Showcase Presents: Sea Devils Volume 1

By Robert Kanigher (w), Russ Heath (a), Irv Novick (a), et al

Reprinting Showcase #27-29 (Jul-Nov 60), Sea Devils #1-16 (Sep 61-Mar 64)

DC Comics, $19.99

I really can't add much to what Randy Jackson said in his negative review, and wasn't really planning to do a review of my own until Tony Isabella's glowing praise in Comics Buyer's Guide gave me new impetus.

Isabella, a writer I admire and whose opinions I usually agree with, found this collection of early Sea Devils "imaginative" and similar words that had me blinking in disbelief. Had he read a different book than me? Because, of all the adjectives I'd choose to describe Sea Devils, "imaginative" isn't one of them.

The book had the stock four-member team of the time, The Leader, The Girl, The Muscle and The Kid (see: Challengers of the Unknown, Rip Hunter, Cave Carson, Suicide Squad and even Fantastic Four), whose characterization never went beyond the brief description of motivation in the debut story. As pointed out by Randy and Commander Benson in the review mentioned above, the division of labor rarely varied, nor did the dialogue. In fact, Dane (the boss) and Judy (the girl) were supposedly linked romantically, but just about the only clue we had about that was when another girl kissed Dane and Judy was jealous (reacting not only in identical fashion in two instances, but using virtually the same words -- "she doesn't have to show her appreciation that way!" -- in both cases. Consistency, thy name is Kanigher.)

And the adventures they shared came right out of the Robert Kanigher Clip Art Gallery -- virtually the same challenges Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl routinely faced at the same time in the waters off Amazon Island in Wonder Woman, which Kanigher also wrote. (I had always wondered why Diana spent so much time in the water, and now I know: It saved Kanigher having to think of a new threat each month, when he could just re-use his Sea Devils props.) Giant clams? Check. Swordfish that can be used as actual swords? Check. Implausibly aggressive whales? Check. Mythological gods? Check. Mer-people? Check. Aliens? Check. Submarines from an unnamed enemy country? Check. Dinosaurs? Check. Silly contests? Check. Using the word "check" to signal agreement? Check.

Further, I grew irritated with other Kanigher fixations, like his bizarre belief that falling human beings can glide by holding their arms and legs out. (Seriously, this was routine not only in Sea Devils but "War that Time Forgot" and other Kanigher war books.) And, whereas in war books Kanigher supplied Rock & Co. with "magic hand grenades" that could stop everything from tanks to fighter planes, Dane & Co. had "magic underwater concussion cartridges" that always blew up exactly on time, did exactly the amount of damage needful (and no more) and, despite being thrown underwater, went exactly the distance they needed to. And you can always tell a Kanigher book by the sound effects for munitions ("Whroosh," "Whram") and alien laughter ("Wreeuu"). I have always wondered how "Wreeuu" sounded in Kanigher's head, because I'm not even sure how to pronounce it.

This is all the more disappointing, because as Commander Benson pointed out (as did I in my Rip Hunter review), the setting for books like Sea Devils and Rip Hunter don't need fantastic elements to be exciting; the premise of the strip should provide all the adventure needful. Sea Devils would have been a far, far better book if it simply explored the weird, colorful and exciting world below accurately! Like The Flash under Julius Schwarz, it could also have been educational; I wouldn't have minded "Devil Definitions" or something else akin to "Flash Facts." 

Which isn't to say that Sea Devils is completely awful. In fact, I adored the Russ Heath interior art, featuring his splendid rendering, which really suggested underwater murk and shadows. Heath is also known for pretty girls, and Judy is occasionally a knockout (also sometimes, weirdly, strangely out of proportion, with a waist that suggests she has no internal organs). And, oh, those painted Russ Heath covers. I wish I could see them in color!

But even here we're in for disappointment, as Heath left after Sea Devils #10. Then National began this odd arrangement alluded to in Randy's review, where ostensibly artists were being tried out on the strip and readers could select the one they wanted. Those artists included Joe Kubert, Irv Novick, Gene Colan (!), Jack Abel, Bruno Premiani, Howard Purcell and the inevitable Andru/Esposito team. 

Really? Does anyone believe that? National was going to take, say, Joe Kubert off, say, Our Army at War and work on Sea Devils if that's what the readers wanted? Keep in mind here that Sea Devils never sold well enough to become a monthly, remaining bi-monthly throughout its run. I don't know what was really going on there -- inventory stories? fill-ins? desperation? -- but National's official explanation is preposterous on the face of it.

