Supermen! Revisited


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Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Jack Coles' The Claw

When I first read Greg Sadowski’s Supermen!: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941, I was a bit disappointed. My preference is for anthologies that have a strong editorial vision like Art Out of Time or The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Supermen! seemed like it was governed less by an editorial imperative than a chronological one. Some of the comics in the book are very strong (especially the stories by Jack Cole, Fletcher Hanks, and Basil Wolverton) but many of them also seemed primitive in a bad way (crude, simple-minded) rather than a good way (Hanks’ vitalism).

But I’ve warmed to the book as I’ve lived with it more. In part that’s because leaving aesthetics aside, there is a historical value to old comics. Supermen! does an excellent job of a capturing a moment: let’s call it the mystery man moment, after the creation of The Shadow and The Phantom but before Captain America. It was an isolationist pause in America, as war and rumours of war were spreading throughout the world but many in America still hoped to stay out of the fighting. This might explain the incredible racism and xenophobia found in these comics.

Ken Fitch and Fred Guardineer's Dan Hastings

A good example of this xenophobia is the story “Dan Hastings” where the villain is a mish-mash of “foreign” types. His name is Hans Raskow, which is both Germanic and Slavic. He has dark skin, slant eyes, simian features, and buck teeth. By my count, that’s at least four ethnic groups right there. At least you can’t accuse the creators (Ken Fitch and Fred Guardineer) of picking on one group.

Jack Cole’s Claw is also a remarkable and disgusting racist monstrosity, the “yellow peril” villain taken to the point of ultimate absurdity.

The racism of these comics can be explained (although not forgiven) in historical terms, but I think there is an aesthetic dimension as well. Racism in old cartoonists often had a stylistic dimension. Virtually every cartoonist of the era was racist to some degree but their racism came through in different styles. Eisner’s racism, for example, tended to be avuncular and paternalistic: Ebony White, Blubber, and the rest were meant to be cute (like little monkeys, one is tempted to say). Jack Cole’s racism, by contrast, tended to be hyperbolic (as did his whole approach to cartooning). If Eisner’s Ebony White looked a little like a monkey, Cole’s Midnight (a knock-off of Eisner’s Spirit) had a sidekick who actually was a monkey. The same principal can be seen in The Claw. “If I’m going to draw a yellow demon,” Cole seemed to think, “why not go all the way and make him as satanic as possible?”

It’s interesting to see future masters like Eisner and Kirby when they were just starting out and before they mastered their styles. It makes us realize the context out of which they emerged. We’re used to a Kirby who could dominate over any comic he drew, but in Supermen! he’s decidedly inferior to older artists like Cole, Wolverton, and Hanks.  In the light of Supermen! Kirby’s dominance in the field of pulp cartooning seems like an achievement that he had to work towards rather than a forgone conclusion.

Time travel is impossible but a good anthology can sometimes be ordered in such a way that we can get a better sense of how works of art looked to their earliest audience. That’s something Supermen! achieves, so it’s a book I’m holding on to.

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4 Responses to “Supermen! Revisited”
  1. […] * Jeet Heer on racism, young Jack Kirby, and other things the Greg Sadowski-edited Golden Age comics a… […]

  2. I’ve found this book very useful in the “Superheroes” course I’m currently teaching. Just to be able to show students the raw, unvarnished, and in so many instances objectionable roots of the genre is a gift. Plus, there’s the development of the formalistic use of the comics page, so dramatic in, say, the Cole examples. Cole’s “Claw” story is one of the most offensive and also one of the most exciting, best-realized comics in the volume, so it presents an extraordinary difficulty, a conundrum. To discuss that honestly with students in class was invaluable.

    I wouldn’t want to teach a class on the genre again without this book in hand. It really shows what the conceptual and ideological roots of the genre were, and it also features an instructive range of artists, from the barely competent to the superbly gifted. Plus, it’s just so jaw-droppingly weird in spots, which in itself is instructive.

  3. patrick ford says:

    As Jeet mentions the most interesting stories in the book are by Cole, Hanks, and Wolverton.
    Part of this in the instance of Cole, and Hanks is the almost pathological level of violence in their work. Cole’s case is heightened even further by the juxtaposition of horrific violence with broad cartoon humor.
    You could imagine Cole creating a Bugs Bunny cartoon where a frying pan to the head gag leaves Elmer Fudd as you would expect in an E.C. horror comic. His head split open with brains splattered.
    Fletcher Hanks stories have much the same purgative quality. There is a powerful sense of disturbed subconscious rumblings erupting in their work.
    One advantage Cole, Hanks, and Wolverton had is they were older than most of the other artists represented in the book. For example Cole was three years older than Kirby, while Wolverton, and Hanks were “old men” compared to most artists working in the industry.
    Hanks in particylar was over fifty by the 1940’s.
    The early Cosmic Carson story by Kirby isn’t a particularly interesting story, but is interesting in that it is an example of how far advanced Kirby’s drawing, and story telling abilities were at such a young age (23 in 1940). Of particular interest is how in control of composition within the individual panels and page composition Kirby is. If you compare the Kirby story to one of the stories by Fine or Eisner you can see that Eisner and Fine aren’t fully adept at sizing their compositions within the panels. The individual pictures are fairly well drawn but often appear crowded into the panels awkwardly. This is more true of Fine than of Eisner. The Kirby panels are even more impressive because of how ambitious they are.
    Take for example panel 3 on page one. Kirby is already a master of deep space perspective, and he effortlessly composes and executes a complicated picture incorporating close-up foreground figures into a deep focus futuristic city scape. The complicated and detailed panel isn’t crowded, is perfectly executed, in fact it’s open and airy, the viewer feels as if he could walk right into the panel. Compare the panel to the larger opening splash panel by Lou Fine on the Flame story which attempts a similar deep space composition and displays no where near a similar level of mastery. Kirby isn’t just doing the difficult he is making it look easy.
    The last page features a strong panel design arrangement, with panel two being of particular interest Kirby focuses attention directly where it creates the highest drama, the look in the woman’s eye so perfectly capturing her cold blooded verbal warning, the hero is literally marginalized in the panel.
    The second Kirby story is a Blue Bolt story inked by Joe Simon. This story has quite a few bits of wobbly drawing perhaps due to being executed in greater haste or because Joe Simon may have drawn portions of it. It really isn’t half as good as the earlier Cosmic Carson story.
    Of greater interest than anything by Kirby in the “Supermen!” book is a story Kirby created for the Eisner shop. A modern Western called “The Lone Rider.”
    The story has the same refined art as seen in the Cosmic Carson story, but is much longer and is already showing some of the same themes Kirby remained fascinated with through his career. The key protagonist Dr. Chuda has a dwarfed body with an outsized head.
    Kirby continuously explored variations on this theme; minds confined, and judged by their suit of skin.
    The mind might be hosted by a man who never leaves his chair (Metron, Prof. X), a monster (The Hulk, Orion), and even a dwarfed or absent body (Dr. Chuda, Ego, The Egghead from Captain Victory).

  4. […] racist to some degree but their racism came through in different styles”: At Comics Comics, Jeet Heer returns to Greg Sadowski’s collection of first generation, Golden Age superhero comi…, and has some interesting observations about the particular types of racism certain giants of the […]