I never owned a “Captain Action”
doll action figure as a kid, and to the best of my recollection, I never wanted one all that much.
Not that I had anything against
dolls action figures as a class, you understand. Indeed, I was a proud owner of a “G.I. Joe” (the real one, mind you), and I also had a “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” that the box claimed was Napoleon Solo (though if that were actually true, it was the worst likeness of actor Robert Vaughn ever). But the concept behind Captain Action didn’t have all that much appeal for me, apparently — even though I think I could still appreciate how clever it was, even as a child.
Captain Action — “the Amazing 9-in-1 Super Hero” — was, above all else, a superb example of “razor/razor blade” marketing, as Michael Eury points out in his book Captain Action: The Original Super-Hero Action Figure (TwoMorrows, 2002) — the idea being that you only have to sell somebody a razor just once, and then you can sell then the blades for the razor, over and over again, for as long as the razor lasts. In the present example, Ideal Toy Company would happily sell you a boxed figure of Captain Action, complete with ray gun and “lightning sword” — and then they would even more happily sell you nine additional “uniform and equipment” sets, so that you could turn the Captain into Superman, Batman, Aquaman, or any one of six other heroes.* All sold separately, of course.
The thing is, when the toy line was first introduced in 1966, I was only truly familiar with five out of C.A.’s nine potential identities — the three DC Comics heroes, the Lone Ranger, and Steve Canyon — and I was by no means an equal fan of all of those. I probably would have welcomed a straight-up Batman or Superman figure — but the idea of having to buy this new character, Captain Action, and then dress him up as one of the characters I liked, didn’t quite work for me.
Also, I think at least part of my coolness towards Captain Action was due to his basic design. The ads called him a “super hero” — but they also called Steve Canyon, Flash Gordon, and Sgt. Fury “super heroes”, and I wasn’t sure that was quite right (after all, those three stalwarts didn’t wear tights, or even have code names). If C.A. was a superhero, what were his powers? And what kind of superhero totes around a gun and a sword? Was that headgear supposed to signify he was a U.S. Naval captain? As noted in Eury’s book, Ideal seemed to be trying to split the difference between a “straight” superhero and a military character, probably in hopes of capturing the attention of the fans of their main competitor in the
boys’ dolls action figures market, Hasbro’s G.I. Joe.
The building out of the concept in 1967 didn’t make much more of an impression on me. C.A.’s sidekick Action Boy was obviously just a Robin knock-off (even if he did come with a pet panther on a leash). The Silver Streak was just as obviously a take on the Batmobile (a la Black Beauty, the Arrowcar, etc., etc.). And then, of course, there was this guy:
“Dr. Evil”? This blue guy in a white lab coat didn’t seem all that impressive, even if his brain was exposed to the open air — and even if he did come packaged with “evil, evil things!”, such as a “thought-sensor” designed to look like a bulging bloodshot eyeball. ( C’mon, Ideal, that’s just gross.)
And so, when DC Comics came out with the first issue of their licensed Captain Action comic book series in mid-1968, I wasn’t interested. The concept behind the cover (which was designed by Carmine Infantino, and drawn by Irv Novick) — featuring the new hero shoving Superman out of his way (!) — just made C.A. look rude, so far as I was concerned. Plus, it emphasized that ridiculous panther. So: no, thank you, DC. I doubt I even picked the book up out of the spinner rack to flip through, and thus never even caught a glimpse of the very nice Wally Wood art behind the cover.
All in all, the main impact — really, the only impact — that the “Captain Action” property had on me during the first three years of its existence was that it went some way to helping “legitimize” for my picky younger self those upstart Marvel Comics heroes like Captain America, by putting them on an even footing with my beloved DC stars, as well as with newspaper comic strip characters like Steve Canyon and TV heroes like the Lone Ranger.
And that’s how things stood, all the way up until February, 1969, when the cover of Captain Action #4 caught my eye.
