Monday, June 11, 2018

BLACK CAT by Lee Elias

Thanks to a few collections from Gwandanaland Comics, I've been catching up with the Black Cat, the self-proclaimed "Darling of the Comics" and a mainstay of the Harvey Comics line-up for well over a decade starting in 1941.

The Black Cat is a masked and costumed vigilante who is, during daylight hours, Linda Turner, former stunt woman and Hollywood star. Most of the stories use the movie business as a backdrop as the Cat foils smugglers, thieves, murders and commies. In one story she rescues a screenwriter based on Dalton Trumbo from a Red cabal. Talk about fantasy!

When she's not knocking the daylights out of criminals with her whip or throwing them for a loop with her judo skills, Linda is involved with her own career and participating in wiseacre banter with Rick Horne, her Hollywood journalist boyfriend. But Rick has the hots for Black Cat who never seems to stick around long enough for him to make a play. Of course, Rick has NO idea that Linda and the Black Cat are one in the same. Some journalist!

Only Linda's dad, former silent western star Tim Turner knows her secret. And he's mostly amused by his daughter's antics though he occasionally lends a hand when things get tight. 

Another regular cast member is DePille, a temperamental director of foreign extraction who can be expected to fly into a tizzy of malapropisms at the drop of a clapboard. He is obviously based on the character actor S.Z. Sakall.
 Image result for s.k. sakall
S.Z. Sakall

B.C. also picked up a sidekick later in the series called the Black Kitten. His origin is nearly identical to Dick Grayson's, a young circus performer from a  family of aerialists. He is orphaned when the circus he works for is burnt down by an arsonist. He swiftly uncovers Black Cat's secret and joins her in her crusade to rid show business of crooks and swindlers. 

Hollywood actors are frequently used in the stories in either humorous cameos or actual participants in the capers. The actors are never called by name but the likenesses and personalities are unmistakable. In one outing, Edward G. Robinson is enlisted to aid in uncovering an art fraud ring, Robinson being famous as a fine art aficionado. 

In addition to crime-busting romps, each  issue includes humor stories about Linda'e everyday life as a movie star and her whirlwind social life. And often there are biography features of Hollywood stars as well as instructional pages where Black Cat shares her judo secrets. 

It's not hard to see why the comic and character enjoyed the success they did during their long run at Harvey. The stories are light and breezy and, though most often one silly contrivance after another, consistently entertaining with appealing characters and an internal logic all their own. All-in-all, well crafted comics that invite the reader back for more.

The unifying factor here though is the comics legend Lee Elias. For most of her later run, Elias provided the art for almost every Black Cat story and feature. Sometimes inked by John Belfi. Elias would move on to  DC Comics' Green Arrow and the comic strips (Beyond Mars, for one) after that and eventually do extensive work on Warren Publishing's The Rook

His art style falls firmly in the Milt Caniff/Frank Robbins school. Heavy use of spot blacks and attention to detail and definite 'cartoonist' feel. Not for nothing was Elias the a regular artist on Harvey's own Terry and the Pirates comics. Black Cat, thanks to Elias, features some of the best comics art of this period. His storytelling is always evocative and clear. He simply never makes a false step. Each panel moves the story forward and is perfectly meshed with the once-over-lightly tone of these stories. It's safe to say that he is the reason these stories succeed. I have to wonder how many of these stories he wrote himself. Elias was a solid writer in his own right and most of these stories show his sensibilities. There's only the rare disconnect between the script and art that makes me think that other hands were at work on the writing end. 

If you're interested, Gwandaland publishes some big fat collections of Black Cat scanned directly from the comics:

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