Before Batman, before Captain America and even before Superman himself, came the Clock, written and drawn by George E Brenner. The Clock was the first masked crimefighter in comic books, debuting in 1936, while the much more popular Batman didn’t come along until 1939. I’m not pointing that out to diss Batman, but to point out what a shame it is that the Clock seems to have been forgotten by most of the world. The figure is pretty much the middle character between Pulp heroes like the Shadow and the Moon Man and comic book superheroes. The Clock’s influence on Will Eisner’s iconic character the Spirit is obvious.
Secret Identity: Brian O’Brien
First Appearance: Funny Pages Vol 1 #6 (November 1936) His final Golden Age appearance came in 1944.
Origin: Brian O’Brien was born into the wealthy O’Brien family of New York City. The adventurous youth loved flying in early biplanes and served in World War One as a fighter pilot. After the war he went to college where he became an All-American Fullback, then moved on to Law School. Following graduation he was a fixture on the High Society polo scene while eventually becoming a District Attorney.
O’Brien gained a reputation as a crusading anti-crime figure but ultimately the extensive corruption in New York City politics and law enforcement frustrated any true attempts at reform. He retired from his D.A. career and, while seemingly returning to his carefree socialite life, secretly adopted the masked identity of the Clock to fight crime through bypassing the city’s systemic corruption. At first only his father knew about his dual identity.
Powers: The Clock was the prototype for the countless non-powered costumed crimefighters to come. He was in peak physical condition and was a master of unarmed combat. He possessed the agility of an Olympic gymnast and was a marksman with the handgun he carried into action with him. In addition he was a master detective and investigator whose knowledge of the law helped him compile evidence against his foes.
This hero’s mask had white eyeholes which allowed him to see in the dark and its fabric would filter out the effects of the knockout gas and teargas his tie-pin could shoot at opponents. The Clock’s cane was a durable weapon in combat plus it featured a few gadgets, like being able to fire its round top at opponents with the force of a bullet. His hat sported a metal lining to help minimize damage from blows to the head and he sometimes wore body armor under his suit and tie. Clock time-bombs which filled entire rooms with knockout gas or tear gas were on occasion employed by this figure.
O’Brien called himself the Clock just to fit his Pulp-style calling cards which said “The CLOCK has struck” and similar phrases. In later years he would have sidekicks like Pug, an ex-boxer and Butch, a tomboyish teenage girl.
1. FUNNY PAGES Vol 1 #6 (November 1936) – #9 (March 1937)
Title: The Clock Strikes
Villains: The Slick Martin Gang
Synopsis: The Clock handles his first case, tracking down a gang of three bank robbers, outfighting and capturing them all and leaving his calling card identifying himself as the Clock. He also phones Police Captain Kane and tells him where to find the bound and unconscious Slick Martin and Butch.
In the edgy ending, our hero turns Killer Katz, the gang member who shot a man dead during the gang’s most recent robbery, over to a vengeful mob led by the brother of the slain man. They beat him to death and the newspapers are all speculating on who the Clock may be. We get our first glimpse of our hero’s fairly plush secret office as he writes down the details of this case.
Comment: The first few Clock stories were serialized in installments of just 2 pages each (!), so, to be fair to the spirit of the “first twenty” stories I am only counting each complete tale, not the individual installments.
2. FUNNY PAGES Vol 1 #10 (April 1937) – #11 (May 1937)
Title: The Famous Faith Diamond
Villains: Two jewel thieves called Gat and Snifter
Synopsis: Gat and Snifter murder millionaire C. Mortimer Smythe and his butler during a home invasion in which they steal the Faith Diamond. That gem is valued at $3,000,000.00 (in 1937!) and was to be donated to a museum soon. The Clock investigates on his own while running afoul of Captain Kane and the rest of the police, who want to nail the masked man for his vigilante activities. The masked man finds a clue that the police missed and uses it to track down the thieves.
