Showcase Presents Sgt. Rock volume 3


By Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, Russ Heath & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2771-5 (TPB)

In America after the demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only certain place to find controversial, challenging and entertaining American war comics was at DC.

In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a generation, the home of Flash, Green Arrow and the Justice League of America was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting combat on a variety of fronts and from differing points of view.

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Homefront death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response DC’s (or rather National Periodical Publishing, as it then was) military-themed comicbooks became even more bold and innovative…

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

So pervasive is this icon of comics combat that’s it’s hard to grasp that Rock is not an immortal industry prototype like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – with us since the earliest moments of the industry – but is in fact a late addition to and child of the Silver Age of Comics: debuting as just another Kanigher & Joe Kubert tale in war anthology G.I. Combat (#68, January 1959).

The archetypal and ideal sergeant was an anonymous boxer who wasn’t particularly skilled but simply refused to be beaten, absorbing any and all punishment dealt out to him. When ‘The Rock!’ enlisted, that same Horatian quality attained mythic proportions as he held back an overwhelming Nazi attack by sheer grit and determination, remaining bloody but unbowed on a field littered with dead and broken men. The tale inspired an instant sequel or two before, in Our Army at War #83 (June 1959), the mythmaking truly began…

This third monumental military milestone collects in chronological publishing order and stark, stunning monochrome more of the groundbreaking classics which made Rock a comics legend. These grim and gritty, epically poetic war stories were taken from the still-anthological Our Army at War #149-180 (bracketing December 1964 to May 1967), a period when American comics were undergoing a spectacular renaissance in style, theme and quality even as the Vietnam war took over the nation’s consciousness and conscience.

They are also still criminally unavailable in modern colour and/or digital editions…

Scripted throughout by Writer/Editor Kanigher and illustrated primarily by Kubert, the terse episodes herein begin with ‘Surrender Ticket!’ as the German High Command randomly pick an American Company to endure unrelenting pressure until they crack, thereby proving Nazi superiority. They really should have picked again after selecting Easy Company…

In ‘Flytrap Hill!’, Rock is forced to request a retreat before instead leading his brutalised men to unlikely victory. They all found fresh inspiration through the example of a messenger who gave his life to reach them…

‘War Party!’ then sees the Sarge undertaking a trial organised by Little Sure Shot to become an “honorary Apache Indian”, with the always-advancing Germans inadvertently spoiling his chances at every turn.

OAAW #152 is a full-length yarn in which a shipment of green replacements find themselves frozen under fire, until Rock recounts the tales of Ziggy and Hopeless, who found courage with their final breaths in ‘Last Man – Last Shot!’ This narrative device of incorporating brief past-action episodes into a baptism of fire scenario played over and over again in Sgt. Rock but never got old.

‘Easy’s Last Stand!’ saw the stony serviceman battling alone in the mistaken belief he was the only one left alive, whilst ‘Boobytrap Mascot’ found Easy accompanying boy soldier Andre Lune in search of hidden artillery emplacements as the lad tried to live up to – and die for – the pressure of generations of warrior ancestors who gave their lives for France…

‘No Stripes for Me!’ found the non-com in the middle of a family feud as a valiant GI continually refuses well-earned battlefield promotions his father – the General – keeps foisting upon him, after which a bumbling medic deemed unfit for combat fatally proves his worth, saving Easy as ‘The Human Tank Trap!’

The shell-shocked last survivor of an eradicated relief company goes through hell at Rock’s side as the topkick strives to prove that ‘Nothin’s Ever Lost in War!’ before OAAW #158 introduces some insight into the pre-war world of civilian Frank Rock, as well as an antithesis and arch-enemy for Easy’s front man in ‘Iron Major – Rock Sergeant!’

With the American captured, tortured and used as bait in a blizzard by a steel-handed master strategist, it takes sheer guts and unflinching to save Easy from a deadly ambush…

Wounded in combat, hunted by a German kill-team and guided by the sister of a nurse he feels responsible for killing, Rock becomes ‘The Blind Gun!’ before recovering his sight and finding a measure of solace in groundbreaking epic ‘What’s the Colour of Your Blood?’

Here black G.I. – it’s a comic book making a point about a crucial point in modern US history: please ignore the appalling and sordid truth about US Army segregation during WWII – and former boxer Jackie Johnson is forced to bare-knuckle battle the racist Aryan prize-fighter he trounced in the years before the war.

Of course, if he raises his hands to defend himself in this impromptu rematch, Storm Trooper Uhlan’s comrades will shoot Jackie’s Easy Co. buddies… until the right word from Rock changes all the odds…

An over-eager replacement almost dies to prove he’s not a coward like his court-martialled brother in ‘Dead End for a Dog Face!’ before ‘The Prince and the Sergeant!’ revives an old DC star for a truly bizarre team-up.

When superheroes were in decline during the 1950s, comicbook companies sought different types of action hero. In 1955 Kanigher devised traditional adventure comic The Brave and the Bold which featured historical strips and stalwarts such as Golden Gladiator, Robin Hood and Silent Knight. Already legendary, Joe Kubert drew the fantastic exploits of a dynamic Norseman dubbed the Viking Prince.

He appeared in nearly every issue, eventually monopolising Brave and the Bold entirely, until the resurgent superhero boom saw the comic retooled as a try-out title with the 25th issue. Before that, however, those fanciful Scandi-sagas were among some of the finest adventure comics of all time (and they’re still too long overdue for a definitive collection of their own).

In Our Army at War #162, Easy Company are sent to Norway on a proverbial suicide mission and subsequently separated under fire. Taking cover in a cave, Rock discovers a warrior frozen in ice moments before an explosion shatters the frigid tomb. Soon the revived Prince Jon is slicing his way through the modern “Huns”, determined to sell his life dearly.

Before his entombment, he had fallen in love with a Valkyrie and had to die gloriously in battle to reunite with her in Valhalla. Of course, offended Odin had stacked the odds and decreed no mortal weapon could now harm him…

Despite his best efforts, Jon and Rock kept winning and so the saga continued in the next issue as the doughty comrades complete the suicide mission with the Viking crying ‘Kill Me – Kill Me!’… until a seeming martial miracle occurred…

Our Army at War #164 was an 80-page Giant reprint issue (not included here) and #165 heralded the ‘Return of the Iron Major!’ with the Nazi Superman back from the dead and seeking revenge, only to find Rock kissing his former fiancée Contessa Helga von Hohenschlag-Lowenburg

That results in another brutal death-duel after which ‘Half a Sergeant!’ saw the indomitable human force-of-nature suffer a crack-up, until an inconsolable loss on the battlefield shocks him back to normal, after which ‘Kill One – Save One!’extends the psycho-dramas as Rock shoots a sniper and discovers he’s killed a child. The guilt cripples him so completely he can’t raise a hand against the boy’s even younger comrade who takes the topkick prisoner…

An element of supernatural mystery flavoured ‘I Knew the Unknown Soldier!’ in Our Army at War #168, as Rock proudly recalls an enigmatic G.I. who repeatedly saved and inspired Easy to overcome impossible odds. This short yarn would be the genesis of future combat superstar The Unknown Soldier

Again blinded in battle, Rock unwittingly treks across the African desert towards German lines with an American-educated ‘Nazi on My Back!’ in #169 but is back in Europe for ‘No One Comes Down Alive from – Buzzard Bait Hill!’: dealing with a shell-shocked veteran who had been reliving the war since the last time Germans invaded France.

War’s insanity was a recurring theme and in ‘The Sergeant Must Die!’ Easy had to steal a relic of huge symbolic importance from a mediaeval castle defended by a deranged Nazi who believed himself the reincarnation of legendary Hun Barbarosa. A perilous stalemate is only broken by vicious single combat; a situation echoed in ‘A Slug for a Sergeant!’ as Russ Heath slowly began to take over illuminating Rock’s sorties.

German Sgt. Schlum is every inch Rock’s equal and when the hostage American chooses to duel his counterpart rather than betray Easy into ambush, the outcome is anything but certain…

Our Army at War #173 was another reprint – also omitted here – and Kubert returned in #174 as ‘One Kill Too Many!’sees the Sarge suffer another breakdown and freezing under fire after reliving the moment he shot that child-sniper. His inaction leads to Easy’s medic being killed and the broken soldier gives up fighting to take his place… until the wounded men he treats show Rock where he truly belongs…

Heath was back in #175 to deliver the ‘T.N.T. Letter!’ from Rock’s stateside sweetheart Mary which leaves him broken and suicidal until he meets a battlefield gamin who restores his perspective, and Kubert limned the strange saga of Crusher Cole: a beefy replacement who wanted the sergeant’s job and kept crying ‘Give Me Your Stripes!’

Following another 80-Page Giant in #177, ‘Only One Medal for Easy’ (Heath, #178) returned to the series’ picaresque, portmanteau traditions as Rock is given one gong and a Pass to dispense to Easy’s most outstanding combatant. Of course, the medal is passed around the entire company as every time the enemy attacks, a different hero saves the day…

Kubert was back reprising that landmark tale of bigotry and tolerance in OAAW #179 as white supremacist Sharkey joins Easy and makes things tough for the unit’s only black soldier. Even Rock can’t change his attitudes but the trials of war and the patience of a truly noble man finally crush racist views of a soldier who wouldn’t give ‘A Penny for Jackie Johnson!’

Russ Heath ends this cataclysmic comics campaign with another stunning moral quandary as Rock captures a German officer and has to endure unbearable provocation as he escorts his prisoner to base: coming within an inch of breaking all the rules as the cunning monster brags ‘You Can’t Kill a General!’

Robert Kanigher at his worst was a declarative, heavy-handed and formulaic writer, but when writing his best stuff – as here – his work was imaginative, evocative, iconoclastic and heart-rending. He was a unique reporter and observer of the warrior’s way and the unchanging condition of the dedicated and so very human ordinary foot-slogging G.I. He was also a strident and early advocate of equality and integration.

With superb combat covers from Kubert fronting each episode, this battle-book is a visually vital compendium and a certain delight for any jaded comics fan looking for something more than flash and dazzle. A perfect example of true Shock and Awe; these are stories every comics fan and combat collector should see and one day we’ll have them in the full archival dress and trimmings they deserve…
© 1964-1967, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

DC Universe Illustrated by Neal Adams volume 1


By Neal Adams with Dennis O’Neil, Gardner F. Fox, Robert Kanigher, Howard Liss, Hank Chapman, Len Wein, Bob Haney, Mark Evanier, Sergio Aragonés, Joe Kubert & various (DDC Comics)
No ISBN: digital only edition

As the 1960s began Neal Adams was a young illustrator who had worked in advertising and ghosted some newspaper strips whilst trying to break into comics. Whilst pursuing a career in advertising and “real art” he did a few comics pages for Archie Comics and subsequently became one of the youngest artists to co-create and illustrate major licensed newspaper strip Ben Casey (based on a popular TV medical drama series).

That comics fascination never faded, however, and Adams drifted back to National/DC, doing a few covers as inker or penciller before eventually finding himself at the vanguard of a revolution in pictorial storytelling…

He made such a mark that DC have regularly curated and reissued his work in a series of commemorative collections. This is the first of a proposed series of eBook tomes extracted from heftier physical artefacts covering the artists’ minor efforts (those not starring Batman, Deadman or “Hard-Travelling Heroes” Green Lantern/Green Arrow) in themed original publication order.

Revisiting Teen Titans #20-22 and gatherings material from Detective Comics #369; Superman #254; Justice League of America #94; Our Army At War #182, 183, 186, 240; Star Spangled War Stories #134, 144; Fanboy #5 and Amazing World of DC Comics Special Edition #1 it cumulatively embraces November 1969 through July 1999.

Following a contextualising Foreword by Paul Levitz and Adams’ thoughts in his own ‘Superheroes Foreword’ the comic dramas commence with a tale of slinky sleuth The Elongated Man who solves a bizarre theft connected to the ‘Legend of the Lovers’ Lantern’ (scripted by Gardner F. Fox from Detective Comics #369, November 1969).

We then encounter a bold triptych from Teen Titans #20-22 (March/April to June/July 1969), written by Adams and pencilled by him and Sal Amendola with inks by brush-maestro Nick Cardy – one of the all-out prettiest illustration jobs of that decade.

Completing s a long-running plot-thread of extra-dimensional invaders by endowing everything with a counterculture twist, ‘Titans Fit the Battle of Jericho’ is a spectacular rollercoaster romp deftly blending teen revolt, organised crime, anti-capitalist activism, bug-eyed monsters and cunning extraterrestrial conquerors…

Symbolic super-teens Hawk and Dove briefly join the proceedings for #21’s ‘Citadel of Fear’ (Adams & Cardy): chasing smugglers, facing evil ETs and ramping up the surly teen angst quotient whilst moving the invaders story-arc towards stunning conclusion ‘Halfway to Holocaust’ wherein the abduction of Kid Flash and Robin leads to a cross-planar climax as Wonder Girl, Speedy and a radical new ally quash the invaders forever…

Excerpts from Justice League of America #94’s ‘Where Strikes Demonfang’ – specifically pages 1, 5, 20 and 22 – tie up loose ends from the Deadman saga seen elsewhere (in Strange Adventures of the Adams Deadman collections) before a modern pin-up of ‘Ra’s al Ghul’ brings us to a delightful treat scripted by Len Wein taken from The Private Life of Clark Kent backup series.

‘The Baby Who Walked Through Walls’ comes from Superman #254 (July 1972): scripted by Len Wein and deliciously detailing how even the mighty Man of Tomorrow is no match for a toddler determined to dodge her babysitter and go exploring…

Unpublished Superman pages and thumbnails culled from ‘Amazing World of DC Comics Special Edition #1’ (February 1976) segue into a selection of public service messages starring the Caped Kryptonian – specifically ‘Justice for All Includes Children 1, 2, 6 and 7’ – and are followed by a monochrome and a full-colour v ‘9/11 Tribute’

Self-parody changes the tone as an excerpt from Fanboy #5 (July 1999) finds Mark Evanier & Sergio Aragonés joining the master of moody in an unlikely iteration of the Daft Knight…

A ‘Batman Sketchbook’ offers preliminary doodles for Robin’s new costume, Batman roughs and Joker redesigns, culminating in finished pin-ups of all before the tone twists back to hyper-realism and a ‘War Stories Foreword’ by Neal Adams begins a chronological excursion through the artist’s combat contributions to DC canon.

