The JSA All Stars Archives volume 1


By John Wentworth, Ken Fitch, Bill O’Connor, Sheldon Mayer, Charles Reizenstein, Bill Finger, Stan Aschmeier, Bernard Baily, Ben Flinton & Leonard Sansone, Howard Purcell, Hal Sharp, Irwin Hasen & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1472-2 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Golden Aged But Evergreen Enjoyment… 8/10

In their anniversary year, here’s yet another DC classic collection long overdue for revival and digital return. Until then – and if you can find it – this hardback will make a perfect present for you or yours…

After the actual invention of the comic book superhero – indisputably the Action Comics debut of Superman in June 1938 – the most significant event in the industry’s history was the combination of individual sales-points into a group.

Thus what seems blindingly obvious to us with the benefit of four-colour hindsight was proven: consumers couldn’t get enough of garishly-hued mystery men and combining a multitude of characters inevitably increases readership. Plus, of course, a mob of superheroes is just so much cooler than one…or one-and-a-half if there’s a sidekick involved…

The creation of the Justice Society of America in 1941 utterly changed the shape of the budding business. However, before that team of all-stars could unite they had to become popular enough to qualify, and this superb hardcover sampler gathers the debut adventures of a septet of beloved champions who never quite made it into the first rank but nonetheless scored enough to join the big team and maintain their own solo spots for much of the Golden Age of American Comics.

Whilst the most favoured 1940s stalwarts have all won their own DC Archive collections (some even making it into digital modern editions this century), this particular tome bundles a bunch of lesser lights – or at least those who never found as much favour with modern fans and revivalists – and features the first 5 appearances of 7 of the JSA’s “secondary” mystery men: all solid supporting acts in their own anthology homes who were potentially so much more…

Gathered here are short, sharp, stirring tales from Flash Comics #1-5; Adventure Comics #48-52; All-American Comics #19-29 and Sensation Comics #1-5, collectively spanning January 1940 to May 1942. They are preceded a sparkling, informative and appreciative Foreword Golden Age aficionado and advocate Roy Thomas.

The vintage vim and vigour begins with a character equally adored and reviled in modern times. Johnny Thunderbolt – as he was originally dubbed – was an honest, well-meaning, courageous soul who was also a grade “A” idiot. However, what he lacked in smarts he made up for with sheer luck, unfailing pluck and the unconscious (at least at first) control of an irresistible magic force.

The series was played for action-packed laughs, but there was no getting away from it: Johnny was, quite frankly, a simpleton in control of an ultimate weapon. At least his electric genie was more plausible than an egomaniacal orange-toned cretin in control of America’s nuclear arsenal…

John Wentworth & Stan Aschmeier introduced the happy sap in ‘The Kidnapping of Johnny Thunder’, from the first monthly Flash Comics (#1, January 1940) in a fantastic origin which detailed how, decades previously, the infant seventh son of a seventh son was abducted by priests from the mystic island of Badhnisia. He was to be raised as the long-foretold wielder of a fantastic magical weapon, all by voicing the eldritch command “Cei-U” – which sounds to western ears awfully like “say, you”…

Ancient enemies on neighbouring isle Agolea started a war before ceremonial indoctrination could be completed and at age seven the lad, through that incomprehensible luck, returned to his parents to be raised in the relative normality of the Bronx.

Everything was fine until Johnny’s 17th birthday when the ancient rite finally came to fruition and – amid bizarre weather conditions – the Badhnisians intensified the search for their living weapon…

By the time they tracked him down, he was working in a department store and had recently picked up the habit of blurting out the phrase “say you”. It generally resulted in something very strange happening. One example being a bunch of strange “Asiatics” attacking him and being blown away by a mysterious pink tornado…

The pattern was set. Each month Johnny looked for gainful employment, stumbled into a crime or crisis where his voluble temperament would result in an inexplicable unnatural phenomenon that solve the problem but left him no better off. It was a winning theme that lasted until 1947 – by which time the Force had resolved into a wisecracking thunderbolt-shaped genie – while Johnny was slowly ousted from his own strip by sexy new crimebuster Black Canary…

Flash Comics #2 featured ‘Johnny Becomes a Boxer’. After stepping in to save a girl from bullies, he somehow convinced vivacious Daisy Darling to be his girlfriend. He than became Heavyweight Champion, leading to his implausibly winning a fixed bout in #3’s ‘Johnny versus Gunpowder Glantz’. Only now Daisy refused to marry a brute who lived by hitting others…

The solution came in ‘Johnny Law’ when kidnappers tried to abduct Daisy’s dad. Following his sound thrashing of the thugs, and at his babe’s urging, Johnny then joined the FBI …

