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.
The title character of this feature is a young man called Hap Holliday who, as the first instalment opens, has constructed a time machine called the Time-Yacht with the help of the balding and white-bearded Professor Eon Tempus (who “supplied the mathematical formulas that proved it feasible”). Their machine is spherical, but doesn’t otherwise look like Rip Hunter’s Time Sphere and can’t fly: I would guess both devices were modelled after Brick Bradford’s Time Top. Hap and the Professor travel to the far future, and save a local queen, Ula, from a giant land octopus (the seas have partly or wholly dried up, so sea creatures have taken to land). They then use their time machine to help the Ula and her people recapture their city from the reptile people who have occupied it.
The concluding caption promises another story in the next issue, but it didn’t appear until the third. This is the instalment that makes the series worth writing about, as it heads in the direction of zany parody of time travel stories. Hap and the Professor try to take the Queen on a trip to their own time, but overshoot and end up in ancient Rome. The Professor can speak Latin, but this fails to impress the Praetorian Guard, which arrests them (“Everybody speaks our language… or else! We Romans rule the world!”). The Professor, who you’d think would be a staid older guy, scatters the guard with a grenade and gloats over it. (“Lucky I remembered that grenade! Heh! I took them apart!”) The gang roll the chariot their Time-Yacht has been placed on downhill, and it ends up at Cleopatra’s house.
Cleopatra believes they’re from the future and asks them what it holds for Julius Caesar. As it happens, it's the day before his death. They tell her, so so she fires her soothsayer, Rapidus, because he’s been saying he’ll live forever. The Professor then gleefully sets about trying to save Caesar. (“Where’s Ula going, Professor?” “To change history, Hap my boy! Take your time with the repair job. We’re staying over tomorrow to see history made my way!”) Ula takes Caesar a message from Cleopatra requesting he visit her instead of going to the Senate the next day. Caesar is planning to comply until Rapidus, seeking to profit by the time travellers' information, turns up and warns him he’ll be killed if he visits the Senate. (“Beware the Ides of March! That’s the 15th, you know…”) Caesar figures if Rapidus is predicting trouble at the Senate it will be the safest place in Rome, and history takes its course. The mob comes for Cleopatra, and the time travellers flee, taking her with them. The concluding caption promises an adventure in the present next, but the GCD doesn’t list a further appearance of the feature.
The two instalments look somewhat different. They could be by the same artist with different inkers, but I think the penciller of the second story also places his figures in relation to the camera differently. I could believe the artist of the first instalment also drew the opening "Space Rangers" story from that issue. Currently, the GCD tentatively credits the pencils and inks on the first instalment to Art Cappello.(1) I have no information as to whom the writer/s may have been.
(1) The GCD attributes the art on that opening "Space Rangers" story to Lou Morales, but it also attributes the final story from #4 to him, and I think that's clearly by a different artist. I don't know which of the stories, if either, was actually by Morales.
"Nature Boy", from Nature Boy ##3-5 (Charlton, 1956[?1])
The “Nature Boy” feature was apparently created by Jerry Siegel and John Buscema, who created the stories with the character in the first issue, and another that appeared in the third. I thought the feature had the potential to be decent, but was underdeveloped. For example, there are no regular human supporting characters other than his parents, and they hardly appear outside the origin sequence.
Buscema’s art for the feature was accomplished and detailed, and much more constrained than his later work for Marvel. Only the first issue’s cover was by Buscema. (The somewhat infamous cover for #5 was signed by Dick Giordano and Vince Alascia.)
According to the origin story, when Nature Boy was a baby a private plane his father was piloting crashed in the sea during a storm (this sequence is quite good). He was saved by the gods of nature, who decided to adopt him and grant him “a fragment of control over our mighty powers”. He discovered his powers as a teen. Sometimes Nature Boy exercises the power himself, sometimes the gods aid him. He looks a bit older than Superboy was depicted as being in the period.
Surprisingly, some of the captions in the first issue have a ballyhoo element (“Thrill to smashing tales of awesome never-to-be-forgotten action!”) that I’d assumed only entered Siegel’s later work under the influence of Stan Lee’s 60s Marvel ballyhoo.
