Showcase Presents Teen Titans volume 2


By Mike Friedrich, Bob Haney, Neal Adams, Marv Wolfman, Robert Kanigher, Steve Skeates, Gil Kane, Wally Wood, Nick Cardy, Sal Amendola, George Tuska, Carmine Infantino, Dick Dillin, Joe Giella, Jim Aparo & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-677-1 (TPB)

Hey, Super Kids! Happy 60th Anniversary!

It’s perhaps hard to grasp these days that once kid heroes were a rarity and at the beginning of the Silver Age, often considered a liability. Now the massive Teen Titans brand – with numerous comic book iterations, assorted TV shows, movies and even an award-winning early reading version (Aw, Yeaah! Tiny Titans!) their continuance as assured as anything in our biz. Nevertheless, during the tumultuous 1960s the series – never a top seller – courted controversy and actual teenage readers by confronting controversial issues head on.

I must have been just lucky, because these stories of lost youth searching for great truths and meaning were released just as I turned Teen. They resonated especially because they were talking directly to me. It didn’t hurt that they were brilliantly written, fantastically illustrated and staggeringly fresh and contemporary. I’m delighted to declare that age hasn’t diminished their quality or impact either, merely cemented their worth and importance.

The concept of underage hero-teams was not a new one when the Batman TV show fuelled DC’s move to entrust big heroes’ assorted sidekicks with their own regular comic as a hip and groovy ensemble as dedicated to helping kids as they were to stamping out insidious evil.

The biggest difference between wartime groups like The Young Allies, Boy Commandos or Newsboy Legion and such 1950s holdovers as The Little Wise Guys or Boys Ranch and the DC’s new team was quite simply the burgeoning phenomena of “The Teenager” as a discrete social and commercial power bloc. These were kids who could be allowed to do things themselves (within reason) without constant adult aid or supervision. As early as spring 1964, Brave and the Bold #54 had tested the waters in a gripping tale by Bob Haney & Bruno Premiani in which Kid Flash, Aqualad and Robin foiled a modern-day Pied Piper.

What had been a straight team-up was formalised a year later when the heroes reunited and included Wonder Girl in a proper super-group with a team-name: Teen Titans. With the stories in this second merely monochrome print-only relic of a collected volume of those early exploits the series had hit a creative peak, with spectacular, groundbreaking artwork and fresh, different stories that increasingly showed youngsters had opinions and attitudes of their own – and often that they could be at odds with those of their mystery-men mentors…

Spanning cover-dated January 1969 to December 1971 and collecting Teen Titans #19-36, and team-up appearances from Brave and the Bold #83 & 94 and World’s Finest Comics #205, these tales cover the most significant period of social and political unrest in American history and do it from the perspective of the underdogs, the seekers, the rebels…

The wonderment begins with a beautifully realised comedy-thriller as boy bowman Speedy enlists. ‘Teen Titans: Stepping Stones for a Giant Killer!’ (#19, January/February 1969), by Mike Friedrich, Gil Kane & Wally Wood, pitted the team against youthful evil mastermind Punch who planned to kill the Justice League of America and thought a trial run against the junior division a smart idea…

Brave and the Bold # 83 (April/May 1969) took a radical turn as the Titans (sans Aqualad, who was dropped from the squad to appear in Aquaman and because there just ain’t that much sub-sea skulduggery) tried to save Bruce Wayne’s latest foster-son from his own inner demons in a tense thriller about trust and betrayal in the Haney & Neal Adams epic ‘Punish Not my Evil Son!’. TT #20 took a long running plot-thread about extra-dimensional invaders and gave it a counterculture twist in ‘Titans Fit the Battle of Jericho’, a rollicking romp written by Neal Adams, pencilled by him & Sal Amendola and inked by brush-maestro Nick Cardy – one of the all-out prettiest illustration jobs of that decade.

Exemplars of the era/symbolic super-teens Hawk and Dove join proceedings for #21’s ‘Citadel of Fear’ (Adams & Cardy): chasing smugglers, finding aliens and ramping up the surly teen rebellion quotient whilst moving the invaders story-arc towards its stunning conclusion. ‘Halfway to Holocaust’ is only half of #22, the abduction of Kid Flash & Robin leading to a cross-planar climax as Wonder Girl, Speedy and a radical new ally quash the invasion threat forever, but still leaving enough room for a long overdue makeover in ‘The Origin of Wonder Girl’ by Marv Wolfman, Kane & Cardy. For years the series – and DC editors in general – had fudged the fact the younger Amazon Princess was not actually human, a sidekick, or even a person, but rather an incarnation of Wonder Woman as a child. As continuity backwriting strengthened its stranglehold on the industry, it was finally felt that the team’s distaff member needed a fuller background of her own.

This moving tale revealed she was in fact a human foundling rescued by Princess Diana and raised on Paradise Island where super-science gave her all the powers of a true Amazon. They even found her a name – Donna Troy – and an apartment, complete with hot roommate. All Donna had to do was sew herself a glitzy new figure-hugging costume…

Now thoroughly grounded, the team jetted south in #23’s fast-paced yarn ‘The Rock ‘n’ Roll Rogue’ (by Haney, Kane & Cardy), trying to rescue musical rebel Sammy Soul from his grasping family and – by extension – his lost dad from Amazonian headhunters. ‘Skis of Death!’ (#24, November/December) by the same creative crew has the quartet holidaying in the mountains and uncovering a scam to defraud Native Americans of their lands. It was a terrific old-style tale, but with the next issue the most radical change in DC’s cautious publishing history made Teen Titans a comic which had thrown out the rulebook…

For a series which spoke so directly to young people, it’s remarkable to think that ‘The Titans Kill a Saint?’ and its radical departure from traditional superhero stories was crafted by Bob Kanigher & Nick Cardy – two of the most senior creators in the business. The emotion-charged thriller set the scene for a different type of human-scaled adventures that were truly gripping and bravely innovative. For the relatively short time the experiment continued, readers had no idea what might happen next…

While on a night out in their civilian identities, Robin, Kid Flash, Speedy, Wonder Girl, Hawk and Dove meet telepathic go-go dancer Lilith who warns them of impending trouble. Cassandra-like, they ignore her warnings and a direct result a globally revered Nobel Laureate is gunned down. Coming so soon after the deaths of John F. and Robert Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, this was stunning stuff and in traumatised response all but Robin abandon their costumed personas and – with the help of mysterious millionaire philanthropist and mentor Mr. Jupiter – dedicate their unique abilities to exploring humanity’s flaws and graces: seeking fundamentally human ways to atone and make a difference in the world…

With Lilith beside them, they undertake different sorts of missions, beginning with ‘A Penny For a Black Star’ in which they attempt to live in a poverty-wracked inner city ghetto, where they find Mal Duncan, a street kid who becomes the first African-American in space…although it’s a one-way trip.

TT #27 reintroduced eerie elements of fantasy as ‘Nightmare in Space’ (Kanigher, George Tuska, Carmine Infantino & Cardy) sees the Titans en route to the Moon to rescue Mal, before encountering something far beyond the ken of mortal imagining. Meanwhile on Earth, Donna’s roommate Sharon stumbles upon an alien incursion. ‘Blindspot’ by Steve Skeates & Cardy was tangentially linked to another innovative saga then playing out in Aquaman’s comic book. You’ll need to see Aquaman: The Search For Mera and Aquaman: Deadly Waters for that extended delight. Both were edited by fresh-faced Dick Giordano, who was at this time responsible for the majority of innovative new material coming out of DC, even whilst proving himself one of the best inkers in the field.

Suffice to say that the Sea King’s foe Ocean Master had allied himself with aliens and Sharon became involved just as Aqualad returned looking for help. Unable to understand the Titan’s reluctance to get involved, Garth tries to go it alone but hits a snag only the original team can fix, which they do in Skeates & Cardy’s concluding chapter ‘Captives!’ However, once the alien threat is thwarted our heroes once more lay down their powers and costumes, but they have much to ponder after seeing what benefits their unique gifts can bring…

Teen Titans #30 featured three short tales, written by Skeates. Illustrated by Cardy, ‘Greed… Kills!’ is a cunning mystery exploring street and white-collar crime, whereas ‘Whirlwind’ is a Kid Flash prose novelette with art by Amendola before ‘Some Call it Noise’ (Infantino & Cardy) delivers an Aqualad solo tale in which his girlfriend Tula – AKA Aquagirl – takes a near-fatal wrong turn at a surface world rock concert.

Student politics took centre-stage in #31’s lead feature ‘To Order is to Destroy’ (Skeates, Tuska & Cardy) as the young heroes investigate a totally trouble-free campus where unhappy or difficult scholars are given a small brain operation to help them “concentrate”, whilst Hawk & Dove solo strip ‘From One to Twenty’ pits quarrelsome Don and Hank Hall against a band of murderous counterfeiters in a deft crime-caper from Skeates, Tuska & Cardy.

The creators then open up the fantasy element again with a time-travelling, parallel universe epic beginning in #32 with ‘A Mystical Realm, A World Gone Mad’ as Mal and Kid Flash accidentally change the past, turning Earth into a magical mad-scape. However, undoing their error results in a Neanderthal teenager being trapped in our time, presenting the group with their greatest challenge: educating a savage primitive and making him into a civilised modern man. Illustrated by Tuska & Cardy, ‘Less Than Human’ signalled the return of Bob Haney as main writer and triggered a gradual return of powers and costumes as the author picked up the pace of Jupiter’s grand experiment, restating it in terms that looked less harshly on comics’ bread & butter fights ‘n’ tights scenarios.

Brave and the Bold #94 (February-March 1971, by Haney & Cardy) offered potent counter-culture thrills as the team infiltrate an inner city commune to negate a nuclear bomb-plot in ‘Rebels in the Streets’, before the exigencies of publishing moved the series into the world of the supernatural as costumed heroes temporarily faded away in favour of tales of mystery and imagination. Haney, Tuska & Cardy’s ‘The Demon of Dog Island’ sees the team – including Robin who had quietly rejoined during the civilisation of cave-boy Gnarrk – desperately battling to prevent Wonder Girl’s possession by a gypsy ghost.

Skeates, Dick Dillin & Joe Giella crated ‘The Computer That Captured a Town’ in World’s Finest Comics #205 (September 1971), slyly examining racism and sexism as Superman finds the Titans trapped in a small town that had mysteriously re-adopted the values of the 1890s – a lot like middle America today but with culprits a lot easier to punch in the face…

Teen Titans #35 reiterated supernatural themes as the team travels to Verona in ‘Intruders of the Forbidden Crypt’ (Haney, Tuska & Cardy) wherein Lilith and the son of Mr. Jupiter’s business rival are drawn into a mesmerising web of tragedy: compelled to relive the doomed love of Romeo and Juliet despite all the rationalisations of modern science and the best efforts of the young heroes…

By the same creators, ‘A Titan is Born’ is a rite of passage for Mal as the everyman “token black guy” faces and defeats the murderous Gargoyle alone and unaided, before the reincarnation tragedy concludes with fate foiled in ‘The Tomb Be their Destiny’: the cover feature of #36. Filling out that issue and this book are two brief vignettes: Aqualad 3-page teaser ‘The Girl of the Shadows’ by Skeates & Jim Aparo and Haney & Cardy’s beguiling opening episode in the origin of Lilith ‘The Teen-Ager From Nowhere’. This showed a 10-year-old orphan’s first prescient exploit and the distrust it engendered, promising much more to come: a perfect place to end this second monochrome masterpiece of graphic literature.

Although perhaps dated in delivery now, these tales were a liberating experience for kids when first released. They truly betokened new empathy with independent youth and tried to address problems that were more relevant to and generated by that specific audience. That they are so captivating in execution is a wonderful bonus. This is absolute escapism and absolutely delightful and demand a fresh edition as soon as possible.
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Detective No. 27


By Michael Uslan & Peter Snejbjerg with Lee Loughridge (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0185-2 (HB) 978-1401-2010-74 (TPB)

Although cover-dated May 1939, according to most scholars Detective Comics #27 was on sale from March 30th. That makes today the actual anniversary date of the Dark Knight. Because we like to be unpredictable here, let’s look at an intriguing offshoot and permutation of the now-mythic inspirational lawman by one of the most important but least-appreciated creators in his history.

