So I’ve been reading some Slam Bradley the last few days. Regular readers might recall that I did a piece on Detective Comics #1 last week, which I read in lieu of reading that ten-dollar monstrosity that was issue 1000. It was fun and insightful, filling in a gap in my funnybook knowledge, but Slam Bradley was the one strip that really stuck out to me as something special. So I continued dipping into the early Detective Comics, just to read it. And I thought that, since it’s the comic I’ve had the most fun with in the last week (and since I’m running too far behind to get a regular column done), I’d share some highlights with you.
Heh. And she does, too. Slam is everything she says, and a womanizing ne’er-do-well to boot! That’s from the second Slam Bradley story, in Detective Comics #2. But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves, here.
Slam Bradley was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a year before the first appearance of Superman, and a few months after they created Dr. Occult. But Slam wasn’t solely theirs. He was suggested to them by Detective Comics editor Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in a letter soliciting their services to help fill the pages of his new magazine, a startling concept featuring all-new material connected by a single theme: detective stories. For this bold funnybook publishing initiative, Wheeler-Nicholson requested…
“a detective hero called ‘Slam Bradley’. He is to be an amateur, called in by the police to help unravel difficult cases. He should combine both brains and brawn, be able to think quickly and reason cleverly and able as well to slam bang his way out of a bar room brawl or mob attack. Take every opportunity to show him in a torn shirt with swelling biceps and powerful torso ala Flash Gordon.”
Siegel and Shuster took elements of Wheeler-Nicholson’s basic idea, but really made it their own, injecting liberal doses of humor into the strip and turning Slam into less of a “brains and brawn” type and more of a “punching his way through life” sort of character. Take the splash page for that second Slam story, for instance:
That scene was issue one’s “next issue” blurb, of course, but I repeat it here in color to give you a taste of what these early Slam Bradley strips were like. Which is to say, completely insane. Why is Slam engaging in FISTIC BATTLE with a steel worker? NO ONE KNOWS — OR CARES!
I wish I could tell you that the entire story was these two beating the hell out of each other in increasingly creative ways… But, no. We’ve joined the battle in-progress, and Slam lands the final punch in the first panel of the second page. The two men part company, both happy to have found such a good fight. But (PLOT TWIST!) only two panels later, Pete Graves has been murdered! And Slam (having been seen in FISTIC BATTLE with the man only hours earlier) is the primary suspect! By the end of page two, we’re ankle-deep in a murder mystery, and Slam has tossed Graves’ lawyer out the door of the police commissioner’s office.
This is the point where a lot of these early Slam Bradleys go wrong: the focus shifts for a few too many pages to Slam’s comedy sidekick Shorty, who winds up doing most of the detective work while Slam’s off somewhere else punching stuff. In this one, Shorty discovers that the “lawyer” is actually the front man for a “racketeering union” who murdered Graves to scare the other steel workers into joining their organization. Meanwhile, Slam is confronted (read: shot at) by Graves’ sister, who really thinks Slam killed her brother. That’s her up top there, after Slam has disarmed her. After she pulls another gun out of her dress (!), Slam races off, rescues Shorty, tosses a thug to his death off an under-construction skyscraper, and gets the fake union boss to confess under similar duress.
Detective #3 sees Slam being drawn by guest artist Jim Bettersworth. His more cartoony style suits the strip well enough, but other than a pretty awesome splash page, the story’s kind of forgettable.
Much better is issue four, in which Slam and Shorty get offered $25.000 to go to Hollywood and become stunt men. Things get fishy pretty quickly, as the driver who picks them up at the airport tries to kidnap them, but Slam (of course) tosses him bodily out of the car while it’s driving down the street. They go on to the movie studio anyway, though, where Shorty works in comedy shorts while Slam is slated to perform as the stunt double for a Tarzan-style jungle lord. His first meeting with the leading man… doesn’t go well.
While this is going on, there are several attempts on Shorty’s life, and he eventually discovers that the studio head has been murdered and replaced by a disguised double. The story kicks into high gear in its last three pages as, captured by the killer, Shorty tries a desperate ploy that depends on his pal Slam’s good nature…
So, yes. Slam is both an ill-tempered thug AND an unstoppable force of forward motion. Too funny.
