I haven’t posted to this blog for a while now, and it’s been for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve been very busy with my work for Chess King – a really cool new PC chess program that “bridges the gap” between beginner and master, as Chess King contains features that every chessplayer, regardless of skill level, will find useful. The second reason is because I’ve been thinking about one particular Golden Age comic book story for literally weeks now, the very story we’re going to consider in this post. I’ve spent way too much time trying to decide what to make of this tale, and the damned thing still baffles me.

Allow me to begin by again harping on my two basic theses: that to really understand and appreciate Golden Age comics, you have to approach them as a reader of the time did (rather than to view them through some “postmodernist lens”), and that we as 21st century readers can learn a lot about the social and political climate of the late Depression and the war years by reading period comics.

In previous posts, we’ve considered some really great art and storytelling (Daredevil, Pat Patriot) and some well-crafted adventure tales (The Grim Reaper). But, on the other hand, we’ve also examined some writers and artists who weren’t very adept, such as in the origin of The Flag. We’ve previously considered his first appearance and, while it wasn’t exactly a bad story, it did come off a bit heavy-handed.

You’ll recall from that post that when Jim Courtney turned eighteen he was visited by “the Founding Fathers” (including Lincoln, who wasn’t a Founding Father; I think Jefferson snuck him into the club), who granted him incredible powers to be used in the fight to preserve liberty.

This, by the way, made me think about the manner in which patriotic heroes acquire their powers. With the obvious exception of Captain America, they seem to be empowered primarily by mystical means: an erstwhile hero is visited by the Founding Fathers, or the Spirit of Liberty, or the Avatar of Freedom, or some other famous dead American or embodiment of a concept. I’ve been wondering why it often seems to be Washington, Lincoln, and/or Jefferson who shows up to empower the hero, instead of some other president…

Young Bob Baxter is awakened from a sound sleep on the Fourth of July (which also happens to coincidentally be his twenty-first birthday) by the spirit of our fifteenth president, James Buchanan. “Bob,” intones the ghost, “I am going to instill within you the same powers I used in my four years as President of the United States, the powers that allowed me to sit idly by while sectional disputes flared into the spark which ignited the American Civil War and cost 600,000 American lives.” Bob feels a surge of energy, the last such surge he will feel for some time, for he has become…Inertia-Man, imbued with the awesome power of extreme apathy!

Fifteenth president James Buchanan, looking like Karl Malden doing a bad impression of a DeNiro stare, while talking like Samuel L. Jackson

“Are you $%^$ing KIDDING me?? Go ahead, just try to make me care! I dare you! I $%^$&ing DOUBLE-dare you!”  Fifteenth president James Buchanan, looking like Karl Malden doing a bad impression of a DeNiro stare, while talking like Samuel L. Jackson

The following morning, Bob walks down the street and sees a puppy about to be run over by a truck. “Hmmm? Should I change to Inertia-Man and save it? Nah…” And the puppy is flattened.

A block later Bob hears gunfire, and sees several men run from the town bank and leap into a waiting car. The car roars off. “I guess I should have looked at the license number, but what for? They’d be in the next state by the time I took all the trouble and bother to find a pay phone…”

After turning the corner, Bob sees several men dragging a struggling young girl into an alley. “I guess I should help,” thinks Bob, “but it’s best to not get involved”. Ignoring her agonized bloodcurdling screams, Bob continues his walk…

On second thought, it’s probably best that Buchanan stays dead and leaves the bestowing of superpowers to the pros.

Onward…

The October 1941 issue of Our Flag Comics contained the first two stories featuring a new character, The Flag. We’ve already learned of his origin (in a previous post to this blog), but the first panel of the story offers us a recap (and throughout this post, you can click on the images to get a larger view, so that you can read along):

I have no gripe with the art in Flag stories; that’s an awesome splash panel. The Flag is lifting an armored truck one-handed (the other, you’ll notice, is gripping the driver’s throat. But that’s OK, because he’s a Nazi – check the emblem right above the grille).

