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Superman (Early Golden Age)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superman continues in the Late Golden Age

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

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

New York World’s Fair 40

World’s Best Comics  1  (Spring 41)

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

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Superman


Superman was like nothing ever seen before in comics.  Not just because he was a super-powered alien who fought crime, the rampant success of the character was unheard of.  In a little over a year after his first appearance, Superman became the regular cover feature on Action Comics, changing forever the way covers were done, he had spun off into newspaper serials, and most ground-breaking of all, had been rewarded with his own comic book.  The first issue simply reprinted his first four stories in Action Comics (with an additional six pages for the debut tale), and the following two issues were a mix of reprints and recut newspaper stories.

It was the crowning achievement for Siegel and Shuster, and unlike their other series from the era, Shuster would stay on Superman until his eye problems forced him to retire.  Shuster had an amazing skill at making the outrageous look commonplace.  None of Superman’s powers would have been impressive if the art had made them laughable.

Because the first six pages were missing from his debut tale, there was no real origin given for Supeman until those were printed in Superman 1.  In Action Comics 1 we simply learn that he was sent off in a rocket by his scientist father from a planet that died “of old age”, landed on Earth, and was briefly in an orphanage.  In Superman 1 we learn that the planet’s name was Krypton, get to see the rocket in more detail (it’s the one from Slam Bradley), and see that it landed in a farmer’s field.  He is found by an elderly couple, the Kents, who bring him to an orphanage, then return to adopt him.

He has powers from the very beginning, and we see the Kents lecture and train the young boy in using them well.

In these early days, Superman cannot fly.  He can leap great distances – an eighth of a mile is cited in the first story, and we see him jump over tall buildings.  While at first he crashes into the sidewalk when he lands, sending concrete flying, within a few issues he is able to land on a window ledge, and also able to execute turns and rolls while in the air.  He often moves from place to place by running on phone wires.

He is extremely strong, able to stop a train, hold up a bridge, and lift an elephant, and nothing seems to be able to injure him.  Text refers to “nothing less than a bursting shell can penetrate his skin.”  We don’t see that put to the test, but he withstands clubs, bullets, even a buzz saw without pain.

He can run faster than a train, and swim faster than a ship. He can also spend an extended time underwater, not needing to breathe.  He is also resistant to illness.

His x-ray vision and super-hearing are used only in a couple of the stories at this time.  In others, he hangs from the outside of buildings, hides behind furniture, even listens on a phone extension to spy on others.  His x-ray vision is referred to in issue 11, and in issue 18 is shown for the first time.  We see beams leave his eyes (much the way heat vision would later be shown), and a wall become semi-transparent, so he can see the people talking inside.

In the extended version of the first story, we see young Clark come to the Daily Star, applying to editor George Taylor for a job, and getting one by the end of the story, the scoop on Superman.  George Taylor is clearly older than Clark, but not by much, and looks like he would do well in a bar brawl.

Lois Lane is already working at the newspaper.  She writes advice to the lovelorn, while longing for real newspaper work.  She is willing to risk her life for a story, but also thinks nothing of lying to Clark to steal a story out from under him.  After a couple of rescues, she realizes she has fallen in love with Superman.  Clark has fallen for her, and even takes her out on a date, but to preserve his secret identity he acts like a coward, and she has nothing but contempt for him.  When Clark first learns of Lois’s feelings for Superman he has to go off and laugh to himself.

In Action 6 and Superman 3 there is a young blond office boy.  He is not named, but retroactively these are considered the first appearances of Jimmy Olsen.

Action 7 introduces another staffer at the Daily Star, Curly.  Curly is a loudmouth braggart and a prankster, with Clark as his victim.  At the conclusion of the tale, Clark uses his powers to get revenge on Curly.  Although Curly is not seen again, in the Bronze Age sportscaster Steve Lombard would be introduced, with a similar relationship with Clark.

