The Secret Lives of Villains #253

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Golden Age Showcase: Spider Widow

So I saw Spiderman: Homecoming yesterday.

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It was good, I liked it, and it’s good to know that Spiderman is back in the loving arms of the company that spawned him.

You can make the case that Spiderman is the closest thing Marvel Comics has to a mascot, or at the very least he’s Marvel’s most successful solo hero.

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And what’s not to like about him?  He’s got a great gimmick, he’s got a great backstory, and he’s one of the best creations to come out of the mind of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

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But here’s the thing, great ideas like this don’t just come from nothing, and there were spider themed superheroes published in the 1940’s.  One of these heroes was a Quality Comics character named Spider Widow.

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Origin and Career

Spider Widow first appeared in Quality Comics’ Feature Comics #57 in June of 1942.

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She was created by comic book artist Frank Borth.

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While he did do some work for a Catholic magazine called Treasure Chest and did occasional work for Cracked (the magazine not the website), Spider Widow was his most popular creation.

As for her bio, her civilian identity was Dianne Grayton, rich socialite and lady about town.

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How did she get her powers?  Not mentioned.  Why did she decide to fight crime?  The comic didn’t seem to care.  What was her power?  She dressed up like an old hag and had the ability to control black widow spiders,

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swarms of them.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #58

You sure this is a superhero comic?  Because I’m getting more of a horror vibe from this.

Her enemies weren’t that special.  She fought the traditional assortment of stereotypical racist caricatures of Axis saboteurs.  What made her pretty unique was what Qualiy did with her.  First, they paired her with a superhero named the Raven, who made his first appearance in her title.

The story was simple.  Axis spies kidnapped her because she was meddling in their affairs a bit too much and the Raven swooped in and saved her.

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The day was saved, the two shared a thank you kiss, but sadly it was dark so they couldn’t see each other’s faces.

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The Raven was later revealed to be a man named Tony Grey, and the two wound up forming a romantic relationship on top of their crime fighting.

One of their more notable adventures was when they teamed up to fight Spider Man, a Nazi saboteur who controlled a giant robotic spider.

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Nazis controlling giant spiders?  NOPE! SOUND THE ALARMS!  PREPARE THE TERMS OF SURRENDER!

Now, two comic book heroes coming together in a comic isn’t really that special, but bringing in another hero and crossing over in two books?  That was pretty unique for the time.

I don’t know why they chose her, but Quality Comics had The Raven crossover with another Quality character named The Phantom Lady in Police Comics #20 in 1943.

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She wound up rescuing the Raven while he was investigating a crime ring and he brought her from Police Comics to Feature Comics for a couple of issues.

The two ladies did not get along very well.

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Plus, I’m willing to bet the writers were venting some pent up frustrations in the book through some impressively subtle fourth wall breaks.

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Look at the second to last panel and tell me you aren’t a bit impressed.

The two even went as far as to fight a duel for the Raven’s affections,

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but it turned out to be a set up by some criminals and they quickly patched it over.  The day was saved and then everyone went back to their own titles.

So what happened?

Aside from her crossover with the Phantom Lady, Spider Widow wasn’t really that popular or noteworthy.  She lasted for a couple more issues and then disappeared around 1943.

It’s kind of a shame because she really did have a great gimmick and power set.  Sure she was pretty boring as a person, and having her fight with another lady over a man probably won’t score her a whole lot of points with modern audiences, but she is in the public domain and could be a great horror protagonist.

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While I don’t want to mistake correlation for causation, you can kind of see something resembling Spider Widow’s legacy in Marvel’s more modern characters.

For example. what’s the name of Marvel’s favorite super spy femme fatale?  Black Widow.

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Sure, she doesn’t have the power to control spiders but I like to think the creatives at Marvel were remembering Spider Widow when they came up with her.

Also, there was a villain in the Spider Man books named Spider Queen who had the power to control insects,

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(yes I know spiders aren’t insects),

Sure, she’s not a wealthy heiress and controlling insects isn’t exactly a rare power, but it seems that Marvel has a pretty pronounced fascination with spiders and I like to think that Spider Widow was a start.

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Golden Age Showcase: Miss Masque

It’s been a while since we had a lady superhero on this blog that didn’t have a huge mainstream movie come out this year.

Let’s see…what femme fatale looks good this week?

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Okay, she looks good.

Today we take a look at the comic book superhero Miss Masque and no, she is not a Carmen Sandiago clone…although that would be pretty kickass.

Origin and Career

Miss Masque made her first appearance in Exciting Comics #51 in September of 1946 and was published by Nedor Comics, a division of the company Standard Comics.

Comic Book Cover For Exciting Comics #51

She shared the limelight with her slightly more famous superhero comrade, The Black Terror.

That was the cover of her first issue, this is the double page spread that introduced her to readers:

Comic Book Cover For Exciting Comics #51

I’m not going to lie, as first impressions go that’s a pretty good one.

As for creators, there are no author or artist credits on any of her stories.  However, artists Alex Schomburg and Frank Frazetta have been credited with supplying several covers featuring Miss Masque.  For anyone who might not know, Alex Schomburg was one of the most prolific and dynamic cover artists of the Golden Age of Comics.

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and Frank Frazetta is the reason why we think Conan the Barbarian looks like a chiseled barbarian warlord.

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Anyway, back to Miss Masque.  Her backstory is simple, she’s a socialite named Diana Adams and she moonlights as a superhero, that’s it.  No tragic event, no dead parents (that we know of), and no lab accidents.

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She’s just an ordinary lady with her wits, two pistols, and a lot of time on her hands.

Her first adventure is a simple one.  After her car breaks down she attempts to get help from a greedy old farmer who is currently engaged in a water dispute with his neighbor.

Comic Book Cover For Exciting Comics #51

The farmer attempts to fix the problem by hiring a bum to burn his neighbor’s property to the ground but the bum attempts to steal from him, the farmer gets violent, and Diana changes into Miss Masque in order to investigate.

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The farmer knocks her out (this kind of happens a lot in the future) and attempts to ditch the evidence by burning his house down.

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All pretty standard evil so far, but he tried to kill the dog and that is unforgivable.

Miss Masque escapes and tracks the farmer down, only to have him drown in a cruelly ironic way.

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That…is not a good way to go.

Most of her stories followed a similar format.  Her stories would open with a massive double page spread,

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and then she would go on to solve the “case of the week” with little to know continuity between issues.

It’s worth noting that she was a pretty capable superheroine.

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She would find a problem that usually involved whoever she was dating at the time, discover some dastardly scheme, and kick all kinds of butt and have the situation wrapped up in a couple of pages.

The artwork is pretty good too.

The formula must have worked because Miss Masque turned out to be pretty popular.  She got a couple of cover appearances,

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and she even became one of Nedor’s top three characters along with the Black Terror and the Fighting Yank.

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It’s worth mentioning that she underwent a costume redesign around 1947 where she showed off a bit more skin.

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Sometimes it’s important to remember that stereotypes about women in comics exist for a reason.

So what happened?

Nedor Comics must have been undergoing the same troubles the entire comic book industry was suffering through in the late 1940’s because they were consolidated into their parent company Standard Comics in 1949, which went under itself in 1956.

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It almost seems like a broken record at this point but Miss Masque most likely suffered the same fate that befell most Golden Age superheroes in the fifties when the comic book industry was gutted by parents and lawmakers worried that comics were corrupting their children.

If I had to make an educated guess she was doomed from the start since her initial publication date of 1946 lines up with the decline of the superhero genre in American comics and it’s pretty safe to assume she was created as an attempt to boost sales.

However Miss Masque, along with most of the Standard Comics’ library of characters, would receive a reboot in the 1990’s when most of them entered the public domain.

She wound up becoming pretty popular at AC Comics, making a couple of cover appearances in their annual issues,

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A team member of groups like Femforce,

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and she even got her own solo series.

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In this new continuity she retained her identity of wealthy socialite Diana Adams only this time her costume is the source of her power and her will to do good, since it’s possessed by a “spirit of justice”.

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I’d also say it was possessed by the spirit of 90’s comic book cheese.

She also appeared in Alan Moore’s Terra Obscura series in the early 2000’s,

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where she was engaged in a romantic relationship with another character named Fighting Spirit.

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Most recently Miss Masque was part of Dynamite Comics Project Superpowers series from 2008 to 2010.  In this series she got another costume change where she looks even more like Carmen Sandiago,

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she also suffers from amnesia and has actual superpowers this time.  She can replicate other people’s appearances, although her powers seem to be a bit ill defined.

