Teen Titans: The Silver Age Volume One

By Bob Haney, Bruno Premiani, Nick Cardy, Irv Novick, Bill Molno & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7508-2

The concept of kid hero teams was not a new one when the 1960s Batman TV show finally prompted DC to trust their big heroes’ assorted sidekicks with their own regular comic in a fab, hip and groovy ensemble as dedicated to helping kids as they were to stamping out insidious evil.

The biggest difference between wartime groups such as The Young Allies, Newsboy Legion and Boy Commandos or 1950s holdovers like The Little Wise Guys or Boys Ranch and the creation of the Teen Titans was quite simply the burgeoning phenomena of “The Teenager” as a discrete social and commercial force. These were kids who could – and should – be allowed to do things themselves without constant adult help or supervision.

This quirkily eclectic trade paperback and eBook compilation re-presents the landmark try-out appearances from The Brave and the Bold #54 and 60 and Showcase #59 – collectively debuting in 1964 and1965 – as well as the first eleven issues of Teen Titans solo title, spanning January/February 1966 to September/October 1967.

As early as the June-July 1964 issue of The Brave and the Bold (#54), DC’s Powers-That-Be tested the waters in a gripping tale by writer Bob Haney superbly illustrated by unsung genius Bruno Premiani.

The Thousand-and-One Dooms of Mr. Twister’ united Kid Flash, Aqualad and Robin the Boy Wonder in dire and desperate battle against a modern wizard-cum-Pied Piper who tried to abduct all the teen-agers of scenic Hatton Corners. The young heroes accidentally meet in the town by chance after students invite them to mediate in a long-running dispute with the town adults…

This element of a teen “court of appeal” was the motivating principle in many of the group’s cases. One year later the team reformed for a second adventure (B&B #60, by the same creative team) and introduced two new elements.

‘The Astounding Separated Man’ features more misunderstood kids (weren’t we all?); this time in the coastal hamlet of Midville and threatened by an outlandish monster whose giant body parts can detach and move independently. Wonder Girl was added to the roster (not actually a sidekick, or even a person at that juncture, but rather an incarnation of Wonder Woman as a child – a fact the writer and editor of the series seemed blissfully unaware of) but most importantly they kids finally had a team name: ‘Teen Titans’.

Their final try-out appearance was in Showcase (#59, November-December 1965); birthplace of so many hit comic concepts. It was also the first to be drawn by the brilliant Nick Cardy (who became synonymous with the 1960s series).

‘The Return of the Teen Titans’ pits the neophyte team against teen pop trio ‘The Flips’ who are apparently also a gang of super-crooks. As was so often the case, the grown-ups had got it all wrong again…

The next month Teen Titans #1 debuted (cover-dated January/February 1966 and released mere weeks before the Batman TV show aired on January 12th) with Robin very much the point of focus on the cover and most succeeding ones.

Haney & Cardy crafted an exotic thriller entitled ‘The Beast-God of Xochatan!’ which sees the team act as Peace Corps representatives in a South American drama of sabotage, giant robots and magical monsters. The next issue held a fantastic mystery of revenge and young love involving ‘The Million-Year-Old Teen-Ager’ who was entombed and revived in the 20th century. He might have survived modern intolerance, bullying and culture shock on his own but when his ancient blood enemy turned up the Titans were ready to lend a hand…

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

‘The Secret Olympic Heroes’ guest-starred Green Arrow’s teen partner Speedy in a very human tale of parental pressure at the Olympics, although there’s also skulduggery aplenty from a terrorist organisation intent on disrupting the games.

TT #5’s ‘The Perilous Capers of the Terrible Teen’ finds Titans facing the dual task of aiding a troubled young man and capturing an elusive super-villain dubbed the Ant, despite all evidence indicating that they’re the same person, after which another DC sidekick made his Titans debut.

Illustrated by Bill Molno & Sal Trapani ‘The Fifth Titan’ then introduces Beast Boy (the obnoxious juvenile know-it-all from the iconic Doom Patrol). Feeling unappreciated by his adult mentors, the young hero wrongly assumes he’ll be welcomed by his peers. Rejected again he then falls under the spell of an unscrupulous circus owner and the kids need to set things right.

Slow and overly convoluted, it’s possibly the low-point of a stylish run, but many fans disagree, citing #7’s ‘The Mad Mod, Merchant of Menace’ as the biggest stinker. However, beneath the painfully dated dialogue there’s a witty, tongue-in-cheek tale of swinging London, cool capers and novel criminality, plus the return of the magnificent Nick Cardy to the art chores.

