Treasured Stories: “The Price” (1974)

« Apparently he had never learned that a white man’s foot, though it wabble ever so, is given him wherewith to kick natives out of the road. » — John Russell

Welcome to another installment of Treasured Stories! This one’s a bit of a sequel, or rather a companion piece to an earlier entry, August Heat (from just about a year ago) as we’re featuring two of the same creators, namely scripter E. Nelson Bridwell (1931-1987) and penciller-inker Alfredo Alcala (1925-2000).

In this instance, we can surely witness judicious editorial sense at work, in terms of matching material to talent. While Bridwell likely selected the story, and though they’d worked together before, Alcala was a flawless choice to bring it to full visual bloom. A tale of the Pacific Islands illustrated by a Pacific Islander, and a masterful one at that… on both counts. Alcala’s expertly-paced, limpid, deliberate storytelling is a natural fit.

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It’s easy to underestimate how daunting a challenge, in most cases, is the effective transition of material from medium to medium. In this instance, the source is a much-anthologized short story by John Russell, originally published in Collier’s, May 20, 1916. You can judge for yourself after reading the original text here.

Russell’s stories sharply veer from the usual civilisation vs savages colonialist tripe of the era in that the natives are depicted as oft-complex but subtle beings and the whites, as often as not, as pompously delusional savages; one sees the pattern emerge upon reading a few of Russell’s South Pacific tales (collected in Where the Pavement Ends, 1921); in my own case, I found a trio of these in Dennis Wheatley‘s excellent anthology Shafts of Fear (1964), an update and expansion of his earlier A Century of Horror (1935).

Still, I strongly suspect that Bridwell’s exposure to The Price of the Head came not from books, but rather from a radio play, as all three of his DC short story adaptations (TPOTH, August Heat and The Man and the Snake had received that particular treatment. To his credit, Bridwell went back to the source for his version.

The Price of the Head was adapted several times for radio:
Listen to The Man in Black version (February 2, 1952)
Listen to Escape (version 2) from August 7, 1954

You’ll note that the racism so refreshingly absent from Russell’s story has been painstakingly restored for the radio programmes. Now that’s dedication!

Quite recently, I was delighted to hear that Mr. Bridwell has not entirely been forgotten; indeed, he is to be bestowed, though posthumously of course, the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing on Friday, July 19 2019, during the Eisner Awards ceremony at this summer’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, CA. Bravo!

Read all about it on Mark Evanier’s fine blog. And thank you, Mark!

-RG

Poise and Prudence: Tove Jansson’s The Moomins

I think it safe to surmise that pretty much everyone is familiar with the light-coloured, pleasantly plump creatures collectively referred to as the Moomins. Even if you’ve never heard of Tove Marika Jansson, their creator, you’ve surely glimpsed a Moomintroll mug, a Snork Maiden tote, or a Little My t-shirt.

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) was a multi-faceted soul: comic strip artist, of course, but also novelist, painter and illustrator (one might argue that these all are related: point taken). She published her first Moomin book in 1945 (The Moomins and the Great Flood) to (eventual) great success; the eight books that followed were equally popular. All have been translated into forty-four languages. The Moomin comic strip, first designed for publication in the children’s section of Swedish newspaper Ny Tid, ran from 1947 to 1975, and was syndicated in 120 countries. (Here’s a detailed timeline of Moomins’ creation and development.) To Anglophone audiences, the strip is known thanks to The London Evening News, which picked it up in 1954.

The commercialization of the Moomin family, the ubiquity of Moomin merchandise overshadow the rest of Jansson’s career – but also cheapen the darling Moomins. (I should talk; I have two favourite Moomin mugs from which I drink kefir.) As with the best writing for children, Moomin stories are fun and easy to follow on the surface – but beneath that cheerful and cute exterior, complex themes are tackled, moral dilemmas remain unresolved, and the world is a confusing, unfair place.

Montréal’s Drawn and Quarterly is currently « reworking classic Moomin stories in full colour, with a kid-proof but kid-friendly size, price, and format » (to quote from their website) for their Enfant collection. « Enfant » means « child », but I think any adult with a sense of humour and just a pinch of childlike innocence will enjoy these stories. Drawn and Quarterly have heretofore published collections of London Evening News strips in black and white; and though the art is beautiful, I really like the way the strips came out in colour.

As little of this stuff is findable online, I’ve selected a few (well, quite a few) favourite pages to whet your appetite – a selection of goofy characters, hard life lessons and good old madcap fun.

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Pages from Moomin’s Winter Follies

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Moomin Builds a House. Little My makes her first appearance in this story. Some parenting advice from Elder Mymble, the mother of this red-haired hoarde: « I don’t like to keep scolding them. I just… pour some water over them. …Or lemonade. »

« Born in 1914, at the onset of World War I, Tove’s childhood and early adulthood took place in a time of intense political upheaval. Artists themselves, her parents were a part of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland and in those first few years, when the world was at war, Tove and her mother stayed in Stockholm while her father remained in Finland, going on to fight in the Finnish civil war in 1918. That experience, some literary analysts say, is reflected in the missing Moominpappa, who appears only as an allusion in the first chapters of the first book. » (How Tove Jansson’s Moomins conquered readers’ hearts)

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« As springtime dawns in Moominvalley and the first northern crocus opens, Moominpappa and Snorkmaiden, glamorized by the prospects of movie stars and gambling, insist the whole family take a trip down to the Riviera. Reluctantly Moomin and Moominmamma agree to go along, and the Moomins set off on a grand adventure, complete with butlers, luxury shops, indoor swimming pools, and duels at dawn. » Pages from Moomin on the Riviera.

