It’s a bit late in the day for a Mission Statement but I’m going to give one anyway.
It’s over two years now since the Random Access Butterfly of Memory flapped its wings and opened a window onto an old feature in an old comic, a cartoon style adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. And I owe a debt of gratitude to David Simpson for identifying the feature, its creator and the comic in which it appeared. But I owe him an even bigger one for pointing me towards the availability of a complete run of Hurricane, on DVD, via eBay.
Once I had the DVD, I had to write about it. I also had to look for other such comics of my childhood, curiosity and the urge to recover every possible memory of those years driving me on.
At first, I was concerned only with the British weekly series, things I read, like Lion and TV21 and Hornet, and even things like Valiant that I knew of but never got. I would comb eBay regularly, constantly searching for things I recognised. Which is how I first saw a DVD-Rom of the original Flash Comics series. That led me to the Golden Age American titles of which I’d heard so much and seen so little.
As such things tend to do with me, it became an obsession, and it’s stayed that way for the last couple of years, long sessions reading these DVDs, writing about what I’ve read, bending past and present into one thing, writing the kind of account I would have loved to find elsewhere, but if no-one else had written them, I’ve got to do it myself.
All of which is by way of an extended preamble to the fact that the well is not infinitely deep. There aren’t any more British titles to investigate without turning to my pre-adolescence, and there are not many American ones I can summon up the enthusiasm for. And yes, that includes Action and Detective.
As well as Star-Spangled Comics I have one more Golden Age title, which I’m saving for a reason I’ll give when I get to it. Then a couple of Silver Age series I’ve never read in full and, as I write this, that’s it. I chose Star-Spangled Comics first because, paradoxically, I have little pre-enthusiasm for it. It was available, it was a long-running Golden Age title, why not? Perhaps it will surprise me.
The first issue was published with a cover date of October 1941, and going by the in-house advert inside, it was a contemporary of All-Star 7. Of course it was a vehicle for the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, though the feature was headlined only by the former, and they got two stories, topping and tailing the comic. The first set the pair up as Defenders of Liberty, fighting Nazis and Bundsmen, America’s Fifth Column, whilst the second featured the evil Dr Weerd, a Mr Hyde-esque alter ego for Professor James Stanton, and his evil robot, one of the most ridiculous looking creations comics has ever portrayed, a description that goes for Dr Weerd, who made Edward Hyde look positively handsome.
Of the three other features, two reflected the gathering War, Captain X, unofficial Ace of the R.A.F., aka American news reporter Buck Dare, and Armstrong of the Navy, neither of which were special in any way.
The one that interested me the most was Tarantula. Long term Earth-2 readers like me will recall Roy Thomas re-introducing him in the Eighties in All-Star Squadron for no better reason than that his yellow and purple costume was almost identical to that of The Sandman once he abandoned the gas mask and green business suit, and that he was described, in a radio news report, as a ‘Spider-Man’. Though he left out the information that Tarantula took his name from his pet Tarantula. Thank heaven he wasn’t into a duck-billed platypus…
If you think that’s a pretty weak reason to reintroduce a character who only made a couple of appearances and who was forgotten by everyone, you clearly have never read any Roy Thomas. But it was highly amusing to find myself reading those long-lost adventures. The DVD-Rom was already worth it for that.
There were three stories featuring the Kid and Stripesy in issue 2, the first of these bringing Dr Weerd back immediately, only to capture and imprison him. It’s interesting to watch Siegel find a new angle on the Clark Kent/Superman duality: Sylvester Pemberton is a high-IQ teenager who’s the despair of his Dad, John Pemberton, for being cold, self-centred and supercilious, even when faced with want and poverty, which Stripesy is the comic relief of the partnership, interested only in getting stuck in with his fists.
By issue 3 it was evident that Armstrong and Captain X were both nothing series, not worth the time, and that it look like Dr Weerd was going to be with us every month. More disturbingly, Tarantula’s third story had fiction writer Johnny Law taking a cruise to foil an attack on the secret materials it was counting. Writer Hal Sharp included a young woman, Joan Wentworth, the only female on the ship, first for Law to save from some guy getting fresh with her then, as Tarantula, tying her to the top of the mast to keep her safe as soon as trouble started. A little unnecessary, a lot dickish, and a touch of bondage. There was a lot of that going round in the Golden Age.
