Superman in the Forties

By Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster & the Superman studio (DC Comics/Little, Brown & Co)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0457-0

Part of a series of trade paperbacks intended to define DC’s top heroes through the decades (the other being Batman, of course), these much-missed books always delivered a superb wallop of comicbook magic and a tantalising whiff of other, perhaps better, times.

Divided into sections partitioned by cover galleries, this box of delights opens with the untitled initial episodes from Action Comics #1 and 2 (even though they’re technically ineligible, coming from June and July 1938) as written and drawn by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

With boundless enthusiasm the Man of Tomorrow explodes into action, saving an innocent condemned to the electric chair, teaching a wife-beater a salutary lesson, terrorising mobsters and teaching war profiteers to think again. It’s raw, unpolished and absolutely captivating stuff.

Swiftly following from Superman #58 (May/June 1949) is a beguiling teaser written by William Woolfolk and illustrated by Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye. ‘Lois Lane Loves Clark Kent!’ finds the intrepid pioneering lady reporter seeing a psychiatrist because of her romantic obsession with the Man of Steel. His solution?

The quack tells her to switch her affections to her bewildered, harassed workmate with resultant hilarity and chaos ensuing! A rare treat follows as the seldom seen Superman prose story from Superman #1 (Summer 1939 and of course written by Siegel with accompanying art by Shuster) reappears for the first time in decades.

In 1948 the editors finally declassified the full and original ‘Origin of Superman’ written by Bill Finger with art from Boring and Kaye (Superman #53, cover-dated July/August). It was sequelled a year later and is directly followed in this volume by ‘Superman Returns to Krypton’ (Finger and Al Plastino) wherein the Man of Tomorrow breaks the time barrier to observe his lost homeworld at first hand.

This little gem (from Superman #61, November/December, 1949) provided the comic-book explanation for Kryptonite – which was originally introduced on the radio show in 1943 then promptly forgotten – and opened the door for a magical expansion of the character’s universe that still resonates with us today.

During the late 1940s Siegel & Shuster retrofitted their creation by creating Superboy (“the adventures of Superman when he was a boy”) for More Fun Comics #101 (January/February 1945). An instant hit, the youthful incarnation soon took the lead spot in Adventure Comics and won his own solo title in 1949.

From Superboy #5 (November/December, 1949) comes the charming tale of a runaway princess ironically entitled ‘Superboy Meets Supergirl’ by Woolfolk and the hugely talented John Sikela.

The second section is dedicated to the Man of Steel’s opponents, starting with ‘Superman Meets the Ultra-Humanite’ (Action Comics #14; (July 1939) by Siegel, Shuster and Paul Cassidy. They also devised a much more memorable criminal scientist in Lex Luthor who debuted in an untitled tale from Action #23 (April 1940). This larcenous landmark is followed by ‘The Terrible Toyman’ (Action #64, September 1943) by Don Cameron, Ed Dobrotka & George Roussos.

In such socially conscious times one of Superman’s most persistent foes was a heartless swindler called Wilbur Wolfingham. ‘Journey into Ruin’ by Cameron, Ira Yarbrough & Stan Kaye (Action #107; November #107) is a fine example of this type of tale and the hero’s unique response to it.

A different kind of whimsy is in play when Lois’s niece – a liar who could shame Baron Munchausen – returns with a new pal who can make her fantasies reality in ‘The Mxyztplk-Susie Alliance’ (from Superman #40; May/June 1946), charmingly crafted by Cameron, Yarbrough & Kaye.

The American Way section begins with a genuine war-time classic. ‘America’s Secret Weapon’ is from Superman #23 (July/August 1943, by Cameron, Sam Citron and Sikela): a masterpiece of patriotic triumphalism, as is the excerpt from the Superman newspaper strip which reveals how the over-eager Man of Tomorrow accidentally fluffs his own army physical. These strips by Siegel, Shuster & Jack Burnley originally ran from 16th – 19th February 1942,

Look Magazine commissioned a legendary special feature by the original creators for their 27th February 1943 issue. ‘How Superman Would End the War’ is a glorious piece of wish-fulfilment which still delights, and it’s followed by a less famous but equally affecting human interest yarn ‘The Superman Story’.

Taken from World’s Finest Comics #37 (1947, by Finger, Boring & Kaye), it pictures a pack of reporters trailing Superman to see how the world views him…

The book ends with ‘Christmas Around the World’ as Superman becomes the modern Spirit of the Season in a magical Yule yarn by Cameron, Yarbrough & Kaye from Action #93 (February 1946).

With a selection of cover galleries, special features and extensive creator profiles this is a magnificent Primer to the greatest hero of a bygone Golden Age, but one that can still deliver laughter and tears, thrills and spills and sheer raw excitement. No real fan can ignore these tales…
© 1940-1939, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Phantom – The Complete Series: The Gold Key Years volume 2

By Bill Harris & Bill Lignante with George Wilson (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-61345-023-9

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates, and, washing ashore in Africa, swore on the skull of his murdered father to dedicate his life and that of all his descendants to destroying all pirates and criminals. The Phantom fights crime and injustice from a base deep in the jungles of Bengali, and throughout Africa is known as the “Ghost Who Walks”.

His unchanging appearance and unswerving quest for justice have led to him being considered an immortal avenger by the credulous and the wicked. Down the decades one hero after another has fought and died in an unbroken line, and the latest wearer of the mask, indistinguishable from the first, continues the never-ending battle…

Lee Falk created the Jungle Avenger at the request of his syndicate employers who were already making history, public headway and loads of money with his first strip sensation Mandrake the Magician

Although technically not the first ever costumed hero in comics, The Phantom was the prototype paladin to wear a skin-tight body-stocking, and the first to have a mask with opaque eye-slits.

He debuted on February 17th 1936 in an extended sequence that pitted him against a global confederation of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood. Falk wrote and drew the daily strip for the first two weeks before handing artist Ray Moore the illustration side. The Sunday feature began in May 1939.

For such a successful, long-lived and influential series, in terms of compendia or graphic novel collections, The Phantom has been very poorly served by the English language market. Various small companies have tried to collect the strips – one of the longest continually running adventure serials in publishing history – but in no systematic or chronological order and never with any sustained success.

But, even if it were only of historical value (or just printed for Australians, who have long been manic devotees of the implacable champion) surely “Kit Walker” is worthy of a definitive chronological compendium series?

Happily, his comic book adventures have fared slightly better – at least in recent times…

In the 1960’s King Features Syndicate dabbled with a comicbook line of their biggest stars – Flash Gordon, Mandrake and The Phantom – but immediately prior to that, the Ghost Who Walks helmed a solo-starring vehicle under the broad and effective aegis of veteran licensed properties publisher Gold Key Comics. Each issue was fronted by a stunning painted cover by George Wilson.

The Phantom was no stranger to funnybooks, having been featured since the Golden Age in titles such as Feature Book and Harvey Hits, but only as straight strip reprints. These Gold Key exploits were tailored to a big page and a young readership.

This second superb full-cover hardcover – with equivalent eBook editions for the modern minded – gathers The Phantom #9-17 (originally released between November 1964 and July 1966) and opens with fan and scholar Pete Klaus’ Introduction ‘The Gold Key Phantom’: offering original art panels (many by Sy Barry) and a welcoming overview of the immortal strip star.

Scripted by Bill Harris and drawn in comicbook format by Bill Lignante, the illustrated adventures resume with full-length epic ‘The Sixth Man’ from #9 as the Ghost Who Walks takes a rare trip into modern civilisation only to be shanghaied by crooks. The miscreants realise too late that they have made the biggest mistake of their shady lives…

Determined to discover what’s behind the nefarious scheme, Kit Walker allows himself to be taken to a remote island ruled by bored, cruel queen Sansamor who thrives on making powerful men duel to the death.

Once the hero sees the kind of creature she is, her downfall is assured…

The issue is concluded by a single-page historical recap of the legend of ‘The Phantom’ and equally brief monochrome run-down of the mystery man’s intended bride ‘Diana’ (Palmer).

Cover-dated February 1965, The Phantom #10 opens with devious action thriller ‘The Sleeping Giant’ wherein the long-peaceful tribe of Itongo headhunters take up the old ways after their ancestral idol Tuamotu comes to life.

Thankfully, the Phantom is on hand to stem the potential carnage and expose crooked diamond prospector Joe Gagnon and his oversized circus performer inciting the tribesmen to war and conquest. All he has to do is defeat the giant warrior in unarmed combat…

Assisting the masked peacekeeper in policing the tribes and criminals of the region is ‘The Patrol’. These worthy soldiers have no idea who their mysterious “Commander” actually is and when the latest recruit tries to find out he receives a startling shock in this wry vignette.

