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THE LAMONT LARSON COLLECTION

by Jon Berk

I was going to start off and proclaim that “I found Lamont Larson!”. However, from the perspective of Lamont Larson, he has never been “lost”. And, frankly, from my point of view, although I have often wondered about Lamont Larson, I never actively made this a crusade. I mean did I really think I could locate the man, who had amassed, as a boy, over 50 years ago, a collection of golden age comics which forms one of the most collectible and recognizable “pedigree” set of comicbooks in today’s marketplace? Well, with some perseverance and a whole lot of luck I have “located” Lamont Larson and have had the opportunity to speak with him as to his recollections of reading comics in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

But first, a little background. For reasons which I cannot fully articulate, I have been intrigued by collecting golden age comicbooks known as “Larson” books. The collection, uncovered by Joe Tricarichi in the early 1970s, comprises about 1000 comicbooks. Although there are a couple of books from 1935 and 1942, the bulk of the collection runs from 1936-1941; the heart of the pre-golden age and golden age. Although the Larson collection contains many of the early golden age keys, notable among the missing key issues is Detective 27, All Star 3 and Flash 1.

As “pedigree” collections go, the Larson collection contains some of the earliest books of any “pedigree” collection. The earliest issues for some pre-golden age titles are: Famous Funnies (May 1935), Tip Top 2 (June 1936), Funny Pages 3 (July 1936), More Fun 15 (November 1936), New Comics 11 (November 1936), Funny Picture Stories 1 (November 1936), Detective Picture Stories 1 (December 1936), King Comics 9 (December 1936), Detective Comics 3 (May 1937), New Adventure 17 (July 1937), Feature Funnies 9 (June 1938). Due to my interest in books from this early time period and Centaur comics, I kept on “bumping” into “Larson” books as the only specimens I could find. Eventually, as my awareness of the Larson collection grew, I took pleasure knowing that these books could be traced back to a single owner. I would search out books from this remarkable collection.

Although the condition of the books is variable (a few have been chewed by mice (see Keen Komics 1), or have water damage or have had coupons clipped out, including Jungle Comics 1, Planet Comics 1 and Target Comics 1 -the coupon of these books unfortunately being on the inside of the front cover), many books are in the VF/NM range or better. Whatever the grade, most books have outstanding page quality with light to moderate “foxing” due to apparent exposure to water. Books from this collection sell for Guide to a premium over Guide for simply being a “Larson copy”.

Many “Larsons” are easily identifiable by the name “Larson” prominently written in pencil on the cover. Besides the “flowing cursive” Larson signature (see Amazing Man Comics 15 and Samson 3), many books have a “different” Larson signature (see Red Raven Comics 1 and Whiz 16) or “Lamont” in a different handwriting (see Danny Dingle and Our Flag Comics 1). In many instances, the initial buyers of these books would try to erase the name from the cover- a perceived “defect”. Today that “defect” is sought out by the more avid Larson collectors. Some books just have a number on the cover (see Keen Komics 1), many books have “on” on the cover with (see Planet 6) or without (see The Comics 9) the Larson “signature”; others have no markings at all. The oldest books from 1936 have “P.N.” with a number (see Funny Picture Stories 3). Almost all the books have some degree of the distinctive foxing. Unfortunately, due to an early lack of information about these books, unless a particular book has a distinctive identifying mark, many “Larsons” have been assimilated anonymously into the comicbook marketplace.

What draws me to “Larson” copies (beside their generally nice condition) is the knowledge that the books are part of a single identifiable collection. Although not generally of the superior virginal (i.e. “not read”) quality of the Church collection, these books were read and accumulated by one person. My interest with Larson books prompted many questions. What is the meaning of the markings on the covers? Why the variation of the “signatures”? Was this the result of a father-son collaboration? What got him going on comics? How old was he? I thought these questions would never be answered. Wrong!

