After indulging myself with one of the Golden Age’s brighter heroines, what better than to have a look at another popular character from the same era, who, like Lady Luck, lived and breathed outside the ambit of DC Comics. I’ve long been intrigued by images of Harvey Comics’ Black Cat (nothing to do with Marvel’s Felicia Hardy) for the simplicity, sexiness and brio of her appearance. So, a DVD-Rom of her solo series, all 29 issues of it, and let’s see if the stories match up to the art.
I’m actually starting in the middle. Black Cat got her own comic in 1946, which ran bi-monthly until 1951 in a 48-page anthology format of which she was the indubitable lead role. Hollywood’s Glamorous Detective Hero it said on all her stories, whilst the cover went one further in proclaiming her the ‘Darling of Comics’. Black Cat was movie-star Linda Turner, America’s sweetheart (and a redhead, what more can I ask?). Linda, daughter of silent movie western star Tim Turner and a now-deceased stuntwoman, got her start as a stuntwoman herself, working her way up through bit-parts to stardom. Along the way, in circumstances we won’t go into at the moment, she became Black Cat, Hollywood’s heroine.
Only Tim knows Linda’s secret. Her boyfriend, Rick Horne, radio news reporter, has no idea whatsoever, despite being practically Black Cat’s partner in her adventures. Nor does Linda’s secretary, Jonesy. The only other one aware of her double-life is Toby, Linda’s (black) cat who, despite the name, is actually female.
According to the family, Black Cat was supposedly conceived by Alfred Harvey, though there’s no evidence to support this, and was initially drawn by Al Gabriele. She debuted in the experimental, digest-sized Pocket Comics 1, in 1941 but transferred to Harvey’s Speed Comics, where she co-starred with Captain Freedom. Speed Comics was still running when Black Cat got her own title but was cancelled the following year.
The cover of Black Cat 1 amply demonstrates the character’s appeal. It’s not just the backless bathing-suit costume, the boots and gloves (not to forget the red hair), but the sheer exuberance of the drawing. This is someone who looks full of life and vigour, promising good fun stories. And inside the first issue were two Black Cat stories, topping and tailing the comic, and separated by three rather surprising stories about competing airmen, American kids and Yugoslav resistance fighters, none of whom who looked like regular series material, still fighting the War that had been over a year before the comic’s June/July cover date.
The two Black Cat stories were quite a contrast. In the opener, two ex-circus members, part of a German spy-ring, try to kill Rick Horne to stop him exposing them, with the female impersonating Black Cat, and at the end Linda and Rick are in India entertaining American troops and foiling a Japanese plot to invade India via the Khyber Pass. The one page prose story was abysmal, though.
The art is relatively simplistic but Black Cat is lithe and active, and quick-moving, and in neither story does this pre-Code comic show any concerns about killing enemies. Nor does it show any concerns about depicting the Japs as racist caricatures with yellow skin. This, I think, may have to be taken as a given, to be mentioned only if particularly egregious.
Given that she was an already well-established character by this point, there’s no feeling around for the best approach. Linda doesn’t go out patrolling or anything like that, she stumbles onto crimes as she goes about her Hollywood star business, slips away to change into her costume, and heads into the action. Said costume at this point and throughout her own comic, consists of a backless dark blue bathing costume, an opera mask with two high points, flared gloves and buccaneer boots: as I said, simple, practical, flexible and pretty damned sexy, much of which is a tribute to the energy with which she’s being drawn, tempered by realistic, non-exaggerated physical motions.
And Black Cat is fearless, lithe, a master of ju jitsu, a skilled acrobat and a top-notch motorbike rider. She isn’t fazed by thugs of any description or size, and unlike DC’s soon-to-be-introduced Black Canary, whose series will display some uncomfortable similarities to the Black Cat set-up, she doesn’t go around getting clonked on the head every tale, or ending up tied up all the time.
In short, her adventures are fun, short, cheerful in outlook, fast moving but also grounded in crimes by ordinary criminals. It’s not ground-breaking, it’s not ambitious, but it’s infectious fun. And in its attitude to death, which on both the lawful and lawless sides takes place with realistic frequency, but never exploitively, it strikes a different tone to DC’s contemporary titles. Once Lee Elias took over the art from issue 4, giving Linda a much less wussy hairstyle in the process, I could see I was going to enjoy this.
