Saturday, April 11, 2015

Stuntman - Split-Second Action Take One!

One of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's most vibrant creations was the effusively colored Stuntman created during their time at Harvey Comics. The team was just reunited after Simon's and Kirby's return from the military and they wanted to launch a post-war hero who might capture the excitement of their smash Captain America and their successful features at DC like Sandman and Manhunter. That they failed is more of a sign of the times than the wonder of their creation, but nonetheless we have a few delightful Stuntman comics to look at in the next several weekends.

"Killer in the Big Top!" is the first Stuntman story and gives us a rousing origin features echoes of Robin the Boy Wonder and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. We meet Fred Drake, a member of a trapeze act called "The Flying Apollos". Bandmaster Circus, where they work and own some ownership in is under siege from a series of seeming accidents which are coincident with offers from a party unknown to buy the circus. Fred is shocked at the loss of his mates when they fall to their deaths and then chances upon movie star Don Daring who likes to spend his leisure time as a detective. It turns out that Daring and Drake look almost exactly alike and Daring hits on the scheme to hire Drake to be his secret "stuntman" for his more strenuous roles and thus leaving him more time to sleuth. Not in on the secret is the lovely actress Sandra Sylvan who arrives in time to add to the mix. Daring turns out to be not a very effective detective but does stir up enough trouble that Drake has to don his old trapeze togs along with a helmet to come to his rescue, thus beginning his career as "Stuntman", a figure who Sandra finds mysteriously attractive.

Thus it begins.

"The Crime on Cauliflower Row" follows up with Daring becoming even more an incompetent and somewhat comedy-relief detective, even sporting a deerstalker hat. He assigns Fred to fill in for him during a boxing scene where former slugger Herman Glassjaw takes the chance to try and knock out the man he believes is the irritating Don Daring. But finds that Drake delivers a very strong punch indeed. Then Sandra discovers to her horror that her jewels have gone missing and Daring leaps to the chance to investigate. He finds a matchbook from the "Olde Fistcuff Fraternity" (a retired fighters lodge of sorts) and using his detective kit takes a fingerprint. Rushing to the Fraternity's location he sets out to fingerprint the members and finds quickly that the print belongs to Glassjaw who is a member. A rousing fight breaks out and Fred Drake as Stuntman has to enter the scene before Sandra makes a startling discovery.

"House of Madness" is the third and final Stuntman story in the debut issue and wild one it is. Sandra Sylvan is kidnapped and taken to Chalker Rest Home where she is admitted as if she were insane while her kidnappers make off with her belongings. She quickly meets a range of "inmates" who appear to personify various fairy tale characters such as Mother Goose, Snow White, the Seven Dwarves, Jack the Giant Killer, and more. Don Daring in his full Sherlock Holmes mode tracks her but quickly finds himself captured and admitted as well. Fred Drake discovers where the pair are being held and goes there as Stuntman to find out what is the problem. After a typically vigorous battle the day is saved.

If you would like to read the debut issue of Stuntman go here.

Stuntman began with a typically action-filled Simon and Kirby send off. The circus setting, which is abandoned after the first story gives way to the thrills of the movies. Fred Drake is a fairly typical S&K hero, bold and physically impressive in his wide-stanced fashion. He delivers his powerful punches with the usual S&K intensity and seems as nimble as many of their heroes of the past (Captain America, Sandman, Manhunter, and Golden Guardian).

So it is a surprise that Stuntman only last two full-color issues with a third disseminated only in black and white to subscribers. Stuntman was a spectacular failure on the newsstands and perhaps speaks of a time in comics when there were lots of competing books to buy and superheroes were losing their dominance on the market. More on that next time.

It's too bad as this debut issue offered up a neat blend of classic comic book action and a small flavor of satire. Fred Drake is a tough as nails hero, full of energy and verve and the desire to see right done, but his doppleganger Don Daring is a fop, a fake hero who is interested in appearance more than reality. That both seek justice in their own way, with only Drake finding a real measure of true success speaks volumes about the virtues that Simon and Kirby sought to advocate.Throw in Sandra Sylvan who seems to be a straight up ditzy dame, a relative rarity in my Simon and Kirby reading, and you have a cast which is two-thirds comedy relief.

Oh and I simply love the faux-book design they used for the original cover. That look was obscured when some of the comic (two of the three stories) was reprinted some years later by Harvey in Thrills of Tomorrow.

Harvey also reprinted the debut story for Stuntman in the ninth issue of Black Cat, without fanfare.

I personally probably first ran across Stuntman in Fun Comics from AC back in 1980. The cover above is Bill Black's revision of the debut splash.

More Stuntman to come next week when the second and sadly final full-color issue is examined.

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