Part of the fun of reading Golden Age comics is that you never know what you’ll encounter next. For every crazily inept (yet oddly entertaining) series like The Duke of Darkness, there seems to be a corresponding feature of surprising quality in which either the writing or the art (or sometimes both) delights you as a reader. Often these stories aren’t anyone’s idea of all-time classics, but reading them is just plain fun.
Science-fiction comics of the Golden Age often fall into this category. It’s not surprising that it was a popular genre for comic books; after all, the adventures of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon had been newspaper comic staples before the advent of the comic book. As far as actual comic books go, science fiction books were around right from the start: the popular Planet Comics got its start as the Thirties drew to a close (its debut issue was cover dated January 1940) and lasted well into the 1950’s.
Many science-fiction features took their cues from the seminal newspaper strips mentioned in the previous paragraph. Of course the heroes were always stalwart and square-jawed, and often had manly-sounding first names (“Rod” and “Lance” were popular choices – you may draw your own subtextual conclusions) or, like the heroes of the newspaper strips, had a catchy nickname in lieu of a true first name (Planet Comics’ first year featured Flint Baker, Buzz Crandall, Crash Parker, Cosmo Corrigan, Tiger Hart, Planet Payson, and the unfortunately-named Spurt Hammond). It also helped to have a scantily-clad female assistant/sidekick/love interest present; even if the stories were awful, some “good girl art” could make up the slack if the artist was competent. Said “gal Fridays” were usually seen garbed in “space bikinis”, microscopic skirts, low-cut slit dresses, or gravity-defying, midriff-baring tops which displayed no apparent means of staying on (did they make two-sided tape back in the Forties?). The villains were truly evil with no redeeming qualities; the bad guys were typically would-be planet conquerors (of the “Ming the Merciless” variety) or interplanetary gangsters (like Killer Kane).
For those of us who grew up watching galaxy-ranging TV shows and films like Star Trek or Star Wars, it may seem strange that Golden Age space heroes seldom left our own solar system. Bear in mind, though, that unmanned exploration of our nearby neighbors didn’t happen until the 1960’s and 1970’s, and that no man-made object was launched even into near Earth orbit until 1957; during the Golden Age actual spaceflight was just a dream, and the other planets of our solar system seemed impossibly remote. Once in a while you’ll come across a 1940’s comic story or series which ranges across multiple star systems but, generally, the stories are set in our own backyard (cosmically speaking).
Our nearest planetary neighbors were still unknown territory in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Percival Lowell’s Martian canals still weighed heavily on the public consciousness, although serious scientists were scoffing at the idea even before the First World War; even so, the idea that Mars was inhabited wasn’t conclusively blown out of the water until the mid-1960’s. It took until the late 1960’s to even start to figure out what the heck was going on with the planet Venus, and it wasn’t until the 1970’s that scientists discovered the truly inhospitable nature of Earth’s “sister” planet; the atmosphere is mainly carbon dioxide, Venus’ dense clouds rain torrents of sulphuric (a.k.a. “battery”) acid, and the planet’s surface air pressure crushes exploratory spacecraft like aluminum cans.
But in the 1940’s and 1950’s it was still widely believed that other nearby planets could possibly support life. I don’t suppose I need to remind you of Orson Welles’ legendary “panic broadcast” of 1938. By the 1950’s, the “alien contactee” movement was gaining significant traction: ordinary citizens claimed to have been contacted by hyper-intelligent space aliens from our solar system and beyond. Led by George Adamski, these folks were (at best) schizophrenic and (at worst) nothing more than “atomic age snake oil salesmen”, a few of whom were able to derive notoriety and sometimes a significant income from selling books about their extraterrestrial adventures or audio tapes narrated by philosophical alien mentors and saviors (many of whom sounded suspiciously like contactees trying unsuccessfully to disguise their voices). In more recent decades the “contactee movement” has morphed into the “abductee movement”, in which our former benefactors now seem to have a more sinister purpose. I’ll just point you in the direction of The “History” Channel’s atrocious daytime programming and we’ll move onward.
In summation, Golden Age comic book readers (especially the younger ones) still believed that the near planets were inhabited, or were inhabitable at least: a significant number of tales feature no aliens but do refer to human cities and cultures which had been established on other worlds.
If you read a lot of Golden Age comic sci-fi, there’s a certain sameness to much of it after a while since many of the writers and artists tend to adhere to the standard tropes we’ve just discussed. But even after a fair amount of repetition, the genre remains a great deal of fun; when the writing gets stale, the art often saves the day. Illustrators were free to let their imaginations roam when they were designing ray guns, rocket ships, cities of the future, and even female fashions (it’s useful to remember than many comic book artists were erstwhile advertising illustrators, and a few were frustrated fashion designers). Even though we’re seeing the same carbon-copy hero from Earth fighting a cookie-cutter would-be conqueror from one of Saturn’s moons for the umpteenth time, the fun lies in the visual interpretation of a stock story. What made Flash Gordon great was Alex Raymond’s dynamite art, and Raymond inspired legions of later illustrators to follow his lead.
