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Adventure Comics

The above is not a complete list of Federal Men 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.

Adventure Comics went through many name changes. Issues #1-11 were known as New Comics; issues #12-29 as New Adventure Comics, and the rest of the issues, all the way to the final issue in 1983, were known as Adventure Comics. To avoid confusing readers, I have simply referred to all stories as Adventure Comics.


Federal Men

This early comic book series starred Steve Carson, an agent of the FBI. Federal Men began with Adventure Comics #2 (January 1936) and ended with #70 (January 1942).

Origin

The Manning Baby Kidnapping (1936). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. Steve Carson goes after the kidnappers of the Manning infant. The first story about Steve Carson. Here the series is known as The Federal Men; by the next issue, the initial "The" has been dropped, and the series is just Federal Men thereafter. This story shows Steve Carson in a realistic setting, battling kidnappers. It is perhaps the single Steve Carson story that is closest to the FBI agents versus gangster books and movies of its day. It is as if Siegel and Shuster felt that they had to stick to tradition to get their series published. It also establishes Steve's credentials as a traditional FBI man. However, this story's conventionality is its weakest point, especially in its second half.

The best part of this tale is its opening section, showing Steve undercover. These undercover sections show all of the excitement and gratifying fantasizing of the team's later undercover tales. Steve's undercover activities look thoroughly enjoyable. This is one of the few Steve Carson tales, in which his undercover activities involve taking on a new profession; usually, when Steve does go undercover later it will be as a crook. Steve wears a sharp cop's uniform here, as part of his undercover work. Many of his later undercover assignments will also find him in various uniforms.

The opening sections also have a look at police corruption. From the earliest days in their career, Siegel and Shuster displayed a skepticism about authority, and a willingness to tackle social issues.

The Adventure Stories

Airborne Revenge (1936). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. Steve Carson is assigned as bodyguard to the manufacturer of a new kind of plane, Morton Brent.

The airplane scenes are ridiculous, but they are also exciting. This tale shows good storytelling. It marks a shift in Federal Men to adventure fiction, stories involving thrills and excitement. The adventure fiction mode would predominate in issues #3 - #10. A blurb in this issue describes Federal Men as "The Most Thrilling, Action G-Men Strip", which is a good indication about how its creators saw it. These tales are less realistic than the previous issue's "The Manning Baby Kidnapping", but they offer genuinely gripping storytelling.

The Submarine Terror (1936). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. A high tech gang threatens ships from their submarine.

This is the first of a loosely linked trilogy of stories. Issues #4-5 contain "The Submarine Terror", issues #6-7 contain "Attack on Washington", and issues #8-10 contain "The Invisible Empire". These three tales depict Steve Carson's and the FBI's fight against a sinister gang of high tech crooks, which try to attack and loot America. The gang is huge, almost an army, and their high tech attack seems almost more like a military invasion of America from within, than anything like the Al Capone style gangs of real life. Most of the attacks involve large means of military transportation, here a submarine. The three tales are a riot of invention. They are exceptionally gripping. When reading them, I could not wait to see what was going to happen next.

There is some interesting detection early in this tale, involving a map. As usual in Siegel, detection is a step by step process, with following up each step requiring personal originality and initiative.

The end displays a Federal Men logo, showing our heroes with machine guns blazing. Such an image more recalls gangster movies, than the adventure tales actually appearing in Federal Men. It is however an exciting logo.

Attack on Washington (1936). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. The high tech gang returns, using giant tanks for an assault on the US Capitol.

Shuster shows Washington D.C. as being full of huge Art Deco skyscrapers. This is not a realistic depiction of that city. But it does look shiningly beautiful, like a city of the future. Such fabulous skyscrapers were a Shuster tradition.

Steve looks macho in a military uniform here, light blue with two cross straps across his chest, one strap wide and one strap narrow, an unusual effect that creates a syncopated sense of visual rhythm. The uniform consists of a sort of coveralls, worn with belt and boots. Even at this early stage of comic book history, comic heroes wore boots whenever they could.

