Saturday, July 31, 2010

Before There Was Hit-Girl...There Was Tomboy!

Not long after seeing the very excellent KICK-ASS movie, I came across a reference to one of the most obscure comic book characters ever: Tomboy.  Clad in a makeshift costume comprised of a domino mask, green t-shirt, tiny cape, black skirt, and red boots and gloves, this preteen girl looked as if she were dressed for Halloween.  The reality is, after school she was beating the hell out of every murderous gangster she could find!

Tomboy made her debut as a backup feature in the first issue of CAPTAIN FLASH (November 1954) and stayed for all four issues of that magazine before the company, Sterling Comics, folded.  Tomboy was never seen again, nor was Captain Flash.

Almost nothing is known about Sterling Comics, Inc., though I was able to piece together this much: the company, whose product was distributed by Leader News, was owned by Sidney Chenkin, Eleanor Grupsmith, Peter V. D. Voorhees, and Martin Smith (editor), and published a grand total of five titles: CAPTAIN FLASH No.1-4 (November 1954-July 1955); THE TORMENTED No.1 & 2 (July & September 1954), which became SURPRISE ADVENTURES with the third issue (March 1955), lasting until No.5 (July 1955); AFTER DARK No.6-8 (April 1955-September 1955); and MY SECRET CONFESSION, which lasted only one issue (September 1955).

The owners of Sterling had two other corporations: Nesbit Publishing Co. and Feature Television Productions, each of which published only one title.  Nesbit's SUPERIOR STORIES, a sort of "Classics Illustrated", ran for four issues (May/June 1955-November/December 1955), and Feature's THE INFORMER for five issues (April 1954-December 1954), after which the numbering was taken over by Sterling's AFTER DARK.

As it turns out, Martin Smith's real name is Martin W. Grupsmith (presumably married to Eleanor), who, under variations of his name and the pseudonym "Marcus Goldsmith", had worked for the Iger and Sangor comic studios supplying scripts and text stories for DC, American Comics Group (ACG), and others during the 1940s, before putting together his own publishing company.  (Smith was also listed as business manager for ACG in 1946, and the address given, 420 DeSoto Avenue in St. Louis, is the same address given later for his Sterling company, though that address changed from title to title and even issue to issue.)

It's not known who wrote the Captain Flash and Tomboy stories.  It may or may not have been Martin Smith.  However, all of the Captain Flash stories were drawn by prolific comic artist Mike Sekowsky (who also drew THE INFORMER, MY SECRET CONFESSION, and issues 3 and 5 of SURPRISE ADVENTURES), while the first Tomboy story was drawn by veteran comic artist Mort Meskin (and erroneously thought to be by Simon and Kirby on occasion).  The next three Tomboy adventures were drawn by Edvard Moritz, of whom little is known except that he worked for a number of comic book companies beginning in the early 1940s and later painted covers for CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED, paperbacks and science fiction magazines, and some Tom Swift books in the 1960s.  (He's sometimes credited as Edward Moritz and Ed Moritz.)

Remarkably, there's no origin story for Tomboy -- not even a smidgen.  12-year-old Janie Jackson puts on a mask and cape and gleefully wades into whole gangs of villains simply because she doesn't like them.  And despite her lack of any special powers, you have merely to "mention the name Tomboy and the underworld shudders and crawls into its hole."  And with good reason: she's vicious!

In the first story, "The Claw", we meet Janie, already in costume as Tomboy, swinging into action.  A thug is on a rooftop enjoying a shootout with the police below.  Tomboy dropkicks him, punches his face and flips him over her shoulder.  When the police arrive she's standing over the unconscious punk's sprawled out form, one foot resting triumphantly on his belly.  She doesn't wait to be thanked.

Janie lives with her parents and older brother, Bill.  Tomboy is already the talk of the town, but her family is totally oblivious to the fact that little Janie is the pugilistic daredevil risking her life every day fighting crime. This is most unfortunate for Bill, who has a rather unhealthy infatuation with Tomboy, and for Janie's father, police lieutenant Charles Jackson, who wouldn't have a city left to defend were it not for the wild exploits of his daughter.  The Claw, Tomboy's "most dangerous enemy", calls Lieutenant Jackson at home: "I'm giving you one hour to release my man, copper, or you won't have a waterfront left in this city!  And don't bother to tell Tomboy -- we'll take care of her in our own way!"  Those words, "and don't bother to tell Tomboy", must have stung terribly.  The intimation seems clear: the police can't get the job done themselves; instead, they have to rely on a little girl to beat the criminals to a pulp and round them up!

Tomboy has no mercy when it comes to bad guys: she kills the whole Claw gang at the end, following an incredible airplane stunt that not even James Bond would attempt.  Then she goes home for dinner.  The first issue of CAPTAIN FLASH was the only one published before the newly formed Comics Code came into effect.  Perhaps it was time for Janie to repeal the capital punishment.  She did, but she still had plenty of fun punching faces (which she did very frequently -- and even took out two guys with one punch!), beating guys up with pool balls, microphone stands, and slamming heavy wooden chairs into their ugly mugs.

There are a few similarities between Tomboy and KICK-ASS's Hit-Girl: Tomboy isn't much older than the 11-year-old Hit-Girl; each wears a domino mask, skirt and cape and have the same hair style (except that Hit-Girl's hair is purple); Tomboy's father is a policeman, as was Hit-Girl's father before he became a Batman-like vigilante; and each girl can take on an entire gang single-handedly -- while enjoying every second of the brutal action.  (Of course, Hit-Girl is infinitely more lethal.)   And I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the artist on the strip, Ed Moritz, has almost the same last name as Chloe Moretz, the actress who played Hit-Girl.

It's really too bad that Tomboy's career was cut short by the cancellation of CAPTAIN FLASH.  It could have been the distribution at fault.  Leader News Co. (whose most famous client was Bill Gaines' notorious EC line) was the weakest of about ten magazine distributors, and they declared bankruptcy in 1956.  It could have been the indifference to superheroes at the time, who had fallen out of favour after the war.  Besides, it's hard to stand out when the racks are glutted with 500 other comic books.

Tomboy was nobody's sidekick.  She should have had her own title.  But she didn't, so the few of us that will ever know about her -- or care -- will have only the four stories to enjoy.  Here are all four of them.  Hopefully you'll be as thrilled by the adventures of Tomboy as I am!

"The Claw", from CAPTAIN FLASH #1 (November, 1954):

"Crime Wave", from CAPTAIN FLASH #2 (March 1955):

"Two Tomboys", From CAPTAIN FLASH #3 (May 1955):

"Outside the Law!", From CAPTAIN FLASH #4 (July 1955):

Monday, July 19, 2010

Alex Schomburg

Alex Schomburg was born in Puerto Rico on May 10, 1905 and moved to New York City in 1917.  He and his three older brothers opened a freelance art studio, which they sold in 1928.  Alex started illustrating covers for pulp magazines in the 1930s, and by the end of the decade was working in the comic book field, where, during the next ten years, he created over 500 covers for titles such as Captain America, The Human Torch, and Sub-Mariner at Timely (later Marvel Comics), and covers for comics featuring any mix of those characters, including All Select, Daring, Marvel Mystery, All Winners, Young Allies, USA, and Kid Komics; he also drew covers for Miss Fury, The Green Hornet, The Black Terror, Real Life, and numerous science fiction and jungle girl titles, such as Wonder, Thrilling, and Exciting, which, at least for a time, starred Tara, Pantha, and Judy of the Jungle, respectively.

Stan Lee called Schomburg the Norman Rockwell of comic books and admired his "cartoony" style: "One could never be sure if Alex was an illustrator who approached his work like a cartoonist, or a cartoonist who chose to render his artwork like an illustrator."  In the 1950s he left the comic book field and started supplying covers and interior illustrations for science fiction magazines.  After a 30-year hiatus, he returned to Marvel Comics in 1977 to draw the cover of The Invaders Annual #1, featuring the heroes he'd illustrated so often during the Golden Age.

His action-packed superhero covers of the 1940s were cluttered with figures and background detail, while his lovely, leggy lasses of the jungle and outer space were often beautifully rendered with an airbrush.  For the "good girl" covers (Thrilling, Exciting, Wonder, and Startling, the last a science fiction mag which starred Lance Lewis, though the covers tended to prominently feature his sexy girlfriend, Marna, with Lance relegated to a background prop), Schomburg usually signed his name "Xela".  He kept busy until his death at age 92 on April 7, 1998.

Judy of the Jungle appeared in Exciting Comics #55-69 (May 1947-September 1949), though she was only featured on the covers of #57-66 (September 1947-March 1949); Princess Pantha appeared in Thrilling Comics #56-74 (October 1946-October 1949), and was featured on the covers of #58-71 (February 1947-April 1949).

Here are a selection of those covers: