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Black Pirate


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)

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Three Aces (Early Golden Age)


Three Aces is another of the series that improved hugely after the start of World War 2.  Up until then, it was merely the adventures of three friends, all of whom owned their own planes.  Once the war broke out, the strip changed gears and became a war series, which really suited the idea better.

Of the three men, Gunner Bill and Whistler Will usually play the hero roles, while Fog Fortune is there for comic relief.  Perhaps because of this, though we get some background on Gunner and Whistler, we never learn anything about Fog’s past.

Gunner was an orphan boy, apparently named only Bill.  The orphanage being so poor they couldn’t give kids last names?  At any rate, he joins the army and fights in World War 1, gaining the nickname Gunner.  Whistler is another orphan, from Arizona, found as a babe in the desert and taken in by a wealthy family, the Saunders.  He is raised with their daughter, Sally, and though she views him as a brother, it’s fairly clear that he sees her as something more.  Still, he does save the life of Perry Laverne, the man she marries.

For the first part of the run there are occasional mentions of their fighter pilot days in World War 1.  There is never any explanation of how they got the planes that they fly, though as they spend the first couple of years of the series seeking out buried treasure and gold mines, presumably they have a small horde of cash already.  Once the World War 2 stories begin, there is never any mention of them fighting in the previous war, probably to keep them from seeming too old.

The art on the series is pretty good for most of the run.  The stories in the early period are not bad, but typical of the adventure format.  They jump around a fair bit, now in Alaska, now in California, now in Africa, but that may not have been the fault of the writer so much as the publisher.  I noticed that in issue 30 they had just finished the adventure on Easter Island, but that took place in issue 28, with an African tale in 29, so clearly the stories were not all published in the order they were written.

The Easter Island story is one of the more entertaining, as they discover an ancient city under the island, and discover that the original islanders were giants who became fossilized after a comet passed close to the earth thousands of years ago, and the mysterious heads on the island are the actual heads of the giants who lived there.

They are in Tibet in issue 32, preventing a kidnapping of the new Dalai Lama, in a story that must have been very timely, as the current Dalai Lama would have been “found” at around the time the story was written.  In issues 38 and 39 they discover Atlantis, accessible through a cave on an island in the Azores.  They also find the survivors of the sunken city of Lemuria, living in a golden city on a mounaintop in California, in issue 45, and prevent them from destroying the world.

Issue 47 sees the big change.  Now they are part of the US airforce, operating off of the carrier USS Roosevelt.  The magic carpets, lost civilizations and Mongol treasures are shoved to the side as they face the Japanese fleet and airforce.  The heroes get shot down a fair bit, being taken prisoner by the Japanese a few times, though they always manage to escape.

Issue 54, “Fire Over Yumanafu Road,”  makes a point of teaching the reader about the Japanese Nakajima plane, and the Allied Wildcat fighter, as well as explaining a fair bit of the lingo pilots used.  “The Lieutenant from Corregidor,” in issue 60, does a similar thing, but with the “pidgin english” dialect of the Philippines.  Interestingly, the lieutenant they come to aid is a woman, Betty Allardyce, and though they are surprised by her gender, at no point is she made out to be any less of a competent officer because of it.

This part of the run does suffer a bit of the same jumping around.  They start in the Pacific, fighting the Japanese, but then jump to California, Algeria, Norway and Malta before heading back.  In the two stories set in north Africa, the arabs are shown as treacherous liars, eager to help the Germans.  There is never any acknowledgement that from the arab view the Germans were helping them overthrow their occupiers.  On the other hand, Pacific islanders are always shown eager to help the Allies against the Japanese invaders.

The series ends during the summer of 1943, and there is no other ending I can possibly put on this other than to have them shot down and killed.  They came close to it too many times.

Three Aces:  Action Comics 20 – 63  (Jan 40 – Aug 43)

Clip Carson, American Adventurer (Early Golden Age)


The entire mood and tone of the Clip Carson series changes in 1940, as Bob Kane is replaced by Sheldon Moldoff.  Clip looks more like a romantic action hero, less like a cartoon, and the stories become more realistic as well, at least by the standards of the time.  Moldoff holds the reins for much of 1940, and the artists who replace him are of lesser abilities, though George Papp`s art would carry much of the series final year at a reputable level.

The subtitle “Soldier of Fortune” is used periodically in Action Comics, but in More Fun when there is a subtitle, it tends to be “American Adventurer.”

The story picks up with Wolf Lupo disrupting the ivory trade.  Clip is captured by him and the native tribe he is working with, but uses his harmonica to call the tribe he had befriended last issue, and they rescue him.

The next story takes him to Algiers, and this is when Moldoff takes over the art.  The tale itself is mediocre, many of them would be, but at least it is lovely to look at.  After accompanying another trade caravan from Algiers, Clip sails across to South America, dealing with a very confusingly written onboard theft before reaching shore.  Once there, Clip aids the government forces in Verdania against the rebels.  This story runs from Action 23 – 25, and the most interesting element is that the rebels are being funded by an evil American oil man.  The last panel, which sees rebel leader Calero hung for his crimes, is very darkly coloured, almost in silhouette, likely to decrease the intensity of the visual.

