I've been thinking for a while of doing some reviews of pre-Silver Age features, covering their whole runs or periods within their runs. "Pre-Silver Age Reviews" reviews would be a clumsy title for a thread, so I've titled it "Golden Age Reviews" instead, although I'll be including features from the 50s.
I've done a couple of reviews along these lines previously in the "What Comic Books Have You Read Today?" thread, so I'll start by reposting those.
15/05/15 I've changed the title to "Golden Age and Transition Era Feature Reviews", as I've started another thread, here, for issue reviews.
Date with Danger ##5-6 (Standard, 1952)
The two issues contain non-series stories about spies and counterspies. Each issue had four stories, by different artists. The art is in a clear, clean but not glossy style like that favoured at DC in the 50s. The stories are unexceptional, but I didn’t find them boring. The e-copy of #5 I used didn't include the one page or half-page filler items. The filler items from #6 briefly tell true spy stories.
I feel I really should be able to identify some of the artists. I could believe “Spies Walk Alone” from #5 is by Frank Giacoia, but I haven’t seen so much of his pencils that I could swear to it. “The Betrayal” from the same issue reminds me of some of the later “Rocky X and the Rocketeers” instalments from Boy Comics. The catch is that one of the instalments it reminds me of is the one from #100, signed by Ralph Mayo. “Passport to Death” from Date with Danger #6 is also signed by Mayo, and not nearly as slick. The explanation could be that the guy who gave the slick look to “The Betrayal” also inked some of the "Rocky X" stories. Some of the elements of “Barrier to Freedom” remind me strongly of Carmine Infantino (mostly how some of the heads are drawn and placed in the panels), but in some other ways (having to do with the approach to shading and detail) it reminds me of Mike Sekowsky, and yet others (how violence is depicted at a couple of points) of Alex Toth.
Two of the best-drawn stories are “Captain Coward” from #5 and “The Ali-Baba Jar” from #6. I suspect those who know the styles of the artists would identify them instantly. The former story is illustrated in a clear, realistic style. The latter has two supporting characters who are depicted with an element of humorous exaggeration that fills them with personality.
I feel I should be able to pick the artist of the cover of #5, too, but I can’t. It could be someone who worked for EC. I have an idea the woman may have been drawn by a different artist to the men. Can anyone help me there?
(1) The GCD dates the second issue as Feb. 1953. If that's an indicia date, I'd guess the issue came out in 1952.
The Presto Kid appeared in four comics stories and two text stories (in ##52-53). In the tales he refuses to carry guns, and fights evil using stage magician-style tricks. The crooks in the tales mostly seem to understand that his tricks are tricks. The Indians in the fourth tale, however, think he possesses actual magic power. In each of the comics stories the Kid performs real stage tricks that are then explained. Sometimes he performs these for the local kids in his other identity as blacksmith Jeff Grant. In the first three comics stories his costume is coloured blue. In #54 it's instead coloured black.
The four comics stories were illustrated by Dick Ayers. Toonopedia attributes the Kid's creation to Gardner Fox and Ayers. I found the stories very enjoyable. Ayers art is very much like his early Silver Age work, the details of the stories are entertaining, and they avoid dullness.
The best of the tales is probably the origin, from #52. In this we learn that the Kid was orphaned as a child in an Indian raid. As a result he acquired a lifelong hatred of guns. After living on his own for a time he was taken in by a travelling magician, who taught him stage magic. When his mentor was killed he determined to catch the party responsible. He took a job as a blacksmith's assistant in a town that he knew was near his hideout and spent years waiting for him to show up again. When he finally did so, he assumed his costume and captured him.
One of the characters in the first story is a love interest who is scornful of his refusal, as Jeff Grant, to carry guns. She doesn't appear in the other tales. In the third story he deliberately gives his secret ID away to lure a crook into taking him captive as Grant, and then fakes his own death before reappearing as the Presto Kid to make it appear Grant and the Kid are different people. Oddly, though, at the end of the story he doesn't do anything to resurrect his Grant identity. In the final story he only appears as the Presto Kid.
The Kid was cover-featured for each of the issues in which he appeared. The covers of ##52-53 represent episodes from the issues' text stories.(1) Possibly the covers were prepared first and the stories written around them. In both stories the Kid performs the stunts depicted on the covers using hypnotism.
