Posts tagged ‘the Phantom of Disguise’

Detective 37 – almost the Batmobile, Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise ends, the Crimson Avenger returns, Cliff Crosby debuts, and Slam Bradley inherits a racehorse

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Detective 37 (March 1940) contains the final Batman story before Robin shows up.  Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s story loosely resembles the movie The Old Dark House, and overall the feel is of a horror movie.

The Batmobile is almost in existence at the start of this tale.  While there is still no emblem (or name), The way the car is drawn and coloured emphasizes it as an attribute of the man.

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Batman shows off another bit of gear, infra-red lenses to allow him to see in the dark, which come in useful in a fight scene.

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Batman never cares much if the villain dies in these early stories.  While the man impales himself, Batman still shows no remorse.  The end of the story promotes the next Hugo Strange tale, but it appears instead in Batman 1 – a solo tale, pre-dating Robin.

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In his final story Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise goes undercover as a sailor on the Sea Swan, investigating a series of ships that have gone  missing while crossing the Atlantic.  It turns out the vice-president of the line is selling these ships and their cargo to the Nazis.  Some of the crew are in on the scam, and lead a mutiny, then turn the ship over to the Germans, who arrive in a u-boat.  Cosmo infiltrates the mutineers and ruins their plans, and when the u-boat surfaces, Cosmo and Captain Barker have it shot at, blowing it up.

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They stand on deck rejoicing over their victory, but I think this is short-lived.  The sub would certainly have been in contact with the rest of the fleet – more than one sub would be needed to deal with the ship and its crew and prisoners.  I fear that though they blew up one sub, there were more around, and the Sea Swan was torpedoed and sunk, killing Cosmo and all the others aboard.

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The Crimson Avenger returns, with no significant change to the series.  Lee Travis still runs the Globe-Leader, Wing is still speaking decent English and driving the car.

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The story sees him pursue and capture some kidnappers.

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Cliff Crosby’s series languished amid the back pages of Detective Comics for the entirety of its run.  The art managed to reach a passable level, but the stories, often only 5 or 6 pages long, never achieve anything memorable.

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The series begins without making it clear what Cliff does for a living.  He helps a reporter friend, Terry Jensen, find a kidnapped judge in his first tale, but there is no indication of anything really definable about the character.  Little by little, over the few years the series ran, the picture would get drawn.

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Slam inherits a racehorse in this Jerry Siegel tale.  There are drugged animals, fixed races, and blackmail at the root of the tale.

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The story climaxes with Shorty filling in for a murdered jockey, and winning the Kentucky Derby.

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Detective 29 – Batman vs Dr. Death, Crimson Avenger takes a break, Cosmo vs the Avenger, and Slam Bradley goes to Hawaii

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Batman gets his second cover appearance in Detective 29 (July 1939), and the story even matches the picture!

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Batman is given his first recurring villain, Dr. Death, in this story by Bill Finger and Bob Kane.  He has a stylish monocle, an murderous servant, and a taste for killing people.

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There is no notion of a Batcave yet.  Bruce Wayne appears to keep his gear in a trunk in the living room at this point.  We see the utility belt for the first time, and it gets used later in the story.

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Even in this early, and rough, form, Batman still makes for dynamic reading.  And seems to need exotic villains to balance the extreme look of the character.

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Batman strangles the servant, and Dr. Death appears to die in a fire, but in fact returns in the following issue.

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The Crimson Avenger’s series ends with this story, although it returns in early 1940.  After a kidnapping, Lee Travis learns the details of the sounds the victim heard while captive, and uses those to track the bad guys.

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Wing gets a small role in this one, helping the Crimson Avenger escape the burning building at the end.  The final panel announces more adventures for the hero, and I suspect the series was put on hold because it was felt too similar to Batman; and that the boom in heroes was the cause of it’s return.

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Cosmo is pitted against the Avenger, a mad scientist who has developed a weapon that causes a bell tower to collapse, a ship to sink, a dam to burst, and airplanes to fall from the sky.  Cosmo tracks down the scientist, and claims to be an “electric meter inspector” when he approaches him, but does not disguise himself for that, which turns out to be a bad move, as Cosmo is famous enough that the crazed Professor Salvini recognizes him immediately, and almost kills him.

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In fact, if it were not for a stray bullet causing Salvini’s weapon to explode and kill him, Cosmo would have certainly fallen victim to the Avenger.

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Siegel and Shuster are still credited with this Slam Bradley story, but again it looks unusual to me, art-wise.

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Slam receives a note warning him to stay away from Hawaii, which he takes as a challenge.  He and Shorty head there, and meet Betty Clark, whose uncle has disappeared.  She sent the letter, figuring that he would take it as a challenge and come.