Clip heads to New York City in issue 26, and from there to Canada to help Miss Trent find her missing father.  The man had discovered a mine in “Hudson Bay country,” but been captured by evil metis claim jumper Jacques Frontenac.

From here he heads to Hollywood, where Clip begins work as a consultant on a movie called “Adventure Pictures,” which really sounds like a lame title for a movie.  Nonetheless, everyone seems to think it will be a massive success.  There is a rival film crew that sets up in hidden locales to film the same action, hoping to release their version first, and a foreign film company trying to delay the shooting so they can release theirs first.  Amidst this, actors keep getting murdered on set.  Clip solves no less than four different crimes between issues 27 and 31, when he quits his job to head to Mexico and help out an old friend.

Professor Quint disappeared after finding an Incan temple.  This really would be quite a remarkable find in Mexico.  Clip saves the man, and then is called by another old friend being menaced in Colombia, after discovering a vein of “minelite,” so off Clip heads to Colombia.  Moldoff had left the series by this point, and the art is no longer good enough to carry the weak stories.

And the Colombia story is one of the weakest in the run.  It runs for three issues, and there is no surprise that neighbour Grasso is the one behind the threats – the dead body wearing a mask of Grasso’s face really only serves to make him more of a suspect, and Grasso turns out to be Mr. Z, as well as Mr. X, and even Agent X-11, a foreign spy.

The relative continuity of location ends at this point, and Clip’s further adventures jump from the Panama Canal to the Everglades, Alaska, Montana and Honduras before he heads back to South America, for stories in Buenos Aires and Montevideo.  With the exception of the Alaska story, all are one-shots, as Clip battles rebels and asian spies, rampaging seminoles, bank robbers, kidnappers and gamblers, but none of the stories have much spark to them.  The killer plants in More Fun 68 are the most interesting bit, but they are not particularly well-used in the tale, or even well-drawn.

During the Alaska story in More Fun 70 and 71, Clip works with yet another old friend, Bill Weston, who is identified both as a foreign correspondent, and a spy.  I find this of great significance, given the final Clip Carson adventure.

In More Fun 76 Clip is abruptly in China, almost single-handedly fighting off the Japanese invasion of a city.  He is now a foreign correspondent for an American newspaper.  Given that he has never had any experience reporting, that we have seen, I believe it is safe to say that this is another case where foreign correspondent means spy.

Clip is not seen again, and as his series ends in February of 1942, just after the attack on Pearl Harbour, I think his mission in China may have been less of a success than his last story would imply, and we can count Clip Carson among the Americans who died in China fighting the Japanese.

Clip Carson:  Action Comics 20 – 36 (Jan 40 – May 41)

More Fun Comics 68 – 76  (June 41 – Feb 42)

Tex Thompson / Mr. America / Americommando (Early Golden Age)


Tex Thomson‘s series continues, but more than any other series from this era, it will alter dramatically throughout the duration of it’s run.  In fact, the changes it goes through, coupled with Bailey’s ever-improving art, makes it one of the more enjoyable series to read.  If only it wasn’t for Gargantua T. Potts.

That being said, Gargantua makes his final appearance in Action Comics 25, spending some time with Tex and Bob Daley at Tex’s camp in Maine, Golden Gates.  They encounter a mysterious amnesiac, being pursued by gangsters.  For a few panels it looks like Gargantua will be the one to save the day, but again he is reduced to racist comic relief.

In Action 26 Gargantua is gone.  We learn that he has enlisted with the French army as a cook, and that he is of Senegalese descent (meant to explain why he did such a thing).  While I was glad to see the last of him, this story was cover-dated March of 1940, meaning Gargantua joined the French army just in time for the Nazi invasion of France.

Issue 26 also introduces Special Prosecutor Maloney, who swears Tex and Bob in as agents reporting directly to him, needing their skills to help fight a crime wave.  Tex infiltrates the main gang, discovering that their leader is the supposedly honourable Vander Wallace.  Tex winds up shooting and killing Vander Wallace as he gives a public address, the audience completely unaware of Wallace’s criminal ties.  One would expect this to have some major repercussions, but Maloney is content to keep Tex and Bob as his staff.

Issue 26 also introduces Miss X, a woman with knowledge of the mob, who sometimes seems to be working with them, but who will constantly act to protect or aid Tex.  She will return in issues 27, 29 and 30.  It seems fairly clear that she is meant to be the daughter of Maloney, who is introduced in Action 27 as Janice, though called Peggy in 29 and 30.  As Miss X, she sometimes has a hat on, and always a pair of sunglasses, but that’s it for disguise.  Tex mentions to Bob in issue 30 that he believes he knows who she is, and if she is in fact Maloney’s daughter, Tex certainly should be able to recognize her.  But as her plot thread gets simply abandoned, there is never a big reveal of her identity.  Neither Miss X nor Janice/Peggy Maloney appear again after issue 30.  Perhaps they went to join Gargantua in France.

