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Book Review: Marvel Masterworks vol. 76: Golden Age U.S.A. Comics vol. 1

March 11, 2022

Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age U.S.A. Comics, Vol. 1Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age U.S.A. Comics, Vol. 1 by Stan Lee, Basil Wolverton, Syd Shores, George Klein, Mike Suchorsky, Ed Winiarski, Al Avison, Al Gabriele, Phil Sturm, Arthur CazeneuveCharles Nicholas Wojtkoski, Mike Roy, Frank Giacoia, Carmine Infantino, Pierre Rice, Louis Cazeneuve, Howard James, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Sam Cooper, Al Fagaly; Introduction by Michael J. Vassallo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Shockingly violent collection of lesser-known Golden Age Marvel characters with original cover dates of August 1941-May 1942, although only the fourth issue seems to have been readied after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Prior to this book’s 2007 publication (appropriately, the 76th Marvel Masterwork), the best known were the Whizzer and Jack Frost, both of whom appeared as members of the Liberty Legion in Roy Thomas‘s Invaders and Liberty Legion stories. Other characters who appear here would reappear after this volume was published, such as Rockman in The Twelve, Rockman, Jack Frost, Major Liberty, Vagabond, Defender, Young Avenger, and Captain Terror in Avengers/Invaders, and Major Liberty in All-New Invaders, where he was killed off. While The Angel and Namor got less violent and less lethal as their Golden Age adventures proceeded, U.S.A. Comics, the tenth title from Marvel (which according to the indicia was now calling itself U.S.A. Comic Magazine Corp. rather than Timely Comics, Inc.) and the last (in terms of original chronology) of the Golden Age titles to be introduced in Masterworks, seemed to get more violent as it proceeded, with the fourth issue having the Defender intentionally drown the villain, the Vagabond stabs him with a knife intended for the hero, Rockman throwing the villain down a fissure, Jack Frost freezing them to death (in the previous issue, he deliberately made the villain’s car go off a cliff), Captain Terror returns a torpedo to the Nazis, destroying their ship (more normal turnabout for this era, just as lethal but less personal) and perhaps most shockingly, Major Liberty grabbing his foe’s machine gun and killing all of his henchmen with it like he’s the Punisher. Even the Laughing Mask, who murdered criminals who begged for mercy, didn’t use automatic weapons. No wonder comics were so controversial in the forties! If they were between different covers and not marketed as kid-friendly, they could have saved a lot of headaches for the industry.

Shores’s Major Liberty (Mister Liberty in his first appearance) is reminiscent of Kid Eternity, who would first appear from Quality later that year (later acquired–some would say strongarmed–by DC), but isn’t nearly as interesting. He uses his ability to summon spirits of the American Revolution only in issues #1 and #3, and the latter is Paul Revere again (Revere, Ethan Allen, and the Green Mountain Boys appeared in #1). In issues #2 and #4, he’s just another vigilante, a history professor with the unlikely name of John Liberty (MyHeritage has three John Libertys, so it’s not totally ridiculous).

The Vagabond is Pat Murphy, who is a deputy district attorney who disguises himself as temporarily embarrassed millionaire Chauncey Throttlebottom III, whom it’s hard not to imagine speaking in a foppish British accent. As someone who spent 99 months living in homeless shelters and continues to be an activist for the homeless, it is mildly offensive, but Ed Winiarski’s art is some of the best in the volume, and unlike many of the other characters, the stories all feature recurring supporting characters: two more deputy D.A.s named Kelly and Grogan. Kelly’s dialogue tends to contain dialect markers while Grogan’s does not, although all three characters have Irish names. The Vagabond started riding the rails in a story in Golden Age Young Allies vol. 1 (issue #4 before migrating into Comedy Comics (which continued where Daring Mystery Comics vol. 2 left off)), but in these stories, he lived on a town called Middleton, which expressly prohibits vagrancy on its town sign.

