Thursday, November 14, 2019

Mystery Men and Comics History

All-Star Squadron #3 (DC, November 1981, 60 cents)
"The Dooms of Dark December" Writer/Co-Creators/Penciller: Roy Thomas and Rich Buckler, Embellisher: Jerry Ordway, Letterer: John Costanza, Colorist: Carl Gafford, Editor: Len Wein.

The conclusion of the All-Stars's first mission finds the team—comprising Johnny Quick, Robotman, Libery Belle, and others—on the parallel world Earth-Two in late 1941. Per Degaton has traveled back in time with a group of cronies to engineer a pre-emptive Japanese attack on northern and southern California. Safe in his sub-oceanic carrier, he revels in the defeat of the Justice Society of America on an active volcanic island in the Pacific.

The Shining Knight and geologist Danette Reilly have infiltrated Degaton's submarine and face Wotan, Professor Zodiak, and Solomon Grundy. They escape and return with the All-Stars just as hypnotized pilots approach Monterey, California. Hawkman, Robotman, and Johnny Quick fend them off, and the JSA is revived by the Spectre to square off against Grundy and the others, who are soon returned to their own times as Degaton flees.

Even isolated from the first two issues, Thomas's story holds up reasonably well as a standalone, and Buckler and Ordway's artwork is solid, if not surprising. Page layouts often incorporate smaller panels—seven or eight per page—and the image of the Spectre looking above the active volcano on page 21 is wonderful. Thomas's retelling of Degaton's gathering of the other villains from across time—Wotan from the late '40s, Zodiak from 1948, Grundy from 1947, so so on—establishes some sympathy for the lesser criminals, mere pawns out of time, "expendable," even, in Degaton's plans.

The issue also includes a Red Tornado Hostess Cup Cake ad ("My computer brain informs me we must bait the Vacuum Vulture with something dark and delicious.") and a "Super-Villain Fact File" profiling Grundy, Zodiak, Wotan, and Sky Pirate. Page five includes an off-hand mention of King Canute, king of Denmark, England, and Norway, referring to the legend of King Canute and the tide, which in later tellings portrays him as a deluded monarch who believes he has supernatural powers.

Availability: This issue is included in Showcase Presents: All-Star Squadron Vol. 1.

All-Star Squadron #18 (DC, February 1983, 60 cents)
"Vengeance from Valhalla" Writer: Roy Thomas, Artists: Adrian Gonzales and Rick Hoberg, Letterer: John Costanza, Colorist: Gene D'Angelo, Editor: Len Wein.

This issue centers on the introduction of Tarantula, a mystery man whose costume is modeled after that of the Sandman, and an encounter with a bearded, burly Thor who attacks Tarantula mistaking him for the Sandman. That dual focus highlights one of the reasons I enjoy this series: its connection to comics of the '40s.

The second chapter, "The Secret Origin of Tarantula" draws lines between the Sandman and the newly introduced hero, who's actually an author researching a book on the "mystery-man phenomenon." Captions refer to older comics, including Star-Spangled Comics #1 (1941) and Adventure Comics #75 (1942), and Tarantula's origin directly links him to the Sandman, placing him at the scene of Dian Belmont's death.

Thor, then, introduced in a beautifully dramatic panel by Gonzales and Hoberg on page 4, might or might not be the metallurgist-turned-hood "Fairytales" Fenton. He is a formidable opponent, and the team decides to subdue him rather than attempt to persuade him that Tarantula isn't the Sandman.

Following an excellent cover by Joe Kubert, Gonzales and Hoberg's interior art is well done, and Thomas balances action pacing, historic context, and humor. (The "Are you the Flash?" running gag.) Art highlights include the above-mentioned page 4, as well as pages 7, 10, 12, 16, and 21. The issue ably packages Tarantula's origin and the encounter with Thor to avoid a parenthetical lull or other loss of pace or progress that such origin sidebars can bring.

The issue also includes a comic strip Bubble Yum ad, as well as ads for TSR Endless Quest books, the Original Magic Snake (featuring Superman), and a letter of comment from Lee Allred that says, "Your matching of Golden-Age comics history with new plotlines has been an artistic ... success." Hear! Hear!

Availability: This issue is included in Showcase Presents: All-Star Squadron Vol. 1.

All-Star Squadron #27 (DC, November 1983, 60 cents)
"A Spectre is Haunting the Multiverse" Writer/Editor: Roy Thomas, Guest Artist: Richard Howell, Inker: Larry Houston, Letterer: David Cody Weiss, and Colorist: Adrienne Roy.

