Have Mask, Will Travel

Exciting 61 00

The first, big-budget Lone Ranger film in decades was released less than 24 hours ago and already looks to be as big a flop as the previous attempt.

Even if the American public doesn’t accept Johnny Depp as a Native American warrior, however, it’s safe to say the Ranger’s status as a cultural icon will remain unchanged. Like Popeye, Ichabod Crane and Superman, certain figures are permanently ingrained in the popular consciousness despite the relative success or failure of their respective Hollywood adaptations.

In honor of the Ranger’s ongoing legacy, here’s an adventure starring one of the character’s many imitators: The Mystery Rider. Created by artist Charles Quinlan – who previously illustrated such Golden Age favorites as Cat-Man and Miss Victory – the Rider was Rick Howard, a bronco buster who feigned cowardice whenever evil threatened the Bar B-X Ranch so his boss – and buxom love interest  – Lila wouldn’t uncover his secret.

I’m not sure why all the subterfuge was necessary, but Quinlan had to find a reason for Howard to don a Lone Ranger mask so …

The following story originally appeared in Exciting Comics #61 (Standard, May 1948). The art is by Quinlan.

Exciting 61 01

Exciting 61 02

Exciting 61 03

Exciting 61 04

Exciting 61 05

Exciting 61 06

Exciting 61 07

Advertisements

Cat-Man’s Cradle

DC may have cornered the market on comic-book reboots these days, but the practice is just about as old as the medium itself. Given the fly-by-night nature of many Golden Age publishers and the rapid – but still plentiful –  turnover of readership, modern notions of continuity regarding the super-hero population were less than glimmers in the eyes of the characters’ fans and corporate caretakers.

Take the Golden Age Cat-Man. (Or Catman, depending upon the story. Even the guy’s name is open to interpretation.)

The super-hero is usually listed as a property of the long-defunct Holyoke Publishing Company. The truth, however, is much more complicated. The Holyoke comic-book line grew out of the printing division of a successful Massachusetts newspaper chain. Its owner, Sherman Bowles, entered the funny-book business after he inherited Cat-Man Comics and Captain Aero Comics from Frank Z. Temerson, who owned the struggling Helnit Publishing Co.

(The exact relationship between Holyoke and Helnit is unclear, but some assume Temerson was a client of Bowles’ printing business.)

Although Cat-Man was under the auspices of a new publisher, Bowles’ kept Temerson’s staff – including, most notably, art director Charles A. Quinlan – on board, which ensured that readers couldn’t really distinguish a Temerson comic from a Holyoke effort unless they closely studied the always confusing publishing indicia included with each issue.

(Even then, the information wasn’t always accurate. No wonder comic-book historians are so confused …)

Temerson regained control of Cat-Man after a little more than a year and hired L.B. Cole – who may be better remembered today as one of the leading cover art stylists of the Golden Age – as his art director. The company was briefly renamed Et-Es-Go Magazines before settling on Continental Magazines Inc.

(*Phew*)

Under Cole’s guidance, Catman (no more hyphen) developed a rogue’s gallery that included the likes of Dr. Macabre (who was briefly able to kill a man with a single touch, a la Steve Gerber’s Deathstalker) and the seemingly benign Cardiff Sisters (spinsters who trained killer apes.)

Kitten also matured from a spunky pre-teen to a more, *ahem*, shapely teenager for reasons that I’m sure had nothing to do with the tastes of young male readers at that time.

Most significantly, Cole and Co. changed the title characters’ origins.

Initially, Cat-Man was somewhat of a cross between Batman and Tarzan. He was a young boy who was raised by a tigress after his parents were murdered in the jungle. As he grew, the lad developed the speed, strength and agility of a jungle cat and decided to use these abilities to fight crime in the United States.

From Crash Comics #4 (Helnit, 1940)

Kitten, introduced in Cat-Man Comics #5 (Helnit, December 1941) was originally an orphaned acrobat who was forced to commit crimes by her corrupt uncle. Cat-Man ran afoul of the two and informally adopted the young girl after bringing the crook to justice.

Both stories were tossed out in Catman Comics #27 (Continental Magazines, April 1945). The new origin, which features guest-appearances from long-running Temerson/Holyoke back-up characters The Deacon (a crime-fighting deacon, natch) and his ward Mickey, aims for somewhat of a more adult, film noir edge with strong elements of the supernatural.

