Golden Age Showcase: Flexo

Stories about metal creatures created to serve the bidding of their masters is nothing new.  The ancient Greek god Hephaestus had two mechanical assistants to help him in his work.

and Jewish folklore talks about the Golem, a mystical man of clay that can be brought to life whenever the Jewish people are threatened.

But the idea of a living creature made out of inanimate material really took off in the 20th century.  We call them robots.

Today we’re going to talk about one of the lesser known robots of pop culture: Flexo.

No, not that one.  While I love Futurama, the Flexo we’re going to talk about today is a product of the 1940’s and boy is he strange.

Yes, that is a real comic book superhero and yes he does look like the bastard lovechild of Gumby and Iron Man, but despite his strange appearance he was actually a pretty important character in the early days of Timely Comics.

Origin and Career

Flexo the robot first appeared in Mystic Comics #1 in March of 1940.

Mystic Comics Vol 1 1

The character was created by writer Will Harr and artist Jack Binder.

While I couldn’t find a lot of information on Will Harr, Jack Binder was one of the more successful artists during the Golden Age,

who helped create the original Daredevil,

and who was the older brother of Otto Binder,

the man who created little known characters such as the entire Captain Marvel family and Brainiac.

Harr and Binder’s Flexo was created by two brother scientists named Joel and Joshua Williams with the intention of fighting crime and ridding the world of evil.

The robot itself was basically a rubber suit filled with gas and could be controlled remotely by the two men.  Thanks to his stretchy suit and the fact that he wasn’t limited by pesky things like a skeleton the robot could perform some pretty amazing feats.

In his first adventure Flexo was summoned by the Williams brothers after they had been robbed while carrying a dangerous sample of radium.  The group eventually traced the sample to the lab of the evil Dr. Murdo

But since this was a short story, and since this was the 1940’s, Flexo and his creators manage to defeat the Doctor and his goons in short order.

Flexo would go on to have three more stories where he would continue to rescue his creators from various threats such as foreign spies,

and a wicked insurance fraudster named the Iron Duke,

a man who ran a protection racket where he would burn people’s houses down and have them split the money with him, or perish in the flames.  Flexo and the Williams brothers stopped the Iron Duke after he burned down a tenement building with children still in it.

Flexo’s last adventure was also his biggest.  The Williams brothers snuck the robot into the fictitious nation of Teutonia (it should be noted that while the United States wasn’t technically involved in the Second World War at this point it didn’t stop comic book heroes from fighting thinly disguised Nazis) to steal back a formula for a deadly weapon.

So what happened?

Flexo fell victim to the same fate that befell almost everyone we talk about on this blog series, people just lost interest in him after World War 2.

But Flexo actually made a comeback not too long ago, and even helped save the universe as we know it.

This is going to require some explaining.  In the Marvel Universe there are various human led government agencies tasked with protecting Earth from various threats.  Most of us know S.H.I.E.L.D

and while they protect the Earth from most super powered threats there are other organizations such as S.W.O.R.D that protect Earth from alien threats,

and A.R.M.O.R, which protect the world from threats from other dimensions.

 Alternate Reality Monitoring and Operational Response Agency (Earth-616) 02

The reason I bring this up is because in 2012 Marvel ran a series called Marvel Zombies Destroy! where A.R.M.O.R is called upon to stop a Nazi zombie plague from another dimension from destroying our Earth.

It’s a cool idea but I don’t think it was designed to be taken seriously since they tasked this guy with stopping the invasion.

That’s Howard the Duck and to talk about him would take an entire article all to itself but long story short, in order to stop the Nazi zombie menace Howard assembled a team called…The Ducky Dozen.

One of the members of the Ducky Dozen was a new and improved Flexo.

He was upgraded with more autonomy and even gained the ability to speak.

 

The group would travel to the dimension where the zombies had originated and were almost immediately set upon by the zombified remains of some of Marvel’s greatest heroes.

Sadly, Flexo would perish in the final issue of the series.  He was ripped apart by zombie goats and atomized when the surviving members of the team detonated a nuclear bomb to prevent any more zombies from entering other dimensions.

Flexo is an interesting character.  While he only lasted a couple of stories he was a shining example of just how interesting and creative the Golden Age could be and he had the privilege of dying a pretty awesome death.

