|Edited by Roy Thomas||Alter Ego, the greatest 'zine of the '60s, is all-new, focusing on Golden and Silver Age comics and creators with articles, interviews and unseen art. Each issue includes an FCA (Fawcett Collectors of America) section, Mr. Monster & more!|
The 'Nuclear' Wars
A Close Look at All-Star Squadron #14 and #16 and Two Very Odd Golden Age Wonder Woman Exploits
by Roy Thomas
From Alter Ego Vol. 3 #5
INTRODUCTORY NOTE: It was my original intention to begin, with this issue, a chronological history of All-Star Squadron, the title I conceived and wrote for DC Comics from 1981-86 or through 1989, if you count its Young All-Stars follow-up series, which I do. However, for various reasons I won't go into here, I decided to wait till next issue to properly initiate that series (which a number of readers have requested, not that I need much of an excuse to talk about the JSA or its pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths offshoots). This time, I decided both to jump ahead a year-and-a-half, and back nearly a third of a century, from All-Star Squadron #1. Bear with me, okay? -R.T.]
Like so many others, I've no idea what happened to all those many, many comic books I owned as a kid (in my case, during the latter half of the 1940s and into the 1950s).
Sure, I had to donate some to a paper drive when I was in grade school (parting with as few as I could get away with, and sneaking home a couple of comics from others' piles to assuage my loss).
Also, at a very young age I used to cut up copies of some of my mags so I could make up my own adventures on rainy days (though I generally managed to find a spare dime to purchase a second copy of destroyed All-Stars).
And, unlike in sad cases related by many others, my mother didn't burn all my comics while I was away in the military or at college (for one thing, I commuted the ten miles to college and when afterward I moved away from home I took 'em with me).
Yet, somehow, most of those youthful treasures vanished along the way, some perhaps falling apart from overreading. Still, certain comics remained in my possession even when the DC "revivals" began to appear in the late '50s, and I still had them when university prof Jerry Bails started a comic book version of what science-fiction fans called a "fanzine" with the hyphenated name "Alter-Ego" and invited me aboard.
And one of the old comics I still owned, from the day it came out till only a few years ago, was Wonder Woman #43 (Sept.-Oct. 1950).
At first glance there doesn't seem anything unusual about WW #43. By this point Irwin Hasen and others drew the covers, but original artist H.G. Peter was still drawing all the stories in those "52-page" issues.
The middle story in it, "Nuclear Returns!" always intrigued me. For one thing, the villain was a male, in a magazine which had long tended toward female villains, especially when "Charles Moulton" (really psychologist William Moulton Marston) was writing it. (By 1950, however, Marston was three years dead and the writer, I'd later learn, was editor Robert Kanigher.) Nuclear was a good-looking character in his mostly green armor and well-named, in those early years of the Atomic Age.
In the story Wonder Woman rescues the ocean liner Princess Leatrice (on which Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls just happen to be sailing) from being magnetically pulled into some cliffs by Nuclear, who's extorting money from Lemuel Tugboat, owner of the Lenard Shipline. Diana is puzzled, for, as she tells the girls, "I saw Nuclear fall into a flaming furnace."
She decides to investigate, because Nuclear and a wealthy socialite named Percy Playboy (a name so deliberately corny it deserves to have been coined by Marston before his death) had "disappeared at the same time and I think they are one and the same man!" And indeed, when Wonder Woman visits the "Playboy mansion," this flashback ensues:
Learning more about Percy's troubled youth, Wonder Woman does an instant psychoanalysis and opines that he has "nursed a secret hatred" of his sister since childhood because their father had named Joye, rather than himself, as his heir.
Wonder Woman is unable to convince Joye that her brother is Nuclear, and indeed it soon looks as if the super-villain has kidnaped Percy. Back on board the Leatrice, Wonder Woman, Joye, and the Holliday Girls, joined by Steve Trevor, soon find the ship sinking after a Nuclear attack and our heroine shoves everyone aboard to safety on a lifeboat.
Meanwhile, standing under-water (!) on the deck of his submarine, there's nothing left for Wonder Woman to do but hoist the liner up out of the sea with her bare hands, empty out all the water, and rejoin the others. Joye, naturally, fears that her dear brother was on Nuclear's sub when it was destroyed. Diana elects not to tell her truth, not that Joye would believe her.
So there you have it. Not one of the great Golden Age stories, or even one of the great Wonder Woman stories. For one thing, the Amazon has zilch to do with defeating Nuclear; the armored idiot does himself in by his own carelessness. Perhaps embarrassed by his own sheer ineptitude, Nuclear never appeared in another Golden Age story.
Still, for years I nursed a desire to track down that first Wonder Woman-Nuclear clash, which had been described in W.W. #43.
Because it was a cheaper comic to collect in the 1960s and '70s than most other comics featuring members of the Justice Society, I amassed copies of the first three dozen issues of Wonder Woman, plus a goodly pile of Sensation Comics. In fact, I still own bound volumes of Comic Cavalcade #10-29 (the last super-hero issue). Eventually, through the medium of microfilm, I was able to peruse every Golden Age adventure of Wonder Woman, as well as most other 1940s super-heroes.
