Hercules, Modern Champion of Justice

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Hercules, Modern Champion of Justice

Hercules, Modern Champion of Justice was a short lived super-hero series in Blue Ribbon Comics. It only lasted five issues, all of which are discussed in this article. It starred the ancient Greek hero Hercules. The stories were set in modern day America, and showed Hercules battling realistically portrayed villains of modern times, such as corrupt civic leaders and Nazi spies. Each story cleverly tied in with one of the ancient Labors of Hercules. Although there were 12 such Labors in Greek Mythology, only five of them got turned into comic book stories. The series is a pleasant experiment. The tales are colorful, although not brilliant, and make pleasant reading. It is unfortunate that the series did not last longer.

The series is not to be confused with the somewhat longer running series of Hercules super-hero tales that appeared in Hit Comics, debuting in July 1940, one month after Hercules, Modern Champion of Justice tales. The two series have nothing to do with one another. Also, during 1939-1940, Agatha Christie published a series of 12 prose mystery short stories in a British magazine, in which her famed sleuth Hercule Poirot solved cases based on the Labors of Hercules. They were later collected in book form as The Labors of Hercules. So there was much contemporary interest in modern versions of Hercules and his Labors during this period.

Hercules Slays the Lion of Nemea (#4, June 1940). Writer: Joe Blair. Art: Ed Wexler. Hercules battles gangster Leo Nymia. The origin of Hercules. This origin tale is the weakest of the whole series. It simply sends Hercules to Earth, where he is a naive baffled person who eventually fights gangsters. It does create the basic idea of the series.

It establishes Hercules' costume: white trunks, wide red belt, shiny black boots, bare chest, a costume that represents both Hercules' traditional Greek garb, and his super-hero costume. While such tall black boots were unknown in Ancient Greece, they are de rigueur for comic book super-heroes. Their heaviness and size makes an odd, conspicuous contrast with Hercules' bare chest.

It has an interesting last panel, where Hercules takes and wears the clothes of defeated gangster Leo Nymia, just as Hercules in Greek mythology took and wore the pelt of the Nemean Lion. These clothes will play a role in the second, and much better story. Throughout the series, Hercules will alternate between good suits, such as the one he takes here from Leo Nymia, and his super-hero costume.

Hercules Slaying the Hydra of Lerna (1940). Writer: Joe Blair. Art: Ed Wexler. Hercules battle the corrupt racketeers known as the Nameless Nine, who run the state of Missiansas and its capitol Midwest City. This story looks at civic corruption, a perennial concern of both 1930's mystery pulp magazines and early comic books. The Nameless Nine are the faceless men who run the government political machine behind the scenes. Hercules has to identify them, and destroy their power. This is the modern day equivalent of his cutting off the nine heads of the Hydra, one of the ancient 12 Labors of Hercules.

This story shows Hercules summoned to visit Zeus, king of the Greek gods in Greek mythology, at his home on Mount Olympus. Such visits would also be a regular part of the life of Captain Marvel.

This story introduces Henry Doyle, the honest candidate for the state's governor, and his daughter Betty. Betty will return in the next tale, "Hercules Cleans the Stables of King Augeias".

Throughout the tale, Hercules is basically selling himself and his ideas to different groups of men. The scene where he sells himself to a room full of uniformed cops is especially interesting. Hercules turns into someone they really respect.

Hercules Cleans the Stables of King Augeias (1940). Writer: Joe Blair. Art: Ed Wexler. Hercules goes after gangsters who fix horse races. This is the weakest and most conventional of the later Hercules stories, although it has some charm. It shows some cleverness in its parallels between the ancient and modern labors of Hercules.

There are some good portraits of Hercules. He is a refined hero in his suit, looking like the Arrow Collar Man. Throughout the series, there are suggestions that Hercules fits into roles exemplifying conventional male attractiveness. Here, he looks picture perfect in a suit. His hair is also perfectly groomed. He embodies the images of masculine attractiveness represented by male images in advertising, such as the Arrow Collar Man. Similarly, when he is dressed in his super-hero costume, his bare chest and white trunks are those of a traditional circus strongman, another idealized image of conventional male appeal. Much is made here of Hercules finding his suit too constraining, thus causing him to shed it in favor of his trunks for his big fight with the crooks.

Hercules Captures the Boar of Erymanthus (1940). Writer: Joe Blair. Art: Ed Wexler. Hercules battles spies from the country of Bundania, who plan to form a fifth column within the United States. Bundania is a thinly disguised version of Nazi Germany - the Bundanians talk with German accents, and give each other the Nazi salute. The name is a reference to the Nazi Bunds, pro-Nazi organizations that Hitler founded in the United States that American Nazi sympathizers could join. These Bunds were deeply hated by many comic book creators of the era, and with good reason - they were horrendous pro-Nazi organizations in the United States. Comic book heroes Red, White and Blue fought such Bunds in "The Terrapin" (All-American Comics #8, November 1939). In the previous issue of Blue Ribbon Comics, Joe Blair's Rang-A-Tang had fought similar Nazi-like villains called Bundonians, in "Richy, the Amazing Boy" (Blue Ribbon Comics #6, September 1940). This story also refers to them as Bundsters. For some reason, the Rang-A-Tang tale spells this as Bundonians, with an "o", while the Hercules story has Bundanians, with an "a".

Hercules Routs the Fierce Unconquered Amazons (1941). Writer: Joe Blair. Art: Mort Meskin. Hercules fights a woman who heads a gang of jewel thieves. The tough woman leads an all-male gang of jewel thieves, and is tougher than any of them. Later that year, Frank Woodruff's film Lady Scarface (1941) would depict a similar female gang leader, played by Dame Judith Anderson.

There are signs here that Blair is trying to introduce some continuing characters into the series. Natcha, the woman jewel thief gang leader, looks as if she might become an ongoing antagonist in the tales, the way the Witch was in the King stories. And the honest jeweler who is robbed in this tale looks as if he will become Hercules' sidekick. Hercules calls him Little Zooey. However, this is the last story in the series, and these plans came to nothing. Still, it makes for a good story.

The tale has surreal elements. There is much talk today about the "male gaze" in film criticism: this is men looking at women as sex objects, and the structuring of films around such male looks. This story does the reverse: it has the female gang leader here looking at Hercules as a sex object. This scene, and what flows from it, seems distinctly strange and surreal. The scene is full of odd touches, which in turn get odder and odder as the story progresses. Eventually, the story erupts in full blown surrealism. Blair and Meskin show real originality with these passages.

The rubber beach toy carried by Hercules here is an especially strange touch. It conveys a perverse sense of infantile behavior, further underscoring Hercules' position as an object of desire. It also serves as a phallic symbol, emphasizing Hercules' appeal.