Brother of the Bat

Continuing an issue-by-issue review of the 100-page DC Super-Spectaculars of the early 70s,  today we have yet another comic from that most bountiful month,  June, 1974. I can’t remember anything behind the circumstances of this purchase; I just remember reading it one smirry Saturday afternoon, in my bedroom in Chapelton.

By the Bronze Age, I had read a handful of early-70s issues of WF. A couple of Giants in the late 60s ( and the gloriously wacky Planet of the Apes issue above) had taught me that this was the home of monthly  team-ups  of best buds Superman and Batman (and Robin).  But the Masked Manhunter had been ousted during the DC Relevancy period and Superman had been teamed with Robin, Mod Wonder Woman, Dr. Fate, Vigilante and others. There were two cute if short-lived Golden Age reprint features,The Bureau of Missing Heroes/Villains, appearing as back-ups.

Editor Murray Boltimoff had returned to the status quo in of ’73  and Bob Haney’s Metamorpho ( one of my earliest DC memories) had been revived, popping up in both WF and Action. Haney was also responsible for The Sons of Superman and Batman, the completely out-of-continuity, previously- unheard-of, young adult offspring of the World’s Finest team. Despite Haney’s trademark hilarious hip dialogue, there’s actually some mileage in the idea: charting the journey to adulthood of two comic- book legends but in the Sensational Seventies, rather than the Golden Age.

The Super-Sons might have seemed “far-out” but Haney was about to unleash another hitherto-unknown Bat-tastic twist to the Wayne family tree.

Wipe the Blood off my Name: funky phantom Deadman guest-stars in a mystery where Bats and Supes track down a psychopathic killer. It’s only Bruce Wayne’s long-lost older brother Thomas, who was brain-damaged in infancy and committed to an asylum like a minor British royal! The story ends with Deadman occupying the elder Wayne’s body. There’s no explanation of what happened to the Follower- the construct Boston Brand animated when last seen in Forever People. It’s quite cute, however,  that only Batman knows of Deadman’s involvement- Boston doesn’t register to Superman’s senses.

The story of Thomas Wayne was never referred to again, to my knowledge, until Grant Morrison introduced the satanic Dr. Hurt a few years ago. The Glaswegian mage retconned Thomas as Bruce Wayne’s uncle, rather than brother. However, I gave up Batman around the time of Batman RIP because I found it too violent and sadistic. Nonetheless, I love Haney’s oddball additions to the Bat-Family, including Wayne’s tragic stepson and haunted godson.
An Eye for an Eye: I had actually read this story- the second episode of the Deadman Saga- somewhere before; probably in a Double Double comic. A  gritty, Marvel-esque story, Deadman’s encounter with his girlfriend’s loser brother and a Hell’s Angel gang made me realise how much Ghost Rider might owe to Boston Brand. Adams’ Spectre- much as I like him- was a more fanciful character, whose cosmic adventures were lighter in tone.

The Reversed Heroes: an exciting Dick Sprang adventure where B&R gain super-powers from some Kryptonian capsules to help a de-powered Supes corral a crook who looks like Space Ghost. I love some 50s Batman!

The Sunken City of Gold:  a charming Lost World tale by Ramona Fradon.  Aquaman is still a pretty dull character, however.

License for a Robot: an inconsequential short about municipal bureaucracy by Joe Certa, starring the Golden Age Robotman. I much prefer Deadman’s brother in spirit: the mordant, slightly unhinged Robotman-iac of  Arnold Drake’s Doom Patrol.

The Superman and Batman Team on Radio:  A text feature on the  Superman radio serial, printing excerpts from a 1945 script. The plot involves Lois’ criminal lookalike and her kidnapping in an amusement park.  Interestingly, Jimmy Olsen is described as 16 ( I always assumed he was about eighteen to twenty!)  and Dick Grayson a year or two younger (14, then?) I’ve always been interested in radio drama and would love to hear this.

Composite Superman vs. the 80s Legion

The Composite Superman: A Curt Swan epic in which the eponymous villain gains super-powers from statuettes of the Legionnaires, basically becoming The Mimic of the LSH. An almost unstoppable foe, his borrowed powers wear off in the nick of time. This is quintessential World’s Finest to me.

From the World’s Finest Fans: The letters page debates whether WF should continue as a Superman team-up book. Some four years later, DC Comics Presents would fulfil that function.  There are also a couple of requests for more Metamorpho and (this may surprise you) enthusiasm for the Super-Sons.

With this issue Dillin’s pencils convinced me Deadman would have made an appealing and visually dynamic addition to the Bronze Age JLA. As would Plastic Man ( yes, alongside Elongated Man!) , Batgirl Babs, Wildcat, The Original Captain Marvel and Mr. Miracle. Ah, DC Editorial!

Coming soon: Batman and Alex Toth.

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The League Stands!

I like how plastic Red Tornado looks in this Alex Ross image. But someone’s not in Markovia any more!

