Every Grain of Sand

Today’s post revisits Justice League 113, cover-dated October 1974. This was, unusually, a “done-in-one” edition of the annual JLA/JSA summer crossover. I think, if memory serves, it was also a  mail order purchase in the very early 80s. I would like to see that dramatic, imposing Nick  Cardy cover illustration at full size.

The Creature in the Velvet Cage:  We’ve often heard  tales of the similarities between Swamp Thing and Man-Thing or between the Doom Patrol and the X-Men. Yet to my knowledge, no one’s compared this story with Giant-Size Avengers 1, “Nuklo-The Invader That Time Forgot”, from August ’74. In both comics, a giant yellow humanoid goes on the rampage in three separate locations and is revealed to have a tragic connection with a Golden Age superhero. Did Wein unconsciously borrow from Roy’s story? After all  he was already working for Marvel, introducing the Defenders to the Son of Satan and Alpha, the Ultimate Mutant, while pitting the Hulk against some gaudy Wildcat knock-off called The Wolverine…

Had he stayed for another year, I wonder if Wein would have gone on to reinstate The” Great Step Backward” Wonder Woman since he uses the E-2 version here?  Wein’s favourite The Elongated Man also features again and the GA Sandman gets the Adam West treatment with a Sand-Car and a secret hq below a “plush townhouse”. However, Wein’s story would appear to write finis to the career of the Grainy Gladiator. Was this an editorial degree? The kid-friendly Simon and Kirby Sandman was waiting in the wings…

The Case of the Patriotic Crimes: A reprint from All-star Comics in 1948  featuring the second, less monstrous line-up of the Injustice Society; no sign of Vandal Savage or Sivana-lookalike the Brain Wave.  The tedious Thinker and Gambler are also awol. Instead, it’s a collection of Robert Kanigher super-crooks and former femmes fatales, Black Canary and Harlequin are on hand to turn the tide for the JSAers. In fact, this is the story that sees the fishnet-clad Veronica Lake-alike joining the Society. It’s quite a diverting period piece but every time I see Dr. Mid-Nite, I wish it were Wildcat or Batman.

I’m fond of both the bespectacled Molly Mayne Harlequin and the wacky 70s “Joker’s Daughter” version but I accept that Harley Quinn is the most recognisable iteration of the gimmicky gal.

There’s quite a controversy brewing about DC’s intention to introduce a new gay male superhero ( Starman Mikaal seemingly written out of the New 52). The E-2 Green Lantern is a likely contender although I don’t think the character could really be described as iconic. Ironically, almost thirty years ago, Roy Thomas was planning to introduce a new gay male version of Harlequin, who may very well have been Alan Scott’s son with his “loving enemy”.  However, this Harlequin looks too much like the Charlton/Captain  Atom villains  Punch and Jewlee,

The Cavern Of Deadly Spheres:A reprint from December 1962, this is from  Fox and Sekowsky’s second year on the regular JLA title and it features a typical “inescapable doom-trap”. It’s the kind of genteel puzzle I expect from that era and it’s also a bit of a love letter to fans Jerry Bails…and Roy Thomas. Neat!

The JLA Mail Room: There’s a jarringly large space in the mail room header where Hawkman once stood. Meanwhile,  Randy Emenhiser suggests Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Metamorpho and Zatanna all deserve to be in the JLA. I can’t fault his choices but a fourteen member League seems unwieldy.  I’ll talk about that in a future post…

Three out of the seven letters published complain about Reddy’s new look. They’re right; the arrow, the pinstripes and the cape trim are fussy. Four readers were pleased to see John Stewart guesting with the JLA.  Editor Schwartz didn’t take heed however.

An entertaining summer special and for fans of the Justice Society, it would be an exciting autumn…

Coming soon: The Monster Society of Evil

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Hooky

It was the kind of afternoon today where, even in the North-East of Scotland, the warmth of the air strikes you like a solid object and the sunshine burnishes the glass and concrete of the school yard. As a teacher, even as a relatively-inexperienced one, I’m sure you’re probably not supposed to be tempted to truant but I was: down by the River Lossie and along to the shops, then home.

I didn’t act on my impulse- even though home-working is accepted, in our contract, if you have no classes time-tabled. But I can remember my First Time…

Sports day at Strathaven Academy in late May or early June 1976. We saw all this on TOTP on BBC4 last year but on the radio they were playing ” Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers, “Silly Love Songs” by Wings and “Silver Star” by the Four Seasons.   The second season of Survivors was on BBC1, teaching us about the dangers of wood alcohol.  I was nearly 13 years old, almost at the end of First Year.

