Swords and Souls

Autumn feels very much on its way and the summer holidays are fading behind me. However, I wanted to post about some Bronze Age reading I did in August.

In the late summer of 1975, we had a family holiday in Rothesay. During that week, I got three DC comics: one was Kamandi’s excursion in Canada, the Dominion of the Devils; the other two were the first issue of Justice Inc. ( a Doc Savage imitator ) and, in Port Bannatyne, the first issue of Stalker.

These were both premiers in Joe Orlando’s Adventure line, heavily promoted in DC s of the day. These were (Justice Inc. excepted) sword -and-sorcery or caveman adventures poorly timed to glory of Marvel’s award-winning Conan. While that one character, as we’ll see later, achieved surprising longevity in comics, other fantasy titles faltered and failed. DC had launched the Fritz Leiber and ERB adaptations earlier in the decade but they had proved short-lived ( perhaps too “literary”).

I was intrigued by Stalker perhaps because the alienated hero reminded me of Moorcock’s Elric, whom I’d discovered earlier in the summer of 75, in the UK Conan weekly.

Although I knew of Ditko’s blend of Tibetan mysticism and Film Noir from way back in the Power Comics days of my primary schooling, I don’t think I was impressed overly by him or indeed by Wally Wood in those days. Of course, Wood, unbeknownst to me then, had already drawn some charming epic fantasy short stories for Marvel circa 1970.

Quest For a Stolen Soul: the comic creates a Tolkienesque, medieval world and this opening episode introduces Paul Levitz’s elvish protagonist who is a fusion of Elric and Cinderella.

The ice queen Baroness of Castle Loranth is marked for death by the urchin she once enslaved: a boy who sold his soul to the warrior god Dgrth ( Confusingly, there is also a reference to a god named Wgrth). It’s a dark, cynical world of crushed dreams and betrayal.  The protagonist cannot experience emotions and has been cheated by both his patron and his god. He sets out on a quest to reclaim his soul by entering hell and dispatches a monk in a fiery temple of blades once he’s got a lead.

Interestingly, Stalker’s tracking abilities recall Levitz’s Legion inductees, Dawnstar and Mwindaji. The comic’s text page also features a sure-fire winner for me: a map of Stalker’s world- although it’s a sparse one.

Darkling Death at World’s End Sea: Stalker tracks down Prior F’lan at  the End of Eternity, where the sea literally rolls off the edge of the world. ( I remember my school friend Graham Sim telling me a planet would have to be extremely small to make that possible. Don’t know if that’s right.)

Stalker rescues a slave girl and extracts the location of the entrance to Dgrth’s realm from the prior . He then binds F’lan to the Wheel of Infinity. This ruthlessness is very 70s, very Punisher and Conan seems a bit more compassionate by comparison.

This was the second-and last- issue of Stalker I  read: back in 1978 or 1979 as one of a “Grab-Bag” of comics from Lewis’s department store in Glasgow’s Argyle Street. The contents also included one of Kirby’s last Kamandi issues (“The Soyuz Survivor” with a Joe Kubert cover); the final issue of the Fleisher/Kirby/ Wood Sandman; and one each of Claw, Beowulf and Kong- further entries in the Adventure line that didn’t grab me by that time).

However, I wnated to create some new memories of Broze age books. So I bought the remaining two issues of the series online and read them while visiting Dufftown a couple of weeks ago.

Dufftwon is home to Glenfiddich and several other distilleries. So in a woodland park where the air was thick with whisky fumes , I read Stalker 3 and 4.

The Freezing Flames of the Burning Isle: Stalker encounters a red-werewolf and a harpy. The latter  is revealed to be the beautiful Srani, a “changeling” who claims she was marooned on the island. With her destruction, Stalker enters the gates of Hell.

While in her human disguise, Srani recounts some of the history of Stalker’s world, including “legends of ships that sailed not upon the sea…gods came from the stars…men fought them back.”

So, this Epic Fantasy world contains imagery of astronauts. While an unusual approach, there was a precendent for this melding as seen in the very first Barry Smith issue of Conan the Barbarian: here a shaman glimpsed a manned spaceflight in a vision.

Invade the Inferno: Stalker beards  Dgrth in his lair,  Castle Carnage but is bedevilled by a “3-headed terror”, skeleton warriors, a dragon and a  riddling 3-foot imp. The god explains that Stalker’s soul is incorporated into his being – or something- and can only be released with his dissolution. However,  belief in evil sustains him so Stalker vows to  banish all evil from his world.

This final issue is not unlike The Son of Satan’s confrontation with his demonic dad a la Herb Trimpe. Indirectly, it also recalls Dr. Strange’s first meetings with Dormammu and Eternity.

And there the series ended, dying a quick death like most of DC’s Adventure line. Being rather pallid imitations of Marvel series from earlier in the decade, they didn’t really offer much of an alternative but Stalker was an interesting idea that probably needed more time to find its market,

Stalker returned in 1999 in the miniseries The Justice Society Returns: rather fittingly, since Levitz’s JSA in All-Star Comics was one of my favourite comics in 1977-78.

