Sunday, August 30, 2009

Perils and Pitfalls of the Golden Age

It's Like Comics on Speed!
If you haven't been following John Adcock's fine blog Yesterday's Papers, here's a good reason to begin. John is running excerpts from a series of rabid anti-comic book feature stories first published circa 1945 in The Southtown Economist. This Chicago newspaper began documenting comics' contribution to perversion and juvenile crime long before Dr. Wertham published his first article. It's a fascinating look not only at the persecution of comics, but also attitudes about propriety in the waning days of World War II.

John's first story is here. The second installment dissects a "Captain Freedom" story from an issue of Speed Comics (No. 35, November, 1944). Which is what prompted this post. While John turned up an image of the book's cover, by lucky chance I have scans of the whole issue. Without attempting in any way to steal John's thunder, I would like to present the entire story, "Revenge of the Insect Giants," to provide context while you read the Economist article.

In the story a villainous beekeeper creates giant killer bees to take revenge on a tormentor. Captain Freedom must intervene to set things right. The newspaper article doesn't mention that the beekeeper is a stereotype "hayseed" locked in an ongoing feud with a neighbor. When not feuding, Jabez Mather, the beekeeper, is growing, for no apparent reason, some giant bees. A bee escapes and stings the neighbor's bull to death. It's good news and bad news: the bull was about to maul Captain Freedom's pals, who are vacationing with the Captain's alter ego nearby.

But then the neighbor finds his bull killed by "this bee stinger." Not even pausing to wonder that the stinger is two feet long, the distraught neighbor grabs a shotgun and shoots up Mather's beehives. To Mather this is the last straw. He runs to his "bee laboratory" vowing revenge.

Mather dispatches a giant bee to kill his neighbor. Captain Freedom hears the man's dying scream and confronts the giant bee. However the creature expires before the Captain can attack. The bee had left its stinger in the neighbor, and drops dead.

The kids try to spy on Mather but they're discovered and trussed up. As the article's horrified writer says, the mad beekeeper paints the youths with nectar so his bees will kill them. Just why they deserve death isn't clear.

Neither is Mather's sudden elocution upgrade. While his neighbor was shooting at him, Jabez had said things like, "Ye be shootin' up my beehives! I'll git ye fer this!" As he slathers on the nectar, the new improved Jabez intones, "First I anoint my victims to make a decent dish...soon giant bees will hatch and have a royal feast on these nectar-smeared kidlets!"

When the Economist claimed that Captain Freedom bashes through the barn door with his head I thought they'd simply misinterpreted bad drawing...but by golly the journalist is right! Hearing the kids' screams the good Captain head-butts his way into Mather's lab.

He's met by several giant bees. The Captain is outnumbered but Mather is taking no chances. He throws a convenient jug of nitric acid (a must-have on many New England farms) at the battling hero.

Sadly, Mather's aim is poor. Instead of frizzling Freedom, the acid splashes the giant bees. "My beauties!" Mather emotes. "I have destroyed my beauties!" An attempt to run is cut short as Captain Freedom tackles the bee-keeper, delivering a righteous speech: "Save your song, you dirty killer! Save it for the jury!"

But the heinous hayseed will never need to comb his hair for a trial. A blow from Captain Freedom knocks Mather into the beehives. The bees swarm from the smashed hives and promptly sting the farmer to death. Just in case we don't know that's what's going on, Mather cries, "YEEOWW! I-I'm being s-stung to d-death!"

Captain Freedom chases the bees away with a smudge pot. It's too late, though. A caption tells us: "But--DEATH...comes for the bee-keeper. Ironic death!" In case we slept through the two previous panels, Mather helpfully recaps them, briefly lapsing into Cowboyspeak to do so: "I'm c-cashing my chips! My own bees stung m-me to d-death!" Exhausted by approaching death, Mather is unable to maintain his lofty villain dialogue. When he launches into a last-minute self-justification, it's in his own voice: "I'm not really a killer like you said, Mister...just was aimin' to settle accounts with that no-account Hiram!"

This statement evinces enough sympathy for the Captain to murmur, "Take it easy!" as the bee-keeper expires. Though this ought to be the story's ending, there's a half-page, balloon-crammed anticlimax. This is the exchange The Economist describes. Captain Freedom, having read the last caption and liked it, paraphrases it for his funerary speech: "He died the same way he killed his neighbor--IRONIC JUSTICE!"

This, too, should have been the end of the story, but the kids still need to stage a leave-'em-laughing finish with Captain Freedom's alter ego (the kids don't know publisher Don Wright is Captain Freedom). And that, finally, is the end.

The end of another grisly, mind-rotting comic story. Another attack on our children's minds and morals. Not even a rousing memo from General "Hap" Arnold could counteract this story's evil effects. In fact, immediately after reading it I ran out, smeared two neighbors with Sioux Bee honey, and blasted their beehives with a shotgun I found in my garage next to my jug of Nitric Acid.

1 comment:

Emphyrio said...

An entertaining retelling. If only you had a radio show (or podcast); I can imagine your voice reading this to exceedingly comic effect. The software "Audacity" is free, albeit something of a memory hog (but maybe all audio programs are thus).

Hint, hint!

I'm reminded of a copy edit of Dickens I recently read:

It was the best of times, and, ironically, the worst of times.