Detective Comics #433 - Star Spangled War Stories #168 - Supergirl #4

From the March cover date publication cycle for 1973 comes DC's Super Pac D-3 which contains two monthly titles and one that was published eight times a year (Supergirl).

DC's comicpacks usually leaned towards grouping titles which, more or less, had a common denominator. In the case of this Super Pac, it is however rather hard to see a thematic link between the three titles - in effect, they represent entirely different genres and plot settings: urban detective tales, war stories, and sci-fi superhero fantasy. Ultimately, if you bought or were given the 1973 D-3 Super Pac you simply got to sample some of the broad variety of DC Comics' offerings of the early 1970's.

Having Detective Comics (a title featured regularly in DC's comic packs of the 1970s) as one of the visible covers almost always was a given with Super Pacs: everybody knew Batman, and he was a powerful selling point DC would not want miss. However, having the newly launched Supergirl as the second title facing outwards and thus visible inside the bag - rather than the well established Star Spangled War Stories - seems a bit surprising. If only for that reason, this did create a somewhat coherent "superhero" theme, although the Batman was, at this point in time, more a skilled and physically trained detective than a superhero (hence also his exclusively plain clothes antagonists during much of 1972 and 1973). Whatever the reasons for this selection and display preferences - Super Pacs simply weren't always dictated by an obviously clear logic.

Again, this specific Super Pac has kept its contents in great shape. With the plastic bag itself displaying only minor signs of storage wear (although with some yellowing) the individual comic books all proved to be in excellent condition when released more than 40 years after the plastic bag had originally been packed and sealed: pristine covers with perfect gloss and shine on comic books which were perfectly flat and tight without any spine stress. The edges were all sharp, although the cover of Star Spangled War Stories #168 displayed a crease which, however, must have almost certainly been inflicted at the printers as this was the comic in the middle (and thus often the best protected one). The pages are all white to off-white, and the comics looked and felt the way they were as they came out of the polybag: perfectly clean and fresh.

It has become a fact of comic book collecting that a certain online auction site has become a major (if not the single most important, due to its global outreach) market place. The 1973 D-3 Super Pac appears to be on offer more frequently than others and thus also shows the often erratic price range in which comic packs move.


In December 2011 it changed hands for $55,99, was again sold in October 2013 but now for $35,00, was picked up in January 2014 for $46,00 and then sold again one month later, in February 2014, except this time for only $20,00, all four offerings having been described in similar terms of grade and condition.



Detective Comics #433

March 1973

Editor - Julius Schwartz
Cover - Dick Giordano

"Killer in the Smog !" (14,66 pages)
Story - Frank Robbins
Pencils - Dick Dillin
Inks - Dick Giordano

"The Case of the Forged Face !" (8 pages)
Story - Frank Robbins
Pencils - Don Heck
Inks - Murphy Anderson

In early 1973, Detective Comics was living up to its title by featuring stories which centered foremost on observation and deduction skills - displayed by both Batman in the main feature and by private eye Jason Bard in the back-up.

Whilst Batman tries to catch up with a mysterious strangler (which he eventually succeeds in doing) who operates under cover of Gotham's nightly smog, Jason Bard needs to prevent a planned assassination of a senator by someone who has impersonated Bard in three cities. Both stories come from the pen of writer/artist Frank Robbins and start out by putting a puzzling situation before the reader which is eventually unravelled by the main protagonist - Batman and Jason Bard - who in both cases set a baffled Commissionar Gordon right. This of course serves as a clever way of indirectly addressing the reader, making Gordon to them what Watson is to Sherlock Holmes. However, Robbins goes a step further in both stories and actually steps outside of the narrative by directly asking and thus challenging the reader to match wits with the two detectives. This is a nice plot device which was used across the board by DC's writers at the time (see Supergirl #4, below, for another example) but which greatly adds to the fun of reading both stories - and also covers up some minor but nevertheless extant plot elements which are left dangling after it's all over. The mystery denouements as such are neither new nor terribly intricate, but they provide for some highly entertaining 1970s comic book reading.