Not so long ago and for a brief while, DC’s experimental Elseworlds imprint – where famous & familiar characters and accepted consensual continuity were radically or subtly reimagined – was a regular hive of productivity and generated some wonderful – and quite a few ridiculous – stories.

By using what readers thought they knew as a springboard, the result – usually constricted into a disciplined single story – had a solid and resolute immediacy that was too often diluted in regular periodical publications where an illusion of constant change always trumps actual innovation in long-running characters… unless they are about to be cancelled…

No chance of that with this property and franchise figure, but still a fine example of that process is this intriguing pulp mystery and generational drama blending the lineage of the Gotham City Waynes with covert societies and secret history of the United States of America.

Oh, in case you were wondering: after a couple of fallow decades, DC reinstated most of those Elseworlds experiments as part of a greater multiverse, so they all turned out to “real” too, somewhere in time and space…

April 1865, Washington DC: President Abraham Lincoln overrides the objections of Allan Pinkerton (who had created the Secret Service to protect him) and goes to see popular play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. The resultant assassination prompts the infuriated and humiliated security genius to create a dedicated clandestine force beyond the reach of everything but their mission and their own consciences…

April 1929, Gotham City: a doctor, his wife and their young son exit a movie theatre where they have thrilled to the exploits of Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro. Suddenly, sneak thieves confront them and in the struggle Thomas & Martha Wayne are gunned down, leaving a grieving boy kneeling over their bloody corpses. Family butler Alfred packs the coldly resolute boy off on a decade-long world tour to study with masters of criminology around the globe…

Lincoln’s murder was planned by a cabal of Confederate plotters: the Knights of the Golden Circle. Their leader, an early eugenics-inspired geneticist named Josiah Carr, outlines a Doomsday vengeance plot that will take decades to complete…

January 1st 1939: Bruce Wayne finally returns to Gotham, ready to begin his life’s mission, but is diverted when crusading newspaperman Lee Travis (DC’s first costumed mystery man shamus The Crimson Avenger in mainstream continuity) reveals the existence of the Secret Society of Detectives and invites the young man to become their 27th operative since Pinkerton.

Charming and relentlessly compelling, this superbly pacy thriller follows two time-lines as the founding Detective hunts the Golden Circle through the years, enlisting the covert aid of many historical figures such as Kate Warne (the USA’s first official female detective), journalist and President-to-be Teddy Roosevelt and biologist/monk Gregor Mendel whilst Wayne closes in on the long-awaited climax of the Doomsday plot with the aid of Babe Ruth and Dr. Sigmund Freud. He even confronts cunningly-customised versions of such classic Bat-foes as Catwoman, Scarecrow, Hugo Strange and The Joker.

Best of all, there’s a deliciously wry cameo from the Golden Age Superman as well as a magnificent surprise ending to this two-fisted tribute to the “Thud-and-Blunder” era of the 1930s pulps that spawned Batman and all those like him.

This is a conspiracy thriller stuffed to overflowing with in-jokes, referential asides, pop culture clues and universal icons that make The Da Vinci Code and its legion of even more tedious knock-offs look like dry words on dusty paper. The only flaw is that writer Uslan -lawyer, author, educator, producer and über Bat-fan and the man who brought the Gotham Gangbuster back to cinema screens in 1989 – with illustrator Peter Snejbjerg (The Books of Magic, Abe Sapien, Starman) & colourist Lee Loughridge (Saucer Country, The Batamn Adventures, Stumptown) were never able to create a sequel…

And just in case you need a really big clue: the comic book Detective Comics #27 featured the very first appearance of a certain Dark Knight…
© 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Steed & Mrs Peel: Golden Game


By Grant Morrison, Anne Caulfield, Ian Gibson, Ellie De Ville & various (Boom Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-60886-285-6 (TPB/Digital edition)

The (British) Avengers was an astoundingly stylish, globally adored TV show glamorously blending espionage with arch comedy and deadly danger with technological extrapolation, running from the Swinging Sixties through to the end of the decade. A phenomenal cult hit, it and sequel The New Avengers still summons up pangs of Cool Britannia style, cheeky action-adventure, kinky quirkiness, mad gadgetry, dashing heroics, bizarrely British fetish attire, surreal suspense and the wholly appropriate descriptive phrase “Spy Fi”….

Enormously popular everywhere, the light-hearted show evolved from 1961’s gritty crime drama Police Surgeon into a paragon of witty, thrillingly sophisticated espionage adventure lampoonery with suavely urbane British Agent John Steed and dazzlingly talented amateur sleuth Mrs. Emma Peel battling spies, robots, criminals, secret societies, monsters and even “aliens” with tongues very much in cheeks and always under the strictest determination to remain calm, dashingly composed and exceedingly eccentric…

As played by Patrick Macnee, Steed was a nigh-effete dandy and wry caricature of an English Gentleman-spy, counterbalanced by a succession of prodigiously competent woman as partners and foils. The format was pure gold, with second sidekick Peel (as played by Dame Diana Rigg) becoming the most popular right from her October 1965 debut. Rigg was hired to replace Honor Blackman – landmark character Dr. Cathy Gale – the first full-on, smartly decisive fighting female on British Television.

Blackman left to play the female lead in Bond movie Goldfinger – allowing her replacement to take the TV show to even greater heights of global success – as she became a style icon of the era. Her trademark Op art “Emmapeeler” catsuits and miniskirts (designed by series costumiers John Bates and Alun Hughes) were sold across the country and the world…

Emma Peel’s connection with viewers cemented into communal consciousness and the world’s psyche the feminist archetype of a powerful, clever, competent and always-stylishly-clad woman: largely banishing screaming, eye-candy girly-victims to the dustbin of popular fiction. Rigg left in 1967 – also for an 007 role (Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) – and was followed by Linda Thorson as Tara King: another potent woman who carried the series to its demise in 1969. Continued popularity in more than 90 countries led to a revival in the late 1970s as The New Avengers saw posh glamor-puss Purdey (Joanna Lumley) and manly Gambit (Gareth Hunt) as assistants to the apparently ageless, debonair and deadly Steed…

The show remains an enduring cult icon, with all the spin-off that entails. During its run and beyond, The Avengers spawned toys, games, collector models, a pop single and stage show, radio series, audio adventures, posters, books, a modish line of “Avengerswear” fashion apparel for women and all the other myriad merchandising strands that inevitably accompany a media sensation.

The one we care most about is comics and, naturally, the popular British Television program was no stranger there either. Following an introductory strip starring Steed & Dr. Gale in listings magazines Look Westward and The Viewer – plus The Manchester Evening News – (September 1963 to the end of 1964), legendary children’s staple TV Comic launched its own Avengers strip in #720 (October 2nd 1965) with Emma Peel firmly ensconced as co-lead. This series ran until #771 (September 24th 1966) with the dashing duo also appearing in TV Comic Holiday Special, whilst a series of young Emma Peel adventures featured in June & Schoolfriend, before transferring to DC Thomson’s Diana until 1968 whereupon it returned to TV Comic from #877, depicting Steed and Tara King until 1972 and #1077.

In 1966 Mick Anglo Studios produced a one-off, large-sized UK comic book, and two years later America’s Gold Key’s Four-Color series published their own try-out book utilising recycled UK material. It was called John Steed/Emma Peel since some outfit called Marvel had secured an American trademark for comics called “The Avengers”. There were of course wonderful, sturdily steadfast hardback annuals for the British Festive Season trade, starting with 1962’s TV Crimebusters Annual and thereafter pertinent TV Comic Annuals before a run of solo editions graced Christmas stockings from 1967 to 1969: later supplemented by a brace of New Avengers editions for 1977 and 1978.

Between 1990 and 1992 Eclipse Comics/ACME Press produced a trans-Atlantic prestige comic book miniseries. Steed & Mrs. Peel was crafted by Grant Morrison & Ian Gibson with a second exploit scripted by Anne Caulfield, and that entire affair was reprinted in 2012 by media-savvy publishers Boom! Studios as a soft pilot for their own iteration which you’ll find reviewed here.

The original 90s comics tales are whimsically playful and diabolically clever but perhaps require a little backstory. When Emma Peel joined the TV show, she was a new bride, recent widow and old acquaintance of Steed’s. The motivation for bereaved martial artist/genius level chemist Emma Knight’s call to action was that her brand new husband (dashing test pilot Peter Peel) had been lost over the Amazon jungles and his loss impelled her into a life of (secret) service. The amateur adventurer’s second career ended in-world when hubby was found alive and she returned to him and the Amazonian Leopard-People he had discovered, leaving Steed to muddle along with fully trained professional British agent Tara King…

Here that marital reunion informs Morrison (Animal Man, Zenith) & Ian Gibson’s ‘The Golden Game’: a 4-act chapterplay serially comprising ‘Crown & Anchor’, ‘Hare & Hounds’, ‘Fox & Geese’ and concluding instalment ‘Hangman’. It opens six months later with Mrs Peel’s abrupt recall to duty after Miss King goes missing whilst investigating leaks at the Admiralty and suspicious doings at elite games fraternity The Palamedes Club.

When the disappearance is linked to the truly baroque murder of puzzle-obsessed founding member and key military strategist Admiral “Foggy” Fanshawe, Steed’s handler “Mother” insists he investigate but trust no one, which the super-agent imputes to mean no one currently active in the agency…

With willing and able Emma Peel back from South America, he traces a string of excessively imaginative card and boardgame-themed slayings to an old school chum who really can carry a grudge and knows how to implement stolen nuclear launch codes to a wild and weird climax with Peel ultimately saving the day and the world…

Anne Caulfield scripted fantasy-fuelled follow-up ‘Deadly Rainbow’ as Mr and Mrs Peel reunite in the scenic English village of Pringle-on-Sea – where they had their honeymoon – only to find the laws of science and nature being warped by what appear to be the Leopard People Peter had befriended in the Amazon…

With minds clouded, telepathy and prophecy running riot, zombies marching and entire bodies (not just heads) being shrunken amidst scenes of bucolic domesticity, Peter soon goes missing again. When exploitative American resource plunderers who have been deforesting the tribe’s hidden home, it’s not long before Steed comes to Emma’s call…

The breezy satire, edgy social commentary and especially the pure peril-embedded nonsense of the original shows is perfectly captured by much-missed, recently departed pioneering 2000 AD stalwart Ian (Ballad of Halo Jones, Robo-Hunter) Gibson (February 20th 1946 – December 11th 2023) who especially goes to town on the weird events of the second saga and also contributes a variant cover gallery featuring 11 playfully suspenseful images.

Emma Peel may have been a style icon of the sixties, but she was also (and still is) a fierce, potent, overwhelming example and role model for girls. Her cool intellect, varied skills and accomplishments and smooth confidence inspired – as much as action contemporary Modesty Blaise – a host of fictive imitators whilst opening up new vistas and career paths for suppressed millions of prospective and downhearted future underpaid secretaries, nurses, shopgirls and teachers and frustrated wives. Peel’s influence even briefly reshaped the most powerful symbol of female empowerment in the world as her crimebusting detective troubleshooter alternate lifestyle became the model for sales-impoverished Wonder Woman who in the late 1960s ditched powers and costumes for bullets and boutiques…

Thrilling, funny, and eternally fabulous, Emma Peel is a woman to be reckoned with and these are tales you need to read…
© 2012 StudioCanal S.A. All Rights Reserved. The Avengers and Steed & Mrs Peel are trademarks of StudioCanal S.A. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: The Green Eyed Monster


By Peter O’Donnell & Enrique “Enric” Badía Romero (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1840238662 (Album PB)

Spanish artist Romero was a familiar presence for generations of British comics and newspaper strip readers. He died on February 15th this year with most of his work out of print and nigh forgotten. Here are two reasons why that’s not right and should be rectified as soon as possible.

