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Golden Age Showcase: The Eye
Last week we talked about a superhero known as “The Hand”.
Everyone seemed to like it so here’s a write up about another body part that decided to become a superhero.
Yes, there was more than one of these, and this one was actually a bit more successful.
Say hello to The Eye.
Origin and Career
The Eye made its first appearance in Keen Detective Funnies #12 in December of 1939.
The book was published by a company called Centaur Publications, one of the earliest comic book publishers in American history and the company that helped Bill Everett get his start in comics.
Bill Everett is the man who helped create Namor the Submariner and Daredevil.
The character itself was created by a man named Frank Thomas.
You may not know the man’s face, but I’m willing to bet that if you’re an animator or a Disney fan you know his his name and his work.
The man was one of the original animators on Walt Disney’s creative team when the company was just starting out and helped produce some of the most recognizable classics in modern animation history. One example? He animated this scene from Snow White.
He also helped write a book with a colleague of his named Ollie Johnston called The Illusion of Life,
a book that remains one of the most important milestones in 2D hand drawn animation to this day. In fact, the two men were so influential that they were given a cameo appearance in The Incredibles, one of my favorite movies of all time.
Basically Frank Thomas was a big deal, and The Eye was his contribution to the comic book world.
As for The Eye itself, his first adventure starts with the whitest Afghani family on the face of the planet.
The old man laments that he was once a prosperous businessman but had his livelihood stolen from him. Suddenly, a disembodied eye appears in the room.
Meanwhile, in Kabul we’re introduced to the vain and pompous villain of the story, a man named Herat, who wants the old man dead.
You know, I can’t help but wonder how differently this story would play out if it was published today.
Anyway, the villain tries to hire two hitmen to take out his rival. Fortunately The Eye stops them with his ability to travel anywhere and shoot heat blasts out of his…well eye.
Boy, I know red eye flights are a pain…but this is ridiculous. (wait don’t go…come back!)
The story resolves itself quickly and just in the way you would expect. The villain is defeated, and justice is served. The Eye has saved the day and the old man and his daughter are free to return to their business.
The Eye would go on to become something of a regular back up feature in the comic. The stories weren’t connected, it was more of an anthology tale where The Eye would drop in on a group of criminals committing a crime and use one of his many ill defined powers to save the day.
He was also given a sidekick, a young attorney named Jack Barrister who would assist The Eye whenever it needed a hand.
The Eye ran for eight issues in Keen Detective and must have been popular because he was given his own series in November of 1940.
So what happened?
The Eye may have been popular enough to get his own series, but his publisher wasn’t so lucky. While Centaur may have been one of the first comic book publishers ever, poor distribution and business sense saw the company go under in 1940.
While the company folded, it did retain something of a legacy. In 1987 one of his stories was reprinted in a book called Mr. Monster’s Hi Shock Schlock by Michael T. Gilbert.
And in 1992 a company called Malibu Comics revived a bunch of Malibu characters into a team known as The Protectors,
and the Eye was cast as a supporting character.
The Eye was a genuinely interesting idea and character for a superhero. He had an interesting gimmick and he had a legendary creator behind him. If it wasn’t for his publisher going out of business I’m willing to bet it would have gone on to become a staple of modern comic book superheroes as well.
It’s a real shame to see an idea like that go to waste.
Golden Age Showcase: Unknown Soldier
This Saturday is Veteran’s Day.
For our non American readers, this is a holiday where America honors those who have served in the armed forces in conflicts past and present. It’s also an exciting time for this blog because it’s a great time to talk about war comics!
When looking at the time period, it’s easy to see why war comics became so popular. America found itself at war and sent thousands of young men and boys to go off and fight in Europe and the Pacific.
However, America had the advantage of being separated from the conflict by two massive oceans and it’s people didn’t have to come face to face with the true horrors of war. With that being said, the United States became a military industrial powerhouse during the war and almost the entirety of American culture became obsessed with doing their part for the war effort and protecting the home front.
Comic books took advantage of this shift in popular culture, and stories about ordinary soldiers fighting against the forces of evil were quite popular during the Golden Age of Comics both during and after the war. Many of the greatest artists and writers of the Golden Age of Comics made a living writing and drawing war stories which resulted in some of the most complex and interesting stories of the time, along with some absolutely breathtaking artwork.
The intent and purpose of the war stories that were written during this time was also pretty varied. War and combat stories ranged from fantastical adventure stories for young boys staring ordinary soldiers fighting in fantastic situations,
to very thinly veiled propaganda stories promoting American patriotism and fighting spirit.
It’s worth noting that most of these adventure and propaganda stories were created and published during the Second World War. After that war was over and the Korean War began a lot of comics became much more realistic and brutal in their depictions of war.
So there’s a brief rundown of the early history of war comics. Unfortunately, since most of the early stories have so much talent behind them and were published by the big important publishers of the day, there isn’t a whole lot of material out there for free reading. However, today’s comic is available in the public domain and is a pretty interesting look at the early days of the war comic genre.
Today we’re going to talk about the thinly veiled propaganda hero The Unknown Soldier.
Origin and Career
The Unknown Soldier made his first appearance in Our Flag Comics in 1941. He was published by a company called Ace Comics and was the title character of the series.
The funny thing is, despite the fact that he was popular enough to appear on the cover of his debut issue, I can’t find any information on who created him or drew his story.
The hero himself has an interesting backstory, mostly because he really doesn’t have one.
He’s just a super being who appears out of nowhere firing explosive bullets and using his superpowers to defeat injustice and oppressive “gangster nations”.
What makes this kind of interesting is that this has some pretty close ties to real world American military culture. In Washington D.C you can visit a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery that honors the unnamed American soldiers who died in every war America has ever fought.
It’s called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and while the comic doesn’t tie the hero to the memorial, I like to think the creators of the story had this monument in mind when they wrote it.
Anyway, in his debut issue the Unknown Soldier helps defeat the Nazi invasion of Britain.
It’s worth mentioning that in 1941 this was actually a scenario that was terrifyingly plausible.
However, in this comic the Nazis don’t succeed because of superior tactics or planning, in fact their kind of idiots, but because of English traitors willing to betray their country to the Nazis known as Fifth Columnists. We actually get to meet one and learn about his motives. His name is John Jennings and he has made the classic mistake of believing that his country would be better under the rule of Nazism.
The Nazi war machine starts rolling and crushes everyone in its wake.
Thankfully the Unknown Soldier arrives just in time to murder every Nazi he can lay his hands on.
Naturally, the invasion is turned back but not before the story does something really unique and interesting. Remember the British fifth columnist John from the beginning? He has a change of heart when he and his gang of saboteurs attempt to blow up a hospital.
He actually redeems himself and dies a hero’s death while protecting his mother.
All while the superhero stands by and does nothing.
So the story isn’t actually about the Unknown Soldier, it’s actually a story of redemption for a man who was once blinded by ideology and hatred and sacrificed himself for a noble cause.
Pretty good stuff for a Golden Age Comic.
After that first adventure the Unknown Soldier continued in a similar capacity. While the stories were actually about ordinary people doing their part for the war effort, the Unknown Soldier would show up when it was time to knock heads or save someone from dying.
He wasn’t a hero with a secret identity, he was a representation of America’s fighting spirit.
Also, he got a costume change.
Despite all the murder done by our hero the creators were quick to make sure that the Nazis were just as bad if not worse. Case in point, they invade Manhattan and use flamethrowers on civilians.
So what happened?
Our Flag Comics only lasted five issues, but The Unknown Soldier was popular enough to be moved to another title called Four Favorites where he did pretty much the same thing.
He lasted for over 16 issues until November of 1945 when he fell into the public domain.
While this Unknown Soldier would fade from the public eye, the idea and name would continue when DC comics published another character called The Unknown Soldier in Our Army at War #168 in 1966.
The comic was created by DC legends Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, two men who knew how to create a really good war comic.
This version of the Unknown Soldier was a lot more tangible and slightly more realistic. Instead of a real superhero, the Unknown Soldier was an intelligence operative who was so disfigured that he had to bandage his face.
He was actually a master of disguise and in his final appearance, he kills Hitler and disguises himself as the dictator to end the war without further loss of life.
This iteration proved to be a bit more popular and he got a new limited series in 1997 under the Vertigo imprint at DC.
As for the original Unknown Soldier, he would make a slight comeback in 2008 when Dynamite Entertainment launched their Project Superpowers title to bring many of the Golden Age public domain heroes back into the mainstream.
He was renamed “Soldier Unknown” to avoid copyright issues with DC.
As a superhero the Unknown Soldier is not a very good one. He’s bland, he has no backstory or secret identity, and he’s even more overpowered than Superman. But that’s not really important. The Unknown Soldier isn’t a hero, he’s a symbol of something much greater than himself, the creators who made him, and any single person. He is the personification of the fighting spirit that rises up against tyranny and oppression, and while it would be nice to have known his name, it’s important that we know that he did his job so we could live.
Happy Veteran’s Day everyone.
The Secret Lives of Villains #246
Golden Age Showcase: Spider Widow
So I saw Spiderman: Homecoming yesterday.
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.
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.
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.
Origin and Career
Spider Widow first appeared in Quality Comics’ Feature Comics #57 in June of 1942.
She was created by comic book artist Frank Borth.
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.
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,
swarms of them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Plus, I’m willing to bet the writers were venting some pent up frustrations in the book through some impressively subtle fourth wall breaks.
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,
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.
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.
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,
(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.
The Secret Lives of Villains #231
Golden Age Showcase: Alfred
Happy post Father’s Day everyone!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alfred made his first appearance on the cover of the issue, and he looked like this:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”,
The effects and costumes were…not the best.
but one of its lasting impacts was hiring actor English character actor William Austin to play the Batman’s butler.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seriously, the man’s gone toe to toe with Superman both in quips,
and with fisticuffs.
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.
All of them have been fantastic, but special mentions go to the Alfred from Batman: The Animated Series,
where he was voiced by actor Clive Revill (who was actually the original voice of the Emperor from Star Wars)
and the gloriously named Efrem Zimbalist Jr.
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,
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.
I would actually go as far as to say that Michael Gough was so good that he actually made Batman and Robin halfway watchable.
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.
The Secret Lives of Villains #229
The Secret Lives of Villains #228
The Secret Lives of Villains #199