Lest a Black Cat cross your path 2: Speed Comics

The Black Cat in the beginning

It doesn’t really make sense to cover the first five years of Black Cat’s career after the second half, but in this feature the DVD-Rom’s line-up as they come and I go through them in order of purchase.
After making her debut in Pocket Comics, the experimental digest title produced by Harvey Comics, Black Cat was added to Speed Comics as a regular throughout the title’s run, between 1941 and 1947, when it was cancelled from much-delayed issue 44. By then, Linda Turner, Hollywood’s glamorous detective, had been granted her own title, and not merely that of ‘Darling of Comics’.
Speed Comics first appeared in 1939 when it was an anthology of various adventuresome characters in various genres, behind a twenty page plus lead story featuring Shock Gibson, The Human Dynamo. Shock, or to give him the name his mother used, Charles, was a scientist who gained super-strength from a lightning bolt smashing into his laboratory and splashing his undefined experiment over him. Shock became a superhero in red longjohns, with a gold helmet.
The story was crude and simple, with art to match, and was the best thing about the issue, which wasn’t difficult because the one common factor about all the other strips was that they were uniformly abysmal. It was two years before Black Cat would join the line-up: they couldn’t pass soon enough on the evidence of that one issue.

Shock Gibson

Nevertheless, as a believer in Fairness in Blogging, I did read through the first five issues to grant the title chance to improve. It didn’t. It would have needed to improve by leaps and bounds to reach mediocre. Shock Gibson, Crash, Cork and the Baron, The Man with 1,000 Faces, Smoke Carter, Spike Marlin, Texas Tyler, Biff Bannion, Landor, Maker of Monsters. Grisly, every one of them. On a totally different level of Fairness, I shall refrain from printing any of the ‘creators names.
From there I jumped to issue 13, which showed no overall improvement despite a near wholesale cast change. By issue 16, it was running as a 100 page size title, including an ad for the Black Cat series in Pocket Comics indicating that that title had lasted at least four issues. But by the next issue The Black Cat, using the definitive article at this point, was signed up for Speed Comics and reprinting her previous appearances for her new audience.
So what, if anything, was different about Black Cat when she started? For one thing, the first story was awful, easily on a par with the rest of the title. Red-headed Linda Turner suspects her Director Garboil of being a Nazi propagandist, using special scenes in her latest film to pass messages to Fifth Columnists all over America.
Meanwhile, newspaper columnist Rick Horne is sent out for the same story. Linda creates a secret identity to enable her to investigate and bumps into Rick early on. They save the day and she gets away without revealing her identity. Which is practically all she doesn’t reveal in a costume that exposes a damned sight more flesh than the classic costume of the title. Instead of a bathing suit, the Black Cat wears a backless blouse that’s really only two trips of cloth covering her modesty, which hangs out either side, plus red shorts and red boots.

A Black Cat centrespread

And frankly it, and the whole feature, are drawn in a messy, murky style that carries none of the charm or elegance of Lee Elias. The opera mask covers the whole of the top half of Linda’s head, looking not merely clumsy but ill-fitting, whilst the stag film top is not only cheap and titillating but looks incredibly impractical. Unless she’s using a lot of tape, Linda is going to be popping out all over the moment she tries a single one of her stunt-girl tricks.
This is not a propitious beginning.
Nor do the immediately succeeding strips show an immediate improvement. At this stage, the Black Cat’s dealing solely with the Nazi threat as represented by Garboil, who has to escape every issue. The art is rough and the artist’s limitations don’t help portray the heroine as either an action figure or a lively woman. We’re still at the stage where Rick Horne is an ordinary reporter who keeps bumping into the Cat everywhere he goes, with no concern about Linda Turner. And she moons a lot about him and what a man he is. She’s being portrayed as a competent, independent woman, but it isn’t making much of an impact.

Captain Freedom

At least Speed Comics was an equal opportunity disappointment. Black Cat wasn’t just one of three stars, with the colourless Captain Freedom and the tedious Shock Gibson (now going by the name of Robert Gibson when out of costume), but the fourth costumed character was Pat Parker, War Nurse: no superpowers as such but forever switching to as nearly a skimpy costume as Linda. But what self-respecting hero goes by the name War Nurse?
The Black Cat got an upgrade in issue 21 when art duties were taken over by Arturo (Arthur) Casaneuve, who offered a clearer line and a greater facility with movement, although there were a few too many contrived cheesecake poses, with the Black Cat depicting from angles and in positions that thrust out her bosom to the adolescent reader. Casaneuve also tightened up her top, making it a bit more substantial in front and tucking some fabric in at the back. But our heroine and Rick Horne still ended up arms round each other’s shoulders at the end.
Whilst I’m reading the Black Cat stories, I am sparing a cursory glance at the other features in case of a surprising increase in quality, but cursory is all they qualify for. I do pay more attention to Pat Parker War Nurse than the rest, possibly because it’s astonishing that so poor a series was ever drawn (it’s not the usual shallow motive, in case you were wondering). It is still a solo series for a heroine who’s strong and effective and self-respecting, even if everyone who thinks War Nurse shouldn’t be doing men’s business calls her a chorus girl.
For issue 23, War Nurse started leading the Girl Commandos, not just in her own strip but in Black Cat’s, a one-off tale in which the Japanese invade Hollywood and instead of calling in the Army, the Cat calls in Captain Freedom, Shock Gibson, Tim Parrish and the Girl Commandos. This wasn’t up to the standard of an average Justice Society of America story, so it was no surprise that despite signalled intentions, it was never repeated.
At least it got us away from Ghastly Garboil for an issue.

