Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Strongman: Thus, A Hero Is Born!" From "Crash Comics Adventures" #1

It seems that, already, I have my detractors--individuals who are, like me, attempting to span the yawning chasms of panelology, but at cross-purposes.

One complaint I have received is that I focus on stories other than the "hit" or "lead" feature in my treasured comic magazines.

Today I choose to break that trend--a habit scarcely formed. I cannot promise I shall abandon the presentation of these "lesser" or, as one brash critic inferred, "filler" items. For they, to my taste, are whence the very heart, soul, and throb of life is found in the art-form of panelology.

If that weren't enough, the story I shall showcase today is one of the first "graphic novels."

Now, I know there are many among us who pooh-pooh this admittedly silly term: is not all of panelology worthy of comparison to so-called "serious literature?" Does it not evoke the same emotions--stirrings of the soul, inspiration, tears, anger and joy--as those books we were all forced to read, at one time or another?

Admittedly, I haven't devoted time to reading the works of William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, James Michener or the other great novelists I keep hearing about. Quite honestly, I would have a hard time believing any of their words could match the feats of the panelological masters, at their best.

The oft-vollied charge against comics--that they are "trash"--is only made by those who have never immersed themselves in the waters of the art-form. And, perhaps, if those nay-sayers were to read some of the really great, expansive works--such as the very story you're about to savor--they would find themselves changed man and women.

No more would we feel the need to skulk in the shadows of civilization. We--all of us--would march proudly in the streets, unashamed to let the world know that we are panelologists!

Before today's epic story, some personal news:

Saturday night, I spotted Raphael--he who sold me The Pantheon, and assured me of his everlasting fidelity to said structure! He is still in the area.

Dorrie made up her weekly grocery list, and dispatched me to purchase each and every item therein. She prefers that I do our grocering at "Value Pantry," a sprawling mart set deep in a vast parking-lot on the edge of the city limits. Unbeknownst to her, a panelology shop also shares this expansive strip mall. Thus, I prefer to embark on the shopping trip earlier in the day.

Alas, Dorrie dawdled with her list, and I had to sacrifice a trip to Killer Komix! (that is the store's regrettable name), which closes promptly at six on weekends.

Rarely has Bart J________, the proprietor of Killer Komix!, anything to sell of great interest to me, but I have made a few finds there in my time, and I relish the prospect of a visit to his environs.

The shop's windows were long darkened by the time my Nova approached Value Pantry's sea of asphalt. I had to drive with supreme care. We have, I declare, become a nation of nattering chatter-boxes! Always jabbering on our "celled phones," and especially so when combined with the reckless, sub-standard driving techniques I see on such shameful and everlasting display.

I was forced to honk my horn--seven times!--at a giggling group of teen-agers insistent on driving while carrying on heaven knows what type of inane conversation.

In my youth, our home had a party line--one shared by 11 other families on our block. Thus, we abided by a rule that no telephone conversation could exceed 90 seconds, except in the case of a certified emergency.

Alas, two area "spinsters," Miss Montgomery and Miss Bordner, chose to invent an endless array of alleged crises--the better to prolong their vituperative brand of gossip.

Whenever I dared to silently lift the heavy telephone receiver, and hold it up to my ear, I heard reports that made my brain burn, and my face turn beet-red. I learned things I'll never forget about the heights and depressing depths of the human experience from the idle gossip of those loghorreaic spinsters.

My telephone conversations, at home, were strictly monitured by my father, Austin Moray. He had purchased a 90-second timer. Upon my first syllable of speech, he would engage the timer. It had a loud, echoing tick. I learned to speak swiftly, and to state my business and elicit a response.

If I exceeded the 90-second limit, I was rewarded with a loud, grating buzz that lasted a full minute. It could not be silenced, once started.

I confess that I found that timer and took it with me one morning as I left for school. I hurled the timer down a trash-strewn ravine. As it bounced and rolled down the steep grade, its deafening buzz sounded one last time.

It rolled out onto Highway 31, where it was instantly crushed by a freight truck.

Oh, I see I've pulled out the soapbox again! Dorrie would love this.

I had something of importance to report. Let me go back and read what I have written.

Oh, yes. I spotted Raphael. The poor lad was alone, slumped against a desolate, deserted bus stop. Although it was sufficiently chilly for me to need a jacket, the boy was dressed as if for a scorching summer day. He wore nothing but a tank-top and a very short pair of "cut-offs."

He appeared nervous, as if looking for someone... or as if waiting for someone. A car stopped beside him. He leaned into the window to consult with the driver. Perhaps the man was offering him a ride into town.

Distracted as he was, Raphael did not see me enter the parking lot.

