Dime Store Dames

It’ll take a couple more posts before I can actually reminisce about the purchase of a DC 100-page comic; the next Super-Spec in publication order is  another one I bought in adulthood- in fact, earlier this year- but it is graced with one of my favourite covers, by teen humour specialist Bob Oskner. It’s cute that the more cheescake characters, Kirby’s heroines and the tempestuous Thorn, are on the flipside.

“World’s Greatest Super-Females” leads with a Supergirl two-parter, since she had been  the main feature in that comic for over a year. “The Untold Story of Argo City” is largely told in flashback on Superman’s chronoscope to Linda/Kara and, er, Super-Horse. “Supergirl’s Rival Parents” is a sweet,wish-fulfillment tale of parental sacrifice with a happy ending.

“Johnny Thunder Meets The Black Canary” is an undistinguished Infantino vignette which sets up the Pretty Bird’s MO as a crook who steals from crooks. The T-Bolt comments wryly on comic book heroes who fall for villainesses; the joke is the Canary will ultimately oust JT from his strip like a cuckoo in the nest.

Harry Peter’s 1948 Wonder Woman novel “Villainy, Incorporated” unites eight villainesses (although two are cross-dressers). It’s typical torrid and  lunatic Moulton Marston stuff: phoney cults, bondage in flaming chains, evil Saturnian women, drag kings, and gorillas with human heads. I’d read a more recent reprint before (Xmas 2002’s WW facsimile 80 page giant) but this bizarre, mildly fetishistic material dosn’t float my boat.

I’m afraid I wasn’t impressed by the Phantom Lady short (although this is the second Quality Comics reprint in the Super-Specs, Plastic Man being the first.) The cartoon capers of Merry the Gimmick Girl were a mild curiosity since I only knew of the Star-Spangled Kid’s butch sister from Infinity Inc in the early 80s. The closing story, “The Black Magic of Supergirl” is another teen melodrama, this time about demonic possession cured by a Trial by Kryptonite Fire.

Again, like the previous Batman issue, the cover promises  much more than is delivered inside. However, there is another key on the inside back cover, giving a brief description of each of the gals.

It’s disappointing to think that few new DC super-females have actually had any longevity in the intervening forty, post-feminist years. If an artist were to recreate that cover for the New 52, who would make the cut? Supergirl, Batgirl, Wonder Woman, Black Canary, Zatanna and the Enchantress are still around.

Titans Donna and Lilith, the Thorn, Barda, Beautiful Dreamer, Platinum, Dumb Bunny, and Golden Agers Cheetah and the Harlequin would probably be replaced, however, by the Kate Kane Batwoman and the Huntress; Vixen; Fire and Ice (although they bore me to tears); Power Girl; Starfire; Katana; and two larcenous lasses: Catwoman and Harley Quinn. A modern iteration of Mary Marvel would be nice too; I can dream anyway.

Next: December debuts and then: gantlet or gauntlet?

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners.

100 Action Packed Pages

In this post, I want to discuss the next Super-Spectacular in my collection. I didn’t actually read this one in  the 70s- rather it was bought, possibly at a mart or in a  comic shop some twenty years later. Again, the banner reads “World’s Greatest Super-Heroes” and the cover features one of my favourite images of Gotham’s Dark Knight by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano.

This is, of course, the dread Batman at the Bronze Age height of his powers: lithe, athletic but spectral. The other figures are all a little stiff. Sargon is rather regal- at this time, I’m sure he’d been played as a more amoral character. Robin still looks quite child-like for a college boy. Oddly, Plastic Man isn’t doing anything ductile so he looks unsettlingly fetishistic in his red, lace-up bathing costume. Negative Man and Robotman do look rather freakish, however.

On the back cover, there’s an assemblage of the entire late-60s Legion of Super-Heroes (even Kid Psycho and his oversized cranium!). Adams mysteriously chooses not to feature the most visually interesting members- Colossal Boy,Chameleon Boy, Shadow Lass- or the most glamorous- Dream Girl or Princess Projectra. But at least Ultra Boy, whose striking costume  has survived virtually every reboot, is prominent.  Surprisingly, Timber Wolf is pictured doing something vaguely acrobatic- that was his USP until he basically became Wolverine in the 80s. Adams’ depiction of the Super-Pets is highly naturalistic; there’s something hilarious about Krypto and Beppo investigating the amorphous Proty, who looks like a yellow excrescence.

