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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman: The Golden Age volume 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boody: The Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers

By Boody Rogers, edited by Craig Yoe (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-961-6

The one true invention of American Comic-books is undoubtedly the super-hero, but the pervasiveness of that almighty icon has somewhat obscured from the wider world what discerning readers, fans and collectors have always known.

Even if they largely choose nowadays to disregard the fact, our masters and artisans have always been just as effective and creative in established genres such as crime, horror, westerns and especially comedy.

A perfect proof of that dictum finally had his first long overdue retrospective in this fabulous if unstructured 2009 collection from Fantagraphics: Gordon “Boody” Rogers. It’s now also available in a variety of digital formats, should you wish to see for yourself…

Born in 1904, Boody began his drawing career in the 1920s after studying at the Cartoon Academy of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Chicago Institute. Back then he palled around with Harold Gray, Frank Engli, Chester Gould, and Tex Avery among many other talented art stars–in-waiting.

When his roommate Zack Mosely began long-lived aviator strip Smilin’ Jack in 1933, Rogers was his assistant from day one. As a jobbing cartoonist, Boody also worked for such magazines as Life, Judge, Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post on syndicated features and gag strips like Deadwood Gulch and Possum Holler.

He was a major contributor to The Funnies – the very first comic book – published in 1936 (with a fascinating example, ‘Rattlesnake Pete’, from this landmark release leading off the compilation) before developing his own newspaper strip Sparky Watts in early 1939. He wrote and drew the feature until America joined the war, at which point Boody enlisted.

On his return, he revived Sparky (a physical but plainclothes superman, whose wild and wacky adventures were at once a spoof of the ubiquitous mystery men and a snappy, surreal satire on the American Way) for Columbia Comics.

He also originated a number of other properties, all in the comedy, teen and gag genres that rose in popularity after the costumed heroes diminished in stature after WWII. Clearly spotting another sea-change coming, Rogers retired from the industry at age 48 to open a small chain of art shops in Arizona. Boody passed away in 1996.

Boody Rogers’ style of work is far more amenable to a British audience reared on Desperate Dan, Pansy Potter and the unrestrained genius of Ken Reid or Leo Baxendale rather than the two-fisted yet anodyne fare of post-war America.

His wild perambulations and freewheeling style of gag-upon-gag narrative often skirted bounds of taste (as all great comedy should) and his influence, as much as Basil Wolverton and EC Comics, can be clearly seen throughout the Underground Comix revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

The material collected here all comes from Sparky Watts, Babe, Dudley and the anthology title Big Shot Comics published between 1948-1950. Although to my mind inadequately referenced (I’d love to know which stories appeared exactly when and where, but that’s the way I obsessive-compulsively roll); the broad range of tales perfectly illustrates the kind of manic energy and absurdist invention typified by Screwball Comedies of the thirties: bursting with and the madcap pace of the teen movement as immortalised by Bob Montana’s Archie; littered with arcane dialogue, quick-fire set-ups and sharp punch-lines building one upon another. Rather than being dated, these works – at least to this old coot – have great resonance with the youth culture of today.

They’re also beautifully drawn and a total hoot.

Babe (“the Amazon of the Ozarks”) was a rustic and rambunctious take on Li’l Abner; a physically perfect hottie no man could resist – or beat. She innocently stole the show in Big Shot and Sparky Watts Comics, as well as eleven issues of her own title.

Following her premiere appearance, we’re also treated to ‘Hideout’, as movie heartthrob Clark Sable tries to escape the onerous attentions of his fans by masquerading as Babe’s dowager cousin Fanny.

‘The Secret of Lighting Juice Tea’ reveals the origins of the hillbilly lass’ rude health whilst ‘Mrs. Gooseflesh’ is a murderous lady-wrestler who clashed with Babe in the Canvas ring, and ‘The Mysterious Case of Mystery Mountain!’ recounts the peculiarly fetishistic lives of Ozark centaurs living on top of an isolated plateau.

Refined, mature fans in the know will be intrigued to discover that Bondage artist Eric Stanton began his drawing career as Rogers’ assistant…

Jasper Fudd is a prim and prudish, dim-witted yokel who unexpectedly goes to college where he discovers he can run like the wind, given the appropriate motivation – and this was decades before Forrest Gump’s mum ever got her first box of chocolates – whilst Dudley, the Prince of Prance is an excellent – if potentially bewildering nowadays – example of the teen-oriented strip that spread like measles in the post-war years.

Following the Archie/Andy Hardy model, every publisher chased the older kid market with impenetrable tales of Sock-Hops, Jalopies, music parents couldn’t stand, young love and obnoxious siblings. Gosharootie, how things have changed…

Sparky Watts is the undisputed star of the book: an affable everyman with amazing powers who always seems to be getting into scrapes. He doesn’t fight crime, but empowered by Cosmic Rays which tend to shrink him to microscopic sizes when they fade, he frequently found himself in strange places meeting the most peculiar creatures. He was aided (although that’s not really the correct term) by his assistant Slap Happy and the eminent theoretician Doc Static.

As well as 10 issues of his own title and the 1943 one-shot Columbia Comics, Boody’s Sparky appeared in Big Shot from #14 (June 1941) through #42, and again from #77-104, whilst other, lesser lights handled the strip during Roger’s war service. The six episodes included here are all from the post-war period, but wonderfully display the surreal punch and eye for visual characterisation that exemplified Roger’s work.

This comfortingly substantial tome is a wonderful introduction to a comics master who never disappointed, working in a genre most comics fans won’t even be aware of these days. That’s their loss: don’t let it be yours…
All stories are public domain but the specific restored images and design are © 2009, 2017 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Daily Mail Nipper Annual, 1940 Facsimile Edition

By Brian White (B&H Publications/White Crescent Press Ltd.)
ISBN: 978-0-90080-431-1

Return with me again to the early days of World War II and experience the charm and creativity of the English in the face of Hunnish disaster. Or perhaps I should say try and find this wonderful reproduction of one of the war years’ most popular strips, now all but forgotten.

