Saturday, April 25, 2009

Alden McWilliams in Spaaaaaaaace!

Corbett in (Four) Colors
Ger Apeldoorn has been doing us the favor of reprinting stories from Mort Meskin's Tom Corbett: Space Cadet comic books. As he mentioned, Dell published its own series of Tom Corbett books, beginning with three issues in its Four Color series (#s 378,400. and 421), then continuing as a quarterly series series for eight more issues.

The regular series is usually dismissed because the stories were dull and the artwork weak. Both charges are largely correct. They were drawn in one of those competent but deadly dull leftover- Golden-Age styles. Unlike the Four Color issues, the series stories quickly dumped the show's Outer Space trappings. The cadets' spaceship was just a convenient way to travel to a distant planet. Once there they acted out a generic fantasy adventure that could as easily have starred Tarzan or Turok. In at least one issue they didn't even make it back to the ship before the mandatory closing joke.

However they did have great cover paintings! Here's the one from issue four.

The Four Color issues were another matter. They were drawn by Alden McWilliams, legendary Raymond-school illustrator who drew thousands of pages of comic books and strips, ghosted for everyone in the universe, painted for galleries, yet never managed to be listed among the "big guys" by comics fans.

Alone among 1950s space comic artists, McWilliams played up the lack of up and down in space. His spacemen stand upside down or sideways on the hulls of their ships, casting long shadows suggesting the high-contrast lighting writers used to tell us we'd find beyond Earth's atmosphere. His interiors were less imaginative: the engine room looks like that of an earthside steamship. But that wasn't unusual; pulp magazines had only just died out, and their pipe-and-bolt science-fiction tradition was still strong.

The stories were by Paul S. Newman, that incredibly prolific writer of increasingly-bland comics stories. His Corbett stories weren't that bad, and they exploited common kids' s-f themes: space pirates, space colonists, and space battles. They were certainly more space-specific than the series stories. They were extra-long, like many Dells of the period. The story filled not only the 32 interior pages but also the inside (in b&w) and outside back covers. I hated that as a kid. If a friend traded you a coverless copy you never got to see how the story ended!

Here are some sample pages from issue 400. I found them thanks to a comment from "tom" on Ger's blog. They came from the wide-ranging collection at Comicsworld ( which has a wonderful collection of Four Colors. (Unfortunately they're hosted on one of those download sites that try to force you into paying for "premium" service by limiting your slow downloads to one every 15 minutes.)

The deep perspective in the last panel of the first page (page 10) really gives an impression of weightlessness and the great distances in space. It also suggests an interesting gimmick that McWilliams develops more thoroughly on a later page (page 15, seen below). He apparently figured space cannon would be heat rays. Instead of twisted ragged metal, the outcome of the ray blast above was oozing blobs of molten metal. It's a neat effect, if a bit odd. Too bad the exhaust nozzles look like holes drilled in a piece of wood.

The third sample page (page 26) shows some nice characters amongst the pirate gang, including a couple of beautiful women. Even in a squeaky-clean Dell comic, Al managed to get in some sexy babes.

If you're interested in seeing the entire book, I suggest you visit Comicsworld. 36 pages are a bit more than I want to post right now.

One nice thing about comics based on TV shows and movies was that unlike their inspirations, the comics had no limitations to the "budget" for sets and special effects. Sadly only a few Dell artists took advantage of this--Alden McWilliams, George Evans and Reed Crandall, and Alberto Giolitti come to mind. Most Dell illustrators tended to cheat on backgrounds and favored pedestrian compositions. Nonetheless I love these comics. I grew up on Dell movie and TV comics the way other kids grew up on EC or the silver age DC superheroes. You'll see them pop up here from time to time.


john adcock said...

Dell Comics were good comics. I can think of dozens of great funnies from Dell: Ben Bowie Mountain Man, White Eagle, Range Rider, Brothers of the Spear, Dunc 'n Loo, Flash Gordon, Tonto, Silver, Zorro ...

Anonymous said...

Me, I like the milk bottle, just like the ones delivered by the Darigold man, that the guy is having with his sandwich.

To bad McWilliams didn't do a few Marvel or DC Comics in his later years (something tells me he did some DC work I don't know about in the fifties or early sixties). He was a towering talent, and would've been lionized if he'd appeared in those fan-focused venues.

I just commented on the Scorchy post, if you're interested.

Smurfswacker said...

Great to hear from you, Paul (speaking of towering talents). McWilliams did get around to the majors eventually, drawing Justice, Inc., inking an issue or two of Luke Cage(!), but by that time his Raymondian style was passe'. It's too bad how good artists with non-superhero styles like McWilliams, Elias, Meskin, Draut...heck, even Toth and Williamson, ended up in minor books if they got work at all. That's the ol' marketplace.

Anonymous said...

Luke Cage. Sweet mother of God.

You're right, dark days for non-superhero artists.