A Spot of Adventure: The Golden Age Revisited – Part 1

When I turned my attention to Adventure Comics a while back, I was disappointed that the DVD I acquired was so scanty as to that part of the series’ run that I most wanted to read, the Golden Age run of superheroes, The Sandman, The Hour-Man and Starman, whose adventures dominated the series between issues 40 and 102, when Adventure became a vehicle for Superboy.
I assumed the shortage of issues, or even complete ones throughout this period, was down to the DVD-maker not having access to the originals. After all, these are comics dating back eighty years or thereabouts, and several issues of the other early titles that I reviewed are represented only by blurry microfiches. Well, as in so many other things, I was wrong. And I now have a double-DVD collection of all Adventure‘s issues, all 500 of them.

Adv 1

That means going all the way back, to the very beginning, in full, the pre-superhero age, to New Comics and New Adventure Comics, as well as the Golden Age run I couldn’t previously enjoy in full.
Needless to say, this calls for a revised and, you should excuse the expression, updated version of that first essay. Completeness is all, people, completeness is all.
I intend to focus on the true Golden Age period, but first a word about New Comics 1, which is of significance because of how far it reaches back, and what it shows of the very earliest comics, eighty pages, no reprints, of comics both comic and adventurous, interspersed with prose stories and articles, plus a puzzle page. You could call it a gallimaufrey of ideas or you could be less flattering and call it a collection of any old notion, flung willy-nilly at the wall with a view to seeing what stuck. Single pagers. Two pagers. Nothing more extensive than four pagers, some of which were two two-pagers back to back. No characters that you would ever have heard of unless you had actually read New Comics and were possessed of an extremely retentive memory. No characters that ever would be memorable, least of all for their art, which is scruffy, blobby, imprecise, thin, scanty and lacking even the least sense of panel-to-panel progression. Only three names that you knew: publisher and editor Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, assistant editor Vincent Sullivan, the man who would buy Superman, and a vigorous but as yet undistinguished boy cartoonist by the name of Sheldon Mayer.

Adv 12

A second issue of New Comics proved to be the same all over again, so I jumped to no. 11, the last under that title, Over seventy-five percent of the features had changed, there were many more pages in full colour and an overall more confident and distinctive cartooning, very much of the era. There were also two more familiar names, on a series titled ‘Federal Men’, those of Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster.
A name change to New Adventure Comics saw the title through the next twenty issues. The new title was the only difference between issues 11 and 12 but Siegel and Shuster did take their series into the far future, to introduce a scientist-detective of the name Jor-L…
By issue 21, the title logo was in a very familiar shape, with only the stripped ‘New’ to distinguish it. Several series were still running, though there were no further upgrades in art. Wheeler-Nicholson used young writers and artists because they were cheap, but that meant they were inexperienced, too inexperienced and frequently untalented to make it in the more reputable and sophisticated world of the newspaper strip.