Brian White first created this roguish charmer of a toddler in 1933 and he outlasted the Nazis by a good margin, and only put down his toys in 1947. However the bonny lad’s pantomimic antics – most strips were slapstick gags without dialogue – were loved by children and adults in equal measure. The feature ran in the Daily Mail and even with wartime restrictions annuals were a foregone conclusion. The public demanded it.

Brian “H.B.” White was born in Dunstable in 1902 and divided his artistic gifts between animation and cartooning for comics and papers. His other strip success included Dare-a-Day Danny and Little Tough Guy in Knockout, Keyhole Kate in Sparky, Plum Duffy in The Topper and Double Trouble for the London Evening Standard.

His film work was as impressive and far-reaching, beginning with cartoon short Jerry the Troublesome Tyke in 1925 and ending with the Halas & Batchelor team that created the landmark animated film Animal Farm in 1954.

HB died in 1984, but his work is timelessly accessible and deserves to be re-discovered.

Bold, vivid and ingenious, The Nipper Annuals were a part of British life for almost two generations but Wartime utility played its part in this splendidly revived edition.

As well as the superb bold line artwork, there are plenty of fascinating advertisements of the period for the grown-ups; dedicated pages for the kids to draw their own strips (ready-ruled with panels and borders – always the worst job, as any cartoonist will tell you!) and a handy calendar for 1940 – remember, Annuals were released around Christmas time and dated for the following year.

And to top it off the entire package also doubles as a colouring book! What Larks!

Kidding aside, this is a wonderful insight into our comic strip past by a legendary master craftsman. That it has such entertainment and socio-historical value is a blessed bonus, but the real treasure is the work itself. All credit to those responsible for re-releasing it, and I fervently wish more companies would make similar efforts to keep our cultural history accessible. I also want to see more, More, MORE!
© 1995 B&H Publications/White Crescent Press Ltd. (I presume.)

The Broons and Oor Wullie: Classic Strips from the 70s

By Tom Lavery, Morris Heggie, Leslie Stannage & various (DC Thomson)
ISBN: 978-1-84535-494-7

Published eternally in perfect tandem, The Broons and Oor Wullie are two of the longest running newspaper strips in British history, having appeared almost continuously in the Scottish Sunday Post since their dual debuts in the March 8th 1936 edition.

Both the boisterous boy and the gregariously engaging inner-city clan were co-created by writer and Editor Robert Duncan Low in conjunction with Dudley D. Watkins; a man who would become DC Thomson’s greatest – and signature – artist.

Three years later the strips began being collected in reprint editions as Seasonal Annuals; alternating stars and years right up to the present day and remaining best-sellers every single time.

Low (1895-1980) began at the publishing monolith as a journalist, rising to the post of Managing Editor of Children’s Publication and launching, between 1921 and 1933, the company’s “Big Five” story-papers for boys: Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur.

His next brilliant idea was the Fun Section: an 8-page pull-out comic strip supplement for Scottish national newspaper The Sunday Post. The illustrated accessory launched on 8th March 1936 and from the very outset The Broons and Oor Wullie were its unchallenged stars…

Low’s shrewdest move was to devise both strips as domestic comedies played out in the charismatic Scottish idiom and broad vernacular. Ably supported by features such as Auchentogle by Chic Gordon, Allan Morley’s Nero and Zero, Nosey Parker and other strips, they laid the groundwork for the company’s next great leap.

In December 1937 Low launched the DC Thomson’s first weekly pictorial comic. The Dandy was followed by The Beano in 1938 and early-reading title The Magic Comic the year after that.

War-time paper shortages and rationing sadly curtailed this burgeoning strip periodical revolution, and it was 1953 before the next wave of cartoon caper picture-papers appeared. The Topper started the ball rolling again (with Oor Wullie in the logo and masthead, but not included amongst the magazine’s regular roster) in the same year that Low & the great Ken Reid created Roger the Dodger for The Beano

Throughout this innovative period Low’s greatest advantage was his prolific illustrator Dudley Dexter Watkins, whose style, more than any other, shaped the look of DC Thompson’s comics output until the bombastic advent of Leo Baxendale shook things up in the mid-1950s. Watkins soldiered on in unassailable homely magnificence for decades, drawing some of the most lavishly lifelike and winningly hilarious strips in illustration history. He died at his drawing board on August 20th 1969. For all those astonishingly productive years, on top of his many assignments in DCT’s comics he had unflaggingly drawn a full captivating page each of Oor Wullie and The Broons every week, and his loss was a colossal blow to the company.

DC Thomson’s chiefs preferred to reprint old Watkins episodes of the strips in both the newspaper and the Annuals for seven years before a replacement was agreed upon. The Dandy reran Watkins’ Desperate Dan stories for twice that length of time.

An undeniable, rock-solid facet of Scots popular culture from the very start, the first Broons Annual (technically Bi-Annual) appeared in 1939, alternating with the first Oor Wullie book a year later (although, due to wartime paper restrictions, no annuals at all were published between 1943 and 1946). To this day, for millions of readers no year can truly end without them.

So What’s the Set Up?: The gregarious Brown family inhabit a tenement flat at 10 Glebe Street, in the timelessly metafictional Scottish industrial metropolis of Auchentogle (sometimes Auchenshoogle); a scenario based on the working class Auchenshuggle district of Glasgow.

As such it’s always been a character-rich environment and ideal setting in which to tell gags, relate events and fossilise the deepest and most reassuring cultural archetypes for sentimental Scots wherever in the world they might actually be residing.

And naturally, such a region is the perfect sounding board to portray all kinds of social, cultural and economic changes that come with every passing year…

The adamant, unswerving cornerstone of the Broon family feature is long-suffering, ever-understanding Maw, who puts up with cantankerous, cheap, know-it-all Paw, and their battalion of stay-at-home kids.

These always-underfoot worthies comprise hunky Joe, freakishly tall Hen (Henry), sturdy Daphne, classically gorgeous Maggie, brainy Horace, mischievous twins Eck and the unnamed “ither ane”, plus a wee toddling lassie referred to only and always as “The Bairn”.

