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Hercules 1

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND Oct. 1967; Charlton Comics; Dick Giordano, editor (later Sal Gentile).

This title was a kind of afterthought to the Charlton "action-hero" era, launched near the end of that period while Dick Giordano was still at Charlton, but continuing for 13 issues until September 1969. It was both a superhero title of a sort -- virtually the *original* superhero, in fact-- and a pointer toward one of the next trends in comics, the sword and sorcery series. There have, of course, been many versions of Hercules in comics, including a Golden Age Quality hero who used the name; occasional appearances by the mythic character in Weisinger-era Superman stories; the Marvel version of Herc who appeared in THOR and AVENGERS; and DC's mid-70's HERCULES UNBOUND series. Charlton's version was distinctive in that it was closer to the original myths than most; Hercules is in his natural habitat of ancient Greece, and, as we shall see, the storyline of the series even more or less followed the myths of Hercules' Twelve Labors. (Though the labors are for some reason condensed to nine.. and some of the less savory portions of the myths, such as Herc strangling his wife and children in a fit of madness, are left out....) The series was also distinctive for the artwork of Sam Glanzman, whose work of the period was slightly crude but had a nice gritty feel that brought across the feeling of the ancient era well. The scripter of this first issue is not identified, but I suspect it to be Denny O'Neil aka "Sergius O'Shaugnessy", who was credited with some later issues...though the last few were done by Charlton mainstay Joe Gill.

The cover of #1 depicts a bare-chested, clean-shaven Hercules (he would grow a beard later in the series) seizing an armored, sword-wielding adversary by the throat, as a battle rages in the background. The opening caption on the splash page informs us, "He walked among men, Earthbound, but Hercules fought for his right to dwell upon Olympus with Zeus, who was his father and above all gods. It was a right he would have to earn, facing danger no man or god had encountered before or since in the astounding...ADVENTURES OF THE MAN-GOD HERCULES." In the splash, an unarmed and loincloth-clad Herc confronts a reging lion, declaring, "You're a stubborn devil and very brave and strong! I believe I've met my match!" As the story begins, Hercules is standing on a mountaintop appealing to his father, Zeus, to be allowed to join him on Olympus. But "Half-god is not enough!" to be allowed into the exclusive Olympian club, says Zeus...not until Hercules has proved his worthiness by surviving nine trials set by "Eurystheus, he who rules on such matters." And the first trial is to go to Nemea and kill the lion that has killed a dozen strong men who set out to destroy him. "A dozen men, four dozen men! I have the strength of a hundred!"

Preparing to set out against the Nemean lion, Hercules is balked by the soldiers of King Philip of the city where he has been living; the king demands that Herc remain to participate in his annual games. Finding a washed-out bridge in his path, Hercules lifts the timbers of the bridge until the pursuing soldiers are riding across it, and then lets go, toppling the soldiers into the stream. "Explain to the king that it's a hot day and you stopped to cool off!" he taunts them before heading on his way to Nemea. Stopping at an inn for the night, Herc finds a beautiful redhaired woman being accosted by ruffians and rescues her. She identifies herself as Princess Helen of Sparta and offers Hercules shelter for the night. After hearing of some of Hercules' exploits, she's prepared to offer him more than that; she has an "understanding" to marry Prince Alexander, but she finds herself falling in love with Hercules...and he admits to feeling the same. Upon discovering them in their tete-a-tete, Alexander is understandably not pleased...he grudgingly admits gratitude for Herc's rescue of Helen, but would rather see him on his way. However, when Alexander's Argive and Corinthian enemies invade in force, Alexander agrees for Hercules to join his own forces-- hoping on the one hand that Herc's might will serve his cause and on the other that Herc will be kept apart from Helen and may even fall in battle. While Alexander goes into battle in full armor, Hercules wears only his usual loincloth, but he shrugs off Alexander's warnings of the ferocity of battle; "I've done battle before, Prince Alexander! I know what to expect and what to do!" As Alexander and Hercules are engulfed in fighting, Herc sees Alexander in danger of being overwhelmed and comes to his aid-- "Perhaps, my father, this is part of the labor Iwas assigned!" Alexander expresses his gratitude-- more sincere this time-- and has still more reason for it as Hercules seizes the enemy commander and holds him hostage, forcing the enemy horde to hold back. Ultimately Alexander's side wins, "in no small part due to Hercules' power...but not entirely, for a great general, Alexander, led the Greeks!" (A caption states that Alex will one day be known as "Alexander the Great"...which, in terms of Greek chronology, is kind of like having General George Washington team up with General George Patton to fight the Civil War.)

