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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The MLJ Companion (Graphic Novel)

by Rik Offenberger, Paul Castiglia, & Job B. Cooke. 

Publisher: TwoMorrows Publishing (September 27, 2016)

 Softcover 288 pages

Finished 10/24/2017

Amazon Listing 

    MLJ, now known as Archie comics, began like many of the old time companies, in a panic to toss out superheroes and collect all the sweet cash being thrown at them by kids in the 1940s. It wasn’t until several years in that their star, Archie, would emerge from the back pages of Pep comics to dominate the company up until the current day.
    But during that time, and in their brief revival in the 1960s, the MLJ comics made their mark. Granted a lot of their names are not those of household superheroes. There will be no cinematic universe enshrining their noble deeds in celluloid (I know films don’t use celluloid anymore, but it sounds more poetic). You might never have heard of The Shield, The Black Hood, Steel Sterling, The Fly, The Comet, The Wizard and Roy the Superboy, Madam Satan, or The Mighty Crusaders. They may all sound like rips-offs to you. And well… you’d be right and you’d be wrong at the same time. 

    What the MLJ superheroes (or ultra-heroes, as they called themselves in the 60s), had was influence. A lot of firsts, a lot of similarities in hero origins, a lot of new writers and artists emerged from this company. The first patriotic themed superhero was The Shield, coming out 8 months before Captain America. Fear of litigation from MLJ also changed a singular aspect of Captain America’s outfit. For those who remember, the Captain’s original shield was more in line of a medieval one, but it also looked exactly like the front part of The Shield’s costume. A change was ordered and the more functional round shield was drawn in.  Two characters had taglines later co-opted by DC comics: Steel Sterling was “The Man of Steel”; The Black Hood was called the “Dark Knight of Justice.” The Fly, developed by the classic team of Kirby and Simon had a striking resemblance to Spiderman’s origins and dealt with the problems of a teenager turned superhero. It is also interesting to note that The Fly debuted fourteen months before Spidey (Kirby had always claimed that the initial idea for the webslinger was his). The Comet, an extremely violent hero, was the first superhero ever killed off in comics in Pep #21.
    There have been several periods of incarnation (or attempted incarnation) for the MLJ line up. The first being in the golden age, where the superhero craze came and went. Next was the 60s, when superheros (apart from the big three Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman who’ve never gone away) came back into fashion. Then further attempts to revive them in the 80s with Spectrum imprint, 90s with Impact imprint, and 2000s with Dark Circle Comics (getting grim and gritty). After the second wave, all of the others have been relatively short lived. All in all the MLJ heroes have had seven incarnations in the eighty years since their conception, each lasting shorter than the one previous. 
1940s The Web, hero. 
1960s Web, henpecked husband.
  The book also shows an interesting perspective of the various flavors of the superhero genre over the ages. The heroes of each era were presented very differently. Many have forgotten that the Golden Age heroes were a pretty violent bunch, often killing off their enemies in brutal ways (and the comic stories included bear out this unrepentant viciousness) and with no remorse. Steel Sterling in the comic presented here, blows up his adversary, The Black Knight (who wore no black on his outfit) and his castle with a shrug and a quip, “There goes the Black Knight.”
That all changed thanks to the Comics Code Authority. The heroes were softened up and had more ridiculous fantasy type adventures. This lead to the 60’s revival, the Batman TV series, and a newfound appreciation for camp. The MLJ heroes were brought out of mothballs. At the line’s helm was the creator of the superhero, Jerry Seigal. Whether the results were a hit or a bomb depends on the individual, but their return did not garner much revenue. I guess the old saying is true, “Camp cannot be deliberately made, it can only occur”. Seigal takes a beating in this book, the authors seem to blame him personally for the wonky work, while everyone else is lauded. I’m not sure if he deserves the scorn, having clearly gotten editorial directives to “camp it up”. Plus his later work on the British series The Spider was well done.
    In a sense the darkening of the superheros (often directly related to Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns) in the last two decades of the 20th century and on into the new millennia, was simply a return to form for the heroes. Dealing with violent criminals in a final manner has been popular again for some time.  
I actually own this issue. I don't recall getting it. It was just there in my collection.
    One great flaw I had with this volume, however, was that so many of the sections were written by different people, cobbled together from old interviews, or reprints of earlier articles that much of the material is repeated. You will read the same fact over and over. While not a great drawback, it can detract from your overall enjoyment.
    On the plus side, it is an exhaustive text. You will be hardpressed to find out anything more on the subject of MLJ superhero characters and their various incarnations. It’s a great look at some old comics and, if you have an interest, well worth your time. Ultimately the MLJ characters were once ahead of the game, but each time they are brought back, they are always playing catch up with the big two. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth a look, it’s just that there hasn’t been a whole lot of innovation after the 40s and 60s. 
And let's not forget old Archie.
           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

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