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The Black Pirate was the perfect series for Sheldon Moldoff to illustrate. The high-masted ships, the exotic locales, the period costumes and architecture would not have looked as good with any other artist, and nothing else Moldoff drew looked as beautiful as this series. Jon Valor is cut from the same pattern as Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, and even resembles them with his pencil moustache.
His run in Action Comics is done as a serial, with cliffhangers and continuous action as he faces off against the kidnapping Captain Ruff, and then his vengeful brother in issues 23 – 28. Immediately following this he falls into the hands of Captain Treble, who runs a slave galley (white slaves), and uses the men as workers in his underwater phosphate mine. Jon leads a mutiny, tunneling through to open the mine to the ocean and fleeing as the water rushes in. He kills Treble in a swordfight in Action 32, and then meets a female pirate, who calls herself the Queen of the Seas.
They challenge each other to see who can get the most loot, but when she fails to show up for the rendezvous, Jon goes hunting for her, finding her a captive of chinese pirate Lu Chan. Lu Chan sets fire to how own ship, intending to kill them both, but Jon and the woman escape, and he kills Lu Chan in a duel.
They sail back to Spain, arriving in issue 36. Jon runs into an old friend, Don Avila, who invites Jon to a ball at the palace, to which he brings Bonnie. It turns out to be a trap to capture him, and though Bonnie is held in an underground keep, Jon manages to escape his captors, free her and duel Don Avila to his death.
Issue 41 gives them a bit of a rest, as they put in to a port in North Africa. Jon goes exploring, finding the albino Amora, the High Priestess of Ora, and her massive and silent black bodyguard. Jon quickly escapes from them. Issue 42 features another one-shot tale, that has old enemies plot to capture Jon’s ship, but he gets the best of them.
Throughout this entire run, Jon does not wear any particular sort of costume. His clothes are usually black, but often all he is wearing is shorts.
As the series moves over to Sensation Comics, he takes to disguising his identity, something that was not a part of the concept in Action Comics. He now wears yellow tousers and a white shirt, as well as along purple cloak with a peaked hood when being the Black Pirate. Bonnie turns out to be Donna Bonita, the ward of King Phillip II, and engaged to his eldest son, referred to in the series as Don Carlos (though this must be the same person as Prince Carlos of Asturia, his violent and crazed eldest child). Jon and Donna marry, and Phillip accepts the Englishman at his court, though charging him with finding and apprehending the Black Pirate.
From Sensation Comics 2 – 4, Jon deals with the vengeful and suspicious Carlos, who finally goes too far, having his father imprisoned and seizing the throne. With the help of the court jester, Jon frees Phillip, and kills Carlos in a duel. In reality, Carlos never tried to overthrow his father, but was imprisoned until his death, possibly by poison.
In Sensation 5, Justin is born to Jon and Donna, and issue 6 sees the boy grow to about 12 years old. Justin kills one of Phillip’s guards, who had been attacking an old woman, and is imprisoned and set to be executed. Jon frees his son, and with Donna they flee Spain. The jester joins them in the following issue, and remains a member of Jon’s crew, making periodic appearances through the rest of his run.
Justin learns his father is the Black Pirate, and makes himself a matching costume, though with a purple shirt and red cloak and hood. The series will occasionally go under the title “Black Pirate and Son” from this point on, but usually is still just “Black Pirate.”
They team up with Sir Francis Drake in Sensation 8, taking part in the rout of the Spanish Armada, and then head to France for two issues, aiding the King of France, an elderly man named Louis.
Maybe this is the point to chime in about the dating problem with this series. Moldoff has left the strip by this point, doing only occasional splash pages, so I can be more critical of it.
The very first installment gave the series the date of 1600. Actually, it really looks like it says 1800, but that is so wildly wrong I am assuming the ink has bled into the page over the years making the 6 look like an 8. The first issue of Sensation Comics makes it 1558, and then one would add roughly 12 years (Justin’s age) to bring it to 1580 – but the battle with the Spanish Armada did not occur until 1588, and Justin is clearly still a child.
To make matters worse, there was no King Louis at this time. Sure, it’s a fairly safe guess to call a French king Louis, but the late 1500s were the period of the Valois monarchs, not a Louis in the bunch, these were Francises and Charleses, and most were boy kings with short reigns, not old men.
The dating problem just gets worse as it goes along. In Comic Cavalcade 1, the Black Pirate is summoned by Queen Elizabeth, to help her fleet fight a sea monster that turns out to be a Spanish creation, but a few months later, in Sensation 18, James I is king of England. OK, so we must now have just reached 1600, but Justin is still a child. In issue 21 we are with James I again, as the Black Pirate tries to find a cure for his eldest son, Henry. In reality, Henry died of a fever, but he gets cured in this story (maybe he died later, Im not going to nitpick on that point), but in Comic Cavalcade 7, right at the end of this era, Queen Elizabeth dies and James is crowned king. Need I mention, Justin remains young throughout this.
But really, that is the biggest problem I have with the series, and though the dating is a mess, I was impressed that the sons were given the proper names, and their roles are at least analogous to actual history.
In Sensation 14 the Black Pirate rescues an orphan girl, Virginia, and she comes to live with him and his family on Pirate Island in the following story, joining in the defense of the island against some escapees from Dartmouth Prison. A bit of a romance is built between Justin and Virginia, but she does not often appear.
In issue 20, Jon and Justin are caught in a storm that leads them to Atlantis, where they help Arius regain his throne, and he rewards Jon with Posiedon`s ring, which Jon can use to summon Aruis. He does this in the following story, to find out where the cure for James` son can be found, but the ring is not used again after this.
As the era comes to a close, the stories become more fantastic, as the Black Pirate battles the Flying Dutchman and lands on a Lilliput-type island of tiny people.
The most interesting story in the post-Moldoff period is in Sensation 17, which opens in the present day (World War II) as the allied forces land on Pirate Island, finding his fortress, paintings of his family, and the Black Pirate`s diary. We (and they) read a story of him defending the island against Don Muerte and his flying (catapulted) men, and learn the location in which the Black Pirate hid a cannon, to be used when the attackers were too close to retreat, and then the allies put their big guns in the same place to fight off the Germans.