Ooooooookay…We’ll need to take two passes at this page.

First, the good. The panel where the wheelchair-bound Old Glory runs these cheapskates out of his shop is pretty badass. Check it out – he has the chair up on one wheel and he’s smokin’ the tires. That’s some cool art.

Although I have major problems with the writing in these stories (as you’ll see very soon), I do like the fact that Old Glory uses the word “posh”. The words “balderdash” or “twaddle” would have been better, but didn’t fit the balloon.

Now for the bad (and students of history will easily guess where this is going). Old Glory reads the headline “AMERICA TOO WEAK TO FIGHT! …EXCLUSIVE EXPOSÉ OF AMERICA’S MILITARY WEAKNESS!” and he goes nutso, chasing the men out of his shop with the rolled up paper. Taken superficially, that seems pretty cool and patriotic. Except there’s one problem…

That newspaper headline is 100% correct.

Now before you run off to grab pitchforks and torches to burn down me and this blog like Boris Karloff in the windmill at the end of Frankenstein, I invite you to do a little research. America’s military weakness between the World Wars is pretty widely documented, but I’ll give you a couple of good references. Check out either of the two major biographies of General George Patton, the old standby by Ladislas Farago or the newer biography by Carlo D’Este, and I guarantee that you will be shocked by how puny our armed forces were during the 1930’s.

You see, World War I was an absolute bloodbath. Men died by the truckload in pointless frontal assaults against fixed fortifications; the No Man’s Land between the trenches was a charnel house. Even though America was a “johnny come lately” to that particular soiree, we still suffered over 300,000 casualties in less than two years. The result in the U.S. was a huge public outcry toward isolationism – no more involvement in foreign wars. While the Brits and Germans were busy tackling the problem of assaulting fixed fortifications (the English were the actual inventors of the blitzkrieg, while the Germans refined and, ultimately, perfected it), we as a nation stuck our collective heads in the sand. The start of World War II in September, 1939 only strengthened the isolationist movement; the now famous “America First” movement wasn’t founded until the Battle of Britain was at its height in late summer 1940.

Due to the dual effects of a vocal isolationist movement and the economic depression, by 1939 the strength of the United States Army and National Guard was 380,000 men – combined. That numerical weakness doesn’t even take into account the state of our equipment and the lack of armor and aircraft development between the wars; our tanks and planes were bad jokes compared to what the Germans had. Look this stuff up – it’ll blow your mind.

Many comic book publishers, artists, and writers were Jewish and were well aware of what was going on in Germany. That’s why so many comic books from 1938-1941 had an anti-German (or, more accurately, anti-”Eurofascist”) tone (the Japanese, despite the fact that they invaded Manchuria in 1931, seldom received the same attention until after Pearl Harbor): comic book creators were trying to use the medium to wake people up as to what was really happening, and alert the public to the reality that eventual war with Germany was all but inevitable. And while there were many organized pro-intervention groups and voices in pre-war America (such as the Fight for Freedom Committee and the Friends of Democracy), isolationism still held popular sway, arguably in large measure due to the efforts of one very famous and very vocal isolationist: aviator Charles Lindbergh.

That’s the reason why comic books similar in tone to Daredevil Battles Hitler were published in the year or two before Pearl Harbor. One can easily make the argument that such comic books of the period were a mild form of propaganda (using the literal definition of the term minus the negativity the word connotes in present day parlance). As is the case with all forms of persuasive argument, there was a wide range of skill displayed by various propagandists. Books like the aforementioned Daredevil Battles Hitler still read as well as they did on the day of publication because the writers packaged their message with an entertaining story, heavy on the action, light on the sermonizing. If cool heroes like Daredevil and Silver Streak view Nazi Germany as a threat, how can the reader help but go along?

