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Captain Marvel


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)

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Steel Sterling


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)

Rod Rian of the Sky Police


This series lasts only ten instalments, which means Rod Rian just has one, long, serialized adventure.  We get no real information on Rod, or on the Sky Police.

After a cargo ship carrying tellurium from the Moon is hijacked, Rod is sent to investigate, joining with Dilotor Andres of the Moon Squadron.  They promptly get captured and taken to the planet Mephistos, which is ruled by the tyrannical Mephis.  Rod makes allies with Taro, a prince of the blue skinned Unicor people, who fly around on giant birds, and rescues Karin, an Earth woman captured earlier by Mephis.

Rod and Taro are sent to the Island of the Living Dead as punishment.  Karin manages to follow them, and they find Andres there already.  They determine that the skeletal creatures on the island are normal people whose skin has become invisible after drinking the water on the island.

Rod, Taro and Andres fight wild boars and buffalo, a talking gorilla army and flying dragons as they escape from the island, make it to the city of the Unicors, and launch an attack on Mephis.

The final chapter has the best art of the run.  After defeating Mephis, Rod’s plane is shot down, and he winds up in an underwater realm of mermaids, alligator men and giant sea serpents.  He makes it back to the Unicor city and proudly announces Mephis’ defeat, and is rewarded by an embrace from Karin.

Since at no time does Rod seemed concerned about making it back to Earth, and the one time during the serial that we see events on Earth they are looking for a new source of tellurium, presumably having given up on Rod, I suspect he stays on the planet Mephistos, ruling the former kingdom of Mephis with Karin at his side.

 

Rod Rian: Flash Comics  2 – 11  (Feb – Nov 40)

The Spectre


The Spectre was the first dead hero.  When he was alive he was hard-edged cop Jim Corrigan, who shared a room in a boarding house with his partner in the force, Wayne Grant, while romancing wealthy socialite Clarice Winston, to the dismay of her parents.  Jim is trying to bring down mobster “Gat” Benson, and gets a tip from stoolie Louie Snipe that turns out to be a set-up.  Benson’s men capture Jim and Clarice, and put Jim in a barrel of cement, tossing him into the river.

Jim dies, but his soul is called by God (not named or shown, but the clouds and beam of light that accompany the all-powerful being kind of make it obvious).  Jim is to remain on Earth battling crime, and his astral, ghostly form emerges from the barrel and the river.  Jim saves Clarice and takes vengeance on his killers, turning one into a skeleton.

As the Spectre he is virtually omnipotent himself.  He can read minds, fly, turn invisible and intangible, grow to great heights or shrink.  He can travel through space, or to other realms, transform people into things (like ice, and then they melt).  He can inhabit inanimate objects, making the move and speak, and can even take on the form of other people.

But Jim is dead, and this stresses him out.  He moves out of the boarding house, and calls off his engagement to Clarice.  Wayne remains his partner on the force, though he appears less often as the series goes on, making his final appearance in More Fun 64.  Clarice refuses to give up on Jim, and keeps trying to patch things up, though her appearances are sporadic as well.

My favourite moment in his two-part origin story is the panel in which he sews his Spectre costume.  As the Spectre, he wears a white body stocking, covering him from head to toe, and a long dark green cloak with a hood, with matching gloves and boots, and shorts.  Aside from this one panel, it really does not seem like the Spectre wears a white thing under his cape.  He is a ghost after all, and it feels like his white body is simply his ghostly form.  At first, Jim turns into the Spectre, though in later stories the Spectre will emerge from him – sometimes both will happen over the course of the same tale.  But never again do we get to see him put a costume on.

The Spectre was created by Jerry Siegel and Bernard Bailey, and Bailey would stick with the series until it ended.  Siegel’s name continues popping up in the credits, and no other writer is ever credited, but not all stories are ascribed to him.

The Spectre’s stories take place in Cliffland, for the most part, though issue 61 refers to Centre City, and 82 to Gotham Town.  As Cliffland is mentioned before, between, and after these two stories, I believe those are both names of suburbs, or sections of the city.

The Spectre stories are at their most intense at the outset.  They have the feeling of a horror series, not a hero one, and the Spectre’s appearance is threatening.  He thinks nothing of killing bad guys, in horrific ways, and will fly them into space simply to scare them and make them reveal information.

In his first two years, the Spectre faces his most powerful foes.  Zor is a master magician who rivals the Spectre in power.  He faces the Spectre in issues 55 and 57 of More Fun, and their battles see them changing size, and paralyzing each other, temporarily.  The godly voice informs the Spectre of Zor’s vulnerability to ectobane, and the Spectre manages to imprison Zor in a coffin made of it.  Zor returns in the late 90s.

