Suspense Comics #3, up for auction at Comic Connect tonight, features an infamous Alex Schomburg cover for this 1944 comic book from a lesser known publisher Continental (it's complicated, but they used numerous other publishing names also) which also published titles such as Captain Aero Comics and Cat-Man Comics, among others. Suspense Comics is a short-lived suspense/horror title best known for some startling covers, particularly the cover of this issue, which has become one of the best known covers of the Golden Age. The Comic Connect description makes the case:
One of the classic images of the Golden Age, this Alex Schomburg cover can be described as a Nazi/Bondage/Horror/War hybrid. It's as striking today as it was in the 1940s and is listed in the Overstreet Price Guide as one of the Top 100 Golden Age books. Here you have the unforgettable image of a hooded Nazi holding a sword, ready to plunge it into the heaving breast of a captive woman in peril. Meanwhile, spear in hand, her would-be savior stands poised to strike at the dastardly soldiers gathered around a fire, as one of them makes a futile attempt to protect their ill-gotten prize. This book also features interior art by the legendary L.B. Cole.
One of the scarcest of Golden Age books, and one of the most instantly recognizable, we are happy to offer this stalwart example of pre-code weirdness at a grade that makes it attractive to buyers seeking to acquire a classic without raiding their savings, but remaining attractive and appealing enough to allow its striking cover imagery to deliver maximum impact.
It's pretty clear that the imagery comes from the hooded figures that became a symbol of fear and evil in the U.S. in the wake of the Civil War. The history of such imagery can be traced with a clear, bright line through the history of the country's media and fiction, but is vastly understudied and misunderstood.
I'm going to make this one far more brief than it should be, using some research and scans that I have at hand, but it goes something like this:
1871: The Invisible Empire, Not Really So Invisible, and That's the Point
In the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, the Klan recieved intense media scrutiny, particularly at the moment shown on this page from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper from October 7, 1871. The scene closely pre-figures what would become a familiar theme by the time Suspense Comics #3 came out some 75 years later, in that the contemplated murder here was interrupted by a Secret Service agent.
Later 1870-1880s: The Rise of the Vigilantes
If I had to pick the single most important yet unknown piece of American history that relates to comic books, it's the fact that men joined vigilante groups and put on costumes and masks all across the country within the generation of the parents of the people who would become the foundational comic book creators of the Golden Age. This is far from limited to the single group that we remember today: there were many groups in many areas of the country, with different aims which did not always fall along racial lines. There were groups that considered themselves heroes (of course, they weren't), allowed it to go to their heads, and thus inspired other vigilante groups to rise up to oppose them.
The group shown here in this 1888 issue of the Police Gazette was known as the White Caps, which originally formed when Indiana State Police seemed unable to stop the notorious Reno Gang. The original White Cap group lynched three members of the gang and subsequently spread across southern Indiana. As seen here, they also considered themselves a moral authority of sorts. We also see again here that the scene very closely prefigures the cover of Suspense Comics #3.
1890s-1900s: Fictional Fear
Having received media scrutiny, such figures now make the leap into children's fiction. Still figures to fear, but used in context as object lessons, rather than to outright frighten. As if to say: this is what evil looks like.
1905-1912: Fear in the Light of Day
At this point, things take an interesting turn. Having entered the realm of children's fiction, hooded villains then make a quick jump from frightening figures to figures of ridicule. It's important to note that this corresponds closely with the sharp rise of the practice of children dressing up for Halloween. Throwing on a sheet to try to scare someone is shown as a college prank or the idea of the bumbling idiot of a fictional story, for example. "I'd have gotten away with it if it wasn't for those meddling kids" comes to mind.
And ultimately, the dressing-in-sheets shorthand becomes even more streamlined as shown on the cover of American Indian #24 here.
Not quite so scary, anymore. Almost laughable. Just a short step away from… friendly ghosts.
Through media exposure and the jump to fiction, the culture had exposed and defused the hooded-figure iconography. It might have stayed that way, except that shortly after this, hooded evil got a reboot via propaganda starting in places like German magazine Jugend, and then here in the U.S. the infamous film Birth of a Nation. History as a weapon.
As I said at the top, the history of this iconography forms a clear, bright line through the history of the country itself. The culture almost instinctively brought it to light, took it apart, taught our children to know it when they saw it, and then ultimately de-powered it. There should be a hundred books about that. Somehow, there's none.
I like the fact that Suspense Comics #3 is so notorious that it's highly sought after by collectors. It's a hook into understanding how history works.