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Another Week of Proto-Comics

by  in Comic News Comment
Another Week of Proto-Comics

Continuing from last week’s look at some of the B-list pulp heroes who transitioned to the comics… and a couple who didn’t.

*

I really shouldn’t refer to The Phantom Detective as a B-lister. He was the was one of the earliest pulp-hero headliners to get his own book — Feburary 1933, shortly after the Shadow and a month before Doc Savage.

And the Phantom’s adventures also had the third-largest run after the Shadow and Doc, racking up a hundred and seventy stories between his 1933 debut and the final adventure published in 1953.

So who was the Phantom? (He was only ever referred to as “The Phantom Detective” on the cover — in-story it was always shortened to just “the Phantom.”)

The Phantom was Richard Curtis Van Loan, a rich playboy idler who was orphaned at an early age. He knocked around for a while enjoying his inheritance until World War One (or just “the Great War,” as they called it in 1933) when he became a pilot and downed a lot of German planes. The “danger and excitement of testing himself against death” proved addictive for Richard, and upon his return to the States, he found the playboy lifestyle to be dull and meaningless. On a dare from his friend newspaper mogul Frank Havens, Richard took on a case the police had been unable to solve and, naturally, solved it.

That was it. Richard van Loan had found his calling. He would fight crime. Dressed in a black dinner jacket and a silk domino mask, the Phantom quickly became the court of last resort for law enforcement all over the world, with only his pal Frank Havens knowing his true identity.

Basically, it was Batman without the angst. Publisher Frank Havens even summons Van Loan with a flashing red light from the top of the newspaper offices when the police need to consult the Phantom, and yeah, I think that predated the Bat-Signal.

The Phantom Detective is actually the longest-running of all the pulp heroes. Both the Shadow and Doc Savage had more adventures, but in terms of actual years published, the Phantom has them beat.

He hung in there until 1953, four years after 1949 (the year the Shadow was canceled, and thus when the classic hero pulps are usually pronounced dead by most fans.)

The Phantom also had a moderately successful run as a backup strip in Thrilling Comics, though I don’t believe he ever got the cover. Unlike many of the other pulps that were translated to comics, he made it across virtually intact.

About the only real change was that the four-color version of Van Loan tended to operate in his tux-and-domino mask outfit more often than in the pulps, where generally the Phantom was operating undercover in one disguise or another.

And of course, it was only natural that in the mid-60s a paperback publisher would venture a trial balloon reprint program.

But like many other publishers discovered, apparently Bantam’s success with Doc Savage was a one-time deal and the series sputtered out after just a few entries. These paperbacks are actually harder to track down than the original pulps.

I think the reason the Phantom Detective hasn’t ever been successfully relaunched, unlike the various other hero pulps that have been revived from time to time, is partly because the whole idea of the wealthy gentleman adventurer is something that’s very much of its time — you can’t really update that concept the way you can a scientific superman or a shadowy figure of vengeance. In fact, it’s not just pulps and comics — that whole Richard Hannay/Lord Peter Wimsey/Bulldog Drummond school of upper-crust suspense fiction got shut down right around the same time the Phantom Detective did, in the early to mid-1950s. Or, rather, it got split into two genres — the hardboiled private-eye archetype absorbed some of it, and the rest got incorporated into the James Bond gentleman-spy thing. (Do I spend way too much time thinking about this sort of thing? Yeah, probably.)

The other reason the Phantom Detective relaunches never got that much traction is because, really, there’s not much going on there. Unlike Walter Gibson’s Shadow or Lester Dent’s Doc Savage, the Phantom wasn’t the product of one authorial voice. The first year, the stories were by “G. Wayman Jones,” a pen name for D.L. Champion. After that the house name changed to “Robert Wallace,” a pseudonym that was kind of a catch-all for a host of authors, notably Ed Burkholder, Henry Kuttner, and Norman Daniels. Dozens of guys worked on The Phantom Detective over the course of its twenty-year history, so the editors tended to keep it a simple, accessible property for any new writers to come in and take over.

The net result is that the run of 170 Phantom Detective adventures are wildly uneven, especially in the first ten years. Most of the stories tend to be plot-driven adventure with a puzzle or a gimmick — there’s very few character bits going on in the stories at all. Generally, Richard van Loan is dedicated, brilliant, athletic, etc., and occasionally he pines for Frank’s daughter Muriel Havens, whom he loves but could never ask to share his life of danger. And that’s about it.

Nevertheless, the later Phantom Detective stories are quite good and even the early ones are fun to read once in a while. So it’s nice that High Adventure has the character in its rotation of regulars, which is where i discovered him.

There’s also a history of the Phantom Detective available through Altus Press, The Phantom Detective Companion.