Black Cat was nevertheless an anthology title. There was a Black Cat lead plus a prose tale of either one or two pages near the back: the two pagers were far better and they were awful. But the rest of the pages were a confusing muddle. Harvey really hadn’t taken the idea of a settled line-up to heart as characters would run for two to three issues before vanishing to be replaced with some other idea
Nor was there any pattern to what might appear next. Detective Johnny Nabisco looked like a stayer but lasted two stories (maybe three: issue 2 is missing from the DVD), Danny Dixon, Cadet, a series about a poor military cadet rooming with the rich and self-centred denizen of Cafe Society, Jonathan Spencer Alden III, looked about five years out of date but stuck.
And there were ‘superheroes’, like The Red Demon, alias harsh-sentencing Judge Straight, a man with a law textbook for a heart, who actually got an origin story with the ironic twist that he took his identity and costume from a murdered gangster, and master archer The Scarlet Arrow, a very close contemporary of the one in green at DC, but with an ornate and archaic costume that must have been a bugger to draw.
The legendary Joe Simon/Jack Kirby team had a run in the title with a bunch of oddball characters they’d worked up a year before, planned as a new line for Harvey Comics that didn’t last due to a post-War glut of new comics swamping an already-shrinking market. These included the Duke of Broadway, with a Runyonesque background in theatreland, the Vagabond Prince, a greetings card writer turned crimefighter with an absurd multicoloured costume and a teen sidekick called Chief Justice, plus a one-off for Stuntman, a stuntman-turned-crimefighter.
This is not the highlights of Simon and Kirby’s career – experts pin the first to to Joe Simon only – but in an off-the-wall way I liked the Duke of Broadway and the Vagabond Prince was at least different, in a stare-open-mouthedly-in-shock manner
But all these stories were leftovers from a year earlier, being used up. And there weren’t many of them, which led into another abrupt change in issue 8. Harvey ran a lot of titles reprinting famous newspaper strips, the most notable being Terry and the Pirates, but also including Joe Palooka and Alfred Andriola’s private detective, Kerry Drake. Suddenly, his strips started appearing in Black Cat, though not consistently: his continuity was being swapped with his own title so stories continued elsewhere.
Let’s take a look in detail at an issue of Black Cat, and to demonstrate our susceptibility to superstition, we’ll choose issue 13, dated September 1948. The cover is a typical action shot, using a distinctive monotone yellow background as Black Cat, her dark blue costume standing forward, dives right to left across the cover, her bike (right) tumbling away from her as she reaches for the handle on the rear of a small van (left) driving away from her, already half off-panel: a simple dynamic pose.
Inside the front cover, there’s a feature on artist Lee Elias with the cover story starting on page three with another action splash, Black Cat, her parachute billowing across panel rear immediately on landing, being menaced by two guard dogs, one of which is already chewing on one of her boots. There’s a mini-paragraph setting up a threat to Linda’s employers, Century Studios and the tale’s title, ‘Crime at 2,000 Feet’.
The eight-page story starts at the end, with Linda winning the Oscar for her new picture Revolution before winding into a flashback told by her father Tim in which a rival studio, facing bankruptcy, tries to ruin Century’s chances by seeding dry ice and causing constant rainfalls that keep the final scene, the burning of the village, from being filmed. Black Cat follows the autogyro and parachutes in to stop the interference. Though she beats up one boss, the other gets the drop on her and she’s tied up. They threaten to unmask her and torture her but are distracted by the bomb she’s put in the autogyro. Black Cat burns through her bonds, suffering scorched wrists, and uses her fighting, judo and jiu jitsu skills to beat up and bag the pair, saving the day and the film. And Linda even has enough time for catty remarks about Black Cat to her boyfriend Rick Horne, who for once hasn’t been at her side during the action.
There’s a second story of the same length immediately after, with Rick entering a motor-bike race watched by Linda. Unbeknowst to either the race is fixed by an unknown baddie in a monocle, out to secure the prize. Everyone’s on watered-down petrol except Rick, who’s been drugged. Black Cat joins the race on a borrowed bike to save his life, goes on to collar the baddie and win the race before disappearing: Linda pleads to keep the Cup until they can present it to Black Cat…
Next up came the latest set of two jiu jitsu lessons, with Black Cat demonstrating moves to use in different tight circumstances, also drawn, very elegantly by Elias.
