THE GOLDEN AGE COMICS OF MLJ
THE GOLDEN AGE COMICS OF MLJ
by Raymond Miller
Once upon a time, long, long ago there existed a four-color world of absolute
and frenetic excitement. This world featured the constant exploits of a large
group of colorfully costumed and upstanding individuals who helped to protect
the shores of a mythical America from the ravages of crime, saboteurs and the
depredations of the Japanazi menace. Foremost among these were the superheroes
of a select few companies. Timely offered Captain America, the Submariner and
the Human Torch while National/ American offered the likes of Superman, Batman
and Wonder Woman, Fawcett offered the incredible Marvel Family (including Marvel
Bunny and Uncle Marvel) and MLJ brought forth such avengers as the Black Hood,
The Shield, the Wizard and The Hangman.
Never before had literature seen the likes of these icons of truth and
justice, and truth to tell, never again would their like be seen again, in
numbers or in sheer freshness of presentation. Looking back from our jaded
present the sparkle seems to be somewhat dimmed but at the time, this was
something new, something unprecedented on the printed page. And while there was
multitude of four-color heroes only these four companies really led the way.
National merged with American and then in turn changed its name to DC,
continuing many of the same characters of that by-gone age, either in identical
format or with minor alterations. Timely went through several name changes and
finally emerged as the leader of modern-day comic book publishing, Marvel
Comics, also continuing many of the same colorfully garbed wondermen. Fawcett
became the property of DC and the victim of management unable or simply unaware
of how to revive and continue the Marvel Family. MLJ is unique in that it did
not continue its strongmen but turned to publishing the exploits of Archie
Andrews and teen-age compatriots although not abandoning its offspring entirely.
Every twenty or so years the company attempts to re-emerge from the doldrums of
obscurity by relaunching its heroes. Twenty years ago it was as Mighty Comics.
Today it is as Red Circle, and the jury is still out as to the success of that
What is certain is that in the 1940 s, a multitude of colorful, excellently
crafted heroes emerged at the forefront of adventurers and it is those days and
those stories which concern us here. In the mid-sixties Raymond Miller labored
in the fields to bring forth a true history of this colorful period in the
history of comics. In 1983 to 1984 The GOLDEN AGE of COMICS reproduced those
lost pages of RBCC with very minor revisions. Here they are for an electronic
generation that knows that not only did Red Circle not prosper but even DC could
not sustain these heroes under the Impact range.
The first title to be published by MLJ was Blue Ribbon Comics,
dated Nov. 1939. There was really nothing outstanding about this new comic. It
was just another addition to the slowly growing comic book industry and it
wasn't even all in color. That first issue was half color with the remaining
pages red and white tints.
The lead feature in the first issue and the only strip to appear in all 22
issues was Rang-A-Tang, the Wonder Dog. Looking a lot like Rin Tin Tin, it was
no secret that Rang-A-Tang was the main stay even when the book featured super
heroes. Rang-A-Tang appeared somewhere on the cover of every issue but #3 and
#21, mostly in a circle which was part of the title logo . Inside he mostly had
the longest story except for the first issue when the story only contained six
pages. With the second issue the story was upped to ten pages and then to 11
with the fourth issue and the stories remained at 11 pages through #18. No other
strip in any issue ran 11 pages except for the Captain Flag story in issue #22.
Rang was so popular that the good dog soon had his own club, called the
Rang-A-Tang Club...what else? Blue Ribbon was now
carrying a club page every issue listing names of new members, letters,
information on how to join the club, tips on how to care and train your pet dog
and other related items. Charter members of the club included Rang's author Joe
Blair and the artist, Ed Smalle Jr. It only cost one thin dime to join and Hy
Speed would send you a membership card, a Rang-A-Tang button and a book on
"Health and Care of Your Dog and Cat."
Rang-A-Tang's origin appeared in Blue Ribbon #1. As the story unfolds we find
Rang has been treated rather cruelly by his master and like most smart animals,
decided enough was enough, so he ran away. Being a stray dog means no regular
meals, so he had to find his meals wherever he could, such as in an alley. Well,
it so happened that one day Detective Hy Speed was attacked by some hoods in an
alley Rang was looking for food. Seeing that the Detective was outnumbered, Rang
joined the fight and saved Hy Speed. To show his gratitude, Hy adopted Rang and
a long partnership was born.
This first story was by Norman Danberg, who may also have done the story in
#2. Art in #3 was by Jack Binder and Will Ham. With #4 the team of Joe Blair and
Ed Smalle Jr. took over.
But a story about a man and his dog isn't really complete unless a young boy
is involved, so a young boy is added in issue #6. Hy and Rang's adventure found
them guarding a movie producer from a series of attacks by the Bundonians. (The
Wizard had just beat them and kicked them out of Top-Notch Comics).
During the action, a young bit player named Richy saved the producer but Hy was
shot during the fight. As he left for the hospital, he turned the case over to
Richy and Rang and from that story on it was a trio: Hy, Richy and Rang.
In the final story (#22) Hy, Richy and Rang journeyed to the North Woods
where Rang saved the life of a small white dog. They became real close
companions and roamed the forest together. Meanwhile Hy and Richy hunted for a
killer of a trapper. High on a cliff, the killer attacked Richy and when Rang
and his new found pal raced to the rescue the killers struck Rang a cruel blow
which momentarily stunned the great dog. Then Rang's brave little friend
attacked the killer but they were too close to the edge of the cliff and killer
and dog both went over the edge to their deaths. It was a very sad ending in
more ways then one. Not only did the little dog die, but as it turned out, this
was also the end of the trail for Rang, Hy and Richy as well because
Blue Ribbon Comics came to an end with issue #22.
I can't help but wonder what all the Rang-A-Tang Club members thought when no
more issues came out. There was no hint, except in the Corp. Collins story, that
#22 was the last issue, but more on that later. The club was still open for new
members in #22. 1 can't help but wonder why MLJ didn't move the strip to another
title such as Top-Notch or Pep.
With a full-fledged club, Rang must have had a large following.
