Golden Age Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 2

By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby and various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2228-9 (HB)

Captain America was devised at the end of 1940 and boldly launched in his own monthly title from Timely – the company’s unofficial trading designation – with none of the customary cautious shilly-shallying. The first issue was cover-dated March 1941 and was an instant monster, blockbuster smash-hit. Cap was instantly the absolute and undisputed star of Timely’s “Big Three” – the other two being The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. He was also one of the very first to plummet from popularity at the end of the Golden Age.

These days, the huge 1940s popularity of the other two just doesn’t translate into a good read for modern consumers; excluding, perhaps, some far-too-few Bill Everett-crafted Sub-Mariner yarns. In comparison to their contemporary rivals and industry leaders at Quality, Fawcett, National/All American and Dell, or The Spirit newspaper strip by Will Eisner, the standard of most Timely periodicals was woefully lacklustre in both story and, most tellingly, art.

That they survived and prospered is a true Marvel mystery, but a clue might lie in the sheer exuberant venom of their racial stereotypes and heady fervour of jingoism at a time when America was involved in the greatest war in world history…

However, the first ten Captain America Comics are indisputably the most high-quality comics in the fledgling company’s history and I can’t help but wonder what might have been had National (née DC) been wise enough to hire Simon & Kirby before they were famous, instead of after that pivotal first year?

Of course, we’ll never know and although the team supreme did jump to the majors after a year, their visual dynamic became the mandated aspirational style for super-hero comics at the company they left. Moreover, their patriotic creation became a flagship icon for them and the industry.

Truth be told however, the groundbreaking and exceptionally high-quality material from Joe Simon & Jack Kirby is not really the lure here… the real gold nuggets for us old sods and comics veterans are the rare back-up features overseen by the star duo and crafted by their small pool of talented up-&-comers.

Although unattributed the assistants included at various times Reed Crandall, Syd Shores, Alex Schomburg, Mort Meskin, Chu Hing, Gustav Schrotter, George Klein, C.A. Winter, Fred Bell and many more working on main course and filler features such as Hurricane, the God of Speed and Tuk, Caveboy; strips barely remembered today yet still brimming with the first enthusiastic efforts of creative legends in waiting.

This lavish and exceptional hardback volume (also available in various digital formats) reprints original Star-Spangled blockbusters Captain America Comics #5-8 (spanning August to November 1941) and also provides a fascinating insight into the fly-by-night nature of publishing during those get-rich-quick days in an Introduction from historian and comics scripter Gerard Jones, after which the astounding never-ending action resumes…

After scrawny, enfeebled young patriot Steve Rogers is continually rejected by the US Army, he is recruited by the Secret Service. In an effort to counter a wave of Nazi-sympathizing espionage and sabotage, the passionate young man was invited to become part of a clandestine experiment intended to create physically perfect super-soldiers.

However, when a Nazi agent infiltrated the project and murdered its key scientist, Rogers became the only successful graduate and transitioned into America’s not-so-secret weapon and very public patriotic symbol.

Despatched undercover as a simple army private, he soon encountered James Buchanan Barnes: a headstrong, orphaned Army Brat who became his sidekick and costumed confidante “Bucky”.

In the period when America was still officially non-combatant, Rogers and his sidekick were stationed at East Coast army base Camp Lehigh, but still manage to find plenty of crime to crush and evil to eradicate.

In Simon & Kirby’s ‘Captain America and the Ringmaster of Death’ the arrival in town of a circus leads to the deaths of General Blaine and Defense Commissioner Newsome in suspicious circumstances. It’s not long before both the masked heroes and government agent Betty Ross reach the same conclusion: all the acts and freaks are Nazi operatives sabotaging the nation’s security through murder… but not for much longer…

Japan was still a neutral nation too, so although visually their soldiers and spies were also unmistakeably ever-present, the eastern arm of the Axis alliance (the other two being Germany and Italy, history fans) were still being referred to as “sinister Orientals” and “Asiatic Aggressor nations”. Even so, when Steve and Bucky accompany new commanding General Haywood to the US pacific base of Kunoa, the readers knew who was really behind ‘The Gruesome Secret of the Dragon of Death!’, and revelled in seeing them scupper the most spectacular secret weapon yet aimed at the forces of freedom…

Back in the USA, the hard-hitting Star-Spangled Stalwarts then come to rescue of decent, law-abiding German Americans terrorised by the ‘Killers of the Bund’, who were determined to create a deadly Fifth Column inside America’s heartland.

Following a rousing ad for the newly minted Captain America’s Sentinels of Liberty society, a glorified infomercial for the club comes in the form of prose adventure ‘Captain America and the Ruby Robbers’ scripted by Stan Lee with spot art by S&K, after which the Patriotic Pair rescue a downed volunteer American flyer held prisoner on a former French Island now administered by the collaborating Vichy government.

‘Captain America and… The Terror That Was Devil’s Island’ is an action-drenched melodrama plucked from the contemporaneous Hollywood movie mill and referencing films such as 1937’s The Life of Emile Zola, 1939’s Devil’s Island and perhaps even 1941’s I Was a Prisoner on Devil’s Island. It served to show that infamy and cruelty could not long subdue any valiant American heart…

Joining the list of supporting features, the equally relevant if improbable adventures of ‘Headline Hunter, Foreign Correspondent’ began with this issue. Crafted by Stan Lee & Harry Fisk, these shorts find US journalist Jerry Hunter sent to Blitz-blighted London to report on the European war, only to become the story after he uncovers a traitor in the corridors of power…

Sporting only a title page by Simon & Kirby, primeval wonder ‘Tuk, Cave Boy’ bows out in a final example of “Weird Stories from the Dark Ages” as he saves his mentor Tanir from marauding beast-men and ends forever the depredations of brutal tyrant Bongo, before seasoned pro Charles Nicholas (née Wojtkowski) assumes the art chores on ‘Hurricane, Master of Speed’. Hurricane was the earthbound son of the thunder god Thor (no relation to the 1960s version): a brisk reworking and sequel to Kirby’s ‘Mercury in the 20th Century’ from Red Raven Comics #1 (August 1940), and here intercedes in a diabolical plot to destabilise the economy by flooding the banks with counterfeit currency…

Issue #6 carried a September 1941 cover-date and opens with a classic murder spree thriller as ‘Captain America Battles the Camera Fiend and his Darts of Doom’ in a frantic bid to prevent the theft of Britain’s Crown Jewels.

Timely were never subtle in terms of jingoistic (we’d say appallingly racist) depictions, and even the normally reserved Simon & Kirby let themselves go in ‘Meet the Fang, the Arch Fiend of the Orient’ as Cap and Bucky challenge the full insidious might of the Tongs of San Francisco’s China Town to save kidnapped Chinese dignitaries from a master torturer…

Another new feature debuted next. Scripted by Lee and illustrated by Al Avison & Al Gabriele ‘Father Time: The Grim Reaper Deals with Crime’ details how Larry Scott learned that his father had been framed for murder. Through heroic efforts Scott exposed the true culprits but was seconds too late to save his sire from the noose.

Determined that time should no longer be on the side of criminals and killers, Larry devised a ghastly costume and – wielding a scythe – brought his dad’s persecutors to justice. They would be only the first in Father Time’s crusade…

Simon & Kirby’s art and stories were becoming increasingly bold and innovative and ‘The Strange Case of Captain America and the Hangman Who Killed Doctor Vardoff’ reveals a diabolical game of Ten Little Indians as the suspects perish one by one whilst the superheroes attempt to catch a ruthless killer and retrieve a stolen experimental super-silk invention…

Lee and an unknown artist then offer another thinly-veiled prose plug for the Sentinels of Liberty club as Cap and Bucky lay a ‘Trap for a Traitor’, after which Headline Hunter, Foreign Correspondent ‘Battles the Engine of Destruction’ (by Lee & Fisk) and exposes an aristocratic English fascist building Nazi terror weapons in his British factories.

Following further Sentinels of Liberty club news and puzzle pages ‘Hurricane, Master of Speed’ closes the issue, crushing a murder plot in his own boarding house with art courtesy of Charles Nicholas.

CAC #7 is a stunning comic milestone and leads with the iconic clash ‘Captain America in the Case of the Red Skull and the Whistling Death’. With Steve and Bucky ordered to participate in a Vaudeville-themed troop show at Camp Lehigh, the Nazi super-assassin stalks the city slaughtering his old cronies and American military experts with a mysterious sound weapon. The monster’s big mistake is leaving the shadows and arrogantly turning his attention to Cap…

‘The Case of the Baseball Murders: Death Loads the Bases’ seemingly offers a change of pace but Steve’s sporting relaxation turns into more work when a masked maniac starts knocking off his team’s star players…

Lee’s regular prose novelette provides ‘A Message from Captain America’ introducing his fellow heroes Jerry Hunter, Hurricane and Father Time before S&K strip feature ‘Horror Plays the Scales’ pits the Red, White and Blue Bravos against a murdering musician knocking off anti-Nazi politicians.

Ken Bald & Bill Ward introduce a comedy foil for Hurricane, Master of Speed as ‘Justice Laughs Last’ sees the speedster adopt portly shopkeeper Speedy Scriggles after protection racketeers target the feisty fool.

Headline Hunter (by Lee & Fisk) then clears an Englishman accused of murdering an American film star and reveals a Nazi plot to disrupt Anglo-US relations whilst Father Time’s ‘Race Against Doom’ (Lee, Al Avison & Al Gabriele) saves another innocent patsy from taking the fall for a crooked DA and his mob boss paymaster. The issue then closes with more puzzles and patriotic pronouncements from Cap and Bucky to all their fee-paying Sentinels…

Captain America Comics #8 (cover-date November 1941) was released months before the Pearl Harbor atrocity catapulted the nation into official war so the contents might have compiled as early as June or July. Thus it opens with another gripping crime conundrum – ‘The Strange Mystery of the Ruby of the Nile and Its Heritage of Horror’ – which sees the heroes assisting Betty Ross in safeguarding a fabulous antique jewel but seemingly helpless to prevents its archaeologist excavators from being butchered by a marauding phantasm…

The impending conflagration does inform ‘Murder Stalks the Maneuvers’ when a Nazi infiltrator attends full-contact war games and uses the opportunity to trick American soldiers into destroying each other with live ammo whilst Headline Hunter, Foreign Correspondent remains in the thick of it facing ‘The Strange Riddle of the Plague of Death’ (Lee & Fisk).

