Thin Man

First Appearance: Mystic Comics #4 (July 1940).
Golden Age Appearances: Mystic Comics #4.
Modern Appearances: Marvel Premiere #29-30, Invaders #6, 35-37, Invaders v2 #1-4, Marvel Two-in-One Annual #1, Marvel Comics Presents #34, Citizen V & the V-Battalion v2 #1.
Years Active: 1940-present.

"Bruce Dickson, the Thin Man, left a romantic, happy valley in the majestic Mt. Kalpurthia of the towering Himalayas, to fight crime and evil in the outer world...he can make himself thin enough to go through where ordinary man cannot...and has the lithe strength of a prize-fighter! He is a super-scientist. Olalla, a pretty girl from the valley, helps him..."

Bruce Dickson is the scientist on an expedition "to conquer Mt. Kalpurthia." (Obviously, there's no such mountain, but conquering the high peaks of the Himalayas was certainly something that was more in the public's consciousness in 1940 than it is today. Most of the major peaks of the Himalayas hadn't been climbed yet--Hillary and Tenzing didn't overcome Everest/Chomolungma until 1953--so the idea of climbing an unclimbable peak had a certain pulp allure in 1940 that is missing today.)

Dickson gets lost in a blizzard while climbing, and when he goes searching for shelter he finds a glowing cave. ("It's mighty interesting...perhaps radium or some other stuff causes it." This being a time before the dangers of radiation poisoning were widely known.) Bruce enters the cave, to find that it's a tunnel and not a cave. He goes through the tunnel and into..."Utopia! Imagine it in the Himalayas!" Bruce has found a bright, pleasant land--trees, white buildings, a nice marble fountain--all in all, a very nice-looking place.

Then Bruce faints, the big sissy.

He wakes up to find that his clothes have been changed. Odder still, he's being greeted by several strange people, people who are wearing clothes very similar to the costume he's wearing now, and who seem to be very thin--very close to two-dimensional. One of them tells him "No, you're wide awake...welcome to our heaven, Kalahia! You too can become thin now...just concentrate!"

He does, and he stretches, becoming not only super-thin but taller. Naturally, he's somewhat curious about this. The man he's talking to says "You're a welcome addition to our society, but you were not perfect. So we, the Council of Elders, operated on you with electronic rays." (Without his permission, needless to say.)

The speaker goes on to say "We've a scientific haven here and have advanced far beyond the outer world. For instance, we just mastered the 6th dimension and are going into the 7th."

Bruce, "with the aid of the daughter of the chief of Elders, Olalla, masters the advanced science of Kalahia." We get a nice panel of Bruce and Olalla standing in an observatory, looking at a large telescope/television combination. The image on the television is of what looks like a spider, with hooks on its legs, bulging eyes, and big spiky teeth. The spider is manipulating some knobs and dials, and is surrounded by machines. Bruce says, "So there are living beings on Mars." Olalla says, "Yes, very interesting ones...we signal each other often and exchange our scientific knowledge."

Bruce meets with the Council of Elders, who tell him that he can't go back. He turns on an "electronic television" (is there any other kind?) and says "You have said the world should be free from evil, but it is not. Let's pick a city in the states as an example...." On the tv screen we see a taxi being shot up by a sedan in a drive-by, and the taxi crashing and exploding.

The Elders, somehow swayed by this, grant Bruce's wish to return to the outer world. Olalla persuades her father to let her accompany Bruce. Bruce and Olalla then build a "stratoplane," using a "perpetual motion machine" which will keep it up all the time. Better still, as Bruce tells us, the metal they're making the plane out of, "Duragen, will last 100 years."

They fly back to the States and, tuning in their television, they find the same sedan about to gun down another taxi driver. "Diving at tremendous speed, the stratoplane fires heat bullets thru its synchronized gun and stops the sedan from its murderous mission! The heat bullets strike the gasoline tanks and the sedan explodes!"

