!’ found them crushing a macabre criminal entombing crime-busters in liquid metal. That was it for the Squad until 1986 when a new iteration of the concept was launched in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Or was it? Superhero fans are notoriously clannish and insular so they might not have noticed how one creative powerhouse refused to take “no thanks” for an answer…

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy in his signature war comics, horror stories, superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman and other genres too numerous to cover here. He also scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the very first story of the Silver Age – which introduced Barry Allen AKA the Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the World in 1956.

Kanigher sold his first stories and poetry in 1932 and wrote for the theatre, film and radio before joining the Fox Features shop where he created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for Blue Beetle and the original Captain Marvel.

In 1945, he settled at All-American Comics as both writer and editor, staying on when the company amalgamated with National Comics to become the forerunner of today’s DC. He wrote Flash and Hawkman, created Black Canary and Lady Cop, plus memorable villainous femme fatales Harlequin and Rose and Thorn. This last he reconstructed, during the relevancy era of the early 1970s, into a schizophrenic crime-busting female super-hero.

When mystery-men faded out at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved into espionage, adventure, westerns and war stories, becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles: All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Amy at War.

He created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 and added G.I. Combat to his burgeoning portfolio when Quality Comics sold their line of titles to DC in 1956, all the while working on Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Sea Devils, Viking Prince and a host of others.

Among his many epochal war series were Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, the Haunted Tank and The Losers as well as the visually addictive, irresistibly astonishing “Dogfaces and Dinosaurs” dramas sampled in the back of this stunning hardback collection…

Kanigher was a restlessly creative writer and even used the uncanny but formulaic adventure arena of The War that Time Forgot as a personal try-out venue for his many series concepts. The Flying Boots, G.I. Robot and many other teams and characters first appeared in the lush Pacific hellhole with wall-to-wall danger. Indisputably the big beasts were the stars, but occasionally (extra)ordinary G.I .Joes made enough of an impression to secure return engagements, too…

The War that Time Forgot debuted in Star Spangled War Stories #90 (April-May 1960) and ran until #137 (May 1968) skipping only three issues: #91, 93 and #126 (the last of which starred the United States Marine Corps simian Sergeant Gorilla – look it up: I’m neither kidding nor being metaphorical…).

Simply too good a concept to leave alone, this seamless, shameless blend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Caprona stories (known alternatively as the Caspak Trilogy or “the Land That Time Forgot”) provided everything baby-boomer boys could dream of: giant lizards, humongous insects, fantastic adventures and two-fisted heroes with lots of guns…

In the summer of 1963, a fresh Suicide Squad debuted in Star Spangled War Stories #110 to investigate a ‘Tunnel of Terror’ into the lost land of giant monsters: this time though, a giant albino gorilla decided that mammals should stick together…

The huge hairy beast was also the star of ‘Return of the Dinosaur Killer!’ in #111 as the unnamed Squad leader and a wily boffin (visually based on Kanigher’s office associate Julie Schwartz) struggled to survive on the tropically reptilian atoll…

In SSWS #116 (August/September 1964) a duo of dedicated soldiers faced ice-bound beasts in ‘The Suicide Squad!’ – the big difference being that Morgan and Mace were more determined to kill each other than accomplish their mission…

‘Medal for a Dinosaur!’ in #117 bowed to the inevitable and introduced a (relatively) friendly and extremely cute baby pterodactyl to balance out Mace and Morgan’s barely suppressed animosity, after which ‘The Plane-Eater!’ in #118 found the army odd couple adrift in the Pacific and in deep danger until the little leather-winged guy turned up once more…

The Suicide Squad were getting equal billing by the time of #119’s ‘Gun Duel on Dinosaur Hill!’ (February/March 1965) as yet another group of men-without-hope battled reptilian horrors and each other to the death, after which the un-killable Morgan and Mace returned with Dino, the flying baby dinosaur, who found a new companion in handy hominid Caveboy before the whole unlikely ensemble struggled to survive against increasingly outlandish creatures in ‘The Tank Eater!’

Issue #121 presented a diving drama when a UDT frogman won his Suicide Squad rep as a formidable fighter and ‘The Killer of Dinosaur Alley!’ Increasingly now, G.I. hardware and ordnance began to gain the upper hand over bulk, fang and claw…

Undisputed master of gritty fantasy art Joe Kubert added his pencil-and-brush magic to a tense and manic thriller featuring the return of the G.I. Robot in stunning battle bonanza ‘Titbit for a Tyrannosaurus!’ in #125 (February/March 1965), after which Andru & Esposito covered another Suicide Squad sea-saga in #127: ‘The Monster Who Sank a Navy!’

This eclectic collection then tumultuously terminates as scripter Howard Liss and visual veteran Gene Colan craft a masterfully moving human drama from issue #128 which was astoundingly improved by the inclusion of ravening reptiles in ‘The Million Dollar Medal!’ and the last tale in this volume).

Throughout this calamitous compilation of dark dilemmas, light-hearted romps and spectacular battle blockbusters the emphasis is always on foibles and fallibility; with human heroes unable to put aside long-held grudges, swallow pride or forgive trespasses even amidst the strangest and most terrifying moments of their lives, and this edgy humanity informs and elevates even the daftest of these wonderfully imaginative adventure yarns.

