SPACE CRUSADERS, ISSUE ONE

(Christopher Mills/Peter Grau/Nick Poliwko; 44 pages; ATOMIC ACTION COMICS/ATOMIC PULP MEDIA; 2019)

Like a lot of people of a certain age, I sometimes pine for the “good old days,” a nostalgia trip down memory lane of all the things that I loved (or missed) over the first (REDACTED) decades of my life. Writer/letterer/publisher Christopher Mills is one of us, too. And, thankfully, he has put his money where his mouth is and done something to sate his desire for a return to a time when comic books weren’t so dark and serious. In this case, the 1970s. The books back then had a certain look and style that you just don’t see anymore. Mills’ Atomic Action Comics has mined the field of minor (VERY minor) Golden Age characters from some low level publishers, put a Silver Age shine on ‘em and reintroduced ‘em in the Modern Era to people who didn’t even know they existed. And therein lies the fun.

SPACE CRUSADERS (Rex Dexter of Mars, page 9) (written by CHRISTPHER MILLS, art by PETER GRAU and MATT WEBB)

The first issue of SPACE CRUSADERS stars a dude named Rex Dexter of Mars, a hero in the mold of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers, with this updated version exhibiting the dark humor and rather glib repartee of Han Solo. The character was created by Dick Briefer, debuting in the first issue of MYSTERY MEN COMICS, published by Fox Feature Syndicate and cover-dated August, 1939. The series inhabited the back-pages of the first 24 issues of the book, as well as a 1940 single issue of his own title, the only time Rex appeared on a cover. In “Menace of the Saurian Sphere!,” Mills’ story is fun and exciting, an adventure that sees Rex and his traveling companion aboard the Blue Comet, Cynde, pick up a tiny Kooba Cola-drinking space octopus that Captain Dexter calls a “goblin,” are attacked by robot antibodies inside the massive sphere that gives the story its name before escaping through a hatch that leads to… a prehistoric land populated with cavemen and dinosaurs; when the duo come face-to-face with an angry T Rex, Cynde exclaims, “Amazing! A living Tyrannosaurus Rex!” To which the nimble-brained Dexter says, “Wait! HIS name is Rex, too?” Brilliant! The cavemen save Rex and Cynde from the dinosaur, only to be saved by the Captain when the injured beast turns his attention toward the tribesmen. Aaand… then things get interesting. This story is a total 1970s throwback, a freewheeling, wild and woolly 28 pages that leaves you wanting more! And, I haven’t even told you about the art yet.

SPACE CRUSADERS (Rex Dexter of Mars, page 12) (written by CHRISTPHER MILLS, art by PETER GRAU and MATT WEBB)

The pencil and ink work by Peter Grau reminds me of a looser version of Dick Giordano (I always thought that Dick’s solo work had a rather wooden feel), while Matt Webb’s colors add to the Silver Age feel of the book; it’s brighter and as close to those old comics as anything I’ve seen outside of stuff like the MY LITTLE PONY books or the ones starring ancient Harvey characters like CASPER, THE FRIENDLY GHOST and BABY HUEY. The Grau/Webb combination is certainly a thing of beauty… futuristic settings, robotic adversaries, beautiful women, raging dinosaurs, cute alien pets, a hapless hero, these guys can do it all! The same creative team returns for SPACE CRUSADERS 2, but Rex Dexter doesn’t. As Mills discusses in this first issue, his vision for this book is to feature a different Golden Age character/strip in each issue. The featured character in number two, as alluded to in Rex’s story, is Basil Wolverton’s Spacehawk, the Lone Wolf of the Void. The cool thing about Mister Grau’s work is that he modifies his style to evoke the source material; with Spacehawk, he recalls Wolverton’s off-the-wall aliens and monsters, while the main characters bring to mind late-’60s and early-’70s Jack Kirby. Understand, though… his pages are not straight copies of the old masters; just think of them as more of an homage.

