The Chameleon | Doors | Early tales
The Bob Davis tales: Crime-Fighter | FBI Man vs Nazis | Pete Stockbridge's Personal Life
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From #10 (November 1940) - #23 (January 1942), the art for the Chameleon was by Bob Davis, who is better known as the writer-artist of Dick Cole, the Wonder Boy. Davis also did the cover only for Target Comics #26 (April 1942), which features the Chameleon.
During World War II, the Chameleon became a spy in Europe for the Allies, and used his "Wizard of Disguise" powers in that role. This is different from the King, who sometimes fought Nazi spies in the US, but who did not make it into actual combat.
One also thinks of an interesting doorway that is far from hidden: the mansion doorway allowing the toy train to pass from inside to outdoors, in "Pete and Ragsy Murphy -- the orphan lad who helped Pete recover his fortune" (page 2).
Both the Chameleon and Brighton here are the last word in elegance. We first see the Chameleon in an elegant black double-breasted tux. He looks quite young and boyish in this jaunty outfit. The Chameleon then appears in a whole series of uniformed disguises: a bellhop, a steward aboard ship, and finally a uniformed policeman. In this last disguise, he actually takes over the identity of a real cop, tying him up and stealing his uniform. He also assumes a thick Irish brogue for this role. Then he joins the other police, who are searching for the Chameleon. These are traditional police uniforms, with a front flap that buttons up, and uniform caps. The steward uniform he wears aboard ship is also elegant, with a white mess jacket and black trousers.
The Chameleon here looks young, quite boyish, in fact. And some of his roles are those one associates with young men, such as bellhop and ship's steward. By contrast, jewel thief James Brighton looks extremely grownup. Brighton is a big, macho man. And his clothes emphasize adult roles. We first see him in white tie and tails at a mansion, where he is stealing the diamond. He wears a top hat, and carries a cane. Later, he changes to a double-breasted suit and bow tie, also clothes worn by grown men. There is an understated generational clash in this tale, with youth fighting against adulthood. This gives an added dimension to the tale's elegant escapism.
The Chameleon does a great deal of climbing here, up the facade of the mansion, and the side of the ship. Such climbing is associated with Batman, and other costumed crime fighters.
The lettering of this story, which is also by Everett, has an unusual feature. Whenever the Chameleon is mentioned, his name is written in cursive handwriting, unlike the standard block print lettering used for the rest of the text. This is true for both the narration and the dialogue balloons. This is a stylistic feature that runs through the early tales.
Parts of the story show apparently impossible events (the heroine's dreams), which are eventually given rational explanations. This is in the tradition of Weird Menace stories. See my list of Mystery Tales in Comic Books.
The Mysterious Miss De Laise (1940). Writer: Bob Davis?. Art: Bob Davis. Title for this titleless story supplied by the Grand Comics Database. Mysterious events happen thick and fast at the Chameleon's apartment, including the arrival of a mysterious woman named De Laise. De Laise is a figure of both glamour and menace, wearing an evening gown, and holding a gun on the Chameleon. She appears here before the invention of film noir in Hollywood, which began to get underway tentatively the next year in 1941. De Laise is as beautiful as the femme fatales of film noir, but very different in approach. She acts directly, rather than using her romantic wiles on men to manipulate them, the way femme fatales do.
The Chameleon's chauffeur and trusted assistant Slim Wilkins begins to be well characterized in this tale. He reminds one of Simba Karno in Bob Davis' Dick Cole stories. Like Simba, Slim is a good-natured roughneck, full of enthusiasm, slangy dialogue, and vitality. Just like Dick Cole and Simba Karno, the Chameleon and Slim are an elegant leading man, and his diamond in the rough second in command. It makes for an appealing pair in both series. The Chameleon and Slim pull off some pleasant stunts in this tale, which remind one, in a toned down way, of the fancy stunt work done by Dick and Simba.
The light on the Chameleon's launch (page 5) anticipates the spotlights on the Coastal Patrol vessels in "Look, Slim!".
Outdoor staircases are featured in action scenes: the fire escape behind the Chameleon's apartment, a gangway leading to a ship. Davis gets some good compositions out of these.
COSTUMES. This story is notable for its upscale settings, including an embassy ball and a yacht.
The Chameleon achieves the height of elegance, dressing as a European aristocrat in white tie and tails. Unlike the white tie outfits worn by numerous American heroes of the era, including the King, the Chameleon's tails are also worn with a striped, diagonal sash across his chest, and decorations around his neck. It is very sophisticated looking and visually splendid.
