The Secret Lives of Villains #246

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Golden Age Showcase: The Purple Zombie

So we lost one of the greats yesterday: George A. Romero.

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While he did create other films and was a fervent activist throughout his life, the man will always be remembered as the founding father of the zombie movie.

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Fun fact: after he made his first film Night of the Living Dead Romero screwed up some paper work with the copyright office and as a result, the film is now in the public domain.  You can watch it for free and I highly recommend it.

Yes, zombies are a pop culture staple nowadays.  While their time as the dominant force of pop culture has waned, they’re still around making boatloads of money, especially in the comic book world.

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So I thought it might be fun to talk about one of the earliest zombies in comic books, and how different a walking corpse from the 1940’s was from the present day walking corpse.

Today we’re talking about the Purple Zombie.

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Origin and Career

The Purple Zombie made his first appearance in Eastern Publishing’s Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1 in August of 1940.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1

The character was created by Tarpe Mills, which was a pen name for Golden Age writer and artist June Mills.

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Mrs. Mills was actually the first lady to create a female superhero, a black cat costumed heroine named Miss Fury.

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Let it be said that the early comic book scene wasn’t entirely dominated by male New Yorkers, it was just mostly dominated by them.

When reading the Purple Zombie stories you can actually see a lot of tropes that plague (pun intended) the modern zombie.  He was created by a mad scientist named Dr. Malinsky who was seeking to create an unstoppable army in order to take over the world,

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1

However, it’s worth mentioning that there is no specific mention of how this zombie was created.

After establishing himself as an evil bastard, Dr. Malinsky realizes that he has the same problem Dr. Frankenstein had, that his creation realizes what it is and isn’t all that fond of his purpose.  The creation bypasses years of therapy and emotional issues by strangling his creator.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1

You’ll notice three things that make this guy different.  First, he’s bulletproof and super strong, thus avoiding the trope of zombies that need to be shot in the head and who are only effective in large groups.  Second, he’s surprisingly articulate for a zombie and has no need or desire to consume the brains of the living.  Third, his skin looks more black than purple which…raises a lot of very icky moral questions that are a bit more unsavory today than they would have been seventy years ago.

Nevertheless, this zombie sets out to find the people who backed his creation and remove them from the face of the Earth.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1

It’s never mentioned who the backers were working for, but with a name like Otto Von Heim it’s safe to assume they were working for the Nazis.

In a rather interesting twist, this zombie was actually captured and sentenced to death for the murders.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #2

This is where he gets his purple skin, and his jailers realize that he can’t be killed.

The zombie is released into the care of Malinsky’s former assistant and swears to do nothing bug good from here on out.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #2

Again, some kind of uncomfortable racial overtones here (it’s worth mentioning that pre Romero zombies were often associated with African or “voodoo” religions) but as origin stories go it’s pretty fleshed out and well done for the Golden Age.

Sadly, the zombie’s brush with organized crime wasn’t over.  Realizing that a large, bulletproof, super strong, nearly unkillable monster could be useful in committing crimes a gangster named Joe Coroza kidnapped the Purple Zombie in an attempt to use him as a weapon.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #2

His human friend tries to rescue him, but is forced to contend with an army of mechanized skeletons as well as the gangsters.

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However, it turns out that the man who created the moving skeletons was actually a good guy and the Purple Zombie decided to join forces with him and go off to fight in Europe for the forces of democracy.

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It’s nice to know that the idea of using creatures more often associated with horror to do good is older than a lot of people think.

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The plan is a success and the Zombie and his skeleton pals successfully stop the death ray from killing thousands more.  Their solution…cold blooded murder.

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After successfully defeating the death ray and single handily winning the war (I assume) the heroes find themselves forced to land in a mysterious lab.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #7

It turns out that the scientist forced them to land there so he could show them their time machine and in the very next page… Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #7

Jesus, this comic jumps around more than an over caffeinated toddler.

The two find themselves in 64 A.D in the middle of the Roman Empire.

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The Romans do the surprisingly sensible thing and declare these two strangers to be madmen.  They also understand modern English.

Thankfully, lions are no match for the two.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #8

Unfortunately, they now have to contend with the entire city of Rome burning.

