Wonder Woman: The Twelve Labors


By Martin Pasko, Elliot S. Maggin, Cary Bates, Len Wein, Curt Swan, John Rosenberger, Irv Novick, Dick Dillin, Kurt Schaffenberger, Dick Giordano, Jose Delbo & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3494-2 (PB)

The Princess of Paradise Island originally debuted as a special feature in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941), conceived by polygraph pioneer William Moulton Marston and illustrated by Harry G. Peter in a calculated attempt to offer girls a positive and forceful role model and – on forward-thinking Editor M.C. Gaines’ part – sell more comic books.

She catapulted into her own series and the cover-spot of new anthology title Sensation Comics a month later. An instant hit, the Amazing Amazon won her own eponymous supplemental title a few months later, cover-dated Summer 1942.

Once upon a time on a hidden island of immortal super-women, American aviator Steve Trevor of US Army Intelligence crashed to Earth. Near death, he was nursed back to health by young, impressionable Princess Diana.

Fearful of her besotted child’s growing obsession with the creature from a long-forgotten and madly violent world, Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyte revealed the hidden history of the Amazons: how they were seduced and betrayed by men but rescued by the goddess Aphrodite on condition that they forever isolated themselves from the mortal world and devoted their eternal lives to becoming ideal, perfect creatures.

However, with the planet in crisis, goddesses Athena and Aphrodite instructed Hippolyte to send an Amazon back with the American to fight for global freedom and liberty. She would be chosen by triumphing over all her sisters in a grand tournament. Although forbidden to compete, Diana clandestinely overcame all other candidates to become their emissary – Wonder Woman.

On arriving in the Land of the Free, she purchased the identity and credentials of lovelorn Army nurse Diana Prince, elegantly allowing the Amazing Amazon to stay close to Steve whilst enabling the heartsick but poverty-stricken care-worker to join her own fiancé in South America. Diana soon gained a position with Army Intelligence as secretary to General Darnell, further ensuring she would always be able to watch over her beloved. She little suspected that, although the painfully shallow Steve only had eyes for the dazzling Amazon superwoman, the General had fallen for the mousy yet supremely competent and capable Lieutenant Prince…

That set up enabled the Star-Spangled Siren to weather the vicissitudes of the notoriously transient comicbook marketplace and survive the end of the Golden Age of costumed heroes along with Superman, Batman and a few lucky second-stringers who inhabited the backs of their titles.

She soldiered on well into the Silver Age revival under the canny auspices of Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, but by 1968 superhero comics were in decline again and publishers sought new ways to keep audiences interested as tastes – and American society – changed.

Back then, the entire industry depended on newsstand sales and if you weren’t popular, you died. Editor Jack Miller & Mike Sekowsky stepped up with a radical proposal and made a little bit of comic book history with the only female superhero to still have her own title in that turbulent marketplace.

The superbly eccentric art of Sekowsky had been a DC mainstay for nearly two decades, and he had also scored big with fans at Gold Key with Man from Uncle and at Tower Comics in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and war title Fight the Enemy! His unique take on the Justice League of America had cemented its overwhelming success, and in 1968 he began stretching himself further with a number of experimental, young-adult oriented projects.

Tapping into the teen zeitgeist with Easy Rider style drama Jason’s Quest proved ultimately unsuccessful, but with the Metal Men and the hopelessly outdated and moribund Wonder Woman he had much greater impact. Sekowsky would subsequently work the same magic with equally stalled icon Supergirl

The big change came when the Amazons were compelled to leave our dimension, taking with them all their magic – including Wonder Woman’s powers and all her mystic weaponry. Now no more or less than human, she opted to stay on Earth permanently, assuming her own secret identity of Diana Prince, dedicated to fighting injustice as a mortal, very much in the manner of Emma Peel and Modesty Blaise.

Blind Buddhist monk I Ching rather rapidly trained her as a martial artist, and she soon became embroiled in the schemes of would-be world-conqueror Doctor Cyber. Most shockingly, her beloved Steve was branded a traitor and murdered…

Sekowsky’s root and branch overhaul offered a whole new kind of Wonder Woman, but as I’ve already said fashion ruled and, in a few years, without fanfare or warning, everything that had happened since Wonder Woman lost her powers was unwritten. Her mythical origins were revised and re-established as she returned to a world of immortals, gods, mythical monster and super-villains with a new nemesis: an African (or perhaps Hellenic?) American half-sister named Nubia

Such an abrupt reversal had tongues wagging and heads spinning in fan circles. Had the series offended some shady “higher-ups” who didn’t want controversy or a shake-up of the status quo?

Probably not. Sales were never great even on the Sekowsky run and the most logical reason is probably Television.

The Amazon had been optioned as a series since the days of the Batman TV show in 1967, and by this time (1973) production work had begun on the original 1974 pilot featuring Cathy Lee Crosby. An abrupt return to the character most viewers would be familiar with from their own childhoods seems perfectly logical to me…

By the time Lynda Carter made the concept work in 1975, Wonder Woman was once again “Stronger than Hercules, swifter than Mercury and more beautiful than Aphrodite”…

But as Diana returned to mainstream DC continuity, the readers and fans expected her to fully reintegrate, leading to this early and impressive example of a comics miniseries which ran in Wonder Woman #212 through 222 (cover-dates July 1974 – March 1976), detailing how the Amazing Amazon rejoined the JLA.

Scripter Len Wein and artists Curt Swan & Tex Blaisdell got the ball rolling with ‘The Man Who Mastered Women!’ as our Hellenic Hellion thwarts a terrorist attack at New York’s United Nations building… where Diana Prince now works as a translator. In the aftermath she surprisingly meets old friend Clark Kent.

Over the course of the conversation she realises her memories have been tampered with and suddenly understands why her JLA colleagues haven’t called her to any meetings… She had resigned years ago…

Although her former comrades beg her to re-enlist, she declines, fearing her memory lapses might endanger the team and the world. After much insistent pleading, she relents enough to suggest the League should covertly monitor her next dozen major cases – in the manner of Hercules’ twelve legendary tests – until she proves herself competent and worthy, for her own peace of mind, if not the JLA’s…

Once they grudgingly agree, she leaves and Superman begins the surveillance, observing her flying to Paradise Island in her Invisible Plane. Correctly deducing she has been subjected to Amazonian selective memory manipulation, Diana confronts her mother and learns of her time as a mere mortal… and of Steve’s death.

Although the past has been removed by her well-meaning Amazon sisters, Diana now demands that every recollection excised be returned…

Back in Man’s World, a crisis is already brewing as costumed crazy The Cavalier exerts his uncanny influence over women to control female Heads of State. Ultimately, however, his powers prove ineffectual over Wonder Woman…

As a result of that case, Diana Prince changes jobs, going to work as a troubleshooter for dashing Morgan Tracy at the UN Crisis Bureau, and her first mission isn’t long in coming…

Wonder Woman #213 was crafted by Cary Bates, Irv Novick & Blaisdell, detailing how an alien robot removes all aggression from humanity in one stroke. As the Flash helplessly observes, however, ‘The War-No-More Machine!’ also quashes all bravery, determination, confidence and capability. The species faced imminent – if long and drawn out – extinction.

Happily, Diana, a teenaged girl and a murderous criminal are all somehow immune to the invader’s influence…

Elliot S. Maggin, Swan & Phil Zupa then disclose Green Lantern Hal Jordan’s undercover observations after a lost Amazon gem in unwitting, unscrupulous hands almost starts World War III and the Princess of Power must avert nuclear holocaust triggered by a ‘Wish Upon a Star!’

The superb and vastly undervalued John Rosenberger pencilled Bates’ tale of the ‘Amazon Attack Against Atlantis’ (inked by Vince Colletta) as Aquaman watches Wonder Woman unravel a baroque and barbaric plot by Mars, God of War to set Earth’s two most advanced nations at each throats, after which #216 finds Black Canary uncovering the Amazon Sisterhood’s greatest secret in ‘Paradise in Peril!’ (Maggin, Rosenberger & Colletta).

The tale concerns an obsessed multi-millionaire risking everything – including possibly the collapse of civilisation – to uncover exactly what would happen if a man sets foot upon the hidden Island of the Amazons…

One of Wonder Woman’s oldest foes resurfaces in ‘The Day Time Broke Loose!’ (Maggin, Dick Dillin & Colletta) and Green Arrow is caught in the crossfire as the Duke of Deception attacks the UN with temporally torturous images and hallucinations designed to create madness and death on a global scale.

