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.

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