Showcase Presents Batman volume 6


By Dennis O’Neil, Frank Robbins, Robert Kanigher, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Neal Adams, Irv Novick, Bob Brown, Dick Giordano & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5153-6

After three seasons the overwhelmingly successful Batman TV show ended in March, 1968. It had clocked up 120 episodes plus a theatrical-release movie since its premiere on January 12, 1966; triggering a global furore of “Batmania” and causing hysteria for all things costumed, zany and mystery-mannish.

Once the series foundered and crashed, humanity’s fascination with “camp” superheroes burst as quickly as it had boomed, and the Caped Crusader was left to a hard core of dedicated fans and followers who hoped they might now have “their” hero back.

For comicbook editor Julius Schwartz – who had tried to keep the most ludicrous excesses of the show out whilst still cashing in on his global popularity – the solution was simple: ditch the tired shtick, gimmicks and gaudy paraphernalia and get Batman back to basics; solving baffling mysteries and facing life-threatening perils.

That also meant phasing out the boy sidekick…

Although the college freshman Teen Wonder would still pop back for the occasional guest-shot yarn, this sixth astoundingly economical monochrome monument to comics ingenuity and narrative brilliance features him only sporadically. Robin had finally spread his wings and flown the nest for a solo back-up slot in Detective Comics, alternating with caped newcomer Batgirl.

Chronologically collecting Batman’s cases from February 1971 to September 1972 – issues #229-244 of his own title as well as the front halves of Detective Comics #408-426 – the 33 tales gathered here (some Batman issues were giant reprint editions, so only their covers are reproduced within these pages) were written and illustrated by forward-thinking creators determined make the masked manhunter relevant and interesting on his own terms once more.

One huge factor aiding the transition was the fact that the publishers now acknowledged that a large proportion of their faithful readership were discerning teens or even adults, not just kids looking for a quick, disposable entertainment fix. Working through other contemporary tropes – most notably a renewed global fascination in all things supernatural and gothic – the creative staff deftly reshaped Batman into a hero capable of actually working within the new “big things” in comics: realism, organised crime, social issues, suspense and even horror…

During this period the long road to our modern obsessive, scarily dark Knight gradually revealed a harder-edged, grimly serious caped crusader, whilst carefully expanding the milieu and scope of Batman’s universe – especially his fearsome foes, who all ceased to be harmless buffoons and inexorably metamorphosed back into the macabre Grand Guignol murder-fiends which typified the villains of the early 1940s.

This mini-renaissance also resulted in a groundbreaking experiment now lauded as one of the first great extended Batman epics…

The moody mayhem begins with ‘Asylum of the Futurians’ by Robert Kanigher, Irv Novick & Frank Giacoia from Batman #229, which pitted the astounded hero against a sect of self-proclaimed mutants who might simply have been the craziest, most self-deluding killers he had ever faced.

Detective Comics #408 offered a short sharp shocker by neophyte scripters Len Wein and Marv Wolfman. Limned by Neal Adams & Dick Giordano, ‘The House That Haunted Batman’ showcased spectral apparitions, the apparent death of Robin and a devilish mystery perpetrated by one of the Gotham Guardian’s most sinister enemies. Frank Robbins, Novick & Giordano then addressed an ongoing social revolution as our hero stopped a juvenile delinquent gang-war. When the now-united kids’ occupied a palatial new building the ‘Take-Over of Paradise’ (Batman #230) led to a vicious murder. Luckily the Caped Crimebuster was on hand to solve the case before a renewed bloodbath began…

Detective Comics #409 pitted Batman against a disfigured lunatic slashing portraits and killing their subjects in ‘Man in the Eternal Mask’ (Robbins, Bob Brown & Giacoia) whilst the next issue proved to be another chilling and memorable murder-mystery from the most celebrated creative team of the decade. ‘A Vow from the Grave!’ by Denny O’Neil, Adams & Giordano at their visually spectacular best, featured an exhausted Batman hunting one ruthless killer and inadvertently stumbling into another murder in an enclave of retired circus freaks…

Multi-talented Dick Giordano was the inker of choice for the Darknight Detective at this time; his slick, lush line and brushwork lending a veneer of continuity to every penciller. Unless I say otherwise, please assume it’s him on every cited story from now on…

The Dark Knight was lured to Vietnam to save an airliner full of hostages in Batman #231 (Robbins, with Novick pencils), barely surviving a vicious vengeance scheme triggered by the ‘Blind Rage of the Ten-Eyed Man’.

Then the first subtle plot-strands were woven in a breathtakingly ambitious saga unlike anything seen in comics before. Detective Comics #411 found Batman still in the East, undercover and hunting Dr. Darrk; leader of the lethally clandestine League of Assassins so casually introduced in #405. The pursuit led ‘Into the Den of the Death-Dealers’ (O’Neil, Brown) where a climactic struggle resulted in the monster’s death and freedom for an exotic hostage he was holding. Her name was Talia

We learned more of her in Batman #232 where O’Neil & Adams introduced her father – immortal eco-terrorist Râ’s Al Ghūl – in a whirlwind adventure which became one of the signature high-points of the entire Batman canon.

‘Daughter of the Demon’ is a timeless globe-girdling mystery yarn that draws the increasingly dark detective from Gotham’s concrete canyons to the Himalayas in search of hostages Robin and Talia, purportedly captured by forces inimical to both Batman and the mysterious figure who claims to working in secret to save the world…

Ra’s was a contemporary, more acceptable visual embodiment of the classic inscrutable ultimate foreign devil (as typified in a less forgiving age as the “Yellow Peril” or Dr. Fu Manchu). This kind of alien archetype permeates popular fiction and is still an astonishingly powerful villain-symbol, although the character’s Arabic origins – neutral at the time – seem to uncomfortably embody a different kind of ethnic bogeyman in today’s post 9/11 world.

The concept of a villain who has the best interests of the planet at heart is not a new one, but Ra’s Al Ghul, whose avowed intent is to reduce teeming humanity to viable levels and save the world from our poison, hit a chord in the 1970s – a period where ecological issues first came to the attention of the young. It was a rare kid who didn’t find a note of sense in what “the Demon’s Head” planned.

The spectacular tale ended with a shocking pronouncement of what Ra’s intended for Batman…

A return to relative normality came in ‘Legacy of Hate!’ (Detective Comics #412 by Robbins, Brown) as Bruce Wayne headed to Northern England for a convocation of kin gathered to settle the ownership and disposition of ancient Waynemoor Castle. Sadly, even Batman could not separate the spate of attempted murders which followed into purely human perpetrators and the manor’s vengeful ghost knight…

Issue #413 blended the spooky tone of the times with a healthy dose of social inclusion as ‘Freak-Out at Phantom Hollow!’ (Robbins, Brown) found Batman saving two abused hippie kids being picked on in a rural hamlet, only to become embroiled in a witch’s curse and mad bomber’s plot. Batman #233 was an all-reprint edition after which #234 featured the stellar return of one of the hero’s most tragic foes.

As comics became increasingly more anodyne in the 1950s, psychologically warped actualised schizophrenic Two-Face was dropped from Batman’s roster of rogues, but with ‘Half an Evil’ (O’Neil, Adams & Giordano) he resurfaced at the forefront of grimmer, grittier stories.

When a string of bizarre and brutal robberies afflicting Gotham, the baffled Batman has to use all his ingenuity to discern the reasoning and discover the identity of a ruthless hidden mastermind in time to thwart a diabolical scheme…

An aura of Film Noir redemption colours O’Neil & Novick’s ‘Legend of the Key Hook Lighthouse!’ from Detective Comics #414, as Batman tracks gunrunners to a haunted coastal bastion in Florida. However, only a supernatural intervention enables him to save bystanders who, whilst not exactly innocent, certainly don’t deserve the fate psychotic banana republic despot General Ruizo planned for them…

In Batman #235’s ‘Swamp Sinister!’ (O’Neil, Novick) some early insights into the true character of Talia and her ruthless sire manifest as the Dark Knight races to recover a stolen bio-weapon whilst over in Detective Comics #415 Robbins & Brown’s ‘Challenge of the Consumer Crusader’ sees the Gotham Gangbuster uncover an extortion ring inside the nation’s most respected product-testing organisation.

Detective Comics #400 had introduced a dark counterpoint to the Gotham Gangbuster wherein driven scientist Kirk Langstrom created a serum to make him superior to Batman and paid a heavy price. Over two further exploits Langstrom and his fiancée Francine had endured his monstrous transformations until Batman found a cure. Now that trilogy was expanded in #416 as Frank Robbins pencilled and inked his own script ‘Man-Bat Madness!’ wherein Kirk seemingly slipped back into his transformative madness. Luckily, Batman had the faith to look beyond appearances and discern a hidden factor in the scientist’s inexplicable recidivism…

‘Wail of the Ghost-Bride!’ (Batman #236, Robbins, Novick) blends mysticism with an solid murder-plot, cover-up and blistering action after which a journalist tries to become ‘Batman for a Night’ (Detective Comics #417, Robbins, Brown & Giordano) but only succeeds after experiencing a similar crime-created loss…

‘Night of the Reaper!’ – by O’Neil, Adams & Giordano from Batman #237 – is one of the most revered tales of the era: a harrowing Halloween epic which finds Robin working with his old mentor to solve a string of barbarous killings only to uncover a pitifully deranged perpetrator as much sinned-against as sinner…

Following the cover of reprint giant Batman #238, Detective Comics #418 writes a temporary finish to the short-lived career of The Creeper as ‘…And Be a Villain!’ (O’Neil, Novick) pits the Gotham Guardian against a former hero being simultaneously killed and driven crazy by his own powers. At the heart of the problem is the criminal scientist forcing Creeper to steal in return for a promised cure, but that’s no help as Batman battles a foe faster, stronger, more agile and far scarier than he…

A corpse weighed down with Batman figurines leads the hero into an underworld imbroglio packed with shameful family freaks, a ruthless master smuggler and the pitiful ‘Secret of the Slaying Statues!’ (Detective #419 from O’Neil & Novick) whilst Christmas classic ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night!’ (O’Neil & Novick in Batman #239) sees the masked manhunter striving to save a desperate, poverty-struck single-parent from making the worst decision of his life – with a little seasonal help from a higher power…

Robbins again solos for Detective Comics #420’s ‘Forecast for Tonight… Murder!’ as a radioactive dead man stalks one of Gotham’s greatest philanthropists; easily outwitting Batman’s every preventative measure. It only gets tougher when the hero discovers he might be safeguarding the wrong injured party…

The long-brewing war between Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul went to Def Con 3 in Batman #240 when O’Neil, Novick & Giordano set the scene for the groundbreaking “series-within-a-series” soon to follow. When Batman uncovers one of his opponent’s less worthy and far more grisly projects he is forced to compromise his principles and deliver ‘Vengeance for a Dead Man!’ The end-result will be open war between Batman and the Demon’s Head…

Batman had to break a blackmailer who knew all Gotham’s dirty secrets out of prison during a full-scale riot in ‘Blind Justice… Blind Fear!’ (an all-Robbins affair from DC #421) whilst in the following issue O’Neil, Brown & Giordano had the Dark Knight expose a cunning hijacking ring using radical methodology for corporate reasons in ‘Highway to Nowhere!’

Another sociopathic killer debuted in Batman #241 as the hero hunts for freelance spy Colonel Sulphur whose extortion scheme revolved around his threat to kill a Pentagon officer’s wife. ‘At Dawn Dies Mary McGuffin!’ by O’Neil & Novick sees Batman scouring Gotham in a tense race against the clock in direct counterpoint to Detective #423’s ‘The Most Dangerous Twenty Miles in Gotham City’ (Robbins, Brown) wherein the masked manhunter’s cognitive skills are tested trying to slip a Russian agent past a gang of ultra-patriots. The killers don’t care that he’s being exchanged for a captive American, they just want to kill a commie and send a message…

Batman #242-244 (and the epilogue from #245 not included in this volume) formed a single extended saga taken out of normal DC continuity. It promised to relate the final confrontation between two opposing ideals. O’Neil, Novick & Giordano opened the campaign in Batman #242 with ‘Bruce Wayne – Rest in Peace!’ With his civilian identity taken off the board, Batman gathers a small team of specialist allies – comprising criminal alternate-identity Matches Malone, scientific advisor Dr. Harris Blaine and Ra’s’ top assassin Ling – to destroy the Demon forever.

Meanwhile it was business as usual in Detective #424 where ‘Double-Cross-Fire!’by Robbins & Brown – played out an astoundingly cunning murder plot with Batman challenging Commissioner Gordon (and us readers) to spot the telltale clue which gave the game away. O’Neil & Novick then get all Shakespearean in #425 where ‘The Stage is Set… for Murder!’ with Batman carefully seeking to glean which thespian was plotting a big, bloody finish before the curtain comes down forever…

O’Neil, Adams & Giordano returned with the second chapter of their landmark epic as Batman #243 sees the team – plus latecomer Molly Post – bombastically invade Ra’s’ Swiss citadel moments after their intended target passes away…

Nobody suspected the ageless villain’s resources included ‘The Lazarus Pit’ which could revive the dead…

In Detective Comics #426, a spate of inexplicable suicides amongst the wealthy leads Batman to suave gambler Conway Treach: a man who just can’t lose. Soon however, the huckster learns that his grim opponent has his own system for winning ‘Killer’s Roulette!’; another suspenseful Robbins masterpiece which leads chronologically and conclusively to Batman #244 and the fateful finale wherein ‘The Demon Lives Again!’ Sadly, despite all his supernal gifts and forces, Ra’s cannot escape the climactic vengeance of his implacable foe in dream-team O’Neil, Adams & Giordano’s compulsive climax.

With the game-changing classics in this volume, Batman finally returned to the commercial and critical top flight he had enjoyed in the 1940s reviving and expanding upon his original conception as a remorseless, relentless avenger of injustice. The next few years would see the hero rise to unparalleled heights of quality so stay tuned: the very best is just around the corner… that dark, dark corner…
© 1971, 1972, 2015 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Sgt. Rock volume 3


By Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, Russ Heath & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2771-5

In America after the demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only certain place to find controversial, challenging and entertaining American war comics was DC.

In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a generation, the home of Flash, Green Arrow and the Justice League of America was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting combat on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Homefront death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response DC’s (or rather National Periodical Publishing, as it then was) military-themed comicbooks became even more bold and innovative…

Sgt. Rock and the “combat-happy Joes” of Easy Company are one of the great and enduring creations of the American comic-book industry. The gritty meta-realism of Robert Kanigher’s ordinary guys in a constant welter of life-or-death situations captured the imaginations of generations of readers, young and old.

So pervasive is this icon of comicbook combat that’s it’s hard to grasp that Rock is not an immortal industry prototype like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – with us since the earliest moments of the industry – but is in fact a late addition to and child of the Silver Age of Comics: debuting as just another tale in war anthology G.I. Combat (#68, January 1959, by Kanigher & Joe Kubert).

The archetypal and ideal sergeant was an anonymous boxer who wasn’t particularly skilled but simply refused to be beaten, absorbing any and all punishment dealt out to him. When ‘The Rock!’ enlisted, that same Horatian quality attained mythic proportions as he held back an overwhelming Nazi attack by sheer grit and determination, remaining bloody but unbowed on a field littered with dead and broken men. The tale inspired an instant sequel or two before, in Our Army at War #83 (June 1959), the legend really began…

This third monumental military milestone collects in chronological publishing order and stark, stunning monochrome more of the groundbreaking classics which made Rock a comics legend. These grim and gritty, epically poetic war stories are taken from the still-anthological Our Army at War #149-180 (bracketing December 1964 to May 1967), a period when American comics were undergoing a spectacular renaissance in style, theme and quality even as the Vietnam war took over the nation’s consciousness and conscience.

Scripted throughout by Writer/Editor Kanigher and illustrated primarily by Joe Kubert, the terse episodes herein begin with ‘Surrender Ticket!’ as the German High Command randomly pick an American Company to endure unrelenting pressure until they crack, thereby proving Nazi superiority. They really should have picked again after selecting Easy Company…

In ‘Flytrap Hill!’, Rock is forced to request a retreat before instead leading his brutalised men to unlikely victory after they all find fresh inspiration through the example of a messenger who gave his life to reach them whilst ‘War Party!’ sees the Sarge undertaking a trial organised by Little Sure Shot to become an honorary Apache Indian, with the always-advancing Germans inadvertently spoiling his chances at every turn.

OAAW #152 is a full-length yarn in which a shipment of green replacements find themselves frozen under fire until Rock recounts the tales of Ziggy and Hopeless who found courage with their last breaths in ‘Last Man – Last Shot!’ This narrative device of incorporating brief past-action episodes into a baptism of fire scenario played over and over again in Sgt. Rock and never got old.

‘Easy’s Last Stand!’ saw the stony serviceman battling alone in the mistaken belief he was the only one left alive whilst ‘Boobytrap Mascot’ found Easy accompanying boy soldier Andre Lune in search of hidden artillery emplacements as the lad tried to live up to – and die for – the pressure of generations of warrior ancestors who gave their lives for France…

‘No Stripes for Me!’ saw the non-com in the middle of a family feud as a valiant GI continually refuses well-earned battlefield promotions his father – the General – keeps foisting upon him, after which a bumbling medic deemed unfit for combat fatally proves his worth saving Easy as ‘The Human Tank Trap!’

The shell-shocked last survivor of an eradicated relief company goes through hell at Rock’s side as the topkick strives to prove that ‘Nothin’s Ever Lost in War!’ before OAAW #158 introduces some insight into the pre-war world of civilian Frank Rock as well as an antithesis and arch-enemy for Easy’s front man in ‘Iron Major – Rock Sergeant!’

With the non-com captured, tortured and used as bait in a blizzard by a steel-handed master strategist, it takes sheer guts and unflinching to save Easy from a deadly ambush…

Wounded in combat, hunted by a German kill-team and guided by the sister of a nurse he feels responsible for killing, Rock becomes ‘The Blind Gun!’ before recovering his sight and finding a measure of solace in groundbreaking epic ‘What’s the Colour of Your Blood?’

Here black soldier (it’s a comicbook making a point: please ignore the appalling and sordid truth about US Army segregation during WWII) and former boxer Jackie Johnson is forced to bare-knuckle battle the racist Aryan prize-fighter he trounced in the years before the war. Of course if he raises his hands to defend himself in this impromptu rematch, Storm Trooper Uhlan’s comrades will shoot Jackie’s Easy Co. comrades… until the right word from Rock changes all the odds…

An over-eager replacement almost dies to prove he’s not a coward like his court-martialled brother in ‘Dead End for a Dog Face!’ before ‘The Prince and the Sergeant!’ revives an old DC star for a truly bizarre team-up.

When superheroes were in decline during the 1950s, comicbook companies sought different types of action hero. In 1955 Kanigher devised traditional adventure comic The Brave and the Bold which featured historical strips and stalwarts such as Golden Gladiator, Robin Hood and Silent Knight. Already-legendary, Joe Kubert drew the fantastic exploits of a dynamic Norseman dubbed the Viking Prince.

