The Maze Agency.

Maze 1 Adam Hughes

If Jennifer Mays of Mike W. Barr’s The Maze Agency could have lingered at one publisher, she might’ve become a more iconic “stiletto gumshoe”. But the fact is, this fun whodunit series bounced around from one company to another in its primary late 1980’s – early 1990’s years, the handoffs continuing all the way through 2009. The Maze Agency’s ‘maze’ logo, designed by Todd Klein, first appeared in 1989 at Comico Comics, where we met Jennifer Mays – she of the trademark blonde forelock – a former CIA agent who bid goodbye to boss Ashley Swift at the Swift Detective Agency to strike out on her own. Mays partners up with armchair detective and true-crime writer Gabriel Webb, and together they solve (increasingly dangerous) puzzling whodunits in mostly self-contained stories with both obvious and obscure clues sprinkled throughout to challenge readers.

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The Maze Agency was a Will Eisner Award nominee for best new series in 1989, but soon enough Comico went under with only seven issues released. The title migrated to Innovation Comics for a longer 16 issue run (plus two specials) through 1991, then was published by various outfits including Alpha Productions, Caliber Comics, IDW and finally Moonstone in 2009. Originally drawn by UK artist Alan Davis (with inks by Paul Neary) for a six-page spec story, the series’ art was mostly done by a young Adam Hughes, one of his first full-time series (I think).

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Individual issues seem pretty scarce in shops ‘round these parts, but are easy enough to source online. The 1990 Innovation Annual is a good place to start if you want to find out more about Jennifer Mays, her sidekick Gabriel and their law enforcement link, NYPD detective Roberta Bliss. The series captures some of the then-innovative hard-boiled female private eye vibe that had been unleashed only a few years earlier by Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone and, in the comics scene, Max Allan Collins’ (along with Terry Beatty) Ms. Tree. But the real treat is the way Mike W. Barr’s storytelling honors mid-twentieth century pulpy whodunits with real mysteries and perplexing clues, the result being edgy and even a bit hard-boiled without sidestepping the fun factor.

Maze 5 Jerry Bingham

The Real Queens.

Ellery Queen 1 1952

Quite by accident, I stumbled across cover scans for the original vintage Ellery Queen comics sampled in Source Point Press’ 2020 J. Werner Presents Classic Pulp – Ellery Queen comic that I picked up this past weekend and showed here a couple days ago.

The Spring 1952 issue included “The Corpse That Killed” which was included in my reprint, and the second Summer 1952 issue featured the full Norman Saunders cover Source Point Press utilized. Of course, I much prefer the ten-cent cover price to the 2020 comic’s four dollar cost. Inflation and all that, I guess.

Ellery Queen 2 1952

Femme Noir.

Femme Noir 6

In a preceding post I mentioned a list of comics missed or overdue for a revisit that has accumulated while the shops have been shuttered the past few months. They still are closed, around here at least, but are expected to re-open soon. All the same, while I’m blessed with several nice stores very close by, they’re woefully light on indies, being strictly focused on the capes-n-tights crowd from the majors. But one off the beaten track shop will come through, I know, and that’s where I’ll mine the bins for Christopher Mills and Joe Staton’s Femme Noir.

Femme Noir 1

I have several back issues, but grabbed them at random and not in sequence, and really want to hunker down with the whole series. Bursting out of Port Nocturne’s deep dark shadows in always-energetic artwork, Mills and Staton’s Femme Noir seems like a genuinely pulpy comic treat based on the disjointed storyline I’ve gleaned from what I have. The Dark City Diaries, Blonde Justice and Dead Man’s Hand…now there’s a bunch I need to acquire, whether in individual issues or trade reprints. Counting the days (or a couple weeks, depending on what I hear).

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Violent Love.

Violent Love 1

Two nearby indie bookstores have re-opened, with limited occupancy and masks required, of course. It sure felt good to pick up a pre-ordered book inside, and even better to snatch another right off the shelf. The chain bookstores, new and used, are still shut tight, so I’m having magazine rack and musty oldies withdrawal. And none of the comix shops have opened yet. Presuming they work on even tighter margins, and have been contending with distribution issues and the DC-Diamond upheaval, I’m worried.