Bruce and Olalla tune their radio in and hear a news commentator talk about what they just did, and they resolve to work at night from then on. Bruce tunes his television in and starts spying on taxi-drivers until he finds "the right one." He does, a man named Jim who responds to a "request" for protection money by throwing the thugs down a nearby staircase. The thugs report back to their boss, "Clip Walton," who swears vengeance.

Bruce and Olalla land their plane on the outskirts of the city, and Bruce tells Olalla to stay put, as "I may need you with the stratoplane later." Bruce slips into the city after sneaking onto a truck that he momentarily stopped (he killed the engine by touching a button on his "ray belt"). Bruce makes himself thin and then slips through the fence to Clip Walton's estate. Bruce slips through Clip's window to find the thugs torturing Jim, the taxi-driver who was resisting their shake-down attempts.

Bruce smacks the thugs around before being blackjacked by Clip Walton. They take him for a ride, but he's only tied up by ropes, and easily slips through them--he's thin, see? Bruce biffs the driver and jumps free from the car as it overturns and crashes. Bruce starts fighting the thugs, but they draw guns, and he is forced to dodge their shots. Then to the rescue flies Olalla, who "had seen Bruce in trouble through the electronic television" (actually, the "electronic" part, now that I think about it, might be a reference to a sort of tv that didn't need vacuum tubes, as televisions did at that time). Olalla mows down the thugs, and Bruce then delivers the beaten and bound Clip Walton to the police commissioner. The end--as it was, indeed, for the superhero career of Bruce Dickson, the Thin Man, until Roy Thomas brought him back in the 1970s.

Y'know, the first time you describe Timely's Thin Man to anyone who knows anything about Golden Age superheroes, you get one response: "Huh. Marvel ripped off Jack Cole's Plastic Man." Even Jim Steranko, in his History of Comics, makes this charge: "THIN MAN was Timely's one-shot imitation of Plastic Man."

Well, I got news for you wise guys. The Thin Man predated Eel O'Brien. (shock, horror, fainting in the audience). Yes, it's true. The Thin Man's first appearance was in Mystic Comics #4, cover dated July 1940. Plastic Man's first appearance was in Police Comics #1, cover dated August 1941. So, in this case, Timely, and Klaus Nordling, who created the Thin Man, were actually the ones who deserve credit for creating a hero archetype: that of the stretching hero.

It's not that there've been, or are, that many stretching heroes--Thin Man, Plastic Man, Reed Richards, Elastic Lad, the Elongated Man, and Flatman are about the only ones--but it's a definite archetype. It was DC's creative teams, rather than Marvel's, that created most of the archetypes of the Golden Age of comics, archetypes that still dominate the field of superhero comics, even today. Which is why credit should be given to those who deserve it, which, in this case, Klaus Nordling.

Nordling is mostly forgotten today. Hell, he's almost totally forgotten today. But he was very active during the 1940s. He worked for Fox on strips like "Spark Stevens" and "Lt. Drake," he worked for Fiction House on Fight Comics and Wings Comics, among others, and, biggest of all, he worked at Quality (for those of you not in the know, Quality was the fourth-best and fourth-biggest of the Golden Age comic book companies. DC was undisputably #1, Fawcett second, Timely third, and Quality fourth). At Quality Nordling did the definitive Lady Luck (a heroine who started as a backup feature in The Spirit). Nordling made Lady Luck into a screwball mystery-comedy, a genre popular during the Golden Age, more on which below. Lady Luck graduated into her own comic book in 1949, due to the popularity of Nordling's version of the character. Even better for Nordling, he worked directly with the second greatest comic talent of the Golden Age, Will Eisner. (Jack Kirby being the greatest talent of the Golden Age, of course.) Nordling wrote a bunch of stories on The Spirit, and even pencilled some issues.

So you see, Nordling is a cut-above the forgotten no-names who created and did the strips and heroes I've so far described. He is, in terms of Golden Age creative talents, a Name. And that's something to remember about the Thin Man. It was Nordling who created him, and not some forgettable and forgotten time-server.

There are also a few puzzling and/or notable things about this strip.

