Monday, June 4, 2012

A tribute to Landor: Maker of Monsters!

No doubt about it, villains are one of the main reasons I read comics. Whether they’re corny, irredeemably evil or sympathetic, a good villain is always what makes for a good adventure. Comics have always been trying to top themselves when it comes to villains, and it’s a lot of fun examining these characters whether or not they caught on or not.
 In fact, even before superheroes caught on, the comics were already villain mad. Hordes of comic book stories were produced using the Fu Manchu-Dracula format of having a villain as the titular character but focusing on the exploits of the heroes who opposed him. To be fair, most series using that format in early comic books were lousy Fu Manchu rip-offs, and believe me, a full list of such series would be staggering. There were some standouts though, like The Claw, Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein and, yes, Sub-Mariner in his early stories, although he stood out by being the focal character.
 But there was one villain-focused series which fell into obscurity which I have come to find fascinating; Bob Powell’s Landor: Maker of Monsters, which ran in Speed Comics #1-11. Landor is one of my favorite Golden Age back up features. What made this series stand out was that, by 1940s comic book standards at least, Landor was a complex, occasionally sympathetic character with a weird sense of honor, and was sometimes more likeable than the strip’s ostensible heroes. Best of all, unlike other villains, Landor was never reduced to being a supporting villain for a superhero (like The Claw) or turned into a comical figure (like Frankenstein) or made into a superhero himself (like Sub-Mariner). Nope, Bob Powell kept his monster-maker close to his roots through thick and thin. As a big time horror fan, I have to admire his conviction.
 That doesn’t mean, of course, that Landor wasn’t an extremely silly and derivative strip reeking with early 40s cheese. This definitely wasn’t Eisner quality storytelling folks! That still doesn’t prevent it from being great fun for anyone who is a fan of vintage horror films, books and comics.
 It began, like any good horror story, on a Dark and Stormy Night ™….
 A young scientist named Landor was working in his lab late that night, when his eyes beheld an eerie sight busy putting the finishing touches on his latest monster, which resembled a cross between the Universal Frankenstein Monster and an ape, when his work was interrupted by a young couple whose names were Anthony Torrence and Marcia.
 Just at that minute, the monster let out a shriek, and Landor asked for Torrence’s aid in restraining his creation.
 However, the creature apparently took a “fancy” to Marcia, so Landor held both Marcia and Tony hostage; my guess is because he wanted to mate her with the creature.

 The creature didn’t take too kindly to seeing Marcia manhandled like that, and attacked Landor, before getting in a fight with Tony that apparently killed the creature. During the struggle, an oil lamp hit the floor and the whole castle caught fire (stones can catch fire?). Our heroes escaped and left Landor for dead.
 It was hardly an earth-shaking story, but it had some great art, a cool monster and a villain who broke the mold: He wasn’t a shameless Fu Manchu-rip off, he was a shameless Frankenstein rip-off! One could argue though, that since he predated any villainous depictions of Dr. Frankenstein on film, that he was a precursor to Hammer film’s Frankenstein series starring Peter Cushing, which portrayed ‘ol Victor F as a ruthless, misogynist maniac.
 Landor had also brought his creature to life with an injection rather than the usual electrical equipment, quite possibly a reference to HPL’s Herbert West stories. Or was it? More than likely it was because the story ran only 4 pages, and a big “creation” scene with lightning and electrical doodads would have wasted valuable panel space.

 But that was not the end!
 Landor returned in the next issue, wearing a reaper-like costume for some unspecified reason, and this time he created a beautiful female monster named Carda whom he sicced on Anthony and Marcia, who were both still living in the same vicinity for some reason.

That's some damn good use of perspective

 Poor Carda suffered a rather gruesome death for her troubles.
 Still, what I want to know is how Landor got the lab cleaned up in time. Eh, maybe his castle was insured.
 In the next issue, Landor created a giant mosquito, which could have made for a really creepy weapon for a world domination scheme, but instead he simply used it to abduct Marcia. Why he couldn’t have created another humanoid monster to do it is anybody’s guess, but hey, comics.
 Marcia awakened in Landor’s lair, where he sat playing an organ.
 She crept up behind him and whisked off his hood, revealing why he now wore it!
 No question what was being referenced here:
 Apparently Landor’s face was not only affected by the fire, but his grammar as well:
No buddy, it's "You shall BE killED for this".

 Reminds me of Captain America’s famous “and it won’t be me” line.
 Oh well, I’m not a disfigured mad scientist, so I can’t say I wouldn’t have made the same mistake.
 After three encounters with Landor, Tony and Marcia still hadn’t learned a thing:
 The next adventure would be the first to break the formula of Landor creating a new monster and sending it out to attack Tony and Marcia, and it would be a turning point for the strip in more ways than one. It began with a horde of madmen terrorizing America with bulletproof armor and disintegrator guns.
 However, this was NOT the work of Landor!
No, instead, Landor, who had somehow made his way to the United States (where Tony was apparently living now), offered the government a bargain; in return for Tony’s life, he would destroy the terrorists with a new robot he created:
                                                         Err, okay, not a robot. Whatever.
 Anyway, the robot worked like a charm, however it began to go rogue and attacked both Tony and it’s creator. Only Tony’s quick thinking allowed him and Landor to survive; he lured it into some power lines which short-circuited it.
 Landor thanked Tony, and released him from his debt.
 Tony then felt sorry that he and Landor were not on the same side, but the disfigured scientist would have none of his apologies:
 Well, at least he kept his word about letting Tony go this time. Either way, this story was odd in that Landor wasn’t the main villain, instead functioning as a sort of anti-hero. In fact, we never even got to see who or what was behind the terrorists. It was also the first time that Landor was treated with any ambivalence and pity from his enemy, a rare thing for a 1940s comic book villain to be shown. What was important was that Landor was shown to not be entirely evil.
 In the next two stories, Landor apparently was back to his old tricks; creating a “cat-man” and abducting Marcia again. I’m only going with GCD’s issues summaries, as I haven’t read those issues.
 But the next story I was able to find more than made up for it, as it made for a perfect companion to the last story in its “character development” for Landor.
 It began with famous surgeon Sina Zurat arriving at Landor’s castle on yet another dark and stormy night, which I assume from the captions, as it looks like broad daylight to me. I’ll chalk it up to one of Landor’s experiments.
 Landor was surprisingly welcoming of Sina (I love how he just answers the door like a normal person, you have to wonder if, looking like he does, he answers everyone who knocks on his door, be they Jehovah’s Witnesses or girl scouts) and took up her offer to assist him in his experiments. For a while they were happy.

