Speed Saunders | Origin | Stories with Art by Creig Flessel | Stories with Art by Fred Guardineer | Creig Flessel Illustrations | Covers by Fred Guardineer
Classic Comic Books Home Page (with many articles on comics)
These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.
Speed's actual name is Cyril Saunders. When not on duty as a federal agent, he smokes a pipe, and is a major reader at home. He does not seem to be wealthy, however. Instead he is both a working man, and a man of culture. This is a social ideal of the period. Federal Men were highly idolized in the late 1930's: see such films as William Keighley's "G" Men (1935). They were people of both brains and courage.
The artist depicts Speed in a wide variety of costumes. He is in Naval uniform; in a suit, the typical outfit of a Federal Man on duty; and later at home, in a dressing gown, the mark of a man of culture. We also see him undercover as a stevedore in a red tee shirt and white pants. Speed looks great in all of these outfits. Even at this early period, comic books embodied the idea that a detective could dress up in many different kinds of clothes. At one level, this was a fantasy for the readers, and one suspects, the writers and artists. At another, it expressed a general yearning of the culture for nice clothes. Such clothes signaled a return to prosperity, and an end to the Depression. People loved to see heroes dressed this way, both in the movies and the comics. They seemed liked harbingers of a better economic future.
Right from the beginning, Speed's work involves undercover assignments. Such undercover work was also a basic paradigm in such Siegel and Shuster works as Slam Bradley and Spy, which appeared along side Speed Saunders in Detective Comics. In these tales, the detective gets a new identity, a new, usually honest profession, and new clothes to fit his role. This undercover work is perhaps related to that long time comic book favorite, the hero with a secret identity. In both kinds of story, the hero gets to experience multiple identities and professions. The detective undercover roles are just temporary, while the superhero secret identities were permanent, however.
The most enjoyable parts of this otherwise minor tale are Flessel's portraits of Speed Saunders. This story has Speed in casual clothes while boating, a red sweater, white slacks and a nautical uniform cap. These spiffy clothes remind one of the fashionable sportswear Flessel depicted in his Pep Morgan tales. Speed manages to engage in a spectacular series of fights and chases with the bad guys here, without ever putting a spot on his snow white pants! He does look good throughout here.
A Most Fishy Robbery (1937). Writer: Gardner Fox?. Art: Creig Flessel. Speed Saunders tracks down payroll robbers through New York City's harbor. This is a step by step tale of detection, showing Speed operating purely and straightforwardly in his role of detective. Like most of the Gardner Fox mysteries in eraly comics, the criminals here are motivated by greed, rather than by emotional or personal issues.
This story is full of beautiful architectural illustrations by Flessel. The whole harbor comes alive. The splash shows New York City skyscrapers in the background, with the waterfront in the foreground. Both the harbor area and the skyscrapers are aligned with the plane of the panel, giving a pure geometric effect, a perfectly frontal view. Art like this evokes the magic of New York City. Later illustrations will also use a layered effect like this, with larger buildings in the background, and smaller waterfront architecture up front.
Many later illustrations in the story are constructed around diagonals. Flessel includes some beautiful ramps, leading down from the waterfront to small, rectangular docks. These are architecturally fascinating. These appear on p4, and again on p6. The ramps furnish strong diagonals for the compositions. The fire escape (p5) continues the theme of outdoor staircases. Flessel also uses diagonal panel construction in his drawings of boats (p3). The boats are seen from an overhead angle that gracefully reveals all the detail of their machinery.
Flessel also uses overhead angle shots for large scale views of city buildings. There is a good overhead picture of a waterfront building (p2). Later, we see a waterfront store (p4), and on the same page, an overview of waterfront buildings and docks, with a large ocean liner in the background. These overhead shots are well composed. They have a large amount of detail, and many buildings, yet they are well organized and easily viewed and do not look over cluttered.