What made this book stand out on the spinner rack? I’m sure that the unusual dominant color scheme of pinks-and-purples was one factor, but I expect that the dialogue balloons had the greatest impact. While such text elements as these often seem extraneous when they appear on comic book covers, this is a sterling example of a cover where the graphic image absolutely depends on certain key words — “Dad”, “Mom”, “son” — to fully make sense. And though my eleven-year-old self had no actual experience of the ups and downs of romantic liaisons — or of sibling rivalry, for that matter (I was an only child) — parent-child relationships were absolutely in my wheelhouse. I hadn’t personally lost a parent, thankfully; but I could still certainly imagine what it would be like to have done so. I think that this cover would have grabbed my attention for that reason alone.
I’d also like to imagine that I recognized the cover as the work of Gil Kane (even before I saw his signature), and that this was another draw for me, though I can’t say with certainty that that’s true. Kane was probably my favorite artist through the first couple of years I was reading comics (roughly 1965 through 1967), his only real rival being Carmine Infantino. That doesn’t mean I was “collecting” Kane, by any means — I didn’t have that sort of mindset, in those early years — but I was always pleased to see his work, and I believe I must have registered his absence from the titles I most closely associated him with, Green Lantern and Atom, when his art abruptly stopped appearing in them in the late spring of 1968.
Having worked primarily (though not exclusively, especially in the last several years) for DC Comics for over two decades, Kane had taken what would ultimately amount to a half-year’s sabbatical to pursue an extraordinarily ambitious new venture — a black-and-white magazine-format comic for mature readers, called His Name Is… Savage. This title — created, plotted, drawn, and ultimately published by Kane himself (with a script by Archie Goodwin and a cover painting by Robert Foster) — is today widely considered an important forerunner to the modern “graphic novel”; but at the time it was a commercial failure (perhaps due, at least in part, to opposition from some corners of the comics industry), and the artist was obliged to return to DC and the other traditional comics publishers to resume his career as a freelancer.
One of Kane’s first assignments on his return to DC was Captain Action. He picked up the pencilling duties from Wally Wood with the second issue (Wood stayed on as inker), and when the title changed editorial hands with issue #3 — passing from Mort Weisinger to Julius Schwartz, with whom Kane had worked on Atom and Green Lantern from those features’ inception — the artist lobbied for the opportunity to write as well as draw the series; and Schwartz agreed. Issue #3’s “…And Evil This Way Comes!”, which introduced the toy line’s Dr. Evil to the comic book’s continuity, was credited to Kane as writer and artist, with Wood still on inks; with the fourth issue, however, Kane would take on the inking as well, making “Evil at Dead World’s End!” as close to a one-man show as one could imagine occurring at DC Comics in 1969.
And here, of course, is where my eleven-year-old self came in.
But before we leap right into Captain Action #4’s pages, a word of explanation: Generally, when I do these recaps/reviews of fifty-year-old comic books, I try to provide my readers with some background context for the storyline, even if I myself didn’t possess such information when I first bought and read the issue; I figure that there’s no reason for your enjoyment to be lessened in any way by ignorance, just because mine might have been. This time, however, I’m choosing not to do things quite that way; that’s because I feel that the impact that this particular book had on me a half-century ago is so bound up with how disoriented I was by being thrown into the middle of the story on page 1, that there’s no way I can be true to that experience without asking you to go in just as blind now as I was back then. Of course, if you’ve already read these stories, or just happen to already know a whole lot about the “Captain Action” franchise, then more power to you; if not, then please buckle in, and keep your hands inside the car at all times during the ride:
The comic’s Dr. Evil is immediately recognizable as being the same guy as the one in the toy ad; but he’s considerably less goofy looking as rendered by Kane, who wisely eschews the standard-issue mad-scientist lab coat “accessory” featured in the ad in favor of the character’s “base” outfit of modified Nehru jacket and matching trousers, sandals, and gold starburst medallion. That ensemble, which might be considered an odd look for an “alien from Alpha Centura” (as Ideal billed him), may simply have been a trendy nod to late-’60s fashion on the toy company’s part; but its vague suggestion of an Eastern mystical guru’s attire ends up playing into Kane’s characterization of Dr. Evil as someone who sees himself as having reached a state of enlightenment beyond the understanding of ordinary human beings (though the Doctor’s version of “enlightenment” is a decidedly non-mystical one).
