Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Marvel Masterworks - the Atlas Era: VENUS

Now that I'm back from vacation (a week-long trip to the New England coast!), I can get back to talking about my reading materials.  Taking a train up the East Coast, from Florida to Massachusetts, gave me plenty of time to read the Marvel Masterworks that I picked up back in July - the collection of issues 1 through 9 of an old Atlas comic titled Venus.

I picked up this book for two reasons - one, its original price was $59.99, but the dealer was selling it for $10; and two, it was a comic with a female lead.  My love of comics has always gravitated towards comics with female leads - Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, Huntress, Power Girl, She-Hulk, Hellcat, Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, etc.  So, the opportunity to read a comic from the 1940s with a female lead definitely intrigued me.

With an introduction by Dr. Michael J. Vassallo, who is touted as being "a noted comics historian and a chief authority on Marvel's Atlas period," the first (and only) volume of this collection of Venus tales presents in full (including covers and all ads) the first nine issues of the comic, as well as two short tales of Venus that appeared in Lana no. 4 and Marvel Mystery Comics no. 91.  The stories in the this volume are all fairly tame by today's standards, and definitely lean more towards the romance comics than adventure or mystery.

Now, I'm not the biggest fan of romance stories (unless it is gothic/supernatural in nature), but I do have to admit, these stories were kind of fun.  In a way, it is almost a reverse of the Superman/Lois Lane love story.  Venus is a goddess (alien) from another planet who falls for a publisher of a fashion magazine - he also falls for her, but he refuses to believe that she is really the goddess of love.  And, of course, there's a nemesis in the form of Della, secretary for Whitney Hammond (the publisher of Beauty Magazine).  She resents Venus' sudden appearance and her appointment by Hammond as the new editor of the magazine - a position she had been in line for until Venus showed up on the scene.  Throughout nearly all of the stories, Della is trying one stunt or another to take Venus out of the picture (in a way, Della reminds me a lot of Lettie Briggs from the Dana Girls Mystery Stories).

The early stories are focused more on the rivalry between Venus and Della, and each issue contains several self-contained short stories, along with a 2- or 3-page prose story, as well as other short features (such as  Hedy De Vine tale, or a "Hey Look!" comedy page, or a "True-To-Life Romance" story.  But, later issues began to evolve into longer tales with two or three chapters, in most instances filling the entire comic with a single Venus tale.  In addition, the later tales also began to focus more on Venus compatriots from the gods and goddess realm on Venus, as well as from the underworld itself.  While the first nine issues compiled here are more romance and slight adventure, according to Dr. Vassallo's introduction, issues 10 and beyond became more sci-fi oriented, and then horror-oriented before the series was finally cancelled with issue 19.

One interesting tidbit I did enjoy seeing was the ad that appeared in several issues, in which "The Editors" at Marvel Comics urged readers to consider why they were buying and reading this comic.  "We want to help you protect your right to buy and read your favorite magazines," the ad says, "as long as they contain nothing that might be harmful to you ... Lately, lots of people are criticizing comics.  They have been saying that comics teach you youngsters things that are not good for you, things like violence, cruelty, immorality, etc."  The ad then goes on to explain that Marvel has engaged the services of Dr. Jean Thompson, a psychiatrist in the Child Guidance Bureau of the New York City Board of Education to serve as editorial consultant on all of their magazines, to help ensure that their comics are "safe" for children to read.

Something else I found intriguing was the fact that when Marvel listed in the ads their regular titles, they were divided into two categories:  the "Red Unit" and the "Blue-Yellow Unit."  Not really sure why the books were assigned to which unit, or even why they were designated as "units" and what the colors meant.  I suppose the readers back in the late '40s would have known.

The writer of these comics are unknown, as the comics in those days rarely gave credit to the authors and artists; however, through research, the artists for some of the stories were determined (George Klein, Vic Dowd, Harvey Kurtzman, Ken Bald, Ed Winiarski, Don Rico, among others - none of whom I have ever heard).  The art is not consistent, as the artists changed, but the one major thing I noticed is that in the first issue, Venus is portrayed as having silver/white hair, but starting with issue 2, even though Venus is shown with white hair on the cover, the interior pages all show her with blond hair (which is the color that continued through the rest of the series).

The supporting cast was not large - Whitney Hammond - the publisher, Della - the secretary, and Marvin Klee - staff artist at the magazine, and the various gods and goddesses from Olympus.  Otherwise, there were no other regular cast members.

I enjoyed the stories enough that I would have liked to have seen the second volume, just to see how the comic fared with sci-fi and horror stories.  Sadly, although a second volume was discussed, it was never published (making me wonder if sales on this volume were so low that Marvel decided to pass on a second).  It's a shame, as I don't believe the remaining issue of Venus were ever collected.

RATING:  7 statues of Juno out of 10 for proving to me that even back in the late 1940s, comics could provide a strong female lead (even if she did only last for 19 issues...)

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