The Archers of Paul Gustavson
THE ARCHERS OF PAUL GUSTAVSON
With the advent of Superman in Action Comics, publishers were scrambling to jump on the costume hero bandwagon. From 1938-1941 there was an explosion of comicbook titles with a consequential explosion of brightly clad crimefighters. These took on various forms, as the search for another “Superman” was on. As one reviews this period of the “goldenage”, the road is strewn with also-rans. Occasionally, although a particular hero would not last more than a few years, his particular shtick would. Thus was it the case with “The Arrow” and “The Spider”, who were the first in a long list of arrow-toting heroes that have graced the pages of the comics. Both, as it turns out, were the creations of Paul Gustavson who provided work for some of the earliest comicbook companies such as Centaur, Timely, and Quality.
Paul Gustavson was one of the more enduring artists of the golden age. Born in Finland, Gustavson immigrated with his family to the United States at an early age. After working for the Chesler shop in the late 1930s, he worked for Funnies Inc. where he created a number of characters such as The Arrow, The Fantom of the Fair and Man of War for Centaur Publications. For Timely he created The Angel which appeared in the earliest issues of Marvel Mystery. Finally he went to work at Quality Publications where he created a number of characters such as The Human Bomb, The Jester and others. He also did work on Jack Cole’s Midnight.
The Arrow first appeared in Funny Pages Vol. 2/10 cover dated September 1938, a mere three months after the appearance of Superman. At this time Funny Pages was published by Centaur Publications. Centaur had consolidated the titles of Comic Magazine, Inc. and Chesler Publications, two of the earliest companies producing original material. As of March 1938 all the titles were published under the Centaur banner. The Arrow was the first foray of Centaur into the world of costume heroes. Other Centaur heroes would soon join The Arrow, including Amazing Man, The Iron Skull, The Shark, The Masked Marvel, The Fantom of the Fair and Man of War. Much of the early work was performed by Funnies Inc. which was run by Lloyd Jacquet. This shop also produced comics for Timely which accounts for the overlap of artists such as Burgos and Everett who would gain greater fame for the creation of the Human Torch and the Submariner. Centaur itself died in 1942 despite the fact that the comic marketplace continued to grow.
To say The Arrow was a mysterious character would be an understatement. It was not until Funny Pages #38 (June 1940) that the reader actually obtains a glimpse of his face which is perpetually hidden by his monk-like hooded top. It is not until his final apperarance in The Arrow #3 (October 1941) that it is revealed (by subsequent artist Bob Lubbers) that The Arrow’s secret idenity is Ralph Payne. His own man servant remarks (Funny Pages 3/2 March 1939) as The Arrow takes off after escaped convicts: “ ‘e’s a strange man- comes an’ goes in the night- never saying when or where he’s going! I’ve worked for ‘im for fifteen years an’ I know nothing about him”.
The Arrow is described as a “modern ‘Robin Hood’ who fights crime with all his might--and a bow and arrow”. The plots generally were thin. Most of the early adventures involved encounters with criminals (every crime boss seemed to be named “Dutch”), escaped convicts, threatened heirs, etc. The Arrow was a little hard to warm up to. He was a sullen and taciturn character that dealt with wrong-doers in a straightforward and, often, deadly fashion. When he did speak, his words were as cold as his shafts of steel: “Don’t anyone move or I’ll seal your doom forever”. (Funny Pages 3/3 April 1939) When you are nearly seven feet tall and can tear manacles out of walls with your bare hands people tended to listen. He had no compunction to pin his adversary’s wrist to the wall with one of his steel-shafted arrows. These were his lucky foes. Often the end for his unlucky foes was a quick arrow in their chest or a severe beating. As one police officer observed (Funny Pages 3/1 February 1939): The Arrow is the “only guy that can straighten things out that we can’t touch! The underworld fears him more than they do us.” One simply did not mess with The Arrow.
The Arrow, beside the deadly accuracy of his shafts of “flying death”, was incredibly strong. One story has him take on a whole mob of thugs by himself, another has him climbing up a rugged wall with his bare hands, diving out of a building, hooking onto a powerboat and breaking the steering chain with his hands. In one story (Funny Pages #39 July 1940) he stops a submarine from blowing up shipping by jumping from a plane and redirecting a torpedo shot from the sub!