This last feature appeared in nearly every issue, eventually monopolising Brave and the Bold entirely, until the resurgent superhero boom saw the comic retooled as a try-out title with the 25th issue. Before that, however, those fanciful Scandi-sagas were among some of the finest adventure comics of all time (and they’re still too long overdue for a definitive collection of their own).

In Our Army at War #162 Easy Company were sent to Norway on a proverbial suicide mission but subsequently separated under fire. Taking cover in a cave, Rock discovered a warrior frozen in ice moments before an explosion shattered the frigid tomb. Soon the revived Prince Jon was slicing his way through the modern Huns, determined to sell his life dearly.

Before his entombment he had fallen in love with a Valkyrie and had to die gloriously in battle to reunite with her in Valhalla. Of course, offended Odin had stacked the odds and decreed no mortal weapon could now harm him…

Despite his best efforts Jon and Rock kept winning and so the saga continued in the next issue as the doughty comrades completed the suicide mission with the Viking crying ‘Kill Me – Kill Me!’… until a seeming martial miracle occurred…

Our Army at War #164 was an 80-page Giant reprint issue (not included here) and #165 heralded the ‘Return of the Iron Major!’ with the Nazi Superman back from the dead and seeking revenge, only to find Rock kissing his former fiancée Contessa Helga von Hohenschlag-Lowenburg

That resulted in another brutal death-duel after which ‘Half a Sergeant!’ saw the indomitable human force-of-nature suffer a crack-up until an inconsolable loss on the battlefield shocked him back to normal, whilst ‘Kill One – Save One!’ continued the psycho-dramas as Rock shoots a sniper and discovers he’s killed a child. The guilt cripples him so completely he can’t raise a hand against the boy’s even younger comrade who takes the topkick prisoner…

An element of supernatural mystery flavoured ‘I Knew the Unknown Soldier!’ in Our Army at War #168, as Rock proudly recalls an enigmatic GI who repeatedly saved and inspired Easy to overcome impossible odds. This short yarn would be the genesis of future combat superstar The Unknown Soldier

Again blinded in battle, Rock unwittingly trekked across the African desert towards German lines with an American-educated ‘Nazi on My Back!’ in #169 but was back in Europe for ‘No One Comes Down Alive from – Buzzard Bait Hill!’: dealing with a shell-shocked veteran who had been reliving the war since the last time Germans invaded France.

War’s insanity was a recurring theme and in ‘The Sergeant Must Die!’ Easy had to steal a relic of huge symbolic importance from a mediaeval castle defended by a deranged Nazi who believed himself the reincarnation of legendary Hun Barbarosa. A perilous stalemate was only broken by vicious single combat; a situation echoed in ‘A Slug for a Sergeant!’ as Russ Heath slowly began to take over illuminating Rock’s sorties.

German Sgt. Schlum was every inch Rock’s equal and when the hostage American chose to duel his counterpart rather than betray Easy into ambush, the outcome was anything but certain…

Our Army at War #173 was another reprint – also omitted here – and Kubert returned in #174 as ‘One Kill Too Many!’ sees the Sarge suffer another breakdown after reliving the moment he shot that child-sniper and freezing under fire. His inaction leads to Easy’s medic being killed and the broken soldier giving up fighting to take his place… until the wounded men he treats show Rock where he truly belongs…

Heath was back in #175 to deliver the ‘T.N.T. Letter!’ from Rock’s stateside sweetheart Mary which left him broken and suicidal until he met a battlefield gamin who restored his perspective, and Kubert limned the strange saga of Crusher Cole, a beefy replacement who wanted the sergeant’s job and kept crying ‘Give Me Your Stripes!’

Following another 80-Page Giant in #177, ‘Only One Medal for Easy’ (Heath, #178) returned to the series’ picaresque, portmanteau traditions as Rock is given one gong and a Pass to dispense to Easy’s most outstanding combatant. Of course, the medal is passed around the entire company as every time the enemy attacks, a different hero saves the day…

Kubert was back reprising that landmark tale of bigotry and tolerance in OAAW #179 as white supremacist Sharkey joined Easy and made things tough for the unit’s only black soldier. Even Rock couldn’t change his attitudes but the trials of war and the patience of a truly noble man finally change the racist views of the soldier who wouldn’t give ‘A Penny for Jackie Johnson!’

Russ Heath ends this cataclysmic comics campaign with another stunning moral quandary as Rock captures a German officer and has to endure unbearable provocation as he escorts his prisoner to base; coming within an inch of breaking all the rules as the cunning monster brags ‘You Can’t Kill a General!’

Robert Kanigher at his worst was a declarative, heavy-handed and formulaic writer, but when writing his best stuff – as here – his work was imaginative, evocative, iconoclastic and heart-rending. He was a unique reporter and observer of the warrior’s way and the unchanging condition of the dedicated and so very human ordinary foot-slogging G.I. He was also a strident and early advocate of equality and integration.

With superb combat covers from Kubert fronting each episode, this battle-book is a visually vital compendium and a certain delight for any jaded comics fan looking for something more than flash and dazzle.

A perfect example of true Shock and Awe; these are stories every comics fan and combat collector should see.
© 1964-1967, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Weird War Tales volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Bob Haney, Bill Finger, Sheldon Mayer, Jack Oleck, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, Dennis O’Neil, Russ Heath, Mort Drucker, Frank Thorne, Alex Toth, Reed Crandall, Sam Glanzman, John Severin, Howard Chaykin, Ed Davis, Frank Robbins, Nestor Redondo, George Evans, Alex Niño, Russ Heath, Neal Adams & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3694-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Inventive, Intense and Intoxicating… 9/10

American comicbooks just idled along rather slowly until the invention of Superman provided a flamboyant new genre of heroes and subsequently unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and imaginative generation for a suddenly thriving and voracious new entertainment model.

Implacably vested in World War II, these gaudily-attired mystery men swept all before them until the troops came home, but as the decade closed more traditional themes and heroes began to resurface and eventually supplant the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Even as a new generation of kids began buying and collecting, many of the first fans who had retained their four-colour habit increasingly sought more mature themes in their pictorial reading matter. The war years and post-war paranoia had irrevocably altered the psychological landscape of the readership and as a more world-weary, cynical young public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything, their chosen forms of entertainment (film, theatre and prose as well as comics) increasingly reflected this.

To balance the return of Western, War and Crime and imminent Atomic Armageddon-fuelled Science Fiction comics, celebrity tie-ins, madcap escapist or teen-oriented comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features sprang up, but gradually another of the cyclical revivals of spiritualism and a public fascination with the arcane led to a wave of impressive, evocative and shockingly addictive horror comics.

There had been grisly, gory and supernatural stars before, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in superhero trappings but these had been victims of circumstance: The Unknown as a power source for super-heroics. Now focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering the reader.

Almost every publisher jumped on an increasingly popular bandwagon, with B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launching the first regularly published horror comic in the Autumn of 1948, although their Adventures Into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon. The book and comics publisher had released an impressive single issue entitled Eerie in January 1947 but didn’t follow-up with a regular series until 1951.

Classics Illustrated had already secured the literary end of the medium with child-friendly comics adaptations of The Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

If we’re keeping score this was also the period in which Joe Simon & Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap and invented Romance comics (Young Romance #1, September 1947) but they too saw the sales potential for spooky material, resulting in the seminal Black Magic (launched in 1950) and boldly obscure psychological drama anthology Strange World of Your Dreams (1952).

The company which would become DC Comics bowed to the inevitable and launched a comparatively straight-laced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

After the hysterical censorship debate which led to witch-hunting Senate hearings in the early 1950s was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self-regulation, titles produced under the aegis of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised, anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, but the audience’s appetite for suspense was still high and in 1956 National introduced sister titles Tales of the Unexpected and House of Secrets.

Stories were dialled back from uncanny spooky yarns to always marvellously illustrated, rationalistic fantasy-adventure vehicles and, eventually, straight monster-busting Sci Fi tales which dominated the market into the 1960s. That’s when super-heroes – which had gradually enjoyed their own visionary revival after Julius Schwartz reintroduced the Flash in Showcase #4 – finally overtook them.

Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom and a growing coterie of costumed cavorters generated a gaudy global bubble of masked mavens which forced previously staunchly uncompromising anthology suspense titles to transform into super-character books. Even ACG slipped tights and masks onto its spooky stars.

When the caped crusader craziness peaked and popped, superheroes began dropping like Kryptonite-gassed flies. However nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and, at the end of the 1960s with the cape-and-cowl boom over and some of the industry’s most prestigious series circling the drain, the surviving publishers of the field agreed to revise the Comics Code, loosening their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics.

Nobody much cared about gangster titles but, as the liberalisation coincided with yet another bump in public interest concerning supernatural themes, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.”

Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle Chillers…

Thus, with absolutely no fanfare at all horror comics came back and quickly dominated the American funnybook market for more the next half decade. DC led the pack: converting House of Mystery and Tales of the Unexpected into supernatural suspense anthologies in 1968 and resurrecting House of Secrets a year later.

Such was not the case with war comics. Tales of ordinary guys in combat began with the industry itself and although mostly sidelined during the capes-&-cowls war years, quickly began to assert themselves again once the actual fighting stopped.

National/DC were one of the last publishers to get in on the combat act, converting superhero/fantasy adventure anthology Star Spangled Comics into Star Spangled War Stories the same month it launched and Our Army at War (both cover-dated August 1952) and promptly repurposing All-American Comics into All-American Men of War a month later as the “police action” in Korea escalated.

They grew the division slowly but steadily, adding Our Fighting Forces #1 (November 1954) – just as EC’s groundbreaking combat comics were vanishing – and in 1957 added GI Combat to their portfolio when Quality Comics got out of the funnybook business.

As the 1950s closed however the two-fisted anthologies all began to incorporate recurring characters such as Gunner and Sarge – and latterly Pooch – from Our Fighting Forces #45 on, (May 1959), Sgt Rock (Our Army at War #83 (June 1959) and The Haunted Tank (G.I. Combat #87, April/May 1961) and soon all DC war titles had a lead star or feature to hold the fickle readers’ attention. The drive to produce superior material never wavered however, hugely aided by the diligent and meticulous ministrations of writer/editor Robert Kanigher.

In America after the demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only certain place to find controversial, challenging and entertaining American war comics was DC. In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a new generation of readers in the 1960s, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting warfare on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Homefront death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response the military-themed comicbooks from National Periodical Publishing, as it then was, became even more bold and innovative…

However the sudden downturn in superheroes at the end of the 1960s led to some serious rethinking here and although the war titles maintained and even built sales they beefed up the anthological elements.

Thus in 1971 a title combining supernatural horror stories with bombastic battle yarns in an anthological setting seemed a forgone conclusion and sure thing to both publishers and readers alike and this economically epic monochrome tome collects the contents of Weird War Stories #1-21 (cover-dated September/October 1971 to January 1974), offering a broad blend of genre mash-ups for readers with a taste for the dark and uncanny to relish.

The series launched in a 52-page format combining new material with adapted reprints featuring a veritable Who’s Who of top flight creative talent – both seasoned veterans and stars in waiting – and #1 saw Editor Joe Kubert writing and illustrating an eerie linking story entitled ‘Let Me Tell You of the Things I’ve Seen’ as a lost GI stumbles into the personification of Death (the title’s long-term narrator in various blood-stained uniforms) who tells him a few stories…

The reaper began with ‘Fort Which Did Not Return!’ by Robert Kanigher & Russ Heath as originally seen in GI Combat #86, detailing how a bomber continued its mission even after the crew bailed out and followed up with all-new ‘The Story behind the Cover’ wherein Kubert revealed how a shunned German soldier carried on his duties after death…

From Star Spangled War Stories #71 (July 1958) Bob Haney & Kubert revealed ‘The End of the Sea Wolf!’ as a sadistic U-Boat captain was sunk by one of his own earlier victims whilst SSWS #116 (August/September 1964) originally saw France Herron & Irv Novick’s ‘Baker’s Dozen’ with a fresh-faced replacement to a super-superstitious platoon battling to prove he’s not their unlucky thirteenth man…

The issue ends with that lost GI realising just who has been telling tales in Kubert’s ‘You Must Go!’

The reprints included in these early issues were all taken from a time when supernatural themes were proscribed by the Comics Code Authority, but even so they all held fast to eerie aura of sinister uncertainty – the merest hint of the strange and uncanny to leaven the usual blood and thunder of battle books…

In Weird War Tales #2 Kubert reprised his bridging vehicle as ‘Look… and Listen…’ saw a crashed Stuka pilot meeting a ghastly stranger at a battle-torn desert oasis before ‘Reef of No Return’ (by Haney & Mort Drucker from Our Fighting Forces #43, March 1959) detailed a determined frogman’s most dangerous mission and Kanigher & Frank Thorne’s new WWI silent saga ‘The Moon is the Murderer’ proved that overwhelming firepower isn’t everything…

Kubert’s ‘Behind the Cover’ featured a prophetic dream and terrifying telegram after which ‘A Promise to Joe!’ (Kanigher & Novick, G.I. Combat #97 (December 1962-January 1963) sees a dead gunner seemingly save his friend from beyond the grave and the superb ‘Monsieur Gravedigger’ – by Jerry DeFuccio & the legendary Reed Crandall – follows the follies of a sadistic Foreign Legionnaire who pushed his comrades too far…

Cartoonist John Costanza delivers some gag-filled ‘Military Madness’ and Kubert & Sam Glanzman offer a fact-packed ‘Sgt. Rock’s Battle Stations’ about ‘The Grenadier’ before Bill Finger, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito examine a young recruit’s rite of passage and development of ‘The Face of a Fighter’ (Our Fighting Forces #25, September 1957) after which ‘Oasis’ concludes the sorry saga of that downed Aryan airman…

American Naval Aviators ditching at sea were the unwilling audience for Death’s stories as WWT #3 opens with Kubert’s ‘Listen…’

The itinerary starts with ‘Been Here Before!’ (Finger, Andru & Esposito, G.I. Combat #44 January 1957) as a soldier under fire turns his mind back to boyhood games to save the day after which we see an aerial battle and parachute drop from the perspective of ‘The Cloud That Went to War!’ (Our Fighting Forces #17, January 1957 by Dave Wood, Andru & Esposito).

More Costanza comedy from ‘The Kreepy Korps!’ precedes an early tale by relative newcomers Len Wein & Marv Wolfman, ably illustrated by Russ Heath as both cave tribes and modern soldiers battle to possess ‘The Pool’, before the artists earlier collaboration with Bob Haney reveals how ‘Combat Size!’ is all a matter of mental attitude in a tale first seen in Our Army at War #66 (January 1958).

Glanzman’s ‘Battle Album’ explains ‘Flying Guns’ after which a finny friend helps a US submarine sink an aircraft carrier in Finger & Drucker’s ‘Pilot for a Sub!’ (Our Army at War #68, March 1958) before the issue ends as Kubert sends a ‘Lifeboat’ for those tragic aviators…

The fourth issue opens with Kubert’s final linking tale as a ‘Gypsy Girl’ and her family find wounded soldier Tony after his buddy runs off to get a medic. They kindly offer to pass time with him sharing stories such as ‘Ghost Ship of Two Wars’ (Kanigher & Novick from All-American Men of War #81, September 1960) wherein an obsessed WWI pilot seemingly slips into 1944 while pursuing of his unbeatable arch-enemy the Black Ace.

‘Time Warp’ by Kanigher and Gene Colan originally appeared as ‘The Dinosaur who Ate Torpedoes!’’ in Star Spangled War Stories #123 (October/November 1965 and part of the uniquely bizarre War That Time Forgot series), pitting US frogmen against colossal sea-going saurians, after which ‘The Unknown Sentinel’ (by author unknown & Mort Meskin from House of Mystery #55, October 1956) saves the lives of two soldiers lost on manoeuvres on America’s most famous battlefield.

Glanzman then offers one of his magnificently engaging autobiographical USS Stevens vignettes with the all-new elegiac ‘Prelude’ before Kubert wraps up his chilling drama as ‘I Know Them to be True’ sees medics arriving to find Tony a much changed man, leaving Costanza to close things down with a laugh and some ‘Military Madness’

Weird War Tales #5 opens with Haney & Alex Toth providing the book-end tale of ‘The Prisoner’ held by Nazis in Italy. Seeking a way out he recalls tales of escape such as ‘The Toy Jet!’ (Haney & Heath from All-American Men of War #78, March/April 1960), a chilling psychological thriller about an interned pilot in North Korea, and ‘Human Trigger’ (Herron, Andru & Esposito, Star Spangled War Stories #18, February 1954) which shows how a soldier lying on a mine deftly saves his own life…

Herron & Carmine Infantino then reveal how an American spy is forced to ‘Face a Firing Squad!’ (SSWS #14, November 1953) and Norman Maurer instructs with the history of ‘Medal of Honour: Corporal Gerry Kisters’ and Willi Franz & Heath detail the victory of a ‘Slave’ in Roman times before Haney & Toth offer a final release in ‘This Is It!’

Issue #6 saw Weird War drop to a standard 36 page package and take a step into tomorrow with Haney & Toth’s battlefield test of ‘Robots’. Wolfman & Thorne expanded the theme in ‘Pawns’ as humans and mechanoids finally decided who worked for whom whilst ‘Goliath of the Western Front!’ (Herron, Andru & Esposito from SSWS #93 (October/November 1960) featured a giant mechanical Nazi and an American David who finally did for him, before Haney & Toth settled all debate with the conclusive ‘Robot Fightin’ Men’

Wolfman & Kubert combined to provide thematic bookends for issue #7, beginning with ‘Out of Action’ with wounded GIs awaiting the worst and trading tales like William Woolfolk, Jerry Grandenetti & Joe Giella’s ‘Flying Blind’ (Our Army at War #12 July 1953) as a wounded pilot was forced to trust someone else for the first time in his life if he wanted to land his burning jet, whilst Kanigher & Kubert’s ‘The 50-50 War!’ (All-American Men of War #41, January 1957) finds sporting rivals forced to help each other after both suffer injuries on an alpine mission, with Costanza adding more much-needed levity through his ‘Military Hall of Fame’

‘The Three GIs’ (Finger & Heath, SSWS #62, October 1957) riffs smartly on those monkeys who respectively can’t see, hear and speak and the Purple Heart yarns end with Wolfman & Kubert’s chilling ‘I Can’t See’

From #8 editorial control switched to the mystery division under the control of Joe Orlando and with it the reprints were shelved in favour of all-original material as publication frequency graduated from six times a year to monthly.