Classy, intense, insanely addictive and Just Plain Fun, the original Suicide Squad offers a kind of easy, no-commitment entertainment seldom seen these days and is a deliciously guilty pleasure for one and all…
© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Golden Age volume 2

By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6808-4

Batman: The Golden Age volume is another paperback-format feast (there’s also a weightier, pricier but more capacious hardback Omnibus available) re-presenting the Dark Knight’s earliest exploits.

Set out in original publishing release order, it forgoes glossy, high-definition paper and reproduction techniques in favour of a newsprint-adjacent feel and the same flat, bright-yet-muted colour palette which graced the originals. Those necessary details dealt with, what you really need to know is that this is a collection of Batman tales that see the character grow into the major player who would inspire so many and develop the resilience to survive the stifling cultural vicissitudes the coming decades would inflict upon him and his partner, Robin.

With the majority of material crafted by Bill Finger and illustrated by Bob Kane, there’s no fuss, fiddle or Foreword, and the book steams straight into the meat of the matter, representing the astounding cape-&-cowl classics and iconic covers from Detective Comics #46-56, Batman#4-7 and the Dynamic Duo’s stories from World’s Best Comics #1 and World’s Finest Comics #2-3; cumulatively covering all the groundbreaking escapades from December 1940 to November 1941

Plunging right in to the perilous procedures, Detective Comics #46 (inked by Kane and regular embellishers Jerry Robinson & George Roussos) features the return of Batman’s most formidable scientific adversary as the heroes must counteract the awesome effects of ‘Professor Strange’s Fear Dust’ after which issue #47 delivers drama on a more human scale in ‘Money Can’t Buy Happiness’.

This action-packed homily of parental expectation and the folly of greed leads into Batman #4 (Winter 1941) which features ‘The Joker’s Crime Circus’ and the piratical plunderings of ‘Blackbeard’s Crew and the Yacht Society’. Then ‘Public Enemy No.1’ tells a gangster fable in the manner of Jimmy Cagney’s movie Angels With Dirty Faces, and ‘Victory For the Dynamic Duo’ involves the pair in the treacherous world of sports gambling.

Detective Comics #48 finds them defending America’s bullion reserves in ‘The Secret Cavern’, and they face an old foe when ‘Clayface Walks Again’ (Detective Comics #49, March 1941), as the deranged horror actor resumes his passion for murder and re-attempts to kill Bruce Wayne’s old girlfriend Julie.

Detective Comics #50 pits Batman and Robin against acrobatic burglars in ‘The Case of the Three Devils’, leading neatly into Batman #5 (Spring 1941). Once again, the Joker plays lead villain in ‘The Riddle of the Missing Card’ before the heroes prove their versatility by solving a quixotic crime in Fairy Land via ‘The Book of Enchantment’.

‘The Case of the Honest Crook’ follows: one of the key stories of Batman’s early canon. When a mugger steals only $6 from a victim, leaving much more behind, his trail leads to a vicious gang who almost beat Robin to death. The vengeance-crazed Dark Knight goes on a rampage of terrible violence that still resonates in the character to this day.

The last story from Batman #5 ‘Crime does Not Pay’ once again deals with kids going bad and the potential for redemption, after which World’s Best Comics#1 (Spring 1941 – destined to become World’s Finest Comics with its second issue) offers an eerie murder mystery concerning ‘The Witch and the Manuscript of Doom’

With most stories still coming from unsung genius Finger and the art chores shared out between Kane, Robinson & Roussos, the team got a new top contributor as Fred Ray signed on to produce the fantastic World’s Finest covers.

‘The Case of the Mystery Carnival’, ‘The Secret of the Jade Box’ and ‘Viola Vane’ (Detective#51, 52 and 53 respectively) are mood-soaked crimebusting set-pieces featuring fairly run-of-the mill thugs, which serve as perfect palate-cleansers for ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Remember!’ from WF#2: a powerful character play and a baffling mystery that still packs a punch today.

‘Hook Morgan and his Harbor Pirates’ finds the Dynamic Duo cleaning up the docks whilst the four tales from Batman #6 (‘Murder on Parole’, ‘The Clock Maker’, ‘The Secret of the Iron Jungle’ and ‘Suicide Beat’) offer a broad range of yarns encompassing a prison-set human interest fables to the hunt for a crazed maniac to racket busting and back to the human side of being a cop.

Detective #54 went back to basics with spectacular mad scientist thriller ‘The Brain Burglar’ after which a visit to a ghost town results in an eerie romp ‘The Stone Idol’ (Detective#55) before World’s Finest#3 launches a classic villain with the first appearance of one of Batman’s greatest foes in ‘The Riddle of the Human Scarecrow’.

The volume ends with four grand tales from Batman#7. ‘Wanted: Practical Jokers’ again stars the psychotic Clown Prince of Crime, whilst ‘The Trouble Trap’ finds our heroes crushing a Spiritualist racket before heading for Lumberjack country to clear up ‘The North Woods Mystery’.

The last story is something of a landmark case, as well as being a powerful and emotional melodrama. ‘The People Vs. The Batman’ finds Bruce Wayne framed for murder and the Dynamic Duo finally sworn in as official police operatives. They would not be vigilantes again until the grim and gritty 1980’s…

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

Moreover, these early stories set the standard for comic superheroes. Whatever you like now, you owe it to these stories. Superman gave us the idea, but inspired and inspirational writers like Bill Finger refined and defined the meta-structure of the costumed crime-fighter.

