Tuesday, May 08, 2018


One of the nice features of Gwandanaland Comics’ “character collections” is that characters who never had their own comic books and were only guest stories in a magazine not bearing their name (or in the case here, with Jane Drake’s name not even appearing in a list of contents on the cover!) are finally getting their day in the sun. It’s like those 50’s and 60’s rock and roll bands who put out a few singles back in the day but never made an album….then 30 or 40 years later, some specialist reissue label (often a European label!) will compile those singles, along with demos and perhaps singles recorded under other names, and finally there will be a full album available from that Yardbirds-inspired garage band from Fort Stockton, Texas, or that Elvis wannabe from Biloxi, Mississippi. It somehow validates them…but also gets their work into the hands of people today, and they can still work their magic decades into the future in ways they could never have anticipated.

Jane Drake had a brief comic life, five stories in the five consecutive issues of CRASH COMICS, all of which were published in 1940. At the end of the fifth and final story, we’re told that she’ll be back next month, so the folks at CRASH COMICS must not have known that the rug would be pulled out from under them and that #5 would be their last issue. There were a number of popular young female detectives in novels (Nancy Drew) and in films (Torchy Blane) in the 30’s, and both were at their height of popularity in late 1939, when this character was probably devised for 1940 publication (the 5 issues of CRASH COMICS appeared between May and November of 1940), so the concept must have seemed a natural, and also a way to build up female readership….although not even listing Jane Drake’s name on the cover would not have helped get young ladies to part with a dime at their local newsstand. They’d have to skim through the mag to even notice that it contained a lady detective!

The first three stories are five pages long and the final two are four pages. That’s not a heck of a lot for a crime to be developed and solved, so not only did Jane Drake have a short shelf life buried in a magazine where few would have noticed her, but in her brief number of appearances, she was whisked on and off-stage fairly quickly. How satisfying that she now has a book completely devoted to her.

Her backstory is quickly established in the first panel of the first story: “Jane Drake, daughter of Sheldon Drake, prominent attorney, whose ambition is to be a woman detective, is continually at odds with her father for interfering with his cases.” She is assisted in her exploits by her close friend and neighbor Jerry King, who is usually dragged in against his better judgement to keep his friend Jane out of trouble. That’s the set-up. The situations she stumbles into involve cases her attorney father has or had something to do with. There’s really infinite potential here, so it’s a shame the character was terminated before she had much of a chance to thrive. JANE DRAKE: DETECTIVE would also have been an excellent B-movie vehicle—however, Tem Publishing, run by Frank Z. Temerson, was unlikely to have had the contacts to make something like that happen, even with Monogram or PRC, and also many movie adaptations of comic material (either from comic strips or comic books) were made for commercial reasons because they were tapping into an existing pre-sold fan-base. There would not have been much of a fan base to turn out for a Jane Drake adaptation!

She doesn’t even have to seek out adventure in the first story, where she and Jerry are kidnapped by crooks angry at her father. The story is resolved in a quick, somewhat random way and seems to be over right when it’s getting into high gear, but that’s the problem with a five-page story that also has to introduce a brand-new character! In the second story, her father gets an anonymous threatening note, and she tracks down the culprit, of course related to one of Dad’s cases. In the third story, a gangster named Morelli is going to “sing” to the authorities, and his mob associates plan on paying his bail to get him released, and then kill him before he can talk. Jane steps in to keep that from happening (and Jerry poses as a naïve newsboy to get close to the crooks, but they catch on and kidnap him).

The final two stories are only four pages each, and frankly, that leaves no room for adequate development. In the fourth one, she overhears the police chief tell her Dad how much the city needs to crack down on a ring of car thieves, so she gets on the phone to Jerry (by this story, she’s got a reputation as a crime solver to maintain!), and before the end of the first page he stumbles across a piece of evidence in a way that would never happen, and by the end of page two, Jane and Jerry are again kidnapped and held by the crooks. This story is actually resolved by her Dad, who just happens to be at the crime scene getting gas (!!!) and who saves the day. The fifth and final story, another short one, also cuts to the chase (as they say) fairly quickly….Jerry is shooting the marquee lights out with a slingshot on an old abandoned theater (the juvenile delinquent!), and when Jane sees this, she points out that there is some escaped criminal on the loose and, by the way, did Jerry know he was probably hiding out at that theater….”why don’t we take a look”. The way this one is resolved is totally outrageous, involving Jerry’s earlier shooting out the marquee lights on the theater. He unintentionally shot out a few of the letters, and then the lights spell out a clue (oh, are the marquee lights still kept lit at night in an abandoned theater?) that alerts police. That was lucky, wasn’t it!

When I finished these five stories, I was really wanting more. Sure, they were hastily written and too short for what they needed to do, but they did have all the right elements: Jane and Jimmy are fun and attractive characters you’d love to see depicted in Monogram B-movie style (I can see the young Noel Neill in the role); the crooks act like comic book gangsters; the Dad is the well-meaning but bumbling stuffed shirt you’d expect him to be; the settings of the criminal activity are the kind of atmospheric dives you want in this kind of thing. The artwork is a bit crude and probably done quickly and for a low page rate, but if I want fine comic artwork with anatomical depictions worthy of Leonardo Da Vinci, I’ll dig out my beautiful volumes of Burne Hogarth’s TARZAN. What the Jane Drake artwork does have is vitality and a lot of telling detail, and that’s what you need to make a comic story work in your imagination.

It’s a shame Jane Drake did not get longer stories and more than five stories, but what she did get can still entertain today, some 78 (!!!!) years after its creation, and it was created as essentially a throwaway, which did not even rate being mentioned on the cover of the magazine. But, as it says in the Bible, “the last shall be first,” and now the forgotten lady of crime solving has her own comic book. Her great-grandchildren can be proud!

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