Happy Earth Day from Walt Kelly and the beloved denizens of the Okefenokee Swamp!
With the much deserved success of the Netflix Daredevil series, yours truly thought it high time to revisit the Golden Age Daredevil, one of the most popular super-heroes of the era.
While comic-book historians (yes, there’s such a thing) have made much of Daredevil’s unique costume design, brief status as a mute super-hero, splashy first issue as a headliner and epic battle against The Claw, this time I’d like to take a minute to discuss the man who guided the character’s adventures for nine years: Charles Biro.
Without a doubt, Biro was one of the greatest comic-book writers/artists/editors to ever put paper to pen. Not only did he spearhead the original and (arguably) greatest crime comic of all (Crime Does Not Pay), but created/co-created such memorable and popular characters as Airboy, Iron Jaw, Crimebuster, the Little Wise Guys and Mr. Crime among many others.
He also had a special knack for self-promotion that undoubtedly taught a young Stanley Lieber a thing or two about the power of hyperbole. In today’s story alone, both the narrator and Daredevil take time out from the adventure at hand to pump up an upcoming issue’s storyline. The covers of Daredevil Comics, which were usually drawn by Biro, routinely sported the legend “The Greatest Name In Comics.”
And heck … who can disagree with Biro? Daredevil often enjoyed some of the more memorable adventures in Golden Age comics, a contention borne out by “The Human Beast.” The story originally appeared in Daredevil Comics #6 (Lev Gleason, December 1941). It was written and drawn by Biro.
For every Captain America there is an American Avenger; for every Wonder Woman an Amazona.The pages of Golden Age super-hero comics were rife with would-be supermen and women who received one chance at stardom but instead faded immediately into obscurity.
Sometimes the reasons for a character’s failure were woefully apparent (Centaur’s “The Buzzard,” a non-powered crime-fighter who disguised himself by donning a fake, bird-like nose) while other concepts worked well enough on paper but for whatever reason plummeted out of favor (“Ghost Woman,” a spectral heroine who fought werewolves. What’s not to love?).
Scarlet Nemesis and The Black Orchid were a crime-fighting duo that definitely deserved better exposure than a one-and-done. The set up was simple: a smug, condescending private eye and his hyper-competent Girl Friday fight crime as costumed mystery-persons. Although Nemesis and Orchid frequently team up, both are unaware of their partner’s true identity.
It’s “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” decades before the fact!
If we’re being honest, however, the Black Orchid is the true star of the story. She has a better codename, costume and “calling card” (a floral dagger!) than the generic at best Scarlet Nemesis.
Perhaps that’s what held the duo back, or maybe it was the simple fact that the publisher already had a darkly clad female vigilante who readily captured readers’ imaginations: the Black Cat.
Judge for yourself. From All-New Short Story #2 (Harvey, March 1943), here’s “The Case Of The Crumbling Skyscrapers.” The art is credited to Ken Battlefield.
Now that I think of it … there’s a slight similarity between the Harvey Black Orchid’s costume and the look of DC’s Black Orchid, who debuted in the 1970s.
Is it possible? Probably not, but then again …
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.
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.”
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.
In case you’re wondering about the Crusader’s battle against the wonderfully named “Mr. Eyes,” it can be summed up pretty easily.
For a mild-mannered sop, Archie is pretty adept at clocking radios.
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.
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).
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!!!
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.
Spider-Widow and Raven also took down a villain known as Spider Man, who was basically a lunatic who rode a giant robot spider.
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.
Coming tomorrow: MLJ’s The Web! He’s a pretty intense guy!!!
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.
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 …