MASKED MYSTERY MEN

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been entertained, thrilled and fascinated by superheroes, masked mystery men (and women), costumed heroes or whatever you want to call them.  While the world is aware of Batman, Superman, Captain America, Spiderman and many others, most people, even in Britain, don’t know or remember the masked crime fighters who were created there. Their adventures appeared initially in weekly story papers and cheap books way before there was Superman – even before the greatest masked man, The Phantom.

Those story papers were the illustrated predecessors of anthology comic titles, some of which eventually converted to comic strips, with Girls’ Crystal, Rover, Wizard and Hotspur being examples

Imagine yourself back in 1927, standing at a newsagent shop window in any town or city in the UK and looking longingly at the cover of Boys’ Friend #1367 (pub. The Amalgamated Press).  Illustrated there is a scene from  the new serial entitled Flying Justice.

You’ve now handed over your 2d (2 pre-decimal pennies, sterling) and started to read the adventures of Roger Falcon.  Wrongly imprisoned for murder, he escapes and meets an old scientist.  This old boy has invented an amazing pair of wings and a control pack which allows the wearer not only to fly but also to control speed and manoeuvrability.  Roger is given the wings and to keep the inquisitive at bay, he adopts a mask resembling a bat’s head. Although the accompanying illustrations mostly depict him in a domino mask.  The scientist dies and Roger uses the wings and suit to right the wrongs done to him through the course of many exciting adventures.  Does any of this coupled with the tight black clothes ring any bells?

Another pre-Supes flying justicier is Thurston Kyle aka The Night Hawk who, unlike most other heroes does not keep his identity secret. 

Kyle is a scientist who invents a set of mechanical wings which he wears with a leather helmet, goggles and a black flying suit.  Garbed thus and armed with revolver and grenades he fights crime and mad scientists, including his most infamous enemy, The Phantom Foe. Kyle also has a band of sidekicks, one of whom, Snub Hawkins aka Sparrowhawk, dons a copy of the wings in the fight against crime.  The Night Hawk stories appeared as second features in The Nelson Lee Library of School Stories in the early 1930’s (pub. The Amalgamated Press)

Nelson Lee was one of many great detectives who appeared extensively in British fiction.  Most famous of these detectives were Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake and Dixon Hawke.  The last two having their own almost super-powered arch enemies in the form of Waldo The Wonder Man and Marko The Miracle Man respectively.  Dixon Hawke was created by the Scottish publisher D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd. and appeared in his own long-running series of mini pocket books and weekly newspapers.

The Nelson Lee Library was one of several story papers set in public schools and this genre was notable for having hooded, robed heroes, in the case of Nelson Lee it was The Phantom Protector, or The Hooded Unknown as he was also called.

Under the hood is Nipper, Nelson Lee’s assistant, a student at St. Frank’s School.  Nipper dons robe and hood to hide his identity while fighting tyranny at the school. 

In 1931 The Ranger (pub. The Amalgamated Press) hosted a new masked hero – Black Whip. Description: Black Whip.jpg

Good quality, high adventure and action are the hallmarks of this series, plus a striking costume.  Black Whip is secretly Buck Sinclair of the Secret Service – a great scrapper, fit and athletic, who carries and uses a whip to great effect.  An advert for the reprint in Boys’ Friend Library (1933)reads, “Gang law rules in Foundryland; over its great factories, its banks and crowded, busy streets, hangs the grim menace of the Terrors, caring nothing for the law – killing and plundering at will.  And then, like some mysterious, avenging shadow, Black Whip arrives……………..

A serial in The Rover in 1933 (pub. D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd.) titled The Flaming Avenger showed tenuous similarities to a well-known hero who turned up much later in American comics.  The Flaming Avenger is Mat Selwood, inventor and radio shop owner. 

This is another example of a hero who doesn’t try to hide his identity, he just rights wrongs. But the suit, the big iron suit, well, it is described as follows, “….his head covered by a helmet with two goggling eyes.  His chest bulged prodigiously; there was a hump on his back”.  The “hump” is a back pack with storage batteries to charge his metal suit.  An air hose runs from the mouth of the metal headpiece to the chest piece. And he wears metal gauntlets and boots.  He can shoot flames from the right index finger of his gauntlet.  Exciting stuff.

Delving further back, in a British “pulp” which wasn’t really a traditional American pulp, more an illustrated novelette with a coloured cover, The Iron Man made his appearance. 

Here, hiding his identity under light, flexible chainmail, black domino mask and carrying a revolver, Dick Murray sets out to battle gangsters, oriental villains and a giant snake. In common with many British publications of that era there is no date listed in the basic indicia by the publisher, Newnes.  However, the late Russell Aitken, an expert on pulps and British fiction, suggested that the book is of WW1 vintage.

Back in the weekly story papers from 1931 and 1932 Zero The Silent has his exploits described in Adventure (pub. D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd>)

Zero is secretly a disgraced former police officer who changes into a skin-tight black body suit with suckers on hands and feet, enabling him to climb almost anything. His standout weapon is a throwball on elastic, which he uses expertly to incapacitate bad guys.

Thunderbolt Jaxon is an interesting hero having originally, in 1949, been published in Australia. From 1958 to 1960, his adventures were reprinted in Knockout comics andannuals (pub. The Amalgamated Press) The strips were written and drawn in the U.K. for publication in Australia by A.P.  Their re-appearance in British books was followed in 1964 by a revamp for Buster and new strips were created with the title changed to Johnny Samson.

Young orphan Jack Jaxon possesses the Magic Belt of Thor and when he buckles it on, he transforms into the mighty Thunderbolt Jaxon.  There are a number of displaced body heroes, Marvelman being arguably the best known.

These and other mystery men of the time were the forerunners of characters who appeared in the numerous American look-a-like comics and weekly strip anthologies which were in circulation in the 1940’s, ‘50’s and ‘60’s.  Choosing a few examples from such a number is very difficult.  To many, these heroes will be unknown or at best, vaguely recognised.  While The Spider, Steel Claw, Robot Archie, Kelly’s Eye, Ace Hart and Marvelman are familiar, with reprints or downloads available, the same cannot be said for TNT Tom, Captain Atlas, Black Shadow, Spring Heeled Jackson, The Silent Three, Electro Girl, Maskman and many more – at least outwith the tight coterie of British comic fandom.

TNT Tom, for example is a schoolboy, short trousers and all, who gains super strength, invulnerability and other powers depending on the situation.

All of these are “due to an elixir given to him by some travellers from space.” Tom often seems to act in secret, so that the miscreants he catches or the people he helps, are mostly unaware of his existence. Despite neither his appearance or clothes changing, people don’t connect “the wonder boy” with Tom. As the stories progress, his cousin Tina also gains powers and joins in the adventures.  These tales came from a prolific publisher of comics and books, G. G. Swan, who was also responsible for Captain Atlas .  Honeywell, a slight, bespectacled lad, who works for the Gumshoe Detective Agency, takes one of Prof. Biggs power pills which endow him with colossal strength for twelve hours and changes him into Captain Atlas, who uses his super speed and strength to catch criminals. His costume, for want of a better description, has him still bespectacled in a bigger version of his everyday clothes, which seem to expand with him.  It’s a funny, silly, entertaining strip.  Both these heroes ran in weekly Swan comics and annuals in the 1950’s.

Returning to public school stories and the hooded protectors who seemed to populate their corridors, The Silent Three and a few others are worthy of note.  The Silent Three appeared for the first time in 1950 in School Friend (pub. The Amalgamated Press). This was a weekly girls’ comic which had started life as a story paper in 1919.  This trio is the most well known of an intriguing sub genre of hooded, masked, robed schoolboys or girls who costume up to fight petty crime and injustice, usually in or around their schools.

Whereas The Hooded Protector was a lone figure, the idea was revived a couple of years later in Nelson Lee weekly when Nipper and some school chums donned robes and hoods to become The Hooded Protectors.  In some ways – apart from the violence and anti-Semitism – this echoed the Bulldog Drummond story published in 1922 entitled The Black Gang by Sapper.  Drummond and his cronies adopt black robes and hoods in order to operate outside the law and fight corruption, money lending and crime.

Other teams include The Phantom Circle from Girls’ Crystal; The Green Feather (a reprint appeared in Schoolgirls’ Own Library in 1934); The Hooded Helpers (yet another version) and The Grey Ghosts also from Girls’ Crystal; The Secret Avengers from Schoolgirls’ Picture Library #1 and The Silent Shadows from Sally in 1970 whose adventures are set in occupied France during WW2.

There are a couple of characters who illustrate well the British masked mystery man in the weekly comics.  Firstly, Spring Heeled Jackson appeared in the Hornet and The Hotspur in the mid 1970’s (pub. D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd.) Although the strip is titled Spring Heeled Jackson, the hero is referred to in the stories as Spring-Heel Jack or The Leaper or The Leaping Terror .

He can leap prodigiously and his costume is bulletproof with clawed power gloves which give him increased strength. Mild-mannered, meek clerk at Ravell Row police station in Victorian London, John Jackson is the alter ego of Spring-Heeled Jack. He uses the terror-inducing name and a great costume to instil fear in criminals whilst secretly aiding the police, despite the local sergeant who is portrayed as being a particularly thick bully.

There is an odd sidebar to this entertaining, well drawn strip in that there is a female counterpart –  Spring Heeled Jill, who appeared in the weekly Debbie in the late 1970’s.

Spot the similarities – Jillian Smith, meek typist at Ravell Row police station in Victorian London; dresses in a super suit enabling her to leap; climb like a cat using special gloves and shoes; see like a cat; and the costume frightens the life out of bad guys. Despite both Jack and Jill being published by D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd. there are no crossovers, nor even acknowledgement of each other.

Secondly there is The Falcon who initially appeared inside and later on the cover of Radio Fun (pub. The Amalgamated Press) At the outset of his adventures he is simply an adventurer in everyday clothes of the period, but by the mid ‘50’s, he gains a bird-man suit which enables him to glide.

For the young readers of British comics, who lacked exposure to American comics before 1959, reading the adventures The Falcon and the other strangely garbed and masked heroes who fought crime and injustice was exciting.

All this barely scratches the surface of an extensive body of masked, costumed heroes and superheroes, all appearing in British story papers, weekly anthology comics, American look-a-like comics, cheap books and paperbacks, most of which have shuffled off this mortal coil. Fortunately in this digital age, many of these characters’ adventures are available on line, if you do a bit of digging for them. So, digital shovels at the ready to enjoy the exploits of Masterman; Ace Hart; The Masked Captain Conquest; Red Avenger; The Bat and so many more.