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Ink-Stained Heroes

Superman is really Clark Kent, a reporter for the Daily Planet. Seriously, they’re the same guy. Don’t let the glasses fool you. If your mind isn’t completely blown, get this. Photojournalist Peter Parker shoots selfies for the Daily Bugle as he fights criminals as Spider-Man and still somehow manages to focus the camera. Journalists have long played major and heroic roles in comic books. The first superhero named Captain Marvel (created in 1940) was a radio reporter. The current Captain Marvel worked as a magazine editor 37 years later. Not all comic book journalists, however, started off on solid career tracks. George Hale, for instance, was a lousy reporter. Then he started popping pills. Now don’t get the wrong idea. George was no crazed dope fiend who took strange drugs with no regard for the long-term health consequences. He didn’t buy his pills from some two-bit pusher on the street. Like any responsible person, he took them from a reputable scientist. Well, possibly reputable. George knew nothing about him other than that his name was Langreth, and he worked for the Department of Defense. George first met Langreth after the scientist had just been filled with lead by a trio of gangland gunsels. Yet plucky chap that he was, Langreth still had the wherewithal to pass George some pills. He told George they were invisibility pills. That seemed logical enough. Besides, why would someone who worked for the federal government lie about a thing like that? So naturally, without questioning the situation, George popped the pills. (Did I mention he was a lousy reporter?) Langreth managed to gasp out a few caveats. “Don’t take too often ... or can’t regain ... visibility ... don’t let them get it ...” Also, wait at least three hours before swimming. (OK, I made that last one up.) From then one, George was a much better reporter. He could sneak up on people and learn their secrets. He could also smack them upside the head from time to time without them being able to see him and hit back. This is a handy tool for a journalist. I have a whole list of people I would smack up aside the head given reasonable assurance they wouldn’t see me and smack me back. George scored scoop after scoop, solved crimes, dispatched bad guys such as the Dark Archer and Dr. Sakayug, dispensed justice and generally impressed his lovely friend and fellow reporter Vicki Dale. Who is she calling a “dyspeptic mouse” now? And he owed it all to some untested pills he took on faith from a dying stranger. This was definitely NOT a story approved by the Comics Code Authority. In fact, the Comics Code stamp you might remember from the comics you read as a kid was still a good 10 years away. “Hale of the Herald” (admittedly not the best nom de guerre for a comic book hero who prides himself on anonymity) ran during World War II in a series of publications such as Thrilling Comics, Fighting Yank and Black Terror that all have a couple of things in common. They were all published by Standard Comics and are now all in the public domain -- along with many other comics from what is known as the Golden Age. Superman, Batman and their assorted chums remain under strict copyright because they’re still popular and still fighting for justice in comic books and movies. Not so George Hale. He apparently ignored Langreth’s warning, popped one too many invisibility pills and vanished entirely in the 1940s while Clark Kent was just getting his tights back from the cleaners. Well, he didn’t vanish entirely. You can still find George’s adventures if you are a serious panelologist (what pretentious comic book collectors/nerds like to call themselves on occasion) with enough time and money to hunt down and buy Golden Age comics at conventions or through private dealers. Or you could just go online and buy reprints from Gwandaland Comics, which has taken to reproducing numerous public domain comics. It’s a slick business model, what with no copyright laws to consider. It’s also a blessing for collectors and historians. They can obtain the comics they want at prices they can afford (usually around $20). Many of these comics revolve around journalists. That’s because, once upon a time, journalists were not the enemy of the people. They were the people’s champion. Cleveland teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, the template for all the comic book superheroes that would follow, as newspaper reporter in 1938 for a reason. Crusading journalists from the Progressive Era of the early 20th century through the Great Depression were seen as forces for good -- righting wrongs, exposing corruption, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Early Superman stories found the Man of Steel working in tandem with his journalistic alter ego to take on slumlords, corrupt politicians, bigots, warmongers and domestic abusers. All the evil space monsters came later. Clark Kent received help from a legion of other comic book reporters, most of whom would be forgotten now if not for the efforts of collectors and reprinters. Aside from George Hale, there was Perry Chase. Perry was a bit of a schlub himself. He was the foppish playboy son of the publisher of the Daily Express. Not having access to invisibility pills, he puts on a face mask because it is well-documented fact in comic books that if you hide the area immediately next to your eyes, no one will ever recognize you. In his first appearance in Pep Comics No. 1 in 1940, Perry dresses in a brightly colored bird costume and calls himself “The Falcon, the Guardian of the Press.” Meant to inspire terror in the hearts of evildoers, he looked less like Batman and more like Liberace at a fancy dress party. By the next issue, he drops the whole Falcon shtick (probably because it inspired more laughter than terror) and dresses in a green double-breasted suit and fedora. He looked a lot like the Green Hornet, a popular radio, comic book and movie serial hero at the time. The Green Hornet was another heroic newspaperman, being in reality Britt Reid, publisher of the Daily Sentinel. (He was also the great nephew of the Lone Ranger, if that question