Monday, September 29, 2008

Volume Three, Number Twelve

Part Four


MLJ's fourth comic was also an anthology. Titled "Zip Comics" its first issue was cover-dated February, 1940. Running for forty-seven issues, Zip ended its run in the summer of 1944.

Zip is best known for its lead feature, "Steel Sterling". Gaining invulnerability and super-strength by covering himself with a special chemical and then leaping into a vat of molten steel (an action that earned "Steel Sterling the nickname "The Man of Steel", long before Superman-who actually was called "The Man of Tomorrow" in the 1940s-was referred to in such a fashion), "Steel Sterling" appeared in all forty-seven issues of "Zip Comics" as well as in "Jackpot Comics" and other MLJ titles. Throughout his career "Steel Sterling" dealt more with the weird than the common place, spending most of his time battling witches and werewolves rather than run-of-the-mill criminals. If not for the paper shortages of the period and "Archie" becoming so popular "Steel Sterling" may well have eventually been given his own series. But that was not to be, at least not until the 1980s under a different Archie Comic Publications imprint.

Standing beside "Steel Sterling" the other heroes that appeared in "Zip Comics" appeared for the most part to be second and third stringers. Some though had a great deal of potential including "The Web" (a non-powered crime fighter who actually had a fairly large following in the 1960s during the camp hero craze of the period), "Inferno The Flame Breather" (who the head honchos at MLJ seemed to have high hopes for due to him appearing in both Zip and "Blue Ribbon Comics"), "The Scarlet Avenger", "Zambini the Miracle Man", "Nevada Jones" and "Black Jack". These and other series made "Zip Comics" a quality publication during its run but it was "Steel Sterling" who was the king of the hill.

The next title to join the MLJ lineup debuted in the summer of 1940. The usual practice by comics publishers during the 1940s was for a character who gained popularity in an anthology to be given his (and on occasion her) own title; usually a quarterly. With its fifth title MLJ took a different approach by combining "The Shield" from "Pep Comics" and "The Wizard" from "Top-Notch Comics" to create the quarterly "Shield-Wizard Comics". Most likely the folks at MLJ took this approach due to paper shortages at the time, but another reason may well have been because they felt that a comic featuring two of its popular characters would do better financially than individual titles for "The Shield" and "The Wizard". Whatever the reason "Shield-Wizard Comics" ran for thirteen issues with the last one appearing in the spring of 1944. As the title proceeded the headline stars would share the comic with Shield"s kid partner "Dusty the Boy Detective" (who debuted in "Pep Comics" #11) beginning with issue #5 and Wizard's partner, "Roy The Superboy" (who debuted in "Top-Notch Comics" #8) starting with issue #6. Later, Roy and Dusty would work together as "The Boy Buddies" which debuted in "Special Comics" #1 and appeared in "Hangman Comics" and "Black Hood Comics".
That's all for this week folks. Due to a number of commitments-including developing a new project for CE Publishing Group-I'm taking a week off from E-Dispatches but will be returning the week of Monday October 6th 2008 with the continuation of this overview of the MLJ Magazines/Archie Comic Publications superhero lines. While your waiting though why not check out for The Groovy Agent's take on comics of the 1970s. Each installment is a fun and informative read. See you next week.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Volume Three, Number Eleven

A Historical Overview of the
MLJ Magazines/Archie Comic Publications
Superhero Lines
Part Three

ON THE ROAD TO SUCCESS: Cover-dated January 1940 "Pep Comics", MLJ Magazines' third anthology, was the company's most successful and innovative anthology. Not only did Pep run for a total of 411 issues (the final one cover-dated March, 1987) but it was also where comics' first patriotic hero debuted, where the first comics hero died in the line of duty and where the comics character that the publisher eventually renamed itself after first appeared.

The cover feature for Pep during its early days beginning with its first issue was "The Shield". Appearing in the first sixty-five issues of "Pep Comics" he was the last superhero to be published by MLJ Magazines/Archie Comic Publications during the 1940s.

