Those of you who read my review of the first volume of ACTION HEROES ARCHIVES know I was enthusiastic about DC reprinting the Charlton "Action Heroes" in these quality hardcover editions. Volume 2 is no exception, and I'm giving it a qualified 5 stars rating (as explained below).
As I somewhat surmised when Volume 1 was published, in addition to continuing the Captain Atom reprint stories, this volume includes Steve Ditko's Blue Beetle tales -- plus The Question to boot! It also makes sense that Volume 2 picks up the good Captain's adventures with issue #83, considering that issue was the start of big changes for Captain Atom, and also began the back-up adventures of the "new" Blue Beetle, scripted by Gary Friedrich with art by the awesome Ditko. It was during this period that Charlton Comics was attempting to emulate Marvel Comics, and was strengthening the characterization in its stories. (Indeed, shortly thereafter Gary Friedrich would leave Charlton to work for Marvel Comics, and no doubt for a larger paycheck.)
Fan-turned-pro Dave Kaler penned some enjoyable scripts for Captain Atom, beginning his run with CAPTAIN ATOM #82, the last story in Volume 1, and continuing through the "Captain Atom Meets Thirteen" tale (from CAPTAIN ATOM #89) reprinted in this volume. CAPTAIN ATOM #89 was the last Charlton issue published, and as a kid I was bummed out because of that and because the storyline involving Cap's nemisis, The Ghost, had been unresolved. But this volume also reprints the "final" Captain Atom tales with The Ghost ("Showdown in Sunuria" and "Two Against Sunuria") which were only heretore published in Charlton's "fanzine," CHRLTON BULLSEYE. Like the printing in CHARLTON BULLSEYE, these tales are published in black-and-white in this volume.
The Blue Beetle reprints are fantastic, especially the back-up stories originally published in CAPTAIN ATOM, and the first two issues of the Beetle's own comic mag. Reading them is like immersing yourself in the Marvel Comics of 1966-67, and is a delightful treat. Like the Captain Atom bonuses that originally saw print in CHARLTON BULLSEYE, this volume reprints the unpublished BLUE BEETLE #6 cover and story, which only previously saw print in CHARLTON BULLSEYE (in black-and-white both therein and herein).
A perhaps unexpected bonus here are The Question stories, back-up tales contained in the BLUE BEETLE comic plus the full-length MYSTERIOUS SUSPENSE #1 comic from 1968. The "bonus" for The Question fans is the black-and-white story drawn by comics legend Alex Toth, reprinted from CHARLTON BULLSEYE #5 (and also including Toth's cover for that issue reproduced in full color). The Question, of course, was based on Steve Ditko's Mr. A character (first published in Wally Wood's WITZEND), and much later metamorphasized into the Rorshach character in Alan Moore's WATCHMEN.
The only problems with this volume are some of the tales penned by Steve Ditko. Ditko was used to working "Marvel style," both plotting out and drawing the tales, which would later be dialogued and captioned by the writer. How much of this was done on the Captain Atom stories is hard to say, but they seem pretty tight, and my guess is that Ditko at least was working in the "traditional" mode, from Dave Kaler's scripts, on those efforts. But the early Blue Beetle tales have a lot going on, and it appears Ditko was perhaps using the Marvel method with writer Gary Friedrich.
With the departure of Friedrich on the Blue Beetle, Ditko inherited the scripting duties as well (using the assumed name "D.C. Glanzman"). But while Ditko has ability as a writer, he's also had the problem of his Ayn Rand philosophies exerting a heavy influence on his his stories. Mr. A was a perfect example of this (where everything was "black and white," and there was no "gray" in moral values), as is the story "Blue Beetle Faces the Destroyer of Heroes" (reprinted from BLUE BEETLE #5), where the extremes of values are unbelievably comical. The "A Specter is Haunting Hub City" story, originally intended for the unpublished BLUE BEETLE #6, is likewise ridiculous. In that tale we have the public up in arms -- against SCIENTISTS ("It's a plot! The scientists want to rule the world!")! Now, certainly, continuing advances in technology can be used for "bad" efforts as well as "good" -- but some of the Ditko dialogue in this story would make more sense in Mad Magazine. My criticisms of Ditko's writing aside, however, Ditko was still at his artistic peak in 1966-68, and it is an absolute joy to behold his story-telling techniques along with his basic art talent. This volume is worth the price for Steve Ditko's art alone!
A negative regarding the Ditko art is the finale Captain Atom "Sunuria" 2-parter reprinted from CHARLTON BULLSEYE. Apparently Ditko had only penciled those stories, and they had remained uninked for some time -- which would have made sense with no plans to publish them. When they finally saw print, a young John Byrne was called upon to ink them (and it would be interesting to know whether he inked Ditko's actual penciled pages or only phostats). I've never been a big John Byrne fan, having felt that he's never truly taken his artistic ability to its maximum level. Early John Byrne art is pretty rough, as is his inking on Ditko's Captain Atom (which Byrne also lettered, and didn't do a great job there as well). In my opinion, Byrne didn't really make an effort to remain faithful to Ditko's pencils, and the art winds up being downright sloppy in spots.
But that substandard inking involves only 21 pages in this volume, and the remainder of of the Ditko art is inked by Sturdy Steve himself, or by Rocke Mastroserio and Frank McLaughlin. And that work is great!
As noted by Dick Giordano (Charlton's editor back in 1966-68) in his forword, it's unlikely that the other Charlton "Action Heroes" of that Silver age era (among them The Peacemaker, Judo-Master, and Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt) will ever see the reprinting light of day. But the Ditko-driven characters certainly deserved hardcover editions for posterity. Don't cheat yourself -- make sure to purchase both volumes 1 and two of ACTION HEROES ARCHIVES!