As with the music business and the film business, I’ve always been fascinated by the products of the murky underbelly of the comics industry. They’re edgy, they’re unpredictable, and they don’t play by the established rules.
I. W. COMICS (1958-1964) was one of those companies. Comics.org explains the company’s origins, which really tell you all you need to know about the outfit: “I.W. Publications (1958-1964) was part of I. W. Enterprises, and named for the company's owner, Israel Waldman. Reportedly, Waldman came into possession of a printing company and among the assets were the production materials for several hundred comic books previously published by various publishers as well as a limited amount of previously unpublished material. Waldman equated possession of production materials as the right to reprint and I.W. became notable for publishing unauthorized reprints of other company's comics, often with new covers as Waldman's windfall did not often include the production materials for covers. The later half of the company's existence, it published comics under the Super Comics name. Usually these companies were out of business, but not always.”
This was one of a number of 50’s crime comics I recently purchased from Golden Age Reprints.com. Crime/detective/mystery comic books have always been among my favorites, so I intentionally chose some comics I’d never heard of, figuring I might stumble across something interesting, and even if I did not, I’d have some enjoyable crime-comic reading, the equivalent of watching a B-crime film or reading a paperback original 50’s crime novel.
The main story, and the one on the cover, features a character named “Young King Cole,” a detective with reddish hair, glasses, and a bow tie. The plot involves a woman who has been kidnapped and is being held on a seedy cargo ship. Twelve pages of action allows for a bit of backstory and plot development (Cole’s assistant gets a job on the ship to infiltrate), and I could see this being re-tooled as a Charlie Chan or Boston Blackie film.
Then comes a two-page short story called “End of the Line,” featuring one of the most common plots in crime fiction and films, the newly released prisoner who seeks revenge on someone he blames for his situation. What can one say about filler stories in comics? I enjoy them because they are quick and can be read when one is too tired or burned-out-from-work to even read a comic book or watch a 30-minute episode of a crime TV show such as HIGHWAY PATROL or HARBOR COMMAND. They also provide a change-of-pace from the comic content--similar to the role of a yeast roll or a slice of cornbread with a downhome meal!
Next we’re introduced to detective Homer K. Beagle in “The Missing Worms.” Beagle is a bumbling yet interesting character (yes, he’s a human, not a dog detective like McGruff), sort of like if Eb from GREEN ACRES decided to take his mailorder detective degree and put it to use. It seems someone has stolen the worms from the zoo because it’s fishing season and worms are very much in demand and the price is so high they are worth stealing, the way people steal copper from old buildings today. Putting a comedic detective story in the middle of the comic is a good idea in terms of changing the mood. Think of it as functioning the way a five-minute Smiley Burnette comedy sequence in a Charles Starrett “Durango Kid” western does to lighten the mood (and pad the length of the feature) and get you ready for the serious action coming up next....or so we hope!
The comic finishes with an eight-page story featuring “Dr. Drew, The Zoo Man,” another light-haired (reddish blond--does someone not like dark-haired detectives at this publisher?) Shamus. One odd feature of this one is that Drew has a South Asian (I’m guessing a comic like this does not make distinctions between cultures and nationalities outside of the USA) assistant named Gray who wears a loincloth and has a monkey to aid him. He also refers to himself in third person the way Senator Bob Dole used to. Everyone Drew encounters in the typical city in which the comic takes place just accepts the man in the loincloth and the monkey, so they must have an established history of crime-fighting in the area....or the people there are like New Yorkers, so jaded and having seen it all that nothing fazes them. This plot involves a snake farm and a crooked banker who convinces the local rural folk to take their money out of traditional savings accounts and put it in cash into a safe deposit box at his bank....and then he kills them and takes the money out of the deposit boxes with his duplicate key. After all, who would know what they put in the box, right? The plot aspects of this story are easy to follow even if you are tired or hungover while reading....the crooked snake farm and the thieving and murderous banker’s schemes are all explained thoroughly in a series of cram-packed dialogue balloons. Drew seems like he could be an interesting character, but with all the odd happenings here, the plot exposition, and his sidekick and his monkey, he’s almost like a guest star in his own comic.
With the usual ads for trade schools (I worked at a trade school once, and we found that our targeted TV ads brought in the most response when we advertised on local professional wrestling programs, so I can see why comic books feature ads from these places), novelty products, and rip-off books (like “Learn Ju-Jitsu At Home”), TOP DETECTIVE COMICS #9 was an enjoyable time-killer of a read.
When I finished reading it for the second time (I want to get my money’s worth!), I was even more convinced of an initial impression: although the book had a 1958 date, it seemed very dated, at least eight to ten years out of date. Then, in the tradition of the private detectives in the comic, I did a little sleuthing of my own and found out that most if not all of the pieces here were lifted from earlier comics (see the explanation of Israel Waldman at the top of this review). On this low rung of the comics ladder, the publications these were ripped-off from were probably too under the radar to ring any bells of recognition...and this kind of thing was far easier to get away with in the pre-internet age. It’s like the comics equivalent of an exploitation film being shopped around in the hinterlands for decades under different titles. In this case, the book’s content is lifted from a 1948 comic called Criminals On The Run, and one of the stories from that had already been re-printed once in another 1951-52 Avon comic (thanks to comics.org for the information on this).
Also noteworthy is that I. W. Comics lists this as #9 in the series of TOP DETECTIVE COMICS, when it’s actually the one and only issue in the series. No doubt people would be more likely to buy something that seemed like an ongoing series (which must be successful to be ongoing) than a one-off, particularly when they could open the comic and find something that looked and sounded like 1948...but it’s 1958!
I once worked for a supermarket chain back in Virginia (which will remain nameless) which instructed us to cut the rotten sections off fruit and vegetables and meat (hey, I had a family to support!), re-date them, re-color them, etc. They were “refurbishing the product,” we were told, and “offering budget-minded consumers access to premium products at an affordable price.” (My only other employment opportunity in that semi-rural area was the competing grocery chain, which routinely locked employees in to work an hour or two off the clock each night.) Hats off to I. W. Comics (Read I. W. Comics--They Are Top Quality Comics....we are told in a crudely inserted box at the bottom of page one, no doubt where the publishing info on the original 1948 comic was) and Israel Waldman for working in that time-honored American tradition of re-selling dated and third-rate content in a new package to unsuspecting consumers like me. A lot about life and contemporary society sucks, but a beer and a crime comic book at the end of a long workday (even if the content is recycled) make it a slight bit more tolerable. I can live in my imagination in a world where the detectives wear glasses and a bow tie and where people can wander around in a loincloth with a monkey sidekick without calling attention to themselves. A place where I can buy a 10-cent comic like TOP DETECTIVE from a poorly-lit rack in the back of a seedy neighborhood grocery or drug store to keep my feeble mind occupied until my girlfriend Mabel gets off work at the diner at 2 a.m. And nice guy that I am, I also bought Mabel a copy of the Charlton comic SOAP OPERA ROMANCES at that same store. She appreciates good reading too. No wonder we get along!