The American Comics Group was a regular fixture on comic book racks from the 1940s all the way through to the end of the 1960s. The firm specialized in short one-off supernatural mystery anthologies, with a smattering of humor title and the occasional foray into adventure series. What ACG really wasn’t interested in for the most part was super heroes. Editor and lead writer Richard Hughes didn’t like the genre, found it childish and limiting. But on more than a couple occasions, Hughes was forced by market forces to dip his toe into the super hero waters, with characters such as Magicman and Nemesis. Even Herbie, the offbeat surrealistic humor series that had grown out of one of those one-off supernatural stories was drafted into putting on longjohns and fighting evil as the Fat Fury from time to time.
But before all of that, and influenced no doubt by the rise of super hero revivals and adventure characters at other companies, Hughes attempted to eke out a portion of the marketplace by introducing a super-powered character of his own. He wouldn’t be an out-and-out super hero–rather, his hero was a government agent, a spy, gifted with incredible abilities, powers that he used to defend his country and its people from nefarious enemy operatives. He did so while attired in trenchcoat and eyepatch (an affectation that predates Nick Fury adopting a similar patch for his spy work by four years) This was John Force–Magic Agent!
He debuted in MAGIC AGENT #1, right at around the time that the Marvel super heroes were beginning to come out. His inaugural story was written by Richard Hughes and illustrated by Paul Reinman, who would later be a mainstay in Archie’s Mighty Comics line of faux-Marvel hero books, and inker Pete Costanza, a former Captain Marvel artist who did some fine if often undernoticed work on Superboy and others. That initial cover was provided by Kurt Schaffenberger.
Hughes employed a very personal and casual narrative style to his stories, an attitude that bled over into his letters pages, where he’d interact amusingly with the ACG audience. This wasn’t Stan Lee bombast, it was a bit more gentle and sly. But it made the firm several dedicated fans. As I mentioned earlier, Hughes’ heart really wasn’t all that invested in super heroics and continuing characters, so while Magic Agent is charming for how bloodlessly it treats its Cold War subject matter, it’s also a bit more restrained and by-the-numbers than much of Hughes overall output.
John Force was an operative for the American Security Group, a clandestine organization under the direct command of President John F. Kennedy–ACG never seemed to worry about using real-life likenesses in the way other companies typically did, and so Kennedy is all over the early John Force stories, as is J. Edgar Hoover. Force would be called into action whenever the invisible radioactive tattoo on the back of his right hand lit up and became visible–signifying another baffling assignment for the Magic Agent. Force possessed a strange medallion engraved with an image of several Greek-style columns. By touching each one, Force would be granted a particular mystic power; telepathy, precognition, hypnosis, illusion, etc. Force had obtained this medallion during his service in World War II, from the ghosts of Nostradamus, Merlin, Cagliostro and Houdini who couldn’t use their great mystic powers to sway the course of events, being, y’know, dead. So instead, they put a portion of their abilities into the medallion and passed it on to John Force, then an operative for the underground facing execution by firing squad. Force was able to liberate himself and foil the Nazi plans, and he’d been operating as an agent of liberty ever since, given special dispensation by Franklin Delano Roosevent.
Like Captain Atom over in Charlton’s SPACE ADVENTURES series during this time, for whatever reason, John Force didn’t catch on at first, and so MAGIC AGENT was cancelled after a paltry three issues, lasting less than a year. Work had begun on a fourth issue, however, and Hughes eventually decided to burn off those stories that had been paid for in one of his supernatural anthologies, UNKNOWN WORLDS, a few years later. And something strange happened. The audience responded well to them (the James Bond spy crazy had exploded by this point, giving any stories about spies and secret agents a leg up) and so Hughes was compelled to produce additional stories featuring the Magic Agent. His stories ran on an every-other-issue basis beginning in UNKNOWN WORLDS #48 well into 1967.