Monday, January 29, 2007

Number 87

The World's Worst Villain: The Claw

Even for an industry as short on subtlety as comics during the World War II era, The Claw feature in Daredevil, published by Lev Gleason under the Comic House imprint, was way over the top. And when I say way over, I mean it. The Claw could grow to fantastic heights, looking to be about 25' tall. A fairly good overview of The Claw in Daredevil is told here.

The Claw was created by Plastic Man creator, Jack Cole, but worked on by several artists during the time of its run. He also fought various heroes: Daredevil, Silver Streak and The Ghost. This particular episode, from Daredevil #11, June 1942, features The Ghost.

The Ghost shows up in a Colorado town because he has a hunch The Claw is somewhere close. I guess building a giant war machine as big as a building could be done without anyone knowing it, couldn't it? You'd think The Ghost might have seen it while he was flying around the area.

The Ghost, in his secret identity as Brad Hendricks, wearing a bright green suit and yellow fedora with bright red hat band, meets a saucy blonde counter gal in the local diner who gives him what-for because he's not in the Army. He says, "…well, someone has to stay home and take care of the girls…"

This was not only the character talking, but most likely the philosophy of Bob Wood, who gets the byline on the story. He was co-editor, with Charles Biro, of many Lev Gleason titles. Together they created Crime Does Not Pay, one of the most successful comics of all time. Reports by artists who knew them describe a couple of guys enjoying themselves on the town in wartime New York City. Biro was reported to be a ladies man who bragged about his conquests. Wood was described as being a mean drunk who beat women. His comeuppance came in 1958 when in an alcoholic rage he killed his girlfriend and went to prison.

The artwork is adequate, not worse than other Comics House artists, but not as good as some. Charles Biro drew the Daredevil lead feature and I will post that in a future Pappy's. The artwork in that feature shows that of the two, Biro was the better cartoonist.

The other thing immediately noticeable about this story, as well as the whole comic, is the use of primary colors. The coloring in this comic is practically scorching. It gives it an extremely garish look, which was I'm sure what Biro was looking for in the early comics he produced. He had proved many times over that garish translated into sales.

Page 1 (248K) / Page 2 (263K) / Page 3 (301K) / Page 4 (284K) / Page 5 (304K) / Page 6 (312K) / Page 7 (263K)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Number 86

Frankenstein Friday: Aurora Frankenstein Models!

In the late 1950s the Baby Boomer generation got to an age where they began to have buying power and the ability to sway popular culture. Entertainment like rock music and television felt the effect. On the TV side the Saturday late night monster movies took off, fueled by backlists of films from the 1930s and 1940s. They were most often the film catalogue of what are now called the Universal Monsters: Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman and the Creature From The Black Lagoon.

Concurrent with that exposure on TV, Jim Warren published Famous Monsters Of Filmland, edited and written in a pun-filled way by horror movie/sci-fi guru Forrest J. Ackerman. It found its audience almost immediately amongst pre-adolescent boys. I should know. I was one of them.

The Universal Monsters went on to licensing nirvana, including the Aurora Model Company, where pre-fab plastic dioramas featuring Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, etc., were put on the market and caught on in a big way. So much so that many years later, with the Baby Boomers all grown up, they were reissued.

At the time I missed out on the model kits. I was still buying comic books that had the Aurora ads on the back. I was aware they were available. I had by that time "outgrown" model making (but not reading comics), and the only models I was
interested in making were real live girls. The plastic models were aimed more at the age group my brother was in at the time. He and his friends had a great time with their monster model kits, Rat Finks, and all of the other stuff I turned up my nose at. The kids thought they were cool, I thought they were juvenile. Now I'm at an age, my second pre-adolescence, where such things finally seem cool. Such is the circular motion our lives take.

The ads are all from the back covers of DC comics. Click on the picture for larger image. The models must've been extremely popular, because the ads I have range
from 1963 to 1969 (Big Frankie!) Only one doesn't have the classic Universal Frankenstein, but has the classic Bride Of Frankenstein image, instead. I wonder if the Witch or Bride sold well to young boys? I can't see girls being that interested, and boys would shy away from anything with a female. Or would they? Maybe I underestimate the intended consumer.

The ads are colorful and fairly well drawn. The Big Frankie ad from 1969 is obviously done by a commercial artist, rendered in pen and ink by lightboxing a photo. The other ads have the style of comic art of the time.