The Black Pirate (and son) continue in the Late Golden Age
Black Pirate: Action Comics 23 – 36 (Apr 40 – May 41), 38 – 42 (July – Nov 41)
Sensation Comics 1 – 31 (Jan 42 – July 44)
Comic Cavalcade 1 – 2 (Winter 42 – Spring 43), 7 (Summer 44)
The King is a disguise artist who captures thieves, though is fairly close to being one himself. His real name is, apparently, King Standish (and his series goes by this name for its first 12 installments), but all we ever learn about him is that he is wealthy, blond, lives on his own in a New York City apartment, and is a member of the Bachelor Club. He uses wax and dye to alter his appearance, and “voice control” to change how he sounds (and how would we ever have figured that out without an explanation?). He takes pride that no one knows what he really looks like, and often takes on two or three different disguises during the course of a single story.
When not in an actual disguise, but not just himself, the King wears a tuxedo, complete with top hat and cape, and a domino mask. In Flash Comics 28 and 29 he wears a green suit and orange fedora with his mask, but then reverts to evening dress for the rest of his run.
In his debut story he goes up against drug runner Boss Barton, who has sent Myrna Mallon to find out who he really is. The King believes Myrna is an innocent dupe of the Boss, so in his second story she acts as his assistant, but we never see her again after that. Or do we?
From Flash Comics 5 until the end of his run, virtually every story pits The King against The Witch, a female thief, who also likes wearing evening dress while committing crimes. The King fouls her plans time after time, but has no interest in seeing her behind bars. He usually just lets her escape, but in issue 7 actually drives her to her home at the end of the story. There is openly a bit of romance between them.
Now, the Witch is mostly just concerned with stealing jewels, and will even turn on her own hired goons if they want to get violent with the intended victims, but in a couple of her appearances she displays a talent for disguise as well. From her first appearance, it is implied that she and the King have met before, and I suspect that Myrna Mallon was simply an identity she had adopted while working for Boss Barton, which fits her general M.O., as well as explaining how she and the King met, and why there is already a spark between them in their supposed first encounter.
Because all but a handful of stories feature the Witch, the series is excessively repetitive. The King seems to have little interest in crimes, other than the ones she is involved with, and admits to following her around, essentially stalking her until he sees she is up to something, and then taking on disguises to protect the victim, recover the jewels and capture the thieves.
The King and the Witch even work together a few times. This begins with Flash Comics 9, which deals with a horde of jade pursued by the Witch and some chinese pirates. After defeating the pirates, the King suggests they simply split the jade horde between them. She joins the King in World’s Finest 3 in stopping a fake food coupon scam. I don’t fully understand what these food coupons are, it’s not the ration system, as the US is not at war yet, but I guess it’s the forerunner of food stamps? Anyway, she also helps out the King in other stories against Nazi agents, putting her patriotism over her criminal impulses.
Although we never learn anything about King Standish’s background, we do learn a bit about the Witch, in World’s Finest 2. She returns to her father in New Orleans, a successful painter, and discover that they are descendants of the pirate Jean Lafitte, which is given as the explanation for her tendency towards crime.
The most enjoyable story of the entire run is in World’s Finest 5, which deals with gypsies and stolen rubies. The King takes on the identity of suspected thief Johnee, while the Witch disguises herself as the fortune teller Elena. While both are in disguise, Johnee and Elena confess their love for each other. After solving the crime, and seeing the real Johnee and Elena become a couple, the Witch comments on the fact that it was really the two of them confessing their love that spurred the gypsy couple to revealing theirs.
The King does not appear again until the 80s, and even then only in cameos set during this era. King Chimera would appear as his son in 2009, claiming that his father travelled to Asia at some point after the war, but that’s all we ever learn about him.
The King: Flash Comics 3 – 37 (Mar 40 – Jan 43), 39 – 41 (Mar – May 43)
World’s Best Comics 1 (Spring 41)
World’s Finest Comics 2 – 5 (Summer 41 – Spring 42), 8 (Winter 42)
Comic Cavalcade 3 – 4 (Summer – Fall 43)
All-Flash 13 (Winter 43)
Cliff Crosby’s series languished amid the back pages of Detective Comics for the entirety of its run. The art managed to reach a passable level, but the stories, often only 5 or 6 pages long, never achieve anything memorable.
The series begins without making it clear what Cliff does for a living. He helps a reporter friend, Terry Jensen, find a kidnapped judge in his first tale, and then travels with explorer Dr. Broussard in his second outing, encountering an African tribe hidden in the arctic. In Detective Comics 39 he is on vacation (from what?) in Florida and stops a child kidnapping ring in the Everglades. He is hired to supervise construction of a new airplane in issue 40, and then works with the police in issues 41 and 42, being called in to help by Inspector Becker in the latter story.
In Detective Comics 43 it is clear that Cliff is a reporter. An editor sends him to Africa, on a cruise exploring the Congo River, during which he confronts and defeats the Skull, who runs an illegal radio station from his medieval castle. Don’t ask.
Issues 44 seems to back up his reporter status, as he is on assignment in the Dutch East Indies before crashing onto the Island of Vampires, but in issue 45 he is a polo playing rich guy who solves a murder in his spare time.
Only with Detective Comics 46 does his profession get clearly stated, and stabilized. He is the owner and publisher of the New York Record, and his ace reporter is Kay Nevers. In the following issue we learn he inherited the newspaper from his father, and in issue 48 we discover that his father was killed by gangsters for exposing them in his paper. Cliff and Kay manage to find proof of the killer’s identity, and bring him to justice.
For much of the rest of his run, Cliff solves murder mysteries, often with Kay helping out. He heads to Europe alone in issues 54 and 55, reporting on the German bombing of England, and solving the theft of a valuable painting. We learn that Kay’s last name is Nevers in issue 52, and their relationship must be fairly close as they stay at a hotel in that issue, and going skiiing together at a resort in Canada in issue 58, but it certainly appears chaste. In his final story, in Detective 63, Kay is referred to as his reporter-secretary.