With the imminent arrival in town of the Avengers movie, I thought it was time to explore my favourite rosters in the history of the Justice League, in the vein of my ” I am an Avenger” post.

Let’s look at my Top Five line-ups  of The World’s Greatest Super- Heroes!

Number 5)  Bicentennial Men

Gerry Conway, Power Girl’s godfather, featured Supergirl as a guest star and I rather like that idea for cosmic JLA sagas. I’d swap Hawkman ( Katar)  for Hawkgirl (Shayera) to have a gender-balanced team for the Swingin’ 70s. The elegant quirkiness of Elongated Man also appeals.

Number 4)  Classic Satellite Era

The quintessential 70s team, with an interesting mix of relationships . There is one cool cat from the Silver Age whose inclusion would make this the best-dressed super-team on Earth-1: Deadman

Aquaman should be a reserve member at best; his limitations don’t make him the most effective “lifer” on the team.

Number 3) The Wizard JLA

This roster was inspired (like Whedon’s movie) by The Ultimates. I like the presence and drama and the recollection of the cover of New Avengers issue 1.

In the iconic group shot, You can just make out a new female Atom perched on GL’s shoulder and the dwarfish figure is a radical reworking of The Martian Manhunter. I’d add the working -class mage Constantine here as the Anti- Snapper Carr.

Number 2) Re-Animated

I  prefer  John Stewart to Hal and I thought his romance with Hawkgirl made sense. There are too many extra-terrestrial heroes on this team and I’d be inclined to substitute Red Tornado for J’onn.

Number 1) Ten Years After

This line-up is all marquee names and features one of Grant Morrison’s inspired picks:  the legendary Plastic Man. This is how I would cast the JLA, with one exception. If I could trade one member, it would be J’onn for The Original Captain Marvel.

Runners-up: Baker’s dozen

In terms of dynamics, this roster is too unwieldy, although I was pleased to see Reddy, Zatanna and Vixen. As much as Speedy’s graduation appealed, I’d rather have Green Arrow. I’d also drop Hal, Firestorm and Black Lightning.  John Stewart would be my preferred GL; Firestorm is a transplanted Marvel character and BL is an Outsider, period.

Booby Prize:Batman and the Outsiders?

This one-off assemblage in the all-ages Johnny DC title tickled my fancy: two members of JLA Detroit , two members of the Meltzer League and Ragman. Not a bad line-up for urban crime stories but Vibe and Canary cancel each other out.  I might substitute Dinah with Vixen or one of the Batgirls. Batman’s  hand-picked strike force should feature those heroes who are on the fringes: the Creeper, the Thorn, Metamorpho and so on.

Fundamentally, the League is not your typical role-playing game line-up: a brick, a flier, a telepath and so on. It’s meant to be a pantheon. That’s why cybernetic sad sack Vic Stone is the sore thumb in the current Johns/Lee team. My iconic team would be this Big Seven: “Lifers” Supes, Bats, Flash, GL John Stewart. Plastic Man, Capt. Marvel and Diana Prince as military intelligence handler.  Reserve members- “temps”-  include Constantine, Vixen, Supergirl and the modern-day Batwoman.

But what’s your  ideal League? Something traditional , like this:

Or something more iconoclastic like this?

Next:  Requiem for a Deadman

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And the Power You Possess

In reviewing the 100-page DC Super-Spectaculars of the early 70s, we now take a step out of sequence.

This issue is cover-dated May 1974 but I got it in mid-August, according to my memories of contemporaneous British Marvel comics:

We were on holiday in a caravan near Borgue, a village close to  Kirkcudbright (where this 100-pager was doubtlessly bought):

Borgue village, very like Chapelton where I grew up

 Wicker Man country!

It must have been a desperate move born of scarcity because, a couple of years later, I would still balk initially at buying my first issue of Ms. Marvel: surely this was a comic for (ugh) girls?

The Maniacs of Mercury: A whimsical satire echoing the stories of the 40s. The giant men of the planet Mercury are indolent male chauvinists thanks to transmissions of US tv!

The Mystery of the Atom-World: The villainous Queen Atomia is the antagonist in a retelling of a fanciful Forties story. Like Mercury, the art is by Ric Estrada. It’s appealingly cartoony with a flavour of 60s  Pop Art .

The Origin of the Amazon Plane: The secrets of the robot plane revealed in a 40s original.

The Gods of the Amazons: an illustrated mythological text feature.

Wonder Woman: Amazon Teen-Ager:  In the first of several stories about costumes, the Wonder Girl here of course is not Donna Troy but the teenage Diana. As we saw in the last ‘optikon, that error lead to years of obfuscation.

Donna doing the Batusi

Ronno the Merboy introduced in this story is a more primally mythological and symbolic figure than Jerro, Supergirl’s Atlantide crush.

Wonder Woman’s Costumes: I learned the word “culottes” from this feature. I also think that the de-powered Diana Rigg version of WW is both more appealing and more interesting.