This time he saves London (and the Home Counties) from a strange sickness spread by bread…

After more Sentinel propaganda and absorbing puzzles Simon & Kirby reveal the ‘Case of the Black Witch’ as Cap and Bucky protect a young woman’s inheritance and clash with a sinister sorceress and the worst horrors hell could conceive of.

Charles Nicholas returns to Hurricane as the Master of Speed and his new pal shut down a crooked ‘Carnival of Crime’, after which Lee & an unsung illustrator promote in prose a new Timely title when ‘The Young Allies Strike a Blow for Justice’. Please be warned: the treatment of Negro (heroic) character Whitewash here is every bit as dated, contentious and potentially offensive as the era’s representations of other races, so kudos to the editors for leaving the story untouched…

Closing on a bombastic high Father Time then deals harshly with robbers who use bank strong rooms to asphyxiate witnesses in ‘Vault of Doom!’

An added and very welcome bonus for fans is the inclusion of some absolutely beguiling house-ads for other titles, contents pages, Sentinels of Liberty club bulletins and assorted ephemera…

Although lagging far behind DC and despite, in many ways having a much shallower Golden Age well to draw from, it’s still commendable that Marvel has overcome an understandable initial reluctance about its earliest product and continues to re-present these masterworks – even if they’re only potentially of interest to the likes of sad old folk like me.

However, with this particular tome at least, the House of Ideas has a book that will always stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best that the Golden Age of Comics could offer.
© 1941 and 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Amazing Mysteries: The Bill Everett Archives volume 1

By Bill Everett and others, edited and complied by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-488-7

Thanks to modern technology and diligent research by dedicated fans, there is a sublime superabundance of collections featuring the works of too-long ignored founding fathers and lost masters of American comic books. A magnificent case in point is this initial chronicle (available in both print and digital formats) revisiting the incredible gifts and achievements of one of the greatest draughtsmen and yarn-spinners the industry has ever seen.

You could save some time and trouble by simply buying the book now rather than waste your valuable off-hours reading my blather, but since I’m keen to carp on anyway feel free to accompany me as I delineate just why this tome needs to join the books on your “favourites” shelf.

The star of this collection was a direct descendent and namesake of iconoclastic poet and artist William Blake. His tragic life and awe-inspiring body of work – Bill was quite possibly the most technically accomplished artist in US comicbook industry – reveals how a man of privilege and astonishing pedigree was wracked by illness, an addictive personality (especially alcoholism) and sheer bad luck, but nevertheless shaped an art-form and left twin legacies: an incredible body of superlative stories and art, and, more importantly, saved many broken lives by becoming a dedicated mentor for Alcoholics Anonymous in his later years.

William Blake Everett was born in 1917 into a wealthy and prestigious New England family. Bright and precocious, he contracted tuberculosis when he was twelve and was dispatched to arid Arizona to recuperate.

This chain of events began a life-long affair with the cowboy lifestyle: a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, tall-tale-telling breed locked in a hard-to-win war against slow self-destruction. All this and more is far better imparted in the fact-filled, picture-packed Introduction by Blake Bell. It covers the development of the medium in ‘The Golden Age of Comics’, the history of ‘Bill Everett the Man’ and how they came together in ‘Centaur + Funnies Inc. = Marvel Comics #1’.

Th essay also includes an astounding treasure trove of found images and original art including samples from 1940s Sub-Mariner, 1960s Daredevil and 1970s Black Widow amongst many others.

Accompanied by the covers – that’s the case for most of the titles that follow: Everett was fast and slick and knew how to catch a punter’s eye – for Amazing Mystery Funnies volume 1 #1, 2, 3a, 3b and volume 2 #2 (August 1938 – February 1939, Centaur) are a quartet of rousing but muddled interstellar exploits starring sci fi troubleshooter Skyrocket Steele.

These are followed by a brace of anarchic outer space shenanigans starring futuristic wild boy Dirk the Demon from Amazing Mystery Funnies vol. 1 #3a and vol. 2 #3 (November 1938 and March 1939 respectively).

The undisputed star and big draw at Centaur was always Amazing-Man: a Tibetan mystic-trained orphan, adventurer and do-gooder named John Aman. After years of dangerous, painful study the young man was despatched back to civilisation to do good (for a relative given value of “good”)…

Aman stole the show in the monthly Amazing Mystery Comics #5-8 (spanning September to December 1939) as seen in the four breakneck thrillers reprinted here: ‘Origin of Amazing-Man’; an untitled sequel episode with the champion saving a lady rancher from sadistic criminals; ‘Amazing-Man Loose’ (after being framed for various crimes) and a concluding instalment wherein the nomadic hero abandons his quest to capture his evil arch rival ‘The Great Question’ and instead heads for recently invaded France to battle the scourge of Nazism…

As previously stated, Everett was passionately wedded to western themes and for Novelty Press’ Target Comics devised an Arizona-set rootin’ tootin’ cowboy crusader dubbed Bull’s-Eye Bill. Taken from issues #1 and 2 (February and March 1940), ‘On the trail of Travis Trent’ and ‘The Escape of Travis Trent’ find our wholesome but hard-bitten cowpoke battling the meanest and most determined owlhoot in the territory.

Accompanying the strips is an Everett-illustrated prose piece attributed to “Gray Brown” entitled ‘Bullseye Bill Gets his Moniker’.

Thanks to his breakthrough Sub-Mariner sagas, Everett was inextricably linked to water-based action and immensely popular, edgy heroes. That’s why Eastern Comics commissioned him to create human waterspout Bob Blake, Hydroman for their new bimonthly anthology Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics.

Here then (spanning issues #1-5; August 1940 to March 1941), are five spectacular, eerily offbeat exploits, encompassing ‘The Origin of Hydroman’ and covering his patriotic mission to make America safe from subversion from “oriental invaders”, German saboteurs and assorted ne’er-do-wells. after which a Polar Paladin rears his frozen head.

Sub-Zero Man debuted in Blue Bullet Comics vol. 1 #2 (July 1940): a Venusian scientist stranded on Earth who, through myriad bizarre circumstances, becomes a chilly champion of justice. Everett is only credited with the episode ‘The Power of Professor X’ (from vol. 1 #5, October 1940) but also included here are the cover of vol. 1 #4 and spot illos for the prose stories ‘Sub-Zero’s Adventures on Earth’ and ‘Frozen Ice’ (from Blue Bullet Comics vol. 1 #2 and vol. 2 #3).

The Conqueror was another quickly forsaken Everett creation: a Red, White & Blue patriotic costumed champion debuting in Victory Comics #1 August 1941. Daniel Lyons almost died in a plane crash but was saved by cosmic ray bombardment which granted him astounding mental and physical powers in ‘The Coming of the Conqueror’.

He promptly moved to Europe to “rid the world of Adolf Hitler!” and Everett’s only other contribution was the cover of issue #2 (September 1941).

Accompanied by a page of the original artwork from Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics #12 (May 1941), The Music Master details how dying violinist John Wallace is saved by mystic musical means and becomes a sonic-powered superman righting injustices and crushing evil…

Rounding out this cavalcade of forgotten wonders are a selection of covers, spot illustrations and yarns which can only be described as Miscellaneous (1938-1942). These consist of the cover to the 1938 Uncle Joe’s Funnies #1; procedural crime thriller ‘The C-20 Mystery’ from Amazing Mystery Funnies vol. 2 #7 (June 1939) and ‘The Story of the Red Cross’ from True Comics #2 (June 1938).

The cover for Dickie Dare #1 (1941) is followed by a range of potent illustrative images from text tales beginning with three pages for ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ (Funny Pages vol. 2 #11; November 1940), a potent pic for ‘Birth of a Robot Part 2’ from Target Comics vol. 1 #6 (July 1940), two pages from ‘Death in a Box’ courtesy of Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics #5 (March 1941) and two from ‘Pirate’s Oil’ in Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics #13 (July 1942), before the unpublished, unfinished 1940 covers for Challenge Comics #1 and Whirlwind Comics #1 bring the nostalgia to a close.

Although telling, even revelatory and hinting at a happy ending of sorts, what this book really celebrates is not the life but the astounding versatility of Bill Everett. A gifted, driven man, he was a born storyteller with the unparalleled ability to make all his imaginary worlds hyper-real; and for nearly five decades his incredible art and wondrous stories enthralled and enchanted everybody lucky enough to read them. You should really invite yourself onto that list…
© 2011 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2011 Blake Bell. All art © its respective owners and holders. All rights reserved.

Supermen: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941

By various, edited by Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-971-5

Long regarded as the bastion of the arcane, historic, esoteric and the just plain interesting arenas of the comic book marketplace, Fantagraphics Books fully entered the Fights ‘n’ Tights Game with this magnificent paperback and digital format collection of (mostly) superhero tales from the very dawn of the American comic-book industry.

Supermen sublimely gathers together a selection of pioneering stalwarts by names legendary and seminal from the period 1936-1941: combining 9 stunning covers, many interior ads (for further beguiling characters and publications) with twenty complete sagas of fantastic worlds and times, exotically-costumed heroes and Mystery-Men – masked or otherwise – from an era when there were no genre boundaries, only untapped potential…

After Jonathan Lethem’s instructive introduction, the wonderment begins with a 2-page instalment of Dr. Mystic, the Occult Detective by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, taken from Comics Magazine #1, May 1936.

Following a selection of covers. ‘Murder by Proxy’ – an adventure of The Clock by George E. Brenner, from Detective Picture Stories #5 (April, 1937) – displays all the verve the new art form could muster. The Clock has the distinction of being the first masked comic-book hero of the era, whereas Dan Hastings – by Dan Fitch & Fred Guardineer – is accounted the first continuing science fiction hero in comic books, represented here by this appearance from Star Comics #5, 1937.

Dirk the Demon is a flamboyant boy hero created by young Bill Everett, taken from Amazing Mystery Funnies (vol.2 #3, March 1939), and is closely followed by a bombastic tale of The Flame from Wonderworld Comics #7 (November 1939). This gem comes from comics royalty Will Eisner & Lou Fine using the pen-name Basil Berold, whilst super-magician Yarko the Great debuted in Wonderworld Comics #8, written and drawn by Eisner.

