Benson and Edgy

Yesterday’s post on Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan neglected to point out how long the series actually ran for. Nearly a decade elapsed between my last UK issue and returning to the title when Roy Thomas did in the early 90s. In fact, it survived until 1995- over twenty years!


It’s a staggering 41 years since Carmine Infantino attempted to increase DC’s market share with sixteen new titles. One of the few first issues of that raft of titles that I ever read was Justice Inc. I got it in Rothesay that sunny summer, encouraged by the vibrant Kubert cover and  a glimpse in the old ferry terminal of Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life on a spinner rack.

Panther-4160-a Farmer Doc Savage His Apocalyptic Life

Despite the US nostalgia craze that birthed the Wonder Woman tv series and Reeve’s Superman, not to mention George Pal’s campy Doc Savage movie, the majority of pulp fantasy heroes didn’t take off in comics. Paul Levitz famously said that once DC jumped on a trend, it was a signal that it was over.

Certainly, Karate Kid, Kung Fu Fighter Beowulf and Stalker didn’t last terribly long and looked like shameless attempts to mimic Marvel  leftovers from the earlier part of the decade.  In fact, Marvel’s colour Doc Savage series had ended after nearly a year in the dying days of ’73, (although the b/w magazine, cross-promoting the movie, was a second attempt to find a market.)

I didn’t even buy that mock-biography of Doc in Rothesay- I chose a Star Trek paperback instead, although my brother bought another printing in the early 80s.


Conan is the only 30s character who bucked the trend. Actually, the Cimmerian was on fire in ’75, if the launch of Kull and the Barbarians is any indication.

Justice Inc. 1 is the brutal story of a globetrotting adventurer, whose albino features become malleable after the shock of the murder of his wife and child . Benson is more believable than the lofty, utopian Doc Savage but his ally, Smitty, seems a combination of the loquacious Johnny and the giant Renny. He also reminds me of Marvel’s Beast, Hank McCoy.


The second issue continues with the mannered tough-guy scripting of Denny O’Neil but King Kirby replaces Al McWilliams’ gritty realism. “The Skywalker” concerns a sonic weapon and a process which renders metal invisible. I wonder if George Lucas read it?

This is the only JI comic I didn’t own in the 70s. It introduces two new operatives , Rosabel and Josh; the latter’s “dumb darkie act” is jarring to modern sensibilities. In the text page, assistant editor Allan Asherman speculates on “Death Wish” star, Charles Bronson, playing a movie version of Benson. The comic feels very much in tune with the zeitgeist: a Kirby version of the Punisher or the Spectre as the villain is undone by his own weapon and plunges to his death.


The third issue, “The Monster Bug” which I might have bought in East Kilbride, utilises Col. Sodom, a villain from an O’Neil/ Robbins Shadow story.

It also introduces a fourth operative, chemist Fergus McMurdie, whose wife is transformed into a monster by the Colonel’s bacteriological weapon. Asherman suggested last issue he could be played on screen by “any tall performer with a working knowledge of the dialect”… First Meenister?!

There is an in-joke where Benson disguises himself as “Allan Ash” at an automobile show. Sodom is, of course,  transformed by the bug and plunges to his death, just like the Skywalker. On the letters page,  we learn tha,t while the Avenger was created by the originators of the Shadow and Savage, a Paul Ernst wrote the books.


“Slay Ride In the Sky”, the final issue in the series and one I bought in Strathaven, concerns an insurance scam by the owner of a failing airline. He uses radio-controlled gulls (!) loaded with explosives to destroy his planes.  The villain’s execution of any survivors brings down the wrath of the Avenger upon him. In the climactic biplane duel, Jason Comb- did you guess?-  falls to his death since he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.  In those days, I would have preferred a Kirby cover but I prefer  Kubert now.

So, why did the dogged and thrilling Avenger fail? Perhaps because of the repetition in the stories but, really, I wonder if the DC audience for Kirby’s art might have diminished as early as 1973. Perhaps that dynamic Marvel “look” had fallen out of favour, replaced by the naturalism of artists like Chaykin , whose own 1975 pulp homage for Atlas, the Scorpion, was reworked at Marvel as Dominic Fortune.

Or perhaps DC lost its nerve, in the battle for the marketplace. Certainly, the company had seemed more experimental and original  in the very early 70s. Compare the Relevancy issues of Green Lantern/Green Arrow, the Fourth World and the blackly humorous “Mystery” comics  with later fare like Richard Dragon, Claw and the Freedom Fighters. But critical acclaim didn’t translate into longevity.

I suspect, in the end,  the pulps just seemed too old-fashioned. “Heroic Fantasy” heroes could employ broadswords and laser beams ( as DC’s Warlord and Starfire demonstrated) and soon Marvel would be saved from financial disaster by Star Wars.

As you may know, DC also  produced a JI  miniseries in 1989 with art by Kyle Baker, possibly after the response to Chaykin’s yuppie revision of the Shadow. I still prefer the icy Avenger to the pure-hearted Doc and if I were pitching a tv series to cash in on Marvel’s Agent Carter, I would cast an eye on Justice Inc.

Coming soon: Blackmark

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A Can of Worms

Last night, on one of those obscure Sky Channels ( Information TV ), I stumbled across White Zombie, a 30s Lugosi shocker which I probably last saw in 1978. It surprised me to think Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard might well have seen it, or Karloff’s Mummy; they seem right up his street. It’s easy to think of Howard as an antiquated figure, with his bloody pulp tales of lost cities and weird magic. Yet he lived through the Jazz Age with its Art Deco and automobiles.