I had recently been offered a book which was a “Larson”. Inquiring how the book was identified as a “Larson”, I was told that it was from the coupon filled out inside the book (see insert of coupon from All Star Comics 1). Did it give an address? “Wausa, Nebraska”. I called telephone imformation but, alas, no listing for “Lamont Larson”. They did have three other listings for “Larson”. What the heck, I called the first on the list, and although not a relative, she put me on the path to locate Lamont Larson in Clay Center, Nebraska . Lamont Larson is currently 67 years old and recently retired as an English teacher.

In my initial telephone conversation I spent much time convincing Mr. Larson that I had both feet planted firmly on the ground and that I was genuinely interested in events that had taken place over 50 years ago. He is totally disassociated from the world of comics and had no idea of the prominence of his comicbooks. After convincing him that I was not crazy, I said, “Ah, you don’t know me, but I am interested in comics and, well, you collected them 50 years ago...” He interrupted me at that point and said, “I did not collect them, I read them.” This was a refreshing start.

Larson was surprised at my call. He had not given any thought to these books for many years. They were something that formed a part of his childhood, a part that he had let go as his interests turned to mystery novels and model airplanes. Understandably, Larson’s recollection of the events of reading comic books as a boy is vague at best. It came as “a very big surprise” for him to learn that his books had such notoriety for comic collectors. He admitted that his initial reaction to this information was that this was all “very strange”. As we talked, he warmed and found it “pleasant” as to the place his books hold in collecting circles.

Lamont Larson grew up in Wausa Nebraska, a small farming town in northeast Nebraska about 150 miles from Omaha. The town population was about 700. His family ran the local movie theater. As a boy Larson described himself as an “avid reader”. He read comics from about the age of 9 through the age of 15. As he told me, “I always liked comics in the daily and particularly in the Sunday paper. As they came up with comic books, I began to prize and enjoy them”. (Remember the “modern” comic book only hit the newstands in 1934, with original material beginning in 1935/1936.) He did not buy to “collect” comics, but rather, as Larson stated, “to read and enjoy them”. He stated that he always enjoyed the comics in the newspaper. Comicbooks represented “a step beyond that. I was developing a desire to read and I liked the high adventure that you got in some of those comics.”

Larson would purchase the comics at Cruetz’ Drugstore. Because Larson missed some issues as they came out, the owner of the drugstore, Fred Cruetz, suggested that he put aside all comics that came in and have Larson pick them up periodically. As Larson recalls Fred Cruetz said, “Well, I tell you what. We’ll put them away and put your name on them...and when you want to come in and get them, they’ll be here.” Larson accepted this arrangement. Tryg Hagen and Cecil Coop, employees at different times at the drugstore, were primarily responsible for placing Larson’s name on the books which were put aside for him. It is their handwriting, not Larson’s, that appears on the books. (This information explains the variation in the handwriting for “Larson” or “Lamont” appearing on the books, and puts to an end one of the small mysteries about the books.) This arrangement probably started some time in 1939- Larson would have been 12- as I am not aware of any “signed” Larsons before this date. This also explains some of the gaps in the early runs. All comics were purchased new; no second-hand comics were purchased to fill gaps.

Mr. Larson has no explanation for the numbers written on the books, or the “P.N.” or the “on” written on the books, except to state that many of the magazines sold at the drugstore, whether comics or not, would have the notation “on”. To answer these questions, Larson put me in contact with Norman and Bob Cruetz, the sons of the drugstore owner. (Cruetz’ Drugstore has been in continuous operation and run by the same family since 1895.) They stated that the initials identified the distributor of the books in order to make returns. “P.N.” stood for “Publishers News” and “on” stood for “Omaha News”. They also were able to identify who wrote Larson’s name on the books. The flowing cursive “Larson” and “Lamont” as appears on Amazing Man Comics 15 and Danny Dingle, respectively, was written by Tryg Hagen while the handwriting for “Larson” as it appears on Red Raven Comics and Whiz 17 was written by Cecil Coop (who helped out at the drugstore after Hagen died in 1940).

As to the numbers on some of the covers, the answer is less clear. Norman Cruetz believes it is a “call back” number by which the distributor identified books that were then ready to be returned. The retail outlet would then tear off the covers and return these books for credit. Cruetz believes this was the procedure for Publishers News. (Apparently after 1937 only Omaha News would be specifically indicated by a symbol on the cover.) In support of this theory it is noted that numbers do not appear on any book that has the “on” (Omaha News) symbol.