Adv 32

The last issue before the series finally became Adventure Comics was no. 32. Wheeler-Nicholson had been ousted. The comics was now published by Detective Comics Inc. There was an in-house ad for Action Comics no. 5 on the inside front cover, one of the last ever not to feature Siegel and Shuster’s most famous creation. Some series’ rolled on, new ones had started, Dale Daring came to an end, notable only for being the most blatant Milton Caniff rip-off, with Dale as Burma and her handsome male companion Pat Ryan. Most features now ran more pages. The comic stuff was strictly limited.
So at last to the famous title. A couple of series, one comic, one another Terry and the Pirates rip (has there ever, incidentally been a better title for a breezy action strip?), produced by a guy called Bob Kane, still working with Bill Finger on his big idea.
But let’s round off this preliminary sweep up by jumping to issue 39, the last before the real jumping-on point. And let’s list those series: Barry Neill; Tiny; Cotton Carver; Federal Men; Jack Woods; Steve Malone; Captain Desmo: Tom Brent; Skip Schuyler; Rusty and his Pals; Anchors Aweigh. Compare that list with the one I made for issue 40, which eliminates a couple of these but replaces them with other series that had already been regulars and it’s next to impossible to determine what forgotten relic of the pre-Golden Age era had the honour of being the one that gave way to The Sandman.
That first story is still the same. From the cover onwards, the pulp detective figure in business suit, cape and gasmask, exactly as we know him… except that the suit is orange, not green, and the fedora green, not orange. The story, which I knew from reprints, is credited to Larry Dean but it’s actually by Gardner Fox and Bert Christman. Apart from a surprisingly slow and atmospheric sequence where Wesley Dodd (not Dodds) mooches round his house and leaves a doll in his bed before cracking open the secret tunnel to The Sandman’s lab, it’s not that a good story, naïve, simple, uninterestingly drawn. It wastes a lot of space but in return offers atmosphere.
There was no immediate change to the colour scheme and the second story fell far short of the first. The Sandman didn’t even retain the cover at first. But there was some fascinating, weird stuff now long forgotten, like Wes calling on two old Navy buddies to help him save old comrades from a vendetta, with all three as Sandmen, with the gasmask, as if resurrecting an old identity. The Sandman rarely wears his business suit, or uses his sweet-smelling gas. Instead, he’s more of a freelance Pat Ryan. The series is having a hard time pulling itself out of the morass of the bog-standard stuff at first.
But issue 44 established the familiar business suit and colour scheme, as well as introducing that master of disguise, The Face, who Matt Wagner would so memorably recreate many years later. And issue 47 introduced a woman named Dian Ware, aka the ‘Lady in Evening Clothes’, an expert safecracker who discovered Wesley Dodds’ other identity, and who turned out to actually be the kidnapped-as-a-baby daughter of, who else, DA Larry Belmont. Yes, enter The Sandman’s faithful girlfriend, and nice to see her.

Adv 40

So far, The Sandman had ploughed a lonely furrow but he’d clearly established himself as Adventure‘s future for swinging in the next issue, including both cover and lead position, was Tick-Tock Tyler, aka The Hour-Man, created by Bernard Bailey. And just two episodes in, Dian Belmont was already providing a source of both adventure and romance to her Sandman, as well as persuading him to unmask before her father. The pulp business about The Sandman being wanted as a criminal was receding, but not in one smooth curve.
The silly thing about The Hour-Man was that he was actually known, initially, as Tick-Tock Tyler the Hour-Man. They really hadn’t got the bit about secret identities fully worked out, had they? And still the likes of Barry Neill, Cotton Carver, Federal Men, Anchors Aweigh and Rusty and his Pals clung on, though in the case of the last two, only until issue 52.
Truth to tell, and the fact that nearly all these issues are being shot from blurred fiches, neither series is much good. The Sandman is all running, jumping and leaping, substituting action for coherence whilst Hour-Man is just crude, even after issue 53 introduces Minute-Man Martin and the Minute-Men of America, namely a nation of ham-radio operating junior sidekicks. But it’s the latter who’s getting the covers now, month in month out.
There was a neat switch in issue 56’s Sandman story in which gangsters suspect Wes Dodds of being The Sandman and kidnap him, but he proves he can’t be when the Sandman turns up complete with gasmask and green suit, but that’s Dian Belmont instead! For the era, presenting the hero’s girlfriend as resourceful enough to do that, and succeed, was pretty forward-thinking, though it did arouse dire memories of Roy Thomas using the same device to kill Dian off, pre-Crisis, in All-Star Squadron.
A new series made it’s debut in issue 58, Paul Kirk, Manhunter, though this is not the famous Paul Kirk, in the red and blue costume, the creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, but a specialist in tracking people and a complete coincidence. Though the art was crude, as everybody’s was, the story was surprisingly clever.

