Friday, January 6, 2012

USA COMICS Vol 2 Golden-Age Masterworks




Last week saw the release of  Marvel Masterworks Golden Age USA Comics Volume 2, comprising of beautifully restored copies of issues #5-8. These are some of the scarcest Timely super hero comics in existence, material almost no one has had the privilege of reading or studying before. In fact, the reason it took almost 4 years between volumes 1 and 2 was the fact that original low grade copies for use as source material could not be acquired for years.

With this long sought after material finally in print, I'm a bit dismayed at the lack of "chatter" on the various message boards, especially the Masterworks message board, where this material was anticipated for quite a long time. So I'm hoping to get the enthusiasm going as the only way  more of this material will get printed is if folks show interest and buy it. I'm going to present the contents of the 4 issues with representative samples of the better-known features (or features that personally piqued my interest). I'm not going to give away the cow here. If what you see is of interest, "buy it"! The cost of these gorgeous volumes aren't cheap but compared to "ever" being able to hold an original, they are practically free. 

And you can get them at a nice discount by clicking here:


That said, the issues are a cornucopia of known features, one-shots and has-beens, all wrapped around the theme of the second world war, including often xenophobic depictions of the Axis powers protagonists, depictions in line with all avenues of then current popular culture. These were strict war-era comic books awash in wartime propaganda.

I wrote the introduction to this volume, five pages of credit discussions and historical context. My compatriots Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr., Hames Ware and I systematically deconstructed the art, running it through our encyclopedic knowledge of wartime comic artists and came up with the most accurate indexing of the four issue's contents to date. Is everything known? No. It's the best we could do and I think we did a decent job.

My approach to these articles has always been to slant them towards the creators, both known and unknown, with as much context as I can muster. I wrote the introduction to the first volume in 2007 also. That release is better known in Masterworks circles as the Masterworks with the microscopic font size, requiring anyone over the age of fifty to go for a magnifying glass to read it properly.

The editorship of the first three issues fall under the domain of Stan Lee, while issue #8 (May/43) falls under the domain of Vince Fago, corralled by Lee and Goodman to replace Lee while Stan was in the service. According to Vince, the position was always Stan's to return to.



USA COMICS #5 (Summer/42)


The first issue in this volume is USA Comics #5 (Summer/42), an issue sporting 10 different new features as all from the previous 4 issues are jettisoned.



The cover above depicts a great action shot of the Victory Boys giving Adolf Hitler a boot to the face (as a contrast to Captain America giving Hitler a fist to the face on the cover of issue #1 of Cap's own book). By virtue of a best guess, the artist looks to be Al Gabriele. It's not set in stone.

Here is full line-up for issue #5:

Victory Boys 
Black Widow
"Hills of Horror" (non-character adventure story)
The Fighting Hobo
The Blue Blade
"Dead Man's Warning" (text story)
Roko The Amazing
Gypo The Gypsy Giant and Bobby
Sergeant Dix
Patent Pending
The American Avenger

Highlights include :

Victory Boys.  The Victory Boys are the cover feature with a blurb "Introducing the Victory Boys" plastered right under the "A" of USA Comics. Here's the problem. This is the second and final installment of the series, not the first story. How do we know? The first story began concurrently in Comedy Comics #10 (June/42), giving the entire backstory to the group: The Victory Boys were a group of kids whose parents were killed by the Nazis, banded together to fight for the Allies. They wore no uniforms and the story gives the impression 100% that it is the debut story. In USA Comics #5 the kids now have uniforms and actually do battle (all by themselves) with Adolf Hitler, Emporer Hirohito and Benito Mussolini! Yet the cover screams "Introducing the Victory Boys". 

So what happened? My feeling is that the feature was conceived, possibly earlier, by Ernie Hart as a non-hero war-time, slightly humorous feature. Then a story without a home, it was used to fill out the new Comedy Comics title which initially was a dumping ground for adventures without a title after the cancellation of earlier titles like Daring Mystery Comics.  Perhaps when USA Comics sales lagged, the entire line-up was tossed and all new features tried. A second story, possibly penciled or partially drawn was quickly finished with help and rushed into USA as a hero feature (putting them in uniform). Or.... maybe Victory Boys was considered to get its own title with the cover to USA #5 as the debut cover (and then the idea shelved).  Or not. I don't know, but it's fun to speculate as I liked the feature a great deal and wish Ernie Hart was given the chance to fill an entire issue of its own title.




