Thursday, January 21, 2010

All Star Comics #1 - Where it all began...

Yes, technically I've made my mission to read the entire Golden Age adventures of the "JSA," and the JSA as a team does not appear until All-Star Comics #3.

Well, we'll get to that. I think it's important that we start at the beginning - the very beginning - for such a historical title in comics.

In this first issue, we're greeted by a quick letter from the editor explaining this new idea - combining their best features from various comic magazines into one, big magazine - and asking readers to let the company know what works and what they'd like to see more of. After that, it's right into the action.

Now, since the JSA isn't formed just yet, we get a series of solo adventures from what will become the team's charter members. So, since there is no "JSA tale" in which to discuss in this issue, I felt it appropriate to take a look at each of the solo tales the publishers presented in this first issue, the Summer of 1940.

We begin with Hawkman - AKA Carter Hall - although, he is never revealed as such in this strip. Hawkman, when our story opens, finds himself flying high above some mountainous region in an undisclosed location. A screaming girl grabs his attention and tells Hawkman that her brother is being held captive by their uncle. And the uncle has found a way to create "Haitian Zombies" - I kid you not - to work in the mines left to her by her late father.

Naturally, Hawkman swoops in to help this pretty young girl, and through a series of battles, gets the brother and sister reunited - leading to this slightly awkward reunion between siblings:

The reunion is short-lived and the siblings are soon kidnapped again by their evil Uncle and his witch assistant. Every bad guy worth a grain of salt should have one.

It's important to note that the Uncle's ethnicity looks more like an ugly Asian or Eastern stereotype compared to these two pale-white beauties:

Well, needless to say, the witch's magic (a red circle of dust that acts as a barrier so no one can get to the evil uncle standing in the circle) does not work when Hawkman comes to the simple realization that instead of stepping into the circle, he'll just fly over it. He does, capturing the old man, and once again freeing the wonder twins, before flying off into the night.

The art's beautiful. Compared to much of the Golden Age art, the realistic style and detailed backgrounds of Sheldon Moldoff really stand out. The story, by Gardner Fox, is very pulp-inspired, and certainly not without its flaws as noted above. But, it's whiz-bang action adventure, moving swiftly to its conclusion.

Ol' Wesley Dodds is shopping for a watch - "something serviceable," he tells the man behind the desk, when a holdup occurs. The crook leaves and Wes soon follows, spotting a man who looks just like the crook (but in a lighter suit) walking down the street. Wes follows the man to his home. Instead of trouncing him there, Wes then goes back to his own home, where he gets dressed into his Sandman costume, and heads back to the alleged criminal's home, where not only does he find the loot, but the crook waiting, of course.

Narrowly missing a gunshot to the head, Sandman and the crook get into a fight, which leaves the criminal unconscious and Sandman with an injured shoulder. Looking back, one would think the best thing to do is tie the crook up, perhaps. Or maybe call the police.

But, apparently Wes was in dire need of some healing, because he decides to "take a rest" in another room of the house, only to be awakened when the guy's twin brother comes back home and their scheme is overheard in the other room.

The scheme? One robs a store and passes it along to the twin, who stashes it. However, one would imagine that since these two are pulling robberies in broad daylight and their features exposed, as well as live in the same house, that one might have gotten caught a little easier than this.

The crooks - apparently thinking that no hero would still be on the premises after a fight - discuss their plan and head out, with Sandman quickly following them. Their goal is to rob from the Steamship Offices - a plan cut short by Sandman, who overpowers both men and leads them into the waiting arms of the police.

The art by Chad Grothkopf is very good, and his original Wesley Dodds fits the traditional, square-jawed, matinee idol secret-identity that was so typical of the day. The Guy Davis interpretation some 60 years later in Sandman Mystery Theatre would make Wesley a little more rounded...sometimes a little pudgy. He would wear glasses, and would seem to look like more of an average joe with his more bank clerk looks.

The story, also by Gardner Fox, takes place mostly at night with the exception of the opening robbery, keeping Sandman as a figure of the evening, hunted by police - a theme that would continue many decades later. Compared to many other heroes of this issue - and of the time - Sandman certainly stands out as a more pulp-inspired hero than any other, ditching the typical super hero tights (those would come years later) for a more conservative suit and gas mask.