It was back to America for ‘A Killer called Honey Bun’ (illustrated by Irv Novick & Jack Abel): another tale of intolerance and misunderstood kids, played against a backdrop of espionage in Middle America, and featuring a deadly prototype robotic super-weapon in the menacing title role…

Teen Titans #9’s ‘Big Beach Rumble’ finds the Titans refereeing a swiftly-escalating vendetta between rival colleges on holiday when modern day pirates led by the barbarous Captain Tiger crash the scene. Novick pencilled it and Cardy’s inking made it all very palatable in a light and uncomplicated way

The editor obviously agreed as the art teem continued for the next few issues, beginning with ‘Scramble at Wildcat’: a rowdy crime caper featuring dirt-bikes and desert ghost-towns, with skeevy biker The Scorcher profiting from a pernicious robbery spree…

Wrapping up this initial outing, Speedy returned in #11’s spy-thriller ‘Monster Bait’, with the young heroes going undercover to save a boy being blackmailed into betraying his father and his country…

Although perhaps dated in delivery now, these tales were an incomprehensibly liberating experience for kids when first released. They truly betokened a new empathy with increasingly independent youth and sought to address problems that were more relevant to and generated by that specific audience. That they are so captivating in execution is a wonderful bonus. This is absolute escapism and absolutely delightful and you absolutely should get this book
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Noggin the King and Noggin and the Whale

By Oliver Postgate & Peter Firmin (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1- 4052-8152-2 (King)                 978-1- 4052-8153-9 (Whale)

I had originally prepared these reviews as part of a forthcoming week of TV-related books and graphic novels but, following the news of the death of the wonderful Peter Firmin on July 1st, I found myself feeling painfully bereft and quite woeful.

So, just because I want to and as a public acknowledgement of the gifts of a brilliant creator who shaped my entire life (as well as so many millions of others), there is a change to today’s scheduled viewing…

Peter Arthur Firmin was born in Harwich on 11 December 1928. After training at Colchester School of Art and National Service in the Royal Navy he went to the Central School of Art and Design in London from 1949 to 1952. A creative man of many talents and disciplines, he then worked as a stained-glass designer, jobbing illustrator and lecturer.

Whilst teaching at Central in 1957 he was targeted by up-and-coming children’s TV writer Oliver Postgate who believed (quite rightly) that clever individuals could produce high-quality kids viewing at reasonable cost.

After producing backgrounds for Postgate’s Alexander the Mouse and The Journey of Master Ho, Firmin became a full-partner in new venture Smallfilms, which would be based in a shed at the artist’s Canterbury home. The kindred spirits initially produced hand-drawn cartoons and eventually stop motion animation episodes for series including Ivor the Engine, The Saga of Noggin the Nog, Pogle’s Wood/The Pogles, Bagpuss and The Clangers. Postgate wrote, voiced and filmed whilst Firmin drew, painted, built sets and made puppets.

During those early days Firmin seemed tireless. In addition to the Smallfilms job he also devised, designed and populated other kids shows such as The Musical Box and Smalltime. In 1962 with Ivan Owen he created a fox puppet for The Three Scampies. The puppet soon had his own show and career as Basil Brush

Throughout his life, Firmin continued his cartooning and illustration career. This included writing and/or illustrating a number of books such as Basil Brush Goes Flying, The Winter Diary of a Country Rat, Nina’s Machines and Seeing Things – An Autobiography as well as working as a printmaker and engraver, designer and educator. In 1994 Firmin was asked to create a British postage stamp and produced a magnificent offering featuring Noggin and the Ice Dragon.

Even at their most productive and overworked, Postgate and Firmin always ensured there was plenty of ancillary product such as Christmas Annuals, comic strips and spin-off books, games and puzzles for their devoted young fans. Between 1965 and 1973 Postgate and Firmin crafted a series of books in an early-reader format featuring the further adventures of the Nicest Norseman of Them All…

Recently re-issued in superb hardcover editions perfect for tiny hands, the first two are Noggin the King and Noggin and the Whale, both originally released in 1965; a brace of charming, gently humorous escapades starring the TV cast and beautifully illustrated in a variety of duo-toned line-&-colour with wit and subtle charm by the irrepressible Firmin.

On the death of his father, quiet, unassuming Noggin becomes king of the northland Viking tribe known as the Nogs. He rules with understanding and wisdom – generally thanks to his advisors: bluff Thor Nogson, talking green cormorant Graculus and his wife Nooka who hails from the far north (we’d call her an Inuit princess these days).

Despite many fantastic adventures, Noggin prefers a quiet home life with his people and his boisterous son Knut

Noggin the King opens with bucolic pastoral scenes of the Nogs and the good-hearted sovereign helping his people however he can. However, whilst happily repairing the roof of an old farmer, the ruler dislodges a bird’s nest. Bringing the nest and its occupants back to his castle, he cares for the fledglings and mother and wonders if he is also the King of birds in the Land of Nogs. If he is then they are his subjects too and thus he is responsible for their safety and welfare.

Riven with doubt, the King then sets out on a short quest with Nooka beside him to confirm his suspicions and is rewarded by the feathered kingdom with a great but grave new honour…

Noggin and the Whale offers a far more light-hearted aspect of kingship as the mild monarch celebrates his birthday in the usual manner: doling out gifts to all the children of his realm. This year they all get musical instruments, but when they hold an impromptu concert on a boat in the little walled harbour, the merriment is interrupted by a most insistent whale.

Every time the kids get going the cetacean surges up under the boat and eventually even placid Noggin loss his temper and orders the sea-beast to swim away.

Instead it glides over to the open harbour gate and sulkily blocks the way just as the fishing boats are trying to moor up for the night. Nothing the townsfolk can do will shift the surly creature.

