Action Heroes Archive Vol 1: Captain Atom & Vol. 2 Captain Atom, Blue Beetle & The Question


By Steve Ditko and various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0302-3  ISBN: 978-1-4012-1346-6 (vol 2)

It’s been a grim few weeks for lovers of the graphic arts. Peter Firmin passed away at the beginning of the month, and I’ve just heard that Steve Ditko has been found dead in his apartment. Both these men shaped my life and so many millions of others, especially the solitary work-obsessed genius who gave us Spider-Man, The Creeper, Mr. A and so many more. A more considered response and review will come in the weeks to come, but for now let’s consider these books: classic outsider wonderment from a creator who reshaped every aspect of comics by sniping from the edge and never once buying into the hype…

Steve Ditko is possibly comics’ most unique stylist. Love him or hate him, you can’t mistake his work for anyone else’s. His career began in the early 1950’s and, depending on whether you’re a superhero fan or prefer the deeper and more visually free and experimental work, peaked in either the mid-1960’s or 1970’s.

Leaving the Avenging World, Mr. A and his other philosophically derived creations for another time, the super-hero crowd should heartily celebrate this deluxe collection of the first costumed do-gooder that Ditko worked on. Although I’m a huge fan of his linework – which is best served by black and white printing – the crisp, sharp colour of this Archive edition is still much better than the appalling reproduction on bog-paper that first displayed Charlton Comics’ Atomic Ace to the kids of Commie-obsessed America, circa 1960.

Captain Adam is an astronaut accidentally atomised in a rocketry accident. Eerily – and the way it’s drawn spooked the short pants off me when I first read it more than fifty years ago – he reassembles himself on the launch pad, gifted with astounding powers. Reporting to the President, he swiftly becomes the USA’s secret weapon.

In those simpler times the short, terse adventures of Captain Atom seemed somehow more telling than the anodyne DC fare, and Marvel was still pushing monsters in underpants; their particular heroic revolution was still months away. Ditko’s hero was different and we few who read him all knew it.

Mostly written or co-written with Joe Gill, the first wonderful, addictive run of 18 stories from Space Adventures #33-42 (and three of those were drawn by the uninspired and out-of-his-depth Rocke Mastroserio) are a magnificent example of Ditko’s emerging mastery of mood, pacing, atmosphere and human dynamics.

In 1961, as Ditko did more and more work for the blossoming – and better paying – Marvel, Charlton killed the series. But when Dick Giordano created a superhero line for Charlton in late 1965, Captain Atom was revived. Space Adventures was retitled, and the Captain’s first full length issue was numbered #78.

As he was still drawing Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, Ditko could only manage pencils for the Captain and Mastroserio was recruited to ink the series, resulting in an oddly jarring finish. With #79 Ditko became lead writer too, and the stories took on an eccentric, compelling edge and tone that lifted them above much of the competition’s fare. Eventually the inker adapted to Ditko’s style and much of the ungainliness had disappeared from the figurework, although so had the fine detail that had elevated the early art.

This volume ends with issue #82, leaving six more published issues and a complete unpublished seventh for another time…

This second volume completes Ditko’s costumed hero contributions with the remainder of the Captain Atom tales, and the introduction of a new Blue Beetle and the uniquely iconic Question.

Captain Atom #83 (November 1966) starts the ball rolling here with a huge blast of reconstructive character surgery. Although ‘Finally Falls the Mighty!’ was inked by Rocke Mastroserio and scripted by David Kaler, thematically it’s pure Ditko. Plotted and drawn by him, it sees an ungrateful public turn on the Atomic Ace, due to the manipulations of a cunning criminal.

Intended to remove some of the omnipotence from the character, the added humanity of malfunctioning powers made his struggles against treacherous Professor Koste all the more poignant, and the sheer visual spectacle of his battle against a runaway reactor is some of Ditko’s most imaginative design and layout work. The tale ends on a cliffhanger – a real big deal when the comic only came out every two months – and the last seven pages featured the debut of a new superhero with one of the oldest names in the business.

The Blue Beetle first appeared in Mystery Men Comics #1, released by Fox Comics and dated August 1939. Created by Charles Nicholas (née Wojtkowski) the character was inexplicably popular and survived the death of a number of publishers to end up as a Charlton property in the mid 1950s. After releasing a few issues sporadically the character disappeared until the superhero revival of the early 1960s when young Roy Thomas revised and revived the character for a ten issue run (June 1964 – February 1966).

Here Ditko completely recreated the character. Ted Kord was an earnest young scientist with a secret tragedy in his past but Ditko and scripter Gary Friedrich wisely eschewed origin for action in a taut and captivating crime-thriller where the new hero displayed his modus operandi by stopping a vicious crime-spree by the Killer Koke Gang.

This untitled short has all the classic elements of a Ditko masterpiece: outlandish fight scenes, compact, claustrophobic yet dynamic layouts, innovative gimmickry and a clear-cut battle between Right and Wrong. It’s one of the very best introductory stories of a new hero anywhere in comics – and it’s seven pages long.

The remodeling of the Atomic Ace concluded in the next issue with ‘After the Fall a New Beginning.’ Once again Ditko rattled his authorial sabre about the fickleness of the public as the villainous Koste exposed the hero’s face on live TV. Escaping, Atom got a new costume with his curtailed powers and consequently a lot more drama entered the series.

Now there was a definite feeling of no safety or status quo. The untitled Beetle back-up (scripted by Gary Friedrich with pencils and inks by Ditko) pitted the hero against the masked Marauder but the real kicker was the bombshell that Homicide detective Fisher, investigating the disappearance of Dan Garrett, suspected a possible connection to scientist Ted Kord…

‘Strings of Punch and Jewelee’ introduced a couple of shady carnival hucksters who found a chest of esoteric alien weapons and used them for robbery whilst extending a running plot-line about the mysterious Ghost and his connection to a lost civilization of warrior women. Although Cap and partner Nightshade are somewhat outclassed here, the vigour and vitality of the Blue Beetle was undeniable when a mid-air hijack is foiled and a spy sub and giant killer octopus are given short thrift by the indomitable rookie crusader.

Captain Atom #86 finally brought the long-simmering plot-thread of tech thief The Ghost to a boil as the malevolent science-wizard went on a rampage, utterly trouncing Nightshade and our hero before being kidnapped by the aforementioned Warrior girls. ‘The Fury of the Faceless Foe!’ is by Ditko, Kaler & Mastroserio whilst in the (still) untitled Blue Beetle strip by Friedrich and Ditko the azure avenger battled a ruthless scientist and industrial spy.

This led directly into the first issue of his own comic-book. Blue Beetle #1 (June 1967) is an all-Ditko masterpiece (he even scripted it under the pen-name D.C. Glanzman) and saw the hero in all-out action against a deadly gang of bandits. ‘Blue Beetle… Bugs the Squids’ is crammed with the eccentric vitality that made the Amazing Spider-Man such a monster hit, and the crime-busting joie de vivre is balanced by the moody, claustrophobic introduction of Steve Ditko’s most challenging superhero creation.

‘The Question’ is Vic Sage, a TV journalist with an uncompromising attitude to crime and corruption and an alter-ego of faceless, relentless retribution. In his premiere outing he exposes the link between his own employers’ self-righteous sponsors and gambling racketeer Lou Dicer. This theme of unflinching virtue in the teeth of both violent crime and pernicious social and peer pressure marked Ditko’s departure from straight entertainment towards philosophical – some would say polemical – examination of greater societal issues and the true nature of both Good and Evil that would culminate in his controversial Mr. A, Avenging World and other independent ventures.

Captain Atom #87, ‘The Menace of the Fiery-Icer’ (August 1967) presaged the beginning of the end for the Atomic Ace as Kaler, Ditko & Mastroserio dialed back on the plot threads to deliver a visually excellent but run-of-the-mill yarn about a spy ring with a hot line in cold-blooded leaders.

Blue Beetle #2 however, an all-Ditko affair from the same month, showed the master at his heroic peak, both in the lead story ‘The End is a Beginning!’ which finally revealed the origin of the character as well as the fate of Dan Garrett, (the original Beetle) and even advanced his relationship with his girl Friday Tracey. The enigmatic Question, meanwhile, tackled the flying burglar known as the Banshee in a vertiginous, moody thriller reminiscent of early Doctor Strange strips.

Frank McLaughlin took over the inking for ‘Ravage of Ronthor’ in Captain Atom #88 (October 1967) as the hero answered a distress call from outer space to preserve a paradise planet from marauding giant bugs, in a satisfying no-nonsense escapist romp. Blue Beetle #3 was another superbly satisfying read as the eponymous hero routed the malevolent, picturesque thugs ‘The Madmen’ in a sharp parable about paranoia and misperception. Equally captivating was the intense and bizarre Question vignette as a murderous ghostly deep-sea diver stalks some shady captains of industry.

Issue #89 was the last Captain Atom published by Charlton (December 1967): an early casualty of the burn-out afflicting the superhero genre that led to a resurrected horror/mystery craze. This genre would then form a new backbone for the company’s 1970’s output; one where Ditko would shine again in his role as master of short story horror.

Scripter Dave Kaler managed to satisfactorily tie up most of the hanging plot threads with the warrior women of Sunuria in the sci-fi-meets-witchcraft thriller ‘Thirteen’ although the Ditko/McLaughlin art team was nowhere near their best form.

The next episode promised a final ‘Showdown in Sunuria’, but this never materialized.

Blue Beetle #4 (released the same month) is visually the best of the bunch as Ted Kord followed a somehow returned Dan Garrett to an Asian backwater in pursuit of lost treasure and a death cult. ‘The Men of the Mask’ is pure strip poetry and bombastic action, perfectly counterbalanced by a seedy underworld thriller as the Question sought to discover who gave the order to ‘Kill Vic Sage!’ This was scripted by Steve Skeates (as Warren Savin) and was the last action any Charlton hero saw for the better part of a year.

Cover-dated October 1968, The Question returned as the star of Mysterious Suspense #1. Ditko produced a captivating cover and a three-chapter thriller (whilst Rocke Mastroserio provided a rather jarring full-page frontispiece).

‘What Makes a Hero?’ (probably rescued from partially completed inventory material) saw crusading Vic Sage pilloried by the public, abandoned by friends and employers yet resolutely sticking to his higher principles in pursuit of hypocritical villains masquerading as pillars of the community. Ditko’s interest in Ayn Rand’s philosophical Objectivism had become increasingly important to him and this story is probably the dividing line between his “old” and “new” work. It’s also the most powerful and compelling piece in the entire book.

A month later one final issue of Blue Beetle (#5) was published. ‘The Destroyer of Heroes’ is a decidedly quirky tale that features a nominal team-up of the azure avenger and the Question as a frustrated artist defaced heroic and uplifting paintings and statues. Ditko’s committed if reactionary views of youth culture, which so worried Stan Lee, are fully on view in this controversial, absorbing work.

Other material had been created and languished incomplete in editorial limbo. In the early 1970s a burgeoning and committed fan-base created a fanzine called Charlton Portfolio. With the willing assistance of the company, a host of kids who would soon become household names in their own right found a way to bring the lost work to the public gaze.

Their efforts are also included here, in black and white as they originally appeared. For Charlton Portfolio #9 and 10 (1974), Blue Beetle #6 was serialized. ‘A Specter is Haunting Hub City!’ is another all-Ditko extravaganza, pitting the hero against an (almost) invisible thief whilst the follow-up magazine Charlton Bullseye (1975) finally published ‘Showdown in Sunuria’ in its first two issues.

Behind an Al Milgrom Captain Atom cover, Kaler’s plot was scripted by Roger Stern (working as Jon G. Michels) and Ditko’s pencils were inked by rising star John Byrne – a cataclysmic climax almost worth the eight year wait. But even there the magic doesn’t end in this magnificent Archive volume.