Dorrie was, as ever, anxious for her groceries, so I hastened into the store. I thought I might engage him in conversation on my way home. Perhaps, if the unfortunate waif still needed a ride, I could return him to town, where he could dress more appropriately for the weather.

Dorrie's shopping lists are byzantine by their very nature. It is rare I am able to compile a full selection of her needs in less than an hour.

The check-out lines were long, and tediously slow. 'Twas then that I thought of the story you shall soon read--of its epic scope, its daring graphic virtuosity, and of its fearless, tireless hero. It was a pleasant way to pass the time.

Of course, Raphael was long gone by the time I motored away from Value Pantry. Perhaps the bus he waited for so anxiously had finally arrived. I hope to see him again soon, and have him make good on his promise.

There has been no evident tampering with The Pantheon's breached area since my last report. I am, all the same, eager to repair the damage, so I can truly sleep "the good sleep" at night.

Dorrie had a pleasant surprise waiting for me. Fresh from the oven was another of her cuisine specialties, "Crispy Quesadilla Cheese-cake." It is somewhat like a quiche, yet with a bold South-of-the-border flavor. (She uses a standard graham-cracker crust, as one would utilize when making a dessert cheese cake. Thus the dish's enigmatic title.)

In my study, at all times, are 25 selections from the Pantheon. Dorrie dozed with her knitting after our meal. I tiptoed into the study and quietly removed my treasured copy of Crash Comics Adventures #1.

I am blessed to be endowed with the ownership of this innovative, pioneering gem of panelology. It is a glorious remnant of the wild and woolly early years of the American comic magazine. Before the big War loomed large on our landscape, America was at play in its panelology.

The wildest flights of imagination--the boldest dreams mankind dared to express... these bounded in the careening, multi-hued frames of the dime comic magazine.

Among the most innovative and fearless of these early companies was the Holyoke Press. Unlike DC, Quality, Timely, or other rival companies, Holyoke favored unusually long, complex adventure sagas in their small but influential brace of publications.

According to my research notes, the Holyoke line was edited by one Thomas "Huck" Hartwell, a veteran journalist and dance-band leader who got into comics on a whim. Hartwell, you see, was also a veteran card player. He loved poker like no other man, past or present.

He "broke the bank" at a hotel card game. One of his beaten opponents had put the fledgling Holyoke Press "on the table." It became Hartwell's that night.

Hartwell suffered from chronic heart-burn, which kept him up nights. To ease his system, he often took long walks in the quiet of the city streets.

In his privately published memoirs, What A Life--But It Was Mine!, Hartwell recounts a moment of epiphany that bode well for we panelologists:

Searing pain throttled through my gut. I felt those digestive acids roiling like an angry sea. Not even the cool night air could soothe my pain.

Some swell magazine man I was! So far, the Holyoke concern was just a big bust. Our existing magazines, such as
Modern Knitting, Historic Cross-words and Thrills of Medicine were selling like lead balloons. Our book-keeper bought red ink by the gallon--that is, before I had to let him go.

I stood before the Third Avenue "el" tracks. A thought came to me: why not end it all? I had no loved ones, no one who mattered. I was just an old newshound with a bum tummy. A back-dated baton-waver with lumbago. A graying-at-the-temples card sharp with a bucket full of bills.

I saw the train in the distance. How quick it could be over! Just lay down on the tracks and let the 3:03 take care of my problems.

Then I saw it. Across the tracks stood a brightly-lit all night news-stand. On display was a color-choked array of new and unusual magazines.

I had to cross Third Avenue and see what these were!

They were "funny books"-- comic magazines! They'd just started this racket. G-men and China-men and flying fools! Daring exploits framed by speed-streaked modernistic titles! This was the answer to my prayers!

The 3:03 speeded by, and I was still alive and kicking! I bought a dollar's worth of these pulp-smelling pamphlets and a new day was born...

Among Hartwell's first efforts in the panelological field was this debut issue of Crash Comics Adventures. It had to be a "big deal," the better to complete with the over-rated but popular Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, et al.

The lead feature had to make history! Hartwell turned to The Funnies Factory, a packager of comic magazine features.

It's proven nigh impossible to obtain much information on the Funnies Factory concern. It operated from a studio flat in the Bronx, and had in its employ up to 75 people at the height of the comic-book boom.

A single blurry snapshot, which I was once privileged to see, reveals a sea of drafting tables, with little or no "wiggle room." Figures sit hunched over these tables, each laboring on a half-completed comic book page.

A large, stern man in a black suit with matching derby stands, hands crossed, in front of the tables.

It's rumored that The Funnies Factory could turn out a 68-page comic magazine in less than two hours. In exchange for their work, the young artists were allowed to live at their assigned drafting tables.