In his last tale, Cliff solves the murder of a circus lion tamer, which was done by coating the lion’s mane with nicotine. Often the crimes were needlessly elaborate that way.
With Cliff’s series ending so soon after the attack on Pearl Harbour, I suspect he joined the army, perhaps as a journalist, but did not survive the war.
Cliff Crosby: Detective Comics 37 – 63 (Mar 40 – May 42)
Shy and meek young chemist Rex Tyler creates the Miraclo pill, which gives a person enhanced strength, speed, resilience and stamina, as well as making his personality alter to aggressive and outgoing, and becomes the first drug-addict superhero, Hourman. It is not acknowledged in his original run that he is a drug addict, but it is difficult not to see this in the series, and the change from the Miraclo pill to Miraclo ray towards the end of the run seems to indicate that DC felt the character needed some cleaning up.
Rex is never given any background, or relatives, or girlfriend. At first his supporting cast is limited to his boss at Bannerman Laboratories, Mr. Bannerman. Bannerman criticizes Rex for being so introverted in the early stories, and in the first couple we see that Rex’s personality alters when he takes Miraclo, and that after it wears off he crashes, and reverts to his old persona. This appears to stop happening after a while, and Rex becomes more Hourman-ish even without Miraclo, which is likely why by Adventure Comics 65 he has become Bannerman’s chief assistant.
The Miraclo pill gives Rex his enhanced abilities for one hour, and the first story includes insets counting down how much longer his powers will last. This clever device to build suspense is not used again until issue 70, but becomes standard for the last year of the run.
Bernard Bailey gave Rex a memorable, if simple, costume. Black tights and top, cape and hood, with red highlights. The hood hangs loosely down over the face, with holes over the eyes. Even as a child I wondered about the practicality of this; how the hood stayed in position while he ran, rather than flopping back and exposing his face, and how he managed to see if he turned his head and his eyes no longer lined up with the holes. Again, in the final year this seems to be acknowledged, as Rex’s hood is replaced by a form-fitting cowl.
Around his neck, Rex wears an hourglass on a cord. This timer fairly obviously is of use for him to determine how much longer the Miraclo will last, although at no point is it ever used that way in the original run.
In his first two stories, Rex places ads in newspapers, offering to help those in need, and answers a wife’s request to stop her husband from being part of a jewel robbery at the Beaux Arts Ball in the debut appearance. In Adventure 55 we learn that Rex is based in a city called Cosmos, which is a very odd name for a city, but this has never been referred to again.
Rex faces off against a number of mad scientists, as well as kidnappers, gamblers, thieves, and the like, but never gets any recurring villains. For that matter, he never gets any really good villains either. Dr. Togg, who creates nasty dog/vulture hybrids called Gombezis in Adventure Comics 57, returns decades down the road, but aside from the unusual name for his unusual creations, there is little noteworthy about him in his only golden age story.
Rex pops his Miraclo pill quite casually in his first few adventures, but then we stop seeing him do this, it is merely referred to, and I think it is not a coincidence that the pill popping panels disappear in the stories that give him a gaggle of kid sidekicks. The only two times we see him take Miraclo after his first 8 stories are in issues 63 and 67, neither of which feature the Minutemen of America.
Adventure Comics 54 introduces Jimmy Martin, a HAM radio operator and fan of Hourman, who gets other kids who are amateur radio operators to form a gang to assist Hourman. The very logo of the series changes to reflect this becoming “Hourman and Minute Man Martin of the Minutemen of America.” Jimmy is the most important of this group at first, although visually the boy with the turtleneck sweater covering most of his face, and a giant cap covering much of what little is left, is the notable one. In All-Star 2 this boy is finally named, Thorndyke, and he is established as Jimmy’s younger brother. Many of the stories deal with other Minutemen, who get into trouble, or the family members do, or they witness a crime, which winds up bringing Hourman into the tale, but none of these kids are featured in more than one story.
In issues 72 and 73 Jimmy becomes an actual sidekick for Hourman, wearing an identical costume, though in issue 73 he lacks the cowl, and just wears a domino mask. In Adventure 74 we learn that Jimmy and his mother have left on a trip, from which they never return, and Thorndyke becomes his sidekick instead, though never wearing a costume like Jimmy’s. Issue 75 informs us that Thorndyke’s last name is Tomkins, which is very unusual if he is the younger brother of Jimmy Martin, so perhaps there is more going on here, with the mother taking off with one of her sons and leaving the other behind. Did Jimmy and Thorndyke have different fathers? As well, in issue 75 Thorndyke is aware that Rex is Hourman, though in none of the earlier stories did any of the Minutemen know his identity.
From this point to the end of the run the series is called “Hourman and Thorndyke.” None of the Minutemen appear again, and Rex has replaced the Miraclo Pill with the Miraclo Ray (or Miraclo Machine in issue 82). Having it be a ray that gives the powers, rather than a pill, was likely done so that Rex and Thorndyke could get powered up together, rather than having the hero give a child a drug.
Hourman’s series ends in Adventure Comics 83, and Rex does not return until a JLA/JSA crossover in the Silver Age. Thorndyke does not return until the late 90s, in Young Justice.
Hourman: Adventure Comics 48 – 83 (Mar 40 – Feb 43)
New York World’s Fair 1940
All-Star Comics 2 (Fall 40)
Lance O’Casey is a young red-headed sailor, who apparently owns only one set of clothing, a red and white striped shirt and some white trousers. He wears them in every single story. He lives on Maloana island, in the South Pacific, making a living selling pearls, it appears. He has a pet monkey named Mr. Hogan, and his schooner is named the Brian Boru.
If this character had not had a cameo in an issue of The Power of Shazam in the late 90s, I could have skipped him over and not thought twice about it; but as he does appear in a DC comic, he merits an entry, however grudgingly.
In Whiz Comics 4, a pirate treasure map leads him to Horseshoe Island, where he finds Captain Daniel Doom, a very old man with a long white beard, the grandson of the Captain Doom who made the map. Turns out Grampa Doom was a kidder as well as a pirate, as the treasure is worthless brass. But Doom and O’Casey become buddies, working together to build a new schooner after the Brian Boru is wrecked, and they sail back to Maloana together on the Brian Boru II in issue 6.