From Charlton Bullseye #5 (1975) comes one final pre-DC tale of The Question: eight, gripping, intense, beautiful pages plotted by Stern, scripted by Michael Uslan and illustrated by the legendary Alex Toth, This alone is well worth the rather high price of admission.

These weighty snapshots of another era are packed with classic material by brilliant craftsmen. They are books no Ditko addict, serious fan of the genre or lover of graphic adventure can afford to be without. It’s impossible to describe the grace, finesse, and unique eclectic shape of Steve Ditko’s art. It should be experienced. And this is as good a place to start as any, and probably a lot easier to obtain than much of this lost genius’ back catalogue.

© 1966, 1967, 1968, 1974, 1975, 1976, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Legion of Super-Heroes: Archive Edition volume 1


By Otto Binder, Jerry Siegel, Edmond Hamilton, Al Plastino, Curt Swan, John Forte, Jim Mooney & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-020-8

Once upon a time, in the far future, a band of super-powered kids from dozens of alien civilisations took inspiration from the legend of the greatest champion of all time and formed a club of heroes. One day those Children of Tomorrow came back in time and invited that legend to join them…

And thus began the vast and epic saga of the Legion of Super-Heroes, as first envisioned by writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino in early 1958, just as the revived comicbook genre of superheroes was gathering an inexorable head of steam. Since that time the popularity of the Legion has perpetually waxed and waned, with their complex continuity continually tweaked and rebooted, retconned and overwritten again and again to comply with editorial diktat and popular whim.

We Silver Age Legion fans are indubitably the most persistent, passionate, finicky and snitty of all – and editors crossed us at their peril – so when DC announced that it would be gathering all the titanic team’s appearances in a chronological series of deluxe hardcover Archive Editions we were overjoyed (actually most of us thought it was about time and long overdue…) and eager.

Sadly, even in this anniversary year those stories are no longer all in print, but at least old editions like this one from 1997 can still be found if you look hard enough. You’d think in the advanced world of the 21st century a popular series about the future would be available digitally, but you’d be wrong…

Spanning 1958-1963, this glorious full-colour compendium assembles the numerous and far-ranging preliminary appearances of these valiant Tomorrow People and their inevitable progress towards and attainment of their own feature; specifically, all pertinent material from Adventure Comics #247, 267, 282, 290, 293, and 300-305; Action Comics #267, 276, 287 and 289; Superboy #86, 89, 98 and Superman #147.

Also included are an introduction by editor, publisher and devotee Mike Gold, creator biographies and a Curt Swan cover gallery (all inked by either Stan Kaye or George Klein) featuring all the burgeoning band of brothers’ pole positions from those comics.

The multi-hued mob of universe-savers first manifested in Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958) in a Superboy tale wherein three mysterious kids – Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy – invited the bemused Boy of Steel to visit the 30th century and join their team of metahuman champions: all originally inspired by his historic career.

Created by Otto Binder & Al Plastino, the throwaway concept inflamed public imagination and after a slew of further appearances throughout Superman Family titles, the LSH eventually took over Superboy’s lead spot in Adventure for their own far-flung, quirky escapades, with the Caped Kid Kryptonian reduced to simply a face in the in-crowd…

Here, however, the excitement was still gradually building when the kids returned more than 18 months later in Adventure #267 (December 1959) for Jerry Siegel & George Papp to play with.

In ‘Prisoner of the Super-Heroes!’ the teen wonders reappear to attack and incarcerate the Boy of Steel because of a misunderstood ancient historical record…

The following summer Supergirl met the Legion in Action Comics #267 (August 1960, by Siegel & Jim Mooney) as Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy secretly voyage to modern day America to similarly invite the Maid of Might to join, in a repetition of their offer to Superboy 15 years previously (in nit-picking fact, they claimed to be the children of the original team – a fact glossed over and forgotten these days: don’t time-travel stories make your head hurt…?).

Due to a dubious technicality, young and eager Kara Zor-El fails her initiation at the hands of ‘The Three Super-Heroes’ and was regretfully required to reapply later – but at least we got to meet a few more Legionnaires, including Chameleon Boy, Invisible Kid and Colossal Boy

With the editors still cautiously testing the waters, it was January 1961 and Superboy #86 before the ‘The Army of Living Kryptonite Men!’ (by Siegel & Papp) turn the LSH into a last-minute Deus ex Machina to save the Smallville Sentinel from juvenile delinquent Lex Luthor’s most insidious assault.

Two months later in Adventure #282, Binder & Papp introduce Star Boy as a romantic rival for the Last Son of Krypton in ‘Lana Lang and the Legion of Super-Heroes!’

Action #276 (May 1961) then debuted ‘Supergirl’s Three Super Girl-Friends’ (Siegel & Mooney, which finally sees her crack the plasti-glass ceiling and successfully enlist, sponsored by Saturn Girl, Phantom Girl and Triplicate Girl.

We also meet for the first time Bouncing Boy, Shrinking Violet, Sun Boy and potential bad-boy love-interest Brainiac 5 (well at least his distant ancestor Brainiac was a very bad boy…)

Next comes pivotal two-part tale ‘Superboy’s Big Brother’ (by Robert Bernstein & Papp from Superboy #89; June 1961) in which an amnesiac, super-powered space traveller crashes in Smallville, speaking Kryptonese and carrying star-maps written by the Boy of Steel’s long-dead father…

Jubilant, baffled and suspicious in equal amounts Superboy eventually, tragically discovers ‘The Secret of Mon-El’ by accidentally exposing the stranger to a lingering, inexorable death, before desperately providing critical life-support by depositing the dying alien in the Phantom Zone until a cure can be found…

With an August 1961 cover-date, Superman #147 unleashed ‘The Legion of Super-Villains’ (by Siegel, Curt Swan & Sheldon Moldoff): a stand-out thriller featuring Lex Luthor and the adult adversary Legion coming far too close to destroying the Action Ace until the temporal cavalry arrive…

Adventure #290 (November 1961, Bernstein & Papp) seemingly gave Sun Boy a starring role in ‘The Secret of the Seventh Super-Hero!’ – a clever tale of redemption and second chances, followed in #293 (February 1962) by a gripping thriller from Siegel, Swan & George Klein: ‘The Legion of Super-Traitors!’

Here the future heroes are turned evil, prompting Saturn Girl to recruit a Legion of Super-Pets including Krypto, Streaky the Super Cat, Beppo, the monkey from Krypton and Comet the magical Super-horse to save the world – and yes, I typed all that with a (reasonably) straight face…

Siegel & Mooney’s ‘Supergirl’s Greatest Challenge!’ (Action #287, April 1962) has her visit the Legion (quibblers be warned: it is mistakenly described as the 21st century in this story) to save future Earth from invasion. She also meets a telepathic descendent of her cat Streaky. His perhaps ill-considered name was Whizzy

Action #289 featured ‘Superman’s Super-Courtship!’ wherein the Girl of Steel scours the universe for an ideal mate for her cousin. One highly likely candidate is the adult Saturn Woman, but her husband Lightning Man objects…

Perhaps charming at the time, but modern sensibilities might quail at the conclusion that Superman’s perfect match is a total doppelganger of Supergirl herself, albeit thankfully a few years older…

By the release of Superboy #98 (July 1962), the decision had been made. The buying public wanted more Legion stories and once ‘The Boy with Ultra-Powers’ by Siegel, Swan & Klein introduced a mysterious lad with greater powers than the Boy of Steel, the focus shifted to Adventure Comics #300 (cover dated September 1962) wherein the futuristic super-squad finally begin their own series; even occasionally stealing the odd cover-spot from the still top-featured Superboy.

Tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes opened its stellar run with Siegel, John Forte & Plastino’s ‘The Face Behind the Lead Mask!’; a fast-paced premier pitting Superboy and the 30th century champions against an impossibly unbeatable foe. All looks bleak until Mon-El – long-trapped in the Phantom Zone – briefly escapes a millennium of confinement to save the day…

In those halcyon days humour was as important as action, imagination and drama, so many early escapades were light-hearted and overtly moralistic. Issue #301 offered hope to fat kids everywhere with ‘The Secret Origin of Bouncing Boy!’ – by regular creative team Siegel & Forte – wherein the process of open auditions is instigated (providing devoted fans with loads of truly bizarre and memorable applicants over the years) whilst allowing the rebounding human rotunda to give a salutary pep talk and inspirational recount of heroism persevering over adversity.

Adventure #302 highlighted ‘Sun Boy’s Lost Power!’ as the golden boy is forced to resign until fortune and boldness restore his abilities after which ‘The Fantastic Spy!’ in #303 provides a tense tale of espionage and possible betrayal by new member Matter-Eater Lad.

The happy readership was stunned by the events of #304 when Saturn Girl engineered ‘The Stolen Super-Powers!’ to make herself a one-woman Legion. Of course, it was for the best possible reasons, but still didn’t prevent the shocking murder of Lightning Lad…

With comfortable complacency utterly destroyed, #305 further shook everything up with ‘The Secret of the Mystery Legionnaire!’ – who turned out to be the long-suffering Mon-El, finally cured of terminal lead poisoning and freed from his Phantom Zone prison.

The Legion is undoubtedly one of the most beloved and bewildering creations in American comicbook history and largely responsible for the growth of the groundswell movement that became Comics Fandom. Moreover, these sparkling, simplistic and astoundingly addictive stories, as much as the innovations of Julie Schwartz’s Justice League, fired up the interest and imaginations of a generation of young readers and built the industry we all know today.

Naive, silly, joyous, stirring and utterly compelling yarns are precious and fun beyond any ability to explain, and if you love comics and haven’t read this stuff, you are the poorer for it and need to enrich your future life as soon as possible…
© 1958-1964, 1991, 1997 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Sgt. Rock Archive Edition Volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, Bob Haney, Ross Andru, Irv Novick, Jerry Grandenetti & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-841-9

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

So pervasive is this icon of comicbook combat, that it’s hard to grasp that Rock is not an immortal industry prototype like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – with us since the earliest moments of the industry – but is in fact a late addition to and child of the Silver Age of Comics.

This gloriously gritty, full-colour hardcover collection musters all pertinent material in the evolution of the immortal “topkick” from the early salvo of battle blockbusters from Our Army at War #83-96 (including the tentative first steps in the character’s evolution from G.I. Combat #68 and Our Army at War #81-82): a period spanning the dog-days of 1958 to the summer of 1960, wherein the entire field of American comics was just beginning a staggering revolution in style, theme and quality.

Following a fascinating reminiscence from co-creator and comics legend Joe Kubert (and this inaugural battle-book also includes detailed creator profiles), the pictorial action commences with a stunning Jerry Grandenetti cover – the first of many in this impressive tome – from G.I. Combat #68 (cover-dated January 1959), and the simple, unassuming filler story by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert, of an anonymous boxer who wasn’t particularly skilled but simply, stubbornly refused to be lie down and be beaten…

When ‘The Rock!’ enlisted in the US Army, however, that same Horatian quality attained mythic proportions as he held back an overwhelming Nazi attack by sheer grit and determination, remaining bloody but unbowed on a field littered with dead and broken men…

Although no more than another straight “ordinary guy finds his heroic niche” yarn for the anthology mill that proliferated in war comics of the era, something in this tale – other than the superbly taut script and stunning illustration – caught the attention of both the public and the editors…

Christened “Rocky”, the character returned as a sergeant in the Our Army at War (#81, April 1959), again facing overwhelmingly superior German forces as ‘The Rock of Easy Co.!’ in a brief but telling vignette by Bob Haney, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito before finally evolving an actual persona as Sgt. Rock in the next issue, with the Mort Drucker illustrated ‘Hold Up Easy!’: another harsh and declarative pocket-epic from Kanigher which saw everyman hard-luck heroes Easy Company delayed and then saved by callow replacements who eventually came good in the life-changing crucible of combat…

Our Army at War #83 (June 1959) then housed the true launch of the ordinary hero in ‘The Rock and the Wall!’ (by Kanigher & Kubert): wherein a tough-love, battlefield tutor shepherded his callow men to competence and survival amidst the constant perils of war. Here he met a rival for his men’s admiration in the equally impressive warrior Joe Wall

Irv Novick illustrated ‘Laughter on Snakehead Hill!’ as the embattled dog-faces of Easy fought to take a heavily fortified citadel whilst OAAW#85 introduced the first continuing and marginally less-disposable cast member in the Kubert-limned ‘Ice Cream Soldier!’, wherein Rock assuaged a fearful replacement’s jangled nerves with tales of another hopeless “green apple” who grew into his job.

