Wednesday, November 30, 2011

March 1940: Zip Comics #4

Cover by Charles Biro

'Steel Sterling, Man of Steel' (by Charles Biro): The plot here is exceedingly average, as some crooks steal a hospital's supply of radium. The only real twist comes when their leader is revealed as the Black Knight, Steel's arch-nemesis. (At this point, it will be a twist if he's not involved in a story.) Despite the plot, the story is full of small touches that make it great. There's a heavy dose of slapstick in the fight scenes, even a bit where a crook is punched through a wall, leaving a perfect outline of himself behind. The crooks show some remarkable overkill when delivering a message: they write it on a safe and drop it from a building. Most bizarrely of all, Steel now has the ability to pick up radio transmissions by setting up a contact between his teeth and tongue. But perhaps what really makes it is the triangle set up between Steel, his girl friend Dora Cummings, and Steel's brother John (who is actually Steel in his civilian identity). It's a shameless riff on the Superman formula, with Dora loving Steel and despising the cowardly John, but it's still done well.

'The Scarlet Avenger' (by Harry Shorten and Irv Novick): Last issue we left the Scarlet Avenger about to be killed by the crime queen Lexa, but here she makes the classic criminal mistake of letting him live, because "he might be of use". Her hypnotism fails against the Scarlet Avenger, and he foils her plot to kidnap the president. As the strip ends, the Scarlet Avenger and his operatives are being overwhelmed by Lexa's forces. This is decent, but the failure of Lexa's hypnotism irked me. There's no reason for it given, and no particular struggle against it on the Scarlet Avenger's part. It just doesn't work, which is not good enough for me.

'Nevada Jones, Quick-Trigger Man' (by Creators Unknown): Nevada goes up against Slade Bowman, a notorious railroad bandit. This started well, with Slade as a charming yet ruthless killer, but the ending confused me. Nevada figures out that the sheriff is in league with Slade, but there's nothing I can see in the story to support his theory. Certainly nothing that would evidence enough to put him in jail.

'Kalthar the Giant Man, King of the Jungle' (by Harry Shorten and Lin Streeter): The jungle is invaded by the people of Shem, and Kalthar must drive them out. This is a nice change of pace for this strip. It's not high art, but it does have Kalthar throwing an elephant.

'War Eagles, the Devil's Flying Twins' (by Ed Wexler): Tom is still wounded from last issue, and Tim is called in for a solo mission to bomb a munitions factory. The two are still complete jerks to each other, but even so Tim decides to come to his brother's rescue, and both of them are shot down behind enemy lines. I do keep mentioning what assholes these two are, but to be honest that's the best part of the strip. If they were nice it would be terribly dull. I should also single out the artist, because that guy really knows how to draw planes. It's obvious that he's done a lot of research.

'Captain Valor' (by Abner Sundell and Mort Meskin): Captain Valor is captured by Yat Sing, brother of a Chinese villain named Hop-Lung that Valor killed in a previous story. The strip ends on a cliffhanger, as Valor and his friends are surrounded while trying to escape. It's an unremarkable story, though I am left puzzled by one thing. Yat Sing's female accomplice claims to be Hop-Lung's quarter-sister, and I can't quite figure out what that means. Half-sisters I understand, but what exactly is a quarter-sister?

'Mr. Satan' (by Ed Ashe): Mr. Satan deals with a gang of diamond smugglers who are hiding the diamonds inside corn cobs, feeding the corn to the cows, moving the cows across the border and removing the diamonds from their stomachs. It all seems a little too complicated, and the story is much too close to cattle rustling for my tastes. The best bit comes at the end, when the main villain is karmically gored to death by a maddened bull. Like 'Steel Sterling' above, this serial features a hero who masquerades as a coward in his civilian identity, but Mr. Satan takes it too far when he, as Dudley Bradshaw, tells a girl who has just been kidnapped that he went to a party instead of getting her help. There's protecting your secret identity, and there's making everyone you meet hate your guts.

'Zambini the Miracle Man' (by Joe Blair and Ed Wexler): When Mermen drag a woman into the sea to become their queen, Zambini goes underwater to rescue her. This has just enough of the sort of craziness that I like in Golden Age stories. The only thing I felt let down by was that Zambini never has a proper duel with the merman wizard Magi.

Monday, November 28, 2011

March 1940: Pep Comics #4

Cover by Irv Novick

'The Shield, G-Man Extraordinary' (by Harry Shorten and Irv Novick): The Shield must stop a plot by Mosconian spies to destroy Pearl Harbor, but he has a little help: The Wizard! And Keith Kornell, the West Pointer! This is a good adventure story in its own right, even without the crossover cameos. The Wizard's appearance is disappointingly short, and Keith Kornell's is inexplicable. What is a cadet doing leading rescue missions in Hawaii? But the novelty of the whole affair outweighs any such concerns, and the crossovers continue in the next issue of Top-Notch Comics.

'The Comet' (by Jack Cole): After his killing rampage while mind-controlled last issue, the Comet is a wanted man. He spends the first half of the story on the run from police and angry mobs, but the second half diverts into a plot about miners being denied adequate ventilation by their unscrupulous boss. It's a decent enough story, but has little relevance to the Comet's mission to clear his name.

'The Press Guardian' (by Abner Sundell and  Mort Meskin): The Press Guardian takes on a graft ring that has threatened his father's newspaper. This is solid stuff, although it's let down a bit at the end when the main villain commits suicide off-panel.

'Fu Chang, International Detective' (by Joe Blair and Lin Streeter): Fu Chang goes up against Princess Ling Foy, a black magic sorceress. First she attacks with an army of brass robots, then she resorts to sticking knives in a voodoo doll. In the end it is Chang's fiancee Tay Ming who saves him, with the help of Chang's magical chessmen. This is fairly enjoyable, but the stereotypically honourable nature of Chang gets a bit tiresome after a while.

'Sergeant Boyle' (by Abner Sundell and Charles Biro): Boyle foils a Nazi plot to destroy London, saves a cornered battalion, and kills a shitload of Nazis.  In the Archie universe, I'm pretty sure that this guy marched on Berlin all by himself.

'The Midshipman' (possibly by Bob Wood): It's crossover time again, as the Wizard makes a cameo to help Midshipman Lee Sampson foil a Mosconian plot to destroy the US naval academy. The law of diminishing returns is setting in already, because I wasn't particularly thrilled to see these two characters meet. More likely it's the characters themselves, because I don't care at all about Sampson.

'The Rocket and the Queen of Diamonds' (by Lin Streeter): The Rocket and the queen befriend a Hawkman, and are pursued through the Dark Forest by an army of Lizard Men. What follows is a story of survival, as the three are threatened by giant monsters, the environment, and the Lizard Men themselves. It all falls apart at the end, though, when a hitherto unmentioned tribe of Ape Men comes out of nowhere to defeat the Lizard Men. Weak.

'Kayo Ward' (by Bob Wood and Phil Sturm): Kayo Ward takes on some crooks who are collecting protection money from his father. The story makes a big deal about Kayo having been shot in the arm last issue, but it never plays into this story.

'Bentley of Scotland Yard and the Hunchback Horror' (by Joe Blair and Sam Cooper): The Earl of Crackenthorpe is killed by a legendary demon from an old family story, but the demon turns out to actually be his cousin, trying to get the Earl's title for himself. I enjoyed this while I was reading it, but on closer scrutiny it falls apart. The cousin's plan hinges on someone investigating the legend of the demon, but that is done totally on a whim, one that he has no part in encouraging. And I have to say that the Earl's fiancee is pretty fickle. She displays no emotion at his death, and within hours is shacking up with his brother.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

February 1940: Whiz Comics #2, Smash Comics #9, Feature Comics #31

Cover by C.C. Beck

Officially this is issue number two of Whiz Comics, but in actuality it is the first proper comic in the series. The first issue was a promo comic with no real content to speak of.

'Capt. Marvel' (by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck): This is the first appearance of Captain Marvel, a very significant piece of comics history. It gets off to a cracking start, as orphan Billy Batson is whisked away by a mysterious man in a subway train to visit the wizard Shazam, who gifts him with awesome power. When Billy says the magic word SHAZAM he becomes Captain Marvel, with the following abilities: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. The origin is really powerful, and rich with mythological symbolism. It really does feel momentous, and the sense of deep history is hinted at very effectively.

The main plot is a little weaker, as criminal mastermind Sivana invents a ray that will disable all radio broadcasts, and uses it to hold the world to ransom. Captain Marvel's ingenious solution is to wreck the machine, but I guess it gets the job done. It also serves as a way to get Billy Batson a job as a radio announcer, something that I'm sure will be a vital part of this strip's storytelling engine.