The Winning of Wonder Woman’s Tiara: another prettified Golden age tale by Harry Peter, I think.

Wonder Tot and Mr. Genie: Ross Andru pencils a charming fairy-tale about the Amazon as a young child. With the eponymous comedy djinn, a dragon and a hostile spaceship, it’s like a Ray Harryhausen movie on the page.

The Secret of Wonder Woman’s Sandals: a forgettable 40s fable about Amazon footwear.

The Mirage Mirrors: this was my first sighting of the Angle Man, in a bizarre and silly story where Diana is jealous of WW. It’s drawn by the Andru/Esposito team: the quintessential Sixties artists for the strip.

Princessions: the letters page discusses The Great Step Backward ( the end of the “Mod” Wonder Woman) and promotes WW’s trials to rejoin the JLA. It also claims that Donna Troy is in “the limbo of discontinued comic-book characters”.  Plus ca change

I have to say that, re-reading this comic. I found little to enjoy, aside from the Atomia and Wonder Tot stories. It reads like the general public’s perception of a super-hero comic with its daft plots and simplistic art. It’s redolent of the camp  craze for the 30s and 40s that riddled pop culture in the 70s from Paper Moon through to Manhattan Transfer.

A few months later, the title would emulate the tv show and adopt a wartime setting, which I liked a little better.  Towards the end of the Bronze Age, I bought the comic regularly because the Huntress was a back-up feature. When  not a period piece, the WW I prefer is the recent spy/espionage version of the late Noughties:

I don’t have many memories of that holiday, aside from learning to ride a pony.  At home in Glasgow, I have a couple of Polaroids where my brother and I are posed, small and solemn and many feet away from the camera. I’m wearing a brown anorak with a little football emblem. I re-visited Kirkcudbright during the Easter holidays of 2010 but apart from the River Dee, I didn’t recognise it.

Coming soon: “Wipe the Blood off my Name!”

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The Mystery Men of April part Six!!

Finally! The last entry in this monthly series for April kicks off with a heroine to whom we’ll return in the next Super-Spec post…

Wonder Girl (Donna Troy): alongside Hawkman and Supergirl, the teen Amazon is a DC character whose back story is so fiendishly complex, it has become toxic. However, she remains my favourite version of Wonder Woman. This bizarrely convoluted tale begins with an error. When (shudder)  a girl was needed to balance out the ranks of the Teen Titans, Bob Haney used Bob Kanigher’s Wonder Girl- but she was literally the adolescent Wonder Woman.

When I first saw her, on the cover of a Double Double comic,  I just imagined she was a protegee  of Wonder Woman, just like Haney.

She became groovy Wonder Chick at the end of the Sixties;  Marv Wolfman revealed that WW had rescued Donna as an infant and she was raised as an adoptive sister. Here, in DC’s Gothic Teen Romance period, the Titans go all Dark Shadows with mystery girl Lilith; Donna should tap this market again!

Donna went away for much of the Bronze Age, until the success of New Teen Titans in the early 80s. Wolfman fleshed out her family background and this was fine until Crisis necessitated a new origin. Now she was Troia, a protegee of the mythological Titans, in a typically overdesigned George Perez  “spacey-wacey” costume. This storyline reminded me a lot of Gerry Conway’s Young Gods from very early Bronze Age issues of Thor.

Donna lost her powers for a while, so joined 90s “extreme” Green Lanterns, the Darkstars. In “extreme” 90s style, the husband and child she had acquired in the New Titans Era were killed off.  She got another new origin thanks to tinkerer John Byrne: now Donna was a magical playmate  created for  Wonder Woman. So much simpler; thank goodness for that. She was killed off briefly but when last seen in the DCU, Donna had taken on the Wonder Woman role. I gather James Robinson had her swear a lot; who could blame her?

She’s languishing in obscurity again for now but the  pony-tailed Amazon’s imagery  is potent enough to keep coming back.

Astonishingly, Tyroc was only the third black super-hero at DC in the Bronze Age after Mal and Green Lantern John Stewart . LSH fans had clamoured for a black member throughout the early 70s. Allegedly, young Jim Shooter had envisaged masked Ferro Lad as black and Dave Cockrum, as we’ve seen, had designed a black version of Power Boy. Neither plan had come to fruition so Tyroc was a very big deal. Also, new Legionnaires appeared quite sporadically in the Bronze Age, so when I bought this issue one school lunchtime in Strathaven, it was very special.

Uunbeknownst to me ( thanks to poor distribution in Lanarkshire), Tyroc was initially a cover star but subsequently appeared in cameos until  completely written out in the late 70s. One argument is that he was a wrong-headed and embarrassing cliché but I suspect his reality-warping powers were just too vague and too deus ex machina to work in a team book. Surprisingly, however, Tyroc was revived for the latest reboot of the LSH and stars in spin-off title Legion Lost. Unfortunately, his disco Space-Pimp costume and mighty’ fro have gone away, rather diminishing what made him special (if ridiculous) in the first place.

