For those that have been here all along, just skim through and look at the perty pictures. It's what comic books are all about.
Enjoy...or endure, whichever your outlook.
As the title of this blog states, this is for all things "Inside My Head". Up until now, it's all been stuff that's already in there...but I want to use it for things going in as well.
In all things I like, I like to know the full history. Movies, TV, Radio, Music, Comic Strips, etc. I like to know the whys and wherefores and what inspired and drove the contributors to said art-forms. To do this I need to be able to view/read/listen to everything that ever came down the pike in that medium.
One thing that's been difficult has been Comic Books. Something that's been near and dear to my heart since I was old enough to turn the pages by myself.
Someone smarter than me once said, "Comic books are the one type of book a child will pick up and read without being told to...and the one form where, they will go to the dictionary and look up a word they don't know, to better understand.", I think that's true.
The reason it's been difficult to read all that came before me has been that, it's financially prohibitive to go out and buy comic books from the 1930's-1960's because of the collectors market that's come into being. When comic books are anywhere from 4 to 7 figures per copy...it ain't gonna happen. I have no dead uncles ready to die and leave me a fortune. I've checked.
Historical books have been printed, but usually all they ever print are cover images...I want to read the stories, dammit! Also, these books are hampered by copyright restrictions and financial obligations of their own. Some are produced in black and white (at least in part...and this is decidedly a color medium), there's a limited audience for high print runs which raise the cover price and the douches at DC and Marvel who are the majority owners of this material are...well...douches and prohibit much of anything being done with their shit that they are unable to count the shekels for themselves.
That being said it's only fair to say that, DC and Marvel have actually done a nice job of presenting their past material themselves over the past 10 years in nice "Archive" or "Masterwork" reprint series...but at $50 a pop...what's a poor schmuck like me to do to be a completest?
ENTER THE INVENTION OF THE HOME COMPUTER AND INTERNET/USENET FILE SHARING!
The information age is truly upon us and I now, with the investment of some man-hours and some hard drive space, can glom onto a rich supply of comic books which I have only had the pleasure to hear about for decades, and can finally appreciate first hand. I love it.
Over the last decade or so plus, I have come to garner a rudimentary sense of what came before...and with the structure of this blog I can sort it out in my "head".
The realm of Comic Books covers a wide range of genres, Super Hero (by the way, this phrase and the word "Superhero" are copyrighted and trademarked jointly by DC and Marvel...I'd like to take this opportunity to say "Fuck You"...you cannot restrict my language with legal shit), Humor, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, Western, Horror, Crime Stories and on and on. In my initial study, and for the time period I'm focusing on, I'm sticking with S*per H*roes (there, happy?) as the framework and will go back and uncover the other layers later. More on why and the breakdown's of time periods in future posts.
I've invited as many S*perh*roes as I can (i.e. "Heroes of a Superical nature") down to "The Drink Hole" for some one on one's as a visual aid...they're lining up outside now at the Registration table.
A smart guy would split this in-depth study into a separate blog to better market it and allow search engine crawlers to find it. The reason I don't have any set subject matter category for my blog is just what my profile says, quoting Balzac..."If my mind was a river, it would not be very deep, but it would be wide."
Inside my head are many things and interests. I'd get bored covering the same thing every day. So don't worry, while this will be a semi-regular topic, my mind will continue to wander and my head will "dunk" in many waters.
I hope you'll come along.
It'll be fun!
P.S. To the lawyers at DC (a Time-Warner company) and Marvel (a Disney subsidiary), I will be talking about Comic Books published by (DC's original names) All-American Comics, Detective Comics, National Publication and (Marvel's former name) Timely Comics in my research. Cartoons I draw of characters of these characters fall into the legal view of "parody" and are allowed be law. If I publish digital versions of actual/original comics, stories or images, let it be known that this is a "review site" and any reproduction falls under "fair use" of copyrighted material. May the Flying Spaghetti Monster bless the digital age. Freedom of information is freedom of self.
If any of the original artists or writers of these characters are still alive, I'll be happy to pay for use of their creations. The corporate stooges who inherited the titles, did nothing but show up to work in a tie...they can "Suck it!"
What is a Golden Age?
Well, the actual term dates back to Greek Mythology and legend, and it refers to "The Best Age" in a sequence of ages. In a way of breaking down a history, chunks of time are separated into an "Age" to have a better perspective on what has come, and keeps common things together to better represent, what relates to what. In this example, Greek "periods of time"...or being...or states of being, where "The Golden Age" (a period of peace, harmony, stability and prosperity), "The Silver Age", "The Bronze Age", "The Iron Age" and so on.
When used in modern parlance, and the way I use it, it's used in relating to an art form or industry. "The Golden Age of Comic Books", "The Golden Age of Comic Strips", "The Golden Age of Radio", "The Golden Age of Television", "The Golden Age of Films", "The Golden Age of Rap Music", etc....
A time when each of these are first booming, when the artists contributing to these fields are at their most productive and creative. Most creative because, there's no past parameters of "what can be done or can't be done", so there is free range to experiment and grow and to just play in a medium. Most productive because, the field is usually at it's most commercially successful at this point, and there are more venues to practice the art.
What came first, "most creative" or "most productive"? That's like the chicken and the egg question.
A quick breakdown of the time frame of the ages of comic books:
"The Formative Years" or "The Formative Age". From the invention of the comic book and including all the formats it went through before finding it's place in the American culture. We'll cover some of this on our way to the meat of our history.
"The Golden Age". When the first true artisans entered the field. Folks who had to figure out what this new medium brought and what they could bring to it. Experimentation, discovery, innovation. Commercial success comes with a successful new vehicle for "telling stories". And isn't that what our brains all want? To be told a good story!
"The Atomic Age". After the first influx of creators has left their mark, tastes of the audience change (especially after WWII), and the first wave of creators who grew up WITH this new medium in mind when training for their careers. The first writers and artists who saw what the medium could be and built on it intelligently, still pushing the boundaries.
1956-1970 or so:
"The Silver Age". The first wave creators are now seasoned professionals and dynamic artists, blend with the second wave and build on what they've both wrought. This combined with a more aware audience leads to a more engaged and in-depth (self-aware and inside) series of stories. This could also be called "The Second Golden Age".
