You’re a Big Man, but You’re in Bad Shape

One of the major issues that arose from the erratic distribution of Marvel colour comics in 70s Lanarkshire was a scarcity of first issues.  I got on the ground floor with very few titles between 1975 and 1979. On the rare occasion I did so, however, I became very attached to the characters. Today, we’re celebrating the fortieth anniversary of one such hero: Black Goliath.

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Of course, BG had appeared nearly a decade earlier in the first Avengers/Sons of the Serpent storyline. In his civilian identity as a scientist, Bill Foster was a ground-breaking supporting character- even though he was only Hank Pym’s assistant.

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Tony Isabella revived Foster as the alter ego for Marvel’s third incarnation of Goliath- as an antagonist for both Luke Cage and the Circus of Crime. I didn’t actually read that first part until 78, I reckon,  in one of the Marvel Grab Bags my brother and I bought in Morecambe that summer.

In early 79, however, I did buy BG’s first issue in Strathaven and I had been intrigued by his Amazing Five-style supporting cast, The Whiz Kids. His first villain was a rather silly -looking nuclear menace called Atom Smasher who would be very significant in years to come. I wasn’t wild about George Tuska’s art in those days but the script seemed more sophisticated than many other  contemporary Marvels.

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My next issue was number 4, with a Kirby cover; a script by the great dramatist and sci-fi fan, Chris Claremont; and the antagonist was that ancient Daredevil villain,  the Stilt-Man.

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I didn’t read issues 3 and 5 until the early 80s. Foster’s adventure on an alien desert world was part of another Grab Bag, from Lewis’s in Glasgow.

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BG was immediately a casualty to poor sales but went on to guest-star, in 77, with his LA neighbours, the Champions, drawn by a fledgling John Byrne. Isabella,  of course,  had originated the group and has blogged about his own intention to add BG to their ranks.

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Bill Mantlo, the next Champions scribe, also  featured BG in a team-up with the Thing where they fought a very old Ant-Man foe, The Hijacker. Goliath never had the longevity or success of Isabella’s Black Lightning, who felt very much like a DC attempt, some years after the fact, to ape Marvel’s grindcore house style of the early 70s. Perhaps the derivative villains played a part in that, despite the dynamism of a giant hero and the West Coast milieu.

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The next phase of the character’s life was again derived from Henry Pym.  He was re-christened Giant-Man in the Project Pegasus storyline in MTIO. I was a big fan of this arc- even though, as usual, I’d missed the first part.

John Byrne gave Giant-Man  a new costume-dispensing with the 70s colour and bizarre midriff window. And now we had a classic Marvel dilemma as Foster announced he had radiation poisoning after his first clash with Atom-Smasher.

The story of Foster’s cancer was a major subplot in the early- 80s Marvel-Two-In One. After he was cured, the character lay low until the summer of 1988 and the  “Evolutionary War” annual of the West Coast Avengers. Giant-Man was back.

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When Englehart left the Wackos, John Byrne made no attempt to follow up Foster’s allegiance with Mockingbird’s spin-off group. Bill Foster made a brief appearance in the Avengers in the early 90s but then vanished again.

BG met an ignominious end, however, as a casualty of Mark Millar’s 2006-7 Civil War, killed by a clone of Thor. *sighs* A legacy version then appeared in World War Hulk but the image of DNA being harvested from Foster’s corpse in the Bendis’ Avengers seemed like another slap in the face.

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On a happier note, a more elderly Foster appeared in the late 90s A-Next series. Here, his own son  took on the Kree costume and weaponry of 1968 Mar-Vell as the Earth Sentry. A terrible name from the originator of Thunderstrike but some respect at least for creators who came before.

So, yes: Black Goliath was a faddy, unloved, rather patronising attempt to create a black solo star in the ghetto-tastic 70s. He never had the cool of his Afro-wearing “cousin”, Jefferson Pierce. But let’s remember him with the tv narration-style blurb from BG issue 1:” Dr. William Barrett Foster, DSc, PhD – a child of the GHETTO who has pulled himself up out of the Los Angeles slums to become director of one of the nation’s most prestigious research labs. A man whose research has given him the power to instantaneously grow to a height of FIFTEEN FEET, with the strength of a TRUE GIANT. A man who has become… a HERO.”