James Robinson, something of a fan of mid-70s Dc obscurities used Stalker as a world-conquering menace unleashed by Nazi occultists. In the series, Stalker now resembled Dgrth. A more familiar Stalker shared an adventure with Wonder Woman where she offered him some redemption despite a betrayal. He returned a third time in the New 52 version of Sword of Sorcery but that title folded in the spring of 2013.

I also read an issue of Savage Sword of Conan – a series I always associate with the last weeks of summer.

The Devil in Iron is a Thomas/Buscema/Alcala adaptation of a REH tale, published in October 1976 ( at the same time that Captain Britain made his debut!)

The original adventure rehashed several elements of earlier Conan stories: the evil sheikh and his nubile victim in an island’s lost city  from Shadows in the Moonlight; the resurrection of an ancient menace from Black Colossus; and the phantom inhabitants of a city with secret passages from The Slithering Shadow.

The Marvel version is all lush charcoals and captures the furious action and decadent evil of the original. The metallic giant monster Khosatral Khel is a more pharaonic being than the grotesquerie of Boris Vallejo’s  cover and there is a rather silly image of his head on fire. However, it’s a good example of Marvel’s Conan Classic.

In the near future, I’ll comment upon the first outings for Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor and the new monthly Titan Comics for his immediate predecessors.

 

Stranded in Infinity Rooms

Guardians of the Galaxy is now coming to Elgin but I saw it a fortnight ago in Glasgow. It had received very positive press reviews but I’m afraid I found it a trite, formulaic homage to Star Wars: The Expendables with talking animals.

The attraction of the film is the use of many of Marvel’s more obscure creations: the most popular, I think, may be Groot, a typical Lee/Kirby Marvel monster predating the Fantastic Four.

Lee and Kirby’s giant Public Accuser Ronan actually first appeared in the FF: a menacing emissary of  an enigmatic and ancient alien empire more akin, at that stage, to Kirby’s later Celestials. “Developed” later by Roy Thomas as a cackling usurper, Ronan became a go-to space villain.

The Guardians themselves of course were originally a rebel quartet created in a 60s one-shot by Arnold “Doom Patrol” Drake and Gene Colan. Their dystopian future was then explored by Steve Gerber in a short-lived freak-out series in the mid-70s. (I wonder if the ginger kid who mocked my copy of Marvel Presents at Strathaven Academy circa 1976  took his kids or grand kids to the movie?)

Jim Valentino revived the Guardians in  an  homage to both the Legion of Super-Heroes and the X-Men in the mutant frenzy of the foil-cover 90s. The current group contains none of those 31st-century solar system rebels but is instead comprised of various other characters from the Silver and Bronze Ages.

Star-Lord was an astrology-based anti-social spaceman created by Steve Englehart and Steve Gan. However, the legendary Claremont/Byrne team blended elements of Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang with Star Wars to create a sexy space opera that prefigured the Shi’Ar stories in X-Men.

Claremont and Infantino went on to develop Peter Quill’s bizarre “friends with benefits” relationship with his sentient craft.

Rocket Raccoon, like Star-Lord, debuted in the ultra-obscure Marvel Preview magazine.  Mantlo and Giffen’s Sword in the Star was a sci-fi take on quest mythology, blending Arthur and Ulysses. Rocket next appeared in the Hulk and in his own mini-series. Mantlo seemed to enjoy combining space opera and Funny Animals.

Thanos and his ward Gamora, were of course Kirbyesque co-stars of Adam Warlock, a character who had undergone a transformation similar to Star-Lord. In Warlock’s case, he changed from Space Jesus into Elric of Melnibone: a morbid gilded vampire with suicidal impulses. Heavy. Nebula, a space pirate and self-styled grand-daughter of Thanos was created by Stern and Buscema in the mid-80s Avengers.

Finally, Marv Wolfman’s homage to Silver Age Green Lantern, the Nova Corps were first introduced in 1976. Perennial newbie Nova is an enduring third-string character but his alien origins are deadly dull.

The film itself struck me as lazy and patronising and its attempts at goofball charm failed to work for me. I did however enjoy the 70s soundtrack which owed a great deal to Tarantino.

Interestingly though, fans of the Sekhmet Hypothesis might think there are portents of Cycle 24- some three years overdue- in the contemporary launch of Jim Starlin’s new Marvel graphic novel. Maybe the stranglehold of  caffeinated Goth popular culture is easing?

The Thanos Revelation sees the Titan, with a resurrected Adam Warlock at his side, witness the universe undergoing a metamorphosis. Warlock wears a costume that recalls Cockrum’s Lightning Lad – but there are kaleidoscopic glimpses of a Warlock wearing a Mobius loop emblem -and of the original 70s Drax the Destroyer

This tale of merging realities has a sprawling cast of Marvel’s Most Cosmic: Eternity, Infinity, the Living Tribunal, the Badoon, the Spaceknights, the Silver Surfer, Ronan, Gladiator, Beta Ray Bill, Akenaten from 2003’s Marvel: The End – and happily, even Quasar, Marvel’s Protector of the Universe from the early 1990s.

