One of the most thrilling aspects (thrilling to me, anyway) of reading Golden Age comics is the idea that the reader is witnessing the birth of a new medium. While many conventions had already been established in newspaper comic strips by the late 1930′s, the media of the comic book and, especially, the superhero genre were still brand new. Editors, writers, and artists were in large measure still making it all up as they went along, experimenting with storytelling techniques, page composition, recurring villains, multi-issue story arcs – all of which are conventions that modern comic readers take for granted.
I found the subject of today’s post especially interesting. As I was perusing the Keltner Index a few days ago, I came across an entry for a comic titled Hyper Mystery Comics. Upon checking The Digital Comic Museum I discovered they offer both issues of this series’ regrettably short run. I downloaded both issues and discovered a real lost gem.
Let’s digress for a moment and talk a bit about English vocabulary. The word “hyper” has definite connotations in today’s society; it colloquially refers to someone who is overly energetic. The problem here is that “hyper” has never been a word; it’s properly a prefix used in compound words. Johnson’s Dictionary, published in 1836, doesn’t show “hyper” as a separate entry but does offer five words which use it as a prefix. Incidentally, none of these are the word “hyperactive”, which came along much later as a scientific description used in physics and chemistry. It was eventually applied to humans as a medical description, and was later colloquially adopted and shortened to simply “hyper” as a slang term (usually pejorative) for someone who has energy to spare and difficulty in controlling himself.
But back in 1940 when Hyper Publications published their flagship comic, Hyper Mystery Comics, which starred a new superhero named Hyper the Phenomenal, they were using the prefix in its proper form, which is more or less synonymous with “extra”, “ultra”, or “super”.
As I was reading Hyper the Phenomenal’s first adventure, I recall thinking that the art seemed a little “retro” for 1940. But “retro” (also technically a prefix, not a word – just sayin’) wasn’t quite right. The art was more sophisticated than was typically the case for comic books of the period. That’s when it hit me – the comic has a look very similar to that of Alex Raymond’s early Flash Gordon strips. Even the page composition is influenced by the Sunday comics: at no time does a page element break through a panel’s border into the page gutter, no do any elements overlap into an adjoining panel.
The stotytelling also shares much in common with Raymond, as well as with Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, another popular Sunday comic: nearly every panel of “ Hyper the Phenomenal“ contains narrative text. This allows the story to move along at a rapid clip since new characters (and this story does have a fairly large cast) are introduced quickly, such as when Col. Boris makes his arrival on page 7, or when Hyper himself makes his first appearance on page 5. The downside to this approach is that important story elements aren’t “revealed” so much as they’re ramrodded into the tale, giving the story the feeling of being rushed.
While the creators (who, sadly, are unknown) of Hyper may have given the character a few too many powers and abilities, they also realized that if you limit the jeopardy in a story you also limit the interest. So they found an inventive solution to this dilemma, one which eluded Superman’s publishers for many years – they put the hero in a tight spot in which some of his abilities are missing and in which only one of his abilities can be used at a time. It works so well in this tale that Hyper is essentially immobilized for the entire second half of his Hyper Mystery Comics #1 appearance; if he lets go of the door, Winifred will die, but if he doesn’t stop the villains, many thousands of innocents will die.
And the most amazing thing about this tale is that the cliffhanger is established on page 8, it’s still not resolved when Part One ends on page 16, yet the writer maintains the story’s action and the dramatic tension for eight full pages while Hyper is completely immobilized. It’s a mind-blowing piece of storytelling skill and expertise, and we have no idea who the writer was. Too bad, because it’s truly some incredible work.
The art is great, too (it was drawn by someone named “Reg”, as seen in the penultimate panel on page 8). Pay attention to the background detail, such as the tropical volcano in the background of the last panel on page 2 or the half-hidden fruit bowl in the second panel on page 4. It’s small details like these which help create the setting. The villains are appropriately scummy (check out the “broken nose” look when Ashknif is drawn in profile). The artist didn’t overburden Hyper with loads of muscle; he’s more of the “lean, quick fighter” type (as you’ll see in the panel on page 5 in which he’s standing on the rooftop). And the women in this story are just flat-out gorgeous; pay particular attention to the pictures of Winifred on the balcony on page 1 and reading the letter on page 2, plus the close-up of Dolores on the story’s first page.
The story’s a long one – sixteen pages in issue #1, and it’s a cliffhanger to boot, so be sure to stop back again for the second part of the story from issue #2 (which I’ll be presenting shortly).
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2013, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.