Issues 27 and 28 also feature the return of the Gorrah, still seeking vengeance on Tex for his earlier defeats.  The Gorrah manages to get Tex under a hypnotic spell in issue 27, sending him out to kill.  Miss X shoots Tex to prevent him from becoming a murderer, and though it’s just a glancing wound, the shock breaks Tex out of the spell.

In issue 33 the series changes name to Mr. America.  Tex resigns from Maloney’s staff when he is given a special assignment by the war relief commission, to accompany a ship across the Atlantic, and prevent a plot to blow it up.  He fails at that, the ship gets sunk and Tex is believed dead.  Later, a black haired man wearing a red cape, white shirt and blue trousers, a domino mask and carrying a whip tracks down those behind the explosion and brings them to justice.  He calls himself Mr. America, but Bob almost immediately recognizes him as Tex.

Tex decides to maintain the Mr. America identity, for some reason feeling that it’s important that the world believe Tex Thomson to have died when the ship sunk.  In the first few months, we will see blond haired Tex hanging with Bob, before going into action as the black haired Mr. America.  It’s difficult to tell if he is meant to be wearing a wig or dyeing his hair, but as he simply stops ever appearing as a blond within a year, it becomes safe to assume it’s a dye job.

As Mr. America he uses what he calls a “yankee doodle feather” to announce his presence.  This is a feather coloured red, white and blue.  Tex will drop one of these in among the bad guys before he starts fighting them, and although it always has the effect of scaring the bad guys, one cannot help but think Tex would fare better with the element of surprise, particularly as they often have guns, and he just has a whip.

Tex’s main prey as Mr. America are spies and fifth columnists, and the series becomes far more military-oriented. The Gorrah makes one last appearance, in issue 38, working with Nazi agents, though he betrays them in the end, preferring to pursue his goal of vengeance over their plot against the army.  At first Gorrah believes Tex to have died, and is out to kill Bob, but he learns the truth, and the identity of Mr. America, just before perishing in the explosion intended for a educator’s convention.

I should also point out that Tex’s last name is consistently spelled Thomson in this era, though in later times it will always be spelled Thompson.  So in case you are thinking that I just made a spelling error in the title and tags, I didn’t, it was an active choice.

In Action 42, sad at being left behind so often, Bob Daley decides to take on a masked identity of his own.  He puts on long red underwear and a lampshade on his head, and armed with a broom and a squirt gun of ink, takes to the streets as Fat Man.  Tex has no idea of Fat Man’s indentity at first, he has been busy in his secret cabin/laboratory in the woods making his cape function as a flying carpet.

The following issue takes the series to its goofiest point.  Maloney makes his final appearance as giant monsters attack Centre City (the only time the city is identified).  Tex flies around on his cape and Fat Man hits people with brooms.  Tex talks all manner of crap about Fat Man to Bob, only later discovering the two are the same man.  The giants are revealed as robots (which is hardly less dangerous), and Tex takes out the bad guys after Bob is knocked unconscious, but leaves them so Fat Man will get the credit.

Action 44 has Bob learn that Tex knows his identity, and it is also the final appearance of the flying cape.  Tex uses it to escape from German agents who have been sabotaging factories, making it fly while it is still around his neck.  Although he does get away, I think it likely caused some major neck strain, probably why he retired it.

From issues 46 -49 Tex deals with the machinations of the Queen Bee, the first of many DC villains to use this name.  This Queen Bee has no powers, she is a heartless criminal mastermind, content to work with Nazi spies as they attempt to terrorize the public with giant robots, rob a Red Cross benefit, or attack the navy.  In Action 49 we meet her scientist father, and learn that it was a failed experiment with a machine that would eliminate worry that caused her to lose all sense of right and wrong.  The Queen Bee gets captured,  and her father manages to de-program her, ending her criminal career.

Issue 52 features Tex chasing down a Nazi who escaped from a Canadian prison camp and entered the US, but the billing is Mr. America and Fat Man as The Americommandos.  Bob only appears in a non-speaking cameo in this story.

In issue 53, the credits read The Americommando and Fat Man, as they head to Hollywood to deal with sabotage on the set of a war film, and discover the producer is working with the Nazis.  Tex is called the Americommando, but there is no apparent reason for the change of name.

With issue 54, the series truly does become Americommando.  Tex is secretly brought to FDR himself, and ordered to undergo extensive training to become the Americommando, proficient with all weaponry, able to pilot planes and tanks, and multilingual.  Bob is requested to stay behind and fight crime as Fat Man, and this is his final appearance, unless one considers The Golden Age miniseries from the mid-90s as canonical.

Tex travels to England, and is given the assignment to go undercover as Captain Otto Riker of the Gestapo, and sent behind enemy lines.

