Surf’s Up

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Forty years ago, Marvel UK added two more titles to its stable. I was already collecting Mighty World of Marvel, Spider-Man Comics Weekly, The Avengers and Planet of the Apes. (Dracula Lives was too gloomy and possibly-subtly- parentally banned.)

I was fairly keen to read The Super -Heroes, which featured the Silver Surfer’s solo adventures and the circus-flavoured exploits of the X-Men ( although I had some 60s Fantastic reprints, several US Marvel Super Heroes reprints and even their origin in MWOM). I was far more excited by Savage Sword of Conan, with Barry Smith’s blend of Kirby influences and Art Nouveau.

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I had read perhaps seven US Conan comics at that point and the b/w reprint in the 1972 Fleetway “Marvel” annual. The most recent had been bought in the cafe in Stonehouse Hospital in February 1974, a whole year before. I was wild about the Cimmerian’s sorcerous exploits and curious about the King Kull back-up. Instead of adding these titles to my weekly order in the Cringan’s general store in Chapleton, my brother and I craftily suggested we get them from Craig’s newsagent in Strathaven; Jonathan would (ostensibly) collect The Super- Heroes. Surprisingly, our parents complied.

* https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/i-got-dem-ol-kozmic-blues-again-mama/

From the off, however, there seemed to be distribution problems with the new weeklies. I missed issues 3,5 and 7 of SSOC and 2,3 and 5 of TSH. I remember reading issue 4 in Ayr, between the High Street and the Sandgate, probably at the Easter weekend: again, the X-Men episode was one I had read in colour.

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Where SSOC only lasted a mere 17 weeks (thanks, Kid for the arithmetic) before merging, bizarrely, with The Avengers,  The Super-Heroes achived an eclectic mix of sci-fi, super heroes and heroic fantasy. I’ve often blogged about Conan before- and will again, I expect- so let’s focus on the fortunes of the other comic…

I had little experience of the Surfer stories: one issue of TV21 in its dying days and only three issues of his original US mag. The first of those was the giant-sized third issue with the infernal debut of Mephisto; the second featuring the Abomination and thirdly, before I could mistake it for a DC “Weird” title, with SHIELD. Although the Buscerma art is beautiful, the melancholy, moping Surfer pleased me less than the merry mutants. I had never seen their first encounters with Namor, the Stranger, the Juggernaut and the Sentinels. I also liked the team’s badinage and their malt shoppe antics. As a little kid, I was fascinated by the idea of other mutants joining the school.

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The third TSH feature, Doc Savage reprints from his b/w magazine, began in August 1975. This must have been to tie into the George Pal movie.

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I had also glimpsed this paperback on sale at the ferry terminal in Rothesay that sizzling summer, in the same week I first read the debut of Justice Inc., DC’s answer to the pulp avenger. Oddly, Doc’s short-lived 1972 colour monthly stories went unreprinted. I like the Moench “Silver Ziggurat” story more now than then but, of course, now I see the Dr. Moreau riff.

The next change in the line-up took place in October 1975 in the shadow of the novelty of the “landscape” Titans weekly. The Surfer series, having coming to an end ( and with the abortive Kirby Savage Surfer reboot printed out of order) replacements were required.

2276210-sh31The Cat: miscoloured on three covers

I must have seen some Giant Man stories in Terrific, before I could read, as I had a fond recollection of the Human Top. Also, some time in the early 70s, visiting my mum’s elderly Aunt Anna in Lesmhagow, I had read this Alan Class comic:

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Sadly, like the preceding Ant-Man stories, the adventures of the Big Man and the Little Lady are not very memorable.

Claws of the Cat was, of course, one of Stan’s early attempts to create a feminist/Relevance title for the gals, with female creators (in the main; the Wally Wood inks in the first issue are classy but domineering). Greer Grant Nelson is a sympathetic heroine but her whole schtick is derivatively “Catwoman”. The art of this short-lived 1972 series became more Underground in style and amateurish (to my sensibilities at least.)  I did subsequently develop quite a fondness for the legacy character Hellcat in the Defenders however.

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The Scarecrow- a riff on the sensational Adventure Comics Spectre series- appeared at the year’s end. It must have been printed virtually simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. It doesn’t make very much sense and it’s more silly than sinister. The X-Men moved to The Titans at this time.

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January 1976 was the last hurrah for The Super-Heroes.  A reprint run of The Thing solo stories from Marvel Feature and Marvel Two-In-One began that new year. The Starlin and Kane art in those early adventures was appealing and evoked memories of the first months of MWOM.

