Radio Squad | Social Commentary | Later Tales
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These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.
The early Radio Squad tales are very short - usually just two pages. This is a typical length of many series in More Fun Comics. A two page story is roughly the same length as a Sunday comic strip page. So at this early date in comic book history, we are seeing something not that different from a comic strip. Despite its brevity, each Radio Squad tale is a full story. Siegel employs lapses of time, and a great deal of vivid detail in his episodes.
Radio Squad was probably influenced by the popular comic strip Radio Patrol, which debuted in 1933, the work of writer Eddie Sullivan and artist Charlie Schmidt. The hero of the comic strip, Sergeant Pat, was a good looking cop who drove a police radio patrol car, just as in Siegel's comic book. He had a comic assistant, just like those in many early Siegel and Shuster stories, and was drawn in the macho man, tough guy style of Shuster heroes. Pat likes to wear the long overcoats with the swirling skirts that were so popular among glamorous 1930's heroes, such as Alex Raymond's Secret Agent X-9. Like many other early Siegel and Shuster stories, there was also a courageous woman in Radio Patrol who was the equal of the men, policewoman Molly Day. They were also helped by a young boy, Pinky Pinkerton, a possible prototype of the Junior Federal Men who assisted the Federal Men. Radio Patrol is much less well known today than Dick Tracy, although it is far more realistic in its art work and characters than that bizarre strip.
The Purple Tiger Gang Part 1 (#11, July 1936). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. Radio Car Patrolman Sandy Kean meets the spoiled daughter of the Police Commissioner, Doris Bailey. The first story in the Radio Squad series. At this early date, the series was known as Calling All Cars, with the subtitle Starring Sandy Kean and the Radio Squad. Although this is Sandy Kean's first appearance, it is not a true origin story for him - it does not tell his life story, or how he became a member of the police or the Radio Squad. This is a pretty minor tale, notable only as the start of the series.
Siegel and Shuster would repeat its central idea for the first Slam Bradley tale, in Detective Comics #1 (March 1937): both stories feature a working class detective hero who encounters and conquers a haughty spoiled wealthy woman. Stories like this were a big deal in the Depression, when so many men felt so poor, but they do not have much appeal today, and can be considered sexist. This story appeared just two years after Frank Capra's film It Happened One Night (1934), which featured a working class reporter and a spoiled heiress.
The Purple Tiger Gang Part 2 (#12, August 1936). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. Doris Bailey is kidnapped by the Purple Tiger Gang. This story is best for a piece of high tech, which uses radio technology to track the package of money delivered to the kidnappers.
Harold Owens Makes the Grade (1937). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. The latest addition to the police force is Harold Owens, a young aspiring radio singer. This story is rich in comedy. Detective Slam Bradley was frequently going undercover in various forms of show business. This story has no undercover work, but it does have a little of the same feel: a policeman who aspires to enter radio. This "two profession" paradigm would make rich effects in Siegel's undercover tales.
There is something irresistibly comic about Siegel's inclusion in this story of "Too Marvelous for Words", a real life hit song introduced in the movie Ready, Willing and Able (1937). The movie had delirious choreography by Bobby Connolly, and it still has an aura of camp clinging to it today. It is also a delightful song.
Car Stealing on Increase (#50, December 1939). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Matt Bailey. Sandy and Larry go after some auto thieves. This is a routine story. But it does have a good line of dialogue. The Police Chief is chewing out his men for their failure to capture the car thieves. Chief: "What are you, Policemen, or chorus boys wearing uniforms?" This is typical of Siegel's gift for humorous sarcasm, often with at least a grain of truth. It also shows Siegel's love of show business.
We also learn here that Sandy Kean and his partner Larry Trent share an apartment. This is also true of Siegel's other series heroes, Slam Bradley and Shorty Morgan.
The Bank Robbery (1940). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Martin Wheeler. Valuables keep disappearing from locked and guarded vaults. This is a nicely done impossible crime tale. The solution is a bit more simplistic than in the great prose mystery impossible crime tales, but it is still a pleasant story.
