Here we are again, for the second part of a review of Quality Comics’ Smash Comics, issues 41-85, as starring Jack Cole’s The Spirit knock-off, Midnight, plus The Ray and The Jester, along with a handful of lesser lights and two cartoon one-pagers, one of which is a racist atrocity. Where I had to name it in part 1, I shalln’t do here, unless and until it is kicked out.
Midnight appears on the cover and is the lead feature, together with his assistants, Doc Wackey and Gabby the Talking Monkey, from which you will immediately deduce that this is less serious than The Spirit. Next up was Espionage, a series originated by Will Erwin (Eisner), starring masterspy Black X, then Bozo the Robot which, despite the name, was meant to be taken at least semi-seriously.
This was followed by The Jester, a bright and bouncy superhero series already past its best by the removal of artist Paul Gustavson, presumably by the draft, then Yankee Eagle, a piece of crap. Then the piece of racist shit, befouling the name of Jack Cole, and the Marksman, another piece of crap.
New in issue 41 was Daffy, a supposedly comic series. Daffy was a lady wrestler. If you want to know more, you can buy your own DVD. This was followed by Rookie Rankin, a half-decent Police series. Rankin is a rookie cop (you don’t say?) whose own mother calls him Rookie, suggesting an awfully prophetic birth-name.
To make room for Daffy, two features ended. One was the other comic page, Archie O’Toole, that had been there since issue 1 but to my surprise the big loser was the Ray, gone until the 1970s. Better news was on the way, as next issue introduced Lady Luck under Klaus Nordling, a strip I already know and love. Even better, good old Brenda Banks gave Bozo the Robot the heave-ho (though Archie O’Toole was back).
Paul Gustavson was back next issue, but not on the Jester, rather on Midnight, though the formula didn’t change. As such, Midnight remained as vigorous as ever, whilst the art grew more solid, but on the other hand, The Jester’s strip was getting more ridiculous by the issue, as even nobody could be bothered to write a straight story any more. Thank heaven for Lady Luck, say I.
The thing is, I bought the Smash Comics DVD to read the adventures of Midnight and now I’m in the ironic position of skipping over so many pages per month, and getting nothing out of the once enjoyable Jester series that I am reading practically only Midnight, and the whole comic is as dull as ditchwater. Unless some changes are due, the second half of this post may become a bit perfunctory.
Espionage, in issue 49, was credited to Bernard Sachs, the first time I believe I’ve seen his pencils. Otherwise, I know him as Mike Sekowsky’s inker on the Justice League until issue 43, when he retired, and he was a complete mis-match, reducing and weakening everything. He was no better here. Fred Guardineer, of Zatara fame, took over the Marksman in the same issue.
The Jester seemed to pick up a bit too. He’s developed the habit of talking to his jester-face ball-on-a-stick, who he calls Quinopolis, but the stories are starting to make sense again.
I’m still breezing past Espionage, the Marksman and Daffy without reading, the first having dragged itself under and the other two non-breathers from the outset, and my perusal of Rookie Rankin is fairly perfunctory, but I had to applaud the latter in issue 56, which told a confused story of dope peddlers and murder in the musical theatre but which came to a note-perfect ending: a dope addict trumpet player, desperate for his fix, is shot, his dealer is strangled by the anonymous shoeshine guy who was the father of the addict. He is open as to his action, explaining that in Italy ‘we have-a da Black Hand to deal wit’ men like-a dees’, and he extends his hands, all-covered by shoepolish, and states, with a dignity that made me pause and which moved me, says, ‘Me – I have my own black hands’.
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet, partly in the hope that they might go away, a hope now evidently forlorn, is that Midnight’s strip has expanded its supporting cast, once more in the direction of humour. For some time now, Dave Clark’s household has been harbouring two more residents, would-be detective Sniffer Snoop and his pet baby polar bear, Hot-foot. The bear is (snicker) bearable because, unlike Gabby the Talking Monkey, he doesn’t talk, but Sniffer is a pain in the arse. He claims to be the best Detective in the world, a true crime-solving genius, setting himself up in opposition to Midnight, with no self-awareness whatsoever. On the other hand, he worked out Dave is Midnight, so he can’t just be jettisoned onto the street, Hot-foot and all, as Gabby and Doc Wackey would clear love to see. I know how they feel.