Tex only manages to succeed in the Riker disguise for issue 55, with 56 Hitler himself brings in the Japanese Dr. Ito, also called the Little One, to determine who the Americommando is, and Ito has little problem figuring out Riker is a fraud.  This prompts Tex to take on the identity of a French painter in issue 57, but he calls himself Jean Valjean, which Ito recognizes as the main character from Les Miserables, so that disguise fails as well.

One thing that makes it easier to figure out Tex’s identity is that he no longer wears the mask with the rest of his Mr. America costume.  In fact, that is about the only difference between Mr. America and the Americommando.  Despite all his weapons training, he still tends to rely on his fists and whip.

Ito pursues the Americommando in France again in issue 58, but then Tex starts travelling a bit more, heading to Italy, Greece and the Netherlands, uncovering Nazi plans, communicating defenses, and working with the undergrounds of the different countries.

Dr Ito returns in issue 62, as Tex blows up an oil storage facility in Romania.

Action 63 sees Tex’s greatest challenge, to steal plans that Hitler carries on himself at all times.  He succeeds by turning Hitler’s propaganda against him accepting a challenge to fight a Nazi champion in the ring.  Actual German heavyweight champion Max Schmelling appears in the story, although he is not the one to fight Tex.  This is sort of sad, part of the anti-Schmelling view the media played up during the war.  In fact, though he was drafted into the service, Schmelling was not a Nazi, and even risked his life to save two jewish children.  At any rate, Tex triumphs in the ring, and not only escapes the Nazis after the match, but punches Hitler in the face while stealing the plans.

Tex gets a new sidekick in issue 63 as well, a Greek prisoner of war, Poppy, who is his assistant during the match, provided by the Nazis.  Poppy joins Tex on his next mission, in Russia, but is not seen after that.  I expect he returned home and worked with the resistance until war`s end.

Tex heads east with issue 66, heading to Burma for a bit of an awkward story that contrasts how much better the Burmese were under British subjugation than under Japanese subjugation.  67 has a delightful tale as Tex races the Japanese to find Shanghai Rose, with her knowledge of Japanese troops movements.  It`s Tex who determines that Shanghai Rose is a parrot.

Tex is in China for the next couple of stories, and then breaks into a prisoner of war camp in Tokyo itself in issue 71.  Another attempt is made at having him impersonate a German officer, this time Captain Brand, at the German embassy in Tokyo, in issue 72.  This starts well, but Dr. Ito is brought to Tokyo in issue 73.  Ito recognizes Tex almost immediately, though Tex avoids capture by pre-setting a leaflet drop that he uses as an alibi.  Still, in issue 74 Ito gets proof that Brand is really the Americommando, as Tex was stupid enough to enter Brands room while still in his hero costume.

The series really does go out with a bang in Action 74.  Tex and Ito are both aboard a Japanese bombed heading for the Calirfornia coast.  Tex has been revealed as Brand, but escapes his captors and takes over the control of the plane.  Ito shoots Tex, but not before Tex manages to open the bomb bay doors, sending the bombs and Ito plunging down into the Pacific Ocean.  The series ends with the wounded Tex seeing the coast of the US come into view.

Although this is the final appearance of Tex Thompson in this era,he appears as a member of the All-Star Squadron in a couple of stories set during 1942.

Tex is shown in the Justice Society Returns miniseries to be back behind enemy lines as a German officer before the end of the war, which is backed up by the events in The Golden Age mini previously mentioned.  Although Golden Age is technically an Elseworlds, James Robinson considered it canonical during his run on Starman, and I tend to follow the train of thought that it is as well, meaning Tex makes his final appearance in it`s pages, captured and killed by the Ultra-Humanite.

There is one further Mr. America story, in Secret Origins in the late 80s.

Tex Thomson:  Action Comics 21 – 32 (Feb 40 – Jan 41)

Mr. America:  Action Comics 33 – 53 (Feb 41 – Oct 42)

Americommando:  Action Comics 54 – 74 (Nov 42 – July 44)

Zatara, Master Magician (Early Golden Age)


Zatara continues to fight crime in sartorial splendour throughout this period.  For a while, his stories carry the Guardineer art credit, though this is blatantly untrue.  At least three different artists work on Zatara in this era, none as skilled as Guardineer.  This really is a shame, because the stories are often quite good, but seem less so due to the poor art.

Zatara’s powers are largely confined to his backwards speaking spell-casting, though he is able to read minds in one story.  He uses his magic to render himself invisible frequently, but also sometimes takes on a “shadowy form,” and in a number of stories sends out his astral form while his body stays behind.  Oddly, the invisibility, shadowy form and astral form are all drawn exactly the same way, as a silhouette.

Zatara frequently brings inanimate objects to life.  Many times they will give him information about the criminal, but he will also have them attack the bad guys, and twice has them manifest in human-style bodies, once with a brick wall, and another time he creates a coat-hangar man.

Zatara will also use a kind of short form for complex spells, stating what all he wants to happen, and then proclaiming “Eb Os Ti!”, which certainly saves the reader the time of working out a long backwards spell.