SPACE CRUSADERS (Lance Lewis, Space Detective, page 1 uncolored) (Written by CHRISTOPHER MILLS, art by NIK POLIWKO)

Apparently, the only constant here (aside from the fun stories and great artwork) is the back-up feature, Lance Lewis, Space Detective, an oddly appealing concept that debuted in MYSTERY COMICS #3 from Nedor Comics in 1944. While there’s no information about the creators behind the series, at various points in the its four year run, Graham Ingels and Bob Oksner was responsible for the art. “The Voltese Icon” is the first of what will be at least a three-part saga, by Mills and Webb with art by Nik Poliwko. Like Grau, Poliwko’s work is a throwback to the Silver-Age greats… in this case, it’s kinda somewhere between Al Williamson, Grey Morrow, Wally Wood and Berni Wrightson. In other words… Awesome! The name and the plot are obviously take-offs of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, THE MALTESE FALCON, but with mind transference. Like all good multi-part comic stories, the cliff-hanger ending has you counting the days until the next installment.

SPACE CRUSADERS 1, cover C (art by GABRIELE REARTE and MATT WEBB)

SPACE CRUSADERS and all Atomic Action comics are only available from atomicactioncomics.com, printed on demand and shipped by IndyPlanet. They’re a bit more expensive than regular books, but the detail to quality is well worth it.


ROY THOMAS PRESENTS CLASSIC PHANTOM LADY, VOLUME 1

(Roy Thomas, foreword/Joe Kubert, Matt Baker and others; 301 pages; PS ARTBOOKS/PS PUBLISHING, 2013)

Phantom Lady

Most of us who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s may remember Phantom Lady from the DC comic series JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA (DC acquired the Lady and many such properties from Fawcett, Quality and many other minor publishing houses- including the Captain Marvel Family from Fawcett, and Plastic Man and Phantom Lady from Quality). In a story featuring the Justice Society of America, the two teams travel to Earth X, where the Nazis won World War II and several Quality heroes have banded together, calling themselves the Freedom Fighters. Now, thanks to comics legend and historian Roy Thomas, what we have here is the first stories to feature Phantom Lady, including her entire run in Quality’s POLICE COMICS, starting with the August 1941 debut issue and ending with #23, dated October, 1943. There are also three cross-over stories (quite rare for the time) from FEATURE COMICS and starring the Spider Widow and the Raven. After POLICE COMICS #23, Phantom Lady just disappeared. She was revived by Fox Features in her own title, cover dated August, 1947, with numbering starting at #13 (taking over numbering from WOTALIFE COMICS). The first five issues of the revival are here, as well. That, my friends, may seem like a WHOLE lot of comics. And it is… just not a particularly large page count. Most of the Quality stories are only six pages long (a few are five), which is certainly problematic from a story-telling standpoint. But, more of that later.

Spoiled society debutante Sandra Knight, as Phantom Lady, works the spy and military espionage cases in Washington, DC, where her father, Senator Henry Knight, seems to be very much involved in whatever particular Senate Sub-Committee that has anything – no matter how remote – to do with the Lady’s current case. Phantom Lady’s mysterious work is, amazingly, accomplished in a skimpy swimsuit (that would have gotten her arrested in most towns and cities back then), a bright green cape, and… with very few exceptions, no mask! The latter had to be a real pain because a majority of her early stories involved her saving either her father or her boyfriend, Don Borden (of the State Department, no less), or – more often than not – both of them, from some unusually inept fifth column threat or scheme. I mean, even Superman’s alter ego wears glasses and a different hair style. Sandra’s answers to the usual coming and going questions (“Where are you going at a time like this?” and “Where were you? Phantom Lady saved us all!”), likewise, would have made even Clark Kent cringe (“Oh… I forgot I was out of lipstick and had to buy some before someone saw me without any.” or “I thought I heard the cat meowing for a saucer of milk, so I went to berate the staff for not taking care of such problems before they came up.” Okay, so those two are mine, but the excuses actually used in the stories are equally lame.). Sandra’s feigned self-absorption certainly did take the art form to new levels of narcissism… much like the very real spoiled pop tarts and tabloid princesses of today.

