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Archive for October, 2011

Bret Lawton

Bret Lawton is an “ace international detective” who appears only in the first two issues of Detective Comics.  He is hanging out in a bar in Cristobal, Panama, when he receives a letter from an old friend, Tim Morgan, currently running a mine in Peru, who needs help solving a series of murders that have occurred.

Bret heads to Peru, and spends 10 days at the mine, during which more men get killed, and Bret does little other than determine that the dead men had unusual puncture marks on their necks, and that they all died in the vicinity of an abandoned mine.  Somehow Tim never noticed either of those things.  Bret also notes that a large emerald is found near one of the bodies, indicating that the murders were done for some motive other than theft.

He heads into the jungle with an Inca guide who explains that the Inca are no more, they were killed off or work in the mines, but he and the guide are promptly captured by a group of Inca, and their priest has them tied to stakes.  After explaining that the men were poisoned out of vengeance, for stealing the Inca’s land and gold, he has Bret and the guide buried up to their necks in sand, near anthills.

Bret then tells the guide not to worry, he poured some cyanide that he happened to be carrying in his belt around the area they were buried in, so the ants won’t cross it.  He apparently did this with his hands tied behind his back, in front of the Inca, with no one noticing.

Then his friend shows up to save them, although his friend’s name is now suddenly Tom Bradley.

Then they capture the Inca priest, who turns out to be an American gangster, Spider Malone.

What?  It was established that the murders were not done to get the gold, or emeralds, so why would an American gangster be killing white men to avenge the theft of Incan land?  How did the Inca not know that the “old priest” was not one of them?

And then, the light dawned, and this all made sense.

It begins to go nutty after Bret and the guide are buried in the sand.  So I believe from that point on the story is in fact a hallucination Bret has, while his head is being eaten by ants.  That explains the nonsense of the cyanide being poured around them – his fantasy of how he could have survived.  Pain makes him remember his friend’s name wrong, and the bizarre twist of the American gangster is his brain in death throws as ants burrow deep inside of it.

It also tidily explains why Bret Lawton’s series ended so soon, and why we never heard of him again.

Bret Lawton:  Detective Comics 1 – 2  (Mar – Apr 37)

Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise

Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise is the first of a number of DC detectives who specialized in disguises, but used them far less than his successors would.  I find it odd that in over one third of his tales, Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise does not bother using them.  In reality, his character seems to be largely drawn from Sherlock Holmes (also known for disguises), and he even smokes a pipe of the style that we associate with Holmes.

Cosmo is given no other name, indeed it is unclear whether Cosmo is a first or last name.  In many cases he is contacted by the police for assistance, sometimes by Inspector Grey, the closest Cosmo would come to having a supporting character.  But he is also called up by the narcotics bureau, the coast guard, the fire department, captains of ships, pilots of airplanes, Scotland Yard, and even the US government.  In many cases, he is contacted directly by someone who feels their life is in danger.

All of his stories are self-contained mysteries, frequently dealing with murders, though not exclusively.  He is based in New York City, but is widely travelled, and stories are set as far afield as Texas, England, South Africa, Venezuela and India.  He is shown to have a chauffer, Dawson, in one early story, but we never see him again.  In two stories we encounter Cosmo’s old friend, Professor Deane, an archaeologist and museum curator.

Cosmo himself barely appears in his debut tale, which pits him against a villainous disguise artist, Taro, but from then on is unquestionably the star of the series.  Cosmo often uses disguises to allow him to infiltrate criminal organizations, or gain access to locations that allow him to solve the crime, but also impersonates people in danger, and sometimes even people who are already dead, to get the killer to reveal themself.

When not using disguises, Cosmo is shown to be an extremely observant, intelligent and resourceful detective, and well capable of handling himself in a fight.

My favourite stories include issue 22, which involves a jewel thief and fake police in league with the thief who kidnap a jeweller.  Cosmo is in disguise as a farmer near their hide-out, and for a rarity we do not see him get into this disguise ahead of time, so the revelation of his identity comes as a surprise to the reader as well as to the bad guys.

In issue 25 he uses a bear skin rug to frighten gangsters who have kidnapped a child, first using the paws of the bear to leave tracks in the snow around their cabin, and then actually wearing the rug as a “disguise” to attack them.

Issue 27 I must talk about not because the story is good, but really because it’s so embarrassing.  Cosmo goes undercover as a chinese man in his investigation of a human smuggling operation, and learns to speak chinese to do so.  The supposedly chinese letters that he speaks look nothing like actual chinese characters, just weird scribbles, and when talking to other chinese he says things like “you know chinatown velly well, fliend?  Me want find good place live.”  I’m surprised they just did’t shoot him right away.

