Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Nine-plus lives of the Black Cat

As a massive heat wave blazes down on the country, the people's thoughts are as one. Everyone is looking up into the sky at the blazing, burning orb scorching the life out of us and wondering "Where is Superman? Where is Superman?"

Naw, I'm jus' kiddin' ya. What people are really thinking is "Turn up the air conditioner!" But the AC in my little Brooklyn apartment chugs and sputters, trying to operate on the low-level brownout rolling across Manhattan, as Con Ed desperately tries to provide us all the power we need to keep our lemonade icy-cold. Don't forget it's in the best interests of you, your neighbors, and your eventual electrical bill to turn off lights, adjust your thermostat, and do your part to conserve energy. Because Max Dillon aside, none of us are made of electricity.

Mighty Mike Sterling over at Progressive Ruin is doing his part! His blog is on a week-long "low-content mode," sucking up much less electricity as he coolly displays a series of comic covers in black-and-white that were originally in bright, brilliant, NBC-Peacock color.

Here's a color version of one of the b/w covers Mike posted, Black Cat #45 (Harvey, 1953):
Black Cat #45

Freaky! And I know when you looked at it you're thinking the same thing I am: I dunno how much they cost, but second-class postal mailing permits in the Golden and Silver Age of comics must have been very expensive.

An odd and dramatic change in subject from energy conservation to mailing regulations? Bear with me, Bully-fans!

We comics fans of the twenty-first century enjoy zipping to the Comicaporium on our jetpacks or in our flying cars, and there's no bigger treat than reading this week's 4D-comic books while chowing down on a big yummy block of Soylent Green. And one thing we're definitely used to in our post-Atomic Age is titles rebooting and starting numbering from scratch over again every few years: within recent years there's been new #1 numbering for such long-lasting legacy titles as Superman, The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, and Fantastic Four...only Detective, Batman, Uncanny X-Men and Action have entirely escaped the renumbering fever that accompanies the fanboy knee-jerk instinct of "we must buy issue number one!"

Tweren't always that way. Back in the Golden and Silver Age of comics, rather than start a series anew with a brand-spanking shiny #1 on the cover, it was easier, more cost-effective, and faster for comics publishers to simply rename a comic and keep the numbering. Why? Because of second-class postal regulations: in order to mail out subscription copies of a periodical, a publisher needed to purchase a second-mail mailing permit for each title they published. If a comic book title wasn't selling, of course, you could cancel the title—but why throw away that money invested in the second-class mailing permit? Simply keep the numbering and rename the comic, thus pulling the wool over Uncle Sam's eyes. Hah! Take that, Dwight D. Eisenhower!

As Wikipedia (aka "The Encyclopedia You Can Scribble In!") says, "In the early 1950s, comic book publishers, seeking to save money on second class postage permits, would frequently change titles of their comics rather than start new ones." Titles as diverse as EC's Gunfighter changing into The Haunt of Fear, Little Audrey morphing to Playful Little Audrey, and perhaps one of the most dramatic changes of title while keeping the same numbering, Moon Girl (a science fantasy series) becomes Moon Girl Fights Crime (a femme-fatale crimefighter) becomes A Moon, a Girl...Romance (a kissy-kissy love title). All while preserving the same numbering.

Even relatively new fans of comics can see that effect at work with Silver Age books like Thor, Captain America, and Doctor Strange: comic titles that didn't have true #1 debuts but took up the numbering of their immediate Marvel predecessors (Journey Into Mystery, Tales of Suspense and Strange Tales, respectively), pre-FF mystery and monster titles that morphed into superheroes, all to save Stan a pretty penny on second-class postage fees. (Let's hope he invested it wisely and didn't blow it on that snazzy limo he's been tooling around in on Who Wants to Be a Superhero?)

How does this all tie into that nifty Black Cat "Colorama" book Mike posted? Simply that if Stan was a penny-pincher, then Harvey Comics' founder Alfred Harvey must have been the Scrooge McDuck of comics publishers, because Harvey published 65 issues of the Black Cat series from 1946 through 1963 and the book changed titles and sometimes genres with such alarming frequency that it'll make your head spin. In other words, not only did the Black Cat have nine lives, she pretty much had nine or more comic series in one over the years. There weren't as many abrupt title changes as, say, Wotalife changing to Phantom Lady; while the title always contained "Black Cat," it moved with the speed of a...well, a cat...from mystery to horror to western to superhero before finally ending with Harvey's last-ditch attempt in 1963 to leap aboard the Marvel Age superhero bandwagon.

Let's take a look at some of the more abrupt and weirder changes of the Black Cat comic, shall we?

