Book review: The Action Heroes Archives Volume 2

Action_Heroes_Archives,_Volume_2While a good portion of my hardcover reprint collection consists of Marvel Masterworks volumes, there are a few DC Comics Archives that I also take the time to grab when they’re cheap on Amazon: The Doom Patrol, All-Star Comics, some o the non-Superman and Batman golden age stuff, and the Action Heroes.

Now many folks who aren’t into comics are probably saying “Action Heroes”? Who the hell are they? Well, to put it simply, they are a bunch of characters that were published by Charlton Comics in the late sixties. The three big names were the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and the Question. All three of those were created, co-created, or revamped by Steve Ditko, the comic legend behind Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and most of the really good aspects of the first Marvel Age of Comics. After leaving Marvel, he sauntered over to Charlton, where Dick Giordano was trying something new with their heroes, which hadn’t really caught on with the public. (It was hard to really make any headway into super-hero comics when DC and Marvel monopolized the field for, well, nearly ever.)

Captain Atom was an entirely new, atomic-age super-hero, with a healthy dose of the jingoism-of-the-day. Blue Beetle was the latest in a long line of characters to assume that name, beginning back in late 1939. Charlton Comics had just ceased publishing their last versions of both characters a few years earlier.

The Question was a brand new creation by Steve Ditko, and was one of his first creations to really espouse his Randian view of the world. He was the immediate predecessor of Mr. A and numerous other stories that Ditko has created since taking the self-publication route for his more, shall we say “political”, works.

Now if you’re wondering why DC Comics put out an archive (well, two) of these characters, they purchased most of the Charlton heroes (and villains) back in the early eighties and incorporated them into their own comic book multiverse in the classic Crisis on Infinite Earths limited series.

A side note: The Action Heroes almost ended up being deconstructed in their first major story for DC, as Alan Moore had wanted to use them for his epic tale Watchmen. DC didn’t like that idea, but they were used as inspirations (The Question = Rorschach, Captain Atom = Dr. Manhattan, Blue Beetle = Nite Owl, Nightshade = Silk Spectre, etc.).

The Action Heroes Archives Volume 2 reprints every Ditko-scripted or drawn adventure of the Question and Blue Beetle, and the revived run of Captain Atom. The issues in this volume are:

  • Captain Atom #83-89 (featuring Nightshade as his partner in many)
  • Blue Beetle #1-5, along with a black-and-white story intended for #6 (the Question was the back-up feature)
  • Mysterious Suspense #1 (featuring the Question)
  • Charlton Bullseye #1, 2, 5
  • And a Question story by Alex Toth.

Fan writer David Kaler contributed a couple of scripts, but nearly everything else in this book is Steve Ditko (he wrote under the alias of “D.C. Glanzman” among others). And it’s very good Steve Ditko was well. He doesn’t really have the opportunity to stretch his artistic vision as he did in Doctor Strange but he manages to work in a lot of space adventures for Captain Atom that are very reminiscent of this long run of work on Charlton and Marvel science fiction and monster comics in the fifties. His Blue Beetle is effervescent and nearly as action-filled as his Spider-man and later Creeper stories.

And the Question is … well, the Question is perhaps the most realistic hero Steve Ditko created for mainstream comics. And when I say “realistic”, I mean he was the most real as a part of Steve Ditko himself. The Question’s stories will seem, to the average comic reader today, very verbose. I would say that almost half of a page of a Question story was filled with captions or word balloons. And he did his best to make his Objectivist points, though with not nearly the uncompromising edge of the later Mr. A, who believed in good and evil and nothing in between the two. If this hadn’t been Charlton, with considerably lax publisher interference in the editorial department, I doubt that Mysterious Suspense would’ve ever been published. It is very good that it was, of course, since it is often called one of the highlights of Charlton’s entire publishing history, and one of the best single issues of ANY comic book series.

I read a good number of these stories when I was a little todger, when Woolworth was selling the Charlton books under the “Modern Comics” imprint. Both volumes of the Action Heroes Archives make it so nice to read these again, as the reproduction values are parsecs away from the originals. That was pretty much standard for Charlton Comics thought, and part of the nigh-perverse reason that many folks remember the company and its comics with such fondness today. They may have been a bit clunky (hell, I actually got a Charlton comic book a few years ago that had five sides), but the tales within were good examples of solid storytelling. The fact that this volume is nearly all Ditko is merely an added benefit.

One of the Charlton Bullseye reprints features an interesting story that finished off the Captain Atom series, and has artwork by Ditko but inked by a young John Byrne, before he came to fame at Marvel. Alex Toth’s Question story is exemplary.

I can’t really find any reason NOT to recommend this book. It’s really one of those books that should be required reading for any comic book artist, given the mastery of storytelling that Steve Ditko exudes. I think even the casual reader will enjoy it, especially if they’re old enough to remember any of these characters, or just the days when comics were printed on newsprint and sold in grocery stores. You can usually score it fairly cheap on Amazon or eBay (in the $20-40 range), which is a small price for revisiting a chunk of a happy childhood.

So on the new scale:

review-charltonheroesv2

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