The unique and brilliant Dick Briefer shines here in a Rex Dexter of Mars episode from Mystery Men Comics #4 (November 1939) before wonder boy Jack Kirby makes his first appearance, working as Michael Griffiths on a tale of Cosmic Carson for the May 1940 issue of Science Comics (#4).

The work of troubled maestro Fletcher Hanks was lost to posterity until rediscovered as the century ended by comics’ intelligentsia in such magazines as Raw! His woefully short career in comic-books is represented here by two pieces.

The first of these is the stunningly surreal and forceful Stardust, the Super Wizard from Fantastic Comics #12, (November 1940). Then in Pep Comics #3, from April of the same year, a turning point was reached in the brutal career of Jack Cole’s murderous superhero The Comet, followed by Al Bryant’s monster-hunting vigilante Fero, Planet Detective, (Planet Comics #5, May 1940). The second astounding Hanks offering, pseudonymously credited to Barclay Flagg, is followed the truly bizarre Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle from Jungle Comics #4 (April 1940).

Big Shot Comics combined reprints of established newspaper strips of the period with original characters and new material. From the first issue in May 1940 comes Marvello, Monarch of Magicians by Gardner Fox & Fred Guardineer: another in a veritable legion of wizard crimebusters inspired by Lee Falk’s Mandrake.

Plainclothes mystery-man Tony Trent fought crime by putting on a hideous mask and calling himself The Face. His gripping exploits were also written by Fox and drawn here by the wonderful Mart Bailey, working together as “Michael Blake”. The other major all-new star of Big Shot was the fabulous blend of Batman, G-8, Captain Midnight and Doc Savage dubbed Skyman, and this yarn by “Paul Dean” (Fox & Ogden Whitney) is a real cracker.

Jack Cole returns as “Ralph Johns” to tell a tale of super-speedster Silver Streak (from Silver Streak Comics #4, May 1940) and is followed by one of the most famous and celebrated tales of this dawn era, wherein a daring hero clashed with a sinister God of Hate in #7’s ‘Daredevil Battles the Claw’ (from January 1941).

The legendary Basil Wolverton steals the show next with the cover of Target Comics #7 and a startling story of Spacehawk, Superhuman Enemy of Crime from issue #11, (December 1940) after which artic avenger Sub-Zero stops crime cold in an episode from Blue Bolt #5, courtesy of rising star Bill Everett, before the pictorial magic concludes with an episode of Joe Simon & Jack Kirby’s incredible and eponymous Blue Bolt fantasy strip from the tenth issue of the magazine that bore his name (cover-dated the same month as another S&K classic entitled Captain America)…

Augmented by comprehensive background notes on the contents of this treasury of thrills, Supermen is a perfect primer for anyone seeking an introduction to the Golden Age, as well as a delightful journey for long-time fans. I’m sure there’s very little here that most of us have seen before, and as a way of preserving these popular treasures for a greater posterity it is a timely start. Much, much more, please…
All stories are public domain but the specific restored images and design are © 2009 Fantagraphics Books.

The Boy Commandos by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby volume 2

By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby with various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5817-7

Just as the Golden Age of comics was kicking off, two young men with big hopes met up and began a decades-long association that was always intensely creative, immensely productive and spectacularly in tune with popular tastes.

Joe Simon was a sharp-minded, talented gentleman with five years hard-earned experience in “real” publishing. He had worked from the bottom up to art director on a succession of small newspapers such as the Rochester Journal American, Syracuse Herald and Syracuse Journal American before moving to New York City and a life of freelancing as an illustrator and art/photo retoucher.

With comicbooks exploding onto every newsstand, Simon – with a recommendation from his boss – joined Lloyd Jacquet’s pioneering comics production “shop” Funnies Inc.: generating strips and characters for a number of publishing houses eager to cash in on the success of Action Comics and its groundbreaking star attraction Superman.

Within days Simon created The Fiery Mask for Martin Goodman of Timely (now Marvel) Comics and met young Jacob Kurtzberg, a cartoonist and animator just hitting his explosive, imaginative stride with The Blue Beetle for the Fox Feature Syndicate.

Together Simon & Kurtzberg (who went through a battalion of pen-names before settling on Jack Kirby) enjoyed stunning creative empathy and synergy which galvanized an already electric neo-industry with a vast catalogue of features and even genres.

At rocket-pace they produced the influential Blue Bolt, drew Captain Marvel Adventures #1 and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely, invented a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, Marvel Boy, Hurricane, The Vision, The Young Allies and a rather popular guy named Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby promptly jumped ship to industry leader National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a mighty chequebook. Initially an uncomfortable fit and bursting with ideas the cautious company were not comfortable with, the pair were handed two failing strips to play with until they found their creative feet.

Soon after establishing themselves with The Sandman and Manhunter, the dynamic duo were left to their own devices and – returning to the “Kid Gang” genre they pioneered with Young Allies at Timely – drafted a unique juvenile Foreign Legion entitled The Boy Commandos.

The young warriors initially shared the spotlight with Batman in flagship publication Detective Comics but before long their solo title would frequently number amongst the company’s top three sellers…

Boy Commandos was such a soaring success – frequently cited as the biggest-selling American comicbook in the world at that time – that the editors, knowing the Draft was lurking, green-lighted the completion of a wealth of extra material to lay away for the dreadful moment their star creators were called up.

With their talented studio team, S&K produced so much four-colour magic in a such a phenomenally short time that Publisher Jack Liebowitz eventually suggested they retool some of it into adventures of a second kid gang… and thus was born The Newsboy Legion (and their super-heroic mentor The Guardian)…

Those guys we’ll get back to another time but today let’s applaud this splendidly sturdy second full-colour hardback (and eBook) compilation, re-presenting further exploits of the courageous and internationally diverse Young Lions from Detective Comics #74-83 and 85, World’s Finest Comics#10-13 and Boy Commandos #3-5.

Spanning April 1943 to March 1944, these tales comprise a superb salvo of stunning combat classics, bombastic blockbusters and cunning comedy capers that were at once fervently patriotic morale-boosters, rousing action-adventures and potent satirical swipes and jibes by creators who were never afraid to show that good and evil could never simply be just “Us & Them”…

We never learned how American Captain Rip Carter got to command a British Commando unit nor why he was allowed to take a quartet of war-orphans with him on a never-ending succession of deadly sorties into “Festung Europa”, North Africa, the Pacific or Indo-Chinese theatres of war. All we had to do was realise that cockney urchin Alfy Twidgett, French lad Andre Chavard (originally dubbed “Pierre” before being unobtrusively renamed), little Dutch boy Jan Haasen and rough, tough lout Brooklyn were fighting the battles we would, if we only adults had given us a chance…

Following a scholarly and incisive appraisal from publisher John Morrow in his Introduction ‘Don’t Sit Out This War!’, the vintage thrills and spills commence with a spectacular reintroduction to the team as only S & K could craft it: a masterpiece of patriotic fervour and frustration entitled ‘The Trial of Captain Carter’ from Detective Comics #74 April 1943.

A truly tense drama, it sees the bold Captain risk disgrace and worse to cover up for a soldier under his command in a tale packed with tension and spectacle after which the heroes then challenged prejudices with the tale of a pacifist Scots farmer and the extraordinary events that led to his becoming a ‘Double for Death’ (Detective #75).

An astoundingly popular hit combo, the kids were also a fixture in premier all-star anthology World’s Finest Comics too. From #10 (Summer 1943), ‘Message to Murmansk’ sees the juvenile terrors endure the hardships of convoy duty to Russia, and destroying a U-Boat base in Norway to prove to the Allies’ Red comrades hat they have not been forgotten…

The seemingly insatiable demand for fresh stories was partly assuaged by a quarterly solo title with Boy Commandos #3 (Summer 1943) offering a fabulous tranche of tales, beginning with ‘A Film from the Front …Uncensored’. Here, puny but fervent newsreel cameraman Spud Mattson goes far above and beyond his normal duties on a doomed mission to Greece…

From the start the yarns were strangely exotic and bizarrely multi-layered, adding a stratum of myth making and frequently sheer fantasy to the grim and grisly backdrop of a war fought from the underdog’s position. A perfect example is ‘War Album No. 1 – The Siege of Troy’ wherein the squad are transposed root and branch to the Trojan War where abducting scoundrel Paris is a dead ringer for Adolf Hitler. He suffers ignominious defeat there and then too…

Broad comedy leavens the turmoil of conflict in ‘Cyril Thwaites Rides Again, or, The Recruiting Sergeant Should Have Looked Twice!’ as a pompous and vainglorious weedy braggart is afforded the chance to change and determine the course of the war before a deadly faceless nemesis resurfaces in ‘The Return of Agent Axis’ only to be defeated and finally exposed by rip and the lads…

Detective Comics #76 (June 1943) afforded a guest-packed foray back to the USA as the Sandman & Sandy and the Newsboy Legion – with their masked Guardian – unite with a new gang of Kid Commandos to rescue Rip and Co. when they are kidnapped by Nazi spies planning ‘The Invasion of America’.

James Hilton’s Shangri-La is heavily referenced in ‘The Valley of Destiny’ (Detective #77) when super-advanced monks judge the worth and philosophy of the warring sides in the global conflict. The despicable but cunning Nazis seem to have the upper hand over the Boy Commandos but eventually everyone’s true nature is revealed…

Sheer dynamic bravado carries the tale from #78 as the team invade the heart of Europe to aid the German resistance and the broadcasters of ‘Freedom Station’

World’s Finest Comics #11 (Fall 1943) then find the globetrotting kids in Tunisia to winkle out diehard holdouts from Rommel’s defeated Afrika Korps in ‘Sand Dunes of Death!’ before Boy Commandos #4 (Fall 1943) offers a bold new kind of adventure in a book-length saga entitled ‘The Invasion of Europe!’.

