Spy | Origin | Stories with art by Mart Bailey
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These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.
The Balinoff Case (1937). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) Five part story, dealing with the origin of the major characters in the Spy series, government secret agent Bart Regan and his fiancee Sally Norris, and pitting them against enemy spy Olga Balinoff and her gang. This is a true Origin story for the characters, showing how they first became counter-espionage agents for the US government.
Chapters 1, 3 and 5 are better than chapters 2 and 4, but the story as a whole is quite interesting. Each chapter is only four pages long, but Siegel makes each panel count, and stuffs the tale full of plot developments. Siegel thinks deeply in terms of plot: nearly everything that happens here is at a plot level, and moves a complex story forward. He also satirizes and subverts clichés of spy fiction, with standard approaches in the field gleefully and humorously undermined. A typical episode begins with some conventional twist of spy fiction. Then Siegel shows how his characters refuse to be restricted to the "scripts" assigned to them by convention. Sally Norris especially refuses to behave in ways assigned to her by tradition. She instead shows tremendous forcefulness. Her behavior springs from a mix of ideas in Siegel's world view. It is partly fiercely feminist: Siegel shows women as being far more capable and emotionally resilient than sexist ideas make them out to be. And it is partly a satirical look at women, who are depicted as fiery and dynamic, and way too much for men to handle. This world view will persist throughout Siegel's entire career.
The persistent Sally Norris here reminds one of Lois Lane, whom Siegel who soon go on to create. She is nicer than the early Lois, but just as intelligent, resourceful and determined.
Even at this early date, Siegel displays his interest in undercover work. Such undercover assignments are also taken on by his private eye hero Slam Bradley. Here both his hero and villains get involved in undercover work. Sometimes the reader is on of this from the start; other times such undercover identities are sprung as surprises on the reader. Such "surprises of identity" were at the core of the many mystery stories Siegel wrote for the Silver Age Superman family comics.
Bart Regan goes undercover in the first chapter as an Army Captain. Shuster does a good job with his uniform. Bart will always be well dressed throughout the series. This was a cultural ideal throughout the 1930's: everyone wanted to be well dressed, and to see heroes who were well dressed. The tale strongly suggests how much fun it would be to take on new clothes, such as the spiffy Army uniform here. Bart also looks good in his formal day clothes at the wedding in Part 3, complete with striped trousers and tail coat.
Bart and Sally remind one of Siegel and Shuster's other team, Slam Bradley and Shorty. Both Bart and Slam are big, handsome macho men. They are pulp fiction's idea of a hero. Sally and Shorty, on the other hand, are people who have been passed over by society, and whose talents are unappreciated. In Shorty's case, this is because he is unmacho; in Sally's, because she is a woman. Both Sally and Shorty have to pursue their man, almost forcing him to take them on as a partner. Neither Slam nor Bart initially want Shorty or Sally as colleagues; both have to scramble and use every device in their possession to get in on the act, and become part of the team. Both teams are deeply comic, with lots of rowdy humor. The rhythms of the character's names are similar in the corresponding members of the two teams: Slam Bradley and Bart Regan both have one syllable first names and two syllable last lames, while Shorty Morgan and Sally Norris each have two syllables in both names. Shorty and Sally both end with a y, while Morgan and Norris both have an "or" in their first syllable. There are differences between the two teams as well: Bart and Sally are vastly more refined and sophisticated than the low brow, rowdy Slam and Shorty.
Both teams are based on whole classes of people that have a second class status in society: unmacho men, in Shorty's case, and women in Sally's. This makes a deep political commentary be at the heart of the tales. Siegel and Shuster know where the political divisions lie in modern society. These divisions are constantly at the center and forefront of the tales. Even when the divisions are the source of comedy, as they frequently are in these rowdy comic book tales, there is an underlying political dimension.
The Colossus Disaster (1937). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. Bart and Sally are assigned to investigate the explosion of the dirigible Colossus. As the Grand Comics Database points out, this tale is clearly inspired by the real life Hindenberg disaster.
