Darkness Visible

In today’s post, we’re going to examine the popularity of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes and its most renowned storyline: The Great Darkness Saga, now over 30 years old.

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The LSH was a spin-off from the Superboy series: a teenage law enforcement organisation in a pulp fiction future- part high school fraternity, part militia. It had run through the 1960s in stiff stories illustrated by John Forte or Jim Mooney and written by the likes of pulp sci-fi prophets Otto Binder and Edmond Hamilton.

It was always a fan favourite thanks to gimmicks like the charming Bits of Legionnaire Business- a fan page to which kids all over the USA could submit their own creations. Some of these, like Polar Boy and Color Kid, would actually be woven into the Legion legend.

But the Legion really gained ground when teenage Jim Shooter and Superman’s Curt Swan delivered a series of classically-illustrated, doom-laden sagas in a Marvel-esque mode. Of course, in typical DC style, this golden goose was relelgated to oblivion in the very early 70s but soon flourished again, thanks to the way-out creatures and hippie-fied designs  of Dave Cockrum.

Cockrum, of course, would raid his sketchbook to produce the colourful and bizarre All-New X-Men , whose torrid sci-fi adventures ( pennned by verbose feminist and part-time actor Chris Claremont) would eventually make them perhaps the most influential super-heroes of the Bronze Age. It’s the Legion’s similarities to the X-Men or vice versa that helped to make one of DC’s most popular titles in the early 80s.

The LSH experienced  a mid-70s high with the return of an older Shooter to the title and the Disco-fied Legionnaire designs  of Mike Grell ( a favourite of mine despite a  questionable grasp of anatomy and big- images- in- few- panels). The 1981-84 period saw the book’s popularity return to those heights and far exceed them, in a cycle that mirrored the X-Men.

So what were the commonalities? First, an enormous cast: nearly 30 official members, living and dead, with numerous associates and allies, their civilian ids and home planets.  People sometimes complain about the lack of accessibility to LSH but learning The Lore of the Legion is one of its main attractions, in the same way that the maps and languages of Middle Earth hold perennial fascination for Tolkien fans. The very first outing of the X-Men boasted 13 members: a mere fraction of the Legion’s numbers.

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Secondly, human interest, specifically romance. The tensions between Scott, Jean and Logan and the maternal emotions of Ororo towards Kitty were an elaboration of the loving couples found among the Legion since their earliest days. The group had hosted two weddings in in its history- one less than the Avengers, of course, by 1982.

Thirdly, drama and sacrifice. The defining arc of the X-Men was of course the Dark Phoenix Saga, very closely followed by Days of Future Past, in which the whole team died. Marvel, in the Bronze Age, prided itself on killing off characters- albeit rarely- and having them stay dead. Thunderbird of the X-Men (created by Cockrum and Wein) being a case in point.

 The Legion had lost three members -Ferro Lad, Invisible Kid and Chemical King and one ally, Beast Boy- and three more deaths were foreshadowed by the cover of Adventure 354. Mapping the destiny of  the team? Only since 1967! Also, the Legion had witnessed the death and resurrection of Lightning Lad- more than two decades before Jean Grey.

Finally, a threatening environment. Growing paranoia and oppression within the Marvel Universe suggested the Sentinel future might be inevitable. Where the late 60s-early 70s LSH inhabited the united galaxy foretold by Star Trek, the 80s LSH now reflected the uneasy era of detente. It’s unsurprising that the militaristic Khunds are a major power in the book. The DC renaissance took place in the shadow of  the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan,  the Falklands conflict and later, Reagan’s SDI proposal.

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My enduring love for the LSH had reached a feverish peak by the very late 70s. One of my earliest memories of Primary School is reading “The Hapless Hero” in 1969’s Action 381 . I inherited the Computo stories from my cousin Jim and bought the first issue of their short-lived ’73 reprint series. One particular coup around 1981 was buying a mail order copy of The Legion Outpost fanzine and its article on Legion horoscopes.

The Levitz/Broderick issues of LSH are contemporaneous with the beginning of Claremont and Cockrum’s Brood/Starjammers epic (which owes a lot to  Alien, Wrath of Khan and Empire Strikes Back). In other words, comics fans were open to sci-fi at that moment.