‘Chapter One: Flames at Dawn!’ opens with the famous squad pre-empting D-Day in brutally prophetic fashion, blasting their way onto the beaches of France only to be separated from the main force and each other…

‘Chapter Two: Brooklyn Revere’s Ride!’ offers astounding drama and heartbreaking tragedy as the American warrior attempts to warn a French village and the Allied forces of a devasting German counter-offensive whilst ‘Chapter Three: The Madman of Mt. Cloud!’ finds Alfie sheltered by a brave matron before infiltrating a gothic asylum used by both the oppressors and the Resistance to extract secrets…

Apparently killed in a parachute drop, Dutch boy Jan links up with a trio of youthful freedom fighters led by a vengeful girl. ‘Chapter Four: Toinette the Terrible!’ sees them rescue the now-captured Boy Commandos before ‘Chapter Five: West Meets East’ drops into prose mode to detail the brief encounter between the kids and a very lost band of Russian aviators.

The ambitious and fanciful novel moves into finale mode for ‘Chapter Six: Bugle of the Brave!’ as the sacrifice of a true patriot unites his downtrodden countrymen in bloody rebellion against the Nazis before the stirring saga concludes with a speculative climax as ‘Chapter Seven: The Road to Berlin!’ carries the incensed and unstoppable forces of freedom to the gates of Berlin and a utopian future…

Over in Detective Comics #79 (September 1943) a short furlough ends when the boys find a dying Italian and learn of a scheme to murder all POWs. Before long a rescue is underway and when the team unite with ruthless Sicilian partisans ‘The Duce Gets a Hotfoot’

Scurrilous espionage at the heart of an English stately home reveals a shocking secret about ‘The Baronet of Bodkin Borders’ in Detective #80 whilst deadly vengeance informs a mission to Japanese-held Bataan in #81’s ‘Yankee Doodle Dynamite’. The mission is made the more memorable after Rip’s rascals meet a small band of American holdouts fighting a deadly guerrilla campaign behind the Tojo’s lines…

World’s Finest Comics #12 (Winter 1943-1944) finds the lads incognito in seemingly-neutral Switzerland to track down hidden Nazi loot but their ‘Golden Victory’ accidentally takes them all the way to Berlin and a most satisfactory face to face meeting with the Fuhrer…

Boy Commandos #5 (Winter 1943-1944) opens with ‘Assignment in Norway’ as Andre gets lost on a raid and meets two women pilots of the unsung Bomber Ferry Command. Together they expose a hidden base and inflict another crushing blow on the hard-pressed Boche.

Supernatural retribution infuses ‘A Town to Remember’ as a mysterious officer commandeers the team and guides them to Czechoslovakia and the razed area where the citizens of Lidice were exterminated. Is it merely to save the last desperate hostages or is there another reason for the ill-starred raid?

On leave in London, the lads encounter ‘The Mysterious Mr. Mulani’ and trail what they consider to be the most inept spy they’ve ever seen. What a surprise when the incredible truth is revealed…

In a compelling foreshadowing of their later supernatural mystery yarns, Simon & Kirby – and their unheralded team of assistants – then disclose the eerie antics of a deadly powerbroker whose bargains with numerous influential Germans all come due at the same time as the Boy Commandos close in in the chilling ‘Satan to See You!

A true treat for those in-the-know, Detective Comics #82 (December 1943) features ‘The Romance of Rip Carter’: the tale of an indomitable bomber that refused to be shot down until her mission was accomplished. The plane was the “Rosalind K” and Jack had been married to wife Roz since May 1942…

Detective #83 mixed laughs with action as the boys prowled London hunting nefarious spies and an escaped music hall ape which bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a certain American battle veteran. Sadly, when the curtain fell the villains’ downfall was ‘The Triumph of Cholly the Chimp’

World’s Finest Comics #12 (Winter 1943-1944) offered another Home Front saga as a stolen racehorse led the lads to a ruthless criminal gang, heartfelt tragedy and ‘A Wreath for Sir Edgar of Wimpledowne’, before Detective #85 (issue #84 being a non-S&K fill-in by Joe Samachson & Louis Cazeneuve and not included here) brings the memorable missions to a close with ‘Curtain Call for Action’. Here the insidious Agent Axis returns yet again, taking over a touring USO show for the troops and attempting to substitute a Gestapo doppelganger for the army’s top general until Rip and the boys get stuck in…

Although I’ve rightly concentrated on the named stars, it’s important to remember – especially in these more enlightened times still plagued with the genuine horror of children forcibly swept up in war they have no stake in – that the Boy Commandos, even in their most ferociously fabulous exploits, were symbols as much as combatants, usually augmented by huge teams of proper soldiers doing most of the actual killing.

It’s not much of a comfort but at least it showed Simon & Kirby were not simply caught up in a Big Idea without considering all the implications…

Bombastic, blockbusting and astoundingly appetising, these superb fantasies from the last “Good War” are a spectacular example of comics giants at their most creative. No true believer or dedicated comics aficionado should miss this classic collection.
© 1943, 1944, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

America’s 1st Patriotic Comic Book Hero – The Shield

By Irving Novick, Harry Shorten & various (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-87979-408-5

In the dawning days of the comic book business, just after Superman and Batman had ushered in a new genre of storytelling, many publishers jumped onto the bandwagon and made their own bids for cash and glory. Many thrived and many more didn’t, remembered only as trivia by sad blokes like me. Some few made it to an amorphous middle-ground: Not forgotten, but certainly not household names either…

The Shield was an FBI scientist named Joe Higgins who wore a suit which gave him enhanced strength, speed and durability. These advantages he used to battle America’s enemies in the days before the USA entered World War II. Latterly he also devised a Shield Formula that increased his powers.

Beginning with the first issue of Pep Comics (January 1940) he battled spies, saboteurs, subversive organisations and every threat to American security and well-being and was a minor sensation. He is credited with being the industry’s very first Patriotic Hero, predating Marvel’s iconic Captain America in the “wearing the Flag” field.

Collected here in this Golden-Age fan-boy’s dream (available as a trade paperback and in digital formats) are the lead stories from monthly Pep Comics #1-5 (January – May 1940) plus the three solo adventures from the hastily assembled spin-off Shield-Wizard Comics #1 (Summer 1940).

Following a Foreword from Robert M. Overstreet and context-providing Introduction from Paul Castiglia the wonderment opens with FBI agent and Joe Higgins smashing a Stokonian spy and sabotage ring in his mystery man identity of The Shield ‘G-Man Extraordinary’. Only his boss J. Edgar Hoover knows his dark secret and of the incredible scientific process that has made the young daredevil a veritable human powerhouse.

In Pep #2, as American oil tankers begin vanishing at sea, The Shield hunts down the ray-gun-wielding villains responsible and delivers punishing justice whilst in #3 mini parachute mines cause devastating destruction in US waters until the patriotic paragon discovers the undersea base of brilliant science-maniac Count Zongarr and deals out more all-American retribution…

There’s a whiff of prescience or plain military/authorial foresight to the blistering tale from Pep #4 (May 1940) when devious, diabolical Mosconians perpetrate a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Warned by a clairvoyant vision from new mystery man The Wizard Higgins hurtles to Hawaii to scotch the plot, and when fists and fury aren’t quite enough the Shield turns an exploding volcano on the murdering backstabbers!

With mission accomplished, Higgins takes an ocean liner home in issue #5 only to have the ship attacked by vengeful Mosconians. After thwarting the sinister ambushers and battling his way back, Joe arrives back in the USA just in time to thwart a tank column attack on Congress!

The blistering pace and sheer bravura of the Patriotic Paragon’s adventures made him an early hit and he soon found a second venue for his crusade in Shield-Wizard Comics. The shared titled launched in June 1940 and opened with an expanded origin for the red, white and blue blockbuster. In 1916 his father was a scientist and officer in US Army Intelligence.

Whilst working on a formula to make men superhuman, Tom Higgins was attacked by enemy agents and he lost his life when they blew up a fleet of ammunition barges. To make matters worse, the agent was posthumously blamed for the disaster…

Joe grew up with the shame but swore to complete his father’s work and clear his name…

By achieving the first – and gaining super-powers – Joe lured out spy master Hans Fritz (who had framed his dad) and accomplished the most crucial component of his crusade: exonerating Tom Higgins. Then, with his dad’s old partner J. Edgar as part of the secret, the son joined the FBI and began his work on America’s behalf…

Shield-Wizard #1 contained three complete exploits of the Star-Spangled Centurion with the second introducing Joe to his new partner Ju Ju Watson: a doughty veteran dedicated to completing the young operative’s training. Together they investigate a steel mill infiltrated by crooks holding the owner hostage and aiming to purloin the payroll…

Young Higgin’s next case involves grisly murder as corpses are found concealed in a floating garbage scow and the trail leads back to vice racketeer Lou Zefke whose ongoing trial is stalling for lack of witnesses. With only the slimmest of leads but plenty of enthusiasm, The Shield steps in and cleans up the mess…

Raw, primitive and a little juvenile perhaps, these are still unadorned, glorious romps from the industry’s exuberant, uncomplicated dawning days: Plain-and-simple fun-packed thrills from the gravely under-appreciated Irving Novick, Harry Shorten and others whose names are now lost to history.

Despite not being to everyone’s taste these guilty pleasures are worth a look for any dyed-in-the-woollen-tights superhero freak and comprise a rapturous tribute to a less complicated time with simpler solutions to complex problems.
© 1940, 2002 Archie Publications In. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Golden Age volume 4

By Bill Finger, Don Cameron, Joseph Greene, Joe Samachson, Jack Schiff, Bob Kane, Jack Burnley, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7130-5

The history of the American comicbook industry in most ways stems from the raw, vital and still compelling tales of two iconic creations published by DC/National Comics: Superman and Batman. It’s only fair and fitting that both those characters are still going strong and that their earliest adventures can be relived in chronological order in relatively cheap, and gloriously cheerful, compilations.

Debuting a year after Superman, “The Bat-Man” (and latterly Robin, the Boy Wonder) confirmed DC/National Comics as the market frontrunner and conceptual leader of the burgeoning comicbook industry.

Having established the parameters of the metahuman with their Man of Steel, the physical mortal perfection and dashing derring-do of the strictly-human Dynamic Duo rapidly became the swashbuckling benchmark by which all other four-colour crime-busters were judged.

Batman: The Golden Age is a series of paperback feasts (there’s also weightier, pricier, more capacious hardback Omnibus editions available, and digital iterations too) re-presenting the Dark Knight’s earliest exploits.

Presented in original publishing release order, the tomes trace the character’s growth into the icon who would inspire so many and develop the resilience needed to survive the stifling cultural vicissitudes that coming decades would inflict upon him and his partner, Robin.