Bwahahaha! The first issue of  late 80s version of the Justice League came out in April. Introduced in the mini-series Legends by Len Wein and elegant cartoonist John Byrne, this team signalled a return to greatness for DC’s iconic heroes  : Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Dr. Fate and, er, Changeling, the irritating green Titan.

A postcard set in 1988. It featured Big Barda fighting Parademons with a mop and bucket. DC, you kill me!

The line-up was amended somewhat for the first few issues. The Japanese Dr. Light appeared, sans costume, to no great effect and Captain Marvel was replaced by Booster Gold, Dan Jurgens’ satire on sports sponsorship. Initially, the plots rehashed the hippy mysticism and cold war anxieties of De Matteis’ gloomy Defenders. But the skill for caricature displayed by artist Kevin Maguire meant that ” sitcom” humour took precedence. This was the era of “dramedy”:  an ironic, knowing sensibility in US tv, most successfully incarnated in the show Moonlighting. The creators of Justice League got a hit, spoofing their second-string heroes- especially Booster, Blue Beetle and Reaganite Green Lantern, Guy Gardner. So successful was JL, it spawned the inevitable spin-off series, Justice League Europe.

I preferred the line-up in this team (aside from Englehart’s Soviet Iron Man, Rocket Red).  I’d been to Barcelona and was really interested in the idea of Europe-based superheroes.  Wonder Woman and Animal Man were dispatched in short order however and the asinine antics of the remaining characters put me off. Eventually, after about five years, the rest of the comics world voted with their feet. The Bwhahahah League was cancelled and Grant Morrison’s version-the JLA as a superhero pantheon- became a huge hit.

Although the Super Buddies were revived in the Noughties as a cult hit, it’s plain that comics fans prefer the JLA (and the Avengers) to consist of “big guns”. Also, too many spin-offs dilute the original success: Marvel, take note.

Let’s return to Grant Morrison for our final entries this month: Hourman III and the Seven Soldiers of Victory. This iteration of the Man of the Hour was a futuristic android; he appeared as the apprentice of the New God Metron in the JLA’s Rock of Ages storyline and the DC One Million crossover. He spun off into his own series which I never read but understand achieved some critical acclaim. Functioning as a nanotech version of the Bronze age Red Tornado, self-pitying and inadequate, he was summarily replaced by a revamped version of the 80s Hourman.

Morrison’s Seven Soldiers was a 2005 “metaseries” with  a grandiose structure echoing the SSOV stories reprinted in the JLA Super-Specs: seven miniseries crossing over and bookended by two special editions. It began as a project called JL8: a parody of The Ultimates utilising DC characters including  Zatanna and Mr. Miracle. We’ve previously discussed the Super Escape Artist and the Maid of Magic will have her own entry.

Art by Derek Charm

Shining Knight: the cross-dressing heroine of this series seems a lift to me from the 1981 movie Dragonslayer but Ystina is currently one of the stars of Paul Cornell’s Demon KnightsThe Magnificent Seven meets Game of Thrones.

Manhattan Guardian: a media-savvy iteration of the Simon and Kirby hero but drawing also from Mal Duncan‘s short-lived incarnation in the Bronze age Titans revival:

Unfortunately, Jake Jordan was replaced quickly by James Robinson’s take on the Fourth World’s  Golden Guardian.

Klarion: a sinister Puritan-garbed kid from the original Bronze Age Demon, his distinctive look was allegedly inspired by a real-life Kirby fan. Klarion is Harry Potter gone very wrong.

Bulleteer: a commentary on Good Girl art and cybersex, the absurd Bulleteer is an update of the Fawcett heroine Bulletgirl but I suspect was probably inspired by Hasbro/Palitoy’s Bulletman.

Despite a truly touching and tragic storyline,  attempts to graft the Cone-headed one into the DCU are sabotaged by her pneumatic appearance.

Frankenstein: a reworked version of DC’s Spawn of Frankenstein from the 70s.  A cross between the Hulk and The Punisher, the monster with the lugubrious Byronic monologues has gone on to his own New 52 series.

To my taste, SSOV was one of the most frustrating and oblique storylines Morrison has produced to date but I have to admit that he is unrivalled in his ability to find something quirky and appealing in  moribund concepts.

Next: Princessions

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The Mystery Men of April Part Five!

A belated Happy Easter! Here’s the unprecedented fifth insalment of this monthly series:

Kirby, Romita and Heck in their Bronze Age glory

Liberty Legion: When Marvel’s US editions were rare as hen’s teeth in Scotland, I bought DC and through the early 70s became very familiar with their Golden Age cast. When I started attending secondary school, I could buy the US Marvels for 6p or 7p each: one every day. This issue of Marvel Premiere is one that recalls that time most vividly.

