Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Marvel, Magic and Strange Tales: Part 1

SUPERHEROES WERE MY MAIN FOCUS, during the Silver Age of the 1960s. Very occasionally I'd pick up a "horror" or science fiction title. The concept of Magic in comics fiction was barely touched upon. The Justice League had battled magicians a couple of times during the 1963 - 1964 period that I was reading their adventures, and the 1940s hero Dr Fate was one of their "Crisis" allies. But no one was really doing magicians as heroes in those formative Silver Age years.

Mandrake the Magician launched as a daily newspaper strip on 11 Jun 1934. A little less than four years later, Zatara made his debut in Action Comics 1 (Jun 1938). Then, 29 years after Mandrake's first appearance, Marvel published their own, very different magician Doctor Strange in Strange Tales 110 (Jul 1963).
The earliest template for comics magicians was King Features Syndicate's Mandrake, who starred in a hugely popular and successful newspaper strip beginning in the early 1930s and running right through to 2013. But we can trace the look and style of Mandrake's evening dress and top hat back even further to the famous stage magicians of Vaudeville like Howard Thurston, Harry Blackstone and, of course, Harry Houdini.

Harry Blackstone Sr was perhaps the most famous stage magician of the Vaudeville era, though his gentleman-in-evening-clothes style was probably modelled on Howard Thurston, who was active in the ten years before Blackstone began working. Leon Mandrake was the real-life counterpart of the comic strip Mandrake, who began performing under that name ten years before Lee Falk's strip began.
The variety theatre of Vaudeville was the staple entertainment for urban Americans from around 1860 to about 1910, when silent cinema began eating into its audiences. But the stars of Vaudeville rapidly became household names and were featured in all kinds of merchandising, including fictionalised adventures. And where there's success, there's imitators.

This Mandrake Sunday page features the gorgeous draftsmanship of Phil Davis, who drew the strip for thirty years. Two years after the first Mandrake Newspaper strip, King Comics began reprinting Sunday pages. In 1939, Columbia Pictures produced a serial version of the character, starring Warren Hull in the lead role ... without the trademark moustache.
Although there was already a stage performer working the Vaudeville circuit under the name of Mandrake the Magician, it has always been reported that Lee Falk's comic strip conjuror had the same name by coincidence. It's far more likely that Falk was using the far more famous Harry Blackstone as his template. When Falk realised there was a real-life Mandrake, he entered into an agreement with Leon Mandrake to cross-promote the strip and Leon's performances and the arrangement continued for years.

Zatara appeared in the first issue of Action Comics and continued for more than 140 issues. His series also ran in World's Finest and finished in 1951. Such was his popularity that he also merited two cover appearance in the early Action Comics
A couple of years after Mandrake's first appearance, the four-colour comic books took off. Hungry for content, comic book publishers would occasionally come up with startlingly original ideas for characters, but more often would just steal ideas from other creators. When Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics 1 (Jun 1938) one of the back-up features was Zatara, a tuxedoed magician who bore an uncanny resemblance to Mandrake. Where Mandrake "gestured hypnotically" to manifest his power over others, Zatara would use the gimmick of talking backwards ... "Ouy era won ni ym rewop!" However, both employed Eastern strongmen as their assistants - Mandrake had Lothar and Zatara had Tong.

Zatara's daughter Zatanna became something of a fan-favourite when she made her debut in Hawkman 4, in a story written by Gardner Fox and drawn my Murphy Anderson.
Zatara ran in Action Comics until issue 141 (Feb 1950) and in World's Finest from 1 (Spr 1941) to 51 (Apr-May 1951). The character then dropped out of sight and didn't appear again until the Silver Age, when we got to meet Zatara's daughter, Zatanna, in Hawkman 4 (Nov 1964).

Once comic books became the big money-maker of the late 1930s publishing industry, publishers were scrambling around to find material to fill their pages. Unsurprisingly, other companies began running their versions of the Vaudeville stage-magician-turned-crimefighter.

Ibis the Invincible was created by Bob Kingett. Born Amentep in ancient Egypt, Ibis arrives in the 20th century via suspended animation, waking up in a museum in the United States. Ibis appeared in every issue of Whiz Comics until the last 155 (Jun 1953).
Ibis the Invincible appeared in the first issue of Whiz Comics (issue 2, Feb 1940) and graduated to his own title in early 1943. Ibis also wore a tuxedo, but set it off with a jaunty turban, rather than a top hat. Ibis was actually a prince of ancient Egypt, who battles an evil magician, The Black Pharaoh, and comes off second best. Placing his love Taia and himself in a state of suspended animation, both wake up in the 20th Century and naturally elect to fight crime. With his magic Ibistick, Ibis wields the limitless occult power of dynastic Egypt - the bad guys don't have a chance. Ibis fought the forces of evil until 1953, when Fawcett Comics ceased publishing. The rights were acquired by DC Comics and the character was revived for one more adventure in 2007.

Doctor Fate first appeared in More Fun 55, written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Howard Sherman. His first cover appearance was in the following issue, More Fun 56 (Jun 1940). Readers had to wait a year until More Fun 67 (May 1941) for an origin story.
DC/National Comics gave us a second magician character when Dr Fate debuted in More Fun Comics 55 (May 1940). Fate was more the superhero type, with his blue leotard and golden full-face helmet, underlined by the fact that he was also a charter member of the Justice Society of America. 

Doctor Fate is in reality Kent Nelson. While on an archeological gig in the Valley of Ur with his father Sven, the Nelsons unwittingly revive the ancient sorcerer Nabu the Wise, but Sven is accidentally killed in the encounter. Nabu adopts Kent and teaches him the secrets of sorcery over the next twenty years. Returning to America, the grown-up Kent sets up his headquarters in a windowless doorless tower in Salem, Massachusetts and, with his love interest Inza, begins his war on crime. By the nature of his power, Doctor Fate is - along with The Spectre - one of the most powerful characters in the DC canon.

Doctor Fate's Salem tower made an appearance on the front cover of More Fun 61 (Nov 1940), then took over the cover slot from The Spectre from More Fun 68 (Jun 1941) to 76 (Feb 1942), after which he lost out to Green Arrow.
His strip ran until More Fun 98 (Jul-Aug 1944), then character wasn't seen again for almost twenty years, when Fate was a guest-star - along with the rest of the Justice Society - in Justice League of America 21 (Aug 1963) and 22 (Sep 1963), in the classic "Crisis on Earth One/Two" storyline, which I covered in the previous entry of this blog.

The Steranko cover for the collection of Norgil pulp stories, written by Walter Gibson, better known as the "raconteur" of The Shadow.
Meanwhile, Street and Smith - publishers of The Shadow and Doc Savage pulps - had also entered the comics market and gave us a comic strip version of their own tuxedoed magician Norgil, in Shadow Comics 3 (May 1940) and 9 (Mar 1941), as well as in Doc Savage Comics 4 and 5 (May and Aug 1941). Like other comic book magicians, Norgil had a pretty assistant, Miriam. The comic strip version couldn't have been that popular, as he only made four comics appearances, but his pulp adventures had been well-received and ran in the Street and Smith pulp Crime Busters (and later Mystery Magazine) from November 1937 to November 1940.

Norgil's first comics appearance was in Shadow Comics 3, in an untitled story by an unknown writer and an unnamed artist ... pretty mysterious, eh?
The character had no supernatural powers and was a stage magician who solved crime, often involving a well-known stage illusion as a plot device. His pulp adventures were crafted by legendary Shadow writer Walter Gibson, himself a talented magician who also ghosted books for Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston.

Merlin the Magician ran in the first 45 issues of Quality's National Comics, initially written and drawn by Dan Zolnerowich under the pen-name "Lance Blackwood", but later by Fred Guardineer.
Over at Quality Comics, another conjuror in a tuxedo, Merlin the Magician, was featured in the first issue of National Comics (Jul 1940). This mystic mage acquired his powers when his eccentric uncle bestowed upon him the actual cloak of the legendary Merlin. This instantly gave Jock Kellogg all the powers of the Arthurian magician, which included teleportation, summoning of mythological creatures to do his bidding, astral projection, telekinesis, reality manipulation and the ability to bring anyone back to life. Often he would invoke his magic by pronouncing his spells backwards, probably because writer-artist Fred Guardineer was also responsible for DC's Zatara character. All of this he used to fight nazis. The biggest mystery was how the war managed to last another five years. Merlin ran in National Comics till issue 45 (Dec 1944).

