Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4 edited by Julius Schwartz

The Flash is Barry Allen, a police detective who was working during a thunderstorm one night when a bolt of lightning struck a shelf of chemicals, spilling the mixture on him.   Barry quickly realized that he’d been gifted with super-speed, making him the fastest man alive.  Taking inspiration from a comic book hero of his youth, Barry Allen protects Central City and the world as the Flash!

Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

This fourth volume of the Showcase Presents collection of the series covers from Flash #162-184, 1966-68.  The first story in the set is “Who Haunts the Corridor of Chills?”   A Walt Disney stand-in is inspecting the new spooky ride at his amusement park when he’s unexpectedly transformed into a rampaging monster.  Flash is temporarily handicapped by developing a sudden phobia of dark spooky tunnels.  By the end, the story becomes a parable about not jumping to conclusions.

Most of the stories are workmanlike tales of the Flash encountering a criminal or monster, encountering some sort of obstacle that prevents him from simply using his immense speed to solve the issue, and thinking his way through to victory.  Barry Allen was very much a “thinking” hero, using his scientific know-how and reasoning abilities as much as his ability to move very fast.

Some have criticized the Silver Age Flash for having a bland personality, but “bland Midwestern science fan” is a personality I see all the time in real life.  Barry’s serious but not grim, and even when he loses his temper, it’s in a subdued fashion.  This makes him becoming a braggart in the cover story, #177 “The Swell-Headed Super-Hero!” especially jarring.  This particular story is also interesting because it’s the only one in the volume where we see Barry performing his day job as a crime scene investigator for more than one panel.

Alas, he doesn’t use any of his science skills on-panel, but instead performs a Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny-style feat of deduction to solve the “impossible” crime.  This story also has a great panel by Ross Andru of horrified civilians seeing the transformed Flash for the first time.  (The Silver Age writers loved transforming the Flash.)

The thinness of characterization is perhaps clearer in the villains, who tend to have very similar personalities, leavened slightly by Captain Cold being a would-be ladies’ man, and Abra Kadabra’s need to be the center of attention.  (The latter may explain why he appears the most in this volume.)

And then there’s Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash.  He only gets one appearance, but it’s a doozy, as Barry Allen finally gets around to marrying Iris West.  Except that Zoom decides to take his similarity to the Flash to the next level by changing his face to Barry Allen’s and impersonating the hero–even to the point of marrying his girlfriend!  Barry manages to escape in time and prevent the false vows, but this plotline will define Professor Zoom for years to come.

Barry, very protective of his secret identity, doesn’t tell Iris that he’s the Flash until a year into the marriage!  (Flash television show viewers can take heart that this tendency is faithful to the comics.)  However, it turns out Iris has known since the wedding night as Barry talks in his sleep.  (Wah wah waaaah.)   This is directly contrasted with Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick’s relationship with his wife Joan, who was in on the secret from the beginning.

There are a couple of real clunkers in this collection.  The first is #167, “The Real Origin of the Flash!”  This was the most hated Flash story of its era (and for many years thereafter.)  It introduces Mopee, a fumbling “heavenly helper” who somewhat resembles Woody Allen, and claims that he made an error in giving Barry Allen the power of super-speed.  He spoils several attempts by the Flash to “re-earn” his powers, before finally getting it right.  The reader reaction was so negative that the story was simply not referred to again for decades.

#180-181 “The Flying Samurai” & “The Attack of the Samuroids!” is a fun story that has aged badly.  Barry and Iris go to Japan on vacation and the Flash gets involved in a battle against nigh-invulnerable flying samurai robots.  So many well-meant but glaring ethnic stereotypes!  Among the lowlights: A cute female secretary is named Tushi (a name that doesn’t even work in Japanese); Japanese people speaking broken English even when alone among themselves (particularly annoying with supposed traditionalist Baron Katana); one of Barry’s Japanese friends referring to marital relations as “tender tentacles”; and villain Baron Katana assuming no one will think to look for him at the abandoned castle…that has belonged to his family for generations.

There are a couple of appearances by Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick (once with his friends from the Justice Society of America), a visit from Hal “Green Lantern” Jordan, and a race against Superman that guest stars the Justice League of America.  Plus, the first Earth-Prime story, in which Flash winds up in “our” world and meets Julius Schwartz.

The final story in this volume, “Executioner of Central City!” has the Flash apparently destroy his home town in an attempt to save it from a pulsar flare.  Of course, this is revealed to be incorrect.  The community has in fact moved to the distant future where humans are much larger and “programmed” against aggression.  Well, except for their leaders, which turns out to be a design flaw.