In most of the stories, O’Casey and Doom deal with angry natives, who they kill and rob in heroic fashion. They even make it to Peru in issues 15 and 16, heading inland to steal Inca gold (and of course kill the Incas who do not want their gold stolen.) The casual racism, and idea that the natives have no right to their own resources, becomes really appalling when you read it in story after story.
Mr. Hogan gets a girlfriend, Mabel, in issue 14. Mr. Hogan is the monkey, please recall. Mabel is a female monkey. Lance and Doom are not getting as much action as the monkey, which may explain why they are so eager to kill the natives.
Issues 18 – 21 follow our heroes to a tropical island in the Antarctic, which they get blown to by a hurricane. The stories in issues 18 and 19 were printed in reverse order, so they are on the island in issue 18, but the hurricaine brings them to the island in issue 19.
After a few more stories of killing and robbing native islanders, O’Casey winds up facing off against modern pirates (pirates kill and rob white people, which makes them bad) in Whiz 26. There is a woman with the pirates, Lorela, and though she escapes from them with O’Casey, he is not completely sure he can trust her, until she helps save him from vengeful natives in the following issue. Doom is not in this story, nor is Mabel. Neither appears again, and though their absence is never explained, the coincidence of them disappearing at the same time makes me suspect that Mabel and Captain Doom were having a secret romance, and took off together. Poor Mr. Hogan.
Lorela sticks around through issue 30, but with issue 31, the first after the attack on Pearl Harbour, the series undergoes some changes. Lorela and Mr. Hogan vanish. We had been lead to believe there might be some romance building between her and Lance, but it seems the monkeys get all the lovin in this strip.
In issue 31 Lance also has a new schooner, the Starfish, and helps two Mikes (Hawkins and Belliw) fleeing the Japanese fleet. Lance works alongside the US navy in this story, and Mike Hawkins joins the forces at the end of the tale, but Lance decides to fight the Japanese on his own, and Mike Belliw joins him on the schooner. Mike Belliw is from Brooklyn. Im not sure that has anything to do with his decision to fight Japanese subs and destroyers on a wooden schooner, but it’s the only information we ever get about him.
So for a while its Lance and Mike against the Japanese, but then it becomes Lance and Mike against the Japanese and evil natives for a few stories, as the asians recruit Dukwadl, the Zombie Maker in issue 44, and an island of cannibals in issue 45. The stories get further from reality, as Lance and Mike get trapped on an island outside of time, guarded by a giant cyclops in issue 48 and a Sea Dragon in 51. Issue 49 introduces the descendant of pirate Jean Lafitte, who decides to dress as his ancestor and follow in his footsteps. He gets captured at the end of the story, but is about the best villain Lance O’Casey ever faces.
In his final story before the series takes a hiatus for a couple of years, Lance and Mike are in India, and take a job as mercenaries, though they wind up fighting the Japanese anyway. Kip, a young orphaned beggar boy, basically attaches himself to the men, becoming their cook, cleaner and general houseboy (boatboy?)
Lance O’Casey returns in the Late Golden Age
Lance O’Casey: Whiz Comics 2 – 53 (Feb 40 – Mar 44)
All-Hero Comics 1 (Mar 43)
The Spy Smashes series begins with the interesting premise that the hero’s identity is a secret even from the reader. For the first fourteen stories of his run, Spy Smasher carries on a crusade against the plans of The Mask, a foreign spy master whose agents try sabotage, kidnapping, propaganda and murder to destroy the morale of the US, which is not yet even at war.
Spy Smasher is often shown only in shadow in these tales, to keep up the mystery of his identity, but the writer neglected one critical factor: giving the reader possible suspects. There are only four recurring characters in the strip. Admiral Corby works for naval intelligence, and Spy Smasher is usually aiding him. Corby has a daughter, Eve, who becomes his personal secretary in Whiz Comics 5, and Eve has a fiancee, Alan Armstrong, “a wealthy young Virginia sportsman,” who occasionally fights to save Eve and her father, and unmasks a couple of spies, but is never around when Spy Smasher is in the room. Gee, who could it possibly be?
The fourth recurring character is Zambo, the Admiral’s Filipino houseboy. He appears only in the first year of the series, and it seems fairly clear that he is really The Mask, though that never gets revealed. The Mask dies in issue 15 without his identity being exposed, though Zambo never appears again after this story.
Alan is finally revealed to be Spy Smasher in Whiz 15, although Eve saw his face back in issue 3. Admiral Corby is let in on the secret in this story as well.
Spy Smasher wears a brown aviator suit, with the headgear and goggles, and a cape. There is a diamond emblem on his chest, though it does not stand out much until issue 19, when they start colouring it black. His costume abruptly changes colour to green in Whiz Comics 26, with the black diamond getting a red outline. As there was a Spy Smasher movie serial being released at around this time, I suspect the colour change was done to match the movie. It’s a good change, brown has never been a colour for superheroes.
Spy Smasher generally relies on his fists, or guns, when battling the incessant hordes of spies out to destroy America, but he does have one neat piece of equipment, his gyrosub. This is introduced in his first appearance, as a combination airplane, autogyro (helicopter), speedboat and sub. It looks like a short, fat airplane. The watercraft elements are rarely used, and pretty much forgotten as the series progresses. By 1943 the shape of the craft has changed as well, almost looking like a flying saucer. It has two large triangular wings running the entire length of the fuselage, giving the craft almost a diamond shape. The diamond symbol on his costume is never explained, but I do wonder if the ship’s shape was altered to match it.
What prompted Alan to become Spy Smasher is never explained. While it is not surprising that no story in Whiz Comics addresses his “origin”, as his very identity was a secret at the start, it is remarkable that this was not the subject of the lead story in Spy Smasher 1. Following the “rule” established by Superman 1, the lead stories in Captain Marvel Adventures 1 and Ibis the Invincible 1 gave extended versions of the character’s origin, so at this point we really ought to have learned why he chose to put his costume on in the first place.
