Long ago, in the Eighties, I had an on-and-off relationship with DC’s Golden Age-set series, All-Star Squadron. On the one hand, I was a card-carrying Justice Society of America fan of a decade and a half’s standing, but on the other hand it was being written by Roy Thomas.
Not having been a Marvel fan in the decade when it really counted, I’d only really been exposed to Thomas’s writing on things like Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja, and had seen barely, if any, of his superhero work. With the JSA’s most recent stint, under Paul Levitz and Joe Staton, having petered out, I was glad to see another vehicle for them, and one that set them in their prime, in World War 2, looked ideal.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken into account the degree by which Thomas had become obsessed with continuity, and ‘retroactive continuity’ or retcons. From the very start, All-Star Squadron was bogged down by Thomas’s urge to draw connections between old and obscure stories, old and even more obscure characters, and not just simple and well-thought-out connections but multiple connections, many of which had to be tortured into place to even stand, leading to the story collapsing under a weight that coherence was never meant to bear. Indeed, it was painfully obvious that Thomas simply could not tell a story for a story’s sake any longer.
Sometimes I could stand it. Sometimes it got just too fussy for my liking, the elevation of things that, even in a comic book universe, didn’t mean anything like enough to be worth it.
But when we got to issue 31, my blood boiled. It began with a full-page splash page of very recognisable design, a man running full tilt towards the ‘camera’. The man was equally recognisable. Blue suit. Blue fedora. White shirt and loose red tie. Blue gloves. Blue domino mask. It was The Spirit, Will Eisner’s classic creation, whose reprinted stories I was then collecting in the Kitchen Sink magazine series.
But DC didn’t own The Spirit. And this wasn’t The Spirit, it was Midnight, aka radio announcer, Dave Clark. It was a blatant, out-and-out ripoff, as if we wouldn’t notice, and it infuriated me.
However, I didn’t know as much then as I knew later and in this instance I was maligning Roy Thomas unfairly. It’s true that Midnight was a blatant rip-off – his alter ego even has the same initials as Denny Colt – but it was not Thomas who perpetrated it: the real culprit was Jack Cole, the creator of Plastic Man.
Cole was operating under the instructions of Everett ‘Busy’ Arnold, publisher of Quality Comics, where Eisner’s Spirit appeared in comic books. Apparently, concerned that Eisner might be killed or incapacitated whilst in the Army (or was he just plain ripping him off?), Arnold had Cole create Midnight to ensure he had things covered. Midnight debuted in Quality’s Smash Comics 18, hit the cover in issue 28 and kept it until it was cancelled with issue 85.
And you know how curious I can get…
Nevertheless, Midnight’s delayed debut means we have ground to cover before we begin. The first issue, cover-dated August 1939, was credited as published by Everett M. Arnold. It’s a weird business, multiple strips, mostly drawn decently well for the period, mixing all sorts of adventure and comedy, but most of the writing is poor. The closest we come to a costumed hero is in ‘Hooded Justice’, which features the Invisible Hood, aka Kent Thurston, who dresses in a voluminous and decidedly non-invisible cloak and initially wields a gas gun a good year or so ahead of The Sandman.
This is not to say that the Invisible Hood is the top feature, anything but. It’s hard to distinguish any of the features from the rest, several of which were starting in midstream, having previously run in Feature Funnies. Some, like Abdul the Arab, were intrinsically racist. Hugh Hazzard, just one of a number of identikit adventurers would have his strip overtaken by Bozo the Iron Man: seriously, Bozo.
Hooded Justice became Invisible Justice in issue 2, in which the Invisible Hood gains the power of invisibility. A new feature arriving in issue 3 was John Law, the ‘Scientective’, no relation, in theme or quality, to Will Eisner’s unsuccessful later creation. He was joined by Flash Fulton, newspaper photographer, next issue, rather unnecessarily since we’ve had Chic Carter, newspaper reporter, since the start. And my mild curiosity about the Invisible Hood was already sated before then: it’s rubbish. Quality Comics? Far from it.
