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.
Actually, no. Before that, there arose the idea in art director Warren Kremer‘s ever-effervescent mind:
Then, one year on…
More than two decades down the road, Marvel, since they were already borrowing Harvey’s Chamber of Chills title (did they even ask? I wonder), figured they may as well reenact one of its classic covers.
Say, what’s this about the day’s first shave? … is there shaving after death? Hassles, hassles.
Though most would nowadays call upon electric shavers or disposable plastic razors, I presume that straight razors have made a comeback among the hipster set. Still, a niche is hardly universal.
As a bonus, here’s one on the general topic by the immortal Chas Addams. It appeared in The New Yorker in 1957, then was reprinted later that year in his solo collection Nightcrawlers (Simon and Schuster). For more of that excellently-morbid Addams mirth, amble over to this earlier spotlight from our Hallowe’en Countdown’s initial edition.
Today, for a change, here’s a gallery of light-hearted Golden Age funnies… if not directly on the theme of Hallowe’en, then at least full of spooky fun and spirit. Some of these babies are unbelievably rare items… hence, at least in part, the sketchy credits.
« Dreams surround our desires with ugliness and dread. » — Mason Cooley
As everyone knows, the early fifties were a more innocent and wholesome era, when the average bobbysoxer would swoon away the nights with fantasies of dishy teen idol Rondo Hatton. I mean, just look at her blissful expression!
Surprisingly, the cover scene does, for once, occur within!
« The whole planet reeks of mysticism without revelation. » — Dan Simmons
Last May, when I showcased Joe Maneely‘s Atlas cover art (see Joe Maneely, Atlas of Versatility), I intentionally left out his pieces for the horror titles, knowing them worthy of some attention of their own, an ideal topic for the Hallowe’en countdown. Besides, it took some pressure out of the selection process if I could save one whole genre for a rainy day — and today’s most certainly that day!
“Mystic” is evidently one of Marvel’s pet titles: the title was first used by Timely in 1940-42, then again in 1944-45; once more, most successfully in this Atlas horror series, for 61 issues from 1951-57. And lately in 2009 and 2011. I’ll bet that tradition’s not yet done with, but why on earth?
« After that I never saw him again. He became the ‘phantom’ artist, whereabouts unknown! » — Bhob Stewart
Hello again. Last year, I touched upon the stint that Matt Fox (1905-1988) did as an occasional and unappreciated inker at Marvel in the Silver Age. While he’s assured a sort of immortality for the eleven winningly oddball covers he painted for Weird Tales, he also left his distinctive and lasting mark on horror comics of the 1950’s. Let’s give the old burying grounds the once-over, shall we?
Here’s one of Fox’s all-too-infrequent forays between comic book covers. This one appeared in Uncanny Tales no.6 (March 1953, Atlas). Writer unknown… though that’s no great loss to history.
« There is an air of disquiet to his vision, yet it charms through a surreptitious blending of the primitive with the mockingly insane. His characters border on the lunatic, seemingly at home in his landscapes, concealing a darkness corruptive of the soul. »
And I leave the final word to my trusted accomplice ds, who observed that:
« I find that the art of Matt Fox reminds me of Terrance Lindall… Both can create disquieting monsters with eyes that speak of inner torment, reminiscent of Christian Art (mostly Spanish, I believe) from a few centuries ago. »
« There’s money, all right! I quoted Mrs. Tarrent a hundred slugs for this trip and she never batted a tonsil! » — Ken Shannon’s on the job.
Reed Crandall (1917-1982), one of the final additions (mid-1953… late in the ballgame!) to EC Comics’ immortal roster, previously spent most of the Golden Age years (1941-53) exclusively working for Quality Comics, and it was only when the publisher began to scale back its output, in 1953, that Crandall began to look elsewhere for additional work. After EC, he would make landfall at George A. Pflaum’s Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact, a story we’ve touched upon earlier this year.
Hard-boiled private eye (was there any other kind?) Ken Shannon was introduced in Quality’s Police Comics with issue 103 (Dec. 1950), and right away grabbed the cover spot (dethroning Plastic Man, no less!), which he doggedly retained to the bitter end, namely Police’s final bow, issue 127 (Oct. 1953). Concurrently, Shannon’s investigations were spun off into his own book, over the course of ten issues (Oct. 1951 to Apr. 1953).
Shannon certainly had his share of unusual cases to puzzle out, and here are the spookiest!