Thanos and Warlock are subsequently reborn on new planes of existence- a “Warlockworld” where the inhabitants are trapped in a monstrous loop of suicide and resurrection and a Thanos- reality where nihilism has triumphed.

The universe is reborn yet  again and this time the “Infinity ” Warlock (“far different and…far more powerful”) has replaced the one we knew. Meanwhile Thanos and Death are reconciled and the Mad Titan, who had previously confessed a weakness for “the odd steak and distilled beverage” rededicates himself to his mistress.

Starlin’s art remains a fusion of Ditko and Kirby ( although he can also pastiche Gil Kane in an homage to Marvel Premiere #1). The story itself is the old Headshop Kozmic: a brew of leitmotifs and surreal landscapes that recall his 70s stories and I felt some of his Dreadstar tales of the 80s. I enjoyed it hugely.

Coming soon: Stalker by Levitz, Ditko & Wood. Plus, Peter Capaldi IS the Doctor

Idylls of the King

I made a second summer  trip to the far south of Scotland last week- this time to the Machars of Galloway and Wicker Man country: Wigtown, Scotland’s  Book Town and the Artists town, Kirkcudbright .

I was based in Newton Stewart, where at some point in 1976 or 1977, I bought Skull-Face Omnibus volume 3. This paperback introduced me to the prose of Robert E. Howard although I was already a fan of Marvel’s Conan and of The Lord of the Rings.

The book led me to the Sphere Conan paperbacks throughout 1978 and 79 and thence to Moorcock, Lieber and the pulp pastiches of Lin Carter: especially his Thongor, Callisto and World’s End paperbacks and later, the first of his Green Star series. I was such a sucker for demoniac wizardy in shattered cities from Time’s dawn, et cetera.

 To commemorate that discovery, nearly 40 years ago, I bought the Marvel b/w magazines, Kull and the Barbarians 2 and 3 from 1975 on ebay.

I dispensed with the series premiere: the contents of issue 1 comprise adaptations from that Omnibus and its predecessors: The Shadow Kingdom itself, adapted for issue 1 and 2 of the 1971 colour Kull the Conqueror and Valley of the Worm  by Thomas, Conway and Kane from Supernatural Thrillers 3 in April 1973.

Allegedly, the magazine came about because  a Steranko fanzine mistakenly claimed Marvel was publishing a dollar comic collection of Kull stories. So Roy Thomas decided it was worth trying.

The Teeth of the Dragon: the saga of Kull the Destroyer, the rebranded Kull the Conqueror monthly which went on hiatus in 1974, continues here in a story by Gerry Conway and Filipino artist Jess Jodloman. (I confess this name was new to me but he trained Alex Nino, creator of DC’s Captain Fear.)

Deposed by Ardyon (secretly skull-headed super villain Thulsa Doom- any relation to Victor Von? ), Kull seeks allies in the Pictish Isles. However, he is capyured by the shaman Teyanoga.

The snake-man hybrid monster of the month recalls REH’s  grisly pulp inferno Beyond the Black River (a Conan yarn and itself something of a homage to Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales). Brule the Spear-Slayer, Tongah to Kull’s Ka-Zar, is written out here. A dull Noble Savage archetype, Brule is no great loss.

I first read this story in the UK Savage Sword Of Conan  reprint monthly in June 1980. That year was probably the absolute peak of my devotion to Sword and Sorcery, with the publication of Marvel UK’s Valour that November.  I also got my hands on the second Skull-Face Omnibus in East Kilbride library in 79 or 80.

The Hills of the Dead: a  Skull-Face 2 adaptation, this is a voodoo/vampire mash-up starring dour (and here, rather wiry) Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane. I read of this Thomas/Weiss/Adams story first in the long-ago Foom Magazine#2. We’ll return to it later…

A photo-feature showcases willowy Dawn Greil as she cosplays the Barry Smith Red Sonja at San Diego’s Comic-Con in 1974. Frank Capra, Uhura and Chekov were also in attendance but the word “cosplay” had yet to be coined.

She-Devil With a Sword: Chaykin and Thomas parody Little Red Riding Hood as Sonja encounters a werewolf in Mirkw-eh, Darkwood  . There’s also a soupcon of Psycho in this stylish tale.

Blackmark versus the Mind Demons: the sequel to Gil Kane’s seminal 1970 science-fantasy graphic novel begins here: 15 pages of illustrations and text. Blackmark’s post-apocalyptic kingdom is threatened with invasion by the mutants of Psi-Keep. The original graphic novel was also serialised in the US SSOC 1-4. This is superior stuff to Marvel’s Kull.

The third issue has a slightly more cartoony cover.

The Omen in the Skull:  Moench and Alcazar present a pretty but slow-moving tale as Kull enters an illusory dreamscape of skeleton warriors and skull-headed serpents. The  exploration of a futuristic Atlantean city continues in the US SSOC 9, December 1975: my very first issue.

