Balbo, the Boy Magician
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These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.
Balbo was a young magician, a professional magician with a stage act. He had no superpowers whatsoever. All his magic tricks are the result of skilled prestidigitation, and there is nothing supernatural about them. He should definitely not be compared to the many magician super-heroes with magic powers who were popular during the Golden Age of comics. The Balbo stories take place in a non-science fictional world. Although Balbo frequently encounters events that seem impossible, they always turn out to be based on stage magic illusions and trickery. The stories sometimes open with Balbo performing on stage.
The most interesting part of many Balbo stories was his business partner in his magic act, John Smith. John Smith was a non-stereotyped black man. Smith was intelligent, articulate, honest and courageous. He always wore a suit and bow tie, and was drawn by Whitman in a dignified, realistic manner. It is quite startling to see such a realistic black character, in an era that often caricatured black people. John Smith came up with good ideas. Sometimes Smith would rescue Balbo from villains' traps, sometimes Balbo would rescue Smith from capture. There was a free and easy give and take between the two characters. John Smith was a calm, low key person. He rarely got excited in the tales. Instead, he tended to make intelligent, practical comments on events around him, and to try to help out and improve the current situation.
There were very few grown-up, black, continuing characters in the comic books before the late 1960's. At the very least, John Smith shows that the comics industry had the intellectual capability of depicting black people in a non-stereotyped way, by the early 1940's. If the comics industry did not include such characters, it was because of a failure of nerve, or through prejudice.
None of the Balbo stories I have read deal with Civil Rights issues, or discrimination. They are not explicitly political. A major comic book story advocating Civil Rights for black people would soon be published in the Johnny Everyman series: the untitled story about African-Americans (World's Finest Comics #17, Spring 1945).
The Wrestling Cheese (1943). Writer: Bert Whitman? Art: Bert Whitman. Balbo enters a giant, six foot piece of cheese as a contestant in a wrestling contest. Surrealist tale with a G-rated but utterly weird plot. Who would ever envision a giant wedge of cheese as doing anything, let alone wrestling in a ring? This tale pulls it off. Its inventive plot is unlikely, but does eventually come up with fairly intelligent explanations of everything happening in the tale.
Several of the Balbo tales deal with seemingly impossible situations. Balbo and John Smith eventually expose these as non-supernatural magic tricks, using their magician skills. Here, Balbo and John are the creators of the seemingly impossible situation.
Today, wrestling is a huge industry, with campy stars and bizarre costumes. It is less baroque in 1940's comic books, but just as comic. See also a humorous Flash tale about wrestling, "Winky Turns Wrestler" (Comic Cavalcade #4, Fall 1943), which appeared at roughly the same time as the Balbo tale. See also the Silver Age wrestler known as The Ugly Superman, written by Robert Bernstein. He appeared in "The Ugly Superman" (Lois Lane #8, April 1959) and "Elastic Lad's Wrestling Match" (Jimmy Olsen #54, July 1961).