Jimmy Thompson's ROBOTMAN Volume 1
A 159-page ebook of terrific reading, curated by Frank Young. Jimmy Thompson's first 20 Robotman stories, lovingly restored and annotated, with FREE bonus section of INDIAN LORE, Thompson's long-lost mind-blowing American Indian epic.
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Jimmy Thompson was perhaps the greatest stylist in 1940s comic books, although almost nobody realizes it today.
Although he was a prolific and consistently high-quality creator, he never invented a hit superstar character, such as Will Eisner did with THE SPIRIT, or Jack Cole accomplished with PLASTIC MAN.
In 1938, when he embarked on his comic book career sometime in his 30s or 40s, Thompson was already a far more accomplished draftsman and commercial artist than most of his contemporaries in the business. Many early comic book artists were teens learning how to draw and still living at home. Thompson already had a wealth of experience ghosting newspaper comics, such as Roy Powers, Eagle Scout and Hairsbreadth Harry, and creating impressive commercial illustrations. He was a rare case of an artist coming into comic books from newspapers and syndicated strips. The dreams of most struggling comic book artists of the time were to go in the opposite direction!
As seen in this rare sports cartoon (above), circa 1933, Thompson had great drawing chops when Will Eisner was still popping pimples.
This raises the comic book mystery: why did Jimmy Thompson – an established, successful artist – pursue a career in comic books? It could only have been for the money!
Thompson’s first comic book stories appear in David McKay’s King Comics and Magic Comics– the only original material in titles which otherwise reprinted King Features syndicated material such as MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN and HENRY. These stories are tales of American Indians that Ron Goulart called “ the best Indian stories in comic book history.” Unlike the majority of the stampede of western comics that appeared ten years later, Thompson’s stories are all sensitive, informed stories told from the point of view of the Indians.
In 1938, at virtually the birth of comics, Thompson wrote and drew ‘Red Eagle,” a 76-page epic Indian story that comprised the entirety of Feature Book #16 (David McKay, 1938). This could be considered the first graphic novel. Obviously, David McKay was a huge Jimmy Thompson fan!
Thompson’s INDIAN LORE and RED MEN features (see this post at Easily Mused for a sample) ran until early 1943, when he abruptly changed horses in mid-stream to jump on the super-hero bandwagon.
From 1943 to 1947, he created stunning hero comic book stories for Street and Smith, National (DC), and Timely (Marvel).
It was also highly unusual, at the time, for any comic book creator to work for BOTH Marvel and DC, which Thompson did from mid-1943 to late 1947 (he continued to work for DC until approximately 1949). Thompson also worked for Fawcett, the third emergent leader in comics at this time, although we have yet to identify any of his work for this company.
In an effort to position themselves in the market – and probably as a natural artistic development – both DC and Marvel developed vastly different house styles in the early 1940s. DC’s output offered polished artwork and storytelling. Marvel’s books in contrast were crude and chaotic. Yet, in some ways, Marvel’s books were more powerful. Jimmy Thompson’s style did not fit into either company’s “house” aesthetic, and yet he produced hundreds of pages for both companies!
Thompson’s work, like Basil Wolverton’s, is stylistically unique and recognizable from a mile away.
Jim Steranko raved about Jimmy Thompson in his 1970 book, The Steranko History of Comics Volume 1. Steranko – an accomplished stylist himself – wrote that Jimmy Thompson’s style looked like:
“a combination of Jack Cole and Will Eisner.”As if that were not high praise enough, Steranko goes on to say,
“In fact, some of Thompson’s work topped theirs.”Like Jack Cole, his counterpart at Quality, Jimmy Thompson was his own one-man comic book packager, doing the penciling, inking, and lettering on the majority of his stories. Just as Jack Cole’s work has a highly distinctive look and feel, so does Thompson.
Steranko writes that “his technique was backed by good solid drawing, rendered cleanly and precisely.” Beyond his expert draftsmanship, Thompson was, in our opinion, second only to Cole and Eisner in his ability to design stunning page layouts and seamless panel sequences.
Sadly, unlike Cole and Eisner, who enjoyed success and recognition, Thompson’s work, after he left David McKay, never transcended the back-up stories level for DC and Timely. At DC he was often forced to create cramped 4-6 page stories that rushed by breathlessly. Timely's back-up stories were often longer than DC’s–one of the many ways the companies differentiated themselves. Thompson’s Timely work sometimes spread out to 12 pages. As well, Thompson was given the chance to draw stories featuring major characters, such as in this beautifully designed and rendered HUMAN TORCH story from Timely’s All Select #9 (Fall 1945):
As is true for a lot of Thompson’s work for Timely, the artwork is probably better than the stories themselves (written by unidentified staffers) deserve. Thompson gives these stories his all. From sweeping, perfectly laid-out cityscapes to graphically compelling close-ups of real people with real personalities, Thompson’s stories demand the reader’s attention and respect.