This ploy of incorporating brief past-action episodes into a baptism-of-fire scenario would play over and over again and never get old…

Following a magnificent cover by master of realism Russ Heath, Haney returned in #86 to script ‘Tank 711’ for Kubert as the terse top-kick educated another newbie in combat etiquette. Kanigher returned to describe the taking of “No-Return-Hill” and the initiation of four more raw recruits in ‘Calling Easy Co.!’ after which Grandenetti illustrated a brace of tales in #88 and 89: ‘The Hard Way’ in which Rock suffered a shocking crisis of confidence and ‘No Shot from Easy!’ wherein the indomitable sergeant was forced to give his toughest ever order…

Issue #90 is classic Kubert from start to finish as ‘Three Stripes Hill!’ revealed the story of how Rock won his stripes, after which the traditionally anthological Our Army at War instead offered three complete Sgt. Rock stories in #91. These began with ‘No Answer From Sarge!’ as the NCO risked everything to drag a recruit out of a crippling funk, continued in ‘Old Soldiers Never Run!’ where he had to weigh an old man’s pride against Easy’s continued existence, and concluded with Haney’s tragic fable of a sole-surviving Scottish soldier in ‘The Silent Piper!’

Issue #92 saw Kanigher & Kubert tackle battlefield superstitions in ‘Luck of Easy!’, after which ‘Deliver One Air Field!’ introduced Zack Nolan, a son of privilege who had to learn teamwork the hard way whilst #94’s ‘Target… Easy Company’ pitted the battle-weary Company against a German General determined to eradicate the high-profile heroes at all costs…

OAAW #95 debuted the charismatic and ambitious Bulldozer Nichols in ‘Battle of the Stripes!’: the hulking giant wanted Rock’s rank and position but grew to become the second most-recognisable character of the entire series, and this premier deluxe edition closes its preliminary campaign with ‘Last Stand for Easy!’ which saw the still in-charge non-com compelled to relinquish his lead-from-the-front position after a by-the-book officer deems him too valuable to waste on a battlefield…

Robert Kanigher at his worst was a declarative, heavy-handed and formulaic writer, but when writing his best stuff – as he does here – was an imaginative, evocative, iconoclastic and heart-rending observer of the warrior’s way and the unchanging condition of the dedicated and so very human ordinary foot-slogging G.I. He is a writer no comics fan should ignore or dismiss.

With superb combat covers from Grandenetti, Kubert or Heath fronting each episode, this titanic tome is a visually intoxicating compendium and brilliant tonic for any jaded fan looking for something more substantial than simple flash and dazzle. It’s also long overdue for revival and translation to digital formats.

A perfect example of true Shock and Awe; these are stories every fan should know.
© 1959, 1960, 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: the Dark Knight Archives volume 7


By Bob Kane, Don Cameron, Bill Finger, Joe Samachson, Alvin Schwartz, Dick Sprang, Jerry Robinson, Ray Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3744-8

Win’s Christmas Recommendation: Classically Traditional, Timelessly Wonderful… 9/10

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

Having established the fantastic parameters of the metahuman with their Man of Tomorrow, the strictly mortal physical perfection and dashing derring-do of DC’s Dynamic Duo rapidly became the swashbuckling benchmark by which all other four-colour crimebusters were judged.

This eighth luxuriously lavish hardback Archive Edition volume covers another bevy of Batman adventures (#32-37 of his solo title, spanning December 1945/January 1946 through October/November 1946), with the Gotham Gangbusters resolutely returned to battling post-war perils and peacetime perfidies of danger, doom and criminality….

These Golden Age greats comprise many of the greatest tales in Batman’s decades-long canon, as lead writers Bill Finger and Don Cameron, supplemented by Joe Samachson, Alvin Schwartz and other – sadly unrecorded – scripters, pushed the boundaries of the medium.

On the visual side, graphic genius Dick Sprang superseded and surpassed freshly-returned originator Bob Kane (who had been drawing the Batman daily newspaper strip until its cancellation), making the feature utterly his own in all but name whilst keeping the Dauntless Double-act at the forefront of the legion of superhero stars, even as veteran contributor Jerry Robinson was reaching the peak of his illustrative powers and preparing to move on to other artistic endeavours…

The sheer creativity exhibited in these adventures proved the creators responsible for producing the bi-monthly adventures of the Dark Knight were hitting an artistic peak that few other superhero titles could match. Within scant years they would be one of the only games in town for Fights ‘n’ Tights fans…

Following a fascinatingly fact-filled and incisive Foreword from the inestimable Roy Thomas, the all-out action begins with Batman #32 and another malevolently marvellous exploit of The Joker whose ‘Racket-Rax Racket!’ (crafted by Cameron & Sprang) finds its felonious inspiration in college-student hazing and initiation stunts, after which Finger scripted ‘Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder!’ for that man Sprang, which reprises the jaunty junior partner’s origins and reveals how the lad earned the right to risk his life every night beside the mighty Batman in a blisteringly tense first case…

Light-hearted supplemental feature ‘The Adventures of Alfred’ provides thrills and laughs in equal measure as the dutiful butler reluctantly baby-sits a posh pooch and ends up ‘In the Soup’ after stumbling upon a gang of high society food smugglers (courtesy of Samachson & Robinson), before Cameron & Sprang spectacularly combine a smidgen of science fiction flair and a dash of historical conceit to the regular adventure mix when Professor Carter Nichols uses his hypnosis-powered time-travel trick to send Bruce and Dick to the court of Louis XIII to work with D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers in ‘All for One, One for All!’

Issue #33 was the Christmas issue for 1945 – complete with seasonal cover by Sprang – but was otherwise an all-Win Mortimer art-fest; beginning with Finger’s ‘Crime on the Wing’ wherein the Penguin popped up and began a renewed campaign of crime with his trick umbrellas, just to prove to modern mobsters that he was still a force to be reckoned with after which anonymously-scripted thriller ‘The Looters!’ found the Dynamic Duo hunting a heartless pack of human hyenas led by the Jackal, raiding cities struck by disasters natural and not…

As if that wasn’t vile enough, the shameless exploiter was also trying to steal or sabotage the invention of a dedicated seismologist who thought he’d found a way to predict earthquakes until Batman and Robin rocked the Jackal’s world…

The issue ended with a similarly uncredited Holiday treat as ‘The Search for Santa Claus’ saw three broken old men redeemed by the season of goodwill.

After selflessly standing in for Saint Nick, an innocent man who’d spent 25 years in jail, an over-the-hill actor and a millionaire framed and certified insane by his unscrupulous heirs all found peace, contentment and justice after encountering those industriously bombastic elves Batman and Robin…

Three quarters of issue #34 was crafted by Finger & Sprang, beginning with ‘The Marathon of Menace!’ as an old man who’d dedicated his life to speed records organised a cross-country race across America with enough prize cash to interest crooks – and the ever-vigilant Gotham Gangbusters – after which an insufferable chatterbox deafeningly returned in ‘Ally Babble and the Four Tea Leaves!’; in which the chaos-causing manic maunderer consults a fortune teller and accidentally confounds a string of dastardly desperadoes…

Robinson then limned an anonymous but timely tale as ‘The Adventures of Alfred: Tired Tracks’ found the veteran valet stumbling upon a gang of opportunistic thieves before the issue ends with Finger & Sprang detailing ‘The Master Vs. the Pupil!’

Here the Batman tests his partner’s progress by becoming the quarry in a devious manhunt, but Robin’s early confidence and success take a nasty nosedive after an embarrassing gaffe which proves the danger of too much success…

Finger, Bob Kane & Ray Burnley crafted the lion’s share of Batman #35, beginning with the landmark ‘Nine Lives has the Catwoman!’ wherein the slinky thief finally emerged as the Dark Knight’s premier female foil.

Escaping prison and going on a wild crime spree, the feline felon convinces the world – and possibly the Caped Crusaders – that she cannot die, after which the equally auspicious and influential ‘Dinosaur Island!’ finds our heroes performing a sociology experiment in a robotic theme park, only to find the cavemen and giant beasts co-opted by a murderous enemy looking to become king of the criminal underworld by orchestrating their deaths…

An author unknown then scripted the whimsical exploits of ‘Dick Grayson, Author!’ (art by Kane & Burnley) as the young daredevil deems comicbook stories too unrealistic and is offered the opportunity to write some funnybook dramas which would benefit from actual crime-fighting experience. Of course, all that typing and plotting are harder than they look…

Kane & Burnley also illustrated all the Batman tales in #36, beginning with Alvin Schwartz’s ‘The Penguin’s Nest!’ wherein the podgy Bird of Ill-Omen started imperilling his new, successful – and legitimate – restaurant venture by committing minor misdemeanours just to get arrested. Unsure of what he’s up to, the Masked Manhunters spend an inordinate amount of time and energy keeping him out of jug until they finally glean his devious, million-dollar scheme…

When Hollywood’s top stuntman suffers a head injury on set and begins acting out his assorted past roles in the real world, the panicked studios call in Batman to be a ‘Stand-In for Danger!’ (Cameron, Kane & Burnley), whilst ‘The Adventures of Alfred: Elusive London Eddie!’ (with Robinson art) sees the mild-mannered manservant ferreting out a British scallywag gone to ground in Gotham after which the issue ends on a spectacular high with another terrific time-travel trip.

‘Sir Batman at King Arthur’s Court!’ – courtesy of Finger, Kane & Burnley – sees our compulsive chrononauts crisscrossing fabled Camelot and battling rogue wizards to verify the existence of the enigmatic Round Table legend dubbed Sir Hardi Le Noir

This stunning and sturdy compilation closes with the all-Robinson, all anonymously scripted #37, beginning with ‘Calling Dr. Batman!’ wherein the wounded crimebuster is admitted to hospital and uncovers dark doings and radium robbery.

As if that wasn’t enough a very sharp nurse seems to have suspicions regarding the similarity of the masked celebrity’s wounds to those of a certain millionaire playboy…

Batman and Robin are back in Tinseltown to solve a dire dilemma as ‘Hollywood Hoax!’ has them hunting thieves and blackmailers who have swiped the master print of the latest certified celluloid smash, after which the dauntless derring-do ends with a magnificent clash of eternal adversaries when ‘The Joker Follows Suit!’

Fed up with failing in all his felonious forays, the Clown Prince of Crime decides that imitation is the sincerest form of theft and begins swiping the Dark Knights gimmicks, methods and gadgets; using them to profitably come to the aid of bandits in distress…

Accompanied as always by a full creator ‘Biographies’ section, this superb collection of comicbook classics is another magnificent rollercoaster ride back to an era of high drama and breathtaking excitement: a timeless, evergreen delight no addict of graphic action can ignore.
© 1945, 1946, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: the Dark Knight Archives volume 7


By Bob Kane, Don Cameron, Bill Finger, Joe Samachson, Jack Schiff, Alvin Schwartz, Joe Greene, Dick Sprang, Jerry Robinson, Jack Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2894-1

Win’s Christmas Recommendation: Classically Traditional, Timelessly Wonderful… 9/10

Launching in 1939, a year after Superman, “The Bat-Man” (and latterly Robin, the Boy Wonder) cemented DC/National Comics as the market frontrunner and conceptual leader of the burgeoning comicbook industry.