This all German-focused issue begins with a gruesome ‘Guide to No-Man’s Land’ (probably written by assistant editor E. Nelson Bridwell and illustrated by Tony DeZuniga) before moving on to ‘The Avenging Grave’ by Kanigher & DeZuniga with SS officers learning too late the folly of desecrating the dead of WWI, whilst anonymously scripted ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill!’ – with art by Steve Harper & Neal Adams – sees more gloating Nazis facing a vengeful golem…

Kanigher & DeZuniga then return to reveal the fate of an arrogant 1916 air ace in the skies over No-Man’s Land in ‘Duel of the Dead’ before the artist’s ‘Epilogue’ wraps things up…

Weird War Tales #9 invites us to ‘Enter the Portals of War’ in an introduction drawn by Howard Chaykin, swiftly followed by a trio of Kanigher yarns illustrated by the cream of DC’s Filipino artists.

‘The Promise’ was limned by Alfredo P. Alcala, telling a tale in two eras as both Teutonic knights in 1242 and German tankers seven centuries later fail to cross frozen Lake Chud, whilst Gerry Talaoc renders the disastrous end of deathly, determined ‘Blood Brothers!’ during the American Civil War and the incomparable Alex Niño details ‘The Last Battle’ between East and West before Chaykin pops back to declare ‘Death, the Ultimate Winner’.

Sheldon Mayer & Toth open WWT #10 with a deliciously whimsical ghostly love story in ‘Who is Haunting the Haunted Chateau?’ before Raymond Marais & Quico Redondo change the tone as a Death-Camp commandant returns after the war to salvage his ill-gotten gains from ‘The Room that Remembered’ whilst Wein & Walter Simonson – on the artist’s pro comics debut – reveal how invading Nazis shouldn’t have abused the town idiot and incurred the wrath of ‘Cyrano’s Army’

Always experimental, the creative team of Mayer, DeZuniga, Alcala, Talaoc & Niño tried their hand at a time-twisting complete adventure for issue #11. Occurring on ‘October 30’ over 99 years beginning in 1918, the tale compares the progress of an ambitious German General granted a wish for glory by a treacherous spirit of war with three ghostly Americans determined to fix a long-standing mistake whatever the cost…

DeZuniga draws the introduction to #12, featuring tales of ‘Egypt’ starting with Kanigher & Talaoc’s tale of an ancient warlord who learned to regret spitting on the ‘God of Vengeance’, whilst ‘Hand of Hell’ (Kanigher & DeZuniga) saw Anubis similarly deal with one of Rommel’s least reputable and most sadistic deputies, after which Arnold Drake & Don Perlin switch locales to Roman Britain where a centurion takes an accidental time-trip and ultimately overthrows the Druids in ‘The Warrior and the Witch-Doctors!’

Weird War Tales #13 opens with ‘The Die-Hards’ by Jack Oleck & Nestor Redondo, with Nazis realising there are even worse killers than they haunting their latest conquered village before Drake & Niño determine that ‘Old Samurai Never Die’ when a would-be shogun offends the patron spirit of Bushido and ‘Loser’s Luck’ by Michael J. Pellowski, George Kashdan & DeZuniga details the harsh choices facing the unfortunate winners of the next, last war…

Mayer, DeZuniga & Alcala unite in #14 to tell an eerie tale of doomed love and military injustice from the days before Pearl Harbor which begins with a ‘Dream of Disaster’, incorporates a deadly flight with a ‘Phantom for a Co-Pilot’ and marines who arrive ‘Too Late for the Death March!’ before finally meeting ‘The Ghost of McBride’s Woman’ and vindicating an unsung hero…

A little boy enamoured of war’s glory learns a lesson in WWT # 15 when his dead grandfather takes him back to WWI to see how ‘“Ace” King Just Flew in from Hell’ (Drake & Perlin) after which Oleck & Talaoc reveal the doom of ‘The Survivor’ of a Viking raid which offends a sorceress, and Oleck & Alcala detail the shocking fate of a fanatical crusader who succumbs to ‘The Ultimate Weapon’ of a Saracen wise man…

Drake & Alcala describe transplant science gone mad in #16’s ‘More Dead than Alive!’, whilst the first of a Niño double bill sees him delineate ‘The Conquerors’ (scripted by Oleck) who eradicate humanity – but not the things that predate on them – before Drake’s ‘Evil Eye’ sees a little boy inflict hell’s wrath on both Allies and Axis alike.

In #17 Kanigher & George Evans disclose how a dishonourable French Air Ace is punished by ‘Dead Man’s Hands’ before Pellowski, E. Nelson Bridwell & Ernie Chan show how a murdered soldier is avenged by ‘A Gun Named Marie!

WWT #18 has Drake & DeZuniga sketch the brief career of ‘Captain Dracula!’ as he marauds through (mostly) German forces in Sicily before Mayer & Talaoc reunite for the cautionary tale of a greedy German sergeant in France whose greed makes him easy prey for the ‘Whim of a Phantom!’

Drake & Talaoc started #19 with the full-length story of the agent who infiltrated the Nazi terror weapon known as ‘The Platoon That Wouldn’t Die!’ whilst #20 reverted to short stories with Oleck & Perlin’s ‘Death Watch’ of a doomed coward who should have waited one more day before deserting, Drake & Alcala’s period saga of a witchcraft vendetta in ‘Operation: Voodoo!’ followed by their Battle of Britain chiller wherein a burned out fighter pilot learns ‘Death is a Green Man’

This blockbusting blend of military mayhem, magical melee and martial madness concludes with Weird War Tales #21 and ‘One Hour to Kill!’ by Drake & Frank Robbins wherein an American soldier is ordered to go back in time to assassinate Leonardo Da Vinci and prevent the invention of automatic weapons before Mayer & Bernard Baily show just how a foul-up GI became an unstoppable hero ‘When Death Took a Hand’

Classily chilling, emotionally intense, superbly illustrated, insanely addictive and Just Plain Fun, this is a deliciously guilty pleasure that will astound and delight any lover of fantasy fiction and comics that work on plot invention rather than character compulsion.
© 1971, 1972, 1973, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents the Unknown Soldier volume 2


By David Michelinie, Bob Haney, Robert Kanigher Gerry Conway, Gerry Talaoc, Dick Ayers, Joe Kubert, Romeo Tanghal & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4081-3

In America after the demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only certain place to find controversial, challenging and entertaining American war comics was DC.

In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a generation, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting combat on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a homefront death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response DC’s (or rather National Periodical Publishing, as it then was) military-themed comicbooks became even more bold and innovative…

That stellar and challenging creative period came to an end as all strip trends do, but a few of the more impressive and popular features (Sgt. Rock, Haunted Tank, The Losers) survived well into the second superhero revival. One of the most engaging wartime wonders was a notional espionage thriller starring a faceless, nameless hero perpetually in the right place at the right time, ready, willing and so very able to turn the tide one battle at a time…

This second moody monochrome compendium collects the lead feature from issues #189-204 (July 1975-March 1977) of the truly venerable Star-Spangled War Stories anthology and thereafter #205-226 (May 1977-April 1979) of the abruptly re-titled Unknown Soldier from when the “Immortal G.I.” finally took over the book in name as well as fact.

One of the very best concepts ever devised for a war comic, The Unknown Soldier was actually a spin-off – having first appeared as a walk-on in a Sgt Rock story from Our Army at War #168 (June 1966, by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert).

By 1970 the illustrator had become editor of DC’s war titles and was looking for a new cover/lead character to follow the critically acclaimed Enemy Ace who had been summarily bounced to the back of the book after issue #150.

The series featured a faceless super-spy and master-of-disguise whose forebears had proudly fought and died in every American conflict since the birth of the nation…

The strip grew to be one of DC’s most popular and long-lived: Star-Spangled became Unknown Soldier in 1977 with #205 and the comic only folded in 1982 with issue #268 when sales of traditional comicbooks were in harsh decline.

Since then the character has resurfaced a number of times (12 issue miniseries in 1988-9, a 4-part Vertigo tale in 1997 followed by a rebooted ongoing series in 2009), each iteration moving further and further way from the originating concept.

One intriguing factor of the original tales is that there is very little internal chronology: for most of the run individual adventures take place anytime and anywhere between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the surrenders of Germany and later Japan. This picaresque approach adds a powerful sense of both timelessness and infallible, unflinching continuity. The Unknown Soldier has always and will always be where he is needed most…

As seen in the previous Showcase volume, his full origin was revealed in Star-Spangled War Stories #154’s ‘I’ll Never Die!’ recounting how two inseparable brothers joined up in the days before America was attacked and were posted together to the Philippines just as the Japanese began their seemingly unstoppable Pacific Campaign.

Overwhelmed by a tidal wave of enemy soldiers one night the brothers held their jungle posts to the last and when relief came only one had survived, his face a tattered mess of raw flesh and bone…

As US forces retreated from the islands the indomitable survivor was evacuated to a state-side hospital. Refusing medals, honours or retirement, the recuperating warrior dedicated his remaining years to his lost brother Harry and determinedly retrained as a one man-army intelligence unit.

His unsalvageable face swathed in bandages, the nameless fighter learned the arts of make-up, disguise and mimicry, perfected a broad arsenal of fighting skills and offered himself to the State Department as an expendable resource who could go anywhere and do anything…

After a long run of spectacular stories by numerous stellar creators, shifting fashions eventually provoked a shift in emphasis. Relative neophytes David Michelinie & Gerry Talaoc came aboard with Star-Spangled War Stories #183, resulting in an evocative change of direction.

The horror boom in comics was at its peak in 1974 and new editor Joe Orlando capitalised on that fascination with a few startling modifications – the most controversial being to reveal the Soldier’s grotesque, scar-ravaged face – presumably to draw in monster-hungry fear fans…

The military/macabre mood resumes here with Michelinie & Talaoc on fine form and well dug-in as the Unknown Soldier is despatched to discover the secret of the ‘The Cadaver Gap Massacres’ (SSWS #189).

What he finds as Nazi officer Major Wollheim is a death camp where prisoners are mere guinea pigs for making monsters and experimental atrocity weapons, and before long he falls foul of a repentant, guilt-riddled scientist whose loyalties ultimately are only to money. The ghastly discoveries of ‘Project: Omega’ lead to a cataclysmic clash with uncontrollable beast-men and the salvation of the only true innocent in the entire death-camp…

Issue #191 offered a ‘Decision at Volstadt’ as the fleeing superspy encounters rabid resistance fighters, merciless Hitler Youth zealots and fanatical Lt. Strada, who has already lost far too much to the Immortal G.I. Captured by his Italian nemesis, the rival soldiers’ ‘Vendetta’ ends the only way it could in SSWS #192…

Gerry Conway scripted ‘Save the Children!’ in #193, detailing how a mission to blow up a train carrying generals directing the war on the Eastern Front goes horribly wrong after the phantom fighter finds his targets’ families have come along for the ride, after which Michelinie returns to explore ‘The Survival Syndrome’ wherein the penetration of a high-tech Nazi communications complex hidden in a French village shows the wary warrior the true cost of a having a quisling in the family…

Star-Spangled War Stories #195 introduced ‘The Deathmasters’ as the Unknown Soldier infiltrates a Nazi assassination school and find himself assigned to murder one of the Allies’ greatest assets in war-torn Odessa in #196’s ‘Target Red’.

Conning everyone into thinking he’s succeeded, he then returns to Germany to scotch a scheme to replace key Allied personnel with Nazi doppelgangers: all it costs to quash the project is the life of an innocent girl and a little bit more of his soul…

The war in North Africa is almost over in #197 but the master of disguise is nevertheless dispatched to destroy German anti-tank airplane prototypes in ‘The Henschel Gambit’. Typically however he is intercepted by Arab raiders led by a US Senator’s maverick daughter and again forced to choose between his mission and innocent lives…

Thereafter, thanks to Nazi counter-intelligence manoeuvrings, the Immortal G.I. is tricked into killing the Allies’ top strategist in ‘Traitor!’ Court Martialled and sentenced to death, he is forced to escape and retrace his steps, seeking a witness to his innocence in #199’s ‘The Crime of Sgt. Schepke’.

En route he encounters Maquis legend Mlle Marie but events spiral completely out of control and he has no choice but to sacrifice her entire resistance unit to destroy a new super-weapon in the concluding ‘Deathride’

Although Marie honours her promise and clears his name, she also swears to kill him for expending her comrades like pawns…

The scene switches to New York City in SSWS #201 as the Soldier engages in ‘The Back-Alley War’ by infiltrating a gang of German-American anti-war isolationists in search of saboteurs and spies and to Italy in #202 where an outbreak of typhus is holding up the war.

His task is to find a downed US plane carrying an experimental counter serum but his penetration of a Nazi hospital seems to indicate that neither side has found ‘The Cure’

Issue #203 finds the master-spy reduced to teaching arrogant, unstable English aristocrat (with royal connections) Richard Ebbington all the tricks of his deadly craft, only to be subsequently ordered by the top brass to stop him fulfilling his first murder mission.

Somebody up top forgot to tell somebody in the middle that Ebbington’s target is a German general planning to assassinate Hitler, so the Unknown Soldier is forced to stop his protégé’s ‘Curtain Call’

After 36 years of varied publication Star-Spangled War Stories ended with #204 as prior scripter Bob Haney and veteran war artist Dick Ayers joined Talaoc for ‘The Unknown Soldier Must Die!’ wherein old ally Chat Noir (an African-American sergeant who got fed up of institutionalised racism and deserted the US Army to join the French Resistance) is captured by the Nazis and brainwashed into becoming their secret weapon to kill the Immortal G.I.…

Cover-dated May 1977 the first Unknown Soldier (#205) places history’s lynchpin at the Battle of the Bulge in winter 1944. Whilst expanding on his origins ‘Legends Never Die!’ also proves once more that the right man in the right place at the right time can change the course of destiny…

‘Glory Gambit!’ begins an extended campaign as Adolf Hitler himself unleashes the Wehrmacht’s answer to the Unknown Soldier. Black Knight is Count Klaus von Stauffen, the chess-obsessed SS officer who captured and conditioned Chat Noir and is now making his way into the heart of England with but one mission…

The hunt for the merciless master of disguise and doom continues throughout London in #207’s ‘Kill the King!’, before the scene again shifts, dumping the Soldier in North Africa in 1942 to rehabilitate a trio of deserters in ‘Coward, Take my Hand!’

US #209 takes us to the Pacific in 1945 and a personal duel with a Japanese prison camp torturer whose attempts to break the scarred superspy result in defeat, death and ‘Tattered Glory!’ on blood-drenched rock called Iwo Jima…

In #210 the Man of Many Faces invades a Nazi fortress impersonating a specialist interrogator to rescue or kill America’s most important agent in ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing!’ after which issue #211 reprints a classic Haney & Kubert tale from Star-Spangled War Stories #159 where George S. Patton became the thinly-veiled basis for ‘Man of War’ with the Unknown Soldier dispatched to investigate a charismatic general who had pushed his own troops to the brink of mutiny…

An experimental surgical operation traps the G.I. behind the wrong face on the wrong side of the German lines in #212, where he encounters Hitler’s fanatical schoolboy “Werewolf” killer-elite and becomes in turn ‘The Traitor in Wolf’s Clothing!’

The shocking theme was further explored in #213 as Unknown Soldier has to extract from the Fatherland the son of a scientist vital to the war effort. Sadly ‘The Ten-Year-Old Secret Weapon!’ has embraced every facet of life in the Hitler Youth and fights his would-be rescuer every step of the way…

Kanigher wrote and Romeo Tanghal inked the Ayers illustrated ‘Deadly Reunion!’ in #214 as of the Soldier – in the guise of an elderly Jew – allows himself to be taken to a death camp to spring Mlle. Marie. She isn’t at all grateful…

Haney, Ayers &Talaoc reunited in #215 as the faceless fury replaced a sailor in the merchant marine to expose a traitor selling out convoy freighters to U-boats haunting ‘The Savage Sea!’ after which ‘Taps at Arlington!’ (art by Ayers & Tanghal) sees Chat Noir confront American racism whilst the Soldier exposes a spy painting a bullseye on the backs of troops in Italy…

In #217 the Man Without a Face becomes Hermann Goering’s chief supplier of stolen paintings in ‘Dictators Never Sleep!’ The plan is to give the infamous art lover a Rembrandt primed to explode when Hitler is in front of it… and it would have worked if Klaus von Stauffen hadn’t been present…

With the Black Knight hot on his heels the frustrated phantom is harried across Europe in ‘The Unknown Soldier Must Die!’, only stopping briefly to destroy a V2 base and have another shot at the Fuehrer before experiencing ‘Slaughter in Hell!’ (inked by Tanghal) when von Stauffen turns the tables by impersonating his arch enemy in a bid to murder Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower.

He would have succeeded if not for the Immortal G.I.’s strategic cunning…

Issue #220 by Haney, Ayers &Talaoc saw the Soldier organise a band of maverick warriors from many Nazi-conquered countries into a daring-but-doomed foreign legion dubbed ‘The Rubber Band Heroes’ after which ‘Sunset for a Samurai!’ finds him on a suicide mission to the heart of Japan to save an undercover agent crucial to the American forces…

Unknown Soldier #222 promised ‘No Exit from Stalag 19!’ when the unsung hero was ordered to rescue a military boffin from the heart of Fortress Europa (in a wry and trenchant riff on the plot of The Bridge on the River Kwai) whilst in #223, ‘Mission: Incredible!’ (Ayers &Tanghal) details the convoluted course of a plan to destroy a Heavy Water plant in the snow-capped mountains of Norway.

The Soldier and Chat Noir reunited in #224 to investigate a dead zone where Allied bombers simply vanish without trace, only to find barbaric military madness running wild in ‘Welcome to Valhalla!’ after which the Immortal G.I. is forced to arrest a charismatic general for treason in ‘Four Stars to Armageddon!’ (Ayers &Talaoc) before uncovering the astounding truth behind his supposed betrayals.

The military madness lurches to a bloody halt with #226 as Chat Noir and his faceless comrade do what entire flotillas of Navy vessels could not: using guile and subterfuge to board the Nazi’s unbeatable dreadnaught and ‘Sink the Kronhorst!’

Dark, powerful, moving and overwhelmingly ingenious, The Unknown Soldier is a magnificent addition to the ranks of extraordinary mortal warriors in an industry far too heavy with implausible and incredible heroes. These tales will appeal to not just comics readers but all fans of adventure fiction.
© 1975-1979, 2014 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents the Legion of Super-Heroes volume 5


By Cary Bates, Jim Shooter, Paul Levitz, Dave Cockrum, Mike Grell & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4297-8

Once upon a time, a thousand years from now, a band of super-powered kids from a multitude of worlds took inspiration from the greatest legend of all time and formed a club of heroes. One day those Children of Tomorrow came back in time and invited their inspiration to join them…

Thus began the vast and epic saga of the Legion of Super-Heroes, as first envisioned by writer Otto Binder & artist Al Plastino when the many-handed mob of juvenile universe-savers debuted in Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958), just as the revived superhero genre was gathering an inexorable head of steam in America.

