Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Showcase Corner - Showcase!

Comic book lore informs us that DC's Showcase was the birthplace of the Silver Age of Comics. After a robust Golden Age bristling with all manner of superhero types, the tastes of the populace had changed and other genres such as war, romance, and humor had taken over the field with only a few vestige heroes such as Superman and Batman still running along. But in the pages of Showcase which was designed specifically to test new comic book ideas it was thought (after quite a bit of time actually) that maybe it was time to check the waters again and see if maybe, just maybe heroes were once again the order of the day. After much hemming and hawing it proved that they were, but in its earliest days that's not what showcase really showed. 

The first three issues of Showcase are pretty forgettable events. They are not bad comics by any means, in fact they are very well produced comics in a variety of genres which might well be called in the light of the modern day a bit mundane. Fireman Farrell was a brave sort who wanted to be a fireman like his dear old Dad and does just that. We are treated to three stories by Arnold Drake and John Prentice that are exceedingly well crafted but dull as dishwater. They read like episodes of Dragnet, the Dragnet of the 60's with all the moralizing. Then the second issue gives us trio of stories about critters by artists who at the time mostly did war stuff. Joe Kubert, Ross Andru and Russ Heath make some beautiful stories and the one about the runaway bear is quite entertaining, but it's pretty low octane. It's gets better in the third issue drawn by Heath when we get a full-length tale about a young man wanting to be a frogman and earning his way through some downright suicidal missions. But it's not anything new. 

Supposedly its's the fourth issue that marks the beginning of a new way forward. But I'm not convinced actually. Yes we get a "new" superhero in The Flash and it does indicate a conscious break with the past since the original Flash from only a few years before is now relegated to the comics pages of the comic story. The stories aren't anything really to get all that  excited about though. The Turtle, the first Flash villain is actually quite lame. It's mostly science which is on display. 

Following the Flash we get yet another familiar format with some crime tales all cobbled together under an unconvincing "Manhunters" title. If Showcase is supposed to quicken the audience for new things, this seems a particularly poor effort to do that. 

In the next two issues of Showcase though things begin to heat up. Jack Kirby was dabbling at DC at this time making some fine art for some heady science fiction stuff and then he and writer Dave Wood come up with the Challengers of the Unknown. And for my money it is the debut of the Challs that marks the real beginning of a new age, one that will one day be dubbed "Silver". The Challs are fresh and their adventures are delightful blend of science fiction and a little sorcery bonded onto a high adventure format that sings. These are full-length stories which is important in order to give the Challs time to show themselves as the plucky blokes they are, able to fend off fear and threats with equal aplomb.  

The Flash is back for another go and despite the arrival of a for real rogue in Captain Cold it's still less impressive to my eyes than the new look that Kirby brought to the Challengers stories. 

Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane debuts in her own series and while they prove successful as most things "Super" did back then, the stories are decidedly old-fashioned and despite competent art by Al Plastino and Wayne Boring among others there is no sense of anything new. 

The Challengers return in the nick of time for two more titanic issues, and prove to me that they are the breakouts in this series so far. They feel new and crisp and offer stories which I'd argue appeal to a wider ranger of readers than either the Lois Lane stuff or the Flash really. There's a hint of the war format found in "Frogmen" but blended with raw gleaming science fiction. The Challengers will break out into their own title, only a month after Lois Lane did likewise. They are the first truly new feature to do so. 

The Flash is back yet again for another try-out and it's really to Julie Schwartz's credit that he kept banging along on this. Ultimately he will be proven to have been right, superheroes were wanted again, but as Schwart clearly also knew science ficiton was what sold. 

And that is evident by the next three new characters to debut in the pages of Showcase. Space Ranger is a likeable comic with a familiar format which feels like a superhero story though it is set in the future. He has a secret identity as the son of a rich industrialist and along with his lovely secretary Myra and his shape-changing alien sidekick Cryll battles crime across the solar system and beyond. He has a good and sturdy rocket called the Solar King and he's one hundred percent good guy. His pulp roots are all too evident. 

