Comic Publishers

November 26, 2013

Dark Horse Reviews: Captain Midnight Volume I: Captain Midnight Battles the Nazis

Captain Midnight Volume I CoverCaptain Midnight Volume I: Captain Midnight Battles the Nazis
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Story: unknown
Pencils: Dan Gormley, Bob Jenney, Leonard Frank, Carl Pfeufer, Leonard Starr
Inks: Dan Gormley, Bob Jenney, Leonard Frank, Carl Pfeufer, Leonard Starr
Colors: unknown
Letters: unknown

Every few years, a long forgotten character from the Golden Age of Comics makes a re-appearance. Some are going through a mini-renaissance right now, such as the old pulp-era heroes over at Dynamite Entertainment, like the Green Hornet and the Shadow. Others have actually never really gone away, including the Trinity of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman over at DC.

In between those two extremes, however, are literally scores, if not hundreds, of characters which have gone forgotten. Fortunately, one of those characters, Captain Midnight, has been resurrected by Dark Horse Comics with both a new monthly title as well as this first volume collecting the original stories dating back to 1941 – 1948.

Originally a radio serial character created in 1938 by, of all things, an advertising agency in Chicago, Captain Midnight made the jump to comic books in 1941, originally at Dell. The series later moved to Fawcett (the home of Captain Marvel, aka “Shazam,” the most popular comic book of its day) in 1942.

Captain Midnight is the alter ego of scientist and inventor Captain Albright, who has a secret lab hidden in the desert, where he creates inventions to help America in the war against the Axis powers. It also conveniently provides a cover for him to create gadgets to use when in the guise of Captain Midnight, such as his infra-red “Doom Beam Torch” and the special red suit with built-in glider wings he wears.

As typical of the time period, the two Captains are almost mirror opposites of each other. In his civilian identity, Captain Albright is an intelligent and respected government contractor, known for his intellectual creativity and inventions. When in his Captain Midnight persona, however, he’s much more likely to solve problems with a well-placed punch or as a crack-shot with his pistol.

The character development for Captain Albright is minimal – this particular collection starts in media res, assuming that the reader is familiar with the Captain already, and jumps right into the action. We know he has a ward, Chuck Ramsay, a young man in his teens or early twenties who is of course very reminiscent of the original Robin, Dick Grayson, except with blonde hair. His friends consist of a variety of agents for the Secret Squadron (with the unfortunate nick-name of the “SS”) who are typically only seen for one or two stories at most. The Secret Squadron mechanic Ichabod “Icky” Mudd provides comic relief and is, aside from Chuck and Captain Midnight himself, also one of the few other consistent characters throughout the majority of these stories.

The villains in this particular group of stories are also a bit one-dimensional, but that’s understandable given the subject matter and the time period. These days, sometimes it’s easy to look upon Nazis as cliché bad guys who are easy to hate and instantly evoke a mood and genre for pulp-action stories. However, these early Captain Midnight stories in this collection were actually written during the war, when the Nazi government occupied much of Europe and seemed nigh unstoppable. Many comic stories of that era were written before America’s direct involvement and were used as a pseudo-PR effort to prepare Americans for the inevitable fight that was sure to come. These Captain Midnight stories are no different – the Nazis are all presented as unequivocally evil and sadistic, with no redeeming qualities. They speak in stereotypical faux-German accents (“Ve clear der vay” instead of “We clear the way”) and are saddled with such names as “Herr Strudel.”

The Nazis aren’t the only villains in these stories – the Japanese are also represented, but to a lesser degree. To keep historically accurate, Dark Horse has wisely chosen to keep the original material unedited, meaning that the portrayal of the Japanese in particular, and the names used to describe them, are definitely out-of-step with modern sensibilities. Dark Horse should be commended for taking this stance to keep the original comics as presented to reflect the period in which they were created, and they do warn readers of this decision lest anyone be offended.

To capitalize on the more supernatural stories that were common during the day, Captain Midnight also goes up against some “giant vampire bats,” as well as a team of “gremlins” who are constantly sabotaging American airplanes. Nothing more can really be said about these two stories to avoid spoilers, other than Captain Midnight deals with them in a manner that’s consistent with the other stories in the collection.

The only other villain that’s a shade more developed is Ivan Shark, a criminal mastermind who runs a ruthless mercenary organization called the Sharks with the help of his second-in-command, and also daughter, Fury Shark. Both are, again, explicitly evil with no hope of redemption, as presented in these stories. No background is given as to why they are this way or hold hatred for Captain Midnight, but unlike some of the other villains they do occupy a longer story arc in this collection, so we get to know them a little bit more.

The artwork is typical of the comic-strip type heroes of the time – those old newspaper strips tended to have a certain style, such as Flash Gordon, and the Captain Midnight stories tend to copy that style a bit, especially the earlier stories. Later stories show a change in style as the artists become more familiar and experiment a bit more with the panel layout of the comic book. The craftsmanship of these drawing is really well done. It’s not “modern” comic art by any means, but considering the limitation of the paper printing/reproduction and the use of newsprint paper, most of these drawings really stand up even today. The figure work is almost always very well done in terms of proportions, even if the “action” scenes seem a little stiff. Again, it’s all very representative of its time.

I keep using that phrase, but it’s an important one. A reader can just sit down and read these stories as a fun way to pass a few afternoons and enjoy the action as presented. However, I think the much more important reason for publishing this collection is to preserve a historical record of the comics of the time, especially from companies other than the “The Big Two,” and to illustrate the sensibilities of the time. This collection is chock-full of little nuggets, like a narration to explain that “Roger is the term used in radio communication to signify that the message has been completed.” Ads at the back of the comics show Captain Midnight urging us to buy war bonds to support the war effort. Americans in the story are constantly afraid of Axis attacks and sabotage occurring on American soil, and as mentioned before, it’s easy to forget nowadays that people were very afraid of these things back then. It’s not unlike our fear of terrorist attacks in these modern times. So, even if the characters seem a little one-dimensional or the stories a bit hokey, it’s very important that these comics have been preserved in this type of collection as a record of the time.

That said, there is still a lot to like in the stories themselves. From the typical fisticuffs and punch-‘em-out action of the Golden Age school of storytelling, to prescient ideas such as a huge “flying aircraft carrier” which pre-dated S.H.I.E.L.D.’s “helicarrier” by about 20 years, to goofy weird stuff like that same flying aircraft carrier housing a huge tank on board to hold a gigantic electric eel, these are just fun stories that can be enjoyed on a variety of levels.

This collection gathers The Funnies #59, Popular Comics #76 and #78, and Captain Midnight #4-6, #9, #12, #31, #44, #47, #58, and #61, originally published between 1941 and 1947 by Dell Publishing Co. and Fawcett Publications Inc.

Review copy provided by Dark Horse Comics.

Martin Thomas
@comicattack.net

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