The Invisible Empire (1936). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. The man-made under water islands of the high tech gang are infiltrated by Steve Carson.

This tale is the climax and the high point of the Federal Men adventure tales. Each story in the series has been increasingly science fictional, and this final story pulls out all the stops.

Steve Carson shows his mastery of disguise here. He is able to make himself up so that he looks just like another person. This recalls Ellery Queen's sleuth, Drury Lane, who appeared in prose mystery novels during 1932-1933. Later Siegel will give Superman the same skill: see the Superman daily comic strip "The Comeback of Larry Trent" (February 20 - March 18, 1939). So will Siegel's hero the Spectre: see "The Reluctant Bridegroom" (More Fun Comics #71, September 1941). The later comic book detective Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise (not by Siegel) will also have this ability; Cosmo began in 1937, a few months after this tale. Steve Carson will also use this talent in "The Stolen Stamp" (1937).

This story introduces two new characters. On is persistent woman reporter Jean Dennis of the Tribune, who insists on tagging along after Steve Carson, because he is a source of news. She is clearly a prototype for Lois Lane. Like most of Siegel's women, she is a genuinely gutsy person, who takes full part in fighting that goes on. Her insistence on being part of Steve Carson's activities, even though he resists, also anticipates the relationship of Sally Norris and Bart Regan in Spy's origin story, "The Balinoff Case" (Detective Comics #1, March 1937). In both stories, the man does not want the woman around, for socially conventional reasons: here Steve thinks that the events are too dangerous for a woman to be involved with. In both tales, the woman shows personal initiative by sticking along anyway, despite the hero's objections. This shows both gutsiness on her part, and a defiance of social norms. These stories clearly have a feminist subtext, although nothing is stated explicitly in the dialogue. Unfortunately, Jean Dennis does not reappear after this three part tale, unlike the later Sally Norris and Lois Lane, both of whom become series characters.

By contrast, this story is also the debut of Ralph Ventor, an FBI agent who works with Steve. Ralph will be a long running character in the series, appearing in many stories. His precise relationship with Steve is not clear in this tale, other than both men are FBI colleagues. A later tale, "Torpedo on Wheels" (#18, August 1937), shows Steve giving Ralph orders. From that point on, Steve seems to function as Ralph's boss. Shuster makes Ralph a blond, while Steve is brown haired. Such color coding would become standard in comic books, to help readers tell characters apart. Various airplanes in the story are also in bright primary colors, either red, green or yellow, also helping readers to instantly identify them. I do not know how much influence Shuster had on the coloring of the tales. It is perhaps interesting that the blond Ralph is, while honest and decent, nowhere as heroic as the darker haired Steve Carson. Even at this early date, Siegel and Shuster were subverting the Aryan ideology popular among the right, with its blond heroes. Soon, their Superman character would have black hair.

Shuster does a great job with the architecture in this tale. We see both American skyscrapers and vast city panoramas, and the high tech buildings on the islands.

The red uniforms worn here by the island dwellers are pretty cool. These are not military uniforms, instead, the have a science fictional feel, like much of the rest of this story. They also anticipate the costumes that soon will be worn by super-heroes, after the first appearance of Siegel and Shuster's Superman two years later. The chest has a complex logo, like that of Superman and countless other heroes to come. The meaning of this logo is never explained in the story; it looks like a complex letter in some imaginary alphabet. Or perhaps it is two or more letters squeezed together to make a design. Steve Carson looks terrific in this costume. He performs most of his feats in the story while wearing it. By this time, Superman stories existed in manuscript, in search of a publisher; perhaps it would be more accurate to say the islanders' uniform was influenced by Superman's costume, rather than the other way around.

Federal Men of Tomorrow (1937). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. Famed scientist Professor Grant tells Steve Carson and his chief a story which forecasts what crime fighting might be like in A. D. 3,000. Comic book series would often have a change of pace episode, showing what it might be like for their hero to live in the far future. This is one of the earliest of all such episodes in comic book history.

