When I first started writing about the books I acquired in my Windfall Comics deal, I mentioned that they were all super hero titles. But it turns out that isn’t 100% accurate. Because nestled in there among assorted issues of FANTASTIC FOUR and JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA was this one issue of BRAVE AND THE BOLD, which was devoted to Strange Sports Stories. It was editorially the work of Julie Schwartz, who had some interest in the world of sports, particularly baseball. And really what it was is another take on the sort of wild science fiction series he’d been producing for years and that was closest to his heart–something along the lines of STRANGE ADVENTURES or MYSTERY IN SPACE. In the 1960s, Strange Sports Stories didn’t take off, but that didn’t prevent Julie and DC from trying the same concept again in the early 1970s–which is where i recognized it from (though I don’t believe I ever bought any of the issues, despite seeing them regularly in ads.)
But before we dive into the issue proper, let’s take a moment to give it up for DC’s introduction of their new mascot, Johnny DC, on the inside front cover. If I recall correctly, Johnny DC didn’t last very long–but that didn’t stop Keith Giffen and friends from reincarnating the character as Jonni DC in their AMBUSH BUG series. And this ad is pretty cool, featuring virtually all of the DC recurring characters in one big group, whether they were super heroes, funny animals, military characters or real life celebrities. In particular, I find it interesting that Batwoman was included, given that she wasn’t even a regular player in the BATMAN stories each month. Possibly somebody wanted to make sure there was adequate female representation in this piece.
The concept of Strange Sports Stories was relatively straightforward. The book was made up of multiple tales–two in this instance–each revolving around a different sport and each one presenting its protagonist with a challenge to overcome or a mystery to solve, or both. They were very much in the vein of Schwartz’s science fiction magazines, which contained similar one-off adventures most of the time, just without the sports connection. This lead-off story–and the entire issue, actually–was written by Gardner Fox, one of the longest-tenured writers at DC. Not only was he then-currently writing JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, but years earlier he has originated the golden age Flash and Hawkman, and did early developmental work on Batman in DETECTIVE COMICS. Fox was an established pro who had been working for the firm for over twenty years, and with Schwartz for over a decade. His work tended to be long on plot, short on individual characterization, but he knew his way around a gimmick pot-boiler.
The artwork for the issue was provided by Carmine Infantino, who was perhaps the most contemporary artist DC then had. He was certainly a favorite of the fans, in part because of his work on popular characters such as the Flash and Adam Strange. But Infantino’s great strength was his sense of design. As was typical of the time, the DC “house style” called for few spotted blacks, and lots of wide open spaces for color. Infantino was a master of that approach. In the Strange Sports Stories series, he innovated this technique where he would showcase elements of the action in silhouette panels interspersed among other images regularly drawn,. This served to give this series a bit of a signature style, which was appealing, almost like a film strip somehow. The inking was provided by Joe Giella. Giella’s work over Carmine is divisive among fans–some dislike it because he tended to round off many of Carmine’s sharp edges–Infantino’s style was extremely angular, and would only grow more so over the years. But I liked the look, familiar to me from the many Flash stories they had done together.
The story itself is a bunch of wonderful nonsense. The Headless Baseball Team is comprised of alien conquerors whose warp capabilities and weaponry was derived from the unique metal found in the “Protana Globe”. Another alien steals the Protana Globe and hides it within the championship pennant won by the New York Jets (here a baseball team) on Earth. Unable to simply come down and seize the pennant for complicated reasons, the aliens challenge the Jets to a “Worlds Series” with the pennant at stake. But led by Jets pitcher Lefty Clark, the team is able to defeat the aliens on the field–and when the sore loser aliens attempt to destroy the Earth in retaliation, they themselves are destroyed–the alien who had stolen the Protana Globe had also arranged for their conventional weaponry to backfire on them. It’s all a bit nuts, and surprisingly convoluted. Even the fact that the alien players are invisible is a result of the special sunscreen they must use to survive under the rays of our sun, which makes them invisible to the human eye. You would think there’d be an easier way for them to get their hands on that pennant, but apparently not.
At the midway point of the comic, there’s a text feature explaining the thinking that went into developing it. In particular, Carmine Infantino is called out as the artist–the rest of the creative team, including editor Schwartz, goes unnamed. This would become a letters page in future issues, but of course there wasn’t any mail to share on the new feature, and Schwartz didn’t want to print letters about prior features that had run in the title, such as HAWKMAN or SUICIDE SQUAD. It’s a chatty but clinical piece, perfectly pleasant, perfectly carrying out its mandate.
The second story in this issue was devoted to football, the second most popular sport in the USA at the time, and it too was produced by Fox, Infantino and Giella. That splash page above is a good example of Infantino’s approach to composition. He’s got a single large figure in the foreground, a far-off horizon line showcasing the outline of the stadium and other, smaller players, and a ton of open, expansive white space. But your eye goes exactly where it is meant to and the piece has good visual impact as well. Of note here is well is the expressive lettering of Gaspar Saladino, in particular on the title graphics. Saladino was so good at this that over the years, he’d often be called upon to letter just the opening page of particular stories where he could put his calligraphy skills to good use, with other hands handling the more mundane lettering on the rest of the feature.
The story here involved Jim Spencer, the son of a noted football coach who is somewhat scrawny and bookish–and so unable to attract the attentions of girls. What he can do, however, is develop a plant whose berries give him almost magically a perfect physical physique–attributes he uses to become a football star. But while he’s playing on the gridiron, he’s ignoring the experiment that gave him his abilities. And when the berries he’d consumed begin to lose their potency, he’s unable to re-create the original experiment, and so his form begins to gradually diminish. He hopes to be able to make it hold out long enough to play in the championship–but when he’s forced to go into action to save a little girl about to be struck by a car, he loses the last of his strength, and twists his ankle for good measure.
But that twisted ankle is a blessing in disguise, as it means that he can sit out most of the championship game without disgrace. And in the final minutes, Jim convinces his father to put him in–figuring that the opposing team will expect the ball to be passed to him, making him a perfect decoy. As predicted, Jim is tackled and blacks out from the damage done to his ankle–but the team wins the game. And his efforts all throughout this story have caught the eye of the girl he was interested in, so everything ends well for the temporary gridiron hero.
Finally, at the close of the issue,. Johnny DC puts in another appearance–this time to promote BRAVE AND THE BOLD’s sister tryout title, SHOWCASE. This particular issue attempts to promote perennial back-up series Tommy Tomorrow to headliner status. It doesn’t quite work, though, and Tommy Tomorrow never graduates to a title of his own. It’s a pretty great, well-designed ad, though.