Earlier this year, the Big Blog o’Fun examined four comic book adventures starring The Flag, published in Our Flag Comics in 1941 and 1942; you can easily find these by going to the “search” box near the bottom of this page’s right-hand side bar and typing “Our Flag” (including the quotes). A “missing” issue of Our Flag surfaced a few days ago at the Digital Comic Museum: issue 3 from December 1941. After blogging about Our Flag Comics #4 back in March I’d intended to leave The Flag alone and not comment on any more of his adventures, but the second of two Flag stories in issue #3 is so entertainingly bizarre that I just can’t resist it. There’s also an additional (though admittedly minor) historical component to the tale which I also found interesting.

As you may recall, I’ve mentioned in several previous posts that The Flag’s adventures were blessed with some especially nice artwork, but the writing qualifies as atrocious (albeit entertaining) hackery. The Flag is in reality young Jim Courtney, foster son of an elderly flagmaker nicknamed “Old Glory” (yeah, these stories are as subtle as a boot to the head). Jim has a flag-shaped birthmark on his chest which glows when someone is in trouble, one of many abilities granted to him by the spirits of the Founding Fathers (plus Abe Lincoln, who the real founders let into the club solely because Lincoln is such a bad poker player. [Yeah, I made up the poker part.]). The Flag is himself pretty boring, with no discernible personality, but the irascible Old Glory is often pretty entertaining – despite being an invalid, he’s often depicted in the act trying to thump someone for the offense of being verbally disloyal to America.

We’ve already looked at some of The Flag’s adventures, and they’ve been trés bizarre: Nazis in drag, a politician trying to kill a whole town just to win an election, etc. But today’s tale takes the cake when it comes to being hilariously twisted. And, unlike other deliberately tongue in cheek over-the-top Golden Age comic stories written by some truly gifted writers (Charles Biro springs to mind here), there’s no trace of irony in The Flag’s adventures: the writer(s) actually intended for their readers to take this stuff seriously.

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

The splash panel at the start of the story is pretty good; it catches your attention and makes you want to read the story, which is exactly what a splash panel is supposed to do.

The idea of a faux Bavarian castle built on an island in one of the Great Lakes cracks me up. It reminds me of an adventure for the old Daredevils roleplaying game which featured a similar castle atop a bluff on the New Jersey coastline.

By the way, since when is “worshiping the Kaiser” a deportation offense? If you were running around 1917 America talking about how cool the Kaiser was, I could see how it wouldn’t make you especially popular, but deportation seems a bit extreme. Of course, the guy “changed his appearance”, came back, and “hid out”, but he’s still running around wearing a picklehaube, which doesn’t seem like a very bright idea. Dude, they already sent you away once for that kind of stuff – maybe you should rethink your wardrobe selections.

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

Now let’s see if I have this straight. Baron von Monsta, right around the end of World War I somehow sensed that he’d need his own private army a couple of decades down the road, so he kidnapped a couple of hundred babies, raised all of them on his own, gave them serum injections, brainwashed them into being killers, and now sends them orders through some kind of electric control board?

Then he arms them with helmets and shields (so that they look more like Greek hoplites than Teutonic warriors) and orders them to attack towns up and down the Mississippi River to divide the U.S. in half. Two hundred of them – versus the U.S. Army, not to mention numerous law enforcement agencies. Come on! Elliot Ness with a Thompson could take these guys by himself!

The sheer over-the-top implausibility of this tale makes it a standout; it’s sort of a twisted classic in its own weird way.

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

There’s always a guy in every crowd who just won’t go along with the program.

Read the second panel again and notice the line “With floods ravaging the Mississippi Valley…”. Keep that in the back of your mind, as we’ll return to it directly.

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

And we see the devastating effects of the flood on the residents of the Mississippi Valley. But there’s one problem – the Mississippi didn’t flood in 1941, the year this story was published. But… (and this is where it becomes interesting to me…)

The Mississippi did flood in 1927, big time. You may well have heard about that one; it ranks alongside the 1904 San Francisco earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, and the 1930’s “dust bowl” as one of the biggest natural disasters in U.S. history. It’s hard for us to even imagine the flood’s extent today, but it was horrific – whole counties were submerged and entire towns were swept away. It killed a couple of hundred people, caused nearly a half-billion dollars (in 1927 bucks) in damage, and submerged more than 27,000 square miles of land. The tragedy lives on in memory (albeit dimly now) through songs like Sleepy John Estes’ “Floating Bridge” and Lonnie Johnson’s “Broken Levee Blues” (along with dozens of others).

