After I’ve read a Golden Age comic story I’ll occasionally have the nagging feeling that I missed something subtle, yet important, in the story and consequently I’ll go back to read it again. I had to read today’s tale more than twice to figure out why I had that nagging feeling.

Today’s tale comes to us from Enwil Associates, a small and somewhat fly-by-night collection of comic companies which released a handful of comics during the period 1944 through 1946. None of their titles went past the five issue mark by utilizing original content (although a couple of them reached a sixth issue consisting of republished material). There is a fair bit of evidence that Enwil didn’t have “in house” writers and artists but instead purchased their content from studios and other publishers. They did publish a fair amount of pretty interesting stories, though, of which a few have previously graced the virtual pages of this blog: Toreador, Gail Porter, Driftwood Davey, Maureen Marine, and one of my personal Golden Age favorites: The Green Turtle.

Enwil’s “flagship” title was called Blue Circle Comics. It was a fairly common for publishers to use a color in conjunction with a shape or symbol for their comic book titles: Blue Circle, Red Circle, Red Band, Red Seal, Blue Ribbon, and Gold Medal were all titles from the Golden Age. In the case of Blue Circle Comics, though, the title did actually feature a character called the Blue Circle.

Blue Circle Comics also featured most of the characters mentioned a couple of paragraphs back. A Blue Circle character I’ve been meaning to feature for several years now is The Steel Fist, a young steelworker who becomes a crimefighter. The feature requires a bit more than the usual amount of suspension of disbelief, being as a steel hand would be a tough thing for someone to hide in order to maintain a secret identity and a normal life.

I first read The Steel Fist’s origin tale a few years ago and initially wrote it off as a relatively silly feature. But something about the story kept nagging at the back of my mind, as though I’d missed some idea hidden just beneath its surface. In returning to the story several months ago, I was finally able to scratch the story’s surface and discern a trick the author had used to advance the plot (which had apparently been the thing troubling me all along).

To avoid ruining the story for you, we’ll present the story before the discussion. After the story, we’ll have a look at a couple of plot points while they’re still fresh in your mind. As always, please right-click on a page and open it in a new tab for a larger, more readable view:

Blue Circle Comics #1, June 1944

Blue Circle Comics #1, June 1944

Blue Circle Comics #1, June 1944

Blue Circle Comics #1, June 1944

Blue Circle Comics #1, June 1944

Blue Circle Comics #1, June 1944

Blue Circle Comics #1, June 1944

(Page scans are from Comic Book Plus)

The first point of interest occurs at the end of page one through the first third of page two, when Nick the foreman asks the men to work a second shift for no pay (as the comment in the third panel of page two shows). I initially though that was what troubled me about this story: I’m pretty sure that asking for an unpaid double-shift in a factory was a violation of labor laws, wartime or not. But after I’d thought for a while about the tale, I realized that the request for an unpaid shift was just a narrative device which sets up the rest of the story, and it accomplishes three things. First, the absence of other workers allows the saboteurs to do their dirty work with a minimum of obstruction. Second, the willingness of Tim to take an unpaid second shift illustrates his patriotism (and why he’s deserving of the gift he’ll receive later in the story). Third, the guy who’s most vocal about not working the extra shift turns out to be the saboteur (as the button on his overalls indicates). In just four panels, the writer and artist set up everything that happens later in the tale.

Suggesting that it’s unpatriotic to refuse an unpaid shift is admittedly a crappy way to set up these important plot points; there are plenty of other, more logical ways it could have been done. For example, depicting “after-hours saboteur shenanigans” springs to mind (as it was used in Pat Patriot’s origin story). But, again, that wasn’t what nagged at the back of my mind; instead, it was the realization that the entire narrative was nicely set up in just four panels of compressed storytelling (compared to today’s comics, in which just the basic situation seeds for a new comic character require a complete six-issue “story arc”).

It’s also worthwhile to note the presence of a common Golden Age comic trope. In several origin stories the hero (or heroine) receives their powers either as a reward for their patriotism or as a birthright from an ancestor who lived in Colonial American times. We’ve discussed this origin trope previously when we examined both The Flag and Usa, The Spirit of Old Glory. It’s borrowed from classical mythology: heroes such as Achilles and Siegfried are chosen by the gods to be gifted with special abilities (which again illustrates that early comic book writers were often well acquainted with classic literature, and that familiarity informed the plots of their four color tales). In American comics from the Thirties and Forties, the Founding Fathers, the Statue of Liberty, or some other figure magically appears and bestows the gift upon the appropriately patriotic recipient. In this Steel Fist story, the trope appears on pages 5 and 6, when “Justice” (who is inexplicably neither blind nor carrying scales, but is instead clad in the colors of the American flag and wearing a crown styled after that of the Statue of Liberty) makes the steel coating of Tim’s hand pliable, turning him into the literal fist of justice.

Returning to the four panels from the start of the story which we’ve previously discussed, Tim’s patriotism is displayed when he’s the only worker who volunteers for an unpaid second shift in a defense plant, and this qualifies him for Justice’s gift. Across the intervening decades from the publication of this comic until the present day the definition of “patriotism” has become almost infinitely malleable, but during World War II (when this story saw print) the definition of “patriot” was a fair bit more cut and dried: if you made personal sacrifices to help the U.S. beat the Axis, you could be confident in your patriotism.

The story’s payoff comes in the center panel of page six, when Tim opens his new steel hand and sees the badge he tore from the jacket of the saboteur. It’s the same badge we saw one of Tim’s co-workers wearing back on page two (we pointed this out several paragraphs ago), which is another important plot point introduced in that same four panel sequence at the start of the story. Despite the visual error on page seven (Tim’s steel hand is depicted as a left hand in the panel where he shows the button as evidence), the story wraps up nicely in typical Golden Age style.

Present day fans of war era comics often point out the gradual overall deterioration in quality displayed by comics published during the second half of World War II. Many of the original writers and artists from the 1930’s and early 1940’s had enlisted or been drafted into the armed forces, to be replaced by lesser talents. The Steel Fist’s first appearance featured serviceable art but, despite being a mid-war comic, the tight plotting of the tale shows better than average writing skills. The writer had the foresight to introduce several critical plot elements at the very start of the story while not calling undue attention to them. I had to read the story actively more than once to discover how well the first panels subtly set the stage for everything which comes later in the narrative.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2016, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

Advertisements