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Trouble with Comics, DC 1st Issue Special - Part One

DC 1st Issue Special - Part One

In this, the Golden Age of Reprints, it seems like the majority of the great comic book stories and strips have been, or are being, collected. But there is still a lot of good, interesting, or charmingly bad work that hasn’t been reprinted. Growing up, I was a Marvel reader all the way. I could list the DC comics I owned on one hand. 

Obviously, that eventually changed, and I won’t bore you with the details, but despite having a decent grounding in DC history, I’ve been wanting to dig deeper, especially back to the ’60s and ’70s for some books and characters that never really caught on. And so, through the miracle of eBay, we arrive at this 1975 DC series, a funky failure known as 1st Issue Special. Similar in format to the ’50s series Showcase, which debuted the Silver Age Flash and Green Lantern we all know, love and insist on resurrecting, and which also featured the first appearances of enduring characters like the Challengers of the Unknown, the Metal Men and Hawk and Dove, 1st Issue spawned few recurring characters in its thirteen issues. In fact, some of the characters had debuted elsewhere, and only one, Mike Grell’s The Warlord, would go onto its own immediate series.  

1st Issue Special #1: Atlas the Great

Writer/Artist - Jack Kirby. Inker - D. Bruce Berry

See! His arms crush the stones like biscuits!”   

Having Jack Kirby write and draw an introductory issue of a possible series and then letting him wait for sales figures and reader response to come in before DC decided if they wanted to continue with it probably wasn’t a very good idea. By the time the votes were in, Kirby and his restless imagination had moved on to new ideas and characters. Still, having Kirby and others present visions of of what might have been for the DC Universe was an idea that at least provided a better than average kind of “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” run of comics.

This first issue introduces Atlas, a buff warrior who is not just the young boy bent on revenge against the oppressive ruler who killed his father, but who is also a Chosen One type whose tremendous strength and insolence is mitigated by the fact he happens to be on the side of justice.

In the first eight pages, we see the shirtless strongman, Atlas, do nothing but kick ass. He destroys some stone beams in the square of a typically primitive-but-advanced Kirby village as a barker challenges the crowd to produce a champion man enough to best Atlas. With little effort, the once-mighty Kargin is not just beaten but smashed through the wooden stage. Some onlookers are amazed while others think it’s trickery, but before anyone can act next, a royal contingent comes through the street, rudely butting aside the “rabble,” which causes a swift reprisal from Atlas.

It’s not until he hears the familiar voice of Hyssa, the reptilian ruler who enslaved his mother, killed his father and burned his village does Atlas stop to reflect, at which point we get the origin showing those very things as well as the young Atlas’ Herculean feats that finally result in his journey into Lizard Country.

I mean no disrespect when I speculate that Kirby probably whipped up this story in about fifteen minutes. It’s pure Kirby without heady concepts, and with only two significant characters, the evil oppressor and the man of the people who refuses to be oppressed.

I can kind of understand why Atlas didn’t get his own series. Kirby didn’t seem to have a lot of support within DC and previous, superior work there like his various “Fourth World” books like New Gods and Mister Miracle had already gotten the ax. Atlas’ first story was rather elegantly told, cutting away to flashbacks before setting up the Atlas/Hyssa conflict at the end that would obviously drive the prospective series. But with its simplicity, and Atlas’ odd hood-and-metal-face-frame-with-no-shirt outfit, there was little to suggest that an Atlas book would succeed where the other Kirby efforts for DC mostly hadn’t.

As a post-script, Atlas remained unused, but for radically different interpretations and/or alternate universe appearances in books like Kingdom Come and All Star Superman, until James Robinson brought him into the DCU in his Superman run, making him a kind of gray area villain somewhat along the lines of Marvel’s Namor. With Robinson now off the Superman books but still writing Justice League, it’s unclear if he’ll continue using Atlas.

1st Issue Special #2 - The Green Team: Boy Millionaires

Writer - Joe Simon

Artist - Jerry Grandenetti

"Hmm, it smells good! What’s this here city made of, Dinkle?”

"French fries."

