Panning the murky old print stream for the odd glimmering nugget
They Called It… The Golden Age!
That’s the period opening with the advent of the first comic books, in the early 30s, and ending with the release of Showcase no. 4 in 1956 (introducing the new Flash), which signals the passage to the next era, the Silver Age, of course.
The Magic Yarn, published in Mary Marvel no. 2 (June 1946, Fawcett), was scripted by Otto Binder and drawn by Jack Binder. This immensely entertaining story about an old bat with dreams of world domination involves an octopus, some bondage (of course!), and lots of knitting. (Read it here)
Moving on to actual (rather than knitted) octopuses, here’s the original art from On the Bottom of the Sea, published in Little Max no. 16 (Harvey, April 1952). The story artist may be uncredited on GCD, but we know that it’s Al Avison 😉
The Little Wise Guys tangle with an ornery cephalopod. Giggles ensue! This is Daredevil Comics no. 111 (June 1954, Lev Gleason), with a cover is by Charles Biro. The cover story is Scarecrow’s Lucky Blunder, scripted by Charles Biro and illustrated by Ralph Mayo.
Finally, making an epic effort to wrench myself away from the tender embrace of the Golden Age, I’ll accelerate a little too much and end up in all the way in 2015. Here’s a page from Scarlett Hart: The Tentacles of Terror by Thomas Taylor and Marcus Sedgwick.
“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman–a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Superheroes come in all shapes and sizes, and for every successful superhero remembered throughout the ages, there’s probably about a hundred forgotten characters of varying degrees of goofiness. Periodically, some artist or writer digs up one of them from the deep recesses of time, dresses him in a new frock and plugs him into the modern era of Internet and cellphones, with almost universally lacklustre results.
I like to contemplate these bold strangers in their natural habitat — Golden Age comics! And for a 40s superhero, there is simply no better way to demonstrate super powers and a nimble brain than a friendly tussle with a cephalopod.
The Black Owl, clad in a red-and-blue costume with some odd leopard-print swimming cap… oh, sorry, that’s his blond hair:
The Sandman… oh shoot, which one? Remember we have both feet firmly planted in the 40s in this post. This Sandman is Wesley Dodds, created by artist Bert Christman and writer Gardner Fox. Accompanied by his sidekick Sandy, this superhero-cum-detective wielded a special gun that could put criminals to sleep or act as a sort of truth serum.
You’re not convinced that those are tentacles? Shame on you. Take a gander at this:
The next superhero (technically with no super powers, but managing beautifully all the same thanks to his lightning-fast reflexes and superior fighting skill) is my personal favourite Green Turtle, a Chinese superhero who fought against Japanese invaders in WWII. Unfortunately, the publisher wouldn’t let creator and artist Chu Fook Hing make his creation obviously Chinese, so the Green Turtle was never seen without a mask. It’s okay, we can read between the lines!
Magno the Magnetic Man has, believe it or not, magnetic powers (though I imagine it’s not helping him much in this particular skirmish). He’s irresistible to women (maybe they have metal parts?), impervious to harm, and is accompanied by his side-kick Davey, whom he periodically magnetizes to ensure that the little whippersnapper also has access to magnetic powers.
« … And so Hooten Landing remained unchanged through the years… a landmark and a memorial… a colonial world that had made only one or two concessions to the march of progress. » — From Ye Olde Spirit of ’76 (July 3, 1949)
Having reached the last half of Kitchen Sink’s chronological reprinting of the Post-WWII Spirit, we come at last to the end of our own chronicle. As stated earlier, facing an inexorable dwindling of Eisner’s involvement and investment in his creation due to other commitments and an understandable sagging of his stamina, the strip slowly entered its decline. Then as now, good help was hard to find, to the point where Eisner opted to wrap up the strip rather than let it peter out completely. This sober and courageous decision most certainly contributed in preserving the feature’s solid reputation to this day.
As we embark on the inarguably lesser half of the run, we encounter fewer standout covers, which is to be expected, given the creator’s diminished affection for the contents. Nevertheless, forty-four Will Eisner covers are bound to yield some genuine sparklers. Here, then, are my picks.
Some background about the classic Sand Saref two-parter, from Tom Heintjes‘ Stage Settings column:
« The final two stories form one longer tale, and they’ve earned a place in comics history. Eisner’s work and film noir have been mentioned in the same breath for decades, and you hold in your hands one of the best reasons why. »
« The story’s history is unorthodox. Sand Saref and Bring in Sand Saref had their origins in Eisner’s shop, which had been producing various comic books and pieces of commercial art with growing frequency. The two stories were originally done as a single 11-page feature, but it didn’t star The Spirit. The lead character was John Law, a character Eisner intended to launch independently of The Spirit feature.