Despite the weaker second half, this is still a strong first outing.

'Ibis the Invincible' (by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck): Ibis is an Egyptian pharaoh who wakes up in the year 1940. Why he wakes up is never explained, but it's not super important. He owns a powerful wand called the Ibistick, which can pretty much do anything, including clothe him in the standard Golden Age magician's attire of suit and turban. Ibis's first instinct is to resurrect his lost love Taia, but before he can find her he spends a lot of time wandering the world righting wrongs, including an extended stay in Europe where he helps out during the war. By the end of the story he has brought Taia back to life, but his Ibistick has been stolen by a common crook. In many ways this is a variation on the 'Zatara' formula, although Ibis's magic tricks are not very imaginative. He also displays very little personality, and is very conversant with the modern world for an ancient Egyptian. It gets by on pace alone, with Ibis finding a new wrong to right every few panels. For all of its flaws, it's quite enjoyable.

'Golden Arrow' (by Bill Parker and Greg Duncan): Roger Parsons is the son of a millionaire, but his parents are murdered while flying a balloon across the country, and Roger is raised in the wild by an old prospector. He grows up and becomes skilled with the bow, earning the name Golden Arrow, and avenges the murder of his parents. It's a weird mash-up of the cowboy genre with a bit of the jungle hero archetype thrown in. But other than that it's rather bland.

'Spy Smasher' (by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck): Secret plans are stolen from a US admiral by the villainous Mask. The mysterious Spy Smasher gets them back. Great pains are taken to obscure Spy Smasher's identity, and the same goes for the Mask. There are two real suspects: Filipino houseboy Zambo, and wealthy young sportsman Alan Armstrong. No answer is given in this chapter, but surely Armstrong is the hero and Zambo the villain. I'll be delighted if I'm wrong.

'Scoop Smith' (by Bill Parker and Greg Duncan): As you may have guessed, Scoop Smith is a reporter. In this story he investigates Doctor Death (aka James Kirk!), who has invented a ray that can bring back the dead. Of course, he must murder someone before he can test it. Scoop gets the doctor arrested, and everything wraps up very neatly, except that there is now a ray that can bring back the dead in the hands of the US government.  It's the sort of thing that demands a follow-up, but I'm certain it will never be mentioned again.

'Lance O'Casey' (by Bill Parker and Bob Kingett): Lance O'Casey is a very Irish sailor, who must rescue a scientist and his daughter from island natives, and the white man in charge of them. The story's not very good, but the sheer Irishness of O'Casey is somewhat endearing. And he does fire his monkey sidekick from a tree like a catapult.

'Dan Dare in Seals of Doom' (by Bill Parker and Greg Duncan): No, not that Dan Dare. This one is a private detective, travelling with his girlfriend Carol. A millionaire hires them to try and pin a murder on someone, which is all tied into a dope smuggling operation. It's relatively complex, and done better than most stories of this type.

Cover by Gill Fox

'Espionage starring Black X' (by Will Eisner): Eisner's European war montage openings get more and more ludicrous. This time, in addition to the usual war imagery, we're treated to Jesus on the cross, a skeleton forging weapons at an anvil, and the Four Horsemen of Death.

But that has nothing to do with the main story, which sees the Black X taking on Proxoff, a warlord who has built his own private army with which he plans to take over the world in the aftermath of the war. His soldiers don't fear death, and when caught they ingest a drug that turns them into skeletons. This is another solid outing.  Not only does it work as a great action adventure story, but it displays an understanding of the horror and senselessness of war that many other similar strips lack.

'Abdul the Arab' (by Vernon Henkel): Abdul is tasked with capturing the bandit Khabib, but as usual Abdul gets captured and his sidekick Hassan comes to his rescue. He even survives getting shot before punching Khabib right in the mouth. Seriously, why does Abdul get all the credit? The guy does nothing!

'Flash Fulton, Newsreel Ace' (by Paul Gustavson): Flash, working in the European war zone, smuggles the information in some vital papers across the border by making a newsreel of them. There's very little here of note, except for a joke in the last panel that falls completely flat.

'Clip Chance at Cliffside' (by George Brenner): With his coach's job on the line, Clip wins every event in the decathlon and beats up some crooks who try to steal the gate receipts. He's just so wonderful!

'Wings Wendall of the Military Intelligence' (by Vernon Henkel): Wings stops a group of spies that is taking photographs of Hawaii's military defenses. This story has nothing of interest.

Captain Cook of Scotland Yard: The Case of the Roving Taxicab' (by Stan Aschmeier): A man is murdered in a taxicab, and Captain Cook proves that the culprit was the cab driver. No shit Sherlock, he was the only other guy in there!

'John Law, Scientective' (by Harry Francis Campbell): Last issue John Law figured out the identity of the Avenger, but was not able to capture him. This time the Avenger is menacing the owner of a bus company, making his buses disappear in a strange fog. Law tracks him down to an unfinished subway tunnel, gets captured, and McGuyvers his way out by making home-made thermite. Yes kids, with some aluminum filings, rust and camera flash powder, you too can make a substance that burns at 5000 degrees! This is pretty average, but I really did enjoy that potentially dangerous little home chemistry lesson.

'Chic Carter, Ace Reporter' (by Vernon Henkel): Chic Carter smashes a marijuana ring in a very pedestrian story.

'The Cat Men' (by Robert M. Hyatt): A bunch of trains race to the Norton Mine, with the winner to gain the lucrative freight contract on offer. One of the train drivers cheats mercilessly and gets his comeuppance in a relatively satisfying fashion. It's alright so far as these prose stories go.

'Invisible Justice' (by Art Pinajian): The Invisible Hood takes on a small band of pirates.As often happens, sleepiness set in around the time I was reading this story, and it wasn't exciting or interesting enough to keep me awake.

'Hugh Hazzard and his Iron Man' (by Wayne Reid): Hugh and Bozo take on a dictator named Motler, who is totally original and nothing like Adolf Hitler at all. I've only just realised it, but now that Hugh can climb inside the robot, he is very much in the same vein as Iron Man (the Marvel character).

Cover possibly by Ed Cronin

'The Dollman' (by Will Eisner and Lou Fine): The Dollman tackles a weird hunchback who is murdering diamond salesmen and stealing their wares. It's a very basic story, and I still feel like this strip isn't making the most out of its premise.

'Jane Arden' (by Monte Barrett and Russell E. Ross): Jane is still getting entangled in soap opera romance and the like, but as the strip is ending it looks as though one of the men she's been dating is a crook. Pretty much everyone here is acting like a jerk this month.  I'll never get to find out what that maybe-crook's deal is, because this is Jane Arden's final appearance here.  It was never interesting enough to be missed.

'Captain Fortune' (by Vernon Henkel): Captain Fortune rescues his friend the Earl of Essex from a rival duke. The duke vows revenge as a set-up for next month's story. In theory this all sounds quite exciting, but on the page it's quite staid and flat.

'Rance Keane, the Knight of the West' (by William A. Smith): Rance Keane helps a supposed FBI agent against a gang of cattle rustlers, only to discover that this agent is actually their leader.  I could write about whether this was good or not, but instead I'd like to share my opinion of cattle rustler stories in general: they suck and I hate them.

'The Clock Strikes' (by George Brenner): The Clock takes on a spy who has stolen the formula for a new type of poison gas. He survives an attack with the gas because his mask got wet, which is pretty weak.  This appears to be the last we will see of the Clock for many decades. It's a fairly ignominious finale for the first costumed hero in comics.

'Spin Shaw of the Naval Air Corps' (by Bob Powell): Spin goes undercover in a gang of arms smugglers. It's another incredibly generic and boring story.

'Slim and Tubby' (by John J. Welch): Benton tries to get another boxing match, but because he's a hero nobody wants to fight him. I liked that one twist in the ongoing storyline, but otherwise this is pretty dull.  This is the last appearance of this strip, and Slim and Tubby have yet to come up with the money to save their ranch.  I can only assume that it goes out of business and they die penniless on the streets.

'Ned Brant' (by Bob Zuppke and R.W. Depew): Ned loses a relay race, then comes back and wins the race that decides the whole athletics meet. Because he's awesome.  This is the last appearance of Ned Brant, to which I say good riddance.  The sooner these sport-themed strips die out the better.

'Charlie Chan' (by Alfred Andriola): Charlie investigates a kidnapping and the attempted theft of some rubies. The story ends with him accusing a man who is still vehemently claiming his innocence, and his evidence is pretty tenuous.  This is the last we see of Charlie in Feature Comics.  I won't miss him.

