Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The 1930s: A Retrospective

After about ten months of solid reading, I have reached the end of the 1930s, and I thought now would be a good time to look back on the best and worst of the comics from that era.  This retrospective is almost certainly going to slant towards DC, because the vast majority of the comics I read came from that publisher.  Marvel, Archie and Quality are just getting into the super-hero genre as this decade closes, so I'm sure I'll have more to say about them the next time I do a post like this one.

A lot of things have changed in the comics from 1935 to 1940.  When I started this project, everything was in black and white, and the stories were all continuing serials in monthly installments of two or three pages.  It wasn't unusual for a story to drag along over many months, or even years.  Now everything is in colour, the stories have a higher page count, and they're mostly finished in a single installment.  Hardly anybody is writing serials any more, and it's been a big jump in quality.  It's much easier for me to enjoy these types of comics when I don't have to remember what happened in two pages of a comic I read a week ago.

As for actual enjoyment, let's say that there is a dearth of material that I would actually sit down and read for pleasure.  Most of the plots and situations are things that I have seen a thousand times before, and most of the characters are bland ciphers.  But I have learned over the months to compare these strips to each other rather than to the comics of today, and that makes it easier to spot the moments of quality.

And now, the awards!  Starting with the Worsts.

The Worst Creator: There are a lot of guys who have made terrible comics during this time, but most of them have come and gone without leaving much of an impression on me.  But for sheer longevity, I'm going to give it to Homer Fleming.  He has been around since day one, mostly doing cowboy strips for DC.  Occasionally he creates something with a glimmer of interest, but most of his work is terribly bland and hackneyed.  His 'Captain Jim' strip was the absolute worst; it ran for about 30 chapters, in which Jim chased the same gang of rustlers around and accomplished nothing.  The story even ended with no resolution.  Apologies to Homer, who probably doesn't actually deserve this award, but he was the first name that sprang to mind.  He's probably dead and can't read this anyway.

The other one I thought of was Sven Elven, another long-time DC artist with an extended string of mediocrity on strips like 'Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise' and 'The Magic Crystal of History'.  He was saved by his swashbuckling pirate stories, which were occasionally quite fun.

I also want to talk about Gardner Fox here.  The guy is prolific, no doubt about that, and he works across a whole lot of genres.  When he does fantasy stories, he's very good.  He's also pretty good on super-heroes.  They guy has some pretty gonzo ideas.  But give him a detective story, and it's usually awful, just very poorly constructed and executed.  (Don't worry Fox fans, I'll talk about him a bit more in a later category.)

The Worst Comic: Without a doubt, Movie Comics, a terrible-looking comic with heavily truncated movie adaptations.  I actively dreaded reading it, and was overjoyed when I finished the final issue.  Its cancellation was well deserved.

And now, the prestigious Bests:

The Best Creators: Without a doubt, the honours here go to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  They had their fair share of clunkers, but for the most part what they created was imaginative and energetic, and miles ahead of the pack.  'Superman' and 'Slam Bradley' were their stand-outs, but 'Federal Men' was one of the very best of the early strips, and 'Doctor Occult' and 'Spy' also had solid runs where they were entertaining.  Siegel also writes 'Red, White and Blue', which can be very entertaining at times.

Honourable mentions go to: Tom Hickey, who went from one of my least favourite artists to one of the most solid and dependable guys around;  Will Eisner, who is just starting to come into his own as a brilliant storyteller; Bill Everett, for his work on 'Sub-Mariner'; Gardner Fox, who writes a lot of fun fantasy stories; and Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, who not only founded DC, but was one of their best writers in the early days.

The Best Strip: I have no hesitation in saying that the best strip of the 1930s is 'Slam Bradley' by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  I've been gushing about it since day one, and it really is that good.  If DC released a collection of this stuff I'd run out and buy it immediately, and there's nothing else from this time that I'd say that about.  It's even survived the transition of artist from Joe Shuster to Mart Bailey with only a minor drop in quality.

There are a few others that I look forward to quite a bit.  Siegel and Shuster's 'Superman' was a close runner-up.  'Zatara' by Gardner Fox and Fred Guardineer is always great.  Will Eisner's 'Espionage' gets better and better.  'Sub-Mariner' by Bill Everett has started strongly.  There are heaps more that I'm probably forgetting right now.

I'm surprised not to be including 'Batman' here, but to be honest that strip has been good half the time and a bit crap for the other half.  Once it hits a consistent level of quality I'm sure I'll love it.

The Best Comic: This is a toss-up between Action Comics and Detective Comics.  The former has 'Superman' and 'Zatara', both of which are very good.  The latter has 'Slam Bradley' which is great, 'Bruce Nelson' which is often good, and 'Batman', which has Batman in it.  In the end I think I have to go with Action Comics.  Perhaps when 'Batman' lifts its game Detective Comics will take over.


A new decade lies ahead of me, a decade with a greater focus on super-heroes.  I'm looking forward to it, despite the knowledge that I'm going to be reading a lot of racist war propaganda stories.  But looking back at my posts, I noticed that it has taken me about six months to get through 1939.  This is much too slow, and things are only going to get slower as the companies ramp up production.  I'd like to get to the 1960s as quickly as possible.  So I'll be trying to read more than one comic a day when time allows, and waiting impatiently for the page counts to drop.  I'll be back tomorrow with a look at More Fun Comics #52, and the first appearance of the Spectre.  See you in the funny pages!

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