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Monday, November 11, 2019

Judging a book by it's cover: Unknown Soldier (1977 - 1982)

With Veteran's day quickly approaching (it's November 8th as I write this), I was hoping to review the Unknown Solder ongoing series that ran from 1977 to 1982. Sitting in front of me I have nearly 65 Unknown Soldier comics to peruse in less than 3 days -- which is a daunting task, even for me. Instead, I'll be trying something new -- I'll take a look at the cover, decide if it's interesting enough to flip through, and review those ones -- essentially 'judging a book by it's cover'.

Who or What is the Unknown Solder?


Created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert in 1966, the Unknown Soldier first appeared in 1970s's Star-Spangled War Stories #151.

The Unknown Soldier [name never revealed] was a young American soldier who witnessed his older brother (also a soldier) sacrifice himself by jumping on a grenade thrown into their foxhole. Despite being wounded, the young American soldier managed to destroy the enemy patrol in an adrenaline rage before collapsing. When the young American soldier awoke in the hospital, he was informed that his face was damaged beyond repair. Rather than receive an honorable discharge, the young American solider decided to list himself "dead" on official records, but live on as "one man" who could make a difference. He mastered the art of disguise (he keeps a make-up kit on him at all times), hand-to-hand combat, the proficient use of almost any weapon and the ability to pilot almost any military vehicle. He became The Unknown Soldier -- he was the man that no one knew, but was known by everyone. He also had a few field operatives he relied on: Chat Noir, the Sparrow and Inge.

As Joe Kubert recalls, the initial inspiration for the Unknown Soldier came from the actual Tomb of the Unknown Soldier -- located in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C. The Tomb is a memorial to all of the U.S. service members who died, but who's remains were never identified. Kubert intended the Unknown Solider to be a living symbol representing this idea. Kubert raised this idea to Carmine Infantino (DC executive at the time), and it was green lit. In order to distinguish the Unknown Soldier from the other DC soldiers (such as Sgt Rock), it was decided that the Unknown Soldier would have no identity of his own -- his face was taken away from him -- and so his main symbol of identity would be stripped from him. Hence, the bandaged face.



There's a bit of a debate on whether or not 1966's Our Army at War #168 was the Unknown Soldier's FIRST appearance -- and here's the scoop on that: OAaW #168 was a story in which Sgt Rock is saved by a mysterious unknown soldier who saves his life and disappears. Four years later, in Star-Spangled War Stories #151, the Unknown Soldier is introduced.


Scott Harris, a regular on the CGC comics forum, explained it as such: "The Unknown Soldier as a character and series doesn't debut until 1970, with Star Spangled War Stories #151. This is where we are introduced to the character, and the concept - he's a secret agent whose face was blown off during a battle in the Pacific, and who now uses his amazing acting skill, mimicry, and special effects make-up talents to take the place of various people of different nationalities, allowing him to go undercover in any situation. None of this is remotely hinted at in OAaW #168, because this character had not yet been conceived of. "

"Where this gets tricky is Star Spangled War Stories #157, which reprints OAaW #168 and retcons that standalone story into being an official appearance of The Unknown Soldier; since you never see the soldier's face in the story, it's easy enough to do. As a result, in continuity, OAaW #168 is the first story with Unknown Soldier that was published, but in reality, the character wasn't created until SSWS #151 four years later. OAaW #168 is a very clever retcon, but still a retcon. So for me, SSWS #151 should be more expensive than OAaW #168, because it's much more important. OAaW #168 is an interesting curiosity, and most Unknown Soldier fans would probably want both issues - I have them both - but it's definitely of lesser importance." 
 

Left: Our Army at War #168 (1966), Right: Star-Spangled War Stories #151 (1970)


If you need more evidence, the letter column of Unknown Soldier #263 lists Star-Spangled War Stories #151 as the first appearance of the Unknown Soldier.

Why was DC comics still publishing comic books about World War II in the late 70s/early 80s?


In 1978, DC was still publishing: G.I. Combat, Men Of War, Our Fighting Forces, Sgt Rock, Unknown Soldier, and Weird War Tales (some of these were being printed bi-monthly). Recurring WWII characters appearing in these books included Sgt Rock, Unknown Soldier, the Haunted Tank, Dateline: Frontline, Enemy Ace, The Losers (Johnny Cloud, Captain Storm, Gunner and Sarge), Mademoiselle Marie, Fighting Devil Dog, Codename: Gravedigger, and Viking Commando.

As far as DC was concerned, it wasn't just soldiers fighting in WWII, super-heroes were also battling Hitler and his Nazis in the 1970s and 1980s. The All-Star Squadron and Seven Soldiers of Victory both formed in 1941 to assist with the war effort. The Young All-Stars operated during 1942 to battle Nazis. The Freedom Fighters fought on Earth-X -- an alternate reality where Germany won World War II.

World War II ended in 1945, why was DC still publishing stories about World War II? Haven't they strip-mined that era of history enough? Why not cover Vietnam, the Korean War or the Cold War?

Simply put: stories about World War II sell. World War II holds a very strong and favorable sentiment among (most) North Americans. Other factors for DC focusing on World War II tales:
  1. There was a very specific enemy (Adolf Hitler and the Nazis) that nobody felt sympathy towards.
  2. Unlike all the other wars you can think of, World War II was a war America actually won.
  3. Nick Cardy, Bob Haney, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Robert Kanigher, Dan Spiegle, Bill Draut, Doug Wildey, Murray Boltinoff and Sam Glanzman regularly edited, wrote or drew the stories in DC's War anthology comics. They were also World War II veterans. Who would know the source material better than someone who was actually in WWII?
  4. For an adventure/sci-fi writer, using World War II as a historical backdrop offers unlimited story possibilities. There were plenty of rumors that Germany was working on new technologies that could've changed the outcome of the war in their favor, and just about every crackpot theory has been put out there about the Nazi's involvement with mysticism, the occult, or aliens -- it's gotten to the point that we just kinda accept that it could be within the realm of possibility (see: Netflix specials about WWII Germany).

