In the mid-1960’s, an infatuation with spies gripped the American viewing public, birthed from the phenomenal popularity of Sean Connery’s series of James Bond films. The “spy craze” wasn’t fated to last long---two years tops---but during that time, it left an indelible mark on fiction of all types.
Hoping to leech off the Bond fan base, low-budget producers pelted theatres with a proliferation of cheap spy movies, featuring secret agents working for “super-secret” agencies. Television, the Great Imitator, quickly followed suit by changing the formats of current series (Burke’s Law becoming Amos Burke, Secret Agent) and creating a host of new, spy-based shows---I Spy, Mission: Impossible, and their prototype, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
It didn’t take comic books long to catch on, either. Most notably, Marvel Comics came up with S.H.I.E.L.D., and drafted its World-War II star, Nick Fury, to head up the modern-day spy outfit. In its own series, S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn’t make it past the end of the decade, but it remained as a continuing presence in the adventures of Marvel’s other headliners, and does so to this day.
But it was fledgling Tower Comics that, in 1966, took the S.H.I.E.L.D. concept and ran with it. Tower launched a series of titles all based on characters who worked for an arm of the United Nations focused on international security and defence of member nations---The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves, or T.H.U.N.D.E.R.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R., however, took a step that U.N.C.L.E. never did and that S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn’t for another fifteen years. (And that DC would try with its Blackhawk title, with disastrous results.) It established super-heroes as principal agents.
The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. format was multi-layered. Besides its super-hero characters, there were also elite teams of non-super-powered troubleshooters, standard espionage agents, a scientific arm, administrators, and an executive level, all of whom would become familiar to the reader. But it was the super-heroes who were T.H.U.N.D.E.R.’s---and Tower Comics’---cash cow.
The set-up was simple: T.H.U.N.D.E.R. scientist Professor Wallace Jennings, “the greatest mind in the free world,” had created three startling new inventions for the agency’s arsenal. However, before he could unveil them, his mountain laboratory was attacked by forces of the Warlord. The Warlord was the head of a terrorist organisation bent on stealing scientific developments to further its goal of world domination. A T.H.U.N.D.E.R. strike force arrived to fight off the Warlord’s men, too late to prevent Jennings from being killed, but in time to save his trio of inventions from being stolen.
The original three super-agents were Dynamo, who wore a density-increasing belt; NoMan, an android with a human mind, who wrapped himself in an invisibility cloak; and Menthor, whose mentally-based super-powers came from a cowl-like helmet. Dynamo and NoMan were fully developed characters, given such strong personalities that their respective super-powers often seemed incidental.
Menthor never quite made the grade, though. Despite an initial premise with a unique twist, Menthor never seemed to stand out as anything more than a costume and super-powers. The man who wore them was secondary.
That is, until what was probably the single most dramatic episode to ever appear in a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. story, and easily, one of the most dramatic scenes to appear in any comic.
But let's start at the beginning.
“The Enemy Within”, from T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents # 1 (Nov., 1965), introduces us to new recruit John Janus. Tall, blond, and handsome, Janus also stands out for racking up the highest physical and mental scores of any T.H.U.N.D.E.R. applicant. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. executives make special plans for their rookie field agent. This suits Janus just fine---since John Janus is a traitor, an agent of the Warlord groomed for insertion into the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. organisation.
The last of Professor Jennings’ three inventions to be put into service is the blue-black cybernetic helmet. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. scientists have not been able to figure out what the helmet is designed to do. To make a practical test, a volunteer is asked to put on the helmet. To ingratiate himself further in the agency, Janus steps forward.
Donning the helmet, Janus discovers that it bestows him with mentally based powers, primary of which is the ability to read minds. During that first demonstration, two other powers become evident: the ability to convert mental energy into physical force beams, and the ability to diagnose electronic machinery, such as computers.
During the initial demonstration, a heavy piece of equipment accidentally topples, threatening to crush two men. Menthor swiftly acts to rescue the two near-victims. Removing the helmet, Janus is puzzled by his actions. He has no idea why he saved the men.
As the story explains, unknown to all, including Janus himself, a side-effect of the helmet is to cause a subconscious reversal of personality in its wearer. In this case, wearing the helmet causes the evil Janus to become good.
The remainder of the story details Janus carrying out the Warlord’s orders to sabotage T.H.U.N.D.E.R. and then, to his mystification, undoing all of his traitorous efforts, once he dons the cyber-helmet. After single-handedly thwarting a Warlord invasion that had been secretly enabled by Janus himself, Menthor is lauded as the hero of the hour. Since, except for a vague awareness, Janus loses his memories of what he does as Menthor, he is supremely puzzled over the failures of the Warlord’s schemes.
