Sunday, 16 April 2017

More DC Comics I Liked in the 1960s

IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE 1960s, I had been an avid follower of Flash, Green Lantern and The Justice League of America. I'd even been known to stray into the world of Superman and the other Mort Weisinger-edited titles. But all that changed when I discovered Stan Lee's Tales to Astonish and The Avengers. From that point on, I would dismiss DC's titles as "kids stuff" and scorn other kids who were still reading them. And I stuck steadfastly to that opinion until 1968, when DC began publishing some titles that caught my eye. 

First it was Beware the Creeper and The Hawk and the Dove, both drawn by Steve Ditko, who'd left Marvel in a huff a couple of years earlier. But then I'd begun noticing other titles, particularly Secret Six, from Marvel's arch-rival and my opinion of DC began to soften a little.

I really don't know why I picked up the first issue of DCs The Secret Six (May 1968) from a newsagent spinner rack. The cover is a bit uninspiring, and you wouldn't know until after you'd bought the comic that the cover is actually the first page of the story.
Also around this time, I was enjoying some imported American tv shows, like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964 - 1968) and The Invaders (1967 - 1968) ... but a new programme on the schedules really captured my imagination - Mission: Impossible (1966 - 1973).

The classic Mission Impossible team - (back row) Barney Collier (Greg Morris), technical expert; Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), strong man; (front row) Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), illusionist and makeup expert; Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), international model; Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), leader.
Most will be familiar with the premise of Mission: Impossible after the success of the movie franchise which improbably cast Tom Cruise in the role of Ethan Hunt, a character not seen in the 1966 tv show. Every episode, the leader of the IM Force would receive a tape recording of instructions, from a never-identified person, offering him a task that no other government agency had been able to tackle. The details were delivered in a clipped voice, but did not constitute a direct order. For example:

"Good morning, Mr. Phelps. The man you are looking at is Alex Cresnic, one of the world's largest dealers in heroin. Recently, Cresnic made his biggest deal. He bought the entire heroin crop of an Asiatic country and smuggled it into Marseilles, where he plans to wholesale it to his major buyers. In order to get enough financing for such a big operation, Cresnic took in a partner. His name is Mark Walters, head of the Numbers Bank in Miami. The mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it, is to prevent Cresnic and Walters from selling their heroin and put them out of business permanently. As always, should you or any of your IM Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This recording will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim." (S2, E1: "The Widow")

Then smoke would pour out of the tape recorder and Jim Phelps set about selecting the team for this mission. One of my favourite capers was "The Numbers Game" (S4 E2, 1969) where the IM Force convinces a deposed dictator there's been a nuclear holocaust in an effort to stop him invading his former country. But there were many fantasy-oriented episodes, with phoney spiritualists, fake cryo-feezing and false fountains of youth. All in all, it was pretty much tailor-made for this 14 year old comic fan.


IMPOSSIBLE MISSIONS OF THE SECRET SIX

I can't now recall whether I saw Mission: Impossible on tv before I picked up the first issue of Secret Six or after. I kind of think it was after, because I had been so taken with the premise of that new DC comic ... it seemed so fresh and original.

The setup of the Secret Six is strikingly similar to Mission: Impossible. Six experts in their fields - each with a shady past - are blackmailed into serving a mysterious, hooded character called Mockingbird. Each mission is righteous - none of the team are called upon to do anything immoral, though occasionally their actions may border on illegal - but it's always in the promotion of justice.

Most of the first issue is spent introducing the team, who all bear more than a passing resemblance to tv's Impossible Missions Force, or IMF as they're called in the show.

