RETRO REVIEW: Spyman #1 (September 1966)

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Here at Major Spoilers, we like to remember that every comic book is someone’s first.  Of course, that doesn’t just apply to the people reading them, it’s also true of the comic-book creators, even those who have been at it for decades.  Go back far enough, and you’ll find the first professional work of guys like Dan Jurgens, John Byrne, even veteran creators like Stan Lee himself!  So, which comic book elder statesman cut his teeth at Harvey Comics in the post-Batman ’66 boom?  Your Major Spoilers (retro) review of Spyman #1 awaits!

Spyman1CoverSPYMAN #1
Writer: Jim Steranko/Otto Binder
Penciler: Jim Steranko/George Tuska/Tony Tallarico/Bill Draut
Inker: George Tuska/Mike Esposito/Carl PfeuferTony Tallarico/Bill Draut
Letterer: Uncredited
Editor: Joe Simon
Publisher: Harvey Comics
Cover Price: 12 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $80.00

Previously in Spyman:  Originating out of the WWII comics boom, Harvey Comics started out as a publisher like any other.  When the bottom dropped out of superhero comics in the 50s, they transitioned into licensed characters, such as Casper The Friendly Ghost, as well as their own stable of mostly kid-oriented books, headlined by the iconic Richie Rich.  Their roster of superheroes wasn’t particularly deep, with their biggest 1940s name being the lovely Black Cat (although Simon & Kirby’s Stuntman was also notable.  By 1966, the Silver Age of Comics was in full swing, with upstart Marvel Comics’ line of superstars renewing interest in the superhero form, while the onscreen antics of Adam West’s Batman raising the profile of two-fisted adventurers to levels not seen since the war years.  Dozens of publishers suddenly entered the comic book game for the first time, while stalwarts like Harvey returned to costumed adventurers with a renewed fervor.  Thus was born..  SPYMAN!

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One thing I will say about Spyman (especially in comparison to some of Harvey’s other ’66 output) is that the art is pretty solid stuff, featuring veteran George Tuska and, in the panel shown above, the first professional work by one Jim Steranko.  Within half a decade, Steranko would be re-imagining the form and language of comics in the pages of ‘Captain America’ and ‘Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.’, here he’s getting his first ideas on paper.  As our story proper kicks in, we find a rocket perched on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, which for some reason contains an atomic warhead…

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Why the secret agents of LIBERTY wear suits that are for all intents and purposes superhero costumes is never addressed, but it’s interesting to see Steranko playing with the early seeds of ideas that feel quite a bit like the S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra clashes he’d be writing a few years later.  Subdued and waylaid by the enemy agents, Johnny Chance is strapped to the atomic warhead, and left to die in nuclear fire, but his intensive secret agent training led him to choose another option…

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Agent Chance, it should be noted, is much more with the bravery than he is with the brains, shoving his hand into the radioactive innards of the warhead and defusing it with his bare hand.  The radiation burns are so severe that his hand is literally burned away (which is not, to my knowledge, the way these things work, but then all I know about it is the last quarter of ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan’) and his cohorts quickly pack him up and ship him back to LIBERTY headquarters, assuming that Johnny Chance is dead.  Luckily, sixties super-science and a comic-book knowledge of radiation provide hope…

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The surgery is a success, but when Johnny Chance is taken to the recovery room, the mysterious Whisperer (the contact that the agents who attacked at Cape Canaveral) makes an appearance, having bypassed security protocols and made his way into LIBERTY HQ.  His target: Johnny Chance!

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The doctors find themselves in the proverbial standoff, and agree to try to release the artificial hand’s grip on the villain, only to discover that, hand or no hand, Agent Chance is still a force to be reckoned with…

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Of course, he’s hours out of a major reconstructive surgery, and recovering from what should have been a killing blast of radiation, so the Whisperer is able to make his escape.  After he has recovered, Chance is shown the powers of his robot hand (including a blackout ray, lightning blast and more) and is dubbed Spyman (which we knew from the cover), only to be called from his quarters to a meeting in LIBERTY’s hidden arsenal room.  Once there, he discovers that agents of MIRAGE have once again bypassed LIBERTY security, and taken his girlfriend Diana Erikson hostage!  Spyman courageously fights them off, but is in for a shock…

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…when the man behind the infiltration is the same genius that created the robot hand!  It’s a bit of a sticky wicket, leaving Spyman worried that his benefactor is also his enemy!  Calling together the higher-ups of LIBERTY, Spyman announces that he’s discovered the truth, that they have been infiltrated by an enemy force.  But the real turncoat isn’t Doctor Norman Vane at all.  Thanks to the realistic rubber masks that they had in the 1960s, the real traitor is actually…

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Spyman’s quick thinking keeps his colleagues from biting the big twinkie (metaphorically speaking), but Diana is able to escape in the chaos, fleeing to the lower levels of LIBERTY headquarters and escaping through the underwater entrance to the river and freedom!

In theory, anyway…

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As with many James Bond-type spoofs of the time-period, there’s a great energy to the go-go antics of Spyman and his colleagues, but also a goofiness that undermines the drama more than a little bit.  The fact that Diana is blown up by her own bomb is what the pulp heroes would call “just deserts”, but the hip dialogue and silly twists and turns are pure 1966 in all the worst ways.  When it comes to books of this vintage, though, sometimes you have to just appreciate how often and how completely the creators take refuge in audacity.  Case in point: We’ve spent a lot of time racing about the corridors of LIBERTY headquarters in these pages, but haven’t yet touched on the LOCATION of said headquarters…

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…in the hidden sub-basements under the Statue of LIberty.  In his wonderful text, ‘The Encyclopedia Of Superheroes,’ Jeff Rovin opined that a top-secret agency repeatedly seen entering and exiting the torch of Lady Liberty was “doomed to fail,” and he’s 100% correct.  Goofy and over-the-top, Spyman’s adventures don’t hold up to scrutiny 45 years later, but there’s an energy to Steranko’s scripts that make them fun to read, and the art (mostly by Tuska and Steranko himself) is pretty solid stuff for the Silver Age.  My copy of the book has seen some rough days, certainly, so it’s tough to tell if the coloring was originally as garish as the broad slabs of green and purple make it seem, but it’s still a concern when we look at the book today.  All told, Spyman #1 is notable mostly for being the first professional work of a notable creator, with a lot of silliness herein contained, but a lot of fun bits as well (provided you aren’t a stickler for details) earning 2.5 out of 5 stars overall.  Still, even as a fan, it’s not hard to understand why the book only lasted three issues…