Re-presenting astounding cape-&-cowl classics and iconic covers from Detective Comics #66-74, Batman #12-15 and pertinent stories from World’s Finest Comics #7-9, this book covers groundbreaking escapades from August 1942 to April 1943: as the Dynamic Duo continually develop and storm ahead of all competition.

As the heroes’ influence expanded, new talent joined the stable of creators. Jerry Robinson had already worked with writer Bill Finger and penciller Bob Kane, and during this period more scripters joined the ever-expanding team to detail adventures during the darkest days of World War II.

I’m certain it’s no coincidence that many of these Golden Age treasures are also some of the best and most reprinted tales in the Batman canon. With chief writer Bill Finger at a peak of creativity and production, everybody on the Home Front was keen to do their bit – even if that was simply making kids of all ages forget their troubles for a brief while…

This volume starts in grand style with the debut of a true classic villain as Finger, Kane & Robinson expose ‘The Crimes of Two-Face’ (Detective Comics #66): a classical tragedy in crime-caper form as Gotham DA Harvey Kent (whose name was later changed by editorial diktat to Dent) is disfigured in court and goes mad – becoming the conflicted thief and killer who remains one of the Caped Crusader’s greatest foes.

Batman #12 (August/September 1942) follows with another four classics. ‘Brothers in Crime’ – by Don Cameron & Robinson – reveals the tragic fates of a criminal family after which the Joker returns in ‘The Wizard of Words’ by Finger, Kane, Robinson and George Roussos.

Jack Burnley illustrated the spectacular daredevil drama ‘They Thrill to Conquer’ before ‘Around the Clock with Batman’ recounts a typical “day in the life” of the Dynamic Duo, complete with blazing guns, giant statues and skyscraper near-death experiences…

Then, from World’s Finest Comics #7 (Fall 1942), comes an imaginative thriller of chilly thrills and spills in ‘The North Pole Crimes!’ whilst Detective #67 features the Penguin as ‘Crime’s Early Bird!’, before Two-Face’s personal horror-story continues in ‘The Man Who Led a Double Life’ from #68.

Batman #13 (October/November 1942) tugged heartstrings when ‘The Batman Plays a Lone Hand’ but returned to more traditional ground after the Joker organized a ‘Comedy of Tears’ (by Jack Schiff, Kane, Robinson & Roussos). Although ‘The Story of the Seventeen Stones!’ (drawn by Burnley) then offered a deliciously experimental murder-mystery, the heroes slipped into comfortable Agatha Christie – or perhaps Hitchcock territory – as they tackled a portmanteau of crimes on a train in Cameron, Kane, Robinson and Roussos’ ‘Destination: Unknown!’ to close the issue.

Joseph Greene scripted the Joker’s next escapade in the astounding case of ‘The Harlequin’s Hoax!’ (Detective #68 before our heroes endure the decidedly different threat of ‘The Man Who Could Read Minds!’: another off-beat thriller from Cameron that premiered in Detective #70.

Cameron also wrote all four stories in Batman #14 (December 1942/January 1943). ‘The Case Batman Failed to Solve’ (illustrated by Jerry Robinson) is a superb example of the sheer decency of the Caped Crusader as he fudges a mystery for the best possible reason; ‘Prescription for Happiness’ (art by Bob Kane & Robinson) is a masterful example of the human-interest drama that used to typify Batman tales as a poor doctor discovers his own true worth, and ‘Swastika Over the White House!’ (Jack & Ray Burnley art) is typical of the spy-busting action yarns readers were gratuitously lapping up at the time.

The final story ‘Bargains in Banditry!’ – also from the Burnley boys – is another canny crime caper featuring fowl felon the Penguin.

Detective Comics #71 (January 1943, Finger, Kane & Robinson) featured ‘A Crime a Day!’ – one of the most memorable and thrilling Joker escapades of the period – whilst ‘Brothers in Law’ (by Schiff and the Burnleys from the Winter 1942 World’s Finest Comics #8) pits Batman and Robin against a Napoleon of Crime and feuding siblings who had radically differing definitions of justice…

Samachson, Kane & Robinson crafted Detective #72 which saw found our heroes crushing murderous con-men in ‘License for Larceny’ before Batman #15 (February/March 1943) lead with Schiff, Kane & Robinson’s Catwoman romp ‘Your Face is your Fortune!’ whilst Cameron and those Burnleys introduced plucky homeless boy Bobby Deen as ‘The Boy Who Wanted to be Robin!’

The same team concocted powerful propaganda tale ‘The Two Futures’, which examined an America under Nazi subjugation after which ‘The Loneliest Men in the World’ (Cameron, Kane & Robinson) was – and remains – one of the very best Christmas Batman tales ever created; full of pathos, drama, fellow-feeling and action…

Cameron, Kane & Robinson went back to spooky basics in Detective Comics#73 (March 1943) when ‘The Scarecrow Returns’, a moody chiller followed by the introduction of comical corpulent criminal psychopaths ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee!’ in #74, before this gripping volume concludes with the Batman portion of World’s Finest #9 (Spring 1943) as Finger, Robinson & Roussos recount the saga of a criminal mastermind who invented a sure-fire ‘Crime of the Month!’ scheme…

These are the stories that cemented the popularity of Batman and Robin and brought welcome surcease to millions during a time of tremendous hardship and crisis. Even if these days aren’t nearly as perilous or desperate – and there ain’t many who thinks otherwise! – the power of such work to rouse and charm is still potent and just as necessary. You owe it to yourself and your family and even your hamster to Buy This Book…
© 1942, 1943, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Ronald Searle’s Non-Sexist Dictionary

By Ronald Searle (Souvenir Press)
ISBN: 978-0-28562-865-6

Britain has a fantastic and enviable history and tradition of excellence in the arts of graphic narrative and cartooning. Whether telling a complete story or simply making a point; much of the modern world’s most innovative, inspirational and trenchantly acerbic drawing has come from British pens powered by British hearts and minds.

If you’re quietly humming Rule Britannia or Jerusalem right now, pack it in. This is not the tone we want. I’m just stating a few facts.

Ronald Searle was one of a very gifted few (I’d number Ken Reid, Leo Baxendale, Murray Ball and Hunt Emerson among them) who can actually draw funny lines. No matter how little or how much they need to say, they can imbue the merest blot or scratch of ink with character, intent and wicked, wicked will.

During the Second World War he was a Japanese POW at the infamous Changi Prison. The second St Trinian’s cartoon was drawn in that hell-hole in 1944 and it survived along with his incredible war sketches to see print once peace broke out. Searle was a worker on the Siam-Burma Railroad (a story for another time and place) and risked his life daily both by making pictures and by keeping them.

His mordantly funny cartoons appeared in many places such as Punch, Lilliput, The Sunday Express, and other collections of his work include Hurrah for St. Trinian’s!, The Female Approach, Back to the Slaughterhouse, The Terror of St. Trinian’s, Souls in Torment, Merry England, etc., The St. Trinian’s Story, Which Way Did He Go? and Pardong m’sieur.

Searle’s work has influenced an uncountable number of other cartoonists too. His unique visualisation and darkly comic satirical cynicism in the St. Trinian’s drawings and the utterly captivating vision of boarding school life as embodied in the classically grotesque Nigel Molesworth (created with Geoffry Willans for Punch and released to enormous success as Down With Skool!, How to be Topp!, Whizz For Atomms! and Back in the Jug Agane) influenced generations of children and adults and even played its part in shaping our post-war national character and language.

And have I mentioned yet that his drawings are really, really funny?

Although perhaps a bit of a one-trick pony – and still readily available despite being despite being 30 years old – this sharp and immaculately depicted slice of satirical buffoonery still affords a chuckle or two, but the truly magical aspect of this book is the unforgettable collection of black and white cartoons delivered with stunning absurdist candour and the peculiarly tragic warmth that only Searle could instil with his seemingly wild yet clearly-considered linework.

By transposing such terms as “Semen” with “Sewomen” or “Hymn” with “Herm” he can still make us pause and ponder, but the total immersion that his bridled insanity delivers in his illustrations reaches much deeper and lasts so much longer.

You will laugh, (it’s impossible not to) but you will also grieve and yearn and burn in empathised frustration at the marvels in this lost supply of ordinance in the Battle of the Sexes.

Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant stuff! See for yourself, whatever side of the battle lines you cower behind…
© 1988 Ronald Searle.

Showcase Presents Strange Adventures volume 1

By John Broome, Otto Binder, Edmond Hamilton, Joe Samachson, Gardner Fox, Dave Wood, Bill Finger, Harry Sharp, Sid Gerson, Jerry Coleman, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Sid Greene, Murphy Anderson, Sy Barry, Joe Giella, Jerry Grandenetti, John Giunta, Joe Kubert & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1544-6

As the 1940s closed, masked mystery-men dwindled in popularity and the American comicbook industry found new heroes.

Classic genre titles flourished; resulting in anthologies dedicated to crime, war, westerns and horror amongst most comics publishers. These were augmented by newer fads like funny animal, romance and especially science fiction which, in 1950, finally escaped its glorious thud and blunder/ray guns/bikini babes in giant fishbowl helmets pulp roots (as perfectly epitomised in the uniquely wonderful Golden Age icon Planet Comics) with the introduction of Strange Adventures.

Packed with short adventures from jobbing SF prose writers and offering 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 all the potential wonders and terrors it might conceal…

This spectacular and economical black-&-white collection (astonishingly, there are still no archival collections of this stuff available to modern readers these days; not even via that future-fangled interweb) re-presents stories from the inception of the self-regulatory Comics Code.

Strange Adventures #54-73 covers March 1955 to October 1956, right up to the start of the Silver Age when superheroes began to successfully reappear, offering beguiled readers technological wonderment and the sure-&-certain knowledge that there were many and varied somethings “Out There”…

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.

Moreover, many of the plots, gimmicks, maguffins and even art and design would be cleverly recycled for the later technologically-based Silver Age superhero revivals…

This mind-blowing, physics-challenging monochrome colossus opens with the March 1955 issue and four classic vignettes, beginning with ‘The Electric Man!’ by John Broome & Sy Barry, wherein a geologist in search of new power sources accidentally unleashes destructive voltaic beings from the centre of the Earth.