Speed wears a double-breasted blue overcoat. It reminds one of a similar full length blue coat worn by Bruce Nelson. Both men wear this glamorous garment over their suits. Such long overcoats were popular in the work of Alex Raymond. There is a good close up of Speed (p2) against a outdoor wall. He is sleuthing, and wearing his overcoat and hat.
The Mystery of the Lost Ape (1937). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Creig Flessel. A mad scientist creates an ape with a human brain, who runs amok in New York City. Tales of intelligent gorillas were a big deal in the 1950's, and could be counted on to boost comic book sales. This story shows that they have long roots in the comics. This tale appeared a year before Superman! Despite its title, this is much moire of a horror story than any sort of a mystery or crime tale. It is a change of pace epsiode for Speed.
This story shows the city in panic. It anticipates the monster movies of the 1950's, with a sinister being loose on the streets causing mass panic in New York City. Such 1950's films are always treated as if they were responses to the Atomic Age, which began in 1945, but here is an example of a somewhat similar tale in the 1930's. Three years later, Fox wrote a Flash story in which giant lizards attack a town: "The Giant Animals" (Flash Comics #9, September 1940).
It opens with a look at street kids, seemingly inspired by the play and movie Dead End (1937). It has the same New York river setting as the film. There is even a sign "Dead End" at the end of the road.
At the Rodeo (1937). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Creig Flessel. Speed goes undercover at the rodeo, when its cowboy stars are targeted by a killer. The plot somewhat recalls Ellery Queen's The American Gun Mystery (1932), which also looked at a major rodeo visiting New York City. The detection elements are not as logically constructed as they should be, however: Speed identifies the criminal by a hunch, rather than by following a genuine clue.
Speed looks terrific in his Western gear, as do the other cowboys. Speed is helped here by a cowboy, Shorty, who also is a macho dude. The two men perform male bonding. The tale also has some good New York atmosphere, when Speed tracks a suspect through a park at night.
The River Patrol (1937). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Creig Flessel. Speed trails escaped convict Fred Dunn; both wind up undercover as sailors in a fishing vessel of the Grand Banks. This story emphasizes the male bonding that is sometimes present in the Speed Saunders tales. It shows the humane side of the detective, and his willingness to look at the good in people.
Speed's undercover work here has him taking on the role of a sailor, somewhat similar to his impersonation of a stevedore in his origin, "The Murders of Cap'n Scum". Speed's undercover assignments always have him as a working man, and in a working class milieu. By contrast, in his own personality he is a middle class person, a man who wears suits, and who is an exemplar of a middle class hero who is successful at a profession and job. There are suggestions here of an alliance between the middle and working classes. In both personas, Speed is a worker. He is never a member of the idle rich. He seems to have a strong emotional identification and tie with both classes.
Creig Flessel has excellent sea illustrations here.
Case of the Hobo Hero (#9, November 1937). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Creig Flessel. Speed goes undercover as a butler in a gangster's mansion, to unearth civic corruption. This is a fairly minor story. It has interest in showing crooked politics. Such depictions of civic corruption were a fairly regular feature in Detective Comics, and other early comic books. Before them, pulp magazines of the 1930's, such as Black Mask, also wrote about crooked politicians.
Creig Flessel does a good job showing Speed in the white tie and tails of a butler. This outfit has a dual meaning. It was frequently worn by Society men. But here it is a sign of Speed's butler duties. As usual, the story has Speed undercover in a working class role.
Mystery at Oak Gables (1937). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Creig Flessel. A woman Speed meets on a boat returning from Europe is threatened by mysterious figures. This is an unusual mystery. Speed is a character in it, but Fox says right on the splash that he is not the detective. Instead, he challenges the reader to guess both the detective AND the villain, from among the portraits of the story's characters on the splash page. This is a highly unusual formal approach to a detective story. Other writers, such as Alan Green in his prose mystery novel What A Body! (1949), also experimented with stories in which the true detective would only gradually emerge from among the characters. Speed has a nice guy role as the heroine's boyfriend: Fox's splash page says that he is the "Don Juan" in the story.