America's first patriotic superhero, FBI agent Joe Higgins used his scientific knowledge to give himself super-strength, enable him to leap great distances and to develop a costume that was flame proof and protected him from physical harm. It's worth noting that when comics' more successful patriotic superhero, "Captain America", debuted some eighteen months later, MLJ Magazines sued its publisher, referred today as Timely Comics, not because of its copying Shield's patriotic costumed hero motif but rather because Cap's rectangular shield resembled the front part of the costume of "The Shield". Thanks though to previous association between MLJ's Louis Silberkleit and Timely's publisher Martin Goodman a legal battle was averted when "Captain America" creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby agreed to make Cap's shield round in shape. In the long run this actually worked out for the better for the "Captain America" series as artists could now have Cap using the shield as a throwing disc resulting in more dynamic fight scenes.

As well as appearing in Pep "The Shield" also appeared in "Shield-Wizard Comics", "Jackpot Comics" and other titles. Shield's final appearance was "Pep Comics" #65 in late 1947. While some have speculated that if the "Shield" series hadn't been elbowed out of Pep by Archie Andrews it would have lasted longer more knowledgeable fans have expressed serious doubts on this matter as the more popular "Captain America" only lasted two additional years.

A less successful but no less innovative superhero who also debuted in "Pep Comics" #1 was "The Comet". The victim of a scientific accident "The Comet", aka John Dickering, terrorized criminals for the first seventeen issues of that title. The artistic creation of Jack Cole (better known as the creator of "Plastic Man"), "The Comet" used his disolvo-vision and power of flight to battle evil and injustice.

According to many comics historians "The Comet" was probably the most violent superhero comic of the 1940s. While "The Batman" and others were known to have tossed criminals off roof tops and other violent acts "The Comet" would gleefully slaughter dozens of villains a story with his disolvo-vision, turning them to protoplasmic mush. But as the saying goes, "He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword", and such was the fate of "The Comet" who met his end in a hail of bullets in "Pep Comics" #17. This though was not the end of the violence by any means as brother, Bob Dickering, adopted the non-super powered identity of "The Hangman" and went on a murderous rampage of his own; first to avenge his brother's death and then to deal out justice in the tradition of "The Comet".

"The Hangman" was far more successful than its predecessor, due in part to the artwork of Bob Fujitani. "The Hangman" appeared in "Pep Comics" #s 17-47 along with "Special Comics" #1 and "Hangman Comics" #s2 to 8.

With "The Shield", "The Comet", "The Hangman" and later "Archie" getting the readers' attention other series that appeared in Pep didn't stand much of a chance. Some of them are though worth noting including "The Press Guardian" (called "The Falcon" in Pep #1 he was a costumed hero who fault for freedom of the press ), "Fireball", "Captain Commando" (a costumed hero who fought against the Nazis behind enemy lines) and the sultry "Madame Satan". So after Archie Andrews debuted in "Pep Comics" #22 superheroes began to gradually disappear from that and other titles with "The Shield" being the last.

NEXT: The original "Man of Steel" !

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Volume Three, Number Ten

Let's continue our historical look at the MLJ Magazines/Archie Comic Publications' superhero lines.
Part Two.
- - - - - - - - -
MLJ Magazines had a lot more success with its second title, "Top-Notch Comics". Debuting in December, 1939, "Top-Notch Comics" (called "Top-Notch Laugh" from no. 28 on) appeared until cover-date June, 1944, with the last issue being numbered 45. During its run Top-Notch introduced a number of now-classic MLJ heroes including "The Wizard", "The Firefly", "The Black Hood" and "Roy, the Super Boy" (the second costumed boy hero after DC/National's Robin). Top-Notch also featured the work of a number of talented artists including Bob Montana, Mort Meskin, Jack Cole and Bob Novick.

Top-Notch's most successful heroes were "The Wizard" and "The Black Hood". "Wizard" (who initially appeared in civilian clothes and possessed a super-brain that enabled him to perform numerous feats) debuted in "Top-Notch Comics" #1 and appeared in every issue except for #25. He also appeared in all thirteen issues of "Shield-Wizard Comics". From time to time he would also make guest appearances in other series including the origin of "The Boy Buddies" which appeared in "Special Comics" #1. While "The Wizard" is regarded as one of MLJ's big guns, he was at best a second stringer when compared to "The Black Hood".

