Sunday, September 11, 2011

November 1939: Pep Comics #1, Top-Notch Comics #1

Cover by Irv Novick

'The Shield, G-Man Extraordinary' (by Harry Shorten and Irv Novick): After Joe Higgins' father was killed during the infamous Black Tom explosion in World War I, he vowed to protect his country from further attacks, and designed a special suit to become the Shield. It makes him super-strong and super-fast, and basically unkillable.  He's also an FBI agent, and the first overtly patriotic super-hero. In his first outing he smashes a spy ring. I couldn't find a lot to get excited about in this story. The Shield himself is bland, and his invulnerability got annoying after a while.

'The Comet' (by Jack Cole): Scientist John Dickering discovers a gas that allows him to jump great heights when injected into his bloodstream, but it also causes his gaze to disintegrate anything he looks at (except for glass). He decides to use his power for good as the Comet, wearing a glass visor to control his eye beams, and in his first outing he takes on a gang of crooks who are distributing poison so that the beneficiaries of large insurance policies can bump of the insured party and claim the money. This one started off fairly dull as well, but around the time the Comet started disintegrating every crook in sight it got a lot more interesting. The conclusion made no sense, but the Comet himself is so ruthless that I want to see more of him.

I'm wondering now whether this story influenced the creation of Cyclops from the X-Men.  It's probably unlikely that Lee ripped it off directly, because this comic came out over 20 years before the X-Men debuted, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that the idea was subconsciously floating around in his head.

'Sergeant Boyle' (by Creators Unknown): Boyle is an American who has joined the British army. In this story he and his men get caught behind enemy lines, then kill Germans for six pages. This is the trend for Archie war comics. It's basically Nazi-killing pornography.

'The Queen of Diamonds' (by Lin Streeter): In the hidden Diamond Empire, a strange man calling himself The Rocket crash lands and is taken prisoner. Struck by the queen's beauty he submits to becoming her slave, and ends up fighting off a rebellion on her behalf. The lead character, known only as The Rocket, has a nobility and humility that is rare in the Golden Age. He also punches a lion unconscious, which is always a plus.

'Fu Chang, International Detective' (by Joe Blair and Lin Streeter): Fu Chang is a Chinese detective in San Francisco, His gimmick is that he has a set of magic chessmen that he can bring to life to aid him in his cases, which so far amounts to nothing more than sending the miniature men to spy on his suspects. In this story he goes up against a man who murdered a sailor, then framed the father of the woman he wants to marry. It's not great, but the chessmen angle is interesting.

'Murderer's Brew' (by Will Harr): In this prose story, a doctor is caught in a cabin with murderous fur thieves, and poisons them with some spiked whiskey. This isn't bad, and the twist at the end was logical and satisfying.

'Bentley of Scotland Yard' (by Maurice Gutwirth): This one starts promisingly, with Bentley saving a young heiress from a werewolf. But in the end it turns out that the werewolf is just her godfather in a costume, which is less than satisfying.

'The Press Guardian' (by Jack Binder): Ace reporter Flash Calvert is assigned to cover the robbery of a cafe. He is captured by the crooks, but rescued by the Falcon, an absurdly dressed hero. The story is dull, and the Falcon may have the worst super-hero costume yet.

'The Midshipman' (by Will Harr and Edd Ashe): Midshipman Lee Samson rescues a girl from a plane crash in the water, then ends up in a bitter rivalry with her boyfriend. It culminates in a boat race that Samson wins despite his rival smashing his boat with an oar. Normally I would hate this sort of thing, but I was surprised to see Samson collapse with exhaustion after winning the race. It's a small touch, but not the sort of thing I've seen much of in this type of comic, where the heroes are usually infallibly masculine.

'Kayo Ward' (by Phil Sturm): Eddie Ward stops a fight manager from being beaten up, and then becomes a boxer. It's not very interesting, though Ward is kind of endearingly thick.