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« Following art school and travels abroad, Jansson drew cartoons for different outlets, including, for fifteen years, the satirical political paper Garm. (“Do as you like,” the editor told her. “Just make sure you hit them in the mouth.”) This is where the Moomins first surfaced publicly. Originally meaner-looking and troll-like creatures called Snorks, they began mostly as marginalia, a kind of signature, and might even be found loitering in a cartoon about the German Army’s evacuation of Lapland. » (The Hands That Made the Moomins)

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Page from Moomin and the Sea.
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Misabel the maid is, as her name suggests, miserable. Afraid of any kind of non-conformist behaviour, scared of enjoying anything, she is anathema to Moomins’ approach to life. Pages from Moominmamma’s Maid.

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« Tove’s entire life was filled with bold decisions: selling satirical cartoons mocking Hitler; opposing war; choosing not to marry or have children; and turning down Walt Disney’s offer to buy the Moomin brand. She was the writer, illustrator, designer and controlled the business side of her creation, not trusting anyone else to do it justice. » (Tove Jansson’s Feminist Legacy)

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This sequence with a somewhat indignant cow is one of my favourite moments. Pages from Moomin and the Martians.

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« In like spirit, Moomin hospitality excludes no one—except those prone to electrify the furniture or freeze Moominmamma’s roses. Guests include shrewish Fillyjonks addicted to cleaning; large graceless Hemulens obsessed with classifying and organising; and a philosophical Muskrat who believes only in the pointlessness of everything. » (Tove Jansson, Queen of the Moomins)

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« When a charismatic prophet comes to town, the residents of Moominvalley are easily convinced to follow his doctrine for true happiness. Intrigued by their friends and neighbors’ lifestyle changes, the impressionable Moomins find themselves attempting to adopt the teachings of their new spiritual leader. But the freer they get, the more miserable they feel. Moominvalley’s state of divine chaos is further complicated by the prophet’s well-intentioned decree to free all of the jail’s inmates. » Moomin Begins a New Life.

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MoominNewLife02A« Over time, Jansson came to feel exhausted by the Moomins and that their success had obscured her other ambitions as an artist. In 1978, she satirized her situation in a short story titled “The Cartoonist” about a man called Stein contracted to produce a daily strip, Blubby, which has generated a Moomin-like universe of commercial paraphernalia—“Blubby curtains, Blubby jelly, Blubby clocks and Blubby socks, Blubby shirts and Blubby shorts.” “Tell me something,” another cartoonist asks Stein. “Are you one of those people who are prevented from doing Great Art because they draw comic strips?” Stein denies it, but that was precisely Jansson’s fear. » (Tove Jansson: Beyond the Moomins)

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« Moomin’s pushy relations have come to stay, and in the process of getting them out, he unwittingly embarks on a quest for fame and fortune with his sly friend Sniff. But it’s much harder to get rich than either of them expects, whether it’s through selling rare creatures to the zoo, using a fortune-teller to find treasures, or making modern art. » Moomin and the Brigands.

The only (other) thing I’ll add is that Tove Jansson was a lesbian, which tends to get glossed over by (bad) biographies of her. You can read an excellent essay about Jansson and her lifelong partner Tuulikki Pietilä here.

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Tove Jansson photographed by her brother Per Olov.
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Jansson and Pietilä. Sweet!

~ ds

Tentacle Tuesday: These Were Your Grandparents’ Tentacles

« Tentacles lashing wildly with pain… the squirming squid releases a sudden gush of inky-black liquid… »

Just look at that… yet another Tentacle Tuesday has come crawling (unless it prefers to travel by jet propulsion) out! Today our handy time machine brings us, once again, to the Golden Age of comics (1930s to 1956), when war was very much on people’s minds, and tentacles were very much part of every decent comic artist’s repertoire.

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More Fun Comics no. 83 (September 1942). Cover by George Papp, co-creator of Green Arrow and Congo Bill (with, respectively, Mort Weisinger and Whitney Ellsworth), and one of the main artists on DC’s Superboy feature between 1958 and 1968.
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Panels from « The Five Arrows », scripted by Joseph Greene and drawn by George Papp.

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During WWII, it was not unusual to find the Axis powers represented by an octopus in caricatures and political cartoons. As a matter of fact, as The Octopus, a Motif of Evil in Historical Propaganda Maps argues, the octopus, scrawled onto all manners of maps by caricaturists, has represented the spread of evil since the 19th century. I highly recommend at least glancing through the aforementioned essay – aside from being fascinating from a historical perspective, it also has tentacles galore. Anyway, the following comic eschews any subtlety and depicts Hitler himself as the Octopus of Evil:

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Blue Circle Comics no. 3 (September 1944), cover by Harold DeLay. That’s Maureen Marine bomb-diving into Hitler’s sorry ass. She has an interesting backstory, actually: a captain’s daughter who drowned when her dad’s ship was sunk by a Nazi U-boat, she was revived by Neptune (he must have liked her blonde hair) and became Queen of Atlantis, protector of the ocean, especially against despised Nazis.

There’s a great essay about Blue Circle Comics on Four Color Glasses. To quote, « Enwil’s “flagship” title was called Blue Circle Comics. It was a fairly common for publishers to use a color in conjunction with a shape or symbol for their comic book titles: Blue Circle, Red Circle, Red Band, Red Seal, Blue Ribbon, and Gold Medal were all titles from the Golden Age. In the case of Blue Circle Comics, though, the title did actually feature a character called the Blue Circle. » Read it here!

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A recurring theme of octopus adventures is that there’s some treasure involved. I bet the lady would prefer to stay with the octopus troupe and their tender nuzzles than to be rescued by this odd assortment of cut-throats in sailor costumes… The chick en question is Harvey Comics’ Black Cat.

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Speed Comics no. 40 (November 1945), cover by Rudy Palais.

The title story turned out to be nothing but text… Though for readers with a decent imagination, a “score of octopi” and “bubbling moans” is definitely more than enough.