The other strips that appeared in Blue Ribbon #1
didn't come off as well as Rang-A-Tang. Little Nemo, Burk of the Briny and Crime
on the Run (latter drawn by Jack Cole) didn't last past #1 (Crime on the Run did
appear once more in #3). Dan Hastings, who would appear late in such Chesler
titles as Scoop and Dynamic Comics and Buck Stacey, a cowboy range detective
made it to #2 and #3.
The second issue introduced two more winners. The first being Corporal
Collins, who would appear in all remaining issues and Bob Phantom who would
fight his battles, not in Blue Ribbon but in
Corp. Collins, Infantryman, was drawn by Charles Biro in the early issues
while later stories were by Carl Hubbell. Hubbell, who replaced Biro around #8
had a style quite similar to Biro so the stories didn't suffer by the art
changes. Collins and his partner Slapsie (their Navy counterparts Sgt. Boyle and
Twerp, also by Biro/Hubbell, were in Pep) were army men,
but they never seemed to stick to army rules since they seemed to be more or
less loners. Popping up all over the world:-off the Irish Coast in #18 and in a
Northern Russian Port in #22. One could also find a number of crossover stories
between Boyle and Collins in both Blue Ribbon and
Pep Comics. Corp. Collins also made the covers of
Blue Ribbon #3-#5, #16 and #20. His stories averaged 7
pages per issue, being upped to 8 pages in #19-#22.
It was in the Collins story in #22 that it was hinted that the end had come.
Collins addressed his fans with "Well gang, looks like this might be the end of
our adventures together! But I want to say it was swell carousing around with
you fellers. I sure hope you'll drop me a few lines sometimes" to which Slapsie
added "Gee". Collins and Slapsie did appear in a couple of Boyle stories after
Bob Phantom made his debut in Blue Ribbon #2 Dec.
1939, making him MLJ's first costumed hero. He also appeared in issue #3, before
moving over to Top-Notch Comics. More on him later.
With issue #4 June 1940 (there were no February through April issues)
Blue Ribbon began to take shape adding more permanent
features with Hercules, Gypsy Johnson, Tygor, Doc Strong, Loop Logan, Green
Falcon and the Fox.
Selected as the number two character was that old stand-by Hercules. As most
readers know, Herc was the [censored] of Ancient Greece. In this case, he was sent back
to earth to rid the modern world of gangsters, mobs and the like by Zeus. He, of
course, had super strength and the other familiar powers. Sometimes he wore a
blue business suit and other times white trunks with a red belt and boots. In
the stories, he often returned to Mt. Olympus for advice and instructions from
Zeus. He never made the cover as the main feature but did rate his picture in a
circle near the title logo for a while. Both Hercules and the minor strip, Gypsy
Johnson, were last seen in #8 January 1941.
Loop Logan, Air Ace, lasted somewhat longer, through #20. Doc Strong and the
Isle of Right, an interplanetary strip with adventures on Mars, made it to #-12.
The Green Falcon was last in #15 August 1941. This strip, drawn by Ramona
Patenaude, took place in the days of King Arthur. The strip could have been
called Robin Hood and one would never have noticed the difference. The Green
Falcon's band consisted of Tiny Tunk and Jolly Roundfellow.
Ty-Gor by Joe Blair, art by Mort Meskin, appeared in #4-#20. It was a story
about a young boy named Tyrone Gorman who was raised by a tigress in the wilds
of Malay. Found, he was brought to the USA by an explorer named Davis and his
daughter Joan. Being un-civilized, modern man's ways were hard for Ty-Gor to
adjust to and this caused all kinds of trouble, and good deeds such as saving
two children from a burning house in #10 or fighting Bundists (Nazis) in #14. By
#18 the art was by George Storm and Ty-Gor was on his way back to Malay with his
Guardians, to confuse the Japs, no doubt.
Blue Ribbon's longest-running costumed hero was the
Fox. The Fox's origin, if you can call it one, was in issue #4. Paul Patton, who
was a photographer for the Daily Globe was always goofing up his shots of
crimes, so he rigged up a camera to his belt to take pictures that would convict
criminals and put on a fox costume to fight crime. (I wonder if Peter Parker
read this story). The artist was Irwin Hasen on the earlier stories with King
taking over with #11. Hasen's Wildcat at DC, looked a lot like the Fox at times.
Bob Montana was the artist on #18 while Bobby King was back to finish up the
Fox's career in #22. Like most hero strips, the Fox also had a girl in the cast.
In this case it was Ruth Ransom, Girl Reporter for the Daily Globe.
But it wasn't till Blue Ribbon #9, February 1941,
that the book came up with a real winner. It was in that issue that one of MLJ's
most popular strips made its debut in the form of the Royal Wraith...Mr.
Justice. The story was by Joe Blair, with art by Sam Cooper. Cooper along with
Al Camerata and Irv Novick, were MLJ's so-called "3 Musketeers". They certainly
carried the bulk of MLJ's art on the costumed heroes, and besides they were
three of the best MLJ or any publisher could ask for, so it was only natural
Cooper got the Mr. Justice assignment. When he took his time, he could deliver
the super-natural with the best of them.
The origin of Mr. Justice was told twice. The first time was in #9 and then
repeated (not reprinted) again in the final issue, #22. Both origins are the
same although they are different stories. During the Rogers Rebellion in
Scotland in the year 1040, the Rogers Clan lured Prince James of England into a
secluded tower of the Rogers' Castle where they suddenly turned on him and
killed him. The spirit of Prince James rose from his body, in the form of Mr.
Justice. Mr. Justice then killed his murderers and his spirit floated off into
eternity. Then in 1940, while the castle was being shipped to America for
safe-keeping, an enemy torpedo sent the ship and it's cargo to Davy Jones
Locker. In so doing, the spirit of Prince James was released from eternity to
return to earth once again.
In America, Mr. Justice in his mortal body met Pat Clark and her father and
in stories, Mr. Justice and Pat shared many adventures together. One of their
most awesome adventures was in the World of the Atoms where they once again did
battle with The Green Ghoul. In #13 November 1941, we find that The Royal Wraith
and Pat had trailed the Green Ghoul into Atom World where the Ghoul had trapped
them in a circle of flames. These were the flames of Purgatory which no spirit
or human could pass through and all seemed lost until a large Pterodactyl flew
over and plucked both up and deposited them to it's nest. Free of the flames Mr.
