Monday, April 30, 2012

Top 11 Comic Book Vampire Stories:

 Today is April 30th, and when evening comes it shall be Walpurgis Night!
 For those not in the know, Walpurgis Night is basically the springtime equivalent of Halloween. While there is some question as to which night has more occult significance (some go with May the 1st instead), who could resist the chance to (for all intents and purposes) celebrate Halloween a good five months in advance?
 One of the most famous uses of Walpurgis Night in popular culture comes from Bram Stoker’s short story Dracula Guest, which (debatably) was intended to be an early chapter in the book but was excised. While there was a fine comic book adaption of Dracula’s Guest in the 60s which I could have posted, that story is readily available online if you know where to look. I was originally going to post a review I’d done of Tomb of Dracula, but then I decided it would probably be more fun to compile a list of my 11 favorite vampire stories from comics. I’m going to be sticking to anthology horror comics (with one exception) and will avoid superhero comics and series expressly devoted to vampires, so you better not whine about me not including 30 Days of Night or the ‘Morbius’ stories from Spider-Man. Also, a lot of these stories are favorites of mine precisely because of the endings, so spoilers abound. As with most of my lists, none of these are ranked in any particular order.
 So it’s time to heat up some Robber’s steak, start playing “Dinner with Drac” on the jukebox (along with “Screamin’ Ball at Dracula Hall” by the Duponts, or ‘Dracula’s Daughter” by Screaming Lord Sutch), and dig in.
1) “Midnight Mess” from Tales from the Crypt #35 (19): A man goes to visit his sister, but finds the entire town mysteriously deserted. He then decides to eat at a local restaurant, only to discover the town’s dark secret…
 Due to frequent reprintings, as well as being adapted in the 1973 Vault of Horror movie from Amicus (which altered the plot to make the protagonist less sympathetic), this is probably the most famous of the EC vampire stories. Admittedly, this story is thin on plot (the town is deserted during the day because *GASP* *CHOKE* Good Lord* most everyone in town is a vampire!!!!), but it’s all worth it for one of the most famous final panels in EC history:
 This scene’s infamy actually extends well beyond the world of comics; for many years, stills of the VOH film’s recreation of the panel were used in various monster magazines during the 70s and 80s, becoming well known to people who never even saw the film or read the comic. A whole generation of horror fans longed to see the sequence in motion. Yet, oddly enough, for many years, various releases of the film cut the sequence out! Some fans even debated whether or not the scene had even existed at all and wondered whether or not it was just a promotional still. Thankfully, the scene has been restored on some bootleg copies:
 Wow, all that fuss over one little panel!
 2) “One Last Fling” from Vault of Horror #21(10): Harry and Olga are a husband and wife knife throwing team who fall prey to a vampire, and Olga becomes one. However, Harry still loves Olga and covers up for her murders, but is soon plagued with guilt.
 After she turns on him, he realizes there is only one way out…
 Yeah, you can see where this is going, so I didn’t mind spoiling this one. Nevertheless, you have to admit that that’s a pretty clever way of disposing of a vampire in public. Scenes of wonderfully pitch-black humor like this don’t hurt either:
 What makes this story stand out is that, rather than being your typical hateful and bickering couple found in most EC stories, Harry and Olga seem to genuinely love each other, and Harry’s guilt is believably portrayed. Don’t get me wrong, both characters are two-dimensional ciphers (most of Olga’s dialogue consists of “Yes Harry”), but this story has more pathos than was the norm for EC, with one exception…
3) “Two of a Kind” from Vault of Horror #26 (15):
 Actor Brad Phillips falls in love with reclusive stage actress Willow Dree, who is a vampire, while he is secretly a ghoul. One day, they find themselves snowed in at a cabin…
 This story is somewhat similar to “One last Fling” in that it has romantic elements and is drawn by Johnny Craig, but it is far better written and drawn, with the ending being both fiendishly clever and carrying some genuine emotional weight. To be fair, a lot of that comes from the fact that we don’t really get to see either of the two fiends doing anything evil (the reader never even gets to see Willow’s fangs), but it works. A very sick, but oddly moving story.
4) “V-Vampires” from Mad #3: Vampires walk the streets of London, engaging in bizarre antics, but who are the vampires? Meanwhile, a cockney couple named Renfrew and Godiva try to enjoy their time together. Not everyone is who they appear to be. Hilarity ensues.
 To be honest, most of the gags in this story consist of dumb puns and exaggerated British accents. Plot wise, it’s pretty much your average horror comic book story with some self-referential gags thrown in (our hero Renfrew learns how to kill a vampire from a copy of Vault of Horror). With more realistic artwork and some of the more overt humor cut out, this could almost be played straight.
 But what makes this story stand out is Wally Wood’s artwork. He manages to make weak gags amusing, good gags great and great ones hilarious. He singlehandedly saves this otherwise average “parody”. He also doles out the atmosphere, coming up with a few scenes that are actually better at building suspense than your average “serious” horror comic story. There’s a 3-D version of this story that needs to be seen to be believed. Rarely has London looked this atmospheric in the comics. It might be odd to say this about a humor story with cartoony art, but V-Vampires may just be the most beautifully drawn vampire story in comic book history.
 Also, Wood’s talent for drawing babes is in full force here. Godiva from this story would be a recurring background character in Wood’s work and in early issues of Mad, and she inspires fan-art to this very day.
5) “He wished he was a Vampire” from Strange Tales #7:
 A young boy named George is obsessed with vampires. Loathed by all around him, especially his abusive parents, he spends his days going to horror movies and obsessively re-reading Dracula. However, as of late, he has found himself actually feeling as if he is a vampire…
 Now this is a Stan Lee story that actually was ripped off from something; Richard Matheson’s short story “Drink my Red Blood” (also known as “Blood Son” and “Drink my Blood”) to be precise. Just change the protagonist’s name to Jules instead of George, and it fits. The biggest difference being that in the original story Jules’ parents were not abusive (just neglectful) and it’s left ambiguous if there’s anything supernatural going on at the end. Here, it’s explicitly supernatural.
 Nevertheless, this is still a wonderfully atmospheric story that probably provided a lot of wish fulfillment for kids in the 50s who read it; I imagine that a lot of kids whose parents objected to their reading horror comics probably were treated not too differently from George. One also has to wonder if this story inspired another George; Romero in this instance. Romero’s 1977 film Martin has many similarities to this story, plus Romero is an admitted horror comics fan.
 Amusingly enough, Marvel itself has recognized the similarities, and even brought the story into continuity! In a list of vampires in the Marvel Universe, George was given the last name “Amplas”, which is the last name of the actor who played the titular character in Martin. Quite an achievement for a five page horror story!
6) “If…” from Suspense #27:
 A man named Burt Lang crosses the street one night, and passes a beautiful woman. Perhaps he will fall in love with her, perhaps he will find out her family consists of vampires and werewolves…. How does he avoid it?
