Every weekend this summer, we’ll be bringing you a new installment of a 12-part series of reviews of meaningful comics found in the collections of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.
These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in addition to the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.
Action Comics Weekly # 601
Think back to when you were young.
Remember when the Saturday edition of the newspaper used to arrive early in the morning and you’d quickly scan through it, tossing aside the business and political insight sections and excitedly pulling out the comics insert?
My parents subscribed to the Saturday edition of the Toronto Star and that was the first thing I did each morning before running to the television to watch my cartoons: flipping pages and reading my favourite comics, getting my finger tips covered with black ink, while eating my breakfast bowl of Cheerios or Fruit Loops or Shreddies. My favourites were The Far Side, Herman, Calvin and Hobbes, as well as the ongoing adventure stories of Spider-Man, which was only published in colour on Saturday.
I remember that extreme sense of Saturday-morning childhood anticipation like it was yesterday. The newspaper comics don’t hold my attention any more, but the continuing, serialized form of comic book storytelling, does. The style is a throwback to those black and white pulp films or radio shows of my father’s generation, where every episode of The Shadow or Doc Savage was a cliffhanger and audiences had to tune in the following week to find out what happened to their favourite heroes.
Over the last few years, DC Comics has aggressively returned to the weekly serialized format. They’ve published the critically acclaimed 52 series, a title that ran every week over the course of an entire year, showcasing a set of B-list characters, each finding their own voice and, more importantly, their own audience over that span of time. Directly following 52 was Countdown, also a weekly, year-long series. DC proved that there were comic collectors interested in the format so long as solid storytelling and consistently good art could be maintained over the frantic pace of a weekly series.
Before 52 or Countdown found acclaim, however, DC toyed with the format in their flagship title, Action Comics.
After a company-wide crossover story that reinvigorated the heroes of the DC Universe, including Superman, DC renamed their flagship to Action Comics Weekly with issue #601, published in 1988 which ran double-sized at 48 pages. The series would still boast a Superman story but would also contain tales featuring a host of lesser known or struggling characters in an effort to drum up public interest. Each character would have a limited run, replaced with other heroes once their story ran its course. The first issue contained the characters of Blackhawk, Deadman, Wild Dog, The Secret Six and even Green Lantern, whose series had just been cancelled, all featured in 8-page long segments.
There was something here for every comic fan.
Green Lantern, written by comic book hall-of-famer James Owsley and drawn by the legendary Gil Kane, picked up right where the character’s series had ended, only now, in the first chapter of the serial, the exploits of DC’s favourite science fiction space-cop was narrated by his ex-lover, now turned adversary, Carol Ferris, the Star Sapphire. The story traveled from deep space to planet Earth, the first chapter ending with the mutilation and murder of ex-Green Lantern Corps member, Katma, who also happened to be Green Lantern John Stewart’s wife, at the hands of the evil narrator. Quite the cliff-hanger.
Wild Dog, created and written by mystery novelist Max Collins and artist Terry Beatty, made his first appearance in a four-issue mini-series a few years earlier. His emergence in Action Comics Weekly was a way to drum up interest in the hopes of publishing another mini or even an ongoing series. Part of the appeal of the character during his first outing was the mystery surrounding who Wild Dog actually was, which was eventually revealed in the final issue. Unfortunately, that mysterious lure was gone and Wild Dog simply became a man with a gun out to take on and kill criminals with constant special effect gunplay sounds of “Budda! Budda!! Budda!!!” Not very interesting, the character faded into obscurity.
The Secret Six series within Action Comics Weekly reformed the team originally created in 1968. Veteran writer Martin Pasko and realist artist Dan Spiegel reinvigorated the team for the late 20th century, imbibing the six “agents” with specialized talents in combat, intelligence and espionage. The lure of the series was once again the mysterious Mockingbird, a hooded figure that guided the team from mission to mission. The Secret Six would have two distinct storylines in the anthology and last year, DC Comics revived the title, giving them their own monthly series which has been praised by critics and fans alike.
Deadman, always a character on the outskirts of the DC Universe, found a regular feature home in the weekly anthology. Written by Mike Baron and drawn by long standing DC Comics illustrator Dan Jurgens, the ghost who could posses the bodies of other people took up where his 1986 mini series left off. Fans clamored for more and eventually Baron would write a number of prestige-format mini series featuring the titular character, all drawn to disturbing, decomposing effect by Kelley Jones. Fans loved the new look.
Blackhawk told the period tale of the post World War II fighting pilot ace, once again under the pen of Martin Pasko and joined by the artistic design work of Rick Burchett. Blackhawk gave the Action Comics Weekly title an entirely different feel: globe-trotting high adventure in the late 1940’s, ensuring the parent series contained stories of a different nature, look and feel. Blackhawk would successfully inherit his own monthly series.
Other characters would join the line-up as storylines concluded. Black Canary would find a home in Action Comics Weekly as would the Phantom Stranger, Captain Marvel, Catwoman and Speedy. Only a fleeting few titles were successful, however, and the flagship would return to Superman-centric stories under its old title of Action Comics within a year. Still, it proved to be an interesting way for DC Comics to “try out” new characters and gauge audience reaction.
This July 1st, DC will make another attempt at a weekly installment series featuring different characters. Wednesday Comics will be stylized like those Saturday morning newspaper pull-out section comics of our childhood and feature, over twelve issues, the legendary characters of Superman, Green Lantern and Hawkman. Once again, the stories of these heroes are mixed with “b” and “c” listers such as Kamandi and Metamorpho.
It’ll be exciting to pull the newspaper-sized Wednesday Comics off of the shelf and flip though the pages of favourite and emerging heroes. It’ll be just like when I was a kid.
Instead of Saturday, I’ll just have to save my Cheerios for Wednesday mornings now.