Produced by Martin Pasko & Kurt Schaffenberger, issue #218 offers two short complete tales. Firstly Red Tornado reports on the ‘Revolt of the Wonder Weapons’ as an influential astrologer uses mind-control techniques to gain power and accidentally undermine Diana’s arsenal, after which The Phantom Stranger stealthily witnesses her foil a mystic plot by sorcerer Felix Faust which animates and enrages the Statue of Liberty in ‘Give Her Liberty – and Give Her Death!’

This was a time when feminism was finally making inroads into American culture and Pasko, Swan & Colletta slyly tipped their hats to the burgeoning movement in a wry and fanciful sci-fi thriller. Thus, WW #219 sees Diana preventing a vile incursion by the dominating males of Xro, a ‘World of Enslaved Women!’, with stretchable sleuth Elongated Man covertly traversing the parallel dimensions in Wonder Woman’s wake.

With the epic endeavour almost ended, scripter Pasko added a patina of mystery to the affair as the Atom watches Diana tackle ‘The Man Who Wiped Out Time!’ Illustrated by Dick Giordano, Wonder Woman #220 found temporal bandit Chronos eradicating New York’s ability to discern time and time pieces: a plot foiled with style and brilliance by the on-form, in-time Power Princess.

The only problem was that during that entire exacting episode Hawkman had been simultaneously watching Diana tackle another potential disaster hundreds of miles away…

The Feathered Fury’s report details how Crisis Bureau operative Diana Prince was targeted by Dr. Cyber and Professor Moon – old enemies from her powerless period – who combine a hunger for vengeance with a plan to steal a UN-controlled chemical weapon in ‘The Fiend with the Face of Glass’ (illustrated by Swan & Colletta).

How she could be in two places simultaneously was revealed by Batman, who wraps up the twelve trials in ‘Will the Real Wonder Woman Please… Stand Up Drop Dead!’ (illustrated by Jose Delbo & Blaisdell), detailing how a beloved children’s entertainment icon has been subverted into a monster feeding off people whilst replacing them with perfect duplicates…

With covers by Bob Oksner, Nick Cardy, Mike Grell, Dick Giordano & Ernie Chan, this is a spectacular slice of pure, uncomplicated, all ages superhero action/adventure starring one of comics’ true all stars.

Stuffed with stunning art and witty, beguiling stories, here is Wonder Woman at her most welcoming in a timeless, pivotal classic of the medium: one that still provides astounding amounts of fun and thrills for anyone interested in a grand old time.
© 1974, 1975, 1976, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Batgirl volume 1


By Gardner Fox, Cary Bates, Mike Friedrich, Robert Kanigher, Frank Robbins, Denny O’Neil, Elliot S. Maggin,Carmine Infantino, Curt Swan, Frank Springer, Mike Sekowsky, Bob Brown, Neal Adams, Gil Kane, Win Mortimer, Irv Novick, Don Heck & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1367-1 (TPB)

Today comics readers are pretty used to the vast battalion of Bat-shaped champions infesting Gotham City and its troubled environs, but for the longest time it was just Bruce, Dick, Alfred – and occasionally their borrowed dog Ace – keeping crime on the run. However, in Detective Comics #233 (July 1956 and three months before the debut of the Flashofficially ushered in the Silver Age of American comicbooks) the editorial powers-that-be introduced heiress Kathy Kane, who sporadically suited-up in chiropteran red-&-yellow for the next eight years.

In Batman #139 (April 1961) her niece Betty started dressing up and acting out as her assistant Batgirl, but when Editor Julie Schwartz took over the Bat-titles in 1964 both ladies unceremoniously disappeared in his root-and-branch overhaul.

In 1966 the Batman TV series took over the planet, but its second season was far less popular and the producers soon saw the commercial sense of adding a glamorous female fighter in the fresh, new tradition of Emma Peel, Honey West and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., especially when clad in a cute cape, shiny skin-tight body-stocking and go-go boots…

Of course, she had to join the comics cast too, and this Showcase edition re-presents her varied appearances as both guest-star and headliner in her own series, beginning with her four-colour premiere. Hopefully, with the Batwoman TV show now inspiring a new generation of screen-based fans, it won’t be long before the material in this tantalising monochrome tome will be rereleased in in new – full-colour – print and digital editions…

In ‘The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl’ (Detective Comics #359, January 1967) writer Gardner Fox and art team supreme o Carmine Infantino & Sid Greene introduced young Barbara Gordon, mousy librarian and daughter of the Police Commissioner, so by the time the third season began on September 14, 1967, she was well-established.

In her small screen premiere she pummelled the Penguin, but Batgirl’s comic book origin featured the no-less-ludicrous but at least visually forbidding Killer Moth in a clever, fast-paced yarn involving blackmail and murder that still stands up today and which opens in fine style this massive compilation of the early years of one of the most successful distaff spin-offs in the business.

Her appearances came thick and fast after that initial tale: ‘The True-False Face of Batman’ (Detective #363, by Fox, Infantino & Greene) was a full co-starring vehicle as she was challenged to deduce Batman’s secret identity whilst tracking down enigmatic criminal genius Mr. Brains. Next, BG teamed-up with the Girl of Steel in World’s Finest Comics #169 (September 1967) wherein the independent lasses seemingly worked to replace Batman and Superman in ‘The Supergirl-Batgirl Plot’: a whimsical fantasy feast from Cary Bates, Curt Swan & George Klein.

Detective #369 (Infantino and Greene) somewhat reinforced boyhood prejudices about icky girls in classy thriller ‘Batgirl Breaks Up the Dynamic Duo’ which segued directly into a classic confrontation in Batman #197 as ‘Catwoman sets Her Claws for Batman!’ (Fox, Frank Springer & Greene). This frankly daft tale is most fondly remembered for a classic cover of Batgirl and whip-wielding Catwoman squaring off over Batman’s prone body – proving that comic fans have a psychopathology uniquely their very own…

Gil Kane made his debut on the Dominoed Daredoll (did they really call her that? – yes they did, from page 2 onwards!) in Detective #371’s ‘Batgirl’s Costumed Cut-ups’: a masterpiece of comic-art dynamism that inker Sid Greene could be proud of, but which proffered some rather uncomfortable assertions about female vanity that Gardner Fox probably preferred to forget – and just check out the cover of this book if you think I’m kidding.

Batgirl next surfaced in Justice League of America #60 (February 1968), wherein the team barely survive a return match with alien invader Queen Bee and are temporarily transformed into ‘Winged Warriors of the Immortal Queen!’ (Fox, Mike Sekowsky & Greene), after which in the June-July The Brave and the Bold (#78) Bob Brown stepped in to draw her for Bob Haney’s eccentric crime-thriller ‘In the Coils of the Copperhead’ wherein Wonder Woman vied with the fresh young thing for Batman’s affections. Of course, it was all a cunning plan… at first…

That same month another team-up with Supergirl heralded a sea-change in DC’s tone, style and content as the girls were dragged into ‘The Superman-Batman Split!’ (World’s Finest Comics #176) with Bates providing a far darker mystery for the girls and boys (including Robin and Jimmy Olsen) to solve. With this yarn artists Neal Adams & Dick Giordano began revolutionising how comics looked with their moody, exciting hyper-realistic renderings…

Although Barbara Gordon continued to crop up in the background of occasional Batman adventures, that was the last time the masked heroine was seen until Detective Comics #384, (February 1969) when Batgirl was finally awarded her own solo feature. Written by Mike Friedrich and illustrated by the phenomenal team of Gil Kane & Murphy Anderson, ‘Tall, Dark. Handsome …and Missing!’ began an engaging run of human-scaled crime dramas with what all the (male) scripters clearly believed was a strong female slant, as seen in this yarn wherein librarian Babs develops a crush on a frequent borrower just before he inexplicably vanishes.

Batgirl investigates and runs into a pack of brutal thugs before solving the mystery in the second chapter ‘Hunt for the Helpless Hostage!’ (Detective #385), after which the lead story from that issue rather inexplicably follows here.