He is a great hero and a great idea who deserved way more attention and credit than he got.

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Golden Age Showcase: The 3Xs

Before we begin I would like to talk briefly about the horrible mass shooting in Orlando.  Since I write these blog posts several days in advance, and since I make it a point to make these articles goofy and funny, it seemed in poor taste to not acknowledge this awful tragedy and pretend everything was “business as usual”. 

I actually went to college near Orlando and as a result I have several friends who live in the general area.  Thankfully they are all unharmed but it is important to remember that events like these have a tremendous negative impact on communities, residents, and survivors alike that last well beyond the time when the news cameras stop rolling and the experts stop talking.

This was an awful and horrific tragedy and I respectfully ask for your thoughts and prayers for the victims and survivors of the shooting.  Thank you. 

Today we’re going to talk about the three Xs.

No!  Not that kind of X.  Besides, the comic book world doesn’t need my help when in comes to adult entertainment.

No, today we are going to talk about one of the most obscure superhero teams of all time, a rough and tumble group of early superheroes who worked together to fight crime.  They’re so obscure that I could barely find any pictures of them and you know what?  It’s a crying shame that more people don’t know about them.

Today, I present…the Three Xs.

Three Xs (Earth-616) from Mystic Comics Vol 1 1 0001

Origin and Career

The Three X’s first appeared in Mystic Comics #1 in March of 1940.

The only credit I can seem to find is that they were created by a man named Robert O. Erisman.  Again, I can’t find much of what he did except for the fact that he was the editor of a magazine called Marvel Science Stories.

The magazine was initially home to trashy science fiction but would later host sci fi greats such as Arthur C. Clarke (the man who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Issac Asimov (who basically invented everything we know about robots).

If it seems like I’m circling around the subject of the actual super heroes it’s because there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff to write about.  The Three X’s were a group of private detectives who went around fighting crime and each member had their own specialties.  There was 1x

who was a highly skilled criminologist and detective.

Then there was 2x

the group’s inventor and resident nerd (after all…he has glasses) and finally there was 3x,

a skilled boxer and the group’s resident brawler.

In the group’s first and only case they were hired by the Baltimore Police Commissioner (because law enforcement was something you could just outsource in the 1940’s) to track down a kidnapped lady by the name of Maisie Leeds.  The group managed to trace the kidnappings back to a villain known only as the Green Terror.

The Green Terror was actually a pretty effective villain.  He was from South Africa and he was basically immortal…so long as he consumed the blood of young people on a regular basis.

The Three X’s track the Green Terror, get captured, manage to escape, and take down the Green Terror with little to no difficulty.  It’s a pretty standard story.

So what happened?

Like I said above, the Three X’s only appeared in one issue and that was it.  There was no follow up, no second story, and not even a modern revival of the characters.

The sad thing is, I actually think these characters would make a fantastic addition to the Marvel Universe.  You have three incredibly brilliant individuals working together to solve crimes.

Three Xs (Earth-616) from Mystic Comics Vol 1 1 0001

They are all experts in their fields (I love old school sci fi tech and I just know that someone like 2x could create some really cool gadgets and devices), they are clearly not phased with going toe to toe with some of the more sinister elements of the superhero world, and they are just obscure enough and just generic enough that a good writer could turn them into something really interesting.

What are their real names?

Where do they come from?

How did they meet?

Do they have lives outside of detective work?

What motivated them to become detectives in the first place?

All this and more is ripe for the taking because as far as I can tell, these guys are in the public domain and its about time someone brought them back and made them into the proper heroes they deserve to be.

Golden Age Showcase: Archie the Gruesome

So I’m a big fan of Captain America: Civil War and the comic book series it sprang from.

One of the big themes of the movie and the comic book series is how so many of the superheroes fight on Captain America’s side simply because he’s Captain freaking America.

I mean who wouldn’t want to charge the gates of Hell itself if you knew it was with this guy?

The reason I bring this up is because even back in the 1940’s Captain America was an inspiration to countless other heroes and even ordinary people.  I bring this up because sometimes even ordinary people can rise to do great things if they have the proper motivation and inspiration and that is something that comic books are great at showing.

