MLJ LEADS THE WAY, BY HOWARD KELTNER
From Alter-Ego #4 Fall 1962
In 1938, with the world on the brink of ‘war, Superman made his appearance in the first issue of ACTION COMICS (June 1938), and a new fad was born. The Batman followed in the May 1939 issue of DETECTIVE COMICS (number 27), and the costumed hero was on his way. By 1940, there were at .least a dozen companies in competition with each other in the publication of comic books devoted to the costumed hero. By the time America entered the war, over 200 costumed heroes had seen the light of day. Most of these heroes battled crime and subversion through out the war years, but with the coming of peace in 1945, there came a thinning of the ranks, as other fads began to dominate the comic books: humor, western, romance, horror, fantasy, science fiction, and war stories, just to name the more prominent ones. Today, after more than a decade in near-oblivion, the costumed hero is again becoming the kingpin of the comic books. This fad, like the original movement, began at DC, but. it has now spread to no less than four other publishing houses: Atlas, Gold Key, Harvey, and Stadium. D THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING!
The last mentioned, Stadium Publishing Company, is an outgrowth of MLJ Magazines, one of the first and most successful of DC’s competitors, In late 1939 and early 1940 MLJ issued a new comic book every month for four consecutive months. One of them, PEP COMICS, is still being published today. Another, TOP NOTCH COMICS, changed its title to TOP-NOTCH LAUGH COMICS with issue number 28, later dropped the words “TOP-NOTCH” and is today being published as LAUGH COMICS. The other two, ZIP COMICS and BLUE RIBBON COMICS, lasted 47 and 22 issues, respectively. It was MLJ’s intention to publish these books an a monthly schedule, but it was the Spring of 1941 before this ambition was achieved. During the first year, each of the titles skipped a month here and there. Indeed, when ZIP COMICS number 1 appeared for February 1940, BLUE RIBBON number 4 was scheduled to go on sale; but it was June before the latter finally made it, and then with an almost entirely new lineup of characters. Thus, when the periodicals finally assumed an uninterrupted monthly schedule in early 1941, the oldest title had the lowest number.
Like most publishers of that day, MLJ had its own stable of writers and artists, though a few of the illustrators gained recognition elsewhere. Probably the best known among its artists were Irving Novick, Charles Biro, Mort Meskin, Jack Binder, Irwin Hasen, E. L. Wexler, Al Camy, Paul Reian, Jack Cole, Bob Wood, and Sam Cooper: The names of Harry Shorten (later chief editor) and Joe Blair appeared more often as writers . I strongly suspect that Joe Blair was a fictitious name used by more than one writer. The variety of strips attributed to this name seem to have been too widespread to be the product of one man. Besides, the name sounds phony! But, to return to the artists, whose work, after all, is more easily identifiable, I cannot but feel that only two of them, Camy and Novick, did their best work for MLJ. Camy left MLJ and came up with some pretty good stuff for Standard and one or two other publishers. His drawings of The Black Hood, The Wizard, and Black Jack are among the best MLJ published. Probably the very best, though, was Novick’s The Shield in 1940 and 1941. But then in the middle 40s Novick did an about-face and turned out his worst work. Paul Reinman’s drawings of Inferno were good, but the rest of his stuff was mediocre. Sam Cooper was another artist of’ opposite extremes; his illustrations of Mr.Justice were alternately terrific and sloppy. He was at his peak during 1941, which, in my opinion, was the year for the superheroes. Mort Meskin is a name perhaps more familiar to fans of today. He regularly turns up in the DC magazines, ranking right up there with the best of the ink-splashers. His style, however, has not changed too much from the days when he was doing Ty-Gor, Son O the Tiger, Doc Strong, and a few others. About the only difference is a vast improvement in the important item of background. Meskin’s best work for MLJ was on, The Scarlet Avenger, a pretty good character, incidentally. Many other artists were featured in the pages of the MLJ publications, too many to elaborate on here, but a few deserve a mention in passing. The better ones were Lin Streeter, Frank Volp, E. M. Ashe, Ed Smalle, Bob Montana, Harry Sahle, and Carl Hubbell.