Hollywood glamour girl Kathleen Linda Turner has a double life as the crimefighter Black Cat, so popular her stories in Speed Comics spun her off into a "because you demanded it" solo series with Black Cat #1 (6-7/46):
Black Cat #1

There's no title change with issue #12 (7/48), but Linda becomes a Western star on this cover...
Black Cat #12

...setting the stage(coach) for the book's first title change, the genre-shiftin'(but still Linda-starrin') Black Cat Western #16 (7/49):
Black Cat #16

But it's back to jus'; plain Black Cat with issue #20 (11/49), although the western action continues with bank-robbers and what looks like a good old-fashioned pre-Code injury-to-horse motif:
Black Cat #20

That horse-kickin' apparently didn't go unnoticed by Mother Nature, coz the animal kingdom strikes back and forces the title to change to Black Cat Mystery ("Strangest Tales of Fear and Terror!") with #30 (8/51). Say, is that mighty-morphin' Silver Age Jimmy Olsen on the bottom?:
Black Cat #30

The title remains Black Cat Mystery for many months, but shifts from the wholesome high-kickin' adventures of Linda Turner to an EC-style horror comic. The macabre-ness continues but the title reverts back to jus'-plain Black Cat with issue #44 (6/53), featuring the starling origin of J. R. Ewing:
Black Cat #44

No title change with #50 (6/54), but I wanted to include the cover just as a public service to remind you emo teens and filthy hippies out there of the dangers of smoking radium:
Black Cat #50

Whoa! You can't get more gruesome than that. Neither could Harvey, I guess, because by issue #54 (2/55), guess who's back in the re-retitled Black Cat Western? It may seem like a revival of Linda Turner was inevitable, but think again: these are just reprints of the earlier western stories in the series. But by gosh by golly! I know that Ben Grimm Totally Rocks, but Linda Turner is my new hero for preventing cruelty to cows!:
Black Cat #54

Cow-savin' adventure obviously wasn't payin' the bills, however, because the title shifts back to Black Cat Mystery two issues later with #57 (1-3/56). I spy with my little button eye some villains for Aquaman!:
Black Cat #57

One issue later in #58 (7-9/56), the title is so hurriedly changed to Black Cat Mystic that the cover logo is obviously a lopsided slapdash pasteover of the word "Mystery":
Black Cat #58

The next issue (#59) comes out more than a year later (9/57). That gave them plenty of time to center the logo...
Black Cat #59

...but the end is near. The series ends with issue #62 in March 1958. Except...four years later in 10/62, it reappears with a new design for #63 and what seems to possibly be a (post-FF, pre-Spider-Man) attempt to cash in on the early success of Marvel:
Black Cat #63

But that's about all the lives this Black Cat has: the series ends in April 1963 with issue #65. And that's all she wrote. it?:
Spider-Man/Black Cat #1

Nope! I pull your leg. That Black Cat has nothing to do with the original. And anyway, in this day and age, who would wait a year or more between issues of a Black Cat comic anyway? That could never happen to a modern Black Cat!

#65 wasn't truly the end of the Golden Age Black Cat, though. In the late 1980s Recollections published a reprint series of the Harvey Black Cat. I'm betting these reprints are easier to find than the ever-changing-titled originals, and while I've never seen 'em, now I have to search them out, not only for the artwork of the great Lee Elias, but also for early scripts by Zany Bob Haney. Plus, a heroine who saves cows from being branded? I am so on board for that.

To conclude, though, I repeat: those second-class mailing permits must have been as costly as gold.

(Images from the ever-invaluable Grand Comic Book Database. Visit their Black Cat cover gallery for a complete series of cover images: #31-53 are especially gorgeously gruesome and grotesque and well-worth the click-through for larger viewing.)

EDIT on 8/7/06: I musta looked at those covers all weekend, but not until Monday morning did I notice the teeny-tiny "Mystery" below the Black Cat title on issues 44-53...not to mention its microscopic inclusion on 54-56, making those issues actually Black Cat Western Mystery. Hoo boy! Talk about a smorgasbord of genres!


Anonymous said...

Heck, I'm glad you kept it as straight as you did--I certainly couldn't have kept up otherwise...smorgasbord is right.

And is that a boy sidekick I see on the early '60s cover with the awesome swingin' logo? How many women crimefighters have one of those?

Blam said...

... only Detective, Batman, Uncanny X-Men and Action have entirely escaped the renumbering fever ...
Wait five years, Bully of the Past. Wait five years.

Bully said...

Oh, how right you were, Blam!