A Flash of Lightning in a Summer Cloud

The countdown to the one hundredth post on Materioptikon begins today!  Our 95th post will, again, focus on a giant-sized DC comic- Giant Adventure Comics 403  dated Mar-April 1971.

I got my first copy of this comic from the newsagent on Victoria Street in Newton Stewart. In the early 70s, there was a wishing well in a public garden and rockery, accessible by a flight of steps. My recollection is that the water was fancifully dyed with a blue tinge.

Actually trying to date the purchases of comics over forty years ago is maddening. This Giant carries an ad inside for the premiere issue of Mr. Miracle. But my introduction to the character and my first issue of that bi-monthly title was number 4, cover-dated October ’71.  So I might not have read this Legion comic until the spring or summer of 1972. But that seems unlikely. On the other hand, we did holiday in Mochrum outside Port William that year and would have stopped off in Newton Stewart going or coming back.  On one stop in the town, I remember getting this gift set:

Now, Emma Peel was a very dim childhood memory in the early Seventies but I associate the Tudor Crisps “Wear-Em Scare-Em” badge/medallion promotion with Sunday afternoon repeats of the Linda Thorson Avengers .

The Cobwebbed Room website notes a closing date of 1974 for the promotion, but this comic wasn’t three years old when I got it!  Doesn’t really help, does it?

In any case, I had definitely read three issues of Adventure and three of Action Comics  starring the LSH  between 1969 and 1970. I had also read the Invisible Kid/ Chemical King short in Superboy (Jul 71);  possibly the Adventure Double Double which featured the intro of Shadow Lass…

…and three 65-66 Adventures  from my cousin Jim’s collection; plus the Lore of the Legion text feature in Super DC. So, for convenience, let’s call this my twelfth Legion comic of all time.

This book collects the saga of the death and revival of Lightning Lad from January to September 1963.

The Stolen-Super Powers: Saturn Girl unscrupulously acquires the leadership role and duplicates the Legionnaires’ powers for good measure. It’s a plot to thwart fate but Imra discovers that you can’t cheat the Reaper when Lightning Lad is killed by the criminal Zaryan. The first story to highlight the risks of Legion membership, consolidating Imra’s Ice Maiden rep into the bargain.

The Secret of the Mystery Legionnaire:  new applicant “Marvel Lad” carries out a number of initiation tests including driving off a  Sun-Eater (too bad, Ferro Lad!) It turns out Mon-El’s fatal lead poisoning is in remission thanks to Brainy’s serum and he can permanently leave the Phantom Zone (too bad, Captain Mar-Vell!)  so he’s been playing a prank. Two months later, the Legion would meet and induct Mystery Lad, Jan Arrah the sole survivor of Trom and the future  Element Lad.

The Return of Lightning Lad:  Garth returns from the dead but his best friend Sun Boy suspects he’s lost his powers. It turns out that Garth’s twin sister Ayla has impersonated him to carry on his work as Lightning Lass- instead of, you know, just auditioning.  Perhaps her obvious boyishness prefigures her romantic relationship with Shrinking Violet?  The LSH infiltrate the Thieves World, ruled by an energy-being and Cham acquires his first pet from Antares, the yellow telepathic  blob Proty.

A footnote makes reference to Lightning Lord’s return in Superboy 172- also March 1971- but I wouldn’t glimpse him until 1974.

The Super-Sacrifice of the Legionnaires/ The Bravest Legionnaire: The Legionnaires investigate three interstellar methods to revive the seemingly-dead but the only method which will work is straight out of Frankenstein. It’s a random lottery to conduct life force via lightning bolts. Saturn Girl, Mon-El and Sun Boy all volunteer but it’s Proty who gives “his” life, out of affection for Imra. The Five-Years- Later series in the early 90s  would reveal that Garth was never revived- Proty’s personality was transferred along with his life-force. The serial also establishes some of the Legion’s major tropes:  imposters, mortality and sacrifice.

There’s no letters page, since Adventure was a vehicle for Supergirl at this point but there’s a schematic for the current Legion hq complex and four pages of Legion costumes designed by readers.  Part of the appeal of the LSH was the invitation to submit your own creations and surprisingly, fan fashions were adopted in the comics several times, most notably for Saturn Girl and Duo Damsel. My own favourites  are Karate Kid’s white judo togs  and the Star Trek dancing girl outfit for Shadow Lass.


