With the flood of superhero movies every summer in recent years Balladeer’s Blog will feature periodic examinations of the more obscure comic book companies. This time out it’s MLJ.
Secret Identity: Paul Patton, newspaper reporter and news photographer.
Origin: When his co-worker Ruth Ransom got kidnapped, Paul Patton felt he could fight crime AND enhance his journalism career by first donning a costume and thwarting criminals as the Fox and then getting a “scoop” on those adventures, complete with photos. And this was decades before Peter Parker made a living with news photos of his exploits as Spider-Man.
First Appearance: Blue Ribbon Comics #4 (June 1940). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1942.
Powers: The Fox was at the peak of human condition. He had acrobatic skills greater than Olympic athletes and was a master of all forms of unarmed combat. His stealth skills were the equal of any burglar or ninja. The white eye-lenses on his mask permitted him to see in the dark.
Comment: Paul Patton had trick cameras rigged on the belt and other areas of his Fox costume to ensure he got photos of all angles of his crimefighting action. His love interest was reporter – later editor Ruth Ransom. Paul Patton chose the name the Fox from a popular song on the radio.
Secret Identity: Reuben Reuben, teenage orphan.
Origin: In his early teens Reuben Reuben (no relation to the Tom Conti movie) ran away from the orphanage where he was living and took refuge in his abandoned ancestral home. The spirits of his ancestors visited him and advised him of his special heritage. Reuben first had to drink a magical elixir. From then on with just two words he could summon the collective powers and virtues of his forebears (strength, speed, bravery, wisdom, etc). By saying “Hey Rube” he would spin like a mini-tornado and be transformed into the adult superhero called the Red Rube.
First Appearance: Zip Comics #39 (August 1943). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1944.
Powers: The Red Rube had the strength of dozens of men, could run several times faster than a normal human, had extraordinary intelligence and was highly resistant to pain, but not completely invulnerable.
Comment: Beyond the obvious comparisons with Captain Marvel/ Shazam in terms of his secret identity and transformation Red Rube’s adventures were similarly light-hearted in nature, even when he clashed with supervillains of the Axis Powers.
Secret Identity: Perry Chase, son of the publisher of The Express newspaper. Perry was the Society Reporter for his father’s paper and put on the personality of a snobbish, high society wimp in order to avoid suspicion that he was really a superhero.
Origin: Frustrated that his father would only trust him with the role of Society Reporter at the family newspaper Perry embraced the public role of a foppish party-goer in order to conceal his new venture: defending First Amendment and other press issues as the Press Guardian.
First Appearance: Pep Comics #1 (January 1940). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1941.
Powers: The Press Guardian was at maximum physical fitness and was highly skilled at unarmed combat. He was also a deadly accurate marksman with the two pistols he always carried with him.
Comment: This hero was one of the most blatant imitations of the Green Hornet imaginable. The secret identity of a newspaper publisher’s son plus the green suit and tie are all virtually identical. The only differences are the Press Guardian’s red mask and his use of bullets over the knockout gas fired by the Green Hornet’s guns. Overall the Press Guardian’s fatal weakness was his specialization in fighting corrupt politicians and gangsters who threatened the press.
Secret Identity: Prince James of England.
Origin: In the year 1040 AD Prince James of England was lured to the Scottish castle of Solway Firth where he was killed by rebels who were in turn slain by him. His ghost was trapped in the castle for centuries until, in 1941, the structure was purchased, dismantled stone by stone and shipped to the United States to be reassembled. Enroute the ship was sunk by a German submarine. Prince James’s ghost was released in the process and he used his undead powers to combat evil as Mister Justice.
First Appearance: Blue Ribbon Comics #9 (February 1941). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1943.
Powers: Mister Justice, as a spectre from beyond, can fly, render himself intangible, move at will underwater and in space since he has no need to breathe, and – most potent of all – can shoot blasts of eldritch energy that do damage to the bodies AND the souls of his foes. The hero’s major weakness was fire.