Soul-Thief From The Stars introduces a grotesque, almost humorous, parastic monster, Organus. The creature is a McGuffin and is never explained. What’s more significant is the facial surgery for the acrobatic Timber Wolf. He no longer looks like Wolverine (possibly for legal reasons? Even though his look predated Logan’s?) but loses much of his memorable feral quality.

Levitz also writes out the comical Bouncing Boy -at least temporarily. This seems to be a tic in the scripter’s writing: removing the married Legionnaires ( perhaps to make the group seem younger?) Broderick invokes the spirit of the era with medieval designs for the holographic Dungeons and Dragons game . Presciently, gaming will feature in Levitz’s scripts up until 2013.

The influence of Gerge Lucas can be seen in the variety of aliens on the space hospital Medicus One. In partcular, we meet Dr. Gym’ll- a curmudgeonly goblin with three arms who will be a mainstay into the 21st century.

Another remarkable alien is featured in Night Never Falls at Nullport. This is the space shipyard boss H’Hranth, a talking horse with octopoid tentacles. The oriental Khunds are sabotaging the shipyard and we  see how ruthless they are when the commander disintegrates his own son for failure. The new LSH cruisers are very similar to  Battlestar Galactica’s Colonial Vipers circa 1978 and the design doesn’t catch on.

The back-up strip The Forgotten Future is novel for two reasons. First, it’s by Keith Giffen, blending Kirby and Ditko. Secondly, it’s a solo for Dream Girl who has only featured previously in duos and trios  in three back-ups to my recollection. The strip also prefigures how important Nura will become in the book, having been among the most obscure Legionnaires during Conway’s tenure.

The comic now looks very similar to its 1977-78 incarnation. This pleased me then and now.

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Old Friends, New Relatives and Other Corpses is the final issue where Broderick pencils the lead feature. The villain is the infamous Dr. Regulus; I don’t think that at this point I’d seen his debut in Adventure‘s “Target: 21 Legionnaires”- or any of his other three appearances. Disappointingly, he’s  something of a solar-powered Iron Man knock-off. However, Broderick successfully evokes the searing temperatures of his battle with Sun Boy.

The plot picks up on a silly subplot from the Secrets of the LSH miniseries where it was revealed that Chameleon Boy was the secret son of the Legion’s patron R.J. Brande.

A Crown for the Princess: a second back-up for Giffen. This time Princess Projectra and Karate Kid, two Shooter creations under-represented in the Conway Era, have an ornate sword-and-sorcery adventure on Jeckie’s planet. Ironically perhaps, in the era of Schwarzenegger, my interest in sword and sorcery had completely waned with  Andrew J. Offut’s Conan pastiches of the late 70s.

I was getting my US comics by mail order in those days and saw Broderick’s third issue first. However, I couldn’t have been any more enthused by the upswing in the Legion’s fortunes. I’m going to interrupt this analysis of the Great Darkness saga for a sideways step, however and another LSH publication from the early months of 1982.

Coming soon: the Legion Digest

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United Planets

I was pleased to read this week that the Legion of Super-Heroes is poised to return in Justice League Alpha Fli-sorry, Justice League United- in the autumn. A childhood favourite of mine since the earliest days of primary school, the Legion was one of DC’s top-selling comics in the late Bronze Age and I decided that I’d like to post some thoughts on why that was. I hope to alternate LSH posts with Batman Family posts for a week or two.

Thirty-two years ago next week, my mother, brother and I paid our first visit to London. I saw my first-and only -West End musical (Evita) and  Star Trek 2.  I had really enjoyed the novelization on the coach journey down- it had a torrid tone similar to New Teen Titans or the later DW New Adventures; one , I would eventually learn, known as “hurt/comfort”. The book also  featured characters from McIntyre’s Entropy Effect, which I had borrowed from my friend Graham.

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Irene Cara’s Fame was number one with Steve Miller’s Abracadabra at number two. Come On Eileen was everywhere although corporate MTV pop was still a couple of years away. I also remember 1972’s The Curse of Peladon was repeated for the first time on peak time BBC tv as part of Dr. Who and the Monsters.