While the large, leering, skull-like image of Adolf Hitler on the splash looks like it could be the work of Al Avison, Ernie Hart is the principal artist here and his initials "EHH" (Ernest Huntley Hart) can be spotted on the license plate on page 2, panel 8.



Hart may not be totally alone and George Klein is definitely the main inker. Hart is the solo artist in Comedy Comics #10 and by this final installment, several hands pitch in.

Mike Sekowsky and George Klein do a fantastic job on The Black Widow, one of my favorite early Timely features, (previously seen in Mystic Comics #4,5,& 7, making a final appearance in All Select Comics #1, Fall/43, in a story gorgeously drawn by Stan Drake.) Sekowsky/Klein was a beautiful and common art team at Timely, also found on The Whizzer in All-Winners Comics #3 (Winter 41/42), Father Time in Captain America Comics #11 (Feb/42), as well as on a ton of humor features in humor titles like Terrytoons, Krazy Komics and Joker Comics




The Fighting Hobo is by Malcolm Kindale and is a silly little feature about a tramp hero. This is a different hobo from Ed Winiarski's The Vagabond found in previous USA Comics issues 2,3,& 4, which was transferred to Young Allies #4 (Summer/42) this very month! (And then on to the Homer feature in Krazy Komics). My question is "why" the need for a new tramp hero when we already had a perfectly serviceable one the previous past three issues? Was there a perceived demand for tramp heroes that I don't know about? Malcolm Kindale may be the artist on Hercules in Mystic Comics #4.




Roko The Amazing was a very pretty strip drawn by Jack Alderman. The only problem was that the idea was already taken! Lon Craig, a 16 year old art student , yells "Illium!" to change into the adult Roko the Amazing. Gee...sound familiar?? 



Gypo the Gypsy Giant is another one-shot interesting to me only because I think I've deduced the art as by Ed Winiarski with (or inked) by Don Rico. What makes me think this could be Ed Winiarski? The old lady with the glasses in panel 3 is a caricature of Winiarski as drawn by himself in a score of Timely funny animal stories.



Ed Winiarski caricature in "Gypo"


Ed Winiarski by Ed Winiarski in KRAZY KOMICS #7 (Apr/43)


The American Avenger is notable for having been penciled by Vince Alascia, something I've never seen before. George Klein is inking this and the effect is a very nice art job. Unfortunately, this is the first and only appearance of the Avenger.




Left out in my coverage of #5 above are :  

"Hills of Horror", a non-character adventure story primarily drawn by Don Rico.

The Blue Blade, a silly, ridiculous concept of a Musketeer fighting the Axis, this is a concurrent continuation of  The Fourth Musketeer from Comedy Comics #10. The art is unknown but wild speculation is that this could be an early appearance of Carmine Infantino and/or even Gil Kane. Hmm. 

Sergeant Dix, the sole continuation of an earlier feature (Corporal Dix) in this title although he was promoted from Corporal to Sergeant. The artwork is unknown.

Patent Pending, a one-page humor filler by Lou Paige.




USA COMICS #6 (Dec/42)






USA Comics #6 (Dec/42) does away with a format of one-shot characters and brings in Timely's best selling hero Captain America to now anchor the book. What looks like an Alex Schomburg cover has Cap bursting onto the scene of a Nazi torture chamber and saving a ready-to-be-brutalized Bucky! Jeez! Look at that contraption! On geared wheels, no less! 


The line-up for issue #6:

Captain America
"Terror Squad" (non-character adventure story)
The Destroyer
"Death in the Coral Sea" (non-character adventure story)
"Look Out For Spies!"  (text story)
Jeep Jones
The Whizzer
Sergeant Dix
Jap-Buster Johnson



Cap's lead story, "The Ghost's Gaze of Death!" (15 pages) is seemingly by Al Avison and Syd Shores, with George Klein thrown into the inking mix also. There may even be additional hand as I can swear I'm seeing Ernie Hart in a panel or two. 