It’s noticeable that the vast majority of the art in Smash Comics is drawn on a rigid 12 panel grid of three panels in four tiers, with variation mainly to combine two panels on a tier. This and the Eisner connection suggests to me that these features were being supplied by the Iger-Eisner Agency, who built their conveyer-belt process on pre-designed panels that would be passed up one side of a room and down the other, speeding up the procedure of producing the comic immensely at a cost of creative suppression.
There was a weird story in issue 5, in the ‘Espionage’ series, starring a monocled US Agent known only as Black Ace. The story was about an impending Europe-wide War, a continent of Kings not Dictators, a massive American re-armament Defence programme and a campaign of sabotage foiled by Ace, after which Europe enters into a Peace Pact, because America could wipe it out – innocents included, but there are no innocents in this scenario – inside a year. What a bizarre mix of elements and national chauvinism! But in an issue cover-dated December 1939, it’s very much an up-to-the-minute production that must have been barely finished when the actual War was declared.
Black Ace had been Black X in Feature Funnies and reverted next issue, once War had started overseas, his monocle being disclosed as concealing an eye put out during unsuccessful torture. The same issue also introduced the contemptible racial stereotype of Wun Cloo, a Chinese amateur detective: disgusting. And from Jack Cole, too.
A dozen issues represents a full year and a moment to reflect on the series to date and the omens are not favourable. Smash Comics thus far is a pretty flat experience. Surprisingly, the art is of a pretty high standard for the era, and the DVD is scanning from actual issues, not microfiches, so reproduction is very good, but the stories are flat and samey. ‘Espionage’ is the best by some margin, despite the pompous, portentous tone it had taken on since the start of the War. The artists can’t draw maps of Europe with the least accuracy and the overriding tone of American super-superiority rings hollow in the face of what we now know of the real events. But it’s a window onto a certain attitude towards the War in 1940, and the tone is consistently anti-War on the simple grounds of the death and destruction it causes to ordinary people. It may be simple but it’s heartfelt and genuine.
In contrast, Wings Wendall of Military Intelligence is penny plain. The same basically goes for the two journalists, Chic Carter and Flash Fulton. The stories are trapped within the rigid four-by-three panel grid and there are frequent rushed moments when you’re wondering just how A got to G. The same goes art-wise for the two detectives. Captain Cook of Scotland Yard is dull and bears an even greater distance from the real London than usual. John Law, the private criminologist, was advantaged by running as a quasi-serial but had poorer art. Clip Carson is a super college athlete who wins things for his college at the last minute like a Roy Race without the semi-decent soap opera.
I refuse to consider the comedy stuff, especially the repugnant Wun Cloo, and although it’s played straight and the character is shown as a hero, I refuse to read Ahab the Arab just on account of the name. The Archie O’Toole stuff is pleasantly drawn but usually negligible, until issue 12, when as vile a stereotypical blackface character was introduced. As a bootblack, naturally.
But the bottom of the pile are the two vaguely ‘superheroic’ series. I was curious to see the Invisible Hood stories for myself but they’re dull as dishwater and the hero’s ‘costume’ is not just a dotted outline but a bulky and preposterous one at that. Elsewhere, issue 12 sees the series header switched round, as Bozo the Robot gets top billing above Hugh Hazzard. I am neither old enough nor American enough to know what meanings Bozo might have had in 1940 but it makes the series, which is nothing to write home about anyway, impossible to take at all seriously.
I do so hope Midnight is worth it after all of this.
Espionage and Black X are credited to William Erwin. Erwin was the middle name of Will Eisner who, by that time, was working with ‘Busy’ Arnold on The Spirit Section. I think we know who was really producing the feature, though that doesn’t explain the maps…
A new feature came in with issue 13, The Purple Trio, impecunious vaudeville performers who can’t get a paying job so turn their particular talents to fighting crime. Also on debut was Magno the Miracle Man, another of those superheroes whose most impressive power is getting people to not recognise them when they don’t wear any kind of mask. To make room, Flash Felton and John Law were dropped and there was a double dose of Philbert Veep, the Holmes-esque cartoon detective instead of the disgusting Won Cloo, which I hope is a permanent uplift.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Philbert and Captain Cook were out with issue 14, to make room for another and this time more interesting superhero, The Ray. Though the costume was instantly familiar, apart from the bare legs, the character was not the one that turned up in Justice League of America 107: the origin’s the same but ‘Happy’ Terrill, reporter is supposedly dead and The Ray is The Ray. He turns up from nothing in beams of light and his powers are more electromagnetic than light-based, and we’ve already got the feeble Magno for that.