3. FUNNY PICTURE STORIES Vol 1 #1 (November 1936)
Title: Alias The Clock
Villains: The Bill Hunt Gang
NOTE: The same month that the Clock debuted over at Funny Pages #6, he also appeared in this 1st issue of Funny Picture Stories. Since the Clock is already well-known in this story, Funny Pages #6 is considered his official first appearance because he was unknown at the start of that tale.
Synopsis: After a 5-man gang masterminded by Bill Hunt rob a Fifth Avenue jeweler of millions of dollars in diamonds the police are stumped. The Clock takes action, nabbing Bill Hunt, who used his job as a security guard in the jeweler’s building to plot the robbery.
The masked man takes Bill to his hideout, which we now see includes a literal dungeon with torture devices, like Judex, the hero of French movie serials. Terrified at the sight of the torture implements, Hunt confesses everything and tells the Clock where to find the other 4 gang members. Our hero defeats all of them and turns them plus Bill over to the police. During the fight we get our first look at the way the Clock’s cane has a top that can be shot at foes as a projectile weapon.
4. FUNNY PICTURE STORIES Vol 1 #2 (December 1936)
Title: Hare and Hound
Villain: Crooked millionaire J.P. Getmore
Synopsis: Captain Kane is pushing his men relentlessly to find and arrest the Clock. After a few days of a fruitless citywide dragnet, Kane is called by millionaire J.P. Getmore (a pastiche of J.P. Getty) and told that the Clock left one of his calling cards saying he will strike at Getmore’s mansion at 11:30 that night.
Kane and his cops spread out all over the estate and lie in wait. In the end the Clock exposes Getmore’s involvement in a racket which was selling inferior goods to poor people. He also steals thousands of dollars from J.P’s safe to reimburse the poor families that the tycoon ripped off. Captain Kane is left even more exasperated then ever.
5. DETECTIVE PICTURE STORIES Vol 1 #2 (January 1937)
Title: Baffled by a Flower
Villains: Three unnamed construction racketeers
NOTE: This is the very first appearance of the mysterious woman called the Orchid, who develops a flirty rivalry with the Clock.
Synopsis: A resourceful, two-fisted and, of course, beautiful woman calling herself the Orchid figures out that an old man walking around the city is really the Clock in disguise. She slips a note in his pocket demanding he meet her at an eatery called the Hot Spot at 3pm or she will expose him. The Clock shows up at the appointed time, but the Orchid confesses she doesn’t know his secret identity, she just wanted to get his help clearing her father, whose crooked partner and his henchmen have framed him for their embezzlement. She offends our hero by offering to pay him and the two part after an argument.
The Clock goes to the racketeers’ hideout to steal their “real” accounting ledgers from their safe, but the Orchid already went there and is being held by the criminals. The masked man breaks in, saves Orchid from being ravished and defeats the three crooks. He provides Orchid with the ledgers to clear her father and she slips away while he robs thousands of dollars in securities from the safe to give to the poor. He wonders if he could ever find romance with a woman like the Orchid.
6. DETECTIVE PICTURE STORIES Vol 1 #5 (April 1937)
Title: Murder By Proxy
Villains: Chief Bowser and his bodyguard Muscles
Synopsis: A crimelord called “Chief” Bowser frames the Clock for murdering a man and robbing him of $74,000. With Captain Kane and his men scouring the city for him, the Clock disguises himself as one of his secondary identities – “Snowy” Winters, in which role he passes as a drug addict to sniff out clues.
Eventually he learns who framed him and invades Chief Bowser’s headquarters, where the Chief dies in a death-trap he laid for the Clock. Our hero defeats Muscles, who confesses to the plan, thus clearing the Clock.
*** 7. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #3 (December 1937)
Title: The Orchid Calls
NOTE: This is the first Clock story after he was sold to Quality Comics. And remember, Batman still had NOT debuted.
