The “backstory” to the comic book we feature in today’s post is one of the great true adventure tales of the Victorian Age. While it is certainly true that many Europeans of that era were virulently racist (“Wogs begin in Calais” as an Englishmen once stated), there were also quite a few who were legitimately curious about other cultures and religions, and a very few who went so far as to experience said cultures (even to the point of breaking many of their own culture’s taboos). The most celebrated among the latter was Sir Richard Francis Burton.

Burton, born in England in 1821, had seen a great deal of travelling by the time he was thirty. As a child he lived in several European countries, learning at least four languages fluently along the way. He also picked up a smattering of Romani through a romantic involvement with a gypsy girl. That affair broke a cultural taboo (“Dear boy, don’t you know that such things just aren’t done?”), and it was not the first taboo Burton would break – as an adult, he would later experiment with various drugs and, according to some historians, with homosexuality.

After being tossed out of Trinity College at age 21, Burton (who had by now also acquired Arabic as an additional tongue) joined the British Army and was sent off to India. While there, he deepened his appreciation of other cultures by actual participation in the myriad religions, rites, ceremonies, and traditions of India. This led to a fair amount of scorn and ridicule by his peers (e.g. the stereotypical Victorian belief that other cultures were fit only to be looked down upon), but Burton was unfazed. He continued with what would today be called anthropological studies, learning about numerous religions, castes, and social organization, and perfecting his Arabic while also learning Persian and at least four additional languages.

Burton obviously had an adventurous spirit and a wide-ranging curiosity. He believed that to truly understand a culture, one must experience it firsthand – reading about a culture or observing it from an aloof, detached distance was insufficient for true understanding. While never actually converting to either Islam or the Hindu religion, he studied and attended rites and services to gain a proficient knowledge of both faiths – in fact, so much so that he decided at age thirty to attempt a bold, and potentially fatal, venture: to enter the holy cities of Mecca and Medina as an unbeliever.

While other non-Muslims were rumored to have successfully ventured to the holiest places of Islam, cities unbelievers were prohibited from entering under pain of death, their written accounts were usually inaccurate and, in some cases, entirely disbelieved. Burton was determined to not only travel to both holy places, but to also write an accurate, factual account of his journey. This would require him to not just successfully enter both cities undetected, but also to somehow make copious notes and smuggle them out.

In 1853, Burton stained his skin with a dye derived from walnuts to disguise himself as a denizen of the Middle East and set out on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. He adopted at least two personas along the way, beginning his journey as a prince of Persia (presumably to ease travel among Westerners in the early stages of his trek), but after reaching Muslim lands changing his guise to that of a Sufi dervish, a holy man who was permitted to go anywhere without interference by fellow Muslims. To conceal his voluminous notes, he carried a small case which was designed to hold a Koran/Quran and secreted a notebook inside the case instead.

Burton journeyed to Medina (home of the prophet Muhammad’s tomb) first, then travelled on to Mecca. He was not only completely undetected as a European, he also managed to participate in Muslim religious rites which no European unbeliever before him had experienced. Burton kissed the Black Stone and was able to make a close examination of it, later writing of it in precise geological language, theorizing that the rock was volcanic in origin. He also entered the Kaaba, the holiest of holies, a cube-shaped structure inside Mecca’s Great Mosque. Not only did he get inside the Kaaba, but he also managed to sketch a plan of its interior in pencil inside his white ihram, the traditional garb of the pilgrim.

Burton had a few close calls along the way, but survived his pilgrimage undiscovered and later wrote two large volumes about his experience. Burton later decided to enter another forbidden city (Harar in modern-day Ethiopia) but got a spear in the face for his trouble. Burton was also part of an (unsuccessful) expedition to find the source of the Nile River (the holy grail for Victorian adventurers). He also experienced numerous other travels and adventures, enough for at least ten lifetimes.

Richard Francis Burton wrote and published copiously about his adventures; he also provided the west with an unexpurgated version of The Thousand and One Nights (quite a few of the stories are ribald at the least or overtly sexual; previous volumes contained just the “kid friendly” stories about characters like Sinbad and Ali Baba which we all know and love). You can find a large catalogue of his books for free download at Many Books, but be warned – you can easily get lost in his works; even though Burton tried to write as a clinical, dispassionate, unbiased observer (rare for his time), his books read like the rip-roaring adventures that they were.

Burton inspired many other Victorians to treat non-European cultures as more than just a curiosity; the annals of history are littered with other Europeans who “went native” (T.E. Lawrence, anyone?) and Burton’s writings (both factual and fictional, such as his English version of The Thousand and One Nights) doubtless were a precursor and inspiration to innumerable other authors. It’s difficult to read H. Rider Haggard’s novels, the works of Rudyard Kipling, or even A. E. W. Mason’s The Four Feathers without seeing the hand of Sir Richard Francis Burton hovering over the writer’s heads.

We can’t know whether the writer of the comic book story in today’s post was directly influenced by Burton (in fact, we’re unable even to identify the writer), but said influence is hard to avoid when you read the tale. I was still reading the first page of the story when I was reminded of Burton. My most difficult task in writing today’s post was deciding what angle it should take: should I write about Burton, or write about T.E. Lawrence, or write about the “balkanization” of the pre-Victorian or Victorian-era Muslim world (in which large areas were still tribalized under the command of local leaders, such as the famous Raizuli of Wind and the Lion fame, despite the fact that the film is almost entirely a Hollywood fabrication), or write about The Thousand and One Nights’ heavy influence on American pop culture from the 1920’s through the 1940’s? It took me a solid month to decide what form this post would take, and I still never got anywhere near a deconstruction of the story and its unanswered questions. If The Veiled Prophet an American helping the Europeans, why is he disguised (and with a translucent veil, which is traditionally considered a item of female garb)? Why does he call himself a “prophet”? He’s not predicting a damned thing – just reporting the planned attack.

One question is easy to answer: why is this The Veiled Prophet’s one and only appearance? Because this was Hillman’s final issue of Miracle Comics which was, by and large, an inferior comic. The art was good enough, but the characters in Miracle were mostly sub-standard. The Scorpion (“Terror of the Underworld”) was just a Jimmy Olson lookalike who didn’t even wear a costume or disguise, and we never learn why he’s called The Scorpion. Bullet Bob has some wild adventures but, like The Scorpion, he’s just a guy in a suit. It seems that Hillman just wasn’t trying very hard with this book.

You can read the sole adventure of The Veiled Prophet below. Since the pages appears to be blurry microfiche scans, you’ll likely want to enlarge them by right-clicking on an image and opening it in a new browser tab. The scans are courtesy of Comic Book Plus.

If you’d like to learn more about Sir Richard Francis Burton and his action-packed hair-raising life, there are innumerable web pages devoted to him. If you’re going to limit yourself to one, you can do no better than this page which is written in a lively and highly entertaining manner.

Miracle Comics #4, March 1941

Miracle Comics #4, March 1941

Miracle Comics #4, March 1941

Miracle Comics #4, March 1941

Miracle Comics #4, March 1941

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2017, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

Advertisements