Larson’s parents would pay for the comics. They had no problem with him reading them. Larson stated that his parents viewed it as a cheap way “to keep me out of trouble”. He started reading them at the end of the Depression. As he reflected, “They were only a dime so it really wasn’t a big thing, although, sometimes, that dime was kinda hard to come by.” Although many of the books in the Larson collection were “reprint” books, Larson confided that he did not like these “funny books”, preferring “high adventure”, “far out”, and “fantastic” stories. His favorite characters read like a who’s who of the golden age: Capt. America, Capt. Marvel, Superman, and, his favorite, Batman. (Interestingly, his “handle” for CB was “The Shadow” due to the shared name “Lamont”.) He also had a tremendous interest in Dick Tracy both in comicbooks and Big Little Books which he adored.

Larson stated he was always careful about things he owned. Generally, he would put the comics away after he read them, although he acknowledged that some might have been thrown away. (This further explains the gaps that appear in many of the collected series). Initially, the books were in a box in a storeroom, but when his family moved in 1940 they were stored in a barn. This outdoor storage explains the mice chews on some books and the exposure to moisture- resulting in foxing- present on many copies. (This “storage method” of subjecting books to the extremes of the Nebraskan weather while sitting of the floor of a barn in a cardboard box and yet maintaining white pages is remarkable considering the elaborate procedures advocated by “experts” on how to properly perserve one’s collection.) Larson has no specific recollection of why he stopped reading comics, except to note that he had become interested in other things, such as mystery novels and anything to do with aviation. In fact, latter in life he started to collect hardback and paperback mystery novels.

Larson obtained a job as a teacher and moved away from Wausa leaving the comics in the barn. In the late 1970s, a local antique dealer, Dwaine Nelson, asked Larson’s mother (for whom he did odd jobs) about the books and an arrangement was made. Larson was suprised that they had been saved. Mrs. Larson who was anxious to remove the material in the barn sold Nelson the comics and many magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. Nelson had the books for about 18 months before he resold them. Nelson (with whom I spoke) recollected that he sold the comics and magazines for about $50 to $100. They eventually found their way into the hands of Joe Tricarichi.

As one looks back, it was the thousands and thousands of kids who, like Lamont Larson, latching on to this new form of entertainment, catapulted the nascent comicbook business into the thriving business it would be. And out of those thousands and thousands of books only a few survived through the years to be snapped up by anxious collectors today. Who would have thought that one of the most prominent collection of comicbooks would survive to this date, due to the idea of an owner of a drugstore in a small Nebraskan town and a boy who took good care of what he owned?

All text and photographic images © Jon Berk 1994, 2011. A previous version of this article appeared in the COMIC BOOK MARKETPLACE.

AMAZING-MAN.......To battle evil that is The Great Question

by Jon Berk

In the wake of Superman, men of special abilities were churned out by the comicbook publishers that sprang up in 1939 and 1940. Although DC was able to squelch the first pretender to Superman (“Wonderman” as produced by Fox Publications), it was unable to stem the inevitable tide of costume crime-fighters that followed. One of the earliest entries into the super-person sweepstakes was “Amazing-Man”, who first appeared in September 1939 in Amazing-Man Comics produced by Centaur Publications. “Amazing-Man” has the distinction of being the first “super-hero” to debut in his own title. (The character also has the distinction of being the first/one of the first comic characters to be announced in an amateur fan magazine as reported in a fanzine overview by John Giunta in Amazing Mystery Funnies 2/11, December 1939!)

Amazing-Man finds his origin in Tibet. (East Asia was a fairly popular breeding ground for super-heroes. This area was the site of the origins for characters such as “Wonderman” in Wonder Comics, “The Flame” in Wonderworld Comics, “The Black Condor” in Crack Comics, “The Human Meteor” in Champion Comics, etc.) An American orphan, Aman was raised and trained by the Council of Seven for twenty-five years. Each member did his part to develop the child to have all the characteristics of a man who would be imbued with the traits of strength, knowledge and courage. As the first story opens, Aman sits chained before the Council waiting for his final tests before setting forth into the outside world. Six of the Council have endowed him with the benefits of kindness, tolerance and bravery, but a seventh, “The Great Question”, has plans of “dire evil for the perfect boy...”

To prove his status as “an amazing specimen of ultra-manhood”, he must pass four tests. The first test is one of strength, wherein he bests an elephant in a pulling contest. The second test (depicted on the cover) has him chained and shackled with a cobra released. Just as the cobra strikes, with incredible speed and agility, Aman seizes the snake in his mouth. The third test is one to test his ability to withstand pain as he receives several knives thrown into his body. The fourth test is one of intelligence in which he demonstrates his ability to speak all civilized languages. He passes all tests.

His friend Nika has been working on an invisibility potion that has certain problems. He injects it into Aman and tells him he can will himself to disappear and, in his absence, will appear a thick green mist. Nika gives him a vial of the formula which must be taken once every week. Aman takes the customary good guy pledge to “always do good and never maliciously harm a brother human without just cause”.

With that he leaves for America. However, as he leaves, The Great Question, mulls over his own private plans and plots to use his telepathic influence to have Aman do as he commands. The vast majority of the stories center about the conflict between these two individuals.

Amazing-Man had neighboring features drawn by notable artists: “The Iron Skull” by Carl Burgos (his first android creation which was to be followed by additional android creations of “The Human Torch” for Marvel Comics and “The White Streak” for Target Comics), “Catman” by Tarpe Mills (who would render “Miss Fury” for Timely), features by Paul Gustavson (who would contribute “The Angel” for the first issue of Marvel Comics) and the wonderful “Frank Hardy” fantasy-adventure feature by Frank Thomas. Additionally, John Kolb contributed “Minimidget”, the first diminutive hero, who would soon be followed by Eisner’s and Fine’s “Dollman” in the December 1939 issue of Feature Comics. Latter issues of Amazing-Man featured the unique talents of Basil Wolverton in “Meteor Martin”- a variation of his classic “Spacehawk” character.

“Amazing-Man” was created by Bill Everett and was Centaur’s principal character in the super-hero sweepstakes. Although not the first published work by Bill Everett (that had occurred earlier in Centaur’s adventure anthology, Amazing Mystery Funnies 1 (cover) and the “Skyrocket Steele” feature in the second issue- September 1938), “Amazing-Man” was Everett’s first publicly distributed super-hero, beating by a month his most famous creation, “The Sub-Mariner” for Marvel Comics. (See Matt Nelson’s article in CBM 26 as to the first published appearance of “Sub-Mariner”.) In fact, what makes the early Centaurs so collectible is that the features were drawn by artists who would go on to greater fame with their creations for Timely publications. In “Amazing-Man”, Everett introduced elements that made his characters unique for the golden age- a continuing story line, conflict between two elemental forces (in the case of Amazing-Man, “good” versus the “evil” of The Great Question), and various names for his protagonist- “Amazing-Man”, “The Green Mist” and “Aman”.

William Blake Everett was born in 1917 in Newton, Massachusetts. His childhood years were spent working his family’s goldmine claim in the Vulture Mountains in Arizona. From there his family moved to Montana where he learned many of the attributes of being a “cowboy” (elements he obviously utilized as background information in some of his A-man stories and later Target Comics.). Everett was led into cartooning by his father. After his family returned to Massachusetts, and after a short stint in the merchant marine, Everett attended art school for a brief period of time. He joined the art staff of the Boston Herald, but soon moved to New York where eventually he became the art editor for Radio News magazine. After some further interim jobs, he joined Centaur Publications and met editor, Lloyd Jacquet. After about a year at Centaur, he joined Jacquet as Jacquet decided to form his own group to produce comicbooks.

