Saying that patriotic-themed characters were a staple of the Golden Age is more than a slight understatement; there was a veritable army of such characters appearing in comic books from the late 1930’s through the war years. Some of them still make appearances in today’s comics; Captain America, The Shield, and Uncle Sam are among these lasting characters. A few (like Pat Patriot) deserve to be far better remembered than they are today. Quite a few of them, however, lapsed into well-deserved obscurity. Today’s comic book feature falls squarely into the latter category.

Quality Comics, publishers of the aforementioned Uncle Sam, as well as some standout characters like Blackhawk and Torchy, launched a new patriotic hero in Autumn 1941 just in time for America’s entry into World War II. Unfortunately this flag-themed character was a real stinkeroo; in fact, the feature was so bad that it’s hard to not feel a bit of embarrassment for the writer and artist even now, nearly three-quarters of a century later.

To really understand The Ghost of Flanders we need to do a quick history review regarding World War I. The name “Flanders” in the present context refers to a large area of Belgium, a place which became one of the real meatgrinders of the first World War. The town of Ypres was located in Flanders; today when historians speak of the carnage of World War I, the battles around Ypres are invariably mentioned. In those days soldiers’ bodies were buried near where they fell (rather than being shipped home), and over time the fields of Flanders became covered with white crosses and red poppies; for some unknown reason, these crimson flowers grew quickly near the Flanders graves. This odd occurrence moved John McCrae (himself a veteran of the fighting near Ypres) to write the poem “In Flanders Fields” in 1915. Upon its publication in 1919, “In Flanders Fields” became an immediate sensation and a sentimental favorite. Although largely forgotten today, the poem was among the most popular of its day; suffice to say that in 1941 when the first tale of The Ghost of Flanders was published, the poem was still A Really Big Deal® and comic readers of the day were well-acquainted with the reference.

Keep that reference in mind as we take a closer look at The Ghost of Flanders from Hit Comics #18, cover dated December 1941 (meaning that it would have appeared on newsstands in October or November of that year). As always feel free to right-click on a page to open it in a new tab for a larger view.

Hit Comics #18, December 1941

OK, stop right here. Please allow me to point out that it’s incredibly difficult to take any hero seriously when he’s wearing a dickey with no shirt. That is, unless the hero’s goal is to make the crooks laugh themselves to death without a punch being thrown. This is just soooooo lame. And I don’t think this is an early 21st century style conceit, either; I can’t imagine any kid in 1941 thinking that this is a cool look.

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(If you don’t know what a “dickey” is, it’s a false shirt front which was often worn with a tuxedo. Stop snickering in the back of the class.)

Hit Comics #18, December 1941

Wait! Wait! Stop again!

Check out the second panel on the page: “Rip finds out he is honored as The Unknown Soldier”.

Wha’ th’ …?????

How in the name of Tempest Storm’s pasties did this guy find out he’s The Unknown Soldier???? I mean…um…being as the unknown soldier is a corpse by definition (since he’s BURIED in the TOMB of the Unknown Soldier), plus the fact that he’s UNKNOWN. That’s kind of the whole point, you know?

I’ve read some really, really excrementally stupid awful cess in a few 1940’s comics, but this faux pas really takes the cake. And you can safely bet your last dime that any kid possessing two brain cells to rub together back in 1941 knew it too.

So after our hero discovers that he’s been classified as dead (and unidentified), he nobly determines to remain dead in the eyes of the world. One day out of the blue he decides to dig himself a new living room under the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, don a dickey, and fight crime. And what name does he choose for himself? The wildly improbable name of “The Ghost of Flanders”.

Hit Comics #18, December 1941

How many times have we seen a Golden Age character’s first comic book story in which the hero shows up and the villains recognize him by name? Exactly: too many. I realize that most writers of these books were writing for kids (or at least thought they were) and that the storytelling style was highly compressed. But would a narration box explaining that the hero has already stopped a few minor crimes and received some newspaper coverage be too much to ask? Just so the damned thing makes sense??!!??

With the panel showing the poppy sailing into the room, you can see why I brought up McCrae’s poem. The tale’s unknown writer is also cribbing heavily from The Scarlet Pimpernel.

The rest of the story is just the usual “patriotic hero thwarts fifth columnists” thing:

Hit Comics #18, December 1941

Hit Comics #18, December 1941

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Hit Comics #18, December 1941

By his third appearance The Ghost of Flanders traded in his dickey for a union suit:

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But his adventures remained pretty tepid affairs, and after just eight appearances in Hit Comics the character faded away. Ironically, these days The Ghost of Flanders really is an “unknown soldier”.

Page scans are courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2014, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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