Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Captain America’s creepiest cases:

 It’s becoming increasingly common for academics with a soft spot for comics to talk of how superheroes are our modern mythology. That’s a pretty good hypothesis, yet I’d argue that superhero comics have become a mythology all on their own. Think of all the stirring, iconic moments in comics that every reader knows: Spider-Man lifting off tons of machinery off of himself while trapped in Doc Ock’s flooding hideout, Sprang-era Batman and Robin escaping an absurd death trap created by the Joker, The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner engaged in pitched battle over New York, the JSA trapped by the Injustice Society, Captain America battling a deranged fanged lunatic (whose tongue is waggling in almost obscene manner) in a gothic nightmare filled with every imaginable horror, the settings often in gothic castles caked with crumbling bricks that were old when the stars were young, the stench of death itself rising from the page…
 Hey wait a minute! Since when did Captain America do that kind of stuff? Wasn’t he a soldier who fought Nazis in every story and was always off saving people in occupied Europe?
 Not really, not most of the time.
 The modern perception of Captain America as a soldier in a costume fighting the Nazis or Japanese overseas stems from two things: One is the covers. For many years, with the actual Golden Age Cap stories out of print, the iconic covers (that rarely ever were accurate reflections of the contents) showing Cap punching out the Axis forces were all that fans, writers, and artists had to go on when wanting to research what Cap’s adventures were like during the good ‘ol days. The other is the Comics Code Authority, who made damn sure that whenever a Golden Age Cap story was reprinted, it had better be cleaned up considerably. Thus, Cap’s few actual encounters with the Axis (most of which took place on American soil) were what got reprinted the most, and not his more typical adventures.
 The Code had pretty good reason to censor or outright refuse to reprint Cap’s more typical adventures from the era. You see, the original Cap stories were awash in grisly, often ghoulish violence, lurid scenes of bondage, torture (with a penchant for close-ups of the victim’s pained, dying faces), and death imagery. Even Simon & Kirby’s justly famous topsy-turvy panel layouts and full page spreads contributed mainly by giving things an off-kilter, deranged feel and manic pacing which was sometimes frightening in and of itself. Villains would often grow fangs and claws in some panels, to emphasize their villainy.
 Make no mistake, Simon and Kirby were definitely ahead of their time and prescient of future comics, it’s just that the comics they were prescient of were the horror comics of the 1950s. That is not to say that horror elements didn’t turn up in other superhero comics of the time, they did, especially in the Timely line. In fact, I’d argue that MLJ’s Hangman series outdid the Cap stories when it came to gruesomeness, but it’s still a little jarring to think of Cap, second only to Superman in most people’s perceptions of noble, upright superheroes who embody a simpler time, as having once been the star of a series that was the epitome of lurid, horrific pulp-inspired action. In fact, when superheroes were on the wane, Cap’s series was converted into a horror anthology called Captain America’s Weird Tales.
 This being the Fourth of July, I’d say it’s time to look at some of Caps’ creepiest Golden Age adventures (in no particular order). Who’s strong and brave and here to save the American way by reading this list?
10) Cap gets ahead (from “The Wax statue that struck death” from Captain America Comics #2):
 A mad fiend goes around killing off politicians and making sculptures of their heads. Could the mysterious mayor be involved? After Bucky is kidnapped, Cap investigates, and comes across this gruesome discovery:
 Obviously, this story owes a debt to the 1933 film Mystery of the Wax Museum (remade in 1953 as the more well-known House of Wax), but you can’t deny the gruesomeness of this variation.
9) Red Skull gets lynch-y (“The Return of the Red Skull” from Captain America Comics #3) :
 The Red Skull, as originally written, was a pretty buffoonish villain; almost a precursor to bumbling 80s cartoon villains like Shredder and Skeletor, and for the most part, he would remain one for the rest of the 40s, some great creepy splash pages and covers aside. What set him apart was his horrific appearance and the high body count he racked up. Anyway despite dying in the first story, he was too memorable a visual to be forgotten, so Simon & Kirby brought him back for the third issue, which also provided him with his greatest moment.
 Two mobsters disguised as Cap and Bucky are captured by the Skull’s goons. The two try to explain the mistake but the Skull doesn’t listen. He orders them both to the gallows.
Then we get this scene:
 Yeesh. The Skull wouldn’t get much more moments like this. He did however, return from Hell in the last published 40’s Captain America story, where although it was a pretty routine story, did notch up the creep factor by implying that now, his hideous visage was no longer a mask.
 Not always that effective a villain, but always effective as a scary visual, the Red Skull’s undead appearance made him the perfect Cap villain for the era.
8) Sanctuary! Sanctuary! (“The Hunchback of Hollywood and the movie murder” from Captain America Comics #3):
 No question what they were ripping off here:
 A film studio decides to make a medieval thriller similar to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in order to increase support for the war effort because it's rooted in the theme of of good vs. evil. Somehow, this attracts the attention of Nazi spies. No idea why they would target a period film barely connected to the war at all besides the good vs. evil theme (and after all, didn’t the Nazis consider themselves good?), but Nazis have come up with dumber ideas.
 Anyway, the filmmakers go to Fort Lehigh (where Captain America is stationed as Steve Rogers), which apparently has a gothic castle, and some of the soldiers are hired as extras. Soon, a hunchbacked figure begins killing off cast members in various gruesome ways:

 Suspicion soon falls on the actor playing the Hunchback, Goris Barloff (ha ha ha), who actually does bear a reasonable resemblance to the real William Henry Pratt.
 This story has some similarities to the debut of Clayface from Detective Comics #40, but subverts it by having the Karloff figure turn out to be innocent. I’d like to think this reflects the sensibilities of both companies. In DC’s version, the killer turns out to be the “horror” actor, suggesting that because someone plays grotesque roles, then they must be bad person in real life. In Timely’s version, the killer turns out to be a handsome leading man and the horror actor is innocent. Even in the 40s, Marvel was the less conservative, more edgy company.
 The biggest downside to this story is the setting and the final showdown. Much of the story takes place during the day, when it would have been more atmospheric if it had taken place at night. Cap’s big showdown with the real killer also takes place after the villain has ditched his hunchback disguise. C’mon, who wouldn’t have wanted to see Cap in pitched battle with Quasimodo? Also, this wouldn’t be the last we’d see of the castle, it would return for another, far more atmospheric story.

 7) Who says a doctor can’t be sick? (“Horror Hospital” from Captain America Comics #4):
 After being injured by some thugs, Bucky is taken to a hospital run by the oh-so cheerful sounding Dr. Grimm. Bucky quickly becomes suspicious after meeting the doctor’s insane, disfigured patients and hearing strange screams in the night.
Cap eventually gets worried after Bucky is gone for too long, so he and Betty Ross investigate and finds out what Dr. Grimm’s game is:
This is Gorro:
 Turns out that Grimm is so insane that even after Gorro is defeated, he decides to throw Betty off a balcony, just for kicks. Well this is one mad scientist who lives up to the “mad” part. I just love the “la dee-da” hand movements he makes.
 Bucky also gets an opportunity to be quite the badass in this story, it’s he, not Cap, who takes out the rampaging Gorro. Brubaker’s idea of making Bucky into a trained assassin who was a force to be reckoned with even without Cap could be said to have it’s origins here.
 6) Even more lynchings (“The Strange Case of Who Killed Dr. Vardoff” from Captain America Comics #6):
 A scientist named Vardoff creates “super-silk” which will allow for parachutes to stay intact, however, he soon becomes badgered by various miscreants, namely a gun moll and a foreign businessman with a monocle. Vardoff, already under duress, knows something is about to snap. Sure enough, on the night that Steve Rogers and Bucky go over to meet with Vardoff, a masked figure called the Hangman apparently kills Vardoff (or at least, someone wearing his clothes) by hanging him, and then the laboratory is burned down. Was it the gun moll? Vardoff’s German assistant Ludwig? The Man with the monocle?
 Pretty soon, lots of people start turning up dead.
 The ending is actually pretty well thought-out. You see, we never did see Doctor Vardoff himself die, and all of the other victims are enemies of his…hmmm.
Yep. The killer turns out to be none other than the apparent victim! However, his motive wasn’t to steal his own formula or to sell it to foreign agents, instead, Vardoff simply wanted to protect his work from thieves, and what started as simply defending his own property spiraled into a whirlwind of murder and revenge.
 Nevertheless, Vardoff still wants to see his formula used for the war effort, and solemnly gives it to Cap, and announces that he will make himself pay for his crimes….by spraying himself with an acid gun:
In a move prescient of 2008’s The Dark Knight, Cap, feeling pity for the scientist, decides to keep the Hangman’s identity a secret and allow people to believe Vardoff was a martyr.
The hero we deserve.

