Saturday, July 28, 2007

Number 166

Spectro Analysis

Spectro was yet another comic book magician, along the lines of Zatara, or the granddaddy of comic magicians, Mandrake. It seems every anthology comic book had to have at least one magician to go along with the stock parade of secret agents, private detectives, and of course, the resident super-hero.

In this story the only power I can detect for Spectro is an ability to read minds, and apparently, according to this story, not always able to do even that. Unlike Zatara, who chanted words backwards and created real magic, or Mandrake, who gestured hypnotically and created perceived magic, Spectro uses his fists. He is also missing the ever-present top hat of the comic book magician, but he wouldn't be able to show off his blond hair. Or it'd be knocked off when he socked a bad guy. He has one element of a costume, a red cape which he inexplicably wears off-stage. But then, comics magicians always dressed like they were ready for a performance.

The villain is a bespectacled teacher who turns out to be a conman. You can tell he's a teacher because his name is Mister Pedant. You can tell his gang are crooks because they talk like comic book criminals. You can tell this teacher isn't very smart because he acts like a comic book villain. He tries to kill the hero using a gimmick, and gives the hero the opportunity to escape. You can tell this story doesn't make a lot of sense, but then it's a filler in an otherwise average comic book, Wonder Comics #16 from 1948.

The artwork is by Al Camy (a/k/a Al Cammarata), who did three stories in this issue. According to what I see about Al Camy in the Grand Comics Database, he was active in the comic book field in the late 1930s, throughout the 1940s, and sometime into the early 1950s. He worked mostly for Richard E. Hughes at Nedor/Better, which became The American Comics Group.

Camy's solid artwork is that of a journeyman comic book artist. Not flashy, but it tells the story.

Also, checking again with the Grand Comics Database, this is the last Spectro story I see listed, so perhaps that silver dart Spectro pulled out of his shoulder had a slow-acting poison and after the last panel poor Spectro shuffled off to comic book magician heaven .

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Number 164

Space Ace Gets Woody!

This is the last Space Ace story from Jet Comics #4, the final issue.

Not only the last Space Ace, but because of the artwork it's the best of the series. Wally Wood inked over Al Williamson's pencils. What a combination they made. I wish they'd done a lot more work together. Wood's bold inking replacing Williamson's tentative inking of this period really makes a difference in how dynamic the story looks.

As for the story itself, well, it's Space Ace, after all…ace criminal of the spaceways, blah blah blah…gets into a jam over a woman, then gets himself out, blah blah…meantime getting lots of reward money or some jewelry or something good, blah blah…and then gets a full pardon for all his crimes, et cetera, et cetera...nice life!

As usual, some of the most entertaining bits of business are the little things that scripter Gardner Fox was good at: his pseudoscientific-sounding creations, like Ace's electric space pants (!!!) Wouldn't they give you a shock if you had to — you know — go to the bathroom? Not only that, he has the ability to turn them into a key to unlock a cell door. Or how about the paralysi-ray? Or Space Ace finding big tanks of nitrous oxide — laughing gas— so conveniently? Or how about describing Ace's fighting ability as being like a "Plutonian tigercat"?

I'm not an expert on all Golden Age comics (duh), so I just found out that ME published a Space Ace comic in 1952. I was also surprised to find out that Space Ace appeared in ME's Manhunt as far back as 1947. Well, hit me with a paralysi-ray! There's always something new to learn in this crazy comic book business.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Number 163

Kink From Under The Counter

It's hard for me to believe, grizzled and jaded as I am today, that I was ever young and naïve. But I was. It was 1965, I was 18. A friend and I went into a bookstore. In some pre-arranged buy, my friend gave the clerk $3.00, which got him a digest-sized booklet, very slim. It was a black-and-white comic book called The Passion Pit.

The booklet was by Eneg, an artist I'd never heard of. Eneg was the pseudonym for Gene Bilbrew, an African-American comic book artist who turned to fetish illustrating and became well-known in that subterranean community. Bilbrew was born in 1923 and died in 1974 at the young age of 51. You can google his name and come up with several sites, some of them selling his printed work.