The Funnies Factory burned to the ground on the night of October 8, 1941. It was truly the end of an era. Many promising young panelological masters passed away in that regrettable blaze.

In a notebook from the 1960s, I have these five names written down, in a notation on the "Strongman" feature: Crantz-Brannigan-Copeland-Stewart-Fuchs. This would appear to be the creative team that brought life to "Strongman." It may be that this quintet was among the unfortunates who died in the 1941 fire.

Here, then, is Strongman's rare original appearance. It's quite a long tale, so consider reading it in two or three sittings.

If you are at all like me, I gather you are speechless. You have just witnessed true panelological brilliance!

I must first address the innovative visual elements of this novel-length tale. Before the great Jack Kirby...

(Yes, I dare to call him by his nick-name! I met Mr. Kirby at several comic book conventions in the 1970s and '80s, and once treated him to a lobster dinner, where he beseeched me to call him "Jack." Here, then, is an instance in which I am entitled to use the familiar when addressing or discussing a panelological master.)

...embarked on his series of bold, galvanizing page layouts, a similar effect had been achieved--and, arguably, bettered-- by The Funnies Factory.

How these five boys came upon this bold notion, the world shall never know. How such inspiration--such lyrical imagery--came to them, as they toiled under the presumably stern eye of the man in black, speaks to the virtue of the human spirit.

When I peruse these pages, a tear comes to the corner of my eyes.

How hard they worked--and yet how effortless and simple the results appear! The story literally looks as if it were created in a matter of minutes. Given the set-up of The Funnies Factory, it may well have been. But the combined inspiration and experience of the Crantz-Brannigan-Copeland-Stewart-Fuchs team added up to years of time and talent.

There must have been magic in the air of that Bronx studio apartment.

"Strongman" ingeniously and cannily blends aspects of the popular "Superman" and "Batman" features. How clever of the quintet to make this super-powerful student of secret yogi exercises an idle, monocle-wearing playboy, Percy Van Helton!

Who among us, seeing Percy in his tuxeoded finery, would ever suspect him of being the omniscient Strongman?

This story's narrative is so dense and dizzying that even I, having read it many times, could not properly summarize its events here. Suffice to say that the tale goes from brilliant "set piece" to brilliant "set piece."

Particularly vivid is Strongman's transformation from his lackadaisical secret identity. He chooses to tear his clothes off his body to reveal his action costume. (Said costume vaguely reminds me of Raphael's rather skimpy outfit, at the bus stop by Value Pantry.)

The action shifts from a lush penthouse to treachery at sea, never remitting for a single moment. It seems, to me, as if the young quintet of creators wanted each inch of each frame to bear more thrills and narrative sophistication than the law would allow.

This bold, free-wheeling approach would intensify during the regrettably brief run of "Strongman"'s adventures. For Crash Comics Adventures would perish after its fourth issue.

While highly influential to such recognized masters as John Cole, Jack Kirby, William Eisner and Louis K. Fine, "Strongman" is all but forgotten to modern panelologists--save those us of blessed with the ownership of a rare, fragile copy.

It is my highest honor to present this story to you today.

I am certain my detractors will have their arch comments at the ready. I am prepared--altho' reluctant--to engage in verbal battles. As the fellow in the California riots once famously said, can't we all just be friends?


  1. Once again, I am surprised to find that you have decided to post a simply AWFUL comic book story and to represent it as an important piece of comics history. I never heard of the Funnies Factory, and I've studied comics for years. Either you have an incredible knowledge of comics history, or are just making this stuff up! PS - in response to your reply to my last comment, we are most definitely not kindred spirits, with all due respect and kindness. Unlike you, I don't feel comics as an art form needs to be defended. People like Art Spiegelman winning the Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel MAUS have legitimatized this art form to the mainstream.

  2. Mr. Tumry, I am perplexed by your seemingly unwarranted attack of hostility! Please recall the old but wise saying: "one man's meat is another man's poison."

    As for my research sources: they are highly confidential, and to be shared only with trusted friends.

    Given the current status of our relation, I must sadly withdraw any inferred invitation to access my research archives.

    I assume you were educated in civility and in good social manners, Mr. Tumry. It would serve you well to call upon those skills when speaking publicly.

    I shall continue to regard you as a peer, if not a kindred spirit. I read MOUSE and found it somewhat compelling! I agree with you--panelology, in and of itself, is in no need of defense.

    What I endeavor to do, here, is to inform the uneducated, and bring appreciation to those poor souls who have no "in" to the wondrous world in which you and I exist.

    Let us address one another as peers, and as gentlemen, Mr. Tumry. And perhaps someday you'll know the joy of reading Hartwell's oft-hilarious memoirs of his life as a panelology publisher!