Issue #11 (April 1965) features ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ with two brutal convicts breaking out of the Bengal Penal Colony to terrorise native communities by masquerading as demonic spirits. When the Ghost Who Walks apprehends them as they link up with pirates, he is struck sightless by a flare gun. Not even blindness can stop the resourceful champion from dispensing justice, however…

Closing the issue is a one-page tour of ‘The Skull Cave’ by Joe Certa, after which #12 (June) introduces ‘The Beast of Bengali’, with art by Sparky Moore & Lignante. Here a golden giant capable of seeming miracles subjugates the locality until the masked marvel exposes his magical feats for the tricks they really are…

Following a mouth-watering period ad for the Phantom Revell model kit, issue #13 (August) opens ‘The Phantom Chronicles’ as the Jungle Sentinel consults his ancestor’s meticulous records for tips on defeating seemingly immortal bandit Rachamond

The Phantom #14 (October) begins with ‘The Historian’ as scholar Dr. Heg consults with the Jungle Patrol on a book chronicling their achievements. His ulterior motive is to destroy the only law for hundreds of miles, but he has not reckoned on the true identity of their enigmatic leader…

‘Grandpa’ then switches locales to America where Diana Palmer’s doting ancestor is playing unwelcome matchmaker. Eventually, after violent incidents involving bears and robbers, the old man warms to African mystery man Kit Walker…

Closing 1966, issue #15 (December) details the downfall of ‘The River Pirates’ who ravage along the mighty waterways of the region. Their modern weapons prove little use against the cunning and bravery of the Deep Woods Guardian…

‘The Tournament’ then focuses on an unlucky prison escapee who finds the Phantom’s clothes and is stuck fighting a native gladiator in a centuries-old grudge match. Sadly, if he loses, the prestige lost means chaos will return to the tribes enjoying The Phantom’s Peace…

‘The Chain’ opens #16 (April 1966) as a world-weary Phantom considers quitting after an interminable period negotiating peace between warring tribes. Even Diana cannot change his mind, but when ancient wise man Wuru appears he relates a story of the hero’s father, who endured hardship, mockery and even slavery in a quest to rescue a woman from vile bondage. Her name was Maude, and she was to be the Phantom’s mother…

A brace of single-pagers follow, revealing Kit Walker’s unrecorded boxing bout against ‘The Champ’ and a battle in a bar won by ‘The Milk Drinker’ before ‘The Crescent Cult’ sees the Jungle Ghost crushing an assassination gang determined to murder their country’s new Maharani. The comic concludes with another 1-page yarn as ‘The Diggers’ examine old ruins and discover proof that the Phantom has lived and fought evil for centuries!

This second volume ends on a truly supernatural note as The Phantom #17 (July 1966) discloses how undying witch ‘Samaris’ has preyed on male suitors for centuries, and believes she has last found another cursed to live forever…

Following one-pager ‘The Waterfall’, detailing the secrets of the entrance to the fabled Skull Cave, ‘Samaris Part II’ finds the Ghost Who Walks captive of the Queen but resisting her every wile until justice, fate and an avalanche of deferred years catch up to her at last…

Wrapping up is a monochrome vignette detailing the secrets of The Phantoms’ devout helpers ‘The Bandar’ Poison Pygmy People and a sumptuous cover gallery by George Wilson.

Straightforward, captivating rollicking action-adventure has always been the staple of The Phantom. If that sounds like a good time to you, this is a traditional nostalgia-fest you won’t want to miss…
The Phantom® © 1964-1966 and 2012 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ® Hearst Holdings, Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

W.E. Johns’ Biggles and the Golden Bird

By Björn Karlström, translated by Peter James (Hodder and Stoughton)
ISBN: 978-0-34023-081-7(HB)                      0-340-23081-9(PB)

In acknowledgement of today’s Centenary of the Royal Air Force, I’m reviewing a captivating combat classic starring one of the Service’s most glittering – albeit fictional – stars.

Although one of the most popular and enduring of all True Brit heroes, air detective Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth – immortally known as “Biggles” – has never been the star of British comics you’d reasonably expect.

Whilst the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Dick Turpin, Sexton Blake, Dick Barton and others have regularly made the jump to sequential pictorials, as far as I can determine the only time Biggles hit the funny pages was as a beautiful strip illustrated firstly by Ron Embleton and later Mike Western for the lush, tabloid-sized photogravure weekly TV Express (issues 306-376, 1960-1962). Even then the strip was based on the 1960 television series rather than the armada of books and short stories generated over Johns’ 56-year career.

Much of this superb stuff has been reprinted in French and other European editions but remains criminally uncollected in the UK. Indeed Biggles is huge all over the Continent, particularly Holland, Belgium and France, which makes it doubly galling that only a short-lived Swedish interpretation of Biggles has ever made the transition back to Blighty…

Created by World War 1 flying veteran and aviation enthusiast William Earl Johns (February 5th 1893-June 21st 1968), the airborne adventures of Biggles, his cousin the Hon. Algernon Montgomery Lacey AKA “Algy”, Ginger Hebblethwaite and their trusty mechanic and dogsbody Flight Sergeant Smyth ran as prose thrillers in the magazines Modern Boy, Popular Flying and Flying – periodicals which Johns designed, edited and even illustrated.

Initially aimed at an older audience, the Biggles stories quickly became a staple of boys’ entertainment in anthology and full novels (nearly 100 between 1932-1968) as well as a true cultural icon. Utilising the unique timeless quality of proper heroes, Biggles and Co. have waged their dauntless war against evil as combatants in World Wars I and II, as Special Air Detectives for Scotland Yard in the interregnum of 1918-1939 and as freelance agents and adventurers in the Cold War years…

“Captain” W.E. Johns was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century and wrote over 160 books in total as well as innumerable features and articles ranging from gardening to treasure-hunting, aviation, crime fiction, pirates and historical fact and fiction.

He created many heroic novel series which shared the same continuity as Biggles: 6 “Steeley” novels starring Deeley Montfort Delaroy, a WWI fighter ace-turned-crimebuster between 1936-1939, 10 volumes of commando Captain Lorrington King AKA Gimlet (1943-1954) and a 10 volume science fiction saga starring retired RAF Group Captain Timothy ‘Tiger’ Clinton, his son Rex and boffin Professor Lucius Brane who voyaged among the stars in a cosmic ray powered spaceship between 1954 and 1963.

Although much of his work is afflicted with the parochial British jingoism and racial superiority that blights so much of the fiction of the early 20th century, Johns was certainly ahead of his time in areas of class and gender equality. Although Algy is a purely traditional plucky Toff, working class Ginger is an equal partner and participant in all things, whilst Flight Officer Joan Worralson was a WAAF pilot who starred in 11 “Worrals” novels between 1941 and 1950, commissioned by the Air Ministry to encourage women to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

In 1977, veteran Swedish author and cartoonist Björn Karlström returned to comics when publisher Semics commissioned him to produce four new Biggles adventures; ‘Het Sargasso mysterie’, ‘Operatie goudvis’, ‘De tijger bende’ and ‘Ruimtestation Aries’ (The Sargasso Mystery; Operation Goldfish; The Tiger Gang and Space Station Aries, respectively). These were picked up by Hodder and Stoughton in 1978, deftly translated by Peter James and released as Biggles and the Sargasso Triangle, Biggles and the Golden Bird, Biggles and the Tiger and Biggles and the Menace from Space

In 1983, two further albums were released, created by Stig Stjernvik.

Although deeply mired in the stylisation and tone of Hergé’s Tintin, to my mind the most authentic-seeming to Johns’ core concept was the second, highlighted here for today’s celebrations…

Swedish designer, author and aviation enthusiast Björn Karlström began working in comics for the vast Scandinavian market in 1938, producing scale-model plans and drawings for the magazine Flygning. In 1941 he created the adventure strip Jan Winther for them before devising international speculative fiction hit Johnny Wiking: followed up with another SF classic which closely foreshadowed the microscopic missionaries of (Otto Klement, Jerome Bixby and Isaac Asimov’s) Fantastic Voyage in ‘En Resa i Människokroppen’ (1943-1946), before taking over Lennart Ek’s successful super-heroine strip Dotty Virvelvind in 1944.

Karlström left comics at the end of the war and returned to illustration and commercial design, working on jet fighters for Saab and trucks for Scania.