The minstrel Ridondo, who once plotted against Kull, makes a better sidekick than Brule. While I find the comedy foils of the Forties tiresome ( Doiby Dickles; Stretch Skinner, etc.). I feel Marvel’s Conan is more appealing when partnered with the likes of fat, minor wizard Erfu or the  hoyden Tara,  the acrobat. The same is true for Kull.

Day of the Sword: a grim and stylised story which gives Red Sonja an origin. It’s a depressing mix of rape, revenge and celestial visitation as Sonja has a chance meeting with the man who assaulted her. However, he has been tortured and has become catatonic.

It’s unfortunate that one of Marvel’s biggest female stars of the Seventies has such an exploitative origin but it’s the tenor of the times, I suppose.

Into the Silent City: this second episode is rather sketchy- looking. Solomon Kane’s battle with the vampire hordes is relentless and becomes a bit tiresome. The conclusion is a little disappointing and could easily have found a home in Vampire Tales.

The house ad for the unpublished fourth issue promotes Blackmark first, perhaps realising that Kull is a pretty but undynamic strip so far. The Atlantean and the Puritan were also promised: presumably the SSOC story When a Tiger Returns to Atlantis would have been the lead in issue 4. Perhaps the Chaykin Solomon Kane two-parter printed in Marvel Premiere was Kull/Barbarians material too.

Why then did Kull and The Barbarians fail? The sword and sorcery market didn’t shrink at that stage – the original US SSOC ran well into the Nineties, probably thanks in the main to the movies. My feeling is that the humourless fantasy world of Kull is less rounded and convincing than Conan’s and therefore less easy to invest in.

Also, the character is less action-oriented; more cerebral and existential than Conan, inhabiting a world of shadows, illusions, doppelgangers and symbolism. He’s actually more interesting, therefore, as a reigning monarch in a decadent, treacherous court than as a rebel in exile.

In future posts, we’ll look at Starlin’s new Thanos novel; DC’s Stalker in the Seventies; and the Twelfth (or Thirteenth?) Doctor!

 

Still no images, I’m afraid

Bronze, Silver and Gold

Today’s post concerns two Bronze Age comics which are very tangentially connected to previous posts on DC’s Legion of Super Heroes.

The first is a 100-page issue of Superman Family: number 169 from March, 1975. FYI, Giant-Size X-Men 1 is only two months away and in the UK, Marvel has launched two new weeklies: The Super Heroes ( Buscema’s Surfer and Lee/Kirby’s original X-Men) and Barry Smith’s barbarian tales in Savage Sword of Conan.

Target of the Tarantula: This story is by Cary Bates and a name unfamilair to me: John Rosenberger. Turns out he was primarily a romance comics artist but also co-creator of DC’s one-shot Lady Cop and Archie’s The Jaguar.

Lois undertakes her second mission for the covert Secret Intelligence Agency with the assistance of the ghost of lovestruck agent Simon Cross. Meanwhile, Adam West-ish tv  hero, the Tarantula ( no relation to the Sandman imitator from the All-Star Squadron) has come to life and is executing mobsters, Punisher-style. 

Two interesting plots are conflated here but the denouement is frustrating. A twenty-ish fanboy is chief suspect of being the “real” Tarantula- even his parents dismiss him as an oddball; how times change. It turns out to be his embittered private eye father, implicating his own son.

As if that grim twist weren’t enough, Supes uses a Kryptonian Ectoplasmic Exorciser to “out” Simon Cross, who concedes Supey is the better man for Lois (being alive and everything) and evaporates.

What I can’t understand is, since Simon is effectively Deadman- why not just  use Deadman? Being Supey’s love rival would have been a new status quo and would bring further pathos. Also, why invent a ridiculous Kryptonian gizmo to summon Simon? Why didn’t Supes go to one of his magician acquaintances, like Sargon or Zatanna ; why didn’t the Phantom Stranger turn up?

League of Fantastic Supermen: even more illogical is this Jimmy Olsen short. I wanted to read it because of the aforementioned LSH connection but also because I included it in one of my fantasy Wanted: the World’ Most Dangerous Villains posts- without having read it…

This is, I think, the second appearance of the LSV; here we first meet Sun Emperor and Chameleon Chief. The villains from the 21st Century plan to impersonate four Kandorian criminals , intending to then gain access to the Phantom Zone and liberate the inmates to swell their ranks.

This makes some sense but once Jimmy Olsen has zapped the “fantastic four” Kandorians with a red-K ray, they now resemble  previous transformations of Superman caused by the wacky mineral ( Lion man, giant head, etc)

Jim tricks the LSV with assistance from Supergirl and Lori Lemaris- something Superman and the three Legion founders struggled to do in the villains  first outing. This gimmicky and bizarre story truly seems to be the madcap justification of a cover image. I do like the manic Villainaires however as drawn by Swan.

The Anti-Supergirl Plot: dull tale of a crooked beat combo who imitate Supergirl, Batman, Green Arrow and Green Lantern. Hopeless Linda has to rely on a girl singer and the real JLAers to save her. As if being outshone by a cub reporter weren’t humiliating enough…

I first read this snoozer in the second Superadventure annual bought for me in Wemyss Bay in the early 70s.