Tragically, this was also the week when the IRA bombed Hyde Park and the resulting and understandable panic created a menacing and unhappy atmosphere. I remember a bomb alert caused us to be evacuated from Oxford Street and only now can I sympathise fully with my mother, shepherding two teenagers in an unfamiliar metropolis.

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The highlight of the holiday  for me of course was visiting the original Forbidden Planet shop in Tin Pan Alley (Denmark Street), which was near our hotel on  Tottenham Court Road. I don’t think I had discovered Photon Books in Kelvinbridge yet. I also  dragged my family to  Comics Showcase in Covent Garden and made them climb all 193 steps. I was really looking for sixties issues of Adventure Comics and JLA but the comic I recall best is the first part of the Levitz/Giffen Great Darkness Saga.

The LSH had spun out of Superboy’s monthly in January 1980. I had been crazy about the giant-sized issues in 1977-78. Especially the text features which made a teenage Shooter’s characters and stories sound amazing.

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The impact of the fan-favourite status of X-Men under Claremont and Byrne can still be felt today ( as we saw recently with the Future Past blockbuster movie).  It seems to have been an influence in the comically-unbalanced logo.

However, I think Shooter/Michelinie/Perez and Byrne’s Avengers had a bigger influence on Conway and Staton’s Legion. This is most apparent in the governmental interference subplot, perhaps inspired by Shooter’s Gyrich character in Avengers. Once Colossal Boy’s mother became President of Earth, the LSH began clashing with the United Planets in an echo of contemporary Post-Nixon political cynicism.

After the stylish likes of Starlin, James Sherman and Mike Netzer (Nasser)the series had plodded through 1980-81 under the pencil of Jimmy Janes with occasional and controversial guest appearances by Steve Ditko. I appreciate Ditko far more nowadays- back then, foolishly, I thought he was hopelessly old-hat. I also found Conway’s bland super-heroics tired- I think he was more suited to JLA (but even there he suffered by comparison to Englehart).

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I had been thrilled in my final year of school to discover that Roy Thomas, author of Conan the Barbarian and creator of the Vision, Sunfire, Sauron  and the Kree-Skrull War would be the new Legion scripter. Even more astonishingly, he was going to introduce Reflecto, a doomed Legionnaire only glimpsed once before, on the cover of the Adult Legion tale! ‘Optikon readers will know that comic was my Holy Grail and I wouldn’t get my hands on it until a happy accident at the end of 1982.

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However, despite Perez covers – DC’s fan-colossus du jour- Thomas’s Legion stories turned out to be as bland as Conway’s: Reflecto was merely an alternate guise for Superboy. There was a dull time-travel adventure with the enigmatic robed villain , the Time Trapper. And finally a Marvel-esque melodrama for the most Marvel-esque Legionnaire: tragic but temperamental energy-being Wildfire. It was all a bit uninspired.

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But in February 1982, everything was about to change.

Paul Levitz, who had killed off Chemical King ( in accordance with Adult legion prophecy) and provided cosmic scope with the Infinite Man and Earthwar, returned to write the comic. The new artist was Pat Broderick who had been the penciller of Marvel’s Micronauts in 1981.

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My brother had followed the Star Wars-knock-off  toys since their UK debut in the Star Wars Weekly in January 1979. In their own monthly, Broderick guided them through a series of Flash Gordon-inspired fantasy environments and a panoply of bizarre creatures.Hhe was an inspired choice therefore to design a kaleidoscopic 30th Century.

That was a longer preamble than I thought and it’s a muggy lunchtime! In the next LSH post, we’ll look at the first third of the Great Darkness TPB and then at the Legion Digest that was published at that time.

Coming soon: Darkness Visible

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Atomic Batteries to Power

Today we’re looking at Batman: the Silver Age Dailies and Sundays,1966-1967, collected by IDW.

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These newpaper strips represent some of my earliest memories of Batman. they were printed on the front cover of Smash! a weekly b/w comic which was part of the UK’s Power Comics line of the mid-60s. The strip first appeared around June 1966 – having made its debut in the US at the end of May. I was surprised to discover the shortness of that  interval. B&R appears to have run in Smash! until around December 1967- while I was still four years old.