Suddenly Prince Knut has an idea. He realises why the whale has been acting so strangely and, after consulting with his father, commissions Royal Inventor Olaf the Lofty to create a unique present for the morose marine mammal…

Charming, engaging and endlessly rewarding (both these books and their much-missed, multi-talented originators) the works of Postgate and Firmin affected generations of children and parents. If you aren’t among them, do yourself a great favour and track down those DVD box sets and books like these. You won’t regret it for an instant…
Text © The Estate of Oliver Postgate 1965. Illustrations © Peter Firmin/The Estate of Peter Firmin 1965.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Translated by Kent H. Dixon & illustrated by Kevin H. Dixon (Seven Stories Press)
ISBN: 978-1-60980-793-1 (PB)                     : 978-1-60980-794-8 (eBook)

Comics is the most expansive medium we have for extolling heroic deeds, combining a facility for depicting all aspects of character with an unlimited budget for special effects and communicating instantaneous visceral understanding and appreciation to and on the part of the audience.

That was not always the case: once upon a time all we had was words, originally spoken or chanted but eventually translated into permanent marks on long-lasting surfaces.

As of this writing, The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known work of human literature. A truly timeless heroic saga, the work’s earliest incarnation is actually five Sumerian poems lauding the accomplishments of Bilgamesh, King of Uruk, that date from the Third Dynasty of Ur – or about 2100 BC as you or I and modern Mesopotamians would reckon it.

As is so often the case, some smart wordsmith long ago appropriated and reconditioned the snippets into something grander with the saga surviving into our era via a series (still incomplete) of Babylonian tablets. The material is open to frequent interpretation and has been translated into many languages since first discovered.

What source material we have comes from tablets of cuneiform logographs discovered back in 1853 by Hormuzd Rassam amidst the remains of the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh (near modern Mosul in Iraq). In the early 1870s western historian George Smith published his first translation and, after more hands-on study and research, a full and final version in his 1880 book The Chaldean Account of Genesis. The first direct Arabic translation – by Iraqi Taha Baqir – only appeared in 1960.

Many later scholars have had a bash, with 2003’s 2-volume critical work by Andrew George being generally accounted as the most definitive thus far.

I, however, am no scholar (or gentleman, by all accounts) and the graphic novel on point today has my vote for perhaps the most honest and genuine treatment yet…

Gilgamesh is the prototype and template of all modern hero myths, with a demi-god king, alternatively beloved and despised, stricken and emboldened by his own greatness triumphing over all odds and odd monsters, but ultimately brought low by his own humanity.

It’s also a story with creation myth motifs (Man brought forth from clay; god-touched, animal-saving survivors of great floods; resurrection from the dead) that reoccur over and over again in later religions.

This version, though, is replete with earthy humour, casual smut and everyday venality. It feels like despite the mystical trappings, the characters at its heart are all-too human: which is quite cool, as artefacts dating back to 2600 BC have been recently uncovered that indicate the actual existence of some of the actors in this particular passion play…

What also lends this superb monochrome marvel much of its compelling veracity and beguiling attraction is a somewhat unique collaboration. Kent H. Dixon is an award-winning poet, screenwriter, novelist and educator who spends his days teaching and translating literary works from Japanese hibakusha to classics by Rilke and Mallarmé.

Kent H. Dixon is a social activist, underground radio show host and the award-winning cartoonist who created …And Then There Was Rock and subversive milestone Mickey Death in the Winds of Impotence. He might be the only aging rebel in the world happy to work with his dad…

Their slowly-unfolding, decade-long collaboration on The Epic of Gilgamesh caught the attention of top bloke Russ Kick (You Are Being Lied To and Everything You Know is Wrong; and data archive thememoryhole2.org) who quickly made it and them a key part of his superb Graphic Canon series.

So, what do you get here that other translations don’t offer? Following Kick’s scene-setting, context-establishing Introduction, Kent Senior’s Translator’s Note relates how the literary wizard retranslated the original tablets – including recently unearthed Tablet 5 – and offers a few hints regarding narrative direction whilst Kevin Dixon’s Artist’s Note spills a few secrets on producing a classic everybody “knows” as an out of sequence part-work…

As for the story: an arrogant hero-king wanders the Earth and realms of gods and monsters. He’s pretty vile to women and beats up whom he pleases until the gods create a perfect enemy who ends up becoming his truest, only friend. And then he dies and Hero defies the universe and challenges Hell to get him back. You’ve heard it all before but you’ve never seen it like this…

Bold and brash, raw and raucous, this inviting interpretation also manages to maintain a graceful poetic rhythm and deftly incorporate the philosophy and instructions-for-living that permeate and underscore the original without missing a beat. A magnificent tale with a big heart and supremely engaging, this funny, scary, action-packed pictorial fable is a brilliant achievement and I for one am hungry for more.

Spenser’s Faerie Queene or Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West anyone?
© 2018 by Kent H. Dixon and Kevin H. Dixon. All rights reserved.

Battler Britton

By Garth Ennis & Colin Wilson (WildStorm)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-560-6

Today marks the centenary of the Royal Air Force. Weather permitting – it’s Wimbledon fortnight after all – there will be a magnificent flypast of craft modern and vintage over London and many other events all over the place to celebrate.

Sadly, we comics folk don’t venerate our own past achievements nearly as much, so instead of a fabulous Paddy Payne collection, Biggles Archive or any of dozens of other British comics Fly Boys we ought to be commemorating here, I’m re-recommending something a bit modern. At least it’s still a bloody good show…

Garth Ennis is the best writer of war comic books in America today. In fact, if you disregard the marvellous Commando Picture Library series published by DC Thomson (which you shouldn’t – but even now no one admits to reading them in my current circle), he may well be the only creator working in the genre in the entire English Language.