According to his bio that appeared in the November 1939 issue of Amazing Mystery Funnies (Centaur profiled many of its artists in the middle issues of this title), Everett was “tall, red headed and handsome” and loved to “strum” his banjo and sing songs of the old west. The bio stated that Everett is “crazy about the sea”. In latter interviews, he acknowledged that he had been fascinated by Admiral Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole. This intense interest in the sea probably explains the reason that he created several characters that focused on the sea or water- “Sub-Mariner” (Marvel Mystery Comics), “The Fin” (Daring Mystery Comics), “Subbie” (Kid Komics), and “Hydroman” (Heroic Comics) and “Namora” which he helped refined/developed. After the golden age, Everett produced some wonderful horror renderings for Atlas in the 1950s. Although he went onto work in the commercial art field for a time, he returned to Marvel Comics to draw “Daredevil” and, once again, drew his most famous creation- “Sub-Mariner”- until his untimely death in 1973.

Centaur began publishing in March 1938. The publisher, Joe Hardie, had taken over a number of comicbook titles that were floundering (such as Funny Pages and Funny Picture Stories from Comic Magazine Co./Ultem Publications and Star Comics and Star Ranger Comics from Harry Chesler). He created a number of new titles with the help of Lloyd Jacquet. Jacquet had been an editor and packager of comics since the beginning- New Fun 1. While an editor for Centaur, in early 1939 Jacquet decided to set up his own company packaging comics to sell to publishers. He set up Funnies, Inc. with John Mahon (former business manager for National Periodicals and former owner of Comic Magazine Co.) and Frank Torpey. Jacquet took with him from Centaur Everett, Burgos, Gustavson and others. Everett became the art director for Funnies, Inc.

Jacquet created one of the first comicbook “shops”. Along with shops such as Iger-Eisner, Jack Binder, Harry Chesler and others, he packaged comicbook material to feed the insatiable hunger of publishers for comicbook material. At Centaur, he had utilized the talents of such soon-to-be luminaries such as Everett, Carl Burgos, Paul Gustavson, Ben Thompson and others. These men formed the nucleus of Jacquet’s Funnies, Inc. which packaged several comicbook titles in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The group that produced the features in Amazing-Man Comics were the same folk that were used to package the early issues of Marvel Mystery Comics. In fact, the premature demise of Centaur in early 1942 can probably be traced to the fact that much of its early talent was absorbed by the needs of larger publishers such as Timely and Quality.

“Amazing-Man” appeared in issues 5 through 26 of his own title (not 27 as stated by the Guide), and all five issues of Stars and Stripes. The first issue was number 5; there were no issues 1- 4. Although it has been suggested that the title continued from Motion Picture Weekly Funnies 1 and the covers numbered 2, 3 and 4, this supposition is probably incorrect. More probable is that Amazing-Man Comics continued from Western Picture Stories 4, one of the four titles produced by the Comic Magazine Co. Centaur clearly had continued each of the three other CMC titles (Comic Magazine/Funny Pages continued as Funny Pages. Funny Picture Stories continued with the same name from its previous company incarnation. Centaur’s Keen Detective Funnies 8 continued from Comic Magazine’s Detective Picture Stories, although issues 6 and 7 probably do not exist). It does not appear to be reasonable that WPS would be the only title that was not “extended” by Centaur. Therefore, it is only logical to conclude that Centaur “extended” the title run of Western Picture Stories with issue number 5 of Amazing-Man Comics.

Everett spun the initial tales through issue 11. Issue 6 reflects an internal struggle as the Great Question trys to bend Amazing-Man to his will by creating a “monster Aman”. He succeeds for a while In fact, “monster” Aman attempts to take over a criminal gang by brutally killing its leader with a pair of scissors. Eventually Aman is able to re-assert control over himself. However, this is the first of many attempts of The Great Question to assert control.

In issue 8 (December 1939) John Aman reads about the German invasion of Poland and decides to journey to Europe to oppose Hitler. With advance dating of books, this story probably appeared on the stands in late October/early November, not long after the September 1, 1939 invasion by Hitler. As such, Everett probably produced the first comicbook story of a super-hero journeying to combat the Nazis.