Since that time the fortunes and popularity of the Legion have perpetually waxed and waned, with their future history tweaked and overwritten, retconned and rebooted over and over again to comply with editorial diktat and popular fashion.

This sturdy, cosmically-captivating fifth massive monochrome compendium gathers a chronological parade of futuristic delights from Superboy #193, 195, and Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #197-220, covering February 1973 to October 1976, as well as the debut issue of opportunistic spin-off Karate Kid #1 (March 1976) at a time when the superhero genre had again waned but which was slowly recovering to gain its current, seemingly unassailable ascendancy.

That plunge in costumed character popularity had seen the team lose their long-held lead spot in Adventure Comics, be relegated to a back-up in Action Comics and even vanish completely for a time. Legion fans however are the most passionate of an already fanatical breed…

No sooner had the LSH faded than agitation to revive them began. After a few tentative forays as an alternating back-up feature in Superboy, the game-changing artwork of Dave Cockrum inspired a fresh influx of fans and the back-up soon took over the book – exactly as they had done in the 1960s when the Tomorrow Teens took Adventure from Superboy and made it uniquely their  own…

The resurgent dramas begin here with the back-up by Cary Bates & Cockrum from Superboy #193 wherein a select team consisting of Chameleon Boy, Duo Damsel, Chemical King and Karate Kid went undercover on a distant world to prevent atomic Armageddon in ‘War Between the Nights and the Days!’

That’s followed by #195’s ‘The One-Shot Hero!’ which told the story of ERG-1 – a human converted to sentient energy in an antimatter accident. The character had been mentioned in a 1960’s tale of the Adult Legion but here Bates & Cockrum at last fleshed out his only mission and heroic sacrifice with passion and overwhelming style…

The really big change came with the July issue as the long-lived title (it had premiered in 1949 just as the Golden Age was coming to an end) became Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes with #197.

The relaunch offered a full-length extravaganza, ‘Timber Wolf: Dead Hero, Live Executioner!’ which saw the Boy of Steel summoned to the future to be greeted by a hero he believed long dead in the line of duty.

Somehow Timber Wolf has escaped the grave and triumphantly greets his old comrade, but astute Legion leader Mon-El fears some kind of trick and is proved right when the miraculous survivor goes berserk at an awards ceremony, attempting to assassinate the President of Earth.

Wolf is restrained before any harm can be done and a thorough deprogramming soon gives him a clean bill of mental health. Unfortunately that’s exactly what the team’s hidden enemy had planned and when a deeper layer of brainwashing kicks in the helpless mind-slave turns off the security systems allowing militaristic alien warlord Tyr to invade Legion HQ.

Thankfully telepathic Saturn Girl is on hand to free the mental vassal and scupper the assault, but in the scuffle Tyr’s computerised gun hand escapes, swearing vengeance…

The organisation’s greatest foes resurface with a seemingly infallible plan in #198’s ‘The Fatal Five Who Twisted Time!’ – travelling back to 1950s Smallville to plant a device which will edit the next thousand years to prevent the LSH from forming.

As second chapter ‘Prisoners of the Time Lock’ reveals, however, a squad comprising Brainiac 5, Element Lad, Karate Kid, Princess Projectra, Chameleon Boy and Mon-El has already escaped to the relative safety of the time stream, determined to restore history or die with the resultant clash concluding in a ‘Countdown to Catastrophe’

With an entire issue to play with and short stories clearly popular, the format settled on alternating epics with a double-dose of vignettes. Thus issue #199 opened with ‘The Gun That Mastered Men!’ as Tyr’s computerised wonder weapon returned to liberate its creator, only to rebel at the last moment and try to take over Superboy’s body instead. With that threat comprehensively crushed, Bouncing Boy then took centre stage to relate his solo battle against Orion the Hunter in ‘The Impossible Target’

It was mere prelude to the anniversary issue #200 wherein he lost his power to hyper-inflate and had to resign. However it did allow the Bounding Bravo to propose to girlfriend Duo Damsel, unaware that she had been targeted to become ‘The Legionnaire Bride of Starfinger’

The marriage was an event tinged with grandeur and tragedy as the super-villain kidnapped her in ‘This Wife is Condemned’, attempting to emulate her powers and make an army of doppelgangers but ‘The Secret of the Starfinger Split!’ was never revealed after Superboy enacted a cunning counter-ploy…

Issue #201 featured the resurrection of ERG-1 as the energy-being reconstituted himself to save the Legion from treachery in ‘The Betrayer From Beyond’ whilst ‘The Silent Death’ saw precognitive Dream Girl infallibly predict a comrade’s imminent demise even though no hero anywhere appeared to be endangered…

Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #202 was a 100-Page Giant but only two tales were new. They were also Cockrum’s final forays in the 30th century and saw the debut of his equally impressive successor Mike Grell as inker on ‘Lost a Million Miles from Home!’

Here Colossal Boy and Shrinking Violet face a perplexing mystery in deep space: an inexplicable loss of ship’s power which compels them to abandon ship in the worst possible place imaginable…

‘Wrath of the Devil-Fish’ by Bates & Cockrum was the artist’s swan song, featuring the debut of the re-designated ERG-1 as Wildfire and an eerie amphibian creature who attacked a pollution-cleansing automated Sea-Station. Of course the monster was not what he seemed and the Legion thought they might have found a unique new recruit…

Having utterly transformed the look, feel and fortunes of the Legion, Cockrum moved to Marvel where he would perform the same service for another defunct and almost forgotten series entitled X-Men

With Grell now handling the full art, our youthful Club of Champions were still on the meteoric rise, depicted as a dedicated, driven, grittily realistic combat force in constant, galaxy-threatening peril. However the super-science stalwarts still struggled against a global resurgence in spiritual soul-searching and supernatural dramas, with most of the comics industry churning out a myriad of monster and magic tales.

Thus the genre even invaded the bastions of graphic futurism in #203’s ‘Massacre by Remote Control’ (Bates & Grell) when increasing indifference and neglect caused veteran legionnaire Invisible Kid to lose his life saving his comrades.

The sadness was tinged with joy, however, as this was a twist on gothic ghost stories and the fallen hero was united with a lover from the other side of the Veil of Tears…

It was back to sensibly rational ground for SsLSH #204 and ‘The Legionnaire Nobody Remembered’, wherein the heroes explored the secrets of time traveller Anti-Lad whose accidental meddling altered history, demanding a most hands-on response to fix everything. Bates & Grell then exposed ‘Brainiac 5’s Secret Weakness!’ by reigniting his millennium-spanning romance with Supergirl

Issue #205 was another mostly-reprint 100-Page Giant but included one novel-length saga which saw 20th century Lana Lang save the assembled heroes from becoming ‘The Legion of Super-Executioners’ after the entire team was overwhelmed by a psionic immortal who patiently planned to abduct them all and breed a super-army of conquest…

‘The Legionnaires who Haunted Superboy’ led in #206 and saw Superboy visited by dead friends Invisible Kid and Ferro Lad. This time however the underlying theme was nascent cloning science not eldritch unrest and the outcome was mostly upbeat, after which ‘Welcome Home Daughter… Now Die!’ highlighted Princess Projectra’s dilemma as both modern hero with a commoner boyfriend and untouchable heir to a primitive feudal kingdom after a dutiful family visit resulted in an attack by a marauding monster…

SsLSH #207 opened with ‘The Rookie who Betrayed the Legion!’ as Science Police liaison Dvron seemingly colluded with mesmeric villain Universo whilst ‘Lightning Lad’s Day of Dread!’ saw the hero unite with his wicked brother Mekt to share a moment of personal grief.

It was but a prelude to the next issue (another 100-Page Giant) with a two pronged plan marooning Mon-El and Superboy in the 1950s whilst their comrades suffered the ‘Vengeance of the Super-Villains’ in the 30th Century. However the cunning murder-plot of Lightning Lord’s Legion of Super-Villains was not clever enough to fool Brainiac 5 of wily LSH espionage chief Chameleon Boy…

During the 1960’s the main architect of the Legion’s transformation from semi-comedic adventure feature to gritty super-battalion was teenaged sensation Jim Shooter, whose scripts and layouts (generally finished and pencilled by the astoundingly talented Curt Swan) made the series irresistible to a generation of fans growing up with their heads in the Future and tension-drenched drama on their minds.

Now, after time away getting a college education and working in advertising, Shooter returned in Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #209 with ‘Who Can Save the Princess?’ tersely detailing how Projectra succumbing to the lethal Pain Plague led her lover Karate Kid to make an ultimate sacrifice.

Bates & Grell then wrapped up the issue with a heart-warming mystery as young fan Flynt Brojj became a ‘Hero for a Day’; saving the Legion from an insidious assassination attempt…

Issue #210 was an all Shooter/Grell affair, opening with far darker fare as ‘Soljer’s Private War’ revealed how a tragic victim of World War VI was transformed by horrific circumstances and resurrected to rampage unstoppably through 30th century Metropolis after which ‘The Lair of the Black Dragon’ revealed the incredible origin of Karate Kid.

When a pack of martial artists attack the hero, their defeat leads to a further attack on the aged Sensei who trained Val Armorr from birth, and painful revelations that the Legionnaire’s birth-father was Japan’s greatest villain…

In issue #211 ‘The Ultimate Revenge’ (Shooter) saw Element Lad risk his career and honour to exact vengeance from space pirate Roxxas who exterminated the hero’s entire race whilst Bates detailed how the Legion of Substitute Heroes took possession of ‘The Legion’s Lost Home’ incidentally solving one of the most infamous cold cases in the history of theft…

Shooter was now main writer on the series and SsLSH #212 began with ‘Last Fight for a Legionnaire’ wherein a sextet of ambitious and disgruntled teens challenged Matter-Eater Lad, Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, Phantom Girl, Shrinking Violet and Chameleon Boy for their positions on the team – resulting in the replacement of one of veteran heroes – whilst ‘A Death Stroke at Dawn’ found ineffectual-seeming Substitute Legionnaire Night Girl rediscovering her confidence by triumphantly saving boyfriend Cosmic Boy and herself from murderous ambushers…

In #213 Ultra Boy only realised he was afflicted with a crippling psychological handicap when the hunt for infallible super-thief Benn Pares took the team into ‘The Jaws of Fear’ after which Timber Wolf overcame a far more physical threat with his rarely exercised wits when attacked by mega-thug Black Mace in ‘Trapped to Live – Free to Die!’ by Shooter, Grell and inker Bill Draut.

In #214 the heroes found ‘No Price Too High’ to save a trillionaire’s obnoxious son from himself and the deranged, disaffected employee who had taken over one of his dad’s automated manufacturing worlds before Bates, Grell & Draut revealed the deep-seated trauma which took away Shrinking Violet’s powers in ‘Stay Small – Or Die!’

Luckily for Brainiac 5, his drastic plan to shock her back to normal worked in time for her to save him from the fallout of his own callous actions…

Bates & Grell also observed ‘The Final Eclipse of Sun Boy’ in SsLSH #215, as an intangible assassin stalked Phantom Girl to Earth and was in turn followed by an unlikely and unsuspected ally, before Shooter, Grell & Draut revealed Cosmic Boy as ‘The Hero Who Wouldn’t Fight’: honouring a sacred day of penance and super-power abstinence even at the cost of his life…

Despite the comics world being in the grip of martial arts madness since 1973, DC were a little slow in making an obvious move and giving one of the oldest comicbook Kung Fu fighters his own solo title.

Karate Kid #1 launched with a March-April 1976 cover-date and plunged valiant Val Armorr back a thousand years to contemporary New York City in ‘My World Begins in Yesterday’ by Paul Levitz, Ric Estrada & Joe Staton.

The self-made warrior had crashed the time barrier to recapture arch enemy Nemesis Kid, and, after rejecting friendly advice and stern orders to return to Tomorrow, tracked and trashed his enemy with the astounded assistance of schoolteacher Iris Jacobs.

Finding the primitive milieu far more amenable than his origin era, Karate Kid unexpectedly then elected to stick around in the 20th century…

That same month SsLSH #216 saw Bates & Grell tackle a thorny issue in ‘The Hero who Hated the Legion’ as the team tried to recruit its first black member. The isolationist Tyroc and his entire long-sequestered race carried a big grudge and it took determined diplomacy and a crisis which threatened the entire island of Marzal to challenge the prejudice of centuries…

The same creative team then took a peek into ‘The Private Lives of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel’ revealing how even retired Legionnaires still had to fight for their lives on occasion.

Shooter & Grell monopolised issue #217 beginning with ‘The Charge of the Doomed Legionnaires’ wherein rapacious Khund warlord Field Marshal Lorca pitted his strategic genius against Brainiac 5 but underestimated the sheer guts of his despised foes, whilst ‘Future Shock for Superboy’ found the Teen of Steel beguiled by 30th century girl Laurel Kent, blithely unaware that he was interested in his own descendant…

Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #218 revealed how Tyroc’s induction into the team was shanghaied by Zoraz, ‘The Secret Villain the World Never Knew’ (Bates & Grell) although the neophyte soon turned the tables on the interloper, after which Shooter (with story inspiration from Ken Klaczac) disclosed ‘The Plunder Ploy of the Fatal Five’ in #219.

Here the terrifying Fatal Five went on an implausible spree of cosmic crimes, gathering items which could only be used for the creation of an all-conquering army, but when the Legion capably counterattacked they realised they’d jumped to woefully wrong conclusions…

This cavalcade of chronal capers concludes with #220 as inker Bob Wiacek joined Shooter & Grell for one final brace of bombastic blockbusters, beginning with ‘The Super Soldiers of the Slave-Maker’ wherein the Legion attempted to liberate conquered planet Murgador.

With most resistance coming from the terrified inhabitants, the astounded heroes learned that a huge bomb at the world’s core made them all helpless hostages to their alien overlord, forcing an application of subterfuge and misdirection to rectify the impossible situation…

Everything wraps up here with ‘Dream Girl’s Living Nightmare’ as Chameleon Boy tried to cheat fate and save a cosmic benefactor from death despite the infallible prediction of his precognitive comrade…

The Legion is unquestionably one of the most beloved and bewildering creations in funnybook history and largely responsible for the growth of the groundswell movement that became American Comics Fandom. Moreover, these scintillating and seductively addictive stories – as much as Julie Schwartz’s Justice League or Marvel’s Fantastic Four– fuelled the interest and imaginations of generations of readers and created the industry we all know today.

If you love comics and haven’t read this stuff, you are the poorer for it and need to feed your future dreams as soon as possible.

© 1973-1976, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Strange Adventures volume 2


By John Broome, Otto Binder, Gardner Fox, Edmond Hamilton, France E. Herron, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Sid Greene, Jerry Grandenetti & various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-3846-9

As the 1940s closed, masked mystery-men dwindled in popularity and the American comicbook industry found new heroes. Classic pulp fiction genre titles flourished; anthologies dedicated to crime, war, westerns, humour and horror were augmented by newer fads like funny animal, romance and most especially science fiction which in 1950 finally escaped its glorious thud-&-blunder/ray guns/bikini babes in giant fishbowl helmets magazine roots (as perfectly epitomised in the uniquely wonderful Golden Age icon Planet Comics) with Julius Schwartz’s introduction of Strange Adventures.

Packed with short adventures from jobbing SF writers and a plethora of new heroes such as Chris KL99, Captain Comet, the Atomic Knights and others, the magnificent monthly compendium (supplemented a year later with sister-title Mystery in Space) introduced wide-eyed youngsters to a fantastic but intrinsically rationalist universe and the wonders it might conceal…

On a thematic note: a general but by no means concrete rule of thumb was that Strange Adventures generally occurred on Earth or were at least Earth-adjacent whilst as the name suggests Mystery in Space offered readers the run of the rest of the universe…

Reprinting Strange Adventures #74-93 (November 1956 to June 1958), this second spectacular sci fi collection features stories from the dawn of the Silver Age, offering a backbone of fantastic fantasy plots and scenarios as an industry-wide resurgence of confidence and creativity gathered momentum and superheroes began to successfully reappear.

These stellar sagas continually informed and shaped DC’s slowly growing heroic adventure revival whilst proving over and again that Weird Science and cosmic disaster were no match for the infallibility of human intellect and ingenuity. During this period many of the plots, gimmicks, maguffins, cover designs and even interior art were recycled for the more technologically-based emergent costumed champions creeping back into public favour…

This mind-blowing, physics-challenging monochrome colossus opens with four classic vignettes, beginning with a terse thriller by John Broome & Carmine Infantino wherein a writer gained the power to see beyond the normal range and became the only human who could combat ‘The Invisible Invader from Dimension X!’ after which ‘The Metal Spy from Space!’ (Gardner Fox, Sid Greene & John Giunta) was similarly exposed and defeated by fictive pulp fictioneer “Edmond Hamilford”…

Fox, Greene & Bernard Sachs then revealed the vested interest of an investigator who obsessively sought out ‘Earth’s Secret Visitors!’ after which Edmond Hamilton, Gil Kane & Joe Giella detailed how a notoriously hapless DIY dabbler found himself in possession of the ‘Build-it-Yourself Spaceship!’

During this period editors were baffled by but still exploited a bizarre truism: every issue of any title which featured gorillas on the cover always produced increased sales. Little wonder then that so many DC comics had hairy headliners…

Strange Adventures #75 led with ‘Secret of the Man-Ape!’ by Otto Binder, Infantino & Giella wherein a scientist intent on evolving apes into men accidentally acquired a test subject who just happened to be the vanguard of an invading alien anthropoid army whilst ‘The 2nd Deluge of Earth!’ (Ed Jurist, Greene & Giella) saw a blind scientist save the world from Martians intent on taking over our water-rich world…

A meddlesome technologist happily makes amends and saves an imperilled alien civilisation after curiously poking his nose into the ‘Mystery of the Box from Space!’ (Binder, Kane & Sachs) before ‘This is Timearama!’ (Hamilton, Greene & Sachs) wittily and scathingly relates what happens when an honest researcher trusts businessmen with the secrets of his televisual time probe…

In issue #76 Broome, Infantino & Sachs explored the mission of a galactic saviour handicapped by fate as he sought to save humanity in ‘The Tallest Man on Earth!’, after which ‘The Flying Saucers that Saved the World!’ (Binder, Greene & Giella) reveals how a professional UFO debunker uses all he’s learned about hoaxes to counter an actual invasion by sinister subterraneans.

Although a short story anthology title, over the run of years Strange Adventures featured a number of memorable returning characters and concepts such as Star Hawkins or Space Museum. Darwin Jones of the Department of Scientific Investigation debuted in the very first issue, solving fringe or outright weird science dilemmas for the Federal Government.

