In between helping to pioneer the modern comic book with The Funnies and Famous Funnies, and becoming a juggernaut best known for Disney comic books, Dell Publishing made a brief excursion into superheroes along with the rest of the comics industry during the Golden Age. A character called the Owl was one of the most notable parts of that effort. The Owl was a crime-fighting costumed superhero published primarily from 1940-1943, first in Crackajack Funnies and then in Popular Comics. The definitive version of the character was created by Frank Thomas, likely from a concept by editor Oskar Lebeck, and debuted in Crackajack Funnies #25 in July 1940. The character is a private detective and millionaire playboy Nick Terry, who used his wealth to fund his crime-fighting activities as the Owl, most notably with his Owl plane. Terry's fiance, newspaper reporter Belle Wayne quickly discovers his secret identity and becomes his costumed sidekick Owl Girl. While obviously Dell's answer to Batman, the Owl also became an unusually sophisticated character by Golden Age standards and there are a number of issues of Crackajack Funnies featuring the Owl, up for auction in the 2022 June 5-6 Sunday & Monday Comic Books Select Auction #122223 from Heritage Auctions.
Although Crackajack Funnies is commonly referred to as a Dell Publishing title, that's a bit of a simplification. Crackajack Funnies was technically never a Dell title, but the Popular Comics series featuring the Owl's later adventures was published by Dell. Crackajack Funnies was a Whitman Publishing Co. series, and editor Oscar Lebeck worked for Whitman. Whitman was a publishing subsidiary of Western Printing & Lithographic Co. and Dell Publishing had a relationship with Western on a number of fronts at this time.
The Owl of Crackajack Funnies #25 was a significantly different character than the one that appeared in the very next issue. Editor Lebeck was apparently dissatisfied by the initial rather basic Shadow-inspired concept and brought in Frank Thomas to revamp the character immediately into something pointedly more Batman-like. But along with his first cover feature in Crackajack Funnies #31, the Owl's Golden Age adventures became a departure from the norm for Golden Age superheroes in terms of structure at that point. Instead of a series of disconnected stories from issue to issue, the storyline was ongoing in the modern sense. His saga vs the villain the Spectre, lasted three issues Crackajack Funnies #35-37, for example. The penultimate chapter of the Owl's Crackajack Funnies saga in issue #42 proved to be a turning point of sorts for the character's Golden Age career. After the villain Tuffy Hulks nearly beat series regular Police Chief Murphy to death with a lead pipe, the Owl in turn beat Tuffy to a pulp. The Owl's single-minded and vicious pursuit of Tuffy was a shock to his sidekick and fiance Belle Wayne aka Owl Girl, who questioned the nature of their relationship as a result. The Owl saga was never the same after that, nor was his relationship with Owl Girl. After the saga reached the pages of Popular Comics, it lost many of its standard superhero trappings, not to mention its unusual sophistication. The feature developed a whimsicle side. Belle Wayne eventually stopped wearing the Owl Girl outfit, and her presence was often played for comic relief. Even the Owl himself stopped wearing his full superhero garb, opting instead for his cowl along with a normal suit — in other words, a pulp-style hero.
But the Crackajack Funnies issues featuring the Owl developed into something interesting and unusual that is worthy of more attention, and there are a number of issues of Crackajack Funnies featuring the Owl, up for auction in the 2022 June 5-6 Sunday & Monday Comic Books Select Auction #122223 from Heritage Auctions.