Where the Man of Steel was as much Social Force and juvenile wish-fulfilment as hero, Batman and Robin did what we ordinary mortals wanted to do most: teach bad people the lessons they richly deserved…

These are tales of elemental power and joyful exuberance, brimming with deep mood and addictive action. Comicbook heroics simply don’t come any better.
© 1940, 1941, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman & Superman in World’s Finest Comics: The Silver Age volume 1

By Edmond Hamilton, Bill Finger, Alvin Schwartz, Curt Swan, Dick Sprang, Stan Kaye, John Fischetti, Charles Paris, Ray Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6833-6   Some things were just meant to be: Bacon & Eggs, Rhubarb & Custard, Chalk & Cheese…

For many years Superman and Batman worked together as the “World’s Finest” team. They were friends as well as colleagues and the pairing made sound financial sense since DC’s top heroes (in effect the company’s only costumed stars) could cross-pollinate and, more importantly, cross-sell their combined readerships.

This most inevitable of Paladin Pairings first occurred on the Superman radio show in the early 1940s, whereas in comics the pair had only briefly met whilst on a Justice Society of America adventure in All-Star Comics #36 (August-September 1947) – and perhaps even there they missed each other in the gaudy hubbub…

Of course, they had shared the covers of World’s Finest Comics from the outset, but never crossed paths inside; sticking firmly to their specified solo adventures within. For us pictorial continuity buffs, the climactic real first time was in the pages of Superman’s own bi-monthly comic (issue #76, May/June 1952).

That yarn kicks off this stunning paperback compendium of Silver Age solid gold, accompanied here by the leads story from World’s Finest Comics #71-94, spanning July/August 1954 to May/June 1958.

Science fiction author Edmond Hamilton was tasked with revealing how Man of Steel and Caped Crusader first met – and accidentally uncovered each other’s identities – whilst sharing a cabin on an over-booked cruise liner. Although an average crime-stopper yarn, it was the start of a phenomenon. The art for ‘The Mightiest Team in the World’ was by the superb Curt Swan and inkers John Fischetti & Stan Kaye.

With dwindling page counts, rising costs but a proven readership and years of co-starring but never mingling, World’s Finest Comics #71 presented the Man of Tomorrow and the Gotham Gangbuster in the first of their official shared cases as the Caped Crusader became ‘Batman – Double for Superman!’ (by Alvin Schwartz with Swan & Kaye providing the pictures) as the merely mortal hero traded identities to preserve his comrade’s alter ego and latterly his life…

‘Fort Crime!’ (Schwartz, Swan & Kaye) saw them unite to crush a highly-organised mob with a seemingly impregnable hideout, after which Hamilton returned for ‘Superman and Batman, Swamis Inc’, a clever sting-operation that almost went tragically awry. Next, an alien invader prompted an insane rivalry which resulted in ‘The Contest of Heroes’ (Bill Finger, Swan & Kaye, from WFC #74.

The same creative team produced ‘Superman and Robin!’ wherein a disabled Batman could only fret and fume as his erstwhile assistant seemingly dumped him for a better man, whilst ‘When Gotham City Challenged Metropolis’ (Hamilton, Swan & Charles Paris) saw the champions at odds as their hometowns over-aggressively vied for a multi-million dollar electronics convention.

A landmark tale by Hamilton, Swan & Kaye invented a new sub-genre when a mad scientist’s accident temporarily removed the Caped Kryptonian’s powers and created ‘The Super Bat-Man!’ in #77. The theme would be revisited for decades to come…

Arguably Batman’s greatest artist joined the creative crew ‘When Superman’s Identity is Exposed!’ (Hamilton, Dick Sprang & Kaye) as a mysterious source kept revealing the Man of Steel’s greatest secret, only to be revealed as a well-intentioned disinformation stunt, before the accent switched to high adventure when the trio became ‘The Three Musicians of Bagdad’ – a stunning time-travel romp from Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye.

When the Gotham Gazette faced closure days before a spectacular crime-expose, Clark Kent and Lois Lane joined dilettante Bruce Wayne as pinch-hitting reporters on ‘The Super-Newspaper of Gotham City’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Charles Paris) after which ‘The True History of Superman and Batman’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye, #81) saw a future historian blackmail the heroes into restaging their greatest exploits so his erroneous treatise on them would be accurate…

Hamilton also produced a magnificent and classy costumed drama when ‘The Three Super-Musketeers!’ visited 17th century France to solve the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask whilst Bill Finger wrote a brilliant and delightful caper-without-a-crime in ‘The Case of the Mother Goose Mystery!’ after which Hamilton provided insight on a much earlier meeting of the World’s Finest Team with ‘The Super-Mystery of Metropolis!’ in #84, all for Sprang & Kaye to enticingly illustrate.

Hamilton, Swan, Sprang & Kaye demonstrated how a comely Ruritanian Princess inadvertently turned the level-headed heroes into ‘The Super-Rivals’ (or did she?), before monolithic charity-event ‘The Super-Show of Gotham City’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) was almost turned into a mammoth pay-day for unscrupulous con-men.