'Magic on the Rink' (by Robert E. Jones): A crook tries to fix an ice hockey match by putting heating units into one team's skates, but he screws up and puts them in the skates of his own team. I'm not sure what this story is trying to say, except for "criminals are dumb".

'Reynolds of the Mounted' (by Art Pinajian): Two escaped crooks hole up in a cabin, but the boy who lives there notifies the Mounties by arranging the washing in Morse code.  It's terrible, and has Mounties in it.

As you may have guessed, Feature Comics is in for a big overhaul in the next issue.  I'm looking forward to it, because this is one of my least favourite comics to read for this blog.  Any change will probably be an improvement.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

February 1940: Mystic Comics #2

Cover by Alex Schomburg

'The Master Mind Excello' (possibly by Arnold Hicks): Society playboy Earl Everett is also Excello, agent of the Naval Intelligence Department, who solves plots against the US with his mental and physical powers. Sound familiar?  It should if you've been paying attention, because this is exactly the same set-up as the Wizard over at Archie. Excello even has the power to visualise things that are happening elsewhere, just like the Wizard does. And just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, Excello leaves his calling card behind, complete with a patriotic message.  Just like the Wizard!  This is the most shameless rip-off I have seen in the course of this blog, in a medium that is rife with shameless rip-offs. The only thing this character has going for him is the name "Master Mind Excello", which is truly great.  It's too bad they never refer to him by that full title in the story.

'Flexo the Rubber Man' (by Jack Binder): Flexo and his creators take on a group of spies who have stolen a new machine designed to repel torpedoes. I didn't particularly enjoy this, although the scene where the spies try to run Flexo down in their car, only to bounce back over the cliff to their doom, is priceless.

'The Dynamic Man' (by Gus Ricca): The Dynamic Man is Curt Cowan, who has all sorts of powers related to magnetism. In this story he takes on a gang of spies and saboteurs led by Doctor Vee. This is about as dull and generic as a Golden Age super-hero tale can get. The Dynamic Man displays no memorable traits whatsoever.

'Space Rangers' (by Creators Unknown): In the year 2300 AD, Bob and Nibbs are Space Rangers, tasked with protecting interplanetary travellers and merchants. In this story they take on Blackhawk, a space bandit who lives with his ape men on an inexplicably pleasant asteroid near Mercury. The resolution is simplicity itself, as the Space Rangers just get in their ship and blow Blackhawk to smithereens. The only interesting part of the story comes from Blackhawk's relationship with his daughter. Says Blackhawk: "You're worse than your wretched mother was!" Says the daughter: "He is mean, and I hate him!" Complexity, thy name is Golden Age.

'The Blue Blaze' (by Newt Alfred): The Blue Blaze goes up against an inventor who is sabotaging mine shafts so that he can sell his own safety devices. This is terribly bland. The Blue Blaze is a lot less interesting now that his back-from-the-dead angle doesn't play into the story. Except when he's strangling dogs, then he's rad.

'Murderer's Mistake' (by Eddie Herron): "It was a swell night to murder the boss." Now that is how you open a prose story. This one's about a gardener who murders his boss, but is caught because he is careful not to tread on his flowers as he makes his escape. With relatively rounded characters and a satisfying wrap-up, this is very good for a comic book prose story.

'Taxi Taylor and his Wonder Car' (by Creators Unknown): Taxi Taylor invents a special car that can turn into a plane or a submarine, but when he presents it to the US government they think he's a crackpot. Determined to show them up, Taylor uses his car to stop a plot by agents from the totally-not-German country of "Swastikia". I like the premise here, and the car does have some impressive gadgets, but ultimately the story is just too dull.

'The Invisible Man known as Dr. Gade' (by Newt Alfred): Some thugs send an assassin to kill Dr. Gade by pushing him into a furnace. Gade survives, and thanks to a combination of chemicals he can now turn invisible. He seeks revenge on his would-be killers, and the dude is bloodthirsty. Not only does he throw one guy out of a window, he grabs another guy's arm and makes him shoot his friend. The last crook he throws into a disintegrator, and he is "blown into atoms forever!" The ruthlessness of the hero made this a more compelling read than some other stories. I've complained about invisible heroes in other strips (notably 'Invisible Justice'), but it's all in the execution. The artist here uses light and shade to effectively convey the lead character's invisibility without sacrificing mood or dynamics.

'Zara of the Jungle' (by Newt Alfred): Captain Graves goes into the jungle to stop two warring tribes, and encounters the white goddess Zara. This is the first instance of the "jungle girl" genre I've seen in the course of this blog. It has the usual racial unpleasantness that permeates jungle comics, but Zara makes for a refreshing change from the likes of Ka-Zar. And I did like that she refused to return to civilisation with Graves.

'Dakor the Magician' (by Creators Unknown): Dakor rescues a British consul from Chinese bandits. This isn't bad for a bargain bin Zatara knock-off. I have no idea why the Chinese bandits are coloured green, though.

Monday, November 21, 2011

February 1940: Marvel Mystery Comics #6

 Cover by Alex Schomburg

'The Human Torch' (by Carl Burgos): Some crooks set a forest fire, and rob the local bank while everyone is distracted trying to put it out. The crooks steal plans for a bomb, and plan to sell them to foreign agents. The Torch tracks them down and destroys the plans. It's not a great story, though it's far from short on incident. The strangest bit comes when the Torch has been knocked unconscious, and the forest fire comes to his defense. Is fire sentient in the Marvel Universe?  Probably not, but it's an intriguing scene nonetheless.  It's exactly the sort of thing that the Official Marvel Handbook would spend a paragraph explaining away.

'The Angel' (by Paul Gustavson): The Angel rescues a woman named Mary Edwards, who has been kidnapped for her valuable necklace. It's a perfectly adequate story, but that's the extent of it. Mary comes across as a rounded character, which is unusual for the token hostage, so it does have that going for it.  We also learn the Angel's real name (Tom Holloway) for the first time.

'Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner' (by Bill Everett): Despite his best efforts to prove that he is not a menace to humanity, Namor is placed on trial for murder, found guilty, and sentenced to death. His food is drugged to make him weak, but his stint in the electric chair only serves to return him to full power. Which is great, because it brings us back to a point where Namor can be an enemy of mankind. He escapes to the ocean, vowing to return, and I'm really looking forward to it. This is an exciting, compelling read that gets the character back to his roots.

'The Masked Raider' (by Al Anders): The Masked Raider takes on a crooked rustler who has stolen a ranch that borders the Rio Grande, so that he can send cattle across the border to Mexico. Not only were rustlers a menace to the US cattle economy, they were responsible for hundreds of shitty westerns for years afterwards.

'The Shrinking Spy' (by Andrew McWhiney and Frank Thomas): Two FBI agents put a stop to a foreign agent who has invented a shrinking formula. This prose story features the absurd notion that American spies are all about fair play and sportsmanship: "We prefer to do our spying in a nice, clean, healthy way!" It would be amusing if I believed for a second that this was tongue-in-cheek.

'Electro, the Marvel of the Age' (by Steve Dahlman): Professor Zog decides to destroy America's dope trade, so he sends his operatives out to investigate. In each major city, they are to find the head dope peddler and summon Electro to take him out. Normally I'll take any excuse to watch a robot smash things, but this is pretty lacklustre. It doesn't help that the villains only appear for a few panels each. It's hard to make the reader care about their defeat when they barely qualify as characters.

'Ferret, Mystery Detective' (by Stockbridge Winslow and Irwin Hasen): The Ferret investigates the murder of the head of a cosmetics company. The killer then masquerades as the victim's brother in order to collect a lot of money, but the Ferret figures out what's going on with some very dodgy evidence.  Apparently, the brother of the head of a cosmetics house could never have a bad complexion.

'Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great' (by Ben Thompson): Ka-Zar takes on an evil ivory hunter, arranging it so that he gets trampled by an elephant herd. This story is notable only because it depicts a tribe of Africans in a positive light, and not as man-eating savages.  I'll take the small victories.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

February 1940: Daring Mystery Comics #3

Cover by Alex Schomburg

'Dale of the F.B.I.' (by Phil Sturm): Dale, as you may have guessed, is an ace FBI investigator. He's only ever called Dale, so who knows if it's his first or last name; he's just Dale. In this story he takes on a gang of crooks whose leader has just escaped from jail. It's pretty tedious stuff, except for one bit where Dale snatches a girl hostage away from them while surfing on the wing of a plane, then shoots the gang's leader through the heart. It's a rad maneuver in an otherwise terrible story.  It's also probably the absolute zenith of Dale's career, as we never see him again.  I picture him sitting in the FBI office, constantly reminding his colleagues about it.  "Hey, remember that time I rode the plane wing!  Wasn't that super?  Hey, who wants a coffee?"

