Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham


By Mike Mignola, Richard Pace, Troy Nixey, Dennis Janke & Dave Stewart (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5806-1 (TPB)

The origins of the Dark Knight are so well-known now that it’s simple to twist and tweak them to suit almost any tale. It doesn’t hurt that the character has a universal recognition factor that holds up in almost any imaginary scenario…

Released in 2015, available in trade paperback and digital formats and collecting the 3-issue Elseworlds miniseries (from November 2000 – January 2001), The Doom That Came to Gotham was written by horror moodmeister Mike Mignola (Hellboy; duh!) and Richard Pace (Negative Burn; Ashes; Imaginary fiends) with art from Troy Nixey (Harley Quinn; Trout; Only the End of the World Again), inker Dennis Janke & colourist & Dave Stewart.

In case you came in late: During the 1990s, DC regrouped and rebranded its frequent dalliances with alternate reality scenarios under the copious and broad umbrella of a separate imprint. The Elseworlds banner and credo declared that heroes would be taken out of their usual settings and put into strange places and times – some that have existed, or might have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t or shouldn’t exist…

No doubts here, however, as the tale deftly takes us back to Roaring Twenties America, dishing out a daring dose of pulp fiction plumb centre in the ghastly spine-chilling mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and their darkly-demented contemporaries…

It’s 1928 and orphaned Bruce Wayne is returning to Gotham City two decades after his parents were murdered by a maniac. He’s been roving the world, and recently uncovered the fate of long-lost Professor Cobblepot’s Antarctic expedition. That resulted in a clash with a naked madman who talked to penguins and a large slab of ice with a creature inside it: a thing that never evolved on this world…

By the time he and his close associates Alfred, Dick, Jason and the rest have docked in his bleak and daunting home town, they have all had more than enough of the vile dreams the thing in the hold has generated…

There are more surprises when he reaches his long-closed mansion: a dead man who somehow speaks and a mysterious stranger named Jason Blood who has been sent to deliver a dire warning. Turning into an actual demon the visitor warns that to save Gotham, Bruce must cut out its heart…

Although shocked, Bruce is ready to act, and dons the strange uniform that makes him look like a human bat…

And thus begins a skilful, macabre pastiche as the desperate driven mystery man haunts the alleys and byways of the city, testing corrupt cops, self-serving officials and outright villains – all with names most comics fans will recognise – uncovering a long-suppressed, centuries-old secret even as literal Things From Beyond human comprehension and the borders of time and space congregate.

Can even a heroic Bat Man triumph against such odds and if so, at what cost…?

Complementing the eldritch epic is a full cover gallery by Mignola and a hefty sketches and design section, featuring pencilled pages by Pace (originally slated to illustrate the tale) and layouts by Nixey.

Bold, compelling, potently stylish and chilling in all the right places, The Doom That Came to Gotham is a supernatural romp to delight and impress: once read and never forgotten…
2000, 2001, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Gotham County Line


By Steve Niles & Scott Hampton, with Jose Villarrubia (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0905-6 (TPB)

Many superheroes have a universal genre plasticity and can fit seamlessly into almost any kind of story. Even so, it’s almost no stretch at all to see DC’s Dark Knight tackling marauding monsters and dire demonic disaster, such as in this lost gem, long overdue for a new edition.

Released in 2006 and collecting a 3-issue miniseries (October-December 2005) by written by Steve Niles (30 Days of Night; Simon Dark; Criminal Macabre) with art by Scott Hampton (Silverheels; Batman: Night Cries; Simon Dark) and colourist Jose Villarrubia, the sinister suspense opens in ‘The Obvious Kill’ as yet another Batman-Joker clash throws up an aggravating mind-worm for the Dark Knight: is there a continuance of spirit and personality after death?

Suddenly obsessed with the notion, the manhunter’s subsequent researches are interrupted by a strange series of robbery/murders in the notionally peaceful, sleepy suburbs of the big, bad city. Reluctantly investigating, Batman overturns the police findings and discovers a serial killer at work. In the process of stopping the slaughter, Detective Radmuller of the Gotham County Sheriff’s Department is killed. He won’t be the last…

After closing the case, Batman returns to the city, unaware that the officer has subsequently risen from the dead. With unalloyed horror Batman realises that this case only really kicked into high gear after the death of the perpetrator. …

With zombies prowling the city and county – and even faithful manservant Alfred exhibiting symptoms – a nightmare-wracked but still ardently rationalistic Batman is forced to face the incredible facts of supernatural incursion by the ghost of Boston Brand – murdered aerialist and questing spirit Deadman – who accompanies him on ‘Death’s Highway’ in search of a solution to the plague of walking dead…

With life itself in retreat, Deadman, mystic guardian Phantom Stranger and recently deceased sidekick Jason (Robin) Todd hold back the hordes of unlife, allowing Batman to divine the root cause of the necromantic disaster and set the balance right again on the ‘Night of the Living Death’.

Batman is one of the few heroic icons who has always been equally at home with super-science and the supernatural and the Dark Knight’s arena is here extended to beyond the veil of tears and deep into nightmare territory.

Rife with zombies, ritual killers, early life revelations and doom-drenched guest-stars, this still manages to be a crime thriller and a detective mystery Bat-fans will enjoy and cross-over readers – especially horror aficionados – can revel in.
© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Hellboy: Weird Tales


By Mike Mignola, Fabian Nicieza, John Cassaday, Eric Powell, Tom Sniegoski, Tommy Lee Edwards, Randy Stradley, Joe Casey, Sara Ryan, Ron Marz, J. H. Williams III, Jim Pascoe & Tom Fassbender, Will Pfeifer, John Arcudi, Jill Thompson, Matt Hollingsworth, Alex Maleev, Jason Pearson, Scott Morse, Akira Yoshida & Kia Asamiya, Bob Fingerman, Doug Petrie, Evan Dorkin, Andi Watson, Mark Ricketts, Kev Walker, Craig Thompson, Guy Davis, Stefano Raffaele, Ovi Nedelcu, Seung Kim, Steve Parkhouse, Steve Lieber, Jim Starlin, P. Craig Russell, Simeon Wilkins, Roger Langridge, Gene Colan, Eric Wright, Dave Stewart, Clem Robins (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1616555108 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-63008-121-8

After the establishment of the comicbook direct market system, there was a huge outburst of independent publishers in America and, as with all booms, a lot of them went bust. Some few, however, were more than flash-in-the-pans and grew to become major players in the new world order.

Arguably, the most successful was Dark Horse Comics who fully embraced the shocking new concept of creator ownership (amongst other radical ideas). This concept – and their professional outlook and attitude – drew a number of big-name creators to the new company and in 1994 Frank Miller & John Byrne formally instituted the sub-imprint Legend for those projects major creators wanted to produce their own way and at their own pace.

Over the next four years the brand counted Mike Mignola, Art Adams, Mike Allred, Paul Chadwick, Dave Gibbons and Geof Darrow amongst its ranks; generating a wealth of superbly entertaining and groundbreaking series and concepts. Unquestionably the most impressive, popular and long-lived was Mignola’s supernatural thriller Hellboy.

The hulking monster-hunter debuted in San Diego Comic-Con Comics #2 (August 1993) before formally launching in 4-issue miniseries Seed of Destruction (with Byrne scripting over Mignola’s plot and art). Colourist Mark Chiarello added layers of mood with his understated hues. Once the fans saw what was on offer there was no going back…

What You Need to Know: on December 23rd 1944 American Patriotic Superhero Torch of Liberty and a squad of US Rangers intercepted and almost foiled a satanic ceremony predicted by Allied parapsychologist Professors Trevor Bruttenholm and Malcolm Frost.

They were working in conjunction with influential medium Lady Cynthia Eden-Jones. Those stalwarts were waiting at a ruined church in East Bromwich, England when a demon baby with a huge stone right hand appeared in a fireball. The startled soldiers took the infernal yet seemingly innocent waif into custody.

Far, far further north, off the Scottish Coast on Tarmagant Island, a cabal of Nazi Sorcerers roundly berated ancient wizard Grigori Rasputin whose Project Ragna Rok ritual seemed to have failed. The Russian was unfazed. Events were unfolding as he wished…

Five decades later, the baby had grown into a mighty warrior engaging in a never-ending secret war: the world’s most successful paranormal investigator. Bruttenholm spent years lovingly raising the weird foundling whilst forming an organisation to destroy unnatural threats and supernatural monsters – The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. “Hellboy” quickly became its lead agent.