Whereas most of his earlier comics were rendered in a passable imitation of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, when he was convinced to produce the Biggles quartet Karlström adopted a raw, lean version of Hergé’s Ligne Claire style which adds a welcome sense of period veracity to the tales but often offends and upsets Tintin purists…

Biggles and the Golden Bird is set in the early 1930s and begins when the aerial adventurers are asked to pilot a new super-plane in an attempt to break the world long-distance flying record. Fact freaks might be intrigued to discover that the “Fairview” of this story is closely based on the record-smashing Fairey Long Range Monoplane, which stars in a splendid plans-&-diagrams section at the back that also includes the De Havilland C-24 Autogiro also featuring prominently in this ripping yarn…

When mysterious intruders brazenly steal the Fairview, intelligence supremo General Raymond dispatches Biggles, Algy and Ginger to track them down and retrieve the prototype air-machine. A crashed light plane and a rustic witness point the trio in the direction of Scotland and, dashing North in a ministry-provided autogiro (that’s a cross between a plane and an early kind of helicopter), they rendezvous with a fishing boat whose captain also witnessed strange sky shenanigans only to be attacked and overcome…

Their enigmatic adversaries had anticipated the pursuit and laid a trap, but with a typical display of pluck and fortune, Ginger turns the tables and drives off the thugs. The real Captain Gilbert then imparts his information and the autogiro brings them to a desolate ruined castle on a rocky headland, where Ginger and Algy are captured by an armed gang even as poor Biggles plunges over a cliff to certain doom…

Naturally the Ace Aviator saves himself at the last moment and subsequently discovers a sub-sea cavern – complete with deep-sea diving operation – just as his pals cunningly escape captivity. Fortuitously meeting up, the trio follow their foes and find a sunken U-Boat full of gold…

The uncanny reason for the theft of the Fairview and the mastermind behind it all is revealed when arch-enemy and all-around Hunnish blackguard Erich von Stalhein arrives to take possession of the recovered bullion before fleeing to a new life in distant lands. Having none of it the plucky lads strike, leading to a blistering battle and spectacular showdown…

Fast and furious, full of fights and hairsbreadth chases – although perhaps a touch formulaic and too steeped in the old-fashioned traditions for modern comics purists – this light and snappy tale would delight newer readers and general action fans and is readily available in both hardback and softcover editions, since the books were re-released in 1983 in advance of the star-studded but controversial British film-flop Biggles: Adventures in Time.

Perhaps it’s time for another revival and even some fresh exploits?
Characters © W.E. Johns (Publications). Text and pictures © 1978 Björn Karlström. English text © 1978 Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.

Blackhawk Archives Volume 1

By Will Eisner, Dick French, William Woolfolk, Bob Powell, Chuck Cuidera, Reed Crandall & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-700-9

The early days of the American comicbook industry were awash with both opportunity and talent, and these factors beneficially coincided with a vast population hungry for cheap entertainment.

Comics had practically no fans or collectors; only a large marketplace open to all varied aspects of yarn-spinning and tale-telling. Thus, even though America loudly proclaimed its isolationism and remained more than six months away from active inclusion in World War II, creators like Will Eisner and publishers like Everett M. (known to all as “Busy”) Arnold felt that Americans were ready for a themed anthology title such as Military Comics.

Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.

Military Comics #1 launched on May 30th 1941 (with an August off-sale or cover-date) and included in its gritty, two-fisted line-up Death Patrol by Jack Cole, Miss America, Fred Guardineer’s Blue Tracer, X of the Underground, The Yankee Eagle, Q-Boat, Shot and Shell, Archie Atkins and Loops and Banks by “Bud Ernest” (in actuality, aviation-nut and unsung comics genius Bob Powell), but none of the strips, not even Cole’s surreal and suicidal team of hell-bent fliers, had the instant cachet and sheer appeal of Eisner & Powell’s “Foreign Legion of the Air” led by a charismatic Dark Knight known only as Blackhawk.

Chuck Cuidera – already famed for creating The Blue Beetle for Fox Publications – drew ‘The Origin of Blackhawk’ for the premiere issue, wherein a lone, magnificently skilled pilot fighting the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 is finally shot down by Nazi Ace Von Tepp.

The sadistic killer then goes on to bomb a farmhouse sheltering the defeated pilot’s family. Rising from his plane’s wreckage, the distraught pilot vows vengeance…

Two years later, with the Nazis in control of most of Europe, Von Tepp’s unassailable position is threatened by a mysterious paramilitary squadron of unbeatable fliers, dedicated to crushing injustice and smashing the Axis war-machine…

Eisner wrote the first four Blackhawk episodes and Cuidera stayed aboard until issue #11 – although the artist would return in later years. Many of the stories were originally untitled but have been conveniently characterized with such stirring designations as issue #2’s ‘The Coward Dies Twice’ wherein the team – “the last free men of the conquered countries” – offer a deserter from a Spitfire Squadron a chance to redeem himself…

The easy mix of patriotism, adventure and slapstick was magnified by the inclusion of Chop-Chop in ‘The Doomed Squadron’: a comedy Chinaman painful to see through modern eyes, but a stock type considered almost as mandatory as a heroic leading man in those dark days, and not just in comics.

At least this Asian man is a brave and formidable fighter both on the ground and in a plane…

‘Desert Death’ takes the team to Suez – for the first of many memorable Arabian adventures – as Nazi agitators attempt to foment revolution among the tribesmen in hopes that they will rise up and destroy the British. This tale is also notable for the introduction of a species of sexy siren beloved of Eisner and Quality Comics. Her or similar seductresses of her ilk would populate the strip until DC bought the property in 1957. Also included here is also a secret map of Blackhawk Island, mysterious base of the ebon-clad freedom fighters.

With issue #5 Dick French assumed the writing role and ‘Scavengers of Doom’ tells a biting tale of battlefield looters allied to a Nazi mastermind, united to set an inescapable trap for the heroic fliers. More importantly, French began providing distinct and discrete characters for the previously anonymous minor players.

In MC #6 the rapidly gelling team joins the frantic hunt for a germ weapon the Gestapo are desperate to possess, resulting in spectacular alpine adventure ‘The Vial of Death’, after which #7 (the first issue released after America entered World War II although the stories had not yet caught up to reality) finds the lads prowling the Mongolian Steppe on horseback to thwart ‘The Return of Genghis Khan’.

‘The Sunken Island of Death’ from #8 is a striking maritime romp wherein the warring powers battle to occupy and possess an island freshly risen from the Atlantic depths. The new-born landmass is strategically equidistant between the USA, Britain and Festung Europa (that’s what the Nazis called the enslaved stronghold they had made of mainland Europe).

Although complete in itself, the yarn is also the first of an experimental, thematic 3-part saga that stretched the way comics stories were told.

There were many marvellously melodramatic touches to make the Blackhawks so memorable in the eyes of a wide-eyed populace of thrill-hungry kids. There was the cool, black leather uniforms and peaked caps. The unique – yet real – Grumman F5F-1 Skyrocket planes they flew from their secret island base and their eerie battle-cry “Hawkaaaaa!” But perhaps the oddest idiosyncrasy to modern readers was that they had their own song which André, Stanislaus, Olaf, Chuck, Hendrickson and Chop-Chop would sing as they plunged into battle. And just to be informative and inclusive, the sheet-music and lyrics were published in this issue and are re-presented here – just remember this is written for seven really tough guys to sing while dodging bullets and weaving between bursts of flak…

Military #9 led with ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ as the unflappable team discover that a fallen comrade did not actually die in combat, but was hideously disfigured saving them, whilst the next issue’s tale – ‘Trapped in the Devil’s Oven’ – is another desert adventure focusing on the still primitive science of plastic surgery to restore said hero to full fighting trim.

Issue #11 – Cuidera’s last – saw the squadron turn their attention to Japan, as reality at last caught up with publishing schedules. Intriguingly, ‘Fury in the Philippines’ starts quietly with the entire team calmly discussing carrying on against the Nazis or switching their attentions to the Pacific Theatre of Operations, until comedy relief Chop-Chop sways the debaters with an impassioned stand.

Though inarguably an offensive stereotype visually, the Chinese warrior was often given the best lines and most memorable actions. A sneakily subversive attempt on the part of the creators (frequently from immigrant backgrounds and ethnic origins) to shake up those hide-bound societal prejudices, perhaps?

Notwithstanding, the resultant mission against the Japanese fleet is a cataclysmic Battle Royale, full of the kind of vicarious pay-back that demoralized Americans needed to see following Pearl Harbor…

‘The Curse of Xanukhara’ added fantasy elements to the gritty mix of blood and iron as the team’s hunt for a stolen codebook leads them to occupied Borneo and eventually the heart of Tokyo; a classy espionage thriller marking the start of a superlative run of thrillers illustrated by the incredible Reed Crandall.

The artist’s realistic line and the graceful poise of his work – especially on exotic femmes fatale and trustworthy girls-next-door – made his strips an absolute joy to behold.

