Saturday, November 20, 2010

Out of the Vault - The Scorpion #3

In the mid-70's, Marvel Comics founder Martin Goodman started up a new comics company called Atlas Comics. The company attracted a lot of big-name talent thanks to generous rates, secured nationwide newsstand distribution and put out a flurry of interesting, if derivative, titles. It folded within a year, with most of its 23 titles running fewer than 4 issues. You can read the entire story here, if you're interested.

But one phenomenon occurred as the company was flailing: what is referred to on Wikipedia as the "Third Issue Switch."Basically, publisher Martin Goodman demanded that several titles be changed to become more like Marvel, because he knew that Marvel titles sold well. The issue pictured here, The Scorpion #3 cover-dated July 1975, is one example of the switch.

You see, the Scorpion, as created by Howard Chaykin (who has made appearances in Out of the Vault before, and will again), was a 30's era pulp-style man of action, an immortal hero-for-hire named Moro Frost who fought crime with fists and pistols. But Chaykin left the character after two issues and a new team was brought on board.

Writer Gabe Levy and artist Jim Craig begin their mission to modernize and Marvelize the character by killing him off on the first page. Moro Frost is shot down by Nazis over Italy, though no body is ever found. Thirty years later, The Artist Formerly Known as Moro Frost is now crusading journalist David Harper, editor and publisher of the Daily Times. By night, he fights crime as The Scorpion!

Having explained away the changes on page one, Levy and Craig begin the story proper on page two, as a rabbi and his daughter prepare for Sabbath. But suddenly, armed intruders break in, wearing very familiar outfits.

Yeah, I know the caption says "the familiar Gestapo uniform," but the uniforms themselves look more like agents of Marvel's Hydra. But even that is not what prompted me to scan this panel. The daughter's face on the right is rendered in a very familiar style, and it's not that of Jim Craig, whoever he is. That is totally a Jim Mooney face; his style is unmistakeable (Mooney was a long-time comics artist who worked on, among other things, Omega the Unknown, featured in the very first Out of the Vault). Mooney apparently inked the issue without credit.

The Nazis, led by a Red Skull-type figure named the Golden Fuhrer, kidnap the rabbi with the intention of forcing him to resurrect the dead leaders of the Third Reich. The rabbi protests that even if he could, he would refuse to help Nazis. So the Nazis go back and kidnap his daughter to pressure the rabbi into helping them.

Why not just kidnap both at once? Because then the daughter, who just happens to be a reporter for the Daily Times, would not be able to bring the Scorpion into the story. Before she is kidnapped, Sara pays a visit to David Harper, who is wrestling with the state of the world.

A little historical perspective: President Richard Nixon had just resigned the year before as a result of the Watergate investigation. And because the President had used the CIA to facilitate the cover-up, the CIA itself fell under increased scrutiny, which brought more disturbing details to light over the next couple of years.

So having David Harper fume about the "fascistic" CIA was just lazy shorthand for "he cares deeply about the state of the world." Although you have to wonder, if he's powerful and important enough that he can just have his secretary call up the President on the spur of the moment, why is he wasting his time putting on tights to fight crime?

Then again, we don't ever see him actually talking to the President. Maybe the President won't take his call. Maybe he's just thought of as a muckraker or a crank. Maybe he's simply delusional to think he can just give the President a stern talking to and suddenly, the CIA will be fixed.

But for now, he listens to Sara's story about Nazis and advises her to let the police handle it. He also plants a tracking device in her purse to keep tabs on her in case she ignores his advice. She returns home, having fulfilled her plot function, and is promptly kidnapped by the Hydra-Nazis, dropping her purse.

Meanwhile, the rabbi, who really can't resurrect the dead, decides that his only option is to play along and pretend to resurrect the men, while actually using his magical powers to summon forth a golem he's been building in his basement (he's been worried about neo-Nazis, you see, and he was right).

Back at the paper, David Harper checks his tracker to see that Sara is at her home. He decides to drop by in costume anyway, and we get our first glimpse of the new Scorpion in action. Does this remind you of anyone?

The Scorpion arrives at Sara's house to find her purse on the pavement outside. After briefly comparing his bugging skills to those of the bungling Watergate plumbers (yes, again--what can I say? this was just part of the national consciousness then), the Scorpion wonders how to find Sara and her father when the golem bursts out of the house. The Scorpion tries to stop the thing, but it is too strong, and soon, he is helpless in its grip. But instead of killing him, the golem transmits an image into his mind, of the sewage to energy converter in the basement of the World Trade Center (which was also fairly new at the time, the second of the towers having been completed only four years before). The golem then tosses the Scorpion aside and takes the subway tunnels to the WTC complex.

The Scorpion races ahead and starts fighting Hydrazis as the Golden Fuhrer rants ineffectually. When the golem shows up, controlled by a mental link with the old rabbi, things get messy.

These panels illustrate what's good and bad in the art for this issue. On the one hand, the figures in the bottom panels are stilted and the layout's a little off. On the other hand, I really like the panels at top right where the Golden Fuhrer's being dragged away. I love Mooney's inks on that outstretched arm.

Anyway, the Golden Fuhrer, about whom we learned nothing interesting, dies not with a bang nor a whimper, but a splat. And then the golem smashes open the sewage pipes, causing the underground complex to flood. The Scorpion saves the rabbi and his daughter and then swings away to spend one panel contemplating intolerance. A note at the bottom of the panel says to look for the next issue on June 1st (newsstand comics generally came out a couple of months in advance of the cover date), but it was not to be. This was the Scorpion's final adventure.

But in an irony to end all ironies, the character survived in another form. Not the generic Batman-Spiderman clone created to make the character more like a Marvel comic, but the original 30's adventurer created by Howard Chaykin. Chaykin renamed the character Dominic Fortune and took him to, you guessed it, Marvel Comics. At around the same time as the Scorpion's final issue was coming out, or not long after, Dominic Fortune made his first appearance in the black-and-white magazine Marvel Preview.

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