The first is its lone appearance. Mystic Comics was (with Daring Mystery Comics) where Timely threw all sorts of stuff against the wall, just to see what would stick. Most of what was created here was only mediocre, and disappeared after a couple of appearances. Some of it stuck; the Destroyer was the most successful of the Mystic crew. Granted, modern sensibilities are much different from those of the 1940s, and I'm reading this strip with a more sophisticated eye than the average reader in 1940 (who was, I believe, 9 years old). But, to me, the Thin Man is a clear and obvious cut above the other strips, done with more originality than, say, Dakor or Hercules. Why Nordling wasn't given more of a chance to develop the character is something which will, unfortunately, have to remain a mystery.

The second is the way in which the Thin Man has become almost totally absorbed into the orbit of the Plastic Man. This isn't puzzling, really, but rather notable. Granted that the Thin Man only appeared once--but it was a full year before Eel O'Brien came along. Why have so many people forgotten about poor Bruce Dickson, whose only crime was being mediocre (the character himself, I mean, rather than the strip as a whole)?

In part it's because he appeared in Mystic Comics, which never seemed to have gotten much attention from the public. I think, though, that the main explanation must be that the Thin Man was done by Klaus Nordling--as I said, a Name in terms of Golden Age creators--while Eel O'Brien, Plastic Man, was done by Jack Cole.

If you've never seen a Jack Cole comic strip, do yourself a favor and find one, whether in reprint or microfiche, or in one of the libraries out there that have comic books. They are out there, and if you've any aspiration to be knowledgeable about comics, or you just fancy fine comic book art, you owe it to yourself to find them.

Jack Cole is one of the giants of the Golden Age. There never was and never will be anyone quite like him. His work on Plastic Man is almost sui generis. Enthusiasts of Plastic Man speak of Cole's talent with hushed and respectful tones, and Cole's work remains as fresh, as surprising, as amusing, and as awe-inspiring as it was when it first came out.

And that's why people have forgotten about the Thin Man, I think. Nobody remembers the Black Bat; everyone remembers Batman. Nobody remembers Philip Wylie's Gladiator, and its hero Hugo Danner; everyone remembers Superman. And no one remembers the Thin Man; everyone remembers Plastic Man.

The third surprising thing about this strip is the name of the hero. We've seen how the Timely heroes often took inspiration, whether in power or name, from other sources. Like Dr. Gade (Invisible Man), the "Thin Man" name is not original to this strip. Nor could Nordling have avoided knowing about the source of the original name.

In 1932 Dashiell Hammett, arguably the creator of hard-boiled fiction and one of the two most influential hard-boiled detective writers (the other being Raymond Chandler, of course) (actually, in any list of Top Ten Most Influential Mystery Writers, both Hammett and Chandler will appear--they might well make the Top Five), wrote a book called The Thin Man, about a married couple called Nick and Nora Charles who solved criminal cases as a husband-and-wife team.

The book did well enough on its own, and, for whatever reason, the decision was made to film it. Hollywood being the same creative meatgrinder in the Thirties that it is today, the filmed version of Hammett's book wasn't very similar to what Hammett had intended; Nick and Nora Charles weren't even close to the couple that Hammett had envisioned. Oddly enough, though, Hollywood's creation was actually superior to the original book. Nick and Nora Charles were played by William Powell and Myrna Loy; David Thomson describes them as "two slender sophisticates, smiling haughtily at each other through a mist of wisecracks...that movie marriage, always securely based emotionally but playing with hostility, flirtation, and raillery, served in its time as the epitome of an adult, liberated partnership."

Nick and Nora Charles were among the most popular screen pairs of the 1930s; Powell and Loy appeared together in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), The Thin Man (1934), After The Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), and Song of the Thin Man (1947).

Now, neither Nick nor Nora Charles were actually the Thin Man--that was the bad guy in Hammett's book--but the name quickly became linked with Nick & Nora, just as Powell and Loy, both stars in their own rights, became irrevocably linked with the Thin Man movie franchise. It is, frankly, inconceivable that anyone in 1940 could have seen a comic book character with the name "The Thin Man" and not thought about Nick and Nora Charles. Nordling must have known this. Perhaps he was capitalizing on name recognition? Whatever the reason, it was an odd choice on Nordling's part.

