Tentacle Tuesday: Lurkers in the Newsprint

Greetings, tentacle aficionados! Phew, this post started out as just a couple of images and spun somewhat out of control. My thanks to co-admin RG for cleaning up, re-arranging and even colourizing the following scans and photographs. Today we gaze at cephalopod apparitions in newspapers strips from the 40s and 50s. There are actually few things I like better: there is something comforting about the smell of an old newspaper (even if we have to imagine it!), the aesthetic appeal of yellowed paper, the concerns of imaginary characters who lived so long ago and yet who seem so close to us. Irrelevant to the modern age? Not at all. Look past the technological trimmings and you’ll find people who have lived and loved and struggled much like we do today. On a lighter note, the techniques of fighting off tentacles haven’t changed much, either!

Flash Gordon, created in 1934 by Alex Raymond for King Features Syndicate to compete with the Buck Rogers newspaper strip, was immensely popular, witnessed by both its longevity – the strip continued all the way into 2003 – and multiple licensed products on offer for starry-eyed kids who wanted a spaceship or ray gun to call their own. Raymond left in 1944 to join the US Marines, and Austin Briggs, who up to that point was drawing the Flash Gordon dailies (introduced in 1941 to capitalize on the popularity of Raymond’s Sunday strips), switched to drawing Sundays, the dailies now cancelled. The following is from August 18th, 1946, art by Austin Briggs.

In 1951, King Features reinstated the Flash Gordon dailies and put Dan Barry in charge, famously assisted by Harvey Kurtzman and Harry Harrison on scripts, and a bevy of ghost-drawing writers.

The following are two Flash Gordon dailies from 1954. These reprints hail from Flash Gordon: Dan Barry Vol. 2: The Lost Continent, which collects dailies from October 26th 1953 to October 29th 1955.

Frank Robbins created Johnny Hazard for King Features Syndicate in 1944. What I find impressive is that the strip continued, with no other writers or artists involved, all the way until 1977 – contrast that with other newspaper adventure strips from around that time. Robbins must have been a powerhouse. To quote from the no-longer-updated (its creator, Donald Markstein, died in 2012), but still kindly maintained by relatives Toonopedia, « … Unlike many fictional two-fisted adventurers, [Johnny Hazard] matured — not as quickly as real people, but after a third of a century or so, he was quite gray at the temples. And a third of a century was as long as the strip ran. It was popular enough at first, and ran far longer than most post-war adventure strips, but the times were against it. Newspaper editors were more interested in daily gags than continuous stories, and Johnny Hazard succumbed to the trend in 1977. Robbins went to work for DC Comics, where he drew Batman, and Marvel, where he drew The Invaders, and never again created his own feature. » Eventually, Robbins is said to have retired, moved to Mexico, and devoted himself to painting – where he remained his death in 1994. This daily is from July 1951.

Prince Valiant is one of those newspaper strips institutions that most readers will have heard of, though some, kind of like me, may be uncertain about about the who, the when, and the hows of it. It was created by Canadian Hal Foster (1892-1982) – who, while illustrating the Tarzan newspaper strip (more about this a little further down!), developed a craving to work on his own oeuvre. He pitched his medieval adventure idea to William Randolph Hearst, who was so impressed that he even gave Foster ownership of the strip. It’s still ongoing (after a little more than 4000 Sundays!) This magnum opus has been credited with plenty, as the « greatest contribution to English literature in the past hundred years », « the pinnacle of comic strip adventure storytelling »,  and so on. I feel a little bad for being bored to tears by it, but as the Russians say, ‘и на старуху бывает проруха‘, more-or-less directly translated ‘even a crone can blunder’, or in other words, even Homer nods. The following Sundays are from April-May 1941 – spending two nights in a well, instead of trying to fight off the octopus, is an interesting approach, and I’m sure both man and animal were immensely frustrated.

I promised to say more about Tarzan – ah, the very, very long-running Tarzan strip. Started in 1929 with an adaptation of Edgar Rice BurroughsTarzan of the Apes illustrated by the aforementioned Hal Foster, syndicated by the United Feature Syndicate, it went on (and on…) all the way until 1995, with quite the cast of different artists over the years. The following Sunday is from the Burne Hogarth years, and is part of a story cycle called Tarzan and N’ani, which was published between December 14th 1947 and May 9, 1948. As for Hogarth, he seemed to hold the distinction of being the only artist with two runs on Tarzan: he drew the strip from 1937 to 1945, and again from 1947 to 1950.