‘Die Small… Die Big!’ by Robert Kanigher, Bob Brown & Joe Giella is one of the best Batman adventures of the period, with a nameless nonentity sacrificing everything for a man he’s never met, but Babs is only in three panels and never as Batgirl…

Adventure Comics #381 (June 1969) made far better use of her as she goes undercover and is largely at odds with the Maid of Steel whilst exposing ‘The Supergirl Gang’ in a tense thriller by Bates & Win Mortimer. Batgirl shared alternating adventures in Detective back-up slot with Robin, so she next appeared in#388 which also welcomed newspaper strip star Frank Robbins to script ‘Surprise! This’ll Kill You!’: a sophisticated bait-and-switch caper which sees Batgirl impersonate herself and almost pay with her life for another girl’s crimes. Spectacularly illustrated by Kane & Anderson, the strip expanded from eight to ten pages, but that still wasn’t enough and the breathtaking thrills spill over into a dramatic conclusion in ‘Batgirl’s Bag of Tricks!

Although tone and times were changing, there was still potential to be daft and parochial too, as seen in ‘Batman’s Marriage Trap!’ (Batman #214, by Robbins, Irv Novick & Giella) wherein a wicked Femme Fatale sets the unfulfilled spinsters of America on the trail of Gotham’s Most Eligible Bat-chelor (see what I did there? I’ve done it before too and you can’t stop me…).

Not even a singular guest-shot by positive role-model Batgirl can redeem this peculiar throwback – although the art rather does…

From Detective #392, October 1969 and by Robbins, Kane & Anderson, ‘A Clue… Seven-Foot Tall!’ is another savvy contemporary crime-saga which introduces a new Bat cast-member in the form of disabled Vietnam veteran and neophyte private eye Jason Bard (who would eventually inherit Batgirl’s spot in Detective Comics). Here and in the concluding ‘Downfall of a Goliath’ Babs and Bard spar before joining forces to solve a brutal murder in the world of professional basketball.

Issues #396 & 397 (February and March 1970) see Batgirl face the very modern menace of what we’d now call a psychosexual serial killer in chilling, enthralling mystery ‘The Orchid-Crusher’ and ‘The Hollow Man’: a clear proof of the second-string character’s true and still untapped potential…

The anniversary Detective #400 (June 1970) finally teamed her with Robin in ‘A Burial For Batgirl!’(Denny O’Neil, Kane & Vince Colletta) a college-based murder mystery referencing political and social unrest then plaguing US campuses, but which still finds space to be smart and action-packed as well as topical before its chillingly satisfactory conclusion ‘Midnight is the Dying Hour!’ (Detective #401).

With issue #404, Babs became the sole back-up star as Robbins, Kane & Frank Giacoia sampled the underground movie scene with ‘Midnight Doom-Boy’, mischievously spoofing Andy Warhol’s infamous Factory studio in another intriguing murder-plot, diverting to and culminating in another branch of Pop Art as Batgirl nearly becomes ‘The Living Statue!’

In ‘The Explosive Circle!’ (#406, with Colletta inking) the topic du jour is gentrification, as property speculation rips Gotham apart, but not as much as a gang of radical bombers, leading to the cry ‘One of Our Landmarks is Missing!’ The next issue (#408) saw the vastly underrated Don Heck take over as artist, inked here by Dick Giordano on ‘The Phantom Bullfighter!’ wherein a work-trip to Madrid embroils Batgirl in a contentious dispute between matadors old and new, leading to a murderous ‘Night of the Sharp Horns!’

Inevitably, fashion reared its stylish head in a strip with a female lead, but Robbins’ wickedly clever ‘Battle of the Three “M’s”’ (that’s Mini, Midi and Maxi to you) proved to be one of the most compelling and clever tales of the entire run as a trendsetting celebrity finds herself targeted by an unscrupulous designer, leading to a murderous deathtrap for Babs in ‘Cut… and Run!’

Clearly inspired, Robbins stayed with girlish things for ‘The Head-Splitters!’ (Detective #412) and Heck, now inking himself, rose to the occasion for a truly creepy saga about hairdressing that features one of the nastiest scams and murder methods I’ve ever seen, ending in a climactic ‘Squeeze-Play!’

Babs reunites with Jason Bard for an anniversary date only to stumble onto an ‘Invitation to Murder!’ (another celebrity homage; this time to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) – a classy fair-play mystery resolved in ‘Death Shares the Spotlight!’

When a cop-killing tears apart the city, Babs’ father Commissioner Jim Gordon takes it badly in ‘The Deadly Go-Between!’, but militant radicals aren’t the only threat as seen in concluding episode ‘A Bullet For Gordon!’: heralding a far greater role for the once-anodyne authority figure and leading to his integral role in today’s Bat-universe.

Robbins & Heck also revealed a shocking secret about the Commissioner that would build through the remaining Batgirl adventures, beginning with ‘The Kingpin is Dead!’, concerning a “motiveless” hit on an old gang-boss all cleared up in spectacular fashion with ‘Long Live the Kingpin!’ in #419.

‘Target for Mañana!’ has Babs and her dad travel to Mexico on a narcotics fact-finding mission only to fall foul of a sinister plot in ‘Up Against Three Walls!’, before the series took a landmark turn in ‘The Unmasking of Batgirl’ as a charmer breaks her heart and Babs decides to chuck it all in and run for Congress in ‘Candidate For Danger!’

Detective Comics #424 (June 1972) features ‘Batgirl’s Last Case’ as “Battlin’ Babs” overturns a corrupt political machine and shuffles off to DC, leaving Jason to manage on his own…

That wasn’t quite the end of her first run of adventures. Superman #268 (October 1973) found her battling spies in the Capitol beside the Man of Steel in ‘Wild Week-End in Washington!’, courtesy of Elliot S. Maggin, Swan & Bob Oksner before repeating the experience a year later in ‘Menace of the Energy-Blackmailers!’ (Superman #279, by Maggin, Swan & Phil Zupa.

This eclectic but highly entertaining compendium concludes with one last Supergirl team-up, this time by Maggin Swan & Colletta from Superman Family #171 (June/July 1975), wherein a distant descendent of the Empress of the Nile uses magic to become ‘Cleopatra, Queen of America’, overwhelming even Superman and the Justice League before our Cape and Cowl champs finally lower the boom…

Batgirl’s early exploits come from and indeed partially shaped an era where women in popular fiction were finally emerging from the marriage-obsessed, ankle-twisting, deferential, fainting hostage-fodder mode that had been their ignoble lot in all media for untold decades. Feminism wasn’t a dirty word or a joke then for the generation of girls who at last got some independent and effective role-models with (metaphorically, at least) balls.

Complex yet uncomplicated, the adventures of Batgirl grew beyond their crassly commercial origins to make a real difference. However, these tales are not only significant but drenched in charm and wit; drawn with a gloriously captivating style and panache that still delights and enthrals. This is no girly comic but a full-on thrill ride you can’t afford to ignore and which deserves to be revived with all the bells, whistles and respect the characters and stories rightfully command…
© 1967-1975, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Black Canary Archives volume 1


By Bob Kanigher, Gardner Fox, Denny O’Neil, Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella, Murphy Anderson, Alex Toth & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-734-4 (HB)

Black Canary was one of the first of relatively few female furies to hold a star spot in the DC universe, following Wonder Woman, Liberty Belle and Red Tornado (who actually masqueraded as a man to comedically crush crime – with a couple of kids in tow, too!). She predated Merry, the Gimmick Girl (remember her?) and disappeared with most of other superheroes at the end of the Golden Age, to be revived with the Justice Society of America in 1963.

She was created by Bob Kanigher & Carmine Infantino in 1947, echoing the worldly, dangerous women cropping up in the burgeoning wave of crime novels and on the silver screen in film noir tales better suited to the wiser, more cynical Americans who had just endured a World War and were even then gearing up for a paranoiac Cold one…

Clad in a revealing bolero jacket, shorts, fishnet stockings and high-heeled pirate boots, the devastating shady lady who looked like Veronica Lake even began life as a thief…

This superb full-colour hardback collection was released in 2001 to capitalise on the character’s small screen debut in the first Birds of Prey TV series. It gathers her admittedly short run of tales in Flash Comics (#86-104, August 1947 – February 1949), Comics Cavalcade #25 (February/March 1948), plus two adventures that went unused when the comicbook folded: one of the earliest casualties in the wave of changing tastes which decimated the superhero genre until the late 1950s. Those last only resurfaced at the end of the Second Great Superhero Winnowing and were subsequently published in DC Special #3 and Adventure Comics #399 (June 1969 & November 1970 respectively).