His credentials are well established now and illustrator Colin Wilson has long been lauded for his superb illustration, so it’s no surprise that this re-visitation with one of British comics’ most gallant warriors is an absolute delight.

Battler Britton was first seen in January 1956. “The fighting ace of Land, Sea and Air” debuted in The Sun (back when it was actually a proper comic and before the title was appropriated for the tabloid red top screed joke it is today); the feisty brainchild of Mike Butterworth and the astounding Geoff Campion.

The doughty pilot graduated to the front cover and lead spot in 1958 and took over completely in 1959 when the periodical briefly became Battler Britton’s Own Weekly.

When the title merged with Lion, Britton carried on until 1967 and even transferred to sister title Knockout during 1960-1961.

He also became a key returning feature in the publisher’s range of complete digest series, such as Thriller Picture Library, Air Ace Picture Library and War Picture Library, illustrated by such astounding luminaries as Francisco Solano Lopez, Pat Nicolle, Graham Coton, Ian Kennedy and Hugo Pratt.

He was also a regular standby – in reformatted reprint form – in numerous Fleetway Christmas Annual for years after his comics sorties ended. Why there has never been a concerted effort to restore this treasure trove of comics glory in some kind of archival format is utterly beyond me, but at least he’s with us in this bold adventure which first saw print as a 5-issue miniseries in 2006…

North Africa, October 1942: The dark days before Montgomery’s big push against the seemingly invincible Afrika Korps. Wing Commander Robert “Battler” Britton and his Flight are sent to train an inexperienced group of American pilots hidden behind German lines as a harrying force.

Tensions between smug Brits and pushy Yanks are high and at first it’s doubtful whether the allies or the enemy pose the biggest threat, but in tried-and-true tradition a growing mutual respect eventually leads to successful outcomes.

In spirit, ‘Bloody Good Show’ is one of Ennis’ most faithfully traditional war strips. His love and reverence to the source material is obvious and there’s less of the writer’s signature gallows humour on view than you’d expect, but don’t think that this is watered down in any way.

The dark, ironic madness of battle and disgust with the chinless, smug officialdom that instigates it without getting personally involved is present and potent. Idiots and worse make wars and then send decent people to fight and die in them.

This is a rare thing, here, a reworking of a nostalgia icon that will appeal to the greater part of audiences contemporary and ancient. That it’s a ripping good yarn also means that anybody could read and enjoy it. So you should.

Compilation © 2006, 2007 DC Comics and IPC Media Limited. All Rights Reserved.
Battler Britton and all characters used are ™ & © IPC Media Limited & DC Comics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Wicked Wanda!

By Frederic Mullally & Ron Embleton (Penthouse)

Not all comics are for kids nor ever were they. The men’s magazine trade has often featured graphic narratives, usually sexually explicit in nature, often highly satirical, invariably of a much higher quality than their mainstream contemporaries, and always much better regarded and financially rewarded.

Where Playboy had Little Annie Fanny (created by Harvey Kurtzman & Will Elder: it ran intermittently from 1962 until 1988, and revived in 1998, illustrated by Ray Lago & Bill Schorr), publishing rival Bob Guccione wanted the same but better for his own publication Penthouse.

Used to getting his way, he hired journalist, editor (of left-wing magazine Tribune), columnist, novelist and political writer Frederic Mullally to script the ongoing exotic, erotic adventures of Wanda Von Kreesus, the richest woman in the world. The sultry star would be accompanied by Candyfloss, her insatiable jailbait paramour and an outrageous coterie of faithful employees including an all-girl army, a mad scientist and a brutal looking thug with the soul of a poet.

To illustrate he secured the talents of oil painter and comic strip veteran Ron Embleton (who had astounded comic readers with his lush and vibrant strip Wulf the Briton in Express Weekly and his numerous stunning illustrations in weekly fact-based periodical Look and Learn).

Oh, Wicked Wanda! was originally a prose serial illustrated by Bryan Forbes, beginning in 1969 before becoming, in 1973, the unbelievably lavish and torrid strip reprinted here, continuing until 1980 when it was replaced by Sweet Chastity, also painted by Embleton, and scripted by proprietor Guccione himself.

The bored and mischievous hellion on parade here is a sexually adventurous woman from a time when sexual politics and liberation were huge issues (not like now, of course), and therefore prime targets for low comedy and high satire.

Mullally peppered his scripts with topical references (many of which, sadly, would escape today’s casual reader, I’m sure) and the phenomenal Embleton would depict them with hyper-realistic accuracy.

Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Ted Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Fidel Castro, Lyndon Johnson, Spiro Agnew, Mao Tse-tung, showbiz icons such as John Wayne or Bob Hope, and even comic strip greats like Pogo, Mutt and Jeff or Krazy Kat, all meandered through the glossy pages, a cross between a Greek Chorus and pictorial ad-libs.

Many celebrities were actively parodied participants. Henry Kissandrun, mafia Don Marlon Blondo/Burpo, Jane Fondle and demented California Governor Ronald Reekin’ all found themselves victims of the wilful minx and her team. Also, classical and contemporary erotic allusions abound ranging from a little “nymphette” lounging about reading William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch to visual and verbal references to Shelley’s Leda and the Swan.

