My recent discussions of Seduction of the Innocent and All In Color For a Dime have drawn some comments and some views, and it has been suggested that I move on to The Comic-Book Book next. While I am waiting for my copy to arrive in the mail, I thought I'd take a look at A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics. I bought my copy in person at the Smithsonian Institution itself on my junior/senior class trip. Unlike Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes (which focused mainly on super-heroes), Michael Barrier and Martin Williams, editors of the Smithsonian collection, waste no time identifying the focus of their tome: "It will not come as a surprise, to anyone who has glanced at this volume's table of contents, that we think most highly of the humor features, even those that treated the conventions of the comic book itself and the concept of the superheroes themselves with humor."
"Our volume is intended to be not so much as survey or a sampler," they go on too say, "as a statement about the comic book at its best." Nowhere in their their introduction do they use the term "Golden Age" but they do make the following distinction: "Our cutoff date for this collection has been the adoption of the Comics Code in October 1954 (the first comic books that had been subjected to the Code's requirements were published in the spring of 1955). Nothing published after the Code took effect will be found here. The adoption of the Code marked a distinct change in the industry...," which happens to be exactly the same way I feel about it.
Therefore," they explain, "most of our choices are her because of our own convictions about their quality," not to they hesitate to make clear what, exactly, it is about the comics they have chosen to make the cut. (If we were discussing film their selection criteria would fall under "auteur theory.") If you are unfamiliar with this collection, here is a list of comics (and creators) to come in the discussion to follow.
Scribbly and Sheldon Mayer
Plastic Man and Jack Cole
Captain Marvel and C.C. Beck
Little Lulu and John Stanley
Donald Duck and Carl Barks
Pogo and Walt Kelly
The Spirit and Will Eisner
SUPERMAN & BATMAN
The Smithsonian collection starts out very much like the Feiffer collection, with Superman being represented by Action Comics #1 and Batman by Detective Comics #27 (as it should be). In 1987, DC launched the first volume (of seven) of its "Greatest Stories Ever Told" series. The first release was The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told followed by The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told in 1988. These thing with these collections is that the editors decided not to include the first appearance of these prototypal characters, reasoning that those had been reprinted multiple times already and were easy to find. Instead, they went with the Superman story from Superman #4 and the Batman story from Detective Comics #31. They were more interested in choosing a story to represent the era than they were the seminal first appearance. I think that is the wrong decision. Every time such a collection is assembled (and there have been many since) it should include Action Comics #1/Detective Comics #27 and I'll tell you why: most readers who buy collections of this nature aren't going to have every collection (present company excepted) and deserve to have the first story reprinted in whichever collection they do buy. I feel sorry for someone who bought The Greatest Superman/Batman Stories Ever Told and that's the only one they own.
I am usually not interested in “Greatest Stories” collections of comics (or movies). They are too subjective. I like that they chose a wide selection of genres to discuss.
I have read the first Batman story before, probably in an 80-Page Giant. Except for selected panels, this is the first time I have read the first Superman story. (Yes, I’ve had this book since 1981 and have only flipped through it.) I was interested to see that the cover of Action Comics #1 was “in-story.”
I’m not sure when/where I bought this book and the previous Newspaper Comics edition. Probably at a Con. They first time I went to the Smithsonian (which of course is several buildings) was in 1968 when the Army sent me to Northern Virginia after basic training. DC was the closest city and I would take the bus there. On the bus I saw a sign that said we were passing over a waterway called Bull Run. (As an aside, I walked up to the entrance of the White House to take the tour. No lines, no tickets. Just let me in.) Appropriate to this weekend, I saw the huge fifteen-stripe flag from the War of 1812 on two occasions (in 1968 and 1991 when Gayle and I visited). It inspired Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner.
SCRIBBLY and SHELDON MAYER
This is the first story that reveals how the editorial slant of the Smithsonian book is going to differ from the Feiffer book.
My first exposure to the Red Tornado, the original one (or the second one, too, for that matter), was in Justice League of America #110, in Murphy Anderson's portrait of the Justice League of America (reprinted from JLA #76). I was already familiar with most of the characters (if from earlier that same issue if nowhere else), but the figure identified as "Red Tornado (#1)" intrigued me. He was muscular and was giving the other Red Tornado the stink-eye. I wondered what the story was there. The first Tornado looked tough but the second one looked kind of prissy... and clueless.