Sargon the Sorcerer - the back-up feature that wouldn't die. Despite being a bit hokey and a bit bland, Sargon lasted the longest of the Golden Age magician heroes, almost eight years across three different DC titles.
A little late to the party - but enjoying a longer run than others - was yet another tuxedoed and turbanned mystic, DC's Sargon the Sorcerer. Sargon appeared in All-American 26 - 50 (May 1941 - Jun 1943), then in Comic Cavalcade 3 - 14 (Sum 1943- Apr-May 1946), having a short run in Sensation Comics 34 - 36 (Oct - Dec 1944), then permanently moving to Sensation with issue 52 (Apr 1946) and ending in 83 (Nov 1948). Using magic power derived from the mysterious "Ruby of Life" Sargon, aided by his comedy relief manager Max O'Leary, fought crooks, spies and his azure-skinned archenemy the Blue Lama, the Queen of Black Magic. Sargon would return in the Silver Age as a villain, but quickly reformed and was made an honorary member of the Justice League.

After the first issue, Super-Magic Comics changed its title to Super-Magician Comics and enjoyed a healthy six-year run, with the real-life Blackstone as the lead feature for the first five years.
After being impersonated by so many comic book magicians, Harry Blackstone himself became a comic character, starring in Street and Smith's Super-Magician Comics 1 - 46 (May 1941 to Feb 1946). The comic-book Blackstone had no supernatural powers, but instead used his knowledge of stage magic to uncover the schemes and machinations of the underworld.

Mark Merlin was created by Mort Meskin, a former member of the Simon and Kirby studio, and ran for six years from House of Secrets 23 to 73, initially scripted by Jack Miller, then by Arnold Drake and finally by Bob Haney.
The archetypal magician fell out of favour during the post-war years and it would take the Silver Age superhero revival to reboot the genre. The 1959 debut of Mark Merlin in DC's House of Secrets 23 (Aug 1959) was a little misleading, as the earliest adventures had the occult detective mostly fighting aliens and robots. Any supernatural menaces were usually dismissed as hoaxes by the end of the adventure. But in 1963, editor Jack Schiff was replaced by Murray Boltinoff. And Boltinoff replaced scripter Jack Miller with Arnold Drake and within a few issues, Mark Merlin was battling genuine occult menaces. Then in 1965, Mark Merlin was killed off, then reincarnated in House of Secrets 74 (Sep-Oct 1965) as Prince Ra-Man.

Bring on the bad guys - The only new magicians we'd see from DC during the early 1960s were villainous adversaries for our heroes to best. Felix Faust would take on the entire Justice League before being defeated. Future magician Abra-Kadabra would transform The Flash into a puppet before being returned to the 64th century to face a death sentence.
And that was it for a while. The stage magician in a tuxedo archetype pretty much went away after this, but for the revival of Zatara and his daughter Zatanna in Hawkman 4 (Nov 1964) - however I get the distinct impression that this was done a little tongue-in-cheek. It's difficult to take Zatanna's costume seriously, as much as I might like it. 

We did, however, see the Justice League battle a different style of ancient sorcerer Felix Faust in JLA 10 (Mar 1962), and in The Flash 128 (May 1962), the Scarlet Speedster had his hands full with future magician Abra-Kadabra, who used super-advanced science that resembled magic and wore a weird stylised future-tux. But we wouldn't see "real" magic in comics until the following year, when Steve Ditko came to our rescue.

The first Human Torch stories in Strange Tales were plotted by Stan, scripted by Larry Lieber and drawn by Jack Kirby. By Strange Tales 106, Kirby was off the book and inker Dick Ayers took over pencilling as well. With Strange Tales 108, Lee replaced Lieber with Robert Bernstein and brought Kirby back for two issues. With Strange Tales 110, Bernstein was out and Ernie Hart was in. Issues 112 and 113 had Jerry Siegel on scripting.
Marvel's Strange Tales had been running the solo adventures of The Fantastic Four's Human Torch from issue 101 (Oct 1962). I had the impression that Stan's heart wasn't really in it, as these early Torch tales had some strange differences compared to the Human Torch depicted in the FF comics. This Torch had a secret identity and lived in a small town in upstate New York. The FF Torch lived in the Baxter Building in Manhattan with the rest of the FF. I could be mistaken, but it seems as though starring the Human Torch in Strange Tales was an edict from Publisher Martin Goodman rather than an inspiration from Editor Stan Lee.

The Torch made his directionless way through Strange Tales for nine months before Stan Lee decided to try out another feature in the book. Steve Ditko had brought Stan a new character called Mister Strange, probably a bit corny for a character who was to appear in Strange Tales. Stan didn't seem awful keen, and was dismissive of the idea in a letter to Jerry Bails.

"We have a new character in the works for Strange Tales," Stan wrote on 9th Jan 1963. "Steve Ditko is gonna draw him. Sort of a black magic theme. The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him—'twas Steve's idea, and I figgered we'd give it a chance, although again, we had to rush the first one too much. Little sidelight: Originally decided to call him MR. STRANGE, but thought the MR. a bit too similar to MR. FANTASTIC—- now, however, I just remember we had a villain called DR. STRANGE just recently in one of our mags—- hope it won't be too confusing! Oh well..."

Who is Dr Strange? Where did he come from? What sinister purpose does he have appearing unannounced in Strange Tales 110? Why does Stan hate him at first, then very quickly love him? Perhaps these questions will be answered in the next entry in this blog.
Dr Strange first appeared in Strange Tales 110 (Jul 1963) with little fanfare. There was no origin, no explanation of who this character was and how he fitted into the Marvel continuity. The character made another appearance in Strange Tales 111, then promptly disappeared, a pretty good trick, even for a comic book magician.

But Stan Lee was about to have an epiphany ... and that story - and the story of Dr Strange - will be told in the next edition of Marvel in the Silver Age.


Next: More Marvel, Magic and Strange Tales



Sunday, 21 June 2020

My Top Ten DCs of the Early 1960s: Part 2

IN THE EARLY 1960s I EXPERIMENTED WITH DC COMICS. It was only for a couple of years before I moved on to the good stuff - Stan Lee's Marvel Comics - but for those first tentative steps into the four-colour world, I knew only the implausible coincidences and plot-driven stylings of Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz. And while I still much prefer Marvel to DC, especially the comics of my youth, there are a few DCs that I still remember with love and affection.

It's true ... there's a lot of Mort Weisinger books in my top five, but these stories were pitched perfectly at my age-group at the time. I would have been nine when I was picking up those early Action Comics. Click image to enlarge.
Last time on this blog I looked at the lower half of my top ten most fondly-remembered DC stories of my formative years - around 1963 to 1965 - then ran out of room (and time) because I found I had more to say than I'd thought ... so here, then, are the top five. Again, I stress these are not the "best" DC comics of that era, just the ones that struck a chord with me and that I still remember to this day.


5. JUSTICE LEAGUE 21 & 22

OK, maybe this DC story is one of the best of the era. It was so successful that it became an annual event and established the whole DC multiple-universe thing. In the story it's explained that the Golden Age DC characters from the 1940s actually exist in a parallel universe on Earth-Two. The Silver Age DC superheroes all live on Earth-One. OK, it's a tad more complicated than that, as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman continued straight on from the 1940s to the 1960s, but if you need to know more about that, you can Google it yourself.
Unusually for an early 1960s comic, the Crisis on Earth One/Two story unfolded across two complete issues of Justice League of America, created by the regular team of scripter Gardner Fox and artists Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs.
For me, the first glimpse I had of DC's alternate Earths - and indeed of Golden Age characters - was in the Justice League of America stories, "Crisis on Earth-One" and "Crisis on Earth-Two" in issues 21 and 21 (Aug & Sep 1963) of that comic. And despite the spotty distribution we had to deal with in the UK, I distinctly remember buying both issues from a spinner rack at the same time, probably in the autumn or winter of 1963. Then I pretty much read them to pieces ...