This slim album reprints the earliest adventures as Wanda collects the rich and the famous for a Museum of Deviancy, takes on the Mafia, the CIA and the Cubans and does her bit to solve the Oil Crisis.

Later adventures saw her romp through the ages in a time machine but to my knowledge these tales have never been reprinted – although they really, really should be.

Perhaps a little dated, definitely for easy-going adults only, Oh, Wicked Wanda! is nonetheless still a funny read and inarguably one of the most beautiful British strips ever made. It is a tragedy that such work is unavailable to aficionados of comic art.
© 1973, 1974, 1975 Penthouse International Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 6

By Stan Lee, Gary Friedrich, Gene Colan, John Romita, Gray Morrow, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5875-2 (HB)

Created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby in an era of frantic patriotic fervour, Captain America was a dynamic and highly visible response to the horrors of Nazism and the threat of Liberty’s loss.

He faded away during the post-war reconstruction but briefly reappeared after the Korean War: a harder, darker sentinel ferreting out monsters, subversives and the “commies” who lurked under every brave American kid’s bed. Then he vanished once more until the burgeoning Marvel Age resurrected him just in time for the turbulent, culturally divisive 1960s.

By the time of the tales gathered in this sixth Masterworks volume (available in luxurious hardback and accessible eBook formats) – comprising issues #137-148 of his monthly comicbook from May 1971 to April 1972 – the Star-Spangled Avenger had become an uncomfortable symbol of a troubled, divided society, split along age lines and with many of the hero’s fans apparently rooting for the wrong side.

Now into that turbulent mix crept issues of racial and gender inequality…

Following a fond and forthright reminiscence from illustrator John Romita in his Introduction, the action opens here with the Star-Spangled Avenger, still notionally working with – if not for – super-scientific government spy-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (which back then stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division), returning to Earth after a blistering battle against the malign Mole Man. With him was his now full-time, fully-fledged partner the Falcon.

As scripted by Stan Lee and illustrated by Gene Colan & Bill Everett, the neophyte hero, seeking to impress his mentor, opts ‘To Stalk the Spider-Man’. This typical all-action Marvel misunderstanding led to plenty of unnecessary fighting until forestalled as mob boss Stone-Face returns to settle old scores in #138’s ‘It Happens in Harlem!’

John Romita the elder returned to the art chores to depict Spider-Man and Cap rescuing the Falcon and ending the gangster’s dream of monetising New York’s racial unrest before the Good Captain is whisked away for a top-secret mission heralding the beginning of a lengthy and direction-changing saga…

For years Captain America had been the only expression of Steve Rogers’ life, but with the next issue the man went undercover as a police officer to solve a series of disappearances and subsequently regained a personal life which would have long-term repercussions.

Once Spidey, Falcon and Cap trounced Stone-Face, the Red, White and Blue is subsumed by plain Rookie Blues in ‘The Badge and the Betrayal!’ and Steve finds himself on a Manhattan beat as the latest raw recruit to be bawled out by veteran cop Sergeant Muldoon

Meanwhile, as police officers continue to disappear in increasing numbers and Rogers is getting into more fights on the beat than in costume, social worker Sam (Falcon) Wilson is challenged by seductive black activist Leila Taylor and undergoes a far from voluntary and unwanted audition for S.H.I.E.L.D. …

Issue #140 reveals the plot’s perpetrator as ‘In the Grip of Gargoyle!’ takes events in a frankly bizarre direction, with moody urban mystery inexplicably becoming super-spy fantasy as the villainous Grey Gargoyle steals a mega-explosive from S.H.I.E.L.D. and turns the Falcon into his petrified minion.

With Joe Sinnott inking, Lee & Romita deliver ‘The Unholy Alliance!’ as the stony duo attack a secret base stockpiling ultimate explosive Element X, with Cap, renewed love interest Sharon Carter and Nick Fury attempting to save the world and the Falcon from the Gargoyle…

Spectacular but painfully confusing until now, the epic was dumped on new writer Gary Friedrich to wrap up with ‘And in the End…’ (Captain America and the Falcon #142) wherein the resurgent heroes race a countdown clock of doom to save the day…

All this time Sam had been trying to get friendly with “Black Power” activist Leila and, with the sci fi shenanigans over, a long-running subplot concerning racial tensions in Harlem boiled over…

‘Power to the People’ and ‘Burn, Whitey, Burn!’ (both from giant-sized #143 with Romita inking his own pencils) sees the riots finally erupt with Cap and Falcon caught in the middle, before copping out with the final chapter by taking a painfully parochial and patronising stance and revealing that the seething unrest amongst the ghetto underclass has been instigated by a rabble-rousing fascist super-villain in ‘Red Skull in the Morning… Cap Take Warning!’

