Thursday, January 4, 2018

Seven Best DC Titles - Mid-1940

This is less about picking seven best titles -- since there were barely more than seven DC titles in mid-1940 -- than it is assembling the best features for the seven best titles. Though DC Comics exited the Golden Age with a stable roster of features, in the early days they tested a lot of different features, some good, some bad. Almost all of the early titles were anthology titles, with 64 pages split up between up to 20 different short features. I would have liked to have seen them expand the better features to 12-13 pages (and they did for the really popular heroes, like Superman and Batman) and cut out all chaff. Here is how I would consolidate the best of their early features into seven titles by the middle of 1940.

Action Comics
DC really didn't need a quarterly Superman series in 1939, as Action Comics really didn't have enough solid features to carry a book without Superman. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman was, of course, extraordinary. Shuster’s deceptively crude artwork was bursting with primal energy. Siegel’s best stories were wish-fulfillment fantasies for social change -- strong indictments of late 1930s society given they were only 13 pages long (and hence necessarily simplistic solutions). The superhero genre arrived with Superman and was a positive, utopian genre.

But, outside of Superman, Action Comics was a weak anthology. Tex Thompson was okay at first, being an explorer who went to really gonzo places. The early Zatara stories were good until power inflation just made them too goofy. Everything else was pretty weak; I would rather have seen three Superman stories per issue than the rest of that filler. So, instead of a quarterly Superman series, I would rather have a lot more Superman in Action Comics, with a line-up as follows:
Tex Thompson

Adventure Comics
Adventure already had a solid line-up by the end of 1939. Sandman was off to a great start. The pulp-style adventurer was the brainchild of Bert Christman and the short-lived comic strip artist’s greatest creation. Sandman was a billionaire industrialist-inventor with a lot of backstory and a craving for danger. He suffered after Christman’s death with more pedestrian stories by Gardner Fox, but a stronger editorial hand could have forced him to craft stories more like Christman’s.

Steve Carson of Federal Men was a Siegel/Shuster feature that started out really strong, with a heavy emphasis on science fictional threats. It grew more mundane over time, but if Federal Men had kept fighting giant robots, or sharing imaginary stories about law enforcement in the far future, it would have stayed a lot more fun.

Anchors Aweigh was a Dan Winslow (Navy hero) clone, with a hint of Tintin tossed in initially, that exceeded the strip it imitated, at least initially. It was a Fred Guardineer feature, which meant strong, stylized (if sometimes stiff) artwork.

Cotton Carver was a fun Don Dixon/Pellucidar (hero in a lost world) clone. Here, Gardner Fox really cut loose with all the inventiveness he was avoiding investing in Sandman, ably assisted by the art talent of Ogden Whitney (they would later do Skyman together for Eastern).

Hourman was Adventure’s second superhero. Another Gardner Fox character, Hourman always seemed too gimmicky; his hour-long superpowers would always run out at plot-convenient times, and he was super-popular with kids in his stories, overcompensating for how unpopular he was in real life. Creepy by today’s standards, Hourman secretly kept in touch with lots of his kid fans by radio. Still, downplay those gimmicks and you’ve got a pretty decent superhero with a good costume and good art by Bernard Bailey.

Steve Carson of Federal Men
Anchors Aweigh
Cotton Carver

All-American Comics
AA's first title (All-American was the sister company to National, the two of them together comprising DC Comics) was the weakest title of the bunch. Green Lantern was a brand new superhero, but I never warmed up to the original Green Lantern until his 1990s stories. Besides Green Lantern, it had Mutt & Jeff reprints, which are okay I guess. Scribbly was not yet the superhero parody masterpiece it would soon become. Hop Harrigan was a passably decent aviator hero. The best feature was Red, White, and Blue, a feature about three officers in the Armed Forces who always got to go on the same secret missions, despite representing entirely different branches. Red, White, and Blue was probably good enough that it could have been expanded to Superman-length stories (13 pages), and…I guess I can’t ignore the future popularity of Green Lantern. Other than those two, none of the other features likely could have filled more than 5-6 pages each month, which means All-American might still need to borrow some National characters to round out its page count, like Nadir Master of Magic (a magic-user who barely used magic) and Rusty and His Pals (a loose, comic-heavy Terry and the Pirates clone by Batman’s Bob Kane).

Red, White, and Blue
Mutt & Jeff
Hop Harrigan
Green Lantern
Nadir Master of Magic?
Rusty and His Pals?

Detective Comics
Although I’ve met people who really like the earliest Batman stories, they seem a dreadful mash-up of pulp fiction cliches to me that did not really gel until the character was reinvented to coincide with the debut of Robin. Here is the Batman and Robin that I love best -- laughing, joking, and smiling as they punch bad guys who toss out bad puns before they lose consciousness -- with just a dash of pulpy darkness left, as villains like Joker and Clayface are brutal murderers.

