Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

His name is synonymous with action — no, wait, his name IS Action!

My memory of DC’s 1968-69 Captain Action series was that it had two great issues by Jim Shooter, one horribly written issue by Gil Kane — and two issues of unknown quality as they came out after we left England for the USA. As I’ve discussed before, it was a long time before I started buying comics again.

As Captain Action was a toy tie-in comic (more on that in a couple of paragraphs), I figured I’d never see those remaining issues collected anywhere. Then DC released Captain Action: The Classic Collection this year, using Gil Kane’s cover for #3 as the cover for the collection. I had it on my Amazon wish list but when looking up Captain Carter on Hoopla — a digital service my library subscribes to — the autocomplete suggested Captain Action instead. Sure enough, they had it available so I got to read it for free. It doesn’t change my feelings about the series, though Jim Shooter’s script has more holes than I remembered, and Gil Kane’s art is certainly pretty.

First, the toy tie-in stuff. As Mark Waid explains in the introduction, and Michael Eury covers in TwoMorrows’ Captain Action book, Ideal Toys launched the good captain in 1966 with hopes of carving off some of the G.I. Joe action figure market. Like Joe and Barbie, the money wasn’t in selling Captain Action figures per se but in the accessories, such as his Batmobile-counterpart, the Silver Streak or arch-foe Doctor Evil and his evil equipment.Topping that, Ideal also provided costumes and masks to turn Captain Action into other heroes such as the Lone Ranger, Spider-Man or the Green Hornet, while his sidekick Action Boy could be dressed up as Superboy (you can see that and more items from the Action line here).. Ideal hoped this new line would be the next big thing.

It wasn’t the next big thing. Waid suggests that when Batmania collapsed, it took the market for superhero action figures with it. Eury, IIRC, thought the multiple identities hurt the branding. Barbie is always Barbie, whether she’s dressed as a doctor or an officer on the Enterprise; if Captain Action turns into the Lone Ranger he’s obviously not Captain Action. Either way, the line died, but not before giving us the comic book.

According to Eury, Jim Shooter was delighted to work on a new superhero where he wouldn’t be tied down by established history. He was less delighted to learn all the stuff from the toyline he’d have to incorporate, such as the Silver Streak, Action Boy and (again IIRC) the hero’s pet panther, Khem. Still he turned out a decent job under editor Mort Weisinger, particularly for a mythology loving kid like me.

In the first issue, drawn by Wally Wood, archeologists Clive Arno and Krellik unearth a lost city which, impossibly, contains buildings from seemingly every civilization: Egyptian, Chinese, Aztec, etc. Arno even finds a coin with the face of Vidar, a Norse god even stronger than Thor; when he cleans it off he discovers that he’s suddenly strong enough to lift the expedition’s jeep. The two men gather up the other coins and put them in a ray machine that dissolves corrosion, cleaning them instantly. They find themselves witnessing a gathering of the city’s inhabitants, the Eternals — er no, the Elders of Apsu, but it’s not far off.With their awesome powers, the Elders have been worshipped by humans under multiple names. Sol, Helios and Shamash are all the same solar figure; Zeus, Thor and Pyerun are all one lord of lightning. Now it’s time for the Elders to move on to other worlds, but they want to leave something more than mythology behind. The coins, which endow a worthy wielder with the power of a deity (or deities) are their legacy to humanity.

(Even as a kid I realized this made no sense in a DCU where Wonder Woman and Superman have both encountered real mythological figures. In my teens, though, I decided this was simply the coins presenting Arno with an origin he could accept, super-science rather than mythological magic).

Arno sees the potential for helping humanity with the coins; Krellik, however, is corrupted by the lure of power and schemes to kill Arno with the coin abilities. Ooops, he forgot the rule about worthy users and only burns his hand. However his lust for power lures him to a more suitable coin, left behind by Chernobog, evil Slavic deity, AKA Set, Loki, Ahriman and Siva (who is not, in point of fact, a god of evil). Now he has enough magic power to kill Arno and wield the other coins!