Comment: Mister Justice’s romantic interest – in a weird kind of Goth or Ghost and Mrs Muir way – was American woman Pat Clark. This macabre superhero fought Satan and his minions as often as he fought Earthly villains.
Secret Identity: Jack Jones, police detective.
Origin: Betrayed into the hands of gangster Lucky Lavitto and his thugs by a dirty cop, blackjack- loving Detective Jack Jones is sealed behind a brick wall with just a Jack of Spades playing card. The gangsters assume Jones will die but he pushed out an airhole with the playing card before the cement joining the bricks could dry. Rescued, the Detective secretly dons a costume and trains himself to fight crime as the superhero called Black Jack.
First Appearance: Zip Comics #20 (November 1941). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1943.
Powers: Black Jack had achieved peak physical condition. He was as agile as any Olympic athlete and excelled at all forms of unarmed combat. In addition he was a brilliant detective with incredible street smarts.
Comment: I always found Black Jack to be a boring imitation of MLJ’s most popular superhero the Black Hood, who had debuted just over a year earlier. His costume and powers (or lack of them) were similar and his secret identity was a cop, again like the Black Hood. The narrative of the Black Jack stories tried dwelling on the eerieness of the link between playing cards and fortune-telling Tarot cards but in a very vague, clumsy way. The supervillains he fought all used card motifs too, like Poker Face, Black Seven, Deuces Wilde, Clubfoot and others.
Secret Identity: Walter Whitney, a newspaper columnist who – in his feature column Broadway – opined on everything from entertainment to sports to the failures of the police at combating organized crime.
Origin: Never revealed. Part of Bob Phantom’s niche in trivia heaven is the fact that readers never learned the source of his superpowers or his reasons for fighting crime.
First Appearance: Blue Ribbon Comics #2 (December 1939). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1942.
Powers: Bob Phantom could teleport over both short and long distances, appearing and disappearing in a cloud of smoke. He could teleport other objects with him, but nothing more massive than another human body. Bob Phantom could also render his body intangible to allow bullets to pass through his form without causing him injury. He possessed enough super-strength to rend concrete with his bare hands and was also highly skilled at unarmed combat.
Comment: Walter Whitney’s relentless needling of the police and other public figures puts me in mind of the real life Walter Winchell.
Secret Identity: A former mortal woman named Iola (last name unknown).
Origin: In an incredibly dark tale for Golden Age comic books Iola murdered the parents of the man she loved because they disapproved of her and forbade him to marry her. He killed her in return but was still so in love with her he kissed her as she died and died with her. Satan sent Iola – now called Madam Satan – back to Earth to seduce and harvest the souls of evil men who were bound to go to Hell when they died.
First Appearance: Pep Comics #16 (June 1941). Her final Golden Age appearance came in 1942.
Powers: Madam Satan was immune to physical harm, had hypnotic powers over her evil victims and could kill with her kiss. She could also frighten away mortals by dropping her illusion of beauty and showing her true face – a green skull. This was very reminiscent of Fantomah.
Comment: Madam Satan’s archenemy was Brother Sunshine, a medieval friar sent back to Earth by God to try to capture Madam Satan’s soul in a bottle. He never succeeded at that, but did sometimes manage to lure her potential victims back to the straight and narrow path, saving them from damnation.
Secret Identity: John Grayson, a Commander in the United States Navy.
Origin: Commander John Grayson yearned for some action against the Axis Powers, but since the U.S. wasn’t in the war yet he assumed the costumed identity of Captain Commando. As the Captain, Grayson would slip away to battle the Axis Powers on commando missions of his own. In Captain Commando’s first story readers are told he’s been around since he helped the British at Dunkirk.
First Appearance: Pep Comics #30 (August 1942). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1946.
Powers: Captain Commando was in top physical condition and was an expert at all forms of unarmed combat. In addition he was an expert marksman and could wield rifles, machine-guns and pistols with deadly proficiency.