Finally, did anyone ever win the contest to be in a monster movie? And if so, what movie was it?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Number 85

The Forbidden Drink

Hey, guys…ever really dug a girl and found out she didn't feel the same way? Of course you have. But I hope when you found out she didn't dig you it wasn't because she was laughing in your face. Poor Philip Sanderson, the hero of this story from Atlas Comics' Mystic #2, May, 1951, loved a girl and she spurned him in the cruelest way possible.

I've never figured out how guys in comic book stories like this ever got married or got dates when the chicks were shooting them off the page with insults. (See Pappy's #10). Our hero, Philip, has always played the part of the great lover, but when he's old, he becomes a joke. His audience lets him know. Rosalie, the much younger woman he loves, lets him know in no uncertain terms what a joke she thinks he is.

So why does he go back? Why does he still want her? Well, the most obvious reason is that it serves the purpose of the story. It also sets up the Faustian deal that Philip gets for himself that leads to the last panel. Poor, poor Philip. Not only doesn't he get the girl he wants, he gets a one-way trip to hell.

He probably spared himself some trouble. Unfortunately we've all known our Rosalies, and instead of a quick trip to hell like Philip got, we spend years being put through the tortures of the damned.

In real life Philip would be smarter to realize that he should be hanging around nursing homes looking for girlfriends. The rejections might not be so harsh.

This story isn't a horror story as such, although the plot device of selling a soul to the devil qualifies it as horror. Unlike horror comics stories from just a couple of years later there's no crime, no murder, no gore. "The Forbidden Drink" could have been published in any of Atlas' post code comic books of a few years later. The art is by an artist whose style I don't recognize, but it's well drawn.

The main complaint I have with this story is the off-register color printing. This was a problem that annoyed me 50 years ago and still annoys me when I see it. Comics were a product, produced cheaply on huge web presses, and printed in the millions. This has all of the earmarks of "fast and dirty," a phrase I heard a lot when I was in the printing trade many years ago.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Number 84

COVERING UP: Classic Covers of Golden Age Comics

Is Decapitation in Bad Taste?

On April 21, 1954, EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines took his place before a Senate subcommittee investigating the excesses of comic books. Gaines took a chance by testifying: No one who watched the U.S. Senate during the period after World War II would have failed to notice the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings by Senator Joe McCarthy, and the Senate's own excesses, ruining lives and careers of people who testified.

Comics had been under fire for many years--just about as many years as they had been popular--and Bill Gaines' father, Max Gaines, had been sensitive to such criticism. His own comic book lines, All-American Comics, with popular characters like The Flash, Wonder Woman, etc., and his new business, Educational Comics, were kept as clean as possible with some pretty strict self-censoring. It wasn't until he died and his son, Bill, took over that Educational Comics became Entertaining Comics and put their stamp on quality in art and story, if not in subject matter.

Crime and horror comics were successful, and were the target of PTA groups and parents. The comics were put under a public microscope and received much criticism.

So it's hard to tell why Bill Gaines put his own neck on the block (ho-ho), unless he had told himself that by dint of a calm testimony and his own sincerity he could convince some publicity-wise senators that as a publisher he felt he wasn't doing anyone any harm. When it came to whether his comics were in good taste, and a copy of Crime Suspenstories #22 was held up this exchange occurred:

Senator Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue [sic]. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?

Mr. Gaines: Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example,
might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.

Ah, poor Bill Gaines. He claimed later he was on dexedrines, a diet pill, and not really responsible for what he said, but when they held up that cover he must've felt his own head under a bloody ax. He knew then that he had been set up, not only by the Senate subcommittee, but by his own publishing practices. It wasn't long before the publication of Seduction Of The Innocent by Dr. Fredric Wertham, M.D., an anti-comics polemic and a very influential book. The comic book industry felt the heavy weight of public opinion finally crush them, and the Comics Code was born. Unlike the belief of some uninformed fans, the government did not censor comic books, nor were they ever likely to censor them. It would have been clearly unconstitutional to do so, but a self-regulation seemed at the time to be in everyone's (especially the publishers) interests.

I think Bill Gaines was a brilliant publisher by surrounding himself with so much talent. He did that throughout his publishing career and made a tidy living at it. If he had a problem during his EC Comics days it was pushing against public opinion. When the public starts book burnings of your product, when distributors return the boxes unopened because no seller wants to handle your product, then you have
failed. You've made a point, but by doing so you have also hurt yourself.

EC is often held up as the benchmark of how good comic books could be, and I'm firmly in that camp. I own many of the original comics, I own the complete hardbound, slip-cased series' of New Trend issues, I own all of the comic-formatted reprints. I'm a solid EC fan, but even jaundiced by my own opinion of how good EC Comics were, I can see where they dug the pitfalls they later fell into.