Nevertheless, Friedrich made some telling and relevant points – and continued to do so in CA&F #144’s first story ‘Hydra Over All!’ (illustrated by Romita) with the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s all-woman attack squad Femme Force One (stop squirming – at least they were trying to be egalitarian and inclusive…). To facilitate their efficacy they were assigned to train with the Sentinel of Liberty himself…

The issue also offered a solo back-up tale ‘The Falcon Fights Alone!’ (by Friedrich and drawn by the great Gray Morrow) wherein the street vigilante designs a new uniform and rededicates himself to tackling the real problems on his turf: drug-dealers, thieves, racketeers and thugs endangering the weakest, poorest members of society…

Captain America and the Falcon #145 expanded the Hydra storyline with ‘Skyjacked’ (stunningly illustrated by Gil Kane & Romita) as the hooded terrorists kidnap Cap’s new team in mid-air…

Sal Buscema began his long tenure on the series with ‘Mission: Destroy the Femme Force!’ and ‘Holocaust in the Halls of Hydra!’ (#146 and inked by John Verpoorten) wherein devious dealings in the halls of power are uncovered before Falcon races to the rescue of the severely embattled and outgunned heroes, culminating in the unmasking of the hidden operator behind the villainous throne in #147’s ‘And Behind the Hordes of Hydra…’: a staggering battle royale in Las Vegas with a hierarchy of old villains exposed, wherein the ultimate power behind the power reveals himself in Friedrich’s swansong ‘The Big Sleep!’

Rounding out the riotous adventure, bonus extras include the cover to the all-reprint Captain America Annual #2, assorted house ads and a rare Romita colour rough for Captain America #139…

Any retrospective or historical re-reading is going to turn up a few cringe-worthy moments, but these tales of matchless courage and indomitable heroism are always fast-paced, action-packed and illustrated by some of the greatest artists and storytellers American comics has ever produced.

As the nation changed Captain America was finally discovering his proper place in a new era and would once more become unmissable, controversial comicbook reading, as we shall see when I get around to reviewing the next volume…
© 1971, 1972, 2012, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Black Lightning volume two

By Dennis O’Neil, Gerry Conway, J.M. DeMatteis, Martin Pasko, Paul Kupperberg, Dick Dillin, George Tuska, Rick Buckler, Marshall Rogers, Mike Netzer/Nasser, Romeo Tanghal, Joe Staton, Pat Broderick, Dick Giordano, Gerald Forton & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7546-4

Black Lightning was DC’s first African American superhero to star in his own solo title, which launched in 1977…

When former Olympic decathlete Jefferson Pierce returned to the streets of Suicide Slum, Metropolis to teach at inner city Garfield High School, he was determined to make a real difference to the disadvantaged and often troubled kids he used to be numbered amongst. However, when he interrupted a drug buy on school grounds and sent the dealer packing, he opened everyone around him to mob vengeance and personal tragedy…

When the ruling racketeers – an organised syndicate dubbed The 100 – came seeking retaliation, one of Pierce’s students paid the ultimate price. The traumatised teacher realised he needed the shield of anonymity if he was to win justice and safety for his beleaguered home and charges…

Happily, tailor Peter Gambi – who had raised Jefferson and taken care of his mother after the elder Pierce was murdered – had a few useful ideas and inexplicable access to some pretty far-out technology…

Soon, equipped with a strength-&-speed-enhancing forcefield belt and costume, plus a mask and wig that completely changed his appearance, a fierce new vigilante stalked the streets of Metropolis…

Now with the urban avenger the star of his own television series, those early groundbreaking adventures have been gathered into a series of astoundingly accessible, no-nonsense trade paperback and eBook collections.

This second outing gathers a flurry of back-up and guest appearances from May 1979 to October 1980, gathered from various titles where the urban avenger prowled after his solo title folded. They cumulatively comprise World’s Finest Comics #256-259 and #261, DC Comics Presents #16, Justice League of America #173-174, Detective Comics #490-491 and #495-495 and The Brave and the Bold #163 plus pertinent material from Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe #3 (1985) and Who’s Who in the DC Universe #16 (1992).

Following an informative Introduction by character originator Tony Isabella reprising Black Lightning: The In-Between Years, the (relatively) down-to-earth superhero antics commence with ‘Encounter with a Dark Avenger!’ (by Denny O’Neil, Dick Dillin & Frank Chiaramonte, taken from World’s Finest Comics #256).

Here the electric warrior is manipulated into a potentially fatal confrontation with equally fervent urban vigilante Green Arrow. As the heroes clash neither is aware that the 100’s ousted boss Tobias Whale is behind their mutual woes…

That short yarn saw Black Lightning as GA’s guest star and served as a prelude to ‘Death Ransom!’ in WF #257, the beginning of Pierce’s second (strictly backup) series. Crafted by O’Neil, George Tuska & Bob Smith, it sees a fateful, brutal clash with The Whale and results in a wary ceasefire for the archenemies as they unite to destroy the swiftly rebuilding 100 cartel…

Of course, a scorpion’s gotta sting and the alliance only lasts one issue before Whale betrays Lightning’s trust and another innocent dies in ‘The Blood of the Lamb!’ (O’Neil, Rich Buckler & Romeo Tanghal, World’s Finest #258)…

World’s Finest #259 provides a labyrinthine conundrum as the hero and a horde of gunman act on a deathbed tip-off and converge on a seedy welfare hotel that might be ‘The Last Hideout’ (O’Neil, Marshall Rogers, Michael Nasser/Netzer & Vince Colletta) of a legendary criminal and his ill-gotten gains. Sadly, only the masked hero cared about collateral casualties…

‘Return of the River Rat!’ (O’Neil, Tanghal & Colletta, World’s Finest #261) ended this back-up run on a mediocre note as school chaperone Jefferson Pierce is fortuitously on hand during a river cruise party just when an exiled mobster tries to sneak back into the USA by submarine…

A co-starring role in DC Comics Presents #16 (December 1979) then finds the street-smart urban avenger and Superman confronting a heartsick and violently despondent alien trapped on Earth for millennia in ‘The De-volver!’ (courtesy of O’Neil, Joe Staton & Frank Chiaramonte) after which the lone avenger gets a nod of approval from the Big Guns of Superheroing…

Justice League of America #173-174 (December 1979 and January 1980) offered a smart two-parter with a twist ending as the League try to induct the mysterious, unvetted vigilante.