Tong’s appearances become sporadic, with World’s Finest 5 being his final appearance. The Tigress returns in a handful of stories, often working with other thieves.  Zatara admits that he is reluctant to see her behind bars, but still sends her to prison on occasion.

In these stories, he is often shown performing, and participates in many USO tours and bond drives.

His appearance in the 1940 New York World’s Fair is one of his best tales.  Because many pickpockets are working the Fair, Zatara creates his own exhibit, the Magic Mansion.  His audience is treated to a magic show, a battle with the pickpockets, a journey to the apex of the Trylon, a hunt for stolen jewels, even a trip to Mars as part of the show.

In most of his stories Zatara is pitted against thieves, murderers, gamblers, and con men, but he does get a bit more of a challenge in some cases.  He faces a scientist with a tornado making machine in World’s Finest 2, some renegade Atlanteans in Action 47, a musician who puts people under his control in Action 49, a human magnet in World’s Finest 7, and faces off against a hood who duplicates Zatara’s backward spell-casting in Action 61.

In Action Comics 46 some children encourage Zatara to help out in Europe, and he crosses the ocean and takes on the Nazi army, even making it to Berlin and forcing Hitler to surrender.  One can only assume Hitler went back on his word immediately after Zatara left.

Action 69, “East Meets West” has a curious element of racism, as Zatara and other magicians deal with the practitioners of Eastern magic, which they consider black magic.  The story shows the western magicians as noble and heroic and the eastern ones as liars, thieves and murderers, and dismisses their skills as “black magic.”

Action Comics 65, “The Riddle of the Tired Thespians,” may be the first appearance of the Medusa Masks, employed later by the Psycho-Pirate.  A university professor is using the masks to drain his students of emotions.  The masks are not used the way Psycho-Pirate would use them, but the long row of emotion masks certainly appears identical.

Zatara continues in the Late Golden Age

Zatara:  Action Comics 20 – 74 (Jan 40 – July 44)

New York World’s Fair 1940

World’s Best Comics 1  (Spring 41)

World’s Finest Comics  2 – 14  (Summer 41 – Summer 44)

Chuck Dawson (Early Golden Age)


Chuck Dawson‘s final three adventures are disappointing, to say the least.  The first two could be viewed as being a connected story, in both of them he vows to hunt down and capture the “gang” behind some murders at the end of the tales, but the third does not resolve this at all.

In issue 20 Chuck stumbles across a dead body on a mountain trail, and is once again accused of being the killer.  He escapes capture, but never even tries to find out who the murderer really was.  In issue 21 he is still on a mountain trail, possibly the same one, and comes across a cabin with a metis apache and a boy he claims is his son.  In fact, the metis is a bad guy (what a surprise) and the boy, Jack, has been captured and held by him.  Chuck kills the man and rides off with the boy, promising to find the boys family, as well as the rest of the metis gang, but we see him do neither.

Instead, in his final outing, Chuck yet again comes across a dead body and is accused of the murder.  This time he actually tracks down and apprehends the killer, a hired gun working for the foreman of the Slash D Ranch, who killed the fiancee of Miss Parsons, the ranch’s owner, in hopes of marrying her and taking over the ranch.

I think poor hapless Chuck wound up sticking around after this case.  Miss Parsons was now desperately in need of a ranch foreman and a boyfriend.  I could have Chuck just continue wandering aimlessly, finding dead bodies left right and centre and always being accused of murder, but I would rather have him just settle down.

Chuck Dawson:  Action Comics 20 – 22  (Jan – Mar 40)

Superman (Early Golden Age)


Superman continued to be the most successful character in comics through this period.  His solo book quickly went from being a quarterly to a bi-monthly, and he would also get the lead slot in World’s Finest Comics, a follow-up to the New York World’s Fair specials, that would feature both Superman and Batman.

Every story is credited to Siegel and Shuster, but this is blatantly untrue.  Shuster stayed with the strip longer than he did on any of his other creations, but the sheer volume of Superman stories necessitated bringing on other artists.  Some were definitely of lesser ability, but by far these men did a much better job of keeping the look and feel of the series.  Wayne Boring would have the greatest influence, under his pen Superman’s crest would take on its “normal” shape, but Jack Burnley executed some beautiful stories as well.

Aside from occasional mentions of Krypton in the opening blurbs, nothing more is shown or mentioned about Superman’s background.  We learn in one story that he has no living relatives, but we have yet to learn anything about the Kents.  We do get to see Clark’s apartment in Metropolis a few times, though it has little distinguishing character.  The most notable thing we learn about Clark is that he has a massive clock collection.  This proves to be of significance in Action 73,” The Hobby Robbers,” but is never mentioned again.  The curious justification for his collection is that he is fascinated by clocks because time seems to stand still when he moves at super-speed.