And the Warlord is supremely hacked off. In a secret communication, he threatens Janus with death, should the double-agent fail, again.
It was a clever twist. The split personality premise, essentially making the main character the hero and the villain in one, was relatively unmined in comics. DC had tried something in a similar vein, with Eclipso, two years earlier, and Marvel offered the Hulk, which had more of a man-into-monster slant. As a device, it distinguished Menthor from the other two T.H.U.N.D.E.R. super-heroes and it created a number of dramatic possibilities.
Yet, curiously, Tower seemed to shelve that aspect of the character with his next appearance.
The Menthor tale in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents # 2 (Jan., 1966) is a non-descript story of the hero versus more of the Warlord’s agents. The legend on the splash page, however, shows that the writers were already messing with the concept:
Johnny Janus, one-time agent for the Warlord, realizing that the unscrupulous fiend would sacrifice even him in his insatiable quest for world domination, has sworn undying loyalty to T.H.U.N.D.E.R.
Even though the first story ended with the Warlord threatening him, nothing had indicated a shift in Janus’ loyalties. And in theory, if Janus had suddenly and genuinely reformed, then the Menthor helmet, according to the established principle, should then have turned him evil. That did not happen in the second story. In fact, nothing was made of the helmet’s effect of reversing morality. It appears that the writers decided to jettison the personality-inversion sub-plot and covered it up by blaming the Warlord's treachery for Janus' sudden conversion to good.
This betrays the first inklings of two things which would recur in Menthor stories.
The first was a problem across the entire Tower Comics line: a lurching attention to continuity. Subplots would be created, then were either abruptly resolved in the next issue, or forgotten about completely. Other plotlines would vanish to the point that readers were convinced they had been dropped, only to have them reappear a year later, as if no time had passed.
The second was the feeling that Menthor’s stories were more about the helmet than the man wearing it. Once the underpinning of Janus being a double-agent was dropped, nothing distinguished him. He had no personality other than that of the generic “good guy-hero”. Nearly every story, on the other hand, seemed to concern some aspect of the helmet’s existence.
The second story added a new power for the Menthor helmet---that its wearer could cast his thoughts telepathically. Somebody at Tower probably figured it was about time to establish just what the helmet did. Thus, in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents # 3 (Mar., 1966), a dossier page on Menthor stated: “The helmet amplifies the brain power of the wearer, releasing latent potential for E.S.P., telekinesis, teleportation, etc.”
The Menthor story in that issue, “Menthor Versus Dynamo”, raises the possibility that John Janus’ reformation was an imposture. It seems to be the case, as Menthor takes over Dynamo’s mind and causes him to almost destroy T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Headquarters. Menthor’s backslide proves to be, instead, the actions of his brother, Conrad. Conrad Janis, also an operative of the Warlord, ambushed his brother and used his helmet and costume to pose as the super-agent.
Conrad is killed at the end of the story, and the whereabouts of the real Menthor is left a mystery.
The next issue’s “Menthor and the Great Hypno” reveals what happened to John Janus after being waylaid by brother Conrad. Briefly, the attack left Janus with a case of amnesia, and he falls under the thrall of a sideshow mesmerist, the Great Hypno. Hypno uses his control over the hero to compel him to retrieve the helmet from T.H.U.N.D.E.R. HQ.
Two more “facts” about the helmet are revealed here---that constant use of the helmet activates the latent psi powers of the wearer permanently (meaning he retains his mental powers even without the helmet); and that the helmet establishes a mental link with its wearer, enabling him to track the headgear anywhere. These attributes are discarded, however, as soon as the next issue comes out.
In “Menthor Versus the Entrancer”, Janus comes up against another telepathic villain. Relieved of his helmet early in the adventure (and the previously stated notion that he retains a degree of mental powers without the helmet conveniently forgotten), this presented a perfect showcase for the “top-scoring” T.H.U.N.D.E.R. agent to show what he could do on his own and expand his character. Instead, he is virtually hand-carried throughout by the intervention of a vengeance-seeking daughter of one of the Entrancer’s victims. Until he got his helmet back, Menthor may as well have been the kid behind the register at the local Circle K.
Menthor stories were beginning to read as if they came from a template. Take “The Carnival of Death”, from T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents # 6 (Jul., 1966). Mental-powered villain. Check. Villain steals Menthor’s helmet. Check. Hero worthless without his helmet. Well, not quite check. I’ll give Janus credit for escaping his bonds and duking it out with enemy agents using his own skills. But once again, Menthor is shown to retain his mental powers without the helmet. (This on-again/off-again depiction of this ability will be "off again" next story, at a time when it really would have come in handy.)