Engaging in aerial dogfights with the Nazis he is eventually shot down, captured and sent to a concentration camp. Eventually he escapes and joins the French in direct combat with the Germans. He commandeers a plane to bomb Berlin. The story continues in succeeding issues as Everett has Aman raining bombs on the German countryside only to be again captured.

At this juncture he is “ordered” by the Great Question to return to Tibet. Escaping and stealing a plane, Aman commences his round the world odessey when he finally (issue 11) returns to Tibet to be “purified” by fire by the Council of Seven. He is instructed not to meddle in the wars of others but to fight for “peace, justice and right”. At this juncture he is given his chest straps and chest amulet which would serve as his “costume” for the rest of his tales. Additionally, he no longer has to take weekly injections in order to turn into a mist; that power now being in his chest amulet and mind.

With that he returns to America where he rescues a woman, Zona Henderson, from some treasure hunters. With this tale, Everett’s tenure ended. However, the adventures of Amazing-Man - John Aman, special investigator - Aman - The Green Mist - were handled by Al Kirby and Sam Decker. These succeeding adventures involved elaborate machinations of The Great Question to lure Aman to a deathtrap.

In early adventures his strength which was the strength of twenty men (issue 14) dramatically escalates by issue 15 wherein he lifts up a whole submarine. By issue 20 (February 1941) elements of fifth columnists and saboteurs are introduced, who are usually flunkies of The Great Question. The Great Question abandons his hood of earlier stories for a face mask and uniform that is obviously Nazi in design. Amazing-Man foils plot after nefarious plot of Mister Que (as he is now called) who now is working openly with the Nazis. (As he tells Hitler in issue 22, “Call me ‘Mister Que’, it shorter”.. ). However, every time Aman is about to capture him, Mister Que uses his “black magic” to escape. In issue 22 (May 1941), Aman foils a scheme in which Mister Que has frozen the English channel so the Nazi war machine can invade England.

After being a monthly publication since issue 9, issue 22 is a month late and issue 23 does not appear until three months later (August 1941) wherein Amazing-Man obtains the services of a boy companion. (Several stories of Amazing-Man continued in Stars and Stripes which started also in May 1941. Interestingly, the story in the July 1941 issue picks up the story line from Amazing-Man 22. However, the preceding story in the May issue of Stars and Stripes involves a storyline wherein Zona is whisked to Tibet to be given powers to aid Aman in his fights. This storyline is never pursued, apparently due to an editorial decision to give Amazing-Man a boy companion a la “Robin” as opposed to a “woman side-kick”. Coupled with the subsequent bi-monthly scheduling of the title, the addition of a boy companion was an obvious attempt to boost sagging sales.) The boy companion is Tommy, the brother of Zona. Tommy enters Aman’s secret room as Aman contacts Nika in Tibet. Aman is seeking greater powers to battle The Great Que. Nika floods the room with rays to increase his strength. Many of these rays also strike Tommy hiding behind the couch, giving him great power.

Tommy, the “boy wonder” (sound familiar?) outfits himself with a yellow shirt with a large red “T” on it. His presence in the stories is most often superfluous with Tommy usually being more interested where he can obtain his next ice cream soda than aiding Aman. Aman and Tommy battle Nazis until the last issue of January 1942. (Note the “Meteor Martin” story in this issue ends in a cliff-hanger with the tagline to see the conclusion in the next issue of Stars and Stripes, which did not appear). Along with this issue of Amazing-Man, Centaur/Comic Corporation of America ceased to publish. Several inventory features and previously printed features were published shortly later as distributed by Chicago Mail Order Company in Liberty Guards, C-M-O Comics and, a publishing oddity of a comicbook with the Amazing Mystery Funnies logo on the cover to Amazing-Man 23 with the interior of . (This is in addition to the “remainder” reprints distributed by Elliot Publishing Co. in Double Comics.)

“Amazing-Man” remains a short-lived, but significant character of the golden age due to its creator Bill Everett, the host of reknown artists who contributed features to this title and the enterprising Centaur line of comicbooks.

All text and photographic images © Jon Berk 1995, 2011. A previous version of this article appeared in the COMIC BOOK MARKETPLACE. JSB 6/23/95