This is a well constructed mystery tale. Siegel shows some unusual approaches to detection here, which he uses both for humor, and their intellectual appeal as part of detective technique.
Assassins in the Rue Moulin (1938). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) Bart and Sally go undercover as Apaches in Paris, to trap a hit man who assassinates diplomats. Shuster does a good job with the Apache costumes.
This story shows the agents as a bit more violent than they typically are in their cases. Siegel himself notes this. He, and his heroes, also express doubts about the morality of their assignment. There will be a continuous dialectic throughout the tale, as the agents struggle to find the right moral balance towards their situation and their assigned task, one to which they are only partly sympathetic. The characters are not shy about expressing their concerns verbally. Such skepticism will be a consistent part of Siegel's writing. His characters often burrow from within, expressing corrosive doubts about the events with which they are involved. In Silver Age works this skepticism will often be expressed through humor, as in his Bizarro stories, or the bitingly sarcastic comments made by his humorous villains. This story itself shows some humor in its internal moral commentary.
The Peter Rawley Case (1938). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) In Paris, Bart and Sally are assigned to keep a politician's son from his compulsive gambling. The dialogue states that this is an unusual assignment for Bart and Sally; it is not their typical espionage work. This dialogue is "reflexive": it comments on the story itself. This story manages to make quite a case against gambling, without being preachy or grim. Instead it is full of humor and good plot ideas, in Siegel's best tradition.
While many of Siegel's tales involve large scale undercover assignments, in this Bart and Sally take on two little mini undercover roles, each of which lasts a few panels. It is as if Siegel is giving a different structure to the story, one made up of two undercover stories. During the 1960's, Siegel sometimes used an "anthology" approach, in which his plot would revisit in turn a number of characters and events from previous stories. This is not a true anthology tale - it does not revisit previous Siegel plots - but it does have the mini-episode construction of those later works.
Bart uses jujitsu here. Hollywood had been busy publicizing jujitsu, in films as diverse as William Keighley's "G" Men (1935) and Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth (1936).
This was the last and best of a series of four stories in which Bart and Sally sailed to Europe, and did espionage work for the US Secret Service in France. Bart is at his spiffiest here. After all, he is in Paris, and Shuster has him in his most sophisticated clothes. At the opening, he wears gray striped trousers with his blazer, like fancy morning clothes. Later, he is in a double-breasted tuxedo with a stiff shirt and studs.
A Traitor in Our Midst (1938). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) Bart and Sally go undercover in their own organization, to unearth a traitor passing secret information to enemy spies. Pleasant if somewhat mild tale.
This is the start of longer stories for Spy. It is 8 pages, while earlier tales were 4. The longer length is clearly better - it allows for elaborate and original plots. Siegel constructs this story in two parts, each around 4 pages. It is if he were making two regular Spy stories of the earlier length, and joining them up.
The Hooded Hordes (1938). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. Bart and Sally investigate a white-hooded terrorist organization, that holds the town of Meadeville in its clutches. The Hooded Hordes are a thinly fictionalized version of the real life Klu Klux Klan. This important story attacks them in fierce terms, with the splash page calling them "un-American hoodlums" and denouncing them for "flouting the laws of tolerance and order". This story might be partially inspired by an anti-Klan movie of the previous year, Archie Mayo's The Black Legion (1937). In both movie and comic book, the Klan recruits its members from disaffected factory workers.
Bart and Sally go undercover again here, this time as proletarians. This explicitly involves them in giving up their good clothes.
Saving Senator Barkly (1938). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) Because Senator Barkly refuses police protection despite threats against his life, Bart and Sally are assigned to bodyguard him in secret, without his knowing it. Secretly following a difficult character for his own good is also the framework of "The Peter Rawley Case" (1938). This plot has been used in countless TV shows over the last forty years. I do not know if Siegel invented it, but he was clearly an early employer of this gambit. Siegel uses it for a whole series of episodes. In each Bart and Sally are up against a new kind of challenge from the criminals.
