Bruce Nelson is an adventurer and amateur sleuth, and a former pilot, likely with the American army. Although his series would run from Detective Comics #1 on, it would be quite a long time before his strip actually took on his name. His earliest stories, both serial and one-shot, simply were given the name of the story. Oddly, in an era where series expanded in page count over time, Bruce Nelson’s would do the opposite, decreasing in length as it went on.
His first serial, Claws of the Dragon, runs from issues 1 – 8, with the first chapter written by DC’s owner and publisher, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. And the first chapter is by far the weakest, a very long, dull tale that has Bruce Nelson go to a chinese restaraunt, where no one will serve him. A German father and daughter, Erick and Sigrid Von Holtzendoff, then enter and are menacingly catered to, and then all three are captured and hooded and taken away.
Nelson notices that he and Von Holtzendorff are wearing matching rings, but it is clear they do not know each other – though by the end of the serial we will learn they in fact did know each other in Peking at the end of the Boxer Rebellion, when both had rings fashioned from broken pieces of the Red Jade Dragon.
To me the most notable part of this opening chapter is Bruce thinking that a chinese restaurant is out of place in the business district of San Francisco. How times have changed!
As the serial progresses, the three are bundled off into a car and driven out of the city, where Bruce is left by the side of the road. He considers himself “an amateur sleuth”, and keeps seeing the image of Sigrid before his eyes (though as the artist changed from the second instalment on, his vision of Sigrid actually looks nothing at all like the woman he encountered in the restaurant, but whatever.) He believes them to have been taken to a house on Long Island, and while searching for it, a car passes carrying one of the waiters. There is a brief car chase, which ends when Bruce’s tires get sliced by broken glass the “waiter” has tossed from his car. Nonetheless, Bruce is now hot on the trail and finds the house.
Once he manages to get through the walled and gated entry, he runs into an American gangster, Joe Stucchi, and discovers they are in the midst of a Tong war between Imperial and Republican Chinese, both of whom want the remnants of the Red Jade Dragon. Bruce searches the house and sees quite a few murders before finding Sigrid, but as they try to find her father, they fall into the hands of Lu Gong, a descendant of the Mongol kings of China, and the one behind the kidnappings.
Stucchi undergoes a grisly rat torture, something which likely would not have been allowed to be shown once the Comics Code was introduced, but there is also a panel of a man smoking opium, a definite no-no in the Code days.
Sigrid is threatened with dismemberment if her father and Bruce refuse to reveal the whereabouts of the Dragon. Bruce somehow manages to elude his captors, pulls out a gun and begins a shootout, as the Republican chinese also attack. Amidst the bloodshed, Bruce, Erick and Sigrid escape the house, with most of the remnants of the Dragon.
His next serial Blood of the Lotus, would run only two issues, but each instalment ran 12 pages, a remarkable length for the time. In this story he has a devoted chinese servant, Sing Lee, a former soldier in the Chinese army, and a nifty device to spy on people coming to the door of his apartment, concealed in a large urn. Neither Sing Lee or the spying device would ever appear again.
After a one issue story, and another two-parter, Bruce Nelson’s series would settle into three part stories, with occasional one shots, but as I mentioned earlier, decreasing in page count. His final adventure, in issue 36, would be only 6 pages. He also spends much of his time in high society for the remainder of his run, not the metier of his earlier tales.
I am bending my rules slightly with this series, and going past my December 39 cut off date, as his final three parter runs till January of 1940, and then concludes with a one issue story in February of that year.
With issue 17, Bruce finally gets mentioned in the title of the story, Bruce Nelson and the Coolie Smugglers. Despite the racist title, this is one of his better stories, as he heads to South Africa on a vacation, but gets framed as a human smuggler and murderer. In attempting to clear his name he winds up crashing his plane, catching jungle fever and being attacked by a giant python. The art on this is also excellent (in fact, overall the art on his series was very strong). The African countryside looks genuine, and beautiful, and this particular story has a lot of aerial action, all of which looks thrilling.
Issue 20 begins a serial, Bruce Nelson and the Song of Death, a Broadway backstage murder mystery, in which he recruits a socialite, Billie Bryson, to take over a “cursed” role in a musical comedy while he searches for the killer. Billie would make brief appearances in two other serials, as his girlfriend, but sadly not help him on any more cases.
The one shot story in issue 23, Gamblers Waterloo, informs us that Bruce graduated from Princely University, and played football when he was a student.
There is a decent three-parter running from issues 27 – 29 about an apparent voodoo murder in New Orleans, which he stumbles across while attending Mardi Gras, but on the whole his series was in decline, and though by this point it was simply named “Bruce Nelson”, these are not really the tales he would have wanted his name on.
Bruce returns to Africa in issues 33 – 35, this time to the Congo for some big game hunting, but instead finding an American girl who has been captured and drugged by a tribe, keeping her as their “white goddess.” Despite the fact that other Africans help him free the girl from the tribe, the racism in this story does not sit well.
Bruce Nelson’s final adventure has him solving a murder at a ski lodge, and then it seems he goes into quiet retirement.
Bruce Nelson: Detective Comics 1 – 36 (Mar 37 – Feb 40)