Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Seasonal Comic Spotlight: The Scarecrow

There aren't many characters that are themed as scarecrows in comics and that's a crying shame.  The most famous of course is probably DC Comics's Batman villain the Scarecrow, but Marvel has a villainous Scarecrow as well.  In 1975, however Marvel tried out a heroic Scarecrow.  Sadly the character didn't last very long, and although it still exists in some form today, it is by no means an A List character.  Which is a shame because I quite like the character.

"Laugh not, mortals, for I am not an onion man...I am the Scarecrow!"
Why should the scarecrow be a villainous character?  Is not the purpose of the scarecrow to protect?  Does it not protect our crops from harm?  Yet Halloween imagery is replete with both happy and monstrous scarecrows.  Comics, on the other hand, tend toward the villainous model making scarecrows a symbol of fear and evil.
Jonathan Crane, DC's Scarecrow, who first appeared in comics in 1941, but really gained his popularity during the Silver Age. 
DC's Scarecrow (above) is a master of fear.  Although he has been changed over time to include some martial arts skills, he is primarily a psychological villain that uses fear gas to overcome his victims.  He delights in sowing fear.  He's a jerk.

In 1975, Marvel tried a different tactic by introducing a somewhat heroic Scarecrow in issue 11 of Dead of Night.  The comic was originally of the anthology type and reprinted older stories but issue 11 featured the debut of a new horror character.  It was also the last issue.  I'm not suggesting those two things are related in any way.