"The Bronze Age": Things get more simplistic and not as dynamic. Artists are more derivative of themselves and the audience becomes more ignorant of what the medium's potential is, and only know what comes in their time. Things begin to flat line. Comics are sedentary. The first influx of "Fan Boys" as contributing professionals.
A mix of...
...and really, really, really, really, really, really shitty stuff!
"The Modern Age", "The Age of Independents", "The Age of Creators Rights", "The Plasticine Age"...my own term for a segment of comics...and another..."The Jim Lee/Rob Liefeld Homoerotic Art-How Far Can Batman's Thong Creep Up His Keister-Show All The Details of the Boot Treads and Have No Story-Telling Skills-Computer Gradient Coloring Slickness and No Substance To Design/Layout/Composition/Timing-"This is My Badass Face"-Age": A lot of creative doors were opened as relates to independent publishers and creators rights/ownership. A lot of hacks showed up on the scene being even MORE derivative of what came before and resting on their laurels as print technology became slicker and they could do less and seem like more. I'll come back to this age one day, but only to focus on the good parts. Allen Moore, Frank Miller, Dave Simm, Jeff Smith...there really is a lot of good stuff, but the no-talent hacks still prevail.
That should give a good outline and perspective for us as I continue my 'slight' history of the Golden Age of Comic Books.
What is a comic book? A simple enough question which I'll answer as simply as I can.
The modern comic book that we all know and can recognize, began in 1934 with a 1935 cover date. It was called "Famous Funnies", here's issue one's cover...
Promising 100 comics, games, puzzles and magic and sporting a cover price of just 10 cents, the first comic books were nothing more than reprinted newspaper comic strips...no original or new content.
Books had been sold as early as the late 1800's with reprints of "The Yellow Kid", "Buster Brown", "The Katzenjammer Kids" etc., and they came in all different formats. Some hard cover, some soft cover, some for 10 cents, some for as high as 50 cents. This practice continued right up into the 1930's with no set format or frequency of publication.
I could go in to the who's and why's and how's that went in to this sporadic series of reprints, there is a good well-kept record of which companies and which marketing monkeys are responsible...but these are just businessmen and you all know that this blog and I don't give a rat's ass about guys in suits. I don't find them important in the least and at best they are a necessary evil, so I won't honor them for the most part here. Please feel free to seek them out elsewhere if you lead a drab and unimaginative life.
At some point one of these faceless and nameless drones inherited a couple of 2 color printing presses from a failed newspaper. He also figured out how to get them to work together to create a 4 color process...this was inspired. He and his business partners began to print these packages of re-cycled comic strips in earnest. A format was set upon.
Using the format of the newspaper which these presses were designed and equipped to print, they came up with this little magic trick:
At first they sold a couple of pages of advertisements in the back of the book and used them as give-aways in stores.
Then someone decided they might put a 10 cent sticker on the front and sell them outright. They tried to market and distribute them through F.W. Woolworth's chain of 5 and 10 cent stores, but the folks in charge there said something like, "72 pages of comics strip re-prints? That's not worth a dime!" and turned the idea down.
So the team of nameless-ones went to a news distributor. A company that sold newspapers, magazines and the like to newsstands everywhere.
And the periodical comic book was born, looking very much like it does today.
A few years later the short sighted knuckleheads ran out of material to re-print. New material was needed.
And the Jack Kirby's, Joe Simon's, Sheldon Mayer's, Will Eisner's, Joe Kubert's, Bill Everett's, Lou Fine's and the rest of the comic worlds Wunderkinds arrived.
Those are names worth remembering.
And I do.
Another source of inspiration for the modern Super Hero came from the theatre. A play in 1903 written by Baroness Emmuska Orczy about fictional goings on in the French Revolution, set in 1792.
The play centers around a beautiful French woman who is married to a wealthy English Nobleman. She is shocked and horrified by the public executions of her fellow French Nobles and shows disdain for her husbands seeming disinterest in the injustices happening in her country. You see, Sir Percy, her husband, is a lazy, well-to-do, bored-with-life socialite who is only interested in living the good life.
Little does the Baroness know, but Sir Percy belongs to a secret society of "Righters of Wrongs" called "The Scarlet Pimpernel" which has pledged to bring justice to the world and stop these insidious crimes against the upper-crusts of society by the revolutionists. The Pimpernel is made up of 20 men, "One to lead, and nineteen to follow!", and they strike back under the cover of night, fighting for truth, justice and the "rich people"'s way!
That's right. A foppish, dandy. A wealthy playboy, seemingly disinterested in the goings on of the world. But by night, he is a daring, courageous, avenging angel!
Sound like Zorro? Or more to the point...Batman???
Ah, the duel identity is established. Comic books can't be far behind!
The play was not an initial success until the last act was rewritten and it premiered again in 1905. This time to rousing success, the play became a favorite of London audiences. It became such a success that Baroness Orcsy adapted it to a novel. Then, in the true vein of what was to come, a series of sequels of novels telling of the adventures of "The Scarlet Pimpernel"!
"I Will Repay" in 1906, "The Elusive Pimpernel" in 1908, "Eldorado" in 1913, "Lord Tony's Wife" in 1917, "The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel" in 1922, "Sir Percy Hit's Back" (my favorite title) in 1927, and a few others, some written by others after Orczy's death.
The novels even told of the Pimpernel's ancestors and descendants, creating a whole time-line of adventurers who would pop into action, whenever crimes against the rich were perpetrated.
I'm going to read these some day. The concept seems fun to me.
Of course the big difference between this hero and the comic book heroes we're really here to talk about is...this guy fights for the rich and entitled, while the heroes of the golden age of comic books are always for the underdog. The one's who cannot defend themselves. And that's where a lot of the appeal lies.
It was a different time.
There were film adaptations made as well, most famously starring Leslie Howard in 1934. You'd never know it viewing that film, that it was opening the world of the Super Hero!!!
THE DIME NOVEL!!
That's right gentle reader, another venue opened up for writer's to tell adventuresome stories of individuals operating under a different identity than their own before the comic book heroes we're here to discuss!
