The King | The Tales in World's Finest Comics | Comic Cavalcade tales | Alias X
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These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.
The King appeared in Flash Comics #3 (March 1940) through #41 (May 1943). He also appeared in World's Finest Comics, from #1 (Spring 1941) through #5 (Spring 1942), then in #8 (Winter 1943). He also showed up early in 1943 in All-Flash #13 (Winter 1943), then in Comic Cavalcade #3 (Summer 1943) and #4 (Fall 1943). The World's Finest scripts seem to have been written by Gardner Fox; the authors of the others tend to be unknown, although Don Cameron wrote a few King tales in Flash Comics. Harry Lampert was his artist throughout.
The Terror of the Underworld (1940). Writer: ? Art: ? (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database - it is an epithet used to describe the King in the story.) The King goes after Barton, by working with his secretary. The origin of King Standish.
The plot shows a nice symmetry, with King's version of Barton, and Barton's version of King. Such symmetrical plot ideas demand ingenuity. The story is also interesting, because it only gradually shows what Barton, his secretary and the King are up to. This helps add to the interest of the unfolding plot.
The Grand Comics Database does not know who the artist of this tale is; neither do I. We both agree that it is not Harry Lampert, the artist of most of the King tales. The artist is excellent. He does a great job showing King in his white tie and tails (p3). The artist is a bit more detailed in his approach than Lambert. The King looks more like a conventionally handsome leading man here. This is both a blessing and a curse. His conception of the King is very handsome, as well as being suave in his evening clothes. Lampert's version seems more like an ordinary looking guy. However, Lampert's King looks like an individualized human being. He seems like a real person, a man whose face contains character and lived experience. Lampert's King is instantly recognizable. This is helpful, purely from a plot point of view, because the King is often in disguise in various outfits.
This tale tells us nothing about the King's background. We learn merely that he is a rich man, and a master of disguise. So it is not a full origin story in the true sense. The King also shows his skill with safe cracking in this tale. Throughout the series, the King will have friends ranging from well-to-do clubmen to raffish people on the street. His sociological background seems a bit vague, but it is a good stepping off point for getting him involved in crime stories.
The King leaves calling cards with a crown symbol on them, both in this tale and most of the subsequent stories. Such devices were popular in prose mystery fiction among rogue-sleuths. Frank L. Packard's sleuth, the Gray Seal, was so called because he left small gray seals at the scenes of his "crimes". And the Saint frequently left a stick figure drawing, which was his symbol.
The King resembles, in some ways, the elegant society-jewel-thieves-turned-detectives that were popular in prose mystery fiction, and in the movies based on them. Like them, he is an elegantly dressed social sophisticate, who favors white tie and tails. Like them, he is adept at breaking and entering, and safe cracking, activities that need skill and intelligence. Like them, he is a lone wolf, who tends towards ingenious schemes in his crime fighting, with style and finesse. And many such rogue-detectives were good at disguise, although not quite as skillful as the King. Like them, the King has secret hideouts, small apartments where he can change into his disguises. And like them, the King's stories tend to be light-hearted in tone, with an element of high comedy. But, there is no sign in the tales that the King was ever a criminal. He seems to be a rich, honest man who has taken up a life of crime fighting. His techniques are similar to the thief-detectives of prose mystery fiction. But he does not seem to ever have done anything criminal. The comic book medium, which mainly appealed to children, might have been very reluctant to set up a hero who had anything sinister in his past. Most of the comic book heroes of the day were 100% good guys. Golden Age comics were also very idealistic. They focused on genuine heroes, who spent their lives helping the needy and oppressed. The King fits into this mode.
The King is a modest person, both here and in subsequent stories. He seems to have no ego needs, no need for public approval or acclaim, and no swagger or machismo. He enjoys his adventures, and the amusement he derives from them is one of his two chief rewards - the other being the public service of combating crime. The amusement is of a man with a small scale, personal hobby.
The Stolen Washton Jewels (1940). Writer: ? Art: Harry Lampert. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) The King tries to recover jewels stolen from an old Virginia family, the Washtons.
The chain of disguises in this tale has a recursive quality. This adds an ingenious dimension to the plot. There are also elements of the King trying to avoid a trap set by crooks; this too gives backbone to the plot.