It had been a damp, showery morning and, with no interest at all in athletics, I just decided to walk off through the crowd on the school playing fields, out the gate on Bowling Green Road,  and down Townhead Street into the Common Green. With an hour or so to kill before the East Kilbride bus left,  I went to Baird’s pet store and newsagents-daring myself to walk past the Trustees Savings Bank, which my dad managed-  and bought two comics:

It seems I was about a year behind with Kamandi. The lettercol promised a Giant next month with a map of Earth After Disaster. As you’ll recall from my Atlas post, I was a sucker for a map! However, the next issue I actually read was the Feb 1976 edition later that summer:

We were on holiday in Port William (which I revisited last summer for the first time in 35 years) and this comic probably came from Glenluce or Castle Douglas. I didn’t like the Kubert cover ( foolishly) although the Conway/Kirby contents were satisfactory. I’d pick up some more issues in the late 70s and early 80s -even that Giant, via mail order- but never recaptured the thrill of the original run.

The second comic from my truanting adventure was this issue of SLSH. A fairly tame Shooter/Bates/Grell collaboration, it features a quintessential line-up: noble Superboy, cerebral Brainiac 5, exotic Shadow Lass, spiky Wildfire and faux-Bruce Lee, Karate Kid. There’s a back-up about a phobic Shrinking Violet, in her fiendishly complex Cockrum outfit. But my abiding memory is of the letters page and the reference to new costumes for the Subs. I longed to see them and finally did, in the early 80s, when comic marts began in earnest in Glasgow. Needless to say, they were the usual revealing Grell/ Flash Gordon-ish wear. Nonetheless, the attenuated cartooning of Grell made any issue of SLSH an airy, slightly naughty viewing pleasure.

That Wednesday afternoon ( it may not have been a Wednesday but it feels like one) I wandered alone up Commercial Road into Flemington and back. Nowadays, as poacher turned gamekeeper,  I’m astonished that a school could overlook that kind of absence. I don’t recall any repercussions at all even though  I didn’t play truant again for another four years. I suppose the only lesson to be learned here is that as a former “school refuser”, I now willingly spend forty hours a week or so in a similar place to earn a living!

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Atlas Shrugged

We interrupt the ‘optikon‘s chronological look at DC’s 100-page Super-Spectacular to jump almost a year ahead of ourselves. This afternoon’s post will tie into a future entry on Some Fantastic Place on Michael Fleisher’s Spectre but today, we’re going to look at Atlas Comics.

Reading through back issues of FOOM magazine, I get the impression that inspiration at the House of Ideas was more about rollin’ a fat one on the back of Tales of Topographical Oceans or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, maybe even Veedon Fleece. In the summer of 1975, Killraven’s outrageous Death-Birth saga ends with its abortionist-villain dying in the ruins of a McDonalds “restaurant”; the quest for the Celestial Madonna is over and the Beast, high on, er, Stevie Wonder, joins the Avengers disguised as Edward G. Robinson;  and the Son of Fu Manchu fights to stop a villain called Velcro  from getting his, er,  sticky mitts on a nuclear arsenal.  Of course, as I start Secondary school, I can’t see any of this until it’s reprinted in the UK, since virtually no colour US Marvels are on sale in my area.

Meanwhile DC is bringing us Kong, a charmless revamp of Anthro;  Beowulf;  Richard Dragon Kung-Fu Fighter; Lady Cop and the dying days of Kirby’s contract: Kamandi, Justice Inc. and the Sandman (well, the covers, anyway)

Into this four-colour wasteland swings a Kirby-esque character, The Scorpion, introducing me to the dark, sadistic world of Atlas/Seaboard:

I think I bought this issue in East Kilbride, maybe somewhere like this:

How could you resist the combination of a golem and The Golden Fuhrer? The 18-karat Red Skull impersonator is a work of bongwater genius. There was a certain edginess and audacity to the Scorpion that led me to try the next three, from the spinner rack in Baird’s in Strathaven.

Morlock 2001 is set in a Clockwork Orange-lite dystopia. Its eponymous hero is an artificial being , like Adam Warlock crossed with Man-Thing. He transforms in times of stress into a carnivorous plant-creature and consumes a little blind girl in this story. It’s hard to sympathise with a Silver Surfer-style outcast who snacks on handicapped kids.