In contrast, Marvel Comics tried to keep things "fresh" by keeping things contemporary. Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos became Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. The Nazis were now Hydra. The Punisher was a Vietnam War veteran. From 1986 to 1993, Marvel published The 'Nam -- a critically-acclaimed ongoing series about the U.S. War in Vietnam... and the list goes on and on.

Okay, so this isn't a REAL answer, but it's the best I've got. So...
 

Unknown Soldier issues #205 to #268


Star-Spangled War Stories was re-named to The Unknown Soldier in 1977. [This wasn't the first time this series had experienced a name change; it was originally called Star Spangled Comics and featured the Star Spangled Kid, and then at issue #131 was re-titled to Star-Spangled War Stories.] Another DC war comic, Our Army At War, had been re-named to Sgt. Rock in 1977 as well.

Also occurring around the same time as the title change from SSWS to The Unknown Soldier, David Michelinie -- who had been writing the Unknown Soldier feature in SSWS since issue #183 -- was being replaced by Bob Haney starting with issue #203. Haney had written Unknown Soldier stories before for SSWS in 1971 and 1972.

The Unknown Soldier had pretty much been the lead feature in SSWS since his introduction in issue #151. Why the sudden name change? Not sure, to be honest.

Staying true to our namesake (i,e.: DC in the 80s), we're going to start with the first 'official' The Unknown Soldier comic from 1977 -- issue #205:

Unknown Soldier #205 (1977)


It's really difficult to pass up a Joe Kubert-illustrated cover; he's the definitive Sgt Rock artist (he co-created Sgt Rock, dontcha know?) and has a distinct style that really encapsulates how miserable these soldiers are probably feeling running through the sleet and snow while getting mowed down by enemy fire. Also, it's got Sgt Rock's younger brother, Lawrence (aka: Fighting Devil Dog), in this issue. How could I resist?

This was a quick 11-page story about the Unknown Soldier impersonating a Colonel in order to give an American infantry unit the morale boost it needed to hold their location. This story was written by Bob Haney and illustrated by Dick Ayers and Gerry Talaoc. Joe Kubert only illustrated the cover of this issue. Haney made sure to take a moment to remind us that war isn't all sweeping victories and courageous moves on the battlefield -- many good soldiers died fighting for our freedom, too:


   
 
I skipped over Unknown Soldier #206 (the cover didn't really do anything for me), but decided to have a glance at DC Super Stars #15 thanks to another great Joe Kubert cover:


This cover got me interested in the story inside: two Sgt Rocks and one's trying to kill Mademoiselle Marie? Yeah, I couldn't pass on this one. The cover basically sells itself. Mlle Marie and the Unknown Soldier have a bit of a rivalry going on (aka: she wants to kill him) -- this would be a recurring theme throughout the regular series.


I skipped a few more issues, but these ones piqued my interest:



Both of these issues were very good. At 11 pages, issue #209 was a story about how resilient to enemy torture the Unknown Soldier is, and issue #211 contains an 11-page story about the Unknown Soldier persuading an American tank patrol from mutinying their crazy colonel (this was a reprint from an earlier issue of SSWS). Thanks to reader demand, The Unknown Soldier went from being a bi-monthly to a monthly series starting with issue #209. 

With Bob Haney as the new writer, the Unknown Soldier started off as more of a 'morale boost' for demoralized soldiers -- teaching them the valor of holding their position and that 'one man in the right place at the right time, can make the difference [in the war effort]'. Michelinie's Unknown Soldier mainly had him in spy/espionage tales. Readers noted that while Haney was good, Michelinie spent more time on characterization and gave more insight into what kind of person the Unknown Soldier was.

While the issue #211 of The Unknown Soldier story was good, what I really enjoyed was the "In Country" entry written by Larry Hama (Marvel's GI Joe) and illustrated by Russ Heath. It was an anecdote about a American soldier name Luthor who (I'm assuming) Larry knew personally. Either way, it was an interesting read:



  Two more Joe Kubert issues that jumped out at me (are we noticing a trend, yet?):



Issue #212 featured Unknown Soldier's ally, Chat Noir, in a 17-page story about the Unknown Soldier infiltrating a gang of Nazi saboteurs (with no back-up story). Issue #213 was a 12-page story about the Unknown Soldier capturing and rehabilitating a Hitler Youth who had been brainwashed. This issue has a back-up feature.


Gradually, the series started to do away with back-up features and start running full-length Unknown Soldier stories (some of them were even spanned multiple issues). They'd play with the format a bit throughout the course of the series. It was later explained by the editor that...



Issue #214 was a continuation of the events that occurred in DC Super Stars #15 (there's your continuity, folks). This was editor/writer Robert Kanigher's first Unknown Soldier story. This one's a bit heavy -- in this issue, the Unknown Soldier's mission is to rescue French Resistance leader, Mlle Marie, from the Auschwitz concentration camp. I had problems with this story -- while Kanigher took the time to mention the sheer terror of Auschwitz and how it was probably the closest thing to hell on earth...


...it all seemed to be down-played by how easily The Unknown Soldier and Mlle Marie were able to free themselves and coerce the prisoners to turn on their captors. Now, I realize this was only a 17-page story in a book targeted to young adults (and adults) that had to meet the Comics Code Authority's guidelines -- so Kanigher couldn't really delve into the horrors of Auschwitz or what it's prisoners experiences. My recommendation? Read Art Spiegelman's Maus at least once in your life.


