by Jon Berk
The Rise of Original Comic Book Material
From 1934 to 1936, the “modern” comic book was beginning to gain steam and popularity as titles such as Famous Funnies, Tip Top Comics, King Comics, Popular Comics and The Funnies filled the newsstand. These titles reprinted some of the most popular newspaper comic strips of the day. However, in 1935 a new phenomenon appeared in comic books. Due to the lack of available reprint material and the costs for the rights to same, some titles were printing “new,” original material. In February 1935, National Periodical/DC produced New Fun and in December 1935 released New Comics.
With a cover dated May 1936, Comic Magazine Co. produced Comic Magazine/Funny Pages with material that was originally slated for National Periodicals. This company was owned by National Periodical defectors William Cook (former managing editor) and John Mahon (former business manager). (It is thought that they were “paid” with this art by their cash strapped ex-employer, Major Wheeler-Nicholson. Comic Magazine #1 contains a “Dr. Mystic” story by Siegel and Schuster, which is key in the development of Superman. However, that is a story for another day.) They also produced Funny Picture Stories (November 1936), and the short-lived titles of Detective Picture Stories (December 1936-it beat Detective Comics #1, March 1937, to the stands) and Western Picture Stories (February 1937-tying with Star Ranger as the first western comic). Comic Magazine Co. published all these books in the period of November 1936 to June 1937. They sold their extant titles, Funny Pages and Funny Picture Stories, to I.W. Ullman and Frank Temerson, who published these titles for a short time as Ultem Publishers before the line was taken over by Joe Hardie and Centaur Publications in March 1938.
Rounding out original comic book titles on the stands in 1936, John Henle published four issues of a poorly produced book called Wow What a Magazine. The four issues of this book contain the earliest works of Will Eisner, Sam Iger, Bob “The Batman” Kane, Bernard Bailey (who was to be the artist for “The Spectre” and “The Hourman” and briefly ran a small shop in the 1940's producing titles such as Top Spot Comics and Triple Threat Comics), Dick Briefer (who would go on to receive notoriety for his rendition of “Frankenstein” in Prize Comics), George Brenner (creator of “ The Clock,” the first masked hero in comic books) and Louis Ferstadt (who would go on to draw “The Flash,” “Starman” and “Green Lantern” and eventually be the art director for Fox Comics in the late 1940s).
Eisner realized early on that there was a future in the production of comic book features for publishers looking to cash in on the nascent comic book industry. He, along with a few other individuals, recognized a market for supplying ready-to-be-published material for companies who had neither the skill nor expertise in the production of a comic book.
Rather than viewing comic book production and creation as a stepping-stone to the more recognized prestige of newspaper comic strips, Eisner saw the creative and financial potential in this new entertainment medium. Eisner formed an early “comic shop” with Same Iger that produced material for release in England for titles such as Wags. These features were eventually reproduced to form the basis of Jumbo Comics and the Fiction House line of comics. Eisner also produced material for Fox Publications and Quality Publications under the publishing eye of Everett “Busy” Arnold.
Lloyd Jacquet, who had been the editor of New Fun #1, joined Eisner as a comic book packager. Jacquet formed Funnies, Inc., which was responsible for providing much early material for the super-hero line of books for Centaur. The core Funnies, Inc. artists-Bill Everett, Carl Burgos, Paul Gustavson and others-packaged a comic book including features of the “Sub-Mariner” and “Human Torch” for Martin Goodman in a title known as Marvel/Marvel Mystery Comics. They soon supplied further material for Timely Publications and other comic book companies that sprung up in the wake of the “super-hero” success of “Superman” and “Batman.” Funnies, Inc. also produced early material for Novelty Publications titles such as Target Comics and Blue Bolt Comics. Publishers, looking at the growing phenomenon of comic books, turned to “comic book shops” as sources to provide them with ready material to be published.
Enter Harry “A” Chesler, Jr.
