I’ll open today’s blog entry with a warning: this post is potentially NSFW (Not Safe For Workplace). Readers who are squeamish about the sight of violent bloody imagery, or post-modernist readers who are easily offended by the racial caricaturing common to comics and cartoons of the World War II era (but see this blog’s Disclaimer page) should read no further. I’m serious about this – there’s going to be a lot of stuff in today’s post which carries the potential to offend.

I’m presenting this story because it’s interesting on a lot of levels. It’s pretty gruesome, which is fascinating when one considers the fact that the company which published this story went on to become Archie Comics. The tale illustrates how angry Americans were with Japan in the months following Pearl Harbor. It’s a comparatively rare occurance of a costumed “supervillain” in a Golden Age comic story. It also illustrates a key point in our ongoing discussion about what makes a villain “tick” and how to make an otherwise lackluster villain character memorable. On a more visceral level, it’s a rip-roaring adventure story in which the action never stops, one which will make your inner eight year old positively squeal with delight. For all its faults, it’s a cool story.

But it’s also going to piss off a few readers and it’s not a particularly good choice for workplace reading. Remember: you were warned, so don’t come crying to me later.

We’ve been examining a few villains from books, movies, and comics, trying to figure out what constitutes a “good” villain (with a tip of the cap right there to the DC Comics Public Enemies movie). One way to turn an “average” villain into a “good” one is to give the character an interesting gimmick. That’s essentially what George Lucas did when he introduced Darth Vader. If you’re old enough to remember seeing Star Wars when it was first released (back before all the years of media hype, parodies, discussions, etc. which followed), what was the first thing you though of when somebody mentioned Darth Vader after you’d seen the movie? I’ll bet dollars to donuts that it was either the helmet or the breathing apparatus. Vader had a distinctive look and, even more importantly, a sound. Man, what was the deal with that guy? Was he some kind of weird creepy alien who needed the helmet to breathe in an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere? Was he horribly deformed? Maybe he was a midget in some kind of powered armor suit. Hey, he might be a robot and the breathing effects were a red herring. (Don’t laugh – we kicked all of those ideas around in the years before Empire Strikes Back was released.)

Vader was badass, but aside from the helmet and lightsaber, we didn’t really know the first thing about him aside from the fact that he could choke somebody from across the room (a power I wish I possessed every time I’m in a movie theater and some jackass won’t quit talking on his cellphone). In the initial going (e.g. Episode IV), Darth Vader was really nothing but a grab bag of gimmicks, a bundle of schticks – but it worked.

That’s exactly why the villain presented in today’s Golden Age comic story works – he has a cool gimmick. The Executioner probably worked even better as a villain in 1942 than he does today, being as he’s Japanese, but the character is still interesting even now (once one gets past the post-modernist handwringing over the caricature-style portrayal) precisely because of his gimmick: he’s deadly with an axe.

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

Now is this an awesome splash page or what??!!?? Check out the first line of the narrative: “Out of the dark and fetid bowels of Hades comes a yellow monster to wield his blood-soaked axe against the innocent…The Executioner!” What a line! Man, that prose is so awful it’s actually great!

And look at the illustration! The Executioner sports Japan’s rising sun on his axe, while in his other hand he holds a severed head which is still dripping blood (though the corpse is nowhere to be seen). Surrounding him we see more prisoners awaiting execution while The Executioner’s minions cavort and drool expectantly (or maybe expectorantly – it’s hard to say).

Imagine you’re a kid in 1942. You’ve just selected Hangman Comics #3 from the rack, flipped it open, and seen this splash panel on the first page. I guarantee that you’re fishing in your pockets for a dime so hard you’re close to tearing your pants. Search your feelings – you know it to be true.

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

Check it out – Germany’s Hermann Goering and Japan’s Emperor Hirohito conducting a secret summit conference, discussing their respective national supervillains. That’s a full $0.10 worth of “so wrong yet so cool” right there.

But then we see The Executioner swipe the head clean off of a guy with a single stroke. And after that

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

…he double-crosses someone by flinging his axe to decapitate the guy from the other side of the room! Holy Mazooma! Three pages, three severed heads. It might be a record.