As always – and in the grand tradition of legendary pulp sci-fi editor John Campbell – human ingenuity and decency generally solves the assorted crises efficiently and expeditiously…

‘The World’s Mightiest Weakling!’ from Otto Binder, Carmine Infantino & Bernard Sachs, offers a charming yet impossible conundrum after a puny stripling gains incomprehensible mass and density during the course of an experiment, whilst ‘Interplanetary Camera!’ (Binder, Gil Kane & Sachs) grants a photographer a glimpse of the unknown when he finds an alien image recorder and uncovers a plot to destroy Earth.

The issue concludes with another Binder blinder in the taut thriller ‘The Robot Dragnet!’, illustrated by Harry Sharp & Joe Giella, with a rip-roaring romp of rampaging robotic rage.

This tale was actually the sequel to an earlier yarn but sufficiently and cleverly recapped so that there’s no confusion or loss of comprehensibility…

Issue #55 led with ‘The Gorilla who Challenged the World’ by Edmond Hamilton & Barry, wherein an ape’s intellect is scientifically enhanced to the point where he becomes a menace to all mankind. So great was his threat that this tale also carried over to the next issue…

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

‘Movie Men from Mars!’ (Hamilton, Sharp & Giella) sees our world the unwilling location for cinematographers from the Red Planet. Unfortunately, they’re making a disaster movie…

‘A World Destroyed!’ by Joe Kubert offered a fanciful yet gripping explanation for how the asteroid belts between Mars and Jupiter were formed and that cataclysm theme is revisited in ‘The Day the Sun Exploded!’ with Broome, Kane & Sachs depicting a desperate dash by scientists to save Earth from melting.

Sid Gerson, Murphy Anderson & Giella then wrap up by revealing the baffling puzzle of ‘The Invisible Spaceman!’

SA #56 opened whimsically with ‘The Fish-Men of Earth!’ (Broome, Infantino & Sachs) as air density goes temporarily askew thanks to invading aliens, before ‘Explorers of the Crystal Moon!’ (Broome, Sharp & Sachs) finds a little boy going for a secret solar safari with visiting extraterrestrials.

Artist Paul Paxton then inadvertently becomes ‘The Sculptor Who Saved the World!’ when future-men ask him to make some highly specific pieces for them: a fast-paced yarn by Broome, Kane & Giella. Penitent Dr. Jonas Mills then corrects his evolutionary error by finally defeating his mutated gorilla in the concluding part of simian saga ‘The Jungle Emperor!’ by Hamilton & Barry.

Broome, Sid Greene & Sachs’ ‘The Spy from Saturn!’ opened issue #57 with a Terran scientist replaced by a perfect impostor, whilst ‘The Moonman and the Meteor!’ (Bill Finger & Barry) posits millionaires and aliens trying to buy or inveigle a fallen star from a humble amateur astronomer for the best and worst of reasons, after which Binder, Kane & Giella proffer ‘The Riddle of Animal “X”’ after a small boy finds a pet like no other creature on Earth…

Broome, Infantino & Giella then reveal an incredible ancient find to a Uranium prospector and some fugitive convicts desperate enough to try any means of escape in ‘Spaceship Under the Earth!’

Issue #58 opens with a police chief’s frantic search for a superhuman felon in ‘I Hunted the Radium Man!’ (Dave Wood & Infantino) whilst ‘Prisoner of Two Worlds!’ – Finger & Barry – sees the long-awaited return of genius detective Darwin Jones of The Department of Scientific Investigation.

Although an anthology of short stories, Strange Adventures featured a number of memorable returning characters and concepts such as Star Hawkins, Space Museum and The Atomic Knights during its run.

Jones debuted in the very first issue, solving fringe science dilemmas for the Federal Government and making thirteen appearances over as many years. In this third adventure he assists alien peace-officers in preventing a visiting extraterrestrial from taking a commonplace earth object back to his homeworld where it would become a ghastly terror-weapon…

‘Dream-Journey Through Space!’ (Broome, Kane & Sachs) depicts an ordinary human plucked from Earth to rescue an ancient civilisation from destruction as well as a humble but cunning ventriloquist who save our world from invasion by invincible aliens in Finger, Greene & Giella’s ‘The Invisible Masters of Earth!’

A young married couple have to find a way to prove they aren’t dumb animals on ‘The Ark from Planet X’ (Broome, Greene & Giella) which opened #59, after which ‘The Super-Athletes from Outer Space!’ came to our world to train in a heavier gravity environment and find the galaxy’s greatest sports-coach in a charming tale by Binder, Kane & Sachs.

Ed “France” Herron & Infantino then explore the domino theory of cause and effect in ‘Legacy from the Future!’ before Broome & Barry delve into ancient history and doomsday weaponry to discover the secret of our solar system and ‘The World that Vanished!’

Strange Adventures #60 featured a light-hearted time-travel teaser by Broome, Jerry Grandenetti & Giella concerning how historians gather together famous historic personages from ‘Across the Ages!’

‘The Man Who Remembered 100,000 Years Ago!’ (Binder, Kane & Sachs) is a terse, tense thriller as lightning provokes ancestral memories of a previous civilisation just in time for a scientist to cancel his unwitting repeat of the self-same experiment which had eradicated them…

Broome, Greene & Sachs then follow the life of a foundling boy who turns out to be an ‘Orphan of the Stars!’ before the issue concludes with a future-set thriller wherein schoolboy Ted Carter wins a place on a multi-species outing to the ‘World at the Edge of the Universe!’ (Binder & Barry).

In #61, ‘The Mirages from Space!’ (Binder, Kane & Sachs) are a portal into a fantastic other world and hold the secret of Earth’s ultimate salvation; ‘The Thermometer Man’ – Binder, Greene & Giella – sees a scientist striving to save a stranded Neptunian from melting in the scorching hell of our world and a lighthouse keeper is forced to play smart to counter a Plutonian invasion with ‘The Strange Thinking-Cap of Willie Jones!’ (Herron & Barry).

In conclusion Binder, Greene & Giella’s ‘The Amazing Two-Time Inventions’ finds an amateur inventor making fortuitous contact with his counterparts in 3000AD…

SA #62 introduced ‘The Fireproof Man’ (Broome, Infantino & Sachs) whose equally astounding dog foils an alien invasion even as an ordinary handyman falls into another dimension to become a messiah and ‘The Emperor of Planet X’ (Broome, Greene & Giella). Binder, Kane & Giella then report an abortive ‘Invasion from Inner Space!’ before ‘The Watchdogs of the Universe!’ recruit their first human agent in a tantalising tale by Binder, Greene & Giella.

Joe Samachson, Grandenetti & Giella start #63 with ‘I Was the Man in the Moon!’: an intriguing puzzle for an ordinary Joe who awakes to find aliens have inexplicably re-sculpted the lunar surface with his face, after which a Native American forest ranger becomes Earth’s only hope of translating an alien warning in The Sign Language of Space!’ (Binder, Greene & Giella).

‘Strange Journey to Earth!’ by Jerry Coleman, Kane &Giella sees an ordinary school teacher deduce an alien’s odd actions and save the world before the issue ends in ‘Catastrophe County, U.S.A.!’ where Hamilton, Greene & Giella introduce scientists to the Government’s vast outdoor natural disaster lab…

Sales-boosting simians resurface in #64 as Finger, Infantino & Sachs deliver hostile ‘Gorillas in Space!’ who are anything but, whilst a first contact misunderstanding results in terror and near-death for an Earth explorer lost in ‘The Maze of Mars’ (Binder, Greene & Sachs).

Then a technological Indiana Jones becomes ‘The Man Who Discovered the West Pole!’ (Binder, Kane & Giella) and Samachson & Grandenetti craft a canny tale of planetary peril in ‘The Earth-Drowners!’

In #65 (February 1956) ‘The Prisoner from Pluto!’ by Binder, Greene & Giella, features an alien attempting to warn Earth of imminent Saturnian attack and forced to extreme measures to accomplish his mission.

A different kind of cultural upheaval is referenced in the quaint but clever tale of ‘The Rock-and-Roll Kid from Mars!’ (Samachson, Kane & Giella). A stage mentalist outfoxes genuine telepaths in ‘War of the Mind Readers!’ by Binder, Infantino & Sachs before a biologist turns temporary superhero to foil an alien attack in ‘The Man who Grew Wings!’ by Binder, Greene & Giella to end the issue.

Issue #66 opens with Broome & Infantino’s tale of ‘The Human Battery!’ as an undercover cop suddenly develops an incredible power, whilst a guy in a diner mistakenly picks up ‘The Flying Raincoat!’ (Samachson, Greene & Giella) and accidentally averts an insidious clandestine invasion of our world.

Binder, Kane & Sachs then see Darwin Jones solve the ‘Strange Secret of the Time Capsule!’ and the metamorphic ‘Man of a Thousand Shapes!’ (Samachson, Infantino & Sachs) proves to be a being with a few secrets of his own…

‘The Martian Masquerader!’ (Strange Adventures #67, by Broome, Kane & Giella) plays clever games as editor Julie Schwartz (aka “Mr. Black”) is approached by an alien in need of assistance in tracking down an ET terrorist after which Hamilton, Greene & Giella hone in on a subatomic scientist desperate to find his infinitesimal homeworld in ‘Search for a Lost World!’

‘The Talking Flower!’ in chemist Willie Pickens’ buttonhole is a lost alien who helps him save the world in Samachson, Infantino & Sachs’ charming romance, but the time-travelling travails experienced by archaeologist Roger Thorn after he discovers the ‘Gateway Through the Ages!’ (Hamilton, Greene & Giella) lead only to danger and hard-earned knowledge…

Issue #68 starts with ‘The Man who Couldn’t Drown!’ (Broome, Infantino & Sachs): a tale of genetic throwbacks and unfathomable mystery whilst a ‘Strange Gift from Space!’ (Samachson, Greene & Giella) results in a safer planet for all, after which a chance chemical discovery produces a happy salvation in ‘The Balloons That Lifted a City!’ (Samachson, Kane & Giella) and a common thief gets in way over his head when he robs a laboratory in Samachson, Greene Sachs’ witty ‘The Game of Science!’