Like most of the other publishers, MLJ had its group of major characters, (ie. the ones given prominence over the others) and then it also had its minor ones. Like the other publishers, some of the minor or supporting characters were better than some of the stars. It should be pointed out here that I am restricting this observation to the costumed characters, and that the opinions expressed are of necessity my own. I think at this point a breakdown of all MLJ’ s major costumed heroes would be more appropriate and less confusing than skipping back and forth. So here they are individually, in the order of their origin, from the earliest to the latest.
1. The Wizard. The Man with the Super-Brain was MLJ ‘s first costumed character, making his debut in TOP-NOTCH COMICS number 1, dated December 1939. (Actually, BLUE RIBBON COMICS first appeared one month earlier but contained no super-hero until issue number 9.) The Wizard must be classified as a super-hero despite the fact that he did not assume his more familiar costume until issue number 7. He first appeared in magician like evening garb, complete with tuxedo, high hat, cape, and mask. However, this outfit was not too appealing, and no doubt the change was made in order to boost the strip’s popularity. The addition of Roy, the Super-Boy, in TOP-NOTCH number 11 also added to the strip ‘s popularity. In the earlier issues, The Wizard tangled with international spies with an occasional assist from The Shield. Later he and Roy confined their activities for the most part to breaking up domestic crime rings.
2. The Shield. The first of MLJ’s real superheroes was The Shield, G-Man Extraordinary. He was the star of PEP COMICS from its very first issue (January 1940) until the Archie type characters finally crowded him out many years later. He, along with The Black Hood, lasted longer than any of MLJ’s costumed characters… Blessed with a striking red, white, and blue costume and one of the best illustrators in the business in Irving Novick, The Shield was destined for stardom from the very outset. Indeed, PEP COMICS was one of America’s best selling comic magazines for a long time. But when the decline came, it came fast, and The Shield was ruined when in a special story in PEP COMICS number 30, his superpowers were taken from him. He was never the same after that. Let it be said to MLJ’s credit, however, that it. did give The Shield a good initial build-up. Realizing the tremendous popularity of this hero, they quickly proceeded to feature him, along with the new and rejuvenated Wizard in a quarterly magazine; thus in the Summer of 1940 was born SHIELD-WIZARD. Though the comic also featured The Wizard, everyone knew that The Shield was the real star, the prime reason the magazine sold copies. When MLJ revamped TOP-NOTCH COMICS in mid-1942, The Wizard was dropped, but later, when the “funny” characters took over PEP COMICS, The Shield remained, vastly degenerated though he was.
[EDITOR ‘S NOTE: A new version of The Shield (The Double Life of Private Strong) debuted in 1959, but lasted in his own magazine through only two issues. He now appears only occasionally with The Fly.]
3, Steel Sterling. Never one of my particular favorites, Steel Sterling was nevertheless one of MLJ’ s more popular characters. Born in ZIP COMICS number 1 (February 1940), he appeared o the cover of every one of that magazine ‘s 47 issues, maintaining a position ok prominence until the very end, despite the addition of two other outstanding characters in later issues.
[EDITOR ‘S NOTE: It is rumored that Steel Sterling was forced into an early grave by DC as a Superman imitator. Can anyone confirm this rumor?]
His red and blue costume was simplicity personified, yet somehow appealing. Steel was never blessed with the best of artwork at any time during his career. His original artist, Charles Biro, did some reasonably good work during 1941, but later he began to concentrate his efforts more on Daredevil for another publisher. Later, in late 1942, Biro left MLJ for good, and for the next few years he really turned out some fine Daredevil stories. After Biro’s departure, Irving Novick took over the art end of the Steel Sterlin strip, but by this time Irv had passed his peak and only for a few issues did he come up with any really good work on the Man of Steel. Yet, despite this apparent handicap of generally mediocre artwork, Steel Sterling prospered, and I suspect that his popularity stemmed mainly from good characterization and better-than-average story plots. Whatever the reason, when the new quarterly magazine JACKPOT COMICS was introduced in the Spring of 1941, Steel Sterling was the headline feature, ranking first in the magazine, even ahead of the Black Hood. He maintained that position for as long as the magazine lasted. He outlasted all the other costumed heroes in ZIP COMICS, being the only one left when that magazine folded in 1945.
