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):


Anonymous said...

I am researching my dad's (Art Saaf) career. He did work for the Eisner/Eiger Studio, Fiction House and Standard during the '40's into the early '50's.
There is a chance that he might have done some work on the "The Informer". Where can I get more info about this book and its' "Feature Television" publisher?

Steve Saaf

Sailor Barsoom said...

I love you.

I don't usually say that to guys, but THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for the information on Tomboy. I've been knocking myself out trying to learn more about this character. I'm building my own version, but I needed to know more about the original.

I guess I'm going to have to break down and see Kick-Ass.

And I never thought that I'd get to read three quarter of Tomboy's stories! Again, thank you.

Richard Beland said...

Steve, I'm no comic book historian by any stretch of the imagination, but as far as I can tell, THE INFORMER was the only title published under the Feature Television imprint. Some fans believe Art Saaf may have drawn the cover for issue number 4.

Ed Catto said...

We're doing a project and would love to get in touch with you vis-a-vis your dads work.
Can we connect? I'm at

James Robert Smith said...

I can see why that Tomboy story was credited to Simon/Kirby. It really looks like their work.

Anonymous said...

Hey, it's Sailor Barsoom again. I can't seem to remember my password, so I have to post as "anonymous." But I just had to post and say:

Wee! The second Tomboy story! Now I've gotten to read all four of them, and am chugging along with my own version. This is going to be fun.

Anonymous said...

Sailor Barsoom, yet again. Finally saw Kick-Ass. Some similarities between Hit-Girl and Tomboy, some big, big differences. My own version of Tomboy is different enough from Hit-Girl that I'm fairly comfortable.

Chimalpahin said...

Well now that she's in the public domain we can tell her stories! Heck she almost got her own anthology book just a while ago at bt Jill Trent won out. Maybe next time?

Richard Beland said...

Way ahead of you. I was already thinking of doing a 6-page Tomboy story for my own small press comic book, PLOGG. (Unabashed Plogg plug.) You can see the illustration of her on my website, (blatant Plogg plug #2), or see it on my Deviantart page (shameful) here:

(The Deviantart page is a better bet, as I give you an idea of what I would do with the character -- basically, nothing different.)