Not officially in residence but always hanging around is sly, patriarchal buffoon Granpaw – a comedic gadfly who spends more time at Glebe Street than his own cottage; constantly attempting to impart his decades of out-of-date, hard-earned experience to the kids… but do they listen?

Offering regular breaks from inner-city turmoil and many chances to simultaneously sentimentalise, spoof and memorialise more traditional times, the family frequently repair to their But an’ Ben (a dilapidated rustic cottage in the Highlands) where they fall foul of the weather, the countryside and all its denizens: fish, fowl, farm-grown, temporary and touristic…

As previously stated, Oor Wullie also launched on March 8th 1936, with his own collected Annual compilations subsequently and unfailingly appearing in the even years.

The basic set-up is sublimely simply and eternally evergreen, featuring an imaginative, scruff with a weakness for mischief, talent for finding trouble and no hope of ever avoiding parental retribution when appropriate…

Wullie – AKA William MacCallum – is an archetypal good-hearted rascal with time on his hands who can usually be found sitting on an upturned bucket at the start and finish of his page-a-week exploits.

His regular cast includes Ma and Pa, local copper P.C. Murdoch, assorted teachers and other interfering adults who either lavish gifts or inflict opprobrium upon the little pest and an array of pals including Fat Boab, Soapy Joe Soutar, Wee Eck and others. As a grudging sign of changing times, in later volumes such as this, he’s occasionally caught in the company of fetching schoolgirls like Elizabeth and Primrose

A compilation in monochrome with some full-colour pages, Classic Strips from the 70s was released in 2012 as part of a concerted drive to keep earlier material available to fans new or old: a lavishly sturdy hardback (still readily available through internet vendors) but deviated somewhat from the norm in that rather than re-presenting exemplar strips from the decade, the book follows a rare experiment in continuity storytelling…

When, in 1976, the strip returned to new material following the Watkins reprint run, artist Tom Lavery (you might remember his run on The Numskulls) was given the daunting task of following the master on both The Broons and Oor Wullie.

He soldiered on until 1982, followed by John Polland, Bob Nixon, Ken H. Harrison and, currently, Peter Davidson. Sadly, the authors of the features are far harder to pin down now.

Although the Oor Wullie strips remained consistently episodic and broadly comedic affairs, a long-running plotline was introduced to the Broons with the debut of rugged, affable Dave McKay in 1977.

As the weeks went by, and despite a mixed bag of reactions from the clan and readership, Maggie Broon’s new boyfriend and his flash car became a fixture. An engagement was announced, a house was bought, unsuspected and potentially fractious connections to the prospective In-Laws were revealed and overcome before, in 1979, the countdown to a wedding began…

It was never to be. For reasons still undisclosed (both writer and artist were no longer around to ask at the time this book was released) Dave vanished between instalments and was never seen again.

Life slowly – but not too slowly – returned to what passes for normal in Glebe Street but thanks to writer editor Morris Heggie and illustrator Leslie Stannage, the 4-page ‘Wedding of the Year’ and ‘The Cooperative Ha’’ offers a Sliding Doors-style possible ending here. Ahh, closure…

The dramady is accompanied throughout by clever sidebar features including faux love letters and mementoes in a brace of ‘Be My Valentine!’ spreads; ‘And the Gifts Were Returned’ letters from Maggie; gag pages disclosing ‘The Funny Side of Auld Romantics’ and ‘Oor Wullie’s Wedding Invitation’ plus newspaper photo sections on other infamous weddings of the era and more…

The last half of the book returns to funny business as usual, with Daphne, Maggie, Hen and Joe back on the hunt for fresh romantic partners, while the rest of the family resume acting like the assorted brats they eternally are: squabbling, showing off, snaffling food and enduring embarrassing domestic, fashion and sporting culture shocks…

Following joke ensemble ‘The Funny Side of Seventies Romance’ the Broons are back about their business – referencing trending topics such as the movie Grease and timeless themes such as birthday blues, leaving the remainder of this titanic tome to an examination of being young in the seventies courtesy of Oor Wullie…

The nostalgic wonderment begins with a full-colour photomontage of the decade’s comics covers and a frankly disturbing fashion parade of the wee lad, Primrose, Fat Bob and Soapy Joe in the era’s more outrageous apparel. Then it’s back to basics with waggish behaviours: dodging school, playing pranks, avoiding haircuts, going on holiday, snaffling contraband grub, finagling snacks and trying loads of get-rich-quick schemes.

Careers attempted include artist, Red Indian (70s, remember? Different tastes, OK?), paperboy, sound recorder and much more…

Supplementing these strips are features such as a colour retrospective of Oor Wullie Annuals, photo-features ‘Faces of the 70s’, pop quiz ‘20 Scots Smashers! From the 70s’ and soccer celebration ‘Fitba Crazy!’ as well as a brace of vintage Funland Puzzle Pages.

Unchanged and always welcome are wry and weighted comparisons of the good old days with mere modernity, rib-tickling scenes of sledding and skating, stolen candies, Christmas revels, torn clothes, recycled comics, breakings into one’s own home, sparring school kids, ladies and lassies lost and found, harmless practical jokes and social scandals: stories always designed to take our collective mind off troubles abroad and at home, and for every thwarted romance or embarrassing fiasco, there’s an uproarious chase, riotous squabble and no-tears scrap for the little ‘uns and their should-know-better elders…

You’ll almost certainly being buying this oversized hardback tome second-hand, so if possible ensure that the tipped in premiums are present. These include a CD of 20 traditional wedding tunes played by a Pipe Band and Maggie Broon’s Wedding Planner pack…

Overflowing with all-ages fun, rambunctious homespun hilarity and deliriously domestic warmth, these examples of comedic certainty and convivial celebration are a sure cure for post-modern glums… and you can’t really have a happy summer holiday without them, can you?
The Broons and Oor Wullie ®© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden Age U.S.A. Comics Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Phil Sturm, Stan Lee, Pierce Rice, Al Avison, Al Gabriele, Basil Wolverton, Syd Shores, George Klein, Charles Nicholas, Howard Purcell, Arthur & Louis Cazeneuve, Arthur Cazeneuve, Mike Suchorsky, Ed Winiarski, Frank Giacoia, Carmine Infantino & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2478-8

DC was quick off the mark in transferring their Golden Age canon into luxurious archive formats, whereas it took their greatest rival quite a while to commit its earliest output to paper (and latterly digital formats). One reason for that might be the unsavoury fact that a great deal of Marvel Comics’ Timely and Atlas output is both dated and frequently painfully strident, and even histrionically offensive, to modern eyes and sensibilities.

