Bullet The Blue Sky

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If Dick Briefer worked in the modern comic-book industry, Internet fandom would probably condemn the writer-artist for his overly stylized, cartoony style.

As those familiar with Briefer’s Frankenstein can attest, however, the legendary creator was just as proficient at straight-up horror as big-foot humor. Like Jack Cole, Briefer possessed the talent, imagination and skill to make any sort of story work.

Submitted tonight for your approval, Time Bulleteer, is a Western tale that illustrates how Briefer’s “cartoony” approach transformed a rather typical “outlaw terrorizes community” story into an effective story of brutality and eye-for-an-eye justice.

(In my opinion, Briefer’s art makes the story’s black-humored denouement more disturbing to modern eyes…)

From Dead-Eye Western Comics vol. 1 #8 (Hillman, February 1950), here’s “Rattler Matt: Horned Toad Of The West” by Briefer.

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World War Z

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Skywolf, Hillman Periodicals’ answer to Blackhawk, enjoyed a long career as a back-up feature in the publisher’s flagship title, Air Fighters Comics. Although primarily remembered these days for introducing comics’ first swamp thing, The Heap, the strip provided solid adventures tale that were pretty violent by even Pre-Code standards.

Today’s tale finds Skywolf and his three companions – The Turtle, The Judge and Cocky Roche (!!!) – taking on a horde of zombies. These particular shambling monstrosities, however, are the zombies of traditional Vodou rather than the undead flesh-eaters popularized by George Romero.

As is the case with many Golden Age comics that deal with “exotic” cultures and customs, the following story contains a number of unfortunate racial stereotypes. If you find such portrayals overly offensive, read no further.

The 13 Days Of Halloween presents “Zombies Of The High Llama.” The story originally appeared in Air Fighters Comics v2 #2 (Hillman, November 1943) and was drawn by John Giunta.

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Ha! Take that futuristic Utopia!

Coming Tomorrow: A chess master challenges Satan to a game with life and death stakes! It works out the way you would expect …

Carmine Infantino, 1925-2013

Carmine Infantino

Like many comic-book fans of my generation, I was initially exposed to the late Carmine Infantino’s work through Batman, Flash and Adam Strange reprints DC published as back-up features in the early 1970s.

hateofthehoodedhangmanStories like “Hate Of The Hooded Hangman” introduced me to an artist whose work looked modern no matter how long ago it had been published.

At this point in my fanboy evolution, I had taken an interest in the creators behind my favorite heroes.  I looked through my DC collection for other pieces by Infantino and discovered the artist had become the company’s publisher.

I was 10 years old and didn’t really know any better, so I sent a letter to Infantino pitching my Batman knock-off, “Night Man,” as DC’s newest superstar. (Not the most original concept, I admit, but at least my character beat Steve Englehart to the name by 20 years!)

As you might expect, Night Man – and his teen sidekick, “Kid Comet” (!)  – weren’t destined for stardom. However, I did receive a kind letter from Infantino that let me down easily and encouraged I continued honing my craft.

(Sadly, I later learned there was little craft to hone. But that’s another story …)

27767Even though I stupidly lost Infantino’s letter, I always remembered his words fondly and followed the artist’s career after he moved to Marvel and drew such faves as Spider-Woman, Nova and Star Wars. He also returned to The Flash in time for Cary Bates and DC to wrap up the character that jump-started the Silver Age in the first place.

(Like many other seemingly unalterable deaths, Barry Allen eventually got better. Again, that’s a different story.)

The greatest compliment I can pay Infantino is that his best work – which spanned decades – still stands up today.

A good summation of Infantino’s legendary career can be found here. As for this very small corner of the comics-o-sphere, I’d like to pay tribute to his work by posting several stories from Infantino’s bibliography.

Like many of his contemporaries, Infantino was greatly influenced by the work of Milton Caniff. The following tale, which was originally published in 1947, shows that Infantino had already mastered Caniff’s trick of mixing aesthetically pleasing art with gritty, he-man action.

The story, entitled “Mr. Bedlam Hires A Killer,” first appeared in Airboy Comics Vol. 4 #3 (Hillman, April 1947). The hero of the tale, “Rackman,” can best be thought of as Marvel’s Stilt-Man re-imagined as a hard-boiled P.I.