This tantalising taste of times past concludes with ‘G-Man Johnny’ (#5 May 1940) as the kid’s first case involves him in a bank raid resulting in his own dad being taken hostage…

Although he eventually joined the JSA, and despite the affable, good-hearted bumbling which carried him through the war, the peace-time changing fashions found no room for a hapless hero anymore and when he encountered a sultry masked female Robin Hood who stole from crooks, the writing was on the wall. Nevertheless, fortuitously imbecilic Johnny Thunder is fondly regarded by many modern fans and still has lots to say and a decidedly different way of saying it…

Ken Fitch & Bernard Baily’s Hourman was a far more serious proposition who actually had a shot at stardom. He began by supplanting the Sandman as cover feature on Adventure Comics #48 (March 1940). Here, his exploits run through issue #52 (July) establishing the unique and gripping methodology which made him such a favourite of later, more sophisticated fans…

In an era where origins were never as important as action, mood and spectacle, ‘Presenting Tick-Tock Tyler, the Hour-Man’ begins with a strange classified ad offering assistance to any person in need. Chemist Rex Tyler has invented “Miraclo”: a drug super-energising him for 60 minutes at a time and his first case sees him help a wife whose man was being dragged back into criminal endeavours by poverty and bad friends…

‘The Disappearance of Dr. Drew’ finds Tyler locating a missing scientist kidnapped by thugs whilst ‘The Dark Horse’ has the Man of the Hour crush a crooked, murderous bookie who had swiped both horse and owner before a key race.

Mad science and a crazy doctor employing ‘The Wax-Double Killers’ adds scary thrills and super-villain cachet for the timely hero to handle, whilst ‘The Counterfeit Hour-Man’ – which concludes the offerings here – sees him again battling Dr. Snegg in a scurrilous scheme to frame the hooded hero.

Hourman always looked great and his adventures developed into a tight and compulsive feature, but he never caught on: timed out at the beginning of 1943 (#83).

Next second string star is Calvin College student Al Pratt: a diminutive but determined lad fed up with being bullied by jocks who remade himself into a pint-sized, two-fisted mystery man ready for anything.

One of the longest lasting Golden Age greats, The Mighty Atom was created by writer Bill O’Connor and rendered by Ben Flinton & Leonard Sansone. He debuted in All-American Comics #19 and eventually transferring to Flash Comics in February 1947. He sporadically appeared until the last issue (Flash #104, February 1949) and was last seen in the final JSA tale in All Star Comics#57 in 1951.

The tales here span #19-23 (October 1940-February 1941), beginning by ‘Introducing the Mighty Atom’ as the bullied scholar hooks up with down-and-out trainer Joe Morgan, whose radical methods soon have the kid in the very peak of physical condition and well able to take care of himself.

However, when Al’s hoped-for girlfriend Mary is kidnapped, the lad eschews fame and potential sporting fortune to bust her loose and then opts for a new extra-curricular activity…

He sported a costume for his second exploit, going into ‘Action at the College Ball’  to foil a hold-up and then tackling ‘The Monsters from the Mine’ who were enslaved by a scientific mania intent on conquest. The college environment offered plentiful plot opportunities. In ‘Truckers War’ the Atom crushes hijackers who had bankrupted a fellow student and football star’s father. The episodes conclude here with ‘Joe’s Appointment’ as the trainer is framed for spying by enemy agents and needs a little atomic aid…

Although we think of the Golden Age as a superhero wonderland, the true watchword was variety, and flagship anthologyAll-American Comics offered everything from slapstick comedy to aviation adventure on its four-colour pages. One of the very best humour strips featured the semi-autobiographical exploits of Scribbly Jibbet: a boy who wanted to draw. Created by real-life comics wonder boy Sheldon Mayer, Scribbly: Midget Cartoonist debuted in the first issue (April 1939) and soon built a sterling rep for himself beside star reprint features like Mutt and Jeff and all-new adventure serial Hop Harrigan, Ace of the Airways.

However, contemporary fashions soon demanded a humorous look at mystery men, and in #20 (November 1940) Mayer’s long-term comedy feature evolved into a delicious spoof of the trend when Scribbly’s formidable landlady Ma Hunkeldecided to do something about crime in her neighbourhood – so she dressed up as a husky male masked hero.

‘The Coming of the Red Tornado’ sees her don cape, woollen long-johns and a saucepan for a identity-obscuring helmet to crush gangster/kidnapper Tubb Torponi. The mobster had made the mistake of snatching her terrible nipper Sisty and Scribbly’s little brother Dinky (they would later become her masked sidekicks) and Ma was determined to see justice done…

An ongoing serial rather than specific episodes, the dramedy concluded in ‘The Red Tornado to the Rescue’, with the irate, inept cops deciding to pursue the mysterious new vigilante, but the ‘Search for the Red Tornado’ only made them look (more) stupid.

