Baby, What’s Your Sign ?

This post concerns the second 100-page Super-Spec that I obtained on my first holiday on my uncle’s farm in the summer of 1974.  Nostalgia for sunny days afternoons amid the pine plantation aside, I might not be inclined to put it in my top five, even with that striking orange cover.

Balance of Power: Introduced as an E-1 version  of the 40s Injustice Society, the Injustice Gang is a long-overdue idea:  the evil counterpart team. (The Crime Syndicate is an evil distorted mirror-image team but…shhh.I don’t know that yet). The international crimes of the Injustice Gang are a smokescreen for a power play by one-off villain,  Libra*.  The mysterious masked villain has a similar gimmick to the members of Marvel’s Zodiac, from the spring of ’74.  Is this a deliberate or accidental resemblance? After all,  Wein, Englehart and Conway linked their Rutland, Vermont stories together…

This is the first issue in a long time that hasn’t featured Black Canary or Diana Prince. Wein’s Mary Sue character Elongated Man not only shakes up the all-male League’s tactics with deceptively idiosyncratic flair but also has a strategy for overcoming the Tattooed Man.  What’s interesting is the fate of Libra: it’s the first time I can recall a DC character having a Kozmic Marvel style experience as he becomes ” one with the universe”. Under Englehart and Starlin, it’s a cute, coded reference to  psychedelic experimentation. For Wein, it’s a Star Trek-style denouement, where a godlike being is undone by his hubris.

Wanted: The Injustice Gang: an illustrated fact file by Pasko and Pat Broderick. This is a fairly second-rate collection of baddies, aside from the Mirror Master. It strikes me that after the Relevancy Era, DC’s writers  revisited some of the villains of their childhood. It was a similar story at Marvel with revivals of ancient FF foe, the Miracle Man; the Yellow Claw; the Vulture; the Collector; the Tumbler, and oh, others I’ve doubtless forgotten.

Beware! The Black Star Shines: This story of the Seven Soldiers of Victory presents a dull series of mini-adventures for Green Arrow and Speedy, the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripsey and the Shining Knight. Sir Justin fares best: you can see where a lot of Stan and Jack’s schtick for Thor originated and there is an element of pathos when the knight thinks he’s been returned to Arthur’s court. I would much rather read a Kirby Green Arrow story although there is some amusement to be had with the ridiculous villain, The Hopper.

Murphy Anderson’s glorious late-60s  portrait of  Law’s Legionnaires- the Seven Soldiers- is reprinted in this issue:

Attack of the Star-Bolt Warrior: I get the impression Gardner Fox was as bored with the League as I was reading this story. The original JLA formula of sending duos and trios to deal with magical or interstellar menaces has fallen by the wayside. The antagonist in this campy tale is Brain Storm, who focuses stellar energy through a deeply silly hat.  The gimmicky plot revolves around Brain Storm’s  mistaken grudge against Green Lantern. We do, however, get to see Fox favourites and JSA-analogues Atom and Hawkman in action. Like the lead story, the League is a boy’s club- no sign of secretary Wonder Woman.

JLA Mail Room: Wein’s two-part Earth-X/Freedom Fighters story is generally praised ( although the team didn’t go by that sobriquet yet); the return of the Amazon Wonder Woman is trailed; and there is some positive response to Red Tornado;  the self-pitying  android has been sharing the spotlight with Ralph Dibny as the focus of characterisation in the JLA for the previous six months.

I think we’ll see other JLA 100-pagers that I would be more inclined to include in my top five…

Next: Golden Plague

* One-off, that is, until Grant Morrison’s surprise revival of Libra in Final Crisis.

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I Am Legion

Tonight’s post features another of my top five 100-page Super-Spectaculars: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes from June 1974.  Like the Santa issue of JLA, this one, with its pale-green cover, is seared into my memory.

I got it in Galston, in the summer of ’74; my brother and I were on our first holiday without (at least one of) our parents. My aunt and uncle were tenant farmers and I associate those holidays with sitting in a haystack reading a copy of Doctor Who and the Daemons – or trying to steer a tractor.

The milk for our breakfast cereal came straight from the cow: yellow and warm, with “bits” floating in it. I can recall the savour of herbs in my aunt’s garden and the tang of the homebrew kit in our bedroom- which had been my cousin’s before he went to University.

So, one sunny afternoon, in a  cafe on Wallace Street ( I think) Jonathan and I got three 1o0-page comics. I had already read three stories starring the re-designed  Dave  Cockrum Legion.  With this issue, after years of back-ups and stodgy reprints in the Relevancy Era, the LSH was established as one of my favourite comics, combining sci-fi trappings  with sexy superheroes. I read this issue until it fell apart.