In issue 29 he is pitted against the Avenger, a mad scientist who has developed a weapon that causes a bell tower to collapse, a ship to sink, a dam to burst, and airplanes to fall from the sky.  Cosmo tracks down the scientist, and claims to be an “electric meter inspector” when he approaches him, but does not disguise himself for that, which turns out to be a bad move, as Cosmo is famous enough that the crazed Professor Salvini recognizes him immediately, and almost kills him.  In fact, if it were not for a stray bullet causing Salvini’s weapon to explode and kill him, Cosmo would have certainly fallen victim to the Avenger.

Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise continues into the Early Golden Age

Cosmo:  Detective Comics 1 – 20  (Mar 37 – Sep 38),  22 – 34  (Nov 38 – Dec 39)

Speed Saunders

Speed Saunders held the lead feature in Detective Comics for much of it’s first three years.  He begins as an investigator for the harbour police (also referred to as the river patrol).  Though there would be little personal information given about Speed, we do learn that his first name is really Cyril.  His stories were all self-contained, usually 6 page murder mysteries.  Over time they developed a format in which Speed would explain the solution in the last panel or two, frequently citing evidence or information that the reader had not been privy to until that moment.

In his first case, dead bodies are found floating in the harbour, and the coroner intriguingly describes them as “real oriental chinamen”.  Not fake oriental chinamen.  Or real african chinamen.  Speed investigates a boat that stays moored in the harbour without ever coming to port, and stumbles across a ring that smuggles these men into the US, tossing sick ones into the bay.  Among the many reasons these men deserve to get caught, I would rank stupidity fairly high on the list.

Speed’s cases, while enjoyable enough, tend to be fairly straightforward murder investigations, and for the most part I am only going to discuss the tales in which we learn something about the character, or the story itself has something I find noteworthy.  And now that I am moving past the slough of serials, that will be true for the bulk of my write-ups.

Speed almost gets fired in issue 4, after he deserts his job to fly to the island of San Jose, near Cuba, to investigate the death of an old friend.  Notably, he flies the biplane himself.

Issue 5 sees an ape brought from Borneo escape from the zoo, and fall into the hands of an unnamed scientist who transfers the brain of an unidentified person into the ape’s body.  Both ape and scientist perish at the end.  This story is almost very good, but a great example of how not naming or given background to your characters leaves a decent story flat.

In issue 10, an otherwise run of the mill mystery, we see that Speed lives in a house with his mother.

Issue 11 has a very good tale.  The (apparently entire) US fleet is in New York City’s harbour for a festival, and Germans plot to blow up a submarine at the harbour’s entrance to trap the fleet.  Speed spots the sub from the air, and sky dives in a bulky old divers suit to reach it.  He defeats the Germans, who curiously are identified as anarchists, not nazis.

He has an adventure in Texas in issue 12, aiding natives against an oil company illegally tapping their pipeline.  Far from the coast, this story is explained by having Speed drive across the country after helping out in a case in Calfornia, and stumbling across it, but it really sort of marks the end of his harbour police days.  In the following story he pursues a fugitive in the city, and no mention is made of the harbour police at all.  We do meet an unnamed blond nephew of Speed in that one, though.

With issue 14 Speed has become a private investigator, and accompanies Doris Dane and her nephew Dick to Hondoku Island, searching for her missing brother Malcolm.  The story has a sequel in the following issue, as the Danes and Speed sail back to America, and Doris’s pearls get stolen.  The end of the story states that there is more to come with the pearls, and it feels like the series is about to become a serial, but instead a new artist comes on board and the series changes direction slightly, as Speed comes back to the police force, now as a detective on the murder squad.

As well, from issues 16 – 22 Speed wears a remarkably hideous green plaid suit on his cases.  He is now shown living in an apartment on his own, so we can presume he has finally moved out of home and started buying his own clothes for the first time in his life, and just has no sartorial taste.

There is a decent murder tale in issue 21, with a poisoned author, Philippa Rowan.  Speed determines that she was not killed by the poisoned drink in the table in front of her, but rather by prussic acid in her cigarette.

They story in issue 27 is laughably easy for Speed to solve.  He gets caught up in a series of murders by the Kurdish Red Crescent killers, and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that the mysterious woman wearing red crescent earrings, a red crescent necklace, and carrying a handkerchief with a red crescent monogram is probably behind it.

More unintentional humour is found in issue 30, when an antiques collector is found dead with a crossbow bolt in his forehead.  The drawing of the man sitting in his chair with a big bolt sticking out of his head just looks far too goofy.

