Saturday, August 8, 2020

Saturday Serials - The Phantom!

Lee Falk's The Phantom has been adapted to the big screen a few times. The first time was in 1943 by Columbia Pictures. Columbia serials could be uneven, but they did do a pretty good job with the superheroes. The Ghost Who Walks in this picture ain't exactly the one from the comic strip, but he's darn close with only smallish details like the nature of the "Deep Woods" and his relationship to Diana Palmer really showing any glaring differences. Tom Tyler, who had played the titular character in Columbia's Captain Marvel two years before is perfect physically for the role of the Phantom.  He tall and athletic, and fills out a super suit as well as anyone in the era. Only Kane Richmond is a bit more classically handsome, but Tyler seems perhaps a bit more rugged and that last characteristic suits Lee Falk's creation to a tee.

Phantom Serial — Major Spoilers

The story is like most serials a contrivance meant to create numerous opportunities for cliffhangers and there are some decent ones here and for the most part the solutions are not cheats, something I usually find Columbia to depend too much upon. The Phantom is a hero who must use his wits and getting out of traps is the perfect way to showcase that talent. Most serials have a bunch of baddies to give ample opportunity for them to fall before the might of the hero and this one has a hefty batch. They are chasing the "Maguffin" which is an ivory jigsaw puzzle leading to an ancient lost city which it will turn out ain't all that lost. Nor does it seem is it all that far away from the main action.

The Phantom (1943) (Film) - TV Tropes

But these are trifles and the what you have is a rip-snorting adventure with lots of pretty good action including a classic rope bridge that works just about as well as you'd expect. They'd repeat that gag in the 1996 Phantom movie but use a truck. There is an unofficial sequel called The Adventures of Captain Africa. It was a Phantom serial for a bit but they lost the rights and it was changed in the course of production.

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Friday, August 7, 2020

King Comics - Flash Gordon!

Of all of the King Comics heroic offerings I'd have to dub Flash Gordon the most successful. That success is not owed to consistency (that's The Phantom) but to the sheer raw talent of the artists who draw many of the issues.

The series kicks off with a Flash yarn featuring both story and art by Al Williamson. Williamson was the youngest of the old EC crowd, a native of South America who was inspired by the work of Alex Raymond. He brings the dramatic heft of Raymond's later work along with a complete working knowledge of how to tell a story on a comic book page.

Frank Bolle is on the art in the second issue which features a very exciting Gil Kane cover. Bolle is no slacker by any means, but his pedestrian style falls short of the high romance which influences Williamson's take on the character.

Under arguably the finest Williamson cover is a darn fine artistic effort by Ric Estrada who comes through with a very dynamic story written by Bill Pearson to add to the canon.

Al Williamson returns in the next two issues of the run, his final ones for King alas. They are lovely and the scripts by Archie Goodwin are first rate. This a team which will make some of the best comics ever seen.

Apparently Reed Crandall took the artistic helm on the recommendation of Williamson and though his classic style is more static than much of what had gone before, his distinctive finishes create some very handsome pages. Bill Pearson is back on the scripts and stays so for all the new issues of this King run.

With the next issue, as with the other books in the King Comics line-up, the wheels begin to come off the effort as a reprint of Mac Raboy's comic strip is fitted for the comic book page. It's vintage stuff from the early days and good looking but odd.

Reed Crandall is back in the next issue  and does some wonderful work. This is the only issue of the run which I ever bought on my own way back then. Just seeing Crandall's Flash was great stuff and I just assumed the rest was comparable.

That's not the case as the next two issues of the run are again reprints, this time by Alex Raymond from the earliest days of the vintage comic strip. This is the raw stuff and reformatted isn't as effective as it was on the original page, but then that's to be expected.

The series wraps up with another Reed Crandall issue under a Dan Barry cover. The story ends somewhat abruptly, but it would be continued and Crandall would get another crack at the character but over at Charlton Comics. More on that maybe later.

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Thursday, August 6, 2020

King Comics - The Phantom!

Of all of the King Comics hero books, The Phantom was arguably the most consistent. That consistency didn't necessarily rise to greatness, but there was a modicum of quality issue in and issue out. The reason was artist Bill Lignante, a seasoned talent who had broached the Phantom on the strip itself after the passing of Wilson McCoy. When it was decided Sy Barry would take the helm of the venerable strip Lignanted was shifted over to the comics. The comic books were then being published by Gold Key and underneath outstanding dramatic covers by George Wilson Linante's efforts were quite good.