Xnon wears a costume almost identical to that of the Spectre, though in dark purple, and uses advanced alien science to steal an entire train, and create a giant image of the Spectre so that he will get the blame.  The Spectre cannot best Xnon, and the godly voice gives him the Ring of Life, which enables the Spectre to seal Xnon in a meteor.  I really enjoy Bailey’s art throughout the Spectre series, but the meteor is a very childish five pointed yellow star, and the worst illustration of the run.

The Ring of Life gives the Spectre the edge in what few battles he finds difficult.  The character was already so powerful, and this really would prove to be too much.  He uses it in More Fun 63, which came out a few months after All-Star 2, but I believe the order of the stories should be reversed, as the Spectre loses the Ring in All-Star, as he battles the three-eyed High Priest of Brztal, Kulak, who causes the “whispering death,” that drives people into murderous frenzies.  The Spectre does not sacrifice the Ring, he simply loses it as they chase each other through mystical dimensions and throw comets at each other.  Kulak, and the Ring of Life, return in All-Star Squadron in the 80s.

Bandar makes three appearances fighting the Spectre, though he only gets named in the last one, and it is not clear if that is his real name anyway.  He, like Xnon, wears a purple costume almost identical to the Spectre, and seems to be a force of pure evil, from some other dimension.  He debuts in More Fun 63, returns in 64 as a living shadow, and then in 70, leading the Crimson Circle Mystical Society, killing those who attempt to leave his cult.

Issue 73 is the last of the “classic” Spectre stories, as he deals with a mystical volcano that appears in the centre of Cliffland.  The final panel of that story introduces Percival Popp, the Super-Cop, and the Spectre series begins its decline.

At first, the only really bad thing about Percival Popp is his name.  He is an amateur detective who has become a fan of Jim Corrigan, and hides in the trunk of his car to meet him.  Jim wants nothing to do with the geeky, bespectacled man, but Popp does prove himself a competent detective.

In issue 75, the godly voice allows Jim to return to life, but retain his powers.  Jim being alive is never mentioned again, and makes little sense as far as retaining his powers goes, but the whole purpose is to allow him to reconcile with Clarice, so that she can more easily appear in the stories.

The look of the Spectre changes at this time as well.  Not a huge difference, the costume remains the same, but the cowl now has a bit of a peak to it, making his face clearer, and the cloak is usually over his shoulders and behind his back, instead of being draped around him, making the Spectre appear less ghostly, and more of a hero.  He still likes flying bad guys into space to scare them, but no longer kills them, and tends to simply beat them up.

As the series trudges forward, Percival becomes more and more important in the tales, and more and more incompetent as well.  In More Fun 90 Jim enlists in the army, and leaves the invisible ghostly form of the Spectre behind to hang out with Percival.  The Spectre is basically reduced to Percival Popp’s guardian angel.  These stories are not really bad, and Bailey’s art remains enjoyable, but the series has moved just so far away from the frightening and violent early days.

The Spectre makes his last appearance in More Fun 101.  He does not return until the 60s, in a JLA/JSA crossover.  Percival Popp makes a surprisingly good return in the Ostrander/Mandrake series in the 90, and Clarice returns in that book as well.

 

The Spectre:  More Fun  52 – 101  (Feb 40 – Jan/Feb 45)

All-Star Comics  1-2  (Summer – Fall 40)

The Comet


The Comet was created  by Jack Cole for MLJ Comics, and has the distinction of being the first superhero to get killed.  I may also add that he was the first superhero with a really garishly ugly costume.

John Dickering is a scientist who discovers a gas 50 times lighter than air, and decides that injecting himself with it is a good idea.  It enables him to jump great heights and distances, effectively flying, and also causes beams to emit from his eyes, making anything he stares at explode.  He wears a visor at all times to prevent destroying anything he looks at.  Curiously, the beams have no effect on plate glass.

He wears an outift that covers his entire body, except for his face.  It’s bright red all the way up to the arrow pointing at his face, but with black sleeves and shoulders, covered and yellow stars and crescent moons.

He is a fairly intense hero, who thinks nothing of using his eye beams to kill bad guys.  This works against him, as he gets captured and hypnotized by Zadar in Pep Comics 3, who sends him out to commit thefts and murders.  The Comet kills Zadar at the end of the story, but is wanted for the murders he committed while under hypnosis.  Through the rest of his series the police are chasing him, and even though he gets credited with catching bad guys and stopping foreign agents, his name never gets cleared.

In Pep Comics 5 he meets reporter Thelma Gordon.  She writes for the Daily Journal, or is it the Daily Star? (Pep 9). No, it’s the Daily Blast (issue 11).  Sorry, the Daily Blare (12).  No, I was right before, the Daily Blast (Pep 15).

Thelma believes his story about the hypnosis, and encourages John to modify his gas injections, so that he can pass as a normal person.  We see him out of costume for the first time in Pep Comics 6, though he has to wear special glasses to negate his eye beams.