Cover by Creators Unknown

This issue opens with a full-page ad of Rang-a-Tang the Wonder Dog fighting a giant squid. I think he's becoming my new favourite character.

'The Wizard, The Man With the Super Brain' (by Edd Ashe): The Wizard is Blane Whitney, a super genius in service to his country. His super smarts were evident from a young age, and he was brought to the attention of the president, who gave him the following contradictory advice: "You must be careful never to use it for bad, only for good... Dedicate your life, as your ancestors dedicated theirs, to the service of your country!" At this point I should mention that Blane Whitney's ancestors were all great patriots, some of whom I assume to be genuine real-life dudes (my knowledge of US history is cursory at best). After the origin story is out of the way, the Wizard uses his many gadgets and his super brain to stop agents of Jatsonia from blowing up a US submarine fleet. This isn't terrible, but the Wizard is so sickeningly brilliant at everything that I hate him completely. When the captions tell me "He is a clean cut young man, and is also popular with the ladies," that's when I mentally check out.

'Scott Rand in the Worlds of Time' (by Otto Binder and Jack Binder): Any strip that begins with a time car already in motion has got to be good. Scott Rand and Professor Meade travel back to Rome in 200 AD during a Viking attack, and save a Viking from death. Of course, in true Bill and Ted fashion, he joins their crew. Then in ancient Egypt they rescue a princess who was about to be sacrificed, and she joins as well. Then they teach the new crew members English. Then they go back to prehistoric times and blow up some dinosaurs. This is really just a string of events rather than a story, but it's still very enjoyable. I hope they just keep on picking up new crew members wherever they land.

'Swift of the Secret Service' (by Creators Unknown): Swift, a secret service agent, helps his dad investigate a murder. The killer was the victim's nephew, and also the beneficiary of his insurance payout. There's a nice bit where the killer murders his uncle with a sand-filled sock, then washes it out and wears it the next day. Aside from that, it's fairly generic stuff.

'Air Patrol: Sky Raiders of the Western Front' (by Joe Blair and Ed Smalle): Ben Johnson is an RAF pilot seeking vengeance against a German U-Boat captain for the murder of his childhood friend, in what may very well be the most implausible origin story I've ever seen. Seriously, Ben and his friend Jack are fishing in a schooner when a German submarine just happens to surface and shoot Jack for no reason. It's absurd. The rest of the story is fairly poorly executed aerial dogfight, and Ben still hasn't caught Von Schiller at the end.

'Murder Rap' (by Ken Fitch): Police detective "Lucky" Coyne rescues a woman from racketeers. This is loaded with action, but the characters don't explain why they're doing anything until the very end. Sometimes that can work, but it didn't here.

'Lucky Coyne, Undercover Man' (by Ken Fitch): Okay, so Lucky Coyne is in the comics as well. In this story, he and his female partner infiltrate a gang of jewel thieves. The story doesn't identify them at first, and the fact that they are undercover agents is presented as a twist ending. It's at least a little more experimental than most other Golden Age stories, but it doesn't have much else to offer.

'The Mystic' (by C.A. Winter): The Mystic is a crime-fighting stage magician. In this story, a gang of racketeers seeks revenge on him. They throw the Mystic and his fiancee into the river in a coffin, and he escapes. And that's it. The crooks get away, and are not dealt with. It's a very unsatisfying conclusion. The Mystic himself has no special powers; he really is just a stage magician.

'The West Pointer' (by Ed Wexler): Keith Kornell grows up in poverty, but because he is awesome at everything, he becomes a cadet at West Point. After a training montage, he gets in a fight with an upperclassman and wins his respect by punching him a lot. I struggle to think why I'd ever be interested in reading about cadets.

'Manhunters' (by Jack Cole): This is another series by Jack Cole about true crime stories. Here the focus is on the scientific techniques used to capture some crooks who are forging checks. I have zero interest in this sort of thing.

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