Monday, February 28, 2022

Showcase Corner - Codename: Gravedigger!

Men of War was the last of the classic DC war comics to arrive onto the comic racks. Like its kin it was an anthology which featured several characters during its run. Enemy Ace was a steady back up feature but I'll be turning my sights on him next month. Jerry Grandenetti turned in some outstanding artwork on features like Dateline: Frontline and Rosa. But the star of the show was Ulysses Hazard who was better known as Codename: Gravedigger. He got his sobering nickname in just the manner you'd expect -- he was a gravedigger who did service for the many men who fell in the line of duty. But he had that distinction because he was a black man in an army that was segregated and was redolent with the racism that brewed in the homeland. 

Codename: Gravedigger was the creation of David Michelinie and artist Ed Davis along with Romeo Tanghal who inked all the stories of Gravedigger in the series. Michelinie's story relates the saga of a young black man who as a boy was overcome by polio but works with a demon fury to build up his weakened body and eventually becomes a veritable powerhouse with a range of fighting skills. 

Despite these accomplishments he is relegated to support work and not given the chance to fight for his country as he'd prefer. His solution in the face of racism was to storm the Pentagon and so prove his mettle to the Undersecretary of War. He challenged the leadership to put him in the fight and so they sent him on a series of impossible missions. 

He fights in Europe against the Nazis, invades concentration camps, defends the American coastline from invasion, and rescues more than a few orphans during the war. His stories run the gamut of what one expects of a Bronze Age war comic. 

After a single issue by Arvell Jones the penciling job is given over to Dick Ayers. Eventually the scripting goes to Roger McKenzie. The stories they dream up for Gravedigger are high octane adventures in which he seems never to stop moving, 

To me at least, this seemed somewhat counter to the DC formula which seemed to focus on the time in between the fighting as much if not more than the physical combat. Perhaps it's the presence of Dick Ayers, the main man on Marvel's war comics, but this feature feels more like a Marvel book than a DC one. 

Gravedigger has that same imperviousness which Sgt. Fury and others at Marvel seem to possess as they wage the war against the enemy, and he has a tendency to mouth off quite a bit as he fights. 

The Joe Kubert covers are the most DC thing about this book aside from the back up features. 

Gravedigger fights alone for the most part, doing his best to salvage missions that seem impossible from the get-go. That he's a suicide warrior seems not to dawn on him. He just wants his chance to fight. 

His missions even come to the attention of Joseph Goebbels himself, the Nazi minister of propogranda, who goes on to become something of a main villain for Gravedigger. The fact a black man is so successful against the Nazis rubs Goebbels the wrong way indeed. 

Michilinie had begun a subplot which McKenzie continued about a wounded British officer who is recovering though he cannot walk. He is given the mission eventually of becoming Gravedigger's commanding officer though that is murky for some time. 

At some point he is replaced by a Nazi lookalike and Gravedigger not only has to unmask the villain but is charged with finding the disappeared officer named Burke. That trek leads Gravedigger into the depths of the German homeland where he must confront the horror of the camps. 

Jack C. Harris takes over the helm of the series alongside Ayers and Tanghal. If anything, the series become even more action-oriented. 

Gravedigger is joined in his fight by a trio of British soldiers who make the mag feel even more like Sgt. Fury. One of the three Brits wears a derby and another has beret, evoking Dum Dum Dugan and Percy Pinkerton. 

This little squad hangs out with Gravedigger for several issues off and on, though one never really gets the feeling their addition constitutes a permanent change. 

Gravedigger is ordered on a deadly mission in North Africa, and again his missions seem to suicide runs at best. 

This latest one though brings a permanent change to Gravedigger's face when he is wounded with a crooked scar across his face which resembles a cross, though he calls it a tombstone. Clearly there's a feeling Gravedigger needs a visual boost, though this change is rarely showcased on the covers. 

In North Africa Gravedigger is chasing some important documents, and this particular maguffin drives the plot for several issues. 

The stories while filled with action seem less and less signficant. Ulysses Hazard is more and more a cypher who fights for the sake of the fight. He bickers a bit now and again but follows through most often. 

One notable mission brings him into partnership with Mademoiselle Marie, a longtime DC war favorite. 

Truth told some of Gravedigger's missions don't really make all that much sense but as long as he's got Nazis to fight, the comic rumbles along. 