He also makes use of hypnotism, in addition to stage tricks, in the story from #54. His hypnotic illusion stunts are reminiscent of Mandrake's. Apparently we're not supposed to interpret his hypnotic skills as superhuman, although they go beyond the really plausible. His use of stage tricks and misdirection reminded me of Mister Miracle (partly because they both have capes).
Toonopedia notes that the Kid replaced Ghost Rider, who fell victim to the early Comics Code. If the indicia of #54 is accurate the issue appeared over a year after #53.
Despite losing the covers to the Kid, Redmask continued to appear in two or three stories in each issue, whereas the Kid only ever appeared in one (not including the text tales).
For the stories from #52 I used an e-copy of the issue's IW Publishing reprint, Red Mask #1.
(1) I've also seen this approach used in Charlton's Charlie Chan #6. Now I'm wondering if the covers from Fighting American ##6-7 related to text stories. The GCD doesn't say what the text pages in those issues were.
My fellow Legionnaire John Dunbar noted the similarity of Thor's transformations to Captain Marvel's in his introductory post to his "Dunbar Re-Reads Thor" thread here. Another possible precursor is the "Thor" feature that ran in Fox's Weird Comics #1-#5 in 1940. The instalments can be read at Comic Book Plus. The feature was placed first in #1-#4 and second in #5.
In the first instalment the god Thor surveys Earth from "his lofty castle in Valhalla" and "finds that there is need on Earth for his mighty powers". He resolves to give his powers and hammer to a mortal, and selects, for no reason that is explained, a man called Grant Farrel. He takes Farrel to Valhalla and gives him the power to transform himself into a superpowered form by means which aren't clearly explained. In his superpowered form Farrel is also known as Thor and dresses the same way as Thor, but his costume is blue where the original Thor's is red.
The costume consists of a helmet, trunks, cape and boots (so the arms, chest and legs are bare). The helmet does not have wings exactly, but it has side pieces and a similar shape to Marvel Thor's. The original Thor has a moustache, but Farrel-Thor is clean shaven. Both have long hair. The original Thor's hair is initially portrayed as blond, but on the final page at the end of the story it's instead coloured red. Farrel's hair is blond, and on the splash and final page Farrel-Thor's hair is blonde, but it sometimes looks red in the rest of the story.(1)
The instalments in #2-#3 were apparently drawn by the same artist, and depict Farrel-Thor the same way. His hair is blond in #2 and brown in #3 (Farrel's hair is brown in some panels and blond in others in #3). In #3 his helmet is yellow, his cape green and his trunks and boots red. Sometimes his transformations are accompanied by lightning, but this element isn't present consistently, and it's not indicated that the lightning causes his transformations.
The first three stories have early WWII themes. The instalment in #1 involves a plot to invade a South American nation, in #2 he stops a German bombing raid on Paris (Germany's name isn't used, but the planes have Nazi insignia and a shot of the capital of the "enemy country" shows the Brandenburg Gate), and in #3 he stops an attack on America by the "Gratnians" (who have German-style uniforms) launched through Mexico. Farrel-Thor's powers include an ability to project lightning.
The final two instalments are by other artists, lack the war theme, and depict Farrel-Thor differently. In these instalments his powers are depicted as activated by the original Thor. Both before and after their activation he has short, red hair. In his powered-up form he no longer wears a helmet or cape, only trunks and boots. The title was still "Thor god of Thunder", but in these instalments when he is in action the captions call him "Grant" rather than "Thor". In #4 the original Thor is depicted as having short but wild white hair and a moustache, and as wearing animal skin shorts, an ornate belt, and straps around the lower leg (his footwear isn't shown; could shin straps be used to secure sandals?). The splash panel depicts him as holding his hammer in a metal gauntlet, which the Thor of myth had. In #5 Thor isn't seen, but acts from off-panel.
