U.S. Male

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In the most recent issue of Multiversity, Grant Morrison once again brought his unique sensibilities to a well-worn comic-book theme – in this case, super-heroes versus Nazis – and uncovered new and interesting twists.

The most obvious hook, of course, was casting Superman and the Justice Leaguers as defenders of Truth, Justice and the Aryan Way. While it was intriguing to see how easily Batman fits into the fascist mold, the conceit wasn’t necessarily original. Heck, Saturday Night Live aired a Nazi Superman sketch way back in 1979.

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The more interesting aspects of the story – in my mind, at least – include Morrison’s depiction of Hitler, which ranges from Golden Age buffoonery to the true horrors of his sick ideology; the re-imagining of Uncle Sam as the charismatic leader of a super-powered terrorist cell comprised of Quality Comics characters; and, of course, a slant on “weeping Superman” that actually makes sense for once, as the Last Son Of Krypton finds himself unable to look past his adopted land’s bloody past.

Morrison also fulfills his “meta” quota, as there are several scenes depicting Nazis – including Der Fuehrer himself – reading and commenting on real and imagined Golden Age comics starring Superman  and a Captain America Expy called “American Crusader.”

American Crusader

Coincidentally enough, there was an American Crusader who battled Nazis in the pages of Nedor’s Thrilling Comics. The character, who owed as much to Superman as Captain America, also held the distinction of being one of the earliest atomic-powered super-heroes and even enjoyed a brief revival in Alan Moore’s “America’s Best Comics” line.

The Crusader was mousy astronomer Archibald Masters, who found himself blasted by atomic radiation in one of those comic-book science experiments that inevitably go awry. Instead of dying on the spot, Masters found he possessed super-human strength, speed, agility and resistance to injury as well as the power of flight.

Masters predictably donned a costume and decided to fight crime and tyranny as the patriotic American Crusader. His success at that endeavor can best be judged by the following tale …

“The American Crusader versus The Black Vulture” originally appeared in Thrilling Comics #26 (Better/Standard/Nedor, March 1942). The art is credited to Max Plaisted, whose work may be primitive but is still preferable in my eyes to Multiversity’s Jim Lee.

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In case you’re wondering about the Crusader’s battle against the wonderfully named “Mr. Eyes,” it can be summed up pretty easily.

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For a mild-mannered sop, Archie is pretty adept at clocking radios.

The Spider’s Sting

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Spider-Verse Week concludes with The Spider, yet another bored millionaire who decides to battle crime with his super-human athleticism. (Today’s protagonist, playboy Tom Hallaway, is a ridiculously accurate archer.)

Created by Golden Age great Paul Gustavson, The Spider proved popular enough to make 30 appearances in Quality’s Crack Comics. And that would be that, if it weren’t for a little thing called Crisis On Infinite Earths.

In the revised continuity, DC dipped into the Quality library to reinvent the Spider as a criminal who used the guise of heroism to cover nefarious activities. Our old friend Geoff Johns then inserted The Spider into the second-tier Golden-Age super-team, The Seven Soldiers Of Victory, as a replacement for the retconned ’40s versions of the Green Arrow and Speedy. The villainous archer eventually betrayed his teammates before their apocalyptic confrontation with The Nebula Man.

(And yes, that is one convoluted story that encompassed not only Johns’ Stars And S.T.R.I.P.E. series but also an old Justice League tale from my Bronze Age youth. Thanks, Wikipedia…)

The Post-Crisis Spider did receive a more nuanced treatment in Starman, but a more faithful version ultimately appeared in Erik Larsen’s Next Issue Project that remains a better postscript to the Spider’s career.

From Crack Comics #13 (Quality, June 1941), here’s “The Phony Resurrectionist” by Paul Gustavson.

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World Wide Web

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MLJ Comics’ spider-themed vigilante, The Web,  bears a certain resemblance to The Tarantula, DC’s own Golden Age entry in the arachnid avenger sweepstakes.

Both come from primarily scholarly interests in crime-busting, one a criminologist and the other a successful crime writer. Both, obviously, also happen upon the spider as an effective totem to intimidate lawbreakers.

The difference – other than the fact that The Tarantula debuted months before The Web, is due to the house styles of the two publishers. DC’s Tarantula, co-created by Mort Weisinger and Harold Sharp, relied upon gimmicks like web guns and suction cups to corral his enemies while the more sensational MLJ tended toward action-packed, blood-soaked melodrama.

(And to think the same ruffians behind such mayhem later published Archie … )

Surprisingly, The Web also may be better remembered than his DC counterpart as MLJ/Archie has revived the character from time to time while The Tarantula mostly appeared in the odd Roy Thomas Earth-2 story. Such is the curse of a second-tier super-hero who existed in the same publishing universe as Green Lantern and The Flash.

Without further ado, here’s today’s entry in our Spider-Verse Week. Illustrated by Irv Novick, here’s “The Web And The Book” from Zip Comics #35 (MLJ, March 1943).

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Coming tomorrow: Spider-Verse Week concludes with The Spider! Not the pulp guy, but a Quality Comics archer that was turned into a super-villain by the geniuses who run present day DC!!!

The Green Widow

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On paper, the Spider Widow differed little from other super-heroines of the Golden Age era. Wealthy socialite – and sportswoman – Dianne Grayton is unfulfilled by her silver-spoon existence and decides to use her considerable physical and mental skills to fight crime.

Unlike such fellow members of the not-so-idle rich as  Lady Luck or the Phantom Lady, Grayton took her crusade in a decidedly different direction when she adopted the guise of a green-skinned witch and demonstrated an uncanny ability to control poisonous spiders.