Only two pages into the story, and Kane has already taken us on a whirlwind scenic tour of the universe. Where can he go from here?
As already noted, Ideal’s backstory for Dr. Evil was that he was a sinister alien invader from “Alpha Centura”. (One has to wonder, was the toymaker afraid that real-life aliens from Alpha Centauri were going to show up and sue for defamation?) Kane had devised his own, incompatible origin for Dr. Evil, however, as detailed in his first issue as writer, #3; nevertheless, he finds a way here to connect Ideal’s Alpha Centurans with his revised version of the character.
The Alpha Centurans sadly inform Dr. Evil that all of their civilization’s magnificent achievements are far in the past — in the present, their society is rapidly winding down, and when their dying planet expires, so will their species. But Dr. Evil is having none of such fatalism:
The “guru” has found what would appear to be his natural followers — his “own kind”, though of a far distant world than that of his birth.
Speaking with Michael Eury for the latter’s Captain Action book many years later, Kane avowed that his approach to Dr. Evil’s characterization was inspired by the work of British playwright George Bernard Shaw: “Shaw’s villains were so attractive, their arguments so persuasive.”
Here on page 8, as his villain returns to Earth, Kane finally brings the book’s titular hero onto the scene:
Captain Action’s alter ego being a museum curator almost certainly put my eleven-year-old self in mind of another DC hero, Hawkman, whose secret identity also had him working at the same job. Clive Arno even had jet-black hair like Carter Hall’s, and shared his avocation for costumed crime-fighting with a close family member (though in Hawkman’s case it was his wife, rather than his son).
The image of Dr. Evil on “a mountain perch atop the world”, surrounded by thunder and lightning, brings to mind a wrathful god, such as Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the top of Mount Olympus, or Jehovah contemplating smiting the idol-worshiping Israelites from the summit of Mount Sinai.
I have to interrupt the story flow here momentarily to note that Gil Kane is one of the few mainstream American comics artists of his generation that I can think of who drew characters with freckles, even occasionally. (See Green Lantern #55 and #56 for another example from roughly the same period, Charley Vicker.)
With the release of these three Alpha Centuran monsters into the streets of a major American city, the stage is set for superheroic action, as Kane’s story moves into its second act.
The vow intoned by Captain Action delivers on the following page is an obvious homage to Green Lantern’s oath — a touch that one can hardly begrudge Kane, since he (along with editor Schwartz, and writer John Broome) developed the Silver Age GL in the first place.
It’s also a convenient means of informing any new readers (such as myself, in 1969) of the source of Captain Action and Action Boy’s powers.
At this point, my eleven-year-old self still didn’t know exactly what powers this father-and-son team possessed — but I knew that they were somehow based on the attributes of mythological figures (e.g., Zeus, Heimdall, and Hercules), and that with the exception of tornado-summoning, they seemed mostly to consist of a standard superhero power set — i.e., flight, super-speed, and super-strength. That was probably enough for me, at the time.
All three monsters have been soundly defeated — but at page twelve, we’re only half-way through the story. Obviously, the “main event” is still to come…
Readers of Dr. Evil’s origin story in the previous issue would likely have been able to predict his all-too-human, if delayed, reaction to the manifested semblance of Kathryn Arno; but for my younger self, this scene was a stunner. I was completely unprepared for the revelation that Dr. Evil wasn’t just Captain Action and Action Boy’s arch-foe; he was family.
Gil Kane stated in several later interviews that he based Kathryn on the woman who was soon to become his second wife, Elaine Weinstein — and perhaps his personal investment in that character is one reason why the emotions in the preceding scene feel so genuinely raw and powerful.