‘The Reversed Heroes’(Finger, Sprang & Ray Burnley) once again saw the costumed champions swap roles when Batman and Robin gained powers thanks to Kryptonian pep-pills found by criminal Elton Craig, just as Superman’s powers faded…

World’s Finest #87 presented ‘Superman and Batman’s Greatest Foes!’ (Hamilton, Sprang, Kaye) which found “reformed” villains Lex Luthor and the Joker ostensibly setting up in the commercial robot business – which nobody really believed – after which seminal sequel ‘The Club of Heroes’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) reprised a meeting of Batmen from many nations (as debuted in Detective Comics #215, January 1955 and a key plank of Grant Morrison’s epic Batman: the Black Glove serial) but added the intriguing sub-plot of an amnesiac Superman and a brand-new costumed champion…

That evergreen power-swap plot was revived in #90’s ‘The Super-Batwoman’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) when the headstrong heroine defied Batman by restarting her costumed career and was quickly compelled to swallow Elton Craig’s last Krypton pill to prevent criminals getting it…

A stirring time-busting saga of ‘The Three Super-Sleepers’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) saw our heroes fall into a trap which caused them to slumber for 1000 years and awaken in a fantastic world they could never escape, but of course they could and, once back where they belonged, ‘The Boy from Outer Space!’ (Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye) detailed how a super-powered amnesiac lad crashed to Earth and briefly became Superman’s junior partner Skyboy, whilst ‘The Boss of Superman and Batman’(author unknown, but impeccably illustrated as always by Sprang & Kaye) revealed how a brain-amplifying machine turned Robin into a super-genius more than qualified to lead the trio in their battle against insidious rogue scientist Victor Danning

Wrapping up this initial compendium with comfortable circularity, the Man of Tomorrow replaced the Caped Crusader with a new partner and provoked a review of ‘The Origin of the Superman-Batman Team’ by Hamilton, Sprang & Kaye, ending these supremely enticing Fights ‘n’ Tights on an epic high.

These are gloriously clever yet uncomplicated tales whose dazzling style has returned to inform if not dictate the form for much of DC’s modern television animation – especially the fabulous Batman: The Brave and the Bold series – and the contents of this titanic tome are a veritable feast of witty, charming thrillers packing as much punch and wonder now as they always have.
© 1952, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Golden Age volume 2

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Wayne Boring, Jack Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6530-4

It’s incontrovertible: The American comicbook industry – if it existed at all – would have been an utterly unrecognisable thing without Superman. His unprecedented invention and adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation gave birth to an entire genre if not an actual art form.

Superman spawned an inconceivable army of imitators and variations, and within three years of his 1938 debut, the intoxicating blend of eye-popping action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early Man of Steel had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, socially reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy, whimsical comedy and, once the war in Europe and the East finally involved America, patriotic relevance for a host of gods, heroes and monsters, all dedicated to profit through exuberant, eye-popping excess and vigorous dashing derring-do.

Now with moviegoers again anticipating a new cinematic interpretation of the ultimate immigrant tale, here’s my chance to once more highlight perhaps the most authentic of the many delightful versions of his oft-reprinted early tales.

Re-presenting the epochal run of raw, unpolished but viscerally vibrant stories by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster which set the funnybook world on fire, here – in as near-as-dammit the texture, smell and colour of the original newsprint – are the crude, rough, uncontrollable wish-fulfilling, cathartically exuberant exploits of a righteous and superior man dealing out summary justice equally to social malcontents, exploitative capitalists, thugs and ne’er-do-wells that initially captured the imagination of a generation.

This second revamped and remastered collection of the Man of Steel’s earliest exploits, reprinted in the order they first appeared, spans the still largely innocent and carefree year of 1940 in a spiffy package that covers all his appearances from Action Comics #20-31, Superman #4-7 and his last starring role in New York World’s Fair #2 (and that only because the title would convert to initially World’s Best before and eventually settling as the much more reserved World’s Finest Comics).

Although Siegel & Shuster had very much settled into the character by now the buzz of success still fired them and innovation still sparkled amidst the exuberance. This incredible panorama of torrid tales opens with ‘Superman and the Screen Siren’ from Action#20 (January 1940) as beautiful actress Delores Winters is revealed not as another sinister super-scientific megalomaniac but the latest tragic victim and organic ambulatory hideout of aged mad scientist Ultra-Humanite who had perfected his greatest horror… brain transplant surgery!

This is followed with an immediate sequel as “Delores” attempts to steal another scientist’s breakthrough and utilise ‘The Atomic Disintegrator’ to demolish the Man of Steel whilst Action #22 loudly declares ‘Europe at War’ a tense and thinly disguised call to arms for the still neutral USA, and a continued story – almost unheard of in those early days of funny-book publishing which spectacularly concluded in #23.

Superman #4, cover-dated Spring, featured four big adventures that began with a succession of futuristic assassination attempts in ‘The Challenge of Luthor’. After an educational cartoon vignette on ‘Attaining Super-Strength’, the original Man of Might battles dinosaurs and bandits in ‘Luthor’s Undersea City’, before saving the world from financial and literal carnage by ferreting out ‘The Economic Enemy’ – a prophetic spy story about commercial sabotage by an unspecified foreign power…

The issue then ends with a tale of gangsters intimidating Teamsters called ‘Terror in the Trucker’s Union’.