New readers get an introduction to not only The Justice League but also The Justice Society in the first three pages of the tale. And there's an explanation of how the parallel Earths are related to each other and a reference the Flash 123 (Sep 1961) where DC first introduced the concept.
The plot is a little complex, but scripter Gardner Fox has fifty pages for explanations. Essentially, two trios of criminals, from two different Earths, plan to commit crimes then escape justice by immediately fleeing to the alternative Earth. So Earth-One's Felix Faust (from JLA 10, Mar 1962), Chronos (from The Atom 3, Oct 1962) and Doctor Alchemy (from Showcase 13, Mar 1958 - though he was "Mr Element" back then) conspire to commit crimes on their native Earth-One then hide out on Earth-Two ... while The Fiddler (All-Flash 32, Dec 1947), The Wizard (from All-Star 34, Apr 1947) and The Icicle (from All-American 90, Oct 1947) will carry out million-dollar robberies on Earth-Two then cross over to Earth-One to escape. Then, to further complicate things, the Earth-Two villains plan to disguise themselves as their Earth-One allies, rob Las Vegas (called "Casino Town" in the story) and defeat Earth-One's Justice League heroes.

Here's a montage of my favourite scenes from Justice League of America 21 ... I love the panel where the JLA and the JSA meets for the first time. Check out the two Atoms in the foreground shaking hands.
Highlights of Justice League 21 for me were the two scenes in Chapter Two where the "weaker" heroes save their more powerful colleagues. The Atom rescues Martian Manhunter from a shower of fiery pebbles by literally kicking them into touch, while Green Arrow saves Superman from a fire hydrant transformed into Kryptonite by dowsing it in lead paint from a well-placed trick arrow. I also loved the scene where the JLS summons the JSA with a good, old-fashioned seance ... and the following iconic scene where the Justice League members shake hands with their Earth-Two counterparts. All magical memories for me, even after more than fifty years.

The issue ends with the JLA, trapped in their own secret sanctuary by the magic of The Wizard, escaping to Earth-Two via Dr Fate's magic and preparing to chase down the Earth-One villains there.

So complicated is this tale that the splash page of Justice League 22 is given over almost entirely to a recap of the story so far. It's exactly the sort of thing I would have skipped over as a nine-year old. But here is is, in case you really need to read it.

Is this the busiest Intro page you ever saw? The verbiage has literally crowded the splash art off the page. It's a pretty brave move, when the format of the day was to have a big eye-grabbing image at the start of every chapter.
There then follows an epic 17-page battle as the combined might of the Justice League and the Justice Society defeat their foes, one-by-one. And just when it seems their victory is complete, the superheroes are trapped by another of the villain's machinations, this time ending up floating in space, trapped in cells tailor-made to negate their powers. Of course, our heroes escape in a cunning and clever way and congregate on Earth-One to beat the tar out of the cross-dimensional baddies in an epic double-page spread by Sekowsky and Sachs.

Absolute chaos - The Justice League and the Justice Society gang up on a handful of villains and whoop their behinds from one dimension to another. When you look at it like this, it hardly seems fair, does it?
Much as I love this comic - and bear in mind this is regarded as a classic by many Silver Age fans - there not really a great deal of story here. An incredible 35 pages of the 50-page tale is devoted to battle scenes. More than two thirds. With a few chat scenes interspersed. It's no wonder that later fans criticised the Justice League of America comic for portraying the DC heroes as having scant personality and interchangeable dialogue.

Stan Lee's more populist approach in the Marvel Comics of the same period would very quickly start stealing sales from DC, while the DC editors scratched their heads and wondered why.

I don't think Gardner Fox and his DC contemporaries were bad writers, but they were of another era. And what was sufficient back in the 1940s Golden Age of Comics just didn't fly in the youth-culture driven 1960s, something I've discussed in other chapters of this blog. A cool name, costume and clever super-powers weren't enough, on their own, to sell comics. The new breed of comic fan wanted characterisation, wisecracks and a good storyline as well. And that's what, in the end, drove me away from DC and towards Marvel.

But hokey though they may be ... my nine-year old self still loves those old Justice League comics ...


4. BATMAN ANNUAL 4

This was one of the earliest American comics I can remember owning. It certainly wasn't bought new - it was coverless - and I wasn't one of those kids who like to rip the covers off comics. I have a feeling someone might have given it to me, because the cover was missing. But wherever I got it from, I loved this comic, literally to pieces.

In the early 1960s, Superman editor Mort Weisinger realised there was a market for 25 cent comics packed with old reprints. With double the cover-price and no editorial costs, it was a no-brainer and Batman editor Jack Schiff soon followed suit.
Two stories in the bumper crop of Batman reprints from the character's silliest period still stand out in my memory... "The First Batman", in which Batman discovers his father fought crime in a bat-costume before he did, and "The Man Who Ended Batman's Career" in which Batman develops bat-phobia and changes his identity to Starman. So much did I love the latter story that, when I was nine, I tried to make myself a Starman costume, so I could help Batman.

We all know Bruce Wayne became Batman when a bat flew in his window one night and he was inspired to disguise himself as "a creature of the night, dark and terrible." as described in Detective Comics 33 (Nov 1939). But this story suggests that another Wayne had the same idea two decades earlier.
"The First Batman" originally appeared in Detective Comics 235 (Sep 1956), story by Bill Finger and art by Sheldon Moldoff and Stan Kaye, though the first page carries Bob Kane's signature. The story recaps the origin of Batman and reveals the final fate of Joey Chill, the murderer of Bruce Wayne's parents. But a chance discovery of a Batman-like costume in the attic of stately Wayne Manor prompts Bruce to recall the time when his father wore a Bat-costume. Attending a masquerade ball in the costume, Wayne senior is grabbed by gangsters who need his medical skills to remove a bullet from crook Lew Moxon. Dr Wayne fights back though, and Moxon is arrested and sentenced to ten years. When Moxon is finally released, he wants to get even, but isn't prepared to kill Dr Wayne himself. Thus it's revealed that Joey Chill was only the trigger-man. It's Moxon who was behind the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents. The rest of the tale has Batman track down Moxon and ring a confession out of him.

It's a memorable tale for me because it reveals essential back story to Batman's origin. I don't know whether those plot details became canon ... I suspect not, but I quite like the way Bill Finger revises Batman's history in an interesting way.

As a kid, I liked Starman even more than Batman, for some reason. It never occurred to me to wonder how Batman managed to get a Starplane built so quickly ... and by whom? But I really liked the star-darts Starman used to pin baddies to a wall.
The second memorable tale in that Annual was "The Man Who Ended Batman's Career", which appeared originally in Detective Comics 247 (Sep1957). Another Finger/Moldoff extravaganza, this time inked by Charles Paris, this story had Batman afflicted with a morbid fear of bats by mad Professor Milo. Unable to even look at the emblem on his Batman costume, Bruce Wayne is forced to adopt a new costumed identity ... Starman. Starman's gimmick is that he can fling ninja stars with deadly accuracy. Only Robin's intervention gets Batman over his phobia and back to his bat-fighting self.

Of course, the crooks soon figure out that Starman is just Batman in another costume ... but it was a fun ride while it lasted, and my nine-year old self was disappointed that Starman didn't get his own comic. Plus, I knew about ninja stars long before anyone else did.

Despite Shelly Moldoff's idiosyncratic art style, I was a big fan of the Atomic Age Batwoman. Though she was initially treated as Batman's Lois Lane - more an annoyance than an ally - she quickly became an integral part of the extended Bat-family. Her last appearance was in Detective 318 (Aug 1963), after which she disappeared with no explanation.
What I had completely forgotten about Batman Annual 4 was that it also reprinted the first appearance of Batwoman. Now anyone who has followed my blog over the years will know that my favourite female comic characters typically have dark hair. So as a kid, I loved the 1950s version of Batwoman and thought she was a wonderful partner for Batman ... much better than that daft Robin. 

Of course, given the times, Batwoman was portrayed as a "typical female". Her Bat-weapons were sneezing face powder, charm bracelets that doubled as handcuffs and a compact mirror she used to dazzle crooks, all carried in a handbag ... At one point, when Batwoman tries to help, Batman observes, "This is no place for a girl". A few pages later, some crooks say, "Batman and Robin ... and Batwoman. There's only two of them, the girl doesn't count." Finally, Batman figures out her secret identity as Kathy Kane, trapeze artist-turned-socialite, and tells to end her career as a crimefighter. "If I found you out," says Batman, "crooks could too, eventually! Once they learned your real identity, you'd be in mortal danger." Batwoman capitulates. "I never thought of that," she says, "I guess you're right. I - I'll quit my career as Batwoman." Thank goodness she didn't, eh? 

