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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)

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Batman (Early Golden Age)


Batman would acquire most of the trappings we now take for granted during this period.  Not the least is the first use of Gotham City, in Detective 53. The Batcave, Bat-Signal, even the word Batmobile all have their debuts in this era, along with many of the familiar Bat-villains, and, of course “the sensational character find of 1940” – Robin.

Batman would graduate into his own book, the second comic book character to do so, in early 1940, and then gain a spot in World’s Finest Comics in 1941.  Bringing more artists onto the series was a necessity, and two would arguably add as much to the feel of the series as Bob Kane did.  Jerry Robinson gave a more realistic feel to the characters, though perversely was also the one to create the Joker.  Dick Sprang went in the opposite direction, in a way, stylizing things even further, introducing the giant props that would become in a hallmark of the strip in later periods.

Batman’s origin is re-told, virtually just reprinted, in Batman 1, but aside from this never mentioned or referred to again.  His arsenal expands, mostly things that he can carry in his utility belt- an acetylene torch, gas pellets, smoke pellets and such, though he would also use a “Bat-poon” in Batman 23, a rope with two spiked metal spheres on the end.  His car is first called the Batmobile in Detective 48, and takes on its classic appearance a couple of months later in Batman 5, a big dark 1940s roadster with a large wing on the roof and rear, and a bat-mask on the front.  In some stories it would also have two red racing stripes along its sides.  The Bat-Signal debuts in Detective 60, and quickly becomes a standard feature.

The first of  Batman`s special uniforms appears in World`s Finest 7, `The North Pole Crimes,`completely white suits that he and Robin use to blend into the background.

The Batcave was slow to develop.  In Detective 47 we get to see a tunnel that leads from Bruce Wayne`s home to an abandoned barn, which he uses to store his car and plane.  The trophy room is first seen in `Brothers in Crime,`in Batman 12, but in this story it is located in the house itself.  The trophy room has souveniers of cases, but lacks the giant penny and robotic dinosaur that would become so iconic – even though the story the robot dinosaur comes from, `The Isle that Time Forgot`, took place in Batman 10.  In Batman 16 his lab is located in a brick-walled room under the house, and the tunnel to the barn comes from this room.  Only with Detective 83, in 1944, would the phrase Batcave debut, and now it was indeed a cave under the house, which has sections for the lab, gym, trophy room and storage of the Batmobile and Batplane.

Commissioner Gordon appeared infrequently at first, he is barely in any of the stories in 1940, but this was the period when the police were still chasing Batman.  That changed in Batman 7, `The People Vs. Batman,`which sees Gordon give a long speech defending him and explaining why Batman is needed, culminating in appointing him an honourary member of the Gotham police department.  Gordon appears more often after this, though we learn nothing about him, except, apparently, that he is somewhat vain.  In `The Loneliest Man in the World,`in Batman 15, we see that the Commissioner has a giant painting of himself behind his desk.

Bruce`s finacee Julie Madison makes only three more appearances, two in stories that feature the villain Clayface.  Her acting career takes off after filming Death Castle in Detective 40, and in Detective 49 the studio changes her name to Portia Storme, and she heads off to Hollywood, calling off the engagement.  Julie Madison would not return until the Bronze Age.

Robin is introduced in Detective Comics 38, a young boy who performs with his parents John and Mary Grayson as trapeze artists with Halys Circus.  The parents are murdered while doing their act, as the circus owner refused to pay protection money to Boss Zucco.  Bruce takes the boy in, trains him and has him vow to fight crime, and then outfits him with a bright red, green and gold costume and gives him the name Robin, after Robin Hood.  Dick takes to the life eagerly, after taking a photo of Zucco killing one of his own men, sending the mob boss to prison.  Robin`s main weapon in this era is a slingshot, and often he is pitted against much larger foes, lending a David vs Goliath element to his fights.

Robin would get his own series in the Late Golden Age, but even in this period he had a number of stories where he got the lead role.  The first of these is in Detective 41, only three months after he first appears, as he is sent undercover to a boys school that has a counterfeiting ring operating out of it.  He does much the same thing in Batman 5`s `Crime School for Boys.` A mixed-up report card gets him grounded in Batman 18`s `Robin Studies His Lessons,`, and Dick takes on a job to earn money for a birthday present for Bruce in `Dick Grayson, Telegraph Boy,`in Batman 22, but his most important story is Batman 20`s `Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson.` Dick`s Uncle George, and his wife Aunt Clara, arrive and take Bruce to court for custody of the boy.  They win, but turn out to have no interest in him, and offer to sell him back to Bruce.  Infuriated, Bruce dons his Batman gear to expose the charlatans, and regains custody of Dick at story`s end.