Where The Scorpion had been a deliberate attempt to ape the pulp avenger known as The Spider, Planet of the Vampires was Atlas’ answer to The Omega Man.Pat Broderick’s first issue is the best-looking of the three, introducing a post-apocalyptic scenario where …well, the blurb speaks eloquently for itself.

The Atlas titles were a concerted effort by publisher Martin Goodman to take on DC and particularly Marvel, which he had sold to Cadence in the early 70s. The new company offered exceptional pay rates and rights to artwork, attracting the likes of Wally Wood and Neal Adams. But this was the Post-Watergate era of the Energy Crisis and the cynical, sensationalist Atlas titles folded in less than year, despite early attempts to “reboot” them, as we would call it.

 

Wulf is  murky, predictable barbarian fare from Steve Skeates; the most interesting thing about it (apart from an industrialised culture, which is pretty unusual for sword and sorcery)  was the map:

I used to draw maps like this all the time as kid–sketch out a coastline (make sure to have some islands and a large, inland sea) then write in some unpronounceable names- and any paperback with a frontispiece like this was a must.

I went on to read two more Atlas books picked up at comic marts in the 80s: The Destructor by Steve Ditko and the first issue of The Scorpion by Howard Chaykin.

Gerry Conway and Ditko pit their abrasive and thuggish hero against a tribe of freaks who remind me of Joe Simon’s Outsiders. It reads like a role- playing game supplement from the mid-80s or a Bronze Age parody gone rather wrong.

Chaykin’s Scorpion is far and away the best of the bunch. A stylish pulp adventure that looks about ten years ahead of its time. After the re-working of The Scorpion as a Batman/Daredevil clone, Chaykin brought his original conception to Marvel:

Marvel didn’t do a lot with the character of Dominic Fortune, Brigand for Hire:  and Chaykin, of course, went off to do American Flagg  for First in the 80s . Most recently, however, Fortune appeared as one of the late-50s Avengers in the Bendis/ Chaykin New Avengers arc.

I have as yet to sample any of the other titles in the Atlas roster: the cannibalistic Tarantula and Brute; the crippled stuntman Cougar or the mutilated  barbarian / would-be rapist, Ironjaw. Delightful. The Grim Ghost and the Phoenix were relaunched last year but I’ve never been inspired to try them either. I would have thought Planet of the Vampires was an obvious choice for revival  in the current cultural climate

Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery but Atlas seized upon the most transgressive elements of Marvel’s comics and recycled them without irony, charm or imagination and crucially to no commercial effect.

Coming soon:  Mr. Sandman, send me a dream…

All images presumed copyright of their respective owners

Batman’s Hotline ’74

At long last, today’s post is the much-anticipated Alex Toth Detective Comics  Super-Spectacular. This was , I think, the last 10o-pager I bought in Baird’s in Strathaven in the 70s although there are a few more in my collection that I got as an adult. I do remember being disappointed with this issue and consequently had absolutely no memory of any of the strips inside when I bought it recently on ebay.

The pistachio colour and the visceral Batman action by Aparo, aided by the swanky Art Deco font promises a classy package. Look at what’s on offer from Marvel this same month:

Behind the gory cover, some top-flight Kane/Thomas barbarism adapted from REH’s sole Conan novel…

A Claremont/Heck collaboration set in Cheerful Chris’s anachronistic England and featuring those pesky N”Garai…

Hellstrom travels from a sword-and-sorcery Atlantis to another dimension to fight the biblical Adam (!)

Heavy.

…and Len Wein provides his patented Silver Age pastiche by x-huming some Sixties X-Men villains.

I have a feeling DC were trying to compete with all this far-out headshoppery with Black Magic, Ghosts, Houses of Mystery and Secrets, Phantom Stranger, Weird War Tales, The Witching Hour and Kamandi being chased by a giant crab. Meanwhile, what of detectives?

Death Flies the Haunted Sky: I can’t praise this strip enough: Alex Toth and Archie Goodwin deliver a moody tale of greed, revenge and a ghostly bi-plane. Toth’s Batman is cartoony but lithe and spectral and makes me long for a miniseries. I had one issue of Hot Wheels as a wee lad but found Toth’s style- and the lack of super-heroics- a turn off. “Haunted Sky” is a revelation.