It comes with an index, lots of great historical essays by pulp historians like Tom Johnson and Will Murray, and it even reprints most of the Phantom Detective comics by Everett Hibbard. I found it to be a remarkably entertaining book in its own right just for the historical essays, and I’m not even all that into the Phantom. Definitely worth a look…. it’s available on Amazon.

Or you could just pick up some of the High Adventure back issues. Quite a few are on sale for $3.00 each at the moment — cheaper than many comics — and you’ll find the Phantom Detective reprinted in #68, #74, #91, and #108.

*

Another High Adventure regular that I’ve been enjoying reading about is the Green Lama.

In the beginning, the Green Lama’s pulp career was not terribly distinguished — or all that long, for that matter. He appeared in fourteen issues of Double Detective, from April 1940 to March of 1943. The stories were all written by Kendell Foster Crossen, under the pen name of “Richard Foster,” and I think they’re a lot of fun.

The Green Lama was actually a wealthy New York idler named Jethro Dumont. During his college years, Dumont had traveled to Tibet in search of enlightenment, and during his ten years there eventually became a Buddhist priest. His studies led him to learn many mystical secrets that granted him near-superhuman abilities– it’s all about breath control!– and he also learned to create the illusion of even more supernatural abilities by the clever use of certain radioactive salts. Armed with this knowledge and the desire to better humanity, Jethro Dumont returned to New York and assumed the crimefighting persona of…. the Green Lama!

The idea was to duplicate the Shadow’s successful formula as much as possible without committing actual plagiarism: Young WASP socialite-type journeys to the mysterious East and learns a lot of cool stuff which he then uses to fight crime on the mean streets of New York. The trouble was that a mysterious black-clad avenger with two blazing .45s and a fearsome laugh is a lot scarier than a soft-spoken priest in a green bathrobe, and so the Green Lama’s pulp series fizzled after a couple of years. Double Detective got a new headliner and that was that.

The interesting thing about young Jethro and his green-robed alter ego, though, is that he actually did a lot better everywhere other than in the original pulp magazines.

He appeared in Prize Comics for 27 issues, almost double the number of his pulp appearances.

Then the Green Lama got his own comic title and that lasted for eight issues.

There was even a radio show and a fan club.

Like most of the pulp heroes that jumped to comics in the 1940s, Jethro Dumont got a power upgrade. In the comics, he merely had to utter the mystical chant “Om Mani Padme Hum!” and he would be transformed into the Green Lama, gifted with the power of flight and invulnerability, along with the other mystic powers he had in his pulp adventures.

(I’m pretty sure they skipped the bits with the radioactive salt.)

The strip was drawn by the great Mac Raboy, who also did Captain Marvel Junior for Fawcett. So as silly as the stories often got, at least the strip always looked good.

But when the early 1940s superhero boom in comics faded, the Green Lama faded with it. Just another forgotten Golden Ager for the archives.

Except, for some reason, no one forgets the Green Lama for long. People keep trying to revive the concept. Partly, of course, this is due to the magic words “Public Domain.”

But there are quite a few old characters from the 1940s that are available now on that basis, yet somehow it’s Jethro Dumont and his green Buddhist robes that keep catching the imagination of new writers and artists. AC tried it briefly…

And Dynamite Entertainment has included the Green Lama as one of the headliners in their Project Superpowers series by Krueger and Ross.

I haven’t really been interested in any of the comics revivals, though there’s also a new prose anthology that came out last year from Altus Press that sounds kind of cool.

And there are some lovely archive editions of the original Green Lama strips from the 40s available from Dark Horse as well.

Not bad for a B-lister.

But really what I enjoy the most are the original prose adventures from the 40s, the ones by Kendell Crossen. Of those original fourteen, six have shown up in High Adventure so far, and I imagine that there are more to come.

*

The Shadow wasn’t the only success story that pulp publishers were anxious to duplicate. Editors were on the prowl for the next Doc Savage, too.

Even the editors of the “Spicy” line of pulps from Culture Publications wanted in on some of that hero-pulp money.

They looked a lot more lurid than they were... but shopkeepers still hid them under the counter.

The Spicys were a slightly naughtier brand of pulp, with more lurid plots and leeringly perverted villains. As a general rule shopkeepers kept them under the counter, though the truth of the matter was that, as Charles Beaumont wryly observed, despite all the torn dresses, creamy bosoms and licking of lips on display, there was really nothing in the “Spicy” line of pulps that disproved the theory that babies are brought by the stork.

Nevertheless, someone there had the bright idea of taking the basic Doc Savage idea and giving it the ‘spicy’ treatment, and that gave us Jim Anthony, Super-Detective.

