Tuesday, August 23, 2011

September-October 1939: Smash Comics #4, Blue Ribbon Comics #2, Action Comics #19

Cover possibly by Gill Fox

'Espionage starring Black Ace' (by Will Eisner): As the threat of war looms between the USA and "The Orient", Black Ace must transport the US defense plans to a conference in California while avoiding a sexy foreign agent named Madame Doom. This strip gets better and better, and this is one of the best examples of the spy genre seen in comics to this date. It's also interesting to see Eisner using a lot of cinematic storytelling shortcuts, such as a flurry pf newspaper headlines, and the old "line on a map" to denote long-distance travel. There aren't any other comic artists doing this stuff at this time, but Eisner's using the techniques effectively.

'Clip Chance at Cliffside' (by George Brenner): Last issue, Clip was tricked into breaking curfew by his rival Ray Snort, and now he's off the football team. Meanwhile, some gamblers have stolen Clip's playbook and given it to the other team.  The part of this story where Clip is investigating all of the shenanigans is quite solid, but it all falls apart once he's solved everything and makes his triumphant return to the football field. There's something inherently dull about watching real sports depicted as comics.

'Invisible Justice' (by Art Pinajian): Invisible Justice goes up against the Green Lizard, a masked crime lord who is blackmailing wealthy businessmen for money. It's an average story, but the swamp setting gives it a little bit of atmosphere.

'Captain Cook of Scotland Yard' (by William A. Smith): Cook infiltrates a gang of anarchists who have been blowing up buildings in London. His disguise goes awry when he is assigned to blow up a bridge, but he manages to capture them all in the end. The only thing that this story has going for it is that the villains all wear Cobra Commander hoods. This is a fairly common occurrence in the comics of this era, and I wonder what the real-world inspiration was.

'Hugh Hazzard and his Iron Man' (by George Brenner): Hugh and Bozo protect a submarine from foreign saboteurs, who then capture Hugh and try to torture the secret of his robot out of him.  Bozo comes to the rescue, and even manages to have a fight scene with a shark. Not to mention the earlier bit where he catches a bomb and throws it at a plane in mid air. The story itself is nothing special, but there are a few really entertaining moments.

'Abdul the Arab' (by Vernon Henkel): Abdul goes up against Forrest (an English brigand) and his gang of Arab crooks, who have slaughtered an English expedition and stolen their priceless ruby. There's nothing of interest here.

'Chic Carter, Ace Reporter' (by Vernon Henkel): Chic goes to Singapore to investigate the theft of gold bullion from a ship, and ends up captured by a gang of pirates. They're defeated by the end of what is a very dull tale.

'Flash Fulton' (by Paul Gustavson): This is a new strip about a newsreel cameraman who I assume gets into dangerous adventures during the course of his job. In this story he is assigned to get footage of the dictator Rudolph, who has just marched his forces into the fake country of Cerania. He gets the footage showing Rudolph leading a bloody cavalry charge against a defenseless village, which he thinks will put a stop to Rudolph's invasion. There's also a subplot about Rudolph having a double, but that goes nowhere. Again, this is a very mediocre story, and not a series that I'm looking forward to more of.

'The Cloudburst' (by A.L. Allen): In this prose story a US marshal is investigating some crooks smuggling cattle over the Mexican border. While they are herding cattle through a dry river bed, a flash flood threatens to kill them all. To be continued! The cliffhanger to this took me by surprise, and it promises to be a much different story than I thought it would be.

'John Law, Scientective' (by Harry Francis Campbell): It's a locked room mystery, in which Law must figure out how a wealthy plane magnate was murdered in a sealed room before the victim's innocent son is executed for the crime. The solution is pretty ingenious - a heavy block of dry ice is hidden in a lamp that the victim sits under. The heat of the lamp expands a piece of metal, the dry ice falls and crushes the victim's head, then it evaporates leaving no trace of a murder weapon. It's very clever, and enough to make this otherwise average story worth a look.

'Wings Wendall' (by Vernon Henkel): Wings investigates the disappearance of some planes over Alaska. It turns out to be the work of a mad scientist, who has captured the bombers and is controlling the pilots with drugs. Wings puts a stop to that nonsense, but we never do get a motivation for the villain, or any indication at all of what his goal is. It's pretty weak.

Cover by Norman Danberg

'Rang-a-Tang the Wonder Dog' (by Norman Danberg): Detective Speed and Rang-a-Tang save a baby from a fire, only to find that the other baby has been kidnapped. They track the kidnappers up north into Canada, capture them and rescue the child. This one has an almost frantic pace to it, but for the life of me I can't figure out exactly what the kidnappers wanted.

'Dan Hastings' (by Creators Unknown):

'Buck Stacey' (by Creators Unknown): Buck Stacey is still investigating the theft of Sandra Cumming's cattle. He can't catch a break, as he is framed for stealing her money as well as murder when a thug who attacks him falls on his own knife. At that point it got so farcical that I was enjoying it, but in the end Buck makes the real culprit confess and it all goes along the usual western lines.

'Experiment in Death' (by Creators Unknown): This prose Dan Hastings story is very bizarre. The population of Earth is dying, as the planet's oxygen is being stolen by a ray from the planet Termin, 2 billion light years away. Dan is sent to Termin, where he meets and is killed by telepathic alien crabs. He wakes up back on Earth, where Professor Carter has saved Earth by firing his own rays back at Termin. And then there's a weird explanation about what happened to Dan having happened in the future, but only if he's actually there at the time it happens. And for that matter, I don't see how his trip to Termin helps the situation at all. It's an intriguing set-up with some incredibly vivid passages, but none of it makes a lick of sense.  But you know what?  I'm willing to run with it as the final Dan Hastings story and say that eventually he does die on Termin exactly as described.  Hooray for inescapable destiny!