There was a rival newspaper to the Daily Star in issue 18, the Morning Herald.  The Herald is shown as a sleazy rag, willing to ruin a senator’s reputation in order to sell papers, while the Daily Star represents responsible journalism

Although he had the cover of Action Comics #1, and the lead spot was his without exception, Superman would not be featured exclusively on the covers until the end of the period.  Most covers had just the generic actions scenes common to all books.  In issue 12, a cover that featured Zatara has a small circle on it, mid-cover, with an image of Superman bursting through chains and a small logo.  This circle would be moved into the upper left corner with issue 16, and would eventually become the DC Bullet.

Superman’s costume was largely the same from the start as it is now, the biggest difference being the crest.  In most panels, it is not clear at all that there is meant to be a “S” in the crest, as it is triangular, and relatively small.  But then, in many stories from this era Superman is not in costume for much of the time.  He is just as likely to go in disguise as a worker or an athlete as he is don the cape and tights.

Superman is also fairly ruthless in pursuing his goals.  He throws criminals in the air or off of buildings to extract confessions, causes a mine collapse to trap wealthy partiers who do not appreciate the risk miner’s face, drugs and imprisons an innocent man to facilitate taking his place to outwit gamblers, and tears down an entire slum to force the city to build decent housing.

The police are obliged to hunt him down, but are not for the most part too concerned about doing this, even the police commissioner is on Superman’s side.  Metropolis is his home base from the start, but we learn little about the city, simply that is has a lot of really tall buildings.

Superman is ‘the friend of the helpless and oppressed.”  Most of the stories from this era see him dealing with concepts of social justice – wife abuse, underprivileged  children, workplace safety, and reckless driving would all be featured in these early tales.  He faced off against gangsters, gamblers and thieves, but in one story, about dangerous driving, he went after used car dealers, corrupt police, shoddy manufacturers and lobbyists.

He did get his first major villain in these tales, though, the Ultra-Humanite.  This bald mad scientist debuted running a cab protection scam, and Superman defeated him without too much effort, but the Ultra-Humantie returned for two more battles, once being behind shoddy bridge construction, and finally releasing a deadly purple plague on the city.  Hr briefly captures Superman using an “electric gun,” but stupidly ties him up to a sawmill buzz saw, which sends broken bits of metal flying dangerously around the room when the blade makes contact with Superman.  His mind-control device fails entirely, and when the electric gun explodes, it appears the Ultra-Humanite has died.  He didn’t, and returns in the Early Golden Age, but so would one of his assistants.  In the first two Ultra-Humanite stories, among the people he has working for him there is a red-haired man.  He is not named, or ever shown clearly.  The best panel we get of him is when the sawmill blades are flaying around and one almost cuts him.  In the “Generations” mini-serieses (not a word, but I’m going to be using it a fair amount), John Byrne makes this man Lex Luthor, and I have to agree.  Fits well with my earlier Lex Luthor appearance in Radio Squad.

So much of this era is very unlike what Superman would become, both in powers and in the way the stories were told, but one issue, Action Comics 5, would have the essence of the Superman “format” to come.  George Taylor intends to send Clark out to cover the possible collapse of the Valleyho Dam, but Lois wants the story and lies to Clark, sending him off on a story that doesn’t exist.  Clark discovers the ruse, heads to Valleyho as Superman, deals with the dam collapse and saves Lois’ life.  Lois returns to file her story, only to discover that Clark has already given his to the editor.

There is a remarkably prescient story in Action 6, dealing with merchandising the Superman image.  They really do try to take it to a preposterous degree, but history has done them better.

Superman appeared in the 1939 New York World’s Fair, even making a cover appearance (though his hair was blond, so it doesn’t much look like him.)  As Clark he is assigned to cover the Fair, and he manages to get Lois assigned to it as well, though of course she shows no gratitude.  As Superman he helps construct the Infantile Paralysis Pavillion, and while touring the Marine Transportation Exhibit with Lois, they come across fugitive Nick Stone.  At the end of the story, after Stone is apprehended, there is a lovely panel of Superman with Lois in his arms, and fireworks going off in the background.