In the 70s Marvel had a slew of horror comics.  In 1971 the Comics Code Authority had relaxed its standards a bit allowing the use of classic monsters as long as they were presented in the manner of their literary forebears, such as Frankenstein and Dracula.  This allowed the company to produce reprints of work that had been published pre-Code from when the company was Atlas, and it allowed the introduction of new horror comics such as Tomb of Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster.  It was also the New Age era and interest had shifted from science fiction back to supernatural stories.  In the Golden Age plenty of supernatural characters had existed.  It was common for a hero to gain their powers through a magic talisman or through studies of the mystic arts.  Marvel's own Doctor Strange appeared in the 60s and had great appeal with the late 60s college crowd who were involved in various counterculture practices.  The New Age 70s brought a wave of supernatural characters to Marvel's stable, some of which still exist today, like Ghost Rider, whose covers proclaimed him "the most supernatural hero of all".  In these early to mid 70s comics Marvel did not shy away from Satanism either.  Later characters identified as or with Satan would become Mephisto and various other extra-dimensional entities that simply convinced humans they were the Adversary.  We can say then that the New Age was the Bronze Age of Comics.  At least at Marvel.  (You know, there is a whole post I could do about the New Age Bronze Era supernatural comics, and I just might)
Dead of Night #11 (above) was the first appearance of the supernatural Scarecrow.  The character inhabits a mysterious painting won at auction by Soho artist Jess Duncan and is the sworn foe of a demonic cult that worships a being called Kalumai.  Jess Duncan, his brother Dave (a straight-laced reporter type) and Jess's girlfriend Harmony are set upon by cultists of Kalumai who knock the brothers unconscious and kidnap the girl for sacrifice.  After they leave Dave is seen staggering out of the loft and shortly thereafter the Scarecrow appears and destroys the cultists.  The story ends with the trio looking at the painting.  During the issue the Scarecrow displays strength, agility, the ability to control trees, crows, and an otherwordly laugh that drives men mad. The issue also set up the basic premise that the Scarecrow painting was painted over the Kalumai painting to serve as a guardian to stop Kalumai from coming to Earth.  He never speaks.
Marvel Spotlight #26 marked the second appearance of the Scarecrow and continued the basic story-line from Dead of Night #11 with the trio of the Duncan brothers and Harmony and the mystical painting of the Scarecrow.  As a comic series, Marvel Spotlight was used to launch the careers of several of Marvel's horror stars including the Ghost Rider, Werewolf By Night and Son of Satan.  Those three proved popular enough to get their own titles, but not our boy Scarecrow, sadly.  Perhaps this was because Jack Russel, Johnny Blaze and Daimon Hellstrom were all sympathetic monsters, fighting against their evil natures/curses and they could talk, while the Scarecrow seemed to enjoy his task of fighting demons and said nary a word.  Apparently (according to research) fans liked the Scarecrow, as letters and interest were positive, but this did not generate or warrant a series.  Genius.
In this adventure the Scarecrow demonstrated that he can apparently command sea life and affect elements.  I think he was just non-specifically magical, to be honest.  We continue to suspect that he is somehow tied to Dave Duncan and Harmony is again menaced.  It is also revealed that his Kryptonite is fire, naturally.  Well, he is made of straw, right?  The issue ended with a to be continued someday note.  The next issue of Marvel Spotlight featured the Sub-Mariner, by the way.
I know it looks like the Human Torch is blasting that orange dickbag, but it's not what it seems.  Also, fire again?  Scarecrow is either the bravest man of straw ever or completely unaware of his main weakness.  Well that and verbal communication. 
Confession time: I hate the Thing.  I dislike most Marvel Comics characters to be honest.  I loathe the entire Fantastic Four, and that includes the Thing.  The few Marvel characters I do like all end up cancelled or screwed with royally as well.  Marvel Two-In-One was a series that teamed up the Thing with a different Marvel character each issue.  Two-In-One #18 marked the last appearance of the Scarecrow in the 1970s and his last appearance before the character was re-written in a manner I find most unfitting.
In keeping with the concept of such team up books, the Thing is shoehorned into the lives of Jess, Dave and Harmony via his girlfriend, Alicia Masters.  They are attending a late night art showing at Jess's Soho loft where Jess and Harmony ask Thing to help them with this Scarecrow business.  Grimm decides he doesn't believe their tale.  It's a bunch of hooey.  This is a guy that has fought Galactus, time traveled where he became Blackbeard and admitted to himself in that very issue that he'd met the Son of Satan just four issues before, but he finds the Scarecrow from a painting and a run of the mill demon cult just a little too hard to swallow, like a hedgehog canape.  So naturally a party goer is transformed into a fire demon and the Scarecrow shows up and he and the Thing fight the demon.  Scarecrow demonstrates the ability to control weather by summoning a flash flood and to control darkness.  The demonic fire of the villain burns up the scarecrow painting and the Kalumai painting underneath and Scarecrow disappears into the ruined painting seemingly forever.  Jess and Harmony are stunned and give voice to their belief that Dave was the Scarecrow.  Dave is missing as the issue and the original career of the supernatural hero both come to a close. The issue is mostly bad and no way to end Scarecrow's story. The writing is pedestrian at best. Throughout Scarecrow's three appearances there is much discontinuity. Sometimes Jess says Dave is the elder brother, sometimes Dave says Jess is and sometimes Dave is given a different surname from Jess. The House of Ideas was famous for churning out work in a sweatshop style so I assume this was just a result of that sloppy work style. For all of the flaws, however, the 70s version was far superior to what was to come and derserved more appearances.

Dr. Strange 38-40 featured the Fear Lords, a group of extra dimensional beings, demons if you like, that represent aspects of fear as the villains.  These Fear Lords were plotting to scare the hell out of people or something.  Whatever cosmic beings do, since they don't rob banks.*  Scarecrow, now revealed to definitively not be Dave Duncan, appears but is called Strawman.  I refuse to call the character Strawman.  Not only do I think Scarecrow was a better and more apt name for the character, I don't like his name suggesting that he is a token that is easily defeated.  Unlike the other Fear Lords, Scarecrow seemed to be helping humanity and aided Dr. Strange in his struggle.  It was hardly a stellar appearance for such a great character.  In fact it was downright depressing.  However it is worth mentioning that in Dr. Strange #32, in a flashback, it was revealed that the Scarecrow completed his original mission of defeating the demon lord Kalumai, so that's good.  I guess.**

