As I was doing some online research the other day I came across an entry for a Golden Age comic character called The Deacon. The page’s writer described the series as being similar to Batman but with “religious overtones”. I instantly perked up. Would The Deacon be a crimefighter in priestly vestments flinging crosses like batarangs? Would he be a mysterious hooded cassocked figure climbing the sides of buildings using a rosary for his grapnel and rope? The possibilities were staggering! I just had to check it out!
Imagine my disappointment when I discovered he was essentially Spencer Tracy in the movie Boys Town dispensing knuckle sandwiches instead of fatherly advice. That movie may well have been the genesis of The Deacon. Boys Town, released in 1938, was a hit and Spencer Tracy received the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Father Flanagan, the real life founder of Boys Town.
The Deacon did prove to be an offbeat character, albeit not as weird and exciting as what I’d hoped for. A petty criminal gives up his former vocation and decides instead to fight crime disguised as a clergyman. It’s an interesting twist on an old superhero trope, as “The Deacon” essentially becomes the former crook’s new full-time identity: he remains fully accessible to the public in his new guise while his true name and old background not only remain secret, but are essentially forgotten.
It would be pretty tough to write the adventures of a clergyman crimefighter without some level of moralizing, but The Deacon’s writers unfortunately poured it on a bit too thickly. To today’s readers, The Deacon comes off every bit as campy as does the deliberately over-the-top 1960’s Batman TV series, but to a 1940’s comic book reader The Deacon’s “sermons” about avoiding a life of crime were earnest and heartfelt (even if they were a bit “preachy”, with no pun intended).
Consequently, later entries in this series are unintentionally humorous. I’m not sure why the idea of a two-fisted crimefighting clergyman seems so hilarious to us today, but it’s true – as much as I try to put myself in the shoes of a period comic reader when perusing Golden Age comics, even I have a hard time taking The Deacon seriously. When I mentioned this series to my college aged sons, they immediately started tossing out lines from the Monty Python bit about “The Bishop” (itself a parody of The Saint, which at the time was a popular TV series starring Roger Moore, based on a series of novels). I thought, too, of the late Kathleen Freeman as Sister Mary Stigmata (alias “The Penguin”) beating Jake and Elwood with a ruler in The Blues Brothers. And, of course, there’s the present-day comic book Battle Pope. The idea of a member of the clergy putting the beatdown on small time crooks and racketeers is just funny, and I’m apparently neither smart enough nor self analytical enough to figure out why – it just is.
So, for whatever it’s worth, here’s the first adventure of The Deacon from Holyoke’s Cat-Man Comics #1, complete with the final panel’s obligatory lecture to the reader (later echoed in the equally ham-handed morals which were earnestly delivered as the denouement of cartoons from the 1980’s onward, which can be found in Masters of the Universe among others). I wish I had something significant or enlightening to say about this story; I’m stymied. But stuff like this is just too good to pass up in The Big Blog o’Fun.
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Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2014, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.