In assembling the team, Roy Thomas revived some of Timely’s obscure third-stringers and this comic is primarily a series of (pretty whacky) origin sequences  for his Justice Society analogue. Thomas teamed them with the Thing subsequently  but, to be honest, I think they were too one-dimensional to catch on. Compared to six or seven years of wartime appearances by the likes of Hawkman, the Flash and the Atom, the Liberty Legion were often one-offs.

Three of the Legionnaires would join the All-Winners Squad at the end of WWII however but would experience more than their fair share of tragedy. The Patriot witnessed the murder of the second Captain America; Miss America died in childbirth and the Whizzer was forced to give up their mutant son, Nuklo. Red Raven became an embittered and dangerous figure, battling the Angel and Namor while guarding the remnants of his winged people.  Meanwhile, Jack Frost, the Thin Man and Blue Diamond all lingered in obscurity for decades. Still, the Invaders crossover is a fond remembrance of my early teens.


Devil Dinosaur: not remotely a mystery “man” of course and  a series I only know from short-lived 1980 UK comic Valour (still a great, British name for a comic). Kirby’s last Marvel series was originally envisaged as a  cartoon pitch for US children’s tv.  It has some of the same freewheeling energy as Kamandi but most interestingly, it veered quickly into Ancient Astronaut Theory. I read Chariots of the Gods on my uncle’s farm as a young boy and it blew my mind. I wasn’t aware then  that the Kree had first appeared in the FF as a riff on those very ideas. Genetic and cultural  intervention of course are the bedrock of The Eternals but they can be found in DD too.

 


Ant-Man II: This comic reminds me of the days when Lewis’s in Glasgow’s Argyle Street sold comics from spinner racks near the deli. Ex-con Scott Lang was introduced as a supporting character in Iron Man. He guested in the Michelinie Avengers toward the end of the Bronze Age and then became a fill-in member of the FF in the early 90s. Ant-Man  finally joined the Avengers only to be killed off by his old antagonist and fellow Assembler Jack of Hearts in Avengers: Disassembled. For several years, Lang’s daughter Cassie (or versions thereof) was a higher-profile character as Stinger and Stature.

Despite his original, nifty Kirby-costume, I preferred Hank Pym as  Goliath or Yellowjacket. Also, Lang’s super-hero identity always seemed a bit redundant while the Wasp was around. I gather he’s been revived so I don’t know where that leaves  puerile comedy character, the Irredeemable Ant-Man.


Alpha Flight: one of my favourite titles during the early 80s.  John Byrne created the Canadian team as a one-off threat for the X-Men and then developed them into an intriguing family of misfits.

Duality was a common theme for the Alphans. Gentle, innocent Marrina was a pre-programmed alien invader. Snowbird was the child of an Inuit goddess, torn between otherworldly duty and her love for a mortal colleague.  Meanwhile, Sasquatch was her ally but also, secretly, one of her ancient enemies.  Twins Northstar and Aurora were a darker, more troubled version of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, with his implied homosexuality and her abusive past and split personality.

Byrne’s penchant for “game-changing” plot twists meant the team was without a status quo for any length of time. One of the most startling of those twists was the death of team leader Guardian at the end of the first year of publication. Not only was this tragedy unexpected, his replacement by civilian wife Heather was a new concept in comics. Her tentative romantic relationship with dwarf bouncer Puck became the emotional centre of the team.

I suspect the constant state of flux and the two-dimensional villains (Deadly Ernest, the Master of the World, the Great Beasts) may have been slightly damaging for the book; Byrne certainly doesn’t rate it as among his best work. Nevertheless, I found the mix of supernatural horror and elegant designs a compelling one and was sorely disappointed when Byrne left for the Hulk.

Few teams can have experienced the  deaths and resurrections of so many core members and Alpha Flight the comic  has been revived three times since the original series ended in the early 90s. At that point, it was a generic Marvel series from the Fabian Nieceza/X-Men stable. Since then, it has come back as a conspiracy thriller, a comedic title and most recently as an 80s nostalgia-fest.

It’s funny that my own superheroes,  the Scottish Six, bear a more-than-passing (if unintentional) resemblance to the Alphans.


Thunderbolts: During the Heroes Reborn debacle ( which bears quite a resemblance to the New 52), this title by Busiek and Bagley was a refreshing reminder of the Bronze Age Marvel U.  With the disappearance of the FF and Avengers after the Onslaught crisis, this team made their debut as their bona fide replacements. The twist was that they were The Masters of Evil in disguise!  In a further twist that recalled Shadow of a Doubt, teenager Jolt became a member, getting too close to the team’s secret.  Once that plot had reached its climax, Hawkeye joined to try and help the Masters go straight. Since then, the title has continued- it even had a brief life as a super-villain version of Fight Club.

The Thunderbolts currently function as Marvel’s Suicide Squad: a secretive project to reform super-villains- or at least to put their sociopathic tendencies to  more, er, productive use. Jolt has disappeared from the MU which is a pity because she, like Avengers trainee Silverclaw, was a fresh face with potential.

Next: The being known as Wonder Girl is speaking, I believe.