One of the earliest pioneers of comic book shops-if not the first comic book shop-was Harry “A” Chesler, Jr. (The “A” was claimed by Chesler to stand for “Anything.”) His name and handiwork was an ubiquitous presence from the earliest days of comics to the waning years of the Golden Age in the late 1940s. Publisher, editor or “sweat shop” task master, Chesler literally left his “imprint” on many titles of this era. (Starting in 1941, Chesler books proclaimed on every cover: “Harry 'A' Chesler, Jr. World's Greatest Comics.” Move over Stan Lee!) Chesler aggressively marketed and sought to package comic book material for his own titles as well as providing art and writing services to the growing cadre of would-be comic book publishers. His stable of writers and artists provided a finished product with assembly line efficiency.
Cover dated February 1937, Chesler produced and published Star Comics and Star Ranger. These titles contained all original material. As noted above, the marketplace had few such titles at this time. As indicated below, many creative talents-who were seeking a start in the world of “funny books”-were gobbled up by Chesler to turn out features for these titles and other publishers.
Although mostly remembered for the books he published in the early and mid 1940s, the Chesler comic book titles may be broken down into three periods. In the early period of 1937-1939, he produced “funny books” that focused more on humor strips, adventure and western stories. In the pre-war years he joined the super-hero parade with titles such as Dynamic Comics, Yankee Comics, Scoop Comics and Punch Comics, which were short-lived in their first incarnation. The final period was the resurrection of these titles that sported the uniquely macabre covers of Gus Ricca as well as covers drawn by Fran Smith and George Tuska. The Chesler string of comic titles ran out as 1947 drew to a close.
The Pre-Superhero Period: 1937-1939
Although the first published Chesler comic books were Star Comics and Star Ranger, cover dated February 1937, it was obvious that Chesler had his eye on the publishing market and comics before this. In a little known mock-up magazine that was only submitted for copyright purposes, Chesler produced a magazine called Cheerio with a subtitle of “A Rapid View of Fun that's New.” (There is that “new” word again.) Cover dated January 5, 1936 (registered September 19, 1935), it approximated the size of New Fun. The insides were mainly text (Chesler himself even penned a crime piece), along with single panel gags and blank filler pages.
Cheerio could easily be relegated to the pile of esoterica that litters the history of comic books. However, the link of this magazine to Star Comics is inescapable. Header figure within Cheerio is a figure that became the cover figure for Star Comics #1 as drawn by J.C. Brigham. The tagline for this magazine became the tagline for Star Comics starting with the second issue. The full-page comic splash on the back cover of Cheerio was reproduced in Star Comics #1. Also, although it did not appear within, the magazine on the cover references the features of “King Kole's Court” and “Lucky Coyne” which were early features of Star Comics. As produced, Star Comics contained many one- and two-page features. One was named “Cheerio Minstrels” which, when viewed in the context of the above, has an obvious link to Chesler's plans for features.
The first six issues of Star Comics and Star Ranger were oversized, with every issue for each title beautifully rendered. The material within, consisting of one- or two-page gags, adventure or western stories were well drawn and well produced. Talents such as Jack Cole, Charles Biro, Bob Wood, Fred Guardineer, Gill Fox, Fred Schwab, Ken Ernst, Otto and Jack Binder (who was an art editor for Chesler before he set up his own comic art shop), William Allison, Creig Flessel, Paul Gustavson and many others first cut their teeth here before moving on to other shops or in-house production for comic book companies. The artists and writers were, for the most part, extremely young and neophytes to this new industry. The Chesler shop was their first stop in their comic book career.
Star Comics contained the adventure strip “Dan Hastings,” as first drawn by Clem Gretter (who had provided material for New Fun) and then by Fred Guardineer. In addition to these artists, one could even find work by Rick “Buck Rogers” Yager, and the son of Winsor McCay supplied a strip called “Impy.” The highly stylized animal characters of Dick Ryan were omnipresent in the features of these titles. Ryan's features and covers (along with many other artists of the Chesler shop) continued even as the publisher imprint changed to Ultem Publications for books cover dated October 1937 and then Centaur Publications for titles covered dated March 1938. Not credited in any published comic book resource work is the fact that the first cover drawn by Gill Fox was for the first issue of Centaur's Keen Detective Funnies cover dated July 1938.)