Some other comics, though, were a lot more heavy-handed, ranging from “somewhat less adept” to flat-out “horribly inept”. One title which generally fits the latter classification was Our Flag Comics. Sequences such as the one on page two of the story we’re presently reading display a really heavy hand, patriotic to the point of mindless jingoism. I love patriotic comics from this period, as long as they’re done well. But stories like this one are just plain bad – and it’s going to get worse as we go along.

Old Glory goes to the offices of the Clarion to protest their “published lies”. Because the paper is run by crooks and hoodlums (as we’ll see later), their response is to shove him and his wheelchair down a flight of stairs. This is a trope we’ll see repeatedly in The Flag’s adventures: endangerment of innocents by the forces of evil. It’s not a particularly “generic” form of danger either, such as a villain threatening to destroy a city. Our Flag Comics usually put a very personal face on it: typically it’s someone elderly or a woman carrying an infant who is assaulted or endangered. This reinforces in the reader’s mind that the bad guys are very bad indeed, which is further underscored on this page by the use of the ominous (and sadly ubiquitous) cliché, “She knows too much!”

By the end of the page we learn that the Clarion is part of a newspaper chain owned by Herman Foxson, who is using his periodicals to spread propaganda as an attempt to “break up America’s defense program” (which historically, as we’ve seen, was pretty non-existent anyway – so I guess he’s just into setting a low bar for himself and his newspapers).

I really hate to make fun of panels two and three here, because it’s just too easy. I do need to point out, though, that it’s no accident that she’s looking into a mirror in the third panel. The whole “look into a mirror in a dark room and whistle/chant/sing/say the name of the local boogeyman three times/etc.” thing has been around as long as there have been mirrors. When I was a kid in rural Maryland, it was a witch named Mary Walker – all the kids in school asserted solemnly that you could say her name three times into a mirror in a darkened room and she would appear standing behind you, reflected in the mirror. It worked, by the way, when I tried it at age seven – Mary Walker appeared to me and said, “I wish you kids would cut it out and stop bothering me!

The page ends with “Nobody quits the Clarion and lives!” which serves as a valuable lesson for all of us: when starting a new job, always read the employee handbook!

The Flag appears, saves the girl, and cleans house. It’s a crying shame that such a talented artist was wasted on this reeking, seething chamberpot of a story – check out the first panel: “…The murderer’s finger muscles contract around the trigger…”, and you can see the veins bulging in the back of his hand as he does so. Damn! Now that’s first rate stuff! Seriously – that’s an amazing panel.

As before, the writer drops a plot point into a page’s last panel: the editor of the Clarion is an escaped convict named Kagle. Now this may sound kind of presumptuous on my part, but if I was an escaped convict, I’m pretty sure that the masthead of a major newspaper would be pretty damn near the last place I’d want to put my name. But that’s just me, I guess.

Panel four contains some more of the heavy-handedness we’ve been mentioning. In a leap across a logical chasm the size of which would scare hell out of Evel Knievel, the officer says, “Come to think of it, it would take somebody like an escaped convict to print the un-American stuff the Clarion’s been printing lately.”

I’m not going to bother beating that one up. I’ll just take a moment to recover from a reflexive involuntary facepalm and we’ll move on…

Escaped convict, now Clarion editor, Kagle murders the police who have come to arrest him. You would think that with all the hoods and toughs in the place, somebody would have given Kagle the heads-up that the police had arrived, giving him time to escape. Somehow the police just walk into his office, get shot, and (despite the fact that there are at least three guys in the room just outside Kagle’s office) nobody comes running to hear what the shots were about. Maybe James Buchanan has secretly infected all of the crooks with his amazing powers of apathy.

This time around we get a plot point in a page’s first panel for a change. Foxson owns an important automotive manufacturing plant and he used to be a senator. Dear God, can no one be counted on to be a patriot in The Flag’s 1941 America?

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but one could detect a subtle implication in the writer’s narrative – he’s implying that perhaps major political figures are deliberately and actively trying to make America weak. Based on other events we’ll see in the story, the assumption that the writer has inserted this as a deliberate subtext isn’t terribly far-fetched.

