There is a commonly held belief amongst today’s comic book fans that the “Big Two” (DC and Marvel) outlasted their myriad 1940’s competitors (and became the two major comic companies) by providing a superior product: better characters, better stories, better art, better ideas, better business management. That belief is in no small measure fueled by the P.R. machines of the two companies in question. But the truth is that these two companies became the top dogs simply because they never stopped publishing comics. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman became the iconic “trinity” simply by virtue of the fact that they were the only superhero characters whose adventures were published continuously throughout the 1950’s. DC dropped their other superhero books completely in 1951 and, although the first of their revamped characters (Barry Allen replacing Jay Garrick as The Flash) appeared just five years later, that half-decade saw only the three aforementioned superheroes hitting the stands under the DC imprint. Marvel (then Timely) had for the most part stopped publishing superheroes by 1950 (although Marvel Boy lasted into 1951). The company attempted a superhero resurgence in the mid-1950’s by reintroducing their own “Big Three” (Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and Human Torch), but the effort lasted only two years. The company published westerns, romances, and monster comics through the Fifties before starting a new line of (successful) superhero titles in the early Sixties. But the relative quality of DC and Marvel’s comics had little to do with the publishers’ longevity; they’re still around simply because they just didn’t quit.

Other publishers dropped out of the field for a number of reasons. Poor sales obviously could be a factor, but that wasn’t necessarily an indicator of inferior product quality; the monopolistic practices of the larger companies drove many publishers out of the game. Large comic companies also ran companies which controlled the distribution of newsstand products; if a small company had difficulty getting its product on the stands, it didn’t stand a chance of survival. The large comic companies often had underworld crime connections (in the earliest days of comics, publishing “funny books” was often a “front” operation for publishing smutty crime magazines and, in some cases, actual pornography; in any event, money laundering was also an incentive for publishing comics) which made it easier for them to obtain paper on the black market after the U.S. government’s wartime rationing went into effect. If a small comic book publisher wasn’t able to obtain paper, there was no way to stay in the business.

Some publishers were run off by the courts. DC/National was notorious for suing competitors over issues of trademark or copyright infringement. Their suit against Fawcett Publishing (over similarities between the top-selling Captain Marvel [a.k.a. Shazam] and the popular, but lesser-selling, Superman) dragged on for years. After the judgment went against Fawcett, they sold the rights to their characters to DC and stopped publishing comics. (Contrary to what you might read at online comic book message boards, Fawcett did not go out of business due to the lawsuit. They continued to publish paperback books profitably until the early 1980’s.) Of course, the low sales of some publishers can also be attributed to selling a bad product; the Forties (as today) had its share of stinkers on the racks.

But some ideas and characters really didn’t deserve to die off. Forties comics are filled with short-lived features in which the creators did everything right, but the demise of the parent company (or their exit from the realm of comic book publishing) brought the protagonist’s career to a quick end. One such character is the star of today’s post in The Big Blog o’Fun. The Buzzard lasted for one appearance in the second (and final issue) of Wham Comics in late 1940; the parent company, Centaur, struggled through the next year and a quarter, publishing less than a dozen comic books on an erratic schedule (and two of those were essentially advertisements for a mail order company) before ceasing comic book publishing in early 1942; Centaur went on to publish puzzle magazines for years after the war.

Once you’ve read the one and only appearance of The Buzzard, you may agree with me that this comic feature had a lot of potential. It drew upon several established tropes of the pulp and comic genres, and arguably may have influenced later features (as we’ll see a bit further down the page). I want to break this story down for discussion page-by-page, interspersing my comments throughout. As always, please right-click a page and open it in a new browser tab for a larger view.

Wham Comics #2, 1940

The story starts with a three panel origin story. Three panels – that’s it – which tell you pretty close to everything you need to know. Sure, there are a couple of dangling questions: why did the mayor choose this guy and where did he get the gadget? (By the way, the first question gets answered a bit later on.) But these three panels are all the set-up you need to get right into the story.

The use of a mysterious gas as the catalyst for a change of appearance was certainly unique at the time this comic was published, and it may have influenced the creation of a later comic character:

Steve Ditko’s The Question was a mid-Sixties character published by Charlton and was later revisited in the late 1980’s by Denny O’Neil in DC Comics (the latter of which, incidentally, is one of my favorite comic book series). Journalist Vic Sage was able to use a special gas to change the color of his hair and clothing (which had been treated with shampoo/laundry detergent containing a unique chemical; the interaction of the chemicals with the gas caused the color change); said gas also caused a special featureless mask to adhere to his face, allowing him to research stories and gather evidence in the guise of The Question. A second gas reversed the process.