 When they tried, Atlas/Marvel was just as good as EC at horror comics. This morbidly humorous story might just be one of the most cleverly plotted horror comic stories of the 50s! You really won’t see the ending coming here, and not because it was pulled out of the writer’s ass with no build up. Arguably a more successful blend of (intentional) humor and horror than ‘V-Vampires!”.
7) “The Hidden Vampires” from Journey into Mystery #11:
 There are a whole slew of fine Atlas vampire stories I could have gone with, ranging from the various stories depicting vampires as members of tribes, to Bill Everett’s two darkly funny masterpieces “Burton’s Blood” from Menace #2 and “Vampire Beware” from Suspense #23. Yet, I’m going with this silly, merely adequately drawn story by Tony Dipreta instead. It bends the rules of vampire lore to a ridiculous degree and is filled with such goofiness as vampires pretending to have reflections by painting hyper-realistic portraits of themselves which they put inside mirrors.
 The story concerns a family of vampires who have sucked their whole town dry (somehow this doesn’t turn the victims into vampires themselves) and pose as normal members of the community. I’d love to read some kind of communist witch-hunt allegory into this, but I have to admit that I love this story simply because of it’s own goofiness. If you want to read a cheesy 50’s horror comic with vampires, make it this one. It was reprinted in the ridiculously easy to find Where Monsters Dwell #17 (I’ve seen copies of that damn comic in the comics bin of every single flea market and antique store that I’ve been to). Part of me wonders if this story’s ending inspired the ending of Hammer films’ Kiss of the Vampire (1963).
8) “The Coffin of Dracula” from Creepy #8-9:
 Ah, our first Warren story. While Warren published a great many vampire stories, many of which were good enough to have made this list (notably “Vampires Fly at Dusk” and “Pursuit of the Vampire” both from, believe it or not, the first issue), this two-parter (a rarity in horror comics) is just too much fun to resist; not only is it a direct sequel to Stoker’s novel, but features some fun references to other prose vampire stories like Varney the Vampire and Robert Bloch’s The Cloak.
 An evil aristocrat named Adrian Varney buys Dracula’s coffin from gypsies, and becomes possessed by the count’s spirit. The heroes of the original novel must pursue him, but thankfully Varney only has Dracula’s mind and possesses none of his powers….yet.
 Yeah, there are some silly moments (apparently Dracula has already become part of popular culture within the same universe as the novel, only a few years after the events took place) and it’s incredibly rushed, but it’s a ton of fun. This version of Dracula would end up appearing in Vampirella and would even get his own series in Eerie.
9) “Early Warning” from Creepy #13: A man stops in a strange town during a snowstorm, and soon finds himself accused of being a vampire. Is this some sort of dream, or something far worse?
 Graham Ingels, Bill Everett, Richard Corben, Jack Davis, Bob Powell and Bernie Wrightson are all justly celebrated masters when it comes to horror comics, but my personal favorite horror artist is the unjustly ignored Jerry Grandenetti. The man’s mastery of layout, architectural design, atmosphere and nightmarish imagery is unsurpassed in my opinion. His art genuinely gave me nightmares as a kid. This is one of his best efforts. The snowbound setting and hallucinogenic imagery makes this story one you won’t soon forget.
10) “My Ghostwriter: The Vampire” from The Unexpected #197: A writer of vampire stories soon meets with resounding success after hiring the ultimate ghostwriter; an actual vampire.
 DC’s horror comics were usually dreary affairs mostly enlivened by good artwork. This story, despite it’s similarities to Warren’s “The Success Story” from Creepy #1 and Anne Rice’s Interview novels, is a diamond in the ruff.
 But you want to know what really makes this story stand out? It was adapted for an episode of TV’s Tales from the Darkside!!! As much as the general public looks down on horror, this represents a landmark for comic books: A non-superhero story from comics adapted to television. How many other comic book stories can you say that about? This is especially funny considering that the early 80s was hardly a good time for horror comics.
11) “Vampire with Iron Teeth” from Dark Mysteries #15: A vain, evil duke in the 18th century is obsessed with both maintaining his wife’s beauty and snuffing out a local vampire. When the duchess’s teeth become rotten, the court surgeon replaces them with iron teeth. Initially, the duchess is grateful, but soon grows ashamed of her new teeth and instead requests ivory teeth, so the surgeon removes the iron teeth. The surgeon is unable to find any ivory teeth, so he decides to give the duchess the teeth of his dead daughter…who had been killed by the duke along with residents of an entire village out of fear that one of them may have been the vampire.
 Yeah, this is a pretty silly story as you can tell from the plot synopsis. Whereas “The Hidden Vampires” is silly but charming, this story is just plain slapdash, with gaping plot holes and pointless scenes, not to mention the fact that the entire point of the story is that the duchess becomes a vampire after she gets rid of her iron teeth and has them replaced, so even the title is inaccurate.
 But being a So-Bad-It’s-Good story is not the reason this story made the list. The reason this story made my list is because it might actually be one of the few genuine cases of the 1950s anti-horror comic book crusaders being right about horror comics influencing kids. In 1953, an incident in Glasgow occurred in which a group of local children went on a vampire hunt, vandalizing graveyards, specifically looking for a 7 foot tall vampire with “Iron Teeth”. This incident has become known as the “Gorbals Vampire scare”. Could the children have gotten hold of Dark Mysteries #15 and read this very story?
Well, it’s certainly possible. Then again, as I’ve pointed out, the vampire in this story does not have iron teeth, and at no point is she mentioned as being 7 feet tall. The children’s stories also made no mention of the vampire’s gender either. It’s also been pointed out that monsters with iron teeth are actually fairly common in folklore, with several even being centered around Scotland (There’s a poem called “Jenny with iron teeth”, and legends of an “iron man” who eats children), and one even being found in the Bible. So, is it a coincidence or not? You decide!
 Well that’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed the list. As Zacherle would say, good night whatever you are!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Showcase Presents: Enemy Ace Vol.1 review:

While I consider myself second to none in my affection for Silver Age DC, I would be lying if I said that they surpassed what Marvel was doing at the time. I don’t deny that some fans and historians have unfairly dismissed DC’s output and overlooked Marvel’s flaws, but by and large, Marvel really did deserve all of the hype it was getting at the time. Spider-Man, The Hulk and Dr. Strange were being discussed in magazines like Esquire, studied by sociologists and held up by some as counter-cultural icons, while nothing DC was putting out was (unless you count the camp craze surrounding the Adam West Batman show). Apart from the typical overzealous fanboys engaging in company wars online (many of whom probably have never read a Silver Age comic from either company, and whom you couldn’t get to read one unless you put a gun to their head) and the typical revisionist bullshit from The Comics Journal, few people have challenged this. Oh, there were definitely comics from DC that attempted to ape Marvel’s style and did so quite well (Doom Patrol, Metamorpho, Metal Men, Creeper), but almost none surpassed them.
 I say almost, because there was one series DC put out during the Silver Age which, conceptually at least, blew Marvel’s entire anti-hero shtick out of the water. That series was Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert’s Enemy Ace. Marvel’s heroes were losers, monsters and everymen, and although making them like that was an unusually dark move, none of Marvel’s series were as dark and instantly provocative as the premise for Enemy Ace; a WWI aviation series, told through the eyes of a German, and one who routinely shot down scores of allied fighters.