When the John Law project was shelved due to the often poor newsstand distribution of many comic books, Eisner later saw an opportunity, and seized it by breaking the 11-page John Law feature into a two-part Spirit story. Astute readers are now saying: ‘But Spirit stories are seven pages long, requiring fourteen pages of art.‘ Well, there are no flies on Will Eisner. He created the first three pages of ‘Sand Saref’ to bring up the page count.
Eisner said breaking the John Law story into two halves, eliminating all traces of the intended hero, and inking in the faces of The Spirit’s cast of characters wasn’t simple. “The characters were different people, so considerable dialogue had to be rewritten,” he said. “John Law was a policeman and The Spirit wasn’t. Merely because they both fought on the side of law and order didn’t make them the same character.” In fact, Eisner has Sand Saref tell The Spirit ‘you’re a cop’ in the climax of the 14-page story. »
A word or two about The Outer Space Spirit, as it’s come to be called: Eisner, looking for a worthy successor to bequeath the strip to, found young Wally Wood. Talented as he was, Wood’s tragic character flaws were already well established: unlike Eisner, he couldn’t pace himself and he couldn’t stay the course, two qualities essential to the steady production of a comic strip. But for the couple of weeks before Wood started missing deadlines, such lush, interstellar beauty! Feast your peepers here.
Well, that’s it! Thanks for tagging along on Will Eisner and his most famous creation’s tireless peregrinations.
If you’ve missed the earlier entries in the series (punctuality is not one of your strong suits, is it?), all is not lost. In fact, it’s all handily archived within easy reach :
« Il vente — C’est le vent de la mer qui nous tourmente… »
Yesterday, I finished reading an excellent book by French author Pierre Mac Orlan, best known for Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows), written in 1927 and transformed into a movie in 1938. In other words, a while ago! The title of the novel I joyously devoured is Le chant de l’équipage (1918), and it’s a grand tale of swashbuckling adventure on the high seas. Well, actually it’s a lot more complex than that, and it’s beautifully written. As it’s in the public domain, you can read it online here (but in French only, I’m afraid). As I’m still digesting scenes from the novel, so to speak (no, the équipage did not encounter an octopus on its journey), my mind’s eye is focused on the far-away sea… so today’s Tentacle Tuesday has been rerouted from its original concept into everything nautical. Let’s spend a little time inhaling the healthy sea-breeze, in a world of handsome ships and the people who make them sail.
Perhaps the following story does not depict your standard encounter with an octopus… but it’s indubitably a seafaring tale. The Eyes, illustrated by Pete Tumlinson, was published in Astonishing no. 30 (February 1954, Atlas):
Monsters from a Thousand Fathoms, scripted by Carl Wessler and illustrated by the Redondo Studio (RG: with a heavy dose of E.R. Cruz), was published in The Unexpected no. 185 (May-June 1978, DC):
Ads endeavouring to put the viewer into the shoes of an action-type he-man to sell some nonsense is nothing new. And yet, through this hackneyed jungle, sometimes a glimmer of real excitement comes through:
Those of us who like to dream of adventure, but preferably from the comfort of our own homes, I have this strip:
Since the aforementioned The Tracy Twins got its wings in a colour supplement of monthly scouting magazine Boys’ Life in 1952, I will now smoothly segue into a related topic, or a bit of warning, if you like.
If you start out as a wide-eyed kid in search of sea-faring thrills, and meet an octopus, just like this:
You might end up, many years down the road, growing up to be, well… a little peculiar, shall we say.
And if that wasn’t sufficient, the same doctor has further advice for his readers in this slightly subsequent issue:
« … drawn by a terrible hypnotic fascination, the gangster peers deep into Jim’s dark eyes and glimpses — DEATH! » — “The Spectre”, More Fun Comics no. 52 (Feb. 1940)
Today, we salute Bernard Baily (April 5, 1916 – January 19, 1996), recalled nowadays as co-creator of The Spectre (with Jerry Siegel) and Hourman (with Ken Fitch) and conjurer of many of the 1950s most notorious comics covers… but there’s much more. Let’s take a look, shall we?
To my knowledge, there aren’t a lot of Golden Age superheroes whose costumes were so perfectly designed in the first place that no change whatsoever has been required over time. The Spectre has to be exhibit number one in that case.