Batman 5 introduces socialite Linda Page, an old friend of Bruce`s who has become a nurse.  They strike up a relationship, even though Linda is more smitten with Batman than with Bruce.  We learn that her family is from Texas, where they own a number of oil wells, in Batman 6`s `The Iron Jungle.`  Linda appears in ten stories between 1941 and 43, but never manages to make much of an impression.  Her final appearance is in a Catwoman story, `Your Face is Your Fortune,`in which she suspects Bruce is more interested in the former criminal than in her.  Bruce is actually playing both women, and gets caught at it.  It seems clear that Linda does not forgive Bruce for his games, as we never see or hear from her again.

You can guess who debuts in Batman 16`s `Here Comes Alfred.` A former actor and wanna-be detective, Alfred Beagle is short, fat and balding, with no real desire to be a butler, but his father served Bruce`s father, and Alfred comes over from England to fulfill his dying father`s last wish of having his son work as a servant.  An odd last request, I tend to think it had more to do with getting Alfred out of blitzkrieg’ed England than of wanting him to be a butler.  Neither Bruce nor Dick is keen to have him around, but Alfred proves his worth, rescuing both of them in his first story, as well as literally stumbling on the entrance to the Batcave.  Alfred never lets them know he discovered their identities by accident, preferring to make them think his detective skills allowed him to deduce it.  Alfred is largely played for comic relief at first, though he does get to track down the bad guys in World’s Finest 12’s “Alfred Gets His Man.”  Detective 83’s “Accidentally on Purpose” sees Alfred head off to a spa, and by the end of the story he has lost all his excess weight, gained about a foot in height, and his balding pattern has changed as well.  The tall, skinny Alfred who saves the day at the end of this story is the one we recognize today.  His importance increases dramatically after this story.  In Detective 86’s “Danger Strikes Three”, he, Batman and Robin each operate solo for part of the story.  All get captured, and work together to escape and capture the criminals, and Alfred is put on equal par with the other two heroes.  He impersonates Batman in “The Duped Domesitcs,” in Batman 22, in an attempt to impress the maid Belinda, not realizing she is really Catwoman.  Bruce is in the story, but allows Alfred to stay in Batman costume, and its Alfred who captures Catwoman and turns her over to the police, after apparently spanking her.

Hugo Strange appears in three more stories in this era.  He has a fog machine and concentrated lightning weapon in Detective 36, creates giant monster men in Batman 1, and develops a fear gas in Detective 46.  The story in Batman 1 is notable for Batman machine-gunning a truckload of monster men from his Batplane, then snagging another around the neck with a noose, strangling him to death as he hangs from the plane.  Hugo Strange appears to die in this last tale, but would return in the Bronze Age

The Joker makes two appearances in Batman 1, murdering people and leaving a huge smile on their faces as he robs their jewelry.  In the second of the stories he gets stabbed, and was meant to die, but the final panel was altered to have him survive.  The editors knew they were onto a good thing.

But perhaps they milked it too much.  In the four years between Batman 1 and the end of this period the Joker appears in 20 different stories.  This means there was a Joker story about every two months.  It is hardly surprising that the quality of these tales would suffer.  In Batman 8’s “The Cross Country Crimes,” the Joker’s murder spree takes him to New Jersey, Ohio, Kansas and Delaware, and he leaves behind his Joker playing card at the site of each crime, with the states name on it.  The New is scratched off of the New Jersaey card, and the D from the Delaware card, and Batman realizes the Joker is spelling his name, and that the next crime will occur in Rhode Island.  A number of later Joker tales would use this name spelling gimmick, but Batman never twigs on before the fourth letter.  In “The Joker Walks the Last Mile,” in Detective 64, he is executed, but revived by his men.  From this point the Joker is far less likely to commit murders, his crimes taking on more of a joke element, as he uses classic pranks, puns, or upside down clues, and such as the motifs for his crimes.  He does, however, get his classic looking hideout with Batman 11, with playing card symbols scattered around the room, a Joker carpet and large smiley mask over his throne.  The only other notable Joker story in this era is ‘The Joker’s Double” in Detective 86, in which a different person dresses as the Joker to commit murders and decoy the police from his actual motive.  Batman suspects that the Joker is not the actual killer, but when confronted by both Jokers cannot tell which is the real one.  The Joker’s protestations of innocence in this case, while true, are of no help to him, and both men are taken to jail.