But fresher than Space Ranger is Adam Strange. Adam is an archeologist who is whisked to the distant planet Rann by a random Zeta-Beam and he quickly finds a girl in the lovely Alanna and a purpose when he is called upon again and again to save all of Rann from all sorts of threats and disasters. He quickly dons a sleek and handsome suit and takes is place among the best heroes ever concocted. The artwork by Mike Sekowsky isn't as sleek as what will come with Carmine Infantino when Adam gets his own ongoing series, but it's very modern compared to the competent but somewhat lackluster efforts by Bob Brown for Space Ranger. The "Adventures on Other Worlds" feel more sophisticated and they are. 

This volume ends with yet another sci-fi concept given form with Rip Hunter Time Master. Rip and his allies Jeff Smith and Bonnie and Corky Baxter ride the time sphere back to prehistoric times and mingle with criminals and dinosaurs. It's old-fashioned adventure with a sci-fi garnish. The second adventure has the team tumble back into time finding Alexander the Great, Circe the Sorceress and even seeing the demise of Atlantis. Jack Miller wasn't stingy with the concepts and the artwork by Ruben Moreira in the debut and Sekowsky in the follow-up is fine. But this isn't as strong as Adam Strange or the Challs. 

But it does show that was was selling was science fiction, and the superheroes who would dominate many of the future issues of Showcase were as much science fiction concepts as they were superhero ones. Green Lantern, The Atom, Sea Devils, and The Metal Men will dominate the next many issues and like what preceded them the common factor is science fiction. 

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Monday, August 30, 2021

First Issue Special - Return Of The New Gods!

Jack Kirby was a big part of the early issues of 1st Issue Special as we've seen with three features in the first six issues of the run. Then his contract to DC fulfilled he left to return to Marvel, now minus Stan Lee who tended to his reputation and Marvel's doings in Hollywood and thereabouts. By this time Kirby was producing his wild Captain America stories for Marvel as the title rocketed to its two hundredth issue as well as some nifty covers for a bunch of different titles. DC decided that the New Gods characters who had seemingly demonstrated a lack of marketplace power only a few years before were ready to make another try, this time minus their absent creator. 

In this thirteenth and final 1st Issue Special we meet again the denizens of New Genesis such as Highfather, Scott Free (in costume on cover only), Big Barda and Lightray (cover only) and Metron. On the Darkseid of things there is of course the cruel dictator of Apokolips himself as well as Kalibak and Doctor Bedlam. In this issue Orion in new fighting togs (no helmet darn it which has always proven difficult for many artists to draw) taking the fight to Apokolips yet again but who finds that he cannot fulfill his long ballyhooed destiny to kill his father when Darkseid has taken steps to connect his beating heart to the Sun itself, making his sudden demise rough on humans all over. So it ends in a stalemate, but with the door open for more. 

And more is what we get as within months we have a new Mister Miracle comic and a new New Gods title both picking up the numbering of the abruptly halted original runs. The Fourth World will slowly but surely become an ever increasing part of the DCU with Darkseid in particular seen by the likes of Gerry Conway (who plotted this last 1st Issue Special as well as edited it in a deal with seemingly more latitude than even Kirby had). Denny O'Neil scripted it and an up and coming Mike Vosburg (hot off the previous issue's Starman) took the artistic helm.

And so it ends, a brief little series that packed some real punch with a gaggle of strong features some of which found a lasting time on the racks and others that withered away. One thing they almost all had in common was a grand sense of fun, something today's dour comics lack by the bushel loads. 

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Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Sunday Funnies - Prince Valiant 1967-1968!

Prince Valiant Volume 16: 1967-1968 by Hal Foster from Fantagraphics is one of the more action-filled editions of the run in a while. 