The victorious warriors return to Sparta, where Helen has been more anxious about Hercules' fate than Alexander's. But she watches from afar with wonder as Hercules goes to a temple and appeals to his father for advice. Hercules asks for forgiveness for being distracted from his quest to destroy the Nemean lion, but also confesses that he is tempted to abandon his labors altogether by "the love of a princess!" Much to Helen's amazement, Zeus replies and warns his son, "The choice is yours to make! I only remind you that a god is for eternity! If you fail in your quest for the lion, you'll not have another chance!" Now Helen realizes the truth; "You must choose between me and the Nemean lion!" "No, it's a choice between you and eternity, my dearest! I've longed to be with my father, and the gods have given me the chance!" Helen realizes that Hercules has already made his choice. And he will have his chance sooner than he knows, as the Nemean lion suddenly appears, threatening Helen. Hercules commands her to flee to Alexander's side as he confronts the lion single-handed. A spear hurled fails to stop the lion-- "Either the gods failed me or your hide's too tough for any spear!"-- and Herc must take the lion on unarmed, as the people of Nemea gather to watch from a safe distance and hope that this is the man who can stop their leonine scourge at last. Springing onto the lion's back, Hercules encircles his throat in a full-Nelson type wrestling hold (a scene cribbed, if I recall correctly, from a Tarzan novel-- Glanzman had drawn Charlton's short-lived JUNGLE TALES OF TARZAN series a few years earlier). Slowly, Hercules forces the lion's head back until he is dead. Then after a stillness in which the lion lies in death and Hercules in exhaustion, the townspeople give a cheer and swarm forward to carve up the dead be met by a roused and angry Hercules; "The lion fought with courage! Anyone who so much as pricks his hide will answer to me-- and I have plenty of strength in reserve!" But evidently someone does end up skinning the lion...for, at the end of the story, Herc walks away with the lionskin wrapped around his neck (a detail taken from the myths, where Hercules wears the Nemean lion's skin as a cloak). Before that, however, Herc reports his success to Zeus, who praises him but warns him he now faces his second labor, and then goes to say goodbye to Helen and Alexander; "This will be more difficult for me than a fight with a dozen angry lions!" Alexander, now genuinely grateful for all Hercules has done, reports he and Helen are to wed after all and confesses, "I feared for a while that I'd lost her to you, Hercules!" Herc shrugs off the idea; "Bah! What sort of a husband would a bungling monster such as I make for so delicate a beauty?" He also declines a sword which Alexander offers him as a reward; "Weapons tend to get in my way when I fight...but my thanks!" Hercules goes on his way towards his next quest, watched by Helen and Alexander; "A strange and wonderful man, that Hercules!" "Yes, there's something almost godlike about him!" Subsequent Hercules stories carried on the theme of Herc having to choose between his godly labors and the temptations of mortal life, and also introduced a conflict with Zeus' wife the goddess Hera, who hated Herc because he was the child of the mortal Alcmena (delicately described as Zeus' "first wife" rather than one of his many extra-marital flings, as in the myth).

