Review by Win Wiacek
One of the most fondly-remembered British strips of all time is the startlingly beautiful Steel Claw. From 1962 to 1973 the stunningly gifted Jesús Blasco and his small studio of family members thrilled the UK’s children, illustrating the angst-filled adventures of scientist, adventurer, secret agent and even costumed superhero Louis Crandell. The majority of the character’s career was scripted by comic veteran Tom Tully, but prolific science fiction novelist Ken Bulmer initially devises a modern spin on the Invisible Man.
This first collection gathers material from October 1962 to September 1963 in two page episodes, and stories from the Valiant Annual 1965 and 1966. The tense drama begins with our eventual hero debuting as a rather surly assistant to the venerable Professor Barringer, working to create a germ-destroying ray.
Crandell is an embittered man, possibly due to having lost his right hand in a lab accident. After his recovery and its replacement with a steel prosthetic, he is back at work when the prof’s device explodes. Crandell receives a monumental electric shock and is bathed in radiation from the ray-device which, rather than killing him, renders him totally transparent. Although he doesn’t stay unseen forever, this bodily mutation is permanent. Electric shocks cause all but his metal hand to disappear. Kids of all ages, do not try this at home!
Whether venal at heart or temporarily deranged, Crandell goes on a rampage of terror against society and destruction of property throughout Britain, which culminates in an attempt to blow up New York City before he finally coming to his senses. Throughout Crandell’s outrages, Barringer is in guilt-fuelled pursuit, determined to save or stop his former friend.
The second adventure channels another classic (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), intriguingly pitting the Claw against his therapist, who – in an attempt to treat him – is also traumatically exposed to Barringer’s ray. Instead of permanent invisibility, Dr. Deutz develops the ability to transform himself into a bestial ape-man who malevolently turns to crime and frames Crandell for a series of spectacular robberies and rampages.
Bulmer’s next tale changes location to the Bahamas as our star shifts from outlaw to hero. While recuperating on an inventor-friend’s yacht, Crandell is accidentally embroiled in a modern-day pirate’s attempt to hijack an undersea super-weapon system. After would-be bullion bandit Sharkey and his nefarious gang steal the device and use it to capture a submarine, their convoluted scheme to rob an ocean liner falters when a steel fisted ghost starts picking them off one by one…
More than any other comics character, the Steel Claw was a barometer for reading fashions. Starting out as a Quatermass-style science fiction cautionary tale, the strip mimicked the trends of the greater world. It becomes a James Bond-style super-spy strip with Crandall eventually tricked out with outrageous gadgets, and latterly, he’s a masked and costumed super-doer when TV-show-triggered “Batmania” gripped the nation and the world. When that bubble burst, he resorted to becoming a freelance adventurer, combating eerie menaces and vicious criminals. Before we head too far down that path however, his contributions to Valiant Annuals 1965 and 1966 (released Autumn 1964 and 1965 respectively) afford rather more constrained thrills and chills as Crandell defeats a gang using an electricity-supressing gadget.
The thrills of the writing are engrossing enough, but the real star of this feature is the artwork. Blasco’s captivating classicist drawing, his moody staging and the sheer beauty of his subjects make this an absolute pleasure to look at. Brace yourself for more in Reign of the Brain.