four star spectacular

I have no great memories of FOUR STAR SPECTACULAR #4. It was a perfectly fine comic book, one of hundreds that I’d purchase in the years to come, but not especially noteworthy to me apart from the minutes of entertainment that it provided. This may have been because, while I liked them all just fine, Superboy, Wonder Woman and Hawkman weren’t particular favorites of mine. Still, the call of a giant-size reprint comic was irresistible.

The issue opens with a classic early Wonder Woman story by creator William Marston but illustrated not by the series’ visual originator H.G. Peter, but rather the more polished Frank Godwin. Godwin did a string of Wonder Woman stories for a short period of time but failed to become a fixture on the series. His style was more contemporary than Peter’s, and you can almost see somebody up at the All-American offices trying to make Wonder Woman more visually appealing to a then-modern audience. 

I have a real love of the early Wonder Woman stories, they’re the most appealing to me in terms of their conception and strangeness. This one introduced an important element to the mythos: in it, the villainous Mavis cut off Wonder Woman’s Amazonian bracelets, thinking that it would deprive her of her strength. But instead, this unshackled it, causing her to run amok and “destroy like a man.” Fortunately, by the story’s end, Paula, the Amazon scientist, is able to contain Wonder Woman within her own magic lasso until the bracelets can be reforged.

Next up was a forgettable Superboy story, and I confess that I had forgotten everything about it until pulling it out for this report. This tended to be my pattern with Superboy tales, at least the ones produced before the ascendance of Mort Weisinger and the introduction of the Legion of Super-Heroes. They’re inevitably well-crafted tales centering on small-town life but without the sort of colorful villains and fantastic situations that would make them especially memorable to me. 

In this one, Professor Lang has brought back to Smallville an idol of the Thunder Spirit which is infused with Radium, somehow causing it to create disruptions to the weather when certain colors are put in front of its gemstone eyes. Legend says that only the “living rainbow” can quiet the angry spirit of the idol–and this turns out to be Superboy himself, whose action-costume contains the necessary primary colors to make the magic work. It’s all very scientific in a completely ridiculous comic book way.

Next came the issue’s letters page, written by editor E. Nelson Bridwell, and where I first learned of the existence of the hardcover SECRET ORIGINS OF THE SUPER DC HEROES book which had just then been released. Oh, how I lusted after that book, but I would need to wait most of a year until Christmas before I’d get my hands on it. 

The final adventure in the issue was a Hawkman tale illustrated by Murphy Anderson. Anderson’s work was perfectly in line with the clean, open sheen that was the DC “look” in the 1960s and which was enormously appealing to me. Yet, somehow, his figures were always just a little bit lifeless, a little bit stiff. In rendering them so finely, Anderson robbed them of some of their movement and energy, I felt. So it was good-looking work, but kind of cold. 

This story featured a return engagement with Ira “I.Q.” Quimby, whom I’d seen Hawkman contend with in an issue of WORLD’S FINEST previously. Here, his sunlight-energized super-intellect allows him to create a series of visual effects and super-gadgets with which he and is men embark on a crime spree. The Winged Wonder and his wife Hawkgirl take up the challenge and battle through as much by their wits as their physical prowess. It’s almost a quintessential Silver Age DC super hero tale.

And before the issue was over, there was also this ad from Superhero Merchandise, which would one day soon become Heroes World, which showed off the SECRET ORIGINS volume along with a series of first issue collections of noteworthy recent releases. But I didn’t have access to $10.95 at the age of nine, so seeing this ad week after week was agonizing in that way it can only be when you’re a kid who wants something that you cannot have (at least yet.)

I missed the first issue of FOUR STAR SPECTACULAR, which is a shame, as it reprinted among other things a redrawn Golden Age Flash story. But I was there for when the second issue arrived at my 7-11–and while a Kid Flash story was maybe not as compelling as one featuring Jay Garrick, it was enough to make me bring the issue home. It’s also worth noting that I think this was the first time I became aware of the UPC code on the front cover, a recent addition which here crams Wonder Woman awkwardly into a tiny space.

I loved all of DC’s oversized reprint comics, partly because I liked the value-for-money that I got in these tomes, but just as much because I really liked (and even preferred in many cases) the stories and creators of the past more than the ones of the present. It wouldn’t be too long until they became a thing of the past, sadly–and even in this issue, editor E. Nelson Bridwell’s text page tells of how this issue was originally supposed to include stories of Blackhawk and Green Lantern, but shrinking page counts forced him to discard those stories in favor of the Kid Flash/Elongated Man story (thus still maintaining “four stars”, as the tile boasted.)

The issue opens with a Superboy story in which a Kryptoninan Thought-Beast, whose forehead-screen reveals its thoughts as images, escaped from an interplanetary zoo and made its way to Earth. Even Superboy’s powers are no match for the beats, and one by one, his assorted efforts to rid the planet of it using Kryptonite, his robots and the Phantom Zone Projector all come to nothing. Eventually, though, by wearing a head-screen of his own, Superboy is able to lure the beast to a far-off world that hes refashioned in the image of its native habitat, the Scarlet Jungle on Krypton. And the day is saved!

Following that was another bananas Wonder Woman story written by Robert Kanigher, and drawn by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, the team responsible for updating the amazing Amazon’s look in the late 1950s. Bananas is really the only way to describe Kanigher’s approach to these stories, many of which were almost certainly typed out stream-of-consciousness style and lurch from event to event with little rhyme or reason. They’re an acquired taste, but one that can be very entertaining if you’re in the correct frame of mind.

When air force planes and passenger trains are attacked by cowboys straight out of the old west on flying steeds, Wonder Woman rockets to the attack. But the old school owlhoots are always one step ahead of her. This is because they’re not cowboys at all, but rather alien beings who’ve disguised themselves as cowboys–pretty much for the hell of it (and, presumably, because Kanigher thought it would make for a good cover.) Eventually, Wonder Woman creates a giant magnet which attracts all of the marauders, and she returns them in defeat to their homeworld. All of which sounds a bit more sensible than it actually is on the page, by the way.

Then, the main event for me was the story in which Kid Flash teamed up with the Elongated Man to combat the Flash’s old foe the Weather Wizard while the Scarlet Speedster was occupied with other adventures (in this case, a team-up with Green Lantern that I had read previously in FLASH #232). This story featured the slick art of Carmine Infantino that I loved, with its roughest edges expertly polished off by inker Joe Giella. I know that many feel that Giella took too many liberties with Carmine’s work, including Carmine himself. But for me, it’s the look that defines the Flash, and I like it.

In particular, Infantino had an appealing way of depicting the Elongated Man’s ductility. It wasn’t as zany as Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, nor as straight-faced as Jack Kirby’s Mister Fantastic. But it was always effective. In particular, Infantino was great at showing the Elongated Man’s entire figure, no matter what contortions he was being put through. That made his ability somehow more plausible, while still keeping the approach light and airy enough for the comedy of the character to come through.