Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

I have to know, did Captain Action survive his first issue?

When last we left Captain Action, the Man of Mythology, he was in bad shape. If anyone lost sleep over his fate don’t worry, it’s going to be okay.

The first issue of Captain Action culminated in Clive Arno, AKA Captain Action, going down at the hands of his archfoe, Krellik. It’s a little surprising Jim Shooter got to use Krellik as the initial adversary, given he wasn’t part of the Captain Action toy line, and Dr. Evil was.

Whatever the reasoning, at the start of #2 (by Jim Shooter, Gil Kane—who does the cover—and Wally Wood), Krellik leaves, but only after stripping Arno of the four coins carried in the hero’s belt buckle — Zeus (lightning), Helios (heat and light), Vidar (super-strength), Mercury (super-speed and flight). Now he’s more powerful, more invincible than ever before. Fortunately Captain Action kept the coin of Heimdall (super-senses) hidden elsewhere on his person. As he points out to Action Boy later, that coin’s powers would have made it easy to locate the other coins.

This was the first issue of the book I picked up and I was hooked. There was a lot of mythology in this one because without the powers Krellik stole, Captain Action has to get ingenious. The coin of Odin (wisdom) lets him spot when Krellik’s faking weakness in a fight; Tyr’s coin makes Arno a match for Krellik in combat even with the latter’s greater strength. There were references to deities I’d never heard of back then, such as the Dagda and Pyerun. Who says comics aren’t educational?

Despite working in the Silver Streak from the Captain Action toyline, the story goes well. While they’re at a standoff in physical combat, Arno knows how Krellik thinks. He deliberately lets slip that Heimdall’s senses can’t penetrate a magical disguise, which eventually leads Krellik to transform himself into Carl Arno, AKA Action Boy. It turns out, however, that Heimdall can see through an impersonation so Arno gets the drop on the villain. Krellik, however, escapes with his coin of evil magic, soon to return … well, if the book had lasted more than three issues. And if Jim Shooter had still been writing it.

He wasn’t. For whatever reason, DC handed the book from Mort Weisinger to Julius Schwartz, who assigned Gil Kane to draw as well as write it. I imagine a year or two earlier the gig would have gone to Gardner Fox but new publisher Carmine Infantino had just purged Fox and others of the old guard (I swear I’ll get to blogging about that eventually). It fell to Kane to introduce the toyline’s Action nemesis, Dr. Evil.

The Arnos are now in San Francisco, working with Clive’s father-in-law (Clive is a widower but the men are close), brilliant scientist Stefan Tracy. As Arno tries to find a way to tap the power of the coins with science, Dr. Tracy tests his experimental anti-earthquake machine. Wouldn’t you know, an earthquake strikes at the exact instant he’s about to pull the switch?

The result? Well, San Francisco’s in poor shape.

The coins are destroyed except for those of Zeus, Vidar, Heimdall and Mercury (which Clive gives to his son, the first time the kid’s gotten to use any powers). And Dr. Tracy? He’s been transformed by the unearthly energy of his own device, torn apart by the explosion and subjected to Steve Ditko-esque weirdness.

He becomes something more than human, something with blue skin and a really freaky face. A face normal humans would call evil so that’s who he will be — Doctor Evil!

What follows is a lot of the Action Duo saving people from the earthquake, then fighting the natural disasters Dr. Evil unleashes so he can establish his own turf. Finally, about two thirds of the way through the book, Clive learns what his father-in-law has become and we get what may be one of the first “villain delivers a philosophical lecture to his captured foe” scenes as Tracy/Evil waxes on the sad, pathetic failure of humanity, which must now give way to his superior awesomeness.

Captain Action soon proves his enemy ain’t all that, but Evil does get away, leaving his Dr. Tracy facemask behind. They devoted a special letter page in a later issue to reader explanations how the mask could also turn Evil’s blue arms flesh colored.

It was a disappointing issue for me. I can see now that trimming down Action’s range of possible powers probably made him easier to write for but less mythology meant a less interesting book. It’s telling that Vidar has been switched out for the more familiar Hercules — yes, they’re the same Elder of Apsu, but still.

Page after page of fighting natural disasters, followed by a pompous lecture, didn’t help either. The writing still sucked when I reread it but I must admit Kane does a way better job on the art than I remembered (I had minimal interest in art as a kid — it was just a tool for the important stuff, which was the writing).

#4 was a better issue. Evil materializes on another world, inhabited by beings who look just like him. An ancient, advanced race, they’ve become completely listless and apathetic. Evil assures them they’ll perk up once he takes them to their new home, Earth! To take the Action Duo out of the equation he creates a simulacra of Arno’s late wife Kathryn, so real the doctor himself feels a rush of emotion on seeing his daughter live again (I’m sorry to say Pseudo-Kathryn is the only female character in the entire five issues besides bystanders. Not even any Apsu goddesses). Ultimately he fails because the aliens realize they won’t be any happier or livelier on Earth so they’re passing on his relocation proposal.

#5 is back to bland. The villain here is a split personality — public-spirited philanthropist on one side of the split, rabble-rousing xenophobe militant on the others (a reminder that Trump is just the latest face of an old phenomenon). That political edge doesn’t pump enough life into the story to make it worthwhile, though Kane’s art remains enjoyable. Just look at the scene where the guy discovers his son is dead and snaps.

And then the comic ended, like so many books at that point in Silver Age DC. Captain Action’s made a return a couple of times since, though not from DC; I’ve never been curious enough to check out the revivals though. So this post marks the end of my involvement with Clive Arno, man of very short-lived destiny.

#SFWApro. All art by Kane.


  1. Le Messor

    The title question reminds me of a bit of suspenseful advertising I once heard:
    “Will our heroine survive the next episode?”
    My thought, in response, was:
    ‘Will Sarah Conor survive episode 2 of The Sarah Conor Chronicles?”
    Hmm… I wonder…

    1. Some people apparently do wonder about things like that. After an “Adventure Comics” Legion story referenced Superman marrying, someone wrote in that this killed the suspense in the ongoing Virus X story — as Superman hasn’t married yet, that means he has to survive the disease! The editor’s response was along the lines of “Oh, you actually thought we might kill our top character? Wow.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.