Justice flew away with Pat in his arms. Meanwhile the Green Ghoul had left the
Atom World and had destroyed it only seconds after Mr. Justice and Pat had
escaped from it. Back on Earth, in a battle royal, Mr. Justice defeated the
Throughout the Royal Wraith's career he had a running battle with the Devil
himself and it was the Devil who was behind most of the evil beings Mr. Justice
was always doing battle with.
In issue #22, March 1942, we find that one, Harold Rogers had returned to the
Rogers' Castle. (No explanation as to why the castle exists is given since it
was supposed to have been destroyed in 1940, but such details were not part of
the forties). Since a Rogers had returned, it opened the door for a Spirit of
Harold Rogers ancestor to return also. The spirit informed Harold Rogers that he
must seek out and destroy the body of Prince James by fire. Then a vision of
impending danger comes to Mr. Justice and he flew to the Rogers Castle and
entered the body of Prince James just minutes before Harold Rogers was about to
destroy the body. Seeing the dead body rise caused Harold to become panic
stricken and he leaped out of a tower window and was killed. The castle burst in
flames as the life of the last Rogers passed away. The Royal Wraith then
deposited Prince James' body in his own family's resting place, then returned to
his human form in America. A thrilling climax to the end of Mr. Justice's run in
Blue Ribbon Comics. Mr. Justice did manage to hang on
for another year by being part of Jackpot Comics line
Issue #13, June 1941, introduced Penny Parker, a female private eye, who
would disappear after #15, and a new superhero called Inferno, The Flame
Breather. Inferno had shared some adventures with Steel Sterling in
Zip Comics before striking out on his own. He first appeared in the
Steel Sterling story in Zip #11. In Zip
#12 he went to jail and in #13 was recommended for parole. He was not in costume
in these stories, but in Blue Ribbon he was decked out
in a bright red and yellow costume. While he was somewhat stronger than the
average man, his main asset was that he was able to breath fire. The art on the
stories contained some of Paul Reinman's better efforts. Inferno was last to be
found in #19, December 1941.
Then came Blue Ribbon #16, September 1941, and the
introduction of one of MLJ's best costumed heroes, and one of their most short
lived ones as well:-- the colorful Captain Flag. As Howard Keltner once wrote,
most costumed heroes start out at the top and then taper off into
run-of-the-mill fare, but it can be said of Captain Flag that he was one of the
few who improved with each succeeding story. Had he not been snuffed out of
existance by the abrupt folding of Blue Ribbon after #22
(which gave him only seven brief appearances) who knows what heights he may have
reached as time passed by?
Captain Flag first appeared in the last story in #16, a nine page origin
story, „„ and he remained in that tail end spot till #17. With #18, he was moved
into the lead spot and with #19, his stories were upped to ten pages as he took
over the cover. Since #16 he had shared it with Mr. Justice. With #22, he was
upped to eleven pages, so he went out in a flash of glory.
The stories were written by Joe Blair and the art was split betweeen Lin
Streeter, who did issues #16, #19-#22, and Bobby King, who did #17 and #18.
In the origin story, a master criminal called The Black Hand had captured an
inventor, John Townsend, in order to get certain important plans from him. When
he wouldn't co-operate, Townsend's worthless, playboy son Tom was kidnapped so
as to force his father to talk. When the father still refused to talk, The Black
Hand, in a fit of rage, choked the life out of him with his diseased claw-like
right hand. Still in a rage, he turned to the young Townsend, who he had been
torturing, with the same thought in mind. Before he could carry out his second
murder, a great giant eagle, which had lost it's way in the darkness of the
night, crashed through a window into the room, and in the confusion that
followed, the bird, in panic, fastened it's talons onto the first thing it
touched, which was Tom Townsend's trousers and flew off into the night with him.
During the next few days, the eagle brought Tom food and he slowly regained his
strength, strength greater than he had ever had before. Then one day the great
bird returned, not with food, but with an American Flag. Taking this as some
sort of omen, Tom made a vow against evil in all forms, made a costume out of
the flag and thus was born Captain Flag. With the giant eagle, whom he named
Yank, he set out to seek the Black Hand, and found him in an old shack. During
the fight that followed, a lamp was knocked over. Captain Flag escaped, but the
Black Hand didn't or so Captain Flag thought, for he returned in the next issue,
and the next, before he disappeared, only to return in issue #21 and finally
#22. In a battle at sea, on a freighter, The Black Hand finally ended his reign
of terror at the end of a rope. What adventures await Captain Flag now?"Watch
for him in the next issue of Blue Ribbon Comics" were
the words that appeared in the last panel. Readers are still waiting and
Why the editors chose to drop Blue Ribbon after only
22 issues is still a mystery. It had good stories and art, two top notch super
heroes in Mr. Justice and Captain Flag and a good dog strip in Rang-A-Tang but
looking over MLJ's over-all history at that time it was apparent the publishers
wanted to change their image. They either saw no future in the super hero, their
books were not selling well, or they preferred a lighter fare. Whatever the
problem, the lighter fare won out with the likes of Archie and company because
soon after Blue Ribbon was dropped, other MLJ titles
started to add more and more humor strips.
One could see Blue Ribbon Comics was in some sort of
trouble when issue #20 appeared on the stands. A weird type of tale called
"Tales from the Witch's Cauldron" had replaced Inferno. Then came #21 and more
cttanges. Now two True Life Stories had replaced Tygor and Loop Logan. But even
this change could not save Blue Ribbon and it was only
Corporal Collins who realized that he had just appeared in his last adventure
and not even Captain Flag, The Fox, Rang-ATang or the Rang-A-Tang fan club
hinted that they were on their way to limbo. So with issue #22, March 1942,
Blue Ribbon was laid to rest.
Unlike Blue Ribbon, Top-Notch
#1 was a full color comic from cover to cover and featured MLJ's first costumed
hero, The Wizard, the Man with the Super Brain. As Howard Keltner once said,
"even though the Wizard did not wear a costume till issue #7, he still must be
classified as a superhero". Starting out looking a great deal like Mandrake the
Magician complete with tuxedo, high hat, cape and an added red mask, Blane
Whitney was ready to start his career as a crime fighter.