Oh yeah…EC wasn't the only company to publish decapitation covers. In 1939 the pulp magazine, Strange Stories had a doozy of a decapitation cover by Norm Saunders.

Click on pictures for full-size images.

In this cover the bad taste guidelines explained by Gaines are fully illustrated, with blood dripping from the neck of the female victim. But that was a pulp magazine, not usually associated with children, and that was the problem with comic books. Their readership was a little young--according to their parents--to be exposed to such things as headless bodies and bodiless heads.

Whether the publisher decided they were in good taste or not.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Number 83

Frankenstein Friday: Frankenstein and the Graveyard Blues!

More silliness from the pen of Dick Briefer. This is the final story from Frankenstein Comics #12, May-June, 1947. The splash panel is especially nice, something this story shares with the other stories in this issue. It looks like Briefer took his time on the lead-ins, then rushed the body of the stories.

This particular episode has some pretty funny stuff: Frankenstein eating the witch out of house and home, the mix up with the bear and bat brews. It's a sitcom plot, well handled.

Page 1 (256K) / Page 2 (222K) / Page 3 (231K) / Page 4 (242K) / Page 5 (232K) / Page 6 (226K) / Page 7 (233K) / Page 8 (231K) / Page 9 (256K) / Page 10 (242K)

Monday, January 15, 2007

Number 82

The Dead Who Walk

Comic book companies usually try to capture readers' attention and get them to keep coming back to ongoing titles. This comic, The Dead Who Walk, under the imprint Realistic Comics, is something unusual: an unnumbered, one-shot title. Realistic Comics also published another famous one-shot, Reform School Girl, which reprinted the cover from an Avon paperback of the same name, and found itself featured in Seduction Of The Innocent, the infamous anti-comics screed by Dr. Fredric Wertham, M.D.

The Dead Who Walk was released in 1952 as part of the horror comics boom of the era. It must've sold pretty well because it's not an uncommon title to find. The version I scanned for this edition of Pappy's is from a 1964 reprint, Strange Mysteries #16, a comic published under the logo Super Comics, and printed to be sold in poly bags, three different titles to a bag, for 25¢. The whole output of Super Comics, as well as its predecessor, I.W. Comics, consisted of reprinted material. I don't have the original comic to compare it to, so you sharp-eyed Golden Age horror fans out there can tell me if there was any censoring to the contents of the reprint. I'm going to go out on a decapitated limb and guess there wasn't. The subject matter alone would be enough to get it banned by the Comics Code. Since it wasn't submitted for Code approval why not just publish it as it was originally?

The cover above is taken from an Internet site, but I'm including the Super Comics reprint cover here as well. It was drawn by Andru and Esposito, two artists who worked together for many years. The title, Strange Mysteries, seems to come from the tagline on the original cover, "What strange mysteries lie beyond the grave?"

The artwork for The Dead Who Walk, done by an artist or artists unknown to me, is uninspired. Unlike the cover, which has eerie walking corpses and the girl with headlights on high beam, the interior hasn't any sex appeal or what we horror comics fans think of as walking dead: lurching corpses with rotting pieces of dead flesh falling off.

The story moves at a breakneck pace, but then, it's only 19 pages long. For such a short story there are a lot of characters: Kent, his fiancée, Anne, her brother Jack, Dr.French, a "man of cold, scientific logic," and the evil brothers who are stealing bodies, George and Walt Bacon. That isn't even counting the named corpses animated by the pair of bodysnatchers: Juan Fernandez, Foley the mechanic, Torelli the importer…talk about packing a lot into a small space! The story, which concerns "egos," (i.e., "souls") jumping from body to body, reads like a weird menace pulp magazine tale of the 1930s and '40s, where plots like this were common. A Realistic Comic it might have been, but realistic it wasn't.

For all of that, it's still pretty entertaining. I first read it in its original version back in 1959 or 1960. It was the first precode horror comic I'd ever seen, and despite the things I nowadays find lacking, at the time I was impressed and if for nothing else than personal nostalgia I give it a nod of approval.

