Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Horrifying Heroes of the Golden Age!

“Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…a…a…”
 With those words, a legend was born. However, one must assume that many other heroes went through a similar ritual, and based off of Gardner Fox’s theory of how one reality’s fiction is another’s fact, one must also assume that many a prospective crime-fighter reading this legendary scene thought “Really? A bat? That’s the scariest thing he could think of? Yeah it might have flown through his window, but why not go with something else? Or at least, why not make his costume scarier? If I were Bruce Wayne *I* could do better!”
 And trying to trump Batman when it came to striking terror into the hearts of criminals is something many a Golden Age hero tried to do. Sadly, none of them quite succeeded at capturing the imaginations of young readers, and thus, they fell by the wayside. However, being that today is the day where all things hideous and frightening are celebrated, it’s time to pay tribute to the hideous, horrifying, and often fascinating heroes of the Golden Age who really set out to scare criminals. Ignoring such Out of the Quicksand favorites like Dr. Fate, The Spectre and The Hangman (Who was horrifying more in personality than looks), get ready to meet some of the most obscure (some justly so) heroes the era had to offer.
 The granddaddy of all horrifying superheroes actually came not from comic books, but from the pulps: The Spider; Master of Men!
 The Spider was Richard Wentworth, a wealthy playboy, who with his many assistants, fought crime using a variety of disguises. He was a particularly brutal hero, killing bad guys left and right and burning a spider insignia into their foreheads. His identity was (in theory) known only to his associates, including the police commissioner, who tolerated him only because he didn’t have enough evidence to prove that Wentworth and The Spider were one and the same. I say his identity was known only to his associates in theory, of course, because in just about every Spider novel I’ve read, the villain figures it out, and finds some way to frame or out Wentworth, at least temporarily.
 On the covers, Spider was depicted as a handsome man in a domino mask, dressed not too differently from The Shadow. However, in the actual stories, the Spider was described as a hideous, hunchbacked, fanged, drooling, claw-fingered monstrosity with bushy eyebrows and wild hair. The few covers which referenced this look still toned it down. Not that this was an unforgivable decision on the artist’s part though; there had to be some way of telling the good guy from the bad, and in order to make The Spider’s brutality acceptable, his foes were so irredeemably evil and monstrous that they made the covers seem like horror stories enough without an accurately depicted Spider.

 When it came to comic books, the most prominent of the hideous heroes was The Face. The Face debuted in Big Shot Comics #1, published by Columbia comics, in 1940, and he lasted until 1948 (Unfortunately, there was a trade-off for this longevity, as I’ll soon address). He was created by Mart Bailey, who I’m pretty sure is no relation to Bernard.
 The Face was Tony Trent, a radio broadcaster who wore a hideous mask to terrify criminals. I’d like to make a “that’s a face for radio” joke, but nothing clever comes to mind.
 In his first appearance, the effect that the Face’s hideousness had on people was really played up; he caused a woman to faint several times, and in one instance scared a black Pullman porter so bad that he turned white (Hey, don’t look at me social justice warriors, I didn’t write this stuff).
  He also claimed in his first appearance that the man who made his mask had died so that his secret could be kept. That’s some awkward phrasing Tony.
 A running joke was that he would scare people unintentionally and then apologize.

 The Face didn’t really have any supporting cast besides his secretary, Babs Walsh, who knew his secret identity, but was still forever nagging him for being late to his broadcasts. Hey, I can’t blame her, it was the radio business that paid, not the crime fighting. The scenes of Tony leaping in and greeting her while in full disguise were fairly amusing; out of context, they looked like any ordinary couple saying hello, except that in his case, he had green skin, pointed ears and the most freakish widow’s peak known to man.
 Starting in Big Shot #6, however, the monstrous features of Tony’s mask were toned down, until he simply looked like a normal man with green skin, a widow’s peak, and deep-set eyes. Before long, he looked like a normal man with green skin, wearing a domino mask. Presumably this was done to make him less frightening to kids, yet, the covers still depicted him the way he was originally. Presumably, it was all a test, as The Face soon received his own title, although it only lasted two issues.
 Some later stories would restore his original appearance like in Big Shot #11, but the seed had been planted for the series’ ultimate direction.
 In issue #63, Tony became a war correspondent and gave up his identity as The Face; the feature became known simply as ‘Tony Trent’. He also got his own comic book in this incarnation, and it also only lasted two issues. He still used and mentioned the Face identity occasionally though. I’m glad to see that the creators didn’t just pretend the old stories didn’t exist, like Doctor Fate.
 Apparently readers missed the old Face, so in issue’s #74-75, a moving two-part story was told about how Babs had first discovered Tony’s identity, even depicting The Face as he had originally been drawn.
 My personal favorite Face story was the one in Big Shot #15, which began with Trent giving a Reefer Madness-style speech about the evils of drugs, frightening the villains by sending up a balloon he had painted to resemble his face, which made them think he was flying, and then getting thanked by border patrol for “being ugly, but sure getting the job done!”.

 The Face has been revived a few times, once by Steve Ditko, who was used to doing series about heroes who looked like monsters, and recently as part of Project Superpowers, where his mask had the power to make his enemies see their worst fear. None of these revivals have really lasted, but it’s safe to say that The Face was the most successful of the hideous heroes based on that track record.
 The second most prominent hideous hero, or to be more accurate, heroine, was The Spider Widow, who debuted in Feature Comics #57, courtesy of Quality. She was created by the very underrated Frank Borth; whose work is some of the best I’ve seen from this publisher, and that’s saying something considering that Quality was home to guys like Eisner, Jack Cole, Lou Fine and Reed Crandall.
 Spider Widow was Diane Grayton (sometimes spelled Grayson), a debutante who dressed like a witch and used black widow spiders to fight crime (She also apparently had the power to change her hair color from story to story, going from blonde to brunette on a whim). Her motivation for fighting crime was nothing more than wanting to “Do something about it” after having a conversation with her boyfriend Bob. Her mask was apparently a holdover from Halloween, since she kept in a trunk. Considering how much everyone was fooled by that mask, the Grayton’s sure must have had some wild Halloween parties:

 It was never explained how she was able to control the spiders, and really, the entire gimmick was reminiscent of another Quality hero; The Red Bee. Spider Widow had an edge over Red Bee though with her creepy disguise and, well, just being a badass:

More villains should shout "Howlin' Hitler!"

  One odd thing about the Spider Widow stories was that other characters always referred to her as if she was just an old woman, despite her green skin, etc. They also never seemed to notice her prominent bust or shapely legs either. Forget about the staff of the Daily Planet, it’s the people in these Spider Widow stories who must surely rank as the densest MF-ers in comics history.
 I’m serious, in one story she was shown walking around in full regalia posing as an ordinary member of the community, with no one the wiser.
 This got to the point that in the Christmas story, a Scrooge-like character was shown to be attracted to her as if she was an ordinary woman who was the same age as him:
 At least one villain, The Tiglon Man (who was one of the only supervillains Spider Widow ever fought) figured it out:
 Another odd thing about these stories is that, despite the fact that she was poisoning the villains and looked really creepy, the police and the general public seemed to approve of Spider Widow.
 Awww, it’s nice to see folks not judge someone because of their appearance.
 That said, Spider Widow did seem to have a thing against fat people. Seriously, the first two stories featured villains named Largo and Lagrossi, both fat.

 The third story featured a fat clown as the villain.
 Where was Spider Widow when Emilio Largo, Auric Goldfinger and Wilson Fisk were on the rampage?
 In Feature Comics #60, a supporting super-hero called The Raven was introduced, and quickly became co-star of the feature. At the end of his first appearance, in one of oddest romantic scenes of the era, both heroes unmasked and kissed in the shadows, so that neither could see the other’s face. This meant that they basically had to visualize the other as a green-skinned hag and a bird man during their fantasies. Who said the 1940s couldn’t be kinky?