The riddle of the detective aside, the story's approach reminds one of some of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales. It takes place at an isolated country house, where ongoing intrigue and a series of mysterious events envelops all the characters. Such tales of unrolling mystery on mystery are good reading, and offer much in the ways of both thrills and mystery plot creation.
Speed's Mother shows up briefly here. Speed is living at her home, but it is not clear if he is just on a visit, or whether he lives with his parents all the time. Even his mother calls him Speed, not Cyril, so Speed is clearly the name by which everyone knows him.
The Indian Oil Well Mystery (1938). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Creig Flessel. Speed helps a tribe of Indians in Texas protect their oil wells from a gang of thieves. Nicely done story on many levels. The tale is strongly pro-Native American, and depicts its Indian characters as admirable people. The narration explicitly notes how much Speed Saunders admires American Indians. The Indians are depicted as speaking the pidgin English that was common in movies at the time, such as "How!", which now seems dated. But this tale's big heart is definitely in the right place.
Indians in the Southwest were relentlessly gouged and financially exploited by white people, often with the aid of the law. The white gang of thieves in this tale stands for all such economic predation.
Creig Flessel has atmospheric art. The story opens and closes with wooded, mountainous landscapes in Texas: they are beautiful scenery. Flessel also has a flair for people riding horses. There are signs that Detective Comics regarded Creig Flessel as one of its prestige artists. He often drew the covers of the magazine. He also frequently did large interior illustrations for the text pieces. These illustrations tend to be classy looking. They frequently show landscapes, and grand tableaux involving the characters.
Speed is depicted in good clothes throughout. While traveling on vacation, he wears a suit with a black shirt and tie, a nice sporty outfit. After he starts working for the Indians as a detective, he is in splendid cowboy gear, including a colorful red vest. Like most 1930's cowboys, he wears a scarf, something I always loved when dressed as a cowboy as a little boy.
When Speed's tire gives out, he swears briefly. It's just @#*!!$%^# comic strip style "swearing", but it is still unexpected and funny. In most comic books, good guys never seem to swear. Maybe such conventions were not yet fixed in 1938.
The Case of the Missing Corpse (#16, June 1938). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Creig Flessel. For mysterious reasons, a gang of crooks unearths a body from a cemetery, and dumps it down a manhole. This story has a pleasantly complex mystery plot. The gang's motivation for these actions is fairly weak, however, and the tale is not perfect in its plotting craftsmanship.
The act of taking a corpse from one place and putting it in another can be considered as a "Fox cycle". Fox often built his tales out of such cycles, series of steps that can be repeated over and over. Here, the cycle is repeated twice. The two cycles overlap in ingenious ways.
The Snake Death (#17, 1938). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Fred Guardineer. Minor horror story. This is the first Speed Saunders story with art by Fred Guardineer. He permanently replaced Creig Flessel as artist on the Speed Saunders tales.
The Hilton Diamond (1938). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Fred Guardineer. When a gem merchant is murdered, Speed works with the man's son Jim Hilton to track down the killers.
The relationship between detective Speed and young Jim Hilton here reminds one of a similar relationship between District Attorney Steve Malone and the murdered man's son in Gardner Fox's "The Van Dorn Murder Case" (Detective Comics #26, April 1939). Both sons are around college age. Both are intelligent and cooperative. Both are well dressed in clothes that are like slightly junior versions of clothes that adults wear in the tales.
This story opens with a locked room murder. Speed immediately explains how it was done, however, in the very next panel; instead of leaving it as a mystery throughout the story. Still, this shows the signs of continuity here between the Speed Saunders tales and prose mystery fiction of the time. This story inaugurates a series of pleasant mystery tales in the Speed Saunders stories, from this tale in issue #18, through issue #26. It is hardly fair play - clues are withheld from the reader - and yet it has a basically similar approach to much prose mystery fiction.