 Perhaps this wasn’t too revolutionary, WWI did seem set in the distant past in comparison to WWII, and WWI was so full of gray areas and not seen as a “good war” that it didn’t seem too offensive to portray the enemy in a positive light, indeed, the book and film All Quiet on the Western Front were already considered classics and had also depicted the war through the enemy’s eyes. Hell, even during WWII there were enemy officers who were admired by the allies (Rommel, for instance). Still, in a country already being torn apart by protest over Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, Enemy Ace was the comic book equivalent of lighting a match and dropping it in a powder keg. A comic book about people who were (supposed to have been) the bad guys in real life? And one that portrayed them sympathetically? For comics, this was a revolutionary concept.
 The series followed (and was narrated by) Rittmeister Hans Von Hammer, a German aviator known as “The Hammer of Hell” to his men. Von Hammer was as cold as the grave and brooded in a way that made even Peter Parker’s most intense introspective moments in Spider-Man seem almost puerile in comparison. Von Hammer sometimes thought he could hear his own plane calling him a killer (he might have been on to something there; his plane did appear to have a face on it!). Indeed, even Von Hammer’s own men seemed to fear him. Women would often be morbidly fascinated by him, then repulsed. His only friends were a fawning Smithers-like butler named Schmidt and a wolf that Hans considered a kindred spirit, and even the wolf was often implied to be a figment of his imagination or supernatural in origin.
One might wonder how a comic starring such a character managed to squeak past the code, but how it was handled was rather ingenious, since it helped to define the character. Von Hammer was characterized as neither a hero nor a villain in the stories, but as insanely noble; treating his dogfights as duels between gentlemen, allowing retreating pilots to escape and constantly saluting his opponents as he shot them down, shifting blame not towards himself, but to “the killer skies”, which he regarded as the true enemy, constantly trying to “claim” all who flew. It was a subtle way of saying that the only one whom Hammer bore any malice towards was God himself. Other comics would probably have found some contrived way to absolve Von Hammer of blame by not having him actually shoot down his opponents, or made all of the pilots whom Von Hammer killed out to be scumbags who deserved their death. There was none of that here; all pilots on all sides were shown to be hard-working, loyal men simply doing their duty. A memorable moment early in the series had Von Hammer nearly go mad when he finds that he shot down an enemy pilot who was retreating.
The moral of pretty much every story

 I suppose one could argue that this approach also painted an unrealistic portrait of war by depicting all involved as noble, selfless and honorable, saluting their opponents while killing them, but the main point came across: War was a brutal, bloody business fought by ordinary people, each of whom saw themselves as the good guy. With exceptions such as EC’s war titles like Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, this level of balance had almost never been seen in war comics before, hell it’s almost never seen in “adult” war movies now.
 Artistically, these comics were easily the high point of Joe Kubert’s career. Kubert could evoke a simultaneous feeling of grit and elegance like no other. He could draw elaborate, symbolic splash pages wilder than any of Jack Kirby’s two-page spreads or Dick Sprang’s full page drawings of oversize props, and make it feel totally natural and not in any way out of place. Truth be told, the art loses something in this black and white Showcase edition, but the stark lack of color does fit the mood.  
Kubert near his peak

 If there was any flaw to these Enemy Ace stories, it was that there were no stories. There was just one. Pretty much every Enemy Ace episode had the same plot as the last one, often with the only varying details being whether it was the British or French who Von Hammer’s unit would be going up against. This was a trademark of Kanigher and Kubert’s war comics, which sought to tell the most realistic war stories as possible under the restrictions of the code and the fact that the main characters had to survive each story. They captured as much as they could about military life, and related it to page and panel, including the monotony, the routine. Read in one sitting (which these stories shouldn’t be), this approach can be very grating. It got to the point where I was differentiating stories and individually “rating” them based solely on minor things like how many men Von Hammer’s squadron lost or how the sky was drawn. The killer *sighs* were what threatened to claim me.
 At least, this is how I felt about Von Hammer’s adventures as related in Our Army at War and Showcase. Later, the series was moved to the ironically titled Star-Spangled War Stories, and well, there are some pros and cons about what happened to the Enemy Ace stories when this happened.
 On the pro side; the plots became more and more varied. Von Hammer was given more characterization, he became more humanized, becoming almost fatherly to his men, and the familiar “heroes on both sides” mentality got shaken up, with Von Hammer put through moral dilemmas that would drive most men insane. For instance, in one story, Von Hammer is downed over enemy territory and taken in by a kindly old couple…then he discovers that their only son was a pilot he had just previously shot down. Sometimes Von Hammer’s biggest conflicts would be with the men on his own side; such as a glory hungry bully, and a deranged superior officer who blamed Von Hammer for his son getting downed, who then began intentionally sending Von Hammer’s men on suicide missions. Von Hammer’s own upright morality also got thrown into question, such as in one story where he completely abandons all of his principles and slaughters an entire enemy squadron (who were retreating) because one of the aerial maneuvers he had to pull caused his puppy to fall out of the cockpit.
 On the con side; In order to appeal to superhero fans, the Star-Spangled stories soon gave Von Hammer costumed or bizarre antagonists to fight. There was his archenemy The Hangman, a disfigured French count who wore a hood with a noose attached to it (and who seemed to be a bit in love with the Hammer of Hell), there were men dressed in skeleton costumes, and of course; the infamous St. George.
The Hangman

 It was all very well-written and entertaining, especially the Hangman stories, which saw the hooded pilot and his relationship with Von Hammer change from almost literally faceless antagonism, to considering each other worthy opponents, to one of the single most downright homoerotic protagonist-antagonist relationships in comics, and ultimately ending with the Hangman disappointingly becoming yet another cackling lunatic out for revenge. Von Hammer’s outfit also steadily became more elaborate, making him resemble something of a superhero.

 Did all of this destroy the realism of the series? Perhaps, but it also probably kept the series from folding early. Besides, the quality of the storytelling went up, and that’s what really mattered.
Foes, friends, and perhaps more...

By the way, it might be a good idea before reading these stories to do a little research about the various types of planes and military terms used during the era so that you won’t be too confused. I’ve been a lifelong history buff, particularly of WWI, and some of the terms here left even me saying “huh?” a few times.
 These 60s-70s era stories are masterpieces, and make up the bulk of the book. The rest of the stories are from various failed attempts to revive the character, and while they don’t necessarily feature the silliness of the Star-Spangled stories, they’re a bit too generic, with rather simplistic espionage plots, and carry little of the emotional weight of the originals. Some of the artwork, such as John Severin and Russ Heath’s efforts, is quite good, while others, such as the work of a young Howard Chaykin, are almost embarrassingly bad. It’s all passable stuff, but not a patch on the Kubert stories. The final story is a classic Neal Adams Batman story called “Ghost of the Killer Skies”, which I’ve seen reprinted about a million times, but which was still refreshing to see in black and white. I have to say that I’m proud of DC for not cynically playing this single story up in order to entice Batman fans, but instead letting the collection stand on it’s own merits, which are considerable.