A genius-level scientific detective, he made thirteen appearances over as many years and resurfaced here to foil the insidious schemes of ‘The Robot from Atlantis!’ (Binder, Kane & Giella), which pretended benevolent friendship whilst actually trying to eradicate mankind. The issue then concludes with the struggle of a geologist to get rid of ‘The Hungry Meteorite!’ (Dave Wood, Greene & Sachs) which threatened to absorb all the metal on Earth…

Another Darwin Jones thriller – by Broome, Infantino & Sachs – opened issue #77 when a Death Row convict was given superhuman intellectual abilities by desperate trans-dimension beings facing extinction. However “Lobo” Torrence was prepared to let two worlds die to save himself, forcing the Science Detective to gamble everything on a last-ditch plan…

Hamilton, Greene & Giella then detailed how ‘The Incredible Eyes of Arthur Gail!’ – damaged by a chemical accident and unable to detect non-organic materials – uncovered a cruel criminal plot, Binder, Kane & Sachs exposed the tragic secret of ‘The Paul Revere of Time!’ whose anonymous warnings prevented colossal loss of life and ‘The Mental Star-Rover!’ (Binder, Greene & Giella) revealed an uncanny connection between an Earth author and a piratical alien marauder…

Broome, Greene & Sachs opened Strange Adventures #78 with a spirited mash-up of Arthurian legend and The Prisoner of Zenda as mechanic Bruce Walker pinch-hit for an alien emperor in ‘The Secret of the Tom-Thumb Spacemen!’ after which Fox, Kane & Giella chillingly explored how existence depended on meteors when aliens tried to steal ‘The Life Battery!’ which sustained our bio-sphere…

Binder & Infantino then posed a classic quandary of ingenuity and survival after a prospector was stranded on a primitive island with a dead alien and a matter-transmuting device he believed was ‘The Magic Horn of Space!’ Immediately following, a test pilot was abducted into another dimension to become a guinea pig for inhuman predators in ‘The Prisoner of Space X!’ (France E. Herron, Greene & Sachs).

Issue #79 offered chilly seasonal fare with ‘Invaders from the Ice World!’ by Fox, Infantino & Sachs. When energy beings from Pluto possessed snowmen in advance of an invasion it took all of Darwin Jones’ deductive abilities to fathom their only weakness after which ‘Around the Universe in 1 Billion Years!’ (Herron, Greene & Giella) followed a band of explorers who return to Earth after an eternity in space to discover a new race has supplanted them.

‘A Switch in Time!’ (Fox, Kane & Giella) then examined the fate of a conman who thought himself the lucky recipient of the greatest deal in history before Hamilton, Jerry Grandenetti & Giella reveal the incredible secret of a vehicle which kidnapped its driver in ‘The Living Automobile!’

Binder handled most of the writing in #80, beginning with a smart take on intellectual property as the Kane & Giella illustrated ‘Mind Robbers of Venus!’ saw alien crooks stash their loot in the brain of electronics engineer Ian Caldwell before Greene & Giella took over for ‘The Worlds That Switched Places!’ as an astronaut made a terrible mistake that almost doomed two different dimensions.

Fox & Infantino demonstrated the duplicitous saga of Plutonian Jul Van and ‘The Anti-Invasion Machine!’ which almost destroyed Earth before Binder returned with artist Howard Sherman to seal the fate of an avaricious inventor who believed himself ‘The Man who Cheated Time!’

Strange Adventures #81 featured a subatomic would-be tyrant who kidnapped convict brothers to be his tools in an ambitious plot, but the deranged alien had no idea of the ‘Secret of the Shrinking Twins!’ (Broome, Infantino & Sachs) and consequently paid a heavy price, after which Binder, Greene & Giella pitted an Earth naturalist against a potential world conqueror in ‘The Spaceman of 1,000 Disguises!’

‘The Friendly Enemies of Space!’ (Herron, Kane & Sachs) detailed a series of natural disasters which ruined Earth’s first contact with benevolent extra-solar life before Fox, Grandenetti & Frank Giacoia examined the fallout of a lost artefact from a higher dimension when ‘The Magic Box from Nowhere!’ dropped into the hands of ordinary, greedy humans…

In #82, Herron, Infantino & Sachs’s bellicose and awesome ‘Giants of the Cosmic Ray!’ met their match in a humble earth scientist, whilst a gobsmacked youth was astounded to discover his adoptive parents were aliens when he became ‘The Man Who Inherited Mars!’ (Binder, Greene & Giella)…

A lack of communication would have led to disaster had science fiction writer Owen Bently not deduced the incredible ‘Secret of the Silent Spaceman!’ (Binder, Giacoia & Giella) after which a researcher saved Earth from invaders by turning their technology against them on ‘The Day Science Went Wild!’ (Binder, Greene & Giella).

Strange Adventures #83 found a simple college Professor revealed as an amnesiac chrononaut who had to rediscover and complete his ‘Assignment in Eternity!’ before time ran out (Binder, Greene & Giella again), whilst actor Mark Gordon found himself hunting fans-turned-spree criminals as the ‘Private Eye of Venus!’ (Fox & Infantino) when his hit TV show became the sensation of the telepathic inhabitants of our sister planet…

Herron, Greene & Giella then detailed the misunderstanding which reduced gigantic Good Samaritan ‘The Volcanic Man!’ to the status of an invading monster after which an accident led to brain injury for an ordinary mortal. His wounds were repaired by passing aliens, but the victim then developed uncanny precognitive abilities in ‘The Future Mind of Roger Davis!’ by Herron, Kane & Sachs…

Ray Jenkins was a wealthy man who bought unearned fame and prestige in SA #84, but the glory-hound met his fate when he encountered the ‘Prisoners of the Atom Universe!’ (Broome, Infantino & Sachs) after which a harried scientist prevented ‘The Radioactive Invasion of Earth!’ (Fox, Greene & Sachs) when he realised Martians couldn’t stand his kids’ Rock ‘n’ Roll music either…

Darwin Jones returned to solve the ‘Riddle of the Walking Robots!’ (Herron, Infantino & Giella) which ceaselessly roamed the Earth sowing alien seeds whilst schoolboy Tommy Ward’s “Electronic Brain” kit became ‘The Toy that Saved the World!’ (Binder, Greene & Giella)… once he stopped scrupulously following the instructions…

John Broome scripted the first half of issue #85, leading with artists Greene & Sachs ‘The Amazing Human Race!’ wherein a scientist uncovered a plot by Praying Mantises to conquer humanity whilst a colour-blind student found affirmation when his disability saved an alien civilisation from destruction in ‘The Colorless World of Peter Brandt!’ (Infantino & Giella).

Binder closed the issue with a brace of tales: ‘The Riddle of Spaceman X!’ (Greene & Giella) saw human scientists try to deduce the form of an alien from examining his “abandoned” ship whilst ‘Thieves of Thought!’ (Infantino & Sy Barry) followed a speleologist who discovered a city of robots telepathically appropriating human inventions for the purposes of conquest…

In SA #86, ‘The Dog That Saved the Earth!’ (Broome, Infantino & Sachs) revealed how alien energy turned an ordinary mutt into a telepathic genius in time to prevent a cosmic catastrophe after which Binder, Infantino & Giella revealed how an ordinary chemist stopped an ‘Interplanetary Space-Feud!’ which threatened to devastate the world.

Gardner Fox then finished off the issue with two intriguing enigmas. Spelunker Bill Jackson stumbled onto an alien ship and found only he could stop ‘The One-Hour Invasion of Earth!’ (art by Giacoia), after which Greene & Giella revealed how schoolboy John Haldane was saved by a mysterious stranger in return for a similar service performed two decades hence during ‘The Weather War of 1977!’

Strange Adventures #87 begins with Herron, Infantino & Giella’s ingenious ‘New Faces for Old!’ wherein the ultimate plastic surgery craze is nothing but a crafty scheme by aliens to ferret out freedom fighters hiding amidst teeming humanity whilst ‘Mystery Language from Space!’ (Fox, Greene & Sachs) shows how a warning of planetary doom was almost wasted since nobody could read the messages…

Next Fox, Infantino & Giella detailed how a freshly graduated Air Force pilot was seconded to the red planet to combat the ‘Meteor Menace of Mars!’ after which Binder, Greene & Giella described how an ingenious writer was tapped by aliens in dire distress to be ‘The Interplanetary Problem-Solver!’

Simian allure informed issue #88 as Herron, Infantino & Giella depicted Darwin Jones thwarting ‘The Gorilla War against Earth!’ and uncovering another alien invasion scheme whilst ‘The Warning Out of Time!’ (Binder, Greene & Sachs) revealed how a lost Da Vinci masterpiece concealed prophetic warnings of future disasters.

A mysterious and diligent ‘Bodyguard from Space!’ (Fox, Infantino & Sachs) attached himself to cameraman Jim Carson because the human’s brain contained knowledge to save a dying civilisation, after which Binder, Greene & Giella posed a classic survival conundrum as Earth scientists struggled to discern ‘The Secret of the Sleeping Spaceman!’

When Saturnians raided our world in issue #89 one scientist advised neither capitulation nor resistance but instead suggested offering ‘Earth for Sale’ (Herron, Infantino & Sachs) to save humanity, after which a professor vanished from human view to find himself a ‘Prisoner of the Rainbow!’ (Binder, Greene & Giella).

Then a pilot on a mission of mercy took an accidental ‘Detour in Time!’ and saved future humanity in a chiller by Fox, Grandenetti & Giella before ‘Mystery of the Unknown Invention!’ (Binder, Greene & Giella) saw a nosy neighbour’s prying accidentally saving a world… but not his own…

In #90 ‘The Day I Became a Martian!’ (Binder, Infantino & Sachs) revealed how prospective invaders periodically transformed a sci fi writer to see if Earth could sustain them whilst Fox, Greene & Giunta recounted how a bookshop owner endured regular clandestine visits from an extraterrestrial seeking ‘The 100,000 Year Old Weapon!’

Binder also scripted the final brace of astounding yarns as an ‘Amazing Gift from Space!’ (illustrated by Infantino & Sachs) saw human suspicion nearly spurn an incredible opportunity and doom two civilisations, whilst Greene & Giella limned ‘Mystery of Meteor Crater!’: a thrilling battle between Jovian invaders and ordinary Earthmen for the most powerful element in creation…

In #91 ‘The Midget Earthman of Jupiter!’ (Broome, Greene & Sachs) saw an Olympic decathlete assist Brobdingnagian aliens in a struggle for democratic freedom whilst Binder, Greene & Giunta’s ‘Warning to Earth!’ featured an oceanographer afflicted with a mental block attempt to circumvent his psychic gag and alert the surface-world to impending undersea invasion…

Fox, Manny Stallman & Giella then detail a shipwrecked extraterrestrial swindler’s scheme to trick Earth into building his ride home after discovering ‘The Amazing Tree of Knowledge!’ before ‘Prisoner of the Space Satellite!’ (Binder, Infantino & Sachs) reveals how an isolated astronomer solves a mathematical mystery and saves the last survivor of Atlantis from death in space…

SA #92 offered a more literal tale from Joe Millard, Infantino & Sachs as ‘The Amazing Ray of Knowledge!’ boosted the intellect of children just as a sidereal phenomenon threatened to destroy the solar system. Sadly the effect was only temporary and when the kids reverted to normal their solution was beyond the ken of their parents…

When an alien impostor dies in an accident the authorities uncover a plot to end humanity. ‘Earth – Planetary Bomb!’ by Fox & Giunta sees Jeff Morgan impersonate his own doppelganger to infiltrate the doom-ring and save the world after which Fox, Stallman & Giella revealed how a magazine artist encountered ‘Models from Saturn’ and became embroiled in an interplanetary revolution.

‘The Ice-Age Message!’ by Binder & Greene then sees a TV weatherman deliver a forecast of meteorological Armageddon after clashing with aliens seeking to steal Earth’s carbon dioxide.

Strange Adventures #93 wraps up the nostalgic future-watching beginning with extra-length thriller ‘Heart of the Solar System!’ (Millard, Infantino & Giella) wherein a space-traffic patrolman strives to protect the artificial organ which regulates the laws of physics in our sector of space from stellar marauders after which Fox, Stallman & Sachs expose temporal meddlers whose experiments drop the first volume of a cosmic dictionary in the lap of a contemporary quiz show contestant.

Dubbed ‘The Wizard of A!’, Joe Bentley’s brief moment of fame almost eradicated the time continuum…

The final tale in this titanic tome is one last Darwin Jones romp as Fox & Giunta’s ‘Space Rescue by Proxy!’ describes the Science Detective’s dealings with a telepathic alien sent to warn Earth of impending doom. Sadly the saviour himself fell into deadly danger and had to be rescued by Jones’ ingenuity…

Couched in the grand tradition of legendary pulp sci-fi editor John Campbell, with human ingenuity and decency generally solving the assorted crises of cosmic interaction, these yarns and sagas are a timeless highpoint of all-ages comics entertainment.

If you dream in steel and plastic and are still wondering why you don’t yet own a personal jet-pack, this volume might go some way to assuaging that unquenchable fire for the stars…
© 1956, 1957, 1958, 2013 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.…

Showcase Presents Sea Devils volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Bob Haney, France E. Herron, Hank P. Chapman, Russ Heath, Irv Novick, Joe Kubert, Gene Colan, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Jack Abel, Bruno Premiani, Sheldon Moldoff & Howard Purcell (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3522-2

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy and outrageous imagination in his signature war comics, as well as for the wealth of horror stories, romance yarns, “straight” adventure, westerns and superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman (plus other genres far too numerous to cover here) at which he also excelled.

He sold his first stories and poetry in 1932, wrote for the theatre, film and radio, and joined the Fox Features “shop” at the beginning of the comicbook phenomenon where he created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for established features like 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 the Golden Age Flash and Hawkman, created Black Canary and many sexily memorable villainesses such as Harlequin and Rose and the Thorn. This last temptress he redesigned during the relevancy era of the early 1970s into a schizophrenic crime-busting super-heroine who haunted the back of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane – which Kanigher also scripted at the time.

When mystery-men faded at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved easily into other genres such as spy-thrillers, westerns and war stories. In 1952 he became chief writer and editor of the company’s small combat line: All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Army at War.

He created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 and added G.I. Combat to his packed portfolio when Quality Comics sold their dwindling line of titles to National/DC in 1956.

In 1955 Kanigher devised historical adventure anthology The Brave and the Bold and its stalwart early stars Silent Knight, Golden Gladiator and Viking Prince whilst still scripting Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog and a host of others.

In 1956, for Julius Schwartz he scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the first story of the Silver Age which introduced Barry Allen as the new Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the world.

Kanigher was a restlessly creative writer and frequently used his uncanny if formulaic action arenas as a testing ground for future series concepts. Among the many epochal war features he created were Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, The War that Time Forgot, The Haunted Tank and The Losers, but he always kept an eye on contemporary trends too.

When supernatural comics took over the industry in the late 1960s he was a mainstay at House of Mystery, House of Secrets and Phantom Stranger and in 1975 created gritty human interest feature Lady Cop. Fifteen years earlier he had caught a similar wave (Oh Ha Ha…) by cashing in on the popularity of TV show Sea Hunt.

His entry into the sudden sub-genre deluge of scuba-diver comics featured the magic contemporary formula of a heroic foursome (Smart Guy, Tough Guy, Young Guy and A Girl) who would have all manner of (undersea) adventures from logical to implausible, topical to fantastical. He dubbed his team The Sea Devils

Re-presenting the turbulent, terrific try-out stories from Showcase #27-29 (July/August to November/December 1960) and Sea Devils #1-16, cover-dated September/October 1961-March/April 1964, this mammoth monochrome tome blends bizarre fantasy, sinister spy stories, shocking science fiction and two-fisted aquatic action with larger-than-life yet strictly human heroes who carved their own unique niche in comics history…

In almost every conceivable way the “try-out title” Showcase created the Silver Age of American comicbooks and is responsible for the multi-million dollar industry and nascent art form we all enjoy today.

Showcase was a try-out comic: a printed periodical Petri dish designed to launch new series and concepts with minimal commitment of publishing resources. If a new character sold well initially a regular series would follow. The process had been proved with Frogmen, Lois Lane, Challengers of the Unknown, Flash and many more

The principle was a sound one which paid huge dividends. The Editors at National were apparently bombarded with readers’ suggestions for new titles and concepts and the only possible way to feasibly prove which would be popular was to offer test runs and assess fan – and most crucially sales – reactions.

Showcase #27 followed a particularly historic and fruitful run of successful debuts which included Space Ranger, Adam Strange, Rip Hunter…Time Master and Green Lantern. It seemed that the premier publication could do no wrong. Moreover, it wasn’t Kanigher and artist Russ Heath’s first dip in this particular pool.

Showcase #3 had launched The Frogmen in an extended single tale following candidates for a US Underwater Demolitions Team in WWII as they perilously graduated from students to fully-fledged underwater warriors. The feature, if not the characters, became a semi-regular strip in All-American Men of War #44 (April #1957) and other Kanigher-edited war comics: making Frogmen the first but certainly not the last graduate of the try-out system. Now the time was right for a civilian iteration to make some waves…

The drama here begins in ‘The Golden Monster’ (by Kanigher & Heath) as lonely skin-diver Dane Dorrance reminisces about his WWII frogman father – and his trusty buddies – before being saved from a sneaky shark by a mysterious golden haired scuba-girl.

Judy Walton is an aspiring actress who, seeking to raise her Hollywood profile, has entered the same underwater treasure hunt Dane is engaged in, but as they join forces they have no idea of the dangers awaiting them…

Locating the sunken galleon they’ve been hunting both are trapped when seismic shifts and a gigantic octopus bury them inside the derelict. Happily third contestant Biff Bailey is on hand and his tremendous strength tips the scales and allows the trio to escape.

Now things take a typical Kanigher twist as the action switches from tense realistic drama to riotous fantasy with the explosive awakening of a colossal reptilian sea-monster who chases the divers until Judy’s little brother Nicky races in to distract the beast…

Temporarily safe, the relative strangers unite to destroy the thing – with the help of a handy floating mine left over from the war – before deciding to form a professional freelance diving team. They take their name from the proposed movie Judy wanted to audition for and become forever “The Sea Devils”…

In Showcase #28 Dane’s dad again offers his boy ‘The Prize Flippers’ he won for his exploits in the war, but Dane feels his entire team should be allowed to compete for them. Of course each diver successively outdoes the rest but in the end a spectacular stunt with a rampaging whale leaves the trophy in the hands of a most unlikely competitor…

A second story then sees the new team set up shop as “underwater trouble-shooters” only to stumble into a mystery as pretty Mona Moray begs them to find her missing father. Professor Moray was lost when his rocket crashed into the ocean, but as the divers diligently search the crash site they are ambushed by underwater aborigines and join the scientist in an uncanny ‘Undersea Prison’

Only when their captors reveal themselves as invading aliens do the team finally pull together, escape the trap and bring the house down on the insidious aquatic horrors…

Showcase #29 also offered two briny tales beginning with ‘The Last Dive of the Sea Devils’ wherein a recently-imprisoned dictator from Venus escapes to Earth and battles the astounded team to a standstill from his giant war-seahorse.