Page 1 (265K) / Page 2 (260K) / Page 3 (276K) / Page 4 (275K) / Page 5 (285K) / Page 6 (291K) /Page 7 (273K) / Page 8 (272K) / Page 9 (291K) / Page 10 (290K) / Page 11 (262K) / Page 12 (278K) / Page 13 (293K) / Page 14 (284K) / Page 15 (284K) / Page 16 (276K) / Page 17 (264K) / Page 18 (298K) / Page 19 (290K)

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Number 81

An Alter Ego For The 21st Century

The first comics fanzine I ever saw--the first fanzine I ever saw--was Mike Britt's Squa Tront #2 in 1959. It was produced on a spirit duplicator (a "ditto machine") in purple ink on white paper. It was an EC fanzine and yet I knew nothing about EC. It had articles on EC artists who were second-tier, like George Roussos or Sid Check. Never mind I really didn't even know anything about the first tier artists. It had an article on Jules Feiffer, a cartoonist I'd never heard of. (I found out in that article that Jules Feiffer didn't care much for Mad Magazine and he thought Harvey Kurtzman could have been a great cartoonist if he'd stuck to it.) I read and re-read that issue of Squa Tront to shreds and it's 40 years gone from my collection, but I've never forgotten it.

Fast forward a couple of years to 1961 and in the mail I got a complimentary copy of something called Alter Ego #1. It had some articles about some Golden Age comics called The Justice Society Of America, and a wonderful (to me, anyway) comic-style satire of The Justice League Of America called "The Bestest Society Of America," by a young teacher named Roy Thomas.

Along with the comics I was reading at the time those two fanzines led me down the path to today, sitting at the keyboard of my computer, writing this blog. The fanzines of today, many of them, like Pappy's, are produced in cyberspace, floating out there in some sort of Never-Never Land of technology I can't seem to completely understand.

The old fanzine style, the print fanzine, still lives in some form or another, though. I just bought a group of issues of the new Alter Ego, which is the spiritual, as well as the titular, descendent of that purple-printed fanzine I got in the mail 45 years ago. Roy Thomas, who was co-editor, with the late Jerry Bails, of the original Alter Ego, is an editor of this incarnation as well.
The two issues I was most interested in of the current series were numbers 61 and 62, both still available at the publisher, Twomorrows. I bought them because of their interesting and scholarly history of one of the more interesting comic book publishers of both the Golden and Silver ages of comics, ACG. Mike Vance, who created the comic strip, "Holiday Out," wrote the articles. They detail how the American Comics Group grew from the B.W. Sangor art shop, which packaged comic books for publishers.

Despite Bill Gaines' "admission" to the Senate Subcommittee hearings on comic books that he created horror comic books, ACG actually published the first line of horror comics with Adventures Into The Unknown, which ran for twenty years as both a non-code and then code-approved comic book. During that time many artists went through the company, but only one editor, and that was Richard E. Hughes. During the post-code era he wrote almost all, or maybe it was all, of the stories that appeared in both Adventures Into The Unknown and its companion, Forbidden Worlds.

The ACG comics hold a great deal of nostalgia for me, because at one point in the late 1950s they were my favorites, right before I got swayed to DC by that original ditto'd Alter Ego!

Current issues of Alter Ego are printed in black ink on newsprint paper. They aren't slick. They don't need to be. What's important to me is the information. I'm not exactly sure why, but I'm really interested in the kind of arcane knowledge this magazine gives me about the old-time comic book business. Maybe it's my obsessive compulsive disorder that gives me interest in the comic book business as well as comic book creators. Whatever. I'm very happy with these issues.

And they aren't the only issues that are great. You could just about pick one and find something of great interest to a Golden Age Comics fan.

Alter Ego and I have been companions a long time. You might say we've grown up together. And Alter Ego has aged much better than I.

Graphics are excellent. Every page is well-designed with lots of pictures for emphasis. After all, this is a visual medium they are reporting on. Click on pictures for full-size images.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Number 80

Frankenstein Friday: The Hand in the Night!

More Frankenstein lunacy written and drawn by Dick Briefer. The "Hand in the Night" is the third story from Frankenstein Comics #12, March-April, 1947.

Frankenstein is in the "advertising" business, and what he's advertising is part of the punch line to the story, which is actually the lead-in to an additional punch line about "Pancake Charlie." If you want to know what I'm talking about you'll have to read the story.

Page 1 (194K) / Page 2 (255K) / Page 3 (250K) / Page 4 (249K) / Page 5 (243K) / Page 6 (217K) / Page 7 (228K) / Page 8 (244K)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Number 79

Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder present Elvis Presley in Jailbreak Rock!

Hey, happy birthday, Elvis. A day late, but happy birthday anyway.

Had Elvis lived he'd be 71. Wow. Who could imagine a gyrating, hip-swinging Elvis of 71? It'd be like Mick Jagger still rocking in his sixties, dancing around on stage. Whoops. Mick Jagger is still rocking in his sixties, so maybe if Elvis had lived past 40 he'd still be going, still throwing his weight around (oooooo, that was so mean) in Las Vegas.