The saga begins with Valiant trying to keep a kingdom together by convincing a young prince to do his duty. A tragedy convinces him he should and becomes a worthy leader. Then Valiant seeking some fun pals around with an acting troop though trouble comes when he and another young noble named Reynolde switch roles when they realize they look alike. It's all in good fun until a seedy actor tries to run a scam on a noble princess. Valiant is playing matchmaker a bit with the help of Aleta and Reynolde gets girl as does another young but dull-witted warrior named Bala. There is a great hunt in Camelot and Prince Arn runs up against a Berserker and his Mother, two deadly enemies. Then it's time to head to the Misty Isles yet again as Aleta is alerted to possible trouble. Valiant though has another mission along the way, to try and rescue Sir Gawain who is being held for ransom by a slave master named Balda Han. Valiant himself is made a slave though when he is reunited with Gawain it's not for long when uncover an ancient sword in a hidden tomb. Valiant and Gawain free the slaves and set them up in their own society but it falls apart soon after they leave because the slaves seem to know little about how else to live. Then it's off to the Misty Isles where Valiant and Gawain help Aleta with her problems. When she was last there she arranged for lucrative trade deals but that wealth has been hoarded by a few nobles and not shared with the populace at large. The navy has become slack and in general the people are weak and ripe for plunder. Valiant takes steps to toughen the nave and Aleta hands down edicts that make the nobles responsible to the rest of the population which made their wealth possible. Prince Arn is instrumental in laying waste to a hostile fleet of ships using the same savvy as his father had done so many times. The Valiant clan head back to Camelot, all of the kids growing up. Along the way home Aleta and the twins Valeta and Karen are kidnapped by a Mullah and Valiant and Arn fight ferociously to save them. Katwin, the children's nurse is also saved by the ship's captain who loses an arm in the process. But as he heals Katwin and he find they care for one another. 

In the extras this time there is a short essay by Greg Hildebrandt discussing Hal Foster's influence on his artwork. And there is a lengthy section about Hal Foster and  Prince Valiant's influence on Mardi Gras with lots of neat photographs of some resplendent floats and costumes. Next time changes are in the air as Hal Foster begins his search for an artist to take the helm of the strip as it enters a new decade. 

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Saturday, August 28, 2021

Fourth World - Anti-Life Choices!

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Jack "King" Kirby and I can think of no better time to take another look at the series which produced the finest work of his long career. Let's begin. 

The blazing heart of the Fourth World saga is here, in the pages of New Gods. It is here that the war is front and center and waged by the most ferocious warrior in New Genesis, the enigmatic and unrelenting Orion. There is a secret at the center of the war between New Genesis and Apokolips and that secret is the twin origins of Orion and Scott Free. Orion fights for New Genesis but we quite soon that he is born of Apokolips. He is a god of two worlds and his nature is torn between them, though not his loyalties. As we see the choices made by Orion are the choices which will determine the outcome of this most cosmic of conflicts. 

New Gods was originally to called Orion and that makes enormous sense of course since his story is the center of the action. But the new title does allow latitude for other characters to be explored such as what happened later with the Black Racer. In this issue the fundamental structure of the great war is established with Orion, Lightray, Metron and Highfather being introduced and Darkseid getting a focus, although he is not seen directly. Kalibak gets to do the kudos when Orion invades Apokolips to save four Earth people who have been kidnapped so their minds can be searched for the Anti-Life Equation. When Orion saves them they head to Earth and that sets up the coming issues as Orion is now Earth's primary protector against Darkseid's forces. The most peculiar thing about the structure of this debut story is that it begins with an "Epilogue" that depicts the last great war that destroyed the old gods. It's pretty clearly the other side of Ragnarok shown sometimes in the pages of The Mighty Thor