For once, the stiff artwork of John Forte doesn’t bother me- there seem to be more outlandish aliens and monsters in this arc than usual.

We’ll be returning to the Legion in the countdown to the centennial post but next- Luthor’s ESP sister!

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One Giant Leap

The next half-dozen posts will feature DC Giant comics of the late 60s and early-to-mid 70s. Then, after the Mystery Men of September ( a Tiny Titan,  a class of merry mutants and a voodoo priest!), the previously-announced History of the Treasuries begins!

To mark the passing of  another giant, Neil Armstrong, let’s revisit the tumultuous final weeks of 1969. Abbey Road has been released,  Calley is charged for the My Lai massacre  and Apollo 12 is launched for the second manned Moon landing.

I got this comic one Sunday in Glasgow, in 1970. That in itself is surprising- living in a town with two 24-hour supermarkets, it’s easy to forget that over forty years ago, shops scarcely opened on Sundays (and Glasgow had half-day closing on Tuesdays). So, I’ve no idea why we were in Glasgow. I think it might even have been Shawlands or some other unknown territory-we rarely strayed beyond the city centre.

Anyway, it was a comic I’d seen advertised in this issue of Action, which I’d got on holiday in Girvan, in the era of the Fifth Dimension ( this psychedelic, fibreglass fun house designed by Damon Albarn’s father.)

Incidentally, that was also my fifth colour Legion story. The cover of the JLA Giant looks ominous, possibly tragic. But you shouldn’t be duped by the World’s Finest pair: Superman was always hoodwinking Lois  while Batman concealed the truth about Dick Grayson’s nocturnal activities from his maiden aunt while living in the same house.

We’ll come to the reprints shortly. What was really significant about this issue was the extras- Murphy Anderson’s two-page pin-up of the Justice Society (we’ve referred to it twice before on the ‘Optikon but this was its first printing.) This was the first time I’d ever seen  Hourman, Johnny Thunder and the Original Red Tornado. It was also the first time I’d found out Mr. Terrific’s name. I’d read precisely one half of one JLA-JSA Crisis: the Aquarius storyline in which Larry Lance died and I’d glimpsed JSA-ers, like  the grown-up Robin, on covers in ads. But this issue’s text feature listed their powers, origins and secret identities; this kind of thing  is comic book crack.

As an added bonus, the Seven Soldiers of Victory were thrown in. I only recently discovered that the Vigilante and the Shining Knight were among the very few costumed heroes who survived the end of the Golden Age. The text has a dry, academic tone quite at odds to the bombast and sly humour of Smilin’ Stan. It’s a treatise, a dissertation- nerdy kids and Warhammer fans still lap that stuff up. Of course, it’s rather odd then not to actually reprint a JLA-JSA story; that wouldn’t happen for another two years.

Compared to the melodramas unfolding in the Thomas-Colan- Buscema Bros Avengers, the JLA seems somewhat sedate. On the other hand, the assemblers have a more low-profile roster. Gardener Fox’s Avengers would probably have included Dr. Strange, Mar-vell and the Silver Surfer! These reprinted stories also predate the membership of Fox favourites  the Atom (who worked very well in the early years of the JLA)  and Hawkman, a later addition who duplicated too many members of the original line-up.  Also, I can only really  find the Amazon Princess bearable here.

The Cosmic Fun House is a hoax devised by a race of aliens trying to retrieve a space-probe: a needlessly complex plan  worthy of the Cybermen but one of my fondest memories of the League.  I like the way Fox uses real stars- Algol and Fomalhaut- in his script but I’m astonished the invisible Robot Plane can fly there. There’s also a cameo by Kathy (Batwoman) Kane, sadly overlooked as a JLA member. The deceptive alien thrills experienced by mascot Snapper and gal pal Midge remind me of the sensory “happening” on Girvan pleasure beach. The council in those days  obviously saw some potential in this way-out installation, between the helter skelter and the pedal boats.

The Last Case of the Justice League– their 12th issue from 1962- sees new villain Dr. Light recount to a stunned Snapper how he has trapped the JLAers on  a series of inescapable “sidereal” worlds (one of Fox’s favourite terms). One of my favourite aspects of the  early JLA formula is seeing them divide into smaller teams for destinations all over the world. It’s sad, however, to think of the sordid state to which the fanciful Dr. Light has been reduced.