SA #69 sees a time-traveller voyage into pre-history and help dawn-age humans overcome ‘The Gorilla Conquest of Earth’ (Broome, Kane & Sachs) whilst the arrival of ‘The Museum from Mars’ (Gardner Fox, Greene & Giella) offers almost irresistible temptation and deadly danger to humanity and ‘The Man with Four Minds!’ (Hamilton & Infantino) sees a man with too much knowledge and power eschew it all for normality. ‘The Human Homing Pigeon!’ (Samachson, Greene & Giella) then burns out his own unique gift in the service of his fellows…

The Triple Life of Dr. Pluto!’ by Broome, Greene & Giella in #70 deals with the dangers of a human duplicating ray after which Darwin Jones confronts a deadly dilemma when warring aliens both claim to be our friends and ‘Earth’s Secret Weapon!’ (Samachson, Kane & Giella).

An early computer falls into the hands of a petty thief with outrageous consequences in ‘The Mechanical Mastermind!’ (Samachson & Infantino) whilst the ‘Menace of the Martian Bubble!’ (Broome, Greene & Giella) is foiled by a purely human mind and the skills of a stage magician.

Issue #71 features ‘Zero Hour for Earth!’ (Broome & Barry) as a scientist at world’s end sends a time-twisting thought-message back to change future history, whilst invisible thieves of the planet’s fissionable resources are thwarted by a scientist with a unique visual impairment in ‘Raiders from the Ultra-Violet!’ by Binder, Greene & Giella. Writer Ray Hollis sees a star fall and encounters ‘The Living Meteor!’ (Fox, Kane & Sachs) whilst a guy with a weight problem discovers he has become ‘The Man Who Ate Sunshine!’ in a clever conundrum from Samachson, Grandenetti & Giella.

Strange Adventures #72 begins with a fabulous, self-evident spectacular in ‘The Skyscraper that Came to Life!’ by Broome, Greene & Giella, whilst a shooting star reveals an ancient ‘Puzzle from Planet X!’ which promises friendship or doom in a classy yarn from Hamilton, Greene & Sachs.

‘The Time-Wise Thief!’ (Gerson & John Giunta) provides a salutary moral for a bandit with too much technology and temptation before ‘The Man Who Lived Nine Lifetimes!’ (Binder, Kane & Giella) is aroused from a sleep of ages to save us all from robot invasion…

The initial flights of fantasy conclude with the contents of issue #73, beginning with ‘The Amazing Rain of Gems!’ by Broome, Greene & Giella, wherein a sentient jewel almost beguiles the entire world, whilst humans are hijacked to attend a ‘Science-Fiction Convention on Mars’ (Fox, Kane & Giella) and ‘The Man with Future-Vision!’ (Fox, Infantino & Sachs) discovers that knowing what’s coming isn’t necessarily enough…

The imaginative inspiration ends with a clever time-paradox fable in Hamilton, Greene & Giella’s ‘Reverse Rescue of Earth!’

Conceived and edited by the brilliant Julie Schwartz and starring the cream of the era’s writers and artists, Strange Adventures set the standard for mind-boggling all-ages fantasy fiction. With stunning, evocative covers from such stellar art luminaries as Murphy Anderson, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and Ruben Moreira, this titanic tome is a perfect portal to other worlds and, in many ways, far better times.

If you dream in steel and plastic and are agonising and 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…

Then again so might a spiffy new collection as part of DC’s Silver Age archive strand…
© 1955, 1956, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Graphic Canon volume 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons

By Many and Various, edited by Russ Kick (Seven Stories)
ISBN: 978-1-60980-376-6

Once upon a time in the English-speaking world, nobody clever, educated or in any way grown-up liked comics. Now we’re an accredited really and truly art form and spectacular books like this can be appreciated…

The Graphic Canon is an astounding literary and art project, instigated by legendary crusading editor, publisher, anthologist and modern Renaissance Man Russ Kick, which endeavours to interpret the world’s great books through the eyes of masters of crusading sequential narrative in an eye-opening synthesis of modes and styles.

The project is divided into three periods roughly equating with the birth of literature and its evolution up to the rise of the modern novel. Debut volume From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons covers literature from ancient times to the end of the 1700s in stories and poetry. Much of the material here has been taken from already extant or ongoing projects: indeed, as editor Russ Kick explains in his Introduction, it was a realisation that so many creative individuals were attempting to publish their own graphic responses to global heritage literature that led him to initiate this mammoth project in the first place…

Rather than simply converting the stories, the artists involved have enjoyed the freedom to respond to texts in their own way, producing graphics – narrative or otherwise, monochrome or something else, sequential or not – to accompany, augment or even offset the words before them and the result is simply staggering…

Make no mistake: this is not a simple bowdlerising “prose to strip” exercise like generations of Classics Illustrated comics, and you won’t pass any tests on the basis of what you see here. Moreover, these images will make you want to re-read the texts you know and hunger for the ones you haven’t got around to yet. You will of a certainty marvel at the infinite variety of the artistic responses the canonical works inspired…

They certainly did for me…

Each piece is preceded by an informative commentary page by Kick, and the wonderment begins with a colourful and outrageously engaging ‘Three Panel Review: Hamlet’ by Lisa Brown after which grateful Acknowledgements and that aforementioned Editor’s Introduction lead directly into a delirious snippet from The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Like many contributions collected here, The Bull of Heaven – as adapted by Kent & Kevin Dixon – was already in production when invited into this book. The finally-completed saga has recently re-manifested and you can read of it here.

Those august remnants of lost Babylonian Tablets are followed by a delicious retelling of the origin of the stars in ‘Coyote and the Pebbles’. The beguiling and witty Native American Folktale is given a compelling reworking by Dayton Edmonds & Micah Farritor and leads seamlessly into a double dose of Homeric grandiloquence.

Alice Duke samples the duel between Paris and Menelaus from The Iliad after which Gareth Hinds dips into The Odyssey to re-present the monstrous duel between the lost Greeks and the ghastly Cyclops, after which we stay firmly in the cradle of civilisation to enjoy Sappho’s ‘Poem Fragments’ as embellished by Alessandro Bonaccorsi before Tori McKenna sums up the vengeful force of Euripides’ ‘Medea’.

Aristophanes’ still-shocking and controversial play Lysistrata is potently and hilariously précised in strip form by Valerie Schrag before J.T. Waldman powerfully synthesises the erotic vision of ‘The Book of Ester’ from the Hebrew Bible and Yeji Yun translates Plato’s Symposium into stark yet effective pantomimic visuals.

Fred Van Lente & Ryan Dunlavey have adapted numerous deep thinkers in their series Action Philosophers! ‘Tao Te Ching’ as dictated by Lao Tzu is both wickedly funny and thoughtfully compelling and perfectly offset by Matt Wiegle’s colourful heroic snippet ‘The House of Lac’ from The Mahabharata.

Van Lente & Dunlavey bring us some Analects and Other Writings of Confucius – called here ‘Master Kong’ – before the Hebrew Bible provides Benjamin Frisch with the golden-hued inspiration for dreamy fable ‘The Book of Daniel’, after which Tom Bilby & Jonathan Fetter-Vorm (AKA Two Fine Chaps) graphically discourse On the Nature of Things as originally cited by Lucretius.

Michael Lagocki captures the graceful ferocity of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ – specifically the founding of Rome – before master cartoonist Rick Geary astoundingly encapsulates the entirety of ‘The Book of Revelation’ from the New Testament and Sharon Rudahl restores calm and sanity with ‘Three Tang Poems: Frontier Song by Wang Han, A Village South of the Capital by Cul Hu and Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon by Li Bai’

Gareth Hinds grittily adapts the battle between hero and monster in Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem Beowulf after which idyllic romance is referenced by Molly Kiely through a series of portraits of some of the many erotic conquests of an ideal Japanese prince as inspired by Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji.

Far darker and more troubled love guides the images crafted by Ellen Lindner to illustrate ‘The Letters of Heloise and Abelard’ after which Kiely illuminates the profoundly eco-activist poem ‘O Nobilissima Viriditas’ by Hildegard of Bingen (look her up, you really should…).

Andrice Arp puckishly illustrates stories within a story for ‘The Fisherman and the Genie’ from The Arabian Nights, after which the same source – albeit the unexpurgated translation by Sir Richard Burton – provides racy and outrageously wry ‘The Woman with Two Coyntes’ as adapted by Vicki Nerino.

Coleman Barks translates a wonderful plenitude of ‘Poems’ by Sufi sage – and advocate of a loving universe – Rumi for Michael Green to spectacularly illustrate, after which a double dose of Dante Alighieri begins with Seymour Chwast’s smart and sassy take on The Divine Comedy. Hunt Emerson than adds his own unique spin to ‘The Inferno’ (The Eighth Circle, if you’re keeping score) whilst Sanya Glisic sustains the post-viva theme by offering views of the Eastern afterlife as cited in Padmasambhava and Karma Lingpa’s translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol).

Safely back among the living, we turn to the outrageous lifestyle of French poet and courtier François Villon, who penned in a jailhouse ‘The Last Ballad’ illustrated here by Julian Peters long before his actual end. It’s followed by another medieval masterpiece as Seymour Chwast deftly tackles the ‘Wife of Bath’ from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Staying in England, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur is given a stunning treatment by Omaha Perez who illumines the parable of ‘How the Hart was Chased into a Castle and There Slain, and How Sir Gawaine Slew a Lady’

The reason we have so much European and Asian literature today is the sheer fact that it wasn’t deliberately eradicated. That’s tragically not the case for the pre-Columbian Americas and a great pity since sole surviving Incan play Apu Ollantay – adapted here by Caroline Picard – is a smart and potent family star-crossed love affair worthy of the Greeks or even Shakespeare…

Outlaws of the Water Margin is a vast and sprawling epic of heroes battling against corruption and injustice in ancient China. As Shi Nai’an’s opus is far too large to handle here, illustrator Shawn Cheng has instead offered a rogues’ gallery of some of the heroic characters who feature in the portmanteau classics, whereas Isabel Greenberg has time and space to lyrically adapt Japanese Noh play ‘Hagoromo (Celestial Feather Robe)’ in full.

Roberta Gregory then pictorialises the decidedly more wholesome and charming creation myth from Popul Vuh – the Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya – and Edie Fake illuminates ‘The Visions of St. Teresa of Ávila’ as first seen in the Spanish religious reformer’s autobiography.