One of the policemen rushing up the fire escape (sixth panel on page 4) has the huge curved chevrons Davis sometimes favored. He also has a drawn nightstick, wide belt and high-peaked cap. These chevrons appear elsewhere in Bob Davis tales too:
The final panel shows the heroes hiding out in a mountain cabin. Their country clothes include huge lace-up boots. The Chameleon will wear even higher boots disguised as a fisherman in "Look, Slim!", and is booted when undercover as the circus ringmaster in "Scene: A small mid-western city...". Dick Cole often wore boots as part of his school uniforms. However, the Chameleon is an "urban sophisticate" type, and he only rarely has occasion to wear boots in his main milieu. Please see my list of Lace-up Clothes in comic books.
The profile view of the Chameleon in this final panel recalls Dick Cole.
The Rescue of Robert Gray (1940). Writer: Doug Allen. Art: Bob Davis. Title for this titleless story supplied by the Grand Comics Database. The Chameleon tries to prove that a man convicted of murder and about to be executed is innocent.
The Chameleon does not only disguise himself here. He also puts Robert Gray into a new persona as well. Gray's clothes have plenty of glamour themselves, and Davis draws him as another one of his elegant leading men, like the Chameleon and Dick Cole. Gray is in white tie and tails for a flashback sequence (page 4).
DOORS. The wall episode in this story is inventive (page 5). It shows the interest in technology of the era. For related examples in the Chameleon tales, you can go to the section on Doors in this article.
COMPARISON WITH THE KING. Later, the King will also try to prove a condemned man is innocent, in "Proof for a Pardon" (Flash Comics #35, November 1942). The King's tale is more of a detective story, in which the King tries to uncover the events surrounding the crime. This Chameleon tale is more of an adventure story. We know at an early stage the real story behind the crime, and the Chameleon puts more emphasis on first rescuing condemned man Robert Gray from prison, then finding the real killer where he is holed up in New York's underworld. As an adventure tale, it is certainly slam bang.
"The Fatherland Federation" is part of an issue of Target Comics, in which all the magazine's heroes transform their paradigms to become fighters for the United States. As the cover says, "Your Favorite Characters Mobilized to Defend America!" The Chameleon is part of this transformation. At the end of "The Fatherland Federation", he is recruited to be an FBI agent, to do more hunting of Nazi spies.
Bob Davis would soon make anti-Nazi tales for his other main series Dick Cole: "The Rampaging Robot" (Blue Bolt Comics #11, April 1941), "Attack on a Princess" (Blue Bolt Comics #12, May 1941). Like "The Fatherland Federation", they do not explicitly mention Germany, but the stories make it obvious which regime was being attacked. "The Fatherland Federation" is especially detailed in its anti-Nazi material.
The best incident in the story is Slim's rebellion (page 3). This is both funny and heart-felt. The episode "The Justice Society of America" (2016) of the Legends of Tomorrow TV series has a somewhat similar incident, with Ray Palmer (The Atom) rebelling.
The tale's second half is one of Davis' finales in which the heroes try to penetrate into a transportation area and do daring deeds. Examples can be found in Davis' work both for Dick Cole ("The Stolen Formula") and the Chameleon ("The Mysterious Miss De Laise"). Here in "The Fatherland Federation" the "transportation area" where the Chameleon does his action stuff is an airport.
The Chameleon appeared in the comic book magazine Target Comics, and the Target was apparently the star attraction of the comic book. At the end of "The Fatherland Federation" (page 6), the FBI agent knows about the Chameleon's work with the Target. Similarly, "Extra!" (page 8) has the Chameleon inspired by "my friend, 'the Target'" to adopt a mask and uniform. We don't see the Target in either story - he is simply referenced in the dialogue.
Look, Slim! (1941). Writer: Bob Davis. Art: Bob Davis. While hunting for a spy, the Chameleon tries to solve a mystery about a Florida fishing boat. Mild but pleasant adventure tale. The story plays to one of Davis' strengths: adventure tales about boats and water.
The solution of the mystery is simple and easily guessed.
I'm never sure about whether to recommend medium quality tales like "Look, Slim!" or not. No one will ever claim "Look, Slim!" is a "Must read tale showing the Golden Age at it's best!" Yet fans of the Chameleon might well find it an enjoyable outing.
There is good art of boats: the boats sailing off into the sunrise (Page 3), the Coastal Patrol vessels with their beaming light (pages 7, 9). I guess the Coastal Patrol is this story's version of the Coast Guard.
