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A Week of Proto-Comics

And when you are talking about proto-comic books, you’re usually talking about the pulps.

I’ve been getting a lot of pulp reprints lately. Reading Moonstone’s The Spider Chronicles collection reminded me how much I really love this stuff and as it happens the wonderful Adventure House was having a sale, so, well, I’m afraid I went on a bit of a binge.

It's like Christmas!

I’ve spoken here several times about the joys of Anthony Tollin’s excellent series of facsimile pulp reprints of The Shadow and Doc Savage, so no need to go over all that again.

Recommended without reservation! Really, I mean it. Recommended without reservation!

Seriously, you should go check these out right now. I'll wait.

But there are lots of other terrific pulp reprint publications out there as well. Of those, far and away the one I enjoy the most is John Gunnison’s wonderful High Adventure.

Made of awesome! Made of awesome! Made of awesome!

Made of AWESOME!

The reason I get such a huge kick out of High Adventure is twofold. First of all, I love its variety. The book doesn’t reprint any one particular pulp title. Instead, it rotates through a series of different characters and series so what you get is more of a cross-section of pulps in general. That’s perfect for me. I’m not a serious pulp collector, I just like reading them. I really don’t need the entire run of, say, Ki-Gor the Jungle Lord, but I enjoy seeing one every once in a while.

Ki-Gor was ostensibly the star of JUNGLE STORIES... ...yet somehow his gal pal Helene in her leopard-skin bikini somehow seemed to constantly get top billing.

Ki-Gor was the Avis of Jungle Lords... he tried harder.

Secondly, precisely because High Adventure is a series with rotating headliners, it tends to focus on the less famous hero pulps, the B-listers. If you, like me, were born too late to ever have had the chance to read the great pulp hero series in the original magazines, nevertheless you could always still get hold of the adventures of the Shadow or Doc Savage, or even the Spider or the Avenger, without too much trouble.

Good times are here again. Truthfully, the reason I like a lot of these second-tier guys is because they're so much more damaged.

But if you’d read histories of the pulps and were curious about the Green Lama or Ki-Gor or Captain Zero? Unless you could afford crumbling back issues from high-priced collectibles dealers, if you wanted to read those originals you were out of luck.

Until John P. Gunnison and High Adventure came along.

Good stuff! Well, okay, let's say bad stuff, but in a good way. It's amazing to me how many of these concepts eventually got recycled into the comics.

Since I’ve been wallowing in this stuff so much over the last week and a half or so, I thought it might be fun to talk about some of the B-listers I’ve been reading about… the various pulp hero series that never really caught on. Quite a few of them, believe it or not, even made the transition from pulps to comics– or at least, they tried to.


A recent addition to the High Adventure rotation pleased me a great deal because, like so many other pulp fans of my generation, I’d only read about Captain Future, but never actually run across any of his adventures myself.

Worth the wait? Well... KIND of.

Captain Future was the brainchild of Mort Weisinger, back in 1940, and most of his adventures over the next eleven years would be scripted by the great Edmond Hamilton. The Captain got to headline his own magazine for some of that time, but for the last few years of his run he was relegated to the pages of Startling Stories.

Like Doc Savage.... but in the FUTURE!! Let's not let physics interfere with the need to have a hot chick in a swimsuit on the cover, now.

Kind of got a Captain Comet fashion thing going on, doesn't he?

Basically, Captain Future’s story begins when super-scientist Roger Newton, his wife Elaine, and his brilliant colleague Simon Wright leave Earth to do research in an isolated laboratory on the moon. Simon’s body is dying, so Roger transplants Simon’s healthy brain into an artificial floating case. Working together, the two scientists create an intelligent robot called Grag, and a shape-shifting android named Otho. Then criminal scientist Victor Kaslan arrives on the moon and murders the Newtons.

The deaths of the Newtons leave their son, Curtis, to be raised by the unlikely trio of Otho, Grag, and Simon Wright (now referred to as the Living Brain). Thanks to this oddball parenting from two cranky robots and a brain in a jar, Curtis Newton grows up to be a brilliant scientist and a champion athlete. Vowing to help humanity, he takes on the name Captain Future and travels the galaxy righting wrongs.

