3 horrifying Golden Age adventures of your favorite DC superheroes
The Golden Age of Comic Books (the 1930s and 1940s) was a different, more innocent era. Oh sure, the world plunged into the most destructive conflict in mankind’s history, racism and violent oppression was a fact of life, and the Great Depression had teamed up with the Dust Bowl to leave life even more miserable, but… actually, I forget where I was going with that, but hey, they had comic books! As you all know, most of our modern day DC icons came about during this time: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and even the very first superhero group, the Justice Society (today, mostly famous for making Wonder Woman the secretary).
However, despite the innovations of the time, comic books were a relatively new medium, just a few years removed from the rather unseemly pulp magazines that were popular at the time (mostly consisting of uncomfortably pro-eugenics H.P. Lovecraft stories). With superhero fiction in its infancy, a lot of the early stories starring our heroes haven’t aged well, and not just because of the minstrel show levels of racism.
Today, we’re going to be looking at three comics from DC’s history that the publisher would rather pretend never happened, not because of the racism (though there’s a bit of that in there too), but because the stories are just so plain bizarre and unsettling that modern fans might wonder if they were some sort of Nazi attempt at psychological warfare.
1. Batman: Vampire Hunter
On the surface, this doesn’t sound like a weird setup, does it? Batman has fought vampires several times over the decades, so what does this story have that the others don’t? Well, for one thing, Batman uses a fucking gun!
It might be hard to see, because Bob Kane drew like a lemur with MS and comic paper quality in the ’30s was about one step above toilet paper, but that vague banana shape is supposed to be a gun.
Yes, Batman was a good deal less of a stickler about not killing off criminals in his early days, but even then, he generally didn’t set out to commit premeditated murder. In this story (Detective Comics #32-33, 1939), Batman encounters a figure known as the Monk, who eventually turns out to be a powerful vampire, who ensnares Bruce Wayne’s fiancée Julie. Though for some reason, rather than turn her into a vampire as well, he wants to make her into a werewolf. Yes, apparently vampires can do that.
Aside from its almost comical level of violence, the story is mostly notable for being the first multi-issue storyline Batman had ever appeared in (with the stories before this all being self-contained adventures), and for being a rather surprising turn away from the previous relatively down-to-earth pulp action (not counting the lunatic in the bat costume). Despite this, it was the last we would ever see of the Monk for over 60 years, Batman having apparently decided that the “no killing” rule doesn’t count with undead abominations in red KKK robes.
The Monk would finally appear again in 2006 as part of Matt Wagner’s Dark Moon Rising series, a modern retelling of both this story and the equally violent “Batman and the Monster Men”, which also had Batman engage in a killing spree because his enemies were just inhuman enough to allow Batman to still be the hero even though he basically shot a guy in his sleep.
2. Wonder Woman’s Creepy Christmas
You can’t tell the story of Golden Age Wonder Woman without going into her origins. She’s the creation of psychologist William Moulton Marston, a bondage enthusiast who created Wonder Woman as a way of exploring bondage and gender themes. As a result, his Wonder Woman stories are completely bonkers, even for an era that was mostly about “slapping Japs” and buying war bonds. Marston believed that bondage was the key to world peace, a theme he put into his stories in a way that was totally appropriate for a kids’ comic book.
However, as disturbing as the rest of the stories were, they pale in comparison to “Diana’s Day,” which reads like a Christmas special as written by David Lynch during his Eraserhead days. The story takes place on Themyscira during Diana’s Day, a celebration of the goddess of the hunt. As part of the festivities, the Amazons take turns each year wearing the mask of Diana, with WW herself being chosen this year. Part of the tradition revolves around trying to unmask the person playing Diana, and if you fail, you get tied up, which seems kind of superfluous since that’s pretty much how every interaction ended in these comics.
Of course, that’s when things get really fucked up. The people who fail to unmask Diana have to pay a penalty, and I can guarantee you that no matter what you’re thinking, the reality is a hundred times worse. The losers are dressed up as wild animals, put into a fake pie, and left overnight in what looks like Thanksgiving prep from Hell, or one of those later episodes of Hell’s Kitchen when Gordon Ramsey’s sadism got creative. Just to specify, they aren’t eaten or anything; no one is hurt (well, there’s mental scarring, but that’s only for the readers). The entire ritual is just an uncomfortable spectacle of surrealism, in a series that already thrived on making you wonder if you were having some sort of acid flashback.
For some reason, DC never revisited the idea of Diana’s Day, preferring to keep their modern day perversions limited to how much cleavage they could give Wonder Woman without turning the book into softcore porn.
3. Captain Marvel Goes Friday the 13th
While he remains a popular character today, there was a time when Captain Marvel (the Shazam one, not the other one Marvel made up just to steal the trademark) was literally the biggest name in superhero comics, outselling even Superman, which took some doing considering that Superman had like three different titles at the time. Of course, this all came crashing down when DC sued Fawcett Comics in 1953 for allegedly ripping off Superman. Let that be a lesson, kids! If you can’t beat someone’s superior product, just cripple them with legal bullying!
For the most part, Captain Marvel comics were a good deal more humorous than the standard superhero fare, focusing more on imaginative characters and plots than fighting… that is, until the Golden Age of Comics was winding down at the end of the ’40s and reader tastes turned rather macabre, with crime and horror comics gaining in popularity. For some reason, Fawcett decided to try and inject some of those darker type of stories into the Captain Marvel’s cartoonishly cheerful world, eventually culminating in a bizarre story titled “The Hideous Head-Hunter”.
Set during the Korean War (complete with horrifically racist portrayals of Chinese soldiers, of course), this story features Captain Marvel getting news that someone is decapitating combatants on both sides in Korea, and he eventually discovers it to be the work of a deranged hunter/serial killer who apparently didn’t think that war was thrilling enough and decided to start treating it like one of those censored episodes of Survivor, stalking the soldiers and cutting off their heads as trophies. So now we’ve gone from a series about talking tigers and helping orphans to a bag full of severed heads, like an original HBO series.
So how do you best conclude a story about a mass murderer and the horrors of war? Why, with an awful head pun of course! Stay classy, 1950s comic books!