Created by Pat Mussili, Joe Gill and Dick Giardino
“A cool knowing man who savors danger… who will not make one concession to fear… and whose fees may be as little as a smile from a pretty girl!”
— cover blurb from Sarge Steel–Private Detective #1
At 6’1″, 198 pounds, blue eyes, black hair and a left hand made of solid steel clenched into a permanent fist, SARGE STEEL isn’t your run-of-the-mill private eye.
Then again, considering some of the characters flying around in the comic universe, Sarge is pretty down to earth. And that’s where you’ll find him, in a series of comic books from back in the sixties by Charlton and various cameos ever since in Superman, The New Titans and other DC Comics, which ended up with the rights to a lot of the Charlton characters.
Steel enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1960, and soon joined the Special Forces. Although the nickname “Sarge” stuck, he actually rose to the rank of Captain.
That’s one version — but of course in the shape-shifting world of comics there’s rarely ever one version. Another is that he was never a sergeant in the army at all. His nickname is Sarge because his real name is “Sargent.” His military career was always spent as a commissioned officer. The confusion is understandable, given the general pick-and-choose sloppiness of comic book continuity, and the fact that Sarge was a Charlton character who later moved to over DC. I mean, how many fan boys can dance on the head of a pin?
Somewhere along the Charlton line, Sarge received training in martial arts (he’s a black belt in several of the early stories, and several of the issues included a three-page back up feature entitled “Sport of Judo,” wherein Sarge demonstrated assorted judo moves), gymnastics and boxing. He was quick with his wit, and not too slow with his fists or his trigger finger. He specialized in busting up operations involving war profiteers, which led to several assassination attempts. It was one of those that resulted in his losing his left hand. He was sent Stateside where he received a steel fist and a pat on the back from Uncle Sam.
Not content to settle down, Steel decides to become a private eye, opening a small detective agency in New York City. He hired Bess Forbes as his Gal Friday and sets out to do battle. However, his rep in the Special Forces seems to attract some pretty bizarre cases, involving spies, master criminals and super villians (hey! we’re in the comics, remember?) from all over the world.
With all his training and that lethal left hook, Steel is nobody to mess around with. Perhaps because of his dealings with various “super” types, he doesn’t have much use for the spandex crowd. Or maybe he just doesn’t like men in pantyhose…
Always a bit of a hardass, Steel has few friends, save for Bess, who’s remained remarkably true to him through the years.
But it was the height of the sixties spy craze, and since most of Steel’s cases seemed to involve various international conspiracies, anyway, after only six issues, Steel officially became a government agent. Sarge Steel–Private Detective #1 was retitled Sarge Steel–Special Agent–and eventually just Secret Agent. Perhaps Charlton hoped, as Jim Doherty theorized (see below) that “a generic title… might generate higher circulation figures than a title identified with a particular character.” It didn’t help — it only lasted a few more issues.
But it’s hard to keep a guy like Steel down. He followed his co-creator, comic legend Dick Giardino, over to DC where–no longer a gumshoe (unless some plot calls for it), he still shows up now and then, although his title now is U.S. Director of Meta-Human Activities, a sort of regulatory body for superheroes run by the CIA. He eventually becomes the liason between the U.S. government and assortred super-types, including Wonder Woman and The New Titans, but none of that has much to do with being a P.I.
But those first six issues? Yowsah!
- “I recently got out my collection of Sarge Steel comics to refresh my memory, and found out that the series wasn’t that bad, but, if you like P.I. stories, ultimately disappointing. The problem was it got started in the mid-60s, during the 007 craze P.I.s were passé so, in each and every issue, Sarge got involved in an espionage plot instead of a more typical P.I. plot. By the last two issues, they weren’t even pretending to be a P.I. book anymore. The title changed from Sarge Steel-Private Detective to Sarge Steel-Special Agent to just Secret Agent, and Sarge’s detective business became a just cover for his activities as a U.S. intelligence agent. I’m assuming that identifying Sarge as a private detective was not a great seller, and when changing him to special agent didn’t translate into bigger sales, they just dropped Sarge’s name from the title of the book altogether in the hopes that a generic title like “Secret Agent” might generate higher circulation figures than a title identified with a particular character. It didn’t work, because the book survived under the Secret Agent title for only two more issues. Somebody at Charlton must’ve really liked the Sarge Steel character, though, (creator Dick Giardino?) because he survived as a back-up feature in other Charlton titles like Judomaster after his own book tanked.
Not that I mind spy stories. Donald Hamilton and Adam Hall are among my favorite writers. Nor do I mind P.I.s getting involved in spy plots. Two of my favorite Mike Hammer books (One Lonely Night and The Girl Hunters), one of my favorite Shell Scott‘s (Pattern for Panic), involve the heroes in espionage, and international op Chet Drum, due to the intercontinental nature of his cases, also had a tendency to get involved in cloak and dagger, as well. But none of them was a spy chacter masquerading as a P.I. character. Sarge Steel was, and in his most recent DC Comics incarantion, they don’t even bother with the masquerade.
— Jim Doherty
- SARGE STEEL-PRIVATE DETECTIVE
Writers: Pat Masulli, Joe Gill, Frank McLaughlin
Artists: Dick Giordino, Bill Montes, Frank McLaughlin, Pat Masulli, Rocke Mastroserio, Ernie Bache
- “The Case of the Pearls of Death” (December 1964, #1)
- “The Man Who Blackmailed the World” (February 1965, #2)
- “The Case of the Heritage of Hate” (April/May 1965, #3)
- “The Kiss of the Cat” (July 1965, #4)
- “The Case of the Caged Brain” (September 1965, #5)
- “The Case of the King’s Assassin” (November 1965, #6)
- “The Day They Killed Sarge Steel” (January 1966, #7)
- “The Case of the Terrible Talon” (April 1966, #8)
- SECRET AGENT
Writers: Joe Gill, Steve Skeates
Artists: Dick Giordino
- “The Warmaker!” (October 1966, #9)
- “The Case of the Third Hand” (October 1967, #10)
Apparently the change of occupation and title didn’t help. This version only lasted two issues, published a year apart. Although the final issue did feature private eye Tiffany Sinn‘s final case.