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I bet you’re wondering how all this ends. Well, « Still, the octopi flopped forward!! CAPTAIN FREEDOM yanked the controls and the ship’s whirling airscrews roared into the octopi, sharp blades ripping tentacles from their bodies with murderous force! » Goodbye, trained octopi (which is not even the correct pluralization of an octopus).

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Strange Worlds no. 2 (April 1951). Cover by Gene Fawcette.

« They were like octopuses — they scurred along on huge rubbery tentacles, and their bodies were nothing but huge heads in the midsts of these. Monstrous squawking beings coming at us from all directions! » Lovely writing, isn’t it? Nevermind that “scurred” is not an actual word. The title tale is actually an illustrated text story titled « Octopus-Kings of the Lost Planet », scripted by W. Malcolm White. Well, “scripted” is a bit strong.

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« We decided that these descendants of a mighty but inhuman race had gone backwards in the course of the lost centuries. There were the Octopus-Kings of a Lost Planet — they had been rulers — but their own folly had lost them even the dignity of a solid body! »

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Airboy, a.k.a. David Nelson, has been in some truly bizarre scraps in his time, so a fight to the death with tentacled monsters who want (as usual) to take over Earth is strictly routine. Created by writer Charles Biro and artist Al Camy, Airboy not only used his expertise in aviation to fight off Nazis, but also all manner of fantastical monsters. A quick look through the covers of Airboy Comics will reveal crazy scientist machinery, rabid tigers, gladiator fights, giant amœbas, pterodactyls, minotaurs, insect-shaped aliens, an invasion of man-eating rats, and so on. Pure entertainment! Airboy’s most memorable (and prettiest, by far) foe (and love interest) is Teutonic aviatrix Valkyrie, who eventually defected to the Allies’ side. She barely seems like a Golden Age creation – with her blouse splitting until her navel and her skin-tights pants, her costume leaves little to the imagination.

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She was sexualized further in later incarnations – Dave Stevens’ version of her for Eclipse Comics is probably the hottest – but the Golden Age Valkyrie is more charming and earnest (IMHO), devoid of the nymphomaniacal arrogance appended to her personality in later years. Anyway, back to the topic:

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Airboy Comics no. 102 (August 1952). The octopus seems to be wearing glasses. « Excuse me, Sir, have you seen my book? »
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The title story, modestly titled « Invasion of the Tentacles » (no beating around the bush!), is drawn by Ernest Schroeder.

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Weird Fantasy no. 21 (September-October 1953). Cover by Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta. The fur-trimmed boots are a nice touch!

The title story, « My Home… », scripted by Al Feldstein and drawn by Joe Orlando, is emotionally manipulative… and succeeds very well in breaking the readers’ hearts (or pissing them off, depending on your temperament). Read a synopsis of the plot, if you wish, or read the whole story here – who am I to give spoilers to those who don’t want ’em?

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Space Adventures no. 11 (May-June 1954), cover by Steve Ditko.
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Ron Adams, explorer extraordinaire and famous hunter, goes to planet Xarto to capture a giant carnivorous plant (but if you called it an octopus, nobody would bat an eye). Panels from «  Interplanetary Safari! », penciled by Bill Molno and inked Dick Giordano.

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The Shadow no. 25 (September 1956), the child of Australian comic book publisher Frew Publications. The Australian Shadow has nothing to do with « Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? »– this is just a guy who puts on a mask… and takes off his pants. The octopus seems astonished at the sight of bare man-flesh (if there are Speedos there, they’re well camouflaged).

Golden Age tentacles have cropped up many times before in my Tentacle Tuesday posts, but check out specifically Tentacle Tuesday: The Golden Age of Grabbery and Tentacle Tuesday: Planet of Tentacles. Until next time, toodle-oo!

~ ds

Barracks Life With Le Sergent Laterreur

« Le sergent Laterreur resembles no-one. It’s impossible for anyone to be so ignoble, so sinister, so cruel. One feels that the two poor bastards that created him are exacting their revenge for all the humiliations suffered at the hands of the strong. One wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that the authors of Sergent Laterreur were Jewish, Black, Irish or Czech. They’re Belgian. » — Georges Wolinski

“Le Sergent Laterreur” is a strip that ran in the fabled bédé weekly Pilote from February 1971 to December 1973.

This vitriolic lampoon of military life (no Beetle Bailey this) was the brainchild of Belgians Touïs ( Vivian Miessen, b. 1940) and Gérald Frydman (b. 1942).

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Pilote no. 590 (February 21, 1971, Dargaud), the Sergent’s third appearance in the magazine and his first (of two) on the cover.

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Episode 4: Flower Power

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Episode 15: « Et tu retourneras les poussières ». The Sergent’s immortal maxim: « Don’t forget that dirt is our worst enemy! »

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Episode 80: Les mots historiques. Laterreur thought the enemy was bluffing.

Miessen produced a few more comics during the 70s, and made a notable comeback contribution to L’Association‘s massive anthology Comix 2000, but he chiefly worked in animation. Frydman mostly pursued projects in photography and film, directing several short subjects.

Laterreur’s full effect is best experienced in massive doses, and L’Association, fully cognizant of that fact, issued a splendid Le Sergent Laterreur omnibus in 2006. An obscure creation, it remains obscure, but at least it’s available if you seek it out.

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Episode 85: Du gâteau. A fitting way for a dotty old general to blow out his birthday candles.

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The finale, Episode 108: Tapage nocturne. Now you know how it goes down, so to speak.

Fun factoid: The strip’s name presumably comes from the French title of a USA “boot camp” Korean War propaganda film from 1953, “Take the High Ground!“, directed by Richard Brooks. and starring Richard Widmark and Karl Malden.