Whether or not this approach succeeds – or is even preferable – to the original origin stories is up to readers to decide. I find it an interesting re-introduction of a character that was probably trying to gain some traction in the rapidly evolving marketplace of post-WWII comic books.

Here is the rebooted origin of Catman and Kitten, entitled “The Story Of Rosetta.” The art is by the great Bob Fujitani.

Continental went out of business for good in 1946 and this particular iteration of Catman fell into obscurity. The name, of course, was revived by DC a few years later and the Golden Age Catman eventually returned to comics thorough both AC and Dynamite, making the character’s publication history even more convoluted!

Talk about nine lives …

Cleanup Time

cac7_044

Although Golden Age comics are frequently marred by racial stereotypes deemed acceptable at the time – heck, some are considered acceptable in the supposedly enlightened 21st century – I’m constantly struck by how super-heroines of the ‘40s are much more competent than many of their Silver- and Bronze-Age counterparts.

(Especially the ones written by Stan Lee … )

Although Sue eventually toughened up after a couple decades of boosting Reed, Ben and Johnny’s morale, your average World War II-era heroine set boots to a$$es straight from the get go. Case in point: Miss Victory, who needed little more than a mop to clean up a nest of dirty Nazi spies.

But what else could you expect from a stenographer named Joan Wayne?

The following tale was originally printed in Captain Aero Comics #7 (Holyoke, July 1942). The art is by Charles Quinlan.

cac7_045

cac7_046

cac7_047

cac7_048

cac7_049

Stray Cat-Man Strut

catman 00

When Gail Simone rescued DC’s Catman from the Brad Meltzer Memorial Scrap-Heap Of Silver-Age Villains™, she asserted the nearly-forgotten character had the potential to be every bit as cool as a certain Dark Knight.

In fact, Ms. Simone suggested that Bob Kane and Bill Finger could have just as easily named their seminal creation “Catman” instead of pinning their hopes and aspirations on a winged rodent. Heck, if history had continued down that path maybe Bruce Wayne would have ended up a pathetic has-been in Meltzer’s Green Arrow instead of poor Thomas Blake.

The joke of it all, of course, is that a “Cat-Man” very similar to Blake in appearance and methodology battled crime during comics’ Golden Age for a small, nearly forgotten publisher who probably hoped to cash in on the Caped Crusader’s popularity.

Cat-Man (or “Catman,” as he was later known) first appeared in the fourth issue of Helnit’s Crash Comics (1940). Created by artist Irwin Hasen and a writer whose name is lost to the ages, the “Cat Crusader” (sorry, couldn’t resist) was David Merrywether, who – much like Batman – witnessed the death of his parents after the family was attacked by bandits while traveling across Burma.

The young Merrywether, however, was fortunate enough to be rescued by a kindly she-Tiger who raised the child as her own in the wilds of Burma. (Any resemblance to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan at this point probably isn’t coincidental … )

Through the magic of comics, the child somehow absorbed the physical attributes of his foster mother and found himself endowed with augmented strength, agility and vision. After the tigress passed on, her spirit also granted Merrywether the gift of nine lives.

Not a bad deal.

The young man returned to America and, shocked by the injustices he witnessed in so-called civilized society, adopts the identity of “Cat-Man.” He later enlisted in the U.S. Army and even adopted an 11-year-old girl who became his trusty sidekick, Kitten.

(Unlike Robin, who remained a prepubescent for decades, Kitten aged throughout the duration of the strip and was eventurally drawn with more … er …  “adult” attributes.)

The Cat-Man feature ran for about five years and even spawned a Phantom-esque Australian doppelganger. Years after his title went under, the Golden Age Cat-Man enjoyed a semi-renaissance under the auspices of Bill Black and – more recently – Alex Ross.

Not too bad for a second-tier character that never enjoyed the benefits of a large publishing house or superstar creators.

From Cat-Man Comics # 25 -nearly 20 years before Bill Finger and Jim Mooney sent the Thomas Blake incarnation after Batman* –  here’s the Golden Age hero and his able assistant in “The Eyes Of Justice.”

The art is credited to Charles Quinlan.

catman 01catman 02

catman 03catman 04

catman 05catman 06

catman 07catman 08

* I’m not even going to get into the Catman who fought Blackhawk in 1959…