I skimmed the next two issues. While the covers were nicely illustrated (Kubert again), there wasn't enough there to really make me want to read them:


Writer Bob Haney served in the Navy during World War II, so Unknown Soldier #215 (left) would've been right in his wheelhouse.



The Unknown Soldier #217 is the beginning of a 3-issue story arc (written by Bob Haney) about the Unknown Soldier's failed assassination attempt on Hitler, getting killed and then having a Nazi imposter pretending to be the Unknown Soldier to assassinate Winston Churchill. This cover made me laugh because you don't typically expect to have explosives hidden in a painting.



The Unknown Solider #218 also had a cover that made me laugh. Without any context of who the Unknown Soldier was, it would appear that Hitler wants to allocate all of his resources into killing a fourth-degree burn victim. Like, it's bad enough that this guy has to walk around for the rest of his life with charred skin, but now Hitler wants him shot, too? Harsh. All kidding aside, this was a great issue and would pretty much cement the Unknown Soldier/Adolf Hitler rivalry that could only end one way at the end of the series. (hint hint)

Staring with issue #219, the price of the book went up (from 35 cents to 50 cents) and books now had 40 pages. Welcome to the 1978 'DC Explosion' (soon followed by the 1978 'DC Implosion' three months later).



For reasons I can't really explain, the cover of issue #221 intrigued me -- so I gave it a read. This issue's story is about a Tokyo Rose-type radio personality who is feeding Japanese military intel to American troops in coded messages during her radio programs. What struck me about this issue is that, contrary to what I'd normally expect, the Unknown Soldier was unable to prevent the pretty young radio announcer from getting discovered and murdered by her husband/Japanese colonel. Huh. These guys play for keeps.  


Alright, so the book prices have been re-adjusted: 40 cents now gets you 32 pages:


So this cover jumped out at me -- it appears that the Unknown Soldier is trying rescue allied soldiers on a German plane... that won't land! This cover was actually misleading -- it was about American aircrafts getting captured with with a Nazi "capture beam" and the allied aircraft crew being brainwashed into fighting for Germany. So, really, there was never any danger of the plane NOT landing. The Unknown Soldier thwarts their plans -- all within 13 pages. So far, this has felt like the most sci-fi/adventure/superhero story of them all.





On the cover of The Unknown Solider #232 is the Unknown Soldier and the closest thing he has to a comrade-in-arms, Chat Noir, securing a secret envelope with the name of a secret traitor. A 17-page story about the Unknown Solider using his detective skills to uncover who the traitor is in a French Resistance group. The story moved quickly and had plenty of action. Very enjoyable.




It's the Third Reich on a submarine... saluting the Unknown Solider? Also, it's a really nice cover with a high contrast between the oranges and grey/blues. The Unknown Soldier impersonates a German submarine captain in order to infiltrate an impregnable German naval base and blow it up. This was a quick 17-page story.





This cover reminded me of a scene from The Deer Hunter, and I remembered enjoying the film --so I had to give this one a read. The Unknown Soldier needs to convince an American being held in a Japanese-American internment camp to pose as an Imperial Ordnance Specialist to plant bombs in a Japanese army stronghold. There's a bit of suspense as we wonder if the American will betray his adopted homeland for his ancestral one. I applaud writer Bob Haney for not trying to pull the wool over our eyes and pretending like the Japanese-American internment camp "guests" had the best living conditions:
 






This was one of the sillier issues I read. The Germans are using children to stop the Allied forces from bombing a town, as they bide their time for their own Panzer squad to arrive to counter-strike against the Allied forces. The Unknown Soldier's solution? Dress up like the Pied Piper and lure the kids safely out of town so the Allied forces can attack:


Paul Levitz leaves as editor on The Unknown Soldier (to work on Batman and it's spin-off comics), and Len Wein comes in as the new editor.




It was hard to resist this cover: the Unknown Soldier hanging from the front of a charging locomotive while dodging a Nazi officer swinging a giant mallet. Don Heck illustrated this cover. This was a story that drew a lot of criticism from readers and sparked the whole 'Realistic vs Unrealistic war stories' debate in the letter column pages of The Unknown Soldier. Another misleading cover: at no point does the Unknown Soldier fight a guy carrying a giant hammer on the front of a train -- but this story does read a bit like Raiders of the Lost Ark as the Unknown Soldier is desperately trying to keep famous French artifact, The Hammer Martel, out of Nazi hands. Great read.



Around this time, GI Combat becomes a monthly book (it was previously a bi-monthly book).



It's the Unknown Solder guest-starring Captain Storm (of the Losers). Prior to this issue, I've never heard of Dateline: Frontline!, but in this issue it looks like we're getting 8 extra pages of it (and a ten cent price increase). In this issue, the Unknown Soldier and Captain Storm team-up to take out a mysterious 'ghost sub' that's blowing up Allied ships. It was a good story, but what really stood out for me was the 2-page 'Big Daddy' story written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Tom Yeates:







I was drawn to this issue because it kind of reminds me of the cover of that Punisher issue where Frank Castle is all chained up, but has a grenade hidden behind his back with the pin halfway out. "Like, ha, you guys think you have me beat? You have no clue what you're in for." There is no scene in this book where the Unknown Soldier hides in a sewer where a dozen Nazis march around him -- but he does meet his female German counterpart:



How were war comics doing around this point? Well, the Men Of War ongoing series was cancelled sometime between Unknown Soldier #246 and #247.




It's the Unknown Soldier, and he's leaving in a cart of dead people with a little red-haired girl [?] who is clearly alive. This was a great story about the Unknown Soldier trying to escape a Jewish ghetto with a secret formula to create the atomic bomb. This issue also contains part 2 of Cary Burkett's 'Ruptured Duck' feature.




