Friday, March 16, 2018

Throwback Thursday - The Shadow #1

Welcome to another Throwback Thursday "Retro Review" edition of Longbox Junk, where I take a closer look at some of the more "valuable" single issues in my collection instead of my usual discount box fare.

This time out, I take a trip back to 1973 and take a look at what many comic fans consider to be the best version of one of my favorite characters. . .the dark avenger known as The Shadow!

DC (1973)
SCRIPT: Dennis (Denny) O'Neal
PENCILS:  Michael Kaluta
COVER:  Michael Kaluta

As usual with these retro reviews, part of my fun in doing them is finding out about the background of the comic at hand, so indulge me a paragraph or three as I outline some of what I learned.

So what we have here is the first issue of a short-lived (12 issue) DC run on the popular pulp character, The Shadow.  He'd been around since the 1930's, but had fallen a bit out of the public eye by the 1970's, thanks in part to a disastrous Archie Comics run with the character in the mid 1960's where they tried to turn The Shadow into a superhero complete with green and purple tights and cape.  I don't have any issues of this run, but from what I understand, it's pretty much regarded as the very definition of Longbox Junk.

Thankfully, DC decided they wanted to stay true to the pulp roots of the character that inspired one of their most popular superheroes of all time, Batman.  DC originally hired Jim Steranko as artist, but Steranko wanted to write the book as well.  DC had already decided that they wanted Denny O'Neil writing The Shadow, so they passed on Steranko and passed the art to Bernie Wrightson, who was quickly becoming a superstar artist with his work on Swamp Thing.  Unfortunately, Wrightson quickly realized that he couldn't handle two ongoing series at the same time, so DC passed the art to Mike Kaluta.

And so that's how we ended up with the perfect combination of writer and artist to provide the world with what I consider possibly one of the greatest first issues of ANY series I've ever read.  

Okay. . .I guess I'm getting a little ahead of myself.  Let's start at the beginning.

I have to admit that I'm a little prejudiced in favor of this particular comic.  My wife (who isn't a comic fan) bought this issue for me about 10 years ago for Father's Day.  She found a BEAUTIFUL copy (I'd grade it 8.5) in an antique store and bought it for ten lousy bucks just because she knew I liked old comics and she liked the cover.  I normally tell her not to try to buy comics for me, but this ONE time she hit a home run!  For 10 years, that awesome cover has greeted me every time I walk into my man-cave.  It was the first comic cover I put up on the "Wall O' Fame" and the only one that hasn't moved. 

Anyway. . .there it is.  Front and center.  What more can I say about that fantastic Kaluta cover other than I consider it to be one of the greatest comic book covers of all, and I never get tired of seeing it.

But enough of that.  I'm not here to review a cover.  Let's get inside this thing!

So the story goes like this:

While breaking up a gang of thugs in Brooklyn, The Shadow comes into possession of a coded note that sends him following a trail of clues. . .first to an exclusive nightclub, where as his alter ego Lamont Cranston, he overhears rumors of a gathering small army of criminals.  

From there he has one of his agents, Harry Vincent, stake out an area of town where Vincent witnesses a gang of criminals attack a police transport and free the prisoners.  During the gunfight, Vincent is taken prisoner, but The Shadow manages to track down his location.  

After defeating the gangsters holding Vincent, The Shadow interrogates one and discovers further clues to an expanding criminal plot which lead him to visit a Wall Street financier in the guise of Lamont Cranston the next day and discovering that a large shipment of worn currency to be destroyed is leaving New York for Washington D.C. that night. . .the final piece of the puzzle.  

Later that night, as the shipment of currency leaves in armored cars and guarded by U.S. army troops, a group of thugs wait to blow up the George Washington Bridge and send the convoy into the water.  The Shadow arrives by gyrocopter to stop the plot to blow the bridge up, and then destroys a submarine that was waiting below to salvage the sunken armored cars and escape with the money undetected.

But those were just the hirelings there to carry out the plan.  The mastermind was still at large, and The Shadow doesn't do things halfway.  The Shadow captures the fleeing Wall Street financier who was one of the only ones who knew the route the currency convoy was taking, and during a struggle, forces him to shoot himself.  The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! The End.