I’m usually not one for deep digging in back issue bins, often as not sensing (rightly or not) the hardcore fans giving me the eye if not actually nudging me aside. Still, I’ve accumulated a list of titles I want to see more of. As soon as the stores’ doors open up again, that is.

Violent Love 2

Case in point: Frank J. Barbiere and Victor Santos’ 2017 series, Violent Love. Somehow, this one escaped me completely, but one enormous and stocked-to-the-ceiling shop not too far away will surely have the original ten issue series or at least the trade reprints.  Can’t tell you too much about it, except that it tells the story of bank robber Rock Bradley teaming up with out-for-vengeance Daisy Jane to work the southwestern U.S. the hard and bloody way. The series is titled Violent Love, after all. So it just has to be worth checking out.

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Violent Love 3

Joan Mason – Reporter

Joan Mason 1

Joan Mason – Reporter from Victor Fox’ Fox Features Syndicate appeared in about 16 Blue Beetle comics as an on-again off-again girlfriend and sometimes foil of the superhero, eventually getting her own feature stories. Yet, for all of her investigative reporting and sleuthing skills, Joan never managed to figure out that Dan Garrett was actually the Blue Beetle.

Mason worked for various newspapers, depending on what the writers (or even the letterers) came up with, oddly enough, even the Daily Planet in some stories, though it’s not intended to be Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s paper (or to tempt fate with DC Comics’ lawyers). Most often depicted in a stylish red suit and hat with long blonde hair, Joan Mason suddenly had a mid-1940’s makeover in a new (and much better) artist’s hands, briefly sporting a black bob, though still sticking with the bright red suit.

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The Joan Mason Reporter Treasury shown at the top is another Gwandanaland Comics POD book (they seem to be pumping them out nearby in Monee, Illinois), 126 pages with 18 stories, most from 1944 – 1950 Blue Beetle comics. Writers? Artists? You got me — nothing’s credited, and the book’s intro is only a brief paragraph. But, some online sources list Charles Nicholas as Joan’s creator. Actually, most of the writing and art aren’t exactly the best, and only one story in this book, “Joan Mason Reporter In The Wandering Atomic Bomb” is done by someone who can really wield a pencil and sable brush, with a style somewhere between a Bill Ward and a Matt Baker’s look.

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Mason’s usually assigned to look into (or just stumbles upon) a corny mystery, gets caught by the crooks, rescued by the cops and solves the crime in the last panel or two. Many are only six-pagers. Still, for someone determined to poke around mid-twentieth century pulps, PBO’s and comics to uncover the era’s ‘stiletto gumshoes’ (few as there may have been), these Joan Mason stories are interesting artifacts.

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Crime Does Not Pay: The First issues

Crime Does Not Pay Volume 1

A while back I mentioned Blackjacked And Pistol-Whipped: A Crime Does Not Pay Primer,  a handsome 2011 Dark Horse Books trade pb with a sampling of stories from that notorious early 1950’s pre-comics code authority era title, which also included a detailed, multi-page history by Denis Kitchen.

Crime Does Not Pay: Volume One is a 2012 hardcover reproducing complete intact issues, ads and all. Much of Crime Does Not Pay’s legendary status – and why it attracted the attention of censors and the newly appointed Comics Code Authority — is due to its gruesome covers more than the actual stories and art, some of which can be surprisingly tame. But oh, those covers…yikes! The Charles Biro art shown here is pretty indicative of some. Crime Does Not Pay was packaged by Charles Brio and Bob Wood, the latter coming to a nasty end a few years after Crime Does Not Pay’s demise, doing time for manslaughter (which by all accounts should have been a second-degree murder charge), his girlfriend the victim. Out after only three years, Wood hit the skids, and died in 1961…run over by a truck when drunk, or as the rumor mill tells it, taken for a one-way ride by some former prison acquaintances. Either way, Wood’s story is a Crime Does Not Pay tale in itself, and worthy of its own post later.

This 279-page book is a visual treat, with crisp and vibrant colors throughout that really make the sometimes-stilted vintage artwork pop. Volumes Two and Three were right beside this book when I bought it a week ago. I have a feeling they’ll be going home with me on my next trip to that particular comix shop.