All recoloured in Adam’s lush modern manner, the lean sparse sagas commence with ‘It’s My Turn to Die’ from Our Army At War #182 (July 1967), with Howard Liss scripting the tale of an officer who’s reached his emotional limit, whilst ‘Invisible Sniper’ (Liss again from OAAW #183, August 1967) tracks an embattled GI hunting an infallible enemy with a killer gimmick…

The Killing Ground’ (Star Spangled War Stories #134, August -September 1967) is a Robert Kanigher moment from The War That Time Forgot, with PT Boat survivors striving against a succession of seaborne antediluvian atrocities, after which ‘My Life for a Medal’Our Army At War #186 (November 1967, by veteran scribe Hank Chapman) – holds a shocking lesson for a glory-hungry go-getter.

A visual triumph, Joe Kubert inked hot new penciller Adams on Kanigher’s ‘Death Takes No Holiday!’ (SSWS #144, April-May 1969) as another macabre death-dealing French aviator – dressed as a skeleton – terrorised and butchered Jagdstaffel pilots at will, forcing the Kaiser’s Enemy Ace Hans von Hammer into insane action to inspire his men and cure a young flier of fear-induced madness…

War takes a weird – and socially relevant – turn as we visit the future for our concluding clash in Bob Haney’s ‘Another Time Another Place’ (Our Army At War #240, January 1972) as an elite squad meet the enemy and get a sobering surprise…

Sadly short of Adams incredible canon of covers, we wrap up with only full ‘Biographies’ as a bonus, but this beautiful book still offers a look at less often seen gems that were in many ways more informative than all the big-banner achievements of a major force in comics. Now, if only DC would sort out his horror stories and truly lost gems like Jerry Lewis, we’d all be happy…
© 1967, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1976, 1999, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Willie & Joe: Back Home


By Bill Mauldin (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-351-4 (HB)

Throughout World War II William Henry “Bill” Mauldin fought “Over There” with the United States Infantry whilst producing cartoons about the fighting men and for the fighting men. He told as much of the real nature of the war as his censors and common sense would allow and became an unwilling international celebrity as much because of his unshakable honesty as his incredible artistic talents.

He was incontrovertibly “one of the guys” and American soldiers and civilians loved him for it. During his time in the service he produced cartoons for the folks back home and intimately effective, authentic and quirkily morale-boosting material for military publications 45th Division News, Yank and Stars and Stripes.

They mostly featured two slovenly “dogfaces” – a term he made his own and introduced to the world at large – giving a trenchant and acerbically enduring view of the war from the point of view of the poor sods ducking bullets in muddy foxholes and surviving shelling in the ruins of Europe.

Willie and Joe, to the dismay of much of the Army Establishment, gave an honest overview of America’s ground war. In 1945, a collection of his drawings – accompanied by a powerfully understated and heartfelt documentary essay – was published by Henry Holt and Co.

Up Front was a sensation, telling the American public about the experiences of their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands in a way no historian would or did. A biography, Back Home, followed in 1947.

Willie even made the cover of Time Magazine in 1945, when 23 year old Mauldin won his first Pulitzer Prize. Like so many other returning soldiers, however, Mauldin’s hard-won Better Tomorrow didn’t live up to its promise…

Mauldin’s anti-war, anti-Idiots-in-Charge, anti-bigot views never changed, but found simply new targets at home. However, during the earliest days of the Cold War and despite being a bone fide War Hero, Mauldin’s politically strident cartoons fell ever more out of step with the New America: a place where political expediency allowed racists to resume repressing ethnic sections of the nation now that their blood and sweat were no longer needed to defeat the Axis.

This new America expected women to surrender their war-time freedoms and become again servants and consumers and baby machines: happy to cook suppers in return for the new labour-saving consumer goods America now needed to sell, sell, sell. This nation was far too eager to forget the actual war and genuine soldiers in favour of massaged messages and conformist, inspirational paper or celluloid heroes.

The New America certainly didn’t want anybody rocking their shiny new boat…

When Sergeant Bill Mauldin mustered out in 1945, he was notionally on top of the world: a celebrity hero, youngest Pulitzer Prize winner in history, with a lucrative 3-year syndicated newspaper contract and Hollywood clamouring for him.

Unfortunately for him, Mauldin was as dedicated to his ideals as to his art. As soon as he became aware of the iniquities of the post-war world, he went after them. Using his newspaper tenancy as a soapbox, Mauldin attacked in bitterly brilliant barrages the maltreatment and side-lining of actual combat veterans. During the country’s entire involvement in WWII, less than 10% of military men actually fought, or even left their home country, whilst rear-echelon brass seemed to increasingly reap the benefits and unearned glory of the peace.

Ordinary enlisted men and veterans were culture-shocked, traumatised, out of place and resented by the public, who blamed them disproportionately for the shortages and “suffering” they had endured. Black and Japanese Americans were reduced to second class citizens (again, for most of them) and America’s erstwhile allies were pilloried, exploited and demonised, whilst everywhere politicians and demagogues were rewriting recent history for their own advantage…

Mauldin’s fondest wish had been to kill the iconic dogfaces off on the final day of World War II, but Stars and Stripesvetoed it, and the demobbed survivors moved into a world that had changed incomprehensibly in their absence…

Always ready for a fight, Mauldin’s peacetime Willie and Joe became a noose around the syndicate’s neck as the cartoonist’s acerbic, polemical and decidedly non-anodyne observations perpetually highlighted iniquities and stupidities inflicted on returning servicemen and attacked self-aggrandising politicians. He advocated such socialist horrors as free speech, civil rights and unionisation, affordable public housing and universal medical care for everybody – no matter what their colour, gender or religion. The crazy cartoonist even declared war on the Ku Klux Klan, American Legion and red-baiting House UnAmerican Activities Commission: nobody was too big. When the Soviet Union and United Nations betrayed their own ideological principles, Mauldin went after them too…

An honest broker, he had tried to quit early, but the syndicate held him to his contract so, trapped in a situation that increasingly stifled his creative urges and muzzled his liberal/libertarian sensibilities, he refused to toe the line and his cartoons were incessantly altered and reworked.

During six years of War service his cartoon had been censored three times; now the white paint and scissors were employed by rewrite boys almost daily…

The movie Up Front – which Mauldin wanted to reflect the true experience of the war – languished unmade for six years until a sappy, flimsy comedy bearing the name was released in 1951. The intended screenplay – by Mauldin, John Lardner and Ring Lardner Jr. – vanished: deemed utterly unsuitable and unfilmable …until much of its tone reappeared in Lardner Jr.’s 1970 screenplay M*A*S*H

As the syndicate bled clients – mostly in segregationist states – and contemplated terminating his contract, Mauldin began simultaneously working for the New York Herald-Tribune. With a new liberal outlet. His tactics changed in the Willie and Joe feature: becoming more subtle and less bombastic. He still picked up the best of enemies, however, adding J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to the roster of declaimers and decriers…

When his contract finally ended in 1948, neither side wanted to renew. Mauldin left the business to become a journalist, freelance writer and illustrator. He was a film actor for a time (appearing in Red Badge of Courage with Audie Murphy, among other movies); a war correspondent during the Korean Conflict and an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in 1956.

He only finally returned to newspaper cartooning in 1958 in a far different world: working for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before moving to the Chicago Sun-Times, winning another Pulitzer and a Reuben Award for his political cartoons

He retired in 1991 after a long, glittering and properly-appreciated career. He only drew Willie and Joe four times in that entire period (for an article on the “New Army” in Life magazine; for the funerals of “Soldier’s Generals” Omar Bradley and George C. Marshall and to eulogize Milton Caniff).

Also available digitally, this magnificent hardback companion volume to Willie and Joe: the WWII Years covers the period of work from July 31st 1945 to 31st December 1948, supplemented by a brilliant biographical introduction from Todd DePastino: a superb black-&-white compendium collecting the bittersweet return of the forgotten heroes as they faced confusion, exclusion, contention and disillusion, but always with the edgy, stoic humour under fire that was Mauldin’s stock in trade.

Moreover, it features some of the most powerful assaults on the appalling edifice of post-war America ever seen. The artist’s castigating observations on how a society treats returning soldiers are more pertinent now than they ever were; the pressures on families and children even more so; whilst his exposure of armchair strategists, politicians and businessmen seeking to exploit wars for gain and how quickly allies can become enemies are tragically more relevant than any rational person could wish.

Alternating trenchant cynicism, moral outrage, gallows humour, sanguine observation and uncomprehending betrayal, this cartoon chronicle is an astounding personal testament that shows the powers of cartoons to convey emotion if not sway opinion.

In Willie & Joe: Back Home we have here a magnificent example of passion and creativity used as a weapon of social change and a work of art every citizen should be exposed to, because these are aspects of humanity that we seem unable to outgrow…
This edition © 2011 Fantagraphics Books. Cartoons © 2011 the Estate of William Mauldin. All right reserved.

G.I. JOE Classics volume 1


By Larry Hama, Herb Trimpe, Steven Grant, Don Perlin, Mike Vosburg & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-60010-345-2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Nostalgic All-Action Romps… 8/10

Toys have always been a strong and successful component of comics output, and have frequently been amongst the most qualitative. For people like me, the distress experienced because DC’s Hot Wheels (by Joe Gill, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Alex Toth, Neal Adams & Dick Giordano) or Captain Action (Jim Shooter, Wally Wood & Gil Kane) tie-in titles will never be reprinted because intellectual properties lawyers can’t get their acts together is practically existential. I’m pretty sure that feeling is universal in my field and everyone has their own title to add to the list…

The problem has been the understandable tendency to include proprietary characters (such as Spider-Man in Transformers and the entire Marvel Universe in Rom, Space Knight and The Micronauts) for their immediate cross-selling potential with no regard for who actually owns what. Merchandise-driven comics are of necessity fully negotiable whereas such team-up combinations are by definition short-term and non-binding.

Publishers got a lot smarter and far-sighted in the 80s and – as a rule, but not always – stopped mixing and matching imported/temporary stars except for special events.

During that era Marvel’s biggest successes – driven by Jim Shooter in his role as the company’s Editor-in-Chief – were those aforementioned Transformers and another: one of the oldest toy brands in existence, and since the property was hived off the franchise into its own superhero-adjacent sub-universe, current license holder IDW was able to reprint the run of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero in its entirety…

It didn’t hurt that the stories were superbly crafted and didn’t insult the intelligence of the target readership (presumed to be kids of toy-buying age) and perfectly picked up the macho America tone of the times…

Arguably Marvel’s biggest success in merchandised publishing (even outdoing Star Wars and Conan), the triumph of the phenomenon convinced Marvel to create their juveniles and licensed titles imprint Star Comics, and the continuity of this series was carried over in its entirety when the property eventually landed at IDW. In 2009, writer Larry Hama (Wolverine; Elektra; Nth Man) simply picked up where he left off in 1994 and the series even continued the numbering…

This initial compendium collects the first tranche of Marvel’s output issues #1-10 spanning June 1982-April 1983: a hugely successful mini-franchise that encompassed three regular titles plus many specials at one stage.

I’ve no real interest in the film, or toy, and TV cartoon, but the comics phenomenon reached way more impressionable minds that most modern comics could even imagine and many of the strip adventures (both US and Marvel UK’s) were highpoints of sequential narrative at a time when innovation and imagination were highly regarded – and rewarded – so it’s great to see some of them finding a fresh audience.

In case you came in late: GI Joe is the operating name for an American covert, multi-disciplinary espionage and military intervention force drawing its members from all branches of the military. At the time of these tales the Joes and terrorist secret society Cobra Command are well known to each other and engaged in a full-on but clandestine global war…

Under Shooter’s reign Marvel became a hugely profitable home for businesses with properties to licence. The comic versions sold by the truckload and have become part of the nostalgic fabric of a generation. They still are.

The Marvel series ran 155 issues (ending with its December 1994 issue), plus numerous spin-off series such as GI Joe Special Missions: specials and overseas analogue such as Marvel UK’s Action Force (the British toy was branded as Action Man since the 1960s)

We begin at the start with ‘Operation: Lady Doomsday’ as Larry Hama, Herb Trimpe (Ka-Zar; Phantom Eagle; The Defenders; Iron Man; Machine Man) & Bob McLeod introduce the squad and their foes when a whistleblowing US atomic scientist is kidnapped by Cobra Commander and his deadly assistant the Baroness, and the Gung Ho Joes are assigned to rescue her traitorous, unpatriotic ass. The all-American heroes are successful but fully exercise their democratic right to complain all the way home…

Whilst namechecking dozens of characters and vehicles, the series was always intoxicatingly high energy and deceptively sophisticated in dealing with social and geopolitical issues. The next mission details ‘Panic at the North Pole!’ – by Hama, Don Perlin (Werewolf By Night; Ghost Rider; The Defenders; Solar, Man of the Atom; Bloodshot) & Jack Abel – as a small squad investigate the extermination of a US research station, uncovering a prototype Soviet secret weapon and clashing with “eskimo” (hopefully we’d say Inuit or something else less charged these days) mercenary Mighty Kwinn to keep the deadly device out of Cobra’s clutches…

Crafted by Hama, Trimpe, Abel & Jon D’Agostino, ‘The Trojan Gambit’ in #3 then delivered a thrilling countdown thriller as the Joes’ secret underground citadel is infiltrated by a deadly modular robot programmed to send back a signal and make it a target for Cobra assault…

For over a decade Herb Trimpe had been synonymous with the Incredible Hulk, making the character his own, and daily displaying a penchant for explosive action and an unparalleled facility for drawing technology – especially honking great ordnance and vehicles. With #4’s ‘Operation: Wingfield!’, he added story plotting to his creative dossier, as Hama scripted and D’Agostino & Abel inked a tale of infiltration wherein a squad joins the private army of a survivalist nutjob and his private militia – in a tale more relevant now than ever…

In #5, Hama, Perlin, Abel & Mike Esposito’s ‘“Tanks” for the Memories…’ adds notes of bellicose slapstick as Cobra attempt to steal the Joes’ super-secret Mobat (Multi Ordnance Battle Tank) during a parade in New York City, and our heroes had to fight without ammo…

As now, Afghanistan was a hot button topic in the mid-1980s and #6’s ‘To Fail is to Conquer… To Succeed is to Die!’ by Hama, Trimpe & Abel sees a select team despatched to aid mujahideen fighters against Soviet invasion and recover a downed experimental Russian spy-plane. The three horse race between the Good Guys, Cobra and Soviet Special Forces team the October Guard sees both tech and training stretched to the limit in the hostile terrain and makes for an unlikely alliance in #7’s explosive conclusion ‘Walls of Death!’ by Hama, Trimpe & Chic Stone.