Yep, if the earlier depiction of Dr. Evil on the mountaintop could be seen as suggesting Jehovah on Mount Sinai, at least visually, then here he’s surely leaning very much into the “divine judgement” role, as the story moves into its third and final act.
Superman had appeared within the pages as well as on the cover of Captain Action #1, and the Justice League of America had been referenced in issue #2 — but they’re never mentioned here, let alone seen, as the human race faces utter and imminent destruction. For my money, the story reads best if you figure that the Arnos really are Earth’s only line of superhuman defense.
Carl’s desperate slap has shocked his father back to his senses, but it’s too late for them to do anything to assuage the effects of Dr. Evil’s cataclysm. Though considering the scope and severity of the multiple ongoing disasters, it’s hard to see how our heroes could have changed the ultimate outcome, even if they hadn’t been temporarily distracted; indeed, it’s hard to imagine the Justice League itself coming out on top this time.
This is the end, my friends… or is it?
The resolution of the crisis by way of the Alpha Centurans having a change of heart might seem a deus ex machina for some readers; and even those who don’t find this narrative development too contrived might be disappointed that it’s not the heroic efforts of Captain Action and Action Boy that save the day; that the heroes, in fact, fail. For my part, I think it’s both an effective plot twist and a meaningful statement about human limitations; to wit, sometimes our best efforts aren’t enough (even if we’re superheroes), and our living to see another day is entirely down to grace (or, if you prefer, to luck). There is also, in the Alpha Centuran’s final benediction, the suggestion of hope that, having barely escaped the fire this time, our human race might just manage to lift ourselves up and do better in the future.
Or not. Needless to say, the angry god on his mountaintop doesn’t share the opinion of his alien “kin”, who have proven to be faithless disciples:
The story ends on two disparate but interdependent notes: an elegiac regret for the brilliant and caring human being lost to Dr. Evil’s madness, expressed by young Carl; and an ominous call for vigilance against the implacable enemy’s next attack, somberly delivered by the more mature Clive. It’s a satisfying, if ultimately inconclusive ending to what would stand as the pinnacle of Captain Action‘s brief run at DC Comics, as well as one of the high points of writer-artist Gil Kane’s distinguished career.
My eleven-year-old self may not have been able to fully appreciate all the emotional and thematic complexities of “Evil at Dead World’s End!”, but I was knocked out by it, all the same. And so, I was very happy when, soon afterwards, I managed to score a copy of the preceding issue, Captain Action #3 (probably from the Ben Franklin “five-and-dime” store that was my most reliable source for slightly out-of-date comic books).
This issue featured the introduction of Dr. Evil — and while I’m not going to walk you through the whole issue here, I can’t not share with you at least some of the best parts — including the villain’s multi-page origin sequence, an absolutely bravura performance by Kane as artist and writer, aided and abetted by Wally Wood’s inking.
Kane starts his story off with a literal bang, as a devastating earthquake strikes San Francisco, California**; he then promptly flashes back to show us how this disaster has come about:
It’s not entirely clear whether Dr. Tracy’s “atomic nullifier” actually instigates the earthquake, or simply exacerbates its effects; still, it’s plain that the death and destruction readers have seen on the previous pages is at least partly due to the well-meaning scientist’s experiments.
Most comics fans and historians probably wouldn’t list Gil Kane as being among the “trippiest” comic book artists of the Sixties, but the panels and pages that follow make a pretty convincing case that perhaps he should be:
Apparently, the Comics Code Authority would let you get away with male full-frontal nudity in 1969, provided that the male in question had 1) blue skin; 2) an open cranium; and 3) not the slightest trace of any genitalia. Who knew?