“The Masterminds of Crime” reminds me of a Steed/Mrs. Peel Avengers episode. Batman poses as a crook to infiltrate the Crime Academy. This story anticipates themes of Marvel’s Taskmaster story in The (other) Avengers by nearly 25 years.

The Doom Patrol origin is also very naturalistic- although, like many strips in this issue, rendered murky by splotches of obscuring black ink. This feels very much like an attempt at a Marvel strip, with its outcast heroes in their drab uniforms. Famously, the DP are frequently compared to the X-Men but here, I think they’re obviously modelled on the FF- a rocket ship, a  genius, a flying humanoid, an orange juggernaut and a girl;  pitted against their leader’s arch-enemy and rival. It’s also interesting that the “surrender or die” motif from their debut would be re-used in their final 60s adventure.

Plastic Man had apparently been popular in a reprint DC Special, after his Sixties series had folded. The Jack Cole story in this issue is kinetic, highly detailed work- but I have to be heretical and say I liked Plas best in Adventure Comics : inventive and satirical tales from the last days of Disco.

Joe Kubert’s cartoony Sargon is an enjoyable trifle- a circus story starring the sorceror’s comic relief sidekick, Max. The Golden Age Atom story also has a circus setting  and is another inventory tale. But it is remarkable only in that it’s the sole 40s appearance of Al Pratt in his “Cyclotron” duds in my collection. “The Aqua-Thief of the Seven Seas”  is a trivial mystery for Aquaman.

I already owned the original printing of “The Legion of Super-Outlaws” which introduced the young Heroes of Lallor.  Rigid and lifeless pencilling by John Forte slows this story of deceit and misunderstanding to a crawl. I wonder how dramatic the Super-Outlaws might have been under Curt Swan; visually appealing creations like Beast Boy and Evolvo Lad should have had a chance to shine. At least lesser lights like Star Boy and Invisible Kid are featured in this adventure.

Shrinking Violet’s beau Duplicate Boy would return in three further Legion tales through the Sixties and Seventies, including the Adult Legion story before a brief revival (sans giant cowlick) in the Levitz/Giffen era.

“Mr. Roulette’s Greatest Gamble” from 1953 rounds out the issue. It anticipates the horrible devices of the Saw series as Vicki Vale investigates the booby-trapped house of games of the eponymous jaded thrill-seeker.  We tend to expect Fifties stories to be wacky interplanetary jaunts with Batwoman; but both stories in this issue are intriguing crime thrillers.

The inside back  cover again features a “Key to the Super Heroes”. There’s a minor contradiction of later Legion Lore when Chemical King, a native of Phlon, is described as hailing from the planet Valdow.

While there’s some classy artwork to peruse in this Super-Spec, it just doesn’t grab me the way the previous issues did. The stories don’t have the mythic impact of a Crisis or a Kandor tale and the Golden Agers don’t offer anything more than their modern counterparts.

Next: Here Come the Girls

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners.

World’s Greatest Super-Heroes!

One of the most memorable and value-for-money formats in Comics’ Bronze Age was the 100-page Super Spectacular. Recently, I began reading my copies in chronological order of publication.I’m going to share my thoughts on that experience in this blog.

The very first one I owned, in the summer of 1971, cost 12 and a half new pence. My dad had gallantly offered a distressed work colleague (and lone parent)  a lift to her parents’ home in Perthshire – in the early 70s, car ownership was still something of a luxury in rural areas of Scotland. This lady’s son, Ian,  had been a pre-school playmate of mine but they had subsequently moved out of our village. For kids, a couple of years seems like a decade so we had little in common. We had a long car journey to Crieff and this  comic was bought to occupy me. I remember Ian wasn’t really interested in it.

The assemblage on the cover invested this comic with its potency. It would probably have been the fourth time I had seen the Justice Society of America and only the second story I’d read featuring them; the first was the Aquarius issue where Larry Lance was killed. The idea of an entire team of super-heroes with a history of unknown adventures on a parallel Earth was absolutely electrifying.

