Leading Comics #2 – The Black Star

Leading Comics #2

ssov2003The story begins with Pat Dugan driving Sylvester Pemberton and his father to the bank. Mr. Pemberton wants his son to learn some practical things about the world of finance, but Sylvester feigns disinterest, much to his father’s disgust. Dugan apologizes for having to drop them off some distance from the front door due to road construction.

It turns out that the construction is a ploy by a gang of criminals who burst a water main and use the tremendous pressure of the water to break into the side of the bank and rob it. Sylvester feigns cowardice, but he uses the chaos to meet up with Dugan, who has identified the five criminals as Falseface, Captain Bigg, Hopper, the Brain and Rattler. The two decide to gather the Seven Soldiers of Victory to track down the five criminals.

Meanwhile, the criminals discuss among themselves how brilliant their leader the Black Star is. He’s sent them a filmstrip via the reluctant driver of their getaway van with further instructions for crimes in various locations around the country. The group breaks up and heads out to pull off the various heists. Meanwhile, the Seven Soldiers question the driver of their getaway vehicle and learn where the crimes are supposed to take place, and each one picks a villain to capture.

  • Keep an eye on that driver. He’s more important than he appears.
  • It’s refreshing to have some actual colorful villains for the heroes to fight rather than the simple gangsters so prevalent in these early Golden Age stories. The villains aren’t costumed and super-powered, but they’re quirky enough to be a little more memorable.
  • The only Star Spangled Kid I’ve ever read are the chapters from Leading Comics, and from what I can tell he’s cut very much out of the Clark Kent mode. He affects a disinterested and cowardly outward persona, and bullies his driver Dugan. Inwardly he is of course brave and athletic and a secret costumed hero. I do have to question the judgment of Pat Dugan as the adult of the duo in helping a teenager lead such a dangerous life. I guess it’s no different than any adult hero with a kid sidekick, and if I can suspend disbelief for those characters I can do the same thing here.
  • As we see here and we’ll see down the line, the stories often begin with different individual characters encountering problems and then calling the rest of the group together. Unlike the Justice Society, who meet together on a regular basis, the Seven Soldiers appear to work individually until a bigger problem appears, and then they’ll call the team together on an as-needed basis.

Chapter Two – The Shining Knight

Sir Justin heads for New Orleans to pursue Falseface, who has used the occasion of Mardi Gras to have his men in costume commit robberies. They’re all camouflaged, as it were. The Knight foils their plans at first, but then they trap him and coat him and Winged Victory with a substance that will turn them both into statues. The Shining Knight manages to escape and free his horse, and then finally subdues Falseface and his gang, while the Black Star steals a seemingly innocuous item in the background, laughing that Falseface has played his part well.

  • I first read this story a few years ago, and I didn’t see anything notable about FalseFace. He was a throwaway villain who committed his crime, was caught, end of story. Fast-forward a few years, and I’m watching the 1960s Batman series on DVD where a villain named False Face appears. I go back to re-read the Seven Soldiers and suddenly it becomes apparent that a villain I thought was created just for the Batman tv show had actually appeared in DC Comics some twenty years earlier. They aren’t exactly the same, and the television writers may not have been aware of the older character, but still, I like to think there’s a connection.
  • There’s an interesting scene where Sir Justin comes across some people dressed as King Arthur and Lady Guinevere, and he thinks they’re the genuine article for a few seconds before realizing that they’re yet more people in costume. He’s shocked to see them, and it makes perfect sense that he might reason that if he survived to the present day that they could have as well. It makes you think that the poor guy deep down really wants to go home, but can’t. Not that his characterization is that deep in these stories from the 1940s, but the scene could be read that way.
  • The villains’ plan to essentially embalm the Knight and his horse alive is pretty creepy.
  • The formula is fairly typical for this era. Villains stage a crime, hero confronts them, gets captured, escapes from whatever death trap he’s been put in, and then defeats them the second time.

Chapter Three – The Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy

Captain Bigg is the target of the American Avengers out at sea. Bigg has been playing the part of a pirate (I’m not making this up) dressed as Santa Claus. He boards ships with his crew, but gives them money and jewels rather than taking it. It’s all a plan to get everyone’s guard down so he can pull the really big heist and make far more than he ever gave away. The Star Spangled Kid and Stripesy ultimately foil his plans after a long swim in the ocean from his ship, and after nearly dying when Bigg leaves them tied to a floating marker buoy with a bell.

