By popular demand (a phrase sometimes associated with comic book stories from Western Publishing):
THE ISSUE AT HAND IS: DELL FOUR COLOR # 271 “Porky Pig in Phantom of the Plains”. (No Cover Date: Released in March, 1950).
For additional information on the Dell FOUR COLOR series, please read our review of DELL FOUR COLOR # 410 “Porky Pig in The Water Wizard” HERE.
In that review, we focused on the line of comic books known as DELL FOUR COLOR Second Series (1942-1962) which, as previously noted, gave us some of the very best issues of DONALD DUCK (to be sure!), MICKEY MOUSE, BUGS BUNNY, PORKY PIG, WOODY WOODPECKER, and the first three issues of UNCLE SCROOGE. As a March, 1950 release, DELL FOUR COLOR # 271 “Porky Pig in Phantom of the Plains” falls pretty much smack-in-the-middle of the apex of that period.
As it IS 1950, the comic book version of Porky Pig has fallen into the pattern that would serve him for the length of his association with Western Publishing, through the Dell, Gold Key, and Whitman comic lines.
|Porky as a youth!|
Once characterized as more of a youth, as seen in certain early issues of Dell’s LOONEY TUNES AND MERRIE MELODIES title, Porky soon matured into the expected “fifties suburban homeowner”, courting girlfriend Petunia, raising nephew Cicero, and enduring domestic comedies and lengthy adventures with Bugs Bunny or Sylvester. The same sort of “comic book everyman” Donald Duck would have become, if unaided by the genius of Carl Barks.
|Sylvester in "Kitty Kornered"|
This characterization was oft-used in forties and early fifties Dell comics, but was eventually abandoned in favor of something closer to his later scheming animated persona.
As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break things into CONS and PROS -- and some other aspects.
Woo Wong: We come to the inevitable “CON” that no discussion of this issue’s lead story should fail to address. Comics of earlier periods sometimes resorted to what I call “visual shorthand” in order to make a point, and occasionally such visual shorthand would fall into the category of the politically incorrect. Truth to tell, there was less of this overall in comic books than in films and theatrical animated shorts of similar or earlier vintage, but I would be remiss if I failed to note it.
|You're not HELPING matters, Sylvester!|
The sad thing is that Woo Wong appears in only SIX panels of the story… and doesn’t even NEED to be a Chinese stereotype for any reason that is meaningful to the story. He could just as easily have been a mumbling, grizzled old “Walter Brennan” type, for all it mattered.
|Who's mumbling? ...Dag nab it all, anyway...|
48 Pages – All Comics: A 33 page lead, followed by a 15 page back-up – and inside-front, inside-back, and back cover gags! And all for a DIME! That’s a comic one could lose one’s self in for an afternoon!
The ART: The art seen throughout the DELL FOUR COLOR series ranks among the publisher’s best – and, I daresay, some of the best funny-animal comic book art of all time. Our primary artist is Roger Armstrong, one of the best on Porky Pig (especially when he inks himself, as in the backup story), with (perhaps) some inking from Fred Abranz on the lead adventure tale.
|Great Art? Check! Dell Adventure Template? Double-Check!|
The STORIES: While still within the category of the “Dell Comics Adventure Template” that I defined in the previous Porky post, “Phantom of the Plains” is a superior mystery tale that works today just about as well as it did in the more innocent 1950s! That is a rare quality, when one ventures beyond Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson, and well worth a back issue purchase. Our second story is a more standard “domestic misunderstanding” entry, in which the lead gets his comeuppance via some deserved physical comedy, before ultimately being vindicated and once-again loved.
Click on any of the comic page scans to enlarge.
“Porky Pig in Phantom of the Plains” (33 pg.): Make note of that odd Page Count for later. Writer: Unknown. (Alas!) Penciled by Roger Armstrong. Possibly inked by Fred Abranz.
On a car trip to visit the ranch of Petunia’s Uncle Ham, Porky and Petunia, while waxing romantic about the “old west”, are accosted by a masked bandit. The “bandit” turns out to be their old pal Sylvester, drifting about in his (all together now) “eccentric vagabond” persona – and who, the local sheriff explains, has been hypnotized into committing holdups.
It seems that a black cloaked and robed “phantom”, who the townspeople have dubbed “Hypnotic Harry”, has been influencing people hypnotically to commit crimes – with “Harry” getting all the loot.
Arriving at the ranch, the Pigs and Sylvester find that Uncle Ham has mysteriously disappeared, his rider -less horse returning with a note revealing Hypnotic Harry as the kidnapper. It seems that Uncle Ham has discovered one of those “lost gold mines” that might have still existed by 1950, and our Phantom wants it for himself.
Over the course of the adventure, Porky, Petunia, and Sylvester have various encounters with the mysterious black-cloaked figure, meet possible suspects ranging from the ranch foreman to the town’s richest man, and experience a brush or two with death!