The Federal man of the future who is the hero here is called Jor-L. Siegel and Shuster would later reuse this name for Superman's father on the planet Krypton. See the first full telling of Superman's origin, in the Superman daily strip: "Superman Comes to Earth" (January 16 - January 28, 1939). Eventually it would be modified into its permanent form, Jor-El. The use of letters and numbers as part of futuristic characters' names had a long previous tradition in prose science fiction.

Even in 3000, this tale depicts radio as the last word in high tech communication. In some ways this is implausible. In other ways, it reflects the 1930's, when radio was the high tech frontier. Like many science fiction stories, this about the era when it was written, here the 1930's, as well as about the future. Siegel was still depicting radio to be important in his Legion of Super-Heroes tales in the 1960's, also set in the far future. See his "The Secret of the Mystery Legionnaire" (Adventure #305, February 1963).

Torpedo on Wheels (1937). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. Steve Carson and Ralph Ventor go after high tech crooks who are wrecking trains.

This tale somewhat revives the approach of the early adventure stories in Federal Men. Like them, it involves a high tech means of transportation to build exciting melodrama, in this case trains. The story is mild but pleasant.

Detective Stories

Gang Smasher (1936). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. Steve Carson tracks down bank robber Nate Devlin and his gang.

The blurb in the previous issue states that this is a gangland story, and complete in one issue. So both of these approaches are conscious changes on Siegel's and Shuster's part, deliberately made. This story takes place in a non-science fictional US, and gives a relatively realistic look at the FBI tracking down crooks, at least in its first half. It broadly resembles the gangster and crime movies of the era. Still, the tale is full of Siegel's trademark exuberance, even surrealism.

In the first half of this story, Steve and Ralph use scientific detection methods to pick up the trail of the fleeing bank robbers. They have the full support of the FBI's crime labs and organization. Such scientific detection was a key part of the public image of the FBI: see William Keighley's movie about the FBI, "G" Men (1935). This story emphasizes the patience and methodical nature of the FBI, also part of their public image. Their implacability and thoroughness aids their macho and power image. Such cold efficiency makes them seem inescapable and all controlling.

The second half of this story shows some of Siegel's trademark humor. The story takes some unexpected plot twists, that recall those in Roy Del Ruth's film, Lady Killer (1933). This part of the story anticipates some of the enthusiastic comic tales Siegel and Shuster would soon be creating for Slam Bradley. As in the Slam tales, people comically take on undercover roles in a public institution. This story differs from the Slam tales to come in that it is the criminals who take on these roles, not the hero. Slam was always taking on new professions and jobs to aid him in his cases; so does Bart Regan of Spy. Steve Carson rarely does this. Instead, his undercover work is usually of two types, either 1) infiltrating criminal organizations by pretending to be a crook himself; or 2) impersonating an actual person through make-up and disguise. This gives Steve Carson a distinctive modus operandi, and personality as a detective, different from Siegel and Shuster's other heroes.

This story shows recursive features in its plotting. Such recursion also shows up in XXX.

The small splash panel shows one of Shuster's patented skyscraper scenes, showing city streets looking down from a high building. As is often the case, Shuster uses a angled corner, with a wedge shape building to match, in the style of New York City's famous Flatiron building. Shuster's skyscrapers always seem much more grandiose than real life buildings. They are almost a fantasy architecture of the future.

Steve is a dark good suit here, while Ralph is dressed more casually and loudly in a checked sport coat. This will be their recurring costumes throughout much of the series. Using a standard pattern for a character's clothes helps make them instantly recognizable to readers, a strategy used throughout comic book history. It also helps express their personalities. Steve looks authoritative and competent, while Ralph looks more subordinate and less gifted. Putting Ralph in a costume that makes him look like a number 2 is also helped by the colorist, who makes his clothes loud colors, unlike Steve's navy blue suits. Steve and Ralph also look a bit like famed policeman Dick Tracy and his assistant Pat Patton, in Chester Gould's comic strip.