"Terror Squad" is a non-character war-adventure story with unidentified, but very distinctive artwork.

The Destroyer, penciled by Bob Oksner, comes over from Mystic Comics. While never a Timely heavyweight, The Destroyer did have 41 appearances throughout the golden-age in 9 "different" titles.





"Death in the Coral Sea" is another non-character war-adventure story with a guess as Louis Ferstadt on the pencil art.


Jeep Jones is a military-themed humor strip with artwork by Chic Stone, of all people. Think George Baker's Sad Sack, debuting in Yank, The Army Weekly this very year and you will understand where this feature is coming from.  Stone worked out of the Jacquet shop and also drew an installment of the Li'll Abner knock-off Eustice Hayseed that ran for years in Joker Comics (issue #7, Feb/43). Eustice Hayseed holds the distinction of possibly having more different artists than any other Timely feature, ranging from Gar Dean, Ed Robbins, Chic Stone, Mike Roy, Gus Schrotter, to Joe Sulman and several unknowns!




The Whizzer is back in this title drawn by Louis Ferstadt, last seen in issues 1,2, and 4, and the only exactly-titled same feature from the first 4 issues ever brought back. (Recall Corporal Dix became Sergeant Dix .. same feature, different title, albeit slightly). Unfortunately, racial stereotypes of the era are in force as the Whizzer's sidekick "Slow-Motion Jones" is introduced and depicted in a manner unacceptable from today's standpoint.






Not unlike Will Eisner's "Ebony" in The Spirit, this is once again an unfortunate reflection of the time and common across the entire popular culture spectrum, including theatrical animated cartoons:


Warner Bros. Title Cards





The promoted Sergeant Dix follows with a script by Roy Garn and artwork by Frank Borth


The last major feature of the issue is the debut installment of Timely's most notorious wartime serial, Jap-Buster Johnson. The debut artist on this feature was Dennis Neville, the artist who earlier was also working at National on titles like  Flash, Hawkman , and as part of the Shuster shop, on Superman. I'm not going to make excuses for the editorial content of this feature but the strip was clearly inspired by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the actual story, after the death of his friend during a Japanese air attack, pilot Doug Johnson makes a vow to "bust the Japs" and goes off to fight them single-handedly.

Jap-Buster Johnson had several different artists and writers over the course of its 18 installment run in several different titles (All Select Comics, Complete Comics, Kid Komics and USA Comics). Writers include Otto Binder, Mickey Spillane and even novelist Patricia Highsmith. Artists include Dennis Neville, Jimmy Thompson and Allen Bellman. In fact, Bellman clearly remembered his work on the feature. I interviewed Allen Bellman in 2001 (published in Alter-Ego #32, 2004), as well as here: (Allen Bellman), and he recalled walking into Stan Lee's office to get a script (he was given a Jap-Buster Johnson script) and being introduced by Stan to the writer who had just dropped it off. The writer, with a crew cut and in an army uniform, was Mickey Spillane, freelancing for Timely and Stan Lee while in the service.

With 70 years hindsight, Jap-Buster Johnson reflected America's intense hostility with the Japanese enemy. I can give it a pass as a cultural artifact of wartime propaganda along with a score of Alex Schomburg covers depicting the Axis enemies in an exaggerated fashion (again, as did theatrical animated cartoons of the era).


         


Wartime Warner Bros. Title Cards:




   





USA COMICS #7 (Mar/43) 





USA Comics #7 line-up:

Captain America
Captain Daring and his Sky Sharks
Marvel Boy
"I Hate Women" (text story)
Disk-Eyes the Detective
The Secret Stamp
Jeep Jones
Jap-Buster Johnson


Issue #7, sporting a magnificent Alex Schomburg cover, leads off with a long 20 page Captain America story, battling the Nazi villain The Eraser. This is a diverse hands job with my eyes seeing Syd Shores, Mike Sekowsky, George Klein and Ernie Hart.