It's not subtle, but this scene does introduce us to the Secret Six team quickly and efficiently, using just about a single page to give the reader all the information they need.
King Savage is a movie stuntman, similar to tv's Willy Armitage strongman character. Crimson Dawn (yep!) is the Secret Six's Cinnamon Carter. Carlo di Rienzi is the comics version of Rollin Hand's illusionist aspect. Dr August Durant is the team's scientist, the equivalent of Barney Collier. Lili de Neuve is a high-end beautician and makeup whiz, who I'd say was fullfilling the other half of the Rollin Hand role. And Mike "Tiger Force" Tempest is an ex-heavyweight champion, who could also double for the IMF's Willy Armitage strongman character.

The big surprise, uncovered as they gather together for the first time, is that their mysterious leader is actually one of them. This shocking bit of news is delivered by August Durant, which made me immediately suspect him of being Mockingbird.

This is the comic's equivalent of the Mission: Impossible self-destructing tape, where the point of the mission is explained. What isn't explained, at least not at this stage, is where Mockingbird gets his (or her) information.
The rest of the plot has the team instructed to tackle the problem of Zoltan Lupus, an formerly wealthy figure, who feels that oxygen should not be free and has invented a plane with a giant hoover attached that sucks the oxygen out of the air. The Secret Six's mission, should they choose to accept it (oh, wait ... they have no choice) is to penetrate the ex-millionaire's impenetrable island fortress and ensure that the weapon fails to function during a scheduled demonstration for prospective financiers.

Of course, Zoltan's plan is thwarted and the Six escape the island in a pilfered motor launch, ruminating over the identity of Mockingbird and wondering how long this situation is going to go on for.

Once the team has been established, it cleared the way to fill all 23 pages with actual plot. Secret Six 2 (Jul 1968) has one of the most striking covers of the entire Silver Age and still one of my favourites to this day. There's probably an entire blog post to be written about Nick Cardy, one of the mostly unsung geniuses of the 1960s and 1970s and, likely, someone's already written it. I may even do a post on Cardy myself one day, but for now let's stick to the subject.

What made Nick Cardy such a terrific artist was that he was also a great designer. This arresting layout and colour scheme immediately grabs the attention. It's very much an image of the times, very "Pop-Art" and on that level, I think Cardy was every bit as influential as Jim Steranko.
"Plunder the Pentagon" was plotted by series creator E. Nelson Bridwell and again drawn by Frank Springer. Old Charlton Comics lag Joe Gill was drafted in to do the dialogue. I don't think the issue reads any better or worse than the last one, which written by Bridwell on his own. Perhaps it was a deadline thing ... more likely it was newly-ensconced, former Charlton editor Dick Giordano's suggestion.

GIORDANO - RENAISSANCE COMICS MAN

Richard Joseph Giordano began freelancing at Charlton Comics in 1952, pencilling mostly romance, racing and western comics like I Love You (1955 - 1976), Hot Rods & Racing Cars (1951 - 1973), and Billy the Kid (1957 - 1983).

Some of Giordano's earliest cover art for Charlton Comics: Space Adventures 3 (Nov 1952); Lawbreakers Suspense Stories 13 (Jul 1953); and Haunted 15 (Feb 1954). Even at this point in his career, Giordano's clean line and dynamic layout style is evident.
Around 1965, Giordano became Managing Editor at Charlton, under long-serving Executive Editor Pat Masulli. Giordano's first project in his new role was to supervise the revival of Charlton's dormant superhero comics as the "Action Hero" line, reinstating Captain Atom (with new art by Steve Ditko, after a short run of reprints), Peacemaker (drawn by Pat Boyette), JudoMaster (by Frank MacLaughlin), Thunderbolt (by Pete Morisi), as well as a revived Blue Beetle and The Question (both by Steve Ditko).

During his stint as Charlton editor, Giordano saw the success Marvel was having and instigated a line of super-hero books for Charlton, drawing on old favourites and creating new titles.
The new Charlton superheroes were only moderately successful, and by the end of 1967 were cancelled. However, during this (for Charlton) fertile period, Giordano had discovered and recruited talent like Jim Aparo, Denny O'Neill and Sam Grainger. And once the superhero revival was all done, so was Giordano. He left Charlton around the end of 1967, and accepted vice president Irwin Donenfeld's offer to join the staff of DC comics as an editor, taking over Teen Titans, Aquaman and a stable of other titles from George Kashdan and Jack Miller, with the May 1968 cover dates.