There were no actual guest appearances by other characters in the series, but both Batman and Sandman would have teasers for their upcoming series at the end of Superman stories.  The one for Batman makes Action Comics # 12 the real first appearance of the character, but as the Sandman had already debuted in New York World’s Fair, the teaser was technically his second appearance.

Superman continues in the Early Golden Age

Superman:  Action Comics  1 – 19  (June 38 – Dec 39)

New York World’s Fair 1939

Superman 1 – 3  (Summer – Winter 39)

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

Spy


Spy was the first of two series created by Siegel and Shuster for Detective Comics, and for the first two years of its run was a humourous and light-hearted romp.  Shuster left the series in 39, and with the approaching war in Europe, the series took on a much more serious flavour.  It starred Bart Regan, a former federal agent.

The first five issues are a serial that begins with Bart seemingly getting fired from his agency, but that is just a cover as he is made a spy.  He is told to end his relationship with his girlfriend, Sally Norris, but she refuses to accept this.  Bart goes undercover as a soldier, allowing himself to be romanced by a foreign spy, Olga Barnoff,  at party, but Sally has followed him, becomes jealous, and all but ruins his operation.  Sally gets captured by Olga’s men, the police start searching for her, and after Bart throws a flower pot at a policeman’s head, Olga and her crew are almost apprehended, but Olga convinces the police she is really the kidnapped girl, and they briefly escape.  Bart has managed to find the key to their coded messages, sets them up, and Olga gets caught.  But the end of issue 5 is the real kicker, as Bart discovers Sally has been recruited to be a spy as well, after the resourcefulness and determination she showed.

From then on the stories are all self-contained 4 pagers (expanding to 10 pages with issue 17).  Bart considers Sally more trouble than she is worth, at first, but in story after story she is the one to outwit the villains, figure out the plots, capture the bad guys and even rescue Bart.  Virtually every story ends with the Chief commending them, while Bart and Sally embrace.  In fact, the only time they do not end up in each others arms at the finale is issue 25, when they are reporting directly to FDR.  Perhaps embracing in front of the president would be considered disrespectful.

Issue 7  features a story clearly inspired by the Hindenburg explosion.  It opens with a large panel of a burning, collapsing dirigible, a very powerful scene.  The cover date was September 37, and as the Hindenburg disaster occurred in May of that year, the story must have been drawn mere days after it happened.

In issue 9 Bart and Sally are sent aboard the ocean liner Atlantis to protect it from anarchists who have threatened to bomb it, and after pretending to be an anarchist herself Sally captures the bomber.  They expect the ship will then turn around and bring them back to port, but it sails on to France, and for the next four stories they are in Paris.  In issue 12 they go undercover at the Rue Moulin, wearing the stereotypical striped shirts and berets, but the story is still fun.  Issue 13 sees them ordered to stop a diplomat’s son from gambling so much, which they choose to do by robbing him of his winnings.

They return to the US in issue 14, and the stories become even more goofy, but in a good way.  In issue 15 they are ordered to bring in Mr. Death, a notorious assassin.  Sally wagers Bart that she can get him to come to them, and places an ad in the newspaper, which works.  Mr. Death expects them to be terrified of him, but they are too busy bantering about the wager to show any fear, and capturing him seems almost secondary to resolving their own issues.

Issue 18 begins with Bart about to propose to Sally, but he gets cut off when they are ordered to protect the owner of the cursed Handon Ruby.  Sally decides she will propose instead, but she too gets constantly interrupted by the plot.  Nonetheless, at story’s end they get engaged.

And it’s not a long engagement because the story in issue 19 opens with their wedding.  They say their vows, and just as the minister says “I now pronounce you…” he is interrupted by a messenger, ordering both of them to report to the Chief.  This is the best story of their run, as they have to capture Rina Rinaldo, a mercenary bomber, while at the same time the banter between them has never been better.  “Where is your patriotism?”  “Where is my wedding ceremony?”  and “Do you see anything?”  “Yes, the vision of me dying as an old maid.” are my two favourite exchanges, but Sally also has a barb for the Chief.  They go straight to his office from the aborted wedding for their briefing, and Sally comments “note how well we are dressed for the occasion.”  As it plays out, Rina has a compact with a mirror that emits rays that make things explode, and Bart manages to make her aim the mirror at her own face, causing her head to explode!  Though we do not ever see the wedding ceremony completed, it is clear that that did happen at some point between the end of this story and the beginning of the next.