The House Where Time Stood Still: This is a delightful Simon and Kirby Newsboy Legion story that draws on the legend  of the reclusive  Collyer brothers: compulsive hoarders, who ultimately  died tragically and grotesquely in their booby-trapped brownstone . There was an episode of The Streets of San Francisco (“The House on Hyde Street”)  that also borrowed from their story.  The charm of this series is that the “razor-edged lads”  are more interesting than The Guardian- a pallid Captain America riff.  I was surprised to note the sheer volume of dialogue and captions in the story.

The Magic Mirror Mystery: I’d read this short in one of my cousin Jim’s 60s issues of Hawkman. An elegant, if wordy, Locked Room mystery by Anderson and Fox, it is a little out of keeping with the Burroughsian adventures of Katar and Shayera.

The Huntress of the Highway: the first-ever  solo adventure for Black Canary and her beau Larry Lance, who reminds me of Robert Mitchum. In this slight, noirish tale they escape from a death-trap with absolutely no explanation. As I said,forgettable.

The Robbery That Never Happened: a sedate and stuffy  early Elongated Man mystery about counterfeiting. It’s saved by Infantino’s inventive tricks for The Stretchable Sleuth, who’s wearing his original, wrinkly violet outfit sans domino mask.  Lovely Sue Dibny sports a cute hat.

The Vanishing Village:  a cinematic Batman and Robin short from 1945, set in a criminal refuge in the Everglades. The man-eating plants at the climax of the story seem like a fanciful throwback to the Thirties. Not as entertaining as a 50s B&R tale.

Doctor Fate: the would-be emperor of the world uses sound that can kill from his castle  in the Baranga Marshes. Kent and Inza manage to look cool and uncanny in civvies, driving their roadster with cloaks flapping behind them. The mad scientist is welcomed by “Death, the great leveler” while the “mighty, modern mystery” Dr. Fate is as implacable as the Spectre : “Your efforts against me are those of a child’s against a giant”.  Although this is a 1941 story, it’s as batty as a Karloff Universal picture and great fun.

To Duel The Master: this was the first episode of Simonson and Goodwin Manhunter I read ( I glommed on to the first instalment about a year later). Although the story is basically an extended martial arts duel, it forges a new visual identity for DC, like the Ironwolf strip in Weird Worlds-and it feels very Marvel.  Manhunter is more in line with Shang-Chi or Iron Fist in his samurai super-suit and billowing sleeves .  He’s another potential member for my Sensational Seventies JLA alongside Batgirl ,Wildcat, Deadman and Mr. Miracle.

Despite the run of rather thin stories, I enjoyed this issue on the strength of the art and would consider dipping into other Detective Super-Specs.

Coming soon: The Freedom Train

All images presumed copyright of their respective owners.

 

 

The Mystery Men of May part three

Welcome to the third -and shortest- post for May in  my series on superheroes who made their first appearance in each consecutive month. This time, we’re looking at some Young Lions who inherited moribund trademarks.

The one-and-only appearance of  Cap’n Terry Dactyl-Lee

From the autumn of 1975 and issue 97, where they levelled JFK airport, I followed the All-New X-Men first with fascination and then with Marvel Zombie devotion up until fairly recent times. I think I finally bailed in the mid-90s, after the introduction of Scott Lodell’s Generation X. Although it was a heady brew, Claremont’s tropes of Amazonian women and their intense friendships , Byzantine family trees, obscure villains, mild bondage and occasionally sickly whimsy weren’t entirely the attraction. No, it was the costumes.

As rejected or unused pitches for the Legion of Super-Heroes, these X-Men had a futuristic look that was quite at odds with the prevailing design aesthetic of Marvel-which was essentially John Romita’s vision. Obviously, Wolverine and Banshee as pre-existing Marvel characters (albeit slightly tweaked) were exceptions. But the fringes, chevrons, cut-outs and other elements in Dave Cockrum’s designs – and the Star Trek accoutrements – made this Marvel’s answer to the LSH: a teen(ish)  superhero soap with sci-fi elements. Without the X-Men (and maybe Claremont, Cockrum and Byrne!) the success of New Teen Titans and the Legion in the 80s simply would never have happened.

I think it”s interesting how the much- more- powerful All-New X-Men mirror the previous, far-less-successful band of mutants. Putting aside the bafflingly-popular Wolverine, a character whose killer instinct and machismo I find wearing, both teams include: an acrobatic guy, a kid who transforms the substance of his body, a Bird-Guy and The Girl. Just a thought for any future revamps of the merry ones.  Also, although there had been heroes from other nations in the past   ( such as the Blackhawks, the  Black Panther and the Black Knight), the  make-up of the All-New X-Men paved the way for The Global Guardians, Alpha Flight and Justice League International.