I’d heard about Captain Future from reading interviews with Edmond Hamilton, beginning with the long one that Byron Preiss ran in Weird Heroes volume 6 back in the seventies.

Story continues below

I love this book so much. You ever notice how these SF masters all look like they're just having the greatest time, even if they look a hundred years old?

Edmond Hamilton's pulp career was pretty amazing.

The stories sounded like enormous fun back then, and though it took me the better part of thirty-five years to get around to actually reading one, I think I’ll stand by that. They are a lot of fun.

It’s basically Doc Savage in space. Fast-paced galactic adventure with a heroic lead and comedy sidekicks. The robot Grag and the android Otho even bicker like Monk and Ham — or like C-3P0 and R2D2, if you prefer. (George Lucas can talk in interviews about mythology and the hero’s journey as much as he likes, but those of us who actually know about pulps and comics can tell you exactly where Star Wars came from.)

Captain Future, as far as I know, never made it to comics — but he did score in cartoons.

Kind of curious to see this now -- sources say it's pretty close to Hamilton's originals.

In 1978 a Japanese firm, Toei Animation, produced fifty-two episodes of Captain Future. I haven’t seen them but the word is that it was a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the original pulp premise, though with all-new stories.

Interestingly, in the 1940s there was also a comic called “Captain Future” that ran in Startling Comics, produced by the same outfit that published the pulp magazine Startling Stories — but all they took was the name. It’s not the galaxy-spanning Hamilton hero.

Not my guy.

Not my guy.

So I don’t think that technically counts as making the full transition to comics… though of course the Captain’s creators had a huge influence on comics. A lot of concepts originally created for Captain Future found their way into the Weisinger-edited, Hamilton-scripted run on Superman in the 1960s, especially when Superman began to range across all time and space over the course of his adventures.

Time travel to meet one's parents, a shrunken city in a bottle, and telepathic hounds -- and that's ONE PAGE.

Time travel to meet one's parents, a shrunken city in a bottle, and telepathic hounds -- and that's ONE PAGE.

So even if the galaxy-spanning Captain didn’t quite make the leap from the pulps to comic books, nevertheless I think his spirit hangs over much of the Silver Age at DC.


Well, this is getting a bit long, so I think we’ll come back to it again next week. Join me and Jim Anthony Super-Detective, Captain Zero, the Green Lama, and a couple of other pulp-era B-listers that kind of almost found their way into the comics pages as well. See you then.


The All-Smelling Nose of Agamotto

March 6, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Really enjoyed that!

John Gunnison, right?

Captain Future did make it into comics only with a name change, he became Major Mars in Exciting Comics along with his robot Grag. The first story was pretty much an adaptation of one of the pulps. The company’s Black Bat made it into comics as the Mask, avoiding further trouble with Batman. Their Phantom Detective made it pretty much intact. Their Ghost/Green Ghost stage magician/detective hero became a full-fledged magic-caster hero called the Ghost.

A few other B & C listers, Secret Agent X became X, the Phantom Fed and at least one of the stories being an adaptation of his pulp adventures. The Moon Man meanwhile traded in his argus globe headgear to become the Raven.

While the Avenger appeared in Street & Smith’s comics, his adventure “The Skywalker” was lifted to appear in Rocket Comics #2 by Hillman with the Avenger being changed to the Defender (interestingly two names used for teams by Marvel) along with name changes for his aides.

That was a nice article, Greg. I wonder what pulps would read like if they were written today. More ironic self-awareness, maybe.

John Gunnison, right?

John P. Which is what I’d have sworn is what I typed. Fixed now.

I wonder what pulps would read like if they were written today.

Like this, or this, or maybe this.

I had no idea you could survive in space wearing just a brass bikini and a bubble over your head! I’ve got to try that sometime.

It never occured to me that lead could block telepathy, but now it seems so obvious.

I’ve never read any Pulp, aside from old science fiction stories (the ones from magazines like Astounding and Amazing, not the Captain Future-type). It looks like I’ve missed a lot of fun.

