Sunday, July 29, 2018

Manly Wade Wellman's Lee Granger, Jungle King!

I began talking about Manly Wade Wellman yesterday. As noted there, he worked for a while in the comic book industry. Fawcett Comics were his patrons and he did a number of text stories (some about Captain Marvel) plus a number of comic book heroes.

As I've been using this blog to occasionally feature Angola in the Comics, when I first learned Wellman had been born in Angola I wondered if any of his comic books touched upon that background. And as it turns out, he did write a jungle adventure hero character for Fawcett!

The hero in question is Lee Granger, Jungle King who appeared in every issue of Slam-Bang Comics: #1-7 (1940). When the series ended he popped up in Master Comics #7-10 (1940-41), then entered comic book limbo. Slam-Bang Comics was populated entirely by action-adventure heroes and, as comics history has always been biased towards super heroes, none of the characters featured in Slam-Bang Comics went on to fame.

The Grand Comics Database credits Wellman as authoring the first Lee Granger story (Slam-Bang Comics #1) and he said in an interview that it was the first script he ever sold to Fawcett, but none of the stories featured creator credits (or story titles for that matter) and no one is certain whether or not Wellman wrote the other tales. The art is thought to have been done by Jack Binder, but not confirmed. Essentially, these are anonymous comic book stories. The Digital Comic Museum has all of Lee Granger's appearances so I've just read through them all. You may have questions about the material:

Well, how about it? Is Lee Granger, Jungle King set in Angola? Nope. In fact it's set in a very generic kind of fantasy-land-Africa.

That's too bad. But are there interesting flashes of insight about Africa, as you'd expect from someone who was born there? No, no more so than any other jungle adventure hero series. The author might as well have been born in Alaska.

Okay. But it isn't racist, is it? Er, it's about as racist as any other comic book from 1940-41.

You're depressing me. Why even bother looking back at Lee Granger? Oh, there's a good reason: it is the weirdest jungle hero series I've ever read!

WOW! Weider than Fletcher Hanks' Fantomah? ...I meant, it is the second-weirdest jungle hero series I've ever read!

With that out of the way, let's go!

Above is the masthead for the first story and it shows you how Lee will be depicted for pretty much all of his adventures - bare-chested and clad in blue jodhpurs. We open on "noted scientist-explorer" Lee flying over "Africa's most dangerous jungle" unaware Arabs who are trying to protect their secret slaving operations have planted a time bomb on his plane. The Arab slave trade in Africa was pretty much over by 1940 but boy, it lived on a lot longer in pulps and comic books. Anyway, the bomb explodes and shatters the plane into pieces, yet leaves Lee unscathed. He has no parachute but improvises one using his jacket. That doesn't sound too likely to me, but all of this is waaaay more believable than what's to follow.

Alighting on the ground, he's confronted by a tribe of pygmies. Pushing aside the chief's spear, the spear's tip brushes against the chief's chest and poisons him. Granger works quickly to save the chief by lancing out the poison. "You are no white devil - but a white friend." says the chief. The pygmies invite Lee back to their village but the huts are too small for Lee. Lee builds himself a house from hand-crafted bricks (no idea how long it took him to do this; having built brick buildings in Africa myself, that should be the better part of a week) and the pygmies, impressed by his "wisdom" ask him for lessons. He teaches them how to domesticate zebras (quite a feat! zebras are notoriously difficult to domesticate) and how to forge iron (no idea what their spear-heads were made of previously). Then with "the acid, and these parts made from various metals, we will have electricity." Yes, within no time, Lee Granger has built electrical devices out of nothing. Soon the entire village has been revamped into brick homes and a flag with a large 'G' flies over Lee's home. Credit where due: the pygmies don't speak in any kind of 'Negro' dialogue popular in stories like these, nor are they drawn with the 'big lip' style found in other Fawcett comics such as Captain Marvel. The pygmies are more problematic in that they're physically inferior to Lee - drawn like children. It's a bit patronizing and emasculating. But let's keep going...

One day a lion attacks a pygmy. Lee saves the pygmy and ties up the lion. Bringing him to his laboratory, Lee hooks up the lion to a machine and runs electrical currents through its body. "This lion will be almost human." Lee claims. How on Earth can he know that? What is this machine? How could he possibly have built from scratch something sophisicated enough to increase an animal's intelligence to human levels? Darned if I know; but it works: the lion can speak! The now-intelligent lion takes the name Eric; he will be Lee's supporting cast going forward.

Anyway, the Arab slavers from the beginning of the tale return, but Lee, Eric and the pygmies vanquish them. The pygmy chief offers to guide Lee out of the jungle but Lee intends to remain. "Then we shall make you our king!" says the chief. Hence the series' subtitle: 'Jungle King.' And so ends the first story.

I won't go into as much detail about the other stories, especially as I have no idea whether Wellman authored them. In Slam-Bang Comics #2, the daughter of a consul general in 'Sudana' (Sudan?) is held prisoner by the bandit Boko tribe. Lee and Eric save her and the pygmies declare "We shall make her our queen!" but instead Lee returns her to her home. This establishes a pattern for future stories as Lee is constantly meeting attractive Caucasian women in the jungle, then parting ways without so much as a chaste kiss.

