Getting my hands on a DVD-Rom of More Fun Comics, a National Allied Publications/Detective Comics inc./National Periodical Publications Golden Age title published from 1934 to 1947, completes my collection of what I think of as the Big Four, that is, the four comics who contributed characters to All-Star Comics and the Justice Society of America.
That’s my angle of interest, but it must be acknowledged that More Fun has a historical significance of its own. As New Fun it was the first ever comic book to feature all-new material, and in issue 6 it offered the first published work by Cleveland teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, two instalments of Henri Duval, Swordsman of France, before creating Doctor Occult in issue 8. By then, the title had become More Fun, as of issue 7 and, finally, More Fun Comics with issue 9.
My DVD-Rom is more in the mould of Flash and All-American than Adventure, but like the two All-American publications books, the title did not survive the Fories, being cancelled with issue 127, by when the reason for my interest had long since gone by the board. It starts with issue 8, so let’s look at that to begin with.
Cover-dated February 1936 and published by More Fun Inc., headquartered in Missouri, issue 8 is a revelation. It’s the last of the original, larger-scale format, 44 pages with card covers. Comic books began as reprints of newspaper strips and despite the all-original boast, the comic is still trying to stick with that formula. With the exception of a prose serial, everything appears for one page only, laid out like a Sunday strip: four tiers, mostly square panels containing illustrations more suited to books that comics, no animation or attempt at movement, a mixture of B&W, limited colour and full-colour, funny strips and adventure ones, multiple genres. When I said this was all-original, that only meant that none of this stuff had been printed before: there isn’t an original idea in the entire issue, and nothing is remotely readable.
The next issue shrank to comic book size and expanded to 64 pages, with some series jumping to two pages, and some new features appearing. If you’re expecting to hear about these, you’ll have to find another blogger: I’m an analyst not an annalist.
It’s more-or-less a given that Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson used original art because he couldn’t afford the Syndicate fees for strips, and the young writers and artists he used were much cheaper. I’ve heard them described as rough, naïve, inexperienced and, reading between the lines, too untalented to make it on newspaper strips. Now I know they weren’t exaggerating.
None of this is of more than historical interest to me, except for an almost unbelievable letter of praise from a girl reader living in Newton Heath, Manchester, and there’s a lot of it to get through before we reach the meat of the run for me.
The change I had my eyes open for finally showed up in issue 31, May 1938. Gone was Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. Vincent Sullivan was now Editor, not assistant Editor. More Fun was now owned by Detective Comics Inc. And inside the front cover there was a full-page ad for a new title: Action Comics no. 1.
There was no immediate change. New features replaced old but More Fun stayed the same. Dr Occult was dropped but Seigel and Schuster’s Radio Car, a Police series, continued its irregular course. Old features drifted on, unchanging. But with every month that passed, DC, as I suppose we should now call them, were becoming more aware of what a hit they’d bought from Siegel and Schuster, and Bob Kane, enlivened by ideas from Bill Finger, was shaping his own costumed character. Unseen and unheard, there was a tide rising and it was going to overflow soon.
For now, e.g., issue 41, the mix was still the same, various miscellaneous adventure series, a couple of gag strips. More pages were in full colour, through these continued to be distributed haphazardly throughout the comic, favouring the front of the book. The biggest difference was that every strip got at least two pages and several as any as four, making for only a dozen different series.
Issue 43, cover-dated May 1939, was released alongside Detective 27, with plugs for the new action-adventure strip starting that month, the Batman. And Charlie Gaines had established All-American Publications and All-American Comics. And by issue 49, there wasn’t a single gag strip in the book.
But patience eventually pays off. The long life of the original More Fun Comics, little changed from the title put together by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, ended in issue 51, cover-dated January 1940. in honour of that, let me list its contents. These were; Wing Brady, a Foreign Legion adventurer; Biff Bronson, an adventurer; King Carter, a globe-trotting cowboy adventurer: The Buccaneer, a sea-going adventurer; Kit Strong, a private detective adventurer, Lieut. Bob Neal of the Sub. 662, a Naval adventurer; The Flying Fox, an aviator adventurer; Detective Sergeant Carey, a Police detective adventurer; Sergeant O’Malley of the Red Coat Patrol, a Canadian Mountie adventurer; Bulldog Martin, an adventurer, and a single comic page starring Butch the Pup.
But the Buccaneer was ending. Its creator, Bernard Bailey would be drawing a new strip the following month, written by Jerry Siegel.