That diminished somewhat over time and by the eighteenth issue, the first of the King Comics issues, the work was decent but hardly stunning. The Phantom had been involved in a range of stories at Gold Key, but it seems with his arrival at King the stories took on a smaller scope with nearly everything happening in or around the Deep Woods.

There are of course some exceptions, but the Phantom of the King Comics era spent his time battling river pirates and smugglers and such and sadly few of these villains were all that memorable.

One truly memorable aspect of the King Comics run was the debut in comic book form of the "The Girl Phantom". This was a rather silly story at its heart, but certainly one that made attempts to broaden the demographics of the strip. The Phantom of an earlier time had a sister named Julie and when he was wounded for a protracted time she took it upon herself to put on the mantle and act in his place despite the basic fact that no one ever thought she was actually the Phantom.

One thing about the King year of 1966 was the new cover regime. Art was repurposed for the covers, sometimes quite effectively as seen above and in the several covers just below.

But despite the deft handling, the amazing drama of George Wilson's paintings was really missing from the total package.

As with all of the runs from King, the wheels slowly felt like they were coming off a bit as sales ended up putting the series into the famous plastic bags three a time.

But still and all good stuff was being produced such as my favorite Phantom cover from the run seen above.

The Phantom was never bad in any real sense while King Features guided its destiny, but alas neither did it rise up and distinguish itself in any particular way.

These are good Phantom stories, perfectly fine, but not great ones for the most part. That would come later of all places at Charlton Comics.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2020

King Comics - Mandrake The Magician Part Two!

Now Hermes Press has done some yeoman work in getting the vintage Lee Falk strips The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician back into print. But it doesn't come cheaply to have them since Hermes saw fit to make two Mandrake volumes, each at fifty bucks. And on that they padded the second tome with a Dell Mandrake comic. Glad to have it, but clearly all of the Mandrake run could've been put between two covers. That said the books in this volume show the decline of the series.

I've always liked this Mandrake cover because it looks like nothing so much as the mighty Magician is suffering a massive headache. Still this drawing by Fred Fredericks does make you curious about the insides which are by the team of Gary Poole on script and Ray Bailey on art. It's solid if not exceptional stuff.

Lothar is featured in the next issue which has a dandy Fredericks cover. Bailey is again on the art, at least part of it and Poole delivers a story which takes Mandrakes loyal comrade back to his roots. Lothar is a king of his people but being one in absentia can create all sorts of issues. Lothar is a complicated element of the Mandrake saga, a respected black man who nonetheless is saddled with broken English dialogue and a somewhat ridiculous hat. I noticed that in the first issue of the series Don Heck dispensed with the fez on the cover at least.

Next is my favorite Mandrake cover. The outsides though are handsome but the interiors are getting ramshackle at best. European stories are being repurposed here and the art looks pretty strained.

Things go from bad to worse in the next issue with the artwork suffering profoundly from being repurposed. The plot makes little sense and has aliens, some who resemble Prince Valiant and some who look like Clayface.

In the final King Comic's Mandrake the main story improves somewhat with the return of Poole and Bailey and featuring a tiny tale of a haunted hotel. But there's little of Mandrake in this issue. Brick Bradford, the regular back up takes a few pages and Rip Kirby sucks up as much space as Mandrake. This is the end of the series and it ended with a whimper.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

King Comics - Mandrake The Magician Part One!

Of the "Big Three" from King Features, Mandrake the Magician has had the most lackluster comic book history. Reprints of the strip appeared regularly, but new material just for comic books didn't happen until a single appearance in a Dell Four Color issue. It wasn't until King Comics became an entity that Mandrake got a comic book series to call his own.

The first issue has always been a desirable for me because it featured the artwork of Don Heck, one of the stalwarts of Marvel in the most magical of eras for that company. In the debut issue Heck's artwork is pretty subdued, and he's at his best on the cover which features some nifty overlay effects. But aside from some back up stories in the pages of  The Phantom this is all the work that Heck did.

Dick Wood who had written the debut issue stays on board but after Heck's departure Andre LeBlanc takes the artistic helm. He had inked the first issue.