After a one page cartoon featuring a new character, Winnie the Waitress, at the Gym, there was the next lot of Kerry Drake, starting a new story. Drake, at this stage, was still a civilian investigator for the DA’s office, facing fantastic and grotesque crooks Dick Tracy-style, but concentrating on detecting using modern methods rather than fights and shoot-outs. Drake spent ten pages getting involved with post-Prohibition-repeal bootleggers, dealing with untaxed booze.
Danny Dixon and Jonathan Alden Spencer III faced up to radium thieves trying to discredit one of Hilltop Military Academy’s Professors in a typically semi-comic seven pager, following which the issue finished up with two one page Black Cat shorts, neither worth the minimal ink used to print them, separated by another Winnie the Waitress page, this time featuring picnics. It’s not that the prose stories are necessarily bad, but they are far too short for any kind of worthwhile story, and the font is exceptionally large, preventing even a millimetre’s development: in comics form, they’d be lucky to fill three pages.
Once this issue passed, the back-ups changed again. Kerry Drake went back to his own mag to be replaced by another reprinted newspaper strip, Mary Worth, of which I’ve heard some things but never previously seen, followed by one of Harvey’s original characters, Invisible Scarlet O’Neill, a redhead (yay!) who can turn invisible.
There was a change of direction, title and costume with issue 16, as Linda Turner relocated from Hollywood to the Wild West for her adventures and the comic was re-titled Black Cat Western. The costume change was the least of it, the Darling of Comics merely exchanging her halter-neck swimsuit for a strapless one. Funnily enough, the varied costume was less attractive. The next issue, Linda Turner changed her role as mistress of drawing-room comedies for that of Western star. It was 1949, and as we’ve seen at DC Comics, superheroes were dying on the vine and Westerns were the new big thing. Black Cat was merely obeying the law of commerciality.
Interestingly, to go with the Black Cat lead in issues 18 and19, there were two ‘A Day with Linda Turner’ shorts, featuring our glamorous movie star out of costume, and crime, so to speak.
Though the stories were still fun, and Elias’ art making Black Cat a lithe, all-action but entirely grounded figure, the character was in trouble. The Golden Age was fading, and there were signs on the horizon that foreshadowed Wertham and the Comics Code Authority. Quietly, the series’ cheerful attitude to crooks dying had been supplanted by arrest, but there were complaints about Linda Turner’s costume, and how sexy the Black Cat appeared with bare arms and legs (Shock! Horror!), not to mention her bare back and the revelation that Black Cat had a cleavage. Later reprints would be touched up to show less skin, especially up front and top.
But the Western phase only lasted four issues until, despite a western cover, the comic reverted to Black Cat and Linda’s latest movie turned out to be about pirates, not cowboys.
Mary Worth, a low key romantic soap opera, seemed completely out of place in Black Cat, and in accordance with the general stability of back-up features, was ditched for issue 21, which featured another change of approach, re-emphasising the Hollywood aspect, with an Agony Aunt column from Linda, an interview with Montgomery Clift in comics form across the centre-spread, whilst Winnie the Waitress, which had a spark of life to it and some bright cartooning, was shunted for Holly of Hollywood, a piece of fluff.
The Hollywood angle was played up for all it was worth, and Black Cat/Linda Turner was thrust even further to the front, with the number of stories multiplying until, by issue 26 the comic featured nothing but Black Cat, Holly and a couple of half-page strips about Hector the Director.
Suddenly, the series went desperate. Black Cat started fighting costumed villains like the Firebug (the delightfully named Orson Arson), and then she rescued a thirteen year old circus aerialist, Kit Weston, from a fire that killed his parents, adopted him, revealed her identity to him and co-opted him as her sidekick, the Black Kitten. Nothing familiar about that then.
It was a truly awful idea, one born of desperation – I mean, Black Kitten: who in their right mind would agree to that as a superhero cognomen? – and it was the series’ last. This all occurred in issue 28 and issue 29 is missing from the DVD but that was the last issue to feature Black Cat. Her face appeared on the cover of issue 30, and above the first story, but Black Cat was gone and never to return. The comic was re-named Black Cat Mystery and were-positioned to tell short horror stories, with Black Cat as the seeming hostess and narrator but in practice that just didn’t happen.
It was a sadly downbeat end to the character’s history but I was always conscious of the fact that I was reading the second half of Black Cat’s career, so I equipped myself with a DVD of Smash Comics, to see what the first half was like. So we’ll look at that next time round.