Original Sin?

With neither a bang nor a whimper, Secret Origins– the Bronze Age version- expired after only seven issues in October 1974. The next month DC dropped the 100 page Super-Spectaculars ( but we haven’t got there yet). There was a paper shortage and I remember my dad couldn’t bring home any more reams of the brilliant white Trustees Savings Bank cartridge paper I used to draw on.

Supergirl, Lois Lane and Weird Worlds (featuring Ironwolf) were all cancelled around the same time. Mr. Miracle and the Demon bit the dust earlier in the year; Wanted in the previous summer. The low-budget reprint titles- Metal Men, LSH, Doom Patrol, Challs- had gone bust during the spring of ’73. The tabloid editions or Treasuries, as Marvel called them, were becoming more popular ( and I plan to focus on them soon); OMAC was coming too,  but it was a chilly new world.

ENB thought we’d rather see Vigilante and Kid Eternity before these guys…

Robin, The Sensational Character Find of 1940 (as the story tells us twice) is the most famous kid sidekick of all time. Unless you count Bucky, of course, who was notorious for forty years for being, er, dead.

Boss Zucco is obviously Edward G.Robinson (“See?”) but his murder of the Flying Graysons is a potent tale. When I saw it enacted in the Batman Live show last year, the justaposition of graceful athleticism, death and vengeance was really effective. It’s disconcerting to see Golden Age Batman smile but that’s Robin’s purpose: to bring a bit of humanity to the Dread Creature of the Night. Robin is an absolutely essential element in the Batman canon. I wonder if Frank Miller’s Dark Knight: Boy Wonder will ever be published in my lifetime?

It’s Sonny Robin Bono!

In the wake of the Adam West tv series, Robin became the Teen Wonder and  one of Friedrich and Kane’s rather tortured Angry Young Men before returning to his goofy sidekick role- until his reinvention as Nightwing. I rather wish there had been a back-up strip for the adult Dick Grayson, E-2 ambassador to South Africa and the first new full-fledged (no bird-pun intended) member of the JSA in the Silver Age:

As a kid, I though Mace-Guy on the left was Vandal Savage, with The Gambler and Harlequin on the right.

Aquaman is a sea-going Nazi-smasher like Sub-Mariner, whose powers come from secrets of lost Atlantis, unearthed by his explorer father. The Sea King is a wisecracking bruiser, “a terrifying juggernaut of justice”.  A nameless “figure of terrible reckoning”, Mort Weisinger certainly, er, bigs him up;  he can address friendly porpoises in their own language- no telepathy here- and he “knifes through the water like a flashing silver scimitar”. Maybe all he ever needed was a good pitchman.

Not so fast, suck-up crustacean…

Compared to Namor, who has  grandeur and exoticism, Aquaman has never grabbed me, although the character has had amazing longevity. Why did he survive when the magicians and ghosts didn’t?  When playing “If I wrote the Justice League” (and I do that a lot!) he is never in my top ten DC picks. I’ve seen him played as grieving father, domineering martinet, soft-spoken outsider and barbarian king. For me, however, he’s a perennial B-lister.

Secret Origins returned, of course,  post-Crisis, under the auspices of Roy Thomas. Its rather schizophrenic mission was to retell all the origin stories of all the heroes from the vanished Earth-2. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another revival when this New Nineties-sorry, New 52– debacle is over.

Next: Lore of the Legion

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Parade of the Wooden Soldiers

This afternoon’s post on DC’s Super-Spectaculars is over a month late! It concerns another of my top five Desert Island 100- pagers. The previous entry was the Batman/Two-Face issue;  number two is Justice League of America 110.

With this issue, JLA expanded to Super-Spec dimensions for seven issues. It’s also the first time I ever saw the expression “Super Friends”.

My most vivid recollection  of this issue is reading it on the coach back from East Kilbride’s Dollan Baths when I was in Primary school. I hated the whole idea of swimming, right down to the verucca powder. I didn’t learn anything and didn’t try again until I was nearly thirty-one.