G.I. Joe #8 was an all-Trimpe treat as ‘Code Name: Sea-Strike!’ sees the heroes valiantly defending a satellite launch and thwarting Cobra’s scheme to weaponise space from their floating subsea fortress, after which Steven Grant, Mike Vosburg & Stone explore the lives of top Joes Clutch, Scarlett, Snake-Eyes and Stalker as they draw tedious and unwanted protection duties for an unsuspected traitor in ‘The Diplomat’ and find themselves in more trouble than they can (probably) handle…

This initial collection closes on a foreboding and portentous note of gathering doom as Scarlett, Snake-Eyes and Zap are captured during a mission and end up in a suburban nightmare. In #10, Hama, Vosburg & Stone expose anonymous everytown Springfield as Cobra’s most sinister development: an ultra-immersive company town designed by vicious Dr. Venom and dedicated to mind-bending, brainwashing and overruling hearts and minds in ‘a little town like ours…’

Thankfully resistance and rebellion are everywhere and an extraordinary boy named Billy is able to orchestrate their narrow escape…

To Be Continued…

The ten tales gathered here are very much the basis of all successive comics merchandising and nearly 40 years later prove that the secret is in the comics themselves, not the product, No one there is republishing Marvel’s Inhumanoids,Popples or Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos adaptations…

I’m never sure of the social value of stories where secret government operatives act beyond the law or the constraints of Due Process, but the kid in me adores the pure satisfying simplicity of seeing a wrong and righting it: so on those terms this book of clever, witty action-packed adventures of honourable warriors doing their job is a delight worth sharing.
© 2009 Hasbro. All Rights Reserved.

DC Goes to War


By Will Eisner, Bob Powell, Jon L. Blummer, Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, Robert Kanigher, Ed Herron, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, David Michelinie, Chuck Dixon, Garth Ennis, Chuck Cuidera, John Severin, Joe Kubert, Jerry Grandenetti, Mort Drucker, Russ Heath, Jack Abel, Alex Toth, Gerry Talaoc, Judith Hunt, Sam Glanzman, Eduardo Barreto, Chris Weston, Christian Alamy & various (DC Comics)

ISBN: 978-1-7795-0015-1 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Blockbuster Thrills No Movie Could Match… 9/10

For America, the genre of war comics only really took in 1950, as the Korean War scared the pants off a world still recovering from WWII. Even so, while war was current affairs, publishers didn’t shirk making stories and heroes amidst the bomb blasts and strafing runs…

Many publishers fed the trend, but although a firm fan fave, the sector soon settled into mediocrity. However, after the meteoric rise and sudden demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only sure place to find controversial, challenging, exceptional and entertaining combat comics was DC.

In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a generation, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (herself a true “war baby”) was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting combat on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

As the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Home Front death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response, DC/National Periodical Publications’ military-themed comic books became even more bold and innovative…

That stellar creative period came to an end as all strip trends do, but a few of the more impressive and popular features (Sgt. Rock, Haunted Tank, The Losers) survived well into the second superhero revival.

Currently, English-reading fans of the genre are grievously underserved in both print and digital formats, but this magnificent hardback and digital compendium is hopefully the vanguard of a change of fortune…

Re-presenting material from Military Comics #1; All-American Comics #48; Boy Commandos #1; Our Army at War#67, 83, 233, 235; Our Fighting Forces #49, 102; Star Spangled War Stories #87, 183; G.I. Combat #87; Showcase#57; Weird War Stories #3; The Losers Special #1; Sgt. Rock Special #2 and Enemy Ace: War in Heaven #1-2 spanning August 1941, this epic package chronologically samples the company’s wide and deep well of war tales…

Tales of ordinary guys in combat began with the industry itself and although mostly sidelined during the capes-&-cowls war years, they quickly re-asserted themselves again once the actual fighting stopped. Those early days of the industry were awash with both opportunity and talent, and these factors coincided with a vast population hungry for cheap entertainment. Comics had no acknowledged fans or collectors; only a large, transient clientele open to all varied aspects of yarn-spinning and tale-telling – a situation which persisted right up to the end of the 1960s. Thus, the action here starts before it started for America…

Even though loudly isolationist and more than six months away from active inclusion in the Second World War, creators like Will Eisner and publishers like Everett M. (“Busy”) Arnold felt Americans were ready for the themed anthology title Military Comics.

Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.

Military Comics #1 launched on May 30th 1941 (August cover-dated) and included in its line-up Miss America, Jack Cole’s Death Patrol, Fred Guardineer’s Blue Tracer, X of the Underground, The Yankee Eagle, Q-Boat, Shot and Shell, Archie Atkins and Loops and Banks (by “Bud Ernest” – actually aviation-nut and unsung comics genius Bob Powell).

None of the strips – not even Cole’s surreal and suicidal team of hell-bent fliers – had the instant cachet and sheer appeal of Eisner & Powell’s “Foreign Legion of the Air”, led by the charismatic Dark Knight of the airways known only as Blackhawk.

Happy Anniversary “Magnificent Seven”!

Chuck Cuidera, famed for creating Blue Beetle for Fox, drew ‘The Origin of Blackhawk’ wherein a lone pilot fighting the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 is shot down by Nazi Ace Von Tepp, only to rise bloody and unbowed from his plane’s wreckage to form the World’s greatest team of airborne fighting men…

This mysterious paramilitary squadron of unbeatable fliers, dedicated to crushing injustice and smashing the Axis war-machine, battled on all fronts during the war and stayed together to crush Communism, international crime, Communism and every threat to democracy from alien invaders to supernatural monsters – and more Communism – becoming one of the true milestones of the US industry.

There were many melodramatic touches that made the Blackhawks so memorable in the eyes of a wide-eyed populace of thrill-hungry kids. There were the cool, black leather uniforms and peaked caps. The unique, outrageous – but authentic – Grumman F5F-1 Skyrocket planes they flew from their secret island base, and of course, their eerie battle-cry “Hawkaaaaa!”

But perhaps the oddest idiosyncrasy to modern readers was that they had their own song (would you be more comfortable if we started calling it an international anthem?) which Blackhawk, André, Stanislaus, Olaf, Chuck, Hendrickson and Chop-Chop would sing as they plummeted into battle…

This is a good place to remind everyone that historically, war comics have never been a place with comfortable depictions of race, ethnicity or creed. Please treat the material as necessarily historically authentic or simply find other more evolved and comfortable books to read…

Quality Comics adapted well to peacetime demands: Plastic Man and Doll Man lasted far longer than other superhero titles, whilst the rest of the line adapted into tough-guy crime, war, western, horror and racy comedy titles. The Blackhawks soared to even greater heights, starring in their own movie serial in 1952. However, the hostility of the marketplace to mature-targeted titles after the adoption of the self-censorious Comics Code was a clear sign of the times. In 1956 Arnold sold most of his comics properties and titles to DC and set up as a general magazine publisher.

Many of the purchases were a huge boost to National’s portfolio, with titles such as G.I. Combat, Heart Throbs and others running into the 1980s whilst the appeal and potential of characters such as Uncle Sam, assorted Freedom Fighters, Kid Eternity and others keep them coming back to this day…

Next up is Jon L. Blummer’s Hop Harrigan, America’s Ace of the Airways. He debuted in All-American Comics #1 in April 1939 as a dashing aviator: becoming a radio show phenomenon and ultimately a movie serial star. Harrigan was a serving pilot throughout the war and in this tale from All-American Comics #48 March 1943 tests a secret weapon launched from a B-24 bomber to inflict hell on the Japanese.

When Timely Comics failed to make good on financial obligations, Captain America creators Joe Simon & Kirby jumped ship to National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms. After establishing themselves with The Sandman and Manhunter, they returned to the “Kid Gang” genre they had created with The Young Allies and devised a juvenile Foreign Legion entitled The Boy Commandos.

These bellicose brats initially shared – or stole – some of the spotlight from Batman & Robin in flagship title Detective Comics before and whilst their solo title became one of the company’s top three sellers.

Frequently cited as the biggest-selling American comic book in the world at that time, Boy Commandos was such a success that the editors – knowing “The Draft” was lurking – green-lit the completion of a wealth of extra material to lay away for when their star creators were called up. S&K produced so much four-colour magic in a phenomenally short time that Publisher Jack Liebowitz suggested they retool some of it into adventures of a second kid gang… and thus was born Home Front heroes The Newsboy Legion

We never learn how American Captain Rip Carter got to command a British Commando unit nor why he was allowed to bring a quartet of war-orphans with him on a succession of deadly sorties into “Festung Europa”, North Africa, the Pacific or Indo-Chinese theatres of war. All we had to do was realise that cockney urchin Alfy Twidgett, French lad Pierre –latterly and unobtrusively renamed Andre Chavard – little Dutch boy Jan Haasen and rough, tough little lout Brooklyn were fighting the battles we would, if we only had the chance…

Boy Commandos #1 (Winter 1942-1943) here visits ‘The Town that Couldn’t be Conquered!’ as Rip leads the lads back to Jan’s home village to terrify the rapacious occupiers and start a resistance movement…

National/DC were one of the last publishers to fully embrace the end of decade combat trend, converting superhero/fantasy adventure anthology Star Spangled Comics into Star Spangled War Stories the same month it launched Our Army at War (both cover-dated August 1952). All-American Comics was repurposed as All-American Men of War one month later as the “police action” in Korea escalated.

They grew the division slowly but steadily, adding Our Fighting Forces #1 (November 1954) – just as EC’s groundbreaking war comics were vanishing – and in 1957 added G.I. Combat to their portfolio when Quality Comics quit the funnybook business.

As the 1950s closed however, the two-fisted anthologies all began incorporating recurring characters such as Gunner and Sarge – and latterly Pooch – from Our Fighting Forces #45 on (May 1959) – soon to be followed by Sgt.  Rock and The Haunted Tank. Ultimately, all war titles had a lead star or feature to hold the fickle readers’ attention.

The potency of the anthological model is demonstrated here by ‘Push-Button War!’ by Ed Herron & John Severin from Our Army at War #67, (February 1958) as a bombardier learns how the rest of his flight crew do their deadly jobs after which Our Army at War #83 (June 1959) depicts the birth of a legend…

Crafted by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert, ‘The Rock and the Wall!’ was actually the fourth appearance of a character undergoing constant revision. G.I. Combat #68 has an anonymous boxer who simply refused to be beaten. When ‘The Rock!’ enlisted in the US Army, that Horatian quality attained mythic proportions as he held back an overwhelming Nazi attack by sheer grit and determination, remaining bloody but unbowed on a field littered with dead and broken men.

Dubbed “Rocky”, the character returned as a sergeant in Our Army at War #81, again facing superior forces as ‘The Rock of Easy Co.!’ in a brief but telling vignette before finally winning a personal and extremely individualistic identity in the next issue. This was ‘Hold Up Easy!’: another harsh and declarative mini-epic from Kanigher which saw hard-luck heroes Easy Company delayed and then saved by callow replacements who eventually came good…

Only now can we see the story reprinted here as the true debut of the immortal everyman hero. Kanigher & Kubert’s ‘The Rock and the Wall!’ features a tough-love, battlefield tutor shepherding his men to competence and survival amidst the constant perils of war. Here the grizzled noncom meets a rival for his men’s admiration in the equally impressive Joe Wall

Sgt Rock and the “combat-happy Joes” of Easy Company are one of the great and enduring creations of the American comic-book industry. The gritty meta-realism of Robert Kanigher’s ordinary guys in life-or-death situations captured the imaginations of generations of readers, young and old. So pervasive is this icon of comic book combat, that’s it’s hard to grasp that Rock is not an immortal industry prototype like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – with us since the earliest moments of the industry – but is, in fact, a late addition to and child of the Silver Age of Comics.

For most fans, DC’s war comics are synonymous with two names. Individually and in partnership, Kanigher & Kubert built the combat division.

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy in his signature war comics, as well as horror stories, westerns and superhero titles likeTeen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman plus other too numerous to cover here. A restlessly creative writer, he frequently used his uncanny but formulaic adventure arenas as a testing ground for future series concepts. Among the many epochal war features he created were Sgt. Rock, The War that Time Forgot, The Haunted Tank, The Losers and the controversial star of this stupendously compelling war-journal.

He sold his first stories and poetry in 1932, wrote for the theatre, film and radio, joined the Fox Features shop and created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for Blue Beetle and the original Shazam!-shouting Captain Marvel.

In 1945, he settled at All-American Comics as both writer and editor, staying on when the company amalgamated with National Comics to become the forerunner of today’s DC. He wrote Flash and Hawkman, created The Black Canaryand many memorable female villains such as Harlequin and Rose and the Thorn. This last turbulent terror he redesigned during the relevancy era of the early 1970s into a schizophrenic crime-busting vigilante who haunted the back of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane – which he also scripted.