Moreover, as the decades of his career unfolded, Hellboy gleaned tantalising snatches of his origins, hints that he was an infernal creature of dark portent: born a demonic messiah, somehow destined to destroy the world and bring back ancient powers of evil. It is a fate he despises and utterly rejects, even though the universe keeps inexorably and relentlessly moving him towards it…

Hellboy was swiftly attributed the status of ‘legend’ in the comics world, starting as the particular vision of a single creator and, by judicious selection of assistants and deputies, cementing a solid take on the character in the hearts of the public. That’s just how it worked for Superman, Batman and Spider-Man and a big part of the same phenomenon was the eagerness of fellow creators to play in the same universe. Just how that and this collection came about is detailed in Editor Scott Allie’s Introduction preceding a blazing welter of strange and bizarre entertainment…

Originally an 8-part comics series wherein a star-studded cast of creators tell their own stories in their own varied styles under the watchful supervision of the big cheese himself in his unique infernal playground, Hellboy’s Weird Tales was gathered into a 2-volume set in 2004. This luxurious hardback and digital reissue originated in 2014, supplementing the original miniseries with back-up stories from Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #2-4.

Dramas that add to the canon nestle alongside bizarre and humorous vignettes that simply live for the moment and begin with ‘How Koschei Became Deathless’ crafted by Mignola, Guy Davis, Dave Stewart & Clem Robins. The filler from Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #2 & 3 details the valiant trials of a noble warrior and the bad bargain he made, after which a crafty man turns the tables on the world’s wickedest witch in ‘Baba Yaga’s Feast’ (H:TWH #4).

The mother of monsters returns in Fabian Nicieza & Stefano Raffaele’s ‘The Children of the Black Mound’ wherein a future soviet dictator has his own youthful and life-altering encounter with the queen of magic.

John Cassaday spoofs classic newspaper strips with rollicking pulp science hero in ‘Lobster Johnson: Action Detective Adventure’, after which Nazi-bashing nonsense, Eric Powell explores Hellboy’s childhood and early monster-mashing in ‘Midnight Cowboy’ whilst Tom Sniegoski & Ovi Nedelcu raise our spirits with an older ghostbuster failing to tackle a playful posse of spooks in ‘Haunted’

A classical doomed East/West war romance ghost tragedy is settled by Tommy Lee Edwards & Don Cameron in ‘A Love Story’, setting the scene for more Japanese myth busting in ‘Hot’ by Randy Stradley & Seung Kim wherein the B.P.R.D. star clashes with an unhappy Tengu water spirit inhabiting a mountain hot spring…

Joe Casey & Steve Parkhouse then celebrate the glory days of test pilots and the right stuff in ‘Flight Risk’, when Hellboy gets involved in a competition to see who’s got the best jetpack, after which ‘Family Story’ (Sara Ryan & Steve Lieber) sees him acting as counsellor to the mum and dad of a rather diabolical kid, before we slip into all-out arcane action to retrieve a time bending artefact from a Guatemalan temple in ‘Shattered’ by Ron Marz & Jim Starlin.

A stakeout with an over-amorous fellow agent leads to unanticipated consequences in ‘Love is Scarier than Death’ by J. H. Williams III, whilst Will Pfeifer & P. Craig Russell’s dalliance with an undying theatre troupe traps our hellish hero in a ‘Command Performance’.

The entertainment motif continues in John Cassaday’s ‘Big-Top-Hell-Boy’ as the B.P.R.D. try to exorcise a mass-murderous circus in Germany before Hellboy and Abe Sapien battle zombies in the ‘Theatre of the Dead’ by Jim Pascoe & Tom Fassbender, illustrated by Simeon Wilkins.

The aquatic avenger sort of stars in comedic daydream ‘Abe Sapien: Star of the B.P.R.D.’ by John Arcudi & Roger Langridge, after which Jill Thompson takes ‘Fifteen Minutes’ to offer us the other side’s view of the eternal struggle whilst Matt Hollingsworth &Alex Maleev show us that the struggle against evil starts before we’re even legally alive in ‘Still Born’

Indomitable psychic firestarter Liz Sherman acknowledges personal loss and the dreadful cost of the job in Jason Pearson’s ‘The Dread Within’ before Scott Morse conjures up a calmer moment for Hellboy in ‘Cool Your Head’ before Akira Yoshida & Kia Asamiya return us to ghost-riddled Japan for an unconventional duel with childish spirits in ‘Toy Soldier’

Bob Fingerman’s ‘Downtime’ pits the cream of the B.P.R.D. against the vexatious thing inhabiting the office vending machine, after which Doug Petrie & Gene Colan follow Liz and Abe on typical ‘Friday’, even as artificial hero Roger the Homunculus foolishly seeks ‘Professional Help’ during a devious demonic assault (as recorded by Evan Dorkin).

Andi Watson tackles Hellboy’s infernal heritage and possible future during a social function where he is – as always – the ‘Party Pooper’, after which team leader/psychologist Kate Corrigan endures an acrimonious reunion with her dead-but-still-dreadful mother in ‘Curse of the Haunted Dolly’ by Mark Ricketts & Eric Wright, whilst Kev Walker pits bodiless spirit Johann Krauss against a thing from outer space in ‘Long Distance Caller’.

The narrative portion of this stellar fear & fun fest rightly focuses on Hellboy himself as Craig Thompson takes the warrior on an extended tour of the underworld in ‘My Vacation in Hell’ but there’s still a wealth of wonder to enjoy as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy Weird Tales Gallery offers a selection of potent images by Cameron Stewart, Maleev, Dave Stevens with Dave Stewart, Steve Purcell, William Stout, Leinil Francis Yu, Phil Noto, Gary Fields with Michelle Madsen, J. H. Williams III, Rick Cortes with Anjin, Galen Showman with Michelle Madsen, Ben Templesmith, Frank Cho with Dave Stewart, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Lee Bermejo with Dave Stewart and Scott Morse.

Baroque, grandiose, scary, hilarious and even deeply moving, these vignettes alternate suspenseful slow-boiling tension with explosive catharsis, and trenchant absurdity, proving Hellboy to be a fully rounded character who can mix apocalyptic revelation with astounding adventure to enthral horror addicts and action junkies alike or enthral jaded fun-lovers in search of a momentary chuckle. This is a classic compendium of dark delights you simply must have.
™ & © 2003, 2009, 2014 Mike Mignola. Weird Tales is ® Weird Tales, Ltd.

John Constantine, Hellblazer volume 2: The Devil You Know (New Edition)


By Jamie Delano, David Lloyd, Richard Piers Rayner, Mark Buckingham, Bryan Talbot, Mike Hoffman, Dean Motter & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3302-0 (TPB)

Originally created by Alan Moore during his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing, John Constantine is a mercurial modern wizard, a dissolute chancer who plays like an addict with magic on his own terms for his own ends. He is not a hero. He is not a nice person. Sometimes, though, he’s all there is between us and the al-consuming void…

Granted his own series by popular demand, Constantine premiered at the height of Thatcherite Barbarism in Britain, during the dying days of Reaganite Atrocity in the US, to become a founding father of DC’s adult-oriented Vertigo imprint. Ah, what happy, simple times they seem now…

This collection – available in paperback and digital formats – collects Hellblazer #10-13, Hellblazer Annual #1 plus 2-part tangential miniseries The Horrorist: cumulatively spanning January to October 1988 and revelling in the renaissance of comicbook horror these yarns spearheaded, and which thrive to this day.

Back in 1987, Creative Arts and Liberal Sentiments were dirty words in many quarters and the readership of Vertigo was pretty easy to profile. British scripter Jamie Delano began the Constantine solo series with a relatively safe horror-comic plot about an escaped hunger demon, introducing us to Constantine’s unpleasant nature and odd acquaintances – such as Papa Midnite – in a tale of infernal possession and modern voodoo, but even then, discriminating fans were aware of a welcome anti-establishment political line amidst the metaphorical underpinnings.

The wonderment begins by concluding an epic eldritch saga started in Hellblazer: Original Sins (go read that, it’s great too) as the sanctimonious Resurrection Crusade attempt to re-enact the birth of Christ and their rivals the Damnation Army try to stop them, using Constantine as their weapon. Both sides learn that such a vile trickster is never to be trusted. ‘Sex and Death’ is by Jamie Delano with art from Richard Piers Rayner & Mark Buckingham.

The same team are responsible for the next trinity of linked stories ‘Newcastle’: A Taste of Things to Come (from #11 of the monthly comic) forms the beginning of an origin of sorts for the sordid sorcerer as we flashback to 1978 where punk rock singer/would-be wizard John Constantine takes a motley assortment of mystic wannabees into a possessed nightclub for what they think will be a simple exorcism.

