Golden Age comic writers and artists created a medium essentially from thin air in the late 1930′s and early 1940′s; as I’ve written previously there were no “established conventions” and these guys and gals pretty much made it all up as they went. But they didn’t work in a complete vacuum, and they certainly had their influences. Early newspaper comic strips were highly influential, running the gamut from “The Yellow Kid” (spiritual forerunner to the gaggles of street kids and newsies who became standard Golden Age sidekicks) to the work of Winsor McKay, creator of the fantastically surreal strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland”.
Movies could also be influences; if a flick sold a lot of theater tickets, its premise could certainly be adapted (read “copied”) in comic form. Gangster movies were big box office during the period, which is one reason why many early costumed heroes fought against mobsters and racketeers. Another smash hit of the time was The Wizard of Oz, which won two Oscars and made buckets of ducats for MGM.
It didn’t take long for the influences of L. Frank Baum and Winsor McKay to collide in the pages of the funny books. Beginning around 1940, and for several years afterward, readers were sometimes treated to weird, fantastic magical adventures which were a strange mixture of the modern and the medieval, as though big game hunter Frank Buck had smashed head-on into Tales from the Arabian Nights. Publishers began printing stories which featured wizards, sorcery, mythological creatures, undersea kingdoms, cloud palaces, and strange landscapes — adventures in which literally anything could happen.
One such feature was The Sorceress of Zoom which debuted in the pages of Weird Comics #1 (April 1940). According to Don Markstein’s Toonopedia, the character was created by Don Rico (who we’ll meet again later this month in a Bonus Battle October segment), although the stories frequently carry the pen name of Sandra Swift. The series title is an obvious riff on The Wizard of Oz (which had been released the previous year), but any similarities between them end with the name.
Zoom is a mobile airborne city which floats around on top of a cloud. Its ruler is a beautiful evil sorceress who occasionally lands her cloud city in order to demand slaves from the local authorities; she’ll often demand that half the population be turned over to her, otherwise she’ll level the area, turn the locals into salamanders, make unsightly warts appear in very personal places, cause the Cubs to win the World Series, and wreak havoc in countless other ways. She winds up thwarted every time though, usually by another powerful magician or by a mortal who uses science to block her goals.
That was the basic plot of the first couple of Sorceress stories. But in Weird Comics #3, the writer tried making The Sorceress the protagonist instead, hooking her up with a tuxedoed mortal who appears to be her kinda sorta maybe boyfriend. An evil wizard attempts to destroy her (and Zoom), but the sorceress and her mortal friend beat him handily. (Weird Comics #3 was also the issue in which the editors tried to make another “series” villain, Dr. Mortal, into a good guy. It’s doubtful that these changes occurring in the same moth were coincidental; it was likely that a [failed] editorial edict decreed that the two villains be “cleaned up”.)
The Sorceress did another one hundred eighty degree turn the following issue, returning to her unpleasant ways. This issue also saw the introduction of a plot device which would become the dominant theme throughout most of the series. Basically stated, the Sorceress gets into a beef with another wizard and a magical battle ensues. Animals are turned into objects and vice versa. Conjured gryphons battle with dragons. Hurled thunderbolts smash against mystic shields. Literally anything the writers and artists dream up can happen once the war of wizards commences.
This basic plot framework becomes a little more fully-developed (and repetitive) as these issues progress. The Sorceress becomes a horny little minx; each story starts in Greek myth fashion when a handsome mortal catches the Sorceress’ eye. The guy, being virtuous as all get out (and also apparently being blind, as the Sorceress is fairly hot), spurns her advances. “Hell hath no fury” as they say, so she winds up doing bad things to the handsome mortal, his girlfriend, and/or the community in which he lives. But then another magic user comes along who’s even worse than the Sorceress; predictably she and the hero join forces to fight off the greater menace and, as a reward, the Sorceress sets everything back to the way it was before she started thinking with her lady parts instead of with her brain. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a formula which Marvel Comics has run straight into the ground in the decades since; in fact, Toonopedia compares The Sorceress of Zoom to Marvel’s Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, that moody and perhaps bi-polar ruler of Atlantis, who can’t make up his mind from issue to issue (sometimes from page to page) as to whether he’s a hero or a villain.
Still another formula was adopted for the Sorceress’ final appearances. In these tales the Sorceress desires a valuable object or treasure which was in the possession of a mob boss or other underworld figure; adopting a disguise as a gorgeous sexy human, the Sorceress proceeds to con the crook into giving up the treasure (or she’d just steal it from him outright), only to have the object disintegrate upon her return to her mystical realm.
Although the Sorceress stories are always attributed to “Sandra Swift”, it’s obvious that The Sorceress of Zoom went through a succession of writers and artists as the series continued. The art became more “cheesecake” in later appearances; by 1941 the Sorceress was considerably bustier, her outfits were skimpier, and her facial appearance became less severe. As for the writing, it changes from tale to tale but remains mostly dreadful throughout; the taunts between the Sorceress and her foes sound like a couple of schoolyard third graders. Come to think of it, the traded taunts greatly remind the reader of George Lucas; remember all of those “I don’t think sos”, “We shall sees”, “I’m here to stop yous”, “You may think sos”, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum which came close to ruining the Jedi-Sith battles in Episodes I-III? Reading The Sorceress of Zoom can be a lot like that. If you can picture “slave girl outfit” Leia uttering that stuff before hurling a lightning bolt at a wizard who’s robed like the Emperor, you’ve pictured The Sorceress of Zoom.
Still in all, the Sorceress of Zoom stories are fun to read and have a sort of quirky charm. You never know what’ll happen next; the only sure bet is that it’ll be something completely off the wall.
Weird Comics was an anthology book which featured superheroes like the original Thor (who Marvel also
stole appropriated borrowed claim they invented), The Dart, and Dynamo, jungle stories, a couple of science fiction heroes, a horror series, and a few other assorted genres. It ran for twenty issues between April 1940 and January 1942. The only feature which appeared in all twenty issues was The Sorceress of Zoom, so her strange, quirky adventures had to be at least somewhat popular with comic readers.
Now, courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum, let’s enjoy a story which is pretty representative of the formula which The Sorceress of Zoom’s writers adopted through much of the series’ run. It’s from Weird Comics #10, dated January 1941:
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.