Lost: a Million Miles from Home: a lightweight short featuring Shrinking Violet and Colossal Boy. It’s only really interesting because it features LSH newcomer Mike Grell  inking Cockrum’s pencils. Immediately,  dynamic and exotic characters start to feel stiff and posed.

The Legionnaire who Killed: I had actually read this Legion melodrama before, in a copy of Adventure in around 71 or 72. It’s  that popular soap opera trope: The Trial. Superboy  tries and fails to defend Star Boy, who has broken the code against killing.  It’s probably the most interesting thing that ever happened to the crewcut dullard. There is a happy ending as Thom is offered a place with the Substitute Legion.  Swan’s Dream Girl is ethereal yet regal and Polar Boy is short and a little pompous. Thoma and Nura became somewhat redundant however when Karate Kid and Projectra were introduced.

The Super-Stalag of Space: A two-part homage to The Great Escape. The prison camp commandant is a typical goofy DC alien but the story is lent drama by the deaths of some Bits of Legionnaire Business: heroes created by fans. Plant Lad is the first victim. The tale is marred by painful, “flip” dialogue and campy  narration worthy of Arnold Drake. It’s an attempt, I think ,to mimic Stan’s style. ENB tried it again with the Devil’s Dozen two-parter. Fortunately, when Jim Shooter starts scripting, some jokes  are actually mordant and funny

The Execution of Matter-Eater Lad:  In the second part, two more non- Legionnaires die: Blockade Boy and Weight Wizard. In a weird accident,  M-E Lad is inflated to Bouncing Boy proportions . Happily, it only lasted for six months. Tri-ocular sadist Nardo never returns ( to my knowledge).

Lore of the Legion: an expanded update on the origins, powers and new wardrobe of the Legionnaires. It’s my first glimpse of the new look for the androgynous Light Lass.

I must have copied those poses in pencil countless times; Star Boy’s cosmological costume is fiendishly difficult to draw.

The Wrath of the Devil-Fish:  This story is a sequel to the Erg-1 revival in the previous issue. Here the hero announces his new name: Wildfire.  I also get my first sighting of the feral Timber Wolf and the “batty” regalia of Shadow Lass.  The meat of the story is a Base Under Siege from a 30th-Century version of the Creature From the Black Lagoon. Although Devil-Fish doesn’t appear again for nearly twenty years, Cockrum had sold the character to Marvel too. His collaboration with Marv Wolfman- Manphibian – finally debuts in a tardy entry to the b/w horror market Legion of Monsters in 1975.

“Devil-Fish” is also Cockrum’s last LSH story before he leaves for Marvel…and the X-Men.

The Superboy of Bigville: I was bored by this short as a kid; as an adult, it’s a sweet, soap opera plot about a boy blackmailed into impersonating Supey to protect his father’s criminal past. It’s elegantly pencilled by the great Curt Swan.

Super-Talk: Cary Bates talks about the origin of Starfinger (who sounds amazing) on the letters page. I also read some other villainous names for the first time: Saturn Queen. Nemesis Kid. Tyr. I yearn to see them but it won’t happen for another four of five years .

Look out for a trio of Legion:77 posts coming to the ‘Optikon over the next couple of months! Meanwhile on Some Fantastic Place, there will be a second post on the short-lived Legion reprint title of 1973

Next: It’s an Injustice

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A Green Thought in a Green Shade

I was struck while reading the most recent issue of Twomorrow’s marvellous Back Issue magazine that there was an omission from my  latest “Mystery Men” post: Jennifer Walters, the  Sensational She-Hulk.

Jen was arguably the last significant creation by Stan the Man (Ravage 2099 excepted) . I read her origin in a UK reprint in the spring of 1980:

I was about a year away from leaving school and quite, er , jaded by Marvel (x-cept for X-Men). In her tattered shirt, the chartreuse hellion  seemed like a refugee from the previous decade: a distaff addition to the Ploog/Wrightson gallery of grotesques.  After her Buscema/Lee mobster story debut, the She-Hulk descended into two years of dreary adventures written by quirky FOOM and Defenders alumnus David Anthony Kraft.

Poor Dazzler. Bendis has featured everyone else in Avengers– even Spaceknights

After her series folded, she became an Avenger in the summer of 1982, basically as a comic foil to Hawkeye. It wasn’t until the first Secret War however, two years later, that I finally succumbed to the charms of the jade giantess.

Perhaps it’s only Stan’s characters who ever really work well within Marvel’s First Family but John Byrne’s She-Hulk seemed to click effortlessly into place.

