Steve Malone, District Attorney | Origin
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These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number. They were edited by Vincent Sullivan.
The logo for the series shows Steve Malone in the courtroom. He is pointing at the witness stand, in a dramatic gesture. He is an idealized portrait of a gifted public servant, dedicated, energetic, intelligent and forceful.
Gardner Fox was a lawyer in real life, just like Steve Malone. Many of Gardner Fox's heroes are highly respected professional people, with serious intellectual skills, and a prestigious job. Steve Malone is a District Attorney, Adam Strange is an archaeologist, the Atom is a physics professor, Hawkman a museum curator. All of these people have stable personal lives, and are successes in their work. The highly civilized settings of their tales are also a Fox tradition. All of these men are elegant, handsome men in their personal lives and secret identities. None is a Clark Kent like nerd.
This story has some mild impossible crime features. It shows Fox trying to establish a connection between his series, and prose mystery fiction of the Golden Age.
In S. S. Van Dine's mystery novels, New York City District Attorney John F.-X. Markham is a dynamic figure who takes an active role in investigating crime. He is in charge of many murder cases, and the police report directly to him. Like Steve Malone, he is an intelligent figure, and a man of social refinement. Unlike Steve Malone, Markham is not the central detective figure in the tales - that role is played by Markham's genius friend, Philo Vance. Still, there are similarities between Markham and Steve Malone. By contrast, the Steve Malone stories have little or nothing in common with Erle Stanley Gardner's novels about District Attorney Doug Selby.
The Van Dorn Murder Case (1939). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: ?. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) Wealthy August Van Dorn is killed at his mansion, after a quarrel with his teenage son John. The title "The Van Dorn Murder Case" was given this episode by the Grand Comics Database; the actual story has no title. It is an appropriate name for the tale: the milieu of the story recalls mystery writer S. S. Van Dine and others of his school, so the use of a Van Dine style title is suitable.
The mood and plot are very close to Golden Age prose mystery novels, with a country mansion, upper class suspects, and servants. Steve Malone is an intellectual detective who looks for clues, examines suspects' stories about their actions on the night of the crime, and checks alibis. Malone is also virile and dynamic. But he is definitely closer to such prose detectives as Anthony Abbot's Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt, than he is to such detectives as Batman. The story has a fully developed mystery puzzle plot, of the kind that could be found in a Golden Age novel, or in the 1930's whodunit movies that derive from them. The mystery plot is logical. It is not a classic, but the solution is fairly clued, and managed to surprise me.
The secret identities of such Fox Golden Age super-heroes as Hawkman and Starman are upper class playboys. These men are totally at home in Society, and enjoy their lifestyle enormously. Steve Malone also is an enthusiastic participant in such Society. Like them, he dresses in upper crust clothes, such as white tie and tails.
The art of this tale attempts elegance. It is especially skillful with the beautiful clothes worn by the characters. The men start out in white tie; later the hero changes to a good double-breasted suit and trenchcoat. Both the clothes and the manner in which they are drawn recall Alex Raymond's art for the comic strip Secret Agent X-9 (1934). There is the same air of dynamic, well-dressed snazziness. All of these characters are spiffed up to the max.
Steve's clothes change has significance. When he is socializing with the other characters at the start, he is dressed like them in white tie and tails. These clothes are the outfit of the high society party and night club life. They frequently appear in other Fox Golden Age stories, always worn by the hero. But when Steve goes home, and then is called back in to solve the case, he is wearing a sharp suit. These clothes suggest that he is on the job in a professional capacity; they are his work clothes. They are very sophisticated and upper crust, but they are still signifiers of his professional role. In some ways, this is similar to the costume changes of Fox's super-heroes. They start out in white tie and other civilian clothes while partying; then they switch into their super-hero costumes to perform their jobs.
The Armored Truck Robbery (1939). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Don Lynch. (Title supplied by Grand Comics Database.) Steve Malone tracks down armored car robbers through land, air and sea. Fox's Golden Age stories often sent his heroes through the water, swimming onto boats. Such boat settings were a big deal among many writers in the Golden Age. People seemed to equate boats with adventure and excitement. Fox's heroes tend to be solitary swimmers. They operate as individual heroes, often cut off from their teams, as they swim out to sinister boats. Like Steve Malone here, they often spend the story in swimsuits.
This story is pleasant throughout. It has good storytelling. The art is especially good, and is the tale's best feature. The opening pay-roll robbery here anticipates the famous one in Robert Siodmak's film, The Killers (1946). Both take place outside a factory, and show the gates of the factory complex. Both employ overhead angles, showing aerial panoramas of the robbery area. The angles tend to be around 45 degrees, looking down on the truck, robbers and gates. The depiction of the robbery here is far less elaborate that the one in the film, admittedly.
Later on, the panel showing the race to the plane looks almost straight down from a high viewpoint to the people below. Such a direct vertical view is known as a "Rodchenko angle" in photography, after the great photographer Alexander Rodchenko who frequently employed it. Such Rodchenko angles were also employed by Siodmak in his films.
The Coast Guard ship is in the Art Deco style (p5). The central cabin is polygonal. It has high windows, that wrap around the tops of the polygonal sides. Lynch's art onboard ship goes on to feature compositions with circles, utilizing circular portholes, and the circular steering wheel.
The rags are beautifully drawn in a schematic style using thin black outlines. Their curving forms look almost like abstract art. Their curving centers also recall roses.
There are some good portraits of Steve Malone. At the beginning, he looks almost too perfectly dressed, in a style somewhat similar to that today known as "preppy". He wears a dark suit and striped tie, and is very polished. As the DA, being a figure of refinement is part of his profession. He also looks very young and boyish to be a district attorney. In the movies, DA's were often portrayed by somewhat older actors, such as Walter Abel in Fritz Lang's Fury (1936). Later on in the tale, the perfectly uniformed Coast Guard officers also make a striking image.
Also outstanding: the landscape, showing a curving road. The curvilinear form is beautiful.