Well, I'm a sucker for 'secret origin' issues, so I couldn't resist reading this issue. This was actually part 1 of a 2 part story in which a top SS espionage agent learns of the Unknown Soldier's true identity and seeks to hold his dad hostage. It does re-tell the Unknown Soldier's origin. It's continued in the following issue... and the Unknown Soldier retcons his own origin -- it turns out that he was inspired by a Battle God to become the 'Immortal GI':







How could anyone pass on a cover like this? Guest-starring Sgt Rock and Easy Company, Mlle Marie, the Haunted Tank and the Losers... and they're all trying to kill the Unknown Soldier. In this issue, the Unknown Soldier pretends to defect to the Nazis and become Hitler's right-hand man, so of course there's a giant target on his head. This issue gives you exactly what it professes -- all of these characters are trying to kill the Unknown Soldier, only to realize it was a giant scheme at the end. A really fun issue.

Mike W Barr (Batman and the Outsiders) becomes the editor of the title starting with issue #256.



The cover of this issue looked intriguing, so I gave it a shot. In issue #261, The Unknown Soldier goes on a secret mission to a French Chateau to rescue his paramour, Lady Jade, who is being tortured by Nazis. [Lady Jade was introduced in issue #254]. This issue has plenty of supernatural overtones, and probably should've been a Weird War Tales story. Still a fun read, however.   




I liked this cover because it introduces a mystery: what is the secret of the Death Sub? This easily could've been a Weird War Tales or House of Mystery cover. Unfortunately, this was not a submarine piloted by zombies, but a bunch of crew members who were sick with an experimental Japanese virus. It was a quick read, and the cover definitely drew me in.




Another whodunit cover. Who murdered the general? This was part 1 of a 2-part story that finished in issue #266. In typical DC fashion, we discover that the person who first confessed to the murder was only trying to protect his squad from being court-martialed, and that the REAL killer was actually a German soldier posing as an American soldier. Great story -- a quick and easy read.



Okay, so this is the LAST issue of the series. It's set on April 30th 1945 --  the day of the Gotterdammerung -- the day Adolf Hitler dies. It's a 23-page story. This is how you end a series. The Unknown Soldier is in Berlin, hot on Hitler's trail. All of his supporting characters are getting wiped out: Sparrow is discovered and killed by an SS firing squad, Inge sacrifices herself for the Unknown Soldier and trips on a seemingly inert bomb, and Chat Noir is gunned down while trying to rescue the Unknown Soldier from a tight situation. With the fall of Berlin looming, Hitler has one crazy scheme left up his sleeve: blood-sucking octopi that are to be dropped on Allied forces from the sky.


The Unknown Soldier manages to infiltrate Hitler's bunker, and shoots Hitler (making it look like a suicide). Throughout the course of their struggle, Eva Braun accidentally swallows her cyanide tablet. The Unknown Soldier uses his skills as a master of disguise to impersonate Hitler and shuts down the crazy Nazi 'octopi from the sky' scheme. While leaving Hitler's bunker, in one last selfless act of heroism, the Unknown Solider sacrifices his life to save an innocent child:

 
...and that's the end of the Unknown Soldier, folks. Or is it? The final panels allude that he may have dodged death and disguised himself as a GI. It kinda leaves the ending open for interpretation.

-----

This series was cancelled due to low sales. I don't have an accurate number of how many issues they were selling by the end, but in issue #249 (1981) they estimated that they had more 100,000 readers. It's really hard to make sense of the then-current war comic landscape since some war titles were getting cancelled, and some were going from a bi-monthly to a monthly schedule. Sgt Rock would outlast them all.  

A popular demand among readers who wrote in were for longer Unknown Soldier stories. Most readers wanted more than 13-page Unknown Soldier stories since he was the lead feature. It was explained by editorial that it simply wasn't possible since the regular inkers, Romeo Tanghal and Gerry Talaoc, lived in the Phillipines and that more than 13 pages would be too big of a workload on them.

It was later revealed by editorial that the back-up features were meant to expand their audience and (hopefully) bring in new readers. Popular back-up features included Enemy Ace by Robert Kanigher and John Severin, Dateline: Frontline! by Cary Burkett and Rick Estrada, and pretty much anything Robert Kanigher and Tom Yeates were cooking up. Unpopular back-up features included Andy Stewart: Combat Nurse and Fighting Devil Dog. Somewhere in the middle was Mlle Marie, the Losers, Balloon Buster and Viking Prince.

What's interesting about this series is that it doesn't pull any punches -- while the Unknown Soldier always wins at the end, many American soldiers are killed in the process. Often the scenes are grim -- Nazi (and Allied) soldiers are stabbed, hung, having their necks broken or shot. It's not just limited to men in uniform, either -- civilians and bystanders are captured, shot, blown up or tortured. That's war.

When I was a pre-teen, I could not stand war comics. I had a whole pile of Sgt Rock comics and the odd issue of Charlton Comics' Fightin' Army thrown into the mix, and I absolutely did not care for them. To this effect, I feel that war comics are an acquired taste -- since I love reading them now. I would definitely recommend the Unknown Soldier.

-Justin

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Reviewing Blue Devil v1 (1984 - 1986)

In celebration of Halloween 2019, we've decided to review a comic book series about a guy who becomes a superhero because he got stuck in his costume. Since you've surely read the header of this review (which was most likely the reason you clicked on the link that brought you here), welcome to our look back at Blue Devil v1:



True History of the Blue Devil


Created by Dan Mishkin, Gary Cohn and Paris Cullins, the idea of Blue Devil was first conceived by Mishkin and Cohn when they were contributing stories for the DC horror/mystery/fantasy anthology titles in the early eighties. The comic buying landscape had changed; readers weren't so interested in anthology titles anymore and sales on these books were dwindling. It quickly became apparent that the anthology titles with the highest readership were the ones with recurring characters that kept readers coming back every month (ex: Andrew Bennet in House of Mystery, G.I. Robot and Creature Commandoes in Weird War Tales). Dave Manak (editor of Ghosts, Unexpected and Secrets of Haunted House) asked Mishkin and Cohn to come up with a supernatural story with "lots of room for heroics and broad action, as well".  

