The Black Condor
THE BLACK CONDOR
In the aftermath of Superman, 1939 and 1940 saw the explosion of the genre of heroes in comicbooks who possessed special, yes, “super” abilities. Many had incredible strength, some battled evil-doers by flame or super-speed. Some had exceptional athletic ability or expertise with a bow-and-arrow. Despite the successful lawsuit of DC/National Periodicals which put a quick end to “Wonderman” (the first imitator of Superman) DC was unable to stem the inevitable and subtle variations of “superheroes” which were duplicated/imitated in the early comicbook marketplace.
In January 1940 DC introduced “Hawkman” in Flash Comics 1. Other flying heroes, imitating this “Icarian” character, soon followed, such as Timely’s “Red Raven” and Centaur’s “Airman” in Keen Detective Funnies (August 1940). But the earliest flying competitor to Hawkman was a wingless man who could fly- “The Black Condor”.
The Black Condor first appeared in Crack Comics 1 (May 1940) produced by Quality Publications. Quality Publications, which was formed by Everett “Busy” Arnold, showcased some of the greatest of the golden age artists such as Lou Fine, William Eisner, Jack Cole, Reed Crandall and Paul Gustavson. As a company, the Quality art staff produced, perhaps, the finest artwork of the golden age. One need look no further than the covers of Fine’s early Hit Comics, the uniqueness of Cole’s “Plastic Man” in Police Comics or “Midnight” in Smash Comics. “Blackhawk” in Military Comics, Eisner/Fine’s other features, “Dollman” in Feature Comics and “The Ray” in Smash Comics (Check out the wonderful full page portrait advertisement for “The Ray” on the back of Crack Comics 4, National Comics 3 or Hit Comics 3. ), and the tremendously underrated characters and art appearing in National Comics courtesy of Eisner, Fine and others formed additional showcases for these great talents.
Few of the Black Condor stories were memorable for their story content. What was memorable about this relatively short-lived character was that many of the early adventures were drawn by Lou Fine, one of the truly distinctive golden age artists. The art for the Black Condor involved innovative layouts and art unconfined by conventional panels. (See page examples displayed throughout this article.) While by today’s standards much of this would appear rather “routine” (except for Fine’s obvious superior drawing talent), for 1940 his artwork was breaking new ground for this new storytelling medium. Obviously, Fine was, in this fashion, influenced by Will Eisner, and, perhaps, Eisner by Fine. (Please refer to Eisner’s work in Detective Picture Stories and “Uncle Sam” in National Comics.)
The Black Condor finds his origin in Mongolia in a story obviously derviative of “Tarzan”. He is an infant, named Dick Grey, Jr., who accompanies his parents on an archaeological party that is set upon by outlaws. All in the party are ruthlessly massacred save the Grey infant. A condor comes to the bloody scene and takes the infant back to her nest and raises him as her own. As the years pass, the man-child is frustrated by his inability to fly as his condor brothers. Finally, after carefully studying air currents, body motion balance and levitation, the man-child can soar and fly.
One day, while foraging, he is set upon by a band of eagles who outnumber him. He plunges to the ground where he is found and nursed back to health by a hermit named Father Pierre. Recognizing that this boy had lived with the birds and because of his black hair, Father Pierre dubs him, “The Black Condor”. Father Pierre schools the lad in the ways of man. Father Pierre dies soon after but urges him, as he dies, to use his special gift for good. As the first issue closes, The Black Condor vows to use his gift of flight to aid man and to wage a relentless war on evil.
The adventures of The Black Condor continue with such lead-in phrases as: “The Black Condor sweeps from the sky on the side of right and justice in a world of evil” (Crack Comics 5), or, “Out of the clouds swoops the greatest threat of crime the underworld has ever known! The Black Condor crushes his vicious prey, the rats of crime that dare to call themselves men.” (Crack Comics 9), or “A soaring relentless righter of wrongs with a fierce sense of justice is the Black Condor...as free as the birds in the air...”. (Crack Comics 13) Actually, the Condor had two distinct careers, one as a general hero-adventurer (issues 1-10) and one as an United States Senator as his alter-ego.
The pre-senator exploits were fairly exotic taking the Condor from Mongolia to India to America to hidden islands and valleys. In these adventures, he would battle petty jewel thieves as well as villianous villians, such as Sihn Fang who uses his death ray to lay barren a fertile valley town so he could take it over. Adventures would take him from Ceylon on a crewless ship where on “Danger Island” he battles giant eagles and a villain who has enslaved sailors to work his Sapphire Pool. Magic amulets and kite flying men wielding lightning form the content of other fantastic tales where his black ray gun is his salvation more often than his flying prowess.
With issue 11 (March 1941), the locale and content of the stories dramatically shift. Senator Tom Wright is being heavily pressured by lobbyist, Jaspar Crow, to vote for a particular “pork barrel” appropriations bill. Despite the pressure, Wright vows to vote his principles. Crow sends some of his boys to “persuade” Wright to change his mind. Still refusing, Wright is shot and dumped onto the road. The Black Condor comes onto the scene shortly after and notes that the dead senator looks exactly like him. He decides to assume Wright’s identity and cast the crucial vote. (Hey, I never claimed this all makes sense.)