It’s anything but, and the horrific events twist the survivors for the rest of their lives… ‘The Devil You Know’ features the mage’s return (from an insane asylum and worse) and revenge on the hellbeast that shaped his life….

Issue #13 finds him ‘On the Beach’, chilling after all the horror, but still somehow sucked into an ecological nightmare. What follows is an epic tale of two Constantines, as a ghastly heritage of magic and monstrosity is revealed.

Taken from the first Hellblazer Annual in 1989, ‘The Bloody Saints’ parallels the urban occultist’s squalid existence against the history of Kon-Sten-Tyn, mighty mythic Merlin’s apprentice and a putative successor to King Arthur.

A glamorous rogue and unprincipled cheat, Kon-Sten-Tyn steals Merlin’s magic, makes pacts with devils, feigns conversion to Christianity, assumes unearned sainthood and generally does whatever he wants in a vividly dark, outlandish comedy terror beautifully illustrated by Bryan Talbot.

Also from the Annual comes an illustrated version of ‘Venus of the Hard-Sell’ originally “recorded” by Constantine’s punk band Mucous Membrane. Whatever you think it is, you’re wrong. Just get the book, revel in it and the wonderful creativity of writer/artist Dean Motter.

The 2-part miniseries The Horrorist fills the remainder of the book. Written by Delano and stunningly painted by David Lloyd, this is a bleak, cold fable which finds – in a state just like ‘Antarctica’ – an emotionally paralysed Constantine dutifully hunting across traumatised cityscapes and wretched broken America for a destructive force wreaking bloody havoc. All the trauma and misery of an uncaring world is the irresistible tool of a third world survivor and only more suffering seems to satisfy her…

As the creature called Angel passes, a typhoon of guilt, fear and terror is inevitably unleashed, savagely ending unfulfilled lives. She can’t be stopped by any means the wizard has used before, but there is one appalling tactic he can try…

John Constantine is probably the most successful horror comic character ever, with mood, tension and his surly, smug, intransigent attitude easily overwhelming and outlasting mere gore and splatter time after time. Ambivalent and ever-changing, the antihero of this series and the worlds he exposes never fail to deliver shock after shock.

Delivered by creators capable and satiric, but still wedded to the basic tenets of their craft, these superb examples of contemporary horror fiction – inextricably linking politics, religion, human nature and sheer bloody-mindedness as the root causes of all ills – are still powerfully engaging. Beautifully constructed, they make a truly abominable character seem an admirable force for our survival. The art is clear, understated and subtly subversive, while the slyly witty, innovative stories jangle at the subconscious with scratchy edginess.

This is a book no fear-fan should miss.
Hellblazer 10-13, Hellblazer Annual © 1988, 1989, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved. The Horrorist #1-2 © 1995, 1996, 2011 Jamie Delano & David Lloyd. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Haunted Knight


By Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1 401-28486-2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless Seasonal Wonderment… 9/10

The creative team of Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale have tackled many iconic characters in a number of landmark tales, but their reworkings of early Batman mythology – such as The Long Halloween – must certainly rank amongst their most memorable.

Set during the Batman: Year One scenario created by Frank Miller, and originally released as a 13-part miniseries (running from Halloween to Halloween), it detailed the early alliance of Police Captain Jim Gordon, District Attorney Harvey Dent and the mysterious vigilante Batman, to destroy the unassailable mob boss who ran Gotham City: Carmine Falcone – “The Roman”.

However, even before that epic undertaking, the creators worked together on another All Hallows adventure; one that grew like Topsy to eventually become a triptych of Prestige One-Shot Specials under the aegis of Archie Goodwin’s most significant editorial project…

After the continuity-wide reset of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and with DC still in the throes of re-jigging its entire narrative history, a new Batman title launched, presenting multi-part epics refining and infilling the history of the post-Crisis hero and his entourage.

The added fillip was a fluid cast of prominent and impressively up-and-coming creators…

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight was a fascinating experiment, even if ultimately the overall quality became a little haphazard and hit-or-miss.

Most of the early story-arcs were quickly collected as trade paperback editions – helping to jump-start the graphic novel sector of the comics industry – and the moody re-imaginings of the Gotham Guardian’s early career gave fans a wholly modern insight into the ancient yet highly malleable concept.

As explained in ‘Trick or Treat’ – Editors Goodwin’s reproduced introduction from the 1996 compilation – the first Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special began life as a story-arc for the monthly series before being cannily promoted to a single, stand-alone publication released for October 1993. Its success spawned the two sequels also included in this volume and the aforementioned Long Halloween epic…

Collected in one spooky stripped-down paperback and/or eBook compilation, those three scary stories comprise a raw and visceral examination of an obsessive hero still learning his trade and capable of deadly misjudgements as seen in initial yarn ‘Fears’.

Here, after spectacularly capturing terror-obsessed psychopath Jonathan Crane, the neophyte Caped Crusader leaves him to mere policemen ill-equipped to cope with the particular brand of malicious insanity cultivated by The Scarecrow

It’s fair to say that the man behind the bat mask is distracted; still attempting to reconcile his nocturnal and diurnal activities, young Bruce Wayne is currently floundering before the seductive and sophisticated blandishments of predatory social butterfly and matrimonial black widow Jillian Maxwell. Faithful major-domo Alfred Pennyworth is not so easily swayed, however…

Left too much to his own devices, Scarecrow has run wild through Gotham, but when he abducts Gordon, he at last makes a mistake the Dark Knight can capitalise upon…

One year later another Halloween brings ‘Madness’ as rebellious teen Barbara Gordon choses exactly the wrong moment to run away from home: a night when her dad’s mysterious caped pal is frantically hunting Jervis Tetch – a certified nutcase abducting runaways to attend decidedly deadly Tea Parties orchestrated by a truly Mad Hatter

Steeped in personal nostalgia as a maniac rampages through his city, inadvertently trampling upon some of Bruce Wayne’s only happy memories (of his mother’s favourite book), the heroic pursuer almost dies at the hands of the Looking Glass Loon, only to be saved by unlikely angel Leslie Thompkins – another woman who will loom large in the future life of the Batman…

The final fable here pastiches a Christmas classic by Charles Dickens as ‘Ghosts’ sees a delirious Bruce Wayne uncharacteristically taking to his bed early on the night before Halloween.

After socialising with young financier Lucius Fox, eating bad shrimp and crushing baroque bird bandit The Penguin, our sick and weary playboy lapses into troubled sleep, only to be visited by three spectres…

Looking like Poison Ivy, The Joker and the corpse of Batman himself, whilst representing Past, Present and inescapable Future, these phantoms prove that only doom awaits unless the overachieving hero strikes a balance – or perhaps truce – between his two divergent identities…

Trenchant with narrative foreboding – long-time fans already know the tragedies in store for all the participants, although total neophytes won’t be left wondering – these eerily enthralling Noir thrillers by Loeb perfectly capture the spirit of the modern Batman, supremely graced with startlingly powerful images of Mood, Mystery and rampant Mayhem from the magic pencil and brush of Tim Sale, vividly augmented by the colours of Gregory Wright and lettering of Todd Klein.

Adding lustre to these moody proceedings are a gallery of prior covers culled from earlier collections as well as a Sale Batman sketch, making this one of the very best Batman books you could read.
So, do…
© 1993, 1994, 1995, 2014, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Emperor Joker

By Jeph Loeb, J.M. DeMatteis, Mark Schultz, Joe Kelly, Ed McGuinness, Mike Miller, Doug Mahnke, Kano, Duncan Rouleau, Todd Nauck, Carlo Barberi, Scott McDaniel & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1193-6 (TPB)

In the arena of superhero stories, the terms of narrative are often determined more by the antagonists than the gaudily costumed champions doggedly duelling with them. That’s never been more apparent than in tales featuring the Clown Prince of Crime such as this one…

Originally available as a trade paperback and now in a selection of digital formats, this outlandish yarn collectively spans September and October 2000, as originally published in Superman #160-161, Adventures of Superman #582-583, Superman: The Man of Steel #104-105, Action Comics #769-770 and Emperor Joker #1.

First 4-part story arc Superman: Arkham begins in Superman #160 with ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World!’ by Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness & Cam Smith. The night is broken with hideous screams. Every night.

A black-clad maniac dubbed Superman smashes out of grim asylum Arkham, only to be subdued again and re-incarcerated by warped clone Bizarro before day breaks.