'Breeze Barton in the Miracle City' (by Jack Binder): In the far-flung future of 1945! World War 2 is still raging, and Breeze Barton is an American pilot. He is shot down in the desert, and stumbles through "The Spot", a portal to another dimension where time has no meaning. There's a city there full of creatures from all through time, as nothing ages there. There are also the Demon People, who want to destroy Earth for no readily apparent reason, and Breeze gets caught up in a war between the Miracle City and the Demon People. There are some fun concepts here to go along with a pacy adventure story. It still don't know why they bothered to set it in 1945, though.

'The Purple Mask' (by Will Harr and Maurice Gutwirth): In the last issue, Dennis Burton appeared as the slightly creepy Laughing Mask.  In this issue, he has changed his identity to the ultra-generic Purple Mask.  The Purple Mask takes on a gang of crooks who are searching for a wealthy man's treasure that is hidden in an underground vault. I'm a sucker for underground vaults filled with traps and treasure, but beyond that there's very little to recommend in this story. The Purple Mask has zero personality, and the villains are no better.

'The Phantom Reporter' (by Robert O. Erisman and Sam Cooper): I cannot keep track of these early Marvel heroes.  I was sure the Phantom Reporter had appeared already, but this is actually his first appearance.  There's a rash of murders on the East Side, and the Phantom Reporter sets about putting a stop to them. Pretty much everybody is in on this murder plot: two newspaper publishers, the chief of police, and even the commissioner of parks. The Phantom Reporter has got to be pissed about it, because he punches one of the murderers so hard that he dies. Otherwise this is an average story. I do like that the Phantom Reporter maintains identities as both a cub reporter and a playboy; it's like he's got both of the most cliched super hero professions covered.

'Powdersmoke Showdown' (by James P. Olsen): Yes, Jimmy Olsen wrote this prose story. It's about two former partners who have a shoot-out over a widow woman. Only the guy who wins isn't interested in the woman; he only wants to get his socks back from the man he shot. It's a bizarre tone shift.

'Trojak the Tiger Man' (by Joe Simon): Trojak battles a gigantic prehistoric monster, and rescues a girl from a Nazi encampment. Both stories are solid, though there is little to connect them.

'Marvex - the Super-Robot' (by Creators Unknown): Marvex is a robot created in the Fifth Dimension, but he refuses to be a slave and so he escapes to Earth. On Earth he meets a girl named Clara, gets caught up in the theft of some important plans, and puts a stop to the crooks by completely wrecking them. And then we see the weirdest exchange of the whole story. After Marvex returns the plans to a grateful Clara, he tells her that they can never be more than friends, because he is Marvel the Super-Robot. The last line of the strip reads "The Super-Robot quickly disrobes, showing his metal body." I was all set to dismiss this as a story of no particular interest, but those last couple of panels are brilliant.

'Captain Strong of the Foreign Legion' (possibly by Jack Alderman): An Arab tribe is plundering caravans, and the Foreign Legion must stop them. This is a good eight pages of Arabs and Legionaries straight-up killing each other, which is great if that's what you're into. The action scenes are quite well done, which is a good thing when your whole story is an action sequence. Still, there's no story to speak of, and Captain Strong never appears again.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

February 1940: Superman Radio Serial Episodes 1-8

Superman's radio serial started in February 1940, and I have listened to the first eight episodes. The types of stories told hew quite closely to the comics, but there are some significant deviations that I'll mention later.

The first episode is set on Krypton, and tells the familiar story of Jor-L and Lara trying to save their people from the imminent destruction of their planet. It's very similar to the version of the story that appeared in the newspaper strip. It probably has the worst voice acting of the episodes I have listened to, but that's understandable, because these characters aren't going to appear again. There's a lot of bellowing, and declaiming, and it's all rather stilted and lacking in emotion. But for all that, it's quite striking to hear it dramatised. I don't think I ever realised exactly how grim Superman's origin story is until I listened to this.

Episode two is where the story deviates significantly from the comics. Little Kal-L makes his rocket trip to Earth, but instead of landing as a baby and being found by a passing motorist, he is fully grown by the time he reaches our planet. Ma and Pa Kent are nowhere to be seen. Superman saves a man and his son from a car crash, and they help him decide how to acclimate to Earth. They give him the name Clark Kent and suggest that he get a job as a newspaper reporter. I'm guessing here that the creators of the show wanted to get into the action quicker, and so dispensed with Superman's childhood, but I feel like a vital part of the story is missing here. Superman's desire to do good is just there, rather than being the product of a good upbringing.

When the newly named Kent goes to get a job as a reporter, he goes to the Daily Planet, and the editor there is not George Taylor from the comics but the much more recognisable Perry White (at least to modern audiences).  Both of them are cut from the same "gruff editor" template, so I'm not sure why there was a change.  I guess someone just disliked the original name.

The rest of the episodes deal with a villain known as the Wolf, who is making trains disappear under the orders of a mastermind known as the Yellow Mask.  I didn't find it particularly enthralling.  The most enjoyment I got was from the tidbits of Superman lore that kept cropping up.  The opening, with the "It's a bird! It's a plane!" lines was an obvious one that sent a chill up my spine to hear it in its original appearance.  Another unexpected one came in episode 6 or so, when Superman shouted "Up! Up! And away!" just before taking off.  And that reminds me of something else: Superman seems to be flying here.  In the comics at this time he still jumps everywhere, but although the radio show hasn't explicitly stated it yet, it has Superman doing things in the sky that sound a lot more like flight.

If you want to listen to these they can be found here:  They're an enjoyable bit of historical curiosity.

February 1940: Superman Sunday Strip #9-14, "How Superman Would End the War"


In this series of strips Superman investigates the disappearance of a number of men via a job agency. It turns out that the men hired out are being hypnotised and used to commit crimes. Superman puts a stop to it in one of the most boring and straightforward stories he has ever been in. His attitude in this story is much more pro-establishment than it has been, as he protects the perpetrators from their victims so that they can go to trial. I'm not so sure that the Superman of the 1930s wouldn't have abandoned them to their fate.


This two-page story was created by Siegel and Shuster especially for Look Magazine, and it's probably the most famous of Superman's Golden Age adventures.  Quite simply, Superman busts into Germany and grabs Adolf Hitler, busts into Russia and grabs Josef Stalin, and drags them both before the League of Nations.  It's the ultimate expression of Siegel and Shuster's ultra-simplistic political views, but satisfying for all that.  It harkens back to Superman's earliest days, even though he does resist the urge to punch out Hitler.  I'm still not sure why the colourist made Superman's legs bare, though.

As a side note, we also get the sales figures for the two comics featuring Superman on an earlier page of the article.  Action Comics sells approximately 600,000 comics a month, while the quarterly Superman averages one million.

February 1940: More Fun Comics #54

Cover by Bernard Baily

That is a seriously great cover.  It's probably the first Golden Age cover that I really love.

'The Spectre' (by Jerry Siegel and Bernard Baily): The Spectre takes on a phony psychic, who has been fleecing the mother of the Spectre's former fiancee. This was all quite uninteresting, until the scene where the Spectre is summoned back to Heaven and offered a choice between eternal rest, or fighting evil on Earth as a ghost forever. With his fiancee's life in danger he chooses to remain Earth-bound. It's a great moment trapped in an otherwise mediocre story.

'Biff Bronson' (by Al Sulman and Joseph Sulman): Biff and Dan take on the Wizard and his robot army, which is nowhere near as exciting as it sounds. It mostly involves them running away while the robots' batteries run out.

'Captain Desmo' (by Ed Winiarski): Desmo and Gabby anger a group of assassins in India, and must beat them before they are killed. Which they do in a straightforward manner that elicits no excitement.

'Radio Squad' (by Jerry Siegel and Chad Grothkopf): Sandy and Larry must guard a wealthy man who is being targeted by "The Cloak", a mysterious killer who ends up being the wealthy man himself. The first part of the Cloak's plan makes perfect sense, but I can't see exactly what he was trying to achieve after that.

'Lieut. Bob Neal of Sub 662' (by B. Hirsch and Russ Lehman): A female spy after the US defense plans? Seen it. A spy ring with a ray that can stop a plane's engine? Seen it. Story with no original elements, told in a boring fashion? Definitely seen it.

'A Wet Wager' (by Paul Dean): A seaman makes a bet that he can stay underwater longer than his friend, but must be rescued when his oxygen line is cut. I'm almost certain that this is a reprint from an earlier comic.