Synopsis: The plain-clothes adventuress called the Orchid is now in Detroit, from where she sends the Clock a note requesting his help. The Clock flies to Detroit in his personal bi-plane, and once near the city he is attacked by a thug in a biplane of his own. Making a reference to having been a fighter pilot during World War One, our hero shoots down the crook’s plane and he bails out with a parachute. The Orchid corrals the crook when he lands, then signals the Clock her location with an orchid-colored spotlight.
Our heroine explains to the masked man that she has been fighting a protection racket in Detroit which is shaking down all the honest businessmen. One of those honest men, Mr Glower, refused to pay, and the racketeers have kidnapped him and are holding him until his wife pays $50,000 ransom. The Clock threatens the captured thug until he reveals where Glower is being held. Monk, the head of the protection racket, collects the ransom and then catches the Clock trying to free Glower. The Orchid saves our hero’s life, but this time he gives her the slip, taking the $50,000 ransom to feed and clothe the poor.
*** 8. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #4 (January 1938)
Title: The Loan Shark
Villain: Eli “Wooden” Nichols
Synopsis: A slick loan shark named Eli Nichols is driving his working class victims into financial ruin and is so bloodthirsty that he has already killed nearly a dozen men for repeated failure to make their payments. Captain Kane and the police are not able to make any charges stick against Nichols, who shrewdly works alone, doing his own killing as well as his own money-lending.
The Clock puts in a lot of legwork, investigating 3 other potential loan sharks before obtaining evidence that Eli Nichols is the man behind the recent murders for non-payment. Nichols proves tougher to beat in a physical fight than any of the Clock’s previous foes but in the end our hero defeats him, burns his books and has the man will money to the struggling survivors of his dead victims. Then he leaves him for the cops.
Comment: It was interesting to see some detailed detective work done by the Clock in this story.
*** 9. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #5 (February 1938)
Title: The Gown And Gavel Fraternity
Villain: Velvet Marcon
Synopsis: The Gown and Gavel Fraternity, consisting of the Class of 1907 graduates of the fictional Wordham Law School, is holding their weekly meeting. One of their members, Judge Justin Wright, is late for the meeting because he is living in fear over death-threats from “Velvet” Marcon, a gangster he sentenced to 10 years. Velvet has served his term and has been released, now threatening to kill the Judge. The police have officers guarding Judge Wright and his wife around the clock, with the press naturally making a public spectacle of the “when or where will the judge get killed” coverage.
With the cops unable to find Marcon, the Clock goes undercover in his Snowy Winters persona again but also comes up empty. The masked man then convinces Judge Wright to become bait in order to lure Velvet out of hiding. The judge agrees, publicly turning down any further police protection. Marcon tries to kill him but the Clock catches him and turns him over to the cops. To thank the Clock, Judge Wright has the Gown and Gavel Fraternity donate $20,000 to an orphanage per the hero’s request.
*** 10. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #6 (March 1938)
Title: Kidnapped: Clyde Hope Jr.
Villains: The Mike “Slick” Sparra Gang
Synopsis: Slick Sparra and his gang (Slim and Butch) have kidnapped bank president Clyde Hope’s son for $500,000 ransom. As Snowy Winters our hero picks up word on where Slim and Butch are hiding in the slums while Sparra holds Clyde in a safehouse. In his Clock costume he breaks in, captures the lone Butch at gunpoint and takes him to his lair. Once again the masked man threatens intense torture if his “guest” doesn’t reveal where Slick, Slim and the hostage are located.
Butch tells all, so the Clock contacts Clyde Hope Senior and tells him to go through with the ransom delivery. Meanwhile he breaks into the safehouse where the gang members have Clyde Junior and defeats them all, with his cane-top projectile again coming into play. He frees Clyde Jr but keeps the ransom money to give to the poor since it turns out Clyde’s father crookedly ran a bank that failed, wiping out its poor and working class customers while keeping his own wealth separate and safe. The defrauded depositors will get the $500,000.
11. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #7 (April 1938)
Title: The Owl
Villain: The Owl
Synopsis: For 3 months, a masked villain called the Owl has been pulling off robberies by night. Captain Kane and the police are, as usual, unable to find the culprit and the public, the papers and the politicians are breathing down his neck.