Thankfully, they are saved by the actions of their colleagues in the present day who manage to transport them out of danger into the Medieval Ages.

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It turns out they’ve landed straight in the middle of the Crusades and wind up meeting King Richard I of England.

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They would have been on good terms if it wasn’t for their sudden transportation to the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #10

Honestly, I don’t know if the author is trying to be educational, or if she’s just name dropping random historical figures who were popular at the time.

They meet up with Sir Francis Drake while he’s bowling,

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #10

(fun side note: the story is that Sir Francis was supposedly bowling when he received news of the Armada so props for possible historical accuracy)

and the two men help him defeat the Spanish Armada until they’re whisked away to the French Revolution.

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I’m beginning to think the scientists controlling the time machine hate our protagonists.

The two suffer through one more trip into prehistoric times,

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and then they’re transported back to the modern day where it is revealed that the Purple Zombie wasn’t actually dead to begin with.  He was actually faking his death in order to escape and wound up becoming an unwitting participant in the original experiments.

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #12

So I guess you could argue that the Purple Zombie wasn’t actually a zombie.

Goddammit.

So what happened?

The page above is the last page we would ever see of the Purple Zombie.

We’ve talked about Eastern Publishing before and how it was going through a rather turbulent time in the late 1940’s when it merged with a bunch of other publishers to become Standard Publishing and eventually stopped making comics in the 1950’s.

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But even if Eastern Publishing had survived, I think that the Purple Zombie would have been doomed anyway.  For starters there were companies in the 1940’s who were using zombies and monsters much more effectively and with much better artwork.

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And even if the Purple Zombie had managed to become more popular, it stood no chance against the backlash against comics in the 1950’s that wound up creating the Comics Code.

With that being said I actually like the Purple Zombie.  While he had a pretty average power set and wasn’t technically a zombie, he had a pretty good back story and enough heart and dedication to be a pretty good superhero.

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Golden Age Showcase: Alfred

Happy post Father’s Day everyone!

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For the non American readers of this blog, Father’s day is a holiday where we celebrate our fathers, and if marketing campaigns are to be believed it’s usually with MANLY gifts like ties and power tools.

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Last year I did an article comparing and contrasting two of comics’ greatest deceased father figures: Superman’s dad Jor-El and Spiderman’s Uncle Ben.

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This time I thought it would be time to break out the big guns and celebrate the career and achievements of the greatest living father figure in comic book history: Batman’s butler, Alfred.

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Side note: if you disagree with the above statement please write a well crafted and polite rebuttal in the comments.

Origin and Career

Alfred Thaddeus Crane Pennyworth made his first appearance in Batman #16 in April of 1943.

On the cover of the comic it says he was created by artist Bob Kane.

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Although it is much more likely that actual creator was writer, and the man who got royally screwed out of getting the credit that he justly deserves, Bill Finger.

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Artist Jerry Robinson was also heavily involved, since he was busy doing the actual drawing of the issues at this point in Batman’s career.

Jerry Robinson

Alfred made his first appearance on the cover of the issue, and he looked like this:

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The original Alfred was a bit of an idiot.  At this point in the story Batman and Robin had been doing their thing fighting crime in Gotham when Alfred showed up fresh off the boat and claiming that he was fulfilling the wish of his dying father Jarvis in serving the Wayne family as their butler.

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Naturally, Batman and Robin were not very keen on having a near total stranger snooping around the house with their secret identities at stake.

Despite his background as an intelligence officer Alfred was…kind of an idiot.

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I only say “kind of” because he was actually a very good butler.  He did his job, he was loyal to Bruce and Dick, and when it came time to defend the Manor he wound up discovering who he was really working for by pure accident.

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My favorite part of this scene is the dialogue that the two men exchange during the fight.

Of course Alfred reveals what he knows to Batman and Robin and the two gain a new ally in their fight against criminals.

You may notice that the original Alfred doesn’t look a thing like the way we normally picture Alfred.

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For that we can actually thank the silver screen.

See, the idea that comic books could be adapted to the silver screen is nothing new.  In fact, Hollywood was quick to jump on the wave of superhero popularity and started churning out short little movie serials staring the two most popular heroes at the time: Superman and Batman.