At DC, it seemed that Giordano had joined at an interesting time. I'd like to say that it was Giordano who'd brought in interesting artists like Nick Cardy and off-beat series like Deadman, but they were already in place when he was hired. Not quite sure where Young Love fits in, but I love the Jay Scott Pike cover.
Though I hadn't realised it at the time, I was an instant fan of Dick Giordano. I had taken a shine to his two Ditko titles at DC - The Creeper and The Hawk and the Dove - because they were Ditko, and thought Deadman in Strange Adventures was pretty good, too. It would be neat and make for a better story if I could have credited the brilliance of the Nick Cardy-drawn series Aquaman and Teen Titans to Giordano, but the fact is that Cardy had been involved in both series pretty much since their inception. 

Johnny Sheffield and Peggy Ann Garner starred in a series of low-budget Bomba movies during the 1950s. Just why the DC comic bills the character as "TV's Teen Jungle Star" I couldn't say. There's no evidence of a Bomba tv-series around 1968. Perhaps the films were showing on a loop on Saturday mornings in the US at the time.
Bomba was a strange choice. The character, a Tarzan Junior, had appeared in a successful series of books by "Roy Rockford", a house pseudonym of the book packager, Stratemeyer Syndicate. The film rights were picked up by poverty row studio Monogram and the 12-film series featured Tarzan's "Boy", Johnny Sheffield, in the title role. In 1968, I could have cared less about jungle characters.

Giordano had been handed Blackhawk at a weird time in its run, with issue 241 (Jun 1968). A year earlier, there had been an ill-advised attempt to turn the team into superheroes. Sales had been sinking and doubtless, the DC editors had looked at the burgeoning success of Marvel and their own superhero books and thought, "Hey, why not?"

Seemed like a good idea at the time - The Blackhawks were transformed into superheroes for the last year of their run. Not even Dick Giordano could save them.
Giordano quickly put a stop to all that nonsense, and returned The Blackhawks to their traditional blue uniforms in issue 242. But it was too little, too late and the title was cancelled with the following issue, 243.

The real odd-one-out in the stable is Young Love. Perhaps Giordano requested it, or perhaps it was thrust upon him. Whatever happened, Giordano decided to at least try to make the title his own.

The early Young Love covers were pencilled and inked by Jack Kirby. Then the covers sported photos for a large part of the run, presumably to make the comics look more like "real" magazines. The last part of the run featured many covers by Rip Kirby artist John Prentice.
Young Love had been one of the original pioneers of the Love Comic genre, started by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby back in the late-1940s for Crestwood's Prize Comics imprint. The title lasted under the team (Kirby left during the title's 1956 - 1960 hiatus) until 1963, when Prize went out of business and sold its remaining romance titles to DC. It was around that time that the Simon-Kirby partnership split up, though the two would continue to work together on occasional projects up until about 1960 or so.

Pretty quickly, Dick Giordano took over drawing the covers of Young Love (and of other DC romance titles) and overhauled the title's cover logo.
When Giordano took over Young Love, he first compiled a reprint issue in the 80-Page Giant format to give himself some breathing space, then took over drawing the covers himself. Within a few months, he'd redesigned the cover format, bringing a modern-looking logo and introducing an ongoing serial, "The Life and Loves of Lisa St Clair".

Over the next few years, Giordano introduced new titles like Date with Debbi (1969 - 1972), The Witching Hour (1969 - 1978) and Windy and Willy (1969), and took over editing the newly revamped House of Secrets (1969 - 1978) and the long-established romance title Secret Hearts (1949 - 1971). But by the end of 1970, Giordano was feeling constrained by the "lack of editorial opportunities" and left DC staff to become a freelance artist.