Here's some of my favourite Batwoman covers. Batman 105 was her second appearance. Batman 102 (Mar 1959) had the pair marry. Detective 276 (Feb 1960) teamed Batwoman up with Bat-Mite. In Batman 131 (Apr 1960) we find out what happens in the future when Batman marries Batwoman. In Batman 133 (Aug 1960) it's that pesky Bat-Mite again. And Batwoman's final appearance was in Detective 318.
I'll round out this section with a selection of my favourite Batwoman covers, ranging from her second appearance in Batman 105 (Feb 1957) to her final outing in Detective Comics 318 (July 1956).


3. SUPERBOY 89

Another comic I really enjoyed as a pre-Marvel child was Superboy. Incredibly, there are no collected editions of the Silver Age Superboy stories. I can't only surmise that there some sort of rights problem that prevents it. However, The Legion of Superheroes collections from DC include many stories from the original Superboy comics, including one of my favourites, "Superboy's Big Brother" from Superboy 89 (Jun 1961).

The cover of Superboy 89 depicts perhaps the daftest scene in the comic, where Superboy and his new "big brother" discover a "Jack-in-theBox monster left behind by a weird race of space people who make crazy toys."
My earliest exposure to Superboy would likely have been through one of those old black-and-white Superboy Annuals that were published in the UK during the late 1950s and early 1960s. I definitely recall having an Annual that had about 80 pages of George Papp-drawn Superboy reprints with Rex the Wonder Dog as a backup, but I can't identify which one it was because it was coverless. And I can't rightly say whether I read "Superboy's Big Brother" in the colour comic or in the B&W reprint, but the story stuck with me over the decades ...

These black-and-white albums were produced by a company called Atlas Publishing (no relation to Marvel Comics) during the late 1950s and early 1960s. They also published Superman and Batman Albums, and several ongoing comics like Space Ace, Lone Star and Diamond Adventure Comic. 
Written by Robert Bernstein and drawn by George Papp, behind a cover by Curt Swan and Stan Kaye, "Superboy's Big Brother" was a rare, 19-page tale at a time when DC typically filled their books with eight and 13-page stories. And it's probably Bernstein's highest-profile story.

The story begins joyously, with Superboy enjoying the company of his "big brother" as they use their super-powers to "play ball" together and perform other super-feats, but will soon descend into mistrust and suspicion.
The tale begins when a mysterious rocket crash-lands near Smallville. Superboy investigates and discovers a lad slightly older than himself among the wreckage. The teenager has no memory of who he is, but a plaque round his neck inscribed with Krytonian characters. Superboy immediately assumes that the newcomer is Kryptonian and probably related. This is confirmed when "Mon-El" proves to have super-powers, just like Superboy. However, further discoveries - Krypto doesn't recognise Mon-El and Mon-El is immune to Kryptonite - make Superboy suspect there's another explanation for his brother being on Earth.

Ultimately, Superboy causes the near-death of his newly-found "brother" when he fears that Mon-El has some sinister motive for pretending to be from Krypton, despite Mon-El never making any such claim. It's interesting that Bernstein's script makes Superboy the baddie and Mon-El the innocent victim.
As Superboy's suspicions grow, he lays a trap for Mon-El and disguises some lead boulders to look like Kryptonite and arranges to have them rain down on Mon-El and himself. Superboy pretends the "Kryptonite" is killing him, and when Mon-El appears to have the same reaction, Superboy thinks he's exposed Mon-El's deception. But it turns out there's an explanation.

"Mon-El" is actually from the planet Daxam, where the inhabitants are super-sensitive to lead, a substance that kills them with only one exposure. Superboy's only recourse is to send Mon-El into the Phantom Zone until a cure for the lead poisoning can be found.

It's a story full of loss, loneliness and recrimination, a rare emotions-driven story in DC's Silver Age. Superboy's feeling of isolation - as the last survivor of Krypton - makes him ready to accept Mon-El as his older brother. Mon-El is also a connection to Superboy's lost parents, and as a teenager rather than a grown man, Superboy would still feel that loss keenly. And it is Superboy's suspicions that cause him to lay the fatal trap for Mon-El, dooming his best friend because he thought Mon-El was trying to cheat him.

All these story elements I recognised as important and resonant, even as a nine-year old child. Even back then, I was looking for stories about human emotions, something that most of the DC line didn't offer.

Of course, later - probably due to reader reaction - a cure was found for Mon-El and he was able to join the Legion of Superheroes in the 30th century. But it was this story that started it all and still remains in my memory more than fifty years after I first read it.


2. ACTION COMICS 300

My second-favourite DC comic of my pre-Marvel years is another Mort Weisinger spectacular, "Superman under the Red Sun", which appeared in Action Comics 300 (May 1963).

Behind this iconic cover by Curt Swan and George Klein is an equally classic Superman story, in which Superman is trapped in the far-flung future where the Sun has turned red, robbing him of his powers. How will Superman escape this unescapable trap? My nine-year old self really needed to know.
Though only running 14 pages, this story - written by Ed Hamilton and drawn by Al Plastino - was able to give us a sense of Superman's isolation as a stranger in a strange land.

It starts with Superman investigating a spaceship in Earth orbit, which turns of to be a craft of the criminal organisation, The Superman Revenge Squad. The spaceship tries to flee, going so fast it cracks the time barrier into the future. Superman gives chase, but suddenly loses his powers and plummets to earth, a million years in the future under a red sun.

Though Mort Weisinger (along with Julius Schwartz) came from a science fiction background, the science here is wobbly. A star like Sol may have started as a red dwarf, and later in its cycle might become a white dwarf, but it doesn't have enough mass to end up as a red giant. So in the far flung future, Sol wouldn't become red. Plus, a million years is but a moment in a star's evolution. It would take around 10 trillion years for a star like Sol to enter its next phase. But I didn't know that when I was nine.

The story has a couple of plot holes ... the chief one is that one million years isn't enough time for the sun to evolve to another state. Secondly, when our sun does change, it will become a white dwarf. And thirdly, a red sun is lower-powered than a yellow one and therefore wouldn't cause the Earth's oceans to dry up.
The main point is that Superman finds himself alone and powerless a million years in the future where all his friends are long-dead. Using only his wits he must figure out how to escape from this time and return to 1963. Accompanied only by an android duplicate of Perry White, Superman sets off to reach his Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole, where he believes he may find a way to escape his predicament.

Along the way, Superman and Robo-Perry encounter some exotic life forms, like a land whale and land octopi (which again wouldn't have evolved in a mere one million years), which add some further danger to the trek.

Great ... Superman has a plan to allow him to return to his own time. He'll shrink himself with the still functioning reducer-ray, then pilot a tiny Kandorian rocket through the time barrier. But what's the error here? Click the image to expand and read the pages and see if you can figure it out.
Finally, Superman makes to the Arctic, now a desert wasteland, and scales the cliff to the door of his Fortress. But even as Superman gains entry through the door's huge keyhole, he's dismayed to discover that the bottle cit of Kandor is no longer there. I'm not quite sure how that would have helped him, but there's another solution at hand. A miniature Kandorian rocket has been left behind, along with the shrinking ray Superman has used before to reduce his size to allow him to enter Kandor. So that's all fine. He can make himself small enough to climb in the rocket and fly out of there and through the time barrier. But then the plotting gets a little muddled.

Superman also finds a piece of Red Kryptonite he was looking for, thinking "This Red Kryptonite won't affect me till I unwrap it. I once observed its effect on Krypto and it should have the same effect on me." What? What effect? The second to last panel has tiny Superman back in Metropolis musing, "Now to wait until the temporary effect of the Red Kryptonite wears off and I'm my super-self again."

I suspect some incompetent editorial interference. Perhaps some panels were removed from the last page to accomodate the ad. But there's definitely something missing here. Perhaps the original script had Superman shrunk down by the Red Kryptonite. That's certainly the implication in the published text. Maybe Weisinger thought that Red K shouldn't affect Superman when he doesn't have powers, so asked his staff to edit that bit out. They just didn't do it properly.

That notwithstanding ... it's still one of my all-time favourite early 1960s DC stories. It has a melancholy feel to it that other Superman stories of the era didn't have.