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The IDW book is a solid brick of a book. Here are the serials it contains:

Penguin Perpetrates a Prank: the early strips open with “The Bat Camp” , a terrible pun from B&R. In this juvenile outing, Pengy and masked Girl friday Beulah escape on ostrich-back.

The Nasty Napoleon: The tale of  Field Marshal of Crime, Little Napoleon aka The Bogus Bonaparte is illustrated in the main by Carmine Infantino. The strip is gorgeous but Robin begins the irritating habit of apologising and putting himself down.

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Batchap and Bobbin: my earliest memory of the strip which I conflated with the Fatman & Sparrow spoof in Solo comic (1967). Lord Peter Heathcliff of Lemon Regis and his brother, the Honorable Robert inmpersonate the Dynamic Duo in a Carnaby Street story. They remind me of the Knight and Squire’s set-up and the villainous Gemini Twins taught me the names Castor and Pollux.

Catwoman is a Wily Wench: Catwoman breaks out of jail and swears vengeance . Her acid bath and guillotine traps are in the vein of the tv show but the strip is primitive.

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Two Jokers and a Laughing Girl: Joker is paroled as Bruce Wayne’s butler! This is a highly entertaining idea. Superman guest stars and the art improves with the arrival of Joe Giella. The terrible Indian caricature Laughing Girl turns out to be Bertha Schulz, a chorus girl from Brooklyn. It’s in poor taste by modern standards and a very long serial.

Penguin the Complainant: one of the most popular foes from the 40s returns for a very short sequence followed by the very long…

Flying the Jolly Roger: this piratical villain seems a poor relation to Little Napoleon.

The Sizzling Saga of Poison Ivy: having only appeared in comics six months earlier, the Ivy league dropout Queen of Crime is a surprising inclusion. Ivy Smith and her all-girl gang infiltrate the Bat-Hilton Hotel, disguised as “Robinettes”. Very long and very silly.

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Jack Benny’s Stolen Stradivarius: The celebrity comedian falls victim to the Collector and his gorilla henchmen. Sadly, not the masked bandit of “The Crime of Bruce Wayne” (‘Tec 249)

Batgirl Ain’t Your Sister: concuurent with Babs’ second appearance in ‘Tec 363, the “prim…dowdy…timid-looking” librarian gains a confidant in Ho Say Guy- another racist cariacture. The Commish has a low opinion of his daughter: ” I’m afraid that nothing romantic will ever happen to her”. A Goershin-eque Riddler is the villain.

Shivering Blue Max, Flo and Pretty Boy Floy: the longest sequence in the book, this is really at least two dovetailing plots running from July to December. Blue-skinned pilot Max, a reference to a 1966 George Peppard movie, is another of my early Bat-memories. He causes Bats to develop amnesia. The Caped Crusader’s grim origin is retold, Batgirl learns B&R’s secret i.d.s and even impersonates Batman in a campaign against midget crook. “Big” Trubble.

The strip takes on a darker hue as Elmo the Etcher, a counterfeiter dies in a horrible Roald Dahl twist and Blue Max gets a cement overcoat! The book concludes as “Cheap gunman” Pretty Boy Floy plots against a billionaire industrialist. Floy employs his sister Flo to pose as Madame Zodiac, the rich man’s personal astrologer, to seize control of the business. Interestingly. Madame Zodiac made her comics debut in a 1978 issue of Batman Family. I wonder if Bob Rozakis intended her to be the same character?

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If you are a fan of Batman in the Sixties this book is more fun, in my opinion, than the contemporary Fox/Giella/Moldoff Batman title. Equally, if you have any memories of the Power Comics era, then it’s a nostalgic read. I would advise reading one serial at a time however.

The villains in the strip are obviously in tune with the tv show but make a refreshing change from the four pillars of  United Underworld. It’s good to see Batgirl, even is she is a female Clark Kent and the strip is better drawn latterly than the Batman comic was at the time. In a couple of posts, we’ll look at DC’s current Batman 66 series which recreates the tone and revives the characters of the Adam West series.