Former Kirby partner Simon, who had once again worked with Kirby prior to this outing on the 1974 update of their Golden Age Sandman, here revisits kid gang territory with “The Green Team,” a foursome of kid millionaires keen on adventure. Simon had struck out with prior attempts at DC at comics geared at the youth subculture in Brother Power the Geek and Prez, but clearly something compelled the man to keep trying offbeat ideas rather than just script any regular DC heroes. This would be admirable if the Green Team was any good.

Although the name today might suggest some ecology-minded kids trying to connect to and protect nature, this Green Team are just spoiled millionaires looking for kicks, although Simon doesn’t seem able to come up with anything grand enough. For instance, shipping magnate Commodore Murphy buys a small town just so he can sail his advanced toy boat in the town’s pond, while Cecil Sunbeam plays at being a studio mogul and film director as childishly as many of the adults who really hold those jobs. Simon barely gives his characters even the sketchy characterization of the Newsboy Legion. As he recounted later, The Green Team was basically Richie Rich x 4, and the only differences between Commodore Murphy and J.P. Houston was that Houston wears a cowboy hat and says, “podner,” while Cecil drops the cloying epithet, “sweetie,” in a stereotypical Hollywood, not homosexual, way. 

The only distinct member of the team is Abdul Smith, African-American shoeshine boy (stay with me) who really wants to join, and through a banking miscalculation on a five dollar deposit, he suddenly has the million dollars needed to join the team. Why Abdul wants to suddenly put up his fortune to hang out with three white kids who aren’t his friends and with whom he has nothing really in common is a question Simon isn’t interested in exploring in this issue. He wants to get right to the wacky adventuring, which in this case isn’t much of an adventure at all but a poorly-executed tale of EC Comics-style comeuppance. A shameless Broadway producer, David D. Merritt (based on David Merrick) is for some reason angry at the Green Team when their promotion of an invention they bankrolled, the Pleasure Machine (don’t worry, it’s an all-ages comic) is thought by one onlooker to be a Merritt stunt. No, the motivation doesn’t make any sense, does it? Merritt jumps in the Pleasure Machine to be the first passenger on the ten day maiden voyage. Making it last ten days has no positive impact on the story and in fact leads to several boring, yet nonsensical, panels of the Green Team watching Merritt on a monitor, lamenting the cool kicks they’re missing that, as described earlier, are only happening in Merritt’s mind and thus not filmable. 

When Merritt finally emerges, he’s lost his mind, and what was meant as a zany, lighthearted teen comic, complete with breezy, sloppy, sub-sub-Jack Davis art by Grandenetti, has now become a dark-tinged travesty. It’s like wiping your ass with a birthday balloon.

Somehow, two issues of a Green Team series were readied but were victims of the 1978 DC Implosion and never officially published. The characters have made brief appearances in a Dan Jurgens Superman and a Grant Morrison Animal Man, and it’s more than they deserve. 

1st Issue Special #3 - Metamorpho

Writer - Bob Haney

Artist - Ramona Fradon

"Do not interfere, m’sieur, or the blade that dispatched a dozen mamelukes will cause your fool’s blood to flow like water!"

Why end on soiled balloons? The third issue is not a debut story like the previous two. As the cover proclaims, “The Fabulous Freak Returns,” meaning Metamorpho the Element Man. Also returning are co-creators Haney and the semi-retired Fradon.

Again, I was not a DC reader when these issues first came out, but I think my six year old self would have dug this, and now that I’ve seen enough sophisticated, dark, “mature” superhero books to hold me, I’ve come back to being able to appreciate such a bouncy, unpretentious adventure like this one. Rex (Metamorpho) and his girlfriend Sapphire are sightseeing in Washington, D.C., her protective dad and simian chauffeur/bodyguard Java in tow, when a cane-wielding ghost right out of a Scooby-Doo cartoon tries taking down the monuments as revenge for several Presidents never listening to his spectral advice about the gaseous weapon he’d first created to win the Revolutionary War. It’s nutty as hell but Fradon, while not in peak form, is still plenty enjoyable to look at, especially the Elderesque wide-eyed, toothsome Sapphire and the many chemical contortions of Metamorpho. She turns Haney’s cheesy script into a souffle’. It doesn’t appear to have led to more adventures at the time, but that’s your lost, 1970s. 

Next time - issues 4-6, with the two remaining Kirby efforts for the series, as well Bob Kanigher’s rape-busting Police Woman ripoff, “Lady Cop.”

—Christopher Allen

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