The MLJ Companion
Publisher: TwoMorrows Publishing
Writer: Rik Offenberger, Paul Castiglia & Jon B, Cooke
288 Full Color Pages
Review by PeteR
In August of 2016, TwoMorrows Publishing released The MLJ Companion. For those of you who do not know what the MLJ imprint was, I can sum it up in a sentence, the Archie Comics line of superheroes. Understand that Archie’s first appearance wasn’t until in September of 1941, Pep Comics #22. This was nearly two years after the debut of the first star spangles hero, The Shield, back in Pep Comics #1. By the time Archie came along, MLJ Publishing already had a stable of well over eleven different superheroes. The MLJ Companion’s goal is to both to relate the long yet sporadic history, as well as celebrate, this largely overlooked cadre of action-themed characters.
The first 60 odd pages of the book reproduce various golden age stories in full color, staring The Black Hood, Steel Sterling, The Web, The Shield, The Comet and the Hangman. The MLJ Companion then delves into the history of the brand and its owners, Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater. It describes with a copious number of illustrations MLJ’s lesser known heroes like Captain Valor, Zambini the Miracle Man and Madame Satan. There is an interview with illustrator Irv Novick, whose art any Batman or Flash fan from the sixties and seventies is keenly familiar with.
The MLJ Companion traverses the exploits of their characters in the various Mighty Comics/Radio Comics titles in the early to mid-sixties. Such notable moments include the Joe Simon and Jack Kirby work on The Private Life of Lancelot Strong and The Fly books. The MLJ Companion showcases the ideas that were the precursor to what would eventually lead to the creation of Spider-Man. It also has articles about the shift from straight superhero stories to the “Camp” era heroes resulting from the craze of the Batman television series.
Archie Comics abandoned their super hero line in the 1970’s in favor, briefly of the Red Circle line of horror comics with artwork by, among others, the legendary Grey Morrow. In the early1980’s the Red Circle, superhero line was brought back again, under the editorial leadership of the late Rich Buckler. More than forty various issues were released before that run ended.
The MLJ Companion has an exploration into what was going to be another revival of the Fly, the Fox, Jaguar, the Shield and other heroes in the late eighties. It was going to be published under Spectrum Comics line, but it never got off the ground, even with such notable talents as Steve Englehart, Michael Bair, Mark Ellis, Len Wein and Jim Valentino.
The history of the Mighty Crusaders from the 1990’s to today, is like watching a tennis match. The MLJ Companion does a terrific job of recounting the back and forth of the characters between various companies. In the early 1990’s D.C. Comics licensed the Black Hood, The Shield, Jaguar, The Web and the Fly and published eight different titles under their Impact Banner. According to The MLJ Companion, the Impact Line was meant to be an all age’s comic book imprint that did not speak down to the reader. It lasted a little more than a year in spite of the talents of Mike Gold, Mark Waid, Jimmy Palmiotti and Brian Augustyn. The Impact line was released roughly around the same time that Image and Valiant first came out so there was a lot of competition for retailers’ shelf space and consumers’ wallets. D.C. Comics was far more invested, at the time, in hyping the Death of Superman than they were a new line of books that they had licensed from another company.
The Mighty Crusaders shifted back to Archie Comics long enough for Archie to publish three trade paperbacks of reprints. The first book, was 2002’s The Shield reprinted golden age stories from the first five issues of Pep Comics and the contents of Shield-Wizard Comics #1 from the summer of 1940. The second volume, released a year later was The Mighty Crusaders, The Origin of a Super Team. It reprinted Fly-Man #31 to 33 and The Mighty Crusaders #, all from 1965. In 2004, Archie Comics published The Adventures of the Fly trade paperback which reprinted the Simon & Kirby run from 1959 to 1960. The Shield, Jaguar and the Comet cameoed in a couple of Archie comics, but nothing substantial came from these appearances.
In 2009, The Shield, The Web and the rest of the Mighty Crusaders went back to D.C. Comics under the Red Circle Imprint. This run lasted for a shorter period of time than the Impact line did. D.C. let the rights revert back to Archie Comics.
In 2015, fresh off the success of the horror series, Afterlife with Archie. Archie comics revamped the Crusaders and started publishing new exploits of The Shield, Black Mask and the Fox under the Dark Circle Comics imprint. This new line of books were very well crafted but again did not secure enough of the foothold to have any momentum. According to Dana (a fellow Shield enthusiast) at Comics N’ More in Easthampton, Black Hood #5 was the last Dark Circle book to come out. Diamond Distributors currently doesn’t have any other Dark Circle comics scheduled to be released.
The MLJ Companion has approximately twenty interviews (Creator Chats) with artists and writers involved in the various incarnations of the Mighty Crusaders, including conversations with Michael Uslan, Rich Buckler, Dick Ayers and Mark Ellis. It has an article written by Destroyer and Doc Savage scribe, Will Murray. It has indexes of every embodiment of the characters, so a collector can complete their personal collection. The MLJ Companion even has the script of a Black Mask radio show. If you are a fan of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, The MLJ Companion charts the continuous cross-pollination between Red Circle, Tower Comics and John Carbonaro who became the eventual owner of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.
Why you should buy this book? The superheroes of the MLJ line have been published under the company imprints of; MLJ, Archie Adventure Series, Mighty Comics Group, Red Circle (four different times), Spectrum Comics, Impact Comics and Dark Circle Comics. To simply refer to the MLJ characters as the Archie heroes is disingenuous and ignores a lot of history. Jon B, Cooke, Ric Offenberger and Paul Castiglia have put in an exhaustive amount of research into The MLJ Companion. The MLJ Companion, through its articles and plethora of illustrations shines a light on a mostly ignored comic line that still has impact on today’s comic industry.
TwoMorrows Publishing, aside from The MLJ Companion, also distribute BackIssue Magazine and Alter Ego Magazine, two periodicals deftly chronicling the history of comics. They have also published numerous books about Jack Kirby as well as Companion (history) books about Blue Beetle, The Quality Comics line, The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, All Star Comics and The Flash. Their newest book, Reed Crandall: Illustrator of the Comics is scheduled for a July, 19, 2017 release.
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