Toward the end of the run he's led to believe his Mother is dying and he's sent back to the states. This is a ruse for a bizarre Nazi plot to smuggle in doubles for loyal Americans keeping watch on the beaches for enemy incusions. Turns out his Mom is fine but Gravedigger has some fighting to do yet. 

After he single-handedly forestalls the Nazi invasion on the beaches of Atlantic City he heads back to the European front. 

One story even has Gravedigger live up to his nickname, but others end up six feet under and not Ulysses Hazard. 

One of the strangest two-parters yet has Gravedigger assigned to protect FDR. It's a wild and wacky misadventure of a war story and doesn't really have any sense of the essential realism to make a DC war story stick. It felt more like a chapter of All-Star Squadron. 

Under a George Evans cover Gravedigger completes that mission eventually with the world leaders safe and sound as we knew they would be all along. 

The series wraps up with Gravedigger taking command of Easy Company when Sgt.Rock is wounded. We get a nifty story which showcases each of the Joes of Easy as they try to take something called "Nickname Hill". Even with Easy backing him up it's clear that Gravedigger is a one-man act. The series is not nor is it especially good. Dick Ayers turns in unremarkable artwork that is inked with indifference by Tanghal -- they don't appear to be a good fit to my eye. The stories have too much of that zany feel one gets with Marvel war stories and that jars inside the illustrious DC war canon. 

Beginning tomorrow the Dojo takes a most sobering look at World War II and the Holocaust. 

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Sunday, February 27, 2022

The Sunday Funnies - Tarzan And The Lost Tribes!

Tarzan and the Lost Tribes is the fourth and penultimate installment in Titan Books series putting together the comic strips by Burne Hogarth starring Edgar Rice Burroughs mighty Ape Man. Hogarth had stepped away from the series for a few years but was hustled back onto the scene when Burroughs himself took an interest in the declining Tarzan comic strip and demanded some changes. Rex Maxon was hustled off the daily strip and replaced by Hogarth (sort of -- more on this next week) and Hogarth took over the Sunday page from Ruben Moriera with a new writer named Rob Thompson taking over for Don Garden who had helmed the series since its inception. 

This is the work that Hogarth is best remembered for, this is the stuff that made his rep for all these decades and made him a sought-after instructor for many up-and-coming artists. It's from these pages that the images I've long associated with Hogarth are derived. The first of the three continuities in this volume is titled "Tarzan and N'ani". The N'ani in the title is a queen of yet another remote tribe who worship a pagan god that resembles a giant ape. 

It's a rarity in the Hogarth Tarzan stories in that Jane makes an appearance is the center of the action, or at least the catalyst for the action as Tarzan fights to save her from the tribes that seek to sacrifice her. Needless to say that Tarzan does indeed save Jane (we knew it all the time) and poor N'ani meets a terrifying end. 

"Tarzan on the Island of Mua-Ao" is a departure from the norm in that Tarzan leaves the African continent entirely when he is abducted and taken aboard a submarine which voyages to the region near Polynesia. On an island there he and his abductors (some scientists) are captured by the Lahtians, a race that inhabit an underground grotto kingdom. Turns out that in addition to a bounty of tigers on the island there are two other societies (Orang-Rimba and Thalia) and Tarzan along with his ally, the giant Soros seek them out and band them together to overthrow the Lahtians. I noticed that in this series Hogarth loved to draw large cats and has Tarzan fight all manner of lions and tigers and such. 

Back in his home territories (more or less) in "Tarzan and the Ononoes" our jungle hero comes across perhaps the weirdest of the societies he's met yet in the comic strip when he enters the land of the bizarre Ononoes, a race of giant heads with arms who appear to achieve mobility by rolling around. I'm never quite able to picture that as the rolling always leaves them face up, but they are striking creatures. Tarzan is looking for a lost daughter of an explorer, and finds her and rescues her, albeit with the assistance of an ape-like tribe called the Wolos. 

One thing that is notable is that the format of the Sunday page alters to a horizontal one for the last few installments of this story. This new format as well as some of the dailies produced under Hogarth's watch will be the focus of the next report. 

But that report will be delayed for a month or so for reasons that will become clear. Next month in "The Sunday Funnies" something completely different. 