Having established the fantastic parameters of the metahuman with their Man of Tomorrow, the strictly mortal physical perfection and dashing derring-do of DC’s Dynamic Duo rapidly became the swashbuckling benchmark by which all other four-colour crimebusters were judged.

This seventh lavish hardback Archive Edition volume covers another bombastic bevy of Batman adventures (from #26-31 of his solo title, spanning December 1944/January 1945 to October/November 1945), abandoning wartime themes and exploits as the American Homefront anticipated a return to peacetime dangers, dooms and criminality….

These Golden Age tales are amongst the very finest in Batman’s decades-long canon as lead writers Bill Finger and Don Cameron, supplemented by Joe Samachson, Jack Schiff, Alvin Schwartz, Joseph Greene and other sadly unrecorded scripters, pushed the boundaries of the medium whilst graphic genius Dick Sprang veteran gradually superseded and surpassed originator Bob Kane (busy drawing the Batman daily newspaper strip); making the feature utterly his own whilst keeping the Dauntless Double-Act at the forefront of the legion of superhero stars.

The sheer creativity exhibited in these adventures saw an ever-expanding band of creators responsible for producing the stories of the Dark Knight were hitting an artistic peak which only stellar stable-mate Superman and Fawcett’s Captain Marvel could match.

Following a fascinatingly fact-filled and incisive Foreword from comics historian – and leading light of the magnificent Grand Comics Database – Gene Reed, the mesmerising flash and dazzle commences with Batman #26 and ‘The Twenty Ton Robbery!’

Delivered by Cameron & Sprang it described the return of Dashing Desperado The Cavalier, whose criminal cries for attention drove him to compete against the Caped Crusaders with ever-more spectacular and pointless plunderings after which Schiff & Robinson proffered another delightfully silly comedy-caper in ‘The Adventures of Alfred: Recipe for Revenge!’

This solo exploit of the wannabe detective found the fumbling footman shopping for fancy cuisine and inadvertently saving the life of a gourmet chef…

Crafted at the end of 1944, Greene & Sprang’s ‘The Year 3000!’ was a timely allegory of recent terrors and warning to tomorrow as the usual scenario boldly switched to an idyllic future despoiled when the Saturnian hordes of Fura invade Earth and nearly crush humanity. Happily, one brave man and his young friend find records of ancient heroes named Batman and Robin and, patterning themselves on the long-gone champions, lead a rebellion which overturns and eradicates those future fascists…

Although a touch heavy-handed in places, this first conception of the undying legacy of Batman is a stunning example of what comics do best: inspire whilst entertaining…

Cameron & Sprang close up the issue, back on solid ground and with an eye to contemporary trends as ‘Crime Comes to Lost Mesa!’ finds the Gotham Gangbusters way out west in pursuit of escaped convicts and stumbling into a lost land where pueblo Indians still live in blissful ignorance of the modern world.

Keeping it that way takes the aid of plucky native tyke Nachee, helping Batman and Robin by surreptitiously rounding up the fugitives…

Issue #27 sported a stunning Christmas cover by Jack Burnley (equally captivating other covers in this collection are provided by Robinson or Sprang) before the Masked Manhunters were introduced to ‘The Penguin’s Apprentice’ (Cameron, Burnley & Robinson). The lad was far from keen to continue the family’s illegal traditions or indulge in nefarious business and his dreams of being an author soon ensured Batman put the Bird Bandit back in a cage…

Jerry Robinson always had a deft touch with light comedy and excelled in illustrating the sadly uncredited butler yarns remaining in this tome. ‘The Adventures of Alfred: The Pearl of Peril!’ saw the hapless manservant suckered into an ancient con-game but still coming up trumps thanks to sheer dumb luck, after which Samachson, Burnley & Robinson took Batman and Robin on a ‘Voyage into Villainy’ when a murder at The Explorers Club leads to a deadly treasure hunt through scaled-down replicas of Earth’s most inhospitable environments with a hidden killer waiting to pounce at any moment…

Another of the annual “Christmas Batman” tales wraps up the issue (why on Earth DC has never released a paperback collection of this phenomenally rich seam of Festive gold I’ll never understand) as ‘A Christmas Peril!’ by Cameron & Robinson follows the downward progress and overnight redemption of appallingly callous boy-millionaire Scranton Loring, who learns – almost too late – the joy of giving and inadvisability of trusting bankers and financial advisers, thanks to the timely intervention of a couple of self-appointed (masked) Santa’s Helpers…

Batman #28 leads with ‘Shadow City!’ (Cameron & Robinson) wherein The Joker concocts a wild scheme involving a floating urban street where gamblers and other wealthy risk-takers can indulge their dark passions safe from legal oversight – until the Dynamite Detectives deduce the truth of his vanishing village…

Another anonymous Robinson-rendered romp follows as ‘The Adventures of Alfred: The Great Handcuff King!’ reveals how the bumbling butler’s attempts to familiarise himself with manacles accidentally ensnares an unwary thuggish miscreant, after which the mild-mannered manservant almost ends the career of ‘Shirley Holmes: Policewoman!’ by inadvertently exposing the undercover cop to criminals in a tense Batman thriller by Finger & Robinson.

This issue ends on a redemptive high note as ‘Batman Goes to Washington!’ (Alvin Schwartz & Robinson) finds the Dark Knight supporting a group of former criminals heading to the nation’s capital to argue the case for jobs for ex-offenders. Typically, some gang bosses react to the threat to their potential labour pool with murderous overkill…

Finger & Sprang opened #29 with the chilling ‘Enemy No. 1’ as a man obsessed by being first at everything turned his monomaniacal frustration to the commission of crime, after which the Unknown Writer joined Robinson returned in ‘The Adventures of Alfred: The Butler’s Apprentice!’ wherein our dapper Man Friday answers an ad to train a retainer and stumbles into another half-baked burglary plot…

Although credited here to Robinson, Don Cameron’s outrageous romp ‘Heroes by Proxy!’ is actually an all-Sprang affair, delightfully describing how down-on-their-luck private detectives Hawke and Wrenn try to save their failing business by masquerading as Batman and Robin.

Luckily their first case involves strangely embarrassed Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson who are mortified – then amused – to be burgled by bandits unknown and then coached and cosseted by these helpful but blatantly shoddy impostors of their alter egos…

The delicious hilarity successfully concluded, grim normality returns courtesy of Finger, Sprang & Charles Paris as the diabolical Scuttler devises an infallible means of purloining secret plans and foiling the law’s attempts to catch him in ‘The Mails Go Through!’

The pompous Penguin pops up again in Batman #30, undertaking a bird and umbrella themed banditry-blitz to ensure his status as emperor of crime until the determined duo send him ‘Back to the Big House!’ (Cameron & Sprang).

‘While the City Sleeps!’ (Finger & Sprang) is a revered classic of informative, socially-aware entertainment which finds the senior crime-smasher taking his ward on a nocturnal tour of the city, celebrating the people who keep a modern metropolis going. Along the way they encounter a repentant thief trying to return stolen cash and have to deal with the guilty man’s murderous compatriots who want to keep the loot…

‘The Adventures of Alfred: Alias the Baron!’ (? & Robinson) then brightens the tone as the butler is mistaken by gangsters for a British crook marked for assassination, after which Finger & Sprang introduce the most annoying character in Gotham in ‘Ally Babble and the Fourteen Peeves!’

The well-meaning, impulse-challenged blabbermouth never shuts up and when he agrees to sort out a list of petty grievances for a well-to-do, bedridden old gent, the resulting chaos allows crooks to make a killing. As events alarmingly escalate however, the Caped Crimebusters are hard pushed to decide who’s the greater menace…

The final issue in this titanic tome is an all Robinson art-affair, beginning with the debut of quarrelsome couple ‘Punch and Judy!’ (scripted by Finger and inked by George Roussos). The wily elderly performers’ violent relationship makes them prime suspects when Bruce and Dick investigate a crooked carnival but can they possibly be involved in murder too?

‘The Adventures of Alfred: Alfred, Armchair Detective!’ was possibly written by Cameron or Samachson and hilariously depicts how an idle night spent eavesdropping on crooks results in a big arrest of burglars, whilst ‘The Vanishing Village!’ (Samachson) finds Batman and Robin in Florida, infiltrating a seemingly mobile resort hideaway for crooks on the run before Joe Greene authors the final act.

Here Robinson & Roussos depict the heroes investigating ‘Trade Marks of Crime!’ when a succession of crimes seem to indicate that some new culprit is utilising the tricks and M.O.’s of other bandits. The truth is a far more cunning and dangerous solution…

Accompanied by a full creator ‘Biographies’ section, this sublime selection of classic comicbook action is a magnificent rollercoaster ride to a era of high drama, low cunning and breathtaking excitement and this timeless and evergreen treat is one no lover of graphic entertainments should ignore.
© 1944, 1945, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Shazam! Family Archives volume 1


By unknown authors, Mac Raboy, Al Carreno, Mark Swayze & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0779-3

One of the most venerated and beloved characters of America’s Golden Age of comicbooks, Captain Marvel was created in 1940 as part of a wave of opportunistic creativity which followed the stunning success of Superman in 1938 and Batman one year later.

Although there were many similarities in the early years, the Fawcett champion quickly moved squarely into the area of light entertainment and even straight comedy, whilst as the years passed the Man of Steel increasingly left whimsy behind in favour of action, drama and suspense.

Homeless orphan and all-around decent kid Billy Batson was selected by an ancient wizard named Shazam to periodically employ the powers of six ancient gods and heroes to battle injustice. Thereafter he could transform from scrawny, precocious kid to brawny (adult) hero Captain Marvel by speaking aloud the wizard’s acronymic name – invoking the powers of legendary patrons Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.

Publishing house Fawcett had first gained prominence through an immensely well-received magazine for WWI veterans entitled Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang, before branching out into books and general interest magazines. Their most successful publication – at least until the Good Captain hit his stride – was the ubiquitous boy’s building bible Mechanix Illustrated and, as the comicbook decade unfolded, the scientific and engineering discipline and “can-do” demeanour underpinning MI suffused and informed both the art and plots of the Marvel Family titles.

Captain Marvel was the brainchild of writer/editor Bill Parker and brilliant illustrator Charles Clarence Beck who, with his assistant Pete Costanza, handled most of the art on the series throughout its stellar run. Before eventually evolving his own affable personality the Captain was a serious, bluff and rather characterless powerhouse whilst junior alter ego Billy was the true star: a Horatio Alger archetype of impoverished, boldly self-reliant and resourceful youth overcoming impossible odds through gumption, grit and sheer determination…

After homeless orphan newsboy Billy was granted access to the power of legendary gods and heroes, he won a job as a roaming radio reporter for Amalgamated Broadcasting and first defeated demonic Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, setting a pattern that would captivate readers for the next 14 years…

At the height of his popularity Captain Marvel – and many of his fellow Shazam!-powered pals – were published twice monthly and frequently outsold Superman, but as the Furious Forties closed, tastes changed, sales slowed and Fawcett saw the way the wind was blowing.

They settled an infamous, long-running copyright infringement suit begun by National Comics in 1940 and the “Big Red Cheese” vanished – like so many other superheroes – becoming no more than a fond memory for older fans…

Fawcett in full bloom, however, was a true publishing innovator and marketing dynamo – now regarded as the inventor of many established comicbook sales tactics we all take for granted today. This stunning and lavishly sturdy full-colour hardback compendium features magnificent examples of the most effective strategy: spin-off characters linked to the primary star…

Fawcett was the company responsible for creating crossover-events and in 1942 they devised a truly unforgettable villain and set him simultaneously loose on their stable of costumed champions whilst using his (temporary) defeat to introduce a new hero to their colourful pantheon.