Speed gets a real villain, of sorts, in issue 32.  Skull Face wears a cloak and a skull mask, and poisons bathing beauties after forcing them to give their money to charity.  Why exactly he wants to do this in not clear.

Speed heads to Canada in issue 33, helping the mounties catch a man who murders fur trappers and steals their pelts.  Trees, rock, moose, canoes, mounties, this hits almost all the Canadian stereotypes, though no one speaks french.

Issue 34, the last story of this era, has the army request Speed’s help after sabotage to their weapons.  We learn in this tale that Speed was “one of the best pilots in France,” which would seem to imply that he is old enough to have fought in World War I.

Speed Saunders continues in the Early Golden Age

Speed Saunders:  Detective Comics 1 (Mar 37), 3 – 34  (May 37 – Dec 39)

Monastery of the Blue God

This serial was written by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the founder and owner of DC Comics.  It ends mid-storyline, I suspect due to the fact that he had little faith in the company, stole much it’s money and ran off (just months before the debut of Superman).  It`s not bad, about on par with many of the other serials of the day.

Set just as World War I ends, Captain Stewart attends a party in Paris where he falls for the Baroness Elsa Von Saxenberg, a lady-in-waiting for the Queen of Sweden.  She owns a huge sapphire, which she received from her archeologist father, who disappeared in Mongolia.  Stewart does not want to marry her, then head back to certain unemployment in the US, or force her to live the life of an army wife, but after she shows him a note from her father, revealing the location of a huge amount of these sapphires, Stewart gets himself re-assigned to military intelligence and posted to China, to find the gems.

Elsa comes with him, as does his best friend and army buddy, Miller.  They also recruit Corporal Drednoff, an American of Russian descent, to act as their translator.  Shady Count Kraft Von Bolander has had his eye on Elsa`s sapphire for a while, and steals the note, though Stewart forces him to give it back.  He teams with Russian spy Piotr Slotny to attempt to find the sapphires first, kill Stewart and his men, and steal Elsa away.

In China, Stewart and his men evade chinese spies and hire cars to drive the thousand miles to Barston Well, deep in the Gobi Desert, the location of the jewels.  Von Bolander and Slotny are one step ahead of them, and get the corrupt Governor of Kalgan on their side.  The Governor sends out men to kill Stewart, but he turns the tables and captures them instead.

Setting out from Kalgan, they send Drednoff ahead by train, but Von Bolander has men set a bomb on the tracks, and others who go to attack Stewart`s camp.  The attack on the camp fails, but the train does explode, though Drednoff survives.

And that`s where the story gets cut off.  If Wheeler-Nicholson had not run out on his company we would know what happened next.  And he would have become the wealthy and famous publisher of Superman.


Monastery of the Blue God:  New Adventure Comics  14 – 25  (Mar 37 – Apr 38)

Detective Sergeant Carey

This series begins as Detective Sergeant Carey of the Chinatown Squad, and almost the entire sporadic run in New Adventure Comics would consist of a serial that sends him and his partner, Sleepy, to China to find and rescue a kidnapped heiress.  The first few chapters do take place in some city’s Chinatown (the city is never specified, but appears to be on the east coast).

After a number of people go missing in an empty boarding house on the Lane of a Thousand Bleeding Dragons, Carey and Sleepy are sent to investigate.  The house has a secret passage, through which chinese operatives of Sin Fu emerge to kidnap people – and they grab Carey and Sleepy.  While prisoners, they spot Lola Manners, the missing girl, who frees them, but in trying to escape the underground chambers they run right into Sin Fu and his men.  A squad of police siege the house, and Sin Fu escapes, with Lola.  Carey and Sleepy are sent to China to retrieve her.

There seems to be a missing chapter at this point.  The instalment in issue 23 has then being sent to China, but in issue 24 they are already there, with Chinese government operative Lee Fun, whose house has been set on fire after they have all been attacked by Sin Fu’s men.  After a brief sea battle with Sin Fu’s men, the Chinese Army get involved as well. Sleepy literally falls into Sin Fu’s cave hide-out, and after they rescue Lola the army destroy the base, capturing Sin Fu.

The last instalment in New Adventure Comics has Carey and Sleepy sailing back to the US, when they get a message from the San Francisco police that there are drugs being smuggled on the ship.  Carey has little trouble finding the doctor who is behind this, using a seemingly dead patient as his mule.

The series then moves over to More Fun Comics, as they fly back to their unnamed home city, and catch a fugitive murderer on the airplane.

No sooner are they home than they are sent on vacation, heading to the “north woods” where they discover the cabin they rented is being used by counterfeiters.  This story is clearly meant to continue into the next chapter, but instead the series amends its title to Detective Sergeant Carey, and he is back in the city, solving a murder at a museum.