The blockbusting battle costs them their beloved vessel The Sea Witch but the crew make use of a handy leftover torpedo to end the interplanetary tyrant. Sea-born giants also abound in ‘Undersea Scavenger Hunt’ wherein the cash-strapped trouble-shooters compete in a flashy contest to win a new boat.

Incredible creatures and fantastic treasure traps are no real problem but the actions of rival divers The Black Mantas almost cost our heroes their lives…

Everything worked out though and nine months later Sea Devils #1 hit the stands with Kanigher & Heath leading the way. In ‘The Sea Devils vs. the Octopus Man’ our watery quartet are now the stars of a monster movie but when the lead beastie comes to lethal life and attacks them, all thoughts of fame and wealth sink without trace…

The second tale was scripted by the superbly inventive Bob Haney who riffed on Moby Dick’s plot in the tale of how Vikings hunted a mythical orca with a magic harpoon before latter-day fanatical whaler Captain Shark mercilessly sought the ‘Secret of the Emerald Whale’ with the desperate Sea Devils dragged along for the ride…

Haney wrote both yarns in the next issue, beginning with ‘A Bottleful of Sea Devils’ as mad scientist Mr. Neptune uses a shrinking device to steal a US Navy weapon prototype. With the aquatic investigators hard on his flippered heels, the felon is soon caught whilst ‘Star of the Sea’ introduced brilliant performing seal Pappy who repeatedly saved the team before finding freedom and true love in the wilds waters of the Atlantic…

Kanigher returned for #3’s ‘Underwater Crime Wave’ as the Devils clashed with a cunning modern Roman Emperor who derives his incredible wealth from smuggling and traps the team in his undersea arena after which Judy finds herself the only one immune to the allure of ‘The Ghost of the Deep’. Subsea siren Circe was utterly intent on making the boys her latest playthings and her human rival is compelled to pull out all the stops to save her friends…

Sea Devils # 4 led with ‘The Sea of Sorcery’ as the team investigate but fail to debunk any of the incredible myths of a supposedly haunted region of ocean, after which Haney detailed how the squad travelled into the heart of South America to liberate a tribe of lost pre-Columbian Condor Indians from a tyrannical witch doctor whilst solving ‘The Secret of Volcano Lake!’

‘The Creature Who Stole the 7 Seas’ (Kanigher) opened issue #5 as a particularly dry period for the trouble-shooters ends after a crashing UFO disgorges a sea giant intent on transferring Earth’s oceans to his own arid world. Oddly for the times, here mutual cooperation and a smart counter-plan save the day for two panicked planets.

Veteran writer Hank P. Chapman joined the ever-expanding team with a smart yarn of submerged Mayan treasure and deadly traps to imperil the team as they solve the ‘Secret of the Plumed Serpent’ before Kanigher returned with a book-length thriller in #6 which found the Devils seemingly ensorcelled by ancient parchments which depicted them battling incredible menaces in centuries past.

Biff battles undersea knights for Queen Cleopatra, Judy saves Ulysses from the Sirens, Nicky rescues a teenaged mermaid from a monstrous fish-man and Dane clashes with ‘The Flame-Headed Watchman!’, but is wise enough to realise that the true threat comes from the mysterious stranger who has brought them such dire documents…

The switch to longer epics was a wise and productive move, followed up in #7 with ‘The Human Tidal Wave!’ as the heroes spectacularly battle an alien made of roaring water to stop a proposed invasion, whilst in #8 they strive to help a fish transformed into a grieving merman from the ‘Curse of Neptune’s Giant!’ The malignant horror’s mutative touch temporarily makes monsters of them all too, but in the end Sea Devil daring trumps eldritch cruelty…

More monster madness followed in #9’s‘The Secret of the Coral Creature!’ as the team became paragliding US Naval medics to rescue an astronaut. That was mere prelude to an oceanic atomic bomb test which blasted them to a sea beneath the sea which had imprisoned an ancient alien for eons of crushing solitude, and who had no intention of ever letting the air-breathers go…

A concatenation of crazy circumstances creates the madness of #10’s ‘4 Mysteries of the Sea!’ as godly King Neptune decrees that on this day every wild story of the sea will come true just as the Sea Devils are competing in a “Deep Six Tall Tales” contest.

Soon the incredulous squad are battling pirates in an underwater ghost town, rescued from captivity by a giant octopus thanks to a friendly seal (Good old Pappy!), facing off against aliens of the Martian Canals Liars Club and saving Neptune himself from a depth charge attack…

The hugely underrated Irv Novick took over as primary illustrator with #11 as the Sea Devils agreed to test human underwater endurance limits in an ocean-floor habitat. Soon however Dane was near breaking point seeing a succession of monsters from the ‘Sea of Nightmares!’

Kanigher relinquished the writing to fellow golden age alumni France E. Herron who kicked off in rip-roaring form with a classy sci fi romp wherein Nicky’s growing feelings of inadequacy are quashed after he saves his comrades – and the world – from the ‘Threat of the Magnetic Menace!’

Always experimental and rightfully disrespectful of the fourth wall, editors Kanigher and George Kashdan turned issue #13 over to the fans for ‘The Secrets of 3 Sunken Ships’ as successive chapters of Herron’s script were illustrated by Joe Kubert, Gene Colan and Ross Andru & Mike Esposito for the audience to decide who was the best.

The artists all appear in the tale conducting interviews and “researching” the Deep Sea Daredevils as they tackle a reincarnated sea captain, travel to an ancient sea battle between Greece and Persia and meet the alien who kidnapped the crew of the Marie Celeste

The gag continued in Sea Devils #14 as illustrator Irv Novick came along for the ride when the amazing aquanauts try to end the catastrophic ‘War of the Underwater Giants’ which saw aging deities Neptune and Hercules battle for supremacy in Earth’s oceans.

Jack Abel was the artistic guest star in second story ‘Challenge of the Fish Champions!’ wherein the heroes enter a cash prize competition to buy scuba equipment for a junior diving club.

Unfortunately, crazy devious scientist Karpas also wants the loot and fields a team of his own technologically augmented minions. Before long the human skin-divers are facing off against a sea lion, a manta ray, a squid and a merman. After all, nobody said contestants had to be human…

Novick got into the act again illustrating #15 as author Herron revealed Judy and Nicky’s relationship to the ‘Secret of the Sunken Sub!’ When inventor Professor Walton vanishes whilst testing his latest submersible, it’s only a matter of time before his children drag the rest of the Sea Devils to the bottom of every ocean to find him and his lost crew.

The uncanny trail takes them through shoals of monsters, astounding flora and into the lair of an incredible sea spider before the mission is successfully accomplished…

Things regained some semblance of narrative normality with the final issue in this compilation as Hank Chapman contributed a brace of high adventure yarns beginning with ‘The Strange Reign of Queen Judy and King Biff’ superbly rendered by the wonderful Bruno Premiani & Sheldon Moldoff. When a massive wave capsizes the Sea Witch only Dane and Nicky seemingly survive, but the determined explorers persevere and eventually find their friends held as bewitched captives on the island of an immortal wizard. All they have to do is kidnap their ferociously resisting friends, escape an army of angry guards and penetrate the island’s mystic defences a second time to restore everything to normal. No problem…

This eccentric and exciting voyage of discovery concludes with ‘Sentinel of the Golden Head’ – illustrated by the always impressive Howard Purcell & Moldoff – as the restored aquatic quartet stumble onto the lost island of Blisspotamia in time to witness a beautiful maiden trying to sacrifice herself to the sea gods.

By interfering they incur the wrath of a legion of mythological horrors and have no choice but to defy the gods to free the terrified islanders from ignorance and tyranny…

These massive black-&-white compendiums are superb value and provide a vital service by bringing older, less flashy (but still astonishingly expensive in their original issues) tales to a readership which might otherwise be denied them. However this is probably the only series which I can honestly say suffers in the slightest from the lack of colour.

Whilst the line-art story illustrations are actually improved by the loss of hue, the original covers – by Heath and Irv Novick as supervised and inked by production ace Jack Adler – used all the clever technical print effects and smart ingenuity of the period to add a superb extra layer of depth to the underwater scenes which tragically cannot be appreciated in simple line and tone reproduction. Just go to any online cover browser site and you’ll see what I mean…

Nevertheless the amazing art and astounding stories are as good as they ever were and Showcase Presents Sea Devils is simply stuffed with incredible ideas, strange situations and non-stop action. These underwater wonders are a superb slice of the engaging fantasy thrillers which were once the backbone of American comicbooks. Perhaps a little whacky in places, they are remarkably similar to many tongue-in-cheek, anarchic Saturday morning kids animation shows and will certainly provide jaded fiction fans with hours of unmatchable entertainment.…
© 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents the Trial of the Flash


By Cary Bates, Carmine Infantino, Frank McLaughlin, Dennis Jensen & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3182-8

Barry Allen was the second comicbook comet to carry the name of Flash, and his debut was the Big Bang which finally triggered the Silver Age of American comicbooks after a series of abortive remnant revivals (Stuntman in 1954 and Marvel’s “Big Three”, Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and Captain America from 1953 to 1955). There were also a few all-original attempts such as Captain Flash, The Avenger and Strongman from 1954-1955.

Although none of those – or other less high-profile efforts – had restored or renewed the popularity of masked mystery-men, they had presumably piqued readers’ consciousness, even at conservative National/DC. Thus the revived human rocket wasn’t quite the innovation he seemed: after all, alien crusader Martian Manhunter had already cracked open the company floodgates with his low-key launch in Detective Comics #225, November 1955.

However in terms of creative quality, originality and sheer style The Flash was an irresistible spark and after his landmark first appearance in Showcase #4 (October 1956) the series – eventually – became a benchmark by which every successive launch or reboot across the industry was measured.

Police Scientist – we’d call him a CSI today – Allen was transformed by a simultaneous lightning strike and chemical bath into a human thunderbolt of unparalleled velocity and ingenuity. Yet with characteristic indolence the new Fastest Man Alive took three more try-out issues and almost as many years to win his own title. However when he finally stood on his own wing-tipped feet in The Flash #105 (February-March 1959), he never looked back…

The comics business back then was a faddy, slavishly trend-beset affair, however, and following a manic boom for superhero tales prompted by the Batman TV show the fickle global consciousness moved on to a fixation with supernatural themes and merely mortal tales, triggering a huge revival of spooky films, shows, books and periodicals. With horror on the rise again, many superhero titles faced cancellation and even the most revered and popular were threatened. It was time to adapt or die: a process repeated every few years until the mid-1980s when DC’s powers-that-be decided to rationalise and downsize the sprawling multi-dimensional multiverse the Flash had innocently sparked into existence decades previously…

Barry had been through the wringer before: in 1979 (Flash #275 to be precise) his beloved wife Iris was brutally murdered and thereafter the Scarlet Speedster became a darker, grittier, truly careworn hero. Gradually over four years the lonely bachelor recovered and even found love again but a harshly evolving comics industry, changing fashions and jaded fan tastes were about to end his long run at the top…

The Vizier of Velocity was still a favoured, undisputed icon of the apparently unstoppable Superhero meme and a mighty pillar of the costumed establishment, but in times of precarious sales and with very little in the way of presence in other media like films, TV or merchandise, that just made him a bright red target for a company desperate to attract a larger readership.

It soon became an open secret that he was to be one of the major casualties of the reality-rending Crisis on Infinite Earths. The epic maxi-series was conceived as an attention-grabbing spectacle on every level and to truly succeed it needed a few sacrifices which would make the public really sit up and take notice…

With such knowledge commonplace, long-time scripter Cary Bates went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the Crimson Comet and the comic title which inspired a super-heroic revolution went out in a totally absorbing blaze of glory…

This momentously massive stand-alone monochrome collection gathers the pertinent chapters of an astonishingly extended and supremely gripping serial which charted the triumphs and tragedies of the Monarch of Motion’s last months and savoured the final moments of the paramount hero and symbol of the Silver Age.

Contained herein are Flash #323-327, 329-336 and 340-350, spanning July 1983 to October 1985, written throughout by Bates and pencilled by originating artist Carmine Infantino, opening on the day Barry is supposed to marry his new sweetheart Fiona Webb.

As the nervous groom dresses for the ceremony, however, an Oan Guardian of the Universe appears with appalling news. Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash has escaped from the timeless hell the vengeful Vizier of Velocity banished him to for murdering Iris…

Inked by Rodin Rodriguez, ‘Run Flash – Run for your Wife!’ sees the distraught hero pursuing and battling his ultimate enemy on the run all over he world as the clock ticks down, culminating in #324’s ‘The Slayer and the Slain’ (Dennis Jensen inks) with the police issuing a missing persons alert for the vanished Barry Allen.

Crushed Fiona finally gives up on her man and is leaving the church just as Zoom dashes in with Flash hard on his winged heels. The maniac has boasted that he will repeat himself by slaughtering his archenemy’s second love, but with femto-seconds to spare Barry goes into overdrive and grabs his foe by the neck…

When the dust settles the wedding guests see Flash trying to comfort the bride-to-be but Police Captain Darryl Frye and Detective Frank Curtis are distracted by something the speedster has not noticed: Zoom’s lifeless corpse…

The media circus begins in #325 as ‘Dead Reckoning’ sees the guilt-racked speedster go into heroic overdrive all around the world but somehow never quite outrunning the Press or his own remorse.

As friends and allies wonder where they stand, the vile miscreants of The Flash Rogues’ Gallery come together to steal Zoom’s cadaver. Captains Cold and Boomerang, Pied Piper, Weather Wizard and The Trickster actually despised the Reverse-Flash and need to desecrate his corpse for the utter embarrassment he has brought upon their association: letting himself get killed by the scarlet Boy Scout…

Their heartbroken foe meanwhile has stopped running, and Barry visits Fiona where she lies in hospital. The shock of Barry’s abandonment has traumatised and perhaps even deranged her, but worse is in store. After leaving her room in his Flash persona, the hero is reluctantly arrested by Captain Frye on a charge of Manslaughter…

‘Shame in Scarlet’ (inked by Gary Martin) opens on the arrest and arraignment but the madhouse of raving pressmen and downhearted cops is just what the recently captured Weather Wizard needs to mask a bold getaway scheme.

Ever dutiful, Flash eludes custody long enough to stop the rogue before surrendering himself again…

Fiona’s doctors refuse to believe the still-missing Barry Allen came to see her and diagnose a delusional breakdown, whilst out on the streets Frank Curtis is further distracted by teenaged Angelo Torres; a kid barely surviving in a tough gang-controlled area of Central City

Released on his own recognizance, Flash sneaks into his own apartment but as the realisation of his destroyed life finally sinks in, he loses control and trashes the place in an explosive outburst. By the time his terrified neighbours break in he has gone and the suspicion that someone has targeted the missing Police Scientist seems confirmed…

Roaming the streets the Crimson Comet sees Angelo fleeing from a mugging but is appalled to realise he has tackled the wrong guy. Torres was chasing the real thief…

Still reeling at how far he has fallen, the shell-shocked speedster is barely aware that he is bleeding badly (from self-inflicted wounds incurred when destroying his home), and allows a cop to take him to hospital. The good deed does not go unpunished. When he arrives, Fiona is there and suddenly flares into a state of total hysteria…

The horrors pile on in ‘Burnout’ (#327, inked by Jensen) as Flash reconciles with Angelo, unaware that the kid has been targeted by the malign Super-Gorilla Grodd as part of a convoluted vengeance scheme.

Flash is too preoccupied by his next personal crisis as the Justice League of America holds a special session to judge his actions and conduct. A nail-bitingly close vote of his crestfallen best friends will determine whether he can remain a member of the august group…

Flash #328 is a partial reprint exploring the Flash/Professor Zoom vendetta and not included here, so the saga resumes with ‘What is the Sinister Secret of Simian and Son?’ (#329, with new regular inker Frank McLaughlin picking up the pens the brushes). Grodd uses Angelo and other kids to perpetrate series of bold raids even as, in front of the maddened media cameras, unscrupulous, publicity-hungry celebrity criminal defense attorney Nicholas D. Redik attempts to insert himself into the “Case of the Century”, claiming to be Flash’s lawyer and only chance of acquittal…

The oblivious, troubled human thunderbolt has other ideas. He has already contacted “Barry’s” old friend Peter Farley to act on his behalf, blithely unaware that back home Grodd has taken over Angelo and Fiona has succumbed to a total mental breakdown…

The final confrontation with the über-ape begins in ‘Beware the Land of Grodd!’ (scripted by Joey Cavalieri over Bates’ plot) as Redik manipulates the media to force Flash to switch lawyers and Captain Frye pushes the ongoing search for the missing Barry to new heights. With all these distractions the Vizier of Velocity is easily ambushed by Grodd before Angelo, at the moment of truth in #331’s ‘Dead Heat!’, has a change of heart and mind. With a supreme effort of will the remorseful lad breaks the super-ape’s conditioning, allowing the speedster to triumph.

Returning the renegade to futuristic Gorilla City, Flash leaves the mental monster in the custody of his old comrade Solovar, returning to America just in time to hear Farley being murdered during a phone conference…

Bates rejoins Infantino & McLaughlin as ‘Defend the Flash… and Die?’ sees the Scarlet Speedster hurtle across the country to save his lawyer from a colossal explosion, but even he is not fast enough to prevent the victim incurring massive injuries.

As speculation runs riot in the media that someone is targeting Flash’s defenders, old enemy Rainbow Raider take advantage of the chaos to instigate a string of robberies, but even at his lowest ebb the hero is too much for the multicoloured malefactor…

Redik is now publicly offering to take the case for free, but Farley’s absentee business partner has already taken up her ailing associate’s celebrity caseload…

In issue #333, as inexplicably hostile attorney Cecile Horton confers with her newly inherited client, ‘Down with the Flash!’ reveals how certain elements of Central City have seemingly turned on their former champion. Fiona too is still drawing trouble, as a petty thug and his crazy brother break into the asylum treating her, looking for a little one-stop emergency therapy. Sadly for them the Monarch of Motion is still keeping an eye on his tragic fiancée…

N.D. Redik then attempts to bribe and/or bully Horton off the case, but despite clearly despising her crimson client, Cecile is determined to honour Peter’s wishes and save the speedster.

The mastermind stirring up anti-Flash sentiment is revealed in ‘Flash-Freak-Out!’ Just as the pre-trial manoeuvrings begin, the formerly supportive Mayor suddenly becomes the disgraced hero’s biggest detractor.