Coming soon: Ten Years of Doctor Who

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

Monkey See, Monkey Do

In this post from last autumn, https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/return-to-the-forbidden-zone/- I discussed the UK Planet of the Apes weekly comic. It was launched, reprinting US Marvel stories, as a response to the tv series spin-off from the movies.

STV, of course, saw fit never to screen that series in 1974/75, opting instead to broadcast “from Norwich, the Quiz of the Week”: the archetypal cheapjack Anglia TV game show. Perhaps £8 prizes hidden behind a curtain connoted less of a sense of Popery? Who knows.

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Anyway, thanks to Freeview channel True Entertainment, I have now finally seen two episodes. The Good Seeds starred Pete Duel’s brother, Geoffrey, in ape guise and the second, The Gladiators featured Marc Singer from V.

The titles are striking and nightmarish- again, perhaps not nearly godly enough for a West of Scotland 70s Sunday . The stories themselves are essentially Westerns, where the humans are the White Hats, falsely accused and on the run. In The Gladiators, when one of the astronauts loses a “computer tape”, I was reminded of the similar loss of access to the Tardis in DW’s Hartnell era.

As I wrote last year: “The weekly publication schedule  (of the UK POTA) quickly devoured US Apes material. The response to this crisis, in March 1975, was one of the  most notorious creations of Marvel UK:  Apeslayer. Basically, this was a reprint of the mongrel Adams/Chaykin/Trimpe Killraven/War of the Worlds series…with Martians substituted by apes.

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Absorbed as I was by any and all of Marvel’s sword-wielding barbarians, I owned exactly… one issue of Amazing Adventures (from Stonehouse in ’73) so I was more than happy to read a bastardised into of Carmilla Frost and Grok the Clonal Man. However, this hybridised strip was mothballed by mid-May as Marvel’s version of the mutant-ridden sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes began in June 1975 …”

One fact I had forgotten was that supporting characters Carmilla Frost, Grok and M’Shulla were renamed San Simian, Zom and Mala. San Simian, of course, is a pun on San Simeon, the Californian locale of Randolph Hearst’s personal “Xanadu”; that’s a joke worthy of Kirby.

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Passing Killraven off as Apeslayer is a fundamentally ludicrous concept. The bionic ape Warlord alone is comical, to say nothing of the blatantly Martian tripods. I also think UK fans treated it with (understandable) derision. If you have never read Killraven, it is worth pursuing, however. Don McGregor’s experimental- if bloated -and bluntly satirical prose style is one I find hard to take ( and it dissuaded me from the reprint of “Panther’s Rage”) However, Craig Russell’s art is delicate and ornate.

What little I read of the series was in the usual haphazard style thanks to British distribution. First was the derivative Warlord issue by Wolfman and Trimpe, bought on a visit to my mum’s home town,  then- as a total contrast,  three years later- the unsettling tale of The 24 -Hour Man in the early spring of 76.

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This issue ignobly combines two uncomfortable sci-fi tropes: women having sex with monsters (which also featured in the Conan story, “The Last Ballad of Laza-Lanti”) and babies ageing to adulthood with weird designs on mum or other women ( cf. Space 1999 and the justly infamous Avengers 200). As you can see, the masthead of the comic proclaimed Killraven for a while but presumably the WoTW tie-in boosted sales.

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The return of Marvel colour monthlies to the town where I attended Secondary School allowed me to  dip into many different titles. Next stop on the Martian trail some weeks later was the impressive and tragic “A Death in the Family”, which features an origin story and the deaths of two supporting characters.  This was followed in May ’76 by a journey to Mars in “Red Dust Legacy”.

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By the summer, the mentally challenged Old Skull had a touching origin story and the mind-blowing “Only the Computer Shows Me Any Respect” was a trippy highlight of our week’s holiday in Port William.

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Returning to school for S2, I next read Keith Giffen’s  dense, impressionistic Marvel Universe parody and …that was all, until I read Russell & McGregor’s final issue in 77/78. It was one of several comics in a “grab-bag” sold in Lewis’s department store.

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In the mid-80s, the rise of comic marts and back issue sales in Glasgow allowed me to catch up with “The Death Breeders” storyline: a gruesome and horrific tale of human birth, oppression and the appetites of the Martians. It also introduced the scintillating Volcana Ash.