He'd go on to be the inker of choice for DC's super-penciller Neal Adams, though he contributed fewer inking jobs to the classic run of Green Lantern-Green Arrow than you'd think, just six of the 14-issue run.

Giordano returned to DC in 1983 as Managing Editor, was promoted to Executive Editor and remained with the company until 1993, when the untimely death of his wife - Marie Trapani sister of Sal - hastened his decision to return to freelance inking part-time.

It can't be a coincidence that the only DC books I'd countenance reading in 1968 were all edited by Giordano, even though I didn't know it at the time. And it was probably the hand of Giordano - as much as Steve Ditko - that brought me to the Charlton Action Hero line of the mid-1960s, albeit almost thirty years after the event.

Giordano died on 27 March 2010, but his influence on the industry has lived on long after him. He was an important figure, not just to the comics business but to me too, both for his editing skills and for the brilliant comics he illustrated with Neal Adams.

HOUSE OF SECRET

So with the introductions of the characters out of the way, and new scripter Joe Gill on board, Secret Six 2 (Jul 1968) was free to concentrate on the intricate caper-plot, which more than ever resembled an episode of Mission: Impossible.

The first part of the story in Secret Six 2 sets up the situation and has Durant plan how the team will solve the challenge facing them. The middle section reveals some background information on Durant and how he came to serve Mockingbird. The back half of the story has the team solve the problem in an ingenious way.
The Six are tasked by Mockingbird to sell plans for the top-secret aircraft the XB-107. But first they have to steal the plans to make enemy agents believe they have them. Then they'll sell fake plans to the agents and secretly return the real plans. With me so far? So Carlo and Lili walk brazenly into the Pentagon, disguised as a high ranking army officer and his secretary, accompanied by Dr Durant. Their chance discovery by a passing security man means they have to fight their way out. But it turns out that the military intelligence people knew the foreign agents were after the plans, and switched the real plans for fake plans. So Carlo and Lili snatched fake plans. So where, asks Durant are the real plans? Why right here in my drawer says the intelligence guy. Except they're not. In all the confusion, the enemy agents filched the real plans. Reviewing recent newspapers, Durant discovers that Soviet spy Nikolai Shokolov recently entered and left the US making him the prime suspect. The Secret Six resolve to go after him and retrieve the real plans. And we're not even halfway through the story.

I think it was this level of complexity that made me a fan of the title very quickly. I had to read the story a couple of times to figure out exactly what was going on, and that added up to Value for Money, to me.

The second half of the story reveals how Dr Durant came to be infected with a lethal virus and how Mockingbird supplies the drug which keeps the virus at bay. Did Mockingbird administer the virus in the first place? Why doesn't anyone else have an antidote? Is Durant even telling the truth?

In the end, with Shokolov distracted by Crimson's undeniable charms, the team manage to switch the real plans for the fake plans, which Shokolov then delivers to his Soviet masters. Needless to say, it doesn't end well for Shokolov.

This would be the formula for the series. Each issue would feature an impossible mission, and highlight the story of one of the team.

Secret Six 3 sported some pretty good artwork by Jack Sparling. The pages above feature what looks like Neal Adams-inspired layouts. Page 21 I especially like, as I used to own the original art for this page. Can't remember now whatever happened to it.
Secret Six 3 (Aug 1968)  saw a change of artist. Frank Springer was gone and in his place, reliable DC regular Jack Sparling was providing the art. I don't think I noticed the artist change at the time, and even now I think Springer's and Sparling's art styles are quite similar. However, I do think Sparling was paying attention to the rise of young artists like Neal Adams and was striving to make his art as dynamic. Look especially at the scan of Page 21 of SS3 above. That fore-shortened figure diving across the lower panel is quite Adams-like.