Adv 48

There was a new figure, and surprisingly good art, on the cover of issue 61, with the debut of Starman, created (officially) by Gardner Fox and drawn by Jack Burnley, one of the few Golden Age artists who were not scruffy, ill-proportioned, unimaginative and anatomically weak, and who indeed could compare with later and more sophisticated generations of artists on their own level.
And here’s a story: Starman was intended to be the next big thing, the new Superman or Batman. I’ve read that he was actually put together by a conference of editors at Detective Comics Inc. which suggests he was then fed to Fox, already a respected writer, to flesh out, and Fox did an excellent job on the first tale, which exuded a sense of gothic menace that nothing to date had done.
Starman was going to be big. Out went the long-running Barry O’Neill, to make room for his strip. Hourman was bumped off the cover to make way for him. Sandman was excised as the feature character in the ‘Big 6’ magazines in-house ad. And to ensure the new star got all the publicity in the world on the way to ascending to his own magazine, in the footsteps of Superman and Batman, he was to go straight into the Justice Society of America, in All-Star Comics. Which is where the timetable gets a little bit complicated.
Starman made his All-Star debut in issue 8, replacing Hourman. For decades, literally, we fans all thought Hourman got the push after only five appearances because his solo series had been cancelled, and All-Star was all about hurrying characters towards solo comics, but though the Man of the Hour would be the first JSA member to undergo cancellation, that would not take place for another eighteen months.
Then it came out about Starman being advanced in the manner he was. But Adventure was allowed only two representatives in All-Star and, even though he’d had by far the more covers since he was introduced, Hourman was identified as the less popular of the existing pair, which is why he was out.
But the timing’s off. Based on the inhouse ads, Adventure 61 was prior to All-Star 5. So why did it take three issue – six months, given that All-Star was only bi-monthly – to swap the characters out?
The answer, I am guessing, lay in the requirement of All-Star editor Sheldon Mayer that there always be three complete issues to hand, to insure against deadline issues. Which would explain the delay if Starman had to wait to have an original story written and drawn featuring him.
So now that was Starman, Paul Kirk, Hourman and The Sandman, plus the ongoing Mark Lancing of Mikishawm, Federal Men, Steve Conrad Adventurer and Cotton Carver holding the torch for the pre-Golden Age stuff. Federal Men was still being written by Jerry Siegel.
It’s silly, and even trite, but Ted (Starman) Knight’s cover for his secret activities is to pretend to be a bored hypochondriac, which arouses the despair and disgust of his girlfriend Doris Lee (niece of Starman’s FBI contact, Chief Woodley Allen). Doris, who is ‘Miss Lee’ to Ted in the first story because, well, they’re not formally engaged, a fact which overtakes the series between episodes, has a brilliant line in caustic comments about her malingering fiance, who has been checked out by every doctor in town but still complains that he’s ‘not a well man’. Between her and Dian Belmont, this is a fun comic.
There was an old Sandman story I’d once read in reprint, featuring the gasmask and gasgun, and I was watching out for it, knowing that the redesign had to be due soon and it finally appeared in issue 65.
Next of the old guard to surrender was Mark Lansing. He was replaced in issue 66 by The Shining Knight, Sir Justin of Camelot, a young knight invested with golden armour, a magic sword and a flying horse after he rescued Merlin from Nimue’s tree-trap only to pre-empt Captain America by being frozen in the ice until 1941. Nice to read the original at last, but gosh, the art was not just terrible but tiny.
Next issue, the Starman story was another I knew of old, a reprint in the Seventies, introducing arch-enemy The Mist. And the issue after that was the last of the pulp Sandman and, sadly, feisty Dian Belmont, refusing to be left behind, insisting on butting in on his cases and doing good stuff. The yellow and purple skintight costume, paired at first with a long purple cape, came in in issue 69, but Simon and Kirby weren’t yet ready to take over. Also gone was the gas gun, which was hardly being used anyway and in came Sandy the Golden Boy, a kid without a background who’d sewed himself a costume, in yellow and red, like the one the Sandman had never worn before, pretending to be the Sandman, acting like a thoughtless kid, making puns that wouldn’t come into vogue for twenty years and ready to go off with someone whose face he hasn’t even seen at the drop of a cape: he’s just made for measure, isn’t he?