The letters page is very interesting.  It features a lengthy piece of fan fiction:  Rand Lee’s  review of an imaginary 100th issue- Thralls of the Star-Titan – in which the JLA fight an insane superbeing named Ul’ Pir on a low-gravity moon. Lee ” predicts” Green Arrow going out in a blaze of glory ( dying?);  the membership of Batgirl ( logical- I don’t understand why O’ Neil replaced powerless Diana with the JSA’s only active female when Babs was high-profile)  and the induction of a hero called Psi aka Randall Howorth, created by an H-Bomb.  This is also quite prescient given thirty-five years of psionic powers driving X-Men plots.  There’s a sci-fi writer and spiritualist on the web by the name of Rand Lee. I wonder if it’s the same person who wrote this highly  detailed and convincing  LOC?

So, because of its unheralded trove of JSA lore, this was an iconic comic for me. Mike Sekowsky is often criticised for his figure work but his JLA was the one I knew first. He was, of course,  also the Go-To Guy for revamping super-heroines. Yesterday on Some Fantastic Place, I wrote about an imaginary compilation book, DC’s Fighting Females and neglected to make selections for reprints of Wonder Woman and Supergirl. I would go to the early 70s Sekowsky eras for both characters.

I’ve chosen the début of the ravishing witch Morgana from the middle of the Mod Wonder Woman Era. While the concept of Diana Prince , globe-trotting boutique owner and DC’s  Emma Peel, might seem kitschy and a touch Mike Myers now, it was a radical attempt to create a contemporary Wonder Woman.

Jasmine Lennard’s role model?

Similarly, I’ve chosen the first appearance of  Lex’s niece, Nastalthia “Nasty” Luthor although I was very tempted to swap for Supergirl’s monocular nemesis Starfire- more about her in September! For much more Supergirl, be back here soon to meet…The Girl with the X-Ray Mind!!

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Rumble in the Jungle

This morning post looks at another giant Marvel comic from my childhood at the very end of the 1960s.  Marvel Super-Heroes 19 ( March 1969)  features a showcase strip for Ka-Zar. I only learned  the correct pronunciation (“Kay-sar”) in the mid-70s; my own assumption ” KaaZARR” is, I think , more dramatic and naturally, evokes TARzan.

This is a month in which Steranko’s Captain America is on the stands. Colan is producing mood pieces for Sub-Mariner and Dr. Strange while Kirby’s Prisoner homage is underway for the FF, probably his last innovative storyline. But I have the sense of a rather complacent Marvel. Meanwhile DC is launching the Witching Hour; other new characters and directions are on sale- Bat Lash, Captain Action,  the Creeper, Hawk and Dove, Mod Wonder Woman ; eight or nine covers are pencilled by  Neal Adams. Infantino is marshalling his forces against the House of Ideas.  Marvel is playing it safe with bimonthly tryouts and maybe they’re right because in a year’s time, only Mod WW will still be around.

I think I got my first copy of this comic in  East Kilbride- I have a memory of flicking through it at the till in Safeway. I wasn’t very taken with it- I preferred Marvel’s group books like FF, Avengers or X-Men.

My Father, My Enemy is a collaboration by Arnold Drake and Steve Parkhouse and drawn by marvel stalwart George Tuska, with a Kirby-influenced cover by Barry Smith. Smith would succeed the King as penciller of the Lord of the Hidden Jungle in the early 70s, where he produced the Conan-esque tale of the Petrified Man: a potent blend of H Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs with Art Nouveau flourishes.

Drake, of course, was the author of Doom Patrol and Deadman, and had left DC after a pay dispute. He  wrote some issues of X-Men and the first iteration of the Kree Captain Marvel. His most interesting creation for Marvel was the Guardians of the Galaxy in the previous issue of MSH. His dialogue is self-conscious and stilted, with strange rhythms: it’s not unlike Kirby’s writing. But where Kirby is lambasted for his non-naturalistic scripting, I’m not aware of similar criticisms of Drake.  His characters proclaim and often have a strident, almost hysterical edge to their cynicism. Here, the character of  Edgar Plunder is actually more interesting than his brother.