In his last two encounters with The Mask, in Whiz 14 and 15, we get to see the Hypno-Chair, a device the Mask has created to brainwash and control people. Spy Smasher gets captured and controlled using the chair, and even though the Mask is dead, Spy Smasher goes on a destructive and traitorous rampage through issues 16 – 18. Captain Marvel guests (and Spy Smasher appears in the Captain Marvel stories in Whiz) in these issues, trying to capture Spy Smasher, and restore his mind. Captain Marvel almost gets him into the Hypno-Chair in issue 18, but Spy Smasher destroys it. It comes down to a battle of wills, and through sheer mental effort Captain Marvel restores Alan’s mind. Captain Marvel and Spy Smasher team-up again in Whiz Comics 33, to defend the USS Alaskazona.
America Smasher is introduced in Spy Smasher 2, a German agent constructing a giant bomber which Alan manages to destroy just before it reaches the US. He believes America Smasher to have died in the plane crash, but the Nazi returns in a number of stories, building a secret munitions factory (America’s Greatest Comics 1), trying to destroy the Panama Canal (Whiz 31), using propaganda to try to destroy the morale of the Americans (Spy Smasher 5), and trying to kill Admiral Corby at a New Year’s party (Whiz 39).
There are some other interesting nazi agents that he faces off against, Dark Angel in Spy Smasher 1, the Tigress in Spy Smasher 2, the Golden Wasp in Spy Smasher 7 – but despite their names and costumes, they are really just foreign agents with elaborate schemes. No one in this series has any kind of powers.
Although this series makes it feel like the US was at war by early 1940, when the States actually enters the war, Spy Smasher starts having adventures outside the US. I should also mention that Spy Smasher 4 features a story, “The Crime of Pearl Harbour,” that has him fail to stop the attack. Spy Smasher has numerous stories on Pacific islands, and even heads to Tokyo in Spy Smasher 9. He helps the French underground in America’s Greatest 3, and discovers that Admiral Corby’s nephew Stuart is not a traitor, but has pretended to join the Germans to spy on them for the French. He helps the Yugoslav resistance in Spy Smasher 7, is in Berlin in Spy Smasher 10, and Brazil in Spy Smasher 11.
The story in Whiz Comics 44 scared me when I read the title, “The Junior Spy Smashers of America,” but fortunately this was a one-off idea, as some kids spot a Nazi sub debarking spies on the coast, and help Spy Smasher bring them in. They do not become a gaggle of sidekicks.
Spy Smasher continues in the Late Golden Age
Spy Smasher: Whiz Comics 2 – 56 (Feb 40 – July 44)
Spy Smasher 1 – 11 (Fall 41 – Feb 43)
America’s Greatest Comics 1 – 6 (Fall 41 – Winter 42), 8 (Summer 43)
All-Hero Comics 1 (Mar 43)
Ibis the Invincible is an Egyptian prince, Amentep, who used his magical Ibistick (looks like a bottle opener) to sleep away the centuries until his beloved Taia was revived from death. He emerges from his mummy case, retrieves the Ibistick and uses it to awaken Taia. In both tellings of his origin, Whiz Comics 2, and the later, more detailed version in Ibis the Invincible 1, he is to sleep until she is revived, but he wakes first and revives her. This irritates me, especially when the contradiction occurs on the same page!
But aside from that, this is not a bad series. It does take a while to find its bearings. Many of the stories in the first two years use cliffhanger endings, which get a bit tiresome. The Ibistick has the power to literally do anything, it acts on the person’s wishes, spoken or simply thought, so most cliffhangers are fairly easily resolved.
The difficulty in figuring out what can possibly challenge Ibis likely lead to the repetitive nature of his early stories. Ibis tends to lose/drop/loan the Ibistick, and the person who winds up in possession makes all manner of wishes, but when confronted by Ibis tries to use the Ibistick against him. The Ibistick then causes whatever the person intended for Ibis, to happen to the wisher instead.
Of the early Ibis stories, the best by far occurs in Whiz Comics 6. A fisherman finds the Ibistick, which was lost at the end of the previous chapter. It provides him with a huge haul of fish. The fisherman, not realizing the powers of the wand, gives it to his son, who wishes he had a bicycle instead. The bike materializes, and he rides off, leaving the Ibistick behind. A dog grabs the stick, wishing for a steak, which he then gets. A hobo tries to get the steak, but gets the wand instead, and winds up riding his own private train car. Ibis finally catches up with the wand, the hobo tries to use it against him, and loses everything.
Taia stays at Ibis’s side throughout his adventures. Sure she gets captured occasionally, but at least he doesn’t keep dropping or losing her. She has no powers, though she uses the Ibistick occasionally, but she is ready with her dagger when the need arises. Ibis also has a crystal ball that he can use to find Taia, or the Ibistick, but he rarely uses it.
Ibis wears a modern day suit, and a turban. There are a huge amount of artists who work on this series, so the basic simplicity of the costume was a plus. Even still, some artists gave him a cape as well.
In Whiz Comics 7, as Ibis and Taia drive across the country to California, they meet a young orphan boy at a carnival, working for a drunk who does a William Tell act, shooting an apple off the boys head. They more or less adopt him, and he travels with them as they deal with nebulous asian villain Piang in issues 9 and 10. At the end of the story in issue 19, they enroll Tommy in a military academy.
Tommy remains important over the next few issues, as he is framed for cheating, and later kidnapped by Trug, Ibis’ main rival in his debut appearance in Whiz 13. Trug is also of nebulous asian descent, maybe from India. He wears a turban as well, and has a knowledge of magic. He is able to disguise himself instantly, and pull off some other basic illusions, but craves the Ibistick. Trug appears in every story between issues 13 and 20, and returns periodically throughout the run. In issue 31 he tricks Tommy into believing Ibis is his real father, and the kid actually falls for this, at least until Ibis tells him otherwise. Tommy graduates from the Academy at the end of this story, and immediately enlists in the airforce. He is not seen again during this era. Trug acquires “The Horrible Hand in issue 34”, “The Living Paintings” in 40, and “The Murderous Ice Monkey” in 55, his final appearance in this era.
