Monday 5 February 2018

Retro Hugo Best Graphic Story — 1943 (Part 1: Overview)

This is the first of a two-part discussion on the Best Graphic Story Retro Hugo for 1943 (which recognizes works first published in 1942). The second part can be found at this link

In 1942, the modern American comic book was still in its infancy. Sequential art published on pulp paper with gaudy CMYK illustrations was hitting the shelves at a furious pace, led by the success of best-selling books like Captain Marvel, The Spirit, and Archie. But for every Mort Meskin, Basil Wolverton or Jack Cole working in 1942, there were dozens more, often filling pages with inflexible five- and six-panel layouts, stilted dialogue, and rigidly posed figures. 

Many of these stories — especially those that don’t feature popular characters like Batman or Superman — are nearly forgotten. Some of the most exemplary works are little-remembered by the modern reader. 

Of those that are still well remembered, the greatest is probably The Spirit by Will Eisner. This classic
No discussion of comics from
1942 would be complete
without talking about The
Spirit. But it's not Sci-Fi.
(Image via
series features masked criminologist Denny Colt, who comes back from the dead to fight crime. The art is spectacular and artist-writer Wil Eisner plays with text and narrative in a way that drove the medium forward. There is little in the history of comics that compares with The Spirit

There is a reason why the highest honour in comic books is named the Eisner Award. But it might be difficult to justify The Spirit’s inclusion in the Retro Hugos because there are only minor fantastical elements. 

Editor Everett M. Arnold, from The Spirit’s Quality Comics, hired artist Jack Cole to create a knock-off character just in case Eisner was drafted into the army. Dave Clark a.k.a. Midnight, is also a costumed detective but while Eisner’s style is detailed and realistic, Cole toyed with the absurd.

Midnight’s adventures reached their most fantastic — and possibly their high point — in October 1942 with the story “Midnight Goes To Hell,” published in Smash Comics #36. True to the title, Midnight is killed in the opening pages, only to lead a revolt against the devil, defeat Satan’s Nazi plot, and return to the land of the living. 

Writer and artist Jack Cole’s more famous creation Plastic Man made his debut two years previously, but was hitting new heights in 1942. There had been previous characters with the power of elasticity, but until Jack Cole, no artist had explored the visual potential of such a character — it could be argued that no one has since. It is almost inconceivable to imagine a Retro Hugo ballot that excludes the work of Jack Cole — Plastic Man’s adventures from Police Comics #6-14 are certain to make our nominating ballots. 

One of the better early Superman comics was Jerry Siegel & Ed Dobrotka's "Case of the Funny Paper Crimes," published in September 1942 in Superman #18. The story has Superman fighting a mad scientist who could bring comic strip characters to life — a commentary on Superman's own meta-existence as a two-dimensional being.

But it is often forgotten is that in the 1940s, Superman was not the most popular superhero comic book. From 1941 – 1949, Fawcett Press’ Captain Marvel regularly outsold the rival book. 

With dynamic art by C. C. Beck, and scripts from writers such as Otto Binder, Captain Marvel was
Which of these two comics looks more
dynamic and modern? Both of these
issues were published in 1942.  
unlike almost any other comic books that fans had ever seen. The issues of Captain Marvel Adventures published in 1942 (Issues 6-18) and Whiz Comics (Issues 26-38) feature the addition of new members to the Marvel Family, and art that would be imitated again and again over the decades. The storytelling is ahead of its time in its pacing, its relationships, and its plotting. 

Basil Wolverton’s mostly forgotten science fiction adventure series Spacehawk ran from 1940 to 1942. Propelled by an evident love of big outer-space adventures, writer-artist Wolverton used alien worlds and big technology inventively. Unlike other early science fiction comics like Flash Gordon, space was more than a backdrop interchangeable with the Wild West. 

Basil Wolverton's Scacehawk
played with SF concepts
with verve and with joy.
(Image via
Unfortunately in 1942, publisher Target determined that for propaganda reasons all their comic heroes had to fight against Axis powers here on Earth, which led to stories about Spacehawk fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific. Some of these final stories do not use the character to his best effect, and contain an unhealthy dose of racism. But racism was nearly ubiquitous in comic books from 1942. Superman and Batman both fight racist caricatures of Japanese soldiers. Captain Marvel Adventures had an unfortunate storyline featuring a Totem-Pole wielding evil Native American stereotype. Plastic Man faced off against The Sinister Swami.

When judging these comics, one must remember that the racism seen in comic books of 1942 reflect the values of the times. But this makes Adrian Dingle's Nelvana of the Northern Lights all the more remarkable, as the title character was an Inuit heroine who defended the north from Axis aggressors.

During the Second World War, the War Exchange Conservation Act prevented American comic
Famed Canadian painter
Franz Johnson helped
inspire Adrian Dingle
to create an Indigenous
Canadian superhero.
(Image via
books from being sold in Canada, leading to the creation of numerous new superhero comic books for the domestic Canadian market. Of these, Nelvana is the highlight. Appearing in Canada's Triumph Comics, Nelvana was the daughter of a mortal woman and the Inuit god Koliak. Gifted with abilities by her divine heritage, she is charged with guarding the people of Canada’s north with the assistance of her brother Tanero. 

A Kickstarter-supported hardcover edition of the early Nelvana stories was published by IDW in 2014, making this classic available to a new generation of readers.

The issues published in 1942 (Triumph Comics 7-12) begin her journey into Glacia, a hidden futuristic world beneath the Arctic ice. This is one of the finer moments in Nelvana’s adventures.

Nelvana’s creation predated by a few months another more well-known female superhero rooted in cultural mythology. Wonder Woman first appeared in December of 1941, with her origin story concluding in Sensation Comics in January of 1942. 

The early Wonder Woman issues, the first 12 of which were published in 1942, are written by creator William Moulton Marston and drawn by Harry G. Peter. Marston’s goal was not simply to develop a superhuman female but to demonstrate his personal philosophy of feminine superiority. This gave the initial Wonder Woman comics an energy — and kinkiness — the series would never maintain without these creators. 

Of all the comic books published in 1942, the most enduring, and probably the best-selling, was not originally published in English. Belgian comics legend Hergé’s 10th Tintin adventure The Shooting Star was the first one to be first published in colour, it is also one of the two most science-fiction inspired. Although well-known, it suffers from significant controversy. 

Tintin had first appeared more than a decade earlier and Hergé’s style had evolved to its recognizable
Many Tintin aficionados try to forget
just how bad the original 1942
version of The Shooting Star is.
(Image via
form by this point. The adventure chronicles Tintin and his comrades' race to the arctic in an attempt to be the first to find a large meteorite that has fallen to Earth. The fantastical elements come from the radiation of the meteorite that causes small creatures to grow to enormous size. 

It is tempting to include The Shooting Star on our Retro Hugo ballots because it is an artistic success on a number of levels, with iconic illustrations and a dreamlike rhythm to the storytelling. But the anti-Semitism that is evident in the work is frankly intolerable. 

Written and published during the Nazi occupation of Belgium, The Shooting Star has often been described as the propaganda piece that stains the legacy of Tintin comics. Despite its many strengths, it should not be considered for the Retro Hugo. 

Overall, there are a plethora of options to choose from when considering the Retro Hugo for 1943. Despite a comics industry that was still finding its footing, there are growing signs of maturity in the work of several creators. Thanks to the work of fans and archivists at,,, and, many of these works are readily accessible to those of us who intend to nominate works in this category.

(Part two at this link

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