The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
RAY GUNS IN EARLY COMIC BOOKS
Ray guns were old stuff. Comic books were a whole lot newer. The first ongoing comic book is, like almost every first, up for nitpicking but most people agree it was Famous Funnies in 1934. The funnies in it were famous because they were reprints of newspaper comic strips. The idea had been tried before and failed, but it was too good not to make a comeback. Newspapers were the ultimate in ephemera. They got delivered in the morning and tossed out at night. Unless you were a fanatic with scissors, you never saw your favorites ever again. Having them in permanent form was a wonder. Kids agreed. It sold like crazy - and also lost enormous amounts of money. What? Well, the comics were taken from the Sunday papers and reprinted in full color. Color was expensive and so were the reprint fees for top comics.
But what was the alternative? Who would pay money to buy the second-rate funnies? And who wanted original comics? The only thing that could possibly be worse were original comics in black-and-white.
So of course the all-original black-and-white comic named New Fun debuted less than a year later with the February 1935 issue. Why? Because it was so cheap to put out. One year into their history and comics were already deep into the chasm of imitating what the other guy does. Another historic detail: it was the first publication of the comics company later known as DC Comics.
New Fun #1 is considered a comic book because of its history, not its looks. It resembled a 15" x 10 1/2" tabloid newspaper with color covers and black and white interiors. (It started using color with issue #3, changed it's name and size to More Fun with issue #7 and More Fun Comics in what we now think of as comic book size, though it was still a bit bigger, with issue #9. The early years of comics were a whirl of businesses throwing out stuff to see what worked.) Nineteen one-page strips surrounded thirteen text pages com of stories and articles. Like a newspaper, its contents aimed at every age group. "Ivanhoe" sat next to silly "Judge Perkins." "Caveman Capers," "After School" and Buddy and Beezil" were for tiny tots. So was "Pelion and Ossa," a name in tribute to someone's wasted classical education. "Buckskin Jim" and "Jack Andrews, All-American Boy" were for their teen siblings. And there were two science-fiction strips aimed more at adults, "Super-Police" and "Don Drake of the Planet Saro."
Neither had rays guns in that first issue, although the Super-Police, set in the year 2023, had a television in the form of a "photo-light wave" and guided their airplane by putting the "cosmic ray full on!!"
But one page is barely enough for a set-up. The second issue, March 1935, drops readers into the action. Give a one-gun salute to "Don Drake on the Planet Saro."
New Fun #2, March 1935, "Don Drake on the Planet Saro"
The DC Fandom wiki gives the story:
Don Drake and Betty accidentally got out of Earth's gravity well during a high-altitude balloon flight. Their gondola was launched into space, and they eventually crashed on the alien planet of Saro, where they were captured by its short inhabitants. After Don saved his captors from the attack of a Many Armed Beast with his Atomic Energy Gun, the midget people offered to take him to their city of Zetruria.
Yes, an Atomic Energy Gun! I don't care how many arms your average Saroian beast has. Or maybe I should.
New Fun #3, April 1935 cover, "Don Drake on the Planet Saro"
New Fun printed a full comic strip page on its cover, and "Don Drake" earned it with issue #3. Nothing about that issue makes sense to modern eyes. It was in full color, for one thing, indicating that the first two diseased-looking b&w issues sold spectacularly. A good half of the comics remained devoted to the silly funnies aimed at much younger kids; a horror beastie on the cover seems totally out of place. The many-armed beast (oddly, with a different number of arms on each side) must have seemed too spectacular to be passed up.
Diligent Comic historians somehow have teased out the fact that "Don Drake" was written by Ken Fitch and illustrated by Clem Gretter. I can't find a word of biography for Fitch (1903-1965), although he's credited with dozens of comic stories over a fairly long period. Joseph Clemens Gretter (1904-1988) also had a long history in early comics. Like half the illustrating world, he attended the Art Institute of Chicago and then worked for newspapers and pulps before the comics grabbed him.
Gretter had a thing for science fiction. Where does the ray gun pop up next? In Star Comics #4, June 1937, in a strip called "Dan Hastings," created by Clem Gretter. There's a Public Domain wiki too:
Dan was one of the earliest Flash Gordon imitations. Dr. Carter bears a resemblance to Dr. Zarkov, Gloria is similar to Dale Arden and Eutopas is similar to Ming. Dan himself eventually began to resemble Flash, with blonde hair and a red uniform that showed off his muscles.
Did I mention imitating? This "ray gun" panel is straight out of a western.
Star Comics #4, June 1937, "Dan Hastings"
Paul H. Jepson's Rod Rian of the Sky Police sounds like a rip-off of Don Drake but it's the other way around. It got its start in a newspaper syndicate preprinted comic section in 1935. The Comics #6, February 1938, started reprinting the odd little strip, and it lasted under various names until original strips appeared in Flash Comics. Jepson thought big and came up with a ray cannon. How "a gravity resisting ray gun" could have a attracting "magnetic beam" is one of the mysteries of the universe, but spectacle is spectacle.
The Comics #9, August 1938, "Rod Rian of the Sky Police"
"Rex Dexter of Mars" was yet another of the zillions of short-lived science fiction strips that filled early comics. The strip was set in the future world of 2000, not quite as distant as Rod Rian's 2500 but suitably distant. His origin was like Superman's turned sideways. The 1939 World Fair's dominated public culture and another zillion comic strips used it in some way. Writer/artist Dick Briefer started with scientist Montague Dexter blasting off from the fair with his wife in his Mars rocket. They crash-landed and by the time they fixed the ship they were too elderly to make the voyage. Son Rod makes the trip home solo, only to find that the world has progressed far past the World's Fair's wildest predictions. Space has been conquered (although Mars was seemingly shunned) and a ray gun is useful to battle the monsters of the planet Capris.
Mystery Men #2, September 1939, "Rex Dexter of Mars"
It took a while, but ray guns, ray cannons, ray machines, and rays of the month infiltrated the plots of superhero comics, with an equivalent amount of science-y words and lack of sense. One of the earliest examples comes from "The Shark" in late 1939. The Shark was king of the underwater world, yet looked human except for his webbed hands and feet and could breath air. He was created by Lew Ganzman who, if my addition is correct, was all of sixteen at the time and doing his first comics work. Not surprisingly, Lew's art was kind of clunky. And yet. "The Shark" featured some of the most magnificent panels in all of early comics. The "apparatus" dries up an entire lake. Not surprisingly, Lew got out of comics for the mainstream world before he turned twenty.
Amazing Man #7, November 1939, "The Shark"
Of course, nobody can forget the death ray that killed Batman just a few months after he was introduced.
Detective Comics #33, December 1939, "Batman"
On the flip side, everybody has forgotten "Jim Giant," which ties for the shortest ever lifespan, appearing in exactly one issue of Planet Comics in 1940.
Planet Comics #4, April 1940, "Jim Giant"
If you wanted to see a ray gun in the hand of a costumed superhero you needed to wait until Blue Bolt #1, June 1940, whose hand seldom failed to be shown gripping his "lightning gun," although he could also shoot lightning bolts because he had been hit multiple times by lightning. Then why... Nevermind. Joe Simon was both the writer and artist. If you're wondering why legendary partner, Jack Kirby, isn't credited, the answer is that their team-up didn't start until Blue Bolt #2.
Blue Bolt #1, June 1940, "Blue Bolt" cover and panels
Whose origin involved gamma rays? Yeah, well, him. But also that of Dick Cole, Wonder Boy. He didn't have superpowers exactly, but he was a scientific experiment raised to be the perfect human being, on vitamin serums, special diets, and rays from ultra-violet to gamma. The dark goggles in his tanning crib are near the apogee of 40s' comic art. Bob Davis created him for that same wondrous issue of Blue Bolt #1.
Blue Bolt #1, June 1940, "Dick Cole, Wonder Boy"
1940 was perhaps the peak year for comics, with dozens of titles and hundreds of characters being introduced to take part in the wave of interest that Superman, Batman, and the others wrought. Another comics legend, Will Eisner, with Lou Fine on pencils, debuted The Black Condor in May 1940. He was "the man who could fly" because, like Tarzan, he was raised by eagles. Close enough. He didn't get his costume or his "black ray" gun until the second issue of Crack Comics. 1940 was a full eighty years ago. Words go through contortions over time.
Crack Comics #2, June 1940, "The Black Condor"
How do you make a ray gun light and fun? Put it into the hands of Biff Bannon of the U.S. Marines, who could be guaranteed to bumble his way to victory. Now attributed to Art Helfant. He appeared in Speed Comics, another title that wouldn't make it to the stands today.
Speed Comics #10, July 1940, "Biff Bannon of the U.S. Marines"
December 1941 was still prewar, as comics were written and sent to newspapers before their actual cover dates. Other than Captain America punching Hitler in the face, which he did on the cover of his debut comic, you can't get much more patriotic than a cover line screaming "COSMO MANN'S SUN-RAY GUN DEFENDS AMERICA." The all-purpose gun dissolves stuff and paralyzed people and probably would have done a whole bunch more tricks if Bang-Up Comics hadn't been canceled after the third issue. The cover depicted an American sailor punching Hitler in the face. A little too on-the-nose, perhaps.
The United States remained a diplomatically neutral country through most of 1941, but - despite a strong streak of isolationist pressure - popular culture had entered the war and enlisted the Nazis and Japanese as enemies. Their treatment of both soldiers and civilians, loudly bannered in interventionist media headlines, made them arch-villains perfect for the patriotic good guys of the comic pages to personally battle.
Bang-Up Comics #1, December 1941, "Cosmo Mann"
Another comic that didn't care the war hadn't started when it was put together was Four Favorites, which starred the major heroes from Ace. It was one-stop shopping for Lash Lightning, The Raven, Vulcan, and Magno the Magnetic Man. Magno had to face the ultimate Nazi, Hans Attila, a descendant of Attila the Hun. Attila fortuitously was a spy working in America putting him within easy reach of Magno. Also fortuitously, lots of early ray guns paralyzed their victims, making the scenes easy to draw, which Rex Holmdale did in this issue.
Four Favorites #3, January 1942, "Magno"
The Companions Three were three ordinary Joes, well, ordinary Don, Spike, and Nifty, who were rough and tough fliers circling the world in search of adventure. By the June 1942 issue of Master Comics, a group of caricatured Japanese were the enemy. They had stolen an American scientist's ray gun. Naturally it gets turned against them and they meet a gruesome end. Showing the victim of a ray gun suffering was something new. In the examples above, the rays either head out into space or end where the skin begins. The war gave the Japanese sub-human status, though, and a new kind of cruelty became acceptable.
Master Comics #27, June 1942, "Companions Three"
The war years mark the end of the wild years of experimentation and the beginning of comics that focused on one type of strip, with superheroes predominating even though almost all comics had multiple heroes in any one issue.
Ray guns would never go away, of course. I found two examples that go together so well I can't help ending with them.
First off we have Doctor Frost, who had all of Iceman's powers long before Stan Lee thought of mutants. He wasn't the first such either. Back in 1940, that same first issue of Blue Bolt mentioned twice above also contained Larry Antoinette's origin of Sub-Zero Man (later just Sub-Zero). He traveled from Venus to Earth in a "super-atom ship" but had the misfortune to travel through a frozen asteroid. That freezes everybody on board but him, but when he lands on earth he, need I say fortuitously, is right outside a secluded laboratory where they are experimenting with an atomic ray, which, wouldn't you know it, thaws him out. He uses the atomic ray to switch into superhero mode whenever danger looms. The next year he got a boy sidekick, an Inuit named Freezum. I can't make this stuff up and neither can you, but 1940s comic writers had powers of mind we can only gape at.
Blue Bolt #1, June 1940, "Sub-Zero Man"
Anyway, Doctor Frost, created by Richard Steele and Ben Thompson, also came from the Arctic and was so immune to cold that he ran around in short shorts. One day in 1942 he uses his ice powers to stop an out-of-control with no driver.
Prize Comics #22, July 1942, "Doctor Frost"
Wait, there is a driver and she's invisible. There's an explantion.
Prize Comics #22, July 1942, "Doctor Frost"
She's not the only driver of a car made invisible by a ray. Check this out. (Everybody drove red convertibles in those days.)
Super Duck #30, February 1950, "Super Duck"
There's an explanation: "a super electronic, atomic, astonomic automatic!" Won in a radio contest, of course.
Super Duck #30, February 1950, "Super Duck"
Yes, ray guns even showed up in the tiny tots funnies. The Mighty Atom, in the Christmas 1948 issue of The Pixies, had to battle the mad genius Algernon Ant and his "repel ray gun." The Mighty Atom was a true superhero, in the Captain Marvel mode, who transformed from Pete Pixie whenever he shouted "Pick a Peck o' Pixies!" Super Duck wasn't. Or wasn't anymore. He had been super when introduced in 1943 by Al Fagaly, but by the time he got his own comic book he got remade into a funny duck. At some point in between then and this 1950 comic his features transmogrified into a close double of Donald Duck and his misadventures could be have been plopped into any issue of a Donald Duck comic with hardly any kid batting an eye but somehow Disney let him continue until 1960.
Buck Rogers begat the ray gun in comic strips and he was still waving one around in newspapers in 1950. To Buck - and Duck - Rogers, and everyone in between: stop waving those things around! They could hurt someone!
December 7, 2021