In 1943 Columbia Pictures began releasing short Batman serial movies with creative titles such as “Batman and the Electrical Brain”,

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The effects and costumes were…not the best.

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but one of its lasting impacts was hiring actor English character actor William Austin to play the Batman’s butler.

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The serials were so popular that the comics adapted and changed Alfred’s appearance to reflect the show.

So what happened?

Jesus, to describe everything that Alfred has done since his original appearance would take an entire book.

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Wherever Batman has gone, Alfred has followed.  He’s an integral part of the Batman mythos, and I would personally argue that he the most important supporting figure in any Batman story.  And yes, that includes figures like Robin and Batgirl.

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He has fulfilled the role of a caretaker, a guiding moral compass to a whole host of emotionally crippled children and warriors, and most importantly an eternally patient father figure.

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So, in an effort to keep this short, I’m going to break his long and storied career down into some of the more prominent highlights.

In 1964 Alfred was killed in Detective Comics #328 after heroically saving the Dynamic Duo from a falling boulder.

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He would be reborn as a mysterious villain known as “The Outsider” and fought the heroes off panel, usually using other villains as pawns and working behind the scenes.

His identity and appearance would be revealed two years later in Detective Comics #356.

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It…wasn’t the best look for him and I can see why they kept him out of the way.

In terms of backstory, Alfred’s has remained pretty consistent.  The comics have always given him some sort of military and/or intelligence background and in the 1960’s he worked as an intelligence agent during World War 2.  We know this because he had a daughter named Julia with a French co worker.

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In 1985 DC reorganized its comic books with the even “Crisis on Infinite Earths” and reworked the backstories of many of their most famous characters.

Alfred got a few minor tweaks but didn’t change that much.  He was an actor as well as an intelligence agent and instead of introducing himself to a much older Bruce, he became Bruce’s butler and confidant at a young age.

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The new Alfred had some pretty awesome moments as well and a lot of writers love giving him some really badass lines and small fight scenes.

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Seriously, the man’s gone toe to toe with Superman both in quips,

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and with fisticuffs.

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So he’s amazing in the comics but I would have to say that his film and television appearances deserve a special mention as well.

Alfred has appeared in every single movie, television, and cartoon adaptation of Batman since the beginning and has provided a steady stream of employment to classy senior British actors.

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All of them have been fantastic, but special mentions go to the Alfred from Batman: The Animated Series,

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where he was voiced by actor Clive Revill (who was actually the original voice of the Emperor from Star Wars)

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and the gloriously named Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

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Personally my favorite Alfred at the moment has to be the one from The Lego Batman Movie where he was voiced by Voldemort himself, Ray Finnes,

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but if you ask me the best Alfred of them all would have to be the late great Michael Gough from Tim Burton’s Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and the infamous Batman and Robin.

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I would actually go as far as to say that Michael Gough was so good that he actually made Batman and Robin halfway watchable.

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That’s right, I’m defending Batman and Robin, fight me.

Alfred is one of the greatest comic book characters ever created.  He is wise and talented beyond even his considerable years and has been at Bruce’s side through thick and thin.  Not only has he been a faithful and dutiful butler but he has been a kind, patient, and loving father to a boy who needed it most in order to become one of the greatest superheroes of all time.

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Golden Age Showcase: Target and the Targeteers

 

You know what they say…comedy comes in threes.

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And I like to think that today’s superhero group took that lesson to heart, even though I’m willing to bet any comedy was unintentional.

Today we’re talking about the rather humorously named Target and the Targeteers.

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Origin and Career

This trio of superheroes was published by a company called Novelty Press, which was created in 1940 by Curtis Publishing.  If that name isn’t familiar all you need to know is that they publish the Saturday Evening Post.  If that name isn’t familiar then you probably recognize this cover.

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Novelty Press was created as a comic book imprint in order to take advantage of the comic book craze.  They were able to draw a lot of great Golden Age talent such as Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and Basil Wolverton and their two most famous publications were the superhero series Blue Bolt,

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and the anthology series Target Comics.

