When in the 1930s and early 1940s comic books became very popular and promised good profits for its publishers, the market was soon flooded with various sorts of adventures at the newsstands. The comic book stories would take place on far away planets, on the American frontier of colonial America, in the West, in exotic and uncharted locations abroad or in the dark alleys of the big cities.
No matter if readers were looking for detective comics, espionage plots, pirates or soldiers, superhero action or Western shootouts: almost any comic action line was available from usually more than one publisher. And naturally, back then there weren’t just DC Comics or Marvel Comics. Depending on who your favorite newsagent was and how he was stocked, there were dozens of new comic books on display every week. Most of the publishers did not survive the effects of the Fredric Wertham’s Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America. Inc., i.e. comic censorship of the 1950s, or their pulp protagonists just did not hit a nerve.
And while the volumes, characters and artists of Marvel, DC or EC are well documented, this volume is devoted to the not-so-successful, or “secondary” action heroes of decades long ago. As in the case of the many liquidated publishers, there are only sporadic (and often unlicensed) reissues of those original series, it is even more exciting to learn about the concepts, settings and legends that fueled the basically forgotten heroes of pulp paper action assembled here.
The late Lou Mougin here presents many highlights of yesteryear’s comic book production. The author from Abilene, TX, was a renowned comic historian, writer, collector and interviewer with credits at Marvel, Claypool, Warrant, Lucky, Heroic and others. In 2019 he published the forerunner, in a way, of this book, namely the well received Secondary Superheroes of Golden Age.
The characters he presented then and right here, all surfaced during the Golden Age of comic books, roughly from the 1930s to the late 1950s. And as is to be expected with publications from that period, almost all of those action heroes, male and female, dutifully fulfilled every single gender stereotype or racist prejudice. The book at hand is divided into four chapters, the “Jungle Line,” “Science Fiction Theater,” “The Adventurers,” and “Westerns.” With the first three sections going about sixty pages each, and lots of pictures, 124 altogether.
Starting in mysterious jungle regions and loosely all inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan adventures, a large number of titles set within exotic regions was around in the 1940s. Enter the first and most famous heroine character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. It is quite astonishing how many female action heroines there were. All modeled after contemporary ideas of the perfect pin up girl. Nevertheless, in a country at war (and another one to come in Korea) and with women taking over factory work and important war effort duties for the first time in the early 1940s, there may be a connection. Besides, publishers wanted to attract young female readers who would could identify with a heroine. While Sheena was the girl who started it, there were many more male jungle rulers and action character resembling Tarzan a lot, like Kaanga, Lo-Zar, Thun’da King of the Congo, Dr. Voodoo, Jo-Jo Jungle King, Oran of the Jungle, Captain Terry Thunder and the Congo Lancers, and Wambi the Jungle Boy. (Rare exceptions were Voodah, and Waku, both black native Africans). And then there were many other heroines, such as Rulah Jungle Goddess, Tiger Girl, Fantomah, Camilla Queen of the Lost Empire, Jan of the Jungle, Cave Girl, Taanda, Lorna, Dorothy Lamour Jungle Princess, Nyoka the Jungle Girl, or Princess Pantha. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1950s, rarely a hero had survived, except the original jungle action hero Tarzan in changed design. (Although many series were drawn and inked by true geniuses, some would become famous in later years.) But censorship carried those others basically away and “after 1955, he [Tarzan] was pretty much alone. Fredric Wertham’s anti-comics crusade of the time specifically targeted jungle comics, among others, for their blatant sex appeal (hey, why else were they there?), for violence (which was never nearly as bad as in the gangster and horror comics), and for the racism (which may have been an undertone, but which mostly was in the eye of the beholder).”