Cost effective printing, mass advertising and an audience of avid readers (literate if not overly-educated) opened up a booming magazine market at the turn of the last century. Magazines of "true crime" stories, westerns, historical fiction, science fiction and almost any genre you could possibly imagine.
Adventure and mystery books were already established to a young male audience. "Tom Swift" and "The Bobsie Twins" and their series of books were best sellers for an audience of men who looked up to the virtues that these heroes embodied, and offered grand escapism to a grim world.
Advertisers wanted a piece of that market and publishers wanted a place they could inexpensively try out new authors, characters and concepts without the expense of a mass hard cover book run and so they magazine became a place where serialized stories could be brought to the public.
By serializing a "novel" length story, publishers could devote every issue to multiple offerings to show value to the reader. They could also monitor which of these features or authors the readers liked most. The favorite stories being told in parts also promised readers would be back to buy the next issue and advertisers loved that.
Of course features that did well would be reprinted in whole as a book later, published by those self-same publishers, and whole franchises were launched this way, but it was the serialized appearances in those magazines that got them their starts.
Alias "The Night Wind":
"The Night Wind" was a man wrongfully accused of a crime. So to prove his innocence he struck out under the cover of night to catch the real criminals and bring them to justice!
This has two big earmarks of the comic book super hero. Working under another identity than his own is the obvious one. The Night Wind didn't wear a mask or elaborate costume, but the element remains the same.
The other being (and this is an important one) he began by fighting for a single purpose, of proving his own innocence but then in subsequent stories fought for the rights of others when they were against unjustifiable odds.
A champion of the underdog, an earmark of the super hero!
You can read the Night Wind's first adventure here
Here's a hero from way back that's still popping up even now almost a century later and I'm sure you all now him.
Created by Johnston McCulley in 1919 for "All American Weekly" magazine in the story "The Curse of Capistrano", Zorro (the Spanish word for fox) is in reality Don Diego Vega, the son of a wealthy Spanish nobleman and land owner who lives in the Spanish colony of California. He returns home from his studies abroad to find the Spanish government officials leading corrupt lives and victimizing the native Indian and Mexican populations for their own greedy needs.
Don Diego establishes three mainstays of comic book super hero lore.
1. Again establishing another identity. One who operates under cover of the night, and to mislead anyone who would suspect him, borrows from the Scarlet Pimpernel, borrows the idea of keeping his "civilian" persona, one of a rich, spoiled, ineffectual who remains disinterested in the exploits of his alter-ego.
2. Fights again for the underdog. The common man who up against insurmountable odds (this time the representatives of the government) cannot defend himself.
3. The guise of his heroic self has the name of an animal (the fox) using this tool to give his foes instant recognition to what they're up against. In this case one who is sly and tricky and is probably one step ahead of their clumsiness in capturing him.
Dr. Syn - The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh:
This time a hero based in history. Tales of rebels in colonial America who object to the British Excise Tax and who rebel as a band who sabotage British strongholds under the cover of night and are led by a mysterious figure dressed as a scarecrow.
You'll forgive me, but the only pictures I could find of this guy were pictures from the Walt Disney television adaptation from the 1960's.
Again our hero uses an alter ego, one that can strike fear in the cover of night and fights for the underdog. All things which influence our comic book super heroes.
They did a great job of catching the fancies of readers, and each one had a successful run in numerous books. They just didn't have that visual impact that comic books do.
They were still missing the true formula that made it magical.
A mass cultural phenomenon occurred in 1925 when "Wireless" technology became widely available to the American public.
No, I'm not talking cel phones and blue tooth's and the like. I'm talking about radio.
Radio began regularly scheduled transmissions, home "radio sets" came on the open market and soon, whole "broadcast networks" were linking us, sea to shining sea!
A quarter century before television homogenized us, radio brought us together. News and information were brought to households 3,000 miles apart simultaneously. An incredible thing indeed.
One day I'll take on a project called "A 'Slight' History of the Golden Age of Radio" and tell you more, but for now, back to the subject at hand.
Radio brought us heroes too.
Street and Smith Publications, publishers of detective and crime pulp novels, wanted to use this bright new medium to sell it's sordid stories. A show premiered on July 31, 1930 called "The Detective Story Hour" in which detective stories were played out in dramatized form, with a mysterious voiced narrator, "The Shadow"!
As time went on, the narrator became so popular, the series turned over to his own adventures.
Lamont Cranston was a wealthy newspaper publisher who had been trained in the far east with nigh mystical powers. He had the power to "cloud men's minds" and appear to become invisible. With his lady love Margot Lane who was privy to his secret identity, he used this power and the scare tactic it brought with it, to trap criminals into confessions and bring justice to the world.
Super hero conventions used by the Shadow:
1. A secret identity unknown to the world at large.
2. A persona of the night, to use criminals fear to trap them.
3. Super-normal powers or abilities, which give him the edge over his adversaries.
The Lone Ranger:
Little old Detroit radio station WXYZ premiered the Lone Ranger radio show on January 30, 1933 and the show was soon picked up by The Mutual Broadcasting Network. As a matter of fact, it was this shows true heroic fete, that it single handedly saved the network and put it on the map. The show was later moved to NBC's Blue Network, which eventually became ABC. All told this masked rider of the old west made it through a remarkable 2,956 episodes on radio.
No one knows the first name of our masked hero of the old west, but his last name was given as Reid. He and his brother Dan Reid served together in the Texas Rangers and together with some other rangers were tracking the villainous Cavendish Gang. The gang, led by Butch Cavendish, ambushed the rangers in a canyon and left them all for dead. They were dead, save one lone ranger...the one known only as Reid.
He was then discovered and nursed back to health by a brave native American named Tonto. They had been childhood friends and Reid had even saved Tonto once when renegade Indians murdered his mother and sister and left Tonto for dead.
Taking a piece of leather from his fallen brothers vest, Reid fashioned a mask for himself to hide his identity from the Cavendish Gang as Tonto and he set out to avenge the other rangers' deaths.
There's lots more to the story and how they grew to be erstwhile companions and fight injustice in the days of yesteryear. Over the course of the series the origin of his horse Silver is given and it's even explained where he gets all that silver to make his bullets from. But that's a story for another blog.
