Tuesday, March 13, 2012

May 1940: All-Star Comics #1

Cover by Creig Flessel, Harry Lampert, Jon L. Blummer and Bernard Baily

DC's new quarterly title is a compilation of their most popular strips from More Fun Comics, Adventure Comics, All-American Comics and Flash Comics. Nothing is included from Action Comics or Detective Comics, because the most popular strips from those (Superman and Batman) already have their own quarterly books. So here we get Hawkman, Sandman, Ultra-Man, Flash, Hour-Man, the Spectre, Red White and Blue, and uh... Biff Bronson. I expect that Ultra-Man will be replaced with Green Lantern pretty shortly. Biff Bronson is also an odd choice; I would have thought that Doctor Fate was much more suitable.

'Hawkman' (by Gardner Fox and Sheldon Moldoff): Hawkman is in Wales, where he stumbles across a plot in which a wicked uncle tries to gain the inheritance of his niece and nephew. At least this villain tackles the old tropes in style: he has the nephew ensconced in his castle, where he tortures him, and he's also allied with a witch who can create voodoo zombies. The set-up is all there for some crazy super-hero action. What we get isn't bad, it just zips through everything a little too quickly. Whenever Hawkman is menaced it's for a single panel, and then he's soaring off to the next challenge. Some build-up and resolution to these things would have been great.

I'd also like to illustrate just why a super-hero's civilian job is important to the stories. With someone like Superman, who works as a reporter, there's a built-in excuse for him to know about the latest crimes. Now take Hawkman, who is an antique weapons dealer. Yes, it's flavourful and explains his arsenal of ancient weaponry, but it doesn't help him get involved in stories. In this one he's just flying around Wales for no reason, and stumbles across a girl in trouble.

Also, incest alert!

'The Sandman' (by Gardner Fox and Chad Grothkopf): The Sandman tackles a pair of jewel thieves who are twins. The only notable thing about the story is that these twins give the Sandman a bigger challenge than just about anybody ever has. He gets shot in the shoulder, disarmed of his gas gun, and pistol-whipped, which is more punishment than some Golden Age heroes take in their entire careers.

'Gary Concord, the Ultra-Man' (by Sheldon Mayer and Jon L. Blummer): Now hold on a second. I was under the impression that Gary Concord was basically the supreme leader of the USA, but in this story there's a president. Not only that, but Gary's father had once secured world peace, and Gary himself was dedicated to that ideal as well. But when war breaks out in Europe between Toutonia and Balkania, he says it's not America's problem. Despite these inconsistencies, this is a cracking story. After the war breaks out, things get tough in America, and riots break out. Gary wants to stop the war in Europe, but he's kept busy keeping the peace at home. It all turns out to be the work of a foreign ambassador who is playing both sides in order to get a hold of everybody's uranium mines. The stakes are high, the action is tense, and it's great seeing the hero completely out of his depth.

'The Flash, the Fastest Man Alive' (by Gardner Fox and Everett E. Hibbard): The Flash investigates a murder, and manages to solve it before the policeman present can return to the station to report the crime. In the process, the Flash harasses the police chief so badly that he is deputised, and I assume that he'll be a police officer in future stories. This is a lot of fun, with the Flash zipping from place to place and doing his investigations in a split second before moving on. I wish modern Flash comics could hit as frenetic a pace as this story.

'The Spectre' (by Jerry Siegel and Bernard Baily): The Spectre is genuinely like nothing else around at the time. In this story he goes up against an arsonist, who ends up being part of an insurance scam. But in his initial investigation, after finding a scrap of cloth in a burned out warehouse, he goes to the afterlife to question the spirit who had once wore the cloth. It's cosmic on a scale that no other Golden Age hero can match. In the end, when he confronts the businessman responsible, he shows him the faces of all those who died in the fires, which causes the businessman to drop dead. And there's no doubt that the Spectre kills him on purpose. This is great stuff.

'Biff Bronson' (by Albert Sulman and Joseph Sulman): Biff takes on a foreign agent with a photographic memory, who is using it to memorise secret plans. "This is getting tedious!" says Biff in one panel, and I can't help but to agree.

'Exile to Jupiter' (by Evelyn Gaines): Earth has been conquered by natives of Mercury. Earthman Dik's girlfriend has been sent to the penal colony on Jupiter, so Dik steals a spaceship, frees the slaves on Jupiter, leads them in a revolt that kills every Mercurian on the planet, then retakes the Earth and kills the Mercurian tyrant. All in two pages. Needless to say, this is terribly underdeveloped. Gaines has plotted a novel and written a synopsis.

'Presenting Tick-Tock Tyler, the Man of the Hour, as the Hour-Man' (by Ken Fitch and Bernard Baily): Hour-Man goes up against an arsonist and real estate agent who wants the deed to a house. It's terribly boring.

'Red, White and Blue' (by Jerry Siegel and William Smith): Red, Whitey and BlooeyBlooey. I'm not sure if it's bad storytelling, or an attempt to build mystery around an ongoing enemy.  I favour the former.


  1. I first encountered that Spectre story in 'The Great Comic Book Heroes' by Jules Feiffer back when I was a kid in the 70s, and it really changed how I viewed comics. I also read some other GA Spectre stories in reprints, and I became convinced that the strip was a lost masterpiece. Then, recently, I read the Archive...

    While I don't want to spoil things for you, let's just say that a big reason for the quality of these early All Star stories was probably because Siegel and Bailey felt that they'd hit the big time what with their new character being featured in "All-Star" comics. As time went on, it began to affect the quality of the Spectre's actual solo strip in More Fun.

    It's not awful, and there are still some wonderfully surreal stories awaiting you, but get prepared for LOTS of stories featuring fur hijackers and phony psychics, as well as some of the most unimaginatively drawn monsters and ghosts that you'll ever see.

  2. I'm already reading more than my recommended daily intake of hijackers and phony psychics, so it's not going to be a real problem. If there's one thing I've learned in this blog, it's to judge the Golden Age material in relation to the other stuff around it. In comparison to a lot of the other stuff out there, the Spectre strips have been amazing so far. That's Siegel, though; he's great.