Comment: Like plenty of other Golden Age superheroes, Captain Commando enjoyed endangering the lives of children by letting them fight at his side. In Cap’s case he used FIVE underaged helpers called the Boy Soldiers. The quintet boasted his own son Billy Grayson, a street-smart kid called Flatbush, a Brit named Gerald Sykes, a French boy named Armand de Latour and the Norwegian Erik Jansen. Billy guessed his father’s secret identity.
Secret Identity: Ted Tyler, professional firefighter.
Origin: While fighting a fire Ted Tyler encountered the arsonist involved. That arsonist knocked him out and escaped, but Ted had fallen into a huge puddle of spilled chemicals which coated his body and gave him his superpowers.
First Appearance: Pep Comics #12 (February 1941). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1942.
Powers: Fireball could control flames, either producing them or absorbing them. He could also make his body so hot that bullets would melt on impact. Similarly objects would melt at his touch. (He was too much.)
Comment: Fireball fought exclusively fire-related villains like arsonists and pyromaniacs, accounting for his limited appeal. His love interest was the Fire Chief’s daughter Hedy Harris, the only person who knew about his dual identity.
MLJ also had another short-lived fire-based superhero called Inferno. He was really Frank Verrano, a circus fire-breather. Frank was a probable mutant who could breathe fire naturally, a gift he used to make a living AND to fight crime as the costumed Inferno. Like Fireball, Inferno lasted barely a year.
Secret Identity: Unknown
Origin: The Queen of Diamonds was the hereditary ruler of a hidden kingdom called the Diamond Empire. This empire boasted highly advanced technology and was concealed from the eyes of the rest of the world’s people by an impenetrable barrier.
First Appearance: Pep Comics #1 (January 1940). Her final Golden Age appearance came in 1941.
Powers: The Queen of Diamonds had all the super-science and armies of the Diamond Empire at her command. She wore a diamond brooch that could blind opponents and shoot lasers, plus wielded a diamond-tipped sceptre with the same dangerous qualities. In addition she wore diamond bracelets that could cut through many hard surfaces.
Comment: A brawny, shirtless pilot named Rocket accidentally crashed his experimental craft in the Diamond Empire, penetrating the concealing barrier. Rocket helped the Queen of Diamonds against the would-be usurper Retlek then became the Queen’s sidekick (and presumed sex-toy) while sharing adventures with her against hostile neighboring kingdoms. Those kingdoms were populated by intelligent animal-men like Bat-Men, Ape-Men, Lizard-Men and Hawk-Men.
Secret Identity: John Raymond, a college professor who taught criminology.
Origin: After using his abilities to capture his criminal brother Tim, John continued fighting the forces of evil as the costumed superhero called the Web.
First Appearance: Zip Comics #27 (July 1942). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1943.
Powers: The Web was in peak physical condition and was very skilled at unarmed combat. He sometimes entrapped his defeated foes in a web-net (similar to his cape) because, as he said, he was “entrapping them in a web of their own making.” In addition, the Web had a computer-like mind for solving mysteries and tracking down criminals.
Comment: On top of fighting organized crime the Web also took on agents of the Axis Powers. His romantic interest was Rose Wayne, a woman he saved from Japan’s Black Dragon Society.
Secret Identity: Zachary Zambini, magician.
Origin: Zambini the Miracle Man was trained in all the mystic arts from a young age. He will lose his powers if he uses them for selfish reasons instead of in a battle against evil.
First Appearance: Zip Comics #1 (February 1940). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1943.
Powers: Zambini would recite his spells while clutching the boomerang- shaped amulet that hung around his neck. He could grow to roughly 50 feet in height, fly, cast illusions and use banishment spells.
Comment: MLJ also published the adventures of Kardak the Mystic (Secret Identity: John Cardy) who lasted from 1939 t0 1942. Kardak also had magical powers but could not grow to 50 feet like Zambini.
Secret Identity: Harley Hudson, biochemist.