‘Blackhawk vs. The Butcher’ (Military #13, November 1942) was written by new regular scripter Bill Woolfolk and returned the team to Nazi territory as a fleeing Countess turned the team’s attention to the most sadistic Gauleiter (Nazi regional leader in charge of a conquered territory) in the German Army.

What follows is a spectacular saga of justice and righteous vengeance, whilst ‘Tondeleyo’ reveals a different kind of thriller as an exotic siren uses her almost unholy allure to turn the entire team against each other.

Such quasi-supernatural overtones held firm in the stirring ‘Men Who Never Came Back’ – when the team travel to India to foil a Japanese plot – in a portmanteau tale narrated by the three witches Trouble, Terror and Mystery; eerily presaging the EC horror classics that would cement Crandall’s artistic reputation more than a decade later.

‘Blackhawk vs. the Fox’ pits the flight of heroes against a Nazi strategic wizard (a clear reference to the epic victories of Erwin Rommel) in the burning sands of Libya and remains one of the most authentic battle tales in the canon, before this sublime hardback volume concludes with a racy tale of vengeance and tragedy wherein Japanese traitor Yoshi uses her wiles to punish the military government of Nippon, with Blackhawk as her unwitting tool in ‘The Golden Bell of Soong-Toy!’

These stories were produced at a pivotal moment in both comics and world history, a blend of weary sophistication and glorious, juvenile bravado. Like the best movies of the time – Casablanca, Foreign Correspondent, Freedom Radio, Captain of the Clouds, The Day Will Dawn, The First of the Few, In Which We Serve and all the rest – with their understated, overblown way of accepting duty and loss, these rousing tales of the miracles that good men can do are some of the Golden Age’s finest moments.

In fact, these are some of the best comics stories of their time and I sincerely wish DC had proceeded with further collections.

So will you…
© 1941-1942, 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Betty Boop volumes 1-3

By Bud Counihan (Blackthorne Publishing/Comic Strip Preserves)
ISBNs: 0-932629-33-4, 0-932629-47-4 and 0-932629-69-5

Betty Boop is one of the most famous and long-lived fictional media icons on the planet. She’s also probably the one who has generated the least amount of narrative creative material – as opposed to simply merchandise – per year since debuting.

The ultimate passion paragon was created at the Fleischer Cartoon Studios either by Max Fleischer himself or cartoonist/animator Grim Natwick – depending on whoever you’ve just read – premiering in the monochrome animated short movie feature Dizzy Dishes. This was the sixth “Talkartoon” release from the studio, screening for the first time on August 9th 1930.

A deliberately racy sex-symbol from the start, Betty was based on silent movie star Clara Bow. The “the It-Girl” (as in “she’s got…”) was originally anthropomorphised into a sexy French Poodle; voiced in those pioneering days of “the talkies” by a succession of actresses including Margie Hines, Kate Wright, Ann Rothschild and Mae Questel who all mimicked Bow’s soft and seductive (no, really!) Brooklyn accent.

Betty evolved into a fully – if wickedly distorted – human girl by 1932’s Any Rags and, having co-opted and monopolised the remaining Talkartoons, graduated to the Screen Songs featurettes before winning her own animated cartoon series, to reign as “The Queen of the Animated Screen” until the end of the decade.

A Jazz Age flapper in the Depression Era, the delectable Miss Boop was probably the first sex-charged teen-rebel of the 20th Century, yet remained winningly innocent and knowledgably chaste throughout her career. Thus, she became astoundingly, incredibly popular – although her ingenue appeal diminished appreciably when the censorious Hayes Production Code cleaned up all the smut and fun coming out of Hollywood in 1934 – even though the Fleisher Studio was New York born and bred…

Saucy singer Helen Kane, who had performed in a sexy “Bow-esque” Brooklyn accent throughout the 1920s and was billed as “The Boop-Oop-A-Doop Girl” famously sued for “deliberate caricature” in 1932. Although she ultimately failed in her suit, even Betty couldn’t withstand a prolonged assault by the National Legion of Decency and the Hayes Code myrmidons.

With all innuendo removed, salacious movements restricted and drawn in much longer skirts, Betty gained a boyfriend and family whilst the scripting consciously targeted a younger audience. Her last animated cartoon stories were released in 1939.

The one advantage to Betty’s screen neutering and new wholesome image was that she suddenly became eligible for inclusion on the Funnies pages of family newspapers, romping amidst the likes of Popeye and Mickey Mouse. In 1934 King Features Syndicate launched a daily and Sunday newspaper strip drawn by Bud Counihan, a veteran ink-slinger who had created the Little Napoleon strip in the 1920s before becoming Chic Young’s assistant on Blondie.

The Betty Boop comic strip never really caught on and was cancelled early in 1937, but that relatively short run still leaves us with these three rather charming and wistfully engaging volumes, collected and edited by comics aficionado and historian Shel Dorf as part of Blackthorne’s low-budget 1980s reprint program, alongside other hard-to-find classics such as Tales of the Green Berets and Star Hawks, and one possibly never to be collected again elsewhere, more’s the pity…

There was a brief flurry of renewed Betty activity during the 1980s, leading to a couple of TV specials, a comic-book from First Comics Betty Boop’s Big Break (1990) and another newspaper strip Betty Boop and Felix by Brian Walker (son of Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois creator Mort Walker).

That one she shared with fellow King Features nostalgia alumnus Felix the Cat and it ran from 1984-1988, but that’s still a pretty meagre complete canon for a lady of Betty’s fame, longevity and pedigree.

As stated, the collected strips in these Blackthorne editions feature the freshly-sanitised, family-oriented heroine of the later 1930s, but for devotees of the era and comics fans in general the strip still retains a unique and abiding screwball charm. Counihan’s Betty is still oddly, innocently coquettish: a saucy thing with too-short skirts and skimpy apparel (some of the outfits – especially bathing costumes – would raise eyebrows even now), and although the bald innuendo that made her a star is absent, these snappy exploits of a street-wise young thing trying to “make it” as a Hollywood starlet are plenty racy enough when viewed through the knowing and sexually adroit eyes of 21st century readers…

Book 1 of this cheap ‘n’ cheerful black-and-white series opens with an extended sequence of gag-a-day instalments that combine to form an epic comedy-of-errors as Betty’s lawyers do litigious battle with movie directors and producers. Their aim is to arrive at the perfect contract for all parties – clearly a war that rages to this day in Tinseltown – whilst labouring under the cost restrictions of what was still, after all, The Great Depression.

The full-page Sunday strips are presented in a separate section, but even with twice the panel-count the material was still broadly slapstick, cunning wordplay, single joke stories. However, one of these does introduce the first of an extended cast, Betty’s streetwise baby brother Bubby: a certified cinematic rapscallion to act as a chaotic foil to the star’s affably sweet, knowingly dim complacency.

There’s a succession of romantic leading men (usually called “Van” something-or-other) but none stick around for long as Betty builds her career, and eventually the scenario changes to a western setting as cast and crew begin making Cowboy Pictures, leading to many weeks’ worth of “Injun Jokes”, but ones working delightfully counter to old and unpleasant stereotypes, before the first volume concludes with the introduction of fearsome lower-class virago Aunt Tillie; chaperone, bouncer and sometime comedy movie extra…

Book 2 (Adventures of a Hollywood Star) continues in the same vein with lawyers, entourage and extras providing the bulk of the humour with Betty increasingly becoming the Straight Man in her own strip except in a recurring gag about losing weight to honour her contract (which stipulates she cannot be filmed weighing more than 100 pounds!)

Geez! Her head alone has got to weigh at least… sorry, I know… just a comic, …

Like many modern stars, Betty had a dual career and there’s a lot of recording industry and song jokes before the Native Americans return to steal the show some more.

Book 3 carries on in what is now a clear and unflinching formula, but with Bubby, Aunt Tillie and her diminutive new beau Hunky Dory increasingly edging Betty out of the spotlight and even occasionally off the page entirely…

By no means a major effort of “the Golden Age of Comics Strips”, Counihan’s Betty Boop (like most licensed syndicated features the strip was “signed” by the copyright holder, in this case Max Fleischer) is still a hugely effective, engaging and entertaining work, splendidly executed and well worthy of a comprehensive and complete compilation, especially in an era where female role models of any vintage remain a scarce resource.

With the huge merchandising empire built around the effervescent little cartoon gamin, waif and houri (everything from apparel to wallpaper, clocks and blankets), surely it isn’t too much to expect a proper home for all the wicked little japes, jests and junkets of her sojourn in sequential art?