It’s worth noting the page layouts in that sequence, I think. Wheeler-Nicholson’s original proposal to Siegel and Shuster called for eight-panel pages, but the team was so much in demand that they cut that down to six or less to save time. Often, that meant they had to explain between-panel action in narrative captions, rather than drawing it, but they were hardly the only cartoonists in Detective who were filling storytelling gaps that way, so I can’t fault them for it too much. Even at a breezy (for this era) 12-pages, it’s hard to fit everything in.
But the lower panel counts also allowed them to experiment with layout, playing with page-wide panels and turning in pages like that car chase bit, with its panoramic view of the surrounding cliffs. It’s more exciting, action-oriented stuff than you see in a lot of Golden Age comics, and it makes Slam Bradley stand out from its competition in Detective. Most of those strips follow the higher panel count more stringently, so while you occasionally get a great Speed Saunders splash like this one…
…most of it’s pretty staid-looking stuff.
Detective Comics #5 gives us what may be my favorite of these early Slam Bradley strips. It starts on this strangely homo-erotic note…
…which looks like it’s going to lead the bloodthirsty Slam toward other old grudges.
But, no. Slam just wants to see his old teacher for sentimental reasons. When she finds out that he’s a detective, however, he gets roped into helping with a mysterious string of school locker break-ins. And before you know it, Our Heroes are undercover, Shorty as a student (because a 30-year-old dwarf can always pass as a middle-schooler) and Slam as a teacher. It… goes about as well as you’d expect.
It was about this time that I started reading all of Slam’s dialogue as Moe Howard, which upped the comedy quotient tremendously. And it only gets funnier, as we get an astoundingly crackpot science teacher…
…and a bunch of thugs who make Slam look like Albert Einstein. Or maybe that’s Mahatma Gandhi…
HEH. I really love that one thug’s phonetic dialogue. It’s cliché as all hell, but it reads smooth.
Things go about where you’d expect from there. Shorty gets the goods on the bad guys, and Slam punches them into submission. I do like the reason they’re breaking into lockers, though: one of them ran into the school when he was on the lam from some cops and stashed the loot from a bank robbery into one of the lockers … but he doesn’t know which one. Which is bad sit-com writing, I know. But in the world of Slam Bradley, it works.
Detective Comics #6 takes Slam and Shorty to Mexico, where they rescue a gold mine operator from some bandits. It’s got all the “Frito Bandito” level dialogue you might expect from a 1937 funnybook, and some weirdly racist coloring on the Mexican characters. Their skin is colored a respectful shade of brown, but in some panels Shuster inexplicably chose to “color them in,” covering their faces with ink lines, presumably to make them look darker. It’s not an effect I feel the need to demonstrate here, but it’s pretty weird.
Honestly, this entry is a bit bland on the whole, and I might not have discussed it at all if it weren’t for two panels that capture everything I love about Slam Bradley:
That’s right: Slam Bradley is a jerk, but he’s also so manly that he can yank a man off a horse moving at full gallop!
So there you have it: the most fun I’ve had reading comics all week. And I’m not alone in my admiration, either: Slam Bradley ran for 119 consecutive issues of Detective Comics, with a smattering of stories after that ranging all the way to issue 152. At that point, he was replaced with “Roy Raymond, TV Detective” (which sounds way lamer). But that’s still quite a record. Slam appeared in more issues of Detective Comics than any character other than Batman (to whom he became a back-up feature after the success of issue 27).
Joe Shuster moved on as artist eventually, and later artists didn’t bring quite the same sense of frenetic action to the strip. Which doesn’t mean there weren’t still some striking entries in the series, as this Howard Sherman splash from Detective #58 shows:
Pretty cool. But still… Any Slam Bradley story that doesn’t open with him punching somebody in the face just seems wrong to me, somehow.
I think one reason I like this strip so much is how I see it reflected in so many of my modern-day favorites. There’s a bit of Slam in Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot, for instance…
…or Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman.
And, of course, Eric Powell’s Goon owes a huge debt to Slam, as well.
So I guess you could say that I’ve had Slam Bradley hard-coded into my favorites for a long time now. No wonder I’m finding it such a revelation.
Alright. Thanks for indulging me in this dip into the Golden Age. I hope you enjoyed it, and we’ll get back to more recent comics next time.