So, in honour of the fact that I bought the first Marvel Conan Treasury in Blackpool, 35 years ago this week, here is a post on REH’s Conan and his Pictish hero. Bran Mak Morn.

I’ve just read two library editions of Conan from Orion Books. They feature stories which would be adapted in the Giant Size Conan and Savage Sword series: the tales of kingship and betrayal, mostly, but also some of the more extreme and sadistic stories, like The Slithering Shadow and Pool of the Black One.

I only read four issues of the US SSOC until moving on to the UK reprints in the very late Seventies. My second experience of the magazine was issue 17, which we’ll come to below.

The People of the Black Circle is a three-part serial set in REH’s versions of India. ( I think). It’s inspired by Talbot Mundy’s colonial, mystical adventures and the adaptation by Thomas, Buscema and Alcala is exactly how I always picture the Savage Sword version of Conan.

A secret order of magicians enchant the king of Vendhya and his sister, the Devi Yasmina, seeks revenge with the aid of Conan, who has joined the hillmen of what appears to be Afghanistan. The subplaot features the revolt of the seers’ acolyte Khemsa and his lover, Yasmina’s maid.

SSOC 16 also reprints the article, A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career, with new (old) illustrations from Weird Tales, last seen in Marvel’s Savage Tales. There is a portfolio of drawings of Conan, Belit, Red Sonja and Kull and oddly, a random page of postures and poses by a Planet of the Apes chimp- actor!

The second strip is the fifth chapter of Walt Simonson’s dense, stlylised adaptation of REH’s Hyborian Age essay, which is a chronicle of bloodshed and ruin.

The third strip is Worms of the Earth part one, by Thomas, Barry Smith and Tim Conrad. A violent, gloomy and doom-laden revenge story of the Roman occupation of  in Britain, it opens with a crucifixion scene. Marvel was very big on crucifixions in the mid-70s. Something to do with Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, perhaps.


The story has a real historical setting: Eboracum, or York as we know it and the hero is Bran Mak Morn ( or Brian McMorrow, as I like to think of him). In the Conan stories, the Picts are essentially Fenimore Cooper’s Mohicans, murderous slayers of frontiersmen. Here, they resemble the people who fortified the Moray Coast. The art for this story is gorgeous and moody but people tend to be brutish or ugly- very off-model for Marvel.

SSOC 17, from February 1977, was my second issue and even in those days of Weetabix Dr Who promotions  and Super Spider-Man and the Titans, I was aware of the sexuality shimmering through its pages. There are several images of female and male torsos and hindquarters in both magazines, which made them feel tremendously racy.

In the second chapter of the Conan story, we see more instances of the “oriental” powers of hypnotism and Yasmina is kidnapped by the Black Seers of Yimsha. ( Of course, in the final installment, Conan rescues her after some nasty reincarnation experiences)

The final chapter of Simonson’s stylish Hyborian Age is printed and a review of Howard’s Spanish Main piracy stories. Fred Blosser probably inspires Thomas here to adapt Black Vulmea’s Vengance for the colour Conan Super Special of 1977.

Black Stone

The second part of the Pictish tale opens with a stunning double page fenland shot. A horrible saga of tyranny and revenge climaxes as the Pictish king makes a dreadful bargain with the subhuman inhabitants of Dagon’s Barrow. It’s an unsettling horror story, which was reprinted in colour in 2000 and its subhumans also resemble the People of the Dark from the 1975 Conan story by Alex Nino.

The Lovecraftian elements and those from Arthur Machen are, unfortunately, linked to 30s notions of degeneracy and miscegenation. Nonetheless, there is an eerie atmosphere at Burghead and its ceremonial well- REH evokes that mood very well.


As I said, I followed the UK version of SSOC intermittently up until February 1981, when my obsession with sword and sorcery sputtered out, eventually. Every summer recently, however, it has flared back into life temporarily. For future posts, I’m thinking of revsiting Gil Kane’s Blackmark and Lin Carter’s Kylix stories. I also plan to look at the O’Neil/Kirby adventures of another 30s hero, the Avenger.

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I Shall Shed My Light Over Dark Evil

Lynda Carter’s portrayal of Wonder Woman on the Horror Channel repeats has such charm and innocence that I have warmed to the character in a way I hadn’t before. This is especially true of the WWII episodes, which were never shown in my area in the 70s, to my knowledge.

Wonder Woman is one of several comics icons, completely emblematic of their times, whose stories I read but never really connected with. Iron Man is another. So is Green Lantern. I probably owned three or four GL comics as a kid, including the infamous O’Neil/Adams issue below.


The only time I ever really followed the character was in the 80s in the Wolfman/Englehart/Staton era. Today’s post looks at the facsmile 1963 Giant Green Lantern Annual which captures the Silver Age space cop at the height of his success.


Battle of the Power Rings: after foiling a freight robbery, Hal finds he’s losing power thanks to Sinestro. The “satanic-faced foe” impersonates Hal at a meeting of Green Lanterns on the planet Yquem. When Hal escapes Sinestro’s yellow cage  in his underwear, the pair have a power ring duel. Sinestro is exiled by the Guardians to orbit the universe in a green capsule for 18 billion years!

This is a hugely imaginative, even mystical, tale. The Packer Gang aren’t worthy of Hal’s interest – and petty crime seems a silly distraction in the series- but the exotic mythos of Green Lantern is something else again. We are introduced to a number of the bizarre Corps members: the insectoid Xaos, the crystalline Barrio; the piscine Aeros; and Green Lantern T41A- a monocular being with tentacles and six legs. Kane’s designs are fanciful and mould-breaking.

Zero Hour in the Silent City: by contrast, a humdrum short about the limitations of the Power Ring. Pieface is established as GL’s secret biographer. Safecrackers using a supersonic drill, which somehow cancels other sounds, accounts for the title. Broome obviously liked it and reworks it three issues later for “Zero Hour in Rocket City”.

Duel of the Super Heroes: This is the “first in a proposed series” for the “dynamic duo”(!) Green Lantern and Flash. While we see the glamorous  lifestyle of early-60s Californians, as Iris West interviews Hal Jordan, Green Lantern has fallen under the domination of the Spectrans. These aliens inhabit a world “beyond the speed of light”.

Flash and GL clash and the Scarlet Speedster, having become top-heavy (as per the cover image), is then subjected to a Spectran mind-probe ( or “computo-analyser”). The two heroes foil the alien plan to duplicate their powers and invade, then reveal their identities to each other. It’s a rather hokey but efficient way of teaming up National’s New Frontier answer to Batman and Superman.

Special features include “Green Lantern Cover Classics” and How I Draw Green Lantern: a three-page masterclass by Gil Kane, with sketches of GL’s supporting cast.

49-03-green lantern 37

Too Many Suspects: from GL April 1949, a gutsy tale of the Golden Age/ Earth 2 GL, Alan Scott. Crook Del Lupin gets people to confess to his crimes via hypnosis but falls to his death at the climax ( this is becoming something of a motif at the ‘Optikon, with the recent JSA/Key story and the upcoming Justice Inc. posts!)

We see Doiby Dickles’ green rocket distress signal but curiously, apart from flight, Alan’s ring doesn’t exhibit any other properties. This Alex Toth strip is fabulously visual and virtually the best thing in the comic. It was also reprinted in the comic reviewed here-

Secret Life of Star Saphire: Carol Ferris is abducted by the immortal alien Zamorans (amazons) who transform her into their queen, Star Sapphire. She hunts Green Lantern with her powers of flight, teleportation and mind-over-matter. However, since she actually wants to be overcome by the hero during her art gallery thefts, the Zamarons elect to strip her of her powers and memories.

This is a giddy tale of 60s gender politics, with a touch of Gene Roddenberry. “Men are a distinctly inferior species!” “I’m defeated. How terrible…no! How wonderful!”The advanced musical powers of the Zamarons costume-creating barrel organ also anticipates Star Trek.


Star Sapphire was a Kanigher/Elias Flash villainess from the very late 40s. an invader from another dimension, she also had contempt for males. This almost-dominatrix element was present in my introduction to the split personality Carol Ferris- SS.

Sapphire Carol

Carol/SS has a much stronger visual than her 40s counterpart and would become a bigger player in the 70s Secret Society of Super-Villains. In the 80s, Englehart would make the connection between the Guardians and the Zamarons and SS would be revamped as a more strident and venomous opponent. Jim Owsley would have her murder GL Katma Tui in a horrible storyline in the late 80s Action Comics Weekly. If there had been a sequel to the GL movie, I imagine Star Sapphire might have teamed up with Mark Strong’s Sinestro.

While this comic was designed to evoke the early 60s, 1998 actually seems more historical: Lost in Space! Star Trek Insurrection!

I am struck by the fact that Green Lantern has a great design, referencing both the blackness of space and the green of oxygenated life. The actor Nathan Filion captures him well in animation: a laconic space cowboy. Hal Jordan is Han Solo. And yet so dull in his stories. A toy salesman. A trucker. An insurance salesman. And the villains! The Tattooed Man. Black Hand.


Replacements for Hal Jordan have had limited success too. Architect John Stweart was reimagined as a marine and a marksman and freighted with tragedy. Recent creation Arab-American Simon Baz was a suspected terrorist and “edgy”90s  imagery was grafted on to the character. Only the 90s Lantern, Latino comics artist Kyle Rayner, ever worked for me.

I wonder if I would have liked GL more if Jim Starlin had served as writer and penciller on the title. His cosmic archetypes of Chaos and Death and his characters’ psychedelic exploits might have been more appealing to me.



The Emerald Gladiator has, nonetheless, been a hugely successful lead for DC in the last decade and was awarded his own movie in 2011. Although Ryan Reynolds’ tediously contemporary “goofy man-boy” portrayal is out of kilter with suave test pilot Hal Jordan, the film honestly improves with age.

Coming soon:Robert E. Howard and Bran Mak Morn

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Captain Britain’s New York Adventure

In the last post, I bemoaned the poor showing of Captain Britain in his 1978 Marvel Team-Up with Spider-Man.  The Lion of London’s US launch saw him struggle to rescue romantic interest Courtney Ross (until Spider-Man lent a hand) and ignominiously kidnapped in a tricked-out garbage truck. This was the hero who faced the Red Skull, won Captain America’s respect and saved PM Jim Callaghan! What an injustice!


How then to redeem Cappy in the eyes of Marvelites on both sides of the pond? Just imagine an arc of adventures- an alternative MTU 67-69 by Claremont and Byrne. It would cost us the Tigra, Man-Thing and Havok stories but Tigra doesn’t come out of that Kraven rematch well and- it’s only an Imaginary Story. Aren’t they all…?

If Brian were studying abroad, surely he doesn’t just go home at the end of the Murderworld story, even if Courtney does? Let’s imagine his stay is intended to be a month long. But in Marvel style and emulating Peter Parker, too much super -heroing costs him his place on the program and he has to return early.

How to return Courtney safely home to London? Spidey’s pal Johnny Storm has access to long-range vehicles like the Pogo Plane. While he’s gallantly accompanying Courtney, Spidey and Cappy play a game of poker with the Thing and witness the return of the Frightful Four in “Cataracts and Hurricanoes!”


The Trapster had a breakdown after encountering Ghost Rider and Spidey in MTU 58 (1977), which gives him motivation for revenge. Maybe the wily Wizard finds a replacement member in Albert Potter, aka Hurricane. This mad meteorologist was, of course ,Cappy’s second costumed villain and his powers would be dangerous combined with Sandman; a powerful anatagonist defines a superhero. CB also gets to save both Spidey and Bashful Benjy!


Reed Richards, studying the Star Sceptre, notes that it can transform into the telescoping quarterstaff. Maybe it reverts to that form due to tampering by the Wizard? In any case, I don’t like the sceptre and prefer the pole-vaulting Captain.

Meanwhile…another shadowy figure is intrigued by Cappy’s mystical amulet: Dean Beatty aka the Maha Yogi/the Warlock /the Mad Merlin! It transpires that the amulet resonates on a similar magickal frequency to his “Jewel of Jeopardy” and he is eager to combine the two talismans.


During a Shakespeare in the Park performance, where Parker is a little jealous of MJ’s interest in “the Limey”, the Warlock makes his move in “Night’s Black Agents!” But while the villain’s mutant powers trigger Xavier’s Cerebro, it is Cappy’s amulet that attracts the attention of Dr. Strange.

Bringing the jewel and the amulet together opens a Sa’arpool to the dimension of the N’garai. Unfortunately for the Warlock, that gateway is his own body, which appears as a man-shaped tear in reality, through which the demons swarm.


In the final episode, “Hell is Empty and All the Devils are Here” by Claremont and guest-penciller Michael Golden, Strange and Spidey have to close the gateway and restore the Warlock. Meanwhile, Cappy rescues MJ from the demon horde with the assistance of his tarot-wielding relative, the ageless Lady Daemon.

Lady daemon

The trilogy ends with Peter and Brian learning each other’s secret identity; a cameo by Storm, Colossus and Nightcrawler and an ominous card reading from Cappy’s great-aunt Megan Daemon…


So, that’s my plan to bolster CB’s reputation in the late 70s Marvel Universe. By apeing the story arcs in MTU 82-85 or MTIO 30-33, I get to  restore his original weaponry; transplant his most recognisable foe; and raise his game generally, while dropping some Shakespearian references, for that authentic Claremont tone.


The character has no character to speak of, in the original two-parter. This is a young man who is a University student but also comes from a background of privilege. His sister is a model and his brother, a racing driver. His family probably has an acquaintance with other Marvel British aristos like the Plunders, the Garretts, the Phyffes and the Falsworths.

For the nebbish Parker, this would be like having Prince William as a roommate. Also, while Braddock has affected a pipe, we also know he likes a drink. I can see the pair escorting Mary Jane Watson to Greenwich Village and the Marvel equivalent of Chumley’s ( now sadly closed in reality but I visited it in the mid-90s). Parker might be a little envious of his glamorous English guest- and Brian might be a little uncool about his inherited wealth.


I think the two super-heroes would also be wild for a tour round the lab facilities of the Baxter Building, from which the Thing would find it difficult to distract them:


 I  wanted to tie Cappy to the magickal fringes of the MU so he contrasts more with other “street level” heroes like Spidey and DD. In doing so, by establishing family ties with Lady Daemon, I’ve cheated somewhat. She won’t actually appear until Bizarre Adventures in 1981, but…it’s an Imaginary Story. Aren’t they all?

Coming soon: Green Lantern, the Avenger and Worms of the Earth

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London’s Brilliant

After discovering yesterday’s post was a duplicate of one from three years earlier- like  a doubler in a Marvel Grab Bag- I hope I’m not repeating myself today. Here is another summer special blog post:


The Captain Britain Summer Special #2 appeared in May 1981 and reprints the Marvel Team Up storyline of 1978: the last 70s script about the Lion of London by Cappy’s creator Chris Claremont. As we can see, it’s advertised as the last chance to see the original ( and the best) incarnation of the UK’s very own super-hero, created in America by Americans who’d visited here briefly but kind of liked it. This was a chance for British Marvelites to read again the two-parter that launched CB in the US. I had seen it already in the Spider-Man/CB weekly title and wouldn’t have picked this up at the time- nor its predecessor, the year before. It’s striking because it unfortunately fails to make a case for Cappy as a character with any flair or longevity but does so, quite accidentally, for the villain. “Introducing Captain Britain”: Dean Beatty introduces foreign exchange student Brian Braddock to Peter Parker. Meanwhile, the Mafia- er, Maggia, engage the assassin Arcade to kill Brian- one of “two score” murders they have planned of people- presumably men- who might be Captain Britain! Cappy and Spidey get into a Marvel Misunderstanding Fight. Brian recounts his origin with its mystical Celtic overtones in four pages. Then the pair are kidnapped by Arcade’s souped-up garbage truck. “Murderworld”: seeing Arcade clearly for the first time, it’s possible that Byrne has modelled him on Malcolm McDowell. His penchant for playful deathtraps owes something to Superman’s Toyman, to the films Westworld and Futureworld and to tv’s Avengers. It’s the imagery of that series, rather than Batman, which shapes Murderworld. The heroes are shot around a giant pinball table and separated, encountering cyborg cowboys and distorted fun house mirror reflections. They work together to rescue Courtney Ross- who is a mere hostage with no dialogue or even back story. Escaping into the sewers, they are picked up by long-standing MTU cop character, Jean DeWolff. She wraps up the Maggia subplot with some lengthy exposition. Cappy is very bland here and not terribly effective. Losing the visually interesting quarterstaff (and the quirky, pole-vaulting locomotion) for the Star Sceptre was bad enough. Here, he has a stereotypical Marvel hero interior monologue with no real personality. There’s no cultural clash, nor even any contrast of his magical empowerment with Parker’s scientific background. Presumably, Brian’s exchange visit ends abruptly as he returns home with Courtney. Unfortunately,  he doesn’t get to mix with any of Claremont’s other favourite New Yorkers, like the FF or Dr. Strange – or out-of-town students, the X-Men. Meanwhile, Arcade rebuilds Murderworld for a rematch. Ironically much more successful than CB, he will later take on those X-Men, ally himself with Dr. Doom and tangle again with Brian and Excalibur. More recently, he killed a troupe of young heroes in the Battle Royale/Hunger Games inspired series, Avengers Arena. The rest of the special is devoted to some episodes of the Black Knight serial from the recent (79-80) Hulk Weekly. This strip, by Steve Parkhouse ( who wrote some of my favourite Dr Who stories, “End of the Line” and “The Tides of Time”) and artist John Stokes, has aged really well. The Knight and Cappy journey to the Tolkienesque “Otherworld” to the tomb of King Arthur, encountering giant stone guardians and the dragon Kharad Dur. Arthur is resurrected and sends Cappy and the elf Jackdaw to Earth, in time for his revival in Marvel Superheroes in the autumn of 1981. Sadly, CB comes off as second best and unoriginal, in the context of the look and feel of the Black Knight strip. I was never a fan of the Davis guardsman costume either- too similar to Canada’s Guardian.


There is an unresolved mystery about the MTU/Maggia subplot. In part one, we see a mystery woman listening in with a shotgun mike to the Arcade deal. In part two, DeWolff talks about a “lone wolf…(doing a ) Punisher-style number on the Commission…shot ’em to pieces”. Who was this “lone wolf”?

We can dismiss the theory that she’s Spider-Woman’s pal, Sabrian Morrell. A San Francisco cop and Yakuza member (!), she hadn’t been created in 1978. There is some fannish debate that she’s Kate Fraser. the psychic policewoman in early Claremont/Trimpe/Heck Dracula and CB stories. Given her psychometric powers cause her great anguish reliving the deaths of others, I think that’s unlikely.


Her methods don’t resemble the Black Widow, another Claremont favourite. I suspected Bobbi Morse, Marvel’s 1976 Huntress ( and later Mockingbird) but unless the Maggia had ties to SHIELD I think that avenue unlikely, too. No, the answer is to be found in Claremont’s CB stories. I think she’s Vixen.


Alan Moore, Alan Davis and Claremont  introduced and utilised the Thatcher-ish, campy crime boss Vixen in the 80s. But my suspicion is that this “lone wolf” was Claremont’s original 70s conception of Vixen, and protecting CB for her own nefarious purposes.

I think it’s a great shame that CB has never been able to sustain a title- aside from the 2008-09 Paul Cornell series- while contemporaries like the equally-derivative Nova are perpetually revived.  The uninspired, maskless costumes of the last twenty years and the angry drunk characterisation of early Excalibur has been corrosive.  I recently saw Brian Bendis as Tony Stark ( of all people!) ridicule the character in Guardians/Galaxy dialogue. I still hope, however, that Al Ewing might redeem Cappy in one of his Marvel titles. Coming soon: Green Lantern and the Savage Sword of Conan All images presumed copyright of their respective owners

Big Society

NB: To my surprise, I actually blogged about the comic below already- THREE years ago.!( I think I wrote better then but I’m not pulling the post. It’s interesting to see how my opinions have changed, somewhat-

Summer is the time for specials and few comics were such good value as the 100-page  DC Super-Spectaculars of the early-to-mid 70s.

I’m enjoying the current return of Paul Levitz and Dr. Fate so, fittingly, here is a facsimile Super-Spec: one that was rustled up fifteen years ago to showcase Fate’s team-mates:


I was crazy about the JSA from the minute I first glimpsed them in Denny O’Neil’s bonkers “Aquarius” adventure.

For many years, I longed to read the Flash comic that re-introduced the Justice Society. I was especially interested in their rogues gallery of villains, particularly since reading about Vandal Savage in the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes strip in  the East Kilbride News.


I failed to read it in its early-70s reprint form but in the early 80s, as comics marts started to spring up in Glasgow, I finally got that totemic issue, which commemorates my date of birth. So, this facsimile 100-pager is my second edition, if you like, although technically the second reprinting.

Vengeance of the Immortal Villain: The two Flashes have a speed duel in Mammoth Caves to rescue JSAers trapped by Vandal Savage ( interpreted by Infantino here as a cross between Napoleon and Peter Lorre.) The Prussian-style immortal  uses technology devised by his old allies The Brain Wave and Per Degaton, who have a cameo along with the other members of the Injustice Society.

This is a delightful nostalgia trip for dad and a whole new world of heroes for the kids. However, the gulf between Flash 123 and All-Star Comics 37 is only 18 years- that is, the gulf between today and the George Clooney Batman and Robin or Grant Morrison’s JLA!


The Big Super-Hero Hunt: another story I had longed to see as a kid, this  1965 tale pits DC’s first married supervillains, “Mr. and Mrs Menace” against Starman, Black Canary and Wildcat. This is a beautiful strip with some wacky imagery, including the Sportsmaster’s flying putting green.

In his overrated 90s  Goth saga, Starman, James Robinson decided the two married JSAers would have an affair in the wake of this adventure because, you know, gritty realism.  And what did Fox and Anderson know, anyway.

Finale for a Fiddler: a classy short by Kanigher and Anderson from Flash 201, 1970. Jay-Flash wonders if he’s past it, capturing the Turtle Man. He then attends the Stockwood Music Festival with his wife where he prevents the Fiddler from robbing the hippies.  It’s a sweet little fable about how cool your elders really are.

The Sight Stealers: reprinted from Adventure Comics 418, this is a dull little story.  The Medical Manhunter is a boring blend of Batman and Daredevil. Mid-Nite develops an echo-flashlight, which will nullify his blindness handicap, which is of course, his only unique trait.He ends up tied to a penny farthing but escapes to pursue crooks in a chariot.

The Mystery of the Missing Detectives: In the last JSA adventure of the late Golden Age, four foreign detectives are kidnapped and the heroes have adventures in London, Paris (with Quasimodo’s hidden fortune!), Istanbul and Honolulu. The villainous Key falls to his death from a cable car.

This isn’t quite as Roy Thomas/Golden Age-y as you might imagine: this is the year captain Comey made his debut and Catcher in the Rye was published.

This is a really good-looking collection; the only dud is Mid-Nite. I think a better choice might’ve been a Simon/Kirby Sandman story. Had this comic actually existed in the 70s, it would’ve been a fine platfoem for the Conway/Estrada/Wood revival of All-Star Comics.

Coming soon: Green Lantern, Justice Inc. and Bran Mak Morn

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

Thunder in The Mountains

A wee Toyah reference, since we’re looking at the 80s…

Yesterday I wrote about the New X-Men and the appeal of their most famous author, Chris Claremont’s writing. Today, I thought I’d revisit the Asgardian Wars paperback of 1989. I recently bought it on ebay and the size and smell of it reminds me of the Fireside “Origins” series.

Asgardian Wars

There are four extra-length mid-80s Marvel stories in the book, in which Claremont and his collaborators draw upon the Tolkienesque stylings of Walt Simonson’s Thor. I think you can tell when Claremont is excited by other people’s toys- like the Moore and Davis Captain Britain or Nocenti and Adams’ Longshot.

The X-Men/Alpha Flight team-up was originally pitched as a “five years later” reunion project for Claremont and Byrne. The Canadian creator didn’t take up the opportunity of course and the art is therefore by X-alumnus Paul Smith. It’s airy and glossy, reminding me a bit of Mike Grell but the “Fame” fashions are appalling and Kitty Pryde’s butch look is particularly unflattering. Continuity-wise, the story appears to take place towards the end of the second year of the Alpha Flight monthly.


The Gift presents a rare glimpse of Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor at work, transporting an environmental survey team in Canada. Time traveller Rachel Summers impetuously attacks Shaman when the plane is lost but then his foster-child and fellow Alphan Snowbird is a victim of a magical assault. Cleverly, Claremont establishes the theme of family ties in both teams.

We learn of Loki’s bargaining for power with the enigmatic Those Who Sit Above in Shadow. Meanwhile the two groups eventually  discover the lost survey team in a magical citadel and learn of their new super-powers. ( They are sometimes called “The Berserkers” but not here- it may be a Marvel Age place holder name).


The Gift part 2 comprises a big brawl when the price of those new powers are revealed. The effects of Madelyne’s newly-minted healing abilities ( which are used on Puck, Wolverine and Aurora) are won at the cost of magic-or human creativity. The shadowy gods intervene and revoke Loki’s gifts. The story ends with a reconciliation between Rachel and Cyclops ( her father in another timeline)

The plot reminds me a lot of the Lords of Light and Darkness/Spidey team-up but there, the antagonists mirrored Hindu mythology.


Of the Alphans, Claremont seems more interested in Heather, Aurora and Talisman ( here -and nowhere else, IIRC-called both Tally and Beth). This is understandable since they’re in the vein of his own female characters: forceful but conflicted) Puck, Byrne’s “avatar” and the wise Shaman, with Heather Hudson the other drivers of AF stories, receive less focus. Similarly, it’s the newcomer Rachel, Madelyne Pryor and Cyclops who are the focus among the X-Men.

Loki swears revenge and so the story segues into the first New Mutants Special Edition- actually an oversized annual.


Home is Where the Heart Is: The X-Babies are on holiday on a Greek island where a morbidly obese Karma is trying to recover from her possession by the Shadow King. They are abducted by the Enchantress ( Loki’s instrument of revenge) but Magik’s powers scatter the kids all over Asgard.

We follow their misadventures – Magma becomes a faerie, Mirage a Valkyrie and  the repressed Wolfsbane falls for a Wolf Prince. Many of the New Mutants, like Sunspot, want to remain in Asgard but the story is all about taking difficult decisions and straight-arrow Cannonball matures most as a young man.


Red Nails 057 small

The incredibly detailed art is a mixture of George Perez and Barry Smith- I think we can see that clearly if we compare Illyana with Valeria from Smith’s “Red Nails”. There’s also a playfulness in the detail- for example when the shape-changing Warlock becomes the aforementioned Longshot ( a future X-Man).


There’s No Place Like Home (Or what are we going to do with 17 X-Men?). Kitty receives images through her psychic rapport with Illyana of the abductions and the X-Men travel to Asgard with the thudnerbolts of Arkon ( Roy Thomas’ sword and sorcery Avengers villain- a cross between Shazam and Conan and a guest-star in two earlier X-annuals.)

While Rachel reveals her new Phoenix identity, Storm has become Loki’s new puppet Goddess of Thunder. A  (temporarily) dying Wolverine turns Ororo against Loki and Kitty gets to give the trickster godling piece of her mind. The entire gambit turns out to be an elaborate ploy by Karnilla the Norn Queen to ensure her beloved Balder becomes ruler of Asgard. This revelation reminds me a little of Dr. Doom’s appearance in the Steranko SHIELD/Yellow Claw saga.

While it’s logical that the senior mutant team saves the day, it is at the expense, somewhat, of the X-Babies character development. I was impressed by how deftly Claremont explores his central concerns- belonging, friendship and empire-building. Densely over-populated, a little pompous and extremely “talky”by modern standards, this epic can still be very charming and witty. Imagine how many issues- or miniseries!- it would occupy these days!

Coming soon: Richard Benson,the Avenger; more Blackmark; Captain Britain’s summer special

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For today’s landmark 250th ‘Optikon post, I want to celebrate the second generation of Marvel’s merry mutants, who made their debut forty mind-snappin’ years ago in May.


I had been a fan of the original Gifted Youngsters through the b/w weekly Fantastic comic of the very late 60s before they were replaced in my affections by US editions of the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four. Even as a small child, I fantasised about  new schoolmates for Cyclops et al.

The US title was a reprint book through the early-to-mid 70s and one I would  pick up,whenever possible,  to revisit those pre-school sagas of the Mimic and the Banshee.


Marvel however re-purposed the team as one with an international flavour, ostensibly to reach out to foreign markets.


I first read about the idea in Foom 4, in the closing months of 1973 and busily assembled a team from the create-a-hero submissions therein. (The winner, as you may know, was Humus Sapien. Ah, whither Koga, the Man-Squid?)

I discovered the real line-up in Foom 8, at the end of 1974 but my first issue of the bi-monthly X-Men revival was actually the fourth, number 97 in early 1976.  As a fan of the early-70s Legion of Super-Heroes, my favourites- Storm and Nightcrawler- were swiftly established in this Cockrum phantasmagoria.

I was particularly fascinated by the recently-deceased Thunderbird. I wouldn’t even see the character until the b/w reprint of GSXM1  in early ’79 and not in full colour until the autumn of 1980!

However, the caprices of the Scottish distributions of US Marvels were such that there was an X-hiatus of almost a year and a half before I became the devoted follower of the more ostensibly super-heroic Claremont/Byrne incarnation.


GSXM1 retold in the second Cockrum era

Thanks to the compelling and shocking Dark Phoenix storyline, X-Men remained a favourite into the early 80s and Cockrum’s return with a (somewhat underwhelming) extended space opera during my early years at university. Then, the energetic and airy art of Paul Smith regenerated the title as the first spin-off, the more Earth-bound (at first!), New Mutants debuted.

Why was it such a success and why did it have an impact on me where its contemporary, Daredevil, didn’t? I was certainly drawn to the sprawling cast, with their monologues of self-doubt and corny wisecracks. I liked the capable female characters, who frequently drove the narrative. I also enjoyed the epic scale and the sci-fi flourishes that began in my very first issue and recalled some of my favourite authors of the time: Ursula le Guin and Anne McCaffrey

The first stint by John Romita Jr. and the descent into mid-80s crossover hell (and the militaristic elements of Marc Silvestri’s work in the Australian Era at the end of the decade) were less to my taste, however. The macho, Reagan/Shooter tenor of the House of Ideas reminded me of icons like Rambo and Springsteen, with which I felt out of step. My preferences were for New Mutants, which had taken a stylish and surrealistic turn under Bill Sienkiewicz; and the Claremont/Davis whimsy of Excalibur. This despite a mid-80s trip to Edinburgh for a signed copy by Claremont of Classic X-Men 1.


Nonetheless, I felt the impact of the marketing blitz of the early 90s as Jim Lee became a comics superstar with the record-breaking X-Men 1. But I lost interest again until the Goth-inspired macabre humour of Generation X in 1994.

Although I dipped into the multiple titles of the Manga-flavoured Age of Apocalypse (twenty years ago, now!), I was more enthused by the sixties revival of Byrne’s Hidden Years series -especially when Storm was introduced.


Then in 2000, the first X-Men movie brought the Claremont X-Men to vivid life with startlingly appropriate casting of the principals. Scots creators at Marvel Comics responded with the audience-friendly, real-world-flavoured Ultimate X-Men by Mark Millar. Meanwhile, Grant Morrison’s New X-Men satirised New age religion and pop culture while establishing his own take on Magneto,  the Sentinels and the Phoenix.