Blane Whitney had inherited a heritage of greatness and had trained himself
until he was a mental and physical giant and, in time, he possessed the greatest
brain-power on earth. Whitney was the head of a newspaper empire although this
was never really played up and in later stories it wasn't even ntioned at all.
After a while, the "Super-Brain" was also all but forgotten. During his early
days, The Wizard fought international spies but as time went on The Man with the
Super-Brain devoted more of his time to fighting domestic crime. Using his
Super-Brain, he was able to see visions of things that were happening many miles
away. As it was, the strip was definitely going no place, so a change was due
and this change started to take place with issue #5, May 1940.
In Top Notch #5 a new threat to the USA is uncovered.
As the story opened, Blane Whitney was shown being blown up as he lifts a phone.
With his Super-Brain he sees a plot against the USA. A group of plotters called
the Mosconians are planning to attack Washington DC. In a vision, The Wizard
sees his brother Grover in trouble after the plotters house is bombed by mistake
by their henchmen. Blane wants to go to his rescue, but Grover transported a
message to him to move onto Washington and forget about him as the plotters are
ready to attack the Capitol. The Wizard then races to the FBI and there meets
MLJ's number one star, The Shield. The Shield had not been around as long as The
Wizard because Pep Comics started later than
Top-Notch but The Shield, like Superman, Batman, Captain America
and others before and after him, proved to be a best seller from the start. It
never hurt to guest star your #1 hero in the revamping of a less popular hero,
so it was only good business to bring The Shield in at this point. After this
historic meeting, The Wizard is sent off to Annapolis and West Point while The
Shield remained in Washington. The Wizard proceeded to break up the plot at
Annapolis, then moved on to West Point where he and Cadet Keith Kornell (another
character appearing in Top-Notch, better known as The
West Pointer) broke up a bombing attack and saved General Woods. After this, The
Wizard's Super-Brain gets a new vision of his brother Grover being gassed by the
Mosconians. Racing to his aid, he rescues his brother and pulls the plotters
In issue #6, The Wizard and his brother talk over the spy activities. In
another vision he sees new plans by the Mosconians to attack. The rest of the
story reads like a full scale war with The Wizard fighting Mosconians everywhere
and saving a city and the army. He then sends his brother a message to have the
US Fleet go to the Pacific coast to meet the Mosconian's invasion forces,
heading for the coast himself.
In Top-Notch #7, August 1940, the full change in The
Wizard begins. The Wizard encountered the invasion plan of California in still
another vision. He saw the Mosconian headquarters, which were in Canada near the
Washington state line. He attacked the head quarters and for the first time came
face to face with the Mosconian leader known as the Master Mind. Caught off his
guard, The Wizard is blinded when the Master-Mind escaped. Then, as Blane
Whitney, he goes back and has an operation on his eyes. It was touch and go as
The Shield takes up the battle in The Wizard's place. Meanwhile, the
Master-Mind, thinking The Wizard is out of the fight for good, starts plotting
anew. Now recovered, The Man With the SuperBrain sees the new plot. This time he
wanted to be prepared before the battle. Returning to his lab, he invented a
costume (much along the lines of Superman's) which would make him invulnerable
against any new threats. With The Shield at his side, he prevented the new
invasion of California and captured the Master-Mind. The Shield and The Wizard
then shook hands as the Mosconian threat was at last over.
There was to be one more major change in The Wizard's career. In #8,
September 1940, the story opens as a young shoeshine boy sees come crooks run
down a man. The crooks spot the boy and go after him in order to shut him up.
The boy puts up a pretty good fight and is rescued by The Wizard who sort-of
adopts the boy and trains him as his aid, revealing to him that he is really
Blane Whitney. The boy was then given a costume and named Roy, The Super Boy.
If any of these changes in The Wizard's career, the new costume and a young
helper, were good enough to save Top-Notch Comics, it
would never be known because with issue #9, MLJ introduced their most popular
hero next to The Shield, The Black Hood, Man of Mystery.
Most of the Wizard stories were written by Harry Shorten and Bill Woolfolk
while the art was by Edd Ashe, Al Camereta and Paul Reinman. Unlike most of the
MLJ heroes, The Wizard and Roy had no recurring villains. They and their friends
Jane Barlow and Moe the cabbie fought a so-called vampire in #14, The Purple
Mafia in #19, Voodo in #21, Nazis in #22 and The Jingler in #26, before finally
leaving the pages of Top-Notch with #27, May 1942.
It was with Top-Notch #9, October 1940, that the real
star was introduced. "The Man of Mystery," The Black Hood, not only made his
debut in #9 but took over the lead spot and the cover as well. He only appeared
solo on two covers, #10 and #27. All other covers he shared with either The
Wizard or Ray or both up to #27 and after that issue he shared them with Pokey
Oakey and the other comical characters through #34, #41 and his last cover #43.
The stories were credited to either Editor Harry Shorten or Cliff Camp bell
while all the art was done by Al "Camy" Camerata. The stories in Top-
Notch 9-27 were all 14 pages except for those in #19, #26 and #27
which were 13 pages. The most pages The Wizard ever had was 13 in #7 and #8.
The Man of Mystery had much going for him. Al Camy's art, story plots far
above the standards for 1940 and a variety of villains. Foremost on this list
was The Skull. The original Skull, since The Black Hood started some six months
before Timely's Captain America. The Black Hood, in other words, had it made. He
was a hit at the time MLJ was reaching its highest point of production.
The story began, where a million others had begun, on the streets of New
York. A few minutes before midnight found patrolman Kip Burland checking the
Woodrow Mansion before finishing patrolling his beat for the night. Arriving at
the mansion, he spotted an intruder and discovered that the intruder was not
just a man, but more like a skeleton, which was the first meeting between Kip
and The Skull. Seeing a man who looks like a skeleton is enough to stun anyone
and The Skull made good use of Kip's sudden shock by slugging him and placing
stolen jewelery in the unconscious patrolman's hand. He then blew Kip's police
whistle and beat it. Shortly, two of Kip's patrolman buddies found him and
seeing the jewelery, had to turn him in. Kip had been framed, but good. The
Chief of Police believed him, but the newspapers blew the thing all out of
proportion. Kip's badge was taken away, he was arrested and let out on bail.