Listening in on Captain Kane’s phone, the Clock puts together a plan of action. Our hero captures and exposes Baldy Getzmore, a former Bootlegger, as the burglar in an Owl mask. With Prohibition long over, Baldy’s money was beginning to run out so he adopted the costumed identity of the Owl and took to new crimes. Captain Kane and his men arrest the defeated Owl.
12. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #8 (May 1938)
Title: The O’Brien Family Name
Villains: The Maroni Mob
NOTE: This story marks the first time readers are told the Clock’s real name is Brian O’Brien. His father is introduced as well but given no first name. In addition, a friendlier relationship begins between our hero and
Commissioner Gordon Captain Kane, and we are still ONE FULL YEAR before Batman’s May 1939 debut.
Synopsis: At the Park Avenue penthouse of the O’Briens, Brian O’Brien is being encouraged by his father, who obviously knows his dual identity, to give up being the Clock because of the risks posed by both the criminals AND the police. Brian politely but firmly refuses. Captain Kane sends out a short-wave radio broadcast calling for the Clock’s help with an urgent matter. Our hero calls Kane and agrees to a covert meeting.
Taking precautions, the Clock surreptitiously meets with the Captain, who reveals that the crimelord Maroni has taken over from McGuire. (Batman would not face his own crimelord named Maroni until 1942) Maroni runs politicians as well as criminals and is threatening to ruin Kane’s career unless he goes on the take like so many other police officers and higher-ups. With the deadline approaching, Captain Kane begs the Clock to bring down Maroni in the best interests of everyone. Our hero agrees.
Maroni, despite being a slick organized crime boss who owns elected officials, also likes to indulge in the occasional “field work” by leading some of his men into action. The Clock infiltrates the underworld and learns that Maroni is leading some of his men in a “thrill crime” that night – an armed robbery of a million dollars in fur coats being kept in a secured warehouse. The Clock interrupts the robbery, defeats all of the gang members, and when Maroni flees in a car our hero chases him and causes his car to plunge into the river, drowning the crimelord. The Clock and Captain Kane adopt a more civil attitude toward each other.
13. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #9 (June 1938)
Title: The Carteer Caper
Villains: The Taff Gang
NOTE: This same month Superman debuted over at Action Comics.
Synopsis: The Carteer jewelry emporium (obviously a play on Cartier) in the diamond district is robbed of a million dollars in diamonds. Mr Carteer is making things hot for Captain Kane since his men have been unable to capture the gang responsible or recover the diamonds. Kane ponders calling on the Clock for help again. The Clock independently gets himself involved in the case.
Our hero captures the gang’s leader, Joe Taff, and takes him to his lair. He again uses the threat of torture to get information. Taff tells him where the other gang members are hiding out. The Clock invades the hideout and, using all his fighting abilities and gadgets, captures the entire gang. The masked man informs Captain Kane where to find the crooks and Kane wistfully wishes that the Clock would come out from behind his mask and officially join him in a crusade to clean up New York City.
14. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #10 (July 1938)
Title: The Clock Unmasked
Villain: Killer Casca
Synopsis: Out walking one night in his civilian clothing, Brian O’Brien hears gunfire and races to the source. In an old abandoned building he sees police detective Tad Carney exchanging gunfire with escaped convict Killer Casca. The Clock dons his mask but happens to be without his gadget-laden cane. When Casca seriously wounds Carney, putting him out of action, the masked man attacks before the escaped con can kill the cop.
Killer Casca is a formidable and savvy fighter, however, and he succeeds in disarming the Clock and also in removing his mask. He recognizes the well-known Brian O’Brien and vows to tell the public he is really the Clock. Our hero icily tells Casca he’ll never leave that building alive, and their battle resumes. In a game of move and counter-move throughout the darkened rooms of the abandoned building the pair fight it out, each trying to kill the other. In the end Killer Casca decides to flee with the Clock’s secret but fails to complete an attempted jump from one rooftop to the next and falls to his death. Our hero calls Captain Kane to come with a hearse for Casca and an ambulance for Tad Carney.