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I didn’t read the Killraven Marvel Graphic Novel until the b/w reprint Essential Killraven was published. Prior to that, however,  I did read the first issue of Alan Davis’ re-imagining of the saga in 2002. However, financial pressures at that time prevented me from following the series. I’d also lost interest in sword-slingers for a while.

Despite its various shortcomings, Marvel’s War of the Worlds/Killraven series became a concerted effort to wrest something articulate, imagistic and scathing from a shonky sword and science stew. The desperate invention of Apeslayer sells it rather short.

Coming soon: Black Goliath and The Seven Soldiers of Victory

 

All images are presumed  copyright of their respective owners. Thanks especially to Hunter Goatley’s Planet of the Apes archives.

The Curse of Shazam

This week, we had a big graphic novel extravaganza in school on World BookDay. My colleagues and I dressed up as Catwoman, the Joker and the Riddler and we had a very popular creative workshop with the award-winning Metaphrog.

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One of the most popular graphic novels we had in the school library was Jeff Smith’s Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil. Sadly, a girl called Devon (Taylor?) had it out on loan but took it with her when she moved to England last summer. If she hears about this, could she please post it back?

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Today, I want to look at the modern history of the World’s Mightiest Mortal. Like Plastic Man, Captain Marvel is an icon of the DCU even if the publishers don’t quite realise it. The character has never come close to regaining his phenomenal Golden age success.  It came as a surprise to me to recall that Jerry Ordway’s acclaimed monthly Power of Shazam series DC was launched twenty years ago.

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The Original Captain Marvel was quite unknown to me- and the US tv series yet unmade- when he made his debut in DC’s first Shazam! title in 1973-74. The new material was very whimsical and rather corny for my tastes even then. But the 100-page Super-Spectacular and their reprints had a sunny charm not present in their 40s contemporaries:Batman, Green Lantern or Dr. Fate. I quickly learned of the mythos that Mort Weisinger co-opted for Superman:  Capt. Marvel Jr.; Mary Marvel; the Sivana Family- the whole, zany tapestry.

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The series lost its way during the late 70s and it wasn’t until nearly a decade later, very much in the wake of the Crisis, that Shazam: the New Beginning was launched. This  take by Roy Thomas and Tom Mandrake was seemingly unpopular. Ironically so, since Thomas had presided over Marvel’s revamp of the Kree warrior Mar-vell: something of a winking homage to the Big Red Cheese. It’s a pity that, in the late 80s era of “Dramedy”, someone like Alan Davis hadn’t been assigned to the title. One aspect that interested me however was the folding of the gnome-like Sivana into Billy Batson’s miserly uncle, Ebenezer.

John Byrne proposed a “gritty ” take on the series in the very early 90s, with a series that would occupy its own continuity. But editorial edicts about crossovers drove the  Canadian creator from the project although his Omac series gives a flavour of what might have been.

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As I say, Ordway’s painted novel,with its distinct Art Deco flavour, appeared in 1994. The ongoing series reintroduced Mary Marvel and Bulletman while modernising Mr. Atom and Mr. Mind slightly. It was surprisingly faithful to the 40s material, even visually “casting” Boris Karloff as Black Adam. The only misstep in my mind was the modish CM3- the new moniker for Cap Junior.

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Another rather beautiful and cinematic take on CM appeared in the wake of the cancellation of PoS. In 2001, Paul Dini and Alex Ross produced the third of their thematically- linked painted treasury editions. Power of Hope was a very sentimental tale of children living with abuse and terminal illness but a very charming and sweet one.

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Mytstifyingly, Alex Ross pitched unsuccessfully to DC in 2005, with an older teenage Billy Batson, dramatic lighting (or should that be lightning) effects and a new Black Vulcan. Two years later, the aformentioned Jeff Smith series appeared in four softcover issues. This was the story of Billy Batson told anew and out of DC continuity. Not only was Tawny the talking tiger an Arabian Nights ifrit but Mary was reimagined as a scrappy baby sister. Again, it’s charming and accessible but with a sharp edge of political satire ( Sivana is head of Homeland Security!)