The reason he uses silver for his bullets though is pure super hero! He uses the precious metal for these death dealing little missiles, to remind him always that, human life is far to precious to be spent needlessly.
That's just good shit!
Super Hero conventions used by or begun by the Lone Ranger?
1. A mask to conceal his identity, and ironically to make himself instantly recognizable.
2. A faithful companion who fights alongside him, and whose loyalty is never in doubt.
3. Fighting for justice, just for justice's sake. Defending the helpless and weak against their oppressors. Seeking no reward than knowing that justice has been served. "Who was that masked man?", "All he left was this silver bullet!" and "I never even had a chance to thank him." are testaments to that.
4. A cool catchphrase. "Hi yo Silver, Awaaaaaaaaay!"
5. A calling card - the silver bullet.
The Green Hornet:
This radio series ALSO premiered on WXYZ, this time on January 31, 1936. From there it followed the same path as The Lone Ranger show, moving to Mutual, NBC Blue and finally ABC.
That's not just a coincidence though, The Green Hornet was actually a kind of spin-of of the Ranger show.
Originally called "The Hornet" the adjective "Green" was added for copyright reasons. Green was chosen because green hornets are reputably the most fierce.
The Green Hornet was Britt Reid, wealthy newspaper publisher of the Daily Sentinel. Sound familiar? A newspaper publisher like The Shadow and a "Reid" like...you guessed it...The Lone Ranger. You see, Britt Reid was the grandson of The Lone Ranger's brother Dan Reid, the ranger who had been killed by The Cavendish Gang. That's just good shit to know!
With his faithful valet Kato at his side, Britt Reid battles the underworld in contemporary settings. With his own CSI style crime lab, his ultra-cool and ultra-fast and ultra-sleek car "The Black Beauty" and gizmo's like his humane "Gas Gun", The Green Hornet battles underworld types he learns about through his own newspaper.
He also uses his position as publisher of The Sentinel to write editorial objections to the vigilante nature of the Hornet. Ostensibly to shake suspicion of his true identity, but when the police and public begin to look on the Hornet as someone working outside the law or even a criminal, the Hornet uses this to add an even more ominous tone in his identity to criminals themselves and strike even more fear into them.
Super Hero conventions of or started by the Green Hornet:
1. A masked identity with an animal connotation to strike immediate recognition.
2. A civilian identity posing an opposite to the heroic identity.
3. A faithful sidekick.
4. A signature weapon.
5. A cool mode of transportation.
6. Protecting the downtrodden in society from the evils that prey on them.
OldTime Radio is another huge passion of mine, and readily available in MP3 format all over the web or on discs from collectors on ebay.
This was a wonderful time before TV, there were no visuals and you really have to intently listen to enjoy the shows...no passivity allowed! Comedies, Dramas, Mysteries...they were all there...including, the Super Hero!
By this point in history (the 1930's) it was well understood that there was a market for this new breed of hero. This mysterious vigilante that answered to no one's rules but his own and let true blind justice be his guide.
The medium still didn't seem quite right. Radio, with all it's infectious drama and the rapt listeners almost got it right...it was just missing something. So we return to the dime pulp magazines of the time.
The Shadow (again):
The Shadow had worked so well as a detective show narrator and then as a full fledged crime fighting character in radio, the creators at Smith and Street Publishing gave him his own pulp magazine. For 10 cents, 1/10th of a dollar, one thin dime, you could hold in your hands EVERY TWO WEEKS thrilling adventures of every one's favorite creepy crime-stopper!
Sleazy, tawdry, gritty...everything you wanted! And this time you could hold it in your hands and smell the musty pulp newsprint. It was visceral. And to bombard the senses more, a 4 color picture of our hero, beautifully painted by some great talented illustrators of the day, leering back at you from the cover.
They were ON to something!
Street & Smith continued exploring this formula. They had discovered there was magic in this. By adding to their gritty crime novel with the hard bitten detective on the job. By making the hero something more than this. By making him dynamic and maybe with a touch of mystery or exoticism to him...there was something there. Instead of a detective the reader could relate to and put himself in his shoes, something instead that the reader could look up to. Admire. To aspire to.
Clark "Doc" Savage, Jr. was a physician, surgeon, scientist, adventurer, inventor, explorer, researcher and musician. His father assembled a team of scientists who trained young Clark's mind and body almost from birth, if not in utero, to almost super-human abilities.
His body had great strength and endurance, and he had a photographic memory, a mastery of the martial arts, a master of disguise and imitator of voices. The author of the series described Doc as a mix of "Sherlock Holmes' deductive abilities, Tarzan's physical abilities and Abraham Lincoln's goodness!".
Doc Savage's personal oath: "Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man."
WOW! How's THAT for super hero shit!
Doc Savage came to you every month for 181 issues.
Again...we almost have it!
There were plenty of other pulp heroes of the 1930's from Smith & Street and others. Most were just variations on the themes of "The Shadow" or even "The Green Hornet" from radio.
Fun, adventuresome, colorful...but still lacking that little combination of magic that the comic book super hero would bring.
As I've discussed here before...and will many times again...and again...and again, the comic strips you find in the daily newspaper USED to be cool!
I no longer have any illusions that they will ever be cool again, if only because I don't anticipate newspapers to even exist in 10 years, but they really used to be a valuable part of peoples lives and of the newspapers themselves. They used to be a real selling point for newspapers. When large cities had 4 or 5 newspapers to choose from, the features inside are what made them a loyal reader...after all, they ALL provided the same news. A feature with a large audience ensured that the reader would buy that same newspaper again the next day. Since there are no longer any competing newspapers in any given metropolitan area, people who are want to buy a newspaper, are stuck with only one choice anyway.
Thus the feature loses it's selling point, and with increases in printing costs (paper, ink, mook labor to print the pieces of shit) and with reduced advertising revenues (advertisers pay less as less readers buy the paper) the newspaper grows smaller and smaller every day.
End result, the space for the comics gets smaller every day. Back in the heyday of newspaper comics, strips were almost double the size they appear now, and the color Sunday funnies at one point were 5, 6 even 7 times larger than they are now.
