Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Comic Book Review: DELL FOUR COLOR # 271 “Porky Pig in Phantom of the Plains”.

 

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 WizardHERE.

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"
Unique to the comics but, (I feel) in some way based upon the Cat’s characterization in the 1946 Bob Clampett carton “Kitty Cornered”, Sylvester is not the perpetually scared, mute version that can’t seem to warn the Pig of murderous mice (twice) and jumping Jupiterians in the series of Chuck Jones cartoons I call “The Cowardly Sylvester and Stupefyingly Oblivious Porky in Danger Trilogy” but, instead, developed along the lines of an “eloquent and eccentric vagabond”.


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.


The CONS:


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 human ranch cook, “Woo Wong”, employed by Petunia’s Uncle Ham is a Chinese stereotype – complete with “orange-skin” in the original – and, even worse, “yellow-skin” in a 1965 reprint. On the plus side, strictly as DRAWN (as opposed to anything added by the colorist), Woo Wong, while clearly stereotypical, is in no way as offensive in appearance as was “Chop-Chop” in the issues of BLACKHAWK that preceded DC Comics’ run of the title in 1957. (To digress: DC normalized the character’s appearance at a time BEFORE such alterations were done of proper necessity – and GOOD for DC!)


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...
I’d lament this all the more, if it were the reason that a great story like “Phantom of the Plains” might not be reprinted today – but, the present-day comic-book home of the Warner Bros. characters would never consider printing an old-school adventure story anyway (Do they even know such material EXISTS?), so Woo Wong is destined to remain a racial caricature of outmoded and unfortunate ideological values – as he should be.


The PROS:

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.

Oddly, both stories in this issue are drawn in THREE TIER panel format, rather than Western Publishing’s usual Four Tiers. The three gags, however, are more typically presented in four tiers.
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.

OTHER:

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!”


10 comments:

Elaine said...

Thanks for the review, Joe! I got my own copy of the original printing in anticipation of your review, and I'm glad I did. I agree, "Phantom of the Plains" is a fine mystery that holds up today. And you're right, it's the length of the story that makes it possible for the writer to create an effective mystery, with misdirection, red herrings and subtlety. Yes, the clue that reveals the identity of the villain is indeed subtly introduced.

I also appreciated the unknown author for Sylvester's creative use of language: "I was in a transom"; "I'll solve and dissolve this here case"; and to the Phantom's "And then you're going to Sing-Sing!"--"(gulp) I ain't in very good voice-voice."

Like you, I appreciated the seriousness of the threats to the heroes' lives. And the fact that Petunia does come off fairly well overall--even if she apparently can't snap her fingers! Perhaps here she is somewhat like Minnie in Gottfredson's early stories before Minnie was displaced as Mickey's comrade-in-adventure by Goofy...while Sylvester provides some of Goofy's comic relief.

Joe Torcivia said...

Thanks, Elaine:

Your comments, as a first-time reader, may be the truest testament as to the quality of “Phantom of the Plains” – in that, sometimes such a story isn’t “just a great story because you read it when you were 10” – but that it’s “just a great story”, period!

With so-called “kids comics”, I can write endlessly about the former (not that other reasons for liking a story don’t emerge over the years – they DO), but it’s more of a rare occasion to find a true example of the latter that is not gilded by nostalgia. Particularly so, when one ventures beyond Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson.

My love for this type of comic is no secret, and you can often expect me to highlight the positives even in more average material, but “Phantom of the Plains” is one that stands out from the pack – for all the reasons you cite, and more!

What a pity that the writer of this fine mystery tale must remain forever anonymous, because he or she clearly employed a level of effort not commonly found in this type of comic book – or, I daresay, in comic books of the period in general! …And one that would be almost unthinkable in a contemporary “kids comic”!

I’m very glad you enjoyed the story!

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

Nice job on this one! I would point out, though, that as offensive as the Chinese cook character might be today, the alarming resemblance of the Phantom to a Klansman might also raise some eyebrows!

Remember how Roman Arambula drew the Blot during the brief revival of adventure tales in the latter days of the MICKEY comic strip? I think you once referred to the Arambula as looking like a "sooty Klansman." I got that same feeling from this fiendish fellow.

Interesting how Sylvester's speech pattern is a little "sloppier" here. It still fits the "elegant vagabond" persona that Sylvester had in the comics, but in a different manner.

Chris

Joe Torcivia said...

Honestly, Chris, I’ve been familiar with this story since the latter part of 1965, and that never occurred to me.

I’d certainly like to assume the same for Roger Armstrong and the editors at Western – both in 1950, and again in 1965. I think I’d be safe in doing so.