 Also, let’s just pray to the killer skies that Warner Brothers doesn’t try and make an Enemy Ace movie and screw it up the way they did DC’s other historical fiction-based anti-hero; Jonah Hex. I doubt that audiences would be interested in seeing a film where the hero kills a bunch of allied pilots, but then again, audiences flocked in droves to see American soldiers slaughtered by the dozen by the “heroes” of Avatar, so maybe Enemy Ace’s time has come.
 If you can get past the monotony of some of the earliest stories (or just skip to page 96 after reading the first few stories), you’ll find this to be an amazing collection of some of the very best comics of the era, with even the later non-Kubert stuff being at least entertaining. I cannot recommend this volume enough. 5/5.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Black Canary Archives Vol.1 review:

 Sometimes less really is more. Of all the DC Archives, it’s this one which has been praised the most, with only one negative review that I know of, and even then that shows that more people are discussing it than is the norm for these books, which most average comic readers tend to regard as historical artifacts (which is a not unwise attitude to take sometimes) or paperweights. This is pretty funny, because the Golden Age stories that take up the bulk of this book are guilty of almost all the things that Golden Age comics get slammed for: Repetitive plots, little to no characterization, lousy humor and puns, unnecessary exposition, crude artwork, stupid logic, little continuity, and no supervillains. Not to mention that, when you really think about it, Black Canary is both an incredibly silly and mundane character in many ways (I’ll get to that).
 Yet somehow, it’s all incredibly readable.
 Granted, this could be because of the brevity of these tales, but there’s a genuine breeziness to them just the same. I almost read the whole volume in one night. Like I said, I guess less really is more.
 The earliest stories in the collection are the Johnny Thunder back-ups from Flash Comics, where the Canary debuted as a supporting character. DC had an explosion of female characters in the late 40s, and the Canary was just one of them. Johnny Thunder (not to be confused with DC’s awesome western hero who I just discovered in The Greatest 1950s Stories Ever Told) was a bumbling idiot who could call upon a magic thunderbolt (a genie) by saying “Say you” (Don’t look at me, I didn’t write this stuff). While he made for incredibly obnoxious “comedy relief” in the old JSA stories, I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed most of the Johnny Thunder solo stories that I’ve read. Maybe some characters just work better in their own environments. The Black Canary debuted in these stories as a somewhat typical femme fatale described by Johnny’s thunderbolt as a “beautiful villainess who the hero always falls in love with”. She functioned as sort of a female Robin Hood, only targeting crooks instead of rich people, which is an interesting gimmick, but one which the subsequent stories dropped in favor of her being a typical crime fighter. 
 I enjoyed these stories a lot more than I thought I would. Oh, they aren’t quite the laugh out loud funny misadventures the creators probably thought they were, but they aren’t tedious crap either. There’s a kind of demented logic to them, and you really do want to see Johnny succeed for once without his victory being a happy accident or having him being rescued by Black Canary or the Thunderbolt (actually, there are several stories where the Thunderbolt doesn’t appear and one story where the Black Canary doesn’t appear at all! Was this a mistake, or was DC testing the waters for a Johnny Thunder Archive?). As you may have guessed from my list of vintage films comics fans should see, and from my often mentioned affection for Cole’s Plastic Man and Eisner’s Spirit, I have a weakness for 1930s and 40s screwball comedies (and yes, I will be seeing the upcoming Three Stooges movie, even though my brain tells me I shouldn’t) and noir, so these stories gave me my fix. I could totally see these stories having been made into a movie during the 40s, with say, Danny Kaye as Johnny and Veronica Lake as Canary.
 Apparently Black Canary was so popular that readers demanded she be given her own series, and she was soon given one, with Johnny Thunder’s series soon being cancelled, although the new all-Canary stories did feature a similarly bumbling private eye named Larry Lance. Black Canary was also given a secret identity as Dinah Drake, an uptight brunette who worked as a florist and wore a wig in combat. I’m going to chalk up her ability to keep that thing on as her superpower.

 While the stories are very formulaic and the mysteries are often baffling for all the wrong reasons, it’s quite fun, with a surprising amount of story being told without seeming rushed. Larry Lance is also an amusing character; although always depicted as needing Canary’s help, he’s never depicted as being as incompetent or stalker-ish as say, Steve Trevor. If someone like Gail Simone was writing these stories today, she’d probably make the poor guy out to be a total idiot and have him get castrated or something. Instead, Larry’s mooching off of Dinah Drake comes off as oddly endearing and makes for a few well-timed moments of humor; he’s sort of like Kramer from Seinfeld if Kramer decided to become a private eye.
 Black Canary herself is also interesting, making some genuinely funny Damon Runyon-style quips during combat. I was also surprised to see that she used her special “Canary choker” around her neck quite sparingly, when in the 60’s, she seemed to have almost as many gadgets in that damn thing as Batman has in his utility belt! It’s also amusing how much of a ball buster she is in her Dinah Drake identity, like if Iris West or Carol Ferris were the protagonists of their own series. Perhaps the hair/wig color is meant to be symbolism about how she becomes more fun when she’s a blonde. Is that sexist? A little, but not as much as some of the stuff I’ve seen in various modern X-Men books that are well-regarded for having strong female characters (“she’s a cold-hearted woman whose name is FROST! How clever!”).
 Also, even though comic book fans have long made jokes about all the times Hal Jordan has been hit in the head, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character get conked on the head in as many consecutive stories as I have here!
 All in all, this stuff is more entertaining than it has any right to be, especially for a character, who, when you think about it, is both too low-key and too ridiculous. She doesn’t have any superpowers (except for one anomalous incident in one story where she summons birds with a Green Lantern-like oath), but she really doesn’t have much of a costume either to make much of an impression, especially when the mask she wears in the first two stories is ditched. Oh, her outfit is sexy all right (just look at all the fan-art online of BC), but it doesn’t scream “superhero” or even “thief” so much as it does “mildly risqué pinup girl”. Even the canary motif is downplayed, with only the Canary symbol on her choker bearing any clue to her gimmick, and even it just looks like a duck that just got back from doing an Al Jolson impression, with the art often being too indistinct for it to even be noticeable.
 Speaking of the art, while it often does screw up details like the choker, it more than makes up for it because of the fun it offers in watching a young Carmine Infantino experiment. Infantino's art here is crude, sketchy and sometimes excessively derivative of Milton Caniff, but it has a vigorous, simplistic power with more attention to layout than was the norm. Infantino manages to balance both the humor and the noir quite well, often giving things a grimy, but attractive look. It displays hints of the greatness Infantino would later reach in the 50s and 60s. At the same time, it also occasionally shows early signs of the bad habits Infantino would later come to exacerbate in the 70s and onward, with sketchy and contorted limbs, too much negative space, and hideous facial expressions.