(Incidentally, Kanigher also left Sea Devils, with issue #11. But replacements France E. Herron and Hank P. Chapman aped his schtick so well it didn't matter.)

Now, of course, I'd buy a second Showcase Presents: Sea Devils, which would wrap up the title's run (it lasted until issue #35, Jun 67), because I'm a completist and therefore have a diseased mind. And I'm sure, with other writers on the book, it must have gone in different directions than the standard Kanigher formula, especially in the late '60s, which I'd like to see. 

But even for me, it took five months to read this book, because there was always something more interesting in the pile. I don't think it will appeal much to average readers.

Walt Disney's Donald Duck: "A Christmas for Shacktown"

By Carl Barks (w/a), with occasional help

Reprinting Walt Disney's Comics & Stories #135-144 (Dec 51-Sep 52), Four Color #367 (Jan 52), Four Color #408 (Jul 52), Four Color #422 (Sep 52)

Fantagraphics, $28.99

I don't have a lot to add to my previous glowing reviews for the first two books in this 30-book series, which is the Carl Barks Library in everything but name. (It has no name, nor volume numbers, as you can see.) But I will try.

If Fantagraphics actually put volume numbers on these books (and it's darn peculiar that they don't) this would be Vol. 11, with the previous two books Vol. 7 and Vol. 12. That latter (whose official name is Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge: "Only a Poor, Old Man") was described in the book itself as Barks hitting his peak, so this volume would be just prior to that subjective call. Whatever, it's a delight. Not only are the stories terrific, but -- as always -- I appreciate the scholarly prose material as well.

There are several excellent stories in here. The title story -- wherein all the characters, except Uncle Scrooge of course, unite to raise money to give slum-dwelling kids a Christmas -- isn't, in my opinion, the best, but it's awful good, with plenty of twists and turns to avoid being a "very special episode" or otherwise maudlin. There's a classic Barks adventure yarn, "The Golden Helmet," in which the Ducks must battle through setbacks, truly evil opponents and harsh climates to find a prized object. And "Statuesque Spendthrifts," wherein Scrooge and another rich guy compete to build the biggest and most expensive statues, appears to be a metaphor for the early 1960s arms race with the Soviet Union!

There are some "firsts" in here, too. Scrooge's Money Bin makes its first appearance, which the scholars helpfully inform us was such a hit it was made retroactive to Scrooge's first appearance! And while I don't know when Gyro Gearloose made his first appearance, he isn't fully formed here, referred to (by Donald) as "the dizzy inventor" in one of his two appearances, neither of which includes Helper, later to be his constant companion. 

And it is in that story, titled "The Think Box Bollix," that we find the most unsettling Barks story I've read to date. As we know, the ducks (and all other characters in the duck stories, regardless of appearance), refer to themselves as human beings. They are people who just look like ducks and other fowl, with the standard, "baseline" Duckberg resident resembling a dog. In this story, though, Gyro invents a machine that helps animals think like people -- which gives us an intelligent, talking wolf who thinks of the ducks as dinner, which might amount to something like cannibalism, since they're all sentient. And in one scene, the wolf disguises himself as a Duckberg resident, which he refers to as a dog. But aren't they people? Or are they animals? The line gets blurred here, and it made me uncomfortable.

I'll also mention that it occurred to me that Barks would be considered a Socialist in today's overwrought political climate. The title story alone indicates his concern for those left behind in a capitalist society, and Uncle Scrooge -- the epitome of capitalism -- is often punished for his greed, casual cruelty and miserly ways. On the other hand, Barks also lionizes Scrooge as a hard worker, and at times his penuriousness is a virtue. No, Barks reserves his true ire for Gladstone Gander, who gathers the wealth of others without working (See: investment income). He is despised by all, including Uncle Scrooge. If I were to characterize Barks' philosophy, I'd call it "compassionate conservatism," to coin a phrase, and I think it would be out of fashion today.

Of course, my thinking may have been channeled in this direction by the endless presidential campaign we just endured. Thank God that's over.

Archie Archives Volume Seven

Most stories by Bill Vigoda (a), most covers by Al Fagaly, writers unknown

Reprinting Archie Comics #23-25 (Nov 46-Mar 47), Pep Comics #59-61 (Dec 46-May 47), Laugh Comics #20-21 (Fall-Win 47). 