And, somewhere along the way, I made a most startling discovery.
There had never been an earlier Wonder Woman-Nuclear story!
But things like that just didn't happen! Writers, artists, and editors in the 1940s simply didn't make up sequels to stories that had never been published!
So there had to be another Nuclear story lurking around someplace. I learned, in time, that lots of never-printed DC artwork had been destroyed when Flash Comics, All-American, Green Lantern, and a number of other comics and features had been discontinued circa 1949. But it still didn't make sense to me that a Wonder Woman story could have been burned in the DC incinerator. After all, Wonder Woman was an ongoing title!
In late 1980 I left Marvel Comics and signed a near-exclusive three-year contract to write for DC. Since my star was fairly high at that time, I was given a certain amount of control over the comics I would write, and one of the happy results was All-Star Squadron, set on that wonderful parallel world known and loved as Earth-Two, in the year of our Lord 1942, during the early days of America's participation in that little celebration of human progress known as the Second World War.
More about that next ish. This time around, let's skip to the 14th issue of All-Star Squadron, which sold quite well for the first couple of years.
My good friend and screenwriting partner Gerry Conway was then the reigning writer of Justice League of America. The two of us convinced the DC powers-that-were to let us do a back-and-forth crossover between our two related mags. The result was the five-part "Crisis on Earth-Prime!" in JLA #207-209 and All-Star Squadron #14-15. All that concerns us here is the final six pages of #14, plus #16.
As enthusiasts of All-Star Squadron (bless 'em) know, I conceived of that mag as equal parts comic book and tapestry, or perhaps mosaic. I wanted to weave together as much as I could of past DC continuity, not because I had to, but simply because it was there. Besides, ideas have to come from somewhere; and I was convinced - correctly, as it turned out - that I'd never run short of fun stories to tell in Squadron if I took my cues from the multitude of early-'40s DC comics to which I had access via microfilm, my small but select personal collection, and (albeit at long-distance, since I lived in L.A.) the well-stocked DC library.
So I decided to make up for whatever oversight had robbed us 1950 Wonder Woman readers of the first meeting of Wonder Woman and Nuclear. I'd make up for that lack with a vengeance.
Thus, in issue #14 (penciled by Adrian Gonzales, inked by Jerry Ordway), as Liberty Belle, Johnny Quick, Firebrand, Robotman, and late implant Commander Steel arrive in Times Square, they find it menaced by Nuclear, The Magnetic Marauder. Nuclear fights them and flees, and the five All-Stars stride into the meeting rooms of the JSA, most of whose members had joined the armed services in their civilian identities. The JSA were letting the All-Stars use their headquarters.
When they open the door, the quintet are confronted by a strange Superman and Hawkman as well as by Aquaman, Firestorm, and Zatanna. In other words, an equal number of members of Earth-One's Justice League, come back in time from that wonderful year 1982!
For the next couple of months, five members each from the JLA, All-Star Squadron, and the 1982 Justice Society of Earth-Two thwart a plan concocted by one of my favorite JSA baddies, Per Degaton, to... well, more about that in a future issue, too.
Suffice it to say that, at the beginning of All-Star Squadron #16 (penciled by Adrian Gonzales, inked by Rick Hoberg), the five All-Stars from the end of #14 are racing through Times Square with the same dialogue as before. But this time, when Liberty Belle flings open the door of JSA-HQ, instead of a handful of time-displaced Justice Leaguers...
. . .they behold a Wonder Woman who, in Johnny Quick's words, looks "like a trailer truck fell on her!"
After a brief Marvel-style skirmish caused by what the others consider her "delirium," Diana - herself a charter member of the All-Star Squadron, as all DC heroes of the period were - relates a flashback which owes a strong debt to the opening scene of "Nuclear Returns!" In it, Nuclear, again on a cliff, uses his atomic-magnetic powers to attack a ship - this time a warship on which we see Captain Steve Trevor and Lt. Diana Prince. Wonder Woman saves the vessel, only to see Steve captured by Nuclear. Later, she is defeated because Nuclear's magnetism causes her metal bracelets to stick together. Now, at the start of #14's story, she has come to JSA-HQ, dazed, looking for help.
Naturally, Wonder Woman and her All-Star comrades soon wind up at the mansion of Percy Playboy and his sister Joye, meeting them for the first time; even if it had been 32 years since Wonder Woman #43 had been published!
Since I was embarrassed for DC, Dr. Marston, and maybe even Bob Kanigher over that name "Percy Playboy," I had Joye explain that the family name had originally been "Plazchek" - a nod to 1960s comics fan Billy Placzek of Chicago. However, to spite a gossip columnist who had called him "Percy Playboy," he had legally changed his last name to Playboy. (Call it self-indulgence if you will, but my theory was always that, if I was having fun writing a comic, my readers would, too; and a generation or two of fans bringing up dog-eared copies of All-Star Squadron for me to sign at comics conventions has convinced me I was basically right.)