I next encountered the first Red Tornado about a year later in the "treasury edition" reprint of All Star Comics #3... in which "he" was revealed to be a "she"! And that was it until I bought the Smithsonian book, which reprinted the "Scribbly" feature from All-American Comics #20-24. At last I got it! Not only was the "Red Tomato" a woman, Ma Hunkle, but she was a comic character, y'know... as in funny. Of all the features in this book, "Scribbly" (because of the Red Tornado) is probably the one I have referred to the most over the years... until 2007, anyway.
In 2007, DC published The JSA All Stars Archive which reprinted those same five Red Tornado stories the Smithsonian book did, along with solo stories of other heroes who didn't have their own archive: Johnny Thunder, Hour-Man, Atom. Dr. Mid-Nite, Mr. Terrific and Wildcat.
Jeff of Earth-J said:
SCRIBBLY and SHELDON MAYER
My first exposure to the Red Tornado, the original one (or the second one, too, for that matter), was in Justice League of America #110, in Murphy Anderson's portrait of the Justice League of America (reprinted from JLA #76).
I saw Ma Hunkle’s Red Tornado in the original portrait in (I guess) JLA #76. I had previously seen her pictured in costume in a fanzine or two. This is the first time I’ve read a Scribbly story and seen her out of costume.
They really like this series. They printed more of it than Batman.
These sound fascinating. Meanwhile, I must dust off my copy of The Comic Book Book.
PLASTIC MAN and JACK COLE
At this point, the Smithsonian book book veers, briefly, back into Feiffer territory with the first appearance of Jack Cole's Plastic Man from Police Comics #1. I liked Plastic Man when I was ten, but didn't have the opportunity to read much more (of the original version, anyway) until 1998 when DC published the first volume (of eight) reprinting Cole's version chronologically from Police Comics and his own solo title. I kind of lost interest at Police Comics #13, the introduction of sidekick Woozy Winks, whom Martin Williams described as "an out-and-out traditional clown, right down to his costume." I'm not terribly fond of teen sidekicks, but I HATE comic relief ones. (Doiby Dickles ruined Green Lantern for me.) In addition to the origin story from Police Comics #1, the Smithsonian book also reprints the introduction of Woozy Winks from #13. But I've lightened up a bit in the succeeding 24 years, so I might need to give Jack Cole's Plastic Man another chance... something else to add to my "To Read" stack!
I like that he's "not a bad guy" after almost cutting off a man's arm.
I was always astonished at how many Golden Age characters had comedy sidekicks foisted off on them, even characters like the Spectre!
Jeff of Earth-J said:
I'm not terribly fond of teen sidekicks, but I HATE comic relief ones.
CAPTAIN MARVEL and C.C. BECK
Here, the Smithsonian book deviates from the Feiffer one once again. Whereas The Great Comic Book was allowed to reprint only a single page (of the "Big Red Cheese's" origin), Barrier and Williams were able to include an entire 33 page story. "Our selection, 'Captain Marvel Battles the Plot Against the Universe,' comes from 1949 and the 100th issue of Captain Marvel Adventures. Its title is perhaps the only awkward moment in this little masterpiece of breakneck whimsy, as Binder's plotting is rendered and embellished in Beck's and Costanza's drawings. The elements are, as usual, wonderfully preposterous: pseudo-science, traditional myth, space travel, time travel--all are involved with no inhibition, and the feature's pseudo-heaven (the Rock of Eternity) is prominently featured. If a new magic metal is needed to get the story started, let's have one: shazamium. If another is needed to keep it going, let's have another: sivanium. If a third is required to resolve things, so be it: marvelium. Most indicative of the tone of it all, the artists give us Captain Marvel's torture at the hands of Sivana in the 'splash panel' to Part 3--he gets some ink on his read suit from a squirt gun, some itching powder, and (torture of tortures!) a swift kick in the behind."
