In the 1970’s, the “big two” comic publishers (DC and Marvel) both tried the experiment of marketing comic books featuring villains as the protagonists – DC with its Joker series (which ran nine issues) and Marvel with Super Villain Team-Up (which lasted for seventeen issues plus two annuals). The idea might not sound terribly shocking today, being as the anti-hero seems to have been the primary stock in trade for comics since the 1990’s, but the idea of a comic based around a villain’s exploits was viewed as pretty controversial at the time.

I’m not sure why, though, because comic publishers were making villains “the star of the show” ever since the birth of the comic book medium. Go back and read some Golden Age comics and you’ll be amazed at the sheer number of ongoing features which feature a villain as the main character.

We’ll be looking at a few of these ongoing villain features, starting today with the most famous example of same – one whom we’ve encountered before in this blog’s virtual pages — The Claw, probably the most successful of the Golden Age “star villains” from both sales and longevity standpoints.

The success of The Claw as a character isn’t too surprising in light of the social climate of the times. Ever since the height of the Victorian Era, Asians had been looked upon as “sinister” and “untrustworthy” by the general Western populace. Numerous books purporting to “tell the truth” about Chinese plans to conquer the globe had been circulating since the late 1800’s – these were mainstream bound hardback books, mind you, not lunatic fringe pamphlets handed out on street corners. The supposed threat of world domination by Asians caused a general concern (if not panic) which famously became known as “The Yellow Peril”.

The Yellow Peril began as a Victorian thing, but it was firmly entrenched in pop culture by the Pulp Era, thanks in no small measure to Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels (the first of which was published in 1913). By the late 1920’s, the first Buck Rogers novel was published; Buck’s space-spanning adventures were set in a 25th century in which Asians had conquered the Earth (and most of the solar system). By the 1930’s, Buck’s adventures were appearing in newspaper comic strips and movie serials.

The Thirties saw the introduction of more Eastern menaces in the pulps, foremost of which was The Shadow’s arch-rival Shiwan Khan, and most of the great pulp heroes fought Asian masterminds at one time or another. Even dictators from other worlds (such as Flash Gordon’s nemesis Ming the Merciless) had a decidedly Asian appearance. It’s no wonder that the idea of modern day Asian hordes champing at the bit for the chance to dominate the world was a not-uncommon belief among the general public; of course, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in the early 1930’s did nothing to dispel this perception. In fact, by the late Thirties the general fear and distrust of the Chinese had been replaced by the same feelings about Japan (and with some justification, as the history of the era demonstrates).

We’ll never know for sure whether any of this played into Jack Cole’s creative processes (though it’s a good bet that it did) when, in 1939, he created a villain character for the Will Eisner comic book studio which, in turn, found a ready buyer in Lev Gleason Publications. The publishing house was ready to launch a new anthology comic book called Silver Streak Comics and commissioned Eisner to provide the content. Jack Cole, later to find everlasting fame as the creator of Plastic Man (also created while working for Eisner), dreamed up the ultimate Yellow Peril villain – a sinister Asian mastermind who seemed to be part man and part devil. Possessed of strange hypnotic powers and able to grow to prodigious size, The Claw would stop at nothing in his quest to dominate the world.

The Claw made his first appearance in Silver Streak Comics #1 and was an instant hit. It seemed that readers couldn’t get enough of this evil creature and The Claw became a staple feature of various Lev Gleason comic titles through the Golden Age. He appeared on the cover of Silver Streak issues 1 through 6 (although, oddly, he was featured inside the pages of just the first two issues). In Silver Streak issues 7 through 11 The Claw had an epic five-part battle with a newly-introduced hero named Daredevil (not to be confused with the later Marvel rip-off), a series of stories which made Daredevil a star – he got his own book later in 1941, and The Claw went with him, moving over to the pages of Daredevil Comics. The Claw continued to be a feature in every issue of Daredevil through most of the war years, with his swan song appearing in issue #31, in July 1945. With Japan on the ropes and the U.S.S.R. already perceived by many as a potential future threat, the Yellow Peril was already beginning to be supplanted in the American imagination by the Red Menace; characters like The Claw would have no place in the post-war future.

Although The Claw did occasionally appear as a villain in Daredevil’s stories (such as in Daredevil Battles Hitler, a.k.a. Daredevil Comics #1, for my money a strong contender for the greatest single comic book ever published), he generally was the main character in his own stories. He was often mentioned on the books’ covers as well; The Claw, although a villain, was a star attraction and considered a hot property in a market flooded monthly with dozens of comic books, all vying for the reader’s precious dimes.

While some writers today deride The Claw as an awful, badly-conceived idea (with much post-modernist hand-wringing and moralizing about how “racist” the character was), from the standpoint of one’s “inner eight year old” he’s actually pretty cool. With his ability to grow to frightening proportions, his strange hypnotic powers, his taloned hands, and his fang-like teeth, The Claw is visually arresting and makes for a pretty interesting read. He’s completely ruthless, killing anyone who opposes him, and often sacrificing scores of his own followers whenever he’s cornered and has to make a quick escape. The Claw may well be the comic book medium’s first really badass villain and, say what you want about the character, he’s remembered today, which is a lot more than you can say for most other “feature” villains of the Golden Age; he still makes occasional appearances in comics, most notably in Project: Superpowers (which completely botched the job, but that’s another rant for another time).

We’ll have a look at The Claw’s first appearance in Silver Streak Comics #1 (courtesy of the swell folks at The Digital Comic Museum):

Silver Streak Comics #1, Dec. 1939

There are a few ways to successfully tell a tale utilizing a villain as a main draw, and Cole uses a time-tested method: by focusing on a strong two-fisted hero so as to not overexpose the villain. It’s a similar method to the one which Sax Rohmer uses in the Fu Manchu books, a method which also was used very successfully in the movie serial The Crimson Ghost (which has some of the best fight scenes of any film serial). By concentrating on Jerry Morris and his efforts to save Eloise Pearsall from The Claw’s evil clutches, Cole saves the villain for the scenes where he really needs him (such as the awe-inspiring hypnosis scene on page three).

It’s a fun story to read, a highly imaginative tale which obviously owes much to the adventure pulps which preceded it. It’s full of deathtraps, deus ex machinas, super-scientific devices, and miraculous saves – best of all, the fact that Jerry gives The Claw a run for his money makes the villain a bit more interesting, being as he can be thwarted.

Silver Streak Comics #1, Dec. 1939

Silver Streak Comics #1, Dec. 1939

Silver Streak Comics #1, Dec. 1939

Silver Streak Comics #1, Dec. 1939

Silver Streak Comics #1, Dec. 1939

Silver Streak Comics #1, Dec. 1939

Silver Streak Comics #1, Dec. 1939

Silver Streak Comics #1, Dec. 1939

Silver Streak Comics #1, Dec. 1939

Silver Streak Comics #1, Dec. 1939

Silver Streak Comics #1, Dec. 1939

Have fun! — Steve

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

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