I still feel that they were going for that black-cloaked “Phantom” type out of Gottfredson, the John Wayne film, or some other “lost” product of entertainment. It was a suitable shadowy image, with the mystery of the villain’s identity further shrouded by the black color of the garb. The black vs. white of the outfit goes a long way toward dispelling the notion.

Though, it is somewhat startling that a “pointed-head” vs. a “rounded” one can conjure up such an impression.

It is precisely that “sloppier” speech you notice that solidified for me the connection with this version of Sylvester and that of “Kitty Kornered”. Anyone else agree?

Regular GeoX said...

Wanted to read the story itself before saying anything…

Having done so, I agree that it's pretty solid. I was generally impressed by the writing, and especially Sylvester's dialect (or whatever you want to call it). There was the odd expected "golly, isn't that conveeeenient" bits, like the convenient crick in the neck and the boomerang business, but that, I suppose, just goes with the territory in this milieu. I also want to give a little love to the opening one-page gag; the punchline may be silly, but seeing Petunia exercise her superior mechanical expertise is edifying, and a good antidote to the sexism and misogyny that crops up too often in old Western stories.

Re the Phantom Blot question: it's all speculation, of course, and who can say WHAT influences the writer may have had rattling through his head, but I would say that the pointed hood (which, as Chris noting, is a bit disconcertingly Klan-ish looking) really does differentiate him to a substantial degree. More to the point, however, for me anyway, is the fact that you can see his hands here. The original Blot, of course, was entirely covered up, suiting his mysterious nature: who is this guy? Is he even human? And what does he want? Whereas in this story, it's pretty obvious from the start that he's just a normal guy with typically criminal motives. I guess what I'm saying is, if there is imitation going on, it doesn't go beyond the very surface-level.

Anyway, I enjoy seeing these things on your blog. Old, obscure Disney comics are kept in memory at least to some extent by inducks, but Western's other lesser-known material doesn't even have that going for it.

scarecrow33 said...

Thanks for sharing this one, Joe. While I'm not familiar with this story, it looks really good. I want to get my hands on a copy of my own so I can savor it in its entirety.

I'm intrigued by your comment about the three-tiered format not working for "funny animal" comics and yet being used to good effect here. There are a number of Dell comics that utilized the three-tired format, and I'm really interested to know why you consider it not so good for these types of comics. (Personally, I find that it allows for more detail in the artwork and it makes the pacing of the story a little faster, but that's just my take.)

I also wonder why the term "funny animal" comics is used to refer to comics about Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, etc. I know it is a standard term used to describe this "genre" of comic book, but it always seemed to me a trivializing of the comics. It makes it sound like something that is just for little kids. It also is a bit of a misnomer, because the likes of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are not actually animals, but human caricatures. I can justify calling comics about Lassie or Black Beauty, if they happened to be featured in humorous stories, "funny animal" comics, or even Pluto, since he is more doglike even though cartoony. They are "animals". But Porky, Daffy, Mickey, Donald, Uncle Scrooge, and the rest are not simply animals in human clothing, but they have personalities like humans. So you see why "funny animal" just doesn't sound like an appropriate term for these comics. I have used terms like "humorous adventure" comics as a way to refer to them, but there doesn't seem to be a definitive alternate to "funny animal." Still, it seems inadequate to refer to Barks' version of Donald Duck as a "funny animal" comic book when there is so much more going on and the stories are so rich.

Thanks again for sharing the Porky Pig story, and I look forward to more shares of old favorites.

Joe Torcivia said...

Great observations, Geo!

“Solid” to be sure, and particularly highlighted by the characterization of Sylvester. Beyond the initial gag page, I’d say Petunia carried herself rather well throughout the entire adventure. None of the “helpless female” stuff that Western often indulged in. Perhaps fittingly, Porky ends up the least talked-about character of the piece. Not unlike the way things went for him in animation.

Convenient stuff has always been part of the game, even for Barks. The “Foot-on-the-Earth-Box” in my beloved “Twenty-Four Carat Moon”, the smudge on the back of Scrooge’s head in “For Old Dime’s Sake”, etc. Even shirt-hidden square chicks to blow square bubbles! So, I’m not about to sweat a crick or the boomerang.

You’re absolutely correct about any influences on this (or any other story of this vintage) being total speculation. But, at least to me, it’s “fun speculation”! We’ll never know because I’m certain everyone who might have been involved with this story is gone! And, few people ever thought to interview them back in the day. Mark Evanier excepted, pretty much everyone I ever had contact with at Western is gone. And, I sure wish I’d spent more time communicating with them than I did. Back then, many of them would actually write to you, if you tracked them down and came across as sincere, and not pesty. Some would even let you visit them, if you were willing to travel! …Now, I suppose, you could follow their Twitter feeds, or friend them on Facebook – so there will likely be fewer mysteries for future comics scholars to unravel.