Catwoman also debuted in Batman 1, though she was known just as the Cat for her first two stories.  In Batman 1 she is in disguise as an elderly woman until the last page, only then do we discover the mysterious jewel thief is a beautiful young woman.  Batman allows her to escape, and even stops Robin from following her.  She returns in Batman 2, competing with the Joker to rob a precious case of jewels.  She and the Joker only share one page in the story, but she offers the jewel case to him if he will spare Robin’s life.  Batman bursts in before the Joker can decide, and once again the Cat escapes.

In Batman 3 she is called Catwoman, and wears his first costume, a brown cat-head mask and a tawny dress.  She would switch to a black cat-head mask and matching dress for her next appearance, “The Princess of Plunder,” in Batman 10.  In this story she is socialite Marguerite Tone, who hosts scavenger hunt parties as a cover for her men to commit robberies.  I had mentioned Batman 15’s “You Face is Your Fortune,” when discussing Linda Page.  Here, Catwoman is working in a salon under the name Elva Barr, while making masks of women while giving them facials, then using the masks to impersonate them and commit crimes.  She meets and falls for Bruce Wayne in the story, and they begin seeing each other.  Catwoman disguises herself as Linda to see if Bruce is seriously interested in her, but Bruce’s lies to cover his Batman identity backfire on him, and she returns to her life of crime.  Her last story in this era was also already mentioned, Batman 22’s “The Duped Domestics,” in which she adopts the name Belinda and works as a maid to gain access to wealthy peoples homes and rob them.

The original Clayface, actor Basil Karlo, makes a great first appearance in Detective 40, a film-set based whodunnit as the actors in the movie Death Castle are killed off according to their deaths in the movie.  He returns for revenge in Detective 49, in a more prosaic tale.  Basil Karlo would not appear again until 1980, by which point there were already two other Clayfaces that had appeared.

The Three Devils appear in Detective 50, former circus acrobats who turned to crime.  I mention them only because Azrael would deal with an updated version of the Three Devils in his series, far in the future, but I will reach it one day!

The Scarecrow debuts in World’s Finest 3, a great story that sees poor, reclusive bookish Professor Johnathan Crane turn to crime so he can afford to collect rare books.  The scene where he pulls out a gun in class and fires it near the students so they will experience fear is such a great moment. It’s a shame that his second story, “The Scarecrow Returns,” in Detective 73, is all about rhyming words and run of the mill thefts.  The Scarecrow would not appear again until the late 1960s.

The Penguin gets his nickname from Robin in Detective 58, as he and Bruce visit an art gallery and see a short, overweight man with an elongated nose, wearing a tuxedo and carrying an umbrella.  The thief overhears the comment, and adopts the name himself.  The umbrellas are his main gimmick in this era, and they can contain blades, guns, sleeping gas or spikes that shoot out.  He uses them to conceal stolen art, a radio, or a mirror.  He glides to freedom using them, and even has a helicopter one, though Batman prevents him from escaping using that one.  The Penguin’s best stories have him playing con jobs, and my favourite is his second appearance, “King of the Jungle,” in Detective 59, as he turns in wanted men to collect the rewards, then frees them from prison and splits the money with them.  He sets up his first nightclub/casino in Florida, in Batman 11’s “Four Birds of a Feather,” and runs a bird store in Detective 67’s “Crime’s Early Bird.” Altogether the Penguin appeared in seven stories in this era, a distant second to the Joker, but enough that the umbrella gimmicks would get a bit stale.

Two-Face appears in three stories that form a nice, completed saga in this period, in Detectives 66, 68 and 80.  He is District Attorney Harvey Kent (the last name later changed to avoid confusion with Superman, apparently, though anyone dumb enough to confuse Superman and Two-Face likely shouldn’t be reading comics), prosecuting mobster “Boss” Maroni, who throws acid into his face while on the witness stand (not the best possible defense). With half his face horribly scarred, Harvey steals Maroni’s two-headed coin and scars one side of it, and takes to wearing a suit split down the centre into two patterns. Based on the flip of the coin, Two-Face either commits crimes, or acts philanthropically.  His robberies are based on the number two, robbing a double feature, a baseball doubel-header, a symphony’s double concerto, or kidnapping a rich man’s double.  His wife Gilda hopes for Harvey to turn himself and in follows him around, getting shot for her efforts in the third story.  This shocks Harvey enough that he allows Batman to take him in, and he undergoes plastic surgery, which returns his face to normal.  A surprisingly upbeat ending for the character, but he was too popular to get a happy ending, and Two-Face would return in the 1950s.