  • Robin is almost killed the same way in the 60s Batman series. Another connection between that show and Leading Comics….
  • How far did the Kid and Stripesy swim in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean anyway? The art makes it look like they swam a mile from Bigg’s ship to theirs, across the choppy ocean. Those guys have to be in terrific shape.
  • Some of these villains just have no pride. Dressing up as the Santa Claus pirate? Really? I think I’d have told the Black Star where he could take that idea and shove it.

Chapter Four – Green Arrow and Speedy

ssov2004GA and Speedy are after the Hopper, a criminal with a large nose and a tendency to hop around on a pogo stick. The Hopper and his thugs are trying to trap Coburn, an eccentric millionare, and they’re posing as carnival barkers to do it. When a rich guy named Coburn appears at their booth, they think they’ve found their man, and they award him a prize from the booth. The prize is set to release gas and kill the man at a certain time, at which point the Hopper enters his room and robs him, only to learn that it’s the wrong man. It turns out that Coburn is a bit crazy, and while he is a millionaire, he lives like a homeless man at the fair. The Green Arrow and Speedy try to gain his trust, but he’s so paranoid that he thinks everyone is out to get him and his wealth. In the end, the heroes stop Hopper from robbing the guy, but he’s still ungrateful, and the Black Star collects yet another seemingly harmless object while no one is looking.

  • Speedy gets a great running joke, asking “Is he kidding?” every time Coburn does something crazy after he and Green Arrow try to help the guy.
  • There’s not a lot to say about this story. It’s definitely elevated by some eccentric adversaries in the form of Hopper and Coburn, and by a streak of humor running through the narrative. George Papp’s art is great.

Chapter Five – The Crimson Avenger

The Avenger and Wing pursue the Brain to Twin Cities and end up investigating a convention of twins at the Double Hotel. They check in and get settled, only to notice gas coming from the air conditioning. Heading down to investigate, they get in a fight with some hired thugs tampering with the AC. They win, but fail to stop the thugs from leaving. Wing discovers an unusual item left behind which turns out after some investigation to be a rare medical instrument.

To make a long story short, the Brain is extorting a dying man, who needs the blood from one of the twins, Bobby Leeds, in order to survive. The dying man turns out to be the Brain’s twin brother, and the gas in the hotel was designed to reveal the correct twin needed for the blood transfusion. The Avenger and Wing capture the brain, and Bobby volunteers to help the dying man. Meanwhile the Black Star takes the fourth item…

  • The plot feels a little convoluted, but it actually makes fairly good sense and the revelation that the Brain himself is a twin is a pleasant bit of detail about the villain that fits thematically with the storyline.
  • The Crimson Avenger makes good use of his crimson gas pellets to distract and surprise his opponents in this story. He so often just goes in and throws punches that it’s easy to forget that he started out very much in the mold of the Green Hornet or the Sandman. Considering that the gas pellets offer some camouflage, they aren’t all that different than Dr. Mid-Nite’s blackout bombs.
  • I love Wing’s quips when he’s fighting.

Chapter Six – Vigilante

ssov2005The Vigilante and Billy Gunn head west in search of the Rattler, who they determine is in disguise in an old folks home… that lets the residents act like children again. Weird. They check on the new residents, and determine that one of them is Rattler in disguise. After an ambush by the Rattler’s men, and after escaping from a poisonous snake, Viglante and Billy Gunn finally manage to unmask the villain, and they finally see the Black Star in the act of committing a crime as he grabs the final item.

Chapter Seven

The Black Star, in reality the supposedly reluctant chauffeur from the first chapter, has collected all the components he needs to assemble his growth ray. He first uses it to make himself larger and stronger, and then when he sees that the Seven Soldiers have tracked him down, he uses it to enlarge otherwise harmless animals such as a rabbit or an ant to attack them. The Soldiers are able to stop the animals and enter the Black Star’s house. In the ensuing fight, he falls in front of his active enlargement ray and grows so large that he can’t breathe and is essentially crushed by his own weight, falling through the floor to his death.

  • This is a well-written story, with the throwaway character of the driver, Mowse, actually the villain all along. The individual chapters all have some color that makes them interesting and fun, and the final battle with the giant creatures is better than it has a right to be.
  • The Black Star is crushed by his own weight. Ouch.
  • The art is consistently good throughout the story, and probably better in many cases than contemporary art  over in All-Star Comics.
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