The second instalment was more like it, with spectacular art credited to E. Lectron, who was the great Lou Fine. There’s still no sign of Happy Terrill, and The Ray’s powers, though more oriented to light and rays, are still uncontrolled but Fine can sure draw an excellent short-skirted lady, and I’m talking more-than-Carnaby-Street short here.
By the next issue, The Ray had replaced ‘Espionage’ as the lead feature. And the rapid turnover continued with a new series, The Scarlet Seal, though that was as dodgy as month-old bread. Barry Moore, film star, quits the industry to take a job with his hometown Police, under his Police Captain Father. But the new Commissioner has declared war on brutality and stoolies: henceforth policing will be calm and polite. So Barry goes undercover. Alright so far, except that Barry yellows up as a Chinese stereotype, or to use the strip’s parlance just this once, a Chink. Ok, that does it. Add in the cliché of the Commissioner being more determined to bring in The Scarlet Seal – named for the symbol he stamps on bad guys’ foreheads – than he is actual criminals, and this is one ripe piece of pus demanding squeezing out, but if Wun Cloo is still running…
Interestingly, The Ray’s story in issue 17, which brings back Happy Terrill as if he’d never been missing, let alone dead, is the only one I’ve previously read, in a 1972 100 page Reprint Giant that also featured the Black Condor, already flying in sister title Crack Comics (now there’s a title we won’t be hearing much about reviving).
But at last the man we’ve all been waiting for arrives. Midnight made his debut near the end of issue 18, and my prayers are answered because it’s the ‘funny’ strips that take a dive for him, Archie O’Toole and the despised Won Cloo. It’s credited to Jack Cole from the first page. It’s a pretty perfunctory five pager in which Clark, a spot announcer for Station UXAM doesn’t wear a mask and seems to be known as Midnight when he’s dressed for his day job. This is not Eisner-standard work.
With mask in place, Midnight made it onto the cover parade next time, with a better story, though we’re really not seeing the real Jack Cole art yet. We are seeing those god-awful ‘funnies’ again, including guess who.
Though overall it’s a more entertaining prospect than it was a year ago, Smash, like its four stable-mates, is suffering from the fatal flaw of carrying eleven features each, which means far too little space for far too many things. And far too little attention to what you’re doing, as when Espionage brought back the beautiful villainess Madame Doom, despite having shown her blown to pieces from within.
Issue 21 started with the Ray as usual. Lou Fine was one of the most gracious and accomplished artists of the Golden Age with a wonderfully flowing and delicate line, instantly recognisable for his clear images and lithe figures. Frankly, he’s a hundred times better than the story, though this episode showed a certain premonitary cleverness in positing a would-be Emperor of the Pacific intending to provoke America into war by attacking Hawaii.
It’s hard to assess Midnight at this early stage. Cole’s drawing mostly straight and the stories are bouncy and energetic, but they’re rather more fantastic than the Spirit. I’m not really familiar with the first half of The Spirit’s career, so I don’t know the like to which Midnight may be like. The later Eisner, post-War, was something very different. The Spirit never acquired a sidekick in the form of a talking monkey named Gabby.
As for Magno, I confess I rarely read it, which is down to Paul Gustavson’s art. Like Fine, it’s clear and graceful, and not confined to rigid lay-outs but his figure work on Magno puts me off with its effeminacy. Magno is always skipping around of tiptoes; like a Fotherington-Thomas I expect him to be lisping ‘Hello clouds, hello trees’ all the time. It clashes horribly with the superhero action and I can’t shift my automatic antipathy.