It wasn’t Tower’s best work. Its other headliners, Dynamo and NoMan, had been given distinctive personalities and clever narrative spins. Meanwhile, the Menthor series was stuck with cookie-cutter bad guys, repetitive plots, and a hero who displayed no intrinsic capabilities, nor any personality other than “stalwart”.
And the vacillating over what Menthor’s helmet could or couldn’t do was striking, even for Tower. There was a whole rabbit-out-of-a-hat feel to it that leached any drama out of confrontations with the villains. Tower fans found Menthor just plain boring, and it showed. While Dynamo and NoMan had both graduated to titles of their own, Menthor was still stuck in the middle of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, rarely even making the cover.
A savvy comic-book fan probably expected that Menthor wouldn’t be around much longer. But few fans could have guessed that the psi-powered hero’s exit would not be a fadeaway into comic-book limbo, but one of the most powerful moments of the Silver Age.
“A Matter of Life and Death”, appearing in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents # 7 (Aug., 1966), is a singular tale by any standard, concisely plotted in ten pages, and beautifully drawn by Steve Ditko with the fine-grain inking of Wally Wood.
The opening finds Menthor in the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. science department. Evidently growing weary of villains constantly stealing the helmet and using it for crime, the agency’s scientists have added modifications to the headgear. Now, if anyone other than John Janus dons it, the helmet will distribute an unconsciousness-inducing shock to the wearer, as well as send out a UHF homing signal to T.H.U.N.D.E.R Headquarters.
Menthor’s helmet is on the minds of the enemy, too. At this point, the original threat of the Warlord and his minions had been vanquished. At the moment of defeat, it was discovered that the Warlord was actually one of a subterranean race of beings known collectively as the Warlords. Having grown weary of life underground, their purpose is to destroy humanity and take dominion of the surface world. As a result, they had become T.H.U.N.D.E.R.’s chief nemesis.
The Warlords view the Menthor helmet as the omega weapon which will ensure their victory and they set out to get their green-skinned clutches on it. To that end, they have invented a device which interferes with the helmet’s interface with Menthor’s brain, rendering it useless. The helmet, that is, not his brain. (Insert your own joke here.) A team of Warlords track Menthor to the apartment he keeps as John Janus. Thanks to the interference device, the baddies put a real good whuppin’ on him and drag him back to Warlord Headquarters.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. discovers the abduction and scrambles its super-agents and the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad to begin a search. Meanwhile, down in the cavern the Warlords use as a central base, Menthor is stripped of his helmet. An overeager subterranean dons the headgear and, as advertised, gets zapped. The secret homing signal goes out, and the good guys track it.
Menthor relaxes, confident of rescue---until the leader of the Warlords gives him some bad news. Showing that they have a bit more on the ball than just chortling fiendishly, the villains know an emergency signal is drawing the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. agents to their location. They show Menthor that the main entryway to the cavern is ringed with laser guns which will trigger automatically when an invisible electric-eye beam is broken.
“When anything crosses that electric eye, it is blasted,” says the Warlord leader, “instantly! Faster than even super-human reflexes can react! So nothing will save them this time . . . speed, strength, ability to switch bodies . . . this time we put an end to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. for good!”
Janus makes a desperate leap for his helmet, but fails when a Warlord shoots him in the ribs. The helmet is put out of his reach.
Before the Warlords can finish off Menthor, alarms signal that the approaching T.H.U.N.D.E.R. agents have broached the outer door to the cavern and are heading for the booby-trapped main entryway.
Momentarily forgotten as the subterraneans set up their ambush, Janus forces himself to his feet and stumbles toward the entryway to save his friends. In four torturous panels, Janus moves toward the deadly aperture, staggering as five more Warlord bullets tear through him. With his last breath, he takes the full brunt of the lasers, by breaking the electric-eye beam just before Dynamo and the others enter.
In white-hot rage, the agents of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. tear into the Warlords with terrible and deadly vengeance. Yes, deadly. Warlords are shot, crushed under machinery, and blasted by their own laser guns.
There is no need for words . . . . With blazing eyes, Dynamo bursts through the wall as if it were paper! The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. agents fight in silent, savage fury, giving no quarter . . . and the green men and their mindless slaves are forced back . . . ever back until there is no longer any retreat . . . only extinction!
No nonsense about no killing here. This band of Warlords is completely wiped out, and the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. agents vow to obliterate the threat of the remaining subterraneans---which they do in the next issue, once and for all.
This is one of those stories that one reads the same three pages over and again. The terse words, the powerful art, drive home the agony of Menthor’s bullet-riddled effort, his final sacrifice, and the sheer fury of his fellow agents’ retribution.
In his final appearance, John Janus demonstrated more humanity, dignity, and character than he had ever been given before. And left Silver-Age comics fans with one hell of a story.
John Janus, Requiescat in Pace.