Dynamite even gave her a spinoff solo series in 2009 which lasted for four issues.

Maybe it’s the red and the artists’ fascination with her legs that makes her so popular.

Miss Masque is one of the best female superheroes to come out of the Golden Age of Comics.  While we tend to look back at that time as a place where men ruled and women were considered to be side props, it’s important to remember that there were people out there who thought much differently and were willing to put a lot of time and effort into creating capable and well written female comic book characters.

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Crowdfunded Comics that deserve more attention: Can I Pet Your Werewolf?

Today we’re going to be talking about a project on Kickstarter that deals with a subject close to my heart.

PUPPIES!!

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Okay, okay, the project isn’t actually about puppies.  I said that so I could post pictures of cute pups.

That being said, today’s Kickstarter project is pretty close.  It’s a project about everyone’s favorite furry monsters…werewolfs.

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Can I Pet Your Werewolf is an anthology series created by Kel McDonald and a various number of artists who want to tell lighthearted stories about friendship, family, and romance between humanity and the furry incarnations of humanity’s animal instincts.

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At the time of writing this project has already reached over $10,000 and needs a total of $30,000 by July 14th, 2017.

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1495959227/can-i-pet-your-werewolf?ref=category_recommended

Why I like it

In a word…PUPPIES!!

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Sorry…sorry that’s the last time I’ll do this I swear.

In all seriousness, I consider myself to be a dog person.  One of the greatest jobs I ever had was working at a doggy day care where I would babysit large groups of dogs for hours at a time.

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It was such a demanding job, I’m surprised I was able to survive.

That’s why I like this project so much.  For me, werewolves are basically giant, man sized dogs and having an entire book about the big fluffy pups?

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I am okay with this.

Another reason why I like this project so much are the artists that are involved with the project.  Having the right style of art in your comic is just as important as having the right words for your story.  It can set tone, mood, and the entire emotional layout of what you want to say.

Want proof?

This is how werewolves are normally portrayed,

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and this is how some of the artists from Can I Pet Your Werewolf portray them.

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There’s a pretty big difference in tone.

Now, you may be reading this and thinking that this may not be your cup of tea.  You may be thinking that this anthology is doing to werewolves what another, inexplicably popular book and movie series did to vampires (and werewolves), and in a way I kind of agree with you.  However…

Why you should donate

I’m not going to go into a long tirade about how modern literature and Hollywood are destroying classic monsters that used to be intimidating,

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But you have to admit that the landscape of modern horror is…changing.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad thing.  Horror movies are supposed to touch on modern day fears and terrors.  The classic horror monsters preyed on things like our fear of uncontrollable lust,

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the destruction of the barrier between life and death,

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and werewolves played on our fears of the bestial nature of man and uncontrollable rage.

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Now, these movies are classics for a reason but the simple fact of the matter is that times and tastes change.  As a result, horror movies have had to change and find different fears to exploit.  Things like modern day racism,

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the fear of being a single parent raising a child,

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or the fear of catching an STD,

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are the new monsters and worries that we have to afraid of.  As a result, the monsters of the past have passed from the realm of terrifying creatures of folklore to accepted members of the popular culture cannon and creatures that are accepted rather than feared.

We don’t fear creatures like vampires and werewolves anymore, we want to be them.

Hollywood noticed this and has answered the call,
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With varying degrees of success and acceptability.

The funny thing is that you can’t really blame Hollywood for taking the classics and turning them into something that ranges from decent to terrible and bland.  Movies are expensive and you aren’t going to spend millions of dollars on anything and not take every step you can to mitigate risk.  That’s why you see movies that have been workshopped, test grouped, and market tested to death until the final boring, lifeless, and joyless product is forced on audiences everywhere.

Can I Pet Your Werewolf takes the direction that the classic monsters are going and distills it into the focused artistic vision of a few creators, and that’s what makes it special.

What I’m trying to say to you is this.

Would you rather have this as our modern werewolf?

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or this?

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I’ll take the second option thank you.

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1495959227/can-i-pet-your-werewolf?ref=category_recommended

Golden Age Showcase: The Mad Monk

Let’s take a bite into the comic book industry’s version of vanilla ice cream and talk about Batman.

