Supermen: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941

This is a really enjoyable collection of about thirty short stories from the earliest comics, by twenty or so different artists. No Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman here – the stories in this book, published by Fantagraphics in 2009, are more obscure. The artwork is also presented in a much more appealing manner than in your typical Marvel or DC reprints from the same era, obviously scanned from the original comics, and slightly contrast boosted, but seems to use the original coloring, and is perfectly readable and relatively pleasant to look at.

Presented as a collection of early super hero comics, most of the stories here feel more science fiction and crime pulp influenced to me. Actually, most of the stories reminded me more of a sort of fever dream than anything else, full of sudden twists, free of all logic except dream logic.

One unusual choice, that probably increases the disorienting feeling reading many of these stories create, is that instead of starting with origin stories and issue ones (which may have gotten a bit boring), most of what’s collected here tends be stories where the characters have already been completely developed, so it often reads like starting in the middle of a longer adventure. It didn’t bug me too much, but sometimes I wish there had been a few tales in a row featuring the same character, to get a better, deeper feel for what, if anything, was going on. Instead of just having around two hundred pages of comics, wouldn’t it have been nice if this was an eight-hundred-page omnibus?

The most well-known creators in the book are obviously Simon & Kirby, then probably Basil Wolverton and Fletcher Hanks, who both have collected editions of much or all of their work somewhat available these days (I guess the recent Fletcher Hanks collections are out of print now, which is a shame, as they’re wonderful). I loved all their work in here too, but the real stand out for me was two of the stories by Jack Cole, The Comet and The Claw Battles Daredevil. I was of course somewhat familiar with Plastic Man, though I haven’t read of ton of those yet either, but I thought his stories in the book were the most graphically advanced and definitely the most innovative, fun to look at and read. I was researching a bit more about Cole online, and according to this blog, he drew over 3,600 pages of comics. Wouldn’t a nicely scanned complete edition of his works be a great project for somebody to release someday?

If there’s a fault with this book, I’d say a few of the stories didn’t do much for me, and had a real amateurish feel, with some occasional really low-level writing. However, overall, I was kind of shocked by how great the art and writing was on the vast majority of the early comic books collected in here. It’s kind of a weird bit of fate that these comics ended up as public domain obscurities, while other books from the same era, that were certainly no better than most of what’s collected here, have ended up becoming billion-dollar evergreen products.

Archie 148

I started thinking about Archie comics recently, probably because of that scene in the new Love and Rockets documentary, where Gilbert Hernandez flips through an old issue of Little Archie and explains how important it was to him. Of course, Archie was definitely a part of the culture when I was growing up, and I knew all the characters, but I really don’t remember reading any actual Archie comics. I’m thinking perhaps it is only familiar to me via the cartoons I must have seen in the 70s, and maybe seeing the comics at the grocery store checkout lines when I was a kid? If I ever did read any, I doubt it was within the last forty years.

Days after watching the Love and Rockets doc, I happened to be looking for some unrelated info in Drawn and Quarterly’s Thirteen Going on Eighteen collection, and was skimming Seth’s introduction, where he writes, “I have to admit right now that I like Archie comics quite a bit and own hundreds of issues of Archie and its various spin-off titles. I can even tell you which years are the good years (1959 to ’65, incidentally) but […].”

This year, I’d also read, and really enjoyed the first two issues of The Santos Sisters. It seemed weird to me that I was reading parodies of Archie comics, without having actually read any Archie comics!

This combination of events put the idea into my head that I should probably try to read some of these Archie comics, and see what I think. Which is how I ended up picking up this extremely beat up copy of Archie 148 from 1964 (it cost me $4.80). I wasn’t sure if I should try an Archie, a Little Archie, Life with Archie, Pep, or one of the hundreds of other titles. I kind of picked one at random, simply looking for an affordable issue in the date range Seth recommended. And, to be honest, I enjoyed it.