Every night a diminutive and greatly distracted pixie of a man dashes to an appointment only to be hit by a train, or a giant weight or something else gigantic, weighty and somehow non-fatal…

In a sky that rains custard pies hangs a moon with the Joker‘s face. What is going on and when will it all end?

The madness spreads to Adventures of Superman #582 and ‘Crazy About You’ (by J.M. DeMatteis, Mike Millar & José Marzan Jr.) where unlikely nun Supergirl is tormented by visions whilst evil billionaire genius Lois Lane sets her incomparable intellect to solving the mystery of the constant Arkham escapee.

A ghastly warped convocation of the JLA resumes their terrorising activities as Superman: The Man of Steel #104 ‘No Axioms’ (Mark Schultz, Doug Mahnke, Tom Nguyen & John McCrea) sees the perennial escapee meet up with inspirational inventor armourer John Henry Irons; a man afflicted with astounding ideas and concepts torturously leaking out of his brain. As he strives to create a suit of Steel to aid the prisoner, Bizarro and the powered-up posse attack…

And elsewhere the little man remembers who he is. Now there’s a ghost of a chance to save and correct Reality…

Forced to toil as ineffectual fast-food peon Super Burger Boy, rebel teen Conner Kent witnesses a war between wonder beings and his clouded thoughts stir in ’SupermanamrepuS’ (Joe Kelly, Kano & Marlo Alquiza from Action Comics #769). As Irons and the prisoner invade the JLA’s moon citadel, the kid’s powers revive too…

When 5th Dimensional trickster Mr. Mxyzptlk finally arrives to beg the Men of Steel’s assistance, they initially assume he’s the cause of the universe’s woes… until he makes them look at the Earth they’ve just come from…

Answers if not solutions are forthcoming in Emperor Joker #1. ‘It’s a Joker World, Baby, We Just Live in it!’ by Kelly, Loeb, Duncan Rouleau, Todd Nauck, Carlo Barberi, Scott McDaniel, Alquiza, Jaime Mendoza & Richard Bonk reveals how the beyond-deranged Harlequin of Hate appropriated the immeasurable power of Mxyzptlk, what he did with it and how his whimsical changes are threating all existence.

As the crisis encompasses a host of transformed and tormented guest stars, the disparate remnants of the former Superman Family launch a desperate last-ditch scheme to save everything, leading to closing story arc ‘The Reign of Emperor Joker’ and beginning with Superman #161.

Loeb, McGuinness & Smith’s ‘You Say You Want a Revolution?’ finds Superboy, Supergirl and the Action Ace picking off the Joker’s minions and invading his awesome Hahacienda, only to discover what the Joker has done to his greatest obsession The Batman

The infernal realms are assaulted and overturned in Adventures of Superman #583’s ‘Life is but a (Very Bad) Dream’ (DeMatteis, Millar & Armando Durruthy), resulting in a shocking resurrection and counterstrike before even more unlikely revivals converge on the mad clown in ‘All the World His Stage’ (by Schultz, Mahnke & Nguyen from Superman: The Man of Steel #105).

After an inconceivable final battle that rocks all reality, the universe is set aright in Action Comics #769-770’s ‘He Who Laughs Last’ by Kelly, Kano & Marlo Alquiza, but don’t think for a moment that all’s right with the world…

Although not a new plot, this tale of a time and place where compulsively interventionist god the Joker employs Fifth dimensional magic to literally remake creation in his own image just so he can torture the heroes who have so often thwarted him, actually works. Maintaining breakneck pace and peppering the action with in-jokes and sly asides, the narrative of Superman under terminal pressure to save the universe is truly gripping and the eventual denouement actually succeeds in both contextual terms and delivery of a powerful payoff. This is a marvellous piece of comic eye-candy.

Although taken from a particularly grim and humourless period in Superman history, this thinly disguised tribute to the zany genius of Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and those wacky Warner Brothers cartoons reads like a breath of fresh air when gathered together in one collection and comes with closing contrary codicil ‘The Codex Comicon’ from Joe Kelly under his nom de plume Professor B. Zarro.
Thrilling, fun and full of perfect comics moments, this is a book every Fights ‘n’ Tights fan should have.
© 2000, 2007, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA Deluxe volume 8

By Chris Claremont, Chuck Austen, Joe Kelly, John Byrne, Ron Garney, Doug , Jerry Ordway, Tom Nguyen & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6342-3 (TPB)

When the Justice League of America – driving force and cornerstone of the Silver Age of Comics – were relaunched in 1997, the sheer bravura quality of the stories propelled the series back to the forefront of industry attention, making as many new fans as it recaptured old ones. However, fans are fickle and the intoxicating sheen of “fresh and new” never lasts. By the time of these tales – spanning May to November 2004 from JLA #94-106 plus material from JLA Secret Files 2004 #1 – there had been numerous changes of creative personnel… usually a bad omen… and a certain straying from the clear missions of the earliest adventures…

As you’ve come to expect by now, this volume is available in all digital formats as well as traditional trade paperback…

After battling all manner of contemporary and futuristic foes, in ‘Suffer the Little Children’ the World’s Greatest Superheroes now find themselves pitted against an ancient malevolence from out of Earth’s oldest nightmares. Contrived by a trio of the industry’s biggest talents – Chris Claremont, John Byrne & Jerry Ordway – the expansive saga originally ran in issues #94-99 of the monthly title.

When team mystic Manitou Raven divines that a great evil has come hunting, he is suddenly silenced before he can warn his comrades. As Batman and Flash follow a rash of global child disappearances, Superman is astonishingly defeated by a pair of strange juvenile runaways.

Comparing notes with other JLA members the heroes discover a pattern of metagenic abductions: someone or something is taking super-powered children…

Meanwhile an enthralled Man of Steel has become the slave – and ambulatory lunchbox – of diabolical vampire lord Crucifer, whose race of undying leeches has been secretly working to conquer the world since their initial defeat and extra-dimensional banishment by the Amazon warriors of Themyscira thousands of years previously.

‘The Enemy Within’ sees team boffin The Atom lost in a microverse within a magic artefact and meeting a lost race with a hidden connection to the crisis, even as a mysterious third force of freaks maneuverers for advantage in the background. When Wonder Woman consults ancient scroll records she is betrayed and attacked by her closest ally and the crucial data is erased…

As the beleaguered and outclassed heroes strive to cope, ‘The Heart of the Matter’ sees Martian Manhunter use his unique gifts to trace the Atom, but even as master tactician Batman works to counter the infallible plans of their hidden enemy, his ace in the hole Faith falls to Crucifer’s power…

And in the background, that shady band of outcasts undertakes their own plan to save the day…

‘Interludes on the Last Day of the World!’ sees the vampire resurgence edge ever closer. With Crucifer’s abducted metahuman victims acting as shock troops and physical hosts for the bloodsucking arcane exiles, the embattled remnants of the JLA reconsolidate and ally themselves with the skulking outsiders watching them, just as the vampire lord opens a hole into hell and bids his kin to freely enter…

The fightback begins in ‘Convergence’ with the rescue of the Atom whose fresh data provides the answer to the mystery of Crucifer’s seeming invulnerability, leading to a mass assault and ultimate victory by the competing teams of heroes in ‘Heartbreaker!’

The former X-Men creative team supreme reunited for this supernatural romp, but their old magic was sorely lacking: Byrne co-writing with Claremont and pencilling for the criminally underappreciated Jerry Ordway to ink and embellish is a far better “look” than “read”.

Comic fans love these sorts of nostalgia stunts, but sadly, the results here don’t really live up to expectations, resulting in a competent but predictable heroes-versus-vampires yarn that suffers greatly because it’s painfully obvious that the whole thing is a high-profile, extended gimmick designed to kick-start Byrne’s then-forthcoming reinvention of the Doom Patrol, and not really a JLA story at all…

Most comic books – indeed all popular fiction – are a product of or reaction to the times in which they are created. In the grim, authoritarian, morally ambiguous climate of post 9-11 America writer Joe Kelly wrote an issue of Action Comics (#775) addressing the traditional ethics and practices of ultimate boy scout Superman in a world where old values were seen as a liability and using “The Enemy’s” own tactics against them was viewed with increasing favour by the public.