Unfortunately, the person we’re talking about today is NOT one of those great people but dammit, he deserves some respect for trying.  Ladies and gentlemen: Archie the Gruesome.

Origin and Career

We’ve covered some pretty obscure old timey superheroes in this blog series but I think this guy takes the cake.  Archie the Gruesome had one Golden Age appearance as the cover character in 1942’s Comedy Comics #10.

Nobody really know who wrote him, nobody really knows who drew him, and he was relegated to a single five page origin story in the comic.

Archie was a street sweeper who was inspired to become a costumed hero after seeing his idol, Captain America.

He didn’t have any powers, he wasn’t part of some secret experiment, he wasn’t blessed/cursed by some sort of magic, he didn’t lose his parents in a tragic accident, he just wanted to do good and I’m going to show the same cover picture again because that is the only image I can find of him.

As you can see, his costume is a parody of Captain America’s, he’s using his broom as a weapon (clearly in an attempt to “clean up the streets”), and the way he’s drawn and presented is clearly meant to not be taken seriously.  His opponent was a fellow street sweeper named Big Joe who was Archie’s polar opposite, preferring to turn to a life of crime rather than a life of heroics.

So what happened?

Shockingly, Archie the Gruesome did not go on to wild fame and success and he disappeared after his first appearance.

However, he would go on to have a role in a limited comic book series published by Marvel in 2011 called All Winners Squad: Band of Heroes.

All-Winners Squad Band of Heroes Vol 1 2

The comic book series was a World War 2 comic about a group of old school super powered humans who were drafted into the Allied war effort and were placed into a squad known as “Special Unit, Enhanced Humans” but wound up calling themselves “The Crazy Sues”

They were led by Captain America (obviously) and Archie was their medic.

They didn’t give him much to do in the comic.  He was a capable medic, there was actually one point in the book where he was asked to pump a dying soldier full of morphine while another soldier finished him off, and it was widely assumed that he was killed in battle because the comic book series was cancelled after five issues out of the proposed eight were published and that is why we can’t have nice things.

Archie the Gruesome can easily be thought of as a joke character and most of that thinking would be correct.  However, Archie is a special character in comics and deserves way more credit than he gets.  He saw the world around him, he saw his favorite superheroes doing great things, and not only did he think that was awesome, he actively tried to emulate his heroes and make the world a better place.  He had no powers, no gadgets, and no money but he managed to be one of the truest and greatest heroes around.

Golden Age Showcase: Mister E

Continuing on our series discussing the previous lives and careers of The Twelve we’re going to look at the one of the basic and standard superhero archetypes of the 1940’s: Mister E (good Lord even writing that just makes me want to groan).

 

Origin and Career

Mister E debuted in February of 1940, along with his future teammate The Laughing Mask, in Daring Mystery Comics #2.

 

I’m going to level with you, almost everything about Mister E is boring.

His origin story?  He’s a rich athlete named Victor Jay who decides to fight crime.

His motivations?  He’s bored.

His costume?  You can find the same design on half a dozen pulp and super heroes of the time.

It’s a small wonder he only lasted one issue.  That being said the villain he faced was pretty cool.

That is a picture of the Vampire, a mad scientist who was the mortal enemy of Mister E (it’s never explained why) who had developed a drug that would cause his victim’ heart to explode.  Mister E would stop the Vampire from taking over an oil company run by a man named J.P Snead.  At the end of the comic Mister E captured the Vampire, who promptly escaped, allowing the hero to wonder if the Vampire and himself would meet again, gearing up for a re match that would never occur.

So what happened?

Like many previous superheroes on this list Mister E would only last one issue until he was revived in 2007 for J. Michael Straczynski’s The Twelve.

Like his fellow super heroes Mister E spent time in Europe fighting the Nazis and was captured after a failed assault on Berlin.  It’s interesting to note that since Mister E didn’t have super powers he was viewed more as a tourist rather than a super hero,

and his revulsion at the Witnesses’ description of the crimes committed at Auschwitz seemed to reinforce that idea.

Like everyone else he was placed in cryogenic storage and wasn’t discovered until 2007 and while he would play a pretty passive part in the main story Mister E would have one of the most heartbreaking and emotional side stories in the entire comic.

One of the great things about The Twelve is Straczynski’s ability to create great characters to tell a great story and make a point.  In the case of Mister E this was a moment where Straczynski’s talents were put to exceptional use.

It turned out that Victor Jay wasn’t Mister E’s real name, it was Victor J. Goldstein.  He was Jewish but decided to hide the fact in order to fit in and be accepted into modern high society.

For anyone who is a fan of Golden Age comic books this is something that is incredibly jarring.  Not only does Straczynski use a medium of story telling where its heroes are supposed to stand above petty racism like this but it is especially shocking when you consider that so many of the early comic book creators were Jewish.

Siegel and Shuster

Joe Simon

even Stan Lee was the son of Jewish immigrants (his real name was Stanley Lieber before he had it changed)

Mister E would attempt reconnect with his now 68 year old son, who disowned his father by claiming he was a coward for not owning up to his heritage.

However, at the end of the comic Mister E would later learn that his wife had passed away and he vowed to never be a superhero due to the extreme emotional and mental cost it placed on him and his family.

While Mister E wasn’t much of a super hero and didn’t get to save the day he was put to fantastic use as a commentary on 1940’s America and the culture that spawned the industry we all know and love.

Golden Age Showcase: The Fiery Mask

Today we’re going to talk about another member of the 2007 Marvel Comics series The Twelve called the Fiery Mask.

What’s interesting is that out of all the twelve Golden Age heroes that were in the comic book series the Fiery Mask is a hero with one of the longest and most interesting Golden Age careers out there.  He had pedigree and he had some pretty interesting Golden Age stories.  Let’s take a look.

Origin and Career

The Fiery Mask debuted in the Timely Comics book series Daring Mystery Comics #1 in January of 1940.

Daring Mystery Comics Vol 1 1

That’s him on the cover of the book, so he already had much more exposure than most of the heroes we’ve talked about on this blog.  This makes sense considering that the hero was actually created by comic book legend Joe Simon,

who helped create a little known superhero named Captain America (you’ve probably never heard of him, he’s really obscure).

His origin story was titled The Fantastic Thriller of the Walking Corpses.

Jack Castle was a doctor who worked with the police and one day he was called in to investigate a strange case where corpses were coming back to life thanks to a mysterious beam of light.

So right off the bat we have zombies and weird science fiction, a good start.

Jack investigates this strange phenomenon until he is eventually kidnapped by the zombies and dragged before their leader.  Side note: it should be noted here that at this time in pop culture history a zombie was a creature who was a mindless slave to a single person, not the brain hungry hoards we know and love today.

The leader of the zombie hoards was a twenty foot tall monster of a man who simply called himself “The Zombie Master”

who was using the ray to turn the city’s homeless population into a zombie slave army.

Unfortunately for the Zombie Master the ray didn’t work on Jack and in his rage the villain cranked up the power causing a massive explosion that killed him and gave Jack super strength and the ability to control fire.  Naturally being the noble spirit that most superheroes of the Golden Age were Jack Castle decided to use his powers to become a superhero.

So after a pretty awesome origin story The Fiery Mask’s next appearance was in The Human Torch Comics #2.  Here he faced the villainous Dr. Simon Sendach, a scientist obsessed with creating artificial organs to transplant into humans.

He had even had success in creating an artificial stomach that could sustain the human body on a diet of blood.  However it had the side effect of turning the recipient of the device into a bloodthirsty maniac similar to a vampire.

Again, awesome.

The Fiery Mask would go on to have two more solo adventures where he would fight an evil scientist named Dork

who sought to take over the world by creating a strange blob like creature that ate human flesh.

and in his final battle he fought a demonically possessed baby,

and traveled to Hell where he fought and beat a demon who was committing a string of gruesome murders in out world.

So what happened?

Sadly the Fiery Mask was much to awesome to last for very long.  I guess the flame that burns brightest burns half as long (pun very much intended).

The hero would fade into obscurity until 2007 when he was featured as an important character in J. Michael Straczynski’s The Twelve.

Like the rest of his teammates the Fiery Mask was captured by the Nazis and placed in stasis, only to be forgotten until they were rediscovered in 2007 and returned to the United States where they were slowly reintroduced to society.

The Fiery Mask wouldn’t play much of a role in the beginning of the series.  Around the middle of the series it was revealed that his origin story was simply made up.  Instead of gaining his powers from the science of the Zombie Master he had actually been granted the ability to control fire by a man who had been killed by a mob hit.

To that I say…BOOO! BOOO!  They had the gall to change one of the coolest and cheesiest Golden Age origin stories to a man gaining his powers thanks to  a simple set of circumstances?!  Poor form Mr. Straczynski!  Poor form!

Sadly this new revelation, that the Fiery Mask’s powers could be transferred to other human beings, would prove to be integral to the plot of the story.  At the very end of the series all the heroes confront each other over the death of the Blue Blade at the hands of Electro.  The Phantom Reporter reveals that it was one of their own who committed the crime: The Dynamic Man.  Fiery Mask attempts to keep the peace.

But he fails and the Dynamic Man is revealed to be a half crazed android who attacks the group.

Dynamic Man manged to crush the Fiery Mask’s windpipe but just before the Mask died he managed to transfer his powers to the Phantom Reporter.

Who then proceeded to use his new gifts to end the fight and destroy Dynamic Man for good.

The Fiery Mask had one of the longest lasting Golden Age careers ever enjoyed by his colleagues from The Twelve.  Granted, that may not be saying much but the stories he was a part of were some of the strangest and most interesting stories in an age where strange characters and events ruled comic book.

It’s just a crying shame they all turned out to be lies.

Golden Age Showcase #7: Let’s Play Detective.

So when I was at Boston Comic Con I had the great honor of meeting Allen Bellman.

timthumb_003

Side note: this is not a picture of him at Boston Comic Con.  I made the stupid mistake of not getting a picture of him there so this will have to do

For those who might not be familiar with the name Allen Bellman was a freelance artist for Timely Comics during the 40’s and 50’s, which meant that he spent a lot of time with this guy.

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While Lee was busy performing editorial duties at Timely (this was well before he created most of his iconic characters like Spiderman and before Timely would become Marvel Comics), Bellman was busy drawing some of the earliest issues of a little known superhero you’ve probably never heard of.

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He also did a lot of work on the Golden Age Human Torch, which is another iconic superhero that underwent quite a bit of change from his early days and is definitely going to appear in an article at some point.

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But what we’re going to talk about today is a project that was created and written by Allen Bellman alone, a filler comic for larger issues called Let’s Play Detective.

Origin and career

This one’s a bit different because there really was no superhero origin for this comic.  Bellman realized that the comics Timely was producing needed filler pages for them so he proposed small and simple 1-2 page mystery comic book series.  It starred detective Michael Trapp who was confronted with a new case every issue and at the end of a page he would have deduced who committed the crime and made the arrest.  It was up to the reader to figure out how the detective had arrived at his deduction and the answer was always printed upside down in the last panel.

detective

1 YOUNG ALLIES #19 (Spring46)

While the stories themselves were incredibly simple and were never designed to be their own thing these stories did appear as filler in a whole bunch of Golden Age books from Captain America to the Sub Mariner.  They also speak to the rise in popularity of crime comics during the Golden Age with the very popular anthology series Crime Does not Pay

Crime_Does_Not_Pay_42

and featuring rather lurid tales of female criminals in the series Crimes by Women.

Crimes-by-Women

So what happened?

It was a crime comic in the late 1940’s, it’s pretty clear what happened.

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Another way to tell just how popular crime comics were in their hayday was by looking at how much attention the Comics Code paid to them.  The CCA reserved some of it’s strangest and most restrictive rules for crime comics including halting portrayals of excessive violence, forcing artists and writers to make criminals always look bad, and sadly enough always requiring that good triumph over evil at the end of the story.

Granted Let’s Play Detective was never going to be a lasting hit, it was simply a cheap way to fill out a comic book, but the creation of the CCA and the destruction it caused would mean that there was no place for fun little stories like this and it disappeared in the 1950’s.

Regardless of its size and its lack of impact Allen Bellman created something small in fun in Let’s Play Detective amid his much bigger and important work.  So next time you see a solve it yourself mystery in a book or in your local paper, make sure you thank Allen Bellman for his work.