« Take it easy, Shakespeare — TA-AKE it easy! Ya’ll dislocate an iambic, an’ THEN where’ll ya be? » — Cookie raises a fair point
It’s one of the field’s small, fortuitous victories that monumentally multi-faceted animator Dan Gordon (Superman, Popeye, The Flintstones, Huckleberry Hound…) happened to drift into comics from 1943 to the early ’50s, and his output from that period demonstrates he was having a ball as a solo performer, surely a break from the often frustrating assembly-line constraints of the animation world. While it certainly wasn’t the money that lured him to funny books (and his books *were* funny), this is no mere case of slumming or professional doldrums.
« Gordon soon expanded his work with human characters when he created high school student Cookie O’ Toole. Marking his debut in the April 1945 issue of Topsy-Turvy Comics, Cookie received his own series of magazines the following year. Unlike the Archie comics that typified the teen humor genre in comics, Gordon’s Cookie stories possessed a strong vitality with a satirical edge. » [ source ]
Gordon’s Cookie stories are full of vitality and knockabout visual effervescence. The very colloquial dialogue’s pretty titter-worthy also. And you know, you can read each and every issue of Cookie right here, thanks to the assiduous efforts of the kind folks at comicbookplus.com.
Today, however, I really wanted to salute Gordon’s Cookie cover art, which first drew my attention to his comics work. Here, then, is a gallery of my picks.
… and before you go, check out Gordon’s action-packed cover for Ha Ha Comics no. 66, which my partner ds featured one bright Tentacle Tuesday last year. « They say he can cook too! »
Greetings! I am on vacation this week – on vacation from work, that is, but never from tentacles! Stowed away on a tropical island (with a WiFi connection, ça va de soi), hoping to glimpse an octopus going about his business in the ocean, enjoying the tropical foliage… Speaking of the latter, some of the plants that grow around here are distinctly tentacular in nature.
So you see, I really had very little choice in regards to the topic of today’s Tentacle Tuesday installment! I’ve decided to stick to the 40s and 50s, as there are really many more cannibal plants out there than one could possibly shake a stick at.
Incidentally, may I just point out that the Girl Squadron’s costumes (as they go on their intergalactic, dangerous missions) wouldn’t be out of place in a modern music video? Fran Hopper could draw cute girls with no trouble at all – and she also seemed aware that breasts are affected by gravity (but just a little bit, one wouldn’t want to be *too* realistic).
Some folks seem to display a knee-jerk reaction to the legacy left behind by men and women who lived decades ago: that of condescension. Surely, if it was something that our grandparents believed in, something that made their imaginations soar or intrigued them, by now it’s no longer relevant or just utterly jejune. Frankly, I’d poo-poo this repulsive straw-man I’ve just erected, if it wasn’t for the fact that these narrow-minded airheads actually do live among us. “I’ll listen to music from before my time when today’s musicians stop releasing such excellent music”, somebody daft once opined, and the same (ahem) logic seems to be apply to other forms of culture. If TV shows from two years ago are ancient (overheard at a restaurant), what can we possibly think of comics from 70, 80 years ago?
As you probably noticed, this blog suffers from no such delusions: there’s plenty of intelligent, touching, excellent-all-around material to be dug up from (in this instance) the Golden Age.
Sorry about the varying quality of the images; some of these stories have been reprinted in recent years (and thus, thoroughly cleaned up, or even lovingly restored from original art); and some of them are only available in the original form, which is to say shoddily printed, dubiously coloured, and not all that well preserved. The Golden Age was, as I noted previously, a long time ago…
All right, let’s begin! I have a few favourites in this post, and our first story is one of them. I had access to a pristine, cleaned up, painfully white-papered version of it from Golden Age Marvel Comics Omnibus no. 1 (2009), but I by far prefer the following version, which keeps the colours, shall we say… less blinding? This is On the Planet Ligra, originally published in Marvel Mystery Comics no. 9 (Marvel, July 1940). It is scripted by Steve Dahlman, who did a very nice job of it, too. It’s worth a read in its entirety; find it here.
The next few pages demonstrate the dodgy printing I was referring to earlier…
This next part I like a lot, because I’m quite fond of Henry Fletcher, Barclay Flagg and perhaps even Hank Christy. These are all the same person, of course: Fletcher Hanks, The Most Bonkers Comic Book Creator of All-Time, according to Mark Peters. For now, let’s just look at some tentacles, although I will doubtlessly return to this theme at some later juncture.
Because of Fletcher Hanks’ relative cachet, comic scholars and restorers seem to have paid a little more attention to his work of late, and at a result, we can admire the two following pages in all their mighty crispness.
Getting off the Hanks bandwagon, we move into nonetheless enjoyable territory with Dynamic Man. These panels are from an unnamed story (with matching unknown artist ) published in Dynamic Comics no. 9 (Chesler/Dynamic, 1944).
