Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cheery Christmas! A Fantastic Feast of Panelological Pleasure, Concocted With Care For You, From Your "Uncle Mason!"

O joyous Noel! O time of Christmas!

The actual day of joy is yet to come as I write these words. I shall be "up to my ears" in festivity and frolic on Christmas Day, so I've prepared this humble present to you, my beloved audience, well ahead of time!

Christmas and vintage comic books are entwined, in my heart, like roses on a Parisian fence. The hobby has its occasional thorns, to be sure. But, in my experience, panelology has been nothing but roses--one graceful, exotic bloom upon another.

Indeed, is the comic magazine not unlike a flower? Both are sheathed in the brightest of hues. Both exude a certain alluring fragance. And both, inside, contain much to nourish both heart and soul.

Unlike flowers, which wither and die, comic magazines grow older, but, with careful storage and "tender lovely care," they will outlive us all.

Today I present a buoyant bouquet of pure panelological pleasure! Three wondrous tales of fantasy and adventure! Tales that range from the wildest of imaginative fantasy to the most penetrating of ground-level realism! This, friends, is what panelology is all about. The thrills! The spills! The crooks! The heroes!

The raw emotion that leaps from the pulpy printed pages of these delectable bygone comic magazines!

Talk about your diamonds in the roughage!

As I did not include any news bulletins in my last post, I'll give a brief synopsis of recent events now. I don't wish to delay your immersion in four-colored joy, so I'll keep it short and sweet.

1) plans for the home-restaurant continue unabated. "Dorrie's Deep-Dish Diner" is the current title. Bert Liffler has rendered a charming caricature of "the missus" on his hand-painted signage.

2) "Raydon" is banished from my home after 5 PM. Dorrie may well need this strumpet to help plan her "chic" visuals, but I'll not have him braying at my every move! A man deserves to enjoy his cookies in restful retreat!

3) Dorrie and Raphael have met! Furthermore, she approves of him as her wait-staff. She feels that "the international touch" will be just right for our "let it all hang down" philosophy. All are welcome to our humble bistro!

To that end, I took young Vazquez clothes-shopping. He wished to purchase his raiments at a second hand store called "Snatch 'em Shack," but I insisted that we buy new off the rack garb.

We went to the South Ramp Mall, where, at Kesslinger's Family Store, suitable slacks, shirts, socks and dress shoes were found for my young ward. Raphael looked like "a million bucks" in his new "duds," and since that time he has "cleaned his action up."

He sports a neater hair-style, and his overall cleaner demeanor (I'm a poet!) suits him well indeed.

We have Raphael on a weekly retainer of fifty dollars, pending the bistro's opening day, which, if all goes well, shall occur on January 22.

4) Charlie or Chuckie has been let go at work. And guess who filled his shoes? A remorseful Jim R. He looks a bit ashen-faced. and tends to keep to himself. It is implicitly understood that the scanner is mine, and mine it shall remain. He is allowed usage of the device, after a polite inquiry as to its availability.

5) I have prepared a special gift package for Raphael. It contains one dozen "dupe" copies of Golden Age super-hero comic magazines. He has shown some interest in panelology. It is my hope that, by reading these publications, he shall become more conversant in colloquial American English. I firmly believe these "mags" will be morale-boosting and will enable him to do his job as best he can!

That's "all the news that fits to print" for now. I'm eager to get to the matter of today's "triple feature!"

The giving and enjoyment of panelological gems is part and parcel of the Yuleday experience for me. Lo, for many decades comic magazines and Christmas have gone hand in hand in the Moray household.

Although Dorrie is indifferent, at best, to my cherished comic magazines (due to paper allergies, as you may recall), she does understand their importance to me. She abets me in a little holiday ritual I've done for years.

I buy vintage comic magazines constantly, via auction lists, through trusted long-time dealers, and, on occasion, from Ebay. Tempting as it is to rip new parcels open (carefully, mind you!) and immediately savor their contents, I now entrust every third package to "the missus."

Throughout the year, she unwraps the new comic magazines and immediately places them in giftwrap. She is an expert at hiding things; that, wedded to my inevitable day-to-day forgetfulness, makes for an impressive stash of panelological pleasure, come Christmas Day.

I have purchased a great deal of cutlery, silverware, china and other essential items for Dorrie's restaurant. That is my big holiday gift to her this year.

Practical sort that she is, Dorrie will have a nice selection of new dress shirts, ties, socks and slacks to spice up my wardrobe. The real star of the show will be 2009's pile of "layaway comics."

