SHOWCASE PRESENTS DOC SAVAGE

(Doug Moench and Various; 448 pages; DC COMICS, 2011)

Showcase Doc Savage

Publisher Henry W Ralston with an assist from editor John L Nanovic (they of publishing house Street and Smith) created what was, for all intents and purpose, the first “super” hero, Doc Savage. Lester Dent brought the character to life in the pages of DOC SAVAGE MAGAZINE beginning in 1933. Since then, Doc and his aides (later to be dubbed the Fabulous Five) have appeared in just about every medium imaginable: radio, film, several reprint series in book form (Bantam Books began publishing paperback versions in 1966) and, of course, comic books (there were even two attempts to launch daily newspaper comic strips, the first written by Dent).

DOC SAVAGE #1 (intro page by JOHN ROMITA and TONY DEZUNIGA)

DOC SAVAGE #1 (intro page by JOHN ROMITA and TONY DEZUNIGA)

From 1975 through 1977, Marvel Comics printed an out-size black and white magazine version of their moderately successful color book. Both the books were canceled in 1977, Marvel having lost the comic book publishing rights to the character. DC Comics obtained the comic book rights in 2010, no doubt smelling the same kind of money that Marvel sniffed in the ’70s: a movie tie-in! Though the movie is still in production, DC went ahead with several titles starring Doc (a one-shot with Batman, a mini-series called FIRST WAVE and his own title, which lasted ’til mid-2012). Apparently, the publishing rights included previous comic book versions, including the ’70s Marvel books. And so, here we are, examining this SHOWCASE PRESENTS… collection of the eight-issue black and white series.

I remember buying these mags (and the color book, too) back in the day when I bought everything with a Marvel or DC logo on it. I bought, but very rarely read. Sure, I gave a cursory look at the innards of the books, perusing the art and scanning the word balloons for the mere basic plot, but I almost never read an entire issue of anything outside THE AVENGERS or TOMB OF DRACULA. Okay… that was a long-winded way of me telling you that though I’m familiar with the material, this is the first time I’ve actually read the things from front to back. I gotta say that, for the most part, I like what I’m reading. The artwork is all over the place, with most of it tied together by the inks of Tony DeZuniga, whose guazy, thin-lined approach was much in demand at DC (where, as both penciller and inker, he co-created Jonah Hex with writer John Albano) through-out the 1970s. He, obviously, also did a smattering of work for Marvel.

DOC SAVAGE #5, page 14, panel 3 (script by DOUG MOENCH, artwork by TONY DEZUNIGA)

DOC SAVAGE #5, page 14, panel 3 (script by DOUG MOENCH, artwork by TONY DEZUNIGA)

Doug Moench, who got his start in the 1960s at Warren Publishing (doing horror for CREEPY, EERIE and VAMPIRELLA) and created the Deathlok and Moon Knight characters while at Marvel, wrote the stories. They were all originals featuring Doc and other characters created in the ’30s and ’40s by Lester Dent or his surrogates. Moench’s work is faithful to the pulp adventures and are generally fun to read. He was given the chance to develop character and plot a little bit more than a standard 20 page comic, as most of the stories are over 50 pages in length. My favorite of the nine yarns presented here is the second, “Hell-Reapers At the Heart of Paradise.” Featuring Vikings, pirates, a mysterious blond and a cavern at the center of the Earth inhabited by ticked-off lizard people, and great art with pencils and inks by DeZuniga, what’s not to love? Other highlights include the John Buscema-drawn (except for, oddly, one page penciled by John Romita) first issue feature, “ The Doom On Thunder Isle”; “A Most Singular Writ of Habeas Corpus,” a solo tale from issue #3 featuring Doc’s specialist in chemistry, Andrew Blodgett Mayfair (Monk, as the others call him), with art by Rico Rival; and “The Mayan Mutations,” again featuring the art of Tony DeZuniga, from issue #7. While DeZuniga is responsible for most of the artwork, there are others who contribute, some more admirably than others. Buscema returns for the lead story in #3, the wonderful Marie Severin pencils the first eight pages of “Ghost-Pirates From the Beyond” for the fourth issue, and the usually solid Ernie Chan offers a less-than-stellar job on the final issue’s tale, “The Crimson Plague.” Chan’s art isn’t offensive enough to totally wreck the story, though, as it holds up as well as the others.

