You may have heard the name Bert Christman before. Perhaps you haven’t – a quick search of the GCD only reveals only 19 credits, and many of those are reprints. If you have heard of him, it was likely in the context of him co-creating DC’s Sandman. That fact alone would make him a notable figure in the comic book industry, but there’s much more to the story of this man who left us far too soon.
Christman’s story seems to be the perfect material for a movie, or at least a decent biography. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much information on his life and work. Born in 1915, Christman was a native of Fort Collins, Colorado and attending Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University). After graduation, he headed to New York City and found work with the Associated Press. As a result of a contract dispute, the legendary Noel Sickles left the very popular Scorchy Smith strip, and it was assigned to the 21-year old Christman. From that point on, Bert Christman and airplanes went hand in hand.
Much like his lead character, Scorchy Smith, Christman became a pilot and after only a year and a half on Scorchy Smith, he enlisted as an aviation cadet with the Navy. Christman continue to work during his aviation training and eventually drifted into the new medium of comic books. He was a great fit for the Three Aces strip in Action Comics, and an inordinate number of airplanes appeared in his Sandman stories in Adventure Comics.
In early 1941, Christman was recruited into a relatively covert group of American pilots and other personnel called the ‘the American Volunteer Group’. This group, implicitly sanctioned by the still neutral US, was given the task of keeping the Burma Road clear. Upon arrival in Burma, Christman sawmonths of heavy action and his finally luck ran out January 23, 1942. He was shot in midair after parachuting from his severely damage plane. Just 6 weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Christmas was buried with the honors of a Lt. Colonel of the Chinese Air Force.
Early Golden Age art can be pretty hit or miss, but Christman stands out from many of his peers. There’s a great deal of style and panache, and the attention to detail informs the reader that Christman was not one to shy away from research. While the fairly rigid page layouts limited him to a degree, he still managed to tell a very fluid story. It is too bad that he never returned from Asia to continue his work. I can imagine him become a great in both the war and crime genres, perhaps becoming one of the true great of the Golden Age. Unfortunately, his life was cut short and he left us with a tragically small body of work.
For more information on the life of Bert Christman, I highly recommend Andrew Glaess’ excellent article over at the Flying Tiger’s website: Remembering Bert Christman . I also recommend Jim Amash’s great introduction in the Golden Age Sandman Archives.
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