Origin: Harley Hudson, a specialist in insect biochemistry discovered a way of modifying his own body so it would duplicate the proportional strength and a few other qualities of insects, especially fireflies.
First Appearance: Top-Notch Comics #8 (September 1940). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1943.
Powers: The Firefly had the proportional strength of an insect the size of a human male. He could lift objects several times his own weight, could leap several times his own height and had the phosphorescent glowing abilities of a Firefly. He sometimes used this ability to temporarily blind antagonists.
Comment: The Firefly’s romantic interest was Joan Burton, a reporter. His archenemy was Dr Dread and he had a two-passenger glider called the Fireflier. It was no Batmobile but it was kind of nice.
Secret Identity: John Dickering, scientist.
Origin: Scientist John Dickering discovered a gas 50 times lighter than hydrogen. This being a comic book he injected himself with it to test its effect on humans. (?) The gas granted him superpowers which he used to fight crime as the costumed superhero called the Comet.
First Appearance: Pep Comics #1 (January 1940). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1941.
Powers: The Comet could fly at incredible speeds as well as fire disintegrator beams from his eyes. The deadly beams were controlled via a visor similar to the one used decades later by the X-Men’s Cyclops. This violent superhero often used his eye-beams to kill his foes.
Comment: The Comet’s romantic interest was female reporter Thelma Gordon, who shared his secret with him. In the July 1941 issue of Pep Comics the Comet brought down gangster Big Boy Malone. Malone’s thugs stumbled on to the hero’s civilian identity, sprang a surprise on him at John Dickering’s apartment and shot him to death in front of Thelma and John’s brother Bob.
Yes, decades before Marvel Comics killed off Gwen Stacy, Thunderbird, the Swordsman and so many others MLJ Comics really and permanently killed off a superhero. John’s brother Bob took on his own costumed identity as the Hangman and got revenge on John’s killers in another superhero first. He also became Thelma’s new boyfriend.
Secret Identity: Bob Dickering, recent college graduate. (Occupation unrevealed)
Origin: After seeing his superhero brother the Comet gunned down by organized crime Bob donned a costume of his own and fought criminals and the Axis Powers as the Hangman.
First Appearance: Pep Comics #17 (July 1941). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1944.
Powers: The Hangman was in top physical condition and used his acrobatic skills along with his mastery of unarmed combat to subdue his opponents. He also employed a portable noose, the mere shadow of which was often enough to terrify villains into surrendering. Ironically, despite his darker reputation the Hangman did not kill as many of his foes as his late brother the Comet did.
Comment: The Hangman had one of the most interesting Rogue’s Galleries of supervillains of all the MLJ superheroes. His foes included the Jackal, Captain Swastika (his archenemy), the Executioner, the Hunter, the Missionary, the Clockmaker, Mother Goose, the Walrus, the Ferret and the Snail.
Secret Identity: John Sterling, an inventor. Later on Sterling became a Private Detective.
Origin: John Sterling grew up despising organized crime after seeing racketeers swindle away his father’s fortune and, ultimately, murder him. After much experimentation John concocted a chemical that he had to coat his body with and then dive naked (yes, really) into a vat of molten steel mixed in with that same chemical. This endowed John with superpowers that he used to wage war on crime and the Axis Powers … after he got dressed of course.
First Appearance: Zip Comics #1 (February 1940). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1944.
Powers: Steel Sterling possessed incredible super-strength and steel-hard skin. Because of his new semi-metallic physiognomy he could also harness magnetic forces to enable him to run at the speed of sound and fly by way of magnetic attraction to passing airplanes.
Comment: Steel Sterling was the ORIGINAL Man of Steel. That nickname was not applied to Superman until after Steel Sterling was no longer being published. His enemies included Baron Gestapo, Anwalli the Zombie Maker, Radium King, Oom the Mystic, the Rattler, the Werewolf of France and Inferno, who reformed and became a superhero (see above).
Secret Identity: Blaine Whitney, wealthy newspaper publisher and scion of one of America’s most storied families.