To my jaundiced adult eye, some  figures look a little awkward, many adopting that hands-on-hips pose.  Teen Wonder Robin looks quite child-like; Wildcat is bull-necked and stooped; Red Tornado has a smirk that would better befit Robotman; and the Martian Manhunter looks a little fey. I’m intrigued that Adams’ own redesign for Green Arrow is obscured by Aquaman (and the logo). However, the spotlit cover image, while static, is highly dramatic.  The Original Captain Marvel doesn’t make it- he’s still to be revived by DC at this point.The inside back cover features a key to the heroes depicted- this would be a continuing feature in many of the early Super-Specs.

The chopped-up text feature inside is comic book crack for the nascent fan:  an alphabetical checklist of the first appearance of every hero in the DC roster (at that point- the Quality characters like Black Condor and The Ray are still to become part of the stable). This list was also my introduction to Kirby’s Orion, Mr. Miracle and the Forever People: strange, psychedelic tourists from Marvel’s House of Ideas.

The reprint of the first Crisis to team the JLA and JSA against The Crime Champions remains a favourite. As a child, I was instantly struck by Dr. Alchemy; only slightly less so by the JSAers, particularly Dr. Fate. I always enjoy Fox and Sekowsky’s vignettes of pairs and trios of JLAers teaming up in various interesting locales.

The rather primitive Spectre story reads like a kid’s recount of a Karloff shocker and the previously-unpublished Wildcat strip feels like a pugnacious version of a Batman/Catwoman caper. The Johnny Quick strip is a surprisingly serious comment on prison reform, however;  and the Vigilante tale from 1950 is a desert crime caper with, as I mentioned last time, a couple of memorable, gimmicky crooks.

The Kubert Hawkman story, the best-looking strip in the collection,  is a moody parade of mythical creatures, like a Ray Harryhausen movie. It was also my first glimpse of the original Sixties Hawkman mask and I  prefer it to the later “Honour Wings” version.

The next Super-Spectacular features gorgeous Swanderson covers and reprints an epic Superman saga: “The Team of Luthor and Brainiac”. This story is so important to the Caped Kryptonian’s mythos, as masterminded by Mort Weisinger, that Alan Moore paid it homage in the mid-80s. It’s sweeping in its scope, crossing time and space and encompassing the Bottle City of Kandor and the Thirtieth Century of the Legion of Super-Heroes. It also features Luthor’s Hall of Heroes (“The greatest marauders of the ages!”), living ships, Tri-Beasts, Computer Tyrants and The Superman Emergency Squad. Personally, I like the idea that Superman’s arch-foes oppose him on a cerebral level but their inability to trust each other undoes them.

Kid Eternity was an elegant fantasy strip from the mid-40s pencilled by the legendary Mac Raboy. I don’t know if the Kid was designed to cash in on the fame of Captain Marvel Jr. but since he has to summon figures out of mythology to do his dirty work, he lacks identification appeal. How many kids in ’46 would even have known who Javert was?

The Silver-Age Atom inhabited a stylised, hipster world under Gil Kane’s pencils. Unfortunately, the plots tended to be tedious. In this issue, arch-foe Chronos debuted (he was a member of The Crime Champions in the previous Super-Spec). Chronos has once of the most garish costumes ever designed but the combat is dynamic.

Super-Chief, despite the corny and patronising name, is a mythical Native American hero beautifully drawn by Carmine Infantino. It’s a shame no iteration of Marvel’s Thunderbird was invested with some of the majesty and nobility of Saganowahna.

Air Wave was a radio-themed crimebuster in the Forties, with a parrot that quotes proverbs. Larry Jordan’s MO makes him a slightly better-dressed and more flamboyant version of Dr. Mid-Nite. This story was quite forgettable. But, in time, he was folded into the Green Lantern mythos; there was no explanation, however, where his raffish moustache vanished to when fighting crime.

This time, there’s a slick Murphy Anderson Silver Age  Hawkman story. Unfortunately, the motorcyclist villain is deadly dull. This collection is rounded out with an early-Fifties superman story that introduced me to the Prankster. I’ve subsequently had a soft spot for this portly, pesky Joker rip-off.

There are  house ads (unlike the previous issue) for the Magic of Kirby: the Jimmy Olsen Loch Trevor story and The Glory Boat issue of New Gods. It’s ironic that amidst reprints of  Silver Age elegance and the whimsy of the Forties, these visceral, techno-thrillers were struggling to find an audience .

If you enjoyed this entry, you may want to visit my other blog, where I’m celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of The Five Faces of Dr. Who and some Lee/Kirby/Ditko classics. (http://somefantasticplace-dougie.blogspot.com/)

Next: The Best Batman story of  1952?