Believe me, this was one of the healthiest relationships of the era

 In issue 67, The Raven was unmasked and revealed to be Tony Grey, a character who had been introduced just for that story. I’d been assuming it was her useless boyfriend Bob.
 The highpoint by far of Spider Widow’s career was her crossover with The Phantom Lady (Sandra Knight) from over in Police Comics. It involved the two heroines arguing with each other because Spider Widow thought Phantom Lady was trying to steal Raven’s affection, and even battling in their civilian identities. This lasted from Feature Comics #69-72, and Police Comics #20-22.
 The whole crossover was very funny, with lots of fourth wall-breaking and amusing banter between the characters. In retrospect, it all seems very Marvel-esque.
 At this point, Spider Widow’s mask had been toned down to the point that she looked like an attractive woman with sharp features and green skin. She and Phantom Lady even seduced a villain into betraying his superiors.
 Decades later, in Starman #44, Phantom Lady was shown to have battled a villainess called Prairie Witch. Was this possibly a shout-out to her rivalry with Spider Widow? Note how similar her hat is to Spider Widow’s.

 Spider Widow has never been revived, and that’s too bad. It’s not every day you read comics about debutantes who can control spiders, have petty catfights with other heroines, romance mysterious superheroes who hide their identities,  dress like witches and end up being mistaken for an ordinary old woman, and attack fat people with similar-sounding names. Since Madam Fatal recently came back in The Shade mini-series, maybe there can be a crossover between these two heroes who dressed like elderly women. Or maybe they can take a cue from Prairie Witch and sex Spider Widow up. Hey since, DC’s coming out with a new Phantom Lady series, why not bring her old rival along?
 All this talk about widows, madams and green faces has got me thinking about another Widow that I covered at the beginning of this month; Marvel’s original Black Widow who got her powers from Satan. She actually inspired an imitator over at MLJ, called Madam Satan. Whereas Claire Voyant/Black Widow was an innocent who had become Satan’s pawn, and who acted as a twisted sort of heroine, Madam Satan not only didn’t have any pretext towards nobility, the editors didn’t even attempt to present her series as anything other than pure horror.
 Madam Satan was first seen on the cover of Pep Comics #15, but didn’t debut until issue #16. The splash page set the tone of the series immediately:
 Madam Satan, in life, had been a woman named Tyra (later called Iola), and was engaged to marry a wealthy man named John for his money. John’s parent’s disapproved, so she did the logical thing, and poisoned them:
 The next logical thing she did was to try and make the couple look like they had been killed in a car crash (Yeah, that’ll work). However, John found the bodies at the same time his dad was about to die, who told him the truth with his dying breath.
 John tried to kill Tyra, but decided not to take the law into his own hands.
 Too bad, he probably could have gotten away with it, since The Hangman, comicdom’s biggest advocate of not taking the law into your own hands even though he himself did it all the time, wouldn’t debut in Pep until the next issue:
 Tyra ended up trying to kill John, but tripped and stabbed herself in the process:
 John however, decided to kiss her one last time, which gave her spirit enough power to suck out his soul before going to Hell.
 In Hell, she was chose to be Satan’s bride and collector of souls on Earth. To others she would appear to be a beautiful woman, but to the reader she was depicted as a hideous, skull-faced monstrosity; a form she would frequently revert to after the heroes of each story saw through her ruse.
 By any standards, Madam Satan was some screwed up stuff, and the series didn’t last much longer than Black Widow did. So, even though she doesn’t even qualify as an anti-heroine, I still thought I’d give her a mention on this list. She’s also relevant to this list for another reason.
 Although Madam Satan may have picked up most of her origin from Black Widow, it was from another, more famous character that the whole “change into a skull” gimmick came from. This was Fletcher Hanks’s Fantomah:
 Fantomah is by far the most well-known today of the hideous heroes, mainly because of Fletcher Hanks’s infamy. As bat-shit loco as the Golden Age could be, it’s still a testament to Hanks’s…er…talents, that he stood out. Fantomah was an immortal spirit who was a protector of nature, and she would come up with all sorts of bizarre punishments for interlopers. 
 Stardust the Super-Wizard tends to get the most attention of Hanks’s works, and it deserves it, but Fantomah always struck me as the craziest. All of that weirdness, and then the jungle setting too? Like The Face, Fantomah was also later toned down. She ended up becoming a typical fur bikini clad jungle adventurer.
 Another hideous heroine who used magic to battle evil was Mother Hubbard, who appeared in Scoop Comics and Bulls-Eye Comics from Chesler syndicate. She debuted in Scoop Comics #1. Mother Hubbard was interesting, in that she wasn’t a normal human in a costume, but a genuine witch straight out of the Brothers Grimm.
 She spoke in rhyme, like a certain Jack Kirby demon, but was depicted as genuinely benevolent (Although it could be inferred that she wasn’t always that way from the kind of ingredients she kept).