I am a huge fan of DC’s SHOWCASE PRESENTS… archival reprint series. The books, while all are printed in black and white, are almost all over 500 pages and offer a chronological look at most of the strips from the Silver (and a few from the Bronze) Age of DC Comics. They are a great way to collect some old favorites or familiarize yourself with titles and characters you may not recognize. Reprint agreements between DC and the writers and artists in later years has, unfortunately, rendered some titles unavailable but – I’ll take what I can get… they are that good! This one, though, is a bit odd since they were originally published by Marvel, is no exception.


THE SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY ARCHIVES

(Volume 1; 237 pages; DC ARCHIVE EDITIONS, 2005) (Volume 2; 228 pages; DC ARCHIVE EDITIONS, 2007) (Volume 3; 288 pages; DC ARCHIVE EDITIONS, 2008)

Seven Soldiers covers

For 14 glorious issues of a book called LEADING COMICS (published between 1941-1945), eight (!) marginal heroes from the popular anthology books published by National Periodicals (part of DC Comics, home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) were featured in some of the strangest and most exciting adventures of their time. Like the only other super-hero team of the era (DC’s popular Justice Society of America), the stories were basically solo adventures starring the respective members. The catch with the Soldiers (alternately called “Law’s Legionnaires”) was that, rather than meeting on a regular basis to recount individual heroic feats to their colleagues, they were brought together by a common foe, separated to handle particular aspects of the case best suited to each individual’s abilities and came back together for the ultimate defeat of the villain (or villains).

Another, more unique aspect of the team was the fact that, while all were superb physical specimens and each possessed quite analytical minds, they had no super powers. Green Arrow and his young partner, Speedy (appearing regularly in MORE FUN COMICS), perhaps the most well-known of the eight, were expert marksmen with the bow, often using trick arrows to stymie their opponents; the Vigilante (from the pages ACTION COMICS), a motorcycle riding ex-singing cowboy radio star was as adept with a lasso as he was with a six-shooter; the Crimson Avenger, along with his partner, Wing, the unofficial eighth Soldier (the character with the longest comics pedigree, as a back-up in DETECTIVE COMICS) wasn’t afraid of a dust-up, but preferred to use his brain before his brawn to out-think the bad guys; rich kid Sylvester Pemberton and his chauffeur, Pat Dugan, better known as the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy (who held sway in – where else? – STAR-SPANGLED COMICS) used expensive gadgets and Pat’s muscles; Sir Justin, the Shining Knight (appearing in the pages of ADVENTURE COMICS), was exactly what the name implies – a valiant knight of Arthur’s fabled Round Table displaced in time. Aside from the Knight’s magical sword, the only “super-powered” being in the entire lot, in fact, was Sir Justin’s winged horse.

Leading Comics #1, page 1 (art by George Papp)

Leading Comics #1, page 1 (art by George Papp)

The stories, the early ones mostly written by Mort Weisinger (with helping hands from Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger and the seemingly ever-present “Unknown”), were always long on action and fairly short on plot. That really didn’t matter then and, truly, it’s not too much of an issue now… other than the occasional moan-inducing plot device or the cringe-worthy characterizations of various ethnicities. If you are one of those easily offended PC types, any comic produced before the 1970s probably isn’t for you. Real people, on the other hand, recognize these books for what they are: historical reference points in the growth of the country’s march toward racial equality and tolerance. To say that such things shouldn’t be readily available is to say that things like discrimination (in all of its nasty forms), war, and racial strife are better off forgotten… treated as if they never existed. That, my friends, is where the famous axiom, “Those who do not remember are doomed to repeat,” comes into play. Sure, the portrayal of the Avenger’s “Oriental” sidekick, Wing, is overly stereotypical of the way Asians were viewed in the ’40s, but that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have an adverse affect on your enjoyment of these classic comics. Remember, the same things were happening in all entertainment mediums – from radio to film and beyond. Some of the movies and novels of the day are considered classics, even though they offered stereotypical views of Blacks, Jews, Germans and, often, women.

Leading Comics #1, page 5 (script by Mort Weisinger, art by George Papp)

Leading Comics #1, page 5 (script by Mort Weisinger, art by George Papp)