Out on bail, Kip decided the only way to clear himself was to find The Skull,
which he did one night during a warehouse robbery, a meeting that ended with Kip
being taken for a ride, and his body riddled with bullets as he was dumped out
of the car. Nearby, an old man known as The Hermit, heard the shooting and
discovered Kip's body.
During the next few months, The Hermit nursed Kip back to health, tells him
that he was once a sheriff, but The Skull had also framed him. He tells Kip
everything he knew about The Skull. Kip also went into training, training his
mind and building his strength for beyond what they had been. Then, with a
costume, The Black Hood was born. Later, The Black Hood is living in New York
under an alias, since Kip was now wanted for both larceny and bail jumping. In
New York, The Black Hood met Barbara Sutton when he battled The Skull at a
masquerade party held by the Suttons.
The battle between The Black Hood and The Skull continued in #10 and in five
more stories, the final meeting taking place in #19, September 1941. The Black
Hood finally accomplished his mission. The Skull was finally captured, but it
wasn't easy, as he had more than one trick up his sleeve. In #19, the old Hermit
paid The Skull a visit in prison and told him he would help him to escape if he
would sign a confession that would exonerate Kip Burland. The Skull agreed and
once freed turned on The Hermit giving him a mild injection which turned The
Hermit into The Skull's double. Finally The Black Hood catches up with him and
The Hermit gave The Black Hood the confession which exonerated Kip Burland.
Around this time, the role Sarg. McGinty was starting to be given a bigger
build up. McGinty was starting a one man vendetta to capture The Hood. In issue
#24, McGinty actually put The Hood behind bars, which was more than Barbara
Sutton could put up with. She started writing an expose on The Hood, which more
or less made The Hood a hero to all but McGinty.
Being MLJ's second most popular hero, The Black Hood was not dropped after
#27, the final issue of the original Top-Notch Comics.
When #26 appeared, the whole comic book was revamped. The title was now
Top- Notch (in small letters) Laugh Comics
(in bold letters). Gone were all the costumed heroes except The Hood. Instead of
an adventure comic, it was now a humor comic. Still this did not effect the
Black Hood stories. The mundane and eerie settings were still there, although
The Hood had lost both the lead story and Al Camy's art. Camy was replaced by
Sam Cooper who was no stranger to The Hoods eerie atmosphere having done the
equally weird Mr. Justice stories in Blue Ribbon Comics.
By now, The Black Hood was appearing in both the pulps and on radio. Later
artists were "Red" Holmdale and Clem Harrison. The original Dark Knight was last
to be found in Top-Notch Laugh #44, February 1944,
before moving into Pep Comics.
The character who appeared in more issues of Top-Notch
than any other character was Kardak, The Mystic Magician. This strip appeared in
#1 and #2 as The Mystic, missed #3 and returned in #4 as Kardak. Kardak not only
made it through #27 but through Laugh #29 as well. Kardak was from the same mold
as Mandrake, Zatara and the rest of the magicians. Like Mandrake, Kardak had a
giant size friend and his power or magic came from hypnosis. Many artists worked
on the strip including Ed Smalle, Paul Reinman, Bob Montana George Strom and Lin
Two long running strips were Wings Johnson in #1-#27 (called Air Patrol in #I
and #2) and Keith Kornell also in #1-#27 (called The West Pointer in 1- 6).
Wings Johnson of the Air Patrol and his pal Henry Higgins was a pretty good air
strip because it's artist Ed Smalle knew how to draw airplanes and knew which
planes were which as many of the planes he drew are listed somewhere in the
strip. Drawing good aircraft was a problem many artists, and that includes some
of the best, were not able to lick, but a few guys like Smalle, Al McWilliams
and Lee Elias were really good at it. Wings Johnson was a pilot in the RAF so
most planes were either British or German. Keith Kornell spent most of his time
fighting on the home front. While he was in the army, his role seemed more like
that of a National Guardsman in all the stories. The art was by Nick Zuraw with
Bobby King taking over shortly after #14.
MLJ's first "real" costume hero was Bob Phantom who made his debut in
Blue Ribbon #2 December 1939, a month before The Shield and
The Comet started in Pep #1. After appearing in
Blue Ribbon #2 and #3,Bob Phantom moved into
Top-Notch with issue # 3, February, 1940.
Billed as "The Scourge of the Under. world, Bob Phantom had no origin, His
secret identity was that of Broadway columnist Walt Whitney, who was always
ribbing Captain Casey, a local Police Officer, both as Bob Phantom and Whitney.
Whitney was always getting booted out of Casey's office, but the heckling kept
up. The so called feud was a friendly one. Bob Phantom's powers were much like
Timely's Vision. He appeared and disappeared for good after Top-Notch
#25, March 1942, making him one of MLJ's first costumed heroes to be dropped in
1942. More artists worked on Bob Phantom than on any other MLJ hero. Irving
Novick did him in #4, Gerry Thorp in#5 and #8, Bernie Klein in #9, #10 and #12
and Bobby King in about every issue after #12 with Romana Patendue in #18.
Top-Notch's fourth costume hero and one of MLJ's more
popular second string heroes was The Firefly. Harley Hudson was a chemist and a
biologist who spent a lot of time studying insects and their muscular
coordination, such as ants carrying great weights and grasshoppers jumping great
distances. After two years of study and research, Hudson masters these feats
himself, even to the point of staying under water for long periods of time. He
then decided to become a crime fighter. When he saw a firefly he said he would
become a Firefly and light up the darkness of the underworld. So the Firefly was
Many of his stories bordered on the macabre. In #14, he fought a mad doctor
called "The Cat". in #19, he fought a mad scientist who injected a growth serum
into birds and animals causing them to grow to enormous sizes. The Firefly had
his hands full with larger-than- automobile-sized rats. in #22, he pitted his
wits with The Shark-Man and in #26, it was a scientist who could shrink humans.
