Tuesday, September 13, 2016


As with so much else in popular culture (and life in general, unfortunately), comic books have become laughably pretentious over the last thirty years. The spirit of fun seems to have been forgotten (just look at what’s happened to figures as diverse as Batman and Archie) as comic books seek to “reflect society” (whatever THAT means....the only comics to ever reflect MY world were written by Harvey Pekar!) and to deal with social issues. Today’s comics audience praises a Batman comic or film because it’s “really dark.” That pretentiousness is reflected in today’s film adaptations of comic book properties. Instead of being pulpy B-movies or serials, the natural format for comic book adaptations, for the last thirty years they have been bloated, big-budget affairs with tons of unconvincing CGI effects which make the whole thing look like a video game (which might well be the intended effect, considering the target audience). There ought to be a law that comic book adaptations should have a budget limit of about $3 million and should be made by someone like Fred Olen Ray, who knows and understands and appreciates the genre’s roots in serials and B-movies. The people who make the Sharknado films should be handling comic book properties. Ironically, comic books had a lot more VALUE when they were considered disposable, before people wrote academic papers on them and they were sent to CGC for numerical ratings as if they were chemicals being sent off to a lab, with collector-nerds and dealers getting into arguments over near mint vs very fine ratings. In many ways, what was great about comics died with the passing of Charlton Comics (maybe I should write an essay about that sometime? needless to say, I still grab ANY Charlton Comic I can find). 

When the Buster Crabbe comic book under review here was published, comics were purchased by children and adolescents who had an extra dime earned by lawn-mowing or given to them by a grandparent, and then went down to their local drug store and looked through the racks for the best escapist entertainment they could find. That dime was important--it had to be spent well. Comics also had an adult audience, the kind of adults who still read comic strips and went to serials. In movies of the day, the comic-reading adult was often depicted as a child-at-heart security guard or as an out-of-it member of a criminal gang who would be off in a corner with his comic while the gang boss was explaining the plans for the next heist. Any of us related to BTC would probably fill those roles well....I can still be found with an old DURANGO KID or BARON WEIRWULF'S HAUNTED LIBRARY comic book while waiting in a doctor’s office or at the local tire shop, unashamed, while everyone else is hooked up to electronic devices feeding them content and looking like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel.

While western film stars such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Tim Holt had had their own series of comic books during the height of their popularity, in the early 1950’s there was a curious phenomenon of people who had stopped making B-westerns (and who’d moved into character actor roles) getting a new-found popularity among youngsters because of their old films being re-run on television. The early days of TV were full of broadcasts of 1930’s and 1940’s low-budget movies which had been sitting on dusty shelves unwanted for years. The major studios had not yet cut deals for TV broadcasts of their film libraries, yet low-budget product was available and for next to nothing. Thus, in the early 50s, western actors such as Bob Steele and Buster Crabbe, both of whom had stopped starring in B-westerns circa 1946, became new heroes to the youth of America through their old low-budget films and got their own series of comic books. Crabbe, in particular, got a big career revival among youth to the point where he hosted a television show for kids where he showed clips from his old movies and he got a new juvenile-oriented show (which was still being re-run when I was a child) called CAPTAIN GALLANT OF THE FOREIGN LEGION, where he co-starred with his young son, Cullen “Cuffy” Crabbe. 

In many ways, Crabbe was the perfect person for comic book stardom back when comic books mattered. First, he had starred in films in three of the most popular comic book areas--jungle, science fiction, and western--so he could be put in any of those situations in his comic stories. Also, as a former Olympic athlete and someone whose public persona was as an affable, self-deprecating, witty man who loved children, he was the textbook example of a popular culture hero to American youth. He had an amiable public persona yet he could be tough. He’d played Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, AND Tarzan...as well as appearing in a number of other serials, as late as 1952, the year of this comic book, when he starred in the Columbia serial KING OF THE CONGO based on the comic book property THUNDA. Crabbe’s name and persona suggested action and adventure....with both a square jaw and a smile.

As I understand it, Crabbe had two different comic book series with different publishers in the 1951-1954 period, and then he also had a comic devoted to the CAPTAIN GALLANT series. This particular issue was published by Famous Funnies (also known as Eastern Color), a company going back to the 1930’s. Many of Crabbe’s comics have lapsed into the public domain and can be found for free online, and some have been re-published in handsome exact reissue format. The back cover is devoted to an ad for kids to send a quarter to join the “Buster Crabbe Western Club” (I would have joined had I been around back then!), where you get a badge and an autographed photo. Clearly, a deal had been worked out with Buster Crabbe by the publisher that was mutually advantageous....and just as clearly, a deal had NOT been worked out with Crabbe’s sidekick in 36 (!!!) of his 1940’s PRC westerns, Al “Fuzzy” St. John. Fuzzy continued on as sidekick to Lash La Rue when Buster retired from the Western screen, and after the movies with La Rue came to an end, Fuzzy continued to do personal appearances where he’d screen a film and do his routines live for a juvenile audience. I believe he was still doing that in the mid-to-late 1950’s. However, while St. John is present in these comics, the character name is changed to “Whiskers.” St. John’s name is never mentioned, nor is Fuzzy’s, but he looks and acts exactly like the Fuzzy character. Guess the celebrity endorsement budget was spent entirely on Buster Crabbe!

Although the cover of this particular issue is by Frank Frazetta (who, coincidentally, was responsible for THUNDA, mentioned above), the art in most of these second-string comic books tends to be somewhat functional--like what you’d see in a public health comic book or comics given away with children’s products like cereal or toys. As with a formula B-movie, it’s atmosphere and fast pace that matters....and the presence of Buster Crabbe. There’s an interesting mix of contents in this issue....I’d certainly think I got my 10 cents worth had I bought it with lawnmowing money in 1952. This issue is book-ended by a western short story, ”Backfire,” NOT featuring Crabbe, one of those mini-stories used as filler in comics well into the 1970’s. This was probably sitting around the publisher’s office and who knows if it had been used elsewhere under another title. It seems hastily written, as if the author was simply riffing on western clichés seen in B-movies and found in pulp fiction. The quick writing does give the piece a certain kind of “flow,” but that’s probably an unintentional side effect of the five cups of coffee the (uncredited) writer drank while writing the first and only draft.

After that comes the feature story, eleven pages long, the one depicted on the cover, “Buster Crabbe and The Maid of Mars.” Although playing on Crabbe’s identification as both Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, he’s paired with Fuzzy (oh, I mean Whiskers), his western sidekick, though in a sci-fi setting. We have a glamorous outer space heroine who first tries to capture Buster but then falls for him. Of course, juvenile boys have little time for “sappy” romance, so Buster does NOT settle down with her or bring her back to Earth as his mate.

As an old-time movie theater would give you a double bill, a comedy short, a serial episode, a newsreel and maybe a cartoon, a comic book of the day also threw in many different elements of different lengths and different tones. Thus, next we have a one-page comedy western featuring Whiskers, “Gold in the Mouth of the Creek.” Then, Buster and Whiskers return in an eight-page western called “Showdown,” which begins promisingly where the boys are arriving in a new town and overhear someone claim to have just “shot Buster Crabbe.” Who could NOT want to read the story after that!

In the PRC westerns, one quality that Fuzzy’s character had and exploited for comic effect was outrageous exaggeration in long-winded stories which no one believed. You know, the “I held off the entire regiment single-handed with only three bullets and a broken arm” kind of story. The six-page “Whiskers The Indian Fighter” features Whiskers only and is in that vein. Continuing with the slapstick, though with a big drop in quality, comes a one-page filler comic--kind of like a skit or blackout but lacking a decent punchline--featuring neither Buster nor Whiskers, called “Homer On The Range.”

The issue closes with a five-page western adventure with Buster and Whiskers called “The Round Up,” and then on the last page, the last few paragraphs of the short story which began the comic.

That’s a heck of a lot for 10 cents. It’s the comic book equivalent of an afternoon’s program at the local theater, but (almost) all of it devoted to Buster Crabbe and Fuzzy/Whiskers. And unlike a movie, you could re-read this comic as much as you wanted, and then later trade it to a friend for an issue you did not have. You owned a piece of Buster Crabbe which you could keep in your room and look at when you were bored or after your parents put you to bed for the night. Or maybe you were 25 years old, reading it in between customers while working at the transmission shop, wanting some escapist entertainment until you could get down to the neighborhood theater on the weekend for a Johnny Mack Brown double bill. Whatever, this Buster Crabbe comic book delivered the goods in 1952....and it still delivers the goods today. A Google search for ‘Buster Crabbe #5 comic book 1952’ should find you the comic online so you can read it for yourself, or you can purchase a reprint of it.

The ad on the back of this comic proclaims, “Hi Gang....You Should Be A Member of the Buster Crabbe Western Club.” Since that offer is no longer good, the next best thing would be to go online and read this comic book. You can then become, at least, an honorary member.

Buster and Whiskers and I will be proud of you!


top_cat_james said...

"A hell of an actor!" - Archie Bunker.

JD King said...

Comic books are for widdle chillun and feebleminded adults. Oh, and "hipsters" who enjoy "graphic novels."