The next chapter enlarges on science fiction comics, also inspired by early adaptations of classic American science fiction magazine stories such as Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. In the sci-fi comic, there equally was a prototypical male role model for the action heroes, namely Buck Rogers and/or Flash Gordon, with their respective sidekicks, male or female. Among the series introduced here are Flint Baker Space Soldier, The Red Comet, Auro Lord of Jupiter, Gale Allen and the Girl Squadron, Mysta of the Moon, The Star Pirate, Futura, Rex Dexter and many others most comic fans probably never even heard of! Again, several action heroines of the genre fought as hard as their male counterparts.
“The Adventurers” take up chapter three, and their origins, skills and even their outfits were very different from other action characters. They “… went about their heroic duties usually without benefits of superpowers or costume … Hardly any of them walked around in a colorful union suit, although the women walked around in as little as they could get away with …. They were soldiers, they were sailors, they were spies, they were private detectives, they were cops, they were ghostbusters, they were prizefighters, they were pirates, they were explorers …” And they, too, would restore order, help the weak and exploited or save the country, if not the planet. Among those characters, we would find The Hawk, Frosty North, Rip Carson, Captain Fight, The Rangers of Freedom, Spencer Steele, The Corsair, Kayo Kirby, Don Winslow of the Navy, Stuart Taylor, Dick Cole, The Cadet, Shark Brodie, ZX-5, Kinks Mason, Chip Collins, and again some tough heroines, such as Senorita Rio, Starr Flagg, Tony Gale, Slave Girl or Firehair. As with the genres before, TV and movie adaptations became part of adventure comics as well, for example, with the series The Saint.
Western comics, or “Once Upon a Time, in the Westerns” are the topic of the final 130 page chapter, and this section is probably the most interesting one. As the myths and glorification of the West of the 19th century left deep marks on all kinds of American popular culture, it did so with comics. “Westerns may have been the biggest action-comic genre during the Fifties.” With that genre, the strong influence of the (early) movies and its cowboy heroes is more obvious than in other action comic books. The cowboy superstars of the day, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid and others all had their doppelgangers in the action comics. (Sometimes the transfer went the other way around, with, for example, the Gunsmoke comic series, that predated the radio drama for several years and the TV show for almost a decade.)
Others, who resembled them quite a bit, followed their tracks, such as The Vigilante, Chuck Dawson, The Masked Ranger, The Texas Kid, Billy West, Golden Arrow, Arizona Ames, Two-Gun Thompson, Cowboy Marshal, Rodeo Rick, Injun Jones, The Black Rider, The Wyoming Kid, The Nighthawk, Johnny Thunder, Tomahawk, fast-shooting beauties Buckskin Belle Landers and Black Phantom, and (finally a Native American hero) American Eagle, to name but a few. And publishers would not mind adding some more glamour to the tales of historic persons, such as Annie Oakley, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill and other well-know heroes of the West. Apart from its success in the US, “… European markets would love and romanticize the Old West cowboy for years to come in series like Lieutenant Blueberry and Lucky Luke …. But as we’ve seen, the Western hero in American comics never truly dies.”
Throughout the book, Mougin’s style is deeply informal, and miles away from academic analysis, which in this case is very welcome. And apart from an overview and background of the secondary action heroes mentioned here, we learn a lot about their respective publishers, legal problems when characters were “borrowed” and ideas copied. And we find out the many tales linked to those terrific artists, pencilers, inkers, and their careers that would often continue with other comic book series. Mougin’s chapter organization really makes the genres come to life, as he approaches and introduces action hero characters by style and genre, instead by publisher. As his two titles on the “second fiddle” comic book heroes are very similar in style and thoroughness, maybe a future combined volume would make sense; preferably in a hardcover edition.
Another valuable addition for the comic book aficionado and the popculture archaeologists. It comes with a bibliography, and a (somewhat brief) index. And just like Mougin’s superhero book, this one too makes you want to have all those rare and sometimes times short-lived comics on your shelve.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2023
Lou Mougin. Secondary Action Heroes of Golden Age Comics. McFarland, 2023, 319 p.