Geez, comics have been around for a long time. And geez, they sure were different in 1941 than they are today.
Silver Streak Archives is a crazy attack of mercury poisoning that — instead of killing — gives you the super-power of having an amazingly great time breezing through this collection of crazy, weird, silly, breathtakingly wonderful comics that were created at around the time your grandparents were born.
The lead character in each of the four issues reprinted in this Archive is a guy named Daredevil. He's not Matt Murdock or his uncle or grandpa, but the guy who's been running around Savage Dragon for a few years, the one in the strange blue and red costume. In a couple of these stories Daredevil fights a vicious villain from the Orient called the Claw — a villain that would be absolutely overwhelmingly racist if he didn't look so goddamn goofy. Jack Cole draws one of the Daredevil/Claw stories and Don Rico draws another, and the absurdly kinetic artwork that both men deliver gives the tales a ridiculous amount of energy, like a three-year-old on a sugar high before he starts throwing up.
The stories in this book really put a reader in a completely different state of mind far beyond what might be true for any other book. The page above, from a "Captain Battle" story, is filled with yet still more racist imagery along with a ridiculous monster and a hero with a crazy eyepatch. All of this adds up to a crazy, almost dada type of comic story. But in the context of this book, it all works. We fall into this world and glory in the craziness of that world because the whole thing is so damn absurd and insane that it ends up being quite wonderful.
A strange portrait of America circa 1941 starts to emerge as you work your way through this book. America feels a bit tribal and more than a little bit scared of the "other," not surprising in a time period where the great European war was simmering overseas and Americans were feeling pulled into the war. So when "Dan Dearborn, Freedom's Son" gets forced into battle with Indians (whose golden skin is marginally less racist than the skin of the Chinese in the page above), it's easy to imagine this native son battling the Ratzis in a few issues rather than the Native Americans.
Some stories are just plain delirious wonderment. This "Pirate Prince" story is sheer childlike surrealism, ridiculous almost mindless wackiness that requires nothing from the reader but an extremely large ability to suspend their disbelief.
The most interesting story in this collection is a story featuring the super-hero Silver Streak called "The Adventures of the Laughing Hyena." In this story, the blonde Silver Streak and his equally blonde kid sidekick Meteor are reading the newspaper one day when they learn about something that "as an American, it makes me almost ashamed of my country." Flash then to a newspaper headline that reads "Lynch two more Negroes in Souda."Streak is outraged. "And this is the country that's supposed to show the way of democracy to the rest of the world! As long as such conditions exist, we'll have to hang our heads in shame!"
Our two heroes journey down to the village of Souda, where a boss named "Bull" is murdering black men to keep wages low. We witness Bull's henchmen skulk into Souda, attack a black man in front of his wife and child, drag the man off, tie a noose around his neck and prepare the man for lynching. As you can see, all of this looks fairly realistic and scary for the time. Thankfully our heroes find the event, stop the lynching and then — take matters into their own hands and defeat the evil Bull. No black character participates in the attack on their oppressor, which adds an unintentionally surreal and dark note to the story that probably wasn't evident at the time for readers. It was fascinating to find such a clear treatment of racism in the midst of all the other casual racism of the times, and a surprising sign of moral courage in the middle of a bunch of real kid's stuff.
Silver Streak Archives is a book of lots and lots of surprises. Many of the surprises are pure sheer fun. Others are intriguing or fascinating, and others are kind of dark and depressing. Regardless, it's great to have such an interesting look at the world of 70 years ago.