All in all it's a pretty simple story, but one that moves at a nice steady pace and is very well written by Denny O'Neil. . .with spot on dialogue and great pulp/ noir lines like, "In the distance a foghorn moans -- Or is it the cry of something lost, something damned?"  I see a lot of comics from the 70's that are definitely products of their time with slang and cultural attitudes that clearly mark when the comic was written just as surely as the date on the inside cover.  O'Neil's dark and atmospheric writing on The Shadow evokes the pre-WWII era without a hint of the 1970's and makes even a simple story like "The Doom Puzzle" a true pleasure to read.

And then there's the art.  

Just as with the writing, It's usually not hard for me to tell when a comic came out just by looking at the art.  It always sort of stretches my suspension of comic book disbelief when I'm reading a WWII comic and the characters have shaggy haircuts straight from 1975.  There isn't a hint of the 70's in this comic.  Kaluta's art is dark, moody, and perfectly evokes the era that the characters inhabit.  Every page of this comic oozes character and atmosphere in such a way that perfectly compliments O'Neil's pulp/noir writing and really makes me just want to re-read the comic again, even though I just put it down 15 minutes ago to write this review.  The art on this comic EASILY stands the test of time and I'd definitely call it superior to many modern artists on the racks right now.

BUT. . .

No comic is perfect.  This one comes close, but not quite all the way.  The main problem with this otherwise fantastic piece of comic art is that it is NOT new reader friendly.  Who The Shadow is or what his powers or motivations are is not explained except in the most vague and oblique ways.  Who his agents are, why they serve him, and how they came to be his agents isn't even touched on, beyond their names and the fact that they take his orders without question.  As a huge fan of The Shadow, I know all these things. . .but if one knows nothing about the character this is a pretty lousy introduction. 

It seems to be fully expected that whoever is reading this comic is already a fan of The Shadow.  Newcomers need not apply.  I don't have any other issues of this run, so I don't know if The Shadow and his Agents are expanded on in later issues, but I wonder if this cold opening and unfriendliness to new readers might have something to do with the run being quite short.  If so, then that's a damn shame.


Overall, despite not being very friendly to new readers at all, I can easily say that for fans of The Shadow, this is a comic that MUST be in your collection.  It has a fairly simple story, but the obvious love of the character in both O'Neil's writing and Kaluta's art elevates this single issue into something great.  From the fantastic cover to the final panel, The Shadow #1 is a true example of comics as art.  

Up Next. . .

Longbox Junk business as usual as I ponder the straw that FINALLY broke many a comic collector's back.  The beginning of DC's New 52. . .Flashpoint.  Be there or be square!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Longbox Junk - The Lone Ranger & Tonto

This "Mini-Series" is actually 4 unconnected one-shots with a wildly erratic shipping schedule and with a rotating creative team.  They show a much darker side of the Old West than one would normally expect in a Lone Ranger comic.  The first issue in particular feels like The Ranger and Tonto somehow wandered into "Weird Western Tales".

DYNAMITE (2008 - 2010)


SCRIPT: Jon Abrams & Brett Matthews
PENCILS: Mario Guevara
COVER: John Cassiday

The Lone Ranger and Tonto enter a truly dark corner of the Old West when they investigate a brutal murder and discover a serial killer. . .but not one they would normally expect. It's like the Lone Ranger wandered into Weird Western Tales! 

This is probably the darkest Lone Ranger story I've seen. It's almost as if The Ranger and Tonto accidentally wandered into an issue of Weird Western Tales.  It involves a serial killer who turns out to be a mentally disturbed child.  Not your usual Lone Ranger villain. . .

That said, I liked it. I liked the darker take on the West that The Ranger inhabits, while still maintaining the heroic nature of the character.

So the story was good. The art. . .No bueno. It looks scratchy and unfinished. Not QUITE as bad as the art on the regular series, but not much better, either. This artist has a real problem with faces.

Overall, despite some crap-tastic art, I liked this look at the darker side of The Lone Ranger's world.