I spend Christmas Day in slippers, pajamas and robe, curled up on the couch with a mug of Dorrie's special Velvet Fog Cocoa (soon to be served at her Diner!) and my new acquisitions. It's a splendid day for me. Christmas dinner does eventually intervene, and, afterwards, Dorrie takes me to cleaners with a rousing Scrabble match.

I believe that we shall have Mr. Liffler, from next door, over for pie and coffee on Christmas evening. I wonder if he shall wear his trademark gym shorts even on Christ's birthday? We shall soon see.

Here, for your enjoyment, are three of my favorite "finds" from 2008's "layaway program." Thus, I hope to share some true panelological pleasure with you on this day of days.

So wear your fuzziest slippers; nestle in your bushiest robe; and enjoy the finest the Pantheon has to offer!

First selection today: "Steel Sterling," from the rare second issue of Zip Comics, published in 1939. This tale exemplifies the free-wheeling early panelological styles I most dearly love. No rigid formulas governed the creation of these pioneering stories.

From "liquid fire" rays to angered polar bears, from prison riots to stirring sea-battles, this tale brims to overflowing with a plethora of graphic wonders!

"Steel Sterling" was a popular contender to the super-hero throne in 1939 and 1940. His fame was such that he was a successful write-in candidate for Iowa's gubernatorial election of 1940. The fictional Sterling got more votes than Henry Hennessey and Carl Bellings, the real-life contenders. (Bellings came in second, and, by default, became Iowa Governor later that year.)

Carl Bellings: He Lost To Steel Sterling!


We switch gears, friends, from the all-out fantasy of "Steel Sterling" to the subdued social realism of "The Blue Circle."

This tale, from the second issue of the character's short-lived magazine, dates from 1945. This period found many comics in the doldrums. It is not my favorite era of the comic magazine.

The cover does not feature the titular hero of the magazine! As with all great experiments, "The Blue Circle" was given a lower berth, in favor of what its publishers assumed would be the most salable material within the book's pages.

Yet gems appeared, like faint rays probing the fog of a haunted harbor. "The Blue Circle" was one of the most appealing "rays" of this panelological "dark age."

Writer Mark Reasoner wanted to create an "everyman" crime-fighter--one without super powers, or an outlandish costume. His scripts for "The Blue Circle" were autobiographical.

Reasoner fashioned a costume exactly like The Blue Circle's own, from a hooded winter coat, a dress shirt and a pair of work pants. He prowled the streets of Waukeegan at night, in search of civic corruption.

The young writer never found any graft or nepotism on Waukeegan's dark streets. He did prevent a holdup, and save a few drunk drivers from an early grave.

Reasoner came out of these experiences determined he had the most valid conception yet for a panelological crime-fighter.

Artist Walt Harris proved an able partner for Reasoner. He, too, sought to capture a low-key realism on the comic book page. Harris shared Reasoner's sense of civic injustice. They sought to make "The Blue Circle" a realistic inspiration for small-town youth who wished to make, and don, a simple costume and seek out malfeasance in their midst.

Be warned: this is not a wild tale of careening fantasy! This is stark social realism at its most sobering.

I interviewed Reasoner in 1974, shortly before his death. I'll excerpt a few choice passages after this story.

Now, as promised, some excerpts from my interview with the real-life "Blue Circle," Mark Jerome Reasoner.

MASON MORAY: As I understand it, you did indeed preview your idea in real life...

MARK REASONER: Yep. Except I called myself "The Night Terror." Not that anyone ever asked me who I was.

What motivated you to become a real-life costumed crime-fighter?

Well, I tell you. You'd read the papers, and hear about graft, crooked doings in City Hall, and such. It seemed to be happening everywhere in those days.

Uh huh.

And someone had to try to take action. I liked the idea of the "masked avenger." But, let's face it. Those costumes the characters wore in the comics must have cost them a million dollars! And who could sew that well and be a crime-fighter?

I just put together some of my regular work clothes. It's what I figured a real-life "superman" would want to wear.

I take it your "Night Terror" garb was similar to that of The Blue Circle's...

Exactly the same! Except the hood was a darker blue on the original. That hood itched like hell. I tore the lining out of a winter coat to make it. There were these rough seams run along the top. They scratched me like a kitten!

Did you have any triumphs as "The Night Terror?"

Stopped one pickpocket. And I pulled a couple of drunks out of their cars. They would have died in a ditch otherwise.

I met my future wife while I was in costume. She was coming out of a show. It was late at night. I put the fear of God into her, I guess. But she asked me out on a date.

As "The Night Terror?"

Well, yes. She wouldn't have anything to do with me as Mark Reasoner.

How long did you maintain this double-identity?