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Saturday, February 26, 2022

Luke Cage - A Hero For Hire!

I've always cottoned to comic book stories that deal with the logistics of vigilantism. The classic Fantastic Four story when they go broke and end up working for the Sub-Mariner at his movie studio is a delightful story which points back to the real world as most good stories do. The Avengers from time to time have had stories which mentioned the stipends the heroes get while they serve among the ranks. But no Marvel story hit on the economics of heroism more directly than Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. The Epic collection of Luke's earliest adventures emphasizes his name but when the comic first started to show up on comic book spinner racks it was "Hero for Hire" that branded the comic most forcefully. 

We meet Lucas when he is an inmate at Seagate Prison and he's there for a murder he did not commit, the murder of his beloved. His former compadre "Diamondback" set him up and now he stews about his unfair situation while using his fists to defend himself. He's offered the chance to participate in a lab experiment conducted by a Dr. Burstein and it turns out to give Lucas a steel-hard skin and enormous strength and endurance. He literally busts out of prison takes on the ironic name of "Luke Cage" and decides to help those who need help but for a price. Luke cuts a striking figure on the debut cover by John Romita and that look with the blue (black?) descending into his boots is the ideal. He looks rather like Fred Williamson. 

In the second issue he gets his revenge on Diamondback and makes it known to the criminals of Harlem that a new hero is on the block. This is "blaxploitation" at its finest, a yarn about an angry black man who has complicated issues with the civil authority and who seeks to do good but must needs look for himself in the bargain. These early issues really evoke that Shaft vibe. 

By the third issue he's fighting a mercenary named "Gideon Mace" and his mob and is not getting much money for his troubles. It turns out not surprisingly that Luke is a much better hero than businessman. Doc Burstein returns to the story and agrees to hold Luke's secret for a time and we also meet a bonafide love interest in Dr. Claire Temple. Mace appears to drown as the story closes. 

The art in the first three issues had been magnificently done by veteran George Tuska with inks by up and coming African-American artist Billy Graham. But in the fourth issue Graham does all the work in a story which has a Phantom haunting the very neighborhood in which Luke keeps his office. It's above a movie theater run by a friendly young kid named "D.W." after the infamous movie director D.W. Griffith. I'm not sure if the writer Archie Goodwin intends to invoke memories of Birth of a Nation but it's hard not to think so. 

Tuska is back in the fifth issue, but Goodwin is gone, replaced by Steve Englehart. This issue features one of Luke's most memorable villains, the robust "Black Mariah" who runs an ambulance scam in NYC. 

Graham takes the lead again with inks by Al Williamson for an indifferent product. The story too seems off the beaten path as Luke goes to the suburbs to battle armored ghosts in a story about a dangerous inheritance. 

One of my favorite Cage stories from this era is the delightful and dangerous Christmas yarn that Englehart and Tuska spin which weirdly evokes A Christmas Carol and Dr. Strangelove at the same time. 

Then we are treated to a nifty two-parter when Luke comes up against Marvel's top baddie, Doc Doom. First Cage is hired by Doom to chase down some errant robots hiding in Harlem but when the Monarch of Latveria tries to stiff Cage on his fee of two hundred bucks, the Hero for Hire hops over to the tiny kingdom to get his pay. The FF make an appearance and give Luke a rocket to get over to Latveria, This is an early effort to bond Cage more tightly to the larger Marvel continuity. 

One of my favorite Hero for Hire villains is "Mister Surete/Mister Muerte" or "Mister Luck/Mister Death". He's a gambling crime boss who depends on his good fortune to defend his casino operations and has a trick where he spins a wheel which charges up one of his hands with deadly electricity. One handshake is all it takes to burn you to a crisp. He's an arrogant villain who cannot understand why Cage keeps coming at him over the course of their two-issue battle. 

One of the more successful villains from this run is "Chemistro" who wields a handgun that can change one substance into another such as steel becoming glass. This Alchemy Gun is a deadly weapon and it's all Luke can do to survive long enough for the villain, a disgruntled ex-employee of a car manufacturer to be hoist on his own petard. Cage's appearance in Amazing Spider-Man is referenced in this issue. 

Luke Cage always seemed to have the most curious and interesting rogues to battle. Not least among them was Lion-Fang, a disgruntled scientist who used his knowledge to share intelligence with large cats and got from them some degree of ferocious energy. Needless to say, it didn't turn out for him in the end. 

