The Chameleon | The Bob Davis tales

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The above is not a complete list of the Chameleon stories. Rather, it consists of my picks of the best tales in the magazines, the ones I enjoyed reading, and recommend to others.

These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.


The Chameleon

The Chameleon was a non-super-powered detective hero. He was a master of disguise. The Chameleon debuted just four months after the King, who was a similar master of disguise. The King's first appearance was in "The Terror of the Underworld" (Flash Comics #3, March 1940). The two characters are extremely close in their abilities. Both can disguise themselves to look like members of different professions and social groups. Both can also impersonate any human being, turning themselves into a double of their target. Both are gentleman adventurers, who solve crimes using their ability for the joy of it. Both are also wanted by the police, although neither has actually done anything criminal. Both men have secret identities; the Chameleon's real name is Pete Stockbridge.

The Chameleon ran in Target Comics, from #6 (Vol. 1 #6) (July 1940), through #94 (Vol. 9 #4) (June 1948), then with a final story in #101 (Vol. 9 #11) (January 1949). One notes that the Chameleon lasted much longer than the King, whose run ended in 1943. From #10 (November 1940) - #21 (November 1941), 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.

The Kohinoor Diamond (1940). Writer: Doug Allen. Art: Bill Everett. Letters: Bill Everett. Title for this titleless story supplied by the Grand Comics Database. When the fabulous Kohinoor Diamond is stolen, the Chameleon goes after the polished thief who took it, Mr. James Brighton. This is the most entertaining of the early Chameleon tales. It is also one of the most light hearted. This is the second Chameleon tale. It is the first to introduce a continuing character in the series, the Chameleon's chauffeur Slim. Slim wears a green uniform, and drives the Chameleon's vehicles, such as his car and motor boat. He is not especially deeply characterized here, however. He does assist the Chameleon in all of his activities.

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.

The Bob Davis tales

Architect of Madness (1940). Writer: Doug Allen?. Art: Bob Davis. Title for this titleless story supplied by the Grand Comics Database. Mystery threatens a young heiress at a spooky country mansion, including sinister dreams. This story resembles movie whodunits, with its sinister goings-on at a remote Old-Dark-House. It also has a cast typical of such whodunits, with a lawyer, doctor, nurse, butler, etc.

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 Chameleon achieves the height of elegance here, 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.

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.

The wall episode in this story is inventive. It shows the interest in technology of the era.

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 Story of the Chameleon (1941). Writer: Bob Davis. Art: Bob Davis. Title for this titleless story supplied by me. We learn the life history of Pete Stockbridge, raised by his wealthy uncle Adam. This is a full origin story for the Chameleon. This is the first of three tales, which form a continuous saga. Davis was in full flight with a long series of eight connected tales about Dick Cole, at this time. These stories form a similar saga about the Chameleon. Character types are related in both series. We see a benevolent guardian for the young hero, a sinister double who the hero has to battle, Dirk here, Simba Karno in the Dick Cole tales, and the double's villainous mentor, a man who can perform sinister, personality altering brain surgery: Doctor Knife here, Dr. Karno in the Dick Cole tales. Pete's cri de coeur at the end of this tale recalls Simba's in a later Dick Cole story.

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 is 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?

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.

Pete also looks great in formal clothes here: top hat, cutaway, ascot.

The Startling Affair of "Dr. Knife" (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. This story is a direct continuation of "The Story of the Chameleon" from the previous issue; they form the start of a serial of continuing tales. Unfortunately after these first two stories, the series drastically declines in quality. These later stories are inoffensive, but not very good. Bob Davis soon left the series, and was replaced by other hands.

The first introduction of Dirk is one of the most striking images in the series. 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.