In the late 70s and early 80s,  Parkhouse would become author of the pulp avenger Nightraven, a Tolkeinesque Black Knight and, memorably,  Dr. Who – specifically the dystopian End of the Line and the surreal epics Tides of Time and Voyager. As a British creator, he would seem a logical choice for a hero who hails from Derbyshire.

The USP of Ka-Zar is that he’s Tarzan at the Earth’s Core: a half-naked jungle man who fights dinosaurs. However, half of this story dwells on the Gothic Romance plot of two aristocratic brothers: one sophisticated and decadent, the other a noble savage. It’s a sci-fi Wuthering Heights.

This part of the story harks back to earlier appearances of Ka-Zar in Daredevil and Spider-Man. Kevin and Edgar each  possess half of a medallion, key to the destructive power of Anti-Metal, with which Edgar (aka Parnival- some weird misspelling of Percival?) wants to rule the world!!! When the action shifts to the Savage Land, Marvel’s Antarctic Pellucidar rip-off, we don’t see any dinosaurs , only two freaky tribes: one yellow-skinned, the other amphibian. The latter are ruled by an alien castaway, Quor. We’ve seen these heavies on the cover but they get short shift in the narrative: Quor gets nine or ten panels and is readily dispatched. He’s completely superfluous to the story. The best part of the tale is the ironic ending: Ka-Xar never learns that his father was a good man, not an evil one.

Apart from the hurried dispatch of the unnecessary alien, my problem with the story is that the feuding brother plot is a core element of Thor and to a lesser extent, Prof. X and the Juggernaut and the Inhumans. It’s been done to death at Marvel.  I’m also baffled as to why most Ka-Zar writers prefer homages to Tarzan’s New York Adventure. Nonetheless, MSH 19 must have been successful because a year and a half later, Ka-Zar was headlining in two comics.

The other features in this book are reprint from the 1950s.

Human Torch is a story from Young Men, a title that had an odd ring to it even when I was a kid. The Vulture is a bird-masked mastermind who plots nuclear blackmail. He also builds robot replicas of the heroes.  There’s no indication of the Torch’s android nature. Here, he and Toro have “unique body chemistry” and the Torch can absorb atomic radiation. Thanks to an acid death-trap, the Vulture makes a getaway.

Verdict By Magic: This Bill Everett tale stars  “The Wizard of the Universe, the Mastermind of the Forces of Good” aka Marvel Boy. Bob Grayson travels from the parklands of his adopted planet Uranus to investigate a stage magician, Pasha Emit Erut-Uf . The magician and his assistant are obviously  time travellers but the story is incoherent.  Aside from his pocket-size spaceship, the Silver Bullet, MB’s only power seem to be mastery of disguise. He also only wears his flamboyant Superman-outfit when travelling to Earth. It’s a very pretty story to look at,  however.

Black Knight is  another ornate, chivalric adventure by the tragic Joe Maneely.  His turbaned Merlin has an Arabian Knights quality. Here, Sir Percy- Clark Kent to the Black Knight’s Superman – saves King Arthur from some lions, a gypsy plot dreamed up by Modred.

Sub-Mariner:  Namor and his “companion” Betty Dean survive a plane crash in the Atlantic and are rescued by armoured “spacemen”. These robotic beings turn out to be Dirty Red agents,  after America’s nuclear arsenal.  Apart from being a swimmer who is superhumanly strong,  Namor doesn’t  really display any super-powers and has a swashbuckling, macho personality. Betty is a gorgeous nymphet. If this is another Bill Everett strip, its rain-lashed island setting is a moody contrast to the airy, glamorous New York in Marvel Boy.

Marvel Mailbag: four rave reviews for the Roy Thomas/Howard Purcell Black Knight showcase, including a very long but charming letter by Bettina C. Helms, who writes in a mock-Shakespearian vein. Of course, the Black Knight appeared in The Avengers  intermittently for the next couple of years but Marvel chose not to launch him in his own strip. The splendidly-named Danny English requests the revival of Timely’s heroes including Challenger, Blazing Skull and the Fin.

Interestingly, given that DC used to revile Marvel’s artwork in the early to mid-Sixties, these stories were classily illustrated. This is also a  strong  line-up:  take Captain America into consideration and Atlas has a roster of heroes  equal to that of DC. If the 50s revival had caught on, like the Barry Allen Flash a couple of years later, might we have had an Avengers movie directed by Joss Whedon and and starring Cap, Namor, Marvel Boy and the Torch?

Coming soon: Cosmic House of Fun

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Sale of the (Thirtieth) Century

Today’s post features an 80 page Giant from 1968, the all-Legion Superboy 147.  Having read about four Legion  stories by 1970,  I longed for this comic and  studied the Swan/ Adams cover for years- how mind-boggling would the clash between the Adult Legion and the Legion of Super-Villains be? And that was just an extra?!

I’ll be returning to my fascination with the Adult Legion in a future post (no pun intended).  I finally got a copy of this comic at a mart for £5.95, from Darryl at Silver Acre in Chester, nearly three decades after it had been published. It originally cost 1/9 ( about ten pence) and the cover has three big, purple stamps from ” Greenwood’s Book Exchange”; the spine is secured with brow masking tape. If I’d waited four or five years, I could have had a pristine facsimile edition published by DC  in 2003.

Let’s have a look at the table of contents:

The Origin of the Legion: E. Nelson Bridwell wrote this 8-pager depicting how the LSH was formed. Pete Costanza’s characters are all in motion but the strip looks very old-fashioned. It’s also one of the most boring origin tales in comics; we’ve dealt with it before when looking back at Secret Origins. This year, Paul Levitz, the architect of the modern LSH, took six issues to tell the same story and yet added very little to it.

The Boy With Ultra-Powers: Gary Crane , a boy with super-vision, is on a mission to expose Supey’s secret identity. This is of course the initiation test of Ultra Boy and the début of Marla, the Legion’s adult advisor. There’s no in-story explanation as to why the LSH should need such a figure nor why he wears a costume identical to Jo Nah, aside from an altered thunderbird emblem. Pete Ross is granted honorary membership in recognition of his loyalty. A classy-looking story from Curt Swan.

The Legion of Super-Traitors: In the eighth Legion story, the Legion of Super-Pets is assembled by Saturn Girl since they are immune to the mental powers of the Brain-Globes of Rambat. Bizarrely enough, Beppo the Super-Monkey “thinks” in Superbaby-talk yet Streaky the Super-Cat can form full sentences. Lightning Lad can be seen riding Krypto into battle. Sweet but very silly and drawn by Curt Swan.

Supergirl’s Three Super- Girlfriends: the fifth LSH story ever printed is a cavalcade of  wish fulfilment by Otto Binder and Jim Mooney . Lonely orphan Linda Lee longs for a confidante and finds three in the forms of Saturn Girl, Phantom Girl and Triplicate GirlSupergirl then wins membership in the LSH and receives the attentions of Brainiac 5. There’s also a cameo by Brainiac’s sinister space-monkey, Koko. Maybe Keith Giffen could devise a  Legion of Super-Villain Pets.

The Secret of the Seventh Super-hero: a busy and incoherent seventh LSH story by George Papp. In his previous appearance (the last story) Sun Boy failed his Legion audition. This time, a crook disguised as the Luminescent Legionnaire enlists Superboy’s help  to retrieve Cyclops. This robot talks like Thor and can change good people into evil ones with its ray-power. The ruse is uncovered when the crook fails to give the Legion’s secret handshake. The main plot is actually about a delinquent Clark Kent lookalike; we know he’ll be reformed when we see him enjoying school –surely the most fanciful element of the story.

The Legion of Super-Villains: Curt Swan also pencils this Superman story (the sixth LSH adventure) which creates complications that will dog the series. It introduces both an Adult Legion and an adult Legion of Super-Villains. This grouping (Lightning Lord, Saturn Queen and Cosmic King)  is a mirror image of the original  Legion trio, much as the Crime Syndicate was a counterpart of the JLA or the Frightful Four/Fantastic Four opposition. Lex Luthor teams up with the LSV in this story but super-hypnotist Saturn Queen  changes sides. All three villains were seen prior to the launch of the New 52 but CK was killed when Variable Lad sacrificed himself. This is a simple story but visually, it feels like it belongs to the Shooter/Swan Era of the mid-Sixties.

The Lore of the Legion: a text feature that recounts Legion adventures and misfortunes. Bridwell also tells us to watch out for the return of Lone Wolf as Timber Wolf and of the Adult Legion’s Ferro Man. The latter appearance never happened, unless we count the alternate reality glimpsed  in LSH 300 fifteen years later, in 1983.