I love this stuff. It was what was fun about science fiction.

Ethan Shuster

March 7, 2010 at 8:41 am

I like to see how these old artists can draw hot women without giant breasts and thong-ass in your face…

Thanks to Ed Love for that great comment. I’d love to see a compilation of the pulp stories along with their comic adaptations, name change or not. Too bad the rights issues would probably be a nightmare for the potential publisher. Then again, I imagine rights to either would be cheap unless the character or characters (if there was a name change) still have substantial value as a property and isn’t in the public domain.

Don Hutchinson’s THE GREAT PULP HEROES is a great source for analysis and info on the pulp heroes, both famous (Doc Savage, The Spider, G-8, Operator#5) and obscure (The Whisperer, the Green Ghost, the Skull Killer).By the way, Greg, Hutchinson would beg to differ with you regarding the lack of finer literary qualities in the Spider. To his way of thinking, the Spider had the most psychological depth of ant pulp hero.

Hey Greg, what about proto-proto comic book heroes? Characters like Frank L. Packard’s Jimmy Dale, alias the Gray Seal? The Gray SEal was a major influence on both the Shadow and the Spider, and the adventures of the Gray SEal are available on Gutenberg. They are also a lot of fun.

Great. Thanks. Something else to suck up my time and money… :-)

I’ll have to track down some High Adventure. I’m still in the midst of a personal R.E. Howard revival thanks to your Solomon Kane post. Have you read the Arvid Nelson and Will Conrad adaptation of “The Shadow Kingdom” from Dark Horse? I liked it as much or possibly a little more than the publisher’s “Castle of the Devil”. I haven’t looked online too hard, but I’m hoping that their planning more Kull…

Anyway, thanks as always for a cool column!

Haven’t read the new Kane yet because I’m a trade paperback guy these days, mostly…. but it’ll be here eventually.

Something I neglected to mention about High Adventure is the price — most of the back issues are $7.95, and right now a bunch of them are on sale for $3, including one with Captain Future. Hence the binge.

I believe the price for new ones finally went up to $9.95, which is still pretty good.

Ahh, I was a little convoluted writing that paragraph – was asking about the Kull story that’s out in trade…I’m waiting on the new Kane, too. Sorry bout that, but the recommendation stands.

Trade waiting probably answers this, too, but – thoughts on First Wave? The first issue was mostly set-up, but the vibe feels appropriate for a pulp “universe”, and Morales’ art is perfect for it. I’m not sure how successful this will be from a business perspective, but I’m interested (particularly in the Paul Malmont/Howard Porter Doc Savage ongoing).

Thanks for the link directly to the sale page – time to do some shopping!

“Capitaine Flam”, the japanese cartoon you mentionned, is HU-UUUU-GE in France, very very famous.
It use to run on the french TV in the early eighties, along with Captain Harlock and other Japanese stuff.
And it is still very well-remembered and loved by people from my generation (i’m 31), and it definitively has a place of its own in France’s popular culture today.

I did know it was inspired by something, but did not know the what and how ; so thanks very much, that was a very cool article !

Great work !

Great article, Greg. Love seeing the pulps get some attention these days — and Adventure House is an amazing source of classic pulps. Excited to see what you’ll write about the Green Lama as I’m currently working on new stories for him for Airship27 Productions. If you’d like to check out one our books I can easily send you one!


Glad to see someone else out there taking the time to show their love for all these great old pulp characters. I had to laugh though, as some of those very same issues of High Adventure you posted up there will soon be reviewed on my own pulp fiction site.

Synchronicity is a weird thing, eh?

Whatever the case, I think it’s great that these old school characters get some love!

What issue of Superman is that page from? I must own it.

Yea the cartoon of Captain Futur was called Captain Flame in french. I grew up with this stuff. Great stuff. There was several imaginative made-for-France anime that were created in Japan for the french market. And it channeled through other french-speaking countries.

[…] A Week of Proto-comics: The fine people over at Comics Should Be Good! are focusing energy this week on all the great pre-comics heroes of the pulp era. Some of those characters will be making appearances in Pulp Empire (you will have to wait to see who)! […]

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