I came back to the X-Men three times:  for X-Treme X-Men, Alan Davis and X-Men Forever.  The latter really caught my interest with an annual drawn by Mike Grell; the wheel had turned full circle.  By the way, I hate the way Cyclops is portrayed these days and will be dismayed if he’s killed off in the AVX cross-over.

Sharon Ventura

The second, colourful iteration of Ms. Marvel was a psychologically unstable heroine. Excellent work on emancipation and equality, gentlemen. Folded into the late 80s FF by Steve Englehart, Sharon Ventura was an implied victim of rape who developed a tentative, romantic relationship with the Thing.

she thing

A cosmic ray-fuelled transformation into a “She-Thing” nearly destroyed her and later Sharon- returned to human form- was a pawn of Dr. Doom. The MC2 imprint depicted Sharon as the estranged mother of Ben Grimm’s kids. When Carol Danvers came back in the Buisek/Perez Avengers, Sharon Ventura was quietly ushered offstage for good. Surely one of the most maligned heroines at the House of Ideas.

There is a new Ray these days but for almost two decades, this “legacy” version of Lou Fine’s Quality Comics hero has been on the periphery of the DC Universe.  Ray II made his début in a miniseries and then returned in his own ongoing title; he was even a member of  Justice League Taskforce. A mash-up of Marvel’s Nova and Sunspot from the New Mutants, Ray II was a 90s version of Firestorm: the “noob” who bumbles into adventures with the Big Guns.

I liked the visual for The Ray but he was always overshadowed by other characters, including Conway and Milgrom’s Disco Era Nuclear Man.   Really, if you wanted to chart the journey of a Legacy Hero, you turned to Wally (Flash) West or even Kyle (GL) Rayner in the 90s. The recent revamp of The Ray- a Korean -American kid- indicates DC still likes the name, however.

Blue Beetle III is not a character I  know from comics  (although I did see his first appearance in Infinite-ugh!-Crisis ). Instead, I know him best from his cameo in Smallville and from a number of  appearances on Batman: Brave and the Bold. He was one of the first super-heroes my nephew could name (“Bwoo Beetle!”). I’m surprised he wasn’t added to the New 52 Justice League instead of Cyborg  from the Titans: Jaime is a mash-up of Spider-Man and Iron Man with a dash of Transformers.The armour is modishly fussy and I think an Hispanic kid is a shade less hackneyed than Perez and  Wolfman’s  bionic Mal Duncan. When the whole, sucky New 52 90s revival is over, hopefully someone will have the sense to put the NTTs back together and promote Bwoo Beetle to the League.

Coming soon: More 100 page Super-Spectaculars

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The Mystery Men of May part 2

…or Part 2.o, Real Frantic Ones, since the last post on the Incredible Hulk was an instalment in the monthly “Mystery Men”series. You probably know by now that I take a look at each month’s super-hero débuts and the comics in which I first encountered them.  Or comics that have a personal significance for me. I will get back to the 100-page Super-Spec reviews- and Alex Toth’s Batman- in a week or two.

Marvel has always made much less of its Golden Age heroes than DC . Their one big revival was of course Captain America (and in essence, the Human Torch.) Sub-Mariner hasn’t been able to helm a title since Byrne stopped pencilling him in the 90s. The remainder who made cameos in the Bronze Age are an unmemorable bunch, aside from Union Jack, who was a continuity implant anyway.

Namora, Bloodstone and Zawadi of Wakanda. Black Panther’s Moms?!

Namora was co-created, rather appositely by Syd Shores, in the late 40s. I only know her as a flashback character, the murdered mother of Atlantean gamine, Namorita ( a character I found derivative and trivial as a kid).  Namora has been retconned into a couple of teams in Marvel’s version of the 50s and 60s, including  Stern’s Monster Hunters . She was revived about six years ago as one of the Agents of Atlas. I’m surprised Namora hasn’t become an Avenger- she would bring a lot of power to the table.

I first saw Manny in the previous issue but it was all, like, alligators an’ shit on the cover.

I’ve reviewed the cheesy Man-Thing dvd over on Some Fantastic Place and mentioned Swamp Thing two posts ago. Just as X-Men and Doom Patrol seemed to be devised simultaneously, the two swamp monsters both made their debuts in horror shorts. Manny appeared in Marvel’s first venture into b/w mature magazines, the legendary Savage Tales (along with those “violent voluptuaries” the Femizons in a faintly saucy swords and science fantasy).