Tweedledee and Tweedledum were cousins who looked so much alike people thought they were twins.  Short, fat and bald, Deever and Dumfree Tweed do dress as their Alice in Wonderland namesakes in their first story, in Detective 74, to rob a costume ball, but their second tale, “The Secret of Hunter’s Inn,” in Batman 18 is much better, as they build a duplicate of a resort, and control the road access to lure wealthy guests and rob them.  When the victims try to bring the police to the resort, they wind up at the real one, which has no record of the guests ever arriving.

The Crime Doctor appears in Detective 78, and the following month in Batman 18.  Matthew Thorne is a respected surgeon lured by the excitement of a criminal life.  He wears surgical garb and travels in an ambulance, helping out other thieves with “house calls,” then charging them for his help.  He attempts to maintain a code of ethics, stopping to operate on Robin when he gets shot, but gets killed by his own men for failing to back them up.  An interesting character, an “Earth-One” version would appear in the Bronze Age.

The Cavalier was the last notable villain to debut in this era, and a serious effort was put in to make him a worthy opponent for Batman.  In Detective 81 he leads his gang in a series of seemingly pointless robberies, intending to ultimately acquire a collection of sports miniatures.  His primary weapon is his electrified sword, though he also uses a lace handkerchief with a lead ball attached, and has a metal spiked plume in his hat feather.  In Batman 22 we learn that he is Mortimer Drake, a wealthy Gothamite, member of the same social club as Bruce Wayne, which allows for delightful scenes with the two of them, neither aware of the others identity.  Drake has no need of money, his thefts are of miniature collectibles.  In his third outing, “Laboratory Loot,” in Detective 89, his ego has prompted him to write an entry on the Cavalier for the club’s Who’s Who, and knowing that the Cavalier must be a club member, Batman quickly spots some acid stains on Drake’s hands, which match injuries the Cavalier sustained in attempting to rob a scientist, and exposes him.  The Cavalier escapes yet again, but now he cannot return to his home or former life.

When not facing his ever-increasing gallery of villains, Batman usually is dealing with mobsters or solving whodunnits.  World War 2 is ignored almost completely.  There are only three stories that touch on it, and the memorable cover of Batman 15 that has a smiling Robin feeding bullets into a machine gun that Batman is firing.  The first of these, “Swastika Over the White House,” is the best, as a German spy gets a job as a newsreel cameraman.  In his secret nazi meeting room they have a big swastika chandelier, and you cannot help but notice how non-threatening a swastika is when you cover it with little light bulbs and suspend it from the ceiling.  Batman 15’s “The Two Futures” shows a nazi occupied USA, and contrasts it with an allied victory.  Batman 19’s “Atlantis Goes to War,” has the Germans using Atlantis a secret base for the submarines until Batman and Robin convince the Atlanteans to aid the allies instead.

Three stories are billed as “Police Division” stories, and have Batman and Robin aiding different, umm, police divisions (ok, you craft that sentence better).  “The Good Samaritan Cops” in Batman 18 deals with an emergency squad that drive green trucks.  I have no doubt this squad existed in the 40s, but it does not seem anything special now – and why did they drive green trucks?  “The Lawmen on the Sea,” in Batman 20 is a decent story about the harbour patrol, but the genuine information on the division is overwhelmed by the very science-fictiony “sub-sea water lock” the villains use to conceal their underwater hideout.  I was very impressed with Batman 23’s “The Pelt Plunderers,” which deals with the RCMP.  As well as being accurate with geography and the use of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the story features a seaplane refitted to land on ice, and an old “aerocar,” a kind of hovercraft on skis.  I have seen one of these old vehicles, and the illustration of it is completely accurate.

Another type of story common to this era is what I call the “Grand Hotel” story.  These will have a number of different characters, all with their own plots and concerns, usually only one of them a criminal one.  Batman is the central character in these tales, but the reader gets far more involved in the smaller stories being tied together.  The first of these is `Destination Unknown,`a train-based tale in Batman 13.  `Prescription for Happiness,`in Batman 13 centres it on a drugstore, but the best of this type is “Destiny`s Auction,” in Detective 79.  A young aspiring starlet, an aging actor and thief each consult a fortune teller at the start of the story, and get readings that seem to be positive, but in fact turn out badly.  Each has a an identical trunk, which gets taken by the police for one reason or another.  The story then jumps forward a couple of years.  The trunks are being auctioned off, and though each buys one, none get their own trunk.  After all is said and done the performers make a hit on Broadway, and the bad guys go to jail, once again fulfilling the fortunes told at the start of the story, but in yet a third way.