Darkseid is front and center in the second issue. We see more of him and we all but learn that he has a direct connection to Orion. The scene with Darkseid quietly sitting in a living room chair is terrifying in its own way. It's pretty clear that Orion is Darkseid's son, but that is not directly stated. Desaad, who go on to play a crucial role in The Forever People is on hand and his devious invention to spread fear among the populace of Earth, as a means to ferret out the Anti-Life Equation. Orion is assisted in this issue by the four humans he saved before -- Dave Lincoln, Claudia Shane, Harvey Lockman and Victor Lanza. Dave is a private eye and so used to rough and tumble and Claudia seems to be romantically interested in Dave and so up for whatever comes. Harvey is a hearty youngster and willing to help leaving only poor Victor, an older and settled insurance salesman to seem reluctant. Despite that he pitches in. 

In the third issue we get a departure. Kirby was infamous for creating comics not unlike some artists make Jazz, a bright talent able to play traditionally but preferring inspiration and improvisation. So it was with the Black Racer who skis into view as the story of Orion takes a back seat. The Racer is the emissary of death hailing from the Source itself and this enigmatic figure chases Lightray who is saved only by intervention of Metron and a handy-dandy Boom Tube. The Black Racer ends up on Earth and with amazing speed combines with the essence of paralyzed Vietnam war veteran Willie Walker. This black man become the Racer and soon is off to pursue his singular mission. Orion and his hearty band find themselves up against The Badger, another agent of the Anti-Gang and they save the city from a mighty explosion. 

The saga really lifts off in the fourth issue (first of the bigger packages backed up by Golden Age Manhunter yarns).  The "O'Ryan Gang" is made up of the four humans Orion saved on Apokolips and using their help he able to infiltrate yet another Anti-Gang hideout, but this one proves to be a doorway to an even greater threat from the mind of Darkseid as Orion begins his epic struggle against the "Deep Six". We meet posthumously the New God "Seagrin" at the beginning of this story and we see Metron and his boy pal Esak tripping out on the Mobius Chair amongst some savage pre-humans. 

In this first issue of the series inked by Mike Royer, Orion battles "Slig" of the "Deep Six". Slig has two grim looking mitts, one that shocks and another that mutates. He has used this power to transform relatively benign sea life into robust monsters such as an enormous man-eating clam and a humanoid Shark. Orion defeats these altered denizens of the deep and manages to kill Slig as well. But not before learning that the Deep Six have made a behemoth, a monster which will terrorized the high seas. There is also a very short tale introducing the high speed New Genesis scoundrel Fastbak. 

We see this behemoth at work in the next issue, one of the best of the Fourth World stories. The oceans are torn apart as this monster destroys ships, subs and anything else that crosses its path. Orion teams up with Lightray, who himself had been captured off page by the Deep Six, to create a weapon that  will first lure the Behemoth and then destroy it. But before this they must defeat the remaining members of the Deep Six -- "Jaffar", "Gole", "Trok", "Brother Pyron" and "Shaligo the Flying Finback". As this epic struggle for safety on the seas is happening we also follow a family which is at war with itself, a Father and veteran of WWII who cannot understand his son's commitment to peace and as a consequence seeking Conscientious Objector status. The daughter and sister is caught between these two men. Ultimately the young man's bravery is more than demonstrated when he makes a sacrifice that in many ways presages the outcome of this titanic tale. 

"The Pact" has been said to have been Jack Kirby's favorite story of all the hundreds and hundreds that he created over the decades. It's a truly mythic story that happens outside the immediate continuity of the ongoing New Gods narrative and looks back into the deep past to allow us to discover secrets about the struggle between New Genesis and Apokolips. We meet Highfather when he was young warrior named "Izaya the Inheritor" and we meet his wife "Avia". We see Avia killed by Steppenwolf in an attack engineered by a younger Darkseid who is already scheming for his ultimate control of all things. We see "The Great Clash" which means cosmic escalating war between the two worlds until an exhange of children forms a pact which brings a tenuous and ultimately temporary peace. We see the youngster dubbed "Scott Free" given over to Granny Goodness and we meet a young and ferocious Orion as he meets Highfather for the first time. Ironically it is the first time we meet Highfather as well, as he has just been transformed by contact with The Source after he rejects the ways of war. This is potent an dynamic tale that never falters as it runs to its stunning climax. We get secrets and we get majesty. One of those secrets is a mere mention when we learn that New Genesis was comprised of the atoms from "Balduur" and Apokolips was fashioned with those of a "Sorceress", clearly meant to be Karnilla the Norn Queen. As a bit of a wee bonus Vykin the Black from The Forever People is on hand for a short tale of New Genesis. This issue is a stunner.