That, however, would not sell many Captain Action toys. So instead Krellik sneaks up on his former colleague, sees him sketching a Captain Action uniform and decides no, killing him would be just too easy. Somewhere in the future, Scott Evil is laughing.

Arno is apparently a well-off archeologist. By the time he returns home — apparently not making any effort to find Krellik — he’s set up his own museum with a house next door and a basement that functions as the Action Cave (my name for it, not Shooter’s). When he tells all this to his college-age son Carl, the kid freaks out, assuming his dad is the Captain Action who’s been pulling off a string of museum robberies. Arno convinces Carl he’s been framed, then correctly guesses Krellik will target a nearby exhibit in nearby Metropolis next.

This leads to the scene on the Irv Novick cover above — though it’s hard to see what bringing Khem along accomplishes other than giving Arno’s identity away. The heroes’ appearance ruins Krellik’s plan to kick Superman’s butt with his magic, but the villain does escape. Arno tracks him down to Greece for a clash of titans, only to discover Krellik has picked up a few more Apsu souvenirs. He’s found the weapons of the three Furies and using them he takes Captain Action down. DC’s newest superhero is doomed — defeated — finished!

Well of course he isn’t. We’ll get to that and the rest of the series later this week.



  1. Le Messor

    Even as a kid I realized this made no sense in a DCU where Wonder Woman

    Huh. Up ’til then, I’d assume the series (being licensed) was taking place in its own universe.
    I also have to wonder what the toy makers thought of taking a GI Joe knock off and turning him into a superhero instead of an ordinary soldier?
    Obviously, they allowed it, but it seems like that wasn’t the premise. They did it for one… Million… Dollars! perhaps? (I had to get one in.)

  2. Chris Schillig

    Thanks for mentioning this book is available from Hoopla Digital. As pretty as the pictures are, I am very satisfied reading it for free.

    I would likely cut the comic more slack if I had read it first as a kid. That said, given that Jim Shooter himself was barely older than most of his readers (still in his teens, anyway) when he scripted this, he deserves props for mixing comparative mythology and superheroes in such an original way.

    I was good with everything up to Arno’s return to the U.S. The whole “build me my own museum complete with a nearby top-secret headquarters” was just too much. And then along came the teenage son/sidekick. By then, I was completely checked out and just looking at the art.

  3. I know nowt about Captain Action so thanks for this, and the US-UK toy difference is bewildering. As someone who’s lived in the UK, Fraser, you can understand. If US readers are unaware, there is no GI Joe here, our version is/was Action Man.
    This difference branched out to comics: when GI Joe was licensed for 1980s British readers, we got no Larry Hama-centric Joe comic book, it was called Action Force – as were the toys – and the various mid-80s strips were carried in the pages of weekly war anthology Battle (one of the precursors to 2000AD, whose first editor was Marshal Law legend & Battle co-founder Pat Mills: it’s a long story so I won’t go there).
    Battle birthed Garth Ennis’s love for war stories and was home to the brilliant Mills-written World War One strip Charley’s War.
    In the renamed Battle Action Force, AF battled Baron Ironblood, who later transformed into Cobra Commander, which is where the US and UK ‘Joe’ villains merged, correct?
    In retrospect, many former Battle readers attributed the decline of the comic to the toys’ intrusion. It was on the way down anyway: Charley’s War and Johnny Red, the only two lingering worthwhile strips, had seen better days. Mills left Charley, by now entering WW2, due to research budget disputes and AF poached long-time Johnny Red artist John Cooper.
    I’d be dubious if Captain Action the toy was on sale here as it’d be confused with Action Man. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.
    At least DC gave comic Captain Action a good shot: one of their best young writers plus two art legends.

    1. I have no clue about British comics post-early 1970s, when one of my relatives used to mail them to me. I knew about Action Man but I’m not sure I ever saw him — as Dad was American civil service we did most of our shopping at the P/X where they had American stuff.

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