Although the subsequent publisher of Star and Star Ranger was listed as Ultem Publishers, the Chesler name prominently remained in the masthead as editor for these two titles. At the same time, Ultem also took over the remaining Cook/Mahon titles of Funny Pages and Funny Picture Stories. (Confusion has been created in the collection of these “pre-Centaur” issues in that the indicia on the covers or indicia contained on the interior pages did not initially reflect the change of publishing control.) These titles also listed Chesler as the editor. The content of these titles, upon resumption of publication by Ultem, clearly took on the look of Chesler produced books not only in name but style and content. This look and content continued for many months even as the publishing and editorial reins changed to Centaur Publications and “Uncle” Joe Hardie for titles dated March 1938.
As Centaur entered the science fantasy field with Amazing Mystery Funnies (August 1938) and the super-hero field with Amazing Man Comics (September 1939) following the advent of “Superman,” Centaur turned to the Jacquet's Funnies Inc. shop for its material. (“Amazing Man” has the distinction of being the first “super-hero” to debut in his own title.) This shop of artists and the characters they produced for Centaur laid the groundwork for the greater fame the artists would gain as the creators of many of the major features for Timely Publications in the fall of 1939.
Before leaving this phase of the Chesler production, it is appropriate to observe that Chesler always had the ambition to syndicate some of his strips in newspapers. Syndication submissions were made for “Dan Hastings” and other adventure strips. Dick Ryan reworked several of his Star Comic pages into a newspaper format for possible syndication. And although this phase of Chesler production was to end as Centaur took over, Chesler would soon to return with a new line of comic titles as he jumped onto the super-hero bandwagon.
Pre-War Super-Hero Titles: 1941-1942
Chesler continued to be busy as the 1930s drew to a close. Although not publishing his own books, he did produce and package stories for several publishers including several early titles for MLJ before MLJ took its production in house. Chesler also packaged or contributed material for early issues of Fawcett titles such as Master, Slam Bang and Capt. Marvel Comics. Material was even produced for the earliest issues of Timely's Mystic Comics. Chesler also produced a beautifully rendered premium give-away, Cocomalt Big Book of Comics.
Chesler entered the super-hero sweepstakes with four of his own titles: Yankee Comics (September 1941), Dynamic Comics (October 1941), Scoop Comics (November 1941) and Punch Comics (December 1941). Never one for understatement, each of his titles proclaimed they were “World's Greatest Comics.” A new string of artists lead by Charles Sultan and George Tuska contributed material. Material from his earlier pre-hero titles was reproduced. (Reprinting of these earlier filler materials for his current line of titles was a common Chesler practice.) Even cover “concepts” were recycled. (Compare the cover of Scoop Comics #1 with Star Ranger #2 for derivative concept).
Sultan, as Chesler's art director, produced several wonderful covers and interior art which, by drawing style and content, were clearly influenced by master comic book illustrator Lou Fine. One need go no farther than the cover of Scoop #2, which is clearly a derivative of the cover of Hit Comics #5 - which Fine drew. (Also compare Punch Comics #1 with Fine's cover for Fantastic Comics #5.) Sultan was not the first or last artist to imitate or be influenced by the incomparable Lou Fine. Imitation or not, Sultan rendered beautifully drawn art for characters such as “Master Key,” “Yankee Doodle,” “Dynamic Man” and “Major Victory.”
George Tuska contributed art for the mysterious “Lady Satan.” Tuska is presently better known for his Silver Age art for the pantheon of Marvel Comic characters including “Iron Man” and “The Avengers,” but his association with comics stretches back to the earliest days of the Golden Age of comics. He not only drew for Chesler, but also did much work for the Eisner shop as it produced material for Fox Publications and Fiction House. His art also graced the early adventures of Capt. Marvel. One only has to view his work on the Shark Brodie strip he drew for Fiction House to observe his graceful and fine line work. A true craftsman, Tuska often does not receive his due for the early contributions he made to the medium of comic book art. A little known fact is that it was he, not Lou Fine, that drew the cover for Mystery Men #6.
Some titles continued characters from the Chesler pre-hero period such as “Dan Hastings” and “Lucky Coyne.” However, the headliners were an array of new super-hero and adventure characters. The new lead features included:
Master Key: Beginning in Scoop Comics #1, Master Key was a “weird figure of the night, who strikes terror into the hearts of the most hardened criminal. Known to society as suave sophisticated Ray Cardell, this not-so-playful playboy represents the iron fist of justice. All the underworld trembles at his name.” One night, rays blast through a telescope he is using. It has the effect upon his eye that allows him to look through objects. (Compare the modified origin in Punch Comics #13, April 1945, wherein his power is gained by an explosion caused by a short circuit.) As his character continued in the mid 1940s, his eye could paralyze or burn people and objects. Donning a fedora and cape he takes on criminals and fifth columnists galore.