Man-Thing is the product of attempts to recreate the Captain America/Super-Soldier project . The character’s fascination for me lay both in its bizarre (but weirdly appealing) Lovercraftian aspect and its horrific corrosive touch. As a barely-sentient creature, it can only react to events and other characters and shambled through a series of nightmarish, sometimes tragi-comic psychodramas. Man-Thing is really an icon of the Baby Boomers’ interest in therapy and the occult.

The shocking deaths of two of the Freemen made this issue a standout in my adolescence

Killraven, of course, was the protagonist in Marvel’s 70s sword- and -science War of the Worlds series. (See also DC’s Starfire) . The futuristic barbarian title mutated eventually into a lyrical, hallucinatory fantasy about pop culture, ecology, love and death. While Don McGregor (“The dour Scotsman”: Vampire Tales 3)  had a weakness for risible Beat poetry,  Craig Russell’s delicate Art Nouveau style increased the  horror of babies bred as Martian delicacies ( in the outrageous Death-Birth storyline.)

Some trivia about Killraven: in the 90s, the Guardians of the Galaxy comic  planned to reveal him to be the son of Franklin (FF) Richards. In 1975, the Killraven stories were re-drawn to create the bizarre Apeslayer series for the voracious UK weekly, Planet of the Apes.  I think flirty, sensual rebel Volcana Ash was a big influence on River Song. I was also surprised to finally notice that Marvel’s two split-books of the early 70s both became barbarian vehicles (’cause Ka-Zar is really Tarzan at The Earth’s Core)

I liked Colleen’s Samurai action in this comic, disembowelling Angar the Screamer

Speaking of Namor as we were above, Sub-Mariner’s creator Bill Everett was a significant influence on the creation of Iron Fist, Marvel’s second colour kung fu series. Everett’s Amazing Man was raised by Tibetan Monks ( see also Morisi’s Peter Cannon:Thunderbolt) and as a friend of Roy Thomas, Everett’s work was homaged in the origin of Danny Rand. The derided musical remake of Lost Horizon (1973) was possibly also in Thomas’ mind.

The initial storyline of the Living Weapon is a brutal culture-clash as Iron Fist rejects immortality to return to Manhattan to exact a hollow revenge on the murderer of his parents. It’s “What if Bruce Wayne were raised in Shangri-La?”  Claremont and Byrne eschewed much of the mystical element of the storyline and made it more superhero-sci-fi with a pinch of espionage thrown in. They also built up the strong female characters Colleen Wing and Misty Knight,  highlighting their ethnicity and flirting with lesbianism. A third and wildly successful spin-off character from the book was of course the feral Sabretooth. For the last thirty years, Iron Fist has been partnered with Luke Cage and is  currently a bit of a face in the crowd as  one of the many, many New Avengers.

A Kirby/Romita jam that screams “Bronze Age”

Returning to the work of Steve “Baby” Gerber, he introduced the distaff version of The Red Guardian in the Defenders. Here was a character who could truthfully say when something wasn’t brain surgery. This Cold War neurologist heroine was a gender-swapped Soviet Captain America- the previous incumbent being the late husband of the Black Widow. Unlike Steve Rogers, both Guardians used their belt-buckle as a projectile. Later versions of the Red Guardian would copy Cap’s shield, however.

While a symbol of the detente era of SALT II, the dynamic Comrade Belinsky didn’t actually get much to do and was effectively written out in the late 70s when she became a radioactive energy being. Black Widow has permanently supplanted her as Go-To Russian Tough Cookie in Decadent West. Hmm.  Smert’ Shpionam.

Coming soon: the third part of the Mystery Men of May and Batman’s Haunted Sky

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Pretty Green

For the landmark 50th post on the ‘optikon, we continue to celebrate the Mystery Men of May with not a tribute to Liam Gallagher’s clothing label or the Jam song which inspired it, but  Ol’ Jade-Jaws himself, the star of Avengers Assemble. Let’s look at some of the artists who made him great.

The short-lived first run of the Lee/Kirby Hulk shows a character in search of a concept. Part Mr. Hyde, part Frankenstein’s Monster, the Hulk is,  at times, the robotic servant of Rick Jones, a Commie smashing superhero and 50s B-movie menace. Steve Ditko gave the strip direction as Banner became a globe-trotting fugitive and a pawn in the espionage games of his diametric opposite, The Leader.