‘What’s So Funny about Truth, Justice and the American Way’ (not included here) introduced super-Esper Manchester Black and his team of Elite metahumans who responded proactively and with extreme overkill to global threats and menaces in such a drastic and final manner that Superman was forced to take a long, hard look at his core beliefs before triumphing over a team who saw absolutely no difference between villains, monsters or people who disagreed with them…

In a distressing sign of those times, The Elite proved so overwhelmingly popular that they returned in JLA #100. ‘Elitism’ – by Kelly, Doug Mahnke & Tom Nguyen – depicts how the team, led now by Black’s cyborg sister Vera, at first oppose and eventually cooperate with the traditionally-minded JLA to save Earth from a catastrophic ecological and metaphysical meltdown – but all is not as it seems…

Vera Black correctly assesses the fundamental flaws in her methodology but also similar weaknesses in the JLA’s. She proposes becoming the League’s “Black Ops” division, gathering intel, working undercover and decisively dealing with potential threats before they become global crises. Her team will get their hands dirty in a way the JLA simply cannot afford to…

Over Superman’s protests, but with stringent oversight in place and using a combination of Elite and League volunteers, the plan is adopted and Justice League Elite subsequently won their own 12-issue series with Major Disaster, Green Arrow, Manitou Raven, and Flash joining Vera, energy manipulator Coldcast, human bio-weapon arsenal Menagerie and Naif al-Sheikh (a human spymaster who acts as): Director, Adjudicator and Conscience for a unit designed to neutralise organizations and nations that threaten World Security before things ever reach a boiling point.

JLA Secret Files 2004 develops the controversial theme in ‘Same Coin’, by Kelly, Byrne, Mahnke & Nguyen, wherein the two teams work separately – and mostly at odds – to stop a Hitlerian Ragnarok from occurring thanks to illicit use of mystic doomsday weapon the Spear of Destiny…

Getting over a post-celebration hump is always tricky for a long-running comic series. An anniversary or centenary is usually celebrated by some large-scale cosmos-shaking exploit which it’s impossible to top, leading to an anti-climactic “day in the life” venture. In the case of story arc Pain of the Gods – reprinting JLA #101-106 – Chuck Austen & Ron Garney take that hoary tradition, and indeed the equally tired plot of heroes’ soul-searching angst after a failure to succeed, and run with it to produce a stirring, potent exploration of humanity too often absent in modern adventure fiction.

Each chapter deals with an emotional crisis affecting an individual Leaguer who fails to save a life, beginning with Superman in ‘Man of Steel’ as the perfect hero misjudges the abilities of a new costumed champion and witnesses the wannabe hero perish in explosive conflagration…

‘Scarlet Speedster’ treads similar ground as Flash misses two children whilst evacuating a burning building and Green Lantern misjudges the homicidal determination of a domestic abuser in ‘Emerald Gladiator’. Throughout each of these tragedies a single family reappears; fuelling the emotional turmoil pushing each hero into obsession and psychosis.

In ‘Manhunter from Mars’ team telepath and philosophical lynchpin J’onn J’onzz is forced to confront the life-long emotional barriers distancing him from his companions and resulting from surviving the death of his entire species, whilst Wonder Woman faces her own mortality whilst battling a super-killer in ‘Amazonian Warrior’ before Batman ultimately must acknowledge that he can’t know and do everything alone in ‘The Dark Knight’

The entire story can be viewed as a treatise on fallibility and post-traumatic distress with superheroes acting as metaphors for Police and Firemen, and the cleverly-inserted sub-plot of a seemingly mundane family seeking redress plays well against the tragic grandeur of the stars. It’s grand to see a superhero tale that thinks with a heart rather than acts with gaudily gloved fists for a change…

The JLA – in all its incarnations – has endured a long history of starting strong but losing focus, and particularly of coasting by on past glories for extended periods. Luckily the team still had a few more tricks left during this period and a little life in it before the inevitable demise and reboot for the next generation after Final Crisis: offering plenty of fun and thrills for casual readers and full-on fans alike.
© 2004, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 13


By Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Bob Brown, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Rich Buckler, & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6629-0 (HB)

The Avengers have always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in a single basket pays off big-time: even when all Marvel’s classic all-stars such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man are absent, it merely allows the team’s lesser lights to shine more brightly.

Of course, all the founding stars were regularly featured due to the rotating, open door policy which means that every issue includes somebody’s fave-rave – and the boldly grand-scale impressive stories and artwork are no hindrance either.

This monolithic and monumental tome collects the ever-amazing Avengers’ exploits from issues #120-128 (between March and October 1974), plus Giant-Size Avengers #1 and crossover appearances in Captain Marvel #33 and Fantastic Four #150), and sees scripter Steve Englehart probe the outer limits of Marvel history…

Preceded by his reminiscent commentaries in a fulsome Introduction, this epochal tome opens with Avengers #120. ‘Death-Stars of the Zodiac!’ by Englehart, Bob Brown & Don Heck, sees terrorist astrological adversaries and super-criminal cartel Zodiac attack; instigating a manic plan to eradicate everyone in Manhattan born under the sign of Gemini, with Thor, Iron Man, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Swordsman and Mantis seemingly helpless to stop them.

In the blistering battle of #121’s ‘Houses Divided Cannot Stand!’ (illustrated by John Buscema & Heck), even the added assistance of Captain America and Black Panther is of little advantage. After Mantis is injured, the team begin questioning her mysterious past, only to be lured to their seeming doom and ‘Trapped in Outer Space!’ (Brown & Mike Esposito) before at last turning the tables on their fearsome foes when Zodiac crime chief Libra discloses a shocking secret…

Rendered by Brown & Heck, Avengers #123 then begins a vast and ambitious saga with ‘Vengeance in Viet Nam – or – An Origin for Mantis!’ wherein Libra’s claim to be the Vietnamese warrior’s father (a story vigorously and violently denied by the Martial Arts Maestro) brings the team to Indo-China.

Former mercenary Libra states that he left baby Mantis with pacifistic Priests of Pama after running afoul of a local crime-lord, but she has no memory of such events, nor of being schooled in combat techniques by the hermit monks. Meanwhile, gravely wounded Swordsman has rushed to Saigon to confront his sadistic ex-boss Monsieur Khruul and save the Priests from being murdered by the gangster’s thugs… but is again too late. It’s the tragic story of his wasted life…

Issue #124 finds the team stumbling upon a scene of savage slaughter as clerics and criminals lay dead and a monstrous planet-rending alien horror awoke in ‘Beware the Star-Stalker!’ by J. Buscema & Dave Cockrum…

Mantis is forced to accept that her own memories are unreliable after Avengers #125, which unleashes ‘The Power of Babel!’ when a vast alien armada attacks the Earth and, while combating it, the planet’s Mightiest Heroes are trapped out of phase with their homeworld.

This blockbuster battle bonanza was a crossover, and the penultimate episode of the spectacular Thanos War Saga that had unfolded for a year in Captain Marvel, Marvel Feature, Daredevil and Iron Man.

Thoughtfully included in this compendium is the stunning conclusion ‘The God Himself!’ from Captain Marvel #33 (scripted by Englehart. plotted and illustrated by Jim Starlin & Klaus Janson) wherein mad Titan Thanos finally falls in combat to the valiant Kree warrior: a stunning piece of comics storytelling which stands up remarkably well here despite being seen without benefit of the preceding chapters…

In response to reader demand, a range of quarterly Giant-Size specials began at this time: augmenting the regular output of Marvel’s most popular titles. The first Giant-Size Avengers was crafted by Roy Thomas, Rich Buckler & Dan Adkins, who delved into superhero history with ‘Nuklo… the Invader that Time Forgot!’

The stirring saga reintroduced 1940 Marvel sensation the Whizzer – AKA Bob Frank – in a tragic tale of duty, desperation and loss as the aged speedster first attacks and then begs the heroes’ help in rescuing his son: a radioactive mutant locked in stasis since the early 1950s. Unfortunately, within the recently unearthed chrono-capsule the lad has grown into a terrifying atomic horror…

Moreover, while in the throes of a stress-induced heart-attack the Whizzer let slip that he was the also the father of mutant Avengers Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver

Supplementing the rousing Kirby-inspired pastiche are editorial pages ‘Avengers Re-assemble!’, explaining the process of expansion…

It’s back to business in #126 as in ‘All the Sights and Sounds of Death!’ (Brown & Cockrum) creepy villains Klaw and Solarr assault Avengers Mansion in a devious attempt to achieve vengeance for past indignities, after which Sal Buscema & Joe Staton came aboard as regular art team with ‘Bride and Doom!’ wherein the team voyage to the hidden homeland of the Inhumans for the marriage of The Scarlet Witch’s brother Quicksilver to elemental enchantress Crystal, only to stumble into a uprising of the genetic slave-race known as Alpha Primitives.