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This series, in turn, was followed by Billy Batson and The Magic of Shazam by Mike Kunkel. Very much in the style of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, this was disinctly aimed at a junior school audience, with Black Adam a bratty schoolmate.  The art deteriorated when Kunkel left but in its final issues in 2010, it was back on track with Mike Norton, with Justice League guest appearances.

In the New 52 Justice League, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank serialised yet another reimagining of CM, in the style of their Superman: Secret Origin and Batman Earth One.  This serial was back “in-continuity”and ran for 13 episodes from 2012 to the late sunmer of 2013.

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Billy Batson is a troubled, spiteful kid but with a large and well-drawn foster family, all of whom gain magical powers. Sivana is deformed by the magic released by Black Adam ( a very Namor-esque figure in Johns’ JSA series of the last decade) The Big Red Cheese is re-christened simply as Shazam here and with his slightly sinister hooded and ornate visual, the series has a very Young Adult-feel : very Harry Potter, very Percy Jackson- movie friendly. I enjoyed the contrast of the realistic artwork and the more fantastic elements ( just as in PoS, 20 years ago).

Is it the storybook elements of Captain Marvel’s world that fail to catch the imagination? How can this be when fairy tale and fantasy are huge money spinners in other media? Are the associations with kid-friendly iterations box office poison? Is there a curse on Shazam?

In a few weeks, I hope to review Grant Morrison’s Multiversity on Some Fantastic Place, my Blogger site. That will be an opportunity to look at DC’s most recent version of CM.

Posts may be a bit less regular again in coming weeks. I need to find new accomodation. In any event, I plan to post about Apeslayer and Black Goliath sometime before Easter.

Tamam Shud!

All images are presumed copyright of their respecyive owners

Surf’s Up

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Forty years ago, Marvel UK added two more titles to its stable. I was already collecting Mighty World of Marvel, Spider-Man Comics Weekly, The Avengers and Planet of the Apes. (Dracula Lives was too gloomy and possibly-subtly- parentally banned.)

I was fairly keen to read The Super -Heroes, which featured the Silver Surfer’s solo adventures and the circus-flavoured exploits of the X-Men ( although I had some 60s Fantastic reprints, several US Marvel Super Heroes reprints and even their origin in MWOM). I was far more excited by Savage Sword of Conan, with Barry Smith’s blend of Kirby influences and Art Nouveau.

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I had read perhaps seven US Conan comics at that point and the b/w reprint in the 1972 Fleetway “Marvel” annual. The most recent had been bought in the cafe in Stonehouse Hospital in February 1974, a whole year before. I was wild about the Cimmerian’s sorcerous exploits and curious about the King Kull back-up. Instead of adding these titles to my weekly order in the Cringan’s general store in Chapleton, my brother and I craftily suggested we get them from Craig’s newsagent in Strathaven; Jonathan would (ostensibly) collect The Super- Heroes. Surprisingly, our parents complied.

* https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/i-got-dem-ol-kozmic-blues-again-mama/

From the off, however, there seemed to be distribution problems with the new weeklies. I missed issues 3,5 and 7 of SSOC and 2,3 and 5 of TSH. I remember reading issue 4 in Ayr, between the High Street and the Sandgate, probably at the Easter weekend: again, the X-Men episode was one I had read in colour.

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Where SSOC only lasted a mere 17 weeks (thanks, Kid for the arithmetic) before merging, bizarrely, with The Avengers,  The Super-Heroes achived an eclectic mix of sci-fi, super heroes and heroic fantasy. I’ve often blogged about Conan before- and will again, I expect- so let’s focus on the fortunes of the other comic…

I had little experience of the Surfer stories: one issue of TV21 in its dying days and only three issues of his original US mag. The first of those was the giant-sized third issue with the infernal debut of Mephisto; the second featuring the Abomination and thirdly, before I could mistake it for a DC “Weird” title, with SHIELD. Although the Buscerma art is beautiful, the melancholy, moping Surfer pleased me less than the merry mutants. I had never seen their first encounters with Namor, the Stranger, the Juggernaut and the Sentinels. I also liked the team’s badinage and their malt shoppe antics. As a little kid, I was fascinated by the idea of other mutants joining the school.

