A macabre title for a slightly morbid story…
We all know now Captain America was the First Avenger: two-fisted District Attorney Grant Gardner who, with pistol and motorcycle, thwarts the schemes of the sinister Scarab, assisted by his plucky Girl Friday. Don’t we?
What? Captain America is a goldbrickin’ GI named Steve Rogers who sneaks out of camp with feisty army mascot Bucky to punch Hitler on the jaw? He even has dinky wings attached to his mask! Not in this chapter play, buddy!
Over the last couple of years, I’ve recreated the Seventies festive thrill of black and white Flash Gordon movie serials on BBC tv with dvds featuring the likes of Captain Marvel and the Shadow. For 2014, I tracked down Captain America, which I’d first read about circa 1974-75 in Foom Magazine. An article there told of its melodramatic chapter titles: “Blade of Wrath”! “Mechanical Executioner”! “Wholesale Destruction”! “Cremation in the Clouds”!
I’ve subsequently read some commentary that suggests this serial was in fact originally a vehicle for Mr. Scarlet, a Fawcett crimebuster I first saw in ENB’s JLA/JSA/Shazam team-up of the mid-70s. I have to confess I’ve only read two-thirds of it- the second issue in the early 80s from the Exchange and Mart and the first ( when quite drunk) in the late 90s.
Mr. Scarlet, very much in the Batman mould, was a DA in his civilian life with an alliterative name. Like Cap, he was also a creation of Jack Kirby and another writer- in this case, France Herron, who co-created the Red Skul ( and Clock King)l. Further evidence to strengthen the case is surely the chapter title “The Scarlet Shroud?”
Mr. Scarlet wasn’t a very popular character but more significantly, he may have been tainted by associations with the legal battle over Superman and Capt. Marvel. Perhaps Republic quietly replaced the Crimson Crimefighter with the star-spangled Cap instead.
Burly divorcee Dick Purcell looks older than 35 and seems an odd choice for the super-soldier, with his receding hairline and nasal voice. I think he would’ve made a better Alan Scott/ Green Lantern. Tragically, he died in the locker room of his country club, shortly before the serial was released- it’s suggested that the strain of filming on his heart had been fatal.
Unusually, the identity of the villain in this serial is no secret, unlike the Scorpion or the Black Tiger. Professor Maldor, the Scarab, is Lionel Atwill, Rathbone’s second Moriarty and the one-armed inspector in Son of Frankenstein. Atwill, too, died after the serial was completed- two years later, in fact.
His character is a condescending sadist who lashes one senior captive and threatens to mummify Gail Richards ( Lorna Gray, nee Virginia Pound and later Adrian Booth-the woman had as many aliases as Bruce Wayne!) The Scarab’s name and arsenal suggest Egyptology but instead-oddly- he’s an expert on Mayans ( called Maye-ANNS here).
The serial is full of fist-fights, explosions and madcap inventions like the Dynamic Vibrator. For me, however, The Masked Marvel is the better serial.
It pits a quartet of insurance investigators against fey Japoteur Sakima. Two of the young(-ish) heroes are killed off, surprisingly, in later episodes and the mystery of the secret identity of the Spirit-like hero is only revealed in the final chapter ( although it’s obviously never going to be the husky older one). I like MM’s hugely elaborate and impratical calling card- a series of vinyl records with a domino mask label through which he communicates with his allies.
Sakima is a lesser villain than the Scarab or the fiendish Prince Daka but there is something more plausible about the boyish and diminutive Japanese agent, hidden under the very feet of his enemies . At twelve chapters, this serial is shorter than Captain America; it feels both more inventive and less chaotic and sprawling.
Coming soon: Some Fantastic Posts on DC’s new Teen Titans Graphic Novel and The Highest Science.
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