– RG

Tentacle Tuesday: « They call me mellow yellow… »*

I’m on mini-vacation, away from all the big city violence, car noise and light pollution. One can actually see the stars out here! In honour of this mellow state of being, this Tentacle Tuesday is a friendly, gentle affair. It’s all about fishing and diving and, above all, chilling out with friends. (Sure, some folks almost get eaten, but it’s all in good fun.)

Oh, and my suggestion for summer reading (for people who are hard-pressed for time, but still want to impress others at the next cocktail party with their sparkling wit and erudition) is 20 Cool Octopus Facts.

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Walter Lantz Woody Woodpecker no. 79 (March 1964), cover by Phil De Lara.
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The Flintstones no. 60 (September 1970).
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Tweety and Sylvester no. 28 (January 1973).
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Moby Duck no. 14 (July 1974). Pencils by Pete Alvarado, inks by Larry Mayer.
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Woodsy Owl no. 6 (February 1975). Pencils by Paul Norris, inks by Larry Mayer.
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Yosemite Sam no. 43 (April 1977).
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Yosemite Sam no. 67 (July 1980).

~ ds

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The Batman’s First True Auteur

« In almost every picture, Batman looks as if he has spent the day greasing the Batmobile and didn’t bother to clean up afterwards. There is a difference between shadowing and what looks like globs of dirt and grime. » — letterhack Bob Rozakis (Detective 420, Feb. 1972), as astute an art critic as he would prove a writer

Think about it: from his initial appearance in 1939’s Detective no. 27, the Batman was always a bit of a shop product. While notorious deceiver and glory-hog Bob Kane ( Kahn, 1915-98) loved to slap his name on anything and everything, his principal talent was self-promotion. Kane’s Batman was mostly the work of far more talented ‘ghosts‘ such as Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang, Bill Finger, George Roussos, Jack Burnley, Win Mortimer… and so on, for decades. It’s unlikely that anyone ever produced the artwork for a Batman story on their own (well, professionally), let alone wrote *and* drew one. In a nutshell, that’s the assembly-line style US funnybook industry.

As far as the caped crusader is concerned, that state of affairs would briefly change with Detective no. 416 (cover-dated October, 1971): under a particularly clumsy Neal Adams cover, the lead story, Man-Bat Madness!, was scripted, pencilled, inked *and* lettered by Frank Robbins. He would produce four more solo Batman adventures: Forecast for Tonight — Murder! (Detective Comics no. 420, Feb. 1972); Blind Justice — Blind Fear! (Detective Comics no. 421, March 1972), Killer’s Roulette! (Detective Comics no. 426, Aug. 1972) and Man-Bat Over Vegas! (Detective Comics no. 429, Nov. 1972).

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A sample from the first one-man Bat-Adventure, Detective no. 416‘s Man-Bat Madness! Robbins’ expertly fluid storytelling and confident spotting of blacks are well in evidence here.
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Opening splash from my pick of the solo Robbins Batman, Detective no. 421‘s Blind Justice — Blind Fear! [Psst! Read it here.]
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Those were the days of “relevance” in comics. The Attica Prison Uprising had just occurred…

Robbins had been scripting for DC since 1968 (starting right after the ignominious firing of many of their most seasoned writers… for presuming to ask for some social benefits after decades of loyal, and often forcibly exclusive, service*), but he didn’t get his brushes out until 1971, presumably wanting to draw his then-recent creation, Man-Bat** (Detective no. 400, June 1970).

After a final hurrah (script-only) with Batman 254‘s King of the Gotham Jungle! (Jan.-Feb. 1974), he was off to Marvel, where he did no writing, but illustrated tales of Morbius The Living Vampire, Dracula, Ghost Rider, The Legion of Monsters, Captain America, The Invaders, the Man From Atlantis, The Human Fly, Daredevil… generally while paired with inkers ranging from the decent (Frank Giacoia, D. Bruce Berry), to the inappropriate (Frank Springer) to the dismal (Frank Chiaramonte and… hello again, Vinnie). He walked away from the industry in the middle of a cliffhanger, after Daredevil no. 155‘s The Man Without Fear? (Nov. 1978). Beyond that, having endured far more than his share of fanboy sniping and editorial meddling, Robbins left comics forever, going off to paint in México. Wise man.

Robbins, as you may or may not know, was a truly polarizing figure in 1970s comics. He was the bane of house-style loving fanboys, and it seems that anyone savvy enough to appreciate him at a tender age later became a cartoonist. The ample evidence (meaning far too much) witnessed on FB comics groups has led me to shrugging acceptance that most fanboys’ aesthetic sensibilities haven’t shifted an iota from when they were twelve… and won’t now or ever.

Another dodgy character encountered in recent years is the annoyingly common “I hated Robbins then, but I totally get him now” git, which brings to mind a certain science-fiction cliché.

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« Yeah, we burned down his house, tarred and feathered him and ran him out of town… but looking back, he was a pretty swell guy! »  Which stories are these? Find out at the end of the post.

Back to our regularly scheduled train of thought…

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A sample from Detective Comics no. 420‘s Forecast for Tonight — Murder! Read it here, while you can.
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A moody teaser from Detective Comics no. 426‘s Killer’s Roulette! Peruse it here .
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The precarious opening splash from Detective Comics no. 429‘s Man-Bat Over Vegas! Play the odds right… here.

How I wish he’d gotten to illustrate his moody script for The Spook’s Master Stroke! (Batman no. 252, Oct. 1973), introducing my favourite Bat-villain, seldom-seen The Spook. He was difficult to write, so they killed him off after a handful of appearances.

While Robbins wasn’t my very favourite Bat-writer, (that honour goes to… David V. Reed), he generally delivered a solid tale… but when he was in full command, he was pretty top-notch.

