That’s right, you heard me. Nazis. In drag.
This particular Golden Age Comics story is pretty weird even by this blog’s standards. It features as its key element Nazis dressed as elderly ladies in what is possibly the most convoluted anarchist plot to topple a government in world history.
As the post’s title indicates, it was published in the Feb. 1942 issue of Our Flag Comics, which means that it was most likely written and drawn pre-Pearl. It features The Flag, a rather short-lived hero (eight adventures total) published by Ace Comics, who has been featured in a couple of recent posts to this blog.
Let’s jump right in – prepare to be amazed (or probably just dumbfounded).
The page scans are courtesy of the Digital Comic Museum and, as always, just click on a pic for a larger view so you can follow along.
Say what you want about the The Flag’s writing, but you have to admit that the art is pretty danged good – the splash panels are first rate. This one features a gaggle of spies or fifth columnists hoisting a faux Nazi German flag to the top of the U.S. Capitol’s flag staff.
I should point out that the German flag is colored wrong, most likely deliberately so as a form of subliminal propaganda (the message being that Nazis are cowards. It’s a yellow flag, get it?).
Once we’re into the story, we see a mysterious conversation involving Heinrich Guhn (pronounced “goon” — names like this were used pretty commonly in Golden Age comics for added emphasis in differentiating between the good and bad guys), and learn that he has sinister plans for the gold star mothers convening in his hotel. By the way, the leader of the real life German-American Bund (a Nazi “front” organization) at this time was named Fritz Kuhn. The choice of the name “Guhn” for the villain wasn’t remotely accidental.
OK, time for a slight detour and history lesson. Back in the day, when a lad went off to serve in the military during wartime, the family at home would display a blue star in a window of their home (more than one of them if multiple sons went off to serve), signifying that son’s wartime military service. If a serviceman was killed, his blue star was replaced by a gold one which represented that household’s sacrifice. This was a tradition throughout World War I and it continued through at least the Vietnam era; I’m not sure that it’s still in effect today – I can’t remember the last time I saw a star of either color displayed in a residence’s window.
The Gold Star Mothers became an official organization during the 1920′s and still exists today. They serve as a support group for mothers of children who made the supreme sacrifice in wartime, and many member groups are very active in community projects.
The concept of a “gold star mother” isn’t especially common knowledge today, but it would have been well-known when this comic was published in early 1942.
Of course, Jim and “Old Glory” just happen to be staying at the same hotel as the mothers’ convention. But the writer does give us a nice character-driven reason for what would otherwise be a whopping huge coincidence.
You see, it’s not that the writing is quite “bad” in some of The Flag’s tales – there’s some really clever, inventive stuff here from time to time. I don’t want to get ahead of the story, but this particular tale is so crazily imaginative that I want some of whatever the writer was having when he dreamed up this yarn. I do really want desperately to like The Flag’s stories, especially because the art is so good, but the writer always seems to find a way to snafu the whole works before a story is over.
Speaking of the art, the fourth panel contains an especially nice, subtle touch. Quite a few gold star mothers volunteered for nursing duties as a way to “work through” their grief (in fact, that’s exactly what the woman who founded the organization did during WWI), and the mom in the panel’s foreground is dressed in a nurse’s uniform.
The American Nazis, members of the “First Nazi-American Society” (as established on page one), use knockout gas on all of the gold star moms. The first time I read this story I was definitely wondering what the heck was going on here. I’ll admit it – as bad as this series can sometimes be, the writer of this yarn had absolutely sunk the hook in me by the end of the second page.
The story quickly takes a very ugly turn and gets “hardcore” in a hurry. Disguised as gold star mothers, the Nazis kidnap President Roosevelt and gun down everyone in the “War Office” (which, given the small size of the U.S. Military pre-Pearl, as we discussed recently, might be a significant percentage of our armed forces).
I can’t help but think, though, that Hitler never signed off on this particular plan. I’m pretty sure that a statement like “Mein Fuhrer, we plan to have our Amerikan agents dress in ‘granny gowns’ and take over the U.S. government…” would have sent Hitler into a furious carpet-chewing paroxysm of rage.
