Sunday, 8 January 2012

Comic Review - The Steel Claw: The Vanishing Man

The British contribution to the superpowered world has always been a bit of an odd one, and Fleetway were at the forefront of this in the 1960s. The stars of the strip were often the anti-heroes of it all - The Steel Claw, The Spider, The Snake, The Sludge, Grimly Feendish, Mytek the Mighty - pitched against cops and secret agents whose names seem so much harder to remember. Is it any wonder Alan Moore gave us V and Rorschach on the back of this stuff? Of course, sometimes these characters were mellowed... The Spider went to fighting crime, albeit largely to satisfy his own curiosity. And then there was the Steel Claw.

The character has yet to grasp me particularly strongly, on the back of both this collection and a handful of other stories. Maybe it's that the powers really aren't that impressive - invisibility loses its' punch a little when it leaves a metal hand floating around. It seems every time Crandell comes across a new enemy, they rather cannily come up with the "shoot around the hand, he's got to be there somewhere" line. An exaggeration, of course, but then the title does seem somehow repetitive, despite its' rampant genre-hopping (over its' run, the serial would run the gamut from spy stories to science fiction to outright cape heroics). Whether Crandell is fighting pirates, aliens or Reds, the same things seem to come up - the electrical charge that facilitates his invisibility running low at a crucial point, or the "shoot around the hand" thing (amusingly, Crandell's neat idea of putting the metal hand in his pocket, thus rendering him totally invisible, is forgotten after the first episode, presumably to stop his powers being all that useful).

Maybe it's just as simple as me thinking invisibility isn't a particularly interesting power (they souped up the claw itself later on to include all kinds of 007 gubbins, but right now that isn't much use). It's a shame, though, because the debut serial is nearly an absolute belter. Riffing heavily on HG Wells' Invisible Man (though without even the vague science of that - Crandell's clothes disappear at the same time as his flesh), the bitter, jealous, petty Crandell finds a laboratory accident gives him the power of invisibility, and promptly goes on a rampage. His methods aren't exactly terrific early on, but when he gets to New York, it really takes off. The tension is cranked up as Crandell basically begins a terrorist campaign against the entire world and doubles when he can't get back out of the city and the authorities, led by Scotland Yard's Inspector Lynch, begin to close in. Crandell's ersatz boss, Professor Barrington, is also along for the ride, and basically makes an idiot out of himself by constantly worrying about Crandell when he's holding the city to ransom. The episodes are very pacy, and Bulmer's script really imbues a feeling of desperation in the character.

All of which makes the last couple of episodes all the more disappointing, as Crandell reforms for no readily apparent reason. There's a rather pat assertion from Barrington that the accident caused his behaviour, something made difficult to stomach from Crandell's characterisation before the accident, and the good Professor's near-delusional bleating throughout the story, but the damage is done - Crandell apologises, and the world lets him off. Of course, the real story is that the intended one-off serial had been well-received by Valiant readers, and would become an ongoing series. It's a shame they didn't have him slip away, unrepentant, and return to threaten the world - that could have been a lot of fun.

This is a description which sadly doesn't apply to the second story, "Dr. Deutz". The titular villain attempts to replicate Crandell's accident, with slightly different results, and then sets about framing the reformed Claw for all sorts of criminal wrongdoing. With Crandell and Barrington protesting the former's innocence, Deutz setting Crandell up and the world at large falling for it, very quickly becomes frustrating. The suspense is gone, with no real feeling than Crandell's ever going to snap and really go for it, or get the blame. However, the characterisation of Crandell is good - he's already becoming the slightly withdrawn, wary, unsociable character he would for the rest of the run, a nice change from the grinning loon at the end of the debut serial and early stages of this one.

The third serial "Sharkey" (the serials generally being named after the primary villain) was Bulmer's last on the title, before handing over to Tom Tully. This does at least use a little more imagination, with Crandell going for a diving holiday with a friend, and running into a group of modern-day pirates. While it's fast and avoids the repetition of "Dr. Deutz", it's nowhere near as much fun, falling between two chairs in a way the character seemed to fairly often - it's implausible, but not implausible enough. The Spider is basically ludicrous, but under Jerry Siegel, this was taken to the ultimate degree so everything was very, very implausible, and thus it all made a mad sort of sense. Steel Claw on the other hand always seemed to be trying to be a bit more realistic, and somehow ends up looking sillier, and a little po-faced. The pirate ringleader, the titular Sharkey, is a prime example. He's just a thug who happens to be at sea, he's not over-the-top enough to be any fun. But the serial is the right length, not outstaying its' welcome, and at least testing Crandell by not taking place in an urban environment, surrounded by sources of electricity.

Overall, it's actually not a bad set of stories. It doesn't stand up to rereading particularly well sadly, and simply picking the first three stories may not have been the best option for the character. The strip does generally maintain a menacing, pulpy feel, thanks to Blasco's detailed, dark artwork, but the plots aren't quite there. Bulmer's unsure as to whether to gently develop Louis or go for bags of pace and drama, and the result is the book tends to lurch between set-pieces and rather forced characterisation. It's a shame that so much potential is sabotaged by this mixed approach. The first story is very nearly classic, the second dull, and the third a step in the right direction. Overall, though, this collection isn't half as impressive as King of Crooks, but is recommended for Claw fans, and those interested in the character. Let's just hope Titan follow it up with some choicer stories soon.