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Black Condor

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Of all the publishing houses in comics' Golden Age (1938–1954), Quality Comics probably had the strongest lineup of artists, with Jack Cole, Will Eisner, Reed Crandall, and Lou Fine. While the first three of these creative forces made their names on well-known and well-written series (Plastic Man, the Spirit, and Blackhawk, respectively), Fine flitted about from feature to feature, only settling down briefly on two of Quality's new superhero strips, the Ray and the Black Condor. Quality itself was one of the earliest comics publishers, started up by ex-printer Everett Busy Arnold in 1937, and much of its comics material was provided by the Eisner/Iger studio. When Eisner split up the studio, he took Fine and a few others with him, and soon Fine was working directly for Arnold as one of the company's top cover artists.


After a stint on Doll Man, Fine started work on a large number of strips, including the Ray (for Smash Comics), Uncle Sam (in National Comics) and the Black Condor, which first appeared in issue #1 of Crack Comics, in May 1940. The Black Condor's origin owed a lot to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, except in this case the unfortunate child was brought up by—you guessed it—condors. Dick Grey's parents are murdered by bandits while on an archaeological expedition on the steppes of Outer Mongolia. The orphaned child is picked up by a passing condor, which decides to raise him as her own. Over the years, Grey tries to imitate his condor brethren and finally discovers how to fly. Later, while looking for food, he is set upon by eagles and forced to the ground, only to be discovered by a convenient hermit called Father Pierre, who nurses him back to life and then looks after the lad. Later, the now ailing hermit, with his dying wish, urges Grey (whom he has taken to calling the Black Condor) to travel to civilization and use his amazing gift for the benefit of humankind.


Adopting a blue-and-grey costume with a hood (which he rarely wore), and with large, flapping wings of cloth beneath his arms, the Black Condor battled all sorts of wrongdoers in his first year, before (in Crack Comics #11) chancing upon the body of a dead senator, Tom Wright. Noticing that he and the recently deceased could pass for twins, the Condor inexplicably decides to assume the senator's identity, inheriting at a stroke a nice job in Washington and a pretty young fiancée, Wendy Foster. Only Wendy's uncle and guardian knows that the new Tom is an impostor, and he seems not to mind! As was so often the case in comics, Foster continually bemoaned the fact that Wright wasn't more like the dashing Black Condor, and she never did connect the two, despite her fiancée s' paltry disguise of a pair of spectacles worn when he was out of costume.


Most of the Black Condor's later adventures revolved around the machinations of the departed senator's killer, the evil, scheming lobbyist and industrial tyrant, Jasper Crow. On the entry of the United States into World War II, Crow conveniently became a Nazi sympathizer and the strip became flooded with German troops, spies, and insurrectionists. However, despite the unusual political backdrop to the strip, there was little to lift the Black Condor above its many rivals, except the extraordinary art of Fine, who drew the series for most of its twenty-four episodes. Fine was able to marry his superior figure-work and drawing ability with a graceful, fluid storytelling sense which was the envy of his peers. His Black Condor glided effortlessly from panel to panel in a succession of imaginative poses that inspired a whole generation of comic-book artists. When Will Eisner was drafted in 1942, Fine (a polio victim as a child and so too weak to enlist) was moved over to the more prestigious Spirit strip. Other hands, including Charles Sultan and Bob Fujitani, took over the Black Condor series in his absence, but the feature ultimately did not work without Fine and was canceled in Crack Comics #31 in late 1943.


After the war, Fine went on to become the highly paid illustrator that he had always dreamed of being, and Arnold's Quality Comics continued to thrive. However, by 1956 Arnold's comics empire was losing ground, and he decided to sell up to arch-rivals DC Comics, who continued publishing Blackhawk, Robin Hood, GI Combat, and Heart Throbs, but ignored the superhero characters (most of whom were long gone by that time, anyway). In 1973, newly installed Justice League of America writer Len Wein remembered that DC owned all those venerable Quality heroes and reintroduced some of them as a team called the Freedom Fighters. This new group consisted of Uncle Sam, Doll Man, the Ray, the Human Bomb, Phantom Lady, and the Black Condor, and they proved popular enough to spin off into their own comic in 1976.


In The Freedom Fighters, the Black Condor was portrayed as a slightly distant, sinister figure, but the comic was canceled before much could be made of his revamped persona. A new Black Condor appeared in 1992; this one was a Native American who underwent all sorts of medical experiments, ultimately allowing him to fly—under the tutelage of the ghost of the first Black Condor. The comic also included guest appearances by another one of Fine's past triumphs, the Ray. In spite of this, however, and the fact that artist Rags Morales was something of a Fine acolyte, the title was short-lived. In recent years, little has been seen of any of the great heroes of Lou Fine or Busy Arnold, except in reprint form, and it might take a collection of 1940s Black Condor strips to rekindle interest in the hero. —DAR

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