EP0033: Heroes of the Public Domain: Black Cobra

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FBI Agent by Day, Commie-fighting cold war superhero by night. We look at Jim Drake, the Black Cobra who appeared in three issues of his own magazine in 1954-55.

Read the Black Cobra from Ajax Comics for free at the Digital Comic Museum.

Transcript below:

Meet a Cold War man of mystery who was so mysterious even his writers weren’t clear if he had superpowers. We’ll tell you all about it as we look at The Black Cobra, straight ahead.

Welcome to the Classy Comics Podcast where we search for the best comics in the universe. From Boise, Idaho here is your host, Adam Graham.

If we think of comics, particularly superhero comics during the Golden Age, we think of Marvel and we think of DC. While those two companies dominated, they were far from the only game in town. With the success of characters like Captain America, Captain Marvel and of course Superman, there was a plethora of companies that were offering their comics. And you can actually read many of them online for free, and I probably should have mentioned that when I did the program a few weeks back on how to read comics for free, but this is somewhat of a different category.

The Digital Comic Museum, digitalcomicmuseum.org collects public domain comic books. Back during the Golden Age and even the early Silver Age of comics copyright only lasted twenty-eight years. You could renew it for an additional twenty-eight year term and that’s what’s happened to most of the really popular entertainment of that time, and then it’s been further extended by the Government. But if you didn’t get in that first twenty-eight year renewal prior to 1964 your work would fall into the public domain. Superhero comics boomed during World War II but then went bust after the war, and many companies went belly-up. Therefore, when it came time to renew the copyright on their comics and their characters there was no one to renew it. And Digital Comics Museum captures all these comics which you can read and download for free. Now if you would like to read them on their website you can do that pretty easily. If you would like to download them, most of their files are in what’s known as a CBR format which is a comic book archive, so you need a CBR Reader. For my Kindle I use ComiCat – it’s a very simple program, I just get the comics onto my Kindle and it will display them.

Now Black Cobra which we’re going to talk about today is a somewhat obscure comic that you can find there. However, there are others that are a little bit better known that are also available there. DC has bought the rights to various characters but doesn’t own all of their past stories, among them, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man. They bought all of the comic characters from Fawcett and Quality Comics, but all of the stories from this era are actually free-for-all that you can go ahead and read, and some just really interesting titles. There’s so much there that I might want to get to one day. But we’re going to start with Black Cobra because he’s got a relatively short run, and also I’m working on a book where I use some public domain superheroes, so I’m kind of sharing some of my research on these characters with you.

The one I’m talking about is actually the second character named Black Cobra. The mid-1950s saw a brief attempt to revive superheroes, and it only had been a few years after the Golden Age bust. And you can trace the root of it back to Atlas which was the precursor company for Marvel which revived the Submariner, Human Torch and Captain America, and particularly Captain America was focused on fighting communism. The others were there to a certain extent, and there were other characters during this brief period before the Silver Age properly began with the return of The Flash with Barry Allen. Probably the very best superhero from this era was Fighting American who was created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the creators of Captain America. They’d heard that Atlas was reviving Captain America as a communist fighter and they were like, “We can do better”, and they really could.

The Black Cobra was set to capitalize on this and first appeared in September of 1954. The book was published by Ajax Farrell and it had just a terrific first cover ‘Black Cobra, Number One’ just has him towering over this criminal or spy. It’s in Washington, D.C. and he’s even bigger than some of the buildings. It’s just a really unique, eye-catching cover. The Black Cobra is Steve Drake, an FBI agent who also runs around in a blue costume, a cobra emblem on his chest and a reddish-orange belt with red accents at various parts on the costume. Costume is made of a bullet-proof sort of plastic that is of his own design. In addition, he has a cool car with a pretty nice antitheft device; but other than that he just has his wits. They try to give him a sort of Clark Kent thing: he wears glasses after all and he has a girl who he doesn’t tell about his secret identity and who gets really mad at him when he breaks their dates. The first issue she looks particularly frightening, that’s absolutely terrified when he cancels their dates.

I don’t know if that whole Clark Kent thing works, I don’t think it does because he is, after all an FBI agent, and no matter how much you want to do the meek and mild-mannered thing, yeah, it just doesn’t work as well – particularly if it’s an FBI field agent. Maybe if it was an FBI scientist or something like that you could make it work for fictional purposes – not that I am saying that anyone of the FBI is any less than tough, just don’t send me emails any FBI agents out there. But I digress.

