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.|
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.
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.|
|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.|
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.
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".
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.|
|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.|
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.|
"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.|
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.
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.
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.
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.|
|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.|
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 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".|
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.|
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.
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.|
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.|
- 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.
|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 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.|
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.
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