When the taste for mystery-men faded at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved seamlessly into adventure, westerns and war yarns: becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles.

As well as scripting for All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Army at War, he created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 before adding G.I. Combat to his burgeoning portfolio when Quality sold their titles to DC in 1956. This was whilst still working on Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Viking Prince and so many others.

In 1956 he scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the first story of the Silver Age which introduced Barry Allen as the new Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the world. Drawn by Carmine Infantino, the risky experiment included multi-talented veteran Joe Kubert as inker for the crucially important debut issue…

Kubert was born in 1926 in rural Southeast Poland (which became Ukraine and might be Outer Russia by the time you read this). At age two, his parents took him to America and he grew up in Brooklyn.

His folks encouraged Joe to draw from an early age and the precocious kid began a glittering career at the start of the Golden Age, before he was even a teenager. Working and learning at the Chesler comics packaging “Shop”, MLJ, Holyoke and assorted other outfits, he began his close association with National/DC in 1943, whilst still dividing his time and energies between Fiction House, Avon, Harvey and All-American Comics, where he particularly distinguished himself on The Flash and Hawkman.

In the early 1950s he and old school chum Norman Maurer were the creative force behind publishers St. Johns: creating evergreen caveman Tor and launching the 3D comics craze with Three Dimension Comics.

Joe never stopped freelancing, appearing in EC’s Two-Fisted Tales, Avon’s Strange Worlds, Lev Gleason Publications & Atlas Comics until 1955 when, with the industry imploding, he took a permanent position at DC, only slightly diluted whilst he illustrated the contentious and controversial newspaper strip Tales of the Green Berets (from 1965 to 1968). An elder statesman of the industry, he was creating new works and passing on knowledge and experience through his world-famous Joe Kubert School until his death in August 2012.

Here ‘Blind Gunner’ from Our Fighting Forces #49, (September 1959 by Kanigher & Jerry Grandenetti) revisits Pacific Theatre warriors Gunner and Sarge as the sharpshooter looses his sight and is paired up with an astounding – and scene-stealing – K-9 star… “Pooch”.

With Mort Drucker, Kanigher then hits a ‘T.N.T. Spotlight!’ (Star Spangled War Stories #87, November 1959) as French Resistance leader Mlle Marie defeats a Nazi manhunt and retains her reputation for ruthless infallibility before we witness the birth of another genuine phenomenon.

In G.I. Combat #87 (April/May 1961), Kanigher & Russ Heath launched one of the strangest and most beloved war series ever conceived. ‘Introducing – the Haunted Tank’ sees boyhood friends Jeb Stuart Smith, Arch Asher, Slim Strykerand Rick Rawlins all assigned to the same M-3 Stuart Light Tank, named for the legendary Confederate Army General who was a genius of cavalry combat. During a patrol they somehow destroy an enemy Panzer even though they were all knocked unconscious…

Narrated by Jeb in the Commander’s spotter-position (head and torso sticking out of the top hatch and completely exposed to enemy fire whilst driver Slim, gunner Rick and loader Arch remain inside), he recounts how a ghostly voice offered advice and prescient, if veiled, warnings, all while enduring the jibes of fellow soldiers who drive bigger, tougher war machines. Eventually the little tank proves its worth and Jeb wonders if he imagined it all due to shock and his injuries, but we know better – as decades of further exploits proved…

The war department was always pushing envelopes and experimenting and the next star is one of the most notorious and remarkable.

Enemy Ace first appeared as a back-up in flagship title Our Army at War in tales loosely based on “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen. The stories were a magnificent, thought-provoking examination of and tribute to the profession of soldiering, whilst simultaneously condemning the madness of war, produced by dream team Kanigher & Kubert during a period when the ongoing Vietnam conflict was beginning to tear American society apart.

An immediate if seminal hit, the series told bitter tales of valour and honour from the point of view of German WWI fighter pilot Hans von Hammer: a hidebound, noble warrior fighting for his country in a conflict that was swiftly excising all trace of such outmoded concepts from the business of government sanctioned mass-killing.

Mere months later, he starred in a brace of full-length thrillers for prestigious try-out vehicle Showcase. Issue #57 (July/August 1965) here declares him ‘Killer of the Skies!’: recapitulating all that had gone before whilst introducing a potential equal in the form of Canadian ace “The Hunter”. A new wrinkle was added to the mix as Von Hammer now perpetually agonised and bemoaned his inability to save the human conveyor belt of naive, foolish replacement pilots to his Jagdstaffel from killing themselves through enthusiasm, bravado and youthful stupidity…

Eventually the real war hit DC’s comic pages as Capt. Hunter began a personal crusade in Vietnam. Green Beret Captain Phil Hunter debuted in Our Fighting Forces #99, drawn to the conflict to find his twin brother Nick: shot down and now M.I.A. ‘Cold Steel for a Hot War!’ comes from Our Fighting Forces #102 (August 1966 by Kanigher & Jack Abel) and sees the obsessed warrior training child soldiers beside enigmatic turncoat femme fatale Kewpie Doll

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Home Front death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response DC’s military-themed comics became even more bold and innovative. However, the sudden downturn in superheroes led to some serious rethinking. Although war titles maintained and even built sales, they beefed up the anthological elements and began expressing anti-war sentiments…

Sgt, Rock increasingly became a mouthpiece for such sentiment: experiencing the horror and stupidity of fighting and revealing what lay behind the glory and patriotic fervour. Kanigher & Kubert’s ‘Head-Count!’ (Our Army at War #233, June 1971) detailed a new replacement to Easy Co who used the conflict to feed his own sick appetites, after which Kanigher & Alex Toth reveal how boyhood dreams turn to nightmares in shocking US Civil War vignette ‘The Glory Boys!’ (Our Army at War #235, August 1971)

The theme is revisited in ‘The Pool…’ from Weird War Stories #3 (January/February 1972): an early tale by relative newcomers Len Wein & Marv Wolfman, ably illustrated by Heath which shows how both cavemen tribes and modern soldiers battle eternally to possess the only source of water in a trackless wasteland…

Times and tastes constantly evolved, and simple fighting was no longer satisfactory…

One of the very best concepts ever devised for a war comic, The Unknown Soldier was a spin-off, first appearing as a walk-on in a 1966 Sgt. Rock story (Our Army at War #168, by Kanigher & Kubert). His later series featured a faceless super-spy and master-of-disguise whose forebears had proudly fought and died in every American conflict since the birth of the nation.

The strip became one of DC’s most popular and long-lived: Star Spangled morphed into Unknown Soldier in 1977 with #205: only folding in 1982 (#268) when sales of traditional comic books harshly declined. Since then the character has frequently been rebooted and reinvented: each iteration moving further and further way from the originating concept.

His origin revealed how two inseparable brothers joined up in the days before America was attacked and were posted together to the Philippines just as the Japanese began their seemingly unstoppable Pacific Campaign. Overwhelmed by a tidal wave of enemy soldiers one night the brothers held their jungle posts to the last and when relief came only one had survived, his face a tattered mess of raw flesh and bone…

As US forces retreated from the islands the indomitable survivor was evacuated to a state-side hospital. Refusing medals, honours or retirement, the recuperating warrior dedicated his remaining years to his lost brother Harry and determinedly retrained as a one-man-army intelligence unit. His unsalvageable face swathed in bandages, the nameless fighter learned the arts of make-up, disguise and mimicry, perfected a broad arsenal of fighting skills and offered himself to the State Department as an expendable resource who could go anywhere and do anything.

After a long run by numerous stellar creators, shifting fashions provoked a shift in emphasis. Relative neophytes David Michelinie & Gerry Talaoc came aboard with SSWS #183, resulting in an evocative change of direction with ‘8,000 to One’.

The horror boom peaked in 1974 and new editor Joe Orlando capitalised on that fascination with a few startling changes – the most controversial being to expose the Unknown Soldier’s grotesque, scar-ravaged face – presumably to draw in monster-hungry fear fans…

The story itself goes back to the Immortal G.I.’s earliest days as an American agent as he’s despatched to Denmark to rescue a ship full of Danish Jews destined for Hitler’s death camps. Disguised as SS Captain Max Shreik, the Soldier is forced to make an unconscionable choice to safeguard his mission. The degree and manner of graphic violence was also exponentially increased to accommodate the more mature readership as the Soldier took a very personal revenge…

Another result of changing tastes was teaming older strip stars. The Losers were an elite unit of American soldiers formed by amalgamating three old war series together. Gunner and Sarge – supplemented by Fighting Devil Dog Pooch – were Pacific-based Marines, debuting in All-American Men of War #67 (March1959). They ran for 50 issues in Our Fighting Forces (#45-94, May1959-August 1965), whilst Captain Johnny Cloud – Navajo Ace and native American fighter pilot – shot down his first bogie in All-American Men of War #82. He flew solo until issue #115 (1966), whilst the final component of the Land/Air/Sea team was filled by Captain Storm, a disabled PT Boat commander (he had a wooden leg) who had his own 18 issue title from 1964 to 1967. All three series were created by warlord Kanigher.

They had all pretty much passed their sell-by dates when they teamed-up as guest-stars in a Haunted Tank tale in 1969 (G.I. Combat #138 October), but these “Losers” found a new resonance together in the relevant, disillusioned, cynical Vietnam years, and their rather nihilistic, doom-laden anti-hero adventures took the lead spot in Our Fighting Forces#123 (January/February 1970), written by Kanigher with art from giants like Ken Barr, Russ Heath, Sam Glanzman, John Severin and Joe Kubert.

With the tag-line “even when they win, they lose” they saw action all over the globe, winning critical acclaim and a small, passionate following until #181 (September/October 1978) – when the comic was cancelled – and one last hurrah in 1982’s Unknown Soldier #265.

When DC revised its entire continuity in 1985 for Crisis on Infinite Earths a final tale was devised by Kanigher, Judith Hunt, Sam Glanzman & Mike Esposito in a one-shot. The Losers Special #1 saw the doomed heroes perish saving the war effort by destroying a German missile base. That’s not a spoiler: It’s comics and they haven’t all stayed dead…

Readers’ understanding and appreciation of war stories constantly matured over the decades and by the time of ‘Hammer and Anvil’ (Sgt. Rock Special #2, 1992 by Chuck Dixon & Eduardo Barreto) the tales were practically indistinguishable from film or TV fare. Seldom a matter of good versus evil, here, war itself and weather are the enemy as Easy Company endure the horrors of Bastogne and clash with Nazi infiltrators indistinguishable from G.I.’s at the Battle of the Bulge…

Ending this sortie of superb classics is a brilliant extrapolation by modern day keeper of the war flame Garth Ennis, ably assisted by Christian Alamy, Chris Weston & Russ Heath. Released in 2001 as a 2-issue miniseries, Enemy Ace: War in Heaven takes another look at the flyer on the other side, now transplanted to World War II and a far less defensible position…

Bavaria 1942, and 46 years old Baron Hans von Hammer is visited by an old flying comrade urging him to come out of retirement and serve his country. No lover of Nazism, the old ace has remained isolated until now, but Germany’s attack on Russia has proven a disastrous blunder, and this last plea is a much warning as request.

Neophyte pilots on the Eastern Front need his experience and leadership, whereas Hitler’s goons don’t need much excuse to remove a dissident thorn…

Based loosely on the lives of such German pilots as Adolf Galland, book 1 – rendered by Weston – finds von Hammer as indomitable as ever in the killer skies but unable to stomach the increasing horror and stupidity of the conflict and its instigators. The phrase “My Country, Right or Wrong” leaves an increasingly sour taste in his mouth as the last of his nation’s young men die above Soviet fields…

Book 2 is set in 1945 with Germany on the brink of defeat and von Hammer flying an experimental jet fighter (a Messerschmitt 262, if you’re interested): shooting down not nearly enough Allied bombers to make a difference and still annoying the wrong people at Nazi High Command.

He knows the war is over but his sense of duty and personal honour won’t let him quit. He is resigned to die in the bloody skies that are his second home, but is shot down and parachutes into a concentration camp named Dachau…

With art from comics legend Russ Heath, this stirring tale ends with a triumph of integrity over patriotism: a perfect end to the war record of a true soldier and another compelling, deeply incisive exploration of war, its repercussions, both good and bad, and the effects that combat has on singular men. This should be mandatory reading for every child who wants to be a soldier…

With covers Will Eisner & Gil Fox, Simon & Kirby, Grandenetti, Kubert, Dan Brereton and Alamy, this monument to combat comics is a stunning example of passion in play and a clarion call to publishers to return to their archives and release many more such tomes.
© 1941, 1943, 1958, 1959, 1961, 1965, 1966, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1985, 1994, 2001, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Bluecoats volume 10: The Blues in Black and White


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-341-3 (Album PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Read Some Pictures: It’ll Last Longer… 8/10

The myths and legends of the cinematic American West have fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of stagecoaches and gunslingers. Hergé and Moebius were passionate devotees and the wealth of stand-out Continental comics series ranges from Italy’s Tex Willer to such Franco-Belgian classics as Blueberry and tangential all-ages classics such as Yakari. Even colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World and Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt’s Indian Summer fit the broad-brimmed bill.

As devised by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Cauvin – who scripted the first 64 best-selling volumes until his retirement in 2020 – Les Tuniques Bleues (The Bluecoats) debuted at the end of the 1960s, specifically created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic maverick defected from weekly anthology Le Journal de Spirou to rival publication Pilote.

The substitute swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée series in Europe.

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour school, and when he died suddenly in 1972, his replacement, Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte slowly introduced a more realistic – but still overtly comedic – illustrative tone and manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936 and, after studying Fine Art in college, joined publishing giant Dupuis in 1952 as a letterer.