If this were published today it would be considered tame. There just isn't that forbidden thrill to spike-heeled boots, masks, whips and chains, or rubber clothes, not anymore. The mainstream co-opted those images some years ago. I saw a lot of them when I watched MTV with my son in the early 1990s and the heavy metal bands were thrashing around with models right out of Irving Klaw's shop in New York City.

A note on the copy I used for the scans: I found a pirate copy of The Passion Pit back in the late 1970s. It was called Chinese Torture, and Eneg's name was removed. The printing was not that good, photographed as it was from an original printed copy. Mine is a second generation from that generation. So if there are details that are muddy I apologize. Some of it isn't my fault. Some of the original printing flaws due to Bilbrew's sloppy original art are still present: There are lettering guide lines visible in some panels, even some pencil marks under his drawings. He also didn't rule his panel borders very straight. Personally, I like that sort of thing. It reminds me that a real live human being sat down at a drawing board and made these pictures, and was a sloppy workman with some of it. Just like the rest of us are at times in our everyday work.

I also get a kick out of his spelling: "Bhudda" and "strenght" show no editor was involved in this comic.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Number 162

The First Man In History Who Could Not Die!

Oboy, here's another story from Jet #4. Except that Jet only appears as a vignette in the splash panel. He doesn't star in this story, but says if we write in he'll show us more of this type of story. He calls us "boys and girls," too. Apparently no boys and girls wrote him back then in 1951, because there were no more issues of Jet. I'm not sure why a comic with the potential Jet had in issues #1 and 2 would flame out so quickly, but sadly, it did.

It could have been editorial problems, maybe not knowing exactly what direction to send the book. I thought it had a strong premise at its beginning: a two-fisted scientific genius with a bunch of futuristic gadgets and a beautiful Asian girlfriend fighting off evil using his own wits and gizmos. Mix together some concepts cobbled from newspaper comic strip stars Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, then a dash of real-life Einstein and Thomas Edison. For some reason Jet never got back to its initial level. It's a pity, really, but there's no accounting for the marketplace. In 1951 science fiction was popular, but not as popular as other genres. Horror was raising its ugly head, thanks to EC and its line-up of titles, and science fiction was represented amongst the titles on the market, even from EC, but they didn't sell well compared to other genres. Even romance comics outsold science fiction. Believe it or not, romance outsold almost everything! That seems almost science fiction-y to me, but it's true.

This story is a standalone, and is similar to what writer Gardner Fox would do for editor Julius Schwartz in titles like Mystery In Space and Strange Adventures.*

The story of Gar San, Myrza, and the surprise ending using a heretofore unseen character, Tanda Set, is lightweight. There's really no explanation for why the female character is in disguise as a newspaper writer, or why she's in the same place pilot "Johnny Wilson" is brought to hospital. The whole story is contrived, for lack of a better word. Still, with artwork by Bob Powell it can't be all bad. Myrza is a hottie, 1951-style. The story might be lacking in the logic department, but it's fast moving and maybe some boys and girls of that era liked it, even if they didn't write in asking for more.

*Unlike most other science fiction comic books, science fiction sold well enough for DC to publish for many years. It likely had something to do with Schwartz's genius for gimmicky covers and plot hooks.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Number 160

Nature Of The Beast

"Look Homeward, Werewolf," is a good example of a comic book twisting a title from a popular source (in this case, Thomas Wolfe's classic 1929 novel, Look Homeward Angel). It also uses a famous fable for its basis, the often-told story of the frog and the scorpion. It's been adapted to horror comics, though, so even though the fable has a moral, the moral to any horror comics story is there is no moral to a horror comics story.

The story was originally published in 1954 in Atlas Comics' Uncanny Tales #23, but I scanned it from a Marvel Comics reprint in 1974's Crypt Of Shadows #8. I don't have the original to compare it to, and there might be slight differences mandated by the Comics Code. The writer is unknown, but the artist is Mort Lawrence.

This story messes with the werewolf legend. According to it, the werewolves live "in the hills" and hide from humanity. They also can't stand any water at all, or they turn mad. This silliness stretches the reader's credulity, but it's an entertaining story anyway.