These two stories seem to be written by the same hand, but drawn by different artists. In #4 Farrell protects a Buddhist monastery in Tibet from oriental bandits. In #5 he combats an evil scientist called Dr Hsin.(2) #5 has notably good art. Some panels have a bit of a Kirby look, but I don't think it's his: his art was very distinctive right from the start. It's more solidly-drawn than Joe Simon's solo "Blue Bolt" pages. Simon and Kirby hadn't yet established themselves as a hit team, so it can't be by one of their imitators. I thought of Irv Novick, but the art doesn't match the contemporaneous "The Shield" story I compared it to. I also wondered if it was pencilled by an artist moonlighting from Joe Shuster's studio: some of them were solid artists, and Farrel's pose p.4 panel 2 has a Shuster-era Superman look. But that last could be due to a swipe. The opening panel is an imitation of the cover of Marvel Tales, May 1940.(3)
The last two stories both have sequences in which Thor acts to help Farrel. In #4 he throws his hammer at Farrel to activate his power (the caption describes it as striking him and "transforming him into Thor's image"). Farrel has already flown and thrown a lightning bolt in the preceding sequence, but Thor's action seems to power him up, provides him with the hammer, and switches him to his trunks and boots look. In #5 a bolt of lightning, implicitly sent by Thor, strikes Farrel when he is in a hospital bed. The next panel describes him as "activated now by the spirit of Thor". In #1-#3 he has the hammer with him after he transforms, but #4-#5 seem to presuppose that Thor has to specially send it to him. In #5 he sends his gauntlet instead.
I can't pin down exactly when Kirby was at Fox, but I think the preparation of some the stories will have overlapped with his period there. But I don't know what the working arrangements were. Joe Simon talked about his time at Fox in this interview.
Toonopedia's page on the feature is in error in its account of the origin - it doesn't involve any experiment or machine - and I don't think it can be true that all the instalments were drawn by Pierce Rice, as the last two are too different from the earlier ones. Also, the first artist sometimes forgot to draw Farrel-Thor's boots, but he usually had them.
(1) It's hard to tell, due to lack of clarity in the art and colouring. Also, Comic Book Plus's copy of the story is from microfiche.
(2) The name is a pun.
(3) The Marvel Tales cover illustrates the story "The Test-Tube Monster" by George E. Clark. Some may remember this from Michael Parry's 1978 anthology Superheroes, where it appeared under the title "The Evil Super-Man".
This post displaced the thread So, What Are You Reading These Days? (besides comics) from the home page.
I might be wrong about which story from the issue was illustrated by the Marvel Tales May 1940 cover. I thought it depicted a scene from "The Test-Tube Monster" in which its heroine, an artificial woman, is released from the capsule in which she has been grown. But the cover image doesn't correspond to how this event is described in the story, and the men on the cover may be lowering the woman into the capsule rather than taking her out of it.
I thought I'd have another go at doing feature histories, but that this time I'd follow the series instalment by instalment, instead of by reading a large chunk of a series at once.
THE BLACKHAWK FILES
Blackhawk is a favourite character of mine, as I see him as US comics' great fighter against totalitarianism. My interest is partly due to Dick Dillin's long run on the feature, but he didn't begin to pencil for the series until the 50s.
I believe I owe the formulation that the Quality Blackhawks fought totalitarianism to Dan Thompson's Unofficial Blackhawk Comics Website, from which I learned to appreciate the character. The Blackhawk stories I read as a kid didn't impress me at all. Thompson is a modeller and he has pages identifying many of the airplanes from the series. To my surprise, they flew quite a number of planes based on real planes over the years.
The feature first appeared in Quality's Military Comics #1, on sale May 1941. It was created in the Eisner shop. Chuck Cuidera designed the uniforms and drew the first eleven instalments. Then he was drafted, but he returned to the feature after the war and became its regular inker. It was an attractively-drawn strip in the 50s - I think Blackhawk's covers were better than DC's in the period - and I believe Cuidera must be part of the reason. DC took Blackhawk over in 1956, but Cuidera continued to ink for it up to the third-last issue of its original run in 1968.(1)
Cuidera said on a convention panel - Thompson quotes an attendee's account here - that the feature was modelled after "Death Patrol", which was created by Jack Cole and debuted in the same issue. "Death Patrol" was a zany series about an irregular RAF squadron whose members were initially all Americans, mostly former criminals. But I think "Blackhawk" may also have been influenced by the "Clipper Williams" period of Skyroads. Skyroads was an aviation strip that several times changed its protagonists. Clipper Williams was a member of the Flying Legion, a paramilitary organisation made up of pilots from many nations that was based on an island in the Pacific called Courage Island.(2)
Cuidera based the Blackhawks' uniforms on German ones. Steranko's The Steranko History of Comics #2, which has a chapter on Blackhawk, quotes him as saying this was "like fighting fire with fire" (p.58). Steranko is very positive about the feature - he refers to the "spectacular high-altitude thrillers" of its heyday (p.61) - but he also interprets Blackhawk as summing up "in costume and concept... the fascist point of view" (p.55). I disagree with this. I think the Blackhawks' dark look is parallel to Batman's; it expresses their dedication to their grim mission. The blurb of the first instalment already represents Blackhawk as a freedom fighter, someone who is out "to defend the helpless ... liberate the enslaved and crush the tyrant". But the Blackhawks did look a lot more like Nazis in their first appearance than later - Blackhawk's appearance on the cover, by Will Eisner, was somewhat different - and too much so, for me. The evolution of their look is one of the things I'll be following.