Middleton is also the setting of the fourth Defender story. The twist here is that the villain just happens to be the first scientist that the Defender consults for help. The Defender and Rusty are blatant knockoffs of Captain America and Bucky, only they’re Marines instead of Army men and the Defender’s pants are pinstriped like the Vagabond and the Destroyer), and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo (a dentist, not a Ph.D.), in his introduction, believes that the earliest story was a redrawn Captain America story. Unlike the other characters’ first stories, the splash panel says “once again” as though we are already familiar with the characters. Dame Kackle, the villain, looks far more interesting on the cover than she does in the interior, where she looks simply like a spry older woman (although honestly, without the text I would have assumed she was a man) dressed as a pirate. His stories get better further on, when Vassallo believes that George Klein contributed to the art.

Bill Bryon, the Young Avenger, may be the first comic book hero to live with his parents (only his mother is shown, but a reference to “waking the whole house” implies he has other family. The character has “tremendous strength” and can fell his foes (Nazis) easily with one punch. Vassallo assumes this strength to be superhuman, but if he is anything more than a highly athletic vigilante, it’s neither stated nor implied by this story, which Vassallo considers weak, and the editor justified in axing the character from further appearances. The story is signed by Michael Robard. Vassallo says this is Mike Roy, and that the credit to Howard Purcell (who co-created the Gay Ghost and the Enchantress for DC), which appears in the table on contents, is an incorrect conjecture by Jerry Bails. He appears in the illustration for Stan Lee’s text story in issue #2, but he is not mentioned in the text at all, and next appeared in 2011’s All-Winners Squad: Band of Heroes.

In this text story, the heroes gather much like the Justice Society, and promise that the best story of the adventures they will tell at the meeting will be the text story in the next issue, but that didn’t happen, even though Lee also wrote it. The text story in issue #3, “Quicker than the Eye!” is one of the better ones, not to mention longer ones (the text is much smaller to make it fit on the allotted two pages, and it has no illustration). It deals with carnival magician Paul North captured by Lew Jorden, the head of a rival company. Jorden puts North in a tiger cage, but he is able to protect himself from the tiger by baffling it with his sleight of hand skills. The description and characterization are much stronger than usual in these generally pulpy and forgettable stories. Lee seemed to have a penchant at this period for having villains die of cardiac arrest, as happens to Jorden, as well as to Silky Kirby in the second Whizzer story, although it’s unsigned and may not have been written by Lee.