The weekly also featured the headshop barbarism of Bloodstone, the short-lived Hyborian monster hunter who had debuted in the US only three months earlier. The final feature in the series was the 1968 MSH try-out for the Black Knight, gorgeously pencilled by  Howard Purcell (co-creator of Sargon the Sorceror). A very early sword and sorcery tale from Roy Thomas and sadly the Knight didn’t, er, take off.

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These WERE the Super-Heroes

And that was the end of the weekly. In mid-February 1976, barely a year old, it merged with Spider Man Comics Weekly to form a second landscape title, Super Spider-Man with the Super-Heroes. What an unwieldy title. Of couse, that weekly would absorb its “parent”, The Titans by year’s end and the landscape format would vanish altogether in July 1977. Nevertheless, I’m afraid I didn’t miss TSH all that much.

2242151-shm_2_1 Debbie Harry IS Power Girl!

In September, 1980, London Editions revived the Super Heroes brand, as it were, with the glossy DC reprint magazine. The Alan Craddock cover signalled the cross-pollination of DC comics and British creators.

Meanwhile, that same month, I finally read the lead story of SSOC (UK) 7 in a b/w Conan Pocket Book– and a few weeks later, Valour Weekly launched, picking up the psuedo-African adventures of Conan after Belit’s death. But that is another story entirely…

Coming soon: The Power of Shazam; Apeslayer; Black Goliath

All images presumed copyright of their respective owners

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Heck-a-Slammin’

Now, in later life, I often find I appreciate comics artists for whom I had little time as a child. Steve Ditko is one: the stunning psychedelic landscapes and the bizarre characters I once found wilfully obscure or grotesque now fascinate me.

Similarly, the dynamic designs -and the glamorous women- pencilled by Don Heck, I now realise, shaped my childhood  fascination with The Mighty Avengers:

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Heck was an artist whose work was overshadowed and often -shamefully- reviled in the Perez/Byrne/Giffen fan- favourite days of the early 80s.

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Inspired by the Twomorrows book, Don Heck: A Work of Art, I have listed just a few of my favourite Don Heck stories from the Big Two.

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One sunny afternoon in the very early seventies, I found the remnant of a mouldering, forgotten copy of Sixties British weeklyTerrific in my dad’s garage. Only the mouse-eaten pages of this dramatic Swordsman saga remained ( and a fragment of a Bill Everett/Dr. Strange- the origin of the Ancient One.)

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My introduction to the sleek mystique of the Black Widow, I think came in Marvel’s Greatest Comics 23, in 1969. These late Sixties reprint collections were  a fantastic way to get a primer of the nascent Marvel Universe.

Here, Madame Natasha gets her spider-gimmicks and fishnet costume from her Soviet paymasters. Like the grey, furry Beast later, however, I found it hard to think of the catsuited redhead of Amazing Adventures as the same person.

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Critics ofHeck’s art would do well to peruse the X-Men story from  January 1970 which introduced the solar samurai, Sunfire. Here, Tom Palmer’s inks combine with Heck’s pencils to seamlessly continue the mood of the Adams/Palmer era. The tragic, embittered Japanese mutant never really caught on but the story is exciting and has a Mod design sense.

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Another memorable design appears in 1978’s Steel, The Indestructible Man. This patriotic DC blend of Iron Man and Capatain America is pitted in issue 2 against a monstrous sci-fi villain who reminds me a little of Heck’s Metazoid:

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Heck’s skill at defining character is evident in 1982’s Justice League 203, where the villainous Royal Flush Gang are given tragic and squalid back stories. (The failed Broadway actress who becomes Queen is clearly Elizabeth Taylor!)

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I could pick so many others : the first Living Laser story;Ramrod and the Changers from Iron Man; the accursed and haunted Elianne Turac in Giant-Size Dracula.  But the runners-up on this list comprise:

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The Ultroids story that returned Wanda and Pietro to the Avengers. Dig that crazy Ultrana!

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The combination of  interplanetary battles and hi-tech espionage featured in the groovy Captain Marvel 10 from 1969 (And like the Beast and Black Widow,  Mar-vell would undergo an complete revamp shortly. Silver Age DC had done this of course with Flash, Green Lantern and the Atom- but at Marvel, they were still the same person!)

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and from DC’s 80s renaissance, the Teen Titans/Dr. Cyber story from Wonder Woman in 1982.

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A Work of Art disproves the popular comics myth that Heck’s art could cost a comic its readership. In fact, his work boosted sales, according to the stats printed in the book.

Coming soon: The Savage Sword at Forty

 

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners