I’m sure it’s a fairly common occurrence. A 40-something-year-old man enters a charity shop and spies a box of American comics. ‘I gave those up years ago,’ he thinks. ‘They’re of no interest to me. Besides, I bet they’re mostly rubbish from after the year [insert your personal cut-off date for ‘The Day the Music Died’].’ Yet something pulls you towards that box. You begin to work your way through its contents and, before you know it, you’re walking out the shop with 40 of the suckers, including several issues of Sherlock Holmes. The latter series, published circa 1988 by Eternity Comics, reprinted episodes of a newspaper serial starring the famous detective written by Edith Meiser (who wrote Sherlock Holmes radio plays in the 1930s) and beautifully drawn by the under-valued Frank Giacoia. I recall the Eternity reprint comics being criticized when they came out because they resized the original artwork to fit the standard US comic format and the quality of the reproduction was not great. True, these Sherlock Holmes strips have been turned sideways but that makes them large enough to read easily. Once you’ve got used to holding the comic the ‘wrong’ way, it’s a comfortable read. The stories are more intriguing than standard comic book fare (being newspaper serials they were aimed primarily at adults). The characterization is well-done and there are some amusing one-liners and exchanges. A big part of buying things like this, for me, though, is an exercise of illusory power across time. When these comics were being published there were too many new things coming out which I wanted to read for me to be able to even consider buying such expensive reprints.
Sherlock Holmes #3 opens mid-story so things are exciting and confusing. Watson and Holmes have been tied to mooring posts on a pier. Watson supposes they were bound by a thumbless man called Juan. It was too dark to see for sure but Watson heard the man’s ‘devilish jungle chant’. Someone empties a consignment of rum into the river and sets it alight. A voodoo message on a sheet of paper has been pinned to Holmes’ back depicting a goat ‘representing ogoun badagris trampling serpent, representing Damballa’, which Holmes says means ‘Force is stronger than brain’. After working free of their ropes, Holmes and Watson have to swim underwater to escape the fire. They later spy smoke coming out of the chimney of the Kingston rum warehouse. Investigating further, they smell burning human flesh and find Juan’s ouanga bag next to the furnace. The case started, it emerges, with the murder of the rum company’s owner Sir Aubrey. Sherlock Holmes promptly solves the mystery. The real culprit is someone involved with the rum company called Mr Beevers. Beevers (Holmes deduces) put Juan’s body in the furnace and placed the ouaga bag by the furnace to make it look like as though Juan had been disposing of Sir Aubrey’s corpse. The furnace does not consume bones, Holmes says, and if they check the skeleton they will find it lacks thumbs. Whoever bound Watson and himself, Holmes points out, used nautical knots which a man needs thumbs to make. It was Beevers, therefore, who placed the voodoo message on Holmes’ back, again to implicate Juan. Holmes surmises that Beevers’ fingerprints will be found on the paper. Panicked, Beevers makes a run for it, falls down some stairs and is found dead, having poisoned himself with an envenomed thorn to escape human justice. The breakneck pace of these things makes them exciting to read, even, or especially after all these years (most stories in films, books and comics are told so slowly nowadays), but things happen (and then end) rather too quickly to achieve real emotional impact. The amusing exchanges between Watson and Holmes, make up for this to some extent, however.
I travelled a little further back in time by reading Eclipse Monthly #5 (also bought from that charity shop consignment). Eclipse was one of the first ‘independent’ U.S. companies to publish monthly comics regularly. The development of the specialist comics market had brought this possibility into being. Instead of being sold on news-stands on a sale or return basis, comics could be sold in ‘specialty shops’ using a direct sales approach. They would have ‘better’ paper, in that it would be heavier stock and white, not thin and greyish, and the colouring would be, um, often horrible—but we were to pretend it was better. The direct sales and improved production quality aspects meant that these comics would also be much more expensive than news-stand comics, but that wouldn’t matter (the theory went) as they would be sold to young adults, who had more disposable income than children did. These enlightened adults would have grown up reading comics. They still enjoyed reading stories in comics form but wanted more sophisticated content.
I did not buy any of these ‘independents’ for quite some time as I never encountered them. In due course, however, a comics shop opened in Nottingham which I could get to on my own steam by catching a 69 bus along Mansfield Road from Arnold to the city centre. I no longer had any excuse for continuing to spend my pocket money on the likes of Captain America, X-Men, Iron Man et al, for here were racks of comics which fanzine contributors had repeatedly told me I should be reading as an intelligent person of 14-15. The problem is, most of these comics were around £1.20-£1.50 each, while the latest Captain America was about 30p. I had limited funds—pocket money plus dinner money (I would secretly make sandwiches at night to eat instead of buying lunch at school and keep the dinner money for the weekly visit to Nostalgia and Comics). Half an hour there and half an hour back on the bus to return with about three comics? Or instead buy 10-12 Marvel and DC comics? These noble-minded reviewers were asking a lot of a 15 year old with arrested development.