Rocketman and Rocket Girl first appeared in Scoop Comics #1. They were Cal Martin and his fiancée Doris Dalton - young scientists who used his rocket pack invention to battle crime and better society. Later in the 1940s, he became an attorney and she his secretary. Nonetheless, they zoomed on until the Chesler string ran out.
Yankee Doodle Jones and Dandy: First appearing in Yankee Comics, this pair was literally borne from the “members” of the old war veterans. Jones was injected by an invincibility serum just as fifth columnists came and killed the scientist who had “created” this hero. The scientist's son, upon seeing his father killed, also injected himself with the serum. The two were called upon by Uncle Sam himself to battle the foes of freedom and the U.S.A. This feature reflected the vitality and verve of the early Golden Age with one-liners flying as fast as fists.
Lady Satan: Her fiancé and she were victims of a bombing while on a ship. As told in Dynamic Comics #2 (December 1941), the ship sunk, her fiancé died, and she took an oath to be the foe of the evil Germans. Donning a mask and waltzing about in an evening dress, somehow she managed to travel unnoticed through the streets of Nazi occupied France as she fought the German host.
Major Victory: His first appearance was in Dynamic Comics #1, and he was one of many “patriotic” super-heroes that sprung up to defend America against foreign forces before the official entry into the war following Pearl Harbor. Near death due to a bomb blast while serving as an Army sentry, he was revived by the ringing of the liberty bell by “Father Patriot.” Reincarnated as Major Victory (I guess he had rank over the host of “Captain” patriot super-heroes of the day), the Major took on the ruthless Baron Von Krumm and his no-good Nazi henchmen.
Dynamic Man, who first appeared in Dynamic Comics #1, took more of a Torch-like road to superhero-ing (at least initially). Dr. Moore created an artificial man to combat the evil witchcraft of The Yellow Spot (yes, “The Yellow Spot). The Spot, who could travel as a bat, was killing off or entrancing the minds of American scientists. He went to the home of Dr. Moore, who was creating an artificial man, and tried to stop him by stabbing him. While being stabbed, Moore somehow managed to throw the switch giving life to his Dynamic Man. Dynamic Man was able to stop the fiendish plan of the Yellow Spot and release the trapped minds of other scientists. Grabbing the bat form of the Yellow Spot, Dynamic Man proclaimed, “The Yellow Spot is rubbed from the world.” Later, he would become an actual human working as high school coach, Bert McQuade.
The Echo first appeared in Yankee Comics #1. A gifted ventriloquist, he was fortunate to find an invisibility belt (and later a paralyzing ring) without which he would have had a difficult time fighting crime.
Notwithstanding the relatively good quality of the art and features, after only a few months, these titles had abruptly ceased publication by February /March 1942. Although the hiatus might possibly have been as a result of paper shortages brought on by the advent of the war (compare the demise of many Fox Publication titles and Centaur titles by those cover dated February and March 1942), it appears that the answer may be simpler-Chesler and his editor entered the armed forces! Although most Chesler titles did not resume a regular publication schedule until 1944, Dynamic made a two-issue resurrection later in 1942 or 1943. The indicia of Dynamic #8 and 9, after listing Chesler as publisher and Phil Sturm as editor, states “on leave from U.S. Army.” (Compare a similar statement in the Statement of Ownership appearing in Punch Comics #14, July 1945). It may be that without Chesler rowing, his publishing syndicate stopped dead in the water.
Dynamic #8 contained material reprinted from the earlier Chesler titles of Scoop #1 (“Master Key”), Yankee #1 (when reprinted in Dynamic Comics #8, all of the “Yankee Doodle” art work was exactly the same; however, the splash page was slightly redrawn, possibly indicating that the original splash was lost) and Star Comics (e.g. the “Li'l Arthur” feature is from issue 5). No new material was within, however, the book sported a uniquely macabre cover by the new art director Gaspano “Gus” Ricca. The other interim issue - #9 - had a guns ablazin' cover by the soon to be renowned Mac Raboy.