-RG

Even though Fox has worked for several comic book publishers, he remains most associated with DC Comics, for whom he worked more than three decades. That collaboration came to an abrupt end in 1968. Fox had joined other comics writers like Otto Binder, John Broome, Arnold Drake, Bill Finger and Bob Haney, signing a petition to ask DC for more financial benefits, particularly regarding health insurance. Since the company regarded writers as expandable people they were all fired without mercy and replaced by more obedient newcomers. » [ Source ] (incidentally, Haney wasn’t fired… at least permanently)

**Neal Adams, having waited until everyone else in the room was dead (editor Julius Schwartz passed away in 2004), began to claim that Man-Bat had been his idea, with no-one’s help. Sorry, Neal, I think you’re a bit confused: you’re thinking of Valeria the She-Bat, and she’s all yours.

Mini-quiz answers: 1) Spores From Space (Mystery in Space no. 1, May 1951, DC); written by Gardner Fox and illustrated by… Frank Frazetta. 2) The Unknown Spaceman (Mystery in Space no. 11, Jan. 1953, DC); written by Gardner Fox and illustrated by Bob Oksner and Bernard Sachs; 3) I Created Sporr, the Thing That Could Not Die! (Tales of Suspense no. 11, Sept. 1960, Marvel); written by Stan Lee, art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers; 4) The Blip! (Tales to Astonish no. 15, Jan. 1961, Marvel); written by Stan Lee, art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers.

Tentacle Tuesday: Aquaman and his Octopus Sidekicks

When you think of Aquaman, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is he a brooding, tragic hero? A hapless sap whose prowess extends no further than throwing a starfish at his assailant? A talented swimmer, defender of Earth’s oceans?

« The image of the superhero riding on a chariot made of fish—sporting that classic orange top and green pants—sealed the depths-dweller in public memory as a doofy champion, despite defenders who insist there’s more to Aquaman than talking to fish and riding them places. While later depictions of the character emphasized his serious side, Aquaman jokes abounded especially in the 90s and 2000s—largely thanks to a school of young male animators, including Seth MacFarlane and South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who couldn’t help but poke fun at Aquaman’s ineffectual reputation. »|source|

I believe the aforementioned Aquaman’s defenders are slightly missing the point. What’s wrong with catching a ride from a fish, or getting a helping hand from an octopus? In Aquaman’s world, octopuses play the role of indispensable helpers, using their tentacles as lassos, bludgeons and tourniquets, or forming acrobatic formations to give Aquaman a boost. Does this somehow make this superhero wimpy? Do we seriously still believe that treating animals with kindness, or collaborating with them, is emasculating? No wonder this world is going to hell in a handbasket. The audience for superhero comics sometimes seems to be quite devoid of imagination (or a sense of humour).

« Jokes about his wholesome, weak portrayal in Super Friends and perceived feeble powers and abilities [] led DC to attempt to make the character edgier or more powerful in comic books. Modern comic book depictions have attempted to reconcile these various aspects of his public perception, casting Aquaman as serious and brooding, saddled with an ill reputation, and struggling to find a true role and purpose beyond his public side as a deposed king and a fallen hero. » |source|

Okay, I’ve grumbled, and now I’ll move on to the tentacles. Take a seat astride your favourite jellyfish, strap in your fins, and let’s go!

Aquaman, the child of an undersea explorer who learned how to breathe and live underwater “by training and a hundred scientific secrets”, was created in 1941 by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger. During the Golden Age of comics, he fought various evil guys (usually from water-related professions: sailors, marine biologists, pirates… and Axis villains, too). The whole thing started becoming really interesting (imho) in 1956 (coincidentally, with the advent of Silver Age), when Aquaman acquired his sidekick Topo the Octopus:

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Topo’s first appearance! « Aquaman’s Undersea Partner », drawn by Ramona Fradon, published in Adventure Comics no. 229 (October 1956).

Ramona Fradon handled Aquaman from 1951 to 1959, when she became pregnant and had to temporarily withdraw from the comics field until 1963. She deserves a separate post, really, especially since I love her art. In the meantime, read The Woman Who Made Aquaman a Star. As for Topo, I don’t have to explain why I’m fond of the idea of an octopus sidekick.

A few nice Fradon pages:

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«The Town That Went Underwater», drawn by Ramona Fradon. It was published in Adventure Comics no. 246 (March 1958).
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Another panel from « The Town That Went Underwater ».
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A panel from « The Undersea Hospital! », scripted by Robert Bernstein and drawn by Ramona Fradon. This issue, Adventure Comics no. 262 (July 1959), has not one, but two fun animal stories: the other one – also lovable, imaginative nonsense – is « The Colossal Superdog », scripted by Otto Binder and drawn by George Papp.
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Another panel from « The Undersea Hospital! ». Don’t you love the idea of a seaweed stretcher with eel supports?

In 1961, Nick Cardy started working on Aquaman with Showcase no. 31 (March-April 1961). When the sea king got his own title in 1962, Cardy became the regular artist, drawing inside stories and covers until Aquaman no. 39 (May-June 1968), and staying as the cover artist until Aquaman no. 56 (April 1971).

« Cardy proved adept at drawing sea creatures; his fluid, swirling water currents helped create a captivating, eye-pleasing undersea world. He became a fan favorite, not only because of his superb story-telling ability, solid figure work and facile inking, but because of the way he rendered Mera, Aquaman’s girlfriend. Cardy’s women had curves, not angles, and seemed to exist in three dimensions on the two-dimensional page. He never stopped trying to elevate his work, until the later covers in the series were among the most striking and imaginative of the publisher’s entire line.» (source: Comics Journal’s eulogy for Nick Cardy)

Well, that’s high praise indeed, but is it deserved? I can confirm that Cardy covers were really inventive. As for the interior art, let’s take a peek, as these stories conveniently overflow with tentacles.