Introduced in "Top-Notch Comics" #9, "The Black Hood" appeared for a total of thirty-five issues. He also appeared in all nine issues of "Jackpot", "Black Hood Comics" #s 9-19 (taking over the number of "Hangman Comics" and in turn had its numbering taken over by "Laugh Comics", a title that lasted until #400, April 1987) and "Pep Comics" #s 48-51 and 59-60, the last issue of which was cover-dated March, 1947. Not including guest appearances, "The Black Hood" appeared in a total of fifty-one stories, a number surpassed only by "The Shield" and "Steel Sterling". Where "The Black Hood" outdid them, though, was by having his own brief radio program and appearing in a series of stories in the pulp magazine "Hooded Detective".

To be sure "Top Notch Comics/Top-Notch Laugh" was a definite success for MLJ Magazines, but its success paled compared to that of the company's next title; "Pep Comics".


Be back tomorrow as we continue to look at MLJ Magazines and its title that not only launched the career of comics' first patriotic super-hero but introduced one of the most successful comics characters ever to appear. And while you are waiting for that installment feel free to check out what The Groovy Agent is writing about at . See you next time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Volume Three, Number Nine

As you'll recall my intentions were to comment on the picking up of the license for the Archie superheroes by DC this time out. After giving it some thought though I've decided to take the next few installments and write about these characters and the MLJ/ARCHIE ADVENTURE SERIES/MIGHTY COMICS GROUP/RED CIRCLE COMICS GROUP history after which I'll comment on what I think about DC's newest project. The material you are about to read in this installment and the next few installments was written by me and originally published in "The People's Comic Book Newsletter" Vol. 4 No. 36 Jan. 24, 2001. Enjoy.

While a great deal has been written over the years about Archie Andrews and his pals the same cannot be said about Archie Comic Publications' superheroes. Few people seem to know that not only Archie Comic Publications get its start-under a different name mind you-in 1939-as a publisher of superhero comics but that it was one of the more innovative comics publishers in the industry. This article is an attempt to rectify that and while space limitations prevent me from going into a great amount of detail I hope that I can at least cover the more important points regarding Archie Comic Publications' superhero history.

- - - -

THE BEGINNING: MLJ Magazines (named for its three founders; Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater) came into being in 1939 with its first comics title, "Blue Ribbon Comics". But before the creation of MLJ Magazines, two of its founders had previous experience in the magazine business. John Goldwater got his start as a purchaser of out-of-date American magazines which he bought for a penny each and then shipped them overseas for re-sale. This venture eventually lead to Goldwater meeting up with Louis Silberkleit who at the time was a pulp magazine publisher. Silberkleit got his beginnings in the offices of pulp magazine legend Hugo Germback who was behind the publication of "Amazing Stories", the first pulp devoted entirely to science fiction. While working for Germback, Silberkleit became friends with another employee, Martin Goodman. In the early 1930s Silberkleit and Goodman left Germback to set up their own pulp fiction publishing company, Red Circle. Under the Red Circle imprint the pair published a number of titles including "Two-Gun Western", "All Star Adventure" and "Sex Health". During their years together Silberkleit and Goodman were relatively successful but nowhere near as successful as they would become after their partnership dissolved in 1937. After both publishing pulps individuals over the next two years in 1939 Goodman went on to launch a line of comics that would eventually evolve into Marvel Comics Group while Silberkleit would become one-third of the partnership that would start the company that eventually became known as Archie Comic Publications.

"Blue Ribbon Comics" #1 hit the stands late in the summer of 1939. Cover-dated November 1939 chances are that appeared around the same time as Martin Goodman's "Marvel Comics" #1. The first issue of "Blue Ribbon Comics" was fairly uneventful with its most exciting strip being a Rin Tin Tin imitation titled "Rang-A-Tang". It wasn't until issue #2 that "Blue Ribbon Comics" began to feature superheroes with the introduction of a rather oddly named character called "Bob Phantom". Despite his less than heroic name "Bob Phantom" (whose abilities included intangibility) had a moderately successful run. As well as appearing in "Blue Ribbon Comics" #s2 to 22 his strip also ran in "Top Notch Comics" #s 3 to 25 for a total of 44 appearances.