This is one of only two issues of Detective Comics for which Richard "Dick" Dillin (1928 - 1980) drew the Batman; he was far better known for his 12-year run on Justice League of America. Frank Robbins (1917 - 1994) on the other hand had a lengthy run both as writer as well as writer/artist for Batman in Detective Comics from 1968 to 1973; issue #436 would be his last, and in 1974 he moved on to Marvel Comics.

An interesting bonus featured in Detective Comics #433 is the statement of ownership and circulation, which was required in print once a year. It shows that whilst DC printed an average of 332,000 copies of Detective Comics per issue per month during the preceding twelve month period, only 158,638 of these (i.e. less than 50%) were, on average, actually sold. It is a stark illustration of the distribution problems the comic book industry had in the early 1970s and why the policy of making unsold copies returnable (and thus refundable) drove them into a tight corner (which eventually would lead into the creation of the direct market).

This relates to DC's Super Pacs in two ways: First, these figures show just where exactly the stock used for the sealed 3-packs came from. And secondly it should be noted that packaged comics were non returnable. Which of course didn't stop some dealers from ripping open bags and returning the individual comic books which hadn't sold as Super Pacs (leading to specially marked covers as of the mid- to late 1970s to counteract this fraudulent practice).

The number of subscribers, by the way, was 616. Which makes it almost seem like a wonder DC even carried subscriptions.




Star Spangled War Stories #168

March 1973

Editor - Archie Goodwin
Cover - Joe Kubert

"The Glory Hound" (14 pages)
Story - Archie Goodwin
Pencils & Inks - Jack Sparling

"The Last Raid" (9 pages)
Story, Pencils & Inks - Tom Sutton

As of Star Spangled War Comics #151 (June/July 1970) the Unknown Soldier was the main feature of this title, sharing the book with a back-up until he would ultimately take over completely. In May 1977, as of issue #205, Star Spangled War Comics would actually be renamed The Unknown Soldier and continue a lengthy run which would last for a total of 268 issues until the ceasefire came in October 1982.

Created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, the Unknown Soldier is an interesting World War Two story concept that works really well. As the "man whom no one knows - but is known by everyone", his head and face are so severely disfigured that he typically has it completely wrapped in heavy bandages. Adding to that air of mystery surrounding his person, he is deployed on various missions as a US intelligence agent - often under the code name of "The Unknown Soldier". The success of his missions relies to some extent on his ability to produce masterful facial disguises, allowing him to assume the identity of almost any man using latex masks and make-up. In Star Spangled War Comics #168, however, we see none of that; the Unknown Soldier has barely made it back from behind enemy lines and needs to convince a glory hounding lieutnant to fall back with his platoon or else be obliterated by an impending large scale German counter-attack. The second feature is based on an historical event - the last Zeppelin raid on Britain in August 1918 and the shooting down over the North Sea of Zeppelin L70 with the chief commander of Germany's Zeppelin fleet on board.

Like a few other comics packaged into the middle of these bags - without their covers actually visible and therefore in all probability judged to be the least sellable at the time - Star Spangled War Comics #168 is actually a true gem. From a personal point of view, it is the best comic book in this Super Pac by a substantial margin, with tight storytelling in both features and artwork to match it ("The Last Raid" even being a solo production effort by Tom Sutton (1937 - 2002), prolific artist for both DC and Marvel and maybe best known for his horror and sci-fi artwork). I'm also absolutely sure I would have enjoyed this just as much as a kid or teenager.

As with Detective Comics #433, this issue of Star Spangled War Comics prints the statement of ownership and circulation (or, as editor Archie Goodwin calls it on the letters page, apologizing for the fact that it eats up half of that space, "the who-owns-what statement"): of an average of 288,000 copies per issue per month during the preceding twelve month period, only 145,761 of these (i.e. just over 50%) were, on average, actually sold. It is a slightly better track record than what Detective Comics had to show, but still bad enough, and it shows that it was a situation which concerned not just one or two titles, not even just one publisher, but the industry at large.