The epic creation of Captain Marvel Jr. and his originating antithesis Captain Nazi was covered in Shazam! Archives volume 4 so this subsidiary collection gathers his subsequent appearances as brand new headliner in Master Comics #23-32 (February to November 4th 1942) plus the first issue of his own solo title ( 18th November 1942) and also includes the first appearance of mighty Miss Mary Marvel who debuted in Captain Marvel Adventures #18 (December 11th 1942)

Featuring a stunning array of breathtaking and evocative patriotic covers by Mac Raboy and Beck, this splendid compendium kicks off with an erudite and incisive Foreword by P.C. Hammerlinck (artist, editor, historian and former student of C.C. Beck) who reveals many secrets of the original comics’ production before the cartoon classics commence.

Sadly, although the artists involved are easily recognisable, the identities of these tales’ writers are lost to us but strong possibilities include primarily Rod Reed and Ed “France” Herron (both early editors of Fawcett’s comics line) as well as Bill Parker, Joe Millard, Manly Wade Wellman, Otto Binder and William Woolfolk.

Before the advent of the World’s Mightiest Boy, Bulletman – ably assisted by his companion Bulletgirl – was undoubtedly Fawcett’s runner-up star turn; hogging the cover spot in monthly Master Comics and carrying his own solo comicbook. However, that all changed with the twenty-first issue and the murderous arrival of Captain Nazi. Hitler’s Übermensch made manifest, the monstrous villain was despatched to America to spread terror and destruction and kill all its superheroes.

The Horrendous Hun stormed in, taking on Bulletman and Captain Marvel who united to stop the Fascist Fiend wrecking New York City. The battle ended inconclusively but restarted when the Nazi nemesis tried to wreck a hydroelectric dam. Foiled again, the monster sought to smash a new fighter plane prototype before Captain Marvel countered him, but was not quick enough to prevent the killer murdering an old man and brutally crushing a young boy.

Freddy Freeman seemed destined to follow his grandfather into eternity, but guilt-plagued Billy brought the dying lad to Shazam’s mystic citadel where the old wizard saved his life by granting him access to the power of the ancient gods and heroes. Physically cured – except for a permanently maimed leg – there was a secondary effect: whenever he uttered the phrase “Captain Marvel” Freeman transformed into a super-powered, invulnerable version of his mortal self…

The prototype crossover epic concluded in Master Comics #22 when the teen titan joined Bulletman and Bulletgirl in stopping a string of Captain Nazi-sponsored murders, victoriously concluding with a bold announcement that from the very next issue he would be starring in his own solo adventures…

The triumphant parade of epic adventures starts in this tome with ‘Captain Nazi’s Assassination Plot’ (Master Comics #22), immaculately rendered by the Alex Raymond-inspired Raboy who would produce some of the most iconic art of his illustrious career, albeit struggling all the time with punishing deadlines and his own impossibly harsh standards…

Earning a living selling newspapers on street corners, young Freddie spots Captain Nazi again and dogs his corpse-strewn trail as the fascist kills a British agent and attempts to murder President Roosevelt. Then ‘Death by Radio’ introduces sinister serial killer Mr. Macabre who brazenly broadcasts his intention to assassinate former business partners until the young Marvel confronts him…

Master Comics #22 sees Freddie investigate a little lad’s broken balloon in ‘The Case of the Face in the Dark!’ only to stumble upon a cunning plot by the Japanese to invade Alaska. Whereas his senior partner’s tales were always laced with whimsy, Junior’s beautifully depicted exploits were always drenched in angst, tension and explosive action. The climax, which involved the bombastic boy-warrior shredding wave after wave of bombers, is possibly one of the most staggering spectacles of the Golden Age…

On a smaller scale, the next issue featured ‘The Return of Mr. Macabre!’ as the killer, turned sickly green after a failed suicide attempt, kidnaps a US inventor ferrying vital plans to England. The plot goes well until Macabre’s rendezvous with Captain Nazi in mid-Atlantic is interrupted by Junior who saves the day by ripping their battleship apart with his bare hands…

In a rare display of close continuity, Freddie then carries on to London in MC #27 to counter ‘Captain Nazi and the Blackout Terror’, with the malign master of disguise setting out to neutralise the city’s anti-Blitz protocols. For his service Freddie is made a special agent for Winston Churchill…

Never captive for long, in the next issue the Hunnish Hauptman spearheads an Atlantic reign of terror and kidnaps America’s chief of War Production until Junior single-handedly invades ‘Hitler’s Headquarters of Horror’, linking up with the German Resistance movement to free the crucial captive.

After such smashing successes it was no surprise that in #29 British Intelligence tapped innocuous Freddie Freeman to infiltrate Hitler’s Fortress Europa and prepare the enslaved populations under ‘The Iron Heel of the Huns’ to rise when the inevitable Allied counterattack came…

Master #30 saw the wonder boy back in the USA to stop Captain Nazi’s plan to poison an entire military base in ‘Captain Marvel Jr. Saves the Doomed Army’ before malignant Mr. Macabre joins the Japanese to abduct a crucially-placed diplomat in ‘The Case of the Missing Ambassador’ inevitably tasting frustrating defeat and receiving the sound thrashing he so richly deserves…

With Master Comics #32, the title became a fortnightly publication but Freddie barely noticed since he was embroiled in a decidedly domestic atrocity where corrupt orphanage officials collected and abused disabled kids to turn a profit from ‘The Cripple Crimes’

A blockbuster hit, “The Most Sensational Boy in the World” won his own title as 1942 drew to a close, but with Raboy already hard-pressed to draw 14 pages a month to his own exacting standards, Captain Marvel Jr. #1 was illustrated by reliable Al Carreno – a Fawcett regular who had covered almost every character in the company’s stable.

The bumper book began by briefly reprising ‘The Origin of Captain Marvel Jr.’ before depicting ‘Wings of Dazaggar!’ wherein Junior follows Captain Nazi to an occupied West African colony and uncovers a flight of secret super-planes intended to bomb America to dust…

After scotching that scheme Freddie is drawn into an eerie murder-mystery as a succession of gangsters and investigative reporters fall victim to ‘The Shadow that Walked!’, after which thugs snatching beggars off the street to fuel a fantastically callous insurance scam make their biggest mistake by grabbing lame Freddie Freeman as their next patsy in ‘The Case of the Cripple Kidnappers’

The soaring sagas conclude on a redemptive note as Captain Marvel Jr. “encourages” ‘The Cracked Safecracker’ to renounce his criminal ways and look after his elderly, ailing and extremely gullible parents…

This superb graphic treat concludes with ‘Captain Marvel Introduces Mary Marvel’ capably rendered by Fawcett mainstay Mark Swayze from Captain Marvel Adventures #18. Preceded by a glorious painted cover from Beck of what would become known as “The Marvel Family”, the story saw boy broadcaster Billy Batson hosting a radio quiz show and finding himself drawn to sweet rich kid Mary Bromfield.

During the course of the show – which also includes Freddie Freeman amongst the contestants – Billy is made shockingly aware that Mary is in fact a long-lost twin sister he never knew he had (take that, Luke Skywalker!) but before he can share the knowledge with her, gangsters kidnap her for a hefty ransom.

Although Captain Marvel and Junior rescue her they foolishly fall under the sway of the crooks and are astounded when Mary idly mutters the word “Shazam!”, transforms into the World’s Mightiest Girl and rescues them all…

Crisis over, the trio then quiz the old wizard and learn the secret of Mary’s powers – gifts of a group of goddesses who have endowed the plucky lass with the grace of Selene, the strength of Hippolyta, the skill of Ariadne, the fleetness of Zephyrus, the beauty of Aurora and the wisdom of Minerva – before welcoming their new companion to a life of unending adventure…

Notwithstanding the acute implied sexism of Mary’s talents coming from goddesses rather the same source as the boys’, her creation was a landmark of progress which added a formidable and unbeatable female to the ranks of the almost universally male mystery-man population of comicbooks.

The original Captain Marvel is a true milestone of American comics history and a brilliantly conceived superhero for all ages. These enchanting, compelling tales show why “The Big Red Cheese” and his oddly extended family was such an icon of the industry and prove that such timeless, sublime graphic masterpieces are an ideal introduction to the world of superhero fiction: tales that cannot help but appeal to readers of every age and temperament…
© 1942, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Robin Archives volume 2


By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Win Mortimer, Jim Mooney & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2625-1

Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger & Jerry Robinson, Robin the Boy Wonder debuted in Detective Comics #38 (April 1940), which introduced a juvenile circus acrobat whose parents were murdered by a mob boss.

The story of how Batman took the orphaned Dick Grayson under his scalloped wing and trained him to fight crime has been told, retold and revised many times over the decades and still regularly undergoes tweaking to this day.

In the original comics continuity Grayson fought beside his mentor until 1970 when, as an indicator of those turbulent times, he flew the nest, becoming a Teen Wonder, college student and eventually leader of a team of fellow sidekicks and young justice seekers – the Teen Titans.

He graduated to his own solo spot in the back of Detective Comics from the end of the 1960s, alternating with Batgirl, and held a similar spot throughout the 1970s in Batman. The college-based wonder won a starring feature in the anthology comic Batman Family and a run of Giant Detective Comics Dollar Comics before becoming a star all over again in the 1980s as leader of the New Teen Titans, first in his original costumed identity and eventually in the reinvented guise of Nightwing. He even re-established a turbulent working relationship with his dark, driven and dangerous former senior partner.

Robin’s creation as a junior hero for younger readers to identify with inspired an incomprehensible number of costumed kid crusaders and Grayson continues in similar innovative vein for the older, more worldly-wise readership of America’s increasingly rebellious contemporary youth culture… but his star potential was first realised much earlier in his eternally young career…

From 1947 to 1952, (issues #65-130) Robin, the Boy Wonder had a solo series – and cover spot – in Star Spangled Comics at a time when the Golden Age superhero boom was fading, its gaudy bravos gradually being replaced by more traditional heroes in genres such as crime, westerns and boys’ adventure stories.

The exploits herein contained blended in-continuity action capers with more youth-oriented fare, frequently reducing adults Batman, Alfred and Commissioner Gordon to minor roles or rendering them entirely absent, allowing the kid crusader to display not just his physical accomplishments but also his brains, ingenuity and guts.

This second sturdy deluxe hardback Archive Edition re-presents more tales from Star Spangled #86-105 (covering November 1948 to June 1950) recapturing the dash, verve and universal appeal of one of fantasy literature’s greatest youth icons – albeit with a greater role for Batman – and opens with a fascinating Foreword by Bill Schelly who adds a layer of historical perspective and canny insight to the capers to come.

Every beautiful cover is included – although most of the later ones feature colonial-era frontier sensation Tomahawk – and are lovingly rendered by Jim Mooney, Win Mortimer, Charles Paris, Bob Kane and Fred Ray.

Although unverified, writers Bill Finger, Don Cameron, David Vern Reed and Jack Schiff are considered by most comics historians to be the authors of the stories in this volume and I’m going to happily concur here with that assessment until informed otherwise. Easier to ascertain is Mooney as penciller of almost all and inker of the majority, with other pencil and penmen credited as relevant…

The action-packed relatively carefree high jinks commence with Star Spangled Comics #86 and ‘The Barton Brothers!’ (inked by Win Mortimer, who remained until #90) as the Boy Wonder took up the lone vengeance trail to hunt down a trio of killers whose crime spree culminated in gunning down the mighty Batman, after which racketeer Benny Broot discovered he was related to the aristocracy and patterned all his subsequent vicious predations on medieval themes as ‘The Sinister Baron!’