'King Carter' (by Paul J. Lauretta): King and Red are stranded by pirates on a tropical island. Red befriends a tribe of apes that helps them defeat the pirates. There's a certain absurd charm of it all.

'Detective Sergeant Carey and the Policy Murders' (by Joe Donohoe): Carey and Sleepy track down the killers of a wealthy old recluse. It's all to do with an insurance scam, which is as worn out a motivation as there is.

'Sergeant O'Malley of the Red Coat Patrol' (by Jack Lehti): O'Malley takes on a gang of crooks that is trying to steal a mine from an old prospector. Predictably, dynamite is the answer to all of their problems.

'Bulldog Martin' (by Bart Tumey): Bulldog Martin uses an invisibility pill to wreak havoc on some crooks who are trying to make a transaction. In the course of setting the crooks against each other, he scatters eleven million dollars into the crowd below. Thus the day is saved, and the economy is ruined, by Bulldog Martin!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

February 1940: Action Comics #23

Cover by Joe Shuster

'Superman' (by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster): This is the real first appearance of Luthor, at least in story terms. There's a house ad for Superman #4 after this story, meaning the on-sale dates are pretty close, so there's no telling which of them came first.  In this story Luthor is fomenting war between two European nations so that he can step in and take over once they are weakened. He's not particularly more interesting than any of the other criminal geniuses that have appeared so far. Superman stops his plan in a story that feels very much by the numbers. I'd love to write more about this, because it's significant historically, but there's not much to say. Luthor does get to maintain a bit of mystery, as he communicates to his lackeys through a great stone face. And it was a change of pace seeing Clark and Lois as war correspondents. But it doesn't feel much different from a bunch of other Superman stories that had a bit more zip to them.

 Lex Luthor, red hair and all.


'Pep Morgan' (by Fred Guardineer): Pep takes on a group of mine workers who are really saboteurs encouraging the workers to strike. Now, as presented the guys who are forcing the other workers to strike against their will are bad guys, and get what they deserve. But I get a definite anti-Union, anti-strike vibe from this story that goes beyond that. It's weird from a modern perspective to see it presented that way.

'The Black Pirate' (by Sheldon Moldoff): In this new strip, Jon Valor is the Black Pirate, on the trail of the evil Captain Ruff. This is terribly old fashioned even for 1940, with the whole thing being told in narrative captions. It robs the story of its immediacy, and it's not a style that I've ever been fond of.

'Three Aces' (by Gardner Fox and Chad Grothkopf): Gunner, Fog and Whistler go in search of a lost city, and find a crazy Aztec priest who is using zombies to pilot planes. Quite why he's doing this is never explained, and the protagonists just bugger off, leaving a whole bunch of guys to their zombified fate.

'Tex Thomson' (by Bernard Baily): Tex and his crew crash land near a spooky castle, the inhabitant of which is a mad scientist whose flesh and bones are made of synthetic rubber. It's a novel enough premise, though I think the villain's ability to mould his face to look like anyone could have been put to better use.

'Spy's Return' (by Jack Anthony): A man escapes from the dreaded "Green Shirts" and is then revealed to be a prince. It's probably no coincidence that I started to nod off at around this point.

'Clip Carson' (by Sheldon Moldoff): Clip takes on some South American revolutionaries. This strip has become incredibly banal.

'Zatara the Master Magician and the Treasure Tower' (by Gardner Fox and Fred Guardineer): Zatara goes in search of a treasure hidden by a builder named Kartzoff. During the course of his search he is opposed by the Tigress, and must navigate a house full of deathtraps administered by Kartzoff himself. This one wasn't terribly exciting, but once again Zatara and the Tigress team up, and my hunch about them having an affair is hinted at once again.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

February 1940: All-American Comics #13

Cover by Ben Flinton

'Gary Concord, the Ultra-Man' (by Jon L. Blummer): The armies of Warlord Tor attack America, and Gary Concord and his forces fight back. This is a six-page war, but somehow Blummer has managed to give it a grand sense of scale, with fighting in the Arctic and along the Equator, as well as the main offensive in America. Concord's attack plan goes off without a hitch, which is usually something I don't care for, but what I liked here is that he has more than one plan. He has his sleep foam, and his ray that disintegrates metal, and his special jungle tanks. It all culminates in a great panel when Tor is defeated, and crawls from the wreckage of his ships saying "Look! Blood! Blood on my hands!" It's not the most subtle of symbolism, but symbolism of any sort in the Golden Age is a thing to treasure. And let us not forget Gary's sidekick Guppy, who dies here during the conflict. I hated him, and he had a stupid comb-over, but at least he died well.

'Hop Harrigan' (by Jon L. Blummer): With Hop now a national hero, his friend Wash starts up a new company, All-American Aviation. Their mechanic Ikky celebrates by dragging Hop along to the closest thing a comic for kids can get to depicting a strip club. Ikky leaves with a girl, and because Hop doesn't like the looks of her he steals their bankroll from Ikky's pocket. He doesn't warn Ikky, doesn't try to get him to leave the girl, he just takes the money and leaves, and of course Ikky gets jumped by thugs. Hop Harrigan: terrible friend. Then there's an interlude with some spies who try to steal some aviation plans, which is the most boring part of the strip. And then the cliffhanger, in which Hop's legal guardian, the crook he ran away from all the way back in issue #1, tries to regain custody of him. This is a damn busy comic, and all the better for it.

'Ben Webster' (by Edwin Alger): Ben and Taffy have been abandoned by Sidewinder Pete, and captured by Mexican bandits. The bandits take them to their "Big Boss", who ends up being Sidewinder Pete, who ends up being Abner Mattix, the very man Ben and Taffy were looking for. It's all very implausible, and I really don't understand the reasons for such a hoax at all. Anyway, it turns out that Abner has found some magic mud that can heal any wound (even a gunshot wound to the head!), but the well he found has dried up. The three of them must find the source, which is a decent enough premise to go on for the next few installments. This would have been okay without the nonsense at the beginning.

'Adventures in the Unknown: The Infra-Red Destroyers' (by Carl H. Claudy): Now this is a mess. The main plot seems to be that mysterious meteors are bombarding Earth, then disintegrating into powder. But around that a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated things are going on. A kid is framed for murder by a mad scientist. Eleven people are murdered at a radio station. A guy is attacked by something invisible, and Alan gives a lecture on infra-red light. The most inexplicable scene is one where Ted stops some boys from teasing a dog. There are even more unexplained goings on than I've mentioned here, and it's just too much. It's possible that the next chapter will have a brilliant explanation for it all, but at the moment it's just unfocused and terrible.

'Scribbly' (by Sheldon Mayer): Scribbly's little brother Dinky has fallen in love with Sisty Hunkel, and they get engaged. This is firmly in the camp of humour that thinks that kids acting like adults is inherently funny, which isn't really my thing.

'Death's Playground' (by George Shute): Jimmy and Phil finally capture the saboteurs, but I was pretty lost through the whole thing. This story started quite a few issues ago, and I really can't remember much of the first few chapters. Perhaps if I sat and read it all in one go it would come together, but as a serial it just stretched out loo long.

'Popsicle Pete' (by Sheldon Mayer): Pete and his friends have found a pot of gold that turns out to be stolen, and then they catch the crooks responsible by accident. The strip ends by asking what the reader thinks the kids should do with the money. Perhaps they could actually open the radio station that they were trying to raise money for for like a million strips?!?

'Red, White and Blue' (by William Smith): This story sees the return of Mr. Glib, the villain from a couple of issues ago who has the power of invisibility. He supposedly died in a car crash, but here he is alive and well, helping in a plot to spoil America's food supplies. It's a pretty lacklustre story, not helped by a scene where Blooey gains the power of invisibility through some very hazily defined means. It also raises the possibility of the heroes being court-martialed for going AWOL, then hastily wraps that up in the closing caption, which is pretty weak.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

February 1940: Flash Comics #4, Superman #4

Cover by George Storm

'The Flash' (by Gardner Fox and Everett E. Hibbard): The Flash goes up against the crew of a gambling ship, who have kidnapped the son of a steel magnate so that he won't help outlaw their operation. It's the little touches that make these stories so much fun. For example, when the Flash swims at super-speed the water behind him turns to steam, and after rescuing a woman from drowning he runs so fast that her clothes dry in an instant. The creators have really thought out the Flash's powers, and they're having fun with them. I also greatly enjoyed the Flash going undercover as a gambler, using his powers to cheat at roulette and exploring the ship at high speed between spins of the wheel. This strip really is enjoyable.