The number of subscribers, by the way, was 216. Which makes it almost seem silly that DC even carried subscriptions - but then again the figure was up from 108 twelve months previously. From today's perspective, the "who-owns-what statement" is most certainly both entertaining and insightful.




Supergirl #4

March 1973

Editor -Robert Kanigher
Cover - Bob Oksner

"The Borrowed Brain !" (17 pages)

Story - Cary Bates
Pencils - Art Saaf / Inks - Vince Colletta

"The Rock of Revenge" (6 pages)

Story - Cary Bates
Pencils & Inks - Don Heck

The adventures of the original Supergirl - Superman's cousin Kara Zor-El whose cover identity is university student Linda Danvers - had been a long standing feature of Adventure Comics before she got her own title in 1972, of which this is issue #4.

Linda Danvers is falling for one David Grahm, but unbeknownst to her his enrollment at Vandyre University is only a cover for his life as the boss of a crime gang. When Supergirl has to stop an earthquake nearby, Grahm saves one of Linda's roommates from hitting a loosened chunk of concrete at the bottom of the University swimming pool. Whilst this is all for the sake of improving his nice guy cover, he himself sustains severe brain injury and falls into a coma. Driven by feelings of love and self reproach, Supergirl uses Kandorian (the miniature Krypton city under glass in Superman's Fortress of Solitude) surgery equipment to transfer some of her brain cells to David. He recovers, but because Supergirl's cells multiply he finds he has gained super-powers. Creating a costume with a lead mask, he becomes Super-Scavenger, and when Supergirl tries to apprehend him after a robbery, he fights her off with what is in effect her own super-strength. This however proves to be only temporary, so Supergirl gets the upper hand after all.

If today's comic books can often be tedious for being far too drawn out (decompressed being the euphemism used for that narrative style), this is a case of the opposite: a done-in-one packing way too much into a mere 17 pages. The result is a storyline that goes off in all kinds of directions fast but never seems to take its time to actually work things out, and before you know it - it's all over. Needless to say that although Cary Bates (who was 25 when he wrote this story) did his best to explain a lot of things and avoid loopholes in plot logic it all remains very superficial. And readers like myself (who have next to no knowledge of the Superman Universe) were probably left a bit confused by the Super-Scavenger's sudden loss of powers, as Bates fails to recall (or, in my case, explain) that all Kryptonian power-transfer cases are only temporary.

All in all, this feels more like a 1960s comic book, in spite of DC's almost desperate attempts to be hip: Supergirl is not only the Girl of Steel but also the Maid of Might - although that seems nothing compared to Zatanna (the back-up feature) who is coined the Saucy Sorceress...

In both stories Bates interrupts the story for a moment asking the readers to make a guess as to how things will continue:



It's a nice touch, but the Zatanna story is even more far-fetched and cheesy than the Supergirl tale, and it outright collapses onto itself. It will be evident from these remarks that the plotting of Supergirl #4 is utterly unimpressive, and both the artwork by Art Saaf (1921 - 2007) and Don Heck (1929 - 1995) is just as bland. Now tastes vary of course (the letters page has nothing but praise from the readers, half of which are female), but this is another example of a comic book whose cover was visible in a DC Super Pac yet at least today proves to be by far the least interesting of the trio.

But then it would seem that this is not just today's take on the first volume of Supergirl - the title only lasted for 10 issues, after which the heroine appeared regularly in Superman Family.


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Page first posted 19 December 2013
Revised and repostted 17 April 2014

Text is (c) 2013-2014 A. Wymann
The illustrations presented here are copyright material.
Their reproduction in this non-commercial context is considered to be fair use.