The last three issues of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire were comprised of a three-part tale that reintroduced several characters from the debut issue such Shades and Commanche, two inmates of Seagate who escape and try to set up a protection racket. And Luke's arch nemesis Rackahm, the guard to actually was instrumental in making Cage so powerful turns up again, even more repulsive than before. But first Cage has to fight the giant lawyer named Big Ben who is harassing Mrs. Jenks, a woman Cage had done work for in previous issues. 

She ends up getting kidnapped and a reporter trying to blackmail Cage gets murdered by Rackham but Cage's girlfriend Claire Temple gets arrested for the crime. In an effort to clear her he gets into all sorts of trouble. Billy Graham turns in some of his best work while Tony Isabella steps in to script the story begun by Englehart. 

Frank McLaughlin handles the inks over Graham's pencils on the third part which introduces a new villain called "Stiletto". Both Shades and Commanche help Cage put down this baddie and by the end Cage's secret is safe once more, but a few people do have to die. 

Luke Cage (and the boffins at Marvel) decided that he needed a new monicker for his hero trade, so in this issue he ponders several options striking at last on "Power Man" (as in "Black" Power Man I reckon). It's fine and it's worked for him ever since, but I always preferred the more mercenary "Hero for Hire" label. In this issue Luke is duped into trying to steal some Stark armor and battles old Shellhead himself. George Tuska is back on pencils and Billy Graham bids farewell to Cage with a dandy inking job. The newly titled book slips to a bi-monthly schedule with this installment. 

Vince Colletta takes over on inks over Tuska's pencils for the next several issues. In eighteen Power Man battles yet another disgruntled worker, this one on the high steel as the "Steeplejack" seeks revenge for two of his brothers who fell. This issue is the first written by Len Wein. 

The team of Wein, Tuska and Colletta then gives us a two-part tale which has Luke Cage finally seek out the pusher who sold the drugs he was accused of possessing so very long ago. It turns out it is a macabre mobster named "Cottonmouth". 

Luke pretends to work for Cottonmouth in order to gather the evidence he needs to clear his record, but his mission is a fail, though he does bring down Cottonmouth's drug operation. 

Len Wein gets help from returning scribe Tony Isabella for the next misadventure. This issue also sees the arrival of Ron Wilson on pencils. Wilson is a much less accomplished talent than the veteran Tuska but Colletta's inks hold things together. This is a memorable issue in that the original villainous Power Man comes seeking some payback from Luke Cage for ripping off his title. The fight for it and of course Luke wins. 

Stiletto returns this time with his beefy brother Discus in tow. The two of them battle Power Man in an issue that's pretty much all action. We do find out what motivates Stiletto to some extent, and it means the return of a a character from Luke's past, someone from the very first issue -- the progressive warden from Seagate who allowed Burstein's experiments on Lucas to begin with. Reference is made in this issue to Power Man's appearances in The Defenders

Isabella and Wilson are joined by inker Dave Hunt for the last issue in this collection which sees Luke and his buddy D.W. head to Los Angeles following Claire Temple who had suddenly left NYC and left only cryptic note as to why. Luke and D.W. are riding a bus which goes by "Security City", a well-armed community for all the right people. It's run by old Cage villain Gideon Mace, who didn't die after all. (Do they ever?)

As I read these Hero for Hire stories again, I was struck by the anger Luke feels nearly all the time. He has that office in a low-rent part of NYC and it's a good thing since he destroys the fixtures at least once an issue. Either he does in a fight or he just loses his temper and smashes something. Luke Cage is a man who has been treated unjustly and is now working outside the law but also in tandem with it to bring villains to some degree of justice, albeit natural justice at times. He's a hero always seeking to treated on an equal basis with the other heroes in Marvel Universe who he percieves as having fewer obstacle in their way in that regard. 

"Blaxploitation" is about giving black audiences heroes they can root for and since many if not most Black citizens at the time were just getting adapted to a society which was just then legally beginning to treat them as regular citizens. It remains an incomplete process alas. Luke Cage, Hero for Hire speaks to that anger and frustration and presents that audience with a superhero who shows his face with pride and demands that he be treated with respect. 

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