The art is by Infantino and Bernard Sachs.

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Our second story demonstrates how far Infantino’s skill had progressed in the span of two years. His slicker style proved a good match for the romance genre, as shown in this tale from Hollywood Confessions #2 (St. John, 1949). “The Scandal I Had To Confess” was written by Robert Bernstein and drawn by Infantino.

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Carmine Infantino is best known, of course, for his long tenure at DC Comics. Here’s a story featuring the Golden Age Flash. Although Infantino’s art  – and John Broome’s story – are more sophisticated than most super-hero stories of the era, “The Rival Flash” marked the final issue of Flash Comics until the “Flash” concept was revamped and redesigned by Infantino, Broome and Robert Kanigher seven years later.

The resulting character, Barry Allen, proved popular enough to jump-start the Silver Age of super-hero comics. The boom in sales also led to the revival of the Jay Garrick Flash as well, bringing everything full circle.

From Flash Comics Vol. 1, #104 (DC Comics, February 1949), here’s “The Rival Flash” by Broome, Infantino and Sachs.

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When Infantino returned to active freelance work, his style had grown looser but remained vivid. Here’s a story from his tenure at Warren Publications that also demonstrates his long mastery of the sci-fi genre.

“Stand-In,” written by Bruce Jones and inked by Dick Giordano, is primarily about cheating death. Through his lifelong contributions to the comic book industry and its fans, Infantino has achieved an immortality of his own.

The story originally appeared in Vampirella #57 (Warren, January 1977).

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My deepest condolences to Mr. Infantino’s family, friends and fans.

The Rat Came Back

Super-Heroes vs. Super-Horrors Week continues with the second, and final, bout between Airboy and the nefarious army of rats! Will humanity survive?

(Probably … since we’re here to read the story today. Doesn’t make the comic any less awesome, however.)

“Airboy Vs. The Rats, Part 2” originally appeared in Airboy Comics vol.5 #12 (Hillman, January 1949). The art is once again by Ernest Schroeder.

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Coming tomorrow: Cat-Man and Kitten vs. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! That doesn’t sound like a very fair fight!!

Rat Trap

As promised, it’s Super-Heroes Vs. Super-Horrors Week! First up is one of the most famous Golden Age terror tales of all time, the two-part “Airboy And The Rats.”

I first heard of this story in the second volume Jim Steranko’s History of Comics. Although his breathless description of the teen aviator’s apocalyptic battle against an army of rodents left me enthralled, I never had a chance to actually read the comic-book in question until bloggers like Mr. Door Tree and public-domain comics repositories like the Digital Comic Museum emerged on the Internet nearly 30 years later.

It was definitely worth the wait. Time Bulleteers who have yet to read this instant classic will hopefully agree after today’s post.

From Airboy Comics vol. 5 #11 (Hillman, December 1949), here’s the first part of “Airboy And The Rats.” The Caniff-inspired art is by Ernest Schroeder.

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Tomorrow: The senses-shattering sequel!

Angel Of Death

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Long before Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow bad-assed her way through America’s No. 1 movie, Golden Age comic-book heroines displayed just as much – if not more – fire and competence.

(Which seems to be a reoccurring theme of this blog, now that I think of it … )

The Black Angel was a particularly notable example of the trend, as she more than held her own amid the blood-and-thunder of Hillman Publications’ Air Fighters Comics, home to Airboy, The Heap, Sky Wolf and other two-fisted sentinels of the skyways.

Created by artist John Cassone and an unknown writer, the Black Angel’s true identity was Sylvia Manners, an (extremely) mild-mannered socialite who flew as well as any male aviator and seldom let an enemy survive beyond a single tale.

The following story features Nazi bat-men for an extra dose of awesomeness.

“The Bats Of Berlin” originally appeared in Air Fighters Comics vol. 1, #6 (Hillman Publications, March 1943). The art is by John Cassone.

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Plant Vs. Primate

Most stories starring The Heap tend to fall under two categories: 1. He’s a rampaging monster causing terror throughout the land; or 2. He’s an elemental force for justice causing terror in the hearts of evildoers.

There are a few elements common to each tale, however. One, obviously, is “terror.” (The Heap is a shambling muck-monster after all …) The other is that many of the creature’s adventures are somehow tied to his former identity as a German World War I flying ace.