I was right about Dr Weerd, but issue 4 also introduced Mr Ghool and The Needle, the latter being described as the ‘Tall Tower of Treachery’, and if you thought some of the Silver Age epithets were naff, I think you have to agree that that had them all beat.
At a rate of three stories an issue, and new grotesques every time, something had to give and it was going to be quality. Issue 6’s Dr Weerd story introduced Breezy, a street-urchin with overlong red hair and a suit two sizes for him who turns out to be a rich heir and who gets adopted by John Pemberton as a brother to Sylvester, whom Breezy suspects…
Meanwhile, a new semi-cartoon private eye series, Penniless Palmer, also debuted, lasted one issue but returned from issue 8. Because something did give for issue 7. Out went Armstrong, and two of the Kid and Stripesy’s stories (but not Dr Weerd, who teamed up with the Needle to double-cross each other) and in came three new features.
In ascending order of quality and fame, these were the atomic powered duo of T.N.T. and Dan the Dyna-Mite, murdered scientist Bob Crane whose brain was transplanted into the metal body of Robotman and, joining the DC stable, the legendary Joe Simon and Jack Kirby with The Newsboy Legion and the Guardian, who were also the first feature in the short history of Star-Spangled Comics to get an origin. They stole not only the cover but the leading slot.
Best of all, there was no second appearance from Breezy, the ‘comic find of 1942.’
T.N.T. and Dan got a brief origin next time out, as a teacher and pupil who invented dual atomic energy rings that, when touched together, transformed them, as well as blowing their external clothing to shreds, turning crime-fighting into an expensive pastime.
Robotman was another Jerry Siegel creation, as could easily be told by his second appearance. Not only had the late Bob Crane’ tearful fiancee, Joan Carter, started making at eyes at ‘Paul Dennis’ – Robotman in plastic human skin – as early as issue 7 but next time round Siegel started a Lois Lane-like triangle between her, ‘Paul’ – and Robotman. The same one-size doesn’t fit all, by any means.
Meanwhile, Tarantula was still going strong and, in contradiction of Thomas’s story in All-Star Squadron 18, explaining how John Law copied a design from Sandman, the truth was that Sandman ripped Tarantula off, his new gold and purple costume being the focal point of the in-house ad in Star-Spangled Comic 8. Just can’t trust anyone, can you?
By issue 15, I think I’ve gotten a handle on the relative qualities of the various strips. The Newsboy Legion is head-and-shoulders the best thing about Star-Spangled Comics and the DVD is worth it for a complete run of this alone. We all know how good Simon and Kirby were and it’s a joy to see this proved, month after month, by inventive, buoyant, passionate and exciting stories, even if it does show the rest of the line-up as pretty crap.
Hal Sherman’s art on the Star-Spangled Kid, for which Stripesy still doesn’t get billing, degenerates every month. It’s horribly cartoony and his figure work is appallingly, enough so to be mistaken for my work, which is an insult if you ever heard one. Hal Sharp on Tarantula is little better, and the series, which has already lasted far longer than anything I would have imagined from Roy Thomas’s introduction of him, is empty and hollow: Tarantula is continually presented as an awesome enemy of crime, so much so you’d think he was Superman.
TNT and Dan the Dyna-Mite is D list at best. There’s no energy or spark to it and although the art is functional the choice of blue and green for the character’s costumes is dismal and drab to the eye. Paradoxically, though it is sadly cold and uninvolving, Robotman scores highly simply through having decent if conservative art, and some Joe Schuster-esque faces. If Jerry Siegel is still writing both series, it’s no longer mentioned: I certainly wouldn’t want to admit to the Star-Spangled Kid by now.
The Robotman story in issue 15 does deserve mention, being the one that Rpy Thomas adapted in All-Star Squadron, where a sleazy lawyer attempts to have Robotman declared a public menace and scrapped, and where Chuck Grayson has to explain that his body contains the brain of Bob Crane, a secret that they’d both tried to keep for fear of hurting Joan Carter. I don’t much remember Thomas’s version but I think I prefer the original.
Of course, having delivered myself of that opinion, I find a dramatic switch of artists in issue 16 for Tarantula, TNT and Robotman, the first two an improvement, the last not so.
The Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy were finally given an origin in issue 18, and it was interesting to read, if one could see past the abysmal art. Both Sylvester Pemberton Jr, rich kid, and Pat Dugan, mechanic, separately attend a moviehouse showing an impressive anti-Nazi documentary that is disrupted by Nazi sympathisers. The pair pile in separately but both are infuriated that the agitators escape. Both then overhear a man wishing that the American flag could come to life to avenge the insult against it and both are inspired. At first, each resents the other as a cheap imitator, but once the Nazi agents complain of how effective they were together, the pair bury their resentments and team up.
It’s actually a decent origin, and not so far-fetched. It’s grounded in the times and the reaction of Pemberton and Dugan is surprisingly realistic (for comics at any rate). It was however overshadowed both in passion and talent by the Newsboy Legion story in the same issue, which features a Nazi victory over America, and their rule of New York. It’s far too obviously a dream but no-one’s trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, and the anger that goes into this nightmare scenario, and especially the kind of crumbs that would collaborate in their desire for power, makes this another superb piece.
Tarantula’s short and undistinguished life ended with issue 19. There was no exhortation to read him again in next month’s Star-Spangled Comics, and he descended into forty years of obscurity. This was to make room next month for the instantly more attractive Liberty Belle, spun off Simon and Kirby’s Boy Commandos series (the same formula as the Newsboy Legion but which had already gained its own quarterly title). The tall blonde lady was former American champion swimmer turned journalist and radio commentator Libby Belle Lawrence, who had escaped Nazi-Europe by swimming the English Channel and who now fought the enemy.
Her debut story was an intriguing one, leading America’s WAAC’s (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) to the rescue of a prominent loudmouth who wanted women kept out of War. Simon and Kirby made the inarguable case that this was everybody’s war, not just the men.
It was interesting to note that, exactly the same as Black Cat, Liberty Belle had a would-be boyfriend, Captain Rickey Cannon, attracted to her as Liberty Belle and overlooking her as Libby Lawrence who, to put it crudely, she’d have happily shagged at the drop of a jodhpur in either guise. It’s like a tradition, or an old charter. No, wait, it’s a formula, yawn.
Still I found it amusing yet again that the heroine wore no mask and relied upon distinguishing herself from the ‘prim and proper’ Miss Lawrence by her bold and striking costume and a Veronica Lake peek-a-boo hairstyle that must have played merry hob with her depth perception. Still, Chuck Winter’s art was lovely, strong and graceful, albeit stylised. Tarantula who?
Issue 23 saw the end of TNT and Dan the Dyna-Mite in unspectacular fashion, vanishing without fanfare or trace, just like Tarantula and, just like him, alone, unmourned and unloved.
Of course, the overwhelming problem with Golden Age series is their overwhelming urge to chuck in a comic relief sidekick. Robotman went down that overtrodden road in issue 29, introducing Robbie the Robodog, though thankfully the steel mutt only lasted two issues before stopping to sniff a fire hydrant and being washed away.
This line-up for Star-Spangled Comics was settled in and would run for over half the title’s life. Such changes as there were were negligible: occasionally, the Star-Spangled Kid would regain the lead story but not the cover. Robotman’s art would get even worse (see issue 36), the only point to Penniless Palmer’s strip was in seeing how he got cheated out of payment this month. Only the Newsboy Legion and Liberty Belle provided consistent, well-made and vivid to look at stories, every month.
Of course, I spoke to soon about Robodog and issue 37, but that doesn’t alter the general score.