I really enjoy the madcap world of Golden Age funny animal comics, and they’ve often made it into various Tentacle Tuesdays. Yet not everything fits into the somewhat narrow scope of tentacles (shocking, I know!), so I am pleased to take this fun gallop through some favourite covers that are quite devoid of cephalopods. Doing so involves going back some seventy, eighty years… a difficult to grasp concept for those of us who were not around back then.
My thirty-something colleagues consider movies from the late 90s to be ‘ancient’, so I can just imagine what their reaction would be to a comic from, say, 1942! Yet I feel emotionally close to these covers (whether artistically accomplished, entertainingly weird or just plain drugged-out) – humanity has not changed nearly as much as we tend to assume, and albeit some sources of humour require an historian’s explanation, others are every bit as funny and entertaining now as they were back then. As for talking animals, that goes back to the dawn of human history (Aesop’s fables readily come to mind, and Aesop was surely not the inventor of this concept!)
One could dedicate a whole lifetime to digging through this particular slice of history – I’ve tried to go for some variety in this post, but of course I am (happily) constrained by my own tastes in the matter. Here, then, are some Golden Age covers featuring funny animals that have amused, entertained or puzzled me.
Animal Comics no. 1 (December 1942, Dell), with a cover by H.R. McBride, is an amalgam of details both adorable and creepy – the harrowing expression of the fish contrasts wildly with Madame Crocodile’s peanuts-pilfering offspring and her flirty cocktail parasol, while her crocodile-skin purse makes me think of Disney’s Three Little Pigs cartoon (1933, Silly Symphonies). In case you’ve never noticed it, the third pig, the one with the brick house, has family pictures on his wall… for example, a string of sausages labelled “Father”. Black humour, indeed. Animal funnies are often dusted with a good sprinkling of the gruesome, as when a talking duck eats chicken legs for dinner.
Fast forwarding four years, we fall into pleasantly loopy territory of Fox Features’ Nuttylife no. 2 (Summer 1946, Fox Comics). Despite it being number two, this is technically the only issue, issue number 1 having appeared as Krazy Life, and issue number 3 and onward becoming Wotalife Comics. I can’t find credits for the cover, but the insides contain Pat Adams with Ellis Chambers (“One day a little goil went to her Grandma’s joint…”), Tim Howe and Cy King. Ellis Chambers by himself definitely deserves a separate post – take a glimpse at Eddie Elephant – 1946 Hallucinogenic Funny Animal Comix by Ellis Holly Chambers, for example.
I couldn’t very well leave Felix the Cat out of this post! I won’t go into the complex history of this character, but suffice it to say that this is one gorgeous cover. Clearly I’m not the only one to admire this image, as it was used for the cover of Craig Yoe‘s wonderful anthology Felix the Cat – Greatest Comic Book Tails (2011, IDW), which I highly recommend. This is Four Color no. 135 (February 1947, Dell Comics), with a cover by Otto Messmer.
The American Comics Group is responsible for many a goofy plot, source of my long-lasting affection for some of their titles (see Tentacle Tuesday: ACG’s Adventures Into the Tentacles). ACG’s Ha Ha Comics are a riot, all right, but I have two favourites among the 88 issues released. The first is Ha Ha Comics no. 11 (August 1944), with a cover by Ken Hultgren. A joke doesn’t have to be elaborate to be funny – something about the expression of the indignant man-eating lion and his wild mop of hair cracks me up!
The second is Ha Ha Comics no. 78 (Dec-Jan 1951), cover artist unknown. I like porcupines in general, but here we are presented with a truly bizarre situation – a porcupine who tears out his sweetheart’s quills one by one to figure out whether she loves him… (unless she’s just a friend helping out, and he’s in love with some other porcupine). Kinky, whichever way you look at it.
Going a few years back, we take a little inter-planetary voyage with Coo Coo Comics no. 38 (March 1948, Pines/Standard Comics), with a cover by (possibly)Vince Fago. I am very fond of this purple-green monster who looks like he’s suffering from a bad hangover (or terminal cretinism). Coo Coo Comics is credited with having introduced the first funny animal superhero (in its very first issue, published in October 1942). That little guy was Supermouse…
… but the other contender for this title was Terrytoons’ Mighty Mouse, also introduced in October 1942 (under the name of ‘Super Mouse’) in the theatrical short The Mouse of Tomorrow. That’s enough to get anybody confused in all these mice! This is Terry-Toons Comics no. 1 (October 1942), with an Ernie Hart cover that hints at the influence that funny animal comics had on the underground comix artists:
The source of tentacles in Golden Age comics seems inexhaustible – every time I think I have reached the bottom of the well, I find myself awash in cephalopods. That being said, a lot of these octopusoid appearances are one-panel cameos, and even when the tentacles linger for a few pages, the shitty printing, questionable scans or bare-bones art don’t exactly incite me to use this material in a Tentacle Tuesday. Today’s crop is all Golden Age, running the gamut from 1939 to 1952, and composed of pages/covers I can enthusiastically endorse.