The first issue also has a two-pager by Siegel and Buscema starring “Nature Man”. Toonopedia speculates that Nature Man “may have been intended as Nature Boy’s future self” (the GCD's page on the issue has a similar note). My guess - and it’s only a guess - is that the Nature Man story represents an early form of the character, before the decision was taken to make him a boy. Possibly the pages were created for a proposal. In this tale Nature Man is reminiscent of the 50s/60s Superman, only with different powers.
The third issue has a one-pager by Siegel and Buscema starring “Nature Girl”, who has similar nature powers.
The other Nature Boy stories in the second and third issues are credited by the GCD to Joe Gill and Rocco Mastroserio. These have the sloppily-put-together feel I associate with Gill’s work, but there’s a nice sequence in a story in the third issue where Nature Boy can’t get divine aid as the gods have knocked off work early and gone to a party.
Each issue also carried an unrelated comics story. In the first this was a Blue Beetle tale, in the second a retelling by Bob Powell of the Pecos Bill stories, and in the third a humour feature, "Arro - the Caveman".
(1) The first issue was #3. The GCD dates it March, 1956, but I take it that’s an indicia date, and might mean it came out in late 1955 or early 1956. Apparently the second issue came out five months later, and the third six months after that.
The first "Rocky X" instalment (which is exceptionally wordy, much more so than the series late on) opens with the UN security council considering an American proposal to establish a UN military post on the moon. When the rocket plans are stolen by a spy, a space programme is initiated with the goal of winning the race to the moon. (It seems to be a US rather than a UN programme, but this isn’t spelt out.) The title character is William Rockwell, a young FBI agent who suggests organising an astronaut corps of young men called the Rocketeers, and is made its leader. All the Rocketeers are given code-names: Rockwell’s is Rocky X. After the first instalment Rocky’s membership in the FBI is forgotten until a caption announcing the strip’s change of direction at the end of the instalment in #99.
In the second instalment Rocky and his pal Simpy take a rocket on its first test flight. They make several nearly-disastrous mistakes, but their superiors deem the flight a success. At this point I thought the series was going to be all about humanity’s first steps into space, but with the third instalment the Rocketeers, testing the other ships, are ordered to pursue a flying saucer. Rocky is lost in space, and the saucer takes him aboard. In the next instalment he meets its crew, who turn out to be from Pluto and invisible outside its atmosphere. As this storyline develops, the strip becomes a space opera feature.
Since the Rocketeers are all fairly young, they’re reminiscent of space cadets, although they’re never called that. The stories are serialised, and most instalments end on cliffhangers. Until the Claw sequence the storyline wanders. Rocky is a lot like a blond Crimebuster, but he isn’t as impressive a hero, perhaps because he drives the action less. A character called Arnold shows up in the second instalment as a Rocketeer jealous of Rocky. He later wrecks his position in the Rocketeers, and embarks on a series of desperate crimes and betrayals. His actions play a big role in the series until the end of the Claw storyline.
The end of the instalment in #88 starts a storyline involving an invasion of Earth by an interplanetary armada. With the next instalment this becomes a story about the return of the Claw. That Claw. The "Rocky X" storyline represents him as having been born from a "fiery mass" from the planet Zyrlmarx that crashed in Tibet.(2) After allying himself with the Nazis, he stole a rocket he’d helped them build and returned to Zyrlmarx to build a space armada to destroy Earth civilization. The Rocketeers are unable to stop the armada, and the Claw lands and invades New York, causing great destruction. (Actually, he seems to do most of the damage himself, so one wonders why bothered building the armada and army.) These episodes are tense, violent and exciting. The Claw disappears at the start of the instalment in #92, after the destruction of his armada in the previous episode. This sets up the possibility of his re-return, but this never comes about.
The feature’s remaining storylines have further space war elements. One has some nice destructive giant serpents that remind me of the Drashigs from the Doctor Who story "Carnival of Monsters". Another involves the near destruction of Earth by an armada of spaceships that drill into worlds to shatter them.
Some elements in the latter instalments suggest a lack of scientific knowledge. In one episode Pluto is described as "on the outter [sic] edge of our universe", and the Rocketeers have to pass through an "atmospheric barrier" in space. In the preceding instalments the terms "stars" and "planets" are used interchangeably. But I don’t know this means Biro was no longer writing, as I noticed a couple of similar problems early on: the Rocketeers have to travel in the Plutonians’ saucer when it tows their rocket to Pluto because "the tremendous speed will cause the metal hulk to become red hot!"; the Earth rocket has no airlocks, but opening the hatch doesn’t cause explosive decompression.