Siegel only gradually works up to the impossible crime situation, and he offers a varied series of circumstances surrounding the thefts throughout the story. This adds to complexity of the mystery, and keeps the reader guessing about the solution to the events. Eventually, during the Silver Age, a comic book aesthetic would emerge, that suggested that writers should include every possible variation and plot twist that could be built on a story's central situation. Most Golden Age tales are not that rigorous, but this story is pointing in the Silver Age direction.
Martin Wheeler has his heroes in exceptionally dressy police uniforms, which include a white shirt and tie. The classy looking uniforms have something of the same dressy, authoritative, clean cut look as airplane pilots' uniforms. The uniforms have huge peaked caps, with giant, shiny black visors that come down over the heroes' eyes.
Here our heroes are driving police car K7. This number will change in later stories, those written after Siegel left the series.
Phony Cops (1940). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Chad Grothkopf. Fake cops stage a bank robbery, but young newspaper boy Willie spots a clue. This story is quite detailed in its imagining how a group of crooks could impersonate cops. Siegel's heroes often go undercover in new roles; here it is the crooks who do so. There are also some elements of show business in the background: never too far away in a Siegel story.
The tale emphasizes solid detective work, both by young Willie, and by Larry and Sandy. There are also some small mysteries for the police, and the reader, to solve.
The story is notable for its inclusion of some non-stereotyped minority characters. Willie, who is white, has a black friend his own age. And a show biz type later in the tale is possibly a gay man. Willie and his friend both look working class or poor; they point ahead to the tales about slum kids that Siegel would include in Radio Squad in 1941.
The characters and plot events here recall those of Raoul Walsh's silent movie, Regeneration (1915). Both works include a beautiful, good-hearted social worker, who has a romance with the hero. Both have slum kids on a day's outing on an excursion boat, which catches fire, and from which the kids need rescuing. One wonders where (or if) Siegel saw this old movie, in those days before video and cinémathèques. Both Walsh's film and this tale offer an idealistic picture of social workers trying to help the poor.
By this time Larry Trent is as important a figure in the series as Sandy Kean. The two men have completely equal billing in the series. They dress alike, in spiffy police uniforms, and in fact are hard to tell apart in many of the panels. This sort of equality is fairly rare in Golden Age comics, where one man usually has the lead. So it is not too surprising that Larry would be the one to get a girl friend.
The Melting Pot (1941). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Fred Ray. Larry Trent helps show slum kids that a local crook is not a person to be admired or emulated. Sequel to "The Excursion Boat Fire" in the previous issue. This story continues the encounter between Larry Trent and Lorna Drake.
Siegel shows here how slums can breed crime in poor kids. This was a familiar theme in movies of the era, such as the Dead End Kids series. Superman had also worked with slum kids, in XXX. Movies often dealt with the same theme as this tale: whether local kids will admire the police or criminals.
Murder Plunge (1941). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Fred Ray. A mercy ship about to leave the USA with aid for England is attacked by crooks. This tale was published during a time when England was fighting Nazi Germany, but the United States had not yet entered the war. Siegel's sympathy with the English side is very evident here. The story reflects the political and social commentary Siegel was including in the Radio Squad tales in 1941.
Naval and dockside stories of all types were popular in early comic books. Even series that did not specialize in such material, such as Radio Squad, included them in their cases.
This story has a lot of nice detail. Sandy Kean shines at the end with some good detective work.
Fred Ray does a good job with the uniforms, both the Radio Squad police uniforms, and those of the British naval officer. The portrait of the police (p2) is especially outstanding.
Murder Takes the Spotlight (1941). Writer: ?. Art: Chad Grothkopf. Crooks attack a rodeo when it visits New York City. Title provided by Grand Comics Database, based on a phrase in the splash panel. This little story may not be brilliant, but it is fun to read. It has a lot of incident, first at the rodeo itself, then at the hotel where the rodeo members are staying.
Chad Grothkopf does a good job with the cowboy outfit of rodeo owner and champion rider Sparky Sanders. It includes a checkerboard shirt, all covered with squares in alternating colors, and pants with a stripe along side, as well as a big cowboy hat. The shirt gives an Op Art effect to many of the panels. Sparky's cowboy boots get a close-up (p2): they are full of beautiful curved surfaces and edges. Our police heroes are in full uniform throughout the story. There is much male bonding going on between the cowboy and the cops.