The series continues much the same way for the next few issues.  The story in 24 deals with the Spanish Civil War, but avoids taking sides on the issue simply by not identifying which side is involved in an illegal munitions deal.  Still, the political situation in Europe was doubtlessly the reason this series would undergo major changes as 1939 progressed.

Sally makes her final appearance in issue 26, and Shuster would leave as artist after issue 27.  There is no mention of what happened to Sally, but as Bart’s home life is never shown I have decided she retired after getting pregnant.  You can’t embrace that many times without something happening.

With no Sally around the stories become much more straightforward and serious.  Bart teams with another agent, Jack Steele, from issues 28 – 30.  In issue 30 a scientist plots to take over the United States using a hypnosis ray, and starts by taking over the minds of senators, having them promote suspending democracy and instituting a dictatorship.  He then starts using the ray on agents, and both Jack Steele and the Chief fall prey to it.  He really ought to have used it on Bart, as Bart shoots the machine and frees everyone from his control.

Jack is not seen again after this story.  Makes me wonder if he really was under the scientists control, or if he turned traitor.

The last few stories from this era are all more war-oriented, with foreign spies threatening the navy and airforce, and hostile dictators in fictional European nations invading and annexing neighbouring countries.

Spy continues in the Early Golden Age

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

Radio Squad


Beginning under the name “Calling all Cars”, this was the fourth series created by Siegel and Shuster for DC.  Radio Squad refers to a police car equipped with a police band radio, something I guess was new enough in the 30’s to make it exciting.  Sandy Kean is the hero of this series, another rough and tumble man’s man, like the bulk of Siegel and Shuster’s protagonists.

For the first two years of its run, Radio Squad just had two-page stories, and developed in a very different direction than Federal Men.  Many of the tales had a light-hearted quality to them.  You can almost hear a “whomp-waa” sound over the final panel.  As an example, in issue 25 they see a box fall from the back of a truck.  Sandy retrieves it, and they follow the truck, turning on the siren to alert it.  The truck speeds away, they chase it and run it off the side of the road.  It turns out the driver is smuggling alcohol, but the box that fell off the truck and started it all contained nothing but aspirin.  Whomp-waaa.

The series began with a four part serial dealing with the Purple Tiger Gang.  Sandy pulls over a speeder, who turns out to be the daughter of the Police Commissioner, and spanks her by the side of the road.  She complains to her father, who thinks that she really liked it and probably now has a crush on the cop.  As creepy and disturbing as that all is, it’s also fairly typical for the era.  Anyway, she gets kidnapped (her father likely thought she was super in love with that), and held by the Purple Tiger mob, who are willing to exchange her for all the info the police have on them.  Which, in fact, is nothing.  They’ve never heard of these guys.  But then you wouldn’t expect a criminal organization that would call itself the Purple Tiger Gang to be too on the ball.  Sandy puts together some fake evidence, rigged with an “electrical signalling contrivance” that allows him to follow and apprehend these losers.  The electrical signalling contrivance seems a ridiculously complicated way of saying a bug, but I doubt those even existed at this time, and it would have seemed like something from James Bond.  If he existed at this time.  Which he didn’t.

Issues 17 -22 (with a gap in issue 20) see a story that expresses a lot of frustration with the legal system.  It begins with a woman calling the police because she is upset that her son gambles.  Sandy responds to the call by physically threatening the boy, and then they head to the casino he frequents and arrest the man who runs it, Dan Bowers.  His lawyers get him off, and he has Sandy brought up on charges of false arrest.  There are a couple of chapters devoted to trials of Sandy, and then Bowers, that are laiden with perjury and faked evidence.  Finally the governor himself intervenes, sickened by it all (and Sandy is just as bad as Bowers in the trials), announcing that the legal system is a joke and Bowers should just go to jail anyway.  I’m not sure that having the governor just call off trials and ship people off to prison is an improvement, but Sandy seems happy.