Okay, stepping down from the pulpit, let’s get back to the Seven Soldiers series. The first three issues of LEADING COMICS featured a different artist for each chapter, usually the character’s regular artist in their other appearances. George Papp drew all three Green Arrow chapters, as well as the wrap-around Soldiers chapters in the first issue’s story, “Blueprint For Crime.” Papp was a jobber… dependable, but not overly adventurous in his lay-out or execution. The Star-Spangled Kid’s chapters were handled by Hal Sherman. Let’s just say that his work was definitely an acquired taste – one I’m not certain that I will ever acquire. Sherman moves the story along, though, as he must. Jack Lehti, a cut or two above Hal Sherman talent-wise (though with more imaginative lay-outs), took care of the chapters starring the Crimson Avenger. Creig Flessel drew the Shining Knight chapters with a certain panache, an airiness that made his work seem a step above the norm. Though more adventurous than George Papp, his work – like Papp’s – was enjoyable and dependable. Mort Meskin drew four of the first five covers for LEADING COMICS, as well as the first three Vigilante chapters and the wrap-around chapters for numbers 2 and 3. Meskin’s work was stylized and unique, offering a – dare I say? – a Kirbyesque quality in lay-out and body structure and positioning. His Vigilante is the definite highlight of the first three issues and his cover for issue number 4 is certainly one of the best you’ll see.

Leading Comics #4 (cover art by Mort Meskin)

Leading Comics #4 (cover art by Mort Meskin)

Change was afoot with issue 4, as Bill Finger scripted the entire thing, called “The Sense Master.” Artist Ed Dobrotka dipped his pen in the inkwell on page one and didn’t let up until the final page. As I’m not the comics historian that someone like Roy Thomas is, I can’t say this with utmost certainty, but this could mark the first time that one artist was responsible for an entire 56 page comic book. Falling somewhere between Jack Lehti and George Papp talent-wise, Dobrotka’s work was serviceable and gave the story a nice sense of continuity from chapter to chapter. These first four issue make up the first volume of this archive series, with issues 5-8 filling up volume two and the final six issues (9-14) finishing up the archive collection in volume 3.

Dobrotka was back with issue number 5. Though this issue’s “The Miracles That Money Can’t Buy” and “The Treasure That Time Forgot” from number 6 are uncredited, comics scholar and foreword writer for volume 2 is fairly certain that honor belongs to Joe Samachson, who finished out the Law’s Legionnaires’ LEADING COMICS run. While the action and adventure aspects of the strip remained high, a little more thought was going into plot and script over the final 10 issues. In issue number 6, there was more interaction between the teammates, one of the more interesting teamings being the Shining Knight and the Vigilante. Oddly enough, Ed Dobrotka stuck around to do the cover for this issue; odder still is the fact that the only verifiable interior artwork comes from Maurice del Bourgo, who inked the entire issue and completely rendered the Crimson Avenger chapter. The pencil artist for the rest of the story remains unknown.

Leading Comics #3, page 53 (art by Mort Meskin)

Leading Comics #3, page 53 (art by Mort Meskin)

Issue number 7 features a story called “The Wizard of Wisstark.” The team comes together for charity and are suckered into a weird game of chance by an Oz-like master magician as, once again each hero is on their own until they come together at the end to defeat the bad guy. The artwork is at an almost impossibly high level of competency, with pencils by Pierce Rice. “Exiles In Time” in number 8 brings another artistic change, as last issue’s cover artist, Jon Small picks up the pencil, with Maurice del Bourgo returning to ink him. While not horrible, it is definitely a step down from Rice’s work in the previous issue. The plot revolves around one of the Vigilante’s old foes, the Dummy, who figures out a way to send the individual Soldiers careening through history. Not a new plot device, even then, but fun nonetheless.

Leading Comics #14 (cover art by Jon Small)

Leading Comics #14 (cover art by Jon Small)

With volume three of the archive series, the final six Soldiers stories for nearly 30 years are presented. With Samachson becoming ever more adept at devising interesting plot twists and storylines, the artistic reins finally were handed to Argentinian Arturo Cazaneuve. While Cazaneuve was certainly no Mort Meskin or Pierce Rice, he was more than up to the task of a team book, even if he did give Sylvester Pemberton an incredibly bulbous cranium at certain points throughout his run. His brother, Luis, split cover duties with Jon Small, to varying degrees of success. Issue number 14, “The Bandits From the Books,” is probably the best of the series, a fun romp through some classic reads with unforgettable villains. The cover, by Small, is a minor masterpiece. As a bonus, a script by Samachson, scheduled for LEADING COMICS number 15, is included. Unfortunately, the super-hero market was waning in 1945 and only big names like Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman were able to maintain enough sales numbers to keep their titles afloat. Since the Seven Soldiers of Victory were made up of second-stringers, the decision was made to change LEADING COMICS to a “funny animal” book. As foreword writer, Roy Thomas, notes, the script finally got published in 1975, with artwork by some of DC’s most well-known names of the time.

So, my advice? Disengage your brain for a bit, take a trip back to a simpler time and check out the Seven Soldiers of Victory, gloriously reproduced in hardcover archive editions. You won’t be sorry. (DT)