The stories themselves are nothing special, and the art seems to get worse with each issue.  It is clear that Jack Cole only did the first story, and there is a wonderful use of the roof of a house as a panel border in the first story.

Although the Comet was the first superhero to die, this does not technically occur in his own series, which ends in Pep Comics 16.  Pep 17  begins the Hangman series, and the Comet’s death occurs in that, so will be discussed in my entry on that character.

The Comet (a different incarnation) returns as part of DC’s Impact line in the early 90s.

 

The Comet:  Pep Comics 1 – 16  (Jan 40 – June 41)

The Shield


MLJ’s hero The Shield was the first supehero to dress in an American flag, predating Captain America by over a year.  He was FBI man Joe Higgins, and his identity was known only to J. Edgar Hoover, who appears in many of the stories, sending him on his missions.  The artist who created the character was Irv Novick, though there is nothing about the art that resembles his later work.  A variety of artists would work on the series, which ran in Pep Comics, as well as Shield-Wizard, which he shared with the other hero, but the only one to shine on it was Jack Kirby, and even then only his earliest issues reflect his talent.

At the beginning, the Shield’s powers are ill-defined, but part of the costume.  This changed in the first issue of Shield-Wizard, in which we learn that Joe’s father was a scientist killed by foreign agents to prevent him from developing his Shield serum.  This boosted the powers of the Sacrum, Heart, Innervation, Eyes, Lungs and Derma.  Joe’s costume resembled the badge-style of American shield, with red and white stripes running vertically down the torso, and a blue band with horizontal stars along the upper chest.  A blue mask and tights complete his outfit.

It would take a while for the Shield to get a supporting cast.  His girlfriend Betty was the first recurring character.  She would eventually become a private investigator, in Shield-Wizard 4, but not much was ever done with her, and of course she never figured out Joe was the Shield.

JuJu Watson became his sidekick in the extended origin story in Shield-Wizard 1, joining the FBI at the same time, and becoming buddies, though again unaware of his identity.  JuJu appeared older than Joe, and definitely not as intelligent.  He would also get a girlfriend, Mamie, in Shield-Wizard 3.

At the beginning, the Shield fought mostly foreign spies of fictional countries.  The Wizard appears in Pep Comics 4, a story that falls between the Shield’s two appearances in his series in Top-Notch.  The Wizard just gives the Shield some information on the Mosconians, setting up the story in which they both battle them.

The Shield gets two recurring villains in these early days, both foreign agents, Dr. Wang and the Vulture.   The Vulture has unexplained green skin and pointy ears.  It may be a mask or make-up, but no one ever questions it.

In Pep Comics 11 the Shield adopts an orphan boy, Dusty, and trains and costumes him as his sidekick, Dusty.  Neither Betty, JuJu nor Mamie ever figure out that Dusty is really Dusty.  Sigh.

With Pep Comics 27, and Shield-Wizard 7, Jack Kirby takes control of the art, and the series just takes off.  OK, well, it doesn’t get amazing, but it ceases to become a chore to read.  Kirby’s art improves with each issue at first, and it is fascinating to see him develop his style.  The Shield and Dusty are pitted against wonderfully grotesque German agents, The Strangler and The Hun.  The Hun even gets an entire story in Shield-Wizard 8 on his origin, which parallels that of the Shield.  Amidst this, the Shield’s powers simply wear off in Pep Comics 29, and he cannot get them back.  He bemoans this for a number of issues, but does not let it stop him.  This makes the stories in which he battles, defeats and kills the Hun more effective, as the Hun is actually more powerful than the Shield.

The Hun story was clearly popular enough that the Son of the Hun (not called that, but I couldn’t resist) appears in Shield-Wizard 10.

By Pep Comics 30 the supporting cast aside from Dusty was basically dropped.  Even J. Edgar Hoover had stopped appearing.  But after the first few power packed Kirby issues, the stories turned back to crime tales, lots of haunted houses that turn out to be hoodlum hideouts.

As the series continues to the end of this era, there are some stories that clearly are not Kirby, but many that look sort of like him, but also not.  I am not sure if this is Novick back on the series and trying to duplicate Kirby, or some of his rushed work before he went off into the army, or if the work itself is part Kirby, part someone else.

The Shield continues in the Late Golden Age.

 

 

 

The Shield:  Pep Comics 1 – 49  (Jan 40 – July 44)

Shield-Wizard  1 – 13  (Summer 40 – Spring 44)

The Whip


The Whip was an interesting adaptation of Zorro, set in the present day.  In the series, a hundred years ago in the town of Seguro in an unidentified state in the southwestern US, Don Fernando Suarez would don a mask and ride his horse out to defend the poor against exploitation, calling him El Castigo, the Whip.  In the two-part introduction to the series, New York playboy Rodney Gaynor is driving across the US with his servant, Wing Tai.  Hitting a crossroads, he flips a coin, which makes him head to Seguro.

