These days, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, The Question and Nightshade are associated with and firmly in the editorial control of DC Comics. But that hasn’t always been the case. Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of Americomics Special #1 awaits!
Writer: Dan St. John
Penciler: Steve Ditko/Greg Guler/Matt Feazell (backgrounds)
Inker: Steve Ditko/Greg Gular/Matt Feazell (backgrounds)
Colorist: Bill Fugate
Letterer: Greg Guler
Editor: Bill Black
Publisher: AC Comics
Cover Price: $2.00
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $4.00
Previously in Americomics Special: Allen Adam was launched into space in an experimental rocket, causing him to gain incredible cosmic powers, returning to earth as the nuclear-powered Captain Atom!
After his college professor revealed his secrets to him, Ted Kord replaced his teacher (albeit minus the amazing super-powers that his mentor took with him to the grave) as the high-flying Blue Beetle!
Thanks to her mother originating in another dimension, Even Eden has strange shadowy powers from a shadowy planet, teaming up with Captain Atom in the cause of freedom as the heroine called Nightshade!
Driven by the pursuit of justice, crusading journalist Vic Sage used advanced gadgetry and the power of mystery to ruthlessly oppose crime and corruption, making an example of the criminals of Hub City as The Question!
Starting in the 1950s, Charlton Comics began experimenting with superhero tales, debuting Captain Atom late in the decade, transitioning into the mid-60’s with the full slate of Action Heroes before sliding off into eventual oblivion. These days, those Charlton heroes are probably best known for inspiring the story that became Watchmen, but DC’s updated version of Captain Atom and Blue Beetle ended up factoring heavily in the JLI, while the Question went on to a long run under the pen of Denny O’Neil. Heck, Beetle and Captain Atom were given their own solo books when during the big New 52 relaunch in 2011, proving that DC considers them to be at least somewhat important characters in the greater scheme of things. But in the two decades between, Charlton’s properties didn’t get a lot of play, save for the time they banded together as the Sentinels of Justice! Ya don’t remember the Sentinels, you say? That’s okay. You see, this is the story of the Charlton Comics superteam that never was.
Americomics Special #1 was actually intended as ‘Sentinels of Justice #1′ and our story begins with a televised segment by one Vic Sage, decrying the recent upsurge in criminal activity in the city, thanks to the work of a villain called The Manipulator! Sage’s broadcast triggers ol’ Manny (his friends call him Manny, I expect) to ready his troops for combat. Fortunately, those nefarious folks have noble counterparts, like one Ted Kord!
I really like the animation feel of the art here, like lost storyboards for the Charlton cartoon that never was, and it’s interesting to see that strong Steve Ditko influence in the Beetle’s figure in panel five. The bug shown here is of a different configuration then the one we’d see at DC a couple years later, much more spindly and oddly arachnid-like, but it’s still a pretty awesome design. The Batman-like elements of Blue Beetle of at the forefront as he arrives at police headquarters to see the Superman-like Captain Atom, setting a clear hierarchy of who are the metaphorical top dogs in the SoJ. As their police contact explains that there are villains on the loose, Nightshade arrives…
The real tragedy of this book is the fact that Nightshades costume here is probably the coolest iteration of her suit that we’ve ever seen, using the original blue and orange color scheme with elements of a spy catsuit and killer knee-high hussar boots. Eve would never look quite this cool again, as many of her reworked DC uniforms are weirdly bland blue-gray minidresses. With our team assembled, Captain Fisher explains the ins-and-outs of the MacGuffin, and the heroes set out to save the day from Manipulator’s villains, who are attacking a thinly-veiled version of the United Nations. Unlike what we see these days with the whole quantum energy flux nuclear blasts blah blah blah, Captain Atom is played pretty much as a flying brick, trading punches with the most powerful villains (Cap is really pretty boring in this issue, save for throwing his political weight around trading barbs with the major who wasn’t keen on the Sentinels interference) while Blue Beetle plays the wisecracking acrobat ala Spider-Man, leaving the faceless hero known as The Question to be Batman.
It’s a role that Vic Sage fits quite well…
One place where Sentinels of Justice #1 isn’t quite as good as it needs to be is the dialogue featuring some distinct, albeit muted references to The Question’s past as a Steve Ditko Objectivist hero, but never fully committing. There is some lovely (albeit kind of generic) banter between Question and Beetle as they layeth the smacketh downeth on an army of madmen, leaving clever Nightshade to take down the Fiery-Icer, who for reasons that have never been explained, wears a four-slot toaster on his head.
See what I mean about that Nightshade costume? It looks really great, and the art team of Guler and Feazell keep the visuals in Americomics Special #1 clear and exciting, with a thick outer line on the art that somehow manages to combine a retro feel with a modern sensibility (for 1983 values of modern, anyway, given the bright, 80s-style almost hyper coloring.) Things quickly go badly for the heroes, as another villain, The Banshee, arrives to zap Blue Beetle to the ground, and The Manipulator, knowing that his macguffin is no longer attainable, abandons his army to make his own escape. But, as the story ends, it becomes clear that Manny isn’t actually the brains of the outfit, anyway…
I actually spent a long time tracking down a copy of this comic book, and since I got it, I’ve done some digging here and there, and I cannot find any explanation of who exactly this figure was supposed to be. Regardless of that unresolved cliffhanger ending, that last caption tells an interesting story in itself. AC Comics (who take their name from this comic book, meaning that their name is Americomics Comics) had licensed the character from the limping remnants of Charlton Comics in preparation for having a Sentinels of Justice ongoing series. One this first issue was in the pipeline, though, Charlton ended up selling the rights outright to DC Comics (which stands for Detective Comics Comics), whose editor-in-chief Dick Giordano was one of the architects of the Charlton Action Heroes in the 1960s. This issue was the only thing that AC managed to publish with the licensed characters, and it seems from the text pieces that it was a close shave getting the comic created at all! That ends up being a sham, in that Americomics Special #1 is a good looking comic book, with very professional production values (not always guaranteed with independent books of the era) and nice art, earning 3.5 out of 5 stars overall. The story is pretty much by the numbers fighty-fighty exposition, hampered by reintroductions without a whole lot of character for any of the heroes, and little to no explanation of who in the world all of these returning villains are. It did lead to AC’s own in-house version of the Sentinels of Justice, featuring AC’s own Superman-analogue Captain Paragon in the Captain Atom role, the Scarlet Scorpion in the Blue Beetle role, with existing AC characters filling out the roster, so it wasn’t a total loss.