Actually, I was disappointed by this comic when I read it-  but how could it have lived up to the sagas I had imagined as a kid?   However, LSH fans in 1968 were just about to read the Mordru two-parter- more about that later this year- and I think they could have been better served.

Presuming that, like the Super-Specs, there’s an unwritten rule that precludes reprints that are less than four years old, I would replace the Supergirl and Sun Boy stories  (you knew I was going to say that!). My selections are The Legion of Substitute Heroes and The Lone Wolf Legionnaire.

It strikes me that young Shooter’s two-part  Adult Legion tale dominated the mid-to-late Sixties Legion so why not showcase Polar Boy and Timber Wolf, two Legionnaires introduced as members in that story?

Check out future posts here on the ‘Optikon for more Legion Lore!

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Here Comes The Science Bit

Today’s post (and possibly the remainder of August’s entries) looks back to the Silver Age: in particular giant-sized comics that retailed at 25 cents  or two shillings ( or ten New Pence, after Decimalisation!)

Marvel Super-Heroes was formerly a reprint anthology revelling in the bombastic, Stan-tastic title, Fantasy Masterpieces. From 1968 to 1969, it also hosted a Showcase- style feature with try-outs for the Kree Captain Marvel, Phantom Eagle, Black Knight, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ka-Zar, Dr. Doom and Starhawk – or was supposed to…but that’s a story for another time.

Today, we’re going to look at the first solo adventure for that Titian -tressed tigress, Medusa of The Inhumans.

Let the Silence Shatter: this is a moody, romantic and exciting adventure by Archie Goodwin in which Medusa is lured into committing a robbery by her former allies the, er, Frightful Three. Colan draws a gorgeous Bardot-esque heroine.

Compared to Romita’s version, in Stan’s frivolous Spidey adventure that very same month, Medusa is less imperious  (and less curvaceous ). The white and blue version of her Kirby-costume, while less dramatic, is a more heroic colour-scheme.

As a small boy, I thought she was a French character because of the Parisian setting and the Wizard’s use of “Madam”! I also learned about anti-gravity from this story. With two spotlights in one month, The House of Ideas was obviously -and unusually- very keen to promote the Tonsorial Titaness, perhaps intending to build a female readership around her.

Garish recolouring of Medusa’s lilac and magenta “rig-out” from FF K-S 5, 1967

Why was Medusa not a success? Mark Gruenwald’s “Mark’s Remarks” column in the Eighties suggested Marvel’s Silver Age heroines didn’t make good audience -identification figures. Medusa has a  “feminine” power but she is literally “alien” and also a former villain. Like most Inhumans, she rarely appears without a mask, which might make her seem less trustworthy and less conventionally pretty (cf. Wonder Woman and Supergirl). Fatally for a Sixties super-heroine, she is also portrayed as subordinate to males: the crafty Wizard and the mute Black Bolt.

What if… Medusa had graduated to her own series? Logically, it would be a back-up strip in the Fantastic Four or Captain Marvel. The imperious Inhuman would have had rematches with the Frightful Four and possibly Klaw, as suggested in this issue. That would doubtlessly have led to a second team-up with the Black Panther. Meetings with other Marvel rulers- Namor and Dr. Doom- would be dramatic. Of course, the FF (and younger sister Crystal) would guest-star from time to time.

Marvel continued to search for a break-out female super-star for at least another decade: Black Widow, the Cat, Shanna the She-Devil, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman…ironically, the most successful was arguably Red Sonja, the sword-wielding barbarienne.

The other features in the comic are often as interesting as the Super-Specs from DC – and frequently better drawn.

The Black Knight:  a beautiful, ornate strip by Stan’s favourite artist, Joe Maneely. He died tragically, only 32 , falling between railway carriages. Roy Thomas pushed to have the BK strips reprinted; his fondness for the character carried into the Shining Knight in  DC’s All-Star Squadron. Here, Camelot exists during the Norman Conquest and Modred is the husband of Morgan Le Fay, rather than the son!

The Dawn of the Sub-Mariner: a gorgeous three-page diary entry about Namor’s boyhood by Bill Everett. I’d forgotten that, before they were reworked as Atlanteans, the Sub-Mariners lived at the South Pole.