Robin went AWOL in defiance of his mentor to clear the father of a schoolmate in ‘The Man Batman Refused to Help!’ but his good intentions in clearing the obviously framed felon almost upset a cunning plan to catch the real culprit, after which SSC #89 saw ingenious hoods get hold of ‘The Batman’s Utility Belt!’ and start selling customised knock-offs until the Dynamic Duo crushed the racket.

The murder of a geologist sent the partners in peril out west in #90 to solve ‘The Mystery of Rancho Fear!’, going undercover as itinerant cowboys to deal with a gang of extremely contemporary claim-jumpers whilst, with Mooney now handling all the art-chores, issue #91 found the Boy Wonder instigating a perplexing puzzle to stump his senior partner in ‘A Birthday for Batman!’

It would have all been the perfect gift if not for the genuine gangsters who stumbled upon the anniversary antics…

The crimebusting kid played only a minor role in #92’s ‘Movie Hero No. 1’ wherein Batman surreptitiously replaced and eventually redeemed an action film actor who was a secret coward, but resumed star status in ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx!’ when a mute, masked mastermind seemingly murdered the Dark Knight and supplanted Gotham’s criminal top dog Red Mask.

Entertainment motifs abounded in those days and Star Spangled Comics #94 heralded ‘The End of Batman’ when the Dynamic Duo stumbled on a film company crating movie masterpieces tailored to the unique tastes and needs of America’s underworld after which greed and terror gripped the streets when a crook employed an ancient artefact to apparently transform objects – and even the Boy Wonder – to coldly glittering gold in #95’s ‘The Man with the Midas Touch!’

An indication of changing times and tastes came with the September 1949 Star Spangled as Fred Ray’s Tomahawk took over the cover-spot from #96 onwards whilst inside, Robin’s solo tale ‘The Boy Who Could Invent Miracles!’ was pencilled by Sheldon Moldoff with Mooney inking.

The story saw the kid crusader working alone whilst Batman recovered from gunshot wounds, encountering a well-meaning bright spark whose brilliantly conceived conceptions revolutionised the world – but almost exposed the masked avenger’s secret identity…

First seen in Star Spangled Comics #70, The Clock was an anonymous criminal time-and-motion expert who became the closest thing to an Archenemy Robin had. ‘The Man Who Stole Time!’ returned yet again in #97 (with Mooney back on full art), determined to publicly humiliate and crush his juvenile nemesis through a series of suitably-themed crimes… but with the same degree of success as always…

In #98 a classmate of Dick Grayson’s briefly became ‘Robin’s Rival!’ after devising a method of travelling on phone lines as Wireboy. Sadly his ingenuity was far in excess of his fighting ability or common sense and he was wisely convinced to retire, after which gambling gangster Sam Ferris broke jail and turned his obsession with turning circles into a campaign of ‘Crime on Wheels!’ until Robin set him straight again…

SSC #100 offered a powerfully moving tale as the Boy Wonder gave shelter to ‘The Killer-Dog of Gotham City!’ and proved that valiant Duke could shake off his criminal master’s training to become a boon to society.

In #101 High School elections were being elaborately suborned by ‘The Campaign Crooks!’ with a bizarre scheme to make an illicit buck from students, whilst in #102 ‘The Boy with Criminal Ears!’ developed super-hearing: making his life hell and ultimately bringing him to the attention of sadistic thugs with an eye to the main chance…

Star Spangled Comics #103 saw the introduction of ‘Roberta the Girl Wonder!’ as class polymath Mary Wills decided to follow her heart and try to catch the ideal boyfriend by becoming his crime-fighting rival, whilst #104’s ‘Born to Skate’ revealed how classmate Tommy Wells’ freewheeling passion led Robin to a gang using a roller-skate factory to mask crimes as varied as smuggling, kidnapping and murder…

The wholesome all-ages action ends with a rewarding tale blending model-making and malfeasance as a guilt-wracked Robin comes to the aid of a police pilot who had been crippled – and worse – whilst assisting on a case.

As part of his rehabilitation the Junior Manhunter devises high-tech models for Bill Cooper’s aviation club but when ‘The Disappearing Batplanes!’ are purloined by cunning air pirates the scene is set for a terrifying aerial showdown…

Beautifully illustrated, wittily scripted and captivatingly addictive, these rousingly traditional superhero escapades are a perfect antidote to teen-angst and the strident, overblown, self-absorbed whining of contemporary comicbook kids.

Fast-paced, infinitely inventive and ferociously fun, here are superb yarns no young-at-heart Fights ‘n’ Tights fan will want to miss…
© 1948, 1949, 1950, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: the World’s Finest Comics Archives volume 2


By Jerry Siegel, Don Cameron, Alvin Schwartz, Joe Samachson, Sam Citron, Ed Dobrotka, Ira Yarbrough, John Sikela, George Roussos, Stan Kaye & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2470-7

The debut of Superman rapidly propelled National Comics to the forefront of their fledgling industry and in 1939 the company was licensed to produce a commemorative extra-length comicbook celebrating the opening of the New York World’s Fair. With the Man of Tomorrow prominently featured on the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics, the premium also featured such four-colour stars as Zatara, Butch the Pup, Gingersnap and The Sandman.

The experiment generated another such titanic tome a year later, and since the prodigious card-covered 96 page anthologies were a tolerable hit, the editors were inclined to further test the waters through another oversized anthology starring only their own pantheon of characters with market-leaders Superman and Batman prominently featured.

The format was retained for a wholly company-owned, quarterly high-end package, retailing for the then hefty price of 15¢. Launching as World’s Best Comics #1 (Spring 1941), the book transformed into the somehow-deemed-classier World’s Finest Comics from #2, beginning a stellar 45 year run which only ended as part of the massive clear-out and decluttering exercise that was Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Until a cost-cutting exercise in 1954 reduced the page count, the first 70 issues of World’s Finest only saw Superman, Batman and Robin united on the covers. From #71 (cover-dated July) onwards, however, the three began a long-lived partnership that lasted more or less until the title was cancelled.

This deliciously deluxe hardback Archive edition collects the Action Ace’s solo exploits from World’s Finest Comics #16-32 (Winter 1945 to January/February 1948) in gleaming, seductive full-colour and also includes an incisive Foreword by fan, historian, and comics creator Jim Amash as well as the now-traditional creator biographies.

With stunning, eye-catching covers from Jack Burnley, Dick Sprang and Win Mortimer, this fabulously exuberant compendium opens with the regrettably anonymous ‘Music for the Masses!’ illustrated by Sam Citron & George Roussos wherein Clark Kent and Lois Lane help a starry-eyed hick songwriter escape the machinations of arch conman J. Wilbur Wolfingham to find stardom and true love, and World’s Finest Comics #17 provided thrills and spills in Don Cameron, Citron & Roussos’ ‘The Great Godini!’, wherein a reformed convict struggles to escape his notorious past whilst attempting to forge a career as a stage magician and escapologist…

‘The Junior Reporters!’, by Alvin Schwartz & Ed Dobrotka, sees a young newsboy prove his grit and integrity in a journalism competition, scoring his first major scoop by exposing the crooked schemes of his older brother’s gang, after which WFC #19 details Cameron & Ira Yarbrough’s ‘The Battle of the Zodiac!’ as Lois’ investigation of a shady swami leads to a spectacular, phantasmagorical clash between the Man of Steel and animatedly aggressive astrological embodiments.

After swiping advanced electronic and atomic components, creepy Winslow Schott becomes ‘The Toyman: Super-Scientist!’ (Cameron, Dobrotka & Stan Kaye), bedevilling the Metropolis Marvel with lethally devious devices, whilst from #21, ‘The Plane of Tomorrow!’ (Joe Samachson, Yarbrough & Roussos) finds Superman feeling uncharacteristically jealous when Lois seemingly switches her fickle attentions to a dashing jet designer targeted by a dodgy industrialist…

When Lois and Clark are despatched north to cover radium mining they uncover a strange mystery. Aging prospector John Borealis seems to be just a crazy old man handing out gold to his struggling fellows but he harbours a dangerous secret which draws out an army of bandits in ‘The Siege of Aurora Roost!’ (Schwartz, Yarbrough & Kaye in #22)…

When a handful of silent screen stars attempt a comeback they begin dotting the city with vast imitations of the Seven Wonders of the World. As the poorly built edifices begin to crumble, Superman steps in to save the day as ‘The Colossus of Metropolis!’ (Cameron, Yarbrough & Kaye from World’s Finest Comics #23), after which those artists delineate the again-anonymously-scripted ‘Impossible But True!’ wherein the presenter of a new TV show tells more and more blatant lies on camera.

What nobody knows is that poor Olga Olmstead is being fed false info by ruthless kidnappers and the Man of Tomorrow is biding his time until he can strike…

‘Mad Weather in Metropolis!’ from WFC #25 (Cameron, Yarbrough & Kaye) follows similar themes when Lois is appointed Daily Planet meteorologist and resentfully fabricates impossible forecasts which Superman makes come true. What she doesn’t know is that the Caped Crimebuster is using her potty prognostications to help out an ailing sporting goods store and catch a gang of racketeers…

Co-creator Jerry Siegel returned after war service in 1946 and ‘The Confessions of Superman!’ (art by John Sikela & Kaye) saw him on top form as the promise of a huge charity donation convinces the Man of Might to pen his (somewhat expurgated) autobiography and then have to prove to his publisher that he did indeed perform the feats he described…

World’s Finest #27’s featured ‘The Man who Out-Supered Superman!’ (Siegel, Sikela & Kaye again ) wherein downtrodden love sick schnook Nelson Swayne devised numerous sharp ways of outdoing the Man of Steel to win back his flighty, star-struck girlfriend…

Paramount mad scientist Lex Luthor returned with a “life-ray” to plunder and pillage Metropolis, galvanising a giant statue into becoming ‘Superman’s Super-Self!’ (Cameron, Yarbrough & Kaye) whilst ‘The Books that Couldn’t be Bound!’ (Schwartz, Sikela & Kaye in #29) found Clark and Lois following a harried bookbinder as he strove to fulfil three all-but-impossible commissions. Naturally the Caped Kryptonian also turned up to assist as a unique apprentice…

‘Sheriff Clark Kent’ (Cameron, Win Mortimer & Dobrotka) took the Man of Steel to the Wild West but it was his meek alter ego and feisty little lad Roaring Pete who caught the cunning crook ramrodding the fearsome Rockdust Bandits

Sheer whimsy guided ‘Superman’s Super-Rival!’ (Schwartz, Yarbrough & Kaye) as punchy boxer Dan the Dunce swipes an experimental sedative which turns him into a mighty muscled mauler able to mangle the Man of Steel and seduce away his girl Lois… The last tale in this volume – from World’s Finest Comics #32, Fall 1944 – is ‘The Seventh Wonder of the World!’ by Siegel, Yarbrough & Kaye, astoundingly detailing how Superman briefly visits ancient Egypt just in time to smash an army of proto-Nazis, liberate Pharaoh’s slaves and complete the Pyramid of Cheops. All in a day’s work, really…

These blockbusting yarns provide a perfect snapshot of the Caped Kryptonian’s amazing development from unstoppable, outlaw social activist to trusted and omnipotent paragon of American virtues in timeless tales which have never lost their edge or their power to enthral and beguile.

This is raw comicbook wonderment at its most primal and perfect.
© 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Archives volume 8


By Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Don Cameron, Bill Finger, Alvin Schwartz, Whitney Ellsworth, Ed Dobrotka, Sam Citron, Ira Yarbrough, George Roussos, Jack Burnley, Wayne Boring & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2885-9

Today’s American comicbook industry – if it still existed at all – would have been utterly unrecognisable to us without Superman. His unprecedented invention and adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form.

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

In comicbook terms at least Superman was master of the world, having already utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry. There was the phenomenally popular newspaper strip, a thrice-weekly radio serial, games, toys, as much global syndication as the war would allow and the perennially re-run Fleischer studio’s astounding animated cartoons.