The U.S. Government kicked into high gear, devising engineering plans to make sure that a disaster of this magnitude couldn’t occur again. Congress passed major legislation in the form of Flood Control Acts in 1928 and 1936. But, as always seems to be the case when government gets involved in public works projects, the Flood Control Acts proved controversial. Many people objected to parts of these acts for various reasons (often political), prompting some major changes to the legislation. By 1941, engineers realized that some of these changes did more harm than good; in fact, parts of the state of Mississippi were found to be more likely to flood as a result of some provisions in these acts.

So the topic of flood control hit the news again in 1941 (when this story was published), with more attendant controversy. Some members of Congress pushed for a new Flood Control Act, while others strenuously opposed it. Ultimately the new Flood Control Act of 1941 was passed and adopted.

Bear in mind that Golden Age comic books sometimes contained thinly-disguised propaganda (in the literal, not pejorative, sense of that term). For a solid year prior to Pearl Harbor, the fledgling comic book industry militated for a more active American role in the fight against fascism, with covers and stories (sometimes entire comics, like Daredevil Battles Hitler) depicting aviators, heroes, nurses, and just plain folks doing their part to try to bring down Hitler and Mussolini. Some books supported racial equality, social reform, and other societal changes.

In light of the fact that there was no 1941 Mississippi flood, it’s reasonable for us to assume today that the subtext of this story was to support the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1941 by graphically reminding the reader about the potentially devastating effects of such a disaster. We’ll never know for sure, but I’m convinced that such was the writer’s intent in this story.

So much for the history lesson. Onward…

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

“Stand back or, by George, I’ll brain you with this lamp!” Old Glory has ten times the personality that The Flag has; the old man should have had his own book.

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

“Somehow I – I feel that he is going to be able to find our Martin…”, followed by “No strike woman! I hit you!” Is there anyone reading this page who honestly doesn’t know where this story is headed? Nah, I didn’t think so.

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

Our hero, knocked unconscious by a dog house. It gives one the impression that the writer didn’t care about writing the story well so much as he was concerned with writing it by Thursday.

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

Old Glory recognizes von Monsta. You knew the old man had to be responsible for getting him deported even before he said anything. I’ll bet John Courtney doesn’t consider it a full week if he hasn’t had at least a couple of people arrested for treason and deported by Friday evening.

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

An emergency dam bursts; here comes the flood (see the comments to page four earlier).

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

So the rebellious warrior (see page three) turns out to be Martin Benson, Mrs. Benson’s long-lost son. It’s the exact same trope the writer(s) used in the “Gold Star moms” story we discussed a while back. Go on, try to tell me you didn’t see it coming – I dare you.

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

A few modern readers might have trouble with this, but in 1941 a pile of American flags lying like rags in a corner would have been a REALLY BIG DEAL, verifying that von Monsta is a truly evil character. Members of my parents’ generation treated the U.S. flag with a great deal of reverence; if a flag so much as brushed the ground, it was to be buried or burned. It’s a tradition which seems to have all but vanished today. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a school custodian drag the flag across the ground on his way to or from the school flagpole.

When I was a kid I’d occasionally see an older person go totally bats when they saw someone wearing the U.S. flag as a decoration on an article of clothing (lapel pins being the only exception for the most part). I knew people who thought it was inappropriate to wear even a t-shirt with a picture of the U.S. flag on it, never mind an entire shirt designed to look like it was made from a flag. “Back in my day, in the Forties, we respected the flag!” they’d yell (sounding a lot like John Courtney, Old Glory, in the adventures of The Flag). I’d say that’s pretty ironic, considering the number of 1940’s comic book characters whose costumes reflected a flag motif.

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

I neglected to mention earlier that the whole “wrestling outfit with helmet and shield” thing is dumb on a practical level, but it’s visually interesting. It’s primarily what hooked us and reeled us in ‘way back at the start, in the story’s splash panel.

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

“Durned saboteurs!” I’ll admit that in the back of my mind as I read this panel, I added, “Stay off of America’s lawn!”

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

The evil von Monsta has one last trick up his sleeve. He chugs down some of his own serum and dons one of the Nazi gladiator outfits. Meanwhile Martin is reunited with his parents. Then von Monsta sinks a Red Cross boat full of wounded flood victims, just to show us what an evil putz he is (as well as to put the story back on a “down” beat, for those readers who pay attention to that sort of thing).

Our Flag Comics #3, December 1941

But all’s well that ends well, as Jim uses a telephone pole as a baseball bat to settle von Monsta’s hash for keeps.

Thus ends another weird, over-the-top, and wonderfully goofy tale of The Flag. I’m honestly sorry that there weren’t a lot more of these. Even though they’re pretty ineptly written, The Flag’s adventures were always entertaining in a Plan 9 sort of way.

Have fun! — Steve

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

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