February 15, 2014
A trifle of trivia and a cartoon done in a few quick pen strokes make for an unusual Frankenstein sighting.
Panel cartoons combining pen and ink portraits and trivia were a popular feature of newspapers in their heyday, mid-century, with the best-known, most influential and oft-copied series being Robert Ripley’s collection of bizarre facts, Believe It or Not. Panel series were also devoted to sports or movie star gossip, notably Feg Murray’s Seein’ Stars. Charles Bruno’s Star Flashes was another celebrity feature, distributed through the Bell Syndicate to newspapers across America. Considered “used up” after their initial run, the daily panels were sold cheaply — “dumped” — to comic book publishers as filler material, where they were done up with garish colors over the original black and white art.
The page seen here, combining four daily panels, with date, syndicate copyright and original logo removed, appeared in Heroic Comics number 2, October 1940, published by the Eastern Color Printing Company of New York. Eastern operated as a comic book company from 1933 to the mid-Fifties, producing such classic titles as Buck Rogers, Jingle Jangle, Movie Love and the legendary Famous Funnies. Heroic was your typical comic book of the times, 68 pages for a dime, crammed with a wild mix of adventure, humor, science fiction, airplane, fighting marines, superhero and baseball strips. Headliners were Gene Byrne’s Reg’lar Fellers, a popular “Our Gang” type strip featuring street kids with names like Puddinhead, Pinhead, and the requisite dog, called Bullseye, with a black ring around one eye. The Fellers pushed an athletic summer camp organization and crossed over to radio, books, merchandizing, animated shorts and a film with Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, closing the circle on the “Our Gang” connection.
Heroic also featured a bizarre crime/horror strip, The Purple Zombie by Tarpé Mills, a pioneering woman comic book artist, just one year away from creating her most famous character, Miss Fury. The story includes a startling panel where the title character appears strapped to an electric chair with a hood and a metal skullcap over his head, and trousers slit up the side to accommodate electrodes. He’s a zombie, so the attempted execution merely turns his skin purple. Another strip, Don Dixon, is a slavish Flash Gordon knockoff, complete with a Ming clone called The Destroyer.
The book’s cover boy and resident superhero was Hydroman, a costumed crime fighter who can turn his body into a geyser of living water. Hydroman wears a leather flying helmet and goggles, a steel collar, red shorts and see-though pants and shirt made of “Translite”. Harry the sidekick scientist says, “It’s like cellophane, but tough. Nothing can penetrate it, not even bullets!” The Hydroman strip was created, written and illustrated by Bill Everett, who would go on to create The Sub-Mariner, the first iteration of Simon Garth/The Zombie, and co-create Daredevil.
On the Star Flashes filler page, the celebrities depicted were all big names in the late Thirties and early Forties. The elegant Constance Bennett, comedienne Martha Raye, actors Otto Kruger and George Bancroft, and comic genius W.C.Fields all enjoyed sterling careers. Kruger is remembered for his leading man role opposite DRACULA’S DAUGHTER in 1936. He was also in COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (1958) and an episode of TV’s THRILLER, hosted by Boris Karloff. The other then-current celebrities seen here are forgotten today.
Juanita Quigley was a child star known as Baby Jane. She appeared, all of three years old, with Claude Raines in THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD (1934). Ten years later, as a teen, she worked with Erich von Stroheim in THE LADY AND THE MONSTER (1944), the first screen adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s Donovan’s Brain. Quigley quit pictures shortly thereafter.
Gwen Kenyon was a young model who made it to Hollywood in 1937 as a supporting player, often uncredited, in dozens of B-movies. She had a small part in THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942) with Bela Lugosi. Her entire screen career lasted eight years.
Artist/writer Charles Bruno filled in his Star Flashes margins with one-liner trivia and small, dashed off drawings: Hollywood payrolls, electric clocks in films, tapestries on burlap, and — look at the upper left-hand panel — Boris Karloff’s fingernails painted black as part of his makeup.
The name of Frankenstein is not given and the illustration is so small that the artist didn’t have enough space to draw a face, but the flattop head, the neck bolt and the dark suit are unmistakable. It’s clearly Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster. It might have been too grisly to specify — notwithstanding the electric chair scene elsewhere in the issue — that the blackened fingertips were meant to suggest a hanged man’s hand, with blood pooled in its extremities.