The Whizzer was actually one of the more disappointing offerings despite the excellent art by Al Avison in the original story, which actually plays out contrary to more contemporary descriptions. First of all, Bob Frank gets a fever, during which he is approached rather unrealistically by a cobra (luckily for ophidiophobes like me, it’s shown only two panels, and in long shot. In the second panel the cobra is attacked by a mongoose, which kills the cobra off-panel. It’s clearly stated that Bob is saved from the cobra by the mongoose, but I changed it on Wikipedia, and it’s still up on Wikia, that he was bitten by a cobra. Dr. Emil Frank, Bob’s father, gives him a blood transfusion from the mongoose (it’s not clear if the mongoose lived, but one would hope so given Dr. Frank’s gratitude), which is said to give him the mongoose’s super-speed. This is unrealistic on multiple levels. It’s highly unlikely that a venomous snake would intentionally wander up to an unconscious human and bite them, at least not in the African savannah. I think this may have been inspired by stories of rattlesnakes in people’s boots or tents in deserts of the American southwest, where nights are cold, and rattlesnakes seek warm shelter and will bite a human if they’re afraid. Then, mongooses avoid cobras despite mythologies of the two being archenemies. Their legendary ability to kill cobras has some truth to it, but only because cobras are slow-witted. Jack Kirby’s stories as writer-artist often included the phrase “with the speed of a striking cobra,” so I don’t know how true this is or if Kirby knew what he was talking about, and being an ophidiophobe, I don’t want to look up cobras, especially so soon before I go to sleep. I do know that mongooses against pit vipers was a popular bloodsport, at least at one time, and one that mongooses typically lost. The ridiculousness of the mongoose’s blood giving Bob superspeed was so ludicrous that he was later retconned as having a mutant ability that caused it to happen. In this well-constructed debut, the Whizzer’s destiny as a crime fighter was a given once he got his powers. A criminal named Granno brings a man named Jennings to his office, ostensibly for to Dr. Frank to treat. While Dr. Frank is operating, Granno pushes his arm, killing Jennings. Granno’s henchman, Spike, is prepared to testify that Frank killed him, so Frank follows Granno’s advice to take his adult son, Bob, whom, Granno punches out, out of the country to avoid being prosecuted. Dr. Frank dies of “strain” very soon after administering the transfusion (what is it with these things?) Bob returns to the States, beats up Granno’s mob, and leaves a note at the D.A.’s office about Jennings (would that really work?), and in the clever final panel, complains about a crowd moving to slowly. This story is excellent, but the most interesting thing about the tired race-fixing plot of the next one is Bob running the shot jockey, Earl Sikes, to the hospital, and bringing the doctor’s tools to push him harder to treat Sikes as an emergency. After Whizzer’s bowing out of the next issue, the next Whizzer artist, Howard James, also uses another race plot (groan), in which the Whizzer replaces a lost wheel on the car to help his friend, Jere Kenny, win the race. In the Silver Age, superpowered heroes in sports was considered cheating, but in the Golden Age, both Superman and Captain Marvel helped underdog football teams win games, and in Flash Comics #1, the whole school knew Jay Garrick was the Flash and was happy to have him help the school win record trophies. A strong start for the Whizzer, then lackluster and uneven. So far, the best Whizzer story after the first is the one by Lee and Mike Sekowsky in the prison, which is found in Golden Age All Winners vol. 1.

I particularly liked Powers of the Press, another Ed Winiarski tale, which replaces the Whizzer in issue #3. This story involves a journalist, Tom Powers, and a photographer, Candid Kenny Roberts, their crusty but compassionate editor, Cupid “Kewpie” Cueball (whose bios, as if in a newspaper, begin the story), along with Detective Clancey Mullaney, who has a strong rivalry with Powers, but not so much that he doesn’t acknowledge his help. The villain of the piece (spoiler) is bankster “P.J. Organ,” which helps it hold up, and Kenny whacks him with his camera. Unfortunately, this feature must have seemed to readers too much like Superman without the superheroing (Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and Sergeant Casey), and the feature never appeared again.

The “Diamond of Juba” story is a South American adventure story about white imperialism and entitlement, which is not to say it’s not played in earnest–there’s even a reference to the missionaries making the “Intec” (spelled “Inter” the first time) people “modern,” i.e. Christian and not polytheistic. At least the fiancée got to participate in the adventure. It’s fairly long, too, with a small font and no illustration, and reads like a bit more care went into it than usual. “The Haunted Fireplace” by Arthur Cazeneuve is the least interesting of the four text stories, particularly owing to its similarity to the third Major Liberty story, a villain faking a ghost for an inheritance.

Captain Terror, by Mike Suchorsky (NOT the aforementioned Sekowsky) is like a seafaring version of Batman–millionaire playboy Dan Kane’s friendship with Navy Admiral Leete is reminiscent of Bruce Wayne’s friendship with James Gordon, although my biggest question is how he was able to convince Leete that he has a “weak heart” that doesn’t allow him to enlist. In the story in issue #3, he battles gypsy (the word used) Nazi ally Black Carlo, who is even featured on the cover (editorial was clearly enamored with Captain Terror despite being axed after three appearances). It’s weird seeing a Roma allied with Nazis, given that they were the second (chronologically) group Hitler tried to eliminate after the communists and the first based on ethnicity. There is a sort of “gypsy queen” character (unnamed) who at least makes clear that her people are afraid of Black Carlo. A whole troupe of Roma allied with Hitler would have seemed much more implausible than one sellout–recall the Jewish sellout in Schindler’s List and how poorly things turned out for him. In the first story, the villain, Black Claw (not to be confused with Black Talon, Captain America’s foe), is directly tied to his origin, in which we’re told that Captain Terror was a hero of the Spanish-American War who disappeared, although it’s clear that Kane was not the Captain Terror from back then–he’s of course, too young, probably in his twenties like most superheroes.