“Phantom of the Plains” may be rare, even among the better Dell adventure stories, because it is an out-an-out MYSTERY. And, for what was regarded as a “Kids’ Comic”, a pretty darned good mystery too! In fact, the CLUE that ultimately reveals the identity of the Phantom is rather cleverly introduced. I’d say that’s the advantage of having the freedom to work with over 30 pages. A skilled writer can plant things, take the story down different paths, and employ just enough misdirection before the wrap-up, that nothing ever seems blindingly obvious.
Oh, yes… we’ll be sure to address the similarity of the “Phantom of the Plains” to ANOTHER “Phantom” dear to our hearts, before we’re through.
So, in deference to our “mystery”, and with respect to the Spoiler Warning code, we’ll leave Hypnotic Harry running loose, black cloak and all, and move on to…
Porky Pig (untitled, 15 pg.): Writer: Unknown. Artist: Roger Armstrong.
After being equal partners (particularly so for 1950) in solving a mystery, Porky and Petunia, for better or for worse, settle into the more “traditional” roles of arguing over Porky’s apparent weight gain. Porky agrees to stop buying ice-cream sodas at the local fountain but, with good old eccentric Sylvester, finds a way to circumvent that promise. As expected, Porky pays for his transgression, yet eventually gets both “the girl and the soda”! …Hey, it was the fifties… that’s how it worked!
Three one-page gags (on the inside front, inside back, and back covers) round out the issue.
“Porky Pig in Phantom of the Plains” was reprinted by Gold Key, for its PORKY PIG # 5 (March, 1966), and released in December, 1965. At the time, all standard comic magazines had 32 interior pages, with a wrap-around cover.
Fitting its 33 page length into a 32 page magazine required that the final page of the story appear on the INSIDE BACK COVER. And, yes… that means that the last page of this version of “Phantom of the Plains” does not appear in color! Different one-page gags from those in FOUR COLOR # 271 occupied the inside front cover, as well as the back cover.
THINGS I LIKED: Some real threats to Porky and Petunia, as Sylvester (at one point) is hypnotized into bashing their heads in with a club, and almost does it!
…And, there is THIS effective example of mortal danger, as Uncle Ham (under the influence of Hypnotic Harry) is about to do our heroes in! The three-tier format, which I’m generally not a fan of for funny animal comics, works particularly well here to heighten the drama.
OVERALL: DELL FOUR COLOR # 271 “Porky Pig in Phantom of the Plains” is an extraordinary comic book of its genre – surrounded by a RUN of other extraordinary issues! Consider some others, pictured below, that were released in the same time period as “Phantom of the Plains”, and those must have been SOME days!
From this perspective (…and even from 1965, when I first read the Gold Key reprint of “Phantom of the Plains” as a kid), it is easy to conclude that Hypnotic Harry, the titular “Phantom of the Plains”, is unmistakably (um…) “inspired” by the now-classic Mickey Mouse villain The Phantom Blot.
But, consider that The Phantom Blot had only appeared once in a disposable daily newspaper strip continuity of 1939. In 1941, that story was reformatted for DELL FOUR COLOR # 16 (First Series).
And later, in 1949 a year before “Phantom of the Plains”, that same story was redrawn by Dick Moores (primarily) and Bill Wright for WALT DISNEY’S COMICS AND STORIES # 101 – 106.
|WDC&S # 101... The Phantom Blot lurks within!|
Despite three appearances to this point, The Phantom Blot was still essentially a one-shot villain (who appeared in only ONE story) and was not as “out there” in the general pop-consciousness, to possibly influence Porky’s writer and artist, as he is today.
I’m not discounting the idea by any means. Quite the contrary. The concept of a black-cloaked Phantom could easily have circulated around the offices of Western Publishing (from Disney to Warner titles) but, as seen in THIS POST, the 1932 John Wayne B-Western “Haunted Gold” (which I suspect must have been seen by many of Western Pub’s writers, artists, and editors) is just as likely an influence on “Phantom of the Plains”.
Consider the western setting, hero, heroine, and comedy relief sidekick, lost mine, spooky villain, and it all adds up! …And “Haunted Gold” was produced by Leon Schlesinger of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies fame, the birthplace of Porky Pig.
I suppose it ultimately becomes a “toss-up”, and just another of those things we’ll never really find out. Either way, I like associating both The Phantom Blot AND John Wayne with this story!
“Porky Pig in Phantom of the Plains” is highly recommended – in either incarnation:
1950’s DELL FOUR COLOR # 271. 48 interior pages, with back-up domestic comedy.
1965’s GOLD KEY PORKY PIG # 5. 32 interior pages. (As I first saw it!)
And, “Hypnotic Harry” did not compel me to say that! …Though he may compel YOU to leave comments!
“…LEAVE COMMENTS! …LEAVE COMMENTS! …LEAVE COMMENTS!”