Comics have never been more popular than they were during the Golden Age. Some books (such as titles featuring Captain Marvel) sold more than a million copies a month. During the war years comics were hugely popular with the troops; this drove sales even higher since tens of thousands of comics were shipped overseas to members of the armed forces.

Conversely, though, as comic sales rose the overall quality of the product diminished. Many of the more talented writers and artists were drafted into the service, where frequently they were able to exercise their talents in the service of Uncle Sam (working as clerks, drawing the art for propaganda leaflets, etc. Of course there were also some guys like Jack Kirby who kicked ass and took names.). But the demand for comics was undiminished, so the publishers back home in the States were forced to turn to lesser talents in order to keep turning the books out on time. While early comics were often quirky affairs (as there were as yet no “rules” for the genre), comics throughout the war years were sometimes even stranger affairs for the simple reason that the “talent” producing them wasn’t all that talented.

A few of these lesser lights were not above the practice of cribbing a bit from the competition. Some of the swipes in question were a fair bit more blatant than others, which brings us to the subject of today’s post…

National Comics (later to become DC Comics) had a popular character called The Spectre who had been appearing in More Fun Comics and All-Star Comics as far back as 1940:

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Policeman Jim Corrigan was killed in the line of duty, but returned as the terrifying avenger known as The Spectre. In this supernatural guise, he meted out punishment of the “judge, jury, and executioner” variety to an assortment of crooks and malefactors. This compelling hook coupled the character’s striking appearance combined to make the The Spectre an integral part of the DC Universe for decades (right up until the company’s 2011 “reboot”).

The Spectre has spawned a few imitators over the years. In the 1970’s Marvel Comics at least had the decency to significantly change the appearance of their own version while still cribbing The Spectre’s essential “hook”:

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But in 1945, a company called Gerona Publishers came close to totally ripping off The Spectre lock, stock, and barrel with a character they called The Duke of Darkness. A young cop named Paddy Sullivan (because, as everyone knows, every cop was Irish back in the Forties) dies, but comes back as The Duke of Darkness. He even looks like The Spectre, except that the latter was bone white with a green uniform consisting of cape, trunks, and boots while the Duke’s nearly identical uniform was blue. Well, I did say “nearly completely ripped off” at the start of this paragraph, right?

But while The Spectre became a popular, long-lived character, The Duke of Darkness didn’t; the Duke appeared in just three tales in three separate one-shot comics published by Gerona (the last of which was actually a pretty well-crafted, well-drawn tale). The feature overall wasn’t quite bad enough to be called “inept” (we don’t know who the writer was, but the art of this origin story [possibly by Sam Cooper] is workmanlike, not wretched). The Duke’s origin and concept certainly made for an off-beat tale, but it doesn’t peg the needle on the ol’ Weirdometer the whole way to “11”. It’s goofy in an Ed Wood sort of way, but it’s really nothing special – it just is. And considering the popularity of the National Comics feature it aped, that might be the harshest criticism of all.

Let’s kick back and try to enjoy the goofy fun. You can right-click on a page and open it in a new tab for a larger view. The scans come from The Digital Comic Museum.

K.O. Comics #1, October 1945

The splash page is a very nice hook. It’s tough to go wrong with spectral skeletons.

K.O. Comics #1, October 1945

After reading the first narrative page my mind was going in about six different directions simultaneously. First of all, there’s the whole “Irish cop” thing which always makes me laugh. Quite a few writers, bloggers, and Internet posters engage in public displays of excessive handwringing when discussing Golden Age comics (and movies/serials of the same period, too): “They’re so full of racist stereotypes of Germans, Japanese, and African-Americans!” But there are also a half-zillion “Irish cop” stereotypes which are never mentioned; no one even bats an eye.

Former policeman Paddy isn’t the least bit sad to be dead; to the contrary, he’s pretty excited to be able to fight crime full-time. I suppose we can deduce that he was pretty much a “no-lifer” when he was alive. Can you imagine something like this happening to a guy like Charlie Martin Smith in The Untouchables? “Great! I’m dead! Now I can pore over ledgers and spreadsheets for eternity to help catch crooks like Capone!”

Paddy’s a sentimental guy, too: “Someone else is going to have his face patted with a spade!” Too bad he’s gone; he’s definitely the guy I’d want to deliver my eulogy.

