Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. This month I will be doing theme weeks, with each week devoted to comics from one decade. This week’s decade: the 1950s! Today’s page is from Panic #12, which was published by Entertaining Creations (EC, don’t you know) and is cover dated January 1956 (really, December ’55/January ’56, but that’s a PITA to type, even though I just did). I borrowed this and several other comics over the next few weeks from Howard Harris, my comics retailer, who was nice enough to let me take them home and scan them. Enjoy!
This was the last issue of Panic (due to EC shutting down its comics line, due to the story “Judgment Day” in Incredible Science Fiction #33, which Brian has written about before), and this is the first story in the book. It’s written, according to the Grand Comics Database, by Jack Mendelsohn, drawn by Bill Elder, and colored by Marie Severin.
Popular culture is a mutable, ethereal concept, so it’s not surprising that something like this, which was humorous in 1955, doesn’t really work in 2012 (even if we discount the stereotyping). Charlie Chan just doesn’t have the pop culture cachet today that he did 60 years ago (although one could argue that the 1950s was the end of his popularity, as his heyday was the 1930s). Sure, people like Greg Hatcher can probably tell you what his favorite cereal is, but he’s just not that significant anymore. So the humor of this strip, which is probably directed not at the movies or the television shows but the comic book that Charlton published, might be lost on us. Then, of course, there’s the stereotyping. What’s fascinating about a story like this is that Charlie Chan himself was a stereotype, so parodying a stereotype becomes a weird corkscrew that doesn’t really work. Yes, Mendelsohn makes “Charlie Chinless” even more preternaturally clever than the original, but these days, most people don’t see too big a difference between the original Charlie Chan movies and this strip. It’s part of the reason why Peter Sellers’ character in Murder by Death (another Chan parody) is the weakest detective parody in the movie (don’t argue with me!). Maybe this was funny in the 1950s, but I don’t know. The only thing on the page that is mildly amusing to this reader is the way “Chinless” describes the crime.
Anyway, Mendelsohn introduces us to Charlie Chinless, who lives in “pell-mell fashion” on “Pell-Corner-Mell” in Chinatown. Mendelsohn does pack a lot of jokes onto this page – Chinless is reading “The Laundry World,” the “honorable discharge” plaque on the wall, his “number one son” is playing “Chopsticks” with chopsticks on the piano, there’s a dragon lady on the wall, “Number One Son” goes to Rice, the “genuine china” on the wall is made in Japan. All of these, of course, play into the Asian stereotypes Americans held in the 1950s (and still do, in many ways). This all leads to the crime Chinless needs to solve, that of the “midget” falling off the giant at the circus.
Elder actually does a nice job with the artwork. Chinless’ apartment is full of nice details, even though they’re stereotypical ones. Elder and Severin give the apartment a nice look, with plenty of bright primary colors. In some ways, Elder’s depiction of Chinless and his son is impressive – slightly over a decade earlier, artists were depicting Asians as inhuman monsters, but Elder makes them look like regular people. There’s not much that’s stereotypical about the way they’re drawn, even in their fashion sense. Chinless is more traditional, while his son is a modern college student. It’s actually refreshing. Elder also sets up the room well – Chinless talks to his son, who looks toward the telephone, which is placed in the foreground of Panel 1 and above Panel 2, leading our eyes toward the second panel. Number One Son’s casual lean points us toward Panel 3, and Chinless, as he speaks last, rotates around to stand on the left of his son, leading us to the next page. Elder understands flow quite well, and he also understands being thrifty with space – Chinless somehow manages to take his lounging suit off between panels. He has places to be!
Obviously, we need to consider this in the context of its time. It’s not the worst example of racial stereotyping, and because Mendelsohn is parodying a specific creation, perhaps it’s easier to forgive him. Even though it’s a humor magazine, Mendelsohn, Elder, and Severin put a lot of work into it to make it work, and technically, it’s a very nice page. You can decide whether it’s funny or not!
Next: Some guy named Stan Lee shows us the dark side of 1950s American suburbia! Can you handle it? If not, you can always retreat into the archives!