He’s there on the cover, with his green cape and hood, gloves and trunks, arms folded as he looks sternly down over a gang of crooks, The Spectre coming to turn More Fun around. Inside, he’s the lead feature, the first of a two-part telling of his origin as Jim Corrigan, hard-boiled Police Detective. The story’s familiar, as it should be given how often it’s been reprinted, but by the end of the episode, the ghost of Jim Corrigan is still wearing a tuxedo.
There’s one thing about the story that doesn’t sit all that well with me. Corrigan has blown out a party in honour of his heiress fiancee Clarice Winston to knock off some of ‘Gat’ Benson’s mob. Clarice is understandably angry with him for that. Corrigan’s hardly apologetic: indeed, he roundly tells her there’s only going to be one boss in this marriage, and that’s him. Clarice calls him a tyrant and a bully, but she still loves him.
Ok, it’s 1939, when marital relationships were looked on in a totally different light, and it’s hardly out of step, but it still jars modern sensibilities, or at least my modern sensibilities. But knowing more now of Jerry Siegel’s marriage and his personal history than I once did, I can’t help but sense a personal issue being worked on here. Jerry the mother’s boy, the nerd-before-there-were-nerds, who married against his Mother’s wishes, wouldn’t be the first writer to make his personal problems ‘work’ in his fiction.
The rest of the issue is unchanged, though I couldn’t help noticing that Bulldog Martin suddenly got a bottle of invisibility pills at the same time.
The other half of the story completes the tale with Corrigan’s revenge on Benson and his mob: dealing death with a glance, withering one into a skeleton, driving the rest out of their senses, you can already see where Michael Fleisher got his ideas from. Corrigan also revives Clarice from near death, breaks off their engagement rather woodenly, moves out of the apartment he shares with his best friend, all the time acting so strangely, and then sews himself a costume to wear as The Spectre. All these limitless super-powers and he gets out a sewing machine. It’s not the most favourable of signs.
Somewhat surprisingly, Corrigan gets the chance to relinquish his powers and receive eternal rest in his third episode, summoned to the edge of Heaven and getting an either-or offer from the Voice. Since he’s summoned in the split instant that a crooked Swami has fired a bullet at Clarice, who is proving impressively hard to shake off, Corrigan has no choice but to go for Option B: to be earth-bound, fighting crime until all traces of it are exterminated.
Only four episodes in and I have to say there’s a strange intensity about these early Spectre stories that just doesn’t come over in the solo chapters in All-Star Comics, which is self-evidently because those are written by Gardner Fox. Siegel brings a twisted perspective to Corrigan/The Spectre’s determined rejection of all human connection and an angry nihilism to the superficially charming Zor’s role as The Spectre’s evil equivalent.
I’m also intrigued that, whilst Corrigan and The Spectre are one being, the latter is already and constantly ’emerging’ from the former’s body, foreshadowing a significant development later in the series.
The Spectre had obviously made a hit because in issue 55 he was joined by his partner in the supernatural, Doctor Fate. It’s a most odd first story as there is no origin, and whilst I knew this is held back some time, reprints had always centred upon Fate’s first meeting with debutante Inza Cramer. Here though, we start with Fate’s evil enemy, Wotan, targetting Inza to draw Fate’s attention, with the good Doctor – not described as possessing magic but rather the great secret of transforming Matter into Energy and Energy into Matter (what a gloriously meaningless attribute that is!) – not appearing until halfway.
So that was now two costumed heroes, both magical. Dr Fate took the cover for the first time in issue 56, continuing his battle with Wotan but overcoming him permanently (?), whilst the Spectre merely fought a gang of crooks. Elsewhere, More Fun was settling into a consistent run of adventure series, most of them veterans of the comic, though there was a new character, aviator Captain Desmo, who kept his face permanently concealed by flying helmet and goggles just as much as if he were a superhero.
And a new series, about Africa-based adventurer Congo Bill, facing up to a Phantom-esque villain called the Skull, started in issue 56. It’s a pretty basic adventure strip but it would last a surprisingly long time, hopping from title to until 1959, when, as we’ve already seen, it arrived in Adventure Comics, where Congo Bill was transformed into Congorilla.
The Doctor Fate strip also runs with a frenetic intensity. Gardner Fox just freewheels through each adventure, hurtling from one action to another, with very little evidence of a composed plot and a high-risk magical apocalypse threatened on every page. It’s gloriously goofy and gloriously weird. Both these strips burn in a way none of the other Justice Society members ever do. Though the basis of Fate’s power is still unsettled, now being an atomic force within him.