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The Mystery Men of April Part 4

The fourth instalment of this month’s entry in this series…

 

Namor, the Sub-Mariner: Bill Everett’s  Antarctic Amphibian, wise-cracking flattopped Namor brawled through Timely Comics accompanied by sassy Namora while occasionally duelling with the android Human Torch.

I first encountered Namor as a barbarian king in proto-Sword and Sorcery adventures in late-60s Marvel like this Thomas/Severin homage to Hammer’s The Lost Continent. He also featured in super-hero adventures with other Golden Age relics, like the tragic Red Raven.

I only glommed onto his role as FF antagonist and anti-hero through reprints. After his initial non-membership of the Defenders, Namor was largely featured  in The Invaders and Super-Villain Team-Up. His mid-70s role as the “Savage Sub-Mariner” was gradually faded out (although the finny blue Romita suit has more-or-less survived into the present day)

A stint in the 80s Avengers always seemed an uncomfortable fit to me and I much preferred John Byrne’s 90s series, where Namor was portrayed as a CEO in Big Business. This corporate warfare angle was quickly superceded, however,by storylines reviving the Invaders and Iron Fist.

In more recent years, Namor has been folded into the X-Men, which robs him of his unique role as Prince of Atlantis. Like Superman, it seems that very few creators are interested in making this remarkable character’s rich heritage relevant to modern audiences.

Daredevil: a Silver Age version of Dr. Mid-Nite, the Sightless Swashbuckler is  one of Marvel’s most tragic heroes, yet was mostly written as a playful, wise-cracking acrobat. His early career was reprinted in Mighty World of Marvel beginning with the vibrant Starlin cover above.

That first incarnation  is best encapsulated in Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb’s Daredevil: Yellow. It’s both achingly romantic and a pleasingly retro noir that shows Matt making best use of his  sensory powers against his earliest (and rather unimpressive) foes.

I dipped in and out of DD from time to time: here’s a very late discovery from Stonehouse Hospital in 1972.  Largely, however, he fought boring Batman-knockoff crooks: the Beetle, the Owl, the Gladiator and Mr. Fear, in spite of the moody, cinematic pencils of genius Gene Colan.

In the early 80s, Frank Miller rocketed to stardom transforming Daredevil into a  hardboiled noir. Matt Murdock was now a tormented but devout Catholic, acting out a doomed love story with the assassin Elektra. I  only read these stories in reprints a couple of years later. I admired them but they didn’t “speak” to me.

DD was the third Marvel movie release after X-Men and Spider-man , with a reasonably faithful retelling of the Elektra storyline. Ben Affleck created a sympathetic and glamorous Murdock.  For a short time, a promotional  effigy maintained a rather disquieting vigil over my street from a billboard.

At the beginning of a new decade, DD’s stylish new comic is a critical success again and he has joined the Avengers, probably to no-one’s surprise.

Black Widow:  Her super-power may be to devour her mate: I first saw Madame Natasha as a Soviet spy with spider-gimmicks, making a sap of Hawkeye. As was the case with Medusa, she was soon reformed however. Marvel lost a memorable villainess and gained an indifferent heroine in fishnets and beehive, with nowhere to go.

This situation changed dramatically when the Widow was re-imagined as, well, Modesty Blaise:  a jet-set superheroine in the vein of Mod Wonder Woman. The “little tsarina” had something of a fixation that she was cursed after the death of her husband, the Red Guardian. This morbid character trait gave a motivation for her rather rootless, glamorous lifestyle. After reading this issue of AA  on a trip to Glasgow, I found it easier to think of BW as a different character.

Here I was smitten by Titan priestess Moondragon.

Soon, Tasha and Daredevil formed a swinging partnership where the personal and professional blurred. They were both offered- and eventually declined- Avengers membership in the early Bronze Age.

I have a vivid memory of reading The Sun on a sizzling day on Rothesay in 1975, the summer before I went to secondary school. The photo feature told the story of Mrs. David Bowie’s tv debut as the Black Widow. Like this proposal, the  relationship with DD petered out in the mid-70s. This was presumably so that ‘Tasha could lead the Champions.

I was really struck by this team as a schoolboy- I had missed the debuts of the Avengers and the Defenders but I could get in on the ground floor with the Champs. Sadly, they were cancelled before Bill Mantlo could permanently add Black Goliath and Jack of Hearts*.

Jet-set Natasha was re-purposed again by Frank Miller in Daredevil with a short new hairstyle and a rather drab grey catsuit. By the late 80s, the ageless Widow was revealed to have been abducted as a child by Elektra’s ninja clan, the Hand and rescued by Cap and Wolvie. At the dawn of the 90s, she was leading the Avengers, in their  90s leather jackets

In recent years,  Natasha saw off Yelena, a younger model and popped up  in Mighty Avengers. She has also been  a romantic interest for the Winter Soldier (the revived Bucky) and for  Colossus in Chris Claremont’s professional fanfic X-Men Forever. Of course, with the Avengers movie, Black Widow is poised to achieve a level of fame (or notoriety) that Angie Bowie could only dream of . Hopefully, there will only be a dash of  the sultry, lethal but treacherous version from The Ultimates.