Even so, I’d rather have the raw historical form rather than any bowdlerised or censored reworking and even in their most jingoistic and populist excesses there are usually individual nuggets of gold amidst the shocking or – horror of horrors! – poorly crafted yarns from the House of Ideas’ antediluvian antecedents.

Marvel have thankfully caught up now with most of their pre-1960’s output, and there’s quite a lot to be said for putting the material in sturdy archival hardbound volumes for those early comic adventures. I must admit that when they were good the individual efforts could be very good indeed…

The quarterly USA Comics launched with an August 1941 cover-date and the four complete issues collected here reveal a period of intense experimentation and constant change as the eager neophyte publisher weaned themselves away from the “comics shop” freelancers-for-hire production system and began to build a stable – or bullpen – of in-house creators.

Since these stories come from a time of poor record-keeping, frantic scrabbling to fill pages and under the constant threat of losing staff and creators to the war-effort, the informative introduction discussing the lack of accurate creator detail and best-guess attributions from diligent and dedicated comics historian Dr. Michael J. Vassallo is a godsend for interested fans.

With covers (by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby) and House ads reproduced throughout, the World War Wonderment and Patriotic Perils begin with The Defender illustrated by Al Avison, Al Gabriele, Joe Simon and diverse unknown hands (who might or might not have been Sam Cooper, Al Fagaly, George Klein & Charles Wojtkoski AKA “Charles Nicholas”).

This short-lived sentinel of liberty was another flag-clad patriotic mystery-man who, with designated boy sidekick Rusty, here smashes a band of Nazi-backed river pirates plaguing Manhattan’s waterways.

Next comes the utterly outrageous origin of The Whizzer (by Avison & Gabriele) which saw young Bob Frank gain super-speed after his dying father injects him with mongoose blood to counteract jungle fever and snakebite.

Orphaned and vengeful, the young man dedicates his life to stopping criminals such as the thugs who had forced his ailing parent to hide and die in a tropic hellhole…

‘Mr. Liberty debuted in ‘The Spirits of Freedom’ by Phil Sturm, Syd Shores, & Klein as, with war erupting everywhere, history Professor John Liberty is visited by the ghosts of American patriots past who offer him supernatural assistance to stamp out all threats to democracy.

After Arthur Cazeneuve’s prose crime-thriller ‘Haunted Fireplace’ the astonishing Rockman: Underground Secret Agent blazes into action in ‘The Tunnel That Led to Death’. Crafted by the incomparable Basil Wolverton – but with a splash page drawn by Nicholas – this esoteric yarn introduces an anti-fascist defender of democracy from Abysmia; a super-scientific kingdom situated miles below American soil. Their king is determined to safeguard his upstairs neighbours from tyranny and oppression…

Working as Michael Robard, Howard Purcell then stylishly introduces ‘Young Avenger’: a junior superman summoned by mystic voices to battle spies and saboteurs, before arctic elemental ‘Jack Frost’ springs to life to avenge a murder on ice in a classy origin yarn by Stan Lee & Nicholas.

This polar opposite to the Human Torch (I’m such a wag, me) travels to New York and soon occupies the same well-intentioned/hunted menace/anti-hero niche pioneered by both the blazing android and the Sub-Mariner: a much-used formula still effective to this day…

USA #2 (November 1941) premiered a new, nautically-themed costumed crusader in ‘Captain Terror Battles the Fiends of the Seas’ (by Mike Suchorsky). Retired gentleman adventurer Dan Kane returns to a masked identity he had adopted during the Spanish War to hunt down a Nazi destroyer haunting American waters in an action-packed, extra-long exploit.

Then, with the Allied effort increasing on all fronts in the real world, civilian “Mr.” becomes ‘Major Liberty’ (by Shores & Klein) to crush a monster-making Nazi who transforms a peaceful Caribbean resort into ‘The Island Menace!’

Ed Winiarski then introduces Assistant District Attorney Murphy who opts to crush Home Front racketeers disguised as gaudy tramp Chauncey Throttlebottom III AKA ‘The Vagabond’ after which ‘The Defender’ (by Klein) takes Rusty south of the border to quash a plot to destabilise the USA’s South American allies.

A text piece describing ‘When USA Heroes Meet!’ by Stan Lee is followed by another Wolverton Rockman stunner wherein the Subterranean Supremo tackles Zombo the Hypnotist whose mesmeric powers makes men slavish ‘Killers of the Sea’.

After an uncredited ‘Jack Frost’ exploit finds the freezing fugitive avoiding cops but still destroying a marauding robot octopus ship, ‘The Whizzer’ – sadly also unattributed – ends a string of murders by jockey-fixers ruining the horse-racing industry.

USA Comics #3 (January 1942) commences with Suchorsky’s ‘Captain Terror and the Magic Crystal of Death’, as the bold buccaneer spectacularly smashes a sabotage ring organised by wicked ersatz gypsies, before Major Liberty faces – or rather doesn’t, if you get my point – a cunning killer masquerading as ‘The Headless Horseman’ (Shores & and an unnamed assistant) and Winiarski’s delightful Vagabond demolishes yet another would-be kingpin of crime.

Once The Defender finishes off a hyperthyroid maniac dubbed ‘The Monster Who Couldn’t be Stopped!’ (Klein), Lee’s prestidigitation prose piece ‘Quicker than the Eye!’ gives way to the latest Rockman instalment which he’d scripted for Nicholas to illumine; a broad fantasy set in Jugoslavia where the beauteous Princess Alecia has been abducted by evil pixies: Object: Matrimony!