Robotic colossus Omega again incited the revolt but this time it is shanghaied by an old Avengers enemy who reveals himself in the concluding chapter of the crossover…

Fantastic Four #150 then declaims ‘Ultron-7: He’ll Rule the World!’ (Gerry Conway, Buckler & Joe Sinnott, in which an escalating unwinnable clash between FF, Inhumans and Avengers is ended by a veritable Deus ex Machina after which, at long last ‘The Wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver’ closes events on a happy note.

But not for long: in Avengers #128’s ‘Bewitched, Bothered, and Dead!’ (Englehart, Sal Buscema & Staton) the FF’s nanny Agatha Harkness begins tutoring Wanda Frank in the arts of sorcery to augment her mutant power, unwittingly allowing dark mage Necrodamus access to Avengers Mansion and their souls. In the meantime, the increasingly troubled Mantis makes a romantic play for the Scarlet Witch’s synthazoid boyfriend The Vision; heedless of the hurt and harm she might bring to her current lover The Swordsman…

To Be Continued…

Gilding this graphic lily – available in hardback and digital formats – fans can also enjoy a large and lovely gallery of cover sketches and original art plus house ads.

Steve Englehart was a crucial component of Marvel’s second generation of story-makers; brilliantly building on and consolidating the compelling creations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko while spearheading and constructing a logical, fully functioning wonder-machine of places and events that so many others were inspired by and could add to. These tales laid the groundwork for his most ambitious and absorbing masterpiece and the best is yet to come…

These terrific tales are perfect examples of superhero sagas done just right and also a pivotal step transforming the little company into today’s multinational corporate colossus. Best of all, Englehart’s forthcoming concoctions would turn the Marvel Universe on its head and pave the way for a new acme of cosmic adventure…
© 1974, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents the Spectre volume 1


By Gardner F. Fox, Bob Haney, Mike Friedrich, Steve Skeates, Dennis J. O’Neil, Mark Hanerfeld, Michael L. Fleisher, Len Wein, Paul Kupperberg, Mike W. Barr, Murphy Anderson, Carmine Infantino, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Neal Adams, Jerry Grandenetti, Jack Sparling, Bernie Wrightson, Jim Aparo, Frank Thorne, Ernie Chan, Jim Starlin, Michael R. Adams & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3417-1 (TPB)

Created by Jerry Siegel & Bernard Baily in 1940 and debuting via a 2-part origin epic in More Fun Comics #52 and 53, The Spectre is one of the oldest characters in DC’s vast character stable. Crucially, just like Siegel’s other iconic creation, he soon began to suffer from a basic design flaw: he was just too darn powerful.

Unlike Superman however, this relentless champion of justice was already dead, so he can’t really be logically or dramatically imperilled. Of course, in those far off early days that wasn’t nearly as important as sheer spectacle: forcibly grabbing the reader’s utter attention and keeping it stoked to a fantastic fever pitch.

Starting as a virtually omnipotent phantom, the Grim Ghost evolved, over various revivals, refits and reboots into a tormented mortal soul bonded inescapably to the actual embodiment of the biblical Wrath of God.

The story is a genuinely gruesome one: police detective Jim Corrigan is callously executed by gangsters before being called back to the land of the living. Commanded to fight crime and evil by a glowing light and disembodied voice, he was indisputably the most formidable hero of the Golden Age.

He has been revamped many times, and in the 1990s was revealed to be God’s own Spirit of Vengeance wedded to a human conscience. When Corrigan was finally laid to rest, Hal (Green Lantern) Jordan and murdered Gotham City cop Crispus Allen replaced him as the mitigating conscience of the unstoppable, easily irked force of Divine Retribution…

However, the true start of that radically revitalised career began in the superhero-saturated mid-1960s when, hot on the heels of feverish fan-interest in the alternate world of the Justice Society of America and Earth-2 (where all the WWII heroes retroactively resided), DC began trying out solo revivals of 1940’s characters, as a counterpoint to such wildly successful Silver Age reconfigurations as Flash, Green Lantern, Atom and Hawkman

This sublime and colossal Showcase selection collects and documents the almighty Man of Darkness’ return in the Swinging Sixties, his landmark reinterpretation in the horror-soaked, brutalised 1970s and even finds room for some later appearances before the character was fully de-powered and retrofitted for the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe.

As such, this mammoth monochrome tome (624 peril-packed pages!) contains Showcase #60, 61 and 64; The Spectre #1-10; team-up tales from The Brave and the Bold #72, 75, 116, 180 & 199 and DC Comics Presents #29; the lead strips from Adventure Comics #431-440 and one last hurrah from horror-anthology Ghosts #97-99, cumulatively encompassing the end of 1965 to the middle of 1983.

DC had tried a number of Earth-2 team-iterations (Starman/Black Canary – with Wildcat – in The Brave and the Bold #61-62, whilst Showcase #55 & 56 spotlighted Doctor Fate & Hourman with a cameo from the original Green Lantern), but inspirational editor Julie Schwartz and scripter Gardner F. Fox only finally achieved their ambition to launch a Golden Age hero into his own title with the revival of the Ghostly Guardian in Showcase. It was hard going and perhaps ultimately benefited from a growing general public interest in supernatural stories…

After three full length appearances and many guest-shots, The Spectre won his own solo series at the end of 1967, just as the super-hero craze went into a steep decline, but arguably Showcase #60 (January/February 1966) anticipated the rise of supernatural comics by re-introducing Corrigan and his phantom passenger in ‘War That Shook the Universe’ by Earth-2 team supreme Fox & illustrator Murphy Anderson.

This spectacular saga reveals why the Heroic Haunt had vanished two decades previously, leaving the fundamentally human Corrigan to pursue his war against evil on merely mortal terms – until a chance encounter with a psychic investigator frees the spirit buried deep within him.

A diligent search reveals that, 20 years previously, a supernal astral invader broke into the Earth plane and possessed a mortal, but was so inimical to our laws of reality that both it and the Grim Ghost were locked into their meat shells – until now…

Thus began a truly spectre-acular (feel free to groan, but that’s what they called it back then) clash with the devilish Azmodus that spans all creation and blew the minds of us gobsmacked kids…

Issue #61 (March/April) upped the ante when the even-more satanic Shathan the Eternal subsequently insinuates himself into our realm from ‘Beyond the Sinister Barrier’, stealing mortal men’s shadows until he is powerful enough to conquer the physical universe. This time The Spectre treats us to an exploration of the universe’s creation before narrowly defeating the source of all evil…

The Sentinel Spirit re-manifested in Showcase #64 (September/October 1966) for a marginally more mundane but no less thrilling adventure when ‘The Ghost of Ace Chance’ takes up residence in Jim’s body. By this time, it was established that ghosts need a mortal anchor to recharge their ectoplasmic “batteries”, and this unscrupulous crooked gambler is determined to inhabit the best frame available…

The try-out run concluded, the editors sat back and waited for sales figures to dictate the next move. When they proved inconclusive Schwartz orchestrated a concerted publicity campaign to further promote Earth-2’s Ethereal Adventurer.

The Brave and the Bold #72 (June/July 1967) saw the Spectre clash with Earth-1’s Scarlet Speedster in ‘Phantom Flash, Cosmic Traitor’ (by Bob Haney, Carmine Infantino & Charles “Chuck” Cuidera). This sinister saga sees the mortal meteor arcanely transformed into a sinister spirit-force and power-focus for unquiet American aviator Luther Jarvis who returns from his death in 1918 to wreak vengeance on the survivors of his squadron – until the Spectre intervenes…

Due to the vagaries of comicbook scheduling, Brave and the Bold #75 (December 1967/January 1968) appeared at around the same time as The Spectre #1, although the latter had a cover-date of November/December 1967. In the Batman team-up tale – scripted by Haney and drawn by Ross Andru & Mike Esposito – Ghostly Guardian joins Dark Knight to free Gotham City’s Chinatown from ‘The Grasp of Shahn-Zi!’: an ancient oriental sorcerer determined to prolong his reign of terror at the expense of an entire community and through the sacrifice of an innocent child, after which the Astral Avenger finally, simultaneously, debuted in his own title…

The Spectre #1 featured ‘The Sinister Lives of Captain Skull’ by Fox & Anderson, divulging how the botched assassination of American Ambassador Joseph Clanton and an experimental surgical procedure allows one of the diplomat’s earlier incarnations to seize control of his body and, armed with mysterious eldritch energies, run amok on Earth.

