Spencer Steel

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The above is not a complete list of Spencer Steel 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.

Many issues of Jumbo Comics can be read free online at Comic Book +.


Spencer Steel

Spencer Steel was a New York City detective associated with the police. His stories ran from 1938 - 1941. He is not to be confused with Larry Steele, the private eye created one year earlier in 1937 by Will Ely for Detective Comics. Both men were non-super powered detectives who solved crimes in a realistic, non-sf universe. Both men appeared some years before the super-hero Steel Sterling, the original Man of Steel. Clearly, names involving Steel were very popular in early comics. America was in the final stages of the Depression, and many men felt that their masculinity was under attack from the economy. Associating a man with steel must have been a reassuring idea.

All three of these heroes were young and fairly glamorous. All three seemed a little younger than Superman or Batman would be, for example.

Both Spencer Steel and Larry Steele lived in a world of sophistication, with nice clothes and often glamorous New York City surroundings. Neither cops or private eyes usually move in such circles. In Larry Steele's case, there is some justification: although he is a private eye, he is from an upper middle class family, and he seems to have an independent source of income, as well as many friends from the upper crust with whom he grew up and went to school and college. By contrast, it is not clear how Spencer Steel supports his life style; New York City cops of the era were typically not affluent.

The Spencer Steel stories were usually ascribed to Dennis Colebrook on their splash panel. I do not know if he was their writer or artist or both.

Spencer Steel was created in Jumbo Comics #1 (September 1938). He appeared in Jumbo Comics through #14 (April 1940). Then he moved to Fight Comics, running from #7 (July 1940) to #14 (August 1941).

Spencer Steel was aided in his work by none too swift policeman Michael "Mike" McCarthy. Such comic police assistants, honest but dumb, were frequent comedy relief in Hollywood whodunit movies. McCarthy talks like a stage Irishman. He also wears old-fashioned urban-style clothes that look many years out-of-date, sort of like a 1900 ward heeler or saloon habitue.

The Pixie Panto Problem (1940). (The GCD now uses the tale's opening phrase as a title for this untitled tale: "After his surprise elopement, and short honeymoon, Spencer...".) Spencer Steel and his new wife Nora solve two unrelated cases: first the escaped criminal "Pixie" Panto threatens Steel; then they solve the mystery of who killed wealthy Mrs. Agatha Danbury. The two cases here come from two different schools of crime fiction. "Pixie" Panto is a thriller dealing with tough criminals and cops; the Mrs. Danbury case is a traditional Golden Age whodunit, complete with a wealthy family's mansion and a closed circle of suspects. There is a clue to the killer in this second story, and it attempts to go through the motions of being a puzzle plot whodunit, but it is not very developed or creative with this aspect.

SPOILERS. Both this mystery and some other Spencer Steel tales have a rich older man revealed as the criminal at the end. These men definitely look like social authority figures, the kind of wealthy men who run society. One suspects there is some left-of-center social commentary in this choice of villain.

The dining nook in their home where the Steels have breakfast is a nice architectural touch. It has an arched top.

Spencer is aided by his wife Nora in many of their cases. Such helpful wives and fiancees were not uncommon in the comics.

Nora genuinely contributes to both cases. In the "Pixie" Panto, her driving is essential to the chase and capture of Panto, as she points out. And she finds the clue to the killer of Mrs. Danbury, which Steel then interprets to deduce the killer. She also finds the explanation for the Nancy Danbury subplot, showing that it is a red herring.

Nora shows courage in her driving. However, Spencer Steel has a male chauvinist desire for superiority, and uses the way Nora faints in shocking situations to feel superior.

Nora Steel faints twice, and is caught and supported by her husband, in identically posed panels. In each, he is effortlessly supporting her by one hand. In both, he is standing tall and erect. These are two of the most macho portraits of Spencer Steel. They show his huge muscles and build. They also show him smiling, and his wavy blond hair. He looks very young and strong.

Spencer's clothes go through a series of stages, making him more and more dressed up:

He looks terrific in all these outfits. Being "progressively more and more dressed-up" is a convention used in many Hollywood films of the era, for men's clothes.

"Sure, an' I stopped one that time, eh, Steel?". (#13, March 1940). (The GCD uses the first line of this untitled story as a title.) Spencer Steel investigates the mystery of a stolen Rembrandt painting at a museum.

This story mixes two modes. Its setting at a prestige museum recalls Golden Age prose mystery fiction, especially that of S.S. Van Dine and his followers. But it is filled with tough action, culminating in a big fight - which more recalls pulp fiction. One notes that there are also hard-boiled pulp magazine stories about the thefts of paintings, such as "Red Goose" (1934) by Norbert Davis.

The mystery plot isn't brilliant, but it is conscientiously detailed:

Some of the architecture in the museum is strikingly drawn, including a vault and the corridor leading to it (page 2) and a big staircase (page 5). The art often uses irregular, polygonal panels, that enhance the architectural patterns.

The last panels show Spencer Steel in heightened looks (page 5). While Steel has a not-bad build throughout the tale, a back view of Spencer Steel talking to the police shows him built like a gorilla, with huge shoulders and back muscles. The cops are in spiffy dress uniforms, with patch pockets, breeches, boots and a Sam Browne belt. Next Spencer is shown in one of the fancy overcoats that were so dressy for men in this era. (The GCD speculates this tale is the work of multiple artists. The more muscular build Spencer suddenly acquires might be the work of a new artist on these last panels.)

Comic books liked to show well-built men from the back. See "Puppet on a String" (Love Stories #152, October - November 1973). The hero of this romance comic has huge shoulders, and they look giant seen from behind in his tux.

The Mystery Murders of Las Vegas (1940). (The GCD now uses the tale's opening phrase as a title for this untitled tale: "Spencer Steel and his wife, vacation bound to...") A killer drops mimeographed leaflets in Las Vegas, Nevada, warning people of his next victim.

Steel follows up on a well-constructed clue, to identify the killer.

The Las Vegas police chief is eager to work with Spencer Steel. This is typical of the respect he gets everywhere as a detective.

The Las Vegas police chief is in a spiffy black (or maybe very dark navy blue) uniform, with a huge police badge on his chest, white shirt and tie, and a leather Sam Browne belt (p2). Later, there are portraits of the chief wearing his huge uniform cap (p8).