Also intriguingly included are two stellar appearances in Brave and the Bold #61-62 (September & November 1965), therein teamed up with JSA team-mate Starman as part of a concerted but ultimately vain editorial effort by Julius Schwartz to revive the Golden Age squad of champions situated on parallel world Earth-2.

Best of all is the re-presentation of a 2-part solo thriller from Adventure Comics #418-419 (April – May 1972) after she successfully migrated to “our” world and replaced Wonder Woman in the Justice League of America.

Regrettably, all these treasures can only be found here. Incomprehensibly, DC have allowed this entire imprint of reading gold lie fallow for years, both in print and digital formats. Hopefully, events in their cinematic analogues will entice them into reviving the Archive line… and adding to it…

In the heady, desperate days of post-war uncertainty, continuity was meagre and nobody cared much about origins. All that mattered was pace, plot, action and spectacle. As we’ll see, even when the Black Bird got her own strip, where she came from was never as important as who she faced…

Flash Comics #86 was just another superhero anthology publication, suffering a slow downturn in sales, and perennial back-up feature Johnny Thunder had long since passed its sell-by date. Although a member of the JSA, Johnny was an idiot; a genuine simpleton who just happened to control a genie-like Thunderbolt.

His affable good-hearted bumbling had carried him through the war, but changing fashions had no room for a hapless (adult) hero anymore. When he encountered a masked female Robin Hood who stole from crooks, the writing was on the wall. In this introductory yarn, ‘The Black Canary’ tricks him and T-Bolt into acquiring an invitation to a crime-lord’s party, lifts the ill-gotten loot and leaves Johnny to mop up the hoods. It was lust at first sight…

Nothing much was expected from these complete-in-one-episode filler strips. Hawkman and The Flash still hogged all the covers and glory, and although young artists Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella gave it their all as they learned their craft on the job, writer/editor Robert Kanigher was often clearly making it up as he went along…

The next Johnny Thunder instalment in #87 featured the immediate return of the Blonde Bombshell as she again makes the big goof her patsy, leaving ‘The Package of Peril’ in his inept hands. When mobsters retrieve the purloined parcel and secret documents it contains, Johnny follows and, more by luck than design, rescues the Canary from a deadly trap.

She returned in #88 – sans domino-mask now – using trained black canaries to deliver messages as she again finds herself in over her head and is forced to use the big sap and his magic pal to extricate herself before retrieving ‘The Map that Wasn’t There’ from a pack of human jackals.

Flash Comics #89 held the last Johnny Thunder solo tale as ‘Produce the Crime!’ sees the cheerful chump accidentally busting a gem-smuggling scheme without any help from the Girl Gladiator – but she did return in full force for #90 as ‘Johnny Thunder and the Black Canary’ officially team up to thwart a photographic frame-up and blackmail plot in ‘Triple Exposure!’

They resumed the partnership in #91 as gangsters used rockets and ‘The Tumbling Trees!’ in their efforts to trap the svelte nemesis of evil – and just to be clear: that’s her, not Johnny…

The strip became Black Canary with the next issue. She even got to appear on the Lee Elias cover with Flash and Hawkman. Johnny simply vanished without trace or mention and his name was peremptorily applied elsewhere to a new cowboy hero as the rise of traditional genre material such westerns relentlessly rolled on…

In ‘The Huntress of the Highway!’, feisty florist Dinah Drake is being pestered by arrogant, obnoxious but so-very-manly private eye Larry Lance, only to realise that the wreath she is working on is for him. Doffing her dowdy duds to investigate, the Blonde Bombshell is just in time to save him from a wily gang of truck hijackers.

And that’s all the set-up we got. The new status quo was established and a pattern for fast-paced but inconsequential rollercoaster action romps took off…

To celebrate her arrival, the Canary also appeared in catch-all anthology Comics Cavalcade – specifically #25 cover-dated February/March 1948 where she flamboyantly finishes a ‘Tune of Terror!’ inflicted on a rural hick trying to claim an inheritance, but encountering nothing but music-themed menace…

A word of warning: Kanigher was a superbly gifted and wildly imaginative writer, but he never let sense come between him and a memorable visual. The manic Deus ex Machina moment where a carpet of black canaries snatches the eponymous avenger and victim out of a death-plunge is, indeed, utter idiocy, but in those days, anything went…

Back in a more rational milieu and mood for Flash Comics #93, the ‘Mystery of the Crimson Crystal!’ has the Canary tracking down a conman who bamboozled many gullible women into parting with their fortunes for spurious immortality. On the home front, the utterly oblivious Larry had pressured shy Dinah into letting him use her shop as his detective office. Of course, the oaf had no idea his mousy landlady was the lethal object of his crime-busting desires…

The rather pedestrian ‘Corsage of Death!’ in #94 sees them save a scientist’s ultimate weapon from canny crooks, whilst ‘An Orchid for the Deceased!’ spectacularly finds the Avian Avenger framed for murder in an extremely classy Noir murder mystery before #96 combines equestrian robbery with aerial combat as gem thieves risk innocent lives to solve ‘The Riddle of the Topaz Brooch!’

Finally finding a formula that worked, Kanigher had Larry and the Canary investigate textile thieving thugs involved in ‘The Mystery of the Stolen Cloth!’ and murdering stamp-stealers in #98’s ‘The Byzantine Black’, as Infantino’s art grew ever more efficient and boldly effective.

‘Time Runs Out!’ in #99 ups the drama as ruthless radium-stealing gangsters trap the duo in a giant hourglass, and #100 again utilises baroque props and plots as they track down a model-making gang of burglars and are unexpectedly caught in ‘The Circle of Terror!’

Just as the stories were building momentum and finding a unique voice, the curtains were beginning to draw closed. ‘The Day that Wouldn’t End!’ in #101 sees Canary and gumshoe uncover a sinister scheme to drive a rich man mad, Dinah’s shop becomes an unsuspected tool of crafty crooks in ‘The Riddle of the Roses!’, and ‘Mystery on Ice!’ finds the capable crime-crushers suckered by a pack of thieves determined to steal a formula vital to America’s security.

Flash Comics disappeared with #104, making way for new titles and less fantastic thrills. ‘Crime on Her Hands’ ended the Canary’s crusade on a high, however, with an absorbing murder-mystery involving a college class of criminologists. She wouldn’t be seen again until the return of the Justice Society as part of the Silver Age revival of costumed mystery men, when awestruck readers learned that there were infinite Earths and untold wonders to see…

Nevertheless, the sudden cancellation meant two months’ worth of material was in various stages of preparation when the axe fell. The “All-Girl Issue” of reprint series DC Special (#3) subsequently printed one of the Canary yarns in 1969, with Bernard Sachs inking Infantino as ‘Special Delivery Death!’ finds Lance framed for murder and both Dinah and Black Canary using their particular gifts to clear him. Adventure Comics #399 printed the last story as ‘Television Told the Tale!’, revealing how a live broadcast tips off the Blonde Bombshell to a crime in the making…

Once the Silver Age revival took hold, superheroes were everywhere and response to Earth-2 appearances prompted DC to try-out a number of impressive permutations designed to bring back the World’s first team of costumed adventurers.

Try-out comic The Brave and the Bold #61 offered a brace of truly titanic tales by Gardner Fox & Murphy Anderson, pairing the Canary with Ted Knight, the Sentinel of Super-Science known as Starman. The deliriously cool cases began with ‘Mastermind of Menaces’, as vile techno-wizard The Mist returned, using doctored flowers to hypnotise his victims into voluntarily surrendering their wealth.

When he utilised Dinah’s flower shop to source his souped-up blooms, she, husband Larry and visiting pal Ted were soon on the villain’s trail…

Mystery and intrigue gave way to all-out action in #62’s ‘The Great Superhero Hunt!’ as husband-and-wife criminals Sportsmaster and Huntress began stalking superheroes for kicks and profit. By the time Feline Fury Wildcat became their first victim Ted and Dinah were on the case and ready for anything…

These latter classic tales alone are worth the price of purchase, but this splendid tome still has the very best to come as Adventure Comics #418 & 419 provide a scintillating 2-part graphic extravaganza by Dennis O’Neil & the legendary Alex Toth.