SCRIPT: Brett Matthews & Neil Turitz
PENCILS: Vatch Mavlian
COVER: John Cassiday

In another dark tale of the Lone Ranger's Wild West, The Ranger and Tonto discover the morbid truth connecting disappearing travelers and tall tales of a haunted town. 

This story wasn't as good as the first issue by a pretty long way. It was pretty much a by-the-numbers effort with The Ranger and Tonto finding out the truth behind legends about a deserted ghost town rumored to be haunted where those seeking a hidden treasure tend to disappear without a trace.
Turns out that it's just some bandits working for a rich guy to rob those lured to the town by old rumors of hidden gold.

At least the art here is better than the first issue. . .and better than that on the regular series. It has a nice, vague, hallucinogenic look that matches the story well.

Overall, despite the decent art, I find nothing in this issue to justify a $4.99 price tag.


SCRIPT: Jon Abrams & Brett Matthews
PENCILS: Vatch Mavlian
COVER: John Cassiday

The Lone Ranger and Tonto investigate a brutal murder at a travelling circus and discover the dark side of carnival justice. . .

This one was pretty bad. It had a predictable story with a ridiculous bear fight sequence, although it WAS interesting to see The Ranger in rarely-shown detective mode.  And the art. . .God awful. It was so scratchy and unfinished looking that it was actually distracting from the story.

What's strange is that it was the SAME artist that did some pretty good work on the previous issue. I'm thinking there are a couple of uncredited inkers making the difference between these two issues. Otherwise, I really don't see how there can be such a dive in quality from one to the other.

Overall, this issue was extremely weak. It sure as hell isn't worth the $4.99 price tag.


SCRIPT: Brett Matthews & Neil Turitz
PENCILS: Sergio Cariello & Esteve Polls
COVER: John Cassiday

A reporter discovers that there are many answers to the question of "Who was that masked man?" and that ALL of them are seemingly true. It's Wild West Rashomon!

This issue was the best of the four. . .starting with a FANTASTIC Cassaday cover that is definitely poster-worthy.

The story concerns a reporter trying to do a story on the legendary Lone Ranger and is broken up into him interviewing 4 different people and finding out 4 different, seemingly contradictory, but ALSO seemingly true stories about The Ranger. It's obviously a "Rashomon" tribute set in the Old West, but done very nicely.

The art is extremely hit and miss, with the framing sequences by Polls being very well done and the flashback sequences by regular series artist Cariello being typically God-Awful.

Overall, this was a really good issue. The schizophrenic back and forth between quality art and crap art wasn't enough to ruin it for me, but just enough to make me question once again why the hell they kept Cariello drawing Lone Ranger on the regular series.


Overall (except for the 4th issue), I could find nothing to set these stories apart and justify charging $4.99 for each issue.  Each of these one-shots would have done just as well being single issues in the (then) ongoing regular Lone Ranger series.  

That said. . .

I liked the IDEA of these stories showing the darker side of the Lone Ranger's world.  They weren't BAD at all, it was just that the execution of them. . .especially with some of the awful, distracting art. . .wasn't great.  I think the regular series would have benefited from a bit of this darker direction from time to time.  The ongoing series AND this set of one shots would have definitely benefited from some better artists.  A damn shame.

Up next. . .

Since DC is forcing the events of Flashpoint back onto the comics map, why not refresh our memories a bit?  DC's 5 issue Flashpoint mini.  Be there or be square!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Longbox Junk - Invaders Now!

Let's take a look at the 5 issue mini that answers a question I never asked:  What if Marvel superheroes were combined with Cthulu?  But it's okay, because nobody ever asked for this review either.  Let's do this!

The Invaders confused me a bit.  I thought that they were an actual Golden Age team, but I was a bit surprised to find out that they were actually created in the 60's and retconned into the WWII era.  I wonder if this might be one of the earliest examples of this being done.

I'm also not sure why this mini was noted as a crossover between Dynamite and Marvel, maybe some licensing issues with some of the Golden Age characters?  From the little information I can find, it looks like Alex Ross had a lot to do with it as some sort of pet project to bring The Invaders back into the public eye.

I don't think he really succeeded because there was just this, another Avengers/Invader crossover mini and a (original WWII) Human Torch mini before The Invaders sort of vanished again.