The plot holes are becoming too numerous to adequately enumerate; translated, that means the writer is screwing this story up faster than I can point out the mistakes. But let me toss out a single“for instance”. Let’s say that a newspaper was in fact completely fabricating stories of a treasonous nature. One would assume that the paper’s allegations would come under legal investigation and, if they were found to be groundless and fabricated, would cause the paper itself to come under some pretty close scrutiny. Such an investigation would doubtless turn up the facts that the editor-in-chief is an escaped convict and that the newspaper’s office and printing plant is an armed fortress, and that all of this would have occurred long before events came to the present ugly pass. So wouldn’t it stand to reason that a “treasonous” newspaper would not have an escaped convict as an editor and wouldn’t keep an arsenal of guns and explosives on the premises?

Unless, of course, the reason for a lack of an investigation into the newspaper’s practices can be explained by the fact that the headlines and articles are, in fact, the truth (as I’ve already pointed out), in which case the newspaper wouldn’t feel the need to keep guns and explosives handy anyway.

This whole damn story is just making my head hurt. So we’ll leave it at this – remember my previous blog post about “suspension of disbelief”? The writer of this tale is “laying it on” way too thick. Of course, he may well have been thinking, “Hey, it’s just a comic book, not King Lear, so nobody’s expecting it to be good.” If so, that notion qualifies as circular logic: “People expect comics to be crappy, so why try to make it good?”, and cranking out crappy comics perpetuates those lowered expectations, providing one a license for continued crappiness, and so on.

As I said, my head is starting to hurt, and I’m really beginning to hate this %^%&% comic book.

And this page provided the seed which eventually germinated into the present discussion.

I could easily have read this story and blown it off as a well drawn, badly written, forgettable piece of crap had it not been for the last panel on the page. But that panel is what prompted me to actually think about this story in more than a cursory manner.

It’s also the reason for the title of this blog post: “To save the Bill of Rights, we had to destroy it”. And you know what? That’s actually hyperbole and propaganda on my part. Here’s why:

The actual text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that the U.S. Congress shall pass no law to abridge the freedom of the press. But nobody’s passing a law here. We just have a star-spangled strongman smashing up a newspaper’s presses because he disagrees with what they print. That’s a whole separate issue, and would spiral off into another lengthy discourse on the “vigilante justice” background of the entire superhero genre if we’d let it. But we won’t, because that particular deceased equus is still being flogged in extremely lengthy and boring detail in numerous books and academic publications and just thinking about it makes my head hurt worse.

I fully understand that the writer and publishers of Our Flag Comics were concerned about the rise of fascism and the apparent collective apathy of a sizeable portion of the American public; I sympathize and agree with their concern – if we’d been more on the ball in the 1930’s, a whole bunch more of our boys would have come home alive from fighting WWII. But showing the hero of a comic story smashing up a printing press because he doesn’t agree with the material that press produces – well, that’s uncomfortably similar to the book burnings which were a well-publicized feature of fascist regimes. I’ll spare you the sermonizing about “ends” and “means”, or from arguments about the notion that “to defeat an evil you have to meet it on its own terms”, or blah blah philosophical blah blah moralistic blah blah freaking blah.

I’ll just leave it at this: the final two panels of that page are a really disturbing example of how a well-intentioned story can be ruined by a writer’s/editor’s lack of skill and/or perspective. I’m certain that the writer’s and editor’s hearts were in the right place, but they either let themselves be carried away by their patriotic fervor or, less charitably, they were simply hacks. (And, honestly, I believe it was a combination of both causes.)

Believe it or not, it gets even worse.

Seriously, I don’t even know where to start with this page. Right after The Flag smashes up the Clarion’s presses, various unidentified “veteran’s groups” are “taking the law into their own hands” to stop the distribution of the chain’s newspapers, evidently doing so by administering a red-ass beatdown to the men driving the newspaper delivery trucks.