With the (temporary) death of the Leader and Banner’s identity revealed, the Hulk acquired a new nemesis in this Gil Kane epic. The space-born Stranger, once a collector of Earth’s mutants, returns as a futuristic Old Testament god and a Soviet agent is transformed into the hideous Abomination.

Marie Severin brought a child-like sensitivity to the depiction of the Hulk, pitted here against an alien warrior. This was one of the earliest issues of the Hulk’s own mag I ever owned, a couple of years after it was printed and probably part of a ship’s ballast.

I think Alan Cumming would have loved that tiara

I dipped in and out of Greenskin’s adventures in the Silver Age. This was one storyline I read first in Mighty World of Marvel, a Lovecraftian tale which wrote out the blue-skinned, late- Sixties incarnation of  Dr. Strange. Herb Trimpe’s Hulk was the dominant model as the Bronze Age began.

The Captain Omen storyline above was reprinted in one of the legendary British Marvel annuals of 1974. I’ll be looking at other Marvel UK annuals over on Some Fantastic Place in the next few days. This story, with its blend of pathos and horror, remains in the memory.

I followed the Hulk’s  increasingly bizarre exploits  with fawns and elves in the Bronze Age  Defenders. By the end of the 70s, the Incredible Hulk was a tv star, played with a strange dignity by the wordless Lou Ferrigno, while his alter ego- Bill Bixby- combined intensity and sympathy. The series, probably alongside Batman, has gone on to be one of  the most enduring and iconic portrayals of a super-hero comic character on television.

On the back of that success, The Hulk, rather late in the day, starred in his own b/w  Marvel magazine in which Walt Simonson and Jim Starlin pencilled ” continuity implant” stories featuring Silver Age characters (and the alien artist Bereet).

As the Bronze Age closed, Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema produced a colourful run of tales that introduced some new(ish) international heroes and this quartet: an evil mirror image of the FF.

John Byrne swapped his cult hit Alpha Flight for a typically short run on The Hulk just departing for DC in the mid-80s. He returned a mindless Hulk to Earth from the Crossroads of Infinity, revamped Doc Samson and unleashed a new group of Hulkbusters.

That was the last time I bought a US Hulk comic. I’m afraid I didn’t follow Peter David’s lengthy and significant era on the title-through the Pantheon and Joe Fixit. I  did like the Heroes Reborn take on the Hulk, tying his origin to that of Iron Man.

Hulk  not into Grunge! Rrrrargh!!

In recent years,  Jade-Jaws starred in two movies: the artsy Ang Lee version with its mutant, er, poodles and the more visceral 2008 version. I understand that Mark Ruffalo has signed up for a series of Hulk movies, rather putting the lie to the 1969 novelty Garage record ” Nobody Loves the Hulk”  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2OI7sogwqY)

Coming soon: More Mystery Men of May

All images copyright of Marvel

The Mystery Men of May

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

Sandman: I first encountered Simon and Kirby’s  gaudy dynamic duo as 40s reprints in Forever People, where they inhabited their own universe with Manhunter and the Boy Commandos. I’ve enjoyed most of the stories I’ve read: they have a more melodramatic, more Marvel flavour than Batman and Robin stories of the period. One of Roy Thomas’ most idiosyncratic and needless stories explained how Wes Dodds had the same costume as the web-slinger Tarantula!

The gas-masked version of Sandman made a few appearances in the Silver and Bronze Ages – I’ll talk about them more when we review the next JLA 100-pager. He’s probably best known for Sandman Mystery Theatre, a brutal Mature Readers noir for which I was too squeamish.

Doctor Fate:  Aside from Wildcat and the Spectre, Fate was the break-out star of the Justice Society. With his Lovecraftian trappings, the Wonder Wizard eventually became a fan favourite in the Bronze Age, dominating the revival of All-Star Comics and starring in a back-up in Flash. Again, like Wildcat (or The Huntress) Fate was one of the few E-2 characters who would have benefited from, and deserved, membership in the JLA.

As ever, I bought the one-shot above from Baird’s pet store in Strathaven . It  features the heady cartooning of Walt Simonson  and sets up Fate’s 70s status quo.  Kent Nelson protects the world from weird supernatural menaces while ageless wife Inza agonizes over Nelson’s dual identity. Joe Kubert’s Silver Age style cover replaced Simonson’s original:

Not only is the helmet too similar to the one worn by Hawkman, it robs Fate of his implacable otherwordly grandeur.  Dr. Fate of course was a fascinating guest star in Smallville; that’s one spin-off show I would welcome.