Adv 61

Issue 70 was one of the few complete issues on the original DVD, so it was familiar to me, and it’s a very rare instance on this DVD of something shot from a comic, not a microfiche. Once again, I must mention the startling leap in Bernard Bailey’s artwork on Hourman, now formally bounced from the JSA and the drawing of his mask as a tight-fitting cowl and eye-mask, though the dwarf on a flying carpet who looks like a visitor from outer space, though he’s not, is still a joke.
Ten issues on, Ted Knight’s self-portrayal as a hypochondriac weakling is still being laid on with a fourteen foot trowel. That’s not so bad in itself, but it begs the question why his fiancee, Doris Lee, an attractive, forthright, intelligent young woman, puts up with him for more than one story, given that most people faced with such a weak wuss, convinced he’s got every malady under the sun whilst actually being physically hale, would have concluded that the only thing wrong with him was the absence of a spine and given him the very elegant pointed-toe sandal in the unmentionables.
Either that or concluded that he’s a hopeless addict forever racing off for his fix.
Continuing on the Starman theme, I heralded The Mist’s debut by describing him as Starman’s arch-enemy because that’s how he has been billed since he was revived for the first Starman/Black Canary team-up in Brave & Bold in 1965, but issue 71 saw the third appearance of the would-be world conquering scientist, The Light, already, and he’s been completely forgotten since the Golden Age.
Meanwhile, now Hourman was on leave of absence from the JSA, Bailey could go further in revising him, changing the Miraclo pills for what looked like a Miraclo lightbulb, without spotting the fatal flaw of not being able to stop to take a new lightbath as easily as a pill when his sixty minutes were up (there was none of this stuff about having to wait to take a second pill back then). Even more stupidly, Rex Tyler had had a mini-Hourman costume made up for Jimmy Martin, Captain of his boy assistants, the Minutemen of America, to go adventuring with him without any Miraclo-based powers. Hoo boy.
And in the Sandman series, Sandy the Golden Boy is finally given a second name. Yes, we know, he’s Sandy Hawkins, isn’t he? Always was, always will be, right? Wrong. Sandy McGann. It’s these little things, these details, that I love so much to discover, not necessarily the stories themselves. Incidentally, Federal Men had finally gone from Adventure‘s pages.
The brief interregnum ended after only three issues as the famed team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby arrived at Detective Comics after being cheated by Martin Goodman of Timely Comics out of the royalties due them for their creation, Captain America, and took over Sandman in issue 72, throwing out the unwieldy capes on the spot and introducing the dream-theme that, one day, would go towards stimulating the imagination of an as-yet unborn British boy called Neil. And the name McGann only lasted one issue…
And with Simon and Kirby came the Paul Kirk Manhunter we knew, snatching issue 73’s cover away from Starman, and in doing so ending the illusion that here was the next star in the firmament (she was already three or four issues into Sensation Comics). But this Manhunter wasn’t yet Paul Kirk, but at first his name was Rick Nelson. It’s the same story, the big-game hunter turning his talents to hunting men, just not yet by the famous name.

