Pep Morgan | Origin | Creig Flessel tales | Fred Guardineer tales

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The above is not a complete list of Pep Morgan 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.


Pep Morgan

Pep Morgan was a young athlete, who starred in sports stories in the comic books. In his first incarnation he appeared in More Fun Comics from #12 (August 1936) through #29 (February 1938). The early Pep Morgan tales in More Fun were all written and drawn by Creig Flessel. Most of them were just two pages long, enough time for Flessel to tell a brief anecdote, and to get in lots of drawings of Pep and his team in sports action.

When Action Comics was created, with issue #1 (June 1938), Pep Morgan was shifted over to the new magazine. Pep got a new artist, Fred Guardineer, and slightly longer stories: 4 pages. The Pep Morgan tales ran in Action Comics through #41 (October 1941).

Origin

The Big Ballgame (1936). Writer: Creig Flessel. Art: Creig Flessel. Pep Morgan, a shy young man, auditions for his school's baseball team. The Origin of Pep Morgan. Despite its brevity, this is a true origin story. We see the unknown young Pep diffidently trying out for his school's team for the first time. This is his first meeting with the young coach. The coach is an athletic young man, and looks only a bit more grown up than his players.

The coach is in black sweater and slacks. Throughout Flessel's Pep Morgan comics, we see the non-suit fashions of the time. The coach and the players are usually in such casual but refined looking sports wear. Such clothes still look dignified and in good taste today. In fact, they are the core of what is today called "business casual", what businessmen wear to the office when they are not required to wear suits.

These stories are hard to place sociologically. Pep never has any money worries, and he is always beautifully dressed in a variety of sports outfits and school clothes. But he does not have ostentatious consumer goods or wealth, either. Unlike some prose athletes, such as Frank Merriwell who played for Yale, Pep's school does not appear especially elite, either. He is not placed beyond the range of the generally poor, Depression era young people who read More Fun Comics.

In this tale, Pep subs for the team's arrogant young shortstop, who is always missing games. The story has lessons about character: one must show up regularly to be a success at an endeavor. Such character lessons were a favorite theme of juvenile sports stories in all media. Winning the big game was always tied to character lessons that the heroes learned. I confess I always found such themes a bit doubtful. Maybe practice and skill have more to do with athletic success than such character issues.

Pep eventually joins the team here, and shares brotherhood with a lot of other young men. Such images of male bonding were clearly very important to Flessel. They form an emotional ideal for him.

Creig Flessel tales

The Cross Country Race (1937). Writer: Creig Flessel. Art: Creig Flessel. Pep deals with crooks who sabotage his performance in a race.

Two issues previously (#22, June 1937), the splash showed us Pep in his gym clothes, including a large R on his muscle shirt. The R probably stood for his school, Russell. Most of that episode is taken up with some inane comedy focusing on Pep's English Cousin Horace.

All the runners are in muscle shirts. There is a black stripe across the front of Pep's red muscle shirt, and another black stripe on the side of his running trunks. This is a spiffy and colorful outfit.

The young man with a megaphone in charge of the race is also dressed in high fashion sportswear. He wears a cool bow tie, and anticipates the attire of Pete Ross in 1960's Superboy tales.

Quarterback Blues (1937). Writer: Creig Flessel. Art: Creig Flessel. Pep is quarterback of his school's football team. Pep excels at a wide variety of sports.

The Creig Flessel stories were sports tales, similar to the juvenile sports stories that appeared in kids' books and magazines. Usually they showed Pep Morgan leading his school's team to victory in some athletic contest. Pep Morgan was a great natural athlete. He and his teammates were all highly refined, decent, clean cut young men, just like the characters who showed up in prose sports stories.

The Pep Morgan stories by Creig Flessel were cheery, and they had occasional touches of humor. But this was not basically a comedy series. Instead, it was a straightforward series of sports tales.

Fred Guardineer tales

Glass Arm (1938). Writer: ? Art: Fred Guardineer. Pep tries to learn to bat with his "glass arm", the result of an operation, while forging a career as a baseball pitcher. This is an early comic book tale of a hero overcoming a physical handicap. The Pep Morgan tales in Action were much more serious in tone than the Flessel stories in More Fun Comics. In the earlier stories, Pep rarely had to take on any serious difficulties. He just went out and won games with a snap. Here we have a fairly realistic look at problems facing the disabled. Like most modern stories with such a theme, this tale is supposed to be inspirational.

Guardineer's art also makes Pep look much more grown up and adult than Flessel's more juvenile hero in More Fun Comics.

Pep wears number 7 on his baseball uniform. This number is loaded with macho symbolism, as a phallic symbol, and was still being used throughout the 1960's and 1970's for comic book sports heroes. See the discussion in my article on the Sports Numbers and Their Symbolism. Later, Pep will also be number 7 on his basketball team in "The Intercity Basketball Tournament" (#10, March 1939).

Hunting Trip (1938). Writer: ? Art: Fred Guardineer. Pep Morgan goes on his yearly hunting trip in the Rockies, with his favorite guide, Joe Hunt. I confess that I am not much for hunting. However, most of this tale concerns a crime thriller with which Pep and Joe get involved on their trip. Such a crime plot is fairly unusual in the early Pep tales; aside from this tale, he rarely functioned as a detective in plots that were essentially unrelated to sports. He and Joe do a good job here.

Guardineer has some good portraits of Pep. Early on (p1), we see Pep in his tent, while firelight casts an elaborate silhouette of Pep on the tent wall. The shadow art is beautifully detailed, with many strands of Pep's hair visible. In another early panel, Guardineer has Pep in high boots that go up almost to his knees, just like Guardineer's other hero Speed Saunders, in his North woods tales.

Later (p3), we see Pep in a bulky sweater for the cold woods. The simple, light blue garment reveals his musculature. The villain Coyote Pete gets one of Guardineer's elaborate Op Art North woods costumes, with a check shirt and a cap covered with zigzag rows of triangles in alternating colors. In Guardineer's Speed Saunders tales, it was usually the hero Speed who got the complex Op Art costumes. Here however, it is the villain. The purity and huge musculature of Pep's sweater outfit instead reminds one of the macho white Naval uniforms of the heroes of Guardineer's Anchors Aweigh. Both Pep's sweater and the Naval uniforms make their wearers look like figures of enormous power and energy.

The County Football Championship (Action Comics #7, December 1938). Writer: ? Art: Fred Guardineer. Gamblers kidnap football star Pep so he won't be able to take part in the big game. This tired plot is so old that it was already being burlesqued by the Marx Brothers, in the zany football comedy Horse Feathers (1932). Here the whole thing is played almost straight, although the football coach gets off a funny and intelligent line at the end.

The main interest in this otherwise minor story consists of the Op Art football uniforms designed by Guardineer. They have a complex series of thick bars on their chest. They look very 1930-ish; such geometric patterns were popular then. The uniforms are delightful looking, as well as showing the Op Art visual punch of many of Guardineer's costumes.

Another nice touch in this tale: the bad guys who read Action Comics while guarding the kidnapped Pep. Such reflective touches were common in the early comics. This is the earliest one I recall in which a bad guy is shown reading comics; usually it is the hero who reads comic books. Typically, the hero reads comics at the opening of the tale, too, unlike this bad guy who does his reading towards the end. Pep himself read Action Comics at the start of "Wins a Doubleheader", (#3, August 1938).