It was in #24 that we find the weirdest story of all. The story is reminiscent
of the story, "Three Skeleton Key" better known as "The Rats". A freighter on
which Harley Hudson was a passenger came upon a weird looking deserted vessel at
sea. Pulling alongside, the ship's crew prepared to board the vessel when
suddenly, thousands of ferocious rats raced across the gangplank, overrunning
the freighter. The rats were controlled by The Pied Piper, a bizarre murderous
creature who played a pipe or flute. The rats attacked, but The Firefly spotted
The Pied Piper and his music that controlled the rats. In the fight that
followed, The Piper lost his flute and the rats attacked him, but The Firefly
threw kerosene on the rats and set them and the deserted ship afire. The Pied
Piper and his rats went down in flames with their ship.
Art on The Firefly was by Bob Wood in #8-#11. When Wood left MLJ, along with
Charles Biro, for Lev Gleason and Comic House, the art was taken over by Bob
King, who did most of the remaining stories. The Firefly vanished with the rest
of the serious strips after #27.
Other strips appearing in Top-Notch #1-#27 were Scott
Rand, "On the World's of Time" and Swift of the S.S in#1-#3; Lucky Coyne in #1
(who later appeared in the Dynamic group); Dick Storm #2-#8; Stacy Knight, MD
#3,#4; Galahad, the classic Galahad from King Arthur's time in #5-#11; Streak
Chandler and Shanghai Sheridan in #5-#8. Fran Frazer, Girl Reporter for the
Picture Magazine Strife and her partner Newspaper Reporter Hal Davis appeared in
#9- #25. The St. Louis Kid, a boxing story starring Jim Jennings, was in #l2-#27
with art by Bob Montana and George Storm.
The route of Top-Notch seemed destined to follow that
of Blue Ribbon. Just as Blue Ribbon
started to change it's line-up with issue #20, Top-Notch
started the same thing with #26, April 1942. Gone was Fran Frazer and Bob
Phantom and in their place, True Life Stories and the first humor strip Snoop
McGook, the Soupy Sleuth. No further change came about in #27, but there was to
be a big change with #28. A new hero, The Web, was to make his debut, but this
never even came about. Instead there was almost a completely different book. The
new issue, #28, July 1942, had a new title logo, Top-Notch
in small letters and in large bold letters Laugh. Gone
were all the serious strips but The Black Hood, Kardak (who would last through
#29), and Hall of Fame (from Blue Ribbon would appear in
#28-#32) and in their place appeared a bushel of humor strips led by the Don
Dean creation, Pokey Oakey of Catfish Creek.
Pokey was the Sheriff of this hillbilly settlement in a strip right out of
the same mold as Lil' Abner. Pokey Oakey was now the main character and the main
part of the cover as well, although The Black Hood did appear on the covers of
#28-#34, #41 and #43 with the rest of the humor characters and it was a far cry
from the covers he appeared on in issue #9-#427. The Black Hood even lost the
lead story to Pokey; although he did lead off in issues #28, #30, #32, #35, #37,
#40. For the most part, the Black Hood was lost in the middle of a slap stick
magazine. This was almost the same as finding an EC story in the middle of
Millie The Model. Still, his stories seldom went under 9 or 10 pages, even up to
his last story in #44, February 1944.
The other humor strips besides Pokey Oakey, were Senor Siesta, South
America's screwiest citizen by Don Dean; Gloomy Gus The Homeless Ghost by Red
Holmdale; The 3 Monkeyteers who were Yehuda, Small Fry and Sassafras; Percy;
Dotty and Ditto by Bill Waggon; and one of MLJ/ Archie Publications most popular
humor strips, Susie. Susie was the forerunner of such strips as My Friend Irma,
Millie the Model and Torchy.
After issue #44, the words "Top- Notch" were dropped
and the book ran through #48 as Laugh Comics. Then with
#39, Spring of 1949, the book once again changed titles, this time to
Susie Comics and ran till #100 in 1954. A new incarnation
is still published.
The Shield was by far the most popular superhero MLJ ever produced and one of
the all-time most popular superheroes of the '40s. Between the time he first
appeared in Pep #1 and his last appearance in
Pep #65, The Shield had appeared in a total of 99 stories.
The only MLJ hero to come near that record was The Black Hood with 82 stories.
No other MLJ hero even reached the 60 mark. The G-Man Extrodinaire had his
origin told twice. The first time was in Pep #1.
Joe Higgins had sworn himself to a lifetime career of shielding our
government after his father was killed in a run-in with foreign spies. Joe
constucted a uniform which looked a great deal like a shield. With this costume
he possessed the powers of super strength and speed and it also made him
invulnerable to bullets and flame. After about six months, the origin was
retold, revamped and went into much more detail.
The new origin was told in the first issue of Shield - Wizard
Comics. Lieutenant Tom Higgins of the US Army Intelligence,
received orders from his superior to supervise the loading an ammunitions ship
and to be on me look out for sabotage. It seems that Higgins was also an amateur
research. scientist who had experimented for years in search of a chemical
which, if absorbed in the proper parts of the. body, would transform an ordinary
person into a super-human being. Working with his son, Joe, he at last found the
right mixture, but had to postpone any new experiments until. his current
assignment was completed.
This he was not destined to do. The ammo ship to which he had been assigned
was destroyed in an act of sabotage and Lt. Higgins mortally wounded. Later, in
a hospital room in the presence of his son and his best friend, J. Edgar Hoover,
Higgins gasped out his anatomy formula, a code combination of letters in this
Young Joe didn't understand the formula but filled with grief and an intense
desire to serve his country in his father's stead, he devoted himself to a deep
study of chemistry. He finished college with the highest rating ever achieved in
the subject, and then spent several more years completing his father's
experiment. He perfected every part of it except the most important; the meaning
of the anatomical formula s-h-i-e-l-d. Then one day, quite by accident, as he
was leafing through a medical book, Joe found it; a drawing of the human body
that revealed the important parts to which the letters of the formula referred.
Interpreted, it read thusly:
S-Sacrum, the spinal center of the body.
H-Heart, the pump of the body.
I-innervation, the nerve center of the body.
E-Eyes, the power of sight.
L-tungs, the control of respiration.
D-Derma, the skin covering of the body.