"The Death Wish of Terrible Turpin!" is another of the better stories Kirby produced during his Fourth World period. In this one we get to see humans attempt to come to grips with the threats from Apokolips, specifically Kalibak the Cruel who has come to Earth and who holds Dave Lincoln and Claudia Shane hostage in order to draw out Orion for a ferocious battle. His plan works but it also brings him to the attention of veteran police officer Dan Turpin who sees in the Apokolips crowd an enemy akin to the gangsters he battled many years before. Turpin proves to be an implacable foe and it is he who uses the power of the entire city to bring Kalibak low, at least for a time. It was not without great cost. The tempo in this story is rock solid and bounds to its exciting ending. In a bit of a tiny bonus tale the speedy Fastabk is chased by the Black Racer. 

In the next issue while Lightray and Orion mend their wounds on the high rise balcony of playwright Eve Donner, the main story switches to New Genesis and the weird population of "Bugs" who dwell in the underground. These insect-like creatures follow the dictates of their Queen Mother and her male counterpart the "Prime One". The focus is on one Bug named "Forager" who we discover is not a typical Bug, but someone who thinks like the more evolved denizens of New Genesis above ground. He takes tutelage from the Prime One, but is stunned when his mentor is killed according to Bug custom. Forager escapes the hive by Boom Tube and ends up in Metropolis, just ahead of a Bug invasion led by the deadly Mantis. 

Orion, Lightray, and Forager join forces to battle the invading Bug army led by Mantis and it's a mighty struggle as Metropolis is overwhelmed by the Bugs. Orion takes on the powerful Mantis head on while Lightray plots a way to turn back the tide of the Bug army. He does so using an experimental sonic weapon and his own ability with laser light to transmit a sound which proves toxic to the invading Bugs. While Orion and Forager fend off the Bugs, it is Lightray who saves the day and Metropolis from utter destruction. 

But sadly all things must end and so did Jack Kirby's opus The New Gods. The eleventh issue is the final one in the original one, a mere two years after it had begun the great war between New Genesis and Apokolips is summarily stopped by editorial edict as Kirby is instructed to fulfill the terms of his fifteen pages a week contract with new ideas and concepts, ones the DC mavens feel will be more successful. He will create The Demon which does have a measure of success and Kamandi, Last Boy on Earth which is a verifiable hit. But for this final issue he brings the brewing battle between Orion and Kalibak to an conclusion. Kalibak had been stopped by Dan Turpin but he escapes his prison and once more he and his half-brother Orion lock horns. This time the battle reaches its ulitmate conclusion when the Black Racer appears and takes Kalibak leaving Orion to contemplate his eventual confrontation with his father Darkseid who by the way kills Desaad when he is discoverd to be helping Kalibak secretly. We will have to wait over a decade to see how Kirby would have handled that confrontation. 