(1) Dick Giordano, who edited the final issues, tried to get Reed Crandall to pencil them. That fell through, so they were drawn instead by Pat Boyette.
(2) Wikipedia's page on Skyroads is currently illustrated by the cover of a Better Little Book reflecting this phase of the strip. This dates from 1938 and describes the pilots as being dedicated "to the cause of humanity". Williams spends much on the book on a solo mission to capture a thug called the Python who is the head of a gang of cut-throats using violence to gain control of timberland for a syndicate. At the climax the Foreign Legion mounts a parachute raid on his mountain hideout.
This post displaced the thread Everything you need to know about Free Comics Book Day 2015 (and we... from the home page.
Telling how Thor happened, Stan has claimed he went with a Viking god because the Greco/Roman gods were too well known, but it's very possible he actually suggested Jack draw Hercules and Kirby told him "Nah, everybody's doing that guy. I got a better character in mind!"
If the inspiration for the Marvel series was the Fox one it may be the initial idea came from Lee despite Kirby's past history with the character. It could be Lee went through old comics looking for ideas and noticed the Fox Thor, or that he asked Kirby for ideas for characters, Kirby suggested Thor, and Lee did him like the Fox Thor.
Larry Lieber scripted the story from Lee's plot. He's said he always worked with Kirby full script. It could be that Lee talked the character over with Kirby and incorporated his ideas into the plot, or that Kirby changed things when he drew the story. (I think he likely pencilled the dialogue on the pages when working from a full script.) The Stone Men resemble the living Easter Island statues that Kirby had done several times, most recently in Tales of Suspense #28, around five months earlier, and before that in Tales to Astonish #16 in 1960, where the lead monster was called Thorr. But the idea of using them as villains could have come from Lee or Lieber, as Lee probably plotted or coplotted those stories and edited them, and Lieber may have scripted them.
It may be that Lee was simply to busy to script "Thor", but it may also be that initially he wasn't very invested in the feature. For that matter, perhaps Kirby wasn't either; he mostly(1) moved on after the first seven instalments. But that may not have been his decision, and since the feature was written full-script he may have wanted to do it but felt he couldn't bring his own creativity to it.
I was surprised by how many pre-Thors there were when I looked into the subject recently for this thread. Kirby's first mythological hero was Mercury/Hurricane from Red Raven Comics and Captain America Comics. There were also other mythological heroes who preceded Thor. Hercules had modern-day adventures in a short-lived series Blue Ribbon Comics.(2) Fox's The Bouncer was about Anteas (Antaeus). Marvel's Venus starred the goddess Venus. And that's leaving aside the Marvel Family and Wonder Woman. When Thor debuted Hercules had recently appeared in a movie adaptation with art by John Buscema in Four Color #1006 in 1959, and even more recently in The Three Stooges Meet Hercules in Jan. 62.
Fox's Samson was represented as a modern descendant of the Biblical Samson in Samson #1. I don't know if Farrell's was explained; the story I checked just calls him "the world's strongest man". Quality ran a series about a Hercules who wasn't the mythological Hercules in Hit Comics, and Marvel a short-lived one in the first run of Mystic Comics. "Lieutenant Hercules" in Spark's Green Lama was a parody superhero series about a guy who received from Merlin the power to transform into a super-powered but still spindly version of himself by blowing raspberrys.
Researched using the GCD, DC Indexes and Comic Book Plus.
(1) Only mostly, because he drew #93 and continued to do all the covers.
(2) I didn't know about this series before writing this post, but it might qualify as a forgotten minor gem. It only appeared in #4-#8, but all but the last instalment had pretty good Alex Raymond-ish art by Ed Wexler, and the series also made use of Zeus. The stories paralleled his modern adventures to his mythological ones, so each episode was named after one of his mythological feats, depicted in the splash panel. The issues can be read at Comic Book Plus.