But now we're at Slam-Bang Comics #3 my friends and this - this is where it gets truly wild. This is the only time Lee Granger rated the front cover for one of his appearances and it might be the best of all Lee Granger stories; not saying much, right? The villains, who you can make out on the cover, are called the Djinn (after Jinn) and these bat-like humanoids threaten this month's lady-in-distress Ameera, a lost Arab girl (the demonizing of Arab men while lusting for Arab women is a well-worn trope of Orientalism). Ameera's father and tribe were all wiped out by the Djinn, so Lee prepares his pygmies for combat, arming them with anti-air weapons (spear-launchers) and a one-man aircraft (called a "flying suit") which allows Lee to battle the Djinn mid-air with his sword and shield. At this point, Lee building a flying suit from scratch should be small potatoes next to giving Eric human-level intelligence, right? But he's about to top it.

The Djinn overwhelm Lee and carry him away as a prisoner. Ameera plans to save him with another flying suit which she somehow knows about. But Ameera doesn't intend to wear this flying suit herself - she equips Eric with it. Yeah, the talking lion is now a talking, flying lion!!! The Djinn's king offers to let Granger live if he gives them his scientific secrets. Granger refuses, of course, and Ameera & Eric fly in to save Lee at the last moment. Ameera hands Lee a pistol and he shoots the king dead with one shot. And then, because this is the last page of the story, the Djinn are just... beaten. Without the king I guess the rest of the Djinn just... don't matter?

Onward to Slam-Bang Comics #4. This time we have a small party of white people exploring the jungle when the warlike Kolu tribe attack, kill one of their party and take the remaining two prisoner (need I even mention one of the two is a beautiful white woman?). Lee and Eric head to the rescue because "It's our duty to save them, Eric. They're white people." I guess as a white guy it is kind of his mess to clean up, but the implication is that Lee wouldn't feel duty-bound to involve himself if the prisoners were anything other than white? Anyway, Lee saves the man and woman from the Kolus and helps continue their expedition, battling giant a giant gorilla. Finally they arrive at a series of ruins which they wanted to explore. This leads to a particularly bad piece of comics storytelling which I've presented above. In the first panel, the woman tries to open a door; in the second, the ceiling collapses. Without the text, you can't really tell what's happening. The doorway is just barely in frame in the first panel and the wall is just a featureless void. In the second panel, you'd assume the door and wall had exploded, not that the ceiling had fallen in. Comic books were still a young format in 1940, but comics storytelling itself wasn't; this sort of lousy storytelling is what helped ensure comic books would continue to be considered inferior to comic strips.

Slam-Bang Comics #5 pits Lee against two white hunters who want to capture Eric, as a talking lion is quite a novelty. The most notable information here is that the pygmy chief finally gets a name: Jabor. (hopefully not as a corruption of 'jabber') There's a rare appearance by a female pygmy, but for some reason all the pygmies in this story are coloured Caucasian - but the Kolus reappear and are still brown. In Slam-Bang Comics #6 we return to the kind of high fantasy camp of the Djinn story as Lee and his white-woman-of-the-month battle a woman leading an army of massive ants. In the end, Lee's ally kills the queen of the ants; on the one hand, that's a bad ass moment for a woman in a 1940 comic book; on the other hand, it's mostly done out of expediency to keep Lee from murdering a woman.

Slam-Bang Comics #7's white-woman-of-the-month is a news reporter looking for a story on Lee. I kind of like the above panel because of how non-chalant Eric is. "I was waiting for you." I'd like to imagine Eric's voice has a very flat vocal register.

Anyway, moving to Lee's new home, in Master Comics #7 the villains are the Leopard Men, Africans dressed in animal skins (likely inspired by the Leopard Society). A white woman who commands an army of elephants calls for Lee's help and there are a few notable moments... like Eric 'talking' to an elephant (we only see Eric's side of the conversation) and the above sequence where the artist suddenly attempted to channel one of Jack Kirby's inventive page layouts by depicting a Leopard Man hurled between panel borders by the elephants. At least the art is improving!

Master Comics #8 pits Lee against gold plunderers and Jabor gets a moment of heroics by blowing up the plunderers' camp with dynamite. Master Comics #9 again pits Lee against the Kolus as they build a dam to try and starve the pygmies. Finally, we get to Master Comics #10, wherein the feature is dubbed 'Jungle King,' no longer prefacing Lee's name. Appropriately, this final story looks back to the first one as Lee has rebuilt the engine from his plane. Using a newly-discovered oil well on the pygmies' land (oil and gold? those pygmies should be living large-- er, living comfortably today) Lee builds a new airplane. Never mind that a few months ago we saw Lee had built two flying suits for himself and Eric, building this new airplane is treated as a big deal. "From the air we can patrol the rgion better," Eric notes, as though they had no means of aerial surveillance. But for this final month we have a new kind of enemy for Lee to face -- very hazily-defined Europeans! Yep, by this period the comics were beginning to stand up to the fascists in Europe but weren't quite ready to call them out by name. The artist on this final story seems to be a completely different person than whoever did the previous 10 stories.

The story in Master Comics #10 ended by asserting Lee and Eric would return in the next issue of Master Comics. They didn't. They have never appeared again. And, sure, good riddance to them. These were some lazily-crafted and lazily-drawn stories, no question about it. But man, when this series went wild, as in the Djinn story, it had some promise. If the series had embraced a little more weirdness, who knows - it could have been a diamond in the rough. As it is, it's not as bad as some comic book stories of the time and genre. The talking lion Eric is appealing. That's about all I can say in its favour.

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