'Scoop Cody' (by Creators Unknown): Scoop Cody is a reporter who is tasked with tracking down a racketeer. It would be a fairly pedestrian affair, except that he is aided by a masked man called the Marvel.  The mystery of this guy makes an otherwise mediocre story just a little bit more interesting.

'Bob Phantom the Scourge of the Underworld' (by Irv Novick): I'm not really sure what Bob Phantom's deal is. He could be a ghost, or he could be a superhero with a lot of tricks. But nothing about him is explained, which is puzzling and sort of unsettling from the perspective of having read so many Golden Age comics now. In this story he terrorises a gangster until he gives himself up to the DA. I'd hesitate to call this story good, but the character is intriguing. The story-telling style is certainly like nothing I've seen in this era so far.

'Devils of the Deep' (by George Nagle and possibly Edd Ashe): Jim, Bill and Ted are naval adventurers. They come across a wrecked ship, and discover that it's been sabotaged by a man trying to claim its cargo of jewels. It's perfunctory at best.

'Secret Assignments' (by Maurice Gutwirth): Adventurer Jack Strand is sent to investigate the sabotage of his uncle's Balkan oil fields. It turns out that the saboteurs are spies trying to stop the nation getting the benefit of the oil. There are some slightly more sophisticated story-telling techniques on display here, but the story just isn't interesting at all.

'The Silver Fox' (by Creators Unknown): A police chief with a silver streak through his hair reminisces about the case that won him his nick-name of the Silver Fox. It's a hackneyed "the butler did it" detective story about a murdered millionaire, but at least it plays fair with the mystery. The art has some serious perspective problems, though.

'Corporal Collins, Infantryman' (possibly by Abner Sundell and Charles Biro): Jim Collins, an American stranded in Paris after it declares war with Germany, joins the French army and spends the next four pages just straight up killing Nazis. It's the first real anti-Nazi story I've read, and while there's a certain excitement to it, it's really quite terrible.

Cover by Joe Shuster

'Superman' (by Siegel and Shuster): A mysterious plague is killing the people of Metropolis, the work of none other than (surprise, surprise) the Ultra-Humanite. Superman helps a scientist find the cure, and has a bunch of confrontations with his enemy, from being shot with an electric gun to being hypnotised to serve him (don't worry kids, he's just faking). The story ends when Superman pulls the Ultra-Humanite in front of his own electric gun, killing him. Yes, Superman kills the Ultra-Humanite, and it looks quite deliberate to me. To be honest, it's not at all out of character for this version of Superman. It's another enjoyable story, though I'm hoping we get some villains besides the Ultra-Humanite in the near future.


'Pep Morgan' (by Gardner Fox and Fred Guardineer): On his way home, Pep foils a train robbery. Two of the crooks escape, and return later to seek revenge. This is a fairly average story, but the presence of Pep's family grounds it and gives him a bit of added dimension. I've said it before, but all those sport strips before Pep became an action hero make him feel a lot more authentic as a character. The same thing goes for showing his family.

'Chuck Dawson' (by Homer Fleming): Chuck is ambushed by two cowboys who steal his boots and leave him with a pair of their own. This is their way of framing him for murder and robbery, but Chuck escapes from town and brings them to justice. This isn't the first Chuck Dawson story with an intriguing opening and a lame finale, and it won't be the last.

'Clip Carson, Soldier of Fortune' (by Bill Finger and Bob Kane): In Kenya, Clip is hired to lead a safari carrying ivory to the African coast. By modern standards it's unusual to see the ivory trade portrayed in anything less than a negative light. The ivory shipments have been the target of the notorious Wolf Lupo, whose agents dog Clip at every turn. There's not much excitement to be had in this chapter, but a scene where Clip wins the friendship of some cannibals by giving them harmonicas is memorable (probably for all the wrong reasons).

'Forest Fire' (by Jack Anthony): A forest ranger rescues a woman and her son from a fire.  It just barely manages to qualify as a story.

'Tex Thomson and the Zombies' (by Bernard Baily): Now there's a title with some promise. Alas, the zombies in question are chemically hypnotised people under the command of an African tribe. Tex has been hired to find the son of a friend of his, and he ends up captured and about to be injected with the chemical. To be continued! This is okay, but as ever I find Gargantua to be a troubling character.

Holy crap, it's a full page ad for Flash Comics! Featuring the Flash! And the Hawk-Man! And, uh, the Whip! Huzzah!

'Three Aces' (by Bert Christman): Fog, Bill and Will investigate the death of a fellow pilot in a plane crash. It turns out his death was engineered by his wife and his business partner, who both wanted the money from an experimental engine for themselves. I was all set to hate this one, but the scenes with the wife and the killer at the end were quite good, and there's even a nice introspective ending. It's too bad that Fog's dialogue makes me want to gouge my eyes out every time he speaks.

'Zatara the Master Magician and the Gorilla King' (by Fred Guardineer): In this story Zatara takes on a madman who has created a city full of gorillas with human brains. From the moment the gorillas dressed as firemen showed up I knew that this was going to be a hoot. Zatara, as usual, is the best thing in this issue.

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