Additionally, the second and third books also offer a selection of Paper Doll Bettys with outfits to cut out and colour, designed by Barb Rausch (Neil the Horse, Katy Keene, Barbie, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast among many others) a traditional “added-value” feature of the earliest comic strips that still finds irresistible resonance with much of today’s audience. Just remember, now we can make copies without cutting up those precious originals…
© 1986, 1987 King Features Syndicate. All rights reserved.

Golden Age Marvel Comics Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Carl Burgos, Bill Everett, Paul Gustavson, Ben Thompson & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1609-7 (HB)                    978-0-7851-5052-7 (TPB)

Die-hard fans craving a look at previously inaccessible vintage comics material have never had it so good. When I was young (not quite twenty minutes after the Golden Age actually ended), superhero and other genre stories from the dawn of the industry were all but impossible to find and a comprehensive scheme of reprinting old stuff a very low priority for even big publishers like DC and Marvel

These days a vast percentage of 1930, 1940s and 1950s comics output from many still-existing and bygone outfits is readily readable: either in expensive print compilations or more accessible digital editions.

DC led the way in the early 1990s, but soon after a great deal of Marvel Comics’ Timely and Atlas material joined the collective pool, and the notion that old stuff is not to modern tastes was finally disproved. For years accepted wisdom had decreed that most Golden Age stories were too dated and quite often painfully strident – maybe even offensive to 21st century eyes and sensibilities.

Nevertheless, many like me would rather have the raw historical form rather than any bowdlerised or censored reworking and even in their most jingoistic and populist excesses there are usually individual nuggets of gold amidst the shocking or – horror of horrors – badly crafted yarns from the art form’s sensationalistic antediluvian antecedents.

Marvel took quite some time before producing expensive deluxe volumes featuring their earliest comic adventures and this collection of the first four issues of the anthology title which started it all for Timely/Marvel/Red Circle/Atlas (before eventually and inevitably settling on Marvel Comics), despite re-presenting some of the most revered adventures of the Golden Age, clearly shows why.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh and hyper-critical: I have to admit that there’s a lot of stuff here that I spent much of my early life lusting after. I am however a total comics nut with broad tastes and mutable standards. There are shameful horrors and truly pitiful examples of the medium lurking in my dusty comics boxes. I am not a new, casual or particularly discriminating punter.

Hi – my name is Win and I’m addicted to old comics…

After a rather shaky start and inauspicious in 1936, the fledgling comicbook industry was saved by the invention of Superman. His iconic innovation created a new popular genre and paved the way for explosive expansion.

By 1939 the new kids on the block were in a frantic flurry of creative frenzy with every publisher trying to make and own the Next Big Thing. Martin Goodman’s pulp fiction outfit leapt into the turbulent marketplace and scored big with their initial offering Marvel Comics: released late in the year before inexplicably switching to the marginally less euphonious Marvel Mystery Comics with the second issue.

During those early days, novel ideas, raw ambition and sheer exuberance could take you far and, as most alternative means of entertainment escapism for kids were severely limited, it just wasn’t that hard to make a go of it as a comicbook publisher. Combine that with a creative work-force which kept being drafted, and it’s clear to see why low and declining standards of story and art didn’t greatly affect month-to-month sales during the years of World War II.

However, once hostilities ceased a cascade-decline in super-hero strips began almost as soon as GI boots hit US soil again. Those innocent kids had seen a lot and wanted something more than brashness, naivety and breakneck pace from their funnybooks now…

Both the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner quickly won favour with the burgeoning, fickle readership, but the remaining characters were soon acknowledged to be B-listers and thus subject to immediate replacement once a better idea presented itself. Still, two out of seven was pretty good: Action and Detective Comics only had the one super-star apiece at the outset…

Another holdover from the pre-comics, pulp fiction phase of the company was a predilection to treat instalments as serial chapters; always promising more and better if you’d just come back next month…

Before the year was out Timely’s “Big Two” would clash; frequently and repeatedly battling like elemental gods in the skies above Manhattan…

Goodman apparently favoured Ka-Zar and The Angel: both characters that devolved from his own stable of pulp genre stars. Sadly, neither the generic jungle adventures of the company’s premiere Tarzan knockoff or the thud-and-blunder crimebusting rogue’s potboilers – which owed so much to Leslie Charteris’ iconic dark knight the Saint – just didn’t appeal to kids as much as the spectacular graphic histrionics of the anarchic Fire and Water anti-heroes…

An editorial policy of rapid expansion was quickly adopted: release a new book filled with whatever the art and script monkeys of the comics “shop” (freelance creative types who packaged material on spec for publishing houses: Martin Goodman bought all his product from Lloyd Jacquet’s Funnies Inc.) dreamed up, keep the popular hits and disregard everything else.

Timely Comics, or Red Circle as the company occasionally called itself, enjoyed a huge turnover of characters who only made one or two appearances before vanishing, never to be seen again until variously modern revivals or recreations produced new improved versions of characters such as Angel, Ka-Zar or Electro.

This volume – available in hardback, softcover and eBook editions – kicks into high gear following a knowledgeable and informative scene-setting introduction by Golden Age Guru Roy Thomas.

The landmark Marvel Comics #1 sported a cover by pulp illustrator Frank R. Paul, and after spot gag page ‘Now I’ll Tell One’ (by “Ed Wood” – AKA Fred Schwab) introduces to the gasping populace Carl Burgos’ landmark conception of ‘The Human Torch’

The Fiery Fury led off a parade of wonderment, bursting into life as a malfunctioning humanoid devised by Professor Phineas Horton. Igniting into an uncontrollable blazing fireball whenever exposed to air, the artificial innocent was consigned to entombment in concrete but escaped to accidentally imperil the metropolis until it/he fell into the hands of a gangster named Sardo.

When the crook’s attempts to use the gullible android as a terror weapon dramatically backfire, the hapless newborn is left a misunderstood fugitive, like a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster. Even his creator only sees the humanoid as a means of making filthy money…

Crafted by Paul Gustavson, the opening episode of ‘The Angel’ owed a criminally large debt to the 1938 Louis Hayward film The Saint in New York. Although dressed like a superhero, the globe-trotting do-gooder offered a blending of Charteris’s iconic well-intentioned scoundrel and The Lone Wolf (Louis Vance’s urbane two-fisted hero who was the subject of 8 books and 24 B-movies between 1917 and 1949).

However, the four-colour paladin’s foes soon tended towards only the spooky, the ghoulish and the just plain demented….

He also seemed able to cast giant shadows in the shape of an angel. Not the greatest aid to cleaning up the scum of the Earth, but he seemed to manage in this initial enterprise where he is tasked with cleaning up New York’s gang problems before suffering the deadly depredations of the crime syndicate dubbed ‘the Six Big Men’

Bill Everett’s ‘The Sub-Mariner’ was actually an expanded reprint of a beautiful black-&-white strip from Motion Picture Funnies. Prince Namor was the scion of an aquatic race living under the South Pole. These advanced mer-folk had been decimated by American mineral exploration a generation previously, and the Sub-Mariner’s mother Fen had been dispatched to spy upon the invaders. She had gotten too close, falling pregnant by one of the interlopers, and twenty years later her hybrid son was an amphibious mutant superman determined to exact revenge on the air-breathers – which he promptly began by attacking New York City…

Cowboy Jim Gardley was framed by ruthless cattle-baron Cal Brunder and found the only way to secure a measure of justice was to become ‘The Masked Raider’: dispensing six-gun law. Al Anders’ Lone Ranger riff was competent but uninspired, lasting until the 12th issue of Marvel Mystery.

Offering a complete adventure, ‘Jungle Terror’ by Tomm Dixon (aka Art Panajian) follows gentlemen explorers Ken Masters and Tim Roberts (visually patterned on Caniff’s Pat Ryan and Terry Lee) battling savages in the Amazon to find cursed diamonds, after which a brief prose vignette – a staple of early comics – recounted Ray Gill’s racing car drama of ‘Burning Rubber’ before the aforementioned ‘Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great’ saw Ben Thompson adroitly and serially adapt Bob Byrd’s pulp novel King of Fang and Claw to strip form.

In the first chapter, South African diamond miner John Rand and his wife crash their plane into the Belgian Congo where their son David grows up amidst jungle splendour to become brother to King of Lions Zar.

An idyllic life is only marred years later when murderous explorer Paul De Kraft kills old John, leaving young David to seek vengeance…

Behind a Charles J. Mazoujian Angel cover, the abruptly re-titled Marvel Mystery Comics #2 (December 1939) again offered ‘The Human Torch’ by Burgos, wherein the fiery fugitive has attained a degree of sophistication and control before stumbling onto a murderous racing car racket. Here gangster Blackie Ross ensures his drivers always win by strafing all other contestants from an airplane, until the big-hearted, outraged Torch steps in…

Gustavson then despatched ‘The Angel’ to Hong Kong to prevent museum researcher Jane Framan falling victim to a curse when the perils of the Lost Temple of Alano prove to be caused by greedy men, not magical spirits.