Marvel/Dynamite (2010 - 2011)
SCRIPTS: Christos Gage & Alex Ross
PENCILS: Caio Reiss
COVERS: Alex Ross


This first issue was mostly a "Let's get the band back together" affair, with the Golden Age Vision bringing together the original members of the Invaders (plus the modern Union Jack) after becoming aware of a magical disturbance related to one of the team's more disastrous missions during WWII.

All in all, a nice introduction. The art is clean and sharp, but a bit dodgy in places, especially in faces (which all sort of look alike) and body proportions here and there.


This issue is mostly a flashback to WWII and a battle between the Invaders and Hitler's Uberkommando Super-Axis (Nazi Invaders) trying to stop Arnim Zola (who is "killed" during the battle on his last day as a human) from releasing a deadly plague on Europe.

Afterwards, the Invaders have to make the decision to stop the plague by completely wiping out a town of infected innocents. In the present, the reformed Invaders travel back to the destroyed town and are greeted by the ALSO reformed Super-Axis.

The story here was pretty good, even though this is the second straight issue of setup. The art remains hit and miss. . .generally good with some moments of being great, but also borderline bad in spots. I wish Alex Ross would have been on interiors instead of just providing script assistance and covers.  That alone probably would have elevated this series in a big way.


So now we're (mostly) out of exposition mode and the action heats up. Most of the issue is a battle between the Invaders and Super-Axis, but Union Jack and Spitfire break off and confront the heart of the matter as the destroyed village rebuilds itself.

In the church is a man who survived the destruction of the village in WWII who has summoned a  Cthulu-like space God (Shuma-Gorath) that has enabled him to draw the Invaders back so he can have his revenge.

Once the battle with Super-Axis is done with, Super Soldier (Steve Rogers during one of his "I'm not Captain America now" phases) makes a deal with the old man: Give the Invaders a chance to cure the plague and undo what was done long ago and they will sacrifice themselves willingly if they fail.

So. . .a pretty busy issue. The writer manages to keep things interesting, but the art drops the ball a bit, taking an obvious downward dip, especially in faces. What SHOULD be a couple of epic moments aren't nearly as good as they should be because of weird facial expressions.


Things get a little confusing in the lead-up to the final issue.

The old man summoning Cthulu . . .er. . .Shuma-Gorath gives the Invaders 24 hours to cure the plague Zola created back in WWII. They succeed by combining science and magical artifacts (along with some nice Marvel cameos) Yay! Day saved!

But THEN the old man has a vision of his family telling him he's doing the wrong thing and he decides to reverse the spell, only for Zola to step in with Super-Axis (now nice and refreshed after getting their asses handed to them by the Invaders shortly before) to kill the old man. DOUBLE PAGE SPLASH! Shuma-Gorath arrives on Earth!

This issue was 50/50 like/not like for me. There seemed to be quite a bit of ex machina going on, but the search for the cure was pretty interesting. The art was better than last issue, but the final double page scene of Shuma-Gorath bursting into our dimension looked sketchy and unfinished when it should have been awesome.  Where's Alex Ross when you need him?


First off. . .fantastic Alex Ross cover!
They were all good, but this one is the best of the bunch. Definitely poster-worthy.

And so we come to the big finish. . .The Invaders vs. Arnim Zola, the Super Axis Uberkommando, and MOTHER FU**ING CHTULHU! Er. . .Shuma-Gorath, that is.

As you might guess, the story is pretty much done with and this issue is a straight up fight from page 1 almost to the end. There's a quiet scene to finish things off, where the heroes agree that if anyone needs them, they'll always come back together no matter what else they have going on. But other than THAT. . .it's all punching, all the time.

The heroes eventually prevail against the extremely uneven odds, thanks to the timely ex machina assistance of an entire village of ghosts. Because. . .comic books, okay?

It was basically "Solve The Problem By Punching it", but it was still fun and brought the story to a close in a satisfying way.


This mini was enjoyable in a "Read it and forget it" sort of way.

I liked that it was set in a sort of strange time for Captain America, where Steve Rogers was Super Soldier and Bucky Barnes was Captain America.  I think (from the few bits of info that I've found) that this was one of Steve Rogers' first post-return from "death" appearances in the Captain America uniform.