Originally an Earth-2 crime-fighter, Dinah was transplanted to our world by the wonders of trans-dimensional vibration after husband Larry was killed (see Justice League of America #73-75 or many assorted JLA compilations). Beginning a possibly rebound romance with Green Arrow, Dinah struggled to find her feet on a strangely different yet eerily familiar world. In ‘The Canary and the Cat! Parts 1 & 2’ she accepts a job teaching self-defence to women. The bereaved Blonde Bombshell has no idea her pupils are hirelings of vicious criminal Catwoman and the martial arts moves she shares will lead to her death and the liberation of a deadly menace…

Augmented by a fond remembrance from co-creator Carmine Infantino in his Foreword and detailed biographies of the many people who worked on the character, this admittedly erratic collection starts slow but builds in quality until it ranks amongst the very best examples of Fights ‘n’ Tights fantasy. I hope you get a chance to see it…
© 1947-1949, 1965, 1969, 1970, 1972, 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Firestorm the Nuclear Man: Reborn


By Stuart Moore, Jamal Igle & Keith Champagne & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1219-3 (TPB)

One of the best “straight” superhero series of the last decade came and went with very little fanfare and only (thus far) this intriguing collection to mark its passage. Firestorm the Nuclear Man was created by Gerry Conway & Al Milgrom, launched in 1978 and promptly fell foul of the “DC Implosion” after five flamboyant, fun-filled issues.

High School Jock Ronnie Raymond and Nobel winning nuclear physicist Martin Stein were, due to a bizarre concatenation of circumstances, caught in an atomic blast that melded their bodies and minds into a fusion-powered being with extraordinary powers over matter and energy. Ronnie had conscious control of their consolidated body, and became an exuberant, flashy superhero, with a unique pantheon of villains all his own.

He was drafted into the Justice League of America, and eventually won a  well-received back-up series in The Flash (#289 to 304) which led to his second chance; Fury of Firestorm (100 issues and five Annuals between June 1982 and August 1990) before fading into the quiet semi-obscurity of team-books and guest-shots.

In 2004 Dan Jolley & Chrisscross reinvented the character. Black Detroit kid Jason Rusch was brought back from the brink of death thanks to a blazing energy ball (the Firestorm matrix seeking a new host after the murder of its previous body – although nobody discovered that for nearly a year…). This new version of the Nuclear Man can absorb any other body into the matrix, using them as a kind of battery – or more accurately spark plug – for Jason’s powers.

After impressively establishing himself as a hero in his own right he joined Donna Troy’s Space Strike Force in the Infinite Crisis, consequently suffering hideous injuries.

Inexplicably this volume (reprinting issues #23-27 of the third Firestorm comicbook series) ignores all that back-story and begins as part of the One Year Later narrative strand. Jason can now only combine with fellow atomic hero Firehawk, and their un-combined personas cannot safely be more than a mile apart. That’s rather problematic as Jason is a student in New York and Lorraine Reilley, when not Firehawk, is a United States Senator. Jason’s teleporting girlfriend Gehennaisn’t too keen on how much time her man and that “Older Woman” spend together either…

As Firestorm they are desperately searching for Martin Stein, missing for a year and somehow connected to a plot to destroy the Earth, but their quest has also made them/him the target for some extremely dangerous people…

By trying not to give too much away I might have made this tale seem a bit daunting or confusing, but it really isn’t. This is a deliciously clever and witty adventure, providing plenty of opportunities to bring first-time fans up to speed, with likable characters, dastardly villains, an intriguing mystery, plenty of action and loads of laughs – just like the rest of the series was. It reads enchantingly and is really beautiful to look at, so I just don’t understand why newcomers’ first exposure to this material should be with the 23rd chapter and not the first…

You would have thought Firestorm’s appearances in TV animation delight the Brave and the Bold or as one of the Legends of Tomorrow would have prompted somebody to release the rest of this utterly appetising little gem in trade paperback or digital editions by now. Still it’s never too late to start agitating for change is it?
© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Vixen: Return of the Lion


By G. Willow Wilson & CAFU, with Bit, Josh Middleton & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2512-4 (TPB)

In 1978 fashion model Mari Jiwe McCabe nearly became the first black woman to star in her own American comic book. Sadly, the infamous “DC Implosion” of that year saw the Vixen series cancelled before release. She eventually premiered three years later in Action Comics #521’s ‘The Deadly Rampage of the Lady Fox’ (by creator Gerry Conway and Superman mainstays Curt Swan & Frank Chiaramonte) and remained lurking around the DC Universe until she joined a re-booted JLA (latterly dubbed JLA Detroit) in Justice League of America Annual #2.

A classic team-player, over intervening decades working within assorted JLA rosters, Suicide Squad, Ultramarine Corps, Checkmate and the Birds of Prey, Vixen’s origin has changed a lot less than most. It even remained mostly unmeddled-with when she made the jump to TV as part of the DC Legends of Tomorrow show…

Mari Jiwe comes from a line of warriors blessed by animist Trickster god Kwaku Anansi. The mythical creator of all stories claims to have designed her abilities – and those of fellow hero Animal Man – allowing Vixen, through use of an arcane artefact dubbed the Tantu Totem, to channel the attributes and power of every animal that has ever lived.

As a child in M’Changa Province, Zambesi, Mari’s mother was killed by poachers and her missionary father murdered by his own brother over possession of the Totem. To thwart her uncle, the orphan moved to America, eventually becoming a fashion model to provide funding and cover for her mission of revenge…

At first a reluctant superhero, Vixen became one of the most effective crusaders on the international scene and was a key member of the latest Justice League when her powers began to malfunction and she was forced to confront Anansi himself (for which tales see Justice League of America: Sanctuary and Justice League of America: Second Coming)…

Scripted by author, essayist, journalist and comics scribe G. Willow Wilson (Cairo, Air, Ms. Marvel, Wonder Woman) and illustrated by Carlos Alberto Fernandez Urbano AKA CAFU (Action Comics, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Imperium, Unity), Vixen: Return of the Lion originally appeared as a 5-part miniseries in 2009 and opens here sans preamble with  ‘Predators’ wherein a League operation uncovers a plot by techno-thugs Intergang to fund a revolution in troubled African nation Zambesi. Amongst the impounded files is a record which proves that 15 years earlier, Vixen’s mother was actually killed by Aku Kwesi, a local warlord working with the American criminals…

When Mari learns the truth, not even Superman can stop her from heading straight to her old village to find the man responsible. Africa is not America, however, and the lawless settlement has no time for a woman who does not know her place – even if she does have superpowers. When Kwesi appears, Vixen’s powers are useless against him and she escapes with her life only because the warlord’s lieutenant Sia intervenes…

In ‘Prey’, broken, gravely wounded Mari is dumped in the veldt by Sia and staggers her way across the war-ravaged plain, battling beasts and hallucinating – or perhaps meeting ghosts – until she is attacked by a young lion and rescued by a holy man…

Alarmed at Vixen’s disappearance and further discoveries connecting Kwesi to Intergang, the JLA mobilise in ‘Sanctuary’as the lost Vixen gradually recuperates in a place where the constant battles of fang and claw survival are suspended and the saintly Brother Tabo offers her new perspective and greater understanding of her abilities. Her JLA colleagues, meanwhile, have exposed Intergang’s infiltration but fallen to a power even Superman could not resist…

As the League struggles against overwhelming odds, ‘Risen’ sees a transcendent Vixen flying to the rescue, and picking up some unexpected allies before facing her greatest challenge in shocking conclusion ‘Idols’, wherein more hidden truths are revealed and a greater mystery begins to unfold…

Featuring a gallery of stunning covers by Josh Middleton, this is an exceptional and moodily exotic piece of Fights ‘n’ Tights fluff to delight devotees of the genre and casual readers alike, and one long overdue for re-release and inclusion in the growing library of environmentally-beneficial digital comics and books.
© 2006, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Justice League of America: The Last Survivors of Earth!