He also gets a partner in that serial, named Jimmy Trent, though his first name would change to Larry after a year or so.  Maybe one of those was a middle name .

From issue 23 on the stories would be all self-contained, leading the series more towards the light-hearted style I mentioned previously.   But issue 23 would also have a greater significance, or so I will argue.

I hereby declare that the Radio Squad story in More Fun 23 (Aug 37) is the first appearance of Lex Luthor.

The story deal with a red haired scientist who creates giant armoured radio-contolled cars that he smashes into other cars to kill those inside.  He does this out of a twisted sense of vengeance, as his son was killed by a reckless driver, though he kills people at random.  Sandy catches him at the end of the story, but at no point is guy ever given a name.

Lex Luthor would officially debut a few years later, a red haired evil scientist seeking world domination, and never given any back-story at all.  The bald version, with the grudge against Superboy, was the Earth – 1 Luthor, the Earth -2 version only met Superman when they were both adults (for more on Earth-1 and Earth-2, wait until I reach the Silver Age, likely next year some time).

As both the character in More Fun 23 and the original Lex Luthor were drawn by Shuster, it’s not that surprising that they look virtually identical, and I will happy concede that I do not believe Siegel intended them to be the same person when he created the two men, but comic book history is all about filling in the blanks.  This was Lex Luthor, a scientist who went mad with grief over his son’s death, and after a brief prison term after being caught by the Radio Squad, emerged with plans to control all of society, which brought him into conflict with Superman.

OK, back to Radio Squad.

With issue 33 the stories expand to 6 pages in length, and become more serious, though the series never really reaches the level set by Federal Men.  Sandy and Larry deal with an embezzling banker, a corrupt cop, a pyromaniac fireman, even the criminal son of the Chief of Police, as well as the usual lot of murderers and jewel thieves and such.  They have to disguise themselves as women to catch a man who mugs women – though Larry had to go in drag in a earlier story as well, to catch a man robbing couples on Lover’s Lane.  Larry is so good at doing this he is ordered to do a female impersonation at the Policemen’s Ball.

Sandy is reckless to a fault.  In issue 40 he rams the police car through two cars set up as a roadblock, to Larry’s horror, and justifies his action by saying “what difference does it make if we die now or forty years later?”  I would not want to be Sandy’s patrol partner.

In issue 44 they have to deal with a thief who has devised a method of becoming invisible, and cleverly put dye into the sprnkler system, hooking it up to go off when the jewels are removed from their base, exposing the thief.

In issue 45 Sandy is framed for murder by Dirk Stevens, convicted and sentenced to death, but freed by other policemen on his way to the electric chair.  He tracks down the actual Stevens, who gets mauled by a bear.  Sandy shoots the bear, and in recognition of his attempt to save his life, Stevens writes out a confession before he dies.

With issue 49 Shuster left the series, though Siegel would continue as the writer.

Radio Squad continues in the Early Golden Age

Radio Squad:  More Fun  11 – 20  (July 36 – Oct 37),  22 – 50  (Dec 37 – Dec 39)

Federal Men


Siegel and Shuster’s third series for DC might more accurately be called “Federal Man,” as it focuses almost exclusively on agent Steve Carson.

The first two instalments are each 4-page, one issue stories.  The first, dealing with a corrupt policeman involved in kidnapping a child, has too much exposition on the first page, and the second, with rivals fighting over aircraft plans, has too little explanation throughout, but both are strong attempts at telling complete single-issue stories.  The first tale is also notable for the name of the female kidnapper – Kate Lane.  Hints of what was to come from these boys.