Late Super-hero Period 1944-1947
As noted above, publication of Chesler imprint books abruptly ceased due to the advent of World War II. Many of the most sought after Chesler books are from the period when Chesler imprint comic book production resumed on a regular basis in mid-1944. Artists for these titles included Gus Ricca, Fran Smith, George Tuska, Otto Eppers, Raphael Astarita, Paul Gattuso, Ruben Moreira and Charles Goodman. The titles resumed with many “gaps” in the numbering. A new title, Red Seal Comics, commenced with #14.
Dynamic had ceased publication with the third issue (February 1942), and their numbering resumed with #8. Punch Comics had ceased with the second issue (February 1942) and resumed with issue 9 in July 1944. Scoop Comics ceased with the third issue (March 1942) and resumed with one single issue in 1945-issue #8. Yankee Comics concluded with issue 4 (March 1942) and never resumed.
Before examining the post super-hero production, it is appropriate to propose an explanation for these gaps. Although apparently he and his editor were engaged in service to their country, Chesler actually continued to produce a number of pocket size comic books for Remington Morse Co. and William Wise Co. The new art director, Gus Ricca, had a hand in this production. It is not known how widely distributed these issues were. Note that one of these pocketsize titles was Yankee Comics. The numbering of presently known pocketsize issues of Yankee Comics is for issues 4 through 7. It may be reasonable to conclude that this explains the #8 for the single issue of Scoop Comics. During this time, digest issues appeared for Adventures of Riggin' Bill (a character traceable to the first issue of Star Comics), Private Bill, Tops in Humor (issue 2 even has Chesler in it with the ever present cigar in his mouth), Mirth of a Nation and You Chirped a Chinful. The audience for these books was military service personnel, ad the idea for these digests may well have come to Chesler as a result of his contact with the armed services. The books had prices of five and ten cents.
Accordingly, the gaps in numbering may represent the issues of these digests that were produced in this period. The contents of these books were mainly single page gags of service life with patriotic text fillers. Some of the material was reprinted from the pre-hero period of 1937. The reprinting of old material was fairly common for the books that Chesler produced from 1944 onward.
As for the #14 for the first issue of Red Seal Comics, a reasonable theory is that the numbering continued from Scoop #8 which changed to Snap Comics #9 which changed to Komik Pages #10 which changed to Bullseye Comics #11 which changed to Kayo Comics #12 (or could have continued from Jest Comics #10 and 11-another of Chesler's repackaging products of earlier material). As to “issue 13,” the only suggestion can be that the single issue of Carnival Comics, which continued the reprinting of 1930's material, is the “missing link.”
Once resurrected, the contents of Chesler titles took on a more mundane nature. Sure, there was the continuation of super-hero characters such as Dynamic Man, Rocketman and the adventurers Master Key, The Echo and Lady Satan. However, the stories were far more pedestrian and lost that edge of vitality that characterized many of the pre-war stories. Of course, this was a problem that was not unique to Chesler, but also plagued the other publishers as the war wound down and the age of the super-hero was in decline.
However, the uniquely grotesque and surreal covers of Gus Ricca drive the “collectiblity” of the titles from this period. Skulls, murderous dwarfs, blood dripping from every signpost, the Ricca covers had a dark, macabre edge reeking of malevolence. One wonders whether the kingpin character playing chess on the cover of Dynamic #12 is nothing less that a caricature of Chesler himself, cigar and all. But what the titles lacked in content quality, Chesler made up in risqué and bizarre covers. Whether it was a skirt fluttering up in Kayo Comics, a bare-breasted woman such as depicted in Punch #20 or the bizarre covers of Dynamic #19 and 20 and Punch #19, Chesler apparently would do anything to sell a book. Although a humor cover was interspersed on occasion, there is no questioning the atmosphere that Chesler pushed to lure the reader to his books.