Krypto’s Mean Master: unpleasant tale of animal cruelty as mischievous Krypto becomes the prisoner of sadistic and cowardly Solar Boy. Just nasty, really.

Clark Kent’s Super-Dad: very gentle comedy in which windbag Pa Kent is conferred with super powers. Schoolboy fun is had with his “fatherly advice” and “experienced judgement”

The Good Deeds of Bizarro-Luthor: laboured slapstick as Bizarro creates duplicates of Luthor and the Superman Emergency Squad. John Forte seems far more comfortable here than with the LSH.

There are two clip-art features detailing some of the bizarre transformations undergone by the sassy reporter (largely in the Weisinger Era): Four Deaths for Lois Lane and The Strange Lives of Lois Lane.

I read one LL Giant as a child- a collection of Schaffenberger stories from my cousin Jim’s collection- and one story in a Double Double comic.

In the later 80s, a female artist let me read some of her early-70s LL issues. I was more interested in the urban vigilante exploits of the Thorn. I also prefer Teri Hatcher’s kooky Lois to any of her film incarnations.

Kid Robson will, I think,  appreciate my amazement last week at returning, pretty much by accident, to the site of a caravan holiday forty years ago. I was astonished to find the site- and the caravan itself!- almost completely unchanged.

This was Brighouse Bay near Kirkcudbright, where I first read a Wonder Woman Super-Spec -since there was nothing else on offer.

Our second Bronze Age book today, from May ’75- is also a  Wonder Woman Giant issue (since the Super-Spec Era was  over). Issue 217 opens with a new story by the Batman Family’s Elliot Maggin and the JLA’s Dick Dillin.

The Day Time Broke Loose: is  part of the sequence in which WW undergoes a series of trials to prove herself worthy of re-admission to the League. Narrated by Maggin’s jive-talkin’ favourite, Green Arrow, the story also sees the return of Golden Age villain, the Duke of Deception: a dapper illusionist, not unlike the JSA’s Wizard.

The Duke wants to plunge the world into war to humiliate his former master, Mars. The story, with a Batman cameo, is beautifully drawn by one of my Bronze Age favourites. There is, however, one instance of archetypal WW kinkiness as the Amazon is confined to an illusory bed of nails.

After a feature comprising two pages of clip-art , displaying the Duke of Deception in his original 1942  guise as a wizened, gnome-like Legionary, kinkiness continues in:

The Return of Diana Prince: in which, having borrowed the identity of nurse Diana Prince, WW has to rescue her from Dr. Cue, a Japanese spy chief and kidnapper.

Not only does the murderous medic maintain a “hospital of horrors”, he plans to steal the disintegrator ray devised by Dan White, the real Diana’s husband. Jealous Dan, by the way, has a penchant for chaining his wife to the stove- literally.

This is another jingoistic, feverish pulp tale drawn in storybook miniatures.I don’t care much for Golden Age stories, unless they’re by Kubert or Toth. Give me 50s Batman every time.

Fun House of Time: this 1958 story presents the Wonder Woman I first encountered- the fanciful Kanigher/Andru/Esposito version. An amusement park funhouse transports Diana and Col. Trevor millions of years into the past; to a whirlpool endangering Colombus and to an interplanetary attack in the far future.

It’s a rather humdrum children’s adventure but the art is appealing and distinctive.

The villainous Time Master ( or, er, Ty.M. Master here) is a robed, cowled sorceror type. Over twenty years later, in  Super Friends of all places, E. Nelson Bridwell would reveal that the Time Master was another guise of the Time Trapper, the Legion’s arch foe. I’ve always been fascinated by the alliterative, elusive villain, who’s had a multiplicity of  identities in the past half-century. However, establishing this connection was worthy of Roy Thomas in its obscurity.

Coming soon: sword and sorcery in the Shadow Kingdom and the Hills of the Dead.

Hai Karate

No images today- as yet. Maybe it’s a consequence of the flooding on Monday but I can’t upload any pictures at all. Of course, it may just be a result of Moray’s poor IT provision (compared to, say, East Ren);  this is reminiscent of the final days of Some Fantastic Place, when I couldn’t post anything at all…

Given the critical success of  GotG, Marvel’s new Star Wars homage *ahem*, it strikes me that DC are still sleeping on the job.

 

Not only do they have a ready-made response in the form of the Legion of Super-Heroes, the team doesn’t even have a regular berth at present  (although that’s to be addressed- to an extent-  this autumn.)

Yet , thirty years ago, the LSH was one of two titles used to launch DC’s “hardcover/softcover” initative. This launch was driven by two factors: the quirky,  detailed and Kirby-esque art of Keith Giffen and an all-out war plot  involving the Legion of Super-Villains. 

Many super-villain teams are evil doppelgangers of the heroes- the Injustice Society; the Crime Syndicate;  the Frightful Four; the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.  Although the LSV had faced off against the LSH at least five times in the past , the last occasion had been back in 1975 with a squad of only six (rather pretty) Grell dopplegangers. Let’s take a look at the assault perpetrated by the massed ranks of Villainaires in the trade paperback An Eye for an Eye.