A couple of the stories from this period would be re-written and re-used over the years, both as Batman stories, and with other heroes.  Detective 61’s “The Three Racketeers,” has three criminals sitting around playing cards as they discuss their recent crimes, all of which were foiled by Batman.  At the end of the story we see that all three are sharing a prison cell.  “The Case Batman Failed to Solve,” in Batman 14, has Batman and a number of other “famous” detectives invited to a dinner where their host is murdered.  It is easy to see that one of the detectives is based on Charlie Chan, and another on Sherlock Holmes, but if the other two are meant to be detectives from this era they are not ones I am familiar with.  Batman discovers that the killer was the victim himself, who was dying anyway and wanted his death to be a great unsolved mystery.  Batman pretends to have not been able to solve the case, to give the man his wish.

Batman continues in the Late Golden Age

Batman:  Detective Comics 35 – 89 (Jan 40 – July 44)

Batman 1 – 23  (Spring 40 – June/July 44)

New York World’s Fair 1940

World’s Best Comics 1  (Spring 1941)

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

Slam Bradley (Early Golden Age)


Slam Bradley‘s adventures continue through this era, and by the end of 1942, Slam and Shorty are formally running a detective agency.  Despite his many appearances, we learn nothing more about Slam in this era, though we do see that he and Shorty share a home as well as a business, and a bed.

1940 opens with a bang as Slam and Shorty join the French Foreign Legion to bring a killer back to face justice.  Their next case takes them to Shanghai, then far into mainland China, and after that Slam inherits a racehorse, and deals with the machinations of gamblers as he takes the horse all the way to the Kentucky Derby.

These and other stories from the period are reliably written by Jerry Siegel, if a tad on the going-through-the-motions level, but the art is not on par.  The narration in issue 39 informs us that Slam “bounces gracefully off an awning,” but the accompanying illustration looks farcically awkward.

The only story during the remainder of Siegel’s run (he left the series with issue 54) that shows any of his voice is issue 48, in which the workers who want to unionize are the good guys, and the mine owners are corrupt and exploitive.

Slam appears in the 1940 New York World’s Fair, the first of his stories to be drawn by Howard Sherman.  Slam and Shorty are riding the parachute drop, when Slam spies some flashing lights on a boat in the harbour.  So once again the story takes them out of the park right away.  At least they return at the end to ride the rollercoaster.

Howard Sherman’s unusual art works adequately on Slam Bradley, but really does nothing to add to it, and the 20 or so issues he drew are reliable, but lack spark.  The New York World’s Fair story shows his wonderfully odd way of drawing water.  I suppose it’s just bad.  His water looks incredibly solid, like a field of oddly shaped little pyramids, but I just love it.  To me it feels like art deco water.

But while his stylizations helped to create the mood of the Dr. Fate series, here they are just unusual conceits.  The elongated crossbar in each letter “E” for example.

Sherman illustrates Slam’s adventures as he and Shorty witness a mob killing, and save a cop from being framed. They deal with crimes at a boxing match, hockey game and baseball game, and also hit an amusement park, and have a backstage murder mystery at a big Broadway musical.

Once Siegel and Sherman were gone, the art varied from decent to atrocious.  To me it seems like there was one writer for a while, someone who liked Shakespeare, as over a span of 15 issues or so Slam makes four different Shakespeare allusions (along the lines of issue 62’s “something smells rotten – and not in the state of Denmark”), and even has the bad guys reading Shakespeare in issue 68.

In issue 59 we learn that Slam and Shorty run the Wide-Awake Detective Agency, but in later issues the sign on the door simply says Bradley and Morgan, Private Detectives.

Each story does try to stand out, and Slam has stories at a casino, with a phony seance, at a weight loss gym, a symphony, a dentist and a carnival.  There is a missing elephant and a runaway monkey, both involved in crimes (can’t trust the animals). Two of his adventures involve golf courses.  One takes them to Hollywood.

But there is little that really stands out, and Slam loses his prime spot at the back of Detective Comics, and moves to the middle of the book.  The art in the 1944 stories is, frankly, abysmal.

But nonetheless, Slam Bradley continues in the Late Golden Age, the earliest series to last that long.

Slam Bradley:  Detective Comics 35 – 89 (Jan 40 – July 44)

New York World’s Fair 1940

Spy (Early Golden Age)


Spy lasted well into World War II, and though Bart Regan faced wave after wave of spies and saboteurs, curiously he never went to do any actual spying in Axis countries.  Jerry Siegel continued as writer for the first year or so, but then the scripting was passed to lesser talents, as the art already had been.