My feeling about the Archie style of art, that it’s a little stiff and slightly unappealing stands. Who knows who drew the stories in this issue (’s description says art by Harry Lucey, Samm Schwartz, Joe Edwards, Marty Epp and unknown, plus cover pencils by Dan DeCarlo). A lot of artists for a relatively short comic, and it’s really hard to notice any difference in the art from story to story. Maybe some who worked on Archie titles are better than others (Gilbert highlights Bob Bolling).

I think the purpose of the art here is more functional than trying to be something attractive to look at, and it gets the job done. Probably it’s the humor of the stories writing that is the main point of the comics. One surprise for me, was how mean-spirited some of the characters act to each other. Like Reggie makes fun of Archie for driving an old car in a really cruel way. Another strip has Reggie switching plaster with concrete, so when Archie tries to make a mold of his foot, he ends up encasing it in concrete instead. I do like how simple and everyday-like the stories are… one about buying a trash can, one about measuring a piece of wood for a stereo cabinet, and one about wearing a wig. I like the shortness of each story too – there are two six-page stories, two five-page stories and a few gag pages, and that’s it. A quick and breezy read. The graphic novel length story backlash, is definitely a growing part of my thinking about what I want to spend my reading time with.

I enjoyed Archie 148 enough that I’m definitely planning to pick up more. Feel free to post some recommendations in the comments. Also, the gag strip below was pretty crazy, and for me, it alone was probably worth the $4.80.

Detention No. 2

It has been a couple of decades since I read Stephen Crane’s novella, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and I can’t say I remembered much about it. Luckily, I still had it buried on a bookshelf, so I could skim through it, refresh my memory, and compare it to this oversized comic book adaptation of it.

Tim Hensley’s version does seem remarkably faithful to the plot, and all(?) or most of the dialog is straight from Crane’s pen. However, the original seems to be written as a kind of melodrama tragedy / exposé of tenement life in 1890’s New York, while in Hensley’s version, despite having mostly the same scenes and dialog, the story has now become some kind of a comedy / farce, simply because of the cartoony way it’s drawn and presented.

The story, apparently considered risqué when first released in 1893, is a relatively basic one. A kind of exploration of a poor family living in the bowery, and how circumstances, the prejudices of society and alcohol destroy their lives. Or traps into Maggie in a life of prostitution and early death. Bleak stuff 130 years ago, today apparently a great generator for ironic laughter. The dialog especially is a weird delight to try to parse, stuff like, “May God curse her forever! May she eat nothin’ but stones and deh dirt in deh street.”

That cartoony art though – I really love it. Hensley seems to use heads lifted from side characters of earlier comics… I see a weird mix of strangely familiar faces from Archie, Popeye, Andy Capp and more, plopped on top of rubbery bodies, placed in hilariously detailed, busy panels that are a pure delight to look at. It’s so interesting how the style of the artwork completely transforms the feel of the story.

Also included are a few back up features, a short biography of Stephen Crane (and Hart Crane!), and two pages on Jacob Riis, whose photography and writing explored the same themes as Crane. These push the comic up to forty pages, and are also enjoyably original, and funny. They have almost a Raw magazine sensibility from the 80s – I could definitely imagine that’s where they were from.

Twenty bucks may seem like kind of a high asking price for a new forty-page comic (forty-four counting the covers), but keep in mind that it’s over-sized (13 x 10″), full color, and printed on nice, thick paper. Most importantly, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, beautiful to look at comic. It’s also supposedly limited to 2,000 copies – so if you’re interested, I’d recommend grabbing a copy ASAP.

Our Fighting Forces No. 134

The opening fourteen-page story is actually the first Losers story I’ve sat down to read, as far as I can remember. If I was familiar at all with the characters, it’s possible it would have been somewhat more compelling. Written by Bob Kanigher, it features one of The Losers, Gunner, getting so fed up with always losing, that he tries to walk straight out of the war and catch a boat back home to America. Sarge follows his walk back towards the exit, and tries to talk him out of quitting. The simple twist at the end, when the sight of wounded soldiers willing to die while fighting off a German attack from the rear causes Gunner to change his mind and start fighting again, is truly unsatisfying. The art on this story, by John Severin, who I know can do great stuff, seemed fairly rushed, sloppy and basic. Some blame here could possibly fall on the unknown inker? This is the only story in the book featuring The Losers, and it didn’t make a great first impression.