Robotman soon stumbles into Nuclear's secret lab beneath the mansion, where he finds a bound Steve Trevor. In the course of a terrific battle between the half dozen All-Stars and Nuclear, the villain rips up the metal floor to reveal a 'raging fire' below. (Remember that flaming furnace/fiery pit WW and Joye had mentioned 'way back in WW #43?) Naturally, Nuclear soon falls into it himself, after being winged by Steve's pistol. Joye is disconsolate, since it seems her vanished brother is now lost forever. None of the All-Stars tries to tell her that Percy was Nuclear. And that was that.
After nearly a third of a century, the "prequel" to "Nuclear Returns!" had been published at last, even if it wasn't precisely what Marston, Kanigher, and/or DC had had in mind.
All-Star Squadron #16, with its cover by Joe Kubert, proved popular enough with readers, though my instructions about the coloring of Nuclear's costume weren't followed and his armor wound up purple and blue instead of green. Well, at least his cape was still red.
In addition, somehow that issue's letters section - which told the background of the story - didn't get printed. A few issues later, I used my answer to the only letter printed about "The Magnetic Marauder!" as an excuse to write a couple of sentences about my story's genesis as a "prequel" to a 1950 issue of Wonder Woman.
And there I was prepared to let the matter rest.
So, naturally, that's when some original art from the first Wonder Woman-Nuclear free-for-all turned up!
Actually, I don't recall precisely when I first got hold of photocopies of two panels from the never-published Nuclear intro. But I'm certain that, had I been in possession of them in 1982, I'd have used the scene they depicted in All-Star Squadron #16!
To the best of my recollection, the photocopies were sent to me by a young fan and aspiring comic book artist I knew named Richard Howell. Yes, the same Richard Howell who, by 1984, would be penciling an issue or two of All-Star Squadron himself!
As you can see from the reproductions, there's an anomaly or two about those panels:
For one thing, Nuclear is wearing two largely different suits of armor in them! In the first panel - the first face-to-face encounter between him and Diana - he's wearing a tight-fitting headpiece with slits over ears and mouth, and two round holes for the eyes. The armor joints on his arms, the torso armor, boot-lines - just about everything is different from the look in WW #43.
In the second panel, however, Nuclear looks exactly as he does in "Nuclear Returns!" Much of this figure is clearly a paste-on, with even the outline of transparent tape showing.
In other words, the first panel depicts Nuclear's original appearance, which was altered later before the whole story was inexplicably scrapped.
But it was nice to know for certain, for the first time, that there had been a first Wonder Woman-Nuclear story!
And so matters stood, for over a decade.
Then, in the mid-to-late '90s, I was wandering around some gigantic comics convention or other - probably San Diego or the Heroes Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina - when what do I see pinned up behind a dealer's table but a pair of H.G. Peter panels of Wonder Woman for sale for $150!
This tier of panels showed Nuclear's armored hand grasping Diana's bracelets behind her, then trying her up with her own lasso while surmising that its "magic" is "feminine brain magnetism, right?" A weird little speech, which made me wonder if maybe that story hadn't been written before Dr. Marston left the strip (and this world) in 1947.
In both panels, the figures of Nuclear - even his armored hand and forearm in the first one - were paste-ups.
I didn't think my wife Dann wanted me buying original art at that stage, so I asked the dealer (a friendly fellow whose name, alas, now escapes me) if he could make a photocopy of those panels for me, when he returned home. To my surprise, he handed me the artwork and told me to take it home with me, make copies, then mail it back to him - unless I decided to buy it, of course. I was struck by his generosity, since his action precluded any sale of the art at the convention, and he was loaning it to someone who might well not buy it at all.
(Just so you know: Dann retroactively gave me that artwork as a present; it now resides with us in South Carolina.)
Only when preparing this article did I finally get around to peeling off the redrawn Nuclear head and torso in the second panel. Underneath were the original helmet and costume. Perhaps the correction on the art Rich Howell owned had fallen off, somewhere along the line. I've reproduced both versions of that panel with this article. (I didn't bother to peel the first panel. So sue me.)
Mysteries remain, of course.
Why was the original Nuclear story scrapped and the sequel published? (Or did nobody at DC even notice?)
Was the earlier story perhaps considered inferior, either in terms of script or art, to the second? (The ending of the sequel is, after all, pretty bad itself.)
Were all the corrections on Nuclear's outfit done by H.G. Peter and his assistants? (So 'twould appear.)
As I often say at the end of articles like this, we'll probably never know, nor will the world stop turning if we don't.
But I suppose I should thank whatever editorial decision or quirk of fate caused that first Wonder Woman-Nuclear match-up not to be published.
After all, its absence gave me a great excuse for a fun issue of All-Star Squadron!
Next issue: Okay, okay, this time for sure,
The Birth of the All-Star Squadron!
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