After much fervent debate, they decide to set their still-unsuspecting candidate a little problem to prove his worth.

However, as a vermin-controlling maniac unleashes terror upon Metropolis, the ‘Testing of a Hero’ and ‘A Plague of Monsters’ (Gerry Conway, Dillin & Frank McLaughlin) takes the old recruitment drive into a very fresh direction and leads to disappointment all around…

Still Not Quite Popular Enough, the hero was found tenure in the more moody and grounded Detective Comics beginning with #490 (May 1980). Here Martin Pasko, Pat Broderick & McLaughlin reveal how ‘Lightning Strikes Twice Out!’ as a protracted clash with a ruthless Haitian gang led by Mama Mambu leads to his kidnap and the loss of his powers and gimmicks in concluding chapter ‘Short-Circuit’ (Detective #491).

A corrupt Senator stealing oil shipments to finance a private army and attempted takeover of America is brought down by separate-but-convergent investigations conducted by Black Lightning and Batman in ‘Oil, Oil… Nowhere’ (Paul Kupperberg & Dick Giordano; The Brave and The Bold #163, June 1980) after which J.M. DeMatteis & Gerald Forton assume creative control of the Lightning’s path in Detective Comics #494 Detective Comics #494.

‘Explosion of the Soul’ (September 1980) sees the streets haunted by a murderous junkie-killing vigilante, and all Pierce’s investigations seem to lead inexorably back to one of his students…

Ending on a dark note of tragedy, ‘Animals’ (DeMatteis & Forton, Detective #494) then sees the Suicide Slum School Olympics turned into a charnel house when a juvenile street gang seizes the girls’ hockey team and demands safe passage and new lives in Switzerland. When Black Lightning intercedes, not everybody gets out alive…

Supplemented with a cover gallery by Ross Andru, Giordano, Jim Aparo, Neal Adams & Dillin, and including fact-packed background and data pages about ‘Black Lightning’ from Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe #3 (1985) and an updated entry from Who’s Who in the DC Universe #16 (1992) this potent package of fast-paced Fights ‘n’ Tights thrillers are so skilfully constructed that even the freshest neophyte will be able to settle in for the ride without any confusion and enjoy a self-contained rollicking rollercoaster of terrifically traditional superhero shenanigans.

So, what are you waiting for?
© 1979, 1980, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Ant-Man: Scott Lang

By David Michelinie, Bob Layton, Tom DeFalco, John Byrne, Jerry Bingham, George Pérez, Luke McDonnell, Ron Wilson, Greg LaRocque & various (Marvel)

With another Marvel filmic franchise follow-up hitting screens around the world, here’s a timely tie-in trade paperback (or eBook) collection designed to perfectly augment the cinematic exposure and cater to movie fans wanting to follow up with a comics experience.

This treasury of tales reprints all the early adventures of legacy hero Scott Lang, taken from Marvel Premiere #47-48, Iron Man #133-135 and 151, Avengers #195-196 & 223, Marvel Team-Up #103 and Marvel Two-in-One #87, convolutedly spanning April 1979 to March 1983.

The unlikeliest of valiant titans originally appeared in Tales to Astonish #27, released at the end of 1961, one month after Fantastic Four #1 hit the newsstands: a 7-page short which introduced maverick scientist Dr Henry Pym, who discovered a shrinking potion and became ‘The Man in the Anthill!’

Overwhelmed and imperilled by his startling discovering, the lonely researcher found wonder and even a kind of companionship amongst the lowliest creatures on Earth… and under it…

It was intended as nothing more than another here-today, gone-tomorrow filler in one of the company’s madly engaging pre-superhero “monster-mags”. However, the character struck a chord with someone since, as the DC Comics-inspired superhero boom flourished and Lee sprung the Hulk, Thor and Spider-Man on the unsuspecting kids of America, Pym was economically retooled as a fully-fledged costumed do-gooder for TtA #35 (September 1962).

