RETRO REVIEW: Pep Comics #17 (July 1941)

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Or – “The Musical Question: Has Death In Comics EVER Meant Anything?”

With the recent revelations about the loss of the newest Captain America, comics fans are once again opining on death in comics and making the usual snide remarks about how nobody ever stays dead (save Thomas Wayne, his wife Martha and Ben Parker.)  Thugs and mooks have been croaking in comics since the earliest pulp-inspired tales, but where did the endless merry-go-round get its start?

PEP COMICS #17
Writer(s): Harry Shorten/Joe Blair/Charles Biro
Penciler(s): Irv Novick/George Storm/Lin Streeter/Charles Biro/Paul Reinman/Harry Lucey/Sam Cooper
Inker(s): Irv Novick/George Storm/Lin Streeter/Charles Biro/Paul Reinman/Harry Lucey/Sam Cooper
Colorist: Uncredited
Letterer: Uncredited
Editor: Abner Sundell
Publisher: MLJ Publishing/Archie Comics
Cover Price: 10 Cents (Current Near-Mint Pricing: $8000)

Previously, in Pep Comics:  Though most people think of Archie Comics as the archetypical ‘teen love triangle’ serio-comic publisher, their earliest incarnation (as MLJ Publications) were, like all Golden Age publishers, not tied to any one genre.  While young Master Andrews was around in the early 40′s, the superheroes of MLJ are like bad pennies: always popping up here and there.  The most recent (as of this writing, mind you) appearances were in the post-Infinite Crisis DC Universe, but DC’s recent complete reboot has almost certainly left our heroes out of the cold.  MLJ was an innovative publisher, creating the first star-spangled patriotic hero months before Joe Simon first drew Captain America, creating a full-scale pop culture icon in Archie and the Riverdale Gang, as well as featuring what is probably the FIRST EVER superhero death!  Unlike what would happen these days, that story DOESN’T lead the book off, as we start instead with an adventure of Archie’s own Superman, The Shield (and his partner Dusty, of whom Bucky Barnes is a clear knockoff.)

The Shield tale is pretty much standard issue, dealing with gangsters kidnapping a neighborhood mom (y’know, like they do) and Dusty getting in most of the heroics.  The second spot in Pep Comics has, up until this issue, been held by The Comet, whose powers and trademark visor would later make a kid named Summers a lot of money.  His name doesn’t appear in the introduction to the story, though, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment…

Secretly scientist John Dickering, The Comet gained his powers by inhaling a strange gas in his lab that gave him disintegrative vision (and, strangely, flight.)  John has the familiar accoutrements of superherodom, including the newshawk girlfriend, but also has an unusually high body count due to his rather unusual powers.

The Comet also has one of the worst-kept secret identities ever, apparently, changing in the middle of his living room just in time to get busted by his brother Bob.  In an interesting turn of events, Comet encourages his brother to make time with his girl while the Comet focuses on his hero duties and shutting down a local gang headed by Big Boy Malone.  There’s a couple of panels of tension about this development, but things are quickly smoothed as the gangsters arrive and capture Bob Dickering (mistaking him for The Comet’s alter-ego, who the cops believe was an eye-witness to Comet’s gang-busting activities.  Just go with it…)

Amazingly for someone who can fly at high speed, Comet’s reflexes are no greater than an ordinary man’s, as the thugs riddle our hero with bullets and leave him lying in the street.  Thankfully, brother Bob Dickering has his wits about him, and moves to save his brother…

‘Course, he fails, but that’s pretty much to be expected.  Earlier, I mentioned that this story ISN’T listed on the splash page as a Comet story, but is in fact identified as the premier tale of The Hangman!  Here’s why…

It’s interesting to me that the seemingly-Superman-styled Comet is summarily blown away and replaced by the equally-Batman-inspired Hangman, especially given that this tale was on sale in the summer of 1941.  Bob Dickering still has a few problems that he needs to handle in his new identity (rather awkwardly drawn here by Cliff Campbell, rather than his signature artist Bob Fujitani), including a certain Big Boy Malone.

Thanks to Hangman’s quick action, Malone is tried and convicted (the fastest in history, according to the newspapers) and sentenced to hang for his crimes.  As the story comes to a close, we find one of the charming Golden Age breaking-the-fourth-wall moments that make these old books such fun, as Hangman is introduced to the rest of the Pep Comics regulars, without so much as a tear for the poor fallen Comet.

Interestingly, there’s also a panel entreating the readers to write in if they want a full-scale Hangman book, something that came to be less than a year later.  The rest of the issue is a fun melange, the kind of genre-mixing that didn’t survive past about 1949 in comics, starting with a kid’s adventure story…

…continuing into the two-fisted war adventures of Sergeant Boyle (featuring some ugly savage African native stereotype characters)…

… even including an adventure featuring The Fireball, who may actually be the most boring superhero in the history of costumed geeks.  Seriously, Fireball is the superhuman equivalent of a can of white-label creamed corn, stuck in the back of the pantry because no one really wants to eat the stuff.  Were there a food pantry of superheroes, it would be filled to the brim with Fireball and about a dozen Atlas Comics captains…

It’s ironic that the last panel miscoloring of his costume actually makes Fireball look better than his actual uniform does.  Worst of all, Fireball is not just a third-tier hero, but a third-tier POWERSET, as his abilities are shared by Archie’s more popular Inferno, the Fire-breather and Firefly.  Madame Satan, on the other hand, is pretty intriguing in a fifty-years-early-for-Vertigo kind of way, the story of a woman chosen by the dee-ee-vee-eye-ell to be his bride and stalk the earth seeking souls…

And then, there’s Kayo Ward, serialized tales of the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the world…

And the Sherlock Holmes-inspired adventures of Bentley of Scotland Yard (BENTLEY OF THE YARD!)

…and, to wrap the entire package up, we get a particularly horrifying picture of Steel Sterling and his supporting cast including, evidently, the disembodied head of Joan Crawford.

After all of that stuff, it’s hard to remember why I started this review (something that happens more often than not, to be honest) but the main thing that we’re here to discuss is the concept of death in superhero comics.  The Comet was more than likely the first actual superhero death in comics (presuming you don’t count the case of Nadir, Master of Magic, whose strip was discontinued after a final panel showing the character being strangled, which some people presume was to death) and his actual corpsitude lasted nearly a quarter of a century.  Hell, if you read the return of the character circa 1966, there’s very little that actually makes a clear case that the returning Comet IS the same character.  But the main thrust of this issue’s second story isn’t about the death of the John Dickering, but the start of Bob Dickering’s heroic career, and once he’s shot down, The Comet is barely an afterthought in this story or any other.

The clear message we get here is that the use of death as a device to get the plot moving or keep it rolling along is hardly a new development, and that when you’re dealing with stories that require this level of disbelief, there’s an implicit agreement between the creators and the readers that we’re breaking when we spend our time snarking about the tropes that are inherent in the stories we love.  I personally cheered when the long-dead Mimic took a center role in ‘Exiles,’ and Mr. Fantastic’s quest to return Ben Grimm from the afterlife is one of my favorites stories of all time.  In short, Pep Comics #17 set the wheels in motion for what has happened to the Human Torch, to Thor, to Bucky Barnes, and started the wave of death-and-return, but still earns 4 out of 5 stars overall.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of the Day:  Which returns from the great beyond were the most satisfying for you?