Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Quarter Bin Finds: The Owl #1

While pawing through the quarter boxes in the comics area of the North High Street branch of Half Price Books here in Columbus, Ohio recently, I discovered, hidden amidst cast offs from the worst excesses of the 1990s and good size runs from several excellent but criminally under appreciated series of the late 1980s (Hawkworld, Suicide Squad, William Messner-Loebs' run on Flash), a battered and aged copy of Gold Key's The Owl #1 from 1967.  Curious, and almost always willing to gamble a quarter on a totally unknown property, I tossed it onto to my buy pile, figuring that, if nothing else, it would be good for a post here on this blog.
A caption on the splash page touts this comic as the long awaited revival of a hero from what was already being referred to as the Golden Age of Comics.  At first, cynic that I am, I figured this for some sort of put on.  Having never heard of a Golden Age character called the Owl, I thought it possible that Gold Key had created a new character out of whole cloth and were attempting to pass him off as a Golden Age revival, similar to what Marvel tried to do with the Sentry a decade or so ago. 
Of course, I wasn't alive and buying comics back in the 1940s, and just because I've never heard of something doesn't mean it never existed. (Hell, I've probably never heard of most of you reading this piece, but you exist, right?)  So, I did some research and apparently the editors at Gold Key were not quite as clever, or cynical, depending on your perspective, as I would have given them credit for being. There was indeed a Golden Age Owl, one of the few non-licensed properties published by Dell Comics, who enjoyed a brief run during the early 40s.  However, I think the overwhelming demand for the character's return cited in the caption was most likely, at the very least, a bit of an exaggeration.
The creation of an artist by the name of Frank Thomas, the Owl debuted in Crackajack Funnies #25. He was secretly police detective Nick Terry, who, feeling hampered in his efforts to dispense justice to criminals by such trivialities as the law, adopted his costumed identity to allow him to deal with crime his way. As was the fashion in those days, he soon acquired a partner in crime fighting.  In this case, it was his fiancee assuming the costumed nom de guerre of Owl Girl.  When Crackajack ceased publication with #43, the Owl moved over to Popular Comics for a brief run beginning with #72 and concluding with #83, cover dated March 1943.  After that, it was nearly a quarter century before the character was heard from again.
By 1967, the popularity of the Batman TV series had made super-heroes briefly fashionable again, and every publisher of comics was looking for a way to cash in on the fad.  Thus, Gold Key, which by this time had inherited most of the Dell Comics properties, decided the time was ripe to bring back the Owl.  The series was written by none other than Superman co-creator Jerry Siegal and drawn by Tom Gill, an artist apparently best known for his Western comics, most notably The Lone Ranger.
The revived series transported the Owl into the late 1960's with no attempt made at explaining where he'd been for the last two and a half decades or why he hadn't seemed to have aged.  The only major change made to the concept seems to have been the changing of Owl Girl's secret ID from Belle Wayne to Laura Holt.  I can only guess at the reason for this, but perhaps it was because of the similarity of her original name to that of Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne.  It happens, by the way, that Laura Holt was also the name of the character played by Stephanie Zimbalist in the TV series Remington Steele two decades later.  This is likely just coincidence, as  there are no other similarities between the two characters.
The first issue's story, "The Attack of the Diabolical Birdmen," pits the Owl and Owl Girl against the Birds of Prey Gang, a group of criminals who wear bird mask, call themselves by the names of birds, and, of course, commit bird themed crimes.   With a solid, entertaining script by Siegel that emphasizes plot over characterization, this is a pretty typical Silver Age super-hero story.  In fact, its actually one of the better examples of the genre from that era.  Despite riding Batman's coattails, Siegel doesn't go overboard in aping that show's "camp" humor.  There is a series of weak bird related puns from the villains, but those are kept to near minimum.  Gill's art tells the story effectively and has a slight Golden Age feel, perhaps appropriate for the revival of a 1940's hero.
Despite its charms, The Owl #1 apparently failed to set the world on fire.  The second, and final, issue would not appear for another year.   After that,  with the exception of a one issue appearance in a 1976 issue of The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor, it was back to comic book limbo for the Owl and Owl Girl...
....Until a couple of months ago.  In July, Dynamite released a new The Owl #1 set in its Project: Superpowers universe.  Out of curiousity, I went and picked up a copy, despite it having been written by my least favorite comics writer ever, J.T. Krul, and a review shall be forthcoming. 

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