Monday, 20 January 2020

Planet Comics volume one

Planet Comics volume one (2012)
A massive stack of these turned up in my local Half Price, numerous titles from the thirties and forties and entire runs of things I've never heard of reprinted over a number of volumes. I kept a distance, knowing my own tendency to collect complete sets, but curiosity overcame me. Just one won't hurt, I thought, and Planet Comics seemed closest to my interests. Apparently this thing ran to seventy-three issues, of which the first four are reproduced here, and aside from Will Eisner having drawn a couple of covers, I'd never heard of either it or anyone involved.

I guess from this that mainstream comic strips of the forties were in certain respects closer to silent film than the narratives with which we are familiar. The tales here comprise mostly a series of bold images, more summaries than stories, with text usually serving to emphasise or clarify what we're looking at and only occasionally to explain. The art is generally amateurish, but simple enough to survive crude printing on what probably may as well have been Izel toilet paper, and so strongly stylised as to rise above most of its technical failings. Of course, I'm looking at this stuff seventy-five years later, and that which I see as having novel or otherwise exotic qualities may simply be hack work and crap by ordinary criteria; and there's also the possibility that what I'm enjoying pertains to how closely it resembles strips which have parodied or emulated this sort of material - early issues of Viz, Reid Fleming, and particularly Flaming Carrot; but fuck it - it works for me.

The strips are mostly variations on the theme of the loosely Gernsbackian science hero in thrills and scrapes reminiscent of the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs or E.E. 'Doc' Smith - variations on Flash Gordon in other words, right down to the one-then-two syllable names - Flint Baker, Buzz Crandall, and Spurt Hammond, to name but three. The adventures tend to involve alien despots and female companions kidnapped or else terrorised by the same, and other planets of our solar system tend to bear a suspicious resemblance to Earth. Auro, Lord of Jupiter, for example, tells the story of Auro, a human child orphaned and abandoned on Jupiter and raised by a sabre tooth tiger to rule the planet - which seems to be mostly jungle - by virtue of his superior strength and intelligence. It has to be said that aside from the occasional space rocket, Auro is a lot like Tarzan.

As with Flash Gordon, most of our guys seem to inhabit a swashbuckling narrative of kings, queens, castles, and beautiful princesses, with a cursory mention of the tale being set on Neptune or Pluto to qualify it as science-fiction. A particularly bewildering episode of Captain Nelson Cole of the Solar Force takes our man to the planet Zog whereupon the local and inevitably troubled ruler informs him that he must fight a two-headed giant which has been inducing terror amongst the natives, and he must fight the beast whilst disguised as a character called Torro. Unlike Cole, Torro has a moustache and a mullet, and given that the reasoning behind this transformation is never explained, I've a feeling it may have been effected so as allow the artist to recycle an existing strip for the second half of this one. Equally bewildering is Kenny Carr of the Martian Lancers which reads a lot like an episode from the Boer War but for the spaceships which our narrator insists are seen making the trip through that cloudy stretch of space between Neptune and Pluto. These spaceships are of the kind with two wings extending out from the centre of the fuselage, wheels beneath, and a propeller on the nose, so I suspect the enterprise is informed by either a certain degree of recycling or a spectacular lack of imagination.

Yet despite all of this, there is genuine charm in much of this material, and the better strips are almost hypnotically weird. Plots twist beyond reason and virtually without explanation in the majority of the stories, conclusions occur abruptly or not at all in a couple of cases, and we're left with the feeling that someone was either drunk or making it up as they went along. In other words, if you enjoy A.E. van Vogt, you shouldn't have too much trouble with Planet Comics.

Above all, regardless of narrative peculiarities, whilst the art remains awkward and angular thoughout, these tales are packed with arresting, even nightmarishly surreal images and an often powerful sense of design consistent with the era. Just about every panel of the amusingly named Spurt Hammond, Planet Flyer will pop your eyes from your head, and Henry Kiefer's artwork is genuinely beautiful even if he could have used a few more lessons in figure work. It's a shame Spurt didn't get a longer run in the title, lasting only up to issue thirteen according to Wikipedia, although I suppose at least it means I won't feel obliged to hunt down all eighteen or however many volumes, should I end up going down that road.

On a purely technical level Planet Comics is probably one of the shabbiest things I've ever read, and yet I find myself absolutely transfixed.

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