In Action Comics #24 ‘Carnahan’s Heir’ becomes Superman’s latest social reclamation project as the Metropolis Marvel promises to turn a wastrel into a useful citizen, whilst the next told the tale of the ‘Amnesiac Robbers’ compelled to crime by an evil hypnotist.

Superman #5 is a superb combination of human drama, crime and wickedly warped science with our hero crushing ‘The Slot Machine Racket’ and foiling a rival paper’s ‘Campaign Against the Planet’. The insidious threat of ‘Luthor’s Incense Machine’ is similarly scuttled before finally Big Business chicanery is exposed and punished in ‘The Wonder Drug’. These are augmented by a flurry of gag cartoons by Siegel & Schuster promoting health and exercise…

Next comes a tale of gangsters attempting to plunder jewels from exhibits at the New York World’s Fair as seen in New York World’s Fair #2 credited to Siegel and Schuster but looking to my tired old eyes to be the wonderful Jack Burnley (Anyone got any comments or information they care to share here?)…

Siegel & Shuster had created a true phenomenon and were struggling to cope with it. As well as the monthly and bimonthly comics a new quarterly publication, World’s Finest Comics – springing from the success of the publisher’s New York World’s Fair comic-book tie-ins – would soon debut and their indefatigable hero was to feature prominently in it. Also, the Superman daily newspaper strip, which began on 16th January 1939, with its separate Sunday strip following from November 5th of that year, was garnering millions of new fans. The need for new material and creators was constant and oppressive.

From Action Comics#26 (July 1940) came ‘Professor Cobalt’s Clinic’ wherein Clark Kent and Lois Lane expose a murderous sham Health Facility with a little Kryptonian help, whilst the next month dealt a similar blow to the corrupt orphanage ‘Brentwood Home for Wayward Youth’. The September issue found Superman at the circus, solving the mystery of ‘The Strongarm Assaults’, a fast-paced thriller beautifully illustrated by the astonishingly talented Jack Burnley.

Whilst thrilling to that, kids of the time could also have picked up the sixth issue of Superman (September/October 1940). Produced by Siegel and the Superman Studio, with Shuster increasingly only overseeing and drawing key figures and faces, this contained four more lengthy adventures.

‘Lois Lane, Murderer’, ‘Racketeer Terror in Gateston’, ‘Terror Stalks San Caluma’ and ‘The Construction Scam’ had the Man of Action saving his plucky co-worker from a dastardly frame up, rescuing a small town from a mob invasion, foiling a blackmailer who’s discovered his secret identity and spectacularly fixing a corrupt company’s shoddy, death-trap buildings.

Action Comics #29 (October 1940) again features Burnley art in a gripping tale of murder for profit. Human drama in ‘The Life Insurance Con’ was replaced by deadly super-science as the mastermind Zolar created ‘A Midsummer Snowstorm’, allowing Burnley a rare opportunity to display his fantastic imagination as well as his representational acumen and dexterity.

Superman# 7 (November/December1940) marked a creative sea-change as Wayne Boring became Schuster’s regular inker and saw the Man of Steel embroiled in local politics when he confronted ‘Metropolis’ Most Savage Racketeers’, quelled man-made disasters in ‘The Exploding Citizens’, stamped out City Hall corruption in ‘Superman’s Clean-Up Campaign’ (illustrated fully by Wayne Boring) and put villainous high society bandits ‘The Black Gang’ where they belonged – behind iron bars.

This volume ends with another all-star inclusion from Action Comics – # 31 in fact – with Burnley drawing another high-tech crime caper as crooks put an entire city to sleep and only Clark Kent isn’t ‘In the Grip of Morpheus’

My admiration for the stripped-down purity and power of these Golden Age tales is boundless. Nothing has ever come near them for joyous, child-like perfection. You really should make them part of your life.
© 1940, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Plastic Man Archives volume 6

By Jack Cole & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0154-8

Jack Cole was one of the most uniquely gifted talents of American comics’ Golden Age. Before moving into mature magazine and gag markets he originated landmark tales in horror, true crime, war, adventure and especially superhero comicbooks, and his incredible humour-hero Plastic Man remains an unsurpassed benchmark of screwball costumed hi-jinks: frequently copied but never equalled. It was a glittering career of distinction which Cole was clearly embarrassed by and unhappy with.

In 1954 Cole quit comics for the lucrative and prestigious field of magazine cartooning, swiftly becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour gags and stunningly saucy pictures began regularly running in Playboy from the fifth issue.

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 peak of his greatest success, he took his own life. The reasons remain unknown.

Without doubt – and despite his other triumphal comicbook innovations such as Silver Streak, Daredevil, The Claw, Death Patrol, Midnight, Quicksilver, The Barker, The Comet and a uniquely twisted and phenomenally popular take on the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest creation and contribution was the zany Malleable Marvel who quickly grew from a minor back-up character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the era.

“Plas” was the wondrously perfect fantastic embodiment of the sheer energy, verve and creativity of an era when anything went and comics-makers were prepared to try out every outlandish idea…

Eel O’Brian was a brilliant career criminal wounded during a factory robbery, soaked by a vat of spilled acid and callously abandoned by his thieving buddies. Left for dead, he was saved 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 after a fast buck.