 Together they created a female creature named Creeta (Landor must have had a thing for giving his female creations names that started with Cs and ended with As), and reacted almost like proud parents.
 Indeed, Landor and Sina felt very much like starting a family, and admitted their love for each other.
 Maybe they’d have continued their villainy, or maybe they’d have reformed, unfortunately, it was not to be.
 Seeing Landor and Sina together enraged Creeta (who was hot for daddy, I guess), who then attacked Sina.
 At that moment, Anthony Torrence (who now had a mustache) arrived for a final showdown with Landor (he had called the police, about damn time), but was frightened by Sina’s screams. Leaping to the rescue, Tony killed Creeta by unscrewing the bolt on her neck (So that’s what those bolts Frankenstein-type monsters are equipped with are for).
 Unfortunately, it was too late for Sina to be saved, she had been mortally wounded by Creeta.
 Landor was led away willingly, a “dejected figure, hating the world”. The typical blurb telling us to read next issue seemed almost like an afterthought.
 On one hand it was a fairly cliché story for serialized fiction; one where the hero finds true love, then loses it and walks away silently. Only this time, it wasn’t the hero in such a situation, it was the villain. For an early 40s comic book story, this was powerful stuff. Rarely would you find a villain this humanized in comics of the time. This wasn’t a story about a good guy battling the forces of evil, this was the sad story of a bitter, otherwise evil man who lost the one bright spot in his life. Landor was the story’s true protagonist, not Tony. Even Creeta, the real villain of the story, was not truly evil, merely jealous.
 The next story had Landor up to his old tricks again, creating a monster to kill Anthony Torrence. This monster had been created to be handsome, but was disfigured when the operating table fell. Landor promised the creature he would make him handsome by giving him Anthony Torrence’s face (wonder if this was the inspiration for the film I was a Teenage Frankenstein). Like all of Landor’s monsters, the creature failed, this time by kidnapping the wrong man (Hey, it’s not like he was supposed to know who Torrence was!) .
 This was a pretty typical episode, but it was interesting for two reasons; one was that the man who was kidnapped in Torrence’s place was an Asian named Kung Fu Tse, who was depicted as an old friend of Anthony’s. Obviously, he wasn’t going to win any praise from Asian groups with that name, but Kung Fu Tse was depicted sympathetically, drawn realistically (he was not colored with the same yellow skin as all other Asians in comics were) and shown to be competent and heroic. The other was that this story established that Landor had once attended the same university as Torrence and Kung Fu Tse (who had gotten Landor expelled), something that wouldn’t be brought up again. The story also set up Kung Fu Tse to be a recurring character as well, but he only returned once after this.
 The next story featured Landor creating a blindness “serum” and a fish-man. It was same old same old. Now Torrence and Landor’s fights with each other were becoming ridiculous. They seemed to be less like epic battles between a globe-trotting adventurer against a mysterious madman who could strike anywhere at any time, and more like disputes between two feuding neighbors, with Torrence marching down to Landor’s castle (why the hell was it still standing?) like an angry parent who had just found out his neighbor’s kid had gotten chosen for the football team instead of his.
 And get this, now Torrence’s name was ‘Jack” instead of Anthony. He also didn’t have the mustache any more.
 What a dick, telling his fiancée that he was glad she had regained her sight just so she could see his face. He also mocked Landor’s disfigurement in the story too.
 Like I said, what a dick.
 Hey wait a minute, JACK Torrance? 
Sweet dreams, Marcia.

  Landor’s next few schemes became increasingly less outlandish, such as framing Torrence for robberies, or just breaking into Torrence’s house like a common crook. Unfortunately, we never got to see him get his game up again, as issue #12 of Speed Comics introduced several new features, which crowded Landor out. Maybe the strip wasn’t very popular to begin with, or maybe those mediocre last few stories had done it in, or maybe there was very little left to do with Landor after the Sina story had humanized him so, or maybe it was all too scary for young readers. Whatever the case, Landor has never been seen again.
 I wouldn’t call the Landor stories classics, but they certainly stood out for the time. Combine that with some great artwork by Bob Powell, humanizing moments for it’s villain that were unusual for the era, and some enjoyably bizarre monsters, and it’s one of the few back-up series I would say are worth hunting down so that they can be read on their own.
 One also has to wonder, was Landor the inspiration for a more long-lasting comic book villain? Or is it just a coincidence that there have been two mad scientists in comics who live in gothic castles, dabble both in science and magic, wear green hoods, have disfigured faces, have occasionally had sympathetic moments and been shown to have a sense of honor, and are constantly at war with former college acquaintances who they blame for their disfigurement?
 Probably, but you never know…
 Anyway, ‘ol Landor is in the public domain, so anyone can do whatever they want with him. Is he worth a revival? Have at it folks!

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