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners.

The Mystery Men of November

Welcome to my new WordPress blog- born, or so I thought, out of necessity when Google apparently deleted my account, as I approached one hundred posts. Strangely, everything seems to have returned to normal today. Nonetheless, I thought I might continue with this one.

Anyone who has followed me on “Some Fantastic Place” will be aware that I’ve been reflecting on the long, strange journey that’s led me to teach in Moray in the North-East of Scotland, after over twenty-five years living in Glasgow. And that reflection has been through the prism of Marvel and DC comics, pulp paperbacks and Dr. Who.  So, expect more of the same… but different. On Materioptikon, I’ll try to follow Kid’s advice and post little and often.

So, I’m introducing a little monthly feature on the first appearances of Super-Heroes , starting with comics characters who debuted in November (with a tip of the hat to 1982’s All-Star Squadron # 14!)  I have only read the origin story of the Western El Diablo and only know the bespectacled Miss America from the Liberty Legion and the All-Winners Squad. Stingray, meanwhile, although a cool visual, is basically a Z-list hero without a strip of his own, to my knowledge.

Aquaman is a character I’ve never felt any great attachment to, aside from the Filmation cartoon. Namor does everything the Sea King does but better and his comics never had to kill off a toddler to sell. Adam Strange is an icon of Silver Age sci-fi,  an atomic update of John Carter of Mars, solving genteel mysteries in his Buck Rogers suit. The Martian Manhunter is another quirky relic of the 50s sci-fi boom. Effectively the “token black” of the original JLA,  this quaint character came to prominence in the 80s.  The tv version in the animated Justice League is probably the most successful iteration. I quite liked Mark Millar’s idea to position J’Onn as the Superman of  Earth’s Southern Hemisphere.

I was fascinated by the two issues of Captain Action I read as a little kid, not realising he was a fusion of Batman and Captain Marvel. I didn’t question the juxtaposition of his quasi-naval uniform and his god-like powers; I was attracted and repelled by the  suffering and cosmic scope of  Gil Kane’s characters.

Jimmy Olsen had been the star of a seemingly-endless series of bizarre, often humorous tales of transformation; his role as a plucky, jump-suited adventurer in Kirby’s techno-hippy stories again both attracted and unsettled me, in the very early 70s.

Green Arrow also underwent a radical transformation at the end of the Silver Age. The bland Batman knockoff  got one of the coolest makeovers ever and became the comix voice of the Liberal Left. He also became the first and biggest breakout star of the JLA, far bigger than either Black Canary or Red Tornado.  The Grim and Gritty Era of the mid-80s turned GA into a Mature Readers property, effectively cutting him out of the superhero milieu.  It’s the Smallville version, essentially a stand-in for Bruce Wayne/Batman , who’s probably the most publically  recognisable take.

The Vigilante was a character I discovered in the very same JLA issue in which I “met” the new Green Arrow and the Black Canary. Vig’s arch-enemy the Dummy is a disturbing concept: a midget impersonating a ventriloquist’s doll. However, my favourite Vigilante villains are “Shakes, the underworld poet and Dictionary, the crook with the 18-carat vocabulary”.

The most influential, most imaginative and endearing characters to debut in November are of course the fabulous Fantastic Four.  Kirby was the first artist whose work I could recognise  as a child and in my early school years, (1968-70) I scarcely missed an issue. I fiercely envied viewers in the Grampian region (e.g. Moray) who could see the original cartoon series on tv!

I came back to the FF during ’76-77 although I was aware of a slightly jaundiced tone in Roy Thomas’ writing. Again, I hardly missed an issue during John Byrne’s tenure. I loved the negative uniforms, She-Hulk and was moved by Sue’s miscarriage.  In the late 80s, I was captivated by Englehart’s torrid stories of betrayed Ben Grimm, two-timing Crystal and the despair of Sharon Ventura.

The grim and gritty era wasn’t kind to the FF: two reboots in the 90s, foil covers, disfigurement and tragedy. The World’s Greatest Comic Book, with its blend of wild sci-fi and family values seems at odds with today’s 18-35 demographic. But I hope that one day, comics will be for kids again and Stan and Jack’s First Family in the Baxter Building will be waiting to adventure in the Microverse, the Great Refuge and behind the Beehive once more.

All cover artwork and characters are copyright of Marvel and  DC Comics