Coming soon: The Great Darkness

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Under The Big Top

Q: which troupe of super-villains has bedevilled the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, the Avengers, Luke Cage and She-Hulk?

A: if you’ve read the title to today’s post, you’ll probably have realised it’s the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime!

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I had planned to review the Batman Silver Age newspaper strip today but after a trip to Zippos Circus in Elgin yesterday, I changed my mind. This is the third successive summer where I’ve bought a circus ticket.

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As a child, I was taken to the Kelvin Hall Carnival but I hadn’t attended a circus as an adult until I came up here. It feels quite appropriate, in the vicinity of the “Lantern of the North”, to witness death-defying feats of strength and skill in a theatrical atmosphere which connects to traditions of the Middle Ages.

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In any case, key members of the Batman Family have circus roots: the first two Robins and  Batwoman. In the war years, Flash, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman ( the original Trinity) appeared on a circus cover.

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The solitary Legionnaire, Lone Wolf, made his debut calming a herd of stampeding camelephants at the Galactic Circus. Also, Flash’s harlequin foe, The Trickster, came from a family of circus aerialists. While at Marvel, conflicted Avengers Hawkeye and the  Swordsman were “carny” performers. (I don’t care for the 80s retcon that saw Clint Barton trained by Trickshot. It might be more logical but…pfft. Comics.) .

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One of my favourite and more obscure companions of Conan in the Hyborian Age was the gamine  acrobat, Tara of Hanumar.

So here are some more comic book adventures where the backdrop was the Greatest Show On Earth:

Spider-Man clashed with the Circus of Crime a couple of times- although the Ringmaster ( a reworking of a GA Cap villain) first appeared in an early Hulk story. The acts of the circus were fully identified when the Clown re-organised them as the Masters of Menace.

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In their first encounter with the web-slinger, DD made the scene in his original fighting togs. I love the idea that the Man Without Fear is “yella”.

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Here’s a 1990s re-imagining of an X-classic:

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The Blob is one of my favourite Lee/Kirby mutants. Originally a pitiful lummox, a more contemporary take on the Blob actually saw him eat Ultimate Wasp!

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Deadman is one of the most droll, yet spooky and noir-ish creations of the Silver Age (albeit quite a Marvel-esque character) and as testament to the versatility of Batman, a minor player in the Bat-mythos.  

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The bizarre wedding of amnesiac Yellowjacket and the Wasp was catered by the Circus of Crime (as a sneak attack on Thor – you’ve got to hand it to them for sheer guts. And insanity.)

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Under Lee and Kirby, Thor had been enlisted by the Ringmaster to help heist a Golden Bull. In their second encounter, Ulik the troll was thrown into the fray by wily Loki. I always liked vampy Princess python’s crush on thr Thunder God ( no pun intended).

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Speaking of slinky villainesses, in this adventure, Catwoman impersonates a lion tamer to steal white tigers. I prefer her classic look to this tail/Iron Fist-style collar/pirate boots combo.

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Black Goliath, one of my Bronze Age favourites, made his debut as an attraction in the Ringmaster’s Circus in this Luke Cage two-parter. Obscure FF villain Live Wire, a henchman of Psycho-Man, joined up here.

I’m pleased to hear that the Legion of Super-Heroes is returning later this year in the first Justice League United Annual.  Here’s a circus themed murder mystery from the Conway/Staton Bronze age era.

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NB: cumbersome Legion” X-Men” logo

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Claremont and Byrne put the All-new X-Men through a humiliating ordeal as circus freaks under the hypnotic spell of Arnold Drake’s Mesmero. On this cover, Logan looks more like Timber (Lone) Wolf than ever before.

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Some thirty-five years later, in an homage to that story, students of Jean Grey School encountered Frankenstein’s Murder Circus.

Finally, a lovely Ramona Fradon portrait of tv’s Super Friends ( one of my guilty pleasures in the late 70s!)

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Coming soon: Little Napoleon and “Big” Trubble

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Swords of the South

Just checked out my Blogger page- Some Fantastic Place- and found that, as has been the case for nearly 12 months, I can’t post anything at all. When I was visiting Glasgow, last week, I found East Renfrewshire’s public library ICT provision made Moray’s look antiquated. If I can resolve the technical problems , I will post again but even logging into WordPress in Elgin has taken 10 minutes…

Today’s post is a holiday special – taking a break from Batman in the 60s to revisit Marvel’s b/w magazines of the 70s.