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

We’re left wondering why The Executioner gave the crane operator the blunt end of the axehead instead of lopping his noggin off like The Executioner’s other victims. Maybe the editors figured that four severed heads in four pages might be pushing things a bit too far.

At the end of the page we get a swell gun battle between G-Men and Japanese saboteurs. The story just keeps getting better.

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

This caper seems like an overly complicated way to pull off a kidnapping, but what the heck? We have the fun of seeing our hero The Hangman making a dramatic leap to catch hold of the gangplank’s swinging end, so I’m willing to suspend some disbelief here.

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

The sixth page brings us to another point about what makes a villain an effective character. A villain has to be halfway competent and get the upper hand every now and again, otherwise he or she just comes off looking like a yutz.

That’s why the writer has The Hangman getting konked (literally – look at the sound effect). Now this is the spot where it can get hairy for the writer, because every time the villain comes out on top, even for a minute, the writer runs the risk of diminishing the hero in the eyes of the reader. That’s exactly why the Fu Manchu novels seem weak – Nayland Smith gets the short end so often that he winds up looking hapless, and since the stories are told from the point of view of Nayland Smith and his assistant, the reader winds up not caring much about the protagonists; if he sticks with the book at all, it’s mainly for the infrequent glimpses of Fu Manchu.

It’s a tightrope walk for the writer and few can pull it off successfully. One writer who was exceptional at frequently putting his heroes into jeopardy without making them look foolish or weak was Lester Dent, the guy who wrote most of the lebbenty-zillion Doc Savage novels. In Dent’s books, Doc and his cohorts usually get into trouble because of a third party’s treachery or because Doc wants to get captured (to learn more about the villain and his plans; Doc always knows how to escape when the time is right), not often because the protagonists blunder blindly into a trap.

So to establish some dramatic tension in the story we’re reading, The Hangman has to go down for the count.

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

The action is unrelenting. Thelma shows some grit by hailing a cab to chase the kidnappers. The Executioner displays his skill by taking out one of the cab’s tires with an axe, then one of his goons drills the cabbie. The cab tumbles, but Thelma miraculously escapes unharmed. Next we’re treated to a mystery: what the deuce happened to the truck?

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

“I had a tough job making Thelma go home…” I’ll bet! She’s quite a gal, that Thelma, apparently great to have around in a tough spot. She reminds me a bit of Marion Ravenwood.

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

Dang! Another dismemberment!!!

I like the way this one was visually presented: in shadow/silhouette form – it’s very reminiscent of the “skinning” scene from The Black Cat with Karloff and Lugosi (a film which is so twisted and wrong for so many reasons that it’s an absolute miracle it made it past the censors).

Now comes the part we’ve been waiting for – the big fight between The Hangman and The Executioner!

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

We knew all along that The Hangman was the better fighter, and he proves it by one-shotting the axe-happy villain. But so intent is The Hangman on getting the valuable info to the government authorities that he takes his eyes off of his foe. Meanwhile The Executioner revives and then “Pearl Harbors” the hero while he’s on the phone.

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

The Hangman is a tough egg; he holds up well under torture, stalling his captors long enough for the bombers to arrive…

Hangman Comics #3, Summer 1942

…and we see The Hangman’s bravery – even though he knows he’s likely to be killed by a bomb, he keeps his trap shut in the hope that the bombing run will take out The Executioner, the Emperor, and the Japanese high command. And, after he frees himself, he opts to clean house on the henchmen and run down The Executioner rather than try to save himself.

It was a thrill-packed tale full of blood, gore, dismemberment, gunfights, fistfights, car wrecks, and aerial bombardments. But there’s some real heroism going on as well – just look at the Chinese official who loses an arm but who still won’t spill the beans, Thelma’s determination to chase down the villains at great personal risk, and The Hangman holding up under torture, braving the bombardment to pursue the bad guy. As far as villains go The Executioner makes for a fairly interesting foe, mainly because of his great axe gimmick.

All of these factors combined to make the reader’s dime a very well-spent one back in 1942. But we’re not finished – there’s more to come from Hangman Comics #3! You ain’t seen nothin’ yet…

Have fun! — Steve

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

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