If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you already know that I’m a tremendous fan of Golden Age comic books, particularly “mystery men” books published from the late 1930’s into the war years. I often recommend them to my comic fan friends, who frequently dismiss them (without ever reading one) with comments like, “They were for kiddies!”, “The art is terrible”, or “They’re too simplistic.” It’s always suspect to make blanket comments such as those. While some war era comics definitely fall into one or more of those categories, one certainly can’t make those statements about all of them, not by a longshot. I’ve already popped holes in the first two of those balloons in previous posts (using the art of the “Pat Patriot” features and the rich, twisted, and very adult subtexts of Charles Biro’s work on “Daredevil” as examples). Today I’d like to tackle the “simplistic” criticism by citing The Grim Reaper’s second appearance, the cover feature from May 1944’s Wonder Comics #1 (published by Great Comics Publications, usually classified today as part of the Nedor “family” of comics).

I’m going to do something a bit different with this post. Instead of presenting individual panels from Wonder Comics #1, I’m going to present the entire story, page by page. The scan of this comic is public domain and thus freely (and legally) available online; this particular comic comes to us courtesy of the good folks at the Digital Comic Museum.

Returning to the modern-day complaint that Golden Age comics are “too simplistic”, the defense offers as evidence the second appearance of The Grim Reaper. Debuting in Fighting Yank #7 (February 1944, by Nedor Publishing), The Grim Reaper instantly graduated to headliner status, gracing the cover of Wonder Comics #1 and appearing as the lead-off story in that book (you may recall from my previous nurglings on the subject that most Golden Age comics were “anthology” titles, meaning they were usually forty to eighty pages long and featured multiple characters, often from a variety of genres [sports, adventure, jungle, military, etc.]).

As with all of the illustrations in this post, please click on the pic to enlarge it. You’ll absolutely need to do this for the page scans so that you can read the story.

By the way, that’s an incredibly cool cover. If I’d been a kid seeing this book on the stands in 1944, I’d have ponied up my dime with no hesitation. The Grim Reaper has captured Hitler and Hirohito and is trampling their flags underfoot as G.I.s cheer him on. While certainly not as famous as the legendary “sock Hitler in the jaw” cover of Captain America #1, the cover of Wonder Comics #1 certainly invokes the same wartime patriotic spirit.

I’d like to invite you to download and read this story yourself before we proceed (or else click on each image below in order, and thus read the story before reading my commentary). If you do, it’ll reinforce my point — I had to read this story twice before I caught everything that happens in it. I will confidently say that unless you’re a very careful reader, you’ll miss a plot point or two before you get to the end of this tale.

Some background first: The Grim Reaper is actually Bill Norris, an American. He began his career as a student studying in Paris when the Nazi Germans invaded in 1940; he immediately joined the French partisan resistance, adopted a costumed identity, and launched his “mystery man” career. The Grim Reaper has no special powers, but is a skilled fighter who is proficient with a variety of weapons.

OK, let’s get started. Read the whole story first (if you wish), and then come back for the page by page commentary.

Many Golden Age comics didn’t “spoon feed” their readers; the writers and artists assumed some basic literacy skills were possessed by their public. On the very first page, we’re provided with a slew of basic plot points (“situation seeds” to those of us who were English majors) as well as a visual cue concerning the story to come. The splash panel shows the Acropolis, so we can already assume that the story will either take place in Greece or that the country will play a key part in the story.

Annnnnnnd, in the very first regular panel we learn that we’re right. BUT you need to pay particular attention to three things which are mentioned in the first two regular-sized panels, or else the rest of the story makes no sense:

1- The Greek partisan leader (to whom the Allies must get a secret message [presumably because the Ratzis are monitoring radio traffic) is named Mikalos;

2- Colonel Lowell will be arriving separately with a map of the weapons cache for Mikalos;

3- Lowell will be traveling from Bern to Salonika (and here’s something they don’t spell out, because they figure you’re bright enough to already know it: Bern’s in Switzerland and Salonika is in Greece, meaning that Lowell needs to somehow find his way across a buttload of Axis-controlled territory to deliver his message).

I mention all of this because it’s highly unusual in present day comics for three important plot points to be casually tossed off in one word balloon, especially this early in a story.

The message travels via the partisan “grapevine” to Greece, where we meet Mikalos and his son Hermes in the middle two panels. The last two panels introduce the story’s main antagonist, Inspector Gabisch. (We know he’s the villain because of “der Kolonel’s” utterance in the lefthand panel, plus in the righthand panel Gabisch mentions that he’s after The Grim Reaper. That latter point tells us that we need to pay attention to this dude, as he’s not just some “walk on” character. By the way, I’m sure the connotation evoked by the name “General Klutz” was entirely deliberate; writers did that kind of thing all the time during the war years.)