The Case of the Cinema Killing (1937). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. Steve Carson is sure that crook "Squint" Hogan murdered Federal Judge Daniel Wilder, but he and Ralph Ventor need to gather evidence to prove it. This is a very pure detective story. It shows Steve and Ralph step by step uncovering evidence tracing the crime to "Squint" Hogan. Each step helps reconstruct the crime, and develop a complete picture of all its aspects. The final step actually ties the crime to the villain. Pleasantly, both men contribute to the solution; neither one is depicted as a stooge or as a pure Watson. Several of the steps involve creative thinking by the two sleuths. Siegel shows that detective work involves coming up with new ideas about how a crime actually took place.

During 1937, Siegel was turning to tales of mystery and detection. The Spy story, "The Colossus Disaster" (Detective Comics #7, September 1937), is also an outstanding mystery. Like "Cinema", it too emphasizes the actual detective work of its sleuth, showing how ingenious detective work can step by step uncover the truth. Both stories emphasize creativity in detective approaches. There are differences between the two tales. The sleuth of "The Colossus Disaster" functions essentially as an amateur detective, while Steve and Ralph use the resources of the FBI, including scientific work, and the ability to fly around the country to follow up clues.

This story involves the use of technology, in this case the cinema. Siegel was fascinated by the new technology media of the day, movies, and especially, radio. This story shows technological ingenuity, as do other of Siegel's early works.

The Stolen Stamp (1937). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. Steve Carson suspects that there are hidden angles to a case in which a rare, valuable stamp is stolen. This is another pure detective story. It is not quite as creative as "The Case of the Cinema Killing", but it is still a pleasant and creditably crafted tale, in the same detective mode as the earlier story.

The Junior Federal Men Club

Junior Federal Men Vs. Blackie Flint (1937). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. An injured Steve Carson sends two kids who are members of the Junior Federal Men Club, Frank and ice cream vendor Lonny, off to rescue a kidnap victim from hood "Blackie" Flint.

The Junior Federal Men Club had been heavily promoted in Adventure Comics. It was inevitable that Siegel and Shuster would do a story about it. The tale has some implausibilities. In real life, no FBI man would send two children up single handed against a murderous hoodlum, even if it were a life and death emergency, as in this tale.

From this point on, around half the Federal Men stories in Adventure Comics feature The Junior Federal Men Club. Usually these tales have kids fighting criminals entirely on their own, with Steve Carson making at most a token appearance, if any. This is the first of these stories, and it shows a welcome sense of humor. I would enjoy these tales more, if they were not basically commercials for the Club. The magazine wanted kids to send in a dime and get membership material; they whole thing was a big commercial come-on. Somehow, this does not seem palatable. Admittedly, it is small potatoes compared to the saturation merchandising campaigns of today, which target kids with every sort of tie-in.

The Junior G-Girls (1938). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. When a group of girls is rejected from membership in an all-male chapter of "The Junior Federal Men Club", they set out to prove they are just as good crime fighters as any boy. Feminist tale with a lot of zing.

This story is far and away the most plausible of any of the Junior Fed tales. The crime fighting done by the girls here looks like something that could actually be done in real life.

Junior Federal Men of the Future (1938). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. Young kids in A. D. 3000 imitate the Junior Federal Men of 1938 when escaped criminal Zator Rog threatens. This story echoes Siegel and Shuster's previous look at adult crime fighters in the year 3000, "Federal Men of Tomorrow" (1937). The stories have no common characters, and their actual settings within the world of 3000 are different. But both take place in the same sort of future, one in which peace, prosperity and advanced science rule the day. The highly admirable civilization of this future clearly shows longings of its creators for a bright tomorrow.

Not surprising, given Shuster's love of giant skyscrapers, that the future of 3000 is dominated by them. These future ones were really huge, gigantically tall and majestic towers. The towers are in the same architectural style as the real skyscrapers that were built in New York City and elsewhere in the late 1920's and early 1930's. This style is one of the versions of Art Deco, and I've dubbed it Skyscraper Deco. Shuster's version shows the same "Rule of Threes" are real life buildings. Shuster's towers are entirely rectilinear; there are no curving lines anywhere in his city. This is in accord with the real skyscrapers of New York City. But it makes Shuster's world look different from the many Art Deco comic book cities imagined by artists in the 1950's and 1960's, which tended to have domes, cylinders and other curving lines blended into the cityscape.

As in many science fiction illustrations, the towers are joined by giant horizontal ramps stretched between them, hanging thousands of feet up in the air. These ramps too are purely rectilinear, in Shuster's vision. There are also personal helicopters flying, as well as large space ship like buses. As early as 1931, Shuster had created drawings of such futuristic cities, largely in this same style.

The Safety Patrol (#26, May 1938). Steve Carson works with schools across the USA, setting up safety patrols at dangerous intersections for school children, using Junior Federal Men as crossing guards. This story is half educational public service story about traffic safety, and half promotional blurb for the Junior Federal Men Club. The basic premise of this tale is none too believable: why would schools need a blatantly commercial ploy like the Junior Feds to set up crossing guard patrols? This commercialism causes the story to sink.

Still, the tale has some good points. Its horrifying look at the evils of drunk driving seems just as valuable and accurate today as ever. One wonders, given the presence of a story like this in 1938, why it took so long to do anything about drunk drivers in real life. The early DC comics were uniformly against drinking and gambling. None of the heroes in these mags ever drank or smoked, as far as I can recall. Despite all their rough and ready personalities and low brow humor, the heroes were far more clean living than those of many contemporary media tales. I do not recall anything like this tale in other media. Books, pulp magazines and movies of the 1930's all tended to present drinking as fun, with its huge human cost in wrecked lives hidden from view.

The other unusual part of this tale: Sandy Kean and Larry Dugan of Siegel and Shuster's other comic book series, Radio Squad, make a brief appearance in this tale. This must be one of the earliest cross-over appearances anywhere in the history of comic books. We do not see the two patrolmen in person, merely their squad car in motion, while the narration informs us that they are in the car.

Later Stories

On the Wrong Side of the Law (1938-1939). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) In this six part serial, Steve Carson loses his memory, and takes up a new career as a member of a criminal gang.

Each episode of this serial introduces at least one major new plot twist. This plot twist changes the basic premise of the serial. It makes for a new situation in which the characters find themselves. Not only are the plot ideas and developments interesting in themselves, as a work of storytelling, but we also see a progression of situations. Each new situation has a different "feel". This feel involves a new relationship among the characters, a new experience for Steve Carson, and new possibilities in the crime plot. Siegel used such an unfolding of new situations in the early, 5-part serial that opened his Spy series, "The Balinoff Case" (Detective Comics #1-5, March through July 1937). Similar techniques were also found in his Dr. Occult three-parter, "The Werewolf" (More Fun Comics #11-13, July through September 1936).

Comic book creators have long had a maximalist aesthetic, in which they tried to explore every plot aspect of the basic premise of their stories. Siegel's early serials perhaps helped to found this aesthetic.

At one point, the narration talks about fate creating ironic situations. Such a use of irony as a plot construction approach will be prevalent in Silver Age Superman stories by all writers.

Siegel's early detective heroes often go undercover in new roles. This tale is related to this idea. Here, FBI agent Steve gets a new identity and profession as a criminal. The big difference: Steve does not do this voluntarily; he has amnesia. Also, since he has no memory of his Steve Carson identity, he cannot use his new role for crime-fighting, at least through most of this serial.

Throughout this serial, honest Steve is opposed to violence. Meanwhile, crooks constantly fight both the law and each other. There is a maximum contrast between the two moral points of view. This anticipates the emphasis on non-violence and reverence for life that will permeate the Silver Age Superman family tales. It also allows Siegel to create some ingenious plot ideas.

Siegel's plot also stresses Steve's brainpower. Here, Siegel shows what crime might be like, if it were pursued by the genuinely talented people. It shows Siegel's imagination. Steve turns out to be much better at crime, and much more creative as a gangster, than most of the real gangland criminals he has opposed throughout his career.