 This is one of Joe Simon & Jack Kirby’s best written (and grisliest) Cap stories. We have gruesome hangings, corpses set on fire in order to disfigure them, autopsies, glass eyeballs being flicked out of corpses,
crazed vigilantes who unintentionally echo the killer’s actions,
and an ending which shows that just because someone is a hero to the war effort doesn’t make them perfect, and the tragic villain kills himself by spraying off his own flesh with acid, with the hero then deciding to cover up his crimes.…whew. It’s as lurid as it got back then.
5) Fair is foul and foul is fair (“Case of the Black Witch” from Captain America Comics #8):
On one hand, this is a pretty generic mystery story that feels like an episode of Scooby Doo at times, with it’s gaping plot holes and bogus explanations for how the villain faked their supernatural abilities.
He'd have gotten away with it if wasn't for his meddling death

 On the other hand, Joe and Jack just draw the hell out of this story. It also makes use of a castle setting (which I assume is the same one from Hunchback, after all how many castles does Virginia have?) far better than Hunchback does. All the ghoulies and ghosties on display are a joy to behold, and a precursor to the various monsters that would pop up in Joe and Jack’s Black Magic series in the 50s. Seriously, I notice things in the splash page when re-reading this story that I’ve never noticed before (I particularly like the elf coming out of the pot and that lizard-like thingy). Not too scary or lurid, but it demonstrates that horror imagery was what that really captured S&K’s imagination.
 4) They’re dead! They’re all messed up… (“Case of the Hollow Men” from All-Winners Comics #1):
 Thanks to the efforts of one Mr. Kitty, this is probably the most well-known of Cap’s Golden Age stories, having zombies doesn’t hurt either considering the ridiculous level of  exposure that the damn things get these days. This one is interesting though, with it’s obvious class warfare subtext. We see the poor being manipulated (through the guise of charity) by an evil foreign power, and turned into literal mindless zombies, striking back at the industrial world through acts of sabotage.
 And I’ve said it before, but these are some damn creepy panels:

 3) Wait, he’s called the what now? (“Challenge of the Mad Torso” from Captain America Comics #28):
 Cap’s gruesome and horror-themed adventures didn’t stop when Simon and Kirby left, Cap would face a “vampire of doom” and a werewolf.
 That said, none of them could compete with this bad boy. They call him the Mad Torso.
I really could just leave you the name and that would be that, but no, we must go deeper!
So in this story, the Torso allies himself with the axis so he can have the resources for kidnapping American industrialists. He taunts Cap and Bucky into challenging him by sending them bizarre letters. After tracking the villain down, our heroes discover why he’s chosen his particular moniker:
 Oh, and he’s also pain incarnate:
 He also wants to perform brain transplants to create a master race:
 Cyborg mad scientist Nazis called the Mad Torso who try to create master races through brain transplants. They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Gotta wonder if this guy was an inspiration for Arnim Zola.
2) When sparks fly (“The Man who could not die” from Captain America Comics #9):
 While they may have been masters of the splash page, Simon & Kirby could also provide damn good moody introductions, case in point:
 That said, the splash page isn’t too shabby either:
An early rap album cover?

 This story obviously owes a debt to the “executed killer returns” subgenre of horror movies, which at this point consisted of the genre’s two best films: The Walking Dead (1936) and Man-Made Monster (1941), and which would come to a halt with 1989’s godawful Shocker. It’s still pretty good, and addresses the old urban legend about how if someone survives an execution, they can go free. In this case, no. Villain Nick Pinto gets sentenced to die again, but he doesn’t seem too angry about it. He’s confident he can come back again.
 Despite only being 13 pages, this story racks up some considerable tension in the way it contrasts Pinto’s good spirits with his impending execution. The final showdown between Cap and Pinto is a bit rushed, but it does end with two rather gruesome deaths for the villains:


1) The most f-ed up thing ever written by a human (“Case of the Black Talon” from Captain America Comics #9):
There’s lurid and warped, and then there’s this. This is Golden Age Timely/Marvel at it’s “purest”. This one has it all; gruesome torture and murder, an undercurrent of sexual sadism, horrifically racist implications and an overall atmosphere of morbidity. It’s awesome.
 Steve and Bucky attend an art show where they see a bizarre painting of a black, twisted hand (looks green to me), and while walking back to the base, they see the same hand reaching towards someone. Apparently this is enough to get them to switch to their superhero identities, and sure enough, they find someone dead; an artist in this case. The man's paintings are just as mutilated as his body. This has been happening for months now, so Cap and Bucky investigate.
 The prime suspect is Pascal Horta, a painter whose hand was crushed in an accident. However, Cap and Bucky arrive to find him hanged (Man, Simon and Kirby loved them some lynchings, didn’t they?). So he’s ruled out, right?
Nope, he just faked it.
Now that is creepy.

Pascal is indeed the one. You see; when his hand was crushed, he lost hope that he would ever paint again:
 However, his doctor decided to test a new procedure on him by transplanting another man’s hand onto his wrist. However, the only man willing to cooperate was Strangler Burns, a black serial killer slated for execution:
 Pascal reluctantly underwent the operation, and was elated at first to have regained his ability to paint, but then…
 Slowly, he grew to like his gruesome new paintings, and needed inspiration…
 While definitely inspired on some level by The Hands of Orlac (or more likely, the 1935 film Mad Love) in the “transplanted hand of a killer has a mind of it’s own" theme, there’s no denying the ghoulish inventiveness on display. Wanting artistic inspiration as a motive for murder? That’s definitely a new one, and quite sick when you think about it. The gruesome close-ups of the faces of Horta’s victims have a really creepy Faces of Death quality. Gotta wonder if this was any inspiration on Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom.
 Thankfully, after almost 20 pages of unrelenting creepiness, the story at least ends on some good old fashioned hero vs. villain action to lighten the mood somewhat, even though Horta gets away. I don’t think any reader can deny how fucked up an experience the whole story is. That said, unpleasantness aside, it succeeds very well at keeping the reader in suspense, at making the villain both genuinely terrifying and sympathetic, and features some of Simon and Kirby’s best artwork. Also, it’s the first mention of Steve Roger’s appreciation for the arts, something that has become a lasting trait of his.
 If you’re going to read a screwed up Cap story from this era, make it this one. However, you might just want to take a shower after reading it.
 So as you can see, while Golden Age Cap might not have experienced the horrors of war, he certainly experienced a LOT of horrors!
 What was the reason for this? Tons of comic book heroes did nothing but fight the Nazis issue after issue, but Cap, whom everyone thinks of as comicdom’s #1 Nazi smasher, rarely did so. Why were most of his foes monsters? Lots of Golden Age heroes fought monstrous villains derived from horror literature and film, so Cap wasn’t exactly unique, especially, like I’ve said, at Timely. The explanation probably is something simple like “horror sells”, or Simon and Kirby’s love for pulp fiction and horror movies, or maybe just because monsters made for cool splash pages, but maybe it was something deeper.
 Maybe it was because, for the past few decades after WWI, Europe had been romanticized as a genteel, fairy tale-like place. “The old country”. However, with war breaking out, no one could afford to see it as that anymore. It was a land filled with strife, poverty, and genocide. It was like all the bad things from Europe’s medieval past were coming back; ruthless dictators, poverty, superstition, religious oppression. Only this time, it threatened to come to America. The “past” (Europe) was literally coming back to haunt us.
 Thus, just as how man has symbolically depicted his problems since time immemorial as monsters and demons, perhaps that is why Cap’s foes during this era consisted mainly of gothic monsters, fairy tale madmen (in the Bluebeard vein), seemingly medieval hangmen, witches, the walking dead, etc. We didn’t know if we could beat the Nazis, but these monsters representing European folklore could be slain. And in the case of the villains inspired by modern, American films and literature, hey why not keep up with the times?
Nah, it probably was just because monsters made for cool splash pages.
‘Keep ‘em flyin’.

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