Infallible super-criminals Modesty Blaise and her lethally charming, compulsively platonic, equally adept partner Willie Garvin gained fearsome reputations whilst heading underworld gang The Network. At the height of their power, they retired young, rich and still healthy. With honour intact and hands relatively clean, they cut themselves off completely from careers where they made all the money they would ever need and far too many enemies: a situation exacerbated by their heartfelt and – for their calling – controversial conviction that killing was only ever to be used as a last resort.

When devious British Spymaster Sir Gerald Tarrant sought them out, they were slowly dying of boredom in England. That wily old bird offered them a chance to get back into harness, have fun and do some good in the world. They jumped at his offer and began cleaning up society’s dregs in their own unique manner. That self-appointed crusade took decades…

From that tenuous beginning the dynamite duo went on to crush the world’s vilest villains and most macabre monsters in a succession of tensely suspenseful, inspirational action thrillers over more than half a century. The inseparable associates debuted in The Evening Standard on 13th May 1963 and, over passing decades, starred in some of the world’s most memorable crime fiction, in approximately three panels a day.

Creators Peter O’Donnell & Jim Holdaway (who previously collaborated on Romeo Brown – another lost strip classic equally as deserving of its own archive albums) crafted a timeless treasure trove of potent pictorial escapades until the illustrator’s tragic early death in 1970, whereupon Spanish artist Enrique “Enric” Badía Romero (and also occasionally John Burns, Neville Colvin & Pat Wright) assumed art duties, taking the partners-in-peril to even greater heights.

The series was syndicated world-wide and Modesty starred in prose novels and short-story collections, several films, a TV pilot, radio play, original American graphic novel from DC, an audio serial on BBC Radio 4 as well as nearly 100 comic adventures. The strip’s conclusion came on 11th April 2001 in The Evening Standard. Many papers around the world immediately began running reprints and further new cases were conceived, but British newspaper readers never saw them. We’re still waiting…

The pair’s astounding exploits comprise a broad blend of hip adventuring, glamorous lifestyle and cool capers: a melange of international espionage, crime and even plausibly intriguing sci fi/supernaturally-tinged horror fare, with ever-unflappable Modesty & Willie canny, deadly, yet all-too-fallibly-human defenders of the helpless and avengers of the wronged…

We have Titan Books to thank for collecting the saga of Britain’s Greatest Action Hero (Women’s Division), although they haven’t done so for a while now…

This volume was the first to feature Romero as sole artistic hand, following the unexpected death of Holdaway partway through ‘The Warlords of Phoenix’. To ease him into the job author O’Donnell was asked to write a lighter tale to follow up the epic. ‘Willie the Djinn’ plays well to the new artist’s strengths, and although there are echoes of a previous O’Donnell &Holdaway Romeo Brown romp, this tale of kidnapped dancing girls, oil sheikhs and military coups is a short, sweet treat, and change of pace to the usual storm of murder, intrigue and revenge.

Those elements return in ‘Green-Eyed Monster’ as the spoiled and obnoxious daughter of a British ambassador is kidnapped by South American rebels. Modesty & Willie must use all their skills to get her out of the terrorists’ clutches, escape deadly jungles and resist the overwhelming temptation to kill her themselves….

‘Death of a Jester’ closes out the volume as our antiheroes stumble across a bizarre murder that leads to another job for British spymaster Sir Gerald Tarrant. A man in Jester’s garb is impaled by a knight’s lance and thrown to lions in a caper revolving around Mediaeval Re-enactments, a band of bored and dangerous British ex-commandos and the impossible theft of the Navy’s latest super torpedo.

The infectious whimsy of the early 1970s was becoming increasingly present but under the strictly controlled conditions of prolific, ingenious O’Donnell and sleek slick Romero, Blaise & Garvin grew in stature and accomplishments to carve out a well-deserved reputation for excellence in these magnificent tales of modern adventure. Certified Gold. So bring them back please…
© 2005 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

Black Widow: Kiss or Kill


By Duane Swierczynski, Joe Aherne, Manuel Garcia, Brian Ching, Lorenzo Ruggiero, Bit & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4701-5 (TPB/Digital edition)

The Black Widow started life in 1964 as a svelte & sultry honey-trap Soviet Russian agent during Marvel’s early “Commie-busting” days. Natalia Romanova was subsequently redesigned as a super villain, falling for an assortment of Yankee superheroes – including Hawkeye and Daredevil – defecting and finally becoming an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., freelance do-gooder and occasional leader of The Avengers.

Throughout her career she has been efficient, competent, deadly dangerous and somehow cursed to bring doom and disaster to her paramours. As her backstory evolved, it was revealed that she had undergone experimental Soviet procedures which had enhanced her physical capabilities and lengthened her lifespan, as well as assorted psychological processes which had messed up her mind and memories…

Always a fan favourite, the Widow only really hit the big time after featuring in the Iron Man, Captain America and Avengers movies, but for us unregenerate comics-addicts her print escapades have always offered a cool, sinister frisson of delight. This particular caper compilation (reprinting Black Widow volume 4 #6-8 spanning November 2010 to January 2011) was the second and final story arc of a short-lived series and includes a riotous team up tale from the Iron Man: Kiss & Kill 1-shot (August 2010).

The espionage excitement opens with the eponymous 3-chapter ‘Kiss or Kill’ by Duane Swierczynski (Birds of Prey, Cable, Deadpool), illustrated by Manuel Garcia, Lorenzo Ruggiero, Bit and colourist Jim Charalapidis, as idealistic young journalist and recently bereaved son Nick Crane finds himself the target of two mega-hot, ultra-lethal female super-spies in Houston’s club district.

Both of them say they want to save him but each seems far more intent on ending Nick’s life, and in between mercilessly fighting each other and hurtling across the city in a stampede of violent destruction, both have demanded that he name his privileged source…

Nick is inclined to believe the blonde called Fatale. After all, he has a surveillance tape of the redhead – Black Widow – with his father moments before he died…

When his senator dad was found with his brains all over a wall, Nick started digging and uncovered a pattern: a beautiful woman implicated in the deaths of numerous key political figures around the world. After a shattering battle across the city Natalia is the notional victor but isn’t ready when Nick turns a gun on her. She still goes easy on him and he wakes up some time utterly baffled and in Roanoke, Virginia. The Widow explains she’s on the trail of an organisation devoted to political assassination and using a double of her to commit their high profile crimes… but the angry young man clearly doesn’t believe her.

Further argument is curtailed by the sudden arrival of an extremely competent Rendition Team who remove them both to a secret US base in Poland. After a terrifying interval the Widow starts thinking her extreme scheme to get that name out of Nick might be working but that all goes to hell when a third force blasts in and re-abducts them.

Realising her own government liaison is playing for more than one side, the Widow blasts her way out, dragging Nick along. Soon they’re on the run with only her rapidly dwindling, increasingly untrustworthy freelance contacts to protect them. The escape has however almost convinced Nick to trust her with his source… but that moment passes when the latest iteration of the Crimson Dynamo and illusion-caster Fantasma derail the train they’re on…

Another explosive confrontation is abruptly cut short when Fatale arrives but rather than assassination she has alliance in mind. The mystery mastermind behind the killings and framing the Widow has stopped paying the killer blonde and thus needs to be taught a lesson about honouring commitments…

Now armed with details for Nick’s contact, they go after enigmatic “Sadko” but the shady operator seems to be one step ahead of them as usual. But only “seems”…

Rounding out this espionage extravaganza ‘Iron Widow’, written by Joe Aherne with art by Brian Ching and colourist Michael Atiyeh from Iron Man: Kiss & Kill, sees the Russian emigre give Avenging inventor Tony Stark a crash course in spycraft after a very special suit of Iron Man armour is stolen.

Fully schooled, the billionaire succeeds too well in locating his missing mech but falls into a trap set by sinister Sunset Bain and becomes a literal time-bomb pointed at the origin of The Avengers. Luckily Black Widow is on hand to prove skill, ingenuity and guts always trump mere overwhelming firepower…

A fast and furious, pell-mell, helter-skelter rollercoaster of high-octane intrigue and action, Kiss or Kill also includes a captivating collation of covers-&-variants by Daniel Acuna, J. Scott Campbell, Brian Stelfreeze, Ching & Chris Sotomayor and Stephane Perger, making this such a superb example of genre-blending Costumed Drama that you’d be thoroughly suspect and subject to scrutiny for neglecting it.
© 2010, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents The Losers volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Russ Heath, Joe Kubert, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, John Severin, Ken Barr & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3437-9 (TPB)

Team-ups are a valuable and all-but-inescapable comics standby, and war stories have always thrived by calling together strange bedfellows – none more so than this splendid composite: another woefully neglected series in today’s graphic novels marketplace. The Losers were an elite unit of US soldiers formed by amalgamating three previous war series together. Gunner and Sarge (later supplemented by the “Fighting Devil Dog” Pooch) were Pacific-based Marines, debuting in All-American Men of War #67, (March 1959) and running for 50 issues in Our Fighting Forces (#45-94, May 1959-August 1965). Captain Johnny Cloud was a native American fighter pilot who shot down his first bogie in All-American Men of War #82 (December 1960). The “Navaho Ace” flew solo until issue #115 (1966), and entered a brief limbo until the final component of the Land/Air/Sea unit was filled by Captain Storm. He was a disabled PT Boat skipper who fought on despite losing a leg and gaining a wooden prosthesis in his own eponymous 18-issue series from 1964 to 1967.

All three series were created by comic book warlord Robert Kanigher and had pretty much passed their individual use-by dates when they were seconded as guest-stars in a Haunted Tank tale (G.I. Combat #138 October 1969), but these “Losers” found a new resonance together in the “relevant”, disillusioned, cynical Vietnam years. The rather nihilistic, doom-laden antihero group assumed the lead spot in Our Fighting Forces #123 beginning a lengthy run of blistering yarns written by Kanigher and illustrated by such giants as Ken Barr, Russ Heath, Sam Glanzman, John Severin and Joe Kubert. With the tag-line “even when they win, they lose”, the team saw action all over the globe, winning critical acclaim and a far-too-small but passionate following. Although they official died during Crisis on Infinite Earths, their missions ran until OFF # 181 (October 1978) and this year marks their 55th Anniversary – or 65th for most of the individual stars.