His entire outlook altered and now blessed with incredible elasticity, Eel resolved to put his new powers to good use: cleaning up the scum he used to run with.

Creating a costumed alter ego, he began a stormy association with the New York City cops before being recruited as a most special agent of the FBI…

He soon reluctantly adopted the most unforgettable comedy sidekick in comics history. Woozy Winks was a dopey, indolent slob and utterly amoral pickpocket who accidentally saved a wizard’s life and was blessed in return with a gift of invulnerability: all the forces of nature would henceforth protect him from injury or death – if said forces felt like it.

After failing to halt the unlikely superman’s determined crime spree, Plas appealed to the scoundrel’s sentimentality and, once Woozy tearfully repented, was compelled to keep him around in case he strayed again. The oaf was slavishly loyal but perpetually back-sliding into pernicious old habits…

Equal parts Artful Dodger and Mr Micawber, with the verbal skills and intellect of Lou Costello’s screen persona or the over-filled potato sack he resembled, Winks was the perfect foil for Plastic Man: a lazy, greedy, morally bankrupt reprobate with perennially sticky fingers who got all the best lines, possessed an inexplicable charm and had a habit of finding trouble. It was the ideal marriage of inconvenience…

This sublimely sturdy sixth full-colour hardback exposes more eccentrically exaggerated exploits of the elastic eidolon from Plastic Man #5 and 6 and his regular monthly beat in Police Comics #59-65, covering October 1946 to April 1947. Before the hilarious action kicks off, Michael T. Gilbert offers an appreciation of Cole and his gift for concocting uniquely memorable characters in the Foreword after which the power-packed contents of his fifth solo-starring vehicle commences with ‘They Call Him Weapons’ as a seemingly innocuous gunsmith graduates from selling his ordnance innovations to criminals to becoming a bandit himself. His bloody trail leads Plas and Woozy to a house the tinkerer has tricked up into an inescapable death trap…

Cole’s constant and ever-growing pressure to fill pages led to his hiring artists to assist in the illustration of his madcap scripts. Alex Kotzky pitched in for ‘The Mysterious Being Called Hate’ as our chameleonic crime-crusher faces sorcerous neophyte Mr. Giglamp after the infernally inquisitive fool finds himself a satanic sponsor and becomes a demonic danger to society.

Woozy had his own back-up solo feature in Plastic Man and here the Stalwart Simpleton inspires a down-at-heel gangster to modify a heroic legend to his own unscrupulous ends in ‘Robin Hood Returns’ (drawn by Bart Toomey), after which prose puzzler ‘Snig River’ sees a simple fishing trip prank land a basket full of fugitive crooks. A baffling mystery then confounds the populace in ‘The Evil of Moneybags’. When millionaire Aloysius P. Japers starts giving away all his money only the stretchable sleuth notices that all the beneficiaries start turning up dead and penniless…

In Police Comics #59 Woozy and Plas are helpless before ‘The Menace of Mr. Happiness’ (Cole & Andre LeBlanc) as a drug store clerk accidentally invents a serum which paralyses victims with joy whilst #60 invoked the author’s fascination with mad scientists in ‘The Man Who Built Himself a Body’ (Cole & LeBlanc) as weedy Professor Spindrift constructs a series of robot suits so that he can muscle his way to the top of the underworld…

A million-dollar bounty on Plastic Man leads to ‘A Bundle of Trouble’ (Cole & LeBlanc) in Police #61, culminating in a baby-sized assassin infiltrating the hero’s home as a heavily armed foundling, before Plastic Man #6 opens with criminal genius Scientific Sherman stealing the astronomical discoveries of ‘The Moon Wizard’ and seemingly stranding Plas and Woozy on the distant lunar orb.

‘The Crimes of Mother Goose’ features a crook committing fairy tale-inspired thefts to bewilder the Ductile Detective and his partner after which Woozy hunts alone for ‘The Zwili Cat’ (Cole & Kotzky) obsessing crooks and bad-men all over town, before text tale ‘Scarlett Goes Straight’ finds our hero helping an ex-con capture his former unrepentant associates.

To close the issue, a common jewel thief gains incredible leaping powers and becomes costumed crook ‘The Grasshopper’ (Cole & Kotzky) but is ultimately unable to escape the relentless and remarkable reach of his pliable pursuer.

Police Comics #62 finds flashy socialite Leda Van Doom interviewing prospective husbands only to lose one in suspicious circumstances in ‘The Cupid’s Bow Murder’.

After solving that thorny mystery Plas and Woozy combat a macabre gambling boss moonlighting as a marine marauder dubbed ‘The Crab’ in #63 and paint a ‘Bulls-Eye on Crime’ a month later as they expose a candy factory operating as a clearing house for stolen gems before wrapping up this compendium of comedic crime-busting by helping homeless newlyweds find a place to live.

Sadly, that task entails evicting and arresting a house full of deadly spies and clearing all the death traps out of ‘The Apartment of Dr. Phobia’

Augmented by all the astoundingly ingenious covers, this is another unmissable masterclass of funnybook virtuosity: still exciting, breathtakingly original, thrilling, witty, scary, visually outrageous and pictorially intoxicating more than seventy years after Jack Cole first put pen to paper.