There’s tentacles getting tangled, the octopus equivalent on panties in a twist…

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Panel from « The Invasion of the Fire Trolls », scripted by Jack Miller and drawn by Nick Cardy, published in Aquaman no. 1 (January-February 1962).
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Panel from « The Aquaman from Atlantis », scripted by Jack Miller and Nick Cardy, published in Aquaman no. 3 (May-June 1962).

An army of octopus fighters…

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Page from « The Menace of Alien Island », scripted by Jack Miller and drawn by Nick Cardy, published in Aquaman no. 4 (July-August 1962).

I promised you acrobatics, so here are some octopuses doing a cheerleading routine (Aquaman forgot his pompoms at home):

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Aquaman no. 9 (May-June 1963). « The menace of the Aqualad-Creature » is scripted by Jack Miller and drawn by Nick Cardy.
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It’s not *all* octopus tentacles. Page from  « The Secret Mission of King Neptune», scripted by Jack Miller and drawn by Nick Cardy, printed in Aquaman no. 9 (May-June 1963).

Continuing our tentacle shenanigans…

Aquaman#11
Any jerk who refers to an octopus as a “fish” deserves what’s coming to him. Page from « The Doom from Dimension Aqua », scripted by Jack Miller and drawn by Nick Cardy, published in Aquaman no. 11 (September-October 1963).
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As usual, mind fuckery rears its ugly head whenever romance is part of the plot. “I could kill you! But I really love you, actually!” An eye roll and a sigh. Panels from « The Wife of Aquaman », scripted by Jack Miller and drawn by Nick Cardy, published in Aquaman no. 18 (November-December 1964).
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Page from  « The Wife of Aquaman », scripted by Jack Miller and drawn by Nick Cardy, published in Aquaman no. 18 (November-December 1964).

One of those Nick Cardy covers we were discussing earlier, so you can decide for yourself whether his women are all angles or all curves:

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Aquaman no. 22 (July-August 1965), cover by Nick Cardy.
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« The Trap of the Sinister Sea Nymphs », published in Aquaman no. 22 (July-August 1965) art by Nick Cardy.

With Aquaman no. 40 (July-August 1968), Jim Aparo replaced Cardy on the inside art. Issues no. 40 to no. 47 (September-October 1969) were scripted by Steve Skeates (a definite favourite of this blog; read co-admin RG’S post “… and the Dog Howls Through the Night!”) and drawn by Jim Aparo. This creative team is a favourite of many an Aquaman fan. Voilà:

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Page from « Return of the Alien! », scripted by Steve Skeates and drawn by Jim Aparo, printed in Aquaman no. 55 (January-February 1971).
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Panel from « Return of the Alien! », scripted by Steve Skeates and drawn by Jim Aparo, printed in Aquaman no. 55 (January-February 1971).

More Jim Aparo (sans Skeates):

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« The Manta-Ray Means Murder! », scripted by Paul Levitz and Martin Pasko and drawn by Jim Aparo, published in Adventure Comics no. 446 (July-August 1976).
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Aquaman no. 57 (August-September 1977), cover by Jim Aparo. I’m angry at that stupid “you could be in the Superman movie” sign that’s far more distracting than it has any right to be.
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Page from « A Life for a Life », scripted by David Michelinie and drawn by Jim Aparo, published in Aquaman no. 57 (August-September 1977).
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Another page from « A Life for a Life ».
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Aquaman no. 63 (August-September 1978), cover by Jim Aparo.

You can read issues Aquaman issues no. 1 through to 63 here.

One last thing… I happen to be the proud owner of a piece of original art by Ramona Fradon (of fairly recent vintage), given to me by my sweetie. Lucky me!

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Keep your octopus pals happy and you’re guaranteed a fulfilling relationship.

~ ds

Treasured Stories: “Dragstrip Paved With Gold” (1968)

« Alcohol is for drinking, gas is for cleaning parts, and nitro is for racing! » — Don Garlits

At this time each year, Montréal is beset by its own plague of greedy locusts: it’s Formule 1 Grand Prix time! While our fair city offers other crowd-pleasing events (for instance le Festival international de jazz de Montréal and le Festival Juste pour rire / Just for Laughs), the most glaring distinction between the Grand Prix and the others is that it essentially draws just one type of visitor, a Las Vegas/Florida Spring Break/Nascar sort of randy, aggressive, would-be Alpha Male yob. Imagine hosting the Republican National Convention year upon year, and at eardrum-tormenting sonic levels. Time and time again, the newspapers run the same stories about rampant prostitution and criminal exploitation and how the event only benefits bar, hotel, restaurant and cab operators and variegated pimps… and shafts everyone else. The usual one-percenter bait-and-switch appeal to everyday avarice, it never fails.

Oddly enough, despite my distaste for racing culture proper, I’m paradoxically quite fond of hot rod comics. I was as surprised as anyone when I chanced, several years past, to read an odd issue of Drag n’ Wheels that had come into my possession decades earlier in the midst of an assorted lot (this was no. 46, April 1971)… and greatly enjoyed it. Gripping stuff, as it turned out!

Now, there’s no question that the number one driver of Charlton Comics’ hot-rod line* was Jack Keller (1922-2003), a Golden Age artist who found his true niche with car comics. Around 1967, he was offered an exclusive contract with Marvel to work on their western titles, but Keller declined in order to focus on his Charlton account, where he could write, pencil, ink and letter his own stuff… without having to redraw anything. Moreover, he claimed to favour horsepower over horses.

Keller’s car stories are often a delight, full of knowing detail, clever humour and plenty of thrills. However, if Keller had produced the entire line on his own (as he did, in fact, when it was whittled down to a pair of titles in its final years), the growing bleakness in his work could have become wearying. Drawing from his direct involvement in the racing scene, Keller packed his stories with pompous asses, dangerous egomaniacs, slimy backstabbers, sociopathic glory hogs, and other representatives of a bloodthirsty, mean-spirited mob.