Superman’s vision powers get a lot of play in this era, and expand from merely x-ray and telescopic vision to include microscopic as well.  In Action 69 we learn that his x-ray vision cannot see through lead.  He uses super-breath for the first time, and super-hypnosis gets almost over-used as a way to prevent Lois from discovering his identity. He is credited with having a photographic memory. Yet at the same time his invulnerability seems to decrease a bit, as he is frequently knocked out by electric guns and paralysis rays.  The reason for this is obvious, it builds suspense in the stories, and enables Superman to show his fortitude in overcoming the effects of the weapons and breaking free.

By the end of this period Superman is clearly flying, but there is no one issue that can be referenced as the moment that changed.  While the narrative will still talk about him leaping and jumping, we see him execute impressive aerial turns, and battle planes.  In 1941 the text simply stops describing his movements this way, though he will still hang on to the exteriors of buildings rather than hover.  In Superman 15 one of the villains exclaims “you can fly!” and from then on he clearly can.

Superman continues to deal with the bad guys harshly.  He throws one man into the path of a bullet intended for Lois, and tricks two saboteurs into drinking “deadly narcotics” that they plan to poison the reservoir with.  In numerous stories the villains are abandoned to die in plane crashes or burning buildings.

The resiliance of Superman’s costume gets addressed in Superman 5, as we learn it is made from a special cloth he invented himself.  In Superman 17 he constructs his “Citadel” in a remote mountain chain.  It has a massive and impressive doorway, an art deco gem with a large “S” crest prominently displayed, so there is no doubt about whose place this is.  But the Citadel rarely appears, and all we see of the interior is a small trophy room and an extensive work out space.

As the era begins, Clark is working for George Taylor at the Daily Star, but by 1941 he is at the Daily Planet under Perry White.  These changes were done to correspond to the popular Superman radio show, but are poorly executed in the comics.  In Action 22 the Daily Star sends Lois and Clark to the European country of Galonia after it is invaded by Toran, but in issue 23 they file their story on the invasion with the Daily Planet.  George Taylor’s appearance alters, as he becomes older, heavier and starts smoking a cigar.  In Superman 7, he abruptly changes names to Perry White, though visually this is clearly the same man.

Superman 5 introduces the publisher of the Planet, Burt Mason, and more staffers debut in the story “Freedom of the Press” in World’s Finest 13, as the Planet celebrates its 100th birthday (meaning it was founded in the spring of 1844.)  We meet Old Sanford, the news editor and Happy, the photographer.  We also learn that Perry White began as a newsboy for the Planet, and worked his way up.

Lois Lane remains the most important staffer, aside from Clark, and is even gets to take Perry’s place as editor in Superman 18.  She is still stuck writing her advice to the lovelorn column (though she foists that job on Clark during his stint in charge), while taking rash actions to pursue more serious stories.  Her curiosity lands her in jail more than once, and of course puts her in danger almost constantly.

In Superman 11 Lois first notices that Clark is never around when Superman is, and she wonders “is it possible that…?”  This goes on for about a year, until a story in Superman 17 in which Lois tries to prove Clark is really Superman.  She fails, of course, but will go on trying for decades.

She actually almost succeeds, though doesn’t realize it, in Action 61’s “The Man They Wouldn’t Believe,” as Lois pretends to fall for Craig Shaw in hopes of getting evidence that he is a criminal, even accepting an offer of marriage.  Clark fears losing her, and reveals that he is Superman, though Lois does not believe him.  All his attempts to prove it backfire – he gets shot, but the gun has blanks, he lifts a weight that turns out to be a prop. When Lois’ scheme gets revealed, he breathes a sigh of relief.  Strange relationship these two have.

Lois has an aunt, Berenice, who is a Hollywood screenwriter and marries prominent actor Lionel Brainerd in Superman 24, and she also has an unnamed sister, married to an unnamed husband.  They have a daughter, who has a name, Susie.  Susie debuts in Action 59, but gets developed in Action 68 as a teller of fibs, which Superman makes come true.

Jimmy Olsen is slowly and sporadically worked into the comic.  Again, this was a character from the radio series, retroactively combined with the unnamed office boy that appears in occasional issues.  In Superman 5 the boy has brown hair, but no name.  In issue 13 he is finally called Jimmy, and gets the surname Olsen in Superman 15.  He still does not look quite like he would, though a red haired, bow-tied elevator operator looking much like how he would eventually appear had a cameo in Action 38.  Jimmy gets the red hair and bowtie in Action 49, and a few months later, in World’s Finest 6, he and Clark become friends.

Jimmy’s appearances are largely confined to small, supporting roles, until Action 71’s “Valentine Villainy.”  This story is more comedic than anything else, as Jimmy’s valentine’s day present for a girl he has a crush on gets mixed up with Clark’s joke present for Lois, and a stolen diamond necklace.

The Daily Planet’s iconic globe debuts in this era, though for some reason it failed to capture the interest of the various artists, and is not ever shown clearly on in detail.  When we first see it, in Superman 11, it is from a distance, and it resembles Saturn, with its rings.  This is how it would also appear on the masthead of the paper itself.  But for the rest of this era, on the rare occasions we see the globe, it appears to be a simple sphere perched atop the building.  In Superman 25 we do see the Daily Planet lettering, though it does not seem to circle the globe, but appears attached to the roof of the building independently.