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Despite sharing the name of the title, the superhero we’re talking about today didn’t appear until issue #10 in November of 1940.

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Yes that is him on the cover and I have to admit I don’t know what’s funnier: the testicular fortitude of a man who is willing to get shot by painting a giant target on his chest or how stupid the gangsters are for not aiming at the knees or face.

The hero was created by artist Dick Briefer under the pseudonym of Dick Hamilton. Image result for golden age dick brieferBriefer’s most famous work was with the Frankenstein character and is widely considered to be the first modern comic book artist to work with horror stories.

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 Back to Dick’s most famous superhero, Target’s first adventure had him sending an ominous message to criminals everywhere: “Live your life on the straight and narrow or I’ll find you”.  He does this by buying up advertising space on nationwide newspapers, radio space, and even hijacking the phone service.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 10 [10]

You know how in modern movies the bad guy can mysteriously deliver a message to every computer, television, and phone around the world?  It’s nice to know that this particular cliche isn’t so modern.

The Target’s ominous message doesn’t deter a group of gangsters from kidnapping a scientist who is developing a new explosive that other countries want.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 10 [10]

The gangsters reach the professor’s house, only to find that the Target is already there.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 10 [10]

On the face of it, it would appear that the hero has a very poorly designed costume for dealing with guns, but the comic explains that while the suit protects his chest and arms (thus leaving the face and legs unprotected) the target is there to draw enemy fire to the places where the bullets can’t harm him.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 10 [10]

I would commend the comic for attempting to use “Batman psychology” to explain why the hero made the decisions he made but no, in real life that man is dead.

The adventure ends in typical fashion.  The bad guys are stopped, the hero saves the day, and the reader is left wondering what’s next.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 10 [10]

The next issue not only delves into the Target’s backstory, it also reveals that he has two friends who share a similar death wish by dressing in similar costumes.

The Target’s civilian identity is Niles Reed.  He was an athletic prodigy who decided to become a metallurgist had a brother named Bill, who decided to become a lawyer.

Unfortunately, Bill was framed for murder and arrested.  In his rage, Niles decided to rescue his brother while disguised as a masked vigilante.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 11 [11]

While it’s a bit unclear it would appear that the cops accidentally shot Bill as he was trying to escape with his brother.  So in an interesting twist, Niles was responsible for his brother’s death.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 11 [11]

Later that evening Niles happens to stumble across two orphaned boys who were in a lot trouble with some gangsters for not paying protection money.  The three become friends and decide to dress up like superheroes using the same bulletproof costumes of Niles’ design.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v1 11 [11]

The origin story ended with the reveal that Bill had been framed by a crime boss named Hammerfist, who would become something of a recurring villain for the trio.

I’ll admit, there are some interesting points to this story.  The fact that the hero is actually responsible for his brother’s death coupled with him taking in two orphans who share similar tragic stories draw a lot of similarities to more popular heroes like Spider Man and Batman.

The rest of the trio’s adventures were all one shots with a very patriotic bent them.  The three did their duty and fought against America’s enemies, both at home and abroad.

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The post war years saw a return to form for the trio where they went back to waging war against criminals in the United States.

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So what happened?

The trio of crime fighters had a pretty long shelf life for the Golden Age heroes.  They lasted until issue #95 of Target Comics where their last adventure had them foiling criminals who were sabotaging advertising signs in order to extort an advertising firm.

Comic Book Cover For Target Comics v9 1 [91]

Yeah, maybe it was a good thing that they got cancelled.

The trio would disappear for a while until the Target made an appearance in AC Comics’ Men of Mystery series in 1999.

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The trio itself made a comeback in Dynamite Entertainment’s Project Superpowers series in 2008.

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Their backstories remained the same, only this time they all had super speed on top of their indestructible suits.

The Target and the Targeteers embodied everything that worked and didn’t work about the Golden Age of Comics.  On one hand they were goofy, wore silly costumes, and relied on some pretty bad science in order to survive and function.  On the other hand, they had one of the better origin stories I’ve read, they had a long run, and a lot of the things that made it into their stories such as the use of psychology to fight criminals would be use to great effect in other, more popular comic hero stories.

All in all, they weren’t that bad.

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