Senator Barkly is a good guy. But he is also a high powered know-it-all, whose pig headed actions cause a lot of trouble for everyone. Such difficult, intractable egoists often show up in Siegel and Shuster tales.
Sally gets off a good line of feminist dialogue here.
The Celebrity Deaths (#23, January 1939). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) A wave of mysterious heart attacks kill a series of famous people.
This tale shows some ingenuity in its treatment of radio operated devices. It anticipates the wireless world that is coming into being around us today, in the early 21st Century. Siegel and Shuster created other stories in this era that employed radio for wireless communication and control of devices: see the second Radio Squad tale, "The Purple Tiger", Part 2 (More Fun Comics #12, August 1936).
The President's Assignment (1939). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Joe Shuster. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) President Roosevelt asks Bart and Sally to expose and arrest foreign spies operating in the United States. Roosevelt frequently appeared in movies, especially those made by Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers clearly idolized the president, and included him in films wherever they could. Usually, he was off camera. All one would hear is his voice, played by some actor who impersonated him. This comic book story is a bit more daring. We see Roosevelt full face in its opening panels, and he is fully drawn and with dialogue, just like any other comic book character. Roosevelt's vivid personality, upbeat character and forceful presence made him an ideal candidate for movies and comics. Roosevelt is treated patriotically here, as a symbol of the United States, during a time of great crisis in world affairs. Earlier, Roosevelt had made a similar one panel appearance in the Siegel and Shuster Federal Men tale, "The Submarine Terror, Part 1" (Adventure Comics #4, March 1936). Later, during the Silver Age of the early 1960's, President Kennedy would make frequent appearances in the Superman family of comics. Kennedy was deeply idolized by the Silver Age writers, including Siegel.
The detective elements here recall those of "The Colossus Disaster" (1937). In both stories, Sally is the driving force. In both, she uses somewhat similar techniques to sniff out crooks in high places. These techniques are both humorous and ingenious. Sally (and Siegel) makes this explicit in the dialogue, when Sally says that she is going to exploit "my never-failing system of having our prey seek us out". This makes it clear that the story is following in traditions previously employed by Spy. It also serves as reflexive commentary on the structure of the plot and detection, right in the middle of the story itself.
Also like "The Colossus Disaster", this tale has a complex plot. It is built in layers. Each layer gets the characters to a certain stage, then another wave of plot takes over and moves people to the next stage. Siegel shows ingenuity in building a plot in this way. Sometimes, events double up, with plot echoes between actions performed by one character and by another.
Sally's plan succeeds beyond even her expectations. The papers Bart and Sally steal are more important than they planned, and immediately trigger big trouble, in a way that is both comic and thrilling. This is typical of the plots of the early Siegel and Shuster tales: they often move to a comic extreme. The big trouble in which the characters find themselves is encapsulated in pithy lines of dialogue, which underscore the danger with comic intensity.
This story draws on precedents from immediately preceding episodes of Spy. These prior episodes were in no way as good as this one, but they did help pave the way for it. Some of the plot devices here recall "Break-In at the Bartilian Embassy" (#22, December 1939), in which Bart and Sally also use ingenuity to break into a foreign embassy of a hostile power.
"The President's Assignment" is not the first Spy story to refer to the ominous current events going on in Europe. The previous issue had "Subterfuge at Sea" (#24, February 1939), in which ships are illegally running munitions to the Spanish Civil War. As far as I can tell, Siegel and Shuster do not take any sides in the Spanish conflict in that tale; it is simply used as the springboard for a sinister shipboard melodrama. This is an OK but minor tale. Shuster does a good job with Bart undercover as a sailor, in a red striped shirt; and with portraits of sailors (p5) and the officers (p6). A later episode of Spy, "Saboteurs Bomb Steamer" (#28, June 1939) deals with the vicious Hitler or Stalin-like dictator of the made-up country of Baralia, who secretly bombs one of his own ships in order to blame it on the United States. Siegel rightly shows great skepticism about such dictators. This tale has an interesting finale that recalls that of Fritz Lang's film Fury (1936).