ever comes up in bar trivia.) The Press Guardian ran for the first 11 issues of Pep Comics before the whole line was dominated by Archie, Jughead and all their friends over in Riverdale. Chic Carter needed no gimmicks like masks or invisibility pills. He was simply a hard-hitting, hard-bitten hard-boiled newspaperman for The Star who showed up in Smash Comics in 1939. Then, as so often happens in the newspaper game, he was framed for murder. He secured a highly capable defense attorney and was acquitted by a jury of his peers. Just kidding. He put on yellow-and-red tights and a mask and put his Olympic fencing skills to use as the Sword. As the Sword, he parlayed, parried and thrusted his way through Smash Comics No. 24 before a four-issue run in Police Comics. The late ‘30s and early ‘40s not only presented positive images of journalists, they presented positive (at least reasonably positive) images of women. This was the era when Rosalind Russell gave as well as she got to Cary Grant as newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson in “His Girl Friday” in 1940. Comics had “Jane Arden, Crime Reporter” dating back to 1928. Jane started off as a newspaper comic strip before starring in her own comic books as well as a movie adaptation. Although eclipsed on the comics page in 1940 by the popularity of “Brenda Starr, Reporter,” Jane was the first major female reporter in comics. Superman’s Lois Lane owes a lot to Jane Arden. So does Mary McGrory. The real-life Pulitzer-winning columnist for The Washington Star, who was such a great journalist she found herself on Richard Nixon’s famous enemies list, said she was inspired to go into journalism by reading Jane’s adventures. Jane Arden and Brenda Starr were in many ways proto-feminist characters, even though their comics often included paper dolls so that female (and presumably some male) readers could dress them in a variety of cute little outfits. Yet bank robbers and malfeasant Wall Street tycoons dismissed Jane and Brenda as cute and little at extreme peril. These woman may have been backdoor feminists, but they were the true precursors of girl power. The best place to find truly powerful comic book journalists, male or female, was Extra! -- a series of comics published for only five issues by EC Comics in 1955. EC Comics was the pioneering and socially progressive company of William Gaines, whose lasting legacy is Mad Magazine. Hard-boiled to the point of hokiness, Extra! featured journalists like Slick Rampart, Keith Michaels, Jock MacDuff and Geri Hamilton -- who all work for the World Press News Service and its editor Joseph MacDonald. Hamilton was the woman of the group. She traveled the world in search of stories with no thought of broken nails or snagging a husband. Extra! was part of Gaines’ attempt to get away from superheroes and provide more realistic stories through his “New Direction” line of comics. While Superman still flew about the pages of Action Comics, Gaines not only published Extra! but another comic called (not kidding here) Psychoanalysis that offered “stories of people searching for peace of mind through the modern science of psychoanalysis.” Reprints offered through Gwandaland Comics don’t always have the sharpest reproduction values, given the roughness of their original source material. However, Dark Horse Comics in Milwaukie, Oregon, has beautifully restored all the original issues of Extra! for a hardbound volume originally priced at $50. That may seem spendy. However, an earlier hardbound edition published by Missouri publisher Russ Cochran originally retailed for around $100 and was printed only in black and white. A few other comic book reporters from the Golden Age deserve mention. Who can forget Front Page Peggy of The Daily Ledger, who first appeared in the 41st issue of Startling Comics (a far cry from Psychoanalysis as comics book titles go) in 1946? Everyone apparently. And it’s too bad. “The Demon Girl Reporter” (as Peggy was also known) deserves better. She had a fun habit of kicking people and hitting them with her purse. Other reporters of note during the era included Scoop Scanlon Jinx Jordan, Rex Dixon, Flash Cameron, Linda Lens, Lucky Wings (“The Atomic Bombshell”), Honey Blake (“The Blonde Bomber”) and the Phantom Reporter. By the way, Flash Cameron and Lucky Lens were photographers, in case you missed the subtle clues in their names. Heroic journalists were so ubiquitous in the comics of the last century that one was featured in a backup story in Captain America Comics No. 5 in 1941. The character was Jerry “Headline” Hunter who worked in London during the Blitz. The introduction of the story was a bit, uh, hyperbolic. “Wherever we find news, excitement, mystery and adventure -- there too we find the newspaper reporter always on the alert for something new, ready to risk his very life for a scoop and finding adventure in every corner of the globe!” The narrator continues: “This story is respectfully dedicated to the newspapermen of all nations who, without regard for their own personal safety or security, live each moment recklessly so that we may have news!” Such hyperbole fairly represents the attitude toward journalists at the time in comics and perhaps the greater society, a time when pursuing the facts and reporting the truth was still consider a romantic, noble and worthy calling. The style of prose also fairly represents the writer. Those words from Captain America Comics No. 5 introduced the first bylined story of an 18-year-old comic book writer working at Timely Comics for publisher Martin Goodman, who was married to the writer’s cousin. The teenage writer was Stanley Martin Lieber. Comic book fans know him better as Stan Lee. ‘Nuff said. -30- (Tom Henderson is a reporter for the McMinnville News-Register and has worked as a journalist for newspapers in the Pacific Northwest for 40 years. A comic book collector, he has been interviewed on National Public Radio and by the Kansas City Star on the role of journalists in comic books. He is also featured by on the University of California’s Image of the Journalist in Pop Culture website at .)


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