Claremont made subsequent returns to his X-babies in the Noughties. In 2001, he initiated a team of X-treme X-men , with a female bias and a mix of ethnicities. Three years later, Alan Davis brought a flavour of Captain Britain and Excalibur back to the X-Men. Then in 2008, Claremont depicted a possible future for the children of the X-Men and, in 2009, delivered an alternate continuity title, which developed Nineties plot threads.

It may seem disloyal to say so, but I felt the mutants were better served by other creators in the past decade. In 2004 Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men was a love-letter to the Claremont/Byrne years, filtered through the screenwriter’s modern, flippant sensibility.

2006’s  Jeff Parker’s X-Men First Class revisited the Lee/Kirby era with a charming and youthful contemporary energy. From 2011 Jason Aaron blended , pell-mell, elements from across the  Marvel U and black humour in the highly entertaining Wolverine and the X-Men.

In the next post, we’ll revisit the Eighties again and the merry mutant misadventures of the Asgardian Wars.

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Spectacular, Spectacular No words of the vernacular can describe this great event!

Another installment of my holiday reading was the July issue of the splendid Back Issue.


As you’re aware, this time of year always reminds me of Marvel’s b/w magazines and Dc’s 100-page Super-Spectaculars: publications that exemplify the diverse formats of the mid-70s.

Titles like Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes and Justice League of America attained Super-Spec size between 1974 and 1975. They were great value for money and like their 72-73 predecessors, were primers for Golden and Silver Age heroes and villains. However, the economic pressures of the times led to the abandonment of the format. It’s hard to believe, working where I do, that there could ever have been a paper shortage.

In the era of DC One Million and The Kingdom, however, DC released facsimile editions of the Super-Specs: “lost” issues that mimicked the format, in a playful attempt to revisit their charms. Today’s post looks at the March 1999 Justice League Super-Spectacular.


In that it was an all-reprint comic, with a glossy, card cover, it already deviated from the 1975 model.

Planet That Came to a Standstill: is a 1962 Adam Strange adventure although it guest-stars the JLA and their alien adversary, Kanjar Ro. Kanjar escapes impisonment and travels to Rann where he allies himself with the Birdmen of Zoora. The bug-eyed monster also employs gravity chairs, a devolving ray and his Gamma Gong agaist Adam and the JLAers. Flash is impressed by the spaceman and makes note to self to propose him for JLA membership.

This airy, gorgeous tale depicts DC’s Jet-Pack John Carter as a thinker first and adventurer second but his teleportation issues made him an impractical Leaguer. I wasn’t really convinced further by the New 52 Adam’s stint in Justice League Canada this past year.

I was surprised that this issue didn’t reprint the sequel. Decoy Missions of the Justice League from December 1963. This is a fiendishly complex tale in which Kanjar Ro turns the aural duplicates of the JLA against them while hiding the Earth near Arcturus (!) Although this story was reprinted in the JLA Tabloid of 1976, it wasn’t seen in a 100-pager unlike the following:

The Case of the Patriotic Crimes: The Liberty Train is stolen by the new Imjustice Society. The JSAers split into duos or go solo to rescue priceless American treasures from the vilains.  Black Canary and the Harlequin save the day and the Girl Gladiator, who inspired the JSAers to overcome the effects of the villains’ Mind Eraser, is elected to membership. It’s fascinating to see ” mere females” as the protagonists in a Golden Age story and the overweening rivalry between the Injustice Socialites is amusing.  The message that the crooks can’t work together because of egotism is succinct and subtly outlines the strengths of the US Constitution.

This 1948 adventure is great fun but was previously printed in the 100-page JLA 113 in 1974. For the sake of verisimilitude, The Man Who Hated Science or The Secret of the Golden Universe  from All-Star would have been better, in that they inspired early JLA stories.



Suddenly…the Witness Vanished! A gorgeous Atom short (ahem) from 1973. This Detective Comics back-up by Maggin and Anderson was really far too “recent” to have been included, however. It’s a time-wimey adventure for the World’s Smallest Sleuth as he travels back to the Great Chicago Fire, a century earlier.


Starro the Conquerer: another unlikely choice. I can still remember glimpsing Starro and being fascinated by “him” in this tiny cover image,  in an ad in one of my cousin’s “ancient” DCs. This is of course the JLA’s debut: we visit their “modernistically outfitted cavern” and meet Snapper Carr, the Beat Generation’s Johnny Thunder. Interestingly, Aquaman wears his Golden Age or E-2 costume with yellow gloves.

True to the anxieties of the time, monster movie escapee Starro endangers the Earth with stolen atomic weaponry. Batman therefore has no input in the adventure but I often wish, for gender balance, that Batwoman had been one of the Big Seven. Her career was already four years old at that time.

The format of 1975’s Super Specs lends itself to further speculation. What would the original material have been like? Len Wein was gone from the title by the December 1974 issue, taking up the editor- in- chief role at Marvel. But what if he had written a couple of extra scripts? I’m sure we’d have seen Ralph Dibny become JLA chair. Wein might have revived old foes Despero or Amos Fortune and inducted Zatanna, the Maid of Magic, some three years early. My fantasy pick for the third team in the summer JLA/JSA team-up of 1975 would be the Teen Titans, last seen, I think in 1972. (But only if Bob Haney agreed to it!)

Teen Titans

This is a very good-looking comic but the contents don’t really resemble a genuine mid-70s 100-pager. In a future post, we’ll look at a more successful tribute, the 100-page JSA Super-Spec. Next time, however, is our 250th post, where we’ll celebrate 40 years of the All-New, All-Different X-Men!

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