Charlton’s main writer, Joe Gill, filled out the rest of the book, aided by a rotating crew of artists, among them Don Perlin, the tireless Charles Nicholas ‘n’ Vince Alascia duo, Tony Tallarico, Bill Montes, Dick Giordano, Bill Molno, et al.

But in the line’s peak years (1964-1969, also an aesthetic apogee in automotive design), the number two illustrator in Charlton’s racing stable was Edd Ashe (1908-1986), another journeyman from the Golden Age of comics.

Here, at last, are some actual comics. Dragstrip Paved With Gold appeared in Hot Rods and Racing Cars no. 90 (June 1968, Charlton Comics), and was written by Joe Gill, pencilled by Edd Ashe, and inked by the mysterious and likely pseudonymous T. Roots.

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It might be easy to miss some of the more unusual nuances of Gill’s tale. When faced with the daily task of coming up with material grounded in genres with a limited number of available plots (say, romance, war, horror, hot rods, sports), Gill kept the plot basic and tidy, but enriched his stories with unusual characterization, pertinent technical details, vernacular and jargon… and sometimes moral values quite at odds with the prevailing societal mores. In this story for instance, note that the ladies in Terry and Jim’s lives provide the voices of reason, prodding them gently away from blind ambition, excessive materialism and showboating and toward self-preservation and enlightened self-respect. Dead men can’t keep up with the Joneses… or rather ahead, in this case.

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As a bonus, I’ve compiled a complete-as-far-as-I-know bibliography of Mr. Ashe’s contributions to Charlton hot rod comics (1964-1969); wherever available**, follow the links to read the issue on comicbookplus.com!

Hot Rod Racers 1 : Local Champ / The Compact Cavaliers / Back-Road Champ
Hot Rod Racers 2: The Avenger / Joe’s Jalopy / The Driver, not the Car
Hot Rod Racers 10: Quarter King
Hot Rod Racers 11: Fast Loser
Hot Rod Racers 12: Wrecks to Riches
Hot Rod Racers 13: The Spoiler
Hot Rod Racers 14: The Day the Creampuff Won
Hot Rod Racers 15: You Never Know!

Grand Prix 16: Bossin’ the Turns
Grand Prix 17: Twins’ Trouble / Constant Loser
Grand Prix 18: Gentleman Driver
Grand Prix 19: The Eagles Scream
Grand Prix 20: For Money or Marbles
Grand Prix 21: The Town Wreckers

Drag-Strip Hotrodders 2: Tamed Tiger / Falcon Flyer / Little Eliminator
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 3: English Cousin / 1320 in 13.20 / S/S King
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 5: Great Moments in Racing History: “Rods Across the Sea”
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 10: The Furious 40! / 200 Plus!
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 11: Match Champ
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 12: I’m a Lemon (A Car’s Own Story)
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 13: Speed in All Seasons
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 14: Playin’ the Role!
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 15: “Mighty Mustang”
Drag-Strip Hotrodders 16: Speed at Any Price

World of Wheels 17: Modified Madness
World of Wheels 18: The Astro Rod
World of Wheels 19: “Speedy”
World of Wheels 20: Beast From the East
World of Wheels 21: The Rat Pack
World of Wheels 23: The Wild Ones (Parents)
World of Wheels 27: The Sissy Wagon
World of Wheels 28: Home Town Driver / Lemon at Le Mans (Vince Colletta inks)

Hot Rods and Racing Cars 72: Farmboy at Le Mans
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 73: Outlaw Hot-Rod / 300 MPH Flying Jet / The Novice / Hold It!
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 74: Final Test (Colletta inks)
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 75: Great Moment in Racing History: “Race to the Sky”
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 78: Great Moment in Racing History: Sebring ’65
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 79: Mille Miglia of 1952
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 80: Great Moment in Racing History: The Vanderbuilt Cup Race of 1937
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 83: The Digyard Demon
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 85: Fast and Furious
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 86: Backyard Grand Prix
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 87: The Pigeon / Just a Country Boy
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 88: Wild Willie & the Black Baron
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 89: The Mighty Midgets
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 90: Dragstrip Paved With Gold
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 91: Piston Head
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 92: Dirt Track Digger
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 93: Tomboy Tornado
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 94: A Friendly Little Car
Hot Rods and Racing Cars 99: The New Breed

Teenage Hotrodders 15: Great Moment in Racing History: The World 600
Teenage Hotrodders 16: Great Moment in Racing History: The Detroit Special
Teenage Hotrodders 17: Great Moment in Racing History: Le Mans 24 Hour Race 1959
Teenage Hotrodders 21: His Big Dream
Teenage Hotrodders 23: Flying Failure

Top Eliminator 25: The Pigeon
Top Eliminator 27: RedLight Express / Mad for Matches
Top Eliminator 28: Blow-Up
Top Eliminator 29: Scarface and the Get Away Gasser

Drag ‘n’ Wheels 32: Weird Willy’s Wild Wagen
Drag ‘n’ Wheels 33: Smoked In
Drag ‘n’ Wheels 34: Wastin’ Time
Drag ‘n’ Wheels 35: The Firecracker 500

– RG

*These were Hot Rods and Racing Cars (1951-1973); Speed Demons (1957-58); Dragstrip Hotrodders / World of Wheels (1963-1970); Teenage Hotrodders / Top Eliminator / Drag ‘n’ Wheels (1963-1973); Hot Rod Racers / Grand Prix (1964-1970); and Surf ‘n’ Wheels (1969-1970).

**Until they wised up sometime in 1968, Charlton didn’t bother to copyright their publications; therefore, they wound up in the Public domain.

