By the early 1970s, Adventure Comics had become the longest-running continuously-published American comic book series. The title began as New Comics in 1935, became New Adventure Comics in 1937, and finally settled on the name Adventure Comics in 1938. It was the second series published by a company then called National Allied Publications; the company's first comic had been New Fun Comics (later called More Fun Comics), and its third would be Detective Comics. Detective Comics is the only one of those first three titles to still survive today, and that book's initials gave its publisher the name by which it would ultimately become best-known: DC Comics.
The Adventure Comics story is a long one, and we're not going to detail it here. But we do need a brief preamble before we pick up our story in the '70s. Unlike Detective Comics (starring The Batman) or Action Comics (with Superman), Adventure Comics wasn't really the home to any breakout comic-book success story in the '40s. There were some notable heroes featured in its pages--Sandman, Hourman, Starman, Manhunter--but nothing blockbuster. That status changed a bit in the late '40s, when More Fun Comics switched to a humor format, and Adventure picked up a few of More Fun's cast of characters: Aquaman, Green Arrow, and cover feature Superboy, "The Adventures Of Superman When He Was A Boy!" From there, Adventure would remain super until the dawn of the Watergate era; in the early '60s, Superboy moved over to make room for his pals The Legion Of Super-Heroes, who then ceded the space to Supergirl in the late '60s. Supergirl remained Adventure's cover star until she migrated to her own solo title in 1972.
Comic book sales had declined precipitously from their heyday; for newsstand proprietors, comic books were a low-profit, low-priority item, hardly worth the effort since there was more money to be made selling...well, virtually any other kind of magazine, especially skin mags like Playboy and Penthouse. Marvel Comics had overtaken DC as the industry's kingpin, and there was additional competition in the form of more expensive black-and-white horror comics magazines, particularly those put out by Warren Publications (Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella). Although mainstream comics couldn't compete with the more graphic nature of Warren's books, the Comics Code Authority had loosened its restrictions enough for the folks at DC and Marvel to try their hands in the horror comics field. Both companies had some success in that area.
Adventure Comics editor Joe Orlando also edited DC's horror line. Orlando had been an artist for EC Comics, the legendary line known for its horror titles in the '50s (and for Mad, which survived the death of EC's comics line to become a mega-successful magazine in its own right). As Supergirl departed the pages of Adventure, a decision was made to make Adventure an anthology title, more akin to books like House Of Mystery and The Witching Hour than anything with capes or Kryptonians.
The first few issues in Adventure's new direction were nondescript. Adventure Comics # 425 sported a gorgeous Michael Kaluta cover, and some wonderful interior art by comics legends Alex Toth and Gil Kane. But the stories were stand-alone suspense yarns, a mix of science-fiction and fantasy, and nothing terribly memorable. That issue also featured the debut of Captain Fear, a Caribbean pirate series written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Alex Nino. Other than Captain Fear, these would all seem to be inventory stories (whether they actually were or not). Captain Fear returned in the following issue, joined by two more ongoing features: The Adventurer's Club (really just a framing device for more typical suspense fare, but with irresistible art by Jim Aparo) and a revival of The Vigilante. The Vigilante, a modern-day masked cowboy hero, had been a regular feature in Action Comics in the '40s. With artwork by Mike Sekowsky and Dick Giordano, The Vigilante was clearly my favorite here.
These same three features returned in Adventure Comics # 427, but were replaced with a new cover star in Adventure Comics # 428: The Black Orchid! The Black Orchid was a mysterious, super-powered heroine and master of disguise, and her appearances in Adventure Comics thrilled me no end when I was 13. We never did learn much about her back story--one of my unwritten Notebook Notions at the time included my idea for a Black Orchid appearance in The Brave And The Bold, with The Batman attempting to answer the question, "Who Is The Black Orchid?"--but the stories nonetheless conveyed a sense of tension and supernatural intrigue. Alas, she was gone from Adventure after a mere three issues. (The back-up slots in those three issues were filled by one appearance each of Dr. 13--The Ghost Breaker [starring a supporting character from The Phantom Stranger], Captain Fear, and The Adventurer's Club.)
But the announcement of what had been chosen to replace The Black Orchid assured me that I wouldn't miss her as much as I thought; The Spectre took over with Adventure Comics # 431.
The Spectre had been one of my (many) favorite characters for years. Originally created in the '40s (by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and artist Bernard Baily) as a near-omnipotent ghostly force of vengeance, I discovered The Spectre when his solo title debuted in 1967. The Silver Age interpretation of The Spectre eschewed the bloodthirsty eye-for-an-eye (and then some!) retribution of the character's earliest appearances, and opted instead for cosmic adventure and thrills. It was one of my favorite comic books when I was seven or eight, but it was cancelled after ten issues. The Spectre had last been seen in Justice League Of America # 83 in 1970, as the Astral Avenger sacrificed his afterlife to save the multiverse.