*** 15. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #11 (August 1938)
Title: The Clock Committed A Murder
Villains: Silk Basso and Mulloy
Synopsis: The Clock has been framed for the murder of real estate tycoon Tyrone Carron and for the theft of $50,000 from the dead man’s safe. Captain Kane refuses to believe the Clock is a murderer but has to go through with investigating the case. Meanwhile our hero goes undercover again in underworld dives to smoke out the truth.
It turns out Silk Basso, who has ambitions to replace the late Maroni as crime-boss of New York City, framed the Clock to get him out of the way. The masked man catches Silk Basso and his right-hand man and provides Captain Kane with proof that he did not kill Tyrone Carron.
16. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #12 (September 1938)
Title: What The Clock Saw
Villains: Charitable Charley and his gang
NOTE: This story presents the first time the Clock uses his tie pin to shoot knockout gas and/or tear gas.
Synopsis: Charitable Charley and his two thugs, whose m.o. is to pull off armed robberies of charity fundraisers, strike again and steal $25,000. The police are stymied, of course, but the Clock sees a classified ad buried deep in the newspaper. He deduces that the ad refers to the charity robbery. The one who placed the ad claims to have info on where the crooks and the money are located and arranges a covert meeting with the Clock to pass along the info.
It turns out to be a trap laid by the incredibly gaudy-suited Charitable Charley and his gang. The Clock uses the gas in his tie pin to turn the tables and then defeats the gang. He calls Captain Kane from the sugar warehouse battleground and tells him to come get the villains AND the money. He is not taking it since it was already intended for charity.
17. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #13 (October 1938)
Title: The File On Z.Y. Callis
Villain: Tycoon Z.Y. Callis
Synopsis: Manufacturing tycoon Z.Y. Callis has refused to give in to his striking workers’ demands for a pay raise. He has announced he will just shut down the striking plant and lay off all 1,800 employees. He shut the doors before payday so the workers are stuck having to try legal avenues just to get their final pay. In the meantime they are left without funds. The Clock digs into his extensive files and reviews Z.Y. Callis’ many misdeeds, from tax evasion to multiple brushes with the law over other financial crimes.
That night our hero breaks into the closed up plant to rob the safe to get the workers their money. He finds an employee has already broken in to try to get their back pay of $12.00 to buy medicine for his new baby. The Clock lets him go, steals enough money to pay the other employees and then sets out to probe deeper into Callis’ shady dealings. He digs up enough proof of the tycoon’s misdeeds to blackmail him into raising the wages of the striking employees by twice what they demanded rather than go to prison and lose ALL his money. The Clock laughs at Callis’ public claim that he wants to be “a pioneer in the bettering of conditions for the working man.”
18. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #14 (November 1938)
Title: Mayor Willis Murdered
Villain: The Man With A Crown Tattoo
Synopsis: The night before he was about to announce the results of his administration’s investigation into political corruption in New York City, Mayor Willis is shot to death and all the evidence is stolen. With the press and the radio demanding results and insinuating a coverup, Commissioner Litz insists that Captain Kane just arrest a frequent offender for the crime to get the media off their backs and then he can find the real killer while the legal proceedings drag on. If he doesn’t do it in 24 hours Litz will demote him to patrolman.
Captain Kane again reaches out to the Clock
on the Bat-Phone by short-wave radio and arranges another covert meeting. Kane fills in our hero, who then takes action. As Snowy Winters he learns that a hit-man named McGloin killed the Mayor but has been holed up since then, terrified to even spend the $10,000 he was paid. He’s convinced he’ll be murdered by the one who hired him – a masked man with a crown tattoo on his chest. Naturally the Clock captures McGloin, recovers all the evidence from the dead Mayor’s investigation and defeats the masked man with the crown tattoo, who, to the surprise of nobody, turns out to be Commissioner Litz.
19. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #15 (December 1938)
Title: Tony Malta
Villains: Tony Malta and Jake
Synopsis: When the Clock prevents Tony Malta and his fellow criminal Jake from robbing some priceless items from a museum, Tony wants the hero out of the way for good. He forces Jake to murder wealthy playboy Stanford Pell and frame the Clock for it (yes, AGAIN). Captain Kane puts aside his personal fondness for the masked man and orders a citywide manhunt (yes, AGAIN).
The Clock goes undercover as Snowy Winters (yes, AGAIN) and sniffs out leads. He corrals Jake, then, after talking him into turning State’s Evidence against Tony Malta, he finds and defeats Malta, too. He then calls Captain Kane to pick up both men for the Pell murder and the museum break-in.
20. FEATURE FUNNIES Vol 1 #16 (January 1939)
Title: The Mogol Diamond
Villains: The Boss, Chuck, Gyp Nolin and Slick Hart
Synopsis: On board a small yacht, “Chuck” and another hood who answer to an unnamed Boss, spot the S.S. Acquagal, on board which is the Mogol Diamond, on its way to Taffney & Son in New York City. Chuck sends a coded shortwave radio message to the Boss, Gyp Nolin and Slick Hart in a dilapidated building on the waterfront. The message lets them know that the Acquagal will be putting in soon. The Boss sends his underlings Gyp and Slick to follow the courier when they get past customs and steal the diamond.
Elsewhere, Brian O’Brien has intercepted the coded radio message and has been trying to decipher it. He eventually succeeds, like the detective he is (the world’s greatest, maybe), then gets in his Clock costume and drives off in an unregistered vehicle. Nolin and Hart rob the courier and drive off with the Mogol Diamond, with the Clock and his car chasing them. He catches up with them, then, after a game of vehicular chicken resulting in a crash that kills Nolin and Hart, the Clock recovers the diamond and returns it to the courier.
AND THAT’S TWENTY STORIES! AND BATMAN STILL WOULDN’T COME ALONG FOR FOUR MORE MONTHS! AND HIS ORIGIN WOULDN’T BE REVEALED UNTIL SIX MONTHS AFTER THAT!
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9 responses to “THE CLOCK: THE FIRST TWENTY STORIES FROM THE 1930s”
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I love this balladeer. All are clearly referenced depictions and Batman for one was ingenious with the writer’s clever analysis and excepted takes from the lineage of modern villains. Great share!💓👍👍
Thank you! Glad you noticed all the details!
It’s nearly impossible to find experienced people about this topic, however, you seem like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks
Good article! We are linking to this great post on our website. Keep up the great writing.
Just discovered your site while researching George Brenner’s The Clock and must congratulate you on an impressive bit of scholarship. Thank you, in fact!
I must question, however, your assertion that the first appearance of The Clock had to be in FUNNY PAGES #6 because, as you write, “he was unknown at the start of that tale.” Looking at that story in FUNNY PAGES #6, when The Clock makes his appearance in the last panels of page 2, the crooks all cry as one: “The Clock!” This gives the impression that our hero was far from “unknown” at this time.
Both FUNNY PICTURE STORIES #1 and FUNNY PAGES #6 are cover-dated November; the copyright date for FUNNY PICTURE STORIES is September 18, 1936, but none is recorded for FUNNY PAGES #6. Reading both stories in the two separate titles, there is little context that implies one occurs earlier than the other. (I agree that because the last panel in FUNNY PAGES #6 asks “Who is The Clock and what is his purpose?” that COULD imply readers have not encountered the character before.)
But whichever it was, your assessment and accounting of the series is admirably executed. Looking forward to checking out your other superhero pantheons. Keep up the good and noble work!
Thank you very much for the kind words! I went by the “Who is the Clock and what is his purpose” as the tie-breaker since I had to list one of the stories before the other. I agree, though, that it’s a coin-toss because the crooks in the other story recognize the Clock already. Hope you enjoy the other superhero articles, too!
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