"Blue Ribbon Comics" itself ran for a total of 22 issues on a somewhat irregular schedule with its final issue cover-dated March 1942. But while lasting only for less than two dozen issues "Blue Ribbon Comics" none the less featured a number of memorable characters including "The Fox", "Doc Strong", "Mr. Justice", "Inferno, The Flame Breather" and "Captain Flag". Unfortunately, with the possible-and to some today surprising-exceptions of "Bob Phantom" and "Inferno The Flame Breather" none of the series had much staying power. So when MLJ Magazines had to drop a title to give "Hangman" his own book (a practice during World War Two by comics publishers due to paper shortages at the time; when a publisher wanted to launch a new periodical an existing one had to go or merge with another comic) "Blue Ribbon Comics" was the obvious candidate. As is often the case though in the comics world "Blue Ribbon Comics" didn't become a permanent resident of comic book limbo. In 1949 St. John Publishing revived the title for six issues and from 1983 to 1984 Archie Comic Publications brought it back again as a Showcase-type comic. But more on that later.

While "Blue Ribbon Comics" didn't exactly take the comics industry by storm, MLJ Magazines had better success with its second title, "Top-Notch Comics". We'll be exploring that comic and more about the early days of MLJ Magazines in the next installment of E-Dispatches later this week.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Volume Three, Number Eight

Back in E-DISPATCHES Vol. 3, No. 5, I tossed out a challenge to you readers as to which comics company that operated anywhere between the earliest days of the comics industry in the 1930s to around 1956 you thought was the most in innovative, diverse and overall the most creative in the types of material it published. So far no one's taken up my challenge so I thought I'd get the ball rolling by talking about my choice; Magazine Enterprises.

Started by Vincent Sullivan in late 1943, Magazine Enterprises (ME) was what many regarded as a second-tier comics publisher (with first-tier publishers being such companies as National/DC and Fawcett), but from its line up I'm not certain that's a fair description.

During ME's fifteen years of existence, the company's stable consisted of a wide range of genres-second only to perhaps Dell-including westerns, crime, humour, jungle, historical adventure, romance and of course, superheroes. Titles that appeared under the ME bullet included "Badmen of the West", "Straight Arrow", "The American Air Force", "Jet Powers", "Cave Girl" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood". Many of these titles appeared in a rotating anthology titled "A-1 Comics" that for reasons I've never been able to figure out used a dual numbering system. For example, "Hot Dog" #3 was also "A-1 Comics" #34 and "Undercover Girl" #7 was also "A-1 Comics" #118.

Sullivan-who entered the comics industry in the 1930s working as National Allied Publications (the forerunner of DC Comics, Inc.) and in 1940 teamed up with McNaught Newspaper Syndicate to create Columbia Comics-had a number of contacts in Hollywood and made use of them to produce comics starring actors such as Dick Powell and Tim Holt. Sullivan also had a superb bullpen of artists to chose from including Dick Ayers, Bob Powell, Wally Wood, Fred Guardeneer and Frank Frazetta. While most of ME's titles have faded from the collective memory of most of today's comics fans there are a few that continue to stand out; most notably "Ghost Rider" and Frank Frazetta's "Thun'da", the latter having the distinction of being adapted into what ended up being the last jungle movie serial (released by Columbia Pictures in 1952). ME was also the home of a nicely crafted but short-lived humourous comics series by Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster titled "Funnyman".

So why, if Magazine Enterprises was such a great company, did it go out of business? The same reason so many other great companies went out of business between 1954 and 1958; a combination of lagging sales, the comic book witch hunt and the affects the Comics Code had on the quality of the material. (The supernaturally oriented Ghost Rider, for example, was replaced after the introduction of the Comics Code with the more pedestrian and rather lame Presto Kid; a western about a cowboy who used stage magic to win the day). All this combined resulted in Sullivan closing the doors of Magazine Enterprises in 1958.

I'm sure there's some of you out there who will question my choice of Magazine Enterprises and you are more than welcome to do so at . And don't forget to visit my buddy The Groovy Agent's blog about comics of the 1970s at . That's it for this week. See you in 7-days.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Volume Three, Number Seven

Guess what, folks? It's reviewin' time!!


FANTASTIC FOUR: THE END OF THE BEGINNING TPB: (ISBN 978-0-7851-2554-9) Full colour trade paperback published by Marvel Entertainment, Inc. Cover price: $12.99 U.S. and $13.75 Canadian.

As many of you are aware there is no comics shop here (nor near) in Port Stanley, Ontario and in fact the only comics I'm able to purchase here in town are Archie digests. That's not to say I have anything against Archie digests. I love them. But from time to time one does need at least a bit of diversity in one's comics reading material. So when my local library gets in a new graphic novel or trade paperback I do my best to make sure I'm one of the first-if not the first-to check it out.