We also learn that the government has “asked” the publisher to stop printing military secrets and “anti-American lies”. But aren’t those acts legally actionable on the part of the government, at least in the latter case? And in the former case, that would seem to be a (forgive the pun) clarion call to the government to find and stop the source of the leak. If things were that serious, the government would be acting, not “asking”. It damn sure wouldn’t be left up to unnamed “veteran’s groups” to kick the snot out of newspaper distributors.

Replace “newspaper distributors” with “Jewish shopkeepers”, and “veteran’s groups” with “Ernst Roehm’s brownshirts”, and you’ll see why the ugly turn this story has just taken is making me cringe.

And then, on top of this, we get one of the veterans screaming, “Those cowards! Firing on unarmed men!” Never mind the fact that at least four of these unarmed men thought they were about to successfully perpetrate an act of mob violence against a couple of unarmed news distributors.

Just how many wrongs do make a right? Beats me – this story is piling up “wrongs” so quickly and furiously that a computer would have trouble keeping up with them. Close to everybody in this story is just plain awful.

Man, the story is just so bad on so many levels. I didn’t even get a chance yet to mention the idea of fifth-columnist news distributors having access to a fleet of armored cars. The combined narrative elements are so over the top as to make the upcoming movie Iron Sky look like a documentary.

Much of the next two pages actually works — as long as you look at them in isolation and don’t think about what’s already happened in this story:

When read in isolation, these two pages work fine. Thugs are beating up blind newsies, so The Flag whips up on them. The part where he grabs the armored car and wrecks it is visually pretty cool.

But then we remember that the Clarion chain’s distributors are driving armored cars. beating up newsies, and killing vets in response to the fact that the vets were beating up the Clarion’s distributors. So now The Flag is kicking the butts of the guys who kicked the butts of the people who kicked their butts…who even started all this ridiculous, stupid s**t, anyway? I don’t remember, and I don’t care about a scorecard anymore – I just want the Justice Society to show up and haul all their sorry asses off to jail, every damn last one of them, even The Flag. But the JSA belongs to a different comics publisher, so our misery is destined to continue.

Another final panel revelation, in which the “master plan” is revealed.

As far as master plans go, this one really sucks. It’s hardly thought out at all – it’s hardly a plan. Pinky and the Brain devised more intelligent world-conquering schemes (with a better chance of success!) than this one.

Yeah, that’s sure bright: paint swastikas on the planes of your personal air force so that everyone will know you’re a fascist fifth columnist, instead of taking half a minute to come up with an original, less obvious logo. My headache is absolutely killing me now, because I’ve beaten my forehead bloody banging it on my desk.

Remember page 8, when we learned that Foxson owned a major auto factory? Go on, try to tell me that you didn’t see this whole airplane thing coming. I predicted it the first time I read page 8, and I’m far from the sharpest knife in the proverbial drawer.

All of that, plus they spelled an easy word like “mahogany” wrong to boot.

And, to complete this tour de force of writing and editing excess and incompetence, The Flag destroys a major auto plant, blowing up Foxson plus all of the evidence required to prosecute and convict everyone involved in this whole stupid plot. Plus we see the setting of a new world record for the act of settling the legal affairs of a multi-millionaire’s estate. The Clarion is sold off to a new owner and Sally is hired as its new editor, all within a week of Foxson’s death.

Dang, I’m exhausted.

As I said earlier, it’s easy to write this off as “just” a bad comic story. But it’s not only an example of ineptitude in writing, it’s not only an example of how not to write a story – the story is pretty damned disturbing on a fundamental level because nearly everyone in it, heroes as well as villains, is essentially a fascist. Worst of all, the moral of this story seems to be “It’s OK when we do questionable things, because we’re the good guys — we’re nobler and more pure of heart”.

Yeah, that’s always how it starts. Think about it.

Thanks for letting me get all of that off of my chest and out of my head. Next time around we’ll look at another Flag story from an issue or two later, no less jingoistic but somewhat more benign than was this one.

Props to the folks at the Digital Comic Museum for the scans.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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