The town is basically ruled by the Ranchers Association, who have the sheriff in their pocket.  Local worker Carlos has been framed for a crime, and is imprisoned, but likely to be lynched, although he was set up by the ranchers.  Marisa Dillon is a crusading reporter for The Seguro Journal, run by her father, and convinced of Carlos’ innocence.  Rod purchases the old Suarez estate, and dresses up as The Whip to bust Carlos out of prison, exposing the sheriff’s corruption.  As The Whip Rod wears a flamboyant latino outfit and mask, and adopts an embarrassing accent (“eef you weel horry over to the police headquarters, Mees Deellon, you weel get a wonderful story.”)

Rod sticks around afterwards, romancing Marisa, who of course is more interested in the Whip.  She suspects Rod briefly, but he does a fairly good job of covering his tracks at first.  This becomes more preposterous as the series continues, as both Rod and The Whip ride the same black horse, King.

Carlos comes to work for Rod, though both he and Wing Tai are only sporadically seen through the course of the series.

For the first year, this strip is fairly remarkable in consistently portraying the latinos as oppressed, manipulated and exploited by the whites.  The Ranchers Association has their stranglehold over the town broken, and Rod also goes after corrupt police, judges and newspapers in the region.  Not every white person is a bad guy, but all the bad guys are white.

This all begins to change after issue 14.  In that story, Marisa decides to travel the state to find interesting stories, and stumbles upon some claim jumpers, who capture her and abandon her out in the desert.  This is not resolved until issue 18.  The stories between these two no longer have a southwestern feel to them, they are simply city based crime stories, with white victims and villains.  There is also the awkward question of Padre Demo.

The Padre debuts in Flash Comics 3, and makes his only return in the story in issue 15.  In this tale, a cleaning lady sees a tax collector stealing from his safe, and tells the padre.  He goes to Rod Gaynor and tells him, so the Whip catches the tax collector.  The implication that the padre knows Rod is the Whip is made explicit at the end, and Padre Demo promises to keep Rod’s secret.

Which makes the opening of issue 16 all the stranger.  Wing Tai and Carlos are re-introduced at the start of this story, neither having appeared in months.  Wing Tai is called Rod’s valet, and Carlos given the curious job description of being Rod’s “other “man””.  That looks weird, but the quotation marks around the word man appear in the comic.  Homosexual inferences aside, after this intro they are referred to as the only two people who know Rod is the Whip.  What about Padre Demo?  More disturbing is the fact that Demo never appears again.  I think Rod did not trust the good padre to keep his mouth shut.

After issue 18 picks up and resolves the Marisa in the desert plot (did I make it clear that between issues 14 and 18 Marisa was not lost in the desert?), the series makes a big change, as Rod and Marisa head to New York City.  A very abrupt move, makes you wonder why it was so sudden.  A dead padre in  a shallow grave perhaps?

From this point on the series becomes more like other non-powered hero strips, with Rod and his friends stumbling across, or being victims of crimes, which the Whip solves.  Marisa never clues in to the two men being the same.  She continues to work as a reporter, but probably is not a very good one.  Aside from never figuring out that Rod is the Whip, she is said to be working at the Daily Star in issue 30, but is writing for the Evening Bulletin in issue 39, and then the Evening Sentinel in issue 46.

The only really great moment from this part of the run is in Flash Comics 25, when Marisa gets captured by stock swindlers and is thrown off the roof of an office building.  The Whip makes his horse jump from rooftop to rooftop, while he lassos and saves Marisa.

The social consciousness that marked the first year of the series is long gone.  In issue 53 Rod and Marisa help two homeless men, who take advantage of this, plotting to rob them and other wealthy people at a society function.

It takes a while for World War 2 to influence the stories.  Issue 32 has a tale about a Japanese-American who refused to work with Nazi spies, getting shot because of this.  Wing Tai, being Chinese, has no sympathy for the wounded man, but Rod does not jump to the conclusion that because he is of Japanese descent he must be a spy, and gets him medical help,  as well as catching his attacker.

Issues 45 – 52 are pretty much all World War 2 stories, with foreign spies everywhere, not just sabotaging ships and munitions plants, but also working out of beauty parlours (issue 46), and, my favourite, a salmon canning factory in issue 52.  Oh, those dastardly nazi salmon canners.

The Whip does head out west again in issue 49, and in the final story of his run in Flash Comics, issue 55, he is back on his estate in Seguro, dealing with the murder of a wagon train driver.  Wing Tai is with him, but there is no sign of Marisa.

Although his series was over, The Whip would make two more appearances in the Late Golden Age.

 

The Whip:  Flash Comics 1 – 55  (Jan 40 – July 44)

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