The latest edition to the shelves of the Port Stanley Public Library is the FANTASTIC FOUR: THE BEGINNING OF THE END TPB. A compilation of "Fantastic Four" #s 525-526 and 551-553 not only makes me miss a comics shop-or any place to buy comics for that matter-even more but also brings back fond memories of my reading "Fantastic Four" when I was a kid in the 1960s.

The story from FF #525-526 appears in the last part of this tpb and pits "The World's Greatest Family" against the diabolical Diablo. Diablo-for those of you who aren't aware-was a rather minor Lee-Kirby created FF foe who debuted way back in "Fantastic Four" #60 (March 1967) but as was the case with any Lee-Kirby creation from those days even a minor one was great.

Such was the case with Diablo, too. And he's still pretty darn good as this two-part tale by writer Karl Kesel and penciler Tom Grummett (with inks by Larry Stucker & Norm Repmund) clearly demonstrate as the wonderfully devious alchemist of terror inflicts a deliriously nightmarish plan on the Fantastic Four. No description I could give in this review's short space can do justice to this enjoyable read from Kesel and Grumment except to say that this appearance alone of Diablo is itself worth the price of admission. But there's more to this tpb; much more.

The first part of FANTASTIC FOUR: BEGINNING OF THE END trade paperback is also the book's title feature and is a reprint of FF #s551-553 featuring that FF villain that everyone loves to hate; Doctor Doom. This superbly done tale by writer Dwayne McDuffie and penciler Paul Pelletier (with inks by Mike Magyar) has Marvel's most sinister evil-doing traveling from the future to the present to stop Reed Richards from setting off a series of events that will eventually have a devastating outcome on Earth; at least according to Victor Von Doom. But as always is the case with the good doctor one never knows. Maybe.

Most definitely this story is a, errr, fantastic read from beginning to end and to say that I was drawn into the tale from the first page is not an understatement. The FANTASTIC FOUR: BEGINNING OF THE END tpb would not only be an excellent addition to anyone's personal library but belongs on the shelves of any public library as well.


That's it, folks. If you have a comic, trade paperback or graphic novel you'd like me to review you can mail it to me at...Jonathan A. Gilbert/2-225 Colborne St./Box 10/Port Stanley, Ontario/N5L 1C2/Canada . If you are mailing your material to be reviewed from outside of Canada be sure to attach a customs coupon, put on the value of the material and check off the gift box on the coupon for the nice folks at Canada Customs.

If any of you would like to comment on this or previous columns you can do so by visiting the E-Dispatches blog site at . And don't forget to visit my buddy The Groovy Agent's blog. That can be found at . See you next week, folks.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Volume Three, Number Six

Things were busier than normal at the Gilbert Homestead last week so this week I'll be sending out two installments of E-Dispatches.

ITEM: One of the great things about having this column appear as a blog is that people can post comments after each installment. So far though comments have been few and far between so I've decided to start up a little contest of sorts to stir things up a bit.There'll be no prizes but hopefully it will result in some participation from you readers.

Basically the contest for you readers to tell me what comics company that existed between say the 1930s and 1955 was the most innovative and why. Do you think for example that Quality lived up to its name? Or maybe in your opinion Timely showed the most originality as a comics publisher? Post your comments at the end of this blog and let everyone know.

As for my choice I'd have to say Magazine Enterprises and as for why, I'll be writing about that in a future column.

Oh. If you are reading this installment at or elsewhere you can head to the blog by clicking on .

ITEM: As this installment is to be a short one I thought I'd conclude it by mentioning what is scheduled for upcoming E-Dispatches.Next time out I plan to review the Fantastic Four: Beginning of the End trade paperback and that will be coming out later this week. For the third week of September I'll be doing a piece on Magazine Enterprises and then for the fourth week of September I intend to write a commentary on DC's licensing the rights for the MLJ action characters from Archie Comic Publications. For those of you who aren't aware I'm a mega fan of those characters-and totally despised the Impact! line from DC some years back-so you might want to be hear for what I have to say about DC's second attempt to revive my favourite characters.

After that installment, well, I'm not sure yet but I've got a few ideas that I still need to work out a bit. So I will see you later next week and while you are waiting you might want to check out the blog of my best buddy The Groovy Agent where he writes about all sorts of neat stuff related to comics of the 1970s. His blog can be found at .

See you later this week, folks.