After an encounter with Infinity Inc.—the "next generation of mystery men," according to Green Lantern—the Atom and Firebrand share a tender rooftop moment with an infant, the "Curtis baby," before the Atom is overcome from some sort of illness. Wonder Woman calls her robot plane and takes the Magic Sphere to lend aid, leading to the Justice Society of America—currently the Justice Battalion—to momentarily abandon its obligations to the War Department and General Brody.

Doctor Fate, again wearing his full helmet, has left to locate the Spectre, so Wonder Woman hooks a booster apparatus up to the Atom and the Magic Sphere to find Fate. With the help of a dead Jim Corrigan, Fate traveled through a window to another universe, eventually reuniting with the Spectre, who is none too happy to see him.

Apparently under the control of Kulak, high priest of Brztal, thought long dead, the Spectre attacks Fate, protecting Kulak's tomb. His strength failing, Fate summons a monster from the void to face the Spectre, who sends Fate hurtling "through an infinity of dimensions, to the end of unrecorded time." Kulak recovers, restrains the Spectre, and plots the death of Earth—much to the All-Stars's dismay.

Doctor Fate and the Spectre have long been two of my favorite DC characters, and this issues does them justice in terms of scope and scale, even paired together. The cover is awesome, and Howell and Houston capture the cosmic and supernatural magic of the two ably. Pages 12-15, 17-18, 20-21, and 23 are particularly excellent. That's more than a third of the book, so you get your money's worth art wise.

The inclusion of the Curtis baby and the Atom's illness—bedridden!—lends a humanity to the otherworldly nature of the story, reminding readers of what's really at stake as the hands of Kulak rip a gigantic hole through the very fabric of the sky itself. Lives are on the line!

The issue also includes ads for the Star Frontiers roleplaying game, Grit, two comic and media conventions; and a letter column. The title two-page spread also features a quote from Andrew Marvell's—appropriate last name, no?—poem "To His Coy Mistress": "Had we but world enough, and time."

Availability: This issue has not been collected, but I recommend Showcase Presents: The Spectre Vol. 1.

All-Star Squadron #64 (DC, December 1986, 75 cents)
"See You in the Funny Papers" Writer: Roy Thomas, Penciller: Wayne Boring, Inker: Tony DeZuniga, Letterer: David C. Weiss, and Colorist: Carl Gafford.

This issue is slightly outside the range of my area of interest when it comes to the 50-cent back issue box because the cover price is 75 cents; I tend to appreciate comics up to 60 or 65 cents most. But I picked this up because of Arvell Jones's cover and the cover line: "The funny pages will kill you if you don't watch out." How so very true.

The gist of the issue is that a failed cartoonist turned inventor, under the guise of Funny-Face, uses his Bio-Ray to bring comic strip villains to life in order to wage a crime wave. He invigorates Torgo, a giant enemy of Prince Peril; Machine-Gun Mike; the Black Raider, nemesis of the Solitary Rider; Goola, an alien from Streak Dugan; and Viper from Happy Daze.

Adapted by Thomas from a story by Jerry Siegel and John Sikela, the issue builds on the series' already strong ties to comics history. Page 2 features a full Detective Craig comic strip featuring artwork reminiscent of early Action Comics Superman stories, and page 3 includes a full comics page from the Daily Press comprised of five different strips, all adventure narrative strips—which are in short supply today.

Johnny Quick proposes to Liberty Belle before the All-Stars are called upon to defeat each villain in succession, with occasional appearances of Funny-Face in between. The running "I thought I finally got to meet the Flash!" gag continues, which is a nice touch. Even the leader of the comic strip syndicate, the Crimson Avenger's alter ego, is enlisted.

Firebrand and Tarantula, no longer in his previous Sandman garb, engage in some Batman-worthy deduction to identify their villains' next crimes, and despite Firebrand almost being flattened by the Bio-Ray, Funny-Face is defeated, his device destroyed.

Sure, it's a one-off story and villain, but I enjoyed this comic about comics. Funny-Face could make a return, and a writer like Jonathan Hickman or Tom King could bring back the All-Stars. Just imagine!

This issue also features a list of the "most popular comic strips of the war years," an ad for NBC's Saturday morning cartoon lineup, and a letter column. The series ended with #67

Availability: This issue has not been collected. I recommend collections of Joe Palooka, Blondie, Li'l Abner, Little Orphan Annie, Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, Moon Mullins, Gasoline Alley, Bringing Up Father, and The Gumps. Richard Lingeman's Don't You Know There's a War On? might also be of interest.

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