Chesler published three issues of a new title, Spotlight Comics (November 1944), with a title headlined the “Black Dwarf.” The rest of the material, again, was recycled from the earlier Chesler titles of the pre-war period. After the third issue appeared in early 1945, Spotlight Comics was discontinued. The Black Dwarf continued in Red Seal Comics, cover dated October 1945 (the markings on the original art for the Black Dwarf story for this issue indicates it was originally slated to appear in Spotlight Comics #4-which obviously never happened). An ex-football player who decided to take on crime, the only quality that qualified him for his “dwarf” name was his diminutive sobriquet of “Shorty Wilson.” He took on criminals no matter the risk. The Black Dwarf “chuckles whenever the odds favor death.” Assisted by his ragtag team of ex-criminals-“Nitro,” “Fly” and “Arsenic” (who “abdicated” her life as former queen of the blackmail rackets to fight with the Black Dwarf)-the Dwarf was not hesitant to use violent strong-arm tactics against the denizens who littered the underworld of crime. Other crime fighters rounded out the magazine such as “Lucky Coyne” (still going strong since the mention of the feature on the cover in Cheerio), Little Nemo and a western hero known as the “Gay Desperado.” By issue 17, Lady Satan joined the title. However, instead of Nazi opponents, she was a wielder of magic fighting foes of a more ghoulish nature.
Fran Smith drew the Black Dwarf and most of the covers for Red Seal. Included as illustrations in this article are two unpublished covers by Smith. The Black Dwarf cover, with the tiger and Arsenic in distress, is wonderfully rendered by Smith. It obviously was intended as a cover for a Red Seal issue. The other unpublished cover of Rocket Man and Rocket Girl again is magnificently drawn but never made it as a cover for Punch Comics, which continued their feature. Perhaps it was a bit too much to “swallow,” having rocket packs operating under water.
As Chesler tried to resume a regular publishing schedule, he recycled many of his pre-hero and pre-war period stories in each of the resurrected titles. Chesler even reproduced a prior splash page as a cover. The Lady Satan cover for Bullseye Comics #11 is the splash created by Tuska for the Lady Satan story in Dynamic #2. (Although not directly within the Chesler comic book line note that the splash for the Rocket Man story in Scoop #2) January 1942 became the cover for Zip Jet Comics when the story was reprinted in February 1953. This Rocket Man story from Scoop #2 was also reprinted in issue #10 of the resurrected Punch Comics cover dated September 1944. This issue also reprinted the Master Key story from Scoop #3. Punch #9 reprinted features from Scoop.)
Punch #11 contained mainly new material (Rocket Man was reprinted from Scoop #3) but the features and art were second rate. Master Key was now strictly battling crime and the new art did not compare with the earlier work of Sultan. The “Major Victory” yarns from Dynamic were recycled and packaged for some minor publishing entities in three issues of Major Victory Comics in 1945/1946.
Chesler packaged (for Home Guide Publications) a single issue of Skyrocket Comics sometime in 1944. The book slapped together a character named the “Ghost Hunter” with another feature called “Dr. Vampire” who “casts a grim shadow across the trail of fiends who thirst for nice warm blood.” The lead feature was about a Skyrocket plane used to demoralize the Japanese.
Finally, a little known fact is that Chesler produced the third issue of Capt. Battle Comics (Winter 1942). (As an aside, has anyone seen issue #4? It probably does not exist. It is not in Keltner's exhaustive Golden Age index or depicted in Gerber's Photo-Journal.) The fifth issue completely reprinted the contents of Capt. Battle Comics #1 as originally produced by Lev Gleason and Chesler's old employees of Biro and the Binder brothers.
As the 1940's drew to a close, crime and horror features were in their ascendancy while the first age of super-heroes drew to a close. The publishing schedule of Chesler titles grew erratic in 1946. A last gasp of production occurred in mid-1947 when the Chesler imprint finally came to an end.
Clearly the breadth of the Chesler production spanning the earliest years of the birth of the comic book until the waning years of the Golden Age of super-heroes assures Chesler a place in the pantheon of comic book entrepreneurs and producers. Many stalwarts of the comic book art form developed and perfected their craft working for Chesler. It was pioneers such as Chesler that added not only to the mythos of comic books but to their development and growth as a truly American art form.
The author would like to acknowledge, in addition to the primary source material, the assistance of reference works by Howard Keltner, Jerry Bails, Ron Goulart and Mike Benton in production of this article.
Jon Berk is a comic book collector from Connecticut. His focus is on early Golden Age comics history.