The following story straddles just about every category as The Heap avenges an insult to his honor as a former pilot, teaches some shady characters a lesson about respect and picks a fight with a natilly dressed ape to boot. Along the way, there’s the requisite amount of collateral damage and terror.

All in a day’s work for comics’ original Swamp Man-Thing!

“The End Of The World Cafe” originally appeared in Airboy Comics Vol. 5 #9 (Hillman Periodicals, Oct. 1948). The art is by Mike Roy And John Belfi.

I actually feel sorry for Albert the Ape …

Better Red Than Dead

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The Heap faces off against a criminal mastermind who – judging by the way our muck-encrusted anti-hero outmaneuvers her at the story’s conclusion – isn’t half as smart as she thinks.

While the villainess doesn’t exactly earn herself a spot in the Golden Age Bad Girl Hall Of Fame, the story does boast an outstanding pair of artists: Carmine Infantino on pencils and Leonard Starr on inks.

Infantino would go on, of course, to play a major role in Silver Age revival of super-heroes and rise to the rank of publisher at DC. Starr, for his part, would achieve great success as a syndicated cartoonist who contributed to such legendary strips as Flash Gordon and Little Orphan Annie as well as his own creation: Mary Perkins.

Starr also deserves a special place in every geek’s heart for developing the legendary Thundercats cartoon of the ‘80s!

Not too shabby, as Adam Sandler would say.

(Ummm … tell me I didn’t just quote Adam Sandler. I know I was getting a bit desperate about writing a proper transition to the comic’s original publication credits, but really.)

Oh well. Guess they all can’t be winners.

“The Ruthless Red Darrow” originally appeared in Airboy Comics vol. 4, #7 (August, 1948).

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Swamp Thing

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The Heap, comics’ original shambling swamp creature, debuted in Air Fighters Comics vol.1 #3 (December, 1942) as a one-shot opponent for Sky Wolf, Hillman Periodicals’ answer to Blackhawk.

The creature’s origin was simple, but evocative. A German air ace is shot down in World War I and crashes into a desolate swamp. Due to the pilot’s incredible will to live, his soul survives but his body somehow merges with the surrounding swamp land.

After several years of this process, the pilot is reborn as “a fantastic Heap that is neither animal nor man.”

The creature was blown up at the end of the adventure, but proved popular enough for several return engagements that solidified The Heap’s anti-hero status. (It helped that it’s victims were usually German or Japanese soldiers …)

After World War II ended and Air Fighters Comics morphed into Airboy Comics, named after the magazine’s most popular character, The Heap stuck around in its own back-up feature recast as an elemental force of justice acting under the guidance of Mother Nature herself.

(Sound a bit familiar, Alan Moore fans?)

As horror comics gained popularity, The Heap even snagged the cover spot away from Airboy himself a few times. The faltering comic-book market finally overcame the creature’s will to live, however, as Hillman closed up shop after Airboy’s May, 1953 issue. Still, it’s difficult to keep a good monster down as updated versions of The Heap reappeared from time to time under the banner of such publishers as Skywald, Image and Eclipse.

To paraphrase a golden oldie, though, those particular muck monsters weren’t nothin’ like the real thing. From Airboy Comics vol. 2, #7, Hillman Periodicals (August, 1949), here’s the one, true Heap vs. the bizarre menace of “The Iron Chancellor.”

The art is by Mike Sekowsky.

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William The Conquerer

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Although The Conquerer may not have been one of Bill Everett’s more famous creations, this rip-roaring adventure from Victory Comics’ inaugural issue aptly demonstrated that the character had what it took to be a major player.

(Except maybe sales figures, but that’s the comics biz for you.)

I’m especially struck by The Conquerer’s costume design – which seemed a bit more realistic than your usual super-hero union suit – and the mysterious femme fatale Varna Bari, who added the requisite touch of moral ambiguity present in many of Everett’s tales.

From Victory Comics #1 (Hillman Periodicals, 1941), here’s “The Coming Of The Conquerer” by Bill Everett.

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If you enjoyed this story, be sure to check out Blake Bell’s forthcoming compilation of pre-WWII Everett stories, Amazing Mysteries: The Bill Everett Archives Vol. 1. Looks like the book design even features Everett’s ace cover art for Victory Comics #1!