This magnificent monochrome tome collects that introductory tale from the October 1969 G.I. Combat and the formative run of suicidal missions from Our Fighting Forces #123-150 (January /February 1970-August/September 1974). At that point comic book messiah Jack Kirby took over the series for a couple of years and made it, as always, uniquely his own. For that seminal set you must see Jack Kirby’s The Losers Omnibus (no, really, you must. That’s an order, Soljer…

Kanigher frequently used stories in established venues as a testing ground for new series ideas, and G.I. Combat #138 (October 1969) introduced one of his most successful. Illustrated by magnificent hyper-realist Russ Heath, ‘The Losers!’ saw the Armoured Cavalry heroes riding in The Haunted Tank encounter a sailor, two marines and grounded pilot Johnny Cloud: each individually and utterly demoralised after negligently losing all the men under their respective commands. Guilt-ridden and broken, the battered relics are re-inspired by tank commander Jeb Stuart who fans their sense of duty and desire for vengeance until the crushed survivors regain a measure of respect and fighting spirit by uniting in a combined suicide-mission to destroy a Nazi Radar tower…

By the end of 1969 Dirty Dozen knock-off Hunter’s Hellcats had outstayed their welcome in Our Fighting Forces and with #123 (January/February 1970) were evacuated in the epilogue ‘Exit Laughing’ which segued directly into ‘No Medals, No Graves’, illustrated by Scottish artist Ken Barr. His stunning work in paint and line had graced everything from Commando Picture Library covers, through Marvel, DC and Warren, to film, book and TV work and he continued the tale as Storm, Cloud, Gunner & Sarge sit in enforced, forgotten idleness until departing star Lieutenant Hunter recommends them for a dirty, dangerous job no sane military men would touch…

It appears Storm is a dead ringer for a British agent – even down to the wooden leg! – and the Brass need the washed-up sailor to impersonate their vital human resource. The only problem is that they want him to be captured, withstand Nazi torture for 48 hours and then break, delivering damaging disinformation about a vast commando raid that won’t be happening. The agent would do it himself but is actually dead…

And there was even work for his despondent companions as a disposable diversionary tactic added to corroborate the secrets Storm will hopefully betray after two agonising days…

Overcoming all expectation the “Born Losers” triumph and even get away intact, after which Ross Andru & Mike Esposito became the regular art team in #124 where ‘Losers Take All’ shows how even good luck is bad, after a mission to liberate the hostage king of a Nazi-subjugated nation sees them doing spectacular hard work before losing their prize to Johnny-come-lately regular soldiers…

In #125 ‘Daughters of Death’ sees the suicide squad initially fail to rescue a scientist’s children, only to blisteringly return and rectify their mistakes, However, by then the nervous tension has cracked the Professor’s mind, rendering him useless to the Allied cause. ‘A Lost Town’ opens with The Losers undergoing a Court Martial for desertion. Reviled for allowing the obliteration of a French village, they face execution until an old blind man and his two grandkids reveal what really happened in the hellish conflagration of Perdu, whilst in ‘Angels Over Hell’s Corner’, a brief encounter with a pretty WREN (Women’s Royal Navy Service) in Blitz-beleaguered Britain draws the unit into a star-crossed love story even death itself cannot thwart…

In a portmanteau tale disclosing more details of the events which created the squad, Our Fighting Forces #128 described the 7 11 War’ wherein a hot streak during a casual game of craps presages disastrous calamity for any unlucky bystander near to the Hard Luck Heroes, before Ride the Nightmare’ sees Cloud endure horrifying visions and crack up on a mission to liberate a captive rocket scientist. Then the team again become a living diversion in #130’s ‘Nameless Target’. By getting lost and hitting the wrong target, The Losers gift the Allies with their greatest victory to date…

John Severin inked Andru in OFF #131, in preparation to taking over full art chores, as ‘Half a Man’ hints at darker, grittier tales to come when Storm’s disability and guilty demons begin to overwhelm him. Considering himself a jinx, the sea dog attempts to sacrifice himself on a mission to Norway but has not counted on his own brutal will to survive. Back in London, Gunner & Sarge are temporarily reunited with ‘Pooch: the Winner’ (OFF #132 by Kanigher & Severin), prompting a fond if perilous recollection of a distant Pacific exploit against the Japanese. However, fearing their luck was contagious, the soldiers sadly decide the beloved “Fighting Devil Dog” is better off without them…

Dispatched to India in #133’s ‘Heads or Tails’, The Losers must assassinate the “the Unholy Three”: Japanese Generals responsible for untold slaughter amongst British and native populations. In sweltering deadly jungles, they only succeed thanks to the determined persistence and sacrifice of a Sikh child hiding a terrible secret. Our Fighting Forces #134 has them brutally fighting from shelled house to hedgerow in Europe until Gunner cracks. When even his partners can’t get him to pick up a gun again it takes the example of indomitable wounded soldiers to show him who ‘The Real Losers’ are…

OFF #135 began a compelling extended epic radically shaking up the team after ‘Death Picks a Loser’. Following an ill-considered fortune telling incident in London, the squad ship out to Norway to organise a resistance cell, despite efforts to again sideline one-legged Storm. They rendezvous with Pastor Tornsen and his daughter Ona and begin by mining the entire village of Helgren, determined to deny the Nazis a stable base of operations. Even after the Pastor sacrifices himself to allow villagers and Americans time to escape, the plan stumbles when the explosives fail to detonate and Storm, convinced he’s a liability, detonates the ordnance by hand. Finding only his wooden leg in flattened rubble, The Losers are further stunned when vengeful orphan Ona volunteers to take the tragic sailor’s place in the squad of Doomed Men…

The ice-bound retreat from Helgren stalls in #136 when she offers herself as a ‘Decoy for Death’, leading German tanks into a lethal ambush, after which Cloud solos in the Pacific: inspiring natives to resist the Japanese as a resurrected ‘God of the Losers’

Reunited in #138, the Bad Luck Brigade become ‘The Targets’ when sent to uncover the secret of a new Nazi naval weapon sinking Allied shipping. Once more using Ona as bait, they succeed in stunning fashion, but also pick up enigmatic intel regarding a crazy one-eyed, peg-legged marauder attacking both Enemy and Allied vessels off Norway…

Our Fighting Forces #139 introduced ‘The Pirate’, when a band of deadly reivers attack a convoy ship carrying The Losers and supplies to Norwegian resistance fighters. Barely escaping with their lives, the unit is then sent to steal a sample of top secret jet fuel but discover the Sea Devil has beaten them to it. Forced to bargain with the merciless mercenary for the prototype, they find themselves in financial and combat competition with an equally determined band of German troops who simply won’t take “nein” for an answer…

‘Lost… One Loser’ reveals Ona was with Storm at the end and is now plagued by survivor’s guilt nightmares. Almost convincing her comrades he still lives, the traumatised girl leads them on another Norway mission, again acting as a honey trap to get close to a German bigwig and secure incontrovertible proof Storm was dead when she picked up his battered, burned dog-tags…

Still troubled, Ona commandeers a plane and returns home to assassinate her Quisling uncle in #141’s ‘The Bad Penny’, only to be betrayed to the town’s German garrison and saved by the pirate who picks that moment to raid the occupied outpost. Even with other Losers in attendance, the Pirate’s rapacious rogues are ultimately triumphant but when the crippled corsair snatches Ona’s most treasured possession, that dingy dog-tag unlocks suppressed memories and Storm (this is comics: who else would it be?) remembers everything…

Answers to his impossible survival come briskly in OFF #142 as ‘½ a Man’ concentrates on the Captain’s struggle for reinstatement. Shipping out to the Far East on a commercial vessel, he’s followed by his concerned comrades whilst stumbling into an Arabian insurrection with three war-weary guardian angels discreetly dogging his heel…

Back with The Losers again in #143, Storm is soon involved in another continued saga as ‘Diamonds are for Never!’ finds the Fatalistic Five in Africa to stop an SS unit hijacking industrial diamonds for their failing war effort. However, even after liberating a captured mine, the team fail to get the gems when monkeys make off with the glittering prizes. Hot on their trail in ‘The Lost Mission’, the pursuers stumble onto a Nazi ambush of British soldiers and determine to take on their task – demolishing an impregnable riverside fortress…

Despite apparent success, the Squad are driven inland and are lost in the desert where they stumble into a French Foreign Legion outpost and join its last survivor in defending ‘A Flag for Losers’ from a merciless German horde and French traitors…

Still lost in the trackless wastes they survive ‘The Forever Walk!’ in #146, battling equally-parched Nazis for the last precious drops of water and losing one of their own to a terrifying sandstorm. ‘The Glory Road!’ then sees the sun-baked survivors encounter the last survivor of a German ambush, but British Major Cavendish is unable to differentiate between his early days as a star of patriotic films and grim reality. When a German patrol captures them all the mockery proves too much for the troubled martinet…

Again lost and without water, in #148 ‘The Last Charge’ sees The Losers save a desert princess and grant her warrior father the opportunity to fulfil a prophecy and die in glorious battle against the Nazi invaders, whilst #149 briefly reunites the squad with their long-missing former comrade before tragically separating again in ‘A Bullet for a Traitor!’

This fateful combat fury concludes with ‘Mark our Graves’ from #150 as The Losers link up with members of The Jewish Brigade (a special British Army unit) who all pay a steep price to uncover a secret Nazi supply dump. Although a superbly action-packed and deeply moving tale, it was an inauspicious end to the run and one which held no hint of the creative culture-shock that would explode onto the pages of the next instant issue when the God of American Comic Books blasted in to create a unique string of “Kirby Klassics”…

With covers by Joe Kubert, Frank Thorne and Neal Adams, this grimly efficient, superbly understated, beautifully rendered collection is a brilliant example of how war comics evolved in the 1970s, proving these stories still pack a TNT punch few other forms of entertainment can match. Surely by now there’s appetite for a revival and further volumes of this superb series?
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents: The Teen Titans volume 1


By Bob Haney, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Bruno Premiani, Nick Cardy, Irv Novick, Bill Molno, Lee Elias, Bill Draut, Jack Abel, Sal Trapani & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-677-1 (TPB)

The concept of kid hero teams was not a new one when DC finally opted to entrust their big heroes’ assorted sidekicks with their own comic. The result was a fab, hip and groovy ensemble as dedicated to helping kids as it was to stamping out insidious evil; ready to capitalise on the growing independence of modern kids.

The greatest difference between underage wartime groups like The Young Allies, Newsboy Legion and Boy Commandos or 1950s holdovers like The Little Wise Guys and Boy Explorers and the birth of the Teen Titans was quite simply a burgeoning social phenomenon popularly dubbed “Teenagers”: a whole new thing regarded as a discrete cultural and commercial force. These were kids who could – and should – be permitted to do things themselves free from constant adult “help” or supervision. This quirkily eclectic compilation re-presents landmark try-out appearances from The Brave and the Bold #54 and 60 and Showcase #59 – collectively debuting in 1964 and1965 – plus the first 18 issues of a Teen Titans solo title, running January/February 1966 to November/December 1968.

As early as the June/July 1964 cover-dated issue of The Brave and the Bold (#54), DC’s Powers-That-Be tested choppy unknown waters in a gripping tale by writer Bob Haney superbly illustrated by unsung genius Bruno Premiani. At that juncture B&B was exploring a succession of superhero combinations and ‘The Thousand-and-One Dooms of Mr. Twister’ united Kid Flash, Aqualad and Robin the Boy Wonder in a bizarre battle against a modern wizard/Pied Piper who had stolen the teens of provincial Hatton Corners. The young heroes had met in the town by chance when students there invited them to mediate a long-running dispute with the adults in charge. Hey Kids! Happy 60th Anniversary!

This element of a teen “court-of-appeal” was the motivating factor in many of the later group’s cases. One year later the lads met again for a second adventure (The Brave and the Bold #60, by the same creative team) but introduced two new elements.

‘The Astounding Separated Man’ featured more misunderstood kids – this time in coastal hamlet Midville – threatened by an outlandish monster whose giant body parts could move independently. They added Wonder Girl (not actually a sidekick, or even a person, at that time but rather a magical/digital artificial avatar of Wonder Woman as a child, but a fact writers and editors seemed blissfully unaware of) and finally earned a name: Teen Titans.

Their final test appearance came in Showcase (issue #59, cover-dated November/December 1965): birthplace of so many hit comic concepts. It was the first drawn by the brilliant Nick Cardy – who became synonymous with the 1960s series. ‘The Return of the Teen Titans’ pitted them against teen pop trio The Flips who were apparently also a gang of super-crooks… but as was so often the case, the grown-ups had got it all wrong…

One month later their own comic launched. Dated January/February 1966, TT #1 was released mere weeks before the first Batman TV show aired on January 12th. Robin was point of focus on the cover – and most succeeding ones – as Haney & Cardy produced exotic thriller ‘The Beast-God of Xochatan!’ with the youngsters acting as Peace Corps representatives in a South America-set drama of sabotage, giant robots and magical monsters.

The next issue held a fantastic mystery of revenge and young love involving ‘The Million-Year-Old Teen-Ager’ who was entombed and revived in the 20th century. He might have survived modern intolerance, bullying and culture shock on his own, but when his ancient blood enemy turned up, the Titans were ready to lend a hand…

TT #3’s ‘The Revolt at Harrison High’ capitalised on the craze for drag-racing in a tale of crazy criminality. Produced during a historically iconic era, many readers now can’t help but cringe when reminded of such daft dastardly foes as Ding-Dong Daddy and his evil bikers, and of course the hip, trendy dialogue (it wasn’t that accurate then, let alone now) is pitifully dated, but the plot is strong and the art magnificent.

