Thursday, October 6, 2011

Unearthed: All-Star Squadron#48

Last time in Unearthed I looked at All-Star Comics#62 and briefly discussed how it began my interest in comics history, Earth-2 and Hourman. Appropriately, I'm continuing this theme with All-Star Squadron#48 (1985), which I first read shortly after All-Star Comics#62.

Just like All-Star Comics#62, this book appeared without explanation. One summer while visiting my grandfather, it turned up in his house. It was suggested my cousins James & Andrew had left the comic behind during an earlier visit, but it's origins weren't definite.

Checking the cover, we have the Shining Knight pit against Dr. Fate, Robotman & Firebrand while a caption helpfully informs us "The Shining Knight is BACK! Only this time he's on the OTHER SIDE!" Another blurb reads "Camelot 1942!" which turns out to be the title of the story inside. Finally, a blurb promises us "Special Guest Star Blackhawk." Following up on some ideas Colin Smith has been considering, this cover brings up a few things:

  1. With the exception of Hourman, Winston Churchill and our surprise villain, all the major players of this comic are presented on the cover.
  2. Further, the cover sets out the problem: the Shining Knight has turned against the heroes (just like Wildcat on the cover of the previous Unearthed).
  3. The caption explaining the problem is probably necessary; without it, the Shining Knight might as well be a contestant on the Dating Game choosing his match.
  4. The Blackhawk blurb was actually exciting to me - I had exactly one issue of Blackhawk back then and it was always thrilling to realize I was up to speed with the story (since I had no idea who the Shining Knight, Robotman or Firebrand were; I did wonder if Robotman was connected to the more famous Robotman).
  5. Do note that for this comic, Dr. Fate is wearing the half-mask version of his helmet. I think it was originally introduced in the 1940s to give artists a wider range of expressions for the character or perhaps to make him look more like other conventional super heroes; of course, comics being what they are, we were eventually treated to an explanation about him trying to overcome the possibly-sinister machinations of his patron wizard Nabu by exposing his mouth. Let me tell you, those comic books have serious Daddy issues.

A banner atop the opening splash page gives us an introduction to the series concept: "1942 - a world at war! And against the forces of Axis darkness, the mightiest heroes of Earth-Two have banded together, under direct orders of the President, as the All-Star Squadron." This was the 1985 equivalent of today's recap pages; many comics had to explain their concepts within two lines of text because back then you could actually sell your pages as advertising space. It's true! Even so, two lines aren't enough to explain what Earth-2 might be...or about World War II, in case you didn't learn it at school...or which country's President they're referring to, I suppose. Note that the All-Star Squadron's name is derived from All-Star Comics.

Creator credits go to writer Roy Thomas, fan turned writer; Mike Harris, listed as "guest penciler" and not a name I'm familiar with; and inker Vince Colletta, infamous amongst fandom for erasing Jack Kirby's pencil lines to save time and thus possibly the least-liked inker in comics history. That's no reflection on Colletta's prowess as an inker, simply his notoriety.

We open on the Shining Knight riding his flying horse Winged Victory (a pretty good name for a WW2-era horse...but isn't it from Camelot?). The Knight investigates a crumbling castle and finds a silent knight (not the Silent Knight; he turned up in a later issue of All-Star Squadron because...I digress). The Shining Knight attacks the interloper and is startled to find his liege King Arthur behind the helmet. He lowers his guard, overjoyed to see his lord and master, but "King Arthur" knocks him out with a sock to the jaw.

Over the Atlantic Ocean on page six, Firebrand, Robotman, Hourman & Dr. Fate are mid-flight to London. During the flight, Firebrand uses her flame powers to perform some spot-welding on Robotman, who's trying to improve his rockets and armor plating. It seems British PM Winston Churchill requested the All-Star Squadron's aid, although Hourman notes Dr. Fate is the only one asked for by name. Even though Hourman does possess super powers (for an hour at a time), we'll see throughout this issue that he feels unequal amongst his peers; as I stated in my last Unearthed, Hourman was an early favourite of mine and it's mostly due to this issue - I really emphasized with characters who felt a little out of sorts. Come to think of it, I don't believe I ever read an issue of All-Star Squadron where Hourman was the key hero who saved the day, but I recall several where he was stuck on the sidelines just trying to stay alive and keep his confidence up.

Anyway, the All-Stars' plane arrives in London just in time for the Battle of Britain. The Blackhawks join the fight and Hourman starts to gush about them, having heard what great pilots they're supposed to be (we both like the Blackhawks? Hourman and I were separated at birth). As Hourman's powers don't include flight, he's stuck aboard the plane while the other three bail out to engage in aerial combat against the Germans.

So, while the other three All-Stars can fly, Robotman soon discovers those last-minute modifications he made to his body on the plane really should have been tested first; his jets can't manage the new weight from his added armor and he begins to plummet out of the sky. The following four panel sequence is worth examining:

In just four panels with a fixed "camera" (no close-ups), we go from: 1) Robotman in peril; 2) Robotman's humorously desperate attempt at a solution; 3) Robotman's seeming doom; 4) Robotman triumphant. Take particular note of Robotman's face, which isn't a particularly emotive one, yet his open jaw in panel one demonstrates his terror and his wide grin in panel four delivers his sense of accomplishment. I'm not saying Mike Harris & Vince Colletta were a two-headed Alex Toth, but in an age where blank-faced photorealistic models recite the farmer's almanac to each other, it's nice to find a super hero comic with peril, emotion, humour and triumph in just four panels, no matter where you have to look to seek it.

There's also a nice moment during the fight where Firebrand hopes the pilots whose planes she just wrecked manage to save themselves via parachute. It's becoming increasingly accepted for super heroes to kill faceless "lackeys," especially in stories set during World War II, so it's refreshing to see the opposite attitude expressed - she even notes how she used to be all right with killing soldiers, but at some point had an epiphany.