I don’t know where to even start analyzing page four…
I pick on The Flag’s writer a lot, but I have to admit that the guy had a tough row to hoe. The Golden Age saw a huge glut of “mystery men” (a.k.a. superhero) comics on the newsstand racks. To stay competitive, comic writers and publishers had to keep coming up with new hooks to differentiate their characters from those of the competition. Some publishers, like All-American, created team-up books like All-Star Comics which featured the Justice Society of America – why buy a book with two or three heroes when you could buy a book with a mob of ‘em? Other publishers won over readers with snappy, sharp, imaginative writing, publishers like Lev Gleason which offered entertaining books like Daredevil Comics. Some characters, like Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, were pretty much a “can’t miss” proposition – a kid who can change into a powerful hero starring in fantastic, sometimes nearly surreal, stories in which practically anything could happen is a powerful draw.
But the biggest “shortcut” to popularity (which, unfortunately, a lot of writers took) was to make a hero invulnerable. While that’s pretty exciting to an eight year old reader with a dime burning a hole in his pocket, it quickly gets stale. A hero who can do anything and who can’t be defeated? Sure, it’s fun to watch him clean house on a roomful of saboteurs – once. But it’s boring when it becomes the standard fare issue after issue. That’s why Better Publications’ character Captain Future, despite his relative longevity in that company’s books, gets old in a hurry – its tough to read more than a handful of stories because you realize that his adventures are simple “power fantasies”, repeated again and again. It’s the same problem with which Superman’s writers wrestled in the Silver Age; once Supes’ powers reached the “throw planets around like baseballs” level, it became pretty hard to write engaging comics featuring the character. That’s why the whole “Lois tries to trap Clark into revealing that he’s Superman, and he has to outwit her while saving the Earth” thing became the common trope – the poor guy could (and did) fling Brainiac into the next galaxy with ease, but it was pretty fun watching him bust his hump trying to stay a step ahead of Lois.
When you’d create a character like The Flag – flight, super-strength, invulnerability – you’d get a short-term newsstand winner, but in the long haul you’d have to get creative to keep him viable. A villain couldn’t beat The Flag in a straight up fight, so he’d instead have to outwit him by devising more and more elaborate schemes to achieve his evil ends.
So (had this story actually happened) maybe some underling did get Hitler to sign off on the scheme: “Mein Fuhrer, der Amerikaners now have those verdammt ubermensch on their side, so we must overthrow their government in a sudden blitz. I have a plan…”
In any event, the writer of this tale had to go to great lengths to devise a narrative this far out in left field. The Nazis tie up F.D.R. and toss him in a closet, take over the government, and then stop for a relaxing, self-congratulatory smoke. As a reader, you can’t help but crack up at that fifth panel despite the mounting death toll. I’ll give the writer props for having some awareness of his scenario’s ridiculous nature, for he has Guhn blow away the guy who mocked him, reminding us that this is no laughing matter.
But I’m laughing anyway. I love this story, in the same way that I love “The Human Beast” from Daredevil Comics. While this story’s (unknown) writer lacks the skills of a Charles Biro, he does manage to create a tale memorable for its sheer off-the-wall goofiness.
The action is picking up, so I’ll be more brief with my commentaty. Jim swings into action, leaving Old Glory to pull the old “make the cabbie think he’s the crazy one” stunt, which pops up time and again in the comics. Good thing the cabbie doesn’t seem to know what a rear-view mirror is used for, otherwise he couldn’t have missed the fact that The Flag seems to turn the air all sparkly behind himself when he flies, appearing to poop a weird star-spangled contrail like the exhaust from some patriotic jet plane.
Gadzooks! Even the hotel’s bellmen are Nazis!
Some nice action art here, and an attempt at some snappy dialogue. Spider-Man did not invent the lame superhero one-liner.
I especially like the composition of the fourth panel, with the “telescopic view” of the mook triggering the alarm. Bear in mind that the hotel is owned by Herr Guhn, so the existence of a convenient “pedal” alarm isn’t terribly far-fetched.
Man, that’s rough – socking an old lady, and she’s a gold star mother to boot. It reinforces the idea that these American Nazis are the lowest of the low.
Now we get the details of Guhn’s elaborate plan, the reason why everyone in the “War Office” was gunned down back on page three. I won’t bother to comment on how such a plan would have absolutely no chance of success; let’s just roll with it and see what happens.
As we discussed the last time we dissected one of The Flag’s adventures, the United States armed forces were no great shakes prior to Pearl Harbor. Defense production was at a fairly low level (enough to ship “Lend-Lease” munitions to England) and there was no major “draft push” — there weren’t a lot of men in the armed forces in late 1941. So the final two panels are a major overstatement. Had peace been declared in Europe, there would have been something of a general relief, but it would have been more of a quiet “Good, that’s one less thing to worry about” sigh, not wild dancing in the streets.