Adv 73

Hourman’s series is collapsing into idiocy before our eyes. The Miraclo ray fades out in every story now, the latest episode ditches Jimmy Martin for fellow Minute-Man Thorndyke, the one with the pullover up to his nose like one of the Bash Street Kids, but takes off his ever-present check cap to reveal a cartoon haircut, and who Hourman starts calling Jimmy… Just what is editing supposed to be about? How soon does this crap get cancelled?
By now, Steve Conrad is the only hold-out from the old guard. Eve Bannerman, Rex Tyler’s love interest has been missing in action for months. Eve Barclay, the Shining Knight’s love interest has already forgotten and it’s only taken two issues for Rick Nelson to become Paul Kirk: thanks be that Roy Thomas never got this far.
Sandman returned to the cover with issue 75, this time as the ‘permanent’ feature. Starman would not take it back again. Suddenly, Thorndyke knows Rex Tyler is Hourman.
The Mist finally reappeared in issue 77, the issue in which Steve Conrad finally lost his spot. His replacement was Genius Jones, the boy with every answer (if you’ve got a dime), a strip that I still cannot decide if it’s genius or utter crap. It was better than Steve Conrad, certainly. At last I could read every feature in Adventure. Genius Jones was drawn by Stan Kaye but his writer, initially, was the great Alfred Bester, who got a rare credit on issue 78, though I wouldn’t want my name attached to a story about a ‘Slap Happy Jappy’.
Ever since he’d been introduced, Starman had been the lead feature in the comic, and Sandman the last. Now in issue 80, for the first time since Hourman had been introduced, Sandman regained his old slot up front, the Man of Night went back one and the Man of the Hour brought up the rear.
With issue 81, art duties on Starman passed to Mort Morton Jr and Jerry Roussos. Given that it features a blind boy getting shot in the head and discovering he can now see, the new firm are clearly not an improvement. Meanwhile, Bernard Bailey’s art on Hourman seemed to be changing (for the worst) every issue, though not for much longer. Simon and Kirby were being billed on the cover for Sandman but had already passed Manhunter off to someone else. Genius Jones was Genius Jones, and I still haven’t made my mind up.
Art standards were falling all round, except for Stan Kaye on Genius Jones. Were all the decent artists being taken off to the War?
The art on Hourman in issue 83 was the worst yet, so bad that Bernard Bailey didn’t sign it until the last panel. To give him credit, I don’t think he did draw it. But either way, this nadir was the nadir, the Man of the Hour’s last appearance until Justice League of America 21 in 1963, and Thorndyke’s last appearance ever. He was not missed.
His place was taken by a throwback to the early days, Mike Gibbs, reporter and practical joker, working with the Resistance in France as ‘Guerilla’, an underground operative allied to independent female French resistance Agent, Captain (Marie) Hwart (what kind of French name is that?)
There seemed to be a general malaise about all the title’s series. True, the War was in full spate, paper-rationing had cut frequency back to bi-monthly, stories were being stripped down to basic details, adventure and nothing else, but I’ve read other series of the duration and it’s not seemed so blatant. Why Adventure and not, say, All-American? Or Star-Spangled?
I very much miss Jack Burnley. Starman doesn’t just suffer from weak art but dumb writing. We were a long way from the days of Woodley Allen, Doris Lee and Ted Knight’s hypochondria, leaving the stories perfunctory in the extreme and full of incidents like Starman escaping notice by standing against a poster and ‘blending into’ a background composed of completely different colours from his costume.
And for some reason, Manhunter’s logo was designed out of logs. That’s right, short logs, arranged as letters.
Issue 91 was a bit better than the contemporary standard, and went without our war-chum Guerilla, although that must have been just a short file, because he was back the next issue, which saw Simon and Kirby come off Sandman, and some horrendous imitation try to keep up with them. They were credited with the story in issue 94, but it was only possible if they drew it with their feet. And Manhunter’s run came to an end at the same point, not to be seen again until 1973, when Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson remembered him so vividly.
As issue 100 rolled around, the art on all four series got exponentially worse, even on Genius Jones, which had always been drawn in a loose, rubbery cartoon style. Now it was just crude and ugly, so much so that if it still had any credits, which had all been dropped since the last Simon/Kirby Sandman, I would have been looking for my own name.
I’d seen issue 100 before, and I’m still impressed by the Guerilla story, for its powerful anti-racism message, which was all the stronger for being set in a War context. It was bold and simple: any man who tries to turn races against one another is a traitor. I wish we could eradicate those who hate.
First time round I was able to cover the entire Golden Age in a single post, but that was because the number of issues I had were so few. Now, with a full set, I will need to break it into two parts, and the first part ends with issue 102.
Adventure Comics‘s first phase ended with issue 40, when The Sandman was introduced, starting the gradual takeover of the series by an all-superhero line-up. Now, editorial fiat elsewhere at Detective Comics Inc. brought the second phase to an end, and with it the Golden Age careers of Sandman and Starman, and also Mike Gibbs, Guerilla, who would never be revived by Julius Schwartz. There were big changes coming, and what those changes were will be the subject of Part 2.

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