George (of Harry J. Tuthill’sThe Bungle Family, ‘one of the most under-rated comic strips in the history of American cartoonery’ according to Art Spiegelman,‘one of the top hundred comics of the 20th century‘, according to The Comics Journal) may be thoroughly bundled up in tentacles, but he still keeps a sort of prosaic calm that I admire.
Just look at the canines the red devil is ready to plunge into Black Hood’s leg! Throw in a fanged octopus, and this cover has as much action as one would possibly want. Sadly, nothing of the sort actually goes on in this issue.
« Hey, Look! is essential reading for any cartoonist. » — the late and much-missed Patrick Dean, who truly knew what he was talking about.
Sometimes I think of a post topic and dismiss it with a ‘nah, too obvious’… but on some of my brighter days, I run the idea past my wife, who provides a welcome reality check: ‘Obvious to whom?‘, she asks. Well, there’s been a collected edition… which has been out of print for most of the nearly thirty years since it hit the stands. Fair enough.
As I’ve been lately foraging through the crumbling back pages of Golden Age humour comics (see my previous post), it would be negligently immoral for me to pass over one of the crown jewels of the genre, the era and the medium.
One* of the redeeming features of Marvel’s overwhelmingly crass Dynamite (magazine) rip-off, Pizzazz, was its reprinting of a handful of Harvey Kurtzman‘s majestic Hey Look! strips. Of course, it made perfect economic sense: grab some already (and barely)-paid-for, all-but-forgotten ‘filler’ from the 1940s, slap some new colour on ‘em, and wham! One less egg to fry.
« I think the most gruesome thing in life is people — if they let themselves go. I’ve been letting myself go for years, and I’m beginning to feel gruesome. I want to entertain and communicate. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I have to be honest — like that old baseball umpire — and call ’em like I see ’em. My drawings aren’t as bad as the models themselves. » — Basil Wolverton
Here at WOT? headquarters, we’re both card-carrying, fervent Basil Wolverton* fanatics, but we haven’t devoted the column space commensurate with our affection for his work. Why? Because Wolverton, despite toiling in underpaid obscurity for most of his career and inevitably never becoming a household name, was always a critic and historian’s darling, insofar as there was a scholarly press to express its appreciation. Things began to turn around in the early 1970s, just in time.
Whatever subject or genre he put his hand to, Wolverton’s singular style shone through, and not as a handicap: his funnies were hilarious, his horror was harrowing… but they were distinctly from that same, most gifted of hands.
Most of Basil’s humour work was (with the partial exception of Powerhouse Pepper, 1942-49) relegated to ‘filler’ features, generally hidden gems glittering in the mediocre midst of loads and loads of higher-profile rubbish. Don’t just take my word for it: here’s a typical example of the sorry setup.
From this thrilling new assemblage, I’ve picked a pair of short samples, both featuring my favourite Wolverton protagonist, Mystic Moot (and his Magic Snoot). Sadowski informs us that:
« In July 1945, editor Virginia Provisiero invited the artist to submit ideas for a four-page ‘magic or mystic character’. He responded with Champ Van Camp and his Magic Lamp, but the editor suggested ‘a weird magician who had hocus-pocus powers instead of this lamp and genie affair‘. Wolverton hit the bull’s-eye with his second try, Mystic Mose and his Magic Nose, though Managing Editor Will Lieberson came up with a catchier moniker. »
Historian Henry Steele, in his indispensable overview of Wolverton’s career (published in Bill Spicer‘s blandly-titled but most excellent Graphic Story Magazine‘s issues 12 and 14, circa 1970-71), eloquently describes Mystic Moot as :
« Basically a kindly and almost simple soul, he is eternally cheerful and never at a loss. He is perennially helping others, usually unfortunate nobodies liked the jobless glutton, the bankrupt small businessman, the farmer with no crop, the henpecked husband, intimidated lumberjacks and prospectors, widows, orphans and kindred down-and-outers. He uses his magic powers only in the most haphazard ways, and never relies on them on his own behalf unless it is absolutely necessary.
Perhaps because of the passive Eastern philosophy of its subject, Mystic Moot strikes one as being the most minor key of all Wolverton’s features — which, while it implies difference, does not mean inferiority in any sense. »