Colonel Walsh and the Coastal Defense Plans (#29, July 1939). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Mart Bailey. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) Intrigue surrounds secret military plans. The first Spy tale with art by Mart Bailey. Shuster left the strip at this point, presumably to concentrate on the ever more popular Superman. At the same time, Sally Norris drops out as a character. The tales now focus on Bart Regan alone. No explanation is given of this; she simply stops showing up in the stories. Some long running comic book adventure series with female central characters were canceled shortly before this tale. Sandra of the Secret Service, who first appeared in 1935, last appeared in More Fun Comics #35 (September 1938). Dale Daring ran from Adventure Comics #4 (March-April 1936) to #37 (April 1939).
This tale is pretty minor; it would probably not be noticed, were it not a moment of transition within the series.
This story introduces Jack, a fellow agent of Bart Regan. Jack is blond, and a bit more youthful looking than Bart. There is a good portrait of Jack in white tie and tails.
This story is very much in the tradition of prose spy fiction. It especially reminds one of the work of William Le Queux. As in that writer, we have a setting of elegant parties and high life. And Le Queux's big spy subject was the search for stolen secret diplomatic and military documents.
The Dictator of the United States (#30, August 1939). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Mart Bailey. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) Bart Regan investigates when prominent government officials, such as Senator Kingsley, start advocating totalitarianism in the United States. Creepy story, looking at what might happen if "foreign isms", as the tale calls them, became popular in the United States. The story is strongly pro-democracy. It shows Siegel's concerns over the rising tide of totalitarianism in Europe. The story uses the word "totalitarianism", and clearly can be applied to either Hitler's fascism or Stalin's Communism, both of which are implicitly condemned by this tale.
Democracy in Jeopardy (1939). Writer: Jerry Siegel. Art: Mart Bailey. (This titleless tale was given a title by me.) When the democratic country of Luxor is invaded by the dictatorship of Thoria, its President Karl Palchek escapes to the United States, where Bart Regan is assigned as his bodyguard. Outstanding political story. The events of the tale seem to be modeled on the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany. The tale is extremely explicit about the contrast between democracy and dictatorship as two forms of government. This will become one of the great themes in comic book history, and the subject of hundreds of stories through the 1960's. Siegel and Bailey deserve every credit for highlighting this theme.
The resistance to Thoria's rule is eventually carried on through non-violent means. This is fascinating. The tale itself does not discuss the use of violence versus nonviolence to solve problems, and it is unclear whether Siegel was advocating nonviolence, or simply felt that it was a possible approach in these circumstances.
Radio plays a major role here. Siegel views it as one of the main means of molding public opinion. Radio plays a similar key role in mass communication in other early Siegel tales, such as the Federal Men tale "The Plot Against America" (Adventure Comics #29, August 1938), in which a demagogue preaches un-American ideas over the radio. Siegel was also fascinated by the technological possibilities of radio, and its shows up in that aspect in many of his early stories.
The Message of the Moccasins (1944). Writer: ? Art: Chuck Winter. A scientist in a Native American tribe is murdered.
This is the last Spy story. The series goes out with a bang, with a tale of social consciousness. It anticipates the anti-racist, pro-Civil Rights tales that Jack Schiff would go on to write for Johnny Everyman in 1945. Like them, it presents a sympathetic, stereotype shattering portrait of a minority group, here Native Americans. Like them, it covers a lot of ground, with a diversity of comments about the group and its life. Like them, it also expresses a patriotic enthusiasm for both the United States and the war effort. Like them, it has a panel that shows conventional racist ideas about the group, only to show their absurdity immediately afterward. Here this panel, the first non-splash panel of the story, is ingeniously worked into the plot. Some of the Johnny Everyman tales mix documentary passages into their stories; by contrast, this tale fits all of its commentary into a work of pure storytelling.