Williams continues: "The story is sustained by an innocent, unapologetic fascination with its own willful fancy--those things, plus an absolute refusal to take itself seriously." By the time I bought the Smithsonian book I had already read the story, but didn't remember it. It had been reprinted previously in one of DC's "SHAZAM!" treasury editions, the one with a photo of Jackson Bostwick on the cover. If you are wondering how I reacted to this story, this character, when I was eleven years old let me give you a hint: I took my comic books very seriously. Now it is my absolute single favorite Captain Marvel story. It's got a little bit of everything!
In 1973, DC Comics, now legally barred from using the word "marvel" in a series title, relaunched "The World's Mightiest Mortal" is a series titled SHAZAM!, two decades after driving Fawcett Comics out of business. The series featured a mix of classic and new material, and C.C. Beck was hired to draw the new material but he stuck around only for early issues. He picked it back up without missing a stroke but reportedly he was not particularly happy to be doing the series again, and I think I can guess why. Whereas fans were pleased to see the artist most associated with the character back on the job, I can't imagine he was none too pleased to be working for the same company which cost him his job twenty years earlier.
Reprints of material from the height of the character's (characters') popularity are, to this day, frustratingly spotty and incomplete. From 1992 through 2006, DC released four archival volumes of Shazam! (plus one Shazam! Family), but that series was only only the cusp of what I consider to be the beginning of the "classic" era. More recently, the years 2019-2021 saw the release of three volumes collecting the new material from the '70s series. And, of course, there is The Monster Society of Evil. There have been some pretty good facsimile (or nigh-facsimile) reprints in the '90s and early 2Ks, but the best reprints of classic material are to be found in three "treasury editions" and seven "100-Page Super-Spectaculars" from the '70s.
So far, I've read the Captain Marvel intro you quote. The length of the story caused me to put off reading it immediately. Since you really like this story I definitely will read it shortly.
The thing that jumped out at me on the splash page was the "100th Anniversary" statement. So the current misuse of this phrase dates back to at least 1949.
Yeah, I decided to it pass because I like the story so much. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
I tend to associate Basil Wolverton with the work he did for MAD when it was a comic book (some of which was reprinted in the '70s).
Around that same time, he contributed many covers to DC's Plop!
But the single drawing he is (or was) most famous for was the depiction of "Lena the Hyena" which appeared on a LIFE magazine cover in 1946. Williams: "It came about as the result of a contest held by United Features Syndicate for the dest depiction of a character alluded to but never seen in Al Capp's Li'l Abner, Lena the Hyena, 'Lower SLobovia's ugliest woman.' Wolverton won with a drawing that managed to be ingeniously hideous and compellingly gleeful all at once."
My personal favorite, however, is Spacehawk. Williams: "His first regular feature was Spacehawk, an interplanetary adventure with a far-larger-than-life hero, begun in Target Comics in mid-1940. Spacehawk's adventures were often brutal and violent, and (not uniquely) they tended to equate retribution with justice." In 2012, Fantagraphics Books released a complete collection in large format. Back when we were still doing the annual "Cappies," I nominated Spacehawk in the category "Best Archival Reprint" that year but I don't think it won. (It swept the "Jeffies," though.) Williams continues: "Wolverton's depictions of realistic figures in Spacehawk and his other space fantasies were often stiff and posturing, and his panels occasionally cramped. But his grasp of depth and perspective was almost uncanny, and resulted in one of the most compelling visual fantasies ever seen in the comics idiom."
But Williams and Barrier did not choose a Spacehawk story for the Smithsonian book, however. Wolverton also did humor and, as one who has read this far in the discussion might expect, they chose a single-page "Dr. Dimwit" gag and a story featuring his Popeye-esque Powerhouse Pepper.
For those who prefer humor, in 2021 Fantagraphics released a tpb of Scoop Scuttle and his Pals - The Crackpot Comics of Basil Wolverton.
For the more scholarly, Fantagrahics also realed a two-volume set of The Life and Comics of Basil Wolverton in 2014 and 2019. The first volume, "Creeping Death from Neptune," covers 1909-1941; the second volume, "Brain Bats of Venus," 1942-1952. These volumes are very complete, roughly half biography and half anthology. Recommended.
For those with disposable income, IDW has published an "Artifact Edition" titled Basil Wolverton's Weird Worlds color reproductions of Wolverton's original art pages.
It was a long time before I could see that image of Lena the Hyena without it making my skin crawl.