Two weeks. We went to the movies and such, with me in that get-up. You couldn't hear for beans with that hood on. Then, one night, the itching got too much, and I took off the hood. Becky--my wife-to-be--was sure surprised when she learned who was really under that hood. But she got over it, and I was persistent. Sooner or later, it was all right with her.

Do you, perchance, still retain the "Night Terror" garb?

Nope. My mother threw out the costume when she cleaned the attic. I just gave it up, then and there. But I had enough experience to write "The Blue Circle." And I still got the girl! Who says crime-fighting doesn't pay?


We return to the realms of wildest fantasy with the final, stunning episode of "Blue Blaze," from the fourth issue of Mystic Comics, published in 1940. This tale, as some of my office-mates might describe it, is a "real wild ride." Make sure your seat belt is fastened!

Series creator "Harry Douglas" is an utter mystery to myself, and to fellow panelological historians. [Specious information circulates that the feature was produced by the team of Harry Ramsey and either Douglas Grant or Douglas Ryan. This is utter fantasy, friends--both men, when interviewed, denied any knowledge or participation in the feature!]

No photographs exist of the man, Nor is it known when--and where--he lived or died.

He sent his first "Blue Blaze" story, unsolicited, to publisher Martin Goodman. Goodman liked what he saw--bold, easily-reproduced graphics, wild fantastic themes, international intrigue and hairy orange trolls. He published the story, and three subsequent episodes, in his new anthology title, Mystic Comics.

After the premiere issue went to press, Goodman realized he had no contact information for the creator! No name or address was written on the back of the original art boards, as was customary in the "trade." And the story's brown paper wrapper had been long discarded.

A month later, another "Blue Blaze" story appeared in the Timely Comics offices. This time, Goodman and his young assistant Stanley Leiber, checked the package for a possible return address. There was none! Just one word, written in red ink--"Fifty."

The creator never contacted Goodman--or anyone at Timely--with a request for payment. Yet he continued to produce "Blue Blaze" stories--literally by the bushel-load!

One Monday morning, Goodman arrived at his office to find 37 packages--each with a full-length, original "Blue Blaze" tale inside of them! The artwork was rendered on top-of-the-line illustration board.

The stories grew longer and more complex. It became apparent that they were intended as chapters in a leviathan comics "novel." Whomever "Harry Douglas" was, money was clearly no object.

I have, for decades, theorized about the promised "Vampire of Doom" episode. It did not see print. Perhaps this story marked the sea-change in "Harry Douglas"' work.

As the "Blue Blaze" stories continued to arrive, unsolicited and in increasing volume, in Goodman's office, their content became increasingly erotic, violent and unprintable. Thousands of pages of story and art flooded the Timely offices.

Full frontal male nudity and scenes of intense graphic violence, including lovingly rendered human viscera, filled these unrequested pages.

On each brown-paper parcel, in red ink, would be hand-written one word. Perhaps, had these wrappers been saved, the seemingly random words might have revealed a clue about the identity or intentions of "Harry Douglas." Stan Leiber (better-known as the phenomenal "Stan Lee") once recalled to me:

Oh, gee, pal, well that was a long time ago! I don't know. They were just regular words. Word-words. Y'know, like "tree," "night," "flesh." We had no idea. These things just kept coming in the office. After a couple of years, no one bothered to read 'em anymore. They just piled up!

And then one day, in 1951, they stopped arriving.

By then, Timely's inventory of "Blue Blaze" stories filled a large storage closet. Goodman and Leiber didn't have the heart to throw them away. The super-hero craze had long since waned--even if the stories were publishable, they had no commercial appeal.

Most of these pages were given away at office "smokers" or flipped over for practical use by other Timely staff artists.

To ensure that the near-pornographic imagery of "Douglas"'s work did not see print, large black Xs were painted over his unwanted work. To this day, one can occasionally find a re-used "Blaze" original. When located, these pages are treasured by panelological gourmets. Some collectors have attempted to reconstruct the pages, minus the X marks.

"Harry Douglas" appears to have been a mad genius of the comic magazine. Perhaps he is still alive. No one can say for certain. Via today's story, it is evident that "Douglas" was an unusual, unpredictable force in early comic magazine history.

So there it is. The first holiday feast of the wondrous Panelological Pantheon! I hope you leave this feast sated and charmed. I'll be back in the New Year with more news and more glinting gems from the heart and soul of the Pantheon!

1 comment:

  1. George A. Wilson would be amazed by at least one of the claims in this entry. As for me, I am wrestling with the question of whether you have a remarkably odd sense of humor, are insane, or both.