Issues 4 – 10 feature a serial, The Invisible Empire (though that title is only given in issue 9).  It begins in a straightforward fashion, as Steve stops a foreign spy from infesting the reservoir with a bacteria, and moves on to a plot to torpedo the president’s yacht by submarine.  But then it starts to really kick into high gear as giant tanks invade Washington D.C.  Steve takes down the villains manning the tanks with a radium-gas bomb, and his superiors think the case is over, but Steve correctly believes the masterminds have not been caught.  Issue 8 sees him finally get a partner, Ralph Ventor, and also introduces Jean Dennis, a strong-willed, brunette reporter, working for the Tribune.  Introduction out of the way, Steve adopts a disguise to infiltrate the underwater base of the Empire, who unleash a giant robot to destroy the city.  Steve manages to get control of it and sends it back towards the base, and though the evil scientists release two more giant robots to fight it, the base is destroyed, and the bad guys apparently perish.  The half page panel of the giant robot rampaging through the city is still very effective; at the time it must have been mind-blowing.

With issue 11, Ralph Ventnor definitely becomes Steve’s sidekick, as opposed to partner, in this one-issue tale that sees Carson pursue gangster Nate Devlin, who tries to hide out by becoming an actor in a gangster picture.  A strong, coherent and fulfilling four page story.  I would argue that not only did Siegel and Shuster create the concept of the superhero, but they also created the style, the format, of a comic book story.  Everything else to this point has been written like movie serials or pulp novels.

Issue 12 sees the surprising debut of Jor-L.  Steve and his superior consult a scientist about police methods in the future, and are treated to tale about the pursuit and capture of “bandit queen” Nira-Q.  Jor-L, an Earth-man in this tale, is the future federal agent who apprehends her.

The series continues as Steve battles drug dealers and kidnappers.  With issue 16, Steve Carson is featured an named on the cover.  That may not sound very significant, but in these early days the cover illustration rarely had any connexion to the interior contents of a comic book.

Many of the instalments  promote a fan club, the Junior Federal Men, and in issues 20 – 25, the stories would largely feature this organization as well.  Groups of young boys who apprehend criminals on their own.  Steve Carson introduces them in issue 20, but does not even appear in issue 21.  In issue 23 some girls attempt to join the gang, but are ridiculed by the boys and have to prove themselves, which they do, catching a shoplifter.  By far my favourite of these is the one in issue 24.  A very young boy finds gangsters hanging out in a waterfront warehouse, but when he tries to alert the police they don’t believe him.  The courageous lad then throws rocks at the cops until they chase him into the warehouse and wind up in a gun battle with the hoods.

With issue 25 two notions get combined, and we are treated to the creation of the Junior Federal Men of the Future, when a group of boys in the year 3000 come across old issues of New Adventure Comics, read the tales of Carson and the kids, and are inspired to emulate them, capturing Zator Rog.

Issues 27 and 28 pit Steve against a bald evil genius, the Cobra (so named because he has the forementioned snake wrapped around his upper body and neck in a most uncomfortable looking fashion).  The story itself is nothing hugely noteworthy, but Siegel and Shuster would re-use the look of this adversary (sans snake) for the Ultra-Humanite, and later, Lex Luthor.

A hugely entertaining serial runs from issues 32 – 37.  Steve gets trapped in a burning house while trying to rescue a fugitive, and though he survives the house’s collapse, he loses his memory.  Discovering a gun in his pocket, he believes himself to be a criminal. He winds up joining the Biff Davis mob, but after stopping Biff from shooting a cop (which results in Davis being shot and killed), he argues to the gang that he did it for their benefit, to prevent them from being pursued as cop killers.  He becomes the new boss of the gang, and leads them on a series of bank robberies in which they use knockout gas to incapacitate the tellers and guards, gaining his crew the nickname the Phantom Gang.  Ralph Ventnor is assigned to the case, as Steve informs the gang of his plans to pull of a $40 million gold robbery.  One of the gang members, Red, gets caught trying to rob a jeweler, and tells Ralph he is part of the Phantom Gang.  He is released to be an informant, but instead tries to set Steve up, plotting to kill Ralph and frame Steve for it, taking over the gang in time to pull off the gold robbery.  Ralph recognizes Steve, and Steve’s memory returns in time to thwart Red’s plan, and the gang gets apprehended.  Great story.