At the end of the instalment in #93 some cephalopodic aliens show up. At the start of the next episode, drawn by a different artist, they are immediately dismissed by more human-looking aliens wearing what look like gas masks. This reads as if they were originally going to have the role of those latter aliens, and whoever was in charge didn’t like the design the #93 artist used and replaced it as quickly as possible.
Norman Maurer’s art and storytelling are likeable, and I particularly like his splash panels. The GCD attributes the art on the instalment from #93 to Wally Wood, but it might instead be Sid Check. It has a distorted look that reminds me of the Check story I've seen.
From #94 a clean, realistic art style was used. The art style is very consistent, but some of the instalments are a bit slicker than the others. The transition episode in #100 is signed "Ralph Mayo", and drawn in an attractive Ogden Whitney-ish style. I could believe the same artist drew the one from #99. The GCD assigns the story from #94 to Mayo and that from #98 to George Tuska. In the final instalments covered here Rocky and Simpy lose their boyish look. In the transition episode they're clearly drawn as men.
The first instalment seems to be set in the present or near future. The blurb on the fourth instalment implies the stories are supposed to be set c.2100, but the Claw story refers to him as returning after an absence of fifty years from 1944, which would be in the 1990s. From the transition story I think the tales were simply set in the present.
In writing this review I made use of an archive of Rocky X/Rocky X strips at the Digital Comics Museum website (it’s listed with the issues of Boy Comics). My thanks to its creator.
(1) Biro's signature stops appearing on the feature after #89. The GCD tentatively attributes the writing on some of the later instalments to Bob Wood, Biro’s creative partner, who later killed a woman. I don't know if this is more than a guess in any of these cases.
(2) Despite the origin here attributed to him, the Claw’s portrayal has "yellow peril" elements: he has yellow skin, long fingernails, and wears a robe, his name appears in the story titles in "Oriental" lettering, he sometimes speaks in what appear to be Chinese characters, and he has a character on the chest part of his robe. The depiction of the Zylmoxorians varies a bit. They’re mostly small and bald, and sometimes shown as orange and wearing what could be Cossack or Russian dress. One speaks in characters at one point, and another has a character on his back. The artist of the final instalment in which they appeared, #92, draws them like Americans, as if he didn’t know they weren’t Earth collaborators.
Vic Torry and his Flying Saucer (Fawcett, 1950)
Vic, a test pilot, and Laura, his girlfriend, spot a flying saucer while testing a jet. They trail the saucer and meet its pilot, a dying Mercurian. After he dies, they accidentally trigger automatic systems that take them to Mercury. They find that the Mercurians have been enslaved by a Mercurian called Szzz, who has taken control of their minds and means to wage interplanetary war. The last two Mercurians not under his control befriend them. In the course of the story they are captured and enslaved, and Laura is captured. Vic succeeds in bringing about Szzz's downfall.
This is a book-length story, broken into three parts. The art is by Bob Powell. There's something in how he draws people that rubs me the wrong way, but he's a good draftsman and tells the story well. The GCD doesn't have a writer's credit for the tale. Possibly it was Otto Binder, as he had an interest in flying saucers.
The issue was published as a one-shot. I don't know if Fawcett intended it as a try out for a series, but the way the story is written, it may have done. (The dying Mercurian tells Vic and Laura that with his saucer they can "probe the universe", and warns them against revealing it to others before they are certain Earth is ready. Vic is a familiar kind of action hero. He and Laura are left with a saucer at the end.) The front and back covers suggest Fawcett saw the flying saucer angle as its selling point. The story itself is an enjoyable space adventure tale.
"Norman Maurer’s art and storytelling are likeable, and I particularly like his splash panels."
Perhaps you already knew this, but Norman Maurer was the son-in-law of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges.
Apparently he eventually became their manager, and produced, wrote and directed Stooges films. Earlier, he drew Three Stooges comics for St. John in the 40s and 50s. He also drew The Little Stooges for Gold Key in the 70s. He was also involved in the introduction of 3D comics, and worked in TV cartoons.
According to Toonopedia and the GCD, the first issue was dated for Jan. 1953. I've assumed it came out the previous year.