Nasty Pills

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Evil biotech corporation, Golden Dusk, developed a new DNA altering drug called (appropriately) ‘Nasty Pills’, which can modify users’ appearance, health, mood and behavior. But Nasty Pills aren’t being administered to cure diseases, only to breed beautiful, submissive, STD-immune young girls abducted from St. Stephens orphanage to be reconditioned and then auctioned off to the highest bidders as sex slaves. But the evil execs at Golden Dusk didn’t reckon on gun-packing gumshoe May Campbell, who may not care much about the law – or anything – but does care about her one true love, Rebecca, one of the Nasty Pills’ victims. The oversize “crazy pulp book” first issue is from Amigo Comics, written and drawn by ‘Massacre’ along with additional art by Dani Seijas. It’s just a two-issue series, so May Campbell’s campaign of violence and vengeance on millionaires and mobsters will wrap up quickly.

Nasty Pills 1

Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer

Betty Bates 2

Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer (AKA Betty Bates – Attorney at Law, Betty Bates – Lady at Law and just plain ol’ Betty Bates) is one vintage female crimefighter comic series that needs no apologies or caveats. Created by Stanley Charbot, pen name for Bob Powell, and sometimes drawn by artists Al Bryant, Nick Cardy and Alice Kirkpatrick, Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer appeared in Hot Comics for ten years from 1940 through 1950. The early issues’ art is, frankly, pretty crude, though no worse than many other comics were at the time (peek at the earliest Batman issues for comparison). But with Cardy and Bryant wielding the pencils, inking pens and sable brushes later on, there are spots in the series that could rival even some of Matt Baker’s fluid panels.

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Consider: Betty Bates wasn’t just one more in a long line of assistants, secretaries or girlfriends. Bates was the D.A. In fact, Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer was the longest running series led by a lawyer – man or woman – till Marvel’s Daredevil passed the ten-year mark, and it was one of the longest running non-super powered/non-costumed comic heroes of the golden age.

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But Bates doesn’t spend too much time in the court room, far too busy fighting crooks, looking for trouble or getting caught up in it. Using her wits and falling back on some handy martial arts skills when needed, she normally prevails on her own and without the aid of some hunky cop or boyfriend, though some stories include ‘Larry’, a reporter who’s obviously smitten with the lady lawyer.

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Two things leap out at you: The drawings foregoe the then customary ‘good girl art’ look, with its intrusive peekaboo bathing suit and undressing scenes. Similarly, though Betty falls into some bad guys’ clutches, it’s no more frequent than in any other crime comics or costumed superhero series, and no one could label Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer as a ‘damsel in distress’ or ‘women in peril’ comic. In fact, the stories are really quite good, several stand up well even today, and with ten years of material, there’s a lot to read.

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The Gwandanaland Betty Bates – Lady At Law Readers Collection is a hefty volume, with over 400 pages of Betty Bates stories. Strangely, they’re all black and white, though the comics were full color, of course (I’ve included some online finds here, the book too fat to open in my scanner). A couple came from awful originals, were scanned off of second-generation copies or perhaps just poorly scanned and not corrected, and I was pretty disappointed that the publisher would include such barely readable pieces. But with so many in the book, quantity made up for quality…I guess.

I don’t know why, but they also decided to tack on a few unrelated ‘bonus’ pieces: several Jungle Lil and Miss America stories, also with some mighty uneven scanning and in black and white. I’m not much for adventure pulps/comics, whether Jungle Jane’s, Jill’s or Lil’s, and 1940’s era costumed superheroes aren’t really my thing. But I’ll be bringing up the Miss America stories in another post nonetheless (you’ll see why). No idea why Gwandanaland added this material…the Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer stories really made for a nice fat book all on their own.

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Gail Ford – Girl Friday

Gail Ford

Homicide Bureau Inspector Madson’s able assistant Gail Ford is rarely seen slogging through routine office chores or clerical duties, more typically enlisted to go undercover to help the police solve vexing cases, palming herself off as everything from a greasy spoon waitress to a department store clerk, a personal maid or a fresh-off-the-bus rube just arrived in the big bad city.