Issue 39 features a “marihuana” story, as Steve busts a school custodian for being a dealer.  This piece is along the lines of “Reefer Madness,” as the pot causes kids to rob and murder innocents.  Steve declares that it causes people to “lose all moral restraint.”

Of the remainder of stories from this period, there is one more I find notable.  In issue 41 people are killed by poisonous snowfalls, the toxin placed into the clouds by a fire-and-brimstone public speaker to draw larger crowds and make more money.  Heck of a plan.

Federal Men continues into the next period, Early Golden Age.

Federal Men:  New Comics  2 – 11 (Jan – Dec 36)

New Adventure Comics  12 – 14 (Jan – Mar 37), 16 – 31 (May 37 – Oct 38)

Adventure Comics  15 –  45 (Nov 38 – Dec 39)

Dr. Occult


Dr. Occult is the earliest DC character that continues to make appearances in the comics, at least occasionally.  Another Siegel and Shuster creation, he is sometimes considered the first super-hero, though he had no powers for the most part, just some intriguing weapons and a lot of attitude.

Sometimes billed as a “Ghost Detective”, Dr. Occult’s series begins with a three-part story pitting him against the Vampire Master.  He first uses his mystic symbol in this story, which looks quite different from how it would appear in much later stories.  In these early tales it mildy resembles a small crucifix in size, but in shape it’s a little more like the top of a corkscrew.

After a one issue tale that sees him defeat a serial killer who believes he can extend his own life by murdering others, he has another three part tale dealing with a woman who turns the destitute boarders in her rooming house into werewolves.  In this storyline we meet his butler, Jenkins.

Dr. Occult then plunges into his most unusual adventure, travelling to another realm where he aids the mystical beings known as the Seven against Koth, an ancient alien invader.  Dr. Occult is aided by an inhabitant of this realm, Zator, and by the end of the serial is wearing a red cape and tights (looking almost like Superman), wielding a sword and using a belt that enables him to fly, and also to turn people into stone.

With issue 18 he has returned to his trenchcoat, and begins his last, and longest, serial, facing a mad doctor who claims to have invented a ray of life.  He has people killed, then restores them to life with the ray, which must be used each month to keep them alive, effectively enslaving them.  Dr. Occult arranges to be killed himself, and once in the doctor’s clutches figures out that it is all an elaborate scam.  The supposedly dead people have been poisoned into a coma, and the ray has no real effect.  Those who try to defy him are simply poisoned again.  When Dr. Occult reveals this, the slaves turn against the doctor and literally tear him apart.

This storyline sees not only a new butler for Dr. Occult, Custer, but also the only appearances of Rose Psychic in the series.  Here she is simply his girlfriend, in chaste fashion, and despite her evocative name has no powers or real importance.

The Ray of Life serial concludes in issue 23, and for the rest of his run, Dr. Occult has only single issue tales, pitting him against vampires, zombies, a snake god and its worshippers, and other supernatural foes.  In all of these he is accompanied by Detective Captain Ellsworth, a no-nonsense cop who turns to Dr. Occult whenever a case seems to have something unusual about it.

Interestingly, in issue 24 Dr. Occult squares off against a painter who kills people by doing things to their paintings, and whose name is Henri Duval!  No connexion is made between this character and the other Siegel and Shuster series of the same name.

In his last few appearances, Dr. Occult manifests some vague powers.  Simply by waving his hand he can possibly transform objects (although he claims that this was an illusion) and collapse walls.

Dr. Occult would next appear in the pages of All-Star Squadron, nearly 5o years down the road, and though he would never (to date) get an ongoing series again, he will have a few one-shot stories that will be covered in the appropriate periods.

Dr. Occult:  New Fun 6 (Oct 35)

More Fun  7 – 32 (Jan 36 – June 38)

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