4. The Black Hood. Already riding high with the new Wizard, TOP-NOTCH COMICS became a real leader with the addition of The Man of Mystery in issue number 9 (Octobr, 1940).
[EDITOR ‘S NOTE: About one year after his appearance in comics, The Black Hood was featured in a pulp magazine entitled BLACK HOOD DETECTIVE MAGAZINE. This was a rather unique achievement for a hero born of the comic books.]
When this terrific new character was introduced, the result was very little short of sensational. MLJ was now approaching its very highest caliber of production. The Black Hood was the crowning masterpiece. His popularity was instantaneous and overwhelming, yet, even so, it was no accident. Several things attested to the success of this new hero: superb artwork on the part of Al Camy, story-plots far above the standard of the day, and the advent in the very first story of one of the most cunning and diabolical villains in comic book annals, the Skull. Seven times the Dark Knight of Justice came to grips with this insidious fiend, and each story was a corker. But let it be said to MLJ’s credit that they did not overdo a good thing, and in TOP-NOTCH number 19, the Skull received his deserved reward–death in the electric chair. The Black Hood’s stories usually bordered a bit on the macabre side, and he battled more of the “weird” type antagonists than any of the other MLJ heroes, except Mr. Justice. Like Steel Sterling, the Man of Darkness was given featured billing in the new quarterly JACKPOT COMICS, ranking right behind Sterling in every issue.
[EDITOR ‘S NOTE: Today, The Black Hood, in essentially his original form, has been revived for occasional guest appearances with The Fly]
5. Mr. Justice. No doubt elated by the success of The Black Hood, MLJ decided to go one step farther along this line, and when they introduced Mr. Justice in the February 1941 issue of BLUE RIBBON CO}IICS (number 9), they really went off the deep end. For in the Royal Wraith they now had the ultimate in the weird and fantastic, and they played it to the hilt. Mr. Justice was a spirit, representing, of course, the good element in the world as opposed to every embodiment of evil. In every issue of BLUE RIBBON COMICS and also JACKPOT COMICS he waged a continual war against vampires, werewolves, evil spirits, and demons of all kinds, even to the point of descending to the very depths of Hades at times to do battle with Satan himself. Mr. Justice never attained the intense popularity of The Black Hood, Steel Sterling, and The Shield, but he did have a devoted following during his brief career. (He happened to be my favorite character when I was a young boy) Naturally, his stories could never pass the Comics Code Authority today, but twenty years ago he was something different and unique. His artist, Sam Cooper, had a flair for the supernatural, and when he took his time he was one of the best MLJ had. I don’t know if it was because of the war or poor circulation and low sales, but BLUE RIBBON COMICS folded after the 22nd issue, dated March 1942, leaving Mr. Justice to quarterly appearances in JACKPOT COMICS, where he soon faded into insignificance, both story-wise and in art.
6. The Hangman. By now it had become very evident that what the young comic fan wanted was costumed characters and more of the same, so the editors at MLJ were busy creating one top-flight star after another, yet always coming up with something new and different each time. PEP COMICS had been including a minor costumed character with superpowers called The Comet. But The Comet was never particularly popular and it was decided to drop him in favor of a new and better mystery man. Yet it was a sheer genius on someone’s part to inject a very human element into the whole scheme and as a result, something that had never happened before transpired in the July 1941 issue (number 17). The Comet was allowed to be killed, and his place was taken by his brother, who vowed a personal vengeance upon all criminals and law breakers. And so was born The Hangman, MLJ ‘s newest and one of its best creations from the popularity standpoint. This origin story was written by Cliff Campbell, while many of the later stories were written by Bill Woolfolk. It undoubtedly was the characterization and better-than-average stories that put the Hangman over, because the artwork was, in my opinion, atrocious, the worst of any of MLJ’s costumed heroes..