1. ACTION COMICS 309-310

My top DC story of the early 1960s is another sad one. "The Untold Story of Argo City" is an expanded version of the origin of Supergirl that appeared back in Action Comics 252 (May 1959). Essentially, the plot points are the same, but the later two-parter, which ran in Action Comics 309 and 310 (Feb-Mar 1964), expands more on the scenes in the doomed Argo City, where the Kryptonians struggle to survive life on a rock of solid Kryptonite.

Five years after Supergirl first appeared, DC Comics gave us an expanded version of Supergirl's origin in the two-part tale, "The Untold Story of Argo City", which would add a dilemma for Supergirl when she must choose between her adoptive parents, The Danvers, and her real parents, Zor-El and Allura.
The story is scripted by Leo Dorfman - expanding the original plot of Action 252 by Otto Binder - and drawn by Jim Mooney, and begins with Linda (Supergirl) Danvers dreaming that her real parents, Zor-El and Allura, are trying to communicate with her. With the help of Superhorse's telepathic powers, Supergirl is led to believe that her Kryptonian parents are alive but trapped in the Phantom Zone. Yet when Supergirl enters The Zone she fails to find any trace of her parents.

Via the ChronoScope, Supergirl can watch the last moments of Argo City, as first survival then doom beckon to the last surviving citizens of Krypton.
Her next plan it to use a handy "ChronoScope" that Superman invented (presumably solely for this story) to watch long-past events in Argo City to discover what happened to Zor-El and Allura. At last it's revealed that Supergirl's parents escaped into a dimension similar to The Phantom Zone, but separate from it. Now it only remains for Supergirl to figure out how to release Zor-El and Allura from The Survival Zone.

Supergirl's quest takes her first to Kandor City, where scientist help track the movements of Supergirl's parents inside the Survival Zone to the implauible "New Krypton", a memorial set up by Superman and Supergirl in tribute to the lost souls of Krypton. From there she then unnecessarily follows the Survival Zone "gulf stream" back to Earth where she can begin the process of extraction using a handy "sensitive view screen for national defence" that's conveniently stowed in the Danvers' basement. A few tweaks and Zor-El and Allura are able to step through the screen and into Supergirl's reality.

The big problem Supergirl faces in the conclusion of this tale is how she can bring her real parents back from The Survival Zone without breaking the hearts of her adoptive parents, The Danvers. In the end, Zor-El takes that decision out of Supergirl's hands.
But after a few joyous scenes of reunion and enjoying each other's company, it's plain that this can't be allowed to go on, so the Els must be sent to Kandor by DC's Dark Overlord Weisinger so that the status quo can be maintained.

I think the reason I still remember this story and how it made me feel when I read it back in 1964 is that once again, it's about emotions. Supergirl's feeling of loss when she believes her real parents are dead, her feeling of hope when it seems possible that they have somehow survived, then the emotional dilemma she faces if her real parents and adoptive parents are living in the same world. I also found the scenes of the Argoans trying to survive quite affecting, especially the scenes of hopelessness when the meteor shower pierces the protective lead sheeting, exposing the Argo citizens to the deadly Kryptonite rays ...

To me, this all demonstrates that the stories that resonate with us and stay with us even decades later are always powered by emotion. I think this was something that Stan realised when he first started trying to craft better stories at Marvel. When DC published the occasional emotion-driven story it was by accident and even as Marvel began to outsell DC in the mid-1960s, the DC editors never made the connection, and continued to stick to their plot-driven tales for the rest of the decade, allowing Marvel to take the top spot and relegate the once mighty DC Comics to second place.

Trapped on live television, as the subject of the show "America's Greatest Heroes" Superman is unable to find someone to pose as Clark Kent, until help arrives from an unexpected quarter. Because, after all, if Superman can't trust the President of the United States, who can he trust? Tragically, President Kennedy was dead before this comic went on sale ...
One final coda ... Action Comics 309 also featured a Superman story where the tv show "Our American Heroes" wants to honour Superman, but as Superman's "best friend" Clark Kent is also on the guest list, Superman's in a bit of a bind. One by one, his solutions are removed until it seems like his identity will be compromised by Clark Kent's "no-show". Then - surprise - Clark shows up. How did he do it? The answer seems so obvious now, leading to one of the greatest final lines in a comic story ever ...

Next: Of Marvel, Magic and Strange Tales





Friday, 22 May 2020

My Top Ten DCs of the Early 1960s: Part 1

BEFORE I DISCOVERED MARVEL COMICS, way back in the early 1960s, I confess that I was a regular user of DC Comics. It's not something I'm proud of, but the first step to recovery is admitting there's a problem, right?

By the mid-sixties, I was a confirmed Marvel fan, but there's still a few DC Comics that I look back on fondly as a sort of guilty pleasure. And to make matters worse, most of the DCs in my Top Ten were hatched under the baleful eye of DC's Dark Overlord, Mort Weisinger. But in my own defence, I was about nine when I was reading this stuff ...

Here they are ... my Top Ten most fondly-remembered DC stories from the years before I became a confirmed Marvel fan. And I'm not necessarily referring to the cover stories. Intrigued? Read on ... Click image to enlarge.
Let me stress that I'm not saying these are the best National had to offer, just a list of DCs that still resonate with me - on an emotional level - more than 50 years later. If you want a list of The Best, then you'll need to look elsewhere. No "Flash of Two Worlds", "Robin Dies at Dawn" or "Superman Red, Superman Blue" here. I never "got" The Doom Patrol. I don't wish Jack Kirby had stayed on Challengers of the Unknown. And the war stories of Joe Kubert and Russ Heath completely passed me by.

I think it's safe to say that these three are about the best DC stories of the early 1960s. Except, they're not my favourites. In fact, I don't think I ever read these stories at the time, with the possible exception of the Superman one. My tastes ran to some slightly more esoteric choices.
Over the course of a year or two - from 1964 to 1966 or so - I read fewer and fewer DCs and more and more Marvels, so by the back end of 1966 I'd pretty much left DC behind, returning only briefly around 1968 when a flurry of interesting comics drawn by Steve Ditko and edited by Dick Giordano caught my attention.

The DC Archives are expensive, but beautifully produced. By contrast, the DC Showcase Presents series is cheap and cheerful and contains hours of reading material for a reasonable cost. Some DC material from the period doesn't hold up well - especially disappointing was Volume 4 of the World's Finest series that had some dreadful stories by Dennis O'Neill and Jim Shooter and unappealing art by Andru and Esposito.
More recently, I've been seeking out inexpensive DC Showcase Presents volumes, and discovering that a great deal of DCs 1960s output was pretty terrible - whatever you do, stay away from DC Showcase Present World's Finest Vol 4, some of the worst dreck ever. But I also came across a few stories that instantly returned me to those hazy days of the early 1960s, where school holidays went on forever and the sun always shone ...

So here, then - after a great deal of consideration and research - a handful of my absolute favourite DC tales of that early Silver Age period.


10. WORLD'S FINEST 133 - "BEASTS OF THE SUPERNATURAL"

I have no recollection of where I bought this comic back in 1963, or whatever happened to it. I was certainly one of my first DCs and probably my first World's Finest.
Back in the early 1960s, comics that featured team-ups of heroes were few and far between. One of the longest-running exceptions was World's Finest, which began running Superman-Batman team-up tales back in issue 71 (Jul 1954). Nearly ten years later, I came across a copy of World's Finest 133 (May 1963), which featured a rare magical foe for Superman and Batman, "Beasts of the Supernatural".

Yes, the monsters seem especially goofy, but as an impressionable eight-year old, I thought they were pretty scary at the time. Though I wouldn't have known it in 1963, the whole set-up has the feel of an HP Lovecraft story, just not as well done.
Written by Editor Jack Schiff and drawn by the always reliable Jim Mooney, the story tells how an new radio telescope designed by Prof Bowles to gather radio waves from the constellation of Scorpio is unveiled to the public. Present are Clark (Superman) Kent, in his role as reporter for the Daily Planet, and Batman and Robin. It's not something that bothered me at the time, but my adult self senses some lazy plotting - there is absolutely no reason for the Dynamic Duo to be present. It's just so Schiff doesn't have to have Superman summon them later in the story. But why carp ... that's just how they wrote comics back then.