From Dan Mishkin: "As for Amethyst and Blue Devil, neither one of those existed even as a vague notion until we were writing professionally and were asked to come up with new series. Each of those grew out an invitation to invent a lead feature for one of DC’s "mystery" titles, as "I…Vampire" was for House of Mystery. But for whatever reason, they caught the attention of higher-ups who wanted to original series in brand-new titles. We were lucky to be around during one of those unusual times when the company was looking to broaden its offerings."

Paris Cullins' version of how he came on board for Blue Devil: "I was doing House of Mystery and I had just joined the DC comics intern program for artists. I just finished a werewolf story with Gary Cohn and Dan Mishkin, and they asked me if I wanted another one. And I said 'of course', and they said 'well, I think we've got this one free, but I think we're giving it to Steve Ditko'. Steve Ditko called me up and said 'I don't want to do it', And they handed it to me - and it was the Blue Devil. I did it and I worked it, they liked it so much and it went from a tiny story and they said 'make it bigger', so I made it bigger. So they asked again, and it took up the whole book. and they looked at it again and said 'this should be a comic book!'. And then from there, we got what we got." 


16-page Preview Story



special Blue Devil insert from Firestorm v2 #24 (1984)
About a month before the first issue of Blue Devil hit the stands, a 16-page Blue Devil sneak peek appeared in The Fury of Firestorm, The Nuclear Man #24 (1984). In this preview, Blue Devil battles the Trickster (one of the Flash's rogues). As far as previews go, this one reads very nicely: we're introduced to film stuntman Dan Cassidy, the 'super-stunt suit' he's designed, his 'sidekick' (Gopher), his boss (Marla), his love interest (Sharon), his frenemy (Wayne) and we get to see Blue Devil in action as he battles an established super-villain for 4 pages.

To the reader who knew nothing about the Blue Devil going into this preview, it appears to be a 'regular joe wears an enhanced cybernetic suit to fight crime'-type of story. Mishkin and Cohn would save the 'hook' (aka: what makes the Blue Devil unique among other heroes) for the first issue.

Comic readers who also read Amazing Heroes would've first heard of Blue Devil in Amazing Heroes #39 -- the "1984 Preview Issue". It was published and distributed roughly 3 months before Blue Devil's debut in Firestorm #24.

"We've made comics FUN again"


During the same month Blue Devil #1 was being published, the following house ad was appearing in various DC comics titles:


"We've made comics fun again!"... ? That's a pretty bold statement. Aren't comics supposed to be fun? Apparently, in 1984, they weren't. Around this era, the best-selling titles were Tales of the Teen Titans, Legion of Super-Heroes, Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants, Alpha Flight and other team books that played up the interpersonal drama between cast members. Since best-selling comics always inspire other comics to follow suit, there were a whole lot of comics out there trying to emulate that angle -- hence a trend in serious/drama-filled books.

Mishkin explained in Amazing Heroes #39: "We're poking fun at the conventions of being a superhero. Blue Devil is a little like how someone in the real world might react to becoming a superhero, since he finds himself pushed into the situation of having to be a superhero... other people have talked about the idea of doing a reluctant superhero before, but this is a real reluctant hero." Cohn also added: "Blue Devil was created from the feeling that the essence of the superhero book has been lost. Superhero books today are very serious and grim, pretending that everything is real, which is nonsense. Every time you have a character jumping about in his underwear, it is obviously fantasy... we want to have a fun fantasy, a sense of rollicking adventure." An anecdote from editor Alan Gold in Blue Devil issue #2 revealed that Len Wein (editor of New Teen Titans, Fury of Firestorm, Saga of the Swamp Thing, Camelot 3000, Batman and the Outsiders, etc...) suggested to Mishkin and Cohn that Blue Devil be "a fun character -- a long-leaping, optimistic, high IQ slugger who clambered each issue out of the wreckage of heavily armored bad guys he'd taken out of commission."  To this effect, Alan Gold also professed that Blue Devil would be "sunnier and more exuberant than many, and it will be 100 percent non-preachy, non-artsy-shmartsy, and never self-important."

Blue Devil ongoing series


When the first issue of Blue Devil v1 was released, Mishkin was still about half-a-year away from finishing his run on Wonder Woman and Cohn was writing the Barren Earth back-up stories in The Warlord. Both writers had just finished up the Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld v1 maxi-series.


Like every good comic series should, Blue Devil kicks off with the all-important origin issue: while on a film shoot, stuntman Dan Cassidy saves his film crew from a demon (thanks to his Blue Devil stunt costume). Throughout the course of the battle, he gets blasted by the demon's energies and Dan somehow becomes permanently bonded to his costume. The good news: his costume grants him augmented endurance, strength, speed, hearing, vision and the ability to breathe underwater (and a few other things I'm forgetting). The bad news: he's trapped in the body of a 7" tall blue-skinned devil. This is pretty much everything you need to know in order to enjoy future issues of Blue Devil v1.

The 'man trapped in a monster's body' isn't exactly a new concept (Marvel's Ben Grimm/The Thing of the Fantastic Four immediately comes to mind), and I can see the temptation of wanting to dwell on that idea of being trapped in a monstrous body that isn't your own (the story pretty much writes itself) -- nevertheless, Mishkin and Cohn keep a relatively upbeat and action-packed story rolling and Blue Devil never really finds himself feeling sorry for himself.

Fun fact: Many readers commented that Paris Cullins' art had improved between the 16-page preview and the first issue. This was, in fact, because the preview pages had been illustrated by Paris one year prior to issue #1 being released.