So back in the day...and more specifically the 1930's that we are discussing right now...there was room to tell a story. Room to develop characters. Room for adventure and suspense.
The newspapers had by the 1930's embraced the adventure strip. It was a perfect way for a strip to have a continuing story which kept readers coming back the next day to see what happens to their favorite characters. Captain Easy, Smilin' Jack, Prince Valiant, Tarzan, Buck Rodgers, Flash Gordon, Terry and the Pirates...all fit the bill and told great stories that rewarded the reader who "came back for more!".
Eventually, the strips stumbled across the "super hero". The two most prominent and successful were even created by the same guy!
Mandrake the Magician:
Lee Falk created and wrote and drew this comic strip about a stage magician who fought against everything from gangsters to creatures from other dimensions, mad scientists to extraterrestrials.
The strip premiered on June 11, 1934 and still runs today in a few papers. Lee Falk turned over the art chores to Phil Davis early on and Davis stayed with the strip until his death in 1966 at which time Fred Fredrickson took over the art chores to Falk's scripts. When Lee Falk passed away in 1999, Fredrickson took over the reigns of both art and story.
Mandrake's one true magic trick was kind of a hypnotic gesture which causes his target to see illusions. He uses this ultimate of all misdirections to overpower or distract them. He has a team of loyal sidekicks who aid him in his battle against evil. The most prominent being the following two.
Narda, the Princess of Cockaigne (a mythical European "land of plenty") whom he met on his second ever adventure, she fights side by side with one another and though they have been in love since that fist meeting in 1934, they didn't marry until 1997. THAT's comic book-y stuff in and of itself!
Lothar, once the "Prince of the Seven Nations" in Africa, Lothar abdicated his crown as King to fight alongside his best friend Mandrake. Lothar is often looked at as the muscle of the group, and rightly so, he's often referred to as "The Strongest Man in the World"!
Super Hero traits of Mandrake:
1. A loyal sidekick/sidekicks who unquestioning join him at every turn.
2. A recognizable costume, in this case a tuxedo, top hat and red-lined cape.
3. Super power of ability with which to thwart the evil-doers.
Lee Falk also created "The Phantom" which premiered on February 17, 1936 and is, like Mandrake, still running to this very day.
In the strip, the story goes as follows. In 1536, the father of British sailor Christopher Walker was murdered during a pirate attack. The only survivor of the attack, Christopher was washed ashore on a Bengallan beach, and swore an oath on the skull of his father's murderer to dedicate his life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty and injustice, with his sons and their sons set to follow him. Making a costume based on the image of an old jungle idol, he became the Phantom. When he died, his son took over the role of the Phantom, and such the mantle would be passed down to new generations, leaving people to give the mysterious figure nick-names such as "The Man Who Cannot Die", "Guardian of the Eastern Dark" and "The Ghost Who Walks", believing him to be immortal. The current Phantom and star of the comic strip is the 21st Phantom in succession.
Super Hero traits of The Phantom!
1. An identity or persona which instantly intimidates the criminals. An immortal "Ghost Who Walks" and can't be killed.
2. A calling card. The Phantom wears a "skull" ring, which leaves an imprint of a skull on his adversaries after he socks 'em one on the jaw! Bitchin'!
3. A secret lair. The Phantom lives in "Skull Cave". Currently with his trained wolf "Devil", his horse "Hero", his wife Diana Palmer and two children Kit and Heloise. Sound comic-book-y? Yer darn tootin'!
4. The first hero to wear a skin-tight costume. That's right the first. And if there was ever a hallmark of the comic book super hero, this is it!
5. Fights against evil, at first for vengeance purposes (at least his great-great-21 times-grandfather did) then for the cause of justice itself. Always protecting who cannot protect themselves.
NEXT: It's time!!!
This path we've wandered through British Penny Dreadful's, the dramatic stage, pulp magazines and novels and newspaper comics pages will finally converge on the main point of our journey!
The comic book super hero!
Join me, won't you?
We've covered some of what influenced popular fiction to find a colorful hero and we're now up to the time when those 10 cent, 4 color pieces of magic called comic books came into their own!
What better place to bring all that came before into fruition? The comic book offered all the things others did before and more. The serialization and the "back-pocket" compactness of the penny dreadful, the sensationalism of the pulp novel/magazine, the drama and excitement of the theatre, the personal contact and focus of radio and the visualization of the newspaper comic strip...except instead of 4 or 5 panels long...it was 32 or 48 or 72 PAGES long!
And so, the first super hero created just for this new medium made his debut:
"The Clock" was indeed the very first masked crime-fighter produced for comic books. He first appeared in 1936, premiering in both "Funny Pages" issue #6 and "Funny Picture Stories" #1 in November of that year.
I should point out at this point, that comic books are traditionally "month dated" a few months ahead, so November was more than likely July of that year. The original thinking was that news distributors would leave them on the stands 4 months longer if they fibbed about the cover date. It didn't work, especially after comic books became successful enough to be published on a monthly basis and the old had to go as the new come out. The practice has lasted to this very day though. For the purpose of keeping me sane during our "Slight History", months mentioned will be the month on the cover date of the books, not the actual street date, which you can assume was always about 4 months earlier.
I don't want to jump ahead in our chronological journey, but our friend the clock deserves some telling about. He's not as forgotten as it seems. He was first published by "Comics Magazine Publishers", then in the late 1930's when the company almost went under, that company sold it's slate of characters to the fledgling "Quality Comics" line, where "The Clock" continued his adventures. "CMP" reorganized and got back into the fold as "Centaur Comics" and even though it had sold the characters to "Quality" and "Quality" was printing all new adventures, "Centaur" simultaneously re-printed it's stories as well. In 1956 "Quality" closed it's doors and most of it's canon was sold over the "National (DC)" and though "DC" acquired the characters, they did not renew the copyright on them all and "The Clock" slipped into the public domain. Since then tenuous references in some "DC" books have been made, though the character has not made an appearance, and other companies such as "Malibu Comics" HAVE used the PD character.
So you see, it's one of those weird things. No one really remembers the character, but he's been published by at least 5 different comics companies over 70+ years. Sounds like a stick-to-it kind of guy to me.
The character, when first appeared, didn't really have much of a back story. The stories published by "CMP" were little two page mystery stories. That's right, just 2 pages.
The character did develop more under the "Quality" umbrella and we'll get to that when the time is right. This is a chronologically told history after all.
For now, here's the earliest example I have of "The Clock" in action! From "Funny Pages" #11, here's comics' FIRST super hero!
Not alot there, but it's just the beginning of a very colorful ride.
It's finally time.
I'm done blathering (at least for now).
The reason I began this project was so I could find an excuse to read all the bitchin' golden age comic books I've recently glommed onto...also I want to find an excuse to draw all those great characters. And so we begin.
Yes, it really did all begin with Superman.
In July of 1938, Action Comics issue #1 was published be "National Comics". Here's that very first Superman story:
Please re-read this post about the PRE-history of that story and read this post
for a little more back ground on that first issue.
The Big Blue Guy took some ribbing in the forward to this project, but all those prototype heroes agree. Superman took it to a whole new level!
From here on out, it was "The Golden Age of the Comic Book Super Hero"!
Superman's first story was nothing short of "Comic Book Geek Awesome!"
I thought I'd do a short breakdown of my thoughts.
First off, you'll notice, the Superman of July 1939 was not nearly the nigh-invulnerable being of today.
At first, Superman didn't have the ability to fly. That wasn't brought in until 1940 or so when The Fleischer Brothers were doing the animated version and the animators felt it was too clumsy to have him jumping and hopping everywhere. Seems lame by today's standards, but someone who could hurdle a 2 story building is indeed someone to be reckoned with.
Cool to see Superman basically strong-arming his way around this adventure too. Like a teenager (as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were at the time of doing this story) would do if he had these abilities!
Not only outright showing off with his strength...
But even throwing around a little teenage swagger and sarcasm. BITCHIN'!
He's even put in the position every 80 pound weakling fantasizes about and gets to play out through our new hero. Stopping a wife beater...coming to the age of a damsel in distress. Even challenging the jerk to "take on someone his own size".
This is the super hero fantasy in a nutshell! Distilled by Jerry and Joe in just a few panels.
And here's a great consistency...
...I guess it's comforting to know that, even 72 years ago, Lois Lane was already a snotty bitch and a c*nt!
Yet another sequence of Superman taunting and teasing his adversary with his abilities. Making the bad guys who think they're tougher than everyone else dang near poop their pants.
"A physical marvel, a mental wonder, Superman is destined to reshape the destiny of a world!"
Ah, if only it were real. Our destiny could use some reshaping
I'm really looking forward to checking out part two of this story. It occurred to me as I re-read this, I never have...but it's waiting right here on my computer.
I'm downright giddy.
But before I get to that, I should note that there was more to Action Comics issue #1 than just this classic story. The Golden Age of Comic Books was the era of the anthology book. 68 or 72 pages of thrills and adventures starring a rash of characters. As Superman was the first super hero and had yet to fire the trend that was soon to follow, Action #1 was filled with plenty of other stuff to put a young boy on the edge of his seat.
The history I, wanting to focus on here is the phenomenon of the super hero in comics and culture, though one day I may do a "Slight" history on some of these other genres.
There was "Chuck Dawson" a western feature.
...historical adventure in "The Adventures of Marco Polo"...
...athletic all-American "Pep Morgan"...
...hard bitten investigative drama with "Scoop Scanlon"...
...a text story. You see back in the day, to qualify for discount postage as magazines, comic books were required to have a minimum of 2 pages of text. By the 70's, when it was learned there was much to gain by speaking to the fans, DC, Marvel, MLJ, Charlton, etc. addressed this by adding a "letter to the editor" page and by having a company advertising page of some sort (i.e. DC Direct Currents, Marvel Bullpen, etc.) but in the 1930's-1960's comics would have a two page text story. This doesn't exist in present day, as the "magazine postage" issue is moot since almost all comics are sold through direct market (comic book stores), though the value of the "letters" page and company ad page is still there so they remain.
I have a theory that in 30 years of these two page texts, not a single person on the planet ever read even one. I can't even bring myself to read them now as I contemplate the idea. My theory is, that they're pure shit, and I have a sneaking suspicion that you'll never see a "A 'Slight' History of Golden Age Comic Books: The Boring Ass-Required by Postal Law-Text Stories" by me...
..."Sticky-Mitt Stimson" a humor strip..
...another western strip (westerns had big big in the movies since the 1920's silent days even) called "Tex Thompson"...
...and finally "Zatara"!
Zatara was an unabashed ripoff on the popularity of the newspaper comic strip "Mandrake the Magician", except instead of a hypnotic illusion "trick" like Mandrake, Zatara did indeed work some real magic.
Much ballyhoo has long been made that the Golden Age of Comic Books began with the publication of Action Comics #1 and Superman's first appearance therein. While it's true that Superman was the major selling point and was the break-away character whose soon-to-be-burgeoning-popularity would spark the Super Hero revolution to come over the next decade (and well into today for that matter), there was another Super Hero that made his debut in that very same issue.
Zatara, the Magician! I find it a little ironic (though not a lot, really) that, later in the Superman mythos, the only other thing beside Kryptonite that could affect him was magic. The power held by the character who shared his debut.
Well, maybe it isn't that magic can harm him, so much as he's easily fooled by it. But that's just my take.
Zatara was really just a rip off of Mandrake the Magician from the newspapers. He dressed the same and even had a big mook of a sidekick named Tong to assist him, much like Mandrake's Lothar. In this debut story, the only real differences are the color of the lining of his cape (Mandrake's is red) and Zatara is sans moustache. The moustache came LATER though.
The real difference is that while Mandrake's magic was all centered around his knack for quick hypnotism of his subjects to create illusions, Zatara actually had magical powers. His spells are cast by saying his commands backwards.
Reminds me of this Steve Goodman song:
While Superman's premier story has been re-printed and re-printed over and over, the Zatara story hasn't. Here it is to read for yourself, "The Mystery of the Freight Train Robberies"!
Ta Da! Magic First Aid Kit:
Zatara's arch enemy...the beautiful and ruthless Tigress! You can tell she's the Tigress by her stripedy shirt:
Check it out! He's talkin' backwards!
Zatara is handy at the fisticuffs too!
You can tell The Tigress is evil. She kicks a man when he's down.
Zatara, of course, is not below Mandrake's hypnotism trick. He just says it backwards.
He's not above a little gun play if need be either.
...I mean, for real. Check his shooting the bad guys! Not gnitoohs, but shooting!
I think panel 3 here is a typo. Tigress' gun appears to become a banana, not a bullet. If I had a dirty mind, I'd wonder where she disappeared so fast to with the phallic fruit.
Oh wait, I do have a dirty mind.
And so, the Tigress escapes to challenge Zatara again. So begin the EPIC adventures of comicdoms favorite magical Super Hero.
If you don't count Sargon the Sorceror. Or Ibis the Invincible. Or Doctor Fate. Or...
Oh hell. Let's face it. Zatara is best remembered for just 3 things.
1. He was a rip off of Mandrake.
2. Because he was one of the first Super Heroes ever, retconning in the Modern Age of Comic Books sometimes references Zatara being the man who helped train Batman. Though I believe this has been retconned out of continuity at present.
3. And the most important thing that Zatara is remembered for is his daughter, Zatanna who debuted in the 1960's in the Silver Age of Comic Books:
Is if creepy that a man's legacy be carried in his daughters fish-net stockings?
Yes. But, "Hubba Hubba" who cares! Check out them gams!
In July of 1938, Superman and Zatara's second appearance's came and went unheralded. While Superman had been featured on the cover of Action Comics #1, this was after all an anthology comic book with lots of virgin features, so the characters rotated on the covers and Superman wouldn't make a cover appearance until #7 in December.
This was an age before Twitter, so it took some time for feedback from the public. The "Dawn of the Golden Age Comic Book Super Hero came with a whisper.
Here, for your reading enjoyment, is that second appearance of Superman from Action Comics issue #2. As I mentioned before, issue 1 has been re-printed over and over again, but this story has seen little daylight, and since it's the conclusion of a two parter, I thought it deserved to be seen.
The scans for this are not as clear as the first and are a slight strain to read, but it's the best I can find. Hey, what do you want? Haven't you heard? These comics are selling for a million dollars a pop nowadays!
Anyway, click the images to make bigger or download them and enlarge them in your picture viewer...it makes for some fun reading.
You know, of course, that this is all going to Superman's oversized Kryptonian head. The last time we were all down at "The Drink Hole"...
I honestly don't intend to post every story from the Golden Age of Comic Book Super Heroes, but in the year of 1938 we are still at a very disparate time from our own, and the contrast of these first stories and the world we know today is as broad as it could be. And therefor, very exciting and interesting.
It's July of 1938 now, and in the 2 years since the debut of The Clock in 1936, there have been only 2 more super heroes introduced into comic books. Superman and Zatara both premiered in Action Comics #1 in June and issue #2 brings us their sophomore efforts.
Zatara, while for all intents and purposes was a straight rip-off of Mandrake the Magician, he DID offer a more fantastical approach. Zatara could actually perform magic as opposed to Mandrakes use of hypnotic illusions. He kind of outmatched his foes though, as they are all common every day thugs with tricks up their sleeves, at least as far as 1938 is concerned.
With this broadness of atmosphere also comes more broadness of character. Mandrakes right arm man Lothar, may have been a big strong olive skinned ethnic type, but he was also depicted as Mandrakes friend, not just a servant. He was depicted as a man of royal blood, with regal breeding, manners and education. Zatara's Tong on the other hand, was just a big mook.
As you read this story, please take the characterization of Tong as it was intended. Tong is powerful. Tong is loyal. Tong is moral and just. Tong is also a pretty 2 dimensional stereotype. It was a different time, the world was a bigger place and America was more innocent in 1938. We should take it for what it was and know it for what it is.
The story itself is pretty well told and the characters more fleshed out. Zatara has his trademark moustache now. And Tong? Well. I like him. Stereotyped in speech and appearance as he may have been, he was also one of the good guys. He fought the good fight for all the right reasons. Not such a bad thing after all.
OK, OK, I promise to all the lawyers at Time-Warner that I won't really be posting every Superman appearance as my "Slight" History continues. These first few are sooooooooo intriguing to me though, that I think they deserve a good look and a share with all of you. In deference to the powers that be, if you'd like to read every golden age Superman story, please check out the Superman Archive series published by the big boys.
It's now August of 1938 in our timeline and Superman and Zatara make their 3rd appearance in Action Comics #3. There's a couple of interesting things to note here as the novelty of the character of Superman (super powered being, dressed in tights, being from another planet, etc.) is still a gamble on the part of the publisher. They know NOT what they hath wrought!
It's evidenced in a couple of things here. For one, production was far ahead of what the businessmen could keep up with methinks. The Superman character was ALREADY after 2 months proved such a popular character, that they added an offer to join the "Supermen of America" club (at the bottom of page 13...wish I had that center spread). But the logistics of production still had them forging ahead with a cover that did not feature their newly popular character.
Another sign that the powers that be were still hedging their bets is in the execution of the story itself. The first 2 issues had been culled from the story that Siegel and Shuster had been working on for the character for 3 or 4 or 5 years and was an extended pure form of the stories they wanted to tell of this fantastic super being in the blue tights. THIS story has every one's favorite Kryptonian going undercover. 13 pages of, yes good deeds and bursts of amazing abilities, but without the flash of the union suit. This smacks of the editors not being sure that the readers wanted something quite so spangly and outrageous.
I have no evidence of this, it's just my theory, but think about it. If the suits had been having good success for years producing stories of good guys fighting for the right, they may have seen making it all TOO out of the ordinary as being a distraction and a detraction. They hadn't yet realized that after all those forays into the super hero (see earlier posts in this series on "Prototypes of the Comic Book Super Hero"), that this new medium of story and art all in the long form of 10-13 page stories was finally the place to sink their teeth into this new breed of hero. For all the flash of what comic books would become, this "under cover" story seems a little pedestrian, but I think only because the suits were afraid to make the plunge.