In 1958 rock 'n' roll was still a mostly new phenomenon, although Elvis had been around for a couple of years and made his presence well known everywhere. I watched him on the Ed Sullivan show in my grandmother's apartment with my teenage cousin, Judy, screaming along with the music. Humbug, the little humor magazine owned by an artists cooperative consisting of Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Will Elder, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth, et al., didn't miss a beat when it came to depicting Elvis. Jailhouse Rock was a huge hit, both as a song and as a movie, and this parody, short and succinct, captures both the look and feel of the movie and of Elvis' popularity.

Will Elder's artwork is great, even though it's hampered by the horrible printing Charlton Press did on Humbug. You can still see enough of it to see that a few years before Little Annie Fanny, he was still as great as he was in Mad. Every panel is as funny as anything he did for Mad, and as packed with gags as anything he ever drew. Check out the splash panel and the Teamsters band! Teamsters were in the news a lot in the late '50s, with Teamsters president Dave Beck going to prison, followed up as president by the equally notorious Jimmy Hoffa. Also check out the next to last panel of the story. The "band" consists of Jimmie Dodd and the Mouseketeers, Elvis has a copy of Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler on his U.S. Army blanket, along with a copy of his draft notice. Right away Elder has drawn in the popularity of The Mickey Mouse Club, Elvis going into the Army, and the German connection to his service. Pretty good for one small panel, and the whole story is like that!

The story is obviously written by Harvey Kurtzman. He didn't sign it but his signature style is all over it.

So, Elvis, wherever you are, hope you had a hunk-a, hunk-a birthday cake.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Number 78

George Evans And The Vanishing Hitchhiker

In a couple of Pappy's previous blogs we've shown some of the work that EC Comics' most revered artists did after the line folded. George Evans (1920-2001) found work in comic strips, but also did a stint at Gilberton for its Classics Illustrated line.

In 1960 when I picked up this issue of the Classics Illustrated World Around Us series, The Illustrated Story of Ghosts, I didn't know Evans' work. When I started collecting EC's and went back to this comic I put two and two together, that this was the same great artist. Evans' art is most easily recognizable by what fans spoke of as the "George Evans eyes." He used a mirror on himself to draw facial expressions, and apparently he had very expressive eyes.

When I read this comic originally it was the first time I'd encountered the story of the vanishing hitchhiker, which is one of the most venerable ghost stories in American folklore. As Page 7 of this story shows, the story has legs; it's been around a long time in many variant versions. Years later I read histories of the story in two great books, Things That Go Bump In The Night (1959), by the folklorist, Louis C. Jones, and The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981) by Jan Harold Brunvand, a University of Utah professor who specializes in folklore. Both writers are excellent and I recommend these books for broad and very entertaining overviews of the story.

The Illustrated Story Of Ghosts version is told in a matter-of-fact narrative, without any excess dramatic flourishes. Its greatness lies in Evans' skill at illustration. His panels depicting a rainy night in a rural area are very evocative. You can feel the dampness and the cold. There are panels that tie into each other. In the top right panel of page 2 the girl and the doctor are both smiling, and yet in the final panel of the page they share exactly the same serious expression (presumably from Evans' mirror work). The girl's melancholy is easily read, and leads to the ultimate tragedy of the doctor's strange experience, as once again her parents are made to explain her death, just as they have done many times before.

Nineteen-sixties music fans will recognize a variation of this story as the basis of the song "Laurie (Strange Things Happen)" by Dickie Lee.

At the time this story was drawn Gilberton's pay rates were the about the lowest in the depressed comic book industry. Many artists (and at least a couple in this issue) took the easy road with little detail and unimaginative layouts, but George Evans probably couldn't draw that way. He gave it his best, and when George Evans was at his best hardly anyone was better.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Number 77

Frankenstein Friday: The Mold!

This story, the second from Frankenstein Comics #12, March-April 1947, is a slapstick story, light on dialogue with lots of sight gags.

Well, "gag" is what I did when I read the story! The bilious looking mold reminded me of what I chucked up the last time I had the flu. Secondarily it reminded me of what happened when I replaced my kitchen cabinets and found toxic mold hiding behind them.

Makes you really want to read this story, doesn't it?

A mad scientist, looking for an evil form of penicillin (!!) turns himself, and most everyone around him, into mold. Which also reminds me. Are there any scientists in Golden Age Comics that aren't mad?

Enjoy the story…a real moldy oldie!

Page 1 (208K) / Page 2 (281K) / Page 3 (220K) / Page 4 (218K) / Page 5 (229K) / Page 6 (231K) / Page 7 (234K) / Page 8 (210K) / Page 9 (251K) / Page 10 (225K)