[EDITOR ‘S NOTE: The Hangman strips were handled by several artists: first, George Storm, and later Lucey and King.]
Be that as it may, The Hangman proved a big success, and in Winter of that same year, 1941, MLJ brought out a quarterly magazine entitled SPECIAL COMICS, which featured this new character exclusively, and also included special stories of the Boy Buddies, who were none other than Roy, the Super Boy, and Dusty, the Boy Detective, youthful companions of The Wizard and The Shield, respectively. With the second issue, the title of the magazine was changed to THE HANGMAN COMICS, and it lasted about six or seven issues. Though The Hangman was never one of my particular favorites, I did like his blue and green costume, and I recognize the fact that he was a major factor in the success of the MLJ Magazines, as long as this success lasted. It is worthy of note, however, that he was dropped from the pages of PEP COMICS long before The Shield.
7. Captain Flag. Not too much can be said of this particular, character, due to the fact that his stay was so short (only seven months). He was, however, prominently featured while he was around, and I really believe that he was just coming into his own when he was snuffed out of existence. Captain Flag was born in the September 1941 issue of BLUE RIBBON COMICS (number 16), and, like the Black Hood, encountered a major foe in his very first adventure, namely, The Black Hand. Four of his seven episodes were struggles with this most worthy antagonist, whom he finally vanquished for keeps in his very last story (issue number 22). Though not a particularly superhero, Captain Flag had a superior-type origin, very reasonably conceived and worked out, and his costume was a striking combination of red, white, blue and purple. At first, he was accompanied by his American Eagle, Yank, who played a major role in the origin story, but who did not appear in the later stories.
8.Black Jack. The year 1941 had been a good one, indeed, with all the new stars doing so well. Each of MLJ’s four monthly magazines now contained two costumed characters, with the exception of ZIP COMICS, where Steel Sterling was still holding out alone. This situation was soon remedied when in November (issue number 20) Black Jack joined the ranks. It was advertised elsewhere that with the addition of Black Jack to a magazine which already contained Steel Sterling, the result was that ZIP COMICS had now become the best comic book in the world, Of course, this was hardly true, but for about a year or so Black Jack did add measurably to the caliber of ZIP COMICS. His stories were above par, .and the artwork was by top notcher Al Camy, who also did The Black Hood. Black Jack’s foes were unique in that, like himself, they represented some prominent card or aspect of playing cards, and each was a wily and extremely interesting opponent. Some of the best and most worthy were The Black Seven, Poker Face, The Joker, and The King of Diamonds. The Black Seven and Poker Face each required more than one issue in which to be vanquished. It seems that Black Jack was created fairly close to the beginning of the end, as far as the success of the MLJ costumed character is concerned, and when in a few months the gradual change-over to the “comic” type character began, he was first subjected to very bad artwork by the likes of “Red” Holmdale and Sam Cooper, and then he was dropped completely.
9. The Web. The last of MLJ’s attempts at really good costumed heroes, The Web was one of the best for a while. But by the time of his initial appearance (ZIP COMICS, number 27, July 1942) one magazine (BLUE RIBBON COMICS) had already folded, and evidence of worse things to come could be noted by the careful observer. In fact, it had been previously advertised that The Web was to begin in the July issue of TOP-NOTCH COMICS. But at the last minute, something happened: TOP NOTCH COMICS became TOP-NOTCH LAUGH COMICS, featuring Pokey Oakey, The Applejacks, Senor Banana, and such like, and The Web made his debut in ZIP COMICS instead. Nevertheless, as has been previously stated, for a few issues The Web was a very good character with good stories and excellent artwork. (I am sorry to say that I don’t know the name of the artist.) However, as has also been pointed out earlier, the caliber of Irving Novick’s art had declined to the point that it was difficult to recognize at all. So then when he took over The Web, that was all. I think that probably the most outstanding thing about The Web was his green and yellow costume. Patterned after Daredevil, I admit, but it was still one of the most colorful of any of MLJ’s heroes.