Next is a treat as we get to see Alex Schomburg draw an interior story for a change, Captain Daring and his Sky Sharks. This is not the same Captain Daring character from Daring Mystery Comics #7-8 but 
rather a hot-shot fly-boy in a war setting.



But here is some further strangeness. Not only has the above "Captain Daring and his Sky Sharks" taken on the Captain Daring name of a previous character, this new Captain Daring is nothing more than a name change of the old "G-Man Don Gorman" from Daring Mystery Comics #4 (May/40)!! 


Daring Mystery Comics #4 (May/40)

The question now is whether it's the same artist or not. We conjectured back then that "G-Man Don Gorman" could be Gus Ricca but now we can compare the Alex Schomburg story to this and see what shakes out. My opinion? It's definitely not a story done at the same time with the same artist and held over in inventory for 3 years. The story panel layouts are completely different, each one typical of the year it was published. So I'm just unsure at this point in time. I don't know what Alex Schomburg would look like as a sequential artist in 1940. Here he is as a "pulp" artist in 1939 (and trust me when I say that this was the most mild illustration I could find. Just wait until you see what I've turned up for this book)



Detective Short Stories (June/39) page 6 


And strangely enough, the next feature is another take on an old one-shot character, this time Marvel Boy! This is his second and final appearance after a two and a half year hiatus since the Simon & Kirby debut in Daring Mystery Comics #6 (Sept/40). But rather than a continuation, this is essentially a re-boot and no way near as interesting as the former. Bob Oksner is likely the pencil artist and rather than a sci-fi strip, Marvel Boy is now a mystical strip with the hero fighting the Nazis. I have no idea why this strip even exists.




So what the heck is going on? Was Timely desperate enough for new features that it would just dust off older one-shots with cool names and re-boot them for an audience that wouldn't recall the originals? There is a good chance that is exactly what they were doing. If the Jacquet shop was still turning out the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch "but" Martin Goodman was still committed to weaning off Funnies Inc. and not wanting them to come up with any new characters, in a pinch, (and desperate for material to fill anthology books) the order could have come down to just re-vamp a few old has-beens!


Disk-Eyes the Detective is classic Basil Wolverton, seen already in this title on Rockman in issues #1 & 2. Secret Stamp is here on loan from Captain America. (not shown)





Jeep Jones returns again by Chic Stone, this time with a full signature!


                                       

And the issue ends with another installment of Jap-Buster Johnson by Dennis Neville..  







 USA COMICS #8 (May/43) 





USA Comics #8 (May/43) starts off with another killer Alex Schomburg cover.

The line-up:

Captain America
The Destroyer
Jeep Jones
Jap-Buster Johnson
"Two Hundred to One"
"Shot in the Back" (text story)
The Whizzer
The Secret Stamp
Sergeant Dix


Captain America leads off once again and this time the wonder is whether we're seeing the nascent Carmine Infantino or Gil Kane in this story to some degree amongst other hands and inkers.




Now comes something that is really puzzling to me. In issue #6 we saw a Destroyer story that we said was penciled by Bob Oksner. After skipping #7, the Destroyer is back with a story that we again are saying was penciled by Bob Oksner. But this time something else is added into the mix......  




Do you see the leering hooded specter at the upper right corner? I'm be damned if that isn't Al Bellman. Among Bellman aficionados (of which I'm the most ardent), the looming, leering hooded skeletal specter is a notable trademark. Here is the cropped specter and several further examples. What do you think? And if Bellman is here, it's quite possible he's in USA Comics #6 also. One thing to remember is Allen Bellman broke in as a background artist assisting Syd Shores on Captain America. The date of his debut is the Fall of 1942, and according to Bellman himself, Columbus day! This USA #8 story is cover dated May/43 meaning it was on the stands approximately in February. Further, the material could have been prepared an additional 3 months before that, taking it to November of 1942. That perfectly aligns with Bellman still working as a background artist while he got his feet wet and lends credence to the idea that Bellman added the skeletal specter in the "background"!