The Black Marvel: an obscure Stan Lee creation, drawn by Al Gabriele, BM  has a superficial resemblance to DC’s Hourman. He is an athletic hero trained, rather anachronistically, by an Native American tribe. 100 notches on his longbow will prove him worthy of his title. His origin story also foreshadows  the formation of a ” combine of crooks…just like a big corporation”. Black Marvel is more entertaining than either Hourman or Dr. Midnight; in the 1997 Spider-Man animated series, BM was a member of a super-team called The Six American Warriors.

Captain America Turns Traitor!: a rabidly anti-Communist tale , in which an effete University professor infects Cap with the “Virus of Evil”. However, the Sentinel of Liberty is too darn American to turn Red and sees off a Russian sub.  John Romita Sr. also throws in dynamic cameos of Namor and the Human Torch.

The fervour of the story seems at odds with the Bullpen’s more utopian messages of the day. A disappointed LOC-er is anxious about  this dichotomy but the 60s equivalent to a Marvel “Armadillo” draws a helpful distinction between warmongers and patriots. There are also a couple of plaudits for the Colan Captain Marvel.

Check out upcoming posts here and on Some Fantastic Place for more swingin’ Specials from the groovy Silver Age!  Tamam Shud!


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Medium Atomic Weights are Available

In recent weeks, I’ve discussed how the drug-illuminated surrealism and satire of mid-70s Marvel left DC comics looking vapid and repetitious. No comic was more illustrative of this stasis than the Schwartz-edited JLA. As a postscript to the Super-Spectacular series, may I direct you to my Some Fantastic Place  blog and  ” The Mystery Men of 1975″. There, I outline my imaginary plans to move away from homages to Gardner Fox sci-fi  to crime and espionage stories.

I am aware that the JLA’s formula in the early Bronze Age was very successful and that it would, in any case,  come to resemble the Avengers by 1977 when Steve Englehart was scripting. If Len Wein hadn’t got the Editor-in-Chief  role at Marvel and remained JLAuthor we might have seen the following, from JLA 115 onwards : guest appearances for Zatanna and Swamp Thing; Amos Fortune; Elongated Man as Chairman and a summer Crisis reviving the Teen Titans. My dream-League would eschew some of the reverence for the Sixties,however.

Of course, a reduced League, shorn of Silver Age- favourites (the Flash, the Atom, Elongated Man and Red Tornado ) would have to be in the bailiwick of editor Boltinoff, in order to have my dream team of Haney, Aparo and the Fabulous Freak, Metamorpho. After DKR , I might not induct Talia but a war with Intergang and the League of Assassins would be the backdrop; new members might include the “switcheroo-witcheroo” Enchantress and Denny O’Neil’s Kung-Fu Fighter.

The flashpoint would be the assassination of Mod Wonder Woman, Diana Prince- the “Great Step Backward” to the traditional Amazing Amazon with her struggles against the Maniacs of Mercury et al could have been an Earth-2 book, after all.

Sornhill, nr Galston (above) where my cousin lived at West Burnhead farm

Speaking of which, the début of the militaristic Atom in Earth-2 reminded me of my first encounter with the marginalised Mighty Mite. In the very early 70s, when my cousin Jim went into the senior years at Galston’s Loudoun Academy, I was given his DC comics collection: a trove of obscure Silver Age characters like Rip Hunter, Mark Merlin and Eclipso. One of the later issues depicted the first team-up between the Atoms of Earth 1 and 2.

Great logo!

The mid-60s Atom was a futile attempt to emulate the flip voice of Stan Lee but graced with the dynamic pencils of Gil Kane. Here, Atom Al Pratt is a college lecturer who drives a sleek Atomobile. He’s a hand-to-hand fighter in the vein of Batman who helps crooks go straight.

I was particularly taken with the Thinker, whom I naturally assumed to be the Atom’s Lex Luthor or Dr. Doom. I didn’t know he was a  Jay-Flash foe and the first Golden age villain to be given a modern makeover- the next would be the Brain Wave in the All-Star Comics revival of 1976.

I noticed that , throughout the Thinker story, Al’s costume is clearly drawn with short sleeves – just like the grown-up Robin in his JLA debut- but I was appalled by my discovery of the Atom’s original luchador look in 1974. Despite this hood- and- suspenders eyesore, Pratt was Roy Thomas’  favourite hero of the Forties and subsequently starred in almost every issue of  the first two years of All-Star Squadron. This was a reversal of fortune for Al who had scarcely appeared in the Seventies.  His origin, as a kid who had been bullied for his lack of height, made him identifiable if hardly dramatic. Thomas also retro-fitted an origin for Al’s atomic punches and his second costume.