These “megacyclic energy” abilities enable the revenant to harm and potentially destroy the Ghostly Guardian and compel the Spectre to pursue the piratical Skull through a line of previous lives until he can find their source and purge the peril from all time and space…

With issue #2 (January/February 1968) artistic iconoclast Neal Adams came aboard for the Fox-scripted mystery ‘Die Spectre – Again’ wherein crooked magician Dirk Rawley accidentally manifests his etheric self and severely tests both Corrigan and his phantom lodger as they seek to end the double-menace’s string of crimes, mundane and magical. At this time, the first inklings of a distinct separation and individual identities began. The two halves of the formerly sole soul of Corrigan were beginning to disagree and even squabble…

Neophyte scripter Mike Friedrich joined Adams for #3’s ‘Menace of the Mystic Mastermind’ wherein pugilistic paragon Wildcat faces the inevitable prospect of age and infirmity even as an inconceivable force from another universe possesses petty thug Sad Jack Dold, turning him into a nigh-unstoppable force of cosmic chaos…

‘Stop that Kid… Before He Wrecks the World’ was written & illustrated by Adams with a similar trans-universal malignity deliberately empowering a young boy as a prelude to its ultimate conquest, whilst #5’s ‘The Spectre Means Death?’ (all Adams again) appears to show the Ghostly Guardian transformed into a pariah and deadly menace to society, until Jim’s investigations uncover the emotion-controlling Psycho Pirate at the root of the Heroic Haunt’s problems…

Despite all the incredible talent and effort lavished upon it, The Spectre simply wasn’t finding a big enough audience. Adams left for straight superhero glory elsewhere and a hint of changing tastes came as veteran illustrator of horror comics Jerry Grandenetti came aboard.

Issue #6 (September/October 1968) saw his eccentric, manic cartooning adding raw wildness to the returning Fox’s moody thriller ‘Pilgrims of Peril!’ Murphy Anderson also re-enlisted, applying a solid ink grounding to the story of a sinister quartet of phantom Puritans who invade the slums of Gateway City, driving out the poor and hopeless as they hunt long-lost arcane treasures. These would allow demon lord Nawor of Giempo access to Earth unless The Spectre can win his unlife or death duel with the trans-dimensional horror…

As the back of issue #7 was dedicated to a solo strip starring Hourman (not included in this collection), The Spectre saga here – by Fox, Grandenetti & Anderson – was a half-length tale which followed the drastic steps necessary to convince the soul of bank-robber Frankie Barron to move on. Since he was killed during a heist, the astral form of aversion therapy used to cure ‘The Ghost That Haunted Money!’ proves not only ectoplasmically effective but outrageously entertaining…

Issue #8 (January/February 1969) was scripted by Steve Skeates and began a last-ditch and obviously desperate attempt to turn The Spectre into something the new wave of anthology horror readers would buy.

As a twisted, time-lost apprentice wizard struggles to return to Earth after murdering his master and stealing cosmic might from the void, on our mundane plane an exhausted Ghostly Guardian neglects his duties and is taken to task by his celestial creator.

As a reminder of his error, the Penitent Phantasm is burdened by a fluctuating weakness – which would change without warning – to keep him honest and earnest. What a moment for the desperate disciple Narkran to return then; determined to secure his elevated god-like existence by securing ‘The Parchment of Power Perilous!’

The Spectre #9 completed the transition, opening with an untitled short from Friedrich (illustrated by Grandenetti & Bill Draut) which sees the Man of Darkness again overstep his bounds by executing a criminal. This prompts Corrigan to refuse the weary wraith the shelter of his reinvigorating form and when the Grim Ghost then assaults his own host form, the Heavenly Voice punishes the spirit by chaining him to the dreadful Journal of Judgment: demanding he atone by investigating the lives inscribed therein in a trial designed to teach him again the value of mercy…

The now anthologised issue continued with ‘Abraca-Doom’ (Dennis J. O’Neil & Bernie Wrightson) as The Spectre attempts to stop a greedy carnival conjurer signing a contract with the Devil, whilst ‘Shadow Show’ – by Mark Hanerfeld & Jack Sparling – details the fate of a cheap mugger who thinks he can outrun the consequences of a capital crime…

The next issue gave up the ghost. The Spectre folded with #10 (May/June 1969), but not before a quartet of tantalising tales by – writer or writers unknown – shows what might have been…

‘Footsteps of Disaster’ with art from Grandenetti & George Roussos, follows a man from cradle to early grave, revealing the true wages of sin, whilst ‘Hit and Run’ (probably drawn by Ralph Reese) proves again that the Spirit of Judgment is not infallible and even human scum might be redeemed…

‘How Much Can a Guy Take?’ (Sparling) offers salvation to a shoeshine boy pushed almost too far by an arrogant mobster before the series closed with a cunning murder mystery involving what appeared to be a killer ventriloquist’s doll in the Grandenetti & Roussos limned ‘Will the Real Killer Please Rise?’

With that the Astral Avenger returned to comicbook limbo for nearly half a decade until changing tastes and another liberalising of the Comics Code saw him arise as lead feature in Adventure Comics #431 (January/February 1974) for a shocking run of macabre, ultra-violent tales from Michael L. Fleisher & Jim Aparo.

‘The Wrath of… The Spectre’ offered a far more stark, unforgiving take on the Sentinel Spirit; reflecting the increasingly violent tone of the times. Here, a gang of murderous thieves slaughter the crew of a security truck and are tracked down by a harsh, uncompromising police lieutenant named Corrigan. When the bandits are exposed, the cop unleashes a horrific green and white apparition from his body which inflicts ghastly punishments that horrendously fit their crimes…

With art continuity (and no, I’m not sure what that means either) from Russell Carley, the draconian fables continue in #432 as in ‘The Anguish of… The Spectre’ assassins murder millionaire Adrian Sterling and Corrigan meets the victim’s daughter Gwen. Although the now-infallible Wrathful Wraith soon exposes and excised the culprits, the dead detective has to reveal his true nature to the grieving daughter. Moreover, Corrigan begins to feel the stirring of impossible, unattainable yearnings…

Adventure #433 exposed ‘The Swami and… The Spectre’ as Gwen seeks spiritual guidance from a ruthless charlatan who promptly pays an appalling price when he finally encounters an actual ghost, whilst in #434 ‘The Nightmare Dummies and… The Spectre’ (with additional pencils by the great Frank Thorne), a plague of department store mannequins run wild in a killing spree at the behest of a crazed artisan who believes in magic – but can’t imagine the cost of his dabbling…

Issue #435 introduces journalist Earl Crawford who tracks the ghastly fallout of the vengeful spirit’s anti-crime campaign as ‘The Man Who Stalked The Spectre!’ Of course, once he sees the ghost in grisly action, Crawford realises the impossibility of publishing this scoop…

Adventure #436 finds Crawford still trying to sell his story as ‘The Gasmen and… The Spectre’ sets the Spectral Slaughterman on the trail of a gang who kill everyone at a car show as a simple demonstration of intent before blackmailing the city. Their gorily inescapable fate only puts Crawford closer to exposing Corrigan, after which, in #437’s ‘The Human Bombs and… The Spectre’ (with pencils from Ernie Chan & Aparo inks) a kidnapper abducts prominent persons – including Gwen – to further a merciless mad scheme of amassing untold wealth… until the Astral Avenger ended the depredations forever…

In #438, ‘The Spectre Haunts the Museum of Fear’ (Chan & Aparo again) sees a crazed taxidermist turning people into unique dioramas until the Grim Ghost intervenes, but the end was in sight again for the Savage Shade. Issue #439’s ‘The Voice that Doomed… The Spectre’ (all Aparo) turns the wheel of death full circle, as the Heavenly Presence who created him allows Corrigan to fully live again so that he can marry Gwen. Sadly, it is only to have the joyous hero succumb to ‘The Second Death of The… Spectre’ (#440, July/August 1975) and tragically resume his never-ending mission…

This milestone serial set a stunning new tone and style for the Ghostly Guardian which has informed each iteration ever since…

From midway through that run, Brave and the Bold #116 provides another continuity-coshing supernatural team-up with Batman – a far less graphically violent struggle against the ‘Grasp of the Killer Cult’ (Haney & Aparo). When Kali-worshipping Thugs from India seemingly target survivors of a WWII American Army Engineer unit, Detective Corrigan and the Dark Knight clash on both the method and motives of the mysterious murderers…

DC Comics Presents #29 (January 1981, by Len Wein, Jim Starlin & Romeo Tanghal) revealed what happened after Supergirl is knocked unconscious during a cataclysmic battle and sent hurtling through dimensions measureless to man. When her cousin tries to follow, the Ghostly Guardian is dispatched to stop the Metropolis Marvel from transgressing ‘Where No Superman Has Gone Before’

By the early 1980s, the horror boom had again exhausted itself and DC’s anthology comics were disappearing. As part of the effort to keep them alive, Ghosts featured a 3-part serial starring “Ghost-Breaker” and inveterate sceptic Dr. Terry 13 who at last encounters ‘The Spectre’ in issue #97 (February 1981, by Paul Kupperberg, Michael R. Adams & Tex Blaisdell), wherein terrorists invade a high society séance and are summarily dispatched by the inhuman poetic justice of the freshly-manifested Astral Avenger…

Now determined to destroy the monstrous revenant vigilante, Dr. 13 returns in #98 as ‘The Haunted House and The Spectre’ finds the Ghost-Breaker interviewing Earl Crawford and subsequently discovering the long-sought killer of his own father. Before 13 can act however, the Spectre appears and steals his justifiable retribution from the aggrieved psychic investigator…

The drama closed in Ghosts #99 as ‘Death… and The Spectre’ (inked by Tony DeZuñiga) sees scientist and spirit locked in one final furious confrontation.

