Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Scott Rand in the World of Time [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Comics in the late 1930s and early 1940s were a mixed bag. Having spectacular names, promising great entertainment inside, they were generally collections of stock types from the newspaper comic strips, movies, and radio. Each title had to have its Mandrake knock-off, a jungle lord or lady, a Western hero, a naval hero, etc. Amongst these types was the space hero, usually dressed in a one-piece with a fin on the hood. Sporting a ray gun, he rescued space maidens and thwarted the all-too Asian-looking Martians.

Most of the early science fiction comics are just plain bad. Minor versions of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, they are sadly dated today. It's easy to see why SF historians have written them off as largely irrelevant. Still, they are a weak reflection of what science fiction was in the early pulp years. One comic that I find fascinating in this regard is "Scott Rand and the World of Time" by Otto Binder (writing under the Eando Binder pseudonym) with artwork by his older brother, Jack. The three segments that comprise this masterpiece of silliness appeared in Top-Notch Comics #1-3 (December1939-February 1940).

What makes this particular comic interesting is the timing. Jack Binder had previously written and drawn (as Max Plastid) the "Zarnak" comic for Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1936. After that stint, he drew comics for the Harry A Chesler shop, which "Scott Rand" was produced for. This group of creators wrote and drew comics, then sold them to packagers such as MJL who produced Top-Notch Comics. In many ways, Scott Rand's adventures were a continuation of Zarnak's, featuring similar ships and costumes in color.

Also at the same time, Otto Binder was creating science fiction history at Amazing Stories with his tales of Adam Link, the robot ("I, Robot" had appeared in January of 1939). Goofy by today's post-Asimovian standards, these stories were an important watershed for robot characters. So why was Otto Binder writing script for Harry Chesler? In 1939, there were only three solid and reliable SF magazines: Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, and Thrilling Wonder Stories. More pulps were on the way, but it was almost impossible to write SF full-time. Otto had to have more markets, and instead of writing Westerns he turned to the pulp's little brother, comics. He would leave Chesler in 1941 to become the top writer of Captain Marvel at Fawcett and later work for DC on the Superman line. Jack Binder left Chesler as well in 1940 to work for Fawcett, Lev Gleason, and Timely, where he worked on the original Daredevil. He would create his own comic shop in 1942 until his retirement.

True to the Flash Gordon formula (which had been around since 1934; earlier if you consider that it stole its inspiration from 1929's Buck Rogers), the team of adventurers in "Scott Rand" has an older, bald, cerebral leader in Dr. Meade. Meade's inventions, such as the time-car, allow our heroes to be heroic. Contrasted to Meade is Scott Rand; young, wavy-haired, blonde, and muscular. Partnered with Thor, a Viking from the year 200 AD, the team has plenty of brawn. Finally, the last member is Princess Elda, who is beautiful and exotic and completely useless, needing to be rescued frequently and acting as cheerleader to Scott or lab assistant to Meade.

The first installment takes Dr. Meade and Scott into the past. They go back to 200 AD and see Vikings attack Rome. The Romans hold their own, killing all but Thor, whom Scott saves. After this, they go to Egypt and save Princess Elda from being sacrificed to the god Ishtar. Dr. Meade, in an unusual show of force, guns the Egyptians down with a machine gun! Putting the time-car in neutral (a phase between time-worlds), Meade teaches the two newcomers how to speak English. It takes a long time but no time at all.

Now the sharp-eyed will notice some stunning errors here. The Vikings as a phenomenon belong to the 10th Century, not the 2nd. Binder has mistaken Goths for Vikings. The "god" Ishtar is actually a Babylonian goddess and was not worshipped by the Egyptians. Otto may have known better, but is writing so fast he doesn't really care. What are a bunch of little kids going to say about it? It only gets better from there. The time-car goes back 10 million years to the time of the dinosaurs! The frisky dinos (one brontosaur looks like it is trying to get intimate with the time-car) are repelled using hand grenades.

In the second part of the story, the crew return to 1940. Thor has a hard time of adjusting, attacking a taxi with his hammer, so Dr. Meade does the only logical thing. He takes them into the future because it is safer. (It's hard to argue with logic like that, but hey, this guy invented time travel.) They land in 2000 AD, in a futuristic New York that is under attack. On a large radio set, they hear that Martians are attacking in a battle fleet. (Here is one of those SF anachronisms that make you smile. Binder can conceive time travel, but not the Internet, or even television for that matter. He's not alone.) Scott and Thor join the military, while Meade goes to work in military intelligence. Elda... well... Elda looks pretty. Scott and Thor are so good at flying fighter ships that the Martians target them, but Scott uses a land gun and takes out the Martian leaders. The time travelers are heroes. (At no time does Dr. Meade suggest they take the time-car into the past and warn the Earth of the impending invasion. Good thing he is a genius.)

The final portion of the tale begins with Dr. Meade and Elda's being captured by Kruzzo the Ice King of Mars. Scott (whose hair is now brown for some reason), Thor, and the unnamed leader of Earth go in pursuit, taking out Kruzzo's pirate fleet near the equator of Mars. Here they learn that not all the Martians are bad, only those working for Kruzzo. The heroes fly to Mars's south pole to infiltrate Kruzzo's base. They sneak in, find the captives, then fight the Martian pirates. Dr. Meade throws a rock into the air apparatus and blows up the baddies while the good guys escape. This last portion seems weaker than the previous two, and no one cried to see the series end here.

So why is "Scott Rand in the World of Time" so bad? Did it not have one of SF's hottest writers at the time? A man who would create Mary Marvel and Supergirl, writing over 50,000 pages of comics in his career? Yes, but "Scott Rand" was early in Binder's career, and written at lightning speed. The comic shops of 1940 pumped out pages at a terrific pace, with little concern for legacy. This was grunt work for low pay. Ideas were stolen, snatched from whatever was hot at the time; whatever was tried and true (though different enough you wouldn't get sued). Even later masters like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby tore through page after page, trying to keep the wolf from the door. The opportunity for greater creativity and care would have to wait until the comics industry abandoned the shop model and replaced it with the bullpens of companies like DC and Marvel. Otto and Jack Binder would make those contributions with Captain Marvel and Superman in the years to come.

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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