The Secret Lives of Villains #246

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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.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #60

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.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #60

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.

Comic Book Cover For Police Comics #20

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.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #69

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

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #69

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: 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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President’s Day special: Uncle Sam

Happy President’s Day everyone!

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For our non American readers, President’s Day is an American holiday held on the third Monday of every month.  It was originally made a legal holiday in order to honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,

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but depending on what state you live in it can either celebrate one of them, both, or every President who has been elected into office.

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Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the position of President of the United States of America is probably not the most popular position of leadership in the world right now,

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but let me make my position on the matter perfectly clear.

While it is important to realize that the position of President of the United States is a difficult one, and that we should honor the people who sacrifice their time and health to the job, the truth of the matter is that at the end of the day the President is an elected official who can, and should, only do so much.

At the end of the day the problems that we face as a society can only be solved when ordinary people come together to fix them and take action.  Solutions are almost never the work of one great individual, but rather a collection of ordinary people.

Sadly, the slow and tedious work of millions is difficult to comprehend.  So in order to make sense of it all we do two things.  We celebrate the lives and achievements of a few men and women and we craft symbols and signs that we can rally around.

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That is part of the reason why I like superheroes so much.  They’re colorful, larger than life, and an easy way for people to relate to things and events that are much bigger than themselves.

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In an increasingly complex and chaotic world, they are the walking solutions to many of our problems.

So let’s take a look at a Golden Age superhero who wasn’t just a superhero who represented the millions of men and women who fought in WW2, but a walking symbol of America as well: Uncle Sam.

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Origin and Career

Uncle Sam became the personification of the American people and government during the War of 1812, although you probably recognize him more from his World War 1 recruitment poster.

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According to legend, the character of Uncle Sam was based off of the real life Samuel Wilson, who was a meat packer from New York and a fervent American patriot.

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Uncle Sam is up there with the bald eagle, baseball, and the flag as great American symbols and since he has such a violent history and is often associated with war it only makes sense that when America decided to get involved during World War 2, they co opt the ever loving crap out of him.

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Naturally he found a home in comic books and in July of 1940, Quality Comics published National Comics #1 hit the stands with Uncle Sam leading the charge against the Axis.

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I don’t know what I like more, the fact that Uncle Sam’s hat hasn’t blown away in the wind, or that they have a LITTLE KID RUNNING ACROSS AN AIRPLANE WING ATTACKING A FULLY GROWN MAN ARMED WITH A PISTOL!

Boy, child safety laws were pretty lax back then.

Like every hero, Uncle Sam needed an origin story.  It turned out that the folks at National Comics were content to keep him as a vague symbol of American government and way of life, only this time he was going to get his hands dirty and join the fight against crime and injustice.  It turned out that Uncle Sam was the spirit of a fallen soldier from the American Revolution and continued to appear whenever his country needed him to fight.

With any other company or creator this probably would have turned into a silly little farce, but this version of Uncle Sam was written by Will Eisner.

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If you don’t know who Will Eisner is, all you need to understand is that the comic book industry’s version of the Oscars is named after him.

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Anyway, this version of Uncle Sam did his patriotic duty and fought off, what else, the forces of evil and tyranny that just so happened to look like the Nazis.

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His superpowers were whatever the story needed and he had a kid sidekick named Buddy Smith who accompanied Uncle Sam on his many dangerous adventures.

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So what happened?

He spent 45 issues beating the enemies of America, and freedom loving people everywhere, to a pulp.

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Then Quality Comics went belly up in 1956 and was bought out by DC.

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DC’s Uncle Sam would go on to be a pretty big supporting character in the DC universe.  He became the leader of the Freedom Fighters, a group of old Quality Comics characters that were brought together in a Justice League type of arrangement.

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His origin was retooled a bit.  Now he was a spiritual entity that was summoned by the Founding Fathers in an occult ritual that bound the “Spirit of America” to the body of a dying patriot.

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He’s had a steady presence in the DC universe ever since the 1970’s.

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In 1997 DC’s greatest imprint, Vertigo Comics, gave Uncle Sam a two issue mini series written by Steve Darnell and drawn by Alex Ross.

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My hat is off to Vertigo for taking a pretty goofy character and treating him with respect and giving him a meaningful story.

He appeared in the DC event comic Blackest Night.

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and was dramatically revamped as a mortal black man in the New 52 reboot.

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Uncle Sam is an interesting character.  On one hand he’s goofy, colorful, and the kind of un ironic display of patriotism that would make a lot of people cringe.  On the other hand he’s a symbol of a violent and destructive superpower that has a nasty habit of sticking its nose in business that it has no right to be in.

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Personally, I’m more inclined towards the first interpretation.  Whether you love him or hate him, there is no denying that the man is pure Americana and I can’t think of a better symbol of the effort and determination of the American people.

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Sure, you can call me corny and cheesy but you know what?  I’m okay with that.

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Golden Age Showcase: The Grim Reaper

Before we begin, I just want to say thank you for two very big milestones.

First, last week’s blog post on Truth: Red, White, and Black was the single most successful blog post we’ve ever had on this site.

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I was absolutely blown away by the audience and the wonderful conversations that the article generated.

Second, yesterday was our two year anniversary as a blog and a website.  I’m not going to lie and say it’s been easy, but watching people enjoy everything we’ve worked so hard for has made this little venture worth it.

Anyway, let’s talk about a super hero that killed a whole bunch of Nazis and called himself the Grim Reaper.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #2

Origin and Career

The Grim Reaper first appeared in Standard Comics’ The Fighting Yank #7 in February of 1944.

 Comic Book Cover For The Fighting Yank #7 - Version 1

As you might be able to figure out from the cover, the entire issue had something of a military theme to it, especially since the United States was in the last full year of the war in Europe.

The Grim Reaper was published by Standard Comics and was created by comic book writer and editor Richard E. Hughes.

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The pictures above show Hughes’ many pseudonyms which he used since he was an incredibly prolific comic book creator in a career that spanned the 1940’s to the 1970’s.

It’s worth mentioning that the Grim Reaper is something of an oddity in Golden Age superhero comics.  While many of his fellow heroes started off fighting common criminals and spies, the Grim Reaper was thrust straight into the front lines of the war in Europe and got right down to kicking Nazi butt.

Comic Book Cover For The Fighting Yank #7 - Version 1

It’s also worth mentioning that Richard Hughes was actually a pretty good writer, because The Grim Reaper’s stories were pretty good.

In his first appearance our hero makes it very clear that he has no qualms about shedding German blood.

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Also, he manages to save a concentration camp full of prisoners and captured Allied pilots so the Allied war effort can destroy a Nazi aerodrome.

Comic Book Cover For The Fighting Yank #7 - Version 2

Apparently, this story was so popular and well received that the Grim Reaper would be given his own title and cover appearances after his first story.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

To be perfectly honest, I think that this is one of the greatest Golden Age covers I’ve ever seen.

The Grim Reaper’s new adventures were more of the same deal with him fighting the good fight in Europe and killing Nazis left and right.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

What’s really interesting about these stories is just how human and normal they are. The Grim Reaper is actually more of a secondary character and the writer tends to focus on the plight and effort of normal humans actively fighting the Nazis across Europe.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

Sure, the first page has a large picture of the hero, but the story itself is about the Greek resistance movement that sprung up to fight the occupying Nazi force.

It’s also worth mentioning that while the first Grim Reaper story falls into the typical tropes of turning the hero’s Nazi enemies into monsters who don’t have a very keen grasp of English and like to talk “in ze stereotypical German akksent!”

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

The funny thing is that, during his first main story, the writer goes out of his way to actually humanize some of the Nazis by having a Gestapo officer actually save the Grim Reaper’s life and reveal himself to be a German working against the Nazis.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

They would eventually give the Grim Reaper an origin story in his second issue.

It was revealed that the Grim Reaper was actually an American student studying in France named Bill Norris who decided to stay behind in Paris in order to continue his studies.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #2

The Nazis, in a blatant disregard for human rights and the Rules of War, sent Bill to a concentration camp when he tried to protect an old man from being beaten by a group of soldiers.

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Sure, the soldiers had every right to arrest Bill for what he did, but you don’t sentence someone to slave labor when they assault your men without weapons.

While in the camp, Bill meets a leader in the French Resistance and manages to escape.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #2

He decides to help the French and dons the Grim Reaper costume to fight the Nazis out of patriotic duty.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #2

The Grim Reaper would go on to have a couple more adventures fighting the Axis powers, but then the war ended.

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The Grim Reaper was too popular to be cancelled, so he decided to go and fight gangsters and common criminals instead.

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Honestly, the new stories were nothing special and the Grim Reaper found himself playing second fiddle to other stories and characters that were becoming more and more popular in post war America.

So what happened?

History and bad business happened.

Standard comics went out of business in 1956 as the comic book market dried up and left many of the smaller publishers bankrupt.

The Grim Reaper would have remained forgotten if it wasn’t for the best beard in comics, the incredibly intimidating Alan Moore.

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Moore had created his own publishing company in the early 2000’s called America’s Best Comics 

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and he scooped up many of the Standard Comics’ characters that had slipped into public domain which he used in a spin off series called Tom Strong.

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The Grim Reaper would eventually be killed in the Tom Strong spin off series Terra Obscura.

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In the end The Grim Reaper was a pretty typical flash in the pan Golden Age superhero.  He existed, had a pretty short run, and faded into obscurity quickly and was only remembered by people who were truly interested in this particular time in comics.

With that being said, he was well drawn (for the time), had a pretty sensible backstory, and was surprisingly well written for the time.  Like many real life people who were fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific during the war, the Grim Reaper did his part to beat back tyranny and evil and that is worth celebrating.