The serious tone of the series continued throughout this era.  We learn nothing more about Bart, never see him at home, and he has no regular partner, though in occasional stories he works with people he meets on the assignment.  It all stays in the realm of possibility, though there are plans for amazing weapons, and a lightning gun in issue 38.  But really, all these stories read much more like the police/detective stories that are currently running.  Aside from the motivation of the criminals, many of the foreign plots play out like normal bad guys.  For example, Bart deals with immigrant smuggling by the mob in issue 44, and in issue 73 deals with people who smuggle in cubans who are now smuggling in japanese.

Bart gets one interesting villain, in issue 46, who wears a mask but claims he was born deformed, with a goldfish-coloured head.  The story gets followed up in issue 48 (more illegal immigrant smuggling), but Goldfish Man does not return.

From issues 55 – 57  Bart escorts and guards Jules Vortez, a “defector” travelling to Washington DC. I’m not sure if defector is the appropriate word, but his nebulous foreign country is on the Axis side, and has sent out assassins to kill him before he reaches the capitol.

Issue 65 features a murderous genius who implants explosives while pretending to be a repairman.  Despite not actually being a foreign agent, in the splash for the story he is wearing a big swastika armband.  The stories following 55 were written after the attack on Pearl Harbour, and until the end of his run Bart would be dealing with sabotage and weird plots to destroy America.

One thing you can’t help but notice in the last 20 or so tales is that anyone at all could be a Nazi plant or sympathizer.  The candy shop owner, wrestlers, lunch wagon staff, monkeys, there are Nazis everywhere you turn, all plotting the downfall of the US.

While I can understand the fearful reaction to Pearl Harbour that resulted in this, I see the ground being laid for the communist witch hunts in the decade that followed.

Bart’s final case involved a native tribe that, while not actually harbouring secret Nazis itself, is the base of a white guide who is an undercover German agent.

I could send Bart off to the front lines, or behind them, at this point.  But he has Sally back home, and a nest of kids by now I’m sure, so I think Bart gets promoted at this point, reaching the higher levels of power in the O.S.S., and likely help found the C.I.A. after the war.

 

Spy:  Detective Comics  35- 77  (Jan 40 – July 43),  81 – 83  (Nov 43 – Jan 44)

Radio Squad (Early Golden Age)


Radio Squad continued in the Early Golden Age, but Sandy Keane was no longer the star of it.  Larry Trent is often given top billing, and was just as likely to save the day as Sandy was in this period.  Jerry Siegel continued scripting, though I am not sure he lasted till the end of the series.  The art was shuffled to different people. Some have very good art, some have passable, and some are just downright awful.

The stories remain in the realm of reality for the most part, as Sandy and Larry deal with murderers and thieves.  They get a handful of “creative” villains, such as The Cloak, who is secretly the victim of his bombing and theft campaign, out for insurance, or the Ghost, who uses a glider to rob warehouses from above.  The only one to appear twice was the Leopardess, a jewel thief, though she was never played up as a romantic interest for either of the men.

There is little acknowledgement of the war.  A few stories touch on it, with foreign spies, or a theft of drugs intended for the military.  In one case they prevent the hijacking of relief supplies being shipped to Europe, but that’s the extent of it.

A few of the villains have weaponry that is a little beyond the norm.  The Storm Raiders have a gun that shoots bolts of electricity, and the Evil One has a paralysis ray gun.  Satan, who named himself that because of a facial disfigurement, devises an arsenic gas gun.

Larry, not Sandy, is the one to get a girlfriend during the run.  Issue 64 deals with the sinking of a pleasure boat full of children.  Larry rescues young Timmy, and meets his sister, Lorna Drake.  The next issue has a tale about juvenile delinquents being used by mobsters.  Timmy falls into danger, and Lorna calls on Larry for help.

Parenthetically, that is also the story in which they get a new radio car.  Up until now their car was designated  “X-7,” but it gets rammed into a telephone pole during the course of the tale, and at the end Sandy is driving a new car as Larry and Lorna flirt.  Later issues will reveal that they are now in “Car 54.”

Anyway, back to Lorna.  Issue 67 has a complicated by rewarding tale, which opens with a drive-by shooting of an FBI agent.  It’s Lorna’s birthday, and while investigating the shooting, Larry buys a curio from a reluctant antiques dealer, whose shop the murder occurred outside of.  The curio contains stolen plans, and we are suddenly immersed in international espionage, with the Evil One and his paralysis ray gun, attempting to find a murder Prince Ivor, the exiled ruler of his nation.  It turns out Timmy is really Prince Ivor, and Lorna has been sheltering him.