The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack, distributed by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, ran from 1933 to 1973. I know that doesn’t sound as impressive because all strips discussed so far had crazily long runs, and yet: Smilin’ Jack, as it came to be called a little later on, lasted a good fifty years, which is partially explained by this strip’s motley cast of endearing supporting characters, but also by the realism with which Jack’s flying adventures were depicted – Zack Mosley, the creator, was an aviation enthusiast and licensed pilot with a true love of everything aeroplane. The following three dailies are from November 1956. You’ll be happy to learn that Mosley, upon retiring at 67, spent the rest of his days flying his own plane.

Created by George Shedd, a former Al Capp assistant, for the Post-Hall Syndicate, Marlin Keel ran between 1953 and 1954. Very little information about it survives – from what I understood, Shedd first wrote and drew this newspaper strip by himself, and later relinquished the illustration to assistants. Most notable (and what seems to be motivating rare collectors) is the involvement of Alvin Carl Hollingsworth (1928-2000), one of the few African-Americans working in the field at the time, who started by helping out (not sure to what degree) and became the official illustrator of Markin Keel towards the end of its run. Hollingsworth, who’s often mentioned as Joe Kubert‘s classmate at NYC’s High School of Music & Art – a fact that, albeit cool, underplays Hollingsworth’s talent and career – seems to have always maintained an interest in painting. Later in life, in the 1970s, he abandoned the comics field in favour of becoming a (fine) painter – you can see some of his paintings here. This is the original art for a 1954 Sunday strip.

The octopus may be off-camera, but my appreciation of Bob Montana made me include this strip in today’s roster. That’s right, it’s not my fault! This is an Archie daily from July 24th, 1953.

I hope you enjoyed this walk down history’s lanes and byways!

~ ds

Walter Gibson and His Shadow

« The stranger’s face was entirely obscured by a broad-brimmed felt hat bent downward over his features; and the long, black coat looked almost like part of the thickening fog. » –Harry Vincent first encounters his future employer. (Shadow Magazine, April/June, 1931)

We note today the birth anniversary of Walter B. Gibson (September 12, 1897 – December 6, 1985), an extremely prolific writer and professional magician. Gibson is best known for developing the radio character of The Shadow, through nearly three hundred stories he wrote under the collective nom de plume of Maxwell Grant.

The Shadow’s had an interesting and varied career in comics, but Gibson’s novels (and the radio shows… Orson Welles!) are where it’s at. Still, let’s take a look around, shall we?

This is The Shadow Comics Vol. 3, no. 12 (March, 1944, Street and Smith); cover possibly by Vernon Greene. That Thade seems like a friendly sort, mayhap a tad overly so.

This is The Shadow Comics Vol. 7, no. 12 (March, 1948, Street and Smith); cover by Bob Powell.

Now why were Archie Comics allowed to take such ridiculous (though I’ll grant, perversely entertaining) liberties with The Shadow? Must have been a lull in the revival market, I suppose. This is The Shadow no. 1 (August, 1964, Archie), cover by Paul Reinman. You just wait until the subsequent issues…

This, however, is not quite how Gibson envisioned and portrayed the mysterious Shadow. This off-model rendition hails from Archie Comics’ 8 issue, 1964-65 run, helmed by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and Golden Age journeyman Paul Reinman. This be The Shadow no.8  (September, 1965).

A privileged peek at Frank Robbinsoriginal cover art for The Shadow no.7 (Nov. 1974), second of his four (or so) covers for DC, featuring Night of the Beast!, scripted by Denny O’Neil. Yummy… but too short.