I actually had a correspondence with “Phantom of the Plains” artist Roger Armstrong. And, would you believe I never asked him that question?! I could kick myself! Still, I enjoy writing about such things because it fosters further discussion and, hopefully, additional interest in what has become an “unjustly forgotten” story.

I always felt the reason you could see the hands of the Phantom of the Plains, is so he can gesture hypnotically. His exposed SHOES, was just a lack of attention to detail, vs. the more meticulous Phantom Blot. It’s a wonder no one ever identified him by his footwear… or a bad manicure, for that matter. Maybe that “pointed-hood” was more intimidating than I thought!

Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoy this sort of thing. Now that I have some basic scanning capability, I’ll be sure to do more – from all over my collection.

Joe Torcivia said...

Scarecrow:

If I know anything at all about you from our Blogging interaction, I KNOW you will enjoy “Phantom of the Plains”! Get it in either the original Dell Four Color, or the Gold Key reprint (as I first read it). Both versions are perfectly fine – that last page of the reprint being in Black and White, notwithstanding!

When properly utilized, as in “Phantom of the Plains”, there is nothing at all wrong with the three-tiered format. A number of Dell stories have used it to good advantage, including various Disney and Warner Dell Giants and other Warner Bros. issues. And, I cite that “good advantage” in “Phantom of the Plains”.

I think it was the 1970s Charlton Hanna-Barbera comics (You know what I mean!) that first turned me off to that format, because the larger panels highlighted the flaws of the bad, sloppy art all the more.

It’s that same reaction I found myself having to the early Boom! Disney stuff like “Ultraheroes” and the like, and to certain Italian material in general. If I think it’s sloppy (or maybe a better description might be “sketchy”), it does not benefit from the larger size.

I’m also a traditionalist when it comes to this stuff, and I simply prefer the format that Barks, Murry, and Strobl worked in. And, the contemporary Egmont artists, not to mention the 2012 -2013 IDW Popeye title, utilize it very well.

You REALLY make an excellent point on the term “funny animal” – a term even I tend to use without batting an eye, though similar thoughts have also occured to me. It’s just become a sort of “shorthand of convention” that we tend to throw around, without regard to its accuracy.

Aren’t FLINTSTONES or POPEYE comics of the same genre as Donald Duck, Porky Pig, or Woody Woodpecker? We couldn’t actually call them “funny animal comics”, though… could we? What would you call Casper or Richie Rich? Generic “humor comics”? I suppose… But, for some reason, that doesn’t really cut it. And I guess Archie comics are of a different genre entirely.

And, yes… what if the comic’s primary focus is “adventure” -- as it is with Uncle Scrooge or Mickey Mouse, or has been with Porky Pig. Is the lead story in “Porky Pig in Phantom of the Plains” NOT a “funny animal” story, while the back-up is?

A new and more accurately descriptive term needs to emerge and be applied to the genre!

Say, maybe WE can start the movement right here at TIAH Blog? Any suggestions?

There will be more such Comics Reviews to come – though a looong animation DVD Review is coming first (probably by Monday), and one or two other posts in between. Great comments, as always, to further the discussion!

Anonymous said...

Offhand, I can't think of a better term than "funny animal," with "funny animal adventure" as a subgenre. The terms are imprecise, but we know what they mean. And the characters themselves might still be called "funny animals" even when the story is not strictly a comedy. They sometimes retain their comedic traits (Bugs' wisecracking, Porky's stuttering, Scrooge McDuck's penny-pinching) in the "adventure" stories. Also, the "adventure" stories with anthropomorphic animals are not always 100% serious. Bugs Bunny's adventures, iirc, were tongue-in-cheek ("The Rocketing Radish," "The Foreign Legion Hare"), with about as much comedy as action. In general, I would say Bugs' adventures were more tongue-in-cheek than those with Disney characters (Barks' Duck stories, Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse). But they were still a little more serious than, say, Yogi Bear stealing picnic baskets. Similarly, Columbo was often lighter in tone than Kojak or Mannix, although they were all detective shows. And Mission: Impossible was played straighter than James Bond movies, which, in turn, were not quite as silly as the Flint and Matt Helm movies, but all could be classified as "spy thrillers" or "espionage adventure." So, IMHO, we can usually deal with these terms, even if we sometimes have to specify what kind of "funny animal" (or detective story, or spy story, or Western) we are talking about. -TC

Joe Torcivia said...

TC:

A very well-thought-out comment, particularly with the examples you cite. And, my hat’s off to anyone who can make a point, employing both Yogi Bear and Columbo!

Oh, and those two Bugs Bunny adventure stories are favorites of mine – especially “The Rocketing Radish”!