Origin: The Whitneys had distinguished themselves ever since the days of the Revolutionary War. Blaine Whitney, painfully aware of how much he had to live up to, secretly trained his mind and body to prepare himself to assume his responsibilities. While running his family’s newspaper empire he secretly molded himself into a combination of Doc Savage and the much later Tony Stark, using his psychic powers and incredible technology to fight the forces of evil as the superhero called the Wizard.
First Appearance: Top-Notch Comics #1 (December 1939). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1944.
Powers: The Wizard’s self-trained powers included a photographic memory, telepathic communication, telekinesis and remote viewing. His technical weaponry included a bullet-proof costume, anti-gravity devices that let him fly, ray-guns of all kinds and pills that gave him temporary super-strength.
Comment: The Wizard, “the man with the super brain,” succumbed to the fad for endangering children and made his adopted son Roy his sidekick under the name Super-Boy (no relation to the later young version of Superman called Superboy).
Secret Identity: Doctor Joe Higgins, a chemist.
Origin: On his deathbed Joe’s father Tom revealed to him the secret of a chemical formula he had been working on. That formula could convey superpowers on a normal human being. As Joe grew older he got his PhD in chemistry, finished his father’s formula and used it on himself, gaining superpowers. He devised a special costume and fought the forces of evil as the Shield, a super-powered operative of the FBI.
First Appearance: Pep Comics #1 (January 1940). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1945.
Powers: The chemical formula that the Shield rubbed onto his skin followed by bombardment with flouroscopic rays endowed him with limited super-strength plus invulnerability. His name came from an acronym for the areas of the human anatomy affected by his chemical formula: S – Sacrum H – Heart I – Innervation E – Eyes L – Lungs D – Derma. The Shield also wore an indestructible costume which encased his torso like a shield.
Comment: The Shield was America’s first star-spangled superhero, beating Captain America into print by more than a year. He eventually had a youthful sidekick called Dusty and a private detective sweetheart named Betty Warren. His adventures continued until December of 1945. Only J Edgar Hoover knew the Shield’s secret identity.
MLJ Comics created another patriotic-themed superhero for World War Two. He was called Captain Flag – real name: Tom Townsend. Tom was the good-timing playboy son of an inventor. When Axis agents torture his father to death for info on his latest invention Tom is spared the same fate when a giant eagle flies in and carries him to safety. Yes, really. Even more ridiculously the eagle “nurses” Tom back to health and becomes his crime-fighting partner Yank when the former playboy wastrel dons a red, white and blue costume and becomes the non- superpowered Captain Flag. Unlike the Shield, Captain Flag lasted less than a year.
Secret Identity: Matthew Burland, police officer.
Origin: When a supervillain called the Skull framed Burland for the robbery of a jewelry store the young cop was thrown off the force. Matthew attacked the Skull on his own but was shot and dumped in the woods, presumed dead. A hermit saved Burland’s life and trained him in all manner of unarmed combat as well as other skills that would help the young man fight crime as the Black Hood.
First Appearance: Top-Notch Comics #9 (October 1940). His final Golden Age appearance came in 1947.
Powers: The Black Hood is in peak physical condition. He is a master detective and excels at unarmed combat. He also has acrobatic skills that exceed Olympic levels. His girlfriend Barbara Sutton knew his secret identity and proved to be a capable, butt-kicking sidekick in many stories.
Comment: Oddly for such a run-of-the- mill superhero the Black Hood was MLJ’s most successful costumed crimefighter. He also starred in a radio show and – in a time period when many Pulp Magazine heroes got a companion comic book series the Black Hood’s fame took him in the opposite direction: the popularity of his comic book series spawned a companion Pulp Magazine!
The Black Hood’s popularity might have been boosted by his fun and memorable Rogue’s Gallery of supervillains like the Skull, Animal Man, the Mist, Crime Baron, the Bookworm, the Crow, Needlehead, the Monster, Stiletto and the Crime Editor.
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