There you have them, a star-studded lineup of nine of the most important costumed adventurers of the early and middle 40s, a time when anything could happen, and usually did. These were the leading features of one of the major publishers of the time, and their influence on the comics world as a whole was most certainly felt. Of course, there were minor supporting characters, some of which given the opportunity could have been equally effective. The best of these were The Firefly, Inferno, The Fox, The Scarlet Avenger, Mr. Satan, Bob Phantom,. The Comet, and The Fireball. It is extremely doubtful that any of these old favorites, either major or minor in stature, will ever be restored to their former glory since MLJ’s successors seem content with the promotion of their new heroes, The Fly, and The Jaguar. But who can say for certain? Maybe this article will touch off a movement to restore the best of the old MLJ group.
From the studio of PAUL REINMAN
In answer to your letter, I am only too glad to give you a few thoughts about my times with the comics. I remember distinctly the first day I was confronted with this business of illustrating for comic books. I did not start with inking or penciling only for some other artist. I got right into the middle of things and was given a script just on the strength of my samples, which were mostly dry brush illustrations for pulp magazines and some fashion drawings for ad agencies. I remember when the artists were just a page, or sometimes only a few boxes, ahead of the writer. We would come in the morning and the editor who mostly doubled as the writer would say “Sit down, I’ll write a rough outline of the plot in a few minutes.” While the artist was working on the first page, the editor broke down the rest of the story and typed it for the artist. The dialogue was not written before the artist had finished his inkings. When the artist looked at the breakdown of his story and a box showed a lot of action he would let his drawing take up most of the space of this box; if it was a closeup or very little action he would leave more space for dialogue. Well, that’s the way it was at the beginning of the comics.
I remember one artist, a gifted painter, and lithographer, who lived in Greenwich Village. He was one of the few artists who wrote his own stories and the dialogue. After getting his assignment he would simply disappear; came the deadline for his story and our editor became frantic. After a hasty search thru all the nearby bars and dives, our artist was finally located dead drunk. After sobering him up the artist would promise to do his story in no time at all if only the editor would lock him up in the studio of our publisher. And, sure enough, after working thru night and day he finished his assignment with perfection and usually within a short time. Only once was he late. While he was putting the finishing touches on his work, he placed his drawings near an open window, and a sudden gust of wind blew the pages out into the street a few floors below. By the time we got to the street, — editor, artists, letterers and office help, — a few trucks and cars had run over the drawings and completely ruined them. I’m sure that passers by must have thought that we were nuts trying to save a few scraps of papers from the gutters. But again, our production genius and editor had the answer to this emergency. We were about 6 to 8 artists working at the studio of our publisher. Each artist got one page to do over and by nightfall, the job was finished.
Here’s another funny story. Our editor received a batch of’drawings from an artist who decidedly was not too experienced. These drawings were left at the office for quite some time and this artist never came around to pick them up again. Finally, one day our editor threw them in the wastepaper basket. But a jokester retrieved them from the basket, straightened them out, and put them back on the shelves. Sure enough, the editor found them and promptly threw them back again. By this time he was mad and to make sure they would disappear he tore them up. But again we salvaged them and pasted ’em together carefully, and back on the shelves, they went. Now we kept a constant watch on our editor and when he saw the drawings again he couldn’t believe his eyes. By this time we could not keep from bursting out laughing while he tore them into tiny bits of confetti.
I’m sure if I had the time I could sit down and write a book about this business. Maybe someday I will. Jerry, I hope this little missile will suffice for the moment, but please don’t hesitate to ask me again, sometime.