A meeting of the Fear Lords***

His look stayed much the same but the art was just better in the 70s.  The tighter lines give Scarecrow a rougher look.  He's too bright in the 90s.  Not spooky enough.  His head is too round as well.  I like the onion look of the old days and the reddish eyes better than white-no-pupils.
See that?  That is a character expressing his existential anguish over how he was royally boned by the company that created him.
Not counting the Fear Lords story-line, the Scarecrow had all the powers you'd expect from a scarecrow, assuming you expected a scarecrow to have any powers whatsoever.  He doesn't scare crows, but then I've yet to see a scarecrow that does.  In keeping with fictional logic he commands them.  He's a pretty good fighter for a being made of straw and raggedy clothing and, at least in the 70s, seemed to really enjoy beating the stuffing out of evildoers.  Actually he seemed to enjoy outright killing them.  His change from a silent, save for the otherwordly laughter, horror hero to a talking, plotting, Fear Lord, albeit one that seems to be for humanity instead of against it (he runs a cable channel dedicated to horror programming to help humans face and adjust to fear) is not really to my tastes.  I understand he has appeared recently in small roles in other books, now firmly tied to the mystic set, but I have yet to read those offerings.

That about wraps it up for the Scarecrow, one of my favorite short-lived horror heroes and an unfortunate victim of the whims of pop culture based publishing.  A true Halloween Hero if ever there was one.

Keep those pumpkins lit.

* It's pretty funny how villains that were your standard bank robbing types get morphed into weirdo cosmic types as the Ages of Comics move along.  It's hard to take some of them seriously, especially when just twenty (sometimes less, sometimes ten) years ago they were firing off glib one-liners and puns while posturing to give heroes a reason to get out of bed and put on their tights.  Could be worse though.  You could start out as a decent Golden Age villain, then become a fun Silver Age villain then find yourself in the modern TV drama era where you have a bunch of effed up psychological problems and a homoerotic fixation with a man in a costume vaguely resembling a bat.  COUGH Joker COUGH

** Actually it's bullshit.  Here is the problem, and it might say more about why the Scarecrow never got his own series than anything else I've postulated thus far, with the concept in general: single purpose story-line.  Most comics are open-ended affairs with heroes that can face off against any number of different villains over an indefinite number of issues monthly.  Superman may have an arch-nemesis or two but he's not on a specific mission to beat Lex Luthor over all things.  He's out to save the world, all the time, from everything.  Batman's mission will never end short of his becoming dictator for life of the world.  Upon creation the Scarecrow had a definite story about being a guardian in a painting that blocked a hell dimension from Earth and pitted him against a demon lord called Kalumai, that he apparently fought long ago and locked away in the first place.  Perhaps it is just coincidental that he is a man of straw that looks like an Earth scarecrow.  Regardless, in each of his appearances in the 1970s (all three) he fought against Kalumai in some way.  It's his job.  He couldn't just show up and stop a robbery unless it was an artifact somehow related to his main quest/raison d'etre.  Ghost Rider rode around and fought anything he felt like, because he didn't have a single villain tied directly to his story.  Now I suppose that had the Scarecrow gotten his own series the Kalumai story would have been the opening arc of the ongoing tale, so I might be wrong.

*** They have meetings.  They actually have meetings, in a hall, around a table.  Look at those sad bastards.  They look like the Legion of Doom, which also has a Scarecrow.  Coincidence?  Yeah, probably.  Listen to me, people; they have damn meetings.  They probably have an executive assistant, or maybe they each get to bring one lieutenant with them like mobsters and they drink espresso and discuss business.  And what business do they discuss?  Fear.  They discuss fear.  They discuss bringing fear to Earth and who has the responsibility to bring what fear, like I suppose one of them gets to bring fear of clowns or some shit and they treat the whole thing like a cosmic business.  Because as we all know cosmic level things like the fate of universes are all about balance so even the beings we see as villains have to have their meetings to keep the business working.  In their special Team Fear HQ they are all articulate and erudite beings discussing weighty matters but as soon as they show up Earth-side it's all "Raarrrgghhh, quake mortals at the power of Satact, Lord of Standardized Testing and Permanent Records!"


  1. That was a great piece. Informative, well researched, funny at times, but you keep the satire in check as to not stray to far from the purpose of the piece.

  2. P.S. My "not a bot" graphic was 666.

    1. Somehow oddly appropriate. It's hard to seriously review comics and not give in to the satire urge at some point. I don't care how big a comics fan one is, one does have to admit that over time they get hokey.