USA Comics #8 


Mystic #3


Sports Action #10


Suspense #14



Jeep Jones is next with Stone's signature now shortened to "Chic" in a way that exactly matches the signature "Chic" on Eustice Hayseed in Joker Comics #7 (Feb/43), corroborating that credit nicely.




Dennis Neville returns on Jap-Buster Johnson, this time with "Jap-Buster" in a Japanese style letter font :




Bob Oksner (with Al Bellman? Now I'm starting to merge the two!) follows on "Two Hundred to One", a non-character war-adventure story. The Whizzer by Louis Ferstadt and the Secret Stamp, perhaps penciled by Oksner, are next.

The final feature is Sergeant Dix once again and I figure I'll show at least "one" splash of that feature. This time the art is by Edward Ryan.



And there you have it! The extremely scarce USA Comics #5,6,7,8 beautifully restored for posterity!

7 comments:

  1. Definitely a set to buy (not sure why I missed the news about the release) - I think they look great. Still, more than that I am waiting for All-Select to come out as well as Blonde Phantom, Venus 2, the later Marvel Mystery .. so many wonderful releases so far and hopefully more to look forward to. Again, thanks for your wonderful articles in the books and on this site.

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  2. USA Vol. 2: The Ten percent Solution?

    The first USA volume was about 5% bigger and 5% cheaper! So this book is actually 10% more expensive than the first.

    I have read Mike’s blog on this and I have a few additional comments and a few questions:

    1. Why is the “Roko The Amazing” story slightly smaller than the others. I found it hard to read. In fact on the splash they are reading Captain America comics, probably because of the bigger size! By the way, that’s one of my favorite stories in the book. Alderson was a good artist!
    2. Speaking of hard to read, Mike could you put up your first USA intro on your blog (even for a short time) so that it can actually be read?
    3. There was an ad for 10 cent war stamps. Were they redeemable? What was the difference between a bond and a stamp.
    4. Is it true that the Whizzer got his name not because he was fast but because he pissed on his enemies?

    You have to use Mr. Peabody’s way back machine to read these books in the context of their time. And I did, and I enjoyed so many parts of the book. The racial stereotypes though are not just about our former enemies, but toward African Americans. This is a good book, but I still winced a few times in the Sgt. Dix and Whizzer story.

    Super-Hero stories are mixed in with humor stories and war stories in a combination I am not used to. And the war, unlike our current ones, effected everyone and influnce every story. Here the villains mostly seemed rather comic, not scary or threatening. In fact that was occasionally true in Sgt. Fury when Hitler was portrayed, he did not seem competent. In fact, he sadly was.

    I enjoyed the Victory Boys story and thought I forgot their origin. Mike puts the pieces together on his blog post. In fact Mike goes over a lot and I would be just repetitious. But I wanted to say that I REALLY enjoy Cap when he is done by Al Avison and/or Syd Shores. There are three great stories here. Basil Wolverton steals “funnies” show for me here too, what a treat. They promise us another story from him next issue but no luck. And I know Chic Stone mostly as a inker of serious tuff, so it’s fun to see his versatility here.

    If you like this period and what to learn and read more about it, I rate this book B+. I thought Mike’s intro was perfect, but now I see it’s incomplete. Print it out and keep it with this book.

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  3. Any way of finding out which specific stories Patricia Highsmith wrote for Timely? I'd like to know!

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  4. Darkmark, they haven't been identified as yet. It will take some luck to put a mention of a plot or a date to a particular Jap-Buster Johnson story. I'm still trying to track down the Mickey Spillane story. Once I've seen all the stories it will be easy because Allen Bellman's artwork will be easy to pick out.

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  5. Absolutely a great masterwork! Having collected and dealt in old comics for 40 years I agree on how scarce these issues are. I've only owned three of them! They may be the rarest Timely title?
    I sure hope there are more GA Subby and MM in the future!
    How about the Atlas Teen and Humor titles? Probably never?

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  6. As a former musician with an Elderhostel string band named Les Heaubeaux du White Springs (Florida), I, myself, am fascinated and amused by the heretofore forgotten protagonist... The Fighting Hobo.

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  7. Beautiful images, wonderful detailed insights...more, more, MORE! Please! Thank you!

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