In between the publication of JLA # 83 and The Spectre's reappearance in Adventure Comics, I had my first opportunity to read a couple of The Spectre's somewhat grislier Golden Age adventures. The 1940s Spectre stories reprinted in DC Comics 100-Page Super-Spectacular and Jules Feiffer's book The Great Comic Book Heroes showed The Spectre as a merciless, Old Testament angel of swift, deadly justice; he made lethal, shoot-first pulp heroes like The Shadow and The Spider seem almost namby-pamby by comparison. These earliest stories would be the inspiration for the new approach to The Spectre, beginning in Adventure Comics # 431 (January-February 1974):
His fellow policemen know him as Detective Jim Gordon, the toughest cop on the New York force--but Jim Corrigan is not just another tough cop. For Jim Corrigan is a dead man...a ghost...a man murdered by gangsters who has returned from beyond the grave to battle crime with powers far beyond the ken of mortal men. But you needn't tremble, gentle reader. Only the vermin of the underworld need fear...THE WRATH OF...THE SPECTRE!
Scary. And cool!
Writer Michael Fleisher, collaborating with Russell Carley for the first seven of The Spectre's appearances in Adventure, pulled out all of the stops to craft a series of chilling, over-the-top revenge fantasies in which heartless murderers met their awful (but deserving) ends. Killers were melted, reduced to skeletons, cut in half by giant scissors, turned to glass (and then shattered), and transformed into wood and run through a buzzsaw. The Spectre was nasty, almost like a comic-book precursor to the purposeful serial killer Dexter. Mercy? From The Spectre?! Oh, you naive sinner...!
This was all very graphic by the standards of a mainstream American comic book at the time, and it was just endlessly thrilling to this young teen as I bought 'em fresh off the rack from '73 to '75. Irresistible artwork by the great Jim Aparo combined with Fleisher's compelling, macabre storytelling to make Adventure Comics my favorite comic book.
Although Adventure Comics had seemed like a tryout book in search of a star, the letters columns indicated that The Spectre might become that star. Sales of The Spectre's appearances in Adventure Comics were said to be encouraging. With issue # 433, the covers unofficially amended the book's title to become Weird Adventure Comics, hoping to draw more horror comics fans to the gritty, gory pleasures of The Spectre's exploits. Editor Joe Orlando continued to search for the right back-up strips; # 431 featured the Alex Toth-drawn one-off "Is A Snerl Human?," a Captain Fear two-parter appeared in # 432-433, followed by a book-length Spectre story in Adventure Comics # 434.
Adventure Comics # 435 gave us the first Adventure back-up to matter: a revival of Aquaman, DC's King Of The Seven Seas, who was then appearing on TV in the Super Friends cartoon show. Outside of his adventures with The Justice League of America, Aquaman had been without an ongoing comic-book home since his own title had been cancelled in 1971. The 1968-1971 run of Aquaman, written by Steve Skeates and drawn by Jim Aparo, had been (and remains) one of my all-time favorite comic books. So I was delighted to see the Sea King return in Adventure; Skeates returned as scripter, but Aparo was too busy with The Spectre (and with the Batman team-up book The Brave And The Bold) to return to Atlantis, so Mike Grell became the new Aqua-artist. I remember reading Adventure Comics # 435 on a flight from Pensacola to Syracuse that summer of 1974, and thinking this was just the best time ever to be a comics fan. And Adventure Comics was one of my prime pieces of evidence in making that case.
Aquaman completed his three-issue trial run in the back of Adventure Comics, followed by the beginning of a Seven Soldiers Of Victory serial in Adventure # 438. The Spectre continued to wreak deadly havoc on evildoers, and all seemed right with Adventure Comics. And then, seemingly without warning, The Spectre was gone.
I suspect a rat.
Were earlier reports of The Spectre's encouraging sales incorrect? Or had DC succumbed to complaints about the harrowing, grisly nature of The Spectre's cold, cruel punishment? I was delighted to see Aquaman return; I was sad to see The Spectre go.
The good news was that Jim Aparo was now able to return to drawing Aquaman, though Skeates was replaced (initially) by writer Paul Levitz. I continued to read and enjoy Adventure Comics (as evidenced by my letter of comment in Adventure # 444), but lost interest in it when Aquaman moved to his own title, and Superboy renewed his long-standing residency as the star of Adventure with issue # 453.
Looking back, my only regret with this era of Adventure Comics is that I wish there had been more. The title was only popular enough to merit bi-monthly status; imagine if there could have been twice as much good stuff to enjoy with a monthly Adventure. More Spectre! More other characters! And more Spectre! It would have been nice if Adventure could have also been converted to DC's 100-Page Super-Spectacular format, with these new Spectre and back-up strips bookending a choice selection of Golden Age reprints from DC's vast archives. It would have been fun. It would have been awesome! But the truth is, it was already all of that. It was Adventure. Can't ask for more than that.