Born in 1938, scripter Cauvin is also Belgian and – before entering Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 – studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy writing – and began a glittering and prolific career at Spirou. In addition to Bluecoats he scripted dozens of long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies of its 65 (and counting) album sequence.

Our sorry, long-suffering protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch; a pair of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel & Hardy: hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier and various key points of fabled America during the War Between the States.

The original format featured single-page gags set around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but from the second volume – Du Nord au Sud – the sad-sack soldiers were situated back East, fighting in the American Civil War. All subsequent adventures – despite ranging far beyond the traditional environs of America and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history – are set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your run-of-the-mill, whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no easier option is available.

Chesterfield is a big, burly professional fighting man; a career soldier who has passionately bought into all the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a medal-wearing hero. He also loves his cynical little troll of a pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers and simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

The Blues in Black and White was the 10th translated Cinebook album (chronologically the 11th European volume) and as Les Tuniques Bleues: Des bleus en noir et blanc was first seen on the continent in 1975, serialised in Le Journal de Spirou #1965 to #1975 before becoming an album collection two years later.

It opens with another spectacular yet pointless battle, with Blutch in fine whining form after a string of horrific near-death experiences. His mood is further tested when he finds a civilian prowling about, pointing a weird box at casualties and other scenes of horror…

The oblivious, self-absorbed stranger is Matthew Brady, who has been sent by President Lincoln to record the war through the strange new medium of photography. After becoming an unwilling subject and accidental laughing stock, Chesterfield is deeply suspicious and, soon after, resentfully resistant as his vain superiors and battle-weary comrades embrace the technological marvel. Before he can react, he and Blutch are appointed bodyguards and dogsbodies: compelled to escort the oblivious, practically-suicidal snapper anywhere and everywhere he wants…

Soon, however, the surly sergeant has all the combat his warrior’s heart can cope with – and even the long-desired prospect of a gong – whilst the sly, shirking corporal has found a way to utterly avoid battle by becoming the photographer’s assistant. He even dresses like a civilian now!

As the daily carnage continues, Chesterfield becomes increasingly irked at the effect of the picture maker. Almost everyone wants to be captured for posterity, to the detriment of actual fighting. While Brady is gone, Blutch “immortalises” everyone, and the sergeant teeters on the brink of madness. He even takes charge of charging whilst his officers are too busy preening and primping for their next heroic pose…

The lethal status quo returns with a bump when the President shows up to decorate Chesterfield. Brady is with him and ready to take his own shots again, meaning Blutch can get back to fighting – just as the Confederate forces rally to retake all the ground they’ve lost while the Sarge was secretly in command…

Things go from bad to worst, as the Rebel response swiftly overwhelms the Union forces. When Lincoln and Brady are almost captured, Blutch and Chesterfield show just what they’re made of… and pay a heavy price…

A shade darker than usual, this wry treatise on fame and pride is a hugely amusing poke at the glory boys of history, deftly delivering an anti-war saga cleverly targeting younger, less world-weary audiences. Historically authentic, and always in good taste despite an uncompromising portrayal of violence, the attitudes expressed by our down-to-earth pair never make battle anything but arrant folly. These are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Funny, thrilling, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the kind of war-story and Western that appeals to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1977 by Lambil & Cauvin. All rights reserved. English translation © 2017 Cinebook Ltd.

Boy Commandos volume 1


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby & various (DC Comics)
ISBN:  978-1-4012-2921-4 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Ideal for Fanboys, Superhero Purists and Lovers of Sheer Comic Exuberance… 9/10

Just as the Golden Age of comics was kicking off two young men with big hopes met up and began a decades-long association that was always intensely creative, immensely productive and spectacularly in tune with popular tastes.

Joe Simon was a sharp-minded, talented gentleman with 5-years-experience in “real” publishing, working from the bottom up to art director on a succession of small newspapers such as the Rochester Journal American, Syracuse Herald and Syracuse Journal American before moving to New York City and a life of freelancing as an art/photo retoucher and illustrator. Recommended by his boss, Simon joined Lloyd Jacquet’s pioneering Funnies Inc., a comics production “shop” generating strips and characters for a number of publishing houses eager to cash in on the success of Action Comics and its stellar attraction Superman.

Within days Simon created The Fiery Mask for Martin Goodman of Timely (now Marvel) Comics and met young Jacob Kurtzberg, a cartoonist/animator just hitting his imaginative stride with Blue Beetle for the Fox Feature Syndicate.

Together Simon and Kurtzberg (who went through a battalion of pen-names before settling on Jack Kirby) enjoyed stunning creative empathy and synergy which galvanized an already electric neo-industry with a vast catalogue of features and even genres.

At a rocket-pace they produced the influential Blue Bolt, Captain Marvel Adventures #1 and – after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely – a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, Marvel Boy, Hurricane, The Vision, The Young Allies and a scene-stealing guy named Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby jumped ship to National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and an large chequebook. Initially an uncomfortable fit, bursting with ideas the company were not comfortable with, the pair were soon handed two failing strips to play with until they found their creative feet.

Soon after establishing themselves with The Sandman and Manhunter, they were left to their own devices and promptly returned to the “Kid Gang” genre they had created with The Young Allies for a unique juvenile Foreign Legion entitled The Boy Commandos.

These bellicose brats initially shared – or stole – some of the spotlight from Batman & Robin in flagship title Detective Comics before and whilst their solo title became one of the company’s top three sellers.

Boy Commandos was such a success – often cited as the biggest-selling American comic book in the world at that time that the editors – knowing “The Draft” was lurking – green-lit the completion of a wealth of extra material to lay away for when their star creators were called up. S&K and their studio team produced so much four-colour magic in a phenomenally short time that Publisher Jack Liebowitz eventually suggested they retool some of it into adventures of a second kid gang… and thus was born The Newsboy Legion (and their tag-along super-heroic mentor The Guardian)…

Those guys we’ll get to some other time, but today let’s applaud this splendidly sturdy full-colour hardback compilation (still regrettably unavailable in digital formats), re-presenting the first 10 months of the courageous child soldiers as seen in Detective Comics #64-72; World’s Finest Comics #8-9; Boy Commandos #1-2 (spanning June 1942 to March 1943): a barrage of bombastic blockbusters at once fervently patriotic morale-boosters, rousing action-adventures and potent satirical swipes and jibes by creators who were never afraid to show that good and evil was never simply just “us & them”…

Following a scholarly Introduction from respected academic Paul Buhle, the vintage thrills and spills commence with a spectacular introduction to the team as only S & K could craft it: a masterpiece of patriotic fervour eschewing lengthy explanations and origins in favour of immediate action. ‘The Commandos are Coming!’ cleverly follows the path of a French Nazi collaborator who finds the courage to fight against his country’s conquerors after meeting the unconventional military unit.

We never learn how American Captain Rip Carter got to command a British Commando unit nor why he was allowed to bring a quartet of war-orphans with him on a succession of deadly sorties into “Festung Europa”, North Africa, the Pacific or Indo-Chinese theatres of war. All we had to do was realise that cockney urchin Alfy Twidgett, French lad Pierre – latterly and unobtrusively renamed AndreChavard, little Dutch boy Jan Haasen and rough, tough little lout Brooklyn were fighting the battles we would, if we only had the chance…

From the start the yarns were strangely exotic and bizarrely multi-layered, adding a stratum of mythmaking and fantasy to the grimly grisly backdrop of a war fought from the underdog’s position. Detective Comics #66 (featuring a stunning art-jam cover by Jerry Robinson and Simon & Kirby, with the Caped Crusaders welcoming the squad to their new home) saw the exploits of the juvenile warriors related by a seer to feudal Queen Catherine of France in ‘Nostrodamus Predicts’.

She saw and drew comfort from Carter’s attempt to place the kids in a posh boarding school, only to uncover a traitor in educator’s clothing which led to a shattering raid right in the heart of the occupier’s defences…

The locale shifted to Africa and time itself got bent when ‘The Sphinx Speaks’ reveals how a reporter in the year 3045 AD interviews a mummy with a Brooklyn accent. The seeming madness materialised after the Commando “mascots” arrived in Egypt in 1942 to liberate a strategically crucial village to unearth a Nazi radio post inside an ancient edifice. Whilst they were causing their usual corrective carnage, one of the lads had a strange meeting with the rocky pile’s oldest inhabitant…

Another esoteric human interest tale began back in Manhattan where hoods Horseshoes Corona and his best pal Buttsy Baynes barely avoid a police dragnet and ‘Escape to Disaster!’ by heading out into the open ocean… and straight into the sights of a U-boat. The sight of the gloating Nazis laughing as his friend perishes has a marked effect on one heartless gangster…

When badly wounded Horseshoes is later picked up by Carter’s crew, he immediately has a negative influence on impressionable, homesick Brooklyn, but turns his life around in its final moments after the Allied vessel attacks an apparently impregnable German sea-base…

Detective #68 exposes ‘The Treachery of Osuki!’ as an aerial dogfight dumps the boys and a Japanese pilot in the same life-raft. Once they hit land, the obsequious flier begins grooming the simple island natives who rescued them, but ultimately can’t mask his fanatical urge to conquer and kill. Next, an epic of East-West cooperation sees the army urchins battling Nazis beside desperate Russian villagers at ‘The Siege of Krovka!’, determined to make the invaders pay for every frozen inch of Soviet soil in a blockbusting tale of heroism and sacrifice.

Another odd episode finds contentious, argument-addicted New York cabbie Hack Hogan drafted and – protesting all the way – slowly transformed into a lethal force of nature sticking it to the Nazis in the heart of their homeland, with the kids reduced to awestruck observers in ‘Fury Rides a Taxicab!’

An astounding hit, the kids became a fixture in premier all-star anthology World’s Finest Comics with #8’s (Winter 1942-1943) ‘The Luck of the Lepparts’ wherein an utter cad and bounder battles to beat a curse which has destroyed three previous generations of his family of traitors. Is it fate, ill fortune or the arrival of the Boy Commandos in the Burmese stronghold he planned to sell out that seals his fate?

That same month saw the inevitable launch of Boy Commandos #1 which explosively opens with ‘The Town that Couldn’t be Conquered!’ Here, Rip leads the lads back to Jan’s home village to terrify the rapacious occupiers and start a resistance movement, after which ‘Heroes Never Die’ fancifully finds the team in China where they meet a dying monk.

This aged sage remembers his childhood when a white pirate and four foreign boys led a bandit army against imperial oppression. He has waited for their prophesised return ever since the Japanese invaded…

This period of furious productivity resulted in some of Simon & Kirby’s most passionate yet largely unappreciated material. As previously stated, Boy Commandos regularly outsold Superman and Batman during WWII, and the moody ‘Satan Wears a Swastika’ clearly shows why, blending patriotic fervour with astonishing characterisation and a plot of astonishing sophistication.

When news comes of the team’s death, official scribes Joe & Jack convene with the Sandman and Newsboy Legion on how to handle the morale-crushing crisis. While the Homefront heroes debate, across the ocean, answers unravel. The confusing contretemps had begun when a quartet of wealthy little people decided that despite their medical deficiencies they would not be cheated of their chance to fight fascism. Accompanied by their tall, rangy butler, they set up as a private combat unit and plunged into the bowels of Berlin, even as the real Commando kids were being run ragged by the Germans’ most deadly operative Agent Axis

That epochal initial issue ends with a weird war story as the boys keep meeting French soldier Francois Girard who shares snippets of useful intel as they prepare for their most audacious mission: kidnapping Hitler…

Even though the sortie eventually comes up short, the blow to the enemy’s morale and prestige is enormous, but on returning home the codenamed ‘Ghost Raiders’ shockingly learn that for one of their number, the title is not metaphorical…

Back in Detective #71 (January 1943) ‘A Break for Santa’ offers a stellar change of pace as the boys organise a treat for orphans and opt – even if they are cashiered for it – to rescue one lad’s dad from a concentration camp as a Christmas treat…

The next issue saw them uncover a devilish espionage/sabotage ring operating out of a florist’s shop in ‘Petals of Peril’whilst #73 revealed ‘The Saga of the Little Tin Box’ with Rip dragging the kids through hellish African jungles ahead of a cunning and supremely competent Nazi huntsman; watching them slowly psychologically unravel as they become increasing obsessed with a pointless trinket…

That mystery successfully solved and survived, the action switched to Europe for World’s Finest Comics #9 with the kids going undercover as circus performers cautiously recruiting a cadre of operatives to strike against the oppressors from within, culminating in ‘The Battle of the Big Top!’

This stunning collection concludes with the contents of Boy Commandos #2 (Spring 1943), leading with ‘The Silent People Speak’ as two Danish brothers – one on each side of the conflict – resolve years of jealousy and hatred after the Commandos stage an incursion into their strategically crucial village. Mordant black comedy then resurfaces as wastrel nobleman Lord Tweedbrook is drafted and his butler becomes his drill-sergeant. Happily, the young lions are on hand to stop the suffering scion absconding and ensure the turbulent toff’s transition to fighting tiger in ‘On the Double, M’Lord!’

Another tantalising twice-told tale has Rip and the boys invade fairy tale European kingdom Camelon to rescue a sleeping Queen (from magic spells or Nazi drugs?) in ‘The Knights Wore Khaki’, before this first wave of yarns culminates with a gloriously sentimental romp as the kids adopt a battered and bloody bomb crater kitten, smuggling him onto a vital mission. Things look bad until even little “Dodger” proves he would give ‘Nine Lives for Victory’

Although I’ve concentrated on the named stars it’s important to remember – especially in these more enlightened times still plagued with the genuine horror of children forcibly swept up in war they have no stake in – that the Boy Commandos, even in their ferociously fabulous exploits, were symbols as much as combatants, usually augmented by huge teams of proper soldiers doing most of the actual killing.