In Funny Pages 37 (May 1940) The Arrow commences to take on terrorists that began to invade the American shores. In this issue after foiling the terrorists he accepts the offer of U.S. Intelligence to fight for Uncle Sam. Interestingly, the thrust of these stories is to avoid having the United States dragged into the war. (Remember this is still eighteen months before Pearl Habor.) Certainly stories such as this reflect the split of public opinion on the U.S. getting involved in the European conflict. (Compare the stories in the Timely publications which had its heroes fighting Nazis months before the U.S. entry into the war.)
The Arrow appeared in Funny Pages from September 1938 until October 1940. (The final issue of this title). At this time The Arrow appeared in his own short-lived title, The Arrow, in October and November 1940 and October 1941. The first issue reprinted the Funny Pages stories appearing in issue 3/1 (February 1939) and issue 3/3 (April 1939). The second issue contained one new Arrow story by Bob Lubbers and reprinted stories from Funny Pages 3/4 (June 1939) and 3/5 (July 1939). The final issue contained two all new Arrow stories.
Before turning to the other archer of Gustavson, it should be noted that while some of the interior art for The Arrow was uninspired, the covers which featured The Arrow were impressive. All were quietly dramatic. The cover to 4/1 (January 1940), with its simple but dynamic composition, is one of the most underrated classic covers of the golden age.
As morose as The Arrow was, The Spider was a verbose jocular sort. He traded one-liners as well as fists with his adversaries. As opposed to the mundane attire of The Arrow, The Spider was gaily outfitted in shorts and a bright yellow blouse. He made his first appearance in Crack Comics 1 (May 1940) published by Quality Comics and continued until issue #30 (August 1943) when he spun his last tale. The title of the feature was “Alias ...The Spider which is explained in the narrative of his first story where he follows some crooks and “changes his clothes to that of his alias...The Spider”.
The Spider was in good company as he shared Crack Comics with Lou Fine’s “Black Condor”, George Brenner’s “The Clock” and others. In addition to Fine , Quality Comics, which was formed by Everett Arnold, showcased some of the greatest of the golden age artists such as William Eisner, Jack Cole, and Reed Crandall. As a company, the Quality art staff produced, perhaps, the finest artwork of the golden age. Certainly, Gustavavson benefitted in that his artwork for The Spider was more refined and dramatic than his work on The Arrow, utilizing more detailed artwork and layouts that were unfettered by conventional panels, a technique that Lou Fine used so effectively.
The Spider is Tom Hallaway, which eveyone seemed to know, particularly since he did not wear a mask. Each story would start out with a dramatic introduction such as “Young Tom Hallaway in his role of Alias the Spider is always to be found where the fight for justice is the most furious. With his deadly bow he has yet to feel defeat by the lawless”, or, “A champion of justice whose weapons are a steel bow and blazing arrows which carry his seal... This is Alias the Spider”, or, “A modern David who fearlessly stalks the Goliath of crime The Spider reaches out to crush those beyound the power of the law”. (Sigh)
The Spider was not without his gimmicks. His stories often featured trick arrows. Additionally, apparently influenced by the Green Hornet and The Batman, The Spider had his own special car called the “Black Widow”. The Spider fought his share of common criminals and rescued damsels from all sort of dire plans of mad scientists. His most outlandish story has him following green monsters who abducted a woman and carried her into the sewers. There he uncovers the sinister plot of the lead monster who plans to paralize New York and the rest of the world with his nerve gas and conquer the world with his army of 100 milion men who patiently wait underground for his signal. This army is under the leader’s control by use of a brain control machine, The Spider challenges the leader to a duel- his bow against the ray gun of the leader. Needless to say The Spider saves the day.
The Spider would come up against such professional bad guys as “The Cricket”, “The Crow”, and once the war started, “The Yellow Scorpion”.
One should not be dupped by the seemingly idle chatter of The Spider. Behind those carefree words was an individual who could be as ruthless and unrelenting as The Arrow. More than one story had his arrow seal directed at the head of his adversary. Often he would use an arrow that would launch “The Web”; a substance that would envelope his enemies and slowly constrict, crushing the life of those who had the misfortune to be caught within “The Web”.
Although both these characters would be deemed to be “minor” in the pantheon of comic characters that paraded about the golden age, both advanced, in their own way, the continued development of the “hero” in comics.
© Jon Berk 1994 and 2009, All Rights Reserved.