Of course, Batman dominated Detective Comics from the moment he debuted, but Detective had a strong stable of features in addition. Bart Regan, Spy, was a really strong Siegel/Shuster adventure series with a romance twist -- Bart would become the first character in comic books to marry, getting hitched to his partner in spying, Sally (until Siegel and Shuster seem to have abandoned the feature to other creators who completely ruined it). Slam Bradley was another good Siegel/Shuster adventure series, with a Captain Easy clone ratcheted up to 11. Speed Saunders was a capable feature by Fred Guardineer, though not in the same league with his Zatara or Anchors Aweigh. Crimson Avenger is a decent Green Hornet clone which was okay until an attempt was later made to reinvent him as a goofily-dressed superhero.

Batman and Robin
Bart Regan, Spy
Slam Bradley
Speed Saunders
Crimson Avenger

Flash Comics
The title hero, Flash, was pretty good. I like how Flash didn’t fight bad guys so much as he raced around them and found the evidence he needed to get them arrested, or just humiliated them (lots of bad guys got their clothes stripped off at super speed) until they surrendered. His adventures were largely comical and free of a lot of the tropes of the emerging superhero genre -- Flash did not bother protecting his secret identity, and his girlfriend Joan was like a costar in his book instead of just a plot hook generator.

Hawkman had potential -- Sheldon Moldoff definitely made him look cool. His backstory of being a reincarnated Egyptian prince went largely wasted (though I guess it explained his obsession with ancient weaponry). The best stories were the really gonzo ones, like fighting zombies in Wales. The character quickly went downhill when Fox started making him more gimmicky (like having him be able to talk to birds), but with better editorial direction Hawkman could have stayed good.

Sadly, there wasn’t much else in Flash Comics worth recommending. Johnny Thunder had staying power, but I can’t recommend anything that had the awful artwork of Stan Aschmeier. The King was another Fox character. The tuxedoed mysteryman was mildly interesting, mainly because he had a recurring nemesis in The Witch, and I do think more could have been done with him. Other than Flash, Hawkman, and King, I would need to bring back some characters from other titles to buoy up this book. One I would grab is Brad Hardy from early More Fun issues. Brad Hardy was another Don Dixon clone, but while magic was actually super-science in Dixon's strip, Brad fought sorcerers with a sword. Barry O'Neill was a one-trick pony from Adventure Comics who lost his momentum once his yellow peril foe Fang Gow died, but he had passable art and the American in France angle had potential.

Brad Hardy
Barry O’Neill

More Fun Comics
This title was an oddly-titled comic by mid-1940, as it’s too lead features were Dr. Fate and the Spectre. Further, the best feature before them also had a supernatural theme, though DC had inexplicably canceled More Fun’s previous best feature, Dr. Occult two years earlier. Dr Occult was yet another strong Siegel/Shuster feature where our investigator fought "magic" and "supernatural" foes that were grounded in super-science.

Dr. Fate started out as brilliant character, and not all like he was later retconned into. The original Dr. Fate was a supernatural being, created centuries ago. He was powerful enough to tangle with gods or repel alien invasions. The ever-productive Gardner Fox initially gave this series a real Lovecraftian feel to it and I wish it had never lost it.

The Spectre was the only superhero there was more powerful than Dr. Fate. It was strongly implied that the Spectre was an angel and used divine power to really mess with bad guys. Occasionally he faced supernatural foes worthy of him, but most of the time it was just crooks. Siegel’s only collaboration with Bernard Bailey, the Spectre looked nice and was a pretty cool concept, but needed some limitation better than later being grafted onto a silly cop character named Percival.

Sandy Kean of Radio Squad was the weakest of the Siegel/Shuster features I would include, but it was still a strong, street-level cop adventure strip. Lastly, like Dr. Occult, I would have liked to see Bob Merritt last longer than he did. The aviator hero’s strip was also canceled in 1938, but like Barry O'Neill, the Leo E. O'Mealia artwork was some of the strongest DC published up to that point.

Dr. Fate
Dr. Occult
Sandy Kean of Radio Squad
Bob Merritt

All-Star Comics
The best for last? All-Star would, of course, soon become home to the Justice Society of America -- the very first team of superheroes and the first team of fictional heroes in all of literature since Charlemange’s paladins. But, before that, All-Star could be a “best of” title featuring my favorite five of all the features named above (and, when it was time for the JSA to take over the title in issue #3, this concept could easily be ported over World’s Finest Comics). So, without further ado…

Dr. Fate
Bart Regan (sorry, superhero fans -- not a clean sweep!)

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