The wily Inspector is going to follow the partisans, and he won’t be disappointed. We learn that Perona and Mikalos are old friends and, from the sound of things, they might have cemented their friendship at some earlier point with an agreement to name their children after mythological Greek deities (Hermes greets Hera in the background of panel 3).

Unfortunately, Mikalos spills the beans in panel 4, but does reinforce a point from page 1 that wasn’t explicitly spelled out – that Lowell has to undertake a very dangerous journey to get to Greece.

The gestapo torture Miklos and Hermes to get the info they want. Then we get the standard “Come over here and cuddle up to me, fraulein” trope, after which Perona steps in to defend his daughter’s honor, Gabisch callously murders him, and Hera vows revenge.

We finally encounter our hero, Bill Norris (a.k.a. The Grim Reaper) after a full four pages of plot development. He’s in Bern, Switzerland, contemplating a trip to Turkey to fight against “Axis agitators” (saboteurs, fifth columnists, anarchists) but needs a visa to go there — which explains why he needs to visit Colonel Lowell. This is a really nice piece of plotting, as it gets the hero directly into the action by tying him in with a previously established plot point. It doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but it’s really some deft work on the writer’s part.

Norris arrives just in time to witness the Axis attack on Lowell, though not in time to stop it.

This is a cool page, showing that you don’t have to be in costume to perform heroics. It’s another page you need to pay attention to, though, especially with all of the action going on.

The first time I read this page, I had to go back a second time, as I found myself saying “Waitaminnit, how’d Norris get the envelope?” The thug drops it in the second panel and Bill grabs it in the third, but the “I’ll take this” reads like “Take this!” (as he punches the guy) if you’re reading the story too quickly (as I was doing).

Bill then proceeds to do a number on the Germans (and wisecracks about it in the fourth panel, which I found harsh, but amusing), drilling one of them, then shooting out a tire to rack up the rest. Returning to Lowell’s office, the Colonel manages to gasp out a name and a German address before expiring, thickening the plot further…

This is page seven, which means that we’ve read nearly half the story before we finally get to see The Grim Reaper in costume. We also enjoy a monster laugh in the second panel, when one of the guards describes Hitler’s concern at the thought of being invaded by Switzerland. The Swiss haven’t participated in a war since Napoleonic times.

The Grim Reaper cleans house by making short work of the border guards, then spots a truck bearing a swastika. This, of course, ties directly into Rule #17 for all Golden Age heroes: “If any truck bears a swastika, it’s up to no good. Stop it at all costs.” So…

…he does, and in so doing references Rule #18: “Always use German words when bantering with Nazi enemies, because it really annoys them, plus many German words just sound funny anyway.” You can ask Mel Brooks about that last part – he’s practically made a whole career of it.

The Reaper now has wheels with which to haul hell for leather across Germany, panicking the Nazi top brass in the process (By 1944 a “frightened Hitler” panel was practically obligatory in superhero books, and this story doesn’t disappoint [as we see in the page’s last panel]).

The stolen truck not only speeds The Reaper across Germany, it also speeds the action, as we see on the next page:

This page has not one blessed thing to do with the plot. It actually serves as an “intermission” before the second part of the tale. It does. Seriously.

Let’s face facts: adults were not the primary market for comic books during the Golden Age. Sure, so far in this story we’ve seen some people get punched or shot, but there’s also been a whole lot of yah-dah yah-dah. We’ve seen The Grim Reaper in costume on just two pages so far. Besides, he’s driving a truck with a swastika on the side. In Germany. What kind of hero would he be if he didn’t exercise this perfect opportunity to engage in a little gratuitous sabotage?

Thus the writer throws a bone to the eight year olds reading this story (including our inner eight year olds, yours and mine) by having The Grim Reaper destroy a honkin’ huge Axis munitions plant in the loudest, most spectacularly violent way possible. Very satisfying indeed.

But our satisfaction is to be short-lived…

…as we learn in the first two panels on page ten that time is running out for our Greek resistance friends back in Salonika. In fact, some readers might now even be a bit miffed that The Grim Reaper is screwing around blowing stuff up in Germany instead of getting to Greece as fast as possible. Don’t forget, Lowell’s dying words directed The Reaper to an address in Graz, Germany, so The Reaper still has another detour to make before heading to Salonika.

And in the last four panels on the page, things start to get really crazy. When The Grim Reaper gets to the address Lowell gave him, he learns that the man Lowell sent him to see is a Nazi! The Grim Reaper is confused by this, and so are we. This is a really unexpected twist! Like The Reaper, though, we’ll need to “dope it out” later, as there are plenty of Axis jaws around just begging to get punched.