With only six pages of story, the writers (whose names are lost to the pages of time, by the way) were really hampered. As the strip was action-oriented, the basic premise of the plot had to be delivered in the first several panels; someone had to be kidnapped or threatened in the first two pages; the Phantom Lady had to find the bad guys’ hideout and come close to being permanently eliminated before bringing out her weapon of choice (a black light which caused her enemies to be blinded if they fell within its range) to wrap up the crooks before the bottom of page five; the cops had to be notified and Sandra Knight had to make her reappearance – usually uttering some snarky remark – before the end of the story. Formulaic? Sure, but – as they say – those were simpler times and the writers were basically writing these things for kids. They did try to imbue the scripts with a touch of humor… usually unsuccessfully. In fact, the only time that the humor really worked well was during the cross-over stories featuring the Raven and Spider Widow. These stories also worked because there was a common plot device running through the five stories (two in POLICE COMICS, three in FEATURE COMICS): Competition. The two heroines were chagrined that the other claimed to be the most popular female hero in comics, fighting each other as much as the villain of the piece. Of course, stuck in the middle was Spider Widow’s partner, the Raven.

Things were allowed to progress at a slower – if not more natural – pace with the Fox Features stories. The Lady was featured in stories that ran from seven pages (I know… not much of an improvement, but… ) to eleven or 12 pages, with two (and, in issue #14, three) stories per issue. Though these stories were no less formulaic, they were better fleshed out than the Quality stories. They also featured a more common class of criminals, as well, as Phantom Lady became more involved in diamond robberies and the like. She even confronted zombies in “An Army of Walking Dead” in issue #15 and a werewolf in a story called “The Monster In the Pool,” from issue #16.

POLICE COMICS #15 "The School For Spies" page 3 (art by JOE KUBERT)

POLICE COMICS #15 “The School For Spies” page 3 (art by JOE KUBERT)

The real story here is the artwork. That pun, by the way, was fully intended. The first 13 stories were drawn by Arthur F Peddy. Peddy’s style, at first, reminded me of Charles Moulton’s early Wonder Woman stories. As the series progressed, he became more comfortable with the female form and Phantom Lady’s appearance and movements took on a more natural look. The real find from the Quality era begins with “The West Point Incident,” from POLICE COMICS #14. That story and the next two were illustrated by a very young Joe Kubert. Looking at these 18 formative pages, we see only a slight glimmer of the style that Kubert would perfect in the ’50s and ’60s at DC. Instead, we have a very Eisner-esque style that works very well with the super-hero strip. Two of the Kubert stories feature an odd, though somehow appealing veil-like mask on our heroine. Starting with POLICE COMICS #17, Frank Borth takes over and it seems that the Lady finally has the perfect artist. There is some conjecture that Borth may have also written these tales, as they are credited as “A Frank M Borth Feature.” The three Spider Widow stories are credited the same and he is also listed in the contents pages of this collection as being the writer of those scripts. Borth, like Kubert, tries a mask – a simple black mask that covers the eyes (think Robin or Zorro) – for the Lady. It lasts for one story and is retired. The art on the final two POLICE COMICS stories are credited to Rudy Palais (the contents has a question mark beside his name for issue 22, the story from issue 23 is signed). Again, Palais seems to be a step up (although only slightly) from the previous artist.

PHANTOM LADY #13 "Knights of the Crooked Cross" splash page (art by MATT BAKER)

PHANTOM LADY #13 “Knights of the Crooked Cross” splash page (art by MATT BAKER)

The first Fox Features stories brought more changes than just the page count. Gone were the yellow swimsuit and green cape, replaced by a more appealing blue suit (and blue shorts) and a red cape. Sandra Knight/Phantom Lady was also now more voluptuous than her Quality artists drew her. Fox was cashing in on what has come to be known as “Good Girl” art, a style that many critics of the day considered borderline pornographic. These artistic changes were provided by Matt Baker, a young man who obviously knew his way around the female of the species. His was a style that would be very much in demand at the major comics houses today, very clean and detailed. These five issues alone would be worth the price of this collection. The Fox Features stories were credited to “Gregory Page,” a pseudonym used throughout the Fox line. Mister Thomas, comics scholar that he is, believes that these scripts were actually written by Ruth Roche. Me… I just read ’em, so I bow to his superior knowledge. Roy promises more Baker and Roche in Volume 2 of this collection. I can’t wait!