The Quality Companion
by Mike Kooiman and Jim Amash
This volume is, hands down, the best comic I’ve read in 2012. When Twomorrows gets it right, as they do with the Kirby Collector, Mego Book, and Roy Thomas’s Alter Ego, few, if any, in comics scholarship can touch them. And the Quality Companion hits all of the Twomorrows house style hallmarks: lengthy interviewing, exhaustive historical research, indexing, and tons of original, unseen art. It also adds the new wrinkle of a clutch of full-color reproductions of stories featuring some of Quality’s finest (including the Ray, Phantom Lady, Firebrand, and Madame Fatal — more on them later). All of this combined makes the Quality Companion one of Twomorrows most expansive and enjoyable volumes yet. It is also, to this reviewer’s knowledge, the first book-length history of the Quality Comics company. This is what it’s all about.
Quality Comics, one of the premier publishers during comics’ so-called Golden Age (of the 1930s-40s), is largely forgotten these days, with few of its characters having made the transition to the Modern Age. This is baffling given that Quality easily went toe to toe with DC and Timely (later Marvel) and frequently came out on top. Characters like Plastic Man, Blackhawk, and the Spirit were wildly popular, flying off the stands into the hands of eager young boys and men. Add to that a roster of unique characters like the Ray, Doll Man, Phantom Lady, Human Bomb, Uncle Sam, Neon the Unknown, and Red Torpedo, and a staff of artists/writers that variously included Jack Cole, Will Eisner, Lou Fine, and Reed Crandall, and Jesus Christ you’ve got an embarrassment of riches. However, like most comic companies, Quality was dealt a mortal blow during the Wertham hearings, and within a few years the characters were sold to competitor DC, where a handful of their stalwarts would get occasional second, third, and fourth leases on life. But what a ride it was!
The Quality Companion reconstructs the history of the company — both the rise and fall — by profiling the editors, publishers, artists, and writers (large and small) responsible for the ideas and characters, even going into detail on the murky copyright issues around the handing over of the Quality characters to DC Comics. There are also lengthy chapters dealing with how Quality characters were used by DC from the 1950s to the present day, with particular attention given to the Freedom Fighters team, and interviews with the likes of Roy Thomas and James Robinson, tireless boosters for the Quality characters within the so-called DC Universe. The bulk of the book comes from an epic, illustrated bibliography/encyclopedia of EVERY major Quality character, which is entertaining for both the hardcore fan and the casual enthusiast. You’ve got the big guns like Plastic Man, the fan favorites like Phantom Lady and the Human Bomb, the copycats (if a superhero was popular, publisher Busy Arnold would order up a carbon copy tout de suite) like Midnight and Wildfire, and downright goofy yet compelling characters like the Spider Widow (rich heiress dons rubber mask and throws spiders at criminals) and the queen of them all, Madame Fatal (male reporter dresses like old woman, FIGHTS CRIME!). The only mystery left unsatisfactorily answered is how, with so many great characters and aesthetic innovations by pioneering artists like Eisner and Fine, the Quality characters nowadays are relegated to comics’ C-List, their stories in the public domain, their characters unable to sustain even a miniseries? But this is a case even the Spirit would have trouble solving…