There’s some excellent art by long-time Flash portrayer Carmine Infantino, and not quite as good art by Ross Andru.

Overall, a good choice for Barry Allen Flash fans; fans of other versions of the Flash might want to check it out at the library.


Comic Book Review: The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One

Comic Book Review: The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One edited by Ian Sattler

DC Comics has produced many fine characters in its superhero books over the decades, including iconic super-villains.  It can be a lot of fun watching the bad guys do things when their specific hero isn’t around to stop them.  Thus, in 1976, we got the first DC series dedicated to the adventures of a super-villain group.

The Secret Society of Super-Villains Volume One

Several baddies are invited to a “Sinister Citadel” in San Francisco by  means ranging from a rock with a note wrapped around it to an intergalactic sub-space message.  There they are met by a clone of the Paul Kirk Manhunter (even in the 1970s we had characters with convoluted backstories) who claims to have gone mercenary and now works for their mysterious “benefactor.”  The assembled villains are ambushed by a robotic version of the Justice League, and easily smash them, demonstrating the power of numbers.  Then Gorilla Grodd and Copperhead are sent on an initiation mission, which goes south and Copperhead is captured by the police.  Still, the fun is just beginning!

Since the Comics Code was still in effect at the time, the villains could never be allowed a full victory, and in the second issue we meet Captain Comet, DC’s first mutant superhero, who hadn’t appeared since the 1950s.  It was explained he had been out in space, and unaware of current events.  The Society decides to dupe him into working with them–it doesn’t actually work because he’s out of touch, not stupid, but since it is revealed at this point that the Society’s secret benefactor is the evil New God Darkseid, who none of the villains particularly want to serve, Captain Comet winds up teaming with the Society anyhow.

Once the Darkseid situation is resolved, the various members of the Society come up with their own evil schemes, and Captain Comet proceeds to be a thorn in their sides.  This volume collects the first ten issues, and an alternate version of the first issue with slightly different characters and a significantly different plot.

Company politics resulted in three different writers in ten issues, as well as no steady art team.  Series creator Gerry Conway was the most frequent author.  This also affected the casting; some editors at DC wouldn’t let iconic villains associated with their heroes be used, so the Society was heavy on Flash foes (because Mr. Conway was also writing the Flash), relatively obscure characters such as Copperhead and the Earth-2 Wizard, and featured a new person in the role of Star Sapphire, replacing Green Lantern Hal Jordan’s long-time love interest Carol Ferris.

Lex Luthor does show up for one issue, but it’s a very poor showing for him, winding up arrested by ordinary police officers.  Longer lasting was Funky Flashman, a non-powered grifter and entrepreneur who is believed to be Jack Kirby’s satire on Stan Lee’s less stellar qualities.  (His appearance is changed in this series to more closely resemble how Stan Lee looked in the Seventies.)

Sales were never particularly good on this title, and it would get cancelled in the DC Implosion, but it’s a fun look at the bad guys as they were at the time.  (The alternate first issue plays up Captain Cold’s would-be ladies’ man trait, which was his main characterization point at the time.)  Recommended to DC Comics fans and fans of the Flash TV series.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends by Various

Back in the 1970s, there was a Saturday morning cartoon titled Superfriends.  It featured several superheroes from DC Comics,, plus “Junior Super Friends” Wendy and Marvin, trainee superheroes with their pet Wonderdog.   Each episode taught valuable life lessons to kids across America.  While reruns of the cartoon continue even today, younger fans may not be aware there used to be a tie-in comic book as well.

Showcase Presents Super Friends

Because the Comics Code of the time was surprisingly less restrictive than the Standards & Practices Board that governed children’s broadcasting, the writers of the comic book had more flexibility to put in story elements that explained how the team worked, and the full range of the heroes’ powers.  The book took place in a close parallel of the DC universe, so other superheroes could guest star.

Now, I said the writers could be more flexible than the TV show, but I am still amazed that they got away with mass murder as a plot point in the third issue.  Some of the deaths even happened on panel!  And they weren’t even reversed by the end of the story.  To explain, a mad scientist captures over a hundred supervillains (none of whom were established characters) and disintegrates them to create the World-Beater, which has all their powers combined.

After a few issues, the comic book explained (as the show never did) the change from the first season’s Marvin and Wendy, to the later Wonder Twins, aliens named Jan and Zayna.   This was a truly epic plot which also introduced a slew of international superheroes who later joined the mainstream DCU as the Global Guardians.  (It also gave the comic some much-needed ethnic diversity.)

Many creators worked on the series, but the distinctive art of Ramona Fradon is perhaps most representative.