 Here a Villain, There a Villain: The LSV swears an oath to kill the Legionnaires in the setting of a Kirbyesque castle. Meanwhile, Dream Girl has a prophetic dream that a Legionnaire will die. And those dreams always come true…

On the gamblers’ world Ventura, Shrinking Violet confronts her kidnapper, Micro Lad ( from the Yera/Chameleon Girl/impersonation plotline) but he is rescued by a space warp. Among the giant mushrooms of Winath, retired Legionnaire Light Lass is abducted by a bald Radiation Roy. President Allon resigns and Darkseid’s acolyte, the Daxamit child Ol-Vir, is practicing human sacrifice on the prison planet Takron-Galtos.

Where a Villain?: Light Lass/Ayla discovers herself to be the prisoner of her brother, Lightning Lord. The LSV attacks a site where Powerspheres are manufactured. This squad consists of Conway and Staton’s X-Men parodies, the League of Super-Assassins ( Blok’s adopted family) and newcomer Terrus, who vaguely resembles Marvel’s first Scarecrow.

Saturn Girl goes into labour as Earth’s polymer screen is stolen and we learn that the LSV, led by a former Legionnaire, is holed up on Orando. I wonder if the white glove of the ex-Legionnaire was misdirection? Could it be…Tyroc?!

Everywhere a Villain?: Nah, The LSV’s leader is revealed to be Jim Shooter’s creation Nemesis Kid,  alchemist and Legion traitor. The two Legions clash and Orando is teleported into limbo by Zymyr. This villain is a Gil’Dishpan: giant aquatic tube-worms with space-warping abilities. I long thought they were Levitz/Giffen creations but they may be the Brain Globes of Rambat from a 1962 Adventure/LSH tale.

 The founding Legionnaires, with the new baby ( born in the third LSH annual), discuss introducing new blood- this subplot will see fruition next year with the non-human Legionnaires Quislet and Tellus; Polar Boy, leader of the Subs and Adult Legionnaire; and Magnetic Kid, Cosmic Boy’s kid brother.

While Giffen’s humorous and inventive visuals had contributed to its huge success, he was replaced here by Steve Lightle, who brought some of Swan’s classicism back to the 30th Century.

Lest Villainy Triumph: the cover reveals the doomed Legionnaire. Hostage Karate Kid breaks free, as does Ayla who has her original lightning powers back. The Academy, Reserves and Subs are glimpsed.

KK is savagely beaten almost to death by Nemesis Kid but goes out in a suicide flight, destroying  LSV tech. This self-sacrifice was prefigured in at least two earlier Adventure tales, including his debut.

An Eye for an Eye, a Villain for a Hero: the LSV round on the hostage  Queen Projectra but Ayla arrives in the nick of time, defeating Lightning Lord. The siblings are warped away by Zymyr.

Projectra executes Nemesis Kid, snapping his neck. This is a shocking first for the Legion; its code against killing led to the (temporary) expulsion of Star Boy in the Sixties.

  Karate Kid is placed on a funeral pyre and Orando is transferred to another dimension for safety in exile.

Meanwhile, Ultra Boy, Phantom Girl, Violet, Chameleon Boy and Element Lad trounce the LSV but are stranded in limbo. This event will lead to a two-part adventure in the Sun-Eater factory of the Controllers.

Silver Linings: the cover proclaims “She’s no lightweight any more”.  Joe Orlando, who reinvigorated the Gothic tradition at DC with House of Mystery and House of Secrets, pencils this coda.

Lightning Lass’s origins as explored through flashbacks as she and her brother are imprisoned in Zymyr’s labs. We are reminded that Dream Girl used “Naltorian science” (and maybe some White Witch-craft?) to change Ayla’s electrical powers to making objects super-light. It’s worth remembering who the Legion’s second-best boffin is.

Ayla duels with Mekt, defeats him and returns to Legion HQ in a new costume. This seems to be part of a long-range plan to replace the three Legion founders -arguably, the heart and soul of the team. Inexplicably, Levitz will return to this theme in his most recent Legion run.

This storyline certainly had the surprise power Levitz predicted when Giffen decided to kill off his least-favourite Legionnaire. It was rare for a hero to die as a result of brutal physical combat  and of course, this was more than a year before the Crisis started removing major DC players. Furthermore, Legionnaire deaths were rare but usually very significant and irreversible events. I felt the loss of Karate Kid- he starred in my third-ever Legion comic:

and I had a few issues of his solo series. Granted, it was largely Seventies schlock but I learned his origin as a super-villain’s son there and, Supey aside, no other Legionnaire had ever supported a solo comic. Of course, various iterations of Karate Kid have subsequently appeared- even in the New 52- but none have really had the composure and will of the original.

 

Coming soon: Wonder Woman; Solomon Kane; Stalker; Thanos and Dr. Who!

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Family Jewels

This morning’s post examines a triptych of Batman Family issues from 1976. As we’ve seen, this series began with a repackaged First Issue Special team-up of Batgirl and Robin. Subsequent issues team them again or carry solo exploits of the pair.