Joe hurried back to his laboratory and donned a special skin-tight fibro-
metallic suit, an invention of his own which was designed to help his pores
absorb the chemical. He rubbed the parts of his anatomy the formula specified,
then lay perfectly still for 12 hours as fluoroscopic rays forced the chemical
into the particular organs. The result; one of the most powerful and formidable
forces for freedom this country has ever seen, The mighty Shield.
Joe revealed his secret to his father's old friend, the chief of the FBI, J.
Edgar Hoover, who granted him a G-Man commision, and thus was begun an
arrangement by which The Shield, through special assignments, cavorted through
pulse-pounding adventures to the delight of comic fans of the early forties.
The Shield proved so popular that his stories were upped to 13 pages each
issue starting with #6, July 1940. The artist who was selected to do the Shield
was one of the best, and still is, Irving Novick. Novick had a very tight style
during 1940-41. Figures were drawn to near perfection. People looked like
people. There was no crudeness in the art like many other artists suffered.
Bodies, faces, everything was well drawn. Novick swiped from no one, a rare
thing in itself, since at that time, even the best artists were not beyond
swiping from Foster or Raymond.
In Pep #4 The Wizard/Mosconian battle found it's way
into The Shield story. Soon supporting characters began to appear. The first was
Betty Warren, whom The Shield rescued in #6 after her father, a US Senator, was
murdered by enemy agents. She became Joe Higgin's sweetheart. Next came Ju Ju
Watson in #9 as the comic relief (MLJ may have been one of the pioneers in
providing humor in a serious strip) In #18, Ju Ju's dizzy girl friend Mamie
Mazda joined the group. These three, getting into all sorts of trouble, really
kept The Shield moving.
Perhaps it was a little bit more than one guy, even a super guy, could handle
because when Pep #11 January 1941, hit the stands, the
first thing the readers saw was the cover and on it was a young boy in costume
fighting side by side with The Shield. A cover blurb read: EXTRA!! NEW!! Dusty
the Boy Detective with The Shield. Inside, FBI Agent Joe Higgins, Ju Ju and
Betty were investigating a sabotage case in an airplane factory when a plane
blew up on take off. A young red-headed boy rushed to the burning plane only to
find that one of the dead victims was his father. Joe comforted the boy. Later,
as the boy was strolling into a hanger, he came across some men beating up on
Betty and forgetting his own grief, rushed to her aid. Then Joe, as The Shield,
joined the fight. Later we learned that the leader behind the sabotage is a
robed figure called The Vulture. After that run in with The Vulture, Dusty tells
the Shield he wants to fight crime and be like him when he grows up but The
Shield told him he thinks they would make a great team right now. Going to the
Shield's laboratory, they made a costume for Dusty. So entered The Boy
Detective. Needless to say, The Vulture and his gang got their just reward in
While Dusty was the Shield's partner, he never had any powers of his own, nor
did he ever have a last name. His familiar red and blue costume was yellow and
blue in that origin issue. Over the next few issues, the superpowered Shield,
his pal Dusty and friends Ju Ju, Betty and Mamie went about their business
fighting crime, meeting up with The Vulture again in Pep
As the number twenties rolled by, a big change was about to happen in The
Shield's way of life. Minor changes in costume had started to appear around #27
and #28. With #28, Betty, Ju Ju and Mamie made their last appearance and finally
in #29 July 1942, it happened. First of all, the reader noticed right off that
The Shield was wearing blue trunks for the first time and that the art had the
swinging free-for-all, Kirby effect. In the story itself, the reader found The
Shield and Dusty approaching a deserted shack by the waterfront, looking for a
Japanese spy Nest. Discovering a secret room, they attacked and a shot rang out.
But something then happened that never happened before. After 28 issues, the
incredible happened, the bullet struck and The Shield cried out, "Oooh--l've
been hit-every-everything is going black." Yes for the first time The Shield was
stunned by a bullet. Dusty asked what had happened to which the Shield replied,
"I'm not sure myself, but I suspect that the formula of my father's which gave
me my strength is wearing off." Rushing back to his lab, The Shield tells Dusty
his origin which marked the third and possibly last time the origin was ever
told. After going through a number of tests, The Shield learns the truth: all
his superpowers are gone. But there was little time to do anything about it, the
Japanese Spies had to be stopped, superpowers or no superpowers.
Losing his powers was not the only change to take place. Irving Novick's art
had made a drastic change also. Gone was the tight detailed art of 1940- 41 and
in its place a new fast-moving style in the Simon and Kirby tradition. During
the change-over in #29 and #30, Novick's name was missing from the stories but
it was back with #31.
Now The Shield had to go up against a Japanese costumed hero known as The
Fang, who feared no one. Even without any of his powers, The Shield was more
than a match for The Fang as he and Dusty and the Police cleaned up the spies.
Back at his lab The Shield once again went through the steps to regain his
powers. In #30, the experiment was completed, but it was a failure and The
Shield was still powerless. The Shield wasn't licked, the fight would be tougher
but he and Dusty vowed to fight as long as there was a spark of breath left. In
#30 they met The Strangler for the first time. The Strangler was a German
costumed character as ruthless as they come and a great painter as well. After
his first real test without superpowers, The Shield defeated The Strangler and
turned him over to the police.
In #31, The Strangler joined forces with a tommy gun artist named The
Snowbird and escaped prison. The escape was soon discovered. After a number of
battles between the Shield and Dusty and The Strangler and Snowbird and his
tommy gun, The Strangler plunged to his death into the ocean and The Snowbird
was returned to prison.
In issue #33 November 1942, The Shield's superpowers, temporarily returned
when at the end of the story he and Dusty and a professor and his daughter are
about to be tor tured by Germans. The Shield, exert ing superhuman strength,
burst his bonds, smashed into the Germans, broke Dusty's chains with his bare
hands and then picked up both the professor and his daughter and crashed through
the wall of the burning building. Was it just a flash or had the Shield's
superpowers returned? That was the last time his superpowers ever returned
although they were mentioned by The Shield from time to time in later. stories.
By issue #34, the words "America's Fastest Growing Comic Magazine" began to
appear on the covers and these words continued to appear on' most covers for the
next ten issues.