Kane immediately follows this sequence with a scene that refines and streamlines the super powers of both Captain Action and Action Boy:
The destruction of the majority of the “Power Coins of the Gods”, and the fusing of others, represents a drastic streamlining of the conceptual framework that had been devised by Captain Action‘s initial writer, Jim Shooter. Shooter’s original idea — unquestionably a clever one, simultaneously alluding both to the multi-identity nature of the C.A. toy and to an earlier Captain who’d also possessed the powers of mythical beings (namely, the original Captain Marvel) — had been established in the series’ first issue, thusly :
While on a dig in Spain, archaeologist Clive Arno and his partner, Krellik (no first name given), discovered a trove of ancient coins bearing the likenesses of a variety of mythological gods. Except, as both the two men and the story’s readers soon found out, these weren’t really gods — rather, they were ancient astronauts:
These “Elders of Apsu” had departed Earth centuries ago; but before they did, they’d imbued a chestful of coins with their special attributes, to leave us Earthlings something to remember them by. Clive Arno and Krellik soon discovered that if they had one of more of the coins on their person, they’d have the powers of one of more “gods’. And so, for the remainder of this issue and all of the next one, the virtuous Arno, desiring to use the coins for the good of mankind, vied for possession of them with the unscrupulous Krellik, intent on using them to illicitly amass wealth and power. What super powers might be wielded in any given scene depended on who had what coins at that particular moment — “who” being comprised of Krellik, Clive, and Carl Arno, with whom his dad shared his stash — and virtually every such instance was preceded by dialogue in which not only the coin’s god’s abilities were listed, but so were all their identities in various Earth mythologies. You got a comparative religion lesson with every coin, you might say.
Kane’s move in C.A. #3 stripped almost all of that away. Henceforth, we’d be dealing with only four coins/gods, and Captain Action and Action Boy would have consistent power sets every time they went into, er, action. Some might believe that this move robbed the series of some of its originality; but, while I’m as interested in comparative religion as the next person (actually, I figure the odds are pretty good that I’m more interested in comparative religion than the next person), I think it’d be difficult to argue that the recurring litanies of gods’ names and the cultures from which they came didn’t bog down the story — not to mention the time that our heroes might spend deciding which coins they’d take on a particular mission. Gil Kane’s adjustments to the “power coins” concept allowed him to dispense with all that apparatus and move on to the ideas (and, yes, the action) that he was personally more interested in as a creator. If some degree of novelty was lost for the sake of more efficient — and more meaningful — storytelling, I believe that the trade-off was worth it.
But getting back to Captain Action #3, albeit briefly… wearing a rubber face-mask so that he can continue to pose as Dr. Tracy (an idea inspired by one of the toy version’s accessories), Dr. Evil compounds the damage already done by the earthquake by whipping up a number of artificial disasters (that kinda seems to be his thing, doesn’t it?) and unleashing them on northern California. When Captain Action comes to his father-in-law seeking help in solving the crisis, “Dr. Tracy” gets to make his case in the best Shavian fashion:
However, once Captain Action learns that the benevolent Dr. Tracy is now the malevolent Dr. Evil, he gives the villain a thorough, certified Gil Kane-style pounding that puts paid to his evil plans, at least for now:
At the story’s end, Dr. Evil manages to escape only by teleporting himself onto another plane of existence… which, of course, brings us around full circle to the beginning of Captain Action #4.
If memory serves, I enjoyed the third issue of Captain Action just as much as I’d enjoyed the fourth. I’m sure I was primed and ready to buy the fifth issue, when it was published two months later. I didn’t buy it, though; so I’m guessing I never saw it (not even at the Ben Franklin, darn it). And, unfortunately, it was the last one published. DC’s original licensing deal with Ideal Toy Company had been for them to publish five issues, with the possibility of renewing the license after that. But by mid-’69, the toy line had been off the shelves for months, and the comic wasn’t doing well enough on its own for it to make sense to pay a licensing fee for a defunct property — so DC let it go.
Considering how highly I obviously regard C.A. #3 and #4, I’m a little embarrassed to admit this to you, but I only got around to reading issue #5 for the first time a few months ago. But, since I have read it now, I might as well tell you what I thought of it. I’d call it the least of the three issues written and drawn by Kane, though it’s still a good sight better than the first two issues written by Shooter. Its main problem is that the story hinges on a case of dissociative personality disorder, which Kane can’t quite manage to bring off believably. On the other hand — the villain is a demagogue who stirs up the resentment of the “good Americans” who attend his rallies against established civic authorities, as well as their fellow citizens who look or believe differently than they do — and when violence results, takes no responsibility for it. Sound familiar?