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The third TSH feature, Doc Savage reprints from his b/w magazine, began in August 1975. This must have been to tie into the George Pal movie.

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I had also glimpsed this paperback on sale at the ferry terminal in Rothesay that sizzling summer, in the same week I first read the debut of Justice Inc., DC’s answer to the pulp avenger. Oddly, Doc’s short-lived 1972 colour monthly stories went unreprinted. I like the Moench “Silver Ziggurat” story more now than then but, of course, now I see the Dr. Moreau riff.

The next change in the line-up took place in October 1975 in the shadow of the novelty of the “landscape” Titans weekly. The Surfer series, having coming to an end ( and with the abortive Kirby Savage Surfer reboot printed out of order) replacements were required.

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I must have seen some Giant Man stories in Terrific, before I could read, as I had a fond recollection of the Human Top. Also, some time in the early 70s, visiting my mum’s elderly Aunt Anna in Lesmhagow, I had read this Alan Class comic:

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Sadly, like the preceding Ant-Man stories, the adventures of the Big Man and the Little Lady are not very memorable.

Claws of the Cat was, of course, one of Stan’s early attempts to create a feminist/Relevance title for the gals, with female creators (in the main; the Wally Wood inks in the first issue are classy but domineering). Greer Grant Nelson is a sympathetic heroine but her whole schtick is derivatively “Catwoman”. The art of this short-lived 1972 series became more Underground in style and amateurish (to my sensibilities at least.)  I did subsequently develop quite a fondness for the legacy character Hellcat in the Defenders however.

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The Scarecrow- a riff on the sensational Adventure Comics Spectre series- appeared at the year’s end. It must have been printed virtually simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. It doesn’t make very much sense and it’s more silly than sinister. The X-Men moved to The Titans at this time.

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January 1976 was the last hurrah for The Super-Heroes.  A reprint run of The Thing solo stories from Marvel Feature and Marvel Two-In-One began that new year. The Starlin and Kane art in those early adventures was appealing and evoked memories of the first months of MWOM.

The weekly also featured the headshop barbarism of Bloodstone, the short-lived Hyborian monster hunter who had debuted in the US only three months earlier. The final feature in the series was the 1968 MSH try-out for the Black Knight, gorgeously pencilled by  Howard Purcell (co-creator of Sargon the Sorceror). A very early sword and sorcery tale from Roy Thomas and sadly the Knight didn’t, er, take off.

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These WERE the Super-Heroes

And that was the end of the weekly. In mid-February 1976, barely a year old, it merged with Spider Man Comics Weekly to form a second landscape title, Super Spider-Man with the Super-Heroes. What an unwieldy title. Of couse, that weekly would absorb its “parent”, The Titans by year’s end and the landscape format would vanish altogether in July 1977. Nevertheless, I’m afraid I didn’t miss TSH all that much.

2242151-shm_2_1 Debbie Harry IS Power Girl!

In September, 1980, London Editions revived the Super Heroes brand, as it were, with the glossy DC reprint magazine. The Alan Craddock cover signalled the cross-pollination of DC comics and British creators.

Meanwhile, that same month, I finally read the lead story of SSOC (UK) 7 in a b/w Conan Pocket Book– and a few weeks later, Valour Weekly launched, picking up the psuedo-African adventures of Conan after Belit’s death. But that is another story entirely…

Coming soon: The Power of Shazam; Apeslayer; Black Goliath

All images presumed copyright of their respective owners

Heck-a-Slammin’

Now, in later life, I often find I appreciate comics artists for whom I had little time as a child. Steve Ditko is one: the stunning psychedelic landscapes and the bizarre characters I once found wilfully obscure or grotesque now fascinate me.

Similarly, the dynamic designs -and the glamorous women- pencilled by Don Heck, I now realise, shaped my childhood  fascination with The Mighty Avengers:

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Heck was an artist whose work was overshadowed and often -shamefully- reviled in the Perez/Byrne/Giffen fan- favourite days of the early 80s.

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Inspired by the Twomorrows book, Don Heck: A Work of Art, I have listed just a few of my favourite Don Heck stories from the Big Two.

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One sunny afternoon in the very early seventies, I found the remnant of a mouldering, forgotten copy of Sixties British weeklyTerrific in my dad’s garage. Only the mouse-eaten pages of this dramatic Swordsman saga remained ( and a fragment of a Bill Everett/Dr. Strange- the origin of the Ancient One.)

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My introduction to the sleek mystique of the Black Widow, I think came in Marvel’s Greatest Comics 23, in 1969. These late Sixties reprint collections were  a fantastic way to get a primer of the nascent Marvel Universe.

Here, Madame Natasha gets her spider-gimmicks and fishnet costume from her Soviet paymasters. Like the grey, furry Beast later, however, I found it hard to think of the catsuited redhead of Amazing Adventures as the same person.

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Critics ofHeck’s art would do well to peruse the X-Men story from  January 1970 which introduced the solar samurai, Sunfire. Here, Tom Palmer’s inks combine with Heck’s pencils to seamlessly continue the mood of the Adams/Palmer era. The tragic, embittered Japanese mutant never really caught on but the story is exciting and has a Mod design sense.

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Another memorable design appears in 1978’s Steel, The Indestructible Man. This patriotic DC blend of Iron Man and Capatain America is pitted in issue 2 against a monstrous sci-fi villain who reminds me a little of Heck’s Metazoid:

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Heck’s skill at defining character is evident in 1982’s Justice League 203, where the villainous Royal Flush Gang are given tragic and squalid back stories. (The failed Broadway actress who becomes Queen is clearly Elizabeth Taylor!)

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I could pick so many others : the first Living Laser story;Ramrod and the Changers from Iron Man; the accursed and haunted Elianne Turac in Giant-Size Dracula.  But the runners-up on this list comprise:

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The Ultroids story that returned Wanda and Pietro to the Avengers. Dig that crazy Ultrana!

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The combination of  interplanetary battles and hi-tech espionage featured in the groovy Captain Marvel 10 from 1969 (And like the Beast and Black Widow,  Mar-vell would undergo an complete revamp shortly. Silver Age DC had done this of course with Flash, Green Lantern and the Atom- but at Marvel, they were still the same person!)

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and from DC’s 80s renaissance, the Teen Titans/Dr. Cyber story from Wonder Woman in 1982.

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A Work of Art disproves the popular comics myth that Heck’s art could cost a comic its readership. In fact, his work boosted sales, according to the stats printed in the book.

Coming soon: The Savage Sword at Forty

 

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

The Avenging Corpse

A macabre title for a slightly morbid story…

We all know now Captain America was the First Avenger: two-fisted District Attorney Grant Gardner who, with pistol and motorcycle, thwarts the schemes of the sinister Scarab, assisted by his plucky Girl Friday. Don’t we?

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What? Captain America is a  goldbrickin’ GI named Steve Rogers who sneaks out of camp with feisty army mascot Bucky to punch Hitler on the jaw? He even has dinky wings attached to his mask! Not in this chapter play, buddy!

Over the last couple of years, I’ve recreated the Seventies festive thrill of black and white Flash Gordon movie serials on BBC tv with dvds featuring the likes of Captain Marvel and the Shadow. For 2014, I tracked down Captain America, which I’d first read about circa 1974-75 in Foom Magazine. An article there told of its melodramatic chapter titles: “Blade of Wrath”! “Mechanical Executioner”! “Wholesale Destruction”! “Cremation in the Clouds”!

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I’ve subsequently read some commentary that suggests this serial was in fact originally a vehicle for Mr. Scarlet, a Fawcett crimebuster I first saw in ENB’s JLA/JSA/Shazam team-up of the mid-70s. I have to confess I’ve only read two-thirds of it- the second issue in the early 80s from the Exchange and Mart and the first ( when quite drunk) in the late 90s.

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Mr. Scarlet, very much in the Batman mould, was a DA in his civilian life with an alliterative name. Like Cap, he was also a creation of Jack Kirby and another writer- in this case, France Herron, who co-created the Red Skul ( and Clock King)l.  Further evidence to strengthen the case is surely the chapter title “The Scarlet Shroud?”

Mr. Scarlet wasn’t a very popular character but more significantly, he may have been tainted by associations with the legal battle over Superman and Capt. Marvel. Perhaps Republic quietly replaced the Crimson Crimefighter with the star-spangled Cap instead.