Two great Street & Smith pulp heroes face off! Mr. Kaluta takes some artistic license here, however, since Ike (as The Avenger calls his throwing knife), is supposed to be small and almost needle-like, not a freakin’ butcher knife. Come to think of it, the Shadow’s trusty automatics look like something a Rob Liefeld character would wield. One doesn’t encounter often the final three issues of DC’s initial run of The Shadow. Post-Kaluta (save the covers) and post-Robbins, the art was handled by Filipino artist E.R. Cruz, who did a commendable job, while series regular Denny O’Neil (who wrote all issues except for number 9 and 11, Michael Uslan ably filling in) stayed until the curtain was drawn.

Skipping the heinous Howard Chaykin revival, in which he delighted in sadistically dispatching The Shadow’s aged former operatives in gruesome ways (why do these people always call themselves fans of the original series?), we move on to the Andrew Helfer-Bill Sienkiewicz regular book. Better, but still not great. This is The Shadow no. 3 (Oct. 1987). Cover by Bill Sienkiewicz.

Ah, now things perk up. A nasty but excellent tale, worthy of Michael Fleisher at his bugfuck best; the shade of Marshall Rogers and smart up-and-comer Kyle Baker were a good visual match. This is The Shadow no. 7 (Feb. 1988).

This is Kyle Baker’s cover for the finale of his and scripter Andrew Helfer’s thrilling and hilarious Seven Deadly Finns saga (no. 13, March 1988) that made The Shadow such a must-read title. To quote Kate Bush, « What made it special made it dangerous », and the folks at Condé Nast, who hold the rights to the classic Street & Smith characters (also including Doc Savage and The Avenger) reportedly got twitchy* at the reckless liberties the Helfer-Baker team were taking and pulled the plug after issue 19, where a beheaded Shadow gets a big action robot body. The Shadow was rebooted the following year in more obedient hands, with quite pedestrian results.

As a bonus, let’s slightly depart from comics proper and admire a couple of paperback reissues from the brush of noted fabulist James Steranko.

Steranko comes up with one of his subtlest, most unctuously moody covers for Pyramid’s 1974-78 series of Shadow paperbacks that introduced these classic pulp adventures to a new audience, picking up where its predecessors Belmont (1966-67) and Bantam (1869-70) had left off. Pyramid had one extra trick in its bag, though: Jim Steranko, who painted tantalizing covers for each of Pyramid/Jove’s twenty-three volumes. This particular case file, MOX, « from The Shadow’s annals as told to Maxwell Grant » originally appeared in The Shadow Magazine vol. 7, no. 6 (November, 1933).

Natty dresser Jim Steranko has built up, over the years, quite a biography for himself. Of his numberless and prodigious accomplishments, my favourites are those that actually happened, such as a stunning series of cover paintings for Pyramid Books’ reprints of vintage Shadow pulps from the 30s and 40s. This one, twenty-second in a set of twenty-three, was published in March of 1978. The Silent Death initially saw print in The Shadow Magazine, Vol. 5, no. 3 (April 1, 1933.)


*which everyone apparently’s been denying since.

The Batman’s First True Auteur

« In almost every picture, Batman looks as if he has spent the day greasing the Batmobile and didn’t bother to clean up afterwards. There is a difference between shadowing and what looks like globs of dirt and grime. » — letterhack Bob Rozakis (Detective 420, Feb. 1972), as astute an art critic as he would prove a writer

Think about it: from his initial appearance in 1939’s Detective no. 27, the Batman was always a bit of a shop product. While notorious deceiver and glory-hog Bob Kane ( Kahn, 1915-98) loved to slap his name on anything and everything, his principal talent was self-promotion. Kane’s Batman was mostly the work of far more talented ‘ghosts‘ such as Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang, Bill Finger, George Roussos, Jack Burnley, Win Mortimer… and so on, for decades. It’s unlikely that anyone ever produced the artwork for a Batman story on their own (well, professionally), let alone wrote *and* drew one. In a nutshell, that’s the assembly-line style US funnybook industry.

As far as the caped crusader is concerned, that state of affairs would briefly change with Detective no. 416 (cover-dated October, 1971): under a particularly clumsy Neal Adams cover, the lead story, Man-Bat Madness!, was scripted, pencilled, inked *and* lettered by Frank Robbins. He would produce four more solo Batman adventures: Forecast for Tonight — Murder! (Detective Comics no. 420, Feb. 1972); Blind Justice — Blind Fear! (Detective Comics no. 421, March 1972), Killer’s Roulette! (Detective Comics no. 426, Aug. 1972) and Man-Bat Over Vegas! (Detective Comics no. 429, Nov. 1972).