Jim was a lot like Doc but with added nudity and sadism…. and less sensitivity. Jim Anthony was described as “half Irish, half Indian, and all-American”. He inherited great wealth, though it’s not clear from whom since his grandfather Mephito was a stereotypical Indian Chief whose dialogue was largely confined to comments like “Ugh. Bad medicine for grandson.”

Jim was not only a gifted athlete, but could even see in the dark and had a “sixth sense.” He excelled in the sciences, both real ones like physics and psychiatry, and made-up ones like psychic electro-chemistry. He owned businesses around the country, including the Waldorf-Anthony Hotel in New York, were he maintained a penthouse apartment and secret laboratory. There was also the Tepee, his hidden mansion in the Catskills Mountains, and the Pueblo in the southwest, a hotel/resort built at an oasis.

Like Doc, Jim Anthony also had a few aides — along with his grandfather, there was also his chauffeur and pilot Tom Gentry, his British butler Dawkins, and his incredibly hot fiancee Delores. Delores often ended up with her dress in tatters, as was traditional in the Spicys. However, not to be outdone, Jim did most of his crimefighting stripped down to yellow swim trunks. No explanation was given other than that it was his “preferred working uniform.” Seriously.

There were only twenty-five or so Jim Anthony adventures published, and after the first ten the “international man of action” angle was scrapped in favor of a more hard-boiled, Mike Hammer vibe. All of the stories appeared under the house byline “John Grange,” but the shirtless super-sleuth was actually created by Victor Rousseau. Later, most of the stories were written by Culture Publications go-to guy Robert Leslie Bellem, the man that also gave us Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective.

Jim never made it to comics, for obvious reasons. But he’s in the High Adventure rotation, and Altus Press — again! — has published a new collection of prose stories that looks kind of cool.

Jim Anthony’s time in comics may have come, though. I can see him headlining a Vertigo series, or something from Wildstorm, maybe. It could work.

*

I was going to talk a little about the Black Bat, but Brian really covered it all a couple of years ago in this Legends Revealed entry.

I had a vague memory that Tony Quinn, the Black Bat, had indeed made the leap from pulps to comics and there had been some sort of makeover into a less-Batman-looking character, but that was it. I ran into a huge brick wall trying to track it down, so I am indebted to commenter Ed Love mentioning in the replies to last week’s installment that a version of The Black Bat did in fact appear in Exciting Comics, where he was renamed The Mask.

I did a little digging, and sure enough, if you squint, it’s him. Tony Colby instead of Tony Quinn, and the costume got tweaked a little, but it’s recognizably the same characters in the same story.

Even the origin made it across essentially intact.

I don’t have any profound thoughts about the Bat… other than that, again, I’m glad he’s in the High Adventure rotation. (Normally I wouldn’t be plugging a publisher quite so hard but I really do love that this particular reprint book is out there, it just fills me with joy. I love High Adventure even more than Bill Reed loves Axe Cop.)

I don’t know why, exactly, I love this stuff so much. It’s not really that good — not in the sense that we usually talk about “good comics” around these parts, anyway.

Sure, there’s lots of good stuff in the old pulps. C.S. Forester and Mackinlay Kantor and Ray Bradbury all started there. Whole genres of modern fiction were birthed in those pages — Asimov and Campbell and Heinlein created science fiction as we know it today, Hammett and Chandler and their brethren invented the modern private eye story, while over in the shudder pulps guys like Robert Bloch were taking horror out of the old Gothic mansion and putting it in the suburban tract home down the street. Pulp magazines have a legitimate literary legacy that needs no apology.

Here’s the catch, though — I love the crappy pulp stuff just as much as the genuinely well-done work. Sometimes even more. I own a lot more books starring Ki-Gor, Lord of the Jungle than I do the collected works of Ray Bradbury.

I think the appeal for me about pulp fiction is its purity. It’s nothing but story. There’s none of the ironic self-conscious awareness that’s permeating superhero comics these days. It’s a world where a guy in a green bathrobe can fight crime with radioactive salt, or a half-naked guy can defeat a European terrorist with his electro-chemical psychic writing machine… and the authors believe in it so completely that you can’t help but be swept along.

I miss that. You can sort of see that hell-for-leather, let’s-go spirit in a few modern comics, but it doesn’t turn up nearly as often as it ought to in an industry that makes its bread and butter on the adventures of brightly-clad people with powers and abilities beyond mortal men. I don’t just want to believe a man can fly. I want to believe he can do it and that it’s fun.

*

REMINDER! My students and I are going to be at the Emerald City Comic-Con all weekend, at M-19 and M-20 in Artist’s Alley. Come say hello, and maybe kick in a dollar or two for the AfterSchool Art Program if you feel so inclined. We’d sure appreciate it.

And everyone else, well, I’ll see you next week.

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