'Cliff Cornwall, Special Agent' (by Gardner Fox and Sheldon Moldoff): Cornwall must stop a plot by an oil magnate and his fiancee to assassinate an ambassador from the nation of Sofia, and thereby plunge America into war. The plot here is a familiar one, but Moldoff's art is dark and moody, and the characters are all relatively well-rounded, with distinct motivations.

'Hawkman' (by Gardner Fox and Sheldon Moldoff): Hawkman takes on the Thought Terror, a hypnotist who is running a fortune telling racket; he charges for his predictions, then hypnotises his victims so that they do whatever he has just foretold. It's a sound money-making plan, but I don't get why he is murdering people. Surely he's just attracting undue attention to himself. And somehow he has the ability to hypnotise his goons into invincibility (but only when the plot requires them to capture Hawkman; when Hawkman must escape, they're suddenly quite vincible indeed). The design of the Thought Terror is good, but his goons wear exactly the same outfit, which doesn't help the clarity of the story. But really, I'm just nitpicking things here. The story has its problems, but it's still quite fun.

'Johnny Thunderbolt' (by John B. Wentworth and Stan Aschmeier): Johnny is now the World Heavyweight champion, and must catch a crook who has stolen money from his fiancee's father. The things that Johnny can do with his magic word "say you" just get more and more ridiculous, culminating when he quite literally punches the crook into next week. This is exactly the kind of thing I love in comics.

'Rod Rian of the Sky Police' (by Paul H. Jepsen): Rod Rian fights a dinosaur. Then he fights a skeleton. Then he fights a giant snake. Then one of his buddies drinks from a strange pool and becomes a skeleton. I don't know why any of these things are happening, because I can't remember the last chapter and there is no recap. With just a bit more coherence this could be great.

'King Standish' (by Gardner Fox and Harry Lampert): King goes up against a gang of diamond thieves disguised as a crook named English Pete, who by pure coincidence is the head of the gang. It's little too convenient for my tastes.

'Adventure in a Time Warp' (by Gardner Fox): In this prose story continued from last issue, time-travellers Rolf and Drokker systematically annihilate the green men who have invaded Earth. There's a token nod to the morality of wiping out a whole people, which is more than I expected, but it's still kind of distasteful. If the green men actually fought back I wouldn't mind, but there's no evidence in the story that they ever resist.

'Book Review: Robinson Crusoe': This review is the first of a regular series, but I would hesitate to call it a review at all. It's just a summary of the whole book, which kind of defeats the purpose of the exercise.

'Where There's a Will' (by Ed Wheelan): Cowboy Will Lawson finds himself working for an old prospector, and becomes like a son to him. When the old man dies, he leaves everything to his niece June, but asks that Will go to visit her to see if he might want to marry her. June is annoyed at the prospect, and pretends to be a maid, having one of her friends take her identity. It's all quite complicated to explain, but in the end Will and June end up together despite their case of mistaken identity. The ending was all a little neat and tidy, but I suppose that's they way of things in romantic comedy.

'The Whip' (by John B. Wentworth and Homer Fleming): The Whip rounds up some fat cats and makes them toil in the fields under the same conditions as their peon workers. It's a satisfying formula that Siegel and Shuster perfected ages ago on 'Superman'. The art has improved as well, with the arrival of Homer Fleming. As long as he doesn't take over the writing we'll be sorted.

Cover by Joe Shuster

'Superman' (by Jerry Siegel and Paul Cassidy): An artificial earthquake rocks Metropolis, the work of a malfunctioning machine, and Superman investigates. It turns out that an evil villain wants the machine for himself: Luthor! Yes, this is the first appearance of Lex Luthor in this blog so far. Whether this is his first actual appearance is debatable. The site that I use for release dates says that this came out a week earlier than Action Comics #23, but it's all conjecture. Nobody knows for sure when exactly when these Golden Age books were released.

Luthor (not yet Lex) has pretty much the same goals and personality as he will later have, but instead of his trademark baldness he's got a lovely head of red hair, which makes it a little difficult to think of him as the same character.  His plan is a good one though. He challenges Superman to a number of tasks, with Superman's brawn vs. Luthor's technology, with the loser to keep out of the winner's way.  The contests are fun, and include a race around the world, and a dare to see who can get the furthest out of Earth's atmosphere (which sees Superman jumping higher than a rocket ship). And while all this is going on, Luthor's goons steal the earthquake machine while Superman is preoccupied. His victory doesn't last long, but I did enjoy seeing Luthor outwit his enemy so early on.

Paul Cassidy ghosts for Joe Shuster on this story, and to be honest I didn't notice.  He does a very good Shuster impression.

'Superman' (by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster): It's Luthor again! This time he has raised an ancient city from the bottom of the ocean, where he has created an army of dinosaurs with which to conquer the world. It's not the greatest story, but it does have Superman wrestling a Tyrannosaurus Rex. And that's good enough for me.

'Changer of Destiny' (by Hugh Langley): In this prose story, a scientist drinks a formula that allows him to live a full year in the space of a second. While everyone else is frozen, the scientist goes about righting wrongs. He kills a gangster, and puts papers in front of the president that prove the current war was instigated by business interests. It ends when the formula wears off unexpectedly, and the scientist is hit by a truck. This is quite good stuff, with a novel premise that actually pays off pretty satisfyingly.

'Superman' (by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster): A foreign agent is destabilising America's economy through sabotage and working the stock market. Superman puts a stop to all of his plans, and then deliberately electrocutes him.  Come to think of it, Superman has been particularly murderous in this comic. In an earlier story he deliberately crashed a car, causing the deaths of two thugs, and now he's killed this guy.

'Pioneer Into the Unknown' (by Bert Lexington): A film star has volunteered to test a machine that can teleport people across time and space, but the whole stunt is supposed to be a hoax. Only the machine works, and the actor is teleported into the heart of a distant star. In the distant future of 1982, he is hailed as pioneer of interstellar travel. Again, this is much more inventive and interesting than most of the prose stories have been.

'Superman' (by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster): Superman joins up with a racketeer who has taken over the trucker's union, pretending to be a crook so that he can gather evidence. This is decent enough, with the appropriate amount of double-crossing. And this line from a truck driver as crooks emptied milk from his truck had me in stitches: "But that milk was intended for hungry babies!"

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

February 1940: Adventure Comics #48

Cover by Bernard Baily

'Tick-Tock Tyler the Hour-Man' (by Ken Fitch and Bernard Baily): Well, this one certainly took me unawares. This is the first appearance of Rex Tyler, aka the Hour-Man. He is a chemist who has invented a wonder drug called Miraclo, which gives him superhuman speed and strength for one hour. The story here is pretty pedestrian, as the Hour-Man must stop a gang of jewel thieves and also try to help one of them go straight and return to his family. The limited duration of Hour-Man's powers adds a little bit of extra tension as the clock counts down, but it's not enough to make such an average plot interesting.

'Barry O'Neill' (by Ed Winiarski): Jean LeGrand has been hypnotised and framed as a spy, and that can mean only one thing: Fang Gow has returned from the dead! Again! At this point Fang Gow has probably cheated death more than any other villain around. Barry tracks him down and frees Jean from his mental hold, but Fang Gow escapes. This is solid stuff, and Ed Winiarski probably does his best work on this strip.

'Federal Men' (by Jerry Siegel and Chad Grothkopf): Steve Carson infiltrates a "crime school", where crooks are taught how to kill people, crack safes, and commit other nefarious deeds. In a neat twist on the FBI set-up, the crooks have complete finger-print files on all law-enforcement officers, which they use to expose Carson. Then they hook him up to a Suicide Machine, clamping his arms in place so that he is pointing a gun at his own head that is set to go off. One of the crooks ends up saving Steve because he's annoyed at getting in trouble for not doing his homework. This is truly insane stuff. I'm a little disappointed that Shuster didn't draw it, though, because he's a master of this kind of bonkers, tongue-in-cheek material.

'The Sandman' (by Gardner Fox and Ogden Whitney): This is the first strip to feature both the Sandman and his new partner, the Lady in Evening Clothes (aka Dian Belmont). Dian's father is threatened by racketeers, and there are three suspects. All three end up being in on it in a clever twist. This strip is taking a slightly lighter tone, and I quite like it.

'Dead Man's Chest' (by Clem Gordon): Two sailors find a dead body, and figure out that the culprit is a millionaire sportsman who is obsessed with a jade idol of the weather god Hurican. It all fits together well enough, but without ever being enjoyable.