A sample from the first one-man Bat-Adventure, Detective no. 416‘s Man-Bat Madness! Robbins’ expertly fluid storytelling and confident spotting of blacks are well in evidence here.

Opening splash from my pick of the solo Robbins Batman, Detective no. 421‘s Blind Justice — Blind Fear! [Psst! Read it here.]

Those were the days of “relevance” in comics. The Attica Prison Uprising had just occurred…

Robbins had been scripting for DC since 1968 (starting right after the ignominious firing of many of their most seasoned writers… for presuming to ask for some social benefits after decades of loyal, and often forcibly exclusive, service*), but he didn’t get his brushes out until 1971, presumably wanting to draw his then-recent creation, Man-Bat** (Detective no. 400, June 1970).

After a final hurrah (script-only) with Batman 254‘s King of the Gotham Jungle! (Jan.-Feb. 1974), he was off to Marvel, where he did no writing, but illustrated tales of Morbius The Living Vampire, Dracula, Ghost Rider, The Legion of Monsters, Captain America, The Invaders, the Man From Atlantis, The Human Fly, Daredevil… generally while paired with inkers ranging from the decent (Frank Giacoia, D. Bruce Berry), to the inappropriate (Frank Springer) to the dismal (Frank Chiaramonte and… hello again, Vinnie). He walked away from the industry in the middle of a cliffhanger, after Daredevil no. 155‘s The Man Without Fear? (Nov. 1978). Beyond that, having endured far more than his share of fanboy sniping and editorial meddling, Robbins left comics forever, going off to paint in México. Wise man.

Robbins, as you may or may not know, was a truly polarizing figure in 1970s comics. He was the bane of house-style loving fanboys, and it seems that anyone savvy enough to appreciate him at a tender age later became a cartoonist. The ample evidence (meaning far too much) witnessed on FB comics groups has led me to shrugging acceptance that most fanboys’ aesthetic sensibilities haven’t shifted an iota from when they were twelve… and won’t now or ever.

Another dodgy character encountered in recent years is the annoyingly common “I hated Robbins then, but I totally get him now” git, which brings to mind a certain science-fiction cliché.

« Yeah, we burned down his house, tarred and feathered him and ran him out of town… but looking back, he was a pretty swell guy! »  Which stories are these? Find out at the end of the post.

Back to our regularly scheduled train of thought…

A sample from Detective Comics no. 420‘s Forecast for Tonight — Murder! Read it here, while you can.

A moody teaser from Detective Comics no. 426‘s Killer’s Roulette! Peruse it here .

The precarious opening splash from Detective Comics no. 429‘s Man-Bat Over Vegas! Play the odds right… here.

How I wish he’d gotten to illustrate his moody script for The Spook’s Master Stroke! (Batman no. 252, Oct. 1973), introducing my favourite Bat-villain, seldom-seen The Spook. He was difficult to write, so they killed him off after a handful of appearances.

While Robbins wasn’t my very favourite Bat-writer, (that honour goes to… David V. Reed), he generally delivered a solid tale… but when he was in full command, he was pretty top-notch.


Even though Fox has worked for several comic book publishers, he remains most associated with DC Comics, for whom he worked more than three decades. That collaboration came to an abrupt end in 1968. Fox had joined other comics writers like Otto Binder, John Broome, Arnold Drake, Bill Finger and Bob Haney, signing a petition to ask DC for more financial benefits, particularly regarding health insurance. Since the company regarded writers as expandable people they were all fired without mercy and replaced by more obedient newcomers. » [ Source ] (incidentally, Haney wasn’t fired… at least permanently)

**Neal Adams, having waited until everyone else in the room was dead (editor Julius Schwartz passed away in 2004), began to claim that Man-Bat had been his idea, with no-one’s help. Sorry, Neal, I think you’re a bit confused: you’re thinking of Valeria the She-Bat, and she’s all yours.