Guardineer goes to town with the Op Art effects of his characters' clothes. Speed is in a blindingly plaid suit. There is a police badge hidden on the suit's vest, which he can reveal by opening his jacket. The whole effect is very 1930's-ish. Young Jim Hilton gets the full Op Art treatment, with his clothes all containing a series of visually vibrating patterns: a tie, a striped sweater vest, striped shirt, a jacket and white slacks. The sport coat, white slacks and sweater all give him a slightly juvenile appearance, in contrast to the suit worn by the grown up Speed Saunders.
The Grogan Case (1938). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Fred Guardineer. Speed tracks down counterfeiters on New York City's lower East side. Guardineer shows good nocturnal atmosphere. Speed wanders through the deserted slum district by night, and the architecture and lighting effectively create a moody, lonely world filled with interesting buildings and events.
This story also has elements of the impossible crime, here an impossible disappearance. While this is worked by technological gimmickry that would not have been favored in prose mystery fiction, it still makes for some pleasant escapist reading.
One of the best parts of this tale is the control mechanism employed by the technology. Fox often created ingenious control mechanisms for his machines: they show up regularly in his Adam Strange stories. The one here shows intelligence and logic.
The Glass of Poison (#21, November 1938). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Fred Guardineer. Speed finds a poisoning victim, with poison in the glass standing next to the body. Fox has some interesting ideas about a murder method here. But he does not embed them in a full murder mystery, with different suspects, clues, etc. This makes the tale weaker and less developed than the best Speed Saunders tales. A similar lack over development of a murder method idea into the full mystery paradigm will hinder "The Ski Murder" (#23, January 1939). The mystery here anticipates in a small way Fox's "The Duel of the Two Adam Stranges" (Mystery in Space #59, May 1960) and "World War on Earth and Rann" (Mystery in Space #82, March 1963). In those tales, Adam Strange tried to figure out how a sinister figure controlled his inventions. The control process winds up surprisingly different than it first appears. Similarly, here the detective is investigating how a poisoning took place. It too is a little different than it first appears.
The best part of this tale is the first panel. It shows Speed in his apartment after midnight, staying up late because he is engrossed in his reading. Speed is depicted as a man of culture here, smoking his pipe, and in an elegant dressing gown, green with yellow collar, cuffs and belt. This is an archetypal image of a 1930's man of intellect. But his reading here is an issue of Detective Comics! The whole image is clever and quite funny. Earlier, Siegel and Shuster had pioneered such reflexive imagery in Slam Bradley.
Later in the story, Guardineer will depict Speed in a blue plaid suit. This is one of Speed's favorite outfits; he wears it in a number of different tales. The plaid pattern is quite busy. It ties in with the Op Art effect that Guardineer often applies to Speed's clothes.
The Snow Murder (1938). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Fred Guardineer. One snowy night in the city, the police find a murdered man who leaves a dying message. The dying message was a standard plot device in prose mystery fiction. It was especially popular in the work of Ellery Queen. This is one of a very few dying message stories in the comic medium, where they were seldom attempted.
This story has great urban atmosphere. Guardineer depicts the characters against a whole series of urban streets, corners and shops. The snow is always coming down relentlessly. Guardineer has wonderful atmosphere with this. Everything is vivid and appealing. He also shows Speed in an overcoat and hat. His police chief colleague is in full all weather police uniform, with flaps over the back of his uniform cap guarding his neck. These too are glamorous and macho.
The pure whodunit nature of the plot aids the story's atmosphere. The characters are mainly not fighting; instead, they are investigating and thinking. The combination of thinking and snow seems profound. Weather often triggers meditation, as Herman Melville pointed out with the sea and thought in Moby-Dick (1851). The dark, deserted urban streets, full of snow and the night, also seem profoundly meditative.
As in most dying message plots, the message here has a hidden meaning that is not immediately apparent. This meaning and the message itself, succeed in being poetic. They add to the poetic feel of the whole story. However, considered strictly as a mystery puzzle, the message here is far-fetched and unlikely. It is not a landmark in the dying message mystery genre.