Myrna Mallon, the secretary from the previous story, returns here. There are signs that she will become a continuing character, and the King's girlfriend. Instead, the Witch debuts in the next story, and Myrna is never heard from again.
Get the King (1940). Writer: ? Art: Harry Lampert. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) The Witch, a female master-criminal, targets the King. The origin of the Witch. The duel between the Witch and the King will be the subject of over half the stories in the King tales.
This story shows the Witch as an expert in disguise. However, this aspect will be downplayed in most later Witch tales. Instead, they will emphasize the Witch's role as a master plotter of crimes. The Witch's crimes tend to involve robbery or fraud, usually for large sums of money. She tends to have a large series of henchmen, all carrying out some criminal scheme she has devised. Her henchmen can be brutal, and fight against the King when cornered, but the crimes tend to not be especially violent. She is definitely not a "society jewel thief" type, however. Her crimes are serious, and usually are socially reprehensible.
The King always lets the Witch go at the end of each of their tales, after foiling her crime, a precedent begun in this story. It is clear that the King and the Witch are attracted to each other. Since the Witch is not guilty of murder, only crimes against property, the morality of the day accepted this. Movie censorship of the period would not have allowed such a conclusion: in the movies, all criminals had to be punished at the end. There was no censorship of comics till 1955, and comic book creators were on their own, to set their own standards. The duel between the King and the Witch has strong elements of romantic play. Both clearly enjoy trying to outwit each other.
Cover (Flash Comics #5, May 1940) Art: Jon L. Blummer. This is one of the few covers starring the King. It is also one of the few times he was illustrated by anyone other than Harry Lampert. This cover is on the same issue as "Get the King", but it seems to have little to do with the actual story. Blummer does a great job with King's white tie and tails outfit, and his domino mask. This costume will serve as the definitive appearance of the King.
The Maharajah (1941). Writer: ? Art: Harry Lampert. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) When the Maharajah of Rajput visits the US with his priceless moon pearls, they are targeted by the Witch for theft. This is one of the lightest hearted and most charming of the Witch-King duels. Everything in it works well. The tale has a sense of fun.
Visiting Indian royalty were a regularly appearing group of comic book characters, from the 1940's through the 1960's. They allowed comic book creators to include non-stereotyped Asian characters in their stories, as well as adding glamour and romance to the tales. The Maharajah here is utterly dignified and non-stereotyped. Before their comic book occurrences, such Indian royals also appeared in prose mystery stories in pulp magazines, such as Lawrence G. Blochman's O'Reilly Sahib stories in Argosy in the late 1930's.
This is one of many King tales in which a person encounters the King disguised as himself. This plot gambit also appears in "Get the King", "The Witch's Double" and "The Training Camp Adventure". The reaction of the characters in all these tales is different. The writers have come up with a variety of plot ideas to cover the situations. The King's motive for the disguise is different in the tales, and he uses the disguise to achieve different goals. He also uses different approaches to cope with the confrontation with the impersonated character. Here is one of the most comic and lightly handled such approaches. The King is dressed differently from the impersonatee here; one is in a blue suit, the other in a green suit. This is different from many such tales, in which the King dresses exactly like the impersonatee. This difference in clothing sees to add to the light touch of the tale; the impersonation is not heavy handed or intense; instead it is a matter of face only.
This is the first story in which the King disguises himself as a policeman. This will be a favorite disguise in later tales.
A perennial scene in any King-Witch tale, is the one where the Witch gradually realizes that the person she sees before her is the King in disguise. The recognition usually does not happen right away; instead, it occurs a while after the Witch has been talking to the person. She always has a logical reason for the discovery, based on some clue in the King's actions. Sometimes the King drops the clue on purpose, so the Witch will recognize him; at other times, the clue is an inadvertent result of the situation. The Witch always picks up on the King's identity, immediately following the clue. She is adept at logical reasoning, and makes deductions immediately, as soon as she has any evidence to work with.
The Witch and the Hilton Jewels (1941). (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) Writer: ? Art: Harry Lampert. The King goes undercover as a guard when the fabulous Hilton Jewels are exhibited. The King looks good in his guard uniform. It is gray, with three rows of vertical buttons, an unusual design.