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Burly divorcee Dick Purcell looks older than 35 and seems an odd choice for the super-soldier, with his receding hairline and nasal voice. I think he would’ve made a better Alan Scott/ Green Lantern. Tragically, he died in the locker room of his country club, shortly before the serial was released- it’s suggested that the strain of filming on his heart had been fatal.

Unusually, the identity of the villain in this serial is no secret, unlike the Scorpion or the Black Tiger. Professor Maldor, the Scarab, is Lionel Atwill,  Rathbone’s second Moriarty and the one-armed inspector in Son of Frankenstein. Atwill, too, died  after the serial was completed- two years later, in fact.

His character is a condescending  sadist who lashes one senior captive and threatens to mummify Gail Richards ( Lorna Gray, nee Virginia Pound and later Adrian Booth-the woman had as many aliases as Bruce Wayne!) The Scarab’s name and arsenal suggest Egyptology but instead-oddly- he’s an expert on Mayans ( called Maye-ANNS here).

The serial is full of fist-fights, explosions and madcap inventions like the Dynamic Vibrator. For me, however, The Masked Marvel is the better serial.

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It pits a quartet of insurance investigators against fey Japoteur Sakima. Two of the young(-ish) heroes are killed off, surprisingly, in later episodes and the mystery of the secret identity of the Spirit-like hero is only revealed in the final chapter ( although it’s obviously never going to be the husky older one). I like MM’s hugely elaborate and  impratical calling card- a series of vinyl records with a domino mask label through which he communicates with his allies.

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Sakima is a lesser villain than the Scarab or the fiendish Prince Daka but there is something more plausible about the boyish and diminutive Japanese agent, hidden under the very feet of his enemies . At twelve chapters, this serial is shorter than Captain America; it feels both more inventive and less chaotic and sprawling.

Coming soon: Some Fantastic Posts on DC’s new Teen Titans Graphic Novel and The Highest Science.

All images copyright of their respective owners

Sing a Song of Sonjas

Today’s post features sword-slinging 80s movie star Red Sonja. Freely adapted,as they used to say, from the belligerent heroine of a 1934 Robert E. Howard story, Red (in mailshirt and hot pants) first turned up in the final Barry Smith issues of the monthly Marvel Conan comic.

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I read the award-winning Song of Red Sonja in 1973, at the age of ten- I was vaguely aware that the Hyborian epithet “wank” was a Bad Word, which was more than writer Roy Thomas was.  The hoyden Sonja returned in the b/w Savage Sword of Conan magazine in a number of short stories playfully riffing on Little Red Riding Hood.

Less amusingly, we learn there that her fighting prowess is a gift from a goddess ( identifed much, much later as Sgathach, the Gaelic warrior queen of Skye). Sonja is a rape survivor, which is a very dark element for a fantasy comics character. Seventies mores are clearly in evidence when she is given a bizarre and sensationalist chain mail bikini by Spain’s Esteban Maroto for these subsequent appearances.

Spinning off from a couple of further team-ups with Conan (including a charming one in which the Cimmerian is gang-raped by female monsters), Sonja gained her own bi-monthly series in the mid-70s. As a huge fan of the Belit arc in contemporary Conan, I picked up a few issues of Marvel Feature. These have been collected by Dynamite Entertainment as The Adventures of Red Sonja. Here are the contents of volume one…

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Red Sonja: this was first printed in the premiere issue of Savage Sword of Conan. Drawn again by Maroto, its decadent European feel reminds me of Satana, of course. It’s the story of how Sonja killed her royal employer, who was clearly having a sexual relationship with his albino bodyguard. Thomas coyly names him Trolus, as in “troilism”.

The Temple of Abomination: a short drawn by Dick Giordano, it’s more action-packed than the previous story. It’s the last of the Darkwood stories, set in an analogue of the Black Forest and a vignette with some evil satyrs. Greek mythological figures in  German woods: the Hyborian Age was ever thus.

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Blood of the Hunter: this was my first issue from Craig’s newsagents in Strathaven in early 1976. It’s the first collaboration of artist Frank Thorne and writer Bruce Jones. It’s a lush Tolkinesque world- very different from the medieval world Conan inhabits, although his stories were currently in pirate mode, off the coast of ancient Africa.