The proceedings are interrupted when a Dr Gault rushes forward to warn everyone that they're tampering with Occult powers. The disgraced scientist explains to Clark that a sorcerer Jazub once banished three supernatural monsters to the constellation of Scorpio, and Dr Gault fears that the radio telescope will release the creatures on Earth. And he'd be right.

Superman dispatches the first monster pretty quickly, after all this is only a 13-page story. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin are tackling a weird spikey crystal monster. Force doesn't work, as shattering the crystal creature in to pieces just produces five crystal creatures. Acting on a hunch, Batman has Robin ring the town's church bell and the vibrations reduce the crystal monsters to dust.

Once again, it's Batman who figures out what's going on. The monsters are genuine enough, but their reasons for being on Earth aren't. The bluff played out on the evil Dr Gault seemed pretty smart to me when I first read the story. Not for nothing is Batman called the World's Greatest Detective.
Batman and Superman then try to enlist Dr Gault's aid to get rid of the monsters. Gault thinks his computer may be able to recreate Jazub's original spell. Satisfied, Batman sets off in search of Prof Bowles, and arrives just in time to see him menaced by the magenta tornado creature. Even Superman can't stop the monster. Only when Bowles' fiancee Norah throws herself in front of Bowles is disaster averted. The creature suddenly skedaddles. This gives Batman the clue he needs, and in a cunningly contrived denouement, Batman forces Dr Gault to reveal his nefarious intentions ... to appear to be banishing the beasts he himself called forth, winning the admiration and gratitude of Norah and the world. These were simpler times, after all.

I think what I remember most about this story - and others like it at the time - was just how goofy the designs of the monsters were. And it's not just poor old Jim Mooney. There were other DC artists who were just as incapable of drawing a decent monster. For example, while I was reading some DC Showcase Presents volumes recently, I came across another monster design that was uncannily similar to the Crystal Creatures in "Beasts of the Supernatural". 

Left: World's Finest 133 - Crystal creatures that resemble sea-mines threaten Batman and Robin in a story scripted by editor Jack Schiff and Drawn by Jim Mooney. Right: World's Finest 108 - Spherical spikey critters that also resemble sea-mines menace Batman and Robin in a story written by Jerry Coleman and Drawn by Dick Sprang.
In World's Finest 108 (Mar 1960), which also pitted Superman and Batman against oddball otherworldly monsters, there were spikey globe monsters that also menaced Batman and Robin ... this time drawn by Dick Sprang. Coincidence? Editor Jack Schiff designing the monsters himself and handling sketches to the artists to follow? We'll never know.

The Green Arrow stories by Lee Elias and the Aquaman tales by the brilliant Ramona Fradon were always a welcome bonus in these old World's Finest Comics. Even after all this time, the sight of these b-features gave me a surge of nostalgic deja-vu.
The other point that struck me while flicking through the pages of World's Finest 133 was how familiar the backup stories seemed to me. I have a clear memory of the splash page of the Green Arrow story. The giant burrowing machine that smashes through the walls of the Arrowcave brought back a flood of memories, and I was struck by how similar that machine was to another DC Comics machine I'd seen recently from the same era (see "Outcasts of Infinity", JLA 25, Feb 1964).

As much as I wanted that first issue of Metal Men, I also really wanted to read the Brave and the Bold issue featuring the boxing "Strange Sports" story. Which was weird, because as a kid, I was never really much interested in sports.
And the house ads in that issue ... how I wanted that Metal Men comic. Just the title - "Rain of the Missile Men" - and the desperate situation depicted on the cover made me long for that comic more than anything. I never did find a copy, though, and it would be another fifty years before I'd read that story in my Metal Men Archives Volume 1. But it's just not the same thing as having the comic, is it? As gorgeous as the Archives are, they don't have the house ads, the letters pages, or the ads for "204 Revolutionary War Soldiers" ...

Did anyone else desperately want to own these impossibly exotic toys? Even at "$1.98" - whatever that was in real money - they seemed like an incredible bargain. I'm sure the reality was a lot different. I've seen reports that the "Polaris Submarine" that "sat two kids" was actually a cardboard box.
Even at this point, World's Finest, and the Batman titles in general, were floundering. Probably because of stories that were filled with daft aliens and ever-more implausible situations. Within a year, the title would be taken from Schiff and handed to DC's Dark Overlord Mort Weisinger. Weisinger would get rid of the revolving door of writers and dispense with the services of Jim Mooney, instead commissioning stories from Ed Hamilton and art from Curt Swann and George Klein. The Green Arrow and Aquaman back-up tales were also gone and instead the space was given over to reprints, a sure sign that costs were being cut.


9. HOUSE OF SECRETS 64 - "THE THREAT OF THE HORRIBLE HEX"

To my young and impressionable mind, there was a ghastly "authenticity" about the magic and the barn runes in this Mark Merlin story. As a child of about nine, this tale positively terrified me ... but in a good way.
That this comic is in my Top Ten is a bit unusual, in that it's not exactly a superhero story. My memory tells me that it was among the earliest DC Comics I ever read, but the cover date doesn't bear that out. By 1964, I would have been fully immersed in the Superman Family titles along with Flash and Green Lantern, so it seems strange to me now that I'd have been interested in a "horror comic". Yet, here it is.

"The Threat of the Horrible Hex" is a 12-page Mark Merlin story with a script by Arnold Drake and art by the great Mort Meskin. The character was created by Meskin and first appeared in House of Secrets 23 (Aug 1959), running for six years until HoS 73 (Jul 1965). The first few years' worth of stories went largely uncredited, but the consensus is that Jack Miller did most of the scripting. These earliest tales appeared to be science fiction-oriented, with lots of plots about alien creatures and other dimensions. Then, around issue 56 (Sep 1962), Editor Jack Schiff was off the book, so new editor Murray Boltinoff brought in Arnold Drake as writer, and the stories took on a more supernatural focus.

Mark Merlin was one of DC's few magician characters that merited their own series. In fact, the character headlined House of Secrets, both in his Mark Merlin and Prince Ra-Man reincarnation, through to issue 80 (Sep 1966), a run of seven years.
The story concerns some arcane symbols, painted on a Pennsylvania barn, that preserve the spirits of a trio of three hundred year-old sorcerers. Their curse threatens each generation of a local family on their 25th birthday. Mark Merlin is called in to help and magically takes on the curse himself. Thus, the scene is set for Mark Merlin to battle the malevolent spirits and deduce the secret of the symbols painted in the barn wall.

I think what creeped me out about this story when I was a kid was that the feel of it was sort of Authentic and Believable. What I couldn't know at the time was that such symbols were to be found painted on the walls of barns throughout the "Pennsylvania Dutch" region of the United States, and that they had a supernatural meaning the the locals.

This picture, from 1941, shows a barn in Oley Township, Pennsylvania, painted with hexes to ward off evil spirits. It's likely that the locals would have renewed the paint, as these hexes look pretty fresh for something that would have first been painted in the 17th Century.
There's also the magic spell that Mark Merlin chants when he's lifting the curse from the young victim. I'm sure it's just gibberish, but to this then-nine-year old it felt a great deal more real than the usual "backwards talking with the force am I" schtick used by Zatanna and other DC magicians.

Mark Merlin uses his magical powers of spell casting and levitation to battle the spirits of the long-dead sorcerers. But it's the sudden appearance of victim Henrietta Von Haltz's ancestor Josef that really brings victory (just a thought, but if they're supposed to be Dutch, shouldn't it be "Van Haltz"?)
Of course, our hero figures the whole thing out and is able to call forth the spirit of the girl-victim's ancestor to help battle the evil, sorcerous spirits and the day is saved, the victim is spared and everything ends in a splendid conflagration. And how about that cool house ad of Brave and the Bold 51 taking up the last third of the final story page?

But as big an impression as this made on me back in 1964, I never did follow-up and seek out other Mark Merlin adventures. Later, I would read and enjoy the works of HP Lovecraft, and recognise that there was more than a little of his ouevre mixed into Arnold Drake's Mark Merlin scripts ... not a bad thing, and it certainly gave this story a genuinely eldritch feel.