Despite all the years that have passed since then, I – and so many others – still believe that superhero comics were never more apt or effective than when they were whole-heartedly combating the agents of Fascism (and yes by heck, even the dirty, doggone, Reds-Under-the-Beds Commies, who took their place in the 1960s too!) with mysterious masked marvel men in compulsive, improbable short, sharp exploits,

The most evocative and breathtaking moments of the genre always seem to occur as those gaudy gladiators soundly thrashed – and please forgive the offensive contemporary colloquialism – “Nips, Nazis and Reds”. However, even in those dark days long-ago, the young and enthusiastic creators were wise enough to augment their tales of espionage and invasion with a range of gentler, more whimsical four-colour fare. By the time of the sagas in this superb seventh Superman full-colour hardcover Archive edition – re-presenting #30-35 (September/October 1944 to July/August 1944) of the Man of Tomorrow’s solo title – the apprehension of the early war years had been replaced with eager anticipation as tyranny’s infernal forces were being rolled back on every Front.

Superman was the premier, vibrant, vital role model whose startling abilities and take-charge, can-do attitude had won the hearts of the public at home and the troops across the war-torn world.

Now, although the shooting was all but over, stirring, morale-boosting covers and stories were being phased out in favour of gentler and even purely comedic themes.

Following a funny and informative Foreword: “Look! Up in the Sky! It’s a Bird… it’s a Plane…it’s – An Imp?’ by cartoonist Evan Dorkin discussing the advent of super-foes, social change and a certain fifth dimensional jester, the action-laced whimsy begins with ‘Superman Alias Superman!’ by Don Cameron, Ira Yarbrough & Stan Kaye wherein lovelorn Clark Kent takes romantic advice from office-boy Jimmy Olsen and impersonates his own alter ego to impress Lois.

The doomed imposture is further complicated because his scathing, scoop-obsessed colleague is fully fixated on catching high society bandit Silver Foxx and has no time for Clark’s insecurities and idiocies…

The go-getting journalist was always too busy for romance back then, as can be seen in ‘Lois Lane, Girl Reporter: The Arch-Swindler’ by Cameron, Ed Dobrotka & George Roussos. In those turbulent times the interpretation of the “plucky news-hen” was far less demeaning than the post-war sneaky minx who was so popular in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Lois might have been ambitious and life-threateningly precipitate, but it was always to advance her own career, help underdogs and put bad guys away, not trap a man into marriage.

Her Superman-free exploits began in #28: a succession of 4-page vignettes offering breathless, fast-paced, screwball comedy-thrillers. In this example, spurred on by Clark’s teasing, she tracks down, is captured by and spectacularly turns the tables on murderous conman Jack Dover

Back with the star feature, Bill Finger, Yarbrough & Roussos revealed how an ancient prophecy turns the Action Ace into ‘The King’s Substitute’ as centuries ago the ruler of tiny nation Poltavia learns that a Superman will one day deliver his country from bondage, restore a true heir and offer the people a wonderful thing called democracy…

Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster & Yarbrough then herald the start of a new kind of adventure as ‘The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk’ debuts. An utterly intoxicating daffy romp introduced the 5th dimensional imp who would henceforward periodically test the Man of Steel’s ingenuity and patience in a still-hilarious perfect example of the lighter side of super-heroics.

Mxyztplk (later anglicised to Mxyzptlk, presumably to make it easier to spell?) became a cornerstone of the Superman mythos: an insufferable pixie against whom all Superman’s strength and power were useless. From then on brains were going to be as important as brawn as frustration became the Man of Steel’s first real weakness…

Superman #31 opens with crime-thriller ‘Tune Up Time for Crime’ (Finger, Sam Citron Roussos) as crooks with a deadly new sonic weapon turn out to have the scientific backing of the Metropolis’ Marvel’s oldest enemy, after which arch-whimsy reappears in ‘A Dog’s Tale’ (Finger, Citron & Roussos) when scruffy mutt Flip proudly tells his canine pals how he helped Superman crack a dognapping racket…

Cameron & Dobrotka then reveal how a gang of jewel thieves prove no match for dumb luck and journalistic moxie in ‘Lois Lane, Girl Reporter: The Aces Doonan Gang’ before Finger, Citron & Roussos close out the issue with a trip to the museum as ‘The Treasure House of History!’ finds Superman saving a noble institution from mismanagement, skulduggery and even closure whilst discovering a lost Mayan city…

In #32 ‘Superman’s Search for Clark Kent!’ (Alvin Schwartz, Dobrotka & Roussos) finds the Action Ace an invincible amnesiac after volunteering for a scientific trial and forced to track down his own other identity whilst ‘Crime on Skis!!’ (Finger, Dobrotka & Roussos) sees the restored hero debunk a malign mythical bird as no more than a cover for more pedestrian killers plaguing a ski resort.

‘Lois Lane, Girl Reporter: Monkey Business’ (Whitney Ellsworth, Dobrotka & Roussos) is another splendidly frothy concoction describing how a ventriloquist at the zoo puts the jaunty journo on the trail of a pack of pickpockets, after which the terrible Toyman resurfaces to plague Metropolis, plundering wealthy antique collectors in search of a treasure hidden since the French Revolution in ‘Toys of Treachery!’ (Cameron, Dobrotka & Roussos).

Superman #33 opened with the hero following foolish Lois into ‘Dimensions of Danger!’ (Cameron, Yarbrough & Roussos) after she road-tested a Mxyztplk spell and ended up stuck in his home realm of Zrfff. Once there the Caped Kryptonian had the opportunity to do a little mischief-making of his own…

With art by Yarbrough & Roussos ‘The Country Doctor!’ is the kind of socially aware redemptive tale Bill Finger was a master of and saw Clark Kent stuck in homey little Middletown watching aging Dr. David Brown make a difference – but little money – ministering to the poor souls around him.

The physician’s only regret was a son who preferred big city glamour cases and big city fees, but then something quite tragic happened…

Ellsworth & Dobrotka’s ‘Lois Lane, Girl Reporter: The Purloined Piggy Bank’ found her being pranked by (male) cops before turning the tables on them and crushing a crime conspiracy. The issue ends with classic mystery yarn ‘The Compass Points to Murder!’ (Finger, Yarbrough & Roussos) finding the Action Ace darting to the four corners of the globe in search of a killer who believed he’d successfully silenced a shipping fleet magnate but had left one telling clue behind…

In #25 Mort Weisinger & Fred Ray’s ‘I Sustain the Wings!’ played a crucial part in America’s attempt to address a shortfall in vital services recruitment – a genuine problem at this time in our real world – and created an instant comics classic.

Artistically Superman #34 is an all Citron/Roussos affair, whose opening shot attempted to repeat the magic formula with Cameron scripted ‘The United States Navy!’ with Clark despatched to follow three college football heroes whilst they progress – in different maritime specialisations – through the war in the Pacific.  

Then ‘Lois Lane, Girl Reporter: The Foiled Frame-Up’ (Ellsworth) sees her upset political scoundrels and expose a smear campaign after which Cameron instigates a prototype “Imaginary Tale” with ‘The Canyon that Went Berserk!’ wherein a fortune teller prompts Clark into daydreaming the prospecting adventure of a lifetime…

‘When the World got Tired!’ (Finger) then ramped up the tension when a sinister epidemic of global indolence and sloth turns out to be the work of Lex Luthor and his new alien allies…

The gaggle of Golden Age goodies conclude with the contents of Superman #35 (mostly illustrated by Yarbrough & Roussos), starting with the Cameron scripted ‘Fame for Sale!’, wherein shady cove and scurvy scoundrel J. Wilbur Wolfingham rears his conniving head once more. The magnificent pastiche of W. C. Fields as a ruthless Mr. Micawber returned like a bad penny over and again to bedevil honest folk and greedy saps and here he acted as an early kind of spin doctor/publicist for a millionaire miser, social climbing parvenu and even the Mayor of Metropolis, promising their names would be on everybody’s lips.

Of course he neglected to mention how he would accomplish the feats and drew the unwelcome attention of an always alert Action Ace…

A gang wanting to profiteer from a new medicine came to a painful end in ‘Lois Lane, Girl Reporter: The Drug Swindle’ (Cameron & Dobrotka) whilst Yarbrough & Roussos resumed their illustrative endeavours for Finger’s ‘Like Father, Like Son!’ wherein Superman cleared the name and reputation of a local politician whose enemies sought to tar him with the same scandalous brush as his supposedly criminal child, and the

‘The Genie of the Lamp!’ (scripted by Schwartz) then sees the Action Ace teach a wealthy young antique collector the difference between precious objects and people in need by masquerading as a wish-fulfilling sprite…

With stunning covers by Jack Burnley, Wayne Boring, Roussos & Kaye, plus a full ‘Biographies’ section this is another stunning selection of the stories which kept the groundbreaking Man of Steel at the forefront of comics for nearly 80 years.

As fresh and thrilling now as they ever were, these endlessly re-readable epics are perfectly situated in these gloriously luxurious Archive Editions; a worthy, long-lasting vehicle for the greatest and most influential comics stories the art form has ever produced.

So what are you waiting for…?
© 1944, 1945, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Seven Soldiers of Victory Archives volume 3


By Joe Samachson & Arturo Cazeneuve (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1694-8

After the actual invention of the comicbook superhero the most significant event in the industry’s history was the combination of individual stars into a group. Thus what seems blindingly obvious to us with the benefit of four-colour hindsight was resoundingly confirmed: readers just couldn’t get enough of garishly-hued mystery men, and a multitude of popular characters would inevitably increase readership.

Plus, of course, a mob of superheroes is just so much cooler than one (or one-&-a-half if there’s sidekicks involved…).

The creation of the Justice Society of America in 1941 utterly changed the shape of the budding industry. Soon after the team debuted, even All American Comics’ publishing partner National wanted to get in on the act and thus created their own squad of solo stars, loaded with a bunch of their proprietary characters who hadn’t made it onto the roster of the cooperative coalition of AA and DC stars.

Oddly those eager editors never settled on a name and National’s squad of non-powered mystery men Crimson Avenger and Wing, Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, Sir Justin, the Shining Knight, Vigilante, Green Arrow and Speedy – who debuted as a unit in Leading Comics #1 in 1941 – were retroactively and alternatively dubbed The Law’s Legionnaires and/or The Seven Soldiers of Victory.

They never even had their own title-logo but only appeared as solo stars grouped together on the spectacular covers, the last half-dozen of which (by Luis Cazeneuve and Jon Small,) preface each of the epic sagas cunningly crafted by writer Joe Samachson and illustrator Arturo Cazeneuve in this final spectacular collection of Golden Age delights.

The tales in this third deluxe hardback compendium were originally presented in the quarterly Leading Comics #9-14 (spanning Winter 1943/1944 to Spring 1945), after which the title overnight converted to a vehicle for funny animal stars, making the team one of the earliest casualties of the changing fashions which eventually saw the virtual demise of superhero comics.

Following an incisive discourse, fascinating background and compelling history lesson from comics legend Roy Thomas in his Foreword, that war-time wonderment resumes with a startling romp entitled ‘The Chameleon of Crime!’

The sagas generally followed a basic but extremely effective formula (established by Mort Weisinger in the Soldiers’ first outing) wherein the heroes would meet to assess a many-headed threat before heading off individually to handle a portion of the problem solo, only reuniting to tackle the final foe together.