The Elongated Man: In this image, I think Ralph Dibny looks a lot like actor and retro-rockabilly crooner Chris Isaak. I first “met” Ralph in Double Double comics, when he and socialite Sue were the back-up stars in Detective. The Silver Age answer to The Thin Man, EM used his goofy elasticity powers to solve mysteries.

I didn’t really pay any attention to Ralph until he became a JLA-er. His fanciful nature was juxtaposed with the more serious demeanour of Batman and Green Arrow but Ralph was a League mainstay for two decades.  He was then  needlessly usurped by Plastic Man ( both could easily be League members simultaneously) and then destroyed by Meltzer’s ugly Identity Crisis, where the author should us how serious and “matoor” superheroes could be. Ahem.

I can deal with the Ghost Detectives idea- shifting from Nick and Nora to the “Topper”  series- but I would much prefer to have the Dibnys back, restored to their soignee, eccentric glory.

Swamp Thing:   I was aware of  ST from ads in the early Bronze Age but I never read any of his original stories. Instead I encountered him as a guest star in Challengers of the Unknown or Super Friends. My schoolfriend Graham Sim introduced me to many of the new and groundbreaking titles from DC during the early 80s. I don’t know where he is now  ( we lost touch over 20 years ago!)  but I’d like to thank him for sharing that time.

Alan Moore used Wein and Wrightson’s re-imagining of The Heap  and other “weird mystery” characters from DC’s stable to explore themes of horror, abuse and sexuality in serious and mature ways that Meltzer should re-read. Moore also co-created John Constantine in Swamp Thing  and wrote some of the most unsettling comics DC ever produced.

Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter:  DC’s kung-fu books- this and Karate Kid–  appeared a couple of years after the fad had passed and never matched the artistry and atmosphere of Shang-Chi or the melodramatic super-heroics of Iron Fist at Marvel. Dragon has returned several times as the mentor of various DC characters, including The Question.  But his supporting cast, Bronze Tiger and Lady Shiva, actually had more staying power than the eponymous martial artist. I bought this one issue in early ’77,  I think.  Dave (Foom)  Kraft  attempts to ape Steranko’s SHIELD and chucks in a Bowie reference so it all feels cheesy and dated, even in Jubilee year!

Secret Society of Super-Villains: An idea that has resurfaced a few time since the Bronze Age, most successfully as Villains United/Secret Six. Early storylines of the SSOV revolved round a war between Darkseid and Simonson’s Manhunter. The comic then attempted some timely headshop corporate satire as Golden Age villain The Wizard joined forces with Kirby’s savage parody of Stan Lee, Funky Flashman. Meanwhile Grodd assembled another band of villains to battle the JLA.

Revived 1950s property Captain Comet, a psionic mutant hero rehashing Captain America’s anachronisms from the 60s, was on hand to foil the villains’ schemes, with a variety of guest-stars including The Creeper.

It was an uneven but fun series, showcasing a considerable number of characters, with a core group of egotists: the aforementioned Wizard, Grodd, Star Sapphire , Sinestro and The Floronic Man. SSOV succumbed to the DC Implosion just after a storyline began where the Wizard’s group  launches a sneak attack on the JSA, while a second branch gear up to take out the Freedom Fighters. Surprisingly, Gerry Conway didn’t fold Captain Comet into the JLA, which would have been the logical place for him.

Amethyst:I don’t know if it was intended to be one of a line of “girl’s comics” like  the sweet but rather outdated Daring Adventures of Supergirl. I do recall a DC title called Pandora Pann being mooted in the 80s. In any case, Amethyst was a charming fantasy with elements that predate Harry Potter. A teenage girl discovers she is the heir to magical powers in a Tolkienesque world of enchanted gemstones, monsters and royalty. Again, this was one that Graham Sim introduced me to, after a preview insert in an issue of LSH.  I was particularly impressed by Ernie Colon’s art, which had touches of Gil Kane.

Later storylines tied in the Gemworld with Zerox, the Photcopier- sorry, Sorceror’s World from LSH and with the Moorcockian struggle between Order and Chaos that crossed over to books as diverse as Doom Patrol and Hawk & Dove in the 80s. These ideas really ruined the charm and uniqueness of Amethyst. However, DC has many properties that would captivate  the young female audience that likes Hunger Games,  Gallagher Girls and Manga:  Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Supergirl and Amethyst. They just need to reach out to them.

Next time: The Mystery Men of  May Part Two!

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