Recently, we sat down and reread Watchmen for the third (or maybe fourth) time. Overall it’s a fine example of superhero fiction. Alan Moore re-imagined a bunch of half-forgotten characters and changed the world forever. Superheroes would never be the same again.
But during this reread, we began to wonder: was there anything about Watchmen that Steve Ditko in particular wasn’t previously exploring in the ’60s? The artist was already deconstructing superheroes in his own quirky way. Had the opportunities been available to him, Ditko could easily have blown apart the genre 20 years before Moore came along. And for our money (no offense to anyone) we would rather have a Steve Ditko Watchmen on our shelves than what we have now.
We could probably talk about Watchmen, Alan Moore, and Steve Ditko all day. But for now, the point we’re trying to make is this: there were a lot of C-list characters created in the ’60s that never lived up to their full potential. To his credit, Moore saw the untapped possibilities in a gaggle of musty Charlton Comics heroes like the Question, Peacemaker, Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Thunderbolt, and Nightshade. And the rest is history.
The great thing about many superheroes during the Silver Age was how they inevitably reflected the counterculture of the ’60s. Hawk and Dove, Brother Power, Dr. Strange, Black Panther, Silver Surfer, Barbarella – they all mirrored the era in one way or another.
And that (finally!) brings us to a new anthology called Super Swingin’ Hero 1968 Special. As the title suggests, all the stories take place during 1968. That’s one year after the Summer of Love and one year before the first album by Iggy Pop and the Stooges. It was the perfect time to be a superhero.
For better or worse, every character in this collection bears the stamp of a well-known progenitor. Fate’s Four, for example, will remind you of early Doom Patrol. Peregrine and the Pigeon is Hawk and Dove, Ghost Man is Deadman, Changeor is Metamorpho, and the Substandard Quintet is the Inferior Five. But don’t get us wrong. This isn’t a criticism. Every story is not without its ginchy charms.
The best stories (“The Crawler Creeps” by Chuck Miller, “The Coming of Changeor” by Erwin K. Roberts, “A Day in the (After) Life” by David Michelinie, and “Come Together” by Lee Houston, Jr.) capture the freewheelin’ charms of comic books during the late ’60s. And they do it with humor and context. That’s important when you’re writing stories that invoke Franz Kafka and Dumb Bunny.
The book does have its share of clunkers, however. And these stories inevitably falter because of the authors’ blind enthusiasm for the project. “A Traitor Swings Among Us” by Jim Beard suffers from tedious wordplay. You can’t write a short story in the style of Stan Lee’s Soapbox. You just can’t. “Ruffled Feathers” by Bonnie J. Sterling is a nonconsequential Hawk and Dove rehash. And “Hathor’s Gift” by Lisa M. Collins resurrects an Egyptian goddess but forgets to give us any Shazam/Isis oomph. All in all, these stories were probably more fun to write than to read.
Still, this throwback compilation makes us pine for the future. Let’s bring back more zany superheroes from the ’60s. Perhaps someday Rip Hunter will assemble a Legends of Tomorrow-like super team consisting of Elasti-Girl, Creeper, NoMan, and Judomaster. That would make us very happy. In the meantime, let’s hope that a second volume of Super Swingin’ Hero 1968 Special is already in the works.
[Super Swingin’ Hero 1968 Special / Edited by Jim Beard and Lee Houston, Jr. / First Printing: December 2015]