A half-century later, this story stands out as the most timely and relevant of the whole series. I wish like hell that wasn’t the case.
In several interviews he gave in later years, Gil Kane spoke warmly of his run as writer and artist on Captain Action, as brief as it was. “Captain Action was the closest I ever came to really loving a piece of work,” he told Michael Eury for the latter’s 2002 book about the franchise. “While my syntax wasn’t great, my ideas were good.” In 1998, he told Comic Book Artist‘s Jon B. Cooke much the same thing:
…it turned into one of the happiest experiences ever in comics simply because I was so self-indulgent with the writing… I was doing everything that I could think of doing. But mostly I gave them speeches and they were always rationalizing some point of view…. I really, really enjoyed it. Not that Captain Action was an intellectual strip at all but I was saying things in it that I felt deeply or thought about.
The cancellation of the series with issue #5 came as a great disappointment:
I was really unhappy about it because I felt that I finally had something of my own, something that had my stamp as penciler and writer. Whatever crazy notion I had I felt free to utilize if it suited the material. It was a blow to me.
Of course, the demise of Captain Action didn’t mean that Gil Kane was out of work at DC. Following his return to the publisher in mid-1968, he’d picked up several other assignments, including several “Robin” and “Batgirl” stories he’d do for editor Julius Schwartz in Detective Comics, some Teen Titans and Hawk and the Dove work for Dick Giordano (the latter of which eventually gave him an additional opportunity to write as well as draw, prior to its abrupt cancellation in the same month as Captain Action), and some short stories for Joe Orlando’s House of Mystery anthology title. He’d even resumed pencilling Green Lantern again, with the 68th issue.
But Kane’s relationship with DC was becoming fractious. He wasn’t getting along well with Carmine Infantino, who’d ascended from being a peer artist of Kane’s in Julius Schwartz’s stable to becoming Schwartz’s boss, the top man at the company. While the artist’s work would continue to appear regularly in DC’s comics through 1970 (and sporadically for several years after that), the time was rapidly approaching when DC could no longer serve as the primary market for his services.
Luckily, Kane had other irons in the fire. Concurrent with his work on His Name Is… Savage, Kane had conceived an even more innovative project — a science-fantasy comics narrative in the form of a mass market paperback book series. He’d already sold Bantam Books on the idea, and work was proceeding on the first volume of Blackmark, (scripted, like Savage, by Archie Goodwin) which would eventually see print in 1971.
And sometime in 1969, Kane also showed back up at Marvel Comics, a publisher for whom he’d briefly moonlighted in 1966 and 1967, pencilling and inking several installments of both “Captain America” and “Hulk”. Editor-in-chief Stan Lee took a meeting with Kane — and on hearing that the artist was interested in drawing a particular Marvel hero, went for the idea. Knowing that his editorial assistant Roy Thomas was already planning changes for that character — who, coincidentally, had “Captain” as par of his name — Lee put Kane and Thomas together on the upcoming revamp. The first fruits of their collaboration would go on sale in July, 1969.
And if you’d like to come back in July, 2019, dear reader, I’ll be happy to tell you all about that fifty-year-old comic book, then.
*In the second year of the toy line’s life, 1967, Ideal added four more heroes, bringing the total number to thirteen. For the record, the full roster was: Superman, Batman, Aquaman, the Lone Ranger, Steve Canyon, Flash Gordon, the Phantom, Sgt. Fury, Captain America, Spider-Man, the Green Hornet, Buck Rogers, and Tonto.
**The writer-artist definitely seems to have gone in for natural catastrophes in a big way in 1969. Maybe he’d just really enjoyed drawing those “Major Disaster” stories in Green Lantern #43 and #57, a couple of years earlier?