Monday, August 31, 2009

Number 585


I feel like posting a vampire story. It's the end of August and I just got my property tax notice for this year, so a bloodsucking vampire story, "Villa of the Vampire," seems appropriate. In the recession the value of my own "villa" has gone down, but my taxes have gone up. 

The story is from the one-and-only issue of Challenge Of the Unknown (not Challengers Of the Unknown, an entirely different comic), published by Ace in 1951. As pointed out by reader Charles of the South in the comments section for this post, the artwork is by Lin Streeter, and as pointed out by Karswell, the name Lin is in the lower right corner of the splash.

I like the vampire's gimmick.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Number 584

The imitation Flash Gordon

My correspondent, Nix, who supplies me with great scans from MLJ comics, has contributed this from Blue Ribbon Comics #1, November 1939.

Back in the earliest days of the comics, when they were almost exclusively anthologies, they tended toward certain types:a cowboy, a magician influenced by Mandrake the Magician from the newspaper comics, a spaceman like Flash get the picture. Dan Hastings is the spaceman, and he's not only influenced by Flash Gordon, he appears to be lifted right off the Sunday funnies.

Well, sorta...the artwork by an unknown artist isn't Alex Raymond, but the story is sort of a mishmash of various Flash Gordon stories, including the Saturday matinee serials with Buster Crabbe. Dan has his Dale in Gloria, his Dr. Zarkov in Dr. Carter, his Ming the Merciless in Eutopas, his Mongo in planet Mexady. Errrrr...Mexady? Even though it's issue number one we're dropped into the story with no prelims, no backstory, so it's as if the writer expects us to know about Dan already. And we do, if we read Flash Gordon every Sunday.

Anyway, it's not so surprising to find an imitation Flash Gordon in Blue Ribbon Comics #1, when the lead strip is an ersatz Rin-Tin-Tin called Rang-A-Tang. I love the old MLJ comics but at the company's beginning originality was not a strong point.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Number 583

Harvey Kurtzman's Mr. Risk

The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, The Mad Genius of Comics by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle is a fabulous book, highly recommended, which covers the most pertinent aspects of the career of one of comics' most revered creators. Kurtzman, born in 1924, first got work in comics at an early age. The biography shows examples of his postwar comic book work, but doesn't show any of his comic book art before he went into the Army. This particular Mr. Risk strip, from Four Favorites #9, dated February 1943, was drawn in 1942, when Kurtzman was barely 18. There's very little, if anything, of what we would later know as the Kurtzman style (arms and legs like noodles, bold graphics, stylized). It looks more Jack Kirby than Kurtzman.

It is always fascinating to look in on an artist's early work, if only because you know how he developed. Had Kurtzman continued on with this Kirby-style artwork we'd remember him today as a copier, not an innovator. The story is a fairly typical programmer of its day. Kurtzman also drew the Lash Lightning feature in that issue of Four Favorites, but the copy I have is too damaged. Of the two strips I think Mr. Risk is the better drawn, which isn't saying a lot, but considering his youth it's actually extraordinary. I ask myself what I was doing at age 18. Nothing like this, anyway.

Hairy Green Eyeball has Kurtzman's 1949 syphilis comic book here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Number 582

Ka'a'nga by Maurice Whi'i'tman

From Ka'a'nga #20, Summer, 1954, the last issue of that Fiction House title, we have the final Ka'a'nga story by one of the best and yet underrated artists in comics, Maurice Whitman. Whitman did covers for Fiction House in all the company's genres, did interior art, and was great at all of it. Why isn't there a Maurice Whitman cult following like there is for so many comic book artists? I don't know.

He was in the field a long time, from the 1940s until the 1970s at least. I see on his Lambiek bio that he did a Doc Savage in 1977, and that got my attention. I don't think I've ever seen it.

There's an interesting string on Collectors Society about Whitman, showing some of his outstanding covers. One correspondent said that Whitman's son is a tattoo artist and the fan thought of getting the son to do a tattoo as homage to his father, a cover like Ghost Comics #1. Only a comic book fan would think of that.

Ka'a'nga, with the unpronounceable name (I read it as Kah-ah-ahnga or a slight variation, and I avoid pronouncing it out loud) is yet another Tarzan type. Ka'a'nga starred in Jungle Comics from issue #1, and got his own title in 1949. He had his origins in Fiction House pulps under the name Ki-Gor,and why the name was changed to Ka'a'nga is anybody's guess. If you believe pulps and comic books there were about as many white jungle men and women as there were African natives. Personally, I always wondered how they kept from being eaten alive by bugs, or killing their bare feet running through jungles (calluses thick enough that spears would bounce off them, no doubt).

Ah, but I digress. Here's Ka'a'nga as drawn by the underappreciated but really fine comic artist, Maurice Whitman.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Number 581

Case of the Counterfeit Cigs

Two things make this short story interesting: Madman Mort Drucker's artwork, and the subject matter, cigarettes.

Yes, folks, there was a time when cigarette smoking was not viewed with utter disdain and loathing. For my international readers, in America smoking is still a legal activity, up to a point. When I started smoking in 1967 I could go anywhere, walk into a retail establishment, store or restaurant, and be able to pull out a cigarette and start puffing away. That began to change, and by the time I quit in 1977 the road to pariahdom for smokers was being paved with clean air ordinances, health warnings, and the dirty looks of passersby.

When I see working folks taking a smoke break, outside under awnings or in doorways as it rains or snows, I cringe. I remember my own cigarette jones very well.

I have only one word for the miserable huddled masses, having to go outdoors to puff: QUIT. The writing on the wall, or should I say the smoke signals, tell you that society has decreed that in the social pecking order smokers are only slightly above criminals.

This story is from DC Comics' Gang Busters #51, a Comics Code-approved story from 1956. In "The Case of the Counterfeit Cigarettes" the fictional cigarette company is not the villain, but the innocent victim of counterfeiting.

By coincidence, the Vanity Fair magazine web site currently has an article on North Korea's government sanctioned program of counterfeiting, both U.S. currency (called supernotes) and cigarettes. You can read the article here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Number 580

Let loose the Wheel of war!

My dad, Big Pappy, said to my mother, "I'm going to the corner for some cigarettes. Want anything?" Mom shook her head no and went back to feeding my baby brother. I piped up, "Bring me a comic book!"

In the summer of 1952 I was five-years-old, too young to read but old enough to love comic books. I loved having Big Pappy read them to me. He said he'd look for a comic book, and sure enough he came home with one. Big Pap usually bought me Little Lulu or Donald Duck, but this time he brought home Blackhawk with the great Reed Crandall cover of the War Wheel.

Big Pappy told me once he liked to read Blackhawk when he was in the Army Air Corps, because he was a flier. He wasn't a fighter pilot or military flier, but he had a civilian pilot's license. He never flew after the war, and never renewed his license when it lapsed. He always regretted it. Maybe in his daydreams Big Pappy saw himself as a member of the Blackhawk team.

I was awestruck by Blackhawk and the big War Wheel. My original copy of Blackhawk #56, September 1952, didn't survive, but I never forgot it; I jumped at it when I saw it at a Comicon in the early '80s. I was happy to see that the artwork on the lead story of my well-remembered comic was by Reed Crandall.

Wheel yourself into Pappy's memories: of his dad, Big Pappy (the Blackhawk who never was), and the comics fan Pappy came to be.

While Blackhawk #56 was the first War Wheel story, the Wheel was too great and diabolical an invention to be disposed of in one story. It came back several times, including the Mark Evanier/Dan Spiegle run of Blackhawk during the '80s. This is #252, which owes something to the cover of #56.