Paris Cullins pencils and Gary Martin inks -- Blue Devil v1 #3

This series is enjoyable to look at. Paris' art is clean, there's lots of action in his stories and his characters are expressive. After the first four issues, it's pretty much confirmed that he and inker Gary Martin are THE Blue Devil penciller/inker team. Unfortunately, due to unknown reasons, Paris had to suddenly leave the title after issue #6. (Paris would continue illustrating the covers for this series.) This lead to a scramble to find a regular penciller/inker team for Blue Devil v1 -- what we got in the interim were a few issues pencilled by an assortment of big name talent: Gil Kane, Keith Giffen, Ernie Colon, Mike Chen and Tod Smith. It was finally settled that Alan Kupperberg (brother of writer Paul Kupperberg) would become the regular penciller starting with issue #12. Despite Alan's great pencilling work, Blue Devil fans never forgot Paris' work and would keep requesting Paris' return to the title until the very last issue of the series.

Alan Kupperberg pencils and Bill Collins inks - from Blue Devil v1 #24

Fun Fact: Mike Chen was slated to be the regular penciller on Blue Devil v1 after Paris Cullins left, but things fell through and Chen was assigned elsewhere.

Fun Fact: Readers noticed that some of the covers didn't match the story inside -- the first five issues of Blue Devil v1 were illustrated by Paris before the issue was written (they had the general plot/concept down, so Paris knew which characters would be appearing). Some fans picked up on the appearance of Blue Devil's trident on the covers of issues 2 and 3.

Together, Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn wrote twenty-eight issues of this thirty-two issue series (I'm including DC Comics Presents #96 in here). One fill-in issue was written by Todd Klein, another issue was written by editor Alan Gold (with Mishkin as story editor), and a few issues were written by Mishkin on his own.

As someone who sat down and read Blue Devil v1 from the preview issue all the way to issue #31, I can attest that Mishkin and Cohn (and editor Alan Gold) held true to their word -- this was a fun, entertaining series that didn't take itself seriously. Nobody dies, and there's no tense subplots of unrequited love or stories examining both sides of the social issue du jour. (Late in the series I thought a story was going to delve into the intricacies of the Northern Irish Conflict -- but no, it was just a set up for a FLF [Faerie Liberation Front] gag). Lots of visual gags give the observant reader something to enjoy, and most stories don't last for more than one issue.

Sometimes you've just got to stop in where everybody know your name...
From Blue Devil v1 #2. Pencils by Paris Cullins, inks by Gary Martin.

An astute reader will notice a change in direction from the first six issues of the series onwards. The issues illustrated by Paris had way more action/fight scenes and more of Blue Devil trying to figure this new situation out, whereas everything following issue #5 starts to turn into one big wacky adventure. Readers picked up on this and called editor Alan Gold out on it. Gold's reply?"Few artists can make basically mindless fighting a pleasure to look out month after month. Even if Paris had stayed on the job, I think BLUE DEVIL as the fight-of-the-month would have become a predictable bore by the end of the first year. BLUE DEVIL is hardly a cerebral experience first and foremost, but it's more than just a free-for-all. It couldn't remain a free-for-all forever."

In another issue's letter column, series editor Alan Gold would admit that he'd been encouraging Mishkin and Cohn to reach for 'ever-absurder premises' since issue #6. This was starting to backfire as readers were starting to complain about Blue Devil's 'cornball humour' from issue #7 onwards (as opposed to the tongue-in-cheek humour found in the first six issues):

Mad scientists create a giant-sized reproduction of Trickster's shoe in Blue Devil v1 #9
Okay, I found this funny, but some readers got annoyed and thought this was too absurd. 
Ernie Colon pencils, Gary Martin inks.

FUN FACT: Issue #11 was a fill-in issue (written by Todd Klein) that received a bit of flak from Blue Devil readers. It was an out-of-continuity 'silly dream' issue that readers either loved or hated, and it would seem like editor Alan Gold was testing the waters on what they could get away with. What's notable here is that Todd Klein (best known for his lettering) was about to become the regular writer on The Omega Men (another book Gold was editing) for the next year. Tod Smith pencilled this issue as he was just leaving The Omega Men after an (almost) 15-issue consecutive run.

Blue Devil v1 ran during the Crisis on Infinite Earths event, hence it had to be involved in some way. Blue Devil v1 #5 gave us a glimpse of Harbinger and the Monitor watching Blue Devil from a satellite, and issues #17 and #18 were the actual tie-in issues. Issue #17 ends with Blue Devil being summoned by John Stewart Green Lantern to assist with a Crisis, and the story continues in Crisis On Infinite Earths #8. Blue Devil v1 #18 is the aftermath of what transpires in Omega Men #31. From Amazing Heroes Summer 1985 Preview Special, Dan Mishkin explained that "the request that DC made of all its writers and editors concerning the Crisis on Infinite Earths was that all books across the line tie in to Crisis." Blue Devil has the distinction of being one of the few books to not have anything really change due to Crisis On Infinite Earths (aka: no deaths, no retcons, no new costumes or powers, etc...). Kudos to Mishkin and Cohn for weathering the storm (of crimson skies).

A Blue Devil Summer Special (aka: Blue Devil Annual #1) was published around the same time as the Crisis tie-ins. What's notable about this annual is that the original Blue Devil art team (Paris Cullins on pencils and Gary Martin on inks) returned to illustrated this one. Many readers felt that Blue Devil v1 found it's stride with this annual. I tend to agree. This issue is jam-packed with mystical guest stars, featured pin-ups of the regular cast and included a board game. As an added bonus, this issue features a schematic of Blue Devil's exo-suit (before it was mystically bonded to his body):
Blue Devil's exo-suit (as seen in Blue Devil Annual v1 #1)

Despite pencilling the Blue Devil Summer Fun Special (and every cover in the series), Paris Cullins would not return as regular penciller for Blue Devil. As a matter of fact, in Blue Devil v1 #24 it was announced that Paris would be the regular penciler on Len Wein's newest project, Blue Beetle. While it was never stated why Paris left Blue Devil, we do know he was slated to work on Len Wein's newest mini-series, Zero-Man. Paris had finished pencilling the first issue before being assigned to Blue Beetle. Zero-Man never saw completion or publication.