Plastic Man is a unique creation and this is a magical experience comics fans would be crazy to avoid.
© 1946, 1947, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Golden Age volume 1

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-9109-2

Nearly 79 years ago Superman started the whole modern era of fantasy heroes: outlandish, flamboyant indomitable, infallible, unconquerable.

He also saved a foundering industry and created an entirely new genre of storytelling – the Super Hero.

Since June 1938 he has grown into a mighty presence in all aspects of art, culture and commerce even as his natal comicbook universe organically grew and expanded.

Within three years of his Summer debut, the intoxicating mix of eye-popping action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early exploits of the Man of Tomorrow had grown to encompass crime-busting, reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy and even whimsical comedy, but once the war in Europe and the East snared America’s consciousness, combat themes and patriotic imagery dominated most comicbook covers if not interiors.

In comicbook terms at least Superman was quickly master of the world, and utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry. There was the popular newspaper strip, a thrice-weekly radio serial, games, toys, foreign and overseas syndication and the Fleischer studio’s astounding animated cartoons.

Moreover, the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release and the energy and enthusiasm of originators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster went on to inform and infect the burgeoning studio which grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

This new compilation of the original stories – re-presented in chronological publishing order – covers June 1938 to December 1939 and features the groundbreaking yarns from Action Comics #1-19, Superman #1-3 and his pivotal appearance from New York’s World Fair No. 1 and although most of the early tales were untitled, here, for everyone’s convenience, they have been given descriptive appellations by the editors.

Thus, after describing the foundling’s escape from exploding Planet Krypton and offering a scientific rationale for his incredible abilities explaining his astonishing powers in nine panels, with absolutely no preamble the wonderment begins with Action #1’s primal thriller ‘Superman: Champion of the Oppressed!’ as the costumed crusader – masquerading by day as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent – began averting numerous tragedies.

As well as saving an innocent woman from the Electric Chair and roughing up a wife beater, the tireless crusader worked over racketeer Butch Matson – consequently saving feisty colleague Lois Lane from abduction and worse – and outed a lobbyist for the armaments industry who was bribing Senators on behalf of greedy munitions interests fomenting war in Europe…

The next breathtaking instalment in Action #2 (July 1938) saw the mercurial mystery-man travelling to the war-zone to spectacularly dampen down the hostilities already in progress in ‘Revolution in San Monte Part 2’ before ‘The Blakely Mine Disaster’ found the Man of Steel responding to a coal-mine cave-in to expose corrupt corporate practises and afterwards cleaning up gamblers who ruthlessly fixed games and players in #4’s ‘Superman Plays Football’.

The Action Ace’s untapped physical potential was highlighted in the next issue as ‘Superman and the Dam’ pitted the human dynamo against the power of a devastating natural disaster, after which in #6 canny chiseller Nick Williams attempted to monetise the hero – without asking first. ‘Superman’s Phony Manager’ even attempted to replace the real thing with a cheap knock-off but quickly learned a very painful and memorable lesson in ethics…

Although Superman starred on the first cover, the staid and cautious editors were initially dubious about the alien strongman’s popular appeal and fell back upon more traditional genre scenes for the following issues (all by Leo E. O’Mealia and all included here).

Superman – and Joe Shuster’s – second cover appeared on Action Comics #7 (December 1938) and prompted a big jump in sales even as a riotous romp inside revealed why ‘Superman Joins the Circus’ with the caped crusader crushing racketeers taking over the Big Top.

Fred Guardineer then produced genre covers for #8 and 9 whilst the interiors saw ‘Superman in the Slums’ working to save young delinquents from a future life of crime and depravity and latterly featured the city cops’ disastrous decision to stop the costumed vigilante’s unsanctioned interference in ‘Wanted: Superman’.

That manhunt ended in an uncomfortable stalemate…

Action Comics #7 had been one of the highest-selling issues ever, so #10 again sported a stunning Shuster shot whilst Siegel’s smart story of ‘Superman Goes to Prison’ struck another telling blow against institutionalised injustice with the Man of Tomorrow infiltrating a prison to expose the brutal horrors of the State Chain Gangs.

Action #11 featured a maritime cover by Guardineer whilst inside heartless conmen were driving investors to penury and suicide before the Metropolis Marvel interceded in ‘Superman and the “Black Gold” Swindle’.

Guardineer’s cover of magician hero Zatara for issue #12 incorporated another landmark as the Man of Steel was given a cameo badge declaring he was inside each and every issue. Between those covers, ‘Superman Declares War on Reckless Drivers’ provided a hard-hitting tale of casual joy-riders, cost-cutting automobile manufacturers, corrupt lawmakers and dodgy car salesmen who all felt the wrath of the hero after a friend of Clark Kent was killed in a hit-&-run incident.

By now the editors had realised that the debut of Superman had propelled National Comics to the forefront of the fledgling industry, and in 1939 the company was licensed to produce a commemorative comicbook celebrating the opening of the New York World’s Fair, with the Man of Tomorrow topping the bill on the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics among such early DC four-colour stars as Zatara, Butch the Pup, Gingersnap and gas-masked mystery avenger The Sandman.