This story, and the previous one "The Maharajah", have the simplest, most basic kind of King plot. In them the King disguises himself repeatedly as various characters in the tale, enabling him to stay close to the center of the case. In these stories, this works out pleasantly. But in many poorer King stories, the effect is somewhat simple minded. Most of the best King stories have a more complex plot than this.
Murder by the King (1941). Writer: ? Art: Harry Lampert. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) The King is framed for the murder of an old miser. Pleasant if somewhat routine murder mystery. The King has some good disguises in this tale.
This tale somewhat resembles the later "Adventure of the Siamese Twins" (1941), in that both stories are murder mysteries investigated by the King, and neither tale involves the Witch.
The King is not a criminal, and in most of the stories he is not hunted by the police. Unlike the Saint, he is not a reformed jewel thief turned detective. So normally, he has no problems with the police. He is an independent operator, and rarely works with the police on a case, but he frequently calls in the police at the end to take charge of the criminals. Here, however, he has been framed for murder, and has to evade the police and prove his innocence. This situation is atypical of the King stories.
The location of the miser's treasure recalls Robert Barr's prose mystery short story, "Lord Chizelrigg's Missing Fortune", from The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont (collected 1906).
The Witch's Double (1941). Writer: Don Cameron. Art: Harry Lampert. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) The King protects a young woman trying to claim an inheritance; the woman also looks strikingly like the Witch.
Cameron has a lot of original ideas about disguise here, that have not appeared in previous King tales. The tale also has some pleasant romance, a Cameron specialty.
Adventure of the Siamese Twins (1941). Writer: Don Cameron. Art: Harry Lampert. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) One of a pair of Siamese Twins is accused of murder. This tale is more of a murder mystery, than are many of the King stories. It is also complexly plotted. The tale involves interlocking hoaxes, independent hoaxes that build upon each other. Such a plot construction is also found in Cameron's Johnny Quick tale, "Tubby Watts, Athlete" (Adventure #126, March 1948).
In many King tales, we see almost everything from the Point of View of the King, and we follow him almost continuously through the story, knowing everything he knows as the story progresses. In this tale, this is not true. The reader instead is surprised at times by the King's actions.
The Training Camp Adventure (1941). Writer: ? Art: Harry Lampert. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) A Nazi underground in the US tries to poison US soldiers' plasma supply. This is one of several comic book tales that denounced Nazi fifth column movements in the US. These tales were published before the US entered World War II on December 7, 1941. The creators of these tales showed courage to take a political stand on this issue.
The tale shows some solid plot construction. It is the first King tale to have a flashback; this device will recur in later King stories. The King has two somewhat surprising disguises early in the story, which only gradually emerge from the plot. These show ingenuity, in their justifications.
This is one of the nicest encounters between the Witch and the King. It leads to a new level in their relationship. Both show unusual approaches here.
Racketeers (1942). Writer: ? Art: Harry Lampert. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) The King aids a grocer threatened by a protection racket run by a powerful politician. This story shows three nice additions to the usual plot events in King stories. All three deal with how bad guys might reason about the King's activities. The plot ideas show logic and intelligence. Such extensions to the King paradigm regularly occur in King tales. They are admittedly fairly simple. But they make pleasant reading. One has to read the King stories as a series to notice them. The variations and extensions make a quiet impact on the reader. They function as small, intelligent variations of what the reader has experienced up till that time. Such quiet variations on a standard paradigm recall the work of Ozu.
The grocer's son, Jim Kress, is a likable character. The King's relations with this young good guy recall King's relationship with the young man in "The Witch's Double". Both of these young men see the King made up as themselves, a surrealistic experience. Both are helped by the King, both are good guys; both are fairly mild when dealing with the King, but fairly gutsy when dealing with the rest of the world. Both young men might be stand-in's for the reader; they are "typical nice young men" in some way. While Jim Kress shows courage and determination, he is not the macho superman of many male characters in Golden Age comics.
Proof for a Pardon (1942). Writer: ? Art: Harry Lampert. The King tries to convince the Governor that a convicted, soon to be executed murderer is innocent. Nicely constructed story, and one with an atypical construction for a mystery story. Many little plot pieces in it seem to fit together well, and the tale has a good overall flow. The tale is not a conventional mystery story, with fair play clues presented to the reader; instead, its pleasure comes from watching the King put together his case. In this it somewhat resembles the "inverted mystery story", in which watching the sleuth perform the detective work is also a chief pleasure of the tale. But this story is far from being a conventional "inverted tale", either.