Almost forgotten English poet George Peele penned his own interpretation of the drama of Solomon and Bathsheba centuries ago, a snippet of which is here transformed by Dave Morice into stunning op-art masterpiece ‘Hot Sun, Cool Fire’. Conor Hughes then expertly covers in more traditional form ‘The Sun Rises’ from Wu Cheng’en’s revered Chinese epic Journey to the West before Michael Stanyer adapts and Eric Johnson illustrates a mere fragment from Edmund Spenser’s unfinished opus The Faerie Queene.

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream must be one of the most popular comic strip topics of all, but Maxx Kelly & Huxley King still add fresh zest and contemporary sparkle to the scene where Titania and Oberon haggle over the fate of an abducted child…

Ian Pollock then tackles The Bard’s darkest drama as King Lear challenges the heavens themselves before Will Eisner lends his unique light touch to Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Robert Berry and Josh Levitas then translate Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18’ to an effectively modern setting whilst Aidan Koch applies a more esoteric approach to the eternally-mystifying ‘Sonnet 20’ before Noah Patrick Pfarr supplies a suitably raunchy setting and quirky twist to John Donne’s erotic poem ‘The Flea’.

Andrew Marvell’s equally celebrated devious love-ploy ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is given a sentimental 19th century makeover by Yien Yip after which real-life Restoration-Era Wonder Woman Aphra Behn provides moody inspiration for artist Alex Eckman-Lawn through her poem ‘Forgive Us Our Trespasses’.

John Milton’s magnificent Paradise Lost – specifically ‘the Fall of Satan’ – is astoundingly depicted by Rebecca Dart after which ‘Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag’ sees Gareth Hinds lovingly limning an extract from Jonathan Swift’s satirical salvo Gulliver’s Travels whilst Ian Ball uses abreaction to hammer home the finer points of Voltaire’s Candide.

Modern graphic crusader Peter Kuper then lambasts us with a lethally edgy visualisation of Swift’s brutally critical A Modest Proposal.

Benjamin Franklin’s scandalous epistle ‘Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress’ is accompanied by a sumptuous painting from Cortney Skinner before James Bosworth’s shocking and sordidly biographical London Journal is captivatingly interpreted by comix pioneer Robert Crumb in ‘A Klassic Komic: excepts from Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763’.

Veteran cartoonist Stan Shaw then captures the wryly scatalogical spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels (AKA ‘Fart Proudly’)’ and van Lente & Dunlavey return with another Action Philosophers! titbit clarifying Mary Wollstonecraft’s momentous political tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman before Molly Crabapple illustrates select moments from Choderios de Lacios’ dark and disturbing social satire Dangerous Liaisons to bring the art schooling to a close.

Wrapping up the elucidatory experience are suggestions of ‘Further Reading’ from Liz Byer, a full list of ‘Contributors’, plus details of ‘Credits and Permissions’ and an ‘Index to volume 1’.

Although no replacement for actually reading as much of the source material as you can find, this astonishing agglomeration of visual interpretations is a magnificent achievement and one every fan of the comics medium should see: a staggering blend of imperishable thoughts and words wedded to and springing from sublimely experimental pictures.

This type of venture is just what our art form needs to grow beyond our largely self-imposed ghetto, and anything done this well with so much heart and joy simply has to be rewarded.
© 2012 Russ Kick. All work © individual owners and copyright holders and used with permission. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0785137108 (TPB 2009)              978-0785191292 (HB 2015)

I’m partial to a bit of controversy so I’m going start off by saying that Fantastic Four #1 is the third most important American comicbook of the last 75 years. Just ahead of it are The Brave and the Bold #28, which brought superhero teams back via the creation of the Justice League of America and at the top Showcase #4, which introduced the Flash and therefore the Silver Age. Feel free to disagree…

After a troubled period at DC Comics – National Periodicals as it then was – and a creatively productive but disheartening time on the poisoned chalice of the Sky Masters newspaper strip (see Complete Sky Masters of the Space Force), Jack Kirby settled into his job at the small outfit that used to be the publishing powerhouse Timely/Atlas.

He churned out mystery, monster, romance and western material in a market he suspected to be ultimately doomed but, as always, did the best job possible. That quirky genre fare is now considered some of the best of its kind ever seen.

However, his fertile imagination couldn’t be suppressed for long and when the JLA caught the readership’s attention it gave him and writer/editor Stan Lee an opportunity to change the industry forever.

Depending upon who you believe, a golfing afternoon led publisher/owner Martin Goodman ordering his nephew Stan to try a series about a group of super-characters like the one DC was doing. The resulting team quickly took fans by storm. It wasn’t the powers: they’d all been seen since the beginning of the medium. It wasn’t the costumes: they didn’t have any until the third issue.

It was Kirby’s compelling art and the fact that these characters weren’t anodyne cardboard cut-outs. In a real and a recognizable location – New York City – imperfect, raw-nerved, touchy people banded together out of tragedy, disaster and necessity to face the incredible.

In many ways, The Challengers of the Unknown (Kirby’s prototype partners-in-peril at National/DC) laid all the groundwork for the wonders to come, but the staid, almost hide-bound editorial strictures of National would never have allowed the undiluted energy of the concept to run all-but-unregulated.

Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, by Lee, Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) is crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.

This full-colour compendium (available in hardback, trade paperback and digital formats) collects the first 10 issues of progressive landmarks – spanning November 1961 to January 1963 – and opens with ‘The Fantastic Four’ exactly as seen in that groundbreaking premier issue.

It sees maverick scientist Reed Richards summon his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother before heading off on their first mission. They are all survivors of a private space-shot that went horribly wrong when Cosmic rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame and tragic Ben was a hideous freak trapped in a shambling, rocky body.

In ‘The Fantastic Four meet the Mole Man’ they promptly foil a plan by another outcast who controls monsters and enslaves humanoids from far beneath the Earth.

This summation of the admittedly mediocre plot cannot do justice to the engrossing wonder of that breakthrough issue – we really have no awareness today of how different in tone, how shocking it all was.

“Different” doesn’t mean “better” even here, but the FF was like no other comic on the market at the time and buyers responded to it hungrily. The brash experiment continued with another old plot in #2. ‘The Skrulls from Outer Space’ were shape-changing aliens who framed the FF in the eyes of shocked humanity before the genius of Mister Fantastic bluffed them into abandoning their plans for conquering Earth. The issue concluded with a monstrous pin-up of the Thing, proudly touted as the first in a series…

Sure enough, there was a pin-up of the Human Torch in #3, which headlined ‘The Menace of the Miracle Man’ (inked by Sol Brodsky), whose omnipotent powers had a simple secret, but is more notable for the first appearance of their uniforms, and a shocking line-up change, leading directly into the next issue (continued stories were an innovation in themselves) which revived a golden-age great.

‘The Coming of the Sub-Mariner’ reintroduced the all-powerful amphibian Prince of Atlantis, a star of Timely’s Golden Age but one who had been lost for years.

A victim of amnesia, the relic recovers his memory thanks to some rather brusque treatment by the delinquent Torch. Namor then returns to his sub-sea home only to find it destroyed by atomic testing. A monarch without subjects, he swears vengeance on humanity and attacks New York City with a gigantic monster. This saga is when the series truly kicked into high-gear and Reed was the star of the pin-up section…

Until now the creative team – who had been in the business since it began – had been hedging their bets. Despite the innovations of a contemporary superhero experiment their antagonists had relied heavily on the trappings of popular trends in the media – and as reflected in their other titles.

Aliens and especially monsters played a major part in the earlier tales but Fantastic Four #5 took a full-bite out of the Fights n’ Tights apple by introducing the first full-blown super-villain to the budding Marvel Universe.

No, I haven’t forgotten Mole Man: but that tragic little gargoyle, for all his plans of world conquest, wouldn’t truly acquire the persona of a costumed foe until his more refined second appearance in #22.

‘Prisoners of Doctor Doom’ (July 1962, and inked by the subtly slick Joe Sinnott) has it all. An attack by a mysterious enemy from Reed’s past; magic and super-science, lost treasure, time-travel, even pirates. Ha-Haar, me ‘earties!

Sheer magic! And the creators knew they were on to a winner since the deadly Doctor returned the very next issue, teaming with a reluctant Sub-Mariner to attack our heroes as ‘The Deadly Duo!’ (inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers).

Alien kidnappers were the motivating force behind another FF frame-up, resulting in the team becoming ‘Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X’; a dark, grandiose, cosmic-scaled off-world thriller in #7 (the first monthly issue), whilst a new returning villain and the introduction of a love-interest for the monstrous Thing were the breakthrough high-points in #8’s ‘Prisoners of the Puppet Master!’

The saga was topped off with a Fantastic Four Feature Page explaining how the Torch’s powers work. The next issue offered another, detailing with endearing mock-science ‘How the Human Torch Flies!’

That issue – #9 – trumpeted ‘The End of the Fantastic Four’ as the Sub-Mariner returns to exploit another brilliant innovation in comic storytelling. When had a super-genius superhero ever messed up so much that the team had to declare bankruptcy? When had costumed crimefighters ever had money troubles at all? The eerily prescient solution was to “sell out” and make a blockbuster movie – giving Kirby a rare chance to demonstrate his talent for caricature…

1963 was a pivotal year in the development of Marvel. Lee & Kirby had proved that their new high concept – human heroes with flaws and tempers – had a willing audience. Now they would extend that concept to a new pantheon of heroes. Here is where the second innovation would come to the fore.

Previously, super-heroes were sufficient unto themselves and shared adventures were rare. Here, however, was a universe where characters often tripped over each other, sometimes even fighting each other’s enemies! The creators themselves might turn even up in a Marvel Comic!

Fantastic Four #10 featured ‘The Return of Doctor Doom!’ wherein the arch-villain used Stan & Jack to lure the Richards into a trap where his mind is switched with the bad Doctor’s. The tale was supplemented by a pin-up – at long-last – of ‘Sue Storm, the Glamorous Invisible Girl’

Although possibly – just, perhaps – a little dated in tone, these are still undeniable classics of comic storytelling illustrated by one of the world’s greatest talents approaching his mature peak. They are fast, frantic fun and a joy to read or re-read. This comprehensive, joyous introduction (or reintroduction) to these characters is a wonderful reminder of just how good comic books can and should be.
© 1961, 1962, 1963, 2009, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.