The rival newspaper The Morning Herald has a number of appearances.  It gets taken over by criminals at one point, and in a later issue its star reporter, Scoop Carter, is revealed to be the leader of a criminal gang.  Nonetheless, the paper itself is a legitimate contender with the Planet, as two work together, and with another journal, The Evening Standard, in Action 37 to combat a crime wave.

Metropolis Police Sergeant Casey is introduced in Superman 6, and would make frequent appearances until Superman 23.  He is a no-nonsense cop, who does not trust Superman for quite a while,  not until Superman has saved his life twice.  Casey gives Lois access to crime scenes in exchange for being mentioned in her articles, but he also gets exasperated with both Lois and Clark for constantly butting into investigations, and arrests both of them at different times.  In Superman 9, Casey is pursuing a car with hoods who have kidnapped Clark, when Lois drives right into the middle of the shoot out.  Clark is thrown from the car, Lois slams her vehicle into Casey’s car to stop him from running over Clark, and all three blame each other for letting the criminals escape.

The Ultra-Humanite returns for two more appearances at the start of this period.  He has actress Dolores Winters kidnapped, and has his brain exchanged with hers before starting another crime spree.  He/she also has nuclear scientist Terry Curtis captured, and forces him to develop a disintegration ray.  Superman frees Curtis and destroys the Ultra-Humanite’s base in an extinct volcano, believing him dead.  Though this was the last appearance of the Ultra-Humanite until the 1980s, his survival was revealed in the pages of All-Star Squadron, as well as the fate of Terry Curtis, who would be transformed into the villain Cyclotron.

Luthor debuts in Action Comics 23, with no first name but a healthy crop of red hair.  He would go through the entire period without getting a first name, but his hair would not last more than a year.  He is first seen as the manipulator behind Toran’s invasion of Galonia, hoping to set the world at war so that he can march in and take over after everyone has been weakened.  He operates out of a base on a platform high in the stratosphere, suspended from a dirigible.

He makes two more appearances the following month, both in the pages of Superman 4, threatening Metropolis with an earthquake machine, and then attempting to raise the sunken city of Pacifiq, stealing the oil from Oklahoma to power the machines to raise it, and flooding the California coast as the city rises.

In his fourth appearance, in Superman 10, Luthor is suddenly bald, with no explanation, having developed an invisibility ray that he uses to enable his gang to rob banks. Perhaps he tried out a prototype of the serum on his hair and it went invisible and never came back.

In Superman 12 he creates giant animals on Baracoda Island, intending to use them as weapons.  Luthor attempts to disguise himself in his next two stories, pretending to be an alien conqueror, Zytal, in Action 42, and going by The Light in Superman 13, as he kidnaps a senator.

This makes he suspect that he is really meant to be the villain in Superman 14.  A man wearing green robes and a hood, calling himself Lightning Master, appears in that story, blackmailing Metropolis with a destructive lightning weapon.  Lois unmasks him dramatically in one panel, and it is a bald man who looks like Luthor, but the text tells us she does not recognize him, and he dies at the end of the story.  It’s hard to believe that the big unmasking scene would have been there if we really weren’t to recognize the man under the mask.

As well, in his next appearance, the first part of the Powerstone story in Action 47, Luthor is wearing the same green robes that Lightning Master wore, though without the hood.  This is the best Luthor story of the era.  He creates a machine that uses electricity to give himself super-strength, and the ability to electrify things and electrocute people.  He tricks the wealthiest men in Metropolis, taking them hostage at a dinner party, and forces Superman to penetrate a trap-layered ancient underground city to retrieve the Powerstone for him.  Superman gets the stone, but turns a fake over to Luthor.  His electric powers having faded by this point, Superman captures Luthor.  But the story itself continues in Superman 17. Luthor is sentences to the electric chair, but that simply recharges him, and he escapes and manages to trick Superman out of the Powerstone.  This enables Luthor to grow to giant size, and also allows him to strip Superman of his powers.  Superman wins only by tricking Luthor in return, goading him into running across a ceiling, allowing Superman to grab the necklace with the Powerstone as it dangles down.

The Powerstone would also return in the pages of All-Star Squadron.

Luthor makes only one more appearance in this era, in Superman 18’s “The Heat Horror,” using a meteor as a base from which to torment Metropolis with a heat ray.

The Archer faces off with Superman in issue 13 of his comic.  This guy just had an ordinary bow and arrow, and was no match for Superman.  The only reason he merits a mention here is that he was used as a Batman villain in the 60s tv show, played by Art Carney.

The Puzzler has two encounters with Superman, his debut in Action 49, and a return in Superman 20.  A professorial looking man, with glasses and a van dyke beard, the Puzzler considers himself a master of games, and embarks on a criminal career using gaming strategy, leaving behind half a bent nail puzzle as his trademark.  His second story is the better of the two, as he seeks vengeance against card players that have bested him, killing them in appropriate ways (like budgeoning the poker player with a fireplace poker.)