Must be an easier way to hire someone.  Like, offer to hire them.

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They get caught up with foreign spies trying incite native revolts, and creepy looking green lepers.

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It’s also worth noting that Slam and Shorty share a bed in this story.  It’s not the first time we have seen this, either.

 

Detective 27 – Batman debuts, Speed Saunders and the Red Crescent, Bart go solo in Spy, and Cosmo infiltrates human smuggling

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Detective 27 (May 1929) saw the introduction of Batman, or “Bat-Man” as he is labelled in this issue.  Created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, the character was close enough to the Shadow or Green Hornet to be on familiar ground, but unlike the Crimson Avenger, not so blatantly a rip-off.

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The look of the Batman was heavily inspired by the popular horror films of the time.  Bruce Wayne is introduced at the top of the story, a wealthy young man with nothing better to do with his time than hang out at the Police Commissioner’s office.  Not that Commissioner Gordon appears to mind this.

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Gordon and the police investigate the murder of the owner of a chemical factory, and the Batman appears, doing his own, more rough and tumble, investigation.

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The car he drives is nothing special, other than being sort of vibrantly red.

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Batman finds a secret contract and figures out part of the crime, though not all of it.  He escapes from a gas chamber death-trap, and punches the villain into a chemical vat, commenting that it is a “fitting end for his kind.”

The final couple of panels are sort of charming in their attempt to use cinematic effects.  Batman is explained to be Bruce Wayne, for anyone incapable of figuring that out.

The series would run in Detective Comics for decades, even with some changes in the identity of Batman along the way, until replaced by a Batwoman series for a year after the Batman R.I.P. storyline.

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Speed Saunders case in this issue is just so obvious.  Too obvious. Shame on Guardineer for this one.  Speed is pursuing a murderous cult called the Red Crescent.

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Along the way he meets a woman virtually covered in red crescents.  What a way to conceal your secret cult!

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And in the end, guess what, she is the evil mastermind and leader of the cult.  Who would have guessed?  Sigh.

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Bart goes solo for the first time in this Siegel and Shuster Spy tale.  No mention whatsoever is made of Sally, nor will one ever be, for the rest of his run.

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In this issue Bart tries to keep a bunch of senators from being poisoned, despite the senators being real dorks whose childish behaviour makes the killers job easier.

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I’m including the Cosmo story in here because it’s so awful it just makes me laugh, envisioning it.  To investigate human smuggling from Asia, Cosmo goes in disguise as a Chinese man.

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Despite the story telling us he can speak Chinese, we read the most insulting and stereotypical version of the Chinese accent, and are left believing this was how he spoke in Chinatown.  Amazing they didn’t slit his throat in seconds.

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There is a page of excellent art in this story, showing the barges being used to smuggle people.

 

Detective 25 – FDR in Spy, Cosmo goes to Canada, and Slam Bradley goes to college

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Franklin Roosevelt makes an appearance in the Spy story in Detective 25 (Match 1939), by Siegel and Shuster.  Bart and Sally are brought to him, blind-folded, both in gratitude of the service, and to commission them to round up a spy ring.

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Sally once more takes the direct route, getting caught stealing their files, so the bad guys will come to them.

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As usual, the couple operate as an equal team,and Bart goes after the tough guys, while Sally takes down the girl with the gun.  I think it’s cute that Bart is too shy to embrace Sally in front of the President, and the fact that almost every story ends that way highlights it.

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Cosmo heads to Canada in this story.  Note the snow, trees, plaid shirts, trees, Mounties, and trees.

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Cosmo uses a bear skin rug to frighten gangsters who have kidnapped a child, first using the paws of the bear to leave tracks in the snow around their cabin, and then actually wearing the rug as a “disguise” to attack them.

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I find the art on this Slam Bradley story odd.  Shorty seems to look younger than normal, and the narration on the splash seems to imply the reader is being introduced to Slam.

This makes me suspect that this might have been an unused strip, the “pilot” for the series.

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On a whim, Slam decides to go to college, and Shorty tags along.  This is the story in which we learn that Slam did not complete high school (nor did Shorty).  They inform the dean that they are detectives, and, clearly startled, he admits them.

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The story then has Slam avoiding and surviving a number of murder attempts.  The dean turns out to be the culprit.  He had been stealing funds, and when Slam announced he was a detective, believed that he was under investigation.

Detective 22 – the return of Fui Onyui, the Crimson Avenger shoots from the car, Spy become firefighters, Cosmo as a farmer, and Inspector Kent ends

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The Crimson Avenger gets his first cover, although he does not get the lead spot in Detective 22 (Dec 38), remaining buried deep in the middle of the book.

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Slam Bradley leads off the issue, as Siegel and Shuster bring back Fui Onyui, who had vowed vengeance against Shorty in the very first issue.

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Shorty gets kidnapped, and Slam follows his trail, leading to the almost mandatory opium den.

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The story avoids explaining exactly what has happened to Shorty, leaving him in a deathlike trance, but opium would be the obvious answer.

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Slam forces Fui to inject something into Shorty that revives him, and Shorty joins in the fight that brings the bad guy to heel again.  This was Fui’s last appearance.

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Lee Travis, though his paper, begins offering a $5,000 reward for the Crimson Avenger, dead or alive.  Life just isn’t providing enough danger and thrills, it seems.  He actively wants to encourage people to kill him.

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Corrupt cops are at the root of the story in this issue, as the Crimson Avenger has to track down missing papers.  By far the best scene is a car chase, with the Avenger shooting out the window.  This shot would be used for the issue of Secret Origins that told his story, in the mid-80s.

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Bart and Sally are assigned to root out spies and secret info at a foreign embassy in this chapter of Siegel and Shuster’s Spy.

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Once again, it is refreshing to see that being married to Bart has not changed the dynamic in the relationship between them.  Sally still speaks her mind and goes her own way.

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The story gets a bit silly, as they disguise themselves as firefighters after they bomb the embassy, to gain entrance, but it’s all fun.

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I haven’t mentioned any of the Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise stories so far because none really grabbed me.  Lack of character development is one thing, common to series from this era, but Cosmo’s lack of using or really playing with his central concept just becomes tedious.

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In this story, dealing with stolen gems, there is a scene with Cosmo disguised as a farmer.  This is the first time in the strip that we do not see Cosmo get into his disguise first, and his identity is sprung on the reader.

Seems like a basic idea, but it took them 22 issues to use it.

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Inspector Kent of Scotland Yard has his second, and final, story in Detective Comics, once again pitted against the Raven.

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Once again Kent does a less than impressive job.  It takes him far too long to realize the Raven is impersonating his partner, Sergeant Willy Wiggbert.

Inspector Kent had one final story, appearing in Adventure Comics the following spring.

Detective Comics 1 – Speed Saunders, Cosmo- the Phantom of Disguise, Bret Lawton, Claws of the Red Dragon, Bart Regan – Spy, Buck Marshall and Slam Bradley begin

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Detective Comics 1 (March 1937) was another ground-breaking comic book.  It was the first to have a single theme – all the stories were, to one degree or another, about detectives.  Even the two funny strips, Gumshoe Gus, and Eagle-Eye Jake, were about them.

It seems odd that this would be revolutionary, but up until this point comic books held a wide variety of series within them.  As most strips were only a couple of pages in length, the idea was likely to hit as many genres and styles as possible.

The cover does not depict any specific story, nor would it for quite a while, and not regularly until Batman came aboard.  It could, however, be viewed as representing the story written by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the owner of National Periodical Publications, “Claws of the Red Dragon,” some very poorly written racist yellow peril stuff, and the longest story in the issue.

Detective Comics was such a huge success that the other books changed their cover formats to match Detective, and the company soon adopted the moniker “DC Comics” – DC meaning Detective Comics.  Which means that ‘DC Comics’ really means Detective Comics Comics, which intensely bothered me.  For years.

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Speed Saunders held the lead feature in Detective Comics for much of it’s first three years.  He begins as an investigator for the harbour police (also referred to as the river patrol).  Though there would be little personal information given about Speed, we do learn that his first name is really Cyril.  His stories were all self-contained, usually 6 page murder mysteries.  Over time they developed a format in which Speed would explain the solution in the last panel or two, frequently citing evidence or information that the reader had not been privy to until that moment.

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In his first case, dead bodies are found floating in the harbour, and the coroner intriguingly describes them as “real oriental chinamen”.  Not fake oriental chinamen.  Or real african chinamen.  Speed investigates a boat that stays moored in the harbour without ever coming to port, and stumbles across a ring that smuggles these men into the US, tossing sick ones into the bay.

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Among the many reasons these men deserve to get caught, I would rank stupidity fairly high on the list.

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Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise is the first of a number of DC detectives who specialized in disguises, but used them far less than his successors would.  I find it odd that in over one third of his tales, Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise does not bother using them.  In reality, his character seems to be largely drawn from Sherlock Holmes (also known for disguises), and he even smokes a pipe of the style that we associate with Holmes.

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Cosmo has no other name.  Indeed, it is unclear if Cosmo is a first or last name.  He himself barely appears in his debut tale, which pits him against a villainous disguise artist, Taro, but from then on is unquestionably the star of the series.  Cosmo often uses disguises to allow him to infiltrate criminal organizations, or gain access to locations that allow him to solve the crime, but also impersonates people in danger, and sometimes even people who are already dead, to get the killer to reveal theirself.

