One Strike and You're Out
by David R. Black
Ah, First Issue Special. No other try-out series has ever had such a dismal success rate. If I were a character making my debut in First Issue Special, I wouldn't have bothered showing up. Instead, I would've packed my bags and went straight to limbo.
This much maligned series was the successor of Showcase, and it had the same basic concept - to test new concepts and new characters to see if they were popular enough to warrant an on-going series. Whereas Showcase featured the debuts of beloved characters such as Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, Adam Strange the Metal Men, and Bat Lash (among others), First Issue Special featured such forgettables as Atlas, the Green Team, Lady Cop, and the Dingbats.
Sure, First Issue Special had its successes, but nowhere on the level that Showcase did. Of the thirteen concepts tried in First Issue Special, only two graduated to their own series. That's a fifteen percent (0.15) success rate. If comics were baseball, First Issue Special would've been sent down to the minor leagues. By comparison, from issue four of Showcase, when Barry Allen debuted, until issue 41(a Tommy Tomorrow story), every feature graduated to its own series (or in the case of Adam Strange, a starring role in an already established series).
The two First Issue Special try-outs that received their own series were The Warlord and the New Gods. The New Gods series, appropriately dubbed Return of the New Gods, continued the numbering from the 1971-1972 New Gods series, but it was caught up in the DC Implosion and cancelled after seven issues. The other success story was Mike Grell's The Warlord. Despite a rocky start, The Warlord went on to an acclaimed 133 issue run and was actually DC's top selling series (yes, topping even the Batman and Superman titles) for a brief time in the early 1980's.
So what other characters did First Issue Special feature? Well, on an issue by issue basis, they were:
Issue #1 - Atlas
Issue #2 - The Green Team
Issue #3 - Metamorpho
Issue #4 - Lady Cop
Issue #5 - Manhunter
Issue #6 - The Dingbats
Issue #7 - The Creeper
Issue #8 - The Warlord
Issue #9 - Dr. Fate
Issue #10 - The Outsiders (No, not the Geo-Force led Outsiders. These are entirely different characters)
Issue #11 - Code Name Assassin
Issue #12 - Starman (Mikaal Thomas, the blue Starman)
Issue #13 - The New Gods
As you can see, the series provided a nice balance between reintroducing old characters (Dr. Fate, Metamorpho, Manhunter, the Creeper, and the New Gods) and presenting new characters (everything else).
In hindsight, one good thing about the failures of the First Issue Special concepts is that all of the issues, with the exception of the Warlord's debut, can be bought for a few dollars. Sampling this eclectic series won't cost the casual reader an arm and a leg.
With that said, here's a look at three of the characters who vanished immediately after their appearance in First Issue Special:
To be blunt, Atlas is a poor man's version of the Fourth World characters. Despite being created, written, and drawn by Fourth World creator Jack Kirby, Atlas and his world of Hyssa feel bland and uninspired.
The issue's splash page, however, begins with the proclamation that, "There were giants in those days! And the mightiest of them all was - Atlas the Great!" And then, to prove the splash page's assertion, Atlas breaks two large stones easily, as if they were "biscuits."
A performer in the Hyssan marketplace, Atlas makes his living by displaying his strength and fighting prowess to passersby. Chagra, Atlas's friend and manager, hypes the performances to the crowds, and when doubters question the authenticity of Atlas's' mighty strength, the polished ringmaster challenges them to see for themselves by fighting mano a mano.
One such doubter was Kargin, a warrior who is "known by all of Hyssa." As seen in the image here, Kargin finds out the hard way that Atlas is no fraud! (Being pounded through a wooden platform two seconds into the fight will do that to a fella, I suppose.)
The crowd, enraged by the easy victory, swarms toward Atlas and Chagra. The crowd's actions block the path of a royal procession, being led by a "noble of the King, through the marketplace. This enrages the Noble, who orders his soldiers to attack! His men clobbered and crushed, the Noble soon finds himself in Atlas's unyielding hands! Shouting that "this means death for you both," the Noble struggles mightily, but to no avail.
Even when confronted by a legion of archers and King Hyssa himself, Atlas refuses to yield. But was has possessed Atlas? Why does he shout that he is King Hyssa's conqueror?
Well, to find out, it's flashback time!
As a young child, Atlas watched in horror as King Hyssa's slave raiders burned his village, captured his mother and friends, and killed his father. Managing to escape from the slavers' clutches, young Atlas is taken in by Chagra. Chagra observes that Atlas "is a strange child. His strength is that of a full grown man," and when he sees the crystal of "a thousand facets of stabbing, mystic light" carried by Atlas, Chagra realizes who Atlas's people were.
Who were they, you ask? Did the crystal give Atlas his might? And if so, why couldn't Atlas's people fight off the slavers? Unfortunately, we never find out. All that Chagra reveals is that Atlas's people "came from the Crystal Mountain" and that their leader (Atlas's father) "bears a piece of that mountain and passes it on when he dies."
As Atlas grows to manhood, his desire for vengeance against King Hyssa grows. But first he must find him! Along the way, Atlas performs sundry good deeds - stopping a raging bull, destroying the idol Ishtak, rescuing people on a collapsed bridge, and "dispatching squads of trained killers in the fighting arenas built by barbaric princes."
All his training, all his preparation, all his adult life have led up to one moment - the moment when Atlas confronts King Hyssa one final time! Only the inhabitants of comic book limbo know how that confrontation turned out!
Code Name: Assassin
Let's set the record straight, folks. The hero of this strip is named "The Assassin." The "Code Name" bit only appears on the cover. It's not part of his name. Just as John Constantine is never referred to as "Hellblazer," it is incorrect to call Jonathan Drew "Code Name Assassin."