But the Gothic/Lovecraftian atmosphere of Fate’s series was fairly quickly decided to be a bit too intense for the readers, and this had to be dialled down. The first step, in issue 66, was to have the Doctor remove his helm and reveal a blond-haired handsome face: a human being, in fact, in response to Inza’s wish for someone she might love instead of a mysterious sorceror. Kent Nelson’s somewhat grisly origin, involving involuntary patricide, followed in the next issue.
At the same time, Congo Bill bowed out his short run in the comic.
Since their respective debuts, The Spectre had been the lead feature in More Fun and Doctor Fate closing things out. Now, in issue 68, the roles were reversed.
Despite Fate and the Spectre, More Fun had never wholly accepted superheroing.
Now the time was coming when this would change rapidly. Johnny Quick, a rip-off of The Flash in issue 71, Aquaman, a rip-off of the Sub-Mariner and The Green Arrow, a rip-off of Batman both in issue 73, all created by Mort Weisinger. In between times, Dr Fate got the toning down I knew was coming, getting rid of the supernatural and the eerie in favour of a half-faced helm that exposed his nose and mouth, and aiding his sudden vulnerability to attacks on his lungs. Only Radio Squad and Clip Carson survived the transition.
And Fate was not the only supernatural character to get toned down as issue 74 introduced The Spectre to Percival Popp, the Super-Cop. I have long read about, but never read, this comic relief character who was to dog Corrigan and his ghost for the rest of the series. Popp turned out to not be a cop but rather a private detective, determined to work side-by-side with Jim Corrigan. He was a short, skinny guy with a big nose, glasses and a shock of dark red hair. He could have been worse but he was bad enough: a comic relief character in January 1942?
The rest of the title was not at all impressive. Johnny Quick was crude. Aquaman and Green Arrow were as bland as their spells in the Fifties in Adventure, just cruder in style to begin with. And Doctor Fate had exchanged gothic/sinister tones for obsessive, pun-based wisecracking of a kind that makes Spider-Man look sophisticated.
The first history of The Spectre I ever read, as long ago as 1966, made mention of the time when the Avenging Ghost was permitted to resurrect Jim Corrigan’s body to life. I’d always been under the impression that this had preceded the arrival of Percival Popp, but in fact it followed it, by one issue.
Issue 75 saw Clarice Winston trying to re-enter Corrigan’s life. His cruel rejection of her in his origin is always held up as a key factor in that story but it leaves the impression that that was that for the lovelorn heiress. But Clarice remained as much in love with him as ever, and hopeful of getting married, and Jim still found her hard to resist. Now Popp, in his second apearance, took a hand in trying to put the two back together.
But Clarice was becoming the victim of an artist who was draining her life, and who was having a sculpture thrown into the river, exactly where Benson’s men had thrown Corrigan’s cement barrel. To prevent his body being found, and blowing his identity, The Spectre sought and received permission to restore Corrigan to life.
And the first thing Corrigan did was seek out Clarice.
It was a touching reward for her faith and patience. Now his excuse for not marrying her was, you’ll pardon the phrase, dead in the water. Did he get engaged to her? No, you’d think he was engaged to Percival Popp, in both his existences, since the little man became co-star of the series two issues later.
The success of the Green Arrow took me completely by surprise. By issue 76, he’d claimed the lead story and, an issue later, took over the cover. Clip Carson was dropped as from the same issue.
It might be germane to ask, if Green Arrow had become the most popular character in More Fun, as he self-evidently had, why was he not drafted into the Justice Society of America? There are two answers to that: America had entered the War, paper was rationed, no new titles were to be launched for the duration, and had they topped any reader’s polls, neither The Spectre nor Doctor Fate had anywhere to go to make room.
More pertinently, Green Arrow – and Speedy – already had a team to call home, Detective Comics’ Seven Soldiers of Justice, aka the Law’s Legionnaires, denizens of the recently created Leading Comics.
More Fun was now firmly a superhero comic. Clip Carson had gone, leaving only the long-running Radio Squad to disrupt the line-up. The Green Arrow’s stories were no better or worse than the ones in Adventure in the Fifties, the main distinction being that the Emerald Archer only fires real arrows, with points not gimmicks. Aquaman deals with mainly realistic sea adventures, without the constant ‘finny friends’ business, but he’s the entirely human son of a famous submarine scientist who’s taught him scientific ways of living under the water. Johnny Quick, now enjoying some solid art from ‘Mort Morton’, is the best of the bunch.
