Wednesday, November 05, 2008

My father-in-law has a lot of irons in a lot of fires, and one of the biggest he has is in the auction business. I don't know if you're familiar with the estate auction end of it, but it's often a tedious and laborious process that involves cataloging and distributing the items that are for sale, as well as the physical labor involved when it's necessary to take these items, usually grouped into lots, outside into the designated areas (often onto large flatbed wagons) to be auctioned. Because I never seem to have enough extra income, and also because I want to help out, I often find myself working for him at these auction sales, which provides me with opportunities to see what's available before it goes up for bidding. Many of the houses and belongings he auctions were once owned by elderly people, and he often has many antiques available as another reason why I help out is (at least at first it was, anyway) because you never know when you'll run across an interesting old album or stack of magazines...or comics. Unfortunately, this hasn't happened very much at all, only once or twice in the 20+ years I've been involved with this, which is kinda discouraging to say the least- either no one in the five-county south central Kentucky area collected old comics and albums, or the families kept them and handed them down to survivors.

But, that isn't always the case, and in an auction about a month ago, I ran across a single copy, with no other comics in sight, of the book you see above left: BIG TOWN #26, cover date March-April 1954. It was intact, although the cover is torn, missing a chunk, and isn't attached to the body of the book. The pages are very yellowed. Now, I know most of you were under the impression that I go back as far as the James Knox Polk administration, but that's just not the case- while I'm aware of a great many TV shows, movies, etc., I had never heard of the television show this comics series was based on. Understandable- it last aired four years before I came into this world, 1956 to be precise. However, it was a DC Comic, so I contrived to have it added to another lot (which contained an intact APBA baseball game, with the 1979 season cards- more on that some other time, perhaps), and I was able to take the whole thing for a mere $2.50. When I got home, I did a little looking around on Wikipedia and found out that not only was Big Town a TV series, but also a radio show before that. The comics series, spawned by the advent of the TV show, lasted until 1958, two years before I was born.

So- is it any good? Actually, yes- it features three 7-page stories scripted by Silver Age Green Lantern stalwart John Broome, and art by veteran Manny Stallman, with inks by John Giunta, who did solid, if not especially memorable work for a number of publishers in the 40's on into the 60's and 70's, including a long stint drawing Big Boy comics. Mark Evanier posted a nice obit, as is his wont, for Stallman here. Typically, their work here is good, if not especially exciting or memorable- it's an unexceptional sort of style. The cover is by none other than Gil Kane, although obviously he had yet to develop his idiosyncratic style of later years. Big Town was, as succinctly describes it, a " dramatic series about a small town newspaper." Each story stars newspaper reporter Steve Wilson, a dashing, intrepid hero type who is determined to solve mysteries and bring justice whenever possible, just like newspaper reporters always were, apparently, back in the 1950's. First tale gives us a fellow who is taking out ads all over town claiming that he intends to blow up a bridge in the city; of course Wilson gets to the bottom of it and discovers a bigger plot...and yes, the cover scene is indeed represented in this installment. Story two is an account of a Newsboy Legion-type group of Big Town kids, who Wilson organizes to get them off the streets. Of course, they get mixed up in a crime wave of robberies pulled off by an organized gang, and help Wilson bring the mob to justice. Finally, story three is about a Houdini type who seals himself in a safe and gets submerged into the river- when they pull him up, he appears to have been shot in the head and leaves a letter blaming a rival for the crime. Wilson is of course skeptical, and sets out to find out the truth and save the man from the electric chair. Each vignette ends with Wilson slugging the perp in true two-fisted newsman fashion. There are also several of those public service announcement-type pages we all know and love, as well as a couple of fun facts pages. A typical DC comic of 1954, I suppose- but I was a little surprised at how content-heavy these stories were; even though they were only 7 pages long, I had to take my time and read the things- there was (of course) a ton of expository dialogue, people constantly explaining everything to each other (this is a John Broome story, after all), and caption after caption explaining the stuff that the characters didn't- but these were also full of action, with several plot twists taking place in each short story. These are, I would imagine, quite indicative of the sorts of tales that were told in the television series.

Devoid of the science-fiction or supernatural (superheroes were, with the exception of Superman and Batman, remember, still yet to make their comeback) trappings of the pre-Code era, I get the distinct impression that DC wasn't aiming these comics at the average 10-year-old reader. Even though they scan a lot like the 60's Silver Age DC stuff we all know and love, really, the dialogue and situations are of a more adult, that is to say grown-up, nature. Surprisingly so, at least to me. Readers today, especially those who are enthralled with noir-type comics such as Brubaker and Phillips' Criminal, might find something of interest in this series (at least, that's an assumption based on a very limited sample group). This was a nice and unexpected find; however, the mundanity of the subject matter ensures that I'm not especially moved to go out and seek any more. It is interesting to note, though, that it is a TV tie-in publication- even featuring a little ad for the show at the end of the last story (Thursday night, 9:30 Eastern, CBS in case you were wondering)...and that's something that's going on even today, what with DC's recent hardcover collection of Heroes (which is sitting on the stereo over there, daring me to unwrap it even now), as well as the Dark Horse Joss Whedon adaptations and others. The more things change, I guess, the more they stay the same.

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