Ibis deals with a crazed Nazi, Half-Man, in issues 21 – 24. Severely wounded, missing limbs and a eye and just overall looking sort of like he should be dead, Half-Man pursues Ibis, hoping to get the Ibistick and heal himself. This story comes to a very nice conclusion, as Ibis defeats him, but then uses the stick to heal him anyway. Whole again, and grateful, Half-Man (or I guess Whole-Man now) deserts the German army and joins the US forces.
In issue 25 Ibis and Taia head to Egypt, where rebellious muslims revive Rameses to lead them against the British. Rameses is rendered in full-out horror movie style, a decaying mummified corpse, with his own agenda. He kills the men who revived him, taking their army as his own. The Rameses story runs to issue 28, and he returns in Ibis the Invincible 2.
The Flying Dutchman is introduced in Whiz 27, returning in issue 37. The first story is fairly good, though it interrupts the Rameses serial, but the return tale has such a painful ending. The Flying Dutchman finds love and is relieved of his curse. Yes, fine, that`s the traditional ending to the tale, but he and his crew return to life at this point, and as they are Dutch, they go off to fight the Nazis. Why bring a decent villain back just to get rid of him completely?
Ibis gets pitted against a variety of mystical foes, including the Headless Horseman (Whiz 30), a revived Atilla the Hun (33), the City of Skeletons (44) and even the norse trickster god Loki, in issue 50.
The worst Ibis story of the period is in Whiz Comics 46, “The Missing Leprechaun.” This story introduces Banshee O’Brien, a young boy apprentice, who does not get to use the Ibistick, instead he learns spells. Clearly intended as a thoroughly unnecessary boy sidekick for Ibis, he does not appear again. I know I breathed a sigh of relief when he was not in issue 47.
Ibis the Invincible continues in the Late Golden Age
Ibis the Invincible: Whiz Comics 2 – 56 (Feb 40 – July 44)
Ibis the Invincible 1 – 2 (Spring 42 – Spring 43)
All-Hero Comics 1 (Spring 43)
I have never been a huge fan of the Captain Marvel series. The art style given by creator C. C. Beck is very simplistic, almost childish. That being said, it is executed with remarkable skill, and I fully understand why so many collectors value his work. The Captain Marvel stories that are not drawn by him usually look insultingly childish. Reading the whole run for the first time, I realized how strongly Beck was influenced by Herge, the creator of Tintin. Both series are very much in the Boys Own Adventure genre, with deceptively clean and bright art that looks so much more basic than it really is.
Captain Marvel’s origin could be quite terrifying, instead of being almost romantically magical. Billy Batson is a young orphan, selling newspapers on the street. A mysterious man with a hat pulled low over his face lures Billy into an abandoned subway station, in which Billy finds a huge train with elaborate art deco designs on it. He rides this deeper into the tunnel, and debarks to find a long passageway with grotesque statues depicting the Seven Deadly Sins. At the end of the passage is a chamber, and an old man with long white hair and beard on a throne beneath a massive block of stone dangling by a thread.
This is the wizard Shazam, who endows Billy with the powers of the gods when he speaks the wizard’s name. It’s even done acrostically, so that Billy gains the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. Greek, Roman and Jewish all mixed together. He can also fly, though that is not credited to anyone. Billy says Shazam, changing into a robust adult as the block of stone falls, seemingly crushing the old wizard (though Billy would shortly discover this was not the case).
He then proceeds to stop the mad scientist Sivana from taking control of the radio waves, and nets himself, as Billy, a job as a reporter on WHIZ radio. The fact that Billy appears only 12 or 13, but has a job and apparently lives on his own is never an issue in this series. This is not reality, not even approaching it. This is wish-fulfillment fantasy at its purest, the hard done by child speaking the magic word and becoming an all-powerful adult.
It takes quite a while for a supporting cast to build up. Station owner Sterling Morris, and his secretary Miss Dalshaw appear in most stories, but aside from being periodically captured, we learn little about them. Sterling Morris seems to have some from a large family, as we meet his brother Cuthbert and his overbearing wife Priscilla in Whiz Comics 36, obnoxious nephew Percy Discord in Captain Marvel Adventures 35, and another niece and nephew, Cissie and Pete Sumerly, in Captain Marvel Adventures 12. These two are the only ones to make a second appearance in this era, returning in CMA 13, as Billy and Cissie go on a date, and he refrains from changing to Captain Marvel, to impress her as himself. Billy gets his first kiss at the end of the story.
Sivana is the most frequent character after this, at least for the first two years of the run. He appears in about 80% of the stories before 1943. A short, bald and consumately evil inventor, he is accompanied and assisted by the lovely Beautia. She is introduced in Whiz Comics 4 as the Empress of Venus, as Sivana plots to have her elected president of the US. Beautia falls for Captain Marvel immediately, and then constantly wavers between helping him, and helping Sivana. His hold over her is unclear until Whiz Comics 15, when Sivana captures Billy, attaching a device to his neck to prevent him from saying Shazam, and then taking him to Venus as his prisoner. We learn that Sivana was a ridiculed scientist, far ahead of his time, who abandoned his home world and moved to Venus, raising his two children, Beautia and Magnificus. Beautia continues to appear in most of the Sivana stories until 1943, and despite Sivana figuring out Billy is Captain Marvel fairly quickly, Beautia never clues in. Magnificus does not appear again in this era – he may not appear again until the 70s.
Spy Smasher crosses over into the Captain Marvel series through issues 16 – 18, and Captain Marvel appears in the Spy Smasher chapters of Whiz in those issues as well. Spy Smasher has been mind-controlled, and is on a dangerous, traitorous rampage. Captain Marvel tries to reverse the mind control, but Spy Smasher destroys the Hypno-Chair. Cap relies simply on the force of his will power to restore Spy Smasher’s sanity.
Spy Smasher teams up with Captain Marvel again in Whiz 33 to protect the USS Alaskizona from foreign spies, but Spy Smasher also cameos alongside Ibis the Invincible, Lance O’Casey and Golden Arrow in America’s Greatest Comics 4, at a movie screening, joined by Taia, in issue 43’s “Sabotage at the Printing Plant”, at the offices of Whiz Comics, trying to make sure that Nazis do not prevent the next issue from coming out, and at “Captain Marvel’s Birthday” in Whiz 47, where they are joined by Bulletman.