Young wannabes Frank Giacoia & Carmine Infantino got a big boost to their careers when they illustrated the anonymously-scripted Jack Frost yarn involving strong-arm thugs forcing hospitals to buy their adulterated black market drugs and, after an engaging ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ feature page (which included who created it), Winiarski debuts Tom ‘Powers of the Press’ – a reporter and refreshingly plainclothes hero who, with the aid of diminutive photographer Candid Kenny Roberts, tracks down murderous payroll bandits to explosively end the third issue.

Major Liberty takes the cover and lead spot in USA #4 (May 1942), using his ghostly gifts to smash a gang of spies and infiltrators terrorising German-born Americans in a breathtaking romp from Shores & his unknown collaborator, after which Jack Frost battles deranged cryogenics researchers in ‘The Adventure of the Frozen Corpses’ – attributed to Pierce Rice & Louis Cazeneuve.

Next up, The Defender foils the maker of a deadly artificial fog, assisted as ever by Rusty and the skilled artistic endeavours of George Klein and others.

The Vagabond (by Winiarski and an unknown assistant) found the Faux Hobo exorcising a haunted castle in pursuit of a Mad Monk and loot from a decades-old cold case, after which anonymously-penned text thriller ‘Diamond of Juba’ precedes another Suchorsky Captain Terror tale, which sees the seaborne stalwart smashing a Nazi plot to starve Britain into submission.

The uncredited Rockman story details the Underworld Agent countering murder and banditry in Alaska, after which the equally unattributable Corporal Dix debuts in a stirring tale of a soldier on leave who still finds some time to close down a gang of cheap hoods and set his own wastrel brother on the right and patriotic path…

This premier collection then ends on a riotous high note as The Whizzer (by Howard James) finally comes up to full speed in a riotous action romp with the Golden Rocket crushing a gang of thieves targeting a brilliant boy-inventor.

Raw, boisterous and engagingly enthusiastic, these primal pulp exploits laid the groundwork for today’s superhero-saturated masked media darlings, and still impart a tangible frisson of straightforward, no-nonsense thrills, spills and chills to satiate every action fan’s every desire.
© 1941, 1942, 2007, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Clean Cartoonists’ Dirty Drawings

By Craig Yoe and many and various (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-653-5

Despite the somewhat prurient and sensationalistic – not to say salacious – title, this compilation of cartoons and illustrations – culled from the private files and bins of a number of our industry’s greatest stars (and also many from the drawing boards of those infamous scallywags of the animation industry) – is a rather charming insight into the capabilities, accomplishments and professional ethics of a talented crowd of individualists.

To European eyes there is very little amiss here, but one needs to remember just how prudish and censorious (I personally prefer the terms “daft” and “ridiculous”) the American “family values” lobby is and always has been.

Two brilliantly telling examples would be the covering of Flossie the Cow’s udders; first by a skirt (1932) and eventually (1939) by a full dress. She also had to stop walking on all-fours because it was unladylike.

Or perhaps you’d like to consider Mort Walker’s navel collection. Apparently, a syndicate editor had a problem with belly buttons and always returned Beetle Bailey strips that featured one. Walker would scalpel them off the artwork and collect them in a pot on his desk.

Collected and compiled by fan, historian, Renaissance man and cool bloke Craig Yoe (among his many accomplishments he counts being Creative Director of the Muppets – bet you want to Google him now, don’t you?) and with an introduction by a proper “Dirty” cartoonist Robert Crumb, this is a frothy book of rather chaste naked lady pictures (and often not even that) in colour and monochrome, crafted by some of the best artists and cartoonists in modern history – although you might want to check the oddly incongruous contributions of Gustave Doré and Thomas Rowlandson before giving a copy to your 8-year old.

So if you’re unflappable, incorruptible or just not from a red state, you might want to sneak a peek at this stellar cast of incorrigibles which includes Jack Kirby, James Montgomery Flagg, George Herriman, Joe Shuster, Steve Ditko, Charles Schulz, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond or Chuck Jones.

Just as potentially corrupting are delightful and delicious contributions by Dr, Seuss, Carl Barks, Bob Kane, Rube Goldberg, Bruce Timm, Alex Toth, Fred Moore, Dan DeCarlo, Dave Berg, Ernie Bushmiller, Sergio Aragonés, Jack Davis, Billy De Beck, Hal Foster, Harry G. Peter, Paul Murray, Neal Adams, Al Jaffee, Wally Wood, Nick Cardy, Hank Ketcham, Johnny Hart, Walt Kelly , Adam Hughes, Alex Schomburg, Al Williamson, Henry Boltinoff, Stan Drake, Dik Browne, Matt Baker, Otto Soglow, Al Capp, John Severin, Jim Steranko, Jack Cole, Bill Everett, Grim Natwick, Will Eisner and many others.

Art is all about establishing a relationship with the beautiful, shocking or thought-provoking. Why not turn your attention to these lesser-known efforts from some of the most familiar names in our business and see what occurs to you?
© 2007 Gussani-Yoe Studio, Inc. All illustrations are © 2007 their respective artist and/or © holders.

The Flash: The Silver Age volume 3

By John Broome, Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7826-7

The second Flash triggered the Silver Age of American comicbooks and, for the first ten years or so, in terms of creative quality and sheer originality, it was always the book to watch.

Following his meteoric launch in Showcase #4 (October 1956), police scientist Barry Allen – transformed by a lightning strike and accidental chemical bath into a human thunderbolt of unparalleled velocity and ingenuity – was uncharacteristically slow in winning his own title, but finally (after three more trial issues) finally stood on his own wing-tipped feet in The Flash#105 (February-March 1959).

He never looked back, and by the time of this second commemorative compilation was very much the innovation mainstay of DC/National Comics’ burgeoning superhero universe. This second Trade Paperback (and digital) collection re-presents Flash #133-147 – spanning December 1962 through September 1964 – and tracks the Vizier of Velocity as he becomes the key figure in a stunning renaissance of comicbook super-heroics.

