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.

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