Tentacle Tuesday: The Jungle Queens

« Beware, bwana — beware its tentacles! »

Cue in the taut, frantic jungle drums! Picture this: through a thick tangle of brush and tropical vegetation, prances a fair maiden who is quite unaffected by spiky plants or venomous insects. She’s the staunch defender of jungle animals, friend to jaguar or hippo (or whatever other animal the artist’s imagination conjures, even if it’s entirely inappropriate to a jungle… but who cares about zoological accuracy?) One creature this wild child is definitely not a friend to, however, is the octopus: anything with tentacles gets stabbed and killed, as expediently as possible. That’s little cause for concern, however – the real octopus, who lives only in oceans, has little use for a jungle… so whatever’s getting killed must be an impostor or a mutant.

I am amused by jungle comics, which perhaps require an even more dramatic suspension of disbelief than many an equally action-oriented genre.  The female protagonists, usually clad in some sort of leopard/jaguar skin (which makes one wonder why big felines even want to hang out with someone wearing their relatives’ pelt), are usually portrayed as guardians of the wilderness… but some of them kill an awful lot of animals for supposed protectors of the feral kingdom. The blonde Sheena (first female comic book character with her own series), equally blonde Lorna the Jungle Girl (Atlas-published, a rival to Fiction House’s Sheena), Avon’s Taanda – White Princess of the Jungle, Camilla – Wild Girl of the Congo (a case of Fiction House knocking off their own Sheena)… the list definitely goes on. That’s quite a few jungle queens bouncing around, dealing with hostile tribesmen getting uppity, lethal white hunters up to no good and would-be Romeos perpetually being held hostage. Sometimes they even have cat fights and overthrow one another. Very amusing indeed. Pepper the dialogue with lots of bwanas, toss in an epic rescue of hapless natives, and you’re all set.

To be fair, however, some Golden Age jungle comics boast fetching art and compelling stories in which natives are their own agents and her Royal Highness gets to show off her wits (and her gams) to best advantage. It’s hard to dislike stories in which a strong, clever woman gets to save the day.

Without further ado, I present Jungle Queen vs Octopus!

First up, there’s Sheena, who has struggled with quite a few tentacles in her day:

Jumbo Comics #31-Sheena-Voodootreasureofblackslavelake
Page from «Voodoo Treasure of Black Slave Lake», scripted by W. Morgan Thomas, pencilled by Robert Webb, and inked by David Heames, published in Jumbo Comics no. 31 (September 1941, Fiction House).
Jumbo Comics #87
«Sargasso of Lost Safaris», pencilled by Robert Webb and inked by Ann Brewster, published in Jumbo Comics no. 87 (May 1946, Fiction House). What the heck does the Sargasso sea have to do with a jungle? I’d like to know.
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Untitled story from Sheena, Queen of the Jungle no. 5 (Summer 1949, Fiction House). Art by Robert Webb.
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Panels from «The Beasts That Dawn Begot!» drawn by Robert Webb, published in Sheena, Queen of the Jungle no. 12 (Summer 1951, Fiction House).

Time for other queens to borrow Sheena’s spotlight:

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«The Red Witch of Ubangi-Shan», with art by John Celardo, published in Jungle Comics no. 105 (September 1948, Fiction House). Technically, this inclusion goes against my main theme – for Käanga has a very stupid mate who has to be rescued at every turn. She may wear a leopard bikini, but she’s nothing but a Damsel in Distress. Boo.

This Camilla story was scripted by Victor Ibsen and drawn by Ralph Mayo, and was published in Jungle Comics no. 144 (1951, Fiction House):

Jungle Comics #144

Jungle Comics #144 -2
A raft full of musclebound men and Camilla has to be the one to stab the octopus. Her contempt is well justified, as Asheley is clearly a loser.

We’ve had a lot of blondes so far, how about a redhead?

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White Princess of the Jungle no. 4 (August 1952, Avon), cover by Everett Raymond Kinstler.

The cover story, «Fangs of the Swamp Beast»:

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White Princess of the Jungle #4-1

Back to our regularly scheduled blonde heroine! This is «The Devil’s Lagoon», scripted by Don Rico and drawn by Werner Roth, published in Lorna the Jungle Queen no. 4 (December 1953, Atlas):

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Lorna has the talent of plunging into water boobs first, and using them to optimize buoyancy.
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Again with the bust-ridiculously-stuck-out pose in the first panel.

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For a chuckle, read Stupid Comics‘ critique of Devil’s Lagoon here. Moving on, I have no wish to be unfair to brunettes, especially given that I generally prefer them:

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All Top Comics no. 16 (March 1949, Fox). Cover by Matt Baker. Sure features plenty of top, doesn’t it? That’s Rulah, by the way – you guessed it, Rulah, the Jungle Goddess (well, at least she’s not a queen), one of those run-amok women who has no qualms killing animal or human.

Here’s a rather amusing explanation for Rulah’s raison d’être from Toonopedia: «One day, while piloting a small plane across Darkest Africa, she crash-landed where civilization had scarcely been heard of. Her clothes were damaged to the point of leaving her butt naked (“like Eve in the Garden,” she mused), modesty preserved only by shadows and strategically-placed vegetation — yet, her skin wasn’t noticeably scratched or abraded. Fortunately, her plane had whacked a giraffe on the way down, so she skinned it and skillfully fashioned a fetching bikini from the raw, uncured pelt. Her uncovered parts were no more bothered by thorns, rough bark, poison ivy and the like, than were her bare feet. Next, she saved a tribe from the local tyrant, a white jungle queen much like herself, and was proclaimed its ruler — provided she could prove herself by killing a starving leopard with nothing but a dagger, which she did.»

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Another brunette! Vooda no. 22 (August 1955, Farrell). Note that Jungle Queens are only allowed to have hoop earrings, preferably gold.

Phew, that tromp through the jungle wore me out! Until next Tentacle Tuesday…

~ ds