This staggering compendium of supernatural thrillers concludes with two more team-up classics from Brave and the Bold, beginning with ‘The Scepter of the Dragon God’ by Fleisher & Aparo (from #180, November 1980). Although Chinese wizard Wa’an-Zen steals enough mystic artefacts to conquer Earth and destroy The Spectre, he gravely underestimates the skill and bravery of merely mortal Batman, whilst in #199 (June 1983) ‘The Body-napping of Jim Corrigan’ (Mike W. Barr, Andru & Rick Hoberg), finds the ethereal avenger baffled by the abduction and disappearance of his mortal host. Even though he cannot trace his own body, the Spectre knows where the World’s Greatest Detective hangs out…

Ranging from fabulously fantastical to darkly, violently enthralling, these comic masterpieces perfectly encapsulate the way superheroes changed over a brief 20-year span, but remain throughout some of the most beguiling and exciting tales of DC’s near-80 years of existence. If you love comicbooks you’d be crazy to ignore this one…
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1974, 1975, 1981, 1983, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Defenders Marvel Masterworks volume 3


By Len Wein, Steve Gerber, Chris Claremont, Jim Starlin, Sal Buscema, Vince Colletta, Gil Kane, Dan Adkins, Don Newton, Don Heck, George Tuska & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5961-2 (HB)

The Defenders were the last of the big star-name conglomerate super-groups, and would eventually number amongst their membership almost every hero – and some few villains – in the Marvel Universe. No real surprise there, since the initial line-up was composed of the company’s major league bad-boys: misunderstood and mad, outcast and bad and so often actually dangerous to know.

The genesis of the team derived from their status as publicly distrusted “villains”, and they never achieved the “in-continuity” fame or acceptance of other teams, but that simply seemed to leave the creators open to taking a few more chances and playing the occasional narrative wild card.

This third titanic hardcover/eBook Masterworks collection assembles a veritable host of Fights ‘n’ Tights wonders from a large list of sources: Defenders #17-21, Giant Sized Defenders #2-4 and Marvel Two-in-One #6-7, cumulatively encompassing cover-dates October 1974 to April 1975. The action commences after team originator Roy Thomas shares recollections of his time as Editor-in-Chief of Marvel and as the series began to find its singularly unique voice and tone…

The action opens with a supernatural thriller from Giant Sized Defenders #2 (October 1974), scripted by Len Wein and fabulously limned by master craftsman Gil Kane and rising star inker Klaus Janson. ‘H… as in Hulk… Hell… and Holocaust’ pits the always-embattled Jade Giant against sinister cult the Sons of Satanish and their dead leader Asmodeus before the Defenders (core-group Doctor Stephen Strange, Valkyrie and reformed bad-boy Nighthawk) must perforce call on Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan, for some highly specialised assistance…

In Defenders #17 the heroes set up housekeeping in a converted Long Island Riding Stables, courtesy of Nighthawk’s civilian alter ego Kyle Richmond just as displaced Asgardian soul Valkyrie leaves to seek out the truth about the human body she currently inhabits.

The main plot of ‘Power Play’ (by Wein, Sal Buscema & Dan Green) sees the remaining heroes engage with and then enlist the aid of Hero for Hire/Power Man Luke Cage, as super strong thugs the Wrecking Crew topple a number of Richmond’s New York’s buildings hunting for a hidden super-weapon. The spectacular ‘Rampage!’ reveals their object is a pocket gamma bomb, before the furious finale (Chris Claremont, Wein, Buscema & Janson) sets everybody frantically ferreting out the location of a deadly ‘Doomball!’ whisked away by some foolish bystander…

Immediately afterwards Strange, his disciple Clea and Fantastic Four lynchpin The Thing encounter a disharmonious cosmic challenge in Marvel Two-In-One #6’s ‘Death-Song of Destiny’ (by Steve Gerber, George Tuska & Mike Esposito) that concludes in MTIO #7 with ‘Name That Doom!’ (Sal Buscema pencils) wherein Valkyrie joins the melee just in time to cross swords with the egregious Asgardian exiles Enchantress and Executioner who are beyond a cosmic scheme to reorder the universe…

The aftermath of that eldritch encounter spills over into Defenders #20 as Gerber came aboard as regular scripter, beginning a truly groundbreaking run of stories. ‘The Woman She Was…’ (art by Sal B & Vince Colletta) starts unravelling the torturous backstory of Valkyrie’s unwitting human host Barbara Norris during a breathtakingly bombastic battle that also reanimated the diabolical threat of the Undying Ones. Late arriving, Strange and Nighthawk almost perish at the hands of the demons’ human worshippers…

Steve Gerber was a uniquely gifted writer who combined a deep love of Marvel’s continuity minutiae with irrepressible wit, dark introspection and measured imagination, all leavened with enticing and surreality. His stories were always at the extreme edge of the company’s intellectual canon and never failed to deliver surprise and satisfaction.

In Defenders #21, he began a long and epically peculiar saga with ‘Enter: The Headman!’ (illustrated by Buscema & Sal Trapani) wherein a trio of thematically linked scientists and savants, all originating in Marvel’s pre-superhero fantasy anthologies, opened their insidious campaign of conquest and vengeance by driving New York city temporarily insane…

Before the next chapter however, a brace of extended sagas play chronological catch-up here: firstly ‘Games Godlings Play!’ from Giant-Size Defenders #3 (written by Gerber, Jim Starlin & Wein with art from Starlin, Dan Adkins, Don Newton & Jim Mooney), sightless swashbuckler Daredevil joins Strange, Valkyrie, and Sub-Mariner Prince Namor to save the Earth from Elder of the Universe The Grandmaster: a cosmic games-player whose obsession with gladiatorial combats pits the heroes against intergalactic menaces from infinity… and beyond…

Then follows a more down-to-Earth tale as sometime-Avenger Yellowjacket pops in to help crush insane criminal genius Egghead and Nighthawk’s old gang the Squadron Sinister on ‘Too Cold a Night for Dying!’ (Giant Sized Defenders #4, by Gerber, Don Heck & Colletta) before this compendium concludes with the Atlas Era short tales that originally introduced Gorilla Man Arthur Nagan, human horror Dr. Jerold Morgan and Chondu the Mystic who comprise the heinous Headmen…

Nagan debuted in in ‘It Walks Erect!’ by Paul S. Newman & Bob Powell (Mystery Tales #21, September 1954): a driven obsessive surgeon performing appalling transplant research on gorillas who ultimately take an unholy revenge upon him, whilst biologist Morgan’s matter compression experiments terrified – but saved – the city in ‘Prisoner of the Fantastic Fog’ by an unknown writer and Angelo Torres from World of Fantasy #11, April 1958.

Tales of Suspense #9 (May 1960) then revealed how stage magician Chondu was far more than he seemed in mini-thriller by Stan Lee & Larry Lieber, wonderfully rendered by the miraculous Doug Wildey.

The vignettes had all been reprinted in horror anthology Weird Wonder Tales #7 (December 1974) and the cover of that issue opens a selection of added extras which also include house ads and creator biographies.

For the longest time The Defenders was the best and weirdest superhero comicbook in the business, and this bitty, unwieldy collection was where it all really kicked off. The next volume would see the inspirational unconventionality reach stellar heights…

If you love superheroes but crave something just a little different these yarns are for you… and the best is still to come.
© 1974, 1975, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.