‘The Secret Olympic Heroes’ guest-starred Green Arrow’s teen partner Speedy in a very human tale of parental pressure at the peak end of sporting endeavour, although there’s also skulduggery aplenty from a terrorist organisation intent on disrupting the games. In #5’s ‘The Perilous Capers of the Terrible Teen’ the Titans faced dual tasks: helping a troubled young man and capturing a super-villain called The Ant, despite all evidence indicating that they were the same person, before another DC sidekick made his Titans debut in ‘The Fifth Titan’. Here obnoxious juvenile know-it-all Beast Boy from the Doom Patrol falls under the spell of a wicked circus owner and the kids must set things right. Painfully illustrated by Bill Molno & Sal Trapani, it’s the absolute low-point of a stylish run.

Many fans would disagree, however, citing #7’s ‘The Mad Mod, Merchant of Menace’ as the biggest stinker, but beneath painfully dated dialogue there’s a witty, tongue-in-cheek tale of swinging London and novel criminality, plus the return of the magnificent Nick Cardy to the art chores. It was back to America for ‘A Killer called Honey Bun’ (illustrated by Irv Novick & Jack Abel): another tale of adult intolerance and misunderstood youth, set against a backdrop of espionage in Middle America featuring a deadly prototype robotic super-weapon in the title role, whereas #9’s ‘Big Beach Rumble’ saw the Titans refereeing a vendetta between rival colleges before modern day pirates crashed the scene. Novick pencilled and Cardy’s inking made it all very palatable.

The editor obviously agreed as the artists remained for the next few issues. ‘Scramble at Wildcat’ was a crime caper featuring dirt-bikes and desert ghost-towns with skeevy biker The Scorcher profiting from a pernicious robbery spree whilst Speedy returned in #11’s spy-thriller ‘Monster Bait’ with the young heroes undercover to save a boy being blackmailed into betraying his father and his country. Twin hot-topics the Space-Race and Disc Jockeys informed whacky sci fi thriller ‘Large Trouble in Space-ville!’ with #13 a true classic as Haney & Cardy produced a seasonal comics masterpiece ‘The TT’s Swingin’ Christmas Carol!’: a stylish retelling that has become one of the most reprinted Titans tales ever. At this time Cardy’s art opened up as he grasped the experimental flavour of the times. The cover of TT #14, as well as the interior illustration for grim psycho-thriller ‘Requiem for a Titan’ are unforgettable. The case introduced the team’s first serious returning villain (Mad Mod does not count!): The Gargoyle is mesmerising and memorable. Although Cardy only inked Lee Elias’s pencils for #15’s eccentric tryst with Hippie counter-culture, ‘Captain Rumble Blasts the Scene!’ is a genuinely compelling crime thriller from a time when nobody over age 25 understood what the youth of the world was doing…

Teen Titans #16 returned to more fanciful ground in ‘The Dimensional Caper!’ when aliens infiltrate a rural high school (and how many times has that plot resurfaced since this 1968 epic?). Cardy’s art reached dizzying heights of innovation both here and in the next issue’s waggish jaunt to London in ‘Holy Thimbles, It’s the Mad Mod!’: a cunning criminal chase through Cool Britannia including a command performance from Her Majesty, the Queen!

This initial volume ends with a little landmark as novice writers Len Wein & Marv Wolfman got their big break introducing Russian superhero Starfire and setting themselves firmly on a path of teen super-team writing. ‘Eye of the Beholder’ is a cool cat burglar caper set in trendy Stockholm, drawn with superb understatement by Bill Draut, acting as the perfect indicator of changes in style and attitude that would infuse the Titans and the comics industry itself.

Although perhaps dated in delivery, these tales were a liberating experience for kids when first released. They betokened fresh empathy with independent youth and tried to address problems more relevant to and generated by that specific audience. That they are captivating in execution is a wonderful bonus. This is absolute escapism and absolutely delightful.
© 1964-1968, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Legends of the DC Universe Carmine Infantino


By Carmine Infantino, with Arthur Peddy, Alex Toth, Joe Giella, Frank Giacoia, Frank McLaughlin, Joe Kubert, Bernard Sachs, John Giunta, Sy Barry, George Roussos, John Celardo, Dave Hunt, Tony DeZuñiga, Joe Orlando, Klaus Janson, Carl Gafford & Linda Kachelhofer: written by Gardner F. Fox, Robert Kanigher, John Broome, Joseph Greene, Arnold Drake, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, Cary Bates & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-6054-9091-5 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Shining Star Remembered… 10/10

Born on May 24th 1925, Carmine Michael Infantino was one of the greatest comic artists America ever produced: a multi award-winning innovator there when comic books were born, he reshaped the industry in the Silver Age and was still making fans when he died in 2013.

As an artist he co-created among others Black Canary, Detective Chimp, King Faraday, Pow-Wow Smith, the Silver Age Flash, Elongated Man, Strange Sports Stories, Deadman, Batgirl and The Human Target whilst placing his unique stamp on characters such as Adam Strange and Batman. Infantino worked for many companies, and at Marvel ushered in a new age by illustrating the licensed Star Wars comic whilst working on titles and characters such as The Avengers, Daredevil, Ms. Marvel, Nova, Star-Lord and Spider-Woman. His work on two separate iterations of Batman newspaper strips is fondly remembered and whilst acting as Art Director and Publisher of National DC, Infantino oversaw the most critically acclaimed period in the company’s history, overseeing the “relevancy” era and poaching Jack Kirby from Marvel to create the Fourth World, Kamandi, The Demon, OMAC and more…

Very much – and repeatedly – the right man at the right time and place, Infantino shaped American comics history in a manner only Kirby ever equalled, and this long overdue bumper compendium barely touches all his contributions to DC’s history. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a few more in future…

After appreciative and informative Introduction ‘Carmine the Icon’ by author/ historian J. David Spurlock, this small sampling from decades of triumphs opens with hard-hitting social commentary as ‘The Plight of a Nation’ details how the Justice Society of America (The Flash, Hawkman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Dr. Mid-Nite, The Atom and Black Canary) hunt a gang of thieving hoodlums whilst tackling the true threat – how charismatic hoods like the Crimson Claw Gang have become insidious role models for youngsters…

Scripted by John Broome, and limned in collaboration with Arthur Peddy, Alex Toth & Bernard Sachs, the saga from All-Star Comics #40 (April/May 1948) tackled head-on the glamour of crime, goad of poverty and contemporary obsession with “juvenile delinquency” but still offered spectacular action and drama to sweeten the harsh message…

Black Canary was one of the first of the pitifully few female heroes to hold a star spot in the DC Universe – or indeed any comics before 1980s. She followed Wonder Woman, Liberty Belle, antihero Harlequin and Red Tornado (who masqueraded as a man to comedically crush crime – with a couple of kids in tow, too!). The Canary predated Merry, the Gimmick Girl – remember her? No, you don’t – and disappeared with the majority of costumed crusaders at the end of the Golden Age: a situation that was not remedied until her revival with the Justice Society of America in 1963.

Created by Robert Kanigher & Infantino in 1947, the Canary echoed worldly, dangerous women cropping up in crime novels and Film Noir movies better suited to the more cynical Americans who had 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 – began life as a thief…

In the desperate days of post-war uncertainty, continuity was negligible and nobody cared much about origins. All that mattered was pace, plot, action and spectacle. Flash Comics #86 (August 1947) was just another superhero anthology publication, suffering a slow sales decline wherein perennial B-feature Johnny Thunder had long since passed his sell-by date. Although a member of the Justice Society of America, Johnny was an old-fashioned comedy idiot; a true simpleton who just happened to control a lightning-shaped genie – Thunderbolt.

His affable, good-hearted bumbling had carried him through the war, but changing fashions had no room for a hapless (adult) hero anymore. In the tale presented here, when he meets a seductively masked female Robin Hood who stole from crooks, the writing was on the wall. In debut yarn inked by Joe Giella, ‘The Black Canary’ tricks him and T-Bolt into acquiring an invitation to a crime-lord’s party, where she lifts the ill-gotten loot and leaves Johnny to mop up the hoods. It was lust at first sight and the beginning of a legend…

In the same issue Infantino allowed his wacky sense of humour full expression in another tale of The Ghost Patrol – three French Foreign Legion aviators who were killed in the early days of WWII but somehow stuck around to fight Nazis and other evils. Scripted by John Wentworth ‘The Case of the Extra Ghost!’ finds ectoplasmic trio Fred, Pedro and Slim in post-war America investigating a haunted house and scuppering a scheme to defraud its latest inheritor…

Flash Comics #90 (December 1947, written by Kanigher & inked by Joe Giella) featured a sporty tale for lead hero The Flash to shine in. Scientist Jay Garrick was exposed to fumes of “Hard Water” to become the first “Fastest Man Alive” – one of the Golden Age’s leading stars. In this instance he uses his gift to save a baseball team from defeat and their mangers from death by despair by filling ‘Nine Empty Uniforms!’ after which fellow superstar Green Lantern/Alan Scott solo stars in Kanigher-scribed tale ‘The Unmasking of the Harlequin!’ (All-American Comics #95, March 1948) wherein the Emerald Gladiator again clashes with the mesmerising super thief when mysterious imitators frame them both for vicious crimes…

Tiny Titan and eternal apparent underdog The Atom was solid B-Feature throughout the Golden Age and here – courtesy of Infantino and writer Joseph Greene – solves the ‘Mystery of the Midway Tunnel!’ (Comic Cavalcade #28, August/September 1948) as college student Al Pratt resorts to his masked persona when his professor – a former GI turned civil engineer – finds his dream project is being sabotaged by gangsters.

Times were changing and superheroes vanishing as the forties closed and new times called for fresh ideas. Created by Kanigher & Bob Oksner, Lady Danger appeared in Sensation Comics#84-93: determined, safety-averse crime reporter Valerie Vaughn who regularly risked life and limb in pursuit of a scoop. Infantino and an unknown author produced another gripping tale for #87 (cover-dated March 1949), uncovering skulduggery at a charity bazaar whilst looking for ‘The Needle in the Haystack!’

Crime comics were not the only beneficiary of the decline of Mystery Men. Science fiction also enjoyed renewed public popularity and DC responded with two themed anthologies: Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space. Each combined stand-alone tales of fantastic imagination with continuing character features such as Captain Comet or – as here – Future Paladins The Knights of the Galaxy. Scripted by Kanigher as “Dion Anthony” and inked by Frank Giacoia, Joe Giella & John Giunta, Mystery in Space #3 (August/September 1951) led with ‘Duel of the Planets!’ as Round Table champion Lyle finds his comrades divided over Mercurian member Millo when the first planet declares war on the rest of the galaxy…

The biggest trend of the era was Romance Comics as almost every publisher jumped on the bandwagon created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby in 1947. Amongst National/DC’s tranche of tearjerkers was Secret Hearts and in #8 (February/March 1952) Infantino (& Giacoia) limned a case study of Ann Martin, counsellor for Romance, Inc. Anonymously scripted, ‘Condemned Love!’ details how a client responds to learning her current beau is married…

Infantino regularly claimed his favourite character was not human but an hirsute anthropoid crimebuster. In The Adventures of Rex the Wonder Dog #4 (July/August 1952) readers were first invited to ‘Meet Detective Chimp!’ in charming comedy thriller by Broome and inked by Giacoia. The first outing of seminal comics lunacy saw Oscaloosa, Florida sheriff Chase solve a murder at the Thorpe Animal Farm with the help of Bobo and consequently adopt and deputise the super-smart simian. Bobo was assistant sheriff right up until the final issue (#46, November 1959) and has enjoyed new fame in the 21st century when a new generation of creators and fans rediscovered him.

