Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Manly Wade Wellman's "Lee Granger, Jungle King" [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Manly Wade Wellman has many feathers in his cap: famous Weird Tales writer, a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award, an Edgar Award for True Crime, a Pulitzer prize nomination for non-fiction, and the notoriety of appearing in court during the famous Fawcett vs. DC trial of 1948 (which Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood parodied in "Superduperman" in the fourth issue of Mad Magazine, April-May 1953.) Manly spoke from the stand of how his editors had encouraged him to steal freely from Superman for their comic, Captain Marvel Adventures. It was a strange place to end up. But where did it all begin?

Manly Wade Wellman decided to try writing comics after his friend and fellow Weird Tales author, Frank Belknap Long, had ventured into the world of "squinkies" as Manly called them. By March 1941, Manly would be writing the very first Captain Marvel tale "Captain Marvel vs. Z" in Captain Marvel Adventures #1. But before that he sharpened his pen on a few other comics including "Lee Granger, Jungle King" for Slam-Bang Comics (March-September 1940).

Slam-Bang was a Fawcett title that ran for only seven issues, but Manly and Granger appeared in them all. Beginning with issue #1, Lee Granger got the last nine to ten pages of each issue. The scientist-explorer sets out on a mission to fly over a part of unknown Africa. His plane is sabotaged by Arabs who are conducting illegal slaving in the unmapped territory. Granger saves himself when his plane explodes by using his loose clothing like a parachute. He is discovered by pygmies and accidentally wounds their chief with a poisoned spear. Granger saves the man's life and becomes friend to the entire tribe. As the pygmies' leading light, he teaches them science, helps them build a brick town, and even captures a lion and alters its brain. This is Eric, the talking lion, who is Granger's best sidekick.

In later episodes Granger defeats the invading Arabs, a race of flying demons called the Djinns, helps scientists who struggle to find the lost ruins of the Gelka (guarded by savages and gorillas), and fights the usual greedy white hunters bound to steal Eric away. He also encounters the queen of the giant ants, a woman raised by insects. The longer, ten-page format allowed Wellman to expand his story where many jungle characters had to make due with only five pages. The art was most likely drawn by Jack Binder in his usual serviceable but crude style.

Granger meets many beautiful woman, from rich debutantes to scientist's daughters, but they always leave, asking if they might meet again. The best of these was Kate Bond, who enters the hive of the ants, carrying a gun, which she is not reluctant to use on the queen herself. You have to remember these are pre-Code comics! Beautiful and deadly, she might have made a queen to Lee's king if the comic had continued.

What strikes me most about this strip is first off that Lee Granger is not a Tarzan wannabe. Only once does he use vines to swing down on foes. Usually he uses his superior understanding of science, making him more of a jungle Doc Savage than a Lord Greystoke. Secondly, Wellman's scenarios are usually not too typical of jungle stories, having a more fantastic element to them. I especially liked Issue #3 that has the feel of Robert E Howard's "Almuric" to it, with winged foes and sword fights (both that story and issue #3 appeared in May 1939 so it might have been Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pirates of Venus (Argosy, October 2, 1931) or Howard's "Wings in the Night" (Weird Tales, July 1932) that inspired him just as easily.

The source for the giant ants could have come from any number of pulps (which Manly knew, for he was in them) such as "The Master Ants" by Francis Flagg (Amazing Stories, May 1928), "The World of the Giant Ants" (Amazing Stories Quarterly, Fall 1928) by A Hyatt Verrill, or "The War of the Great Ants" by Jim Vanny (Wonder Stories, July 1930). And of course, the jungle ant classic, "Leiningen Versus the Ants" by Carl Stephenson (Esquire, December 1938).

Wherever Manly got his ideas, they were better than most of the jungle crowd. Only once does he stoop to overt racism in the strip, when he claims he must save the scientists because they are white. Such narrow-mindedness seems odd from the man who flew in the face of convention with his debut "When Planets Clashed" and wrote of space war from both sides of the conflict. His work as a whole speaks of a love for all humankind. It was this deep compassion that made stories like "Song of the Slaves" (Weird Tales, March/April 1940) memorable, or his work on the Civil War worthy of Pulitzer consideration. And it was this sense of honor that directed Manly to tell the truth on the stand in 1948. Manly was always, first and foremost, a gentleman.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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