While Eclipso has never interested me as a character, the House of Secrets 63-67 stories featured the awesome art stylings of the legendary Alex Toth. From issue 68 on, the also-excellent Jack Sparling would take over, contributing a 13-issue run of deftly crafted tales.
There were other attractions in this issue of House of Secrets. The most obvious was the back-up strip, featuring Eclipso. I do recall that I read a few Eclipso stories back in the early 1960s and didn't especially like them. But these would have been the later episodes drawn by Jack Sparling. In any event, at the age of nine, I wasn't really in a position to understand just how good Alex Toth was. Heck, I couldn't even tell one artist from another at that age. And later on, when I did understand that sort of thing a bit better, I would even come to appreciate what a great craftsman Jack Sparling was.

There's also a couple of great house ads - a full page is given over to two 1964 annuals, Batman Annual 6 and Superman Annual 8 (both Win 1963-64), and there's a half page ad for Tomahawk 90 and Rip Hunter 18. Back then I was never really much interested in adventure comics like Rip Hunter, but the 80-page annuals were a different matter. I would spend many hours tracking down as many of those as I could afford. I'll be talking about Annuals when we get to Number 4 in the chart ...


8. ACTION 301 - "THE SECRET IDENTITY OF SUPER-HORSE"

It's only now, looking back, that I realise what a strange child I was. I never really liked DC's war comics. In fact, I can't recall every reading one during the early 1960s. I much preferred the super-hero comics, especially Superboy, The Legion of Superheroes and Supergirl, possibly because they were closer to my own age. But reading those Supergirl stories now, they were clearly aimed at a female audience, with their focus on emotion rather than on action. In fact, they have a lot in common with the romance stories DC were publishing around the same time. And just in case we were in any doubt, editor Weisinger gave Supergirl a pony.

Action Comics 293 (Oct 1962) was the third appearance of Comet the Super-Horse. But reader reaction must have been positive for Weisinger to feature the creature on the front cover of the flagship DC title.
Comet the Super-Horse had a bit of a shaky start, as though DC weren't sure what to do with him. He first appeared, sort of unannounced in Adventure Comics 293 (Feb 1962), where he was enlisted by The Legion of Superheroes - along with the other super-pets - to battle some "Brain Globes" from outer space who could mentally control humans, but not animals. An editorial note helpfully tells readers that we are getting a glimpse into Supergirl's future life where she will have her own super-pony. That has to be every girl's dream, doesn't it?

Adventure Comics 293 would be the first time readers would see the Legion of Super-Pets, and also the first appearance of Super-Horse, not named as "Comet" at this stage.
But it would take quite a few months before Editor Weisinger would bring back Super-Horse, probably more due to the lag in production time than due to any sloth on the part of ol' Uncle Mort. I've noted before that initial sales figures on comics wouldn't be available until six months after the on-sale date so, given the timing, it looks like the next appearance was actually rushed into production.

The return of Super-horse was an elaborate, three-part epic in the back half of Action Comics, running from issues 292 to 294, quite an unusual move for DC at the time, as they rarely offered continuing stories. Full of ridiculous coincidences, prophetic dreams and alien invasions, the stories were a weird hybrid of girls' romance and superhero action.
Action Comics 292 (Sep 1962) gave us the Supergirl back-up story, "The Steed of Steel", and brought Kara and Comet together for the first time. The super-stallion merely appears to Supergirl in dreams for most of the story, though she notices the strange marking on his shoulder and names him Comet. But, towards the end of the tale, Linda Danvers visits a dude ranch with her parents and actually meets the real Comet, complete with the same strange markings as the super-horse in her dreams. It's the sort of implausible coincidence that most of the stories from the Weisinger machine were based on. Except that ... since Comet has telepathic powers, it was he who was planting the dreams of himself in Linda (Supergirl) Danver's head, as we would find out, next issue.

The extraordinary origin of Super-Horse is told in Action Comics 293 - a credulity-stretching tale of centaurs, ancient sorceresses and magic gone wrong. Just the sort of thing Mort Weisinger and his scripter Leo Dorfman excelled at. Artist Jim Mooney manages to tell the tall tale with his usual mixture of craftsmanship and dignity.
The story continues in the very next Supergirl adventure, "The Secret Origin of Supergirl's Super-Horse", in Action Comics 293 (Oct 1962). Starting with Linda Danvers and her parent still at the due ranch run by Mr Greede, Supergirl and Comet bond with a bit of shoe-ing and branding, then go for a ride where Comet reveals that he is both telepathic and formerly a centaur named Biron. As half-man half-horse, he admired the beautiful sorceress Circe from afar and one day chanced to save her life from a jealous rival. In gratitude, Circe had intended to transform Biron into a man, but the evil rival sorcerer messed with the potion and hapless Biron was instead changed into a horse. To try to make up for the error, Circe conferred the powers and immortality of the gods upon him. So it turns out that Comet is in fact thousands of years old and not Super in the Kryptonian sense. At the end of this second part, Comet is sold to a Hollywood animal trainer for a thousand dollars by Mr Greede, so we end on a bit of a cliff-hanger.

The epic adventure wraps up in the following issue of Action Comics when Comet, in his new career as a Hollywood super-star, loses his memory of Supergirl, and forgets he ever had super-powers. Nothing Supergirl does seems to restore Comet's memory and readers are left waiting for some future issue to resolve the dangling plot thread.

This odd mix of sorcery and sci-fi has Comet transformed into a man, and saving a non-powered Supergirl on the planet Zerox. The second half of the tale has Supergirl meeting Comet in his human form, as rodeo rider "Bronco Bill".
All of which is a long pre-amble into the actual subject of this chart entry. Action Comics 301 (Jun 1963), featuring the Supergirl supporting story, "The Secret Identity of Super-Horse". Comet had his memory returned in the previous issue, Action Comics 300, but I hadn't read that story back in 1963. And in fact, I hadn't known about Comet's amnesia until I did the research for this blog entry. Issue 301 is where I came in, and for some reason, the romantic nature of the tale appealed to me as a nine-year-old. The plot has Supergirl and Super-Horse despatched to the sorcery planet Zerox (yep!), to pay back an old debt to its ruler, Prince Endor. Under Zerox's red sun, Supergirl will have no powers, but as Comet will, she should be safe enough. The mission is successful and a grateful price offers Comet his own choice of reward. Comet's wish is to be human. The Prince grants this, but only when a Comet is in the heavens will Super-Horse become an ordinary human. Back on Earth, Comet is transformed into a man by a handy passing comet, and decides to keep this part of his life secret from Supergirl. But Supergirl - led to a rodeo by friend Lena Thorul's ESP powers - fails to recognise "Bronco Bill" as Comet, despite a suspiciously similar "birthmark" on the man's shoulder.

Weisinger and his scripter Leo Dorfman managed to pack more plot into eleven and a half pages than most modern writers could squeeze into a year's worth of comics. It's not necessarily the best approach to creating comics, but at least readers got their 12 cents-worth.
Bill's uncanny abilities as a horseman earn him the title of "King of the Rodeo" and Supergirl is named Queen, leading to a ceremonial kiss between the two. Finally, after Supergirl has left, the comet finishes its pass of the Earth and Bill begins to transform back to a horse, momentarily appearing as a centaur. Despite being captured by rustlers, once fully back in his guise as Super-Horse, Comet easily escapes and when next they meet, Supergirl is none the wiser about Comet's extra ability.

Hokey though all this is, it's surprising to me that I remember this story some fifty-odd years after I read it. It stands out in my memory far better than the Superman tale that preceded it in this issue of Action Comics. In fact, reading the entire book again, I had no memory of the Superman story at all (something about Superman being on trial for murdering Clark Kent). 
"The Secret Identity of Super-Horse" wasn't the best tale to come out of the Weisinger stable, but a worthy number eight in my DC favourites chart.


7. SUPERBOY 98 - "THE BOY WITH ULTRA POWERS"

Though I'm including two covers here, the story that I will be covering in this section is the first one, the first appearance of Ultra Boy in Superboy 98 (Jul 1962). The cover on the right is the one I thought I'd be talking about.
It's funny how your memory can play tricks on you. I have a strong memory of the first time I saw Ultra Boy, later to be a key member of the Legion of Superheroes. It involved him travelling back to Smallville - sometime in the late 1940s from the look of the cars and the fashions - to discover the secret identity of Superboy. The story actually happened in Superboy 98 (Jul 1962), but before I did the research for this piece, I would have sworn up and down that the incident actually happened in Superboy 117 (Dec 1964), just because I remember that cover so well.