Despite years when superheroes all but vanished America’s comic book industry never really stopped trying to revive the genre. When Showcase #4 was released in 1956 it was on the back of two successful DC launches: Captain Comet (December 1953-October 1955) and Manhunter from Mars (November 1955 until the end of the 1960’s and almost the end of superheroes again!) What made the new Fastest Man Alive stand out and stick was style!

Cover-dated September/October 1956, the epochal issue was released in late summer and from it stems all today’s print, animation, games, collector cards, cos-play, TV and movie wonderment.

Once DC’s powers-that-be decided to try superheroes once more, they too moved pretty fast. Editor Julie Schwartz asked office partner, fellow editor and Golden Age Flash scripter Kanigher to recreate a speedster for the Space Age: aided and abetted by Infantino & Joe Kubert, who had also worked on the Jay Garrick incarnation.

The new Flash was Barry Allen, a forensic scientist simultaneously struck by lightning and bathed in exploding chemicals from his lab. Supercharged by the accident, Barry took his superhero identity from a comic book featuring his childhood favourite. Now a major talent rapidly approaching his artistic and creative peak Infantino designed a sleek, streamlined bodysuit, as Barry Allen became point man for the spectacular revival of a genre and an entire industry.

Scripted by Kanigher & inked by Kubert, ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt!’ sees Barry endure his electrical metamorphosis and promptly go on to subdue bizarre criminal mastermind and “Slowest Man Alive” Turtle Man, after which ‘The Man Who Broke the Time Barrier!’ – scripted by Broome – sees the Scarlet Speedster battling a criminal from the future: ultimately returning penal exile Mazdan to his own century, and proving the new Flash was a protagonist of keen insight and sharp wits as well as overwhelming power.

The return of costumed heroes was cautious and gradual and Infantino continued drawing his regular fare extraordinarily well. For Western Comics #73 (January/February 1959) he illustrated “Indian Lawman” Pow-Wow Smith with this example – ‘The Return of the Fadeaway Outlaw!’ scripted by Gardner Fox, with Sioux sleuth Ohiyesa again outwitting a bandit who specialises in astounding escapes…

Inevitably the superhero boom dominated comic books with the Scarlet Speedster in the vanguard of the revolution. A new star was born in The Flash #112 (April/May 1961 by Broome, Infantino & Giella) as ‘The Mystery of the Elongated Man’ introduced an intriguing super-stretchable newcomer to the DC universe, who might have been hero or villain in a beguiling tantaliser. The continuing adventures of the Scarlet Speedster were the bedrock of the Silver Age Revolution, with key writers Broome and Fox setting an unbelievably high standard for superhero adventure in sharp, witty tales of technology and imagination, illustrated with captivating style and clean simplicity by Infantino.

Fox didn’t write many Flash scripts at this time, but the few he did were all dynamite; none more so than the full-length epic which changed the scope of US comics forever. ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ (Flash #123, September 1961 and inked by Giella) introduced the concept of alternate Earths to the continuity which grew by careful extension into a multiversal structure comprising Infinite Earths. Once established as a cornerstone of a newly integrated DCU through a wealth of team-ups and escalating succession of cosmos-shaking crossover sagas, a glorious pattern was set which would, after joyous decades, eventually culminate in the spectacular awe-inspiring Crisis on Infinite Earths

During a benefit gig, Flash accidentally slips into another dimension where he finds the comic book hero upon whom he based his own superhero identity actually exists. Every ripping yarn he’d avidly absorbed as an eager child was grim reality to Jay Garrick and his comrades on the controversially designated “Earth-Two”. Locating his idol, Barry convinces the elder to come out of retirement just as three old foes make their own comebacks.

It was a time when anything was worth a punt, and Schwartz’s dream team indulged in in a truly bizarre experiment combining tried-&-tested science fiction tropes with America’s greatest obsession. Try-out title The Brave and the Bold dedicated five issues (#45-49) to testing the merits of Strange Sports Stories and here #49 (August/September 1963) sees a unique conquest by stealth as ‘Gorilla Wonders of The Diamond!’ sees an all-anthropoid team play baseball with a hidden agenda in a captivating coup by Fox, with Infantino producing some of his most innovative drawing for Giella to ink.

By the end of 1963, Julius Schwartz had spectacularly revived much of DC’s line – and the entire industry – with his modernisation of the superhero, and was then asked to work his magic with the creatively stalled and nigh-moribund Caped Crusaders. Bringing his usual team of top-notch creators with him, Schwartz stripped down and back to core-concepts, downplaying aliens, outlandish villains and daft transformations to bring a cool modern take on crimebusting. He even oversaw a streamlining and rationalisation of the art style itself.

The most apparent innovation was a yellow circle around the Bat-symbol, but far more importantly, the stories also changed. A subtle aura of genuine menace re-entered the comfortable and absurdly abstract world of Gotham City. Infantino was key to the changes that reshaped a legend – but this was while still pencilling The Flash – so, despite generating the majority of covers, Infantino’s interior art was limited to alternate issues of Detective Comics with the lion’s share of narrative handled by Bob Kane’s then-uncredited deputies Sheldon Moldoff, Giella, Chic Stone & others, plus occasional guest artists like Gil Kane…

Infantino’s part in the storytelling revolution began with Detective #327 – written by Broome and inked by Giella at the peak of their own creative powers. ‘The Mystery of the Menacing Mask!’ is a cunning “Howdunnit?”, long on action and moody peril, as discovery of a criminal “underground railroad” leads Gotham Gangbusters Batman & Robin to a common thug seemingly able to control them with his thoughts…

When Schwartz took editorial control he finally found a place for a character who had been lying mostly fallow ever since his debut and six subsequent walk-ons in The Flash. Designed as a modern take on Golden Age great Plastic Man, The Elongated Man was Ralph Dibny, a circus-performer who discovered an additive in soft drink Gingold which granted certain people increased muscular flexibility. Intrigued, Dibny refined the drink until he had a serum bestowing the ability to stretch, bend and compress his body to an incredible degree.

When the back-up spot opened in Detective (a position held by Martian Manhunter since 1955 and only vacated because J’onn J’onzz was promoted to lead in House of Mystery) Schwartz had Ralph slightly reconfigured as a flamboyant, fame-hungry, brilliantly canny globe-trotting private eye solving mysteries for the sheer fun of it. Aided by his equally smart but thoroughly grounded wife Sue, the vignettes were patterned on classic Thin Man films starring Nick and Norah Charles, blending clever, impossible crimes with slick sleuthing, garnished with outré heroic permutations and frantic physical antics.

The complex yet uncomplicated sorties, drenched in sly dry wit, began in Detective #327 with ‘Ten Miles to Nowhere!’ (by Fox & Infantino, who inked himself in early episodes). Here Ralph, who publicly unmasked to become a celebrity, discovers someone has been stealing his car every night and bringing it back as if nothing had happened. Of course, it must be a criminal plot of some sort…

Almost all of Infantino’s Silver Age stories have been collected somewhere but as he was transitioning to managerial levels he co-created one last landmark character just as DC faced an existential crisis. As the 1960s ended and costs spiralled, the superhero boom became a slow but certain bust, with major stars no longer able to find enough readers to keep them alive. The taste for masks was again diminishing in favour of traditional genres, and one rational editorial response was to reshape costumed characters to fit evolving tastes.

Publishers swiftly changed gears and even staid, cautious DC reacted rapidly: making masked adventurers designed to fit the new landscape. Newly revised and revived costumed features included roving mystic troubleshooter The Phantom Stranger and Golden Age colossus The Spectre. Supernatural themes and horror-tinged plots were shoehorned into the superhero titles that weathered the trend-storm. Arguably, the moment of surrender and change arrived with the creation of Boston Brand in the autumn of 1967, when science fiction anthology Strange Adventures was abruptly retooled as the home of an angry ghost…

Without fanfare or warning, Deadman debuted in #205 with ‘Who Has Been Lying in My Grave?’ by Arnold Drake, Infantino & George Roussos wherein we attend the funeral of high wire acrobat Brand: a rough, tough, jaded performer who had seen everything and masked a decent human heart behind an obnoxious exterior and cynical demeanour. As “Deadman”, he was the star attraction of Hills Circus and lover of its reluctant owner Lorna Carling, as well as a secret guardian for the misfits it employed and sheltered. That makeshift “family” included simple-minded strongman Tiny and Asian mystic Vashnu, but also had some bad apples too… like alcoholic animal trainer Heldrich and chiselling carnival Barker Leary. The aerialist kept them in line… with his fists, whenever necessary…

One fateful night, Brand almost missed his cue because of Leary and Heldrich’s antics but also because he had to stop local cop Ramsey harassing Vashnu. It would have better if he had been late, because as soon as he started his act – 40 feet up and without a net – someone put a rifle slug into his heart…

Despite being dead before he hit the ground, Brand was scared and furious. Nobody could see or hear him screaming, and Vashnu kept babbling on about the chosen of Rama Kushna – “the spirit of the universe”. The hokum all came horribly true as that entity made contact, telling Brand that he would walk among men until he found his killer…

The sentence came with some advantages: he was invisible, untouchable, immune to the laws of physics and able to take possession of the living and drive them like a car. His only clue was that witnesses in the audience claimed that a man with a hook had shot him…

Outraged, still disbelieving and seemingly stuck forever in the ghastly make-up and outfit of his performing persona, Deadman’s first posthumous act is to possess Tiny and check out the key suspects. Soon the dormant Hercules finds that the cop and Heydrich are involved in a criminal conspiracy, but they definitely are not Brand’s murderers…

Eventually Infantino returned to his drawing board – primarily for Marvel – but returned to DC in the 80s. The House of Mystery #296 (September 1981) shows his mastery of horror themes and short stories in ‘Night Women’: written by Gerry Conway, with John Celardo inking and Carl Gafford colouring, but the move was primarily to draw The Flash again (from 1981 with #296), but here we see a lesser known yarn from DC Comics Presents #73 (September 1984) teaming the Vizier of Velocity with Superman in ‘Rampage in Scarlet’. Written by Cary Bates, with Dave Hunt inking and Gafford on hues, it sees the heroes unite to save an alien civilisation from an army of Phantom Zone villains, after which Secret Origins #17 (August 1987) reprises ‘The Secret Origin of Adam Strange’, with Conway, Tony DeZuñiga & Joe Orlando joining Infantino in revisiting the artist’s other signature Silver Age star.

This book closes with a complete miniseries similarly reviving one of Infantino’s lost 1950’s triumphs. King Faraday debuted in Danger Trail #1 (July 1950): a two-fisted globe-trotting US spy co created by Kanigher & Infantino. The book was cancelled with the fifth issue and one last tale was published in Worlds Finest Comics #64 (May/June 1953). An attempt to revive The Intercontinental Operative failed in early 1964 when reprints of his adventures appeared in Showcase #50-51 under the code title I… Spy! King eventually joined the integrated DCU in 1979 as a guest in Batman #313, scripted by Len Wein.

In 1993 the writer gave the spy a second shot in a 4-issue miniseries spanning cover-dates April to July, inked by Frank McLaughlin & coloured by Linda Kachelhofer. Danger Trail (volume 2) #1-4 comprises ‘The Serpent in the Garden File’ as the aging agent chases a mystery schemer around the world in ‘Chapter One: On the Road Again!’, drops a growing pile of bodies in ‘Chapter Two: Hot Pursuit!’ and discovers his quarry is not the usual ideological adversary and that no friend can be trusted in ‘Chapter Three: Coiled to Strike’.

With the world at stake, Faraday – and notional ally Sarge Steel – at last confront the pitiless hidden enemy in ‘Chapter Four: Into the Snake Pit’ and barely save the day again…

Although the book features every pertinent cover by Infantino, the comic delights conclude with a stellar ‘Cover Gallery’ of graphic glories inked by Giacoia, Giunta, Giella, Drake, Roussos & Orlando plus a brief biography.

These tales are pure comics gold: must-not-miss material any fan would be crazy to miss.
© 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1952, 1956, 1959, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1967, 1981, 1984, 1987, 1993, 2023 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Master of Kung Fu Epic Collection volume 2: Fight Without Pity


By Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, Sal Buscema, Keith Pollard, Jim Craig & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0135-6 (TPB/Digital edition)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: All-Out Action Blockbusterism… 9/10

Comic books have always operated within outworld popular trends and fashions – just look at what got published whenever westerns or science fiction dominated on TV – so when the ancient philosophy and discipline of Kung Fu made its mark on western entertainment, it wasn’t long before all those kicks and punches found their way onto four-colour pages of America’s periodicals. Early starter Charlton Comics added Yang and House of Yang to the pioneering Judo Joe and Frank McLaughlin’s Judomaster; DC debuted Richard Dragon and rebooted Karate Kid; Atlas/Seaboard opened (and as quickly closed again) The Hands of the Dragon and Marvel converted a developing proposed literary adaptation into an ongoing saga about a villain’s son.

A month after it launched, a second orient-inspired hero debuted with Iron Fist: combining combat philosophy, high fantasy and magical forces with a proper superhero mask and costume…

Although largely retrofitted for modern times, inspirational Master of Kung Fu star Shang-Chi originated with a lot of tricky baggage. He launched in the autumn of 1973, cashing in on a contemporary craze for Eastern philosophy and martial arts action that generated an avalanche of “Chop Sockey” movies and a controversial TV sensation entitled Kung Fu. You may recall that the lead in that western-set saga was a half-Chinese Shaolin monk, played – after much publicised legal and industry agitation – by a white actor…

At Marvel, no one at that time particularly griped about the fact that Shang-Chi was designed by editor Roy Thomas and artisans Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin & Al Milgrom as a naive innocent (also half Chinese, with an American mother) thrown into tumultuous modern society as a rebellious but involved counterpoint to his father: an insidious scheming fiend intent on global domination. Back then, securing rights to a major literary property and wrapping new comics in it was an established practise. It had worked spectacularly with Conan the Barbarian and horror stars like Dracula and Frankenstein. The same process also brilliantly informed seminal science fiction icon Killraven in War of the Worlds and plenty more…

These days we comics apologists keep saying “it was a different era”, but I genuinely don’t think anyone in the editorial office paused for a moment of second thoughts when their new Kung Fu book secured the use one of literature’s greatest villains as a major player. Special Marvel Edition #15 (cover-dated December 1973 so Happy 50th Anniversary) launched to great success, and an overarching villain already a global personification of infamy… Fu Manchu.

Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward AKA Sax Rohmer’s ultimate embodiment of patronising mistrust and racist suspicion had been hugely popular since 1913’s The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu. The prime archetype for mad scientists and the remorseless “Yellow Peril” threatening civilization, the character spread to stage, screen, airwaves and comics (even appropriating the cover of Detective Comics #1, heralding an interior series that ran until #28), but most importantly, became the visual affirmation and conceptual basis for countless evil “Asiatics”, “Orientals” and “Celestials” dominating popular fiction ever since.

In recent years we’ve all (well, mostly all) acknowledged past iniquities and Shang-Chi has been fully reimagined, with that paternal link downplayed and ultimately abandoned – as much for licensing laws as social justice. And cultural respect.

Like most comics companies, Marvel employed plenty of “Yellow Peril” knock-offs and personifications – including Wong Chu; Plan Tzu (AKA the Yellow – or latterly Golden Claw); Huang Zhu; Silver Samurai; Doctor Sun, ad infinitum: all birds of another colour that are still nastily pejorative shades of saffron. Perhaps this is just my white guilt and fanboy shame talking. These stories, crafted by Marvel’s employees were – and remain – some of the best action comics you’ll ever encounter, but never forget what they’re actually about -distrust of the obviously other…

Without making excuses, I should also state that despite the casual racism suggested by legions of outrageously exotic, inscrutable lemon-hued bad guys haunting this series at every level, Master of Kung Fu did sensitively address issues of race and honestly attempt to share non-Christian philosophies and thought whilst, most importantly, offering potently powerful role models to kids of Asian origins. So at least there’s that …

Packed with stunning adventure and compellingly convincing drama, this second collection gathers Master of Kung Fu #29-53 and Master of Kung Fu Annual #1 (collectively spanning June 1975-August 1977). Written entirely by Doug Moench, surrendering to his love of spy fiction it opens without a preamble in the middle of a mighty struggle…

Previously: the series launched in bimonthly reprint title Special Marvel Edition as The Hands of Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu and by the third issue (April 1974) became exclusively his. Origin episode ‘Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu!’ introduced a vibrant, brilliant young man raised in utter isolation in the style and manner of imperial China. Reared by monks and savants, the boy is the result of a match between a physically perfect American woman and “misunderstood patriot” Fu Manchu: a noble hero unfairly hunted and slandered by corrupt western governments and the communist usurpers now blasphemously controlling the world’s greatest empire.

His son was schooled to respect and obey his sire, trained to perfection in martial arts: designed as the ultimate warrior servant and the doctor’s devoted personal weapon against lifelong enemies Sir Dennis Nayland Smith and Doctor Petrie.

On reaching maturity, Shang – whose name means “the rising and advancing of a spirit” – was despatched to execute Petrie. However, after the obedient weapon completes his mission, he subsequently questions his entire life and the worldly benefit of killing an elderly, dying man. An emotional confrontation with Nayland Smith – who endured daily agonies from being maimed at the Devil Doctor’s command – further shakes the boy’s resolve and eventually Shang’s sublime education demands he reassess everything his father has taught him…

After invading the villain’s New York citadel and crushing his army of freaks and monsters, Shang Chi faces his father and rejects all he stands for. The battle lines of an epic family struggle were drawn…

Banished from his cloistered childhood home and environs, the philosophically minded innocent was forced to adapt rapidly to frenetic constant violence in the modern world and eventually accepted shelter with Nayland Smith in return for (espionage) services rendered…

A turning point in his rising and advancement came in MOKF #29 (cover-dated June 1975) as Shang finds a reason to abandon his pacifistic aspirations and become involved in western affairs after seeing firsthand the harm drugs cause. He joins Nayland Smith’s team – Petrie,  Blackjack Tarr and Clive Reston (descendent of a famed “Consulting Detective” and a Double-0 operative “on Her Majesty’s Secret Service”) – to cripple the drug trade.

The entire series was slowly morphing into a James Bond pastiche and with this mission to end effetely urbane drug dealer/ covert nuclear terrorist Carlton Velcro, illustrator Paul Gulacy began a visual progression that would make him one of most watched and admired artists of the era as he referenced movie star and set pieces throughout the saga.

‘The Crystal Connection’ begins with Reston undercover at Velcro’s French coast fortress, playing heroin buyer Mr Blue until Shang and Tarr can infiltrate and secure the dope stocks . Nobody was expecting the massive defences, an army of killers led by deadly assassin Razor-Fist and a nuclear arsenal hidden below ‘A Gulf of Lions’ (#30, inked by Dan Adkins), with the pitched battle ranging far and wide as Razor Fist’s defeat led to Shang clashing with whip-wielding panther woman Pavane before a truly explosive conclusion in ‘Snowbuster’

‘Assault on an Angry Sea!’ was a hasty fill-in illustrated by Sal Buscema & Mike Esposito as Shang returns to London by ship and is drawn into the hunt for an undercover courier who is unaware that counteragents intend to intercept and end them. A proper mystery yarn, Chi has many suspects and can’t tell friend from foe from target, but triumphs nonetheless…

MOKF #33 resumes the Moench/Gulacy filmic fun-fest as ‘Wicked Messenger of Madness’ introduces seductive, conflicted agent Leiko Wu as both romantic interest and wedge between Shang Chi and his colleagues, as a robotic mannequin fails to assassinate Nayland Smith thanks to martial arts mastery but opens the door to a complex web of lies, double-dealing, insane artificial intelligences and a doomsday weapon.

The robot was a tool of agent Simon Bretnor, revealed too late as narcissistic hired killer and would-be world conqueror Mordillo who wants a space weapon using the ozone layer and sunlight to ravage sites on Earth. The plans for it are encoded in Wu’s brain, but by the time she realises her current boyfriend Bretnor is the bad guy Leiko’s his prisoner on a manically murderous version of Fantasy Island

As Shang and Resto race to the madly modified atoll-turned-playground-of-peril, Wu is attempting to reason with the crazed Mordillo, but gets more sense from his Pinocchio-like robot sidekick Brynocki who is trying to mediate the ‘Cyclone at the Center of a Madman’s Crown!’ She does, however, learn her captor had a connection to Pavane and Carleton Velcro and holds Chi responsible for a huge loss of face and fortune…

Another spectacular conclusion comes when manic and martial artist clash in the skies above the island as the villain briefly unleashes his stolen Solar Chute and rains destruction down on the island in ‘Death-Hand and the Sun of Mordillo’

What feels like a reformatted leftover from the Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu era follows in #36 and 37 (January & February 1976, by Moench, Keith Pollard & Sal Trapani) as Shang enters a magical maze of mystery: seeking to defend a carnival of freaks voluntarily living in ‘Cages of Myth, Menagerie of Mirrors!’ from ninjas and their leader Darkstrider who weaves a ‘Web of Dark Death!’

Moench, Pollard, John Tartaglione & Duffy Vohland then continue the fantasy themes in Master of Kung Fu Annual #1 and a team-up with fellow transplanted warrior Iron Fist. Danny Rand and Shang are tricked into entering another dimension and invading ‘The Fortress of S’ahra Sharn!’ by trickster wizard Quan-St’ar, whose true goal is the destruction of immortal city K’un-Lun, but he made one big mistake…

At their creative peak Moench & Gulacy started an epic, ambitious, truly sophisticated and industry-changing run in MOKF #38 (March 1976). Here Shang Chi reluctantly accepts a rescue mission to extract an agent from Hong Kong, meeting lies, passion, disinformation and deadly love in ‘Cat’. Nayland Smith has again orchestrated events to satisfy his own agenda and saving Julia leads Chi into a ‘Fight Without Pity’ against an opponent who might well be his superior in combat ability and also holds the moral high ground…

The landmark clash is simply prologue to an extended, character driven serial that opens at ‘The Murder Agency’ (#40 with Gulacy inking himself) as the on-fire creators pioneer storytelling techniques later employed in Christopher Nolan’s Memento. A traitor in British Intelligence is murdering agents and the information Nayland Smith wanted from Julia should have given them vital advantage. However, as Shang again quits all “games of death and deceit” he, Tarr and Leiko are attacked by apparently Chinese agents masquerading as “Oriental Expediters”.

After helping to defeat the attackers, Wu leaves on a similar extraction mission and suggests that the embattled operatives re-enlist disgraced former agent and current drunken sot James Larner. When they try, he’s got a new pal also boozing himself to death… Reston…

That’s when another well-armed gang burst in guns blazing, laying down their lives simply to bait a trap the agents can’t afford to avoid…

With the spy saga solidly underway everything suddenly screeched to a halt as a deadline crunch necessitated another fill-in moment, with Moench, Sal Buscema & Esposito revealing a childhood moment in ‘Slain in Secrecy, and by Illusion!’ Here Shang recalls reluctant clashes with childhood companion M’nai – AKA Si Fan assassin Midnight – to prove Fu Manchu’s hallowed home harboured a thief and traitor…

Inked by Tom Sutton, the main event resumes in #42 with a welter of flashbacks, cross-cuts and flash forwards as ‘The Clock of Shattered Time’ introduces an electrically enhanced martial arts assassin who almost kills Chi. Shock-Wave has a strong but top-secret connection to Nayland Smith and nearly succeeds in blowing up the spy chief too…

As the MI5 mole and Shock-Wave set more bombs, MOKF #43 sees a changed and vengeful Shang Chi win a rematch with the amplified assassin in ‘A Flash of Purple Sparks’. As Leiko Wu escorted her own living package across Europe with the Oriental Expediters chasing them all the way to an MI5 safehouse in Switzerland, Shang was waiting, but his triumph was short-lived as Leiko’s charge revealed who was behind all the deaths and the Oriental Expediter organisation, and that in London another of his allies had fallen…

The drama kicked into overdrive with a long-anticipated event. Cover-dated September 1976, #44 heralded ‘The Return of Fu Manchu, Prelude: “Golden Daggers (A Death Run)”’ as the scattered British agents head for home under a hail of gunfire and assorted ambushes. At last revealed is how the Devil Doctor’s recalcitrant first-born Fah Lo Suee is at war with their father for control of his empire.

She originally debuted in third novel The Si-Fan Mysteries / The Hand of Fu-Manchu in 1917 (or fourth outing The Daughter of Fu-Manchu in 1931, depending on who you ask) and was a minor character here since Master of Kung Fu #26, but here steps into the spotlight after Nayland Smith is finally downed by his most trusted ally…

On the back foot and losing, Fah Lo Suee seeks alliances and her brother’s aid in ‘Part One (Shang Chi): “The Death Seed!”’ while Fu Manchu is occupied with resurrecting his founding ancestor to be his new – loyal – son/enforcer. In London, Larner saves Nayland Smith even as Reston, Shang and Wu reunite and rebuff the “daughter of the Devil” – and that’s when Clive makes a big mistake and is taken by Fah Lo Suee…

Inked by Pablo Marcos, ‘Part Two (Clive Reston): “The Spider Spell!”’ divides attention between the British agent’s trial and eventual triumph and Fu resurrecting legendary warlord Shaka Kharn, whilst ‘Part Three (Leiko Wu): “Phantom Sand”’ details how she and Shang infiltrate a fantastic city at the north pole in advance of what’s left of the team joining them to destroy the citadel. Before that, though, the final clash between father and daughter again confirms the total mastery of the malevolent mandarin…

The true appalling scope of the Devil Doctor’s ambitions are exposed in ‘Part Four (Black Jack Tarr): “City in the Top of the World”’ as the schemer prepares to leave Earth and cull its population by 90% as Shang duels resurrected revenant Shaka Kharn, and battles his way aboard his sire’s space shuttle even as his companions destroy the base at the cost of another valiant soul in ‘Part Five (Sir Dennis Nayland Smith): “The Affair of the Agent Who Died!”’

The astounding saga – and Gulacy’s interior involvement – ends with #50 with the villain speaking for himself as his plans and perhaps his over-extended life are ended in ‘Part Six (Fu Manchu): “The Dreamslayer!”’

Master of Kung Fu #51 saw Jim Craig join Moench & Marcos, taking over the art for ‘Epilogue: “Brass and Blackness!” (A Death Move!!)’ infilling details of interments and getting back to Earth where the unhappy warrior again quit the spy world…

The final tale here (#52, May 1977) is one more fill-in as Moench & Pollard reintroduce Groucho Marx tribute Rufus T. Hackstabber who invites our baffled battler to ‘A Night at the 1001 Nights!’ in search of family (such as reprobate/WC Fields analogue Quigley J. Warmflash), riches and safety from mercenaries led by Si-Fan general Tiger-Claw

Ernie Chan’s cover to MOKF #53 (which reprinted #20) leads into an extras section including Gil Kane & Adkins’ covers to Savage Fists of Kung Fu tabloid collectors edition, house ads and 10 pages of original art, unused and modified covers. The published ones throughout were crafted by Kane, Adkins, Sal Buscema, Rich Buckler, Dave Cockrum, Marie Severin, Chan, Gulacy, John Romita Jr., Ron Wilson & Jack Abel, Al Milgrom, Esposito, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia and Klaus Janson.

In recent years, Shang Chi’s backstory has been adapted and altered. His father was understandably reinvented as Zheng Zu, Mr. Han, Chang Hu, Wang Yu-Seng and The Devil Doctor so depending on your attitude, you have the ultimate choice and sanction of not buying or reading this material. If you do – with eyes wide open and fully acknowledging that the past is another place that we can now consign to history – your comics appreciation faculties will see some amazing stories incredibly well illustrated: ranking amongst the most exciting and enjoyable in Marvel’s canon.
© 2018 MARVEL.

Iron Man Masterworks volume 16


By Denny O’Neil, Roger McKenzie, Peter B. Gillis, Ralph Macchio, Luke McDonnell, Carmine Infantino, Paul Smith, Steve Ditko, Marie Severin, Mike Vosburg, Jerry Bingham, Michael Golden & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-4920-4- (HB/Digital edition)

One of Marvel’s biggest global successes thanks to the film franchise, Iron Man celebrated his 60th anniversary in March 2023, so let’s again acknowledge that landmark and all who wear the suits offering more of the same…

Tony Stark is a super-rich supergenius inventor who moonlights as a superhero: wearing a formidable, ever-evolving suit of armour stuffed with his own ingenious creations. The supreme technologist hates to lose and constantly upgrades his gear, making Iron Man one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe. However, in Iron Man #120-128 (March to November 1979), the unrelenting pressure of running a multinational corporation and saving the world on a daily basis resulted in the weary warrior succumbing to the constant temptations of his (originally sham) sybaritic lifestyle. Thus, he helplessly slipped into a glittering world drenched with excessive partying and drinking.

That dereliction was compounded by his armour being usurped by rival Justin Hammer: used to murder an innocent. The ensuing psychological crisis forced Stark to confront the hard fact that he was an alcoholic …and probably an adrenaline junkie too. Landmark story ‘Demon in a Bottle’ saw the traumatised hero plumb the depths of grief and guilt, bury himself in pity, and alienate all his friends and allies before an unlikely intervention forced him to take a long, hard look at his life and actions…

A more cautious, level-headed and wiser man, Stark resumed his high-pressure lives, but he could not let up and the craving never went away. Then in 1982 author/editor Denny O’Neil made him do it again, with the result that Marvel gained another black superhero at long last…

It was the dawn of a period of legacy heroes inheriting mantles, established roles and combat identities from white, mostly male champions, and was certainly a move in the right direction…

This grand and gleaming chronological compendium navigates that transitional period, re-presenting Iron Man #158-170 and material from Iron Man Annual #5 and Marvel Fanfare #4: episodically spanning cover-dates May 1982-May 1983. It’s accompanied by an Introduction from Luke McDonnell at the front and house ads and Direct Sale promo poster by him at the end, as the title experienced many creative personnel shuffles before settling on a stalwart team to tackle the biggest of changes. Also on show are covers by Bob Layton, Smith, Jim Starlin, Ed Hannigan & Al Milgrom, Jerry Bingham & Brett Breeding, McDonnell, Brent Anderson & Steve Mitchell.

Opening with Iron Man #158, O’Neil, Carmine Infantino, Dan Green & Al Milgrom breeze through the motions as a deranged junior genius attacks modern technology from his literal man-cave by tapping the latent psychic power of his ‘Moms’ after which Roger McKenzie, rising art star Paul Smith & inking collective “Diverse Hands” step in to relate what occurs ‘When Strikes Diablo’. Here the Fantastic Four’s alchemical nemesis infiltrates Stark International to steal the techno-wizard’s resources and obsolete suits, only to unleash a mystic menace beyond all control…

With pressure mounting and threats everywhere, the craving for booze painfully manifests in ‘A Cry of Beasts’ – by O’Neil, Steve Ditko, Marie Severin & Green – as Stark’s party-persona collides with hot, willing babes… until an attack on his factory by the sinister Serpent Squad reminds him of his priorities.

Preceding Iron Man Annual #5 – and by O’Neil, McDonnell, Mike Esposito & Steve Mitchell – a brief encounter with new hero Moon Knight sees Stark at odds with rival rich man Steven Grant (one of four people comprising the edgy crusader) in ‘If the Moonman Should Fail!’

Frenemies at first sight, the Golden Avenger and Fist of Khonshu swallow their rich-boy differences to save mutual friends held hostage by Advanced Idea Mechanics, after which the extra-length Annual extravaganza sees Iron Man in Wakanda where The Black Panther must defeat mysteriously resurrected nemesis and determined usurper Eric Killmonger

Crafted by Peter B. Gillis, Ralph Macchio, Jerry & Bingham & Green, the action-packed ‘War and Remembrance!’ exposes an old foe methodically manoeuvring Stark and Iron Man into an inescapable trap, which closes tighter in Iron Man #162 as O’Neil, Mike Vosburg & Mitchell expose ‘The Menace Within!’ when a trusted employee sabotages S.I.…

There seems to be more than one campaign to crush Stark, and – as O’Neil, McDonnell & Mitchell become the regular creative team – ‘Knight’s Errand!’ opens an extended gambit with another hidden plotter turning ruthless capitalism, corporate raiding, advanced weaponry and an obsession with chess into a war for control of the company.

Up first is fast-flying tech terror The Knight who makes short work of Tony’s bodyguard, pilot, friend and confidante James Rhodes, but the real threat comes from a new acquaintance and future companion, covertly hollowing out Stark at close hand. Rising in the rankings after defeating the hovering horseman, Iron Man barely survives ‘Deadly Blessing’ of The Bishop after his security team digs up leads to the plot in Scotland…

In IM #165, the trail leads to Jamie, Laird of Glen Travail and another deadly duel of devices, where the true purpose is to destabilise Stark by abducting Rhodey in an effort to coerce his capitulation. The resultant ‘Endgame’ seemingly goes Stark’s way, but the battle is fought on many levels by a distanced player secretly commanding the Laird: one with a cruel emotional counterpunch long-prepared to destroy the hero from within…

On ‘One of Those Days…’ old foe The Melter attacks Stark’s New York facility whilst Rhodey still recuperates in Scotland. As Stark yet again faces enforced inactivity in the land of sublime alcoholic beverages, he abruptly abandons his friend to jet home to stop the supervillain. He also learns his brilliant security chief Vic Martinelli has uncovered the identity of one of the hidden players attacking the company: chess grandmaster turned armaments entrepreneur Obadiah Stane

As Rhodey goes missing again, the newcomer wants all Stark’s creations and, in the most hostile of takeovers, uses every trick in the book – from honey traps to guided missiles and abduction to intoxication – to seize the advantage. ‘The Empty Shell’ sees that nefarious plan bear evil fruit as Stark finally cracks under interminable pressure and one last betrayal, leading to a crushing fall “off the wagon” and into the gutter in ‘The Iron Scream’.

Permanently drunk and deprived of all judgement, Stark dons his armour to clash with Machine Man, even as far away, Rhodey makes his own life-threatening break for freedom and home…

As chaos ensues at Stark’s plant, a major player debuts in the form of junior employee and minor boffin Morley Erwin: on hand for Stark’s reunion with Rhodey and an aghast witness to one of the smartest men alive crawling into a bottle and trying to drown away his pain…

That process begins in #169 as ‘Blackout!’ sees Stark simply give up when confronted by volcanic B-list villain Magma, and sleep through the moment Jim Rhodes steps up – and into – the role and armour of Iron Man

The new era properly begins in #170’s ‘And Who Shall Clothe Himself in Iron?’ (cover-dated May 1983) as the former military airman promotes Erwin to tech support adviser to help him pilot the most complex weapon he’s ever used to defeat Magma and save a far from grateful Tony Stark…

The Beginning…

Rounding off the wonderment is a short tale by Michael Golden as originally seen in Marvel Fanfare #4 (September 1982) wherein Stark battles his dreams, inner demons and incalculable pride…

As comics companies sought to course correct old attitudes and adapt their wares to a far wider and more diverse readership than they had previously acknowledged, some rash rushed decisions were made that did not suit all the fans. Thankfully, that never stopped the editors and publishers from trying and the wonderful results are here and everywhere in comics because of it. Go read and enjoy and see how it all began to change.
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