Girl Commandos

Though the team-up would never be repeated as such, it became a common sight to see the Captain, the Shock and the Black Cat together on the cover, throwing everything at some Axis plot or other, which would then be explained in a two-page prose feature, The Story Behind the Cover.
With effect from the following issue, Cazeneuve took over Captain Freedom as well producing the feature’s clearest art to date, if not improving the story. Pat Parker’s feature was formally renamed the Girl Commandos, though I found it irritating that the two male supporting characters, one British, one American pilot, were still using the chorus girl line after so many demonstrations of the War Nurse abilities, and the fact she was so much more effective than them.
The Black Cat’s adventures continued to improve and the latest episode placed itself squarely in the aftermath of the Japanese Invasion of Hollywood story. The art continued to improve, starting to flow in a much more attractive fashion, though I’m still not satisfied with the romantic aspect of it. Linda does too much mooning over Rick Horne in both her aspects, though as Linda she’s cold-shouldered as a snob, and as Black Cat she still can’t leave him without an increasingly more passionate snog (this one definitely had tongues…).
Change, however small, was in the air. Pat Parker went through an entire Girl Commandos episode without changing into her War Nurse costume, college hero Speed Taylor joined the Marines and, with issue 27, The Black Cat finally made the cover in a significant role instead of just a headshot. And inside, there were changes galore. These consisted of a new artist with a much more cartoony style but one that lent itself to crisp, clean, fast-moving panels and some all-action but natural shots of our heroine.

Speed Comics 17

What’s more, Garboil – who had become very boring, always being allowed to go free on the grounds that, one-day, he’d lead the forces of good to his Gestapo high-ups – was out. And Rick Horne was after a lunch-date with Linda Turner, even if her new artist had visited on her an ugly but contemporary, hair-up hairstyle. Then again, Black Cat’s red shorts, which had only ever made her costume look amateur, were replaced by black ones that worked far better, and her opera mask was reduced in size, introducing the two peaks of the most famous version..
We do have to set against that the introduction of a new, un-named white cat pet of Linda’s, who went into action with her in costume, zipped into the fur of a black cat. As Dave Barry always says, I am not making this up.
The Girl Commandos continued to develop into a fully-fledged team, with Pat Parker submerged in the quintet, and the team kitting itself out in a common light blue uniform of military caps, wraparound jackets of an agreeably short length, paired with knee-length boots. What’s more, by issue 29, Pat had transformed from dark-haired to full-on blonde! Their strip had progressed to the delightfully goofy level.
The same issue saw The Black Cat’s costume transformed into the one-piece bathing suit edition in all dark-blue with which I was already familiar, though the buccaneer boots remained defiantly red. Though the addition of a cape in issue 30 was not a good idea.
Another new artist in issue 31 added some elegant angles to the series, albeit for a dumb story where Linda Turner is first exposed as the Black Cat by an American Intelligence Officer, then framed for his murder, convicted at a Court Martial to which she, as a civilian, was not subject and sentenced to execution by firing squad, all in about five hours. Given the high points on her mask, we were now at the classic Black Cat costume, save for the red boots.
The Black Cat’s adventures all involved either war enemies or ordinary crooks, until issue 34, that is, when a costumed villain going by the name of Him, appeared in a three-parter. I had an inkling from the first story of just who Him would turn out to be, and how inappropriate that cognomen would turn out to be and, do you know what? I was right, even if ‘Him’s real name changed from Hedy to Dolores to Hedy.
By this point, despite the ongoing war-oriented stories, the Black Cat’s series had more or less settled into the version I’d enjoyed so much in her own title. The look, the costume, the buoyancy, the pace, even the Linda Turner – Rick Horne – Black Cat triangle was in position and only waiting for Tim Turner to be added the following year, in Black Cat.

Speed Comics 35

As for the rest, Captain Freedom and the Young Defenders and Shock Gibson were still crude and stupid, the Girl Commandos slimmed down to a quartet but strangely effective (maybe it’s the knee-length boots…) and I’m still not mentioning the ‘comic’ features which should be left in peace.
By now, though, the end was definitely in sight for Speed Comics. It was abruptly cut back in size from issue 38, leaving room for only three features. Captain Freedom was secure as the lead but each of the other three took turns to drop out, with the Black Cat missing issue 40.
Indeed, she had appeared for the last time already. Only the Captain and the Commandos appeared next issue, and whilst Shock Gibson returned for issue 42, the same included the announcement of Black Cat’s first solo title – and the definitive article disappeared, definitively. The Girl Commandos series came to an end with the rescue of Mei-Ling’s elder brother. Indeed, the War was over.
The penultimate issue, no 43, was dated May-June 1946 and introduced a new feature, Blonde Bomber, about two American newsreel photographers, one a dope, the other a doll, who went travelling in time, but it was six months before the next and final issue appeared, January-February 1947. Everyone turned out, Captain Freedom twice. Shock Gibson took his girlfriend Beautee to the Moon, Honey, the Blonde Bomber, and Slapso, made their second and final appearance and even Black Cat dusted off the old red boots for one last nostalgic story. There were references to the next issue, but there was no next issue, then or ever.
Which brings me back to where I began so far as Black Cat is concerned. Her feature in Speed wasn’t brilliant, though it was Dickens compared to Captain Freedom and Shock Gibson, but the longer it went on, the better it got. The real highlights were, of course, Lee Elias’ stories in her own title.
Overall, even if this wasn’t the purpose of this post, Speed Comics just wasn’t a particularly good title. Apart from Black Cat, the only feature I found enjoyable was the Girl Commandos, and that only after it had served its long apprenticeship as Pat Parker, War Nurse. Two features with independent, strong women characters: you don’t think there could be a connection, do you?
Next time round, we’re back to more of DC’s Golden Age titles, but there’s now a shelf-life for this feature and not too many more of these fascinating forays left for me. And no more Lady Lucks and Black Cats, I’m saddened to say.

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