As for the old stagers, the de-powered Doctor Fate is not a patch on the full-helmed version. There are no magical or super-scientific foes, just ordinary crooks. The series is energetic enough and Inza is doing a sterling job of showing that you really don’t need to hide your identity from your girlfriend, but it’s still pallid stuff compared to the beginning. And The Spectre has now resigned himself to a full-time role alongside the ridiculous Popp. At least we no longer have to suffer the incessant and tiresome demands of the Cliffland Chief of Police that Jim Corrigan capture The Spectre because The Spectre is behind everything. Obviously. Not that much of a relief, sadly.
The War came to More Fun in issue 84, on the cover at least and, in passing, in Green Arrow’s strip. The next issue was billed as a big change in Doctor Fate’s life as the Doctor became a Doctor, retraining as a physician. This made me think: once again, the histories I’ve read of characters have not been as accurate as they might. Kent Nelson has always been portrayed as an archaeologist, like his father Sven, who changed profession to Doctor to be more useful during the War years. When he was revived in 1965, he was back in the digging business. Incidentally, having jettisoned the lower half of his helm, Fate dispensed with his golden cape as well.
In fact, throughout Fate’s series to date, once Kent Nelson was revealed, there was not one word about his profession. And how could he go on digs when he spent all his time in that walled tower in Salem?
Incidentally, the story revealing Nelson’s new profession saw Fate meet a plastic surgeon blackmailed into creating new faces for crooks over a brother in a prison camp in Germany, exactly the same set up as the Green Arrow story in the same issue.
Though he didn’t displace the Green Arrow from the leading position, Johnny Quick did get onto the cover for issues 86 and 87. As for issue 88, The Spectre story had him, and Jim Corrigan, as just a ghost again. There had only been one additional story after issue 75 to specifically reference Corrigan as human again (and dating Clarice), but this was a definitive continuity-reversal.
There was one final story to reference Corrigan and The Spectre as separate, and this was the one in which they separated. Corrigan the human could finally pass the physical, and went into officer-training, to fight the Japanese, leaving the Spectre behind to keep helping out Percival Popp. But separation from his host had the unexpected effect of leaving the ghost invisible. In possession of all his other powers alright, just not visible. So the once-mighty Spectre, who could kill at a glance, was now the stooge. Thankfully, not for much longer.
The same issue did include a development I was glad to see, the re-entry of Inza Kramer, fiancee to that dashing young Interne, Doctor Nelson. Aww, so sweet. Clarice Winston must have been green. But that would prove to be Inza’s final appearance in the series.
A minor detail that intrigued me by this point was a succession of adverts for Prize Comics, and then Prize and Headline Comics. No such titles were ever published by Detective or All-American, and these turned out to be titles published by Crestwood Publications, who had the bright and possibly unique idea of advertising in their bigger rivals line!
With paper rationing starting to bite, in the form of an order to reduce usage by 10%, More Fun, which had been monthly since it established itself, was demoted to bi-monthly status for the duration. All this was to was was to delay the changes lying directly ahead.
In the meantime, a slip on the cover of issue 93 plugged The Green Arrow and Speedy, whilst the Aquaman story was, for once, worth reading. The Monarch of the Sea guards a delayed freighter bringing supplies to Murmansk. The twist is that it has an all-female crew and, whilst Aquaman and the Germans patronisingly underestimate the ladies, they perform with calm confidence and aptitude, needing no condescension. Oh, and the Captain turns into a red-headed babe in a backless evening dress when they arrive!
Little things: Johnny Quick’s stories had adopted a comfortable formula by which the Mile-a-Moment hero has to help someone by doing a job that would take a dozen men a month to complete, but do it in less than twenty-four hours. At the back end of his run and using only the most minimal talents, Doctor Fate was only now being referred to regularly as ‘the Man of Magic’. And issue 94 saw the debut of Dover and Clover, twin private detectives who made Percy Popp look competent.
Nevertheless, they quickly proved to be so popular that they shared the cover of issue 98 with Green Arrow and Speedy, who were quoted as claiming this was “Our Mag”. Not for much longer it wouldn’t be but this issue saw the final appearance of Doctor Fate, in a sadly stupid and unbelievable little escapade that was below even the standards his series had sunk to. Cover date July-August 1944: in All-Star Comics 21, cover-dated Summer 1944, the Doc and Sandman were active in their last Justice Society adventure.