Here that plan deviates slightly as a conglomeration of five gangsters hiding out in a swanky underworld resort get to talking about the heroes they have fled from, and are overheard by a sixth. Disguise artist Mr. X boasts that he can outwit any and all of Seven Soldiers champions and a substantial amount of money is wagered…

The villain’s first targets are “The Crimson” and Wing as ‘Mr. X Marks the Spot!’, smugly warning his oblivious foes of his plan to steal a giant gem before promptly getting thrashed and nearly caught…

The malevolent mastermind plays it smarter in ‘The X-ploits of Mr. X!’, but still can’t resist giving The Vigilante a heads-up before robbing a rodeo show. This time he has to threaten innocent bystanders to escape without the swag but with his skin intact…

Two bets down and feeling rattled, Mr. X’s duel with the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy involves an assault on ‘The House That Couldn’t be Robbed!’ Here the Crime Chameleon takes an undercover, backseat role, keeping his identity hidden from his own men, but still can’t outmanoeuvre the quick-thinking patriotic partners…

A text chapter entitled ‘Interlude at Hoodlums’ Hideout’ finds the frustrated mastermind back at the crime hotel being gibed by Red Heister, Dodo the Dip and Lazy Dyers – all recent winners in the larcenous communal wager – but still boasting that his final schemes will succeed.

Anxious gambler Blackie Kraul feels his portion of the bet might still be saved and secretly writes a warning to the Shining Knight… exactly as Mr. X intended…

Returning to comics format, the daring double-cross occurs in ‘The Gorilla and the Gangster!’ as the valiant Paladin tackles a gang using a huge ape to smash steel bars and rip open safes. Thanks to the interference of Blackie however the Shining Knight falls into Mr. X’s trap and only good fortune and overwhelming determination allow the hero to triumph…

Again frustrated and sent scurrying for safety, the infuriated X tries one final ploy to save face by defeating Green Arrow and Speedy. Trusting only himself and acting as High Society magician ‘Inco the Unknown!’ the scofflaw plunders at will but comes a cropper after mistakenly deducing that effete partygoer and prospective victim Mr. Ponsonby is actually the Emerald Archer’s alter ego…

Again defeated, Mr. X flees. Sadly for him after each clash he has left a tiny clue, so when the heroes put their heads together for the ‘Conclusion’ they soon deduce the location of the hoodlum hotel and corner both the criminal charlatan and the foolish thugs who first pitted him against the Law’s Legionnaires…

Leading Comics #10 featured an exotic adventure in the Pacific as ‘The King of the Hundred Isles!’ finds the Seven Soldiers searching the vast ocean for a missing museum expedition. When a sudden storm sinks their ship too, the rescue team are separated and scattered throughout a myriad of strange little fiefdoms…

The calm aftermath sees a number of odd new alliances as ‘Crusoe and Crusoe Inc.!’ focuses on the novel team of Crimson Avenger and Speedy, marooned on a desolate rock until a band of mysteriously-displaced American gangsters arrive on a mission of murder for their mysterious boss.

Despite a few tense moments the makeshift hero-team eventually overcomes and leaves in the thugs’ motor-launch…

Elsewhere, Green Arrow and Vigilante have washed up on an isle decorated with buildings much like their hometowns and encounter ‘His Majesty… King Baby-Face!’: a notorious mobster who had vanished from the USA years before.

Hiding out, Baby-Face Johnson had taken over the simple island populations with his legion of crooks and become obsessed with collecting fish. All that is lost now though as heroes and villain spectacularly clash and a major earthquake shatters everything the transplanted tyrant’s unhappy slaves had built…

Sidekicks Stripesy and Wing scrambled ashore on a small paradise populated by the gentle descendants of English mariners in the midst of a crisis. After two centuries of self-sufficiency the population put up no fuss when representatives of “The King” finally arrived to make them pay taxes in ‘Taskmasters and Toilers!’

However when the costumed newcomers point out that their ruler is a knave and impostor it leads to another War of Independence for the beleaguered colonists, only this time the heroic rebels are defeated…

On yet another of the Hundred Isles the long-missing scientists of the museum mission are passing their days cataloguing new piscine discoveries. Their enforced idyll ends when a pack of American wiseguys show up demanding their latest find for the King’s collection.

Luckily for ‘The Fortunate Fish!’, that was the moment Star-Spangled Kid and Shining Knight arrived on the Paladin’s flying horse…

As Wing and Stripesy face death and torture the colonists begin a counter attack in ‘Revelation of Roguery!’ and are greatly aided by the fortuitous arrival of The Kid and Sir Justin. With freedom in the air the costumed quartet quickly link up with their missing comrades in time to tackle Baby-Face and his army of felons, ensuring ‘Kingdom’s End!’

Issue #11 traces the fall of hardened racketeer Handsome Harry as he misplaces his talismanic chapeau in ‘The Hard-Luck Hat!’

Almost immediately the Seven Soldiers are on his trail and crush his gang in a furious fight. Only Harry escapes…

The story continues as the mobster’s hat falls into the hands of a shifty haberdasher who sells it to haughty J. Billington Bilker in ‘The Banker and the Bandit!’ The secret scoundrel is being squeezed by a bookie and agrees to let his cash-fat institution be robbed, but fortune is not on his side as Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy get involved in the case…

With Bilker jailed, his house and possessions – including that hat – are scooped up at auction by gang-boss Gas-pipe Grogan who has an inspired notion in ‘Muggs at Mealtime!’ Putting the squeeze on the restaurant industry by “taxing” table salt Grogan thought he had tasted ultimate success until The Vigilante weighed in…

The freewheeling, infelicitous fedora then ended up with Grogan’s flunky Bozo who had far less ambitious plans to get rich. He targeted a swank store owner with memory problems, intending to slowly fleece ‘The Absent-Minded Victim!’ but had the misfortune of meeting superhero-in-mufti Lee Travis

The eagle-eyed Crimson Avenger soon involved himself and partner Wing in the cruel scam, ending Bozo’s greedy dreams forever…

The discarded, peripatetic titfer blew away on a breeze and landed on ‘The High-Hatted House!’ of inventor John Harrison just as band of escaped convicts broke in, drawing the Shining Knight into a deadly dilemma before justice and mercy finally prevailed…

That dilapidated topper then fell into the hands of a thrift-store owner who stuck it on his shop mannequin just in time for a maverick financier to buy the whole ensemble.

Mr. Jordan intended ‘The Dummy Director!’ to be his protest proxy on a Board ruled by a financial bandit but had grievously underestimated the murderous ruthlessness of his offended Chairman.

Luckily millionaire Oliver Queen was already on the case, acting as Green Arrow to ensure the guilty parties were all properly punished…

The tale turns full-circle in ‘Hat’s Haven’ as the lucky lid lands at the feet of a hobo. Recognising it instantly, hungry fugitive Handsome Harry immediately feels its power and soon is benefiting from a cunning con involving the “Haven for Homeless Hoboes”.

His shelter is in fact a college of criminality but before too long the Law’s Legionnaires have infiltrated the institution, determined to end Harry’s crooked ways for good…

Leading Comics #12 saw crotchety Croesus Weldon Darrel issue ‘The Million Dollar Challenge!’ to the Seven Soldiers, offering that princely sum to charity in return for their participation in an eccentric five-way treasure hunt. Naturally the heroes agree and ‘The Cache in the Canyon!’ soon finds Vigilante in the Wyoming badlands hunting for a box of valuables. Sadly the wild country is also the stamping grounds of a murderous bunch of bandits who immediately jump to some wrong conclusions…

Crimson Avenger and Wing head to a small town to test ‘The Power of the Press!’ discovering an old hollow newspaper printer is the location of a fortune in jewels. Of course the cheap thugs currently in possession of the press have their own ideas about “finders keepers” and accuse the heroes of theft…

Green Arrow and Speedy trace a meteorite to a museum in search of ‘The Safe from the Sky!’ only to find themselves hunted by the police whilst Shining Knight’s pursuit of ‘The Puzzle of the Pyramid!’ leads to a monumental boobytrapped modern edifice with crooks ready to murder and frame him…

Stripesy and the Star-Spangled Kid gain some inkling of what’s really going as ‘Murder in Miniature!’ sees the Red, White and Blue Duo investigating a toy town built to stash crooks’ cash and falling foul of the local law before the team reunites for the shocking ‘Conclusion’ to expose the astounding secret of the enigmatic, eccentric and unscrupulous moneyman…

Issue #13 featured ‘Trophies of Crime!’ and opens in an art museum where an odd assortment of mementoes donated by the Seven Soldiers hints at incredible feats of skulduggery.

Once upon a time the infamous Barracuda was intent on retiring from a life of extremely successful felony. To while away his idle hours he organised a collection of artefacts for his personal Black Museum and began acquiring them by callously sacrificing his top lieutenants to distract the Magnificent Seven whilst others went after his targets…

Learning early of the scheme the Legionnaires split up to stop them and ‘Crime’s Cornerstone!’ finds Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy battling killer robots to secure what appears to be a simple stone building block even as in a fantastic construction of steel and glass the Shining Knight battles a band of burglars over ‘The Cup of the Borgias!’

A bold robbery and seemingly impossible murder draws Vigilante to an experimental plantation where a ruthless gang try every dirty trick to steal ‘The Rubber Dagger!’ only to fail at the last moment whilst the Crimson and Wing take to the seas in search of a shard of canvas from ‘The Sails of the Sally C.!’ as Green Arrow and Speedy happen upon a strange and deadly bidding war with mobsters trying everything to get ‘The Iron Band!’ a simple metal worker purchases from a jewellers.

In every case Barracuda’s hoods came off worst but the mastermind escaped, at least until the Seven left their ‘Mementos of Victory’ on public display and laid a perfect trap…

The short reign of the Seven Soldier of Victory ended in Leading Comics #14 (Spring 1945) with a fabulous flight of fantasy that ranged them against ‘The Bandits from the Books!’ after a chance encounter with scientific paragon Dr. Wimsett who has discovered a process which brings fictional characters to life.

Whilst the likes of Humpty Dumpty and Old King Cole are happy mooching around the laboratory, a select group of very bad eggs the scientist had locked in a room take the first opportunity to abscond to the outside world to make mischief…

Their plans were overheard by helpful Humpty who happily shares the secrets with the Seven, so before long Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy are shadowing Long John Silver, his crew and a band of renegade natives from Last of the Mohicans to ‘Treasureless Island!’, whilst Green Arrow and Speedy follow Shakespeare’s roistering rogue on a gluttonous binge in ‘Food for Falstaff!’

Crimson Avenger and Wing hunt malignant Uriah Heep and the Old Man of the Sea as they brutally acquire modern wealth in ‘Hypocrites, Incorporated!’ even as Shining Knight battles ‘The Giant Who Got a Job!’ and a few of his big friends from the fairytales whilst Vigilante has his work cut out trying to wrangle ‘Little Men with Big Ideas!’ as the marauding armies of Lilliput go on a rampage in farms and a toystore… Soon however the troublemakers are all back in the lab but have one last card to play before they can be banished ‘Back to the Books!’

Frantic fantasy would also have been the theme of the next adventure had there been one, but Leading abruptly transformed into a cartoon animal comedy anthology for the Summer issue. The changeover was so sudden that story was already competed. ‘The World of Magic: Joe Samachson’s Script for Leading Comics#15’ offers a wondrous glimpse of what might have been…

Moreover, when Paul Levitz rediscovered the script in 1974, editor Joe Orlando had it adapted as a chapter-play serial in Adventure Comics #438-443, illustrated by artists Dick Dillin, Tex Blaisdell, Howard Chaykin, Lee Elias, Mike Grell, Ernie Chua/Chan, José Luis García López & Mike Royer.

It’s a true shame room couldn’t be found to include that saga here too…

With an informative ‘Biographies’ section to round off the nostalgic wonderment, it only remains to say that these raw, wild and excessively engaging costumed romps are amongst some of the best but most neglected thrillers of the halcyon Golden Age. Happily, modern tastes too have moved on and these yarns are probably far more in tune with contemporary mores, making this a truly guilty pleasure for all fans of mystery, mayhem and stylishly retro superteam tussles…

© 1943, 1944, 1945, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.