World’s Finest 6 is the only appearance of Metalo, the golden age predecessor to the later major villain.  This Metalo is simply a man in a powerful metal suit, though for much of the tale people believe him to be an alien robot.

Action Comics 51 is the debut of the Prankster, a masterful con artist who resembles a vaudeville comedian, with his oversized collar and ugly green plaid jacket.  The Prankster pretends to rob banks, but in fact leaves money for them each time.  This is all a plan to have one banker open his vault, with millions in jewels and stocks inside.

His return in Action 57 sees him hoodwink other criminals, getting them to front him thousands of dollars that he uses to get himself pardoned, and by starting an “appreciation” business, gets him well-loved.  It’s all another scheme to allow him access to the wealthy, but after paying back his criminal investors, he robs them as well.

After a failed attempt to copyright the English language in Superman 22, and an elaborate blackmail scheme using rewards for lost pins in Action 69, the Prankster returns to his usual style of con job in Superman 29’s The Wizard of Wishes, making people’s dreams come true as a set-up for robbing them.

The Toyman makes his first two appearances in this era, debuting in Action 64, an aging toy maker with a mop of long curly blond hair, who has decided to use the toys he builds for crime.  In this first tale the toys prove to be bombs.  He uses a toy Superman to escape from prison in Superman 27, and opens a high-end arcade, using it to entertain the crowds while he robs them.  His hair changes to brown in this story, which it will remain.

The Puzzler, the Prankster and the Toyman are not given any other names in these stories, and even the last villain introduced in this era would not get his “full” name revealed yet.  Called only Wolfingham in his debut, and Wilbur Wolfingham in his return appearance, the self-proclaimed King of the Confidence Men had stories that were much more comedic than the other villains.  In his first tale he takes advantage of aging actors, getting their money for a phony film company, and in the second he plays an elaborate scam on a town devastated by a tornado, buying up their land cheaply, then fleecing them further by getting them to invest in a phony oil well.  Superman gets the townsfolk their land and money back, and makes the oil well really work.  The most curious thing is that despite attempting to murder Lois during the course of the story, Wolfingham is allowed to walk away with no repercussions.  Even Lois feels badly for him at the end.

The basis for what would become the “Imaginary Stories” is paid in this era, though by and large, not well.  Superman 19 has a tale in which Superman reveals his identity to Lois following a car crash, but this turns out to just be a dream.  Action 59 has Clark fall asleep while telling Susie the story of Cinderella, and dreaming himself into the story.  In issue 60, Lois gets hit by a car, and while undergoing surgery dreams that she gets a blood transfusion from Superman and gains powers, becoming Superwoman.  The last of these, in Superman 24’s “The Perils of Poor Lois,” is likely the best, if only because it doesn’t use the dream cop-out.  After watching a revival of an old melodrama, and getting their heads stuck in posters, Lois and Clark imagine being in a period melodrama.

There are a few stories that play with the medium of comic books.  The Funny Paper Crimes, in Superman 19, pits him against newspaper comic strips that have come to life.  This story would be re-told in a Superman-less post-Crisis reality in the pages of Al-Star Squadron in the 1980s.

Action Comics 55 has a wonderful story that deals with the comic strip L’il Abner (though he is called Tiny Rufe.)  Daily Planet cartoonist Al Hatt (Al Capp) heads out into the remote backwoods for inspiration, and comes across a hillbilly town, Tiny Rufe and his girlfriend Maisy Dae, and creates a comic strip based on their lives.  When Rufe and Maisy decide to get married, Hatt gets terrified that the comic will lose readership.  In reality, L’il Abner and Daisy Mae did not get married in the strip until 1952, but one can easily see the correlation here with the Superman-Lois Lane romance.

Superman 25 features one of the most “meta” of the stories.  A popular comic strip features the super-powered character Geezer.  Lois and Clark are assigned to do a story on the comic’s creator, and find a nerdy, overworked artist and writer, with a factory churning out Geezer stories.  Clark uses his powers to impersonate Geezer to get the artist to care again about his creation.

My favouite story from this period is by far the most “meta”, Superman 19’s “Superman, Matinee Idol.”  The story was published in conjunction with the release of the first Superman movie serial, a beautifully animated work that is still admired.  Lois and Clark attend the premiere, and Clark resorts to all manner of tricks to prevent Lois from seeing the parts of the movie that reveal his identity.  Even the art takes on a meta element, as the side of all the panels are black with little white rectangles running along the sides – resembling film stock.  The best moment has a mystified Clark wondering who Siegel and Shuster are, deciding that they must be clairvoyant to know so much about his life.

Superman continues in the Late Golden Age

Superman:  Action Comics 20 – 74  (Jan 40 – July 44)

Superman:  4 – 29  (Spring 40 – July-Aug 44)

New York World’s Fair 40

World’s Best Comics  1  (Spring 41)

World’s Finest Comics  2 – 14  (Summer 41 – Summer 44)

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