I chased this unicorn for over 30 years.
I’d heard it was out there. I’d seen fuzzy pictures of one. And once, I saw one in person--on a backboard at a comic book convention.
My unicorn was WAGS.
WAGS was the comic tabloid that achieved legendary status for its hosting the earliest efforts of the equally legendary Eisner-Iger comic shop.
The publication itself had a unique history. It was a transcontinental production: conceived, put together and printed in the U.S., but sold and distributed in Great Britain and Australasia.
The tabloid was the brainchild of publisher’s representative Joshua Bryant Powers. Powers, who had carved out a unique niche for himself as a man who represented American syndicates overseas, had a colorful past. A University of Texas graduate and WWI era flying cadet, he had once run the United Press bureau in Buenos Aires in the 1920s. He maintained his close ties to South America much of his life and reportedly acted as an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency on that continent.
Powers had founded Editors Press Service in the Thirties to do the above mentioned work of syndicating American newspapers, columnists and comic strips to foreign countries. (Editors Press may have also provided another service. It has long been suspected of being a CIA front.)
As a way of lowering the costs involved with four-color printing, Powers came up with the idea of the export only publication. Entitled WAGS--a name he came up with because he thought it sounded “typically English”--the paper was 16 pages of American strip reprints.
According to British historian Denis Gifford, the first issue went on sale in Australasia on September 8, 1936 and was an immediate hit. The British edition debuted shortly thereafter on January 1, 1937. The success of both publications prompted Powers London agent, T. V. Boardman, to split off and start his own reprint tabloid--OKAY COMICS WEEKLY.
Boardman had the British rights to some of the American strips and took them to start OKAY. This left Powers with a hole to fill in his publication, so he contacted a small outfit just starting out to produce material for him. Eisner and Iger had the first major client of their Universal Phoenix Features.
Gifford states that the first issue to carry the new UPF features was #17, dated April 23, 1937. What is not clear, though, is whether these strips appeared in both editions of WAGS simultaneously. From the date and issue number Gifford cites, he was looking at a British issue. Confounding the situation even more is the fact that the Aussie version didn’t carry a date, only a volume and issue number.
Aside from the facts above, there has been little information uncovered about the WAGS of Oz. Until now.
Thanks to the goldmine that is eBay, I have been able to purchase several issues of the Australasian WAGS over the past few years.
The earliest issue in my possession is volume 2, #13 (the issue number appears on the back cover). It takes a bit of work to determine the approximate date.
If the Aussie WAGS indeed began on September 8, 1936, then that should place this issue sometime in 1937. A few of the reprinted strips have a date of “4-11-37”, while Little Orphan Annie is dated “8-1-37”. Obviously, this issue appeared after that. If WAGS was a weekly, then one year plus 13 weeks after its September 8th start would place it in mid-December,1937.
WAGS vol. 2, #13
The cover features Moon Mullins, but is unsigned and certainly not by its creator, Frank Willard. My guess it is drawn by Eisner. The stock characters in the image resemble some of the earliest Eisner art I’ve seen and it’s unlikely he would trust a cover drawing to anyone else in his shop at this point of its existence.
Inside the front cover is a small indicia:
As already noted, the bulk of the tabloid is made up of four color reprints of various American strips. The Eisner-Iger shop provided 7 pages of content, all printed in black and white.
(Gifford reported that the shop supplied 8 pages per week, but the only other black and white printed strip in this issue was a page of John Hix’s Strange as it Seems and John Hix’s Scrap Book, neither of which was a UPF strip.)
Eisner’s own Hawks of the Seas leads off the new material. This episode is numbered with a “10” in the final panel. Each of the other UPF strips that carry a number are also designated with a “10”. This brings up the possibility that the UPF contributions are only ten weeks in--which would mean they began in about June of 1937. If so, that could mean that the Aussie version of WAGS ran the Eisner-Iger material two months later than its British counterpart.
Hawks of the Seas
Bob Kane’s Peter Pupp is a revelation to those who only know him as the early artist of Batman. Kane supposedly spent some time at the Fleischer Studio circa 1934 and that animation experience shows in this strip. Like Hawks and most of the other UPF features in WAGS, Peter Pupp was reprinted in JUMBO COMICS. Eisner and Iger had bought the printing plates from Powers and re-sold them to Fiction House.
Next up is the first of Don DeConn’s offerings in this issue. It is The Adventures of Tom Sherrill. The graphic technique DeConn used seems to be derivative of advertisements from that era. His geometric forms were rendered so similarly from panel to panel, that it’s possible he employed woodblocks or something akin to them.
The Adventures of Tom Sherrill
DeConn’s Puzzle Phun was illustrated with the same static graphic style. DeConn’s features were also reprinted in early issues of JUMBO COMICS and then he seems to have left the industry. The only other credit I can find for him was as the illustrator of a 1940 children’s book entitled, THE HUMPTY-DOTS, by Susan Holton.
Like all of the contributors to this issue of WAGS, Les Marshall had worked on WOW, WHAT A MAGAZINE!, the seminal Henle publication that provided the original staff of the Eisner-Iger shop. Marshall’s contribution here was Modern ‘Planes, a one large panel strip devoted to that subject. Apparently that was also Marshall’s only interest, as every feature he is known to have drawn is a variation on this panel.
Spencer Steel was credited to “Dennis Colebrook”, which was a shop pseudonym. In this case the likely artist was Eisner himself.
The final UPF strip is also one of the most interesting. It was The Hunchback of Notre Dame by the great Dick Briefer. Briefer‘s Hunchback appeared initially in WOW! in 1936, years before he brought Frankenstein to life.
Hunchback of Notre Dame
Subsequent issues of WAGS would feature other strips by other artists, but that’s a subject for a future post.