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Robotman and Jimmy Thompson: Golden Age Comics' Best-Kept Secret

Robotman and Robot Dog Comic Book Scans 02

“Jimmy Thompson: Golden Age Comics' Best-Kept Secret”
by Guest Blogger Frank M. Young

It's my pleasure to offer the first in a series of guest postings for Cartoon SNAP! You may have seen my blog Stanley Stories, which is devoted to the works of John Stanley, whom I consider to be comics' greatest writer. Sherm has asked me to write a post on Stanley. I'll certainly do that one soon. For my first post here, I'd like to discuss one of the hidden treasures of 1940s comic books: writer-artist Jimmy Thompson.

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Part One:
Who Was Jimmy Thompson?

Thompson, a former newspaper-strip artist, had worked anonymously on several syndicated features for the Philadelphia Ledger, including the pioneering Sunday feature "Hairbreadth Harry." Thompson entered comic books in their infancy. His first features were serious, well-told accounts of Native American life and culture. In this vein, he created what is, arguably, the first graphic novel, the 64-page Red Eagle, for publisher David McKay in mid-1938.

The American West would inform a few other comics series from Thompson's pen and brush. His greatest volume of published work, as with many other 1940s comic book artists, was in the super-hero genre. Thompson worked for Timely, Fawcett, DC and Famous Funnies in the '40s. His artwork can be found on features such as "Mary Marvel," "The Human Torch," "The Angel" and "Sub-Mariner." Flashes of Thompson's individuality peek out from his pre-"Robotman" work for Timely and Fawcett. As their comics were, by and large, assembly-line production, it was tough for any single artist to stand out.

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Thompson's entry in the super-hero world occurred when the genre was in a rut. By 1943, the comic-book industry was in high gear. Demand for comics by servicemen pushed publishers to increase their output--and to cut corners. Quantity, not quality, was the order of the day. The medium's great formal innovators were at war (Will Eisner, Jack Kirby), distanced from their creations (Siegel and Shuster were gone from their "Superman" feature), or settled into generic "house styles."

While this generic approach cut corners for publishers and enabled best-selling titles to appear regularly and reliably, it robbed comic books of their pre-war distinctiveness. Outstanding work still appeared. Jack Cole's output for Quality Comics got better and more confident with each passing year. Writers such as Alfred Bester and Bill Finger enlivened the super-hero genre with clever scripts. Innovative artists like Mort Meskin, Klaus Nordling, Dick Briefer, Bob Powell and Joe Kubert began to hit their stride.

As well, 1943 saw the professional debuts of two enormous writer-artist talents: Carl Barks and John Stanley. Their work fell outside the super-hero genre, but the two creators would soon click with the reading public, and remain top sellers for years to come--despite their complete anonymity. A certain dullness began to creep into super-hero comics during World War II. A de-emphasis on the wild, weird and eccentric was supplanted by patriotic propaganda. Ruts and routine became the norm for story content. The lesser writers' and artists' flaws were aggravated by the need for more product. Scanning the contents of most wartime comics can become depressing. One longs for a spark of inspiration, or distinction. It is seldom found. A strong exception to this rule is the work of Jimmy Thompson.

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When he inherited the "Robotman" feature in DC's lackluster Star-Spangled Comics anthology, he endowed the genre with charm, droll humor and powerhouse design and draftsmanship. Thompson helmed "Robotman" for the next few years.

The feature migrated to the higher-profile Detective Comics, home of Batman. Thompson worked on the strip from 1943 to 1949. Thompson continued to work for Timely during his "Robotman" tenure. He turned in a stunning 12-page "Human Torch" story for All-Select Comics #9, in 1945, that's identical to his "Robotman" stories in look and feel--right down to the stylish mechanical lettering.

-----"If I Were Robotman" from Star-Spangled #26-----

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Click on any page to open up
a HUGE hi-res Robotman comic book scan
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His work has somehow flown below the radar of most comics historians. Ron Goulart accorded him a berth in the second volume of his The Great Comic Book Artists series in 1989. One Thompson "Robotman" story appeared in DC's hardcover anthology The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told, from around the same time. Thompson's work has been nearly impossible to see.

The stories you'll have the pleasure to read today were kindly scanned by diligent, anonymous individuals who regularly scan and post old comics, of all genres, on the Internet. Without the tireless efforts of these devoted folks, most of these comics would remain unseen, except in the collections of the very rich, or of those fortunate enough to hoard them back in the 1960s and early '70s, when they could still be had for reasonable sums.

The supposed value of old comic books has, rather cruelly, banished their accessibility until recent years. DC and Marvel have published numerous expensive hardcovers of Golden Age material. These books are highly flawed, in my opinion. They are printed on glossy paper--a mistaken choice that impedes their enjoyment--given garish, unapt recolorings, and often traced or crudely reproduced. Digital scanning has, belatedly, become the standard. A few savvy publishers have recognized that matte-finish papers are the best way to properly reprint these vintage materials.