There's also an interesting moment where Dr. Fate smashes through a German plane and Hourman compares him to Superman. Honestly, given the sort of power Dr. Fate displayed back then and that as a member of the Justice Society he was a public figure, it would have been neat to see people favourably refer to Superman as "a regular Dr. Fate!"

With the skirmish over, the All-Stars meet the Blackhawks; Blackhawk himself aside, the others just fade into the background (excepting the ostentatious garb of Chop-Chop). Winston Churchill arrives and ushers Blackhawk and the All-Stars into a meeting (the rest of the Blackhawks depart, lest they clutter up the story) and Winnie explains how the Shining Knight went to explore the site where Camelot once stood, based on reports of strange happenings. The Shining Knight hasn't reported back to Churchill (and he's supposed to be Churchill's bodyguard!), so it's up to the All-Stars (and Blackhawk) to investigate.

As the heroes fly to their ally's last known location (Hourman riding aboard Blackhawk's plane) a bit of exposition creeps out: Fate isn't as powerful as he used to be, but can sense something mystical; Robotman, however, is picking up something unusual as well; Firebrand is a little distracted by the Shining Knight's peril, having earlier held an attraction to him. To their surprise, the trail leads to a very well-kept castle, staffed with knights, King Arthur and Merlin the Magician.

Without speaking a word, Merlin attacks Firebrand & Robotman, but Dr. Fate gets physical with the sordid sorcerer and knocks him apart - "Merlin" is nothing more than a robot. Ah, then King Arthur must be as well, you'd suppose? Not quite. "Arthur" removes his mask to reveal himself as...

Wotan? Not that I'd ever heard of Wotan before, but he dumps a lot of exposition in that panel to bring first-time readers up to speed. Suffice to say, he's one of Fate's personal enemies, although the exact nature of the threat he poses isn't made clear. Anyway, whatever danger Wotan himself poses is beside the point when he can simply make the Shining Knight fight in his stead:

And so, once again we end a story with a couple of Earth-2 heroes taken out of the fight and another placed under the control of a villain and forced to attack his comrade.

I still haven't read All-Star Squadron#49. Somehow resolving cliffhangers doesn't seem that important when you're a child, you accept that you're going to be in the middle of the story just about all the time - you learn to enjoy the middle, find entertainment in the unit of story you're presented with. I did, however, become a big fan of the All-Star Squadron and did my best to collect it at second-hand stores over the years (I never saw a copy on the news stand, which was the only place I could buy new comics until '88). Sadly, All-Star Squadron was just about to hit Crisis on Infinite Earths when this issue came out and the elimination of Earth-2 was, understandably, a blow the series couldn't recover from.

If there's one thing I remember about this comic from my first reading to now (other than the cover), it's the panel of the Shining Knight crying when he thinks he's been reunited with King Arthur:

Perhaps it's because I hadn't seen a hero cry before. Again, kudos to Harris & Colletta for the emotion on display. There are some places where details are lacking, notably backgrounds; there's no way for me know, but I can assume Colletta has a lot to do with the sparse details.

It was fun for me to be exposed to characters like Firebrand & Robotman, heroes who clearly had backstories behind them but whom I hadn't so much as heard of before; to this day, those two aren't the type to get action figures or animated programs. Dr. Fate won me over with the visual of his action figure so I was excited to see him in action during this issue (as opposed to being hospitalized in All-Star Comics#62). Hourman continued to grow on me as I saw him as little more than a normal person in extraordinary circumstances. I feel it's a pity that Hourman has become defined by his Miraclo powers over the last couple decades because I rather like the All-Star Squadron depiction of him as the least-impressive man in the room.

Following this story is a three page portfolio by Mike Clark of Dr. Mid-Nite, Wonder Woman & Green Lantern. The Mid-Nite pin-up really struck me at the time:

Looking at it now, I have some problems with Mid-Nite's body posture and Hooty (the owl)'s proportions, but back in 1985 I was seriously awestruck by this image. I hadn't seen Mid-Nite in costume before (he was in civilian garb in All-Star Comics#62) and I thought the grim, shadowy depiction of him perched on the tree branch was just about the coolest thing I'd ever seen. I know that many comic book fans develop an early love for Batman the shadowy coolness he's supposed to project, yet Batman hadn't made an impression on me (I didn't come around to Batman until the mid 90s when I began regularly watching his animated series). Mid-Nite was my Batman. To this day, he and Hourman remain my pet favourites of the "Earth-2" heroes.

Also of note: on the letters page there's a very small advertisement for Roy Thomas' other Earth-2 series of the time, Infinity Inc.:

You can just barely recognize the signature of Toddy Mac himself; not that I was ever a tremendous fan of McFarlane, but this would have been my first exposure to his art. Little did anyone in 1985 guess he'd become a revolutionary force in the industry, stand as the most successful creator in the business, spend his money on balls, become mired in shameful litigation and end up in bankruptcy. 'Tis a tangled web.

1 comment:

Rob Barrett said...

Had this issue as well (may still have it down in the basement long boxes), and it was one of the factors in my favorable inclination toward Hourman as well. What really sealed the deal for me on Rex Tyler, though, was his appearance in the pages of my favorite Golden Age hero's book, Sandman Mystery Theatre. In that very low-powered environment, Wagner, Seagle, and Davis's treatment of Tyler's Miraclo-based abilities made him the most impressive man in the room. Whether he's catching up to a speeding car or taking a bullet, Vertigo Tyler is essentially Superman, and that was a take on Hourman that I hadn't seen before--precisely because he was always, as you point out, a bit of a nebbish in a room full of Green Lanterns, Supermans, Dr. Fates, and Spectres.