The backup series throughout the run of HERCULES was "Thane of Bagarth", written by Steve Skeates, and drawn initially by Jim Aparo, though Nicholas Alascia and Sanho Kim also drew installments. This series has its fans but I must confess it doesn't appeal to me particularly... it's set in the era of the early medieval epic "Beowulf", in the kingdom of the Geats, and is full of tongue-twister names like Heardred son of Hygelac, Wigmenric, and our hero, Hrothelac, Thane of Bagarth. Skeates also adopted a somewhat convoluted style of captions in an attempt to seem more archaic. In this first chapter, "The Feud," we learn that "the young but wise Hrothelac" is engaged in a feud with his neighboring Thane, Garmscio of Rothfor; this feud has resulted in the deaths of a number of serfs; and a skirmish at the beginning of the tale ends in the death of an armed Rothfor guardsman as well. Hrothelac is summoned into the presence of Lord Beowulf, who is angry about this strife among his vassals. Hrothelac insists that he has no desire for the feud, but must respond when his subjects are killed by Garmscio's men. He also states the feud was caused because he, Hrothelac, decided not to marry Garmscio's sister Hywara. Beowulf acknowledges that Hrothelac has the right to make that choice, but notes that Garmscio has a different story; according to him, Hrothelac is in cahoots with "the Swedes, the sworn enemies of all Geats!" Beowulf refuses to judge between them immediately, but orders both Hrothelac and Garmscio to seek proof of their claims so he can judge fairly. As word of the trial gets out among the Geats, the people of the kingdom are disheartened that one of their "noblest leaders" may be treacherous...and Garmscio is unhappy as well, for in fact he is the treacherous one and fears exposure. But one man is pleased-- Eowanda, younger brother of Hrothelac, who stands to gain his fiefdom is found to be a traitor and banished. Hrothelac asks for his brother's help in proving his innocence, not realizing that Eowanda has a strong motive to prove just the opposite. We also learn Hrothelac's motive for not marrying Garmscio's sister-- he is in love with Freahulf, blonde daughter of the scholar Daeghred..."the fairest maid he had e'er beheld...[though]she was naught but a serf and not worthy of being looked upon with love by a thane!" As Eowanda seeks "a scribe whose honor can be bought" in a scheme to betray his brother, Garmscio also has a smile on his face "as though he too had devised a way to destroy the Thane of Bagarth..."

The HERCULES title must have shown some sales promise, for Charlton kept it going for over two years, and even experimented with publishing it in black and white magazine format-- issue #8 appeared in both that format and regular comics format. In another sign of editorial interest, Giordano's successor Sal Gentile even kept a letter column going in the book, and the lettercol in later issues contained a couple of interesting comments by him. In issue #4, a reader suggested it would be a neat idea for Charlton to publish Robert E. Howard's Conan, and got the reply, "We'd love to do Conan but, copyright problems aside, couldn't be faithful to the original and get by the Comics Code Authority." (Soon afterwards, of course, Marvel and Roy Thomas would manage to overcome both obstacles and publish Conan.) And in issue #13, Gentile offered an explanation of sorts for the demise of the "action-hero" line, and a defense of Charlton's publishing philosophy; "Most comics fans dig superheroes and they're making a big mistake because super-heroes may be the glamor titles but they ain't what pays the freight. Next time you're in a store selling comics, watch what sells most consistently. Not the Long Underwear Laddies. It's Romance, Love and Marriage that keeps the cash register ringing. Westerns sell consistently year in and year out. And the War books always have a market. The Super heroes were big for awhile but they're simmering down, going, going, gone to Valhalla...where, we may add, we wish them well." As it turned out, Hercules himself headed for Valhalla, or more likely Olympus, after that issue. And Gentile's philosophy would ultimately be proved wrong, as the war, Western and romance comics genres faded into insignificance over the coming decade or two, while superheroes hung on. Though he may have had the right idea after all... if DC and Marvel had made more of an effort to keep their non-superhero lines viable, comics might have retained a more varied audience and remained more of a mass medium and less of a specialty item for diehard fans.