Issue 68 reveals that Lorna works at a “settlement house,” which seems to be a place for troubled kids.  Larry beings her Teddy, an orphan boy hanging out at the waterfront (and witness to a crime) to take care of.

Lorna’s final appearance is in issue 73, as we meet her siblings Sparky and Emma, both rodeo riders.  The story makes it clear that Larry has met Sparky before this point, so it’s safe to assume his relationship with Lorna is continuing solidly, if off-panel.

In their final appearance they deal with a sound effects man and his ventriloquist partner, who use phony radio dispatches to take the police far from the sites of actual crimes.

Neither Sandy Keane nor Larry Trent make any further appearances after their series concludes.  But I think these guys did a bang-up job in their seven years patrolling the streets, and I’m sure they were promoted to detectives at this point.

Radio Squad:  More Fun Comics 52 – 87  (Feb 40 – Jan 43)

Federal Men (Early Golden Age)


Steve Carson continues to make Federal Men his one-man show in the second half of his run.  He has no partner in these stories, and even his Chief only makes occasional appearances.  The strip never grew beyond four pages in length, and the limits those placed on it really began to show.

We never see Steve at home, or learn anything more about him.  He lives in a world defined by his cases, which are most often murder, with a fair number of kidnappings and counterfeiting rings.  He goes undercover a few times, infiltrating a crime school, and as a sailor.  the latter story took Steve to Lisbon, and he also has cases on the Texas-Mexico border, in Delaware, San Francisco and an island prison near Key West.

Too ofter these stories have unsatisfactory explanations jammed into the final panel, they simply try to do too much to keep the series entertaining, and you can’t help but feel that another two pages per story would have helped.

Then again, with Shuster gone, the art really dragged down the strip.  Issues 47 and 48 have such poor art that the story is all but incomprehensible.  Chad, the artist who carried the last two years of the series, got better, and for it’s last year the art was strong and not a hinderance to the narrative.  He particularly excelled at trains and ships in storms. The train wreck story in issue 53 is the first Chad story that really looks good, and the Key West prison story, with boat crashes and large storms, in issue 64, is his best.

As the war progressed, more and more of the stories took on a military connexion, with Steve going after spies and saboteurs more frequently.  In his final story he took out foreign spies causing deaths in a munitions factory.

I believe that after 7 years as one of their top operatives, even though his best days were behind him, Steve was moved up to a desk job and spent the rest of his days managing other agents of the FBI.

Federal Men:  Adventure Comics 46 – 70  (Jan 40 – Jan 42)

Slam Bradley


Slam Bradley was the second Siegel and Shuster series to debut in Detective Comics #1.  It would prove to be a very successful, and long-running, blend of serious action and humour, largely achieved through the skillful use of Shorty Morgan, Slam’s sidekick.  Shorty was drawn in a completely different style than Slam, different than the other characters and backgrounds as well.  In fact, it almost looks like Shorty was photo-shopped in from a silly newspaper strip.

But Shorty’s role in the stories was not limited to comic relief, in most tales his actions would be vital to the resolution of the plot.

Slam Bradley’s first story opens with a splash page.  Unless these were previously used by some other publisher, this was the first splash page in comics, certainly the first in a DC Comic.  For 18 issues Slam’s tales would open with a full-page picture, usually of him beating someone up.  Often this would also be the first panel of the story, but in a number of cases it would be a scene from the climax, used as a teaser.

The opening narration informs us “In a hidden catacomb under the streets of Chinatown, Slam Bradley, ace freelance sleuth, fighter and adventurer is tangling with a mob of celestials who resent his investigating.  Knives flash!  Fists fly!  Altho’ outnumbered, Slam is having a swell time!”

I still don’t understand the “celestials” thing, but this tale has more than its share of racism, Slam getting one asian to talk by threatening to cut off his “pigtail” so he will be separated from his ancestors.  The story is straight out of the “yellow peril” genre, with a white woman kidnapped by asians, under the leadership of Fui Onyui.

Slam has a good relationship with the police in this, the Chief allows him to use a desk at the police station, and clearly wants him on the squad, but accepts his “freelance” status.  Towards the end of the story, the narrations refers to Slam’s “indomitable courage, surprising strength and laughter in the face of overwhelming odds,” a fitting description of all of Siegel and Shuster’s heroes.

In many of these tales (all but one in this period being self-contained), Slam takes on some new job or activity, either to solve a crime or simply for the fun of it, stumbling across a crime on the way.  We see him as a boxer, steeplejack, lumberjack, stunt man, fireman, airplane daredevil, magician and broadway entertainer over the course of his adventures.  Eventually we learn that Slam operates out of Cleveland, but he travels to Mexico, Atlantic City, New York City, the Arctic Circle, Africa, Egypt, Switzerland and Hawaii.