Thompson realized, as did Jack Cole and Will Eisner, that the text in comics has an artful dimension. He employs a brilliant mix of elegant typography (usually rendered with the same tool architects of the time used, a Leroy Lettering set) and hand-drawn colophons, sound effects and emphasized words. The effect is delightful eye-candy that propels the story forward. Check it out in this Sub-Mariner story from Marvel Mystery #54 (April, 1944)!
As grim as this non-PC wartime story is, Thompson’s art delivers the typical Timely 12-page opus of Armageddon with unexpected humor and elegance. For instance, consider the page 10 bitch-slap, or the stunningly drawn shipworks interior on page 8, top right. It’s worth looking at this story a second time to savor its juicy visual tidbits (something many have wanted to do with Prince Namor, no doubt!). Even though Thompson did not write these – or most of his post-David-McKay work – his robust style makes him almost a co-writer, in many cases.
During the time that Thompson drew these top-tier, testosterone-driven Timely stories, he also drew the lighter, and more humorous ROBOTMAN for DC. (See Frank’s great series of articles and reprints on ROBOTMAN at Sherm Cohen’s blog, here.)
At Timely, Thompson’s ANGEL stories are perhaps the closest in feel to his ROBOTMAN work, with more emphasis on character and humor, and less on blowin’ up enemy subs! Thompson brings a kind of Errol Flynn panache mixed with screwball comedy to these stories.
In “The Devil’s Imposter,” from Sub-Mariner #13 (Spring, 1944) Thompson starts out with a splash panel that gets funnier each time we look at it. The ANGEL barely notices the thug clinging to him, and doors seem to have no actual ability to restrain his heroic fun. Thompson’s manner of drawing this story takes a by-the-numbers Nazi crime story and turns in on its head, into a sly parody of super-heroes. (If you want to see Thompson draw a truly heroic figure, look at any of his Indian stories).
Next, here’s “The Tell-Tale Cigarette,” another ANGEL story, from the next issue of Sub-Mariner (#14, Summer 1944). This story is perhaps a better illustration of the fun Thompson had with this character.
Page five of the above story is a strong example of the superior design Thompson brought into the infant form of comic book storytelling.
Notice that he creates a sort of mirror on the page, where a short vertical stack of panels on the top left is reflected on the bottom right. On the other axis, he creates two open spaces void of background detail. This effect expertly highlights the action climax of the story. The poses of the characters dynamically mirror each other in opposite tension. In the top-right scenario action moves up, and in the bottom-left, figures push the energy downward.
Jimmy Thompson left Timely, it appears, around mid-to-late 1947, and mysteriously disappeared from comics after 1952.
The Comics Database lists Human Torch #28 (Fall 1947) as his last published work for Timely. We can only speculate on this career move. Perhaps a change in editors, location, personal situation… who knows? Thompson continued to work for National through 1950. He worked in comics a bit longer, creating non-genre pieces for Eastern Color’s titles New Heroic and Juke Box Comics and some westerns for Avon. Did Thompson pass away? Or did he, like so many other comic book masters of the time, such as Jack Cole, find a new career in another field?
The mystery remains, but so does his work. We’ll close with a stunning (and nicely scanned – thank you, scanners!) HUMAN TORCH story from DARING COMICS #12 (Summer 1945). There is a stunning array of stylistic technique in this story. We’ll call out one, in particular, which we fondly label the “proscenium effect.”
On page five, the center panel calls attention to its central figures. Thompson places them front and center, as if they are on a stage and the reader has front row seats. This creates a delightful theatricality to the “performance” of the characters at a time when most comic book stories were influenced by the movies. In fact, this is, in some ways, the perfect Jimmy Thompson page, with the jaw-dropping art deco cityscape in panel one, the antic exaggeration of the running figure in panel three, and Thompson’s masterful placement of speech balloons and typographical elements.
We hope to post more about Jimmy Thompson, whose work deserves to be much better known and appreciated. For now, enjoy “The Devil’s Murder-Web!”
- Frank M. Young, Paul C. Tumey, and Mortimer
All text copyright 2011 Frank M. Young and Paul C. Tumey