The Ski Murder (#23, January 1939). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Fred Guardineer. Based on a cover by: Fred Guardineer. While skiing on vacation, Speed discovers a dead body with a ski pole thrust into its chest. As Speed notes, "This will create quite a sensation at the hotel." Prose mystery writers in the 1930's were always looking for outré methods of murder, especially those linked to an intriguing background like skiing. Such methods are especially associated with the Van Dine school. So Fox's plot is in this tradition. This little tale is OK, but it does not really do much with its central ideas.
Much of the story is an investigation of the mechanism of the ski murder. This interests Fox more than whodunit, which is unfortunately skimped. However, Fox will go on to create later, more ingenious mysteries somewhat in this tale's tradition, such as "The Duel of the Two Adam Stranges" (Mystery in Space #59, May 1960) and "World War on Earth and Rann" (Mystery in Space #82, March 1963), which involve mysteries about how technology is controlled.
The best part of this tale is its cover. It shows Speed in a back and red check jacket. He is also wearing a scarf with alternating diagonal white and black stripes, and gloves with alternating, undulating bands of black and white. The effect is quite geometrical and eye-popping. He looks like a one man Op Art exhibition. Later, in the story itself, the colorist has changed Speed's gloves to bands of yellow and black. This is perhaps in better taste by conventional standards, but it is a little less eye catching. Fred Guardineer has some good panels here showing Speed in his check jacket. It really is vibrant and unique.
The Persian Jewel Mystery (1939). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Fred Guardineer. While Speed Saunders is relaxing at a night club with his girl friend Carol, a fortune in Persian jewels is suddenly left with them by a mysterious man. This is the opening of an excellent mystery puzzle. Like "Mystery at Oak Gables" (1937) and "The Snow Murder" (1938), this is a genuine tale of mystery and detection. This tale is completely urban, like "The Snow Murder".
This story is extremely strange in mood and plot. Most of the developments seem surprising and off trail. It does not have a dream like feel, but it does seem surrealistic. However, all the events of the tale are logical. Speed shows careful deduction in his unraveling of the case. Somehow, the use of logic combined with the strange nature of the events only heightens and reinforces the surrealistic mood.
The story is notable for its sympathetic treatment of various Persian (what we now call Iranian) characters.
Speed looks elegant in his black tux, dancing in the night club. He is in the tradition of a famous Leyendecker illustration of the Arrow Collar man dancing. Later, Speed will wear a camel hair coat and scarf over his clothes.
The Basketball Mystery (1939). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Fred Guardineer. The owner of a basketball team asks Speed to figure out who is involved when crooked gamblers start putting influence on the team. This sports mystery is just plain fun.
At one point, Fox's script states that "Faro is foiled by the fickle finger of fate". This phrase, "the fickle finger of fate", became a running joke on the 1960's TV show, Laugh-In. I do not know if Fox invented it, or whether it was a common coin in the 1930's. It shows Fox's love of alliteration.
In later years, Fox would often build his stories out of cycles. There are rudiments of that approach here. (Please see the article on Adam Strange for an in-depth discussion of Fox cycles.) During each basketball game, cheating goes on, clearly under the influence of the gangsters. It is not clear who exactly is cheating, though, or how. So Fox includes two basketball games, in both of which similar events occur. This repetition is like a "Fox cycle", a set of events that can repeat again and again in a story. During the second game, the hero Speed intervenes in the cycle: this too is a standard approach Fox will use later for plot construction. Because of Speed's intervention in the second game/cycle, it becomes much clearer who is cheating and how. Other cycles in the tale involve Speed's visits to the owner's office. These too are repeated with variations. These also clarify more and more the mystery behind the cheating. So Fox cycles in this tale are a truth finding mechanism, something that sharpens and clarifies the picture more and more every time they roll around.
Speed goes undercover in this story, as he does in many other tales. This is partly a popular plot gambit in mystery fiction, one that leads to entertaining stories. But in this tale, it also helps Speed participate in cycles from the inside. In Fox's later Adam Strange tales, Adam's visit to the planet Rann also allowed him to participate in the cycles of menaces that were attacking Rann.