‘The Sub-Mariner’ himself is the threat in Everett’s second chapter, as the Marine Marvel goes berserk in a city powerhouse before showing his true colours by chivalrously saving a pretty girl caught in the ensuing conflagration.

Anders’ ‘Masked Raider’ then breaks up an entire lost town of outlaws, after which the debuting ‘American Ace’ (by Paul Lauretta and clearly based on Roy Crane’s soldier of fortune Wash Tubbs) finds Yankee aviator Perry Wade flying straight into danger when the woman who caused the Great War returns to start WWII by attacking innocent European nations with her hidden armies…

‘The Angel’ stars in an implausible, jingoistic prose yarn (by David C. Cooke illustrated by Mazoujian), single-handedly downing a strafing ‘Death-Bird Squadron’ before Thompson introduced fresh horrors – including a marauding, malicious ape named Chaka to plague young David in more ‘Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great’.

The issue closes with more gag pages: ‘All in Fun’ by Ed Wood and ‘Looney Laffs’ from Thompson.

Cover-dated January 1940 and sporting an Angel cover by Alex Schomburg, Marvel Mystery Comics #3) saw ‘The Human Torch’ slowly evolving into what we’d recognise as a superhero series as he battles a ruthless entrepreneur trying to secure the formula for a super-explosive that he can sell to Martian invaders, whilst ‘The Angel’ confronts a bloodthirsty death-cult sacrificing young women, even as ‘The Sub-Mariner’ takes a huge leap in dramatic quality after policewoman Betty Dean entices, entraps and successfully reasons with the intractably belligerent sub-sea invader.

With global war looming ever closer, opinions and themes were constantly shifting and Everett reacted brilliantly by turning Namor into a protector of all civilians at sea: spectacularly preying on any war-like nation sinking innocent shipping.

Naturally, even before America officially joined the fray, that meant primarily Nazis got their subs and destroyers demolished at the antihero’s sinewy hands…

When gold and oil are discovered under ranch land, ‘The Masked Raider’ steps in to stop greedy killers from driving off the settlers in a timeless tale of western justice, but current events overtook the ‘American Ace’, who faded out after this tale of Blitzkrieg bombings in a picturesque Ruritanian nation.

Even Cooke & Everett’s text thriller ‘Siegfried Suicide’ was naming and shaming the Axis directly in a yarn where a lone Yank saves some French soldiers from German atrocity, before neutrality resumes as, under African skies, the ‘Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great’ sees the boy hero rescue his animal friends from a well-meaning zoo hunter in a tale revealing hints of a Jungle Book style congress of animals…

The final inclusion in this volume – Marvel Mystery Comics #4, February 1940 – opens with a Schomburg cover depicting Sub-Mariner smashing a Nazi U-Boat before another inflammatory Burgos ‘Human Torch’ epic has the android create a secret identity as Jim Hammond and return to New York to clash with a criminal genius terrorising the city using warriors cloaked in deadly, sub-zero ‘Green Flame’

‘The Angel’ too is back in the Big Apple, grappling with a small-time hood who manipulates a monstrous hyper-thyroid case named ‘Butch the Giant’. Impervious to pain and able to punch through brick walls his slavish meal ticket is eventually overcome, after which ‘The Sub-Mariner Goes to War’ when the passionate Prince returns to his Polar people to rally them and their advanced technology into a taskforce to enforce his Pax Namor upon the surface world’s assorted war mongers…

Even by its own low standards ‘The Masked Raider’ tale of claim-jumping is far from exemplary, but prose crime puzzler ‘Warning Enough’ (by Cooke & Harry Ramsey) is a genuinely enthralling change of pace tale.

Rendered by Steve Dahlman, ‘Electro, the Marvel of the Age’ introduces brilliant Professor Philo Zog who constructs an all-purpose wonder robot and forms an international secret society of undercover operatives who seek out uncanny crimes and great injustices for the automaton to fix. The first case involves retrieving a kidnapped child actress…

Another debut is ‘Ferret, Mystery Detective’ by Stockbridge Winslow (Bob Davis) & Irwin Hasen, following the eponymous crime-writer and his faithful assistants as they solve the case of a corpse dropped on the authors doorstep…

Proceedings then culminate with the increasingly impressive ‘Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great’ as the despised De Kraft returns to face the beginning (but not the end: that’s frustratingly left to the next issue and volume) of the jungle lord’s just vengeance…

Despite all the problems I’ve whinged about, I’m constantly delighted with this substantial chronicle, warts and all, but I can fully understand why anyone other than a life-long comics or Marvel fan might baulk at the steep price-tag in these days of grim austerity, with a wealth of better quality and more highly regarded comics collections available.

Nevertheless, value is one thing and worth another, and the sheer vibrantly ingenious rollercoaster rush and vitality of these tales, even more than any historical merit, is just so intoxicating that if you like this sort of thing you’ll love this sort of thing.

If anything could convince the undecided to take a look, later editions of this tome also include numerous tantalising house ads of the period and a full colour cover gallery of Marvel Mystery Comics’ pulp predecessors: Marvel Science Stories, Marvel Tales, Marvel Stories, Ka-Zar, The Anger Detective, Uncanny Tales, Mystery Tales, Dynamic Science Stories and Star Detective Magazine by illustrators Norman Saunders, Frank R. Paul, H. W. Wesso and John W. Scott.

Upping the ante, further bonuses comprise the second print cover of Marvel Comics #1, a sample of Norman Saunders’ original painted art; Everett Sub-Mariner pages and unused cover roughs; a Mazoujian Angel pencilled cover reworked into the never-printed Zephyr Comics Ashcan cover and a Burgos watercolour sketch offering a partial redesign of the Human Torch.

Although probably not to the tastes of modern fans, for devotees of super-heroes, aficionados of historical works and true Marvel Zombies there’s still lots to offer here.

As always, in the end, it’s up to you…
© 1939, 1940, 2004, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Adventures of Superman

By George Lowther, illustrated by Joe Shuster (Applewood Books)
ISBN: 978-1-55709-228-1

Without doubt the creation of Superman and his unprecedented reception by a desperate and joy-starved generation quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form. Within months of his June 1938 launch in Action Comics #1, the Man of Tomorrow had his won his own supplementary solo comicbook and a newspaper strip; secured overseas licensing deals, became a star of radio show and animated movie series, and generated loads and loads of merchandising deals.

In 1942 he even made the dynamic leap into “proper” prose fiction, resulting in still more historic “firsts”…

George F. Lowther (1913-1975) was a Renaissance man of radio in the days when sound not vision dominated home entertainment. He scripted episodes of such airwave strip adaptations as Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates as well as the Mutual Radio Network’s legendary Adventures of Superman show.

Lowther also wrote episodes for Roy Rogers, Tom Mix and a host of other series and serials. In 1945 he moved into television with equal success as writer, producer, director and even performer, adding a string of novels for kids to his CV along the way.

With the stunning success of the Superman radio broadcasts, a spin-off book was a sure-fire seller and in 1942 Random House released a glorious, rocket-paced rollercoaster ride: a tome outlining the Man of Steel’s still undisclosed history, fleshing out the character’s background (almost a decade before such detail became part of the comics canon).

The novel described the hero’s rise to fame and even found room for a thrilling pulp-fuelled contemporary adventure in a handsome hardback lavishly illustrated by co-creator Joe Shuster. The novel was the first Superman tale not scripted by Jerry Siegel and the world’s first novelisation of a comicbook character.

That first edition book will set you back silly sums today but in 1995, Applewood Press (a firm specialising in high-quality reproductions of important and historic American books) recreated all the early magic in its stunning entirety with a terrific hardback facsimile tome which included a copious and informative introduction from contemporary Superman writer Roger Stern as well as the original 1940s Foreword by National/DC’s then-Staff Advisor for Children’s literacy, Josette Frank.

The art inserts and panels are Joe Shuster at the peak of his creative powers: including the dust-jacket and 4 full-colour painted plates (all reproduced from the original artwork); a half-dozen full-page black-&-white illustrations and 34 vibrant and vital pen-and-ink spot sketches of the Caped Kryptonian in spectacular non-stop action, gracing a fast and furious yarn that opens with the destruction of Krypton and decision of scientist Jor-El in ‘Warning of Doom’ and ‘The Space Ship’.

The saga continues with the discovery of an incredible baby in a rocket-ship by farmer Eben Kent and his wife Sarah in ‘Young Clark Kent’ and encompasses the unique foundling’s early days and first meeting with Perry White in ‘The Contest’.