 After the stories from Flash Comics end, we cut to the 1960s when Black Canary was featured in Brave and the Bold with Starman. Despite the gross mismatch in their powers, they have some decent chemistry together (with plenty of scenes that support the retcon that they had an affair). The first story is slight, and pretty silly, but enjoyable. I reviewed it here. The other B&B story pits the two against the Wildcat villainess called the Huntress and the Green Lantern villain Sportsmaster, who have married. This one is pretty dull, with Wildcat and the two villains coming off as far more interesting and likeable characters. Murphy Anderson does draw a very pretty Canary though.
 The last two stories are taken from Canary’s short-lived solo feature in Adventure Comics, and feature our heroine teaching judo at a gym for women that is actually a front for some female criminals. It’s pretty dated and silly, with stupid plot holes, although I must admit that the identity of the leader came as a surprise. The masks the villains wear also bear a rather striking resemblance to Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow mask in Batman Begins. The real interest in the story though, lies in that it’s illustrated by Alex Toth. As usual with Toth, it’s far, far better work than the story deserves. The guy really was a genius.
 Although there are no standout stories, Black Canary Archives is a perfectly enjoyable collection which, if you can get it for cheap, is a perfect litmus test for those of you wanting to get into Golden Age comics. The very simplicity makes it all palatable. Even though something tells me I really shouldn’t, I give the book a 4/5.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Greatest 1950s Stories Ever Told review:

 After the success of The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told, DC put out this follow up containing stories from the 1950s (what, they couldn’t call these stories the Greatest Atom Age Stories Ever Told?). Because the 1950s saw a great decline in the popularity of super heroes, there was a much wider variety of genres on newsstands, and for the most part, this volume tries to reflect that, containing more non-super hero stuff than its predecessor had.
 Problem is, the super hero stuff is still center stage, to an overwhelming degree.
 Why is that a problem, you ask? Because even though the 1950s saw comparatively little actual super hero output, DC crammed in all the hero stuff it possibly could into this volume, even if it wasn’t in any way representative of the decade. For all its flaws with living up to its “Greatest” title, Greatest Golden Age stories still reprinted enough stories that you got a genuine feel for the 1930s-40’s comic book aesthetic, as well as an ambience of the culture of that era. 1950s Stories has little in the way of that. When I think 1950s, I think hot rods, tail finned cars, malt shops, alien invaders, diners, guys wearing fedoras, over-the-top appraisals of suburban life, and cold war paranoia. Turn right the fuck away if you expect any of that in here. Instead, get ready for randomly chosen stories which, if you didn’t know better, could have come from either the previous decade, or the 60s!
 Oh well, here we go. Just for fun, I’m going to include an extra rating that measures the “fifties-ness” of each story, although it won’t affect the overall score.
Superman & Batman in “The Super Batman” from World’s Finest #77: While trailing a mad scientist who has a machine that absorbs energy (he intends to steal Superman’s powers for himself), Batman gets exposed to the machine and gains Superman’s powers, while Supes himself becomes powerless.
A fun story. The bad guys seem unusually clever and competent, Batman’s inability to handle Superman’s powers is realistically explored (and results in some well-timed humor), and Superman’s attempt to cover up his vulnerability also results in some funny moments. I gotta say that I like Curt Swan’s Batman, who looks far more gothic than was the norm for him in this era, maybe it’s just because the scenes of him flying give Swan an opportunity to have fun drawing the cape.
 Also, check out these bystanders who were obviously recolored for this reprint to look African American, but instead look like they’re in blackface:
 I love it when attempts at diversity end up creating racism where there was none. Such is the folly of the PC brigade. Even funnier, I think that the woman is supposed to be Lois Lane. Wouldn’t be the last time that she did this.
1950s-meter: Some people are seen wearing fedoras, and Superman drives a distinctly 50’s esque car with his logo on it. This image was included on the back cover in monochrome. 2.5/5.
 Rating: 4/5. A fun read that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is a lot more competently plotted than other stories that use the same gimmick.
 Tomahawk in “The Black Cougar” from Star-Spangled Comics #113: In Revolutionary War-era America, a respected warden is really the costumed criminal called Black Cougar.
 Oh, and some guy named Tomahawk is the hero, but he doesn’t appear much in this story.
 Also, is it just me or does the Cougar’s costume look familiar?
1950’s-meter: It’s a period piece, so that doesn’t apply here.
Rating: 3.5/5. An interesting story focusing almost solely on the villain. The last few panels with the Cougar switching his identity to escape almost feel like the kind of escape a super hero would make. I had no idea Tomahawk had any recurring villains outside of Lord Shilling. The Frank Frazetta art is also nice, although the colors bleed into the ink a bit too much and spoil the effect.
 John Jones; Manhunter from Mars in “Escape to the Stars” from Detective Comics #228: John Jones (Martian Manhunter) trails a mad scientist who is trying to create a machine that teleports objects into space, but soon finds himself caught up in a crisis of conscience when he realizes that the scientist’s machine may be the only way he can ever return to his home planet.
 Now this story took me for surprise. I’d always thought that Martian Manhunter was just a typical superhero who had a secret identity as a detective, and that he engaged in actual detective work about as much as Batman (which was almost never). Here, he really is a detective, following clues and coming to conclusions through logic and application. Also, apart from a flashback to his origin, we never see him in Martian form. I’ve done some research, and apparently this was the norm in his early years. I just love the concept; an alien who poses as a human and uses his powers to aid him in otherwise normal detective work. It’s far more interesting than him just turning into his Martian form to fight crime.
 But what also makes this story stand out is John’s moral dilemma. How many other heroes were faced with something like this at the time? Here he’s found his only way to return home, but using it would allow a dangerous criminal to go free, and he’s grown too fond of his adopted planet to let that happen. A pretty interesting conflict at play here.
 1950’s meter: Trenchcoats, fedoras, classic cars and Martians. 3.5/5.
Rating: 5/5. Damn good for it’s time, and prescient of Marvel’s “flawed heroes” approach. Most interesting Martian Manhunter story I’ve ever read. I’ve read mixed reviews for the Showcase editions reprinting Martian Manhunter’s early stories, but now I’m curious to read them in order to see how long this “detective with Martian powers” premise lasted before it became generic superhero stuff.
 Sugar & Spike in “Lobsters Away” from Sugar and Spike #3: Spike gets a pet (baby) lobster, and he and Sugar help return it to the sea.
 Sugar and Spike was a humor title about two babies who spoke in gibberish that only they and other babies could understand, often being smarter than the adults around them. It’s like a precursor of that god-awful Baby Geniuses movie, only actually charming, or Rugrats without porn jokes.
 1950’s meter: An American middle class family can afford to eat lobster at a high class restaurant with a French waiter without it being a special occasion. It depresses me that that has become a thing of the past. Otherwise, not much. 1/5.
Rating: 4/5. Cute.
 Lois Lane in “The Girl in Superman’s Past” from Showcase #9: Lois and Lana Lang meet for the first time. For some reason, Lois allows Lana to room with her and helps her find a job. They then do a lot of weird, suicidal shit in order to get Superman to rescue them, in order to prove that Superman loves one of them more than the other.
