All-Star Comics: Volume Zero

I’m ashamed to admit I’m only four trades into “the shelf” and I’m already coming across superheroes I’ve never heard of.  When I saw the title All-Star Comics, I had absolutely no idea what this collection would include, as I had never even heard of that comic.  I had been vaguely familiar with Action Comics and Detective Comics prior to reading them; All Star Comics was completely foreign to me.  Thus is the life of a comic newbie, I suppose.

After reading the brief foreword at the beginning of this trade, I learned that Action Comics was a combination of characters appearing in four of the other big comics of the time, as a means of generating interest and possibly leading to their own individual comics, as had previously been done with Superman and Batman.

The foreword also noted that All-Star Comics is generally collected in trade beginning with issue #3, the first appearance of the Justice Society of America.  I’m already guessing this is not the same group as the Justice League of America (yay, I’m learning!)  Volume Zero collects the first two issues of that comic, issues which it seems are generally left out of other trades.  Though not the first appearance of any of these characters, this is the lead-in to what I can already gather is a seminal moment in comic history, the formation of the JSA.

That’s more than enough reason to read this collection, in my book.

Now for the cast of characters. Unlike the previous trades I’ve read, which focused on a single superhero, this collection includes stories of numerous characters:  The Sandman, Hawkman, Ultra-Man, The Flash, Biff Bronson, Red, White, & Blue, The Spectre, Hour-Man, Johnny Thunderbolt, and Green Lantern.

I don’t want to exclude any of the aforementioned heroes, partly because I have pretty strong opinions on most of them and partly because I have a feeling it is the only time i will be writing about a few of them, so I’ll go through a breakdown of each character depicted:

Hawkman – I vaguely recognized Hawkman from old cartoons my dad used to still watches, but I knew nothing about his story.  Color me surprised when my first real encounter with the character began with a teary-eyed damsel in distress explaining to Hawkman that her brother was kidnapped by a man who discovered an ancient Haitian secret to control zombies.

wpid-20150909_200142.jpgSeriously. I can’t make this stuff up.

Hawkman’s stories here feel more original than others, to say the least (the second featured in this collection focuses on sacrifices to an ancient Aztec god), and I can see an appeal in more outlandish stories.  It certainly beats seeing members of the mob defeated for the umpteenth time.

Ultraman – Here is another fine example of a character with wisps of a good premise being held back.  Ultraman’s story is futuristic in nature, taking place in 2240 A.D.  That fact alone could be enough to carry a well-written character, and I wonder if it got him far.  It wasn’t enough for him to appear in issue #2 of All Star Comics, but perhaps he pops up later.  His story is strongly political in focus, but given that these comics were published in 1940, the reason behind that seems rather obvious.  What doesn’t seem obvious is why the artist felt it necessary to include the following in Ultraman’s story:

wpid-20150908_214554.jpgWho needs magical powers, strength, or agility? Ultraman will just spank the criminals.  Granted, I’m sure this felt relatable to the children reading these comics at the time, and it certainly beats Sandman’s approach to criminals (see below), but reading this now, all I can do is laugh.

The Sandman – This is certainly no Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (one of the first comics I read, thank you Mistah J). The Sandman shown here is a rather flat character, a rich playboy who dons a mask and fights crime (coughBatman.  An aside: I wonder how many early comic book writers used the basic Batman character for their own superhero storylines?  I’ve certainly seen a few already). The Sandman was definitely not my favorite in this collection.  He seems grossly inept at crimefighting, as he is constantly being beaten up.  The style of the comic left me wanting as well.  There was virtually no narrative, and so the story relies on Sandman verbally explaining everything:

wpid-20150908_213823.jpgWas there no better way to depict this?

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to judge a character so harshly.  I’ve only read two of his stories, after all.  Still, those I read didn’t leave me wanting more as the others did.  I’m very curious to see if the Sandman makes any future appearances on “the shelf”.

On a side note: The level of brutality in some of these comics disturbs me.  For example:

wpid-20150909_191507.jpgAfter a tussle with a criminal, Sandman takes the man’s gun and summarily shoots him in the head.  Nevermind the fact that this man had just previously learned the Sandman’s true identity!  In what world did this seem like a child-friendly scene?  I’m starting to think I could write an entire post dedicated to the many child-unfriendly scenes depicted in early comics. *Steps down off of soapbox*

The Spectre – As opposed to the Sandman, I found the Spectre to be thoroughly entertaining and original.  This was the first comic I’d read so far to deal with a realm outside of our own, and it was done very well.  The stories felt much more modern than those they were grouped with, and I found myself wanting to know much more about this character.  With the Spectre jumping to a non-physical world to commune with the dead, we are given a brand new method of solving crimes, one not employed by any other early comic I’ve read so far.

What also interested me about this character was that he walks a fine line between good and evil.  Although he fights for justice, there is something about his character that feels villainous as well.  I don’t know anything about the Spectre’s future in the DC universe, but if he makes any more appearances I’ll be curious to see what side of the line he falls on.

Biff Bronson – I’m not entirely sure what to say about Biff.  Truly, there isn’t much to say.  His is a mere four-page story, and he only appears once in this trade.  He has no superpowers nor any great deductive skills that I can see. He’s just a man who solves a mystery.  Perhaps he may have been more intriguing in another setting, but compared to the other more colorful characters who surround him, he falls flat.  I suspect his first appearance in All-Star Comics was also his last.  He never really stood a chance.

Hour-Man – Hour-Man was another character I never knew existed.  Given the storylines depicted here, I’m not overly surprised he hasn’t made it into mainstream culture.  Ignoring the likely overwhelming number of sexually charged jokes related to his name, there doesn’t seem to be anything that remarkable about the character.  It is an intriguing premise, I’ll admit: Rex Tyler takes a pill and is blessed with superpowers for exactly one hour.  Joined by his band of “minute men” children, he fights crime in much the same way as any number of superheroes.  I can certainly see it being an exciting character in another comic, one who appears one or at most rarely.  As a standalone story however, it seems like it would lose steam rather quickly.  Perhaps his name is better applied to how long his popularity might last with readers…

Red, White, & Blue – These three characters were much like Biff Bronson, rather stale and misplaced among this array of superheroes.  Their stories were more interesting than Biff’s, and for a country who would enter WWII a year after their publication, the overt patriotic tone of this comic no doubt appealed to a number of readers.  The stories had action and excitement, I’ll admit.  I would have a greater appreciation for them had they been collected elsewhere, with similarly written comics. Unfortunately, grouped with the characters listed here, Red, White, & Blue don’t stand a chance of being memorable.

Johnny Thunderbolt – Johnny Thunderbolt only appears once in this trade, but I found his story entertaining.  The premise behind him is simple: Whenever he says the phrase “cei-u”, anything he says must happen and anything he commands of people they must do.  Although the characters’ voices feel jilted and forced at times, the visual appeal of this premise is enough to carry the character.  If he pops up in later comics, I’ll be interested to see what other visual feats he accomplishes.

The Green Lantern – Although one of the more popular characters featured here, I bow my head in shame and admit I really don’t know anything about this character.  I was excited to learn about him (not just because Mistah J spent half this past weekend walking around wearing a light-up toy ring and reciting the Green Lantern oath).  Although the single story featured here doesn’t break any new ground in terms of superhero stories, I was excited to learn the connection between the lantern and the ring (who knew he derived his power from touching the ring to the lantern once every 24 hours? Okay, I know everyone probably knows that, but I didn’t.  Excuse me while I hang my head in shame).

The Flash – I will admit I was only moderately excited to read about the Flash (for previous knowledge on this character, see “The Green Lantern”).  All I knew was that he could run fast.  Interesting, but how could that carry a whole comic?  I knew he went on to become an extremely popular character, so I was intrigued to learn more.

After the two stories featured here, I can already see what all the fuss was about.

The Flash is fun, pure and simple.  Visually entertaining, clever, funny, the Flash is simply a good comic (I’ve read a whopping four trades now so you know, that makes me an expert on these things).  The Flash feels at times less like a superhero and more like the tazmanian devil, tearing across the page and disrupting everything in his path.  Also, unlike the other heroes featured here, the Flash relies less on brute strength and more on his ability to outwit those around him.  At one point he quite literally annoys the commissioner into making him a detective:

wpid-20150909_132355.jpgHow can you not love that in a superhero?  The appeal for children is apparent as well, for what kid didn’t run around their parents a million times trying to get their attention at one point or another?  The Flash is a highly entertaining character, and I’m very glad to see I will be reading at least a few trades dedicated to his character alone in the near future.

Having had no idea what to expect upon opening this trade, I’m proud to say I’ve read it.  There are both hits and misses here, but that’s bound to happen, especially in the early days of comic writing.  Still deciphering what children wanted to read about, there would undoubtedly be characters who didn’t make it past a few appearances.  If anything I’m curious to do a little research and find out how long some of these characters lasted within the pages of All-Star Comics or within their respective parent comics.  Maybe I’d be surprised.

Knowing this trade is a prologue of sorts to the main story, the beginning of the Justice Society of America, makes me want to read the continuation even more.  Sadly, unless I’m mistaken it doesn’t look like Mistah J has Volume One on his shelf.  I think this just might be one trade I’ll have to hunt down on my own (in my infinite amount of spare time when I’m not continuing on with the existing trades on the shelf).  Yep, sounds about right.


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