But, as each issue passed, it was becoming more and more apparent that The
Shield was no longer the real star. He was slowly losing ground to the
freckle-faced teenager, Archie Andrews.
Archie Andrews and The Gang made their debut in Pep
#22, December 1941. -1 don't think anyone needs to be in troduced to Archie and
his friends Betty, Veronica and Jughead. This was the first and best strip of
its kind, and still is. Archie got more popular as each issue came out.
Originally drawn by Bob Montana and later by "Red" Holmdale and then Harry Sahle,
Archie started to make his move with issue #36, February 1943, when he appeared
on the cover for the first time. It was a beautiful cover with Shield, Hangman
and Archie hand and hand in a winter scene. He didn't appear on the cover again
till #41, August 1943, and now he was there to stay. Gone were the great Shield
and Hangman covers of 1940-42. Now Archie was front and center with The Shield
playing second banana on all the covers. The Shield was able to hang onto the
covers till #49, which was his last cover appearance.
Inside Archie was not able to dislodge The Shield from the lead story till
#49. With #49, Archie took over the lead story for good although The Shield
still hung in there with longer stories from time-to-time until he finally had
to call it quits after #65, January 1948.
The Shield was drawn mostly by Irving Novick but for a while during 1944-45,
the art was by Clem Harrison and Sam Burlockoff. Other artists over the years
were Al Camerata, Harry Sahle (mostly covers) and Bobby King. Most stories were
written by Harry Shorten.
The inside front cover of every issue of Pep starting
with #15 was devoted to The Shield G-Man Club where Joe Higgin's always had
Bulletins printed telling news, listing new members and such. You could join the
club for one thin dime which would get you an Identification Card and a metal
pin- button badge. After issue #65 The Shield G-Man Club became The Archie Club.
Also appearing in Pep #1 were The Queen of Diamonds
with The Rocket which was shortened to The Rocket, from #2-12. This was a Flash
Gordon type strip by Lin Streeter which found a huge rocket ship crashing within
the barriers of the Diamond Empire. The pilot, known as The Rocket, had become a
friend of the Empire's lovely Queen. The stories were even close to that of
Flash Gordon's adventures complete with a City of Hawkmen in #4. By #11 The
Rocket and The Queen of Diamonds had built a large wooden schooner with the help
of the Pigiodgeons,- a race of Lilliputians, and set out for new adventures on
the ship which they called the Rocketeer. The stories then became more like
Eisner's Hawk strip.
An oriental strip along the lines of Charlie Chan, appeared in issues #1-11.
Fu Chang, International Detective and Chinese Scholar, was educated in America
and was the heir to the Magic Chessmen of Aladdin, with whose aid he combated
the forces of evil and oppression. He had organized the Ti Yan Tong as a Secret
Society, along with his fiance Tay Ming, to fight Princess Ling Foy and her evil
creations. Lin Streeter drew many of the stories.
Kayo Ward by Phil Sturm and Bob Wood was a prize-fighting strip that appeared
in #1-28. Also in #1-16 was Lee Sampson, The Midshipman. This was Pep's
answer to Top-Notch's Keith Kornell.
A Green Hornet-type hero called The Press Guardian appeared in #1-11. This is
one of those oddities of the comic book industry. Starting in #1 the strip is
called The Press Guardian but in the story the character wears a costume, has no
secret identity and was called The Falcon. Then in #2 he is The Press Guardian
and wears a green business suit and red mask. He was really playboy Perry Chase,
son of the publisher of The Daily Express. In secret Perry becomes The Press
Guardian, foe of all enemies of the Press. In issue #3 Perry rescued Cynthia
Blake from the Moroniabund and she becomes his assistant and the only one,
besides his valet, who knew his secret. The stories were drawn by Mort Meskin
and weren't bad at all especially the earlier stories when Meskin used a fine
Bentley of Scotland Yard was MLJ's longest running detective strip starting
in #1 and running through #41 August 1943. Inspector Bentley was featured in
some very weird and off beat adventures like battling The Hunchback in #4, "The
Riddle of the Whirring Wings" in 11 or "The Case of the Armless Corpses" in #23
and a murderer known as Mr. X in #29. Most stories before #19 were drawn by Sam
Cooper while most after #19 were by Paul Reinman.
Perhaps one of Bentley's most puzzling cases was in #31's "The Church Steeple
Murders". The story opened with Bentley spotting the body of a man on the top of
the church steeple. With the help of the church sexton and his brother Dr. Tagg,
Bentley removed the body from the steeple and discovered that it was Jim
Crivet's butler and he had been clubbed to death. Sodn Bentley, along with the
sexton, Dr. Tagg, Jim Crivet and Crivet's wife, Anne, was examining the belfry.
He bent over the rail to examine a clue just as the great bells began to ring
knocking him over the rail. Desperately he grabbed and hung onto the bell and
was almost impaled on top of the sharp point of the steeple which he discovered
could be raised and lowered lower than the bell, which explained how the butler
got there...he was knocked onto the steeple by the bells, then the steeple was
raised. Part of the mystery was solved, but who was the murderer? The reader had
all the clues and Bentley asked the reader if he could now identify the killer.
And if the reader were as smart as Bentley. As it turned out, the killer was
Anne Crivet who was a bigamist. She was married to both Crivet and the butler
and one had to go. So for once the butler didn't do it, he was the one done in.
Debuting in Pep #1, was one of MLJ's better early
superheroes, "The Most Astounding Man on the Face of The Earth", better known as
The Comet. The main thing The Comet had going for him was the art of Jack Cole.
The stories Cole did were great but he didn't stay with the strip long enough to
make it as popular as other MLJ characters. After #6, he was replaced by Bob
Wood in #9 and 10 and by Lin Streeter in #11-16.
John Dickering, a young chemist, had discovered a light gas which he injected
into his blood stream. It made it possible for him to leap thru the air in great
leaps a'la Superman although The Comet looked more like he was flying then just
jumping. Dickering also found that the gas had settled in his eyes and that he
was able to throw off a powerful disintegrating ray that only glass would stop.
Since the ray would not pass through glass he wore goggles to prevent the ray
from destroying anything. To use the ray he simply raised the glass goggles and
poof, he would destroy whatever he pleased.