Short of holding an actual 1943 comic book in one's hands, a high-quality digital scan is the best way I know of to read this material. This is how I have become acquainted with Jimmy Thompson's work. And, as well, it's how we're able to share it with you today. For your reading pleasure over the next few posts, we’ll be sharing three of Thompson's earliest "Robotman" stories: "If I Were Robotman," from Star-Spangled #26; "A Sniff in Time" from issue #33; and "The Battle With The Beasts" from issue #36. Joe Samachson is credited as writer on these early stories, but Thompson's sensibilities transform potentially-routine scripts into something special.
--Frank Young
http://stanleystories.blogspot.com/
Text ©2009 by Frank M. Young
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UPDATE!

16 comments:

Mykal said...

Dear Frank (Care of Sherm): Best kept secret is right! I did not know this artist or his work, but this stuff is just beautiful. What gorgeous brushwork and use of shadows. Not a boring or trite panel in the bunch. Great write-up and thanks so much for the posting! I am going to see if I can hunt down some more of Thompson's work. – Mykal

Sherm said...

Hi Mykal...glad you liked the post! As far as looking for more Jimmy Thompson work, be sure to check back here because Frank's gonna be sharing a LOT of Robotman stories from his collection!

Mykal said...

Sherm: Great! I'll be watching. Love your blog, Sherm. -- Mykal

The Jerk said...

cool beans! in my early teens i drew a few comic books about a character called robotman, but they were nowhere near as cool as these are. I'm lookin' forward to seeing more of this artist's work being posted!

Paul Tumey said...

Dear Sherm and Frank: Thanks a lot for this. Great writing, as usual, Frank. And nice story selection and layout. About 30 years ago, in his HISTORY OF COMICS Vol.1, Jim Steranko called Jimmy Thompson's ROBOTOMAN "DC's most delightful strip," and "one of the comics forgotten masterpieces." Steranko says Thompson's style "looked like a combination of Jack Cole and Will Eisner.In fact, some of Thompson's work topped theirs." Well, after reading THIS high praise, I've been searching for Thompson's work for years. It's truly satisfying to find such a well-written, informative posting and a great Jimmy Thompson story on one of my favorite blogs. A salute of the metal hand to you both!

Pat said...

Amen on the entire post, from Thompson's wonderful artwork to the comics scanning community that has made it available again. There is so much terrific work from that era that has largely been forgotten.

Chris Duffy said...

I'm so happy to see these! Thanks, Frank and Shoim! Have been pursuing Thompson's Robotman comics very slowly for a few years (buying coverless issues of Detective from the 40s).

But now I've hit the jackpot thanks to youse guys.

I posted a story here a while back, and I think "Pappy" did too!

http://comicbooksareinteresting.blogspot.com/2008/06/robotman-around-world-in-24-hours-drawn.html

Chuck Wells said...

Awesome Robotman posts Sherm.

I totally agree with your comments about the glossy printing of the hardback collections that feature these old stories.

DC's recent weekly, Wednesday Comics totally proves that the ink saturation on traditional newsprint is far, far better for comic book work than the aqeous spray coating on most modern stuff. I really HATE having to continually shift the angle of too damn many current comics to read them, any lighting source in the vicinity makes reading an effort.

Why fans AND publishers prefer the slick look is beyond me.

Sherm said...

Hey Chuck...even though that was Frank writing about the paper stock, it's one of MY pet peeves, too.

The recent Jack Kirby reprints from DC are the ultimate reprint treatments...well-bound, great presentation and NEWSPRINT! It's a high-quality newsprint for sure, so the colors dont blast out at you.

That's my only disappointment with the new Jesse Marsh Tarzan reprints from Dark Horse...the glossy paper makes the color look so overly-intense that it overwhelms the Jesse Marsh brushwork!

Mykal said...

Sherm and Chuck: Couldn't agree more about glossy stock. The Marvel Omnibus series are all made negligible by the glossy paper and the over-saturated blobby color.

I think the John Stanley Library series from Drawn and Quarterly do a very nice job by comparison. -- Mykal

Sherm said...

Mykal: Those Omnibus books from Marvel seemed like a good idea...but I found that (aside from the color problems)...they're too heavy to read!

Mykal said...

Sherm: Regarding the Omnibus editions from Marvel: Yep, I had the same experience. I found that, for me, that was no way to read them comfortably - they actually made my hands ache! After reading for about fifteen minutes, and having to take a break to shake the ache from my hand, I knew it was never going to work (even if the color had been great). I stuck with it for a while, but finally gave up. Just no fun at all.

Forget about reading them in bed! I ended up selling mine (Fantastic Four volume 1) on Ebay. - Mykal

Selvatico said...

Special greetings to the creator of Cartoon SNAP Sherm Cohen and all its members.
their website is excellent.
I congratulate you.
contains excellent information.
Have a nice day.

Sherm said...

Hi Selvatico...thanks for the happy words! I sure appreciate supportive comments like yours...it gives me the energy to keep posting!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your article on JT. I have been colecting Timely super hero books from the 1940's for the past several years. It is amazing and depressing how bad some of them are! But anytime I get a book in the mail that contains a story by Thompson I know that I can be guaranteed at least one worthwhile read in the issue. Why isn't this man's work more reknowed? Steranko had it right in his History of Comics, as usual. Best. Ed

Jim Thompson said...

Well, what a surprise. Jim Thompson is actually my name, I'm a longtime comics fan (over 35 years now as a collector), and it's such a pleasure to see a namesake with such a surreal point of view. People with this name, the ones I've met in my life at least, tend to be very individualistic and creative, so this is very cool. Thanx.