But that aside, this was a very quick read with a decent story (even if it mostly served as an excuse to get the Invaders back together).  The art swerved back and forth unpredictably between very good, almost great, to pretty bad. . .but generally was pretty good.

Overall, I found this mini to be good. . .not great, and not particularly memorable, but good. The writing was decent and the art was here and there, but also decent. It was all just good Silver Age-Style throwback comic book fun. What more could you ask for?

Up next. . .

It's another one of those mini's that's actually a collection of one shots.
Dynamite's 4 issue Lone Ranger and Tonto.  Be there or be square!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Throwback Thursday - Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth #1

Welcome to another Throwback Thursday edition of Longbox Junk. . .where I take a closer look at an older and more "valuable" comic in my collection instead of my usual "Still worth cover price after 15 years" fare.

On my last "retro review" edition, (Captain America #193) I found Jack Kirby's writing. . .lacking.  So I asked around the internet a bit, looking for those a little more in the know about older comics in order to be pointed toward something a little less disappointing.  In the end there were a lot of choices given to me (and thank you to anyone I might have spoken to who is reading this) but there seemed to be one title that kept popping up. . .Kamandi.  

To be honest, I don't have most of the other books that were suggested, but I DO happen to have a very nice copy of Kamandi #1 framed and hanging on the wall of my man-cave as one of the few permanent parts of my rotating cover gallery.  I had bought it for that awesome cover, but except for a quick flip through before I put it on the wall, I never got around to reading it. . .Until now. 

Throwback Thursday and Jack Kirby wearing all the hats. Let's do this!


DC (1972)
SCRIPT: Jack Kirby
PENCILS: Jack Kirby
COVER: Jack Kirby
EDITOR: Jack Kirby

Okay. . .first off, no matter WHAT I may think about the rest of this comic, that cover is SO damn good!  Like I said, it's one of the few covers that don't rotate on and off my man-cave wall.  Just LOOK at it! The colors, the composition, the water, the look of determination on Kamandi's face, the splashes of red to set everything off. . .everything about it is awesome.  As far as I'm concerned, it's one of the greatest comic covers out there. 

But what's under that awesome cover, and is it any good?

The story goes like this:

Untold Years ago, a catastrophic radioactive event called "The Great Disaster" wiped out nearly all mankind.  Kamandi and his grandfather are the last of a group of survivors who occupied a military bunker called "Command - D", for which Kamandi is named.  Kamandi has been educated through his childhood on the old world by a microfilm library.  

 Kamandi ventures out into the world to see if it remains habitable and if there are any other humans left.  As he rafts through the streets of what had been New York City, he finds it to be a strange world, nothing like the one Kamandi had seen in books and microfilm that survived the disaster.  He discovers that humans still do exist, but they are more like wild animals. . .unable to talk and scared of him.

Shortly afterward, he hears explosions from the bunker and races home to find out that armed, talking wolves have attacked and killed his grandfather.  He manages to escape and kill the attackers, then decides there's nothing left for him and set out into the world driving the wolves' vehicle.

Later, Kamandi comes upon a squad of armored Tiger-Men mounted on horses engaged in combat against a group of Leopard-Men. After killing a hidden Leopard sniper and saving the leader of the Tigers He finds himself caught in the middle of the conflict and is captured by the Tigers.  The leader of the Tiger-Men, Great Ceasar, orders Kamandi to be taken to the Royal City as a prisoner.

Kamandi escapes the kennels of the Royal City, where he was being kept with the more animal-like humans, but is recaptured and dressed in a ridiculous outfit in order to be presented to Great Ceasar as a pet.  He watches a ceremony where he learns that the Tiger-Men of the Royal City worship a nuclear missile and once again escapes captivity, determined to explode the warhead and destroy himself and everything else rather than live as an enslaved pet.

He is prevented from detonating the warhead by Doctor Canus, a Dog-Man scientist, who convinces Great Ceasar to give Kamandi to him for research.  Inside Canus' private laboratory, Kamandi is introduced to Ben Boxer, another intelligent human, but one with strange nuclear powers.  The issue ends with Kamandi being overwhelmed with emotion at realizing that he's not the last intelligent human on earth.