This feels like a Spaghetti Western: a story of revenge and suffering, where Sonja has a brief and bittersweet romantic moment with a crippled, peg-legged youth. He is murdered by the hulking villain but Sonja avenges him and obtains a mysterious key.

Balek Lives: I didn’t get this one at the time- I suspect it may have been part of a Grab-Bag I got on holiday in Morecambe in ’78- or perhaps even later. It’s essentially a Frankensten story, I suppose, and the conclusion of the storyline begun last issue.

Balek is a murderous clockwork giant with an exotic visual, suggesting Siamese or Khmer culture. It’s another example of the unique look of the series and its departure from the Buscema or even Smith visions of the Hyborian Age. Anyway, Red stops his rampage by pulling his key out.

Eyes of the Gorgon: this was the second issue I bought in ’76 and it’s set in a Hyborian Spain, I reckon. It’s the cruel story of a deformed idiot- a Quaismodo figure -whose sister, Delores, is posing as a gorgon to revenge herself on the villagers who killed their parents.

One sequence reminded me of Witchfinder General and it’s quite dark and sadistic. Surprisingly, it was reprinted in Marvel’s 1977 pro-feminism (ahem) collection, The Superhero Women.

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The Bear God Walks: I missed this one due to those pesky mid- Seventies distribution problems but I did read the latter half in a UK reprint in the early 80s. In an atmospheric, rain-swept forest, the Bear God is a sham to scam bounty hunters-until, of course, the real god turns up.

Again,this has something of the tone of a Spaghetti Western, were it not for the weather. Red meets a bounty hunter named Tusan; an Ollie Queen type, his flirting adds an edge of humour and friction that benefits the series. Of course, he’s not in the next issue…

Beware the Sacred Sons of Set: this is the second part of a crossover with the monthly Conan comic and the first issue of the series I actually enjoyed at the time- probably because Thomas is scripting now.

On her way to Venice- er, Venezia, Red is ambushed by jackal-men then meets Karanthes, a Stygian priest of Ibis from a Barry Smith back issue. Thomas has to sneak in an in-joke about Fawcett’s Sargon lookalike, Ibis the Invincible.

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Karanthes sends Red on a mission to steal a page from a magic book and sloshing through sewers, she encounters a Hyborian take on a New York urban legend- albino crocodile-men!

At the story’s end, we see Red’s POV of a scene from the previous Conan episode, as she discovers the Cimmerian and his lover, Belit the pirate queen, are about to steal the book page. Barbarian face-off!

The Battle of the Barbarians: this is, I think, the fourth part of the crossover. Sadly, due to copyright issues ( I imagine) we don’t see the preceding Conan episode, especially because a) I have never read it and b) it features Tara, the gamine who accompanied Conan as his squire in the Black Shadow storyline.

Thomas smuggles in Lovecraft references as the minor villain- a Stygian priest- invokes Yuggoth and R’lyeh. I also spotted a Lin Carter/Thongor reference: the lizard-hawks of Lemuria. After a duel among some skeletal remains, Red and Conan are attacked by the Stygian, who’s now part-pterodactyl. And there the collection ends.

I now prefer the baroque fantasy world that Marvel Feature Sonja inhabits; the Jones issues have virtually none of the purple prose captions beloved by Thomas. However, I still feel the apeing of Howard’s feverish style was a strength during the Smith Era. Perhaps the sense of staleness in mid-70s Conan makes the Jones stories also feel less “monster-of-the-month” than their Cimmerian contemporaries- although the core concept is almost always revenge. A contrast to Sonja’s dourness, such as the Tusan character from “Bear God”, was sorely needed, if just to stop her talking to herself.

I would be interested in reading further Dynamite reprints although the “mature” adventures of Thorne’s Ghita character sound wearisomely smutty. Interestingly, I gather that more modern Sonja  stories don’t refer to the unfortunate rape victim origin- although she does still wear the scale-mail bikini. It’s a pity that Marvel doesn’t have control over the character since the writers and artists of the House of Ideas made her one of the biggest female icons of the Seventies.  Definitely no pun intended.

One day, I may get around to blogging about Starfire, DC’s futuristic, mixed -race answer to Sonja. However, coming soon: Republic’s Captain America and the Masked Marvel serials.

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