By Denny O’Neil, Mike Friedrich, Robert Kanigher, Dick Dillin, Neal Adams, Joe Giella & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8920-1 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Action, Imagination and Social Conscience: a True Xmas Tradition… 9/10

After the actual invention of the comicbook superhero – for which read the Action Comics debut of Superman in 1938 – the most significant event in the industry’s progress was the combination of individual sales-points into a group. Thus, what seems blindingly obvious to us with the benefit of four-colour hindsight was proven: a number of popular characters could multiply readership by combining forces. Plus, of course, a mob of superheroes is just so much cooler than one (…or one-and-a-half if there’s a sidekick involved…).

And so, the debut of the Justice Society of America is rightly revered as a true landmark in the development of comic books, and when Julius Schwartz revived the superhero genre in the late 1950s, the turning point came with an inevitable union of his reconfigured mystery men.

That moment came with issue #28 of The Brave and the Bold, a classical adventure title that had recently transformed into a try-out magazine like Showcase. Just before Christmas 1959 the ads began running. “Just Imagine! The mightiest heroes of our time… have banded together as the Justice League of America to stamp out the forces of evil wherever and whenever they appear!”

The rest was history: the JLA captivated the youth of a nation, reinvigorated an industry and even inspired a small family concern into creating the Fantastic Four, thereby transforming the art-form itself

Following a spectacular rise, TV spin-offs brought international awareness which led to catastrophic overexposure: by 1968 the new superhero boom looked to be dying just as its predecessor had at the end of the 1940s. Sales were down generally in the comics industry and costs were beginning to spiral, and more importantly “free” entertainment, in the form of television, was by now ensconced in even the poorest household.

If you were a kid in the sixties, think on just how many brilliant cartoon shows were created in that decade, when artists like Alex Toth and Doug Wildey were working in West Coast animation studios. Moreover, comic-book heroes were now appearing on the small screen. Superman, Aquaman, Batman, the Marvel heroes and even the Justice League of America were there every Saturday in your own living room…

It was a time of great political and social upheaval. Change was everywhere and unrest even reached the corridors of DC. When a number of creators agitated for increased work benefits the request was not looked upon kindly. Many left the company for other outfits. Some quit the business altogether.

This fabulous paperback and/or digital compendium volume reflects the turmoil of those times as the original writer and penciller who had created every single adventure of the World’s Greatest Superheroes since their inception gave way to a “new wave” of writers and a fresh if not young artist. Collecting issues #77-95 (spanning December 1969 to December 1971, and generously re-presenting the stirring covers of #85 and 93: giant all-reprint editions), this tome portrays a society in transition and a visible change in the way DC comics stories were told, over a period when the market changed forever, and comics stopped being a casual, disposable mass-entertainment.

By the end of this volume the publishers had undertaken the conceptual and commercial transition from a mass-market medium which slavishly followed trends and fashions to become a niche industry producing only what its dedicated fans wanted…

Without preamble the drama commences with the heroes’ confidence and world view shattered when enigmatic political populist Joe Dough suborns and compromises their beloved teen mascot in ‘Snapper Carr… Super-Traitor!’ Crafted by Denny O’Neil, Dick Dillin & Joe Giella, the coming of age yarn changed the comfy, cosy superhero game forever…

The greater social awareness parading through comics at this time manifested in the next epic 2-parter, which also revives another Golden Age Great (presumably to cash-in on the mini-boom in screen Westerns). The Vigilante – a cowboy-themed superhero who battled bandits and badmen in a passel of DC titles from 1941-1954 – here alerts the team to ‘The Coming of the Doomsters!’ just in time to foil alien invaders who use pollution as their secret weapon. The vile plot ends in ‘Come Slowly Death, Come Slyly!’ as the heroes stopped the toxic baddies whilst subtly introducing young readers to potential ecological disasters in the making. This gave us plenty of time to offset greenhouse gases and end our dependence on fossil fuels and has given the healthy planet we enjoy to this day…

Another landmark of this still-impressive tale was the introduction of the JLA Satellite, as the team moved from a hole in a mountain to a high-tech orbiting fortress. As they are moving in, ‘Night of the Soul-Stealer!’ sees Thanagarian Lorch Nor collecting heroic spirits in a magic box, but it is only a prelude to an even greater threat as issue #81 reveals his good intentions when the ‘Plague of the Galactic Jest-Master’ threatens to inflict a greater mind-crushing horror upon our entire universe.

Next is another grand collaboration between JLA and JSA as ruthless property speculators (are there any other kind?) from outer space seek to raze both Earths in ‘Peril of the Paired Planets’. Only the ultimate sacrifice of a true hero averts trans-dimensional disaster in the concluding ‘Where Valor Fails… Will Magic Triumph?’

Justice League of America #84 (November 1970) hosts ‘The Devil in Paradise!’: a guest-script from veteran writer Robert Kanigher wherein a well-meaning but demented scientist builds his own Eden to escape the world’s increasing savagery, before going off the deep end and attempting to cleanse the Earth and start civilisation afresh.

With superheroes on the outs the team was severely truncated too. JLA #86 confronted issues of overpopulation and impending global starvation as Mike Friedrich began a run of excellent eco-thrillers with ‘Earth’s Final Hour!’. Here crooked business entrepreneur (should I say any other kind again?) Theo Zappa trades tries to trade away Earth’s plankton (base of our entire food-chain) to a race of aliens with only Superman, Batman, Flash, Aquaman, Atom and Hawkman on hand to thwart him, whilst #87’s ‘Batman… King of the World!’ brings in occasional guest-star Zatanna and the semi-retired Green Lantern Hal Jordan to tackle a deadly alien robot raider: a devious and cleverly veiled attack on Big Business and the Vietnam war, most famous these days for introducing a group of alien superheroes mischievously based on Marvel’s Mighty Avengers…

The human spirit and enduring humanity are highlighted when ancient refugees from the lost city of Mu return to find us in charge of the planet they had abandoned millennia ago. ‘The Last Survivors of Earth!’ shows that even when superheroes are outmatched by scientifically-instigated global catastrophes, the simple patience, charity and self-confidence of ordinary folks can move mountains and save worlds…

‘The Most Dangerous Dreams of All!’ is one of the oddest tales in JLA history, with a thinly disguised Harlan Ellison psychically inserting himself into the consciousness of Superman and Batman to woo the Black Canary with near-fatal repercussions, in a self-indulgent but intriguing examination of the creative process. Back on – and under – solid ground again for #90, ‘Plague of the Pale People!’ then sees Aquaman’s submerged kingdom of Atlantis conquered by a primitive sub-sea tribe (the Saremites from Flash #109) using nerve gas negligently dumped in the ocean by the US military.

In a mordant and powerful parable about lost faith and taking responsibility, the JLA are forced to deal with problems much tougher than repelling invaders and locking up bad-guys…

Justice League of America #91 (August 1971) heralds the hero-heavy first chapter in the annual JLA/JSA team-up with ‘Earth… the Monster-Maker!’ as the Supermen, Flashes, Green Lanterns, Hawkmen, Atoms and Robins of two separate Realities simultaneously and ineffectually battle an alien boy and his symbiotically-linked dog on two planets a universe apart. The result is pointless carnage and imminent death until ‘Solomon Grundy… the One and Only!’ gives all concerned a life-saving lesson on togetherness and lateral thinking…

Following the cover of reprint giant #93, Neal Adams steps in to provide additional pencils for tense mystery ‘Where Strikes Demonfang?’ as ghostly guardian Deadman helps Batman, Aquaman and Green Arrow foil a murder mission by the previously infallible Merlyn and the League of Assassins.

The issue and this volume end on a cliffhanger as Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman are lost in a teleporter accident, leaving Batman, Black Canary, Green Arrow and Atom to fight ‘The Private War of Johnny Dune!’, wherein a disaffected African American freshly returned from the Vietnam conflict discovers the power and temptation of superpowers. Tragically, even the ability to control minds isn’t enough to change an unjust society two hundred years in the making…

Augmented by stunning covers from Murphy Anderson, Curt Swan, Dick Giordano and Neal Adams, these thoroughly wonderful thrillers mark an end and a beginning in comic book storytelling as whimsical adventure was replaced by inclusivity, social awareness and a tacit acknowledgement that a smack in the mouth can’t solve all problems. The audience was changing and the industry was forced to change with them. But underneath it all the drive to entertain remained strong and effective. Charm’s loss is drama’s gain and today’s readers might be surprised to discover just how much punch these tales had – and still have.