LeBlanc stays on board for a few more issues. The adventures are decidedly humdrum with Mandrake, as always decked out in his definitive top hat and cape stage costume roams both city and dale finding troubled folks and mild mysteries which require intervention.

The problem with these stories is that Mandrake the Magician rarely uses any magic. He's a hypnotist first and foremost but the events of the series rarely give him a chance to apply that skill and he demonstrates no other magical talents.

By the final issue of this first collection from Hermes, Gary Poole has taken the writing helm and Ray Bailey brings a decidedly Caniff-like style to the doings. Despite riotously funny covers such as the one above (perhaps my favorite in the whole King Comics run) the stories fall on the side of blase.

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Monday, August 3, 2020

The King Comics Gambit!

King Features had some of the most popular characters in all of the funny pages and always seemed eager to find new venues for their heroes and such in which to prosper. But despite the huge popularity of Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom, only the latter had found any significant footing in the comic book realm. Flash had a few runs at Dell and Mandrake had been featured in a single self-titled comic for the same outfit. They'd had plenty of their comic strip adventures reprinted here and there and about, but getting new talent to create new stories for just the comic book market had not been a success nor perhaps a priority. The Phantom had scored overseas and had found a niche at Gold Key but little beyond that. 

Then the Batman TV show made comic books and costumed heroes all the rage and everyone wanted a taste in that white-hot year of 1966. King Features I guess felt that they might be able to merchandise their heroes better than others had been able to do and so in the heat of the fad "King Comics" was born. Brand new adventures of Flash Gordon, Mandrake and The Phantom hit the stands along with some of the funny stuff such as Popeye, Blondie and Beetle Bailey. Before it was over in 1967 even King hard luck hero Jungle Jim rated a single issue, though it was a reprint of a vintage Dell outing. 

But it didn't last. One year and out was the record, then the properties began to find homes in other homes, specifically Charlton Comics. But that's another story. 

For one year King Comics existed to sell its own and they did it on the newsstands and later in plastic bag featuring three comics for less that three dimes. They struggled with content, resorting to reprints at times, but even so there were some might awesome stories told in that year. This week I want to take a glance at that "Kingly" year. 

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Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Sunday Funnies - Flash Gordon 1934-1936!

Definitive Flash Gordon And Jungle Jim Volume 1 by Alex Raymond ...

It's difficult to overstate the influence of Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon on the world of comics. In conjunction with writer Don Moore, Raymond created one of the most iconic characters in all of pop culture and utterly changed the way comics were expected to look. It was Raymond, a man with his eye to doing magazine illustration, brought that lustrous more realistic style to the comics color section and inspired talents such as Jack Kirby and Joe Kubert. Suffice it to say without Raymond comics would look very different and might not even exist at all.

Alex Raymond's original 1933 comic strip artwork for Flash Gordon #1 (Image: Profiles in History)

But reading early Flash Gordon comic strips is a weird experience. The character has been adapted to film, radio, and television more than a few times and its's those adaptations which sometimes dominate the imagination and memory in regards to the character. The name "Flash Gordon" brings to my mind the face of Buster Crabbe who perfected the role in three fantastic serials for Universal.

From the Flash Gordon archives starring Buster Crabbe and Jean ...

And I think of the lush Raymond artwork too, but that's not the Flash Gordon of the earliest strips. It took some time for Raymond to find his path forward on the character and for the first year or so it looks great but not as epic as it will become. Reading the first strips is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, the figures are frustratingly small and seem weirdly far away. It's a story of vistas and landscapes and not so much of people, though that rich characterization would come.

Ming the Merciless | Villains Wiki | Fandom

When Flash, Dale, and Zarkov first land on Mongo they are upright citizens of the world standing talll against the dreaded "Yellow Peril". Ming the Merciless is second only to Fu Manchu as the definitive expression of that sordid racist trope. Mongo might be another planet, but it's really just what was once called the "Orient" and Ming is the absolute despotic depraved ruler of that land filled with a sprawling variety of races of "men". Mongo is a network of kingdoms, each defined by not just geography but also ethnicity and it's taken as a given that the populations of these kingdoms need monarchs to rule them. Taken in tandem with Prince Valiant, it's fairy tale optimism at its most extreme.

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