The graphic novel in 1985 saw Jen locked into her gamma-powered form and although she was still being portrayed in rather titillating situations, She-Hulk had finally “arrived” as a legitimate Marvel heroine. Three years later, Byrne tapped into the current fashion for “dramedy”, exploiting her comic potential far more than Shooter, Stern or Michelinie had dared.

Jen was breaking the fourth wall, commenting wittily and amusingly on comics tropes as Byrne satirised Marvel’s more bizarre characters. Ironically, some of those characters and situations were created by Steve Gerber, who succeeded Byrne on Sensational.

After a hiatus of a couple of years, Byrne returned seamlessly to the She-Hulk once again with the same brand of post-modern humour. But as the speculator-driven Nineties went into polybagged overdrive, Sensational was cancelled. Overtly humorous characters didn’t seem popular in the Image Era (unless they were called Bloodlaugh or Killhappy, maybe). A decade later, Dan Slott won accolades for a smart and modern take on She-Hulk, focusing on superhuman legal work. Unfortunately, I haven’t read any of her Noughties stories.

Lyra, the All-New Savage She-Hulk, is a Jeff Parker riff on the Femizons created by Stan and John  Romita and later expanded upon by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway. Jen has acted as Lyra’s mentor and she’s also battled her doppelgänger, Betty Ross, the Red She-Hulk. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, after all.

It’s ironic that a rather ludicrous character, created to protect copyright in the years when Bixby’s David Banner was on tv, turned out to be one of the longest-running super-heroine titles Marvel ever produced.

Next: The Super-Stalag of Space

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The Mystery Men of February Part Two

Tonight’s post is very heavily weighted to represent the work of Merry Gerry Conway. A prolific writer for both DC and Marvel in the Bronze Age, Conway was never really accorded the same status as his contemporaries: neither as histrionic as Gerber nor pretentious as McGregor; neither as academic as Thomas nor as cinematic as Moench; as feminist as Claremont or corny as Wolfman.

The Punisher and Codename Assassin: the skull-garbed killer had three storylines in Bronze Age Spider-Man books but it wasn’t until the 80s that he became a superstar. Frankly, I’ve never found his quest for vengeance very engaging. Jonathan Drew has probably the coolest name for a Bronze Age non-entity, appearing in one First Issue Special and, thirty years later, in James Robinson’s arc on Superman- but neither of these guys seems heroic to me; “assassin” rather gives it away.

Firestorm the Nuclear Man: like Marv Wolfman’s Nova, this was Conway’s attempt to rework Peter Parker for the Disco Era at DC. Firestorm looks like a Dial H for Hero submission:  Firelord’s hair; Lightray’s headgear; a garish costume and vague, fussy transmutation powers.  A victim of the DC Implosion, the hero really worked best when subsequently placed in the “noob” role in the JLA.

That is a gorgeous JLA, even with the eyesore costumes

The current Hispanic Blue Beetle does everything Firestorm would, however, with a touch of Manga and the legacy of a Golden Age name.

Steel the Indestructible Man: another Marvel hero in DC guise, a wartime fusion of Captain America and Iron Man. As with Firestorm, I came aboard with issue # 2, since first issues rarely crossed my path in the mid-to-late 70s.

I really liked Don Heck on this title

First revived in All-Star Squadron and then in Justice League Detroit, the quick-tempered cyborg patriot had a third incarnation as Citizen Steel in Geoff Johns’ JSA. Infamously, his biggest claim to fame seemed to be in the trouser department.

Cloak and Dagger: the tragic scourge of drug-gangs, these urban heroes were popular in the late 80s and were even retconned as mutants. I’m surprised they’ve never assembled on one of Brian Bendis’ Avengers teams as a modern take on the Vision and the Scarlet Witch.

Miracleman: I first met Mickey Moran, the British reworking of Billy Batson in a Power Comics annual and then again, more than a decade later,  in Warrior. Much of what happened in the overrated paranoid conspiracy thriller Watchmen  was explored here first. Twenty-five years later, the character’s still floating around in Marvel limbo. I’m not crazy about the allegorical “what if superheroes were real?”  school any more. Too reductive for me.

I know- Infinity 1 didn’t come out until February.

Infinity Inc: one of my favourite ideas from the early 80s- the sons and daughters, wards and proteges of the Justice Society, operating as a business.  Roy Thomas was able to utilise his experience as an aspiring Hollywood screenwriter and combine it with his love for the JSA. When the Crisis hit, however,  it dealt the title an ultimately fatal blow. The title limped on for a couple of years, through a couple of company crossovers, with rather stiff and dull art but it succumbed in the Grim and Gritty Era. Some Infinitors drifted into the League as third-stringers; others to the JSA. Frighteningly, in real time, the children of Infinity Inc. should, by rights, be going into the “family business” now!