They did give him a sidekick, The Cobra Kid, and to be honest I know that in the ’40s and ’50s the sidekick thing was really common, but Cobra Kid is probably the most annoying sidekick I’d read. He…well for one thing there’s just sort of a cluelessness about him. For example, in the one story he’s in The Black Cobra says, “I think these two cases are connected to each other” and he’s like, “Can we just work on one case at a time?” And I’m like – OK, they are connected, they are the same case. They are different aspects of the same case. That is what he just told you. But Cobra Kid was only in one story which, I think, is a big positive.

One of the interesting things is an issue, one, he actually goes and conducts black ops on the side. In the final story in the first book he finds out that some anti-Communist rebels are planning to kill a Communist Party official in an Eastern Bloc country, so he travels over there and says, “Hey guys! I’m in your secret meeting but I’m here to help.” Later, he reflects that he needs to wrap up the case and get back to the FBI because they wouldn’t necessarily approve of what he was doing. He said it would be awkward. Yeah, awkward would be a word for an FBI agent participating in his own black ops overseas to kill officials of a foreign power, though I will say that the book does show that the country that the guy was from is just a horrible, tyrannical one. Ajax-Farrell published a lot of war comics and so I think this sort of ethics and thought that went into war comics kind of went into this as well.

Black Cobra series also had some oddities. One big thing is that the writers couldn’t seem to decide whether he had superpowers. The stories are all anonymous and I really suspect different hands were on different stories. Nothing in the first story mentioned him having superpowers; however, he accidentally took a pill that allowed him to stay up twenty-four hours a day and therefore he couldn’t use his powers – it was delayed in changing into Black Cobra. In another issue, Black Cobra is tied up near something that’s about to explode but is able to get out of it by changing into his Black Cobra costume where apparently he transformed and that broke the ropes and it has never been indicated that’s how this works. Apparently this is the thing as the writers read in other superhero comics, and so they went ahead and introduced it here even though they hadn’t established that that was a thing, and I don’t really think it is.

The other oddity is that Black Cobra had three issues and they were published in this order: Issue One, Issue Six and Issue Three. The reason: apparently the printer messed up and when they sent Black Cobra to print they actually sent it to print in the place of the Animal Humour comic, Billy Bunny, and Billy Bunny was up to Issue Five, and so the next issue would be Black Cobra Number Six replacing Billy Bunny. But then they would correct it and go back to Three. So, yeah, that’s a really weird numbering situation. However, despite the numbering issues, these are not bad stories for the time. Back before the War, comic books were sixty-plus pages long. During the War that went down to about half that, which is where it stayed after the War. With the comic book comeback attempt, the thought – particularly over at Timely – was that you still have a lot of stories in the book. They are just all short, so you would never get a very long story. So, none of the Black Cobra stories are more than eight pages long. Three issues contain ten Black Cobra stories. Issue Six or Two actually contained a non-fiction story about the first real press photographer in war zones, and then Issue Three had a Torpedo Man who was a diver, who fought a criminal boat owner which I was kind of being curious to see if it would have ever gone anywhere else. The ten Black Cobra stories are very well paced, and they involve either communism or just plain crimefighting occasionally.

They are pretty well-paced adventure stories and I actually liked the Black Cobra stories more than I did some of the Marvel or, I should say, Atlas stories that I read in the Masterworks from the time. They really seem to fit very nicely within the length of the comic for the most part. So, even though they’re short they don’t feel like they’re rushed, so it just makes a very fun read with a mix of typical action and adventure and a bit of silliness thrown it which is typical and appropriate for the era. Black Cobra wasn’t the best comic ever made but it was entertaining. The design of our hero as well as the concept when the writers are clear on what the concept is supposed to be are actually pretty good. If history had gone differently I think there is more that could have been done with this character.

Overall I will give the Black Cobra and his 1950s adventures a rating of Somewhat Classy. It’s not the best of the best but it’s still a fairly enjoyable read for the era. Alright, well that’s all for now. If you do have a comment email it to me: classiccomicsguy@gmail.com; follow us on Twitter @ClassyComicsGuy and check out the website classycomicsguy.com. From Boise, Idaho this is your host, Adam Graham, signing off.

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