Following an inspirational cover by Sheldon Mayer, Siegel & Shuster’s ‘Superman at the World’s Fair’ described how Lois and Clark are dispatched to cover the gala event, giving the hero an opportunity to contribute his own exhibit and bag a bunch of brutal bandits to boot…

Back in Action Comics #13 (June 1939 and another Shuster cover) the road-rage theme of the previous issue continued as ‘Superman vs. the Cab Protective League’ pitted the tireless foe of felons against a murderous gang trying to take over the city’s taxi companies. The tale also introduced – in almost invisibly low key – The Man of Steel’s first great nemesis – The Ultra-Humanite

Next follows a truncated version of Superman #1. This was because the industry’s first solo-starring comicbook reprinted the earliest tales from Action, supplemented with new and recovered material – and that alone is featured here.

Behind the iconic Shuster cover the first episode was at last printed in full, describing the alien foundling’s escape from exploding Planet Krypton, his childhood with unnamed Earthling foster parents and journey to the big city as ‘Origin of Superman’.

Also included in those six pages (cut from Action #1, restored for solo vehicle and designated ‘Prelude to “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed”’) was the Man of Steel’s routing of a lynch mob and capture of the real killer which preceded his spectacular saving of the accused murderess that started the legend…

Rounding off the unseen treasures is the solo page ‘A Scientific Explanation of Superman’s Amazing Strength!’, a 2-page prose adventure of the Caped Crime-crusher, a biographical feature on Siegel & Shuster and a glorious Shuster pin-up from the premier issue’s back cover.

Sporting a Guardineer Zatara cover, Action#14 saw the return of the manic money-mad scientist in ‘Superman Meets the Ultra-Humanite’ wherein the mercenary malcontent switches his incredible intellect from incessant graft, corruption and murder to an obsessive campaign to destroy the Man of Tomorrow.

Whilst Shuster concentrated on the interior epic ‘Superman on the High Seas’ – wherein the heroic hurricane tackled sub-sea pirates and dry land gangsters – Guardineer illustrated an aquatic Superman cover for #15, as well as the Foreign Legion cover on #16 wherein ‘Superman and the Numbers Racket’ has the hero save an embezzler from suicide and subsequently wreck another wicked gambling cabal.

Superman’s rise was meteoric and inexorable. He was the indisputable star of Action, plus his own dedicated title; a daily newspaper strip had begun on 16th January 1939, with a separate Sunday strip following from November 5th of that year, which was swiftly garnering millions of new fans.

A thrice-weekly radio serial was in the offing and would launch on February 12th 1940. With games, toys, and a growing international media presence, Superman was swiftly becoming everybody’s favourite hero…

The second issue of the Man of Tomorrow’s own title opened with ‘The Comeback of Larry Trent’ – a stirring human drama wherein the Action Ace cleared the name of the broken heavyweight boxer, coincidentally cleaning the scum out of the fight game, and is followed by ‘Superman’s Tips for Super-Health’ before ‘Superman Champions Universal Peace!’ depicts the hero once more going up against unscrupulous munitions manufacturers by crushing a gang who had stolen the world’s deadliest poison gas weapon.

‘Superman and the Skyscrapers’ finds newshound Kent investigating suspicious deaths in the construction industry, leading his alter ego into confrontation with mindless thugs and their fat-cat corporate boss, after which a contemporary ad and a Superman text tale bring the issue to a close.

Action Comics #17 featured ‘The Return of the Ultra-Humanite’ in a viciously homicidal caper involving extortion and the wanton sinking of US ships and featured a classic Shuster Super-cover as the Man of Steel was awarded all the odd-numbered issues for his attention-grabbing playground.

That didn’t last long: after Guardineer’s last adventure cover – an aerial dog fight – on #18 and which led into ‘Superman’s Super-Campaign’ with both Kent and the Caped Kryptonian determinedly crushing a merciless blackmailer, Superman just monopolised all the covers from #19 onwards. That issue disclosed the peril of ‘Superman and the Purple Plague’ as the city reeled in the grip of a deadly epidemic created by the Ultra-Humanite.

Closing this frenetic fun and thrill-filled compendium is the truncated contents of Superman #3, reprinting only the first and last strips contained therein, since the other two were reprints of Action Comics #5 and 6.

‘Superman and the Runaway’, however, is a gripping, shockingly uncompromising expose of corrupt orphanages, after which – following a brief lesson on ‘Attaining Super-Health: a Few Hints from Superman!’ – Lois finally goes out on a date with hapless Clark simply because she needs to get closer to a gang of murderous smugglers. Happily, his hidden alter ego is on hand to rescue her in the bombastic gang-busting ‘Superman and the Jewel Smugglers’

Although the gaudy burlesque of monsters and super-villains still lay years ahead of our hero, these primitive and raw, completely captivating tales of corruption, disaster and social injustice are just as engrossing and speak as powerfully of the tenor of the times. The perilous parade of rip-roaring action, hoods, masterminds, plagues, disasters, lost kids and distressed damsels are all dealt with in direct and enthralling manner by our relentlessly entertaining champion in summarily swift and decisive fashion.

No continued stories here!

As fresh and compelling now as they ever were, these endlessly re-readable epics perfectly display the savage intensity and sly wit of Siegel’s stories – which literally defined what being a Super Hero means – whilst Shuster created the basic iconography for all others to follow.

Such Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
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