Aside from the mass murder, this is a kid-friendly title; there are some dated attitudes that parents might want to discuss with their children.  The writing is typical for the time period, and certainly better than the television show.

Recommended for fans of the Superfriends cartoon and nostalgic comics fans.

Comic Book Review: Earth 2, Vol. 2: The Tower of Fate

Comic Book Review: Earth 2, Vol. 2: The Tower of Fate by James Robinson & Nicola Scott

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Earth 2, Volume 2

Some background first, for our younger readers.  Back in the 1940s, National Comics (which would become DC) decided to promote some of their lesser-known characters by putting them in a group, the Justice Society of America.    These characters would have a meeting, split up into separate stories, then band together at the end to face a common menace.  This was the first full-fledged superhero team.  Eventually, as page counts lessened, the team started working together through the entire story.  And when the superhero fad faded, the comic book they were in switched to Western tales.

Superheroes came back in a big way after the Comics Code was created, and DC created new versions of many of their Golden Age characters.   Then a writer got the bright idea of teaming up the then current Flash, Barry Allen, with his Golden Age counterpart, Jay Garrick.   He came up with the notion that  the earlier stories had happened on an alternate Earth, Earth-2.  This allowed the Justice Society and all the other Golden Age characters to be used as having aged semi-realistically from the 1940s to the 1960s.   Various series featured the Earth-2 characters having their own adventures.  Plus, many other alternate Earths were made up to feature different characters.

In the 1980s, DC’s Powers that Were decided they wanted to “modernize” some of their characters, and streamline the DC Multiverse into one semi-consistent DC Universe, as some writers found the multiple Earths idea “too confusing.”  So Crisis on Infinite Earths happened, and now there was just one Earth, with many of the Golden Age characters having fought crime in the 1940s, and others having their history changed to match the new timeline.

And that worked for a while.   It took some doing for the Justice Society to find its feet, with several attempts at sidelining them, and drastic roster changes.  But they endured, and finally got a popular, relatively long lasting series.  However, going into the Twenty-First Century, it was getting increasingly difficult to justify people in their eighties and nineties still actively fighting crime without invoking immortality.  You could fudge ages on some characters, but the Justice Society was specifically tied to World War Two.

This, and other issues including the desire to “modernize” characters again, caused the Powers that Be at DC to reboot their line once again in the Flashpoint event.   Now superheroes as such had mostly started their careers “five years ago” and were young and “relevant” again.   Most of the Golden Age characters had vanished entirely in the New 52, but others hadn’t.    Eventually, this was explained with the publication of the new Earth 2 series.

DC has gone back to multiple Earths, and is using this series to depict a timeline where the Golden Age characters are reimagined for a new generation.  This Earth was invaded by the forces of Darkseid, and drove them off at the cost of the death, disappearance or disgrace of all their existing heroes.  Some years later, new “wonders” are appearing or being revealed as new threats emerge.  This volume covers issues 7-12, and a couple of specials that fill in details.

Modern decompressed storytelling means that you don’t get your team together in the first issue and go from there.  Indeed, by the sixth issue, some of our heroes had met and briefly worked together to stop a menace, but immediately split up again.  The primary storyline in these issues is Flash helping the new Doctor Fate find the resolve to become that character.  The primary villain they face is Wotan, who is given a new origin story (including an explanation for the green skin which explains why Wotan hates Doctor Fate’s mentor Nabu so much.)

Meanwhile, Green Lantern and Hawkgirl investigate the death of GL’s fiance, as it turns out the baddies might not have been after GL after all.  This doesn’t really get far before Green Lantern is called in to help with Wotan.  Elsewhere, Darkseid’s lieutenant Steppenwolf and his pawn Fury (supposed Wonder Woman’s daughter) take over a country.  Minor characters have their own subplots.

Good stuff:   With this reboot, DC has the freedom to make the cast more diverse from the start, and they’ve done so.  After some rough patches in the early issues, most of the heroes are now acting heroic, particularly Flash.  The art is decent, and the war against Darkseid’s forces stands in for World War Two nicely.

Not so good:  Did we really need to kill the Amazons again?  Seriously, we worry about you, DC.  Also, there’s a lot of grimness and gritting teeth.  I’d like to see a little more fun and people enjoying their powers and abilities.  The current DC hatred of marriage also is felt here, killing off spouses and potential spouses to free up the characters for other romantic subplots (or in the case of the gay guy, avoiding that yucky actually having him date thing.)

I can see where DC is coming from, but as an old fogy myself, I miss having heroes who have been around for decades and learned wisdom the hard way.

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