Dark Horse, $49.99

Reflecting Archie's growing popularity in 1947, Laugh Comics joins Archie and Pep as the third title featuring the Riverdale gang. Other than that, not much is different from Volume Six, which I quite enjoyed. (Reflecting another trend at MLJ -- the disappearance of its superheroes in favor of Archie -- Laugh Comics picked up the numbering of Black Hood Comics.)

Of course, I couldn't call myself a reviewer if I didn't have some new observations to add, and fortunately this volume offers me a few things to work with.

For one thing, I don't know if I've mentioned this or not, but it came as a revelation to me in the earlier volumes that Jughead is supposed to be something of a dead-end kid. His clothes are usually patched, and the brief scenes of his home in the '40s use the comic-book shorthand to indicate extreme poverty: rickety furniture, cracked plaster, peeling wallpaper, etc. Now that I think of it, that would explain his prodigious appetite -- he's hungry, because he's poor! No wonder he's not interested in girls, as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs explains: Time enough for companionship after he's had a decent meal! This also might explain his unusual looks, as impoverished, hungry kids in the early part of the last century had a specific "pinched" look -- in fact, the former Irish slum of Memphis is still called, 100 years later, "the Pinch District." Maybe that was obvious to everyone but me, but when I met Jughead in the 1960s, he was just as middle-class as the other Riverdale kids, so the suggestion -- and casual acceptance by his peers -- of Jughead's deprivation is a freaking epiphany to me.

Oh, and speaking of Jughead, Marvel's Jeff Parker (Thunderbolts) suggests a theory in his foreword that the "S" on Jughead's shirt, which has never been officially explained, was simply mild rebellion against convention. "Not a huge sign of rebellion," Parker says, "but an ever-present one in the spirit of his hat, which was also a casual rebuke of The Man." Since this has been my theory for 40 years as well, I think it's brilliant. However, this volume throws in an extra element that didn't make it to the 1960s, which is that in these stories, Jughead's "S" sweatshirt also has an "8" on the back! I have no theories on this as yet, but perhaps I will by Volume Eight.

I should also mention that Archie shows up in drag in this volume a lot. "A lot" meaning "I stopped counting after three." Doubtless that was in vogue in the late '40s (or they wouldn't have done it), but it's a bit surprising from a 21st century perspective. Then again, Jimmy Olsen did that a lot in the next decade, so maybe it's no big deal. And come to think of it, he was a freckle-faced redhead, too! And how often did redheaded Lucille Ball dress up as a man in I Love Lucy? There's a pattern forming here ...

I should also mention that Al Fagaly, who did the covers, had a different style than Bill Vigoda, who did most of the interiors. (Not all, though, as he was spelled by other artists occasionally, once by Irv Novick!) That's occasionally jarring, and perhaps explains why by the 1960s the Archie titles had a "house style."

Another jarring element is one I've mentioned before, where the girls are drawn like pin-ups, but the boys look like cartoons. Not only is that occasionally off-putting, but it also has the effect of making the boys look considerably younger than the girls. This is reinforced in one story, where Archie and Jughead are playing with a frog, prompting my wife to ask, "Just how old are those boys, anyway?" I had no answer.

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SEADEVILS: I’ve been putting off reading this one. The one and only Seadevils story I’ve ever read was a reprint of issue #1 in one of those “100 Page Super-Spectaculars” of the ‘70s. I don’t remember much about it other than that I liked it, but I haven’t re-read it in at least 35 years. I now want to read it largely because of the Russ Heath art. My LCS no longer carriers all of the DC Showcases or Marvel Essentials because they don’t sell, so I had to pre-order this one to assure myself that I would get one. Yet for some reason I’ve been reluctant to read it. It could be because I don’t want to find out the series wasn’t as good as I remember that one story to have been; more likely it’s because I’m so far behind reading things I deem of much higher importance.

I’ll second your kudos to Tony Isabella, though. I’ll tell you, I find his “1000 Comic Books You Must Read” more helpful and entertaining than any mere price guide I have ever read. I enjoy Krause’s Standard Catalogue of Comic Books, but you know what would make it better? Leave out all those @#$%! prices! No one uses it for pricing, anyway. Everyone uses Overstreet. Say “Standard Catalogue” to dealers and you’ll be met with nothing but blank looks. Okay, I digress…

CARL BARKS: Regarding the proper chronological order of this series (“The Carl Barks Library”), be sure to check the indicia of each volume!

ARCHIE: Here’s another reason why Jughead might wear the letter “S”: he’s not athletic enough to letter in a sport and a second-hand or hand-me-down sweater from another school is all his family can afford.

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