Golden Age comics (c.1938 to the mid-1950’s) are a subject of some serious historical research. Believe it or not, reading them can provide valuable insight into U.S. social and political history of the period; you’ll find clues to the American psyche in period comic books that you just won’t find in most history books (for example, you’ll quickly learn that the average American knew that U.S. involvement in World War II was more or less inevitable, and he or she realized it months or even years before the attack on Pearl Harbor).

A few intrepid souls have made some herculean efforts to catalogue the comics of the era and several guidebooks have been published (in print and online) in recent years. These guides are an invaluable (indeed, necessary) reference because of the bewildering array of characters, books, and publishers of the era. Quite a few comic publishers even changed their company names several times, usually in an effort to stay a step ahead of their creditors (or even the law, as it’s rumored that a few comic publishers had underworld connections — the irony here shouldn’t be lost on you).

One of my favorite Golden Age comic publishers was an outfit which is today commonly known as Comic House or Lev Gleason. They published the adventures of some of the coolest characters of the era, characters who are generally unknown to most of today’s readers (except for followers of the excellent Dynamite Entertainment series of Project Superpowers books which feature new adventures of these public domain characters). It’s often difficult, though, to track the books and characters published by the company because the publisher changed names so danged often. Here’s a list of the names under which the company published during the Golden Age:

Your Guide Publications (through mid-1941)
New Friday Publications (mid-1941 through early 1942)
Comic House, Inc. (early 1942 through early 1944)
Magazine House (early 1944 through mid-1945)
Various names simultaneously, usually derived from individual book titles (mid-1945 through early 1946)
Lev Gleason Publications, Inc. (mid-1946 and onward well into the 1950’s)

Individual titles often changed names and characters jumped from book to book, making an index such as Howard Keltner’s completely indispensable when you’re trying to follow the Lev Gleason stable of superheroes.

Much has been made of the rise of “comic continuity” in the 1960’s (with Marvel doing much of the crowing), trumpeting the idea that events in one story would have an impact on a character’s future adventures. The technique wasn’t completely unknown in the Golden Age, though. While it’s true that most adventures were stand-alone one issue tales, some characters did have somewhat continuous adventures; although these stories weren’t strictly “serials” per se, the events in one issue would impact later adventures of the same character.

There has also been much written about “shared universes” and “crossovers” in which characters from a company’s different comic titles live in the same world and interact with each other. Here again Marvel Comics tries to take most of the credit for “inventing” the idea. But crossovers and teamups did indeed occur in Golden Age comics, a full two decades before the birth of the “Marvel universe”.

Comic House/Lev Gleason was a pioneer in these areas. It all started with Silver Streak Comics which began publishing in late 1939. Silver Streak was a highly unusual book for many reasons. The first issue featured a villain as its main character (even displaying him on the cover). The Claw was a Asian criminal mastermind who also possessed a super-power or two (such as the ability to grow to enormous height); think “Fu Manchu meets Dr. Doom”. Jerry Morris, a “chemist-adventurer” (whose resumé must make for some interesting reading) is the actual protagonist and The Claw’s adversary.

In Silver Streak #2 we get another story featuring Jerry Morris and The Claw which doesn’t quite pick up where the story in issue #1 left off. While they’re not serialized, the stories are definitely linked; the tale in Silver Streak #2 starts a very short time after the story in issue #1 and even refers to it. Early in this second story, found in the January 1940 issue, the present-day reader will discover a real kick. The Claw, nestled in his underground hideout (which also contains a munitions factory), hears a radio report that war has broken out in Europe:

Never one to pass up a moneymaking opportunity, The Claw decides to sell his munitions to the unnamed “aggressor nation”. Here’s where we get the kick:

Words fail me when I attempt to express how cool this story is and, ultimately, how important it is from a historical perspective. First we’ll tackle the “cool factor”. The “aggressor nation” is obviously Nazi Germany and its dictator (mentioned in the radio broadcast) is Hitler, yet neither the country nor the dictator are ever referred to directly by name in the story. And we come to realize that The Claw is truly a badass villain: he bullies Adolf Hitler, arguably the worst human being who ever lived, into accepting his terms. That’s really some startling stuff to the modern-day reader and, ultimately, wildly cool in a very twisted way. Nazis just plain suck, and now we learn that The Claw sucks worse.

What’s even cooler is the real-life chronology here. Bear in mind that this story was published in Silver Streak #2 with a cover date of January 1940, but that comics were always post-dated (so as to give them a longer “rack life”). This means that this story was written, illustrated, and hit the racks sometime in late 1939 — we must assume it was obviously after Germany’s Sept. 1 invasion of Poland — which is a full two years prior to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Let’s think about this for a moment: the U.S. is a couple of years away from entering the war, but Hitler is already being portrayed as a villain despite the official U.S. policy of neutrality. That official American diplomatic stance is precisely the reason why neither Germany nor Hitler are directly named in the book.

Even though historians today recognize that the U.S. government was aware as far back as the mid-1930’s that we’d eventually have to go to war with the various fascist nations (later banded together as the Axis powers), it’s an uncomfortable truth — people today question why we didn’t act sooner instead of choosing to wait until after Pearl Harbor — so this aspect of the pre-war years is often downplayed or ignored in history books. The fact is that we did act prior to Pearl, but indirectly through programs such as Lend-Lease. It’s also been argued that Depression-era New Deal programs such as the CCC were covert attempts to indoctrinate young Americans into the world of military discipline as an early preparation for direct involvement in WWII. I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to support that thesis but, if it’s true, it just goes to illustrate that FDR was a pretty sharp cookie.

These are some pretty fascinating historical facts and arguments, all brought to mind by a single page of a (today forgotten) 1940 comic book.

Is it any wonder that I love Golden Age comics?

We’ll come back to Silver Streak #2 later; you won’t believe some of what happens next.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2010, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.