Okay. . .

I do have to say that Kamandi #1 is definitely better-written than Captain America #193. . .but that's not a very high bar to hurdle.  I think I'm going to just go ahead and say that Jack Kirby is a comics legend for a good reason, and that reason is mostly his concepts and ideas. . .not his writing.  So without trying to take away from Kirby's well-earned status, let's take an objective look at what's wrong with the story here. 

First off, Kamandi is. . .and I'll put it kindly. . .derivative of Planet of The Apes in a very big and very obvious way.  The cover alone broadcasts the influence before you even go inside to see a post-apocalyptic world with intelligent animals ruling over mute, animalistic humans.  

Even beyond the broader strokes, Kamandi is captured and put into a cage with animal-like humans, is groomed as a pet, and is rescued when a doctor engaged in animal research realizes that there is something different about this particular human.  It pretty much hits all the beats of Taylor's experience after being captured and sent to Ape City. I don't have other issues of Kamandi, so I can't speak to the derivative nature of anything after this one, but as far as THIS issue goes, it's a pretty obvious Planet of The Apes pastiche.

Secondly, Kirby has an annoying tendency (in this issue anyway) to shout at the reader, using exclamation points at the end of every goddamn sentence in the issue for some reason.  Here's an excerpt to show what I mean:

     "The next moment, all signs of their presence fades into silence! Kamandi has seen similar behavior in old wild life films. . .animal herds, fleeing a waterhole at the appearance of a predator!"

Here's another example. . .

     "The new pup doesn't look very happy, does he! Well, he'll soon perk up! Great Ceasar'll treat him better'n he treats us!"

And those are just two examples! Every sentence in the issue is the same! They all end with exclamation points! No exceptions!  None! It seems Jack Kirby REALLY liked exclamation points!

The third main issue I have with the story is that, even though Kirby tried to somewhat disguise the obvious influence of Planet of The Apes by using other animals, the animals he DID use make the required suspension of belief almost impossible.  Tigers and Leopards in North America? A tiger city in a cold northern climate?  And why are the Tigers riding horses?   

It really seems like something a 14 year old would come up with for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.  I can hear Napoleon Dynamite's voice in my head when I think of it. . ."It's a tiger riding a horse!"  

There are a few other issues as well, but really they all boil down to the same exact problem that I pointed out in Captain America #193, and that is the writer also wearing the editor's hat.  Sometimes it works, but it seems in Kirby's case it doesn't.  It looks to me like Kirby needed the strong hand of an editor when it came to his writing.  

 As far as the art goes, I have no complaints there.  I've already gone on about the excellent cover being one of my favorite comic covers of all, and the interior art is equally impressive.  I have to give credit to Kirby.  His writing may be pretty weak, but he can take even the most ridiculous idea, like. . .say. . .a tiger wearing Roman armor riding a horse into battle in North America. . .and make it look GOOD. 

 The double page spread of Kamandi rafting through the ruins of New York City in the first few pages of the comic are especially impressive, with a sense of massive scale, loneliness and impending adventure that is awe-inspiring in a way that is rarely seen in modern comics.  There are plenty of other great moments through the issue as well.


Kamandi #1 is a comic that has some problems. . .a highly derivative setting, ridiculous ideas, and a definite lack of editorial oversight. . .but I still found it enjoyable.  It had great art from cover to cover, it had a likable main character, it wasn't boring at any point, and the ending held a lot of storytelling potential.  

Like I said above, I don't have any other issues of Kamandi besides this one, but hopefully, Kirby moved beyond the derivative nature of the first issue to expand on the potential to be found in the basic post apocalyptic concept of Kamandi.  

For me, as far as Kirby's work goes, I think I'll take the advice of someone's comment made when I was looking for good examples of Kirby's writing that pointed me in Kamandi's direction. . .I think from now on I'll just appreciate what there is instead of looking for things that aren't and leave it at that.

Up Next. . .

Back to Longbox Junk business as usual with Captain America punching a giant Space God in Dynamite/Marvel's 5 issue Invaders Now! series.

Be there or be square!