Jonni Thunder: a mid-80s take on a late-60s  staple, the  quirky, noirish detective. Roy Thomas’  butch private investigator might have been more successful had she not been a Negative Woman knockoff, with a dull, electrical alter ego.

Crazy Jane: the very early days of Grant Morrison’s Doom  Patrol drew on Symbolism, surrealist art and  experimental film. The new star of  this superhero team as therapy group was Kay Challis, a super-powered victim of appalling abuse- and lifted almost wholesale, as I discovered,  from the book “When Rabbit Howls”. Multiple Personality Disorder has been largely discredited but Morrison took some of the ideas behind John Byrne’s Aurora and made the sexual themes more overt. Crazy Jane was certainly one of the strangest and most thought-provoking characters in a DC super-team.

Cable and Deadpool: I will  pause briefly to say that Rob Liefeld cannot draw very well but made a lot of money from these mash-ups in the 90s. The former, Clint Eastwood crossed with the Terminator and the latter, Deathstroke crossed with Spidey. Derivative, impoverished and insanely popular. Comics, eh?!

Next: Devil-Fish or Manphibian?

The Mystery Men of February

Welcome back to my continuing  series on super-heroes who made their debut in each consecutive month.  As always, I post images of the stories where I first discovered them or of  issues that are significant to me.

Captain Marvel:  I was a follower of The Big Red Cheese for several issues of his whimsical Bronze Age revival.

I was subsequently attracted to the moody pages of his wordy revamp in the mid-80s. But it wasn’t until the art deco stylings of Jerry Ordway that the World’s Mightiest Mortal really clicked with me.

I don’t think his world of Wicked Worms and Talking Tigers maps over very well to a universe dominated by various Kryptonians- but he should be, by all rights, the third pillar in DC”s Trinity concept.

Justice League of America: The JLA is one of my favourite ideas in the DC universe, although in our early encounters, it was largely pulp sci-fi.

The Bronze Age JLA was always at its best when it was emulating a Marvel title  with one period of real greatness under Len Wein and a bizarre year-long arc by Steve Englehart. For the remainder of the Bronze Age, the team continued steadily, but largely unremarkably, under the stewardship of Gerry Conway. Until, that is,  a misguided attempt to recapture the success of the New Teen Titans resulted in the Detroit League. The move to sitcom and satire made the  late Eighties a successful time for the international incarnation of the League, but I thought the joke got stale pretty quickly.  The comic has never really recaptured the sweep and verve of the Grant Morrison era in the 90s but here’s a line-up that works for me:

Aqualad: Garth, with his purple eyes and fear of fish, always seemed the least useful and most overlooked of the swingin’ Sixties Titans.

Unsurprisingly, he had psychosomatic illnesses and it was Tula, the Aquagirl , who was the more interesting subsea teen. Garth later gained mystic powers over water temperature (snooze…) and adopted the alias of Tempest, which made more sense than it did with the Doom Patrol’s Blaxploitation character.  Personally, however, I’d rather have Tula back.

Hawkman and Hawkgirl of Earth-1: Unbeknownst to me, Katar Hol was having interplanetary romance adventures before I ever read any Edgar Rice Burroughs. That’s why it’s wrong to think of Hawkman as Conan- he’s John Carter of Mars, er, Thanagar. Oddly enough, though, I prefer Shayera to Katar in the League.

 

The Forever People: After Jimmy Olsen, this was the first of Kirby’s Fourth World books I ever read and it had quite an impact on me.  Jack’s commune of space hippies transformed into the mysterious Infinity Man through a magic word, like flower child versions of Billy Batson. They were a comment on the optimism and charm of the Love Generation, against a horrific backdrop of war and ruthless conformity. But they’re also such a product of their time, I’d be very surprised to see them again.

Spider-Woman: My first encounter with Jessica Drew was in MTIO, when she was still an evolved spider.

For a while, she starred in a moody Hollywood Gothic series. She really became a dynamic heroine in the Marvel Universe when Chris Claremont and Steve Leialoha moved her to San Francisco.

I liked the strengthening of her connections to HYDRA that resulted from her ( retconned) blood relation to Viper.  To be honest, for the past five or six years, Jessica has done next to nothing as an Avenger, apart from switch teams and look sultry.  I think she should have a mystery/supernatural series, set outside the Avengers milieu.

Next time: The Mystery Men of February Part Two!

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners and are reproduced here for the purposes of nostalgia and comment.