As much as I like the character of Wesley Dodds, I will admit this outing was a bit lackluster, even by Golden Age standards. With an entire series ahead of me, though, I'm sure there's much better to come.


I will admit that even with my terribly geeky and lengthy knowledge of the Golden and Silver Age, Gary Concord completely eluded me. I was completely unaware of his existence until this read.

Gary works as the "high moderator of the United States in North America" in the year 2240. The setting of events in 2240 mirrors that of 1940s culture. A war is raging between two European countries, many are unemployed, and propaganda from both sides fills the air.

In this tale, Gary, in his official capacity, breaks up some riots in America, and puts those who have choice words for other political parties or countries, to shut up and deal with it in the boxing ring. (If only we could do this today when people begin arguing about politics and parties)

Ditching his official uniform and dressed in nothing but a pair of skivvies, Gary becomes Ultra-Man, and fights with those in Europe to try and bring an end to the war. He uncovers that the war is simply the plot of a man who is trying to secure the uranium mines and finances of both countries. The villain is supplying both sides with materials in exchange for their mines. In the end, he wins no matter which side is successful. The parallels between this story stretch far beyond the 1940s and well into the current day.

When Ultra-Man discovers this, and upon exposing that this war was started for one man's profit, gets both sides to stop, and sends the villain - Lord Criket - flying out a 90 story window.

And I think the last panel pretty much sums it up:

Jay Garrick has not changed all that much in his crime-fighting career in the DC Universe. Sure, he's gotten older, his hair's gotten a little whiter at the temples. But for all intents and purposes, Jay's always been like that old friend you can always rely on to do the right thing. And here's no different.

When a police patrolman (appropriately enough with an Irish brogue, which seems pretty typical for 1940s media of the day), can't get into a building to check on an old woman, The Flash lends a hand and discovers there's been a murder. So, wanting to help, Flash heads down to the police station where he's told he can't handle the case because he's a civilian. Super-speeding away, Flash then takes a policeman's uniform from some poor hapless cop, comes back, and demands to be deputized.

Wow, talk about wanting to do things by the book!

Needless to say, Flash uncovers n'er do wells by finding a ripped necktie at the scene. At the "only department store in town that sells such ties," Jay super-speeds through their sales files to find who has purchased such a tie. This, leads the scarlet speedster to the flunkies and mastermind behind the murder, and the day is saved.

And all before the beat cop even made his way from the murder scene back to the police station.

It's funny how in these early Flash tales, an emphasis of just how fast Flash moves is put into perspective (or attempted to) by the writer by comparing his feats to the speed it takes others to do some other task. In this case, the beat cop walked from the scene to police HQ, but in that time Jay not only convinced the commissioner to deputize him, but went back to the scene, found the tie, went through the store and its records, had fights with flunkies, and took down the murderer, by the time the cop got back to the station. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's comics, so like many other times, we let it pass.

Even in this 1940 adventure, The Spectre is still almost what we know him as today. He is still the vengeful hand of god, punishing those who most deserve it, and often times, killing the villain by the story's last panel.

In this tale, Detective Jim Corrigan is investigating fatal arsons and suspects a landlord who is set to collect insurance money on the buildings, despite no safety precautions for the inhabitants. Corrigan becomes the Spectre and visits the after life, where he asks a soul who died in the fire if it was intentionally set. When the soul tells him yes, The Spectre then heads back to Earth to punish those responsible.

Following a trail of thugs and flunkies. This is where the Spectre turns from rock em' sock em' 40s fist-fighter and into the ghoulish figure we have come to expect. While the doctor makes his escape by car, The Spectre follows, growing larger and larger until he crushes the car with getaway car with his foot, and grabbing the shifty thug like a ragdoll.

One particular image that stands out for its supernatural macabre is when the flunky refuses to talk, and The Spectre, wanting to pick his brain, LITERALLY removes his head so there is nothing but a floating brain. And Bernard Baily's art for scenes such as this our exquisite, especially for this time.