Shepherding the Scarlet Speedster’s meteoric rise to prominence, the majority of stories are written by the brilliant John Broome and all are pencilled by the infinitely impressive Carmine Infantino: slickly polished, coolly sophisticated rapid-fire short stories set in a comfortingly suburbanite milieu constantly threatened by super-thieves, sinister spies and marauding aliens, with our affable superhero always triumphant whilst ever-expanding and establishing the broad parameters of an increasingly cohesive narrative universe.

The comicbook had gelled into a comfortable pattern of two short tales per issue leavened with semi-regular book-length thrillers. The magic begins here with an example of the double-header format as applause-addicted future conjuror Abra Kadabra takes a rather silly encore in #133 by causing ‘The Plight of the Puppet Flash!’ (Broome, Infantino & Joe Giella).

That brief and bizarre Pinocchio peril is more than compensated for by the witty and sensitive Kid Flash back-up tale ‘The Secret of the Handicapped Boys!’ as deaf, blind and mute classmates (one disability per boy, ok?) each discover the young hero’s secret identity and resolve to help the junior hero in their own manner.

In #134, Captain Cold was ‘The Man who Mastered Absolute Zero!’: in a flamboyant thriller co-starring Elongated Man, after which Iris West’s father (and Flash’s prospective father-in-law) pays an unwelcome call in the cleverly comedic ‘The Threat of the Absent-Minded Professor!’, Kid Flash then receives a beautiful new costume in the most astounding manner imaginable during the invasion thriller ‘Secret of the Three Super-Weapons!’ in #135.

‘The Mirror Master’s Invincible Bodyguards!’ – being just slow-moving light images packing ray-guns – actually weren’t, but the Scarlet Speedster had a lot more trouble when a seedy blackmailer claimed ‘Barry Allen – You’re the Flash – and I Can Prove It!’

This type of clever human-scaled story was slowly disappearing in favour of the more colourful costume epics – none more so than the wonderful Gardner Fox scripted ‘Vengeance of the Immortal Villain!’

Another incredible Earth-2 crossover, this saw the two Flashes unite to defeat 50,000-year-old Vandal Savage and save the Justice Society of America: a tale which directly led into the veteran team’s first meeting with the Justice League of America and the start of decades of trans-dimensional “Crisis” epics.

Fox also wrote ‘The Pied Piper’s Double Doom!’, a mesmeric team-up with Elongated Man, but once more the Kid Flash back-up stole the show, introducing the singular thespian Dexter Myles to the steadily growing cast in charming crime-caper comedy of errors ‘Mystery of the Matinee Idol!’

Broome was back for Flash #139, introducing the hero’s ultimate nemesis in Professor Zoom, a 25th century criminal who duplicated his super-speed to become the ‘Menace of the Reverse-Flash!’ Add in the sidebar menace of a lost-and-counting-down atomic bomb and the tension was almost suffocating…

Flash #140 (November 1963) debuts super arsonist Heat Wave in Broome’s stylish and sardonic thriller ‘The Heat is on for Captain Cold!’ before Fox pits the Monarch of Motion against ‘The Metal-Eater from Beyond the Stars!’: a bizarre energy-being able to nullify the speedster’s powers.

The majority of adventures were still produced by globetrotting scripter John Broome and the increasingly stylised and innovative art-team of Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella, and ‘The Mystery of the Flash’s Third Identity’ has them at their creative acme in a wittily absorbing super-villain yarn featuring the Top.

In another devious piece of internal comicbook logic, Broome posited that Flash’s foes looked so good because they had their own underworld bespoke tailor and armourer. This tale introduced Paul Gambi (an editorial in-joke acknowledging the dedicated contributions of über-fan and letter-writer Paul Gambaccini), setting the Vizier of Velocity on the tailor’s tail in an enticing piece of fluff that was neatly balanced by ‘Slowdown in Time’: a canny, enthralling science fiction lesson in relativity.

The real star was that most literal absent-minded professor Ira West, Barry’s prospective father-in- law and a genius who had casually deduced the civilian identity of the Flash due to discrepancies in the forensic scientist’s time-keeping…

Gardner Fox scripted the mile-a-minute romp ‘Perilous Pursuit of the Trickster!’ wherein the villain used toys stolen from children to bedevil his fast foe, whilst Broome blended legal loopholes and alien invasions to perplex the Scarlet Speedster with the ‘Puzzle of the Phantom Plunderers!’

Issue #143 featured another full-length team-up with Emerald Gladiator Hal Jordan in ‘Trail of the False Green Lanterns!’ – scripted by the ever-entrancing Fox who herein introduced future-gazing arch-foe Thomas Oscar Morrow.

The next two issues were all-Fox affairs: the eerie ‘Menace of the Man-Missile!’ pitting the Sultan of Speed against a shape-shifting atomically-mutated escaped convict whilst plucky protégé Kid Flash solo-starred in the human-interest parable ‘Lesson for a Star Athlete!’ Super-villainy resumed in Flash #145 as ‘The Weather Wizard Blows Up a Storm!’ and the normally stoic, stolid hero briefly has his head turned by captivating and inadvertently deadly visitor ‘The Girl from the Super-Fast Dimension!’

Broome scripted the wacky romp ‘The Mirror Master’s Master Stroke!’ and Frank Giacoia briefly bolstered the regular art team for Fox’s terrific terror tale ‘Fatal Fingers of the Flash!’ the kind of “high concept, big science” yarn that especially captivated kids in the age of space races and burgeoning technology – and it still enthrals today.

Issue #147 brings this third archival collection to a close with a feature length clash against two (or is it three?) of the Scarlet Speedster’s greatest foes. John Broome’s fascinating ‘Our Enemy, the Flash!’ sees schizophrenic Al Desmond attempting to reform and relinquish both his Dr. Alchemy and Mr. Element personas; only to be forcibly compelled to commit further crimes by ruthless 25th century sociopath Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash!