The other thing back then that put me off buying ‘independents’ was a rumour put about via fanzine letter-columns and reviews that these new comics weren’t actually on the whole much good. We had been promised that once set free of commercial restraint professional comics writers and artists would automatically produce better and more sophisticated material, but what did they do? Churned out more of the same old superhero and genre stuff but with more graphic violence and nudity. Writers and artists who had grown up and developed within the old system could not throw off its mental shackles as easily as they could the contractual ones. However, having at last read a fair number of these comics, I find the rumour was by and large a falsification. Many of these early independents hold up very well as being exactly what they claimed to be—more entertaining and satisfying alternatives to endless mindless clobbering. Eclipse Monthly #5 (February 1984) may serve as an example.
The opening story features The Masked Man. ‘Inspired’ by Will Eisner’s mid-20th century feature The Spirit (the series is in effect a Spirit-copy), it features Dick Carstairs, a detective who wears a mask and fights crime in his native city. This issue’s episode starts with Carstairs’ young reporter friend, Barney McAllister, sitting at his desk in the offices of the newspaper he works for, feeling bored and wondering what it is exactly that makes the Masked Man a hero. He hasn’t got any powers. What is it that makes him different? Then a teenage kid comes in and tells Barney about how he was recently abducted by aliens along with numerous other human beings and how he took part in a rebellion staged by the human beings against their alien captors. Barney responds by feeling bored and skeptical. However, when the Masked Man returns from buying a hamburger, the hero shows genuine interest in the kid’s account. The kid responds warmly to the fact that the Masked Man evidently believes him. This, Barney decides, is the intangible element that makes Carstairs a hero—the fact that he is able to connect with people. The mellow story is let down somewhat by writer/artist B. C. Boyer’s art. The young men with brown wavy hair all look the same which is a serious failing in a story so reliant on dialogue. The figure-drawing is stiff. Boyer is stuck uncomfortably between realist and cartoony stools, whereas Eisner perfected a realist-cartoony hybrid style in his Spirit stories. Even so, the tale holds up well against the mainstream comics of the time.
The magazine’s second feature has no such drawback. The realistic art in Doug Wildey’s western series Rio is gorgeous. Above, I intimated that independent comics promised ‘better’ colour and delivered ugliness. Not here. This story is so tastefully-coloured I can’t even say how it’s been done. I can only describe the palette as prairie-toned. The snow looks cold [see image below]. When former outlaw Rio sweats, he sweats. The story, entitled ‘Satan’s Doorstep’, begins with Rio being attacked and captured by Apaches while tracking a man named Grady Parrish across country. Meanwhile, a cavalry troop is making its way through the same region led by Colonel Elgin, who makes his decisions according to his notion of what Napoleon Bonaparte would have done in a given situation. Elgin orders the troop to attack a small group of Apaches made up mainly of women and children. However, the cavalrymen’s horses are exhausted and so the soldiers are only able to capture a single Apache boy. In need of water, the Colonel tells the troop to proceed to a stage-coach relay station called Pozos Mellizos. The Colonel’s advisers point out that the station was abandoned because it lies at the end of a steep pass (known as ‘Satan’s Doorstep’) which native Americans and outlaws used to ambush coaches. The Colonel nonetheless insists on heading for the station. As the troop proceeds, some Apaches arrive with their captive Rio, seeking to exchange him for the Apache boy. Refusing to bargain with ‘redskins’, Elgin shoots the members of the Apache embassy. Subsequently, the now unseen Apache warriors in the area allow the troop to reach the station so that they can then open fire on them and force them to spend a day in hiding without having a chance to draw water from the station’s well. Colonel Elgin tells Rio that he intends to hang the captive boy so that the Apaches become angry and charge down from the hills. Rio then secretly frees the captive boy. Learning the boy has escaped, Elgin decides to attack the Apaches by means of a sabre charge. The Apaches slaughter the troop as they ride out. However, the Apaches allow Rio to ride away unharmed, in return for liberating the captive boy.
That’s it for the blog this time. In my next post I’ll be looking at an issue of the classic DC comics series Unknown Soldier. Until then, stay warm and keep on cooking.