Mini-quiz answers: 1) Spores From Space (Mystery in Space no. 1, May 1951, DC); written by Gardner Fox and illustrated by… Frank Frazetta. 2) The Unknown Spaceman (Mystery in Space no. 11, Jan. 1953, DC); written by Gardner Fox and illustrated by Bob Oksner and Bernard Sachs; 3) I Created Sporr, the Thing That Could Not Die! (Tales of Suspense no. 11, Sept. 1960, Marvel); written by Stan Lee, art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers; 4) The Blip! (Tales to Astonish no. 15, Jan. 1961, Marvel); written by Stan Lee, art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers.

“He sure is my heap hep dream beam!”* In praise of Bob Lubbers (1922-2017)

Mr. Lubbers (pronounced LEW-bers) , born January 10, 1922, left us last summer at the venerable age of ninety-five. As it happens, he also left us some fine, fine artwork.

My initial encounter with Bob Lubbers‘ work came in 1978, when he provided a handful of covers and a couple of issues to Marvel’s Human Fly, a book about masked Canadian stuntman Rick Rojatt, whose real-life, non-funnybook story is a gripping read**. Anyway, the series was usually pencilled either by Lee Elias*** or by the mighty Frank Robbins; by the time Lubbers came along, Robbins had rightly had his fill, given the comics industry the one-finger salute and decamped to México to retire and paint in peace. Wise man.

Lubbers’ fourth and final The Human Fly cover (no. 16, Dec. 1978, Marvel). Inks by Bob McLeod. Inside, “Niagara Nightmare!” is written by Bill Mantlo, with art by Lubbers and Ricardo Villamonte.

I then became aware of Mr. Lubbers as one of the Golden Age’s primo ‘good girl’ cover artists, with Fiction House, no less. That’s what I’ll chiefly focus on here. Can you honestly blame me? Unlike some of his peers (hello, Bill Ward), he wasn’t just good at, and interested in, the saucy depiction of lightly-clad sirens: he could draw anything with finesse and brio.

Mouth-breathing, slope-browed… I guess he’s not the hero in this one. Wings Comics no. 82 (June 1947, Fiction House.)

Arguably the most (in)famous of Lubbers’ Wings covers. “Classic bondage and headlights cover!”, cry the ancient fanboys. Wings Comics no. 90 (Feb. 1948, Fiction House.)

If our man of the hour had rescue in mind for the imperilled damsel, dropping a payload (you heard me!) a hundred feet away from her is likely to… make the situation a bit messy. Wings Comics no. 91 (March 1948, Fiction House.)

« Seriously? The engine is on fire, we’re being strafed, I’m hogtied and helpless, and he’s still going to threaten me with a gun? » Wings Comics no. 94 (June 1948, Fiction House.)

The life of a crocodile dentist isn’t an easy one, but the satisfaction of a job well done is its own reward. Wings Comics no. 98 (Oct. 1948, Fiction House.)

Here comes the mother of all rope burns, sister. You’re supposed to grab the loop! Wings Comics no. 100 (Dec. 1948, Fiction House.)

The exception to the Fiction House Wings set: Authentic Police Cases no. 5 (Oct. 1948, St. John.) The babes never could resist a bad boy.

Yet farther along, I would learn of his large and distinguished body of comic strip work: Long Sam, Secret Agent X-9, Tarzan, The Saint, Lil’ Abner, and best of all, his most personal work, Robin Malone (1967-70). On the latter, I can’t praise enough Tom Heintjes‘ definitive article (Hogan’s Alley no. 19, 2014), here’s a version of it: www.hoganmag.com/blog/the-life-and-death-of-robin-bob-lubbers-robin-malone

… and don’t forget to scroll down, down, down so you can sample (though it’s never enough!) the article’s lavish bounty Robin Malone Sunday strips.

*From the Captain Wings adventure « The Spider and the Fly-Guy » (Wings Comics no. 82) Read it right here (or pick from a generous selection of Wings Comics issues at Comicbookplus.com)

**speaking of which, check out this fine piece about The Human Fly’s rocket bike and the stunt that ended his career: http://kymichaelson.us/human-fly. You have to admit that jumping over 27 buses is a tad ambitious… and he was originally going to try for 36!

***likely picked for the job due to his fine work on another masked stuntperson character, Harvey’s The Black Cat.

– RG