These tales were crucial to the development of our art-form, but, more importantly they are brilliant, awe-inspiring, beautifully realised stories that amuse, amaze and enthral both new readers and old lags. As always, the emphasis is on brains and learning, not gimmicks or abilities, which is why these tales still work nearly half-a-century later. Coupled with the astounding art of Infantino these tales are a captivating snap-shot of when science was our friend and the universe(s) a place of infinite possibility. This wonderful compilation is another must-read item for anybody in love with the world of words-in-pictures.
© 1962, 1963, 1964, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The War Years 1938-1945

By Roy Thomas, Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster with Don Cameron, Mort Weisinger, Fred Ray, Jack Burnley, Wayne Boring, Leo Nowak, Ed Dobrotka, John Sikela, Sam Citron, Ira Yarbrough, George Roussos, Stan Kaye & various (Chartwell Books)
ISBN: 978-0-7858-3282-9

The creation of Superman and his unprecedented adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form. Within three years of his debut in the summer of 1938, the intoxicating mix of eye-popping action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early exploits of the Man of Tomorrow had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy and even whimsical comedy: all deep and abiding issues for the American public at that time.

However, once the war in Europe and the East snared America’s consciousness, combat themes and patriotic imagery dominated most comicbook covers if not interiors and the Man of Steel was again in the vanguard.

In comicbook terms Superman was master of the world and had already utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry. There was a popular newspaper strip, a thrice-weekly radio serial, games, toys, foreign and overseas syndication and the Fleischer studio’s astounding animated cartoons.

Thankfully, the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release and the energy and enthusiasm of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster informed and infected the burgeoning studio that grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

Superman was definitely every kid’s hero, and the raw, untutored yet captivating episodes reprinted here were also been completely embraced by the wider public, as comicbooks became a vital tonic for the troops and all the ones they had left behind…

I sometimes think – like many others of my era and inclinations – that superhero comics were never more apt or effective than when whole-heartedly combating global fascism with explosive, improbable excitement courtesy of a myriad of mysterious, masked marvel men.

All the most evocatively visceral moments of the genre seem to come when gaudy gladiators soundly thrashed – and I hope you’ll please forgive the appropriated (but now offensive) contemporary colloquialism – “Nips and Nazis”.

This superb hardcover archive has been curated by comicbook pioneer Roy Thomas, exclusively honing in on the euphoric output of the war years, even though in those long-ago dark days, comics creators were wise enough to offset their tales of espionage and imminent invasion with a barrage of home-grown threats and gentler or even more whimsical four-colour fare…

A past master of WWII era material, Thomas opens this tome with a scene-setting Introduction and prefaces each chapter division with an essay offering tone and context before the four-colour glories commence with Part 1: The Road to War

Following the cover to Action Comics #1, the first Superman story begins.

Most of the early tales were untitled, but for everyone’s convenience have in later years been given descriptive appellations by the editors. Thus, after describing the foundling’s escape from exploding Planet Krypton and explaining his astonishing powers in nine panels, with absolutely no preamble the wonderment begins in ‘Superman, Champion of the Oppressed’ and ‘War in San Monte’ from Action Comics #1 and 2 (June and July 1938 by Jerry Seigel & Joe Shuster) as the costumed crusader – masquerading by day as reporter Clark Kent – began averting numerous tragedies.

As well as saving an innocent woman from the electric chair and delivering rough justice to a wife-beater, the tireless crusader works over racketeer Butch Matson – consequently saving suave and feisty colleague Lois Lane from abduction and worse, since she was attempting to vamp the thug at the time!

The mysterious Man of Steel made a big impression on her by then outing a lobbyist for the armaments industry who was bribing Senators on behalf of greedy munitions interests fomenting war in Europe…

The next breathtaking instalment ‘Revolution in San Monte’ sees the mercurial mystery-man travelling to the actual war-zone and spectacularly shutting down the hostilities already in progress…

Maintaining the combat theme, the cover of Action Comics #10 (March 1939) follows and the cover and first two pages of Superman #1 (Summer 1939): and expanded 2-page origin describing the alien foundling’s escape from Krypton, his childhood with unnamed Earthling foster parents and eventual journey to the big city.

A back-cover ad for the Superman of American club and the October 1939 Action Comics #17 cover precedes Fall 1939’s Superman #2 cover and rousing yarn ‘Superman Champions Universal Peace!’, depicting the dynamic wonder man once more thwarting unscrupulous munitions manufacturers by crushing a gang who had stolen the world’s deadliest poison gas weapon…

After another concise history lesson Part 2: War Comes to Europe re-presents a stunning outreach article. Look Magazine commissioned a legendary special feature by the original creators for their 27th February 1943 issue. ‘How Superman Would End the War’ is a glorious piece of wish-fulfilment which still delights, as the Man of Tomorrow arrested and dragged budding belligerents Hitler and Stalin to a League of Nations court in Geneva.

Accompanied by the March 1940 cover, Action Comics #22 and #23 then declared ‘Europe at War’: a tense and thinly disguised call to arms for the still neutral USA, and a continued story – almost unheard of in those early days of funny-book publishing. Here Lois and Clark’s fact-finding mission (by Siegel, Shuster and inker Paul Cassidy) spectacularly escalated, and after astounding carnage revealed a scientist named Luthor to be behind the international conflict…

The anti-aircraft cover for Superman #7 (November/December 1940) and an ad for the Superman Radio Program precede Siegal, & Wayne Boring & Don Komisarow’s ‘The Sinister Sagdorf’ (Superman #8 January/February 1941). This topical thriller spotlights enemy agents infiltrating American infrastructure whilst ‘The Dukalia Spy Ring’ (Superman #10 May/June 1941) references the 1936 Olympics and sees the Action Ace trounce thinly-veiled Nazis at an international sports festival and expose vicious foreign propaganda: themes regarded as fanciful suspense and paranoia as America was still at this time still officially neutral in the “European War.”

Behind Fred Ray’s Armed services cover for Superman #12 (September/October 1941, ‘Peril on Pogo Island’ (Siegel, Shuster & Leo Nowak) finds Lois and Clark at the mercy of rampaging tribesmen, although spies from a certain foreign power are at the back of it all after which a Fred Ray gallery of covers – Action Comics #43 (December 1941), Superman #13 (November/December 1941), Action Comics #44 (January 1942) and Superman #14 (January/February 1942) – closes the chapter.