Forty years ago, my parents took a caravan holiday for the first time. We stayed on a farm in Borgue Bay- with a chemical toilet in a tent. All I really remember now is seeing bats for the first time, riding a pony and visiting Kirkcudbright, where the scant comic pickings was a Wonder Woman Super-Spectacular.

I hope to return to the area next month but last week I spent a couple of days in my favourite childhood haunts: Sandhead in the Rhins of Galloway.

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I took along a copy of Savage Tales 5 from exactly 40 years ago (since I first read Robert E. Howard’s prose in that part of the world.)

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Issue four, however, isn’t part of my collection. It features material I’ve already read elsewhere: Night of the Dark God , a Nordic revenge tragedy by Kane and Adams, appeared in the landmark 1977 Conan treasury. The mag’s other feature is Barry Smith’s decadent Dweller in the Dark, in which Conan becomes a “kept man” and is subsequently thrown into a dungeon with an octopoid monster.

Issue Five opens with The Secret of Skull River. This story was seemingly co-plotted with John Jakes, who created the identikit sword and sorcery hero, Brak.  It was illustrated, in an appealing change of pace, by Jim Starlin. Steranko’s influence is eveident here, with filmic long shots and zooms ( especially into a sterotypically Starlinesque death’s head in a blind man’s eye).

Conan is hired to stop a nobleman and an alchemist from poisoning a village’s water supply. Their lead-into-gold experiments are producing deformities and gigantism. There’s a cinematic seduction sequence (cut in a later reprint -see below) and subsequently a rather coarse joke about “riding” but otherwise this is an unremarkable Roy Thomas outing. It is unusual, however, to see Starlin draw a hero who doesn’t have introspective or surrealistic vignettes.

While this story was reprinted two years later in Conan the Barbarian 64 ( a fill-in after the Tarzan/Amra sequence in the colour comic), the other adventures in the mag are reprints from colour Marvels.

Spell of the Dragon:Dan Adkins teams with Val Mayerik and John Jakes to present an adventure of Brak the Barbarian from Chamber of Chills 2 (Jan 73). Brak is dispatched by a witch to kill a dragon. The art is quite stylised but Mayerik’s hero -like his Thongor- is brutish and ugly. Jakes’ creation and his world are bland and derivative and almost all of DC’s sword-and-sorcery creations are more interesting than Brak.

Legend of the Lizard Men: another reprint, this time from 1971’s Astonishing Tales 9.  This is another of Stan and John Buscema’s slighly spicy tales of Marvel’s prehistoric Tarzan. The sultry villainess Iranda reminds me Buscema’s Karnilla. This lush and moody saga is a characterful supernatural story, like the Conway/Barry Smith epsiodes of Ka-Zar.

The shimmer of sexuality in the mag distinguishes it, in one sense at least, from Marvel’s colour line. There’s also a scholarly tone to Thomas’s text feature on Conan books in the 50s. This is sustained by a LOC from Fritz Leiber ( whose Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were delineated at DC) and a reference to Harlan Ellison in the letters pages.

My other Sword and Sorcery reading was Michael Moorcock’s Sailor on the Seas of Fate. I first bought it in East Kilbride in 1979, on the day I saw Christopher Reeve’s Superman.

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Elric the albino has three sea-faring adventures: in the first, four aspects of the Eternal Champion meld togther to combat Lovecraftian beings who resemble living, futuristic buildings (Heavy!). In the second, Elric rescues a maiden from his deathless, obsessive ancestor who think she’s the reincarnation of his lover. In the third, the moody princeling embarks on a voyage to the jungle-lost city of his forebears. I read this story in the form of The Jade Man’s Eyes in Flashing Swords 2 , along with a Brak adventure.

Of course, I came to Moorcock through Marvel’s team-up of Elric and Conan. These melancholy, magical adventures have a haphazard, dream-like- proggy- quality. In many ways they’re somewhat more  juvenile than REH in terms of plotting and world-building. The fatalistic, conflicted anti- hero is a clear influence however on Starlin’s Warlock (which is neatly cyclical, I think).