This issue introduced me to three “new” Avengers at once! Guess who the other two were!

Goliath II: the third point of the Bronze Age love triangle saw Hawkeye, feeling overshadowed by the recent additions Black Panther and the Vision, using Hank Pym’s growth formula to play giant in order to rescue Black Widow from Egghead ( not the Vincent Price Bat -foe; the uninspiring villain Roy Thomas kept foisting on the Assemblers).

Clint Barton successfully occupied the giant role in Avengers for a few years, adding visual “oomph” to the team and a certain cynical cool. I would say he made a better job of being Goliath than any other contender (apart perhaps for Goliath/Atlas from the Thunderbolts)

Adam Warlock: yet again,  I arrived late for the party with Thomas and Kane’s strange super-hero version of Jesus Christ Superstar. I had seen Kane’s agonized heroes- Captain Action and the Dove- as a younger child and I understood the parallel world-setting easily enough. But the series was cancelled before I could read any more issues other than this one (from Glasgow’s Queen Street station bookstall). Although I was vaguely aware of Kirby’s “Cocoon-Man”, for most of my childhood, Warlock was a one-off X-men villain or a sinister figure from Superman cartoons:

I missed all of Jim Starlin’s paranoiac  Kozmic satire, becoming reacquainted with Warlock in my teens with this issue.

However, I followed him avidly in b/w reprints in Star Wars Weekly and recognised the elements of Elric and Dorian Hawkmoon that Starlin had grafted on to the character.

The Avengers- MTIO Annual crossover that “ended” the Thanos saga was one of the finest Bronze Age cosmic tales. I never felt the subsequent revivals in the Nineties did it justice. In fact after The Infinity Gauntlet, which felt like a belated attempt to recapture the success of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Infinity crossovers were extremely diminished returns.

After orchestrating cosmic conflicts with Warlock’s alter egos The Magus and the Goddess, Starlin delivered The Infinity Watch, Infinity Abyss and a short-lived Thanos series. Marvel had some success with its cosmic properties in the Naughties, putting characters like Warlock, Nova and Quasar through a series of heroic deaths and resurrections. Like the New Gods, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before Adam returns yet again.

The Shroud: a deliberate homage to both Batman and The Shadow, this spectral figure was blinded in a nasty chop-sockey ceremony and gained extrasensory abilities. He was introduced as a nemesis for Dr. Doom in SVTU. Later Max Coleridge gained the power to generate darkness ( like the Champions’ Darkstar).

After his team-up with Spider-Woman, he hung around the fringes of the Marvel Universe for years, although he did appear in one story by Steve Ditko,  acquiring a pair of assistants called Cat and Mouse. He’s pretty redundant in the MU while we still have DD and Moon Knight; in fact, the Fist of Khonshu appropriated most of his Californian milieu in his recent series.

* Jack of Hearts  is one of the most tragic Avengers and an oversight in March. Originally introduced in the Bronze Age as an antagonist for the White Tiger, Jack Hart  briefly became the “apprentice” of Iron Man. Having apparently gained his explosive powers in a chemical accident, it was subsequently revealed that he was of extra-terrestrial descent. This garbled origin and the complexity of his design, combined with his dull power set, may have done Jack of Hearts few favours.

Wandering in space during the early 90s, he was  rejected by alien warrior Ganymede ( a girl, confusingly enough) and although ultimately accepted into the Avengers, had a very fractious relationship with the second Ant-Man.  Jack  committed suicide rather than endure fourteen hours a day in confinement.  It seemed to be an oblique comment on the right to die but was quite a negative message from a comics hero.

Next Mystery Men part five!

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The Mystery Men of April part 3

As Prince said, “Sometimes it snows in April.”  That was certainly the case again this morning so here’s the third instalment of this series:

Mr. Miracle:  He cheats death! He defies man! No trap can hold him!  The Super Escape Artist is probably my favourite Fourth World comic ( my favourite DC Kirby Kreation is Kamandi). It was the longest running title of the tetralogy, although it descended into rather juvenile super-hero shenanigans in its last days.

Mr. Miracle, the son of Highfather and raised in a brutal military academy, escapes to Earth and adopts the identity of showman Thaddeus Brown but is pursued by a number of foes from Apokalips, including the statuesque warrior Big Barda. Scott Free was one of the most handsome  Kirby heroes but was mostly hidden by his pharaonic death mask. In the sixth issue, there was a savage parody of Stan Lee in the shape of huckster Funky Flashman (later to appear, bizarrely as a supporting character in Secret Society of Super Villains). Famously, Scott was based on comics legend Jim Steranko.

