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 …

Remembering Joe Kubert

Like many comic-book fans, I was greatly saddened to hear that Joe Kubert passed away today at the age of 85. He was truly one of the medium’s greatest talents, easily standing alongside the likes of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, Jack Cole and any other legend one would care to mention.

I first encountered his work through DC’s Bronze Age war titles like Sgt. Rock and Blitzkrieg, but soon discovered his equally revelatory stints on the Golden- and Silver-Age Hawkman via reprints. Every so often, I’d run across a Viking Prince back-up or a Ragman cover and further marvel at the man’s ability to draw a striking and exciting comic.

Those traits would even translate to his earliest, more primitive Golden-Age efforts.

I’ll leave the biographical details and emotional tributes to those who had the pleasure to know and work with Kubert. For now, let’s just remember the man through his astounding body of work.

From Cat-Man Comics #10 (Holyoke, May 1942), here’s an example of early Kubert art starring the electrical super-hero known as Volton!

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By the time a few years had passed, Kubert’s style progressed considerably. The difference can readily be seen in this Hawkman feature that was first printed in a “Wheaties Miniature Edition” of Flash Comics (DC Comics, April 1946). “The Scavenger Of The Skies” was written by Gardner Fox.

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In the 1950s, Joe Kubert became managing editor of the small St. John imprint, which had already published some of the better comics of the era despite its relative obscurity to such titans as DC.

Kubert created one of his most enduring characters at St. John: Tor. As it was obviously a labor of love, the artist would revive the character several times in subsequent years for a variety of publishers.

Here is Tor’s first appearance in One Million Years Ago #1 (St. John, September 1953). The story is written and drawn by Joe Kubert. Note how his art has essentially evolved to what we recognize today as the classic Kubert style.

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My sincerest condolences to Joe Kubert’s family, friends and fans. He will definitely be missed.

Grand Old Flagman

Flagman wasn’t in the upper – or even second – tier of patriotic super-heroes during the characters’ WWII heyday. Heck, he didn’t even have a proper origin.

Major Hornet, a special investigator for the government who probably didn’t even need a masked identity to go smash Nazis, just launched into action with his teen sidekick Rusty back in Captain Aero Comics #1 with no other motivation than to destroy an invading horde of Axis robots.

(Although, as motivators go, hostile Nazi robots probably rank pretty high on the list.)

The Flagman’s first adventure was credited to Allen Ulmer and Ray Wilner, but a variety of creators worked on the feature during its 13-issue lifespan. The most notable were Charles Quinlan – a familiar name to fans of the Golden Age Cat-Man and Miss Victory – and a young Joe Kubert.

The following story, which first appeared in Captain Aero Comics #4 (Holyoke, April 1942), showcases a Kubert style that is still rough around the edges but possess a spark that lifts it beyond the typical comic-book journeyman of the time. (I particularly like the monstrous faces the artist created for the story’s assorted thugs.)

For your Fourth of July reading pleasure, here’s “Voyage Of Death.”

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Blue Beetle Mania

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The Blue Beetle’s history extends as far back as Batman’s, a fact that has been obscured by a convoluted publishing history – accompanied by an ever-changing plethora of reboots and other gimmicks – that in all probability inspired the equally checkered past of Michael Chabon’s metafictional Escapist.

Created by Charles Nicholas, Rookie policeman Dan Garret debuted as The Blue Beetle in a crudely written and drawn four-page story that appeared near the back of Mystery Men Comics #1 (Fox Feature Syndicate, August 1939). The character at that point was a straight rip-off of the Green Hornet … which is a good a explanation as you’ll get for Garret’s alliterative codename.

He adopted a variation of the more familiar chain-mail gear in his second appearance and -after a few more visual tweaks –  soon gained enough popularity to earn his own title, a radio show and a syndicated newspaper strip ghosted by Jack Kirby.

To keep up with the ever increasing number of super-powered heroes clogging up the newstands by 1941, the Blue Beetle gained extraordinary abilities thanks to the miracle drug “Vitamin 2x.” Those powers would wax and wane throughout the Golden Age depending upon the needs of the story.

Everything remained status quo until the 12th issue of the Beetle’s own comic, when the Fox imprint seemingly dissolved and the character’s title continued under the auspices of Holyoke. Two issues later, Garret received a teen sidekick.

After 19 issues, Victor Fox regained the rights to the character and erratically published Blue Beetle comics until the ‘50s. During that time, the opportunistic Fox ensured the title reflected the trends of the day.

When “headlight comics” proved to be sure moneymakers, the Beetle found himself shoved off-stage by a succession of femme fatales. (Sparky had long since disappeared, poor kid.)

He also narrated “true crime” stories once Charles Biro’s Crime Does Not Pay started dominating the field.

And frankly, many stories were just plain bizarre.

After the Fox imprint finally gave up the ghost in the mid-‘50s, Charlton acquired the rights to Blue Beetle and printed a few stories that did little to alter the character … aside from changing his name to Dan Garrett.

When the success of Marvel and DC’s Silver Age titles brought super-heroes back into vogue, Charlton called upon writer Joe Gill and artist Tony Tallarico to revamp the Blue Beetle.

To their credit, Gill and Tallarico tried to provide a rationale for the Beetle motif by reintroducing Garret as an archaeologist who finds a mystic scarab. Otherwise, this all-new origin story was essentially Fawcett’s Captain Marvel with Egyptian trappings.

That particular incarnation wasn’t successful, so Garrett was killed off and replaced by this guy …

Sadly, Steve Ditko’s Blue Beetle was no more successful than the previous attempt and faded into comic-book limbo. Eventually, however, DC picked up the rights to the Beetle and other Charlton characters and incorporated them into their universe following the cataclysmic events of the company’s wildly successful Crisis On Infinite Earths mini-series.

The Ted Kord Blue Beetle evolved from that point into the Bwa-ha-ha hero so many modern fans loved … at least until DC decided to make headlines several years later by blowing the poor sod’s head off.

Leading, of course, to yet another new incarnation of the Blue Beetle.

*Phew.* I suppose the one constant throughout the decades of Blue Beetle’s existence has been change, which means we’ll probably see a few more versions of the character before everything is said and done.

In the meantime, however, let’s go back to a simpler time and enjoy the original, Golden Age hero who briefly found enough success to become a multi-media sensation a la Superman and Batman.

From Blue Beetle #1 (Fox Publications, Winter ’39-’40), here’s the “Origin Of The Blue Beetle” as drawn by Will Eisner (!) and the character’s creator, Charles Nicholas.

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Hmmm … Dan Garret’s working-class background – replete with snobs and bullies – and desire to avenge his father’s death is somewhat similar to Marvel’s Daredevil. I guess there are only so many ideas under the sun.

Cleanup Time

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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.

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