For the duration of this era, his stories would be all self-contained, mostly running four pages.  There are two that are only two pages long, but these end with no resolution, and it seems they were written as four pagers, but only the first two were published.  Very strange.

The stories and art are decent, but few are memorable.  A murderous movie theatre usher, a murdered painter who was painting over a stolen masterpiece, a phony ghost, a political assassination aboard a royal yacht.  All are tied up quickly and easily by Carey.

In the last story of the period, Carey investigates a case in which jurors who sent a men to the electric chair are being killed.  Though the rest of the force believe the man has come back from the dead to seek vengeance, Carey discovers it’s the man’s father who is the culprit.

Detective Sergeant Carey continues in the Early Golden Age

Detective Sergeant Carey:  New Adventure Comics  14 – 17 (Mar – July 37),  19 – 20  (Sep – Oct 37),  23 – 24  (Jan – Feb 38),  26 – 28  (May – July 38)

More Fun  35 – 50  (Sep 38 – Dec 39)

Jungle Fever

Jungle Fever is a story about Red Riley and Curley Horn, two adventurous ex-marines, unsure of a future filled with peril and misery.  It says so in the very first panel.  And that’s a fairly accurate statement as to what the short-lived serial (4 instalments) is about. Having only four chapters might make you think not much happens, but oh, how wrong you would be.

Curley (whose hair is curly) and Red (whose hair is not red) take jobs on a plantation owned by someone named Holloway, on an island called only “tropical island.”  They are taking a ship from China, but before they do Malay Mike tries to kill them to prevent them from getting there.  They avoid death and capture him, and board the ship, Red commenting that “smugglers and murderers don’t interest me any.”

On the ship they get pushed overboard by two other men trying to stop them from reaching the plantation, and though they get rescued by a second ship, the crew on that boat promptly mutinies, believing there to be a fortune in pearls aboard.  Whether there is or not, Red and Curley battle and defeat the mutineers, and are brought to “tropical island.”

A man called only “Boss” orders Hernandez to spy on them, while Red and Curley have a hard time finding anyone who will lead them to the plantation.  Finally a Dr. Norton agrees to take them, but as they set off they come across Boris Zaranoff, a sadistic overseer whipping a black man.  They stop Boris, and untie the black man who says (be prepared to shiver) “me like to be slave to white man.”

The four set out through the jungle, though Zaranoff sends his men to machine gun them.  They only succeed at causing a rockslide that kills them.

But our heroes fare no better, as they stumble into the Guani tribe, cannibals who descend upon them as the serial ends.

After the slave line, I am glad this was cut short.

Jungle Fever:  New Adventure  14 – 16  (Mar – June 37)

More Fun  22  (July 37)

Mark Marson of the Interplanetary Police

Mark Marston of the Interplanetary Police is a science-fiction serial, but really only on the surface.  They wear “futuristic” costumes, and there is some vague high-tech, but really the entire series could be presented as present day, or even historical, from what actually happens.  It was never more than two pages long for the duration of the run, which likely was no help in breaking free of the standard format.

Mark and his partner, Sergeant Monty Montague, are assigned to look into the disappearance of Professor Hillary, designer of a sun ray cannon.  They are fairly certain the Red People, from the Red Planet (Mars?) are behind his abduction, and indeed they are.  His daughter Gail joins the police on their investigation, which takes them to the tower where the Red People and their king, Sarno, hang out while on Earth.  Though called a tower, it really seems much more like an extensive castle, complete with a laboratory, dungeon, throne room and traps.

The three get captured by Sarno, who gets his scientists to transform Gail into a Red person, though before this happens Mark and Monty escape their captors and send the poisonous gas that was meant to kill them, back on the Red people, who flee.  Gail tries to find her way out of the lab, accidentally setting off the base’s self-destruct.  They manage to find her father and escape just before it explodes.

This serial runs in More Fun from issues 15 – 26.  As a reward, Mark and Monty are sent to Blue Bay, and Gail tags along, having fallen in love with Mark.

No sooner have they arrived than Lord Greystone is murdered by a mysterious cloaked and floating man, using cobra venom as his weapon.  Gail runs into him with her “giro” (flying car), and the police follow the blood trail back to what seems to be a combination zoo/laboratory.  They have two suspects, the attendant of the reptile house, and a chemist, both of whom have some slight evidence against them, but not really much in the way of motive.  The series ends with Mark and Monty unsure of what to do next.

And so I guess the case got filed as unsolved, and they were fired from the Interplanetary Police for incompetence.


Mark Marson:  More Fun 15 – 31  (Nov 36 – May 38)

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