Kolmann, the guy Lowell sent The Reaper to see, knocks our hero out cold and dumps him in a car. They head for the airport, as Kolmann is going to take The Reaper by air to Berlin to present our masked mystery man to Der Fuehrer. But when they arrive at the airfield, The Reaper turns the tables, knocking the snot out of Kolmann and the other Axis goons.

The Grim Reaper hijacks the plane Kolmann was going to use to fly him as a prisoner to Berlin. Even though he failed to capture The Reaper, it looks like that Ratzi is going to come out of this all right.

And then we learn the truth, via a note which Kolmann has slipped to The Grim Reaper. Kolmann is working with the Allies (presumably with Lowell as his contact) and actually set the whole thing up to help speed The Reaper on his way!

It’s really worthwhile to go back and read those last three pages again, keeping in mind on your second read-through that Kolmann is actually trying to help The Grim Reaper. The whole three page sequence is a really well executed little bit of business and enhances the story on a number of levels. The excitement and suspense levels are cranked up several notches, plus the plot will now move even faster, both in time and geography – The Grim Reaper is going to wing it to Greece, instead of driving. But will he be in time to stop Gabisch from harming Hera and our other partisan friends? It’s a race, and you just know it’s going to be close.

Sure, we could read through this story very quickly and still be highly entertained, but it’s even better when we take our time with it and think about what’s happening. The writer of this story (and I really really wish I could find out his identity; it was possibly Richard Hughes) is doing an outstanding job of tying together a lot of seemingly unconnected plot threads into an exciting, tightly crafted story.

Before we go on with the tale, please strap yourself in and place your tray in the upright position. It’s gonna get NUTS in a second or two and you’re really going to have to pay attention to catch everything that happens (and, trust me, you’ll end up appreciating how well written and illustrated this story really is when it’s all over…)

If you read this page very quickly, you’re going to wonder what the bleeding hell just happened. One minute Gabisch and the Kolonel (remember him from page 2?) are getting ready to do something drastic to the Greek partisans. The next minute Gabisch is dead on the floor, and Hera is standing over him with a smoking pistol in her hand. What the…?

Let’s go back and check it out – and this is one of those cases in which the pictures tell more than half the story. In fact, you might even spot the gunshots in the fourth panel and think that The Grim Reaper is a hair too late again (as he was with Lowell) and that the partisans are being murdered by the Nazis.

Look closely at the second panel on the page; it’s really the seed which started me thinking about the whole subject of this blog post. A passel of things happens in that one panel, a sequence of events contained in one panel which leads directly to everything that occurs later on the same page (and, by extension, in the rest of the story).

Check out the second panel and we’ll break the action down. The Grim Reaper arrives (off-panel) with gun drawn and drills one straight into The Kolonel. Hit in the heart, The Kolonel cries out and drops the trap door which he was holding as Gabisch started to make his way to the cellar. Gabisch is smacked on the head by the falling door. We don’t know if the door has knocked him cold, but it certainly stuns him, causing him to drop the pistol he’s carrying. It’s a Rube Goldberg-esque chain of events, simultaneously dramatic and amusing, and it sets up what happens off-panel in the next couple of frames.

The Grim Reaper is setting ’em up and knocking ’em down over the next two panels, when he hears the sudden shots from the cellar. His spoken “Must be a few others hiding below” seems to indicate that he thinks more Axis troops are in the cellar (which also leads the less careful reader to think that the freedom fighters are being murdered, as we discussed earlier). He rushes down the steps to find the partisans are all hale and hearty – and that Hera has avenged her father’s murder (and right sweetly, too, by killing Gabisch with the Ratzi’s own pistol).

This is really a firecracker of a page, with so much action that it can’t all be shown “on screen” (a fair bit happens off-panel). And it thus requires the reader to be fairly attentive or risk losing the thread of the story.

You didn’t forget about the weapons cache, did you? Getting that information to Mikalos was the whole point of the story. But I can’t blame you if you did forget – this story has been like a wild carnival ride for the last several pages.

The Greek resistance fighters retrieve the weapons cache; they then proceed to unleash hell upon the Axis troops.

I can’t decide which I love more: the fact that the Greeks are blowing up German planes by igniting powder kegs under them or that Hera is giving the Germans what-for while wearing a tight red dress. It’s all cool.

That, dear reader, was one crazy roller coaster of a story, which spanned four countries, had nearly a dozen cast members, contained murders, tortures, battles, and revenge, and required just fifteen well crafted pages to tell. Best of all, it made us really pay attention to both the writing and the art to fully understand all of the story’s exciting twists and turns.

So to those who deride Golden Age comics as “simplistic”, I confidently reply, “Phooey” and submit this story as hard evidence to the contrary.

Have a happy and safe New Year! – Steve

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.