This issue sees the JLA under Len Wein at a storytelling peak that won’t be matched until Englehart’s tenure. Is it as good as The Avengers/Zodiac story, running concurrently at the Other Company? By Odin, I say aye and the art is better!

The Man Who Murdered Santa Claus: This was my first encounter with GL John Stewart. The League have to stop the Key from detonating a bomb in St. Louis on Christmas Eve and, one by one, they appear to succumb to his deathtraps. The Phantom Stranger saves the League’s bacon, however. Red Tornado, who is one of Wein’s main audience- identification figures (Ralph Dibny being the other) gets his gaudy new costume which makes him look like a Mardi Gras version of the Vision. Comedy, drama and sentiment in twenty pages.

The Plight of a Nation: as a kid I was bored by this JSA novel but now I really appreciate it. It’s a Golden age stab at Relevancy in comics as the story comments on “juvenile delinquency”. When a Labour MP says hitting your kids would stop them joining gangs, it seems quite contemporary.

The Society tries to foil The Crimson Claws while a kid gang mimics their activities and adopts their name. The climax of this gritty melodrama sees Wonder Woman using her Magic Sphere to show the boys their own executions by electric chair! Suffering Sappho, that’s Tough Love!

This story was also my introduction to the luchador-style Atom. I was not impressed.  I also missed Dr. Fate but the artwork by Infantino and Toth makes up for his absence.

Z-as in Zatanna- and Zero Hour!: A typically light-hearted slice of mid-Sixties JLA campery.  Sid Greene embellishes Sekowsky beautifully, particularly the nubile Zatanna . The Elongated Man makes a guest appearance as the quest for Zatara is finally wrapped up. Swok! Zunnk! A few Adam West-style sound effects clutter a traditional Gardener Fox script featuring elementals, the sword of Paracelsus and Amen-Hotep, the necromancer from the Nile.

This repint is interrupted by the second appearance of a 2-page pin-up of the Justice Society by Murphy Anderson, complete with the adult Robin in his Batman-inspired costume.

JLA Mailroom: one letter calls for a reduction of the roster by about half. Another requests the membership of Metamorpho, Deadman and Mr. Miracle, while a third asks for Supergirl (whom I think works better in the Legion). Other LOCs praise, quite rightly, the Earth-X two-parter. I should review that one someday…

Next: Finale for Secret Origins

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Magic Words

Tonight’s post continues our look at DC’s Super-Spectaculars. I bought this Special All-Magic issue of Superman off the spinner rack in Strathaven,  possibly in the winter of 1973/74. If you’ve read my Wanted posts on  Some Fantastic Place, you’ll know it would be thrown out only a few months later.  The copy I bought on ebay has a Thorpe and Porter price stamp of 15p. Great value!

You don’t see many comics in this shade of green…

Mr. Mxyztplk Returns: this was the first time I saw the E-2 version of the Silly Sprite. This isn’t the 5th-dimensional prankster whose descendant joined the Adult LSH (DC, you know what would make your humdrum New 52 Legion title more entertaining!). That imp in orange is Mr. MxyzPTLK. Astonishingly, Mark Millar wrote this version very well in the Superman Adventures in the late 90s.

This whimsical Golden Age tale demonstrates again that, despite what Batman’s fans believe, Superman’s best foes are cleverly positioned to present an intellectual challenge, not a physical one.

The Demons from Pandora’s Box: A beautiful but completely daffy Silver Age Schaffenberger story. Jimmy Olsen thinks he’s been possessed by demons and- “choke!” -destroys Kandor and Atlantis! But-whew!- it was all an hallucination!

The Magicians’ Convention: Hocus and Pocus, rather confusingly, are also private detectives Doc and Flannelhead. Superman’s feats help to maintain their self-esteem. They actually reappeared a couple of years ago in the revived Super Friends title for younger readers. This story predates The Prestige by about sixty years; it’s amusing but inessential.