And for that you must get this book…
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 2019 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.

Kingdom Come



By Mark Waid & Alex Ross, with Todd Klein & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6082-8 (20th Anniversary HB) 978-1-4012-2034-1 (TPB

In the mid-1960s a teenaged Jim Shooter wrote a couple of stories about the Legion of Super-Heroes set some years into the team’s own future. Those stories of the adult Legionnaires revealed hints of things to come that shackled the series’ plotting and continuity for decades as eager, obsessed fans (by which I mean all of us) waited for the predicted characters to be introduced, presaged relationships to be consummated and heroes to die.

By being so utterly impressive and similarly affecting, Kingdom Come accidentally repeated the trick decades later, subsequently painting the entire post Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe into the same creative corner until one of the company’s periodic continuity reboots…

Envisaged and designed by artist Alex Ross as DC’s answer to epic groundbreaking Marvels, Kingdom Come was originally released as a 4-issue Prestige Format miniseries in 1996 to rapturous acclaim and numerous awards and accolades. Although set in the future and an “imaginary story” released under DC’s Elseworlds imprint, it almost immediately began to affect the company’s mainstream continuity.

Set approximately twenty years into the future, the grandiose saga details a tragic failure and subsequent loss of Faith for Superman and how his attempt to redeem himself almost leads to an even greater and ultimate apocalypse.

The events are seen through the eyes and actions of Dantean witness Norman McCay, an aging cleric co-opted by Divine Agent of Wrath the Spectre after the pastor officiates at the last rites of dying superhero Wesley Dodds. As the Sandman, Dodds was cursed for decades with precognitive dreams which compelled him to act as an agent of justice.

Opening chapter ‘Strange Visitor’ reveals a world where metahumans have proliferated to ubiquitous proportions: a sub-culture of constant, violent clashes between the latest generation of costumed villains and vigilantes, all unheeding and uncaring of the collateral damage they daily inflict on the mere mortals around and in all ways beneath them.

The shaken preacher sees a final crisis coming, but feels helpless until the darkly angelic Spectre comes to him. Taken on a bewildering voyage of unfolding events, McCay is to act as the ghost’s human perspective whilst the Spirit of Vengeance prepares to pass final judgement on Humanity.

First stop is the secluded hideaway where farmer Kal-El has hidden himself since the ghastly events which compelled him to retire from the Good Fight and the eyes of the World. The Man of Steel was already feeling like a dinosaur when newer, harsher, morally ambiguous mystery-men began to appear. After the Joker murdered the entire Daily Planet staff and hard-line new hero Magog executed him in the street, the public applauded the deed. Heartbroken and appalled, Superman simply disappeared for a decade. His legendary colleagues also felt the march of unwelcome progress and similarly dropped from sight.

With Earth left to the mercies of dangerously irresponsible new vigilantes, civil unrest soon escalated. The younger heroes displayed poor judgement and no restraint, with the result that within a decade the entire planet had become a chaotic arena for metahuman duels.

Civilisation was fragmenting. Flash and Batman retreated to their home cities and made them secure, crime-free solitary fortresses. Green Lantern built an emerald castle in the sky, turning his eyes away from Earth and towards the deep black fastnesses of space. Hawkman retreated to the wilderness, Aquaman to his sub-sea kingdom whilst Wonder Woman retired to her hidden paradise. She did not leave until Armageddon came one step closer…

When Magog and his Justice Battalion battled the Parasite in St. Louis, the result was a nuclear accident which destroyed all of Kansas and much of Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska. Overnight the world faced starvation as America’s breadbasket turned into a toxic wasteland. Now with McCay and the Spectre invisibly observing, Princess Diana convinces the bereft Kal-El to return and save the world on his own terms…

In ‘Truth and Justice’ a resurgent Justice League led by Superman begins a campaign of unilateral action to clean up the mess civilisation has become: renditioning “heroes” and “villains” alike, imprisoning every dangerous element of super-humanity and telling governments how to behave, blithely unaware that they are hastening a global catastrophe of Biblical proportions as the Spectre invisibly gathers the facts for his apocalyptic judgement.

In the ensuing chaos, crippled warrior Bruce Wayne rejects Superman’s paternalistic, doctrinaire crusade and allies himself with mortal humanity’s libertarian elite – Ted (Blue Beetle) Kord, Dinah (Black Canary) Lance and Oliver (Green Arrow) Queen – to resist what can only be considered a grab for world domination by the meta-human minority. As the helpless McCay watches in horror, Wayne’s group makes its own plans; another dangerous thread in a tapestry of calamity…

At first Superman’s plans seem blessed to succeed, with many erstwhile threats flocking to his banner and his doctrinaire rules of discipline, but as ever there are self-serving villains with their own agendas. Lex Luthor organises a cabal of like-minded compatriots – Vandal Savage, Catwoman, Riddler, Kobra and Ibn Al Xu’ffasch (Son of the Demon Ra’s Al Ghul) – into a “Mankind Liberation Front”.

With Shazam-empowered Captain Marvel as their slave, this group are determined the super-freaks shall not win. Their cause is greatly advanced once Wayne’s clique joins them…

‘Up in the Sky’ sees events spiral into a deadly storm as McCay, still wracked by his visions of Armageddon, is shown the Gulag where all recalcitrant metahumans have been dumped. He also witnesses how it will fail, learns from restless spirit Deadman that the Spectre is the literal Angel of Death and watches with growing helplessness as Luthor’s plan to usurp control from the army of Superman leads to a shocking confrontation, betrayal and a deadly countdown to the End of Days…

The deadly drama culminates in a staggering battle of superpowers, last moment salvation and a second chance for humanity in a calamitous world-shaking ‘Never-Ending Battle’

Thanks to McCay’s simple humanity, the world gets another chance and this edition follows up with an epilogue ‘One Year Later’ which end this ponderous epic on a note of renewed hope…

This edition – available as a 20th Anniversary deluxe hardback, a standard trade paperback and in digital formats – comes with an introduction by author and former DC scribe Elliot S. Maggin, assorted cover reproductions and art-pieces, an illustrated checklist of the vast cast list plus a plethora of creative notes and sketches in the ‘Apocrypha’ section, and even hints at lost glories in ‘Evolution’: notes, photos and drawings for a restored scene that never made it into the miniseries.

Epic, engaging and operatically spectacular, Kingdom Come is a milestone of the DC Universe and remains to this day a solid slice of superior superhero entertainment, worthy of your undivided attention.
© 1996, 2008, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Crisis on Multiple Earths volume 1


By Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky, Bernard Sachs & Sid Greene (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-895-2

As I’ve frequently mentioned before, I was one of the “Baby Boomer” crowd which grew up with Julie Schwartz, Gardner Fox and John Broome’s tantalisingly slow reintroduction of Golden Age superheroes during the halcyon, eternally summery days of the early 1960s. To me those fascinating counterpart crusaders from Earth-Two weren’t vague and distant memories rubber-stamped by parents or older brothers – they were cool, fascinating and enigmatically new.

…And for some reason the “proper” heroes of Earth-One held them in high regard and treated them with obvious deference…

The transcendent wonderment began, naturally enough, in The Flash; pioneering trendsetter of the Silver Age Revolution. After successfully ushering in the triumphant return of the superhero concept, the Scarlet Speedster – with Fox & Broome at the writing reins – set an unbelievably high standard for costumed adventure in sharp, witty tales of science and imagination, always illustrated with captivating style and clean simplicity by Carmine Infantino.

The epochal epic that literally changed the scope of American comics forever was Fox’s ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ (Flash #123 September 1961, and reprinted in loads of places, but not here): introducing the concept of alternate Earths to the continuity and by extension the multiversal structure of the future DCU as well as all the succeeding cosmos-shaking yearly “Crisis” sagas that grew from it.

Moreover, where DC led, others followed…

Received with tumultuous acclaim, the concept was revisited months later in Flash #129 which also teasingly reintroduced evergreen stalwarts – Wonder Woman, the Atom, Hawkman, Green Lantern, Doctor Mid-Nite and Black Canary: venerable members of the fabled Justice Society of America. Clearly Editor Schwartz had something in mind…

That tale directly led into the veteran team’s first meeting with the Justice League of America and the start of an annual tradition. When ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ brought us the notion of Infinite Earths and multiple iterations of costumed crusaders, public pressure had begun almost instantly to agitate for the return of the Greats of the “Golden Age”. The Editorial powers-that-be were hesitant, fearing too many heroes would be silly and unmanageable, or worse yet, put readers off. If they could see us now…

These innovative adventures generated an avalanche of popular and critical approval (big sales figures, too) so inevitably the trans-dimensional tests led to the ultimate team-up in the summer of 1963.

