A new feature at the Outhouse, Obscure Dave takes a look at some great Golden Age Comics you've never heard of.
By Obscure Dave
Given that three groups of brutal conquers were trying to take over the world (the Nazis, the Japanese Imperialists, the Soviets), it's hard to describe the 1940s as a more innocent time.
However, for the United States the 1940s was--- politically speaking--- a simpler time. In this era, America's internal operations were seldom questioned openly. Whatever irregularities or corruptions might exist in our electoral process, whatever injustices were inherent in our legal codes, whatever reason we had to suspect authority of impure motives, it wasn't important. The villains within our own power structure were angels of light compared to the goons and ghouls within the Russian, German and Japanese governments.
This is the premise of Mr. District Attorney. The title characters' state-backed authority makes him so inherently good and powerful he doesn't even need to have a name. He may put on a suit to fight crime, but he has no need of a secret identity. He's not a mild mannered journalist like Superman, he's not a college kid like Peter Parker, he's not a secret former cop like The Spirit, or an entrepreneur like Bruce Wayne. Mr. District Attorney simply is.
Everyone around him recognizes his singular greatness. Thugs, businessmen, reporters, fellow cops, EVERYONE.
A mob boss greets him in the fashion a supervillain might greet a superhero. "Mister District Attorney," says a mob boss on page 4, "I've been wantin' to meet up with you for a long time. You're one guy I'm gonna take pleasure in wipin' out!"
The mob boss doesn't get to "wipe out" Mr. District Attorney.
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The media knows it. "DISTRICT ATTORNEY and assistant Harrington WIPE OUT CAR THIEF GANG SINGLE HANDED" (They printed the mention of Harrington much smaller, perhaps because it contradicts the phrase "single handed").
Even sleazy nightclub managers know it. A club boss looks genuinely awed as he says "Mr. District Attorney! This is an honor... didn't think you frequented night clubs."
So what kind of people would create such a WWII era camp relic? The copyright belongs to Phillips H. Lord. Lord was an actor, writer and producer for radio television and film. He was perhaps best known for his radio serial Gang Busters, which this comic is based on. In premise, Gang Busters was similar to Dragnet. It was a feature that claimed to portray crime cases "ripped from the headlines" but took a great deal of dramatic license.
The artists themselves are relatively well known as well. The credited artists in this comic are Maurice Kabusha and Jim Chambers. Both of these creators worked on important DC titles at the legendary publishing house's inception in the 30s. Although Kashuba dropped off the radar after the 1940s, Chambers continued to work for DC and other publishing companies as an artist, editor and writer into the modern era. One of Chambers' most recent comics-credit appearances was on the excellent 2002 "World Class Comics", published by Image. Appropriately, World Class Comics is a loving tribute to campy golden age hero books such as Mr. District Attorney. It must be wonderful to stay in the entertainment industry long enough to write homages to classic genres one also helped shape.
For all of this book's historical value and charm, and in spite of the creator's impressive resumes, the content itself is unremarkable. Ranging from "So bad it's good" and "so bad it's really bad", I found it difficult to read through all 64 pages of content so I could review the book.
Here is an outline of the greatest points of interest in this book, listed by page:
Page 1: The (probably) Phillips Lord penned worshipful introduction of our heroic supercop: "Champion of the people, defender of truth, guardian of our fundamental rights of live, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The writers repeat this line as often as they can throughout the book.
Page 2: Great line form our hero, spoken to his assistant/the audience: "Stealing cars is bad enough... but when they start to kill for them... It's time to REALLY get busy!"
Page 5: Great line from one of the villains, a mob boss: "Keep back boys... Let him take me... I'd rather go to jail than die with a slug in my back."
Pages 7 thru 12: Hilarious ethnic stereotypes as Mr. DA is hot on the trail of Brititsh gentleman thug English Eddie, aided by Italian thug-turned-snitch Tony Galdoni.
Pages 13 thru 18: This story is much more "ripped from a game of Clue" than "ripped from the headlines". Someone has been murdered in the home of local socialite "the rich and screwy Elma Blake". Who did it? The DA thinks he knows, and gathers all in one room to (melo)dramatically finger the perp. Hilarity ensues.
Pages 25 thru 30: Having already stereotyped Eurotrash and the wealthy white, scientists get their turn. The mafia has stolen a biological fruit rotting agent so they can ruin the wares of grocers who don't pay protection. Our Hero turns to the scientists who created it for help. Not that he needs it.
Page 39: Although this book has very little characterization, here we learn that Harrington, Mister District Attorney's bowler-hat wearing assistant, used to be a truck driver. He uses this knowledge to go undercover with Our Hero and infiltrate a group of truck hijackers.
Pages 43 through 49: Our Hero takes on the fifth columnists. In real life, these are the suspected active sympathizers to the Nazis within the U.S. during Word War II. In the much more morally defined world of Mr. District Attorney, the Fifth Columnists are a known group of organized criminals. In spite of being Nazis, they have German names and work as labor agitators. Very interesting twist on the actual historical context.
Page 60: Mr. District Attorney delivers my favorite line in the book: "It's too bad none of you had the guts to get an honest job. NOW YOU'LL ALL GET THE CHAIR!"
It's hard to describe this as a good book. It is however, a very interesting book, and well worth tracking down if you can. Likewise, it's definitely worth tracking down other works by the artists, and the visuals in this book are well-disciplined and gorgeous. I haven't found this particular issue for sale online, although you can download scans of it here:
Although this book was a one-shot published by Dell Comics in 1943, Mr. District Attorney wound up getting his own series. These are the most affordable original printings I've been able to find on the Web: http://www.mycomicshop.com/search?TID=230681
Ebay also usually has some of the adventures of Lord's supercop, although prices vary from week to week: http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=p5197.m570.l1313&_nkw=Mr+District+Attorney&_sacat=See-All-Categories
Here is a book on Phillips H. Lord and the "true crime" genre he helped start: http://www.amazon.com/Gang-Busters-Fighters-American-Broadcasting/dp/0970331061/ref=tag_dpp_lp_edpp_ttl_in
See how far Jim Chambers has come. Order a copy of World Class Comics here: http://milehighcomics.com/cgi-bin/backissue.cgi?action=list&title=97114915812&snumber=1
Written or Contributed by: Obscure Dave, Outhouse Contributor