It’s not much of a comfort but at least it proves that Simon & Kirby were not simply caught up in a Big Idea without considering all the implications…

Brilliantly blockbusting and astoundingly appetising, these superb fantasies from the last “Good War” are a superb and spectacular example of comics giants at their most creative. No true believer or dedicated funnybook aficionado should be denied this book.
© 1942, 1943, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

White Death


By Robbie Morrison & Charlie Adlard (Image Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-632151-42-1 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Unmissable and Unforgettable… 9/10

More than a century after the conflict ended, the First World War still has a terrifying grip on public consciousness and remains culturally relevant.

For years I’ve been declaring that Charley’s War is the best story about the Great War ever created but while I remain convinced of that fact, there are plenty of strong contenders for the title and it’s always worth seeking out fresh viewpoints and visualisations. This particular moody masterpiece originally emerged as kind of transcontinental self-published venture by writer Robbie Morrison (Nikolai Dante; Judge Dredd; Doctor Who; Batman) and illustrator Charlie Adlard (Judge Dredd; X Files; Astronauts in Trouble; Batman; The Walking Dead) who initially crafted the international bestseller under the guise of Les Cartoonistes Dangereux in 1998.

It was subsequently rereleased in 2002 by AiT/Planet Lar before becoming this luxurious hardback and digital tome in 2014. It presents a stunning and moving saga of a largely overlooked theatre of that conflict and offers in addition commentary; biographies; a short vignette created as a prelude to the main story and used as a promotional device in French comics magazine Bo Dois, plus a feature detailing the process from original script to finished art. This last is a particularly fascinating inclusion as illustrator Adlard devised a whole new way of delivering comics narrative for the story…

The tale itself is simple and straightforward: based on truly horrific events during what was known as “the White War” and fully contextualised in Morrison’s introductory notes.

It’s 1916 and on the Italian Front, the war against the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (allied with Germany) is as stalled, tedious and horrifically murderous as the trench warfare in France and Belgium, even though it’s being fought across the Alighieri plateau in the mountains of Trentino.

Added to the usual horrors of the conflict are crushing cold, constant mist, fog and snow and the extreme likelihood of being crushed and smothered once the bright sparks shelling each other realise they can also trigger avalanches just by aiming a little bit higher…

Into this mess trudges new recruit Pietro Aquasanta. He grew up in these mountains, but sees little to engender fond feelings or happy memories. Firstly, his status is suspect since he used to soldier for the other side, thanks to the Empire’s conscription policies and the Allies’ habit of taking absolutely anybody – even enemy combatants – who can point a gun.

Secondly, even though he’s now an Italian fighting for his homeland, most of Aquasanta’s comrades are fools, the generals are callous idiots and his immediate superior – sergeant major Orsini – is a fanatical war-loving bastard who will do anything to keep the killing going. Still and all, even solitary outsiders like Pietro can’t help seeking companionship when life is so visibly brief and death looms over everything like a million-ton white shroud…

And as the campaign progresses the turncoat advances simply by not dying…

Leavened through mordant trench humour (I guess the clue is in the name), peppered with painfully human moments of tragedy or unwavering friendship and capturing the numbing horror of ceaseless struggle against the elements, environment, other humans and one’s own self-destructive demons, White Death is a compelling comics classic to be savoured and shared.
© 2014 Robbie Morrison & Charlie Adlard. All rights reserved.

U.S.S. Stevens – The Collected Stories


By Sam Glanzman (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-80158-2 (HB)

To the shame and detriment of the entire comics industry, for most of his career Sam Glanzman was one of the least-regarded creators in American comicbooks. Despite having one of the longest careers, most unique illustration styles and the respect of his creative peers, he just never got the public acclaim his work deserved. Thankfully that all changed in recent years and he lived long enough to enjoy the belated spotlight and bask in some well-deserved adulation.

Glanzman drew and wrote comics since the Golden Age, most commonly in classic genres ranging from war to mystery to fantasy, where his work was – as always – raw, powerful, subtly engaging and irresistibly compelling.

On titles such as Kona, Monarch of Monster Island, Voyage to the Deep, Combat, Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Hercules,The Haunted Tank, The Green Berets, The Private War of Willie Schultz, and especially his 1980s graphic novels A Sailor’s Story and Wind, Dreams and Dragons – which you should buy in a single volume from Dover – Glanzman produced magnificent action-adventure tales which fired the imagination and stirred the blood. His stuff always sold and at least won him a legion of fans amongst fellow artists, if not from the small, insular and over-vocal fan-press.

In later years, Glanzman worked with Tim Truman’s 4Winds outfit on high-profile projects like The Lone Ranger, Jonah Hex and barbarian fantasy Attu. Moreover, as the sublime work gathered here attests, he was also one of the earliest pioneers of graphic autobiography; translating personal WWII experiences as a sailor in the Pacific into one of the very best things to come out of DC’s 1970s war comics line…

U.S.S. Stevens, DD479 was a peripatetic filler-feature which bobbed about between Our Army at War, Our Fighting Forces, G.I. Combat, Star Spangled War Stories and other anthological battle books; quietly backing-up the cover-hogging, star-attraction glory-boys. It provided wry, witty, shocking, informative and immensely human vignettes of shipboard life, starring the fictionalised crew of the destroyer Glanzman had served on. It was, in most ways, a love story and tribute to the vessel which had been their only home and refuge under fire.

In 4- or 5-page episodes, the auteur recaptured and shared a kind of comradeship we peace-timers can only imagine and, despite the pulse-pounding drama of the lead features, us fans all knew these little snippets were what really happened when the Boys went “over there”…

A maritime epic to rank with Melville or Forester – and with stunning pictures too – every episode of this astounding unsung masterpiece is housed in one stunning hardback compilation (also available digitally for limp-wristed old coots like me) and if you love the medium of comics, or history, or just a damn fine tale well-told, you must have it…

That’s really all you need to know, but if you’re one of the regular crowd needful of more of my bombastic blather, a much fuller description follows…

As I’ve already stated, Glanzman belatedly enjoyed some earned attention, and this tome opens by sharing Presidential Letters from Barack Obama and George Herbert Walker Bush for his service and achievements. Then follows a Foreword from Ivan Brandon and a copious and informative Introduction by Jon B. Cooke detailing ‘A Sailor’s History: The Life and Art of Sam J. Glanzman’.

Next comes a brace of prototypical treats; the initial comic book appearance of U.S.S. Stevens from Dell Comics’ Combat #16 (April-June 1965) and the valiant vessel’s first cover spot from Combat #24, April 1967.

The first official U.S.S. Stevens, DD479 appeared after Glanzman approached Joe Kubert, who had recently become Group Editor for DC’s war titles. He commissioned ‘Frightened Boys… or Fighting Men’ (appearing in Our Army at War #218, April 1970), depicting a moment in 1942 as boredom and tension are replaced by frantic action when a suicide plane targets the ship…

A semi-regular cast was introduced slowly throughout 1970; fictionalised incarnations of old shipmates including skipper Commander T. A. Rakov, who ominously pondered his Task Force’s dispersal, moments before a pot-luck attack known as ‘The Browning Shot’ (Our Fighting Forces #125, May/June) proved his fears justified…

Glanzman’s pocket-sized tales always delivered a mountain of information, mood and impact and ‘The Idiot!’ (OAaW#220, June) is one of his most effective, detailing in 4 mesmerising pages not only the variety of suicidal flying bombs the Allies faced, but also how appalled American sailors reacted to them.

Sudden death was everywhere. ‘1-2-3’ (OFF #126, July/August) details how quick action and intuitive thinking saves the ship from a hidden gun emplacement whilst ‘Black Smoke’ (Our Army at War #222, from the same month) shows how a know-it-all engineer causes the sinking of the Stevens’ sister-ship by not believing an old salt’s frequent, frantic warnings…

All aboard ship were regularly shaken by the variety of Japanese aircraft and skill of the pilots. ‘Dragonfly’ (OFF #127, September/October) shows exactly why, whilst an insightful glimpse of the enemy’s psychological other-ness is graphically, tragically depicted in the tale of ‘The Kunkō Warrior’ (OAaW #223, September).

A weird encounter with a wooden WWI vessel forces a ‘Double Rescue!’ (Star Spangled War Stories #153, October/November) before OFF #128’s (November/December) ‘How Many Fathoms?’ again counts the human cost of bravery with devastating, understated impact. ‘Buckethead’ (OAaW #225, November) then relates one swabbie’s unique reaction to constant bombardment.

‘Missing: 320 Men!’ (G.I. Combat #145, December 1970-January 1971) debuted Glanzman-avatar Jerry Boyle who whiled away helpless moments during a shattering battle by sketching cartoons of his astonished shipmates. ‘Death of a Ship!’ (OAaW #227, January 1971) then deals with classic war fodder as submarine and ship hunt each other in a deadly duel…

A military maritime mystery was solved by Commander Rakov in ‘Cause and Cure!’ (Our Army at War #230, March) whilst the next issue posed a different conundrum as the ship loses all power and sticks ‘In the Frying Pan!’ (April 1971).

The vignettes were always less about warfare than its effect – immediate or cumulative – on ordinary guys. ‘Buck Taylor, You Can’t Fool Me!’ (OAaW #232) catalogues his increasingly aberrant behaviour but posits some less likely reasons, after which old school hero Bos’n Egloff saves the day during the worst typhoon of the war in ‘Cabbages and Kings’(OFF #131, July/August) whilst ‘Kamikaze’ (OAa #235 August) boldly and provocatively tells a poignant life-story from the point of view of the pilot inside a flying bomb…

An informative peek at the crew of a torpedo launch station in ‘Hip Shot’ (G.I. Combat #150 October/November) segues seamlessly into the dangers of shore leave ‘In Tsingtao’ (OFF #134, November/December) whilst ‘XDD479’ (Our Army at War #238 November) reveals a lost landmark of military history.

The real DD479 was one of three destroyers test-trialling ship-mounted spotter planes. This little gem explains why that experiment was dropped…

Buck pops back in ‘Red Ribbon’ (G.I.C #151 December 1971-January 1972), sharing a personal coping mechanism for making shipboard chores less “exhilarating”, whilst ‘Vela Lavella’ (OAaW #240, January 1972) captures the claustrophobic horror of night time naval engagement before ‘Dreams’ (G.I.C #152 February/March) peeps inside various heads to see what the ship’s company would rather be doing. ‘Batmen’ (OAaW #241, February) uses a lecture on radar to recount one of the most astounding exploits of the war…

Every U.S.S. Stevens episode was packed with fascinating fact and detail, culled from the artist’s letters home and service-time sketchbooks, but those invaluable memento belligeri also served double duty as the basis for a secondary feature.

The debut ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ appeared in Our Army at War #242 (March 1972): a compendium of pictorial snapshots sharing quieter moments, such as the first passage through the Panama Canal, sleeping arrangements or K.P. duties peeling spuds, and precedes an hilarious record of the freshmen sailors’ endurance of an ancient naval hazing tradition inflicted upon every “pollywog” crossing the equator for the first time in ‘Imperivm Neptivm Regis’ (OFF #136 (March/April 1972).

A second ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ (OAaW #244, April) reveals the mixed joys of “Liberty in the Philippines” after which a suitably foreboding ‘Prelude’ (Weird War Tales #4 (March/April 1972) captures the passive-panicked tension of daily routine whilst a potentially morale-shattering close shave is shared during an all-too-infrequent ‘Mail Call!’ (G.I. Combat #155, April/May)…

A thoughtful man of keen empathy and insight, Glanzman often offered readers a look at the real victims. ‘What Do They Know About War?’ (OAaW #244, April) sees peasant islanders trying to eke out a living, only to discover far too many similarities between Occupiers and Liberators, whilst the next issue focussed on the sailors’ jangling nerves and stomachs. ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the War!’ (#245, May) reveals what happened when DD479 was mistakenly declared destroyed and, thanks to an administrative iron curtain, found it impossible to refuel or take on food stores…

Cartoonist Jerry Boyle resurfaced in a ‘Comic Strip’ in OFF #138 (July/August) after which Glanzman produced one of the most powerful social statements in an era of tumultuous change.

Our Army at War #247 (July 1972) featured a tale based on decorated Pearl Harbor hero Doner Miller who saved lives, killed the enemy and won medals, but was not allowed to progress beyond the rank of shipboard domestic because of his skin. ‘Color Me Brave!’ was an excoriating attack on the U.S. Navy’s segregation policies and is as breathtaking and rousing now as it was then…

‘Ride the Baka’ (OAaW #248 August) revisits those constant near-miss moments sparked by suicide pilots after which Glanzman shares broken sleep in ‘A Nightmare from the Beginning’ (OFF #139, September/October) whilst ‘Another Kunkō Warrior’ (OFF #140, November/December) sees marines taking an island and encountering warfare beyond their comprehension.

1973 began with a death-dipped nursery rhyme detailing ‘This is the Ship that War Built!’ (G.I.C #157 December 1972-January 1973) before ‘Buck Taylor’ (OFF #141 January/February) delivers an impromptu lecture on maritime military history. Glanzman struck an impassioned note for war-brides and lonely ships passing in the night with ‘The Islands Were Meant for Love!’ (Star Spangled War Stories #167 February)…

Terror turns to wonder when sailors encounter the ‘Portuguese Man of War’ (OAaW #256 August), a shore leave mugging is thwarted thanks to ‘Tailor-Mades’ (OFF #143 June/July) and letters home are necessarily self-censored in ‘The Sea is Calm… The Sky is Bright…’ (OAaW #257 June), but shipboard relationships remain complex and bewildering, as proved in ‘Who to Believe!’ (SSWS #171, July).

The strife of constant struggle comes to the fore in ‘The Kiyi’ (OAaW #258 July) and is seen from both sides when souvenir hunters try to take ‘The Thousand-Stitch-Belt’ (SSWS #172 August), but, as always, it’s non-combatants who truly pay the price, just like the native fishermen in ‘Accident…’ (OAaW #259, August).

Even the quietest, happiest moments can turn instantly fatal as the good-natured pilferers swiping fruit at a refuelling station discover in ‘King of the Hill’ (SSWS #174, October).