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BatFam 5  June 1976

The Princess and the Vagabond: the ceative team of Maggin, Cary Bates, Curt Swan and Vince Colletta deliver a classy ( if a little hokey) exploit for the Dynamite Duo.  Princess Evalina and poet Alexei Brund -both natives of a postage-stamp European country- are targets of a terrorist organisation called MAZE. Clark Kent guest stars and, rather unusually, Superman doesn’t appear.

While the strip is a little staid, it presents a DC equivalent to groups like the Secret Empire or AIM.

Ace the Bat-Hound: the “masked four-footed wonder” with the skills of a police dog is an absolutely charming addition to the Dynamic Duo. Jim Shooter writes wistfully in his blog of how much he wanted a dog as a little boy. Ace fulfills the same function as the Blue Peter pets and was endearingly stuffy in the Krypto cartoons.

The Signs of the Signalman: of course, the Signalman starred in Wanted no.1 , one of my favourite series of all time. The “bizarre bandit who uses signs for crime” returned in June. 1959 with a plot to steal Batman’s collection of international police badges.

Perhaps because of his low self-esteem (the underworld wouldn’t have him), Sig next surfaced as the Blue Bowman but was unseen for 15 years until he turned up in December ’76.

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While it’s gaudy and takes up space,I have a fondness for this logo.

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Sig then made a colourful comeback in a JLA/JSA crossover pencilled by George Perez in the summer of 1981. In more recent years, he’s been a member of the Secret Society in the New 52.

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BatFam 6 Aug 1976

I actually bought this comic a year ago and read it during a weekend stay in the Badaguish Centre near Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms.

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VERY cold by the lochside, even in late August.

Valley of the Copper Moon: as the cover says: Batgirl celebrates the “bison-” tennial *Hee!*. Political intrigue at a rodeo on the Matituk reservation. Legislator Babs is a bit less interesting than librarian Babs but Maggin dramatically dubs her “the lady shrouded in midnight”. There’s an odd reference to an untold story with the Matituks but the Native American characters seem quite unrealistic.

The Joker’s Daughter: one of the most significant contributions of BatFam is the introduction of Duela Dent, who would briefly become the new Harlequin. A more grisly incarnation inhabits the New 52 ( of course*sighs*); here a rosy-cheeked Clown Princess of Crime uses lipstick bullets and fake rocket-powered hands(!) to confound Robin on the Hudson Unispan. (This is a pedestrian bridge, like the one at Harthill Services on the M8, circa 1978.)

In the Soup: Alfred accidentally solves a turtle soup theft in an antique caper from Dec 1945.

The New Crimes of the Mad Hatter: I was surprised to find this dated from Feb. 1964 just a few months away from the darker Infantino New Look.

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David Wayne’s effete Jervis Tetch is one of my favourite tv Bat-villains. Here, the “zany criminal…hobby-robber” disguises himself as a fireman, an archer, a chef ( with a spring-powered hat) and a magician with a giant escape balloon-hat.

This version of the Hatter has been largely superceded by the Lewis Carroll-inspired incarnation. In the New 52, Tetch had drug treatment to help him through puberty; this treatment affected his appearance  and personality. With mind-control gimmicks and a sexually-frustrated muderous MO, I find this Hatter a little distasteful and too reminiscent of the modern Joker.

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BatFam 7  Oct1976

13 Point to a Dead End: Batgirl and Robin are kidnapped by Sportsmaster and the Huntress and forced to compete in gladiatorial combat. The winner will be coerced into retrieving a priceless ruby from a Mayan temple.

This is my favourite Maggin story so far. Again, Swan’s art is a little too clean and poised for urban heroes and Maggin’s encomiums are laid on too thick: “(Robin has) the agility and speed of a boy and the strength and cleverness of a man”.

However, Maggin’s characterisation of the bickering married villains is great as they cattily refer to each other’s age and failing prowess. The Huntress and Sportsmaster are ideal opponents for Dick’n’ Babs. I can’t understand however why he felt he had to introduce Earth-1 version of Mr. and Mrs. Menace- why couldn’t they have accompanied the Wizard to E-1 in Secret Society of Super-Villains?

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The bickering marrieds would return two months later in one of the zaniest comics of that year: DC Super-Stars 10, where they would pit heroes and villains in a baseball game. It was a favourite of mine: while not being a sporty kid, I loved seeing obscure DC crooks. ( And you get to see Wonder Woman teamed up with Plastic Man, as drawn by Dick Dillin!)

The Amazing Dr. Double X: another gaudy foe from the late 1950s, Dr. Simon Ecks is a sci-fi Jekyll and Hyde. Having “separated” his personality using SCIENCE , Ecks decides to create an energy-duplicate “Batman-X” to join him in CRIME. But Bats employs phosphorous and a Batman robot to foil the mad scientist.

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Mike W. Barr would revive Dr. Double X in Brave and Bold in 1983 . In the tv series of the same name, Ecks helped create Firestorm. (Barr also revived Jervis Tetch in his 80s Detective run with Alan Davis.)

