by KC Carlson
As promised, a further look at Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Venus Volume 1 yields lots of lost Marvel history and mystery, as well as a survey of some now infrequently seen comics genres and a forgotten character or two.
Just from looking at the original covers, you get a pretty good idea of how rapidly this series changed focus. The first five issues concentrated on good-girl art for the covers, many with the tagline “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”. Issues 6-8 appear to be pure romance stories, with the blurb “Romantic Tales of Fantasy”. Issues 9 and 10 drift more toward the superheroic adventure side, before entering into the “Strange Stories of the Supernatural” era beginning with #11 (featuring a post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world story). A giant demon figure appears on #12, and Venus meets the “King of the Living Dead!” (yum, zombies!) in lucky number 13. Things get creepier with open (and empty) graves in #15, living gargoyles in #16, and a trifecta of living skeletons in #17-19, closing out the series!
In her much-recommended history of American romance comics, Love on the Racks, Michelle Nolan informs us that the actual contents of the Venus comics don’t always match the covers. She breaks the series into five distinct genres over its nineteen issues, while describing the comic as “being the wildest of esoteric comics (titles outside the mainstream).”
Venus is the Goddess of Love come to earth, who just happens to work as a reporter/editor for Beauty Magazine, which is published by the handsome Whitney Hammond. (I should point out he is a guy in this 1940s comic book, since Whitney is generally a more feminine name in current times, and it is the tendency of fashion magazine publishers of today also to be women.) The early issues of the series are primarily concerned with Venus’s love for Hammond, who does not believe she is actually the Goddess of Love. Since all good romances require a rival, Hammond’s secretary Della plays that role throughout the series.
The first few issues have a lighthearted teen humor feel to them, more than the typical romance story (although it should be pointed out that Venus first appeared very early in the history of actual romance comics, and thus, the “formula” wasn’t fully formed yet). Despite its humorous good-girl cover, Venus #5 is a “serious” 19-page story of gods and goddesses and good vs. evil. Also, #5 began the practice of running non-Venus romance stories as back-ups/filler, which would continue through #9. Issues 6-9 continue with adventure/fantasy stories, despite the lush painted covers of #7 and 8, which look like typical romance pulp covers of the era. Issue #10 continues in the same vein, except for the sci-fi cover, plus the romance fillers are dropped in favor of three Venus tales.
The tone changes drastically in Venus #11, as Venus is suddenly a hard-nosed reporter investigating stories involving more science fantasy and horror elements. (What kind of fashion/beauty magazine is this anyway?) Non-Venus back-up features are sci-fi-oriented in issues #11-13, then switch to horror for the remainder of the series, chasing the trends of the times. Nolan indicates that “the final five issues of Venus are among some of the grisliest horror comics ever produced.” Notably, they are among the most beautifully drawn as well, as the legendary Bill Everett was the primary artist for the final six issues of the series. Long-time Marvel fans will recall that a handful of these stories (presumably the less gruesome ones) were occasionally reprinted in some of Marvel’s ubiquitous mystery/horror comics of the 1970s.
So is Venus actually a romance comic? Nolan, while attempting to compile an actual accounting of romance titles, says that despite a few romantic covers and occasional back-ups, Venus is “fantasy, not romance.” [So how many total romance comic books were published? Nearly 6,000, according to Nolan.]
This Marvel Masterworks Venus volume doesn’t cover the entire 19-issue series (thus, why it is called Volume 1). But this collection gives us almost 300 pages of vintage Venus, including Venus #1-9, as well as related stories from Lana #4 and Marvel Mystery Comics #91. While there’s no Bill Everett artwork in this volume, we will see work by many other greats, including Ken Bald, Don Rico, Werner Roth, Mike Sekowsky, and more.
GENRE-BUSTING EXPERIMENTS CONTINUE
By the way, the genre-shifting of Venus wasn’t unique to Marvel/Atlas. In 1949, DC/National experimented with a genre-shifting experiment of its own in the pages of Sensation Comics. As superhero comics were losing their once dominant luster, the Wonder Woman series in Sensation abruptly changed focus from heroics to romance, beginning with Sensation Comics #94 (featuring a romantic cover of Steve Trevor carrying Wonder Woman across a stream). Other girl-oriented features also debuted, including “Dr. Pat” and a series called “Romance, Inc.” This lasted until Sensation #106, when Wonder Woman and the other romance features were dropped. Sensation only ran three more issues, switching to mystery/occult stories and featured the debut of “Johnny Peril”, before the series changed titles to Sensation Mystery. It was finally canceled after seven more issues, while “Johnny Peril” would continue in The Unexpected #106-117.
Other genre gymnastics were present at EC Comics beginning in 1947 with a character named Moon Girl. She started in Moon Girl and the Prince (one issue), then her comic became simply Moon Girl (five issues), then Moon Girl Fights Crime (two issues). The series was then turned into a romance comic called A Moon, a Girl… Romance. Moon Girl only appeared in the first issue (of four) of this incarnation before it became a science fiction title: Weird Fantasy #13. As if this wasn’t confusing enough, a story in Moon Girl #5 is one of the stories credited with starting the horror comics trend at EC.
CALLING ALL GIRLS!
“Grant,” a frequent commenter over at Comics Worth Reading, hopes that the Venus Marvel Masterworks “will open the door for Marvel’s comedy romance titles such as Patsy, Hedy, Greer, and all the others” for future Masterworks. I am in complete agreement. Patsy (Walker) and Hedy (Wolfe) were the teenage stars of the long running Patsy and Hedy and Patsy Walker comic books of the 1940s, 50s, and early to mid-60s in well over 300 separate issues of those titles, as well as other spin-off books. Patsy today lives on in the Marvel Universe as Hellcat, taking over the role from Greer Nelson (formerly The Cat, now Tigra).
I’d also like to add my support for seeing more vintage Millie the Model comics. Millie had a 28-year career at Marvel/Timely/Atlas, starting in 1945 and ending in 1973, and amazingly, the vast majority of that run was drawn by only two artists: Dan DeCarlo (10 years, 1949 to 1959) and Stan Goldberg (“Stan G.”), who succeeded DeCarlo and drew most every issue until the end of the run in 1973. He did it in three distinct artistic styles: 1) mimicking DeCarlo’s house style, 2) a more “realistic” style when the book told more realistic stories in the 1960s (occasionally written by Denny O’Neil(!) when Stan was too busy), and 3) his own style (admittedly similar to DeCarlo’s) when the book reverted to humor in 1967.
Between Patsy and Millie (and all the other Timely “working girl” comics: Tessie the Typist, Sherry the Showgirl, My Friend Irma), Marvel/Timely/Atlas published over a thousand comic books in that era starring women. During 1948, 20% of Marvel’s entire publishing line were Patsy and Hedy titles (during the post-1947 implosion). Even in the early 1960s, when Marvel’s output was limited to a small number of titles by a bad distribution deal and the superheroes had to share books, Patsy and Millie sold well enough and were important enough to Marvel to keep publishing them. What happened to those days?
So, Venus in Marvel Masterworks? Hell, yes! Where’s my checkbook? Want more of my money? Put Millie and Patsy there, too! (Or at least try an Essentials volume or two!)
KC CARLSON thinks the current comic industry could use a good mythic superhero sci-fi horror teen romance comic book about now, don’t you?
Classic covers from Grand Comics Database.