 Meh, not much to say here.
 1950’s meter: Women in this story wear 50’s fashion, women in this story sell stoves on TV, women in this story are stupid. Oh yeah, it’s a 50s story. 5/5.
Rating: 3/5. Meh.
 Green Arrow & Speedy in “Mystery of the Giant Arrows” from Adventure Comics #252: A bunch of giant arrows start falling from out of the sky. Green Arrow and Speedy investigate, and find they are coming from another dimension. They hop a ride on one and are whisked off to that other dimension to investigate. Jack Kirby drew all of this, while his wife inked it.
 I know Green Arrow was a Batman ripoff, but I didn’t know that he also ripped off Batman’s silly sci-fi adventures. Kirby’s art is okay, but it lacks a certain passion.
 1950’s meter: This story has weird things coming out of the sky, which reminds me of the song “Purple People Eater”, and you can’t get any more 50’s than that. The arrows symbolically represent missiles, which is what 1950s America feared would land every day. Also, it has reaction shots from a panicked populace (in fedoras). A 1950s story if there ever was one. 5/5.
A scene from countless B-movies.

 Rating: 3/5. Once the novelty of seeing Green Arrow in a sci-fi story drawn by Kirby wears off, there isn’t much to say about it.
 Green Arrow & Speedy in “Prisoners of Dimension Zero” from Adventure Comics #253: ‘Yup folks, the previous one was a two-parter (and you know they wouldn’t have included it if Kirby hadn’t drawn it). In the other dimension, GA and Speedy learn that the arrows were being fired by children (though it’s never resolved whether or not the children will continue to keep firing the arrows or not), then meet up with that dimension’s version of Green Arrow, creatively named “Xeen Arrow”. Xeen Arrow fights a villain and then shoots our heroes back to Earth.
 Despite the fantastic sci-fi setting, the best part of the story is when Green Arrow worries about how if he dies he’ll no longer be able to make appearances at toy stores to autograph things for kids.
 1950’s meter: Not a blip on the radar.
 Rating: 2/5. Well that sure was pointless.
  Congo Bill & Janu in “Gorilla City” from Congo Bill #6: Congo Bill and his sidekick Janu get kidnapped by intelligent gorillas. It’s quite dull, really, if a precursor to the Grodd stories in The Flash.
 The most interesting thing about this story? Janu has been given a dark skin color to imply that he’s a native, but you see, in the original stories, he was white. He’s portrayed as childish, unintelligent, unable to speak except in monosyllables and dependent on Congo Bill, a great white hunter, to help him. Thus, by making Janu black (well, actually, a weird purple-ish hue) in this reprint, DC has made this story extremely racist, whereas if they’d kept his original coloring, this wouldn’t have been an issue at all.
 That’s Political Correctness for you though, making you think while making you laugh, and by ‘laugh’, I mean ‘facepalm’, and by ‘think’ I mean ‘giggle at the irony’.
 1950’s meter: Non-applicable here. Arguably it does show off DC’s gorilla obsession from the 50s, but since this is a jungle series, it isn’t nearly as wacky as other instances of this trope.
 Rating: 2/5.
  Captain Comet in “Devil’s Island in Space” from Strange Adventures #28: An H-bomb mysteriously disappears and Captain Comet investigates, finding it to be the work of some invisible alien criminals who have been exiled to Earth.
 While Captain Comet is sort of a bland character (his power is basically that he’s perfect at everything), all of the stories I’ve read featuring him from his 50’s Strange Adventures run have been gems. This story is well plotted, suspenseful, eerie, and it’s concept of Earth being used as a prison planet manages to be intriguing without shoving a “humans suck” message down our throats. Pretty good.
 1950’s meter: Invisible alien invaders, H-bombs, cold war paranoia. The fifties-ness is strong with this one. 5/5.
 Rating: 4.5/5. Good solid storytelling, an interesting concept and creepy aliens. I want a Captain Comet Archive.
 Nighthawk in “Riddle of the Crystal Ball” from Western Comics #72: In the old west, two criminals named Jed and Lute (sometimes spelled “Luke”) visit a fortune teller to find out the identity of the masked crime fighter Nighthawk. The fortune teller turns out to be Nighthawk himself, who gave away his own secret identity in order to trap the crooks.
 Remember when I briefly talked about western comics that were indistinguishable from super hero comics? This is one of them. This could easily be a Mort Weisinger Superman story in some ways.
 1950’s meter: Inapplicable again because of the setting.
 Rating: 3/5. Slight, but enjoyable. Gil Kane’s art saves it.
 Wonder Woman in “Top Secret” from Wonder Woman #99: Wonder Woman answers fan requests about why she has a secret identity. It turns out she made a bet with Steve Trevor (who constantly calls her “angel”) that she would marry him if he could pick her out anywhere, like in a crowded beach, a costume contest, etc. Hijinks ensue.
 This was surprisingly fun, even though Steve Trevor’s rape face will haunt my dreams. Seriously though, this story wasn’t as obnoxious as similar “romantic games” stories from this era of comics, like the Lois Lane story I’ve already covered, although Steve Trevor’s dialogue sometimes sounds like something a villain would say( “You’ve got until tomorrow noon to outwit me, angel, or be my bride!”). The underrated Ross Andru does a great job, although oddly enough I find his Diana Prince sexier than I do his Wonder Woman.
 Also, even though he’s a guy, the way he constantly (and creepily) calls Wonder Woman “my angel” makes it impossible for me not to hear Steve Trevor’s dialogue in the voice of Jennifer Beals in the movie Vampire’s Kiss: “Dream of me my angel”. Brrrr.

1950’s meter: None.
 Rating: 3.5/5. Fun.
 Blackhawks in “The Raid on Blackhawk Island” from Blackhawk #109: Blackhawk disappears, and the weapons collected in the Blackhawk trophy room are suddenly revitalized and put to use by a villain called the Question Mark. The rest of the Blackhawks fend for themselves.
 I’m not going to give away the ending, but let’s just say that Superman was far from the only hero in this era that was capable of “dickery”. I’d be interested to learn if the weapons in the Blackhawk’s trophy room were actually from previous stories or not.
 1950’s meter: Not a blip.
 Rating: 2.3/5. A decent twist, but tedious to read. That Mad parody of Blackhawk really was one of the most accurate ones they ever did.
 Fox & the Crow in “Three Hundred Dollars” from Fox & the Crow #14: Fox checks his monthly expenses, and realizes that the reason he’s always coming up short on money is because of the Crow. Hijinks ensue as the Crow swindles him yet again.
 Fox and the Crow was a funny animal strip about a crow that was always ripping off a fox through schemes. I’ve gotta say that the ones I’ve seen, including this one, are fairly cleverly plotted. I like how it emphasizes how dumb and malicious the Crow is even though he always wins, unlike in other funny animal cartoons where the “trickster’ character is just a jerk we’re expected to root for without being given any reason to (Jerry the mouse, anyone?).