So now there’s an instant overnight demobilization of the U.S. Army, and thousands of fascist fifth columnists are ready to step in and take their places. To paraphrase Batman in the movie Justice League: Doom, I couldn’t list everything wrong with that plan if I had a week.
But, again, I have to confess to a sneaking admiration for the mind of any writer who could come up with something that Byzantine and complex, no matter how improbable.
Meanwhile Mrs. Smith takes another one for the team. She tries to help the guy who she believes is her son, and is betrayed again.
I was amused by the line, “Get a soapbox, lady.” Does that make me a bad person?
In the final panel, we learn that Herr Guhn has apparently changed base from the White House to the Capitol.
Strap in, gang – it’s going to get amazingly weird in a minute…
We need to bear in mind for a moment that this tale was written for contemporary readers, not for us at a distance of seventy years. So I’m really troubled by this page. The Flag arrives to tell the press mob in front of the U.S. Capitol that the European war isn’t over, and is met with a “We don’t want to hear it!” reaction. Now I can completely understand the writer’s desire to communicate the idea that F.D.R. hasn’t been seen in a while. But I’m not sure if there’s supposed to be some kind of subtext to this page, and what that subtext might be. Is the writer saying that the press is always chasing the big story to sell newspapers, regardless of where the truth might lie? Is he saying that the U.S. public was so starved for good news that they would turn en masse against anyone who refuted such a story (even if he’s a known “good guy” like The Flag)?
Or, in light of the hackery that graced many of Our Flag Comics’ pages, maybe I’m chasing phantoms here, and the writer just needed to re-establish that F.D.R. is out of action and (as we’ll see) get The Flag out of action for a while, too. I’ll admit – I’m buffaloed here.
One of the Nazis stuns The Flag with some kind of concussion grenade. You’ll recall The Flag’s first appearance:
Note the phrase “immunity from weapons of man”. So what gives? Jim Courtney apparently suffers from the common superhero malady called “selective invulnerability”, in which a hero is completely invulnerable to harm except during instances when his temporary incapacitation will help advance the plot.
That’s definitely the case here, as we’ll soon discover…
He’s under a bush. In a coma. For two days. And nobody helps him? The next time you’re in D.C., try lying under a bush on the U.S. Capitol grounds for two minutes and see what happens.
But it gets The Flag out of the picture for a while, long enough for the U.S. Army to start showing up “in towns all over the country” sporting their new snazzy yellow Nazi flags. The Founding Fathers (with honorary member Lincoln in tow) revive The Flag just in the nick of time.
So why did they wait two whole days to wake him up? Hellfire Club annual picnic, maybe? We’ll never know.
Your Joe Average “regular guy” citizen isn’t going to stand for any of this “Nazi guff”, but pipe wrenches are no match for tanks. The Flag shows up – and the reader gets exactly the stuff that he paid his hard-earned dime to see.
Some bad puns and furious action, then the erstwhile “American Fuhrer” is collared. “You and your Nazis can’t kill the fighting spirit of the American nation – and that’s the power behind me!” You have got to love that line – it’s just so wonderfully evocative of the Golden Age.
The next-to-last panel on the page, the “showdown” panel in which the hero displays his righteous indignation, is also pretty classic.
Guhn is killed in the obligatory cool, ironic way. With a few exceptions (most notably The Spectre), Golden Age heroes don’t directly kill the bad guys, but there’s no rule which says they can’t display obvious pleasure when Fate turns around and bites the bad guy in the butt.
We also find out that the scarred fifth columnist really is Mrs. Smith’s son after all. I’ll admit it – they fooled me. The red herring was the earlier panel in which The Flag called her “deluded”. I should have known better.
I don’t feel too badly, though, because I’m not alone. “Gullibility” is apparently the prime requisite for joining the First Nazi-American Society, as it seems anyone can get these guys to do anything as long as they know the proper radio frequency on which to broadcast the instructions — no code words required…
…but that does allow all the loose ends to be nicely wrapped up, including the reconciliation between Mrs. Smith and her long-lost son.
It was a wildly imaginative, bordering on “demented”, carnival of fun – the “Nazis in drag” panels alone make the whole thing worthwhile, even before we start digging around for possible subtext.
We’ll look at just one more of The Flag’s adventures, the kind of stereotypical Golden Age story that the creators of the Justice League animated series goofed on with elements of their “Justice Guild” two-parter. Until then…
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.