This gloriously enthralling volume – available in trade paperback and digital incarnations – is the first of a glorious sequence of collections celebrating Infinite Diversity in Infinite Costumes (extra fanboy kudos if you get where I filched that from!) and re-presents the first four JLA/JSA convocations: stunning superhero wonderments which never fail to astound and delight. It also comes with context-conveying Introduction ‘1 & 2 = Crisis’ from wonder-scribe Mark Waid detailing even more cool facts behind the phenomenon…

The comic book catharsis commences with the landmark ‘Crisis on Earth-One’ and ‘Crisis on Earth-Two’ (from Justice League of America #21-22, August & September 1963) combining to form one of the most important stories in DC history and arguably one of the most crucial tales in American literature: at least the stuff with pictures in it.

Written by Fox and compellingly illustrated by Mike Sekowsky & Bernard Sachs, the yarn finds a coalition of assorted villains from each Earth plundering at will, meeting and defeating the mighty Justice League before insufferably imprisoning them in their own secret mountain HQ…

Temporarily helpless, “our” heroes contrive a desperate plan to combine forces with the champions of another Earth to save the world – both of it – and the result is pure Fights ‘n’ Tights majesty.

It’s impossible for me to be totally objective about this saga. I was a drooling kid in short trousers when I first read it and the thrills haven’t diminished with this umpty-first re-reading.

This is what superhero comics are all about!

The buying public clearly agreed and one year later ‘Crisis on Earth-Three’ and ‘The Most Dangerous Earth of All!’ (Justice League of America #29-30) reprised the team-up of the Justice League and Justice Society, when the super-beings of a third alternate Earth discover the secret of trans-universal travel.

Unfortunately, Ultraman, Owlman, Superwoman, Johnny Quick and Power Ring are villains on a world without heroes who see the costumed crime-busters of the JLA/JSA as living practise dummies to sharpen their evil skills upon.

With this cracking thriller the annual summer get-together became solidly entrenched in heroic lore, giving fans endless entertainment for years to come and making the approaching end of school holidays less gloomy than they could have been.

(A little note: although the comic cover-date in America was the month by which unsold copies had to be returned – the “off-sale” deadline – export copies to Britain travelled as ballast in freighters. Thus, they usually went on to those cool, spinning comic-racks in the actual month printed on the front. You can unglaze your eyes and return to the review proper now, and thank you for your patient indulgence of an old and misty-eyed man…)

The third annual event was a touch different; a largely forgotten and rather experimental tale wherein the educationally-challenged and extremely larcenous Johnny Thunder of Earth-1 wrests control of the genie-like Thunderbolt from his otherworld counterpart: employing its magical powers to change the events which created of all Earth-1’s superheroes.

With Earth-1 catastrophically altered in #37’s ‘Earth – Without a Justice League’, it’s suddenly up to the JSA to save the day in a gripping battle of wits and power before Reality is re-established in #38’s concluding chapter ‘Crisis on Earth-A!’.

Veteran inker Bernard Sachs retired before the fourth team-up, leaving the amazing Sid Greene to embellish the gloriously whacky saga that closes this tome: one springing out of the global “Batmania” craze engendered by the Batman television series…

A wise-cracking campy tone was fully in play, acknowledging the changing audience profile and this time the stakes are raised to encompass the destruction of both planets in ‘Crisis Between Earth-One and Earth-Two’ and ‘The Bridge Between Earths’ (Justice League of America #46-47, August & September 1966).

Here a bold – if rash – continuum warping experiment drags the twin sidereal worlds towards an inexorable hyper-space collision. Meanwhile, making matters worse, an awesome anti-matter being uses the opportunity to break into and explore our positive-matter universe whilst the heroes of both worlds are distracted by the destructive rampages of monster-men Blockbuster and Solomon Grundy.

Peppered with wisecracks and “hip” dialogue, it’s sometimes difficult to discern what a cracking yarn this actually is, but if you’re able to forgive or swallow the dated patter, this is one of the very best plotted and illustrated stories in the entire JLA/JSA canon. Furthermore, the vastly talented Greene’s expressive subtlety, beguiling textures and whimsical humour add unheard-of depth to Sekowsky’s pencils and the light and frothy comedic scripts of Fox.

These titanic tales won’t suit everybody and I’m as aware as any that in terms of the “super-powered” genre the work here can be boiled down to two bunches of heroes formulaically getting together to deal with extra-extraordinary problems. In mature hindsight, it’s obviously also about sales and the attempted revival of more sellable super characters during a period of intense commercial competition between DC Comics and Marvel.

But I don’t have to be mature in my off-hours and for those who love costumed dramas, who crave these cunningly constructed modern mythologies and actually care, this is simply a grand parade of straightforward action, great causes and momentous victories.

…And since I wouldn’t have it any other way, why should you?
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA Classified: New Maps of Hell


By Warren Ellis, Jackson Guice & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0944-5 (TPB)

It’s been quite a while since we covered a good old-fashioned straightforward and no-strings-attached superhero blockbuster: one which any old punter can pick up with no worry over continuity or identification and where good guys and bad guys are clearly defined.

That’s due in large part to the fact that nobody really does those anymore, but at least it gives me the opportunity to take another look at a tale I didn’t much like when it first came out in 2006, but which has definitely grown on me with every re-read.

Produced at a time when the Justice League of America was enjoying immense popularity and benefiting from a major reboot courtesy of Grant Morrison, this politically-barbed, end-of-the-world epic – starring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Oracle and Martian Manhunter – originally ran in issues #10-15 of spin-off title JLA Classified (cover-dated September 2005 to February 2006), with gritty futurist super-scribe Warren Ellis upping the angst-quotient on a hoary old plot whilst hyper-realist illustrator Jackson Guice adds a terrifying veracity to events.

The drama begins as Clark Kent and wife Lois Lane stumble onto a dirty little secret. Assorted, and one would assume unconnected, scientists and bean-counters at President Luthor’s Lexcorp conglomerate have been committing suicide in large numbers and now, the intrepid reporters suspect something very nasty is going on…

In Gotham City, Batman learns the police have been turned away from an extremely unconventional crime-scene by Feds and a private security company, and he too starts digging…

In the Bermuda triangle, a group of researchers are invited to the Amazon’s ancient library of knowledge only to die when the sky-floating island explodes in a horrendous detonation.

Legacy Flash Wally West has terrible dreams of his beloved predecessor Barry Allen which lead him to a similar catastrophic conflagration, whilst Green Lantern Kyle Rayner ruminates on a primordial legend of the Corps’ origins until a wave of explosions rouse him to action.

In the ruins of each disaster the scattered, hard-pressed heroes find an ancient parchment of alien hieroglyphs and, when Superman recovers another page of the same from the shredded remnants of a plummeting space station, the call goes out to activate the League…

Tasking cyber-savant Oracle and aged Martian sole survivor J’onn J’onzz with uncovering information, the team learn of an antediluvian scourge which wracked the red planet millions of years past. A God/Devil which tested a species right to survive and heralded its coming through a written code…

Moreover, Luthor’s scientists have found such writings in remnants of ancient Sumeria and begun deciphering the text…

Mobilising to stop the summoning, our heroes confront Luthor in the White House but are too late. In Las Vegas the bowels of Hell vomit horrors into the streets and as the frantic super squad rush to battle they are snatched up, separated by the malign entity which has spent eons traversing the universe testing the worth of intelligent races and individually putting them to their sorest tests.

However, the monstrous terror has never faced beings like the JLA before, or a mind like Batman’s, and soon the horror’s own darkest secret is exposed and its fatal weakness exploited to devastating effect…

With a painted cover gallery by Michael Stribling, this book – now also available in eBook formats – offers simple, solid Fights ‘n’ Tights fun gilded with a sly and cynical post-modern edge: a sound example of costumed action blockbuster comics at their best.
© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.