Fourth, the whole idea of an advanced civilization hiding in the Himalayas is not exactly original. To the average comic book reader in 1940, the idea would have been most familiar from the film Lost Horizon, in 1937, which had a group of civilians crash-land in the Himalayas and be rescued by members of the civilization of the valley of Shangri-La. Lost Horizon was nominated for seven Oscars in 1938, winning two, and did very well at the box office; it would have been one of the first things the average person (who was much more of a filmgoer than the average person today) would have thought about when they read of a lost Himalayan civilization.

Of course, an advanced civilization would not subject an unconscious man to operation via electronic rays because the subject was "not perfect." If the 1998 reader needed any reminding that the Thin Man was the creation of a very different time and place, that little moment would provide it.

Fifth, the panel where Bruce and Olalla see the "Martian." The Martian is drawn like a nasty spider, but is described as an intelligent and advanced creature. The contradiction between appearance and verbal description is interesting, especially considering that "Martian" had been almost always synonymous with "bad alien" since Wells' War of the Worlds (and, of course, Welles' radio broadcast of same).

As you can likely tell from the amount of time and space I've devoted to the Thin Man, I think this strip is a cut above the average Timely effort. Not so much because of the concept of a stretching man, which, while uncommon, is not particularly exciting, but rather because the strip as a whole is handled with a greater degree of skill than most of the other strips I've read and reviewed so far.

The art, for example, has a certain Golden Age primitiveness, but at the same time has an undeniable visual inventiveness. Too, Nordling does something in "Thin Man" that C.C. Beck in particular was quite good at: adding lagniappe to his panels. One example is the panel where Bruce tells the Elders that the world is not free from evil; in the background we can see Olalla pushing the television into place. Another example is a shot where Bruce and Olalla turn on the radio to see what the reaction is to their gunning down the murderous drive-by sedan. Through the front windshield of the cockpit we can see the machine-gun they've used to destroy the sedan. (Wing-mounted machine guns on airplanes were in use by that point, but I don't think the American public was particularly aware of that fact; the popular conception, as reflected in this strip, might well have been that all advanced fighter planes would have front-mounted machine guns.) Nordling doesn't do this as often or as wittily as Beck did, but that they are there at all is a bonus.

In the modern era the Thin Man was brought back and more details were added to his background. It was revealed that during the war he'd been a member of the Liberty Legion. In Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition #9 it was revealed that Kalahia was in an alternate dimension. And then, in Marvel Comics Presents #34, it was revealed that...well, I'll let Eric Colley do the description:

After the War ended, Bruce left the Liberty Legion to return to Kalahia. To his horror, he discovered it had been destroyed and Olalla and the others had been killed. He learned that the Invaders' old enemy Agent Axis had discovered Kalahia and tried to set it up as his own personal kingdom when the Nazis lost the war. When the Kalahians refused, Axis had the hidden utopia destroyed. The Thin Man spent the next several decades hunting down Agent Axis, finally discovering that he had been smuggled into America by the CIA. The aging Thin Man got in touch with Captain America and told his story. The two former allies paid a visit to the elderly Axis, who was living in New York City. The former spy admitted to destroying Kalahia, and laughed at the Thin Man's rage because the US government had pardoned him of all war crimes. He could never be tried for destroying the Thin Man's adopted home. Outraged, the Thin Man wrapped himself around Agent Axis' face, smothering him. In an odd twist, Captain America called the police on the Thin Man since he had in effect committed murder. It's unknown if the Thin Man was actually taken to prison, but it seems doubtful that happened. What became of the Thin Man after that is unknown.
Citizen V & the V-Battalion v2 #1 showed Jack Frost attending the funeral of the Union Jack (II) in 1953.

Useful Thin Man Site

Thin Man. Yet another good site from Eric Colley.

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