But they very soon would.
I'd like to hear from any of you who know more about this period to see if my theory is correct or if I'm just talking out of my butt. In either case....read on!
If I had that center spread, I'd fill it out and send it in.
A true sign that the Golden Age of the Comic Book Super Hero had begun. Fan appreciation!
This brings us to the end of the first summer of the Golden Age of Comic Book Super Heroes. I don't have a copy of the Zatara story from this issue but here's some more miscellaneous stories of "The Clock" to bring us all up to speed on more of what was hinted at with this character.
These little two page detective stories were the extent of the flushing out while being published by "Comics Magazine Publishers" (later "Centaur"), the true evolution for him would be coming in a few months when he was sold to "Quality". These little two pagers that were continued from month to month are another sign to me that publishers were still unaware of the impact that the masked crime-fighters would have. Still warily dipping their toes in unsure waters.
Just recently a copy of Action Comics #1 sold at auction for $1,000,000. THAT'S BILLION WITH AN "M", PEOPLE! An extravagant amount, especially considering the previous high-dollar mark was in the $300,000's. A few days later, a copy of Detective Comics #27 (the first appearance of Batman) sold for even more than THAT and just this week another copy of Action #1 went for an all time new record of 1.5 million.
This chain of events was discussed this week when I had a few beers with the golden age of comic book super heroes down at The Drink Hole.
Whatever it may have been, I'd like to express my thanks to the new followers to my blog this past week and to my fellow bloggers who have added this humble blog to their "Blog Rolls" on their own pages. It's much appreciated!
September 1938, The Golden Age of Comic Book Super Heroes is entering it's second quarter. Superman is still not the default cover feature for Action Comics and is not even the lead feature inside, being relegated to pages 49-61.
Messrs Seigel and Shuster, while having produced features-a-plenty for National Comics are still feeling their way in how to make a story work with a character with extra abilities. Superman plays a detective-like role in trying to get to the bottom of a college football fix and goes under cover again.
The world at large (even in the yet unnamed Metropolis) is unaware of this marvel from the planet Krypton, and Superman seems to like it that way. He takes great pleasure in surprising his adversaries with his great strength and...ah well, read on...I'll pop in and commentate when necessary.
We open with Superman keeping the mean streets of Metropolis (or New York...or Cleveland...or Toronto maybe even at the point) free of "hit and run" drivers.
It's always high comedy to have drunks be the only witnesses to unusual activity.
The "hit and run" driver plot point is now not needed, so our erstwhile writer simply kills him off. Oh, if only the hanging threads of my life were so easily tied off. Superman's near the train, which is where he's needed for the story, that's all that matters...but why does he stop to get on board? These are questions for wiser men than me. Why does he automatically hide from the people in the room he's just broken into? I'd say it's just a good thing for story development he did! And is behind an arm chair really that good of a hiding place? Damn skippy it is!!
Hmmph, passed over by a tennis playing dandy! He deserves to be given a hypodermic injection with a strange drug!
You know? Superman's actions just become less palatable as the story goes on. He is just beginning his career after-all, a super hero has got to learn as he goes, just like the rest of us.
In just 2 pages he spoils his own plan. Super-common sense is not one of his powers.
Another "unlikely-to-work" hiding place.
Seigel and Shuster are starting to get the idea here. At the apex of the story, seeing Superman emerge ready for action in his fighting togs to cue the reader in.
Burke shakes off the Super-drug just in time!
The drug use in this story can be set aside as part of the era of the 1930's. "Wonder drugs" were popping up every 10 minutes, and the "miracles" of modern medicine were looked on as just that by the general public. Not yet understood, the boys would think sedation by injection was just as harmless as they make it sound.
The fact that Superman is only minimally seen in full red and blue and treated more as a detective with lots of powerful tricks up his sleeve...THAT's the real appeal of this story. 4 months in now, and the Super Hero and it's potential for fantastic and weird adventures is still escaping the creators grasp.
It's the stuff I love about viewing things of the past in retrospect. Seeing the creators of something feeling their way about, learning while they work and knowing how it will all come to fruition.
In August 1938, there were still only 3 super heroes on the block, Superman, Zatara and The Clock, but in September, Comics Magazine Publishers quietly heralded in their second foray into the new genre.
Inside Funny Pages vol. 2, issue 10...The Arrow came swinging into action.
Please excuse the odd looking scans, these were apparently NOT scanned, but shot with a digital camera instead. Ah, the lengths geeks like we go through for a piece of comic book history.
Note also, The Arrow in a blue costume, he switched almost immediately to red and stayed that way for the rest of his history. Enjoy!
Danger in the form of a flood presents itself:Perry White is still not the name of the editor (though Clark and Lois do call him "Chief" and the Daily Planet is still called the Daily Star...
...and Clark is already a sucker for Lois. Poor orphaned Kal-El...so easily duped by a pretty face and Lois' firm caboose.
Duped by the strong female figure, he still can't hold it against her, even at the expense of his job.
This really was Seigel painting a very clear black and white picture of all the elements of the story for the 1938 adolescent reader. What young boy couldn't see himself giving it all up for the sake of a woman...especially if he knew he didn't really need the job and if he had super powers.
Of course this also gave a chance for Superman to save Lois' hash. This would have been a disaster had Clark been aboard the train...he wouldn't have seen the bridge buckling and the entirety of the passengers except himself would have been killed.
Ah well. Our boy Superman is still as naive as the young men reading the comic.
Obviously this was well before Ma and Pa Kent were introduced into the mythos. Pa would have told Clark not to be cow towed by an overbearing boss when Clark was in the right, and Ma would have surely taught him not to be so swayed by feminine wiles. Not to mention, the callousing over that Lana Lang gave him as a teenager would have Clark being less of a sap around Lois.
But - Clark's milquetoast personality was exactly what Seigel and Shuster wanted to give the double identity with Superman more of a contrast. All in all it's good solid stuff! The stuff the golden age of comic book super heroes is built on!
Man, Mike's right. This is one wordy blog.
I'm givin' ya a run fer yer money, Ivan!
Talk to you soon.