The next issue introduced The Jester, also drawn by Gustavson but in a much more solidified way, with Magno moving elsewhere. This is another one who arrives already in costume and notorious but it’s a bright start and looks potentially good. Wun Cloo was once again missing: dare I hope? Nah…
The ongoing costumed adventurer takeover of the comic was extended in issue 24 as Chic Carter, the reporter, donned a costume to clear himself of murder. He also picked up a sword, being a fencing champion at college (of course he was) and called himself The Sword. Not only that, Wings Wendall caught a costume, whilst Midnight’s popularity was evident in the announcement that his series was to be expanded from five pages to six.
In contrast, a new Police series started in issue 25, Rookie Rankin, along with Wildfire, the series’ first costumed heroine who, when in costume, has red hair down to below her ankles. And Chic Carter, alias or not alias the Sword, made way for them, transferring to first Police Comics (home of Plastic Man) then Military Comics (Blackhawk). The Scarlet Seal was also out, for which heartfelt thanks.
And then, exactly as promised, Midnight hit the cover for the first time, in issue 28, though the Ray continued to hold the premier slot, and next issue he showed why, with a phenomenal art job from Fine that would have been astonishingly good in any era: linework, body language, panel breakdowns, compositions, this was fantastic and, quite frankly, worth the whole damned DVD alone. If this is what Fine’s art was evolving into, roll on further episodes. And I’m getting seriously impressed with Paul Gustavson’s work on The Jester.
The Ray story in issue 31 was much less impressive, suggesting Fine had had less time to work, or possibly couldn’t maintain the intensity for so long, which was supported by the far better, but still not quite top quality episode that came next. And I’d like to make it plain that this extravagant praise is for the art alone.
The attack on Pearl Harbour was reflected in issue 33, with everyone suddenly hot against the caricatural Japanese. It’s no less racial for the time, but very understandable, for which I am forced to give it the pass that Won Cloo will never have. At the same time the European Front was reinforced by the Marksman, a hooded archer and Polish Count undercover as a Nazi Agent. This was achieved by shelving the Invisible Hood.
Issue 35 saw Midnight promoted to the first feature, and to nine pages, a reflection of his growing popularity and, after a succession of cartoony Jack Cole covers, the next issue saw a beautifully drawn, dark and moody head shot that belied his every appearance to date. It covered for a moody but ridiculous story about Midnight dying and going to Hell to battle the Devil, but being hooked back by some mysterious old codger who wanted Gabby and Doc’s lives in exchange… There was a new name in the credits for Espionage and Black X, Alex Kotsky replacing ‘Will Erwin’, whilst Wildfire’s costume was abruptly rendered much more modest by joining her bikini top to her high-waist pants (boo).
Modesty only lasted an issue, thankfully, bringing a pleasant little wrinkle when Carol ‘Wildfire’ Martin decided she was fed up of being thought of as just a playgirl and punched out two crooks! Sadly, that was her last appearance. Smash Comics was paring down its features. Old stalwarts were falling by the wayside. Wings Wendall and the Purple Trio both cashed in their chips to leave space for the Yankee Eagle, who was as nondescript as they came, but patriotic in a time of War. And in his second appearance, sheer poison beyond the justification of that War.
Lou Fine had left The Ray, leaving the series moribund. Paul Gustavson left The Jester, dealing a similar blow. Issue 40, a good enough point at which to end this first part, sees the comic in a bad state, with its two catastrophic ‘comedy’ series intact, The Marksman and Yankee Eagle crude rubbish and its two strongest features artistically with their legs cut out from underneath them.
Thankfully, Midnight was going from strength to strength, and slowly taking on a distinctly Spirit-esque spirit. Apart from the obvious visual similarity, which is not that pronounced when viewed through Jack Cole’s cartoonist style, there’s not really been any equivalence between the two features, though I say again that I am comparing different eras, Midnight 1941-3 against The Spirit 1946-50. And Cole’s style is much more kinetic and unrealistic than Eisner’s, and much closer to a pulp-hero/costumed hero crossover. And whereas The Spirit had Ebony White, over whom there is still so much controversy, Midnight has Gabby the Talking Monkey and Doc Wackey, inventor of preposterous machines. Though it’s considerably more lightweight, I do enjoy Midnight, and I look forward to every instalment in the same way that I avoid reading the asinine Wun Cloo.
Next time, we’ll see how things progress in the second half of the series’ life.