The shot fired across the bow (page 9) with its arc, anticipates the firefighters' arching jets of water in "Pete and Ragsy Murphy -- the orphan lad who helped Pete recover his fortune" (bottom of page 7). Both the Coastal Patrol ship's prow and cannon are distinctly phallic.
I like the way the Chameleon identifies himself, when he boards the Coastal Patrol ship (top of page 9). This shows imagination on Davis' part, showing how the unusual hero thinks of himself.
UNIFORMS. Davis adventure tales like to show their hero battling uniformed men aboard vessels like ships. "Look, Slim!" has a nice moment with the Chameleon fighting a group of villains in crisp white sailor suits on ship (pages 6, 7).
The blue uniforms of the Coastal Patrol good-guys have high erect collars and epaulettes (page 9). They are worn with very high-peaked uniform caps. A sailor-suited villain denounces the Coastal Patrol as "brass-hatted", a slang term for fancy uniform officer's caps (page 7). There is some truth to this: these certainly are well-done uniforms that pack a punch. An officer is a prefect specimen type who fills out his uniform perfectly.
The police seen immediately after (page 9) have uniforms with boots, Sam Browne belts and high-peaked caps.
NUMBERS. The Coastal Patrol ship in "Look, Slim!" is number 4. This number 4 is a phallic symbol. Please see my article on Sports Numbers and Their Symbolism for a history of such numbers in comic book sports tales.
Artist Bob Davis used such numbers extensively for sports uniforms in Dick Cole. See Sports Numbers and Their Symbolism for details.
The U-boat is U-4 in "Who Is Dick Cole?" (4Most Comics #1, Winter 1942). And the racecar is #4 in "Pete and Ragsy Murphy -- the orphan lad who helped Pete recover his fortune" (pages 1, 2). So Davis really liked the number 4 for vehicles.
Washington, D. C. The Chameleon, master of disguise, is attending a conference of FBI officials (#17, July 1941). Writer: Bob Davis. Art: Bob Davis. The Chameleon impersonates a Senator who is targeted by Nazi spies. This tale shares villains with the preceding issue's story, "A-h-h-h!" in #16 (a very poor tale, notable only for portraits of the Chameleon and Slim at the top of page 8), and the next issue's tale "Scene: A small mid-western city..." in #18 (a second-rate tale, mainly notable for the heroes' costumes while undercover in the circus on pages 3, 4). Unfortunately all three tales suffers from racist stereotypes, in their series villains. Most Bob Davis tales are free of racism; these three are not. "The Chameleon, master of disguise, is attending a conference of FBI officials" is far from being a good story, but it has some decent art worth mentioning.
STAIRS AND RAMPS. Bob Davis' fondness for outdoor stairs appears in the State Department steps (page 2) and the ship gangway (pages 3, 7).
UNIFORMS AND FORMAL WEAR. There is some good art, depicting men in fancy clothes:
LINKS TO DICK COLE. This is the first of five tales, which form a continuous saga. All of them focus on Pete Stockbridge's personal life. Except for the fifth, final tale, they downplay his role as the Chameleon.
Davis was in full flight with a long series of eight connected tales about Dick Cole, at this time. These five stories form a similar saga about the Chameleon. Character types are related in both series:
UNIFORM. The splash shows the Chameleon with his new uniform, including a sweatshirt with a large X on its front. The costume looks a lot like burglar's gear. As far as I can tell, this story and its sequel are the only use of the new uniform in the saga. A uniform for the Chameleon does not make much sense. After all, he can disguise himself to look like anybody. Why would he need a mask or a uniform? Supposedly the mask and uniform are to hide his identity - but a disguise would do the same thing.
The uniform is not good looking either. The brown boots and gloves lack style.
The splash shows Pete with hair like Dick Cole's and muscled like Simba. Later panels show Pete running, with the familiar techniques Davis used to draw Dick Cole running, on the logos of his splash pages.
CUTAWAY. Pete looks great in formal clothes: top hat, cutaway, ascot (top of page 5).
The "huge footmen" in identical clothes are also interesting (page 2). Fancy servants uniforms recall "Architect of Madness", where the Chameleon disguised himself as a butler. That butler's outfit looks much like the footmen's uniforms here.
CROWD SCENE. The investigation (last panel on page 3) is one of Davis' "crowd scenes where many people are commenting".
STAIRCASE ACTION. Davis liked to stage action on diagonal staircases: see "The Mysterious Miss De Laise". Here the Chameleon battles an assailant on the stairs (bottom of page 5, top of page 6). As usual, Davis gets dramatic compositions out of this.