 1950’s meter: $300 is considered an obscene amount for monthly expenses. Oh, if only it were so (and it probably wasn’t even back then). 2/5.
 Rating: 4/5. Fun, if not exactly on par with Carl Barks’ duck stories.
Superboy in ‘Superboy and the Sleeping Beauty” from Superboy #22: Lana Lang ends up getting pricked by some herbs which put her into a coma, so Superboy arranges a school play of “Sleeping Beauty” in order to make people think Lana is just rehearsing a role.
 It’s as dumb as it sounds. But hey, it has midgets. Midgets in uniform.
 It also has Superboy controlling Lana’s comatose body with strings like a puppet.
 I’m not going to rate this one. You make this story up in your head based off of these images and rate it yourself.
 Viking Prince in “The Hammer of Thor!” from Brave and the Bold #3: Viking chieftain Olaf is captured by the evil Baron Thorvold, who has some sort of grudge against Jon, the Viking Prince. Jon sets out to rescue Olaf by promising to give Thorvold the Hammer of Thor.
 An interesting story which makes me curious to read more about Viking Prince, but the real star here is Joe Kubert’s art. It still looks like a more rugged version of Steve Ditko’s style, but is still quite effective in it’s own right.
 1950’s meter: Inapplicable again.
 Rating: 3.5/5. Quite interesting.
 Aquaman in “The Sorcerer of the Sea” from Adventure Comics #245: Aquaman comes across a showman named Jason Deeter, who claims to have the ability to make sea life do his bidding with Voodoo dolls. He soon demonstrates this ability on a disbelieving Aquaman.
 At this point Deeter seems to be the villain of the story, but all he really wants is to humiliate Aquaman a little, nothing evil. Things change when he is forced by some gangsters to use his powers for crime…
 So far, I was really enjoying this. It’s refreshing to have a villain whose motives are believable, and Ramona Fradon’s art is great; particularly her design for Deeter, with seaweed hair and a face that could easily come from a sea hag. However, this story ends on a cop-out that, well, let’s just say that this story is the comic book equivalent of a 1935 movie called Mark of the Vampire.
 1950’s meter: In pre-industrial waste, pre-Jaws America, more people took to the beaches then than now, so it’s believable that someone like Deeter could attract a large audience. 1/5.
 Rating: 3.5/5. The ending is a bit disappointing, and doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, but it’s still a lot of fun, mostly for Fradon’s artwork.
 Johnny Peril in “Queen of the Snows” from Sensation Comics #107: Adventurer Johnny Peril becomes obsessed with the legend of Subara, the queen of the snows, and he’ll stop at nothing to prove she exists.
 One of the things that disappointed me about this volume was that they didn’t reprint any anthology horror or sci-fi work from the time. This story suffices nicely, because it’s really an eerie horror story. Johnny’s obsession is believably portrayed, and the story has a wonderfully ambiguous (if cliché) twist. Beautiful art by Alex Toth doesn’t hurt either.
 1950’s meter: Merely fulfilling the horror story quotient makes this count as a “50s-ish” story. After all, the 50’s were renowned for their horror comics. 3/5.
 Rating: 5/5. Great art, good writing and great atmosphere all come together. It reminds me a little of Robert E. Howard’s “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”.
 Batman in “Two-Face Strikes Again!” from Batman #81: Harvey Dent attempts to prevent a bombing, only to become disfigured once again. Two-Face is back for keeps! Mayhem ensues as only Dick Sprang at the height of his talents could depict it.
 On one hand, this story is disappointing in that it treats Two-Face simply as an over-the-top madman with a gimmick and instills in him none of the sympathetic qualities of his early appearances. On the other, this is as close to a definitive Sprang-era Batman story as you can get: Oversized props, weird death traps and a whole lot of bad puns and stupid clues pieced together to form a “mystery”. As in a lot of these stories, Batman comes off as the real villain of the piece because the villain is having so much fun that it becomes infectious. It’s pretty clear that the reason Two-Face was brought back was to capitalize on the 50’s trend for horror comics, as the splash page shows. Or maybe it’s because DC feared someone would rip him off again.

 1950’s meter: Harvey’s scarred visage fills the “50s horror comic’ quotient, plus I just like the subtext of how he becomes Two-Face again: Here’s your seemingly average, seemingly ordinary guy in a suit (not grey flannel though) and fedora with a monster lurking just beneath the surface, with a blast (representing the bomb) that sets his inner fiend loose. That’s pretty 50s for me! 5/5.
 Rating: 4/5. Dick Sprang at his peak.
 Shining Knight in “Knight of the Future” from Adventure Comics #159: Merlin accidentally sends Shining Knight and his sidekick Butch into the future, where Earth has become a vaguely medieval monarchy where “all evil” has been wiped out and weapons are banned. Initially treated as enemies, Shining Knight and Butch overthrow some anarchists. Butch also falls in love.
 Shining Knight was one of those cool, mystical superheroes whose career was frittered away fighting mundane threats, but he became a cult hit when Frank Frazetta drew a handful of his adventures (I had a collection of those, and the covers really tried to sell it as a medieval fantasy, even though most of the stories took place in the present). The art here is okay, but nothing outstanding. The story itself is nothing special, although I do find it odd how dystopian and oppressive this supposedly “perfect” future without weapons is depicted.
 1950’s meter: Visions of the future with flying cars, and an oppressive dictatorship seen as a good thing. Not too fifties, but close. 2.5/5.
 Rating: 3/5.
 Phantom Stranger in “When Dead Men Walk” from Phantom Stranger #1: Three men die in a plane crash, but their ghosts (apparently) have unfinished business, so they go about doing the tasks they had wanted to do in life, albeit in far more sinister ways.
 Like the Aquaman story, this story’s resolution is a bit disappointing (and nonsensical), but it’s fun while it lasts. Infantino’s work here is wonderfully moody. Only some bleed through color which ruins the spooky shadows keeps the story from achieving its full potential, but it works.
 1950’s meter: 50’s jets and 50’s fashion, lovingly illustrated by Carmine Infantino. 3/5.
 Rating: 3.5/5. A story drawn by Infantino during his peak decade is always worth reading.
 Tommy Tomorrow in “Marooned in the Fourth Dimension” from Action Comics #238: Tommy Tomorrow tries to find out if a machine that sends things into the fourth dimension works or not, but ends up stuck there instead as part of a scheme. It’s quite dull, really.
 1950’s meter: Pretty high, actually. Tommy Tomorrow’s future just looks like a slightly futuristic version of the 50’s, with robots that could easily have come from a pulp magazine of the time. 4/5.
 Rating: 2.2/5. Dull, if better plotted than usual. I read that some of Tommy Tomorrow’s stories were drawn by Virgil Finlay. Since it’s obvious that the Frazetta drawn stories in this volume weren’t reprinted because of their literary qualities, why not reprint a Finlay story?