An unlikely tale of a kamikaze who survives his final flight but not his final fate, ‘Today is Tomorrow’ (OAaW #261, October) precedes a strident, wordless plea for understanding in ‘Where…?’ (OAaW #262 November 1973) before the sombre mood is briefly lifted with a tale of selfishness and sacrifice in ‘Rocco’s Roost’ from OAaW #265, February 1974.

The following issue provide both a gentle ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ covering down-time in “The Islands” and a brutal tale of mentorship and torches passed in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, after which a truly disturbing tale of what we now call gender identity and post-traumatic stress disorder is recounted in the tragedy of ‘Toro’ from the April/May Our Fighting Forces #148…

‘Moonglow’ from OAaW #267 (April 1974) reveals how quickly placid contemplation can turn to blazing conflagration, whilst – after a chilling, evocative ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ (OAaW #269 June) – ‘Lucky… Save Me!’ (OAaW #275, December 1974) shows how memories of unconditional love can offset the cruellest of injuries…

‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose!’ (OAaW #281, June 1975) explores how both friend and foe alike can be addicted to risk, after which the next issue’s ‘I Am Old Glory…’ sardonically transposes a thoughtful veneration with the actualities of combat before ‘A Glance into Glanzman’ by Allan Asherman (Our Army at War #284, September 1975) takes a look at the author’s creative process.

Then it’s back to those sketchbooks and another peep ‘Between the Pages’ (OAaW #293, June 1976) before ‘Not Granted!’ (OAaW #298, November 1976) discloses every seaman’s most fervent wish…

Stories were coming at greater intervals at this time and it was clear that – editorially at least – the company was moving on to fresher fields. Glanzman, however, had saved his best till last as a stomach-churning visual essay displayed the force of tension sustained over months in ‘…And Fear Crippled Andy Payne’ (Sgt. Rock #304, May 1977) before an elegy to bravery and stupidity asked ‘Why?’ in Sgt. Rock #308 from September 1977.

And that was it for nearly a decade. Glanzman – a consummate professional – moved on to other ventures. He was, however, constantly asked about U.S.S. Stevens and eventually, nearly a decade later, returned to his spiritual stomping grounds in expanded tales of DD479: both in his graphic novel memoirs and comic strips.

The latter appeared in anthological black-&-white Marvel magazine Savage Tales (#6-8, spanning August to December 1986) under the umbrella title ‘Of War and Peace – Tales by Mas’.

First up was ‘The Trinity’ blending present with past to detail a shocking incident of a good man’s breaking point, whilst a lighter tone informed ‘In a Gentlemanly Way’, as Glanzman recalled the different means by which officers and swabbies showed their pride for their ships. ‘Rescued by Luck’ than concentrated on a saga of island survival for sailors whose ship had sunk…

Next comes the hauntingly powerful black-&-white tale of then and now entitled ‘Even Dead Birds Have Wings’ (created for the Dover Edition of A Sailor’s Story from 2015) after which a chronologically adrift yarn (from Sgt. Rock Special #1, October 1992) evokes potently elegiac feelings, describing an uncanny act of gallantry under fire and the ultimate fate of old heroes in ‘Home of the Brave’

A few years ago, by popular – and editorial – demand, Glanzman returned to the U.S.S. Stevens for an old friend’s swan song series; providing new tales for each issue of DC’s anthological 6-issue miniseries Joe Kubert Presents (December 2012- May 2013).

More scattershot reminiscences than structured stories, ‘I REMEMBER: Dreams’ and ‘I REMEMBER: Squish Squash’recapitulate unforgettable moments seen through eyes at the sunset end of life; recalling giant storms and lost friends, imagining how distant families endured war and absence and, as always, balancing funny memories with the tragic, like that time when the stiff-necked new commander…

‘Snapshots’ continues the reverie, blending a veteran’s war stories with cherished times as a kid on the farm whilst ‘The Figurehead’ delves deeper into the character of Buck Taylor and his esoteric quest for seaborne nirvana…

Closing that last hurrah were ‘Back and Forth 1941-1944’ and ‘Back and Forth 1941-1945’: an encapsulating catalogue of war service as experienced by the creator, mixing facts, figures, memories and reactions to form a quiet tribute to all who served and all who never returned…

With the stories mostly told, the ‘Afterword’ by Allan Asherman details those heady days when he worked at DC Editorial, and Glanzman would unfailingly light up the offices by delivering his latest strips, after which this monolithic milestone offers a vast and stunningly detailed appendix of ‘Story Annotations’ by Jon B. Cooke.

This is a magnificent collection of comic stories based on real life and what is more fitting than to end it with ‘U.S.S. Stevens DD479’ (coloured by Frank M. Cuonzo & lettered by Thomas Mauer): one final, lyrical farewell from Glanzman to his comrades and the ship which still holds his heart after all these years…?

This is an extraordinary work. In unobtrusive little snippets, Glanzman challenged myths, prejudices and stereotypes – of morality, manhood, race, sexuality and gender – decades before anybody else in comics even thought to try.

He also brought an aura of authenticity to war stories which has never been equalled: eschewing melodrama, faux heroism, trumped-up angst and eye-catching glory-hounding to instead depict how “brothers in arms” really felt and acted and suffered and died.

Shockingly funny, painfully realistic and visually captivating, U.S.S. Stevens is phenomenal and magnificent: a masterpiece by one of the very best of “The Greatest Generation”. I waited 40 years for this and I couldn’t be happier: a sublimely insightful, affecting and rewarding graphic memoir every home, school and library should have and one every reader will return to over and over.
Artwork and text © 2015 Sam Glanzman. All other material © 2015 its respective creators.

Showcase Presents Showcase


By Many and various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-364-1 (TPB)

If you’re a book reviewer, Christmas often comes incredibly early. We received lots and lots of lovely new tomes in the last week and I’ve still not caught up yet, so in the meantime, I’m fobbing you all off with a reworked recommendation I was saving for our actual Christmas promotion season. It’s still a wonderful read criminally in need of re-release and a digital edition, but readily available – for now…

The review is incredibly long. If you want to skip it and just buy the book – because it’s truly brilliant – then please do. I won’t mind and you won’t regret it at all…

In almost every conceivable way, DC’s original “try-out title” Showcase created and dictated the form of the Silver Age of American comic books and is responsible for the multi-billion-dollar industry and art form we all enjoy today.

For many of us old lags, the Silver Age is the ideal era and a still-calling Promised Land of fun and thrills. Varnished by nostalgia (because it’s the era when most of us caught this crazy childhood bug), the clean-cut, unsophisticated optimism of the late 1950s and early 1960s produced captivating heroes and compelling villains who were still far less terrifying than the Cold War baddies then troubling the grown-ups. The sheer talent and unbridled professionalism of the creators working in that too-briefly revitalised comics world resulted in triumph after triumph and even inspired competitors to step up and excel: all of which brightened our young lives and still glow today with quality and achievement.

The principle was a sound one and graphically depicted in the very first issue: the Editors at National/DC were apparently bombarded with readers’ suggestions for new titles and concepts and the only possible way to feasibly prove which would be popular was to offer test runs and assess fan reactions – for which read Sales…

Firmly ensconced in the age of genre thrillers and human adventurers, this magnificent, monolithic monochrome tome covers the first 21 issues from that historic series, spanning March/April 1956 to July/August 1959, and starts the ball rolling with the first and last appearances of Fireman Farrell in a proposed series dubbed Fire Fighters.

Following the aforementioned short ‘The Story Behind Showcase’ by Jack Schiff & Win Mortimer, the human-scaled dramas begin in ‘The School for Smoke-Eaters’ by Schiff and the superb John Prentice (Rip Kirby), introducing trainee fireman Mike Farrell during the last days of his training and desperate to simultaneously live up to and escape his father’s fabulous record as a legendary “smoke-eater”.

The remaining stories, both scripted by Arnold Drake, deal with the job’s daily dilemmas: firstly in ‘Fire under the Big Top’ wherein an unscrupulous showman ignored Farrell’s Fire Inspection findings with tragic consequences, and in‘Fourth Alarm’ mixing an industrial dispute over fireman’s pay, a crooked factory owner and a waterfront blaze captured on live TV in a blisteringly authentic tale of human heroism.

Showcase #2 featured Kings of the Wild: tales of animal valour imaginatively related in three tales scripted by Robert Kanigher – who had thrived after the demise of superheroes with a range of fantastical genre adventures covering western, war, espionage and straight adventure. Stunningly illustrated by Joe Kubert, ‘Rider of the Winds’ tells of a Native American lad’s relationship with his totem spirit Eagle; ‘Outcast Heroes’ (Ross Andru & Mike Esposito) relates how an orphan boy’s loneliness ends after befriending a runaway mutt who eventually saves the town’s kids from a flood before ‘Runaway Bear’ – drawn by Russ Heath – uses broad comedy to describe how an escaped circus bruin battles all the horrors of the wilderness to get return to his comfortable, safe life under the Big Top.

Issue #3 debuted Kanigher & Heath’s The Frogmen in an extended single tale following candidates for a US Underwater Demolitions Team as they move from students to successful undersea warriors. Beginning with ‘The Making of a Frogman’ as the smallest diver – mocked and chided as a ‘Sardine’ by his fellows (especially ‘Shark’ and ‘Whale’) – perseveres and forges bonds until the trio are dumped into blazing Pacific action in ‘Flying Frogmen’, learning the worth of teamwork and sacrifice by destroying a Japanese Sub base in ‘Silent War’

The feature returned as a semi-regular strip in All-American Men of War #44 (April #1957) amongst other Kanigher-edited war comics: making Frogmen the first but certainly not the last graduate of the try-out system. The next debut was to be the most successful but the cautious publishers took a long, long time to make it so…

No matter which way you look at it, the Silver Age officially arrived began with The Flash. It’s an unjust but true fact that being first is not enough; it also helps to be best and people have to notice. The Shield beat Captain America to the news-stands by over a year yet the former is all but forgotten today.

The industry had never really stopped trying to revive superheroes when Showcase #4 was released in late summer of 1956, with such precursors as The Avenger (February-September 1955); Captain Flash (November 1954-July 1955); Marvel’s Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and aforementioned Sentinel of Liberty (December 1953-October 1955) and even DC’s own Captain Comet (December 1953-October 1955) and Manhunter from Mars (November 1955 until the close of the 1960’s and almost the end of superheroes again!) still turning up in second-hand-stores and “Five-and-Dime” bargain bins. What made the new Fastest Man Alive stand out and stick was … well, everything!

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

The new Flash was Barry Allen, a forensic scientist simultaneously struck by lightning and bathed in the exploding chemicals of his lab. Supercharged by the accident, Barry took his superhero identity from a comic book featuring his predecessor (scientist Jay Garrick, who was exposed to the mutagenic fumes of “Hard Water”). Designing a sleek, streamlined bodysuit (courtesy of Infantino – a major talent rapidly approaching his artistic and creative pinnacle), Barry Allen became the point man for the spectacular revival of a genre and the entire industry.

‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ (Kanigher) and ‘The Man Who Broke the Time Barrier’ (written by the superb John Broome) are polished, coolly sophisticated stories introducing the comfortingly suburban superhero and establishing the broad parameters of his universe. Whether defeating bizarre criminal masterminds such as The Turtle or returning criminal exile Mazdan to his own century, the new Flash was a protagonist of keen insight and sharp wits as well as overwhelming power. Nonetheless the concept was so controversial that despite phenomenal sales, rather than his own series the Fastest Man Alive was given a Showcase encore almost a year later…

Showcase #5 featured the last comics concept in years that didn’t actually develop into an ongoing series, but that’s certainly due to changing fashions of the times and not the quality of the work. The three crime yarns comprising cops-&-robbers anthology Manhunters, begin with ‘The Greatest Villain of all Time’ by Jack Miller & Mort Meskin, revealing how Hollywood screenwriter-turned-police detective Lt. Fowler is dogged by a madman playing for real all the fantastic bad guys the mystery author had once created, whilst ‘The Two Faces of Mr. X’ (Miller, Curt Swan & Sy Barry) finds a male model drafted by the FBI to replace a prominent mob-boss. Unfortunately, it’s the day before the gangster is scheduled for face-changing plastic surgery…

‘The Human Eel’ (Miller & Bill Ely) then pits a cop unable to endure heights against an international high-tech rogue who thinks he hold all the winning cards…

The next try-out was on far firmer fashion grounds and was the first feature to win two issues in a row.

The Challengers of the Unknown were a bridging concept. As the superhero genre was ever so cautiously alpha-tested in 1956 here was a super-team – the first new group-entry of this still-to-be codified era – but with no uncanny abilities or masks, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes, and the most dubious of motives: Suicide by Mystery…

If you wanted to play editorially safe you could argue that were simply another para-military band of adventurers like the long running Blackhawks… but they weren’t.

A huge early hit – winning their own title before The Flash (March 1959) and just two months after Lois Lane (March 1958, although she had been a star in comics since 1938 and even had TV, radio and movie recognition on her side) – the Challs struck a chord resonating for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable.

Jack Kirby was – and remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are quite rightly millions of words written about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium. When the comic industry suffered a collapse in the mid 1950’s, Kirby briefly returned to DC, crafting genre mystery tales and revitalising the Green Arrow back-up strip whilst creating newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force. He also re-packaged for Showcase an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and long-time collaborator Joe Simon had closed their innovative but unfortunate Mainline Comics.

The Challengers of the Unknown were four extraordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers brought together for a radio show who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Already obviously what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, they decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and, of course, Justice.