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Bret Lawton is an “ace international detective” who appears only in the first two issues of Detective Comics.  He is hanging out in a bar in Cristobal, Panama, when he receives a letter from an old friend, Tim Morgan, currently running a mine in Peru, who needs help solving a series of murders that have occurred.

Bret heads to Peru, and spends 10 days at the mine, during which more men get killed, and Bret does little other than determine that the dead men had unusual puncture marks on their necks, and that they all died in the vicinity of an abandoned mine.  Somehow Tim never noticed either of those things.  Bret also notes that a large emerald is found near one of the bodies, indicating that the murders were done for some motive other than theft.

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He heads into the jungle with an Inca guide who explains that the Inca are no more, they were killed off or work in the mines, but we see one atop a pyramid watching them.

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Bruce Nelson is an adventurer and amateur sleuth, and a former pilot, likely with the American army.  Although his series would run from Detective Comics #1 on, it would be quite a long time before his strip actually took on his name.  His earliest stories, both serial and one-shot, simply were given the name of the story.  Oddly, in an era where series expanded in page count over time, Bruce Nelson’s would do the opposite, decreasing in length as it went on.

His first serial, Claws of the Dragon, runs from issues 1 – 8, with the first chapter written by DC’s owner and publisher, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson.  And the first chapter is by far the weakest, a very long, dull tale that has Bruce Nelson go to a Chinese restaurant, where no one will serve him.  A German father and daughter, Erick and Sigrid Von Holtzendoff, then enter and are menacingly catered to, and then all three are captured and hooded and taken away.

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Nelson notices that he and Von Holtzendorff are wearing matching rings, but it is clear they do not know each other – though by the end of the serial we will learn they in fact did know each other in Peking at the end of the Boxer Rebellion, when both had rings fashioned from broken pieces of the Red Jade Dragon.

To me the most notable part of this opening chapter is Bruce thinking that a Chinese restaurant is out of place in the business district of San Francisco.  How times have changed!

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Spy was the first of two series created by Jerry Siegel and  Joe Shuster for Detective Comics, and for the first two years of its run was a humourous and light-hearted romp.   Easily my favourite of the pre-Batman series in Detective.

The story begins as Bart becomes a spy.  He pretends to have been fired from his job, and, as ordered, tries to break up with his girlfriend, Sally Norris.

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Sally doesn’t believe him,and follows him to an embassy party.  Bart is in disguise, trying to be bait for a foreign spy, and Sally butts in, threatening to blow the entire operation.

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The first episode ends sort of split-screen, as Bart is about to be drugged by the evil spy lady, and Sally is being menaced by some tough guys working for her.

The male/female investigative team, popularized in the Thin Man movies of the time, found a great home in this book.

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Buck Marshall, Range Detective is a fairly repetitive series, set in and around Sage City.  Buck helps the sheriff (who never gets a name) with cases that frequently involve murder, and usually cattle rustling as well.

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In the bulk of the tales rivalry between ranchers, over cattle, land and access to water, proves the motive for the crimes, and they always are trying to blame each other.  Once in a while a bank or stagecoach or payroll gets robbed, but even in those stories the root motives usually come back to ranchers squabbling with each other.

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Slam Bradley was the second Siegel and Shuster series to debut in Detective Comics #1.  It would prove to be a very successful, and long-running, blend of serious action and humour, largely achieved through the skillful use of Shorty Morgan, Slam’s sidekick.  Shorty was drawn in a completely different style than Slam, different than the other characters and backgrounds as well.  In fact, it almost looks like Shorty was photo-shopped in from a silly newspaper strip.

But Shorty’s role in the stories was not limited to comic relief, in most tales his actions would be vital to the resolution of the plot.

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The opening narration informs us “In a hidden catacomb under the streets of Chinatown, Slam Bradley, ace freelance sleuth, fighter and adventurer is tangling with a mob of celestials who resent his investigating.  Knives flash!  Fists fly!  Altho’ outnumbered, Slam is having a swell time!”

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I still don’t understand the “celestials” thing, but this tale has more than its share of racism, Slam getting one asian to talk by threatening to cut off his “pigtail” so he will be separated from his ancestors.  The story is straight out of the “yellow peril” genre, with a white woman kidnapped by asians, under the leadership of Fui Onyui.

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Slam has a good relationship with the police in this, the Chief allows him to use a desk at the police station, and clearly wants him on the squad, but accepts his “freelance” status.  Towards the end of the story, the narrations refers to Slam’s “indomitable courage, surprising strength and laughter in the face of overwhelming odds,” a fitting description of all of Siegel and Shuster’s heroes.

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