The Other Side of the World: the third episode in Zatanna’s quest for Zatara, her father. Another dynamic story by Gil Kane, it reads a little like one of Gardner Fox’s Kothar or Kyrik paperbacks. There’s a tiresome, campy duel with a giant pirate which slows things down until we get to the sword and sorcery element  of the story. Fox draws upon Breton myth (and possibly Debussy) and mixes it with Steady State Theory! Kane’s Zatanna is very pretty, too.

The Enchanted Mountain: Another Golden Age tale, in a fairy tale vein, set amusingly in a place called Morabia- I live five minutes from a housing development called Moravia.

Beauty and the Super-Beast: again, a bizarre Silver Age story, in which an adult Imra Ardeen poses as Circe to help Supes fool the Superman Revenge Squad (who look human now, instead of blue, as in the yellow Superboy Super-Spec.) Oh, and Lois becomes a lady astronaut. For reals!

LSH fans:  Saturn Woman says Proty II is her pet, which might imply Chameleon Boy is not an Adult Legionnaire. But four years later, the lettercol in Adventure 358 namechecks Chameleon Man, so who knows. Maybe Reep was allergic.

The Graffiti Game: an interactive two-page feature where DC artists produced humorous identikit pics of the Man of Steel. Cockrum draws Supes as Shazam and Clark as Billy Batson; Kubert draws his Tarzan and Chaykin’s version looks a lot like Ironwolf (or del Amitri’s Justin Currie circa 1992)

Most of this issue’s playful stories would work with the Big Red Cheese himself; I wonder if this selection was intended to appeal to the Shazam audience?

One of the correspondents on the letters page complains, like I did, about the inking on the GA reprints. ENB claims they are only touched up.

Coming Soon: Santa’s dead. Deal with it.

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Song of the Blackhawks

Tonight’s post features issue 6 of the Bronze Age Secret origins series. The cover recycles one of my favourite images of all time.

It makes me absurdly happy even though the contents are a pretty mixed bag.

The Legion was saddled through most of the Silver Age with art that was either flat and stiff (John Forte), rather tame  attempts at psychedelia (Win Mortimer) or rehashed Flash Gordon, like Pete Costanza here. If it weren’t for Curt Swan and later Dave Cockrum, I wonder if I would have fallen for the Legion at all?

Also , as this issue painfully proves, the LSH had a staggeringly dull origin. They rescue a space zillionaire, who bankrolls their teen country club out of gratitude. That’s it. ENB had to create this one for the annual, since the LSH, conceived as supporting characters, had no real need of an origin. By the end of the story, the group has grown from three to five- still, hardly a legion. Doomed Legionnaire Invisible Kid breaks the fourth wall to invite the reader to a gala Legion wedding in Superboy 200,  the virtual peak of Cockrum’s brief but influential run. Like the Spectre issue last time, we have the sense that this book is being used to promote another one, as well as capitalising on the new-found enthusiasm for Golden Age reprints.

I think the answer is “Levitz Lad”

Ironically, the modernised version of this story is being re-told in a six-issue limited series and it’s still not interesting!  It’s also moving at a glacial pace, thanks to Eighties fan favourite, Paul Levitz. The cover copy to issue 3 reads “Will it all end too soon?” To which the answer is , sadly, no florging chance.

As I said in the Super-Spec posts, I first discovered Blackhawk in Bob Haney’s reviled New Blackhawk Era.

I still like the Golden Centurion and M’Sieu Machine is a cool name for a Gallic gadget-guy. However, I’m not hugely interested in fighter planes.

The Super-Spec reprints were exotic tales of high adventure- like glamorous Forties movies. This origin story opens with a striking splash page.  Blackhawk looks villainous (and somewhat camp). A simple but dramatic story of vengeance told in nine-panel grids. The images are tiny but the captions are moody and melodramatic. The nationality of Blackhawk is unclear. His murdered family die in a Warsaw farmhouse  but the names Jack and Connie don’t sound very Polish to me. The story also sets up the flyer’s secret island base. Despite that element, the story is more realistic than most Golden Age tales but it didn’t grab me.

The Blackhawks returned briefly a couple of years later- I read one issue in ’76 but wasn’t interested enough to follow it up. It addressed the fate of a shortlived Blackhawk named Boris; you can see why the Marvel-esque cover caught my eye.

Of course, the character was given the customary dark and edgy revision in the Eighties.

I’d enjoyed Chaykin’s  sexy, modern take on the Shadow but the prestige format Blackhawk series left me cold. I’m afraid war comics starring amoral adventurers are just not to my taste. If I had to read a Blackhawk comic, I’d prefer one by Cockrum.

I just read that the New 52 version of Blackhawk has been cancelled. Maybe they should have gone with a Lady B comic.

The Original Thinking letters page expands to two pages as ENB goes into minute detail over changes in the legends of Blackhawk and the LSH. Letters either praise the Vigilante or Kid Eternity- so why didn’t they both have ongoing new features in the Bronze Age? There’s also another letter from Jimmy McCoy- more about that tragic story another time.

Next: Superman’s All-Magic issue

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Rock of Eternity

This evening’s post concerns a 100 page Super-Spectacular from December 1973. At the age of ten, I was a bit dismissive of DC’s Shazam! It seemed very juvenile compared to Kirby’s brutal and cosmic clashes. I read three of the Super-Specs though (which might have been bought for my brother, six at the time). I would go on to sample nearly every revival of the property for the next 25 years; I now think that Capt. Marvel should be the third member of DC’s Trinity, rather than the campy and outdated Wonder Woman.

A Twice-Told Tale:  Dr. Sivana travels back in time to try and prevent the creation of Captain Marvel. A clever device which enables a re-telling of the origin and first adventure of the World’s Mightiest Mortal.

Shazam Introduces Mary Marvel: The pretty and athletic (and rich!) Mary, Bily’s lost sister, debuts in this story, predating Supergirl by seventeen years. Both were creations of Otto Binder; the more child-like iteration of the modern day means Mary is now very different from Supergirl, of course.

The Mighty Marvels Join Forces: The first-ever team -up of the Marvel Family introduces Black Adam.  Contemporary fans of the villain, who was something of a pet character for Geoff Johns in the last decade,  becoming the Namor of the DC Universe might be surprised. After about four pages, Teth-Adam reverts to his mortal form and ages to death.  It’s all a bit anti-climatic and the  story also rather mechanically retells the origins of the Marvels, which- Junior apart- we’ve just read.

The Vest Pocket Levitator: a Wellsian fantasy about Jonas Weatherby, a fussy old flying robber who uses a magic egg whisk. This labour-saving device has been granted magical powers by a gremlin- the US air force kind (or the kind Shatner saw in the Twilight Zone.)  Mac Raboy’s figurework is more cinematic and “realistic” than the other strips.

The Dog-Nappers: a gently humorous tale of Mary and Uncle Marvel, who seems run a  private detective agency- “Shazam Inc.”- raising money for charity. It’s very well drawn by Jack Binder but it’s probably the weakest story in the issue.

The Adventure in Time: This puzzle story features The Lieutenant Marvels: Hill Billy, Fat Billy and Tall Billy. They seem pretty redundant but the gimmick enables Sivana to be defeated in four different locations.

Captain Marvel and The Talking Tiger: Binder and Beck present a witty fable about civilization starring Mr. Tawny, the mild-mannered talking tiger who becomes a  museum lecture guide.

The Return of Mr. Tawny: The origin of the loveable Tawny is a very sweet story of friendship and a murder mystery.

A Look Through The Super-Specs: ENB devotes the entire column to letters about the whys and wherefores of Mary Marvel’s chart of super-powers. I wonder what he would have made of the modern Mary?

This Super-Spec is a charming collection of stories and the art is often of a very high quality. However, it feels very much like it’s aimed at fans of Golden Age reprints.

DC has generally faltered when it comes to The Marvel Family. The recent Billy Batson series (above)  struggled through a disappointing mid-period dominated with unappealing colouring- book artwork and patronising “stinky-pants” humour. The Captain is returning again as a back-up in the New 52 Justice League but I can’t see him fitting into that abject Nineties/ Image revival.

More on Captain Marvel amd Marvelman in February…

Next: The Dreaded Song of the Blackhawks.

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The Dead Yet Live

This morning’s post concerns another issue of Secret Origins, one which I bought on ebay last summer.

The cover is eerie, depicting a snarling Spectre who looks more dangerous than any I ‘d seen before. My earliest memory of the character is this gorgeous Neal Adams story, reprinted in a Double Double comic.

Gardner Fox’s spooky tale of etheric doubles and Lovecraft’ s Arkham town is  basically Dr. Strange re-imagined as a glossy crime series. The Spectre is, under Adams, an elegant, spooky  hero like Marvel’s Vision, who can do anything the plot requires. The previous Spectre stories we’ve looked at from the Super-Spectaculars however have been whacky fantasy with the odd flourish of the grotesque.

At the time, the Spectre had been gratuitously  “killed off” by Denny O’Neil in his second, overwrought JLA-JSA crossover. I wonder why? Perhaps Spec’s omnipotence sat uncomfortably in the era of relevance; hipster spook Deadman, with his sexy costume and beatnik Silver Surfer routine, seemed like an obvious match for the 70s JLA, but despite numerous attempts, he never quite caught on.

I first read Spec’s two-part origin in a 2004 reprint  and was struck by its macabre flavour. Jim Corrigan is a tough working-class detective who is engaged to an uptown girl. He shares a room in a boarding house with his partner and is sadistically murdered by gangsters, drowned in a barrel of cement.There is a gritty, noir-ish element in the story- the references to dope, stoolies and sedans.

Corrigan’s discovery of the powers he posseses as a ghost is a darker scene than the celestial experiences of Kid Eternity; he is a restless and vengeful spirit. His killers are punished in scenes that have connotations of Expressionist film.

After the gangsters have been reduced to skeltons, driven mad or simply dropped dead, the Grim Ghost has to break off his engagement.  I regret I’ve never been able to end a relationship with the soignee line: “I simply have ceased to care”.

On the final page, the tormented spirit is conflicted by a desire for eternal rest but pledges to wipe out organized crime, like an ectoplasmic Punisher. The panels build up suspensefully to the reveal of the shrouded figure, echoing the Grim Reaper. This ghoulish figure was shortly recast as the Ghost Rider of DC, with a mildly controversial series in “Weird” Adventure Comics .

I’ve read that, again like the Punisher, the Spectre was revived as a violent character as a response to the mugging of his editor. Like other genre properties that had been successful at Marvel – Sword and Sorcery, Blaxpoitation- DC was about a year or two behind the trend with Horror.  The series has been reprinted a couple of times, however, despite -or because of -its excesses. I’ve only read a couple of the stories comprising The Wrath of the Spectre. Since I’ve developed a greater appreciation of the work of Jim Aparo in the last decade, I intend to read the trade one day.

The Spectre went on to at least three series in the 80s, the 90s and Noughties , at one point as the alter ego of GL Hal Jordan. None of those iterations really appealed to me but I would be surprised if the Spectre doesn’t return in the New 52.

The letters page of Secret Origins 5 features one from future Answer Man Bob Rozakis and one from James T. McCoy ( more about him another time). Like me, they are very negative about Wonder Woman. One Loc-er asks for Luthor’s origin, which seems a very sensible request but no villians will be featured in the remaining issues of the series. Another requests Sixties features Sea Devils, Rip Hunter, Cave Carson, Metamorpho, and his futuristic counterpart, Ultra the Multi-Alien. Aside from the Fabulous Freak (whose origin I only saw five or so years ago!) who would be revived for back-up status in the early 70s, the others seem far too obscure.