Issue #24 had readers complaining that the series was striving too hard for 'lunacy' rather than standard comic book action. Editor Alan Gold once again agreed that they've let Blue Devil become too parodic for its own good.

While most issues read like a plot from a Saturday morning cartoon, a few stories stood out to me: Blue Devil, in typical DC comics fashion, first battles and then teams up with Firestorm to take out some of Firestorm's enemies in a 3-issue story arc that ran in Fury of Firestorm #46, Blue Devil v1 #23 and Fury of Firestorm #47. This gave us an idea of what Blue Devil v1 could've been if they'd had dialed down the silly factor a notch. The most noteworthy panels aren't even in the Blue Devil issue, but in Fury of Firestorm #46:

context: Ronnie Raymond/Firestorm punches out his dad's girlfriend so she won't see him turn into Firestorm. try getting away with that in a modern comic. pencils by Joe J Brozowski, inks by Mike Machlan

Blue Devil v1 #7, guest-pencilled by Gil Kane, brought a super-serious look to the issue (as opposed to the clean, cartoony illustrations Paris had been giving us). Many fans wrote in to complain about it, but I thought it was a pretty interesting-looking issue and would've liked to have seen more. Apparently Gil was not pleased with his final output, but submitted it regardless to meet the deadline:

Gil Kane pencils and inks from Blue Devil v1 #7

The final issue, Blue Devil v1 #31, was another issue that stood out to me. It was a nice two-part story in a giant-sized issue that made me realize how much I was going to miss this series now that it was over. The first part was written by Bob Rozakis and illustrated by Bob Orzechowski/Dave Hunt and had humorous undertones set in an everyday setting. The second part was written by Mishkin & Cohn and illustrated by Dan Jurgens/Gary Martin, was a continuation of the first story but it played up the mystical angle a bit more. This entire issue demonstrated that Blue Devil was a very versatile character who could be played effectively in all sorts of situations with the right creative team.

Mishkin and Cohn made the right call in integrating a mix of new Blue Devil characters as well as bonafide pre-established DCU characters into the series. Blue Devil v1 had guest stars galore... Superman, Elongated Man, Zatanna, Black Orchid, Creeper, John Stewart Green Lantern (to name a few). It's not only superheroes who pop up, but supervillains as well -- during the course of the series Blue Devil battles Metallo, The Trickster, The Fisherman, Toy Man, Captain Boomerang and a bunch more I don't feel like spoiling. I really enjoyed this about the series -- every new issue filled me with anticipation as I was curious to see which DCU character would be popping up next. It was also a great way to keep Blue Devil 'anchored' to the DCU, since he had his own cast of support characters who could arguably have kept him in his own private world.

Fun Fact: Etrigan the Demon made an appearance in a two-part Blue Devil v1 story that compelled a few readers to write in and complain that the creative team was undoing all the good characterization Alan Moore had done for Etrigan in Saga of the Swamp Thing #27 - #29 (published about one year prior).

Someone tell that Demon to keep his shirt on!
(a coloring error had Etrigan appear shirtless). 
From Blue Devil v1 #13. Pencils by Alan Kupperberg, inks by Gary Martin.

Legacy


A few characters created for Blue Devil v1 did see life outside of the series. Shockwave, introduced in Blue Devil v1 #2, may not have seen much action after Blue Devil v1 ended -- but he was short-listed to become a Super Powers Collection action figure (along with Blue Devil) in Kenner's 4th wave of figures (circa 1986). Unfortunately, Kenner cancelled the toy line before this could materialize.

Blue Devil's first original super-villain: Shockwave! (from Blue Devil v1 #2)
Paris Cullins pencils and Gary Martin inks

The sixth issue of Blue Devil saw the first appearance of a super-villain I was vaguely familiar with, but never realized to be a Blue Devil villain. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing The Bolt:

The Bolt debuts in Blue Devil v1 #6
Pencils by Paris Cullins, inks by Ernie Colon

The Bolt would go on to sporadically appear as a villain for whatever title needed him (ex: Hawkman, Starman, Captain Atom, etc) and would continue to confuse Marvel readers when they kept mistaking him for Blackout (heyo!). The Bolt's big 'breakthrough moment' was when he became a member of John Ostrander/Kim Yale's Suicide Squad for three issues in the early nineties.

As previously mentioned, the Trickster guest stars quite a bit in this series, and not always as the villain. Mishkin and Cohn did a great job of bringing much-needed characterization to this Flash rogue -- as a matter of fact, Mishkin and Cohn even had a Trickster mini-series in the works, but nothing ever came of it.

Blue Devil and Trickster from Blue Devil v1 #8. Pencils by Keith Giffen, inks by Gary Martin.
  

It wouldn't be a 'fun' comic without a sidekick, so issue #14 introduced us to Kid Devil (aka: 'Gopher' in his own kid-sized Blue Devil costume). According to editor Alan Gold, fans loved the 'costumed sidekick' idea.

Introducing... Kid Devil! (cover of Blue Devil v2 #14 - illustrated by Paris Cullins)
It's a homage to the cover of Detective Comics #38. Don't believe me?... look it up.