All of these were prepared long before December 7th changed the face and nature of the conflict…

After Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor everything changed and Part 3: America Goes to War reflects the move to a war footing, beginning with the infamous Siegel & Boring ‘Superman Daily Strips’ from January/February 1942, wherein an overeager Clark Kent tries too hard to enlist and only succeeds in getting himself declared 4F (unfit to fight)…

Timeless Ray patriotic masterpieces from Superman #17 (July/August 1942) and Superman #18 (September/October 1942) precede a stirring yarn from the latter. ‘The Conquest of a City’ (Siegel & John Sikela) sees Nazi agents use a civil defence drill to infiltrate the National Guard and conquer Metropolis in the Fuehrer’s name… until Superman spearheads the counter-attack…

The other great patriotic cover master was Hardin “Jack” Burnley and a quartet of his very best follow – Action Comics #54 (November 1942), Action Comics #55 (December 1942), World’s Finest Comics #8 (Winter 1942 and with Batman and Robin thrown in for good measure) and Superman #20 (January/February 1943).

That last also provides ‘Destroyers from the Depths’ wherein Hitler himself orders dastardly Herr Fange to unleash an armada of marine monstrosities on Allied shipping and coastal towns. Of course, they prove no match for the mighty Man of Steel,

After Burnley’s Action Comics #58 cover (March 1943), Siegel, Ed Dobrotka & Sikela detail the saga of ‘X-Alloy’ from Superman #21 (March/April 1943) as a secret army of Nazi infiltrators and fifth columnists steal American industrial secrets and would have conquered the nation from within if not for the ever-vigilant Man of Steel…

Sikela’s cover Action Comics #59 (April 1943) concludes this section as Part 4: In for the Duration discusses the long, hard struggle to crush the Axis. By the time of the tales here the intense apprehension of the early war years had been replaced with eager anticipation as tyranny’s forces were being rolled back on every Front….

Following Burnley’s May 1943 Action Comics #60 cover, Superman #22 May/June 1943 provides Siegel & Sam Citron’s ‘Meet the Squiffles’: a light-hearted yet barbed flight of whimsy wherein Adolf Hitler is approached by the king of a scurrilous band of pixies who offer to sabotage all of America’s mighty weapons. Neither nefarious rogue had factored Superman – or patriotic US gremlins – into their schemes though…

Action Comics #62 (July 1943) and Superman #22 (July/August 1943) are two of Burnley’s very best covers, with the latter fronting an astounding masterpiece of graphic polemic. Don Cameron scripts and Citron illustrates ‘America’s Secret Weapon!’: a rousing paean to American military might as Clark and Lois report on cadet manoeuvres and the Man of Steel becomes an inspiration to the demoralised troops in training…

Covers by Burnley for Action Comics #63 (August 1943) and Superman #24 (September/October 1943) – which latter provides ‘Suicide Voyage’ – follow. This exuberant yarn by Cameron, Dobrotka & George Roussos finds Clark (and pesky stowaway Lois) visiting the Arctic as part of a mission to rescue downed American aviators. Of course, nobody is expecting a secret invasion by combined Nazi and Japanese forces, but Superman and a patriotic polar bear are grateful for the resultant bracing exercise…

‘The Man Superman Refused to Help’ comes from Superman #25 (November/December 1943) and follows Burnley and Stan Kaye’s cover for Action Comics #66 (November 1943). It is a far more considered and thoughtful tale from Siegel, Ira Yarbrough & Roussos exposing the American Nazi Party – dubbed the “101% Americanism Society” – whilst offering a rousing tale of social injustice as an American war hero is wrongly implicated in the fascists’ scheme… until the Man of Steel investigates.

Next up and from the same issue is much reprinted and deservedly lauded patriotic classic.

‘I Sustain the Wings!’ by Mort Weisinger & Fred Ray was created in conjunction with the Army Air Forces Technical Training Command under Major General Walter R. Weaver and designed to boost enlistment in the maintenance services of the military.

In this stirring tale Clark Kent attends a Technical Training Command school as part of the Daily Planet’s attempt to address a shortfall in vital services recruitment – a genuine problem at this time in our real world – but the creators still find and space for our hero to delightfully play cupid to a love-struck kid who really wants to be a hot shot pilot and not a mere “grease monkey”…

Wayne Boring & Roussos’ cover for Superman #26 (January/February 1944) precedes Boring’s ‘Superman Sunday Strips #220-227’ for January – March 1944 with the Metropolis Marvel heading to multiple theatres of War to deliver letters from loved ones on the Home Front after which Roussos’ ‘Public Service Announcement’ (from Superman #28, May 1944) urges everybody to donate waste paper.

July/August 1944’s Wayne Boring cover for Superman #29 find’s Lois greeting the USA’s real Supermen – servicemen all – before Action Comics #76 (September 1944 and Kaye over Boring leads to anonymously-scripted ‘The Rubber Band’ from World’s Finest Comics #15 (Fall 1944).

Illustrated by Sikela & Nowak and concentrating on domestic problems, it details the exploits of a gang of black market tyre thieves who are given a patriotic “heads-up” after Superman dumps their boss on the Pacific front line where US soldiers are fighting and dying for all Americans…

Drawn by Boring, ‘Superman Sunday Strips #280-282’ from March 1945 then rubbish and belittle the last vestiges of the Third Reich as Hitler and his inner circle desperately try to convince the Action Ace to defect to the side that is comprised of Supermen like them…

In Superman #34 (May/June 1945) Cameron, Citron & Roussos attempt to repeat the magic formula of ‘I Sustain the Wings’ with ‘The United States Navy!’ as Clark is despatched to follow three college football heroes whilst they progress – in different maritime specialisations – through the hellish war in the Pacific…

This enthralling sally through Superman’s martial endeavours conclude with one final Thomas-authored article as Part 5: Atoms for Peace? Reveals who the fruits of the top-secret Manhattan Project changed everything…

As fresh and thrilling now as they ever were, these endlessly re-readable epics are perfectly situated in these gloriously luxurious Archive Editions; a worthy, long-lasting vehicle for the greatest and most influential comics stories the art form has ever produced. These Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment at absurdly affordable prices and in a durable, comfortingly approachable format. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
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