Last but not least, as boring people say, is my second favourite of today’s post, both because I love the art and because the story gave me something to sink my teeth into. .
Twilight of the Gods, the cover story, is also illustrated by Edd Cartier. It’s surprisingly nuanced, doesn’t fall into horrible stereotypes despite the presence of several Chinese characters, and even has an interesting moral. Read it here.
Next week, I’ll return to my usual diet of the Latest Published Thing as well as superhero crossovers! Just kiddin’.
« Some men are like flies… without a plan – without direction… they flit restlessly about the world… escaping one danger… and another… only to fall into the spider’s web… » — Bleak’s prospects are grim (Jan. 4, 1948)
Here we are, making our way through Kitchen Sink’s valiant chronological reprinting of Eisner’s post-WWII The Spirit, namely strips from December 1947 to December 1948; still at the peak, with a bit of fatigue on the horizon. At any rate, this particular vintage inspired a score of the master cartoonist’s most sublime new covers… as you’ll witness.
Speaking of the slammer, Eisner muses sardonically on the cartooning life: « Working in this field is a very, not lonely, but solitary life. All of us come to realize how many hours we’ve been chained to the drawing board. We used to talk in the studio about how if we were sent to jail, it wouldn’t make any difference. We could still turn out comics and our lives would not be a hell of a lot different. »
From Dave Shreiner’s ongoing talk with Eisner, published in The Spirit no. 26‘s Stage Settings column: “Eisner has always been a functionalist, rarely a decorative artist producing something for its beauty alone. He is a powerful artist in that nearly every device he uses serves more than one purpose. With a bit of prodding, he took issue with the seemingly prevalent attitude among comic book artists that splash pages serve as a second cover to a story: there for decoration and enticement, but redundant to the story.”
Eisner: « A lot of the artwork done in this field is for a kind of personal satisfaction. It’s used to display artistic muscle, rather than confining itself to an artistic purpose. I believe a lot of artists fear addressing themselves to a purpose because they’re afraid that the showiness, or dazzle dazzle of their artwork, will probably be diminished.
Consequently, they feel the approval level, the applause meter, will fall off somewhat. We’ve talked before about one of the problems facing artists in the comic book field being that their work is judged essentially on the physical appearance of it. It’s the artwork, rather than the content. That fact contributes to comic books being looked down upon. »
On the subject of the inspiration behind cover-featured Life Below, Eisner explains: « I was trying to find a unique, or exciting and startling setting within a normal situation. It always intrigued me that cities, particularly New York City, had miles and miles of catacombs under the streets. People doing city stories frequently overlook the potential of them. Underneath the city are layer after layer of story material. »
Past this juncture, the strip’s slow, inexorable decline commences, and the covers reflect that fact. But not to worry: Eisner was a consummate pro, and the rest of the run is not without its gems. Besides, I’ll be cherry-picking ’em for you.
If you’ve just arrived at the intermission, fret not: take your seat and relax, here’s what you missed so far :
« I have learned to live each day as it comes, and not to borrow trouble by dreading tomorrow. It is the dark menace of the future that makes cowards of us. » — Dorothy Dix
Menace was a short-lived (11 issues, 1953-54, Atlas) horror anthology title that’s mostly remembered*, if at all, for its one-shot introduction of a zombi by the name of Simon Garth. Because Atlas never really played the gore card, its successor Marvel was able to mine most of its Pre-code material as cheap filler in their 1970s bid to flood the market. Don’t get me wrong, though; these titles were still a lot of primitive fun, and in most cases, I’d pick an issue of Weird Wonder Tales, Where Monsters Dwell or Uncanny Tales From the Grave over the latest Fantastic Four or Spider-Man.
The writing was by no means daring or even coherent, but the artwork was frequently rather fine, with none quite finer than Bill Everett‘s, particularly his covers, which elegantly straddled the line between fearsome and goofy.
I’d be tempted to say that Everett (1917-1973) was at his peak when he created these, but the bittersweet fact of it is that Everett was still at the height of his artistic powers, even as he was slowly dying in the early 1970s.
This particular hot streak ends not because Everett turned in a lesser job, but because other hands provided covers for the rest of the run. Talented hands, at that (Carl Burgos, Gene Colan, Russ Heath, Harry Anderson), but none of the other Menace covers are a patch on Everett’s mighty half-dozen.
That strange compulsion that’s creeping over you, that ungodly craving for more Bill Everett, cannot quite be slaked without incurring a terrible cost, be it in human lives, the forfeiting of your immortal soul, or both. But do check out my co-admin ds’ earlier tribute to Mr. Everett’s nightmares, Bill Everett’s Restless Nights of Dread, it might tide you over until dawn.