We’re actually up to the end of 1944 by this point and, with paper restrictions in force, Smash Comics is bi-monthly. The War dominates Espionage and The Marksman. It’s noticeable in both strips the difference in approaches to the Axis powers. The Nazis are stereotyped, but remain human beings, but the Japanese are drawn as sub-human and made to speak in a style that is frankly racist. It’s to be expected given that the country is at war, but whilst allowances can be made in respect of the Germans, the difference in treatment of whites and yellow-skins is too marked to be excusable.
I also haven’t mentioned the prose series. All comics of the era had one, two pages of type, short, and often melodramatic tales with all the complexity of a matchbox. Smash Comics‘ version features one of those all-American boys, the US ideal, combining honesty, intelligence and a pair of useful fists: good old American know-how in (a usually blond) human form. This one was called Jimmy Christian.
I virtually never read this stories, which were a necessity to claim second-class postal rates. A quick glance in passing indicates that the Jimmy Christian stories seemed to be different in that their hero wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of things but, like the post-War Spirit, would often come in very late, sometimes as late as page two. What made me actually read this story in issue 57, I don’t know, but I’m glad I did. The story had three levels: the first person narration by someone unnamed but who we later learn is a War journalist, describing both the circumstances in which he’s holed up with Mr Christian, Jimmy’s story that he faithfully records and cables back, and the story’s true character, a guy by the name of Fred Zinn.
And the story held a ring of truth to it, as if there was a real Fred Zinn by another name, a boy who came out of College a joker, who went into the First World War as a mission director for the fledgling air force, who was overwhelmed with a feeling of responsibility for those who didn’t return, and who, after that War and continuing into the present one, dedicated himself to finding the lost, the combatants who never returned, the names on the Missing list. Without official status, without support or resources, Fred Zinn had dedicated himself to finding out what had happened. To filling in the record, to uncovering the hidden heroism and, most important of all, letting the families know, once and for all, what happened to their husband, son, brother, father, to ending the mysteries of fear.
All this in two pages of straight, controlled prose. I found it incredibly affecting. It also convinced me I should read all the Jimmy Christian stories. No writer is named, but surely someone who could put together such a story must have written more worth reading.
On the other hand, the following issue’s tale was nothing more than an undisguised history of blood transfusions, as ‘assembled’ by Jimmy Christian, culminating in a plea for blood donors: very worthy, very informative, but not exactly a story. The next one was flat-out crap. Sigh.
Issue 59 saw the first new feature in some time, not since the debut of Daffy. This was Spunky. It’s a comedy, or so it thinks, a sub-Archie before Archie existed, teenagers rather awkwardly drawn like children, lending an odd and not all that welcome frisson to the triangle formed by Spunky, his girl-friend Margie and his rival, Curly. The unfortunate loser was The Marksman, but even with Spunky’s manifest flaws, the reader won out.
It’s now 1946 but Espionage was still rorting around finding dirty tricks in fictional foreign lands. However, in issue 65 the feature was re-titled Black X, and turned crook-catcher, though it didn’t mean more than a marginal improvement in the series.
Smash Comics is advertising itself as still offering 60 pages in an era when National/DC’s titles had long been down to 48 pages but nevertheless it was following one post-War trend, that of removing drama series for comic. Issue 71 introduced Batch Bachelor, about which the funniest thing was the name, and I’m being serious about that, to replace Rookie Rankin, which at least had been readable.
The Jimmy Christian series disappeared without fanfare, to be replaced in issue 73 with an extra Midnight story, this one in prose. Jack Cole was back on the comics version, each month extending his cartooning until things began to look more like Plastic Man. The next comedy strip, about a little girl called Citronella, sneaked in in issue 75, seemingly without displacing anyone. This made the line-up look seriously sorry, and if I didn’t already know that Smash Comics’ time ran out with issue 85, I’d be suspecting the end was nigh.
But deadly as Citronella was, I realised it had served a real social purpose by excluding the long-running Archie O’Toole and, more importantly, the execrable and racist stain on Jack Cole’s career that I’m still not going to name.
Archie came back in issue 78, right at the rear. Too late to do anybody any good, both Batch Bachelor and Citronella did the nose-dive as at issue 82. Midnight had lost all balance, with Jack Cole going all out to make it nearly as silly as Plastic Man. The Jester’s stories were getting ever more formulaic. Daffy was still Daffy. Only Lady Luck was upholding its strength. So much so that after Smash Comics‘ last issue, no 85, the series was re-titled after the Lady, though that only extended its shelf-life by a further five issues. Just one last issue.