It was mentioned previously in this blog that some Golden Age villains were the stars of their own ongoing features. Last week we considered one such character from the pages of Fox Publications’ Weird Comics, namely The Sorceress of Zoom. But Weird Comics was highly unusual in that the title carried two ongoing series featuring a villain as the title character; that second feature is the subject of today’s blog post and Golden Age comic tale.

Mad scientists were big box office throughout the 1930’s and well into the 1940’s; Universal Studios became a regular factory for such films, beginning with Frankenstein in 1931 (based, as we all know, very loosely on the Mary Shelley classic) and running through five official sequels (not counting extraneous silly stuff like Abbott and Costello); the franchise wrapped up with 1944’s highly underrated House of Frankenstein. Universal made a mint with their horror films and that fact was not lost on comic publishers. Prize Comics Group devoted an entire (long running) book to Frankenstein’s monster, and the pages of other Golden Age four color books were peppered liberally with mad scientists.

But none were quite like Fox’s “Dr. Mortal” series, which started out as a really sick little feature and never quite straightened itself out. In the doctor’s very first appearance (Weird Comics #1), he kidnaps his own niece with the intent of “mating “ her with his dungeon full of bizarrely mutated men. And just in case you think I’m kidding:

Dr. Mortal – Weird Comics

There’s nothing ambiguous about this scene – it’s pretty twisted and it’s exactly what it appears to be. Dr. Mortal’s niece Marlene is saved by her beau Gary Brent, and the doctor appears to perish in a horrific fire which he inadvertently starts in his lab when he tries to shoot Gary and hits a container of some unidentified explosive chemical instead.

You can’t keep a bad doctor down; he returns in Weird Comics #2 – as do Gary and Marlene, who become the regular protagonists of the stories. The Dr. Mortal series, when read sequentially, never quite seems to make up its own mind as to what it’s trying to be. Despite the fact that the mad doctor intended to have his niece bred by weird mutant creatures in the first issue, Marlene displays compassion toward her uncle and is frequently seen trying to save the doctor from himself. (She’s also rarely drawn the same way twice – her hair color and style change from issue to issue.) In Weird Comics #3, the Doctor (temporarily) becomes a “good guy” (as does The Sorceress of Zoom in the same issue), joining forces with Gary and Marlene to stop his own rampaging Frankenstein-like creation. But by issue #4 Dr. Mortal’s back to his old wicked ways.

The series never quite seems to settle down – it appears as though the writers, artists, and editors (the name Godfrey Clarke is an obvious pseudonym) can’t stop tweaking and experimenting (much like Dr. Mortal himself). Sometimes Marlene wants to save and reform her evil uncle, while other times she just wants to see justice done (in other words, she won’t kill her uncle, but she wouldn’t mind too much if someone like Gary croaked him). As noted above, Marlene’s appearance often changes from one story to the next. Sometimes Dr. Mortal wants to use Marlene as the subject of his experiments, while other times he goes out of his way to save her from some horrific shambling beast he’s created.

But none of this is really the point of the series anyway: the fun comes from seeing what Dr. Mortal is going to cook up next. At various times in the series the doctor raises the dead, creates intelligent apes, makes zombies walk, and mutates living men into semi-intelligent horrors which only he can control. His experiments always seem to misfire somehow and his own creations usually turn on him in the end. It’s a formula approach, but it works in this case because it’s just plain fun. No matter how much his latest creature repulses us, we can’t look away or flip the pages to another story because we know what’s going to happen to Dr. Mortal – (poetic) justice will be served, plus we know deep down that he’s going to be back in the next issue with something equally off-the-wall and (hopefully) just as repulsive. If nothing else these stories represent exactly the kind of thing which greatly disturbed Dr. Wertham and Senator Kefauver, which makes these tales even more fun.

As far as villains go Dr. Mortal works, partly because he’s based on a familiar archetype (the mad scientist), but mostly because the stories are such fun to read. He’s not a very well developed character, but he’s really just a means to an end: to let the writers and artists to give their imaginations full flight, allowing them to come up with some very wild, entertaining stuff.

Dr. Mortal appeared in the first sixteen issues of Weird Comics, running from April 1940 through July 1941, with an extra side trip into the pages of The Flame #4 (Feb-Mar 1941). But by the end of 1941, Dr. Mortal lived up to his name and was not seen again in the pages of Golden Age comics (although he very occasionally appears as a character in present day books, and his original adventures appear in reprint volumes from time to time).

It was hard to select a single Dr. Mortal appearance for inclusion in this post – all of the stories are just so warped that it’s tough to settle on one. I ultimately picked this story because I have a soft spot for brain transplant tales (even though Dr. Mortal’s not technically performing brain surgery here, it’s close enough. Too bad, though — the writers missed a marvelous opportunity to include a “brain in a jar” panel.). I’m also really amused by the understatement in the last panel on page one – when your test subject’s chest suddenly explodes in a mass of flame, it’s a good indicator that something is amiss. I can’t decide whether or not the humor was intentional, but either way I laughed my head off — “Clean up that mess!” is a great punchline.

Here’s Dr. Mortal from Weird Comics #7, courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum, featuring a generous helping of mind transfers, berserk gorillas, mutant minions, deathtraps, and bizarre super-science gone horribly wrong – all in just eight pages, with a plot hook that would be used to great effect a couple of decades later in John Frankenheimer’s classic film Seconds. It’s loads of fun! Enjoy!

Dr. Mortal – Weird Comics #7, October 1940

Dr. Mortal – Weird Comics #7, October 1940

Dr. Mortal – Weird Comics #7, October 1940

Dr. Mortal – Weird Comics #7, October 1940

Dr. Mortal – Weird Comics #7, October 1940

Dr. Mortal – Weird Comics #7, October 1940

Dr. Mortal – Weird Comics #7, October 1940

Dr. Mortal – Weird Comics #7, October 1940

Don’t forget to come back this Tuesday for the newest installent of Bonus Battle October!

Have fun! — Steve

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

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