The Crossbow Mystery (#30, August 1939). Writer: Gardner Fox?. Art: Fred Guardineer. A writer of adventure stories and collector of antique weapons is murdered by one of his own crossbows. This is a very minor tale, but it has a few personal features for author Gardner Fox. It is an example of an early date of Fox's interest in antique weapons, later to play a major role in his Hawkman tales. And the murdered man's solicitors are the firm of "Fox, Fox and Fox, Lawyers". Fox was a lawyer himself in real life, and this is a nice in-joke.
The Skull-Face Cult (1939). Writer: ?. Art: Fred Guardineer. While vacationing in the Maine woods, Speed Saunders uncovers clues to a series of murders. Demented pulp mystery thriller, with every sort of nutty plot element. Oddly, and admirably, enough, all the plot elements are in good taste. Some of the story ideas are quite poetic. The tale has an oddly lyrical quality. It shows the poetry of pulp.
Speed is wearing one of Guardineer's patented Op Art like North woods costumes, including high boots with a row of alternating yellow and black triangles on top. My reaction to this costume is the same as to the story as a whole: 1) it is ridiculous; 2) it is imaginative; 3) it is fun; 4) it is poetic and memorable. The image is both campy and sweet. The rest of Speed's outfit is also very high visibility: a blue pullover shirt that emphasizes Speed's musculature, a black belt, and of course, puttees - just the sort of casual clothes everyone wears in the back woods.
Later on, Speed will ditch all this for black swim trunks. He will do most of his detection in these trunks, which is appropriate because it involves a lot of swimming. These trunks themselves have black and white stripes on the side. Later on, when he summons the Maine State Police to help, they will first be shown in their elaborate State Trooper uniforms. But Speed will get all of them to put on their swimming trunks too, and the police raid that concludes the tale will have them in their trunks. It is a completely odd finale to the tale, and one of its many off trail moments.
Guardineer will do a terrific job with his water illustrations. The rippling circular waves on the surface contribute to the tale's Op Art effects.
Shooting Lesson (#3, May 1937). Flessel shows a Mountie shooting. A second illustration shows the uniformed Mountie riding a motorcycle. His gleaming black boots are pressing down on the pedals.
Winged Death (#5, July 1937) Flessel shows airplane pilots. There are in their authoritative blue uniforms, flying the plane.
Cover (#26, April 1939). Cover Art: Fred Guardineer. A policeman is broadcasting information into a radio microphone. Radio still had a very high tech mystique in those days, and there is radio equipment behind the microphone. The officer is in a sharp uniform, very formal with a tie, white shirt and leather harness. He is wearing a shield, and has stripes on his sleeves. Such macho, spiffy officers in uniform also appear in Guardineer's naval series, Anchors Aweigh.
Cover (#28, June 1939). Cover Art: Fred Guardineer. This cover does not seem related to the Speed Saunders stories. It shows two well dressed, handsome young businessmen coming out of a bank. They are in good double-breasted suits and carrying attaché cases. They are being held up or arrested by two policemen. The policemen are in super sharp uniforms, with high peaked uniform caps with shiny black visors. One policeman has a gun; the other is holding his nightstick erect. Both the businessmen and the officers are the last word in macho. It is unclear what is going on. The businessmen could be criminals being arrested. However, they do not look like the gangsters of the era. Instead, they seem like genuine businessmen, wearing clothes that are in excellent taste. Both men are much more handsome than racketeers, as well. An alternative possibility: the policemen are criminals, using police uniforms to commit a hold-up of these bank officials.
Cover (#32, October 1939). Cover Art: Fred Guardineer. Guardineer's cover shows a policeman trying to subdue a hood with a Tommy gun. The hood is holding the gun erect, and the cop also has a good grip on the long, vertically pointing gun barrel, wrestling it away. The cop is clearly subduing the crook: he has a choke hold on his neck, and is bearing down on him from above. The cop is wearing a sharp uniform, with a visored cap. The cop is dominating the crook, with a more elevated position and a strong grip.