The Black Condor, now a senator, rallys his fellow senators to vote against the appropriations bill, thwarting the machinations of Jaspar Crow. The Condor decides to assume the identity of the senator, with only Dr. Foster, uncle of Wright’s fiancee, knowing his true identity. Even Wright’s fiancee, Wendy Foster, does not notice the difference. The Condor’s alter-ego “disguise” was as clever as Superman’s- namely a pair of glasses. However, this must have been quite effective since Wendy never noticed the similarity, although she constantly wished that Wright could be more like the Black Condor.
Many of the ensuing stories involved political intrigue, often with the ubiquitous “political and industrial tyrant”, Jaspar Crow, as the main protagonist. The economic goals of Crow slowly became more global as the stories reflected the war conflict. Crow, more often than not, was in league with fifth columnists and Nazis. While issue 18 (November 1941) has the Condor bombing mysterious “U” boat submarines, issue 19 directly depicts Nazis (see splash) and a plot wherein the Nazis have kidnapped President Roosevelt and had a double substituted. In issue 23 (May 1942), The Black Condor “officially” joined the war effort by declaring, “To the defenses of democracy, I pledge my utmost power; to the victory of freedom for all time, I pledge my life”. Foiling sabotage plots and protecting American inventors and their plans from Nazis became the common story plots of the ensuing issues. However, with the departure of Lou Fine in issue 24 and the advent of “Captain Triumph” in issue 27, the Black Condor swooped no more after issue 31 (October 1943).
The Black Condor was in good company as he shared Crack Comics with Paul Gustavson’s “Alias the Spider”, George Brenner’s “The Clock” and others. The Black Condor alternated as a cover feature with “The Clock” until issue 20 (January 1942), continuing as the sole cover feature until displaced on a permanent basis with the inaugural appearance of “Captain Triumph” in issue 27 (January 1943). The covers were drawn primarily by Gill Fox and George Brenner, who was an early editor for Quality. (There is no question but had Fine drawn the covers, as well as the stories for the Black Condor, that these books would be on everyone’s “want list”. The Gerber Photo-Journal can only go so far. Reproduction of a few of the interior pages of these scarce books- particularly the wonderful page from issue 6- hopefully will fuel the interest of all golden age collectors in this character and title. Note the splash page for issue 12 is “reversed” and used as the cover for issue 14.)
Although The Black Condor, as a character, is only of marginal import, his principal artist, Louis K. Fine, is not. The first twenty four adventures were primarily drawn by Lou Fine. Fine was, unquestionably, one of the finest of the golden age artists. Each of his covers he created (usually through the Iger-Eisner Shop or, later, on staff at Quality) are classic in composition and draftsmanship. Clearly, there are the dynamic and busy Schomberg covers created for Timely, Nedor and others. There are the powerful covers of Kirby and Simon, the Rockwellesque covers of Flessel, the whimsical cartoony covers of Cole and Beck and the beautifully rendered covers by Raboy. However, there is something that is intrinsically alluring and intoxicating about the elegant and lyrical covers of Lou Fine.
Fine received his art training at New York’s Grand Central Art School and Pratt Institute. He originally worked out of the Eisner-Iger shop where he produced some of his earliest work for Fiction House and Jumbo Comics under the name “Jack Cortez”. (check out the covers for Jumbo 9 and 10 or some of the marvelous Planet Comics covers). He also drew “The Flame” for Fox Publications under the name “Basil Berold”. For Fox he created many memorable covers, including Wonderworld 3-12, Science 1-3, Wierd Comics 1, Fantastic Comics 1-5 and Mystery Men 1-6 (each with their classic covers for the respective third issue) and Mystery Men Comics 8 (his only “Blue Beetle” cover.)
After a falling-out between Eisner and Victor Fox following the “Wonderman” debacle, Fine followed Eisner as he packaged material for Everett Arnold and Quality Publications. It was here that Fine created, perhaps, the finest series of golden age covers ever- Hit Comics 1-17. (Interestingly, while the early Quality covers usually would display side circle portraits of the other characters found within the issue, Arnold gave Fine the full cover for his Hit Comics covers.)
William Eisner, for whom Fine initially worked, stated, “I had respect for his towering kind of draftsmanship. He was the epitome of the honest draftsman.” Perhaps the most telling commentary about the quality and impact of Fine’s work was made by Gil Kane:
A great event in my life was the purchase of a Fox
published book called Wonderworld Comics 3.
It was the first time I ever saw the artwork of
Louie Fine, who did the cover for that issue. It
absolutely changed my life....I went crazy over
Lou’s stuff. Lou Fine was one of the few I feel
comfortable saying was a major influence for me.
What most don’t realize is that all the rest of the
comic publishing community were literally slaves
waiting for each new issue of anything Fine would
do...as an instructional course in “how to do” comics.
The combination of an early golden age character crafted by a master artist, make the Black Condor issues of Crack Comics a must for any true golden age fan.
©Jon Berk 1995 and 2009, All Rights Reserved.