By the early 1950’s the superhero genre was all but played out, and comic book publishers turned their attention elsewhere. Atomic energy’s potential seemed vast (as it hadn’t yet become the proverbial five hundred pound gorilla in the corner) and the general public still believed that science could solve the world’s ills. Science-fiction comics’ popularity increased, even though the same old pre-war story ideas were still being trotted out repeatedly.
A few publishers at least tried to put a different spin on the genre, which brings us to today’s tale. We’ve previously seen space cowboys in The Big Blog o’Fun; today we’re going to enjoy a visit from a space detective. Avon Periodicals’ series Space Detective lasted just four issues from mid-1951 to summer 1952, but it’s another of those titles which deserved a longer run if for no other reason than the sheer amount of talent the publishers assembled for the project. The character of Rod Hathway (not “Hathaway” as is often erroneously reported on Golden Age comic sites) was dreamed up by Walter Gibson (creator of The Shadow), and Gibson also penned Hathway’s debut appearance. The series’ original penciller was the great Joe Orlando with inks provided by the legendary Wally Wood.
With talent like that, how can you go wrong? Welllllllllll, the first issue does misfire a bit but it’s still a lot of fun to read. I’ll add a few comments along the way, but I’d like to remind you to right-click each page image and open it in a new tab for a closer look. Scans are courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum.
This is a terrific cover which hooked me straight away, which is exactly what a cover is supposed to do. We’re treated to space suits, ray guns, a bit of cheesecake, and a mystery: what’s the connection between the seated adventurer (identified as such by the riding boots and jodhpurs), the secretary, and the space scene floating in the pipe smoke above them? By the way, the dog’s inclusion is a really nice touch. And who can possibly resist a comic containing a tale called “Opium Smugglers of Venus”?
The inside front cover is designed to read like a movie trailer, and the art by Orlando and Wood is spectacular. There’s lots of action, too, as Rod fights off hordes of angry aliens and, as an extra bonus, Dot’s/Teena’s rendition is absolutely gorgeous.
The lettering is typeset, which was becoming a more common practice in the early 1950’s. A few publishers (most notably) Charlton continued using typeset lettering into the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Present-day readers (particularly those who prefer the more art oriented publishers like Dynamite) will find this tale a bit “dense” compared to today’s comics. But in 1951, you definitely got your dime’s worth – it took longer than ten minutes to read a comic book; in those days, the words and pictures combined to tell the story.
Notice what Gibson has done here: he’s already shown us that Rod and Dot are working on the side of the angels. Rod Hathway has buckets of ducats, and he’s using his wealth to help people less fortunate than himself. Note, too, that the same panel is almost a mirror image of the book’s cover, with the characters dressed the same way but with the “camera eye” moved so that Dot is on the opposite side of the panel. If a reader has paid attention, he’s or she’s already aware that these people are the protagonists of the comic.
Here’s one of the “misfires” to which I was referring earlier. “No one knows” that Rod (a well known philanthropist) and Dot are actually The Avenger and Teena. But neither one is doing anything to disguise their identity: no masks, no change of hair style or color, nothing. This might just be a miscue between Gibson and the art team, but if so it’s one that’s repeated in later issues. It’s a minor quibble really, but it’s something you do notice when you read the tale.
We already have a hint as to the way Gibson, a pulp veteran, is going to approach the character of Rod Hathway a.k.a. The Avenger: the story will essentially be a standard pulp mystery set in space. Change the space liner to an ocean liner and you get a standard pulp trope: one of the passengers on a long journey is secretly the villain of the piece.
I’m going to reveal a minor “spoiler” here: the panel in which Rod meets luscious actress Venta is important, but not to this story. We’ll meet her again in another story later in the same issue. Gibson was planning ahead by including this seemingly “throwaway” panel. Walter Gibson was a good writer and a smart cookie.
The jig is up! In true pulp tradition, Maag removes his mask and makes his getaway.
And we come to a pause in the action. Maag’s plot has been foiled, but he’s escaped. Technically this is a self-contained story, but it’s really just the first part of a longer tale. This, too, was becoming a common practice in the early 1950’s: breaking a long story into smaller bite-sized bits which allow the reader to put the comic aside, catch his or her breath, and come back to the book later.
We’ll see the second installment (“The Opium Smugglers of Venus”!) the next time around. Until then…
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2014, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.