Pied Piper’s mind-altering influence even manages to make the hero apparently go berserk on live TV in ‘How to Trash a Flash!’, leaving even his most devoted fans wondering if their beloved champion has in fact gone crazy…

…And whilst Flash is trying to save the Mayor, at her secluded retreat Cecile Horton is caught in an explosive blast like the one that took out her partner…

‘Murder on the Rocks’ in #336 finds Flash arriving too late for once, but the ecstatic speedster is astounded to discover his lawyer has saved herself through sheer quick thinking – although another woman has been killed. The tabloid reporter had been bugging the supposed “safe house” and accidentally fallen foul of a couple of killers-for-hire…

The trail of death leads the forensically trained Flash inexorably to a man whose arrogant determination to be a star in the tragedy costs him everything…

Rather annoyingly the next three chapters are absent here. They would have shown how Flash finally finished the Piper and incurred the wrath of the Rogues who subsequently turned a hulking simpleton into a programmed super killer dubbed Big Sir before unleashing him on the Scarlet Speedster…

We rejoin the story with Flash #340 to ‘Reach Out and Waste Someone!’ as the hurtling hero turns the tables on Cold, Boomerang, Weather Wizard, Trickster and Mirror Master by befriending Big Sir. The danger averted, the Flash then surrenders himself to the courts.

After many months #341 sees proceedings finally open in ‘Trial and Tribulation!’ only for the weary defendant to discover that go-getting District Attorney Anton Slater has dropped the charges. The wily attention-seeker has abandoned his manslaughter case in favour of a charge of Second Degree Murder…

With the still at-large Rogues rampaging through the city, the opening arguments quickly start to make the stunned Flash appear like a cunning killer and, whilst he reels in court, Captain Cold and Co again brainwash the now docile Big Sir. When the shattered speedster leaves after his first bruising day the Brobdingnagian brute ambushes him, wrecking his face with a massive mace…

Maimed, dazed and reeling Flash flees in unconscious panic leaving Sir to assault the gathered media in ‘Smash-Up!’ Barely thinking, the wounded warrior heads for Gorilla City where the super simians’ miraculous medical technology saves his life. Recovered and ready to return, Flash is certain he has made the right decision by asking Solovar to use their advanced science to enact a certain alteration for him…

Upon his return the Vizier of Velocity again deprograms Big Sir and the odd couple make sure the Rogues can’t hurt anyone any more…

Flash #343 kicks the drama into even higher gear in ‘Revenge and Revelations!’ as the secret of why Cecile hates her crimson-clad client is exposed and merciless mobster monster Goldface attacks, even as in the far future another Flash foe escapes an unbeatable prison and heads for the present, intent on adding to the doomed hero’s historic woes…

‘Betrayal!’ in #344 is a partial reprint (by Bates & John Broome, Infantino, McLaughlin & Joe Giella) which combines the first appearance and an early exploit of Kid Flash with that devoted protégé’s devastating expert testimony under oath on the witness stand.

The reluctant lad’s damaging evidence is then compounded when Cecile makes an explosive mistake which exposes ‘The Secret Face of the Flash!’ to the courtroom and the world…

Confusion reigns in #346 as the shocking revelation is upstaged by reports that the actual victim might not be dead. A merciless yellow-and-red blur has been spotted all over Central City attacking civilians and destroying police records in ‘Dead Man’s Bluff!’

The Reverse-Flash has escaped certain death many times before but as he mercilessly attacks the other Rogues – with even the Jurors narrowly escaping certain doom – there is a sure and certain feeling that something is not right…

The trial concludes in #347’s ‘Back from the Dead!’ but even with the thoroughly thrashed Rogues and Police Captain Fry attesting the victim is still alive, more than one malign presence in the courtroom is affecting the jurors and ‘The Final Verdict!’ comes back “guilty”…

However the story is not over and #349 unleashes a cascade of staggering revelations revealing clandestine agents acting both for and against the harried Human Hurricane in ‘…And the Truth Shall Set him Free!’ before the extended extravaganza of #350 begins by declaring ‘Flash Flees’ and thereafter shows the Scarlet Speedster defeating his ultimate nemesis, clearing his name and even living happily ever after… until that fore-destined final moment in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Staggering in scope, gripping in execution and astoundingly suspenseful, these last days of a legend make for stunning reading: a perfect example of the kind of plot-driven Fights ‘n’ Tights fiction we just don’t see enough of these days.

If you feel a need for a traditionally thrilling kind of speed reading, this is a chronicle you must not miss.

© 1983, 1984, 1985, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Superman Family volume 4


By Otto Binder, Robert Bernstein, Jerry Siegel, Edmond Hamilton, Leo Dorfman, Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, Al Plastino & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3837-7

When the groundbreaking Man of Steel debuted in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) he was instantly the centre of attention, but even then the need for a solid supporting cast was apparent and cleverly catered for. Glamorous daredevil girl reporter Lois Lane premiered right beside Clark Kent and was a constant companion and foil from the outset.

Although unnamed, a plucky red-headed, be-freckled kid started working alongside Lois and Clark from issue #6 (November 1938) onwards.

His first name was disclosed in Superman #13 (November-December 1941) having already been revealed as Jimmy Olsen to radio listeners as when he had become a major player in The Adventures of Superman show from its debut on April 15th 1940. As somebody the same age as the target audience, on hand for the hero to explain stuff to (all for the listener’s benefit) he was the closest thing to a sidekick the Action Ace ever needed…

When the similarly titled television show launched in the autumn of 1952 it was again an overnight sensation and National Periodicals began cautiously expanding their revitalised franchise with new characters and titles.

First to get a promotion to solo-star status was the Daily Planet’s impetuously capable if naïve “cub reporter”. His gloriously charming, light-hearted, semi-solo escapades began in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #1 (September-October 1954), the first spin-off star in the Caped Kryptonian’s ever-expanding entourage.

It took three years for the cautious Editors to tentatively extend the franchise again. In 1957, just as the Silver Age of Comics was getting underway, try-out title Showcase – which had already launched The Flash (#4) and Challengers of the Unknown (#6) -followed up with a pair of issues entitled Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane (#9-10) before swiftly awarding the “plucky News-hen” a series of her own. Technically it was her second, since for a brief while in the mid-1940s she had held a regular solo-spot in Superman.

In previous reviews I’ve banged on at length about the strange, patronising, parochial – and to at least some of us potentially offensive – portrayals of kids and most especially women during this period, and although at least fairer and more affirmative instances were beginning to appear, the warnings still bear repeating.

At that timeLois Lane was one of precious few titles with a female lead, and, in the context of today, one that gives many 21st century fans a few uncontrollable qualms of conscience. Within the confines of her series the valiant, capable working woman careered crazily from man-hungry, unscrupulous bitch through ditzy simpleton to indomitable and brilliant heroine – often all in the same issue. The comic was clearly intended to appeal to the family demographic that made I Love Lucy a national phenomenon, and many stories were played for laughs in that same patriarchal, parochial manner; a “gosh, aren’t women funny?” tone that appals me today – but not as much as the fact that I still love them to bits.

It helps that they’re mostly sublimely illustrated by the wonderfully whimsical Kurt Schaffenberger.

For the Superman family and cast the tone of the times dictated a highly strictured code of conduct and parameters: Daily Planet Editor Perry White was a stern, shouty elder statesman with a heart of gold, Cub Reporter Jimmy Olsen was a brave and impulsive unseasoned fool – with a heart of gold – and plucky News-hen Lois Lane was brash, nosy, impetuous and unscrupulous in her obsession to marry Superman although she too was – deep down – another possessor of an Auric aorta.

Yet somehow even with these mandates in place the talented writers and artists assigned to detail their wholesomely uncanny exploits managed to craft tales both beguiling and breathtakingly memorable and usually as funny as they were exciting.

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen wasn’t quite as contentious, but still far too often stories meant to amuse portrayed the bright, plucky kid in a variety of socially demeaning – if not downright cruel – situations and humiliating physical transformations. Even so the winning blend of slapstick adventure, action, fantasy and science fiction (in the gentle but insidiously charming manner scripter Otto Binder had perfected a decade previously at Fawcett Comics on the magnificent Captain Marvel) made the series one of the most popular of the era.

Again, originally most yarns were played for laughs in a father-knows-best manner and tone which can again appal me today, even though I still count them amongst some of my very favourite comics.

Confusing, ain’t it?

This fourth intriguingly intermingled, chronologically complete compendium collects the affable, all-ages tales from Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #17-26, (May 1960-July 1961) and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #45-53 (June 1960-June 1961): a period of infinite wackiness and outrageous absurdity, but one which also saw the inevitable dawning of a far more serious milieu for the Man of Tomorrow and his human family.

This particular black-&-white ethical conundrum commences with the Man of Steel’s perpetual lady-in-waiting as Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #17 (May 1960) introduced ‘The Girl that Almost Married Clark Kent’ – by Robert Bernstein & Schaffenberger – revealing how Lois covertly helped heiress Doris Drake win her reporter partner’s affections, unaware that the conniving rich girl had proof of the Caped Kryptonian’s secret identity…

‘Lana Lang, Superwoman’ (Jerry Siegel, Curt Swan & Stan Kaye) then saw jealousy run wild as Superman gave first one then the other girl in his life superpowers in a secret scheme to foil Brainiac – with no thought as to how either woman would feel once the crisis was over…

The issue ended with ‘How Lois Lane Got Her Job’ by Binder & Schaffenberger, which disclosed how, even before she had even met him, Superman was inadvertently helping the neophyte journalist score scoops…

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #45, (June 1960 and illustrated throughout by Swan & John Forte) kicked off with ‘Tom Baker, Power Lad’ by Binder; a clever tale in which an apparently ordinary boy temporarily gained super powers – although the shocking truth involved then-top secret weapon Supergirl and the Bottle City of Kandor

Meddling with resident crackpot genius Professor Phineas Potter’s experimental time machine hurled Jimmy back to the Wild West where he became accidental killer ‘The Gunsmoke Kid’ (by a sadly uncredited scripter) whilst in ‘The Animal Master of Metropolis’ (by Bernstein) Jimmy became a local hero and target of crooked gamblers after he started playing with a magic wand that gave him absolute mastery of the world’s fauna.

From July 1960, Lois Lane #18 opened with ‘The Star Reporter of Metropolis’ (possibly Binder & definitely Schaffenberger) wherein a mousy protégé stole Lois’s thunder for the best possible reasons, whilst ‘The Sleeping Doom’ (Bernstein & Schaffenberger) offered a superb thriller as aliens invaded Earth by taking over people after they fell asleep. The valiant lass staved off slumber for days until Superman could return to send the invaders packing, after which ‘Lois Lane Weds Astounding Man’ by Binder & Al Plastino, found the flabbergasted journalist wooed by an alien wonder warrior with a very strange secret…

That same month in Jimmy Olsen #46 – another all-Swan & Forte art-extravaganza – Siegel’s ‘Jimmy Olsen, Orphan’ revealed how an accident gave the cub reporter amnesia and he ended up in the same institution where Linda Lee was hiding whilst learning how to be a Supergirl, after which ‘The Irresistible Jimmy Olsen’ (Bernstein) hilariously lampooned Hollywood as a succession of starlets tried to romance the baffled but willing lad.

Of course the eager actresses were all operating on the mistaken assumption that our boy was Tinseltown’s latest genius Movie Producer…

The issue then concluded with another outing for Jimmy’s occasional alter ego in ‘Elastic Lad’s Greatest Feats’ with scripter Binder perfectly blending drama and comedy to deliver a punishing moral to the ever-impulsive kid…

Lois Lane #19 (August 1960 and fully illustrated by Schaffenberger) opened with ‘The Day Lois Lane Forgot Superman’ (Bernstein) with devoted sister Lucy convincing her perennially heartbroken elder sibling to try hypnosis to get over her destructive obsession.

Of course once it worked, it gave Lois time to pester Clark Kent so much he had no time to save the world…

When an accident seemingly catapulted Lois into the past she quickly became enamoured of Samson, a hero with a secret identity and ‘The Superman of the Past’ in a quirky yarn by scripter Binder, after which Jerry Siegel debuted a new occasional series.

‘Mr. and Mrs. Clark (Superman) Kent!’ was the first tale of a poignant comedy feature depicting the laughter and tears that might result if Lois secretly married the Man of Steel. Although seemingly having achieved her heart’s desire, she is officially only married to dull, safe Clark and must keep her relationship with the Man of Tomorrow quiet. She can’t brag or show pride and has to swallow the rage she feels whenever another woman throws herself at the still eligible bachelor Superman…

For an artefact of an era uncomfortably dismissive of women, there’s actually a lot of genuine heart and understanding in this tale and a minimum of snide sniping about “silly, empty-headed girls”…

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #47, (September 1960) found Jimmy in over his head as he impersonated an escaped convict and was trapped as gangland big shot Winky McCoy,‘The King of Crime’ in a cracking suspense tale by Bernstein, after which the impatiently under-age lad was transformed into a husky thirty-something by another Prof. Potter potion in ‘Jimmy Grows Up!’

Once Binder sagely proved that maturity isn’t everything, Siegelwrapped up the issue with a thrilling romp as the alien producers of horror movies starring Superman and Jimmy returned seeking sequels. Their robot cub reporter didn’t like the prospect of being junked at shooting’s end, however, and tried to replace the flesh and blood original in ‘The Monsters from Earth!’

Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #20 (October 1960) opened with the whimsical ‘Superman’s Flight from Lois Lane’ (Siegel & Schaffenberger), wherein the Man of Tomorrow fled into his own past to see if a different life-path would have resulted in a civilian existence unencumbered by a nosy snooping female.

Disc Jockey Clark soon realised his inquisitive assistant Liza Landis made Miss Lane look positively disinterested and happily ended the experiment, after which ‘The Luckiest Girl in Metropolis’ (Bernstein & Plastino) saw Lois targeted by a Machiavellian mobster seeking to destroy her credibility as a witness before ‘Lois Lane’s Super-Daughter’ by Siegel & Schaffenberger returned to the Imaginary Mr. & Mrs. scenario where their attempts to adopt Linda (Supergirl) Lee led to heartbreak and disaster…

Over in Jimmy Olsen #48 that same month, anonymously scripted ‘The Story of Camp Superman!’ presented a heart-warming mystery as the cub worked as counsellor to a bunch of youngsters – one of whom knew entirely too much about Superman – before ‘The Disguises of Danger’ again saw undercover Jimmy use his acting abilities to get close to a cunning crook. ‘The Mystery of the Tiny Supermen’ (by Binder) then saw the diminutive Superman Emergency Squad from Kandor repeatedly harass Jimmy in a clandestine scheme to stop the lad accidentally exposing the Man of Steel’s civilian identity…

The all-Schaffenberger November 1960 Lois Lane (#21) featured a double-length epic by author unknown (perhaps Edmond Hamilton?) which saw the Anti-Superman Gang utilise explosive toys to endanger the news-hen in ‘The Lois Lane Doll’: an act which forced the Action Ace to hide her in his Fortress of Solitude.

When even that proved insufficient she found refuge – and unlikely romance – whilst ‘Trapped in Kandor!’ Siegel then scripted a classic comic yarn as sworn rivals gained incredible abilities from a magic lake and decided to duke it out like men in ‘The Battle Between Super-Lois and Super-Lana!’

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #49, December 1960 opened with ‘Jimmy’s Gorilla Identity!’ wherein the luckless lad met DC stalwart Congo Bill and got his personality trapped in the hunter’s occasional alter ego, the giant golden ape dubbed Congorilla, whilst Professor Potter was blamed for, but entirely innocent of, turning the cub reporter into ‘The Fat Boy of Metropolis!’ in a daft but clever crime caper and Siegel played with contemporary trends as Jimmy impersonated a rock ‘n’ roll star to impress Lucy Lane in ‘Alias, Chip O’Doole!’

Another all-Schaffenberger affair, Lois Lane #22 (January 1961), began with a Red Kryptonite experiment that afflicted the Man of Steel with a compulsion to repeatedly pop the question to an increasingly dubious and suspicious Lois on ‘The Day When Superman Proposed!’ (Binder & Schaffenberger), after which ‘Lois Lane’s X-Ray Vision!’ (Bernstein) saw a pair of irradiated sunglasses create a tidal wave of problems for the Metropolis Marvel, whilst in ‘Sweetheart of Robin Hood!’ another time-shift dream found Lois courted by a very familiar-seeming Defender of Truth, Justice and the Nottinghamshire Way…

Over in Jimmy Olsen #50, ‘The Lord of Olsen Castle’ by Siegel, Swan & Sheldon Moldoff saw Jimmy as the potential heir of a Swedish castle and title. All he had to do was accomplish a slew of fantastic feats and defeat an ogre, utterly unaware that Superman and a host of other Kryptonians were secretly pitching in…

‘The Weirdest Asteroid in Space’ by Binder, Swan & Moldoff offered a spectacular monster mystery before a Potter experiment transferred all the Man of Steel’s might into his teenage pal resulting in ‘The Super-Life of Jimmy Olsen!’ by an unknown author and artist Al Plastino.

Lois Lane#23 (February 1961) opened with Binder & Schaffenberger’s riotous romp ‘The 10 Feats of Elastic Lass!’ as the impetuous reporter borrowed some of Jimmy’s stretching serum to track down mad bomber The Wrecker, whilst ‘The Curse of Lena Thorul!’ (Siegel) exposed a bewitching beauty’s incredible connection to Lex Luthor before another Imaginary visit to a possible future found ‘The Wife of Superman!’ (Siegel again) worn to a frazzle by two super-toddlers and yearning for her old job at the Daily Planet…

Jimmy Olsen #51, March 1961 revealed ‘Jimmy Olsen’s 1000th Scoop!’ by Bernstein, Swan & Forte, with the prospective milestone repeatedly delayed by Superman for the best possible reasons, after which a sultry alien took a very unlikely shine to the lad. Sadly ‘The Girl with Green Hair’ (Binder, Swan & Forte), was the result of a scheme by a well-meaning third party to get Lucy to be nicer to Jimmy and it all went painfully, horribly wrong…

The issue ended with ‘The Dream Detective!’ (Swan & Stan Kaye) as the cub reporter inexplicably developed psychometric abilities and unravelled mysteries in his sleep, whilst in Lois Lane #24 (April 1961) anonymously scripted ‘The Super-Surprise!’ saw Lois undercover as a platinum blonde scuppering a deadly plot against the Man of Tomorrow, superbly illustrated by Schaffenberger, as was Bernstein’s ‘The Perfect Husband’ wherein a TV dating show led Lois into a doomed affair with a he-man hunk who was almost the spitting image of Clark Kent.