 That didn’t stop her stories from being disturbing and nightmarish, however. Gnomes that go around ripping out the eyes of sleeping children are pretty disturbing for any kind of story:
 That’s just…wow. I truly am at a loss for words. The cutesy art just makes it more disturbing.
 Moving away from these loathly ladies, let’s take a trip over to Timely/Marvel comics. Although Timely did publish the adventures of many non-human heroes like Sub-Mariner and The Vision, they were all fairly handsome looking. Not so was The Terror, who debuted in Mystic Comics #5.
 Dr. John Storm was a scientist who tested out a new serum he had been creating on an amnesiac car accident survivor, figuring he wouldn’t mind. Whenever the anonymous man got angry, he would transform into a hideous, vampiric creature with superhuman strength. He called himself The Terror.

 The Terror could be considered something of a precursor to the John Corben version of Metallo, in that he was a car crash survivor who was found and given superpowers by a scientist. His “anger” gimmick could also be considered a precursor to The Hulk. He was revived in the modern age in She-Hulk, and was given the name Laslo Pevely.
 Moving away from such supernatural beings and back to normal people who wear disguises, another notable hideous hero was a fellow called The Hunchback, who debuted in Wow Comics #2 over at Fawcett.
 The Hunchback was Allan Lanier, a wealthy playboy who had been obsessed with The Hunchback of Notre Dame ever since he saw the movie “some years ago”. That year must have been 1939, because Allen’s costume was clearly patterned after the Charles Laughton version.
 At the end of his first story, after saving his girlfriend Betty from a crime boss called The Scorpion (The closest thing to a supervillain that he would ever fight), Hunchback unmasked himself as Allan to soothe Betty, who was terrified of him initially.
 She would have had more reason to be disturbed if she’d seen how he went about fighting crime. The Hunchback was a brutal son of a bitch:

 One of the most amusing things about the character was that the public seemed to approve of him enthusiastically, even though he was basically a mass murderer. In one story, he strangled a corrupt politician to death, left a note saying that the man was corrupt with no evidence, and the cops who found the body believed him!

"Kinda makes you feel good to know he's up there, doing his job; breaking people's necks"

 Those are the most memorable of the Golden Age’s hideous heroes, and there are many that I know I’ve missed that I could include in a part two someday, it’s just that I like to have my Holiday posts be done in one.
 So if you see someone getting mugged tonight while walking away from your Halloween party and you hesitate to leap to their defense because you’re dressed as a monster and not a superhero, just think of this article and know that, in the Golden Age, dressing like a monster was all that some folks needed to do to be considered superheroes!
 (Actually, you should help save someone from a mugging anyway, because if you don’t, you’re a dick).
 Happy Halloween!