Showcase #6, dated January/February 1957 – which meant it came out in time for Christmas 1956 – introduced pilot Ace Morgan, wrestler Rocky Davis, acrobat Red Ryan and scholarly marine explorer “Prof” Haley in a no-nonsense romp by Kirby, scripter Dave Wood, inkers Marvin Stein and Jack’s wife Roz, before devoting the rest of the issue to a spectacular epic with the doom-chasers hired by duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient casque holding otherworldly secrets and powers in ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’

This story roars along with all the tension and wonder of the B-movie thrillers it emulates, and Kirby’s awesome drawing resonates with power and dynamism as the heroes tackle ancient horrors such as ‘Dragon Seed!’, ‘The Freezing Sun!’ and ‘The Whirling Weaver!’

The fantasy magic continued in the sequel: a science fiction crisis caused when an alliance of Nazi technologies with American criminality unleashes a robotic monster. Scripted by Kirby, ‘Ultivac is Loose!’ (Showcase #7, March/April 1957) introduces quietly capable boffin Dr. June Robbins, who becomes the fifth Challenger at a time when most comic females had returned to a subsidiary status in that so-conservative era.

As her computers predict ‘A Challenger Must Die!’, the lads nevertheless continue to hunt a telepathic, sentient super-robot who inadvertently terrorises ‘The Fearful Millions’ but soon find their sympathies with the tragic artificial intelligence after ‘The Fateful Prediction!’ is fulfilled…

Showcase #8 (June 1957) again featured the Flash, leading with another Kanigher tale – ‘The Secret of the Empty Box’. This perplexing but pedestrian mystery sees Frank Giacoia debut as inker, but the real landmark is Broome’s thriller ‘The Coldest Man on Earth’. With this yarn the author confirmed and consolidated the new phenomenon by introducing the first of a Rogues Gallery of outlandish super-villains. Unlike Golden Age stalwarts, new super-heroes would face predominantly costumed foes rather than thugs and spies. Henceforth, Bad Guys would be as visually arresting and memorable as the champions of justice. Captain Cold would return time and again as pre-eminent Flash Foe and Broome would go on to create every single member of Flash’s classic pantheon of super-villains.

Also included is filler reprint ‘The Race of Wheel and Keel’ by Gardner Fox, Gil Kane & Harry Lazarus, from All-Star Comics #53 (June/July 1950): a true story of how in 1858 a shipping magnate and stagecoach tycoon competed to prove which method of transportation was fastest…

When Lois Lane – arguably the oldest supporting character/star in the Superman mythology if not DC universe – finally received her own shot at a solo title, it was very much on the terms of the times.

I must shamefacedly admit to a deep, nostalgic affection for her bright, breezy, fantastically fun adventures, but as a free-thinking, (nominally) adult liberal of the 21st century I’m astounded now at the jolly, patronising, patriarchally misogynistic attitudes underpinning so many of the stories.

Yes, I’m fully aware that the series was intended for young readers at a time when “dizzy dames” like Lucille Ball or Doris Day played to a popular American stereotype of Woman as jealous minx, silly goose, diffident wife and brood-hungry nester, but asking kids to seriously accept that intelligent, courageous, ambitious, ethical and highly capable females would drop everything they’d worked hard for to lie, cheat, inveigle, manipulate and entrap a man just so that they could cook pot-roast and change super-diapers is just plain crazy and tantamount to child abuse.

I’m just saying…

Showcase #9 (cover-dated July/August 1957) featured Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane in three tales by Jerry Coleman, Ruben Moreira & Al Plastino; opening with seminal yarn ‘The Girl in Superman’s Past’ wherein Lois first meets red-headed hussy Lana Lang. The childhood sweetheart of Superboy seems to be a pushy conniving go-getter out to win Lois’ intended at all costs. Naturally Miss Lane invites Miss Lang to stay at her apartment and the grand rivalry is off and running…

‘The New Lois Lane’ aggravatingly saw Lois turn over a new leaf and stop attempting to uncover his secret identity just when Superman actually needs her to do so, and the premier concludes with concussion-induced day-dream ‘Mrs. Superman’ with Lois imagining a life of domestic super-bliss…

The next issue (September/October 1957) offered three more of the same, all illustrated by Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye, beginning with ‘The Jilting of Superman’ – scripted by Otto Binder – wherein the Man of Tomorrow almost falls for an ancient ploy as Lois pretends to marry another man to make the Kryptonian clod realise what she means to him…

‘The Sightless Lois Lane’ by Coleman reveals how a nuclear accident temporarily blinds the journalist, before her unexpected recovery almost exposes Clark Kent’s secret when he callously changes to Superman in front of the blind girl. Binder delightfully closes the issue with ‘The Forbidden Box from Krypton’: a cache of devices dug up by a Smallville archaeologist originally packed by Jor-El to aid the infant superbaby on Earth. Of course, when Lois opens the chest all she sees is a way to become as powerful as the Man of Steel before becoming addicted to being a super-champion in her own right…

Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane launched into her own title scant months later, clearly exactly what the readers wanted…

Showcase #11 (November/December 1957) saw the Challengers return to combat an alien invasion on ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’, with unique realist Bruno Premiani inking a taut doomsday chiller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats even today. Whilst searching for missing Antarctic explorers the Challs discover an under-ice base where double-brained aliens prepare to explosively alter the mass and gravity of Earth. Although intellectually superior, ‘The Tyrans’are no match for the indomitable human heroes and with their Plan A scotched, resort to brute force and ‘The Thing That Came out of the Sea’, even as Prof scuttles their aquatic ace in the hole with ‘One Minute to Doom’

By the time of their final Showcase cases (#12, January/February 1958) they had already secured their own title. Here, though, ‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ is defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and ingenuity (with the wonderful inking of George Klein, not Wally Wood as credited here) as international spy and criminal Karnak steals a clutch of ancient chemical weapons which create giants and ‘The Fire Being!’, summon ‘The Demon from the Depths’and materialise ‘The Deadly Duplicates!’ before the pre-fantastic four put their enemy down.

Flash zipped back in Showcase #13 (March/April 1958) in a brace of tales pencilled by Infantino and inked by Joe Giella. Written by Kanigher, ‘Around the World in 80 Minutes’ follows the Scarlet Speedster as he tackles atomic blackmail in Paris, foils kidnappers and rebuilds a pyramid in Egypt; dismantles an avalanche in Tibet and scuttles a pirate submarine in the Pacific, before Broome’s ‘Master of the Elements’ introduces outlandish chemical criminal Al Desmond who ravages Central City as Mr. Element until the Flash outwits him.

One last try-out issue – inked by Giacoia – cemented the Flash’s future: Showcase #14 (May/June 1958) opens with Kanigher’s eerie ‘Giants of the Time-World!’ as the Fastest Man Alive smashes dimensional barriers to rescue his girlfriend Iris West from uncanny cosmic colossi and stamp out an alien invasion plan, after which Al Desmond returns with an altered M.O. and new identity. Doctor Alchemy’s discovery of the mystic Philosopher’s Stone makes him ‘The Man who Changed the Earth!’: a stunning yarn and worthy effort to bow out on, but it was still nearly a year until the first issue of The Flash finally hit the stands.

To reiterate: Showcase was a try-out comic designed to launch new series and concepts with minimal commitment of publishing resources. If a new character sold well initially, a regular series would follow. The process had been proved with Frogmen, Lois Lane, Challengers of the Unknown and Flash, so Editorial Director Irwin Donenfeld now urged his two Showcase editors to create science fiction heroes to capitalise on the twin zeitgeists of the Space Race and the popular fascination with movie monsters and aliens. Jack Schiff came up with a “masked” crimefighter of the future – who featured in issues #15 and 16 – whilst Julie Schwartz concentrated on the now in the saga of a contemporary Earth explorer catapulted into the most uncharted territory yet imagined.

Showcase #15 (September/October 1958) commenced without fanfare – or origin – the ongoing adventures of Space Ranger – beginning in ‘The Great Plutonium Plot’ (plotted by Gardner Fox, scripted by pulp veteran Edmond Hamilton and illustrated by Bob Brown).

Their hero was in actuality Rick Starr, son of a wealthy interplanetary businessman who – thanks to incredible gadgets and the assistance of shape-shifting alien pal Cryll and capable Girl Friday Myra Mason – spent his free time battling evil and injustice. When Jarko the Jovian space pirate targets only ships carrying the trans-uranic element, Rick suspects a hidden motive. Donning his guise of the Space Ranger, he lays a cunning trap, exposing a hidden mastermind and a deadly ancient device endangering the entire solar system…

From his base in a hollow asteroid, Space Ranger ranges the universe and ‘The Robot Planet’ brings him and his team to Sirius after discovering a diabolical device designed to rip Sol’s planets out of their orbits. At the end of his voyage, Starr discovers a sublime civilisation reduced to cave-dwelling and a mighty computer intelligence intent on controlling the entire universe unless he can stop it…

Issue #16 opened with ‘The Secret of the Space Monster’ (plot by John Forte, scripted by Hamilton, illustrated by Brown) with Rick, Myra and Cryll investigating an impossible void creature and uncovering a band of alien revolutionaries testing novel super-weapons. ‘The Riddle of the Lost Race’ (Fox, Hamilton & Brown) then takes the team on a whistle-stop tour of the Solar system in pursuit of a vicious criminal and hidden treasures of a long-vanished civilisation.

A few months later Space Ranger was transported to science fiction anthology Tales of the Unexpected, beginning with issue #40 (August 1959) to hold the lead and cover spot for a 6-year run…

One of the most compelling and revered stars of those halcyon days was an ordinary Earthman who regularly travelled to another world for spectacular adventures, armed with nothing more than a ray-gun, a jetpack and his own ingenuity. His name was Adam Strange, and like so many of that era’s triumphs, he was the brainchild of Julius Schwartz and his close team of creative stars.

Showcase #17 (November/December 1958) proclaimed Adventures on Other Worlds, courtesy of Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky & Bernard Sachs, telling of an archaeologist who, whilst fleeing from enraged natives in Peru, jumps a 25-foot chasm only to be hit by a stray teleport beam from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. Rematerialising on another planet filled with giant plants and monsters, he is rescued by a beautiful woman named Alanna who teaches him her language via a cunning contrivance. ‘Secret of the Eternal City!’ reveals Rann is a world recovering from atomic war, and the beam Adam intercepted was in fact a simple flare, one of many sent in an attempt to communicate with other races.

In the four years (Speed of Light, right? As You Know, Bob – Alpha Centauri is about 4.3 light-years from Sol) the Zeta-Flare travelled through space, cosmic radiation converted it into a teleportation beam. Until the radiation drains from his body Strange is a most willing prisoner on a fantastic world of mystery, adventure and romance…

And an incredibly unlucky one apparently, as no sooner has Adam started acclimatising than an alien race The Eternalsinvades, seeking a mineral that grants them immortality. Strange’s courage and sharp wits enable him to defeat the invaders only to have the Zeta radiation finally fade, drawing him home before his adoring Alanna can administer a hero’s reward. Thus was established the principles of this beguiling series. Adam would intercept a Zeta-beam hoping for some time with his alien sweetheart, only to be confronted with a planet-menacing crisis.

The very next of these, ‘The Planet and the Pendulum’ sees him obtain the crimson-and-white spacesuit and weaponry that became his distinctive trademark in a tale of alien invaders attacking a lost colony of Rannians. They reside on planetary neighbour Anthorann – a fact that also introduces the major subplot of Rann’s still-warring city-states, all desperate to progress and all at different stages of recovery and development….

The next issue featured the self-explanatory ‘Invaders from the Atom Universe’ – with sub-atomic marauders displacing the native races until Adam unravels their nefarious plans – and ‘The Dozen Dooms of Adam Strange’, wherein our hero outfoxes the dictator of Dys who plans to invade Alanna’s home-city Rannagar.

With this last story, Sachs was replaced by Joe Giella as inker, although the former did ink Showcase #19’s stunning Gil Kane cover, (March/April 1959) which saw the unwieldy Adventures on Other Worlds title replaced with eponymous logo Adam Strange.

‘Challenge of the Star-Hunter’ and ‘Mystery of the Mental Menace’ are classic puzzle tales wherein the Earthman must outwit a shape-changing alien and an all-powerful energy-being. After so doing, Adam Strange took over the lead spot and cover of anthology comic Mystery in Space with the August issue.

Clearly on a creative high and riding a building wave, Showcase #20 (May/June 1959) introduced Rip Hunter… Time Master and his dauntless crew as Prisoners of 100 Million BC’ (by Jack Miller & Ruben Moreira) in a novel-length introductory escapade seeing the daredevil physicist, his engineer friend Jeff Smith, girlfriend Bonnie Baxter and her little brother Corky travel to the Mesozoic era, unaware they are carrying two criminal stowaways.

Once there, the thugs hi-jack the Time Sphere, holding it hostage until the explorers help them stock up with rare and precious minerals. Reduced to the status of castaways, Rip and his team become ‘The Modern-Day Cavemen’, but when an erupting volcano provokes ‘The Great Beast Stampede’, our dauntless chrononauts finally turn the tables on their abductors…

Miller was always careful to use the best research available, but never afraid to blend historical fact with bold fantasy for Hunter’s escapades, and this volume concludes with an epic follow-up. Illustrated by Sekowsky & Joe Giella, ‘The Secret of the Lost Continent’ (Showcase #21, July/August, 1959,) has the Time Masters jump progressively further back in time in search of Atlantis. Starting with a dramatic meeting with Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, the explorers follow the trail back centuries to ‘The Forbidden Island’ of Aeaea in 700 BCE and uncover the secret of the witch Circe before finally reaching 14,000 BCE and ‘The Doomed Continent’ only to find the legendary pinnacle of early human achievement to be a colony of stranded extraterrestrial refugees…

Rip Hunter would appear twice more in Showcase before winning his own comic. The succeeding months would see the Silver Age truly kick into High Gear with classic launches coming thick and fast…

These stories from a uniquely influential comic book determined the course of the entire American strip culture and for that alone they should be cherished, but the fact they are still some of the most timeless, accessible and entertaining graphic adventures ever produced is a gift that should be celebrated by every fan and casual reader.

Buy this for yourself, get it for your friends and get a spare just because you can…
© 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.