Finally, I discovered on Twitter yesterday that Neil Craig had died. He was the propietor of Futureshock on Woodlands Road, Glasgow- and briefly on Byres Road in the 90s. His was the first comic shop I ever visited, at around the age of 19, and it was crammed with piles of  stock like a bazaar. I discovered it through the small ads in Dr. Who Monthly, when it was called Photon Books.

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photo: www.kathryncramer.com

Mr. Craig was latterly affiliated with UKIP  and although his politics didn’t really resonate with me, I want to commemorate the glorious days of the early 80s when his shop was such a big part of my enjoyment of Glasgow.

Coming soon: Stop the Presses!

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Cherchez la Bat-Femme

My plan for this week had been to review IDW’s landscape collection of the Batman newspaper strip from 1966-69. These comic strips, reprinted on the cover of Smash! in the 60s were my introduction to Batman in print- alongside the text stories in TV Tornado (which I couldn’t read at that age but the illustrations  were exciting, as you can see here: http://kidr77.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/first-issue-of-tv-tornado-part-one.html).

However, S4 deadlines in the last week of term – which ends a week later than in the Central Belt- meant I’m only halfway through my birthday present. So, for today, we’ll look at Batman Family 2, from December 1975 – which does reprint Sixties Bat-tales anyway, behind a, er, dynamic Gil Kane cover.

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Batgirl Breaks Up the Dynamic Duo (1967) : I think this might be Babs’ second appearance, where the Masked Maiden discerns Batsy’s swamp fever symptoms and decides to be his secret guardian angel. (Edit: this is Batgirl’s third published adventure, actually) Meanwhile, Bruce decides Dick has a crush on Batgirl.

Her compassion is equalled by her cleverness as Babs unveils a multicoloured light-beam tracker on her Bat-Bike. This device is so Gardner Fox and recalls Adam Strange or Hawkman. Despite the silly sexism of the story, it builds Batgirl up as the best-characterised heroine in the Silver Age, aside from Hawkgirl. As I always say, I cannot understand why Fox didn’t admit Babs to the JLA in his final year.

The Dynamic Trio (1957): this is beginning to look like one of my favourite years for Batsy. Here, he tricks Vicki Vale into revealing the identity of Mysteryman ( it’s Jim Gordon). This is  in order to vindicate the commish’s reputation when he is taken off a smuggling ring case.

I only knew of Mysteryman as a cameo in Alex Ross’ fourth issue of Kingdom Come. I love the way Vicki reasonably concludes the new hero must either be Superman or a Batman robot.

The Cluemaster’s Topsy-Turvy Crimes ( 1966): I had previously read this story in the b/w Showcase Presents Vol. 2 in 2007 but found it completely forgettable. The Infantino art is gorgeous, especially in a four panel gloating monologue but Fox’s  “walking utility belt” is a redundant villain. He feels like a Flash-y attempt at another Riddler and his only claim to fame is fathering the Spoiler. The real meat of the story is about how B&R foil snooping Aunt Harriet. I quite like the idea of a comic foil living in stately Wayne Manor.

Alfred’s Mystery Menu: a silly Fox/Moldoff  tale where the butler is abducted by Duke Kelsey, a new member of the Millionaire Mobster Club.  Alfred signals his plight to Bats in the form of a menu of food delicacies! The mobster club with its Edward G. Robinson soundalike is an interesting idea however. This story was the back-up in the Batman Sells Out issue, which I first read in this 1971 Batman hardback annual:

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Greetings from the Bat-Family: a  “Bob Kane” poster from the 1961 US Bat-annual. Again, the appearance of Bat-Mite, Bat-Hound, Batwoman and Bat-Girl (the latter pair unseen in continuity for 11 years) suggests both their rehabilitation and the effect of the 70s Nostalgia craze.

Despite Infantino’s blend of the naturalistic and the stylised, this issue is a bit disappointing after the premiere of the series. There is however a 2-page ad for Saturday morning tv which features the debut of Isis. I was a fan of the character in her Bronze age comics incarnation and like her better than Wonder Woman, so I was pleased to see this promo again.