The story opens with each of the team surviving attempts on their lives. After speculating that one of the attempts may have been faked, the six decide to pair up, so each can keep an eye on the other. But that doesn't help, as Mike Tempest is abducted by The Mob under the very nose of stuntman King Savage. The team bust Mike out of the cell he's being held in and leave the disguised Mob heavy Hanrahan in his place. The Mob take Hanrahan out to be shot instead of Mike ... and as they do, the police show up and arrest the baddies, all except the Big Boss, who gets away.

Then we learn a bit about why the Mob wanted Tempest. It seems the ex-boxer didn't throw a fight when the Mafia wanted him to, and the gangsters want payback. And just as Tempest's story comes to a close, the Mafia Boss pops up brandishing a machine gun. There's a big fight and the Bad Guy gets his just desserts.

This plot is a little more straightforward than preceding issue's. By this point, the team seem to have accepted that one of their number is really Mockingbird, but when I traced it back, that view was just a theory expressed by Dr Durant in SS1, though there's no evidence to support that view. In the context of the story, it's just pure guess work, yet here we are two issues later and the team seem to have taken the idea as fact.

There's a bit of discussion about this development on the title's new letters page, "Listen to the Mockingbird". One reader suggests that Mike Tempest can't be Mockingbird because he was seen responding to Mockingbird's call on his wrist videophone. Another reader thinks it'd be a good idea to have one of the team killed on a mission and have a new member join. Dick Giordano's response to this is that then the rest of the team would know that the new member can't be Mockingbird, but I don't agree. It's not been demonstrated by any evidence that Mockingbird is one of the team. This discussion would continue ...

Secret Six 4 would be the last outing for the classic circular logo. The story fills in King Savage's biography and sends him to China to free the man who tortured him from the communist authorities.
The fourth issue of Secret Six (Nov 1968) has the team dispatched to China to liberate a double agent, General Pao, from a Red Guard jail. While Lili's applying makeup so the team can pass as Chinese, we get a flashback telling how King Savage was captured and tortured in Korea and gave away everything he knew to the communists. But Mockingbird was able to free him and Savage returned to his own lines a hero. When the team eventually reach the prison, we discover that General Pao is the same man who tortured Savage ten years earlier.

Not my favourite issue, but I was enjoying Jack Sparling's art. John Edmond Sparling was born in Winnepeg, Canada in 1916, making him 52 when he was drawing Secret Six. His parents moved to the US when Sparling was a child. Around 1940 (sources vary) Sparling created the newspaper strip Hap Hopper, with writer William Laas. Sparling worked on the strip until 1943, when he was succeeded by Al Plastino. Sparling's next newspaper gig was Claire Voyant, which lasted five years, with some of the strips being collected in comic book form.

By the early 1960s, Jack Sparling was getting steady work from the DC editors, both fill-ins and regular series work, in the shape of Eclipso in House of Secrets.
For the next 20 years, Sparling freelanced for just about every comic book company, pencilling and inking in just about every genre  - Warfront and First Romance (Harvey), Tell It To The Marines and Danger Is Our Business (Toby), Gabby Hayes (Charlton) and various movie adaptations for Dell's Four Color series in the 1950s. Then in the early 1960s, Sparling fetched up at DC, drawing short stories for the anthology titles like Strange Adventures and House of Secrets, for which he also drew the ongoing Eclipso series, and even Green Lantern.

Secret Six 5 allows the glamorous Crimson to take centre stage, playing a pivotal role in the takedown of Johnny Bright, and at the same time revealing how she came to be in the thrall of Mockingbird. I'm not sure why the logo was revamped, removing the distinctive spotlight circle which I'd quite liked.
Secret Six 5 (Jan 1969) draws inspiration of sorts from The Prisoner of Zenda ... a character called Johnny Bright has filched the crown jewels from a small European country called Graustania, and there's a danger that if the coronation doesn't go ahead there could be a communist takeover or, worse, the Basil Rathbone-like Archduke Otto might usurp the throne. The team are dispatched to recover the baubles. It turns out the Bright is the cad that married Crimson for her money and left her flat, back when she was frumpy Kim Dawn.