Gail Ford – Girl Friday was created by Gene Leslie and first appeared in Crime Smashers in 1950. Or, depending on the source, she was created by Ray McClelland, and also appeared in Smash Detective magazine as one of that crime fiction pulp’s comics features. I’ll have to leave it up to vintage pulp and comics experts to confirm authorship and venues, none of which matters much to a non-collector like myself. But the 15 stories included in this Gwandanaland trade paperback are supposed to be from 15 consecutive Crime Smashers issues running from 1950-1953. A couple are credited to Pierre Charpentier and Keats Petree.

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Unlike some near-contemporaries like Adolphe Barreaux’ well-known Sally The Sleuth or Queenie Starr, Gail Ford – Girl Friday managed to chase crooks and solve crimes without losing all of her clothes. A smart investigator and quite the daredevil, she kept a revolver handy in her purse and knew how to use it, and had to trade blows more than once with menacing thugs, most of whom learned the hard way just what a high heel can really do when there’s a full-force Gail Ford kick behind it. She almost seems like a prototype for Mickey Spillane’s Velda, right down to the shoulder length Bettie Page style hairdo, complete with neatly trimmed bangs.

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The Gwadanaland book includes no intro, front or back matter, just scans of the comics pages themselves. But it’s a nicely printed book and the material is all quite crisp and readable, considering. The firm aims to publish largely forgotten public domain material, and I’ll be getting more from them for sure.

 

Some Vintage ‘Stiletto Gumshoes’

Klassik Komix Holywood Detective Front

Mini-Komix’ (or is it Klassik Komix?) Hollywood Detective is a 100-page trade paperback combining several Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective stories (most of which I already had in other compilations or pulp reprints) with some relative rarities, including genuine ‘stiletto gumshoes’ from the 1940’s – 50’s. Now I’m no vintage crime comics historian, but I think the non-Dan Turner pieces aren’t from Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective magazines, but from the vintage crime pulp Speed Detective, which included (and actively promoted) a comics section in most issues, including Ray McClelland’s “Gail Ford – Girl Friday” and Gene Leslie’s “Queenie Starr – Glamour Girl Of Hollywood” along with Newt Alfred’s “Ray Hale – News Ace”.

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This book includes all of those, plus a “Betty Blake” four page shortie. H. L. Parkhurst’s Betty Blake was a contemporary of Alphonse Barreaux’ Sally The Sleuth, both launched in the Spring of 1934, though Betty only managed to survive for a half dozen appearances while Sally The Sleuth continued (in evolving forms) well into the 1950’s. Additionally, Betty, the daughter of a New York police inspector, somehow managed to keep her clothes on while solving crimes, unlike Sally The Sleuth. I’d tell you more, but Hollywood Detective includes no introduction, back matter, dates, details…nothing. There’s a write-up on this early female detective pulp/comics character from Kevin Burton Smith at the Thrilling Detective site. Check it out.

Gail Ford

For me, the real treats in this slim book are the Gail Ford – Girl Friday story, “Girl Snatchers” (a sample page shown above) and the three Queenie Starr – Glamour Girl Of Hollywood stories. I’d read little snippets here and there about these characters, perhaps seen some random panel art (typically unidentified or credited) at a Tumblr blog, Pinterest or elsewhere. But now I finally got to read a few complete pieces. If you’re into the roots of female detectives, cops, reporters and sundry snoops from the mid-twentieth century, they were a real find.

Queenie Starr

McClelland’s Gail Ford and Leslie’s Queenie Starr (Ms. Starr shown right above) have a bit of the era’s pervy peekaboo Good Girl Art feel to them, no question. Queenie Starr in particular, seems to spend a lot of time posing for cheesecake photos or sunning poolside in a bathing suit…reasonable enough, perhaps for a ‘Hollywood Glamour Girl’. But not unlike Barreaux’ Sally The Sleuth, she spends an inordinate amount of time getting dressed and undressed. Unfortunately for the various Hollywood crooks, schemers and murderers she gets mixed up with, prancing about in negligees or lingerie doesn’t seem to hinder her ability to solve Tinsel Town’s crimes. All in all, quirky retro stuff, but very interesting.

Super Detective May 1950

 

 

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