Fate was not replaced, unless you count a one-page comic historical feature a replacement. Two issues later, More Fun reached its historical 100th issue, without fanfare, celebration or effort of note, though Johnny Quick got the cover and the lead slot and Green Arrow was bounced back to fourth slot.
More Fun used to be The Spectre’s comic. It was so for the last time in issue 101 (January-February 1945). And the Ghostly Guardian, or else the Dark Knight as he was so frequently called over four decades before Frank Miller’s first Batman story, made his last appearance in All-Star in issue 23, Winter 1944. Like Doctor Fate, the disappearances were virtually simultaneous, and the last story undistinguished. Both had been undistinguished for a long time.
The Spectre’s replacement was introduced in a five-page prelude in issue 101. Superman had long been human until he reached manhood. Now he had a career to be revealed as Superboy, though not the Superboy Jerry Siegel had envisaged, nor a Superboy Siegel had any part in, More Fun‘s line-up would now consist of Superboy, Aquaman, Green Arrow and Johnny Quick, plus the stupid Dover and Clover. Sound familiar? It ought to, for reasons we’ll shortly learn.
Anyway, Superboy’s full-scale debut didn’t merit him the cover, which went to the twin detectives, nor even the lead slot, which was Green Arrow again. It was a younger Superboy than we would get used to, somewhere around age eight, and a Clark Kent who didn’t wear glasses and acted like a normal kid. There was some way to go yet.
And there was no rush to exploit the new character, though he was mentioned on issue 103’s cover, as Green Arrow and Speedy once again call out Dover and Clover for trying to take over ‘their book’, only for the clueless crime-crackers to turn up again to point out Superboy’s in it. And they showed him on the cover of the next issue, with the crime-fighting archers.
Superboy might have started without Jerry Siegel, but his name was on it, alongside Joe Schuster, next time around. There were none of the familiar characters, no Ma and Pa Kent, no pretty redhead next door. They wouldn’t come until later, and in a different title.
Because, after issue 107, cover-date January-February 1946, More Fun underwent a wholesale change of direction, to emulate its name by becoming a comic comic. The regulars, Superboy, Johnny Quick, Green Arrow and Aquaman, were shipped out en masse, to, as we have already seen, Adventure Comics, where they would stay for over a decade.
With issue 108, Dover and Clover took over the cover, and the lead slot, greeting Genius Jones, who had travelled in the opposite direction and dropped into place behind them. The rest of the comic was new, or rather old – old hat, that is. A parade of silly characters and silly situations, without any of the ingenuity or humour of the newspaper strips of the era, or any of the rich cartooning abilities of their artists. But the next month, for the comic had been returned to monthly status now the war was over, just in time for its great change, Genius Jones – a creation of Alfred Bester, my life – had both cover and lead slot and the detectives were back at the back.
In fact, they were settling in to alternate cover billing.
Now it’s fair to say that, with the exception of Sheldon Mayer’s Scribbly and the Red Tornado, I get nothing from the Golden Age humour strips. Even Johnny Thunder was nigh on intolerable at times, when Peachy Pet took the lead. So from More Fun‘s change of direction to the end of the run, there is little to interest me. Nevertheless, I read each issue (semi-) diligently to check for anything requiring comment.
For the record, the line-up after the alternating leads consisted of Curly’s Cafe, Windy, The Gas House Gang, Rusty, Cabby Casey and Cunnel Custard, but if you want any more details than that, buy your own DVD!
That was until issue 121, which introduced Jimminy and his Magic Book, a fairytale adventure that got not merely cover status but two well-drawn stories inside. Genius Jones and Dover & Clover continued, as did Rusty, Windy and the Gas House Gang but everybody else was dropped.
There wasn’t much left. Howard Post’s art on Jimminy (whose other name was Crockett) may well have been the best ever to appear in More Fun, with a foreshadowing of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, but More Fun was heading for cancellation. Superman crossed the cover of issue 125, Cabbie Casey replaced Rusty in issue 126, and with issue 127, cover dated November-December 1947, with no less than five Jimminy stories and one final Dover & Clover, it was gone.
So ended DC’s oldest title and Genius Jones andDJimminy went with it. Depending on dates, Dover and Clover may have had as much as ten more appearances in them across other titles, but they ended up in deserved limbo too. And, in the absence of a DVD of either or both of Leading Comics and Star-Spangled Comics, that completes my adventures in the Golden Age.