The story has a party-like festive atmosphere. Grothkopf has included several views of NYC buildings, including the hotel and the fire escapes going up and down its side.
The Radio Robber (1942). Writer: ?. Art: Chad Grothkopf. A criminal breaks into police radio broadcasts, and sends out rhymed clues to his forthcoming crimes. This is a logically constructed little mystery story. Its plot anticipates parts of Anthony Mann's film noir, He Walked By Night (1948). Like many of the stories in the Radio Squad series, it centers on the mystique of radio.
The villain recalls a little bit the Joker in Batman, although he dresses completely normally, and is not grotesque the way the Joker is. The Joker often gives advance clues to his crimes. The use of laughing gas at one point by the criminal also recalls the Joker.
The police vehicle driven by Sandy Kean and his partner Larry Trent is Car 54. This anticipates the later TV comedy series, Car 54 Where Are You? (195X). One suspects that the Radio Squad tales were widely read in their day, and influenced may later depictions of the police in the mass media.
Chad Grothkopf has elaborate police uniforms. These include a leather harness, flared trousers and high black leather boots. Throughout the series, Sandy and Larry are always slicked up to the max. This gives them elaborate presence in the stories.
The Blackout Burglary (1942). Writer: ?. Art: ?. A gang takes advantage of World War II era city blackouts to stage jewelry store robberies. Too much of this tale is taken up by fight scenes, and not enough by plot. Still, there are some interesting science based story ideas. Both the crooks and the police heroes use technology to advance their efforts. These ideas are original, and not found in most other detective stories. The later "Hook, Line and Thinker" (1942) also has some original technological-mystery concepts. One suspects that the same writer was involved in several of these 1942 Radio Squad tales.
The new artist has once again changed the police uniforms. This is a Radio Squad tradition: every new artist develops somewhat different uniforms. The uniforms are always sharp, and dressy to the max. They tend to be always blue, the preferred color of police uniforms in this era, and a symbol of authority. The artist has emphasized the physicality of his policemen. They are big men. They are often shown in dynamic physical activity. A panel (p5) depicting an officer jumping over a railing is especially outstanding. The artist often shows his policemen full figure. This emphasizes both their physique, and shows all details of their uniforms.
The Case of the Phantom Fugitive (1942). Writer: ?. Art: ?. Sandy Kean and Larry Trent chase a young man who has confessed to the kidnapping of a banker's daughter. This story too has a well constructed mystery plot. As in "The Radio Robber" (1942), there are some unexpected plot developments.
The banker's grown daughter Lois Hart shows dignity and courage. This is typical of the comic books of this era, in which the women characters were usually gutsy and intelligent.
This story has some exciting scenes in underground passages beneath the city: in this it resembles "Hook, Line and Thinker" (1942). Both stories involve thrilling and clever escapes for their policeman hero. There is also some pleasant appearance of technology in the underground passages here.
The later Radio Squad tales tend to be highly urban. Both the early scenes, involving a nocturnal chase over deserted buildings, and the later under the city passages, are big city in tone.
In Golden Age comics, the good guys tend to be all handsome, and the bad guys ugly. So the good looks of the young man, Joe Leeds, being chased here are a clue.
Hook, Line and Thinker (1942). Writer: ?. Art: ?. The squad deals with a gang of crooks who use a sound truck to cover up robberies, and who can jam radio broadcasts. This tale has a lively plot, with a good deal of inventive incident. It is full of material on the technology of the day. A fascination with radio technology would also permeate the stories about super-hero Air Wave, whose powers stem from a series of radio inventions he has perfected.
Sound trucks are not much seen today, but they were widely used in the 1940's to advertise, especially in elections. They were most useful in an era in which large number of people were concentrated in urban areas. Pedestrians walking down city streets would hear everything a sound truck broadcast.
The tale makes a cogent point about technology: "That's the trouble with elaborate devices -- sometimes they backfire!"
The unknown artist has done a good job with the police uniforms, especially the uniform caps.