In 1984 Kirby is asked to finally at long last conclude his epic. Sadly he has lost much of his energy and his skills are diminished when he once again showcases the struggle between New Genesis and Apokolips. Trutht old he had already offered up a sequel of sorts to the saga in the pages of the independent comic Captain Victory, in which we are to understand that while the names are different due to obvious concerns, that the New Gods have found both victory and tragedy in the wake of the final confrontation. Now Kirby must tell this story of what happens when Orion at last confronts his father Darkseid with the clear intent of killing him. In the story "When Gods Must Die!" that happens and it is Orion who appears to have been killed, shot down by Darkseid's guards. In the course of the story we see Lightray again briefly and we meet Himon once again as well as his daughter Bekka for the first time. Desaad, Steppenwolf, and Kalibak are brought back to life, though they are mere shadows of themselves. Part of the intent of the story is to bring back some of these characters so that DC can successfully market them in upcoming toy lines. This story also leads into the Kirby finale to the New Gods saga, a graphic novel no less. 

I'm going to be blunt when I proclaim that Hunger Dogs ain't that good. I appreciate that at long last Jack Kirby was given a chance to finish his epic of the New Gods, but this finale is unfortunately a failed attempt to do so. Part of the problem is that he wasn't allowed to end it really, but had to concoct a ending of sorts that left most of the main players still at large for further exploitation by others at DC. But most of the problem is that by this time in 1985, Jack Kirby is no longer the "King" who ruled during his heyday. His skills have diminished along with his legendary stamina and the artwork in this yarn is a mere shadow of what had come before so many years before. Some of that is also owing to the fact that various pages of the art were done to one scale and later when the story was expanded more was done to a different scale. We have inking in this one from Mike Royer and  D. Bruce Berry and touch ups by Greg Theakston, which doesn't help things. It's ironic that when the "Fourth World" began it was touch ups by Murphy Anderson and others which were sore point with fans (me among them) and now it ends with Theakston doing much the same thing, albeit perhaps for better motivations. The story is full of sound and fury but doesn't really add up to much. Eventually we see a revived Orion in some degree of happiness with Himon's daughter Bekka. We see Apokolips largely destroyed by dint of its own bombs which are weirdly called "Micro-Marks" in this story for reasons I never figured out. And we do behold the utter destruction of New Genesis itself because of bombing from Darkseid, though Supertown itself survives and in fact thrives as the final page shows that the long absent Metron has found a new world to fill the void. The tales is a muddle and frankly Ididn't enjoy reading it all that much. A sad note to end on alas. 

And that's a wrap of sorts, though there is one more New Gods post this month when I take a look at the final issue of 1st Issue Special. See you then. 

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Friday, August 27, 2021

First Issue Special - Starman!

By the time 1st Issue Special #12 hit the comic book spinner racks the name "Starman" was pretty well established. I first encountered Ted Knight the Starman, a hero from the Golden Age in the pages of Justice League of America when he appeared alongside his Justice Society allies from Earth-2. He seemed a rock-steady hero armed with a snazzy if retro costume and a "magic wand" of sorts that drew energy from the very stars themselves. His "Cosmic Rod" had been turned over to a young hero named Star-Spangled Kid who used it as a member of the "Super Squad" a short-lived subset of the JSA created by Gerry Conway. 

It's Conway who is responsible for this new Starman, a blue-skinned alien who comes to Earth in an attempt to escape the clutches of his warlike race who are stationed on the Moon and are plotting the downfall of the planet Earth. His name is "Mikaal Tomas" and he and girlfriend Lyssa plotted to undermine their society's war plans  when Lyssa was killed and Mikaal was given a death sentence. He escaped and comes to Earth and for a time is kept safe by a well-meaning Earth family while the police and military search for him, having found his craft. He is being hunted by a special soldier named "Turran Kha" and as the two confront one another the story abruptly ends. 

Despite some tasty artwork by the young Mike Vosburg this Starman fails to hit and this is his only appearance in the pre-Crisis DCU. The name Starman will soon be given to yet another outer space hero, this one drawn by Steve Ditko. Later yet another alien adopts the name for a post-Crisis run in the 80's.  Later still Ted Knight and his son give the name new life in the 90's. 

Next time we wrap up these 1st Issue Special reviews with the last issue which features the return of some of Jack Kirby's most potent characters. 

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