The Startling Affair of "Dr. Knife" (#20 (Vol. 2 #8), October 1941). Writer: Bob Davis. Art: Bob Davis. The Chameleon is threatened by the sinister mastermind Doctor Knife. The origin of Ragsy Murphy, a poor orphan newsboy who helps Pete Stockbridge with his Chameleon work. It also marks the murder of Slim by Dr. Knife's henchmen, who exits from the series at this point. In effect, Ragsy Murphy replaces Slim as the Chameleon's sidekick. Slim had only been briefly present in last issue's tale "Extra!", and has little to do in either "Extra!" or "The Startling Affair of "Dr. Knife"", even before his murder.
This story is a direct continuation of "Extra!" from the previous issue; they form the start of a serial of continuing tales. Unfortunately, this tale has only one good feature: the first illustration of Dirk.
The first introduction of Dirk is one of the most striking images in the series (page 3). He is dressed in the height of upper class elegance, in a striped three-piece suit with a watch chain looped over his vest. He looks arrogant and ultra-confident. The stripes recall the sharp double-breasted pinstriped suit the Chameleon wore when disguised as the private eye in "Architect of Madness". Both suits have peaked lapels. Both suits have somewhat similar colors, light brownish.
Imagery recalls "Washington, D. C. The Chameleon, master of disguise, is attending a conference of FBI officials":
The New York headquarters of the wealthy Stockbridge Holdings, Inc. is a really phallic looking tower (page 2). The illustration is tilted, perhaps to increase the effect.
"Wow!" "What's happening!" (1941). Writer: ? Art: Bob Davis. As The Chameleon and Ragsy chase the villains Doctor Knife and Dirk, Ragsy Murphy, in a flashback, tells the story of his life. Ragsy's story is moderately interesting. It can be compared to a film, also about a boy without parents dealing with both street life and an orphanage: The Soul of Youth (William Desmond Taylor, 1920).
We had earlier seen the Chameleon's life story in "Extra!". Both the Chameleon and Ragsy experience social isolation as young people, the Chameleon due to extreme wealth, Ragsy due to extreme poverty. This contrast with all the brotherhood and sociability that Dick Cole experiences at Farr Academy.
One thing Ragsy does share with Dick Cole and Dick's schoolmate Ted Dare: he moved around to many places, learning things and having new experiences. See "Origin of Dick Cole" (Blue Bolt Comics #1, June 1940) and "Who Is Ted Dare?" (Blue Bolt Comics #21, February 1942). For wealthy Dick Cole and Ted Dare, this travel is part of a scheme of education; for Ragsy Murphy it is the result of being poor, and trying to survive.
CROWD SCENE. The splash shows a type of scene Davis regularly drew: a crowd scene with several members of the crowd commenting.
Another such crowd scene: the panorama with the State Police (page 3). These officers are in exceptionally dressy uniforms: Sam Browne belts, flared trousers with boots, tapered jackets, gold badges, high-peaked caps. See my list showing how State Police were often idealized in books, films and comics of the era. As soon as the Chameleon manages to contact them, these state troopers produce action - and how! The police return at the tale's end (page 8).
ARCHITECTURE. The collapsing building (page 5) anticipates the exploding building in "Pete and Ragsy Murphy -- the orphan lad who helped Pete recover his fortune" (page 7).
In the tale's last panel Ragsy sees the spectacular Stockbridge mansion for the first time. His humorous comment, "What a dump!" anticipates Bette Davis' famous line in the film Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949).
Pete and Ragsy Murphy -- the orphan lad who helped Pete recover his fortune... (#23, January 1942). Writer: ? Art: Bob Davis. The Chameleon tries to infiltrate a gang of bomber-saboteur spies. The last Chameleon story by Bob Davis. The Chameleon uses his power of disguise, for the first time in many stories. And this is also his first tale of working for the FBI in many issues.
The opening, showing Ragsy celebrating with new toys at the mansion, is interesting.
The red toy racecar, red boat and Pete's red car at the start, are echoed later in the tale by the red fire engine. The fire engine is drawn from a height, making it look almost like a toy vehicle too. The complex diagonal and circle layout of the fire engine page (page 7), also echoes the even more complex layout of the page showing the racecar (page 2).
The fire engine panel (page 7) is another Davis "crowd scene with multiple people commenting".
COSTUMES. The now wealthy Ragsy is clad in a yellow sweater and white dress shirt. This combination has often symbolized rich, patrician, clean cut young men. Please see my list of yellow sweaters and white dress shirts in comic books and film.