…Almost…

The issue ended on ‘Lois Lane… Traitor!’ by Bernstein & John Forte, with Lois in the frame for the murder of the King of Pahla until the incredible, unbelievable true culprit came forward…

Also available that April, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #52 featured ‘The Specter of the Haunted House’ by Leo Dorfman, Swan & Kaye wherein a gang of cunning thieves used supernatural sceptic Olsen as a patsy for a bold robbery scheme, whilst ‘The Perils of Jimmy Olsen!’ – illustrated by Swan & Forte – saw the laid-up cub reporter use a robot double to perform feats of escalating daring and stupidity before ‘Jimmy Olsen, Wolfman!’ (Siegel, Swan & Kaye) offered a welcome sequel to the original hit tale wherein Superman’s Pal was again afflicted by lycanthropy thanks to the pranks of other-dimensional imp Mr. Mxyzptlk

In Lois Lane#25 (May 1961) the Imaginary series reached an impressively bittersweet high point in ‘Lois Lane and Superman, Newlyweds!’ (Siegel & Schaffenberger) as she convinced hubby to announce their relationship to the world and had to live with the shocking consequences…

The brilliant reporter side was then highlighted in Bernstein’s diabolical thriller ‘Lois Lane’s Darkest Secret!’ with the daring reporter risking her life to draw out and capture a mesmeric master criminal before ‘The Three Lives of Lois Lane!’ (possibly Dorfman with Forte illustrating) found the journalist surviving a car crash only to be subsumed into the personalities of dead historical figures Florence Nightingale, Betsy Ross and Queen Isabella of Spain whilst Superman could only stay near and try to limit the damage…

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #53, June 1961 opened with ‘The Boy in the Bottle!’ (Siegel, Swan & Kaye) as the cub suffered future shock whilst trapped in Kandor, after which sheer medical mischance resulted in the now-legendary saga of ‘The Giant Turtle Man!’ and an oddly casualty-free rampage (courtesy of Siegel, Swan & Forte) before ‘The Black Magician!’ (unknown writer, Swan & Forte) had Jimmy banished to the court of King Arthur by spiteful Mr. Mxyzptlk

The contents of Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane#26 (July 1961) closes this time-sensitive titanic tome, with three more Schaffenberger classics, beginning with Siegel’s ‘The Day Superman Married Lana Lang!’

In this imaginary tragedy the Action Ace finally made his decision and settled down with his childhood sweetheart but lived to regret it, whilst ‘Lois Lane’s Childhood!’ (Siegel) revealed how the lives of Kal-El on doomed Krypton and baby Lois on Earth were intertwined by fate and providence before Bernstein’s ‘The Mad Woman of Metropolis’ concludes the comics cavalcade on a stunning high as Lois foiled a diabolical plot by criminals to murder Clark and drive her insane.

As well as containing some of the most delightful episodes of the pre angst-drenched, cosmically catastrophic DC, these fun, thrilling, deeply peculiar and, yes, sometimes offensive tales perfectly capture the changing tone and tastes which reshaped comics from the smug, safe 1950s to the seditious, rebellious 1970s, all the while keeping to the prime directive of the industry – “keep them entertained and keep them wanting more”.

Despite all the well-intentioned quibbles from my high horse here in the 21st century, I think these stories still have a huge amount to offer funnybook fun-seekers and I strongly urge you to check them out for yourselves. You won’t be sorry…

© 1960, 1961, 2013 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Enemy Ace


By Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, Dennis O’Neil, John Severin, Howard Chaykin, Frank Thorne, Ed Davis, Russ Heath, Neal Adams & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1721-1

The first recorded aerial dogfight between powered aircraft occurred sometime during the Battle of Cer sometime between August 15th and 24th 1914 in the skies over Serbia.

Enemy Ace first appeared as a back-up in DC’s flagship war comic Our Army at War: home of the instantly legendary Sergeant Rock. The tales, loosely based on “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen, were a magnificent and thought-provoking examination of and tribute to the profession of soldiering whilst simultaneously condemning the madness of war, produced by the dream team of Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert during a period when the ongoing Vietnam conflict was beginning to tear American society apart.

An immediate if seminal hit, the series told bitter tales of valour and honour from the point of view of German WWI fighter pilot Hans Von Hammer: a hidebound but noble warrior fighting for his country in a conflict that was swiftly excising all trace of such outmoded concepts from the business of government sanctioned mass-killing.

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, as well as in horror stories, westerns and superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman plus other genres too numerous to cover here. A restlessly creative writer, he frequently used his uncanny but formulaic adventure arenas as a testing ground for future series concepts.

Among the many epochal war features he created were Sgt. Rock, The War that Time Forgot, The Haunted Tank, The Losers and the controversial star of this stupendously compelling war-journal.

He sold his first stories and poetry in 1932, wrote for the theatre, film and radio, and joined 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 many sexily memorable villainesses such as Harlequin and Rose and the Thorn. This last turbulent temptress he redesigned during the relevancy era of the early 1970s into a schizophrenic crime-busting vigilante who haunted the back of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, which Kanigher also scripted.

When the taste for mystery-men had faded at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved seamlessly into adventure yarns, westerns and war: becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles.

As well as scripting for All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Army at War, he created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 before adding G.I. Combat to his burgeoning portfolio when Quality Comics sold their line of titles to DC in 1956. This was whilst still working on Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Viking Prince and a host of others.

In 1956 he scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the first story of the Silver Age which introduced Barry Allen as the new Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the world. Drawn by Carmine Infantino, the risky experiment included multi-talented veteran Joe Kubert as inker for the crucially important debut issue…

Kubert was born in 1926 in rural Southeast Poland (which became Ukraine and might be Outer Russia by the time you read this). At age two his parents took him to America and he grew up in Brooklyn.

His folks encouraged Joe to draw from an early age and the precocious kid began a glittering career at the start of the Golden Age, before he was even a teenager. Working and learning at the Chesler comics packaging “Shop”, MLJ, Holyoke and assorted other outfits, he began his close association with National/DC in 1943, whilst still dividing his time and energies between Fiction House, Avon, Harvey and All-American Comics, where he particularly distinguished himself on The Flash and Hawkman.

In the early 1950s he and old school chum Norman Maurer were the creative force behind publishers St. Johns: creating evergreen caveman Tor and launching the 3D comics craze with Three Dimension Comics.

Joe never stopped freelancing, appearing in EC’s Two-Fisted Tales, Avon’s Strange Worlds, Lev Gleason Publications & Atlas Comics until in 1955 when, with the industry imploding, he took a permanent position at DC, only slightly diluted whilst he illustrated the contentious and controversial newspaper strip Tales of the Green Beretsfrom 1965 to 1968.

This terrific monochrome tome re-presents the blockbusting exploits of Von Hammer from Our Army at War #151, 153, 155, Showcase #57-58, Star Spangled War Stories #138 -145, 147-150, 152, 158, 181-183, 200, Men of War #1-3, 8-10, 12-14, 19-20, The Unknown Soldier #251-253, 260-261, 265-267 plus an intriguing tribute from Detective Comics #404: a period spanning February 1965 to August 1982.

The canon encompasses a period during which superheroes were supplanted by horror stories before bouncing right back again, whereas the genre of combat chronicles soldiered on regardless and largely unbothered by vagaries of reader fashion.

To be brutally frank, the stories are infinite variations on the same theme and, despite being illustrated by many of the greatest artists of two generations, might feel a little samey. If so, just stop every now and then to cogitate a little. This isn’t a book to blaze through; its one to savour in sensible portions…

It all kicked off in the back of Our Army at War #151 ((cover-dated February 1965), which introduced the ‘Enemy Ace’ in a short, sharp shocker set in 1918 wherein celebrated aerial warrior Rittmeister Von Hammer was hospitalised after downing a succession of Allied aircraft.

The coldly stoic hero was simultaneously admired by comrades and nurses whilst being shunned and feared by them: they all inevitably came to characterise Germany’s greatest hero as cold and a “human killing machine”…

Von Hammer took recuperative solace in hunting the wilds of the Schwartzwald, where he met a solitary black wolf who seemed to understand and share his lonely life of death and honour…

When his wounds were fully healed the dark knight returned to prowl once more “the Killer Skies”…

That fifteen page yarn perfectly defined everything that could be said about the character but the public could not get enough, so Von Hammer returned in #153 as ‘Flaming Bait!’ Dialled back to 1917 now (scripter Kanigher was never slavishly tied to tight or formal continuity), the cautionary tale featured the superstitious Rittmeister’s attempts to offset a wave of deaths which occurred each time a photographer took a pilot’s picture…

Our Army at War #155 (June 1965) featured ‘Fokker Fury!’, which saw the fanatically fair and scrupulous air ace accidentally shoot down an unarmed British fighter. After some excoriating self-castigation, Von Hammer was compelled to reclaim his honour in a valiant display of mad bravado…

Mere months later, he was the star of a brace of full-length thrillers in prestigious tryout vehicle Showcase.Issue #57 (July/August 1965) offered ‘Killer of the Skies!’ which recapitulated all that had gone before whilst introducing  a potential equal in the form of Canadian ace “The Hunter”.

A new wrinkle had also been added to the mix as Von Hammer now perpetually agonised and bemoaned his inability to save the human conveyor belt of naive, foolish replacement pilots to his Jagdstaffel from killing themselves through enthusiasm, bravado and youthful stupidity…

The following issue (#58, September/October) explored ‘The Hunters – and the Hunted!’, detailing how, after a blazing succession of kills, Von Hammer took a recreational trip to his beloved Black Forest and renewed acquaintances with his lupine companion. Here he had a brief encounter with a beautiful lady whose passion for the celebrity hero died as she soon as apprehended his cold, apparently emotionless executioner’s nature…

With all forms of human warmth clearly denied him, the Hammer of Hell reluctantly returned to the aerial killing fields…

Things went quiet after that as Enemy Ace clearly didn’t sell highly enough to garner its own continuing feature. Time passed and anti-war sentiment increasingly gripped the nation. In 1968 bimonthly war-mag Star Spangled War Stories – a title with a reputation for and history of offbeat material (Mlle. Marie, The War that Time Forgot) – revived Von Hammer for a spectacular run of mesmerising tales which conclusively proved, time after time, that any War was Hell…

It began in #138 (April/May) with the visually intoxicating epic ‘The Slayers and the Slain!’, which introduced a French counterpart to the Teutonic Terror in the forbidding form of the masked and hooded, eerily anonymous Hangman.

This sombre sky-warrior flew a sinister coal-black Spad and threw the German pilots into a paralysing psychological funk, but a conclusive duel with Von Hammer was postponed until the German could recover from yet another bout of wounds won in the Killer Skies…

With room to explore their timeless theme of a good man forced into wicked actions, SSWS #139 flashed back to the boyhood of the Air Ace in ‘Death Whispers… Death Screams!’ Here the austere life of a noble Junker was revealed; the manly pursuits of a Junker in training drummed into young Hans by his severe but loving father.

That grizzled old warrior, from a proud family of patriotic heroes, inculcated in the last of his line an overarching dedication to duty and honour above all other considerations, beliefs which carried him in his present endeavours though the shock of being humiliatingly shot down by the Hangman.

When they met again in the skies it was the Frenchman who crashed to earth, but he too survived to fly another day…

Also included here is a superb Kubert pictorial fact feature Battle Album: Fokker DR-1 and Spad S.13 to add to the already technically overwhelming ambiance…

In #140 the next clash of equals hideously exposed ‘The Face of the Hangman’, resulting in both men crashing on the French side of the lines and becoming respectful intimates as Hammer recuperated in his rival’s chateau before the call of country and duty resulted in one final, fateful airborne showdown…

Star Spangled War Stories #141 was inked by Frank Giacoia & Joe Giella, taking a hard look at the men who flew with Von Hammer. ‘The Bull’ was an ambitious new flier in the Jagdstaffel who endangered and even killed his own comrades in a pitiless quest for fame and glory. Eventually the Rittmeister had to take decisive and fatalistic action…

‘Vengeance is a Harpy!’ then saw the impossible return of the Hangman to sow death and terror amongst the German pilots, forcing Von Hammer into a battle he did not want with a person he had come to admire, if not love…

In ‘The Devil’s General’, after more time spent with the wolf in the woods, the brooding Rittmeister returned to duty, harrying ground troops and spectacularly eradicating opposing fliers. His composure was soon blighted by elderly General Von Kleit, who forced his son Werner into the Squadron, expecting Von Hammer to keep the boy safe in the pitiless skies.

When the callow youth was shot down and captured, The Hammer of Hell moved Heaven and Earth to bring him back alive…

For #144 Kubert inked hot new penciller Neal Adams on ‘Death Takes No Holiday!’ wherein another death-dealing macabre French Ace – dressed as a skeleton – terrorised and slaughtered the Jagdstaffel’s pilots, forcing the German Ace into insane action to inspire his men and cure a young flier of fear-induced madness…

With Kubert back on solo art duties, SSWS #145 saw Von Hammer plagued by nightmares of his greatest opponent, as he attempted to school a trio of veteran pilots for the inevitable day when one would replace him. However the actual ‘Return of the Hangman’ shattered those plans forever…

Another baroque opponent surfaced in #147 as an obsessive English lunatic who believed himself St. George put on a suit of armour and shot down far too many of the Rittmeister’s pilots as part of his scheme to give the infallible Hammer of Hell ‘A Grave in the Sky!’ However that particular vendetta concluded on the ground with ancient swords drawn…

Kanigher was never above using wrenching melodrama and sheer sentimentality to his advantage. The moving saga in #148 describes how a little puppy becomes a mascot for solitary, isolated Von Hammer, but the cute little tyke’s inescapable horrific ending is just another hammer-blow of heartbreak in ‘Luck is a Puppy named Schatzi!’

Despite immense critical acclaim, the series was dwindling in popularity. Star Spangled War Stories 149 (February/March 1970) saw Viking Prince join the eclectic comic’s line up with Enemy Ace reduced to fifteen pages. ‘Reach for the Heavens’ – inked by Sid Greene – found Von Hammer meeting again with hated flying school rival Heinrich Müller, a complex sadistic killer who redeemed himself after committing war crimes in a tale tinged with supernatural overtones…

The run truly ended with #150 and ‘3 Graves to Home!’, as the Enemy Ace was shot down over rural France and had to fight his way back to his own lines. He encountered a succession of civilians all putting a human face on the war he usually fought so far above them, but his time in the sun was almost over…

With Star Spangled War Stories #151(June/July 1970), a new feature replaced Enemy Ace as star feature, running until the magazine changed its name with the 204th (February 1977) issue to reflect the newcomer’s popularity. As The Unknown Soldier, it continued for a further 64 episodes until it too died with #268 (October 1982).

Star Spangled War Stories #152 however offered one more uncompromising mission from which only the Hammer of Hell returned. ‘Rain Above… Mud Below!’, illustrated by Russ Heath, was supplemented by another informative Kubert Battle Album starring the Lafayette Escadrille

Although gone, the iconic German warrior was far from forgotten. SSWS #158 featured a stunning Kubert ‘Special Pin-up: Enemy Ace – the Hammer of Hell’ whilst issue #181-183 held a compelling 3 part back-up serial by Kanigher & Frank Thorne which pitted the noble intellectual against maverick American Ace Steve Savage – “The Balloon Buster” in ‘Hell’s Angels Part One: The Hammer of Hell!’, ‘Hell’s Angels Part Two: The Maverick Ace!’ and the savage but inconclusive finale ‘Hell’s Angels Part Three: To End in Flames!’(June/July to November/December 1974)…

Von Hammer resurfaced in the anniversary Star Spangled War Stories #200 (June/July 1976) in ‘Shooting Star’ written and drawn by Joe Kubert, as a German innovation in rocket-propelled aircraft catastrophically proved to be an invention whose time had not yet come…

A new anthology comicbook debuted inAugust 1977. Men of War starred Gravedigger, a black American GI in WWII, but had alternating back-ups. Enemy Ace copped the first slot in issues #1-3 (by Kanigher, Ed Davis & Juan Ortiz) as ‘Death is a Wild Beast!’ saw Von Hammer down a devil-themed British pilot who accomplished a miraculous ‘Return from Hell!’ before exhibiting ‘The Three Faces of Death’ in the final instalment.

As ever, the real meat of the macabre missions was the toll on the minds and bodies of the merely mortal fliers that died whilst Von Hammer lived on…

Another triptych featured in #8-10. ‘Silent Sky… Screaming Death!!’ – illustrated by Larry Hama & Bob Smith – began a trenchant tale of a family at war before Howard Chaykin took over the art as a duel in the sky resulted in attack by vengeful siblings and the return of Von Hammer’s father in ‘Brother Killers!’

It all ended badly in a fateful ‘Duel at Dawn!’

Men of War #12-14 offered more of the same as ‘Banner of Blood!’ saw the troubled Rittmeister strive to retrieve the Von Hammer family flag from a cunning French air ace who was an ancestral foe of ‘The Last Baron!’ The centuries-long vendetta with the Comtes de Burgundy finally ended in one last honourable ‘Duel!’

Issues #19-20 (August and September 1979) finished another run with one more tale of idiotic honour and wasted young lives as Von Hammer made ‘A Promise to the Dying’ and sought to return a contentious souvenir to its rightful owner in ‘Death Must Wait!’

In the May 1981 Unknown Soldier – #251 – Enemy Ace began an occasional series of adventures illustrated by the phenomenal John Severin.

First was ‘Hell in the Heavens Part One: I, the Executioner’ wherein Von Hammer’s whirlwind romance with Fraulein Ingrid Thiesse hit a bump after he told of the British boy pilot who died in his arms. Having sworn to find his valiant foe’s sister and return an heirloom, Hans soon found himself under attack in #252’s ‘Hell in the Heavens Part Two: the Midnight Spy’,before shocking answers were forthcoming in the concluding ‘Hell in the Heavens Part Three: Midnight and Murder’…

A far more imaginative yarn unfolded in #260 (February 1982) with ‘I Am My Own Executioner Part One: Stolen Face – Stolen Ace!’ when the German High Command brought in a doppelganger to replace the national hero Von Hammer as he recovered from wounds.

Unfortunately the impostor was not only a sadistic butcher but crazy as a loon and the real deal had to defy his doctors and military superiors before shooting the maniac out of the skies – for the sake of the country and his own besmirched good name – in #261’s ‘I Am My Own Executioner Part Two: Death of a Double!’

The last flight of the war-weary warrior came in Unknown Soldier #265-267 (July to September 1982) as the British Government put a huge price on Von Hammer’s head in ‘A Very Private Hell Part One: the Bounty Hunters!’

The resultant furore led to a return engagement for Yankee white trash Steve Savage in ‘A Very Private Hell Part Two: the Substitute Ace’ and the death of a brave but foolhardy fake ace before the drama ended – again inconclusively – in ‘A Very Private Hell Part Three: Debt of Blood’

Although the grim conflicts of the chivalrous cavalry of the clouds conclude here, this epic tome holds one last treat in reserve: a rather outré but definitively classy tribute to the Hammer of Hell which originally appeared Detective Comics #404 (October 1970).

‘Ghost of the Killer Skies!’ by Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams & Dick Giordano found the Masked Manhunter attempting to solve a series of impossible murders on the set of a film about German WWI fighter ace Hans von Hammer.

All evidence seemed to prove that the killer could only be a vengeful phantom, but in the killer skies over Central Spain the mighty Batman uncovered almost incontrovertible evidence of a malign human intelligence behind the deaths.

…Almost incontrovertible…

These often bizarre but always moving and utterly unforgettable stories reveal a true high point in the annals of combat comics: crafted by masters of the art form and who never failed to ram home the point that war is not a profession for anybody who enjoys it, and that only the lucky, the mad and the already-doomed have any chance of getting out at all…
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