Strangely, next there is a couple of text heavy pages about dogs… from the use of different breeds in the K-9 corps during the war, to president’s dogs, and even some stuff about dogs used in making movies in Hollywood. I guess you got to fill up 48 pages somehow?

A super simple four-page story follows. I have no idea who drew it… the art is serviceable. A small group of sailors sneak off their ship to visit a newly liberated Chinese town and have some fun, only to be shot down dead by a straggling Japanese soldier. I guess the message here is, if the boss tells you to remain on ship until mop up operations are completed on shore, you better listen to him.

Finally, we get to the reason I picked up this issue, the eight-page story, Soldier’s Grave, with art by Alex Toth. It’s also the one story in the comic that doesn’t take place during World War II. Somewhat discordantly, it’s set in the era of the Pharaohs, during a war between Egyptians and Persians. Toth’s excellent art really stands out against the other stories in the book as well, with the use of lots of heavy blacks and shadows, more interesting panel layouts, more expressive faces and bodies, and much more kinetic action. Even the coloring seems better (I have no idea who colored any of these stories). And even the writing, again by Bob Kanigher, although still a bit overripe, seems a little deeper, a little more philosophical, centering on the way lack of money to survive can lead to some fairly desperate and awful choices.

The final story, again with kind of sloppy, rushed looking art, this time by Joe Kubert, is apparently a reprint from issue 90, which came out six years before, in 1965. Kind of weird. It’s only nine pages long, but probably the most annoying, repetitive and propagandistic story in the book. It features a US soldier, desperate to be first in everything he does, from being the first guy drafted into World War II, to being the first guy to land on the beach on D-day. Possibly it was supposed to be funny?

Other than the story drawn by Alex Toth, these comics left me with a mysterious and uneasy feeling, wondering who in the world of 1971 was wanting to read a collection of simplistic, running on fumes stories, set in the middle of World War II, that were seemingly written to boost American soldier’s morale, as if they were still engaged in fighting a war that ended a quarter of a century earlier? Also, that this series ran all the way until 1978, somehow reaching issue 181.

The Eternaut 1969

by Héctor Germán Oesterheld (Author), Alberto Breccia (Artist)

This is the first of the first of the Albert Breccia Library books published by Fantagraphics that I’ve read. I’m not sure if it was the best place to start – they’ve put out five so far, but it was the one that seemed most appealing to me (also the shortest, I think). Written by Héctor Germán Oesterheld, it’s a condensed and updated version of a strip he wrote originally from 1957-1959, which is also available in a 368 page collection from Fantagraphics. This version from 1969 is actually only 49 pages of comics, so very condensed.

The story here is pretty minimal, and brings to mind a good episode of The Twilight Zone, or a long EC Comics style science fiction tale. Aliens invade earth and strike a deal with the major powers of the west to leave their countries alone in return for being able to take over South America. Approximately the first half of the book follows a small house of survivors of the first wave of the alien attack, as they hide out from a deadly “snow” the aliens drop from above and try to figure out what is going on, while the second half sees a resistance army attempt to take out the aliens. Kind of standard stuff, but it reads more interestingly than the basic plot, especially during the first half. The second half really feels more rushed (apparently it was, as the reboot was cancelled and condensed to reach the story’s conclusion).

The original version, which I’ve yet to read, but want to, looks to have much more straight-forward artwork by Francisco Solano Lopez. The main attraction of this 1969 update is definitely Alberto Breccia’s much more interesting, often mind-blowingly inventive black and white artwork. Apparently when this book was originally serialized, readers complained about the art, and though I love it, I can kind of get those complaints. At times it does seem a little too busy and a little too abstract to completely grab me. To some extent, the characters also seem a bit interchangeable. I never really knew who was who, though it didn’t seem to matter much.

If the second half of the book was more fleshed out, I’m sure it would have made for a better read, but overall, it’s still an enjoyable, surprisingly serious, somewhat unique take, especially for 1969, of an alien invasion of earth. And that Breccia artwork is stunning.