The plot of the story has Ultra Boy, and an older guy in a similar uniform, showing up in Smallville with the stated intent of discovering Superboy's secret identity. We're led to believe that the pair have some sinister intent. Also in the mix is Pete Ross, a schoolmate of Clark's who secretly knows Superboy's identity. That's pretty much it.

In Superboy 98, writer Jerry Siegel (probably with the blessing of Mort Weisinger) misleads readers into thinking that Ultra Boy has sinister intent when he declares his mission is to discover Superboy's secret identity. However, this also seems to be an error, as I believe Superboy/man's identity is a matter of historical record in the 30th Century. A cheat or a mistake ... you decide.
The main reason I remember the story so well is because I instantly liked Ultra Boy as a character, though he wasn't fully thought-out in this tale. Later, the writers would limit his powers by allowing him to only use them one at a time. That way, he wouldn't upstage Superboy. By the end of the 13 pages, it's revealed that Ultra Boy is undergoing his initiation test to join the Legion of Superheroes. Interestingly, Ultra Boy also figures out that Pete Ross is guarding Superboy's secret, and as a reward for being such a good friend, he's invited to join the Legion as an honorary member. In later issues of Adventure Comics, we'd see Pete attending meetings. Yet Superboy never questions his presence. I don't know whether that plot-hole was ever resolved.

"Now remember ... whatever you do, DON'T mention that I'm secretly Superboy. Got that?" A slightly odd example of discontinuity in Superboy 117, where Ultra Boy and all his Legion chums seem to already know Superboy's big secret.
The other possible error is that in the later Ultra Boy story, in Superboy 117 - also written by Jerry Siegel - we see Superboy cheerily wave to his Legion friends, admonishing them to be careful not to give away his secret identity. It's possible that a Legion story established this over in Adventure Comics, between the two Superboy tales, but I'm just now re-reading those Legion stories and I didn't notice any mention of Superboy revealing his Clark Kent persona to the Legionaires, so I'm assuming it's taught in school history lessons in the 30th Century.

Nonetheless, an entertaining example of Silver Age silliness from the House of Weisinger, despite the cavalier approach to continuity.


6. ADVENTURE 306 - "THE LEGION OF SUBSTITUTE HEROES"

For some reason, this story really resonated with me. Because I was a bit nerdy and read "horror comics", a certain contingent of my classmates went out of their way to make me feel like some sort of outcast ... not quite good enough to mix with regular folks. This would have been at primary school around this 1963 - 1964 period.

One of my favourite Legion of Super-Heroes tales ever was hidden in the back of Adventure Comics 306 as a back-up feature. Though it rated a mention on the cover, in my view it should have been the cover story.
So when I read this tale of a group of super-heroes who "weren't quite good enough" to be accepted into the mighty Legion, I immediately identified with them. The thing is, though ... I didn't think they were "not quite good enough" at all. In fact, I thought they had some pretty cool powers. So, there's:
  • Polar Boy (billed as "Polar Lad" in error on the front cover) - has the power to lower the temperature and freeze stuff. He does pre-date The X-Men's Iceman by half a year, though Marvel takes quite a different approach to the idea.
  • Night Girl - Ah, Night Girl. Readers of my earlier blog entries will know how I felt (and still feel) about girls with raven hair. But I digress. Night Girl has super-strength when not in contact with daylight.
  • Fire Lad - Is able to breathe fire, so probably should have been called Dragon Lad. Doesn't rate a mention on the cover.
  • Chlorophyll Kid - Has the ability to make plants grow super-fast.
  • Stone Boy - Can turn his body to stone. Unfortunately, can't move when in that state.
The story - script by Ed Hamilton, art by John Forte - has a few hopefuls trying out for Legion membership, and all are rejected. A small group of the unsuccessful candidates meet outside the Legion clubhouse and decide to form their own Legion of Substitute Heroes, so they can help out when the Legion proper is not available.

There's a vibe going on with the Legion of Substitute Heroes that reminds me of the X-Men. They all outcasts, shunned by those they most want acceptance from. They both have a frosty guy and both the female members are the most powerful.
The Substitute Heroes monitor for disasters where they can step in, but Legion members always seem to get to the danger zone first. It's a disheartening experience. But when the main Legion is wrong-footed by alien invaders, the Substitutes manage to thwart a backdoor invasion of Earth without the Legion of Super-Heroes knowing they've been helped. The tale ends with the Substitutes watching and waving at the Legion's victory parade. It's a kind of strange ending. By working quietly in the background, and not taking any credit for fear of detracting from the fame and prestige of the original Legion, it makes the Substitutes appear to be better human beings than the Legion themselves.

In a later appearance, the Substitutes were offered another shot at Legion membership. Yet, by this time, their family bond was so strong, none would leave their comrades behind. That resonated with me, even as a nine-year-old, as being properly heroic. It made the actual Legion look bad, I thought.
The Legion of Substitute Heroes would return, first in Adventure Comics 311 (Aug 1963) and 313 (Oct 1963), then in Adventure 315 (Dec 1963), where they were once again allowed to try-out for The Legion. Only one made it, and they rejected The Legion's offer so they could remain with their Substitute chums. See what I mean about the Substitutes having more integrity than the actual Legion?

One of my favourite heroines of the early 1960s ... the incomparable Night Girl, far and away the best aspect of the Legion of Substitute Heroes.
A big plus for me during these early years of the Legion was the art of John Forte. Something of a figure of fun for some fans, because of his "stiff" figure drawing, I always thought it was Forte's art that made these early Legion stories. 

John Robert Forte Jr (pronounced "Fort") was born 6 Oct 1918 in Rockway Beach, Queens NY, and got in to comics in 1941, after a couple of years as a pulp illustrator, beginning with a few jobs for Timely, pencilling Destroyer stories in All-Winners 5 (Summer 1942) and Mystic 10 (Aug 1942). Later in 1942, Forte drew a few stories for Dell, before joining the US Army and serving in Europe for the duration. Honorably discharged in late 1945, with the Conspicuous Service Medal, he soon joined the Iger Studio, and started a long run on Fiction House titles, such as Jungle and Fight. Towards the end of the 1940s, Forte added Quality Comics to his client roster, also through the Iger Studio, contributing artwork to Modern Comics and Blackhawk. As the 1950s rolled round, Forte began to widen his horizons, selling artwork to Avon and Wanted Comics. In 1951 John Forte drew the newspaper comic strip, South Sea Girl, for Phoenix Features Syndicate.

Criticised by some fans for his curious "frozen" style of art, Forte was an accomplished and versatile artist, drawing romance, westerns and horror - as well as his better-known super-hero tales. Forte gave the early Legion of Super-Heroes a distinctive polished, and rather attractive, look. He drew especially gorgeous girls, probably due to his years of experience on romance titles for DC.
By 1953, Forte was working for Atlas/Marvel, drawing stories for a wide variety of Stan Lee's books - like Strange Tales, Uncanny Tales and Journey into Mystery. Quality went out of business in 1956, and Forte focused on drawing for Martin Goodman's Atlas Comics. But in 1957, the great Atlas Implosion meant that Forte had lost his most important customer. Barely missing a beat, Forte switched to DC, and began drawing romance tales, beginning with Girls' Love Stories, then progressing on to Heart Throbs and Secret Hearts. At the same time, Forte also began drawing for ACG on titles like Forbidden Worlds and Adventures into the Unknown. Forte toiled away on DC romances for over three years, augmenting his income selling a lot of material to second-tier publisher ACG. Then, in 1961, he got a break and was assigned a story by DC's Dark Overlord, Mort Weisinger, in Superman 143 (Feb 1961). Within a couple of months, Forte had his first regular DC gig ... Tales of Bizarro World, starting in Adventure Comics 285 (Jun 1961) and running to issue 299 (Aug 1962). But the cancellation of the series didn't bother Forte. The very next issue, he started as the regular artist on Legion of Superheroes, and continued to draw The Legion until his death from cancer on 2 May 1966. He was 47. His last Legion story was in Adventure Comics 339 (Dec 1965).

The Substitute Heroes would continue to appear, evolving with new members as it went, but for me, the original lineup was the best.

So ... once again, I've run out of time and space, so I'll need to leave the Top Five of my Ten Favourite DC Comics of the 1960s till next time.

Next: They just get better and better