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Batman is one of the most popular superheroes in the world for a reason.  He’s got a great design, he’s got a cool story, he’s got tonnes of history, but most importantly…he has great villains.

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Yes, it seems pretty cliche to talk about how awesome Batman’s villains are but we all know that Poison Ivy is awesome,

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Mister Freeze is tragic and deep,

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and the Joker needs no introduction.

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But how does Batman manage to have so many great villains?

Easy, because he doesn’t kill them.

Batman’s aversion to killing criminals (even if the justice system he’s sworn to protect would have put the Joker to death a long time ago) and distaste at using guns is well documented.  With that being said, we’ve talked about how the Batman of the Golden Age wasn’t above using guns, or even killing criminals.

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The Golden Age Batman was a much darker and violent superhero than a lot of modern iterations and as a result, he either needed equally dark and violent villains or a small army’s worth of disposable henchmen.

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Today we’re going to talk about one of Batman’s first adversaries, a creature of the night who wasn’t just violent and unquestionably evil, but one of Batman’s first important villains: The Mad Monk.

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Origin and Career

The Mad Monk made his first appearance in Detective Comics #31 in September of 1939.

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He beat out the Joker by 8 months.

The character was created by Bob Kane and Garner Fox.

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Kane is the man who is widely credited with the creation of Batman (while he did play a part, a lion’s share of the credit does go to Bill Finger) and Fox is the man who helped create little known DC heroes like the Flash, Dr. Fate, and Hawkman.

The Mad Monk is special because he was the main villain for one of the first multi part stories in Batman’s career.  While the first super villain to face Batman in a multi issue series was the imaginatively named Dr. Death,

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The Mad Monk was a bigger, and much more mystical and terrifying, threat.

The Monk’s real name was Niccolai Tepes, a homage to historical crazy person and real life inspiration for the actual Dracula: Vlad Tepes aka “Vlad the Impaler”.

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The Mad Monk was a literal vampire complete with the need to drink blood, the ability to turn into a wolf, the ability to hypnotize people into a trance, and an assistant named Dala.

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While it is unknown why the Monk wants to kill Batman it is made apparent that the Monk does know his secret identity as Bruce Wayne when he kidnaps Bruce’s girl friend Julie Madison.

The Monk and Dala hypnotize her and use her to lure Batman into a trap in Paris where he has to fight a giant gorilla.

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After defeating the beast, Batman is captured and is trapped in a net dangling over a pit of snakes.  Because this is a comic book and nobody just wants to shoot their captured adversary.

Fun fact: This is the first time Batman ever uses the Batarang in comics.

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After escaping, Batman tracks the Monk to Transylvania (because of course) and confronts the villain in his mountain castle.  The Monk puts up a good fight by transforming into a wolf but Batman manages to knock the wolves out and escape.

The comic ends with Batman shooting The Mad Monk and Dala as they lie in their coffins.

If you ask me, this was a brilliant display of common sense.  While I think the idea for the Mad Monk is cool, I certainly wouldn’t want an immortal blood sucking creature  roaming the streets of Gotham or anywhere else in the world.

So what happened?

The Monk remained dead for a long time, probably because he was just two scary and dark for the censorship police known as the Comics Code Authority.

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But, like the vampires that he took his inspiration from, he would arise from the grave many years later.  In 1986 Gerry Conway, the co creator of the Punisher and the man who killed Gwen Stacy,

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reworked the original 1939 story into a modern origin for the Mad Monk in the 1980’s.

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In the new version the Mad Monk was a former plantation owner who owned slaves in post Civil War America.  He and his sister Dala were attacked by their slaves and turned into the undead in a voodoo ritual.

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Personally, I preferred the earlier version better.

The Mad Monk manged to turn Batman into a vampire but was eventually defeated by a wandering priest named Father Green.

The character would be given another fresh coat of paint in 2006 when a six issue mini series was published by DC Comics entitled Batman and the Mad Monk.

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It was pretty good.

The Mad Monk is a villain that has been mostly forgotten to history.  While he was a pretty one note character who didn’t have much staying power, and while he has been overshadowed by much more complex and interesting villains, he deserves a lot more attention and respect.

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He was one of Batman’s first true challenges and paved the way for the rogue gallery that keeps us coming back to Batman comics again and again.