Coming soon: Jolly Roger, Blue Max and Laughing Girl

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Eggs Benedict Arnold

Today’s post puts a spotlight on the first issue of the Batman Family from the autumn of 1975. This series effectively replaces the Batman Giant and is a mix of new and reprinted material. I only read one issue of BatFam in the Bronze Age ; obviously it was a a sister title  to Superman Family, the anthology  formed by the amalgamation of the Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen comics.

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The Batman figure on the cover is in fact a modified Superman, from the cover of Shazam:

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The Invader From Hell: this is a surprising story for several reasons. The corny humour of tongue-in cheek Elliot S! Maggin usually irritates me but here he treats the lead characters with respect and affection. Mike Grell’s colourful, stylised figures can look posed and plastic but here again, the sunlit setting of the US capitol is refreshing, after months of gloomy Gotham.

The biggest surprise in this fanciful tale of the resurrection of an infamous American figure is the revelation of the real villain- the Devil! We are used to overt Satanic reference at 70s Marvel ( Ghost Rider, Satana and Son of Satan, obviously). In a bat-book it’s very jarring but it does give the first team-up of the Dynamite Duo a unique quality. I probably would have enjoyed an ongoing Grell series starring Babs & Dick.

The Great Handcuff King: amateur sleuth Alfred buys some handcuffs- steady, Dr. Wertham- and accidentally apprehends the Hurton Gang in primitive slapstick from 1945.

Commisoner Gordon’s Death-Threat: a tedious short by Fox, Moldoff & Giella from one of my earliest Bat-books, although I have no recollection of it.

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 November 1966

A conviction from 40 years ago haunts Gordon- suggesting he may be in his early sixties. Hipster Robin quips: ” Like man, those rat-finks never learn”.

Challenge of the Man-Bat:  this Robbins/Adams/Giordano short was originally published in the 400th issue of Detective Comics. Not only does it introduce were-bat Langstrom in an atmospheric tale of high-tech crime and Gothic horror, we also get to “dig this experimental car”- the sleek, ultra-realistic 70s Batmobile.

  I’d read this story once before in the b/w Superheroes UK monthly of the very early 80s. I would direct you to Kid Robson’s Crivvens blog to see a  gallery of vibrant covers from that mag.

The comic also features text and clip-art features on the origins of Batgirl and Robin and Alfred’s history- from rotund Cockney to the bizarre Outsider.

Interestingly, the Dynamite Duo was originally scheduled for First Issue Special 6 ( actually Kirby’s 70s kid gang, the Dingbats).

First Issue Special was an odd idea- a revival of the Silver Age Showcase but only in the sense that it was a “try-out book”. The original Showcase devoted three consecutive issues to the concept but each FIS was only ever a one-off. There was no way of measuring sales on the title, thereby learning which feature might actually have an audience. Nevertheless, many of the oddball creations in FIS have gone on to be revived in the last decade and a half.

Metamorpho and the Creeper were 60s cult characters who had garnered a few guest appearances in the Bronze Age. Manhunter and Starman were revivals of Golden Age names and the former, probably, had the biggest impact in the DCU, thanks to Englehart.

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Dr. Fate was a gorgeous comic- and the first FIS I ever got- but others were dated (Lady Cop) or terribly bland (Codename: Assassin). or just terrible, like the Outsiders ( the “Super Freaks”).

The one “palpable hit” appeared to be  The Warlord.  Mike Grell’s Burroughsian fantasy was clearly DC’s only genuine  rival to Marvel’s Conan.

Marvel of course also launched one-off comics in both Marvel Premiere and Marvel Spotlight in the same time period. Those concepts included  revivals ( Sub-Mariner); spin-offs from the b/w line (Satana again);  solo stories for b-listers (Hercules); movie tie-ins ( Sinbad) or  nostalgia ( Liberty Legion). In fact Marvel may have been more successful in this endeavour, given the longevity of  Spider-Woman and Moon Knight.

Next time, we’ll look at the second issue of BatFam and hopefully, the Silver Age comic strips, reprinted by IDW and originally featured in the 60s Smash weekly.

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