You can read about his extremely eccentric career elsewhere, but suffice it to say Pym was never settled in his persona and changed name and modus operandi many times before junking his Ant-Man identity for the reasonably more stable and far more imposing identity of Yellowjacket

Comics creators are six parts meddler and five parts nostalgia buff and eventually somebody convinced somebody else that the concept and property of Ant-Man could be viable again…

Thus we begin here with the introduction of reformed thief Scott Lang who debuted in Marvel Premiere #47 (April 1979). Those first somebodies were David Michelinie, John Byrne & Bob Layton who produced ‘To Steal an Ant-Man!’, revealing how a former electronics engineer had turned to crime – more out of boredom than necessity – and after being caught and serving his time joined Stark Industries as a determinedly reformed character…

But then his daughter Cassie developed a heart condition which wiped out his savings, forcing Scott to revert to old ways to save her…

Desperate to find the wherewithal to hire experimental surgeon Dr. Erica Sondheim, he begins casing likely prospects, but is shattered when she is abducted by psychotic industrialist Darren Cross who is currently using all the resources – legal or otherwise – of his mega-corporation Cross Technological Enterprises to keep himself alive…

Needing cash now just to broach the CTE complex, Lang goes back to Plan A and burgles the lab of retired superhero Henry Pym and discovers mothballed Ant-Man gear and size-changing gases. In a moment of madness Lang decides not to sell the stolen tech but instead use the outfit to break in to Cross’ citadel and rescue Sondheim…

That plan doesn’t go so great either as the dying billionaire, in a desperate attempt to stay alive, had been harvesting the hearts of homeless people to power an experimental device which had mutated him into a monstrous brute…

After learning with horror ‘The Price of a Heart!’ (June 1979), Scott eventually triumphs; unaware until the very last that Pym had allowed him to take the suit and was backstopping him every inch of the way. With Cassie saved, Yellowjacket then invites Lang to continue as the new Ant-Man…

Crafted by Michelinie, Jerry Bingham & Bob Layton, Iron Man #133-135 (February – April 1980) then delivers the Small Wonder’s first proper exploit in ‘Hulk is Where the Heart Is! after his boss Tony Stark is confronted with a rampaging gamma goliath attacking the Long Island factory.

Having successfully calmed the creature back into his human Bruce Banner state, Stark calls in his newest whiz kid employee Scott Lang to help craft a micro-device to keep the tortured scientist in passive mode permanently.

Of course, that works out well…

With Hulk’s persona trapped in Banner’s body, the Stark team race to fix the foul-up before the patient fatally strokes out or worse in ‘The Man Who Would be Hulk’ but their success only leaves them with a really ticked-off Emerald Titan who resumes smashing everything in sight.

Forced to amp his armour to overload, Iron Man manages to knock out the Hulk, only to collapse, trapped and dying inside his own metal suit…

With his boss and friend in dire need, Scott then suits up and shrinks down to open the high-tech shroud and save ‘The Hero Within!’… if the suit’s internal defences don’t get him first…

In Iron Man #151 (October 1981, by Michelinie, Luke McDonnell & Layton) Ant-Man again takes centre-stage for ‘G.A.R.D.’s Gauntlet’ as the repercussions of yet another attack on Stark’s factory triggers a catastrophic systems failure, trapping Lang in an extremely hostile lab environment with the mechanized defence systems treating him as an intruder. Cue shrinking gas, many six-legged pals and total chaos…

Ant-Man got his first dose of team action in Avengers #195 (May 1980) in ‘Assault on a Mind Cage!’ (Michelinie, George Pérez, Jack Abel & Dan Green) when Hank Pym asks him to help infiltrate a suspicious asylum believed to be holding the Wasp hostage. What the miniature marvels uncover is illegal cloning for spare parts and a madman using the facilities to train henchmen for major villains and mob bosses…

The climactic clash resulting from ‘The Terrible Toll of the Taskmaster’ (#196 June 1980, by Michelinie, Pérez & Abel) wrecks the joint but leaves Lang one step closer to redemption and stardom…

Thanks to Michelinie, Greg LaRocque, Brett Breeding & Crew, Lang again faced Taskmaster in ‘Of Robin Hoods and Roustabouts’ (Avengers #223, September 1982) when he and Cassie attended a circus and stumbled into Hawkeye trying to extricate an old friend from the maniac’s clutches and influence.

It started becoming a regular event when Taskmaster resurfaced in Marvel Team-Up #103 (March 1983). Crafted by Michelinie, Jerry Bingham & Mike Esposito ‘The Assassin Academy’ sees the diminutive neophyte hero saving Spider-Man from becoming an object lesson for the graduating class at another deadly school for henchmen: a spectacular and memorable clash against the villainous lifestyle coach…

The last tale comes from Marvel Two-In-One #87 (May 1982) and begins when the Fantastic Four call in Ant-Man after The Thing is abducted by sub-atomic beings. The resultant rescue mission sees Scott help the rocky rogue defeat a duplicitous queen, high-tech barbarians and awesome aliens in the ‘Menace of the Microworld!’ by Tom DeFalco. Ron Wilson & Chic Stone…

The pint-sized, power-packed delights then conclude with a fulsome cover gallery, a fact-filled entry from the Marvel Universe Handbook, original art pages by Byrne, Layton, Bingham and McDonnell as well as a few surprise extras…

Hopefully answering any questions the silver screen sagas might throw up, whilst providing an immense amount of spectacularly bombastic fighting fun, this quirky slice of up-scaled and down-sized derring-do is a non-stop feast of tense suspense, whacky fun and blockbuster action: another well-tailored, on-target tool to turn curious movie-goers into fans of the comic incarnation and one more solid sampling to entice the newcomers and charm even the most jaded slice ‘n’ dice fanatic.
© 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 2015 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raw, boisterous and engagingly enthusiastic, these primal pulp exploits laid the groundwork for today’s superhero-saturated masked media darlings, and still impart a tangible frisson of straightforward, no-nonsense thrills, spills and chills to satiate every action fan’s every desire.
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