The Mystery Men of April Part 2

This is the second post in this series this month; at present I envisage a record-breaking six for April and possibly a solo post for Donna Troy. As ever, I post images of my first brush with a character or a cover that has a significance for me. The first image is a cover that seemed to be advertised everywhere when I was little.

Jimmy Olsen: although introduced as a radio serial character, Jimmy is an essential part of the Superman mythos.In our early encounters, Jimmy was a bit of a stooge who underwent bizarre transformations. The Turtle Olsen was creepy but I never saw Jimmy do anything remotely useful with the Legion as Elastic Lad.

This was my first Fourth World book and it was seismic. The two-page spread at the back said Kryptonite no longer affected Superman!  Clark worked in tv;  Superman might team up with anybody in World’s Finest; The Thorn wore a spiky bikini and miniskirt combo and Supergirl had a go-go belt. And in the story itself…! Naked, embryonic aliens; the Hairies; the Newboy Legion and the Golden Guardian; and some stone-faced thug called (ha!)  Darkseid.  At eight years old,  I was too young to recognise the Kirby tropes but this was an unsettling, off-beat comic from DC. As it turned out, I read more Olsen books than I did New Gods. the jump-suited young explorer/adventurer vanished suddenly, to be replaced by the hip, cutesy Mr. Action.

Under John Byrne, Jimmy was back on-Weisinger-model in the 1980s. He was a more proactive character on tv  however; never more so than when portrayed by Iceman’s brother, Aaron Ashmore.  Perfectly cast Smallville Jimmy was tragically  killed in action by Doomsday.

Mr. Action reappeared in All-Star Superman as the endlessly protean hero, a modern Jack the Giant Killer. If I wrote Superman, I would cast him as Clark Kent’s room mate and give him Pete Ross’s responsibility of protecting The Secret . Anything else makes nonsense of being “Superman’s Pal”.

He might even have a few Sarah Jane Smith-style adventures, especially with that classy logo. Codename:Assassin, though- did ever a secret i.d. promise so much and deliver so little?

Bat-Girl: I didn’t even know there was an original Bat-Girl until the début of Titans West.  Betty (or Bette) Kane is every little boy’s nightmare: the self-proclaimed girlfriend who won’t leave him alone. Devised as a comic foil for Robin, Bat-Girl diluted and complicated the Batman-Robin-Batwoman dynamic. Revamped as  the celebrity-hungry Flamebird in the late 80s, tennis pro Bette was unfortunately both derivative and redundant.

This might be the place to mention Mal Duncan, the first black Teen Titan. Mal was introduced in April 1970 in an early stab at Relevancy. He had no powers or gimmicks  until he took on the Guardian identity in the Titans revival (above) and then became Hornblower.

In the late 80s, Mal used the codename Herald, with a hypersonic weapon. More recently, he was known as Vox. We’ll return to Mal when we discuss the Manhattan Guardian in the near future.

“New Look” Batman: okay, technically, not a new character, but I wanted to acknowledge the moment when the Caped Crusader truly caught up with the Sixties. Carmine Infantino’s Batman makes his entrance in a story about Greenwich- sorry, Gotham Village. Robin is visibly older and the Batcave is, well, just a cave, really. In short order, Alfred is killed off; Aunt Harriet joins the supporting cast; the New Look Batgirl debuts and Catwoman-replacement Poison Ivy and Hulk-a-like Blockbuster are introduced. It’s easy to forget that the interplanetary adventures of Batman in the early Sixties had brought the Gotham Guardian to the brink of cancellation. Holy turnaround, Batman!

This 1966  board game used cover art from the 1965 Giant Batman and  served as my introduction to  the Terrible Trio , Mr. Zero and Calendar Man.

Secret Six: a bold experiment by E. Nelson Bridwell and  Frank Springer, this was a short-lived mystery/espionage book reminiscent of Mission impossible. I read one reprinted issue but was haunted by that rainbow-hued cover.

In the mid-nineties, the Tangent Comics imprint launched a one-off Secret Six comprised of alternate versions of the Atom, the Flash, the Joker, Manhunter, Spectre and Plastic Man. I liked this team very much and would have enjoyed seeing more of them.

The most popular iteration of the Six was Gail Simone’s twisted gang of supervillains, which examined friendships and even love amongst a band of sociopaths and made an unlikely star of Catman. I read their Villains United series but it was a bit too violent for me.

Phantom Stranger: I didn’t know PS was a 50s character; I was just launched into Joe Orlando’s World of the Weird with this issue.  The elegant but enigmatic Haight Ashbury mystic and his skeptical opposite number Dr. 13 meet Tala, Queen of Hell in this Neal Adams story. Later adventures would include blind psychic romantic interest, Cassandra Craft. I think he works best in his own milieu and if the modern JLA had to have a magick-user, I’d go with Constantine. I liked PS most when drawn by Jim Aparo.

Ironically, Marvel took the Weird concept and ran with it in the 70s, creating the award-winning Tomb of Dracula and the likes of Werewolf by Night, Ghost Rider, Morbius, Son of Satan, Brother Voodoo, etc.  In the New 52,  I, Vampire, Swamp Thing and Justice League Dark are critically acclaimed so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a revival of Marvel’s 90s Midnight Sons line. If there were a Phantom Stranger movie, I’d rather it were Michael Fassbender rather than Johnny Depp.

Next: More mystery men and more of Kirby’s Fourth World.

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners.

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