When the JSA were revived in the early Nineties, Mike Parobeck redesigned the Atom; his new look recalled a certain diminutive, Canadian scrapper from the House of Ideas.

After his death in the Zero Hour event, Pratt was succeeded in the JSA by his god-son Atom-Smasher (the former Nuklon) and by his own offspring, the tragic Damage. Any of the Atom’s solo adventures from the Forties tend to be lacklustre affairs. However, one Atom I would particularly like to see again is the Tangent version.

Another great logo!

A mid-90s imprint employing Schwartz’s gimmick of revitalising old names, this energy-projecting flier is a mash-up of Superman and Captain Atom but has a majestic super-hero look.

Come back for more Atom-action in September’s Mystery Men posts!
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The Mystery Men of August part 3

This afternoon’s post looks at a gaggle of C-list super-heroes from DC comics, who made their first appearance in August.

Ragman: co-created by Robert Kanigher and the late Joe Kubert,  Ragman was originally a Viet Nam veteran running a junkshop in  a shabby district of Gotham City. In his own short-lived, mid-70s series  Rory Regan was of Irish extraction and had the combined abilities of three men.

Since the 90s, he’s been a Jewish hero with mystical abilities and ties to the Golem legend. A member of the Shadowpact occult superhero team, in some respects, he’s DC’s version of Moon Knight.

Night Force: I think  might revisit this moody DC collaboration by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan from the early 80s. The title has been revived a couple of times; a slow-moving, if atmospheric occult thriller, I felt it lacked the malign personality of Marvel’s Dracula and drifted away from it after the first issue. However, mysterious Baron Winters, the Jonathan (Barnabas) Frid lookalike at the centre of the story, is an intriguing and perhaps familiar character. A time-traveller fond of chicanery who gathers up operatives from all walks of life? How does Wolfman think them up?

El Diablo: DC’s first El Diablo from 1970 was an uncanny vigilante in the Spanish-American West: Zorro crossed with the Thorn. The second version, by Gerard Jones and the tragic cartoonist Mike Parobeck in 1989, was a roots-level Latino mystery man by night and councillor for Dos Rios by day. As a boxer and athlete, El Diablo II was the Daredevil of South Texas but refused membership of the “Bwah-ha-ha” Justice League. The plots about Border politics, drugs and money were a bit too mundane for the time but I’d like to see Maleev draw Sandoval’s adventures now.

Aztek: a mid-90s meta-commentary on  super-heroes from Mark Millar and Grant Morrison.  Aztek is a Meso-American “Ultimate Man” designed to battle a Shadow God.  The series was a commercial failure; I found Millar’s cynicism pervaded  Morrison’s critique of ultraviolence and both men’s penchant for sadism and horror shot through the stories. Aztek, quite unbelievably, was revealed to be a pawn of Lex Luthor and his brief and ineffectual  career ended with his sacrifice to destroy the god-machine Mageddon. The Noh-Varr of the Justice League, I think.

L-R:  Indigo, Grace, Thunder

Grace Choi, Indigo, Thunder: three female members of Speedy‘s Outsiders ( I can’t type the name Arsenal without thinking of Eric Morecambe). This 2003 team, which wasn’t originally related to Batman’s group but spun out of the Titans,  also featured Nightwing (Dick Grayson) Jade  from Infinity Inc. and Metamorpho ( aka Shift, a nondescript 90s -style sobriquet) . Like Bendis’s New Avengers a couple of years later, this was a “proactive”, urban noir team- the direction in which I’d take the Justice League, if I wrote it!

Grace was a bisexual nightclub bouncer and former child prostitute (comics!). She was also a member of the Egyptian tribe of Amazons, despite her Asian ethnicity (comics!)

Indigo was a sweet, naive android revealed to be the malevolent Brainiac 8. Think “what if Jocasta went bad?”

Thunder is the elder daughter of Black Lightning and could increase her own density, like the Vision. She had a lesbian relationship with Grace. Of these three, Thunder seems the most viable as an ongoing character but as far as I know, she isn’t around in the New 52.

Coming soon:  Solomon Grundy vs. the JSA

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