'Socko Strong' (by Al Sulman and Joseph Sulman): Socko's film rival Monte Swift is still trying to kill him, but Socko turns the tables. Swift's murder attempts are a bit more sedate after last issue's house full of death-traps, and the story is poorer for it.

'Steve Conrad, Adventurer' (by Jack Lehti): While on a cruise, Steve sees the notorious jewel thief Singapore Sal, and suspects that she's up to her old tricks. A woman's jewels are later stolen, but it turns out to be a trick to claim the insurance, rather than a plot by Sal. This is a decent twist on the usual formula, even if it setting up one over-used cliche only to serve into another. It's too bad that Chang's speech patterns are the most egregiously racist I've seen so far.

'Rusty and His Pals' (by Bill Finger and Bob Kane): Continuing from last issue, Rusty and his pals, along with their new friend Angus, explore the dead old man's house for treasure. A dwarf and a man named Zoroff are looking for it too, and the strip ends when Rusty finds the old man's diary and a secret note. I'm a sucker for kids hunting for lost treasure (a legacy of "The Goonies", I suspect) so I enjoyed this. I'm still not sure why the swords here are being referred to as spears, though.

'Anchors Aweigh!' (by Bart Tumey): Don Kerry goes undercover as criminal Joe Madsen to catch a dope smuggler. I was amused at the constant hounding and attention Don gets, from telegrams congratulating him on his release from jail, to a visit from Madsen's wife. But other than that this is average stuff.

'Cotton Carver and the Earth Passage' (by Gardner Fox and Ogden Whitney): Carver and Deela crash land in a strange valley, where they are menaced by Ape-Men. Eventually they escape, and climb a volcano until they reach the surface world. This is an interesting direction to take the strip, as Carver has been stranded underground for a long time now. The next installment promises to be an interesting diversion from the norm.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

February 1940: More Fun Comics #53, Detective Comics #37

Cover by Bernard Baily

I wasn't able to find a copy of this, aside from a reprint of the Spectre story, so that's all I can write about. 

'The Spectre' (by Jerry Siegel and Bernard Baily): Continuing from last issue, Jim Corrigan has returned from the dead to battle crime with his supernatural powers. In this story he must rescue his fiancee from the crooks who killed him. This is fantastically eerie stuff. Jim kills one of the crooks just by looking at him, and makes another's flesh fall away from his skeleton with a touch. And even though the crooks are dealt with easily, Jim is still little more than a ghost, and must leave his fiancee forever. This is very good stuff, spooky and tragic. The art lets it down here and there, but overall it's still effective.

Cover by Bob Kane

'Batman' (by Bill Finger and Bob Kane): Batman goes up against foreign agents in this story, which never quite feels right. From the opening where Batman has gotten lost while driving around, to the numerous instances if him being bashed on the head from behind, he doesn't feel like the same character. And I feel like the tone has shifted from what has come before, in a way that I can't quite pinpoint. It's not a terrible story by any means, but there's something off about it that I can't quite put my finger on.

'Spy' (by Jerry Siegel and Maurice Kashuba): Bart takes on Ligoni, leader of the "Ring of Death", who has just bombed some government officials. This is a solid story of Bart going undercover, even though it doesn't stray from the usual formula.  It's a solid rendition of a familiar routine.

'Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise' (by Sven Elven): Cosmo must stop a plot to hijack a  ship en route to England and sell it to an enemy nation. Part of his plan involves faking an explosion so that the ship will be evacuated, but I'm still wondering how that was done without crippling the ship as well. The story itself certainly has no explanation for me.

'The Crimson Avenger' (possibly by Jim Chambers and Harry Lucey): The Crimson Avenger is back, after a lengthy absence.  He hasn't been seen since Detective Comics #29! Very little effort is made to reintroduce the character, but I don't think it would be too hard to pick things up. In this story he tackles some kidnappers, which is a fairly dull starting point. Their ringleader ends up being a guy named J.N. Worthy, which seems fair enough, except for the scene where he seems surprised to be getting a note from the kidnappers. There's no reason he'd do so while alone in his own office.  It's just a cheap ploy to obscure the identity of the villain.

'Murder at Sea' (by John Randall): In this prose story, a professor is murdered and his secret plans are stolen. A boy named Billy figures out that the steward did it; his alibi was that he was writing a note at the time of the murder, but the note is too neat to have been written on the ship. It's just clever enough to work, but it's in the much-loathed "kids stop crooks" category, which is something I really hate.

'Speed Saunders, Ace Investigator and the Crime Roundup' (by Gardner Fox and Fred Guardineer): Speed is framed by crooks as a drunk, doused with whiskey and thrown in an alley. He's quickly demoted, but sets about getting his job back by starting a one-man war on crime. Normally I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, one guy just going around town and busting up every crook he finds, from the lowest to the highest. But this one just wraps up too neatly. It's the sort of story that works really well when it's drawn out and the crooks get their chance to retaliate, but here they just get rounded up, put on trial and sent to jail.

'Steve Malone, District Attorney' (by Don Lynch): This is a stock standard story about a kidnapping plot, where Steve goes to the rescue and saves the day, ticking all the cliche boxes as he goes. But there's an actual rape attempt by one of the kidnappers on their victim, which is definitely something that hasn't been done in DC comics to this point. It's all pretty PG in the way it's presented, but the intent is obvious. There's something to be said for this as a nod to realism, but it's not something I want to see in every story from now on.

'Cliff Crosby' (by Chad Grothkopf): This is a new strip. Cliff Crosby is friends with a reporter, and to be honest I'm not sure what it is that Cliff does. In this story, he and his friend get a lead on a missing judge, and find that he is being sold by a slave ring in South America. Cliff gets captured himself, saves the judge when he is thrown to a giant octopus, then wears the octopus on his head to frighten the slavers. It's not good, and the art is some of the worst I've seen. There are good panels here and there, but in every fight scene the perspective and scale are completely off. And Crosby has the world's tiniest arms.

'Slam Bradley' (by Jerry Siegel and Mart Bailey): Slam and Shorty are left a horse named Dynamite in a wealthy man's will, and before too long they have it racing in the Kentucky Derby. The usual shenanigans ensue, with crooked gamblers taking an interest, and of course Shorty ends up having to ride the horse in the derby. The plot elements here are as hackneyed as any other horse racing story, but the difference is in the presentation. Slam Bradley's stories are always laced with a knowing humour that raises them above the pack.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

January 1940: Zip Comics #3

Cover by Charles Biro

'Steel Sterling, Man of Steel' (by Charles Biro): Sterling has taken on the identity of his "twin brother" John, and acts as a private investigator. He's hired by a girl named Dora Cummings to rescue her scientist father, who has been kidnapped by the villainous Black Knight. The story that follows is pretty mad. It has flying tanks conquering a South American country. It has a cannon that fires balls of flaming oil. It has alligator men. It has a swarm of giant mosquitoes. And it has Steel Sterling smashing the hell out of all of them. I'm a sucker for a fast-paced, frenetic action story with lots of crazy elements, and this is exactly that.

'The Scarlet Avenger' (by Harry Shorten and Irv Novick): I had almost forgotten about the Scarlet Avenger, but how could I ever forget "The Man Who Never Smiles"? In this story he takes on Texa, a female crime lord who flies around in a dirigible and uses a giant magnet to rip a vault full of gold bullion from beneath the earth. It's a solid if unspectacular action story, and there is lots of gonzo technology on display. The cliffhanger is good as well, with the Scarlet Avenger having barely survived a plane crash and Texa hunting him in her dirigible.

'Nevada Jones, Quick-Trigger Man' (by Creators Unknown): Nevada Jones takes on a gang of stagecoach robber who are posing as Injuns. The storytelling here is really choppy, and the page layouts are also weird. As far as I'm concerned, if you need arrows to tell me what panel to read next, your layout sucks.

'Kalthar the Giant Man, King of the Jungle' (by Harry Shorten and Lin Streeter): Kalthar joins up with some white men who are searching for the lost city of Kybys, and a golden tablet hidden within. There are the usual traitorous party members, and a girl for Kalthar to fall in love with. The only thing that separates this from every run-of-the-mill jungle lord story is that Kalthar can change size, and that's hardly a compelling enough hook.

'War Eagles, the Devil's Flying Twins' (by Ed Smalle): Tom and Tim leave a man behind while escaping from Nazis, and must go back to rescue him. They're still jerks, but not as insufferable as they were last time. And Smalle has gotten much better at drawing aerial dogfights.

'The Slip-Up' (by Creator Unknown): In this prose story, Larry Duryea tries to kill another businessman by filling his car with poison gas. But when Larry slips and is knocked unconscious, the businessman stops to bundle him into the car and drive him to the hospital, and it's Duryea who dies. This is a pretty good twist ending story, the sort of thing that I'd be happy to see more of.