Jack Frost, whose first story was by Stan Lee and whose third story was the earliest work by Frank Giacoia and Carmine Infantino, is one of the more interesting characters. As a force of nature, one thinks of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, although Jack Frost is much more clearly in the superhero mode. The cops are frequently after him because of a frame-up, and in the fourth story, the villain even uses that fact to further frame him. It seems like he wastes too much time taking off the red business suit he wears in an attempt to hide his icy appearance, as no indication of super-speed is given. Of all the features, this one has the strongest sense of continuity between episodes.

For serial feel without any continuing thread, there is Rockman. Basil Wolverton’s detailed but rather wacky art style was mimicked for the third (which was by Stan Lee) and fourth stories, Wolverton himself having abandoned it after two issues. Rockman is known by no other name apart from his “Underground Secret Agent” subtitle (Vassallo suspects he might be the character advertised as “United States Man” in one of the earliest house ads that are printed un the back), and is the ruler of Abysmia, an underground kingdom–another of the house ads calls him Abyssman: Underground Secret Agent. Zombo, the villain of the second piece, is classic Wolverton. It’s unclear why another artist did the splash page for the first one, clearly with Zombo (looking more gruesome than he did in the story)–Vassallo notes that the artist even got his headgear wrong, and it wouldn’t be the first time, either, as that headgear pops up in the header illustration for the #2 text story and #3’s story. Lee’s story is particularly bizarre and feels like something out of a chapter play serial of the time with a fairy tale twist–the King of the Pixies kidnaps Princess Alecia of Jugoslavia [sic] to be his wife. The Pixies are described as natural enemies to the Abysmians, and in the end, after dispatching with their king (characteristic of Lee, with just a knockout punch, not a killing, as in the other three stories) and saving Alecia, he puts his unidentified prime minister in charge of them. One wonders how well they would have taken to that. It’s a shame that Lee, who admitted to a bad memory that he used as an excuse for giving his recurring characters alliterative names, had forgotten Abysmia when he was reviving Namor’s Atlantis, but this volume does give you the complete appearances of the character (whose name sounds pretty uninspired relative to the material, especially after all the apparent waffling prior to publication) up to the time it was published. Of course, if he had, the Mole Man would be lucky to have survived his first appearance!

The final new feature is the uninspired Corporal Dix, the only character to return in the next issue, promoted to Sergeant Dix (The Whizzer would continue, but his appearances were inconsistent). In this brief story, Jeff Dix uses his time off to go home to his mother and brother, Joe, only to discover that Joe has been hanging out with gangsters. Jeff tries to get Joe to join the Home Guard, but only when Joe is forced to choose between Jeff and the criminals does he (spoiler alert) join the Home Guard.

While an uneven collection, the art and storytelling have, for the most part, improved substantially from Marvel’s earlier flop anthologies, Daring Mystery Comics and Mystic Comics (I can’t comment on Red Raven Comics, which lasted one issue and has not been reprinted in its entirety–hence why only nine titles were included in the Marvel Masterworks Golden Age collection, while this is the tenth series Marvel published). Marvel did publish a second volume through issue #8 (in #6, Captain America was added as a feature, presumably to boost sales), with nine more issues remaining to collect. As with other Golden Age volumes, the indicia and house ads are all included. The limited edition of the dust jacket even included an American flag as the backdrop. One suspects that Marvel took some pride in publishing this reprint volume and must have been disappointed with the sales.

View all my reviews

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