The idea of the “supervillain” was relatively unknown during the Golden Age of Comics, at least when you compare the Forties to the medium’s later eras. Today’s readers are well accustomed to a plethora of spandex-clad and armored evildoers; almost every comic book hero or heroine has his or her own “rogues gallery” of foes (most notably Batman, who, in my opinion, has by far the best villain opponents). But back in the 1930’s and 1940’s the idea was used far less than today. Sure, many of Batman’s and Captain Marvel’s foes got their start in the Forties, but they were exceptions. Most costumed heroes battled against gangsters, racketeers, fifth-columnists, and run of the mill crooks, with an occasional mad scientist or hooded/robed “mystery arch criminal” thrown in occasionally to spice things up. The enemies were seldom super-powered like the heroes; even the mad scientists and “mystery villains” tended to rely on some kind of serum or scientific gizmo to provide them with their relatively paltry abilities. It seemed as though everybody who developed extrahuman abilities determined to use them to fight for justice, becoming an example and role model for the everyday adult or child reader (a fact which seemed to elude both Fred Wertham and C. Estes Keefauver when they characterized comics as dangerous “power fantasies” a decade later).

Every so often, though, a comic would come along that surprised the reader by giving the costumed hero a similarly (occasionally garishly) clad nemesis. Such was the case in early 1942 when MLJ Magazines (later to become Archie Comics as we’ve previously discussed) introduced a villain known as Captain Swastika.

You might remember from that previous post a brief mention of a hero known as The Comet who could vaporize objects (and people!) by shooting beams from his eyes. The Comet had no control over these beams so he was forced to wear special goggles to keep from blasting to atoms everything upon which he gazed. (Sound familiar? It’s yet another of the myriad 1940’s heroes which Stan Lee ripped off and took credit for a couple of decades later in 1960’s Marvel Comics. Marvel loves to bill themselves as “The House of Ideas”, but they neglect to mention that they generally steal those ideas from everyone else.)

The Comet was notable for another reason: he was the first comic book superhero to be killed in the line of duty. In a one page introductory story on the inside front cover of Special Comics #1 (dated Winter 1942) we learn that two thugs kidnap Bob Dickering, thinking that he’s his brother John (a.k.a. The Comet). The hero shows up just in time to rescue his brother, but gets shot full of holes in the process. As The Comet lays dying, he tells his brother to leave crimefighting to the police (and also asks Bob to marry his [John’s] girlfriend Thelma, cranking the “wrongness” level of this story up a couple of notches). Of course, Bob does the opposite (regarding the crimefighting thing anyway, but he’s more than happy to fill his brother’s shoes as far as Thelma is concerned, being as she’s a real tomato) by retiring to his lab, conducting some undescribed “research”, and devising a “mystery man” identity for himself as The Hangman.

With its second issue, Special Comics became Hangman Comics and the lead story of the retitled mag featured a new costumed Hangman foe, namely Captain Swastika. (The name of whom brings up the interesting side question: why do so many hero and villain names contain the word “Captain”? Beats me, but it’s happened so often that the rank of “Captain” has become the most often used trope in comic book parodies.)

I’d be a fool to try to claim that Captain Swastika is a great villain. He’s not; he’s humdrum at best. He’s not even the first Fascist villain to wear a Nazi symbol (we’ll talk about him later). But he is notable for several reasons: he’s an early costumed villain, he made multiple appearances in the pages of MLJ Magazines, those appearances were pretty violent (again an “MLJ thing”, significant because the company would later be known for Archie and his pals’ wholesome teenaged fare), and as late as 2010 he was still appearing in the pages of DC Comics (in a multi-part Justice Society of America story arc set in an alternate present Earth in which the Axis won World War II).

No, the Captain isn’t a terribly well-developed villain, but a guy who sports not one but two swastikas on his uniform in Spring 1942 didn’t need to be especially believable – he just needed to be, because Americans wanted some sort of cathartic release in the months following Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war. A battle between The Hangman and a character called Captain Swastika seemed to be just what the doctor ordered and, if I can be a bit cynical for a moment, probably didn’t hurt the comic’s sales any either.

As always, right-click on a pic to open it full-sized in a new tab/window. Thanks to The Digital Comic Museum for the page scans and for preserving literally thousands of period comic books for all of us to read and enjoy.

Hangman Comics #2 (Spring, 1942)

Cool splash panel! As I was saying a moment ago, a guy wearing a swastika on his chest, another on his mask, and a death’s head on his belt buckle doesn’t have to try very hard to earn the enmity of the reader.

Hangman Comics #2 (Spring, 1942)

Say what you want about the characterization of the villain, but I’ll give him this: it takes huevos the size of bowling balls to be running around the streets of America in early 1942 sporting a couple of swastikas.

Full props, too, to the civvie in the page’s last panel for standing up to the villain (even though it’s a mistake, as we’ll see in another couple of seconds):

Hangman Comics #2 (Spring, 1942)

Captain Swastika earns his “badass” credentials by murdering two civilians in the space of just a half-dozen panels. The hero will not be pleased.

Hangman Comics #2 (Spring, 1942)

The line “You’ll be safe at my place” only worked in the 1940’s. (I’m sorry, truly, but that page made me laugh out loud. I apologize.)

Hangman Comics #2 (Spring, 1942)

It never fails – you try to have a nice quiet evening with a lady refugee, and some fascist thugs bust into your apartment and ruin everything. Seriously, Nazis are as bad as jealous ex-boyfriends that way.

Hangman Comics #2 (Spring, 1942)

You’ve got to hand it to the writer – that is a pretty slick switch that Dickering just pulled to become The Hangman. And it takes a real hero to smash his own window to save the girl.

Hangman Comics #2 (Spring, 1942)

You can tell that The Hangman is still pretty new to the hero game (this is just the second comic in which he’s appeared), because he simultaneously breaks two of the Commandments of Costumed Heroics: don’t insult the innocent bystanders, and never take your eyes off the villain, not even for a second.

Hangman Comics #2 (Spring, 1942)

What is the world coming to when a complete stranger treats you better than a trusted family friend? Geeze…

Hangman Comics #2 (Spring, 1942)

Plus the address the old family friend gives you is that of some creepy old house! Double geeze…

By the way, I’m just dying to know something. The “shadow of the noose” is a great gimmick, but how does The Hangman do it? I’m wondering for purely professional reasons, mind you – I might want to copy that one some day, it’s that cool.

Hangman Comics #2 (Spring, 1942)

There’s the noose again. How’s it done? Flashlight and a tiny model? I’ve got to know!

On the other hand, I’m not sure how I feel about a costumed mystery man who calls on the police for help. Sure, he’s a vigilante and wanted by the law so I guess it’s kind of a selfless act, but still…

Hangman Comics #2 (Spring, 1942)

The real-life Bund turned out to be so inept that Hitler apparently had to resort to sterner measures.

Hangman Comics #2 (Spring, 1942)

Captain Swastika honors a time-honored pulp villain tradition: “kill the lights and escape through a trapdoor” — but he doesn’t count on The Hangman following him.

Hangman Comics #2 (Spring, 1942)

Nothing says “I despise you” quite like a rock to the face.

Incidentally, The Hangman is wrong here – when he and Captain Swastika meet again, there’ll actually be more than two of them to tell the tale, as we’ll soon see. Meanwhile, though…

Have fun! — Steve

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

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