Whiz Comics 21 sees three other boys named Billy Batson come together to visit their famous namesake, and he decides to share his identity, and then his powers, with them. Nicknamed Tall Billy Batson, Fat Billy Batson and Hillbilly Batson, they are referred to on the cover of Whiz 21 as the Squadron of Justice, but when they return in issue 29 they are called the Billy Batsons of America. Deciding that that was a sucky name, in their third appearance, in issue 34, they are called the Lieutenant Marvels, the name that would stick. Of their four appearances in this era, only the last one, in issue 40, grabs my interest at all, as a dying pilot gives the longitude and latitude of a secret Axis meeting, but not the directional co-ordinates, so the four Billys each head to different locales – Canada, Russia, Africa and South America – to seek out the real location.
Whitey Murphy is introduced as a sort of sidekick for Billy, though a few years older than him, in Whiz Comics 22, but does not appear very often, and lacks any sort of distinct personality. Whitey joins the army in CMA 12, and Captain Marvel enlists as well, until Shazam convinces him he is needed on the home front. Whitey does not appear again in this era, but does return eventually.
Captain Marvel Junior gets introduced in Whiz Comics 25, in a story that continues from (and continues in) the Bulletman series in Master Comics. Freddy Freeman is fishing in a rowboat with his grandfather as Captain Nazi comes hurtling through the air, crashing in the water next to them. They rescue him, which turns out to be a big mistake as Captain Nazi promptly kills Freddy’s grandfather, and attempts to kill Freddy as well. Freddy is left crippled, but Captain Marvel saves him, and shares his power with him. Unlike the Lieutenant Marvels, Freddy says Captain Marvel to change (which means he cannot say his own superhero name without changing form one to the other). He has the same powers as Captain Marvel, but does not get older. He is lame, and requires a crutch as Freddy, but not as Captain Marvel Junior. Oh and his suit is blue instead of red. He heads off to Master Comics to help Bulletman against Captain Nazi, and then moves directly into his own series in that book. He makes only two other appearance in the Captain Marvel series in this era, one being the birthday story, and the other in the story that introduces Mary Marvel.
Mary is indirectly set-up in Captain Marvel Adventures 10, as Billy’s wealthy grandfather dies. Some con men pass Billy off as the long-lost grandchild, but once Billy discovers they are out for his money, he ceases to believe he really was the man’s grandson. CMA 18 fills in the rest of the story. Billy is hosting a radio quiz show, and Freddy is one of the contestants, along with Percival Pill an Mary Bromfield. Billy admires Mary, and wishes she was his sister. Then, while the radio show is still going on, he gets a note from dying Miss Primm, who was the governess for the Batsons. She tells him of his parents death, and that he had a sister. He returns to the show, which Mary wins, and tells Freddy of the news of his sister. Mary gets kidnapped, and Billy and Freddy rescue her. They determine she is his sister, but then Billy and Freddy get captured and gagged. Mary says Shazam, and changes into Mary Marvel. Actually, all that changes is her dress, but she gains what appear to be the same powers. They visit Shazam, who explains that he knew of Mary all along, but also that Billy would find her on his own, and that Mary’s powers derive from a different pantheon.
From Selena she gets grace, the strength of Hippolyta, the skill of Ariadne, the fleetness of Zephyrus, the beauty of Aurora and the wisdom of Minerva. Once again, where she gets the flying power from is unstated. Unlike Freddy, Mary trains with Billy, though only for CMA 19, at the end of which she gets a telegram informing her that she now has her very own series in Wow Comics. Mary guests in two more Captain Marvel stories: the birthday story, and CMA 37’s “Visitors from Space”.
Professor Edgewise, an absent-minded scientist who causes as much mayhem with his inventions as Sivana, but is far from malicious, is introduced in the story “The Realm of the Subconscious” in CMA 9, and returns in America’s Greatest Comics 4, as Sivana mind controls him and makes him look young and robust, hoping to marry him off to Beautia.
There is one more supporting character in this period, someone I never knew existed until this read, Steamboat. He is a black man who works at first as a janitor at WHIZ, but then moves in with Billy, seemingly working as his servant. This is never overtly stated, but he waits on Billy, who he calls “Mistah Billy.” Steamboat is drawn in that horrific style that is so prevalent in this period, not even looking human, and speaking in a broad, racist dialect. He was clearly a popular character, he appears in almost every story in 1942 and 43, and even gets a leading role in two of them. One reunites him with his long-lost grandmother, Showboat Mammy, who happens to be working as a cleaning lady for Sivana. She has voodoo powers – she can mind control people just by talking to them over the telephone, and helps Sivana take control of Captain Marvel until Steamboat convinces her that Sivana is evil. In the only appearance of Steamboat that I even mildly enjoy, ‘The World’s Mightiest Mistake,” in CMA 16, he goes on a date with Elocutia Jones (who is drawn as a very attractive black woman). They go to a Harlem nightclub, and as part of the show Steamboat gets hypnotized into thinking he has great strength. His clothes wind up getting torn off, and he is wearing long red underwear beneath, and the shards of his shirt like a cape, making him resemble Captain Marvel. Despite the dialect, I did enjoy him declaring “Yippee!! For de Hahlem Mahvel! Take dat an dat, bank robbers!”
As one might expect in a very childlike series, there are no villains with any shades of grey, and the crimes are all fairly straightforward, even if the plans are world shattering. Captain Nazi debuted in the Bulletman series, so I will be discussing him further in that entry, but Captain Marvel managed to acquire some decent villains before this era ended.
The Arson Fiend is the earliest of the numerous bad guys Captain Marvel would fight who would have two physically distinct identities. Meek George Tweedle rubbed a mysterious lotion on himself that caused his entire body to change before beginning his arson spree. He dies at the end of his first appearance, in CMA 2, but returns in the 70s.