Following ‘The Death of Eben’ the young alien refugee moves to the big city and assumes the role of ‘Clark Kent, Reporter’ after which we switch to then present-day for the main event.

Now investigative reporter and blockbusting champion of justice combine to crush a sinister plot involving spies, saboteurs, submarines and supernatural shenanigans in the classy conundrum of ‘The Skeleton Ship’ and ‘The Vanishing Captain’ before being resolved in the epic ‘Fire at Sea’, ‘Mystery of the Old Man’, ‘Attempted Murder’, ‘Enter Lois Lane’ and ‘Return of the Skeleton Ship’

This culminates in ‘The Unmasking’, the revelation of a ‘Special Investigator’ and an enthralling ‘Underwater Battle’ before at last the wonderment ends with ‘The Mystery Solved’.

This magical book perfectly recaptures all the frantic fervour and breathless mind-boggling excitement of the early days of action adventure storytelling and is a pulp fiction treasure as well capturing a pivotal moment in the creation of the world’s premier superhero.

No serious fan of the medium or art-form should miss it and hopefully with another landmark Superman anniversary on the horizon another facsimile edition is on the cards. If not, at least this volume is still readily available…
© 1942 DC Comics. Introduction © 1995 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Growing Old with B.C. – A 50 Year Celebration

By Johnny Hart (Checker BPG)
ISBN: 978-1-905239-63-4 (HB)                    978-1-933160-68-9 (PB)

John Lewis Hart was born in Endicott, New York in 1931, and his first published cartoons appeared in military newspaper Stars and Stripes while he served with the US Air Force during the Korean War. On returning to Civvy Street in 1953, he sold a few gags to The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers Weekly and elsewhere, but had to earn a living as a general designer.

In 1958, for some inexplicable reason, caveman jokes were everywhere in magazines and comics (even latterly creeping onto TV and into movies). Despite all the dawn-age foofaraw, General Electric draughtsman and still-wannabe cartoonist Johnny Hart hadn’t sold a single one. He also desperately wanted to create a syndicated newspaper strip but couldn’t think of an idea.

And then one of his co-workers said why not do a strip feature one about Cavemen? Just like Alley Oop, but different…

Hart took a good look at the state of the world, and especially the people around him and the wryly outrageous social commentarians supporting and harassing hapless nebbish lead B.C. quickly took shape…

The concept sold instantly to the New York Herald-Tribune Syndicate and the strip rapidly became a global hit, with the first of 41 collected editions (Hey! B.C.) released in 1959.

In 1964 Hart started collaborating with fellow cartoonist Brant Parker on a new strip. The Wizard of Id also became a monster hit. The features won Hart an astounding host of awards over the years: making him one of only 4 American cartoonists to produce two strips appearing contiguously in more than 1000 newspapers.

Hart died of a stroke on April 7th 2007. He was working at his drawing board. Brant Parker passed away eight days later.

Hart became a devout Christian during the mid-1980s – something which increasingly and controversially manifested in later strips – but his urgent need to preach and share took a long time to impact the trenchant, whimsically surreal wit and primal by-play of his primordial playpen…

B.C. is a modern everyday kind of guy: a general slob just getting by, but he has some odd and interesting friends breaking up the monotony of the pre-civilised world. These include self-proclaimed genius Peter, superstitious misogynist Wiley, proto-prime nerd Clumsy Carp, pre-human missing-link Grog, uber-sarcastic Curls and rakish lady-killer Thor.

Apparently, all of them are based on actual people – life-long friends of Hart’s – and their candid reminiscences provide a charming and poignant insight into the life of one of the most revered and successful cartoonists of modern times.

Other materialised regulars include a variety of talking beasts and inanimate objects: chatty, snappy dinosaurs, ants and ant-eaters, clams, snakes, turtles, birds and an apteryx – but I’m guessing they never had analogues with day-jobs in Eisenhower’s America…

This magnificent tome – available in hardcover, paperback and digital editions – offers a decade-by-decade selection of the best and most memorable B.C. strips, supplemented by a listing of its many awards, and comes stuffed with photographs and observations. This is a delightful commemoration of a truly great and very funny strip.

Hart died during the finishing stages of this book’s creation, making this the best way to celebrate his achievements. His legacy of brain-tickling, absurdist lunacy will never date, and creative anachronism has never been better used to raise a smile or an eyebrow in this lush collection of timely and timeless fun.
B.C. © 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc. B.C.© 1958-2006 John L. Hart Family Limited Partnership.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

By Harvey Kurtzman with Alex Toth, John Severin, Joe Kubert, Russ Heath, Dave Berg, Ric Estrada, Gene Colan, Johnny Craig others (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-545-7

The legendary EC Comics began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company to half-sister National/DC, retaining only Pictures Stories from the Bible.

His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups as the major target market and he augmented his core title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History. Sadly, the worthy project was already struggling badly when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

As detailed in the final comprehensive essay in this superb graphic collection – available as a sturdily spiffy hardcover or in various eBook formats – his son William was dragged into the family business and, with much support and encouragement from unsung hero Sol Cohen (who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of a career in chemistry) transformed the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics

After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments, Gaines and his multi-talented associate Al Feldstein settled into a bold and impressive publishing strategy, utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at an older and more discerning readership.

From 1950-1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction and, under the auspices of writer, artist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, the inventor of an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…

Kurtzman was hired to supplement the workforce on the horror titles but wasn’t keen on the genre and instead suggested a new action-adventure title. The result was Two-Fisted Tales which began with issue #18 at the end of 1959 as an anthology of rip-snorting, he-man suspense dramas. However, with America embroiled in a military “police action” in Korea, the title soon became primarily a war comic and was rapidly augmented by another.

Frontline Combat was also written and edited by Kurtzman, who assiduously laid-out and meticulously designed every story. It made for great entertainment and a unifying authorial voice but was frequently a cause of friction with many artists…

In keeping with the New Trend spirit, these war stories were not bombastic, jingoistic fantasies for glory-hungry little boys, but rather subtly subversive examinations of the cost of conflict which highlighted the madness, futility and senseless, pointless waste of it all…

Kurtzman was a cartoon genius and probably the most important cartoonist of the last half of the 20th century. His early triumphs in the fledgling field of comicbooks (especially the groundbreaking Mad magazine) would be enough for most creators to lean back on but Kurtzman was a force in newspaper strips (See Flash Gordon Complete Daily Strips 1951-1953) and restless innovator. As a commentator and social explorer, he just kept on looking at folk and their doings: a man with exacting standards who just couldn’t stop creating.

Kurtzman invented a whole new format and gave America Popular Satire by converting his highly successful full-colour baby Mad into a monochrome magazine, safely distancing the outrageously brilliant comedic publication from the fall-out caused by the 1950s socio-political witch-hunt which eventually killed all EC’s other titles.

He pursued his unique brand of thoughtfully outré comedy and social satire further with the magazines Trump, Humbug and Help!, all the while still conceiving challenging and powerfully effective funny strips such as Little Annie Fannie (for Playboy), The Jungle Book, Nutz, Goodman Beaver, Betsy and her Buddies and many more. He died far too young in 1993.

This first volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library gathers a stunning selection of Kurtzman stories in a lavish monochrome hardcover edition, packed with supplementary interviews, features and dissertations, and opens with ‘The Truth’ by cartoonist and historian R.C. Harvey, describing in stark detail the history of Kurtzman’s EC days.

Then follows a raft of stirring sagas solely from the master’s hand, beginning with ‘Conquest’ from Two-Fisted Tales #18, which with acerbic aplomb relates the rise and fall of Spanish conquistador Juan Alvorado whose rapacious hunger for Aztec gold led inexorably to the downfall and doom of his entire expedition.

‘Jivaro Death’ (#19) deals with modern-day greed as two duplicitous Yankees search for diamonds in the heart of the Amazon jungle whilst T-FT #20 detailed the fate of an amnesiac buccaneer who returned from certain death to obsessively reclaim his ‘Pirate Gold’ from the men who betrayed him…

From issue #21 comes ‘Search!’ which ironically combines an Italian-American’s search for family with the devastating US assault on Anzio in 1943, after which the first selection from Frontline Combat provides an uncharacteristically patriotic clash with the North Korean aggressors in ‘Contact!’ (#2, September 1951).

‘Kill’ from T-FT #23 also takes place in Korea, relating a squalid encounter between a blood-thirsty knife-wielding G.I. psycho and his soulless Commie antithesis, whilst ‘Prisoner of War!’ (FC #3) highlights the numbing, inhuman brutality of combat when American POWs attempt an escape…

‘Rubble!’ (T-FT #24) boldly steps into “enemy” shoes by highlighting the war’s casual cost to simple Korean civilians whilst ‘Air Burst!’ in FC #4 goes even further by voicing the Communist soldiers’ side of the conflict.