Although the character sounds ideal for rather dark adventures, Quality characters weren’t quite as bloodthirsty as some of their competitors (I’m looking at you, Ace and MLJ … ) and the Spider Widow soon developed a will-they or won’t-they relationship with a fellow crime-fighter known as The Raven.

She even developed a rivalry/alliance with the Quality Comics Phantom lady that crossed over two different titles, a rarity at that time.

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Spider-Widow and Raven also took down a villain known as Spider Man, who was basically a lunatic who rode a giant robot spider.

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For the purposes of Spider-Verse Week, however, we’ll turn to the bizarre heroine’s first – and creepiest – appearance in Feature Comics #57 (Quality, June 1942). The story was written and drawn by the Spider Widow’s creator, Frank Borth, who also penned the Phantom Lady’s adventures in Police Comics and undoubtedly cooked up the inter-title crossover.

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Coming tomorrow: MLJ’s The Web! He’s a pretty intense guy!!!

Death On Eight Legs

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Spider-Verse Week continues with The Black Spider, a killer vigilante who bore a great resemblance to such pulp fiction stars as The Shadow, Black Bat and – natch – The Spider … only with one crucial difference.

While The Black Spider – secretly District Attorney Ralph Nelson, a crime-buster frustrated by red tape – had no compunction against shooting down criminals he generally preferred to intimidate that particular cowardly lot by covering them with poisonous spiders.

To be honest, I find that a lot more intimidating than a guy dressed up like a giant bat.

Although never a headliner, The Black Spider did make 10 appearances as a back-up feature in Ace Periodical’s Super-Mystery Comics. That’s about as much as the Spider-Mobile got, right?

From Super-Mystery Comics vol. 1 #3 (October, 1940), here’s “The Black Spider.” Story and art are uncredited.

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Pretty bad-a$$, but the Black Spider is about as good at hiding his secret identity as Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield.

Coming tomorrow: The Spider Widow! She’s not what you expect …

Web Woman

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Sorry for the long absence but real life and all that …

To make amends with the remaining Time Bulleteers out there, we’ll celebrate the conclusion of Dan Slott’s surprisingly fun “Spider-Verse” cross-over (and this is coming from a guy who hates modern comic-book crossovers) with a week of posts dedicated to the arachnid-themed heroes and heroines of the Golden Age.

First up: Fox’s Spider-Queen, funny books’ first honest-to-gosh web-slinger. Like most of the characters in the Fox stable, the Queen only appeared in three issues of The Eagle, itself one of the publisher’s more obscure titles.

As everyone knows, however, super-heroes never truly die and Spider-Queen returned as a villain in a ’90s revival of Marvel’s Invaders super-team. Roy Thomas, who seemingly knows of and wishes to write every Golden Age character ever, reintroduced the character and other public-domain heroes as American Nazi sympathizers who viewed Hitler as the world’s best weapon against Communism.

Marvel Spider Queen

She also adopted a rather bad ’90s hairdo about 50 years ahead of its time but the less said about that the better.

So let’s focus on happier times when the Spider Queen contented herself on beating the living daylights out of petty criminals. From The Eagle #3 (Fox, November 1941), here’s the thrillingly titled “The Torture Racketeers” as drawn by Elsa Lisau.

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I would watch out for The Gladiator if this wasn’t Spider-Verse Week. So instead, come back tomorrow for the fearsome Black Spider! He’s scary because he throws poisonous black spiders at criminals!!

To The Moon!

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Today is the 92nd anniversary of Kurt Schaffenberger’s birth! He was one of those veteran artists I encountered often during my ’70s adolescence (being an avid reader of DC’s Superman Family), but never quite appreciated as much as flashier, younger superstar creators like Jim Starlin and Marshall Rogers.

As I grew older, however, I saw the brilliance of Shaffenberger’s ability to balance cartoon-like characters with realistic settings. Few artists outside of C.C. Beck could make Tawky Tawny a viable part of a super-hero universe and qualify as one of the medium’s better Good Girl artists.

Few characters suited Schaffenberger’s style better than the original Captain Marvel (aside from Superman, perhaps, but that’s six of one/ half-a-dozen of another). From Whiz Comics #120 (Fawcett, April 1950), here’s “Rockets To The Moon” with pencils and inks by the great Kurt Schaffenberger.

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Get The Point

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Although Green Arrow and Hawkeye have endured their share of fanboy scorn over the years,  the Big Two’s super-archers are currently enjoying something of a renaissance. Both have benefited from exposure in hit television series and movies, leading their respective corporate owners to put greater thought and effort into their adventures on the printed page.

Neither, however, would be anywhere on anyone’s radar without the Golden Age ancestor who first established how well Robin Hood’s gimmick translated to the super-hero genre: Centaur Publication’s The Arrow!

Created by comics legend Paul Gustavson, the original Arrow was an intelligence agent who – as was apparently the case for many strapping, young man in the late 1930s and early 1940s – was frustrated by criminals escaping justice through loopholes and decided to remedy the situation through archery.

Or, as one anonymous police official put it …

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So … yeah, that arrow stuff was pretty effective.

Today’s adventure originally appeared in The Arrow #2 (Centaur, November 1940) and was drawn by Bob Lubbers, an artist who later left a Milton Caniff-sized mark on Fiction House’s Good Girl and adventure comics. His work on Arrow was more primitive, but still lent a nice pulp-fiction feel to the proceedings.

The fact that our titular hero doesn’t appear right away adds to the story’s mystery.

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