America seems always to have had this weird, convoluted, conflicted, love-hate relationship with drugs, which seems to be odder now than ever before; we tell our youth that drugs are “bad”, yet allow multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies to run advertising campaigns around the clock on television for drugs with happy-sounding made up names (which all seem to end with the letter “a”). It’s small wonder that people can become so confused when drugs are concerned. The whole situation seems like a batch of Effluvia to me.

There was a solid groundwork laid for the modern “drug culture” as far back as the 1950’s. As a general historical outline, during World War II women were asked to work outside the home to help with the defense production and the wartime economy. But after the crisis had passed and men returned home from overseas, the women were sent packing, relegated to their crackerbox households in suburban Levittowns which were springing up all over the country. Trapped indoors with their screaming “boom babies”, ladies increasingly turned to “mother’s little helper” (as the Rolling Stones famously termed it): prescription anti-depressants. Over time these became almost a staple of suburban life, just a part of the daily routine. It was the bedrock foundation of (the now clichéd) Sixties drug culture; kids, after seeing mom popping pills for years, were primed and ready to “tune in, turn on, and drop out”.

It’s difficult for anyone younger than fifty to really appreciate what a BIG DEAL drugs were in the late Sixties and early Seventies. When I was ten years old and in the fifth grade (my last year of elementary school), we had a solid week (all day, every day) of stern warnings about the evils of illegal drugs and the pervasive nature of drugs in junior high. It’s great that we were warned in advance about junior high school, but what we should have been warned to expect were bullying, harassment, violence, physical and verbal abuse – and all of that was just from the teachers. In three years of junior high, I didn’t encounter drugs one single time.

High school (in the mid to late Seventies) was a different story. I went to an awful, very socially-stratified high school in which everything revolved around which clique you belonged to, and it was pretty easy to identify the “druggie” clique by their official uniform: flannel shirts, ripped and faded jeans, hiking boots, and the latest copy of High Times rolled up just so (with the cover outward) sticking out of the right hip pocket. Even the girls dressed that way; they all looked like Kurt Cobain a decade and a half before anyone had heard of the guy. And on outdoor field trips, you could always count on them to get “lost” early in the trip. You never had any trouble finding them though: you’d just look for the cloud of smoke coming from behind a hedge or clump of bushes. There was nothing subtle about it, but in the post-Watergate post-Vietnam era everybody (even the teachers) was looking for a good time, and school authorities didn’t worry much about it; they didn’t view it as a problem and, even if it was, it would either straighten itself out or it wouldn’t.

It didn’t. The Eighties saw the rise of designer drugs and cocaine. Meanwhile the Reagan Administration was talking out both sides of its mouth; First Lady Nancy was telling kids to “just say no” while hubby was providing financial aid to anti-Communist and anti-Soviet rebels who were otherwise deriving their funding by sales of illegal drugs to the U.S. In the Nineties and the new century, we have violent drug wars on American streets (why should Third World countries have all the fun, right?) and a sort of national schizophrenia regarding drugs and their use. Alcohol and tobacco are loudly decried as dangerous drugs, but many of the same activists are simultaneously advocating for the legalization of marijuana. TV stations won’t show the hilarious Roger Ramjet cartoons from the 1960’s (in which the hero takes a pill to get “the power of sixty atom bombs for sixty seconds”) because it might encourage children to take drugs, but the same TV stations have no problem accepting advertising dollars from pharmaceutical companies for non-stop ads pushing happy pills, penis pills, and happy penis pills. “But drugs are okay when they’re prescribed for you!” Sure they are; just ask Marilyn, Elvis, and Michael, not to mention the scientists who are fighting “super bugs” created by the overprescription of antibiotics.

That’s why I can’t help but laugh at people who vociferously comment on the “drug based” origins of some Golden Age comic characters. “People were so stupid back then! They had heroes who took drugs!” Replace the words “so stupid” with “no different” and the comment hits closer to the mark. Speaking of “hits”, sit back, take another one if you’re so inclined, and I’ll explain.

Back at the dawn of comics’ Golden Age, society was conflicted over the drug issue, and the “good drugs/bad drugs” dichotomy lasted straight through the 1940’s. In the Thirties, the law-abiding public felt threatened by rising opium use (although how much of it was genuine and how much was merely a ginned-up offshoot of the “Yellow Peril” scare is open to debate) and the growing popularity of marijuana. Two years before Superman’s debut, the film Reefer Madness was released to cinemas. Never mind that the movie was a cheap exploitation film and nowhere near a blockbuster (and, as I have it on good authority, that the film is ironically unwatchable unless one is stoned), the fact that it was made at all illustrates that somebody thought weed enough of a problem that people would go to theaters to watch the thing.

At the same time (and pay attention here, because this is the key to understanding today’s Golden Age story), citizens could obtain medication without a doctor’s prescription. Pharmacists were able to distribute medicine on demand to people who hadn’t first visited a doctor. Back in the day, you didn’t bother with a doctor unless the problem was fairly serious. If you had a sore throat or a toothache, you’d just drop by the neighborhood pharmacy and the druggist would issue some sort of concoction to soothe (if not cure) your malady. And, unlike today (when a pharmacist just counts out pills manufactured by one of the major drug companies, then prints out a label for the bottle), a druggist of the 1930’s and 1940’s actually mixed the chemicals himself. Pharmacists were (hopefully) trained diagnosticians who could provide the proverbial “cure for what ails ya” for minor maladies. Contrast that with the present day: in the area in which I live, you can’t get a hangnail fixed unless you see your G.P. and at least three specialists, racking up a four digit medical bill in the process.

So back in the days before health care providers got in bed with the insurance companies to turn health care into an “industry” (read: “racket”), your neighborhood pharmacist was a sort of “minor ailment physician” who could actually make pills (there was a contraption he’d use to press out his own pills) and solutions. Despite the modern-day snark about how some Golden Age heroes were “stoners”, there’s a historical basis for the origins of characters like Hourman and The Black Terror whose powers and special abilities were based on homemade pharmaceuticals.

In the following story, pharmacist Bob Benton (aided by his kid friend Tim Roland) discovers a formula to give himself super-strength and a sort of “on again, off again” invulnerability (which apparently only works when Bob knows the attack is coming, as he gets sapped from behind partway through the tale). The modern interpretation of Bob’s costume is that it’s some sort of half-assed pirate getup, but the design is actually based on his profession. Back in the days before we had green “Mr. Yuck” stickers, a skull and crossbones was used as the universal symbol for poison. Some poisons can be beneficial in small doses or when mixed with other chemicals; Bob (and readers of his origin story in 1941) would have been well acquainted with the iconography of the skull and crossbones as it pertained to the local pharmacist.

The Black Terror’s origin seems to be a standard stereotype of the period: a meek character dreams of being able to stand up for himself, realizes his ambition and decides to fight for the greater good using his new abilities, yet chooses to disguise himself by hiding in plain sight using his milquetoast personna. Benton even has the obligatory kid sidekick, even before he develops his powers (and that was through a blunder on the part of said sidekick). We even encounter the girl who keeps coming around to see Benton, despite the fact that she derides him every chance she gets. But the story takes some active reading for you to be able to fully understand one of the plot elements: why City Comptroller Rodney Clark gets a black eye at the end. It’s never spelled out for the reader, but the hints are present.

Without further introduction, from Exciting Comics #9 cover dated May 1941, and courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum, here’s the origin of a really iconic Golden Age character: The Black Terror. (Right-click on a page to open it in a new tab for a larger view.)

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Exciting Comics #9, May 1941

Have fun! — Steve

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

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