This allows Bridwell and Gill to give us the origin of Crimson, probably the most interesting of the Secret Six team. Raised as a dowdy kid by a military father who wanted a son, she was trained in sport and martial arts by her father. Trying to break away from his stern influence, she met and married chancer Johnny Bright, who stuck around until the money ran out, then ditched her. Mockingbird picked her up, delivered her to Lili, who turned chubby loser Kim into the international supermodel Crimson.

Of all the six, I think Crimson/Kim has the weakest reason to be bound to Mockingbird. Her big fear is that her family will find out she's Kim. And then what? Disinherit her? Didn't that already happen? OK, tell her off, then? Send her to bed with no tea? If Crimson were an internationally successful model, she's be pretty much beyond the reach of her family anyway, as she'd have her own funds, so her family has no hold over her. But why carp?

Secret Six 6 puts ex-movie star Lili de Neuve in the spotlight, for all the wrong reasons. The sub-plot with Crimson distracting villain Marcel Valory with her, er, charms doesn't really contribute anything to the plan, but is perhaps just in there so Jack Sparling can draw her in a bikini.
Secret Six 6 (Mar 1969) highlights Lili's story and makes her the centre of this issue. For the second time in her life, Lili finds herself framed for murder. Her arch enemy and the woman who stacked fake evidence against Lili first time round, Jeanne Gaultier, is murdered at Lili's spa, and all the evidence point to her. So the team take it upon themselves to investigate and help Lili out, this time without direct orders from Mockingbird. It doesn't take the Six long to figure out that the guilty party must be Gaultier's current paramour, Marcel Valory. They then devise an elaborate scheme to make Valory think that Jeanne is still alive, tricking him into confessing in front of an audience of hundreds. And Lili is off the hook again.

And on the subject of Mockingbird's true identity, there is a response, to a letter from future DC staffer Carl Gafford, on the letters page that says, "Remember, it was Doc, and no one else, who said Mockingbird was one of the group. There really hasn't been any documented proof that this is really so!" This just made me strongly suspect that the creative team probably hadn't actually decided who Mockingbird was, even at this point.

Secret Six 7 allowed Carlo di Renzi some closure after the murder of his wife and the near-fatal injury of his son at the hands of The Syndicate. But it failed to bring the series to a satisfactory close.
Secret Six 7 (May 1969) was the final issue.This meant that the sixth member of the team, escape artist and magician Carlo di Renzi was afforded his moment in the limelight. The Mafia is still looking for Mike Tempest, and kidnap Carlo so they can torture him and make him reveal where Tempest is. The thug who's been sent after Mike is Mario, a professional hitman from the old country, who was responsible for the death of Carlo's wife and the crippling injuries of his son. Carlo manages to contact the Six via his wrist vidphone and the team put a plan in motion to put a stop to the Syndicate once and for all.

And then, with that, the run of Secret Six was over. The last page bore no trailer for the next issue, simply a small "The End". While other hands would resurrect the series years later, there can be no doubt that it wouldn't be the real Secret Six.

The identity of Mockingbird would be revealed 20 years later in Action Comics Weekly 629 (6 Dec 1988), in a story written by Marty Pasko. I haven't read it. And even if I had, I wouldn't see it as the true resolution of the story that had been started (and never finished) by E. Nelson Bridwell and his collaborators Joe Gill, Dick Giordano, Frank Springer and Jack Sparling. For, in my mind, that Mockingbird would just be an impostor.

For the time being, that would end my brief flirtation with DC comics of the 1960s. It would take a few years and the release of Marvel's Conan before I'd once again take a look at any comics from Marvel's rivals. In the early 1970s, I'd notice DC putting out books like Green Lantern-Green Arrow, Swamp Thing and The Shadow ... but that's a story for another time.

Next: Daredevil and other Disabled Defenders