Another meek and nondescript man, Stinky Printwhistle, gets endowed by Lucifer with the terror of Ivan the Terrible, the cunning of Borgia, the fierceness of Atilla and the cruelty of Caligula to become Ibac. Intended to be Captain Marvel’s equal, he gets defeated relatively easily in his first appearance, “The Curse of Ibac,” in CMA 8, just getting punched so hard he loses his powers, but from his second appearance on, he usually has to be tricked into saying his name to lose his powers. In his debut, as Ibac, he wore a green top with gold shorts, but from CMA 9 on as Ibac he would be shirtless, showing off his brawny, hairy chest.
Mr. Banjo also makes his first appearance in CMA 8, passing information to German agents through music. Not a particularly fearful foe.
Nippo debuts in CMA 9, a Japanese agent out to destroy America, and the vast racism inherent in the character can sort of be excused by the ongoing war.
Captain Marvel Adventures 22 begins a serial that runs past the end of this era, “The Monster Society of Evil.” An unseen alien, Mr. Mind, recruits Sivana, Captain Nazi, Ibac, Mr. Banjo and Nippo to work together to defeat Captain Marvel. The first few chapters of this serial are the best. Captain Marvel faces off against Captain Nazi in the first chapter, then Ibac, followed by Nippo and Sivana, before heading to Mr. Mind’s homeworld to confront him. Once there, he engages all sorts of monstrous beings, but none are Mr. Mind. Billy completely overlooks the little caterpillar wearing glasses until it is too late, and Mr. Mind heads to Earth, joining forces, if temporarily, with the Nazis and then the Japanese as part of his plans for world conquest. He has his own army of worms, and a battery of fantastic weapons, but the series devolves into Captain Marvel ruining one plan after another as Mr. Mind keeps escaping, the Monster Society itself forgotten despite being the title.
There is another linked story idea, though not a serial. Beginning with CMA 24, Billy starts a Tour of Cities, and every issue of the series from this point on contains a tale set in some specific locale, starting with Minneapolis. This one, and the Detroit story in 25, both contain excellent renderings of aerial views of the city. Local landmarks are used, though often only really in the first page or two of the story. Airports and football stadiums usually make the cut, as well as monuments and notable buildings. The Los Angeles story in 27 is the weakest, as it all takes place in a fictional film studio, but the giant swastika flag flying atop Coit Tower in the San Francisco story in CMA 28 is pretty powerful. Foreign agents are the villains in all the “city stories” in this era. With CMA 32’ s “Deep in the Heart of Dallas,” city officials, sports figures, reporters and such also start having cameos in the tales; again, usually just at the beginning, and it is rare for them to be central to the plot.
Captain Marvel continues in the Late Golden Age
Captain Marvel: Whiz Comics 2 – 56 (Feb 40 – July 44)
Captain Marvel Special Edition 1 (Dec 40)
Captain Marvel Adventures 1 – 37 (Spring 41 – July 44)
America’s Greatest Comics 1 – 8 (Fall 41 – July 43)
Steel Sterling is the name adopted by John Sterling after he covers himself with a chemical concoction and dives into a vat of molten steel. It does not change his appearance in any way, but gives him the “resistance, magnetism and strength of steel.” He did this to avenge his father’s murder by gangsters, though he never actually gets around to doing that.
His powers endow him with great speed, though exactly how is never explained. They also allow him to fly. He does this by rubbing his hair, which causes a magnetic attraction to phone wires. And that lets him fly. Yup. His most entertaining power is to send and receive short wave messages by rubbing his tongue on his teeth. The panels depicting this usually show him with his tongue sticking out and bolts of electricity shooting out of his mouth.
I have made the visuals sound awful, which is unfair. Irv Novick provides the art on the series, and though it is not that impressive at the start, over its run it becomes very bold and dynamic. It never looks like Novick’s later work, but it is certainly above par.
Steel spends his first five stories fighting the Black Knight, who always appears to die at the end. Guess the fifth death was real. By this point, he had gained a supporting cast: Dora Cummings, the daughter of a scientist and his romantic interest, Officer Clancy, an overweight cop, and Looney (Alec Ben Lunar) who is basically comic relief.
Zip Comics 9 – 13 are the best issues of the run. They deal with two criminals from a circus, Twisto, a rubber man, and Inferno, a fire eater who can breathe fire. Twisto is the dominant, and more malevolent of the two, while Inferno winds up changing sides, and even willingly goes to prison to pay his debt to society in issue 12, after helping Steel take down the Rattler, a murderous mob boss. Steel winds up in prison himself in issue 13, to uncover who is behind a series of escapes, and Inferno helps him find the corrupt guards allowing it to happen.
Amid this, Steel sheds his “secret identity.” He has been pretending that Steel Sterling is the brother (presumably identical twin) of John Sterling, and Dora never figures out this is a lie. As part of his plans against Twisto, he allows him to think he has succeeded in killing John. He reveals the truth to Dora, but leaves his John identity dead.
Steel and pals head to Hawaii for a story that would have been released shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, in issue 22. Of course it does not reflect these events, but does lead Steel to China in the next issue, facing off against the Japanese. After a trip to Alaska in issue 24, in which he does an impressive job repairing a cable car line by himself, and a journey to ancient Greece caused by touching a victory cup in issue 25, Zip Comics 26 features a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbour, putting Steel right in the middle of the action.
The series then becomes very World War 2 oriented. Looney becomes a lieutenant in the army, and Dora gets relegated to the sidelines. She makes only one final appearance, in Zip 29, complaining about how Steel is always busy fighting the Axis instead of taking her out on dates. Boo-hoo.
Steel fights Baron Gestapo, Der Hyena, the Werewolf of France the Creeper, and a host of other Nazi villains, while travelling to Czechoslovakia, France, Lisbon, North Africa and of course Germany.
The series shifts back to homegrown crimes with issue 39, and the last few issues see Steel pitted against Amazons, elves, living shadows and zombies.
Steel Sterling returns at some point, probably the Mighty Crusaders series in the 60s.
Steel Sterling: Zip Comics 1 – 47 (Feb 40 – Summer 44)
Jackpot Comics: 1 – 9 (Spring 41 – Spring 43)