I was perturbed to see no Simon and Kirby signature on 39’s Newsboy Legion and the art looking like a weak-lined pastiche, but the signatures were back next issue, albeit with no change to the art. Despite that, it was clear that the creators were no longer working on their creation, as confired by Wikipedia. Kirby had been drafted in 1943 but, at DC’s behest and by working with every possible collaborator, had created a year’s worth of material that had now run out.
One drawback about a long-running anthology title with a settled line-up is that unless one or more of the characters is providing interesting and vivid change, there isn’t much to talk about except generalities. The absence of Jack Kirby left the Newsboy Legion with some truly ugly and ill-proportioned art, pencilled and inked by someone trying to emulate the ‘King’s look without understanding a single thing of how Kirby drew. Robotman’s art was much smoother but sterile, and the character himself was given cute human features that were completely out of place, and he kept getting knocked out: this is a robot, hello, you can’t stun it with a sap to the back of the ‘skull’.
I still looked forward to the Liberty Belle stories, both for an independent female character acting and being treated like an equal and to Winter’s vivid art. Yes, it’s stylised, it’s two-dimensional, and it consists of too many stock poses and expressions, but it’s a shining beacon amongst the work surrounding it.
For all her career to date, Libby Lawrence had been testing herself against America’s opponents, the Japanese. But in issue 50, cover-dated November 1945, after the end of the War, Liberty Belle’s mission was to save electronics secrets being stolen for commercial use. The time was coming. But not instantly: in issue 51 she was blocking Nazi General’s escape routes into neutral Switzerland.
It didn’t work though. By issue 55, April 1946, Liberty Belle was still fighting the Japanese, unable to give up her attraction to the cause.
Simon and Kirby returned to the Newsboy Legion as of issue 53, but it was not to last long. Issue 56 was their swansong on their feature as the pair, seeing the Golden Age superhero boom starting to tail off, moved away from DC into setting up their own shop and exploring – and in the case of Romance creating – other genres.
The new regime began by sidelining the Guardian – Jim Harper fights as a copper to avoid his name being further linked with the hero, and in issue 58 is absent on holiday – though he was back in full force the next moth. Issue 58 also saw Liberty Belle, or rather Libby Lawrence relaxing on a post-War holiday in Florida but getting involved with capturing a former Gestapo murderer trying to get away. The story was also notable for a passionate and very pointed denunciation of the Nazis and the need to eradicate them and their ideas totally, delivered by Belle but clearly representing writer Don Cameron’s own beliefs.
Remember the days when we thought we actually had relegated Fascism to history?
This story looked like being a transitional effort for the following story saw Liberty Belle tackling her first out-and-out pure crooks. And for the next few issues, the lady put paid to crooks all over America. It looked like Captain Rickey Cannon was out of the picture too, but it didn’t last. Rickey was back in Libby’s life in issue 64, using her as a date to flush out smugglers who were aiding foreign fascist societies infiltrate the country, and of course needing Libby’s other half to rescue him.
You may have noticed that I’ve been commenting only on the Newsboy Legion and Liberty Belle only for some time now. That is because there is nothing to say about the other series. Robotman is simply dumb and the Penniless Palmer series formulaic: I have been reading neither. And though I have been reading the Star-Spangled Kid, it too offers nothing to talk about. It’s just a commonplace mid-Forties superhero strip repeating its tropes every month, with drab criminals, the days of Dr Weeird and The Needle long gone, and the art only marginally better. No, Star-Spangled Comics had only two series worth reading.
Which made the shock even more horrible when, as of issue 65, the Newsboy Legion were displaced from cover and contents, the new lead role going to… Robin, the Boy Wonder, in solo-stories ‘by’ Bob Kane.
Like the Batman of the era, even if it wasn’t anything like the depths of the late Fifties, the Robin series was second rate in its good moments, though there were not much of those. But once change began, it rolled on. Next to depart was Liberty Belle, making her last appearance in issue 68. Before that, and for the first time in 49 appearances, Captain Rickey Cannon of American Military Intelligence entertained suspicions about Belle turning up every time Libby disappeared…
But exactly fifty stories it was, and no more, until Roy Thomas revived her for All-Star Squadron and muck the character up, except for putting a mask on her.