Next: With One Magic Word

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All-Flash!

This morning’s post was another Bronze Age purchase in Strathaven, from November 1973- the same month as the Radio Times Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special! US Marvels were scarce and I was into Kirby. Although I was still nearly two years away from High School, this issue didn’t really impress me much – the ad for Chaykin’s Ironwolf was already more my thing.

Secret of the Three Super-Weapons: This is the story in which Wally West gets the Kid Flash costume, one of the best designs for a super-suit of all time. This rather slow sci-fi tale by Broome and Infantino recalls the fantastic weapons and Modernist alien cities of Adam Strange. The image of  a hole in space in chapter three is stunning. The idea that glamorous Ryla is Wally’s pen pal in another dimension is adorable.

The Slowpoke Crimes: this was, chronologically, my second outing with Johnny and his frozen grin. It’s a well- drawn short by Mort Meskin. Slow-moving crime boss Sleepy has the same M.O. as Barry Allen’s first villain, The Turtle (as seen in SO #1)

Campaign Against the Flash: Overlong and unfunny, this 4-part Golden Age “novel” concerns a gang leader using magazine articles to undermine the Flash- inventing JJJ’s anti-Spider-Man campaign about twenty years early. The Three Dimwits, Jay Garrick’s “comedy” sidekicks for five years, are obviously The Three Stooges. Blatant though that is, they didn’t deserve to be killed off by the overrated James Robinson in Cry A River For The Justice League.  The story is complicated by a robot called the Djinn and  another comedy relief character, Muscleman. It doesn’t help this fun-free saga that ninety per cent of the panels are swathed in thick black inky shadow.

Riddle of the Sleepytime Taxi: I’d already read this in a Double Double comic along with the debut of Babs Gordon.  I don’t like Ralph’s purple stretchy suit here- fame-seeking Ralph should have realised he’d be too easily mistaken for Elastic Lad. I prefer the red costume or even the vivid yellow version:

This charming mystery by Fox and Anderson  only serves to remind me, however, of the horrible, horrible Identity Crisis story that destroyed the Dibnys.

The Man Who Mastered Absolute Zero: The perennially love- struck Captain Cold has fallen in love with a dancer called Miss Twist and commits crimes to impress her. This was one of the earliest Ralph Dibny stories I’d ever seen and in it, he’s wearing a comical domino mask. In the Nineties, he’d go back to concealing his identity.

Well might you hide, PG!  Look what happened to Supergirl when SHE dressed up as ONJ in “Physical”!

Unfortunately, by this time, Ralph had lost the “Jet Set Nick Charles” vibe of his 60s adventures. The carefree amateur detective with the absurdist power-set was, like Plastic Man, too sophisticated an idea for the Modern Comics Era. (The Brass Age?)

Compare the elegant and whimsical adventures of Barry-Flash in the early months of 1963 with Marvel: Spidey trying to join the FF for cash,The Hulk vs. Ditko’s Metal Master and Greenskin’s first tussle with the Thing. The melodrama and pathos of Marvel’s monster books (because that’s what they really are, at present) is just sexier than the airy futurism of Silver Age DC.

A Look Through The Super-Spectacles: ENB lists all the Super-Specs printed so far. I’ve never read  Weird Mystery Tales, Love Stories or the two Sgt. Rock issues. A minister named Duane Sweat (I hope that was pronounced “sweet” ) requests Dr. Occult, flyer Hop Harrigan and comedy character, Genius Jones.

The back page cover gallery: despite the garish “target” background, all three are gorgeous but as I said last time, the Sixties covers are dense with text.

Next: The Discarnate Detective

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners. Demand the Dibnys in the New 52!