Kirby had Barda and the Female Furies poised to spin off in their own comic in which, aided and abetted by The Lump, they would fight The Head from their Beauty Rock HQ. But the Fourth World titles were cancelled prematurely and, with their marriage in the final Kirby issue, the Frees left for New Genesis.

The hit Detective Comics  team of Englehart and Rogers revived Scott  for a brief period in the mid-70s. Just imagining their Batman teaming up with Scott is thrilling. As one of the most distinctive and unusual heroes of the decade,  Scott (and Barda) should have joined the JLA around 1977; it’s mooted by a reader in the extra lettercol of issue 147. It finally  happened in the 80s but both characters were lost in the slew of unfunny antics .

Scott and Barda appeared in a 1989 series. Like Marvel’s Excalibur, it was in the “dramedy” vein that began on US tv. I read the first issue and never came back to it. The suburban sitcom was an amusing premise for one story but De Matteis was simply not as humorous as he thought. Grant Morrison enrolled Barda into his hit Justice League in the 90s; in the following decade, however, Seven Soldiers Mr. Miracle  (starring Scott’s apprentice, Shilo Norman ) was one of the most dispiriting and unpleasant reading experiences I’ve ever had in comics.  On that symbolic level, the Caledonian magus succeeded.

Despite Starlin’s cosmic snoozer Death of the New Gods ( pretty much the same gimmick as 2003’s Marvel The End ) Barda can be seen in the roster of the Justice League in Batman Beyond spin-offs. It’s inevitable that Scott will return too; no trap can hold him.

Atlas:  A cross between Thor and Conan, this mythological Kirby hero could “break boulders like biscuits” and appeared in First Issue Special, the 70s Showcase revival. The twist was that Editorial knew these books were mostly inventory material and there would be no series- the sole exception being The Warlord. If there had been a market for a Kirby heroic fantasy epic, I bet Atlas would have encountered a UFO before long. We  never got to see Atlas fighting the Gorgon Masks or the Amazon sea raiders but after a tiny cameo in Kingdom Come,  Atlas  was revived four years ago as a Superman antagonist by James Robinson, in his quest to utilise every obscure DC property.

Jezebelle: the last issue of the aforementioned First Issue Special featured the New Gods. Gerry Conway and Don Newton brought a very Marvel flavour to the series, as was the case with most late-70s DC comics. The berserker Orion got a new heroic look ( Geo-Force would later adopt a similar outfit) and Jezebelle was introduced, another Female Fury with “fiery eyes”. Jezebelle hasn’t had a line of dialogue, I think, since 1978.

The city-trashing, planet-smashing conflicts of Orion, the gentle Lightray (given a trad superhero origin by Conway and Newton) and the cerebral Metron  were always an uncomfortable fit in the DC universe. But such was the potency of the Hitlerian Darkseid , Return was the first of numerous attempts to boost the popularity of Kirby’s  gods and the one I followed most assiduously. The longest-running was the late 80s series that followed on from Cosmic Odyssey. John Byrne’s Jack Kirby’s Fourth World was the most traditional but it rehashed many of the stories and made some uninspired additions (Valkyra).

Early Fourth World covers look like strange religious tracts or terrifying advertisements.

One of the twice-told tales Byrne produced was the first encounter between Superman and the cosmic flower children, the Forever People. Apart from a gloomy Big Chill storyline in 1988, the Young Gods of Supertown have rarely reappeared. but they were my second Fourth World find. The third issue above was bought on a trip to Dunure at Seafield post office in Ayr  and I will always have a fondness for them, especially for the DNA molecule linking them in the insignia.

Black Lightning: Created by Tony Isabella as DC’s first headlining black superhero in 1977. Isabella had previous experience of  Power Man and Black Goliath in 1974 and ’75. Problematically, therefore,  the character automatically had a dated flavour. An athlete and school teacher, BL is a more aspirational figure than his Marvel counterpart Luke Cage. Yet again, I discovered this series some months into its run.  After cancellation, BL next appeared in the JLA but turned down membership. He went on to become a charter member of the quirky, hokey Outsiders (nonetheless, one of my favourite 80s series for those very qualities).

Word Up: Black Lightning auditions for Cameo

He returned with a couple of  fashionable new costumes  in the early Nineties, in attempts to break out of the Blaxpoitation Look, just as  Cage would.

When novelist Brad Meltzer relaunched the Justice League, BL was a member, using his political nous from his role as Lex Luthor’s  Secretary of Education. I never felt that BL was suited to the  JLA and is more viable in the urban crime milieu. In any case, he was gone by the time James Robinson revamped the League.

As one of the more mature DC heroes, Black Lightning has two daughters who are superheroines: Thunder ( one of the modern Outsiders) and Lightning ( a JSA trainee). Strangely, an analogue of BL, Black Vulcan was a member of the Super Friends cartoon cast.  The late Dwayne McDuffie’s Static was relaunched as part of the New 52; it appears that the more contemporary teenage hero with his own tv show has overshadowed BL in the public domain.

Next: Mystery Men Part Four!

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