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