While The Question’s disguise was based on plausible chemical principles, it’s unclear how The Buzzard’s gas worked. My assumption is that it was a psychotropic gas, but that doesn’t explain how everyone affected could perceive The Buzzard in exactly the same way, or how the gas would function at a distance. Honestly, I’m overthinking it. It’s a Golden Age story; simpler times and all that. It’s just a narrative device to allow the protagonist to change appearance quickly.

The rest of the page describes the police chief’s feelings about The Buzzard, and an important conflict is established: the mayor is the catalyst behind The Buzzard, while the police chief wants to arrest the vigilante. So there’s obvious friction between the mayor and the chief, and that would have been a writer’s goldmine for plot ideas had the feature continued.

Wham Comics #2, 1940

We receive a ton of new information on page two! The chief’s bumbling son (who also happens to be a college football star) wants to join the force, but his father won’t let him. The son has also been given a summer job by the mayor (and if that’s not a surefire tip-off about where this story is headed, I don’t know what is!), which also aggravates the chief. This reinforces the idea that there’s some kind of tug-of-war going on between the mayor and the chief, and we can easily assume that The Buzzard (whoever that may be, wink wink) is the rope.

Wham Comics #2, 1940

The police are tasked with an impossible job: to flush a mobster and his gang out of an unapproachable building. Enter The Buzzard! After all, this is exactly what costumed mystery men do: they tackle the jobs which are too tough for law enforcement. The Buzzard does get a little help from the mayor again, this time in the form of a pocket laser. The mayor is either some kind of secret scientific genius or else he’s very well connected (yet another potential future story).

Wham Comics #2, 1940

Here’s where the “football star” angle comes into play: The Buzzard climbs a ten-story dumbwaiter rope. Although it’s never yet been explicitly stated that The Buzzard is the chief’s son, attentive readers have by now guessed his real identity. In fact, the page’s last panel completely gives it away as The Buzzard slams into the three crooks with “a perfect block”.

The fact that many Golden Age comic heroes had little moral compunction about killing villains, criminals, and evildoers has been discussed at some length previously in this blog, so we need not revisit that topic here. I’ll just give a small spoiler: the hood getting tossed casually down the dumbwaiter shaft will not be the last to go.

I also want to point out a great artistic technique used in this tale. Look closely at The Buzzard’s shadow in two of the panels on this page: it’s drawn to look like an actual buzzard. You’ll see it drawn that way many times in this story. There’s probably a name for the technique but, never having studied art, I have no idea what it may be. But this shadow technique is also a topic we’ve talked about before: the post regarding The Green Turtle from several years ago also delves into this same dynamic artistic style.

Wham Comics #2, 1940

Having disposed on the minions, The Buzzard prepares to take on the big boss.

Wham Comics #2, 1940

There’s more of that great shadow technique on this page, as well as yet another football move when The Buzzard punts the bag right into the mook’s face…

Wham Comics #2, 1940

…knocking him through the window and turning him into street pizza. Of course, this alerts the police as to what’s going on and they see a buzzard silhouetted in one of the windows.

We then get a rapid denouement, as The Buzzard changes his disguise (to old what’s-his-face; we never find out his name, other than when old-what’s-her-face, the mayor’s niece [who is a confidant of The Buzzard – see the story’s first panel], calls him “Flash”) and pretends to not know what’s happening. The story wraps with the classic shared “Clark Kent wink” ending from the old cartoons, as the chief storms off.

All drama is based on conflict, so let’s review. The mayor recruits the police chief’s star football player son as a crime-fighting vigilante, supplying him with advanced gadgetry to aid him in the fight. There’s also an unstated, but certainly possible, idea that the mayor thinks the chief is inept; he may also have a personal dislike for the chief, which is why he offers the vigilante job to the chief’s son. The police chief hates the vigilante, but has no idea the vigilante is his son. The mayor’s niece has also been enlisted as an aide (and potential romantic interest – come on, you know that would happen) to help the vigilante. The triangle of two civic officials and a vigilante (who is related to one of the officials) is a goldmine for story ideas. Any writer could come up with dozens of stories just from the situation seeds contained in this first tale (which, by the way, packs more story and action into seven pages than most present day comics provide in seven full issues). And the continued artistic technique of drawing The Buzzard’s shadow as an actual buzzard would make an ongoing series visually unique as well.

There’s no wonder why this story was so well-presented: it was written and drawn by Martin Filchock, a legend in the word of cartooning. Like the “Big Two” comics publishers, Filchock also never stopped what he was doing – he lived to be a hundred and cartooned professionally well into his nineties. He did plenty of other work for Centaur and you’ll frequently find his stories in the pages of their other comic publications.

Unfortunately for The Buzzard (and for readers), his sole appearance came during a company’s last days as a comic book publisher and we never again saw this interesting character grace the pages of another comic book. It’s a real shame because contained in the plot seeds of this one story were the makings of a classic.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2017, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.