The eponymous ‘Corpse on the Imjin!’ (T-FT #25) is one of the most memorable, moving and respected tales of the genre: a genuine anti-war story which elegiacally traces a floating body’s motion down the river to expose the ruminations of the doomed observers who see it.

The sentiment is further explored in ‘Big ‘If’!’ (FC #5) as G.I. Paul Maynard sits in a shell hole and ponders what might have been…

Kurtzman’s unique display of cartooning and craftsmanship is followed by the essay ‘Combat Duty’ wherein Jared Gardner discusses the background and usage of the other artists who worked on the author’s Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat scripts, before ‘Marines Retreat!’ – drawn by John Severin and inked by Kurtzman from FC #1 (July/August 1951) – describes in microcosm the shocking American forced withdrawal from the Changjin Reservoir in December 1950. The event stunned and terrified the folks at home and shook forever the cherished belief in the US Marines’ invincibility, and this is all told through the eyes of a soldier who understands too late the values he was supposed to be fighting for…

Kurtzman’s relationship with his artists could be fraught. Alex Toth, a tempestuous individualist who only drew three tales from his editor’s incredibly detailed lay-outs, famously produced some of his very best work at EC under such creative duress. The first and least was ‘Dying City!’ (T-FT #22) which found an aged Korean grandfather berating his dying descendent for the death and destruction he had brought upon his family and nation,

‘O.P.!’ was drawn by hyper-realist Russ Heath (FC #1) and once more ladled on the bleak, black irony during an annihilating trench encounter during WWI, after which Toth’s astounding aerial imagination produced in ‘Thunderjet!’ (FC #8) one of the most thrilling and evocative dogfight dramas in comics history.

This tale alone is worth the price of admission and was an alarm-call to complacent America as a US pilot is forced to concede that his winged weapon is technologically inferior to the ever-present Communist MIGs…

‘Fire Mission!’ (T-FT #29) was drawn by Dave Berg – an artist far better regarded for his comedy work – who lent his facility with expressions to a rather standard tale of courage discovered under fire in Korea, after which Gene Colan delineated the rift between military and civilians in the hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor in ‘Wake!’ from T-FT #30.

From the same issue ‘Bunker!’ was the first strip illustrated by Ric Estrada, describing rivalry and tension between American units during a Korean offensive. Oddly enough for the times, the fact that one faction was comprised of Negro soldiers was not mentioned at all…

The Cuban artist then drew a chillingly macabre tale of Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American war of 1898 in ‘Rough Riders!’ (FC #11) before master of comics noir Johnny Craig detailed the fate of a ‘Lost Battalion!’ in WWI (T-FT #32, March/April 1953).

From the same issue, ‘Tide!’ was an EC debut tale for the already-legendary Joe Kubert depicting a D-Day debacle and its insignificance in the grand scheme of things, whilst Toth’s magnificent Kurtzman-scripted swansong ‘F-86 Sabre Jet!’ (FC #12) revisited and even surpassed his Thunderjet job with a potent and beguiling reductionist minimalism that perfectly captured the disorienting hell of war in the air.

Due to illness and the increasing workload caused by Mad, Kurtzman’s involvement with war titles gradually dwindled. Frontline Combat #14, (October 1953) provided his last collaboration with Kubert in ‘Bonhomme Richard!’: a shocking, personalised account of American nautical legend John Paul Jones’ devastating duel with the British warship Serapis – as told by one of the hundreds of ordinary sailors who didn’t survive…

This masterclass in sequential excellence concludes with a salutary tale from the Civil War Special, Two-Fisted Tales #35 (October 1953). Illustrated by Reed Crandall, ‘Memphis!’ blends the destructive horror of the Union’s River Fleet of Ironclads as they inexorably take control of the Mississippi with the irrepressible excitement of Southern kids who simply could not understand what was happening to their parents and families…

Even with the comics extravaganza ended, there’s still more to enjoy as underground cartooning legend Frank Stack discusses the techniques and impact of Kurtzman’s astonishing covers for Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat in ‘Respect for Simplicity – the War Covers of Harvey Kurtzman’; superbly supplemented by a full-colour section representing all of them, even the seldom-seen Two-Fisted Annual 1952.

Also adding to the value is ‘A Conversation with Harvey Kurtzman’ by John Benson, E.B. Boatner & Jay Kinney, which transcribes two interviews from 1979 and 1982, as well as a full appreciation of the great man’s career in ‘Harvey Kurtzman’ by S.C. Ringgenberg.

Rounding everything off is ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ a comprehensive run-down of all involved by Bill Mason and others, plus a general heads-up on the entire EC phenomenon in ‘The Ups and Downs of EC Comics: A Short History’ by author, editor, critic and comics fan Ted White.

The short, sweet but severely limited output of EC has been reprinted ad infinitum in the decades since the company died. These astounding stories and art have changed not just comics but also infected the larger world through film and television and via the millions of dedicated devotees still addicted to New Trend tales.

However, as far as I can recall nobody has produced collections faithfully focussing on the contributions of individual creators, and even though fuddy-duddies like me know these timeless classics intimately, this simple innovation has somehow added a new dimension to the readers’ enjoyment.

I strongly suggest that whether you are an aged EC Fan-Addict or nervous newbie, this is a book no comics aficionado can afford to miss…
This edition © 2012 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All comics stories © 2012 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., reprinted with permission. All other material © 2012 the respective creators and owners.

The Nostalgia Collection: A Dog Called Bonzo

By George Studdy, with an introduction by Mary Cadogan (Hawk Books)
ISBN: 978-0-94824-852-8

The history of popular culture is studded with anthropomorphic animals that have achieved legendary, almost talismanic status. Mickey Mouse, Tiger Tim, Garfield, Smokey (the) Bear, Bonzo

If that latter causes a puzzled frown that’s a shame because for a while this playful, charming dog-of-dubious-pedigree was a wholly British animorph to rival Disney’s mouse and duck combined.

Only the artistic integrity and creative drive of his creator George Earnest Studdy – always cautious where and how he allowed his canine star to shine – prevented the marvellous mutt from attaining the global domination (and subsequent tawdry commercialisation) of the Disney duo.

In 1878 Studdy was born in Devon to a military family, but a childhood injury prevented him from following that proud path, whilst his prodigious artistic talent moved him to an unsatisfactory position as an engineer before he eventually found his true niche as an illustrator and animator.

Studdy’s first artistic success was a series of Boer War pictures of the Royal Artillery, soon followed by cartoons and illustrations for such comics as Big Budget, Funny Pips, Jester and Wonder and others. He also regularly contributed to papers and magazines including The Graphic, The Humorist, Little Folks, London Magazine, Punch, Windsor Magazine, The Tatler, The Bystander, Illustrated London News, The Field and especially The Sketch.

A superb general stylist, Studdy was most widely known for his animals although he was an early and memorably effective proponent of science fiction themes as well. Naturally, he worked extensively in the budding field of advertising…

Deemed unfit to fight in the Great War, he pioneered animation propaganda films that are still acclaimed for their quality and effectiveness. He first began producing pictures of a homely, engaging dog for The Sketch in the early 1920s, which were immensely popular. Eventually “the Studdy dog” became a permanent fixture and was christened Bonzo in the November 8th issue of 1922.

His luxuriously painted or drawn single panels gradually evolved into fully-sequenced gag-strips with the talking dog and his long-suffering lady-friend Chee-Kee captivating young and old alike with their playful yet slyly mature antics.

Despite Studdy’s decorum, Bonzo became a merchandising miracle of his time, lending his likeness and personality to many games and puzzles, toys of all types, figurines, china and dinnerware, cups, cruet sets and host of other household objects and all manner of advertising campaigns. He even had his very own neon sign in Piccadilly Circus.

Although Studdy voluntarily moved on from his creation to create many other pictorial marvels and to serve his country again in WWII as a draughtsman for the Royal Navy, the delightful dog continued under diverse hands in strips syndicated worldwide by King Features as well as in a series of wonderful books and annuals.

These began in 1935 and continued until 1952, with translations into many foreign editions. For a spectacular view of these you should see the superb websites at Studdying with Bonzo and Bonzo and George Studdy as well as this magical and far too short commemorative edition produced by Mike Higgs under his much-missed Hawk Books imprint. Thankfully this terrific tome is still readily available…

Funny, charming, sublimely illustrated, overwhelmingly successful and still every bit as entertaining today as it always was, the Bonzo experience is long overdue for an extensive repackaging job. Until such a happy event this little gem must act as a tantalising taster…

Go on, Fetch!
© 1990 the Estate of George Studdy. All Rights Reserved.