The King uses impersonation here to further concrete goals, which have to do with the story's plot. This is better and more imaginative, than the many stories in which he impersonates someone merely so that he can hang around and observe the events of the story.
The Adventure of the French Quarter (World's Finest #2, Summer 1941). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Harry Lampert. A strange, surrealist painting falls at the King's feet, when he passes by a artist's studio building in New Orleans. This tale shows us the family background of the Witch. It can be considered as a tale extending her history. Unfortunately, the story is quite flawed. It suggests that since the Witch is descended from the pirate Jean Lafitte, that she has "bad blood" and has inherited a tendency towards crime. This is a lot of rot!
The illustration of the French quarter of New Orleans on the splash does not look like anything I have seen of that city, at least from books or films. Instead, it looks like an old street in medieval Paris. Fox also refers to the painting in his dialogue as looking like "Dali surrealism", an example of his generally well informed world view. But Lampert's illustration is far less surreal than anything in Dali.
The Case of the Counterfeit Tickets (1941). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Harry Lampert. Racketeers are forging food tickets used by the poor in tenement districts.
Like "The Training Camp Adventure" (1941), which was also published around this time, this story leads to a new level of personal and professional collaboration between the King and the Witch. In both tales, the Witch draws the line at participating in crimes which offend her political convictions. Instead, she works to capture criminals.
This story also shows considerable plot complexity. Such increased plotting complexity was also a feature of the mid-1941 King stories.
Fox wrote many stories about doubles. In this tale, when the King impersonates crook Billy, he and Billy function as doubles. The two pursue independent yet interlocking paths in the tale. This is a bit different from many King tales, when the man King impersonates plays no further role in the story.
The King was a master of impersonation and disguise; so is the actor in this tale. The centering of a crime story around impersonation recalls all the secret identity tales in comic books. This is true even for detective heroes with no super-powers: Gardner Fox's Nighthawk stories focus on that Western sleuth's secret identity. And many of John Broome's Big Town detective stories deal with actors, impersonations and doubles. Such stories have always been more prominent in comic books than in prose fiction. Partly this is the influence of the "secret identity" tradition mentioned above. Also, comic artists can make such impersonations be very convincing. When Homer Wolfe makes himself up to look like the King, Lampert draws him as an exact double of the King. The two men are impossible to tell apart, right down to the haircuts on their blond heads. Their white tie and tails, and the masks they wear, are also completely identical. This is an effect that the most gifted make-up and costume artists in the movies or on stage would find difficult to achieve. There is often a lingering sense of disbelief and reader skepticism about impersonation tales in the movies or TV. And this disbelief extends over to book readers, who do not see the impersonation that the writer assures them is so good. However, comics artists can show a perfect impersonation in progress.
Homer Wolfe reminds one a bit of characters in tales by John Broome. He is a frustrated show business performer, longing for elusive success. Broome's heroes often experience blocked careers. And his villains often start out by searching for celebrity and success, then go down a slippery path towards crime, somewhat like the villain here. Broome would go on to create poverty stricken Shakespearean actor Dexter Miles as a sympathetic character in the 1960's Flash stories: see "Mystery of the Matinee Idol" (Flash #138, August 1963) and "Gangster Masquerade" (Flash #154, August 1965).
Though a villain, Homer Wolfe has a sympathetic side and a bit of pathos. He also has a real theatrical flair, that adds to the joy of life. He is more misguided than truly evil.
In his not-bad-at-all origin story, "Blind Man's Buff" (Captain Fearless Comics #1, August 1941) we see his life history, and his masquerade as a blind man. This is a domestic crime tale, set in the USA among regular criminals. He also appeared in Captain Fearless Comics #2, September 1941. "Alias X" made a third and final appearance in "Raiders of the Deep" (Captain Aero Comics Vol. 1, No. 10, April 1942), in which he disguises himself as a Nazi spy, and infiltrates a Nazi sub. (This issue also has some good ads, showing handsome Captain Aero in his spiffy uniform.) These stories were written by Ray Wilmer (who signed the tales Ray Allen), and had art by Al Ulmer. I have no idea what relation, if any, Al Ulmer has with film director Edgar G. Ulmer.