Meanwhile, over on the other side of the cemetery…

K.O. Comics #1, October 1945

Holy crap! The guy’s own pallbearers are talking smack about him! “I’m glad he’s dead; let’s hurry up and get him in the ground! But let’s first have a last look at him because he sucked so badly as a human being!” The Weirdometer (which, by the way, is pronounced “weerd-AH-met-er”, NOT “WEER-dough-meet-er”) didn’t quit hit “11” on this page, but it came close.

And almost before we even get to enjoy the irony of a guy named Professor Live who isn’t, the writer goes and gives us the lamest villain origin ever. “They’re right – I did suck! So I’ll reverse my last name to Evil!” I guess waiting until you’re dead to do it saves you the hassle of the whole legal name change thing, with all of its attendant red tape and endless forms to fill out; who wants to deal with that grief?

Of course if I started thinking about this page the way my college English instructors taught me to do, I might conclude that another possibility here is that this page was a rare flash of true brilliance from the writer, who is speaking in metaphor by reversing the name of a man named Live (now that he’s dead). Yeah, he might be speaking in metaphor but this page just makes me wish he was speaking in semaphore, being as I don’t understand the latter.

K.O. Comics #1, October 1945

And why do crooks in Forties comics always talk like refugees from a Cagney movie? That’s more stereotyping. Just sayin’…

Take a moment to file something away in the back of your mind: Professor Evil is non-corporeal, but can momentarily materialize to sock a crook on the jaw. We’ll come back to that shortly.

K.O. Comics #1, October 1945

K.O. Comics #1, October 1945

My head just exploded. Let me see if I can sort this out. The villain is able to come back from the dead because he was screwing around with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, and is rewarded with the ability to harness his powers to his will. But our hero (who also came back from the dead) is yanked through a window and tossed into the cooler because he has no idea how to use his powers? What in the sam hill kind of message is that? And that brings up another nagging question – just how did our hero obtain his post mortem supernatural powers? The villain gets a better (or at least better articulated) origin that the hero does. That’s just wrong. That doesn’t make the hero “more mysterious” to the reader; it just seems like lazy, unimaginative writing.

I think that’s why I’m being so hard on this story. I’ll let a writer get away with a lot if it seems like he or she was at least trying. But slapdash stuff like this? It’s just sloppy.

The “Captain Something-or-other” line, and the fourth wall shattering reference to comic book heroes in the same panel were definitely clever though; I’ll gladly give that one to the writer.

K.O. Comics #1, October 1945

Now the Duke suddenly figures out how to turn himself incorporeal. The whole “jail cell” thing becomes a kind of bad gag through the course of the Duke’s trio of appearances. He spends all of his time in the jail cell (to be able to overhear incoming police calls) until there’s a crime to solve or villain to be stopped; then he dematerializes and leaves, returning voluntarily when his work is done. It’s a very unusual gimmick (I’ve never encountered another quite like it) but it’s not well thought out – sooner or later the Duke’s going to have to be tried or released due to that damned pesky habeas corpus thing.

At least it saves the Duke the money he’d spend on a more traditional superhero hideout.

K.O. Comics #1, October 1945

The Duke is really getting the hang of his powers now.

K.O. Comics #1, October 1945

We can deduce that Professor Evil has to not just materialize but also become visible in order to manipulate the physical world (e.g. to sock the Duke and to gun down his own lackies). And since the Professor exits via the window, he apparently can’t switch back and forth between his corporeal and non-corporeal forms at will; there may be some kind of “recharge” period perhaps. Maybe I’m just overthinking it…

K.O. Comics #1, October 1945

…but now I’m really confused. Professor Evil cuts and runs, saying the fire’s too hot even for a ghost. But on the next page the Duke mentally kicks himself, saying he has nothing to fear from the flames. So which is it?

Then the Duke lets himself get recaptured by the police for no apparent reason.

I give up. This story makes absolutely zero sense.

K.O. Comics #1, October 1945

K.O. Comics #1, October 1945

The ability to grow to enormous size is another trope which was stolen from National’s Spectre stories. While we’re on the subject, how does the Duke arrive at the conclusion that Evil’s strength will diminish the larger he grows? He pulled that one right out of nowhere.

The Duke’s later stories did get a bit better and the art improved, but it was ultimately too little too late. The Duke of Darkness appeared in just three separate Gerona one-shot books in 1945 before returning to the darkness from which he’d come.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2014, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.