'Captain Valor' (by Abner Sundell and Mort Meskin): Angie's father is kidnapped by the villainous Ho Tsin, and Valor goes to his rescue. The most interesting scenes come when Valor befriends one of Ho Tsin's goons, a giant with no name and an endearingly stupid personality. It was also novel to see Angie save Valor's life, instead of the other way around. But otherwise this is truly generic stuff.

'Mr. Satan' (by Harry Shorten and Ed Ashe): Mr. Satan takes on a gang that is wrecking trains carrying payrolls for the local mine. The cliches are thick and fast here, to the point that Mr. Satan is actually tied to a railroad track. Even that bit of audacious hack-work can't make this story interesting, though.

'Zambini the Miracle Man' (by Joe Blair and Ed Wexler): In this story, Zambini goes to Hell and kills Satan. For real. It's not even like he has a difficult time of it, because Satan here is a complete wimp. All he has is his minions (including a brontosaurus, weirdly), who Zambini casually dismisses with his magic powers. This could have been brilliant, if only Satan wasn't so weaksauce.

January 1940: Pep Comics #3, Top-Notch Comics #4

Cover by Irv Novick

'The Shield, G-Man Extraordinary' (by Irv Novick): Mystery planes are dropping mines into New York harbour, and the Shield investigates. Exiled munitions magnate Count Zongarr is behind the whole thing, and the Shield soon wrecks his operation in the usual two-fisted manner. At least in this one the Shield shows some vulnerability, specifically to poison gas. I was also quite struck by Count Zongarr's multiracial army; just seeing a panel of white, black and Asian soldiers standing together all on equal terms is startling for this time period. The art is also strong, as Novick shows off his story-telling chops. This is a great showing all around.

'The Comet' (by Jack Cole): The Comet is captured by his enemy from last issue, a mobster called Satan. Satan has the Comet hypnotised (by a hypnotist named Zadar) and uses him to steal loads of money, and kill a whole bunch of people in the process.  Seriously, he's blasting cops point blank in the face with his eye-beams. Eventually the bad guys turn on each other over the money, Zadar has the Comet kill Satan, and the Comet kills Zadar by accidentally leaving his visor open. Super-hero mind control stories are a dime a dozen in the modern age, but this is early days for the genre, and it follows none of the usual tropes. The Comet doesn't try to resist killing people, and he doesn't triumph through his own force of will.  It's mostly dumb luck and the treacherous nature of the villains that saves the day, which is pretty refreshing from a modern perspective.

'The Press Guardian' (by Abner Sundell and Mort Meskin): The Moronia Bund villains from last issue kidnap the daughter of the bank manager who holds the mortgage on the Daily Express, and forces him to close down the newspaper's funding. The Press Guardian (really the newspaper owner's son) rescues her in a story that has plenty of dynamic action, but not much else going for it. I was surprised to see that the girl has learned the Press Guardian's identity, though, and that it's going to have future ramifications.

'Fu Chang. International Detective' (by Joe Blair and Lin Streeter): Fu Chang goes up against Ghor, a drug kingpin. Ghor is bad news as far as villains go; he actually walks up to Fu Chang's fiancee on the street and injects her with drugs that make her his slave. And when Fu Chang rescues her later, she's completely naked under a sheet. It's all implicit, but by the time Fu Chang sends one of his magic chessmen to inject Ghor with the drug, you know he has it coming to him.

'Sergeant Boyle' (by Abner Sundell and Charles Biro): If you like to see guys punching Nazis, this is the story for you. Boyle is captured and must escape, and that's as complicated as the plot gets. His biggest obstacle comes when he runs out of grenades to throw at the German planes chasing him, and tricks one plane by throwing an apple at them. Followed by the immortal line:

I think I've just given you all the information you need to know whether you like this story.

'The Midshipman' (possibly by Bob Wood): Midshipman Lee Sampson stops some foreign agents from stealing submarine plans. It's generic and uninspired.

'The Rocket and the Queen of Diamonds' (by Abner Sundell and Lin Streeter): The Rocket and the queen decide to visit the Rocket's homeland together, but the queen's guards think she's being kidnapped and shoot their ship down. They land in a subterranean world where they are captured by "Batmen", and the Rocket spends a good few pages just killing giant spiders, turtles and snakes. It's pretty crazy stuff.

'The Shield Meets the Wizard and the Midshipman Meets the West Pointer': This is an ad for a crossover between the four characters mentioned, the first major event of its kind so far as I know. The first two participants have me kind of excited, but I don't know what the Midshipman and the West Pointer are going to contribute. Still, it ought to be very interesting.

'Kayo Ward' (by Phil Sturm): Kayo Ward is fighting Socker Benson, and a gambler named Ace Brady tries every trick in the book to get Kayo to throw the fight, even down to shooting him in the arm during the match. It's all stuff that's been done to death by this point.

'Bentley of Scotland Yard' (by Joe Blair and Sam Cooper): Bentley investigates the murder of a man who was part of a World War I unit that is planning to enlist again for World War II. The story is adequate, but made more interesting by the contemporary London setting, right in the middle of the Blitz.  It lends the story a sense of urgency it otherwise wouldn't have.

Cover by Edd Ashe

'The Wizard, the Man With the Super-Brain' (by Will Harr and Edd Ashe): The Wizard tackles Bundonian spies and stops their submarine fleet from destroying US ships. It's basically the same plot that every Wizard story has had so far, with the same scenes of him wrecking enemy soldiers and vehicles. There's a glimmer of interest when the Wizard's fiancee leaves him, and I thought it was going somewhere when she came back into the story later, but no such luck. The only really interesting thing here is that every time the Wizard uses one of his gadgets there is a blueprint showing its component parts. It's pretty nifty.

'Dick Storm in South America' (by Harry Shorten and Mort Meskin): First the country of ChilanPruvia invades, and Dick Storm helps defeat them. The opening here has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story, which is pretty poor.  Presumably the people of Chilan are still dying of the plague, no?

'Moore of the Mounted' (by Creators Unknown): This new strip is about Sergeant Terry Moore, a Mountie who has to track down two murderers. I was rather hoping for 'Lesse of the Mounted', and it looks as though I'll get my wish, as this is the strip's only appearance.

'The Devil is a Mule' (by Creator Unknown): Buffalo Bill Cody must deliver a message to a garrison besieged by Injuns, and fails because of his mule. Which he then promptly shoots in the head. This is just blatant anti-mule propaganda.

'Streak Chandler on Mars' (by Harry Shorten and William Wills): Streak is kidnapped by gangsters so that he can't play in a football game. Through sheer happenstance they take him to the home of a professor who has just finished building his rocket, and they force the professor to fly Streak to Mars. (Looks like he won't make it back in time for the game, which means the gangsters win!) Once on Mars, Streak is menaced by the baby-like Red Men, the bird-like Lokis, and a horse-headed octopus. I like the way this mashes up the standard sports genre story and crazy sci fi, and it is pretty crazy once they reach Mars. But the characters are bland, and there's no plot to speak of.

'Wings Johnson of the Air Patrol: Sky Raiders of the Western Front' (by Joe Blair and Ed Smalle): Wings must land in England in a stolen Nazi plane without being killed. After that he fights off some Nazi planes, then he gets caught behind enemy lines. And after all that, he finds out that his arch-enemy Von Schiller has survived yet again. A lot happens here, but it never gels into a coherent story.  And Von Schiller's continued survival is getting ridiculous at this point.

'Bob Phantom, The Scourge of the Underworld' (by Harry Shorten and Irv Novick): Bob Phantom takes on a smuggling ring that is bringing Chinese men into the USA. It's very dull, and the villain's identity (a Chinese princess) doesn't make a lot of sense.

'Stacey Knight, M.D.' (by Lin Streeter): Knight tackles a gambling ring that has fixed a boxing match by doping one of the fighters. This is really dull, and the last we ever see of Stacey Knight.

'The West Pointer' (by Ed Wexler): After Keith Kornell saves his girlfriend from drowning in icy water, he is declared unfit to play in an important basketball match. But because he is super-awesome he plays anyway and wins the game for his team before collapsing. It's the same old routine.

'Kardak the Mystic Magician' (by C.A. Winter): Kardak's girlfriend is kidnapped by fish people, as they have a prophecy that says they can only defeat their enemies if they have a white Earth Queen. Kardak helps them against their enemies, the spider-like Mocha Men. This could have been epic, but the art is stiff, and unable to convey the necessary scope.