 Johnny Thunder in ‘The Unmasking of Johnny Thunder” from All-Star Western #121: In the old west, crime-fighter Johnny Thunder is secretly schoolteacher John Tane, the sheriff’s son. Sheriff Tane disdains John for being a pacifist and considers Johnny his “true son”. Then one day, Sheriff Tane is apparently killed, and Johnny realizes he’ll never be able to tell his father the truth.
 All I knew about this character coming in was that Alex Toth drew a lot of his adventures (always a plus), that he used hair-dye to protect his secret identity, and along with Tomahawk and Nighthawk (Marvel had kids for their westerns, DC had hawks) was DC’s biggest western hero prior to Jonah Hex. I can see why this strip was so popular, as there’s a really well-executed Father vs. Son dynamic at play here, and one that carries far more emotional weight than the typical “hero poses as a wimp” scenario. The final panel, which in other comics, would be depicted as a knowing wink to the reader, is one of the most quietly somber things I’ve seen in a while.
 On top of that, Alex Toth just draws the hell out of this story. Okay, I want an Archive now.
 1950’s meter: Not really applicable here, although the whole concept of a father wanting his son to be a fighter instead of a pacifist would certainly be relevant in the coming decade!
 Rating: 5/5. Damn good.
 The Flash in “The Coldest Man on Earth” from Showcase #8: I already covered it before. It’s as goofy (and surprisingly educational) as it got back then. 
 It still has no business being called “great”, and isn’t even intrinsically 50’s. Why not reprint the Flash’s own origin story? It’s an undisputed classic, has a great 50’s ambience what with scene in the diner, the radar room, etc. “Around the world in 80 Minutes” from Showcase #13 would also have been a good choice, with a late 50’s Mad-style irreverence to it, and Barry and Iris even go see the 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days (presumably on re-release).
 “Castoff Love” from Girl’s Love Stories #27: A girl named Nan has been forced her whole life to accept her sister Nola’s used things, even her used boyfriends.
 Now here is where DC really got it right for this volume; we have a story from a non-super hero genre that has no recurring characters, and is perfectly evocative of the era. This is as perfectly 50’s as it gets if you’ve seen soap operas from the time period. It’s cliché, inadvertently sexist while trying to be empowering, the heroine ends up winning the man who would probably be the least likely to be interested in her (for a reason you won’t believe) and the art looks like the stuff Roy Lichtenstein would soon be ripping off. Nola’s mistreatment of Nan is so over-the-top it caused me to have Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? flashbacks.
 1950’s meter: An almost definitive 1950’s romance comic. 5/5.
 Rating: 4/5. So perfectly campy it’s hard to hate. And people criticize superhero comics for having silly dialogue and poor understanding of psychology when they try to be serious. The funny thing? It’s really not much sillier than modern “feminist” indie comics that you see The Comics Journal salivating over.
 King Faraday in “Spy Train” from World’s Finest Comics #64: King Faraday boards the orient express in order to catch a spy, along the way he narrowly evades several attempts on his life and flirts with an actress.
 In an interview, Carmine Infantino once said that one strip he wished he could have developed more was the King Faraday strip, which he felt was ahead of it's time. I agree, every Faraday story I’ve read has been a gem, and I wish it had been developed more. The only real flaws with this story is that the splash page gives away the villain’s identity, and the colorist forgot that Faraday’s hair is white and gave him blond hair.
 1950’s meter: 4/5. Feels like every Hitchcock film and spy story from a men’s adventure magazine of the era rolled into one.
 Rating: 4/5. This stuff really needs to be collected along with Infantino’s Phantom Stranger work.
 Green Lantern in “Summons from Space” from Showcase #23: Hal Jordan battles yellow pterodactyls on Venus. Notable for being the first time Hal was sent on an intergalactic mission, the first time he was contacted by the (unseen) guardians and the debate over who inked this story. My guess is it was Kubert.
 A slight, enjoyable tale, the real saving grace being the art. They should have gone with the Invisible Destroyer story from the same issue instead, as it’s a “great story” in that it features Hal Jordan’s first super villain, and a 50’s story in that it features a cool sci-fi menace, a title that could adorn a B-movie poster easily, and has a bomb going off, complete with mushroom cloud.
 You also have to wonder why they even bothered to include any Green Lantern stories at all, since the character only appeared in two issues during the whole decade, both at the very end of ’59. See what I mean about this volume just being a slapdash showcase for hero stuff?
 1950’s meter: Not a blip.
 Rating: 3.3/5.
 Sgt. Rock in “Calling Easy Co!” from Our Army at War #87: Sgt. Rock recalls the time he sent four men on a mission and found several cracked the next day, while one became an unlikely hero.
 As with most Sgt. Rock stories, it’s not really the plot that matters here, it’s the grit, the mood, and the attempts to capture the grittiness of military life, including the monotony. It’s not the kind of thing one wants to read often, but something has to be said for reading it every once in a while.
 1950’s meter: Hey, it’s a period piece, so the use of the meter here is inapplicable.
 Rating: 3.5/5.
 Jimmy Olsen in “The Jimmy Olsen from Jupiter” from Superman’s Pal; Jimmy Olsen #32: Jimmy Olsen gets turned into an alien, covers himself in bandages, and discovers he can read minds. Hijinks ensue.
 Man, they really had to cover the whole damn “Superman family” of titles, didn’t they? Oh well, this is surprisingly fun if you don’t take it too seriously.
 1950’s meter: Aliens, Superman being mentioned as a TV and movie star (this was shortly before George Reeve’s died) and Jimmy watches what he thinks is a sci-fi movie on a late night TV show. 50’s enough for me. 3.5/5.
Rating: 3/5. Watching Jimmy use and abuse his newfound powers is fun.
 Challengers of the Unknown in “Secret of the Sorcerer’s Box” from Showcase #6: Obnoxious scientist Reed Richards, shy Sue Storm, hot-headed Johnny Storm and brutish, nasty Ben Grimm steal a rocket and get exposed to cosmic rays, which gives them the powers of elasticity, invisibility, self-immolation, and being ugly. They then fight a villain named the Mole Man.
 …..At least, that’s what overzealous Kirby fanboys say the story is about, and they also say that that uncreative hack Snidely Whiplash Stan Lee went and ripped it off by changing the title to ‘Fantastic Four”. Hmmm, actually, this story seems to be about four bland, all male adventurers who survive a plane crash and then decide to engage in suicide missions for the hell of it, eventually taking on a modern-day sorcerer named Morelian, who gets them to open a box containing bizarre horrors within.
 I don’t see much resemblance between the two, but what do I know?
 1950’s meter: Giant monsters, suicidal stunts not being performed by idiots on MTV and idiots who watch MTV, and people actually giving a shit about radio shows. Pretty good. 3/5.
 Rating: 3.5/5. Fun, but don’t believe the hype about FF being an inferior rip off of this.
 So there you have it, a volume which only features a handful of great stories, and most of them barely even qualify as 50’s stories either in tone (or in date). Oh, it’s not a terrible collection by any means, or one you should pass up (some of the stories within have never been reprinted elsewhere), but it falls flat compared to it’s predecessor volume. I give it 3.5/5.