We learn little of his past, though.  In issue 5 we meet his 6th grade teacher, Miss Quail, but a later story informs us that Slam did not complete high school.

In issue 9 Shorty gets a rival, Snoop, another vertically challenged man who wants to become Slam’s sidekick.  Slam makes Snoop Short’s sidekick, and they all work together in issue 10, but that did not seem to pan out.  In issue 11 Slam operates completely on his own, and then with 12 Shorty is back (having killed and buried Snoop in the backyard I’d say) as the sole sidekick.  His twin brother Sporty guests in issue 17. but clearly was not intended as anything more than a one-shot.

Issue 18 I find highly significant.  As Slam is driving through farmer’s fields a rocket ship crashes nearby.  This ship looks almost identical to the one Superman was brought to Earth in.  In the tale, it was stolen by a scientist from a different inventor, both claiming to be the one who built it.  A quick check through the pages of Action Comics at this time reveals that Superman’s rocket has not yet been seen.  In Action #1 we get a quick shot of it leaving the exploding planet Krypton, but do not see it in detail, nor do we see it landing on Earth in that story.  This rocket, and even more specifically the landing in a wheat field, would be re-used in the Superman series to iconic effect.

But aside from that, I say it’s the same rocket anyway.  One scientist is lying about building it, who is to say they both aren’t?  That the one scientist found the abandoned rocket and worked to make it function, only to have it stolen by the second scientist.  Yup, that’s my interpretation, so here, in issue 18, is the debut of Superman’s rocket to Earth.

I’m also going to go out on a limb with issue 20, in which Slam learns enough magic to be able to become invisible and control what people are able to see.  As he uses his magical powers to take down a gang, they get a different magician, Mysto, so aid them, but Mysto proves unequal to Slam.  Mysto never does anything villainous, just tries to help the bad guys, and I think Mysto comes to regret his rash behaviour.  I think he is just really young and unwise at this point in his life, and he would grow up, taking the straight and narrow path, eventually becoming the Mysto, Magician Detective that would get a series in Detective Comics in the early 1950s.

Fui Onyui makes a return in issue 22, seeking vengeance against Shorty, and Slam goes in disguise as an asian to rescue him.  Another pre-code use of opium in this story.  Fui Onyui dies at the end, but still is the only villain to make a second appearance in the series.

23 and 24 have the only two-parter, as Slam and Shorty are sent in a time machine to the year 2 Billion AD, where humans are in corrupt control of the world, while evolved plants and animals (and not-white people) are subjugated.  The story makes both sides out to be trouble-makers though.  Shorty dies from “the flower death,”, but is revived and the flee back to the present.

There are a number of issue in 1939 that look odd.  It’s hard to tell if someone else is trying to draw like Shuster, or if perhaps DC is printing unused early tales of Slam.  Certainly the latter seems to be the case in issue 25, as the narration indicates the reader is being introduced to Slam Bradley, for the first time.  Way back in issue 3 there had been a fill-in artist, whose work only served to demonstrate how effective Shuster was at blending the serious and humourous elements to these tales.  Shuster clearly drew the story in issue 30, and with 33 there was a different artist on board, but I just don’t know what to make of the art in the other stories from this year.

The story in 26 is quite good, quite disturbing.  A group of artists put their models into torturous, painful and ultimately deadly situations, to capture their agonized and fearful expressions in paintings.

Slam Bradley also appeared in the New York World’s Fair comic in 1939, in a Shuster-drawn story.  There is very nice art on the Trylon and Perisphere, and the City of Tomorrow, although the story itself, with hoods using Shorty’s coat to hide a note with the location of stolen money, takes Slam out of the Fair for the bulk of the action.

In a number of stories Slam and Shorty are shown to share a bed.  Shorty is almost forced into a shotgun hillbilly marriage in one tale, which concludes with their first bed scene (issue 4), and in issue 29 they head to Hawaii, where they share a bed again at the resort.  I know this was done in innocence, but it still really emphasizes the more-than-just-friends nature of their relationship.

In the last story of the era, Slam and Shorty head off on a round-the-world cruise, but war between Tweepon and Luthoria (!) sees their liner get torpedoed by a submarine.  But that’s little problem for Slam, who takes over the submarine himself.

Slam Bradley continues in the Early Golden Age

Slam Bradley:  Detective Comics 1 – 34  (Mar 37 – Dec 39)

New York World’s Fair  1939

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