So how did Jonathan Drew, created by Gerry Conway, become the crime busting avenger known as the Assassin? His story begins in a Queens, New York cemetery when a ten year old Jonathan listens to his sister Marie's promise that "You don't have to be afraid, Johnny. I'll never leave you. Now that Mom and Dad are gone, I'll take care of you and you'll take care of me."
Eleven years after his parents' death and Marie's promise, Jonathan enrolls in graduate school at Antioke University, but he soon finds himself on the brink of flunking out. In exchange for receiving a passing grade and staying in school, Jonathan agrees to become a guinea pig in an ESP experiment designed by Doctor Andrew Stone and Doctor Anderson.
Hooked up to a machine that will test his "psychic output," Jonathan is unaware of the accident about to befall him. Just as Dr. Stone activates the machine, Dr. Anderson trips on a power cable, causing the psychic testing device to blow up. A tremendous power surge like "thunder and lightning" courses through his body, and Jonathan wakes up in the hospital.
While hospitalized, Jonathan learns that the power burst from the psychic testing device has "augmented his mental energy." Jonathan discovers that he can levitate objects just by thinking about them, has limited telekinesis powers which allow him to fly, has heightened healing and recuperative powers, can read minds, and can fire blasts of mental energy. His powers aren't unlimited, however. Jonathan's telekinesis powers, for example, can only be used for a limited time before needing to be replenished through rest and relaxation.
While leaving the hospital with his sister Marie, Jonathan watches in horror as a group of thugs drive by and shoot Marie dead! Jonathan brings the thugs to justice, but not before learning that Marie had worked for a mobster named Victor Grummun in order to put Jonathan through college. When Grummun decides Marie has become a "security risk," he orders her killed.
To the pleasure of city District Attorney Roberts and Detective Peter Runyon, Jonathan Drew chooses to use his powers to bring Grummun and his mob to justice. Taking the guise of the Assassin, Jonathan brings numerous mob underlings to justice in the following weeks. Using gadgets (such as a tranquilizer gun and a pocket sized blow torch) designed by his friend Ben, the Assassin's methods make him a hero.
Deciding to eliminate the Assassin once and for all, Grummun hires two super villains - the Snake and Powerhouse. The Snake, a slippery contortionist and martial artist, gained his "strength and training...by spending fifteen years in a South American circus." The muscular Powerhouse is not only superstrong, but he is impervious to the effect's of electrical energy!
Grummun lures the Assassin to his yacht where Powerhouse and the Snake lay in wait to ambush him! How does the fight turn out? We'll never know!
The issue's last page shows the Assassin, in the midst of battling the villains, realizing that "these guys are tough. Maybe too tough. But whatever happens, I can't back out now! I've got to go on - to the end!" And thus the issue ends with a cryptic message from the editor to "pick up your pen and write", dear readers, if you want to know how the Assassin's "death struggle" turns out.
It's a shame we never find out, really. Of the many failed concepts presented in First Issue Special, the Assassin had the most potential.
While hiding under a bed, Liza Warner can only watch in horror as her two roommates are murdered before her eyes! The only eyewitness to the terrible crime, Liza is consoled by a female police officer who gently coerces Liza into revealing what she saw. "All I could see of the killer were his western boots," says Liza, "White with black skull and crossbones dangling from the laces. And...and he was laughing about killing women like they were nothing but cards! Aces of spades."
Thanking Liza for her help, the officer remarks that Liza has "the camera eye of a born police officer...Wish we had more women like you applying for the police academy! The city would be a safer place to live in." Unable to sleep with the Ace of Spades Killer haunting her dreams, Liza decides to take the officer up on her offer.
Enrolling in the police academy, Liza is trained in marksmanship, karate, judo, and a bit of boxing(!). At the academy graduation ceremony, Liza gets her first taste of action when she prevents a washed-out recruit from throwing a hand grenade at the police commissioner.
Over the next few days, Liza has more adventures and performs more heroics than some officers do in a lifetime. She rescues an underage girl from a man's unwanted advances, apprehends a knife wielding robber, resuscitates a dying grocer, reunites a girl with her father, and fends off a gang member out for revenge. Whew! Write Robert Kanigher and artists John Rosenberger and Vince Colleta somehow managed to pack all of that into fifteen pages!
While performing these heroic deeds, Liza earns her nickname "Lady Cop" when an arrested thug cries out, "You won't have to look for me, Lady Cop! I'll be back! This is my turf! No one'll put the finger on me, dig?" Liza's witty comeback? "Take mister bad mouth away," she says, "and wash out his mouth with soap!"
Not only does Liza possess a knack for verbal repartee, but she has a few other unusual talents as well. For example:
And that's just the beginning! Liza's an all around gal, suitable for being a role model to young girls everywhere! She buys poor children ice cream cones (page 5), counsels a young girl about the dangers of VD (page 11), and then goes out for a relaxing weekend at the beach with her boyfriend. The boyfriend, named Hal, teases Liza that "I can't marry a working man, err, woman."
Liza pushes Hal's concerns aside, saying that she's "doing useful work for the first time in my life! I'd rather pound the beat than pound a typewriter."
Plus, Liza wonders to herself, the Ace of Spades Killer is still out there. Perhaps one day she'll find him....
But first, Liza Warner will have to escape from comic book limbo!
David R. Black is Fanzing.com's magazine editor and chief archivist. A big fan of "The Warlord," he has a cat named Shakira and is looking for a girlfriend named Tara....
All characters are DC Comics
All images are DC Comics
This piece is © 2002 by David R. Black.
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