Kid Devil would stick around and assist Blue Devil in battling series antagonist Jock Verner and his Vanquisher for the next two issues. After the Crisis on Infinite Earth tie-in issues, Kid Devil got an entire issue to himself with Blue Devil on the sidelines. Coincidentally, Kid Devil gets 'retired from the spotlight' from Blue Devil v1 after this, for about "a year's worth of stories". Kid Devil, later renamed to 'Red Devil', would later join the Teen Titans sometime in 2007.

Fun Fact: Any OMAC fans out there? The Verner family and the Vanquisher first appeared in Mishkin and Cohn's OMAC back-up feature from 1981's The Warlord #42 - #43. Hey, DC continuity hounds: OMAC is set in the far, far future -- so this is an Easter egg of sorts.

Fan Reaction


Blue Devil v1 was infamous for having such an immensely dedicated fan base; the first several issues of Blue Devil received piles and piles of letters praising the series. "T.M. Maple" and Beau Smith (he named Blue Devil 'the best new comic of the first quarter of 1984' via Comicast-FM) wrote in frequently.

Most popular reader requests:
-Will there be a comic book adaptation of the (fictional) Blue Devil movie?
-How about a Blue Devil graphic novel? How about a Blue Devil poster?
-How about a team-up with Blue Devil and Ambush Bug?
-When is Paris Cullins coming back to draw the series?

Editor Alan Gold kept a pretty lively letter column, and even launched a contest in issue #20: "Why I Ought to Appear in Blue Devil". Readers were asked to submit short essays and photos of themselves explaining why they should be in a Blue Devil v1 story. The winner appeared in a story for Blue Devil v1 #28.

Amazing Heroes #63 saw comics reviewer R.A. Jones rank Blue Devil as one of the 10 Best books of 1984. Also in the Top 10? Power Pack, Atari Force and Jon Sable, Freelance.




The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men Often Go Awry


Alan Gold's last issue as editor was Blue Devil v1 #28. Actually, Gold completely left the comic book industry to go work for the Cambridge Book Co. after this issue. A fill-in issue written by Gold (and edited by Dan Mishkin) would appear in issue #29.

Barbara Randall took over as editor starting with issue Blue Devil v1 #29. Barbara would announce that Blue Devil v1 would be facing cancellation one issue later. "The cancellation came mostly from poor sales, and having to weed some books out of the schedule to make way for new ones (like the QUESTION, CAPTAIN ATOM, THE NEW FLASH...). I'm sorry this book was one of the casualties, and maybe we'll be able to bring BD back for a Special or two, but for now, his story is drawing to a close."

The Summer of 1986 Amazing Heroes Preview Special (which I'm presuming saw publication sometime April or May 1986) had already announced that Blue Devil would be cancelled as of issue #31. As a matter of fact, due to the announced cancellation, plans for a second Blue Devil Summer Special/Annual #2 were dropped and the contents were instead printed in the double-sized Blue Devil v1 #30 (which I'm glad they did -- it was one of my favorite issues that I forgot to mention).


In the final issue's letter column, Barbara Randall would mention that plans had been drafted to take a more 'serious look' at Blue Devil/Dan Cassidy, but that they unfortunately started this planning just a little too late (aka: too late to save the book from cancellation). Denys Cowan is name-dropped as the new Blue Devil penciller had the series continued. Shucks. The Summer of 1986 Amazing Heroes Preview Special pretty much confirms it: "Starting with issue #31, Blue Devil would have been, as Dan Mishkin described it, going through a Big Revival." It's teased (in the same article) that Blue Devil would appear in a future Booster Gold issue -- which he does, in Booster Gold #10 -- but he does not turn into a recurring guest star on the title.

No Blue Devil specials or one-shots ever saw publication after this, however, Blue Devil DID make appearances in all of the major DCU events (ex: Invasion!, Armageddon 2001, War of the Gods, Eclipso: The Darkness Within).

It wouldn't be until 1993 before Mishkin and Cohn would get another crack at making Blue Devil a household name. The duo wrote a Blue Devil feature that ran in Showcase '93 for six issues. In truth, I never got around to reading this series, so I couldn't tell you anything about it. Maybe this series will end up being a future review.

cover of Showcase '93 #5 -- Jose Luis Garcia Lopez cover art



The fate of Blue Devil, from co-creator Gary Cohn:

"The book was cancelled for what was then considered low sales when it dropped below 40,000. Consider how successful a book with almost 40,000 monthly sales would be considered now."

"Dan [Mishkin] was doing other work. MY star was descending. I'm not sure, over 30 years later, of the exact machinations...but he was getting ready to move on and I was going to take it on again. Editor Alan Gold asked if I could take it in a less jokey direction. I said sure, if I had an artist who could do exciting action... and we asked Dennis [Cowan]. I was very happy about that. Dennis and I went to lunch one afternoon, brainstormed a whole bunch of great stuff, none of which I remember...and then the book was cancelled."

"BD came back in Showcase because Neal Posner was a wonderful person and editor, liked us and our work, and wanted to give BD another shot. That didn't spark any fires, and that was the end of my/our chances with him. Since then... lots of people have done lots of crazy things with the character, none of which I'd have done."

---

And there you have it -- the most thorough review of Blue Devil v1 that you're probably going to read all day today. Final verdict: do I recommend it? If you like your comic books a little wacky with lots of action and lots of guest stars, then yeah, you will probably enjoy this one. It's an escapist series that often feels like it was meant to be a Saturday morning cartoon. If you're someone who requires heavy thought-provoking material with suspense and continuity and heavy drama -- well, I'd probably skip this series. Happy Halloween.

-Justin

-I want to thank Gary Cohn for the last-minute assist in providing a quote for this article.
-I want to thank Dan Mishkin for answering that extensive list of questions I sent him almost a year ago.
-I want to direct you to Once Upon a Geek's exclusive interview with Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn (in podcast form) if you want to hear more about Blue Devil. Great work Shaggy and Ravenface!