With the scene set for outrageous parody ‘The Red Tornado Goes Ape’ pits the parochial masked manhunter against a zoo full of critters before this superb selection ends with ‘Neither Man nor Mouse’ (All-American Comics #24) with the hero apparently retiring and crime resurging… until Dinky and Sisty become the Cyclone Kids…

A far more serious and sustainable contender debuted in the next issue, joining a growing host of grim masked avengers.

‘Dr. Mid-Nite: How He Began’ by Charles Reizenstein & Aschmeier (All-American Comics #25, April 1941) revealed how surgeon Charles McNider is blinded by criminals but subsequently discovers he can see perfectly in the dark. The maimed physician becomes an outspoken criminologist but also devises blackout bombs and other night paraphernalia to wage secret war on gangsters from the darkness, aided only by his new pet owl Hooty…

After catching his own assailant, he smashes river pirates protected by corrupt politicians in ‘The Waterfront Mystery’ and rescues innocent men blackmailed into serving criminals’ sentences in jail in ‘Prisoners by Choice’ (#27 and guest illustrated by Howard Purcell).

With Aschmeier’s return, Mid-Nite crushes aerial wreckers using ‘The Mysterious Beacon’ to down bullion planes and then smashes ‘The Menace of King Cobra’: a secret society leader lording it over copper mine workers…

The Master of Darkness also lasted until the era’s end and appeared in that last JSA story. Since his 1960s return he’s become one of the most resilient and mutable characters in DC’s pantheon of Golden Age revivals, but the next nearly-star was an almost forgotten man for decades…

When Sensation Comics launched in January 1942 all eyes were rightly glued to the uniquely eye-catching Wonder Woman who hogged all the covers and unleashed a wealth of unconventional adventures every month. However, like all anthologies of the time, her exploits were carefully balanced by other features. Sensation #1-5 (January to May 1942) also featured a pugnacious fighter who was the quintessence of manly prowess and a quiet, sedate fellow problem solver who was literally a master of all trades.

Crafted by Charles Reizenstein & Hal Sharp, ‘Who is Mr. Terrific?’ introduced Terry Sloane: a physical and mental prodigy who so excelled at everything he touched, that by the time of the opening tale he was planning his own suicide to escape terminal boredom.

Happily, on a very high bridge he found Wanda Wilson, a girl with the same idea. By saving her, Sloane found purpose: crushing the kinds of criminals who had driven her to such despair…

Actively seeking out villainy of every sort, he performed ‘The One-Man Benefit Show’ after thugs sabotaged performers, travelled to the republic of Santa Flora to expose ‘The Phony Presidente’ and helped a rookie cop pinch an “untouchable” gang boss in ‘Dapper Joe’s Comeuppance’.

His last showing here finds him at his very best, carefully rooting out political corruption and exposing ‘The Two Faces of Caspar Crunch’…

Closing out this stunning hardback extravaganza is another quintet from Sensation #1-5, this time by Bill Finger & Irwin Hasen: already established stars for their work on Batman and Green Lantern.

‘This is the Story of Wildcat’ premieres one the era’s most impressive “lost treasures” and a genuine comicbook classic in the tale of boxer Ted Grant who is framed for the murder of his best friend. Inspired by a kid’s worship for Green Lantern, Grant clears his name by donning a feline mask and costume and ferociously stalking the real killers.

Finger & Hasen captured everything which made for perfect rollercoaster adventure in their explosive sports-informed yarns. Mystery, drama and action continued unabated in the sequel ‘Who is Wildcat?’ as Ted retires his masked identity to contest for the vacant world boxing title, but cannot let innocents suffer as crime and corruption befoul the city…

‘The Case of the Phantom Killers’ sees Wildcat track down mobsters seemingly striking from beyond the grave, before his adventures alter forever with the introduction of hard-hitting hillbilly hayseed ‘Stretch Skinner, Dee-teca-tif!’ He came to the big city to be a private eye and instead became Ted Grant’s foil, manager and crime-busting partner…

The comic craziness concludes here with a rousing case of mistaken identity and old-fashioned framing, as Wildcat saves his new pal from a killer gambler in ‘Chips Carder’s Big Fix’…

These eccentric early adventures might not suit some modern fan’s tastes but they stand as an impressive and joyous introduction to the fantastic worlds and exploits of the World’s (not so) Greatest Superheroes. If you have an interest in the way things were and a hankering for simpler times, less complicated or angsty adventure and fun at every turn, this may well be a book you’ll cherish forever…
© 1940, 1941, 1942, 2007 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.