The Broken Batman Trophies: a humdrum story taking place on Gotham’s annual Batman Day. Bats destroys gifts he receives to ruin tv close-ups that would give away his Bruce Wayne identity.

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When you compare DC’s output with Marvel in the summer of 76, the House of Ideas seems more radical and challenging. (the latter pair I read in Grab Bags in Morecambe in 1978) Nevertheless , they have a silly charm all their own.

In the next couple of weeks, we’ll revisit the Legionof Three Decades Ago and look at some Sword and Sorcery comics of nearly forty years vintage. Meanwhile, I’m heading back down south to Scotland’s Book Town in a few days.

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Family Affair

This afternoon’s post concerns two more issues of the Bronze Age Batman Family title: specifically numbers 3 and 4 from February and April 1976.

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Isle of a Thousand Thrills: arch humorist scripter/hipster Elliot  Maggin wrote a thinly-disguised Dany Kaye into a Detective Comics/ Robin story in October ’73. However, I’m unsure who “Major Montana” is supposed to be exactly- perhaps Orson Welles? Anyway, this mogul has opened a theme park island in an oddball story which, thanks to Garcia Lopez, is quite pretty to look at . There are phony dinosaurs and a Monty PyTHON joke about the Spanish Inquisition.

I’ve never been keen on Maggin- his  Last Son of Krypton novel is wearily 70s and sourly unfunny . Despite that, I respect his loyalty to DC’s non-powered street level heroes, like Batgirl and Green Arrow. For that reason, he might have been an interesting choice for Daredevil or Spider-Man at the House of Ideas.

The Challenge of the Batwoman: Bored society girl Kathy Kane is duped by Robin into believing amnesiac crook Curt Briggs is really Batman. This 1957 story resembles 1954’s “The Duplicate Batman” but the climax takes place in Gotham’s Chinatown Museum.  Batwoman’s feminine gimmicks, I suppose, help to differemtiate her from Batgirl. She uses an expanding hairnet and charm bracelet handcuffs in this story.

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Crimes of the Kite-Man: This is a forgettable 1960 debut for a much-lampooned villain  instrumental in the creation of Plastic Man in the Brave & Bold tv cartoons, in  a parody of the Joker’s origin. I think Batman ’66 should revive Kite-Man.

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The Year 3000: this adventure of Brane (BRuce wAyNE) and Ricky is a futuristic allegory for WWII from January 1945.  The new Dynamic Duo use 20th century commando tactics to overthrow Fura (Ha!), the dictator from Saturn and his robots. It’s very gung-ho but quite touching too. This doesn’t seem to be the flirty Batman of Tomorrow from 1967’s Batman Giant 187 however- their worlds seem quite different.

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Issue 4 is a festive holiday tie-in. Batgirl and Robin have separate adventures in this issue.

Cage Me or Kill Me: Crook Tad Wolfe requests protection from mob hitwoman Diamond Lilly. Biker Batgirl is described by Maggin as “an avenging demon of flames screaming through the night”. Dramatic but sounds more  like Ghost Rider, no?

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A New Look for Robin:  a sweet 2-page feature of fan designs that are essentially riffs on the Neal Adams costume worn by the E-2 Robin. Jamie Hightower’s drawing is clearly inspired by the Starlin cover however. It seems a lot of Robin-fans wanted him to go down the flower child route, even in late 75. Ageing Dick Grayson was always a poor idea however and caused too many problems for the Bat-franchise.

Robin’s White (Very) Xmas (sic): crooks crash a Xmas charity fundraiser at Hudson U. Dick receives a festive visit from Bruce, Alfred and Aunt Harriet whom I don’t think had been seen for about ten years.

Batman Meets Fatman: a childlike fable in which a circus clown helps B&R corral the crooked Red Mask Gang. The “tears of a clown” angle is terribly hokey. I could understand if Fatman were a performer in Haly’s Circus, giving us a connection with Robin. But as it is, this mere existence of this 1958 story  confused me as a kid, what with the Batchap comic strip from 1966 and Solo comic’s 1967 Fatman and Sparrow.

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The Secret War of the Phantom General: I had previously read this in 2007’s Batman/Showcase vol. 2. It’s a book-length tale from Sept 1965. The Dynamic Duo and Elongated Man, the Stretchable Sleuth, travel to the Andes to stop war criminal General Von Dort from building a death ray.

It’s a Bondian story apart from when Infantino draws a lugubrious John Broome as narrator in one panel . Ralph Dibny is wearing his ultra-drab purple outfit sans creepy mask.  I’d hoped it might be a more outrageous story but I think it would take a Bob Haney to make this South American Nazi caper work.

While these comics are slimmer than their early-70s giant counterparts, they’re still a fascinating window on a period of Bat-publishing that was gradually being rehabilitated.

Shortly, we’ll look at a trio of issues in this series. Then a sequel to the Giffen/LSH posts and possibly some Bronze Age sword and sorcery with DC’s Stalker and Marvel’s Solomon Kane.

Coming soon: The Princess and the Vagabond

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