When the Spectre finally finds Dr. Cragg, the man who's owned the buildings and collecting money on the fires, he is bombarded by fiery explosives, which, of course, have no effect on the supernatural hero, and The Spectre than dishes out what he feels is the appropriate punishment.

He has Dr. Cragg stare into his eyes, where he sees the faces of all those he has killed with his fires. A screech from the doctor, before he falls flat, dead. And the Spectre we all know, love, and fear, shows little remorse:

Another chap I was not all too familiar with before this venture is Mr. Bronson. It seems he's somewhat in the vain of Slam Bradley and other Golden Age Detective heroes. Not much to say here. The story is typical of its day as Biff uncovers who stole some secret plans from a factory.

A very straightforward story that leads Biff to uncover "Remembro," a vaudeville performer who is a master of remembering anything he reads. Turns out Remembro worked two jobs - at the factory by day, as a stage performer by night. He looked at the plans in the factory, memorized them, and was going to sell them to a foreign power...into Biff stepped in and a few punches later, had the guy in custody.

Rex Tyler, or "Tick Tock" Tyler as he is known in some circles, has in his life as a chemist devised a pill called Miraclo that gives him super powers for one hour. And in this short tale, Rex, in his everyday identity is found saving a boys' camp from fire. But he and the head of the camp are quickly greeted by a note that demands the camp area be cleared or a murder will be next. Changing to Hourman, Rex takes a pill and investigates.

However, he quickly becomes distracted by a cry from help from down the road, and finds a family being harassed by thugs. Before the thugs can say who they were hired by, Hourman senses danger, and grabs the family, running out of the home before it explodes, killing the criminals inside.

The family tells Hourman that these criminals were trying to steal the deed to their house, and Hourman quickly springs back into action, finding a wallet, conveniently enough,laying in the middle of the road. Luckily for Hourman, the wallet has the name and address of its owner, John Blair Real Estate and Investments. It doesn't take long before Hourman invades the company and fights with Blair and his men.

It turns out the government wanted to buy this family's house but Blair wanted to steal the deed (buried beneath a tree in the woods) and sell it to the government himself for even more money. And we thought the current real estate market was bad.

It seemed kind of odd that what started out as an investigation into who was setting fires and threatening murder at the camp turned into this real estate adventure. There is no connection made between John Blair, the family, and the camp, playing out as just another case Hourman stumbles into, leaving the intentionally set fires and threats at the boys' camp unsolved.

However, it's key to note that an element is already laid out here that will have major repercussions in storylines some decades later. The power of the Miraclo pill runs out after one hour, and in this early adventure, Rex Tyler has no problem just popping another pill when the drug has run its course, doing so at least three times in an evening. It does not seem surprising at all that 50 years later or so, writers would tell the untold tale of addiction that Tyler went through from his crimefighting use of the pill.


Finally, the first-issue of All Star Comics comes to a close with a story of Red, White, and Blue, three servicemen who are seemingly given a vacation by the government, but that vacation happens to be in Alaska - long before it became the political hotbed we know of in the Palin-age of today.

Turns out, the vacation is a cover for a mission to find an agent who has been captured by the Kavinese. The boys end up stopping a plot to use the power of a volcano to, as one agent puts it "stab us in the back during a war!"

The boys, and female agent friend, Doris West, foil the plot, with the help of some wonderfully stereotypical Alaskan Eskimos.

And that brings us to the end of the first, giant-sized issue of All Star Comics #1, which just a few issues later will become home to many (but not all) of these heroes in the form of the JSA.

Overall, a good, entertaining read. The stories, like many of their day, are short, ranging between 6-8 pages on average. One could guess that the short attention span of children might have contributed to the short lengths. In many ways, though, I'll admit that the short stories make it easier to get through the issue, as the stories, while entertaining, are sometimes a bit too silly to get through in one sitting. This is especially true when considering current sensibilities in stories.

Stand-out stories, even with modern sensibilities in mind:
The Spectre, and one I wouldn't have expected, the futuristic and sci-fi inspired Ultra-Man.

I could definitely see being entertained as a 1940s kid, and would have been haunting the newsstand for the next issue. One interesting note is that the publishers ask readers to contact them as to what features should stay and go in the next issue.

And when we crack open Issue #2, we'll see who made the cut.

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