At least Belle’s replacement was a character I wanted to see. This was the debut of DC’s famous Revolutionary War fighter Tomahawk, a figure still appearing into the mid-Sixties and my first heyday of collecting. And I was still prepared to be impressed even if Tomahawk and his sidekick, young Dan Hunter, were being presented as a frontiers Batman and Robin.
And I wasn’t disappointed at first. True, there was nothing exceptional about art or script except that it was a change of direction, and a chance to see something of how Americans self-mythologised their earliest days. Though it lacked the depth of something like Bill Messner-Loebs’ Journey and its Frontier poetry, it was a series with great potential.
Next for the exit chute was Penniless Palmer, here in issue 79, gone in issue 80, another one unmourned and unloved, and never to be revived. Thankfully.
And time was marching for the Star-Spangled Kid. Issue 81 introduced Sylvester Pemberton’s adoptive sister, Merry, introduced by his father on a psychologist’s recommendation that he needs company, constant company. Merry, who by story’s end is revealed to be the daughter of a ex-con, sticks to Syl like glue but her birthday present both saves the Kid and Stripesy in a tight corner and exposes their secret identities to her.
Mark the little redhead well, unlike Breezy so long ago, she’s not a one-story wonder. The writing was on the wall immediately, as Merry made herself a costume and secretly aided the patriotic pair the next issue, which, incidentally, sprung a surprise on us by having decent art on the Kid’s feature. And in issue 83, Stripesy is laid up with a broken leg, the kid refuses to let Merry join him, because she’s ‘just a girl’ but, in the first instance of her penchant for gadgets, Merry ignores him and saves the day.
The same issue saw Robotman replaced by Captain Compass, Mark Compass that is, of the SS Nautilus, a competent adventure strip.
It’s fascinating to watch the speed with which Merry is taking over the Star-Spangled Kid’s series. For issue 84, Sylvester goes on a fishing trip with his father that’s too tough for a girl, leaving Merry to solo very successfully. It was less fascinating to see Penniless Palmer return, even as a one-off.
And that was it. Though the series kept the kid’s name, it was ‘featuring Merry – the girl with 1,000 gimmicks’ in issue 85, ‘starring’ in issue 86, and the title changed to Merry one issue later. The Gimmick Girl had taken over completely in a mere five issues. But not for long herself. Issue 90 had the story of Merry’s clash with the Gimmick Guy, the only one of her stories I’d previously seen before, in reprint. Her words in the final panel were, “Well, that’s that.” And they were. Ten issues to come out of nowhere, take over a long-running series and hit cancellation: must be some kind of record.
For this was 1949. Here, as elsewhere, the Golden Age was running towards its end. Costumed characters were losing their appeal. All-American Comics was already All-American Western. Like Black Canary, Merry just came along too late. Instead we got Federal Agent, another ordinary man crimefighter, drawn in a bland, simplified style. And there were no original series remaining. Though the Agent himself, Steve Carter, only lasted three issues before being replaced by Manhunters Around The World, showcasing Police styles in different countries, starting with Australia.
Upfront, though Robin’s name was still above the door, his series had turned into just another Batman and Robin affair, with nothing to recommend it. But not even the Dynamic Duo were immune to the winds of change and from issue 96, it was Tomahawk who decorated Star-Spangled Comics‘ cover. The ‘Robin’ series still held the lead spot and, in an ominous sign, there was room for a Dover and Clover feature, as if I hadn’t already seen enough of them in More Fun Comics.
That, thankfully, was a one-off. But four issues later, Star-Spangled Comics became the latest DC title to hit 100 issues, cover-dated January 1950. The ‘new century’ saw Robin, now operating solo again, go to the back of the book and an extra, one-off, real-life story slot in.
Practically none of the Robin stories are worth mentioning but I’d like to single out the one in issue 103 for its typical Fifties dickishness. It’s another of those ‘too tough for a girl’ stories, with Dick Grayson’s classmate Mary Wills turning parallel crimefighter as Roberta the Girl Wonder. True, she starts off because Robin is her dreamboat but she proves to be intelligent, resourceful and effective, so Robin decides to undermine her to prove that only he (and Batman) are clever, up to and including making her mask fall off in public. There is a very twisted sexuality at work in lots of these comics and you sometimes feel that Wertham was right in all the wrong places.
I’m growing increasingly impressed with the Tomahawk series. There’s an intelligence to them, a sense of the times, and a calm steadfastness in Tom Hawk himself that’s wholly enjoyable. The series is written by Otto Binder, who either knows this period well or else is doing a brilliantly convincing job of faking it, whilst Fred Ray’s art, though unspectacular, is solid and realistic, and very good on the woods and the plains.
Indeed others thought so, as issue 108 opened with a full page house ad for the first issue of Tomahawk’s own title, which would run until 1972. It’s a pity I never tried it when I was there, in the Sixties.
In a later era, that would have meant Star-Spangled Comics looking for a new feature but this is still 1950, so the frontiersman stayed on. And there was an opportunity to contrast the sensibilities of his series with those of Robin when issue 110 introduced Sally Raines, Frontierswoman. Yes, another girl-wants-to-get-in-on-the-act story, initially pooh-poohed by Tomahawk and displaying some feminine sillinesses. But Sally proved herself smart, practical and invaluable and saved the mission. Of course she gave up, but that was her decision, and she had earned Tom’s approval and encouragement. It’s like two different words, isn’t it?
With three stories appearing in every issue of his own magazine, it was unsurprising to see Tomahawk get a new artist in issue 113, as well as a new recurring enemy in the Black Cougar. The new guy had a lighter line, but was well up to the task of the frontier. And don’t think that because I’m concentrating on on Tomahawk that the other series are being overlooked. The Manhunters around the World is still casting its net far and wide and remains interesting, but Captain Compass is just a politely drawn modest non-powered character, exactly of its time. It will never rip up any trees, nor turn out an unprofessional story. Robin is, of course, Robin, and therefore unrealistic and flat.
Time now was running out on Star-Spangled Comics. With issue 121, the latest reduction in page count forced out Manhunters of the World. Captain Compass got the boot an issue later, replaced by Dr Thirteen, The Ghost Breaker, who also forced Tomahawk off the cover. Thanks to my interest in The Phantom Stranger, I was familiar with Terry Thirteen’s origin story and several of his stories which repeated in the early issues of that series, though I’d forgotten that the series’ official title was just The Ghost-Breaker..
By the miracle of reducing other series’ page-counts, the maritime detective made it back into issue 123. Four features, each of six pages in length, not much room for subtlety, though Tomahawk still managed to be the pick of them.
The Ghost-Breaker’s career back then was only marginally longer than his future rival, The Phantom Stranger. In the last couple of stories he became Mr Thirteen, and in the last of them, his fiancee Marie became his assistant Marie. And the last of them was issue 130. Terry Thirteen and wife Maria would return in 1968, in Showcase 80. Captain Compass would not be back at all. Tomahawk had his own title and Robin had Batman’s array of titles. Star-Spangled Comics did have an issue 131 and more but it’s theme changed and so did it’s title. Henceforth and into the Seventies it would be Star-Spangled War Stories, with a new numbering. Among it’s features would be Mademoiselle Marie, The War that Time Forgot, Enemy Ace and The Unknown Soldier.
But that’s another comic entirely. What then my overall impressions of Star-Spangled Comics, that I read merely out of mild curiosity and no great interest? Well, I have been amply rewarded by the runs of the Newsboy Legion and the Guardian, of Liberty Belle, the All-American Girl, and the chance fifty-plus years later to get to know Tomahawk: should the opportunity come up, I will not be slow to purchase a DVD-Rom of his solo title.
And I had tremendous fun with the meteoric rise and stunning collapse of Merry, the Girl of 1,000 Gimmicks.
I’m still saving my last Golden Age title up, so we’ll be in the Silver Age again, next time. And a couple more series gave been bought in, so I’ll be going on longer than I thought. As long as it’s still fun.